Friday, October 31, 2008

"Romeo is Bleeding" Femmes Fatales I

Conflict, says Ayn Rand, is the essence of plot. A plot requires struggle. Man can struggle with nature, with himself, and with other men. A struggle with nature provides a simple, one-sided plot. There is no psychological element, no conflict of human values in such a struggle. A struggle with oneself can be very dramatic, but it affords limited scope unless it is played out in the context of a wider struggle with others. It is in conflict with others that the widest range of plot developments are available. And one of the most popular, if not profound, scenarios for a dramatic plot is the crime story. Inherent in a crime story is the conflict between the criminal and his victim, necessarily with opposing interests.

The femme fatale is a particularly interesting type of character. In the crime story with a femme fatale we have not only the criminal element, with its dimension of good versus evil, we also have a shared romantic interest between the hero and the villain, as well as a conflict in the hero's values. If the hero has a love interest in the villain, then he must struggle "with" her while struggling against her. He may want to love her, but have to kill her. This leads to an internal struggle within the her which allows the dramatist to explore the hero's motivations and to develop his character.

The first femme fatale movie that I would like to examine is Romeo is Bleeding with two of my favorite actors, Gary Oldman (Jack Grimaldi) and Lena Olin (Mona Demarkov). Grimaldi is a cop on the take, working for the NYPD and the Italian Mafia. He has a wife, (Annabella Sciorra) a mistress (Juliette Lewis) and several hundred thousand in cash buried in his back yard. The mob hires him to kill Demarkov, who is being held by the police in a Brooklyn safe-house, but instead, she seduces him and he is found by his colleagues in a compromising position.

Demarkov is a case study in Ayn Rand's dictum that in a struggle between criminals, where the initiation of force determines the mode of interaction, the more ruthless will win. While Jack wants to live a life of crime while keeping the benefits of middle-class domesticity, Demarkov is fully depraved and uncompromisingly brutal. A succubus (she literally ends up sitting on Grimaldi's chest in almost all of their indoor scenes) she combines intelligence and ravishing beauty with the soul of a psychopath. She taunts Jack with the possibility of a partnership. Mona has her charms. She is exotic, brilliant, glamorous, and seems fully self-assured. But when she finally tells Jack of her first "love," and how she left his body on the beach where they had their one encounter, we see that Grimaldi's hope for a possible match is nothing more than fatal wishful thinking.

This fast-paced and very sytlized movie while not gorey in the sickening manner of a horror film, is incredibly violent, so much so as to be over the top. Yet, as it always furthers the plot, the brutality is not gratuitous. We see Grimaldi strangled, bloodied and maimed. Demarkov is shot and loses a limb. Mob Boss Don Falcone (Roy Scheider) gets his comeuppance in a darkly humorous scene.

It is Lena Olin's sultry black widow performance that has made this movie a cult classic. In a climactic scene, where Demarkov has captured and handcuffed Grimaldi to a bed, baring her prosthetic arm, asks as she mounts him, "with or without?" The answer is without.

For movie stills, see

Here is the theatrical trailer:

Read Femmes Fatales, Part II

Thursday, October 30, 2008

José Manuel Capuletti (Part 2)

Well, I got a great response to my prior post, and a lot of advice and comments. It turns out that the portrait of Capuletti's wife Pilar in my first post is not very a life-like rendering. Apparently, the portrait is a composite of Pilar, shown in Paris with José, post bottom left, and of the novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, shown smoking a cigarette, post bottom right. Rand had written a glowing review of Capuletti in the November, 1966 issue of The Objectivist and she owned some of his work.

The first painting in this post, in blue above, is Percepción Onírica de Dalí, "Dalí's Dream-Prophetic Vision." One of the nude figures is swinging a slingshot. The Balearic islands, where Salvador Dalí resided, are named after βαλεαρεῖς or "slingers" in Greek. Dalí's influence on Capuletti is obvious. Dalí here appears to be beheaded, a touch of red along the line of his neck. The overall blue color hints at an altered state of consciousness. The second painting of the bather with a cypress is entitled Danza Humeda or "Moist Dance." The figure is simple and the composition seems random, note the clothes line. Why the word "dance" would be in the title remains obscure.

One critic describes Capuletti as Dalí with one tenth of the skill. Others praise or criticize Capuletti for his coldness and "sadism." See a discussion with remarks on other painters here. The consensus seems to be that Capuletti's best work is not available on the web, which is unfortunate. You can also visit Paper Tiger and, in Spanish, to see some more on the artist.

Compare these portraits of Pilar Capuletti and Ayn Rand to the figure with rose and playing cards in Part 1.

Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits"

Terry Gilliam’s live action fantasy, Time Bandits, is one of the director's better works. More coherent than his widely panned Adventures of Baron Munchausen it is not so malevolent as his absurdist fantasy Brazil or as tragic as his dark science fiction masterpiece 12 Monkeys.

This wonderful romp tells the story of Kevin, a young English boy whose parents don’t believe him when he explains that the noise coming from his bedroom is not his fault. Kidnapped by a band of renegade dwarves with a map of time and space, Kevin and his abductors visit Napoleonic Europe, Robin Hood’s Merrie Olde England, Agammemnon’s Mycenae and the sinking Titanic, as well as the Time of Legend, and the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where Evil himself resides!

Not only is this movie a terrific adventure story for children, it is a wicked satire that will please adults, and it is an object lesson in false metaphysics. The movie ends with Kevin’s parents eyeing the burnt cinders of a pot-roast left to char in the microwave, "pure evil" as a material substance. Told by Kevin not to touch it, his parents find its fascination a fatal temptation. I could watch this movie on a weekly basis, the eye-gags and verbal play are so good. Katherine Helmond's performance as Mrs. Ogre is alone worth the price of the movie. The ending credits play to a George Harrison tune that embodies pure joy.

You can watch the movie in full here at YouTube.

Here, Ultimate Evil discourses on slugs and the silicon chip:

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sesame Street and Vivaldi "Concerto in D"

If you remember this from your childhood, it should bring a tear to your eye. In response to my post on Billy Idol, an appreciative commenter (Mike Erickson) said he had spent the early 80's playing and listening to classical guitar, and had missed Billy Idol. Well, for those of you who were listening to Billy Idol and missed Vivaldi, here is a wonderful short film from Sesame Street that unites a visual and melodic theme in a brilliant way. I spent two decades trying to identify this piece after hearing it as a child. If this post pleases anyone then all the effort of this entire web site is doubly justified. This is the Concerto for Guitar (or Lute) in D. John Williams has an excellent recording.

José Manuel Capuletti (Part 1)

You won't find him listed at Wikipedia in either English or his native Spanish. You won't find him hanging in the Met. You won't find much of anything about him nowadays. But his work was collected by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He painted the portrait of the future King Juan Carlos of Spain. Ayn Rand praised his clarity and sense of the essential, describing him as a favorite. During his time he was compared with Picasso and Dalí. Today he is all but forgotten. He is José Manuel Capuletti, 1925-1976, painter, photographer and designer.

Capuletti's style resmbles Salvador Dalí in execution, but his sense of life is more positive, lacking Dalí's frequent fascination with the morbid. He painted flamenco dancers, bull-fighters, sports figures and performers. Most of his work is privately held. Books on him are out of print. Some of his art was recently sold by Quent Cordair Fine Art. Very little is available on the web. Above is a portrait of his wife, Pilar. To the right is his "Mujer de los Caracoles" (Women of the Snails) which is the only painting that has ever made me laugh out loud. Read about him at Peter Cresswell's Not PC Blog or the article on him at Aristos by Louis Torres.

See Part 2 here.

Billy Idol "Hot in the City"

Billy Idol's first single to reach the top 100, "Hot in the City" reached 23 in the US and 58 in the UK charts. Basically a simple standard pop song, it features a nice strong rock progression and a solid Phil-Spector-like sound. Climaxing in the last verse, when he yells "New York," the song was a 1980's anthem for his adopted home town. There were two released versions of the video. The first features stock footage of NYC intercut with footage of nuclear bomb tests and Idol appears a bit drunk. The second version is a somewhat kinky combination of leather and voyeurism that brings to mind a male version of Madonna. It was banned on various outlets, but doesn't seem all that outrageous nowadays.

I was 14 when this song was released, and didn't have cable to watch it on MTV. I mostly heard the song on car trips to the beach, and simply liked the positive energy of the song, a pop anthem to youth and a city that I have come to love with a passion. The song is great for a workout or a walk down broadway with your headphones blasting. You can see the Twin Towers glowing at night. We are all New Yorkers now.

Here is the original video release:

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

John Cleese "Fawlty Towers"

Regularly rated Britain's best sitcom, Fawlty Towers, the story of abrasive hotel owner Basil Fawlty, has a worldwide cult following over thirty years after its run on the BBC. According to Wikipedia, the series was inspired when John Cleese and other members of the Monty Python troop stayed at Donald Sinclair's Gleneagle hotel. Sinclair, whom Cleese characterized as "the most marvellously rude man" he "had ever met" was reported to have thrown a bus schedule at a guest who asked the time of the next arrival and is said to have put Eric Idle's suitcase outside the garden wall, suspecting that the ticking alarm clock he heard was a bomb. Sinclair supposedly told troop member Terry Gilliam, an American, that he was holding his fork in the wrong hand as he ate. Those who have seen Fawlty Towers will recall such shenanigans from the show. Those who haven't might imagine the comic possibilities.

The characters of Fawlty Towers also include Fawlty's shrewish wife Sybil, whom he describes as his "toxic midget", his "little piranha fish" and able "to kill a man at 10 paces with one blow of her tongue" and the Spanish waiter and bellboy Manuel whose profound incomprehension of English and slapstick manner make him a comedy legend. Perhaps Manuel's funniest performance is in what I believe is one of the best Fawlty Tower's episodes, "The Germans." This episode features a disastrous fire drill, a talking moose, and a concussed Basil impersonating Hitler to a family of vacationing Germans. It is difficult to watch this episode without pause, due to the tendency of the non-stop laughter it provokes to induce asphyxiation. Enjoy!

Fawlty Towers, The Germans, Part I:

Monday, October 27, 2008

Jacques-Louis David's Un-Napoleon

Offered the crown by his troops, George Washington declined, and retired from the Continental Army once the War of Independence was won. Elected his nation's first president, Washington served only two terms, setting a precedent for the peaceful transfer of power which has lasted for two centuries, even through civil war.

Napoleon Bonaparte, who rose to power as a champion of the French Republic, declared himself Emperor in 1801. Rather than be coronated by another, he crowned himself with the gilded laurels he had commissioned. Washington sat for few portraits, and built no monuments. Napoleon sat for the most prestegious painters he could hire, bedecked more vainly than any pansy or peacock. Above is Ingres' "Napoleon on his Imperial Throne."

The website ran a contest for Photoshop users asking contestants to leave the costume, but remove the subject from famous works of art. Submissions included such works as American Gothic, and Bouguereau's Dawn.

My favorite submission (below) was Napoleon, by "Mayonesa" from Caracas, Venezuela. It is based on Jacques-Louis David's work here. Looking at the work, one wonders if it might have been the real inspiration for the fable of the emperor's new clothes? One wonders, was Napoleon ever really there to begin with?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Johnny Depp in John Waters' "Cry-Baby"

Cry Baby is a cult-classic teen musical parody written and directed by John Waters and starring Johnny Depp as Cry-Baby Walker and Amy Locane as Allison Vernon-Williams. The hip but "square" Allison falls for the "drape" (greaser) Cry-Baby, a softy at heart with a bad reputation. Both are orphans whose parents died in ridiculous circustances. They overcome social division, their ex-steadies, the hard heart of the charm-school charm-school head-mistress, and the Baltimore legal authorities to secure their passionate romance.

A loving tribute to 50's teen-delinquent movies, the film features hits from the era in plenty of cute musical numbers. There is kitsch, camp, and comedy. The prison guard has his juvenile wards pray at bedtime for Eisenhower, Nixon and the Rosenberg case prosecutor Roy Cohn. There is plenty of leather-jacketed greased-haired hot-rodding and spontaneous song. There is just enough parody to remind you that the film is a farce, (the infamous Traci Lords and Patricia Hearst play supporting roles) but with its charismatic leads it entertains as a comedy and a light-hearted love story. This happy film is appropriate for anyone from puberty to second childhood.

Cry-Baby and Allison sing their first duet, and Allison steals the show:

Watch the entire film, here is Part 1 of 10:

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show

"Prease for you to crap hands and give cheering for Itchy Balls!" The Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show is a parody Japanese talk show developed for the Internet by Korean-American comedienne Kim Evey ("Kiko") and her husband Greg Benson. Developed specifically for YouTube, the show was picked up by Sony and now offers more than a dozen episodes of about five minutes each. The episodes feature absurdist comedy and frenetic antics. Comedy doesn't necessarily analyze well, the show is simply hilarious, and one's best introduction is just to watch it. Due to risk of choking, please do not eat or drink while viewing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ian McKellen "Richard III"

Shakespeare's Richard III will do all and lose all to win the crown he so briefly possesses. It seems the real-life king did murder his two nephews to gain the throne uncontested. But Shakespeare allows us to sypmathize with his stagecraft villian, who addresses us as a friend and wittliy defeats all his opponents but the last. Unlike MacBeth, whom fate and his wife conspire to make a villain, Shakespeare's Richard III, out of jealousy and hatred for the joy of others, resolves in his opening soliloquy:

"And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid...
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other..."

Ian McKellen's 1995 production of Richard III, also starring Annette Benning, Maggie Smith, and Robert Downey Jr. and available in DVD format, is one of the best movie adaptations in the genre. Swift and suspenseful, yet lush and poetic, the story is well-adapted to a 1930's setting. The language, well illustrated by the action, is easily accesible to the popular audience. The film bears repeated watching. Much of the play has become the common heritage of the Anglosphere. This play should also be a part of your library.

Much of the play, including the opening soliloquy is available on YouTube. Here is the trailer:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane

Jodie Foster's immortal place in American culture is, of course, unquestioned. Even today at 50 she regularly tops Angelina Jolie in polls of Ayn Rand fans for their fantasy cast of Dagny in Atlas Shrugged. Strong, beautiful, self-assured, no contemporary star outshines the lead of such films as Contact, Nell, The Accused and Silence of the Lambs. Foster began work as a child actress in 1968 and by 1975 she starred in two feature films, the very different Freaky Friday and Little Girl who Lives down the Lane. She does play an smart and independent child in each role. Freaky Friday, a Disney film, has been remade several times. But there is only one "Down the Lane." I enjoyed the first, I fell in love with her when I saw the second.

In this film, an homage to film noir, Foster plays a gifted child living alone in a rented New England home. Her nosey landlady Mrs. Hallet and the landlady's pedophile son Frank (Martin Sheen) question her on the absence of her father and otherwise threateningly intrude on her privacy. Foster, used to dealing with adults as an equal, faces a crisis when her landlady dies in a suspicious accident. Foster and her boyfriend hatch a scheme to allay the suspicion of the townfolk. The movie ends with a classic dark resolution of her difficulties with Frank Hallet. This film is a must see both for itself and as a vehicle for Foster. Here is an expository clip from YouTube:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Alexander the Great "Reign: the Conqueror"

The wisdom of the Greeks in a Saturday-morning-style cartoon? Reign: the Conqueror is a Japanese animation series based upon the mythological life of the real historical figure Alexander of Macedon, also known as "The Great."

"All things of the world are numbers. We have nothing against you, but your number is the problem. Set your mind at ease. Your soul will be reincarnated. We bring you deliverance. Your death will be swift." - an assassin of the Pythagorean cult to his would-be vicitm, the young Alexander.

Animation in Japan is a prestigious adult genre. Its subject matter can run from science-fiction to the comic to the erotic to the surreal. Reign: the Conqueror combines slash-and-hack violence with mythologized Greek history, surreal lanscapes, sex, and science-fiction. The series depicts or alludes to Pythagoras, Plato, Diogenes and Aristotle. We see Alexander's mother couple with a god in snake form. We hear his famous exchange with Diogenes the Cynic, who, when Alexander offered him any gift that Diogenes could name, famously asked Alexander to step aside and stop blocking the sunlight. We see him conceive the city Alexandria as a futuristic capital to an empire "worthy of his soul." The battle scenes are stylized but brutal. The animation satisfies the adult and the boy within the man. This is not proper entertainment for young children.

The series is available on DVD and runs on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. The series is available in English as well as Japanese on YouTube. Here is the trailer-style episode opening:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Richard Adams "Watership Down"

Frank Herbert's Dune was rejected by almost twenty publishers. Made into two movies, it is now the best selling science-fiction book of all time. Ayn Rand's Fountainhead was rejected by twelve publishers, and has been made into a movie, sold millions of copies, and was voted second-favorite novel of the 20th Century in Modern Library's reader's poll. Richard Adams' Watership Down was rejected by 13 publishers. It has been adapted for film and television. It is 79th on the Modern Library poll. It has sold more copies than any other novel under the Penguin Books label.

Watership Down is the epic adventure story of Fiver, Bigwig and Hazel, three rabbits whose warren is destroyed and who must brave the threats of men, predators, and a band of rabbits run as a military dictatorship in order to build a home in peace and freedom. A critical success, the novel has been likened to Tolkien's work for its complex back-story including a mythology and an invented language. It has been likened to Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid for its plot and epic scope. It is the story of the triumph of bravery and cooperation over submission and force.

While the subject might seem juvenile, the story is written at an adult level and will appeal to all who like a well-plotted adventure with a positive theme and a happy ending. This is one book that no parent will begrudge reading his children.

The 1978 movie adaption is quite faithful to the book. It should, of course, be enjoyed after you have read the novel. It is also available in full on YouTube, here:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Natalie Merchant "Kind and Generous"

This song makes me think of purple and gold Christmas decorations, a long day at the beach, the slightly drunk feeling of being pleasantly tired from a full day of well-earned fun, a cool car-window breeze, fresh-from-the-oven pecan pie, a walk in the pine barrens, and a sunset of sky-blue pink. This song is glowing benevolence riding the rich vehicle of the voice of Natalie Merchant

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Fate of Aino, Finnish Maiden

Have you ever wondered where the author Ayn Rand got her name? The origin is disputed. Rand told acquaintances that the last name came from the Remington-Rand typewriter. But letters with the nom de plume Rand (her Birth name was Alisa Rosenbaum) exist from before the existence of the Remington-Rand company. Perhaps she simply liked Rand and chose it to match the initial of her last name.

Her first name sounds and appears to be more mysterious. The last three letters of Rosenbaum written in Cyrillic (Розенбаум) do somewhat resemble the letters a-y-n in the Latin alphabet. But another popular (and not necessarily incompatible) theory is that the name comes from the Finnish woman's name Aino. The name means "only" and in the 1920's it was the most popular name for girls in Finland. A native of the near-by Saint Petersburg, it is not unlikely that Rand had heard this name. Aino is the name of a character in the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. There were also two famous 'Aino's of the early 20th century, Aino Sibelius, the wife of the composer, and Aino Kallas, an author.

In the Kalevala, Aino is a maiden who is promised unwillingly to marry the magician Väinämöinen. Rather than wed him she drowns herself and becomes a water nymph. The Kalevala was compiled from folk songs by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th Century, a verse translation into English was made by John Martin Crawford, and the work greatly influenced J.R.R. Toliken, author of Lord of the Rings.

The text is available at the Gutenberg Project. If you read the verse translation it is vital to ignore the verse form and read the lines as if they were written out as paragraphs, paying strict attention to the punctuation. Use the periods and commas to guide your tempo, rather than the line breaks. If you follow the line breaks the poem all too easily degenerates into unwitting self-parody. But if it is read like prose, with the reader's mind focused on visualizing the images evoked by the narrative, the poem will retain its underlying beauty. Above I have reproduced the image of Kaari Martin who portrays the maiden Aino in an operatic adaptation of the Kalevala. The painting is by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Below is the a sample of the text of Crawford's translation which I have set in paragraph form so as to obscure the otherwise overpowering tempo. Concentrate on the visual images as you read it.


When the night had passed, the maiden, sister fair of Youkahainen, hastened early to the forest, birchen shoots for brooms to gather, went to gather birchen tassels; bound a bundle for her father, bound a birch-broom for her mother, silken tassels for her sister.

Straightway then she hastened homeward, by a foot-path left the forest; as she neared the woodland border, lo! the ancient Vainamoinen, quickly spying out the maiden, as she left the birchen woodland, trimly dressed in costly raiment, and the minstrel thus addressed her:

"Aino, beauty of the Northland, wear not, lovely maid, for others, only wear for me, sweet maiden, golden cross upon thy bosom, shining pearls upon thy shoulders; bind for me thine auburn tresses, wear for me thy golden braidlets."

Thus the maiden quickly answered: "Not for thee and not for others, hang I from my neck the crosslet, deck my hair with silken ribbons; need no more the many trinkets brought to me by ship or shallop; sooner wear the simplest raiment, feed upon the barley bread-crust, dwell forever with my mother in the cabin with my father."

Then she threw the gold cross from her, tore the jewels from her fingers, quickly loosed her shining necklace, quick untied her silken ribbons, cast them all away indignant into forest ferns and flowers....

Friday, October 17, 2008

"Yaadein" a Bollywood Treat

Back in 2001 an Indian friend (who had to leave the country after 9-11 when his work visa was not renewed) lent me the movie Yaadein ("Memories"). I had told him I was interested in hearing some classical Indian music. He suggested I watch this Bollywood movie with its pop music. The movie was nothing high-brow; a soap opera plot, 1970's disco attire, boy-band performances, Busby Berekely for the Twenty-First Century. But the sense of life was positive, the music catchy, and the spice exotic from a Western viewpoint. The story was forgettable, just a vehicle for the music. I am sure there must be better movies than Yaadein, but you'd have to ask a Hindi speaker.

Here you can listen to "Jub Dil Miley, Tub Gul Khiley." (I am pretty sure it means "When the heart is sweet the rose blooms.")

Thursday, October 16, 2008

John Collier "The Essence of Femininity"

John Collier 1850-1934 was a famed portrait painter and figurative artist of the Pre-Raphaelite school known for its attention to detail and complex composition. He is noted for his use of light and color. A humanist, skeptic and friend of the Huxley family, (he married two of Thomas Huxley's daughters,) Collier was known in his day as a fashionable portrait painter and is mostly remembered today for his mythological works, including Lady Godiva below, Tannhäser above, and Lilith here.

Ayn Rand, famous for her depiction of strong heroines, held that hero worship is the essence of femininity. But Collier's portraits of women tend rather to make them the object of adoration. I am not presenting here a criticism of Rand's theory but upon first seeing Tannhäuser, with the knight-poet kneeling before Venus, I spontaneously uttered "the essence of femininity."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

James Blish, "A Case of Conscience"

Mankind has made first contact and among the four researchers sent to investigate the garden-world Lithia and its reptilian inhabitants is Father Ramon Ruiz-sanchez, SJ. The Jesuit botanist and doctor is the only member of the research team to oppose opening the world up for human intercourse. The Lithians, he suspects, may be too good to be true. Indeed, with their peaceful and proseprous society, more advanced in many ways than man, and in their total lack of any idea of faith or the divine, they imply that a sentient species can live the good life without religious revelation. These "unfallen" beings are not angels. Indeed, he fears, they may be a creation of the Devil, meant to tempt man into abandoning religion in light of their enlightened example.

But this belief is heresy. Only God has the power of creation. The Devil merely perverts. If these beings are good, they cannot be a creation of the Devil. Yet why would God create them perfect without religion, while making man imperfect in His image?

Father Ruiz-Sanchez returns to Earth with a precious and frightening cargo, the unhatched egg of a Lithian. Blessed with a genetic memory, his passenger will hatch and mature without Lithian care. But what will happen to an alien raised among men?

The result is horrific; a brilliant, cynical, conscience-less creature who wreaks havoc on human society, manipulating men like a demonic puppet-master plying his craft. His presence on Earth provokes riots and incites murder. Meanwhile, it appears that Lithia is largely made up of weapons-grade lithium, an unimaginable source of thermonuclear munitions. And now the human-raised Lithian has outsmarted his hosts and is on his way back to Lithia, perhaps to cause a fall from grace among his kin akin to the kind that the serpent brought Adam in Eden.

This vivid, imaginative, fast paced, and often poetic work is a book of ideas. The characters are three-dimensional and the situations are quite topical in a timeless way certainly still valid fifty years after it brought its author a Hugo Award for best novel. If you haven't read Blish start here.

The painting is "Lilith" by John Collier.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Umm Kulthum "The Ruins"

I first heard Umm Kulthum sing in 2000. The "Arab world's most famous and distinguished singer of the 20th century" is an exotic and acquired taste for most Westerners. Her voice wails like a desert wind and booms like a landslide, conveying passion, longing, and betrayal like a Middle-Eastern war. Her weekly concerts, broadcast from Cairo, brought a moment of peace each Friday night until shortly before her death in 1975. Her funeral was attended by 4 million people. According to Wikipedia she had one of the strongest and most incomparable voices of all time, requiring her to stand up to 10 feet from a microphone in order not to overpower it. Existing recordings suffer due to the limitations of the devices available to her at the time.

Mention her name to any Arab of age and he will look at you in surprise and then smile as he reminisces. I reside in NYC. In 2000 I asked a Yemeni who ran a local newsstand where I might find Umm Kulthum's work. She was not available in any domestic music outlet in any respectable form. He sent me on a treasure hunt to the Arab neighborhood of Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue. When I walked into the shops they clerks behind the counter looked at me as if I were a police inspector (I'm only one-quarter Irish) but smiled when I told them I was looking for a CD of Umm Kulthum. They asked if I spoke Arabic. I sang a snatch of one of her songs "Illi shuftu, illi shuftu. Eblimet shuufet..." and said no.

Then, of course, September 11th. I remember cursing at the TV announcers who suggested that the first plane striking the WTc was some sort of horrible "accident." And the next day I couldn't bring myself to enter the Yemeni's shop. You-know-who is Yemeni.

One of Umm Kulthum's best songs is El Atlal, "The Ruins," the story of a love affair that has ended unhappily. For a long time after 9/11I could not listen to her. On the night of the attempted surgical strike to remove Saddam I played "The Ruins" as I watched his palace reduced to rubble. Here is Umm Kulthum singing the love song Inta Omri "Thou art my soul."

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dog's Best Friend — Ratchet's Reprieve

The dog was first domesticated 15,000 years ago in north-east Asia by the ancestors of the Eurasiatic and Amerind Peoples. (The Eurasiatics are the ancestors of the Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic and Eskimo peoples, among others, while the Amerinds are the ancestors of most of the Natives of the Americas.) Both evolved from pack animals, men and dogs have a similar primitive social hierarchy. The dog adapts well to human companionship, and man accepts the dog and bonds to him as family. The strength of that bond is rivalled only by that between man and horse, another pack animal.

There are people who don't like dogs. I won't go so far as Simon Marchmont to argue that they should be shot. Only people who actively dislike dogs arouse my suspicion. The love of dogs seems to be something natural to the military mind. The military does not normally allow soldiers to adopt pets overseas or to ship them home, but there is one recent happy exception.

Above is a picture of Seargeant Gwen Beberg with the puppy Ratchet she rescued from a burning trash pile in Iraq. And here is the story at FoxNews, but I think the picture says it all.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" & Klezmer

Feeling broke, maybe need to borrow seven billion dollars? (That's 7,000,000,000 dimes.)

One of the biggest and now signature hits of the Depression Era was Yip Harburg's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" A Russian Jew, Harburg's roots were the traditional secular Klezmer music of East European Jewry. (See Wikipedia.) With its plaintive melodies it will remind those unfamiliar with it of such Broadway classsics as "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof. Here is the 30's anthem:

Allison Moorer, Brother Can You Spare a Dime:

And click here for Budapest Klezmer Band I (Untitled)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Johnny Guitar & Women on the Verge

In Pedro Almodovar's Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown the protagonist Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura) has just been unceremoniously dumped by her lover and co-worker Ivan (Fernando Guillén) with whom she does voiceover work. Exhausted and about to discover she is pregnant, Pepa takes too many sleeping pills and arrives after her lover has finished a session of dubbing Johnny Guitar, the 1954 classsic western with Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden.

"Lie to me. Tell me you've always loved me. Tell me you would have died without me."

Both movies featue drama and struggle between women slinging guns as they ride. Johnny Guitar portrays murder, while in Women on the Verge at worst a bed is burnt to death. With music, color and melodrama the two make an interesting pair. Women on the Verge is Almodovar's best, and Crawford was never better than in Johnny Guitar. Here a few clips from each. My apolgies for the lack of subtitles for the Spanish.

"Lie to Me" Johnny Guitar

Pepa's Dub Session (Pepa oversleeps, and misses Ivan's break-up call. The Doctor tells her she's pregnant. Pepa does her dubs. She calls Ivan from work, but gets his wife, who having just left the insane asylum, thinks she's still young.)

"The Piano Scene" Johnny Guitar

Pepa, packing Ivan's things, and "sick of being good" forgets she shouldn't be smoking, and burns the bed, to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade

Friday, October 10, 2008

Kallista Pappas at the Crossfit Games

If I could nominate someone inspirational for Radicals for Happiness it would be Kallista Pappas for her performance at the 2008 Crossfit Games held on the 4th of July weekend. The format of the games was three timed workouts on Saturday (all three very demanding workouts) and the final workout on Sunday. The best cumulative time on all three workouts wins the games. Kallista wasn't in the running for top spot (she was only 14 years old) but she won the hearts of everyone at the games with the workout shown below. Thirty repetitions of clean and jerk with 100 pounds (she only weighs 103). At the start of this video the camera is on Jolie, the women's winner of last year's crossfit games. In the background you can see Kallista on her 23rd rep where she falls and the bar lands across her shins. Jolie finishes and the cameraman moves in to catch Kallista's finishing reps. You can read more about Kallista Pappas and other participants in the "Sport of Fitness" at Here is her performance at YouTube:

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Doctor Who "Scream of the Shalka"

In 2003, in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of its long running science-fiction show Doctor Who, the BBC commisioned an animated story, Scream of the Shalka, to be distributed as a webcast. That story featuring Richard E. Grant (see here) as the Doctor, Derek Jacobi as his nemesis, The Master, and future Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo as his assistant Alison is available in full at the BBC's website and you can watch episodes one and two (of six) at YouTube, see the clip at below.

This wittily written and beautifully drawn animation shows the promise of such a medium for science fiction. With the cost of animation being an amount per animated frame, the special effects possible are limited only by the writer's imagination, not by the price of real-world set design. But after commisioning this new story and two previously written but unproduced shows he BBC eventually opted to reinstate the live-action series.

Grant's performance here is brilliant. His delivery is perfect for the benevolent but put-upon explorer who is willing to help, but who doesn't want to be reminded that the Time Lords are controlling his destination according to their needs for hero-on-the-spot. Grant had long been rumored as a possible cast to portray the Doctor. And he did so as well in the charity spoof, The Curse of Fatal Death, also available on YouTube. The BBC ended up casting Christopher Eccleston and then David Tennant to play him instead. But the live action series is thriving, and once Tennant concludes his run, we can only hope that Grant will reprise the role.

Scream of the Shalka 1.1

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Immortal? No. Eternal? Maybe. (Part I)

The question of immortality doesn't arise to animals, they can't conceive of time in the abstract or of their own deaths. But humans can look at both the distant future and the deep past. Indeed, every time you look at the sky, you see history. The stars of Orion, for instance, lie some 500 light years away, and ago.

The science of comparative linguistics deals with the past as well. By comparing related languages we can deduce the nature of the mother tongue which gave rise to them, even though this dialect may be long dead, and was never written down. For example, the English words wit and wise, the Latin video, and the Greek idea all come from the same Proto-Indo-European root wid- meaning to see, and hence to know. The Proto-Indo-European language is not attested in any written form. It was spoken by pre-literate horse nomads in the area north of the Black Sea some six thousand years ago, long before Sumer or Stone Henge or the Pyramids. We know it existed because we know its descendents. See my post on Calvert Watkins' Proto-Indo-European dictionary. No current descendent of Proto-Indo-European uses the form "weid-" today. Over the millennia the /d/ in "weid-" changed to a /t/ in Proto-Germanic and hence English. In Latin the /w/ became a /v/ as we see in modern French and Spanish. In Greek the /w/ dropped out, leaving only "idea."

Most of our vocabulary results from either our native stock inherited through Proto-Germanic or comes through other Branches like Greek and Latin, as well as Celtic, Slavic, Indo-Iranian and the like. Other Branches include Baltic, (e.g., Lithuanian,) Albanian and Armenian. And last century the extinct Hittite and Tocharian were discovered in Anatolia and Central Asia.

Ferdinand Saussure
, famous mostly today to postmodernists who have developed relativist theories based on the notes for his university course published and modified by his students after his death early last century, was a brilliant theoretician who studied an anomaly he saw in the reconstructed roots of the Indo-European proto-language. Most IE verbs had the root form noted by linguists as CVC- or more specifically CeC- meaning consonant-vowel-consonant. And in such root the vast majority had the specific vowel /e/. Examples include *bher- "to carry" (Latin fer-o English bear Greek pher-ein) and *pe(r/z)d- "to fart" (Latin "pest-" Slavic "perditi"). But there were also a large number of roots with either no first or last consonant, and the majority of these roots had some other vowel than /e/ as their root vowel. Examples include *ag- "to lead/plow" (English "acre" and from Latin "agriculture") or *sta- "to stand, to stay" as in Latin "sta-tus" or Greek "stasis". Saussure wondered if there might not have been some now unknown letter that existed in Indo-European but which, becoming silent, had affected the sound of those vowels as had silent /e/ in English which lengthens the vowel of breath to breath or of wisdom to wise. Maybe *sta- was originally *steH where the lost consonant (probably a sound made in the throat) changed the vowel before it left.

Saussure came up with the theory as a university student. Others found this theory fascinating, and suggest some /h/-like sound. But how to prove it? Saussure died in 1913. In 1915 and subsequently the Czech linguist Bedrich Hrozny published his translation of the newly discovered Hittite language of ancient Anatolia. It turned out that Hittite was an Indo-European tongue, and that this pre-Greco-Roman dialect exhibited /h/-like sounds just where Saussure had predicted them.

Saussure, using the scientific method, had predicted the sounds that existed in a language he had never heard, and that had been unspoken for millennia. Most people know linguistics as an exotic academic subject. Professor Doolittle in My Fair Lady springs to mind. No one can make money from historical linguistics. utterly impractical, it is a perhaps seen as pursuit of racists, cranks and the English upper class. Perhaps. But like the paleontologists impractical study of fossils, the astronomers impractical study of stars, and the historians impractical study of long forgotten wars, historical linguistics does have a connection with the human soul, one on the level of fine art, it connects us with the universe on a scale that far exceeds our here-and-now moment-bound existence. Far from showing us how small we are, such studies connect us with the timeless, and show how great is the mind of man. Such knowledge may not make us immortal, but it does connect us with the eternal.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Solea" from Almodóvar's "Flower of my Secret"

Unrequited love, a style of dance that combines the grace of ballet and the energy of it Rand's lost novel To Lorne Dieterling? No, it's The Flower of My Secret, the story of a passionate writer looking for just a little bit more out of life. One night, at a dance recital where Miles Davis and Pedro Almodovar intersect, she finds it.

As with many of his films, distinctive for their melodramatic plots and vibrant color, Pedro Almodóvar's 1995 Flower of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto) also features a dramatic musical performance however loosely tied to the plot structure. This movie tells the story of Leocadia, (Marisa Paredes) picured here with her elderly mother and her "crab-faced" sister, a writer of popular romance novels, who looses one love, and, in trying to switch to a more profound style of writing, finds a better. This is one of Almodóvar's best films, if one of his least outlandish. One of the highlights is Joaquín Cortés and Manuela Vargas's interprative/flamenco dance performance to Miles Davis' "Solea" (Sketches of Spain) which can be seen here:

Here is the trailer:

Monday, October 6, 2008

Frank Herbert "The Santaroga Barrier"

Why do people born in the peaceful California wine valley of Santaroga seldom leave, and always return? Why do passers through rarely stop, and visitors never stay? Why do outside business interests find it impossible to establish a beach head? What makes Santaroga's wine and cheese from the Jaspers Co Op so special, yet immune to analysis? Why have the last two market researchers sent there died under mysterious circumstances? And why is the latest, Gilbert Dasein, the victim of three near fatal accidents within his first 24 hours in the valley?

The Sanataroga Barrier is science fiction, witty social commentary and detective novel all rolled up in one. For those who only know Herbert from his Dune books, this, and his recently reprinted White Plague, show that the master was no one-trick pony. This book involves ideas that touch upon corporatism and cult dynamics, but it is not a novel written merely as an excuse for exploring such ideas. Rather, it is simply an incredibly good story, with all the intricate and multilevel subtleties and wordplay that you would expect from the author of Dune, yet set in a little California wine-town.For example, the hero's name, Dasein, is German for "existence" or "presence" (literally "there-being") used famously by Martin Heidegger in his Being and Time. According to Wikipedia:

For Karl Jaspers, the term "Dasein" meant existence in its most minimal sense, the realm of objectivity and science, in opposition to what Jaspers called "Existenz", the realm of authentic being.

So long as Dasein is an "objective" outsider, his being will lack authenticity in the Santarogan sense. Remarkably the townfolk discuss philosophy and psychology over breakfast in the way that one would expect the residents of a farming town to ruminate about crop prices and the recdent drought. The local paper reads like an in house think tank newsltetter.

This town and this book are not what they seem at first. Herbert integrates, extrapolate and speculate in ways to which no other science fiction writer can compare, and his non-Dune books have been far too long neglected. This is one of the best. Sit down with a nice glass of beer and a plate of cheese and dig in. And don't ruin the suspense by reading any spoilers!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Walker's Marsupials of the World

Did you know that Queen Isabella was interested in the marsupials, or that it was once believed that marsupials copulated nasally and sneezed the newborn into their pouches?

"Walkers' Marsupials of the World" by Ronald M. Nowak is a handsome, scholarly work well suited for the amateur or generalist. Its overall qualities outweigh its few quirks, and I can strongly recommend the edition to all but children and post-graduate level specialists.

This scholarly and informative book, which is suited to a high-school or above reading level, consists of an entertaining opening monograph by Christopher Dickman on topics germane to marsupials as a group, and a comprehensive main body by Ronald Nowak describing in detail all living and recent genera.

The section heads of the 42 page Introduction include: Taxonomy & Evolution, Morphology, Reproduction, Distribution & Diversity, Diet, Life History, Economic & Ecologic Importance, and Conservation, as well as References.

The Introduction is written mainly from an ecological and taxonomic viewpoint. While the physiological specializations of the group as a whole, and certain developments, such as the unique dentition of the Diprototont subgroup (i.e., Koalas, & `Roos as opposed to Opossums, Devils & Bandicoots) are mentioned in the text, there are no line drawings of skeletons or any anatomical diagrams. Pouch anatomy and specializations of the digits are described in the text, but there are only a few photographs of young suckling, none of birthing, and only a few insets in the main section showing external foot morphology. I, for one, have always been fascinated by the "two-thumbed/three fingered hand" of the Koala, for example. But there is little attention to anatomical detail.

There are over 140 black and white photographs in the book, almost all of individual live specimens. While keeping the price reasonable, the lack of color makes the work a bit drab and definitely unsuitable for children.

The main text examines each of the known marsupial genera, with at least one photo per genus, including the tragically lost Tasmanian "tiger" and all known (recent) species are named. Fossil forms are excluded.

There is no cladistic analysis, but the text and a table in the introduction serve as a classification in outline form, and taxonomic issues, such as the phylogenetic position of the "Monito del Monte" (a South American enigma that may be more closely related to Australasian groups than to the American opossums) are addressed.

The book does treat the Marsupials as consisting of seven groups of ordinal rank, an improvement over the traditional lumping of all groups into just one order. Overall mammalian taxonomy is in such a flux now, that the work is reluctant to make any authoritative statements, choosing a reasonable middle ground. As the work is fully noted, and references at least as recent as 2003 are in the bibliographies, those interested in such matters will be well guided in their own research.

Given that there are no maps, no drawings of internal or reproductive anatomy, no illustrations of such fantastic extinct forms as the marsupial "lion" Thylacoleo, or any other visual aids except the black and white "field-guide" photos, it is absolutely bizarre that the editors included a bare-boned appendix giving the geological timeline back to the Permian and four pages of metric/U.S. conversions with a 47 inch/1200 mm ruler (broken up into 10 segments to fit the page width!) instead.

Nevertheless, the paperback edition is well worth its price at pennies per page, and there is no better serious reference for the avid enthusiast. Note, the images in this post are not from the book. The book is available at Amazon.