Friday, August 30, 2019

Movie Night in Balboa Park August 31: “Chasing Choo Choos” and “Sherlock, Jr.”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010, 2014, 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Tomorrow night, Saturday, August 31, at 7:30 p.m. the Spreckels Organ Society will close out this year’s series of evening organ concerts at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park with its annual silent movie night. The evening will feature organist Clark Wilson playing a short program of pop songs and light selections from the silent-movie era and then providing live organ accompaniment to two silent films, much as you would hear in a theatre when these movies were new.

One of the films is a 20-minute short called “Chasing Choo Choos,” which the Spreckels Organ Society is heavily promoting because it was shot here in San Diego County, on a particularly vertiginous stretch of railroad track near El Cajon. The other is an acknowledged masterpiece, "Sherlock, Jr.,” made by Buster Keaton (he starred and co-directed with former Keystone Kop Eddie Cline) in 1924 and featuring Keaton as a small-town movie projectionist who dreams himself into the film he is showing.

The Society has been heavily promoting “Chasing Choo Choos” because of its local connection, and is virtually ignoring that they’re co-billing it with one of the greatest films of all time. When I posted to this blog about Christopher Nolan's film “Inception,” I wrote, “Buster Keaton’s ‘Sherlock, Jr.’ remains my all-time favorite dream movie — how a man with a reputation as a comedian could make a film in 1924, with only the most primitive effects technology available, that threaded the balance between reality and dreams so much more effectively than this one is a mystery.” Higlighting “Chasing Choo Choos” and ignoring “Sherlock, Jr.” in their promotion is like the San Diego Symphony announcing that they’re going to be playing a new serenade composed by a San Diego grade-school student and then, at the end of the press release, saying, “By the way, we’re also going to be playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Be warned that the Spreckels organ movie night always draws a full crowd, so though the event starts at 7:30 you should arrive two or three hours before to ensure you get a good seat. Following are my two earlier blog posts on “Chasing Choo Choos” (written after a previous Organ Pavilion showing of this film in 2014) and “Sherlock, Jr.”


The films Donald MacKenzie accompanied were two two-reel slapstick comedies, one a little-known vehicle for a largely forgotten comic and one an acknowledged masterpiece by a genius of the film. The little-known one was Chasing Choo Choos, a 1927 production starring and co-written by Monty Banks. Sometimes billed as Montague Banks, he was actually Italian by birth (the name on his birth certificate was “Mario Bianchi,” which makes me wonder why when he wanted an Anglo-sounding name he didn’t just call himself “White”) but emigrated first to England, then to the U.S., then back to England (where he was married to the legendary entertainer Gracie Fields) and finally back to the U.S. again, before dying at age 52 in 1950 back in Italy. Banks was both a star and director — he made Laurel and Hardy’s first film for 20th Century-Fox, Great Guns (1941), though like most of Laurel and Hardy’s Fox output it isn’t much (a stone ripoff of Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates) — and he’s described on his bio page on as “short, stocky, but somehow debonair,” which pretty well sums it up. Chasing Choo Choos was actually edited down from a feature film Banks had made the same year called Play Safe, though it doesn’t seem incomplete — indeed, one wonders how Banks could have got anything more out of his rather sketchy plot! The story casts Banks as a worker at a company technically owned by a dissatisfied heiress (Virginia Lee Corbin, a child star of the ’teens attempting a comeback in adult roles) but actually run by two unscrupulous one-percenters who are worried that if she marries Banks, with whom she’s in love, once she comes of age and inherits her fortune they’ll be frozen out and left without any money. So they hire a gang of thugs (including Bud Jamison, later a “regular” in the Three Stooges films) to kidnap her and frame Banks for the crime.

The first half of the film isn’t much — mainly a bunch of confusing fight scenes — but the second half, filmed on location on a particularly perilous stretch of railroad in San Diego’s East County (modeled in one of the most spectacular exhibits in San Diego’s Model Railway Museum, also in Balboa Park), is magnificent even though through much of it one’s wondering whether to laugh or simply sit and gape with astonishment at the sheer peril Banks and his crew put him and the other actors through. Though one scene in which Banks falls from the train into a nearby gorge and lands on a runaway car that’s on a track below it was pretty obviously done with a dummy and a model train, much of this movie has the same vertiginous thrill content as a Harold Lloyd comedy, made all the more scary by the knowledge that there was no way to fake most of this stuff in 1927: Banks’ body was really hanging over gorges and suspended over tracks as the train sped along. He proves a surprisingly athletic man even though he was short and stocky — he didn’t have the athlete’s build of Lloyd or Buster Keaton — and the film itself is quite engaging. It also benefits from the personality of Virginia Lee Corbin (whose first name is misspelled “Viginia” in the non-original credits of this version), who should have had more of a career than she got; she died tragically young (at 31 in 1942) after a quirky career during which she played in elaborate fairy-tale spoofs with all-child casts in the mid-teens (before that she’d been the baby rocking in the cradle in the framing scenes of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance), and she barely made it into the talkie era but pretty much stopped working after 1931 (her only subsequent credits are unbilled bit parts from 1938 and 1940). The existing credits list only Banks and Corbin, and don’t credit a director, but he was someone else with a Griffith connection: Joseph Henabery, who played Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation and found a niche directing band shorts for Warner Bros. in the 1930’s. — 8/18/14


Charles asked me if we please couldn’t watch something lighter than all the dark movies we’ve been seeing lately. I obliged him with the Buster Keaton masterpiece from 1924, Sherlock Jr., and the Marlene Dietrich/John Wayne version of Rex Beach’s The Spoilers from 1942. Sherlock Jr. is a movie that I remembered vividly even though I hadn’t seen it in over 25 years. William K. Everson noted in his book The Detective in Film that there were a lot of really bad silent comedies that had the name “Sherlock” in their titles to indicate they were detective-movie spoofs — and one great one, this one. It’s Keaton at his most eye-poppingly imaginative, as a movie projectionist who dreams himself into the film he is showing, and it’s sufficiently well-remembered that at least two major films in the 1980’s, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (which reversed the central premise of Sherlock Jr. by having a movie character step out of the screen into real life) and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Last Action Hero, were inspired by it. Still stunning are the scenes in which Keaton is confronted by the ever-shifting scenic backgrounds of the movie he’s dreamed himself into (done in this era before process screens by having the sets of the various movies within the movie built behind a hole in the back wall of the movie-theatre set, representing the screen, with Keaton and his “human metronome” cameraman, Elgin Lessley, using surveyors’ instruments to make sure he was placed in exactly the same position each time the set was changed); the scene in which the villains of the piece try to kill him by inviting him to play pool, (presumably) not knowing that one of the pool balls (#13, of course!) contains a bomb (according to Everson, director/writer Rowland Brown repeated this scene in a serious context in a film called Blood Money nine years later!); the eye-popping scene in which he leaps through a window in which he’s placed a couturier’s case and emerges in drag, in the dress that was in the round box; and the even more eye-popping scene in which he leaps through a suitcase from which an old woman is selling knickknacks and ends up on the other side of the wall against which the woman is leaning. (In this one instance, Keaton broke his own rule against using physically impossible gags in a feature-length film — to stunning effect.) As Charles noted after we watched it, what’s also remarkable about Sherlock Jr. is the production value (especially by comparison to the extremely budget-conscious noirs we’ve been seeing a lot of lately) — Keaton literally spared no expense to get the film looking the way he wanted it to, and while some of the elaborate sets may have been pre-existing from other films, the overall effect is an inspiring one. Also impressive is the performance of his leading lady, Kathryn McGuire, who is equally credible as an innocent Mary Pickford clone in the framing story and a sophisticated Gloria Swanson-esque society woman in the film-within-the-film. (I’ve run out of time and will comment on the 1942 The Spoilers in a later entry.[1]) — 11/15/97

Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator both stem from the time when Buster Keaton’s career was at its absolute peak, both commercially (The Navigator was his biggest hit in the silent era) and artistically. He made them both for “Buster Keaton Productions,” though unlike Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd he was never well off enough (or cautious enough with his money to become well off enough) to finance his films himself; he still had a money man, Joseph M. Schenck, to answer to; Schenck had lured Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle away from Mack Sennett in 1917 to make independent movies for release through Paramount (thereby making Schenck a pioneer in the practice of producing independently but still seeking major-studio backing for production costs and distribution — which has been the way most films have been made since the death of the studio system). He’d picked up Keaton when Arbuckle hired him as a comic sidekick (supposedly Keaton came to visit the set of Arbuckle’s first independent film, The Butcher Boy, just because he was curious about how films were made — and Arbuckle put him to work, improvising comedy routines with him), and when Arbuckle graduated to feature-length films (and signed directly with Paramount to make them) Schenck put Keaton to work on a series of two-reel comedies as star and director. Eventually Keaton too moved up to feature-length films — though still relatively short ones (Sherlock, Jr. runs 45 minutes and The Navigator a shade over an hour) — and in the interviews he gave Rudi Blesh in 1965 (a year before his death) Keaton acknowledged that one reason he made Sherlock, Jr. was to have a chance to do the physically impossible gags he’d done in his shorts but which he didn’t feel worked for features. (This was the interview in which Blesh asked Keaton, “How did you come to make a surrealistic film like Sherlock, Jr.?” — and Keaton, who unlike Chaplin disdained any artistic intentions for his work, answered, “I did not mean it to be surrealistic! I just wanted it to look like a dream!”) 

Actually the plot of Sherlock, Jr. is a dream — Keaton plays a projectionist in a small-town movie theatre who’s reading a book called How to Be a Detective and fantasizing being a crime-fighter. He’s got a girlfriend (Kathryn McGuire, refreshingly free of the coyness so many silent leading ladies fell into) but there’s also a rival for her affections, a character billed as “The local sheik” (Ward Crane), and this rather worm-eaten Lothario steals the pocket watch of the girl’s father (played by Keaton’s real-life father, Joe) and pawns it to buy the girl a box of chocolates. Then he plants the pawn ticket on Keaton so he will look like the thief, and the girl and her father throw him out of their house and tell him never to come back. A dejected Keaton returns to his job at the theatre and runs the movie Hearts and Pearls — whose opening credit refers to it as “A Veronal Production” (“Veronal” was the name of the first barbiturate sleeping pill ever manufactured, appropriate given what happens next) — and while the film is running he falls asleep, gets up (a ghostly image of Keaton rises out of Keaton’s body, so there’s a real-world Keaton sleeping in the projection booth as well as the dream-world Keaton), walks into the screen of the theatre and enters the world of the movie he’s showing, taking the part of the celebrated detective “Sherlock, Jr.” and setting out to solve the theft of the heroine’s pearl necklace. 

After a sequence in which Keaton remains stationary while the background changes (at one point he’s on a coral reef about to dive into the water when the scene changes and he falls head-first into a snow drift), the film settles into a groove of almost constant action and — dare I say it? — surrealistic gags, including one in which Keaton’s assistant Gillette (Ford West, who’s also the manager of the theatre where Keaton works in the real-world framing sequences — and his character is named after William Gillette, the first actor to play Sherlock Holmes), places a round box containing a dress in the window of a building in which Keaton confronts the crooks — and in the middle of a chase sequence Keaton dives through the box and emerges in full drag, wearing the dress we’ve seen earlier. There’s also another sequence in which Keaton, cornered in a dead-end street with seemingly no means of escape, is accosted by a woman street peddler who points to her own chest and the case containing her wares that she’s wearing. She points to the case and Keaton eventually gets the message and escapes by diving through it and emerging through a gate on the other side. Another sequence shows Keaton on top of a train — the villain has tricked him into getting on a train and he’s running from car to car, and when he finally jumps from the train he leaps onto a water tank, grabs on the pipe that feeds water to the train, pulls it down with his own weight and ends up getting a blast of water from the tank. This sequence wasn’t faked or doubled in any way — Keaton not only did his own stunt work but got the full force of the water on him —and he suffered from blinding headaches the rest of the day, then felt O.K. the next day and got back to work. What he didn’t realize until years later was that he had broken his neck; a decade later Keaton was undergoing a routine medical examination and he was X-rayed, and his doctor saw the X-rays and asked him, “When did you break your neck?” “I never broke my neck,” Keaton said. “Oh yes, you did,” the doctor replied, showing him the X-rays to prove it — and eventually Keaton realized it must have been during the filming of that gag sequence. 

What makes Sherlock, Jr. even more remarkable than it looks was that not only did it pre-date all our elaborate modern-day infrastructure of computer-generated imagery but it even preceded the invention of the process screen; in 1924 all special effects had to be done in the camera. There were only two ways to do a film-within-a-film then, and it’s clear Keaton used both of them. One was to mask out the portion of the frame representing the on-screen theatre, film the live action, and then rewind the undeveloped film, mask out everything but the on-screen theatre, and shoot the sequences that were supposed to represent the movie the live-action characters were watching. The other way was to build the theatre set with a hole in it representing the screen and have another group of actors performing simultaneously on another set and playing the characters in the movie-within-the-movie. Sherlock, Jr. has been a major influence on many filmmakers since — Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo simply inverted its central premise (instead of a projectionist walking into the world of the film he’s showing, Allen had a character in a movie step off the screen and into real life) and the little-remembered Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero was a Sherlock, Jr. knockoff set in the world of today’s fantasy cinema — and there’s also a connection I hadn’t realized before to The Wizard of Oz, which also presented fantasy action framed as the central character’s dream and involved the people in her real life as characters in her dream as well (a wrinkle added by the screenwriters — in L. Frank Baum’s source novel Dorothy’s journey to Oz was presented as a real event). Sherlock, Jr. holds up vividly today not only for its imagination but its sheer audacity — indeed, one gag in it (the villains plot to kill Keaton by inviting him to play pool and substituting a bomb for one of the balls) was repeated seriously nine years later in Rowland Brown’s gangster film Blood Money — and the fact that it was made at a time when effects work was in its infancy only makes it more amazing. — 4/8/10

[1] — I never did, but at this late date my primary reminiscence of this film is that Marlene Dietrich — tricked out in an enormous hairdo that looks like you could step under it and be out of the rain — was good but the rest of the film was just boring until the final fight scene at the end, which was staged and directed by action specialist B. Reaves “Breezy” Eason even though Ray Enright had overall directorial credit. I mentioned this to Charles and he noted that in the only other even remotely memorable Enright film, the 1934 musical Dames, he’d also had help from another director — Busby Berkeley, who staged the spectacular production numbers. (M.G.C., 6/23/05)

Monday, August 26, 2019

Halston (CNN, Dog Woof, T-Dog, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I had originally planned to watch the Lifetime movies, but their titles, Deadly Influencer and Nightmare Tenant, just promised so much of the same-old same-old that I decided instead to watch a CNN presentation (apparently of one of their documentaries that’s actually seen theatrical release) I’d seen promoted on the network all week: Halston, a bio-doc about the legendary fashion designer who, at least according to the legend, first put American fashion on the map and made a U.S. fashion house the rival of the great (and incredibly snobby) ones from France. I was familiar with the broad outlines of Halston’s story from an Arts & Entertainment Biography show I saw about him years ago: he was born Roy Halston Frowick, Jr. in Des Moines, Iowa in 1932, in the middle of the Depression — though his family moved around a lot and, while they didn’t leave the Midwest, he never felt rooted to Iowa or any other Midwestern state as his home. We get that piece of biographical background only towards the very end of the show, from his cousin Lesley Frowick (who worked for him in the later years), and there’s nothing about his early years as a milliner (fashion-speak for a hatmaker) in Chicago in the late 1950’s. The show begins Halston’s story in 1961, when he was living in New York City as an in-house hatmaker for the famous Bergdorf Goodman high-end fashion shop, when he became an overnight sensation by designing the white, helmet-shaped “pillbox” hat Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband John’s inauguration as the 35th President of the United States. Bergdorf got a lot of orders for Jackie Kennedy’s hat, and imitators cranked out copies of it — and since the original had got dented on the top during the inauguration ceremonies, the knock-off people designed their versions with the dent built in. In 1968 — a year represented by a montage of various city scenes and Aretha Franklin’s great soul record “The House That Jack Built” on the soundtrack — Halston left Bergdorf’s and set up his own salon where he would design and make entire outfits for women, not just hats. He was, not surprisingly, Gay — he comes off in the documentary footage of him as the sort of person who isn’t ashamed of his own queeniness and (like Liberace, Truman Capote and Halston’s good friend Andy Warhol) decided to ramp up the camp in his personal image so people would think, “He acts too much like one to really be one.”

The maker of CNN’s Halston documentary, Frédéric Tcheng (whose multicultural name makes me curious about what he looks like), includes a clip from the infamous 1967 CBS documentary The Homosexual in which the announcer said that a film clip they showed, made with secret cameras, of Gay men cavorting on New York’s Fire Island in the summer would be run in negative film to avoid compromising the identities of anyone in the footage — and then, this being a very different age with a different attitude towards Queer folk (or, as we are now designated in the mainstream media in one of those hideous neologisms that have arisen from a demented search for political correctness, “LGBTQ+ people”), Tcheng reverses the image back to positive film as he describes Fire Island as a summer playground, in more ways than one, for Gay men with professional jobs in New York City. I have virtually no interest in the world of fashion — I accept that we have to wear clothes for legal and customary reasons but I’m not all that obsessed with what they look like, and my husband Charles and I often joke that if there’s a “Gay gene” we didn’t get the fashion alleles — but Halston’s story turned out to be unexpectedly interesting not only for the part A&E told in their “Biography” series (hotshot young designer achieves huge success, uses his money to start hard-partying at Studio 54, doing a lot of guys and a lot of drugs, until he gets AIDS and dies at the relatively young age of 57) but for Halston’s peculiar relationship to corporate capitalism and the depressing fact that the corporados always win in the end no matter how well we think we’ve either resisted them or found a niche in their wall of greed and exploitation.

Halston’s downfall at the hands of corporate capitalism really began in 1977, when he sold his private dressmaking and fashion company to Norton Simon, Inc., one of the “conglomerates” that arose as a business model in the 1960’s and really took off in the 1970’s. The conglomerate was based on the priniciple of “scientific management,” which basically held that the principles of running any sort of business were the same, so a company that had built itself on one line — selling insurance, running parking lots, selling parts for model cars or whatever could run a movie studio or a fashion house equally well. Norton Simon, Inc.’s point person to administer Halston the company and deal with Halston the person was David Mahoney, who for six years pretty much gave him free rein to organize expensive promotional trips to places like France (where Halston and four other U.S. designers had a head-to-head competition with five French designers in the palace at Versailles and, like in the 1930’s movie Gold Diggers in Paris, American anarchism and verve won out over French provincialism) and China. Then in 1983 Mahoney offered to buy the entire company and take it private (a bit of corporate Newspeak that means buying out all your shareholders and keeping the company to yourself and your friends and private investors — capitalism has gone crazy enough that a company like Firestone that was publicly traded for years can “go private,” then start selling its stock again and call it an “initial public offering,” or IPO, even though Firestone stock was publicly traded years before) — only his low-ball offer attracted bigger offers from other corporate suitors.

Norton Simon, Inc. was taken over by Esmark, a conglomerate whose only connection to anything women wore was the Playtex bra — and Halston was dragged along into the world of bottom-line capitalism and forced to account for the big expensive trips he had used to promote both the Halston brand and Halston personally as a public figure and celebrity. Just before the Esmark takeover Halston the person had made what turned out to be a huge mistake: he had cut a deal with J. C. Penney to design clothes for them under a new line called “Halston III” on the not unreasonable attitude that people who couldn’t afford his designer creations might still want to look nice in clothes with his name on them. (The “Halston III” name came about because Halston the person figured that his millinery business at Bergdorf’s was Halston I, his haute couture business Halston II, and making clothes for the mass market was Halston III.) The show at which he introduced his designs for Penney’s was savaged in Women’s Wear Daily and throughout the fashion industry. Bergdorf Goodman’s discontinued selling Halston’s products (including the teardrop-shaped perfume bottle that had become iconic — and much imitated — even though it was difficult to fill and new industrial processes had to be invented to get the perfume into the bottle) and the rest of the fashion world declared him a pariah and threw him out just when he needed their support in his ongoing battle with his new corporate overlords. (Halston himself joked about the Esmark takeover that “aliens from Planet Tampon have landed on Planet Halston.”) Halston the person responded to the takeover of Halston the corporate name by coming into work late, missing deadlines and ramping up the prima donna behavior that had already intimidated a lot of the people who used to work for him and were his friends — and in 1984 Esmark capped Halston’s humiliation by firing him from the company that bore his name and changing the locks so he physically couldn’t get into the building.

According to the Wikipedia page on Halston, they eventually unloaded the business and it ended up as part of Revlon — which as a famous cosmetics firm at least knew something about women’s fashions — and though the CNN documentary depicts Halston as pretty much aimlessly wandering and living off his accumulated fortunes in the last six years of his life, in fact he desperately negotiated with Revlon to try to get back into the company whose brand he had built. In 1988 Halston tested “HIV-positive” and, despite the protests of his friends and family that this was no longer a death sentence, he pretty much treated it as one and moved to San Francisco to live out the last two years of his life — though the actual diagnosis when he died was Kaposi’s sarcoma, a skin cancer linked to the use of amyl nitrite “poppers” by Gay men to facilitate anal-receptive sex. (The film acknowledges that Halston was Gay but only briefly touches on his private life — he had an on-again, off-again 15-year relationship with someone named Victor Hugo, really, who was a South American and in the two-shots of them certainly looks like the butch one in the relationship; he worked for Halston designing show windows and was apparently very good at it, but even after they reconciled themselves to his being Gay Halston’s relatives never liked Hugo and urged Halston to break up with him, which he ultimately did.) The aspects of Halston’s life dealing with the fashion industry interested me little, but the story of how he got screwed over and spat out by the capitalist system in general interested me quite a bit and gave what might otherwise have been just another cautionary Behind the Music tale a quite impactful “spin” that tallied with my overall politics in general and hatred of capitalism (especially modern-day corporate capitalism) in particular.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Game of Thrones, episodes 7-10: “You Win or You Die,” “The Pointy End," “Baelor,” “Fire and Blood” (Television 360, Grok! Entertainment, Generator Entertainment, HBO, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I decided to pick up where we left off on season one of Game of Thrones, the eight-year mega-series based on the cycle of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin. We had previously got up to the end of episode six, “A Golden Crown,” in which Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), current occupant of the Iron Throne (a weird contraption whose back is made up of swords, appropriately enough given the willingness of potential monarchs to kill each other to get there), goes off on a hunt and leaves his “head,” sort of a Prime Minister, Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), to rule in his place. Only during episode seven, “You Win or You Die,” word comes back that Robert has been mortally wounded by a boar (a sort of pig with horns whose meat is very stringy and gamey — I know the last because I’ve actually eaten some at the local Carnitas Snack Shack). He dictates a will on his deathbed that Stark is to serve as regent until Robert’s son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is of age to take the throne. Eddard’s principal adviser is a nasty villain named Peter “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) — you can tell he’s a villain because he’s better looking than the other males in the court of the Seven Kingdoms and his costume is better tailored than anyone else’s — and when Eddard won’t take the tough measures Baelish recommends, including seizing the throne for himself by revealing that Joffrey and his sister were really the products of an incestuous affair between Robert’s queen and her brother, Baelish double-crosses him, arranges for Joffrey to take the throne immediately, kills all of Eddard’s sons — except Robb (Richard Madden), who escapes to the north; and another one who’s out of reach for reasons we’ll find out later — and arrests Eddard for treason. Joffrey is engaged to Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), whose family are the Starks’ bitterest rivals (it’s obvious that when he came up with the names “Lannister” and “Stark” George R. R. Martin was thinking of the real-life Wars of the Roses, in which 15th century England endured a civil war between rival royal families named Lancaster and York!), but he’s pissing her off by making him witness his brutalities, including mounting his dead enemies’ severed heads on pikes and personally overriding the former Queen’s and Cersei’s own pleas for mercy by beheading Eddard right in front of them. Joffrey emerges as a real piece of work, proof that they didn’t break the mold after they made Caligula and Nero, and indeed Jack Gleeson would be excellent casting if they make another movie about these evil Roman emperors.

Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) — why do characters in fantasies have to have such tongue-twisting and virtually unspellable names? — is still stuck on the island adjoining “Westeros,” the fictional locale of Game of Thrones (though it’s pretty obviously supposed to be England and Ireland, respectively — and the Wall that’s a constant conversation topic in this show, to the point where there’s a whole order of knights who have nothing to do but guard it, represents the Roman emperor Hadrian’s wall separating what’s now England from what’s now Scotland), where she married Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa, who after he left this series got to play Aquaman — and a considerably hunkier, more butch Aquaman than the one from the comics, in which he was just plain dull) of the Dothraki tribe, who from the name of their ruler seem to have been Genghis Khan’s Golden Hordes from Mongolia transposed into medieval England. Daenerys is the granddaughter of a former king who was deposed and murdered ostensibly because he went insane, and she hooked up with Drogo because she was hoping his army would be the tool with which she could invade Westeros and gain the Iron Throne herself — only they remain stuck on the island to the west of the main action and, though they know what ships are, they supposedly don’t have the resources to construct any.

Meanwhile (in Game of Thrones, as in S. J. Perelman’s retrospective review of the 1916 version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, “everything … happens in the meantime; the characters don’t even sneeze consecutively”), Jon Snow (Kit Harington), illegitimate son of Eddard Stark (who because of the “stain” on his birth wasn’t allowed at court and thereby escaped Joffrey’s vengeance), has gone off to join the Night’s Watch, the group of misfits who take an oath for the rest of their lives to defend the Wall (ya remember the Wall?) and do nothing else — though that doesn’t stop Jon from wanting to join his half-brother Robb and set up their own kingdom in the north of England, oops, I mean Westeros, even if that means deserting the Night’s Watch, which like just about every crime in this medieval world is punishable by death. (I must say that for much of the later going in these episodes I had Jon Snow and Robb Stark confused — which in a way is a tribute to casting directors Nina Gold and Robert Sterne for finding two actors who look as similar as Kit Harington and Richard Madden instead of trying to pass off dramatically different-looking people as brothers, even half-brothers.)

Charles and I had originally planned to watch only two episodes last night, “You Win or You Die” and “The Pointy End” (written by George R. R. Martin himself — he contributed one script to each of the first four seasons but then left the story in the hands of the series producers, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss), but I suggested we continue on and watch the final two episodes of season one, “Baelor” and “Fire and Blood,” as well. I can see why a lot of people “binge” this show — watch several episodes in quick succession — because it takes about an hour or two of running time just to get into the spirit of the piece and have any hope of keeping track of who these people are and what sides they’re all on. The series keeps cutting back and forth between both major and minor plotlines, as Daenerys’s husband Khal Drogo is mortally wounded by a rival Dothraki who wants to take over; Daenerys calls in a middle-aged witch healer to save her husband; the witch healer was already raped by several Dothraki and for revenge she performs a “blood magic” spell on Drogo that saves his life but keeps him in suspended animation and simultaneously kills the fetus Daenerys was carrying that she hoped would be the heir to the Dothraki throne. (The Dothraki are the main characters who speak a tongue other than English, and while George R. R. Martin was content merely to write a few sentences of the supposed Dothraki tongue and then supply the English translation, the show’s producers decided to make Dothraki a full-fledged language, using Martin’s words as the basis for a tongue with its own rules of grammar and a 500-word vocabulary.) Daenerys ends up smothering her vegetative husband with a pillow and tying the witch healer to his funeral pyre, then she gets on it herself — not to commit suicide à la Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring (and the more modern big-scaled fantasy series I encounter the more I love and respect Wagner’s work for telling a big story in legendary times but giving it dramatic and philosophical weight, and also making it coherent!) but to hatch three dragon eggs she’s been carrying around with her a long time, which turn into three baby dragons that literally erupt from her body as she returns from the fire, singed but still alive, at the end of the final episode of season one.

While all this is happening the Lannisters’ hunky blond prince, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), has been kidnapped by one of the family’s enemies, and his little-person brother Tyrion (played by little-person actor Peter Dinklage, who quite frankly is the best actor in the cycle — and also happens to be playing the most strongly conceived character) is trying to figure out how to get him back while at the same time enjoying his greatest pleasures in life, riches and women. There are various characters in this story, including a white dog with supernatural powers that takes out Jon Snow’s enemies when they get too close to him; a girl who was practicing swordfighting when her family is slaughtered and she’s forced to escape disguised as a boy (shades of Sylvia Scarlett!); a couple of barbarian tribes who attack the main characters but let themselves get persuaded to join the intrigues on one side or another; and the mysterious White Walkers who live on the other side of the Wall (sometimes this series sounds like Donald Trump’s wet dream!) and against whom the Wall is supposed to protect everybody else.

Speaking of Donald Trump, though Game of Thrones started filming in 2010 and first aired in 2011 — so most of its production took place during the Obama administration — the show now seems to be very much part of the Trump Zeitgeist, particularly in its cynical portrayal of politics as literally a game rich, powerful and well-connected people play with utterly no interest in the well-being of anyone else. I remember taking a course in British history in junior college in which the professor made the point that in real feudal England, the common people were generally better off under a strong King than a weak one, since under feudalism the most direct source of people’s oppression was the feudal lords who held them and the lands they worked under a system which basically made them slaves even though the lords didn’t outright own their workforce. The big threat a King had to his power was from these same feudal nobles, and one of the ways a strong King had to ward off a threat from the nobles to challenge or overthrow him was to hurt the nobles in their pocketbooks by giving (and guaranteeing) more rights to the commoners. But in Game of Thrones, as in most medieval-set fiction, the common people seem barely to exist except as rape objects for the 0.01 percent. Still, I can see why Game of Thrones got the following it did, not only for the mental challenge of keeping all the characters, their families and their allegiances straight, but also because it reflects the modern-day cynical Zeitgeist about politics; like The Hunger Games (especially the last book in the cycle, Mockingjay), it’s a warning about the futility of all political action: a statement that, in the famous saying that “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled,” the rulers are the elephants trampling the rest of us and about all we can do is whatever we can for self-preservation to make sure we aren’t among the leaves of grass the elephants trample.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Why Aren't We Still Going to the Moon?


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Apollo 11 (CNN Films, Statement Pictures, Universal, 2019)
First Man (Universal, DreamWorks, Perfect World Pictures, 2018)
Chasing the Moon [episode 1] (Robert Stone Productions, 2019)
Man on the Moon (CBS-TV, aired July 16, 2019)

At the end of Apollo 11, the documentary on the July 21, 1969 landing of human beings on the moon made by CNN Films, released theatrically and then shown on TV on the 50th anniversary of the actual event, one of the three astronauts — it’s not clear which one — is heard on the soundtrack speaking of “mankind’s insatiable curiosity to explore the unknown.”
But if humanity (to use the non-sexist term) has an insatiable curiosity to explore the unknown, you’d never know it from the outcome of the Apollo moon program. After Apollo 11, six more rockets were launched by the U.S. with the intent of putting more men (and yes, they were all men; the U.S. didn’t send a woman into space until 1983, 20 years after the Soviet Union did) on the moon.
Ironically, the only one of these missions that achieved lasting fame was Apollo 13, and that’s because it was the only one that didn’t get to the moon. Instead, a malfunction in the spacecraft made it touch-and-go as to whether the astronauts would even make it back to earth safely, and their heroic struggle to improvise a means to return by using their equipment in ways it wasn’t designed for made the Apollo 13 astronauts worldwide heroes and led to a book by the mission captain, Jim Lovell, called Lost Moon that was eventually turned into the hit film Apollo 13.
The extent to which the heroics of going to the moon in 1969 had turned into something seemingly banal and dull was summed up by a line in the script for Apollo 13. One of the officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls up a news executive at a TV network and asks why they aren’t giving Apollo 13 the wall-to-wall media coverage they gave Apollo 11 — or, indeed, any news coverage all. The network guy responds, “You’ve made going to the moon seem as exciting as going to Pittsburgh.”

A Boy in Love with the Space Program

I was born September 4, 1953, which means I was seven years old when humans first went into space. I had followed the coverage of rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida and gnashed my teeth with frustration that the launches always took place at 7 a.m. Florida time — which meant as a California boy I had to get up by 4 in the morning (on a school night!) to see them “live.” I usually didn’t make it up that early, though I tried.
Nonetheless, I devoured every piece of information I could get on the space program. I remember using my allowance money to buy a couple of paperbacks on it, including one whose “cover boy” was Alan Shepard — technically the first American into space, even though they just shot him up on one of the Army’s old Redstone rockets for what they called a “sub-orbital” flight — meaning that the spacecraft went up across the sky in an arc and then came down again after only 15 minutes. This happened on May 5, 1961, nearly a month after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space — and the first actually to orbit the earth in a spacecraft, something an American didn’t do until John Glenn on February 20, 1962.
I remember getting two books on the actual NASA space program and then buying a third which disappointed me because it was merely a collection of science-fiction stories. I remember giving up on this book because my seven-year-old mind couldn’t make heads or tails of the third story, Henry Kuttner’s “The Iron Standard.” I ran across that story again in a collection of Kuttner’s works I found in the 1990’s and this time found it absolutely brilliant even though I had a hard time with its politics: it’s about a crew of Earth astronauts who land on the planet Venus, bring free-enterprise capitalism and smash the Takomars, the socialist hierarchies that previously ran Venus’s economy.
Later on my mother signed me up for a children’s book club and, among other things, I eagerly ate up Donald A. Wollheim’s “Mike Mars” series. This posited that in addition to Project Mercury, the astronaut program everyone knew about, the U.S. government had set up a second, secret program of younger men called “Project Quicksilver,” and the heroes were a boyish Anglo guy named Mike Sampson — nicknamed “Mike Mars” because his initials spelled out the name of the Red Planet — and a Native American sidekick named Johnny Bluehawk. The villains of the piece(s) were Rod Harger, the spoiled rich brat of a super-wealthy man who was determined that his son would be the first human in space; and Carl Cahoon, a.k.a. Tench, the thug Harger, Sr. hired to sabotage the other astronauts to make that happen.
So when my age was still in single digits I was excited about the prospect of humans going into space, landing on the moon and eventually reaching out to Mars and beyond as anyone else. My attitude began to sour — like a lot of people’s — as the 1960’s ground on and the very fabric of life on Earth seemed to tear in unexpected ways. President John F. Kennedy — who had proudly proclaimed in 1962 America’s commitment “to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely to the earth” — was killed when I was 10 years old, attending a private grade school and was actually in the playground at recess when the announcement came.
I was already a committed supporter of the African-American civil rights movement — thanks almost entirely to my mother, who was highly active in it as a white supporter of Black civil rights until the movement turned in the so-called “Black Power” direction in 1966 and decided they neither needed nor wanted white supporters. I was at the dinner table while my mother and stepfather watched the TV news and argued about civil rights and the Viet Nam War, which I’d already decided by 1965 (the year my mom and my stepfather broke up, largely over their political differences) I was against. I remember having arguments about it in junior high school with my playmates (to the extent I had any — I was a pretty lonely, introverted kid and frequently the victim of bullying) and smiling to myself when we ended up in high school together and they started coming around to the anti-war position.

Radicalized and Disillusioned

Gradually the ferment of the times won me over to what became the orthodox position about space from progressives and Leftists: that the space program was a colossal waste of money and resources that could better be used against poverty, racism and other problems here on Earth. The new, more cynical attitude I and my friends had towards the space program was probably summed up in a line by satirical singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer on his album That Was the Year That Was, in which he said the government was “spending $20 billion of your money to put some clown on the moon.”
Oh, there were times I got excited about it all over again, including the fascinating program a NASA representative gave at our junior high school (the horrible neologism “middle school” hadn’t been coined yet) explaining exactly how the Apollo spacecraft would work, including the division of the actual moon craft into three sections: the “Command Module,” “Service Module” and what was then called the “Lunar Excursion Module,” the only one of the three parts that would actually land on the moon. Later, apparently someone at NASA’s P.R. department thought the name “Lunar Excursion Module” sounded too frivolous and it was shortened simply to “Lunar Module,” but the acronym “LEM” survived as the colloquial name for the craft.
I got excited all over again on the night Apollo 11’s lunar module actually landed on the moon. The first thing that was broadcast about this momentous event hooked my cynicism when a newscaster announced that the first thing the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, had done when they touched down on the moon was “jettison waste material.” “Oh, great,” I thought. “We finally get to the moon, and what’s the first thing we do there? Throw out our garbage!”
Nonetheless, that night I went to the home of a young woman who was leader of our radical high-school group, the Student Party for Self-Direction, which was still meeting though it was summer and school was out. There was a blurry black-and-white TV in the room where we were meeting and, like just about every other TV set in the world, it was tuned to the live coverage of the moon landing and we got to read the epochal chyrons, “LIVE FROM THE SURFACE OF THE MOON” and “LIVE FROM MOON,” as two spacesuit-clad figures walked onto the lunar surface, left the big footprints of their space boots on the moon’s grainy, sandy surface and put up an American flag made of plastic. An ordinary cloth one would not have billowed appropriately because the moon has no atmosphere.
We even sent out for ice cream to the local Baskin-Robbins and got their last supply of “Lunar Cheesecake,” a special flavor for the occasion that was lime-green and, as I recall, didn’t taste very much like cheesecake. (Five years later, when the House Judiciary Committee was debating articles of impeachment against then-President Richard Nixon over his role in the Watergate cover-up, Baskin-Robbins would come up with a similar occasional flavor, “Mmm-Peach-Mint.”) We had the properly cynical attitude towards the achievement we as progressives and radicals were supposed to have — but we were still jazzed enough about the experience not only to watch it on TV but get excited about it.
At least part of the problem was that NASA sold the space program in a way that put the astronauts and everyone else involved on the wrong side of the generational divide. From the very start of the astronaut training program NASA had chosen military test pilots, mostly from the Air Force but some from the Navy as well, as having what author Tom Wolfe later called “the right stuff” to lead the U.S. into space.
As the 1960’s wore on and as the war in Viet Nam seemed to soak up young people’s lives and society’s resources without end and without purpose (novelist Norman Mailer summed up the war’s seeming pointlessness by calling one of his books Why Are We In Viet Nam? even though the plot only indirectly dealt with the war), many young Americans (particularly men like me who were approaching draft age and therefore had to deal with the dilemma of whether to fight it willingly, flee the country or risk prison to resist) developed a resistance to all things associated with the U.S. military.
The extent to which NASA sold itself as exemplar of the “old American values” of patriotism, loyalty and moral certitude was shown dramatically in a film clip of astronaut Frank Borman, who as leader of the Apollo 8 crew had been one of the first humans to orbit the moon even though they didn’t land on it, speaking to an audience of students at a major college. Borman gave a full-throated denunciation of all those horrible student radicals who were challenging their professors, the school administrators and the norms of society as a whole — to the cheers of most of his audience and the boos of a few.
The clip is contained in the third part of the three-part PBS documentary Chasing the Moon, the only one of the four films shown on American TV the week of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 that attempted to show the moon landing in its political context: the high-tension Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union that had animated its beginning and the divisions within America that had undermined support for it by the time it actually happened.

“Just the Facts” — Or the Nuances as Well

“Facts are nothing without their nuance, sir.”
— Allen Ginsberg, poet, testifying at the Chicago conspiracy trial, 1969-1970

During the 50th anniversary week of the Apollo 11 mission — which I had forgotten was actually eight days long since it took over three days each way to get to the moon and back — I got to see four films about it with dramatically different “takes” on Apollo 11 and the abrupt halt to human-staffed space flight just over three years later. Chasing the Moon, a three-part, six-hour documentary written and directed by Robert Stone, was shown on Dutch TV cut into six one-hour segments. Its principal character was Wernher von Braun, whom Tom Lehrer wrote a savagely brilliant song in which he referred to von Braun as “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience.”
Von Braun started his career in rocketry in his native Germany. Nazi Germany, to be exact; he ran the experimental German rocket base at Peënemunde which developed two weapons that so impressed Adolf Hitler that by 1944 he thought they would turn the tide of the war and enable Germany to win. One was the V-1, nicknamed the “buzz bomb” by the residents of British cities who were bombed by it. The V-1 was what would now be called a “drone” — an unmanned jet-powered aircraft that flew itself into the ground and blew up, creating an explosion similar to a bomb dropped by a piloted aircraft but without the risk that British anti-aircraft gunners could shoot it down.
The other “vengeance weapon” was the V-2, the world’s first guided missile, which drew on the best rocket technology available to drop warheads on cities (particularly London and the Dutch city of Antwerp). After the war the U.S. and the Soviet Union treated both the V-2 rockets and the staff that had developed them as war booty. Von Braun was one of the leading scientists in the U.S. rocket program, and his research project used captured V-2’s and worked out ways to improve them. Von Braun also thought rockets could be used to launch people into space — an idea he got from fellow German scientist Hermann Oberth, who in 1923 had published a novel called By Rocket Into Planetary Space and five years later served as scientific advisor to director Fritz Lang for Woman on the Moon, a 1928 film that depicted a successful lunar landing and for which Lang, seeking a dramatic way to show the rocket being launched, invented the countdown.
Von Braun became the foremost U.S. rocket scientist and was instrumental in developing the spacecraft used in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo human-staffed space flight programs. His goal was to land humans on the planet Mars, and according to some reports he over-designed the Saturn V, the rocket that propelled Apollo 11 to the moon, so it would be powerful enough to reach Mars as well. He was also dogged by questions about his Nazi past, particularly whether he had used slave laborers at Peënemunde and had known about the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. Tom Lehrer’s song about him directly referenced his role in developing the V-1 and V-2:

“Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some say our attitude should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.”

Indeed, von Braun became such an American hero that in 1960 a movie was made about him, I Aim at the Stars, directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring German actor Curt Jurgens as von Braun. Not surprisingly, Robert Stone’s Chasing the Moon gives a much more jaundiced version of von Braun, as well as stressing how much the so-called “space race” was a part of the Cold War. Stone’s film notes that, despite making that bold public declaration that the U.S. would commit itself to sending a man to the moon and bringing him back, President Kennedy was actually doubtful about the expense involved.
He was persuaded to stay the course because the Russians were also presumably racing to the moon, and they’d already beaten us at launching the first artificial satellite and putting the first man in orbit around the earth. Whatever the cost, Kennedy’s advisors told him, we had to pursue the moon flight lest we lose yet another heat of the space race to the Russians — and have to face not only the blow to our national prestige but also the possible use of the moon as a military base by which the Russians could attack us on earth.
Sometime in the 1960’s the Russians, quietly and without fanfare, the Russians gave up on sending people to the moon. Chasing the Moon showed that it wasn’t for lack of trying — they actually built a lunar landing vehicle similar to America’s LEM, but it crashed on initial tests. (So did ours, by the way.) So by the time Apollo 11 went up on July 16, it was in a “race” on its own. One of the big reasons the U.S. human spaceflight program petered out after Apollo ran its course was that, with the Russians no longer competing in the “space race,” there were no longer any competitive points to be scored in the overall Cold War by making it to the moon ourselves.

Not Getting in the Way of the Story

While Robert Stone’s six-hour documentary Chasing the Moon attempted to put the U.S. space program in general and the Apollo missions in particular in a perspective steeped in historical and cultural nuance, CNN’s 93-minute Apollo 11 — first released theatrically by CNN Films in association with Universal, then shown on CNN’s TV network on July 21, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — was a “just the facts, ma’am” presentation. Director Todd Douglas Miller made his film almost exclusively from NASA’s official footage of the mission — much of it in brilliant color and crystal clarity, far better than the blurry black-and-white of the images we got “live” — and didn’t saddle his film with a bunch of talking heads explaining the significance of it all. Virtually the only voiceover we got was from Neil Armstrong, the first human on the moon, in an interview he gave shortly after he and his crew got back.
About the only filmmaker’s trick Miller used to “goose up” his story and heighten its emotion was the background music by Matt Morton. Using a lot of percussion effects and mostly avoiding theremins, synthesizers and other clichés of movie “space” music, Morton did his job mostly sparingly. Still, there are times — especially when we’re also hearing the recorded voices of the astronauts and others in the crew communicating with each other and Mission Control in Houston, Texas (a site chosen for political reasons to make Texan politicians, including Lyndon Johnson, vice-president under Kennedy and president for five years after the assassination) — when one wishes Morton would just shut up.
Apollo 11 is a movie that offers a window into another time and place. Not only does the computer equipment at Mission Control seem laughably antiquated today — some of the scenes show NASA’s engineers calculating rocket trajectories with slide rules, an analog computing technology which disappeared virtually overnight after the pocket calculator was invented and first marketed — almost all of them smoked like chimneys while they worked. Also, virtually all the Mission Control crew were white men. As the camera pans over Mission Control we see one Black man and one woman.
When CNN showed Apollo 11 on July 21, 2019 they followed up one of the screenings with a mini-documentary on that woman, JoAnn Morgan, who’s quoted on her Wikipedia page as saying she "would remain the only woman there for a long time." Morgan recalled that for her first 15 years with NASA, “I worked in a building where there wasn't a ladies’ restroom. … [I]t was a big day in my book when there was one.” Until then, she explained on the CNN mini-doc, whenever she needed to use the restroom one of the military people who were providing NASA’s security had to stand guard outside the restroom to make sure no male tried to use it while she was in there.

Courageous Hero or Cog in the Machine?

I got to see Apollo 11 twice in two days: once while it was on CNN and once the day before when the person who runs the monthly Mars ( and Vintage Sci-Fi ( movie screenings in Golden Hill showed it on a double bill with First Man, the 2018 biopic of Neil Armstrong. When I first heard that this movie was being made and Ryan Gosling would star as Armstrong, I hailed it as the fulfillment of my wish that after his long string of movies as weirdos — The United States of Leland, Stay, Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl, The Big Short, La La Land, Blade Runner 2049 — some Hollywood casting director would finally hire Gosling to play someone normal.
Well, yes and no. First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle in a straightforward manner totally unlike the flash and razzle-dazzle of his star-making film La La Land and written by Josh Singer based on a biography of Armstrong by James R. Hansen, doesn’t exactly tell the tale of a man to the hero’s mantle born. Gosling’s performance is a matter-of-fact reading of a man whose life was so colorless, and who was so seemingly content to be just another interchangeable cog in NASA’s great machine, Neil Armstrong enters Gosling’s line of weirdos by being almost totally unmoved by doing something that will make his name live in the history books as long as human beings survive.
Neil Armstrong was a U. S. Air Force test pilot — and though he had resigned from the service and was technically a civilian when he flew on Apollo 11, you could take the man out of the Air Force but you couldn’t take the Air Force out of the man. Armstrong’s understated taciturnicity and the whole infrastructure NASA had built to get him and Buzz Aldrin to the moon and back made it difficult — though they tried — to cast him in the lone-hero mold of Christopher Columbus and Charles Lindbergh, two historical precedents a lot of people cited at the time.
The Apollo 11 mission was rehearsed for years, on the ground, in the air (among the most grimly amusing moments of First Man are the tests in which Armstrong attempts to fly the lunar module to a successful landing at a test site on Earth — and fails) and even while it was still going on. One of the things I remember about the coverage of Apollo 11 while the astronauts were in space approaching the moon was the long checklist of drills and tests NASA had put them through, including something called “The Sim” — short for “simulation” — two days before the actual landing.
To me, it was yet one more detail undercutting the whole argument that Armstrong and Aldrin were lone heroes risking their lives like Columbus and Lindbergh. The risks to their lives were real, all right — First Man is almost obsessive in depicting the people who died in various test flights and other experiments on the way to getting humans to the moon and back — but “Mission Control,” the huge organization that was backing them up and was in constant contact with them, told a quite different story from the lone-wolf explorer, out in the middle of nowhere with no source for help if anything went wrong.
Not that there weren’t incidents along the way when things did go horribly wrong without anyone being able to help. The most famous one — and it’s the most chilling scene in First Man — dealt with the so-called “plugs-out test” of the first Apollo spacecraft on January 27, 1967. It’s not clear from the film just what the “plugs-out test” was supposed to test for, or why it was called that, but as any student of the U.S. space program will recall, the test was an utter disaster. A spark in the space capsule ignited the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere and flared into a gigantic fire, incinerating the three astronauts aboard — Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — as the mission controllers looked on, totally helplessly, from their computer stations in Houston.
Perhaps the strongest and most striking aspect of First Man is how vividly it dramatizes that the road to the moon was paved with corpses, and Neil Armstrong got to be the titular “first man” largely because he survived the disasters that took out the people in line ahead of him for the honor. Writer Singer and director Chazelle gave Armstrong another tragedy, a personal one — the death of his daughter Karen from leukemia at age 2 — and make it his Citizen Kane-style “Rosebud” moment, the event in his life that explains the man he became. In a scene copied almost exactly from the ending of James Cameron’s Titanic, Armstrong even throws his daughter’s I.D. bracelet onto a crevice in the moon just before he leaves.
The proprietor of the Apollo 11 and First Man screening in Golden Hill thought Chazelle and Singer had gone too far in emphasizing Armstrong’s taciturnicity and clear distaste for mixing unnecessarily with other humans. But the real Armstrong was like that, as he revealed in 2005 when 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley was the recipient of one of Armstrong’s rare interviews. Though Armstrong insisted that the famous line he uttered when he first set foot on the moon — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — was his own invention (it always reeked of a Hollywood screenwriter or a NASA publicist to me), throughout the rest of the interview he was his usual aw-shucks, I’m-not-that-special self.
The Neil Armstrong who gave Bradley that interview — rerun on CBS-TV’s special Man on the Moon, aired July 16, 2019 on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s departure (and using the title and some of the footage from a quickie TV special put together by CBS news and narrated by Walter Cronkite shortly after the flight) — was the one Ryan Gosling played in First Man. He has his romantic side — he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are shown dancing in their living room to an odd 1947 lounge-music album called Lunar Rhapsody long before Armstrong makes it to the moon — but he’s mostly content to be a cog in NASA’s great machine, accepting the assignment of being the first man on the moon with neither trepidation nor enthusiasm, but simply out of a grim sense of duty: this is what they’ve told me to do, so I’m doing it.
Like Apollo 11, First Man suffers from a weak musical score — in this case by Chazelle’s collaborator on La La Land, Justin Hurwitz. It doesn’t help that Hurwitz is competing with the great pieces of pre-existing classical music used by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I would rate as the greatest science-fiction film ever made, and arguably the greatest film ever made, period) for similar action. When the crew of the Gemini program (whose name was annoyingly pronounced “Gem-muh-NEE” instead of “Gem-min-EYE”) practice docking two spacecraft together in Earth orbit — a maneuver crucial to the success of the later Apollo missions — whatever Hurwitz came up with seemed lame and banal compared to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Blue Danube” waltz with which Kubrick scored his space-docking scene. And when Armstrong and Aldrin are flying their lunar module, the Eagle, over the moon’s surface looking for a place to land, Hurwitz’s score seemed to fall far short of Kubrick’s choice, Györgi Ligeti’s hauntingly beautiful “Lux Aeterna.”

So Why Aren’t We Still Going to the Moon?

It’s rather an open question, which these four films do surprisingly little to answer. It appears that Richard Nixon decided to cancel the development of future launch vehicles aimed at continuing the moon flights and then taking people to Mars — perhaps out of a Trump-like jealousy over his dashing, romantic, charismatic and tragically doomed predecessor, John F. Kennedy. It couldn’t have been good for Nixon’s ego that while he placed a live phone call to Neil Armstrong while Armstrong was on the moon and Nixon was in the Oval Office, the President showcased most often in the Apollo 11 coverage was Kennedy via his film clip making the promise, now fulfilled, that before the end of the 1960’s the U.S. would send a man to the moon and bring him back safely.
But I would argue that the bizarre abandonment of the moon program and any efforts to send people farther into space — the only time in human history a nation has planted its flag on a faraway country, continent or heavenly body and then just stopped going there after a mere three years — has to do partly with the way NASA publicized the space program and partly with the disillusionment that fell upon the country after Nixon’s fall from office over Watergate and a new mood that undermined the broad-based political support needed to keep such projects alive and funded.
As I noted above, NASA deliberately pitched the space program as part of the Establishment side in the bitter battles raged between it and the burgeoning youth counter-culture in the 1960’s. The astronauts were picked from the ranks of the U.S. military and in particular from its culture of test pilots, the hard-living, hard-drinking macho men who had broken the sound barrier and flown the X-series planes which got the U.S. to the edge of space. They were presented as having the “right stuff” — in the unforgettable phrase Tom Wolfe coined for the title of his book about the Mercury program — and as being everything to which a red-blooded man with traditional family values should aspire.
In a time of ferment in which Americans in general, and younger Americans in particular, were starting to question traditional gender roles as well as traditional racial hierarchies, the astronauts were also presented as “family men.” Their life partners were deliberately depicted in the media as Stepford wives — faithful, obedient homemakers willing to wait patiently for their men to come home from their dangerous missions while they cooked, cleaned, did laundry and sent the kids off to school. Wolfe’s book describes the Mercury astronauts as considerably less tied down by the marital bonds as the image — he even says there were astronaut groupies in Florida who were trying to bed all seven of the original Mercury program members — but that wasn’t what we were told, or sold, then.
By so resolutely marketing space travel as a military man’s game, an exemplar of the order and discipline of the military way of life, NASA drove a wedge between itself and the younger generation that has usually supplied the world its explorers. NASA presented space as an exclusively military preserve at a time when the U.S. military was embarrassing itself trying as best it could to fulfill the impossible mission the nation’s political leaders had set for it in Viet Nam. The young dreamers, afire with thoughts of a better world, weren’t signing up for the space program; they were figuring out ways to avoid being drafted into an unwinnable war halfway across the world.
The convulsive changes of the 1960’s — civil rights movements, first for African-Americans and then for other people of color, women and Queers; the Viet Nam war; the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. —split America in ways that are still being felt today. Much of the appeal of Donald Trump to his base lies in his promise — what he really means by “Make America Great Again” — to wipe out all that nonsense about equality that started in the 1960’s and return to a time when Blacks were still in the back of the bus, women still in the kitchen, Queers still in the closet and the rule of the country by white men was simply taken for granted as a God-given fact.
The disillusionments from the 1960’s and 1970’s — the ignominious end of the Viet Nam war and Nixon’s fall from the Presidency due to the Watergate scandal in particular — ironically boosted the fortunes of America’s political Right. They seemed to convince many Americans, particularly older ones upset by the excesses of the counterculture, that government was no longer to be trusted. America settled into a politics dominated largely by recitations of all the things we couldn’t do — end war, end poverty, end hunger, end homelessness, give everyone access to health care.
This led me, in an editorial I wrote in the 1990’s, to say that if the 1980’s had been the “Me Decade” that enshrined selfishness as a virtue and damned political activism as useless and hopeless, the 1990’s were the “No Decade,” in which politicians and pundits repeatedly said, “You can’t … ” to anyone, in or out of government, who expressed a hope that we could mobilize ourselves collectively and use government to solve any of our major social problems. The cold, clammy rhetoric of politicians from both sides of the partisan divide — notably Bill Clinton’s response to becoming the first Democratic President to lose control of Congress in 40 years, which was to join the Republicans in saying, “The era of Big Government is over” — seemed to relegate big projects like exploring the moon and reaching out to Mars to the province of dreamers and science-fiction writers again.
Instead of vehicles of exploration, the U.S. space program became essentially a trucking service. Instead of building a spaceship to take us back to the moon and onward to Mars, the U.S. built the space shuttle, a craft whose purpose was as prosaic as its name. While thoughts of exploring and colonizing the planets fell by the wayside, private industry had developed communications networks based on so-called “geosynchronous satellites” (an idea first thought up by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke) that would always be over the same part of Earth no matter where both Earth and the satellite were in space at the moment. The space shuttle’s main task became to deliver such satellites and place them in those spatial sweet spots more cheaply than launching them one at a time on single-use rockets.
Not that presidents since Nixon haven’t occasionally talked about building a new generation of spacecraft and taking humans to Mars. George W. Bush called for it. So did Barack Obama. So has Donald Trump, though his main purpose seems to be to create a Mars mission that will maintain NASA’s existence while he ends its other major program: measuring changes in the earth’s weather patterns and thereby documenting that human beings are changing the climate despite Trump’s dogged and unshakeable belief that they aren’t. Unlike John Kennedy with the moon program, none of the recent presidents who have called for either a U.S. return to the moon or a mission to Mars have expended any political capital on making it happen.
This has led a lot of science-fiction fans and supporters of planetary exploration to hope that the private sector will step in and take over. It’s essentially the plot of the 1950 movie Destination Moon, based on the writings of Right-wing science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, in which an industrialist persuades the CEO’s of major corporations to bankroll a moon mission to make sure that unspecified “enemies” (which in a 1950 movie could only have meant the Soviet Union) don’t get to the moon first and use it as a military base against us.
More recently, the oddball National Geographic production Mars — a TV series which combines a talking-heads documentary on the potential for a human mission to Mars in the present day and a fictional account of such a mission that stretches out over decades, starting in the 2030’s — has presented one super-capitalist in particular, Elon Musk, as the potential savior of space exploration. The hagiographic depiction of Musk in this film, and at science-fiction conventions where his name is mentioned, contrasts strongly with news of the real Musk, a Trump-style B.S. artist whose companies are constantly skating the thin edge of bankruptcy and never quite delivering the super-technologies he keeps promising. Indeed, Musk has been threatened with prosecution so often by the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the misleading (to put it politely) claims he’s made to his company’s shareholders I’ve joked that if he goes to Mars it will be as a fugitive from U.S. justice.
There’s certainly a history of private companies funding programs of exploration in the hope of turning a profit. Most of the British settlements in North America that ultimately became the first United States were bankrolled by private entrepreneurs who hoped they’d make money on exports of grain and other produce from the New World. India was conquered in the 18th century not by the British government but by the British East India Company, which ruled it for a century before officially turning it over to the British state and was even more repressive than the British colonial officials sent to run it after the 19th century handover. King Leopold II of Belgium colonized the Congo not on behalf of the Belgian state but as his personal property, seeking to exploit the Congo’s mineral resources for his own enrichment and enslaving the natives in the process.
But it’s hard to imagine a private company — or even a consortium of them — raising the massive amounts of money it would take to go back to the Moon, let alone to go to Mars, for the highly speculative chances that such missions would ultimately be profitable. This is especially true in the modern era of so-called “activist investors,” who don’t care about the long-term health of the business they buy into. All they’re interested in is the value of their own shareholdings as measured by how the stock price is doing. If a company can be worth more to its shareholders divided into bits and pieces, with its assets used as leverage for loans and its employees laid off en masse, that’s what they will do with it. In a global economy that has turned capitalism itself into a giant speculative game for the 0.01 percent, the idea that one or more corporations might commit to something as chancy as a mission to other planets is preposterous.
So we haven’t been back to the moon, we haven’t gone to Mars, and given the current state of the economy we’re not likely to. Indeed, the next big project the human race will have to undertake is ensuring its actual survival on Earth, given the ongoing assault on the climate and our own planet’s ability to support us long-term. Progressives have called for a “Green New Deal” and compared it to the Manhattan Project that devised the first nuclear weapon, or the Apollo moon project, but it’s considerably harder to sell this effort because it has no readily definable end point. The Manhattan Project devised a usable atomic bomb and dropped it on two Japanese cities at the end of World War II. Apollo 11 landed two people on the moon and brought them safely to earth.
The Green New Deal doesn’t have such a readily definable endpoint — just a bunch of boring-sounding statistics about parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It also has virtually all the major economic players in the world, both public and private, against it. The ruling class we have today, with its short-sighted obsession with their investments’ stock price the next quarter, won’t allow a Green New Deal to come to fruition, especially since in order to succeed it will have to abolish a lot of the habits of late industrial society that have brought the Earth to the brink of no longer being able to sustain human life. Future generations aren’t going to be able to dream about humans living and prospering on other planets; they’re far more likely to engage in a desperate but losing battle to stay alive on this one.

Monday, August 19, 2019

A Lover Scorned (ThinkFactory Media, Swirl Films, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyrigh © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a Lifetime movie called A Lover Scorned — I’m not sure why it was called that other than that its producers had to call it something — and I was forewarned by an review which called it “the worst movie in the history of the world (Lifetime edition).” I suspect what put off the reviewer about A Lover Scorned is what put me off of it as well — the huge gulf between the potential talents of the people involved and the paucity of their achievement. The director was Roland Joffé, a major filmmaker with such substantial credits on his résumé as The Killing Fields, The Mission, Fat Man and Little Boy, and the 1995 version of The Scarlet Letter. The writers were Leslie Greif and Nicholas Kazan, Elia Kazan’s son. What Joffé, Kazan fils and Greif came up with began as a stone ripoff of Double Indemnity — Brooke Stevens (Emilie de Ravin), a woman bored in her marriage because her husband Steve (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a real-estate developer who’s never home because he’s always flying around the country to salvage his latest project, seems to have lost interest in her, starts an affair with insurance agent Jake Walters (Leo Howard) and ultimately plots with him to kill her husband so they can run off together and split the $15 million life insurance policy the Stevenses have just bought on each other. Only, where Double Indemnity author James M. Cain and the people who adapted his book into a film, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, kept the plot manageably simple, Messrs. Joffé, Greif and Kazan loaded the basic story with complications. It seems that hubby Steve is having an affair of his own with a mysterious woman named “Irene,” and Jake is Bisexual and has succeeded as an insurance salesman by being able to seduce both female and male customers. We see him in a Gay bar coming on, both personally and professionally, with a man who left a wife and child to “come out” definitively four years earlier, and later it turns out that Jake had also seduced Brooke’s husband Steve and plotted with him to kill Brooke for the insurance money.

And if that’s not enough plot complication for you, the mysterious “Irene” whom Steve was also having sex with turns out to be Brooke’s best friend Angie (Martha Hamilton), who demands half of the insurance money after Jake kills Steve because she’s pregnant with Steve’s child and therefore is going to give birth to the heir to Steve’s fortune, such as it is — since we ultimately learn that Steve, despite his paramours of both genders, was sufficiently in love with his wife that he planned to take out the big insurance policy and then commit suicide, faking it to look like an accident, so she’d still have money instead of losing it all through the impending bankruptcy of his real-estate development company. The character of Paul Keyes, the intrepid insurance investigator from the original story (played unforgettably in the movie by Edward G. Robinson), is here split into two avuncular people of color, African-American police detective Mike Wall (Tony Vaughn) and insurance investigator Mr. Wong (Cary Hiroyugi-Tagawa — that mouthful of a last name looks Japanese while “Wong” would mean Chinese, but it’s been common enough for Chinese and Japanese to be cast as each other), both of whom are convinced that Brooke had something to do with her husband’s death, but neither are able to prove it. Even Brooke, who up until about two acts before the end is carefully set up by Greif and Kazan, Jr. to seem like an innocent victim, goes bad towards the end when she bakes cookies for Angie, who ends up in the hospital and goes through a miscarriage (thereby eliminating Steve’s baby and, thus, Angie’s claim on the insurance money) which, it turns out, was caused by Brooke spiking the cookies with drugs. It all ends with Brooke getting the $15 million (plus half of a $1 million settlement she got from the company owning the resort where Steve’s “accident” happened — she gave the other half to Angie before Brooke’s drugging Angie took effect) but with Wall and Wong still looking rather sourly at her.

Just where A Lover Scorned goes wrong is obvious in some respects — not only are Emilie de Ravin and Leo Howard hardly in the same league as actors as Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, but Howard is decent-looking but hardly the babe magnet for both men and women the script tells us he is. Frankly, Jeffrey Vincent Parise (I wondered if he was any relation to Vanessa Parise, who’s directed some of the better recent Lifetime movies, but his bio doesn’t say and neither does hers) seemed sexier to me, and for a while I thought Lifetime was breaking their usual tradition against casting genuine hunks as the put-upon husbands until he did turn out to be part of the villain’s plot — or at least part of one of the villains’ plots. It’s not so obvious in others: updating Double Indemnity wasn’t an inherently bad idea — nor was updating it to include a Gay angle — but there’s a sense in which this movie is just “off,” with no one in it we genuinely like (an all too typical failing of modern movies) and without any of the acid-drenched wisecracks James M. Cain provided in the original novel and Raymond Chandler added for Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic film.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Mars, Season Two, Episodes 1 through 3: “We Are Not Alone,” “Worlds Apart,” “Darkness Falls” (Imagine Entertainment, Zak Productions, RadicalMedia, 20h Century-Fox, National Geographic, 2018-2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyriht © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s program at the Mars Movie Screening in Golden Hill ( consisted of the first three (out of six) episodes of the National Geographic limited-run TV series Mars, a sort of neither-fish-nor-fowl combination of documentary footage (including talking heads) on how we just might be able to get humans to the planet Mars and what conflicts various groups of humans might engage in with each other when there, along with a fictional story of how the International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF), a multi-country consortium founded to land people on Mars for the benefit of human knowledge and scientific study, launched their first ship to Mars in 2033 and dealt with various hazards, both natural and interpersonal, in building their colony. By the time the second season’s first episode, “We Are Not Alone,” directed by Stephen Cragg from a script by Dee Johnson, opens, it is now 2042 and a private company, the Lukrum Corporation, has arrived on Mars with a much larger contingent of colonists and a more typical greed-motivated capitalist program: to start mining and drilling operations on Mars to exploit its natural resources and hence turn a profit. We get the message from an early scene in which the members of the IMSF team go outside on Mars’s surface (of course they need spacesuits to do this since unmanned probes on Mars have found their entire atmosphere is virtually all carbon dioxide) and find themselves virtually incinerated by the Lukrum ships’ heat shields, which break up on entry into the Martian atmosphere (just because humans can’t breathe it doesn’t mean it isn’t there!) and turn into potentially lethal shrapnel, forcing the IMSF personnel to “go to ground” like infantry soldiers under enemy fire. 

The IMSF Martian colony is commanded by Hana Seong (Jihae), whose twin sister Anna (also Jihae) was the former head of the IMSF’s governing council until she stepped down to go to Mars herself and the person who took over, Leslie Richardson (Cosima Shaw), has decided to accommodate herself and IMSF to Lukrum’s demands, including that they be allowed to take up to 10 percent of Mars’s underground water supply for their own use. Supposedly they will repay IMSF by building solar panels to beam solar energy to Mars from satellites orbiting the Red Planet, but months go by and the members of Lukrum’s crew, acting like the typical greedy capitalists they are, seize more than 10 percent of the water both sides need to ensure their own survival and don’t deliver any solar panels in exchange. There’s a growing antagonism between the IMSF and Lukrum’s crews but there are also growing attractions — including a sexual affair between a male IMSF’er and a female Lukrumite which a jealous female IMSF’er denounces as “sleeping with the enemy” (a phrase with a fascinating history: it was originally coined in the 1970’s by Lesbian separatist feminists who used it to attack women who called themselves “feminist” but still had sexual relationships with men, though it’s probably best known today for the 1991 movie starring Julia Roberts as a battered wife who fakes her own death, flees and finds happiness with a non-abusive male until her psycho husband hunts her down). There’s a bar fight that seems to have been inspired by the one David Gerrold wrote for his Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles,” in which an attempt at a friendly get-together between IMSF’s and Lukrum’s colonists erupts in violence. 

The uneasy relationship takes a new turn when Lukrum’s miners discover their own source of underground ice they can mine for water and therefore no longer need to tap into IMSF’s reserves — only in the meantime other melodramatic stones get thrown into the plot soup. Lovers Javier Delgado (Albert Ammann) and Amelie Durand (Clémentine Poldatz) have a derailment of their relationship when Amelie announces her intention to return to Earth — only a week later Amelie turns out to be pregnant with Javier’s child, apparently the first human conceived on Mars (but the way some of the crews are screwing around, she’s hardly going to be the last!), which means she can’t go back to Earth and she and Javier have to patch up a relationship they had both agreed to end because they are going to have the responsibility of parenting the first human baby born on Mars. There’s also a lot of concern about whether spending her time in the womb (of course the couple, both being scientists, have ultrasounds done and determine as soon as possible that baby-to-be is going to be a she) in Mars’s lighter gravity is going to retard her development, make her bones brittle and make it impossible for her to survive if she ever goes to Earth. There’s also a surprisingly grim plot line in the third episode, “Darkness Falls,” directed (like the second episode, “Worlds Apart”) by Everardo Gout (whose somnolent pacing of what are supposed to be suspense scenes marred the first season’s six episodes as well) and again written by Dee Johnson (though there are at least six other people listed as story developers, series creators et al.), when biologist Marta Kamen (Annamaria Marinca) gets wind that the secret water source Lukran has discovered may contain samples of a different breed of the indigenous Martian microorganism whose discovery constituted the “stinger” at the end of season one that was supposed to keep us watching into season two. 

She’s indignant that Lukran might destroy the microorganism in the process of drilling for water and valuable minerals, and so she sets out on a lonely journey, stealing a surface rover with only her talking computer as company (gee, when Arthur C. Clarke thought up a talking computer for the script for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Robert Heinlein ditto for The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in the mid-1960’s it was a fascinating conceit; now talking computers have become not only one of science fiction’s most annoying clichés but also too much the stuff of ordinary life: I recently had occasion to call the Metro PCS help line on behalf of one of my home-care clients’ malfunctioning cell phone, and the machine voice on the other end expected me to tell it what the problem was when the problems my client was having didn’t fit into any of the machine’s programmed boxes — for several minutes I kept saying to the machine, “Service Representative,” hoping the machine would give up and let me talk to an actual human — and the machine volleyed me at every turn, saying that before it would let me talk to a service representative I had to give it a better understanding of the issue so it could help me — and finally, with the client I was doing this for telling me it was useless and I should just give up, I decided it was useless and just gave up, reinforcing my contention that if I were ever dictator of a country the first thing I would do is make all voicemail systems illegal, much the way in the backstory of Frank Herbert’s Dune the human authorities decided to outlaw computers after the computers attempted to rebel and instead trained special humans, called Mentats, to serve the functions formerly performed by computers, including navigating their spacecraft — sorry for the digression). 

Anyway, while Marta is out alone in the surface rover staging a daring raid on the Lukran compound to grab some of their ice so she can find out if there are any strains of Martian life in them before Lukran’s drilling and mining operations destroy them, a solar flare hits Mars and knocks out all communications, shorting out a transformer on the planet’s surface and leaving two men to go about, testing all the transformers to see which is the bad one (and one of them is Robert Foucault, played by the very hot Black actor Sammi Rotibi, who had quite a lot to do during the first season but remained pretty much unseen until the third episode of this one — and since he’s working on the Martian surface, he has to wear a spacesuit and everyone who wears a spacesuit looks pretty much like everyone else who wears a spacesuit — I’m still amused at how in the film Gravity Sandra Bullock and George Clooney looked alike in their spacesuits and you had to wait for their close-ups through the suits’ visors to see which one was which!). The solar flare knocks out all electronic communications on Mars, including the ones that ordinarily help navigate a surface rover, which means that both Marta and her precious samples are somewhere on the surface of Mars between the Lukran and IMSF camps, but nobody, neither Marta nor anyone at IMSF central, knows where. Marta barely survives after she tells her computer to turn down both the internal temperature control in her spacesuit and the one in the rover to the bare minimum needed for human survival. Eventually she recovers when Foucault and his comrade figure out which transformer went down — the script gives no explanation why the effect of a solar flare on Mars is so devastating when Earth is presumably hit by them all the time (especially since we’re considerably closer to the sun!) without apparent ill effects; I presume we’re supposed to think it’s the thicker atmosphere of Earth that shields us, but that isn’t specified in the script. 

Marta is discovered and rescued, but we find out her expedition is useless for its intended purpose because, while she did bring back indigenous Martian life, it’s the same strain as the one that was discovered at — and became the cliffhanger ending for — the end of season one. We get a bit of a cliffhanger ending this time around when we get a glimpse of what Marta is seeing of the organism under her microscope — and its strands, which at first look like a just-thrown pack of Pick Up Stix. start wiggling. The documentary portions of these three episodes of Mars are better integrated than the ones in season one (at least as best as I can recall) but they also relate directly to the action in the story and the plot conflicts driving the fictional characters. Two of the three segments have to do with Greenpeace, and particularly their attempts to block a Norwegian offshore drilling platform in the Arctic from actually drilling by exploiting the laws of the sea, parking their main ship and a whole bunch of life rafts around the platform, so by international law the Norwegian’s can’t run it (and the filmmakers savvily interview both the Greenpeacers and the well’s crew to give us both sides of the story, even though their own sympathies are clearly with the environmentalists … as, following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the even greater potential difficulties of cleaning an underwater oil spill in the Arctic, they should be!), and the last segment features interviews with a crew of scientists working in Greenland to measure the gradual — no longer so “gradual,” however — disappearance of the ice shelf. 

Watching this episode was particularly timely in light of the news reports that President Trump is considering buying Greenland outright from the government of Denmark, which owns it now — and the Danes’ response that “Greenland is not for sale.” Apparently Trump wants Greenland partly as a “legacy project,” comparable to former U.S. Secretary of State William Seward buying Alaska from Russia in 1867, and also as a private money-making opportunity for himself; he plans to build a giant golf resort there as soon as all that pesky ice melts already. These three programs in the Mars series were actually among the most politically, socially and economically depressing shows I’ve seen lately — though the writers may not have intended them that way, what they argue is that in the age-old battle between exploiters who want to destroy whole continents to extract their natural resources and the preservationists who want to preserve native environments and cultures, the exploiters always win because they’re the ones with the money and, of course, money talks. The talking heads throughout the programs feature individuals on both sides — including images of Presidents Obama and Trump, with Obama encouraging the U.S. to support a human-staffed mission to Mars with the same sort of inspiring rhetoric John F. Kennedy used to challenge us to go the moon (“not because it is easy, but because it is hard”), while Trump is a gung-ho rabble-rouser for putting people back into space because that’s half of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) mission, and Trump wants to keep NASA’s spaceflight capabilities alive while wiping out its other mission: to document the extent to which humans are causing climate change by measuring where the climate is changing (including in the Arctic), how fast and by how much. Of course, in Trump’s ideology humans aren’t causing climate change and therefore studying that topic is practically treasonous. 

After the last science-fiction movie screenings in Golden Hill I started to write an article asking, “Why aren’t humans going back the moon?” — much less why we aren’t going to Mars and further out in the solar system the way science writers were confidently predicting in the 1960’s — and at least part of the reason is the big change in our politics from what we can do to what we can’t, from visionaries like Eisenhower (especially on the interstate highway system — I’ve cited Ike and the national freeways, along with Abraham Lincoln and the transcontinental railroad, and Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal, as examples from the days when Republicans liked big infrastructure projects), Kennedy and Johnson to status quo leaders like the Bushes, Clinton, Obama and Trump. In a Zenger’s editorial during the 1990’s I called it “The No Decade,” because the main message we were getting from government (and to a large extent are still getting today!) is how many things we can’t do as a polity, society or culture. The message of Mars — whether the filmmakers intended this or not — is that don’t ever bet against the capitalists, because they will always win: they will always have the money to mobilize on behalf of their short-sighted greed — and they will always run over the pathetic preservationists and other progressives who dare even hope they can stand in their way. And this is true even when the triumph of the capitalists — especially on continuing to loot the world of fossil fuels and other resources whose production causes air pollution and climate change — means the end of the species, which has led to a fascinating sub-genre of science fiction in which humans have colonized other worlds and thus kept their race going even while they were destroying Earth’s ability to support human life. Mars hasn’t quite got there yet (though the issue was raised as far back as the 1950’s by Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chromicles, a superb book even though a depressing one in which Earth people’s callous stupidities destroy both their own and Martian civilizations), but it certainly has the potential to make itself such a big downer!