Sunday, July 27, 2014

BOOK REVIEW - Stephen King's It

"It" was an interdimensional super-monster, probably inspired to a degree by Cthulhu and those Great Old Ones (and possibly as the "yang" to the Christian father/son "yin"). It had two forms: 1) an immortal form called "The Dead Lights" that you couldn't look at without going insane and 2) a mortal, lesser powerful form that It sent to earth to feed. This mortal form also had a "dead lights" core, but this lesser creature was a little more malleable. Instead of driving you insane if you looked at it, your mind would change it into something significantly less horrifying... like your greatest nightmare... as a weak form of self-defense. It feeds on fear, so it didn't care what you transformed it into, the end result would still be the same. You are lunch.

It preferred to feed upon the rich fear produced from the over-active imagination of children, and to bait them it would transform into a clown... and who doesn't love a clown?

This story was intensely well-built, with truly excellent character development and shear terror. This is King's true masterwork.

A Bleak & Dreary Future

TED Talk on Open Source EcologyI was reading the reviews for the 2009 film The Road, directed by John Hillcoat and based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.  Despite receiving mostly positive reviews, with a 75% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, it did very poorly at the box office barely clearing $2 million.

I can see why it didn’t do well.  It depicts events after the worst has happened, whether the worst is a nuclear weapon-induced holocaust or an impact from a super meteor is never mentioned, but the sky is perpetually grey, it grows colder and colder as time goes on and there are no animals nor food-bearing plant life.  The food available is whatever scant remains can be found of processed, packaged food left over from the civilization era.  The survivors either slowly starve searching around for this processed treasure, or slowly starve while hunting and eating other humans.  The two protagonists are a desperate man, played by Viggo Mortensen, and his young son walking their way south in hopes that it’ll be a little warmer closer to the equator.  Despite recognizing Mortensen as a sword-fighting badass from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, he’s none of that here.  He’s just a man, scared out of his mind, functioning in raw survival mode as he tries to find some minimum amount of security and comfort for the two while they slowly starve to death.  There are no invincible sword-wielding Denzel Washingtons, no Ken Shiro masters of the Fist of the Northstar martial arts, no young and cocky Mel Gibsons, and not even a charming old scientist with a magic ice crown to protect them.  This is the story of the end of humanity on planet earth, the final days of our species, played 100% straight.  And it absolutely sucks (the story rocks, it's the event that sucks).  It’s dreary, depressing as hell, and absolutely terrifying.  Not a lot of people can handle that material, or would want to.  Like watching the most violent parts of Gibson’s Passion of the Christ or even Braveheart, it’s not for everyone.  And in the case of The Road, where it barely made back its modest $25 million budget, obviously not a lot of people wanted to mentally deal with that subject.

A true horror story ends on a hopeless note.  Especially the horror short story and a movie is definitely a short story.  Hollywood test subject data revealed that audiences don’t like leaving the theater with a feeling of hopelessness, so they always try to kill the monster so that mankind can live happily ever after.  Whenever a stubborn director insists on ending the horror film the way it ended in the original source material (everybody dies, or that thing is still out there) the audiences complain about the ending.  But that’s the nature of “horror.”  The Road is definitely a horror story… the biggest horror story of all, featuring the end of mankind pretty much the way we all expect it will actually end. 

As I read through these negative reviews, I’m struck as usual by the apparent lack of insight, or the lack of even TRYING to understand the story by these worthless professional critics.  Some of them were upset because of the product placement.  But there’s no food left in the world EXCEPT what was packaged in this nigh-indestructible cylinder of steel.  MOST people who buy that stuff go for the brand names.  They do.  So it is completely realistic if, at the end of civilization, if I’m digging around in a beat up, dusty vending machine, and I do luck up and pull a can out of the thing, it will absolutely be a recognizable brand name on it.  Of COURSE it will.  In the context of the story, that isn’t a legitimate critique, it’s a stupid one.  Really.  If I luck up and find a bomb shelter stocked with can goods, what are the chances that those canned goods will feature popular, recognizable brands from the most successful corporations in the world?  Pretty fucking high.  Of COURSE they will.  My only gripe regarding that latter scene came from personal experience.  An old friend of mine was under the impression that canned goods really were indestructible, thinking that the processed food inside would keep forever.  In 2009 I didn’t notice that the cans he had in his pantry had been bought back in our mid-90s college days (or possibly earlier), and the expiration dates had long passed.   I enthusiastically opened a can of fruit cocktail only for a strong metallic stench to come out of it, and there was no color to the food… it had taken on the grey of the can.  So the chances of the canned food within the film’s bomb shelter still being edible were pretty low (it’s possible that the characters really wouldn’t have given a shit though).

Another critic remarked, “…the movie lacks... an underlying sense of innocence, a sense that, however far humanity has sunk, there is at least some chance of rising again."  That’s not a real critique either.  How long a time period was it in between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Rise of America?  A damn long time.  Centuries.  To suggest that your movie isn’t that good because you didn’t mention somewhere in it that “everything will be okay” means that the writer didn’t deserve a public platform, and needs to be putting caps on bottles in Brazil or somewhere, and shut the hell up.  “This fundamentally sad story makes me sad, so you should make it not so sad so I will feel better” is not a critique.  It’s fucking babbling.

Other critics said it was “Nothing, on a vast scale,” “a long, dull slog,” and “doesn't work on its own merits.”

To me the film was a terrifying gut check, and to read such comments was disappointing at best.  Like they just don’t care.  These are supposed to be the folk on the ‘liberal’ side of our society, the ones who say they are against global warming, “Go Green!” et cetera.  To be fair most of the critics DID get it, so to harp on these stupid ones and their impotent “it wasn’t as good as the book” type comments, shouldn’t bother me, but it does.  I feel the same way about it that I feel about the virtual mass media silence regarding the wonderful Open Source Ecology (OSC) movement of Marcin Jakubowski, and in fact there is a link.  I mentioned before that the mastery of all fifty of those machines by every human being on earth should be what is taught in public schools.  Another benefit to that idea is that it would prevent the horror depicted in this movie from happening.  We would all be technologically savvy enough to not only survive those bad times, but to overcome them.  The skills and knowledge needed to build these machines from scratch… I mean REALLY from scratch, i.e., blacksmithing the raw iron ore from scratch… would give us the mental agility to figure our way out of that terrible situation and live again.  I remember in the movie Phenomenon starring John Travolta (it also coincidently had Robert Duval in it just like The Road does), where Travolta’s character built upon some designs where he was able to use a certain type of commercially available light to grow plants in his house… the lamp radiated the same light plants need for photosynthesis.  So if the sun was blocked, we would still be able to grow food and be okay, we wouldn’t have to live the bleak way they were doing in this film.  We grow our great civilizations by the way we think, based on specific types of mental training (mathematics, technology, science), combined with our working together.   We’d be more likely to work together to solve the Most Terrible Problem if we know what to DO.  If we have no idea what to do then we are going to either slowly starve to death looking for stray/hidden cans of Boston baked beans, or kill and eat each other.  If we have the training, and the mental acumen that develops from that training, to problem solve on any scale, then we will work together to start civilization back up and be okay again… hopefully with some hard lessons learned.

A perfect example of this thing is the solar energy concept.  We started half-assed talking about “Going Green!” and finding alternate energy sources that free us from our dependency on petroleum, and in the meanwhile the Germans actually made it happen.

The only talking THEY did was during the problem solving stage WHILE they made it happen.  But the German people have a centuries old reputation for pushing math, tech, science in their children because they recognize that each of us has a responsibility to the entire species and they make sure that they do their part as an ethnicity.  The rest of us need to get on the ball before it’s too late.  If we don't, you know what a very real possible future may look like?  That everyone else will be dead and the Germans alone manage to survive the cataclysm.  So you know all the sci-fi future movies that don't show any brown people in them that you like to bitch about?

Yeah.  Exactly.  Let THAT shit sink in.   GET UP!!!

“I believe that true freedom, the most essential type of freedom, starts with individual ability to use natural resources to free ourselves from material constraints.” ~ Marcin Jakubowski

See Also:

TED Talk on Open Source Ecology

Marcin Jakubowski - The Open Source Economy

Return of the Fiery Phoenix!

Filling a Necessary Need or Making a Fundamental Problem Worse?

As a part of his defense of the middleman minority, Dr. Thomas Sowell points out how many people consider an aspect of what they offer to be a “necessary need” inside of lower class communities that have few alternatives:

“Where customers have been poor, credit has been extended to them at high risk and correspondingly high interest – whether charged separately or included within the price of goods.  Because middleman minorities have typically operated with thinner profit margins per item than their indigenous counterparts, they have had to be very calculating, often with little room for error, and this characteristic may be particularly resented by others who tend to follow tradition or routine, or who seldom look far ahead or exercise much self-discipline.  That is, middleman minorities may be most resented by those most dependent on them to supply the economic requirements which they themselves lack – for example, to save and supply credit for those who do not save.”  ~Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture: A World View

As an example of the typical relationship dynamic he’s talking about, Dr. Sowell quotes this source passage showcasing the Indian middleman minority in the midst of Burmese peasants:   

“The main Chettyar business was to give credit to the paddy farmers.  The Burmese peasant seldom had the instincts of a capitalist.  When he harvested the paddy and sold his crop he liked to have a good time, make a contribution to the pagoda, buy clothes and jewels for his wife – and then just hang on till the next harvest.  Chettyar credit ensured that he could hang on.”

A major part of this item of course is the usury controversy, and Dr. Sowell presents it too as part of the necessary part of doing business in the middleman minority way, and implies that it’s a vital component of providing a necessary service to the economically high-risk lower classes:

“Middleman minorities around the world are often accused of ‘taking advantage’ of other people’s ‘weaknesses,’ such as customers’ buying things on credit that they cannot readily afford.  Equally widespread is the view that middleman minorities are charging ‘usurious’ or ‘unconscionable’ interest rates…”

I agree with Dr. Sowell on all other listed items on the defense of middleman minorities, from their fiscal responsibility, entrepreneurship, a strong sense of family unity, the very high insistence on high education in the next generations, their highly-admirable qualities of sacrificing the immediate to ensure success later… all of these are more than worthy of immolation.  But I completely disagree with the concept of them enriching themselves by exploiting the ignorance of the poor on matters of monetary responsibility.  The holy books of the major world religions have strong edicts against the charging of usury, all labeling the practice a sin and it wasn’t until Dr. Sowell described it in this way that I began to really see why it would be.

Being “poor” by its nature is an undesirable state, a state of not having enough, of restricted opportunity, of being on the bottom of the societal class hierarchy, of being defenseless by way of limited options in life, and an unenviable desperately survivalist lifestyle.    The missing ingredient that can elevate the poor from these conditions isn’t money, it’s knowledge.  Or more specifically, the applied knowledge that through practice develops into valuable skills.  A poor person who now has the knowledge/skills to repair complex technological equipment, will not be poor for long.  A poor person who has been trained to develop the self-discipline to live beneath his means and save a portion of his meager income until he has enough to finance the beginnings of a long-term plan, will also not be poor for long.   The lack of those very traits that enable the middleman minority to enjoy the fruits of prosperity from their knowledge of the techniques of fiscal responsibility, are why the poor are poor.  They are poor for a lack of knowledge, and their lifestyle is all they know.   They are often confused at the success of other groups, not realizing that success comes from an application of knowledge and skill in those areas, and they grow resentful  at a sense of unfairness born from the false idea that these other groups are successful because they are innately monetarily superior, as opposed to trained to be so.

So if they want to pay for something that they cannot afford, and there are no other means available to get it, they will have to save… to learn how to save… in order to acquire that item.   The practice of doing so every time they need something will develop a potent valuable skill that is a foundational tool of wealth-building.

But if an outsider provides an easy out that prevents them from having the motivation to practice the valuable skill of saving, then it will effectively keep them poor, and in fact encourage them to be poor if that easy out, such as a high interest loan, actually makes their problems worse than they were by putting them in debt.     I think it is very wrong to do this, to build your own wealth on the weaknesses of others, absolutely.  These false opportunities that the middleman minorities offer the poor are only traps that give them a temporary sense of relief but actually make their impoverishment worse.  Having very little is one thing, but having a long-term or permanent debt over you as well is something else entirely.    The bottom-line is that the middleman minority possesses the knowledge and the self-discipline to save and build up capital to increase their economic opportunities, and they charge the poor for the use of the fruits of these skills, getting in the way of the poor developing these skills themselves by necessity, and thus helping keep them in poverty.  Putting systems in poor communities that will prevent them from coming up with better solutions – solutions that history has shown will force them to come together to solve – by preying upon their lack of knowledge and the normal trait of a desperate person looking for an easy out, should absolutely be a sin.

An Embrace of True Art in a High Culture

“You know who to call when you have ghosts, but who do you call when you have monsters?”

One of my guilty pleasures growing up was this goofy little movie called The Monster Squad that came out in 1987, so I probably saw it in ’88 or ’89.  Featuring a group of kids saving the world from Count Dracula and his team of classic Universal beasties, it was a fun and quotable popcorn movie.  There were elements in the kid dynamic that reminded me of The Loser’s Club from Stephen King’s excellent It novel, combined with the super strength demonstrated by Dracula as he casually smashed a bunch of cops, and a really great werewolf transformation ending in the monster bursting out of a phone booth Underdog style.

The Monster Squad was a derivative, eclectic mix of a bunch of stuff I liked as a 19 year old: monsters with super powers, the knockoff reuniting of a favorite team of characters from one of my favorite books, and fun pre-CGI special FX.  I considered it to be really cool.  One of the strongest scenes in it was near the beginning, before the monster part started.  The kids would walk past this old house where this reclusive old man lived and made up all kinds of crazy stuff about what he was like.   They referred to him as “The Scary German Guy.”  But when they finally met him out of desperation, he turned out to be very nice and helpful - and would later function as the Abraham Van Helsing of The Monster Squad basically - to help them save the world.  Later on something about that part of the film caused an enormous sense of Déjà vu when I read a popular novel, and then I remembered.

The Scary German Guy was Boo Radley from the book To Kill a Mockingbird.  They just ripped that entire part off and it pisses me OFF.  Yes, in a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie composed of component parts of a lot of different genre elements, that’s the part that ruins the film for me… the blatant theft of another book’s scene.  Not just their version of a similar scene.  No, it’s the same.  Alex Haley used Harold Courlander’s 1967 heavily-researched book The African as a guide for aspects of his own "historical novel" Roots, but they are clearly not the same book despite the controversy.   If you read them both back-to-back you will definitely not feel like you just read the same book twice.   By contrast The Scary German Guy/ Boo Radley issue was an actual theft, and the casual allowance of such things in film and other fiction-fueled industries – treating it like its “normal” and okay to do it – is the reason behind a lot of poor quality, and the overwhelming sensation that we’re watching the same movies and shows, and reading the same books over and over and over again.

I think it’s time to actively start encouraging originality in commercial art as demonstration of a mature, sophisticated and intelligent adult mindset, while dialing back on rewarding “tributes” and the usage of classic literature plots and figures as templates.  If we notice that you used the plot synopsis of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as the rip-off template for your novel, you should be called out as a thief and a hack, and you should not be praised for it.  At all.  If we notice that your villain is merely Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello with a different name, you should not be praised for it.  Recycling the same work over and over again is not a hallmark of progress but of stagnation.  You’ve now abandoned “art.”  There should be a completely different rating mark, and a completely different genre category for those kinds of works (“F” for Flippant, or “H” for Hack), and they should be isolated away from serious efforts of original, honest self-expression and never up for any serious award.  This would include ‘B’ grade films like The Monster Squad, as well as any pseudo-high brow works that pretentiously rip off the classics that are so often placed in the running for nomination for our most prestigious awards.   They all should be grouped in the same category, and treated little different than fan-fiction.   This is the type of work that should be considered immature “kid stuff,” actively discouraged and even stigmatized unless it is only done as practice exercises.   Of course we cant stop the capitalism machine from making the property commercially successful if the masses like it and want to spend their money on it, but that is a separate matter from an artistic intrinsic value.  Honest self expression and originality should be praised highly by the professional critic (to aid in finally justifying that job function) and in learning institutions throughout the world to cultivate a true appreciation for the arts.