The failed experiment: Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings

Just for kicks, I picked up a DVD copy of the "original" 1978 film version of Lord of the Rings.   I watched it quite a bit as a kid because that's what was out there.  I thought it would be interesting to take another look at it in light of Peter Jackson's far more lavish productions.

On the surface, there's no contest.  Bakshi was operating on a shoestring budget and used three different animation styles to try to tell the story - which was creative but also jarring as they shifted from one perspective to another.

A bigger problem is that it's the fragment of the whole - it cuts out after the battle at Helm's Deep and the original release hinted that there would be a sequel, which of course never materialized.  An animated version of Return of the King was released by Rankin and Bass (the same folks who did The Hobbit) and I've yet to be able to sit through it.  The contrast of style and approach is just too jarring.

Does the earlier Lord of the Rings have any positives?  Absolutely.  For one thing, it is actually closer to the books in many ways.  Because he had more time and money, Peter Jackson decided to add things that undermined the story and wasted screen time that could have been better used.  I'm not a fan of his version.

Bakshi did a better job with less resources.  I think the soundtrack is evocative, and the voice acting is terrific.

Still, it's only half of the story, which is something of a metaphor of Tolkien's vision of Arda Marred.

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.

The politics of spiritual warfare

If this election season seems unusually intense, it's because for the first time in my lifetime, abortion is on the ballot in a great many states.

The chance to implement a full range of options, from absolute permissiveness to total abolition has created unprecedented volatility.

Of course, the political parties have always had different positions on abortion.  The Democrats claimed they wanted it to be "safe, legal, and rare" while Republicans were generally Right to Life.

As it turns out, both were lying.  The Democrats were always maximalists, but had to hide that to get election and a great many Republicans claimed Right to Life positions to secure their flank during primary elections.

Thus we have the spectacle of GOP politicians who formerly penned columns demanding the immediate overturn of Roe v. Wade now lamenting its demise and urging caution.  As in so many other examples of intellectual betrayal, the giveaway is that these column never feature a long, winding and lucid account of how the author's views came to change in the manner of David Horowitz or the original Neocons.

The implied reason is that the author can't do it - it's hard to explain changing your mind from a position you never sincerely held.

In such times, then, how is one to vote?

Both parties now regard it the height of cleverness to reverse their positions once elected (usually in unison) and then to lock ranks against the public.   The logic is that if both parties go all-in, the public will have no alternative.

This works for a while, and then an insurgent gets in, promises to be different and...often does the same.

So is voting pointless?

No.  I think the most important use of the vote is where proposals and lesser offices are concerned, positions like school board and city council.  These are easier to influence and - in the event of a betrayal - they make recall elections more feasible and therefore effective as a deterrent.

But at the macro scale, there is some utility in simply spending the next few years firing every incumbent in sight.  In this, one must be patient, treating the body politic like a field overgrown with weeds and thorns.  One cannot transform it into productive agriculture all at once.  It will take several seasons to pull all the stumps and rocks, eradicate the weeds and shape it into productive land that produced good crops.

Put simply, politics is yet another theater in spiritual warfare.  It is not the most important.  Each of us is the crucial battleground for our own soul.  From there, the focus broadens to the family, the parish, the community, the region and so on.  To focus exclusively on politics is therefore to ignore the decisive point.

But to ignore it is to allow the Enemy the ability to constantly intervene everywhere down the line.  It is interesting the G.K. Chesterton is once again in the news, as his wisdom very much applies. 

Having more time to read, I think I shall dive deeper into his works.

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.

Returning to the stadium

After a three-year hiatus, tomorrow I will join the remaining alumni and once more take the field in Spartan Stadium.

The reunion of 2019, so soon after my near-death experience, brought me profound spiritual healing.  I do not know how tomorrow will go, but I look forward to see the old sights and play the old songs once more.

Tradition is a powerful force in culture.  As Americans, we are less rooted than other societies, but we still feel its pull.  That is why we have our own unique rituals - largely secular, but mystical in their power to comfort us and create a sense of continuity.

The 2019 gathering marked the 150th anniversary of Michigan State Bands, and 900 seasoned musicians took the field in a major show of strength.  Tomorrow less than half of that will show up, no doubt in part because so many older people have succumbed to illness.

And yet the tradition continues, and another link is added to the chain because it was ever so.

The Spirituality of Ghostbusters

I recently watched Ghostbusters for the first time in a long time.  It has to have been at least 25 years since I had seen it, largely because it was so ubiquitous in my youth.  In addition to be a smash hit in the theater, it did heavy duty on the TV movie circuit and of course was a popular video rental for parties.

Don't get me started on the theme song.

At any rate, I was pleased to see that it holds up pretty well and being much older, I got some subtle jokes that evaded my younger sensibilities.

Of course, I also approach the subject matter of the film vastly differently than I did as a teenager, particularly after spending the last two years listening to the Lord of Spirits podcast.  Part of why I was willing to watch it again was that I wondered what Ghostbusters looks like through the spiritual lens.

Despite its nominal topic, the film presents a very secular version of the spirit realm.  The protagonists famously use mad science to capture and contain ghosts and it is the application of technology that "saves the world."

To be sure, religious people are seen praying for them, but that's part of the spectacle.  In the end, technology - not prayer - is decisive.

That being said, it is interesting that one of the assumptions of the film is that ancient gods can be real and inflict physical harm.  Since God has often various means to achieve His goals, having the Ghostbusters thwart Goser or Zuul or whoever could be seen as a dismissive wave on the part of the Almighty.

One of the key concepts of the Lord of Spirits is that the ancient gods were in fact real entities and that the sacrifices offered produced tangible results.  As a recent episode pointed out, the rise and fall of various cults is in part explained by the success of the people who worship them.  Wars between the various city-states and later empires were at the time seen as struggles of their gods as well.  The Trojan War was famously a contest that divided the Olympian gods, who repeatedly intervened.

In our modern secular worldview, we see gods as a purely cultural matter and in our contempt for our ancestors assume that the temples and rites were no more than superstition by ignorant savages.

However, as I've mentioned before, cause and effect are not a modern invention, and given the amazing sophistication of ancient metallurgy and architecture - that is, the stuff that has survived - it is the height of arrogance to assume we know more than they do.  In fact, I think we are far less logical, since many "rational" people rather irrationally refuse to consider even the possibility of the Unseen.

It's interesting that Ghostbusters also prefigures the later "ghost hunter" reality TV shows, which clearly seek a secular answer for a spiritual problem.   After I became more aware of the spiritual realm (and the fact that most if not all "ghosts" are likely demons), I asked my wife (who was an avid watcher for a while) how many of the shows were still on.  She replied that many of the first generation had stopped and that the cast had complained that "their work" tended to follow them home.

Well, yes.  Absent a "trap" and a containment field, mucking about looking for the Unseeing armed only with an voltage meter, shotgun microphone and a thermal camera is remarkably stupid.

If only they'd watched Ghostbusters, they'd have known better.



Digging into The Equalizer

Okay, I've gone through Magnum p.i. and Miami Vice.  What's next?

The Equalizer.

This show ran from 1985 to 1989, and while I remember seeing its previews, I never actually watched the show.  My wife saw it and liked it, so on the strength of that recommendation I bought the series on DVD.

I'm only five episodes into it, but it's growing on me.  It's got some nice touches and the characters are starting to become more defined.

That may sound strange, but most American TV shows of that era had a premise for their characters, but it was mostly just an archetype.  It took time for the real personality to emerge.

Sometimes, the series didn't really find traction until the second season, but I'm warming to Edward Woodward's character.  He's a wonderful actor, and I can see why the show found a following.

Of particularly interest to me is the gunplay, and I'm enjoying the various 80s-vintage weapons as they show up.

As with Magnum and Miami Vice, a major theme of the show is that the government can't be trusted.  In the present era, that's now subversive, but it was a consistent theme on popular, mainstream shows.

Oh, how the times have changed.


The end of an era

By itself, the death of the venerable Queen Elizabeth II is an unremarkable event.  She was 96 and her time on earth was obviously drawing to a close. 

Yet even I felt an emotional impact, and I think it came from the sense that everything is changing.  All of the institutions, sureties, traditions and beliefs that had endured from time immemorial are being cast aside. 

What was permissible last year is now radical, unacceptable, extreme.  Times of transition are always stressful, but what if one doesn't know where the transition ends?

The late queen also was one of the last living links to World War II.  She could still recall the seriousness required in those days, a seriousness now totally lacking amongst the ruling class.  They exist only to accrue wealth and win the news cycle.  What comes after their time is not their concern.

When they die, they consider the world to have ended.

If there is a lesson in her passing it is this: all things end except for God.  Nations and people can rise and fall, wax and wane, but the Almighty is all that is truly eternal.   Over the last couple of years I've stopped paying attention to human agents and found prayer to be my best comfort.

Even so, it is impossible to watch so much that was lovely fade away without a sense of sorrow.

Labor Day in a new perspective

When did the labor movement turn against its workers?  I don't know that one can name a fixed date, but there was a tipping point during my lifetime where the old concerns of wages, working conditions and societal health became secondary to unrelated cultural issues.

Indeed, the very values of working people became anathema to the leaders of the movement founded to help them.

Concurrently, the conservative movement - which had emphasized those cultural and religious concerns - was more interesting in maximizing corporate profit than anything else.

The Dobbs decision was particularly illuminating in the latter respect.  It was a triumph of justice nearly 50 years in the making, yet many alleged conservatives issues statements that could have been written by Planned Parenthood donors (not that we can rule that out).  Some said nothing, which also spoke volumes.

A while ago I noted that the American right had decided that maximizing profit was not a question of business practices but instate a sacred duty.   Paying American workers five times what Mexican workers would take as an affront to the God of Economics and this injustice could not be allowed to stand.

I think there was more than a little Calvinism in this calculation, as evidenced by the callous "learn to code" advice given to displaced factory workers.  The resulting family collapse and drug abuse were clearly a sign that these people were morally questionable and obviously not destined for salvation.

To be far, unions brought much of this on themselves through corruption and betrayal of their workers' interests.  There's an understandable progression from endorsing a party for its economic policies and then embracing its social ones as well, regardless of what the membership feels about it.

As in any agreement, once one side realizes that it can alter the terms at will without consequences, everything is on the table.

When that happens, the reason for membership evaporates, and thus former labor strongholds transform into right to work states.

Concerns about working conditions and the concentration of wealth are not new and they have arguably gotten worse over the last three decades.  Much of the turmoil in American politics in particular is coming from the collapse of the prior relationship between blue collar workers and the various political factions.

In a lot of ways, the old Labour Parties resemble the established churches where they were born - they wear the same vestments, use the same symbols of a century ago, but they've transformed their doctrine into the opposite of what they once believed.

Fall traditions in a time of turmoil

Last night Michigan State opened its football season to a packed house.  The "tradition" of a Friday night game before Labor Day weekend is a new one, only going back a decade or so.  It was not particularly popular, but it seems to be catching on.

East Lansing was hopping last night, and that's a good thing.

I took a few moments to wander outside and listen to the echoes of the game through my quiet neighborhood.  Traffic was light as everyone paused to see whether the Spartans could hold off a second-half rally by Western Michigan.  They did, and I'm sure the local lockup has plenty of overzealous revelers as a result.

If I could describe the mood it would be one of desperately wanted to get back to normal, to forget everything outside of having a good time.  For a few hours, politics fades away and the only question that divides people is what team they're rooting for - a tribalism of the best sort.

We need more of this, and while it's inevitable that election commercials will intrude upon my football watching today, I'll have a quick trigger on the remote to keep them at bay.

I'm also relieved that public schools are finally maskless and places of teenage drama rather than temples of fear and anxiety.  Kids can be resilient, but they need a break from constant warnings of doom for that to kick in. 

It's easy to overlook these things, but when we lost them, we learned how important they are.  Hopefully the lesson will stick around.