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.

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.



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 Shia LaBeouf Conversion

There has been quite a bit of chatter among Catholic circles about the announcement that troubled Hollywood actor  Shia LaBeouf has entered the Catholic Church.

I've always written the guy off as something of a lunatic, which certainly was born out by his previous actions.

Apparently he was making a biopic about St. Padre Pio and it was in researching the role and visiting the sites of the saint's miracles that he felt the irresistible call to the faith.

I'm reminded of other high-profile conversions that didn't 'take.'  After Hurricane Katrina smashed New Orleans, Anne Rice renounced her sinful ways and returned to the Catholic Church only to leave it shortly afterwards (if I recall she was annoyed with the Church's stance on homosexuality, which you'd think she would have known at that point).

I've watched some interview with him and Bishop Robert Barron and he sounds quite calm and indeed eloquent.  Apparently what moved him most of all was the understanding that he could be forgiven for his many sins.  Even if he later stumbles, this is a great truth that needs to be shared.

We all sin, and the Enemy wants to ensnare us in the belief that our sins will never go away and we will always be separated from God.  It's just not true, and the older I get, the more I treasure the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

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:




Cold War hangover: the flat Company Business

Company Business is a great example of how one can have a good premise for a movie, excellent locations and a solid cast and still come up with something completely flat.

This was a "filler" movie in yet another multipack DVD set, filling out Gorky Park and Eye of the Needle.  Clearly I saved the worst for last.

Gene Hackman is a retired CIA agent and Mikhail Baryshnikov is an imprisoned KGB spy who is going to be traded for an American U-2 pilot who has been on ice since 1969.  It's 1990, and the Cold War is over, so tensions should be lowered, but of course CIA is always up to bad things and that provides the requisite intrigue to get the story going.

The problem is that it doesn't.  The co-stars have great chemistry and nice screen presence, but everything feels like a paint-by-numbers exercise.  Once the deal goes south, Hackman and Baryshnikov must use their wits and skills to survive, but of course their former handlers anticipate each move - which immediately destroys any sense of urgency or tension.  It's basically a shaggy dog story that you know is a shaggy dog story and you're simply checking your watch and waiting for the punchline.  And when you get there, it turns out you already guessed it five minutes ago.

One nice thing is the fact that the CIA is correctly portrayed as a bunch of incompetent, self-serving amoral hacks, which is nice.  In that respect, we need more movies like this.

Back to work at

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 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.

Risky Business is kind of a dark movie

The 80s nostalgia tour rolls on and this week's entry is Risky Business, something of a breakthrough film for Tom Cruise.

It's very much of its time, oozing 80s moral sensibilities and also poking fun at career-obsessed Boomer parents.

Some of that sentiment has aged well, but some of it hasn't.  The central point of the film is really an indictment of affluent entitlement as well as the notion that all guys really want is consequence-free sex.

There was a concerted effort during the 80s to promote this belief and to extend it to women as well.  Thus the "hook-up culture" was born, which some wag described as a situation where men get sex without commitment and women just get screwed.

I think the greatest gaslighting in history was convincing women that this was somehow good for them.  Indeed, the current hysteria over abortion access is pretty much the triumph of this effort to brainwash women into thinking that things like marriage and kids are oppressive and the highest good is to serve as a sex toy while giving the best years of your life to some faceless corporation.

Am I reading too much into this?  Perhaps, but the film also highlights the fact that young men also want to love and be loved.  If this can be combined with sex, a powerful bond is formed, one that used to be the foundation of a successful marriage.

Tom Cruise in this film is transitioning from teenager to confident fighter pilot, so he can still project innocence and vulnerability, which leaves him completely helpless against sexual manipulation.

I think that's the female side of the film's appeal, which is not unlike Pretty Woman - the notion that a desirable man can overlook your checkered past and still love you.

The other element of the film is of course the ugliness of prostitution, which it both highlights and obscures.  To the writers of Risky Business, the pimps are the problem, not the reduction of sex to a commodity.  Again, this was part of the 80s culture, which saw conventional morality as hypocritical and limiting.  Women selling themselves for money is okay so long as they do well in the deal, and the circumstances that drive them to doing this are best glossed over.  To its credit, the film explores this aspect of Rebecca De Mornay's character, but like her character, turns away from its unpleasantness.

Like so many films of the time, Risky Business also features a good deal of nudity and sex scenes.  At this time this was a sign of its sophistication and modernity.  Certainly I was one of those who thought this was a good thing.  I was part of the target audience to whom an 'R" rating for nudity was a feature rather than a bug.

Since then, I've come seeing only two reasons for women to do nude scenes: either they are coerced, or see nothing wrong with it.  The younger me would have absolutely had a problem with coercion, but if consent was freely given, what was the problem?

The older me knows that the question of "consent" is a lot more complicated.  How many starlets have accepted a Faustian bargain, trading virtue for wealth and fame?  How many have regretted it later on?

Of course, true consent is possible, and if you think about it that's even more depressing.  I don't think any human wants to be used that way, ever.  Something has to twist them, to warp them to make them think that taking off their clothes and simulating sex for money is morally acceptable.

It's interesting that the "Me Too" movement arose just as the late 80s/early 90s generation of women approached middle age.  They didn't feel 'empowered,' they felt used.

And yes, I get that taking ones clothes off for the camera is different than the casting couch but I'm also not naive enough to think the two are wholly separate.  Some men need to touch while others are content merely to see.

To put it another way, I don't think any man who had the power to make a beautiful women take her clothes off was robbed of pleasure merely because a camera was present.

Returning to Risky Business, I also found it interesting to consider the film's premise that young men losing their virginity to prostitutes is no big thing.  Indeed, it's a good thing, and funny to boot.

Yet in my not quite half-century of life on this earth, every man I've met who patronized a prostitute (and my sample size is more than 1) has been plagued by relationship problems.  Not a single one was able to get married and stay married.  Far from "getting it out of their system," I think it creates a deformity in their minds, warping the normal, healthy bond is created when love and sex operate in unison.

There is considerable evidence that men are better able to separate love and sex than women and that men with multiple sex partners seem less adversely impacted by this than women.

I think that's true, but taking "less damage" is still worse than avoiding damage altogether.

Risky Business is still a well-made and funny film, but it has a far darker edge now than when it was made.


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.