Damnation Alley Sucks More Than It Should

Damnation AlleyI didn’t want to watch Damnation Alley. It is based on a Roger Zelazny novel, and I’m not fond of his work. But the film was co-written by Alan Sharp. And it was the film right after Night Moves — which I greatly admire. Plus, it’s a post-apocalyptic film, and I’m fond of those. So what hell, right?

The film starts with Air Force First Lieutenant Jake Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Major Sam Denton (George Peppard) as they dutifully launch rockets to counter a first strike from the Soviet Union. So we skip ahead a couple of years where we find the air base little changed. But now, the Earth has been knocked off its axis and so the sky is not blue but purple with a sort of permanent aurora borealis. But very quickly, there is a fire caused by a cigarette and everyone but the four men survive (the other two are quickly killed off). And then they go on a road trip to seek out other survivors. Apparently, doing this before base was torched was out of the question.

There are aspects of the film that I like. A lot of it is very campy. There are human size scorpions. These are done somewhat worse than in Bert I Gordon films. There are also flesh-eating armor-plated cockroaches that can survive being stepped on, but apparently not fire extinguishers. And then there is the almost total lack of any real sign of the apocalypse. We find a casino that is not only still standing, but still has electricity. This absurdity is tossed aside with a bit of dialog, “Boy, nothing changes. Bomb or no bomb, the lights never go out in Vegas.” These are the kinds of things that make idiosyncratic films interesting.

There’s a problem though. This isn’t an idiosyncratic film. It is a big budget Hollywood film. And it has all the tired Hollywood conventions that one would expect. That’s particularly true of the male leads, who are boring from the first scene on. There is, of course, the female lead, although she just kind of hangs out in the movie — never having her relationship with any of the other characters jell. And then there is the obligatory kid who, by 1970s film convention, had to be annoying.

Rather than roving gangs of bikers, Damnation Alley has a group of men who occupy a gas station. They are straight out of Deliverance, but with bad facial hair. They are about as menacing as a villain from Scooby-Doo — and similarly smart. Our protagonists manage to escape these characters thanks to the kid. Somehow, these trained military officers couldn’t deal with them. But far more perplexing is why these guys didn’t check out unfamiliar locations before just wandering into them. You can’t say it is for the plot, because there isn’t much of a plot anyway.

The worst part of the film, however, is how much it is soiled by the later television series, The A-Team. This film stars George Peppard. There really is no difference between the two characters. And they run around in a weaponized vehicle. And both are camp without them showing any signs that they know it. We’re all supposed to think it is cool, not silly.

I can see why the film has become something of a cult classic. It has all the needed elements. And a film with badly rendered giant scorpions can’t be all bad. Then again, a film starring Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent can’t be all good. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

The Banality of Martin Shkreli

Martin ShkreliPeople might assume that I’m happy to see Martin Shkreli hauled off to jail. But I’m not. He’s the hedge fund wunderkind who raised the price of Daraprim from $13.50 to $750. He got a lot of attention for this clearly greedy move, but it was actually a sign of hubris because it caused another company — seeing an opportunity — to enter the market and sell the drug for $1. So there never was much indication that he was anything but a con a man. The problem is that I just don’t see how he is that different from the fools that millions of people worship on Shark Tank.

There is something very wrong with our capitalist system. I’ve noticed this again and again throughout my life. It is not brilliance — much less the ability to improve the world — that is key to business success. For many, like Mitt Romney, making money is mostly about being in the right place at the right time. But for many more, it is about being ruthless. And the distinction between legal ruthlessness and illegal ruthlessness strikes me as almost semantic. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that someone like Shkreli isn’t clear about the distinction. It is almost certainly clear that Mitt Romney did far more harm in his legal business career than Shkreli did in his career even if all the charges against him stick.

I think this is what happens when you have a society based on the idea that nothing matters but profit. Yes, I know there are courses on business ethics. But it strikes me rather the way war crimes tribunals work — namely, you only face them if you lost the war. As it is, if Martin Shkreli really is worth $100 million, he may manage to get out this legal bind. Our system is, after all, set up so that it is really hard to convict anyone who can mount a good defense.

As it is, there is only a small amount of Shkreli’s career that has landed him in jail. And it has nothing to do with him jacking up the price of Daraprim — a move that certainly caused harm and could have cost lives. But that was a move that was widely praised (or at least apologized for) in the business press. What he’s in trouble for is not all the harm that he has done, but rather for the specific harm that he’s done to members of his own class. As Michael Hiltzik noted, that’s mostly what this is all about.

I’m getting tired of all this. When Martin Shkreli burst on the scene as a price gouger, I didn’t see much of the outrage. He was doing, after all, what we generally praise business people for doing. If he had quintupled the price of the drug up to $67.5, I doubt anyone would have noticed, even though that change would have been excessive. There just seems to be a certain hypocrisy in our society. We expect them to be anti-humanists. In fact, we praise them for being so. We hold them up as demigods. So I feel no schadenfreude toward Martin Shkreli — just sadness for a badly misguided civilization.

Morning Music: Mission: Impossible Theme

Lalo SchifrinToday we get to a song that I hadn’t even thought about when the week began, the Mission: Impossible theme by the great Argentine composer and bandleader Lalo Schifrin. There’s so much to love about it. First, of course, there is that great 5/4 time signature. But that’s not really what it is. It’s actually a measure of 6/8 time followed by a measure of 2/4 time. It’s a very common, but still somehow thrilling, device. I first noticed in the Buffalo Springfield song “Broken Arrow” (not that exactly, but the moving from a 6/8 to 2/4).

I love the horn arrangement — especially the really low ones which I’m thinking are trombones. But overall, you get the feel of what I normally associate with Henry Mancini. Flutes can be really effective in this kind of music, but they aren’t used that much. Mancini, of course, was very fond of them. The arrangement of the song was also done by Schifrin, which makes me keen to check out more of his work.

If you want, you can hear Lalo Schifrin do the song live with a full band. It’s wonderful. You can also hear the whole single. But I present the original because all the elements I’ve talked about are clearer:

Anniversary Post: Angola Horror

Angola HorrorOn this day in 1867, the Angola Horror occurred. It was a big train wreck and fire that killed roughly 50 people. It was the New York Express, running from Cleveland to Buffalo. But the train was having problems. By the time it reached Angola (roughly 30 miles before Buffalo), it was running almost three hours late. As a result, the crew were pushing to make up time. You’ve got to believe that the crew were under intense pressure from the company management. After all, those are hours when the crew were paid (maybe) but the company was not making any extra money.

Part of the problem was that the tracks in the two states were different widths: 4’8.5″ in New York and 4’10” in Ohio. But there were specially designed (if unstable) cars that could deal with this. But the last car had a slightly bent axle. When it went over the break in two rails while crossing a bridge, it jumped the tracks. This, of course, dragged the second to the last car off too. I don’t want to get into it, because it’s very upsetting, but all but two people in the last car died — many were burned alive.

The Angola Horror led to a number of reforms — including the standardization of track widths. But we all know that none of that was necessary. In a libertarian utopia, the businesses would all see it to their long-term advantage to make sure that their passengers were safe. It was doubtless government interference that caused this wreck and those deaths. Right?!

But let me just say something on a personal note. I try never to go outside. But the few times I have over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that people are more insane on the road than usual. It’s the holiday season and everyone is in a mad rush to get places. But it really doesn’t matter. Just slow down. You are far less likely to be burned alive if you do!

Afterword: Angola Horror Didn’t Change History

According to Wikipedia, the young John D Rockefeller was supposed to be on the train, but he just missed it. If you’ve been reading me for a while, you know how I think the world would have changed if he had died: not at all.