Category Archives: Film, TV & Theater

The Out-of-Towners: Review and Analysis

The Out-of-TownersLast night, I watched Neil Simon’s 1970 hit The Out-of-Towners, starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. I had only the vaguest memory of seeing it when I was 6 years old. Strangely, I have a fairly clear memory of finding it very funny at that time. So it seemed like a good choice.

The Out-of-Towners Summary

The film is funny. It tells the story of George Kellerman and his wife Gwen. They are going to New York, where George is going to be interviewed for his dream job, which will move them from their quiet lives in Ohio with two young children to an exciting life in the big city. But things go wrong almost from the start.

Their flight is forced to land in Boston. Then, with some effort, they manage to get a train into New York. But once there, they can’t get a taxi, because there is a strike going on. So they walk to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where they find that their room has been given away. And so on. Somehow, George manages to make it to his interview and lands the job. But he decides not to take it; both he and Gwen have decided that they are happy with their lives in Ohio.

Writing and Rendering

I’ve never been a big Neil Simon fan. That’s not to say that I disliked his work. As I said, I liked this film when I was a kid. And I loved the film Murder by Death when I was younger. Today, I enjoy its companion film The Cheap Detective. But overall, Simon is just a dialog writer. And he’s pretty stylized. I really have to be in the mood.

Sexism

A bigger issue is that most of his stuff is dated. And The Out-of-Towners certainly suffers from this. It’s kind of hard to imagine that people like this really existed. The sexism of George is really amazing. On the plane, both at the beginning and end of the film, we find Gwen pleading to be allowed a cup of coffee.

But on a deeper level, Gwen is a very strong character. How it is she puts up with George’s behavior is anyone’s guess — especially at the end of the film. But both of the characters are pretty typical of the insular world of Neil Simon.

Class

Throughout The Out-of-Towners, George collects a list of everyone who he believes has harmed him. He is going to launch a major lawsuit if he manages to survive the night. But the truth is that almost everyone in the film is actually nice to the couple. For example, the guy managing lost luggage does everything he can, but their luggage is in Ohio. There’s nothing more he can do than he already has.

This is a recurring theme throughout the film. And the truth is that the film would only be about a half hour long if George weren’t so difficult. They could have just stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria lobby until 7:00 am, when it would have had a room for the couple (and the luggage would have been delivered at 8:00 am). But George insists upon acting like a child.

There is a nice moment in the film when George arrives at his interview on time and the person he’s meeting with says he’s amazed — that with the strike and the weather, he didn’t figure George would have been there. So all of George’s anxiety and histrionics was for nothing.

Acting

The performances by Lemmon and Dennis are outstanding. And it really made me wonder about the script for this. Obviously, by 1970, Neil Simon was a star. Otherwise, I doubt the script would have been shot. I can only imagine that the dialog lays there on the page. There is very little that is really funny all by itself, but the stars and the impressive supporting cast make it shine.

Directing

The Out-of-Towners was directed by Arthur Hiller, who just so happened to direct probably my favorite comedy ever, The In-Laws. He shot this film in a cinéma vérité style. This adds enormously the feeling of anxiety in the film, and ultimately to its comedic impact.

Music

The score for the film, by Quincy Jones, is unusual. Its only real flaw is in being too good — too interesting. It is rare that the music in a film becomes so compelling that it takes me out of the film. But that happened once here. Just the same, Jones’ use of extreme dissonance also adds to the whole feeling of dread in The Out-of-Towners, which is so import to it.

Summary

Overall, The Out-of-Towners is one of the best things that Neil Simon ever wrote. I may be under-appreciating what he created on the page. Regardless, Arther Hiller and the rest of the gang that worked on it clearly understood what he was going for. At the time of its release, it stood as an excellent example of cutting edge comedy. Today, the edge is worn. But it still works remarkably well.

Daryl Is Dead

Daryl: The Magician's MagicianWhen I was a kid, I was very interested in magic. In fact, it is that interest that I credit for getting me interested in reading. But I remember when I was 13 years old, I went to my first magicians convention and one of the stars of the event was Daryl Martinez[1] — in his early 20s, he was a rising star in the field. I just found out that he killed himself on 24 February of this year — right before he was supposed to appear at the Magic Castle. He was just 61 years old.

(Before I go on, you should know that there has been some misreporting that his death was an accident. There was also a lot of reporting that he was only in his underwear — a assume implying that it was a matter of autoerotic asphyxiation. But no. He was fully clothed and intentionally killed himself by hanging.)

I saw Daryl a couple of more times. I attended a lecture he did for his first book Secrets of a Puerto Rican Gambler. I remember that he was signing the books “To a TNT man.” When I had him sign my book, he asked if I was a TNT man. I told him I didn’t know, so he wrote in mine, “To a future TNT man.”

Over the years, I corresponded a bit with him and his wife (who is a magician too). They were both very nice. And that’s saying something, because my experience in the world of magic is that most people are not very nice. See what I’ve written about Harry Lorayne and Ed Marlo as well as Michael Close.

Why Did Daryl Kill Himself?

So Daryl’s death means something to me. And from what I read, there was no indication of it. He had no health problems. He really was the happy guy that he played on stage. He hadn’t fallen into a depression. His suicide seems to have come out of nowhere.

Was Daryl Having Financial Problems?

I have a few thoughts regarding this. One is that Daryl might have been suffering from financial problems. People think of performers as rich. But that’s not true. Performance art has the same kind of income inequality that our society does. Robert Downey Jr might get paid $20 million for a film, but other actors who are in the film as much as he might make $100,000. An important character who isn’t on screen much might make as little as $3,000.

In magic, it’s the same — especially for a guy like Daryl. He didn’t perform a big show in Las Vegas. I believe most of his money came from the books he wrote and the videos he created. The lecture that I attended was $3.00 as I recall. There were maybe 15 people at the lecture and he sold 10 books at $8.00 each.

Selling DVDs

The last time I remember writing to him was about seeing volume 7 of his 8-volume DVD collect Daryl’s Encyclopedia of Card Sleights was on YouTube. I noted that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing because I was so impressed that I bought the whole collection. He said he had given up chasing after people doing that kind of thing. But in passing, he said he regretted that I hadn’t purchased it from him. (Any writer will tell you that they make a whole lot more selling their own books than they do from the royalties. I’m sure the same is true of the videos.)

I looked on his site, but the truth is that his website was badly organized and I didn’t find the whole thing as a set. I felt really bad about it, although that clearly wasn’t Daryl’s intent. But more than feeling bad that I had screwed him out of a hundred bucks, I felt bad that it was even an issue for him. Here was one of the top sleight of hand artists in the world and he was counting pennies.

I don’t think that Daryl was poor, but he a lot closer to it than rich. And that’s sad. I’d noticed over the last couple of years him being involved in some money making ventures. They weren’t sleazy. But they also weren’t what a man of his brilliance and experience should have been doing.

Getting What You Want

For some time, I was playing around with writing a book about people who more or less come out of the womb knowing what they want to do with their lives. I’ve always been fascinated by these people because I’m the opposite. I’m interested in everything and I haven’t changed despite many decades. But Daryl was one of the people I wanted to interview for the book, because magic had been his passion since he was 7 years old.

And now I wonder about that. Daryl was 61 years old. He’d certainly accomplished everything he ever could have wanted in a professional sense. What more was there for him to do? I wonder if having one great passion isn’t something of a curse. I’ve always envied people like Daryl. But maybe I had it all wrong.

Think about it. He didn’t kill himself at home. He killed himself right before a performance. He was dressed for the show. Could there be a clearer indication that his chosen profession was not fulfilling him?

Everyone’s Secret Pain

There is also the possibility that Daryl was depressed. No one knows the secret pain of others. I am the last person to blame him for taking his life because life is hard. And I don’t know what anyone is going through — other than myself. But I know that that is hard. There are days when I really don’t know why I go on. And maybe on that day, Daryl came to the conclusion that there really was no reason.

Missing Daryl

What meaning there is to life is how we make life better for others. That can take the form of helping people to die like Mother Teresa or teaching magic geeks how to do a cutting display in the middle of a triumph routine. It’s sad that Daryl is gone now, but his life was not in vain.

It is interesting that the last few months, I’ve been thinking of buying his Daryl’s Expert Rope Magic Made Easy DVD series. Although I do love card magic, my very small hands have always gotten in my way. And I’ve never really done much with rope, even though I’m very aware of how extensive and fascinating a field it is.

Here is Daryl doing one of his versions of a classic:


[1] Just as I was born Frank Morris and later found out that my real last name was Moraes, Daryl later learned that his real family name was Eastman. When I first contacted him as an adult, I referred to him as “Mr Martinez. He responded asking that I call him Daryl and certainly never to call him “mister.” Like I said, he was a nice guy.

As a performer, he went simply by “Daryl” — and often “Daryl: The Magician’s Magician.” That second moniker is not wrong. Daryl was loved by magicians because he was a great innovator — I think the greatest of his generation.

Nobody Knows A Big Bang Theory Fan They Actually Like

The Big Bang TheoryThey say “fricking” instead of actually swearing. They probably have ketchup with every meal. Two Big Bang Theory fans I know genuinely own shoes which fasten with velcro. The word “basic” is a bit of a cruel insult to throw around willy-nilly — we can’t all listen to Mac DeMarco while munching gourmet scotch eggs — but they do tend to be united by a complete lack of imagination and cultural adventurousness.

It’s not just the fact that liking Big Bang Theory indicates a total lack of taste, it’s the vague sense that they feel that liking it is a big shiny gold badge of honor which indicates that they’re intellectually superior to fans of other sitcoms. As we’ve already established, The Big Bang Theory is not a clever program. It’s that middle of the road that if you swapped their references to Star Wars and astrophysics for references to forests and body hair you could be watching Harry & the Hendersons.

If you want intellectual jokes, go and watch Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead or something. You’ll not find them on Big Bang Theory, so drop the cleverer-than-thou attitude guys.

–Tom Nicholson
11 Reasons The Big Bang Theory Is the Worst Thing on TV

Why Zorro Is the Superhero of Liberals

Zorro - The Curse of CapistranoThe last couple of nights, I’ve watched the 1975 Zorro starring Alain Delon and Stanley Baker. Regular readers can perhaps guess how I came upon the film, given that Stanley Baker was the star and co-producer of Zulu — a film much on my mind of late. Zorro was one of Baker’s last films before dying at the young age of 48 due to lung cancer. In Zorro, he plays the bad guy. And French actor Alain Delon has the pleasure of playing two roles: the dashing Zorro and his simpering alter ego Diego de la Vega, the governor of Nueva Aragón. But I’ll write about the film over on Psychotronic Review. Here I want to talk about the politics of the film.

The truth is that it’s hard not to talk about the politics of Zorro. The character and the stories that relate to him are political in nature. Part of that is because they are set in a particular time and place. And the fact that they don’t take place in the US allows them to be more honest about class. Even today, it’s hard to get most Americans to discuss class. And Zorro is all about class.

Zorro vs Lone Ranger

The closest superhero to Zorro is The Lone Ranger. But note that in the latter’s case, his villains tend to be standard outlaws. Zorro, on the other hand, is a class traitor. He is a man determined to protect the lower class from the greed of his own ruling class. But more than that, the stories usually involve the poor and how they can be a force for their own salvation. They needn’t depend upon one iconoclastic rich man to save them.

There is a big difference between the leader who says “Follow me because together we are strong” and the leader who says “Follow me because I am strong.”

Of course, this isn’t surprising. Zorro first appeared in a pulp series The Curse of Capistrano in 1919. And it was an attack on the Mexican aristocracy. It was written by Johnston McCulley — a very white man with a very white name. So Zorro was not the creation of self-criticism any more than True Lies was. (Note: I’m not comparing Zorro to that ghastly bit of American propaganda.)

Fascism of Superheroes

But the biggest problem with the superhero genre is that it is fascist in nature. It tells ordinary men and women that they are powerless and that they must bow down to their betters. It is no coincidence that the most famous superhero, Superman, is the literal translation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch.

There is a big difference between the leader who says “Follow me because together we are strong” and the leader who says “Follow me because I am strong.” And certainly, there are some fascistic elements to Zorro, but he’s the least objectionable well-known superhero. And that’s why he’s the superhero who liberals can support.

Collective Action

What Americans — perhaps more than any modern people — need to understand is that our strength lies in our ability to work together. We see this in every presidential election that we have. Look back at 2008 where we elected Obama and then sat back and waited for Obama to save us. This is not only a criticism of all of us. It’s also a criticism of Obama himself, because he certainly showed no interest in keeping his base pushing for liberal change (perhaps because Obama wasn’t very interested in liberal change).

Maybe it would have been different if Hillary Clinton had become president because she’s a woman. I truly don’t know, because her campaign was largely about her resume. I understand that with a resume such as hers, it’s hard not to make it your calling card. Regardless, we’ll never know. Instead of finding out, we elected a man who considers himself the Übermensch rather than the immature trust-fund child that he is.

Regardless, if there is a liberal would-be novelist out there, they might try their hand at a take on Zorro — one that downplays the sword and the whip even more and makes him above all an organizer and inspiration of fellow humans. Because it’s all there in the character. Not a lot of work would need to be done on the character. Sadly, a lot of work has to be done on ourselves to organize and inspire our way to a more liberal nation.

Afterword

Recently, I saw a bit of Real Time With Bill Maher. There’s so much that annoys me about Maher that I avoid him these days. But he still has his moments. And he made a joke to the effect that had Hillary Clinton become president, she would have been a first: the first president who didn’t play golf. I really liked that. Because I despise the game of golf. It is a game that seems to be popular because of its implicit classism. I really think that playing golf should be disqualifying for being president. Note that Bernie Sanders didn’t play golf. So neither of the two major Democratic presidential nominees played golf. That says something. It also says something that we elected a man who didn’t just play golf but who owned golf courses. Is it any wonder that we’re in so much trouble right now.

No, Zulu and Rocky Aren’t Racist; We Are

No, Zulu and Rocky Aren't Racist; We AreReddit has a series called “Today I Learned” (TIL). Frankly Curious articles have ended up in there before, but usually in a good way. Yesterday, someone posted, TIL Rocky and Zulu Are Racist Because the Villains Are Black. Oh, my! You can tell from the title that it’s pathetic. It is in reference to my article a week and a half ago, Zulu and the Racism We Bring to It.

Notice just how the two titles compare. On reddit, it is claimed that Zulu is racist because the villains are black. And on Frankly Curious I talk about the racism we bring to the film. I always wonder about these things. Are those who post such things just terrible readers? Or perhaps am I such a terrible writer, that they just can’t understand what I’m talking about? I tend to think neither. I think such people simply bring their pre-judgments to the article.

I’m a Fan of Zulu and Rocky

I was very clear that I like both movies very much. What’s more, I say that the movies are not racist. Rather, it is our racism that gets in the way of what is objectively on the screen. In fact, I said that as our society becomes less racist, the films will automatically be fixed, because it is not the fault of the film. The title of my article was very accurate: the racism we bring, not the racism in the films.

I can only stand to read so much of such comments, but I didn’t find any that defended me. It is mostly just the same thing over and over: how stupid I was. Of course, they just show themselves to be what they claim for me. For example, I wrote, “A South African filmmaker who wanted to do the same thing would doubtless tell the story of the Battle of Isandlwana (the one right before the events shown in the film).” One of the commenters responded, “Yeah, they did. It was called Zulu Dawn and was made as a prequel to Zulu.”

In this case, maybe it is just a question of reader comprehension. I’m well aware of Zulu Dawn. There’s just one problem with it: it was not made by a South African filmmaker. It was based on Cy Endfield book. Endfield was the writer-director of Zulu. And Zulu Dawn was very much a British production. (It’s also not really a war film. There is almost none of the battle in the film.)

The Films Aren’t Racist

But it all goes to show that these people did not understand what I was getting at. I was talking about ethnocentrism and that it was natural for the British to make a movie about the battle that they won, not the battle that they lost. But let me quote the first sentence in that paragraph:

It is because of this that the film isn’t racist.

But the people reading it are so determined to find something to whine about. Oh, the poor white man! Here I am beating up on him — saying that Zulu is a racist film (even though I explicitly said the opposite) because the “bad guys” are black.

It’s About Perspective Not Villains

It’s also that I wasn’t making a case about villains at all. I was talking about whose perspective the films were told from. Stuff like this just makes me want to give up writing. There seems to be no point to it because people are so determined to hear what they want. And now I can be another example of the foolish liberal who wants to make everything about race and says that you can’t have a “bad guy” who’s black without a film being racist.

Of course, reddit it a thick forest of ignorance and stupidity.

Afterword

I run into this all the time in my life. People want to tell me about some outrage, “Can you believe that blah, blah, blah.” But in every case, I go and look into the matter and find that they have a very one-sided version of things. In fact, things are much more complicated. And when you know both sides of the story, the outrage factor tends to go away — except when it comes to the Republican Party doing what they’re always very clear about doing: taking from the poor and weak and giving it to the rich and powerful. But people don’t rush to me to tell me about Trumpcare the way they do things like Barbara Lee not voting for war with Afghanistan.

Chaos Theory as it Relates to Rick and Morty

Fractal - Chaos TheoryIt’s weird, but the television show Rick and Morty has given me many ideas for articles. There’s just so much to it. A show like Bob’s Burgers is really all about the characters. But Rick and Morty brings up so many bizarre ideas that I have a hard time not getting lost in them. Most recently, I was thinking of the infinite timelines. This is what explains the Council of Ricks and Jerryboree — the daycare center for Jerrys. Of course, it’s all absurd.

To begin with, if there are infinite timelines, why are there only three thousand Ricks on the Council of Ricks? Well, I do have what might sound like a reasonable explanation: out of the infinite timelines, there are only so many that just happened to have Ricks. This doesn’t work, of course. If there are an infinite number of timelines, there would be an infinite number of timelines with Rick. Infinity is that way. But that doesn’t bother me all that much. What does bother me is this: Rick, Morty, Summer, Beth, Jerry.

Chaos Theory

The issue is this: chaos theory. When I was in my 20s, chaos theory was the thing — even non-nerds were into it. I wasn’t, of course. And that’s because it’s actually a really simple thing. (Research on it, is another matter; but that’s beyond pretty much all but specialists.) It’s just about non-linear systems. Let me explain.

Imagine you are pushing a cart down the road at a fairly constant rate and I’m making measurements of it to figure out how far you’ve gone. That’s a linear system. If I make a small mistake in the measurement of your speed, it will cause me to be wrong in calculating the distance you’ve traveled. But the error will be proportional to the error I made in your speed.

Non-Linear Systems

Rick and MortyNow imagine that you are tripling your speed every ten seconds. Then a small error in my speed measurements will lead to a huge error in the distance traveled. In this case, the error will be squared for reasons that I’d love to explain to you, but don’t have the time (nor, admit it, do you the the interest — a fact I know from experience).

Non-linear systems can be highly non-linear, however. To (inappropriately) use the cart example, you could have a situation where a single small error would cause your final answer to be off by a factor of millions. And that’s what chaos theory is all about. And we have an example of that: the weather, which is where this all started. If you want to know more, learn about Edward Lorenz.

Chaos Theory and Time

Think about time. But first, let’s quote Robert Marley from John Dies at the End, “Time is an ocean, not a garden hose.” We have to forget that, even though I think it’s more or less correct. Imagine time as a garden hose — a line. How chaotic is it? Well, we certainly know it is nothing close to linear. Consider the following example:

A woman is going to buy a ticket for the state lottery. She uses the random system. On her way to the store to get it, a squirrel darts in front of her causing her to slow down and get to the store a couple of seconds later. That is the difference between her life going on as usual and her life completely changing because she won a half billion dollars.

That’s one example. So my belief is that time is the most chaotic system imaginable — indeed, infinitely chaotic — the ultimate example of chaos theory. And that brings us back to Rick and Morty. The best estimates are that our universe is 13.8 billion years old. Given that all of the universes in the show are roughly the same, they too must be that old. Time is just stuff happening: it’s a concept to explain why things change; this is why time doesn’t exist without matter. And 13.8 billion years is a lot of time.

A Long Time Coming: 13.8 Billion Years

Even if time were non-chaotic and changes had linear effects — if small changes would have small effects — that’s enough time that there just wouldn’t be multiple Ricks. But even if there were, how is it that they all marry the same woman who has a daughter named Beth, who goes on to marry a man named Jerry with whom she has two children named Morty and Summer.

Okay: infinity. If there are an infinite number of timelines, then literally every possible universe would exist. (It’s still odd that all of those universes start at the same time.) But if that’s the case, where are all the timelines that are exactly like the 3,000 that we know about except that Morty’s sister is named Winter?

I understand: Rick and Morty is just a television show — one I find quite entertaining. But I actually think that it is dangerous to think that time is not chaotic. Politically, it’s the same as believing in an activist God. It justifies kings because they are the result of fate rather than blind chance.

Who You Are Is the Result of Dumb Luck

The more we know about the world, the more we know that luck is everything. Were you born with a good body? Were you born to parents who raised you in a loving and intellectually stimulating environment? Did you inherit billions of dollars? Were you born in the San Francisco rather than Monrovia? Did a squirrel run in front of your car when you went to buy your lottery ticket?

I think that if people can see that their entire success in life is due to nothing but luck (and I cannot escape this conclusion myself), then we will build a more equitable society. Feudalism existed because people believed that God chose how people’s lives should be. Capitalism exists because people believe that the rich have earned what they have — at least to some extent.

Thomas Paine: Computer Program

Thomas PaineThomas Paine was a great rhetorician who was far ahead of his time in terms of social thinking. But that’s just because he was born with the perfect body and environment to make him Thomas Paine. He didn’t choose to be Thomas Paine. Now that’s not to say that we shouldn’t look up to him. The society should pay tribute to people who made the world better, because we want to create an environment that causes people to be better. Thomas Paine’s body born into 1950 Soviet Union would not be the Thomas Paine we all know and love.

But recognizing that Thomas Paine could no more be anything other than what he was than that a computer program can do anything other than what it was programmed to do allows us to see that having great material differences between people is immoral. Thomas Paine should not have had any more comfortable a life than the millions of African slaves that supported the southern colonies’ economies. We are nothing more (or less) than exactly what we have to be.

Immoral Society Based on False Premises

And these are the kinds of things that you can think about if you watch Rick and Morty. Time is the ultimate example of chaos theory. Luck is the only thing that determines who we are. There is no free will. Our unwillingness to see this provides intellectual cover for an immoral system — one that (if we are very lucky) future generations will look back on in horror, just as we look back at the burning of witches and the enslavement of humans.

Creed: the Best Swan Song for the Rocky Franchise

Creed Would Be the Best Song Song for the Rocky FranchiseOver the weekend, I watched the 2015 hit Creed. This is not surprising. Since I saw the first Rocky in early 1977, I’ve been a fan of it. That first film remains a great cinematic accomplishment. Although utterly genre, John Avildsen’s direction makes the film seem almost cinéma vérité. It was the first film to make major use of the steadicam — but primarily for financial reasons. Thus, it adds to the film rather than distracting as it did in many films to follow, most notably Goodfellas. The acting was exceptional, and the script establish Sylvester Stallone as one of the best genre writers in Hollywood.

I was almost as happy with Rocky II. Although Stallone directed it, he did his best to imitate Avildsen. I remember going to see Rocky III on opening day and being crushed. It was clear at that point that any art in the Rocky franchise was gone and that it was now commodity. Rocky IV was an offense of epic proportions. Even without getting into the politics of it, the casting of Dolph Lundgren was rediculous. Rocky V is an odd film. It is Stallone’s weakest script, but it manages to succeed more than it deserves with the return of Avildsen as director. Finally, Rocky Balboa managed to charm, but the boxing was ancillary and even more unbelievable than usual.

Creed Is a Reboot

I just don’t think Creed could have been a hit four decades ago, which is all the more reason it makes a fine bookend to the Rocky franchise.

Creed is distinct in many ways. Primarily, it is a reboot — essentially a remake of the first film. It is the only one in the Rocky universe in which the title character does no boxing. Unlike all the other films that you could say were Stallone’s, this one is writer-director Ryan Coogler’s. (It was co-written with Aaron Covington.) And there is much to like about him. I think he has a fine career ahead of him. But Creed is hardly a great film, even though only the original Rocky is clearly superior.

The biggest problem with the film is that it tries to do far too much in what is, after all, a simple genre picture. The film is based on the same “give a nobody the chance of a lifetime” plot that the original was based on. I have no problem with that. But I’m not sure how a writer could create a story based on that kernel and then expect us to take seriously the chemotherapy treatments of the trainer. But more than that, this is a film that is cluttered with too many subplots and a lead character that doesn’t have much in the way of a personality.

Creed Washes Racist Tint of Original

Still, I’m very glad the film was made, because it makes up from what I always saw as a problem with the first film: its implicit racism. By this, I’m not talking about the film itself. Rather, I’m talking about what I discussed in Zulu and the Racism We Bring to It. I simply don’t think that Rocky would have been a hit had the races of the fighters been swapped. That’s just a fact of American life. Maybe its more accurate to say that the problem is ethnocentrism: whites want to see a white man win — especially in the mid-1970s — when whites in the US were still in their migration from the cities to the suburbs to escape the “horrors” of busing.

Creed does manage to reverse the races of the characters. And it does it effectively and affectingly. Just the same, Tony Bellew as the “bad” British boxer Ricky Conlan isn’t quite the threat that Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) was. Creed was a stand-in for the ultimate white terror: an intelligent and powerful black man. In fact, that’s one of the high points of the original movie where Creed is working on his various business dealings while we watch Rocky punching raw frozen beef on the television.

Let Creed Be the Franchise’s End

I find it impossible not to see Creed in political terms — and very positives ones at that. The first was a huge hit, and I just don’t think Creed could have been a hit four decades ago. And it makes a fine bookend to the Rocky franchise. Unfortunately, a sequel was in development and may become a film. I doubt that Coogler would be much involved, given he is finishing Black Panther and seems generally of a mind to make films of some substance.

My hope is that Creed is the end of the franchise. It is the way to go out. What would a sequel offer us anyway? It would almost certainly be a combination of Rocky II and Rocky III. Adonis Johnson (Michael B Jordan) would marry Bianca (Tessa Thompson). And Rocky would die — but probably much later in the film than Mickey (Burgess Meredith) did in Rocky III. And Creed would become the champion. I just can’t see it being anything but filmmaking by the numbers.

Creed would be the best swan song for this very uneven franchise. I dearly hope that it is.

The Soviet Union in 1960s Television – Unconscious Propaganda

Star Trek - The Soviet Union in 1960s Television - Unconscious PropagandaIn my page on Space: 1999 at Psychotronic Review, I wrote, “And the original Star Trek had its stupid Soviet Empire proxy in the Klingons — actually more pernicious propaganda than you got from the John Birch Society newsletter.” Lawrence defended the show, pointing out how liberal it was. And he’s right. But it wasn’t my intent to pick on Star Trek. For one thing it was hardly alone.

Hogan’s Heroes had Marya (played by the television Rosalind Russell, Nita Talbot), who was a Russian spy who perfectly encapsulated American’s strange reaction to the fact that the Evil Empire was our ally during World War II. First, she could never be trusted. In the end, she always turned out to be on the ally’s side, but her commitment was at best unclear. What’s more, she just stood around and let the Americans take care of everything. This was, and still largely is, the way that Americans see the war. The idea that in the simplest terms it was the Soviet Union more than anyone else who defeated the Germans and the Japanese is something most Americans have a very hard time dealing with.

There’s also The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show where Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale act as the perfect foil to our all-American heroes: evil for the sake of itself and incompetent. But note: I’m a big fan of both Hogan’s Heroes and The Rock and Bullwinkle Show. And I am rather fond of the original Star Trek — especially when it did comedy. So I’m not putting these shows down just because they fully embraced our country’s international propaganda. In the case of Hogan’s Heroes and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, it was done in quite a charming way. And I certainly don’t think that any of the writers of these shows thought they were creating propaganda.

Unconscious Propaganda Is the Most Powerful

To my original claim, I do think that Star Trek was far more effective anti-Soviet propaganda than the John Birch newsletter.

But it is exactly because these shows didn’t know what they were doing that made them such powerful propaganda delivery devices. This is another issue of fish and water. If someone says that the Soviety Union is the Evil Empire, you can question the claim. But when such a belief is simply in the air — when no one even knows that they are making an assumption — that is when you are really in the danger zone. That is the sort of thing that causes the Cuban Missile Crisis.

(And speaking of the Cuban Missile Crisis: who won that confrontation? Certainly it was presented to Americans as a victory. But that’s not true. The US installed nuclear weapons in Turkey — a clear first-strike threat to the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviet Union installed nuclear weapons in Cuba. The Soviet Union got what it wanted: nuclear weapons out of Turkey and southern Italy. It was the US, not the USSR, that blinked.)

My point is that it is the unstated assumptions that are the most dangerous. Lawrence noted, “For when it was made Star Trek was about as liberal as you could get.” And that’s exactly the point. When the conservative assumptions go unnoticed, even the liberals spread them. And they do it even when they are specifically trying to be liberal.

The John Birch Society

So to my original claim, I do think that Star Trek was far more effective anti-Soviet propaganda than the John Birch newsletter. It’s not hard to read Birch material and see that they are true believers who have a faith-based take on the world. It’s hard to fight against the Klingons given that they don’t actually exist.

But note that in the first run of the show (Klingons have evolved as a people), Klingons weren’t very good characters. There was no depth to them. They were just bad. And accepting that the world worked that way in the 23rd century makes it all the more easy to accept that it works that way today.

The Chicken and the Egg

The Federation wanted to allow people choose for themselves but the Klingons wanted to force people to do as the Klingons said. It’s funny that this is literally exactly what the United States still says of itself; why we support so many despots is just one of those unknowables. Every war we get into, we do so reluctantly. It’s truly amazing how different we think we are from every other empire in history. The one way we are the same as every other empire in history is in thinking that we are different and only trying to do good.

Now I understand: there is a chicken-egg issue here. People accept the Klingons between they accept the Evil Empire mythology. But the truth is that the two feed each other. And this is why people should watch for the themes in movies other forms of entertainment. It is also why I’m not crazy when I talk about fascism in super hero movies.

Our entertain defines us. And I think we were doing far worse in our 1960s television shows than the Ancient Greeks were in their myths and stories. And that embarrassing.

Two Articles About Rick and Morty

Rick and MortyThe Pain of Rick

In the television series Rick and Morty, there have been a few episodes that indicates that despite Rick’s obvious persona, he is a deeply unhappy man. First, of course, there is the fact that he’s a drunk. But more important, in the episode “Ricksy Business,” Birdperson explains what Rick’s catchphrase “Wubalubadubdub!” means. He says, “In my people’s tongue, it means, ‘I am in great pain. Please help me.'” (Note: the producers will regret killing off Birdperson, who is one of the best characters created in the show.) But this is not when we see Rick at his worst.

Rick and Unity

In the episode “Auto Erotic Assimilation,” Rick is reunited with Unity, a collective hivemind, who he used to date. At the end of the episode, Unity leaves him, and Rick returns home, dejected. But when asked what happened, he says, “Honestly, we’re talking about an entity that thrives on enslavement, you know? Not cool. Fun’s fun. But who needs it.” And then he walks into the garage and does something very odd — something that Schopenhauer would have done if he had made cartoons.

Rick creates (or reanimates) a creatures that is clearly in great pain. He pets the creature lovingly. And then he puts the creature in between two beams that disintegrate it. It is clearly an act of kindness. Then Rick changes some kind of power supply, and sticks his head between the beams. But before they can fire, he passes out, thus surviving.

The Ethics of Rick and Morty

That is undoubtedly the most shocking moment in all of Rick and Morty. But it’s probably key to Rick’s likability. Morty has a child’s understanding of morality. Rick’s idea is much more sophisticated. That’s especially on display in the episode “Mortynight Run.” In it, Morty is angry with Rick for selling a gun to an assassin. Rick’s thinking on the matter is that the assassin will get a gun whether it is from Rick or not.

Morty says, “Selling a gun to a hit-man is the same as pulling the trigger.” Rick responds, “It’s also the same as doing nothing. If Krombopulos Michael wants someone dead, there’s not a lot that anyone can do to stop him.” And it turns out that Morty’s attempt to stop the hit ended in killing Krombopulos Michael and dozens of other people. What’s more, it turned out that Fart (the gaseous target) was going to kill all organic lifeforms in our universe. So Morty is forced to kill it anyway.

On Being Whores

This relates to my blunt admission that I’m a whore. It’s not that I, like all people, don’t have my own ethics. But I’ll do pretty much anything if the price is right. And the reason for this is that I’ve learned that it is the system that is screwed up. I have friends who work for do-gooder non-profits, and they feel as much like whores as I do. In fact, it is usually worse for them because they feel like hypocrites too. Most of the work of non-profits is to sustain themselves.

So Rick is right. And being right makes him hate himself. As I wrote before (see below), it is Rick and not Morty who hides his true self from the world. All his antics are in the service of hiding that. And Unity dumping him affects him in a more profound way that usual, because like a teenager, even Rick thinks that love can save him. And when he’s reminded that it can’t, he impulsively reaches for the logic of suicide. In a meaningless universe, you either pretend that it has meaning or your exit stage left. When Rick tries to kill himself, he is being the most authentic that he ever is.

Update

I just saw the first episode of season 3 and I see that they brought back Birdperson. Kind of. And the friend of Summer who was going to marry him is alive. I thought she was killed. But I guess not.

–Frank Moraes (13 April 2017)

Rick and Morty and Me

Some time ago, I was watching an episode of The Simpsons. And in the opening “couch” section, a spaceship crashes into their house, killing the family. And out pop these two characters named Rick and Morty who I had never seen before. Thus was I introduced to Rick and Morty. It looked to me like the kind of show I would love. I mentioned it to Andrea and she pooh-poohed it, saying it was coarse and vulgar. Well, I’ll put up with a lot of coarse and vulgar for brief moments of brilliance. Still, it took until this weekend for me to watch an episode. I ended up watching the entire two seasons.

First, an example. In the episode “The Ricks Must be Crazy,” the spaceship won’t start. Rick and Morty get out of the ship and Rick pops the hood. Morty says, “Is it the quantum carburetor or something?” Rick is disdainful, “Quantum carburetor? Jesus, Morty, you can’t just add a sci-fi word to a car word and hope it means something… Huh. Looks like something’s wrong with the micro-universe battery.” Yes, I know: I’m a sucker for this kind of meta-humor. But that’s a solid joke no matter how you look at it.

The Most Cynical Show

While watching the shows this weekend, I was struck by the fact that Rick and Morty was about the most cynical television show I’d ever seen. And it amazed me that Andrea said she didn’t like it. So I asked her again, and she too had gotten drawn into it thanks to her husband, and now appreciates it. (Clearly, she could do with fewer of the sexual references and the ridiculous amount of gore.) That made me feel as though all was right in the universe. Too much of it is typical of her sense of humor. This may also explain why I’m one of her few remaining friends. (Oh, I kid! Sorta.)

I think much of the appeal of the show to its target audience (basically me, but skewing younger) is that we all wish (at least superficially) we were Rick but always feel like Morty. (Excluding the evil Morty with the eye-patch who we met in “Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind.”) Rick is, after all, the cool kid in high school. Indeed, he becomes so explicitly in “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez.” But I’ve seen it a lot during those unfortunate times when I’ve been on the bus when the high school lets out. Almost everyone in high school wants to be Rick (not caring about anyone else) and lives in terror of being seen for the Morty who they are.

The Essence of Rick

You’ll note that I said “almost.” Rick is, as far as any likable character can be, a psychopath. The show does an excellent job of showing just enough of Rick’s inner life to see that ultimately he is Morty — just older and wiser. In “A Rickle in Time” he proves, mathematically, that, “As far as grampa is concerned, you’re [Morty and Summer] both pieces of shit.” But as a viewer, I’m unconvinced. I’m just impressed with any character who would be willing to say such a thing. And it is, after all, in the service of saving their lives.

Maybe We Have Rick and Morty Backward

But if Rick is really just Morty with a great con, then isn’t he the one who is really insecure. Morty just is who he is. Sure, perhaps this is just a function of his youth and stupidity. But he is authentic in a way that Rick clearly is not. So in the end, I’m ashamed to want to be Rick. Because the truth is: I am Rick — just not a very successful one. And I’ve long ago reached a point where I value authenticity above any of my childhood dreams.

What’s most interesting about Rick and Morty is that the series seems to understand this. It knows that all of Rick’s brilliance is ultimately impotent. Why has he come to live with his daughter? Because he knows he’s a fraud. He’s seeking meaning. But like the rest of us, he’s lost. It’s like in the episode, “Something Ricked This Way Comes.” Rick creates a robot to pass the butter. When it finds out that its purpose, it reacts as any of us would. Although I have to say: that’s more of a meaning that I think my life actually represents. And I’m not just saying that because Rick would. I’m in my fifties. Some insights are inevitable.

–Frank Moraes (12 December 2016)

Movies! Or Why I Stopped Worrying About Politics

Movies, Movies, Movies!

Why so much writing about movies?

I don’t quite know what it is, but it’s hard to write about anything but film these days. In the past, people have asked why I didn’t write about this or that political issue. Sometimes the answer was just that I hadn’t had the time. But more often, it was that I didn’t have anything new to offer. I’ve noticed that a lot of political bloggers are fine just regurgitating what others have said. In fact, this is what blogging is for a lot of people: a brief introduction, and then a long quote by someone else.

Politics Is Depressing

These days, I find I don’t have that much to say about politics. The election of Donald Trump as president has really been a bad thing. What is there to do but wait for the next election. I suspect that 2018 will go okay. But what if Trump wins re-election in 2020? Political parties aren’t mostly about ideology. If this really is the country of ethno-nationalism, what is the Democratic Party going to do? I don’t know. And it is really depressing to even think about.

Movies Are Fun

As a result, I’m writing more about movies than ever before. And that means less work to be done here. So I’ve created another page over at Pyshchotronic Review: Space: 1999. It includes an article, Great 1970s TV: Space: 1999. Hopefully, I can get Will to write something for the page. I remember that he was something of a fan of the show at the time, whereas I had never even seen it until the last year.

But I hope that the continued posting of quotes will keep you all engaged and discussing the issues of the day. They do seem to get a fair amount of discussion. But I’ve noticed that I tend to get more comments when I have something to say myself. And I will continue to have things to say. Just the same, my political thinking has gotten broader. I still think elections are really important. But I’m more worried about the system itself. I fear we are doomed if we continue to think that the way things are is the way things ought to be.

Our Biggest Political Problems

Hierarchy is the fundamental problem. Our belief that we should have a pecking order is what allows us to continue to justify ridiculous levels of income inequality. And it’s what makes everyone think that capitalism is somehow natural and right.

I get tired of having to argue with people who tell me how capitalism is the reason we have cool phones and without it, the poor would be even worse off. I can counter these arguments, but it’s exhausting. Why is it that most people just accept an economic system that doesn’t work for them? I really don’t know. And so it’s more fun to write about movies, even if Space: 1999 clearly demonstrates a hierarchical society in a positive light. Even when you are reduced to 311 individuals, people don’t question hierarchy.

Yes, we are doomed, but I have some great movies we can watch as the end approaches.

So Many Changes on Psychotronic Review

Psychotronic Review - Running Multiple WebsitesJust yesterday, I wrote A Much Darker Take on Barton Fink. Now that was an article that I really could have put on Psychotronic Review. But it seemed like it went more here because it is more of an art film than a psychotronic film. Just the same, it would have worked — especially when you consider just how wide-open the definition of of the term is. And who knows: I may end up transferring it over there at some point. As it is, the new website is not going without love. Let me tell you what I did just over the weekend.

Omega Doom

The main thing is that I created a page for the film Omega Doom and wrote an article for it, The Post-Apocalyptic Yojimbo. Omega Doom is quite an interesting film starring Rutger Hauer.

I’m almost to the point of saying that anything that Hauer stars in must be psychotronic. He has had an uncanny tendency to pick odd films. He really has the stature to have starred in more traditional films, but instead, he’s spent most of his career starring in what most people would call trash. It’s probably a matter more than he’d rather star in second tier films than to have a second tier role in a first tier film. But it’s nice to think that he’s just really into unusual material.

Omega Doom is hardly a great film, but I think you’ll be interested in checking it out after reading my article. There is much to like about it. And if you know Yojimbo, well… There’s been a cowboy version and a gangster version. So why not a robot version?

Other Changes to Psychotronic Review

As a result of this, I moved a couple of articles from Frankly Curious to Psychotronic Review. Whenever I do this, I end up making some changes. In many cases, I make really big changes. One where I didn’t make much of a change was in my new page on Turbo Kid. It is based on an article I wrote pretty recently, Gory Post-Apocalyptic Nostalgia.

The main thing I did in adding the film to the site was putting together the credits for the film. I’m sure I knew this before, but it’s still remarkable: Turbo Kid was written and directed by three guys. I wonder how that was all done. The truth is that the film is fairly standard. You wouldn’t get the idea that it was such a group effort. It makes me want to get the DVD just to see if there’s any information about how they worked together. I suspect there wasn’t much to it: just three friends who decided to make a film.

How I Rate a Film

I also managed to publish my third blog post for Psychotronic Review: How I Rate a Film: Yojimbo Edition. Now that’s an old article — one I wrote almost exactly five years ago. But it’s also one that I changed a lot. It’s interesting, however, to see that my thinking on film rating hasn’t changed that much. But the article did end up about twice as long as it was.

More to Do

There’s still lots more to do. The problem is that nothing is easy. It isn’t just a matter of moving material over. I always do at least some rewriting. And then links and images have to be dealt with. And then there is the whole issue of making sure that the articles here (and for the older articles, the ones still on the Nucleus site) get redirected correctly to Psychotronic Review. Also involved in this is getting rid of them on Frankly Curious.

The reason for this last part is that this is a blog. So even though an article might get redirected, it will still show up in the blog roll. And in searches. For example, if I hadn’t removed the article on Turbo Kid and you searched for “turbo kid,” it would have displayed here. Now that’s not a problem for you, the reader. But Google would see that as duplicate content and penalize me. I’m not exactly sure how that works, but it does mean that people would be less likely to find my Turbo Kid page through Google.

I’ve Made Website Management Harder

It’s amazing. There’s so much to do running a website. It’s no wonder that so many blogs are done so poorly. Of course, some of this is my own damned fault. It would have been smart to just start my blogging career using by far the most popular blogging software — or even something close. Instead, I started with something almost no one used that was literally discontinued. (Some users of it started their own replacement project, but who knows how long that will continue on.)

Also, I could have started a more focused blog. Frankly Curious has almost 500 articles on film. That works out to somewhat more than one film article per week for seven and a half years. That alone represents a fairly successful personal blog. But I’m too interested in too many things. So I get myself into this trouble. That’s part of what Psychotronic Review is all about: me trying to do something structured. And really, at this point, it would be so much easier to spend all my free time working on that.

I Just Need Four Websites!

But I know I would come back here. Because I’m not a single-issue person. But I do think that film and politics is it. Oh, and grammar/writing. Maybe I will do that. I’ve got my film writing on Psychotronic Review. And I’m thinking of moving my political writing to Frankly Furious. I could put all my grammar writing on Frankly Curious Media. (Something needs to be done about it. It’s been in maintenance mode for over a year.) And then my random thoughts would go here.

And with the remaining hour per day, I could sleep!

A Much Darker Take on Barton Fink

Barton FinkWhen I first saw Barton Fink in the early 1990s, I was blown away. There were a couple of reasons for this. The most obvious was the pointless symbolism. For example, the ending seems to weird people out. Barton (John Turturro) is sitting on a beach, looking at the real-life image of a young woman that has been hanging on the wall above his typewriter throughout the film. Should anyone think it is intended to mean anything, Barton asks her, “You’re very beautiful; are you in pictures?” And she replies, “Don’t be silly!” It’s probably the funniest joke the Coen Brothers have ever come up with. She’s not in pictures; she’s right there!

There’s much more of that in the film. But the other thing I liked in the film was that Barton is such an unlikable character. Now, that’s probably not true in an absolute sense. But he’s rather too much like me, without my good points. For example, “I do listen!” The first time I saw the film it was cathartic when Charlie (John Goodman) tells Barton that he messed with his life because Barton doesn’t listen. I’d spent the movie up to that point being so annoyed that Barton was always cutting Charlie off. Sure, Charlie has stories he could tell, but Barton isn’t interested in hearing any of them.

A New Look

I’ve watched Barton Fink a number of times over the years, but it’s been a while since I have. Every time I thought about watching it, I was put off at the thought of spending two hours with this unpleasant character. But I put it on last night, for reasons I can’t fully explain. And I was really struck with one scene. It’s after Barton has finally managed to write his wrestling picture. And it’s the best thing he’s ever done. So he goes out to a dance hall to celebrate.

The place is filled mostly with military men and he gets into a confrontation and starts ranting, “This is my uniform! This is how I serve the common man!” And a guy in the Navy decks him. But this act of violence sets off the tension in the room (it is the eve of World War II, after all). And as Barton lays on the floor, a brawl breaks out between the Navy men and the Army men. These are the common men that Barton is writing for.

It was the first time that I really saw Barton in a positive light. He’s still pretentious — still lost in his own world. He’s still utterly uninterested in the world as it is. Clearly, he should have stayed in New York writing plays for the common man that only the rich come to see. His trip to Hollywood is a trip to the real world. And that world is made explicitly hell as Charlie, with a shot gun, marches down the hallway, which is aflame, killing two cops and shouting, “Look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind!”

Developing a Feeling for Barton Fink

I have to admit to feeling a bit like Barton. Hollywood is made up of two kinds of people. There are the military men who seem well summed up by the Elvis Costello line, “If it moves then you fuck it, if it doesn’t then you stab it.” There is also Charlie, a serial killer, but one who seems to see murder as an act of mercy. He also explicitly says that he wishes someone would do the same favor for him. These are the common men that the
“pictures” are created for.

The other kind of people in Hollywood are those who work in the “dream machine.” They are probably best represented by Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub), the producer of the wrestling picture that Barton is writing. He might as well be producing lawn fertilizer as films. But you see his life perfectly encapsulated at lunch where he drinks whisky and a big glass of milk. Despite his ranting and appearance of power, Geisler is a man who could use some of Charlie’s mercy.

Barton Fink is more naive than anything. In fact, he’s a little exasperating. The one person in the whole film that it is easy to identify with is Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis). I love when she is trying to help Barton with his script. She says, “Barton, look, it’s really just a formula, you don’t have to type your soul into it.” And that’s about it. What’s exasperating is that I know that there are things I write for myself and there are things I write for money. And the fact that Barton doesn’t understand or accept that makes him more relatable. I was like that too — in my teens.

The Dark Side of Art

Barton Fink is a lot like Sullivan’s Travels. In that film, Preston Sturges presents a director who is known for his comedies but wants to create serious and important films for “the common man.” Then some very bad things happen to him and he decides that he wants to continue to make comedies. The film ends with Sullivan saying, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have?”

But Barton has been through a literal hell. His girlfriend has been murdered. So has his family. His career is over. There’s a good chance he’ll be convicted of murder. The film ends with him sitting on the beach with the head of his murdered girlfriend. And all he’s gained from the experience is confusion.

It’s very possible that’s the best you can hope for. Because the world is evil. And there’s no reason for that. Theologians have been trying to figure that out for centuries and have made no real progress. And artists who try to create something more than pure entertainment end up like W P Mayhew (John Mahoney), drinking the world away, or Barton, lost in a sweet picture he once saw.