The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory

[Amazon Link]

When a House stenographer was recently yanked out of the chamber for ranting about Freemasons, you could have figured out what she was talking about by a quick check of the index of this book.

It's by Jesse Walker, and it is an extremely entertaining history of popular American conspiracy theories. Which means it's a pretty good history of America generally. It takes off from Richard Hofstadter's 1964 famous article, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", where it was argued that "angry minds" at the extreme fringes were wont to worry about various schemes being carried out behind the scenes, hidden from the general populace. Wake up, sheeple!

Except (as Jesse shows) in America, conspiracies aren't exactly fringe material at all; people from left, right, and center buy them, and it's been going on ever since colonial times.

President Obama, it should be remembered, darkly hinted about the "them" trying to "hijack" his agenda: "The American people deserve to know who’s trying to sway their elections, and you can’t stand by and let the special interests drown out the voices of the American people.” Continuing: It could be the oil industry, it could be the insurance industry, it could even be foreign-owned corporations. You don’t know because they don’t have to disclose. Now that’s not just a threat to Democrats, that’s a threat to our democracy.” Eek!

Now (it should be said) sometimes conspiracy theories aren't always bunk. (Although when Obama espouses them, it's a pretty good bet that they're cynically-constructed demagoguery for his low-information followers.) For example, there's the one where a small band of conspirators plotted to overthrow the established form of American government by hijacking a reform effort, replacing it with a totally new and more centralized scheme, and inventing a rule whereby the new system could be enacted under a relaxed standard.

Oh, wait: that's pretty much how the US Constitution happened.

Walker has a good taxonomy of paranoia: there are Enemies Outside, plotting outside the gates; Enemies Within, where you can't tell your innocent neighbors from the evil plotters; Enemies Above, where the elites at the top scheme against you; and Enemies Below, where the undertrodden are looking to take over. Finally, there's the "Benevolent Conspiracy", a "secret force working behind the scenes to improve people's lives." You know, like Google.

As I said: very entertaining, and you can learn stuff.

Gravity

[5.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

As I type, the IMDB has Gravity as #41 on the top 250 movies of all time. I'm in no position to disagree. It's way up there, anyway.

Unless you have been living in a cave for the past few weeks, you already pretty much know the premise: The setting is low earth orbit, and the (fictitious) shuttle Explorer is visiting the Hubble Space Telescope to install new equipment. Disaster strikes when a Russian satellite goes awry and unleashes a torrent of orbiting debris that slices and dices everything in its path, including the shuttle and Hubble. Leaving seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and neophyte mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) without a ride home, running low on O2.

President Obama would call this a "glitch".

Yes, the special effects are jaw-droppingly realistic. At some point I dropped my filters and simply accepted it: sure, they must have filmed this on location. [Quibble: I'm pretty sure the filmmakers' orbital mechanics are a tad unrealistic, but that doesn't show up on the screen.]

But you can only go so far with special effects. Clooney may be a fantastically rich pretty-boy actor in real life, but after a few seconds I was totally buying him as a right-stuff grizzled space veteran. Ms. Bullock is equally wonderful, managing convincingly to portray someone who's simultaneously terrified and resourceful. (And the movie gives her ample spots to be both.)

This movie and its makers should get how many Oscars? All of them. All four acting categories, even though there are only two actors. Even for animation, dammit. Cancel the ceremony and just issue them now.


Last Modified 2014-11-30 1:34 PM EST

The Great Gatsby

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I've mentioned before the "Humiliation" game invented by David Lodge, where people name some great work of literature they've never read. (It works better if you, like Lodge, are a Literature Professor, and attend parties with your peers.)

But I've never read The Great Gatsby. But I have seen the 1974 movie, and now this one. So I don't think I need to, do you?

This movie was directed and co-written by Baz Luhrmann, and it is a spectacle. The PG-13 rating from the MPAA notes (I am not making this up) "some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language". Partying? Yes, there are definitely parties depicted here that you do not want your 13-year-old attending. In fact, if you're invited to one of these shindigs, I'd advise you to maybe take in the view for fifteen minutes or so while nursing a soft drink, then go home and catch up with Big Bang Theory reruns on the TiVo. If some of these people had taken this advice, they would have wound up far better off.

Anyway: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gatsby, and he's just about perfect. Everyone else is fine too, especially Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man Nick. Would it be a spoiler to give away plot elements of a nearly-ninety-year-old book? Probably. Suffice it to say that Gatsby learns, too late, the folly of social climbing in pursuit of shallow women.

It's very good, maybe worth watching just for the amazing extravaganza Luhrmann puts together.

Submit!

Paul One of the more amusing items generated by the Great Government Shutdown is from Jim Wallis, semi-famous left-wing religious nutball. And before you object to my strong language, click over and read his essay: "Why the Government Shutdown Is Unbiblical".

Unbiblical! Yes, Mr. Wallis means to prove that the GOP meanies are not just mistaken, or wrong-headed. They are acting counter to the Will of God!

The biblical purpose of government is to protect from evil and to promote the good -- protect and promote. Government is meant to protect its people's safety, security, and peace, and promote the common good of a society -- and even collect taxes for those purposes. Read Romans 13 by the apostle Paul and other similar texts. […]

Well, it's Sunday, so let's take a look at Romans 13. The relevant verses are 1-7 (and let's use the ESV):

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Most accounts of Paul's life say he was decapitated by Roman government officials during Nero's reign. I can't help but wonder if he had any second thoughts about writing that.

There are a great many possible responses to Romans 13:1-7; I'll just make one: if early Americans had taken it seriously, we'd have remained British subjects. Most modern American Christians either ignore Paul's paean to authoritarian subservience, or attempt to explain (not very credibly) what Paul "really must have meant."

For me, it's one of the reasons I'm not a very good Christian.

For Wallis, of course, the verse is only a tool to attempt to browbeat any heretics who dare dissent from the True Faith of Progressivism.


Last Modified 2013-10-13 10:22 AM EDT

Shutter Island

[Amazon Link]

I saw the movie based on this book three years back, and I (now) can attest it was a remarkably faithful adaptation.

The book is set in the 1950s. Teddy Daniels is a U.S. Marshal, off with his new partner, Chuck Aule, to Shutter Island, a (fictional) Boston Harbor Island. Shutter houses a prison/hospital for the criminally insane, and one patient, Rachel Soldano, has gone missing. Out of a secure facility, without anyone noticing. How did she do that?

But things are not what they seem. For one thing, Teddy is a widower, his wife having died in a fire set by one Andrew Laeddis. Andrew is also a prisoner/inmate at Shutter Island, and Teddy would like to kill him, in order to resolve his own inner mental turmoil. But Laeddis is as hard to find as Soldano. Also, there's a very bad hurricane bearing down.

Are the inmates actually running the asylum? It seems that might be the case. Shutter is filled with creepiness, danger, colorful insanity, and amateur cryptography. It all is based on some very vile and shocking behavior.

Dennis Lehane is a fine writer; I got hooked on his Kenzie/Gennaro private eye series years back. Shutter Island might be a tad overwritten, but is a compelling page-turner. I don't know if you should take the effort to read it if you've seen the movie, though.

World War Z

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This movie stars Brad Pitt, and absolutely nobody else I'd ever heard of. (Well, with one exception, noted below.) Theory: if you have a special-effects-laden movie with Brad Pitt in it, you won't have a lot of money for hiring other actors. They may have been recruiting at the Seacoast Reperatory, for all I know.

(Seriously, the other actors are fine. It's just I'd never heard of them.)

Anyway: Brad plays Gerry Lane, who used to (it's apparent) work defeating international evildoers. But you can't do that and have a full family life, so he's resigned and lives in a perfect house outside Philly with a perfect wife and perfect kids. The only clue we get that something might be wrong is the chattering on the news channel in the background. Gerry and his family are oblivious, and why shouldn't they be?

Well, they might not have driven into Philly, which suddenly erupts into serious zombie chaos, with explosions and panic and people getting chewed. Brad and his family barely escape, and start making their way up I-95. But it's only a matter of a few video minutes when they're in peril once more. The zombies in this flick move fast, and are surprisingly good at teamwork.

Gerry is roped into a desperate play to find the root cause of the zombie outbreak, in hopes that will reveal a cure: he jets from Korea, to Israel, and finally to Wales, each time barely getting away unbitten.

As mentioned: the special zombie effects are pretty good, and it's action-packed. Kind of reminded me of a video game.

Oh yeah: the other actor I recognized was David Morse. This is neat, because Morse and Pitt were also in Twelve Monkeys, a different sort of apocalyptic movie, nearly twenty years ago. Maybe in another couple decades, they'll do something else.

The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend

[Amazon Link]

I used to live in the Washington DC area. Although I was a poor graduate student at the time, there was a great source of cheap entertainment back then: the American Film Institute Theater, nestled in a corner of the Kennedy Center. It was a great way for a wannabe film buff to see definitive versions of old movies on the big screen. And it was there that I saw The Searchers, one of the best Westerns (some say the best) ever.

It was kinda-sorta based on a true story: the abduction by Comanches of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker from a Texas settlement in 1836, where most of the rest of her family was killed. Her uncle James spent fruitless years trying to find her. But Cynthia Ann became one of the wives of a Comanche chief, and lived with the tribe until 1860, when she and her infant daughter Prairie Flower were "rescued" in another massacre, this one by Texas Rangers, perpetrated on mostly women and children.

Glenn Frankel does something kind of neat in this book: exploring not only the true story of Cynthia Ann, but also the entire sweep of subsequent events, up to the present day. He is a meticulous researcher. The original story is far too grim and bloodsoaked to make a popular movie. Admirable characters were thin on the ground of mid-19th century Texas. (One decent guy appears, only to be shot in the back later that same paragraph.)

Cynthia Ann died only a few years after returning to the white world, probably spurred by the illness and death of Prarie Flower. All indications were that she was miserable the entire time.

But her older son, Quanah Parker, went on to become a Comanche chief himself. Although he probably killed his share of white people as a youngster, he eventually grew to become an advocate of peace. Although this was probably because he could see any other path was hopeless. He grew to (relative) fame and fortune, entertaining Teddy Roosevelt at his home.

Cynthia Ann's story was heavily mutated/adapted into the novel The Searchers, by Alan LeMay. And that book was (after much more tinkering) used as the source for the movie by the (um) colorful director John Ford, starring John Wayne as the uncle in search of the kidnapped child.

Frankel makes all this fascinating, equally at ease describing the mutual atrocities in 1836 Texas and the petty tyrannical genius of John Ford. Thankfully, he spares us any grand theorizing about What It All Means About America. In an epilogue, he describes how the remnants of the Parker clan, both red and white, celebrate their ancestors' lives. And it's very touching.

Dark Light

[Amazon Link]

Some people claim that William Shatner did a poor job of acting in his portrayal of Captain James Kirk.

I say this is nonsense.

Why? Because, friends, I've seen how Captain Kirk behaved. And, like it or not, he always behaved exactly like William Shatner did in portraying him.

Okay, so this argument was a lot tighter before Chris Pine came along.

But now we come to Dark Light, the 2006 book by Randy Wayne White, the thirteenth entry in his series chronicling the adventures of Marion "Doc" Ford. A number of Amazon reviewers bemoan the unusual turn of this book. But I say to them: friends, I've seen how Doc Ford behaves. And, like it or not, he behaves just like Randy Wayne White has described. You may wish he had done something else, or acted differently. But he didn't.

So anyway: in this one, Doc does not travel far from his Dinkin's Bay home. He and his neighbors are trying mightily to recover from a recent hurricane that ripped up much of their community. Things are complicated by Bern Heller, ex-NFL jock, and recently-arrived marina owner. At first, Heller seems to be simply a dishonest scammer, plotting to use the hurricane to illicitly take control of the still-valuable boats in his domain. But, as it develops, he's also a homicidal sociopath, straight out of Travis McGee-land. Something about Florida attracts them, I guess.

The hurricane has also (literally) uncovered a sordid bit of World War II-era history: the sunken yacht Dark Light, missing since 1944. A brief initial dive has brought up Nazi-linked artifacts. There's a possible link to Heller's ancestors. And also to a mysterious woman who's moved into a secluded beach mansion. In addition to dealing with Heller's murderous intentions, Doc must also unravel what happened over sixty years previous.