Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lincoln exhumed: “...and his face was chalky white.”

As a follow-up to yesterday’s 1956 article from American Heritage, this is an article from the February 15, 1963 issue of Life. In 1901 Abraham Lincoln was exhumed because of stories that his body had been stolen. He was then reburied, but onlookers, including the boy mentioned in the article, were witnesses. A description of the state of Lincoln’s corpse is given.

Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and her son, Philip Kunhardt, Jr., wrote the book Twenty Days, mentioned in the article, about the events following the assassination of Lincoln. Dorothy Kunhardt was a children’s book author (Pat the Bunny), and a historian who wrote about Lincoln. The article in American Heritage mentioned above is also by the Kunhardts.

Twenty Days is currently out of print, but is still available as a used book from

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What Abe Lincoln looked like naked

I learned something yesterday while reading from my stash of old American Heritage magazines, in a fine article detailing events during the hours directly after Lincoln was shot in 1865. For one thing I learned what Abraham Lincoln’s body looked like, when his clothes were removed after his death.
There would be disagreements among the four doctors as to the right treatment to pursue, and their versions of what happened on the death night would vary startlingly. There was total agreement always on the astonishment they all felt at that first sight of Mr. Lincoln’s extraordinary physique.

“They were familiar with the dark, brown face, weather worn and crisscrossed with lines, and they knew that old Abe’s neck, too, was leathery and wrinkled: the ‘old’ in his nickname was apt. The stunning surprise was that the fifty-six year old President’s body was that of a much younger man and was unbelievably perfect. The beautiful proportions, the magnificent muscular development, and the clear, firm flesh were all the more astounding because the visible man had given no clue. Charlie Taft pointed out that there was not one ounce of fat on the entire frame. Charles Leale was something of a student of classical sculpture and remarked immediately that the President could have been the model for Michelangelo’s Moses; he had the same massive grandeur.

 “Assassination!” by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip R. Kunhardt, Jr., American Heritage, April 1965.
Lincoln got his muscled physique from hard work, and descriptions of his strength were told in the stories of his upbringing. Unlike now, there was no work-out room in the White House.

Some other things from the article:

The ball that went through the back of Lincoln’s skull stopped in his brain before exiting. He never regained consciousness. When Lincoln’s brain was removed during autopsy, the flattened ball felt into a metal basin.

If what happened to Lincoln had happened today the medical care, not to mention the record of what happened immediately after the act of assassination, would have been professional, at least. In 1865, with no one but Lincoln expecting an attack on his person (his premonitions of his own death are spooky, but considering the circumstances of the times, the attitudes of those around him were remarkably lax), the care given him was much what would have been given on the battlefield to a wounded soldier: fast and dirty. The doctor who got to Lincoln first was pulling clotted blood from his wound to let the blood flow freely. Had Lincoln survived the shot, the doctors’ fingers touching him would have been enough to kill him with infection.

(Anyone who says they would prefer the “good old days” of the 19th century should remember there were no antibiotics.)

Quoted from the article: Hermann Faber, an artist who saw the death room just after the body was removed, made a fairly realistic sketch of it showing Robert Lincoln and Secretary Welles seated by the bed, and Stanton standing by Welles.

The scene in the small room was chaotic, people coming and going. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took over the immediate duties of President while Vice President Andrew Johnson was being notified of the situation.

Stanton ordered roads out of Washington closed and water traffic stopped, in a vain attempt to catch assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Mrs. Lincoln was beside herself, weeping and lamenting loudly at the bedside until Stanton said, “Take that woman out and do not let her in again!”

One of the controversies of Lincoln’s death was Stanton’s statement immediately after Lincoln died, which has been quoted as both, “Now he belongs to the ages,” and “Now he belongs to the angels.” According to the authors of the American Heritage article what Stanton said was, “He belongs to the angels now.” In the interest of historical accuracy we’d like to know the exact quote, but in fact both versions are pretty good. “…belongs to the ages” would indicate a sense of historical importance, where “...belongs to the angels” is religious, and also appropriate for the moment.

What is left unsaid in the article is tragedy that a clumsy assassination like Booth committed would probably have been prevented had even a few armed soldiers been outside of the President’s box that night. There had been a couple of attempts on Lincoln during the war. Common sense tells us someone should have been alarmed enough by those attempts to insist the President needed extra security. Nothing can guarantee anyone’s absolute safety, and an assassin who is willing to die is hard to stop. But in the case of Lincoln’s death it seems that official stupidity or denial of the possibilities of Presidential assassination were as much to blame as Booth’s bullet.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cell phone drama trauma

I wrote this in 2006. I have edited it slightly.

I hate cell phones. I have one, but hate it. Those phones have become a major distraction in our lives. There is also a matter of common courtesy, which a lot of people don't observe, and that is not talking in public on a cell phone so the world can hear your business.

I was in a thrift store looking for books when I heard the familiar yakking of someone talking loudly on a cell phone as if the rest of the world didn't exist. However, this call was intriguing. I looked around the bookcase to see a woman on a phone, saying, “You’d better pull over! Does the hospital know you're coming? I'll call the paramedics! I'll stay on the line with you, keep talking.”

Another woman, a bystander, handed the first woman her own cell phone and she used it to call 911 while keeping her own phone open to her husband. In the 911 call she reported her husband was on Riverdale Road heading for the emergency room; he was feeling faint and she was afraid he'd pass out while driving. In the meantime she would go back to her own phone yelling at him , “Don't drive! Pull over! Let the paramedics find you!”

The guy apparently decided to keep driving, faintness or not. I noticed a crowd starting to gather around the woman, and she saw them too. At that point she became the star of a play, a movie or TV show. She started making big flourishes with her hands, her voice took on an added sense of urgency. She lost contact with her husband and so she called her son, telling him in her most dramatic tones, “Your dad is on the road and I want you to trace his route to the hospital to find out if he's crashed!”

The crowd moved in a little bit closer. Oboy. This was like a movie, huh? And it didn't even cost anything for admission! To save you from suspense I'll cut to the bottom line: the man made it to the hospital and was admitted, the son made it to the hospital to be with his dad, the woman handed back the phone to the lady who had volunteered it, and as a crowd we all went back to our business. It was the kind of extraordinary thing that a cell phone does; it puts bystanders into someone else's life, even if only for a few moments. You get one part of a conversation, and our minds provide the rest of the story.

It's ruder than hell, though, to talk like that in public. I still hate cell phones for just that reason.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Paranoia must be catching because so many people have it

Rachel Maddow, on her MSNBC show May 23, 2013, spoke of Alex Jones and his raging paranoia. Jones has an Internet show, Infowars. He is a crackpot who can come up with a government plot or conspiracy for just about any tragic event.

The one Maddow called him on was claiming the government can use weather as a weapon, and may have done it with the deadly EF-5 tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma this past Monday. He claims that if you see planes or helicopters in the air during a storm and then a tornado  well, not only can “the government” cause a tornado to form, they can steer it where they want it to go.

He conceded at least that the “conditions have to be right.” As long as we have Alex Jones to tell us it’s not a genuine weather event but a government plot we really don’t need a weatherman to tell us which way the wind blows!

Rachel’s segment on Jones’s bold and paranoiac comments is here:

Maddow also accuses Jones of claiming that the mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, and the Boston Marathon bombing, were all faked. According to Jones, the mass shootings were “an excuse to take away our guns.” (Yawnnnnn.) Whenever I hear talk like that coming out of the mouth of a person I ask myself what exactly are the thought processes that allow a mind to wander down such a path, only to drown itself in a swamp of ignorance? Some of my questions are answered by Maggie Koerth-Baker, who wrote the article, “Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories” for Eureka, posted on May 21, 2013. Ms. Koerth-Baker tells us:
“’The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is a belief in other conspiracy theories,’ says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview.” 
 Quoting Richard Hofstadter’s 1965 book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics
“Conspiracy theories . . . are a favorite pastime in this nation. Americans have always had a sneaking suspicion that someone was out to get us  be it Freemasons, Catholics or communists.”
And now it appears the enemy “out to get us” is our own government. And Ms. Koerth-Baker continues: 
“But in recent years, it seems as if every tragedy comes with a round of yarn-spinning, as the Web fills with stories about ‘false flag’ attacks and ‘crisis actors’  not mere theorizing but arguments for the existence of a completely alternate version of reality.” 
Conspiracists have something special about them, really active imaginations, and they can allow their brains to connect events, large and small, into some sort of cohesive narrative that makes sense to them. We've all heard of those who see the events of 9/11 as a government plot, faked (of course) to look like an attack. But they get even more fabulous in their speculations. Some have even claimed the second plane to hit the tower was actually a guided missile. And when asked why the television images show an airplane and not a missile the answer is because the missile was surrounded by a hologram to make it look like a plane. You can tell that, those imaginative theorists say, because the image wobbles a bit. I just don’t believe there is any medication currently known to humankind that will cure that kind of aberrant thinking. It would make a terrific scene for a science fiction movie, though, along with all of the other screwball theories about 9/11.

Alex Jones is sort of an extreme view of conspiracy theories, but there are others, even people in public office (Maddow showed pictures of Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul) who believe some or all of what Jones preaches over his Internet show. One of the reasons people believe in conspiracy theories, as another article I read claimed, is that there are real conspiracies in life. The author listed Watergate for one. But to list Watergate as a conspiracy against what has to be the grandest conspiracies of all time, like faking the moon landings, or the 9/11 attacks, is laughable. Watergate was a burglary gone bad, and a president trying to avoid culpability and responsibility. The other conspiracies I named are much more grand  and considering the loss of property and life surely evil government pilots herding a tornado over a town in Oklahoma for god knows what reason, is a grand conspiracy along with the grandest of them.

These conspiracy theories are breathtaking in the way their authors go about concocting the reasons and methods by which such events are done. It’s clear to me that Alex Jones and his conspiracy-minded friends have never heard of Occam’s razor, where the solution to a problem with more than one solution is almost always the simplest. The solution to what caused the tornado over Oklahoma would be cold air from the Rocky Mountains meeting up with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and in one of those “perfect storm” moments  a massive tornado that killed people and caused tremendous damage was formed. Since tornadoes have been happening in our country even before it was a country you don’t have to take my word for it that Mother Nature is the most dangerous terrorist and murderer of all, with no regard for life or property.

It’s just that Mother Nature isn’t part of some government cabal which has its mysterious and arcane reasons for the terror it inflicts on its own citizens. There’s no fun in that, and no buzz with which Alex Jones can infect the public discourse with his idiot blather. That is unless he can somehow figure a way to hook the government into collusion with Mother Nature, a la the tornado-herding scenario.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The angry white woman

I clipped this letter to the editor from the newspaper in 2001 and found it recently when going through a box of miscellaneous papers. I remembered it because it seemed so extraordinary in its racist viewpoint, especially in the 21st century. But then, based on the internal evidence of the writer’s age (“I have been watching TV since it first became available”) it seemed more related to attitudes of a former generation. I remember talk like that, blatant and ugly. Even my parents occasionally sounded just as bigoted as the writer.

Poor Norma. She complains that she wears out her remote controls changing the channel every time she sees the “propaganda” being put out by African-Americans. She exhorts white people to do something. She implies she wants to return to the segregation of the past. She says there are “rich blacks” who can buy their own TV stations, put on their own programming, so she could save her remotes from wear and tear. Television stations, separate but equal, appears to be the Norma agenda.

According to Norma, African-Americans feel white people “owe” them something. They even think they are owed parts on TV.

In the early-to-mid sixties, when I was a teen, I saw black people on television when they were on the news being punished for wanting their legal rights. It was the time of the civil rights struggle. We saw news film of peaceful marchers being sprayed with fire hoses, or having dogs set upon them. It was a time when black people speaking out about human rights could be killed. Medger Evers found that out. Martin Luther King found that out. I wonder if Norma thought black people felt they were owed violent death and brutal repression in order to get on television?

Television producers put African-Americans in shows like Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and I Spy and the characters were accepted. Probably not by Norma, whom I visualize frantically clicking her remote to remove those black people from her sight, but there came a time when the television industry found it was good sense to include minority cast members to collect good will (and loyal viewers) amongst the minority community. It just made sense. Commercial television is about selling products. The African-American community, making up just over 10% of the country’s population, is a huge market.

When my son grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s black characters were seen on television a lot, and he didn’t think of it at all. It’s the way things work; when black people were just part of a faceless group subject to discrimination laws, then many white people, and I suspect Norma was one of them, felt that was the way it should be. When we began seeing African-Americans on television then they became individuals. It’s a cycle that is now repeating itself with a growing acceptance of gay people: once you see someone on television you feel you know them, and it’s easier to accept them. That familiarity didn't work for Norma, though. It scared her and others who thought like her.

Something Norma really missed in her rant is that civil rights laws were passed by white people. At the time black people had no power except the power to protest and make their grievances known. Television, and all TV networks were controlled by whites, was an important part of getting the civil rights message across to the largest number of people. In retrospect, it may have been the most important part.

The Salt Lake Tribune chose to run Norma’s letter, probably expecting that it would cause a discussion. Usually when an extremist viewpoint is published it stimulates others to write. As I recall none of that happened with Norma’s letter. I clipped it because I planned on writing a response, but if you look at the date I inked onto the bottom of her letter you may understand why the letter remained unanswered. The day after it appeared the events of 9/11 occurred and Norma’s remote control suddenly seemed unimportant.

For curiosity’s sake I googled Norma’s name and town and came up with a woman in her late eighties. If she’s the same person then when she wrote the letter she was in her seventies. She had some strong prejudices. If Norma is still a bigot then she’s probably very unhappy the President of the U.S. is African-American, and I’ll bet her old TV remote has really had a workout since 2008.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Tim Holt: The movie star that wasn't

My friend Henry Kujawa is doing digital restorations of the covers of Tim Holt comic books of the early 1950s. Here's an example.

Henry's restorations remind me that in 2007 I wrote this post about Holt, an actor I thought was sadly overlooked in his time. With some editing I am re-posting it here.

Holt was born in 1919 as Charles John Holt III. He served in World War II as a lieutenant in the Air Force. He died of cancer in 1973 at the young age of 54.

Tim Holt acted in one of my personal top ten movies of all time, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, co-starring with Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston's father, Walter.

It wasn't the first A-movie Holt had made; he'd been in Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons, for instance, but Sierra Madre should have cemented his reputation as an A-list movie star. So what happened? I’ve read the Tim Holt biographies on the Internet and they don't really tell me. I wonder if it was personal problems or enemies in the studios? Maybe contract problems? They don't say.

What I know is what I saw on the screen. In a movie like Sierra Madre it would have been easy for Holt to get lost between two scenery-chewers like Bogart and Huston. Neither of those guys was ever accused of being subtle as far as acting technique. But Holt, as Curtin, is the man in the middle. He’s the glue that holds the team of three together. It is understated as far as acting goes, but his character is as important as the other two, and in examining the themes of the movie, maybe even more so.

Bogart’s character, Fred C. Dobbs is paranoid in spades, and Bogart plays his part perfectly. While Director Huston allowed his father to emote without restraint, adding to the din caused by Bogart's character, Holt stands quietly by. He is the solid force on which the three of them depend as they dig for gold in some of the most remote and treacherous country on earth.

Then as now, maybe in 1948 the accolades went to the actors who got the most attention on the screen. There was no doubt that Bogart was the star. Why Holt’s own star didn't go on the ascendancy after this movie is one of those Hollywood mysteries. I’m sure there were reasons unknown to those of us who wonder. Tim Holt was a fine movie cowboy in the Saturday matinee tradition of Western movies...

...but he was also a fine actor with a great presence on screen who should've been a major movie star.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Altogether, already...“alright” is not all right

This was originally posted in 2010. I am re-presenting it with some editing.

Things I know for certain about my mother tongue, the English language:

It's crazy. Rules are there, but constantly broken.

It's abused and misused constantly.

Milena, a lady from Serbia, told me she had lived in Germany for three years, then moved on to America. I thought her English was excellent, but she was exasperated with the language. She told me, “In Germany they have one word for a thing; in English you can have twenty words mean the same thing.”

Yes, that's true. That's because English is the ultimate thief. We have stolen words from other languages and done it shamelessly. We have screwy spelling and we did it deliberately to confuse people trying to learn English. We like how esoteric our language is and we want to keep it to ourselves. Or if not, it seems that way.

In English we have words that over the years have taken on different meanings. My favorite example is “weird,” which used to mean something supernatural, and now means anything unusual or offbeat. I think the whole handling of “weird” is weird (in the modern sense). A good word with a specific meaning has had all meaning taken from it, reducing its impact. The list of words whose meanings have changed is long. “Decimate” is another example. I see that word in the newspaper all the time: “The Taliban decimated a village,” in modern usage meaning they destroyed it completely. The original meaning of the word came from the Romans, who, when faced with a village they thought unruly, would take all the men and kill one in ten. That was decimating a village. At one point I thought of founding the Anti-Decimation League, sending letters to any publication that used it outside of its original sense. Then I read a dictionary which gave the original “one-in-ten” meaning as a secondary definition of the word. I felt betrayed by the very people I used to support my other arguments.

Before English spelling was standardized it was a free-for-all between writers, and many words were spelled phonetically, even by otherwise smart men. A religious leader, in a tract regarding Egyptian hieroglyphics, used the word "caractors" for "characters". That makes sense to me to have words spelled like they sound, except we can't do that, because, 1. It would put all the dictionaries out of business, and 2. we'd have to interpret each document, each novel or newspaper article trying to figure out what the writer is saying.

Nowadays people don't necessarily go to a dictionary to check on a spelling. They leave it up to the devil, Spellchecker. Spellchecker is the devil because it leads people astray. It does not know if you write a sentence, “The man ran threw the building,” that “threw” is a homonym for “through,” with an entirely different meaning. Spellchecker didn't know, for instance, the difference between “sewn” and “sown” when my local newspaper posted a headline, “Seeds of revolution are sewn.” No, buttons are sewn, seeds are sown.

And those are words it recognizes, at least. If you have a word it doesn't carry in its database it may give you a suggestion, but unless you check the definition the suggestion could be completely off. A friend writing an e-mail to me told me he had a diagnosis of tendentious. Tendentious means having a definite tendency or goal. My friend meant tendinitis, a medical condition, which Spellchecker didn't know. It threw (not through) out a word that sounded close. My friend trustingly hit the button, substituting the word.

There are fads in language, and writing about all of them would take another post, but words pop into usage, especially hyperbole. For the last few years even the most garden variety of things have been “awesome.” “My trip to Walmart was awesome.” It describes people, too. “Man, you are so awesome!” A radio talk show host said once when a caller gushed all over him using that word, “No, Mt. Rushmore is awesome. Me, I'm just okay.” (“Okay” is probably the most widely used English word on the planet, picked up for usage in every language and meaning the same thing as it does to us.)

Another fad is to use multi-syllable words when one syllable will do. I hear “absolutely” used for “yes.” Other words I've heard used for yes are “definitely,” and “affirmative.” Why use more syllables than you need? Go to another country and if you say “yes” or “no” in English people will know what you mean. Say "absolutely" and you’ll get a blank look. It works for English speakers like me, too.

Finally, some words look right to people and may one day be correct, but now they're not. “Alright” is not a word. It looks like a word. As my American Heritage Dictionary says, “It is still not acceptable to write all right as a single word, alright, despite the parallel to words like already and altogether and despite the fact that in casual speech the expression is often pronounced as if it were one word.” I'm thinking of it because a book I'm reading uses that incorrect usage and it bothers me. Even a headline popped out at me in my local newspaper: “The Backstreet Boys are back, alright!”

“Alright” ain’t a word. “Ain’t” also ain’t a word and it ain’t alright to use it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mystery series that kill

Noomi Rapace

Over the past three nights I’ve watched The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy from Sweden on Netflix. I have seen it before, but I liken it to The Godfather: the story is so epic and involving I watched it again to catch things I missed the first time.

I confess I have not read the Steig Larsson novels on which the movies are based. I would like to at some point, but I am basing my review solely on the motion pictures.

Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, is one of the great characters in movies. As played  in the Swedish version by Noomi Rapace she is unforgettable. You look at the picture of her above; she is portraying a woman with a troubled soul. The sequence from which the still is taken is her conversation with her legal guardian, Nils Bjurman. She realizes in order to get money from her account he requires she give him sex. What follows is a brutal rape, a very rough scene to watch. Even though the viewers squirm, the rape leads to one of the best revenge scenarios ever. Lisbeth, at one point described as “five feet tall and 88 pounds” is deceptively tough. She can handle herself because she’s a genius with a photographic memory, and for another she’s a survivor of the plots against her.

As a child Lisbeth tried to kill her father. She threw gasoline on him and set him on fire. He survived but she was put into a mental institution presided over by the insidious Dr. Peter Teleborian. I’m getting ahead of myself because Lisbeth’s backstory is not fully explored until the second and third parts of the trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. There is a plot involving Swedish national security, a Soviet defector and a cover-up. It’s a great story, and if you haven’t seen those movies take my word that they are worth watching, but not unless you have seen the first part.
In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo we are introduced not only to Salander, but to Mikael Blomqvist (played by actor Michael Nyqvist). Blomqvist is a muckraking journalist who has been sued for libel by a rich businessman and found guilty. Before reporting for a prison term he is hired by another rich man to find the truth about a missing girl, Harriett, who disappeared forty years before. The Vanger family is rich and corrupt, and Blomqvist, after enlisting the aid of Lisbeth, gets further into the investigation than anyone else has in forty years. The truth is shocking and disturbing, and was the basis for the Swedish title of the book and movie, Men Who Hate Women.

I have seen the American-made version starring Daniel Craig as Blomqvist and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth, and while it was a good movie in its own right, I believe the Swedish version to be much superior in all ways, especially the part of Lisbeth.

Rooney Mara

With Netflix online I have access to some really interesting movies and television programs. I’ve been taking advantage. For instance, another Swedish series, Wallander, is available on Netflix. Wallander was presented on Swedish television as 90 minute TV movies. The star is Krister Henriksson. After seeing those 13 episodes I watched some of the English versions of Wallander with Kenneth Branagh, and as with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo I prefer the original in Swedish to the English-language versions. I’m a fan of Branagh,  but not as Wallander.

Krister Henriksson

I went to my library and found an earlier Swedish Wallander DVD series with nine episodes from 2005 in the same format. The series is based on characters in novels by mystery writer Henning Mankell. As an additional item of interest, one of the male leads in that series is played by Ola Rapace, who at the time was married to Noomi Rapace.

I might prefer the Swedish versions of mystery stories because there is a heaviness that hangs over Scandinavian countries. Maybe it’s their wintery climate, or maybe it’s just my perception. Whatever the truth of it is, the Swedes who made the Lisbeth Salander movies and the Wallander TV series have invested a lot of local color into their films, and made them all the more interesting.


I wrote of the famous Swedish mystery series of novels about police detective Martin Beck here.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Monster in the neighborhood

In 2012 and 2013 we’ve had several outrages. We’ve had the shootings in Aurora; we’ve had the Newtown shootings. We were upset when the dictator of North Korea was telling the world he was going to shoot off a nuclear missile. We’ve also had the Boston Marathon bombings, and now we are witnessing a horror story with a man named Ariel Castro.

Poor Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s outrageous autocrat. He had America’s attention, and was satisfied  especially because he’s a fan of American NBA basketball  that the ball was in his court. He was controlling the tempo of the game. He thought he had a slam dunk with his threats of launching a nuclear missile. Then Boston happened and the crowds who had been watching him dribble down the court suddenly left the arena before the buzzer went off. How could he know that in America we have such short attention spans? The nuke threat was a nine-day wonder, something Kim Jong Un had no experience with in his own country of total news control and no competitive cable channels. We turned our attention away from Kim, and worse for him, we ignored him. We followed the story of the Boston bombings with rapt fascination. We had the satisfaction of seeing the case wrapped up in less than a week. It was like the script of an action movie. Kim was probably left sputtering with frustration at the sudden turn of events.

But in the meantime three women and a child were living out the script of a real life horror movie. Ariel Castro, far from being a showboat and belligerent like Kim, went about his dreadful business without so much as raising an official eyebrow. In this country if you mind your own business you are assumed to have a right to privacy. I don’t disagree with that, but you don’t have a right to keep captives in your house to make subject to your sadistic depredations. Outside the house Castro’s profile was too low for him to come to anyone’s attention. By keeping that profile and being allowed his privacy he committed real life acts that would be at home in the worst horror film you have ever seen.

Something about monsters. They don’t look like they do in movies, or even in the editorial cartoon above. If you were to encounter either Kim or Castro in a crowd you wouldn’t look twice.

When you think about it, the worst monster is whom? The North Korean dictator, despite his rotund and clownish appearance, is actually monstrous on a grand scale. His government runs a system of labor camps much like the Nazi or Soviet gulags, where slave laborers and their families live and die. The citizens of North Korea, starved and beaten down by their lifestyle, look as if they have been lobotomized, turned into robots.

On the other hand, as far as monsters go, Ariel Castro is right up there with those people we most fear moving in next door, the quiet and totally deranged. Who knows how long this could have gone on before he was eventually discovered, or would he have died of a heart attack or cancer and then had his secrets exposed? We are used to people like Kim, and we let the U.S. government handle the situation. There’s nothing we can do but sit in front of our televisions and hope things turn out all right. But someone like Castro is much scarier. We work alongside him, we chat with him over the hedge, we sit in a restaurant and have a meal right next to his table. There is nothing on his face, in his demeanor, or in his voice that leads us to believe he is capable of maintaining such a chamber of horrors as the house on Seymour Avenue in Cleveland.

Give me Kim Jong Un as the bad guy anytime. We know how to deal with the Kim Jong Uns of the world. It’s the Ariel Castros against whom we have no defense.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Mysteries wrapped in enigmas

I originally posted this in 2010; with slight editing I am presenting it again.

The past couple of days I watched some DVDs I borrowed from my local public library. Despite the different subject matter all three were essentially mysteries, and all ended without resolution. In the past that was a strict no-no. The thinking was that a mystery had to be solved or the audience would be unsatisfied. Actually, it’s the other way around. If you leave the audience wondering then they have more fun making up their own ending.

Black Christmas was made in '73 and sank at the box office. It was released later to television as Silent Night Deadly Night, and over time attained cult status. Why? Because it predated by half a decade other movies with the same theme, like John Carpenter’s Halloween. Movie fans love this kind of thing because it's the sort of trivia they can haul out at a party, make themselves sound hip. “Did you know that the first slasher movie was a little known Canadian film from 1973 called Black Christmas? It was directed by Bob Clark, who went on to make Porky's...” Yep, I can hear them now at a party. I should know. I'm one of them.

At the end of the movie Detective John Saxon thinks he has the killer, but the killer is still out there. Boo! So who is the killer? We don't know.

The movie, when viewed in context of what movies followed, is fairly standard fare. Sorority girls have a killer in the house who is murdering them. Olivia Hussey, who was Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, plays the lead. Margot (Lois Lane) Kidder is a second lead, even though John Saxon is listed as star. Saxon doesn't show up until late in the story, after all the buildup.

Kidder is easily ten years older than she should be to play a sorority girl, and probably should have played the house mom instead. Hussey said, in an interview included with the DVD, that she was given the opportunity to make the movie, go to Canada and leave her new baby for a month. What? Leave your newborn? And you admitted it? Here's your Mom-of-the-Year Award, Olivia!

Black Christmas is good for its genre, creepy and effective for its time, even innovative compared to its imitators. It's not a great film like the cult film fans claim, but it is well made and gets a high mark from me for its creative use of electronic filtering and voice alteration for the killer's voice over the telephone, and the POV shots, which were made with a special harness for the camera operator. Only the killer's hands are shown, and they are the hands of the real-life cameraman.

I’ve written about Cloverfield before. It’s a monster movie told in a POV fashion through a video camera. I tried not to think of the moving camera, and it was easier on television. Some people got motion sickness in the theater, so beware. At the end of the movie we still don’t know where the monster came from, why he rampaged New York City, or why the hell the movie is called Cloverfield, the worst name ever for a monster movie. The ending is left open, just like its inspiration, the events of 9/11, were  resolved after the fact. In the movie the guy hauling around the video camera, Hud, speculates on the monster: maybe it came from a trench in the ocean, maybe it came from outer space, maybe it’s something to do with the government! The others shush him. They have more important things to worry about. At the end the main character, Rob, speaks into the camera saying that if someone is watching the tape they know more about what happened than he does, even though he’s in the middle of the action. In the 1950s monster movies invariably had a scientist who stopped the film dead with some sort of boring explanation of why a giant gila monster/scorpion/lizard/ants, blah-blah-blah, have appeared. As an audience we don’t really care. The producers thought we cared, which is why they included those types of explanations. We just want to see the monster, please. Send the scientist home, we don’t care why the monster is there, we just want to see him stomp people and cars.


 The Bourne Identity is the third film I watched. It was the first of a trilogy from Robert Ludlum, involving a CIA killer with amnesia, Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon. The reason for all of the goings-on and incredible action sequences is resolved at the end of the trilogy, but the end of The Bourne Identity the mystery is left open. There is a resolution of sorts, as Jason gets back together with Marie, whom he met under less than ideal circumstances, but who was drawn into his dangerous life. At first it was against her will and then she went willingly. Isn't that just like a woman? Falling for the wrong guy?

So all three movies had in common that we really didn't know what had caused the havoc we had just spent a couple of hours watching. For me that's OK; I had some good endings made up in my head. For Black Christmas the killer was the guy with a 35-mm helmet-cam. In Cloverfield the monster was Godzilla’s love child with Mothra...or Gamera...or whoever else it was Godzilla had the hots for, and in The Bourne Identity it was hardly a mystery at all. It was a secret government program that created Bourne. When in doubt always go to the government card. It's always the government who is the source of all things sinister, all things dangerous. We know that from dozens of movies and TV shows over the past 30 years. It’s the stuff of which paranoia is made.

Sex and violence: KSL and NBC

In a column for the Salt Lake Tribune on April 22, 2013, television columnist Scott D. Pierce gave his opinion on a TV show:
“Have you checked out the NBC series, ‘Hannibal’? Here ae a few things you might have missed:
» The naked body of a woman impaled on antlers.
» Bodies carved up so that their backs are splayed like grotesque angel wings.
» Characters dining on human body parts.
» People buried alive, covered in compost and fed sugar water so they grow fungus all over their bodies.
» Victims with their eyes gouged out.
» Victims being shot as blood splatters in slow motion.
» A victim whose throat is slashed and blood gushes from her wound.
Just to name a few.
In the 23 years I’ve been a TV critic, “Hannibal” is the single most violent, gory series that’s aired on network television.”
Pierce goes on to say that the show is not as gruesome as “The Walking Dead,” but that show is on cable. He also goes on to ask, “. . . have you heard of protests by the parents groups that want to cleanse TV? . . . Janet Jackson has a momentary wardrobe malfunction and these groups go nuts, but prolonged, horrific violence? No problem!”

He also mentions that KSL-TV, the local NBC affiliate, wholly owned by the LDS Church, removed shows like “The Playboy Club” and “The New Normal” as not being “consistent with the KSL brand, but that brand is consistent with ‘Hannibal’?”

Pierce also mentions other violent TV shows like “Criminal Minds,” “Supernatural,” and “The Following,” and says, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations that went like this:
Parent: Is such-and-such show OK for my kids to watch?

Me: Well, 11 people are shot to death, there are two stabbings, a guy’s head is chopped off and there’s blood everywhere.

Parent: But are there sex scenes?

Pierce has articulated in a funny but powerful way a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the past few years. The public tolerance for violence, the old blood-and-guts, is much higher than it is for sex. I’m not a psychologist, so I have no answer for why that is, but if I were to make a stab (ho-ho, stab) at it I’d say it’s because we are a very violent species. We seem to be less hung up on doing violence to one another (check out the current debate over guns, “stand your ground,” etc.) than we are about having sex, which is much more a threat to parents than having their kids exposed to violence.

In that backwards way humans sometimes think, sex is more dangerous than violent death.

My son, Dave, and I watched a couple of violent movies recently, Cabin in the Woods and Safe, and my observation is that the human mind is able to sort out fantasy from reality. Maybe it’s just me. When I watch some of this stuff my mind is telling me it’s all make-believe and special effects. Sometimes we try to trick ourselves with words, like using “action” for bloody violence rather than, well, “bloody violence” to explain a shoot-em-up like Safe, which is front to back martial arts and guns. The bullets are spraying out like water out of fire hoses. But as usual, only the bad guys get killed. (Part of the fantasy  good guys always prevail.)

I could dismiss Safe as part of that fantasy world of violence, where the mind tells us it’s exciting, but not realistic.

A bit more problematic was Cabin in the Woods, which has the horror movie elements of young people meeting violent deaths in an isolated spot, but with the added plot contrivance of it being all set up by external forces watching it on television monitors from a world below ours. In both movies violent death and body mutilation are part of the story, but one movie is categorized as “action,” and the other movie “horror.” At least a parent can hopefully figure “horror” may be more gruesome than “action,” although with today’s entertainment the lines are blurred. What I remember about the critics view of Cabin was that it is “fun” because it uses standard horror movie elements but with a twist. The blood and gore, well, that was expected and as usual, glossed over by critics. They expect those who like blood and gore will go see the movie, those who don’t won’t.

Back to Pierce and his comments about sex and violence on local broadcast television. In a surprising follow-up column appearing on May 3, Pierce said that KSL had pulled “Hannibal” from its schedule. He asked “Why did KSL air four episodes of ‘Hannibal’ before yanking it?” He answered himself. “Not a clue. The blood was flying from the opening moments of Episode 1. The only plausible explanation is that nobody at KSL watched it. Which they deny.”

A self-directed question by the columnist: “Is it Scott D. Pierce’s fault KSL yanked ‘Hannibal’?” Pierce answers himself. “Well, [Tami] Ostmark [VP of KSL’s marketing, research and promotion] said my column questioning how Channel 5 could refuse to air “New Normal” and yet air “Hannibal” alerted them to content issues.
“‘It started with your article,’ she said.

“I did not call for KSL to pull the show. I questioned the inconsistency of KSL’s decisions and questioned parents who worry about sex in the media but not violence. I would have preferred that Channel 5 get over its homophobia and air “The New Normal.” Station execs insist it’s not about homophobia. But I’m not buying it.”
It’s not always easy to keep up with these things, why people would prefer their children watch violence than sex. It probably has more to do with their own prejudices.  Sex is much more a part of everyday life than violence. In real-life the violence in Aurora, Newtown, Boston, to name a few, show real-life consequences to people and their families. In violent movies and television the victims of violence are props, not much more than paper targets. If cops get killed in movies the audience knows they aren’t real cops, that they are stuntmen or actors who will get up after the scene is filmed and go home to their families. I believe that most people who watch violent, “action” movies know that, if not consciously, at least unconsciously. On the other hand, if you watch pornography the sex is real, and if you see it simulated on television it also looks pretty close to real, and that creates a whole other reality and threat in the minds of some.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Herblock, the master cartoonist

Where have all the editorial cartoonists gone? Gone to digital every one, to paraphrase the old song. In the golden years of editorial cartooning, the 20th century, just about every daily newspaper of any substance had to have a cartoonist. As with any craft, some of the artists were better than others. A man who got a lot of attention over many decades was Herbert Block of the Washington Post. His cartoons were so well done they earned him many awards, and a prominent place on the Nixon Enemies List,  a badge of honor for the time.

I found an early (1930) example of his original art at Heritage Auctions:

The Library of Congress has an excellent collection of his originals, including these. For more go to Library of Congress.

Herblock’s cartoons on guns show that the debate hasn’t much changed for decades. The mail order rifle Oswald bought brought about the end of buying firearms by mail. Despite the current refusal of the National Rifle Association to budge an inch on common sense laws on guns, I haven’t heard of anyone trying to bring that back.

Life for November 19, 1956, had an article on the hardworking cartoonist.

Herb Block, born in 1909, died one week short of his 92nd birthday in 2001.