Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

November 25, 2011

What have they done to my myths?

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 12:37 pm

Movie review: Immortals. Starring: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Frida Pinto, John Hurt. Directed by Tarsem Singh. (Published in The Marshall Independent TV Guide.)

Years ago at a graduate school party I was having a typical grad student discussion of Deep Stuff with some Asian fellow-grads about Western Civilization.

Trying to explain what I thought was the basis for the self-identification of North Americans and Europeans as “Western” I said, “No matter where our ancestors came from, if we are Western then in some essential way we are all Hebrews and we are all Greeks.”

Once upon a time when I was young, all students were exposed to the Greek myths at least a little by the end of grade school. I am no longer sure if that’s true, which is why I welcome movies based on the Greek myths reintroducing another generation to some of the founding traditions of our civilization.

When you translate ancient myths into novels or movies, there are several options open to you.

You can use special effects to recreate the fantastical elements of the classical myths and do a fairly straightforward story based on the myth, perhaps with some modifications for modern audiences. This was done brilliantly in Ray Harryhausen’s “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963,) and pretty well in “Clash of the Titans” in 1981, and not quite as well but with the benefit of CGI in 2010.

You can euhemerize the story. Euhemeros was a Greek who lived in the 4th century BC. He theorized that myths were fantastic or allegorical accounts based on real historical events and people. Euhemerization is a kind of back formation based on a theory of what the real people and events that inspired the myths might actually have been.

This is how poet Robert Graves treated the story of the argonauts in his novel, “Hercules My Shipmate,” portraying a world of men motivated by fear of angry gods and vengeful ghosts, and banded together in fraternities with totems such as the horse (“centaurs,”) or goat (“fauns.”)
You can take a mythological character and the broad outlines of his legend and create a whole new series of adventures for him. Such as the lightweight but fun Kevin Sorbo “Hercules” TV series. One may always hope this will motivate some kids to look up the original myths.

And lately there has been a science fiction approach to the myths, where the gods are interpreted as aliens or inter-dimensional beings who inspired the myth makers.

This was the approach used in an original Star Trek episode, “Who Mourns for Adonis?” and recently in the Marvel Comics production “Thor.”

Or you can totally disregard the original story, rip off a few names from mythology, and call it ancient Greece.

That was what director Tarsem Singh did in this piece of dreck, “Immortals.”

There is no resemblance to the myths of Theseus (and by the way, the correct pronunciation is “Thee-soos,” not “Thee-see-us,”) Phaedra, or Hyperion.

There is a plot of sorts, the quest of the hero for a Weapon of Power that Unleashes Unimaginable Evil.

There are a lot of predictable developments you’ve seen before. Not necessarily a bad thing, myths are stories told again and again that we never get tired of. When the hero and the love interest, in this case a virgin prophetess (a al “The Scorpion King,”) consummate their attraction for each other this early in the movie, you know the hero is going to die in the end after fathering a son (“Terminator.”)

But mostly nothing hangs together. Plot developments are introduced, and just left hanging.

Theseus isn’t the son of a princess and either a king or the god Poseidon, His mother was raped and is the village cast-off. King Hyperion reveals he hates the gods because his family all died in a plague, and he was a peasant like Theseus who worked his way up to king and war lord. Phaedra the prophetess gives herself to Theseus because foresight is an intolerable burden, etc.

And what is done with these admittedly intriguing plot lines?

NOTHING! Zero, zip, nada.

On the other hand there are lots of good fight scenes, Henry Cavill is hunky, and Frida Pinto is definitely easy on the eyes. Treat it as eye-candy and you’ll be OK with it. But if it’s the Greek myths you want, find a DVD of “Jason and the Argonauts” for your kids.

November 21, 2011

Another reason I love this job

Filed under: Adventure — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:21 am

Note: Cross-posted from my newspaper blog.

Friday morning I got to climb up one of the two interior ladders of the wind tower simulator at the Minnesota Emergency and Response Industrial Training (MERIT) Center in Marshall. Very cool.

That evening I went to a wine tasting for the United Way. Also very cool. Very glad it was in that order though.

The excuse was to take photos of the preliminary informal dedication of the tower simulator, which will be used to train maintenance and rescue workers. There will be a more formal dedication in the Spring.

The climb was made in the company of several city officials and members of the MERIT advisory board. We strapped into safety harnesses, got a quick orientation from professional instructors, and up we went two-by-two on the two interior ladders. That’s about 70 feet to the nacelle simulator, then from there you get to climb up onto the roof and take in the view.

I stress we were attached to the ladder all the way up, and clamped onto the tower at all times on the roof. These guys do take safety seriously.

Of course, with all the guys and ladies around, nobody was about to chicken out in front of everybody else. Though heights are not my favorite thing I did it hand over hand, foot over foot, staring fixedly at the wall opposite me and never looking up or down.

When I got down my arms were aching slightly from clinging to the ladder with more force than was strictly necessary. I then reminded my boss of a little-known rule in journalism: whenever you climb a 70-foot tower for an assignment you get to take the afternoon off.

But all in all, it was an exhilarating experience, one I’ll not soon forget.

The irony of it was though, we didn’t use any of the pictures I took from the top. So here’s one for you, loyal readers.

UPDATE: Some months later I covered a meeting of a regional economic development group in Lamberton, Minn. The meeting started with a Powerpoint presentation highlighting accomplishments of the year – and there was this very picture up there twice and big as life.

I shouted, “Hey! Let’s see that handsome guy on the tower again.” As we say in Oklahoma, “I know it’s wrong – but I’m weak.”

November 19, 2011

Is the Occupation over yet?

Filed under: Culture,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:24 am

I recommend Sarah Palin’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal, “How Congress Occupied Wall Street.”

If you want to dismiss Palin as an intellectual lightweight, go ahead. This may after all be basically a book report on something written by one of her staff – but Palin had the sense to first employ the guy, then promote his book.

The staffer is Peter Schweizer, and the book is “Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and their Friends Get Rich Off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison.”

And incidentally I can’t think of anything that illustrates the corruption of our media and political culture more than the comparison between how the Tea Party demonstrations were treated, versus the Occupy Wall Street, Oakland, etc.

On the one hand you had huge crowds of largely middle-aged, working, successful, well-educated people, come together to protest the bankrupting of our country by an out-of-control government. They assembled peacefully, left property intact and no trash behind, then went back to their homes and their jobs.

On the other hand you had affluent kids supported by their parents, no jobs – or how else could they afford to camp out in public places for weeks? They vandalized the places they occupied, and the surrounding businesses, and had a significant interpersonal crime rate, disturbed the peace of the neighborhoods, and left the places filthy. Insofar as they had any coherent message at all, they were against “greed” but wanted the government to forgive the massive loans they took out to subsidize years of idleness while acquiring indoctrination miscalled “education” after realizing it left them with no employable skills or even work habits.

The first were vilified as “racists” on no evidence at all, labeled with an obscene name “teabaggers,” and dismissed when they were not simply ignored.

The second were treated with sympathy by the mainstream press, courted by leftist politicians, and taken seriously as a “movement” although there was no evidence of ideological coherence or any broad-based support at all.

Indeed, it seems more than likely any initial sympathy in the areas they occupied has vanished by now.

November 14, 2011

News flash! Michael Moore is filthy rich.

Filed under: Media bias,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:15 am

Note: My personal blog is on indefinite hiatus, however I am cross-posting from my newspaper blog at The Marshall Independent and the print-only TV Guide.

Michael Moore recently tried to deny the blindingly obvious on Piers Morgan’s TV talk show.

Moore said he is not one of the “1 percent” of “fat cats” the Occupy (blank) crowd are protesting in various venues across the country.

“I’m not,” Moore denied. “I am devoting my life to those who have less and who have been (bleeped) upon by the system.”

To begin with, that wasn’t the question. A rich person can spend his or her life helping the less fortunate, and many have. But I believe the question was about whether Moore was in the top 1 percent of individual net worth, and Moore’s $2 million home on Michigan’s toney Torch Lake and estimated net worth of around $50 million put him, if not in the top percentile then certainly within spitting distance of it.

I find Moore’s attitude irritating.

Moore is coming off like the kind of people we used to call “parlor pinks” or “limousine liberals,” i.e. well-off people who wear their concern for the poor on their sleeves. Who’d do anything for the working class – except join it.

Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against wealthy philanthropists, and in fact have a great deal of admiration for many of them and their not inconsiderable contributions to society.

What irritates me is “poor mouthing.” That “I’m really one of you” posturing.

With $50 million in the bank, Moore is manifestly not one of me. Furthermore, all indications show that he came by his fortune honestly, by creating a product people were willing to pay for. Not one to my taste, but enough folks liked what he sells to make him rich, so more power to him. So obviously, “The System” has worked pretty well for him.

(OK, so he got the seed money to make “Roger and Me” by suing his former employer Mother Jones, which is not technically illegal but…)

Quite frankly, from seeing interviews with Moore, I don’t think he’s any smarter than I am. He certainly isn’t more handsome than me, and I’m obviously in lots better shape. I generally dress better for work too.

There is the question of talent of course. Whatever one thinks of the content of Moore’s documentaries, they are visually brilliant. I don’t know if that’s innate talent for camera work or something I could learn. I suspect I could, I take pretty good pictures and digital photography makes it easy and cheap.

Where the really irritating subtext of Moore’s message comes in, is the whole assumption behind his railing against The System that Poops on Us is that he could get rich through hard work and brains, but I couldn’t possibly. That calm assumption of superiority that just chaps my (bleep.)

Mr. Moore, I don’t mind that you’re rich, I’m not the least bit envious of your good fortune. Just hold the patronizing attitude if you please.

November 11, 2011

Veteran’s Day/Polish Independence Day

Filed under: Eleagic mode,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:35 am

Note: My personal blog is on indefinite hiatus, however I am cross-posting from my newspaper blog at The Marshall Independent and the print-only TV Guide.

Jeszcze Polska nie zginela,
Kiedy my zyjemy.
Co nam obca przemoc wziela,
Szabla odberizemy/

Poland is not lost,
While yet we live.
What foreign force has taken,
We will reclaim with the sword.
– Dobrowksi’s Mazurka, National Anthem of Poland

Today is Veterans Day in the United States, and Independence Day in Poland, two events linked by much history.

It is also Armistice Day, or Rememberance Day in Europe and the British Commonwealth, and Independence Day in Poland.

For me the meaning of November 11, is defined by the 13 years I lived in Poland, and by my children whose grandfathers were officers in the U.S. Navy and the Polish Army.

The holidays are all linked to the date of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. On that day in 1918, hostilities formally ceased in Europe. With the defeat of Germany and Austro-Hungary, and the fall of the Russian monarchy, the nation of Poland was reborn 122 years after being partitioned and absorbed by the three powers.

In the “Fourteen Points” speech given by President Woodrow Wilson to a joint session of congress on January 18, 1918, outlining his hopes for a just peace, point 13 was, “An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.”

That is why all over Poland there are streets and public squares named after Wilson.

The celebration of Independence Day in Poland was officially forbidden by the communist government and re-instituted by the Polish Third Republic in 1989. I remember parties where we’d celebrate with fireworks, just like in America. However, November is usually very cold in Poland, so we’d have the party inside, set off the fireworks outside, and run back inside to watch them through the window.

I used to tell my students about how much fun we have on American Independence Day, and I’d joke, “The next time your country is overrun, have your revolution in the summer.”

Of the many Polish veterans who have served in America’s wars, the first were Polish exiles who fought in the American Revolution. The best-known of these were Kazimierz Pulaski, who has been called “the father of American cavalry,” and Tadeusz Kosciusko, who designed and built the fortifications at West Point.

Pulaski saved the life of George Washington on one occasion, and died in the battle of Savanah. He is one of only seven people to be awarded honorary United States citizenship.

Kosciusko returned to Poland afire with the ideals of the Revolution. He supported the Constitution of May 3, 1791, the second constitution written in the world after the American, which extended more rights to the peasants and limited the power and privilege of the nobility. It was seen as a threat by the surrounding powers and in 1792 a faction of the nobility formed the Targowica Confederation and invited Catherine the Great of Russia to invade the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to secure their power.

To this day “Targowicaniec” (“person from Targowica”) means “traitor” in Polish, in the same way we’d say “a Benedict Arnold.”

In 1794 Kosciusko led an uprising against Imperial Russia and the Kingdom of Prussia.

He lost.

Kosciusko spent the rest of his life in exile working in vain for the freedom of his country. When he died he left his fortune to buy the freedom of as many American slaves as possible, with the land, tools, and education necessary for them to support themselves.

During the years I lived in Poland, I saw the medal of the Order of the Cincinnati given by George Washington to Kosciusko in the Polish Military Museum in Warsaw, and a signed military communique written by Pulaski in the Pulaski Museum in Warka, Poland. And once while touring the crypt beneath Wawel Castle in Krakow, I came across the tomb of Kosciusko with a plaque in both English and Polish commemorating this fighter, “Za nasza i wasza wolnosc,” “For our freedom and yours.”

I wish I could describe for you how I felt when I stood in the presence of these relics.

For most of the 13 years between 1991 and my return to the U.S. in 2004, I taught English, wrote for American publications about the changes I saw in Poland, and in a small way helped in the rebuilding of that country so linked to ours by history.

Though I never made much money there, the wealth I took away with me was first and foremost my children, the friendship and respect of the people I met, and the heightened sense of closeness to my own country I found while living abroad.

November 9, 2011

Movie review: In Time

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 4:01 pm

Note: My personal blog is on indefinite hiatus, however I am cross-posting from my newspaper blog at The Marshall Independent and the print-only TV Guide.

“If the rich could hire the poor to die for them, the poor would make a very good living.” – Jewish proverb

Imagine a world where time is money – literally.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol’s “In Time,” is set in a distant future when everyone is issued 25 years plus one at birth. At 25 people stop aging, but get one more year of life, measured on a digital clock on their forearm. They must work, gamble, or steal for time to pay their rent, bus fare, etc. Time can be bought, given, or stolen. When their clock runs down to zero, they die.

Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) lives in a “ghetto.” He and his mother (Olivia Wilde) live day to day, going to work each day to earn another day of life.

Then Will is given a century of life by a suicidal rich man slumming in the ghetto. When his mother clocks out and dies in his arms Will determines to invade the precincts of the very rich and stir things up a bit.

The notion of government regulating the length of citizens’ lives has been done before, but Niccol’s treatment is brilliantly original.

That didn’t prevent SciFi writer Harlan Ellison from suing, claiming close similarity to his 1965 short story, “’Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.’”

In this writer’s humble opinion, the similarity was purely that of general theme. Jack Vance would have had a marginally better case for copyright infringement for his 1956 novel, “To Live Forever.” Or for that matter “Bonnie and Clyde,” (pretty couple robs banks together,) or Patty Hearst (kidnapped heiress joins her kidnapper.)

Some of the characters are over a century old, but Niccols had to use only actors who could pass for 25.

George Orwell said, “At 50 everyone has the face they deserve.”

So how do you show age when nobody ages? When faces aren’t sculpted by their life?

Niccol created a startling effect by casting a youthful and somewhat effeminate-looking Vincent Kartheiser, 32, as the super-rich Phillipe Weis. (How rich? “Aeons,” says his daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried.)) When Phillipe meets Will, he introduces him to three young beauties with smooth, unlined faces – as his wife, mother-in-law, and daughter.

Rich immortals live in a smothering cocoon. When Will buys a hot car he’s asked where he wants to display it.

“Display? I’m going to drive it,” he says.

Sylvia lives in a mansion on a beach, but has never been in the water or played in the breakers until Will shows her that life without risk is no life at all. Syvia then becomes an enthusiastic devotee of risky adventures such as robbing daddy’s banks for time to give to the poor.

A good time is had by all with car chase/smashups, shoot ‘em ups, and run-for-your-life suspense.

But there’s some food for thought here as well.

If you had all the time in the word, how would you spend it?

If you could live as long as you wanted, would you hoard your life like a miser, or embrace it with all its risks?

If others had to die so you could live forever, would you?

And it’s nice to see that question addressed outside of a vampire movie for once.

November 4, 2011

Occupy everything!

Filed under: News commentary,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:51 am

Note: My personal blog is on indefinite hiatus, however I am cross-posting from my newspaper blog at The Marshall Independent and the print-only TV Guide.

The Occupy Oakland protests have turned a tad violent the news media reports. The country’s fifth largest port has been closed by demonstrators.

Some of the reports coming out of Oakland include:

After a rumor spread that the Whole Foods store had threatened to fire employees who participated in the protest, Regional President David Lannon announced on Facebook: “We totally support our Team Members participating in the General Strike today — rumors are false!”

It didn’t do him any good. Demonstrators wearing Guy Fawkes masks from the movie “V for Vendetta” trashed one Whole Foods store, breaking windows and spraypainting walls. Another Whole Foods that distributed water bottles to passersby was also attacked by masked demonstrators and forced to close.

(For those who haven’t seen it, “V for Vendetta” is about a lone “freedom-fighter” battling a tyrannical Christian theocracy that has somehow established itself in England. After rescuing a young woman from the secret police, the masked hero shows his moral superiority to the regime by imprisoning and brainwashing her to get her to see the awfulness of the regime, before he succeeds where the original Guy Fawkes failed and blows up the Houses of Parliament and presumably a number of bystanders.)

A Men’s Wearhouse in Oakland put up a huge poster saying, “We Stand With The 99%” and announced they’d be closed that day.

Demonstrators smashed their windows.

Demonstrators also vandalized ATMs and sprayed “F***” on Christ the Light Cathedral.

The Oakland city council responded by considering a resolution in support of “Occupy Oakland” and calling on the city administration to “collaborate with protesters”.

Full disclosure, I am no stranger to massive demonstrations. For about three months in 1997 I participated in the nightly street demonstrations in Belgrade, Yugoslavia protesting the Milosevic regime’s stealing of local government elections.

“Participate” might be a bit misleading. Since I returned to my apartment at night I had no choice other than to participate. Approximately 17 percent of the city’s population were on the streets every night, marching, singing, and making noise with pots and pans and a variety of home-made noisemakers during “pandemonium half-hour” when the official government news was broadcast.

I used to say I just took the first demonstration going home after work. Every night we’d march past an estimated 10,000 armed paramilitaries recruited mostly from Bosnian Serbs, because they had no connection with the city’s population. It was known Milosevic’s wife Mira “the Red Queen” wanted the paramilitaries to fire on the demonstrators.

Apparently they couldn’t find anyone willing to give the order. It was kicked downstairs as far as it could go, to a vice-chief of police, who flat refused even after government goons gave his son a beating. So I may owe my life to a Serbian cop.

A week or so after the regime had to capitulate to the demonstrators, that cop was machine-gunned in a pizza place near my work.

During months of nightly demonstrations I didn’t see any property vandalized, no windows broken, and I can’t recall much spraypainting of walls.

There were however some really great posters made by art students at the university. My favorite was Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator on a Harley holding up a red card, and below the words, “Hasta la vista Communista!”

The more I see of these Occupy whatever demonstrations, the more I miss Belgrade.

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