Some "think pieces" at Bleeding Fool

So far, I haven't gotten much in the way of complaints about abandoning (temporarily?) the Geek Guns project.  I found having a weekly deadline really restricted me creatively, and since I wanted to start doing another book, I needed to clear some space for that.

At the same time, I also wanted to clear out some of the drafts I'd left lingering around the place, and so I've put a new (and somewhat long) piece at the other site about the role of fear in making brave characters.

Having written that article, I was inspired to do another, and I foresee at least one more musing on the elements of good writing and compelling storytelling.

Of course, I'm not exactly a smashing success myself (although I am technically a best-selling author, if only for a day), but most of my negative reviews deal with poor editing, not the actual content.  Alas, I fear that as grammar and spelling continue to be condemned by the educational establishment, things will only get worse in those respects.

I think a good story can overcome those defects - even if it takes multiple post-publication revisions.

To put it another way, the craptastic character development of Anakin Skywalker wasn't the result of a typo.



When the actor defines a literary character: Alec Guinness and George Smiley

I'm not generally a fan of the spy genre.  When I was in middle school I started reading some of the James Bond novels - not the originals, the later ones that were current at the time.  They were quite similar to the Star Trek adventures, which is to say palatable only to someone who didn't know better.

I bring this up because I've never read a John le Carre novel and don't think I ever will.  I have a sense it would likely be a let-down because the Alec Guinness adaptations are simply so good.

Indeed, Guinness inhabited the role of the protagonist, George Smiley, to such an extent that the author himself modified his character based on the portrayal.

Basically, Guinness had the definitive take, not le Carre.

It happens from time to time.  I'm told that Tom Selleck basically defines the Jesse Stone literary character because of his superb portrayal. 

One could of course mention Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable defining Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, but even in our modern age a well-done adaptation can shape the source material.

So it is that I'm watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and will then move onto Smiley's People, both of which I own on DVD.

The plots in both are intricate and interesting, but the actor's performances are what really get me to watch it again and again.  They are superb. 

I think that's really the biggest factor in the success of a film adaptation of a book.  The plot being mulched is also a risk, but it can survive if the actors are compelling enough.

Remember, the Golden Age of Hollywood wasn't about superior stories, it was about larger-than-life performances.  Sometimes, as in the case of Clark Gable or John Wayne, you weren't looking to see a story so much as a known actor do his thing.  Gable didn't have immense range, but the man had vast reserves of presence and charisma. 

Guinness is the opposite - seemingly unassuming, he can shift form like a chameleon, equally at home as a brash British officer, a Soviet KGB general or an Arab sheik.  In George Smiley, he gets one of his best roles, because Smiley himself is a master of deceit, and can be both quiet and meek as well as cunning and vicious.

It's a pleasure to watch and the written version just can't compare.

Battle of the Bulge is objectively awful

My survey of war movies brought me into 1965's Battle of the Bulge and it's a terrible film.

Setting aside the fact that the whole story is fictionalized, there's simply a point where so many technical details have been compromised, the movie loses any historical relevance or feeling.

I was pretty sure I saw it before, but re-watching it, the first thing that struck me was that it was filmed in Spain.  The Germans are using Patton M-47 tanks and the Americans M-24 Chaffee light tanks.

So none of the equipment is accurate.

The terrain is also wrong - the Ardennes is heavily forested and the Battle of the Bulge took place in deep snow, but the climatic tank battle of this movie is resolved on a dusty, open plain.

In Spain.

Don't get me wrong, I'm really into Spain for some reason, and that's why the locations were like a giant red blinking light telling me that this movie was wrong wrong wrong.

The wrongness is just pervasive.  The German HQ is like a Bond villain's lair, complete with doomsday clock. 

Don't get me wrong, I know that sometimes period films (especially war movies) have to make do.  For example, I went easy on Tora! Tora! Tora! precisely because so few Japanese aircraft survived World War II and likewise the available ships for live-action shooting are more modern.

But if one shot a Pearl Harbor movie with jets and set it in the desert, people might complain.  And that's the big issue with Battle of the Bulge.

The acting is also really weak.  In fact, the whole thing's weak.  It's the kind of movie where if you don't know history and watch it hoping to learn something, you'll end up dumber than before you started.  Even the voiceovers get stuff wrong. 

Given that there were three people credited for the script, you'd think at least one of them would know that the British Eighth Army was in Italy, not France.

You'd think that, but you'd be wrong.

The Crow is a profoundly Catholic movie

I have to say that the Lord of Spirits podcast is fundamentally changing how I think about everything, not just religion.

I've got a post up at comparing Deadpool and The Crow.  Both in subject and structure the two are strikingly similar, but I want to dig a little deeper into the moral aspects of The Crow. 

Previously, I always thought of it as a spiritually-tinged revenge movie with proto-emo imagery and music.  That's still true, but the broadly Catholic-influenced themes and actions really stood out to me.

From a this perspective, Brandon Lee's character isn't a ghost bent on revenge so much as a soul in Purgatory who is cleansed of sin by carrying out divine judgement on unrepentant sinners while also helping those capable of redemption to find it.  The titular crow is his guardian angel, guiding him on the path to salvation and peace.

The late Brandon Lee did a great job in this film, and one can't help but see similarities in his fate and that of his character, Eric. 

On the face of it, Eric isn't a paragon of virtue.  He's a rock and roller who has a live-in girlfriend - not exactly a poster child for the Holy Family.

And yet, he intends to marry her, proposing in the proper way.  Even the wedding dress is modest and traditional.  The date - Halloween - seems like a hipster conceit, but that means their first morning as husband and wife will be All Saints Day.

Okay, maybe I'm reaching there, but it's interesting to look at how he approaches his task.  Each one of the guilty party he approaches has the opportunity to seek mercy.  Only the pawn broker asks for it, and so he is spared (though his continued sinful behavior inevitably catches up to him).

The bag guys aren't just bad, they are objectively evil.  The witch practicing blood magic?  Yeah, that's a big call for some divine retribution there.

Finally, there's the big confrontation between Lee's character and the arch-villain, Top Dollar.  As is customary, the villain gets the upper hand and seems sure to triumph but our hero suddenly turns that tables - in this case by summoning the memories of his fiancee's suffering and giving to the bad guy all at once.

What's interesting here is that Eric does the only after Top Dollar has admitted that yes, he was ultimately responsible for the double murder.  He may as well have said mea culpa, mea culpa mea maxima culpa.

In fact, the fact that Eric is able to obtain those memories at all is another Catholic 'tell.'  Officer Albrecht stayed with Shelly throughout her ordeal - a corporal act of mercy.  Albrecht also looks after Sarah, buying her dinner when they meet, which is of course an act of charity.

Throughout the film, these moments knit together a tapestry of religious symbolism that may appear purely spiritual, but all have a basis in Catholic theology.  Note how Eric purges the heroin from Sarah's mother and then tells her to go forth and sin no more.

When the mother then tries to be 'motherly' and her daughter gives her grief, the film could take a darker turn, but Sarah chooses the path of mercy, and accepts her mother's repentance.

The final scene where the again-dying Eric sees a vision of his fiancee approaching in a luminescent white light may appear to be simply traditional good vibes, a vague spiritualism, but a Catholic would note that her ordeal had already purified her, and that she was waiting for Eric to cleanse himself of sin as well.  Having done so - offering forgiveness to some, justice to others - Eric is now able to ascend with her.

Make no mistake, the film abounds with Christian symbolism, right down to the showdown in what appears to be an abandoned cathedral.   From my view, the entire film is permeated with not just religious themes, but ones that make the most sense if one views it from the Catholic perspective.


We all have a breaking point: the gut punch of Twelve O'Clock High

Our society has never outwardly been more pro-military.  I'm constantly surprised by military discounts from various retailers and vendors.  Being in the Guard, I don't often wear my uniform, but when I do, someone is sure to thank me for my service.

I think this is largely a function of how remote military culture is from the broader population.  In 1946, military culture was popular culture.  A given veterans a discount was basically a price cut, which few businesses could afford.  Now, the gesture doesn't carry anything like the same financial impact.

Twelve O'Clock High was filmed in an era when veterans were plentiful and it deals with the human cost of war in a unique way - from the perspective of a command team in charge of a US Army Air Force bomber group.  Gregory Peck plays a staff officer temporarily detailed to restore the morale and skill of a troubled outfit. 

Like many war movies, the story isn't as important as the way it unfolds.  That's the case here.  It isn't a surprise when Peck - like the man he replaced - pushes himself too hard and start to come unglued.  Rather, it's a reminder that we all have a limit. 

There is a tradeoff between experience and what they used to call combat fatigue.  It's like over-sharpening a blade - too much of anything can make things worse.

Twelve O'Clock High demonstrates that tradeoff, which makes it one of the most important of the old war movies I've been watching.  They teach about history, but Twelve O'Clock High offers valuable lessons for today's leaders.

The Blue Max: George Peppard and the dark side of glory

My latest movie outing was The Blue Max, an off-beat war movie from the Sixties about World War I German fighter pilots.

The main character was played by George Peppard, known to my generation from his turn as "Hannibal" from The A-Team, but who almost became an A-lister back in the day.

He was good (but seriously "beta" as the cool kids say) in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and his career never really achieved super-stardom.  

Still, The Blue Max is an interesting film, exploring the issues of social mores, class, and the way in which "official heroes" are made. 

To be sure, World War I is something of an obscure topic, but in the 1960s it wasn't that far removed - it was in the same place as World War II would be in the 1980s.  It made sense for retrospective films to emerge, and The Blue Max is interesting insofar as it evokes both the chivalry of the era (including a nod to Manfred von Richtofen) as well as the mentality of total war.

Interestingly, the aircraft used were built from scratch - there weren't a lot of World War I aircraft still lying around, and they were simple enough to construct that it was financially viable to build replicas. 

Not that they got everything right - a deep dive into the topic reveals some anachronisms - but it was pretty darn close.

The worst moment (for those who care about historical accuracy) was where the German and British armies meet in pitched bayonet combat in No Man's Land, but it's a minor (if stupid) scene, and incidental to the plot.

Far more meaningful is the role of Peppard as the meritocratic social climber, willing to do whatever it takes to obtain status, power, respectability.  His struggle - and fate - is not without relevance today.

It's not in the first tier of war movies by any stretch, but it's worth a watch.

Tora! Tora! Tora! - A Balanced Look at Pearl Harbor

Following up on my Cornelius Ryan film adaptation kick, I watch another "docudrama" war movie, 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora!.

I remember watching this on broadcast TV at some point, but I didn't remember how really good it was.  It's interesting to go on and read about all the "goofs" that were largely using the wrong pieces of equipment.  This was common in the pre-CGI age, where one had to made do with substitutes for rare or non-existent weapons, aircraft, ships and vehicles.

Tora! Tora! Tora! does this a lot, because there's no other way to make the movie.  The Japanese Navy was wiped out, and not a single flying example of Japanese combat aircraft survived the war.  Obviously, substitutes had to be contrived.

Similarly the US Navy didn't simply preserve the fleet under glass (to say nothing of ships sunk during the course of the war), so more modern vessels had to be used.  Even the locations are oddly called "goofs" because - get this - some had visible monuments erected after the war.

All of which to say is that other than the props and sets - which are as good as they could be - the film is really well done.  It's a very rare thing - a big movie without a cast of big stars.  If the Cornelius Ryan movies had all-star casts, Tora! Tora! Tora! had an almost no-star cast, with the bulk of it made up of character actors playing specific roles.  No Robert Redford leading a river assault or John Wayne commanding paratroopers from a garden cart.

For those who don't know, this movie is really two films in one - it shows both sides of the Pearl Harbor attack from both points of view, and does this using two completely separate film crews.  The American portion is made with American actors and the Japanese scenes are filmed in Japanese by Japanese.  It's very effective, and Japanese portions reflect the power struggle within Japan, something not usually brought into the discussion.

The Pacific War doesn't get much attention these days because everyone want to fantasize about fighting Nazis, but it was a major theater of war, and well worth studying.  Given all the garbage movies that came out (including the unwatchable Pearl Harbor), it's worth going back and watching an overlooked classic.



Buffy sticks a stake in Joss Whedon

Sarah Michelle Gellar is, by modern standards of celebrity, a hermit.  She isn't tweeting constantly, blabbing to media about every issue and her political positions are generally unknown.

She got married and stayed married, and unlike Angelina Jolie, her face isn't a fixture on tabloid magazine covers.  She only surfaces when she's doing a project and wants to draw attention to it.

During the initial onslaught of #MeToo, I don't recall her expressing an opinion regarding "male feminist" uber-hypocrite Joss Whedon.  Now, however, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has driven a stake into Whedon's tottering career.

I'm of two minds on Hollywood's infamous casting couch.  On the one hand, it's exploitative and grossly immoral. 

On the other hand, such things have always been part of show business.  Throughout human history "actor" and "prostitute" have generally meant the same thing.  It was only in the last few decades that performers began to climb the social ladder and become respectable as a class.  I blame World War II, because so many entertainers (particularly movie stars like Clark Cable and Jimmy Stewart) dropped their careers and went to war.  That gave show business a reputation for honor and decency that it didn't really deserve.

To put it another way, I don't think anyone goes into an industry notorious for nude sex scenes and thinks that everything is totally moral and proper.  I'm not even going to mention the drugs and other goings on.  When a producer or director points links couch performance to movie roles, the obvious thing to do is leave.  Yes, it means giving up dreams of celebrity and fabulous wealth, but some prices are too high to pay.  Life is all about self-denial.

However, not everyone is that strong, and predators have ways of boxing in their prey, which is why I think the only way to win "the fame game" is not to play.

The key issue seems to be not that bad people did bad things, but that they failed to honor their contract.  The movie moguls of old really could make you a star if you catered to their whims.  Nowadays, Hollywood's audience and reach continues to shrink.  I'm not the first to note that Weinstein got dimed out in large part by middle-aged women whose careers had flatlined.

Whedon has similarly lost his golden touch, which makes his increasingly angry persona intolerable.  Hollywood itself has a whole genre of films about washed-up stars and their despair. 

The collapse of the studio system ushered in the era of the writer/producer/director auteur, and I think we're now seeing a similar collapse, with advanced yet affordable technology and online streaming allowing talented artists to bypass Hollywood altogether.  The day of having to find a distributor or raise millions of dollars from backers are quickly fading.  There is a massive audience hungry for content that Hollywood simply refuses to provide, and it will be interesting to see what comes next.

What that means is that the casting couch will have to find a new habitat.  The social ostracism of former apex predators isn't so much about a shift in values as it is about a declining population of prey.


Snare drums and monochrome: another look at The Longest Day

Last week I did a reconsideration of A Bridge Too Far.  This week I figured it would be appropriate to review it's "prequel" about the Normandy invasion, The Longest Day.

Both films were based on books by Cornelius Ryan.  His method was to tell the story through personal recollections and to do this, he would post advertisements in papers seeking to contact war veterans and people who had first-hand knowledge of the events under study.  A small army of assistants sorted through the replies and then Ryan could sit down and do interviews, which also had to be cut down and fit into the narrative history.

This is why his catalog is somewhat limited.  Each book took many years to produce, and they were monster best-sellers.  The Longest Day follows this pattern, moving between the personal experiences of individuals to tell the story of the D-Day landings.  Like A Bridge Too Far, it is packed with Hollywood talent, and also includes Sean Connery - this time as an Irish enlisted man providing commentary on events.

Because it is black and white, The Longest Day can utilize actual combat camera footage to help tell the story.  It helps explain while this film is monochrome yet at the exact same time the same studio (Twentieth Century Fox) is producing the lavish and highly colorful Cleopatra.

Cleopatra famously almost bankrupted Fox, and it remains the most expensive movie ever filmed.  Yes, I know, there are a number of contenders, but they rely on inflated dollars to claim their crown - one must use constant dollars to make a true determination, just as one must do the same for box office tallies. 

Both Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell took bit parts in The Longest Day since Cleopatra's production continued to drag on and they were bored.

But back to our film.  The soundtrack is heavy on snare drums, and much use is made of the title song, which is whistled, blared by a full orchestra, and even tinkled on a piano in a pub. 

Still, it works.  It is quite long, but I would rate it as one of the more comprehensive "battle" films, and it has a number of amazing scenes, including one continuous take showing a French harbor being overrun via an overhead camera.  It is very impressive.

It also does a good job of showing the German point of view - better than A Bridge Too Far, in fact.  One element I didn't mention in my discussion of that film is that the German roles were greatly condensed, with important army and divisional commanders being dropped (and their lines given to other historical figures included in the movie).

To put it another way, if you know the source books, you'll notice more wrong with A Bridge Too Far than with The Longest Day.  Perhaps because it was closer to events, the earlier film took less dramatic license.

Both are well worth a watch.

The Cruelty of Roman Discipline: Titus Manlius

For the past few weeks I've been working my way through Livy's History of Rome, one of the few books from antiquity that has survived reasonably intact.

Livy was writing well after the fact, and like many historians of his time, saw his task as using the past for moral lessons about the present as well as a chronicle of things that had gone on before.  Where the two collide, drama and story generally win the day over unpleasant facts.

One celebrated episode in Roman history took place in 340 B.C. when Rome faced enemies on multiple fronts, the most dangerous one being a revolt of their Latin allies.  A stern man, Titus Manlius (love the names they had!) was elected consul for that year and his task was to crush the Latins.

I should mention that under the Roman Republic there were two consuls -  executives elected to one-year terms.  The idea was to prevent a return of monarchy and the consolidation of power into a single individual.  The Roman solution to this frequently was to create two identical offices which shared responsibility.  In times of great danger, however, the Senate could appoint a dictator (their term) with absolute power to defend the state, but only for a limited amount of time, usually six months.

In practice, the dictator was assigned a specific task and then expected to surrender their authority. 

Anyway, back to our story.  Passions are running high, and the Romans are eager to get to grips with their enemy.  Titus Manlius is worried that a chance encounter - say a duel among patrols - could lead to a skirmish and escalate into a battle, wrecking his plans.  He instead wants to maneuver the Latins into a position where he can crush them decisively.

He therefore gives an order that no one is to engage the enemy without his orders upon pain of death.

Naturally, this is tested and the example historians give is that his own son (also named Titus Manlius) was baited into battle by insults and totally defeated an enemy champion in a duel.

Manlius Junior not only wins the fight, but strips his fallen enemy of his weapons and armor (a big deal in ancient times) and brings the trophies back to his father.  Daddy Manlius looks at his son and orders the army to form up, presumably so he can give his son an award in front of them.

The troops fall into their ranks and then as expected, Manlius Senior announces that his son has distinguished himself in battle and awards him a medal.  He then announces that the duel was against orders and has his son beheaded.

This sends a shock wave through the whole army, which hitherto had been a bit lax about discipline.  After watching the general execute his son, they get serious about it.

I mention this episode because it is celebrated in Roman history.  Livy is writing more then 300 years later and he tells the story in a way that indicates that his readers already know it, they just don't know the context and the exact time period.  He's basically saying "Okay, so this is when that famous Titus Manlius thing took place.  We all know the basics of the story, but let me get into the details."

There are of course countless other variations of this storyline where a soldier disobeys orders in order to save lives or win a battle and gets simultaneously rewarded and punished, but this is to my knowledge the oldest version of it.

In more modern variations, the reward and punishment are less severe - a soldier gets promoted for valor and then demoted for insubordination, for example.  Or he wins a medal and is then put in the stockade for a few months.  The Romans, however, took pride in what they considered to be firm discipline.  To us, it looks cruel.

Objectively speaking, it is, and while the Romans (and Greeks) had many of the same virtues, their pagan culture was decidedly weak on mercy.  They knew it as a quality, sometimes praised it, often begged for it, but rarely granted it.  In the pre-Christian era, mercy was optional, something one might do to win a reputation or perhaps because it strategic value.

What I'm driving at is that there was no particular requirement for it.  Over the last few decades, Christianity has been subjected to heavy cultural criticism for supposedly being patriarchal or oppressive and (of late) even racist.  All of this is nonsense, and we're already getting a glimpse of the cruel morality that is intended to replace it - a "cancel culture" where apologies are demanded but never accepted and mercy is shown only to those who have sufficient clout to merit it.

Every moral question is reduced to the classic "who, whom" formulation, where there is no absolute standard of right and wrong, merely a question of who derives benefit.  If it's your team, it's okay.

Titus Manlius is an example of who one can take the virtues of discipline and courage and turn them into something absurdly cruel.

I should add that Game of Thrones was another great example in the popular culture of just how vicious a non-Christian world can be.  Some of the nastiness was simply low-talent writers trying to paper over their plot holes with salacious materials, but at its core the story has no real heroes.  Everyone remotely admirable gets killed or turned into a villain.

Even a cursory glance in Roman history shows that this isn't all that far-fetched.