Friday, October 30, 2015

Watching The Exorcist again for the first time

The other day I sat down to watch some DVDs, old horror movies, to write up in this column before Halloween. The missus is gone in her role as professional petsitter and house-watcher for vacationers. I am alone at night this week with only the creaking and settling of my 45-year-old house to keep me company, unless I turn on the television to drown out the other ambient noises of my environment.

The Exorcist was first on my list. How many years had it been since I had seen it? I thought back, and as I watched the movie I came to a startling conclusion. I had never seen this movie before! I “remembered” some parts, but others were a total surprise.

What had confused me after four decades are false memories of actually seeing it. Having heard so much and read so much about the movie (plus reading the novel) had tricked my brain into thinking that at some point I had watched it.

When The Exorcist came out in late 1973 it was a huge hit, much like Star Wars would become a few years hence. In Salt Lake City the movie showed at one theater, the Regency, for a long time. Everyone who wanted to see it had their chance. My memory is not tricking me in remembering people who were scared before they went into the theater. A guy I worked with told me he was so terrified before the movie started that he was hyperventilating. I also got the blow-by-blow descriptions of what went on in the movie from people who wanted to share the experience. I usually stop people before they launch into lengthy descriptions of movies. First, it is boring, and second, I don’t want any spoilers. But The Exorcist was different, and it was because I had read the William Peter Blatty novel and knew the ending. When people wanted to describe it to me I did not stop them. Because the demonic dialogue was much more profane than other movies of that era the guys I worked with loved to repeat it. I knew all of the dialogue, including the famous “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” line.

The ouija board showed up in the movie. Some people, including my mother, felt the ouija board to be demonic. Somehow we had a ouija board in our house in the early sixties, and played it like a parlor game. One day Mom threw it into the incinerator and burned it. Someone had told her by using it we were “letting Satan in.”

So, besides me being possessed by untrue memories, how true is the story of the exorcism that inspired the book and movie? A lot of myths have grown up, and there are various versions of the story. I personally like the version from Strange Magazine, “The Strange Hard Facts Behind the Story That Inspired The Exorcist, which demonstrates the author, Dean Opsasnick, did his homework.

The 1949 event involved a young boy in Maryland, who had been given exorcisms by more than one faith (Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic), and that later it was revealed it took “20 to 30 rituals of exorcism” before the devil was cast out of the boy. In the movie it took a lot less to get the demon out of Regan.

But beyond the artistic license, director William Friedkin, who apparently believes in possession, in the January 2014 issue Fangoria magazine said he thought the evil was directed at Father Karras. Friedkin explained: “When we meet [Father Karras] [he] is on the verge of retiring from the priesthood. He believes he has let his mother down. He tells the older priest, who is his mentor, that he feels he's losing his faith. It gives the demon an opening to show him that human beings are nothing but animals and worthless, and that his faith is in itself worthless.” In my opinion of course the chain of events that led to the girl’s possession and doom to the priest came about because Father Merrin unearthed the devil in Iraq.

Considering the troubles we have had in Iraq over the years, I wonder if George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their gang of neocons weren’t possessed by demons in getting us involved. (I’m only half-joking.)

Another thing I noticed when the movie was first run in theaters was how many people were claiming they were going back to church. Other reports told of people who thought they were possessed by demons. To me those stories meant that people were giving credence to the supernatural rather than admit they might have a mental illness.

Something else were articles exploiting the actress who played Regan, young Linda Blair. The articles worried about how she would survive such a role, as if she was really possessed. I am sure to Ms Blair it was an acting job, not a lifestyle. It got her roles in movies, and then at age 18 she was busted buying cocaine and it cost her. She still acts, but has gone on to an animal rescue organization she founded.

Everyone has seen the pictures of young Linda Blair as the demon-possessed Regan. This is a lot nicer.

 ...And when she grew up! Very nice!

The Exorcist is still a good movie. I don’t believe in demonic possession, but I understand why people related to it.  In 1973-74, when it was playing theaters we Baby Boomers were still young and still looking for our way. The movie affected a lot of people, for better or worse.

And before I forget, HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Pyramid scheme

Nick Redfern’s 2012 book, The Pyramids and the Pentagon, is enormously entertaining. Redfern is a reporter who writes about subjects like UFOs and the paranormal. In this book he draws parallels between some of those subjects and the interest in them by the United States government. My natural skepticism gets in the way of actual belief, but I like all his books, anyway. I am interested in why people believe in such things.

In the “pyramids” part mentioned in the book’s title he also goes into the subject of ancient astronauts, and how, for instance, they helped the Egyptians build the pyramids. I’ve never understood why aliens from space would help in such an endeavor, but the stories have gone around for many years and there are a lot of people who believe them. Personally, stories of alien mentors and their out-of-this-world technology seem less credible than the more prosaic explanations, that the Egyptians got the job done without anyone else’s help, and did it using a their muscles and the technology available to them at the time.

(If aliens had helped them it would have been nice if they could have left a few snapshots of the work in progress lying around in the burial chambers for archeologists to find.)

Human beings are tool builders, and some rare humans have a gift for invention, especially during times of need. Our species could not have survived without brains and invention, and glory be, opposable thumbs. So why credit the hard work of building the pyramids to aliens? Why do some people look at the work and logistics involved and think there is no way those old-time Egyptians could have done the job? Evidence shows they did, whereas stories that they were helped by aliens are conjecture at best, fantasy most likely.

I remember when Chariots of the Gods? by Erich Von Däniken came out in 1968, and I thought that popular book had been the origin of such stories. But Redfern reaches further (much further) back to retell a story told 1100 years ago by Abu-al-Hasan Ali al-Mas'udi, a prolific writer of over 30 volumes of the history of the world, based on his own experiences and collection of stories during his many travels. As Redfern explains it:
“. . . al-Mas'udi noted that in very early Arabic legends there existed an intriguing story suggesting that the creation of the pyramids of Egypt had absolutely nothing to do with the conventional technologies of the era. Rather al-Mas'udi recorded, tantalizing, centuries-old lore that had come his way during his explorations strongly suggested the pyramids were created by what today we would most likely refer to as some fom of levitation.

“The incredible story that al-Mas'udi uncovered went like this: When building the pyramids, their creators carefully positioned what was described as magical papyrus underneath the edges of the mighty stones that were to be used in the construction process. Then, one by one, the stones were struck by what was curiously, and rather enigmatically, described as only a rod of metal. Lo and behold, the stones then slowly began to rise into the air, and like dutiful soldiers unquestioningly following orders, proceeded in slow, methodical, single-file fashion a number of feet above a paved pathway surrounded on both sides by similar, mysterious metal rods. For around 150 feet . . . the gigantic stones moved forward, usually with nothing more than the gentlest of prods from the keeper of the mysterious rod to ensure they stayed on track, before finally, and very softly settling back to the ground.

“At that point, the process was duly repeated. The stones were struck once more, rose up from the surface, and again traveled in the desired direction, for yet another 150 feet or so . . . until the stones finally reached their ultimate destination. Then in a distinctly far more complex feat, the stones were struck again, but htis time in a fashion that caused them to float even higher into the air. Then, when they reached the desired point, they were carefully, and with incredible ease, manipulated into place, one-by-one, by hand and nothing else, until the huge pyramid in question was finally completed.” The Pyramids and the Pentagon, pages 69-70.
Fun story! As Redfern states, “manifestly astonishing.” Indeed it is.

But it is from an old book, and is part of a history collected from those who told tales from the oral tradition going back for generations. Those folks grappled for explanations and came up with such fabulous tales, much colored by superstition of a world of the unseen and mysterious, ruled by God (or gods).

The story is too far-fetched to be believed. When a story goes into the realm of magic (via “magical papyrus” and levitation rods) I assign it to the “untrue” column, especially when the magic involves the unlikely help of aliens from another star.

It just does not give enough credit to those who labored in the service of the Pharaoh, and the thinking of the era, that his monument was of paramount importance in their religion. Architects and planners had to work all of this out using primitive tools, and they had to make it so because that was the will of Pharaoh. To me that achievement seems much nearer to supernatural than does some fantastic story of levitation tools provided by alien interlopers.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Wire re-seen

Recently I watched all five seasons of HBO’s excellent series, The Wire, on DVD. I binge-watched, six episodes per day until I had finished.*

When it was first run I watched it every week, and missed some of the nuances I saw this time. Characters in minor parts in one season became major characters in the next. There were foreshadowings of events to come, which showed me the creators of the series had mapped out what they wanted to accomplish in the long term. Each season had a theme. A team of actors made their way through each season, keeping a continuity, although we saw some major changes in some character’s lives, and some just stayed the same through the end. In its original run from 2002 to 2008, I thought it to be a very good television program. I have upped my estimation of it. I believe Breaking Bad to be the best serial television program I have ever watched, and it would take something momentous to knock it off its number one ranking, but The Wire is a close second. They aren’t remotely the same (except for drugs being the raison d'etre for the characters), but each in its own way just has its way of kicking other series to the curb.

 I can’t believe my good luck in finding the complete series for $5.00 at a local thrift store. It is made in China (Chinese writing on the back and inside). It is shown in English, with the choice of Chinese subtitles.

So...that puzzled me. Why would the Chinese be interested in such a show?

I see The Wire as the story of a city in dire straits, and despite its problems, people trying to hold it together. Baltimore is the setting. But when you watch it you know the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce probably had fits in its vision of the city. it is a bleak and terrible place, with drug dealers on every corner. As envisioned by the filmmakers, the cops can barely keep the lid on the garbage can that is the drug trade in a city with thousands of vacant houses and no jobs or hope for much of the population. It would be a great propaganda tool for any communist government to say this is life in a typical American city. Drug dealers, murder, crime, crooked cops, compromised policing, corrupt city and state officials. They could sell it as American hopelessness in the face of problems they cannot control, either because of lack of money or even desire to improve.

But I see The Wire as more than that. We all know we have these problems in America. but in America there is also a hope, some optimism that things will at some point be corrected, problems solved, or at least put n the right track. That may be naïve on my part, but I believe that there are always those who are working toward making life better for others. They have varying degrees of success, but I never feel hopeless about the future. I could not face the day if I did. Could a program like The Wire be made in China, showing the problems that their large cities face? I don’t think so.

In 2008 I wrote in a post for this blog about The Wire. With some editing, here is what I had to say:

I believe if Shakespeare were alive today he might be writing for the HBO series, The Wire. Unlike The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, The Wire doesn't fall into the doldrums those series fell into as they gasped out their last episodes. Where The Wire has succeeded is by including in each season a major plot involving some aspect of life in Baltimore. In Season Two it was the dockworkers, in Season Four it was the school system and a group of students, and in this, the last season, the Baltimore Sun newspaper.

The characters in The Wire are Shakespearean. The major players, the police, are flawed but interesting. The characters I like the most are people like Bubble, the junkie trying to clean up, Marlo Stanfield, the druglord working with the most murderous pair of hitmen ever presented on TV, and the best of all, Omar Little, the gay stickup man who goes solely after drug money.

Michael K. Williams as Omar.

All of these characters are deeply flawed by their criminal lifestyles, but are also understandable as being part of the environment of life on the streets in Baltimore.

Like Shakespeare, the plots can twist and turn around until they show their true purpose, but also like Shakespeare the play's the thing: While you're watching The Wire you're watching major drama that builds until the ultimate conclusions, then leaves you walking away shaking your head, thinking, “Man, I'm glad I stuck that out!”

*Yes, I had other things to do, but the beauty of retirement is I can do something like this occasionally without feeling guilty about ignoring more “important” things.