Wednesday, June 1, 2016

“The Day the Earth Caught Fire”

I have a weakness for British science fiction films of the fifties and early sixties. They appear as a rule not to have had enormous budgets available for purposes of visual spectacle, and accordingly worked on smaller canvases. The results were generally more intelligent than those yielded by the more lavishly-funded American productions of the same era, not that this is a terribly difficult bar to clear. The 1960 Village of the Damned, based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, was a good example, delivering a ripping yarn, intelligently scripted, with a minimum of elaborate sets or special effects.

Recently some arbitrary chain of associations recalled a few seconds viewed in childhood, a scene caught on a television broadcast of a man, hideously blackened and burned, staggering down a stairway along the side of a large spherical storage tank. With no more than that vague memory, I was able to coax the title, which I probably never knew, from my default search engine. Indeed, there was a link on the first page of results, because I was apparently not the only tyke in whose memory that image had lodged. The film in this case was Quatermass II (released stateside as Enemy from Spacefor pity’s sake!), an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style thriller in which the hostile extraterrestrials mount their incursion from a supposed synthetic food plant, played in the film by an oil refinery. Watchable, despite the unfortunate casting of Brian Donlevy as Professor Quatermass, and it brought director Val Guest’s name to my attention, which in turn put me onto The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

The title is regrettable, although probably catchier than The Several Weeks Over the Course of Which the Weather Got All Fucked Up and Eventually Much Hotter, but the film is eminently satisfactory. The scientific premise is sheer codswallop, of course, but it’s not as though our current multiplex-bound franchise series are guiltless on that count: the story has it that the US and the USSR have each detonated weapons of unprecedented megatonnage simultaneously at each of the poles, and this has not merely knocked the earth off kilter by eleven degrees, but has also sent it spiraling toward the sun, an “inconvenient truth” that the sundry national authorities are reluctant to make public because they correctly anticipate that the masses will get all pissy about it.

Much of the action is set on the premises of a London newspaper (the Daily Express made its physical plant available), where former star reporter Peter Stenning is inexplicably still employed, notwithstanding his steady descent into alcoholism and the concomitant decline in the timeliness of his work product. Edward Judd’s portrayal is perhaps intended to convey raffish charm, although if so this eludes me. More entertaining is Leo McKern, then about forty, as the paper’s cynical science editor who looks out for Stenning and is one of the first to recognize the implications of the story that the semi-disgraced newsman has stumbled upon. Equally entertaining, and easier on the eye, is Janet Munro as Jeannie Craig, who occasionally works the switchboard at the Meteorological Office and picks up some intelligence which she irresponsibly leaks, Snowden-style (not that London is going to see snow ever again) to our sottish and besotted hero. There are, surprisingly for the era and the genre, a few flashes of nudity, which must have seemed almost subliminal to theatre audiences of the time, but which yield themselves up to the magic of modern consumer video, and which did not in the event and at the time elude the trained and vigilant institutional eye of the British Board of Censors, which forbade the film’s exhibition to persons under the age of sixteen.

The portrayals of the broiling earth, including a set piece of a hot fog rising off the Thames to engulf the city, and later shots employing competent matte paintings to depict a parched London, are well done. The screenplay is mainly intelligent and the cast performs by and large ably, although I suspect that Stenning’s line of patter, to which Jeannie readily succumbs following some rather pro forma resistance, would not get him far with a twenty-seven year-old today (I do not claim to be privy to the courtship protocols currently obtaining among that demographic). The production rather presciently raises questions about how humankind would cope with changes to accustomed climate patterns, although needless to say it can no more than provide a gloss on these over the course of its ninety-eight minutes running time, and its producers were likelier more interested in exploring cold war anxieties than in atmospheric carbon content.

One considerable, and one lesser downside: first, the post-synching is atrocious, distractingly so. At times it’s like watching a badly-dubbed foreign film, an ordeal to which I’m ordinarily unwilling to subject myself. Second, late in the film (following an uncredited appearance by Judd’s chum Michael Caine as a traffic cop) we are subjected to a few minutes of rioting teenagers, portrayed as stereotypical anarcho-beatniks about as plausibly as Hollywood was to do “hippies” a few years later. This also involves Stenning in a brief bout of fisticuffs that appear to have been choreographed by the same guy who did the post-synching. There is as well a small concluding outrage in that the film’s deliberately ambiguous ending was compromised by the American distributors, who insisted on the addition of pealing church bells over the final seconds to suggest that the boffins’ desperate scheme to put the planet back into its proper orbit had succeeded after all. But as against these cavils the film nevertheless holds up very well after half a century and more, and is well worth a look. Indeed, the curious can (no longer) find it online here.

Above: As the planet heats up, actress Janet Munro cools off.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

“When the rapture comes, can I have your t-shirt? Uhh…never mind.”

In today’s NYT:

By seizing the Republican presidential nomination for Donald J. Trump on Tuesday night, he and his millions of supporters completed what had seemed unimaginable: a hostile takeover of one of America’s two major political parties. 
Just as stunning was how quickly the host tried to reject them.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Going out in stele

A dear friend died suddenly last month, not long after we had discussed the necessity of putting his affairs in order. Regrettably, he had not committed his estate management plans to writing by the time he was taken short. The same cannot be said of Esarhaddon, who ruled Assyria for a dozen years in the seventh century BCE. Wishing to secure the succession on behalf of his son Ashurbanipal, the king directed that his allies and vassals affix their names to a declaration of loyalty to the heir. What makes it particularly memorable is the length and detail of the sixty-two no-contest provisions appended to the oath. Here they are, as published in Horizon Magazine (see my entry for Mid-Century Middlebrow) in 1959, transcribed and translated by Donald J. Wiseman of the British Museum (lacunae indicate lost bits of the original):

You will not make a claim against this document bearing the seal of the god Ashur, king of the gods. It has been applied in your presence, you will serve him as your own god. 
You swear that you will not alter it, nor consign it to the fire, nor bury it in the earth, nor destroy it by any cunning device, nor make it disappear nor sweep it away. If you do so may Ashur, king of the gods, who decrees the fates, decree for you evil and not good. May he grant that you never become a father nor reach old age. 
May Ninlil, his beloved wife, interpret the utterance of his mouth as evil, may she not intercede for you. 
May Sin, the bright luminary of heaven and earth, clothe you with a leprosy. May he forbid your entering into the presence of the gods or king, saying “Roam the desert like the wild ass and the gazelle.” 
May Shamash, the light of the heavens and earth, not judge you justly, saying “May it be dark in your eyes. Walk in darkness.” 
May Ninurta, chief of the gods, fell you with his swift arrow; may he fill the plain with your corpses; may he feed your flesh to the eagle and the jackal. 
May Venus, the brightest of the stars, make your wives lie in the lap of your enemy before your very eyes. May your sons not inherit your house; may a foreign enemy divide your goods. 
May Jupiter, exalted lord of the gods, not show you how to enter the temple Esagila, may he destroy your life. 
May Marduk, the eldest son, assign for your fate a serious punishment and an indissoluble curse. 
May Sarpanitum, who gives name and seed, destroy your name and seed from the land. 
May the Lady of the Gods, mistress of creation, cut off birth from your land; may she make rare the cries of little children in the streets and squares. 
May Adad, controller of the waters of heaven and earth dry up your ponds…may he submerge your land with a great flood. May the locust which diminishes the land devour your harvest. May there be no mill or oven in your houses; may there be no grain for grinding and instead of grain may they grind your bones and those of your sons and your daughters. May your fingertips not dip in any dough, may dough be lacking from your kneading troughs; may a pregnant mother [and] her daughter eat the flesh of your sons; in your extremity may you eat the flesh of your sons. Through hunger may one man eat the flesh of another; may one man clothe himself in another’s skin; may dogs and swine eat your flesh and may your ghost have no one appointed as a funeral-libation pourer. 
May Ishtar, lady of battle and war, smash your bow amid a fierce battle. May she bind your arm and so may she end your life in the presence of your enemy. 
May Nergal, hero of the gods, extinguish your life with his merciless dagger; may he send slaughter and pestilence among you. 
May Ninlil, who dwells in Nivenah, tie a flaming sword at your side. 
May Ishtar, who dwells in Erbil, not grant you mercy and kindness. 
May Gula, the great physician, put sickness, sleeplessness, poison, and torment in your body, may she make you sweat blood instead of water. 
May the Sibitti…[two curses here broken]. 
May Ishtar of Carchemish put a strong rimtu-disease within you, so that your flesh sinks in like…to the ground. 
May the great gods of heaven and earth who inhabit the world, as many as are named in this tablet, strike you, look grimly at you, and curse you angrily with an evil curse. Above, may they take possession of your life; below, in the underworld, may they make your ghost thirst for water, may they make you grope in shadow and twilight, yet may you never stand in privacy. May food and water abandon you, may want and famine, hunger and plagues never be removed from you. May your maidservants be ever feeble and your male workers perpetually hostile. May dogs and swine drag you to-and-fro in the public squares of Ashur. May the earth not receive your corpse in burial; may you be food in the belly of a dog or pig. May your days be dark, your years be dim, may they decree dimness without any brightness. On a bed may sleeplessness put an end to your life. May an irresistible flood come up from the earth and devastate you. May anything good be an abomination to you and anything ill your share. 

May tar and pitch be your food, may the urine of an ass be your drink, naphtha your ointment, and duckweed your covering. May demon, devil and evil spirit choose your houses. 
[Here follows an affirmation to abide by the treaty.] 
If you transgress against this treaty, which Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, has made with you…  
May Ashur, father of the gods, shatter you with his weapons.
May Palil, lord… 
May Ea, king of the Deep, the lord of springs, give you unhealthy water to drink; may he fill you with dropsy. 
May the great gods of heaven and earth set water and oil… 
May Girra, who gives food to small and great, burn up your seed and your seed’s seed. 
May as many gods as are cited in this tablet cut up your ground into as many bricks, may they make your ground as hard as iron so that none of you flourish. 
As rain does not fall from a brazen heaven, so may rain and dew not come upon your fields and your meadows; may it rain burning coals instead of dew on your land. 
As lead melts before a fire, so may you not stand before your enemy; you will take your sons and your daughters in your hands [to flee]. 
As a hinny is sterile, so may your name, your seed and the seed of your sons and your daughters be destroyed from the land. 
As the horn of…grows in when it does not flourish, you will not turn… 
May your seed and the seed of your sons and your daughters be destroyed from the land. 
May Shamash with his iron plough cut up your cities and country regions. 
As a starving ewe puts the flesh of her young in her mouth, so may he feed you in your hunger with the flesh of your brothers, your sons, and your daughters. 
As when male and female kids and male and female lambs are slit open and their entrails roll down over their feet, so may the entrails of your sons and daughters roll over your feet. 
As a snake and a mongoose do not enter and lie down together in the same hole without thinking of cutting off each other’s life, so may you and your womenfolk never enter the same room without thinking of cutting off each other’s lives. 
As bread and wine enter the intestines, so may they cause this curse to enter into your intestines and into those of your sons and daughters. 
As you blow water out of a…so may they blow you, your women, your sons, and your daughters…May your streams, your springs, and their sources be dried up. 
May they make the working of gold go from your land. 
As honey is sweet, so may the blood of your women, your sons, and your daughters be sweet in your mouth. 
As you do not eat shazpu raw, so may you taste and eat, while you are alive, your own flesh and the flesh of your wives, your sons, and your daughters. 
May they shatter your bow and cause you to sit beneath your enemy; may they cause the bow to come away from your hand; may they cause your chariots to be turned upside down. 
As a stag is overtaken and killed, so may the avenger overtake and kill you, your sons, and your daughters. 
As a butterfly which leaves its chrysalis does not return to its cocoon, so may you not return to your wives in your homes. 
As one seizes a bird in a trap, so may brothers and your sons place you in the hands of the avenger. 
May they make your skin and the skin of your wives, your sons, and your daughters dirty. May they be black as pitch and crude oil. 
As a…is caught in a snare, so may you, your brothers and your sons and your daughters be seized by the hand of your enemy. 
May the flesh and the flesh of your women, your sons, and your daughters change color like the chameleon. 
As a honeycomb is pierced with holes, so may they pierce your flesh, the flesh of your women, your brothers, your sons, and your daughters with holes while you are alive. 
As locusts and caterpillars eat up vegetation, so may they cause your towns, your land, and your district to be devoured. 
May they treat you as a fly caught in the hand; may your enemy squash you. 
As urine stinks, so may you smell before god, king, and mankind. 
May they strangle you yourself, your women, your sons, and your daughters with a cord. 
Just as one burns a wax image in fire and dissolves one made of clay in water, so may your figure burn in the fire and sink in the water. 
As this chariot with its base-board is spattered with blood, so, in battle with your enemy, may they spatter your chariots with your own blood. 
May they pin you down with a distaff. May they treat you like a woman in the presence of your enemy. 
As for you, your brothers, your sons, and daughters, may they cause you to be turned upside down like a tortoise. 
Like fire, may something neither good nor pleasant come upon you. 
As oil enters your flesh, so may they cause this curse to enter into your flesh, the flesh of your brothers, your sons, and your daughters. 
Just as they who sin against a god or lord are cursed and thus their arms and their legs become stiff and their eyelids twitch, so may they annihilate you. May they rot you like a reed-bucket in water; may your enemy wring you out like blood from a bandage. 
You swear that you will not lose yourselves from Esarhaddon, king of Assyria and Ashurbanipal, the crown prince. You will not go to the right or to the left. May scorpions devour him who would go to the right and may scorpions devour him who would go to the left. 
As an insect which slips into a grinding mill, so may you, your women, your sons, and your daughters have no rest or sleep. May your bones never rest together. 
As the inside of a hole is empty, may your inside be empty. 
When your enemy runs you through, may there be no honey, oil, or cedar resin available to place on your wound. 
As a gall bladder is bitter, so may you, your women, your sons, and your daughters be bitter towards each other. 
May Shamash clamp a bronze trap over you; may he throw you into a trap from which there is no escape; may he never let you out alive. 
As the water leaks out of a split leather water bottle, so in a place of thirst and want may your water bottle be broken so that you die from lack of water.

The exhaustiveness of this catalogue of maledictions makes me suspect that Esarhaddon was able to draw upon the services of a crackerjack legal team. In fact, for a matter of this import he probably didn’t rely on in-house talent: I see him bringing in some powerhouse counsel to put it together, and imagine this scene at the venerable firm of Tigris, Euphrates, Nivenah, Sidon & Tyre, LLP as a senior partner (SP) confers with a trusted associate (TA) on the final wording:

SP: This will do, I think. Very thorough. Crops blighted, fields flooded, daughters raped, sons eaten, flesh devoured by jackals, land afflicted by famine and plague. Military setbacks, economic dislocation, rectoccygeal violation on the battlefield. Disembowelment, edema, psoriasis, gangrene, blindness, severe B.O., terminal dessication. Infidelity and domestic discord. Locusts, caterpillars and scorpions. Nice work with the scorpions, by the way. Ashur, Marduk, Ishtar, Gula, Sarpanitum and the other heavy hitters in the pantheon all on board. All good. Have we left anything out?
TA: Feet, sir.
SP: Feet?
TA: We should include a noncompliance curse on feet.
SP: Good thought. Who, ah, remind me, which one does feet?
TA: That would be Mukluk, sir.
SP: Mukluk, of course. Draw something up.
TA: I’ve taken the liberty of drafting some language, sir: May Mukluk, podiatrist to the gods, afflict your feet with fallen arches and painful bunions.
SP: Excellent, Smithers. Just…punch it up a little. Don’t say feet, say “nether extremities.” Sounds more wrath-of-the-gods, don’t you know, and half of those illiterate yokels will think we’re talking about their dicks. Lose the arches, throw in some gout. Maybe a touch of toenail fungus and a couple of lesions.
TA: Right, sir.
SP: Have a draft stele on my desk tomorrow morning by ten.
TA: By ten. Yes sir.

(This obviously would have been one of the missing curses.)

Friday, April 8, 2016

Bobo explains it for us

David Brooks is off his meds again.

Well, that’s the charitable explanation for “The Lincoln Caucus”, today's column by the second-dumbest man ever to hold a regular gig at the NYT. The less charitable explanation is that he knows this is bullshit and published it anyway:
...I’m suggesting some number of delegates organize themselves into a caucus called the Lincoln Caucus. The Lincoln Caucus would not be an explicitly anti-Trump caucus or an anti-Cruz caucus. It would just be a caucus made up of delegates who are not happy with the choices currently before them.
I'm not sure a single hotel room will hold this crowd. You might want to reserve a suite. Please proceed, David.
I’m suggesting that the delegates who signed up to be members of the Lincoln Caucus make a pledge to work and vote together at the convention. The first thing the Lincoln Caucus would do is plant a flag for a different style of Republicanism. Members of the caucus would remind the country that there still are Republicans who believe in prudent globalism, reform conservative ideas to lift up the working class. There are still Republicans who believe in certain standards of polite behavior in public and pragmatic compromise.
And all fifty of them are right here in this cloakroom! It’s for damn sure none of ’em are in the House of Representatives.
If the Republican ticket gets devastated in November, members of the Lincoln Caucus could say, “We stood for something different,” and they’d be in a good position to lead the rebuilding process.
Because there's nothing that the misogynistic, white supremacist, snake-handling, knuckle-dragging, dominionist brownshirt fuckwits comprising the GOP “base” are yearning to hear more than “We told you so, you appalling rustics!”
But the Lincoln Caucus would primarily serve more immediate ends. First, the Lincoln Caucus would work with the rules committee to get rid of any party bylaws that inhibit delegate flexibility at the convention.
Uh-huh. Why shouldn't the delegates have the flexibility to ignore the will of the voters, fuckwits though they be, who sent them to Cleveland? Starting in November, I imagine Brooks will be telling us that we need more flexibility in the Electoral College.
[This process] would also create a democratic path toward a Republican nominee who is not Trump or Cruz. Remember, the members of the caucus would be delegates, not Washington insiders. They would be a committeeman from Missouri or a state rep from Ohio. They’d be tied to the grass roots, and the press would be all over these people at the convention. This is the best way to get a non-Trump/Cruz candidate without sparking riots in the streets.
Yeah, good luck with that, Dave. Also, your average committeeman from Missouri and state rep from Ohio isn't the chamber of commerce type you used to run into at the Applebee’s salad bar. He's likelier to be a raving teahadist. Hell, he's likely to be leading the riots after he learns that his betters have settled upon Connecticut Republican Rodney F. Richpigge IV as the party's standard bearer.
Mostly, members of the Lincoln Caucus would stand up for the legitimate rights of the party. In our republican system, it is parties that choose nominees; not primary voters. Parties are lasting institutions that manage coalitions, preserve historical commitments, protect us from flash-in-the-pan demagogues and impose restraints on the excessively ambitious.
In other words, the passions of the rabble should properly be guided, corrected and, if need be, overridden outright by sensible chaps who think like…David Brooks. I am so looking forward to this train wreck.

For the rest, I'd observe, at the risk of irking Godwin's ghost, that today’s GOP has as about much right to name a faction after Lincoln as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party would to have formed a Dietrich Bonhoeffer Caucus.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Fidgeting in the cheap seats

(edited and expanded from an earlier version)

I like me a heaping plateful of schadenfreude as much as the next guy, and the consternation of the Republican party elders facing the Rise of Trump as he, in C. Northcote Parkinson’s memorable formulation, “appear[s] like the demon king among a crowd of pantomime fairies,” makes for an all-you-can-eat buffet of same. The head of the RNC recently said, rather wanly, “All these, uh, folks are fighting to be the nominee and spokesperson of our party, um, and we're going to be there to support whoever that nominee is,” to which the incomparable Charles Pierce responded, As though you have a fcking choice, Reince. If He, Trump runs the table, he's going to have you serving drinks on the helicopter in a French maid's outfit. The impending auto-da-fé of the GOP establishment, which appears certain in one form or another whether or not the short-fingered vulgarian wins the nomination or has the prize finagled away from him in Cleveland, will be a joy to watch viewed solely as entertainment. From here, I’d like to see a brokered convention (and I would really, really hope that the Pubbies will conduct their conclave on sound Second Amendment “open carry” and “stand your ground” principles, which should make for the best floor fight footage since Chicago 1968 as the stadium runs red with the blood of red-blooded, red state, red-white-and-blue-but-especially-white American patriots. Yee-haw! Good times) that leaves Trump and the Trumpistas with a bad case of hemorrhoids, and pitching such a fit as will leave a vast smoldering crater where once the Quicken Loans Arena stood.

As will perhaps be evident, I’m not quite prepared to cast off the conventional wisdom that even the GOP is not crazy enough to permit Donald J. Trump to be its standard bearer this November. But of course, it’s looking increasingly as though while the party poobahs aren’t crazy enough to go with Trump, they are also not strong or smart enough to stop him, that having summoned forth the violent evils that he now embodies, and having carelessly left open a corner of the pentagram, they are shortly to be devoured by the demon king. In that event, it behooves the rest of us to dry our crocodile tears and consider some possibilities that, however outlandish, would now be considerably less remote. As I’ve observed elsewhere, were I a naughty foreigner who, wishing this country ill and desiring its international standing to be further defiled, had taken the trouble to examine its recent patterns of public stimulus-and-response, I would be simultaneously rooting for Trump to win the nomination, and laying the operational groundwork for a feat of public outrage—say, beheading an entire Wisconsin Christian daycare center and setting fire to a basket of kittens on national television—in late October that would stampede a critical number of the Teeming Millions over the cliff.

In my darker moments Trump denialism puts me in mind of those doomed bit players in a summer blockbuster, say, Jurassic Park XVI: “Sure, the monster made it past the concrete barrier, the coils of razorwire, the piranha-stocked moat, the machine gun emplacements, the minefield, the particle beam weapons and the electrified fence, but no way is it gonna clear this spiked palisade here. Sucker’s what, fourteen, sixteen feet high? And it says No Trespassing right there. We’re good.”

Until we’re not, hey?

More alarming than Trump is the near-certainty that if he is indeed the GOP candidate in November, something north of 45% of the voters will go for him—more, if the towheaded moppets and their kittens get whacked the day before Hallowe’en. The enraged, inchoate movement that has found its voice in this charismatic demagogue appears prepared, if they are thwarted in July, to burn down the Republican Party. What might the rough beast have in mind, after placing second in November, for the Republic?