Sunday, May 2, 2021

The scary month of May; hinges of fate


Although nearly half a lifetime has elapsed since the last disaster I associate with this month, I still incline to tiptoe during the interval each year between April and June, because the darkest and direst episodes in my life have occurred in May. One such occurred half a century ago.

1971 was…eh, not the best year in a life less than abundantly provided with such years by that point. By mid-January my sweetheart had presented me my walking papers; by March the University of California had begun to get pissy about the considerable arrears that I’d accumulated fee-wise, and the professors of all three classes that winter quarter had flunked me out, at which point UC and I severed all relations save that of creditor-debtor, and the University notified the good people at Selective Service of my availability for the struggle against international communism then being conducted in Indochina. By the end of the year I found myself discreetly homeless, although I flatter myself that an onlooker would not have so identified me, and also near-starvation, eating just four meals a week.

So no, for these and other reasons, things weren’t going well for me by the first of May 1971, and that evening I stumbled into a personal contretemps I don’t propose to relate here, but which involved me in a spirited beat-down administered by uniformed public employees and the subsequent withdrawal of my freedom of movement for the better part of a day. That I somehow contrived to talk my way out of this fix while leaving only the faintest of audit trails—more, and I would certainly never have enjoyed my alleged career; less and I would likely not have completed college—seems remarkable at this remove.

Actually, I used to retail the anecdote rather casually, because it certainly had its droll and entertaining elements. I was twenty-one, about thirty months later, when I lightheartedly related it to a new girlfriend who startled me by appearing appalled by the tale, at which point it struck me for the first time that I might not really want the incident following me around forever after.

Still, I recognized at the time, in the aftermath of 2 May 1971, that I probably needed to order the course of my life in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of ever again landing in such a plight, and in this I’ve largely succeeded.

As to the “audit trail,” those ghostly glimmers of my indiscretion were sufficient to persuade some University of California bureaucrats (and I learned that year that a Department Secretary can be mightier than a Dean) to consent to allowing me a second bite at the apple, and that has made all the difference in my life. Another such hinge from that summer: I sat brooding at loose ends on a median of a then sparsely-traversed street in Southern California when a passing carload of high school acquaintances spotted me, stopped, and invited me to accompany them to the graduating class’s “one-year reunion.” There I fell into conversation with a classmate whose chance remark set me on a course that ultimately brought me back into UC’s good graces.

And had even one of my professors—I’m thinking in particular of the one who told me afterward that I was taking up space at UC that ought properly to be given over to “someone serious about receiving an education,” and who regretted assigning me a failing grade (“I’m only sorry that the University doesn’t let us give a grade lower than F”)—had only one of them given me a “D,” I could not have made it back in. Thanks, Dr. H!

The following decade, in my mid-thirties, weekends late in May occasioned, in the first instance, consternation and grief as a decisive blow was landed upon my domestic arrangements, and a year later a descent over the course of a day into chasms of wretchedness—the abrupt emotional implosion following a year of insupportable stress—such as I hope never to experience again.

I’ll allude to one other hinge of fate: in 1966 a customer at a Southern California coffee shop spilled a drink. I wasn’t there, and although the immediate consequences were unhappy, reverberations from this trivial incident changed the course of my life profoundly for the better. At fourteen I was going rapidly feral: I would likely not have completed high school on that trajectory; I would certainly not have made it to college. The entire course of my adult life has followed upon that deflection, of a few ounces of beverage making for a slippery floor. Funny old world.

But May 1971: fifty fucking years! Geez.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Annals of pop culture


As we close out the first year since this household, at least, became aware that something was rotten in the state of epidemiology, it seems fitting to look back on a couple of the less exalted cultural artifacts we’ve sampled (revisited, actually) during this extended period of house arrest. I mean, it can’t be all Antonioni all the time, can it? Under consideration today are two genre products, The Game (not to be confused with the considerably cleverer David Fincher film from twenty-five years ago) and Silverado, a sort of generic western.

I had supposed the Cold War thriller as a dramatic form to be extinct, like masques or passion plays, or at the very least moribund. After all, even John le Carré, generally considered the greatest master of the genre, felt obliged to move on to depictions of contemporary mischief during the latter years of his long career, although he returned to the classic milieu one last time in portions of his penultimate novel.

But after all, if Regency romances continue to be written and sold, and if an Edwardian costume soaper like Downton Abbey garners rapt audiences on either side of the pond, why should we not find creative spirits drawn to those fraught decades when the Soviet Union and “the West” were ideologically at daggers drawn, each side desiring the extirpation of the rival ethos; each in dread of the other’s intentions and of its ordnance? Now there was an existential threat worthy of some serious knicker-twisting! There’s still drama to be mined

The fact that we know how the story turned out—no one pushed the button; no one perished defending the Fulda Gap; the Red Russians renounced their wicked ways, or at least exchanged many of them for our wicked ways—does pose some issues for the storyteller, which brings us to the entry under consideration here, the 2014 six-part BBC series The Game. There will be minor spoilers in my discussion.

I have alluded to John la Carré, who pretty much holds the patent on Cold War spy fiction, and whose œuvre is the yardstick against which all contenders and pretenders are perforce to be measured. By its major plot elements the series does not merely invite but positively compels comparison with the 1979 BBC dramatization of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and this juxtaposition does not flatter the newer production.

We are once again made privy to discussions in the upper echelons of “British Intelligence” (“The Circus” in le Carré’s world; here doing business as MI5—one of the series’ few unimpeachable touches of verisimilitude) as its senior officers ponder the measures that must be taken to thwart the latest covert assaults by international communism upon the British Way of Life as it is lived in 1972. There are the obligatory touches of moral ambiguity (“alas, we are obliged from time to time to undertake questionable measures in defense of our ancient liberties and our values, and it’s a jolly good thing that the latter are incontestably preferable to those of the foe, else our slumbers would be troubled by the prickings of such vestiges of conscience as we have retained”) that have been expected of British spy fiction since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. There’s the long-time chief of the operation, like Tinker, Tailor’s “Control” an embattled, lonely figure who has to contend with swinish, obdurate politicals above and scheming, ambitious subordinates beneath. In fact, let’s meet our principals, shall we?

  • There’s the aforementioned chief, a shrewd, corpulent, raddled character known to his team only as “Daddy.”
  • Bobby Waterhouse, Daddy’s deputy: an aging, expensively-tailored (well, by the standards of 1972, I suppose. In one scene the points of his shirt collar terminate somewhere in the neighborhood of his armpits. I am obliged to recuse myself from any critical discussion of the fashion and grooming choices made during this period) nancy-boy who is itching to put the bureaucratic shiv in pater’s back. Bobby’s actual pater is not in the picture, but his formidable mother has a few scenes, and frankly, I’d rely on her to hold the Fulda Gap in a pinch.
  • Wendy Straw, Daddy’s pert secretary (the actress puts me in mind of the young Rita Tushingham), whom MI5 appears to be grooming for field work, being as how the outfit appears to be chronically understaffed (see below).
  • Alan Montag, the bearded Aspergerish tech boffin who can with equal facility paper a room with concealed microphones or wire an intelligence source with a transmitter so small you could fit it into a golf bag. This is 1972, remember.
  • Sarah Montag, Alan’s wife and one of the agency’s top analysts—she’s one of the first to raise aloud the possibility that someone on Daddy’s inner team might be playing for the other side—and a crackerjack field agent. A candy mint and a breath mint!
  • and finally, looking as though he has just arrived on the set from a GQ photo shoot, our protagonist, tousle-haired young Joe Lambe, an even better field agent than Sarah. In fact, he’s the star of MI5, Daddy’s golden boy, and I’m here to tell you that on the evidence of this series, if Joe was the best they had, the UK would have been a Soviet Socialist Republic by 1973.

These are The Spies Who Don’t Know Any Better Than To Come in from the Cold. The story relies repeatedly and unduly on the convenient “idiot plot”: “Yes, mate, we want you to meet a deadly Soviet assassin in this basement room and worm important information from him. And don’t worry. Me and Alan will be monitoring you from our listening post on the tenth floor, and if something looks to go wrong we’ll be down here in, like three minutes.” Or “So you’ve got vital information on a mole within MI5, have you? Well, you’ll be absolutely secure in this safe house—of course it is. Where do you think the expression ‘safe as houses’ comes from? How certain are we? Well if we weren’t certain, we’d have sent someone on ahead to make certain there wasn’t an armed Red concealed in the laundry room, wouldn’t we?” Intelligence assets perish, bad guys routinely elude surveillance (not surprising, since MI5 apparently has only Bobby, Wendy, the Montags and Joe, plus a policeman seconded to the operation, as field operatives to keep tabs on the Bolshies), and the Russians are constantly getting the drop on our heroes. Perhaps more ludicrously, the entire tale requires us to believe that forty some-odd years ago the senior echelons of the British intelligence community were worried sick about the possibility of an imminent Soviet military invasion of the kingdom.

The series has a few worthwhile set pieces, and the latter episodes proceed a little more briskly. Notwithstanding a few red herrings strewn about, I correctly guessed the infiltrator about halfway through. If you fancy a Cold War thriller (or plodder), and are prepared to withhold comparisons with more distinguished examples of the genre, you might be entertained.

*

Like many another child of my generation, I was raised on westerns, and I remain at least mildly partial to the genre, which I suppose is why I put up with Silverado, an unduly formulaic example of the form. This is something of a “paint by numbers” western: one senses the writer/director dutifully ticking off the conventions of the genre one by one. Barroom brawl, check. Free-range ranchers vs. farmers, check. Outlaw hideout in canyon, check. Wise and worldly female saloonkeeper, check. Oily gambler, goodhearted prostitute, check. Taciturn hero, check. Gunfights, check, check, check, check, check. Injuns, inexplicably MIA.

It’s not a bad approach to making a cowboy movie. Contrived, to be sure, and more than a little self-conscious, but those of us who esteem the western expect certain elements, and if your favorite trope has not put in an appearance at any point in the flick, another quarter hour will likely summon it forth. Add to this some decent set design and cinematography, a handsome cast that appears to be enjoying itself and a workmanlike if not altogether memorable screenplay, and it’s two hours well spent, although likely not among the first- or even second-tier of westerns I’ll screen again. Among the cast members, craggy Scott Glenn acquits himself well as the aforementioned taciturn hero, as does Kevin Kline as the hero’s diffident sidekick. Kevin Costner chews the scenery halfway across New Mexico to the Colorado state line, but he’s having so much fun that his otherwise annoying performance compels our indulgence. Danny Glover hits all his marks as the Magical Negro; Roseanna Arquette is briefly on camera as the Love Interest in a role so severely truncated that it probably ought to have been omitted altogether; John Cleese(!) shines in a small part as an honest, by-the-books sheriff who nevertheless maintains a realistic vision of his professional responsibilities, particularly where these involve his personal safety.

The soundtrack by Bruce Broughton is unobjectionable as music, but is deployed in an almost intolerably heavy-handed fashion, and served throughout as an auditory irritant. I appreciate directors (John Sayles in Lone Star comes to mind) who do not feel the need to punch up the orchestra to convey drama, excitement, romance that ought properly be carried by the actors and the camera. Lawrence Kasdan has not learned this lesson.

Summary: a pleasant western pastiche, ably performed and photographed. Not otherwise particularly memorable, and rather less than the sum of its tropes, but nevertheless a diverting evening’s entertainment for fans of the form.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Streaming of a White Christmas

 

Lina has had us watching a streaming series about Pablo Escobar, but agreed with me that it mightn’t really do for viewing on December 24. I know that the traditional American movies for this occasion are either It’s a Wonderful Life or Die Hard, but we felt that neither of these would be endurable. She vetoed the Alistair Sims  Christmas Carol. All of the Xmas-themed selections on our two services looked intolerably treacly. Ultimately we settled on the 1954 production (Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye/Irving Berlin/Michael Curtiz) White Christmas, which we’d gone all these decades without catching hitherto.

It was curious for us to reflect that this was “popular culture” when she and I were toddlers. The society it depicts is figuratively fat, happy, prosperous, complacent, genially and unselfconsciously sexist, sentimentally militarist (“Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army”—easy for you to say, Irving), and, with the exception of a barman in the club car scene, the film features a cast as white as the snow that eventually does fall [spoiler alert] on Christmas in Vermont. I observe none of this by way of sneering—for some, perhaps many of our own cultural assumptions, however self-evident they may appear to us and however comfortably we hold them, must inevitably strike posterity as outlandish or worse—but merely by way of emphasizing how strange it is to contemplate having existed in that milieu, even if its salient characteristics lay at the time entirely outside my own purview.

It was curious as well to consider, not for the first time, that it has been less than a century since, with the introduction of “talkies,” human beings have been routinely granted an experience dreamt of by our forebears for millennia: the phenomenon of seeing the departed dead and of hearing them speak. Talk about ghosts of Christmas past! Crosby, Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Jagger and all the other speaking parts with just one exception are at present doing business on the other side of the sod, but there they all were, summoned forth from the æther to sing and dance and camp it up for the patronizing delectation of a couple of jaded old coastal urbanites on Christmas Eve. Funny ol’ world.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Jubilation River

I’ve long been fascinated by the way cultures and societies depict themselves in film (among other media, to be sure). Earlier in the year I watched a couple of Eclipse titles from Japan, Jubilation Street and Black River. The first of these was produced during the Pacific War; the second thirteen years later, with the formal US occupation of Japan ended, but its military presence still very heavily in evidence.

Jubilation Street concerns the dwellers of a Tokyo residential district who are shortly to be displaced as their neighborhood is appropriated for military purposes. The characters regret this development but do not contest the necessity of their removal for the war effort. And in retrospect, after all, Tokyo was shortly to undergo “urban renewal” via the fleets of B-29s dispatched by Curtis LeMay.

Jubilation Street reminds me of Mrs. Miniver, depicting civilians on the home front bravely enduring the depredations of a relentless foreign enemy. The rah-rah propaganda element is little in evidence—there’s a bit at the end, probably included to soothe the sensibilities of the wartime censors. The film brings home to me (I’m a child of the late Truman administration, so I was brought up saturated in pop culture depictions of Nipponese wartime cruelty and depravity) the sense that as the USA brought the war home to Japan, we were punching way above their weight.

Come to Black River in 1957 and we see a demoralized, corrupt, cynical Japan, its traditional values infected and despoiled by the West. The social solidarity depicted in Jubilation Street is long gone: in the squalid quarter in which Black River is set the gangsters and the prostitutes and the indigent struggle and squabble for scraps among themselves. The two films, taken together, present a remarkable contrast.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Parallel Lives

I was reminded just now that Fidel Castro died four years ago yesterday, and this put me in mind of some odd parallels with another twentieth century statesman, that swashbuckling, drunken old imperialist and orator nonpareil Winston Churchill.

Castro and Churchill probably had in common few points of philosophy, but there are some intriguing career parallels: each died at ninety after a decade out of public life; they will both of them be remembered as political leaders who successfully fended off ruthless continent-spanning predatory empires bent on subjugating their respective islands. Also, the two men pursued strategic partnerships with the Soviet Union for defensive purposes, and both were fond of cigars. Churchill lived to see Germany laid in ruins; Castro lived to see Donald Trump elected president. Eerie, no?

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

‘People Like Us” (they don’t, actually)

Almost twenty years ago I caught a documentary “People Like Us” on the local PBS station, that treated the subject, often elided in our public discourse, of class in America. Spoiler: it exists. One segment in particular (“Tammy’s Story”) was heartbreaking: the filmmakers cover a working single mother in Ohio attempting to raise her family in circumstances that might charitably be described as “benighted.” I identified with the elder son, about fourteen, an age at which I was myself rapidly going feral in marginally better circumstances, an alternate reality from which I was abruptly plucked by what came down to the accident of a spilled drink in a coffee shop (long story, which I do not propose to relate here). The boy is ill-educated, melancholy, more than intelligent enough to descry his almost inevitably bleak future. Watching this, I thought at the time: he could be saved. Take him away from this material and cultural privation, feed him wholesome food and wholesome education, and the kid could amount to something. Alas, as a sequel segment makes clear, his adulthood followed the trajectory upon which the boy had been launched. His potential has died; the squalor of his formative years thrives to blight another generation.

Did he vote for the Orange Man in 2016 and again last month? I don’t know, but who could blame him in that event? What stake do people like these have in a “meritocracy” that views them, when they are contemplated at all, as collateral damage in the long march to the shining upland of a cosmopolitan global future? They’re not even being considered for a place at the table: why wouldn’t they be receptive to a “burn it all down” populist appeal? What’s in it for them, the maintenance of the current order—and Clinton in 2016 was selling “more of the same”—when that has so signally neglected them? What do they have to lose if the existing order is torched (Spoiler: probably more than they think, but they are scarcely to be blamed for failing to take the long view)? Had I been raised among these people, or even had my own destiny kinked the other way in 1966, I might have shared their bitter nihilism.

Anyway, although the documentary can’t be had on optical media for the price the average consumer would contemplate parting with, I see that the Tube of You features the individual chapters, and I link to the playlist here. It is worth an hour to contemplate what our increasingly steeper class divisions portend for the Republic. Nothing good, I wot.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

First flight, and afterward

 

Over forty years have elapsed since I first saw a personal computer in operation, in a private residence in Marin County, a tony California precinct. It was an Apple II (or “Apple ][,” according to a curious typographical convention of the day, which I will not bother repeating), owned by a friend’s father, a fiftyish chemical engineer, and it was running, on a green phosphor monitor, and loaded from a cassette drive, a program called “Flight Simulator,” the distant but direct ancestor of the product marketed by Microsoft unto the present day.

A little background: in the initial years of my romantic history I was successively involved with three women who subsequently made their livings in the computer field—even before the (Mis)Information Age had wrapped its tendrils anything like so thoroughly around and through the populace and the polity today—and a fourth who, early in 1974, endeavored in vain to interest me in the computer terminals available for undergraduate use at various points on the UC Santa Cruz campus. “Faugh!” quoth I. “I am a humanities major. What have I to do with these machines?”

A fair amount, it was to turn out, but that proved true one way or another of many of us of a Certain Age.

Anyway, a few years later my then-spouse began to agitate for the acquisition of one of these gadgets, and because what we’d seen was a Cupertino product, we went shopping for an “Apple II+,” the current model as of October 1982, and landed at an outfit—was it in Berkeley or San Francisco?—called, I think, “Quest Computers,” at which a slick salesman (for some reason I still remember his name: Phil Sotter) unloaded on us a computer with 48K—that’s kilobytes—of RAM, a green phosphor monitor, a “floppy” drive and a dot-matrix printer. Woo! I think that the tariff, which we financed by means of a particularly avaricious consumer lender, was initially around $3500, which was probably close to half my net annual salary in those days.

As initially configured, the thing could only display upper-case characters, although it could output lower-case to the printer. Fortunately…er, not quite…fortunately the machine accommodated plug-in cards, and we acquired, for a couple of hundred dollars, an “eighty-column” card that permitted the monitor to display both cases. Did I mention that the software could also do italic and boldface provided the appropriate <tags>were entered</tags> in the word processing environment? But also, the eighty-column jobbie was a little slow: it could not keep up with my keyboard input, and then, as now, I am a fucking two-fingered typist.

Within half a year of taking delivery, although I purchased and played “Flight Simulator” (on a 5.25” floppy—how cool is that?) I could scarcely look at the goddamn machine without hating it, and myself for my folly in consenting to indenture myself to its purchase. The spouse, however, used it to “typeset” several pages worth of content in one issue of Tim Yohannan’s “Maximumrocknroll” magazine—this one. I met Tim Y, dead these many years now, once or twice during that period: he struck me as an exceptionally charmless character.

In late summer 1984 my wife again suggested a computer purchase, this time of an Apple Macintosh, which had first reached the consumer market earlier that year, and which had already struck me as the homeliest piece of consumer electronics I’d ever set eyes on. “Absolutely not,” I growled. “I will never consent to having another product from that loathsome company in my home again.” Perhaps I should mention here that for the nine years we cohabited following our move to Oakland in 1977, I was for various reasons the principal breadwinner as she worked lower-paying, temporary, part-time, voluntary or not-at-all gigs, and that I regarded my views on big-ticket expenditures as accordingly carrying a correspondingly greater weight.

Cannily, she said nothing to this. A couple of weeks later, working late—she was then employed at a software firm on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley—she called to ask if I could fetch her from the workplace. When I arrived, she apologized, told me that the staff meeting was running overtime, led me to an otherwise empty room with an original Macintosh, the 128K model, booted up and running, I think, MacPaint.

I’d never seen anything like this. When she returned after three-quarters of an hour, I sighed: “Where do I sign?”

Two years later, she’d moved out, and on, to gigs in the IT/tech writing field that paid far more than she—or I—had ever made when we had common premises. But a year after that I began to make my living on the Mac (a story for another time, perhaps), and did so until my retirement in 2017, so yay. I probably could have brought home the same or greater income from the same employer during those latter three decades, but I would not have enjoyed myself as much, and would likely never have attained anything like the sundry technical and artistic proficiencies I can claim today. Thanks you, K. No, really.

I owe this also, I suppose, in minor part to that horrible Apple II+ back in the day. I salute the machine, halfheartedly, in whatever metal-retrieval landfill might have claimed it, you otherwise unmourned old thing.