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Hey, Venus

I started to write this piece quite a while ago, but got distracted. I was reminded of it while chatting with a coworker who is a big time Star Wars and scifi fan.

Having gotten tired of insanely high cable tv bills, I cut back to internet-only several years ago. But I did have an apartment-style antenna, which pulls in broadcast stations like Comet TV for free. Comet shows all sorts of low-budget sci-fi, fantasy and horror films, many of which I have blogged about here already. A year or so ago, I happened across a 1960 spacefaring film called First Spaceship to Venus (FSTV).

FSTV’s plot was that an artifact found within an asteroid implied belligerent intentions on the part of intelligent beings on Venus. Earth’s scientists organize a truly international crew – African, American, Chinese, French, German, Indian, Japanese and Russian – to investigate. This diverse crew predated Uhura, Sulu and Chekov on Star Trek by five years. Unfortunately I fell asleep halfway through and woke up towards the end. But I was intrigued.

Some research revealed that the film’s original German title translated to The Silent Star, and was based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Astronauts, or Astronauci. Lem wrote on the other side of the iron curtain, which explains why I had never heard of him during my peak sci fi reading years. Lem is famous for Solaris, which spawned three movies, but many of his other works are still difficult to find translated from Polish to English.

I also found that the East German and Polish co-production of The Silent Star (SS) had been heavily edited for American audiences. Crew nationalities were changed and all references to the US atomic bombing of Japan had been removed. That sort of piqued my curiosity. Amazon was no help, but DEFA, an East German film club at U Mass Amherst, offered a DVD in the original German with English subtitles. https://ecommerce.umass.edu/defa/

I stayed awake this time, and found that SS was a very solid space opera with an antiwar, antinuke message. It wasn’t as flashy as Forbidden Planet, but comparable in quality to The Angry Red Planet.

Sometime later Comet showed Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, from 1968. Even the title sounded cheesy, but I watched it. Scenes of a serious space voyage to Venus were interspersed with scenes of Mamie van Doren and other pretty blonde women lounging on a seaside wearing tight white slacks and clamshells over their breasts. These native Venusians were supposedly mentally monitoring and challenging the male intruders, but they never actually came into contact with each other.

I had to look this one up, and found that one of Peter Bogdanovich’s first jobs was to remake the 1962 Soviet film, Planeta Bur, or Planet of Storms, into something they could show at American drive-in theatres. So Peter airbrushed out the Soviet logos, and inserted all the blondes. Amazon did have Planet of Storms, in Russian with English subtitles in a bundle with two other Soviet films, A Dream Come True and The Sky Calls. All of these arrived just in time for my Christmas vacation, so my wife got to watch them, too. Wasn’t she happy!

Planeta Bur was a very solid space flick, again, not too different in tone from The Angry Red Planet. It was interesting in that the crew’s robot saved crew member’s lives, but was ultimately unwilling to sacrifice itself to save them again. The Sky Calls was about a race between a government ship and a corporate ship to be the first to get to Mars. The corporates are in the lead, but falter, and the crew is saved when the cosmonauts do the right thing and rescue the corporates instead of going for the glory. 1963’s A Dream Come True (Mechte Navstrechu) involves cosmonauts going to rescue aliens from another system stranded on Mars.

At the time I would have seen these cosmonauts as the Enemy, but after all this time I could see that they mostly had the same hopes and dreams for technology and the future that we did in the US.

Tonto & Flike

I added the 1952 film, Umberto D, to my Youtube TV watch list months ago, and finally watched it last weekend, commercial-free thanks to TCM. The title character was a retired public servant trying to maintain a precarious life for himself and his little dog, Flike, as the lire in his fixed pension were rapidly devaluing. Afterwards I tweeted, “Boy, things haven’t changed much.”

The film is in Italian with subtitles, and I didn’t realize that neorealist director Vittorio de Sica regularly cast non-actors in all the roles until reading reviews. Reportedly de Sica searched for months to find just the right man to play the lead.

A few days later, TCM was showing 1973’s Harry and Tonto, which I had seen years ago. But this time, the opening scenes of an old man living with and talking to his cat, Tonto, couldn’t help but remind me of my own father who lived with and talked to his white cat, Mu. The cat lived a very long life, but passed away several years ago. My Dad followed him a year or so later.

Mazursky and Greenfeld wrote a fantastically touching road movie, but even though he was evicted from his apartment, retired teacher and widower Harry was wealthy and successful compared to Umberto. Even though 1973 was the beginning of a period of stagflation, Harry (Art Carney) had benefited enough from the post-FDR period of prosperity that he could travel across the country, buy a used car and eventually loan one thousand dollars to his son struggling in LA.

Yet, if they made a similar film today, I suspect it would play more like de Sica’s. Some old man, or woman, would have lost everything in the Great Recession, and would be fighting a losing battle against opioids and homelessness.

Bait

My wife’s grandson nailed it on Facebook last week. Someone was griping about Baby It’s Cold Outside, and he said that it was just bait. Meaning, it was trolls trying to get clicks and sew discord by attacking something people seem to like. Like Christmas, or Xmas, or people who write Xmas instead of Christmas. I have it on authority that religious students regularly abbreviate Christ as X, so I suppose it’s not that bad if I do it, too.

I’ve been going through the rounds of Xmas movies again this year to get myself in the mood. First I watched Love Actually. It has as tenuous a connection with Xmas as Die Hard, but both of them always make the lists of best Xmas flicks. I hadn’t seen LA in quite a few years, and I had read a critical review a few days before – actually a re-review by a critic who seemed perplexed that it had become a Xmas classic. The critic claimed that the falling in love in LA was way too simple, and didn’t show any of the work involved in relationships. I’ve been guilty of falling in love way too fast myself, but I still enjoyed the film. Even though I still adore Emma Thompson, I had a bit more sympathy for Alan Rickman as her husband tempted by provocative coworker Mia (Heike Makatsch). Not that it has ever happened to me, of course.

Then I found a DVD of Holiday Inn at Target. This bluray includes the original black and white version, a colorized version and a film of the 2017 Broadway version. Holiday Inn, which features all the major holidays, always makes the Xmas lists, too, but is always flagged for a blackface scene. Apparently most broadcasters, except Turner Classic Movies, cut that scene out, but it is kind of important to the plot.

Jim (Bing Crosby) wants to hide Linda (Marjorie Reynolds) from his amorous former partner Ted (Fred Astaire), so he resorts to blackface for the Lincoln’s Birthday show number. During Bing’s song, they briefly cut to Jim’s servant Mamie (Louise Beavers), singing to her two children about Lincoln freeing the darkies. And Linda appears dressed as a pickaninny. In 2000 Spike Lee took flak for a parody of the minstrel show and blackface in Bamboozled, but it wasn’t terribly surprising to someone who saw Amos n Andy on network TV in the 1960s to see them as part of a mainstream show.

What I found sad was that by Thanksgiving, when Linda had left Jim for a career in Hollywood, Mamie served the very lonely Jim a turkey while she and the kids ate in the kitchen. Wouldn’t a lonely man want any sort of company at his table on Thanksgiving? Not if it was black folk, no. Not in 1942, anyway.

Netflix still has White Christmas, which is often seen as a remake of Holiday Inn since they both feature Bing singing Irving Berlin’s song at an Inn in Connecticut. But Bing has a great singing partner in Rosemary Clooney, a great dancer in Vera-Ellen, and the versatile Danny Kaye to help move things along. Mamie was replaced by stalwart character actress Mary Wickes. My favorite number was Snow, but I had forgotten that I’d Rather See a Minstrel Show and Mister Bones is in White Christmas, too. The minstrel scene isn’t in blackface, but there is an interlocutor, and a bone man, and traditional minstrel costumes interpreted by the great Edith Head. Again, this was 1954, so seeing remnants of minstrelsy wasn’t that unusual. I’m not sure when I learned that Danny Kaye was actually born David Kaminsky. Irving Berlin was openly Jewish, but those who performed his music had to adopt anglo names.

I have to admit that I cried towards the end of the film. They were honoring old General Waverly played by Dean Jagger, and it just made me think of my father who passed away this year, and how I used to watch these movies with my whole family before everything became bait, and we all became divided.

The Creeping Known

Comet TV showed The Creeping Unknown a few weekends ago. I remembered this old black and white British sci-fi flick from when I was a kid, but had forgotten a few details. According to wikipedia, TCU was the American name of The Quatermass Xperiment, a 1955 film version of a popular 1953 BBC series called The Quatermass Experiment. Hammer Film Productions changed the title to emphasize its X-Certificate, which was not the American type X-rating but the old British Board of Film Censors’ X for too much sex, violence or coarse language. There is no sex or coarse language at all, and the violence is extremely tame by today’s standards, but after reading the script, the head of the board sent Hammer a letter advising that the film might be too disturbing for even an X.

Maybe they were reacting to one scene – I still remember being scared by it – in which the still human-looking Unknown comes upon a friendly young girl playing with her dolly. Turns out the young actress was Jane Asher, who nearly married Paul McCartney, but was lucky again. Other than that there is a bit of implied violence as two or three people and a lot of zoo animals are killed by the Unknown off camera.

People react emotionally to violence against children … sometimes. Mass shooters kill children and we hear, “thoughts and prayers.” US police shoot dark-skinned children and we hear, “well, all lives matter.” The US has been killing Middle Eastern men, women and children with drone strikes for decades, and we hear almost nothing. Israel has been killing Palestinian men, women and children for decades, and we hear that they were a threat. Saudis have been bombing Yemini men, women and children and we hear how great it is that Saudi women can drive cars now. But recently the resistance has been clutching their pearls over Trump’s executive order that immigrants be separated from their children. So we’ve seen wrenching images of children crying and kept in cages. And Rachel Maddow cried.

All of this is loathsome, as is Trump’s strategy to use the suffering of these children to make his immigration bill seem more palatable. But right wing Trumpists and left wing Sandernistas correctly point out that rough treatment of immigrants didn’t begin with Trump. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was created in 2003 following the Homeland Security Act of 2002. So George W Bush, Barack Obama and the current President have each had purview of the agency. Obama did not urge separation of children, but under his administration from 2009 to 2016, ICE deported a record 2.4 million immigrants, earning Obama the nickname “Deporter-In-Chief.”

The separated children issue appears to have been effective. Trump was forced to back down on his policy, or at least to appear to back down. And some photographer will win a prize for his photo of a weeping little girl. But I suspect that the Resistance is doing itself no good in the long run. They continue to search for some tangential issue to trip up Trump, instead of criticizing him as the useful idiot of the oligarchy. Because the resistance is also part of that oligarchy.

The Angry Blue Planet

My weekend morning ritual has been to watch reruns of Men Into Space (1959) at 7:30 AM on Comet TV. Although I was completely unaware of the show until a few years ago, I’m sure I would have loved it as a boy. Essentially the show presented space exploration as a serious military project with very little tolerance for any speculative elements and roughly zero dissenting social commentary. The technical aspects seemed real enough for the time, though the space suits are obviously not pressurized. The show revolved around Air Force Colonel Edward McCauley, who was Ward Cleaver in a uniform – an authoritarian, by-the-book officer that always turned out to be right about everything. When not traveling into space, the Colonel and his subordinate officers enjoyed cookouts with their wives and girlfriends, who were extraordinarily attractive despite wearing pointy bras and way too much makeup. On two occasions women astronauts made it into space, but the writers couldn’t let us forget just how different they were from men.

I watched The Angry Red Planet again last weekend, a well-meaning scifi flick also from 1959. My siblings and I watched this flick in the 1960s, and thought it exciting then. As an adult it is harder to ignore the flaws, but even though it relies on stock sets and characters that wouldn’t last a day under Col. McCauley, the special effects weren’t bad for the time, and the plot was straightforward. Basically, four Terrans travel to and land on Mars, where they are beset by bizarre local flora and fauna and are finally told to stay away by advanced inhabitants. Even with a doctoral degree, Iris Ryan didn’t fare much better than the women on Men Into Space. Colonel Tom could hardly stop hitting on “Irish” throughout the mission. Warrant Officer Sam is a fairly goofy sort who is in love with his ray gun, and Professor Gettell is one of those 60s scientists that apparently doesn’t specialize because he knows everything.

I also watched a recent apocalyptic scifi short called Rakka, starring Sigourney Weaver, which is available on youtube, and runs about twenty minutes. Rakka is set in 2020, and opens with narration by Weaver:

We were once mankind. We were humanity. And now, we’re no more than pests, vermin. They came here to exterminate us. They took our history and culture. They covered our landmarks in dying humanity. … They killed us in waves when they first arrived. They built these megastructures that spew methane. They’ve sewn their crops, snuffing out our plant life. Raising the global temperature, causing our cities to flood. They waged war on Earth. They set fire to our forests. It’s already hard to breathe, impossible to breathe if you are close to the stacks. … They hack into our psyche, into our minds, paralyzing us, taking control of our cerebrum and limbic systems, rendering us as slaves.

It occurred to me that much of this could have been a speech given by any of various indigenous peoples about more advanced conquerors. It could also be a speech about what the well-to-do are doing to the Earth right now.

 

Tranzit.ro has just posted two hour video of two short lectures and a panel discussion called Europe: Economic Crisis and Political Alternatives. I gather the lecture series took place at or near Petru Maior University in Romania.

As you watch the video, from left to right sitting at two flimsy tables are the moderator: Alex Cistelecan (Petru Maior University, CriticAtac)

Michael Roberts, a Marxist economist living in London, author of The Great Recession (2009) and The Long Depression (2016).

Mark Blyth, economics professor at Brown University and fellow at The Watson Institute, author of Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the 20th Century (2002) and Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (2015).

On your far right is another moderator: Cornel Ban of Boston University, author of How Global Neoliberalism Goes Local (2016).

The sound quality is uneven, and photographer spends a fair amount of time scanning the crowd instead of the screen, which is hard to see. But some Romanian girls are quite attractive.

Where is Europe going and what can be done about its economic malaise? The final instalment of our series of lectures ‘Culture and Politics of Crisis’ focuses on the current European political and economic deadlock. As such, it sets the stage for a dialogue between two of the most important political economists of our time: Mark Blyth and Michael Roberts. For Roberts, the European crisis is diagnosed from a Marxist perspective. For Blyth, the analysis is infused by heterodox Keynesian views. Consequently, the two scholars diverge both in terms of situating the main cause of crisis and the main solution to it: for Roberts the emphasis falls on the general fall of the rate of profit affecting capital in our time, with anti-capitalism as the solution. For Blyth the crisis is caused by a lack of demand and investment and the way out is a different kind of capitalism. Between these diverging diagnostics and challenging solutions affecting the global and continental predicament, the fate of the East of Europe will also come in the spotlight: what are the limits of the semi-peripheral condition of this region and what remedies does it permit – Lexit, national sovereignty, regionalism à la Visegrad? Is a reformed, more social and egalitarian EU possible? Or, if not, how – or even why? – should we stop its nationalist disintegration?

Forty Years Later

The movie Star Wars opened in theatres about forty years ago. It was later called A New Hope, but then it was just another summer movie. I have run across several articles proclaiming how great it was, and asking people to comment on how it changed their lives. It always reminds me of a girl.

That summer, I got a letter from my college roommate who had seen it already, and he said despite all the hype, it was actually pretty good scifi. Technology showed signs of wear and tear, and even had dust and dirt streaks. He recommended it.

I was working in Southern Virginia, moving from town to town managing a crew of other summer interns. We were all architecture or engineering majors who had gotten work with the Corps of Engineers. There were two groups, one was guys from Maryland (me) through Massachusetts. Another was guys from Virginia through Texas. I put in a few weeks with the Southern group, then took over the Northern group.

At the end of the summer, we all came together for a few weeks. Before that, the guy from Notre Dame, Larry, wanted to visit his friend in Augusta, Georgia over a long weekend. He couldn’t rack up that sort of mileage on his government car, but I was using my own car. Coincidentally, my college girlfriend was visiting my previous college roommate who was interning in that same city. She had only given me his phone number but not his address, and I thought I might be able to call them up when I got there.

So I agreed to drive us down there. Along the way I was surprised to discover he didn’t believe in evolution. It wasn’t a bad drive. His friend’s name was Leonard, and they knew each other from track team, both doing long distance running. He was an in-your-face extravert. “Two Words!” he shouted at Larry when we got there, “Two words and you’ve got it made here: All Hail!”

“All Hail?” I thought, but he was really saying, “Aw Hell!” in an exaggerated local accent. I told him I was there to try to find my girlfriend, and he asked, “Is this bad news?” Anyway I never connected with her, but we men had a good time, played some tennis, and drank some beer. Now, Leonard had a girlfriend, a buxom local gal, I forget her name, but she had a roommate, Anne, who was a visiting student from Belgium, who was the thin, pretty sort that I always notice. She spoke English but was generally quiet.

So the five of us went to see Star Wars. Somehow I ended up sitting next to Anne at the theatre, and was very conscious of being near a pretty girl who wasn’t my girlfriend. Star Wars, as you probably know, is a very American movie. Parts of the film echo both Western gunfight serials, and old WWII dogfight flicks. I laughed at the more obvious references, but Anne would just look at me with a puzzled expression. I don’t think she understood why a guy would laugh during a battle scene.

Afterwards we all went to a big old bar with loud music. Larry and Leonard were reliving old times. I tried to talk to Anne, but it was tough sledding with the noise and language barrier. By that time I had completely forgotten about the movie.

Now I can’t remember how we got to the next situation, but somehow, Larry and Anne were in my car and we were following Leonard’s car. He had accused his girlfriend of steppin’ out with someone else, so they were having a fight, and she was going to take off in her car, and he was going to follow her. Poor Anne suddenly realized she was in a car with two American guys she hardly knew and panicked. I was trying to think of some way to assure her that she was perfectly safe – even though I didn’t really know the route back to their apartment – but I realized it probably looked pretty bad to her. She got out and yelled the other girl’s name. I don’t actually remember what happened next, or how we made it back to Leonard’s place, but that was the last I saw of Anne.

Today she probably tells her grandchildren scary stories about American architects. I look back and wish I had had a chance to just talk to her. Yeah, the movie was good, but the only life-changing drama was in the real people I was meeting.

5ive

The first post-nuclear apocalyptic film I ever saw was Five, or 5ive, which was on television one evening back when showing a movie on TV was a big deal. Mom let me stay up. I remembered the general plot (but not the characters’ names). There was one man (Michael), more or less the hero, in a beach house. A pregnant woman (Roseanne) found him. He was attracted to her, but she was hoping that somehow her husband also survived. An affable old white man (Oliver) and a young black man (Charles) showed up, saying they had survived the radiation inside a bank vault. Then they found a man washed up on shore (Eric). He had been climbing a mountain when it happened. It was implied that these were the last five people on earth. Or six if you count the unborn child.

Four of them were trying to survive, grow crops, etc, but Eric was nothing but trouble. Oliver succumbed to radiation sickness. I remember him saying, “It looks like I’m bleeding under the skin,” while Roseanne swallowed back a sob. Michael and Charles buried Oliver. The baby was born – I think it was a boy. Eric hated Charles for being black almost as much as he hated to work. He got drunk and drove a jeep over their crops. He stabbed and killed Charles. He argued that since they hadn’t died, they all must be immune to radiation, and convinced Roseanne to leave with him to look for her husband. Eric wanted her, but mostly wanted to loot the stores. When Roseanne found her husband, he was just a skeleton in a suit. Eric saw that he had radiation sickness and ran away screaming. She returned to Michael, but on the way bathed her baby in a stream. Later it started to cry. She was flustered and tried comforting him, but eventually he died. So the film ended with just Roseanne and Michael.

Promotional posters made 5ive seem like a sexy potboiler with a love triangle – I had forgotten the scene where Michael tries to seduce Roseanne – but reviewers said the characters were flat and spent a lot of time reciting deep philosophical thoughts. TCM claims 5ive was the original post atomic bomb movie. It was subtitled ‘A Story About the Day After Tomorrow’ (the 1983 post-apocalyptic tv movie with Jason Robards was called The Day After). It was shot in 1951 at Eaglefeather, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed cliff house that belonged to the writer-director, Arch Oboler. Film code officials objected to the realistic depiction of Roseanne’s labor, so some of that scene was cut, and 5ive was distributed as an art-circuit film.

Writer and Director Arch Oboler started in radio, and had already destroyed the world once – in the ‘Chicken Heart’ episode of Lights Out that was lampooned by Bill Cosby. He often worked anti-Fascist propaganda into his stories. Three of the actors were former USC film students. William Phipps (Michael) started in cheap scifi flicks but had a long acting career. Susan Douglas Rubes (Roseanne) worked on Broadway, in soap operas, and on network television and founded Young People’s Theatre. Earl Lee (Oliver) had a very brief career and died the day I was born. James Anderson (Eric) played a lot of cowboys, and even a farmer in To Kill a Mockingbird. Charles Lampkin (Charles) convinced Oboler to include lines from the poem “Creation” by Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson in the opening. If you can trust wikipedia, Lampkin has the distinction of being the first African-American actor in a substantial role on a Hollywood movie that was not playing a singer, dancer, athlete or buffoon. (The Emperor Jones was made outside the Hollywood system). Lampkin was a debater, musician, lecturer, actor and once directed Paul Robeson in a concert.