Film

Vampires of Michigan - the Roar of '84?

I'm once again binge-watching the early seasons of Miami Vice and I'm thinking it would be fun to set the next installment in the World Series Championship year of 1984.  It's an interesting year for a variety of reasons.  Obviously there is the George Orwell angle, but 1984 marked a rare moment of unity in American politics.  The notion of a a presidential candidate carrying 49 states is inconceivable today.

Whether looking at Cold War politics, cultural differences and of course the far superior music and entertainment, I think it would be fun.

As to the plot...well, that's yet to be determined.  I've got a couple of ideas and I'm sure some of the same characters will be represented. 

Of course, nothing may come of it, but that's the fun of being a novelist - not just the ideas that are completed, but the ones that are tossed around for fun.


A second look at the faith in Desperado

Over the weekend I decided to re-watch Desperado as something of a time-waster.  I have to say this is one of my favorite movies - it's not profound or anything, but it is great at what it strives to be: a fun, witty, sexy, Mexican shoot-'em-up film with a superlative soundtrack.

Everything just clicks and it's the kind of movie where you can just drop in and enjoy what's coming next.

However, as is my wont, I noticed that there's also a subtext of faith in the story.  This was there from the beginning, but given Hollywood's implacable hatred of Christianity, and stands out much more now than it did in 1995.  I'm planning on doing a writeup on this for Bleedingfool.com because it would also dovetail nicely with my Geek Guns column about it and my recent article on Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids.

 


The lost (and found) TV adaptation of Parade's End

One of our commenters made a mention of a 1964 BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End book series (which has three or four books, depending on how one feels about it).

A careful internet search revealed that such a thing did exist and that a DVD was produced not long ago.  I picked one up on ebay for less than $7 (including shipping), which tells you it was not much of a commercial success.

I've touched on the books before (including a lengthy comparison with Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy), and so this review is more of a discussion of the content and quality of the adaptation than a discussion of what's in it.

In terms of the packaging, it's a slapdash production, made in Mexico and featuring generic "wartime" graphics that are actually from World War II and completely inappropriate.

The quality of the transfer is better than I expected, but still flawed.  The audio is particularly challenging, no doubt a function of its minimal production quality.  There seems to be a single microphone on the set, close to the camera, and as characters move farther back, it becomes difficult to hear them.  There is also some distortion rising to static, which gives the sense of actually watching a broadcast with some mild atmospheric interference.  I kept wanting to adjust the rabbit ears.

As to the cast, it's excellent.  This was apparently a breakthrough role for Judi Densch, who is very good as Valentine Wannop.  I didn't recognize anyone else in the cast, but they were all solid in the various roles.

Unlike the HBO production, this gives much more prominence to Christopher Tietjens' time in the trenches, which I liked.  Alas, the BBC also did some bizarre graphics, both for the title credits and also to segue into battle which are dated and cringe-worthy.

While I enjoyed it, I can't say as I would recommend it.  If it were cleaned up and properly restored (especially the audio), that would make a big difference.  As it is, Ford fans will enjoy it, but I can see why they're practically giving these away.

 

 

 


Wartime propaganda done poorly: Commandos Strike at Dawn

I decided to dig deeper in a set of WW II-themed DVDs I picked up on the cheap.  This is the same set that contains the utterly awful Castle Keep, but I had hopes that Commandos Strike at Dawn might be decent.

Compared to the pointlessly raunchy Castle Keep, it was what one might call "decent," but that is a remarkably low bar.

Commandos Strike At Dawn is a British wartime production, geared to whipping up sentiment for a campaign to liberate Norway.  It didn't happen.

But there were raids, and the British people needed to be reminded that the Norwegians were decent enough fellows, and it was a shame what happened to them and so on.  Hence the movie.

The core problem with the film is that it tries to do too much.  Like many films, it starts in peacetime so that we see how awful the German invasion and occupation are.  There is also a poignant love story about a Norwegian widower, his daughter, and the daughter of the "English Admiral" who wins his heart.  All well in good in terms of human interest, but the problem is that it goes into tons of unnecessary detail, to the point where one wonders if the commandos will ever show up.

When they do, its almost as an afterthought.  They launch a bold raid, give the Nazis what-for, but they also leave when they are done, which doesn't do much for the poor Norwegians.

It's an interesting period piece, particularly from the perspective of war nerds like me.  I was fascinated to see what the British troops were equipped with and also the odd fixation of the action scenes with bayonet drill.  Who knew that this still had fans in 1942?

That being said, I can't recommend it as anything other than a study of British wartime propaganda.  Sometimes wartime films can be quite good, and Sahara is a great example of this.  Yes, it's all about the M3 tank, but it's still fun to watch.  Commandos Strike at Dawn simply isn't as interesting.

 


Those who cannot see

My column on Ben Hur at Bleedingfool.com kicked off a modest debate in the comments.  What started as a discussion of the film has now turned into a debate about faith itself.

I'm not interested in litigating my side over here, but the course of the conversation is worth a closer look.

I'm sure most people of faith at some point will encounter an "evangelical atheist."  These people don't believe in God and they don't want anyone else to, either.  Marx had a big hand in creating these creatures, and while they deserve compassion, history has shown they can also be very destructive.

While it is unlikely that we will encounter the next Pol Pot at the bookstore or in an online comment thread, I think it is important that we understand where they are coming from.

In my area, a great many were raised by strictly religious parents and their unbelief is a form of rebellion.  "I refused to be brainwashed into your cult!" is their battle cry.  Others had faith, but for some reason lost it.  Again, the stories tend to have many points in common, but each one is unique. 

Just as converts often tend to be the most fervent believers, apostates are often the Church's worst enemies.  On the psychological level, we can explain this by noting that the same strength of will that can sustain a voluntary life-change can also give it enormous power and zeal.

But if we look spiritually, we a different dynamic.  Converts to the faith are trying to share something wonderful and new to them, something that they had overlooked before. 

The evangelical atheist, by contrast, has nothing new to share, no gift other than envy and despair.

In the last couple of weeks I came across one who explained that there was no God, and that people should just enjoy life knowing that they were going to die and that would be that.  The person insisted that he was perfectly fulfilled, thank you, but that did not explain why he went on a religious forum to spread this message.

I have been seeing this all my adult life.  Again, the reasons vary, but the actions have the same dull similarity.  The most virulent form of this are the ones who want to outlaw all religious practice in the US military.  And that is what gives the game away.

The old secular materialist explanation was that misery loves company, and having had their faith shattered or never being able to find it, these folks seethe with envy and anger when they see smiling religious people find meaning and purpose in their lives.  It's especially obvious when they go out of their way to hinder them - like going to an online religious discussion to spread their message.

But if we use the Spiritual Warfare lens, what we see is something different.  These people have declared themselves against God and therefore any hint of His presence is a threat to them.  That is why they want churches closed, and seek to undermine the faith of others.  They are allied with demons, but too blind to see it.

Such creatures regularly appear in the writings of Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, which shows how far back this particular strain of Spiritual Warfare goes.  Indeed, one of the Enemy's most successful tactics has been creating an artificial tension between faith and science.  Yet there is none.  Faith without reason is merely foolish while science without faith is diabolical.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the Ben Hur exchange with the commenter's refusal to even accept the possibility of miracles.  Given that the oldest writings we have confirm their existence - indeed there is an evidentiary chain leading to the present day - this is perhaps the most irrational aspect of atheism.

There are no magic words to break through to such people, but my hope is that by giving counter-examples to their misery, people who of their own choice embraced faith and found contentment and joy, they may look about themselves with new eyes.

 

 


Comparing Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments

As is my wont, I've been watching classic Bible-themed movies over Holy Week.  I will likely conclude with Risen, one of my favorite new films, but for the first time ever, I decided to watch Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments back-to-back.

I should point out that this wasn't part of any plan on my part.  I thought it would be fun to watch Ben Hur (and maybe to a write up on it for Bleedingfool.com), and I enjoyed it so much, I thought I'd take in the other great Charleton Heston classic as well.

I'm going to come right out and say it: Ben Hur is the better movie.  The pacing is better, the story flows better and it feels like entertainment rather than a Sunday School lesson.

Don't get me wrong - The Ten Commandments has excellent drama and I love the rivalry between Heston and Yul Brynner, but between the narration and full-stop quotations of scripture, I can see the beginning of Christian film making at its worst - wooden, preachy, and painfully earnest.

I also think that in today's climate, Ben Hur is more accessible.  It's a revenge story that turns into a conversion narrative.  That was unusual at the time, and why the book it was based on was such a phenomenal best-seller.

I'll throw a link to my column once it runs, so that you can read more about Ben Hur and why I like it, but that's my quick and dirty comparison between the two. 

 

 


St. Patrick, pray for us

A year ago I did a post on how the snakes have come back to Ireland.

By curious coincidence, First Things has an article with almost exactly the same title on the same topic.

The secularization of St. Patrick's feast day is kind of fascinating.  I'm seeing all sorts of promotions for corned beef and cabbage, but of course it is a Friday in Lent, which means that meat is forbidden.  Yes, there are some jurisdictions where dispensations have been made, but it's plain that the concept of the day is now getting drunk and eating bland food.

This is not by any means unique.  Christmas is famously secular these days, mostly pagan myths about a fat old man and flying reindeer.  Still the fall of Ireland is sad to behold.

England has also embraced the same empty, soulless materialism that fascinated the United States.  The allure is powerful.  Who doesn't want to cast aside the restrictive morals of the past to indulge in every form of sin and gratification?  It is a tale as old as Sodom and Gomorrah.

On the positive side, I think we are rapidly reaching the limits of what decadence can even permit.  This was one of the themes of The Vampires of Michigan - at a certain point, you simply can't debauch yourself any more.  There are finite ways of gratifying lust, each carrying progressively greater risk and damage.  Just as with drugs, there is a law of diminishing returns, where each new transgression brings less of a high.

We see this with music and entertainment - stuff that was shocking in my youth is boring today.  Madonna masturbating with a cross in the late 80s is as distant to us as the Elvis Presley swinging his hips was back then.

J.R.R. Tolkien understood this, that the ultimate end of evil must be nihilism.  Evil is all about pulling things down, whether they be moral boundaries or degrading the human spirit.  When at last all depravity has been experienced, there is nothing left but the void.

This is why I am hopeful, because darkness ultimately cannot triumph.  Clearly it is my task to keep the lamp burning through the night until the dawn inevitably comes.  St. Patrick showed us how it was done and we will have to do it again.


The god of the two-car garage

My recent perusal of Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels brings out another critique of post-war America, which is the erosion of religion in public life.

Today much of this blame falls on the Baby Boomers, but Thompson himself was born in 1937, and I think much of the loss of faith can be blamed on the unprecedented prosperity in America following World War II.

A general historical principle is that affluence and prosperity breed decadence and depravity.  Being afflicted by the mortal sin of pride, humans naturally turn from the divine and attribute their success to their own cleverness and intellect.  Only fools still follow the old ways, which limit both human imagination and the scope of available pleasure.

The Old Testament is chock full of examples, and records of other peoples in different cultures confirm the same tendency.  Contemporary accounts of prosperous reigns almost always include a lamentation that the gods and their morals are being neglected.

It this was true of the US, but with two key additions.  The first was the sheer scale of wealth, which gave common people a quality of life beyond the reach of the super-rich as recently as a half-century ago.  While the Robber Barons of the gilded age might have had a luxurious estate and gold utensils, they didn't have x-rays, antibiotics or radios.  To evade the heat, they had to retreat to an estate on the lake or in the foothills, but by the 60s and 70s, air condition was something middle class people had.

The second was the pervasive influence of the Puritan founding.  Though their religious practice is all but forgotten, their beliefs regarding individual success and failure endure.  Put simply, people who are doing well are seen as morally superior to those who have failed.  Whereas this was once seen as a sign that they were among God's Elect, it has increasingly been folded into the secular concept of the "meritocracy," the notion that the best and brightest should be accorded more prestige and therefore power.

This no doubt fueled Thompson's hatred of the middle class, since he keenly felt the stigma of not achieving conventional measures of success.

He also detested what he considered their primitive and dull-witted adherence to the old moral codes.  His writing (and that of his contemporaries) generally sneers at organized religions.  In this telling, religious people are either hypocrites (and often running a racket) or simply too stupid to sin. 

Thompson himself is something of an aesthete - sampling drugs like rare vintages of wine.  It's interesting that he regarded the Kentucky Derby as "decadent and depraved" but felt much more at home among the Hell's Angels or various hippie communes.

The problem with society wasn't immorality, but morality itself.  If people would just back off, stop judging and enjoy life, everything would work out fine.   It was the stuffed shirts who ruined everything.  This is the ethos of Caddyshack.

That's all when and good when one is young and carefree, but it ultimately doesn't satisfy the soul.  The significance of The Big Chill was that it was the first warning to the Boomers that the party would eventually end.

At that point, it was the rubes who went to church who were having the last laugh while the materialists frantically try various cosmetic and health procedures to preserve their youth.

I've written about Carly Simon's semi-conversion, but John Voight's change is even more profound and striking.  In the 1970, he was making edgy fare like Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home, but he's now offering public prayers for the salvation of the nation. 

There's a hint of Evelyn Waugh about that, and one of the great might-have-beens is if Thompson had a similar conversion.  Alas, he shut himself completely off from God.  Even his funeral was a mockery of religious observance.

Ultimately, that's where materialism leads.  At some point the drugs no longer produce the same highs, one's possessions seem old and tawdry and the end of football season looms (Thompson's suicide note actually cited this as part of his depression).  At that point, the god of the two-car garage falls silent.

 

 

 


My interview at Bleedingfool.com

Over the last couple of weeks I've been talking things over with Chris Braly of Bleedingfool.com and the contents of that interview are now available on the site.

Long-time readers of my blog will find few surprises, but it was nice to see the management step out side the normal comic/geek culture box and examine how geopolitics can shape American culture.

I'm pretty sure the Venn diagram of people interested in both Chinese military history and comic books has a fairly shallow overlap, but there is a connection.

As I note in the interview, Hollywood has largely abandoned middle America and has turned instead to the vast Chinese market for money.  This has allowed them make a fortune selling vapid super-hero movies, but the drive to put "woke" themes in everything is something the Chinese have proven far more resistant to than Hollywood expected.  This leaves the big studios (particularly Disney) in a place where their biggest market and the home market both hate their products.  Hence the layoffs.   Anyhow, read the whole thing.


Reflections on Remington Steele season one

In a rare departure from my normal practice, I  am actually streaming a show rather than owning it on physical media.

This is because my previous 80s TV exploration was not very satisfactory.  While The Equalizer had its good points, it didn't lend itself to binge viewing and I doubt I will get through the whole thing any time soon.

That's why there is a place for streaming, especially if it incurs no additional cost.  That's how I am watching Remington Steele.  This is yet another 80s production I was too young to watch (it aired at 10) or understand (most of the references would have been lost on me).

For those who don't know, the premise is that Laura Holt, a young, beautiful and ambitious private detective (played by the delightful Stephanie Zimbalist) decides to set up her own agency under her own name.  As the intro credits explain, it turns out that an agency with a female's name is considered too feminine, so she invents a man - Remington Steele - who will be the titular head of her new enterprise.  There is of course no such man, and the pilot episode centers around how she and the other employees have conspired to make him invisible but ever-present.  "Mr. Steele never involves himself in cases," is their boilerplate excuse.

In the course of that episode, a mysterious debonair thief enters the scene and cleverly assumes the identity of Remington Steele.  This was Pierce Brosnan's big break and he's remarkably good.

The focus of the series for its first few episodes is trying to determine "Mr. Steele's" true identity, but by mid-season , there are cases to solve and so the focus shifts to how Steele helps or hinders these. 

Because Steele is something of a con man and international rake of mystery, this allows Brosnan to assume different roles, further exploiting his dramatic skill.  The writing is generally excellent, and in addition to clever wordplay regarding romance, one of the running gags is that Steele is the ultimate detective movie buff, and his "investigative technique" is chiefly trying to find which movie he's a part of at any given time.

Not only is this satisfying for film nerds, it's a clever way of poking fun at the genre, because by the early/mid-80s, just about every detective plot had been used at least once.

And that gets us to one of the weaknesses of the detective format, which is the lack of an overarching plot.  This became apparently late in the first season of Remington Steele, because with Brosnan's character now contributing to the agency, the initial dynamic of cast had changed.

At the start of the pilot episode, the core cast included Zimbalist, James Read as her co-investigator Murphy Michaels, and receptionist Bernice Fox (Janet DeMay).   Brosnan's addition therefore crowded out the other two.  For a brief time Fox (invariably called "Miss Wolf" by Steele) was a rival for his affections, but this faded as his relationship with Holt heated up.  Similarly Read's character went from being loyal, competent and somewhat envious to a spiteful try-hard, and what we would call today a "beta orbiter." 

For an actor as talented as Read, this was an unacceptable role and I'm sure he was afraid of becoming typecast, so he departed the show.  This was probably the right decision because it opened the way for him play George Hazard in all three "seasons" of North and SouthThis was his best and most famous role and also introduced him to his second (and current) wife, Wendy Kilbourne.

I should note that the Reads (she took his name) are remarkable not only in the longevity of their marriage, but their low profile.  Read works intermittently, chiefly doing guest spots.  Presumably this is because they both made a bundle doing North and South and Mrs. Read is now a practicing attorney.

The second (and most successful season in terms of ratings) has just started and Doris Roberts has been added to the cast as receptionist Mildred Krebs.  Unlike her predecessors, she has no knowledge of Remington Steele's background and simply takes him at face value.

Thus we have a core cast of the two investigators and their loyal clerical assistant - a dynamic that will be repeated in Moonlighting, which is my next show on tap.

In addition to the exceptional writing, there show has considerable romantic tension between the two leads, a tension heightened by their clashing roles.  It is hard to imagine something like this being done today, but the 80s was still capable of having a push-pull romance where a woman in charge found herself at risk of being subordinated by a strong man she was passionately attracted to.

Another nice element is the music.  The show features a theme by Henry Mancini and then incidental music by Richard Lewis Warren.  When Warren isn't reprising Mancini's theme, he's using a similar style of music, a throwback to 1960s smooth jazz and vintage detective movies.

As is often the case, this is something of a rough draft for a future Bleeding Fool column, and there I'll explore that dynamic more fully.