Saturday, November 22, 2014

Movie Poster of the Week

The first Mexican talkie. And no, it is not about Santa Claus.

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Across the Border

(I first wrote this essay back in the late 1980s when my father was still alive and I was courting by mail a young woman who lives in my father's hometown. I have since revised it a bit and brushed up the grammar, but I have not changed any of the actual details concerning the things I had observed during my last two trips to Mexico. Nor did I make up any of the things that my Mexican friend told me in her letters -- although I would probably sleep better if I could pretend otherwise.)

The traveler who goes across the International Bridge at Laredo inevitably finds himself not just in another country; he finds himself in another world. There are beggars in the streets, hordes of outdated cars upon the highway, and gangs of youthful panhandlers swarming around each and every gas station. The road to San Luis Potosí will reveal in December a line of people by the roadside which initially seems to be part of some religious pilgrimage. Then a closer look reveals that the majority of these hardy travelers are women and children who are begging for food. Some may have goats, turkeys or even snakeskins for sale, offerings designed to sway the passing tourists into stopping. Once stopped, the tourists can expect to be surrounded by anxious faces, displaying a desperation more often associated with places like India or Ethiopia.

I must confess these images have a personal meaning to me. My paternal grandfather was a migrant worker from the state of Guanajuato who brought his family to the States while my father was still a young boy. When I was a child, I used to hear many stories about how rough it had been to live in Mexico back then. Life in the Detroit slums had not been easy for my family, but at least it beat starving to death back home in San Francisco del Rincón. I still remember one story my father told me about how he had awoken one morning while his father was still working in the United States and his sister Ofelia had had to tell him that there would be nothing to eat that day because there was no money for food. Stories like this add a perspective to the immigrant saga that can't be captured by a Neil Diamond song.

I used to regularly correspond with a friend who lived in my father's home town. Through her, I learned much more about Mexican society than I could from my brief trips to Mexico. For example, she once described an incident wherein the bus on which she was traveling was pulled over by custom officials. The passengers' luggage was confiscated and some of their contents were never returned. My friend was angry because she lost a valuable set of china that she had purchased on the way back from Mexicali; however, despite an emotional scene at the customs office, she was never able to recover it.

There are worse aspects than this to Mexican society. For example, I never realized how sheltered I had been back in the States until I was stopped by a small group of soldiers on the road between Leon and San Francisco del Rincón. It was Election Day, and the government was wary of any excessive activity. I was let go as soon as they noticed the “Turista” sticker on my car, but it was still an unsettling experience. Ironically, the soldiers were still there two days later during my trip to San Francisco del Rincón. They were no longer waiting by the roadside, but they were stationed in a side street by the main plaza, and indeed, the sight of five of them marching through the plaza itself seemed to attract little attention aside from a child's exclamation of “el militario.” I don't pretend to be able to draw any serious conclusions about Mexican politics from these incidents, but I can't help thinking that if American soldiers had turned up outside the local precincts of most American cities on Election Day, it would have made front-page news. However, in San Francisco del Rincón, it did not even cause any major comment.

One might be tempted to interpret these comments to mean that I am anti-Mexican. I am not. I love my father's homeland with a great deal more affection now than I did when it was just a mythical presence in my childhood. Many of its traditions -- the serenata, the nacimientos, the Día de los Tres Reyes -- cannot be improved upon by American society. So what if many of its traditions are borrowed from Spanish and Arabic forebears. Are we here in America not expert borrowers ourselves? And have we not borrowed from Mexico in such areas as ranching and architecture?

I am quite Americanized by Mexican-American standards, and yet for many years I had an idealized picture of my father's homeland that was quite different than the image of Mexico I got from American movies and TV shows. Only recently did I have an opportunity to reconcile that image with reality. I don't lack any less affection for Mexico because of this new viewpoint, any more than an Irish-American lacks affection for the land of his ancestors just because he has heard of the latest trouble in Belfast. But I understand it better. And although I will probably always experience more of a culture shock crossing the International Bridge at Laredo than I do the International Bridge at Detroit, I do remember one moment in Mexico whose counterpart I had never experienced in Canada. I was sitting with my father in a bar in Salinas de Hidalgo. It was late at night, the streets outside were filled with recorded mariachi music, and I was far from home. Yet, for some strange reason, I felt that I was home. The world around me seemed much more familiar than the world I had seen in Canada during any of the brief trips I had made to Windsor. I have never been able to explain this. Perhaps I should not even try.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Movie Quote of the Week

It works like this, Private. Every soldier in a war doesn't have to believe in what he's fighting for. Most of them fight just to back up the other soldiers in their squad. They try not to get them killed, they try not to get them extra duty, they try not to embarrass themselves in front of them. Why don't you start with that?
--Joe Morton, Lone Star (1996)

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TV Quote of the Week

My dad’s always a hero. And he’s always dead.
--Thomas Dekker, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, “Gnothi Seauton”

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Cuento de Mi Id

“Final Vengeance”

(This was my first attempt at writing a short story for publication. I would like to think that I have improved a bit since I first wrote this but I guess that's up to you all, the readers, to judge. Anyway, I hope you all like it.)

The moment Joe Mesey reentered the old neighborhood, he knew that his coming back was a mistake. Not for any foolish, sentimental reasons -- it’s hard to be nostalgic about growing up in a slum -- but because his return was all too easy. He had expected an all-out attack the minute he entered his old stomping grounds; instead, he was simply ignored.

As a member of mankind’s true oldest profession, a self-styled professional assassin who euphemistically referred to his calling as the “retirement business” and who commanded top dollar for a kill, this was a bit of an insult. He had expected a neighborhood crawling with cops -- or worse; instead, he found an area of deserted streets and neglected tenements -- a place seemingly as devoid of life as the dark side of the moon.

It was an eerie feeling. Had Joe been a lesser man, he might have turned the car around and searched for more populous surroundings. But he was on a mission here -- a personal mission. He had returned to this neighborhood to kill a man. A man whom he had killed a long time ago...


The room was filled with more candles than a religious shrine and their acrid scent and flickering light made Joe uneasy. He kept peering into the shadows of the old man’s living room as if expecting to see something lurking there. Nothing was there, of course, but the way the old man kept bowing his head and peering into his little grey book made Joe uneasy. And he hated being made uneasy. Especially by a little old man who was destined within a matter of minutes to meet the Maker about which he endless prattled.

His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the realization that the old man had said something. He looked up at the white-haired figure and smiled inwardly at the idea of this little man in the black suit and skullcap doing him bodily harm. As powerful as he may have once been, now he could not harm a flea.

“Pardon me, he said. “I didn’t hear that last question.”

“I was asking whether you had considered the consequences of your actions, Mr. Mesey,” the old man said in a voice that was stern yet moderate.

“Of course, I have. I simply waste you and then my boss gives me a lot of money. What’s to consider?”

“Hasn’t the thought of punishment ever entered your mind?”

“Not really. The cops won’t be able to prove a thing, and nothing you can do can change that.”

“I wasn’t talking about earthly justice.”

“Oh, really?”

“Doesn’t it ever bother you, Mr. Mesey -- the number of men you’ve killed?”

“Of course not. Why should it?”

“Fear of the dead is a centuries-old tradition,” said the old man. “Some say it dates back to Neanderthal man.”

“Well, that may be the case with some people, but I’m more like a surgeon. I live with death every day. It doesn’t scare me a bit.”

“If I were you, I would be scared. Murder is the supreme taboo; you have committed it not once, not twice, but times beyond counting.”

“You’re one to talk,” said Joe. “Before you retired, you were in the rackets, too. You know how it is.”

“Yes, I know how it is,” said the old man, gazing at his folded hands. “But I never killed anyone directly. And when the ghosts of those I did kill indirectly began to prey upon my conscience, I knew it was time to leave.”

The old man looked Joe in the eye. “But it’s still not too late for you. The powers that be love a repentant sinner as long as he’s sincere.”

Joe smiled. “That’s nice talk for a dying man but I intend to live a long time.”

“Maybe not as long as you think.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I have taken the liberty of making certain arrangements in case my little talk with you should fail.”

“Oh, I see. Like a sealed letter to the D.A. left in the hands of your attorney?”

“Nothing so crude, I assure you,” said the old man. “Besides, I’m sure a man in your profession has sufficient connections to get such a letter swiftly discredited. No, my arrangements are of a more final and irrevocable nature.”

Joe laughed. “If that’s meant to scare me, it didn’t work.”

“It wasn’t meant to scare you -- now.”

“Listen, old man,” said Joe, pulling out his gun. “I’ve had about enough of this Jewish superstition nonsense you’ve been giving me.”

“Jewish? Who said it was Jewish?” The old man’s voice took on a sepulchral tone. “The faith I follow is older than Judaism.”

That’s when Joe’s gun went off. The first bullet hit the old man in the chest; the two followup shots hit him in the belly and the groin. Joe never knew whether his shots were the result of anger or blind panic, but the results were the same. One dead Jew (or so-called Jew, if his last words were correct) who had time to do little more than glare and mumble an inaudible curse before succumbing to the permanent paralysis of death. Hardly the formidable adversary he had anticipated.

“I hoe you prepared well for the afterlife, old man,” Joe said as he stood up. “Because you’re going to have all eternity to enjoy it.”

He left the house quietly, but not before giving some thought to the arrangements the old man had mentioned. However, search as he did, he could find no trace of any hidden cameras or tape recorders in the old man’s residence...


The old apartment house where he used to live was boarded up now -- a victim of urban renewal. Gazing at the crumbling exterior brought back many memories for Joe. Memories of living with his old man -- an embittered widower with five children to raise. A man who had sought refuge in a whiskey bottle and who used his youngest child -- Joe -- as a punching bag until the day Joe fought back and caved in his father’s skull with a tire iron. Yes, the place did bring back a lot of old memories -- none of them good.

He smiled grimly and attacked the boards on the front door with a tire iron. As the ancient nails reluctantly began to yield, he once more looked around the neighborhood, expecting any minute to see a cop -- or something -- appear around the corner to question him about his activity. But none appeared. Joe seemed to be the only person around in what should have been a crowded slum neighborhood. It was as if he was in the land of the dead.

Joe shuddered. He was normally not an imaginative person -- in his line of business, you couldn’t afford to be -- yet something about that last phrase -- and the way it popped into his mind, unsummoned -- made him uneasy. Especially when he looked back upon certain recent events...


The first clue Joe had that the old man‘s arrangements were not just talk occurred in Chicago. He had heard the old line about being able to meet almost anyone in the world by standing on State Street, but he never expected to see Vinny McCloskey there. And for a very good reason -- Vinny had died six months ago.

When he first confronted Vinny with this information, Vinny seemed as shocked as Joe. His eyes went blank; he appeared to be remembering something.

Then he remembered.

“You!” he screamed. “You’re the one who killed me.”

Within an instant, Vinny’s hands were around Joe’s neck, choking him with the strength of the violently insane and the insanely violent. Vinny was a big man; his hands were the size of steam irons. Killing Joe should have been as easy a task for him as cleaning fish. But it did not work out that way. Joe had been around too long not to be prepared for the unexpected; he freed himself with a blow to the groin -- then pulled his newly-purchased revolver and fired a bullet meant for a prominent state witness into Vinny’s chest.

At this point, Vinny smiled -- the vacant smile customarily associated with the hopelessly insane -- and then he collapsed. For a moment, Joe was aghast. After all, even the most blasé hitman does not meet dead people on the street every day. Then he took Vinny’s pulse. The bullet wound Vinny had just received was not necessarily a mortal one, yet he was already dead.

Needless to say, the witness job was blown. No one had witnessed the confrontation between Joe and Vinny, but that didn’t mean the cops would not be interested if they ever caught wind of it.

And what of the body? Although Joe managed to safely dispose of it without being seen, that still did not account for its presence. Surely he had not just killed the real Vinny; after all, the real Vinny was supposed to be feeding the worms in a South Side cemetery. That meant the man he had killed was an imposter, no doubt made up to look like Vinny with the help of a clever plastic surgeon. But an imposter with Vinny’s height and build? Possible, Joe thought, but not probable. Which meant...


The last board came off with an angry screech. Now the door was open and he could seek shelter from the open street. Yet Joe was not satisfied.

If he was right, the man he came to kill would be lurking inside, safe from the summer heat. It unnerved him to realize how matter-of-fact he was handling the whole situation. Had his own boss told him a similar story, he would not have believed him -- even if his life depended upon it. Yet here he was, standing outside his old apartment house, treating his long-dead father as a potential adversary…

He pushed the door open with his foot, holding the tire iron ready in case of attack. None came. Inside the entrance hall was nothing but dust and silence.

As Joe stepped inside, he again held the tire iron ready to ward off a sudden attack. But -- again -- none came.

Perhaps I only dreamed the first incident, he thought. Perhaps I was wrong and the old man’s curse was only a figment of my imagination.

Then Joe thought again and shook his head. For he remembered Frank Lupesco...


It had happened at a men’s room in the Miami Airport. Joe was combing his hair before boarding a flight to San Juan when he felt himself being seized from behind. Without warning, he was whirled around and thrown against the opposite wall. Before he could recover, a knife was at his throat, and on the nape of his neck, he could feel the hot breath of the man standing directly behind him.

That’s when Joe moved. Stomping down hard where he guessed his assailant’s left foot to be, he reached up at the same time and grabbed the knife-bearing hand. Its skin felt cold and clammy -- like a dead frog -- but he did not let that prevent him from bending the hand back against the waist until the knife dropped. And the bones broke.

Joe’s assailant was curiously silent for a man who should have screaming in agony.

Instead, the only thing Joe heard was “It’s not that easy, kid.”

The voice was familiar, but not the face. When Joe turned around, he found himself staring into a bleached parody of a human face, the type of scarred and tattered face you’d expect to see on a man who had spent the last seven months on the bottom of the Hudson River, not on a living person.

Then the man smiled -- if you could call what he did smiling -- and Joe recognized the familiar lop-sided grin of his former mentor, Frank Lupesco. It had been Lupesco who had gotten Joe his first job in the “retirement business.” Frank had taught Joe everything he knew. Taught him so well that when Frank retired and decided to turn state’s evidence, Joe was the one chosen to bring him down. And he did. Seven months ago.

And here Frank was, standing before him, smiling as if his broken wrist was a mere scratch.

“This one’s for you, kid.”

With frightening suddenness, Frank lunged forward and grabbed Joe by the throat with his other hand. Pressing his other forearm against Joe’s throat as well, he pinned Joe against the wall and started to squeeze. Joe’s face began to turn blue; he was running out of time. In desperation, he punched his opponent in the stomach. His fist went all the way through.

As Frank let go, Joe was too relieved to do anything but stand and watch Frank’s body collapse in upon itself like a punctured balloon. Too late he thought of questioning him; by then, his body was merely a pile of decaying flesh awaiting disposal.

That’s when Joe realized that the plot against him was more than simply an elaborate scheme of vengeance. Even the best plastic surgeon could not have instilled such qualities into a Frank Lupesco lookalike. The man who did had to be a person who had experience dealing with the supernatural. A man who not only had such experience but who also possessed a grudge against him. Somebody like -- like -- the old man!

By then, the old man’s name had faded away from Joe’s memory, but he still remembered that scene in the room full of candles, and he also remembered the old man’s ominous last words.

At first, it seemed ridiculous -- an old-fashioned curse at work in the twentieth century. And yet it was the only explanation which made sense. If only there was some way to break the curse...

Then it came to him. The curse was operating in a pattern: confront Joe with all his previous victims, in the order of their deaths, and have the attacks increase in intensity. Considering the number of people Joe had killed in his lifetime, such a pattern could easily wear him down before it ended. And sooner or later one of the victims was bound to get lucky and kill him.

But suppose he short-circuited the curse. Instead of waiting for the victims to go after him, he would go after the victims. And the most obvious one to pursue would be the first one -- his father. The only one he had killed for free...


The sun was going down now, and there was still no sign of his old man. He smiled at the irony -- the old man had intended to avenge his own death by using Joe’s own old man to kill him. Perhaps he had been counting on the power of nostalgia to prevent Joe from delivering the fatal blow. Well, it won’t work, Joe thought. There was no love lost between him and his father. He killed him before and he could kill him again.

Then it occurred to him -- what if this was exactly what the old man had wanted? For Joe to come up here to New York and face the ultimate challenge? Joe had not been attacked since that day in Miami. The trip up here had been way too easy -- almost as if he was being set up.

He scoffed at this thought. There was nothing to fear. He had a loaded revolver in the highest caliber and absolutely no reason not to use it. Everything he had experienced so far told him that the old man’s walking cadavers were still vulnerable to gunshots. There was nothing to fear.

And then he heard it. A quiet, scraping sound like dead leaves rustling across the sidewalk. No footsteps -- just a quiet, rustling sound. Then the doorknob turned. Joe slowly drew out his revolver and aimed it at the front door. This is going to be easier than I had anticipated, he thought. Then the door opened...

Joe’s first thought was that it was all a trick. That the old man had anticipated his actions and sent a stranger to take him by surprise. After all, Joe might not remember every single man he killed, but he certainly would have remembering icing a woman. Then he looked beyond the woman’s black dress and veil -- recognized a face which he had seen only once before, in a wedding portrait kept by his father because it was the last picture taken of her before she died in childbirth. And suddenly he knew why the old man was so certain that Joe would not be able to kill her.

He had time to say only one word before the first of many blows fell: “Mother.”

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

R.I.P. Mike Nichols

American film director and comedian Mike Nichols -- best known for such movies as The Graduate and Primary Colors -- cried "Cut!" for the last time on November 19 at age 83.

He will be missed.

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R.I.P. Jimmy Ruffin

American soul singer Jimmy Ruffin -- best known for singing such songs as "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" and "Hold on (to My Love)" -- finished his last solo number on November 17 at age 78.

He will be missed.

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R.I.P. Glen A. Larson

American television producer and writer Glen A. Larson -- best known for creating such TV shows as the original Battlestar: Galactica and The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries -- finished his last script on November 14 at age 77.

He will be missed.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Pedro Infante!

AKA Pedro Infante Cruz.

Born November 18, 1917. Died April 15, 1957.

He was one of my late father's favorite actors and he has been described by my father as the Mexican equivalent of Clark Gable. (Only this version was as famous for his singing as he was for his acting).

He is best known for the 1948 Mexican movie Nosotros los Pobres but he has been in many other movies as well. Unfortunately, he is not that famous north of the border but then I doubt he ever worried too much about that during his lifetime. I know my late father never did.

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Veronica Mars: Heroine Addict

Critics have written so much about all the fan service in the 2014 Veronica Mars movie that it will undoubtedly come to a shock to those few Veronica Mars fans who have yet to see the movie that it has absolutely no scenes like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or even this:

Of course, those who have complained about the fan service in the Veronica Mars movie usually don't mean this kind of fan service. What they really mean is that the movie is mainly aimed at fans of the Veronica Mars TV series. And being such a fan, it would be dishonest of me to pretend that the movie was not aimed at people like me.

Then again so what? James Bond films are usually aimed at fans of James Bond, Harry Potter movies are usually aimed at fans of Harry Potter and of course, the last three Star Wars movies were aimed at fans of the first three Star Wars movies. Such aim does not necessarily mean that the cinematic result will make for a bad movie. Then again it does not necessarily make for a good movie, either. As always, you have to judge by the final result.

As for the matter of fan bias, well, I have seen quite enough bad movies aimed at various fan groups that I can readily understand why people might be hesitant to see yet another movie that indulges in "fan service." Then again it is not unusual for the same people who object to one type of fan service to have little or no problems with other types of fan service. For example, a lot of critics of the Veronica Mars movie had no trouble with the last Star Wars trilogy -- which had their share of fan service -- and vice versa. And as much as I would like to think the best of such critics, I would be a lot more comfortable with doing so if such critics were honest enough to admit if their real problem with the Veronica Mars movie was that it was not made primarily with them in mind. Then again I see many movies that are not necessarily made for me in mind so I may be a tad biased on this subject. Indeed, as a Hispanic Catholic half-breed living in a predominantly White non-Hispanic Protestant society, I would be very surprised if most of the movies available for viewing in the U.S. were made for the likes of me. But that is a subject for another day.

Anyway, it is not as if the movie is likely to be that hard to understand if you have never seen the TV series upon which it is based. I must admit that it has been quite a few years since I saw the last episode of the series and since then, I have not bothered to memorize every minor character just in case I had the opportunity to see a new episode. Then again, it did not seem very hard for me to imagine any non-fan seeing the scene in which a snobbish woman acts mean to Ms. Mars at her high school reunion and not concluding that the snob in question was a former nemesis of Ms. Mars during the original series. (After all, I did not remember that particular character's name and yet I was able to figure out who she was.) Indeed, most complaints about the movie's fan service seemed to have little if any confidence in the intelligence of would-be moviegoers. (Though I guess director Rob Thomas should be flattered by the implication that his movie was just too smart to be understood by non-fans.) And it didn't help the case of the movie's detractors that their complaints seemed to echo similar complaints that were made about the 2005 movie Serenity -- a movie that was quite popular with many people who had never seen Firefly (the TV series upon which it was based).

In any event, if I had to pick the most bothersome aspect of the Veronica Mars movie, it would not be the "fan service" or the limited screen time enjoyed by actress Jamie Lee Curtis but rather the way the movie finds it necessary to give a reason why Veronica Mars does the things that she does. Apparently, it is not enough for her to want to do the right thing or help her friends; she has to have a "problem" which makes her do all her heroic deeds. Indeed, Hollywood has gotten so used to presenting its audiences with dysfunctional characters that it seems difficult to present a genuine heroine on the big screen nowadays; instead, it is more fashionable to present a dysfunctional character who just happens to do heroic things. Perhaps this is the inevitable result of a society that has been given many reasons to become cynical due to the Iraqi War and the recent economic crisis. Then again you can find reasons to be cynical in almost any period of history so it seems odd to witness this recent cultural war against heroism. And especially odd to see it take its toll on a character as likable as Veronica Mars.

Then again a part of me is glad that the Veronica Mars movie proved to be as good as it was. After all, I used to be a big fan of the Harry Potter movies -- but I gave up on the series after I found myself hating the movies more and more -- so much so that I did not even bother to see the last film in the series. For that matter, I also used to love the Star Wars movies -- but I found myself rolling my eyes more and more at some of the excuses film critics would make for the second trilogy and if it were not for the fact that my late sister's children like those three movies so much, I would be a lot more vocal on this site about my dislike for them.

Anyway, like most moviegoers, I don't go to the movies hoping to have a bad time. But I don't like the idea of pretending I did not see a bad movie just because other people than me seem to like it. So while I am not likely to be the most objective critic of the 2014 Veronica Mars movie, I would like to think that I am among the most honest. At least I hope so.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Daisy Fuentes!

Born November 17, 1966.

She is the Cuban-born daughter of a Cuban father and a Spanish mother. She is best known as a model, actress and television personality but she is also famous for being MTV's first Latina VJ and Revlon's first Latina spokesperson to be signed to a worldwide contract. She was also a co-host of the TV show America's Funniest Home Videos from 1998 to 1999 and has appeared on such TV shows as Dream On and Cybill.

However, she has changed a bit over the years as the above two photos will show. (The top one was taken in 2009; the other was taken in 2013. Of course, the one at the very top of this post was taken in 1997.)

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Quote of the Week

If you believe the stress of an office or a production line can cause ulcers, migraines, hives -- think about spending six months in a bunker waiting for somebody faceless to kill you.
--David Drake, Introduction to The Military Dimension: Mark II

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Joanna Pettet!

AKA Joanna Jane Salmon.

Born November 16, 1942.

She is an English actress best known for her guest roles on such TV shows as Banacek and Night Gallery. The one role for which I most remember her is that of Elaine Latimer in the old Night Gallery episode "The House", which is, of course, the source of the above image.

Needless to say, it still haunts my dreams.

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¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Bartolomé de las Casas!

Born November 16, 1484(?). Died July 18, 1566.

He was a Dominican friar and Spanish historian who went on to speak out against the many atrocities being committed by his fellow Spaniards against the native residents of the New World. He was the first person to be officially designated as "Protector of the Indians" and unfortunately, one of the first people of his time to suggest a shamefully imperfect alternative to the enslavement of Native Americans. (In his case, it was the enslavement of Africans in place of Native Americans.)

Regardless of that, he was still a part of Spanish history and ironically he symbolizes both the best and worst impulses of his time. At the very least, he deserves credit for arguing for the humanity of the native Americans at a time when that was a very unpopular viewpoint in the Spanish Empire.

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Movie Poster of the Week

Watching me? Well, good luck with that. I hope they brought a good book.

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Reflections on the Revolution in Brazil

George Orwell has been referenced by both sides of the Anglo-American political fence so often that if he had never lived, he probably would have been invented. I have always found it especially interesting how often both sides ignore that side of Orwell which is most politically inconvenient. For example, conservatives don't like to remember that Orwell was often as stern a critic of capitalism as he was a critic of communism while the liberals don't like to remember that the incident that ultimately turned Orwell against communism was the destruction of Orwell's Socialist kindred spirits in Spain by Stalinists who were supposedly on the same side of the Spanish Civil War as Orwell and his comrades.

Needless to say, you don't see that side of Orwell depicted in many popular movies. Indeed, most movie adaptations of Orwell's work tend to focus around his classic novel 1984, which is about a futuristic dictatorship whose control over its subjects is so complete that not even death can free them.

Unfortunately, 1984 is so familiar to most Anglo-American moviegoers due to its having been taught in so many high school and college literature courses that it would be hard to make a movie adaptation of it that most adults would not find predictable. Indeed, when I had the chance to watch the 1984 film version of 1984, I remember finding its first few minutes so predictable that I turned it off right away -- and it did not help that the movie itself came across as a thinly disguised campaign ad for 1984 U.S. Presidential candidate Walter Mondale.

Fortunately, Terry Gilliam's 1985 movie Brazil was not so predictable. Indeed, I could argue that its plot owed as much to author James Thurber as it did to George Orwell because its protagonist -- Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce) -- spends so much time having the type of fantasies that Thurber describes in his short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." In fact, it is tempting to argue that Brazil takes the usual Walter Mitty story to its darkest conclusion because so many characters -- including Sam Lowry -- suffer such dire consequences as a result of Lowry's attempts to act out his fantasies. That is not exactly the type of conclusion I expected to find in a movie made so close to the "don't dream it, be it" era of the 1970s, much less in an era when it was popular for filmmakers to wax nostalgic about the various dreams of the 1960s.

Nor was its Aesopian moral as predictable as I expected. It took me quite a few viewings of the movie to catch on to the fact that Gilliam was not content to promote the same old "fight the power" clichés we have seen in so many bad science fiction movies. Instead, his political message was more complicated. On one hand, he obviously did not expect his audience to approve of the dictatorship for which Lowry worked. Nor did he expect us to approve of Lowry's politically neutral attitude. Yet when Lowry became romantically obsessed with a female lorry driver named Jill Layton (played by Kim Griest) and tried to help her by joining in "the revolution," it was not entirely a coincidence that Lowry's actions not only led to the death of an innocent man but ultimately made things worse for Jill, one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie. Indeed, I have long suspected that the true reason for Lowry's breakdown toward the end of the movie was not so much fear of torture but the suspicion that his actions throughout the movie not only failed to prevent the tragic fate of a woman he loved but actually hastened it.

Of course, it might have been easy for Gilliam to give Lowry a more crowd-pleasing story arc but that was not the type of tale he wanted to tell. And in an age which has seen all too many revolutionaries succeed in making things worse for the people they were supposedly fighting for, I don't know that it is a bad thing to remind people who would fight against the powers that be to be careful what they wish for lest they end up like Sam Lowry.

Of course, Brazil is noteworthy for other things besides its political commentary. For example, it is difficult today to watch the various scenes in which Lowry's co-workers watch old movies on their computers and not be reminded of how often modern office workers use the Internet for similar purposes. Indeed, their use of computers as just another source of entertainment always seemed more realistic -- even in the days before the Internet became so popular -- than the usual "evil computer" movie that was so popular back in the 1980s.

For that matter, I loved how the director threw in a visual reference to an old Marx Brothers movie by having it show on the TV set that Jill was watching while she was taking a bath. Given the frequency with which Brazil is referenced by both liberals and conservatives, I can't help but wonder how much of a coincidence it was that he had the most likeable character in the movie watch a movie starring the guy who took pride in not wanting to be a member of any club that would have him for a member.

Gilliam used so many visual details to make the world of Brazil believable that it seems depressing that it was not more of a hit at the box office. But then the most popular movies are not always the most deserving movies and it could be that Brazil hit too much of a nerve to be popular with all but the most serious of moviegoers. Then again many potential fans could have been scared away by its length. After all, not everyone likes long movies. And of course, some of the moviegoers who were less than impressed with it could have been like the blonde art student I met at a local book store in the late 1980s who -- despite looking like a long-lost twin of Kim Greist -- admitted that she fell asleep during the movie. It could be that Brazil -- like most very long movies -- works better on DVD or VHS because the viewer always has the option to turn it off at a certain point and then return to it at a later time the same way one would return to a beloved novel that one just can't finish reading in one sitting. But that could just be wishful thinking on my part.

In any event, I find it amusing to note how much the movie seemed to have anticipated the recent War on Terror and the propaganda that accompanied that. Indeed, the opening sequence in which a government spokesman accuses the masterminds behind the latest terrorist incident of displaying bad sportsmanship was much on my mind during many of the months after the 9/11 attack in New York City -- especially whenever I spent too much time watching the Fox News Channel.

However, I don't find it so amusing to note how little most people in power seem to have learned from it. Then again the lessons it has to teach are not the type of lessons that are likely to appeal to a person in power. Indeed, like most great satires, Gilliam's Brazil seems destined to be deliberately misunderstood by those who most need to learn from it. But then such lessons are never easily taught so it is just as well that the movie exists to reach those few who will learn from it. And perhaps those few will be enough to make a difference for future generations.

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