Interlude of Updateitude

A. Man, Lafferty’s Fall of Rome is just so awesome and fun.  A few pages left, just – wow. Will review in a day or two. When I get back to writing The Novel That Shall Not Be Named (let’s go TNTSNBN, shall we?), I am so going to throw this book up on blocks and strip it down to the frame for parts – everything from names, relationships, character motivation are just so dramatic and involved, and the stakes are so high – Stilicho & Co are trying to Save the World!

So far, I’d modeled the relationships and motivations in TNTSNBN on the Medici, the Fords,  and other historical families, because just as all politics is local, all history is family.  But man, Stilicho is now just about my favorite historical character of all time. In an Empire of 75,000,000 people, Lafferty compellingly contends that the decisions of a handful of men and women determined the course of history, pushing the virile, civilized world of Rome over the edge when it could have been otherwise. You are left to speculate on what kind of a world – a better world, Lafferty leaves little doubt – would have ensued had only Rome persisted for another couple of centuries and further civilized and assimilated the peoples on the borders.

I’ve long suspected that, had Islam arisen and pursued its campaign of conquest against an even semi-coherent Rome instead of riding out of the desert to loot the wreckage of an empire, history would have been very different. Stilicho, one imagines, would have put a stop to that nonsense in short order. But we’ll never know.

Image result for orkney islandsB. Younger daughter just spent a week in on a farm in Orkney, on her way home from her semester in Rome. She’s caught Lourdes, Paris, Ireland (Limerick, I think) on her way to Orkney, and is now in London for a couple weeks with her aunt, uncle and a half-dozen cousins. From there, she and some friends are planning day trips to Oxford and goodness knows what else. I’d tell her my preferences – York, Salisbury, a day or two walking London – but I think she’s got plenty of people to advise her.

Image result for harrison clocks
Harrison 1. C’mon, it doesn’t get any cooler than this!

Wait – Uncle Paul’s house is within walking distance of the Prime Meridian, the Royal Observatory, and the Harrison clocks! Text message going out.

Then, from London back to New Hampshire to attend graduation at her college (she has friends among the seniors) and then, finally, home.

When I was 19, my entire experience with planes was taking a roughly 2 hour flight from Albuquerque to LA once, coming home from school. At the same age, my daughter has got to be pushing 100,000 miles of air travel, between cross country back and forth to school flights, a couple trips to Europe, and a few up and down the coast visits to family and friends.

She lives in a different world than me.

C. 93 drafts for this blog. It’s not getting better. 2 short stories *this* close to being done. One NTSNBN on temporary hold. One book on education history I’m going to feel guilty about neglecting for the last couple years any day now.

Maybe I have some issues with, I don’t know, letting go? Discipline? Success?

On the plus side, got a million words easy on this blog, and, after years of not even starting stories, I’ve got some that I really, truly could finish in a few hours if I can a) find the hours; and b) make myself do it. This week – 2 stories wrapped up. You heard it here.

D. Home Improvement Project proceed at their own very slow pace. After middle son tore out the concrete path to the front door, I’ve been sloooowly cleaning up and prepping for a small concrete pour to create the stable slab onto which I’ll set bricks to make a fancy-dan brick walk with a gentle slope up to the porch to make it easier on old people.

Got the frame and rebar in. Had to drill some holes and epoxy in some bars to make sure the porch slab, existing slab under already laid bricks and the new soon to be poured slab act as one as much as possible, and don’t settle unevenly, which would be a disaster. We’ll see.

Did you know that running a hammer drill at awkward angles to put in some rebar connectors is really tiring and hard on your arms? Who’da thunk it?

E. I’m just not a very good consumer of pop culture. I watch a piece of gorgeously pure pop nonsense, and am I taken out of the mood by preposterous fantasy fights and explosions? By tech that hardly even rises to handwavium status? By people routinely surviving falls, punches and explosions that are fatal times 10? Nope, that’s what you sign up for, as long as it’s cool. But Guardians of the Galaxy II, (review here) hardly alone in this, assumes people’s psyches are a hundred times more resilient as their bodies, so that no amount of abuse delivered over any amount of time does any really serious damage – well, you lost me.

It’s like arguing that things would have been all right if only someone had given Pol Pot a hug; that Che was just misunderstood; that Mao had a few issues a little family therapy could have solved.

The backstories of Nebula and Gamora are that, as little girls, they watched their parents murdered by Thanos, who then modified and trained them to be killing machines and set them to fighting each other every day. So they don’t get along. Now, after spending years as killing machines – after having killed many people, one presumes – Gamora just wakes up one day and turns on her fake father Thanos and becomes almost normal, while Nebula still has a few anger issues. But, when the time comes, these two hug each other and make up, and it’s all good.

See? Parenting, a stable home, consistent love – none of these are needed to be a good person! You just are! And no amount of neglect, abuse bordering on torture, or use as a tool by those who should love you can change that! Or, in the case of Thanos and the hundreds of Ravagers Yondu killed during his escape, you’re not a good person, and are therefore acceptable cannon fodder one needn’t trouble one’s conscience over murdering. No reason, just the way it is.

I’d love to believe that the writers were trying to emphasize the sacred primacy of human free will and just kind of over did it. But I can’t – in this world, today, the wreckage of families, the human debris of unrepentant and frankly unconscious egomania  has created hordes of Gamoras and Nebulas – and Peter Quills, Yondus, Rockets, and Mantises – who dream of saving the galaxy of their own families, or harden themselves to believe that they don’t need them.

It’s also telling that Drax the Destroyer is the one character who, in his digressions, mentions a father and a mother fondly, a wife and daughter with affection – and he’s the comic relief, and a bloodthirsty madman.

In general, however, GG II is scary. Psychologically, its target audience are people who, in their suffering, would really like to blow things up and kill people. I say this not from some lofty perch – I, too, sometimes think of things in my life that make me want to just beat the hell out of people, and I take vicarious thrill in watching comic book characters act that fantasy out. But at least I know that’s wrong.

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy II

Brief status: I’m done with Star Trek and Star Wars. Probably done with Avengers, Thor, Iron Man and whatever other Marvel properties I’ve never heard of that they’re making movies out of. Haven’t seen a Bond movie in decades. I was done with Harry Potter & Pirates of the Caribbean after a couple movies. We shall not speak of the abomination that is the Jackson Hobbit.

Now, a really good trailer and especially really good reviews and word of mouth might move me – but I doubt it.

I don’t like to be talked down to, I don’t feel loyalty to a franchise, I don’t like seeing a beloved book bloated and mauled for a buck.

But mostly, I don’t like being bored.  I like being entertained. Movies are entertainment. Since I read a lot of history, I don’t find slaughter, mayhem and misery entertaining. I’ll go read about communists if I for any reason need a dose of that.

So: went to see Guardians of the Galaxy II with the family, for the simple reason that I found the first movie quite entertaining. Mindless fun, but pretty to look at, witty in places and well-paced. So, I gave II a shot.

Image result for guardians of the galaxy 2It was good. Not great, not perfect, but I didn’t get the urge to walk out at any point, which has happened a lot with movies recently. So, yea, good.

GG II somewhat avoided the main issue with sequels, which is the gravitational pull of BIGGER. While one might imagine that, having saved the galaxy, they’d next need to save the universe, or at least a couple galaxies. But no, they merely save the same galaxy again.

Instead, they went bigger on the emotional stakes, in all sorts of surprising, twisty ways.




Unlike many sequels, most egregiously in the execrable Pirates of the Caribbean follow-ons, the main focus, the main thing made bigger, is the relationships between the characters. Between the usual ridiculous yet entertaining cartoon action sequences, which were kicked up a little, we get all sorts of moments where the characters come into emotional conflict, ratchet it up, and resolve them to a greater or lesser degree. The script is meant to be tear-jerking at many points – a pretty major departure from the usual tragic backstory/cartoon validation-revenge sort of plot characteristic of just about all comic book movies.  We’re supposed to feel sorry for Yondu – and it works. We’re supposed to buy Yondu and Rocket bonding and heroically willing to sacrifice themselves for the team – and we buy it. The sister issues set up in GG I between Gamora and Nebula need to get worked out satisfactorily – and, again, it works.

Thus, when the final boss is battled, all these emotional traps are sprung, so that we’re cheering and gripping the seat arms, wanting things to work out.  Yondu’s heroic death was a surprising and surprisingly effective resolution.

The effects were as dazzling as we’ve come to take for granted. The pacing was pretty solid, after the opening sequence, which frankly dragged a bit. And the conclusion was suitably epic and satisfying.

Now onto the less than good, starting with a relatively minor complaint. I was reminded during the movie of a story told of Groucho Marx. The Marx Brothers would take their shows on the road prior to filming. As old school vaudevillians, they wanted to work out the timing and test the material. Groucho most often got the zingers and put-downs, and he was legendarily good at them. But, as a pro, he knew there was no substitute for delivering those lines in front of a live audience to see if they really worked.

Groucho also had a whole bag of tricks to get a laugh: the eyebrow raise, the funny walks, the incredulous looks. So, when testing material, he left those out. If the audience still laughed, he knew the material was good.

I wish somebody would have run the GG II script through the same process, chiefly to field-test the body and sex humor. With a few exceptions, it would not have made it. It got the sort of cheap laughs hammed up things tend to get, but left me wondering why it was there in the first place. The exceptions, of course, are the couple times Drax the Destroyer waxed poetical about sex in his faux-Shakespearean-ish language. That worked a couple times. In general, it just wasn’t fun enough to warrant the distraction. Having goofy characters deliver the lines tended to get laughs the material itself didn’t warrant.

The greatest issue isn’t a problem so much as a modern foundational myth. The plot hinges on Peter’s biological father abandoning him, finding him, explaining why he abandoned him, courting him – and then using him for evil. His father killed his mother after he begat a child on her, for his own completely selfish reasons.

Such a plot would have horrified the ancient Greeks, who were no softies. A god seduces and impregnates women solely to create little demigod Herculeses only so that he may use them to do his bidding, which is the destruction of the world. He kills off the mothers, and child after child who fails him.

Finally a human woman, who he later kills with a horrible illness, bears the son he wanted. But a highwayman, hired to retrieve this final useful son, betrays the god and hides him,  and makes him into a highwayman after his own heart. The son later escapes the highwayman, gathers a band of stalwart companions and, after many adventures, becomes a great hero by defeating yet another god.

After years of searching, the god finds the son, and whisks him and his stalwart companions away to his realm, where they discover the remains of all the previous children slaughtered by their own father. An epic battle ensues, during which the evil father-god is killed and the world saved, but only at the cost of the life of the highwayman who saved the son.

Now, that’s not a bad story, at least not when sanitized as myth. But putting it in this world, even by means of a comic book story, invites comparisons. This is not a unique horror, but a common occurrence, metaphorically speaking. It rings true not as a cathartic myth, but rather as something we see every day: men using women, discarding them, arranging for the deaths of offspring they don’t desire. Then, if any child is found useful, he is loved exactly insofar as he is useful.

The fantasy of millions of children today it some combination of finding their loving father, and killing the monster who abandoned them.  GG II does the trick by having Yondu turn out to be that loving father, albeit not the biological father, and sacrificing himself to save the son and kill the biological father. Also, the years of abuse and mistreatment of Peter by Yondu are explained away: Yondu was trying to save Peter the only way he knew how, and, besides, Yondu had a tragic backstory of his own.  That makes it all better.

I’m no comic book nerd, but no superhero I can think of came from a happy, intact family. GG II takes the concept down further: a Batman or a Spiderman may lose parents (or stand in parents in the case of the web slinger) tragically, but they were good parents it was a tragedy to lose. Star Lord finds a father it is a tragedy to find. Gamora and Nebula had their parents killed before their eyes by – their stepdad, who is a monster they now want to kill.

If only this were just make-believe. Every child of divorce I’ve ever known fits into at least one of these slots. That a plot built on such disastrous and tragic relationships seems instantly believable is a frightening thing.

I left the movie having thoughts that were not entertaining. This is not a good thing for a popcorn movie.



Movie Review: Zootopia

Just in time for you not to be able to catch it in the theaters. The book reviews are coming, I promise, but they take longer to write…

The temptation to view this piece of pretty fluff as just another harmless kiddie cartoon should be resisted. Maybe 90% of the messages in this movie is, in fact, harmless to good: we should all get along, do not judge people by appearances, dream big and work hard and your dreams can be yours, Mom and Dad are hopeless yahoos who just want to hold you back – the usual.  Well, that last one, a recurring theme in Disney flicks since whenever, is a little off, as is the idea that wherever you find yourself is WRONG – you must leave family and home to achieve what Destiny has in store for you. There’s even an extended scene in which Mom and Dad explain how dreams are OK, but one must settle – and, boy, how they’ve settled.

Judy, with her erudite and sophisticated parents

That Mom and Dad (still together, at least – I guess that’s part of the bumpkin vibe they’re selling) run a successful farm and raise a huge family is not viewed as having succeeded in any real sense, not like, say, running off to the big city to be a cop. Judy, out rabbit protagonist, has a little soliloquy in which she counts down all that’s sad about the room she’s renting in the Big City – greasy wall, lumpy bed, insane neighbors, etc. – and then says: “I love it!” But she’s not settling.

All this is, as mentioned above, pretty much standard Disney fare.(1) As such, I suppose it’s tolerable enough – if, for example, the charm and beauty of Snow White, an orphan living under a witch, or  Sleeping Beauty, where the only father figures are incompetent ninnies, can get you past those drawbacks (works for me) then the awesome visuals and often witty dialogue and characterizations could get you past the claptrap in Zootopia.

But then there’s this exchange between Judy and Benjamin, the cop at the front desk, an overweight big cat of some sort:

Judy: – Excuse me!

Benjamin: – Hmm?

J: Down here! – Hi.

B: – O… M… Goodness! They really did hire a bunny. Ho-whop! I gotta tell you,
you’re even cuter than I thought you’d be.

J: Ooh, ah, you probably didn’t know, but a bunny can call another bunny ‘cute’,
but when other animals do it, that’s a little…

B: Ohhh. I am so sorry! Me, Benjamin Clawhauser. The guy everyone thinks is just
a flabby donut-loving cop, stereotyping you.

J: – Oh.

B: – No, it’s okay.

So, Judy is breaking it to Benjamin: it’s not just a matter of a cute bunny being tired of being told she’s cute, it’s a SYSTEMIC problem, wherein it’s OK for any rabbit to tell any other rabbit she’s cute, but not OK for any non-rabbit to ever tell a rabbit she’s cute.

‘Cute’ is here being equated with the ‘N’ word. Right? Am I missing something? The trials of being a cute rabbit – not being taken seriously and being denied certain jobs(2) – are here being equated with being reminded you were considered and may still be considered subhuman.

Judy has removed the problem from just something that might (and no doubt does) change depending on the particular people involved – some rabbits may not mind being called cute! – to something that Society Must Deal With. We are to learn, it appears, that it’s not enough to simply tell someone you’d prefer not to be called ‘cute’, or, even better, that grownups suck it up rather than take offense when it can plausibly be assumed the other party meant no harm, but that the World must change to preserve ME from perceived microaggression. The excessive groveling apology from Benjamin, hammer-like, drives the point home.

To be fair, it is a fun little story, a who done it/mystery with any number of amusing characters and the fabulous artwork we’ve come to expect from modern CGI geniuses. At the time, all I did was figuratively roll my eyes and keep watching. I was often entertained, and our 12 year old seemed to like it.

But now, the next day, that jarring, stupid scene keeps leaping to mind.

  1. Which is why I love Mulan so much – actual heroic, loveable dad and a daughter who wants nothing more than to spare him, and then come back home. I cried at that scene – I’m a dad with daughters, after all. Point being, this sort of thing is very, very rare in Disney films.
  2. And for good reason: is she really bringing in a miscreant rhino or polar bear? If wolves are attacking you, you call for the cops and a rabbit shows up, are you going to be happy? Is justice going to be served? Or will it be more like this?

Review (second viewing): Star Wars: TFA

Why can’t we all just get along?

The family caught this flick again last night, and, upon a second viewing –

I like it even more.

This time, I watched with the Social Justice Warrior/Reactionary conflicts in mind, and discovered a great big ‘eh’. The movie is neither some sort of blanket endorsement for radical feminism nor an Affirmative Action set piece. As it totally appropriate in any good story and totally keeping with the vibe set in ANH with the Mos Eisley bar scene, race and ethnic background just don’t matter. Good guys and bad guys come in all shapes, sizes and colors – got it. Let’s get on with it.

Similarly, Rey has been praised to the heavens and mocked for being this female Jedi prototype who can whup full-grown human males despite giving up 50+ pounds of muscle. But in the actual movie, she never does that: her two most involved fight scenes involve a couple of thugs trying to steal BB-8 where she is armed with a fighting staff (which we see her carefully toting about in all earlier scenes) and her assailants aren’t really trying to get her, they’re trying to get the droid. A woman armed with a weapon against two humanoids who are not (or were not, at the start) focused on taking her down – yea? Then, later, in her light saber face-off with Ren, the movie goes out of its way to show us that he is seriously wounded, and is relying on the Force – so that, when Rey, also strong in the Force, fights him, it is not a battle of muscle primarily. It also bears noting that someone as skilled with a fighting staff as Rey might also have a good idea of what to do with a sword.

Much has been made about the hand-holding in the Finn/Rey escape from Jakku – he keeps trying to ‘save’ her, while she keeps protesting – and then they save *each other* in the Falcon. Note that Finn’s actions spring from complex emotions and a horrible backstory: Rey is the first human being ever to look at him as another human being, being a storm trooper doesn’t give one much opportunity to develop one’s interpersonal skills, and, as delightfully unlikely a warrior as Finn seems to be, he still thinks he’s the expert here, and should be doing the saving.

But what’s needed is street rat smarts, not he-man heroics – and Rey’s on her turf and has all the relevant smarts. So, while of course the big manly-man and little wispy woman aspect is not intended to be ignored, this ‘saving’ is more an example of how the whip-smart dame would figure something out ahead of the gumshoe, not any sort of statement that Finn is, metaphorically, a bicycle. In fact, in the end, the two of them are falling all over themselves about what a cool escape they made, and gushing with praise of the other – complementarity? (1)

When Rey figures out how to disengage the safety on her blaster, and then nails the first storm trooper she shoots at at 50 paces, she looks appropriately surprised (2). How she instantly became Annie Oakley could have used some more support, but at least they show that she, like us in the audience, is amazed she can hit anything at all. My son, who is much more into this sort of thing, was willing to buy that she is a crack shot, but unwilling to buy that she could be a crack shot with such wobbly shooting form. I only note that few if any shoot-em’-up movies could survive that level of criticism.

I liked Poe and Maz more this time around. Poe struck me as a cardboard pretty-boy hero character the first time, but after a second viewing he seems to have at least the promise of some depth; Maz was pretty good – the tough part is to make the wizened sage role something other than a stereotype, and she pulled it off, sort of.

Finally, I left the first viewing less than happy with the bit characters, thinking that too many had been shoe-horned in with too little screen time to be anything other than props. Not so much on second viewing. C3PO  was annoying without being charming, and would not have been missed except, of course, he would have been. Other than that, Phasma and Hux are – OK. We’ll just have to see how they are used going forward.

I have mixed feelings about taking Star Wars as the defining myth of 2nd half of the 20th century or giving it some other equally exalted position in the world of ideas. It clearly has been enormously influential, but it has competition – on the light side (so to speak) are Tolkien and Lewis and even Miller in Canticle for Leibowitz; on the dark side is a mountain of nihilistic crap, lead perhaps by The Matrix (a movie I love but the series ends up as the worst sort of intellectual garbage). So I can see paying special attention to how the ongoing series tries to shape people’s ideas about the world. The solution is not going to be arguments, but rather promoting healthier mythologies.

  1. Women and pilots/men as gunners thing is straight outta Starship Troopers.
  2. One thing that bothered me more this time than the first time: we are both supposed to recognize Storm Troopers as real people through Finn, AND accept that they get gunned down in their thousands and tens of thousands without a moment of remorse or second thought of any kind. Well, which is it?

Movie Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Pretty much spoiler-free, maybe a couple minor things. But c’mon, if you’re reading this, it very likely you’ve seen it already.

Nutshell: A good, fun movie, well worth the $8 and the couple hours of your time. If you are expecting another episode in the Star Wars universe, like we all hoped for in the prequels and were crushingly disappointed, then you’ll be very happy. I’m going to see it at least once more before it leaves the theaters, and pick it up on DVD first chance I get.

Like many people, I have seen the films from the original trilogy about 100 times each. I’m a little rusty now, but there were times when I could recite the dialogue – all of it – from memory. So, yea, I’m a fan. Take that into consideration.

First, let’s recap the many things they got right. Star Wars gets its power from being a moral epic – it’s about people not only discovering who they are, but accepting the adventure being who they are presents to them. This moral character – the sense 0f *obligation* felt by the heroes – is what makes Star Wars more than just a bunch of spacemen blowing stuff up (or milling around discussing politics, or whatever they were doing in the prequels).  The successes of the characters are moral victories, their falls moral falls. This depth turns their successes and failures into triumphs and tragedies. We have to know they could fail; we have to believe that others (Vader, Ren) have failed when presented with similar challenges. That’s why it’s key that Rey, Finn and even Han don’t want to follow the path laid out for them. That they do follow it – with their character flaws intact – is how what might otherwise be a parade of CGI explosions becomes epic.

The makers of this movie clearly understand this, and the other things about the original trilogy that people loved: the flawed and funny characters whose self-knowledge unfolds with the action, their love and willingness to sacrifice for each other, the witty banter, a clearly laid out idea of right and wrong, the sense of epic adventure, the huge scale – all contribute to the deep emotional gratification we all felt with the first trilogy. In this regard, the Force has indeed awakened – we find characters to love, both new and old, appropriately awe-inspiring visuals, good and stylistically consistent dialogue, epic fights, heroism, escapes – great fun.

We also do *not* have goofy animals introduced as comic relief, annoying characters dredged up from some unholy abyss in Lucas’s reptilian mind, nor lines about how much our hero hates sand. No trade routes or commercial treaties are discussed. Hairstyles and clothing are confined to the limits of earthly physics. Continue reading “Movie Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

The Peanuts Movie

(A review in which I run completely off the rails. You’ve been warned.)

Last night, found myself in a family crowd containing three young children at a brother-in-law’s house. So we decided to go see the Peanuts Movie.

The creators – a couple of Charles Schultz’s kids, by the look of it – wisely went to the well: the movie featured plenty of Snoopy and the Red Baron, Charlie Brown trying to fly a kite and play baseball, school, and the Little Red-Headed Girl. Where it departs from canon is telling: there’s a sweet as opposed to bittersweet ending, where Charlie Brown gets to unambiguously succeed.

The kids loved it – it is a sweet movie. I liked most of the Red Baron stuff – as a kid, when I saw it for the first time on TV in the 60’s, I don’t think I’d ever laughed harder. Some of the Snoopy-in-love stuff seemed a bit shoe-horned into the story, but it was OK. The not-so-subtle mockery of school that occasionally peeked through in the strips was all but absent – too bad.

On a technical level, it was pretty movie to see, but the conflict arising by trying to preserve the simple pencil-drawing of the characters while sticking them into a lush CGI landscape wasn’t really resolved satisfactorily. Weird little bits like what to do with the little curl of hair on the back of Charlie Brown’s head didn’t work, and were distracting. All in all, the old TV movies captured the mood better, sticking with artwork that would have easily worked as comic strips.

Sadly, the soundtrack used only a few brief snippets of Vince Guaraldi’s wonderful music written for the the early TV movies. The story goes that the producer of the first TV special was looking for someone to do the score, and heard Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio, and the rest is history. Any excuse to use Guaraldi’s Peanuts music is a good one, so I feel a little cheated.

I wonder if people remember how sadistically cruel the strip and even the TV movies are? Here for example is the first strip, from 1950:

Hate him, a smiling little kid. No reason. Over time, it is established that Charlie Brown is incompetent and depressed – what could be more fun and funny than relentlessly mocking and excluding such a kid? At least, that seems to be the seed of the strip’s success.

I’m not a comics expert by any stretch, but I have long noticed the difference in tone between popular strips and cartoons from the 50’s and earlier and those of the 70’s and later, with a weird transition period between. In early Warner Brothers cartoons, for example, Bugs needs no reason to torment and humiliate Elmer Fudd, who had not yet become the murderous yet infantile character he later became in the 60s. Nope, Elmer could just be trying to camp or enjoy nature somehow, and Bugs was free to go at ’em. He needed no more justification than Lucy and the Peanuts kids need to hate Charlie Brown.

By the 60’s at some point, Elmer Fudd was typically trying to ‘kill the wabbit’, so that Bug’s torment of him was fully justified – a sort of Greedo shot first foreshadowing. Fudd was just getting his richly-deserved comeuppance. Similarly, from an emotional perspective at least, the sadistic treatment of Charlie Brown got toned down – he did have some friends, and his intransigent enemy Lucy was portrayed more as a kid with her own problems. Kids didn’t say they hated him as much. Even the name calling got toned down a bit. He’s still a blockhead from time to time – still pretty cruel – but that’s about it. But most important, the kids tormenting him, at least in the shows I saw, never got a commensurate comeuppance. Today, we’d all but expect Charlie Brown to kill himself or snap and go on a shooting rampage – Lucy never pays a price in the ballpark of that kind of damage. But, hey, there a plenty of the TV movies I’ve never seen

As I was talking about the movie with my wife, she pointed out that Peanuts was created by Charlie Schultz, so Charlie Brown should be understood as his alter ego – that he’s writing from inside the picked on, depressed kid, who is, after all, the character we are supposed to most identify with. Are we similarly meant to identify, not with Bugs Bunny, but with Elmer Fudd?

I think we are, after a fashion. In the 40’s and 50’s, when those cartoons and early strips were coming out, parents still told their kids that life isn’t fair. and no one could make it fair. A little boy and girl needed to get past the unfairness, do what they needed to do, and maybe, if they were blessed, life could be good. Not necessarily more fair, but good. So seeing Elmer suffer all those completely unfair indignities and seeing Bugs get no justice for having inflicted them was hilarious – because the people watching the cartoon did not expect fairness, and poor Elmer was getting dumped on in the most excruciating unfair manner possible – by a smirking joker he hadn’t even wronged!

People could identify with Elmer and the injustices he endured, and laugh at them as at themselves and their lots in life, even if Bugs escaped Scot-free. Similarly, the manifest injustice of Charlie Brown’s treatment was just a hyperbolic statement of the injustice any man might be called on to endure.

Once the 60’s ponderously whiffled into view, the emphasis switched from doing what is right in an unfair world to making the world fair – from working on what we, ourselves, can control as individuals to the advent of a universal fix only History or the Dialectic or the actions of a vanguard could make stick. As individuals, this means moving away from the idea of the noble failure, that life is unfair, I did my best, and that’s all anyone can do. After all, the old thinking goes, the *good* things in my life are also unfair – I didn’t pick my family or nation of birth, nor my sex, nor my talents. My job is to honor the good gifts and do good, not to wish that they had been otherwise.

In the new world, fairness matters supremely. Just doing good with what you’ve got is naive at best, and on the wrong side of History at worst. The emphasis switches from identifying with the undeserved suffering of Elmer Fudd and Charlie Brown to insisting that justice gets done. Finally, in the new Peanuts Movie (See? I eventually brought ‘er back around!) we get justice and fairness. Charlie Brown is a hero and gets the girl! It’s completely fair!

And more of a fantasy than Wiley E. Coyote’s repeated survival.

5 Observations of the Modern World

  1. I don’t think any readers of this blog would not soon see that I read a lot of books by people I vehemently disagree with – for starters, Hegel, Fichte, Luther spring to mind. Marx, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Kant, Descartes – the list goes on and on. Whether I’ve heard from somewhere or other that I should or should not like what they say figures very little into my decision to read them. Yet there seem to be people who think that reading somebody with the goal of becoming conversant in their ideas is, somehow, granting approval to those authors and ideas. Huh?
  2. Thus, once a while back when I defended in some combox somewhere the radical idea that it was OK to *read* Heidegger, (1) I got called a Nazi. The distinction I tried to make – that  reading Heidegger didn’t mean you agreed with him, but that there was great virtue in knowing exactly what your opponent is talking about – seems to have been completely incomprehensible to my accusers. So I let it drop – life is too short for that level of discussion.
  3. In a similar vein, I’ve long said that if one is in fact interested in finding out about cultures very different from our own (what I imagine ‘multiculturalism’ would mean if it meant anything other than ‘the stick I’m beating you with at the moment’), then one would read the ancient Greeks and Israelites – now, there are two very different cultures, both from us and from each other, separated by both time and space. The wildest Brazilian tribesmen or most mysterious oriental kingdom could hardly be more different from us than the worlds of Homer and Moses. Yet, I gather that’s not what those in favor of multiculturalism mean?Red & Blue Pill
  4. In the middle of the chain of links of our lives, I found myself in the dark wood of Mencius Moldbug. Now, I’ve read only a few dozen pages of his and may or may not go back for more, and so far have come across nothing all that outrageous, but I gather he is double plus ungood. I of course don’t care, and will take his actual positions, whenever he chooses to reveal them, on a case by case basis. So far, he has asserted that Chomsky is just the Blue Pill soaked in red dye #3 – which cracked me up. He also notes that Moderns do not read old dead guys, in fact make it a point of pride that all they know about the past is the-predigested tidbits spoon-fed to them, and yet are full of opinions and outrage. Duh. No wonder they need safe spaces – it’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door…. He most controversially asserts that the constellation of theory and power most clearly seen in the iceberg tip of Harvard is, by any useful political definition, a religion, and an established state religion at that. Won’t get any argument from me.
  5. Finally, The Martian is a really good movie. You should go see it. F-bombs that, for once, do not seem gratuitous – I myself might let one fly if I were to find myself in the situations portrayed in the movie. Other than that, good clean fun and good hard science! What a combo!
  1. Not that I, myself, have any inclination to read any Heidegger. The time may come, but the tiny bit I’ve tried makes Hegel read like Hemingway. I sort of figure the damage was done before Heidegger came along – by his time, philosophy had been removed to such esoteric heights that normal people began treating philosophy like a cage of vindictive monkeys: keep your distance, or you’ll get poo on you. I’d rather read the arsonists who set fire to the building than the people trying to create edifices out of ashes.

Age of Ultron: Recap of Criticisms

In this post, I opine that Age of Ultron, unlike the rest of the Marvel Universe movies, is morally bad. Most of the people who commented on my humble review disputed this. After careful consideration – I hope you’re sitting down – it’s possible I’m the wrongest wronger who ever wronged a wrong. The issues hinges, I think, on whether Stark, Banner and Thor were in their right minds when Thor allowed Stark and Banner to play with Loki’s scepter. Although I didn’t pick this up at the time (and I don’t intend to watch this one again) the Scarlet Witch’s mind-fritz of the team during the initial scenes was intended to establish that they were ‘compromised’ (a recurring theme among the Avengers) in their efforts to create Ultron. If so, then Stark, Banner and Thor are not responsible for the death and destruction it caused, but Hydra (again!) takes all the blame.

The problem with this view is that Stark would not have been able to keep his hands off the scepter in any event, and that his dream of Ultron seems not to have been the result of the having his mind messed with. The responsibility then falls back to Thor, who could reasonable be expected to have some serious doubts about letting Stark out of his sight with *anything* that came from Asgard. They can play with the hammer – it seems to have adequate fail-safes against puny humans – but everything we’ve seen so far shows that nothing good comes from humans messing with Asgard-tech, especially Tony.

Within the Marvel Universe, with its rules about how superheroes act and their responsibilities to us mere mortals, does it work for Thor to let Stark play with the scepter? Or does the resulting *predictable* body count of innocents break the spell? It did for me. I can see why, on the ‘their minds were clouded’ premise, another man might disagree, and might enjoy this movie.

Another Egomaniacal Mad Scientist who destroys a planet. It’s the tentacles which make it so that he has to die at the end of the cartoon.

Lots of great comments, but here I’ll just look at two which seem to capture the major objections.

I think Stark and Banner tinkering with Loki’s scepter is reckless, given that they *know* it was the weapon of a bad guy – Loki – who used it to do Bad Things, and that it is based on technology that makes Stark’s weapons look like pop guns.  The gist of my complaint:

Predictably, the scepter doesn’t want to be used by puny humans, but instead, disassembles Jarvis and reinterprets the ‘get powerful and save humanity’ goal as ‘get powerful and save humanity by exterminating it’. Perfectly logical conclusion based on utilitarian ethics – human suffering is reduced to zero once all people are dead. Scepter-tech + Jarvis + Stark & Banner’s input = Ultron.

All hell breaks loose. Jarvis appears dead, and Ultron has infected and taken over the internet and almost all computer systems on earth. It makes an army of puppet Ultrons to serve the cannon-fodder role so essential to this sort of thing.

So far, so good-ish. We’re set up for a rollicking smash ’em up good time. Except –

One of the unwritten rules of mindless fun movies is that, if innocent people are to die, the bad guys do the killing. The good guys do the saving. Right? The Empire blows up Alderaan, the rebels blow up enemy ships and shoot storm troopers, and save planets. If the rebels started blowing up planets full of innocent people, we’d quickly loose sympathy for them.

Ultron does the actual murdering, sure, but is not this a case of (Thor) handing a loaded machine gun to (Stark) a chimpanzee? Is not the man who does so responsible for the damage the chimp causes?

To rephrase the point: even within a comic book universe, morality is the same (1). In fact, that they take place in a traditional moral universe is why comic book movies are so popular – evil is punished, virtue is rewarded, suffering has a point, redemption is always possible.

Thor, knowing Tony as he does, nonetheless lets him have a crack at the scepter. Tony and Bruce, knowing what they do about the power of the scepter, nonetheless not only tinker with it but try to bend its power to their wills. So far, it’s standard comic book fare.

Predictably, things go horribly wrong – not just predictably from our somewhat omniscient audience viewpoint, but predictably *from within the story itself*. And that’s the rub: Hitler’s parents had no reason to believe little Adolf would go bad (and having a baby is not exactly tampering with the Powers of the Universe); the genetic engineers who tinkered with the spiders (in the first Toby McGuire Spiderman) had no reason to suspect that a spider bite could have such effect. BUT: Stark and Banner would have had to have been stupid, crazy or full of hubris NOT to know that using the scepter in any way whatsoever was very, very, as in threat to the planet level, dangerous.

But it still could have worked. In my opinion, Ultron crosses that moral line by the massive body count it racks up. It’s that whole one death a tragedy, 1,000,000 a statistic thing. Ultron’s casual murder of thousands of people makes the expected reflexive act of forgiveness of Stark, Banner and Thor on the part of the audience too much for me. That nobody flinches says as much or more about the audience than about the writers.

We’re used to gratuitous violence in our popcorn movies. What makes the Marvel universe so, well, marvelous is that justice is meted out – the bad guys get nuked, Loki goes off in chains, Hydra is slaughtered in a hundred different ways, and so on. Here? Well, Ultron does get mushed. But it’s not so clear the moral responsibility stops with it.

As pure entertainment, I would probably been cool with this movie had they just toned down the murder. I didn’t like it much in the other movies, either(2), but at least those responsible got theirs in the end. On to the comments:

The best counterpoint was offered by Stephen J.:

Moreover, insofar as Ultron’s emergent personality takes any notes from Tony, it’s from the distorted state of mind in which Tony’s operating following Wanda Maximoff’s mind-warp upon him.

Taking this observation back a step, that’s enough to excuse Tony – he wasn’t in his right mind. Are we willing to extend this excuse to Thor and Bruce as well? If so, I’ll take it all back. My wife’s observation is that, in making Ultron, Tony was giving in to the temptation to despair – that his (understandable) fear of Thanos lead him to take steps that were not really justifiable – just as SHEILD’s attempts to use the Fancy Blue Cube were shown to be ultimately misguided and corrupting. That he was under the influence of the Scarlet Witch at the time is very much mitigating.

We forgive them because, while their actions were reckless, their minds were clouded and their intentions were good. A friend of ours commented that the whole Scarlet Witch mind-warp really made no difference – Tony was going to do it anyway, given everything we know about him. That sounds right to me, and may be why I overlooked the mind-fritz originally.

John C. Wright perhaps puts this in the context of history, tradition and the requirements of this particular art:

This has been the basic message of all science fiction stories from since the days of Mary Shelly.

It is hardly morally bankrupt to pen a tale warning people that good intentions are not enough, and to warn people that those who exchange freedom for security end up with neither, and that pride goeth before a fall.

Beside, that is the origin story of Ultron in the comic books (except it was Ant Man, not Iron Man, who made Ultron).

So, no. With all due respect, you are absolutely, positively, and dead wrong. Science fiction stories about man playing God and having his creations turn on him are as morally straight and upright as the Boy Scouts, and just as old, tried and true.

To this I only say: so long as the perps don’t walk, I’m down with that. The tradition as I see it is that the people playing God get their comeuppance in the end, not march off into the sunset.

1. I’ve got this draft essay about how, even in speculative fiction, the two things that don’t survive much speculation are metaphysics (the rules under which a human mind interacts with reality) and morality (what gives a story meaning, if any). It’s like the story, I think it’s in Aquinas, where a man is sure that he is looking at a round tower in the distance, only to discover it is square once he gets closer – if the tower is nothing outside his perceptions, he can’t be surprised or corrected at all. Stories play with this idea, where as they go along the characters discover what is *really* going on. Push this too far, so that the readers are left not knowing what is going on, and it’s hard if not impossible to write a good story.

Similarly, you can have cold blooded murder, suicide, gratuitous violence all around – but without some appeal to right and wrong, again, it’s next to impossible to pull off the story. If we really, truly cannot believe why the characters do what they do, or if their ‘why’ is sufficiently repulsive but presented as matter-of-fact, who would want to read the story? Blindsight, I’m thinking of you.

They explode, if you want them to! Nothing problematic about that!

2. Saw an otherwise completely unmemorable movie as a kid that evidently has still left me traumatized, some sort of spy/anti-hero movie. In it, the protagonist knock a lady unconscious, and throws her in the trunk of a car. Moments later, the car rolls into the water and sinks while the protagonist escapes. I just remember being shocked – what? You’re just going to let her drown? Perhaps in the context of the movie, it made sense that she had to die – I was a kid, I was not picking up on any more sophisticated plot points. Perhaps I’m hypersensitive to this sort of casual murder – ruins it for me.

Another story: our eldest son Andrew, when he was very little, like 3 or 4, wanted to play the old computer game Lemmings. When he got to the first level where you need to sacrifice some lemmings in order to complete the level, he burst into tears. It just wasn’t OK with him to kill some so that you would win the game. I think he was onto something, that my casual acceptance of the need to kill the little worker lemmings in their green overalls by the dozens says something unattractive about me.

In the Queue for This Week…

1. Several people made good comments on my review of Age of Ultron. If I get a minute, I’ll do a bit of a round-up and response.

2. Book reviews of John C. Wright’s Architect of Aeons and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter InternationalMonster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1) (which, by no coincidence, is currently available as a free download on Amazon at the link above – the publisher seems to think that if you read one for free, you may read them all for money. He may be right.)  These are very different books, it would have gone without saying had it not just said it, but are both excellent after the manner of their kind. Mind-bending universe- and eon-spanning epic that pays homage to Jack Vance and Cordwainer Smith (and probably a lot of other guys I’m not smart enough to catch) spread out over thousands of pages in 6 novels? Wright’s got you covered. A fast-paced love story between a beefy ex-accountant with a thing for guns and Marilyn Monster, if Marilyn were dark haired and killed vampires for a living, where hardly a page goes by without being spattered with the ichor of eldritch fiends of one flavor or another as a result of the fairly indiscriminate use of military-grade ordinance and heavy weapons? Correia’s your man.

Hey, what’s not to like?

One the update front, we’re heading into graduation season at the Casa de Moore, with lovely daughter #2 getting the boot this year; end of year parties and shows (a tradition at Diablo Valley School); the confirmation of the our young German student (he asked me to be his sponsor – I’m flattered). We’ll be setting up for the graduation and end of the year party at DVS, as well as throwing a graduation party, and, a week later, a confirmation party, at our house – and then seeing our newly-confirmed off on a jaunt around the country with his mom before he heads off to college, too. Aaaand, we just finished the annual school camping trip and the Concord KidFest, in which the school has had a booth for pushing 20 years.


Also, after a hiatus of a couple months, back to writing in my copious spare time. Weee! Got a couple stories almost done – just like you heard months back. No, really! This time, for sure!

Finally, if you have any prayers to fire up, my oldest sister has been back and forth from the hospital to a nursing home for the past several months, and recently had a seizure of some sort that left her delusional for several days, and she’s still not totally lucid. It’s a combination of a lifetime of rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and a series of strokes (and all the drugs they give you with all those things.) She’s 75, alienated from the Church, and probably won’t last a year (but of course nobody’s saying – just my gut feeling). So prayers that she will be comforted and reconciled to Jesus in his Church would be appreciated.

On a similar note, my boss’s youngest daughter, age 24 and married one year, has leukemia. Prayers for her and her family would also be appreciated.

Sorry for the downers – weirdly, things are actually picking up, emotion and energy-wise. Next couple posts will be fun, I promise.

Review: Age of Ultron

Age of UltronSaw this over the weekend. Nutshell: For the first time in the Marvel universe of blockbuster movies, I was unable to turn my brain off enough to really enjoy this one. At first, I wanted to say that, if you *could* turn your brain off sufficiently, it was a workable action and special effects packed popcorn muncher, but, upon reflection – nobody should turn their brains off that much. I’m not talking about the highly improbable to ludicrously impossible ‘science’. That’s fine and expected. Contrary to the Marvel brand, at least as far as the movies go, Age of Ultron exists in a terrible, loathsome moral universe.

Some spoilers ahead.

The story picks up where previous Marvel epics left off, particularly Winter Soldier: the team is attempting to recover Loki’s scepter from some Hydra bad guys. Once they get it, via the daring-do and gee-wiz we buy the ticket for, we get a nice series of Avenger bonding and character-development moments in the luxurious Avenger Tower, which is apparently the rebuilt and rebranded Stark tower in Manhattan.

So far, so good.  Continue reading “Review: Age of Ultron”