Saturday, March 24, 2012

Robert Grudin: An image of change

I've read a number of attempts to describe the way change happens or at least the way we perceive it, and I think Robert Grudin's is one of the best.


"In late November of 1968, I spent a few days in a hotel just off the Piazza San Marco in Venice. At 6 one morning, hearing the loud warning bells, I jumped out of bed, grabbed my camera and rushed out to see the famous Venetian flood. I stood in the empty and as yet dry Piazza and looked out toward he Gulf, for I expected the flood tides to come in from the open water. Many minutes passed before I turned to see that the Piazza was flooding, not directly from the Gulf, but up through its own sewers. The indented gratings in the pavement had all but disappeared under calm, flat silver puddles, which grew slowly and silently until their peripheries touched and the Piazza had become a lake. That morning I experienced vividly, if almost subliminally , the reality of change itself: how it fools our sentinels and undermines our defenses, how careful we are to look for it in the wrong places, how it does not reveal itself until it is beyond redress, how vainly we search for it around us and find too late that it has occurred within us."

-- Robert Grudin --
from Time and the Art of Living

My experience has always been that the changes I talk about are always the ones that have already occurred. Perhaps others are more perceptive than I am. Unfortunately I've never met them.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Eric Hoffer: on mass movements

Faith is a two-edged sword. It can move people to do virtuous and compassionate acts as well as monstrously evil. However, we tend to focus solely on the good it can do and ignore its tendency towards cruelty and hate. Are the processes that lead to good actions the same as those that lead to evil?

Eric Hoffer on the subject of faith:

Mass movements use irrationality to shut out the intellect, to turn people into predictable, mindless machines. Both Stalin and Hitler used blind faith as a device for mechanizing souls.

We hear a lot about the dehumanizing effects of the machine. Actually, the large-scale dehumanization of the Stalin-Hitler era was the work of ideological machines. In Russia the doctrinaire appliances work better than the mechanical.

The savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despo9t who wants to turn them into puppets.

There are similarities between absolute power and absolute faith: a demand for absolute obedience; a readiness to attempt the impossible; a bias for simple solutions--to cut the knot rather than unravel it; the viewing of compromise as surrender; the tendency to manipulate people and 'experiment with blood.' Both absolute power and absolute faith are instruments of dehumanization. Hence absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.
-- Eric Hoffer --
from Reflections on the Human Condition

This is an interesting list of qualities characteristic of those demanding absolute faith.
1. a demand for absolute obedience;

2. a readiness to attempt the impossible;

3. a bias for simple solutions--to cut the knot rather than unravel it;

4. the viewing of compromise as surrender;

5. the tendency to manipulate people and 'experiment with blood.'

Are there "leaders" today who insist on the above from their supporters or have they all disappeared with the twentieth century?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Combination Plate 21

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and some endings.

Sea Wolves: a WWII film

The Cheap Detective: a parody/satire? of film noir and WWII films, written by Neil Simon

Rope, a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Philip Jose Farmer: To Your Scattered Bodies Go, an SF novel

Willa Cather: The Professor's House


Sea Wolves, a WWII film, 1980

Being a longtime Gregory Peck fan, and having seen him in several WWII films, I decided to take a look at The Sea Wolves (TSW). It also stars David Niven, and a host of other names. The cast therefore includes Gregory Peck, David Niven, Roger Moore, Trevor Howard, and Patrick Macnee. With a cast like this, how could one go wrong?

Well, it did go wrong. I did watch it, but I was disappointed at the end. Perhaps I had expected that it would be as good as the earlier Guns of Navarone (GoN) which also starred Peck and Niven. However, in TSW, the pairing was Gregory Peck and Roger Moore, and it didn't work for me. Roger Moore apparently thought he was still James Bond and plays his character that way--ironic and detached, as if this was a farce, definitely something not to be taken too seriously. This did not play well against Gregory Peck's solid and earnest depiction of a military officer with a suicide mission.

In addition, I felt the plot was weak. I didn't see the tension in TSW that I felt was so strong in GoN. I think the difference between the two films were two elements in GoN that were absent in TSW. In GoN, they were in enemy occupied territory, and the German army was in pursuit. Therefore, they had to elude the Germans as well as make it to their target. In TSW, they were either at sea or in neutral territory and the risk of encountering the enemy was minimal. The only obstacles they faced for much of the film were the weather and a boat engine that should have been retired long ago. This made for a much lower level of tension in TSW.

The second element present in GoN was the deadline. Peck and the saboteurs had to destroy those guns by a certain time. If not, those guns would decimate a convey that had been sent to rescue a large number of British soldiers. Therefore, the guns not only had to be destroyed, but they must be destroyed before the convoy arrived. This element was not present in TSW. Peck and his men had to destroy the ship which was transmitting vital information to German U-boats, but there was no real deadline, except for the usual one of doing it as soon as possible. The powers-that-be, I suspect, recognized this weakness and worked a deadline into the plot that the viewers would know about but not the characters.

Every night at 10:30 (I think it was then), the German radio operator would transmit information regarding Allied shipping in the area. On the night of the attack by the British irregulars, the operator had precise information regarding an US aircraft carrier. Therefore, while they didn't know this, the British unit had to destroy the radio before 10:30. For some reason, this didn't work for me. I wonder if this had been known by the characters, it would have affected their performances in some way. I have no idea, but the film didn't work for me.

Recommended for those who want to see every film Gregory Peck made.


The film opens with Peter Falk as Lou Peckinpaugh, a private detective in San Francisco during WWII. He has just been notified that his partner, Ezra Dezire (played by Sid Caesar), has been killed. His partner's widow, Jezebel Dezire (Ann-Margaret) later calls him and asks if he killed her husband so they could be together. Peckinpaugh asks if the police are listening in, and she says yes, as the scene shifts to show her on the phone with several police officers standing very near listening to their conversation.

Lou decides to go to his favorite hangout--Nic's Bar. While there, an announcement over the radio informs all in Nic's that Paris has fallen to the German army. A group of German officers immediately stand up and begin singing "Deutschland Uber Alles." Another group of patrons then get up and begin singing "The Marseillaise."

The film written by Neil Simon is a parody of two monumental films: The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. The two films are melded together mostly successfully, although at time it seemed as though Lou Peckinpaugh (Sam Spade and Ric in the original films and both played by Bogart) wanders back and forth between two alternate universes.

It has a cast of relatively well-known actors, a followup of director Robert Moore and Neil Simon's earlier comic mystery, Murder by Death. Dom DeLuise plays Pepe Damascus and John Houseman appears as Jasper Blubber. Fernando Lamas shows up in the Paul Heinreid role as Louise Fletcher with the help of careful lighting comes across quite well in the Ingrid Bergman role. Others appearing more or less briefly are Stockard Channing, James Coco, Madeleine Kahn, and Phil Silvers.

Overall Comments: I would classify this as clever rather than uproariously hilarious, or any such superlative suggested by advertisements. However, I did feel the urge to watch the originals again, and I have already watched The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca is next. I am pleased to say that scenes from the The Cheap Detective did not pop up as I was watching The Maltese Falcon and spoil my enjoyment of one of my favorite films.


Rope, a film (1948)

This film, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is based on a play by the same name written by Patrick Hamilton. Rope is loosely based on the Leopold-Loeb murder case which took place in Chicago in 1924. Twenty-year-old Nathan Leopold and nineteen-year-old Richard Loeb were the sons of two wealthy and prominent families in Chicago. They were tried and convicted of murdering fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. Their motives supposedly were to see if they could commit the perfect crime. I've also heard that they killed him just to see what it felt like to kill someone.

In the film, two young men, Brandon and Phillip, kill David, a friend whom they considered inferior, based on their interpretation of a philosophy expressed by Rupert Cadall, a former teacher of theirs, played by Jimmy Stewart. They are so certain of their ability to plan the perfect crime that they kill David shortly before a party was held in their apartment. They hid the body in a large chest which they decided to use as a table to hold the food and drinks for the party. Invited to the party are the David's father and aunt, Rupert, another close friend, and the victim's fiance.

As in a stage play, the film is shot basically in two rooms, with the chest in view most of the time.
The drama involves the differing reactions of the two murderers: one being increasingly convinced that nobody would ever suspect them and one becoming more and more wretched over his part in the murder. A discussion based on Rupert's philosophy that the superior people have the right to eliminate inferior people alerts Rupert that something strange is going on, something that may be related to David's inexplicable absence from the party. When one of the two young men expresses his complete agreement with this theory, Rupert gets upset and says that he would never act upon such a theory. Sensing that something is wrong, Rupert then begins to watch the two carefully, especially their interactions with each other.

I found it intriguing that the blurb mentioned that the two young men had acted upon a "misinterpretation" of Rupert's theory, but frankly, I didn't see that at all. Rupert's only disagreement was that he would never act upon this theory. Secondly, in the film, the theory was based on Nietzsche's superman theory. That may be true, but the language used in the discussion comes much closer to that used by Dostoyevsky in his Crime and Punishment, when Raskolnikov justifies his murder of the old pawnbroker.

My favorite scene in the film takes place shortly before the end. While the people are talking, the maid sees that they have finished eating, so she clears the food off the table. She then returns and removes the table cloth. She returns a third time and brings some books with her that belong in the chest. All this is going on behind the backs of the two murderers who don't see her. I have no idea what the others were talking about as I was fascinated by the maid who was simply going about her duties. Was she really going to open the chest and find the body? But, this is Hitchcock.

One bit of trivia: Patrick Hamilton, who wrote the play the film was based on, also wrote Angel Street, aka Gaslight, which had two film versions. The better known one is the second with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.

Overall Comments: I found it an interesting film, with Jimmy Stewart playing a different role than I'm used to seeing him in.


Philip Jose Farmer: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

This is probably Farmer's best known novel and rightfully so, as I believe it's his best novel. It's the first of five novels set in Riverworld, and frankly, the quality of the subsequent novels does not equal that of the first.

The premise of the novel is simple: when people die, they are resurrected on another planet, which they, for obvious reasons, call Riverworld. Riverworld essentially consists of one river that circles the planet. Paralleling the river are two mountain ranges, one on each side, which is impossible to climb. The resurrectees therefore must live along the banks of the river.

The point-of-view character is Richard Francis Burton, the nineteenth century British geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist.
He is only one of the numerous real people who appear in the book along with various fictional characters. Some of the real characters are Alice Liddell, the model for Lewis Carroll's little girl in Alice in Wonderland. Another is Hermann Goering, a twentieth century German politician, military leader, and a high-ranking member of the Nazi Party. One of the fictional characters is Peter Janius Frigate, who becomes a close friend of Burton on Riverworld. What I find intriguing is that Frigate was born in 1918, the same year that the author was born. Secondly, Frigate describes himself somewhere in the novel as an SF writer. Thirdly, Frigate's initials are PJF, the same as Philip Jose Farmer's--a coincidence, no doubt.

The novel follows the exploits of Burton and his friends as they attempt to explore the length of the River and unravel the mystery behind Riverworld: who created this world, who had gone to the effort of resurrecting all those who had died on Earth, and why?

Readers who expect an idyllic paradise created by humans who have gained a second chance will be mistaken. Humans with a second chance are no better than they were the first time around. One example is Hermann Goering who manages to create a another Third Reich, even if a bit more primitive, with slave camps and a strong military force.

Trivia: the title comes from John Donne's "Holy Sonnet No. 7"

"At the round earths imagin'd corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities,
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and the fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age , agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance hath slaine . . ."

I wonder if the sonnet gave Farmer the inspiration for the novel. It certainly is a unique vision of the afterlife. A number of years ago, a friend of mine, who is very interested in various theories of the afterlife, told me about a book that had been written by a person, who claimed to have contact with the dead. According to the book, the locale of the afterlife was identical to the description of Farmer's Riverworld.

Overall Comments: As I mentioned earlier, I think this is Farmer's best novel. However, the questions facing Burton and the other resurrectees are not answered in this novel. Some partial answers are provided, but at a tentative level only.


Willa Cather: The Professor's House

This is one of Willa Cather's shorter novels, and it has a rather unique structure.

The first part focuses on Professor Godfrey St. Peter and his family, which includes his wife, Lillian, and their two married daughters and their husbands. It also includes Tom Outland, a young student who became a close friend of the Professor St. Peter and almost married Rosamund, one of the professor's daughters.

The St. Peter family has moved into a new house. However, Godfrey can't accept this and returns to the old residence and does his work there in his old study. The readers also learn about Tom Outland, who had invented a gas engine for aircraft and also had attempted to get the federal government interested in protecting cliff dwellings he had discovered out West.

The second part is the story of Tom Outland's discovery of the cliff dwellings on Blue Mesa (Mesa Verde?) and his failed attempt to have it declared a National Monument.

The third part then returns to Professor St. Peter and his growing despondency and depression as he looks back on his life. After the success of his first book, he has done little to justify the esteem he gained from it. He almost dies when the wind blows out the light on his gas lamp, and the room fills with gas. Is it a suicide attempt?

Overall Comments: the novel left me with several questions.

1. Who is the main character? Professor St. Peter or Tom Outland?

2. What is the point of the novel?

3. What is the relationship between Tom Outland's story of the discovery of and subsequent failure to protect the Blue Mesa from exploitation and destruction and the Professor's inability to adjust to the inevitable changes that time brings?

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain LIII

Quatrain LIII introduces a new theme, that of predestination, or so it can be interpreted. See what you think of this:

First Edition: Quatrain LIII

With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man's knead,
And then of the Last Harvest sow'd the Seed:
Yea, the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

Second Edition: LXXIX
With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man knead,
And there of the Last Harvest sow'd the Seed:
And the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

Fifth Edition: LXXIII
With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man knead,
And there of the Last Harvest sow'd the Seed:
And the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

There are several changes from the First to the Second Edition. Apparently FitzGerald was satisfied with the changes, for the Fifth is identical to the Second. In the first line, the poet writes of kneading the Last Man's clay, whereas in the later edtions, it becomes the Last Man who is kneaded. The change seems to subtly suggest that Man is not separate from the Clay but is the Clay itself. The second change occurs in the second line where the "then" becomes "there," a change of time to place. The last change is the substitution of the more prosaic "And" for the poetic and Biblical sounding "Yea."

Overall, the quatrain states that the ending is written or was written on the first day of Creation. The reference to the "Last Dawn of Reckoning" suggests the Judgement Day, and what will be read of humanity's behavior was actually written on "the first Morning of Creation."

This corresponds closely to the Calvinist doctrine of "unconditional election: "which asserts that God has chosen from eternity those whom he will bring to himself not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people; rather, it is unconditionally grounded in God's mercy alone. God has chosen from eternity to extend mercy to those He has chosen and to withhold mercy from those not chosen. Those chosen receive salvation through Christ alone. Those not chosen receive the just wrath that is warranted for their sins against God.

In other words, we are all sinful and unable to gain redemption on our own, and God chooses those whom He would save, and this choice is NOT based on the "virtue, merit, or faith in those people." I have seen a few lines in the Qur'an which seem to say something similar, but it is not spelled out as clearly as it is in the doctrine of the Christian Calvinist sect.

I think this is even a bleaker view of our position in the universe than was brought out in earlier quatrains which said that we were puppets or chess pieces controlled by the Master Player who engaged in games for His own entertainment. It is a very mechanistic view of the universe which was shared by philosophers and scientists of the time. It was only with the beginning of the 20th century when the theories of Einstein and Heisenberg argued for a relativistic and and uncertain universe that some measure of freedom was once again supported, but not universally accepted.

The question is still this: do we have free will and are able to some extent anyway to make choices freely or are we predetermined to make the "choices" that we only seem to make freely?