Tag Archives: Helen Highly

Hillary hater

The Baby and the Bathwater: Thailand’s Cautionary Tale for Hillary Haters

There is a serious political problem with Election 2016 and Helen Highly objects. I’m talking to you, fellow Democrats, Liberals, and Progressives who won’t vote for “Crooked Hillary.”

I will start this political essay by offering theoretical agreements with the claims of so many relentless Hillary Haters (and also you — mere Hillary Resisters).

Punishing Hillary
Punishing Hillary
  • Hillary accepts money from big-business and Wall St. Yup, she does.
  • Hillary is greedy. Okay – very likely true.
  • Hillary has used her political career for personal gain. Sure, I’ll even put that in all caps: HILLARY HAS PROFITED FROM HER POLITICAL CAREER.
  • Hillary has been caught in a misstatement (okay – call it a deception), covering up an embarrassing error about what she knew and when she knew it with regard to her email-server “scandal.” I’ll go ahead and give you that one – Hillary lied. Again, all caps: HILLARY LIED.
  • Hillary apologized for her mistake but that is not enough; any ethical misstep or financial misdeed makes her absolutely unfit to be President (and she probably belongs in prison as well). No – that is where I stop agreeing. In fact, that is where I get scary chills down my spine. And here is why:

Thailand, September 19, 2006. Thailand has no oil and no nukes and is poor and relatively peaceful and so the politics of Thailand almost never makes the news in the United States. Even when there is a military coup you won’t hear about it on our major TV network’s national news. But that’s not my point. My point is that NOW is a very good time to take a look back at what has been going on in Thailand for the past ten years, and also what just happened there last week, which again, went virtually unnoticed by America. (Kudos to The Economist for covering the story.) Thailand is a cautionary tale with astounding similarities to America’s current situation. And I personally saw this shit go down, or I wouldn’t have believed it myself. I was there, and now I am going to tell you.

I went to bed one night in a lovely, friendly, democratic country (long-standing ally to the United States) and woke up the next morning to tanks in the streets and men with machine guns positioned outside my hotel. Thaksin Shinawatra, businessman and politician, had been removed from his position as Prime Minister of the country. And with good reason.

Thaksin was undeniably corrupt (like you believe Hillary is). And he was personally benefiting from his political career (again, like Hillary). He was palling around with privileged rich guys (like Hillary). He was making tons of money with shady business deals. So… they threw that greedy, corrupt guy out. They named him a criminal, which was probably true (seemed he didn’t pay his fair share of taxes), but… does it really matter? Most people believed it was true, and masses shouted “Lock him up!” He’s now living in exile in order to avoid a prison sentence that still awaits him. Which court actually delivered this sentence and was it legitimate? Let’s not get bogged down in the details. HE CHEATED. Good riddance.

But here’s the problem: Thaksin was a cheat AND YET it is also undeniably true that this flawed man was a legitimate hero of the working class and poor. This man brought the country into the civilized world. He earned his way into heaven thousands of times over – saved lives and made them better. Thaksin’s government launched programs to reduce poverty, expand infrastructure, promote small and medium-sized enterprises, and provide universal healthcare coverage. He made wide-spread education and financial loans to individuals possible for the first time. With Thaksin as Prime Minister, ordinary people, for the first time, could get a financial loan to pay for college or buy a home or purchase a car to get to work.

Thaksin stamped out the drug dealers who were feeding off of the rural poor and killing thousands of people. (We’re talking about the middle of the “Golden Triangle” – heroin producer for the world.) Thaksin offered poppy farmers real-world alternatives and created markets for their new, legitimate crops. He brought opportunity and hope to his country. He was the first democratically-elected Prime Minister of Thailand to serve a full term and was reelected in 2005 by an overwhelming majority. His personal big-business, btw, was an I.T. and telecommunications corporation, which made him one of the richest people in Thailand and also, incidentally, enabled widespread internet access, which of course enables democracy, which we Americans know is so crucial to freedom.

BUT he was a big-business profiteer (rich and entitled like Hillary). And he cheated on his taxes (probably). And on that one reason alone — his personal greed and presumed corruption, they threw him out. Single-minded, self-righteous protectors-of-the-fantasy-of-flawless-purity gave him no mercy, and gave his mistakes no context and no reasonable perspective – just like so many people in this country are doing to Hillary.

And when the public voted for another person from Thaksin’s political party to replace him, the new “law-abiding” government made that political party illegal altogether (because they deemed it bad for the public). And they shut down democracy. And restricted the internet, and the press, and even group gatherings of five or more people. It was a military coup. But don’t worry; it was a “bloodless coup,” because Thai people are Buddhist and don’t believe in violence. So, as far as we knew or cared, in America, it didn’t really count. The transition was so smooth. In the marketplace it was business as usual — no problem, no problem.

Thailand's Non-Violent Coup
Thailand’s Non-Violent Coup

It seemed just like the Law and Order that Donald Trump promised during his convention speech when he accepted the GOP nomination for President. And most Americans chuckled when Donald said that on the morning after he takes office there will be an immediate end to crime and violence. We laughed it off because it seems so ludicrous – not even possible, just another Trump exaggeration.

Except I know it’s not ludicrous and it is possible. I saw it. Not in another century – just ten years ago. I woke up in my comfortable bed to that strange and terrible law-and-order silence that was supervised by the military, for the supposed safety of the citizens. Yup, the Thai people are now safe from their leader failing to pay his taxes. They are protected from the ethical mistakes and greed of that hard-working politician.

But: Goodbye to all those social programs Thaksin had created. Goodbye to all the progress he made for the country, and all the hope, and the health, and the growth and the stability. And the freedom.

They threw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s all gone now.

And now some other rich guys are getting richer, instead of Thaksin. And all those ordinary, non-violent, too-naïve, Thai citizens – especially the rural poor and those with lives at the highest risk… those people are totally screwed now. They’ve been screwed for the past ten years – victims of a sudden turnaround of the country, which was initiated by a quiet, little “act-of-justice” against one public servant, for one wrong thing he did. And, due to the latest “vote” (as if) for a formal constitutional change that will keep the military in power for the foreseeable future, the Thai people are now screwed for the rest of their lives, and their children’s lives.

And no, that situation is not directly parallel to America’s situation. But the hillary-5key similarity is this misguided campaign to put all our energy into punishment rather than progress, into hating Hillary rather than helping the country. It is this stubborn refusal to look past this functionally irrelevant email thing – this one thing. This blindness to everything but this one error, and this one personal flaw. Hillary Haters, take heed: It is you who are doing wrong here and making a dangerous mistake –

— this refusal to see Hillary’s shortcomings and even her misdeeds with appropriate context and perspective.

And you think you have the leeway to “vote your conscience” — essentially throw away your vote, just “to show her.” You think it’s impossible that a monster like Trump could really end up running the country. Or you absurdly equate Hillary’s misconduct and greed with Trump’s…  (I can’t even write the long list, but it ends with Hate.) You claim to believe that fibbing about email or making a self-serving business deal is seriously evil — comparable to Trump’s dangerous combination of Ignorance and Hate. Well, you are wrong. And if you will only stop and think honestly, you know it.

So I am begging you: Please consider Thailand’s cautionary tale and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

What do I recommend instead? Sorry to sound so simplistic and cliched, but how about we try to get a Democrat in the White House and a majority in the Senate, and then we can use the democratic process (yup, our messy and flawed system) to wrestle with Hillary and hash out the details later, once we are truly clear of and safe from the threat of Trump.

Stronger Together: It's True
Stronger Together: It’s True
command space bomb

More About “Command and Control”: Arms Race in Space

Command and Control Film Commentary Part 3:
Masters of Space

Continued from “Helen’s Own Highly Explosive Nuclear Crisis,” inspired by the documentary film Command and Control, by Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser

by HelenHighly

This bomb is not from my childhood. This bomb is in the future, and it’s heading straight toward us all. It’s vast and more deadly than anything that has come before. I’m talking about real-life star wars – an arms race in outer space. You think that’s a joke? Think again: the militarization of space. Consider this quote from General Joseph W. Ashy, the former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Space Command – a statement he made to Aviation Week and Space Technology in 1996:

“It’s politically sensitive, but it’s going to happen. Some people don’t want to hear this, and it sure isn’t in vogue, but absolutely we’re going to fight in space.” He explains further, “We’re going to fight from space, and we’re going to fight into space. That’s why the U.S. has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms. We will engage terrestrial targets someday – ships, airplanes, land targets – from space.”

To appreciate the threat, and the secrecy surrounding the threat, we need to go back for a little more history. Wikipedia again:

“’The Outer Space Treaty’ …was opened for signature in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union on 27 January 1967, and entered into force on 10 October 1967. …The Outer Space Treaty represents the basic legal framework of international space law. Among its principles, it bars states …from placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit of Earth, installing them on the Moon or any other celestial body, or otherwise stationing them in outer space. It exclusively limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military maneuvers, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications. The treaty also states that the exploration of outer space shall be done to benefit all countries and shall be free for exploration and use by all the States,” and that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

Got it? That’s the official international law about outer space. The United States was one of the three key players who initiated it – back in 1967. But now read this, from Third World Traveler:

“On November 1, 2000 the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to reaffirm the Outer Space Treaty – the fundamental international law that establishes that space should be reserved for peaceful uses. Almost 140 nations voted for the resolution entitled ‘Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space.’ It recognizes ‘the common interest of all mankind in the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,’ and declares ‘that prevention of an arms race in outer space would avert a grave danger for international peace and security.’

Only two nations declined to support this bill – the United States and Israel. Both abstained. For the United States, the issue goes way beyond missile defense. The U.S. military explicitly says it wants to ‘control’ space to protect its economic interests and establish superiority over the world.

“Several documents reveal the plans. Take ‘Vision for 2020,’ a 1996 report of the U.S. Space Command, which ‘coordinates the use of Army, Navy, and Air Force space forces’ and was set up in 1985 to ‘help institutionalize the use of space.’ The multicolored cover of ‘Vision for 2020’ shows a weapon shooting a laser beam from space and zapping a target below.

“The report opens with the following: ‘U.S. Space Command – dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict. A century ago, Nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests by ruling the seas,’ the report notes. ‘Now it is time to rule space.’

The medium of space is the fourth medium of warfare-along with land, sea, and air,” it proclaims on page three. “The emerging synergy of space superiority with land, sea, and air superiority will lead to Full Spectrum Dominance.”

The Air Force publishes similar pamphlets. Nuclear power is crucial to this scenario. ‘In the next two decades, new technologies will allow the fielding of space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness to be used to deliver energy and mass as force projection in tactical and strategic conflict,’ says ‘New World Vistas: Air and Space Power for the 21st Century,’ a 1996 U.S. Air Force board report.

“The PR. spin is that the U.S. military push into space is about ‘missile defense’ or defense of U.S. space satellites. But the volumes of material coming out of the military are concerned mainly with offense – with using space to establish military domination over the world below.

“Even the Council on Foreign Relations – usually characterized as centrist, has come on board. In 1998, it published a booklet entitled ‘Space, Commerce, and National Security,’ written by Air Force Colonel Frank Klotz, a military fellow at the Council. ‘The most immediate task of the United States in the years ahead is to sustain and extend its leadership in the increasingly intertwined fields of military and commercial space. This requires a robust and continuous presence in space,’ says the report. …The U.S. government is pouring massive amounts of public money – an estimated $6 billion a year, not counting what is secretly spent – into the military development of space.”

For the record, unlike all the other info I have presented in my Command and Control film commentary series, the above text comes from a website that is not owned and operated by the U.S. government, and I have not fully fact-checked its veracity. Thus, it is perhaps not as shockingly, without-a-doubt true as all the other information I have reported. So… you may be suspicious of it, as you wish (and investigate further as you see fit).

But, in conclusion, I will end this seemingly endless essay, that started with a review of the Command and Control movie, with this stunning and absolutely legitimate quote from Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Secretary-General of the U.N. from 1997-2006, Kofi Annan:

“Above all, we must guard against the misuse of outer space,” Kofi Annan said as he opened the 1999 U.N. conference on space militarization in Vienna.

“We must not allow this century, so plagued with war and suffering, to pass on its legacy, when the technology at our disposal will be even more awesome. We cannot view the expanse of space as another battleground for our Earthly conflicts.”

But, in only the first quarter of the new century, that is exactly what the U.S. military is doing.


Click here to read Helen’s synopsis and review of the Command and Control documentary.

 

command nuclear_blast

“Command and Control” Commentary Continued: Helen’s Own Highly Explosive Nuclear Crisis

Commentary Part 2: Command and Control film by Kenner and Schlosser

A Nuclear Bomb Explodes in My Childhood

by HelenHighly

A Man on the Moon: The Space Age
A Man on the Moon: The Space Age

I was “a space-age baby.” That’s what my mother wrote in my baby album. I grew up being told the story of when we were in the hospital after she gave birth to me: There was this amazing few minutes when all the infants were left alone, even if they were crying, and all the nurses and mothers (along with millions of other Americans) turned to the TV to watch The First American be Launched into Space. It was a spectacular, patriotic event, and my father helped to make it possible.

First American in Space
First American in Space
My Life Is Good. My Life Is Fine.
My Life Is Good. My Life Is Fine.

This was May 5rd 1961 – 4 days after I was born – birthed under the very same sky in which Alan Shepard made glorious history. I was born into the glamorous realm of NASA’s Cape Canaveral, where my father worked, and where America’s bright future was being engineered. Later that same month in 1961, President Kennedy would announce the ambitious goal of sending an American to the moon. This was the Space Age; America was conquering the cosmos. What a great time to be born.

My Dad Was a Rocket Scientist
My Dad Was a Rocket Scientist

I grew up saying “My father was a rocket scientist.” Ha! He never talked about the details, and I was only a baby at the time anyway. But as I grew older, I always knew that those days at NASA were my father’s glory days. Being part of that program meant so much to him. He was not a religious man, but … somehow NASA was that miraculous concept that was larger than us all – some mix of Wondrous Possibility and Great Human Achievement and American Patriotism and… The Right Stuff.  He was a believer.

FYI, The Right Stuff is a 1983 American, dramatic film about the seven pilots who were selected to be the astronauts for Project Mercury, the first manned spaceflight by the United States. The film goes behind the prepackaged image of unblemished saints we knew through the media to find imperfect human beings who were actually even more heroic when seen in full light. In 2013 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The Right Stuff movie poster
The Right Stuff movie poster

1983, the year The Right Stuff was released, was the year I graduated from college. I recall phoning Dad to talk about the film. My father was notoriously difficult to please and stubbornly, perhaps excessively, patriotic. (He disliked the TV show M∗A∗S∗H for being disrespectful to the U.S. military and making light of America’s mission.) So I thought to myself, after seeing The Right Stuff, that my father would finally be happy that a Hollywood movie presented the American space program as so courageous and heroic. What did Dad think of the movie? Well, he was offended by the depiction of the astronauts as anything other than absolute, through-and-through American patriots.

How about Apollo 13,  the 1995 film by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks (two indisputably all-American figures)? In this movie, which depicts a true event from 1970, the spacecraft malfunctions, putting the lives of the three astronauts on board in jeopardy, and NASA devises a brilliant-under-pressure strategy to return Apollo 13 and its astronauts safely to Earth. My father’s take: “There was that one character at Command Center who was a naysayer and had a bad attitude; that is inaccurate. That man did not exist and no one like that would ever have worked for NASA. Every single person who worked there, down to the janitors, were nothing but proud to be there. And no one had a cynical attitude; these were the best and the brightest. It is un-American to suggest otherwise.”

Apollo 13 movie poster
Apollo 13 movie poster

Well, those were fictionalized accounts of history, and my father was not only a purist but a scientist at heart. He did not appreciate the artistic necessity of creating dramatic conflict, which (he was correct) likely did not accurately depict the precise details of what happened. So, although he seemed somewhat dogmatic, I acknowledge (and am proud) that he himself was truly an unwaveringly honorable man. He did not entertain doubts about his principles; he lived a life of relentless integrity and commitment. So, was it too much for him to expect others to do so? My father was a man who did indeed deserve true respect, and it was understandable that he would perceive others as matching his own image.

Command and Control is a documentary that has been meticulously researched by a proven truth-teller. Coincidentally (it seemed), I learned from the movie that there was another major aeronautic event that occurred the same year of my birth. Almost no one knew about it (no one outside of the government), because the information was kept classified until 2013. At that period in 1961 – The Cold War in full swing, the United States had B-52 bombers in the air 24 hours a day, ready to emojiWhoaattack the Soviet Union. On January 24, 1961, a B-52 bomber that was carrying two nuclear bombs developed a fuel leak and broke apart mid-air over Goldsboro, North Carolina, dropping its bombs in the process. The size of each bomb was more than 250 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb.

B-52 Bomber
B-52 Bomber

Five of the six arming mechanisms on one of the bombs activated. In other words, every safety mechanism on the bomb failed, except one simple “arm/safe” switch (a flip-switch, like a light switch). If that switch had been on the equivalent of “on” when the bomb hit the ground, a thermonuclear explosion would have destroyed much of North Carolina and spread lethal radioactive fallout that would have killed most of the citizens of Washington, Philadelphia and New York. Btw, that type of safety switch was later found to be defective in other weapons. In fact, the same switch was found to be in the “arm” position on the second bomb that fell that day, although some other lucky accident prevented that bomb from detonating.

B-52 Drops its Bombs
B-52 Drops its Bombs

Thus, the nearest America had come to a nuclear catastrophe was not the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, as my parents had told me it was, vividly recounting the experience of our family living so close to the enemy at such a dangerous time. The far closer nuclear catastrophe was an undisclosed incident the year before, when America’s own bomb almost detonated over our own country. Plus, three airmen did die during this incident. Schlosser has been credited with unearthing this “lost” bit of history, which is now being made into its own movie. Kenner includes the incident in his film to further illustrate one of his core messages, which is that we are so much better at creating complex technological systems than we are at controlling them.

Only Rocket Science... Not War
Only Rocket Science… Not War

I wonder what my father would have said about that story and its implications, if he had known about it. It didn’t occur to me that my father might have known about the B-52 bomber incident when it happened. Why would he? How would he? That was the military – not NASA.

Okay, technically, my father was not actually employed by NASA. He worked for Martin Marietta (now defunct, having merged with Lockheed Corp). They were an aerospace contractor company that worked for NASA and were responsible for building the Titan missile. I mention this because both of those names –  Martin Marietta and Titan – had been buried 50-years-deep in my memory and only popped up recently when I heard them mentioned in this movie.

Titan II Blasts Off
Titan II Rocket Blasts Off From its Underground Silo

It was the name Martin Marietta that struck me first. Where had I heard that before? “Oh! That was the company my father worked for at Cape Canaveral. That makes sense because, ya know, those aerospace contractors get around.” And then, as I was recalling that detail, I also remembered … “Isn’t Titan the name of the rocket Dad worked on? Well, that’s obviously a coincidence (or maybe I just remember it wrong), because Dad’s Titan was early 60’s in Florida and this film takes place in 1980 in Arkansas.”

(pause) “But wait. I do remember the name Titan. So…why would the emojiDuhAir Force be ‘stealing’ a name from NASA? They are completely separate parts of the U.S. Government; one is military and the other civilian. I mean, this is not like some pop star naming her new song the same as some old song. This is the United States government. You’d think they’d keep careful track of stuff like that.”

Sidebar: On the subject of re-using old names, what is up with this … trend? … where a new movie uses the name of an old movie, and it’s not a remake? There were at least three films in the TFF this year that come immediately to mind. I’m looking at you Detour, Magnus, and Untouchable. Well, that stuff seems to be no biggie in the entertainment world, but … NASA?

Helen Highly Hurting
Helen Highly Hurting

So I went home and did a little Googling. And in the process…
a series of nuclear bombs exploded in my childhood. 

Thus, now I am telling:

Helen’s Highly Upsetting Spin-Off Documentary: Contradict and Conspire

I Thought I Knew But I Didn't
I Thought I Knew But I Didn’t

This much history I knew:  As written by Wikipedia, “President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation, encouraging peaceful applications in space science.”

But when I started looking, it was not at all difficult to find evidence that contradicted that widely-believed statement and also seemed to implicate my father in misrepresenting his role. I now realize that he, in fact, did not work for NASA; he worked at NASA for the U.S. Air Force.

1st Bomb: NASA was never truly a civilian organization, nor was its purpose peaceful.emojiWhatThe

2nd Bomb: The space race and the arms race were essentially the same thing, and they both were largely a response to Sputnik.

3rd Bomb: The Titan missile, which my father helped develop while working at Cape Canaveral, was first and foremost created as a delivery system for nuclear warheads (not as a booster for manned space capsules), and it played a key role in the U.S./Soviet arms race well into the 80’s.emojiNoooo

4th Bomb: It is Highly likely that Helen was less of a space-age baby and more of a weapons-of-mass-destruction baby.

The first bomb that hit me came from NASA’s own website, in detailing the background of the agency:

“The two sources of the U.S. space program were the military services and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Charted by Congress in 1915, NACA was authorized to ‘supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight.’

The final meeting of NACA, before being absorbed into NASA.
The final meeting of NACA, before being absorbed into NASA.

“After World War II, NACA began moving into new fields. The Committee authorized work in such new fields as rocket propulsion, nuclear propulsion, hypersonic flight, and exploration of the upper atmosphere. While NACA was conducting research programs in the upper atmosphere, the [military] services were exploring the military uses of space. …The Cold War atmosphere revived interest in ballistic weapons. Specifically, by 1953… scientists and the Air Force… had concluded independently that an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was technically feasible. In early 1954… [it was] recommended that the United States undertake an ICBM program on a highest-priority basis. By the end of 1955, all three [military] services had ballistic missile programs: The Air Force was developing Atlas and Titan ICBMs.”

Titan I ICBM
Titan I ICBM

Kaboom. It was the date that hit me.

Helen Highly Shocked

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s website spelled it out: “In October 1955, the Air Force contracted with the Glenn L. Martin Company [later Martin Marietta] to produce a new ICBM called the Titan. It was the first in a series of Titan rockets and was an important step in building the Air Force’s nuclear deterrent strategy.” So, the Titan missile was being developed by the Air Force (not NASA), before NASA even existed.

From Rockets’ Red Glare to Mushroom-Cloud

It is interesting to note why and how rockets, in particular, became military instruments. This is something else I recently learned while sitting at my computer.

Star Spangled Bombs
Star Spangled Bombs

Another result of a Google search was an article on the Smithsonian’s Air & Space website titled, “The Rockets That Inspired Francis Scott Key.” This is a bit of a tangential sidebar, but it is worth noting that the word “rocket” has been associated with U.S. warfare for as long as we have been a country, and it is included in our national anthem. The article is short and worth reading, but for our purposes, it clarifies that the rockets to which Francis Scott Key referred were little more than fireworks, not at all like modern missiles.

The Flag Was Still There
The Flag Was Still There

“Propelled by gunpowder, rockets had a range of barely a few hundred feet and were wildly unpredictable in flight… The kind fired against Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14, 1814… carried an incendiary mixture” intended to start a fire inside the fort. So, no one was going to destroy an entire civilization with those. Those sparkling “rockets” make me think of the romantic “sky rockets in flight” from the 70’s pop song “Afternoon Delight.”

The H-Bomb
The H-Bomb

It was during World War II that America advanced to building a fantastically lethal bomb – the atomic bomb. But, due to the weight of an A-bomb, there was little prospect of them being carried by rockets. However, a DOI website explains, “in 1949, when the Soviet Union developed its atomic bomb, America responded with an even more powerful weapon — a thermonuclear device that used a small atomic trigger to initiate a fusion reaction in hydrogen isotopes. Successfully tested in 1952, the H-bomb seemed to guarantee America’s nuclear superiority.” The H-bomb was not only more powerful than the atomic bomb, but also much lighter.

Then, in August 1953, the Soviets exploded their own H-bomb. And, it was revealed that the Soviets were making considerable headway with a missile development program that was based on German expertise obtained after WWII; years ahead of U.S. expectations, the Soviets were creating the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. ICBMs are missiles with a minimum range of more than 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles). With an ICBM, the Soviets would not need to fly a plane (such as a B-52 bomber) over U.S. territory in order to drop a bomb on our country. U.S. military experts became extremely worried that the Soviets could soon deliver the H-bomb via an ICBM.

The Race Was On!
The Race Was On!

For the first time, the Soviets seemed poised to surpass the United States in military might, and the race was on. To match the newly revealed Soviet missile programs, President Eisenhower made the U.S. ICBM programs a top priority, and to gain intelligence on the Soviet R&D effort, he did the same with the U.S. spy satellite program. Because it now planned to use reconnaissance satellites in the near future, the U.S. had to modify its policy on the peaceful use of space. What started out as “nonmilitary” became “nonaggressive.”

On January 7, 1954, President Eisenhower delivered his first State of the Union address to the Nation. After declaring that “American freedom is threatened so long as the Communist conspiracy exists in its present scope, power and hostility,” the President outlined his plans for defending the Nation against that threat. “We will not be aggressors,” he said, “but we . . . have and will maintain a massive capability to strike back.” In June of that year, Vice Chief of Staff General Thomas D. White ordered the Air Research and Development Command “to proceed with the development of an ICBM at the highest speed possible, limited only by the advancement of technology in the various fields concerned.”

From Rockets’ Red Scare to Sputnik

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) eloquently details what happened next: “On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched into orbit the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik.

Sputnik
Sputnik

Ham radio operators in the eastern United States turned their dials to lower frequency bands and anxiously listened as the 184-pound Sputnik emitted a mechanical ‘. . . beep . . . beep . . . beep . . .’ while passing overhead. Other radio operators quickly recorded the broadcast and, within hours, Americans in their living rooms heard Sputnik’s transmission via radio and television news flashes. The message seemed to confirm America’s worst fears: The Soviets had technologically surpassed the United States and gained supremacy of outer space. In the United States, one headline proclaimed: ‘U.S. Must Catch Up with Reds or We’re Dead.’

Arms Race = Space Race
Arms Race = Space Race

“In truth, the significance of the successful launching was not so much Sputnik, but the huge Soviet rocket that hurled the satellite into space. With Sputnik… the Soviets demonstrated the ability of their SS-6 launcher to propel a missile toward a target thousands of miles away. Four years earlier, the Soviets exploded the H-bomb. Now, the frightening prospect of a Soviet missile delivering a nuclear bomb to an American city in less than an hour revived what some called a ‘Pearl Harbor atmosphere’ throughout the United States.”

Intense Fear
Intense Fear

My father had repeatedly told me stories about Sputnik. I grew up hearing about the dark shadow it cast over America – the demoralization and trepidation it caused, and the dangerous shift in world power that it represented. Suddenly, it began to make sense to me that for the rest of his life, my father was a militant Commie-Hater (which was unusual for an east-coast Jew). He was endlessly passionate about the threat of the Soviet Union. He was even a semi-supporter of McCarthyism.emojiTrustNoOne

(He said he thought McCarthy was misunderstood, and his fears were accurate even if his techniques went too far. Communist propaganda was infiltrating America through movies and TV, my father believed, which is why he taught us, his children, to think analytically and independently – to understand the principles of logic in order to discern the truth.)

The Russians Beat Us Into Space
The Russians Beat Us Into Space

But my father never explained that he had a personal connection that fueled his passion – that he had lived and worked in the heart of the fight against a very-tangible Red Threat. He never mentioned that NASA was the center of that fight. Aaah… tectonic plates began shifting underneath me.

The website continues: “Within six months after Sputnik, the Nation’s space research and development budget mushroomed from an average half billion dollars a year to more than $10.5 billion.” That’s twenty times more money, flying at supersonic speed into the arms race.

Better Dead Than Red
Better Dead Than Red

Next up in this explosive timeline: The U.S. government needed to scramble to offset the Sputnik humiliation and associated media frenzy. The Vanguard rocket was intended to be the first launch vehicle the United States would use to place a satellite into orbit. But it was still a highly experimental system. It wasn’t ready. Nonetheless, the government decided to push the Vanguard into speedy completion and launch. On December 6, 1957, with the whole world watching, the Vanguard exploded on its launch pad.

Curiously, this historical detail my father never mentioned to me. I may have once heard about it in a movie, but the name “Vanguard” didn’t mean anything to me. But now I know: This disaster became a symbol of failure for the U.S. space program.

The Russians Beat Us Into Space
Symbol of Failure for the U.S. Space Program

Remember, at this point, the U.S. space program was a combined but generally uncoordinated effort between the multiple military services and NACA. And the government contractor in the center of it all –the company that had built Vanguard and was building the Titan, was The Martin Company, which later became Martin Marietta, and would employ my father, and would build the Titan II, which was that missile that exploded in Arkansas in 1980. In learning these details, I couldn’t help but notice the remarkable continuity between the pre-NASA and NASA eras.

Back to 1957: The Sputnik launch and the Vanguard fiasco were tremendous blows to U.S. prestige, and the events generated significant fear and outrage among the American public and its political leaders. President Eisenhower, bowing to Congressional and public pressure, recognized the need for a centralized space program and policy.

Thus Came NASAemojiWord

These are the events that birthed NASA. NASA was created in direct response to the rocket that put the 184-pound Sputnik into orbit, giving it profound military potential. NASA was the result of the failed U.S. military infrastructure that seemed incapable of keeping up the space race, which I now understand was the same thing as the arms race.

command space race

The Air University, which is “the Intellectual and Leadership Center of the Air Force,” writes on its website: “To avoid the difficulties experienced with Vanguard, which many blamed on faulty management and lack of unified direction, the government created a new agency to solidify national space policy” – NASA.

Even Wikipedia cannot fail to mention the relationship between Sputnik and NASA: “The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 is the United States federal statute that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Act, which followed close on the heels of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, was drafted by the United States House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration and on July 29, 1958 was signed by President Eisenhower. Prior to enactment, the responsibility for space exploration was deemed primarily a military venture, in line with the Soviet model that had launched the first orbital satellite.”

NASA and the DOD: Governmental Incest

The original 1958 act charged NASA with conducting the aeronautical and space activities of the United States “so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:” Most of the listed objectives emojiSoBoringsay what we all have believed is true about NASA – “expansion of human knowledge,” “peaceful and scientific purposes,” yada yada. But then, if you keep reading, you find “The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defenses of discoveries that have military value or significance,” and “The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment.”

So… that says, essentially… NASA does the research and shares it with the military. And there should be no duplication of efforts, which means that whatever militarization of space that “national defenses” want, they simply must ask NASA to do it, so as not to be redundant. Thus, calling NASA a civilian organization is a very limited description of its original charter, which only loosely and ambiguously separated it from the military. And even that slippery, original charter lasted about ten minutes before it was challenged by the Air Force and revised by Congress.

Air University Air Command confirms, “Within its original charter, there was only a vaguely defined relationship with the military. Congress, on the other hand, envisioned a strong military role in space and wished to modify NASA’s relationship with the military. To this end, Congress created the Civilian-Military Liaison Committee, to coordinate NASA and Department of Defense (DOD) activities and keep NASA and the DOD ‘fully and currently informed’ of each other’s space activities.”

NASA’s website explains further: “Neither the Administration bill nor the Space Act settled the matter of one national space program or two. Once it became clear that the agency would be civilian controlled, Department of Defense officials dropped overt opposition to NASA, instead concentrating on making it respond to their needs. The Air Force found NASA something it could live with; top officials saw the agency as merely NACA enlarged and somewhat strengthened but still responsive to Air Force interests and a convenient location for noncompetitive military projects. …At the same time, the Administration bill contained emojiWTFalmost nothing about coordinating military and civilian programs and provided no solution for the jurisdictional conflicts that were bound to arise” and essentially “negated the distinction between civilian and military programs.

Elsewhere, NASA’s website details: “The military space program moved through overlapping phases from 1959 to 1961. First, the most promising ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) projects were turned over to the [military] services; the Air Force was made responsible for ballistic missile development in 1959, for military space development generally in 1961, and for military support of NASA in 1962.” command kennedy

So, yes, despite President Kennedy’s publicly promoting a vigorous, non-military aerospace program and placing the weight and prestige of his office squarely behind the national goal of a manned lunar landing, he also in that same year “assigned to the Air Force responsibility for research, development, test, and engineering of DOD space development programs.” And those programs were taking place at Cape Canaveral, using the same launch pads and test sites, and to the general public, they had the same look and feel as Peaceful NASA.

In fact, it turns out that the location itself reveals the incestuous relationship between NASA and the Air Force. Cape Canaveral (known as Cape Kennedy from 1963 to 1973 – in honor of President Kennedy’s promise of peaceful space exploration) was not even the true home to NASA that it seemed to be. In his book Florida Warplanes, Harold Skaarup writes, “Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) is an installation of the United States Air Force Space Command’s 45th Space Wing, headquartered at nearby Patrick Airforce Base. Located on Cape Canaveral in the State of Florida, CCAFS is the primary launch head of America’s Eastern Range… The Cape Canaveral AFS Skid Strip provides a 10,000 foot runway close to the launch complexes for military airlift aircraft delivering heavy and outsized payloads to the Cape.

Missile Row at Cape Canaveral
Missile Row at Cape Canaveral

“Several major American space exploration ‘firsts’ were launched from CCFAS, including the first U.S. earth satellite (1958), first U.S. astronaut

Launch from Cape Canaveral
Launch from Cape Canaveral

(1961), first U.S. astronaut in orbit (1962), first two-man U.S. spacecraft (1964), the first unmanned lunar landing (1966)…” etc etc. “Air Force crews launched missiles for NASA from CCAFS. …Titan missiles were launched from the site… and launch pads along the coast became to be known as Missile Row in the 1960s.” So… the home of NASA was within an Air Force Base and was largely operated by the Air Force. And just as human incest carries the danger of birthing unhealthy children, this relationship birthed a highly dangerous and enormously unhealthy offspring.

On another page of NASA’s vast website, it reports: “What were the elements comprising the NASA-DOD relationship? In at least four ways their interests impinged on each other: common technologies; NASA’s continuation of NACA’s support of military aeronautics; NASA’s overwhelming dependence in its early years on the launch vehicles and ground support provided by the Air Force; and the persistent attempts by the Air Force to investigate the military applications of space. …As to common technology, there is no discontinuity between civilian and military R&D. …A launch vehicle is only a modified ballistic missile, and it cannot be overstated that NASA relied on vehicles successfully developed by the Air Force between 1954 and 1959, notably the Atlas, Thor, and Titan ballistic missiles in their original or modified versions. …Indeed, few areas of NASA’s R&D were without military application. …The transformation of NACA into NASA did not affect its role in supporting research for the military, except to blur the distinction between support and coordination.

I could go on and on. The evidence that is available is extensive, widely emojiMikeDropreported, and amazingly consistent. But perhaps the most shocking and succinct statement that defines the relationship between the military and NASA was again on NASA’s own history website: “It is as well, then, to set aside preconceptions. ‘Civilian’ and ‘military’ are not the same as ‘peaceful’ and ‘non-peaceful.’” Kaboom!

The Titan Family: My Titan Family

Titan_Missile_Family
The Titan Missile Family

Okay, so NASA and the Air Force were incestuous siblings pretending not to be married. But what about my father? Before seeing the Titan II depicted in Command and Control, it never occurred to me to check the dates of when my father worked at Cape Canaveral and what exactly was happening there at that time. But, as Wikipedia documented, “the Titan rocket family was established in 1955, when the Air Force (not NASA) awarded the Glenn L. Martin Company a contract to build an intercontinental ballistic missile, “the Nation’s first two-stage ICBM and the first underground silo-based ICBM.”

Just for fun, watch this video of a Titan I LAUNCH FAILURE. It’s spectacular. (In this case, no one was killed.)

It seems my family was its own sort of “Titan rocket family,” and maybe I was a Titan-rocket baby. Wikipedia further explained, “The Martin Company realized that the Titan I could be further improved and presented a proposal to the U.S. Air Force (not NASA) for the Titan II, which would carry a larger warhead over a greater distance with more accuracy and could be fired more quickly. The Martin Company received a contract for the new missile in June 1960” – at the exact time my family was living in Florida and my Dad was working at Cape Canaveral.

It’s interesting that Wikipedia includes details that would have meant nothing to me unless I had seen the movie Command and Control, which

Titan II RFHCO (Rocket Fuel Handler's Clothing Outfit)
Titan II RFHCO (Rocket Fuel Handler’s Clothing Outfit)

makes painfully clear the repercussions of the “improved” features. “The Titan I, whose liquid oxygen oxidizer must be loaded immediately before launching, had to be raised from its silo and fueled before each launch. The use of storable propellants enabled the Titan II to be launched within 60 seconds, directly from its silo. Their hypergolic nature made them dangerous to handle; a leak could (and did) lead to explosions, and the fuel was highly toxic. However, it allowed for a much simpler and more trouble-free engine system than on cryogenically-fueled boosters.” Yes, that “(and did)” is part of the Wikipedia article, not my own addition, and it does not refer to the accident featured in Command and Control. Another quick Google search just brought up this chilling account of a Titan II accident that occurred in 1965, where “55 civilian men returned from lunch to missile silo 373-4. By 1:10 p.m., 53 were dead.”

Another Titan II Disaster
Silo Without Wheat

That explosion was caused by a different type of “benign neglect” – a term the government uses to differentiate the problem from a design flaw, as if to suggest they are less accountable or the problem is less serious. But we learn in Command and Control the scope of the disaster that can be caused by a fuel leak of storable propellants in a missile that launches from inside an underground silo – the exact feature that made the Titan II “better” than the Titan I.

So, let’s recap: All these years I had believed that my father was a part of America’s noble mission of exploring the universe. This belief was crumbling. However, as part of this personal investigation, I checked with my brother, who reminded me that before working for (at) NASA, my father had worked as an engineer at a radio station. It’s possible he went to Florida to help design an audio system of some sort. But still. Even if so; it sure seems as if that audio system would have been connected to the larger project that was taking place at the time. He himself told us that he worked on the Titan. My father was (almost certainly) helping to build a missile for a nuclear bomb – a delivery system for weapons of mass destruction. This was earth-shaking news to me (no pun intended).

The Gemini: Capsule Manned with Helen’s Hope

The Gemini Manned Space Capsule
The Gemini Manned Space Capsule

But wait. There was something else; maybe there was still hope I was wrong. I remembered the name Gemini. My father also told us he worked on the Gemini, which was definitely a manned space mission. Right? Once again, my next blow came from NASA itself, on their website:

“Gemini was an early NASA human spaceflight program. Gemini helped NASA get ready for the Apollo moon landings. Ten crews flew missions on the two-man Gemini spacecraft. (Yes!) The Gemini missions were flown in 1965 and 1966. NASA designed the Gemini capsule for this program. The Gemini capsule flew on a Titan II rocket. (Oh no.) The two-stage Titan II was originally a missile. NASA made changes to the missile so it could carry people.” Ack! It was only later that the Titan missile was adapted for use in space exploration. Sheesh! My family was well gone from Florida by 1965.

Hold on. I found some more details about the research and development phase of the Gemini project, which would have taken place prior to the launch date; maybe that is what my father was doing at Cape Canaveral. “When… approved on 7 December 1961 (already after I was born, but… let’s see) much of the groundwork had already been laid…The Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) itself was not going to build spacecraft, booster, target, or paraglider. In line with the practice pioneered by the Air Force after World War II, NASA relied on private firms to develop and produce most of its hardware. The first priority, even before getting the project office fully in order, was putting the spacecraft under contract and making arrangements with the Air Force for booster and target vehicles.”

command spacecraft

Further defining the contracts: “The choice clearly fell to the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, which had not only developed and was building Mercury but had also been an active partner in drawing up the new design. The company’s president, James S. McDonnell, Jr., signed the contract on 22 December [1961].” Um… that is not the contractor that employed my father.

However: “Although NASA could deal directly with McDonnell for emojiInterestingspacecraft development, launch vehicles were another matter.” The report continues: “The program belonged to NASA but… the Air Force, acting as contractor, would see that NASA got its Titan II and launch vehicles.” Okay, that brings in the Titan II and the Air Force.

Reading on: “The ‘NASA-DOD Operational and Management Plan’ of 29 December 1961…  assigned launch vehicle development – Titan II – to the Los Angeles-based Space Systems Division (SSD) of the Air Force Systems Command.” Oops. That means the work was done in L.A., not Florida, where we lived.

Continuing: “The ‘Operational and Management Plan’ assigned two other major functions to the Department of Defense, with SSD acting as agent… One required SSD to oversee the modification of launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida, to meet the needs of the new program.” Okay, this is where my father worked. “The other involved SSD in the support of program operations – launching, tracking, recovery –  along the same lines already worked out for the Mercury program… On 26 January 1962, the plan was endorsed as a working arrangement between NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight and the Air Force Systems Command by the heads of the two agencies.”emojiICannot

Well, now we are into 1962, which means my father has already been at Cape Canaveral for several years. Doing what? Not working on the Gemini project, apparently, because it had not yet started.

“NASA Headquarters juggled its fiscal year 1962 research and development funds to come up with $27 million, which it allotted to MSC (Manned Spacecraft Center) for Titan II on 26 December 1961. As soon as notice came that funds were on hand, MSC wired SSD that work on the Titan II could start. SSD told the Martin Company’s Baltimore Division to go ahead on 27 December.”

Okay! Now we’re getting somewhere. Because my family moved toemojiYES Baltimore at some point during or after 1962. Suddenly, the timeline was coming together. Now at least that explains why (likely) we moved to Baltimore; my Dad did indeed work on modifying the Titan II for use in the Gemini program. So, his depiction that he worked for a NASA space-exploration program was almost certainly accurate.

BUT that does leave the entirety of his time in Florida unaccounted for. Dad! I want to pull you from the grave and shake you, and make you emojiWhatHappenedexplain! What could I be misunderstanding, or overlooking? I concede: No, I am not applying the thorough rigor and multiple years of research that Eric Schlosser used in his book. (I simply don’t have the time or resources. Although, already I have delayed delivery of this article by over a month, due to my continuous stumbling onto more and more evidence that seems to support my disturbing realization about what my father did while at Cape Canaveral, where I was born.) Sorry, Dad; I could be making a statement that is imperfect. But, based on my best understanding at this time, I am going ahead and saying:emojiICantEven

I am not as much a space-age baby as I am a weapons-of-mass-destruction baby.

Color me mind-blown.

Maybe I shouldn’t judge so harshly. Maybe I should view my father as a patriot. The Red Threat was real and he was part of the solution, even if a few (or many) people (Americans) died accidental deaths. All is Fair in War. Except the story doesn’t end there. The saga continues.

The Patriotism Syndrome

When I was in the 6th grade, my father helped me build a model of the solar system, complete with revolving and rotating parts, for my science command solar systemproject. It was a terrific father-daughter bonding experience. And it reinforced my belief that my Dad, who had worked for NASA, knew all about outer-space, which was so cool. I mention this because my relationship with my father was so closely connected to this image of himself that he persistently presented – an idealized, altruistic, cosmos-conscious man who believed in high-minded principles such as “knowledge for the sake of all mankind.” He was nothing like a war monger. He was thoughtful. He was measured.

In fact, the one item I have saved all these years as a memento of my father is his slide rule. (Totally true; I do not have a typical keepsake such as a watch or a gun – which he never owned btw, but I kept his slide rule.) command slideruleI remember how, after dinner, my brother and I would do our homework at the dining room table while my father worked on his engineering studies. I cherish that picture of him, in his white business shirt with pocket protector, black frame eyeglasses, sitting with us at the table, emojiHomesickcarefully calculating with his slide rule, which we were not allowed to touch because it was “a precision instrument – not a toy.” He was that kind of guy – respectful of slide rules, dedicated to the reliability of numbers, and a father who helped his daughter with her science projects.

That solar system project would have been 1973, well after Dad’s beloved Titan missile had been adapted for use in the space-exploration program. At that point, my family was living in Maryland, and I now understand that it was NASA and Martin Marietta’s part in the Gemini project that brought us there. However, those days were behind us; my father no longer had any association with NASA, and he was working an entirely unrelated job. (sad snigger) After he left NASA, where I now know he helped build nuclear missiles, my father took a new job working in….   wait for it….   the nuclear power industry. What a coincidence!

emojiDohYup, my Dad worked for Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. He had explained to me that when he worked for NASA, he was the kind of engineer that specialized in meeting government regulations. He was a Quality Engineer who was experienced at maintaining compliance with government contracts. And so, he told me, this made him especially qualified to work in the nuclear energy industry, which also had a lot of government-regulated standards. This made sense.

OR, this also makes sense: He had just finished working on a nuclear missile, so it was an easy transition into nuclear power. Duh. Of course, I never made that connection, until now. And maybe I am wrong and making more assumptions. And it doesn’t really matter how or why he got into nuclear energy. What matters is what he told me versus the truth. And so this section of the story deals with misinformation, which brings us back to the movie, Command and Control, which also looks quite a bit at that subject.

The System Didn’t Work

5th Bomb: The system didn’t work; the “conspiracy theorists” were right; and my father must have known and didn’t tell.

china syndrome poster
The China Syndrome movie poster

In 1979 I was a senior in high school. A movie called The China Syndrome was released on March 16, 1979. In this fictional drama, Jane Fonda plays a TV reporter who finds what appears to be a cover-up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant. The plot suggests that corporate greed and cost-cutting had led to potentially deadly faults in the plant’s construction. My father, as by now you might imagine, was not a fan of the film. In fact, he was so outraged by its “un-American” theme and spreading of what he considered to be dangerous lies, that we were forbidden to see the movie. And he went even further; we were forbidden to see any movie involving Jane Fonda, who my father deemed to be a traitor to her country. (Okay, yes, he was influenced by Jane Fonda’s anti-war shenanigans, but this film was beyond the pale.) No one who lived “under his roof” would in any way support that “enemy of the State.”

Twelve days after The China Syndrome hit movie theaters, the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown – the worst accident in the history of U.S. commercial nuclear power plants. The incident was rated a five on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale. No one was hurt, but the Three Mile Island incident helped propel The China Syndrome into a blockbuster.

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Accident
Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Accident

My father could not have been more irate. He declared again and again: “No one was hurt! The system worked!” He insisted that “the system” was designed to protect Americans from every possible type of accident or attack. Some type of problem occurred at Three Mile Island but the fact that no one was hurt PROVED that the system worked. There had been no real danger. And anyone who suggested otherwise was not only wrong but traitorous.

emojiAreYouForRealSee, this is the voice I keep hearing over and over in my head – my father so vehemently insisting that nuclear power was absolutely, unequivocally safe, that NASA was absolutely, unequivocally heroic, and that he knew the truth, because he worked on the inside.

And yet, in a 2009 article, Victor Gilinsky, who served two terms on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote that after Three Mile Island, it took five weeks to learn that “the reactor operators had measured fuel temperatures near the melting point.” He further wrote: “We didn’t learn for years – until the reactor vessel was physically opened – that by the time the plant operator called the NRC at about 8:00 a.m., roughly half of the uranium fuel had already melted.”

Several state and federal government agencies mounted investigations into the crisis, the most prominent of which was the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, created by Jimmy Carter in April 1979. The commission consisted of a panel of twelve people, specifically chosen for their lack of strong pro- or anti-nuclear views. The commission released a completed study on October 31, 1979. The investigation strongly criticized the NRC (among other organizations and corporations) for “lapses in quality assurance and maintenance, emojiYIKESinadequate operator training, lack of communication of important safety information, poor management, and complacency.” The heaviest criticism concluded that “fundamental changes were necessary in the organization, procedures, practices and above all – in the attitudes of the NRC and the nuclear industry.” The report stated that the actions taken by the operators were “inappropriate” but that the workers “were operating under procedures that they were required to follow, and our review and study of those indicates that the procedures were inadequate” and that the control roomwas greatly inadequate for managing an accident.”

emojiWhy

I just don’t understand why Dad would have continued to insist to his own family – to his children whom he had diligently taught to respect the Truth, that nuclear power was … well, none of the things written in that report.

In 1983, the year I become a college graduate, another relevant movie was released.

Silkwood movie
Silkwood movie

Silkwood was inspired by the true-life story of nuclear-whistleblower Karen Silkwood, who died in a suspicious car accident while investigating alleged wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plutonium processing plant where she worked. And it was not flagrantly un-American Jane Fonda who played the lead role, but America’s finest and perhaps most credible actress, Meryl Streep, who won an Academy Award nomination for her role (as did the film’s director, Mike Nichols). Factual accuracy was maintained emojiOhNothroughout the script, with some incidents exactly parallel to the real life experiences of Karen Silkwood. One scene in particular involved the activation of a radiation alarm at the plant. Silkwood herself had forty times the legal limit of radiation in her system.

In real life, Silkwood’s death was vindicated in a victorious 1979 lawsuit, Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee. The jury rendered its verdict of $10 million in damages to be paid to the Silkwood estate (her children), the largest amount in damages ever awarded for that kind of case at the time.

My father never wavered. Nuclear power was safe. All other accounts were false. I can only assume that he believed his loyalty was the honorable thing to do.

And so this brings me back to Command and Control, which states, “The command nuclear explosionstory received a good deal of attention at the time. It was covered by the nightly news, made headlines in our major newspapers. But the Pentagon was adamant that there was absolutely no way the warhead on the Titan II missile could have detonated. The press didn’t challenge that assertion. The story was soon forgotten. And we now know that the Pentagon’s reassuring words were a lie.

Did my father not know about the monumental incident involving his Titan missile? I can’t believe he didn’t know the truth. And his not telling would have been consistent with the same type of repudiation and secrecy that were his response to the nuclear power accidents about which he surely knew.

KeepQuiet1
Image from the documentary film Keep Quiet

Perhaps my father himself was a victim of “the system” he so heartedly defended. As with the young men who were at the center of the incident depicted in Command and Control, and also with the young men depicted in another war-related documentary at Tribeca, National Bird, and I will even add in another stunning Tribeca documentary, Keep Quiet (which tells the true story of young political firebrand and virulent anti-Semite who became vice president of Hungary’s far-right extremist party when he was only in his mid-twenties, and then discovered that he was actually Jewish), it seems that all countries and political establishments use the romantic ideals of patriotism, the charismatic persona of heroism, and perhaps most importantly, the spiritual sense of unity and belonging to something greater than oneself, to indoctrinate young citizens into service and loyalty that includes a dangerous component of silence and denial.


emojiDealWithItSo: it’s time for me and everyone else to shake off this denial and face the harsh reality. For starters, seek out and see Command and Control.

And then, I have one more bomb to share – yet another Google find. This bomb is not from my childhood. This bomb is in the future, and it’s heading straight toward us all. Click here to read the final part of this commentary: Arms Race in Space

Click hear to read my review of the movie Command and Control.

Command and Control: The Titan II

“Command and Control” Review: Kenner / Schlosser Will Blow Your Mind

Command and Control Review: Earth-Shaking Revelations Abound

by HelenHighly

Synopsis:
Command and Control movie poster
Command and Control movie poster

Command and Control, which premiered at the Tribeca 2016 Film Festival, is a high-stakes documentary thriller, from Robert Kenner, director of the Emmy-award-winning film Food, Inc, which was based on Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book, Fast Food Nation.  The docu-drama duo has teamed up again to bring us Command and Control, based on Schlosser’s critically-acclaimed book of the same name. (The book was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History.) In this film, Schlosser and Kenner explore the deadly “human error” that led to an accident at the Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980.

Titan II Explosion Site
Titan II Explosion Site

The chilling new documentary details the unlikely chain of events that caused the accident and the feverish efforts to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States. Command and Control exposes the terrifying truth about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal, demonstrates what can happen when the weapons built to protect us threaten to destroy us, and probes how mutually assured destruction might actually mean self-annihilation.

Titan II Warhead
Titan II Warhead

One might wonder if, in today’s post-Cold-War era of disarmament and new, advanced-technology drone warfare, this story is still relevant. If it feels like old news, consider: The United States has about 4,700 nuclear weapons in its current arsenal – enough to completely obliterate this country more than 20 times over. And once a nuclear weapon is fully assembled, its safety is never absolute.

Harold Brown was Secretary of Defense when the Damascus accident occurred, and he only recently revealed to Command and Control filmmakers, “Accidents were not unusual in the defense department. There must have been several every day.”  As stated in this documentary: “Nuclear weapons are machines, and every machine ever invented eventually goes wrong.”

The filmmaker warns, “Every one of them is an accident waiting to happen, a potential act of mass murder. They are out there waiting, soulless and mechanical, sustained by our denial – and they work.”

More Than a Synopsis:

It’s a spy-movie thriller that pivots on a horror-movie trick.

There is a special category of films at Tribeca 2016 that I called “You Think You Know But You Don’t.” Perhaps it’s more accurate to say “I Thought I Knew But I Didn’t,” but I’m going to assume that I am not unlike most of you reading this, and I am writing this for you to read, so I will use “you,” which could just as well be replaced with “we.” Either way, Command and Control is a perfect example of the forenamed category. Even when you already know how it ends, and even though you just now read the synopsis, and even if you have some experience with this topic, this film still warrants your participation as audience – to sit for 92 minutes and watch and listen to how this story unfolds as told by these two immensely talented men, Screenwriter/Director Robert Kenner and Screenwriter Eric Schlosser.

Titan Missile Pit Crew
Titan Missile Pit Crew

You have to hear the tremble in the voice of the guy (not a portrayal – the actual man) who is still alive but was only 21 years old when the socket dropped from his wrench as he did routine maintenance on the Titan II missile and almost blew up our country – his country.  On top of that missile sat a warhead three times more powerful than all the bombs dropped in World War II, including both atomic bombs. You have to hear David Powell himself explain how he was just a kid – a proud hillbilly from rural Kentucky, who’s first thought as he reached for the falling socket but couldn’t catch it, was that he “didn’t want to get in trouble” and have to tell his mother.

The Socket That Fell From the Wrench
The Socket That Fell From the Wrench

You have to see his work partner, who was only 18 years old at the time, explain how he “had no fear” and was excited “to play with the missile fuel” in the most powerful weapon that had ever existed – “a monster ready to go off,” and that his training included “preparation to destroy an entire civilization – without hesitation,” and he was “willing to do it” (determent only works if you’re actually willing to drop the bomb), but he had never considered that our own warhead might detonate on our own continent.

Titan Missile Explosion
Titan Missile Explosion

You have to hear the aching tone in the voice of this man who tells how he “was ready to take on the world” when he joined the PTS team, but on that fateful day, he stood helpless next to his co-worker as they watched that socket fall 70 feet down the length of the missile and bounce off the platform and puncture a hole in the fuel tank skin, and how they didn’t fully report what had happened – what was happening (highly explosive rocket-fuel pouring out of the missile), because they didn’t want their commander “to freak out.” When they finally admitted the truth, more than 30 minutes later, the situation was out of control. (By comparison: Once launched, the missile could reach a target over half a world away in less than 30 minutes.)

You have to endure the excruciating, minute-by-minute details of what happened next and then next and then unfathomably next, until a few hours later the missile completely exploded, destroying its underground silo and blowing the nine-megaton warhead … to literally God-only-knew where. (Note: one megaton = one million tons of TNT.)  “We escaped the cold war without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion,” said General George Lee Butler of the U.S. Strategic Air Command.

This film will pound your heart and rattle your brain; it will pound your brain and rattle your heart.

  • The image that haunts you: The green-grey glow that surrounds the majestic missile – 10 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet tall, like a giant gleaming bullet, loaded into a concrete gun barrel, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky.
  • The sound of manual typewriter keys, as data is spelled out on the screen – the metallic clickity-clack of what we now recognize as an antiquated and imperfect machine but was a “high-tech” business tool at the time.
  • The word that, when spoken, will make you never hear it quite the same again: “When you’re working on a weapon of mass destruction, you’re counting on everything to work perfect all the time, and things just don’t work perfect all the time.” – First Lieutenant Allan Childers, who was there that day.
  • The context given to simple facts that make you appreciate how complicated those facts really are: It would take fewer than 200 nuclear missiles to annihilate the entire Soviet Union. In the mid-60’s we had 32,000. (We have thousands still hidden around the U.S. Do you wonder where they are? And who is doing “routine maintenance” on them now?*)
Launch Control Panel
Launch Control Panel

You have to be present to comprehend all the little revelations that cannot be captured in a synopsis but that slowly expose themselves and stack precariously, one on top of the other. These are the moments that you will take to bed with you and that you will tell your friend the next day. One revelation that strikes in this film (as well as in another important documentary at Tribeca 2016, National Bird, which is about the U.S. drone program) is that America routinely puts its most powerful weapons and its most dangerous decisions in the hands of virtual children who are patently ill-equipped for the responsibility.

Command and Control is a must-watch film because you must experience the juxtaposition of vigilant precision-on-a-minuscule-scale against the gargantuan-danger and gross-miscalculation that created this event. You have to see the way these men actually light a match and burn the little slip of paper on which is written the daily code that opens the 740-ton door into the missile silo – the spy-movie level of secrecy to safeguard against enemy intrusion, and then come to realize that despite all these preventative measures, it is a horror-movie trick that gets them in the end: Don’t lock the door! The Killer is Inside the House! The danger is not our enemy; the danger is us.

Titan II MIssile Silo
Titan II MIssile Silo

These are the things that make Command and Control a captivating movie and are the reason you should watch it. And despite all the “spoilers” I have written, they barely make a dent in the mass of shock and awe contained in this film. This is truly a movie – not just a news story for the history channel. Although, PBS American Experience already owns it, so… that’s good and bad. But it’s mostly good because that means more people will see it, and this is something you definitely should see. Nonetheless, my point is that this film could sustain – visually, intellectually, emotionally, it could sustain the size and expectations that come with a large screen in a movie theater. Despite being an astounding documentary, this film is also a dramatic thriller.


∗One of the interviews included in this movie answers this question about the country’s current nuclear arsenal, ominously: Harold Brown, previous Secretary of Defense reports, “the degree of oversight and attention has, if anything, gotten worse.” Separately, on November 14, 2014, the negligence was acknowledged when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke at a Pentagon news conference: “We just have kind of taken our eye off the ball here,” Hagel said.

Can’t Stop Thinking About It: There’s a saying that just one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, environmental and atmospheric scientists Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon explain why the detonation of even a “limited number” of nuclear weapons could have repercussions for millions of people around the world far away from a nuclear conflict. You can read it by clicking here.


Watching the Command and Control documentary ignited a private memory of my own — something that connected me personally to that tragic story, and after going home and doing a little Googling, a series of nuclear bombs exploded in my childhood. So, I’ve researched and written my own spin-off essay (or, Command and Control Commentary — Part 2) that could almost be its own documentary. Here’s the intro:

Helen’s Own Highly Explosive Nuclear Crisis

I was “a space-age baby.” That’s what my mother wrote in my baby album. I grew up being told the story of when we were in the hospital after she gave birth to me: There was this amazing few minutes when all the infants were left alone, even if they were crying, and all the nurses and mothers (along with millions of other Americans) turned to the TV to watch The First American be Launched into Space. It was a spectacular, patriotic event, and my father helped to make it possible. Click here to read more. 


Where to see the film in theaters: Here’s a list of screenings, coming to your city soon.

Watch the Command and Control movie trailer:

 

 

"Untouchable" Documentary Film

“Untouchable” Documentary Interview w/ Director David Feige and Editor Jay Sterrenberg

Helen, Highly Alarmed by the Shocking Revelations in “Untouchable,” Interviews the Documentary Director and Editor.

Ricocheting from the halls of power to the cardboard homes of a marginalized pariah people, “Untouchable” is an enlightening documentary that defies expectations and challenges assumptions to argue for a new understanding of how we think about and legislate sexual abuse.

Shawna Baldwin, sex offender, watches her children board a school bus.
Shawna Baldwin, sex offender, watches her children board a school bus.

Interview by Helen Kaplow, writing as HelenHighly

“Untouchable” Film Synopsis: When the most influential lobbyist in Florida discovers that the nanny has sexually abused his daughter, he harnesses his extraordinary political power to pass the toughest sex offender laws in the nation. “Untouchable” chronicles his crusade, and its impact on the lives of several of the 800,000 people forced to live under the kinds of laws he has championed. 

Attorney-turned-filmmaker David Feige delves fearlessly into a confounding and taboo issue, weaving together stories of sexual abuse victims with those of sex offenders as well as the advocates and academics who argue the many sides of the situation. The result is a strange sort of documentary-thriller that reveals a surprisingly twisted, interconnected public health crisis where the victims and perpetrators are inextricably linked by a legal system gone awry.

HH: A film about sex offenders. Not exactly an appealing outing to the movies. Why did you choose this unlikable topic, how did you get funding, and do you really expect people to go and see it?

Feige: Why this issue? Because I didn’t think anybody else was going to pick it up. I worked 15 years as a public defender, and even as the Trial Chief of the office, I tended to take on the most difficult cases. That’s what I do. Look, there are lots of people who are willing to take on certain issues – innocence, the death penalty, the drug war. All of these things already have a built in constituency and already have a lot of people who are willing to write and talk and make movies about them. In a way, they are the low-hanging fruit of the criminal justice reform discussion. This is not.

David Feige, Director of "Untouchable"
David Feige, Director of “Untouchable”

This is about as difficult a subject as you can find. It is complicated terrain and few people are willing to venture out into it. For that reason, the film was nearly impossible to fund. Basically, no one would fund it. But I made the film for exactly the reason that nobody would fund it – because I was interested in the most complex and most difficult questions. I was interested in the hardest questions in the criminal justice system, not the easy ones. The film is still in debt but… at least it got made.

Will people see it? Well, when people do see the film they react positively and strongly and they recognize the value of what we’ve done here. It’s an extremely thought-provoking film that makes you see the entire subject in a new way, and I believe that despite the subject matter, it’s really engaging and emotionally satisfying, which makes it absolutely worth seeing.

HH: And what is the status of the movie now? You won the Best New Documentary Director award at Tribeca. Has the film been picked up for distribution or broadcast yet?

Feige: Nope. We are still looking. We are talking to distributors, and we are also interested in finding a broadcast partner. It’s my hope that the film will have a wide release and a vibrant life and reach a huge and diverse audience. That’s my hope.

HH: Jay, talk to me about the structure of the film. When watching it, it was almost like a thriller in that you saved the most powerful punches for the end. I mean, I was so profoundly shocked by all the “twists” that come late in the film that I almost wanted to go watch it again because I felt I had been watching it wrong, or with the wrong assumptions. Why did you opt to keep the audience in the dark for so long?

Sterrenberg: It’s interesting that you saw it that way. That was not specifically our strategy. But it’s a very complicated issue, and people tend to come into it with preconceived notions and very strong feelings. So, we thought it was best to meet people where they are. We wanted to leave room for the audience to have a lot of different opinions and perspectives and then bring them along slowly, through the complexity, point by point.

We bring you in through Ron and Laura’s personal story. They have had this nightmare experience where she is repeatedly sexually abused by her nanny, and as her father, he has a desire to punish the offender as harshly as possible and forever. And it’s a sensible and legitimate desire. And any audience can totally relate to that — the horror and outrage. So, we wanted to start there. And then we slowly take the audience on this journey down the rabbit hole of part of the criminal justice system that no one wants to engage with.

Jon Cryer, Admitted Pedophile
Jon Cryer, Admitted Pedophile

Feige: You gotta remember, we’re making a movie, which has to have a narrative and an emotional flow to it and so you can’t just… I could make a movie like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and just do a PowerPoint with a bunch of numbers, but that’s not going to be effective with this subject. So, we do present a lot of data, but this film is fundamentally character driven. It’s about delving into the life experience of people. It’s not a science lesson. It’s not a polemic. It’s a very complex and emotional look into the lives of people on several sides of this issue, who have all suffered tremendously.

Sterrenberg: It needed to be a carefully paced process, introducing these people who are considered monsters by society and looking at them as if they are human. It’s not that we are showing these sex offenders as sympathetic as much as human. That’s why we have three characters (real people) who are parents of children who have been abused as well as three characters (also real people) who are sex offenders. And it’s a dramatic evolution, the way these characters themselves transform in their own stories and their own attitudes. And different people watching will have different reactions, but we do take them through a range of perspectives.

HH: You talk about transformations, and one of the most jolting is Patty Wettlerling, who is the mother of a boy who was kidnapped at gunpoint by a masked man, never to be seen again.

Sterrenberg: Right. That case resulted in the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act — the first national sex offender registry.

HH: But after we go through her heartbreaking story and see how she had dedicated her life to advocating for the memory of her son, we finally learn that she has changed sides in the legal battle; she no longer supports the law that was named for her own son. That felt like a bomb exploding in my brain.

SterrenbergYes, she says that she feels that the law named for her son has been “hijacked” and that now it has become counter-productive. The Wetterling Act was about police notification. It was later that Megan’s Law and other public notification laws were enacted, and those have become extremely controversial.

Against Myth-Based Sex Offender Laws
OnceFallen Rally Against Myth-Based Sex Offender Laws

Feige: I want to be clear that I’m not advocating any particular position on this. It’s important to me that when I’m talking about this I’m talking about either what the science shows or what the experts in the film argue rather than my own point of view. I want to raise the questions, flag the social science, and then I want people to agree or disagree as they see fit. That said, the social science is quite clear.

HH: Yes, but the misunderstanding has been enormous. So, the data the film presents is truly amazing. Astounding, actually.

Feige: Right. And so many people want to discount these numbers by saying they were done by some, you know, some pro-sex-offender social scientist or something, but what’s so amazing about these numbers is that they are almost all done by departments of corrections, and probation departments and such.

HH: And the irony is that the opposite of that suspicion is true. The facts as we all think we know them – have repeatedly been told are facts – are actually completely erroneous and unsubstantiated. The movie explains that the phrase “frightening and high recidivism rate” for sex offenders came from an old “Psychology Today” article in 1986, which was simply invalid and dead wrong.

Feige: Exactly. 80% was the number that was in the “Psychology Today” article. And that recidivism rate, and that exact phrase, is still used today to justify, over and over and over, these very, very stringent laws – hundreds of laws across the country, which have enormous impact on people’s lives. And that article had no backup data at all and was not even written by a social scientist. The guy was a “rehabilitation counselor.” But he doesn’t have a PhD, and he’s not a social scientist. And there was no study.

That is why, in every place in the film that we quote a statistic, I felt it was extremely important to make clear where we were getting it, so we actually show the cover page for each report that we quote in the film.

HH: And the actual recidivism rate, according to recent, legitimate studies is not even close to 80%. It’s not even double digits.

Feige: 3.5% is the most reliable number. We took the biggest study – that’s the 1994 DOJ study that followed literally everybody released in 15 states, and that had a number of close to 10,000, so that is really the best three-year recidivism number around, from the study with the biggest sample size. It’s the study done by the United States Department of Justice.

HH: And you’ve explained to me that this 3.5% recidivism rate is the lowest recidivism rate for any crime other than murder. Lower than any other violent crime.

Feige: Correct.

HH: And this is information that wasn’t even included in the movie. The movie is full of dramatic statistics, and still there is more.

Feige: There are a lot of other subjects – related subjects that we cut out of the film, which deserve their own treatment. We didn’t dig into all the data because … as I’ve said, it’s an extremely complicated story.

Sterrenberg: And it was most important to follow the characters and understand their diverse experiences. That’s what makes the numbers make sense.

HH: Okay, so the film does address the issue that we have a completely different category of restrictions and continued punishment for sex offenders after they have been released from prison than we do for any other type of criminal, even other violent offenders, all based on false beliefs.

Feige: Today, a large part of the misunderstanding comes from the way people count. If you count re-incarceration due to “technical violations,” you get a much larger number. Technical violations might be drinking alcohol, associating with another sex offender, not having compliant housing, staying at an unapproved address, or if you’re still getting polygraphs, there is one called “masturbating to an unapproved script,” where if they don’t like what you thought about when you masturbated, you are in violation – you go back to prison. In the movie, we show one man who was eight minutes late arriving home (he was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet), and he was sent back to prison for four years.

Homeless sex offenders squat in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Miami.
Homeless sex offenders squat in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Miami.

HH: I remember that. He was late because he was on a bus that was running late, and he was returning from his low-paying job that was two and half hours away, due to the legal restrictions that prevented him from living anywhere near civilized life. And he actually phoned his parole officer at the time, while on the bus, to explain that he would be a few minutes late. And still he was sent back to prison. For a ten minute delay. It seems unbelievable.

Feige: It was actually only eight minutes, to be exact. And that’s not an isolated incident. His story is fairly typical.

If you’re counting actual sex-crime convictions for previous sex-crime offenders… For every 100 sex-offender prison releases, 70 are sent back and only one of those is for a sex crime. That’s according to California Department of Corrections data.

HH: You turn on TV any night of the week and there is an episode of Law & Order or such, and they are always telling us this misinformation – that the recidivism rate for sex offenders is dangerously high; they will always re-offend. We hear that over and over, so we believe it. It’s mind-blowing to realize that these people are essentially being forced into a lifestyle that is unlivable, where it’s nearly impossible not to have some sort of technical violation.

SterrenbergThere are multiple areas of misunderstanding. Let’s say you’re a 17 year old teenager dating a 15 or 16 year old teenager. When you turn 18, and your girlfriend or boyfriend is now 16 or 17, suddenly you are a sex offender. And you are treated by the law the same as a violent rapist, and you will live under these same sex-offender restrictions for the rest of your life. These laws are forever. And they paint all offenders with a very broad brush.

In the film, we meet Shawn Baldwin, who is an example of this type of situation, and we see her many years later, now trying to raise her own children but unable to even accompany them to the playground because of her sex offender status.

HH: I think the general public has no idea that this type of confusion is going on. And what I learned in the film is that there is a significant shame factor that prevents people like Shawna from speaking up and arguing for her own justice.

Feige: And these miscalculations and misunderstandings have severe consequences, because they are used to validate these draconian laws. Residency restriction laws in particular – for example, sex offenders cannot live within 2500 feet of a school or park, which often leaves little to no viable real estate where these people can live. This is what pushed a lot of folks under bridges and into makeshift homeless encampments. These laws have a devastating and destabilizing effect on the population because they are so effective in preventing people from forming relationships, getting homes, keeping jobs, etc. They actually decrease the ability of released convicts to be successful. And so that perversely suggests that they are increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

In addition, it appears that Megan’s Law and public notification have essentially no effect on suppression of sexually related violence, and what that in turn means is that we are subjecting three quarters of a million people to some very serious penalties for no real gain.

That begs the question: Then why are we doing it? And it may be that it’s because it feels good. And it also may be that that’s not a sufficient answer to justify what we’re doing.

HH: The details we’ve discussed here are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the insights and revelations in your film. (Truly: I want readers of this interview to understand that there are so many pieces to the story this film tells, more than even an educated person can imagine, and each is more startling than the next.) You have really succeeded at shattering this mass of misinformation and misconception and then intricately examining all the shards.

Your background as a criminal attorney definitely makes its mark on this movie. The film has an indisputable logic to it, and a kind of relentless veracity that threads through the various emotions and personalities that are presented. You are quite the legal mind and also quite an excellent writer.

Feige: I jokingly say that I’m one of the only people in America who made more money as a writer than as a lawyer.

HH: How would you compare your two roles? Do you feel you’ve had more impact as a lawyer or as a writer and filmmaker?

Feige: Being a public defender, I had a profound impact on a relatively small number of lives. Being a writer or filmmaker, I have a much more diffuse and tangential impact but on a far larger number of lives. I think a robust democracy relies on civil discussion and honest debate, and there is real value in promoting that, especially on topics as complex and emotional as this one.

HH: And you have truly made this an honest discussion. It’s not manipulative; it’s not a tear-jerker.

Feige: I didn’t want this to be one of those movies the viewer has to suffer through.

HH: Well, your intention to involve the audience in a legitimate conversation is apparent. And it is indeed compelling. I’m writing about it because I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Feige: Most people come away saying “It was challenging and interesting and I couldn’t stop talking about it.” Everybody who has written to me says they couldn’t stop talking about it.

Watch the Trailer:

Update: “Untouchable” Documentary Doesn’t Go Far Enough & Ron Book is A Monster Yet to Be Slayed, According to OnceFallen.com

I recently saw an online comment about this film, posted by Derek W. Logue, founder of the Sex Offender Advocacy Site OnceFallen.com — a group that fights against what it considers to be unfair and unconstitutional laws, such as those championed by Ron Book, who is the central figure in this documentary. (A Newsweek article called Book, “The Lobbyist Who Put Sex Offenders Under a Bridge”.)

Logue is also shown, briefly, in the documentary; he is the one who organizes the sex-offender rights rally. But his own story is not shown in full in the film. A visit to the OnceFallen site shows just how passionate and hot a topic this is, and gives an indication of how scary-powerful Ron Book is as a lobbyist and political force. The website has an extremist tone (understandably), but it definitely merits a look. And Logue’s comment also merits a read, so I am posting it here (as I found it on the web — without any fact-checking), along with my own comment back to Logue:

Logue: I was in this film briefly, protesting the Book family. This film didn’t do anything to challenge those monsters. The Books are responsible for forcing hundreds of Miami’s registered citizens into homelessness. It is disgusting to see clips of Ron Book attending fancy dinners, eating steak tartare and getting his shoes shined knowing his policies force hundreds of registered citizens to live by the railroad tracks behind a warehouse.

The film fails to discuss Ron Book’s plea of no contest to a theft charge in the 1980s and a guilty plea for illegal campaign contributions in the 1990s. Ron Book was recently under FBI investigation. Lauren Book is literally BUYING a senate seat, yet she can’t even answer her own questions during a post-screening Q & A. Lauren is inept and nothing but a puppet for daddy Ron and his political cronies.

It is here where Feige fumbled the ball worse than Cam Newton in the Super Bowl. In order to guarantee he wouldn’t get sued by the Books or have them pull their support of the film, Feige had to cater to Ron & Lauren. Thus, instead of any direct challenge to the Book family, Feige’s film dances the issue around them. The Books are never grilled about anything in the film. Feige minimized my rally in the film out of concerns that our message was “too harsh.” He asked me to be nice to Lauren Book because she is “skittish.” I guess it was because Daddy wasn’t there to do the talking for her.

Ultimately, this movie was an utter disappointment. The Books get away again like the bad guys from a Saturday Morning cartoon to return and continue their wicked ways.

Sex-offender humor from OnceFallen website.
Sex-offender humor from OnceFallen website. But…not so funny because it’s true.

HH: I don’t doubt that much of what you say about the Book family is true. But the Books are revealed in this film to be something very different than they originally appear. Feige handles their story, and others, with amazing sensitivity, while carefully and slowly building his case that essentially everything we think we know about this subject is FALSE. When you come into the issue cold, like most of us do, and watch it from beginning to end, the film packs a powerful punch. But it’s smart and dispassionate, which leads to a kind of meticulous fairness that is bizarrely unsettling. In my mind, Feige is like Solomon, but he actually cuts the baby in half. 

Hi, I’m Helen Kaplow, writing as HelenHighly

…highly suspect …highly sensitive …highly enthusiastic …highly educated …highly intoxicated? …highly likely.

I’m a little bit high — highly into Film, Art, Theater, TV, Music and all-things Culture.

I am well-educated but don’t think of myself as an academic. I am opinionated but don’t think of myself as a critic. I am sometimes a little bit high but don’t think of myself as a stoner.

Here’s the deal:

HelenHighly Lit
HelenHighly Lit

I like colors. I like ideas. I like a beautiful sentence as well as a beautiful object. I like to be provoked. I like to be amazed.

I like to be touched without actually touching. I like to be knocked down and bloodied but walk out with my dress unwrinkled.

I like to laugh despite myself. I like to be stirred and shaken. I like to realize something new. I like to feel my heart beat. I like to feel that lump in my throat. I like to smile while I cry.

Highly Contemplating
Highly Contemplating

I like to piece it together in my head. I like the truth to be whispered in my ear. I like to leave wondering. I like to go home and Google it. I like to want to tell my friend.

I like to see something for the first time. I like to see it anew for the first time. I like to wish I could touch it.

I like to be taken on a trip. I like to surrender to the experience. I like to dream about it later. I like my passion to be enflamed.

I like to be uplifted and transported. I like the way art elevates the audience. When it’s good, art is its own high. Even when it’s bringing you low, it’s making you high. (Ya know what I mean?)

Are these “reviews” or what?

Given that choice, I’d say they are what. I like to call them essays. Or commentary. But I need to title them as reviews so that Google can find them. (Reality is reality.)

“Thumbs up, thumbs down” is not me. I work in full hands – all 10 fingers, and sometimes even toes. But for the record, I love film critic Anthony Lane (of The New Yorker). I stand in awe of him. Helen Highly appreciates his smart, tight writing – insightful, clever and concise, working the classic review format for all its worth.

It's True: All of It
It’s True: All of It

In truth, Lane breaks with the standard just a little by usually writing a combo review of two films. And if not inspired by Lane in my occasional, dual-review posts, I feel at least validated by him. (See “Carol vs Brooklyn” or “Janis Joplin vs Peggy Guggenheim”) My friend scoffed at my approach, saying “That’s what students do in college – write compare-and-contrast papers.” Well, I have no problem with that “student” association, but FYI, You-Know-Who-You-Are: If Anthony Lane does it, it’s legitimate.

But, back to my point: The formal standard is just not me. And the world already has Anthony Lane (and many more of his ilk); you don’t need another one. I’ve got something different to offer. As someone pithy once said: “You might as well be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

HelenHighly You Do You
HelenHighly: You Do You

I’m going to report to you my experience. No pedantic judgments here. I’m not trying to prove how intelligent I am. (I concede in advance: You are smarter than I am, and more important too.) I’m just sharing. And I likely will share about some films or art exhibits that you have not seen, and when you read my commentary, you will gain access to that experience, even if you don’t go yourself. I may ramble on for too long (my Tarantino Hateful Eight review), I may rant with bias (Carol again), and maybe my thoughts are loosely organized (my Carrie Fisher Star Wars commentary), but… I’m likely to offer a fresh perspective, and I might be more amusing than the straight reviews.

HelenHighly: I'm Into It
Helen Highly Into It

That being said, I earnestly invite you to respond to what I write. I am happy to hear your criticisms as well as your compliments. I am happy to answer your questions. And mostly, I am delighted to know that someone is reading; you do me a favor if you share your response with me, or with my other readers. You may email me directly, or you may post a comment. I love discussion. I get off on the back-and-forth. So don’t be shy:

Let’s get into it together.

Start by clicking one of the menus at the top of this page, to see my posts, and select one.

Yes, this site is new and not yet fully populated. I do not yet have postings in each category. But I have tons of notes I’ve written while exploring my newly adopted home of New York City. I will continue to write commentary on new things while I also backtrack and write about previous things. I am working as fast as I can under my circumstances.

I appreciate your patience and your interest. I suggest that you subscribe to this blog (on the side of the page, or at the bottom), and then you will be alerted when I post new commentary. (And I promise not to spam you or share your info.)


Hey readers: I don’t have time to review everything. So HelenHighly recommends you check out IndieNYC.com, which is a large and sophisticated film site, with multiple writers posting reviews and commentary (some of which I write). 

Peggy Guggenheim Art Addict

Peggy Guggenheim & Janis Joplin in “Art Addict” & “Little Girl Blue”

Gotta Gotta Gotta
or
Shipwrecked: Degenerate Damsels in Distress

By Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

Peggy Guggenheim, "Art Addict"
Peggy Guggenheim, “Art Addict”

Surrealism is to Peggy Guggenheim as Heroin is to Janis Joplin?

I happened to see “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” a documentary about famed art-collector Peggy Guggenheim, directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, back-to-back with “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” a documentary about rock-and-roll star Janis Joplin, directed by Amy Berg. I never would have put the two together in my mind, but seeing their stories so close together, I was amazed at how many unlikely similarities there are. One film makes the case that Peggy Guggenheim was addicted to art itself, and I think the same can be said about Janis Joplin. And the parallels continue, adding up to a sort of double-wide (and double-deep) insight.

Initially, I had planned to compare Peggy to Diana Vreeland, whose daughter, Lisa Immordino Vreeland made an excellent documentary about her mother, called “The Eye Has to Travel.” And now Lisa Vreeland has made this documentary about Peggy Guggenheim, using never-before-heard interview tapes of Peggy – with her classy, haut monde dialect (and this is reason enough to see the film). Given their shared filmmaker, it seems impossible not to compare the two female, trailblazing, cultural tastemakers from the same era – Guggenheim and Vreeland.

 

Janis Joplin, "Little Girl Blue"
Janis Joplin, “Little Girl Blue”

But the comparison between Peggy and Janis is more surprisingly and offers a different type of angle.

{For those who want a simple thumbs up or down: Yes, both films are worth seeing.The Hollywood Reporter” writes that the film is “so stuffed with connections and allusions to fabled eras that it’s hard to imagine any [arthouse enthusiast] being bored.” Which film are they referring to? That enticing statement easily applies to both equally. These are both important and fascinating women who lived in legendary times. And both women could fairly be called “feminist pioneers,” although the films about them have a tone that is less historical and more gossip-column.

Neither film will win a Best Documentary award, because they cannot escape being dressed-up biopics, but if you care about art or artists, you will want to look into the lives of these women. And if you already have looked at these lives – through previous films or books, this is an opportunity to refresh your amazement. And both of these films do an excellent job and add new perspectives, or at least new interviews (or newly collected personal letters).

The Guggenheim film is a bit more studied and the Joplin film is a bit more sexy. Neither is as comprehensive or complex as it could be, but… still. Whether you are a fan of modern art or music, or just someone who couldn’t get in to whatever else is playing, Helen Highly suggests you see either or both films. You will be highly entertained and hardly even notice that you are also being educated.}

Now, let’s get to what is interesting:

The fundamental concept in both films is that “art is a drug” – whether making it or collecting it.

Janis Joplin, on stage
Janis Joplin, on stage

The Peggy Guggenheim documentary is actually titled “Art Addict,” and in it Peggy herself says “I became an addict and couldn’t help it” (and she’s maybe 1/3 joking).

Peggy Guggenheim, Touching her Calder
Peggy Guggenheim, Touching her Calder

A friend of hers says, “She had an intense hunger for life, and an undertone of unbeatable sadness.” Then Peggy explains how she literally is “most happy when connected, physically, with art,” and demonstrates by actually clutching a sculpture. Similarly, in the Joplin documentary, it is repeated again and again that Janis was happy only when on stage. The stage was a tangible touchstone for Janis, the way a thing of beauty was for Peggy. Nina Simone, whom Joplin highly admired, said that “Janis became an addict because she got hooked into a thing, and it wasn’t drugs. She got hooked into a feeling.” So, both these women felt a bodily attachment to their experience of art. (It was under their skin.) They reveled in these attachments; they lived in them.

But here’s where the plot thickens:

It was widely known in her day (and since then has been extensively written about and discussed) that Peggy Guggenheim had sex with many of the artists she patronized, as well as others in her literati circle – all the more scandalous because of her homeliness. 

Peggy Guggenheim was homely.,
Peggy Guggenheim was homely.

“Peggy was in bed with Samuel Beckett for four days!” we are told. “She had an affair with Brancusi!” And Ms. Guggenheim made no effort to hide her sexual escapades. In the film, she calls herself “a nymphomaniac.” She claims (not entirely convincingly) to be proud of her immoral exploits, counted at roughly 400 in her own memoirs, and she doesn’t care that her friend Mary McCarthy wrote a very thinly veiled story that essentially called her a slut. The film provides torrid details such as “Peggy Guggenheim lost her virginity at age 23” (printed in text on the screen) and “Peggy had seven abortions.”

Peggy Guggenheim, Sex Addict
Peggy Guggenheim, Sex Addict

But Peggy explains in an interview that she loved these men because they were artists; for her, sex and art went hand in hand. (She collected both art and artists.) So: she was an art addict and a sex addict. And all these sensational details of Peggy’s sexual compulsions are relevant because…? Well, bed-hopping with artists + sexist backlash = damaged reputation. And this brings us to one of the central messages of this film:

Peggy Guggenheim’s addictive lust for art (and artists) cut into her credibility and ultimately obscured her accomplishments.

Janis Joplin, Junkie Singer
Janis Joplin, Junkie Singer

And the same is true of Janis Joplin, who is perhaps best known for being a drug addict.

Janis drinking on stage
Janis drinking on stage

Her heroin-and-amphetamine-and-bourbon fueled performances were the signature style that made her famous. And that drug use may have made her great. She was great, but certainly her reputation and legacy as an addict obscured her accomplishments, same as with Peggy. She’ll always have the word “junkie” attached in front of the word “singer.”  And finally, her addiction killed her; she died from an overdose in 1970.

In a way, both these women sacrificed their lives to their addictions … to art.

Both documentaries tells us that these women were defined in their youth by their unattractiveness and lack of desirability, and each is described as “insecure,” “vulnerable,” “self-conscious,” and “full of suffering” as a result. (The identical words are used in both films.) In both cases, the women’s indelicate and unconventional looks pushed them to explore new ways of defining themselves and gaining acceptance.

Janis Joplin was profoundly hurt, over and over.
Janis Joplin was profoundly hurt, over and over.

Janis Joplin was teased mercilessly by the boys in grade school, and as a cruel joke in college, the student newspaper named her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” She is described in the film as being “profoundly hurt, over and over.”

Peggy Guggenheim said, “My childhood was excessively unhappy. I have no pleasant memories.” In a classic Peggy story,  we are told that she grew up with a nose she hated, and when she finally tried to have it fixed, the plastic surgery was botched and she was left even more unpleasant-looking than before.

Peggy Guggenheim "gutsed out" her bad nose.
Peggy Guggenheim “gutsed out” her bad nose.

She decided not to fix the failed repair and just “guts it out.” She ignored her lack of beauty from then on and focused on her work – her work as a champion and collector of beautiful things. Even then, the documentary explicitly states that she was “the subject of ridicule and disparagement,” due to her perceived desperate attempts at recognition. She was called a narcissist, a pushy rich girl, etc.

Early on, both Peggy and Janis sought to escape their bourgeois lives. Janis called herself “a misfit.” She moved from Texas to San Francisco as a way of breaking out and being free. Peggy moved from the U.S. to Paris and became a bohemian as a way of finding herself. Peggy found herself in modern art, and Janis in music. Both dropped out of college in pursuit of an alternative life. Both were self-educated and self-made.

In the film, Peggy calls herself a “lost girl,” looking for something to fill her life. She was “the wayward Guggenheim.” She tells us that she used modern art to express her inner world and her emotions (and, we assume, to escape the outer world of social expectations and judgment). Peggy is described as “always a rebel,” so it makes sense that in Paris she started her art addiction with Dadaism – the language of disillusionment. Dadaism rejected logic and reason and prized the abstract and psychological. Dadaism was Peggy’s gateway drug into surrealism, which was similar in what it stood against, but was more a language of freedom. (Surrealism is to Peggy as Heroin is to Janis?) It is said that Peggy sought art that was “strange and outrageous.” She wanted to feel “the cutting edge.” (The same edge that appealed to Janis.)

Kandinsky
Kandinsky

Yet, there was no precedence for women working in the art world; this was Peggy’s own liberation. She created this new identity and purpose for herself. And she didn’t just follow movements; she followed her own intuitions and tastes. The film does make much of the fact that Peggy was advised by some very savvy artists – such as Marcel Duchamp, but Helen Highly suggests that being given advice is a very different thing from selecting which advice to accept (and then implementing it), as Peggy had already proved when she rejected her docile, dignified upbringing. Whoever first had the notion that a certain genre might have potential, is mostly irrelevant; history belongs to the one who Highly Devoted herself to it, who pursued the outlandish, developed the bizarre, and brought them to fruition. While some critics are questioning this film’s gossipy chatter about Peggy’s sex life, Helen is Highly concerned about the film’s continuous insinuation that Peggy was “perhaps” a dilettante who was molded by the men around her rather than a true guiding force in defining what we now call Modern Art. (The fact that Peggy suggests this herself is not valid evidence; self-report is never a credible source, especially when we know that Peggy was quick to tarnish her own reputation.)

Let’s just take three examples from the many artists that Peggy helped introduce to the world, who are now recognized as modern art’s greatest talents (a list very swiftly breezed over in the film):
1) Peggy gave Kandinsky his first show at her gallery. When she tried to persuade her uncle, a prestigious art collector, to purchase a Kandinsky, he foolishly refused and called it “trash.”
2) Peggy also presented the first Rothko exhibition.
3) Peggy is credited with discovering and essentially inventing Jackson Pollock.
Right there alone… (okay, let’s add in Mondrian, Dali, Calder, Miro, Magritte, and more), it’s almost as if without Peggy Guggenheim, there would be no modern art.

Peggy Guggenheim with Jackson Pollock paintings
Peggy Guggenheim with Jackson Pollock paintings

And that statement is not entirely far-fetched, because one chapter in the loose and lascivious life of this Jewish-American princess is the tale (which is told in the film all too briefly) of Peggy remaining in war-time Paris as others fled, and assembling a collection of 125 modern masterpieces that Hitler officially deemed “Degenerate” and sought to destroy, and then narrowly escaping Paris two days before the Nazis marched into the city, and getting the art out too. Note: Ms. Guggenheim had first asked the Louvre to help her by storing the paintings and sculptures (which included Picasso paintings, btw), but they declined, saying that these pieces were not worth saving.

Brancusi "Bird in Space"
Brancusi “Bird in Space”

(Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculpture was among the pieces Peggy saved, and I personally would like to thank her for that one. Rumor has it that Peggy had to sleep with Brancusi in order to negotiate a price she could afford, and again I say: Thank You for Your Service.)

Peggy didn’t just devote her heart and soul to modern art; she put her life on the line for it. In addition, Peggy saved her lover, Max Ernst, who “didn’t give a damn for her,” by marrying him to get him out of Europe and into America. This makes her a noble figure – a savior of art and artists, even if she was a lonely lady with a disastrous romantic life.

Yes, in her day, she ruined her reputation by reckless fucking (a word Peggy used herself). But in today’s day, I would expect the documentarian to challenge the legitimacy of those judgements. (She liked to get it on with brilliant and talented men. That doesn’t make her stupid, or inept.) Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland tries to stand neutral at a place where Helen Highly believes she should assert her opinion. But I digress.

Peggy and Max Ernest
Peggy and Max Ernest

Let’s go back to: Peggy made a trailblazing transition in her collection and patronage – from surrealist painting, anchored in WWI, to abstract expressionist painting, anchored in WWII – bridging the divide between Europe and America, and she took the art world with her. She discovered new artists who were thinking and working in new ways, and she funded them and encouraged them and presented them to the world. She was a kind of collector that never existed before.

Peggy and Max at her gallery.
Peggy and Max at her gallery.

In “Little Girl Blue,” we learn that Janis Joplin made a similarly significant transition from folk to blues to rock. She started singing folk songs like Joan Baez and Judy Collins, but their gentle sound did not suit Joplin. In San Francisco, Joplin hooked up with Big Brother and the Holding Company, and it wasn’t long before she assumed a leadership role in the band, where she became a pioneer of psychedelic rock. Big Brother and the Holding Company’s appearance at the now-legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 received immense acclaim – particularly for their version (Joplin’s) of “Ball and Chain.” Janis’ wild style and raw, gutsy sound blew the collective mind of the audience. But all of the attention on Janis caused tension between her and her bandmates. Janis Joplin finally went out on her own and has been labeled “the first lady of rock and roll.” She was a kind of singer that never existed before.

Janis Joplin, Raw and Gutsy
Janis Joplin, Raw and Gutsy

Ottis Redding also appeared at the Monterey Festival, and Janis has said that she was strongly influenced by him and his “gotta gotta gotta … try a little tenderness” when she later sang “try try try … a little bit harder.” Both songs share a sense of urgent emotion, but Janis takes it to a whole new level.

Richard Goldstein wrote for the May 1968 issue of “Vogue” magazine that Joplin was “the most staggering leading woman in rock… she slinks like tar, scowls like war… clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave… Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.”

Stevie Nicks considers Joplin one of her idols, and says, “She sang in the great tradition of the rhythm and blues singers that were her heroes, but she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock and roll edge to every single song. She really gave you a piece of her heart.”

Janis Rocks Hard
Janis Rocks Hard

It’s worth noting that this documentary does not include a lot of Janis Joplin music. Unlike the recent movie about the Beach Boys, “Love and Mercy,” which had an inspiring and extensive soundtrack of true Beach Boy tunes, this film relies more on commentary and quotes, such as those above. And at its core is a collection of letters that Janis wrote to her family and friends, which do indeed provide a candid view of the troubled and tender person behind the famous name.

According to the two movies, Peggy had a lot more sex than Janis did (surprisingly). But both women were haunted by the same distressed efforts to find love and affection. Both suffered many romantic disappointments and are said to have lived very sad lives. Janis is seen onscreen saying:

“I want to be happy so fucking bad.”

And at another point in the film she explains that her career ambition is all about her “need to be loved.” One widely quoted critic wrote that Joplin had “desperate mating calls from every song.”

One more thing united these two unique women – their honest individuality. Janis said that her artistic ambition was to be true to herself. She sang raw because that was how she felt, and she wouldn’t pretend anything prettier. The film makes a point of insisting that Janis refused to “lie” in her music, or follow anyone else’s rules.

Of Peggy Guggenheim, her film stated that for all her eccentricities, she was a woman “without guile.” Her yearning and her passion were sincere, and she held herself to a high standard of honesty, especially because her mentor, Marcel Duchamp, preached the merit of being a self-actualized individual without artifice. The film quotes Duchamp as defining his code of “individualism” as “everyone for oneself – like a shipwreck.” It’s ironic that Peggy’s father died in a shipwreck; he went down on the Titanic, when the ship sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912. Peggy was barely a teenager, and she was forever traumatized by the event. (Just an interesting detail.)

So, where does this leave us?

  • Both women were sad and lonely and desperate for attention.
  • Both women were addicts.
  • But their insecurities and addictions propelled them to greatness.
  • They each accomplished something never-before done.
  • In response to their own addictions, each changed the world of art (otherwise known as “the world”).
  • And then their addictions ruined them.

And Helen Highly suggests that the least we can do, as recipients of their greatness and inheritors of their legacies – Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and all the soul-searching music that has been inspired by it since, and the war-and-peace-making avant garde art that Peggy Guggenheim nurtured and saved and promoted and shared, and all that came after and was inspired by those works…  the least we can do is remember them with appropriate respect and appreciation, and without judging with our traditional conventions and morality.

They suffered and we reaped the rewards. When we think of them, we should try a little tenderness.


Click For News: January is Janis Joplin’s Film, Birthday & “Pearl” Anniversary Month

Click For News: Janis Joplin Documentary “Little Girl Blue” to Air on PBS’ American Masters Series

News Update: “Janis: Little Girl Blue” will premiere May 3 on PBS, a day before the DVD and Blu-ray will be available via FilmRise. The companion album, Janis: Little Girl Blue (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), is on sale now.


For Fun: Who Was the Bigger Addict? Janis Joplin & Heroin vs Peggy Guggenheim & Art  Click the image below to VOTE and see results:

Carrie and Co-Stars When They Were Young

Carrie Fisher and the Star Wars Review I Didn’t Write

Helen Highly Recommends Carrie Fisher Quit Twitter
or
Am I THAT Guy?!

by Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

Carrie Fisher has aged.
Carrie Fisher has aged.

Q: Is it true that HelenHighly, a self-professed socially-and-politically-conscious woman, walked out of the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and immediately made a comment about Carrie Fisher’s body?
A: Yes. (Should I feel guilty? Not sure yet.)

Q: Was it rude and inappropriate for journalist Kyle Smith to publicly suggest to Carrie Fisher that she give up acting if she didn’t like continually having her body scrutinized and criticized by everyone and anyone due to the way she aged?
A: Yes. (I think we can all agree that disrespect is always the wrong approach for a professional when speaking about one’s subject, and certainly the wrong way to speak about a beloved Princess.)

Q: Did Carrie Fisher show us all up by replying with simultaneous wit, candor, and bada-bing punch, thus reminding those who criticized and/or gossiped that she is better than them (us), and that she still has it – “it” being bright, lively talent?
A: Yes indeed. Go Carrie!

Carrie Fisher Is Defiant
Carrie Fisher Is Defiant

But the harder question remains: That nasty reporter guy judged Carrie Fisher’s body, and HelenHighly also judged Carrie Fisher’s body. Am I that guy?!*

Here’s the story:

I am no Star Wars fan. However, I got an assignment to write about the new movie “Star Wars:….mumble.. whatever.” The assignment was for The Film Box, the mostly action-movie website where I occasionally post commentary. (I provide balance.) To counter the geek perspective, I had been asked to write from a non-fan woman’s point of view. But until now, I have not completed my Star Wars assignment, because I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say.

“Do I feel guilty? Hell no; Lucas made $4 billion.”

Correction: In an effort to deliver something, I did write a news blurb that unfairly attacked George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, for jokingly using the term “white slavers” in regard to the Disney Co., to whom he sold the franchise for $4 billion in 2012 and now is criticizing for their handling of his “kids.” And then I wrote another news story announcing that he had apologized, but I doubted his sincerity. So, I got two articles out of Lucas, both based on over-blown nonsense. Do I feel guilty? Hell no; Lucas made $4 billion selling overblown nonsense (named Star Wars). He’s filthy rich; his feelings don’t matter. (Although, it might bear mentioning that during this attack on what Lucas said, no one commented on what he looked like.) But back to this story:

I did want to see the movie just because it got so crazy-much attention in the media that I felt I was obligated to see it, as a U.S. citizen and occupant of our galaxy. I admit that the film itself did nothing for me, but I did enjoy watching the audience respond enthusiastically each time one of their old favorites (and old, favorites – with comma) – be it actor or spaceship – made an appearance.

The Beloved "Star Wars" Trilogy
The Beloved Star Wars Trilogy

These old favorites, brought back from the cult trilogy (1977 – 1983), include male leads, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill. And also there is the female lead, Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) – the adventure-heroine and super-hot It-Girl of the original Star Wars, and an idolized icon because of it. I am told that a generation of teenage boys grew up with posters on their bedroom walls of Carrie Fisher in a gold bikini– the same metal bikini she wore as a costume in the second film. That poster is from a photo-shoot Fisher did with Rolling Stone, back in 1983, when she was a 27-year-old starlet. (Pretty hip to be on the cover of Rolling Stone – twice, actually.)

Carrie Fisher Rocks with "Rolling Stone"
Carrie Fisher Rocks with Rolling Stone

Fisher has gone on to have a successful career in the industry – as an actress, producer, and screenwriter, including writing the semi-autobiographical film Postcards from the Edge, (based on one of her own hit books) in which the Carrie-ish character is portrayed by none other than Meryl Streep (the best actress ever). Carrie Fisher is Somebody.

Carrie Fisher: Once She Was Beautiful
Carrie Fisher: Once She Was Beautiful

But to the people in the movie theater with me, watching the latest Star Wars film-phenomenon, Carrie Fisher is and always will be Princess Leia, the great and legendary… (I don’t know; this is where they lose me). And those people literally cheered for Carrie Fisher – not only with excitement when they first saw her in this new film, but also after each scene in which she appeared.

So, Carrie: People love you. They love seeing you on screen. Don’t doubt that fact.

And I will say that, for me (and I believe for most others as well), Carrie Fisher brought an authentic warmth and humanity to a movie that is…  mostly metal. Okay, I probably stand alone with my “mostly metal” comment, but I challenge anyone to say they did not both enjoy and respect Fisher’s performance in this film.

“For Carrie to escape the unfair cruelties of this world, she would have to get on a spaceship and find another galaxy, far, far away.”

Well, I never wrote the film review because I decided that I am not Star-Wars-knowledgeable enough to say anything intelligent about the movie. And I was going to walk away and start writing my next commentary – slated to be a combo-review of two different documentaries about great women– Peggy Guggenheim and Janis Joplin (who seem to me to be surprisingly similar). But then, I couldn’t escape the buzzing news about the great Star Wars woman. Here’s what:

Carrie Fisher, Then and Now
Carrie Fisher, Then and Now

On Tuesday, January 29th, Fisher, age 59, sent a message to her 850,000 Twitter followers, asking them to stop scrutinizing and criticizing how she has aged over the past 30 years. Apparently there had been a relentless stream of unkind and insulting comments.

Oh. My. God.
Oh. My. God.

To those haters she shockingly said that they could “blow us”. (!!!)
(“Us” means Fisher, her body, and her character Leia)

“Please stop debating about whether or not I have aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all 3 of my feelings. My body hasn’t aged as well as I have. Blow us.”
[Twitter text abbreviations and jargon have been translated, but that was her message.]

Then Fisher re-tweeted statements from supporters who claimed that her co-stars, Harrison Ford – age 73 and Mark Hamill – age 64, do not face the same level of scrutiny. In another tweet, Fisher shared her sentiments that “youth and beauty are not accomplishments, they’re the temporary happy.”

Okay, my first thought was: That’s a Twitter Win for Carrie. Good for her.

But, my second thought was: Eegads. I remembered (and here I confess) that the first words out of my mouth when I left the theater were about Carrie Fisher’s body. (Am I a hater, like those others?!*) I commented that the film almost never showed her full body. As I recall (and I could be wrong, because honestly, the movie did not hold my close attention), it seemed to me that she was always in close-up – just her head. And at one point they (awkwardly, I thought) cut to a close-up of her hand. The few times that we did see her body were in distant wide-shots. So, I concluded, they must have used a body double for Fisher – someone thinner, and then only used her for head-shots, and hand-shots.

Carrie Fisher Before She Lost Some Weight
Carrie Fisher Before She Lost Some Weight

I noticed this because I had recently seen Fisher do the talk-show circuit and had observed that she had become a large woman (which is perfectly understandable; she is no spring chicken anymore). I hear tell that Fisher lost weight for the film and then unfortunately gained it back before her publicity tour. Hmm…even if true…Obviously, her starlet days are behind her (it’s been 38 years!). I was just wondering about why they chose not to show her true body in the movie – why they made her look thinner than she really is, or was. Are Star Wars royalty not allowed to gain weight?

I did also make the somewhat snarky comment that Carrie obviously “had a lot of work done” and it doesn’t look real. She’s so smart; I thought she would be wiser than to go that route. And so I judged that Carrie Fisher is vain and definitely looks worse for wear. And Disney is shallow (duh) and doesn’t want fat heroines. The company probably only cares about profit (as Lucas later accused). That was my brilliant sidewalk analysis.

I could think of nothing to say about the movie itself because… it’s not my thing. However, I personally have repeatedly gained and lost (and lost and gained) weight throughout my many years, and now I am almost as old as Carrie Fisher, and I have indeed considered the possibility of plastic surgery. I have nothing against it in principle. I just worry that it usually doesn’t look good and ends up making the person look older. My point is this: The Empire and/or The Alliance mean nothing to me. And the thing I could most relate to in the film was how Carrie Fisher (and I) have aged. (Am I her in this story?*)

Carrie Fisher Has Had "Work Done"
Carrie Fisher Has Had “Work Done”

A few days later, Kyle Smith, some nasty troll from the New York Post, responded to what he called Fisher’s “Twittantrum” (Twitter-tantrum) with a message to Carrie that she should “quit acting” if she isn’t prepared to put up with her looks being judged. And he wrote:

“Fisher is a public figure. If she didn’t want the public to talk about her, she could have spent the last 40 years teaching kindergarten. As for whether it’s ‘messed up’ for Hollywood to prefer pretty people to appear in its films, Fisher made millions off being pretty. Far from being bitter about this, she and other actresses who profited nicely from their looks should be grateful they had a turn at the top.”

OUCH!!!
OUCH!!!

Ouch. That’s hard-core. (But doesn’t the part about “if you get rich off your work, you are fair game for unfairness” sound a bit like what I thought about George Lucas? Is this unfairness exclusively allocated to women?)

Carrie did not back down. She then tweeted:

“Ok, I quit acting. NOW, can I not like being judged for my looks? Tell me what to do & who to be, oh wise New York post columnist, you GENIUS.”

Ha! Carrie wins again!

She won because she has gotten smarter and funnier as she has aged (due to her years of experience), so she out-wits the brat reporter, and she out-earns him too. In the contest between brains and beauty, I always prefer brains. Although, clearly, Disney always prefers beauty. And also Hollywood at large. Does Carrie’s winning against the troll and even Disney mean that she will be spared hurt feelings? Alas, that responsibility is hers. I am sorry to drag out the hackneyed advice, but dear Carrie Fisher: “Other people can only hurt your feelings if you let them.”

Carrie Fisher, Young and Old
Carrie Fisher, Young and Old

You did have your turn at the beautiful top (and you rocked it – with Rolling Stone), and then you also went on to be a writer and a true creative talent. And in your old, unattractive age, you actually got paid an awful lot more to appear in Star Wars than you did when you were young and beautiful, didn’t you? If you will only click your heels three times, you will see that you had already won, before this twitter war started.

Helen Highly suggests that you quit your twitter account (rather than acting) and stop listening to the peons, and then continue with whatever career you choose.

Note: I am sure that if a full media search were conducted, it would be proven true that more people were more quick to comment about Fisher’s age and looks than they were her co-stars’. However, Helen Highly asserts that the second thing out of her mouth upon leaving the Star Wars movie was an unflattering comment about the appearance of Mark Hamill and his bad facelift. (C’mon.) And then, soon after, Helen also Highly analyzed the dilapidated appearance and infamous personal life of Harrison Ford (who, over his many years, has been gossiped about at least as often as he has been praised).

Is it true that ageism and sexism continue to exist in Hollywood as well as throughout the worlds of business and romance? Yes. Is it true that some inferior people will take every opportunity to say something nasty about those better? (sigh) Yes. And will those problems be corrected during Carrie Fisher’s lifetime? No. For Carrie to escape the unfair cruelties of this world, she would have to get on a spaceship and find another galaxy, far, far away.

"Star Wars" Galaxy
Star Wars Galaxy

*Footnote: Am I that guy? Am I a hater? Am I Carrie Fisher? Well, as they say, you are actually everybody in your dream.


Carrie Fisher died unexpectedly 12/27/2016, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died one day later. Read my combo obit and film review of their recent documentary, “Bright Lights: Fat Ghost Lying in the Sun.”

Click for News: George Lucas Says Disney White Slavers to Charlie Rose.

Click for News: George Lucas Disney Apology for White Slavers Comment.

 

hateful eight stagecoach

Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, Review

Hateful Eight: Horror in the Wild West

By Helen Kaplow, as HelenHighly

"The Hateful Eight" with Cowboy Font
“The Hateful Eight” with Cowboy Font

I will follow Quentin Tarantino’s lead, and like this movie, The Hateful Eight, I will allow this review to be indulgently long. And like Tarantino, I will break it into “chapters,” using titled headers.

Prelude: It’s dreadful and wonderful

 “Damn. Tarantino never fails to amaze,” I wrote in my book, breathless (having just gasped my heart into my lungs). It was only intermission, and I was already getting high off the crazy-violent depravity-fumes that Tarantino was releasing into the theater. I was glad for the break, to get some fresh air. But hey, he went more than an hour and a half (the running time of most other films) before a shot was even fired. He (and Samuel Jackson) made us wait. And it was hot-blooded, high-tension waiting – like the most highly-charged sexual foreplay that brings you right up to the edge of the cliff, and then, still not giving what you crave, hangs you perilously over the side, where you are clutching for your life and consummation. It’s dreadful and wonderful.

Part One: The Eighth Movie by Quentin Tarantino

First there is an orchestral overture. This movie is being presented as an old-fashioned 70mm cinematic roadshow, complete with overture and intermission – in limited release. (Only about 40 venues will get this added razzle-dazzle, which adds up to 3+ hours. Most theaters will show the 35mm version, without the intermission, and slightly shorter.) The grand-opening music is by Ennio Morricone, the legendary Sergio Leone collaborator and the iconic master of scores for the most famous old Westerns (including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Fistful of Dollars). The much-discussed twist of the movie is its underlying mystery plot, but the biggest mystery might be how Tarantino got this musical giant, who is now pushing 90 years old, to create a score for one of Tarantino’s unabashedly bad-taste, gore-fest films. For this alone, Tarantino is amazing.  

The film opens big – a sprawling view of snow-covered mountains as wide and vivid as you’ve ever seen. And a six-horse stage coach is racing across the white, barren landscape, trying to outrun the howling blizzard that pursues it. Tarantino got at least this one epic shot from his much-touted, Ultra-Panavision 70mm-format camera. (“These are not the same kind of lenses used to shoot Ben-Hur; they are the same lenses,” Tarantino has boasted.)

Click: More about the 70-mm format, from Tarantino, including, “Man, that is going to the movies, and that is worth saving, and we need to see more of that.” – interview with Mike Fleming Jr. at Deadline Hollywood (2nd paragraph)

Click: What Is 70mm Film, and Why Is It Worth Seeing on the Big Screen? by Sarah Gorr

When the opening credits are plastered up on the screen – static, not scrolling, they are bold red and black, vintage, cowboy-movie lettering against a bright white background, like an old-style movie poster. The Hateful Eight (nod to Leone), along with an intro line: “The 8th Movie by Quentin Tarantino.” Wow. This guy is proud of himself, and in addition: This guy loves movies! He is putting himself all-in and relishing every classic going-to-the-movies moment. And it works; I start off excited, like I am going on a cinematic adventure, led by someone who definitely knows the way.

"The Hateful Eight" with Tarantino
“The Hateful Eight” with Tarantino

So: The dazzling, white-snow wide-shot is held for a long time – plenty of time to take it all in, and then he cuts to a tight close-up of an old, rotting skeleton hanging from a wooden cross (in 70mm vibrant enormity). Snow blows across the skull as Tarantino pulls the camera out very, very slowly, finally showing the cross standing isolated against the immense, empty landscape. “Think about it,” I can almost hear him saying. “It’s a skeleton, and a cross, and snow – primal.” (Tarantino does actually take to narrating his own film in the second half, which is surprising and quirky.)

"The Hateful Eight," a rare extrerior shot
“The Hateful Eight,” a rare extrerior shot

Part Two: The Door is Nailed Shut

What follows the grandiose and traditional opening is a crazed mash-up of Wild-West cowboy-hats-and-shotguns (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and an Agatha Christie whodunit-mystery (And Then There Were None), an over-the-top blood-splattered horror flick (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), plus another blood-soaked film for good measure (the revenge-horror classic, Carrie), lines of dialogue as witty and well-crafted as Shakespeare (let’s go with Titus Andronicus, his bloodiest tragedy), and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play No Exit.

About the latter: Characters are punished by being locked in a room together for eternity. The original title of this 1944 French play is actually the French equivalent of the legal term “in camera,” referring to a private discussion behind closed doors. English translations have also been performed under the titles No Way Out, Vicious Circle, and Dead End, all of which would have been appropriate titles for this movie.

“Hell is other people” – Sartre

The movie begins vast and spacious, as I have described, and then quickly goes indoors and claustrophobic. The travelers from the stage coach take shelter from the storm in a remote, one-room roadhouse, which already holds some questionable characters and is now filled with a motley assortment of killers (some outlaws, some lawful). The beloved owner of the roadhouse is suspiciously absent, and the only door is literally nailed shut. (The latch has recently been broken, so wood planks must be nailed across the door and the wall, to keep the blizzard winds from blowing in.) No one can enter or exit without breaking the boards away from the door. And it’s a full house. Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people” might as well have been painted on the cabin wall in blood – Charlie Manson-style.

And this is the brilliant and evil genius of the film. It starts as a customary, wide-screen Western (with what one would wrongly assume are stoic and laconic cowboys) and converts to a theatrical, dialogue-driven parlor drama (with a sadistic twist). And that spectacular 70-mm camera, made for the broad, epic outdoors, is used to create a small, interior, human-face epic, depicting a brutal, cabin-fever-dream that is sweating with saturated details.

Does this story offer an insightful socio-political look into the heart of America – then and now? Is it saying, as Matt Singer writes, at Screen Crush, that America is “a melting pot where everyone gets burned”? Or is it a giddy, gruesome mess full of miserable mayhem, that goes on for way too long? Yes. And Yes. And toss in a few more theories, and it’s those as well. It’s a gluttonous feast of rich genres and saucy conceits– just in time for the holidays, where gluttonous feasts are the way we roll.

Click: Tarantino talks about how TV Westerns were his inspiration, more than movies, especially in terms of the guys-trapped-in-a-room storyline. – interview at Deadline (4th paragraph)

Part Three: Abraham Lincoln is a BFF

Introduce Samuel Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and you need not even mention any of the other excellent cast members (although they all kick ass); these two steal the show. One highlight is when Samuel Jackson delivers a long, slow (+ slower, + longer) monologue that is increasingly horrifying and devastating and ultimately beyond-beyond shocking and unbearable. And it is magnificent. I don’t think I can reveal the big, shocking element without spoiling it. But I will say that it is a deadly monologue. Jackson literally destroys a man with these words. And you see that man – a one-time great army General, melt down in front of Jackson, like the Wicked Witch melted and burned when Dorothy poured the lethal bucket of water on her. It’s one of the most astonishing speeches I can remember hearing – masterfully written and masterfully delivered.

Samuel Jackson in "The Hateful Eight"
Samuel Jackson in “The Hateful Eight”

I don’t think I will be spoiling anything by revealing that Jackson’s character, Major Marquis Warren, a Civil War ex-Union officer turned bounty hunter, is a brutal and pitiless man. We learn early on how he burned down an entire jailhouse where he was imprisoned, killing both his captors and his fellow soldiers, so that he himself could escape. And this Major Warren carries with him, throughout this Civil War interbellum (turmoil-continues) story, a letter written to him by Abraham Lincoln. That letter is reverently kept inside Warren’s breast pocket, close to his heart.

During the course of the film, the letter is admired, spit on, chased through the snow, and so on. Then, in what I will call the last great moment of the film, after Warren has completed a series of bloody, ruthless acts, the full letter is read aloud. And as I watched Jackson’s face – silent and listening, I felt myself tear up. Minutes before, Jackson had wreaked ferocious havoc, and with a quick shift, I was deeply moved by and for him (and by Tarantino’s poetic writing). That’s the way this movie goes; it is savage and then touching and then hilarious. And Samuel Jackson plays a major role in all of those emotional leaps and pirouettes. It is a stunning performance.

“It’s a big, splashy thriller, and a wild ride.”

And then there is Jennifer Jason Leigh. If she doesn’t win an Academy Award for this role (and she won’t), there is simply no justice in the world (a truth that Tarantino woefully keeps telling). She plays Daisy Domergue, a spitting, snarling, murderous outlaw-turned-prisoner who begins the movie with a swollen eye that has been punched purple. Kept in chains, she continues to be arbitrarily and mercilessly beaten and abused throughout the movie; her teeth are knocked out, her nose is broken, and her jaw is fractured. Eventually, she is covered in blood – both her own and the blood of others, and even has some brains splattered on her, yet she remains magically (black-magically) defiant. She can take a punch and come back seething. She is terrifying, she is sympathetic, and she is funny.  And no, I don’t believe that because Tarantino makes the only female character the punching bag of the movie, he is a misogynist. Daisy is the smartest character in the movie. And the most fascinating. And Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the Hell out of her.

Just for fun: Compare Jennifer Jason Leigh in Hateful Eight to Sissy Spacek in Carrie. below:

Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Hateful Eight" and Sissy Spacek in "Carrie"
HelenHighly compares Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Hateful Eight” and Sissy Spacek in “Carrie”

Click: There is an actual thing called Quentin Blood! Fake movie blood is a niche specialty. Ethan Sacks at New York Daily News explains the range of colors and viscosity that different directors want in different films and for different purposes.

Click: A Brief History of Fake Blood, including a pro’s movie-blood recipe, plus Tarantino asking for “Samurai blood” in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. – Forrest Wickman, Slate

Part Four: The Bull Doesn’t Really Die

The details of who kills whom and when and how and why… it’s Quentin Tarantino. Why say more? People will always argue about the issue of gratuitous violence in Tarantino’s movies, no matter what. Nonetheless, I want to add: It’s no spoiler alert to say that far more people die in the new Star Wars movie than in Hateful Eight. But no one will ever accuse Star Wars of being overly violent.

Yet, more-criticized, the violence in Hateful Eight is better, because it is cathartic. It’s stylized and perverse and comically outrageous, but still – you feel it, and deeply. (That’s why it’s so repulsive to so many people.) Spaceship battles in the sky may be entertaining, but they are not cathartic. In Tarantino’s film, blood gets on you. And that redeems it. It elevates the film (despite its apparent depravity).

"The Hateful Eight" have trails of blood.
“The Hateful Eight” have trails of blood.

Let’s review our Aristotle: Catharsis is an emotional purge through which one can achieve a state of moral or spiritual renewal or achieve a state of liberation from anxiety and stress. By watching an exhibition or imitation of fear and violence the audience is able to cleanse themselves of their own repressed fear and violence. Aristotle used the term to explain the impact of tragedy on audiences, saying that catharsis was the ultimate end of a tragic artistic work and marked its quality.

For me, Tarantino is like a watching a bullfight. Consider the bazaar, stylized reality of a prized bull being stabbed for mass entertainment, and bleeding and falling and dramatically dying. And yes, bullfights are controversial too, largely because there is never any doubt that the bull will die; it doesn’t have a chance. It’s the same. There is never any doubt that people will die in a Tarantino film; it’s only a matter of how and when. And it may indeed be unfair to the bull, and inappropriate for modern life, but I don’t think a solid argument can be made against the tragic catharsis that the audience experiences at a bullfight. It’s something that people have felt and acknowledged for centuries. However, the wonder of art is that you can imitate violence and get the same emotional cleansing. In a movie, the bull doesn’t really die.

“There is an actual thing called Quentin Blood!”

And no one understands this better than Quentin Tarantino, who is constantly reminding his audiences that they are watching a movie; what you are seeing is not real. It is a make-believe game that nonetheless has powerful effect. And Tarantino loves to play with that paradox – the tension between what you know is not real and what you really feel. And he takes that to the most extreme and extraordinary places he can go. He’s outrageous, but he’s mindfully so; he knows what he’s doing. And that’s what his fans love about him. He’s smart. His movies are smart, even when they are low and dirty and ugly. (And yes, even because they are low, etc.)

Plus, in modern American life, we have “evolved” to a point where we are numb to so much ordinary and expected violence. It has lost its potency. So we need something more frightening and more terrible to help us achieve that catharsis. And art can offer that, while still being safe.

"The Hateful Eight" is Violent
“The Hateful Eight” is Violent

So, when Tarantino stages a bullfight, you feel as if you are right there, watching the real thing, and then, just as the bull is about to die… suddenly the most unpredictable and terrifying and absurd thing – the thing you could never imagine… happens. And that’s when you get that crazy, horrifying-and-also-satisfying shock; that’s when you gasp your heart into your lungs. And I challenge anyone to watch The Hateful Eight and not gasp in full at least twice.

Conclusion: It’s Sexy

HelenHighly: I'm just saying.
HelenHighly: I’m just saying.

I’ll go one step further and say, not only is it cathartic…  it’s sexy. This is not late-breaking news: sex and death go very well together. And even though the movie has no actual sex in it whatsoever, I think it’s a turn-on. It’s hot. And, btw, there was nothing sexy about Star Wars – romantic maybe, but not visceral. I’m just saying.

Epilogue: Killer Coffee Pot?

HelenHighly is Highly interested in the things in movies. I love it when an object becomes a key part of a film plot, or when it makes such an indelible impression that it changes the way people think of or feel about that thing.

Click: See my commentary on “Holiday Shopping in the Movies: Where to get the goods to make your classic Christmas-movie memories come alive,” in which I write about iconic Christmas gifts that were defined by movies.

In Hateful Eight, there is an object that is central to the plot – the blue-speckled cowboy-style coffee pot, and investigation uncovers an amusing irony. I won’t say exactly how the pot enters into the film’s intrigue, but I will wonder aloud if the pot’s infamous history was an inspiration for that detail of the story (and I’ll give a small clue).

“People started to become suspicious of poisonous ingredients.”

Cowboy Coffee Pot: Enamelware
Cowboy Coffee Pot: Enamelware

The type of pot used in the movie, which was historically accurate, is called enamelware. It was invented in the mid-1800s, when people wanted a way of coating iron to stop metallic tastes or rust from getting into food. They wanted something acid-resistant and easy to clean without laborious scouring, and something more durable than the tin linings used inside copper. So, manufacturers of kitchenware started coating everything from cast iron to steel with enamel. When fired, the enamel glazed, creating a non-porous surface that was easier to clean than exposed metal. Plus, it had a smooth, glossy finish that looked appealing. Originally, enamelware was bright white because it looked most sanitary. Then, speckled blue became popular because it was more cheerful.

But: Were enamel-lined pots really as clean and safe as they seemed? After a while (actually, Helen is Highly amazed at how many years it took) people started to become suspicious of poisonous ingredients leaching into their food. Unfortunately, it turned out, enamel surfaces were prone to cracking, which would expose the metal beneath, causing it to rust. Ultimately, consumers were scared away from both the metal and the enamel, due to claims of lead, antimony, and arsenic turning up in their food and coffee.

Today, modern science has solved the poison problem, and enamelware is still used in country kitchens and vintage-chic homes. And because they can handle a direct flame and don’t require electricity, enameled coffee pots are still a staple at well-equipped camp sites. (Just don’t ever let Quentin Tarantino anywhere near your coffee pot.)

Finally

Yes, we have just crossed the three-hour mark. And I will stop writing. But Helen Highly encourages YOU to drink some strong coffee (maybe with a shot of booze in it) and high-tail it over to your local theater and see The Hateful Eight. It’s a big, splashy thriller, and a wild ride. 


Click for News: The Hateful Eight Opens Big with $1.9 million on Christmas Day

Click for News: Hive CM8 Leak Pirated Copies, Then Apologize (sort of)

Click for News: Hateful Tweets About Hateful Eight 70mm Roadshow Projection Problems

Cate Blanchett, Perfection as Carol

Best Film Review: “Carol” vs “Brooklyn”

HelenHighly Critiques the Film Carol and Compares it to the film Brooklyn

Cate Blanchett in "Carol"
Cate Blanchett in “Carol”

The movie Carol, a lesbian romantic drama that is based on the book The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, is getting named Best Film of the Year by just about everyone, it seems, and making all the award short-lists. And Helen is Highly disappointed. Let me add up front that the film was costumed by Sandy Powell, art directed by Jesse Rosenthal, and filmed by Edward Lachman, who will all likely (and deservingly) receive awards for their work here. But in this review, I have issues with director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy.

Mundane, overly precious, pointlessly detailed movie.

I saw Carol at the 53rd New York Film Festival, where just about every film was more interesting than this gigantic slice of Boring. After watching the film, I assumed most people would dislike it as much as I did, so I was shocked when I did a quick Google search and saw the Variety review pop up saying “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for the startling impact of Carol, exquisitely drawn, deeply felt…” No way! (I usually like Justin Chang, but I disagree with him and nearly everyone else about this film.) My first order of business is to change Variety’s intro line: “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for”: the slow emptiness of this mundane, overly precious, pointlessly detailed movie.

Listen, I adore Cate Blanchett as much as anyone. And no one can say she is not gorgeous. At one point in the film – at a party, her estranged husband concedes to her that she is the most beautiful woman in the room. Well, that never changes. She is the most beautiful and the best dressed and best accessorized and best groomed person in every scene. So, let’s all agree to put Cate Blanchett’s face in the dictionary under the word Perfection, and then we can all go home and save ourselves two hours of lifeless artifice. And if Cate were selling lipstick, or stockings, or fur coats, I would buy them all. But I would not recommend this movie to anyone.

I’m happy for Blanchett that she got such a glamorous star vehicle in which to show off. But why is no one else stating the obvious – that this is essentially a vanity project for Cate Blanchett? Unfortunately however, in this movie, we cannot see Cate’s rich inner life through the heavy cover of makeup and fur.

Blanchett as "Carol" in fur
Blanchett as “Carol” in fur

Remember the final season’s opening episode on Mad Men, where Don Draper is trying desperately to find the ideal,  alluring model to put in his fur coat ad? Todd Haynes’ Cate Blanchett should get that job! She is precisely what Don was looking for – an impossibly beautiful fantasy of aspirational glamour and exquisite opulence. Women want to be her and men want to have her, exactly because she is so flawless and empty; you feel nothing for her or from her as a character – no complicated emotions to ruin the high-gloss facade. And honestly, Cate, you are better than this; you don’t need to advertise your quintessential (surface) beauty. That Don Draper gig, and this movie, are beneath you; you can act.

The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal.

This brings me to the lesbian theme of the story. Helen Highly objects to Haynes’ portrayal of Carol and her younger lover (played by Rooney Mara) as a Hollywood male fantasy of woman-on-woman sexuality. Due to Haynes’ decision to maintain the look-and-feel of a 1950s flick, the movie refrains from overtly explicit sex scenes, but still it has the tone of cheesy pin-up porn – made for men, and not about real-life women who have ambiguous thoughts and difficult feelings. Highsmith’s 1953 book, The Price of Salt, became a lesbian-love cult-novel, due largely to its being the first authentic expression of a lesbian relationship that did not have the punishing ending that was prescribed by 1950s morality. Highsmith was a lesbian herself (a fact she denied throughout most of her career), and this story is semi-autobiographical, telling the tale of when she was a shop girl who fell into a romantic obsession over an older married woman who was a customer at the store. But let’s stop there for a moment. (Well, there’s not much else to tell; the movie mostly repeats variations of the same scene.)

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in "Carol"
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol

Part of Helen being Highly annoyed is that so many people are eager to say how this film is “important for women” – as if it were still the act of sexual bravery and social revelation it was in the 1950s. And that is simply not the case. Today, the storyline reads as old news and naively obvious. The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal. And this is the fault of the screenplay and the direction, which do not capture the emotional intensity or poetic eroticism of the book. (Watch Dec. 19th’s Saturday Night Live and see their skit about how a male director is ruining an otherwise good 1950’s movie about two lesbians. Ha.)

Blanchett gazes
Blanchett gazes

The book meticulously detailed the inner lives of these two, passionate yet confused women; the film, instead, meticulously (and ploddingly) details a story that was only loosely referenced in the book — because Highsmith was interested in tortuous desire and fearful loneliness, not a who-gets-the-kid divorce case. In the movie that Nagy and Haynes made, the tale becomes a simplistic, self-righteous, politically-correct after-school-special. Haynes attempts, it seems, to depict the women’s emotions with an endless series of long, silent gazes. The film becomes tedious quickly, as we see the same posed, passive expressions played over and over – against a range of sumptuous backgrounds. And so it seems that Haynes cares more about his visual style than he does the psychology of his characters.

Todd Haynes is no Hitchcock.

Now, because of all the unwarranted hoopla about this movie, it becomes important to discuss Highsmith’s other books, several of which were made into highly successful movies, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train among them. Highsmith published The Price of Salt under another name and disowned the book for many years, not wanting to derail her career as a successful mystery writer. Other than this one-off erotic lesbian tale,  Highsmith wrote thrillers. Margaret Talbot, at the New Yorker, recently wrote a fascinating article about the background of the movie, in which she explained: “In 1952, Coward-McCann published The Price of Salt. Harpers & Bros., which had released Strangers on a Train two years earlier, turned it down, perhaps because it wasn’t another thriller.” So, for all you devoted Highsmith fans, just be aware: this one is not like the others — not the book, and definitely not the film. By the way, The New Yorker article is very worth reading and includes many quotes from the book, which are strikingly different from the minimal, stilted language of the film.

 And to my smart-yet-in-this-case-incorrect friend, and others, who like to say that Carol is comparable to the brilliant and classic Strangers on a Train, I say two things:

1) Haynes is no Hitchcock. Yes, Hitchcock and Highsmith shared an affection for frosty blondes (and perhaps Todd Haynes does as well). But Hitchcock was a master. He knew how to make an ice-queen come alive on the screen.

2) Carol is no thriller. Hitchcock also understood plot; he knew what was a compelling story and what was not. Carol is not.

So, Cate Blanchett and Todd Haynes can wish she were Grace Kelly or Kim Novak all day long, but she’s not going to touch a hair of their blonde locks with this script and this director.

It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie!

The other night, taking a break from writing this review, I went to Joes’ Pub at the Public Theater to see a wacky Christmas cabaret by Justin Vivian Bond, called Angels We Have Heard When High (HelenHighly was highly intrigued.)

Justin Vivian Bond
Justin Vivian Bond

To my surprise and delight, much of the comic element of the show was based on the movie Carol. It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie! Bond smartly comments at one point, “The Price of Salt was at least based on something real.” Bond scoffs at the notion that there is anything true or sexy in the film and hilariously explains that despite the director’s meticulous efforts to create 1950s verisimilitude, he neglects the important detail of Cate Blanchett’s fingernails.

Bond says that it’s clearly apparent that Carol has a gel manicure – something only recently invented and very different from the nail polish the character would have worn in her day. Ha! That is so true! (Gel “no-chip” polish and processing essentially bake the color onto the nails and have been a game-changer in the world of manicures. The color lasts for weeks instead of days and is a major 21st-century advancement, which would have been nothing but a sci-fi fantasy to any 1950s woman.) Bond goes on to insist that at least during the several-day-long road trip, where Carol is living out of a suitcase, she would have had a couple chips in her perfect nail color. But Haynes did not allow that, keeping Carol a phony character instead.

Bond also bemoans the film’s false portrayal of the “May-December romance” (which is important in the book). Mx Viv is all for older men or women getting it on with young, hot things, but alas she was once the May and is now the December part of that equation. And she knows what that feels like and looks like (and so does HelenHighly), and there is no way that “December” looks like Cate Blanchett’s perfection. Bond resents now having to live up to Todd Haynes’ unrealistic depiction of a December lover. Once again: Helen Highly agrees!

In Brooklyn, the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them.

While watching the screening of Carol at the New York Film Festival, I made very few notes in my book, because there was nothing interesting to write down (IMHO). But soon after, there was a screening of the film Brooklyn, another historically-accurate, sentimental love story that was adapted from an acclaimed book (screenplay by Nick Hornby). I made quite a few notes about that movie. Remarkably, the two films take place in the same year and in the same city (New York and its environs) and both generally deal with the problems of pulled-in-two-directions love and related family pressure. The big difference: I care about the characters in Brooklyn!

"Brooklyn" movie poster.
Brooklyn movie poster.

 In the movie Brooklyn, the main character is Ellis Lacey (played with heart by Saoirse Ronan), and like Carol, she struggles with a love dilemma and is nearly torn apart by it. Both stories also include a theme about secrets and spies who reveal those secrets, plus the themes of betrayal and nasty gossip. Watching Ellis, I ached for her. Carol’s plight left me cold.

Both films have been critically applauded for their lush cinematography and vivid, vintage design. But in Brooklyn, the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them. Interestingly, in an interview after the screening, director John Crowley explained that he wanted the film to “seem artless,” and he did not cast the roles “for looks,” but rather for “inner truth.” And that inner truth is indeed expressed in the film, which rises above its sentimentality by letting the characters earn their emotions. Crowley brings the audience close and lets us follow the inner workings of the characters. Haynes maintains a cool distance throughout.

"Brooklyn" looks real.
“Brooklyn” looks real.

There is a scene in Brooklyn where Ellis takes her first trip to the beach at Coney Island, and when she comes out from behind her towel and reveals her “swim costume,” it is a glorious moment. I felt myself beaming for her. I wrote in my notes, “rapture!” And the feeling of rapture is exactly what was needed and missing from Carol. When Ellis’ sister dies, I was devastated. I felt her pain. For Carol, I could only yawn (and sneer at suffering that seemed so fake).

Todd Haynes, I know you are a skilled and well-regarded filmmaker (and thank you for the movie I’m Not There, where Cate Blanchett is put to much better use, btw), but Helen Highly suggests that you watch the movie Brooklyn and take a few notes.


Click: Get News about the awards and accolades that “Carol” has received.

Click: What do you think? Cast your vote: Is Carol Best Movie of the Year, or is Brooklyn better? Click this image to vote and see the results so far:

OR: Don’t love Brooklyn (or didn’t see it) but want to stop the insanity about Carol?  Vote for Carol vs ANY OTHER FILM as Best Movie of the Year. Click this image to vote: