Watching a real 70s show: The Rockford Files

While I've been retro-watching the 80s shows of my youth, my memory does in fact extend into the 70s as well.  Sad to say, the few attempts I've made to go re-watch old programming did not go well.  Hulu had M*A*S*H on about a year ago and I could not get into it.  It was painful to sit through.  Maybe one of the later seasons would be better, but neither my wife nor I could stomach it.

However, The Rockford Files has aged reasonably well.  It's got the usual detective tropes and comically unsafe firearms use that is emblematic of the period and as I'm closing in on the halfway mark of the first season I can see why it was successful.

James Garner is perfect for the role of Jim Rockford and he has the easy charm and charisma that is sorely lacking in today's stars.  He's genuinely interesting to watch.  Such qualities made often made the difference between schlock and decent programming.

The setting is of course iconic - a guy who lives in a battered trailer set up in a ocean side parking lot.  The interior is nice, but it's constantly the target of various break-ins.  While perpetually broke, Rockford nevertheless boasts a sweet ride - a gold Pontiac Firebird.  This of course anticipates the 80s tropes where private investigators have sweet rides and/or helicopters (or speedboats, or whatnot).

Rockford therefore walks the line between being plausible and relatable (perpetually broke, often beat up) but also admirable (handsome, has cool car, total ladies' man).  There is not a trace of the Mary Sue in this show, which demonstrates how far Hollywood has fallen.

I'm not sure how long I will stick with it, but for now it's a welcome diversion while I finish publishing Walls of Men and recharge my batteries for my next creative venture.

No more Elvis sightings

I saw Lisa Marine Presley died the other day.  It was all over the supermarket tabloids.  I don't generally pay attention to the news, sot that's where I get most of my pop culture information.

Seeing the pictures of her with her father reminded me how pervasive Elvis Presley once was in American culture.  Almost every month a tabloid would report an "Elvis sighting" because of course the King of Rock 'n Roll wasn't dead, he was merely in hiding.  Like James Dean, he's supposed to have faked his death to escape the pressure of celebrity.

I never understood that line of logic - celebrity status isn't a lifetime entitlement.  It has to be constantly shored up, and that's what generally makes famous people succumb to drugs and depression.  If you want to stop being a celebrity, stop doing anything.  There are lots of celebrities who did just that and no one talks about them.  Heck, Olivia de Havilland lived for decades in obscurity and was one of those people about which it was said:  "She's still alive?!  Amazing."

Not to digress, but James Dean would easily have vanished.  His whole persona was that of an alienated youth, and without that, I'm not sure what he would have brought to the table.  Yes, I'm sure the long slow retreat into either "Where are they now?" or "famous for being famous" would have been annoying, but it takes a lot less effort than faking one's death. 

I'm reminded here of Dirk Benedict, who achieved considerable notoriety in the 80s as the One True Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica and then starred in the A-Team.   Having made his money, he retired, surfacing briefly to denounce the feminization of his old character.

The point is that just quitting show business is pretty easy.  There's always some new face for the press to fixate upon.

Anyway, not only have the Elvis sightings stopped, but I couldn't remember the last time I heard his music.  The "oldies" stations these days rarely go back into the 1960s.  When they do, it's to play songs recognizable through commercial licensing.  Even "classic rock" formats ignore the King, which is weird because I should think his rock is about as classic as it gets. 

My life only briefly overlapped his, but I know his music well because it was pervasive throughout the 80s.  Indeed, one of the strange games memory plays on us is that we often associate music with events that happened years after its release because while a given song may have peaked in one year, it may well enjoy heavy airplay for many years afterwards.

In putting together playlists based on decades, I've found that the change of a calendar is pretty meaningless, and that well into (for example) the 80s, 70s music was getting plenty of use. 

(As a sidebar, there's also the issue that music is continually evolving, which is why 1981 sounded very different than 1985 or 1989.)

Anyhow, it's strange how something that was once pervasive can vanish entirely.

The National Forgiveness Deficit

Today is the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., and while I'm not watching the news, I'm pretty sure that instead of highlighting his message of compassion and forgiveness, people will be using it to further stir up anger and resentment.

Four years ago I wrote about this, and how "cancel culture" is the natural result of a society that no longer believes in mercy or forgiveness.

I think part of that comes from a belief on the part of the elites that they personally are justified in whatever they do.   Society is awash in yard sign Calvinism these days, and it's never been a better time to be one of the Elect.  Some obscure teenager makes a joke?  Crush them utterly.  They must have their entire life ruined.

But if you, say, kill someone out of gross negligence, well that's different.  I don't know how much longer this sort of thing can go on and a big part of why I'm cut myself off from as much of the outside world as possible is that I'm tired of watching it play out.  If we're going to do Spain 2.0, I'd just as soon skip the long, boring backstory.

A little pessimistic for a Monday?  Perhaps, but there is something deeply wrong on a spiritual level right now, and I'm not sure how that changes.  The United States of the 1960s was also wracked with turmoil, but there was a universal agreement by the people in charge that open warfare was a terrible idea and they did what they could to lower the temperature.  I wasn't around back then, but I'm getting a very different vibe.

For example, where did the peace movement go?  Anyone who suggests that maybe negotiation is better than mass killing is now denounced as a traitor to the nation - and many of the people doing this were carrying signs that read "Give Peace a Chance" only a few years ago.

It's all very strange.  In a recent Lord of Spirits podcast, the hosts discussed that there are collective spirits - spirits of the age, spirits that rule mobs and crowds.  I think we are very much being ruled by spirits who feed on hate, who seek to fuel death and rage.  Mercy and forgiveness are intolerable to them.

This is all the more reason to practice it, especially towards people we know personally.  In the current environment, forgiving certain things may be folly (and even immoral), but that does not mean we should abandon it altogether.  As I said four years ago, now is a great time to let someone you know off the hook.

Henry VIII and Edward VIII: Two disastrous reigns

In my previous post I examined Edward and Mrs. Simpson, a television series which provided (as far as I can tell) a pretty accurate picture of the disastrously short reign of Edward VIII.

One of Edward's recurring arguments in trying to make a twice-divorced woman his Queen Empress was "a king should be able to marry whom he likes."  A quick survey of British history reveals this to be an argument without merit or precedent. 

Indeed, one of the reason why it was socially acceptable for kings and princes to have mistresses was the fact that they often had little control over who would be their spouse.  Dynastic marriages were sometimes happy, but that was besides the point.  The goal was to unite royal houses (and their attendant lands) and hopefully produce an heir.  To do this often required elaborate arrangements depending on the laws of succession.

Perhaps because of the English Kingdom's muddled origins, these laws were fairly fluid.  For example, there was no Salic Law regarding male rulership, nor was there a requirement that heirs be of noble blood on both sides.  English kings could (and did) marry commoners (the current Prince of Wales has done so).

While some accounts of the crisis emphasize Wallis Simpson's American citizenship, that was a secondary concern.  Far more serious was the fact that she had two living ex-husbands, which was a violation of the Church of England's teachings regarding marriage.  As the titular head of the English Church, Edward was bound to abide by its rules. 

Some accounts of the crisis have to offer an explainer on this, noting that at the time this was indeed taken seriously.  Obviously, that is no longer the case, and I've seen citations claiming that in 1982 the C of E said "yeah, never mind about that bit."  Indeed, the last half-century has seen the various Archbishops of Canterbury pretty much rewrite scripture to legitimize all forms of sexual license, most recently deciding that "trans" individuals can have a form of re-baptism.

This is of course deeply ironic, given the number of people killed to create and then solidify its place in English society five centuries ago.  There are countless plays, movies and television adaptations that recreate the life and times of Henry VIII, most of them implicitly taking the position that Rome was wrong and his creation of the Church of England was an act of intellectual independence.

The truth is, it wasn't.  Contemporary events prove that by every measure, the English Reformation was an unmitigated disaster, unleashing centuries of persecution and war.  Henry's serial marriages did not produce a healthy, long-lived heir.  His intrigues bankrupted England, his confiscation of the monasteries undermined the social safety net and severing ties with Rome exacerbated divisions within English society that have yet to fully heal.  It's funny, but even at this late date, one still sees casual bigotry on the part of the English against Catholics.

I wrote at length about how "historian" Anthony Beevor included gratuitous and nonsensical anti-Catholic tropes in his book on the Spanish Civil War, outright saying that Spanish clergy were somehow intellectually incapable of any other occupation.  English period films with Catholics almost always have a scene showing self-flagellation.

American culture has incorporated a certain level of anti-Catholicism, no doubt because of its Puritan roots.  It's amusing to see people claim that the separation between church and state in the Constitution was somehow motivated by fear of the Catholic Church.  In fact, it was caused by the persecutions the Puritans suffered at the hands of the Church of England. 

What made the union of crown and altar so dangerous (and often deadly) was that it turned religious dissent into a form of treason.  Movies about Henry (and especially Elizabeth I) tend to downplay this, but both monarchs put their subjects to exquisite tortures in order to compel absolute obedience.  The Tudors didn't want intellectual freedom, they wanted control.

One could argue that all of this was part of God's plan, and that the martyrs created by Henry have in turn brought about many miracles and ultimately strengthened the faith.  That may be so, but I think it is still essential to fully dismantle the myth that the English Reformation was anything other than a naked power grab of breathtaking scope that brought ruin and war.

And lots of drama, which is why people still recreate it on stage and screen.

Edward and Mrs. Simpson: aristocratic selfishness causes political crisis

I've been doing something of a deep dive in archaic television serials.  I guess some of these could be called a "miniseries," since they aren't really a full season worth of programming, but the upshot is that I'm enjoying watching the old shows.

The latest offering is Edward and Mrs. Simpson, a drama about the romance between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson that culminated in the Abdication Crisis of 1936.

The show aired in 1978, after Edward's death but while the Duchess of Windsor (nee Wallis Warfield) was still alive.  It is very respectful to the subject matter, and while it is taken for granted that Edward is carrying on a sexual affair with Mrs. Simpson, they never so much as make out.

That is to say, there is much discussion of bed-hopping, but all of it takes place off camera.

The story is quite well-known at this point, but I enjoyed this presentation, particularly Edward Fox's turn as Edward VIII.  Fox was one of those English actors who never quite became a leading man, instead serving in a supporting role.  To be sure, he played the assassin in Day of the Jackal, but it was a very restrained role with little dialog.

I think Fox does a splendid job, and many of the set pieces are designed to mimic known photographs or newsreels.  Cynthia Harris (who I don't recall seeing before), is just as good as Wallis, and the pair establish a compelling (and likely accurate) dynamic of co-dependency that explains why Edward would cast aside the throne and throw the British Empire into crisis simply because of his desire to date older, married women.

I'm sure a more modern treatment would celebrate the victory of love over duty, but this 1978 version does the opposite, noting that at every turn, Edward tried to shirk his royal duties and always put pleasure before business.  The picture that emerges is a fascinating one. 

Traditionally, first-born children feel a heightened sense of obligation to their families, particularly since they may have to help manage the care of younger siblings.  Edward seems to have been an exception to this rule, resentful of his birth and working tirelessly to avoid the responsibilities associated with his birthright.

In the end, of course, he succeeds, abandoning the throne in favor of his brother Bertie, who reigned as King George VI.  After some vague intrigues during World War II (which resulted in Edward being the go-to monarch for alternative history regarding the UK), the Duke and Duchess of Windsor became little more than minor celebrities and part of the Continental social scene.  The question of inheritance was moot because they produced no offspring, which was no surprising given that she was already nearly beyond child-bearing years when they met.

(There were of course salacious rumors about botched abortions and such to explain her lack of children.)

The one knock against the show isn't really against it at all, but rather FreeVee, which apparently owns the rights and streams via Amazon.  FreeVee uses commercials to cover its costs, which was once standard practice (and still is in the broadcast world).  However, the commercial breaks in Edward and Mrs. Simpson appear almost at random, cutting through a scene rather than the normal practice of doing it between them. 

I think there's a fascinating parallel with Edward VIII and Henry VIII, and at some point I'll dig a little deeper into it.

Passing and renewal: 2022

When I saw the news of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's death, my immediate response was "of course."  The timing seems to align with the passage of so many other things.  A lot of the color and goodness has left the world of late, and the darkness that had long lurked in the corners now seems to be moving to the center of the room.

I am not one of those Catholics who insisted that Benedict never resigned his holy office and that Francis was an antipope.  In retrospect, it is clear that Benedict knew that the corruption within the Church was beyond his ability to remove, and that having done what he could to make necessary corrections in doctrine (especially in the English language version of the Mass), he selflessly stepped aside.  I think he saw the damage of having a weakened Pontiff at the head of the Church and did not want to repeat what he regarded as Pope St. John Paul II's mistake.

I'm not normally one for year-end roundups or New Year's resolutions.  I think more in terms of seasonal cycles rather than calendar changes, perhaps a legacy of my school days, where the end of the school year (which coincided with my birthday) was when I paused to reflect and also look ahead.

Still, the end of 2022 now has additional significance.  The coming year will have no "shadow pope" to clutter Catholic discussions.  On a person level, my youngest child will complete high school in the spring, ending that particular era for our family.  I will enter the new year as a civilian, which is another change I am still adjusting to.

And yes, I will also publish Walls of Men, a project that I thought to complete over the holidays.  That was my original plan, but I instead took the time to visit with friends and family, do some light reorganization, and above all, get some rest.

It seems appropriate to remember Benedict at the vigil Mass today and I will be one of many to do so.  Rest in peace.

As in Olden Days, Happy Golden Days

I've taken particular care this year to reach out to as many old friends as possible.  Between the pandemic and the constant (generally electronic) distractions of modern life, it's easy to become isolated from actual people and instead be caught in a virtual world.

We have hosted more gatherings this year than ever before, and I intend to build upon that a year from now.  I think back to the pre-internet age, and holiday parties were the way people caught up with one another.  I spent Christmas Eve going from party to party as my mother caught up with old friends who were back in the old neighborhood.  I was typically bored, because I'd last seen these people when I was a toddler.  I often begged off, but of course part of why I had to come was so she could show me off.

Which was fine, really.  Lots of snacks and treats and then Midnight Mass to wrap up the experience.

After Christmas Day, there were the informal parties - ad hoc get-togethers of people in town to play games or watch movies.  I'm glad to see my kids doing this.  We hosted a considerable party the week before, and I'd like it to become a regular thing because these are what the best memories are built on.

People may stress about family gatherings, but after all that is done and the gifts bought, delivered (and possibly exchanged), the "quiet" part of the holiday is often the most satisfying.

A year of war: flying Spitfires in Piece of Cake

In ancient days, it was common for a home to have a single television under the absolute control of adults.  This is why I have certain blind spots regarding 80s culture - Mom wanted to watch something else.

On the positive side, I got exposed to a lot of programs on Masterpiece Theatre or Great Performances that otherwise would have eluded me.  Even after gaining a measure of independence, I'd check the show by force of habit, often finding really cool shows.

One of them was Piece of Cake, and adaptation of the novel by the same name (by Derek Robinson).

Robinson's book was published in the 80s and presented a revisionist take on the Battle of Britain and the men who fought it.  To book purports to tell the story of "Hornet Squadron," a fictitious Royal Air Force unit and its transition from peacetime to war.  Hornet Squadron flew Hawker Hurricanes, which were preponderant in RAF squadrons during the first year of the war but have since been overlooked in favor of the more effective (and attractive) Supermarine Spitfire.

The Hurricane was generally inferior in performance to the German Messerschmitt BF 109, but when used properly, it was very effective, particularly against bomber formations.  Indeed, the stereotypical scenario was for the Spitfires to tangle with the 109s, while the Hurricanes hurtled into the Heinkels and Junkers.

Anyhow, Robinson's book was popular enough that a six-episode adaptation was made and (like all British drama), it featured a bunch of familiar faces of the era.  (At some point I'll do a post on the fact that at any given moment, the UK only has a dozen or so TV actors who appear in everything.)

What set Piece of Cake apart was its decidedly cynical and negative take on the RAF.  Instead of a "valiant few," the pilots are a bunch of quarrelsome, selfish jerks.  The high command is arrogant and incompetent, and of course there are social class divisions (the British particularly obsess about this).

I have not read the book and have no desire to do so.  By all accounts, it is even worse (verging on caricature) in terms of making the pilots obnoxious and highlighting the RAF's failures.

This may therefore be one of the rare cases where the film supersedes the book.  This is likely because the actors inherently have more charisma than the characters did as written.  This is what happened when The Great Santini was adapted - Robert Duvall couldn't help but humanize the role of Bull Meechum.

Pat Conroy famously used his father as the basis for Meechum, portraying him as a complete sociopath of a father and husband, with zero redeeming features.  He's a cruel tyrant, period.

When the film was made, certain changes were made to the character - not necessarily to make him more sympathetic, but simply more believable.  The irony is that years later, Conroy admitted that he had done his father dirty and that certain details (that he insisted were completely true) had been exaggerated.  A quick (but telling) example: in the film, Meechum is portrayed as an undisciplined Marine aviator whose juvenile highjinks ensure he will never make full colonel or command a squadron of his own.  In real life, Conroy's father was both.

The same is true of "Moggy" Cattermole, a cruel, arrogant, treacherous womanizer who is also the best pilot of Hornet Squadron.    Neil Dudgeon has undeniable screen presence, which necessarily softens the character - and therefore makes him relatable.

Indeed, I think the technical advisor (a retired RAF officer) also fixed some other episodes I've heard of in the book that were totally over the top.  The result may not be as true to the book but is likely truer to the subject matter.

The story of Piece of Cake is the story of the first year of WW II for the RAF.  In September, 1939, the RAF is a peacetime entity, full of ritual and social convention.  Within weeks of hostilities breaking out, it is sent to France to support British ground forces there, but instead of fighting, it finds itself in the Phoney War, a lull which lasted from the fall of Poland until the German onslaught on Denmark and Norway in the spring of 1940.

As such, it's a departure from traditional wartime dramas which focus on the people.  Instead, Piece of Cake focuses on the squadron as a whole, and the mainstays are the ground staff, who try to hold the organization together as pilots cycle through.

This is a unique perspective, but an important one.  In a certain sense, it captures the essence of modern warfare, which is largely institutional.  Individuals come and go, some without leaving a mark, others profoundly shaping the culture or events, but few remain forever.  European war films are typically more pessimistic than American ones in terms of killing off characters, but here Piece of Cake is not using artistic license - RAF losses were very heavy during the first year of the war, especially during the disastrous Battle of France and the later Battle of Britain.

Hornet Squadron would therefore have borne the brunt of the fighting and it's appropriate at few characters survive for long.

One anachronism is that the squadron flies Spitfires.  Indeed, they fly late-model Spitfires, completely inappropriate for 1939-40.  What is more, no Spitfire squadrons served in France.  They were deliberately held back to defend Great Britain (which was a sore point for the French).

Why does the show use them?  Because that's what they had.  Few Hurricanes survived the war and at the time of the filming, I don't think any were airworthy.  This was because the Hurricane was obsolete by 1942 and almost all surviving models were melted down to make Spitfires, which served throughout the war.

That inaccuracy aside the show contains lots of gratuitous footage of Spitfires warming up, taking off and soaring over the countryside.  In certain circles this is known as "Spitfire porn," and I confess it's one of the show's strengths.

Another thing I liked about it is the way the title credits change with each episode.  Pay careful attention when watching, as the very formal squadron portrait changes over time - not just because personnel are different, but the posing becomes more casual, showing how little time there is for such things.

Overall, I think the show overplays the pessimism of Fighter Command pilots, and there are plenty of gratuitous digs against Winston Churchill that imply he was not as popular as later legend made it, but one can overlook these things.  If you want a detailed look at the transformation of a military organization over time, Piece of Cake is a great place to start.



Happy Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord!

Among the  many homilies I have heard, a few stick with me.  One of them was built on the idea that while we have all been through Christmas before, each one is different in its own way.  That's very true.

Yesterday we went to the Children's Mass and it was great.  Despite sub-zero wind chills and near-white out conditions, the place was packed with extended families and friends greeting one another.  This wasn't the normal hand-shaking an nods in the pews, either.  Children dashed about the church, embracing aunts, uncles and grandparents.  It was great to see.

The children's choir was also perfect.  Mostly in tune, and very sweet, they also went after a couple of carols with the wild abandon of youth, belting out the high notes in total disregard of intonation.

The awful weather prevented our full family from attending, and that was also poignant.  Our feast afterwards was somewhat subdued for that reason, though we hope to get everyone together today.

That's why each day has to be seen as fresh and new.  I've celebrated dozens of Christmases, and yet each is unique in its own way.  We should approach holidays with a freshness and expectation because in a sense, the birth of the Christ-child is an ongoing thing.  Every day someone learns of it for the first time, or experiences it more fully than before.  I went through 33 Christmases before I entered the Church.  I'm still learning its true meaning. 

Merry Christmas!

The Christmas Spirit

In may last post I (jokingly?) referred to malign spirits of technology glitches, but over the last few years I've come to accept that there's more spiritual activity in this world than we acknowledge.

While I have to give the obligatory nod to the Lord of Spirits podcast, this view predated my wife's discovery of them, and it also made me very receptive of their message.

Timing is important in these sorts of things.  What might have seemed stupid then may make perfect sense now.  Given my upbringing, which was very skeptical of miracles and hostile to organized religion, I could only accept these truths gradually.

As the podcast points out, there are singular spirits, but also collective ones - the "spirit of the age" as it were (literally Zeitgeist in German).  There are also crowd spirits, and we see this in things like football games or various rallies.  How many times has "the mood turned sour" and a reasonably calm crowd suddenly become overcome by madness - a change that even the participants found hard to explain?

I'm sure some of you are immediately thinking of psychological conclusions (certainly I am), but what if psychology itself is an attempt to find a material expression for a spiritual event?  The grand experiment in secular psychology is about a century old and the results are pretty awful.  We pump people full of drugs, tell them to play with crayons and they still kill themselves.

Indeed, now our "medical professionals" are urging assisted suicide as a solution to chronic depression!

To me, it is increasingly obvious that the problem is a separation from God and any sense of meaning in life.  If you're just a bony juice bag waiting to get the whole thing over with, fast-forwarding to the ending makes sense.  Obviously, folks like G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis pointed all this out decades ago.  If you aren't reading them, you should be.

In addition to the spirits of crowds, I think there are also spirits of events, and that's where Christmas comes in.  One of the Enemy's greatest victories was turning the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord into a celebration of materialism.  I hate "holiday displays" that center on wrapped gifts - as if that's the reason for the season. 

Growing up as I did, the culmination of Christmas was Christmas Day, but traditionally that is the beginning, not the end.  As the song says, there's 12 days of Christmas, and the decorations should stay up and the music should still play because the event isn't just about tearing away wrapping paper on the morning of the 25th.

I am pleased to say that (at least in the circles I move in), this view is becoming more common. 

Partly because our kids are grown, the gift-giving element has become merely symbolic in our household.  I'm hoping to do what I can to ensure our grandkids also look at the season as a time for some presents, but that it should in now way be a lavish attempt to either show off prosperity, or a belated attempt to buy affection.  I know kids who grew up with that, and it hasn't worked out well for them.

Despite what was in many ways an unhappy childhood, I've always had a warm spot for Christmas because I associate it with joy and happiness.  Christmas Day to me has been marked with family gatherings, old friends dropping in and a sense of overall well-being.  I hope your Christmas is possess by the same benevolent spirit that has touched mine.