Category Archives: Books and Films

Taking Stock-Well

john-stockwellSome of us are lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to stumble into a pivotal event in our lives that reshapes us, blows our minds, opens our eyes, changes our perspective, forever and irrevocably. I stumbled into mine back in college in the 1980’s when I blundered into a lecture by former CIA bureau chief Major John Stockwell (see here). I walked into the event as a relatively naïve and oblivious college kid, and walked out a stunned and shell-shocked cynic with regard to official motivations and storylines. Never again could I accept any official news story without some degree of skepticism and doubt, or for that matter dismiss any “conspiracy theory” out of hand simply because it questioned the official narrative.

Stockwell walked the audience through his recruitment as a young CIA officer in Vietnam and his rapid rise through the ranks, eventually attaining one of the highest positions in the bureau. He told how, during his career, he was repeatedly asked to perform actions that seemed not only immoral but counterproductive. Each time that he asked for some rationale to justify the actions requested of him, his superiors would tell him “if you only knew what we know you’d understand why this is necessary.” He believed that line, over and over, because he had to. Working under that assurance, he was personally aware of or responsible for operations to bomb infrastructure in other nations, disrupt business transactions to destabilize economies,  plant rumors to spread discord in legitimate governments, assassinate key leaders, and foment war. He detailed one of his most shameful accomplishments, how he personally orchestrated his totally contrived build up to the otherwise improbable war in Angola.

His own moment of realization finally came when reached one of the highest levels in the bureau, the level of a world chief. When he got close to the pinnacle of his career ladder, it became obvious that there was no actual reason, no secret justification, for the terrible things he did. It was painful to watch him in the lecture, almost vomiting out his pained confession like an act of penance. In a period of despair, he met for drinks with the few other world chiefs at his peer level in the CIA. They asked each other for just one example of anything they had ever done that was good for the world. None of them could justify even one thing.

That was when he “came out” and wrote his exposé “In Search of Enemies” which the CIA litigated and suppressed for many years. For most of my life it was essentially impossible to find, but I see that it is now finally available on Amazon (see here). In it, Stockwell answers the question “if they CIA accomplishes nothing, why do they do what they do?” His analysis is that the CIA is a bureaucracy that was formed to gather intelligence and take covert action during a time of war. Post-war, they have had to justify their continued existence and their obscene undisclosed budget. How do they prove their worth? They can only do this by finding enemies of the State. They are constantly “In Search of Enemies.” And since they cannot find enough enemies, they create them. They manufacture enemies so that they can then expand operations to combat them. In this way, their self-justification and self-preservation synergizes with an industrial-military complex in which the rich profit from every new or expanded conflict and war.

Stockwell spoke about the “tricks” the CIA uses to destabilize governments, ruin economies, and foment war. One of the most reliable excuses was the old “Russian Arms!” ploy. They would plant and then brilliantly discover Russian arms in a country. They would go back and report this to Kissinger of this who would then order a modest increase in their activities in that nation to counter “Russian Aggression.” It was always an increase. The Russians would see these increased activities (the CIA in fact ensured that they would) and counter, which the CIA would then report back to Kissinger to obtain the go-ahead for even further escalation… And so it goes, the game is repeated over and over and replicated all across the globe.

Unsurprisingly, his obviously heartfelt and first-hand account was NOT well-received by that college audience. They asked very tough and skeptical and even hostile questions. This is natural. No one wants to admit even to themselves that they live in a nation that does terrible things. No one wants to admit that they, by virtue of citizenship, are partially responsible and culpable for those terrible things. So we reject everything. To admit anything is to open the door on all of it. So we simply don’t want to hear it, we dismiss it all as conspiracy theory, we call it hating America and unpatriotic, we excuse it as unfortunate but necessary, we claim “they do it too.” Worst perhaps are those that tell themselves that by being avid readers of the New York Times, they would have been informed if there was anything to this stuff.

But for my part, after Stockwell’s lecture I never again accepted news reports of government accounts with the same level of trust I had earlier. When Ronald Reagan inexplicably invaded Granada, he got on television and fended off questions from the press by assuring them “If only you knew what I know.” That didn’t quite satisfy the press because they continued to ask tough questions. The next night he came out and announced that “Russian arms have been found in Granada,” and suddenly most of the press corps said, oh ok then.

When the first Iraq war came along I was similarly skeptical, but had no alternate theory of the action. I had maintained some personal contact with John Stockwell since that lecture and spoke to him occasionally. So I gave him a phone call and asked for his take on the war. He shared that Bush Senior had used back channels to assure Saddam that the US would not interfere if Iraq took action against Kuwait for their slant drilling into their oil fields. This was just a set-up by Bush who needed a war partially to boost his historically low ratings. This was later confirmed to be largely if not completely true by many corroborating reports.

When Bush Junior initiated the second Iraq war, my Stockman-esque skepticism resurged. Bush put forth – by one accounting – over 40 discrete falsehoods to lie us into that war (see here). When Bush first announced that Iraq was seeking “aluminum tubes” to refine uranium for a nuclear bomb I did an immediate Internet search and found a large number of credible experts already shouting that these tubes were not the type that would be needed for that purpose. Yet the Bush Administration kept citing this false “evidence” and the media kept reporting it, the whole while scoffing at “conspiracy theories” that called this evidence into question. It was almost a year later, after the war was inextricably committed, and after the truth about these tubes was everywhere to be seen except in the mainstream press, that they finally “broke” this revelation with their crack and bold investigative reporting.

And now today we are still hearing stories about why we must – regrettably – launch attacks against a large number of countries. We just launched missiles into Syria. One has to at least wonder if “Chemical Attack!” is the new “Russian Arms!” ploy. It works every time. And overt attacks such as this are only a very small part of our effort to ensure that there are plenty of permanent wars to feed the insatiable machine.

Look, I’m not asking you to believe every seemingly crazy story out there – you shouldn’t. But a healthy skeptic questions both sides – including what their government tells them. If you are only skeptical of the alternative view, then you are NOT a healthy skeptic, you are a Kool-Aid drinker. In fact, I argue that it is better to err on the side of skepticism of our self-perpetuating war-making machine, and force them to provide extreme evidence for their operations, rather than continuing to drink the official Kool-Aid and placing rigorous burdens of proof only on the whistle-blowers while the government merely has to appeal to their own authority as proof of their claims.

This alternate perspective used to be terribly hard to research, but today it is easy. Stockwell was hardly a lone voice but he was one of the bravest and most credentialed voices. Heck, in his 1989 lecture, Stockwell referenced over 120 books out of the thousands available at that time. Today there are innumerably more. So there is no longer any excuse for ignorance and the only ignorance possible is willful. You can start with this YouTube video of John Stockwell speaking at American University, broadcast on C-SPAN in 1989 (see here). It is still relevant today. The lecture part takes up the first hour and the remainder is questions. That hour only scratches the surface exposing the filthy and disgusting rats nest that is American Intelligence.

I urge you to give this video a fair look and consider it in the light of today’s current events. Hey, it’s only an hour and I know you find way more time than that to browse adorable cat videos. Be brave and crack the door open and peek inside. The truth will not destroy you, it will set you free. Becoming aware of and acknowledging the extent of our intelligence operations will not fix anything in and of itself, but we certainly can’t begin to fix anything until we are all willing to take that first crucial step.

 

 

 

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Feud Delivery

I don’t often do articles on television shows because only a truly superb series can inspire me to promote it. My very first figmentum was a review of Penny Dreadful on Showtime (see here and here). In a subsequent figmentum, I raved about the Netflix series Daredevil (see here). Given what those two series say about my taste in entertainment, you may find it surprising that I would now feel inspired to rave about Feud: Bette and Joan (see here) which is currently playing on FX (preview here).

FeudTo sum it up in typical Hollywood fashion: Feud delivers a spicy pair of dishes!

The 8 episode series recreates the bitterly tempestuous rivalry between the legendary actresses Bette Davis (see here) and Joan Crawford (see here). Screen icon Bette Davis is portrayed with masterfully understated brilliance by Susan Sarandon (see here). Sarandon exquisitely captures the quirky but many-layered personality of Davis without succumbing to portraying her as the caricature of the actress that has been depicted through innumerable movie and cartoon parodies. Jessica Lange (see here) delivers an equally brilliant performance, fearlessly inhabiting a bitter and ever-acting Joan Crawford, desperately clinging to old grudges and her fading superstar status.

zetajonesThe series doesn’t rely only upon these great lead performances. The 1960’s sets are recreated with impeccable attention to detail and the supporting cast is just wonderful. Catherine Zeta Jones is radiant as always in her portrayal of Davis’ friend Olivia de Havilland. Kathy Bates is believably engaging as actress Joan Blondell and Alfred Molina resonates as the beleaguered film director Robert Aldrich. Judy Davis is shamelessly scheming as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Jackie Hoffman delivers a comically low key performance as Crawford’s Lady Friday, Manacita. Many other classic stars make “cameo” appearances.

Here’s the other thing about Feud that I really appreciate. Whenever I see a movie or television show that is “based on actual events,” I immediately do some research to fact-check the accuracy of the dramatization. In the vast majority of these recreations, the film proves to be about as realistic as an animated George Washington confessing to his father that he cut down the cherry tree. Feud, however, appears to be meticulously researched and faithfully recreated. Despite some relatively minor historical nits (see here), the series seems to be spot-on in style, substance, and sequence.

In fact, I find that one of the biggest flaws in historical films is that they under-dramatize the reality of the actual events. For the most part, reality is just too raw, too disturbing to depict on film. If real events were shown as they actually happened, most viewers would turn away in disbelief and/or revulsion. Truth is indeed more difficult to believe than fiction. While Feud is presumably somewhat sanitized, it doesn’t shirk away from raw emotions and ugly behaviors.

Feud is both a comedy and a tragedy. You want to laugh at the over-the-top behaviors of these people but you can’t because their feelings and motivations hit way too close to the heart.

Check out Feud. I hope you enjoy it as much as I am. This is the kind of great filmmaking that we should all support.

 

 

Bravo Penny!

VanessaWe interrupt our regularly scheduled blog topic to gush over the Season Two finale of Penny Dreadful. Of course gothic horror isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if not you are missing some of the finest storytelling, acting, and filmmaking ever produced.

Arguably, a story cannot be truly great if it does not shock the audience in some way. And Penny Dreadful does not wield horror gratuitously but rather as a master surgeon’s scalpel to cut deeply into the soul of the viewer.

One might have worried that Season One was just too good; that the exceptional quality could never be maintained; that the novelty would have worn off; that all the possible shock value had been expended; that Season Two could never hope to thrill the audience like it was their first time.

But Season Two somehow continued to amaze, astound, and even surprise. It works well that the seasons are short, so much like Penny Dreadful novels themselves. If you have not seen the series, stop reading now and go watch it you fool.

The penultimate episode of Season Two opened with an exquisitely brutal confrontation during which Ethan and Vanessa dispatch Pinkerton Agent Warren Roper in a manner that is absolutely mesmerizing in its raw unapologetic brutality. That one could continue to view Vanessa as a relatable and sympathetic victim / heroine after her demonic murder of sadistic Lord Cromwell and then continue to do so after her repeated stabbing of Warren Roper is a testimony to the depth of these characters.

Then in the final episode she walks knowingly into the deadly trap long arranged for her by the devil himself, alone, unprotected, with naked vulnerability. She listens defiantly to his seductive manipulations and eventually draws her lips near his, a faint breath away from a final kiss of surrender, only to snatch it from him with scorn. “Beloved, know your master” she spits at him as she banishes him in spectacular verbal combat.

Is she a sympathetic victim, a mere damsel in distress? Yes, but so much more. And so it is with the entire ensemble cast. They all have tremendous depth and duality of character; all are flawed to the brink of evil yet redeemed all the more profoundly by their nobler qualities.

As Vanessa confronts the devil himself, Victor and Sir Malcom confront their own demons. In a brilliantly parallel sequence, they each battle the horrors and failures of their respective tragic families, each tormented by the very monsters they created.

But since even all that is not near enough drama for Penny Dreadful, Ethan simultaneously confronts the monster within him, and chooses to stop fighting against it and to abandon his chance for love.

We are even treated to another (see here) intimate and powerful conversation between Vanessa and John (paraphrased and abbreviated):

Vanessa: All my life I have fled the darkness only to find myself in deeper darkness still.
John: No matter how far you run from God he is still just ahead waiting for you.
Vanessa: You don’t believe in God.
John: But you do.

Perhaps most surprising is where the writers left the show. It seems to have ended well only for Ferdinand Lyle who has redeemed himself from his duplicity and cowardice. Sembene is dead. As is Miss Poole. Ethan has been shipped off to America shackled in a cage like the animal he is. Victor has taken what refuge he can find in drugs. Sir Malcom is finally aboard ship bound for Africa, taking the body of his son to final rest. John has apparently fled normal society and we see him standing on a boat in the arctic, immune to the cold of death. And Vanessa is left alone, abandoned and purposeless, even forsaken by or at least forsaking her own faith in god.

With the cast so utterly crushed and dispersed, where can the show possibly go from here?

I for one cannot wait to find out. The future will undoubtedly follow the unholy romance between Dorian and Brona, and Hecate will certainly tie in somehow. Hopefully we’ll learn the significance of the scorpion that merged with Vanessa. Beyond that, I am quite happy that I have absolutely no idea what to expect. I will only be surprised if I am not completely surprised by Season Three.

Superheroes on Screen

Superheroes have transitioned from the pages of comics to the screen with varying degrees of success. Heroes from the DC universe have long been animated extremely well. The bar was set almost insurmountably high back in the 1940’s with the peerless Superman cartoon shorts by Max Fleischer. Television shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League (Unlimited) established an extremely high level of excellence that was carried into many well-crafted animated movies like Justice League: The New Frontier and Wonder Woman.

In live action, however, DC heroes have tended to disappoint or even embarrass. Although there are still folk who look fondly upon the old Batman and Superman movie franchises, that fondness is mostly just nostalgia. More recently, even Amy Adams could not breathe any life into Man of Steel and it fell upon stoic and dull Russell Crowe to offer something resembling an engaging performance. And do you even remember there was a movie called Superman Returns? I personally didn’t think Green Lantern deserved such hate, but hardly anyone agrees with me so I cannot claim it as an exception to this dismal track record. The current Arrow series is a tedious soap opera. Perhaps the best live action DC series was Smallville and that was mostly about Clark Kent.

Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, but even there I have real problems with how Batman was portrayed. Only in a few scenes does he appear as the frighteningly agile creature of the night that most fans expect. Rather he is generally depicted as a stiff, plodding, lumbering version of Iron Man (except considerably less able to avoid a slowly telegraphed punch).

There is shining beacon of hope however. The recent Flash television series is an excitingly refreshing work of love that pays due homage to the very respectable 1980’s series and to the essential nature of the character. It’s absolutely great and I only hope the upcoming Supergirl series will be half as endearing and faithful to its heroine.

We could go on and on about DC, but now let us turn to the Marvel universe. They are the mirror image of DC with fantastic live action and underwhelming animated efforts. With the exception of X-Men: The Animated Series which was pretty decent, their animated series and movies have been poorly animated junk food. However their live action movies, and yes I’m even including the Fantastic Four series which I alone seem to have loved, are generally well – fantastic.

True, Marvel admittedly has produced a few flicks we’d like to conveniently forget – I’m looking at you Daredevil, Elektra, and Hulk – but the truly great Marvel live action movies are too numerous to name, right up to Guardians of the Galaxy (which could have easily been quite ridiculous), Iron Man, Thor, Cap, and Avengers.

Last but definitely not least, the new Daredevil series on Netflix deserves very special recognition. This show is the best thing I’ve seen in …, well the best thing I’ve seen period. It literally draws you into the sweltering, seedy urban jungle of Hell’s Kitchen and makes you believe a blind man can be an actual superhero. The supporting performances are compelling, particularly by Deborah Ann Woll and Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin. And the brutal, exhausting, cringe-inducing fighting sequences are affectionately choreographed by brilliant students of the art.

I urge you to check out this link that analyzes one particularly memorable but representative fight scene from Daredevil. This single shot in Daredevil is the best fight scene in years (view here).

DaredevilDespite a sporadic history in both comic universes, I look forward to a lot more great Marvel movies and I remain hopeful that DC will eventually find their mojo. On television, DC’s Flash and Marvel’s Daredevil encourage me that the superhero genre will thrive in episodic live action by offering complex story lines that movies cannot match in richly crafted settings that exquisitely complement the tone and style of each uniquely individual hero, heroine, or team.

The Atheist Monster in Penny Dreadful

Vanessa speaks with John

Vanessa speaks with John

I’d like to share a powerful scene from a recent episode of Penny Dreadful, aired on Showtime on Mother’s Day.

Seeking a measure of solace from her struggles, Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green) has come to volunteer in a cavernous underground serving as a makeshift cholera ward “in the shadow of so much wealth such suffering” of 19th century London.

There she encounters a horrendously scarred man named John Clare (played by Rory Kinnear). Not incidentally but as yet unknown to Vanessa, John is also the sensitive and articulate “monster” reanimated by the Doctor Frankenstein character in the show.

She notices John reading off in an alcove by himself. Intrigued, she approaches him. After an offer of soup and some preliminary introductions, Vanessa sits next to him.

“They make me nervous,” she confides, nodding toward a woman in a habit. “The nuns.”

“Why?” he asks.

“I was raised in the faith,” she admits. “It was arduous for me.”

“Have you religion?” she asks, changing the subject tangentially.

“Are you offering it?” John counters.

“Do you require it?” she answers with another question, smiling warmly.

“I never have,” he replies.

“Then I shan’t offer,” she reassures him. “And I would be a poor advocate. The Almighty and I have a challenging past. I’m not sure we’re speaking these days.”

A laugh comes awkwardly upon John as he returns a confidence. “I read the Bible when I was younger. But then I discovered Wordsworth. And then the old platitudes and parables seemed anemic, even unnecessary.”

“Mr. Wordsworth has a lot to answer for then,” she teases.

Summoning up deeply considered but rarely spoken words, John elaborates. “The glory of life surmounts the fear of death. Good Christians fear hellfire. So to avoid it, they are kind to their fellow man. Good pagans do not have this fear, so they can be who they are. Good or ill, as their nature dictates. We have no fear of God, so we’re accountable to no one but each other.”

“That’s a profound responsibility,” Miss Ives replies.

“And why you do this, no doubt” he asks, “helping those in need?”

“I came here for selfish reasons,” she confesses. “Do you truly not believe in heaven?”

John’s shy self-consciousness is replaced by a joyful radiance. “I believe in this world. And those creatures that fill it. That’s always been enough for me. Look around you – sacred mysteries at every turn.”

“But no exaltation in life beyond this?” Vanessa challenges, seeking confirmation.

“To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wildflower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour,” John responds, paraphrasing William Blake’s “To See A World…”

Vanessa looks a bit sad, “With respect to Blake, I see no wildflowers here, only pain and suffering.”

“Then you need to look closer,” John tells her with compelling certainty.

The conversation is interrupted when Vanessa is called away by a nun who casts a disapproving glance at John.

“Thank you for the soup,” he says.

“Thank you for the conversation,” she answers as she takes her leave. And then, pausing to look back, she adds, “You have beautiful eyes.”

I will not attempt to do a deep analysis of this scene. It is so rich with poetic humanist themes that it is best to let every reader take from it what they will. But I will point out how notable this treatment of humanist ideas is, not only in today’s mass media, but in the context of a show in which demons and by inference god are undeniable realities. It suggests that “even if” god were real, there would still be merit in a purely humanist worldview.

It is certainly not an accident that John, shunned as a monster by his society, was chosen to represent the atheist-humanist character in the show. Of more subtle symbolism is that he is undeniably the product of purely human manufacture. Certainly he was not endowed with a soul by his human creator. Yet he is uniquely passionate and thoughtful with an incredibly “soulful” sense of awe and empathy.

On the other side, Vanessa’s deep faith and powerful mysticism have only left her in desperate need of the comfort and inspiring humanist perspectives offered by this apparent monster.