Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Copyright 2011 by the author
Greenfield, author and political analyst, adds his considerable knowledge and experience to the “alternate history” field with this surprising and insightful trio of lengthy essays. He takes great care to avoid creating words for historical personages, instead taking what they actually said (albeit in different contexts) and using that to bring his hypotheses to life.
His first essay deals with the prospects of a John Kennedy administration. The early 1960s are fertile ground for counterfactual history. Given the constitutional crisis resulting from Richard Pavlick’s assassination of Jack Kennedy before he had been confirmed as president by the Electoral College, it’s no wonder. We all know how Lyndon Johnson took the reins of power through the sheer force of his personality and guided us through that crisis. But without it, Greenfield suggests that the charisma of Kennedy would have blinded us to his utter lack of political experience and the many scandals waiting to happen just below the surface.
This film, created by Shane Carruth, has a reputation in the science fiction world for being one of the most complex and interesting movies about time travel in the entire genre. I’d wager that no other movie has had more “explainer” material written about it. Indeed, if you want to untangle all the loops and loops within loops, you pretty much do need a cheat sheet of some sort.
But those analyses have come to dominate all the reviews so much that people seem to have forgotten they’ve been watching a movie, and one should spend at least a little time going over its cinematic aspects.
Primer is the first of (to date) two films by Carruth, an indie (obviously) filmmaker from Texas. One usually wants to “be kind” with new works from aspiring artists and give them a large benefit of the doubt, but one also doesn’t want to be unfair to potential viewers.
So, with that in mind…..
It’s fairly common to turn any film genre into a comedy. Romantic comedies, horror comedies, action comedies…. Combining one specific type of comedy with another film genre isn’t that common. You can’t just shove jokes into the script; the comedic subtypes have their own rules that must be followed. A “sex farce” must have jokes about sex, and silly romantic situations. Combining it with another film genre isn’t going to be easy. Especially when you’re trying to combine it with something serious, like a satire of capitalism……… Continue reading
The Man Who Ended War
by Hollis Godfrey
At a press conference by the Secretary of War, someone asks about a strange letter that the government got earlier that day. The writer of that letter claims that the world has been too long in conflict, so he’s going to put a stop to it by destroying the navies of the world unless everyone agrees to disarm. They’ve got one year.
Everyone dismisses it as the work of a crank, but intrepid reporter Jim Orrington (our narrator and protagonist) isn’t so sure. He asks to see the original letter, and spots something a bit odd. He is able to persuade the government to allow him to bring the original (!!!) to Tom Haldane, a scientist friend of his, where they accidentally discover a part of the letter was erased and written over. That erased part gave a list of dates and times when battleships would be destroyed. It also happens that Tom noted some odd behavior of a piece of his lab equipment on occasions, and, musing on how one might destroy a battleship from a distance, they wonder if it could be connected.
When the USS Alaska disappears off the eastern coast of the US, at the same time that equipment exhibits its strange behavior again, Jim and Tom – and Tom’s sister Dorothy (a fair scientist in her own right) – manage to conjure up a device that acts as a locator for the source of whatever it is that vaporized the Alaska. Using Jim’s Washington connections, they get the OK from the president (!!!) to go ahead and track down “The Man” responsible.
As more battleships vanish, it’s a race against time to find “The Man” and put a stop to his doings.
When watching movies “of a certain age”, one has to keep in mind the old saw that “the past is a foreign country”. Social and cultural attitudes were quite different in the past, and those attitudes will be reflected on the silver screen. Not just the way people behaved in general (the casual smoking and drinking, for example), but the way people of other races were depicted.
The “Charlie Chan” movies were based on a character created by mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers, who was inspired by newspaper accounts of Chinese-Hawaiian police detective Chang Apana. Chan would appear in six novels, and became so popular that Hollywood would make over three dozen “Charlie Chan” movies.
In this particular film, Chan has been sent to Egypt by a French archaeological society to find out why goods from an excavation they’re sponsoring have been winding up in the hands of private collectors. This quickly turns into a multiple murder investigation, but for our purposes, there’s another question to investigate:
How many ethnic stereotypes can you cram into one movie, without pushing it over the line into blatant offensiveness?
“Colonel Blimp” was a comic character created by David Low in 1934 as a satirical depiction of the Old Fogey who, while sitting in his chair drinking brandy and puffing on a cigar, expounded on all the News of the Day, giving his considered opinion that he knew how to solve everything. Generally simplistic and often self-contradictory, his comments earned derision and the contemporary equivalent of a snarky “OK, Boomer” response. The great moviemaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger took the idea of the character, and turned it into the “Most British” of films, and, by humanizing him, one of the greatest character studies of all time.
We open with Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), an officer in the Home Guard (England’s “last ditch” defense force of retirees and the like), relaxing at a Turkish bath the evening before a set of war games / training exercise with another unit comprised of actual military troops representing the Germans. His bath is interrupted when the “German” forces “attack”. Complaining that the games aren’t supposed to start until midnight, Candy is told by the “German” officer that the real German forces don’t follow rules, so they need to be prepared at all times. After an angry exchange, Candy loudly gripes that they make fun of his appearance, but know nothing of how he got that way. He throws a punch at the officer, and they both fall into a pool. The camera slowly pans to the far end, as Candy’s voice slowly repeats the phrase “Forty years ago….” At the far end, the magic of film has brought us to 1902, and a younger Lieut. Candy emerges from the pool.
The World Beneath Their Feet:
Mountaineering, Madness, and the Deadly Race to Summit the Himalayas
Little, Brown, and Company
While the English language steals words from other languages, the German language makes its own words when it needs something new. As a result, it pretty much has a word for everything. The one we’re interested in here is “achttausender”, which literally translates as “eight thousander”. It refers to those fourteen mountains that are over eight thousand meters in height. All of them happen to be in the Himalayas, and pretty much all of them were the targets of European climbing expeditions in the 1930s.
As Ellsworth recounts them here, it became a race between nations. The major contestants were the Germans (with the Alps in their backyard, mountaineering was pretty much in their blood) and the English (they controlled India, and therefore essentially controlled access to the Himalayas). Individual derring-do got combined with national pride as teams risked lives to set altitude records in a strange version of King of the Hill.
Spy flicks (i.e. international intrigue movies) generally fall into one of two major categories. There’s the big budget action adventure type, with gadgets galore, eye-popping stunts, and exotic locations. Then you’ve got the low-key types that rely more on mood and the personal challenges and drama of the characters. The former are the James Bond and Mission: Impossible movies; the latter are the lesser known relics of the Cold War era that are generally treated as more like mysteries than tales of international espionage.
John le Carré is a master of the second type. Like Ian Fleming, he worked for British Intelligence, but rather than write what are little more than glorified “Mary Sue” stories, he got down and dirty in all the more boring and unpleasant aspects of the game.
“Spy” is one of his best works, and was turned into one of the best movies of the genre.
War movies are an interesting genre for the film buff. Not for the action and adventure, or the visual recounting of history, but that the movie reflects the attitudes towards war in the time and place it was made. Movies made during a war tend to be all patriotic and supportive of the troops; movies made near the end of a long and “questionable” (to put it one way) war tend to be dark comedies or biting satires of the military. Movies made in peacetime can be either, but they also tend to reflect the attitudes of the time the movie was made towards the history of the war – historical accuracy be damned.
Zulu is one of the latter. It shows the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in January, 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. A contingent of some 150 British troops at what was basically an outpost consisting of little more than a supply depot, a church, and what could be called a hospital with only the greatest amount of charity held off an assault by around four thousand Zulu warriors. That’s going to be great drama and action, as long as you show it with even modest accuracy and competence.
But what of the politics?
Columbus: The Four Voyages
Viking Penguin Press
Copyright 2011 by the author
What with theongoing hubbub over Columbus popping up again in the news this summer as his statues were defaced and knocked down and there were calls to rename the things we’ve named in his honor, I thought it would be a good time to read another biography of him, and perhaps cut through both the hagiography and the demonization to get to know him a bit better. And perhaps be able to counter the arguments used for and against him. In any case, it ought to be a fascinating read for a history buff like me.
Bergreen is a historian and biographer whose previous works followed Magellan (Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, 2003) and Marco Polo (Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, 2007). This work is (presumably) in the same mode; more of a chronicle of Columbus’ voyages rather than a complete biography. He uses Columbus’ own journals, logs, and letters, along with the many personal journals and letters of those who accompanied him on his voyages, to assemble as good an account of those trips as you are likely to get.
Along the way, he shows that pretty much everything you knew about Columbus is, well, complicated.