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.