Sunday, May 25, 2014

Today in Cable News Lies and Venality

CNN’s CEO says the channel can’t find a way to cover global climate change, apparently because the destruction of human civilization isn’t “news” on cable TV, and a Fox News "expert" says the California campus mass shooting was caused by “homosexual impulses,” apparently because all bad events can be blamed on Fox News' approved list of enemies, particularly when they have nothing to do with it.

Someone Has Escaped the Digital Hive Mind

Welcome to the world of the half-aware, the people neither here nor there.

Friday, May 23, 2014

X-Men: Past and Future Make a Perfect Present

Back from “X-Men: Days of Future Past” with Matt Mattingly and Bart Rettberg. Bryan Singer’s film will join that handful of near-perfect superhero movies that includes “The Avengers,” “Iron Man,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Batman Begins.”
The movie has many mutants, giant robots, time travel — all that great comic-book stuff embedded in a melodrama that works because it spotlights characters with whom you can empathize, particularly the always charming and accessible Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, who leads the audience through the preposterous proceedings like a friendly guide. It’s peppered with well-placed humor and lighter touches, but marches at a perfect pace toward a satisfying, suspenseful dual climax of superheroic Sturm und Drang.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

All the Director's Men

Katherine Graham, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Howard Simons and Ben Bradlee in the Watergate era.
Dustin Hoffman, Redford, Robards, Jack Warden and Balsam
in the 1976 Alan J. Pakula film "All the President's Men"

You’d think that having the great actor Jason Robards portray you in a film would be an unalloyed pleasure, but Ben Bradlee said the experience cost him a long-time friend.
In the 1976 Robert Redford production All the President’s Men, the story of the Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal that ultimately forced President Nixon to resign, Robards played Bradlee, then executive editor of the newspaper.
Bradlee said he doubted that the film should be made at all, but — realizing that it would be produced with or without him — he cooperated, thinking it “made more sense to try to influence it factually.”
Bradlee teased the publisher, Katherine Graham, about who would play her in the film. “Names like Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal were tossed out — by us — to make her feel good,” Bradlee said. “And names like Edna May Oliver or Marie Dressler, if it felt like teasing time. And then her role was dropped from the final script, half to her relief.”
However, managing editor Howard Simons wasn’t amused. Portrayed by character actor Martin Balsam, Simons “…felt that he and his role in Watergate were fatally shortchanged in the script (and that I and my role were exaggerated), and he never really got over his resentment,” Bradlee said.
“Our relationship, which had been such a joyous one, so congenial and close we could literally finish each other’s sentences, was never the same after the film.”
Bradlee couldn’t know, at the time, how the semi-fictionalized film would overshadow the real history of the Post’s reporting. “No idea, for instance, that all that generations to come would ever know about Watergate would be in that 147-minute film,” he said.
Still, Bradlee had hoped that the movie would reflect well on American journalism, and that it did. Today the film retains a 98 “fresh” percent rating from the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator website, which calls it, “A taut, solidly acted paean to the benefits of a free press and the dangers of unchecked power, made all the more effective by its origins in real-life events.”
Source: “A Good Life” by Ben Bradlee

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Fighting for Truth, Justice and the Middle Way

Ask any kid in the 1940s where you might go to acquire super powers, and he could have told you.
Oh, sure, he would have known that Krypton had already exploded, and that Billy Batson’s subway station had been abandoned by the wizard Shazam, and that Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island had an undisclosed location. But he could also have pointed you to a spot on the classroom globe that regularly exported super-powered champions of justice — just there, in Asia, northeast of the Himalayas.
The Green Lama in the pulp magazines.
On radio, Lamont Cranston had returned from Tibet with the power of invisibility as The Shadow, and Frank Chandler had come home with an array of paranormal abilities as Chandu the Magician. In comic books, childhood training by a secret Tibetan sect had produced Amazing-Man, a being to rival Superman.
And in 1940, millionaire Jethro Dumont had come back from Tibet as a Buddhist monk, only to discover that crime was so rampant he must assume the identity of the crusading Green Lama.
Although little-known now, the Green Lama was actually a fairly important American superhero in his day, a crossover character in three media — pulp magazines, comic books and dramatic radio.
His comic book adventures benefited from great art by the much-admired Mac Raboy (The Complete Green Lama: Featuring the Art of Mac Raboy is available in two hardcover volumes from Dark Horse Archives).
The Green Lama in 1940s comic books.
The pulp version of the character, which appeared first, didn’t boast such extravagant super powers. But he could, by ingesting “radioactive salts,” stun criminals with a gentle touch. Seems more fitting for a Buddhist hero than a teeth-rattling haymaker, somehow.
“When he gets in trouble, he chants Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ, and the power of that mantra resonates with a monastery in Tibet and transforms him into an unstoppable crime-fighting force,” a writer called Geoff noted in an essay about the Green Lama comics. “Needless to say, this is a fairly unprecedented use of the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion.
“On the upside, they did get the Tibetan spelling of the mantra right, which is no small feat for 1945. Besides his unconventional use of the maṇi, he has a Tibetan servant named Tsarong who calls him 'tulku' and he even works the term 'lama' into his crime-fighting name. Surely this must be the most Tibet-centric superhero ever.”
“Other than its Tibet connection, perhaps the most striking thing about this comic series is the explicit anti-racism stance it takes. The Green Lama was published from 1944-1946, and in one issue, the Green Lama picks up a racist soldier and carries him to Nazi Germany, where he sees the impact of racism and learns the error of his ways. In another issue, the Green Lama travels to Texas in order to expose and shame an anti-Semite.”
The Green Lama was created in 1939 by pulp writer Kendell Foster Crossen as an assignment from Munsey Publications. His mission was to duplicate the success of the Shadow, by then a decade-old radio and pulp magazine character. Crossen was inspired by a Columbia University student, Theos Casimir Barnard, who had journeyed to Tibet to investigate the mysterious business of “Lamaism.”
“I was trying to pick a name somewhat like in sound to Lamont Cranston,” Crossen recalled.  “You know what I mean, Lamont-Dumont. It was as close as I dared get to Lamont Cranston. A book had just been published about an American who had gone to Tibet and studied and had become a lama, the only white person who ever had at that time. The result was the Green Lama, which the company liked.”
Originally, the crime fighter was to be named the Gray Lama, but the company found that color too drab to capture the eye on a newsstand. The Saffron Lama might have been more appropriate, but was undoubtedly out of the question.
Sales of Double Detective Magazine jumped for the issue when the Green Lama appeared. Unlike other superhero creators, Crossen wisely retained the rights to his character. When the pulp magazine ran its course in 1943, Crossen spring-boarded the character as a rival for the million-sellers Captain Marvel and Superman.
In 1949, as the comic book superheroes were fading, their wartime popularity spent, Crossen sold the character to CBS as a radio series, and the Green Lama, a/k/a the Man of Strength, almost made into onto early television. He’s still regularly revived in comics and pulp stories.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Dr. Banner and Mr. Hulk

The first time I saw the Hulk was in his second issue (July 1962). Now I'm struck by the paranoia of the Ditko/Kirby art.
The earliest iteration of the Incredible Hulk is fascinating, perhaps even unsettling.
I was introduced to the Hulk in the second issue, and was intrigued at this double-identity character who was secretly a monster, not a hero. Even at age 8, I thought it highly unlikely that someone who had no control over his transformations could maintain a secret identity, but Marvel ran with that implausible premise for several years anyway.
Bruce Banner: Cold and arrogant, with a dangerous mind
Rereading the early issues as an adult, I kept being nagged by the idea that physicist Bruce Banner is the real monster.
Banner is introduced as the creator of the “G-bomb,” a WMD that makes the H-bomb seem trivial. A moment’s thought will tell you that this “most awesome weapon ever created by man” had the power to kill far more people than the Hulk ever could, and even end human civilization. This is clearly not an issue for Banner, whose coldness and arrogance is underlined on the first pages of the story.
I’m fairly certain that the idea of presenting Banner as the real monster here was not the conscious intention of Stan Lee or Jack Kirby. They were, after all, steeped in the cold warrior traditions of the 1950s, and would never question any American weapon. However, on an unconscious level, they were telling a different tale.
Banner’s exposure to the gamma bomb, while he’s in the process of saving the life of a teenage hot-rodder, turns him into the Hulk every evening as the sun goes down. But what if what the radiation has unleashed is the literal manifestation of Banner’s own self-loathing, of his consciously repressed knowledge that his own work is a menace to human civilization?
The fact that the “weakling” Banner is far more powerful than the Hulk is underlined in the second issue, when Earth is invaded by Toad Men. The Hulk proves fairly ineffectual against them, and even plots to use one of their spaceships to establish his own reign of terror against humanity. It is Banner who saves the day, creating an elaborately Kirbyesque “Gamma Gun” that hurls the whole invasion fleet back into space.
Banner's gamma bomb could end human civilization
Banner doesn't need the Hulk's help to repel an invading horde from outer space.

Facts Have a Way of Fighting Back at Fox

This is the kind of thing that necessarily happens on a “news channel” that has contempt for facts and accuracy. I mean that seriously. There is a direct connect between Fox News’ propaganda and its frequent and monumental errors. After all, who gives a shit about the facts, right?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Job for Atomic Anthropomorphic Animals

Atomic Mouse had a healthy decade-long run, from 1953 to 1963.
During the 1950s, Charlton Comics’ bench was surprisingly deep in nuclear anthropomorphic super animals.
They published Atomic Mouse, Atomic Rabbit, Atomic Bunny (not necessarily the same character as Atomic Rabbit) and Atom the Cat — all black-costumed, caped, flying super-strong heroes (although the cat was, true to his species, pretty blasé about heroics).
This radioactive menagerie illustrated two things — that the ubiquitous word “atomic” was a synonym for “super” in the fifties, and that fly-by-night Charlton preferred to “borrow” established features (in this case, that 1940s animated amalgam of Superman and Mickey Mouse, Mighty Mouse).
Atomic Rabbit was one of three super-bunnies hopping around Charlton.
But the Atomic Mouse feature, thanks to the talented artist Al Fago, was, for a time, actually and accidentally superior to the licensed comic book adventures of Mighty Mouse.
Charlton’s foray into atomic animalism had a more complicated origin, too. When Fawcett’s Captain Marvel — sued by Superman and plagued by poor sales — finally gave up the ghost in 1953, the popular character was resurrected in England as “Marvelman” (now “Miracleman”).
During the 1940s, Fawcett had cleverly exploited the popularity of their lead character by creating a
Tom the Cat became Atom the Cat
Captain Marvel Jr., a Mary Marvel, three rather pointless Lieutenants Marvel, the powerless comic relief Uncle Marvel and, in 1942, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny.
Charlton acquired the rights to a few of Fawcett’s defunct characters, like Nyoka the Jungle Girl, and “Captain Marvel Bunny” was among those. Charlton subtracted the lightning bolt from Marvel Bunny’s suit, changing the character’s name to Magic Bunny and his magic word to “Alizam!” He evolved into “Happy the Magic Bunny,” becoming Charlton’s THIRD super rabbit.
An abundance of bunnies.
Happy the Magic Bunny outlived his inspiration, Fawcett's immensely popular Captain Marvel. Here's a 1957 story.

Friday, May 16, 2014

For Those Who Fear the Facts

"Nobody uses the word lie anymore,” producer Aaron Sorkin said. “Suddenly, everything is 'a difference of opinion.' I don't believe the truth always lies in the middle. I don't believe there are two sides to every argument. I think the facts are the center. And watching the news abandon the facts in favor of ‘fairness’ is what’s troubling to me.”
If lying about facts were a capital crime in journalism, the halls of Fox News would be festooned with funeral wreaths. Of course, the audience for Fox News doesn't want news, or even facts. They want only to be told that whatever ugly nonsense they and their dim-witted great-grandparents believed is true, and nothing else. Tea Baggers and their kin are accustomed to functioning without facts. When they are confronted by the evidence that they don't have any facts, they get that same look Wile E. Coyote has when he confidently steps off the cliff into thin air.
It is not facts that the American people lack today. They have them literally in the palm of their hand. It is critical thinking skills.
They’re also steeped in a corporate-dominated, religiously bamboozled culture that ignores both facts AND critical thought anytime they are inconvenient to the bottom line or the prevailing dogma.

Fox News: Your Channel for Brain Damage

Professional liars, like the “journalists” at Fox News, have the advantage of being able to deliver whatever nonsense their audience wants to hear. But they have the disadvantage of routinely contradicting themselves because they treat facts like toilet paper.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Go Go Godzilla

Godzilla fan art — the film aspires to a moodiness that rivals the original.

I have waited many years to hear the great actor David Strathairn say, "And where is Godzilla?"
The 2014 blockbuster spotlighting the giant radioactive lizard who was born the same year I was — 1954 — does about everything you can do dramatically within the very narrow range of a Godzilla movie. Director Gareth Edwards has brought visual poetry to a surprising amount of the film. And the destruction was both splashily spectacular and seen from a human's-eye view, which lent it a kind of awe sometimes.
Godzilla is kept offstage for much of the time, as befits his star status, so that the human story can carry the freight. And for once that human story isn’t merely an annoyance while we wait for the monster battles, thanks to actors like Strathairn and Bryan Cranston doing the heavy lifting.
Cranston’s emotional reality does a lot to ground the film right from the beginning. Strathairn brings his restraint and intelligence to the role of an admiral here, giving it authority without making it the usual blustering, he-doth-protest-too-much testosterone fest. The husband, wife and child at the “center” of the story are generic white bread bought at the discount store, but they don’t get in the way of anything.
The plot double-talk doesn’t bear too close an examination, and unfortunately the film’s most effective dramatic moment (which features Cranston) comes right at the beginning. But the plot gymnastics manage to make us sympathetic to Godzilla without impeding those metropolitan destructive capacities for which we love him.
“That HALO jump was beautifully shot,” my friend Matt Mattingly observed. “There was applause when SPOILER ... Godzilla breathed fire for the first time.”
One thing that might have made it better would have been to have Matthew Broderick casually incinerated in the blast, but you can’t have everything, I guess.

Let's Go No More a-Roving

There's only one thing that Karl Rove is interested it, and it isn't limited government or "traditional values" or any of the rest of that horseshit they force-feed the rubes. It is pure, unadulterated power. Fascist power, to be specific. Totalitarian power, if he can get it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Ding dong! Odin Calling!

Minding the Minor Mental Habits

Major outcomes can depend on our minor mental habits.
It took me a long time to realize that many of our everyday problems stem from the most fleeting thoughts, the smallest aversions — so habitual they are usually below the conscious level. But these mental shadows end up explaining a lot of our counterproductive behavior.
We have rarely paid attention to this in the West, but Buddhists have long recognized its importance.
“It all starts because you walk into a room, or someone does something, and you feel this tightening,” author and Buddhist nun Pema Chodron explains. “It’s triggering some kind of old habituated pattern. You’re not even thinking about it at all, but basically what’s happening is you don’t want to feel that. It’s some kind of really deep uneasiness. Your habituation is to start dissing them, basically, criticizing them ... how they don't do it right, and you get a kind of puffed-up satisfaction out of this. It makes you feel in control. It’s this short-term symptom relief. On the other hand, the more you do it you also begin to feel, simultaneously, like you’re poisoning yourself.”
She refers to this subtle, common mental aversion by the Tibetan word “shenpa.” It’s a source of procrastination, of emotional overreaction, of daily dissatisfaction.
“(T)here’s the tightening that happens involuntarily, then there’s the urge to move away from it in some habitual way,” Pema Chodron said. “Usually it’s accompanied by this bad feeling. In the West, it is very, very common at that point to turn it against yourself: something is wrong with me. Maybe it’s still non-verbal at this point, but it’s already pregnant with a kind of little gestalt, little drama.”
Perhaps the shenpa’s unspoken, unrecognized source is a vague memory of a co-worker’s insult or a childhood embarrassment, or it’s the urge for a cigarette, whatever. The original source may be trivial and insubstantial, but the effect can be powerful because the shenpa operates below our conscious radar, triggering behavior. Recognition can interrupt it, dissipate it.
“I just saw this cartoon of three fish swimming around a hook,” Pema Chodron said. “And one fish says to the other fish, ‘The secret is non-attachment.’ So that’s a shenpa cartoon: the secret is don’t bite that hook.”

Friday, May 9, 2014

Six Ways to Unite the Left and Right

The American left and right seemingly can’t agree on anything, largely because most of the right has turned objectively fascist. But here are six starting points of agreement that could prove disastrous for the plutocratic police state:
—  Cut Wall Street banks down to a size where they’re no longer too big to fail.
—  Resurrect Glass-Steagall, separating investment from commercial banking and thereby preventing companies from gambling with their depositors’ money.
—  End corporate welfare – including subsidies to big oil, big agribusiness, big pharma, Wall Street, and the Ex-Im Bank.
—  Stop the National Security Agency from spying on Americans.
—  Scale back American interventions overseas.
—  Oppose trade agreements crafted by big corporations.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Jaime Cullum: He's a Favorite of Mine

Click here to see and hear the British "Jazz Elf."

Death Race 2014

Smell the fresh pretzel bread. Watch the many, many rings of the circus.

“Near Calvin College an imprudent coed found herself too far from cover when the Racer suddenly came streaking down the campus. Frantically she sprinted for safety, but she didn’t have a chance with a driver like Willie behind the wheel. The razor-sharp horn on the right fender sliced through her spine so cleanly that the jar wasn’t even felt inside the car.
“Leaving town the Racer was in luck again. An elderly woman had left the sanctuary of her stone-walled garden to rescue a straying cat. She was so easy to hit that Willie felt a little cheated…”
“…And for some reason he kept remembering the belatedly pleading look in the old woman’s eyes as he struck her. Funny that should stay with him…”
The Racer (1956) by Ib Melchior

This short story, the inspiration for the 1975 Roger Corman film Death Race 2000, is one of those science fiction works that posits that the bored, amoral dwellers in the future will enjoy murder as a spectator sport. Like Rollerball, or The Tenth Victim, or Hunger Games.
Far-fetched, you say?
Let’s face it. In 1954, William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies shocked the reading public with its story of schoolboys devolving into murderous savages. Now, I suspect it would bore us. Not a high enough body count.
Combine the 21st century American factors of the ubiquitous cult of guns — now used to slaughter children daily in an epidemic to which Americans remain resolutely indifferent — and “reality” TV shows in which callousness and treachery are encouraged and richly rewarded.
Tell me what that equation adds up to.
Steadily worsening economic and environmental conditions make disaster commonplace, and numb the capacity for empathy. Assassins and prostitutes abound as popular culture role models. A man who stalks and guns down an unarmed teenage boy is not only acquitted, he is cheered. The United States blows wedding parties to bloody bits with flying robot bombs.
Look down that road as we race along. Can you see the finish line yet?