Books

Are you paranoid enough? The Odessa File

My latest vintage film purchase is John Voight's The Odessa File, which is a well-crafted tale about Nazis hiding in plain sight during the 1960s.

The titular "Odessa" is actually an acronym for veterans of the SS who managed to keep a low profile after the initial war crimes trials and used their wartime connections to achieve positions of power and influence.

Voight is an idealistic journalist who pursues a seemingly pointless story through the usual wilderness of mirrors. 

The film itself was made in the 1970s but set ten years earlier, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's soundtrack carries a number of precursors to his score for Evita.  It's based on a book and is not entirely fiction -  certain elements in the story are historically accurate. 

The upshot is that in a time when there's even less reason to trust government than in 1974, it's fascinating that this genre hasn't made more of a comeback.

One thing I'll say for Voight - he actually does a good job of being German.  I'm not talking about the accent, I mean the facial expressions and mannerisms.  Germans are not a particularly vivacious people - they don't get all animated like Italians talking with their hands.  Voight places his role well, by which I mean he frowns a lot, which is something Germans do.  Dated?  Sure, but quite enjoyable.


Flesh + Blood - the nihilistic forerunner to Game of the Thrones

When I was young, I subscribed to the then-current notion that people who had a problem with sex and nudity in films were a bunch of joyless scolds and that in the more enlightened environment of the 1980s, people could enjoy the work of freely consenting adults to essentially prostitute themselves.

Since then, I've learned that in the entertainment world, "consent" is a rather elastic concept.  This predated the "me too" movement and was instead founded on my own experience of working in  photography, but the revelations of Hollywood depredations reinforced my sense that this was the norm, not the exception.

Put simply, directors are often weirdos, and they will use their power to coerce actors to do things that they would not normally do under the excuse of artistic expression.  Thus, even the "good" directors who never overtly operate a casting couch can still get their jollies by forcing a fetching young actress to perform a nude scene repeatedly until she gets it "right."

I was reminded of this when I re-watched Flesh + Blood, a hack-and-slash film from 1985 starring Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh (and fearing Bruno Kirby, which was a bit jarring).

It is a tale of revenge and romance set in Renaissance Italy (the title card says 1501) and it is one of those remarkable films where every single character is an awful person.  The least objectionable is Tom Burlinson's young prince, but he's hardly admirable.  The tale follows the misadventures of a gang of mercenaries and their camp followers as they make their way through war-torn Italy.

In the course of their work they are betrayed by their employer, but avenge themselves by stealing his son's (Burlingson's) fiancee, played by Leigh.  In another genre, Leigh's character would have been left unmolested and a hefty ransom demanded, however, that would deprive director Paul Verhoeven of the sordid pleasures of a very graphic gang rape, and we can't have that.

The entire film is grotesque, but in the environment when it was released, it was held to be lurid but insightful and an unflinching look at the period in question.  Whether that is true is arguable, but what is not arguable is that the sheer volume of graphic violence combined with nudity (yes, the two are almost always combined) tells one a lot more about the director than the story.

Again, as a young man, I didn't trouble to think about such things, and while I found the film a bit over the top, I enjoyed the period look (particularly armor) and the various oddball engineering ideas  shown in the film.

However, the story could have been told - and I believe better told - without extended sex scenes, which as an author I find dull to describe and as a viewer embarrassing to watch.

It is useful to recall that the Hays Code was put into place to prevent Hollywood from simply creating peep shows in order to boost attendance.  The result was a golden age of creativity and art.

Conversely, the collapse of the code has seen a steady degradation of entertainment to the point where what was now shocking is mundane.  In the age of streaming porn, peep shows lose their cinematic value.  Flesh + Blood was a product of a time before we reached that point and when "adult films" were hard to find and still carried a social stigma.

The emergence of Game of Thrones as a mainstream product shows that the aesthetic of Flesh + Blood lives on, but audiences now demand more than just the naughty bits to be satisfied.


When Edgar Allen Poe met H.P. Lovecraft: Horror Palace

Though I generally disdain streaming services for movie collection, every now and then I'll use the access I'm already paying for to watch something.

Last week it was Vincent Price in Horror Palace.   This is a typical low-budget 1960s horror film but it has an interesting an unexpected twist - some oddball tie-ins to the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

The story is a conventional one - a warlock (male witch) of course played by Vincent Price is burned at the stake by the outraged townspeople in the late 1700s for his various crimes.  He places a curse on the town and vows to return.

A century later, Price returns as a descendant who has inherited the estate.  Naturally he's a decent, secular man who will of course be possessed by his ancestor.  Price excels at these kinds of rules, being kind and warm in one scene and cruel and sinister the next.  That transition is what makes him so fun to watch.

What makes the film stand out is the number of Lovecraftian influences, including references to the Elder Gods, a copy of the Necronomicon, and other flourishes.  I'm not going to say this is a must-own, but it was fun to watch and Lovecraft nerds need to add it to their collection.


The Man of Destiny Post

Looking over my site, I realized that I don't have a comprehensive discussion of the Man of Destiny series.  I have updates on its composition, publication announcements, but nothing to give an interested reader detailed information on why this would be a worthwhile read for them.  This post is intended to remedy that.

Like many people of a certain age, I was excited when I learned that George Lucas was going to finally tell the backstory of the original Star Wars trilogy.  I had been a huge fan back in the day, though by my 20s I'd gotten rid of most of the toys and apparel.  I enjoyed Episode I, but didn't feel it had measured up to the older films.  As the rest of the prequel trilogy came out, my disappointment deepened.  Episode III was something of a breaking point.  I hated that film and the only time I've seen it was the midnight premiere all those years ago.
 
As the years passed, I lamented all of the wasted creative opportunities the prequels had presented.  The core of the story has such tremendous possibilities of showing how a decadent Republic could fall into civil war and then become the Empire.  I felt that the key to the whole story was Senator Palpatine, whose rise to power would be fascinating to watch, but of course George Lucas had other ideas.  I'd sometimes outline my ideas at social gatherings and one day my wife suggested that I write it all down because she thought it sounded interesting.
 
I told her I didn't have any interest in fan fiction, and if I was going to write something that lengthy, I'd want to at least have a chance of selling it.  At the time of that discussion, Fifty Shades of Gray was a surprise best-seller, and my wife explained to me that it started out as Twilight fan fiction.  The author circulated it online and after getting positive feedback, she re-wrote it in a new setting while retaining the core story.  Why didn't I just do the same?
 
So that's what I did.  Over the course of a weekend in December, I sat down and cranked out a 20,000-word novella - the heart of the first book, A Man of Destiny.
 
Over the next couple of years the story took on a life of its own, which was only to be expected.  I've spent most of my life in or around politics and by that point had more than a decade of military service.    The Man of Destiny series was a place for me to share and explore what I had learned.  By the time I reached the end of Fall of the Commonwealth, it was clear that a trilogy did not complete my story, and thus The Imperial Rebellion came into being.
 
People who have read the books have told me I've "fixed" Star Wars, but I think the story goes beyond that.
 
Once you flesh out the various characters - not just Maxim Darius, Adam Flyte and Cristen Morra, but ones who have no clear parallel to the Star War films - the story has to move in a different direction.
 
The Man of Destiny series therefore stands on its own.  It can still be read as a rebuttal to the creative bankruptcy of the Star Wars franchise but I think it should be taken on its own terms.
 
After all, Star Wars borrowed heavily from The Hidden Fortress and 1930s serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
 
These books are available exclusively on Amazon.  Here are the links to purchase them:
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 


Back to work at Bleedingfool.com

While I was in the throes of writing Walls of Men, I decided to forgo other creative activities.  As a result, my output here and elsewhere suffered.

Today my first new content since June appeared on Bleedingfool.com: a scathing review of Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai.

The review itself is less significant than the fact that I finally have time to do something other than research or write about China. 

Don't get me wrong, it's fun to take on a major project and feels great to get it behind you.  Still, it's also tough to give up sidebar hobbies and just grind away on a single topic.

I'm still decompressing from the effort, and am taking something of an intellectual vacation in terms of heavy reading, but the notion of getting back into turning out short pieces is appealing to me.


Walls of Men - my book on China - is finished

Today I completed the first hard-copy edit of Walls of Men: The Chinese Way of War 2500 BC - 2020 AD.

The next step is to send it to the test readers and to get to work on maps, the blurb and design a cover.   I think a mid-September publication date is within reach.

This this is big - the biggest book I've yet written.  I'm interested to see what people think.

It's kind of overwhelming and I'm glad that the heavy lifting on it is done.

I really want do some fiction now.  Two histories is enough for a while.


Less than the sum of its parts: The Outsiders

The compilation disk approach to movie collection has some interesting aspects.  Hitherto, I've mostly gotten access to film I was interested in, but would never buy on their own.  However, I'm also getting exposed to films I didn't even know about.

Such is the case with The Outsiders.  I had no idea there was a film that starred Mat Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez,  C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio.  Oh, and Diane Lane.

The reason why I'd never heard of it is that it's bad.  The story is some sort of neo-Marxist tale of class privilege between the underclass ("greasers") and the prep/college class ("socs" an abbreviation of social, so pronounced "sosch").

The tale comes from a story written in 1967, but the film feels like a rebuttal to the Happy Days/Grease nostalgia of the 1970s.  In this telling the poor and well-off are bitter enemies, fighting vicious brawls in parks and are finally driven to kill.  Adults are entirely absent, and while this is supposed to be a coming of age story, it feels completely forced.

The America of that period was one with remarkably low violent crime, and the notion that a small towns would permit organized brawls strains the imagination.  Again, it feels like late 1960s revisionism with a Marxist gloss translated into a 1980s indictment of American materialism and classism. 

For instance, the rich boys are the ones taking liberties with women, being boorish and drunk whilst the virtuous lower classes only ask to get ahead and are the truly sensitive ones.

The only value of the film is its ensemble cast, which will soon dominate the box office.

As such, it's something of a novelty act - you watch it because of who is in it, not because it's any good.

 


China project update

I've blown past my original deadline, but the end is at last somewhat in sight.

I've set aside time this weekend to push through World War II and get into Korea.  For those keeping score at home, the current word count is more than 64,000, quite a bit more than Long Live Death.

In fact, this is currently the second-longest book I've written.  (The current record-holder is Fall of the Commonwealth.)

The biggest challenge is knowing when to stop.  In earlier areas, there simply wasn't much information out there, so I wasn't tempted to go into great detail.  Sources are much more plentiful about modern conflicts.  Not only do I risk going into an unnecessary amount of detail, I also am tempted to do more research than necessary, which is far more time consuming.

Ironically, I think the work I've done on the warlord period and now WW II will make my discussion of the Chinese Civil War go much faster since the legacy of those conflicts clearly shaped the later one.

Once one understands that the Nationalists had effectively spent an entire generation at war, it is understandable that their forces were generally exhausted by 1946.

Of course the first draft is just that - a starting point, and I'll certainly have to go back and shore up various concepts and points during revision.  I am looking forward to finishing, though.  Hopefully that's only a few weeks away.

 


Classic pessimism: Charleton Heston's The Omega Man

Having run through the Mad Max films, I've decided to compare them to other "end the world" films.

One of the classics in the genre is The Omega Man.   This is based on a book titled I am Legend, which was made into a movie titled The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price in 1964.  The Omega Man was a 1971 remake and the latest entry is Will Smith's I am Legend from 2007.

Clearly the concept is a popular one.  In Heston's version, either China or the USSR has loosed a biological weapon that kills most people and turns others into sunlight-hating psychopaths.  There is a strong zombie-ish element here, and many of the set-piece scene echo George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which separated the concept of zombies from their Caribbean voodoo origins.

To modern eyes, the film moves slowly, unfolding gradually as the audience realizes that things are not as they appear.  Much of the horror element in the film is achieved by showing the way society collapsed.

Heston's character is the Last Man - a military scientist who perfected a treatment (they call it a vaccine, but it's really a treatment) for the plague but couldn't deploy it fast enough to save humanity.  He sits in his fortified house talking to himself, foraging for food, luxury items and trying to retain his sanity while fighting off The Family, a bunch of zombies led by a vindictive former newscaster.

There's lots of social commentary from the 70s of course.  Despite being conservative, Heston held many conventionally liberal beliefs about racial equality and these featured prominently in his films.

Another problem for modern viewers is the lack of what I'd call tactical skill on the part of Heston's character.  He's very casual about what equipment he carries, sets down his weapons out of reach, and basically sets himself up for trouble.  This might be lazy writing or simply that people hadn't explored the problem of 'adventuring' in as much depth.

It's worth recalling that modern sensitivities in this respect have been shaped by four decades of Dungeons and Dragons-style roleplaying, which often become intensely detailed in terms of what items are most useful, the proper way to clear a room, etc.  Console and online games have intensified this by making it accessible to people unwilling to read multi-volume rules sets.

As I've pointed out in the Mad Max films, religion is largely absent, save in The Family's anti-faith.  Heston himself does not pray, though he uses the religious-inspired curses of the time.

Yet as we've seen through the real-life pandemic (and throughout history), in times of disaster, faith communities can be crucial to surviving.  That would have been true during Covid but for massive state power being deployed to keep people away from church.  This combined with churches trying to show their fealty to "the science" by stopping in-person services well beyond what was warranted.

And yet, despite biological danger and official persecution, the faith endures.

This absence is more striking in The Omega Man because it uses some very heavy-handed symbolism regarding Heston's disease-resistant blood and how it can save humanity. 

As a film, it's very much a creature of its time, and useful to see what horror/post-apocalyptic films used to be.  That is to say it's a fun look back, but it is not a timeless classic one enjoys for its own sake.


Reading the Bible the Orthodox (and Catholic) way

I'm continuing to enjoy listening to the Lord of Spirits podcast, though as the show has progressed I've noticed a few missteps regarding Catholicism that strike me as unfortunate.

That being said, Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Church are farm more similar than different - and many of the differences are a function of culture rather than doctrine.

For example, the treatment of the Bible is essentially the same.  Like the Catholic Church, our Orthodox brothers do not believe that it can be taken out of context or interpreted on an individual basis.  This approach has led to schism and confusion.

Recently they did an episode specifically about this topic.  I should note that most of the podcast goes through how not to read the Bible, and various "Bible scholars" receive (well-deserved) criticism.

The core issue is people who do not understand the way in which the Bible was written, lack historical context and also an understanding of how the Church Fathers interpreted it.  One of the things that attracted me to Catholicism was the fact that all of the 'big questions' had already been answered centuries ago.  I find it terribly annoying when someone comes up with what they think is a hot new idea when in fact they've stumbled on something people figured out hundreds of years ago.

You get a lot of that in what we now call "Bible study," and it bugs me to no end.  I love that I live in a country where people have the freedom to read a simplified translation, come up with their own take and start their very own special church dedicated to what they think it says.

I don't love all the spiritual confusion this creates.

One of the Christian virtues is humility and I wish more of the people who styled themselves authorities in this area were willing to consider that the countless people who came before them were not ignorant or unintelligent and given the same problem set, likely figured out an answer well in advance of this particular generation.

The Bible has effectively been analyzed by a massive multi-century crowdsourced distributed computer system, yet some people think their single brain can compete (and even surpass) the collected knowledge of centuries because we possess an internet search engine.  That's pretty arrogant.

Anyhow, it's a good listen and as usual my only quibble is the stray derogatory remark (often based on a shocking degree of ignorance) about Catholic doctrine and practices.