Thursday, January 26, 2017

Early Cary Grant vehicle

      Amazing Adventure (1936) [D: Alfred Zeisler. Cary Grant, Mary Brian, Peter Gawthorne] A debilitated rich young man visits doctor who tells him he suffering from money. Takes bet that he can’t last a year on his own, earning his own living. Finds out how the other half lives, also discovers that some people are kind, and some people are cooks. Helps first employer launch his extra-special cook-stove, defeats crooks, finds true love, rewards those who were kind, and fades out on clinch with wife who like him was taking a year off to earn her own money. The movie is barely an hour long, looks and feels like it was cut from a longer version. Pity. **

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Two Thomases: Sympathetic Cromwell, Sleazy More

     Wolf Hall (2015; based on Hilary Mantel’s novels, who also worked on the screenplays) [D:Peter Kosminsky  Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis, Claire Foy] Six episodes that give us a Thomas Cromwell quite different from the cynical villain of Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, and a sleazier Thomas More, too. The dangers of living in a polity in which personal loyalty to an erratic monarch was paramount, and an careless word or phrase could condemn you to death, are nicely explored. The dircetor wanted a few too many closeups of a silent Cromwell, etc, and the pace is slower than we’ve become used to lately, but it’s an impressive piece of work. Apparently it was filmed with ambient light only, a stunt made possible by recent advances in digital light sensors. Much of the action is set in dark interiors, I suppose to underline the darkness of the human heart.
     I now want to read the novels. Mantel clearly sides with Cromwell rather than More. Henry VIII is shown as self-deluding but respecting Cromwell because Cromwell won’t play the sycophancy game. Anne Boleyn is as much a victim of her own ambitions as of her family’s scheming for power. Wolsey is a wily old man who failed to achieve what his master wanted; Cromwell’s loyalty to him guides his plans, but at the end it’s unclear how much Cromwell wanted Anne’s death as a just punishment for bringing about Wolsey’s downfall. ***

Monday, January 23, 2017

US Trains of the 1940s

     Robert S. McGonigal, ed. Trains of the 1940s (2014) A Classic Trains special edition comprising articles published in the 1940s in Trains magazine as well some about the 1940s published in Classic Trains. A well done sampling of the railroads’ war work and post-war attempts to promote passenger travel. It’s an odd feeling to read about events of 70 years ago in the present tense. A few photographs show troops embarking or disembarking from trains. How many of the men in those pictures made it back home? The founder of Trains, A. C Kalmbach, wrote up some of his train trips. Nostalgia hits for anyone who grew up travelling on trains.
     Obviously a treat for the railfan, but also an excellent source for anyone who wants to know more about the 1940s in America. Well written, well produced. ***

Enemies of the Enlightenment

     Conor Cruise O’Brien. On the Eve of the Millennium (1994) CBC Massey lectures 1994. O’Brien meditates on the fate of the Enlightenment, which he sees as under attack. Agencies like the papacy attack it deliberately, for example by attempting to impose morals and ethics on individual conscience. But there are also those who claim to continue the work of the Enlightenment by bringing down institutions that they suppose to be hindering its advance. O’Brien points to the French revolution and its heirs. He’s especially good on how Burke foresaw the process of that revolution, until it would eventually be replaced by an autocratic regime that restored order if not individual freedoms. Burke predicted that, but didn’t live to see it.
      O’Brien admires Burke, I think because he sees in Burke a powerful intelligence coupled with a deep understanding and respect for the irrational. I haven’t read much Burke (I’ve forgotten what I did read), so I can’t comment further on that part of O’Brien’s discussion. But it's clear that O’Brien himself understands the power of the irrational, and the dangers of reason put in the service of realising irrational aims.
     O’Brien’s predictions of what may happen in the first quarter of the 2000s are more or less off the mark in detail, but his clear-eyed view of  the forces that tend to break the democratic contract is spot on. Time has turned his analysis of democratic elections as popularity contests into a mordant comment on recent elections in all advanced countries, none more so that in the election of Trump and Justin Trudeau. The former is revealing himself as an incompetent governor; the latter as a good deal more competent than his enemies want him to be. Both are well on the way of disappointing their supporters.
      Like Machiavelli, whom he admires, O’Brien tells some unvarnished truths about politics and governance. He reminds us that a polity’s sense of itself as a unified community depends on myths, which serve both to obscure the unpalatable aspects of wielding power and to direct that power into more or less agreed on directions.
      This is not an easy read. O’Brien knows more history than the average bear, even one interested in history. He understands that ideas matter, especially ideas that have been reduced to what we think of as common sense. He has experience in politics and government. He’s a poet as well as an essayist. These lectures are dense in meaning and allusion. O’Brien’s attempts to clarify confusion with quotations and concrete examples go some way to helping the reader (me) understand. Nevertheless, worth reading. Twice at least. ***

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Cats versus Rats

    Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, Tamara Bonvillain. Angel Catbird (2016) Well done pulp comic book fiction printed on nice book-weight glossy paper, including making-of material such as Christmas’s trial sketches of the main character, Strig Feleedus. He’s a nerdy biologist trying to perfect a genetic splicing drug.  Dr Mucoid, his evil villain boss, who want it to create a half-rat army, does a hit’n’run on him, which breaks the vial with the drug, which gets into his blood, along with some blood from his cat and an unfortunate owl. Hence Angel Catbird, a half-cat human with a dash of owl. A lovely succession of riffs on super-hero comics ensues. It'a all about cats versus rats. The script was written by Atwood, drawn by Christmas, and coloured by Bonvillain.
     Recommended. This is volume 1. Look for Volume 2 in February, and read it too. The book was shelved a Young Adult in our local library, which it’s not. ****

Friday, January 13, 2017

"A Brief History of Humankind"

     Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens (2014) Harari’s take on the history of us, homo sapiens sapiens, the only extant species of homo sapiens. He uses the title term throughout to refer to us in contrast to neanderthalensis and other human species (Wikipedia calls them “subspecies”.) He divides our history into three eras, the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific.
     Our ancestors became sapiens when some changes in the brain enabled it not only to imagine non-present objects, but to talk about them. Harari calls this “fictive language” to distinguish it from the signaling systems used by other animals. Besides making the exchange of technical information easier, it accelerated technical improvements and the creation of societies that extended over space and time. Societies are held together by the stories they tell about themselves, and exist only to the extent that these stories are believed. To label them as myths is to misunderstand both their power and their necessity. It’s only when a myth is superseded by a new one that we see it as a fiction.
     Agriculture was not a precondition for large human societies capable of building monuments and settlements, but it certainly accelerated that shift in Sapiens lifestyles. But the key to the development of cities and empires was trade, facilitated and accelerated by writing. Writing is a method of recording and using more data than a single human can store in their brain. The earliest writings were records of numbers, not stories. Pure data, in other words.
      Science was the “discovery of ignorance”, the realisation that we don’t know everything there is to know. This placed a premium on searching for new knowledge, and fostered the stance that not only current knowledge but current lifestyles are subject to continuing change. Couple this with the invention of credit (the essential function of money), and the acceleration of technical, economic, and social change seems inevitable.
     Harari has the knack of noticing what’s right in front of us. Reading him has the twin effect of prompting “Well, of course, why didn’t I see it that way before?” and “Aha, just as I suspected.” It also reminds us that Sapiens has changed the planet more thoroughly than any other animal when it became the most skilful and efficient hunter and forager that ever evolved on Earth. Sapiens has altered every ecosystem it invaded, long before agriculture and science speeded up and enlarged the scope of those changes. Sapiens has now developed the skills that ironically could enable it to create life forms that supersede it.
     We have become smart enough to replace ourselves, but not wise enough to understand why we would want to do that, nor what kind of life form we would want to replace us.
     Every chapter, sometimes every paragraph, prompts questions, musings, applications to one's experience and knowledge. Harari’s large-scale view of human history expands the reader’s view also: I found my insights and perceptions continually challenged and shifting into new shapes.
     Read this book. ****

Friday, January 06, 2017

Happy New Year, and a few changes

     To the dozen or so regular readers this blog, I hope for a much less interesting 2017 than the  tweets of the moment suggest we are in for. As for changes: this main page will be reserved for book reviews. Movie, TV and theatre reviews will be posted exclusively on the Movies page, and I will begin a new page of miscellaneous commentary. I will also post on the other Pages more often, at least once a month.
     I invite you to Follow this blog, and also to comment. You can post anonymously, but I do check all comments before publishing them. I've blocked only obvious spam.

Political Corruption: As American (and Canadian) as Apple Pie

      Samuel P. Orth. The Boss and the Machine (1919) A brief but thorough and depressing history of the fraud, malfeasance, deceit, self-serving, bribery, theft, office jobbing, graft, and general corruption that has marked American politics at every level from the beginning of the Republic.
     The Founders were afraid both of a strong executive and of mob rule, so they built a system in which the legislature and executive were intended to act as checks on each other. This pretty well guarantees backroom deals. Couple that with the two-year cycle of elections, and it was inevitable that the Party machine would become the de facto source of power.
     Oligarchy is the natural form of American polity. Public office has always been seen as primarily a method of guaranteeing employment and enrichment for oneself, one’s cronies, and one’s sponsors. To quote one of our Prime Ministers: “You gotta dance with the one that brung you.” Elections are about which faction of the 1% will get their turn at the trough.
     Orth wrote at a time (about 100 years ago) when political reform movements were able to clean up the worst messes. He clearly believed that US politics would be saner and more public spirited in the 20th century. History has proven him wrong. The reform movements tended to disband once they had achieved their goals, and the Party machines inevitably moved back in. They have become more sophisticated and skilled at shifting public opinion, and less blatant in their greed. The rulers keep themselves out of the public eye more skilfully, but their goals are the same as they have always been: Put into place a compliant legislature, and move money from the taxpayers' into their own pockets. In short, the elected politicians are a front for the ruling class.
     It took me a while to read the book, in part because Orth writes a chronicle, not an analysis, but mostly because the story is such a drearily depressing one. The Party machine also dominates Canadian politics, but with a more polite and superficially less brutal style.
     Has there been a general improvement in politics? Perhaps. Corruption is not as blatant as it used to be, but that is more a change in style than in substance. Good book. Should be available in any University library. ***