Friday, July 21, 2017

Another Silly Season-Part One

Seventy years ago this summer, the flying saucer phenomenon, a potent myth for the postwar era in America, began. For years after Kenneth Arnold's first sighting in June 1947, flying saucers were everywhere in our culture. They were a perennial favorite among newspaper reporters, magazine writers, book authors, and vast numbers of Americans who read their work. Some wrote and read only for fun, others with great interest and avidity. Some took it so seriously that it affected their psychological and physical health and threatened or ended their personal relationships. Flying saucers and their presumed occupants began showing up in movies, too, and on television, in comic books, as toys, and of course in science fiction stories, where the whole phenomenon had begun. There were new magazine titles, actually new categories of magazine titles. Some, like Fate, were devoted generally to Forteana. Others, like Flying Saucers, were focused specifically on this new phenomenon. (Both were originally under the editorship of Raymond A. Palmer of Amazing Tales and Shaver Mystery fame.) Flying saucers and the mythology of the flying saucer era are still with us, but nothing like they were then. There will never again be flaps like there were in 1950, 1952, 1956-57, 1966-1967, or 1973. Today, flying saucers and the mythology of flying saucers are mostly just holdovers from a previous and long-departed culture. In point of fact, nearly every element of the phenomenon was in place in the first half decade or so after that first summer of the flying saucer era, 1947.

There was a problem, though. In those early years, in report after report and page after page of eyewitness accounts, there was a frustrating and often depressing sameness. Someone on the ground or in an airplane saw an inexplicable light or object in the sky. The sighting lasted for a few seconds or a few minutes. The light or object made maneuvers or traveled at speeds impossible for any earthly craft to attain. Then the light or object winked out or zoomed away. Writers and journalists in the budding field of ufology dutifully chronicled these accounts in their work, devoting pages and pages--whole chapters, whole sections, whole books--to them in fullest detail. When was the UFO seen? Where? By whom? For how long? How many, what direction, what altitude, what size, what color, what shape? Full accounts, yet still empty. All of it ultimately seemed to amount to nothing and to mean nothing. There was no significance. There was nothing to take from it. Nothing to infer. Nothing to understand. Nothing to gain. Nothing that might expand our knowledge of ourselves, the earth, or the universe. Individual sightings were without any climax or resolution. The same thing could have been said about the whole flying saucer phenomenon. People interested in the phenomenon spent years waiting for some great climactic event or grand revelation as to its meaning and significance. They waited for it all to come together into a whole that might be clearly seen and understood. In the meantime, they made every kind of speculation and supposition based on the flimsiest of evidence, or no evidence at all, or evidence that was fabricated or simply woven from the most fervid, if not pathological, of imaginations. Some, like Major Donald E. Keyhoe, who devoted his life after 1950 to the flying saucer mystery, died still waiting.

What was needed in all of this was some excitement. Enough of the fact-heavy and ultimately empty and unimaginative accounts of sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena. Enough of the waiting. What we needed were encounters with real aliens from space. That excitement came early in the flying saucer era, certainly by the end of the summer of 1952. By then, the first flying saucer books had been published and the first flying saucer movies had appeared on the silver screen. In the five years previous, science fiction authors (and artists) had been busy, too, making the most of ideas that had seemingly passed from their very own genres into hard reality. Few science fiction stories treated the question of the flying saucer phenomenon better than did "The Silly Season" by C.M. Kornbluth, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the fall of 1950. Kornbluth's story, with a large dose of very good humor, made sense of the whole seemingly senseless thing. The randomness, the inexplicability, the vast array of strange and seemingly arbitrary objects seen. All of those meaningless sightings suddenly meant something. Unfortunately, meaning and understanding came too late for Kornbluth's people of earth. But it wasn't too late for us. In some ways the flying saucer era was still getting started. In the early 1950s, the flying saucer occupants began showing their very alien faces.

Kornbluth's title, "The Silly Season," refers to a journalistic convention, an observation made by reporters across cultures, that summertime, being a slow time for news, tends towards the telling of silly stories. The sightings and supposed crash downs of 1947 fit neatly into the silly season of June through September. Though the sightings continued and though new parts were added to the mythology of flying saucers in the five years following that first summer, the events of 1952 went towards filling out the whole thing. There wasn't much that was new after that, certainly nothing new after the early-1970s.

Again, as in the events of 1947, some of what happened in 1952 is visible only in retrospect. Some of it was made retroactive by writers at later dates. But it was a full year, one of the most remarkable of the flying saucer era. I'll write more about it in part two of this series. By the way, "The Silly Season" was reprinted in hardback for the first time in 1952, in Tomorrow, the Starspublished by Doubleday and edited (ostensibly) by Robert A. Heinlein. By the way, too, Keyhoe and Heinlein contributed to Weird Tales, and though Kornbluth did not, his widow did, in 1973, the year in which flying saucers may very well have had their last gasp, if they hadn't already died five years before.

To be continued . . .


Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Summer of Flying Saucers

This was the summer of flying saucers. On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot out of Boise, Idaho, saw nine bright, shining aircraft in formation near Mount Rainier, Washington. He was not able to identify the aircraft. He could see only that each was shaped something like a flying wing, that they flew at tremendous speed, and that their individual motion was like that of a saucer skipped across the water. Upon landing his Call-Air A2 at Yakima, Washington, Arnold told a number of other pilots what he had seen. The story soon got out to the press, and within days, saucer mania was sweeping the nation.

At about the same time, Mac Brazel, a New Mexico rancher, found and recovered, with his family, the wreckage of what he assumed to be a weather balloon near their home in Corona. They reported their findings to the Lincoln County sheriff. Soon men from Roswell Army Air Field were on the case. On July 8, 1947, the story went out from the airfield that the U.S. Army Air Force had recovered the remains of a "flying disk." The next day the story went bust when the "disk" turned out to be nothing more than a wrecked weather balloon, just as Brazel had originally thought. That didn't stop later theorizers from contending that the debris was actually from a flying saucer, that the U.S. government had recovered and spirited away the saucer and its occupants, and that it had covered up the whole thing. That story of conspiracy and coverup was still years in the future, however.

Sometime around July 15, Kenneth Arnold received a letter from The Venture Press of Chicago. The author of the letter wanted to know about Arnold's experience of three weeks before. After some hesitation, Arnold wrote back to him, and within a few days, the men were corresponding by mail. Then the man from Venture proposed that Arnold investigate a purported sighting of flying saucers in Tacoma, Washington. And it wasn't just a sighting. In fact, the incident at Tacoma combined the best of Kenneth Arnold's original sighting of June 24 with the supposed crashdown near Roswell, for there was supposed to be physical evidence involved. And it was supposed to have taken place on June 21, giving the incident precedence over Arnold's own sighting. Kenneth Arnold's Chicago correspondent, by the way, was Raymond A. Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories, a science fiction magazine that had lately been publishing tales of the Shaver Mystery. As the summer of 1947 went on, Palmer must have seen flying saucers as the next big thing. 

The sighting in Tacoma, now called the Maury Island Incident, turned out to be a hoax, but Kenneth Arnold didn't know that at the time. He knew only feelings of unease, fear, and paranoia over the course of his investigation. Those feelings began when he found upon arriving in Tacoma that some unknown person had reserved a hotel room for him. Arnold had told no one of his trip. An unknown informant seemed to know everything that went on in his hotel room. He and another pilot searched the room for listening devices and found nothing. A house in Tacoma that he visited early in the investigation was empty on his second visit. Spider webs had been spun across the doorway. No one was around. In addition, the two men involved in the sighting, Harold A. Dahl and Fred L. Crisman, were secretive, evasive. They had misplaced important evidence and documentation. There was something amiss in their tale. They spoke of a mysterious and menacing man in black who knew everything about what they had seen and warned them against telling. Arnold never met the man. He did, however, meet two air force officers, Captain William L. Davidson and First Lieutenant Frank M. Brown, who arrived to investigate the incident. The two were killed in a plane crash on the way back to their base, and the physical evidence they had collected was presumably lost or destroyed. They were the first casualties of the flying saucer era. By the way again, Fred L. Crisman, who took part in the Maury Island Incident, had earlier written to Amazing Stories about a strange and frightening experience he supposedly had in Burma during World War II. His letter, published in the magazine in June 1946, was a warning not to pursue further investigations into the Shaver Mystery.

Kenneth Arnold departed from Tacoma on August 3, 1947. Less than two weeks later, on August 14, the first alien encounter of the new era occurred--or so the man said. His name was Rapuzzi Johannis--or so he said--and on that date, he claimed to have been searching for geological specimens in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy when he ran across two little green men and the spacecraft in which they had arrived on Earth. They shot him with a ray, paralyzing him, before fleeing in their ship. Being Italian aliens, they were stylishly dressed. Being Italian, they were probably enjoying the Ferragosto holiday when they were so rudely interrupted by an impertinent Earthman. Johannis didn't tell his story until a decade and a half had passed. In the meantime, he went to the United States, supposedly became acquainted with Raymond Palmer, and returned to his native country to write science fiction stories. Again, here was a witness claiming precedence, in this case as the first person in the flying saucer era to encounter space aliens.

Finally, to round out the summer of flying saucers, the National Security Act of 1947 went into effect on September 18, providing for the creation of the national security apparatus of the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency. The creation of the U.S. Air Force, later the official governmental investigator of the flying saucer phenomenon, was also a result of the act. The mind of the conspiracy theorist boggles at the implications of the events that began and ended the summer of 1947.

So in the course of one season--Kenneth Arnold's original sighting took place two days after the summer solstice, and the National Security Act took effect five days before the autumnal equinox--much of the mythology for the flying saucer era was established (though most of this was done retroactively by writers and conspiracy theorists). In addition to sightings of flying saucers, there were reports--contemporaneous or not--of: crashdowns; recoveries of physical evidence, including alien bodies; the removal of alien bodies to secret government installations; encounters with live aliens; seizures and thefts of physical evidence; the involvement of government agencies in the flying saucer phenomenon; official secrecy, coverups, and conspiracies; and encounters with mysterious men in black. There were also the first official investigations; the first photographs of flying saucers; the first flying saucer hoaxes and pranks; the first flying saucer fads, crazes, merchandise, and culture; and the first flying saucer flap. Significantly, there were also the opposites of feeling when it comes to flying saucers: On one side, mystery, awe, wonder, hope, expectancy. On the other, fear, dread, anxiety, paranoia. The contactee and abductee phenomena were not fully formed in 1947, but as we'll see, those were and are late-stage developments, if not the very last stages of the flying saucer phenomenon, which has, at this late date, more or less reached its end.

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Contact

Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral.
--V.I. Lenin, Summary of Dialectics (1914)

Without intending to, I have come full circle in this series on movies and television shows. That happened by way of my finding by chance a DVD of the movie Contact (1997)--that was on Saturday--and watching it with the idea that it would lead me somewhere I was looking to go--that was on Sunday.

The epigraph above refers to straight lines, circles, and spirals. I have been writing about these things for the last few weeks. I have included Lenin's words here less for their subject matter than for their author--I'll have more to say about him and his beliefs in the next couple of entries--but these words are fitting for the moment. The second half of the quote from Lenin is less to the point, but here it is anyway:
Any fragment, segment, section of this curve can be transformed (transformed one-sidedly) into an independent, complete, straight line, which then (if one does not see the wood for the trees) leads into the quagmire, into clerical obscurantism (where it is anchored by the class interests of the ruling classes).
Talk about mixing your metaphors. Anyway, I have written before about the idea that, in the Christian version, God's intervention in history in sending His son to earth turned history from an endless series of cycles (or circles) into an arrow flying through time. Before Christ, empires rose and fell, kings and warriors lived and died, and things were forever the same. With the advent of Christianity, however, the cycles of unchanging history were broken so that there was now a forward and a backward: the idea of progress came into the world. That idea of progress has given us much, but it has also resulted in utopian theorizing on human nature, society, and history. Utopian theories, once put into practice, have too often resulted in mass murder. We can thank Marx, moreover his little attack dog Lenin, for a good deal of that.

So Matthew McConaughey is in a film in which his character spouts his philosophical beliefs and always carries around a notebook with a strap on it. In this film, there is a skeptic and a believer. In the end, the skeptic--an orphan bereft of love and family--undergoes an extraordinary experience, in the process becoming something of a believer. No, I'm not talking about True Detective. I'm talking about the aforementioned Contact, starring Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway, a scientist and a skeptic, and Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss, a halfway man of the cloth and a believer.

As in True Detective, the names mean something or might mean something. The first name (I hesitate to call it a Christian name) of the female lead is Ellie, or, if you like,

Lₑ

like a term missing from the Drake Equation. (She alludes to the Drake Equation in the movie.) Her surname, Arroway, defies Lenin's quote as well as the pre-Christian cyclic nature of history, for the way of the arrow is straight, and the arrow flies in only one direction. (Except that if you imagine an arrow flying through the universe, you will see that, just like every other thing in a relativistic universe, it doesn't follow a straight path but one curved by the effects of gravity on the space-time continuum. That's beside the point, though, no pun intended.)

The name of the male lead, or at least the semi-romantic interest, is less clearly symbolic. His first name, Palmer, can be taken negatively, as like a conman who palms a coin, a bill, or a pea in a shell game, but I like better the idea that it refers to Raymond A. Palmer, the man who invented flying saucers. The character's last name, Joss, sounds like josh, as in kid or joke, or dross, something worthless, or maybe it's a combination of those two words.

As in True Detective, there is a good deal of imagery of circles, spheres, rings, domes, bowls, and saucers. Look for the shape of the desk lamp in one scene or of the U.S. capitol in another--they look like flying saucers. Also as in True Detective, the visions experienced by the skeptic are of a spiral followed by a reunion with a departed loved one. Needless to say, these visions change her life and perhaps even her beliefs, though I wouldn't bet on the latter.

Like Rustin Cohle in True Detective, Ellie Arroway is an orphan and a materialist or atheist, possibly the latter because she is the former. And like Cohle, she sees in those who believe in something an opposition, if not an enemy. We see this in the real world, too: a sense of arrogance and superiority on the part of the atheist or materialist, a sense that these people who believe in these things are hopelessly blind, stupid, and ignorant. If only they would open their eyes, they would see that the world means nothing--that our lives mean nothing and that love is simply the firing of electro-chemical signals in our very material brains.

Anyway, characters or players act out their parts. They should do so independently of the desires of their creators, the moviemakers. The plot in a movie should act independently, as well. Too often, though, moviemakers insert themselves into their creations. (Or, like God, they intervene in their creation.) That's my complaint against Jurassic World, and that's my complaint against Contact, for Contact was written by two atheists or materialists, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. (They actually wrote the story, not the screenplay.) To their ends, the villains in the movie are their own personal villains, and those villains exist on a continuum (or vector, or maybe arrow-way?) of villainy. They are the usual suspects in movies now and have been for years. From least bad to most bad, they are:

<---The U.S. Military <---> Conservatives <---> People of Faith <---> Fundamentalist Christians <---> Nazis--->

Palmer Joss is a believer, but he's also a non-conformist (he left his studies in divinity before taking the plunge), plus he's young, tan, and has a great head of 1990s hair, so he's okay. He may not even be anywhere on the arrow-way above, although he's sometimes on Arroway (Ellie that is). I should add that James Woods (in real life a conservative), who plays a government functionary, is also a villain, but he exists on a part of the continuum not necessarily charted here.

The worst villain (other than Hitler) to appear in Contact is the leader of some kind of fundamentalist Christian religion or cult. He's played by Gary Busey's son, but he looks more like the offspring of Edgar Winter. The first thing I thought of when I saw him is that he resembles George Adamski's vision of the so-called Nordic alien. (Nordic as in Aryan or quasi-Nazi.) Significantly, he makes his first appearance at a flying saucer jamboree, like the gatherings at Giant Rock in the 1950s and '60s, which "Professor" Adamski no doubt attended from time to time.

This villain--his name is Joseph, you know, like the patriarch of the Holy Family--is a preposterous character, an incarnation not just of the hatreds and fears of the atheist, but also of something more, and this is where Contact is especially troubling, if only in artistic terms. In his final scene, Joseph kills himself and destroys the alien-designed mechanism (significantly, a series of interlocking rings through which Ellie will drop in her sphere like a plummet, tracing a straight line or arrow-way through space) by detonating a suicide vest. This is partly why I say preposterous, for the suicide vest is a weapon employed almost if not exclusively by Islamist terrorists. Murder and suicide are anathema to Christianity. I don't know of a single case of a supposed Christian using a suicide vest in the real world. But in movies, Christians are terrorists and if Muslims are shown at all, they are mere victims. I suppose to an atheist--who is likely also a moral relativist--Christianity and Islam are the same thing. They're both icky religions after all. And that conflation of two opposing belief system goes on wherever atheists meet and wherever they form sentences. (I use the term relativist here partly to evoke consideration of Einsteinian relativity. The historian Paul Johnson has much to say about the relationship between relativity and moral relativism in his book Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s [1983, 1999]. It's a good book and worth your time, even if it's a little bulky.)

Here is the more troubling part about Contact, I think: If a non-Jewish author or screenwriter--especially an overtly Christian writer--were to deal so coarsely in Jewish stereotypes, he would be labeled a racist, an anti-semite, or even a Nazi, perhaps rightly so. But are we to accept the work of authors who deal in coarse Christian stereotypes? And what if those authors are, like Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Jewish? Is one offense worse than the other? Setting any political issues aside, why should authors--true artists working in earnest rather than just hacks or rank amateurs--deal in stereotypes of any kind? Is not every person complex and three-dimensional and not a stereotype? If so, why should authors reduce any of his or her characters to mere devices for the sake of the plot? Too many authors do that, and that's what Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan did here. I expected more from them and got far less. (I admit here to being an admirer and fan of Carl Sagan.) Their fears and hatreds, made manifest in the film, practically ruin it. The weak ending, with its equivocations and its attempts to satisfy both believers and atheists--a case, I guess, of Solomon's proposed splitting of the baby--hardly helps. Despite the praise heaped on it by movie critics, Contact very nearly fails as a work of art.

One last thing. In going back to the idea that what were once stories about men are becoming or will become stories about women: In Contact, a woman took the place of Frank Drake, Carl Sagan, and other real-life and fictional men (including those in "The Listeners" by James Gunn, from 1968), but this was still 1997, so she wasn't quite there yet. She was still subordinate in many ways to men, and she lost her heart to men, first to her father, then to her occasional boyfriend. (She seems to think of her father's death, and by implication his life, as mere material phenomena: he went on living because of medicine, and he died because she couldn't reach it in time. His reappearance in her vision is because the aliens have recreated him from her memories.) In a remake of today, the woman radio astronomer would be in complete command. Even the president of the United States would probably be a woman. The men would be eunuchs or at best beta males or Pajama Boys. (And real-life men would probably stay away from the movie theater in droves.) But again, this was still 1997, a time when Bill Clinton was in the White House. (He's in the movie, though he doesn't know it.) Women in the America under his leadership were, consequently, all crazy or bimbos or doormats or walking humidors or meant to serve him or be used for his purposes in one way or another. And people so recently wanted him back in the White House. With nothing to do.

Next: Genres, continuities, discontinuities, flying saucers, aliens, contactees, abductees, Charles Fort, Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, and more.

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

True Detective

I guess I'm catching up on my viewing from 2015, the HBO TV series True Detective included.

Few people remember it today, but in its first incarnation, Weird Tales had a companion magazine called Detective Tales, later Real Detective Tales, which began publication in 1922. The publishers of these two magazines got into financial trouble about a year into their venture. One of the publishers, Jacob Clark Henneberger, gave up his interest in Detective Tales and held onto Weird Tales, which has had an on-and-off career in the nine decades since. Detective Tales carried on under a different publisher and became Real Detective Tales, then, in May 1931, simply Real Detective. The similarly titled True Detective, part of Bernarr Macfadden's True series of titles, began publication in 1924 and lasted until 1995. The point of all this is that the makers of the TV series True Detective seem to have intended to evoke pulp fiction and pulp imagery in their show. I think they succeeded. I would add that, despite the title, True Detective has much--maybe more--in common with weird fiction than with detective fiction.

I heard a lot about True Detective in 2015 when it first aired, and I can say after having seen it that the show is compelling. The co-stars, Woody Harrelson as Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey as Rustin Cohle are excellent. (Note the symbolism in their names.) Matthew McConaughey is, as always, like a chameleon in portraying seemingly real people. A lot of the supporting actors are also good. I'll single out Brad Carter as Charlie Lange, the peckerwood ex-husband of the murdered woman, for his performance.

There is some clunky, inauthentic, and overly literate dialogue in True Detective, but over all, the characters speak in ways that are true to life. Rust is often sophomoric in his pseudo-philosophical musings. Hart registers proper skepticism and disgust at what he says. (I'm not sure that any actor is as good at disgust as is Woody Harrelson.) The main title sequence is very good, and the theme song is perfect for it, one of the best theme songs I've heard in a long time. The settings and scenery are great, as is the cinematography. There are some anachronisms, I think, and places where the screenwriter's politics show through. For instance, he takes unnecessary swipes at private schools, especially parochial schools, and at school choice. In reading about the show, I find that the screenwriter, Nic Pizzolatto, was raised Catholic. A lot of us were, but so what? Get over whatever it is that got your underwear in a knot and move on. To that end, Rust character is evidently an atheist, but at the end of the show he sees the light (literally). I imagine that was a bitter disappointment for any atheists watching and enjoying the show. Significantly, his penultimate vision--the one actually shown on screen rather than the one he describes from his wheelchair--enters the otherwise flat land of Louisiana (see Flatland below) in the form of a spiral (see The King in Yellow below) and through a circular opening in the spherical roof (see The Ring and Flatland below) of a decrepit building (see almost everything below).

I have to admit, the change in tone at the end of True Detective is a little jarring, but if being gored and hatcheted by the worst serial killer in history isn't enough to change your life, I don't know what is. The show also changes in its structure and viewpoint in later episodes. I'm not sure if those were good moves or not. There are also too many convenient developments (the owner of the green house is still living, still lucid, still available for questioning, and has an impeccable memory), too many things left hanging (who called the man who subsequently killed himself in his prison cell?), and too many missed opportunities on the part of the detectives (why didn't they talk to an anthropologist, a folklorist, and a botanist very early on in the case?), but over all, True Detective is a good show, I think, and well worth the viewing.

I said that True Detective seems to want to evoke pulp fiction and pulp imagery. Here are some possible sources of inspiration, or at least examples of creative minds arriving at the same points independently of each other:

From The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers (1895): Carcosa (drawn from Ambrose Bierce); the King in Yellow; the viewing of the tape in True Detective vs. the reading of the play in "The Yellow Sign" as an experience that changes people's lives or damages their sanity; the secret symbol, in True Detective, a spiral, in "The Yellow Sign," the eponymous sign.

From H.P. Lovecraft (who drew from Chambers): the decadent and inbred family; the decrepit houses and other buildings; the backwoods setting; the circle or arrangement of stones in the woods at the the site of the cultist's rites; the super-secret and far-reaching cult; the secret and profane rites of the cult; the found object (in True Detective, the videotape).

From "Sticks" by Karl Edward Wagner (1974), The Blair Witch Project (1999) (both of which drew from Lovecraft), and the art of Lee Brown Coye: the found object in the videotape; sticks and stick lattices (there are sticks and lattices everywhere in True Detective; even the Cross can be seen as a stick lattice); drawings or murals on the walls of abandoned buildings; the old, decrepit, backwoods house; the murder of children; the super-secret cult.

From Twin Peaks (1990-1991): the opening sequence in which the body of a woman is found in some backwoods place; the otherwise eccentric storytelling, setting, and characters.

From The Silence of the Lambs (1991): the demented serial killer and his extensive house of horrors (if there is such a thing as the Gothic Baroque, the house and grounds of the serial killer in True Detective is it).

From The Ring (2002): the found object in the videotape; the viewing of the tape, which changes the lives of those who see it; the lone tree in the field; the repeated imagery of the circle or ring; the main title sequence in True Detective as a video montage like the contents of the tape in The Ring; the family with evil secrets; the decaying house of that family.

From Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbot (1884): talk of multiple dimensions beyond our own; flatness, circles, spheres, and other geometric or topological concepts (is a spiral merely a track made by a one-dimensional point as it moves in a certain way through a two-dimensional area, or, alternatively, the shadow in a two-dimensional area of a gyre spinning in three-dimensional space?; also, mention is made in the show of a psychosphere; also, sphere is another word for the different levels of the heavens, as in "music from the spheres"); flatness itself in the topography of Louisiana.

and

From the true-to-life Black Dahlia murder case (1947): The murder scene as a tableau for artistic, aesthetic, or personal expression; the ritualization of murder and of the preparation of the murder victim's body; the unsolved nature of the case.

As for philosophizing of Matthew McConaughey's character: I'm not sure where that comes from except from the minds of those who have given up hope or who are angry at and disillusioned by life and the world. It's not especially deep or serious-minded thinking, and though I'm no philosopher, I don't know of any formal source for the character's ideas or words. I'm with Woody Harrelson's character, though: Shut the eff up and let this vehicle we're riding in be an area of silent reflection. (But then the show would be far less interesting.)

One more thing: there is talk among writers and artists of "subverting" this or that. Trying to subvert things is an attempt at rebellion or innovation, very often a childish attempt. I would just say that when people claim that such-and-such "subverts" conventional storytelling, what they are really describing is something far simpler: it's called a twist, and genre writers and pulp writers use twists all the time. If you have never seen a twist before, or if you mistake a twist for a "subverting" of conventions, you haven't read very many stories. Next, I'll say that everyone in art, literature, politics, and society should remember the words of Ecclesiastes: There is nothing new under the sun. Nic Pizzolatto created a very fine piece of art, and he richly deserves the praise he has received, but I can't say that it subverts anything and I can't say that it's like nothing before it. (I don't know that he made those claims, only that viewers and critics tend to be carried away by hyperbole.) True Detective is just a really good piece of storytelling.

Updates, July 12, 2017
1. I see from another website that one of the books read by Rust is the collected poems of Theodore Roethke. Roethke was known for his recurring imagery of stones, bones, blood, sticks, and other natural objects. One of his most famous poems begins: "Sticks in a drowse droop over sugary loam." See "Sticks" and The Blair Witch Project above. Also, Roethke worked in greenhouses when he was young. Does green house (in True Detective) = greenhouse?
2. I see from that same website that flowers, especially in connection with sex, are part of the symbolism of True Detective. I hadn't thought much about that, but I'll add that flower parts--sepals, petals, etc.--are in whorls, a word similar in meaning to spirals.
3. Along those same lines, much of the imagery and many of the themes in True Detective have to do with sex, especially transgressive sex: pedophilia, adultery, sodomy, homosexuality, transvestism, bondage, group sex, pornography, sexting, sexual snuff films (the videotape). Even the spiral symbol can be interpreted as being related to transgressive sex. It's worth noting that all of the sex acts depicted outside of marriage are in one way or another transgressive. If I remember right, only one scene, a loving scene between Hart and his wife, shows a man and a woman in the missionary position (vs. what might be seen as pagan or pre-Christian alternatives). In contrast, the sex scene between Hart's wife and Rust shows her from behind, like the body of the murder victim at the beginning of the show. (By having sex with Hart's wife, Rust cuckolds him, i.e., places horns upon him, also like the body of the murder victim. Hart by the way is another word for an adult male deer.) I take all of that to be symbolic of a supposed moral decay that would have taken place over the years covered by True Detective, 1995 to 2012. Remember, True Detective was written by a Catholic. Remember, too, that 1995 was before cell phones and the Internet really took off.
4. In the climactic (not related to sex) scene, the main characters are on the floor of a domed building with a circular opening at the top of the dome. The building can be seen as analogous to an eyeball--i.e., a hollow sphere with a hole, aperture, or pupil in it--gazing upwards into the heavens (or spheres). (No wonder Rust sees a black hole, i.e., a kind of star but also a kind of spiral, through the aperture.) If the building is an eyeball, then maybe the stick-lattice representation of the Yellow King is at the fovea, a place also occupied for an instant, perhaps, by Rust. Significantly, fovea is Latin for pit, which is another word for abyss (for the Yellow King and his cultists) and trap (for Rust, who says early in the series that he feels like he's in a trap; the spiral symbol can also be taken as a labyrinth or maze, another kind of trap). Remember, Rust continually looks at his own eyeball in a mirror.
5. There is a lot of pagan, pre-Christian, post-Christian, and satanic imagery in True Detective, but other websites have gone into all of that, so I'll leave the analysis to them.
6. Whew!

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, July 9, 2017

I Walked with a Zombie

Next came I Walked with a Zombie, from 1943. People of today like their mashups--an odious word. Well, I Walked with a Zombie could easily be subtitled Jane Eyre Meets the Walking Dead. It's the story of a Canadian nurse, played by Frances Dee, who goes to the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian to care for the invalid wife of a sugar plantation owner. There, for the first time, she encounters the concept--and the apparent reality--of zombie-ism.

I Walked with a Zombie was based on a newspaper feature of the same name by Cleveland journalist Inez Wallace (1888-1966). The title is sensationalistic and confessional. The story in the movie is told in the voice of the nurse, but it's controlled, intelligent, and even in tone. I imagine much of that is attributable to Curt Siodmak (1902-2000), one of the co-screenwriters. As is the case with the best horror movies, much is left to your imagination.

I wrote about zombies a few months back, pointing out at the time that the fear of zombie-ism is the fear among black people of being returned to slavery or of being made a slave forever. It is not the fear of a capitalist exploiter as critical theorists of today would have us believe. The shadow of slavery and of life under slavery is cast across I Walked with a Zombie, even in the opening minutes as the nurse rides in a wagon with a black driver. I can't say how black people of today might react to the movie, but I think that the awareness of the slave experience, of the suffering and pain of slavery, and of the fear black people had or have of slavery are conveyed in the film at a time when portrayals of any authentic black experience were rare in movies.

I Walked with a Zombie is, I think, a very effective film. The sequence in which the nurse leads the invalid wife through the sugar cane to the Voodoo gathering is very fine. Images of Darby Jones as the zombie Carrefour are extraordinary and unforgettable, surely among the most iconic in American movies. And has any singer in movies been more menacing than Sir Lancelot as he advances upon the nurse, singing his song in deadpan, casting his lyrics upon her like a curse?

I Walked with a Zombie was innovative in some ways. It is supposed to have been the first movie with a calypso song in it. Beyond that, I'm not sure that any previous movie had attempted to show the practice of Voodoo with the same evenness or humanity as this one does. I'm also not sure that any previous movie would have used the words houngan or obeah or Damballah or would have given any credence at all to Voodoo belief or practice. One of the things I like most about I Walked with a Zombie is that the black characters are treated as real human beings and not as stereotypes. There may be divisions in the movie--it is after all about white people and the real threat of zombie-ism is against a white woman--but the white and black characters interact with each other as fellow human beings, and the suffering of black people under slavery is essentially the context in which the drama plays out.

One last thing: I Walked with a Zombie was produced by Val Lewton (1904-1951), who wrote one story for Weird Tales, "The Bagheeta," published in July 1930 and the source for Lewton's film Cat People, from 1942. Lewton was of Jewish extraction, as was Curt Siodmak. Perhaps the history of suffering and slavery among Jews gave these men sympathy for black people and their similar experiences here in the New World under a system imported from the Old.


Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Animals in the Uncanny Valley

At the end of these hot and humid days, I watch movies in the dark. The night after watching Mad Max: Fury Road, I saw Jurassic World (2015) on DVD. The movie opens with a scene showing a CGI bird of an unidentifiable species. (I think it's supposed to be a jay.) Here's something I have come to understand about moviemakers: they think we're stupid. They don't realize that moviegoers might know something about birds, or paleontology, or human behavior, or any other subject, and that we might notice when they--the moviemakers--come up with some kind of BS. Anyway, the bird is fake, made by CGI, and does not look or act like a real bird. I have also seen CGI wolves and horses. I'm sure there have been other fake animals in movies.

A few months ago, I wrote about the uncanny valley, that place where human beings recoil from something that looks human but is obviously not human. An animated Shrek is okay because he doesn't and isn't supposed to look human. An animated Peter Cushing is creepy and repulsive, however. Animals are not human, but we have affinity with animals. We know they're alive. We recognize in them some of the same experiences, sensations, and feelings we have in ourselves. We know that they suffer and feel pain, that they wish to live and thrive and enjoy life and the company of their own species. (I will never forget the sight of a group of barn swallows playing a game with a floating feather as they circled a pond on an Indiana farm.) No, they are not human, but we know them and recognize them. We also recognize things that are not animals but that are supposed to look like animals. Toy animals are okay. Animals made by conventional animation are okay. But CGI animals are not okay. They inhabit the uncanny valley, and they are wrong and creepy and disturbing. Dinosaurs and imaginary animals are different because we don't have any experience with them, but CGI animals are creepy and should not be in movies. I would ask moviemakers instead: why don't you just get the real thing?

I have other complaints about Jurassic World. I'll start with the deficient and inaccurate science in the movie. I have already talked about the bird species that doesn't exist. But what about the dinosaur that breaks out of its eggs using a talon rather than an egg tooth? Or the map showing how dinosaurs migrated or expanded their ranges, yet the map is of the modern world? I'm sure there are other problems with the science in the movie, but they're not as obvious as the problems with technology. For example, if the dinosaur handlers can implant a tracking device in each dinosaur, why can't they just insert a small, remotely controlled explosive device or at least a tranquilizer capsule for use in case of disaster? And what about the cellphone system on the island? Why doesn't everybody who works there know everything instantly by automatic message? Why do they have to call each other? Why isn't there complete, foolproof cellphone coverage across the entire island? And why does one of the characters use a cellphone that looks like it came out the 1990s? Is that some kind of radio or walkie-talkie? Why? And why do they go after the dinosaurs on foot? Haven't they ever heard of a tank or an armored vehicle?

But the worst part of the movie--the surest sign that the moviemakers think we're stupid--is the disregard shown by the screenwriters for their characters. As an example, Chris Pratt's character is smart and able. I was never even mildly convinced that he would be attracted to the stupid, shallow, annoying character played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Worse yet--really the worst part of the whole movie for me--is the use of an idiot plot device whereby Chris Pratt's character very conspicuously disarms himself not once but twice before the top dinosaur appears. His weapon has a shoulder strap. He can free his hands while still carrying it. Yet he sets it on the ground. This is an insult to the character and to us. It's a sign not only of the screenwriters' contempt for us but also of their intervening in their story by forcing their characters to do things that are out of character simply for the sake of the plot. And not only for the sake of the plot but for the sake of their not having to work harder to figure out how to make their plot work better. This happens way too often in movies and it has to stop. Maybe moviemakers should have small, remotely controlled explosive devices implanted in them for when they misbehave.

Finally, Jurassic World reminds me of Aliens. Once again, a large corporation and/or the military is the villain. That didn't bother me very much, but I'll note that Vincent D'Onofrio gets it like Paul Reiser got it in Aliens. Do moviemakers, who work for large corporations, have any sense that when they kill off corporate functionaries in their movies, they may actually be killing off representations of themselves?

In November 1930, Weird Tales published "A Million Years After" by Katherine Metcalf Roof, a story in which two burglars steal and accidentally hatch a brontosaurus egg. The great dinosaur goes on a rampage, of course, before meeting the fate of all rampaging dinosaurs. No, there is nothing new under the sun. Cover art by C.C. Senf.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

For Freedom

Today, July 4, 2017, we celebrate our independence, but we also celebrate an idea larger than mere independence. There are nations now that became independent during the twentieth century, yet have retained or created tyrannical and arbitrary governments. On this day in 1776, we declared that we would have none of that. We declared loudly and openly and in plain language an idea that is at once as old as time and as radical as nearly any in history: that we are all created equal and that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. Those rights did not come to us from a king or the State or from any person or institution: they came from God. In the two hundred and forty-one years since, there have been those against us, and they have been against us in reaction to that radical idea, against the idea that we are and by rights free, that our rights and our freedom have come to us from our Creator, that they are individual rights, and that no person or institution may justly take them from us. In 1776, as war waged in our new nation, there were among us loyalists to tyranny. We knew them and recognized them. In the interest of charity, we might excuse or forgive them today. But today, there are also loyalists to tyranny who live among us and pass among us. They enjoy the rights and freedoms and privileges that we all enjoy in this country even as they scheme to take those things away from us. Their goal is to restore tyranny--to return to Old World ways of thinking and living. They are in short unworthy of living in the New World, a radical world in which men and women are free. They might better return to the Old World, if the Old World would have them, where tyranny still lives.

So what does any of this have to do with fantasy fiction? Well, since the idea of the future was created, we have also had a literature of the future. We call it science fiction, a form of fantasy. One of the sub-genres of science fiction is utopian and dystopian literature. The strange irony is that the societies described in those sub-genres are essentially a return to the past, even as the literature is of the future. They are reactionary in the extreme in that they seek a restoration of tyranny and a repudiation of the radical idea of human freedom. We know now that the future has been approaching so rapidly that we can hear and feel its onrush--the winds of the future are as a buffeting wind in our faces. We can say today that the future--meaning, the tyrannical past--is here in the form of a powerful and overreaching State that has denied the parents of a sick infant in their right to remove that child from its control and not only from its control but from its domain. That State demands that the child, as its property, die by its prescription. The future is here. That tyrant is, as it was in 1776, ruthless and arbitrary; it claims for itself powers against human life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is also, as it was at our founding, the government of the United Kingdom. George Orwell could hardly have imagined such a thing for the country in which he set his novel 1984. (Has any writer of science fiction imagined that tyranny would creep into our lives through medicine, a field whose first command is do no harm?) I find these facts disheartening in the extreme, as we have fought with the British so well against tyranny for the last century. But tyranny lives deep within the heart of the Old World, and given a choice between the values of the tyrant and the values of the free man, those in the Old World would seem forever to choose the former. This is why, for as long as we cherish our freedom, America will be the indispensable nation and a refuge for those seeking an escape from tyranny.

Happy Independence Day to All
and
May Freedom Ring!

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley