Thoughts on ‘Midway’

The other night I got out to see ‘Midway,’ wanting to catch while it was still in theaters. I must say, despite the overuse of CGI and some melodramatic touches, I was very impressed.

The film is of a type that was never very common and is almost non-existent now; a simple and straightforward depiction of historical events. The filmmakers don’t impose any kind of agenda or artificial drama on the story, they just tell what happened more or less the way it did happen and allow that to be enough.

The closest film I can think of would be to Tora, Tora, Tora!, which took basically the same straightforward (and scrupulously fair) approach to the events of Pearl Harbor. A Night to Remember, which took a similar approach to the sinking of the Titanic is another notable example of this particular mini-genre.

Basically, from what I can gather from more historically-literate people, almost everything that happens in this film actually happened. The main characters were all real people. The events and many of the incidents really happened, from aircraft from the Enterprise running smack into the middle of the Pearl Harbor attack to the American bomber trying (unsuccessfully) to ram the Japanese carrier as it goes down in flames.

Even more impressively, the filmmakers allow the characters to speak and act as men and women of their own time and place. There’s no effort to impose a feminist or racially conscious agenda on the events, or to make the characters more ‘modern.’ The Americans have the rough-hewn, devil-may-care, can-do attitude of men who grew up in the Depression. The women are warm and supportive, domestically-focused, but proud of their men. The Japanese have a rigid dignity and class structure bound by intense discipline and sense of honor (though the brutality of the Japanese military is also fairly shown, without any effort to explain the apparent contradiction).

The interesting thing is that, by simply showing these things, the film allows them to be intensely admirable in their own way. When a captured American pilot spits a final defiance in the Japanese face before being executed, it’s a stirring image of American courage. Later, two Japanese officers calmly decide to remain on their ship as its scuttled, after commending the men for their courage and taking responsibility for the defeat on themselves, and it’s a striking and fine instance of distinctly Japanese courage (earlier, Admiral Nagumo, whom we have seen criticized for his very real blunders and whom the film mostly presents as fairly incompetent, has to be convinced to leave his burning flagship under the idea that the remaining men need his leadership. Again, the film makes an effort to be scrupulously fair, not only to the two sides but to individuals on either side).

As for the female characters, there’s a wonderful little vignette where Layton – the codebreaker in charge of determining where the Japanese will strike next, and who tried to warn about Pearl Harbor – comes home late and sets immediately to work at his desk. His wife snatches his glasses to try to make him rest for a while. He pleads for more effort, since he doesn’t want any more men to die because he didn’t work hard enough. She gives him his glasses back and says she’ll make him a sandwich. A sweet, and very human image of domesticity in warfare. Earlier Layton ruefully tells Nimitz that he “plans to spend the rest of his life making it up to her” once the war is over. This matter-of-fact depiction of the different priorities of men and women, where each regards the other with gratitude and affection rather than resentment and hostility, is almost unknown in contemporary fiction. It’s as though the film literally stepped out of the 1940s.

On the subject of raw courage, the film does more than most to show just how insanely dangerous carrier operations of the time were. Again and again we see aircraft malfunction, or crash, or fail to take off or land properly, not due to enemy action but simply because the technology was still in its infancy. Navy fliers, the film makes clear, had to be a little crazy and thoroughly accepting of the possibility of death (one character explains his unflappable courage with an anecdote of how his father survived working on the Empire State Building only to be killed by being hit by a car on his way to church, saying that you simply never know what’s going to get you). We see the futile attacks of the Torpedo Squadrons during the battle, which do absolutely no damage and result in the near-total destruction of both squadrons, but prove unexpectedly crucial by keeping the Japanese pilots busy while the dive bombers set up their runs. And, in what I found to be one of the more striking displays of courage, we see the already-battered bomber squadron, after returning to the Enterprise following their initial run on the Japanese carriers, realizing that they have to get up and go out again to finish the job. Because it’s their job.

We also see the high command, in the form of Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, who is tasked with finding a way to hold off and defeat the superior Japanese navy until American industry gets up to speed. He, and the codebreakers under Layton, are the ones who have to tell the sailors and pilots where to go, and if they get it wrong then more men will die and, as the film makes abundantly clear, the Japanese will be able to threaten Hawaii and the West Coast. The two halves of the military – the commanders and intelligence and the soldiers and sailors – have to have each other’s back if they’re to get anywhere, and the Battle of Midway is an example of them working in harmony to pull off a spectacular and much-needed victory, ultimately turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.

But again, we see both sides. There’s a striking sequence after Pearl Harbor where we cut back and forth between the American brass in Washington and the Japanese command in Tokyo, each discussing what to do next. Admiral Yamamoto is a major figure throughout (showing him listening to FDR’s “Date that will live in infamy” speech was a great touch, as was having him reading Grant’s memoirs). The reasons for the war on either side are presented, but the film shrewdly avoids making an actual judgment on them, focusing more on the events now that the war has begun than on making a historical statement about it.

As I say, my main problem with the film is the overabundance of CGI. While I applaud the film for its minutely accurate depictions of the ships and planes of the time, the whole thing is very, very obviously animated, which takes some of the impact off. They would have been better advised to use a blend of computer and model work (as Emmerich did to great effect in Independence Day) to give a more tactile and solid feel to the film.

There is also a slightly uncomfortable aspect in that the film is largely founded by the Chinese government. Though, as far as I could tell, this didn’t affect the story – which, again, is scrupulously fair and admirable in its depiction of both sides – apart from omitting any mention of Chiang Kai-shek in the scenes set in China, which, as the film covers so much ground, wouldn’t have been necessary anyway.

At times the battle scenes go so far as to feel over the top, almost like a video game. The opening Pearl Harbor sequence, for instance, has a young sailor trying to escape the burning Arizona by climbing across on a rope suspended over flaming waters while Zeros strafe him. Now, for all I know that might have happened, but it feels a little much. Everything being shot from the most dramatic possible angles also lends a sense of unreality and artificiality to the film.

But overall, I was very impressed with the movie, and subsequent consideration has only increased my admiration. Emmerich and his crew have made a true atavism in modern Hollywood; a historical drama that is actually fair and honest about historical events, that presents the men and women of a past age in their own idiom and allows them to speak for themselves rather than being made the mouthpiece for modern platitudes. It is a fitting and honest tribute to the heroism, courage, and skill of the men on both sides who fought one of the most important battles of the twentieth century, and that in itself is a fine thing indeed.

 

Thought of the Day: 11-7

So, apparently they’re planning a gender-swapped Zorro TV show. Because that sort of thing has been so successful with GhostbustersBatwomanOcean’s Eight, Terminator: Dark Fate, and so on.

You just know that the writers are patting themselves on the back for being so modern and up to date, calling it a ‘modern re-imagining’. The funny thing is, this has already been done. In the 1940s.

Well, kind of. Technically, the wonderful Linda Stirling didn’t actually play ‘Zorro’ in the 1944 serial Zorro’s Black Whip: The Zorro name was mostly just used for advertising purposes, though she did play a masked vigilante called “The Black Whip” fighting for justice in the old west.

This is a major reason I always laugh when I hear contemporary writers preening themselves on their ‘strong female leads’ as though they were pioneers. I remember heroines like Linda Stirling’s Black Whip and Tiger Woman, Lorna Gray’s Daughter of Don Q, Frances Gifford and Kay Aldrige’s Nyoka the Jungle Girl, and so on, not to mention the innumerable courageous, determined, skillful serial heroines who didn’t make the title card. Basically, we’ve had ‘strong female leads’ in film pretty much since we’ve had films (that’s not even considering the features, because this is just a quick thought and not a book).

The thing is, I suspect that most of these filmmakers and writers and such probably don’t know about any of this. I get the impression from most contemporary films that those who make them have very limited knowledge of their own medium and its history. Their knowledge of the past is a vague and highly limited impression gotten from film school, probably tailored to illustrate a particular narrative that they never bothered to investigate for themselves.

The same is my impression of, well, most of the contemporary world: we receive a particular, highly selective and colored narrative about the world in school, then never bother to check it for ourselves. Thus we go about in a kind of mirage, fixated on the illusions around us and wondering why things don’t turn out the way we expect.

It Came from Rifftrax: ‘House on Haunted Hill’

Life’s been busy lately, but I wanted to make sure we got this one up for Halloween (more or less: it’s late, but under the wire). In another live show (I really like grabbing these when I can; you get shorts, ad-libbing among the riffers, and the added energy of the crowd), Mike, Kevin, and Bill tackle one of the most ‘Halloween’ films ever made: William Castle’s 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill, starring the unique Vincent Price.

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“I think everyone wonders what he’d do if he saw a ghost.”

Before that, we get not one, but two Halloween-style shorts, both of which are absolutely brilliant. First is Magical Disappearing Money (“The story of the trillion-dollar stimulus package!”), in which a witch uses her dark magic to show people at the grocery store how they can save a small amount of money by putting in some extra work and severely lowering their standards (e.g. she recommends condensed milk as an alternative to regular milk: “Not just for war time conditions anymore!”). She also doesn’t consider ideas such as “part of the price is for the saved effort” or “if you want pudding for a school lunch, it’s probably not practical to just make your own pudding from scratch.” Of course, the real fun comes from the witch’s bizarre, ditzy behavior along with her dubious recommendations. The Riffers delight in interpreting her as a demonic harbinger of evil, sending milkmen to hell and swiping the souls of the innocent (Kevin’s skit of being trapped in the milk fridge was particularly great).

-“Hm, ‘Beard Completer.’ Worth a shot…”
-“Satan’s oats only cost you your soul!”
-“Meanwhile, Fred the cat makes his escape.” “I can has freedom?”
-“You know, she’s pretty pathetic, but not nearly as creepy as the witch who lives in the adult video store.”
-“You know, drainage runoff is cheaper than everything here. Where do you draw the line, you harpy?!”

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“Join me in the abyss of savings!”

Next up is Paper and I, which features a living paper bag instructing young Willy about the paper industry, in the process turning him into a dead-eyed fanatic who thinks only of paper, and eventually they combine their dark powers to remove all paper from the world to teach people not to take it for granted. I am not really exaggerating at all. Then it ends with Willy euthanizing the bag. Again, that happens. The information is kind of interesting, but the whole thing is so nuts that it gets lost amid the insanity (Watch out for the kid who randomly decides to imitate a chimpanzee in the background of one scene. Again, not kidding: that happens).

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“You’ll never be rid of me, Willy!”

This is possibly one of the funniest shorts they ever did, for the combination of the utterly insane storyline, the paper bag’s hilarious, nasally voice, and the fact that they barely have to exaggerate the content at all to turn an educational short for kids into the tale of a boy’s descent into madness (also watch for the bit where the Nashville audience cheers the information that the South provides most of the nation’s paper).

-“Now I will show you your sins, Willy!”
-“Why didn’t we just say ‘plastic’ at the grocery store? Now our boy’s a lunatic!”
-“Here I am, Willy!” “I’m just serving some gruel to the other captured children.”
-“We’ll grow and grow! Stronger and stronger.” “And then we will march on Saruman!”
-“Oh, no; someone invented the internet!”
-“We’ll blot out the Moon, Willy! We’re gods!

Both these shorts are so strange that they barely need any riffing to make them funny, but the jokes just push them from ‘funny’ to ‘painfully hilarious’ territory. Not to mention the unintentionally dark content set a perfect tone for Halloween.”

Which brings us to the main feature. Vincent Price plays an ultra-rich man who, together with his wife, hosts a party in a giant house on ‘haunted hill’ (actually a Frank Lloyd Wright house), in which the five guests will each earn ten-thousand dollars if they spend the whole night in the house. The party, as it turns out, seems to be primarily a pretext for a murder, though who will be trying to kill whom remains to be seen.

The film is a pure delight, from the lushly gothic cinematography and set design to the deliciously arch dialogue between Price and Carol Ohmart, who plays his equally devilish wife (she claims he murdered his three previous wives, he claims she’s tried to poison him. The audience has no trouble believing both).

Price’s trademark hamminess is, of course, the chief asset of the film. The man was simply a joy to watch whatever he did, and when he did horror he was truly one-of-a-kind; equal parts ghoulish and elegant. For instance, there’s a bit in the film where he shakes up a champagne bottle and aims it at his wife’s head like a rifle before commenting on what a good headline it would make. That’s the Price character: the kind of man who will cheerfully poison you with a fine old wine and then discourse on the vintage while he watches you die.

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“Arsenic on the rocks.”

(Needless to say, he was also a master actor whenever he ended up in a ‘straight’ role: he just enjoyed the horror persona he developed too much to stray far from it most of the time).

The film also includes prolific character actor Elisha Cook Jr. (best known as Wilmer from The Maltese Falcon and nicknamed “Hollywood’s lightest heavy”) as the fidgety owner of the house, who fills in the history of the ghosts while chewing any scenery left by Price and his wife. The rest of the characters are pretty standard: the innocent young heroine, the stalwart and rather dense young hero, the skeptical doctor, and so on.

The scares are completely over-the-top and contrived as all get-out, though sometimes rather effective for all of that, especially a very well-executed jump scare. Said scare then gets a ‘natural’ explanation that raises far, far more questions than it answers. As a matter of fact, revelations at the end raises the question of just how much we saw was supposed to be supernatural and how much an elaborate hoax, though quite frankly given the things we saw, the supernatural explanation would have been much more credible.

The movie could be described as a “Weird Tales” cover brought to life, or a young boy’s idea of a haunted house made into a film. It’s cartoony, but for that very reason is absolutely dripping with atmosphere and is spectacularly entertaining to watch.

The riffing, like with Jack the Giant Killer, only adds to the fun, and it’s clear that both the riffers and the audience are enjoying the film immensely even as they roast it. Vincent Price in particular gets a full cheer when he first shows up. Many jokes also revolve around how ridiculously sexy Carol Ohmart was (“Is your face on yet?” “Her face but not her shirt!”). One particularly amusing joke deals with Vincent Price actually using the line “It’s close to midnight,” which the riffers imagine him turning into the opening of ‘Thriller’ before thinking, “I should tell that to that young…” An early gag involves drunk Frank Lloyd Wright. Later they get the entire theater chanting for heads (“Aw, it’s just frilly underwear!” “Boo!”).

-“Doctor Trent…” “May I call you ‘Council of’?”
-“Have you ever tried to get rid of four tons of acid in your basement? You know how expensive that is?”
-“$10,000…” “Invest that in Edsel, I think we’ll be set.”
-“You know how blind people’s senses sharpen to compensate for lack of sight? She grew wheels.” “Blind people are cool!”
-“Fear makes people do amazing things.” “Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel due to crippling fear of spiders.”
-“He tried to kill me!” “Did it work?”
-“You all right? You look like you just saw a talking paper bag.”
-*thunder* “Damn neighbor must be counting things again…”
-“And if you run into some meddling kids and a dog that ‘kind of’ talks, shoot to kill!
-“In the meantime I’ll be emptying the cash from my mattress and fleeing to Mexico if you need me. Not an admission of guilt!”

During the actual live performance itself, there’s some fun to be had with the trio dressing up (Kevin with a gorgon wig, prompting questions about the other end of the snakes, Bill as a ‘sexy kitten’, etc.). Not to mention many MST3k-themed costumes in the crowd.

They’re also joined for the second short, and a brief sketch during the film, by comedian Paul F. Tompkins, who I personally didn’t find all that funny, except when he’s threatening to replace Kevin during the film, though your mileage may vary.

In any case, this is a great show from Rifftrax, and perfect viewing for Halloween.

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“Damn it, Bones, leave her alone!”

Talking Climate Change at ‘The Federalist’

Another post is up at The Federalist: in this one I give some reasons why I’m skeptical of what is now called ‘Climate Change:’

You see, I can’t judge from what I don’t know (e.g., climate science), but I can judge from what I do know. I know something of history, something of philosophy, and something of human nature. I can observe what people are doing at the moment and listen to what they actually say.

Doing so, I note that the vast majority of people, including the cause’s most vehement advocates, are no more qualified to judge it scientifically than I am. Does anyone really believe that any of those people marching in Washington have the knowledge and ability to interpret data from a global climate survey? Have they sunk the necessary hours of study and objective research into this subject to be able to say what they say with any certainty, assuming they could ever be certain?

Of course they haven’t. They are going entirely off of what certain experts have told them — namely, a specific selection of experts who have come to their attention because the media has elevated them and political groups have championed and funded them. These climate change apologists are in no position to critically examine these expert claims.

Average Voters Cannot Verify Climate Change Claims

Now, if there is, for instance, a genuine international crisis (e.g., Venezuela), then people have resources to verify it. They can read testimonies and see photos and video of the event, and in the last resort, they can go there to see for themselves. If it is a question of domestic policy, people can consider their own experience and knowledge to judge which approach to, say, taxation seems to be the best.

People cannot do this with climate change. The signs of the crisis come down to weather and to intensely complex reams of data that require specialized knowledge to interpret. The latter is out of reach for almost everyone. The former could be used to justify just about any theory since it is a proverb for unpredictability and changeableness.

If you tell people the earth is getting warmer, they will remember all those hot summer days and snowless winters they experienced and say that warming is very likely. If you tell them it is getting cooler, they will remember the mild summer days and bitter winter nights and say cooling is also very likely.

The fact is, the average voter has no way to adequately judge the question of climate change. Yet he is assured that it is an existential crisis that must be dealt with immediately and by any means necessary. Politicians and media activists are thus urging him to favor certain actions to combat a crisis that he has no way to verify. Worse, this message tends to be directed toward impressionable young people — that is, those with the highest emotions and the least ability to examine these claims.

That is an extremely dangerous state of affairs for a representative government.

Read the rest here.

Catholic Match Piece on Why Fighting is Good For You

My latest piece is up on Catholic Match, wherein I advise people to get into fights:

Our Lord says, “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to confuse ‘peace’ with simply the avoidance of conflict. But there are two ways people avoid conflict; the first is by presenting their differences in an atmosphere of mutual respect and goodwill and working out a solution based on higher, shared goals. When successful, this indeed brings about peace.

The other way is by ignoring a problem and hoping it goes away. This is the method favored by professional pacifists and armchair demagogues and never results in actual peace (though it does sometimes bring Peace Prizes if you’re into that sort of thing).

So, when it comes to the conflicts that will inevitably arise in our relationships, I’m recommending the first option, right? Sitting down, working out a mutually beneficial solution based on shared goals and values? Absolutely.

But the trouble is, that takes a lot of practice, a lot of virtue, and a lot of genuine love and self-sacrifice. It’s probably going to take you a while to reach a position where this is anything but an elaborate show version of the second option for one or both parties.

But wait! If there are only two options, one bad, the other often out of reach, where does that leave us?

Where most such efforts end up: just having the fight after all.

Because let’s be honest here, you will have fights in your relationship. There are always differences between two people (especially when one is a man and the other is a woman), and sooner or later this will lead to disagreements that will have to be settled or at the very least acknowledged.

Ready? Fight!

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘How to Keep a Job’

Since I’ve been preoccupied with job-hunting and related issues lately, I thought this week we’d take a look at Coronet’s (yep, them again) film on How to Keep a Job.

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“Well, if it’s anything like my restaurant job, all you have to do is not get caught in the walk-in cooler, barefoot and eating coleslaw directly from the container.”

Meet Ed, an ‘ambitious’ young man who is laid off from his current job and sets about applying for another one. At his interview, he proceeds to bad-mouth his old company while trying to evade admitting that he was fired. The Riffers point out the flaws in his thinking pretty quickly:

“It wasn’t my fault: the company just up and started firing people.”
“And for some reason they started with you?”

Fortunately for Ed, his interview exists in an educational short, and so the manager, thinking (inexplicably) that Ed might amount to something, proceeds to tell him the story of Bob and his twin brother Walter, who demonstrate the dos and don’ts of keeping a job. Bob gets started right to work easy, Walter puts off his work until the last possible moment. Bob spends his office downtime catching up on work, Walter wastes time. Bob focuses on his job, Walter bad mouths the company to anyone who’ll listen (“What can Brown resentfully do for you?”).

As usual, Coronet makes some good points in a somewhat heavy-handed and corny manner. In this case, the points are rather nuanced when you look at them. For instance, they point out that it’s not so much a question of being actually fired as that, sooner or later, every company has to cut down staff, and when that time comes it’s going to be the people who do the bare minimum acceptable work, rather than making themselves particularly valuable, who get the axe first (“Fire both and outsource it for pennies”). They also show that bad-mouthing your current company does you no favors either in your present job or in applying for another one. 

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“Don’t I seem like a sharp, industrious character?”

Of course, the Goofus and Gallant-style storyline, as well as the whiney protagonist make for a lot of rich riffing material. Among others, there’s a running gag of the twins hiring strippers, jokes on the business world, and some gags dealing with the substandard state of the film print itself (“Sorry I time traveled real quick there”:

“Make yourself so valuable the employer can’t let you go.”
“Paint your whole body with pure gold!”

“I didn’t do anything; why fire me?”
“I think you just answered your own question.”

“I’m just kidding: that suggestion box is really a shredder.”

“No system! And no one in charge with enough brains to start one.”
“Shouldn’t have put the Scarecrow in charge.”

“A company has to operate within its income.”
“No one’s gonna bail them out if…oh.”

There’s also a great call-back to the earlier short This is Hormel (“I’m going to show you a room we call ‘the Hide Cellar'”),which was about some kids who request to take a tour of a meat disassembly plant and get to see cattle carcasses being graphically skinned and processed (no, honestly; that’s what it’s about). We will definitely be covering that one sooner or later.

In any case, this is a very enjoyable short, and, like many Coronet films, actually gives useful advice that you can take in while laughing at the jokes. Check it out and make your job secure!

I mean, unless the company decides it’s cheaper to outsource it to the other side of the planet after your union insisted on making it prohibitively expensive in order to justify their own existence, which they did because neither of them could possibly care less about you.

But that’s a topic for another time.

Talking Dying Franchises at ‘The Federalist’

First article in a while is up on The Federalist, talking about why dying franchises matter:

The imaginative power of Star Wars’s IP has been systematically stripped away into a confused and contradictory mess loaded down with contemporary politics. The simple, yet rich story of the originals (and even of the prequels, for all their faults) now suffers from a soulless and pointless tumor that grinds the rich characters of the originals into the dirt in order to set up hollow new ones.

“So what?” you might say. “Why does this matter? It’s just a fantasy film franchise. There are other, more important things in the world. Who cares?” Evidently, quite a few people care. But here is why it matters.

We’re Losing Wholesome Entertainment

In the first place, in practical terms, this means the loss of yet another source of wholesome and uplifting entertainment. Not much of that remains in mainstream American culture. This is important because the stories we tell and listen to affect how we see the world. They are part of how we communicate values and ethics. They are part of how we pass on our understanding of life and humanity. And they are an essential element in the continuity of culture.

A hopeful tale of good triumphing over evil, leavened by rich characters driven by familial love, courage, and decency, and bounded over by a mystical power delineating good and evil, cannot but have a positive effect on its audience as a whole. It isn’t the best story possible, nor the only such source, but in terms of mainstream media, there are precious few such stories left, and they grow fewer every day.

“Star Wars” was an atavism in its own time, a throwback to an earlier, more hopeful trend in Hollywood in contrast to the grim, nihilist fare that was all the rage in the late 1970s. It sparked a renaissance of that kind of storytelling, but now we are in an arguably worse state of affairs.

In our day, mainstream media is increasingly preaching a socio-political agenda. No hope, no uplift, no joy is permitted. Only instruction. Something that made people happier and better, something that helped communicate a healthy understanding of the world, has now been gutted for the sake of scoring political points. That matters.

 Read the rest here.