Phase IV and the Early MST3K

Phase IVWill told me I should check out the 1974 film, Phase IV. It’s about some cosmic alignment that had no effect whatsoever — except on ants, which have become a super intelligent hive mind. But only one British scientist has noticed. He works with a game theorist who is trying to learn how to communicate with the little buggers. Meanwhile, the ants kill ponies and grandparents everywhere they go. It’s a very strange film — with lots of long sequences showing ants doing their ant things. But it is also really professionally made. I think Will said that he and his wife wanted to turn it off, but they couldn’t. It does have that effect. It’s really compelling — much like The Andromeda Strain, but less plot driven.

I quickly learned that Phase IV had been used during the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 — before it was on Comedy Central, and was at the local station KTMA. I had never seen any of these really early episodes. The creators of the show have never released them, claiming that the episodes were embarrassingly bad. Given that the first Comedy Central season was weak, I figured the KTMA episodes must indeed be really bad. But judging from the Phase IV episode, that isn’t true at all.

It is possible that the MST3K gang are really just talking about the production values. It is true that the sets are minimal. It doesn’t look that great. But even when the show looked better, it was designed to look bad — like a low budget science fiction film. And this actually comes off even better in these early episodes. Regardless, nothing is ever really different. From the first season through the eleventh, it was still just silhouettes of one guy and two robot puppets.

One substantive difference is that the riffing during the movie doesn’t come as fast as it does in later seasons. But I think this is largely a good thing. Often, the riffing came so fast it wasn’t possible to follow it all. And more important, the riffing often distracted from following the film — thus making the riffing itself less effective. In this episode, there is no question but that the guys are responding to the film — they don’t seem to have any more information about the film than the viewers do. This is very nice. It feels comfortable and natural: the way that people normally make comments about a film.

Of course, MST3K always worked best when it had a good film. And that helps here. Even though I admire what the show did with Manos: The Hands of Fate, I don’t re-watch that episode because it is hard to watch the source material. But with Phase IV, the source material is quite good — it is worth watching on its own. I’m going to have to check out more of these early episodes. There are various references made to the Gamera films — which I love, but for different reasons. It turns out that before doing Phase IV, the show did five Gamera films in a row. That sounds like fun.

Hillary Clinton and Change We Can’t Believe In

Ben SchreckingerClinton’s election in November marked the ascendance of the New Democrats and the ideological exile of progressives. But Sanders apparently concluded he could still curry influence with one key member of the Clinton team: the first lady.

One of Bill Clinton’s first acts in office in January of 1993 was to appoint his wife to chair the administration’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform. Sanders had convened his own, much-smaller task force pushing single-payer health care for Vermont, and he began trying to pull Hillary Clinton in that direction.

In February, Sanders requested a meeting with Hillary, “to bring in two Harvard Medical School physicians who have written on the Canadian system,” according to the records of the administration’s task force. Those physicians were Stephanie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, leading advocates for single-payer health care.

They got their meeting at the White House that month, and the two doctors laid out the case for single-payer to the first lady. “She said, ‘You make a convincing case, but is there any force on the face of the earth that could counter the hundreds of millions of the dollars the insurance industry would spend fighting that?'” recalled Himmelstein. “And I said, ‘How about the president of the United States actually leading the American people?’ and she said, ‘Tell me something real.'”

—Ben Schreckinger
When Bernie met Hillary

Francis Doesn’t Get It: Jesus Wants You to be Rich

Pope FrancisMatt Taibbi gets it exactly write in his recent article, Why Are So Many Pundits Trashing the Pope? This sums it up, “We’re losing the ability to imagine a dignified life without money. Which is pretty messed up.” As he noted in the article, the encyclical letter is entirely in keeping with these kinds of things. Basically, he’s saying, “Shame on you! Your greed is ruining the planet!” And popes have been saying that for almost two thousand years. It isn’t the pope who has changed; it is the people. And more to the point, it is “opinion setters” like David Brooks.

I was very interested recently to see the social conservative reaction to Laudato si’. It was more or less, “I don’t turn to the church on practical matters. The church should stick with issues of morality.” It’s fine with me: listen to the pope or ignore him. But don’t pretend that what the pope is talking about here isn’t about morality. Abortion policy is practical. Same sex marriage policy is practical. And global warming policy is practical. And they are all moral issues. And to pretend otherwise is the height of hubris. What people like Jeb Bush are really saying is, “I get to decide which issues are moral — not the pope.” Fine. Just don’t bring religion into it when it comes to the issues where you do want to wrap yourself in a cloak of morality.

The problem people of all stripes have with Pope Francis is not what he thinks. What he thinks just isn’t that different from what other popes have thought. It’s all about emphasis. And with Pope Francis, we get scolding of a different kind. Pope John Paul II seemed to spend all his time telling Africa that it shouldn’t use condoms. Well, that same idea is in Pope Francis’ newest encyclical. He just put it in the more mild way of claiming that consumerism and not overpopulation is what’s really harming the environment. (Taibbi thinks this is wrong, but I side with the pope on this.) But as is clear from Taibbi’s quote above: consumerism is the religion in modern America.

So we have a bit of a problem. But it has been with us for a long time. It’s been at least two decades since I first noticed that conservative Christians had started to distort the traditional teachings of Christianity. As unpleasant as the history of the religion has most often been, it has always given lip service to higher ideals than the comforts of life. That has long been its biggest selling point to the poor. But it isn’t just the “prosperity cults” that now claim that Jesus wants you to be rich (even though it will require being squeezed through the eye of a needle).

God’s elder brother David Brooks wrote last week, “Hardest to accept, though, is the moral premise implied throughout the encyclical: that the only legitimate human relationships are based on compassion, harmony and love…” Lindsay Abrams at Slate responded, “And just to be sure that we aren’t overlooking the irony, this is David Brooks, the anointed preacher of How to Live and How to Think, telling you not to speak from an exclusively moralistic standpoint…” But David Brooks’ idea of morality is that it is a club to be used to hit the poor over the head for being poor. The wealthy — and by extension, wealthy countries — are necessarily moral. They have money, and as all Americans are supposed to know, Jesus, Allah, and Yahweh want you to be rich. They wouldn’t have allowed you to be rich in this world if you weren’t pleasing them!

Most of the Poor in America Work

Working PoorYou know how Republicans are always going on about lazy welfare recipients and hammocks and making out how destroying the social safety net would be the best thing for the poor? That’s just what they talk about so that their vile policies sound reasonable. Most of the poor work. And this is getting more true every day. Everyone knows about all the public assistance that gets given to Walmart employees because they are paid so badly. These are the working poor and they are who you should think of when you think of “welfare” — not Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.”

I recently had a conversation about welfare with a conservative and he told me that the problem with it was that people just live on it their whole lives. “How what that?” I asked. Had he not heard of how we ended welfare as we knew it in the 1990s? Did he not know that there are extreme lifetime limits on welfare? It doesn’t matter how much we as a society do to harm the poor, people continue to think that it is 1970 and we are in the middle of the Great Society. This is how Republicans continue to win elections. They just keep making the same arguments, even though things have utterly changed.

It isn’t just me saying this. Last week I read, Most of America’s Poor Have Jobs, Study Finds. A study by “sociologists at BYU, Cornell and LSU” looked rigorously at the data and found that, “The majority of the United States’ poor aren’t sitting on street corners. They’re employed at low-paying jobs, struggling to support themselves and a family.” It isn’t surprising. What else are these people going to do?

The truly sad thing about all this is that the whole idea of “welfare reform” was if you could just get people working, then they would be able to climb out of poverty. But of course, they don’t. That’s because we’ve allowed our country to become the New Feudalism. We have an economic system that is set up to over-reward the winners. And a big part of this is taking tax revenues — that get more regressive all the time — and use it to allow companies like Walmart to pay far less than the market rate for employees. There are plenty of other ways this is done. But it is important to remember that when the government gives food stamps to a Walmart employee, what’s actually going on is the government is giving money to Walmart by allowing it to pay people less than a living wage. This is welfare for the billionaire Walton family.

At the same time that we have an incredibly unjust economic system, we have a social system that is devoted to the idea that we have a perfectly just economic system. Thus, we lionize the rich — even though very few of them even earned their wealth and those who did have no special abilities outside their own professions. And far worse, we scapegoat the poor. It’s bad enough being poor, but we blame the poor for their poverty and then blame them for much that is wrong with the society.

So stop and think the next time you hear someone like Paul Ryan say, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence.” Remember: most of the people depending upon the safety net are not lying in a hammock; they are working the swing shift at Walmart.

Morning Music: Wynton Marsalis Quintet and…

Wynton Marsalis QuintetOne of the most catchy tunes ever is “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which was written in 1925 by Ben Bernie and Maceo Pinkard. I would think that after decades of having the song associated with the Harlem Globetrotters, I’d hate it. And in some ways, I do! I tend to rebel against it when I hear it in its most banal renditions.

But I came upon this really amazing performance of it by the Wynton Marsalis Quintet. Playing with them are Mark O’Connor on the violin and Frank Vignola on guitar. They are all playing off sheet music, which is pretty amazing when you consider that the whole thing sounds like these guys have been playing this song with each other for years. Of course, that’s what comes from not just being professionals, but great professionals.

One thing that really stood out to me was that Walter Blanding on sax uses circular breathing in what is apparently an improvisation. Of course, as a flutist, I’ve always been amazed by circular breathing. There is also an amazing drum solo by Ali Jackson at the end. And O’Connor and Vignola make the whole thing sound kind of like Grappelli and Reinhardt. This is a great way to start the day.

Anniversary Post: Yosemite National Park

Half DomeOn this day in 1864, Abraham Lincoln made Yosemite Valley the first national park ever. That includes other nations. No one had ever done that before. It was dedicated “for public use, resort, and recreation.” And if you have ever been there — or if you just know who Ansel Adams was — then you know what a beautiful place it is. But let’s not harp on something as nice as that. It isn’t the Frankly Curious way!

People have been living in Yosemite Valley perhaps as far back as 8,000 years. The first people we have records of living there are the Ahwahnechee people. If you are like Ayn Rand and, really, most Americans, then you probably know that the Ahwahnechee people defeated Custer at Little Bighorn. Because, you know, as Gertrude Stein would have put it: an Indian is an Indian is an Indian. But of course, you don’t think that because you are a Frankly Curious reader and so you aren’t silly and evil.

I bring it up, however, because the Ahwahnechee people used to burn the Yosemite Valley floor each year to promote the growth of the black oak that grew there. You know, they managed their land — just as humans have been doing for tens of thousands of years, even though the Ayn Rand crowd seems to think it was something invented in Great Britain shortly before James Watt’s got his steam engine going. But the Ahwahnechee started having problems with westerners around 1849.

Was it, as Ayn Rand would expect, that the westerners wanted to use the land in more productive ways? No. It was just a gold rush — they needed to get to Columbia and get all that gold that the Miwok didn’t care about. You know, because gold is such a useful industrial metal! Let’s face it, that’s one thing you can depend upon in the constant mistreatment of native peoples throughout the continent: they needed to be moved because there was some resource under them that the westerners wanted.

But barely a year later, the gold rush was over. And 15 years later, I don’t think there were any Ahwahnechee people left in the valley. Regardless, becoming a national park was a good thing. After all this time, it is still lovely.

Fascism in Tim Burton’s Batman

BatmanOver the weekend, I watched the original Tim Burton Batman. As a film, it still works pretty well. But while watching it, I couldn’t get past just how fascist the whole thing was. This is true of all superhero films to some extent. But it is unrelenting here. Normal functioning of the society just doesn’t exist. So we are expected to wait around for our Übermensch to come and save us. And the film ends with the city installing a special light where it can call Batman if things go badly, which of course they will, because things are just as bad as they ever were except that the Joker’s gang is now gone.

There is an irony there too. Batman was responsible for making the Joker. That’s what made the city get so much worse. If he had never existed, then Gotham City would have remained like Chicago in 1920s. Instead, it was turned into a place where you couldn’t even wear makeup. Speaking of which, the Joker’s poisoning of products is perhaps the worst aspect of the fascism implicit in the film. All the police and scientists and hobbyists in the town could not figure it out, but Batman — in his spare time between being a rich playboy and frightening local hoodlums — manages to figure out the key. So it isn’t just that the government is corrupt — all the people are stupid too.

That brings us to Vicki Vale. She first appeared in the comics in 1948. But this film was made in 1989 — well into the women’s liberation movement. Yet the character was more liberated in 1948. Here she is a great career woman — in reputation only. She takes a couple of photos toward the beginning of the film, but mostly she just throws herself at Bruce Wayne. And then, she’s used as a prop for the Joker to lead around. Other than jumping out of the way of some acid, she does nothing but wait around for Batman to save her.

Other than the fact that Bruce Wayne is rich, it isn’t clear what’s so attractive about him (not that that isn’t enough). But especially after she finds out that he is Batman, she ought to run away. And that’s true of the city too. Batman is a deeply disturbed person. He might be fighting the Joker today, but he is very likely to be poisoning the city tomorrow. He generally seems more interested in saving Vicki Vale than the city itself. In fact, there is an interesting scene that starts the film where a family is robbed at gun point. Batman eventually shows up to abuse the robbers, but doesn’t help the family at all.

There are ways to tell stories of collective action. But as a society, we are stuck in Roman times. It’s all about the hero archetype. And that is a fundamentally fascist idea. We need to get past that. There is no one hero who is going to save us. And if there were, we should be worried about it. Because we wouldn’t be in control. And then it really doesn’t matter if it is Batman or the Joker who is our Übermensch. He creates his own moral universe — one that we don’t want to live in.

The ISIS Dildo Flag That Rocked the World

ISIS Dildo FlagI wish I were exaggerating here even a little but I am not. CNN dedicated an entire six and a half minutes to covering, in a tenor of total seriousness and extreme gravity, what they said was an ISIS flag being waved at a gay pride parade, when in fact it was readily and painfully obvious that the “ISIS flag” was in fact a joke flag covered with images of dildos and butt plugs.

“An unnerving sight today at a London gay pride celebration: an ISIS flag among a sea of rainbow colors,” CNN anchor Suzanne Malveaux announced. The word “unnerving” made several other appearances in the very long segment about a flag of dildos and butt plugs.

The segment went on to analyze the photo of the flag in great depth, zooming in especially on the man waving it. A London-based CNN reporter who called in — yes, there were multiple reporters on this, no one covers breaking news like CNN — pointed out with concern, “This man, quite distinctive from the rest of the crowd, he was dressed in black and white.”

—Max Fisher
CNN’s Most Embarrassing Flub Ever?

“What Will the Gays Want Next?!”

Gay BabiesHere in the Bay Area, there are certain people — almost entirely men — who have a really bad attitude this entire Pride weekend each year. They are of the “why do they have to flaunt it” types. On the plus side, things really are better. Twenty years ago, two men holding hands would have been considered “flaunting it.” Today, I’m not sure what makes the cut — but it is a higher standard. It’s still sad that LGBT couples doing in public what octogenarian heterosexual couples do is still considered something that must be stopped. But I am glad to say that progress does continue to be made. And it continues to be made because the LGBT community has the bravery to “flaunt it.”

After the legalization of same sex marriage this last week, one response I’ve heard it, “I wonder what they’ll ask for next?” Because it’s always something, am I right?! It’s funny how asking for equality is framed by opponents as something special that is being asked for — as though same sex marriage is equivalent to asking to not have to pay taxes. But I try to avoid getting into arguments of these types. The people who say things like this are not open to rational debate. Their complaints are based on the most primal of fear and hatred.

But there is an obvious response: there is no “next.” The LGBT community is asking for equitable and humane treatment. Same sex marriage was just a small part of that. It wasn’t even the end of institutional homophobia. As of late last year, you could still be fired for being LGBT in 29 states! I’m proud to say that in the three states I’ve called home (and still feel at home in) — California, Oregon, and Washington — you cannot be fired for being LGBT. You can still be fired in “liberal” New York for being transgender. So I guess that “those gays” won’t be satisfied until they have equal rights to work in Texas; what moochers!

There is, of course, the issue of getting beaten, raped, and murdered because you happen to be LGBT. And I like to think that most of the people in the Bay Area who bristle over San Francisco Pride do not think that this kind of thing is okay. But what these people who don’t want homosexuality “flaunted” need to understand is that all of these issues are related. Same sex marriage is about equality, but it is also about making homosexuality no big deal. When sexuality and gender identity become just another of the endless idiosyncrasies of humanity, it will stop bothering people.

Above all, what boggles my mind is that people don’t see that the problem is reversed. The problem isn’t with the LGBT community, but with those who are offended by it. It has never moved an argument forward for me, but I have asked many people, “Why do you care?” In the past, I have heard responses about pseudo-scientific reasons such are scarring children. People are less and less likely to use these excuses. Now they usually respond, “I don’t. It’s just…” It’s just what? They aren’t too clear on that, but I know what they want to say, “It’s just that they creep me out.” Or: “It’s just that I don’t like it.” And all that means is that it is all about the anti-LGBT people. It’s just that they don’t understand that.

Unjustified Inequality and Racism

Tyler CowenIf you ask Tyler Cowen, Scandinavians just have the right stuff! He approvingly quoted a new Nima Sanandaji book where he claims that the Scandinavian countries don’t have more equitable societies because of their redistributive systems but rather because Scandinavians are just better. And we know this because, “Median incomes of Scandinavian descendants are 20 per cent higher than average US incomes.” This isn’t about race but rather “cultural norms.” This is almost too delicious. I should not be allowed such cake to masticate!

Here’s the thing: of course it isn’t about race. It couldn’t be about race because race is a myth. But even among those who still believe in race, nothing can be about race because everyone (except for the proud bigots) knows that you just don’t talk about racial differences. So this is how people who want to make these kinds of anti-egalitarian, classist arguments talk about it. Sanandaji is Swedish, but it hardly matters. Paul Ryan is American and he talks about the “dependency culture.” But the meaning is the same. The point is that words become offensive because the the ideas that they represent. For example, we know that the “poll tax” was racist, so people don’t use the term today, even though they are using the same kinds of tactics today.

It’s clear enough today that phrases like “cultural norms” and “dependency culture” are racist. But it isn’t clear to most people. In 20 or 40 or 100 years, people will see it very clearly for what it is. And this isn’t to say that Cowen and Sanandaji think of themselves as racists. They may not even be — at least directly. They seem like men who are ideologues who want to push a particular economic system that just so happens to be good for them and their allies. But roughly the same can be said for a lot of 19th century slave owners: it wasn’t about racism; it was about profits.

Over time, I’m sure that science will show that all this business about “cultural norms” will be seen as working in exactly the opposite direction. Matt Bruenig thinks this, Institutions Matter Except When They Are Socialist. He noted that Scandinavia has a long tradition of egalitarianism. So those societies have set up economic and political systems that facilitate this. I assume he means to imply that the 20% advantage is just the result of the Scandinavian ancestors being lucky in the sense that they are white in a white-controlled racist society. I wish he had been explicit in that regard.

But the main thing is conservatives like Cowen have this neat trick. They start with a racist society — one that has done everything it can to keep down African Americans especially. Then they rush off and find people who came from countries that are heavily represented in the power elite. And then they conclude that the American economic system must just be treating everyone the way they ought to be treated: according to their “cultural norms.” Whether it is because of explicit racism or the desire to acquire as much money as they can, the result is the same: unjustified inequality.

Morning Music: Everybody’s Talkin’

Everybody's Talkin'I’m very fond of the Fred Neil song “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which I know, of course, from the Harry Nilsson version. I like the music of it, but most of all, I like the refrain, “Skipping over the ocean like a stone.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a line that so perfectly sums up having a carefree attitude while heading into doom. I’ve felt that way many times in my life — except without the carefree part.

The song, of course, became a hit because it was used in the film Midnight Cowboy. That’s still quite a watchable film. “Everybody’s Talkin'” is used at the beginning of the film, because it sounds so carefree. I guess that the rock doesn’t know that it is doomed; certainly Joe Buck doesn’t. The song is not used at the heartbreakingly beautiful ending, because the stone is no longer skipping.

Anniversary Post: Ray Harryhausen

[Editor’s Note: This is a rerun of last year’s Anniversary Post on Ray Harryhausen. I just can’t find anything I’m really interested in writing about. Also, I’m just not willing to put in the effort to learn about things like the first privateer battle of the American Revolutionary War. But since writing this article, I learned that Harryhausen spent the rest of his life complaining that Godzilla had ripped off The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Two things about that. First, maybe it was true and maybe it wasn’t; but get over it, man! Second, Godzilla was a better film. Still, I love Harryhausen!]

Ray HarryhausenOn this day in 1920, the great, great, great special effects artist Ray Harryhausen was born. He is best remembered for his films Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans. His work holds up surprisingly well in this world of computer animation where literally anything can be done. Something to note about his films is that the look of them is not dictated by his special effects. That is a common complaint of mine about many more modern special effects.

Harryhausen was originally inspired by the work of Willis O’Brien on the movie King Kong. And he even managed to meet O’Brien when he was fairly young. After working at the bottom rungs of the film industry—notably under Frank Capra during World War II—he eventually worked as assistant animator under O’Brien for the film, Mighty Joe Young, where Harryhausen ended up doing most of the actual animation while O’Brien worked on the more fundamental technical problems. I suspect this was how things usually worked.

Within four years, Harryhausen got to be in charge of his own film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms—basically a Godzilla film, although the connection goes the other way since Godzilla didn’t appear for another year, and the original screenplay title was “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” By 1958, Harryhausen brought the process to color films with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He continued this on with other notable films like Jason and the Argonauts in 1963 through to his last film in 1981, Clash of the Titans. In 2010, Clash of the Titans was remade just to prove that more advanced technology doesn’t lead to better films.

Here is a short Turner Classic Movies tribute to Harryhausen:

Happy birthday Ray Harryhausen!