Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Must-See Cinema: Touch of Evil 1958

I am happy to present  the Orson Welles 1958 masterpiece, Touch of Evil. This movie is widely considered to one of the last -- and best -- examples of Hollywood's classic film noir era.


It was also widely considered to be a dud, another misstep in a career filled with them, but over the years it has gained in stature. This despite the worse-than-horrible miscasting of Charlton Heston as a Mexican(!) detective in a border town. Supposedly the studio forced Heston on Welles and basically said, "deal with it". So he did.

The opening scene is famous for its opening take "long take" using a movable crane to follow a car from the time a bomb is placed in its trunk until after cruising through the streets of the border town, it crosses the US border and explodes. Reputedly Welles used up fully half of his filming budget on just this one shot:

That is, of all places, Venice California masquerading as the border town of Los Robles in this movie. Orson Welles is outstanding, even in the fake nose, as corrupt sheriff Hank Quinlan, and watch for some surprising minor-character near-cameos of Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes McCambridge and Dennis Weaver. If you watch that "long take" carefully, you'll also see an Alfred Hitchcock-like appearance of Welles himself crossing in front of the car as it is stopped at a light on the street.

In many ways it is Orson Welles' most personal film. He's played a lot characters who were destroyed by their own hubris (Charles Foster Kane, MacBeth, Othello, for example), and Hank Quinlan is no exception, but you can't help but see echoes of Welles and the studio system he fought for so many years in the machinations of Quinlan's desire to get the conviction, no matter what, thanks to that little "touch of evil" that everyone carries with them...

I can't praise this movie enough. I loved it so much that I even bought my own copy of the DVD, and I hardly ever do that. Highly recommended.

More reading:

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Exploitation Movies: Devil's Harvest (1942)

Now that we've exhausted (in more ways than one -- see Maniac from two weeks ago) the 1930s, it's time to move on to the 1940s.

This week's feature is Devil's Harvest from 1942:

Full movie:

This is probably the very worst anti-marijuana movie in the genre. It's not even close to Ed-Wood-so-bad-it's-good bad, it's just bad bad. Even so, there's some unintentionally funny stuff, such as Oliver the elderly hot-dog vender with a cart right across from the high school, who serves "stacks" of weed with his hot dogs, and pudgy Sam, the head gangster's right-hand man.

There's also a party with your typical long-in-the-tooth "teenagers" where marijuana is smoked and, as you know always happens at marijuana parties, a riot breaks out. "Good girl" Kay O'Farrell ends up going undercover for the cops to bust the local drug lord, Larry McGuire -- who of course has a pencil-thin mustache!

It's an undercover operation that lasts for months -- you can literally see the days falling off the calendar -- and ends abruptly with the cops arriving late to the party, after Larry has been shot by another gangster who has just gotten out of prison and wants to take over the business.

There's surprisingly little pot smoking in this movie -- just at the wild party near the start of the film.

The money shot: A bit of skivvy dancing at the early "loco weed" party, and good girl dancer Kay shows a bit of thigh a couple of times. There may be a bit of nudity in a distant shot of another female dancer at the club but it's hard to tell.

Lessons learned: "Whoever named that stuff 'loco weed' sure knew what they were talking about." (actual quote from the "kindly" police lieutenant)

Directed by: Ray Test (his only film).

Taglines:  A Vicious Racket With It's [sic] Arms Around Your Children! A fifth column sowing destruction in the youth of America, A good girl until she lights a "reefer", The truth about MARIJUANA the smoke of Hell!

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Monday, May 25, 2015

In Memorium on Memorial Day

In memorium on this Memorial Day, I raise a salute to the men and boys from Cowlitz County, Washington, who lost their lives during the War in Vietnam.

You can read all 27 names here, especially the ones who were friends of mine from junior high and high school: Bill Wagner, Dale Kruse, Claude Weiderman and Dennis Silvesan, and Lynley Rash who was the younger brother of a good friend of mine. Also Dave Aasen, Greg Curtis, Dick Gilcher and Mike Ray, who were friends of friends of mine and whom I knew slightly.

R.I.P Guys. You did your duty. Now stand down and rest. We will never forget you.

Special Memorial Day Monday Music Break: Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Here's a special Memorial Day music break, the moving and haunting Where Have All the Flowers Gone? written (mostly) and performed by the late great Pete Seeger.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday Poetry Slam -- Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats. 1928

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

You can read more about Sailing to Byzantium on Wikipedia, Smart readers will note that the the first line formed the basis for the title of 2007's No Country for Old Men I will leave it to you discover what, if any meaning, the title has in relationship to the poem.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Must-See Cinema: Rosewater 2014

This week's must-see cinema is a fairly new one, Rosewater from 2014, directed by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart in his directorial debut.


This is a terrific movie, especially the psychological torture scenes rendered in unbelievable verisimilitude. It concerns the story of an Iranian-Canadian film journalist who goes on a brief trip back to Iran to cover the 1999 presidential election and finds himself caught up in a strange and mysterious web of suspicion that rivals something out of Kafka.

It was filmed in Jordan, with some second-unit shots of events in Tehran. and features the real life story of Maziar Bahari, whose 2011 book describing his nightmare, Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival , describes the 118 days he was kept in solitary confinement and underwent some brutal psychological torture at the hands of a guy called "Rosewater" -- hence the title.

It is definitely not a comedy -- although there is some humor in it, in the interrogations by Rosewater and Bahari's response to certain questions, and a brief appearance by The Daily Show's Jason Jones, recreating a scene from a location shot in Iran that is used against Bahari. It is a surprising and enjoyable first outing from a director who could have a whole new career ahead of him when he quits The Daily Show later this year.

More reading:
  · Rosewater on the IMDB.
  · Rosewater at Rotten Tomatoes
  · Rosewater at  Metacritic
  · Rosewater for rent on Netflix

Monday, May 18, 2015

Monday Music Break: City of Night

For those of you who think that I don't listen to any music from this century, here's the terrific group Pink Martini with City of Night:

If you ignore the kind of amateurish wipes and transitions, there is some spectacular urban night photography in this video.

This song is from Pink Martini's 2007 third album, Hey Eugene!.

All of their music is available on Amazon -- and if you buy through this blog I get a few pennies back on each purchase.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Poetry Slam Saturday -- Dulce et Decorum Est

Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen., 1893 - 1918

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Wilfred Owen was one of a large group of talented literary types who went off to fight World War I and died there. To his death can be added those of H. H. Munro ("Saki"), Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Guillaume Apollinaire and many more. Who is to know whether some future Nobel Prize in Literature would have been awarded to one or more of these people, who instead died in the prime of their creative lives?

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is a line from the Roman lyrical poet Horace's Odes. The line can be roughly translated into English as: "It is sweet and right to die for your country." Here Owen uses it ironically and calls it "the old Lie".

Friday, May 15, 2015

"Please Judge, I Am an Orphan"

I've used this joke hundred times to illustrate pure chutzpah: A guy murders both of his parents and then pleads for leniency because he is an orphan.

And that's kind of what we have with fulltime Republican moron Luis Lang in South Carolina, who couldn't be bothered to get Obamacare coverage when it was available (i.e., within the three-month open enrollment period) because it was "socialized medicine" and he prided himself on being able to pay his own medical bills.

Yeah, and as the Bible has it, "Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall." (Yes, that's the real quote, not the oft-quoted and pithier but erroneous, "Pride goeth before a fall.")

Now he's sick with diabetes-related blindness issues and is whining because he doesn't have coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

The Daily Kos has the whole story, and it's not a pretty one:

All seemed good until this February when a series of headaches led him to the doctor. Tests revealed that Lang had suffered a series of mini-strokes tied to diabetes. (It's not clear to me from the piece whether Lang knew he had diabetes earlier or whether that was the diabetes diagnosis as well.) He also has a partially detached retina and eye bleeding tied to his diabetes. The initial medical care for the mini-strokes ran to almost $10,000 and burned through his savings. And now he can't work because of his eye issue and can't afford the surgery that would save his eyesight and also allowing him to continue working.
I don't mean to sound like an asshole, but this is exactly why people buy insurance in the first place. The whole concept is that you shell out several hundred dollars per month when you're not sick or injured so that you'll have your medical bills covered in the event that you become sick/injured. He made a gamble that he'd never become so sick/injured badly enough that he wouldn't be able to afford 100% of the cost...and it finally caught up with him.
In fact, this is exactly the hypothetical scenario which Ron Paul was asked about during one of the GOP primary debates back in 2012 (the infamous "Let Him Die!!" moment).

Now the dickhead has the gall to blame Obama and the Democrats because he made some stupid -- no some idiotic -- choices and finds himself holding the shitty end of the stick.

Instead of blaming the real culprits, the Republicans in South Carolina who "don't want none o' that god damned soshulazzed med'cin", he's flailing out at the very people who, had their advice been followed, would have alleviated his situation.
Because, again, if the ACA hadn't been passed, their situation would be...well, exactly the same as it is now.
In fact, it would be worse because without the ACA, even if his income does pick back up again, pre-ACA insurance companies would still refuse to touch him with a 10-foot pole, whereas under the ACA he at least has a shot at getting covered if he can stick it out for another 8 months.
This, of course, leads to the most jaw-droppingly honest look at the conservative mindset I've seen in months:
 “(My husband) should be at the front of the line because he doesn’t work and because he has medical issues,” Mary Lang said last week. “We call it the Not Fair Health Care Act.”
"Screw you, everyone else!! We spent years helping enact policies which shaft the poor, and even deliberately blew off taking steps to help ourselves if we ever fell on hard times, but now that we need help, everyone else should get the hell out of the way and move us to the front of the line."
So much for the Party of Personal Responsibility. I guess we couldn't really expect anything else.

Except this: He's started an illiterately-written GoFundMe page (no, I won't link to it, thank you) begging for money to help with the medical bills. And it is likely that many bleeding-heart liberals will donate to it, because by and large we don't want even assholes like this to suffer.

And the final kicker will be when he thanks all of his Republican friends for their donations that show up Obamacare for the nightmare that it is.

You can fix ignorant, but you can't fix stupid. At this point I'm leaning towards the Tea Party "Let Him Die" Solution. I know that sounds cold and hard-hearted, but come on...

Okay, not really. Even assholes deserve to live. Even Republican assholes.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Jam of Tarts? An Assay of Trollope's? A Flourish of Strumpets?

It's a concept that is almost gone from common English, but there used to be nouns in our vocabulary that described collections or groups of birds, animals, even humans. Some of them were pretty descriptive -- a parliament of rooks, a murder of crows -- and some had a delightful flourish -- a spring of teals, an exaltation of larks.

Naturally something like that couldn't remain unsullied for long. Wags came up with such things as an addition of mathematicians, a clutch of mechanics, a tedium of golfers, an intrigue of politicians.

For a while during the 19th and early 20th Century even the hallowed halls of Oxford were not immune. Three dons discussing the concept were walking home one night from the pub when they saw a group of "ladies of the evening" going by.

"Okay. What would you call that particular group?" one of them asked the others.

"Obviously that is a jam of tarts," the first one said.

"No, that's an assay of Trollope's," the second one insisted.

"You're both wrong," the third disclaimed. "That is a flourish of strumpets."

A voice came up next to them from a gap in the hedge. "No, gentlemen," the voice said. "What we have here is an anthology of pro's."

That voice allegedly belonged to the poet Conrad Aiken.

Still it's a fun little story of language at play, showing the sheer pleasure that can be had with a little knowledge of the English language, and that anecdote became one of the cobblestones that formed the path of my steadily advancing intent to study English in college and work with words the rest of my life.

More reading:
See Precision of Lexicographers on the World Wide Words website

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rise of the Nones

I note that the latest Pew Research poll holds that "56 million Americans now identify themselves as agnostic, atheist or 'nothing in particular.'” We are called "nones", for "religious preference: None". That’s more than 22 percent of the population.

That's a lot of people for the Christianists and their Christian Reconstruction army to round up and make disappear. It's not just a paltry six million Jews and a few Gypsies and communists to deal with this time around. And that 56 million doesn't even include American Jews,  Muslims, Buddhists, etc., all of whom will have to be swept up as well.

That's a whole lot of people. If the average train car would hold 100 people, that's 560,000 train cars to haul us away. I don't think there's that much rolling stock in the world, let alone the USA.

Face it Religious Right, you are losing ground.

Which makes them all the more dangerous. Like a cornered animal. I think I may have to stock up on a few more 2nd-Amendment-SolutionTM "protection devices" myself.

And BTW, it's long past time for someone in the Congress other than Pete Stark to come out of the theological closet. I know you're in there. Show some guts and show your faces.

Besides, Pete Stark isn't actually in Congress any longer. He;s retired, but not before he was reelected several times even after he admitted he was an atheist. Atheism is no longer the moral equavalent being a child-molesting communist pederast to the American voters -- those who are not still in the Moron-American Voting Bloc, anyway.

Must-See Cinema: American Chain Gang 1999

Although it didn't originate in the United States, the chain gang became an almost uniquely American feature of "justice" after the Civil War. When it was finally clear that The South didn't have slaves any more to do all the shit work, they created a "new slavery" in the form of shackled-together black men (mostly), convicted of "crimes" and forced to "pay their debt to society" by working on farms, roadways, public lands, etc. It had been phased out by 1955, but in 1995 it was revived.

In 1999 filmmaker Xackery Irving made an award-winning documentary on the revival of the chain gang in America, both in Alabama and in Maricopa County, Arizona (home of the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio) which features the first all-female chain gang.

This is a chilling look at the revival of the chain gang system of punishment and retribution -- there's no other way to describe it, since it certainly doesn't qualify as rehabilitation of any kind.

We get to know a few prisoners and guards during the course of the film. The guards seem to think that the prisoners under their supervision are being "rehabilitated", and even the prisoners agree in general, saying that they don't want to come back to prison when they get out, that they are "cured". But as we learn at the end of the film, a depressingly high number of the inmates, who were followed up by the filmmakers after filming stopped, were back in the system in one way or another. Or dead.

This is a depressing look at a slice of the prison system in this country, and it's not a pretty sight. There's no violence on screen, but it is talked about a lot, both by the inmates and the guards, and the guards seem perfectly willing to kill a prisoner who tries to walk away. It's not clearly stated, but a couple of the guards seem a little too eager to do it if they get the chance.

Not an uplifting film, but one that is definitely worth watching.

More reading: