Monday, August 31, 2015

Democracy Down in the Trump Dumps

Paul Krugman is unsurprised by the thunderous calliope of the Donald Trump carnival parade marching toward D.C. So am I.
"Both the Republican establishment and the punditocracy have been shocked by Mr. Trump’s continuing appeal to the party’s base,” Krugman wrote. “He’s a ludicrous figure, they complain. His policy proposals, such as they are, are unworkable, and anyway, don’t people realize the difference between actual leadership and being a star on reality TV? But Mr. Trump isn’t alone in talking policy nonsense. Trying to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants would be a logistical and human rights nightmare, but might conceivably be possible; doubling America’s rate of economic growth, as Jeb Bush has promised he would, is a complete fantasy. And while Mr. Trump doesn’t exude presidential dignity, he’s seeking the nomination of a party that once considered it a great idea to put George W. Bush in a flight suit and have him land on an aircraft carrier.”
Recall, by the way, that over on “liberal” MSNBC, Chris Matthews declared himself to be vastly impressed by Bush’s manliness during that transparent and stupid stunt. Matthews virtually swooned. The American corporate news media should never pretend to be surprised by garish, vulgar and empty-headed claptrap. That, today, is its stock in trade.
Nor can the Republicans pretend to be shocked by Trump, who represents the full fruit-bat fruition of the ugly and underhanded tactics they have been pursuing sotto voce for at least 40 years.
Donald Trump reveals the 21st century GOP for what it is: a gibbering subway flasher yanking his raincoat open over and over again. But all the other GOP candidates have the same equipment, and intend to use it to do the same thing to us. All the Republican presidential candidates are dangerous fascist authoritarians who are hostile to democracy, peace and equality under the law. The other candidates just know enough not to say so out loud, and that’s what makes them “too subtle” for the knuckle-dragging GOP base they have created. Trump has out-bigoted and out-stupided them.
Fox News spent months lionizing that jackass Trump in order to whip up that very atavistic audience, but it was evident throughout the GOP debate they controlled that Fox’s new orders were to destroy Trump because he's now in the way of whichever nominee Fox boss Roger Ailes intends to crown. A news channel would never do that, but a propaganda channel would.
Fox News “journalist” Megyn Kelly was tapped to knife Trump, but the weapon turned in her hand. She threw facts at Trump, forgetting that the Fox News audience has been trained not merely to ignore facts, but to sneer at them.
Trump struck back, and Kelly — a practiced propagandist on a channel that sells sexism likes soup — somehow forgot that the GOP base loves to see uppity women slapped silly. Trump’s poll numbers went up, and Kelly went on a surprise “vacation.” Trump continues to knock Kelly around, joking about her period, and his numbers continue to rise.
Trump, who avoided being drafted into the Vietnam War, actually sneered at the military service of Sen. John McCain, who broke both arms and a leg as he ejected when his Navy dive bomber was shot down, putting him in a Hanoi POW camp. And the GOP base, which makes a show of worshipping U.S. troops, promptly turned on McCain and backed Trump. In fact, what Tea Baggers really worship are displays of ruthless authoritarianism. The more unjust, the better.
Republicans must always have a bête noire, a childish, fairy-tale monster they can point to. When you're actually working to undermine the interests of the poor and middle class, it's all you can do — shriek and say, "Look out, forget about all that, the socialist, terrorist, humanist boogeyman is coming to get you and your kids!"
Welfare recipients, for example, make delightful targets for GOP venom. They are denied a voice, so they can’t fight back. And with the Republicans’ billionaire puppet masters busy wiping the American middle class out of existence, they desperately need to find somebody else to frame. Poor people make the perfect diversion to keep ordinary Americans distracted until their crimes are a fait accompli.
Trump’s selection for useful bête noire is a particularly good one, the illegal alien. Actually, Republicans just LOVE illegal aliens when you change the spelling to “cheap labor.” But Trump knows the tastes of his xenophobic audience, and has even managed to spend much of his strange political career trying to paint the very president of the United States as an alien.
To court favor with the base, Trump has threatened the constitutional principle of citizenship by birthright. Actually, Trump would love to kill citizenship period. Contemporary Republicans loathe the very idea of citizenship and equality under the rule of law. They want only gullible "consumers" and cowering serfs who know how to take a beating and beg for more. Fascism is capitalism gone crazy, with rich people permitted to effectively buy the government, put themselves above the law and wield totalitarian power against the majority of citizens, whom they reduce to serfdom. That’s the danger that’s now within sight in America. Again, that's what all GOP presidential candidates represent. It's fun seeing the GOP writhing in its self-inflicted agony, even though Trump's candidacy will probably amount to nothing but a sideshow freak tent at the GOP circus.  I still think Trump is a passing phase, a narcissistic clown not really interested in being president. But what’s frightening is that he's also the 21st century Republican Party reality laid bare, in all its unhinged ugliness.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

You Loser You

"Hey loser. You need this deodorant, that car, those shoes, these friends, this fabric softener and that video game to be respected. Does all that pressure make you nervous? Then drink this booze and take these drugs." This photo reminded my friend Jim Jenkins of a Don Draper quote from 'Mad Men:' "People want to be told what to do so badly that they'll listen to anyone."

Friday, August 21, 2015

Odin Likes a Tidy Midgard

Crows and ravens, said to be as smart as 7-year-olds, are the birds I love best.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Superhero as Professional

I’m interested in the evolution of a nonexistent but familiar profession, that of the superhero.
I’d define a professional superhero as some markedly superior individual who works, almost always without pay, to fight crime and/or rescue people. The constant danger combined with a distinct absence of material rewards may explain why this profession exists only in fiction.
And superheroics is a profession, and not a mere occupation, because — like physicians, lawyers, teachers, military officers, engineers and journalists — superheroes must be trusted to exercise special skills and abilities on behalf of people who don’t possess or even necessarily understand them. Superheroes must adhere to an ethical code to make sure that they do not exploit the people they’re supposed to help. That’s what puts the “hero” in “superhero.”
Which raises another issue. The term “hero,” like the terms “villain” and “monster,” is not a job description. It’s always the expression of the viewpoint of an outsider. Heroes and villains and monsters never call themselves that. However, the popular term “superhero” will have to serve here.
So, where did this odd calling come from? I’d say it evolved from heroic popular fictional protagonists like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Tarzan and the Saint.
The first two are sort of limited-purpose superheroes, using their abilities and disguises to rescue victims of the French revolution and to oppose dictatorship in old California, respectively.
The atavistic Tarzan largely wanted to be left alone, but his taste for adventure and inherent sense of justice continually put him up against some bad hats.
A similar enthusiasm for justice and adventure prompted Simon Templar, the Saint, to waggishly hunt and dispose of criminals.
The first three heroes were wealthy and needed no compensation, and Templar lived well as the “Robin Hood of Modern Crime” by relieving crooks of their ill-gotten gains. Early in his career, the Saint also functioned anonymously, using a haloed stick-figure drawing as his symbol, but his “secret identity” became known fairly quickly.
The first true superheroes probably appeared in the Depression-era American pulp magazines, the earliest being the Shadow in 1931. The magazine character was the personification of a spooky radio narrator who laughed and talked about knowing the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. He’d debuted on July 31, 1930, on Street and Smith’s radio program Detective Story Hour.
The character’s owners decided to exploit the nebulous Shadow’s popularity by devoting a magazine to him, hiring writer Walter Gibson. Gibson developed the Shadow as a mysterioso cloaked avenger with a network of agents and an array of skills and secret identities. He had independent means and no real private life, only disguises that he employed in his constant battle against crime.
The immediate success of that magazine prompted Street and Smith to launch another superhero pulp in 1933. Doc Savage was raised from birth as part of a scientific experiment in creating an altruistic superman, and  was endowed with genius, great strength and unswerving moral purpose. Training himself in the knowledge of a dozen scientific and medical professions, Clark Savage Jr. also designed an arsenal of super-scientific gadgets that he concealed in a utility vest, traveled in various customed design vehicles and maintained two spectacular headquarters — his offices in the Empire State Building and his arctic retreat in the Fortress of Solitude.
Doc’s impressive upbringing apparently took its toll on him, though. Even to readers in the 1930s, he must have seemed emotionally repressed.
Also in 1933, a Detroit radio station introduced the western superhero the Lone Ranger, who abandoned his civilian identity and dedicated his life to masked crimefighting because he was the sole survivor of an ambushed band of Texas Rangers.
In 1936, a newspaper comic strip presented a superhero who’d inherited his profession. Lee Falk’s seemingly immortal Phantom was actually the jungle-dwelling descendant of a family that had dedicated itself to fighting piracy.
Then, in 1938, came the comic book hero Superman, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Certain real professions seem to lend themselves to superheroics, and one of them is journalism, Superman’s choice. Spider-Man, the Green Hornet, the Question and Captain Marvel were also journalists. Journalism offers the champion a chance to learn of emergencies quickly and a professional ethic that permits him to involve himself in crusades to help the public and expose wrongdoings.
The professional superhero bears a certain secularized resemblance to religious figures. That long-standing familiarity may be one reason why the mass audience has always found this absurd profession to be somewhat plausible. The Saint was preceded by literal saints, as well as the Buddhist bodhisattvas, enlightened beings with special powers motivated by compassion to aid humanity.
Superbly talented and morally focused detective protagonists like Sherlock Holmes are the next best things to superheroes, even though they sometimes charge fees for their work. Some of them, like the wealthy peer Lord Peter Wimsey, don’t even need to bother with that. So Batman and Miss Marple turn out to have a great deal more in common than one might think.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Stylish Tricks Offer a Wink from UNCLE

Bart and I just saw The Man from UNCLE, an early-1960s period spy thriller confection  full of stylish Guy Ritchie tricks. Interestingly, his use of action is often offhanded, offbeat and even off screen, and it works. I like the way the director deftly deflected the violence, instead of making the obvious choice of Kingsman-like hyper-violence.
The visuals and music are excellent, although I wish they’d used the iconic Goldsmith TV theme (referenced only for two seconds on a car radio).
Armie Hammer is charmingly stoic as KGB agent Illya Kuryakin. Henry Cavill tries hard as CIA agent Napoleon Solo, but Robert Vaughn, the original Solo, believes in his own self-assured suavity, and Cavill does not believe in his.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Long Road to "Driving Miss Daisy"

By Dan Hagen
How appropriate that the play Driving Miss Daisy should cap the 2015 summer season here, because the venerable Little Theatre is the venue that integrated the town of Sullivan.
“The first African American actor Guy Little hired was an Equity actor from New York, Michael Wright, who, ironically, was from Shelbyville, a somewhat larger town 20 miles southeast of Sullivan,” wrote Beth Conway Shervey in her book, The Little Theatre on the Square: Four Decades of a Small-Town Equity Theatre.
“Collective memories of people in Sullivan in 1961 recalled either a sunset law on the books or an unspoken rule that no black man would be caught in Sullivan after the sun went down, much less spend the night,” Shervey wrote. Wright did, of course, staying with a local couple. “Rumor also had select area residents threatening to blow up the theatre or close it down for good. Not only did nothing like this happen, it never rose above gossip.”
Jibby Florini — the owner of Jibby’s restaurant, once the “Sardi’s of Sullivan” — headed off any racial confrontations. “(Wright) came in here, and I had to stop a couple guys from going over and challenging him,” Florini said. “They wanted him thrown out and so on.”
Little went right on hiring not only black actors but black stars to appear at the Little Theatre — Butterfly McQueen, who appeared in 1967’s Showboat, and Isabel Sanford, who appeared in 1977’s And Mama Makes Three.
“Since the demise of the star system, the theatre has continued to hire African American Equity actors, apprentices and techies,” Shervey noted.
And that tradition continues today with Little Theatre newcomer Bryant Bentley, an Equity actor playing chauffeur Hoke Colburn to Little Theatre veteran Glory Kissel’s Miss Daisy Werthan.
The 1987 play, directed by David Caldwell, is the first and most famous of Alfred Uhry’s Atlanta Trilogy, dramas focused on white Jewish Georgia citizens in the early 20th century.
After a fast-paced season of flashing feet in five musicals, it’s a nice change of pace to relax with a straightforward drama. This is solid material, both comedic and poignant, and the three Equity actors in the show know how to mine it for full value.
Most people are familiar with the story from the movie version starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. In 1948, a 72-year-old wealthy Jewish widow — a woman who thinks she isn’t racially prejudiced, but is — can no longer drive but wants no help from the black chauffeur her son has hired for her.
The play covers their personal history from 1948 to 1973, with national history as a backdrop, while the help she didn’t want becomes the friend she can’t do without.
Kudos to scene designer Ryan Zirngibl for the subtly evocative set — two backdrops framing large open oval entranceways, one of faded flowered wallpaper peppered by picture frames, the next suggesting lace or a gazebo. And more plaudits for sound designer Ryan Hopper. The incidental violin and cello music that links the swiftly shifting scenes was especially effective. Timmy Valentine’s costumes were varied and tasteful, managing the tricky task of being eye-catching without being distracting.
Jesse Sharp — superb as Gomez in The Addams Family — has the fairly thankless expository role of Daisy’s son Boolie, and seems to play it as gratefully as any leading part in a musical. Sharp is funny and always genuine here, so much so that we may even feel a little sorry for him. His mother loves him, but treats him in an offhanded manner that would hurt a less devoted child.
Because Daisy’s best friend, finally, is not her son but Hoke. Bentley plays the role with less deliberate slowness than Freeman, but a comparable likeability. Watch him mime starting a fine automobile, and you’ll recognize the enjoyment lighting his eyes.
This is that rare dramatic story in which all three principals are quite decent people, brought into conflict only through cultural misunderstanding and personal blindness.
Miss Daisy mistakenly accuses Hoke of the theft of a can of salmon and won’t allow him to stop the car to answer the call of nature until he finally stands up for himself. She perhaps hurts him most when she refuses to recognize the connection between the bombing of her Jewish temple and the lynchings Hoke has seen. The attackers are always the same people, as Hoke tells her.
He sees through her, tolerates her and cares for her until she can allow herself enough perspective to see him as a man and her best friend. The best parts of the show spotlight their teasing companionship.
“Did you have the air-conditioning checked?” Miss Daisy nags. “I told you to have the air-conditioning checked.”
“I had the air-conditioning checked,” Hoke replies. “I don't know what for. You never allow me to turn it on.”
“Hush up!”
The much-loved Kissel gets a star turn here, conveying utter vulnerability as she sits frightened in that car amid the night sounds, waiting for Hoke to return. Kissel ages into fragile, halting senility before your eyes, then bounds on stage for her curtain call. Acting, baby!
Incidental intelligence: “Driving Miss Daisy” runs through Aug. 23, and has lighting design by Chris Benefiel and production stage management by Jeremy Phillips. For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.

Ravens Remember Their Friends

Love the corvidae

The Daredevil TV Show That Almost Existed

Did we have a Daredevil TV show 40 years ago (almost)?
In 1971, Marvel’s blind superhero Daredevil arguably became, in TV writer Stirling Silliphant’s hands, a private detective named Longstreet, played by James Franciscus.
Silliphant had consulted with Stan Lee about a Daredevil TV series before he created Mike Longstreet. The character’s heightened remaining senses could pick up clues others missed, and he could fight with spectacular martial arts abilities taught to him by Bruce Lee.
Author's note, January 2020: I stand corrected on this fine — but apparently untrue— theory, as reader John Grace was kind enough to point out to me. Just shows you how even a seemingly plausible theory can be in error.

John Grace wrote, "Silliphant wrote the Daredevil pilot around 1983 as part of a three-pilot script contract deal he had with ABC. One of the filmed broadcast pilots was Travis McGee, starring Sam Elliot, which didn't make it to series. Longstreet was based on Baynard Kendrick's Duncan Maclain novels, two of which were adapted into movies in the 1940s. The first movie began with Maclain getting a judo lesson at his home, similar to Bruce teaching Longstreet in the first episode. While Daredevil did not inspire Longstreet, the mag's artists seemed to start drawing Murdock looking like James Franciscus. There's some info about Silliphant's Daredevil script in Nat Segaloff's biography The Fingers of God."

Monday, August 10, 2015

George Santayana and Coca-Cola

“Even what is best in American life is compulsory — the idealism, the zeal, the beautiful happy unison of its great moments,” wrote philosopher George Santayana. “You must wave, you must cheer, you must push with the irresistible crowd; otherwise you will feel like a traitor, a soulless outcast, a deserted ship high and dry on the shore.”
Santayana, a Spainard who spent four decades in the U.S. as a student and Harvard philosophy professor, must have been quite the wet blanket at those Harvard-Yale games.
“America is all one prairie, swept by a universal tornado,” he wrote. “Although it has always thought itself in an eminent sense the land of freedom, even when it was covered with slaves, there is no country in which people live under more overpowering compulsions.”
In fact, Santayana retained enough cool-eyed mid-Atlantic detachment to see that Americans’ feverish celebration of individualism was often just a nervous disguise, a thin veneer covering their practice of strict conformity — and hiding it even from themselves. These “go-it-alone do-it-yourselfers” prostrate themselves before dogma and banners, U.S. or Confederate or both. American corporations loathe individualism and personal freedom, but love to peddle the illusion of both. The result is that Americans think individualism means finding your first name on a Coca-Cola bottle. Despite his wariness about the madness of mobs, Santayana DID cheer at Harvard-Yale games — but not without a cooler, broader understand of what was going on. “That Harvard should beat Yale at football is most gratifying,” he wrote to his friend George Sturgis. “I used to care immensely about this, and one of my projected books is largely based on that experience. It seems to me to explain all politics and wars."

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

'Daredevil:' The Best Superhero TV Show, Period

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Daredevil is the best superhero show that has ever appeared on television. In its first season, the Netflix series striking a perfect balance between the fantastic and the credible without ever losing sight of the adventure and the moral struggle that is central to the superhero genre. The show keeps Daredevil (Charlie Cox as blind attorney Matt Murdock) in fairly constant and convincing peril, something that rarely happens in stories where your hero is a superman.

Sidekicks and Secret Identities

Doc Savage and the five useful goofballs he called his aides

The superman, as an ongoing protagonist in a periodical publication, presents certain problems.
If he can’t easily overwhelm most obstacles and overawe most adversaries, he isn’t much of a superman. And if he can, you haven’t got much of a plot.
Among the first writers to face this dilemma was Walter Gibson (“Maxwell Grant”), who in 1931 was assigned the task of turning a disembodied radio narrator into the crime-busting Shadow. Gibson knew that a man of mystery worth his salt couldn’t appear on every page, but must strike decisively with breathtaking speed at key dramatic moments. So Gibson let the Shadow’s agents, people like Harry Vincent, handle the more mundane aspects of the plot, while getting themselves into fixes only the Shadow could fix. A little later, Gibson had the Shadow muscle the real Lamont Cranston into exile so he could adopt that millionaire’s identity as a disguise.
The considerable success of the approach prompted Gibson’s publisher, Street & Smith, to launch a second superhero title in 1933. Clark Savage Jr., trained from birth to human perfection in physical prowess, scientific knowledge and moral awareness, had five goofball aides to carry the load. It was almost as if Einstein had chosen the Three Stooges as lab assistants, but Doc Savage was also immensely popular.
In 1938, the focus of superhero adventure shifted to the comic books. Superman and Batman, like the earlier Zorro, solved the problem by maintaining secret identities as ordinary people. The secret IDs gave them freedom of movement, yes, but they also imposed limitations that could be useful in developing suspenseful plots. In their civilian guises, they could not afford to be seen to act with extraordinary power and ability.
Beyond the comics and the pulps, the problem applies generally to any continuing character who approaches superman status. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes needed his narrator Dr. John Watson to serve as a stand-in for the audience, as mystified as we are by Holmes’ lightning-like thought processes. And Rex Stout solved the problem handily by making his superman lazily obese. Wisecracking Archie Goodwin had to do the legwork for Nero Wolfe, and is an example of that rare instance in which a well-drawn sidekick becomes nearly as popular as the hero himself.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Mesmerized by Many Monsters

As a small boy, I was fascinated by weird and immensely powerful beings. Mesmerized, really. Superheroes were my primary interest, but monsters are of course just on the other side of that coin, so I loved them as well.
And in 1962, a discerning child could find no better monster value for his weekly allowance of a quarter than the first Strange Tales Annual. In the company that would soon be called Marvel Comics, Stan Lee had plenty of stories to choose from, having already published a good five years’ worth of giant monster material in various titles.
Smoke monsters, shadow monsters, stone monsters, lizard monsters, insect monsters, supernatural monsters, alien monsters — the annual had them all in tales to astonish by Lee, Kirby, Ditko, Everett and Heck.
Just as the sexual revolution was unleashing shagging upon the world, we kids had “I Unleashed SHAGG Upon the World!” (reprinted from Journey Into Mystery #59).

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Audio Novel 11: Bond's Triumph and Tragedy

While the first James Bond film, Dr. No, was being filmed in Jamaica, Ian Fleming was nearby in his house Goldeneye writing the 10th Bond novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
In spite of — or because of — Fleming’s popular success, some condescending critics took shots at him. Although he laughed the remarks off, they must have smarted, and Fleming continually tried to develop his protagonist and refine his writing. In OHMSS, for the first time, Bond reflects on childhood memories and not only finds a woman he can love, but marries her.
Preceded by Thunderball and followed by You Only Live Twice, this middle novel in the Blofeld trilogy would establish Ernst Stavro Blofeld, SPECTRE’s founder, as Bond’s archenemy.
Published in April 1963, the book sold more than 60,000 copies in the first month. The 1969 film version stayed relatively true to the novel, featured one of John Barry’s best scores, and has subsequently acquired a reputation as one of the best Bond movies.