HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Category: Books (Page 1 of 3)

Interesting TImes

Interesting Times

There are fleeting moments when the public scene recalls the Weimar republic of 1932-33. In this American phantasmagoria, an empty-faced girl in a scarlet cloak and a clown’s hat points a gun… the unemployed mill about.. the largest city is about to go bankrupt… a feckless President, another wooden titan, drones stolidly… exorcists, astrologers, and strange oriental gurus wander through… the screens, large and small, pulsate with violence and pornography…. the godfathers last tango with clockwork orange in deep throat… women in pants bawl lustily while anguished youths try to be gay… a motherly woman raises her gun and fires…screams… Underlying all this is a new spirit of nihilism, a radical disbelief in any rational, objective basis for ethical norms or for orderly political change.

— New York Times columnist William Shannon

Interesting Times

Patty Hearst posing with the SLA insignia

If there is a more descriptive caricature of America in the middle 1970s I have not yet read it. The “Weimar” summer the writer referring to was 1975 and up to that point it had been a pretty bad year: runaway inflation; a stagnant economy; New York City fiscally bankrupt; Cambodia and Vietnam falling into Communist rule in dramatic fashion; two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford’s life; terrorist bombings (89 over the course of the year); heiress Patty Hearst on the lamb with the radical outfit Symbionese Liberation Army; textbook wars in West Virginia; antibusing riots in Boston; and a congressional commission investigating systematic abuse and murder by the CIA. This in the aftermath of the OPEC embargo and energy crisis in 1973 and the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon in 1974. There was, in politics, economics, and in all walks of social life, a “crisis in confidence.”

The writer’s reference to Weimar Germany in 1933 signals the author’s dire pessimism of what might come to pass. On the other hand, one would have thought that all this turbulence would be a catalyst for reflection, for significant change, for “growing up,” which entailed abandoning the myth of American exceptionalism and the harsh reality we might be as flawed as the banana republics where our CIA was fomenting agitation and death. Yet the following summer in our Bicentennial year, Ronald Reagan, a former B-list actor that not a single pundit took seriously, nearly won the GOP nomination for President. He did this on a radically conservative agenda that almost entirely ignored the reality of a culturally diverse and economically complex superpower. Four years later he would take this movement mainstream winning a landslide election and once and for all twisting the knife in 1960s idealism. Rick Perlstein’s wonderful history of the middle 1970s, The Invisible Bridge, is about how the fall of Nixon led to the rise of Reagan and the modern conservative movement that took hold in America.

there might not have ever been a Reagan Revolution, and all of its attendant disastrous consequences. It would have been a different world, almost certainly a better one. Click To Tweet

Interesting Times

Interesting TImes

Operation Frequent Wind (better known as the Fall of Saigon)

In 1974, a retiring congressman said, “Politics has gone from an age of ‘Camelot’ when all things were possible to the age of ‘Watergate’ when all things are suspect.” Perlstein often references the “small and suspicious circles” who go from a Greek chorus chattering in the margins to the mainstream, their voices expanding into a din. The suspicious ones are vindicated time and again for their paranoia, most especially for Watergate. The revelations therein: Nixon’s “enemies list,” suitcases of cash, burglaries, break-ins, forgeries, plans to kidnap activists during the Republican convention. Meanwhile, the Moonies, EST, and all kinds of cults are thriving, as the hippies moved back from the communes but couldn’t quite readapt to the system. “Once upon a time ‘the occult’ had been the redoubt of rubes. Now, in a world where the usual sources of authority no longer had answers for anything, the weird stuff was getting more serious consideration.” In a bestselling paperback written by psychics, Predictions for 1974, a stock market crash, swarms of locusts and floods “like the plagues of Egypt” were augured. Many feared Nixon wouldn’t leave the White House without calling in the army and maybe staging a coup, or even going nuclear in an alcoholic delirium. Unfounded fears, as Watergate finally did bring down Nixon but when his replacement, the mild-mannered Midwesterner, Gerald Ford pardoned him “absolutely,” he too marked himself as an “insider,” one of them.

Around the time of Watergate, an exposé by journalist Seymour Hersh revealed CIA drug running in Laos, assassination attempts, pivotal roles in coups setting up right wing dictatorships, and more. Led by Senator Frank Church and New York congressman Otis Pike, an investigation uncovered numerous illegalities, but at a certain point the public suffered scandal-fatigue. The New York Times and The Washington Post, both instrumental in bringing down Nixon, buried the stories. And while many worried about the State of the Union for America’s 200th birthday, the collective mood of the country ended up feeling good and proud. Americans were frankly tired of feeling guilty about Vietnam and Watergate. They were ready to move on.

Interesting Times

The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein

The Invisible Bridge is long– 800 pages long– and while it is comprehensive of the era, covering economic and social issues, as well as pop culture (The Godfather infecting Watergate criminality, The Exorcist touching on cults brainwashing daughters, Jaws as the invisible, uncontrollable menace lurking just out of our sight), Perlstein is a politics geek. Much of his research is devoted to the rise of Ronald Reagan. The historian covers his impoverished childhood with an alcoholic father, his unwavering belief in self, his lifeguard stint, his nearsightedness (and refusal to wear glasses), his leftism in college, a radio career, movie stardom, his marriages to Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis, spokesperson for GE, his move to the right and strong anti-communist stance, Governor of California and his vilification of student activists, and finally a rich man on the speakers’ circuit commanding $5000 for an hour’s talk. Always aware of being watched, of presenting an image. Here was a man capable of making all the cruelties of conservatism tolerable, even likable. The momentum for him to be elected reminded him the nature of his work as a lifeguard: “Then along came Ronald Reagan, encouraging citizens to think like children, waiting for a man on horseback to rescue them.” Whatever complexity encountered could be reduced by him to a matter of good and evil.

After the midterms elections of 1974– so-called “Watergate Baby” Democrats sweeping many Republicans out of office– the race to be the presidential nominee in 1976 should have been wide open but Jimmy Carter, a heretofore unknown former governor of Georgia, won outright by conveying the strongest anti-Washington “outsider” stance. Normally, incumbent presidents don’t expect much of a challenge from their party, but Ford, who had Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in his cabinet, was not conservative enough for the reactionaries who wanted a Reagan candidacy. Beyond the culture war– abortion, busing, history textbooks, the Equal Rights Amendment– the power brokers wanted deregulation, smaller government, and lower taxes, basically deconstructing the New Deal. As former speechwriter Pat Buchanan put it in his column: “Ford is a conservative… a conservatism marked by wariness of status quo… It is a don’t-rock-the-boat conservatism exemplified by what Mr. Ford calls the politics of cooperation, conciliation, compromise, and consensus… But Reagan was there to lead Republicans who believe that conflict, not compromise, is the essence of politics.”

After more than six months of primaries and caucuses, Ford had only a slightly larger lead than Reagan and the nomination process had to go all the way to the GOP convention in Kansas City. Ford clinched it when he swayed the Mississippi delegation to his side after some raucous politicking and backroom dealing. Ford might have won the battle but Reagan won the war for the soul of the Republican party. The delegates at the convention ratified a pro-life, anti-detente, pro-gun, antibusing, pro-school-prayer platform.

This was not yet a popular view in 1976. When Gallup polled voters on a Reagan vs. Carter match, Carter consistently topped Reagan by three times as many votes. Had they gone against each other in 1976, Reagan might have been defeated, soundly even, his reactionary platform discredited as unwinnable, a failure. Perhaps then not every single president in the last few generations would have taken his cue, dividing citizens and nations into good guys and bad guys to fit Manichean world views. Moreover, there might not have ever been a Reagan Revolution, and all of its attendant disastrous consequences. It would have been a different world, almost certainly a better one. That said, there is something about Reagan and his flamboyant charm that seemed inevitable. It’s poor taste to ever use that adjective with history, but with someone like Reagan, it seems appropriate. Germany got Hitler in its Weimar moment, we got Reagan, which isn’t to say we didn’t lose too. Losing can be complicated and difficult to define, notwithstanding some presidential philosophies.

Life and Death on Mount Everest

“…the highest of mountains is capable of severity, a severity so awful sand so fatal that the wiser sort of men do well to think and tremble even on the threshhold of their high endeavor.”

— George Mallory

Life and Death on Mount Everest

The path to Everest in 1921 and 2006

No matter how immovable the many mountains may seem, the recent earthquakes in Nepal have illuminated to the world how fragile the ground beneath our feet truly is. Epicentered between Pokhara and Kathmandu in central Nepal, the 7.8-magnitude earthquake has killed and wounded thousands, left homeless many hundreds of thousands more, and decimated the infrastructure of the mountainous country. Many more casualties are expected as aftershocks continue to set life on edge. And while officials slowly respond to the isolated communities of villages dotting the Nepali countryside, locals do what they can to help on their own. Climbers in the Himalayan mountains have felt firsthand a small portion of what the creation of the globe’s youngest mountain range may have felt like when the Indian Plate collided with the Eurasian plate. That collision is still happening. The earthquake triggered several avalanches, one of which poured through Everest Base Camp like a 20-story tall tidal wave of snow, killing 18 in the process.

Apart from the tragic loss of life, the damage of cultural capital is devastating. Irreplaceable sites of archaeological significance have been obliterated. It will take years and billions to recover from the disaster (unless we forgive their debt). Unqualified aid workers streaming into the country (ala the 2010 Haiti earthquake) are not what the Nepali need. Claire Bennett suggests handouts in the short term and rebuilding sustainably in the long term. Perhaps it is too early to comment, but this horrible event may provide an opportunity for just that kind of change. The Nepali disaster seems similar to many other Asian countries that have suffered earthquakes in that an abnormally high number of deaths occur where poor infrastructure and high poverty are the norm. The average Nepali salary is roughly equivalent to $750. The most lucrative job belong to the Sherpa who are the designated guide to the Himalaya, earning several thousands of dollars per climbing season. With the advent of adventure mountaineering, climbing Mt. Everest has become a reality for people whose only qualification is the thousands of dollars for a permit, especially since the government slashed the permit price in order to attract more climbers, most of whom have no business climbing the Santa Monica Mountains let alone the most dangerous mountain range in the world.

But to what end? Merely to be the first western men to stand atop a mountain that the Nepalese and Tibetans hold sacred? Click To Tweet

The Siege on Everest

While it seems idiotic to say that karma has anything to do with the recent tragedies on Everest, there are surely some who have thought about it. Many believe that Miyolangsangma, a Tibetan Buddhist “Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving”, once lived at the top of what the Nepali call Sagarmāthā, Mt. Everest. According to Broughton Coburn in his article on Sherpas for National Geographic “to Sherpa Buddhist monks, Mt. Everest is Miyolangsangma’s palace and playground, and all climbers are only partially welcome guests, having arrived without invitation.” The mountain may be a playground for the gods, but it remains a dangerous and dirty reality for all parties involved in the new economy coming to Nepal.

In his book Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, Wade Davis reveals the reticence of the Tibetans and the outright denial of the Nepalese to allow the British into their country. Decades of failed attempts involving stealth, subterfuge, and the cold-blooded slaughter of monks by the British finally saw the door to Everest open. But to what end? Merely to be the first western men to stand atop a mountain that the Nepalese and Tibetans hold sacred? Perhaps that ultimate quest, so nobly started, has since been taken too far. Our World, the UN University’s online magazine published a story in 2013 concerning Vanity, Pollution and Death on Mt. Everest and National Geographic offers 6 ways to repair Everest. But more than the pollution that the western world brings with it, recently the mountain has been taking tribute back. Outside Online looks at 2014, Everest’s Darkest Year, in which 16 Sherpa died when a 31 million pound serac broke off of the western shoulder and plummeted onto the Popcorn Field of the Khumbu Icefall. Little did the author know that just one season later, in 2015, would his title need to be revised to Everest’s 2nd Darkest Year.

Alongside being an award-winning anthropologist, the author of fifteen books, Wade Davis, is National Geographic’s Explorer In Residence. In Into The Silence, he shows the British expeditions of the Himalayan Range—and much of the conquest of the third world—are characterized by the dualism of Britain: the manifest destiny of a deserving upper class to deliver the world from savagery and the romantic notions of misanthropic lower-middle class dreamers to be useful. The rest are just more cannon fodder for the colonies. Somewhere in the quagmire of imperialistic desires and day-to-day reality there is argument that despite the massive culling of the “savages” in the process, that there is a kind of noble sentiment, much as the Japanese continue to argue about their erstwhile Asian colonies, in the British mapping, modernizing and laying the framework for much of the modern world. In the decades leading up to the first world war, the British Empire was continuing very much in a business as usual manner in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, New Guinea, much of Africa, and of course, India.

Mercantile zeal, severe military reprisals and the subversion of the local elites all played a role in the maintenance of the Raj. But what really held it together was the audacity of the venture, the sheer gall of a small island nation that had never set out to rule the world but did so with such flair.

–Wade Davis

As George Mallory and the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition searched for a route to the summit from the North Col of Mt. Everest late in 1921, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, was waiting for publication. Central to The Waste Land is the medieval Grail adventure of Parsifal, and the Fisher King, “he who is too ill to live but not ill enough to die”. The tale of the knight who seeks his own path on the pilgrimmage for wholeness mirrors on a minor scale Mallory’s own Himalayan quest, and on a major scale the search of a continent for meaning in a post-war world. Eliot was able to synthesize the hopes and fears of the western world—a world of people living inauthentic lives—in a beautiful and esoteric 64 page poem. Mallory was able to do this by pulling himself and a team of ragtag amateurs, so close to the top of the world, he became what the world needed most, a new Arthurian legend.

Life & Death on Mount Everest

Wade Davis – Into The Silence The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest

A part of this subconscious desire to conquer and yet be the benevolent rulers, for the British, was to discover the unknown. For more than one hundred years the cartographers of the Survey of India had triangulated and established every measurement of the subcontinent, save the youngest and tallest set of mountains in the world, the Himalaya. The biggest difference between the initial forays into the Himalaya frontier with those of today were that they began in Darjeeling rather than Nepal, a country that remained closed off to the British until after the second world war. In fact, the largest initial obstacles, other than getting to the remote northeast corner of India and acclimatizing to the severe altitude of the mountains themselves, were political considerations. Tibet wanted nothing to do with the British, and Nepal, a more established state at this time, was completely unwilling to to allow a survey team carte blanche to roam its valleys and peaks. Still, somehow the British made inroads into Tibet, with Brigadier-General Cecil Rawling, the Brit that had first explored the Himalaya and the foothills of Everest in 1903, who along with more than 500,000 others died at the Battle of Paschendaelle in 1917. There is the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Younghusband, who led a de facto invasion of the country and massacred hundreds of the monk militia at Guru. Despite this unspeakable act (which helped lead to Chinese control), Younghusband had become mystically entranced by the beauty of the country and wrote eloquently about it for the rest of his life. He became the president of the Royal Geographical Society in 1919 and, together with the Alpine Club, championed the reconnaissance of the Himalaya as the Chairman of the newly created Mount Everest Committee. When permission was finally granted by the 13th Dalai Lama for the 1921 expedition, it was an extremely unpopular decision with the other highly placed monks, who thought the British partly crazy for uselessly seeking to climb into such a dangerous scenario, and partly believed them to be a gang of spies. This paranoid belief eventually barred any member of the Survey of India from future inclusion on the climbing team, which with their surfeit of expert mountaineers became one of the reasons why the first campaigns resulted in at least some kind of failure.

Just having emerged from World War I, the career militarists who led the expeditions favored a militaristic siege style of expedition. This was to be an assault on the mountain and they needed a plan of attack. Almost the entirety of the team involved had miraculously survived the hell of the Great War and as such most were searching for some kind of meaning to make out of all the death. Davis calls conquering the tallest mountain in the world (and mapping yet another the unknown frontier to boot), a “gesture of imperial redemption” for a country that, despite it leading to no tangible result, except as Mallory famously put it when asked while on tour in the U.S., “because it is there,” could be what both the men involved and the British public at large very much needed to revive the old English pluck.

Yet ignorant of the impending danger lurking at every cruelly beautiful rise and somehow flailing through the journey without completely destroying themselves, the first campaigns led by General Bruce could be likened to infants toddling about in a minefield. The naïveté of the ingenue Brits, who didn’t know that they should all be failing horribly and so actually merited a measure of success, even as the bureaucracy of the Everest Committee committed mistake after mistake, turns out to be something of an asset, and is exemplified by the absent-minded dreamer George Mallory, an idiot-savant of a mountain climber who almost single-handedly pioneered the northern route to the summit. It was only the lack of understanding the nature of the Himalaya connection with the subcontinent’s summer monsoon season, and the onset of winter, that prevented a serious attempt. So blinded by their own westernized hubris the team thought merely missing the winter snows would be sufficient and so didn’t depart for Darjeeling from England by steamer until early April 1921, and didn’t begin the arduous trek through the Chumbi Valley until May, spent June and July stumbling around the Rongbuk valley and its glaciers, were stalled by the monsoon in August and September, finally reaching the path to Everest, deranged and bedraggled, sometime in October.

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Everest Panoramas by Howard-Bury, C.K. The Mount Everest Expedition.

Yet it was not Mallory who found that path, but Edward Oliver Wheeler, Canadian surveyor, who in stealing away on his own to photograph found passage through the East Rongbuk glacier below the Lhakpa La pass. It wasn’t until September that Mallory, Bullock & Wheeler used the Lhakpa La pass to become the first westerners to reach the North Col of Everest and set the modern route to the mountain. Though considered a mere surveyor by many, Wheeler was an accomplished climber, having grown up ascending the Canadian Rockies, as well the chief photographer of that first expedition. Apart from the capturing the minds of subsequent climbers and the British public, his photographic efforts may have more rapidly brought about the development of the modern portable camera:

He carried the camera, a supply of eleven glass plates, as well as notebooks and pencils in a stout leather case in a knapsack that weighed some thirty pounds. The theolodite broke down into to parts, each stored in a protective wooden box. Together with the tripod, this added another twenty-seven pounds. The leveling base for the camera, spare plate holders, measuring tapes, three-cornered canvas bags to fill with dirt or stones to steady the tripod, and other miscellaneous items brought the total field kit to nearly 100 pounds. In addition, there was the supply of glass negatives, which Wheeler had packed himself, wrapping each plate in dry botanical paper, then placing them individually in one-inch protective sleeves in tin-lined boxes, which he personally sealed with solder. Each of these boxes weighed thirty-two pounds. He would secure and develop 240 images.

Having reached the North Col and been turned away, yet still miraculously alive (save for Keller) the team, defeated but not dismayed, through the Everest Committee, quickly geared up for a second expedition in the spring of 1922. Though they were much earlier than in 1921 the group were still disadvantaged by several key factors:

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Self portrait of John Noel, filming the ascent from Chang La, the North Col in 1922

E.O. Wheeler, the Canadian surveyor who found the path to the North Col, was discluded due to politics rather than talent. The team would miss his variety of skill. The 48-year-old Colonel Strutt, was made new “climbing leader” by General Bruce largely due to him being a highly decorated military commander. The team still had little idea of the true route to the North Face and wasted precious time between the end of winter and the oncoming Monsoon Season searching various paths. Though they had the use of oxygen tanks, this was the first time a human had climbed above 8,000 m (26,247 ft), and all involved had little idea how lack of oxygen affected humans at high altitude. Many preferred to go without, to their detriment. The attitude of “real men don’t use bottle air” likely still holds some kind sway to this day. All this in addition to insufficient equipment (clothing, tents, food) and equipment failure (those damn oxygen tanks), as well as the lack of any decent idea about how the monsoon rains affect weather at the top of the world. They would not make the peak. The wishy-washy method of finding a route in time plus the unpredictability of the monsoon made ascent impossible and put the climbing team in more unpredictable and dangerous situations where making life and death decisions too casually caused the death of seven porters in an avalanche on the descent from the North col.

Despite the unrealistic pressures of the militarists for success at all cost versus the mountaineers more realistic view yet equally deranged undertaking, the addition of the photographer John Noel was crucial to the future of the mythical Mount Everest in the eyes of the western world. He would go on to make two documentaries about his experiences in the Himalaya and be key in fundraising to get the team back to the mountain in 1924.

There is a way to remove the perversion from our once honorable acts of exploration--to cease the destruction of the natural world to our financial profit and physical and spiritual deficit. Click To Tweet

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Life & Death on Mount Everest

Mallory’s Route up the North Face

While the remainder of 1922 was reserved for soul-searching the Everest Committee was committed to another shot at Everest. Despite bankruptcy that delayed them an entire year and a continued military style leadership that was more political than practical, it had become abundantly clear that Mallory was the only one who could attempt and truly have a shot at the peak, but he needed more than just an adequate team, he needed to believe. The mountain had changed Mallory in ways he had never suspected possible. Despite all of his newfound fame at home he was almost destitute, still away from his family for the most part, having to work as a teacher for disagreeable men, yet enjoying no sense of the exhilaration of exploring such a place as the Himalaya, where men dared not go. After having been so close to the top, one can only imagine the solitude he felt at the bottom, where he was just another regular joe amongst the rest of the lowly rabble of society. It was for his wife that the decision cost him any sleep, for soon enough he was neck deep in preparations for the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition.

The elderly head of the expedition Charles Bruce was soon struck down with malaria and succeeded by Edward Norton, an officer and a capable climber. On finding the route and establishing camps higher and higher along the way to the North Col, Captain Geoffrey Bruce (the brother of the General) along with Mallory made the first summit attempt. Abandoned by their porters and having to set up camp themselves in torrents of icy wind without the use of oxygen, they soon descended to a lower camp and met Norton and Dr. T. Howard Somervell on their way up. It was here that Norton set the confirmed world record climbing altitude of 8570 m which was not surpassed for another 28 years until the 1952 Swiss Mount Everest Expedition. But he too was turned away due to climbing difficulty and lack of oxygen, while his partner Somervell nearly died on top. On the way down, he passed Mallory and the engineering student Andrew Irvine, who had decided to give it one last attempt, this time with oxygen.

Mallory and Irvine disappeared from the visibility of John Noel’s cameras a mere 800 feet from the summit. A sudden storm rolled in and they were never seen alive again. Could they have made summit—exhausted and with little oxygen left—in the whipping wind and stinging snow? Separating them from the peak at a height of 8,610 meters (28,250 ft) was the Second Step, a prominent upwelling of rock jutting 40 meters into the air–a very difficult, if not impossible free climb. Since a Chinese climbing team attached a ladder in 1975 this step has not had the significance it would have had to a team climbing without modern technology in the midst of a sudden storm, such as Mallory could have faced.

Mallory’s wife Ruth was waiting patiently in England for her husband to conquer the mountain and come home to her. That never happened. What did happen is up for supposition. The central question to The Wildest Dream (Anthony Geffen, 2010), the story of Conrad Anker going back to Everest 8 years after discovering George Mallory’s body in 1999, to revisit the 1924 expedition undertaken by Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine: was George Mallory the first to summit Mt. Everest? Anker is a compelling protagonist and an expert mountaineer, who drags a youthful and adept climber Leo Houlding along with him to retrace the steps of the infamous pair—often employing the same clothing, shoes and equipment—in their trailblazing ascent. We learn that when Anker found Mallory’s body he did not find the picture of his wife Mallory had promised to place atop the summit should he make it. It was also not among his papers in his breast pocket, yet a recently penned letter to Ruth was. So where did the photo go? Did Mallory achieve summit and place the photo where he reported he would, or did the well-known absent-minded mountaineer merely lose it while shuffling last-minute through his papers?

It is an understandable passion, to see a mountain and want to scale it, for good or ill, we will never stop the quest to explore our world. Whether it be the honorable act of mountain climbing corrupted or one of profitable oil drilling gone bad, the world will not wait for permission. Come what may, we act now and beg for forgiveness later. In the rush to outpace death we often invite it to our own–and those less advantaged’s–doorstep. But what is the alternative? To wait for life to snuff itself out, whittling away at a lump of wood on the porch, or to seek it out, even to the extremes and damned be the costs, for the glory of humankind? There is a way to remove the perversion from our once honorable acts of exploration–to cease the destruction of the natural world to our financial profit and physical and spiritual deficit. Beyond whether man’s desire to attain the peak of Everest (or any other absurd activity) at any cost merely “because it is there” is right or wrong, should we not rather look toward the plight of the many and spend our precious time and limited energy on fixing our homes and neighborhoods? Or as Sogyal Rinpoche says:

All too often people come to meditation in the hope of extraordinary results, like visions, lights, or some supernatural miracle. When no such thing occurs, they feel extremely disappointed. But the real miracle of meditation is more ordinary and much more useful.


Mount Everest the Reconnaissance, 1921, by Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury and George H. Leigh-Mallory and A. F. R. Wollaston
Climbing Mount Everest, 1922, The Epic of Everest, 1924, by John Noel
Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, 2011, by Wade Davis, Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Mount Everest Fight Raises Questions About Sherpas Broughton Coburn, National Geographic (magazine).

420 - Green Is Good

420 – Green Is Good

“Hemp is, by far, Earth’s premier, renewable natural resource.”
— Jack Herer

In Jack Herer’s scathing Corporate takedown, The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy, he talks about the history of hemp:

Botanically, hemp is a member of the most advanced plant family on Earth. It is a dioecious (having male, female and sometimes hermaphroditic, male and female on same plant), woody, herbaceous annual that uses the sun more efficiently than virtually any other plant on our planet, reaching a robust 12 to 20 feet or more in one short growing season. It can be grown in virtually any climate or soil condition on Earth, even marginal ones.

420 - Green Is Good

That is a most kindly flag Miss Ross. Sew up another please!

Among its many uses hemp was crafted into canvas sails, virtually all of the rigging, anchor ropes, cargo nets, fishing nets, flags, shrouds, and sailors’ clothing for ocean-going vessels, as well as Levis, tents, bed sheets and linens, rugs, drapes, quilts, towels, diapers, and the U.S. flag, all principally made from fibers of cannabis. Additionally, any ships’ charts, maps, logs, and Bibles were made from paper containing hemp fiber. Roll that up and smoke it Moses. Not to mention, paint, varnish, lamp oil, food, and of course, medicine. yet it may be its use as a paper product that created the environment in which it met its a legislature too large.

The 1930s saw the creation of the decorticator – a new mechanical hemp fiber stripping machine– as well as machines to conserve hemp’s high-cellulose pulp threaten to become widespread enough to lower the cost of mass-produced hemp-based paper products a reality–and a danger–tonot only the American public, but to American manufacturing, and most importantly Randolph Heart’s newspapers. Hearst had large timber interests and a paper manufacturing division, and stood to lose the substantial profits he made by selling the yellow journalism he daily coerced his editors into spewing, such as, “Mexican killer weed, Marihuana.” This snowballed into other racist epithets (“Marihuana-crazed blacks raping whites”) that were largely accepted by the majority Caucasian populace and scared the citizenry into silent acceptance for 60 years.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, drafted by Harry Anslinger–an anti-drug nutjob who held the post of Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for more than 30 years–placed a tax on the sale of cannabis. This affected few beside the AMA (American Medical Association), which prescribed marijuana medicinally. The Tax Act is seen as the precursor to criminalization of the plant, a conspiracy hatched by Hearst and the DuPont Petrochemical Company, which had just invented Nylon, a rival fiber that may have challenged DuPont investor Andrew Mellon’s (Anslinger’s Father-in-law and Secretary of the Treasury at the time) interests.

The only major opposition to the Marihuana Tax Act was brought by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who in 1939 created the La Guardia Committee, which conducted the first in-depth study into the effects of smoking cannabis. Contradicting claims made by the U.S. Treasury Department, the committee concluded that “the practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.” The report did little beside angering Anslinger, who was not a doctor, though he called it unscientific. Incredible that the Treasury once wielded such power. And so with little more fanfare than the beginning of 60 years of arrests for the possession and sale of minor amounts of fruit of the hemp plant.

420 – Green Is Good

While there are many who point to the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana as being a stepping off point into the oblivion of a lawless society, the continued stigmatization of the plant as something different than any other socially acceptable drug with generally mild euphoric effect, is past the point of being saleable to an increasingly world-savvy generation of people with some kind of disposable incomes. Almost 60% of millennials see marijuana as something that should be legalized, while the boomer and gen xers tend to top out at just over 50%, dually ironic in that kids are starting to see things as their parents do, and that the hippy generation who championed “Peace Not War” has become conservative almost to a fault. More than %05 of Americans do think it should be recreationally legal, a fact that is hard to ignore in a world where hardliners want to cut tax revenue and worries about future solvency of Social Security and healthcare seem to be never-ending. Let the people eat cake, especially if it’s safely laced with THC and well, but not prohibitively, taxed.

420 - Green Is Good

Pew Research Marijuana Map

Despite opposition, the tide is turning. In four states – Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon as well as Washington D.C., recreational use of marijuana has become legal in the last two years, while an additional 14 states have decriminalized certain amounts of marijuana possession. Including those five locations, 23 states plus D.C. and Guam allow medical marijuana. As far as the U.S. government is concerned Marijuana remains a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, classified as having a “high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use.” However the Obama Administration has been active in not prosecuting those involved in the medicinal marijuana trade. As well as staying away from Colorado & Washington recreational tax revenues. That doesn’t mean any of these new businesses popping up will accept a debit card anytime soon.

Hemp has thousands of applications developed over the millennia by industrious people who did not have the benefit of modern technology, including by the U.S. military during WWII. With the advent of high tech processes that could streamline the production of high quality hemp products, it is wasteful to continue in the current fashion, especially when the major hang-up is the prohibition-era teetotaller-minded stigmitization based on lies and profit for the privileged few. It was only in the Tax Act of 1937 and the subsequent Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that it became a Schedule I substance equal to heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and crack. What was happening in the early part of last century is largely what is happening now – the widespread medicinal application of a generally mild euphoric relaxant. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, the first state in the union to allow for the medical use of marijuana. In response to California’s Prop 215 the Institute of Medicine put together a report which found that “Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation…The psychological effects of cannabinoids, such as anxiety reduction, sedation, and euphoria can influence their potential therapeutic value. Those effects are potentially undesirable for certain patients and situations and beneficial for others.” That’s science’s way of saying, Randolph Hearst was full of shit.

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

The intimate time and space of a single human being had been fossilized forever in this web of chromium knives and frosted glass.

                                                                                          –Crash, J.G. Ballard

I should, I mean, I really, really should like British writer, J.G. Ballard. His stories are based on fascinating premises, narrative hypotheses that tackle the underlying savagery of modern society, particularly, the bourgeois everyman. Nevertheless, I find the dramatization of his dystopian ideas farfetched and silly, wholly unbelievable, and generally perverse without the cold satisfaction of having engaged with something genuinely cathartic. Moreover, his signature prose, celebrated by so many, is clinically detached to a fault, a pallid language bled pale of color or dazzle (all his sentences are competent, occasionally good, but none of them are wonderful). Then there is the trouble with his narrators: careless, diffident, self-absorbed professionals who bed down with numerous attractive women, more than they deserve, considering their absence of beguiling qualities. His most famous novel, Crash, regarding the sexual fetishism of car crash victims, is the ne plus ultra of stylized unpleasant Ballardian narcissism, not very enjoyable but readable as a psychopathic, amateur armchair Freudian excursion.

The main problem with fetishism (besides its inscrutable provenance) is it's very much a one-note tune Click To Tweet

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Crash concerns a certain James Ballard (I’ll leave it to the Freudians to handle the author using his real name for his narrator), a successful TV commercial producer living near London’s airport in Shepperton (yet another real life connection to Ballard) who suffers a head-on collision, injuring a woman, Helen Remington, and killing her husband. Recovering in the hospital he meets Vaughan, an uber-creepy pathological psycho in a white lab coat and dark sunglasses with a sinewy body and bad complexion. Vaughan introduces Ballard to the underground world of car accident fetishism. Together they steal decent model makes, go joyriding, hire hookers for backseat fellatio, smash fenders while dropping on acid, and fantasize about some ultimate car accident in which Vaughan collides his Lincoln Towncar with Elizabeth Taylor, marrying their flesh with the catastrophic debris of the crash, to wit, “a mysterious eroticism of wounds: the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels, seat-belts smeared with excrement, sun-visors lined with brain tissue.” It might sound a bit much, but hey don’t you know these are “the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology.”

The somewhat unholy trifecta of sex, violence, and technology is hardly a frontier; rather it is an arrangement long explored by artists, philosophers, and sophists, either intuitively or intellectually, for a long time. Ballard’s vision is just an extraordinarily extreme and narrow echo of others’ and he can be quite literal about it: “Television newsreels of wars and student riots, natural disasters and police brutality which we vaguely watched on the color TV set in our bedroom as we masturbated each other.” Since Ballard has no heart to wear on his sleeve, the outcome of his explorations is a technocratic orifice to be twaddled by numbed phallic instruments. In other words, there is no meaning, no satori, in all this masturbating over the steering column, or in his words: “a marriage of my penis with all the possibilities of a benevolent technology.”

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

James Spader as Ballard– about to be rear-ended and turned on

Our narrator, not a very decent human being, is absolutely prolific in describing his titillations. A peripheral character, Gabrielle, car crash victim-turned-pervert “held the chromium treadles in her strong fingers as if they were extensions of her clitoris.” (have I mentioned that Ballard never met a metaphor he didn’t like?) Ballard, our reliable fiend, discovered that “her crippled things and wasted calf muscles were models for fascinating perversities.” But why, Ballard, why? And all right, you might get a hard-on from her crippled thighs, but why should she get off on her mutilated body, a body that can never run, swim, or dance again? Not all your readers are freudian know-it-alls. Is she making lemonade out of lemons or does paraphilia (intense excitement or affection for atypical objects) not need an explanation, existing inexplicably in a vacuum all its own? But it doesn’t seem so since for all the actors in this pitiful drama it is the trauma of the automobile accident that activates their bizarre peccadilloes.

The main problem with fetishism (besides its inscrutable provenance) is it’s very much a one-note tune (the same is patently true of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the book in 1996, set in Toronto and starring James Spader as Ballard). It’s the same carnal obsession, repeated ad infinitium: “The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.” (Does that sentence sound familiar, just slightly reworked and tinkered?) Occasionally, the prose gets out of hand to a level of extreme nuttery (“her swollen breasts spurting liquid feces”) but Crash for all its shocking material and complete lack of morality is actually a boring book, just as fetishism, lacking dynamics, is often just a tool’s way of ejaculating his weird energy. The most fascinating aspect of Crash, in fact, is James Ballard’s decision to name his doppelganger, James Ballard. Is the novel then some sort of confession (not just of fetishism but what of the story’s tremendous homoerotic energy)? It takes tremendous effort to create a novel, even something as one-dimensional as Crash. Why then did Ballard bother to write it? What was he trying to tell us? What exactly did the real-life Mrs. Ballard think of the following sentence, “I visualized my wife injured in a high-impact collision, her mouth and face destroyed, and a new and exciting orifice opened in her perineum by the splintering steering column, neither vagina nor rectum, an orifice we could dress with all our deepest affections.” For that matter, what did Elizabeth Taylor make of being the locus of his vicious starfucking fantasy? What did she ever do to Ballard besides in all probability provoking in him an adolescent hard-on way back when? Ballard’s novel is not morally objectionable so much as it is breathtakingly insensitive. The author’s absence of human empathy is nothing short of astonishing. A good companion piece to the novel (or Cronenberg’s film) is Warner Herzog’s public service short From One Second to the Next, which addresses the dangers of texting while driving by showing very personal stories of both victims and perpetrators of accidents caused by yet another accoutrement of technology. There are no erections or bodily fluid expulsions here, merely heartbreak, tears and regret, and the sadness of what was to what has become.

Hirohito & His Legacy

Hirohito & His Legacy

“He is a little man, about five feet two inches in height, in a badly cut gray striped suit, with trousers a couple of inches too short. He has a pronounced facial tic and his right shoulder twitches constantly. When he walks, he throws his right leg a little sideways as if he has no control over it. He was obviously excited and ill at ease, and uncertain of what to do with his arms and hands.”

  –journalist Mark Gayn describing Emperor Hirohito on one of his postwar goodwill tours, March 26th, 1946.

The American novelist, William Faulkner, famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” His subject matter was black-white race relations and the legacy of slavery in the American South, but his words serve the Japanese experiment in twentieth century imperialism, the scars of its militarism yet unhealed, and the descendants of the rulers and the oppressed nursing respective grievances. World War II ended nearly seventy years ago, the blood spilled long since washed away, but a new nationalism in East Asia is drawing up a stale and divisive rhetoric, taking arrogant postures, and pretending history is malleable and can be recast according to one’s manufactured political persuasions.

Bix argues it was Hirohito's self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan's cause was lost Click To Tweet

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan - Herbert BixThe American historian, Herbert Bix’s biography of Japan’s most notorious emperor, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Harper Collins, 2000), is an 800-page tome indicting Hirohito in no uncertain terms for the war crimes for which he was never prosecuted. Like an attorney who will leave no doubt in the reader’s mind, Bix carefully assembles a narrative, beginning with Hirohito’s grandfather, Meiji, and how his constitution allocated tremendous authority to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Nearly a hundred pages of the book are citations of evidence reflecting Japanese militarism and a racist philosophy propagated by Japanese intellectuals and historians that led to the colonization of Manchuria, sexual bondage in the Korean peninsula, and an irrational war of conquest that nearly caused Japan’s total obliteration. Every step of the way, Hirohito authorized or failed to punish the inhumane crimes of his military establishment. Moreover, Bix argues it was Hirohito’s self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan’s cause was lost, and that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians is the emperor’s burden, as much as it is that of the Americans who authorized the atomic apocalypses.

Modern Japanese militarism has its origins when policy leaders began debating the kokutai, an archaic rarely-used concept nowadays. Kokutai are the best possible principles of Japanese state and society. Alas, it was inevitable that conservative ideologues would win the interpretation to ensure a status quo of the nearly feudal hierarchy that defined the structure of Japanese society for most of its history. Kokutai was then coupled with kodo, the “imperial way,” a political theology that declared the divine right of the emperor, who embodied moral goodness. The court, the military, and conservative political operatives could then utilize their reactionary agenda via imperial decree, as the emperor could make palatable even the most ruthless policies.

Hirohito & His Legacy

Hirohito was an amateur marine biologist. Small in stature, shy, and awkward, he was not a strongman. His personality was easily overshadowed by his arrogant generals and court advisers. Nevertheless, he was intelligent, detail-oriented and had been inculcated by court tutors to take divine right seriously, and that it was his responsibility to take part in political affairs, legitimizing Japanese militarism to the poor farmer sons who would have to leave their homeland and their families for dubious acts of violence in China, Korea, and Taiwan in service of the Emperor.

Because of WWII’s total destruction, it’s easy to overlook the trauma of the first world war. After Versailles, the US and Britain, via the League of Nations, put together a number of international treaties outlawing wars of aggression, most famously the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928. Japanese leaders interpreted that as an Anglo-American initiative to consolidate their vast colonial holdings (a fair argument– they also called Europe on its hypocrisy, declaring peace overtures while resorting to violence to keep its multitudes in Africa and Asia in line). The Japanese imperialist philosophy, Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, wanted to rid Asia of European colonialists (as well as their pernicious cultural influence). The war in Asia– beginning in China, and spreading to Britain’s and France’s holdings in Southeast Asia, as well as the United States’ colony in the Philippines– was justified as Asia for Asians, though the new hierarchy would indubitably place Japan at the top.

Every step of the way, Hirohito rubber-stamped his generals’ advances. As emperor he could have cautioned or refuted militarism, and initially he sometimes did feel outrage at aggression, but overwhelmed by other, stronger personalities, he admitted “it can’t be helped,” whether it was the political assassinations, repression of radicals, the Nanking Massacre, Pearl Harbor, or allied bombing of Japanese civilians, Hirohito decided to continue an unwinnable war waged with morally dubious values.

There is no question that Hirohito had absolute power. There is also no doubt that by summer of 1944, Japan would lose the war. Their ally, Nazi Germany, had been invaded at Normandy, and it was certain that the Soviets would turn their attention to Japan once Berlin fell. Moreover, after a spectacular blitzkrieg in late 1941, early 1942, Japan lost every single battle against the United States beginning with Midway, sustaining heavy casualties (to surrender to the enemy was seen as an act of ultimate shame– better to die for the emperor). The US had closed Japanese sea lanes, in the process removing access to vital natural resources, as they slowly moved the Pacific war towards the home islands. In fact, the army and navy were in such dire shape, the only major losses the Americans were incurring by 1945 were kamikaze attacks and suicide charges. Thus, thousands of young men were being asked to die needlessly in the emperor’s name. Why did Hirohito permit this? Why didn’t he stop the war after Tokyo was firebombed on the night of March 9th, 1945 (in which 100,000 civilians were killed)? Instead they passed out bamboo spears to women, children, and old men in the event of an amphibious American invasion. They sent thousands of balloons charged with explosive across the Pacific (almost none of them reaching the U.S. and none detonating over population centers) Meanwhile, dozens of Japanese urban industrialized areas would be bombed in the five months between Tokyo’s firestorming and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why did Hirohito persist, causing so much unnecessary death?

Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none. Click To Tweet
The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

Self-preservation, of course. The Americans wanted unconditional surrender, like they’d had with Germany. The atomic bombs and the Soviet declaration of war (happening the same week, a very bad one for Japan) spelled the futility in no uncertain terms. On August 15th, 1945, Hirohito gave his famous radio address announcing Japan’s surrender. But the emperor needn’t have worried. Though he had to give up his divinity status, US leadership (under the guidance of General Douglas MacArthur) was more concerned with total destabilization brought on by his abdication (they were quite concerned about communism and radicalism). During the Tokyo Trials, Hirohito was not brought up as a war criminal and the infamous Hideki Tojo, became the fall guy, the villain, taking the rap for the emperor (supposedly the emperor wept the morning Tojo was executed). Hirohito received all the credit for surrendering and none of the blame for the catastrophe. He kept his throne, collaborated with the Americans for the reconstruction of Japan, and approved of the famous peace constitution written by the Americans “forever” renouncing war. Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none.

Bix has presented irrefutable evidence from various court sources and testimony regarding Hirohito’s war guilt. American leadership made a calculated choice not to prosecute him for these crimes. Bix’s immense and laboriously composed book is not necessarily a judgment on either the emperor nor Truman and MacArthur. It is not saying that Hirohito was a “bad” man. History is too complex for such trite conclusions. But it is conclusive that the emperor was complicit in giving his imperial seal on some of the worst excesses of Japanese war crimes. And moreover, his failure to act decisively in the certainty of defeat inexorably led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. This is not up for debate or revision. This is what happened. But how to imagine a Japan had Hirohito been tried and punished like his beloved general and prime minister, Tojo, is one of those pathways history turned away from.

So we return to Faulkner and the presence of the past, our contemporary time and a new nationalism ascendant in Japan’s far right government. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is playing a risky game of brinksmanship with South Korea and especially China, quarreling territorially over a few rocks near Taiwan and revising history, absolving Japan of its criminal past. It is terrifying to consider how clumsy Abe is diplomatically, moreover, how poorly he is mistaking his agenda as that of a populist’s. Japan’s far-right is a vocal community, but they are a distinct minority, and the vast population of Japan does not seem very politically inclined, and would certainly be outraged by any sacrifice induced by (yet another unwinnable) war with China. Perhaps he is thinking his security treaty with the United States means U.S. armed forces would do his dirty work? I don’t think any US president would commit American boys to China for a few uninhabitable rocks and Japan’s reactionary misguided historical viewpoint. And certainly, almost no Japanese today will be willing to die for their emperor. That ideological cult is in the dustbin of history. He is no longer a god, he is just a man, a flawed one, like all of us.

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

What is it about storytellers’ imagination that it is inspired by the dystopian rather than the utopian? Dystopian novels are intriguing, for sure, and they reconfigure our social, political, and economic failings in a contextualized environment. They are literary caveats, Cassandra-like parables about what our world could become if we give in to our fears and loathings. But what about the utopian novel? What about wondering the best possible world for mankind? Is this more difficult, if not impossible to fathom– a better, fairer society which functions smoothly and generously? Or is this more of the province of activists than authors?

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy (Houghton Mifflin, 1888)

Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy (Houghton Mifflin, 1888)

Unfortunately, you’ve probably never heard of Edward Bellamy, nor his utopian novel, Looking Backward, originally published way back in 1888, at the height of the Gilded Age. At the time, however, it was a blockbuster hit, outselling every novel of the 19th century (with the notable exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and leading to the burgeoning of dozens of progressive organizations. American history books tend to gloss over the 1890s, as the leitmotif of the decade was one of contentiousness, an uprising of labor against management, and for many on the front lines of the picket wars, the dogeared book tucked in their breast pocket was not Marx’s manifesto, but a “time travel” novel.

The story’s premise is simple: the year is 1887 and Julian West, a handsome, wealthy thirty-year-old engaged to a prominent Boston belle, is your 19th century version of the trust-fund loafer, whittling his time in clubs with brandy and cigars, oblivious to the misery of the working class poor and exasperated that the construction on his conjugal chateau has been disturbed by yet another labor strike. West’s troubles are tame in relation to the wage-slave factory hand, but he struggles with insomnia and has a hypnotist put him to sleep in a hermetically sealed underground chamber. This sleep unit survives a house fire in which West is presumed dead. More than a century later, in the year 2000, in the process of renovation, his chamber is discovered by the family now living on the grounds and West is revived, Lazarus-like, in a truly brave new world.

The family are the Leetes, the Dr., his wife, and their lovely daughter, Edith, and they are emblematic of contemporary folk– educated, generous, and incredulous at how people lived in utter desperation in the past. But what of the present? Bellamy’s Great Society is most specific on socio-economic changes rather than physical manifestations. It’s not so much the Jetsons as it is the Castros: a nation in which all industries are connected with the government, in which there is no cash (only debit cards) and where all workers, from the president to the pear-picker make do on the same salary.

Of course, this reads fundamentally like communism, but in this novel life functions more like Scandinavian egalitarianism than Soviet orthodoxy. This is a free society, in which, “every man for himself in accordance with his natural aptitude, the utmost pains being taken to enable him to find out what his natural aptitude really is.” In West’s age (and which continues in our time as well), the failure of the economic system to effectively “ develop and utilize the natural aptitudes of men for industries and intellectual avocations was one of the great wastes and causes of unhappiness.” Moreover, “mercenary considerations, tempting men to pursue money-making occupations for which they were unfit… were responsible for another vast perversion of talent.”

With full equality a reality, men (and women!) can pursue ideal career goals that stimulate their intellect, rather than work a miserable profession to procure bling trophies of first place rat race finish lines. Click To Tweet

With full equality a reality, men (and women!) can pursue ideal career goals that stimulate their intellect, rather than work a miserable profession to procure bling trophies of first place rat race finish lines. Families in Bellamy’s utopia live modestly but comfortably, private life luxuries sacrificed for a more extravagant public good, in which there are great collective dining and music halls, where all are welcome.

The novel is more closely a dialogue between the retired Dr. Leete and Julian West, naturally skeptical at first, but who comes around to understanding socialized paradigms as the natural inevitability of common sense, that, “it is the worst thing about any system which divides men, or allows them to be divided, into classes and castes, that it weakens the sense of a common humanity.”

It is often the case that we cannot see the forest for the trees, so that whatever present system we live (and loathe) under, it is difficult for most of us to contemplate any other way of life. But Dr. Leete’s (as a proxy for Bellamy) explication of 19th century’s business model’s prepositional “wastes” (of mistaken undertakings, from competition and mutual hostility, by periodical gluts and crises, from idle capital and labor at all times) is as true today as they were in the days of child labor and sharecropper farms. The system was “as absurd economically as it was morally abominable. Selfishness was their only science, and in industrial production selfishness is suicide.”

Through the tweaking of “certain fatal defects and prodigious imbecilities of private enterprise,” America’s economic system became more proficient and productive and, most importantly, less unequal. Higher achievement or excellence in performance is not rewarded remuneratively but with the bestowal of honor and the satisfaction of advancing the cause of humanity. In Bellamy’s imagined America, everyone contributes and no one starves, as “that the right of man to maintenance at the nation’s table depends on the fact that he is a man, and not on the amount of health and strength he may have, so long as he does his best.”

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

Edward Bellamy – The Man & Moustache Himself

Julian West is eventually won over by the idea of social progress and in a dream-within-a-dream sequence that or may not have happened (no spoilers from me!), he wakes up back in his Boston bed of 1887, still an entitled scion, but no longer immune to the heartbreaking struggles of the majority of his brethren. The precariousness of their cutthroat existence moves him to intolerable emotions and he cannot not live sensibly with his class of men, their gentlemen’s clubs and servants and supercilious privilege. The epoch he was born into, and all he took for granted, had evolved into a living nightmare.

Bellamy is more of a conceptualist than a storyteller, and his writing can be clunky and his narrative guilty of melodrama especial to the time. But Upton Sinclair’s writing shares these same faults, but we remember (and some of us actually read) The Jungle, but not Looking Backward. Is this because Sinclair’s work led to government reform of a specific industry, while on the other hand implementing the ideas of Looking Backward would have involved total restructuring of our economic system as well as evolving from our materialistic habits? Bellamy’s seminal work is not an easy read, but it must be read by activists, artists, and anyone who believes that our society can, should and will be improved. In a short book review, you can just touch tip of the iceberg that might sink this ship of fools we’ve been riding directionless all too many generations.

The world we live in today is a far cry from Edward Bellamy’s epic vision. And it is easy to get down on the future with seemingly contemporary unwinnable crises, those of corporate oligarchies, environmental disaster, nuclear apocalypse, and longterm recession. Yet in Bellamy’s time of the 19th century, two thirds of the world was colonized by another, women were second-class citizens, children worked in factories, and no social safety net existed anywhere. Many fought, and much blood was spilled, to make common sense that much more common. Tens of thousands had martyred themselves to make the world a much more equitable place than it was in the so-called “good old days” of 1887. It is fitting then to finish the review with one of the twentieth century’s greatest martyrs, Martin Luther King Jr., who once put it best, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Spaz-Be

In America, our cultural institutions tend towards blowing shit up — think Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and various buff villain-thrashing superheroes. Yet for all our notorious bubblegum philistinism, we read too, and there are certain literary characters that are quite beloved: Sal Paradise, Holden Caulfield, Ignatius Reilly, and Captain Ahab, to name but a few, all of whom are so peculiar to our imaginations, it would be offensive for any filmmaker to appropriate them in some caricatural form. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is another such character only the most audacious artist would hazard to interpret in cinematic light.

The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel for no small reasons. The story’s titular character makes good on the American Dream, accomplishes the most spectacular romantic gesture in all of literature, and dies tragically, his rise and fall and all too brief happiness narrated in exquisite prose by a fair and compassionate friend. It doesn’t just define the Jazz Age generation, but America itself: our material obsessions, class divisions, brutal selfishness, careless violence, and yet, also our occasional noble impulse towards doing the right thing. Published almost ninety years ago it remains extraordinarily readable, and in fact, every generation is introduced to it in middle or high school. I myself have read it at least a half dozen times, coming back to it every few years as one returns to a refuge well known and thoroughly loved. If Gatsby is not sacred, it is at the very least, a national treasure.

The Great Spaz-Be


The stars of Gatsby getting Bazzed

Enter Baz Luhrmann, an Australian filmmaker with a boom boom aesthetic. From his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Moulin Rouge, he tends to lobotomize his audience with bombastic anachronistic dance numbers performed uptempo by shrill ninnies, manically spliced together with attention deficit MTV-style jump cuts that leave many muttering WTF and contemplating four hits of aspirin. His style is so over-the-top, Australians have even adapted his name into their lexicon in the event something is performed with too much intensity, as in, “OMG, he just bazzed the shit out of that.”

Full disclosure: I was horrified when I first saw the film trailer for The Great Gatsby. To put it in contemporary idiomatic terms, I was bazzed out of my mind. Worst of all was the revelation of a 3D version. How dare an Australian, especially one as obnoxious as Luhrmann, treat an American masterpiece as a dumbed down Cliffnotes-condensed soul-free blockbuster, tailored to summer vacation adolescents with rapid-fire mouse-click attention spans? Sure I played with GI Joe and Transformers as a kid, but their adaptations by Hollywood as disposable spectacles never bothered me; on the other hand, messing with Fitzgerald was tantamount to sacrilege, to pissing on a legend’s grave. Not only would I hate Luhrmann’s effort, I was ready to take real pleasure in my loathing.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when I didn’t hate The Great Gatsby. I didn’t love it either, the operative word being “pleasant.” It’s no masterpiece but it’s not exactly profane either. It’s mostly a loyal rendering of the novel, much of Fitzgerald’s wonderful prose intact, well acted, and rating relatively low on the Baz scale of migraine-inducement (perhaps though I wouldn’t be so generous had I not watched it in 2D). On the most important scenes, Luhrmann hits some right notes, so that loyal Fitzgeraldians (such as this writer) are entertained by his riff. It’s definitely not great, but it’s good enough.

But if you can maneuver through all the manufactured ebullience, you realize the Baz is getting some things right: the brotherly love between Nick and Jay is nicely rendered, and Tom Buchanan is a likable baddie. Click To Tweet

The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald

It is never easy adapting any book into a film, especially one as beautifully written as The Great Gatsby, so Luhrmann and his screenwriter, Craig Pearce, establish a narrative conceit in which Nick Carroway, the story’s narrator (Tobey Maguire), is reflecting on his friendship with Gatsby from a sanitarium in in the Midwest. It’s a rather bold liberty taken by the director, but a competent, perhaps necessary trick to not only frame the story but incorporate its most lucid prose (though it was a leap to have the character Nick Carroway compose his thoughts into a novel so that we have suddenly a cheap little happy ending– the struggling writer’s redemption, one more American Dream coming true?).

Maguire makes a good Nick Carroway, a greenhorn New Yorker working in bonds, an above average everyman with a trusting face that invites the divulgence of rather personal confidences. He lives in a little cottage next to a grand (albeit digitalized) fairy tale castle inhabited by a mysterious man who throws lavish parties, as it turns out, with the singular hope that a woman he once loved and now married in her own palatial residence across the bay, might attend and perhaps recover the past with him. The story then, roughly described, is a ménage à trois involving Jay Gatsby and the Buchanans, Tom and Daisy.

Australian actor Joel Edgerton nails millionaire simpleton Tom Buchanan’s rough self-centered posturing. His Tom is Old Money petulance, threatened equally by new money parvenus like Gatsby and “the colored races.” Tom, seemingly incapable of love and trust, lives in a very small, disenchanted world. I didn’t think British actress Carey Mulligan — best known for playing ingenues — could pull off Daisy Buchanan, a bitter scion’s wife, but Mulligan musters just enough vapidity to conjure Daisy, whose bubbly, banal non-sequiturs are so telling of the pampered, vacuous life she has accepted with her philandering husband. Her Daisy is pretty, not beautiful, and exhausted before her time.

Daisy only really snaps to life once she rekindles her love affair with Jay Gatsby. Now I’m not sure Leonardo DiCaprio was the right choice for Gatsby. I don’t dislike DiCaprio, but I’ve never understood his continuing fame. He’s definitely an intelligent actor, but I’ve always found his intensity somewhat forced or overdone. There also remains the aura of the child actor about him — he never seemed to grow up, or at least I cannot seem to separate the adolescent DiCaprio from the adult one. Moreover, he is Leonardo DiCaprio, one of those actors so famous it is difficult for the audience member to ignore his celebrity, suspending belief. Thus I had a problem with his casting as Gatsby, a by-his-bootstraps success story in the black market economy. It goes contrary to Hollywood’s economic logic, of course, but the film might have been better with a talented theatrical unknown. (Watching The Great Gatsby, I couldn’t help feeling that DiCaprio was reprising his role in Titanic. It’s a similar character in remarkably similar circumstances, a charming riffraff in love with a wealthy debutante, romance thwarted by a wealthy rival suitor, culminating in a tragic death.)

DiCaprio as Gatsby is a metaphor for the film’s overall artifice, in which everything is just plain unreal. Gatsby’s famous parties are indescribably hyperactive productions emceed by a Cab Calloway ripoff, the dancers choreographed to Jay Z tunes sung by Beyonce and Andre 3000 (even Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is anachronistic, having been written two years after the story takes place in 1922). Luhrmann’s song and dance scenes are always very camp, as if he is doing a feverish homage to the most egregious cliches of Broadway musicals. His interpretation of the Roaring Twenties is that of squawking peacocks prancing on Ritalin-laced champagne. It’s a fun party, sure, if you played hooky from school only to spend all that freedom watching MTV’s Total Request Live.

But if you can maneuver through all the manufactured ebullience, you realize the Baz is getting some things right: the brotherly love between Nick and Jay is nicely rendered, and Tom Buchanan is a likable baddie. And though it tries too hard to filter a historical New York for a modern and easily distracted audience, its fantastical environment has some magical elements. The film, like the novel, is rife with awkward moments shared between people who don’t really like or respect one another. Luhrmann, while probably the last person you’d want to share a double cappuccino with, does seem to have a deft touch with his actors. Their heartfelt aspirations and disappointments (even DiCaprio’s Gatsby) manage to transcend the green screen effect. There is just enough pathos in the performances to balance the enthusiasm of CGI effects artists.

The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Gatsby Baz Luhrmann

So what you have in our generation’s Gatsby is not a work of art, but competent entertainment. Fitzgerald was a thoroughly successful writer — the voice of his generation — because he was very au courant. I couldn’t help wondering whether he would condone or condemn this very modern take on his novel. Would he have been embarrassed by the spectacle? Or proud of its terrific box office success and its marquee stature? It’s impossible to say, of course, because F. Scott was a very complicated artist, infinitely more so than the Hollywood philistines attempting to profit off his name recognition.

Of course, directors don’t spend a year or two of their lives just making anything. What was the allure for the Baz? Does he see something of himself in Gatsby, a misunderstood self-made genius who brings people together (actors and audience) to celebrate what he envisions a beautiful bacchanalian vision of existence? It seems like all of Baz Luhrmann’s movies, in their very peculiar noise levels, are more or less about Baz Luhrmann. I am obviously not a fan, but I’ll go so far to say this for him: at least he has a personal vision, so much so that his name has become part of our vernacular. He doesn’t fail altogether. His adaptation is low grade irreverence — it could have been a hell of a lot worse.

Nevertheless, I would like to finish this review with an appeal to Mr. Luhrmann: we’ll give you a free pass now, but word to the wise, attempting to baz Holden Caulfield with your lurid hyperkinesia and faux musical numbers denouncing “phonies” will not be forgiven as clever irony. Any more tampering with our beloved classics is done so with considerable bodily risk.

Gene Hackman The Conversation Best Spy FIlms

Best Spy Films

Best Spy Films

Is Michael Caine really the greatest spy of all time…?

What is the allure with espionage? Where does the public fascination come from? Is it the admiration of the lone man (or woman) who, using his (or her) advanced tactical survival skills, against all odds, manages to find the right combination of intelligence tidbits, which added up, end the evil machinations of runaway discretionary programs of the CIA’s leader elite? That’s the gist of the Bourne Trilogy (the film versions anyway): if you awakened and realized you were a straight up CIA-trained ninja, would you continue to assassinate just anyone for the clandestine wing of your country’s not-so-clandestine intelligence agency? Or would you go rogue and become the rugged individualist we all pretend to admire and aspire to be? Because at the heart of it, that’s what it’s all about: Survival & Individualism. The eschewing of the Social Contract for the greater good. Usually anyway. Patriotism tends to get convoluted and mired in bureaucratic red tape.

So did the CIA's longterm planning foresee such a cause and effect? Is there unbiased longterm planning at all? Click To Tweet

Best Spy Films

The Art of Intelligence – Even the cover is intelligent…

Henry A. Crumpton, in The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, reveals the human side of the clandestine service. His title is taken from two books: The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Craft of Intelligence by longtime CIA Director Allen Dulles. His thesis, that the heart of intelligence is “human espionage,” is not so much anti-techno-bureaucracy as it is revelatory of the importance of human emotion. “Emotion, of course, can undermine and destroy human relationships and lives, especially in the espionage world.” He goes on, “At its most elemental, spying is about understanding and influencing the scope of behavior, from evil to exalted, and maneuvering through this emotional labyrinth in pursuit of valuable information otherwise unavailable.” Espionage is access. And wherever you go, depending on whom it’s directed, it’s illegal as hell.

Look at what happens when the tables are turned on the establishment, from Wikileaks’ Julian Assange (designated as an “enemy of state” by the U.S. government) and Chelsea Manning to U.S. authorities charging Edward Snowden with “theft of U.S. government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person…”, the latter two charges falling under the U.S. Espionage Act. And now there is Edward Snowden.

It is naive to say that we don’t need a clandestine service, but how much and to what end? Is it not our obsession with espionage that necessitates it? The CIA-trained Mujahideen fought a proxy war against the USSR and were then split up in a grueling civil war for twelve years when the Cold War ended and financing the American spy state dwindled as discretionary budgets dried up and U.S. dollars and infrastructure failed to follow up our initial mission. The Taliban eventually rose to power, thus enabling a terrorist state that gave shelter to Al-Qaeda. This, according to the Obama-commissioned report produced by the CIA on how arming rebels does not work, is the greatest success story. So did the CIA’s longterm planning foresee such a cause and effect? Is there unbiased longterm planning at all? With all the taxpayer money spent abroad, shouldn’t there be? Does the innate fear that the American people, and people in general, are not sufficiently mentally equipped to handle the hard truths of how the world really works, still function? Has it ever? Whence this real-world apathy on the one hand and this film spy-mania on the other?

In his recent book Sincerity, R. Jay Magill Jr. talks about how “sincerity has a lot to do with our religious traditions. America was founded on the church…they were these wacky Puritans who wanted to create an absolutely transparent society. (They believed) there should be no secrets, personality should be transparent, we should reveal all motives at all times to all members of the community — because that’s what God wants. And that led to a miserably crushing and horrible society where everyone was afraid. They were afraid not only of being spied on, but also that they were not of the elect.”

Best Spy Films

Best Spy FIlms

Harry Caul is about to discover the worst thing ever in the toilet…

While today it is a combination of Thriller and Action genres, its roots as a mixture of Film Noir to Suspense and Murder Mystery, the Espionage genre too has been taken to its penultimate in story-telling before anyone else got a chance, by the director most obsessed with the subtle twisting of human emotions under duress: Alfred Hitchcock. A good portion of his filmography reads like a spy-lover’s guidebook on how to inadvertently get into the spy game. Beyond the genius of 39 Steps and whether it’s faking your own death as in Secret Agent (1936), uncovering a terrorist plot as in Sabotage (1936), vacationing Africa with your family as in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1939, remade in 1956), being accused of a terrorist plot as in Saboteur (1942) or a case of mistaken identity in North By Northwest (1959), Hitchcock used the espionage trope as a means of exploring the myriad persona of human emotion we embody, often simultaneously, to the extent that we actually come to embody the mask we are given. i.e. we are all actually some measure of the spy.

...we couldn't survive with the popular impression of this agency being formed by the last Will Smith movie Click To Tweet

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), filmed during the Watergate era, centers around a sound surveillance expert named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) with his own mind-boggling privacy issues, who discovers more than he bargains when his recording of a conversation in a crowded public square makes Caul think twice about what he’s involved in. The ultimate depiction of the conflicted American techno-pro who finally discovers what it means to be human, including arriving late to the party.

The ostensible sequel to The Conversation, Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998) is better than his own Spy Game (2001), but not by much. And mostly due to Gene Hackman’s energetic portrayal of retired NSA agent-gone-underground Edward Lyle. So true to life is Enemy that Former NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden “was appalled” by the portrayal of the NSA and responded with a PR campaign (ostensibly the worst PR campaign ever), as written in State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration by James Risen (2006). “I made the judgment that we couldn’t survive with the popular impression of this agency being formed by the last Will Smith movie,” he told CNN in a 2001 segment “Inside the NSA: The Secret World of Electronic Spying”.

To wit: a tense Hollywood spy thriller depicting rogue NSA agents reading emails, intercepting phone calls, and persecuting innocent citizens. The then-director of the NSA categorically denies this depiction in the Sunday morning talk circuit of the mainstream media. The NSA then creates (a) program(s) that more or less does this exact type of thing (minus Jason Robards killing senators). As Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1889 essay, The Decay of Lying, “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Indeed. The more realistic spy thrillers become the higher the expectations of the viewer. Showing the NSA bugging peoples’ lives at will in 1998 doesn’t work in 2013. What’s next? Independent para-military contractors deployed as NGO workers in disaster areas? Computerized drone strikes occur at random on American soil blamed on terrorist militia cells? Brad Pitt as zombie infiltrator to help fight armies of the undead? Or do we go back to zero and show how the boring and bureaucratic the system really is?

Best Spy Films

The spies populating John le Carre’s novels are every quiet man you pass on the street

“When I first began writing,” the realistic spy-thriller author John le Carré relates, “Ian Fleming was riding high and the picture of the spy was that of a character who could have affairs with women, drive a fast car, who used gadgetry and gimmickry to escape.” Le Carré, the creator of George Smiley – super-schlub rather than super-spy, opts for the methodical and the mundane — believability over design. Among the number of his novels which have been filmed, the most recent (although A Most Wanted Man is set for release this year) is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) directed by Tomas Alfredson (Låt Den Rätte Komma In– 2008). Though what may have projected the spy novel as billion dollar film goer fanfare would be The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, le Carré’s 1963 Cold War era novel (he wrote the screenplay as well) that starred Richard Burton as the troubled Alec Leamas on one last mission. If you know le Carré’s style and have chanced to have seen other lone hero films directed by Martin Ritt (Hud – 1963, Norma Rae – 1979), you know how this one ends. Other films include The Deadly Affair (1966), The Looking Glass War (1969), The Little Drummer Girl (1984), The Russia House (1990), The Tailor of Panama (2001), The Constant Gardener (2005).

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What about Michael Caine as the ultimate anti-Bond archetype? It seems that before he began starring in films about World War II and the criminal underworld (Play Dirty, The Italian Job, Get Carter), he was a notoriously effective spy (although gauche by today’s high tech standards), he embodied a nice mix of both Sean Connery’s blue-collar ruggedness and Roger Moore’s professional effeteness (he does his own shopping at the grocery store, but he buys imported items). If you can find them, the entire Harry Palmer Series (based partially on Len Deighton’s novels), especially The Ipcress File, deserves note, as does Don Siegel’s The Black Windmill (1974), originally the Clive Egleton novel Seven Days to a Killing, with Caine as MI-5 operative John Tarrant. John MacKenzie’s action-spy thriller The Fourth Protocol (1987), by Frederick Forsyth, featured Caine as British intelligence agent John Preston and Pierce Brosnan as bad-guy Russian agent Major Valeri Petrofsky.

It seems the 60s and 70s were particularly pregnant with overly-long and circuitous spy thrillers. And mining the Nazis for proportionate enemies remained a particular goldmine up through the Indiana Jones series. The Quiller Memorandum (1966) directed by Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run) situates itself in 1960s Cold War-era West Berlin, where Quiller (George Segal) is sent by controller Alec Guinness to investigate a neo-Nazi organisation, yet everyone seems to be aware of what is happening except for him. The prolific author Fredrick Forsyth figures heavily in the military-politico-espionage realm, having penned director Fred Zinnemann’s political thriller The Day of the Jackal (1973), about an attempt by the assassin named “Jackal” on the life of French President Charles DeGaulle. Forsyth also wrote the political thriller The Odessa File (1974), with Jon Voight as a German reporter searching for missing Nazi war criminals who have incorporated in 1963 Hamburg, to continue their plan for the downfall of the Israeli people, with Maximilian Schell as the evil villain. Marathon Man with a young Dustin Hoffman who plays a paranoid runner to perfection is a great example of using ex-Nazis as narrative expedients. Tough to get through Laurence Olivier’s gruelling dental work, but great shots of Central Park in New York make this more than worth watching.

Best Spy Films

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others

What happens on the other side of the curtain? The debut from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006), focuses in on the monitoring of East Berlin citizens by agents of the Stasi. The Stasi, the GDR’s secret police, one of the largest “clandestine” forces ever, rivals China’s MSS (Ministry for State Security) for employing one half of the population to spy on the other half. The Spy (Шпион, 2011) is a Russian thriller starring Fyodor Bondarchuk based on Boris Akunin’s spy novel set in an unbelievably beautiful 1941 Moscow. In one of the most expensive Russian films ever made, the lead up to the outbreak of WWII is reimagined as part futuristic fantasy and part historical reenactment with high production value. Steven Spielberg’s Munich tells of a contemplative Mossad agent played by the appreciably low-key and astute Eric Bana leads a team to hunt down and kill the Black September terrorists responsible for the slaughter of the Israeli Olympic team in 1972 Munich games. The terrorists think they’ve gotten away with it, and the disavowed Mossad agents have no idea what kind of emotional torture they will be in for. Spielberg proves that he still has some talent left with suitable pacing, decent action sequences and a less than heavy handed and overly-sentimental approach to depicting such a horrible ordeal, at least through the first hour anyway.

Enter Cold War military industrial espionage writer Robert Ludlum, famous for The Bourne Identity brought to the big screen by Doug Liman, who decided to forgo the Cold War era plot by updating the retrograde amnesiac super-seal-team assassin Jason Bourne to modern-day CIA infiltration warfare and guilt-plagued hand-wringing. With a good soundtrack and interesting POV cinematography (often handheld by the director himself), Liman manages to pull off a coup. The sequels, directed by Paul Greengrass, are notable for their flash-cut fight scenes and Matt Damon brooding over the mystery of his identity and the death of his German kidnap victim-turned-lover. Not, as most of these 10 Best Spy Movies sites claim, the best of the genre, but not bad for nursing a rainy Sunday morning hangover with bloody marys. However, one of Ludlum’s novels-turned-film worth watching — the plot-twisting CIA-centric The Osterman Weekend (1983) — despite the fact that Sam Peckinpah hated the script to his final film so much, he made it almost nonsensical, leaving gaping holes in the story. Still, like sex and pizza, bad Peckinpah is pretty good.

Sydney Pollack’s box-office hit Three Days of the Condor (1975) — based on James Grady’s novel Six Days of the Condor (apparently they couldn’t afford to film the three extra days…) — starred Robert Redford as a targeted US CIA-intelligence researcher on the run from the always creepy Max Von Sydow. Notable for Redford’s character kidnapping an innocent woman and holding her hostage in order to survive, and eventually coming to love her (Jason Bourne anyone?). This portrayal could have opened the door for Redford to star alongside Sydney Poitier in the Phil Alden Robinson thriller Sneakers (1992), which details a ragtag olio of ex-intelligence professionals trying to obtain a code-breaking machine that could penetrate any computer system on Earth.

Best Spy Films

David Mamet’s Spartan

The best, should a few have to be lifted above a solid selection of cerebral action thrillers, would have to be David Mamet’s Spartan. Though the film is fast-paced and intelligently written — in typical Mamet fashion — and offers what may be one of Val Kilmer’s best roles ever in his portrayal of Delta Force Gunnery Sergeant Bobby Scott, the film feels almost purposefully flawed. The ending is a touch too cliche and neat for Mamet, who later went on to write and produce the outstanding television series, The Unit, based on similar clandestine army ranger activities as Spartan: One Riot, One Ranger. Mamet is the ultimate in paradoxical writer/director in that he is so good at cutting out the unnecessary bits, yet requires at least four seasons of a television show (unfortunately, it was cancelled by the idiots at CBS) to develop something up to his own standard.

Also written by David Mamet is Ronin, the final film from John Frankenheimer worth watching. Starring Robert Deniro in an understated role as CIA agent-turned-mercenary leading a team of unknown quantities into a job that has nothing to do with the real target, the action is taut and well-paced. This should have been Mission Impossible, but alas the Hollywood experiment has failed us all. Frankenheimer also directed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the ultimate in mind-bending double-agent morality plays, which works so well because of the impeccable acting from Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey and even Frank Sinatra. Terence Young’s The Triple Cross (1967), based on a true story, ups the ante on the double-agent genre, starred Christopher Plummer as Eddie Chapman, a safe-cracker who joined with the Germans during the war, and then became a British double-agent. Double agents are not typically thought of in the sense that the Hong Kong crime-thriller Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak (2002) creates where the police have infiltrated a large local crime syndicate and the same crime syndicate has infiltrated the police. This stand out trilogy was remade as The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006).

Notable for their staggering amount of pure technical information (making the State Department somewhat nervous) and their popularity with middle America, need we mention the 1990s? Must-not-sees are Tom Clancy’s techno-thriller novels centering on all-American hero and CIA agent Jack Ryan: in The Hunt for Red October (1990) with Alec Baldwin, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994) with Harrison Ford, and The Sum of All Fears (2002) with Ben Affleck. Watch Argo and encrypt your email instead.

One must decide in what kind of world one wants to live. A world of verdant growth, trust amongst the people and in governmental and corporate institutions, and justice or a protracted world of mistrust, double-dealing and living behind any number of masks? Does our obsession with espionage have anything to do with anything other than advancing and protecting American Business Interests, i.e. securing the world of free radicals so that free markets may reign? In the end is it just good, clean (or rather, dirty) entertainment? Does it matter that we seem to be projecting a secretive and mistrustful psyche onto the world? Rather than who is a spy, should we be asking who isn’t?

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