Saturday, June 09, 2012

Son of the Morning Star (Custer)

This book by Even S. Connell came out in 1984. It concerns General Custer and the events at Little Bighorn. I have read it numerous times. Periodically, I pick it up and read it again.

Why I’ve repeatedly read it owes not so much to scholarly study. The book and the story it tells simply catches my interest and reverberates within it. Perhaps in the book resides the reason why I like history and narrative.

The first time I read it, the detail that Connell dug up astonished me. Tho written little more than a century after the events, the story itself seems more like ancient history. The Wild West, to use that phrase, has become so iconic as to seem back in the mists of time.

Furthermore, one realizes that the Indians were more connected to and even integrated with the settling wave from Europe than you might have expected. They were not off by themselves. Despite the antagonisms and cultural differences, considerable exchange went on. A common human denominator appears, even as people try to eradicate it.

Trying to recall my earliest inkling of these events, I guess they were presented as Forlorn Hope. There was a battle and the outnumbered side didn’t fare so well. Contemporary representations of the events at Little Bighorn portray brave men fighting for some glory to the very end. As portrayed here with cool precision, that picture holds little water.

Columbus discovering America bears a similar if more potent motive in history as taught. Presented as a benign example of human enterprise, we see a hero animated by the urge of discovery. We know how it turns out. Samuel Eliot Morison wrote a pretty good biography of Columbus. He doesn’t hide Columbus’ effort at annihilating the native population, but he balances it against Columbus’ abilities as a seaman. That sounds ridiculous now.

Custer was brave in a headlong way; he proved that in the Civil War. And he was a charismatic leader. But this last action displayed disobedience, malfeasance, and, frankly, hubris out the wazoo. When you realize that some 200 soldiers attacked a village of thousands, you start to see a different picture from the Errol Flynn sort that followed the man. Something was way wrong in the planning,

Connell has managed to deliver biographical sketches of an astonishing number of people involved in the fight including most of the troops and many of the Indians. Custer gets the hubris award for making sure that shit hit the fan. Dynamic loose cannon par excellence, he charged.

And the 7th cavalry’s intention smacks not a little of something similar to what happened at My Lai. There was a crazy hope for a deadly end all. Ending the Indian problem, to put it in delicate terms, was the Army’s goal. Two hundred troopers gaining a Final Solution in a single action was not. Not reasonably, at least.

That’s the historical terms of the story, currently at least. We also see implacable Greek theatre forces at work. So many had onlys steered events, leading Major Reno into Shit Creek, in the form of an entire village of hostiles fired up to defend themselves.

Reading the various accounts of soldiers up that creek with no paddle is a keen and terrifying thought experiment. Here’s death, just or not, waiting with clamour. It’s no use anymore to put demons and heroes to work here. Horrors happen because we make them.

Eleven years ago, the World Trade Centre was destroyed. Without defending the act, one must at least understand that it answered iniquities. We live small in our world, aghast at the forces that propel events. Some mule driver suddenly represents hundreds of years of mishandled human endeavour, and so suffers mutilation and death. And so on, and on, every person on that field. Some fought bravely, if that means anything, and some saved the last bullet for themselves.

And Wounded Knee answers Little Bighorn, but not really. The times change, pushing people along. Death, says Reverend Gary, don’t have no mercy. We keep getting stuck on that one.

Monday, June 04, 2012

The Avengers

Erin and I have now become au courant with The Avengers, having partaken yesterday afternoon. We arrived a trifle late, which makes me anxious. I want to see the previews. The room was full, which hasn’t been the case the last few times I’ve gone to the movies.

As to the up and coming, it is the sort of stuff I want to see, large-scale cheesy summer flicks, but I am beginning to think technology has run away with the genre. I shall expatiate.

The new Batman looks almost wonderful, full of wonder. I hedge because it seems way too grim and serious for something that is basically ridiculous. And disaster and horror are just not that prettily designed. I know from nothing regarding the plot, but the central villain appears to be particularly sadistic, I mean enough to make me consider giving the movie a miss. And the sense of angst amidst all the pyrotechnic gewgaws gets sillier and sillier. One shouldn’t be taken seriously while wearing prosthetics pecs: that’s one of my main rules.

Spiderman looks like redux. Am I right? Is Sam Raimi still involved? It looked like more of the same, with a new everybody. Now that Spidey has hit Broadway—and I think the verb most apt—it looks like it is time to walk away. Anyway, franchise movies work against themselves. Superhero movie plots tend toward apocalyptic, so the films require ever-increasing literal bang for buck. The franchise wears out fast. Back in the day, Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes would chug along for years, more and more, but these dazzlers flash and flare out. By the second Spiderman, I’d seen all the sweeping web swinging that I needed. Why are we starting over?

There’s an animated feature coming about a headstrong princess, probably from Disney, that seems to be zesty. I bet it would be better as live action, with good actors working the comedy, rather than broad cartoon strokes. Tim Burton has an unpleasant looking animation about a boy who reanimates his dog. I imagine he took the plot from Re-animator, a movie by Wes Craven, I think. Burton might want to stop channeling the awkward boy in grade school or whatever explains his self-pitying sense of the outsider.

Finally, there’s the Alien prequel. Mon Dieu! it looks lavish. Truth to say, I’ve never watched any of the Alien movies, not counting about 2 millions clips. This one seems over-invested in visual splash. And it is not in a position to surprise us much at this point.

So I did, in fact, see The Avengers. With reviews and the Joss Whedon mystique, I expected more. It moved along well enough but I can’t even remember how it started. Erin said the plot was like Where’s Waldo. Hard to believe screenwriting is a profession when you can get away with such muddle.

Like with every new franchise, the first half of the movie has to introduce characters, suggest back-story and otherwise dither about until the narratives can be twined into a big explosion. The Avengers has a lot of important characters needing face time so the introductory process drags out, even with the head start of the Ironman, Captain America, The Hulk, and Thor movies.

We start off with Nick Fury, some super military commando or whatever. It’s just Samuel Jackson doggedly brusque and serious. The character doesn’t seem worth placing in a central role. Jackson chews on it but he’s effectively MC Fury shouting orders to the heroes.

Loki is the main evil, and a bit tiresome. Both he and Thor are stuck with dialogue that sounds like Elizabethan drama. I don’t recall that in Thor’s flick, but at any rate, the screenwriters seem to labour with it.

I expected more wit in the proceedings, but it didn’t really show up until Black Widow did. I hadn’t seen Scarlett Johansson before. There was a dry humour to her lines. She often looks pouty, more of a tic than anything sexy, but doesn’t get stuck in that sort of act. We meet her when she is bound and being interrogated. It looks grim for her but then a phone call comes thru to the bad guys. It is for Black Widow. Given the phone, she replies exasperatedly that she’s right in the middle of an interrogation, but learning the nature of the emergency, sighs, and proceeds to clean up the bad guys. What ho!

The Ironman superhero is more of the same but Robert Downey is just so strong with his lines, tossing them off carelessly, that he gives the movie a great deal of energy. The whole cast in fact is quite strong but no one can top Downey in a scene.

Hawkeye was given short shrift. Early on, Loki makes him a minion, a rather simple trick and why didn’t Loki just use that wand thing to command more heroes, thence the world? Hawkeye gets few lines but comes across as weirdly obsessed with archery when everyone else has nice explody things. Well, his arrows explode and do all sorts of unlikely hi-tech stuff but, you know, arrows versus airplanes seems a bit naff.

I should mention the aircraft carrier/flying fortress. It seemed large by aircraft standards. Then, in a strong vote for unlikelihood—thank god gravity doesn’t exist—it rises in the air and flies. I think it also trims weeds. By the way, nobody in the movie suffers acrophobia, just me in the audience.

Against expectation, I liked Captain America. His action sequences are less covered by technological dazzle, and the old-fashioned soldier in him gives him a touch of humanity that the others lack. Wasn’t he Johnny Storm as well?

In the comics, Hulk could talk, albeit simple sentences. In this movie he just bellows and roars. Computer generated graphics can work as a character—witness Gollum—but often look out of place with the live characters. Mr Hulk was a bit blobby in the green side of things, but could be antic when he got momentum. At least there are a couple of funny moments with the Hulk. He and Thor have just finished defeating some bad guys and for no reason Hulk slugs Thor, exit stage right. And when Loki starts to speechify his superiourity, Hulk grabs him and slaps him against the floor repeatedly like a dish towel. Bruce Banner comes across okay but the Hulk is highly limited.

Comics movies, and comics themselves, lose scale because they allow characters to shake off anything. I mean, characters get mashed but get up and go full tilt again. Takes away the possibility of anyone losing.

The alien attack allowed a lot more crashing and exploding. We saw this in Independence Day, etc. I really don’t know why the movie is a big hit. A smattering of applause greeted the ending, which is unusual. A lot of youngsters in the crowd but I didn’t hear much reaction from them. The little scene in the apr├Ęs credits with the heroes sitting in a diner eating is priceless.

I feel a bit grim about the movies, with noise replacing action. A strong cast and characters puts The Avengers over, say, that X-Men movie of last year, but otherwise it offers little to distinguish it from a raft of other superhero flicks. Popcorn was about average.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Tangled Web

Clever Shakespeare reference, yes? Well I just presume to scribble about the Internet, and specifically Facebook. Facebook’s initial public offering—the drama!—brought on this urge to opine.

The build up to that IPO caught me. I don’t like Facebook, which made any misstep by the company, and with luck any train wreck, entertaining. When Ford cancelled advertising on Facebook, my wish was fulfilled. Not that Facebook could not weather the blow, just that something had occurred to diminish the surge of excitement for the stock.

The small family of Internet bullies—Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple—leaves us all weary, I’m sure. We want their services, but their intent directive to extract from us becomes more burdensome as times goes by. We have to put up with some of this crap, but everyone, and every thing, are within limits, as Charles Olson noted.

I used to think of Microsoft as a sort of evil. I do not want to overextend the idea, but its presence has been heavy. I have a more relaxed view now, because of the company’s ability to stumble and barely get out of its own way. Amazon smells like Walmart, something I would like to avoid. Google seems earnest but somehow autistic. I mean, Google has grand ideas and the ability to innovate but comes across like a guy in a zoot suit wondering why people don’t think he’s cool. Apple, its dappled face oif his innovation, combines cheap labour with gadgety foofaraw to extricate oodles of cash from consumerism. Facebook just never feels good; all sneaky and peremptory.

Design-wise, Facebook is surprisingly messy. It’s clearer than Myspace, but so’s my closet. I have to hunt the page if I want to do anything beyond posting. I am amazed that Facebook  makes billions with their advertising. Ads on it seem like those tv commercials that, when over, leave you wondering what kind of tree that was in the background. I almost never notice Facebook’s ads, let alone interact with them in some critically prosperous way. Somebody is, apparently, but  I do not know why.

I make it hard, perhaps, for Facebook to bleed me, because I don’t use the Like button much. When I do, it is for something someone wrote or uploaded. Leaves Facebook to make broad guesses about what sort of commodity exerts my eagerness. The button should be called Monetize This. The thing is, Facebook’s advertising model seems pretty old skool, or, more formally, the See If Anyone Salutes School of Advertising. Who am I to say, tho: they seem to be making a buck.

The IPO did not seem to have a point beyond making a handful of people rich. We keep hearing that Facebook has all this raw data, but until Facebook finds a way to cook it, the data collection just becomes an obsession. And for Facebook to succeed, that obsession can’t be irritating users. Facebook and all the other extremities of the social combine must balance that obsession with the necessity to remain within bounds. There are legal lines, however vague, that the company should not exceed. They must also respect—that’s an entirely wrong term to use in these circs, considering the disrespectful land grab these companies participate in—what their users think is too much. Users will push back when things get uncomfortable. That’s their job.

If I’m right that Facebook earned a billion dollars in advertising last quarter, and if I’m to believe that it has close to a billion active users, then the company earns about a buck per user per quarter. You can jiggle the numbers, everybody else does, but that billion sounds less lucrative. Still, a billion is a billion.

No use pretending that I can see the future. The mechanization of the social graph has its limits, which is to say, the social network seems less social. Facebook is trying to read a whole lot more into its Like button, for instance, than seems reasonable. Facebook seems to believe that people log in to get themselves some advertising. Of course we just put up with that. Even if we are interested in what ads offer, we invest our time in Facebook for the service, the chit chat, the pictures, the games, the excitement. And I was thinking about photos, which I admit I occasionally upload. Will I be uploading photos to Facebook the rest of my life? Facebook, Youtube, and so on, picture a future of that sort of desperation. Oh yes, things change.