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.