Television

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.


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.

 


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.

 


Taking time out with Livy and the History of Rome

Things being the way they are, I'm staying away from the news and digging into some long-term reading projects.  At the top of my list is reading straight through Livy's History of Rome.  I got the books in high school and college and they were a bit tough going.  I'm making much faster progress than last time.

Even though Livy is prone to airbrushing history and highlighting Rome's virtuous past, there's plenty of skullduggery, treachery, mayhem going on.

One element that stands out is the almost constant efforts of people to turn the rules to their advantage.  For each champion of honor, there are ten examples of people twisting the rules to their advantage - and often getting lavish praise for their cleverness.

It stands in stark contrast with the teachings of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.  I've written before that Game of Thrones was a wonderful (if unintentional) advertisement for Christian civilization.  Livy's work is another.

 


Geek Guns at Bleedingfool.com

Over the past couple of months I've been doing a new feature at Bleedingfood.com on firearms featured in various pop culture media like comics, movies and television.

Unlike the Internet Movie Firearms Database, I also provide a review of the firearm in question - what it's like to shoot as well as how much they run for people who want one of their own.

This post will be my ongoing archive of those articles and updated as they appear.

Geek Guns Part I: Han Solo’s Blaster

Geek Guns Part 2: El Mariachi’s Twin Ruger KP90s in Desperado

Geek Guns Part 3: The Desert Eagle

Geek Guns Part 4: Deckard’s Blaster from Blade Runner

Geek Guns Part 5: Hellboy’s Hand Cannon

Geek Guns Part 6: Sean Connery’s Guns – Walther PPK, Webley-Fosbery

Geek Guns Part 7: Battlestar Galactica’s Beretta CX4 Storm

Geek Guns Part 8: Army of Darkness – Ash’s Double-Barreled “Boomstick”

Geek Guns Part 9: “Welcome to the Party Pal!” John McClane’s Beretta 92F

Geek Guns Part 10: The Rollerball “Incinerator”

Geek Guns Part 11: Indiana Jones’ Revolvers

Geek Guns Part 12: Malcolm Reynolds’ Sidearm from Firefly

Geek Guns 13: DEATH WISH – Paul Kersey’s Colt Police Positive

Geek Guns Part 14: Rambo’s M-60 Machine Gun

Geek Guns Part 15: John Wick’s Glocks

Geek Guns Part 16: Kate Beckinsale’s Walther P99 from Underworld

Geek Guns Part 17: Boba Fett’s Blaster Carbine

 

 


The Foreshadowing of Amazon's "All or Nothing: Michigan Wolverines"

While I'm not the college football obsessive I used to be, I do find it a welcome respite from the increasingly dark news that surrounds us.

This week's news that the University of Michigan had fired one of its assistant coaches caused me to go back and watch Amazon Prime's documentary on the Wolverine football team from 2017.

Their All or Nothing series follows a sports team through the course of a season.   To date, the only college football team to be featured was U of M, though several professional football teams have been filmed.

While 2017 isn't that long ago, in the COVID era it already seems a lost world of packed stadiums and casual dining out.  I'm a Michigan State grad, so I disdain the Wolverines, but the images of fall football in the Good Old Days were painfully tantalizing.

In any event, I found it interesting and recommend it to anyone who watches the sport.  For those who know Michigan Football, the show provides a lot of context to the current controversy in Ann Arbor.  The astute viewer will note how many coaching assistants are no longer there, part of the chronic instability that has marked Head Coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure.

One of the major 'plot lines' of the season was the rotation among starting quarterbacks.  It's easy to look up, but I won't give any spoilers since even knowing how things turned out, I forgot the exact way things happened and found it gripping drama.

What I wish to emphasize is that beyond the disappointments of that fateful year, a series of other disappointments were waiting.  The show focuses on the then-current three quarterbacks, but in the background are others who will also in good time leave the program as well.  The season was not unique in that respect.

The University of Michigan demanded to have the final cut of the series, so the finished product is officially endorsed.  I find it fascinating to see how perceptions differ.  What one person thinks makes them look good may come across as completely obnoxious to everyone else.  That is certainly the case here.

Here are two examples of that.

The first is that during the games, the film crew was able to catch audio from featured players on the field.  This allows the audience to hear the taunts and bragging they hurled at opposing players.  I think this is supposed to humanize them, or make us enjoy their swagger, but I found that it made them less sympathetic.  Taunting a lesser opponent is cruel.  Taunting one who ultimately beats you is poetic justice.  Neither is a good look, but for whatever reason, Michigan Football wants people to see this.

The other item was the fundamental darkness of Jim Harbaugh's mind and his mentality.  He seems to be following the Darth Vader Dark Side school of motivation.  From his first pep talk in Episode 1, Harbaugh emphasizes using anger and rage to fuel excellence.  His white board diagrams and quotes are all about channeling hate.

One white board in the final episode has "addition by subtraction' prominently featured, which he's definitely followed in years since.

Coaches often resort to shouting and hyperbole to obtain motivation, but is "changing anxiety to aggression" really good life advice?

Having watched the show, I now have a better understanding of what's happening within Michigan's troubled football program.  It may come as a surprise to some, but I also developed sympathy for the players and fans.  Conversely, the show also confirmed that my dislike of both is not merely a rivalry, but rooted in their attitude and actions.


Heart of Darkness vs Apocalypse Now

As part of my revisiting the works of Joseph Conrad, last week I read Heart of Darkness, which stands somewhat apart from the rest of his tales.

Based on Conrad's experiences as a river boat captain in the Belgian Congo, it takes the reader on a physical but also spiritual journey in to the center of what was once called The Dark Continent.

It's structure is unique.  While Conrad once again uses Marlow as the first-person narrator, in this work he is both a participant but also an observer.  That is to say the centerpiece of the drama is the attempt to retrieve a mysterious ivory trader named Kurtz and Marlow's role is simply to repair a damaged steamboat which is then used to reach Kurtz's remote trading post.

Conrad's musings on human nature and the ease with which 'civilized' people can revert to savagery of the worst kind made it an instant literary classic.

Apocalypse Now is very loosely based on Conrad's story, with the setting changed from colonial Africa to Vietnam.  This is not as ludicrous as it seems, and roughly the first half of the movie does a good job of drawing parallels between the breakdown of discipline and morality the farther one gets from organized institutions.

The problem is that near the midpoint, Coppola loses the plot and starts a meandering tale packed with lame tropes highlighted by inexplicably stupid behavior on the part of the characters.

I'm by no means the first person to observe this, and I'm sure lots of people have pointed out that it would not be difficult to recut the film to bring it into line with Conrad's story - and also provide a more satisfying ending.  As it stands, the film builds up energy until instead of a climax, it just sort of grinds to a halt and everyone goes home.

For a fleeting instant I thought of writing the alternate ending out, basically giving the film the Man of Destiny series treatment, but the definitive take has already been written - by Joseph Conrad.

To my knowledge, this is a story that has yet to be fully realized as a movie.  There was a TNT attempt some years back that was abjectly awful.  Go look it up if you want, I'm not even going to link to it.

Heart of Darkness is a significant work and also something of a litmus test because it's a great example of how people can value a story enough to make a movie while missing the whole point of the thing.

See also: the hideous movie disfigurement of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.  Ironically, the craptastic adaptation of a cynical book about Hollywood is altogether appropriate.


1917: An evocative, attractive failure of a movie

When 1917 came out, I figured that I would hate it because it would be chock full of historical inaccuracies.  This is a particular bugbear of mine, and my family knows full well that asking me to watch a "war movie" is asking for trouble.

I typically pick nits as if they were precious pearls, relishing each one as I find it.

In the case of 1917, the look and feel of the film is spot-on.  Sam Mendes (or his consultants) did a great job, but in fact it's assumed that British filmmakers can knock it out of the park regarding the Great War.

The problem with the film is that its premise is stupid and its execution deeply flawed.

But other than that it's pretty to look at and has some nice scenes with cool music.

Okay, let's look at the premise.  The film centers around the need for a pair of British troops to convey urgent orders from headquarters to stop a doomed attack.  Fair enough.  A similar plot device was used in the much, much better Gallipoli nigh on 30 years ago.

The difference is that for some inexplicable reason, the messengers must cross enemy territory to convey this message to friendly troops on the other side of a salient.

To anyone who knows anything about World War I, normal command arrangements or basic logic, this is nonsense on stilts.  The "Second Devons" who need the message are not cut off or surrounded, they're simply on the other side of a wide patch of (formerly) German controlled territory. 

The problem can literally be solved with a phone call.

What's that?  The phone lines have been cut?  Well gosh, then have a messenger run down a friendly trench from the higher HQ telling them not to attack.

You see, contra the myth that the trenches were permanent, long-term dwellings of troops ala the 4077th in M*A*S*H (I mean the TV show, not the movie), in fact there was constant movement within the lines.  A battalion would rotate in, spend a couple of weeks on patrol, covering the front, and leave when new troops arrived.

Whole divisions rotated back and forth, up and down the front in this manner, and all the while the troops needed food, ammunition, water, blankets, etc.  To be sure, a heavy bombardment might wreck the connecting trenches and leave the front line troops temporarily cut off, but both sides would immediately strive to restore their lines of communication (which is why these trenches were called "communications trenches").

Thus Colin Firth didn't need to send two messengers across enemy territory to stop a useless attack, he simply could have his staff pick up the Fuller Phone and tell Benedict Cumberbatch not to attack.  If he was being a jerk, he'd order him back to the rear.

If the phone line was cut, it would be quickly repaired (this being a high priority thing) and in the meantime, messengers would stream forward with the latest crates of food, ammunition and water.

I hate to belabor the point here, but it is a seriously stupid premise, like one of those horror movies where the entire film would end if any of the characters had a room temperature IQ.

Okay, the premise is dumb, but what of the execution?

Mendes made a big deal of making the film look like it was one continuous take.  For some things, I think that could work, but it fails utterly here.  Perhaps it's because its a trench system, but it feels a lot like watching someone play Call of Duty: The Somme or something.  The effort to keep the action going, makes it feel contrived and labored, and even with the wildly improbable events, Mendes still had to do a fade to black and skip ahead.

I'm going to avoid the temptation to give specific spoilers, but will simply note that Flanders - where the film takes place - is not noted for the quality of its white-water rafting.

In fact, Belgium - being a flat, swampy country - has crap for waterfalls.  I actually looked it up.

This is like having a character scramble to the top of the 10,000-foot mountains of central Ohio.

Anyway, if you don't know anything about World War I, Belgian geography, or how the military actually works, you might enjoy the movie.  I didn't find it painfully stupid, but I'm not in a hurry to ever watch it again - unless I'm drunk and making fun of it.