18 April 2015

Movie Review: Child 44 (2015)

Banned in Russia!

For history-lovers and libertarians I highly recommend the movie thriller Child 44 which opened worldwide this week. [Update: Apparently in the USA it is only in “limited” showing but hopefully will appear more widely later.] Putin banned it in Russia (and I wonder why!). It portrays the stark brutality and paranoia of the Soviet Union in the Stalin years without compromise.

I saw it only on a hunch that it might be good, because it was the cast that first caught my notice: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, and Gary Oldman. I was surprised and impressed with the film. The writing was very well done and showed the horror hell-house that was the USSR in 1953.

It is over two hours long, and it is an adaptation of a novel of that name by Tom Rob Smith, the first of his trilogy involving his fictional character, Leo Demidov, a former MGB agent and his wife, Raisa. The story is loosely based on the case of an actual Russian serial killer – in the “socialist paradise” where the very existence of crimes such as murder was declared to be “impossible” by state doctrine, and anyone suggesting otherwise could be committing a serious thought crime.

It is grisly, as was its era. Not a date flick.

-Zenwind.

05 February 2015

Book Review: This Perfect Day (1970) by Ira Levin

This excellent novel is one of the few by Ira Levin that was never made into a movie. (Not quite anyway; see below.) It was called to my attention from one of my favorite sources of book recommendations: the Libertarian Futurist Society, which gave This Perfect Day a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award. By the time I finished reading it, I found that there are some very interesting libertarian connections with artistic influences and intellectual debts.

The world of this novel is a future Earth dystopia of conformity and perfect equality which is run by a master computer called “Uni” (short for “Uni-Comp”), and everyone is strictly required to take a monthly dose of “treatment” (meds) to deaden their desires and individuality. Thus medicated, people dread being “different”, a sense of that being sin. The idea of “choosing” seems odd and heretical to them. The very idea of choosing a job instead of Uni assigning it to you, of “deciding” and “picking” anything – these are all “manifestations of selfishness” and are outlawed in this future world. The only historical knowledge people have is vaguely that of the “pre-Uni chaos”, and they never really study it.

Part Two is “Coming Alive.” Our protagonist falls in with some non-conformists, proto-individualists who are able to reduce their treatment dosages without getting caught, and they tell him about what these new experiences are like. They introduce him to new concepts, such as “consent”, which they explain means “your body is yours, not Uni’s”, and he doesn’t have to take the treatments.

The reduced treatments wake him up for the first time in his life. He and his new friends start furtively going through old pre-Uni books in museums and find that these ancients indeed had some bad experiences but also happy ones: e.g., going wherever they chose, “earning” things, “owning” things, and always choosing; the ancients were more alive.

By reading to this point in my review, you might see a parallel between this 1970 novel and a certain 2002 movie. The Introduction to my Kindle edition of This Perfect Day is by Jonathan Trigell, and he mentions the close similarity between this novel and Kurt Wimmer’s film, Equilibrium (2002), one of my favorite movies which I had earlier reviewed here. This film had originally been recommended to me on a neo-Objectivist-libertarian e-list over ten years ago.

This novel also reminds one of Ayn Rand’s 1938 novella, Anthem, e.g., a person cannot choose his or her profession but is rather assigned it. And there is an even more interesting Rand connection.

Jeff Riggenbach writes (in Mises Daily, 3 December 2010) that Levin had read Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and that he studied a bit at Objectivism’s original educational enterprise, the Nathaniel Branden Institute, in the late 50s and early 60s, and – quoting Barbara Branden (1986) – Levin “began to enter the circle of Ayn’s friends.” Riggenbach’s review of the novel is very good (but he does give away a few spoilers), and he points out that the book’s primary weakness is in economics. Still, he calls This Perfect Day “one of the top half-dozen libertarian novels ever published in our language.” Coming from Jeff, that is high praise.

-Zenwind.

.

24 January 2015

Movie Review: American Sniper (2014)

Here is an intense film in the traditions of the “all-American” movie. It is an emotional rush, showing the horrors of war; it is very well made; and I highly recommend it. Directed by Clint Eastwood, it stars Bradley Cooper portraying the late great Navy SEAL sniper, Chris Kyle, the patriot acclaimed as the deadliest sniper in US military history from his four (!) tours of duty in Iraq. The film is based on Kyle’s book of the same name, and his widow had a hand in ensuring the film’s authenticity.

Personally, I was very much against the 2003 US invasion of Iraq (foreseeing it as a stupid, counter-productive, bumbling disaster), and so was director Clint Eastwood. But Clint explained his desire to direct this particular story because it so highly honored American military servicemen who believed in, and fought for, what they thought was their country’s defense against rabid enemies; and it portrays the burdens their families suffered from this “war on terror.”

Eastwood’s direction is expertly done, and Bradley Cooper’s acting is his very best yet. The film’s editing is extremely tight with no wasted moments. It is one hell of a story.

-Zenwind. .

08 January 2015

Book Review: Blown for Good: Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology (2009) by Marc Headley

.

Blown for Good is an autobiographical narrative but it reads like a thriller. In Scientology’s esoteric babble, to be “blown” is to have escaped from the Sea Org (SO), the cult’s dedicated hard core of workers and executives, each of whom have signed up for a “billion year contract.” And one must really achieve an all-out desperate escape, because they send out a massive manhunt of security people and SO staffers to drag you back in; they scour bus stations, airports, and any other place you might try to get away. Scientology has elsewhere been very accurately called the “prison of belief.” I knew that Marc Headley “blew” ten years ago, and I knew the eventual outcome, but his story had me enthralled with its suspense to the very last page. I couldn’t put it down. His depiction of the cult as an “Iron Curtain” is perfect. Think of the people risking all to escape East Germany from 1945 to 1989.

Marc Headley grew up in Scientology with his mother and sister, and at age 16 he signed the “billion year contract” to join the Sea Org. Long hours, hard work, little sleep, poor food, pathetic “pay,” insane policies, and brutal harassment were the norm in the paranoid and crazy International Base in the California desert. This is Scientology’s headquarters, run by the Chairman of the Board (COB) of the Religious Technology Center (RTC), David Miscavige, who is the indisputable dictator of the entire worldwide cult and a certifiable asshole. Headley gives proof and describes Miscavige as being “evil” and delighting in the suffering of others – a fact confirmed by countless others who have experienced his cruelty and have escaped from the cult.

One of the things preventing anyone from “blowing” from Scientology is that if you do you will be “declared” as a “Suppressive Person” (SP), a kind of apostate heretic, and your family members still locked into the cult must “disconnect” from you and never communicate with you ever again. It is an absolute church law for all (unless you are a special rich celebrity like Tom Cruise). Marc and his wife Claire have been disconnected by almost all of their families, who refuse to communicate with them per church commands. The church denies having this policy, but it has been church doctrine starting with the founder L. Ron Hubbard, and it still goes on.

After 15 years of loyal, productive, and hard work at Scientology’s headquarters, taking an increasing amount of abuse in an increasingly crazy organizational atmosphere, Marc decides to blow. His story is fascinating.

Scientology has a special language of acronyms and slang that is hard to get through. But Headley has provided a Glossary for acronyms to help you maneuver through it.

I have read many books on Scientology, but this is one of the best because it describes individual life on the inside the cult so well.

-Zenwind.

.

22 November 2014

Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)

This is a really great film and one of the best I’ve seen in a long, long time. It is intense and full of surprises. J.K. Simmons plays an uncompromising studio jazz band leader at a top music conservatory, and he comes off as a raging Drill Instructor from Hell – demanding complete perfection and even more. Don’t miss his performance, because there will be major award nominations for it. The student that he drives so hard is played by Miles Teller. And the music is great.

Update: I just read that Damien Chazelle, the writer/director, is said to have been inspired by the intense USMC Drill Instructor played by R. Lee Ermey (once a real-life Marine D.I.) in the first half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Whether it is true or not, it would make perfect sense.

Update: J.K. Simmons won his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role. No surprise.

-Zenwind.

22 October 2014

Book Review: Mao: the Unknown Story (2005) by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

.
This huge biography of Mao Tse-tung (Zedong) is very well researched – 12 years in the making, interviewing scores of people who were on the scene in Mao’s circle as well as people connected with him from around the world, and consulting numerous archives.  Author Jung Chang was a teenage Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution (aka, the Great Purge), and her parents were both longtime cadres of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  Her husband Jon Halliday is an Irish historian. 
.
Mao Tse-tung comes out as an even more twisted mass murderer of civilians than I had thought.  In terms of sheer body count, he was worse than Stalin and Hitler -- combined -- and is without a doubt the top killer of all time.  Their evidence in this book caused R.J. Rummel – the renowned authority on “death by government,” i.e., the murder of civilians by their own government – to upgrade (to actually double) Mao’s murder count to well over 70 million Chinese citizens deliberately killed by his policies.  These were not war casualties; they were deaths of civilians by calculated government actions (such as deliberate famine, labor camps and torture as well as executions) with Mao in command.  It is a horror story, made worse because of its reality. 
.
If Machiavelli had lived during the mid-20th century, he would have presented Mao as his prime example of power-by-all-devious-means, rather than Cesare Borgia.  Mao had an evil genius for power plays combined with a total lack of humaneness enabling him to follow through. 
.
I heartily recommend this book, with one important caveat:  It does not mention the gross atrocities of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist (KMT) enemy of Mao (and an ally of the USA) who retreated to Taiwan in 1949.  According to R.J. Rummel’s research program into civilian “death by government,” Chiang ranks number four among the all-time mass murders by government leaders, behind Mao (with over 70 million deaths), Stalin (with around 40 million), and Hitler (with around 20 million).  Rummel estimates Chiang’s number of killings to be 10 million Chinese civilians.  That is hard to ignore or sweep under the rug, but our authors do it. 
.
Major myths surrounding Mao are exploded in this book.  E.g.: during the Long March, Mao didn’t march; he was actually carried on a litter, a sedan chair, by others for most of the march.  Mao was ignorant of most military strategy, and the way he wasted tens of thousands of his own Red Army soldiers was appalling.  He would frequently waste the lives of enormous numbers of troops solely to jockey himself into a better position of power over his rivals in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  He routinely instituted terror for population control.  He was a monster who never thought twice about killing huge numbers of humans. 
.
Red China (the PRC) and the CCP were creations of the USSR, and the documentation is here.  Soviet military intelligence (GRU) consistently aided the CCP with organizational guidance, with important intel, with technology, and arms.  Moscow consistently backed Mao, amongst all the other CCP leaders whom they had trained, because of Mao’s willingness to use extreme brutality, unspeakable tortures and killings.  Mao always looked to Moscow, because he knew the source for guns and money. 
 .
Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT allowed the Reds to go on their Long March when he could have crushed them at the time.  Chiang wanted the Red Army invasion of the Southwest provinces in order to scare the independent warlords into an alliance with him.  Also, Chiang had to appease the Soviets, who had his son hostage.  He “herded” the Red Army west. 
.
From 1942, in Mao’s settled base at Yenan, Mao’s style of governance was apparent.  Humor was banned.  (!)  Everyone was required to write endless “thought examinations.”  A cult of personality was developing, terror as a means of control was increasing, and he quickly destroyed the local economy with absurd taxation and hyper-inflation policies.  And Mao would never learn from his mistakes, ever. 
.
In the later post-WWII civil war with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists (KMT), Chiang’s army completely out-classed the Red Army and took over the industrial heartland of China in Manchuria.  The Red Army could very well have been finished off except for the good old USA.  General George Marshall brokered a truce, which gave the CCP and Red Army breathing space and the chance to be re-armed and trained by the USSR (with captured Japanese arms and pilot instructors).  Gen. Marshall had served in China in the 1920s and was “ill-disposed towards Chiang, mainly because of the corruption of Chiang’s relatives.”  (Or perhaps he witnessed Chiang’s own murderous history.) 
.
By 1949 Chiang and the Nationalists folded and retreated to Taiwan, leaving Mao and company in charge of Mainland China as the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  Mao is so dependent on the USSR for arms that he begins what will be a long-term policy of exporting food to pay for arms, while Chinese people starve to death. 
.
Mao’s terror amongst the peasants was from the same playbook as Lenin and Stalin:  he set quotas.  He decreed that 10% of the peasants were “land-owners” (“kulaks” in Russian parlance), and they were rounded up for expropriation of property, abuse and/or death. 
.
Once the Reds were in charge, nationalization of larger private industrial property was postponed a bit at first, so business and agriculture started to recover from the chaos of war.  But censorship was total.  Public execution spectacles were designed to terrorize and brutalize the people.  Around 27 million people were executed or died in prisons or labor camps under Mao’s rule. 
.
At the end of the Korean War, around 21,000 Chinese Red Army troops were POWs of the US and allies, and of these fully 2/3 of them refused to return to Red China, most of them going to Taiwan.  Mao’s drive to industrialize, militarize, and especially to get an A-bomb, meant that even more food was taken from the peasants and exported.  This was resisted by the Politburo (and by Chou En-lai, who was otherwise loyal to Mao), so Mao relaxed it a bit, making 1956 and 1957 relatively better.  But not for long. 
.
In 1957 Mao laid a trap for intellectuals and dissidents, called “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom.”  People who wanted democracy and the rule of law were encouraged to express themselves in public.  Then Mao closed the trap, calling it the “Anti-Rightist Campaign,” rounding them up.  He again set quotas for arrest, just as Stalin had done. 
.
In 1958, in his Great Leap Forward, Mao knowingly caused the worst famine in human history, from 1958 to 1961.  Huge amounts of food were taken from the peasants and exported.  He exported food to Russia in return for massive military assistance, including the means to produce atomic weapons, while nearly 38 million Chinese died from starvation and/or overwork.  In 1960 alone, 22 million died in this famine. Mao’s Number 2, President Liu Shao-chi, admitted to the Soviet ambassador that at least 30 million had died before the famine was over. 
.
Then the president of the PRC, Liu Shao-chi, politically ambushed Mao at a huge CCP conference in 1962, damning the obvious carnage of Mao’s policies.  The Party cadres overwhelmingly agreed with Liu, and Mao had to back off, thus ending the worst of the famine.  Mao salvaged much of his power by being backed by the defense minister, Lin Biao, as well as Chou En-lai.  Mao would strike back with revenge later. 
.
Meanwhile, the “Big Destruction” in Tibet was Mao’s drive to annihilate the Buddhist culture there after the 1959 invasion.  Monasteries were destroyed, monks and nuns were killed.  In 1963 in China proper, all art forms in all of the PRC were denounced.  It was declared that “people read too much.” (!)
.
In 1966 Mao launched his Great Purge, the Cultural Revolution.  His main allies who helped him pull it off were the defense chief Lin Biao and the loyal Chou En-lai.  Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) spearheaded the “kill the culture” campaign’s beginning.  Students, the Red Guards, were given food and then encouraged to turn on their teachers.  They invaded homes, burning books and destroying paintings, musical instruments, etc.  To me, this defines barbarity
.
(The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia adopted this Maoist philosophy, rhetoric, and policies in the late-1970s, and their murder rate, as a percentage of the population murdered, out-did Mao.) 
.
Mao then turned the momentum of terror against Party members who had opposed him earlier.  Off to labor camps (often a death sentence) went artists, writers, scholars, actors, journalists, etc.  Education basically stopped.  Leisure time vanished, replaced by mandatory group study sessions on Mao’s “thoughts,” and group denunciations of members.  Sounds like Hell on Earth to me. 
.
The Red Guards purged CCP president Liu Shao-chi and his wife as “capitalist roaders,” along with Deng Xiao-ping.  Liu died in 1969.  However, Deng will be a survivor. 
.
In 1967 the Red Army commander at Wuhan opposed the Cultural Revolution.  Mao went there himself to reestablish control, but the up-surge of popular anger there was so overwhelming it threatened him to the point he had to flee for his very life via a very close-call airplane escape. 
.
By the late 1960s, Mao’s worldwide revolutionary authority had waned.  US president Nixon visited and fed Mao’s superpower dreams, but later with Watergate and Nixon’s fall, these dreams ended. 
.
The loyal Chou En-lai had cancer, and early treatment would have helped him, but Mao delayed Chou’s treatment.  For one, Chou was the smoothest diplomatic personality he had and was needed for the Nixon negotiations.  And Mao didn’t want Chou to outlive him.  Nice reward for a comrade for a lifetime of loyalty! 
.
Mention must be made of Madame Mao, Jiang Qing, who was ascendant during Mao’s last years.  She was nuts.  A completely paranoid evil bitch.  She was active in the early Cultural Revolution, pushing all Chinese to ever more austerity while she lived an extravagant personal lifestyle.  Her special private train would often stop at her whim, completely clogging all regional railroad traffic; and she justified it thusly:  “In order for me to have a good rest, and a good time, it is worth sacrificing some other people’s interests.” (p.730)  (Oh, yeah! We's da rulers, and yous' da low-life scum!)
.
Deng Xiao-ping, who had been purged earlier, had to be rehabilitated by Mao because Chou was so ill, but Mao countered him with the “Gang of Four” (which included Madame Mao).  Mao was failing physically.  He had lost control of the Red Army, but he stubbornly advocated the Cultural Revolution to the very end of his days.  Mao faded out to extinction, yet Deng survived and the Gang of Four were tried and executed.  Deng later started the process by which the economy of China was freed of its most insane restrictions, thus leading to the phenomenal unleashing of Chinese economic genius. 
.
How shall I summarize Mao?  Since he personally loved scatological language, how about this:  “He was a sadistic, psychopathic, sack of shit.” 
.
-Zenwind.
.

11 October 2014

Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

.
This is a really great action science fiction (SF) movie, capturing very well – through its sights, sounds, and story action – the authentic chaos, the confusion, and the quick, quick, too quick terror of immediate combat reality.  It puts you squarely into the war zone with no rescue possible.  It is one of Tom Cruise’s better roles in recent years, primarily because of the fine story writing history.  But for me it is Emily Blunt who really stood out as a warrior heroine, and seeing her performance here was the main event even though Cruise has the featured role. 
.
The premise of Edge of Tomorrow is based on the short Japanese SF novel, All You Need Is Kill (2004), by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  The film also gives homage to other classic war movies, e.g., briefly to Platoon (1986) but more especially to Saving Private Ryan (1998). 
.
Part of the story’s appeal is that it has a “time loop” somewhat like the film Groundhog Day (1993), always setting the protagonist (Cruise) back a day.  But it’s not funny.  It’s terrifying.  Cruise keeps getting reset back to the day before the combat action that he knows will certainly kill him in some ghastly new way each time.  Over and over again.  The only virtue of this repeated time loop is that he remembers each earlier time and thus may possibly learn from his past mistakes, kind of like one’s feeble attempts at karmic improvement while struggling and stumbling on through endless Samsara. 
.
The human warriors fight ruthless alien invaders, and they are physically reinforced by powered armor exoskeletons as originally inspired by Robert Heinlein’s classic 1959 SF novel Starship Troopers (but it’s best to forget that dreadful movie with the same name).  The odds are against humanity, and it looks like extinction for us. 
.
Emily Blunt is fantastic as a warrior who fights individually with a heroic ferocity that reminds me of Homeric times, e.g., the desperate combats on the beach at Troy.  An epic heroine, she kicks ass and inspires the human fighters in their grim defensive cause.  They call her the “Full Metal Bitch” and are in absolute awe of her prowess.  Her performance is one of the best female action roles I’ve seen in a while.  Still, as my cousin Holly remarked, Blunt’s character inevitably seems to play second fiddle to that of Cruise, the great established male Hollywood mega-star. 
.
We need more heroines in literature and film.  Intelligent steely-eyed warrior women with individual courage, independent vision, and sovereign executive judgment.  In the Western tradition, we only have a few and their roles have been much too brief:  e.g., the Amazon queen Penthesilea, the Greek goddess Artemis, Joan of Arc, Spenser’s Belphoebe and Britomart, etc.  Even Ayn Rand dropped the ball when penning her great heroic females, having them bow too much to their men in the end. 
.
(My perspective, above, is more of a long-range historical one.  However, isolated SF, action, thriller, and dramatic books and films in recent decades actually have produced some remarkably great heroines, and I would really like to recollect and catalog them into a personal Heroine Hall of Fame someday.  Any suggestions for my list?  Please help me here.) 
.
Tom Cruise is best when he precedes his heroics by playing an unsavory person, in this case a cowardly weasel and a very reluctant hero.  (Tom is experiencing low ebb in his stardom these days, possibly because of the unpopularity of his real-life persona as a complete $cientology dickhead.  Katie showed him the door with great intelligence and resolve.  Go, Katie!) 
.
This is science fiction, but when Tom shows up in the first scenes in a bastardized knockoff of a USMC officer’s uniform, it made me want to puke.  But the Corps et al is redeemed in the scene(s) when Tom wakes up handcuffed and disgraced, and an NCO with a naval-block cover yells at him, “On your feet, maggot!”  (Ah, sweet Parris Island nostalgia.) 
.
And Bill Paxton gives a supporting performance here that is an absolute classic.  His role as Master Sergeant Farell is one with such an absurd mock-military attitude that it makes me want to smile with every bit as wide of a shit-eating grin as his.  He’s a master. 
.
But it is Emily Blunt who steals the show.  See the movie on DVD. 
.
-Zenwind.
.

05 October 2014

Book Review: The Darkship Series by Sarah Hoyt

.
Sarah Hoyt has written a series of three very fine SF novels which are recognized by the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS) as either a winner or nominee for Best Novel.  Darkship Thieves (2010) won the LFS’ 2011 Prometheus Award, and its sequels, Darkship Renegades (2012) and A Few Good Men (2013) were nominee finalists more recently.  The love of freedom goes through all of these books.  Hoyt’s characters are always well-drawn, there are heroes and heroines aplenty, and her descriptions of family dynamics are always interesting.  Bio-engineering is a big controversy in this future world, as are the age-old arguments on Liberty vs. Power. 
.
The first book, Darkship Thieves – which is dedicated to Robert A. Heinlein – introduces us to a far future where Earth is governed feudally by an oligarchy of 50 “Good Men.”  Our protagonist, the Patrician Athena Hera Sinistra is a heroic young woman with a lot of fight in her.  There is action and mystery right off the bat on her father’s spaceship out beyond Earth.  Athena must escape this ship because she is attacked by the bodyguard goons serving her father, the Patrician “Good Man” Sinistra.  (Everyone in her family lineage is left-handed.) 
.
In her flight she runs into a Darkship Thief named Kat, who is from a society of refugees who had fled Earth centuries ago and who now inhabit an obscure asteroid named Eden.  It is a society without government, yet with traditions of justice.  Athena settles in on Eden but must go back to Earth for an emergency, and the tyranny on Earth puts her and Kat in grave danger.  [“Is there any other kind?”]  There is a ghastly family secret about her father and the other Good Men ruling Earth. 
.
Darkship Renegades continues the story of Athena, Kat and his family, and it explores the political nature of Eden.  A tyranny is developing in Eden, although there is no legal system.  It is a tyranny of the Energy Board.  What makes the Board so powerful is that it is a traditionally inherited family monopoly of the directors’ positions of what is traditionally a collective-ownership of energy resources.  With no actual private property in energy, and no tradition of competition within the energy sector, the Board uses their monopoly directorship’s control of vital energy to threaten and control everyone in Eden.  And it’s getting grim and violent.  To break the monopoly by putting energy technology into private hands, Athena and friends must return to Earth to get long-lost info on energy tech – with troubles confronting them again on that planet of tyrants. 
.
A Few Good Men is in the same world and timeline as the first two novels, but it shifts its focus onto different characters more this time.  All the action takes place on Earth, and there is revolution in the air against the Good Men’s oligarchy.  We have heroic characters again, and their basic principle is the individual’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  It is an excellent story.  The debates about freedom are believable – because they parallel in many ways the real historical debates among the American Founders.  Hoyt has one character give a very brief but vital distinction between the principles of the historical American and French Revolutions, and the results that followed from each. 
.
Highly recommended.  I hope she adds more to the series in the future.  Read the novels in their proper order.  I could not find paper copies here, so I got them on Kindle. 
.
-Zenwind.

.

05 June 2014

Review: Book and Movie: The Eiger Sanction

.
One doesn’t have to be a climber and/or a mountaineering literature enthusiast to appreciate The Eiger Sanction, either the 1972 book by Trevanian or the 1975 movie.  The story is a spy-spoof thriller with a fine dose of extreme alpine climbing.  The 1975 film, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, has been in my top ten favorite movies list for decades.  I’ve watched it to death, and it is by far my favorite of Clint’s films.  I only just now have read the original 1972 novel by Trevanian, and I was not disappointed. 
.
The story is a spoof because it satirizes the insanity of government agencies, especially the national “intelligence” agencies that are supposed to protect our lives and liberties with integrity and virtue, and it features classic conspiracy theorist paranoia about government assassins and shadow planners.  The plot is convoluted and beyond credibility, but it is excellent theater.  Our protagonist is Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Eastwood), a military veteran, experienced alpinist, art expert, and professor of art; but he has also been an assassin for the US government.  An assassination plot is a main part of the story. 
.
The mountain climbing aspects of the story are excellent.  The North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland is considered one of the most dangerous climbs in the Alps.  The history of climbing and death on this Nordwand (north wall) is fascinating, and this story taps into the entire mystique and into many of the actual historical details.  The more one knows about the Eiger’s climbing history, the more the story shines. 
.
Movie (1975):  It is very faithful to the book, including dialogue, although some plot changes have been made.  Clint’s ability to deliver classic one-liners with sarcasm adds spice.  The camera work is fantastic, capturing the awesome grandeur of big climbs.  It has a John Williams score, and it is my favorite of George Kennedy’s roles as supporting actor. 
.
Clint Eastwood did most of his own stunt work, including most of his climbing scenes, including some leads.  He often has an extra line attached.  During the desert climb, you can see that Clint is top-roped on the chimney climb (contradicting the storyline which has him leading it, but still nice climbing shots); but when you see his back at a distance with no rope above him, that is usually his climbing stunt double.  The double has longer hair, and he doubles on rappel scenes in both the desert and the Eiger as well as at the top of the early building climb scene in Zurich. 
.
They filmed the climatic scenes on the Eiger itself, although off to the side of the main face.  A camera crew member was killed by a falling rock, in a spot where Eastwood was standing just before.  To me, one of the best shots of Clint actually climbing is his long pendulum swing on the north face. 
.
Clint wears an unusual helmet in the Eiger scenes, one with a small visor like on a construction safety helmet, and I assume this was to protect his million-dollar face from being smashed by rockfall.  I’ve never seen a climber wear such a helmet. 
.
More authentic film props are pieces of gear identical to what I used then, in my pioneer climbing days.  Woolen Dachstein mittens are dense, windproof, and will insulate even when frozen; one must break them in like a good pair of boots.  The crampons worn are just like my own first pair.  The climbing boots, both the rock and the ice climbing ones, are typical of the era.  (My own beloved pair of Galibier Super-Guide ice boots were all-leather and non-insulated, and it took me three years to break them in, but they are my dancing slippers of choice on steep ice.) 
.
The movie’s mountaineering advisors were all top rank.  Foremost was Dougal Haston.  He was a Scots climber who headed an international climbing school based in Switzerland.  His climbing resume was impressive:   He did new routes on Ben Nevis in winter Scotland.  In 1966 he joined German climbers for the first ascent of the direttissima (“most direct route”) on the Eiger’s north face (the Harlin Route).  First ascent of the south face of Annapurna in 1970, and the first ascent of Everest’s south-west face in 1975.  
.
Also advising for the film were:  Norman Dyhernfurth, who led the first American team to summit Mt. Everest in 1963; and Hamish MacInnes, the legendary Scots climber and pioneer in mountain rescue techniques. 
.
The South Tyrolean mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, is perhaps the greatest mountain climber in history, and while Eastwood was filming in the summer of 1974, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler climbed the Eiger north face in 10 hours.  (There is a photo in Messner’s book, The Big Walls, with them and the film’s stars.)  Messner and Habeler were the first to climb Mount Everest without bottled supplemental oxygen in 1978.  Messner came back in 1980 and did another first:  He climbed Everest solo from base camp to top and back, and of course without oxygen. 
.
Book:  1972 by Trevanian (aka, Rodney William Whitaker)
.
Although additional history of Eiger north face climbing is given in the novel, there is no mention of Toni Kurz during the fatal 1936 attempt on the north face.  Kurz was the last surviving member of his rope team and was trying to rappel down to the very railroad tunnel “window” on the face that our story’s Hemlock tries for.  (So the “window” rescue scenario has historical background.)  Kurz is dying of exposure with a frozen arm, but he cannot work the knot that joined two rappel ropes through his rappel rig because his weight is on it.  He is jammed and dies of exposure hanging from his rope, just meters from rescuers. 
.
Trevanian calls the Eiger north face’s first ascent team of 1938 a “German team” – but it was a combined effort of two teams:  two Germans and two Austrians.  The Germans were Anderl Heckmair (the strongest climber, who led) and Ludwig Vorg (aka, the “Bivouac King,” so called because of his knack for making a cold bivouac, where you put on a jacket and put your feet into your pack for warmth and shiver the night, more endurable, e.g., he pulled out a little alcohol spirit burner to melt snow for tea, and he put on his own wool fleece slippers!).  The Austrians were Fritz Kasparek and Heinrich Harrer (his book, The White Spider 1959, remains the classic Eiger north face book; Harrer is also known for his autobiographical Seven Years in Tibet 1952).
.
Errors in the movie:  (Yeah, I know, I’m nit-picking):
.
Hemlock’s friend, Ben, limps with a bad knee because of “frostbite” from an earlier climb (identified in the novel as Mt. Aconcagua).  But frostbite of the toes, even including toe amputation, should not cause stiff knees for the rest of your life; and it should not hamper future ice and snow climbing, although loss of toes does affect rock climbing.  (Messner lost over half his toes in 1970, before his greatest high climbs.) 
.
The Tyrolean Traverse in the desert climb makes no sense in the plot.  So why is it included?  Well, because it is so dramatically picturesque, of course.  Most classic climbing flicks show it although it is rarely used. 
.
Belay technique:  The hip belay was still used at that time.  But the climbers while on early rock pitches of the Eiger are all using poor technique.  E.g., they don’t use anchors at the top of pitches – although in fast alpine climbing one might forgo them.  But then why stand up?  Sitting down, in a braced position, is much more stable with a lower center of gravity.  Also, they are using their inside hand, the hand closest to the cliff face, for their braking hand.  One should always use the outside hand, the one farthest away from the wall, as a brake.  This is because if a fall loads and pulls you, your inside hand may slam against the wall and make you lose your braking grip.  A climber must be ambidextrous and able to brake with either hand; it doesn’t take that much force to brake a top-roped fall.  The actors were all right-handed and instinctively braked with the wrong (i.e., inside) hand.  Also, they don’t use a carabiner on their waist harness opposite from their brake hands to keep the rope around their waists and to prevent it from slipping down under their butt, legs and feet. 
.
Best lines: 
1. Hemlock to Meyer during a desperate situation:  “We’ll make it.”  Meyer to Hemlock:  “I don’t think so, but we shall continue with style!” 
2. Eastwood, shouting with echoing effect:  “[Fill in name], you asshole!!!!!!!!” 
.
Best film shots: 
1. Hemlock and Ben on top of the Totem Pole in the desert, drinking beer. 
2. Clint’s pendulum swing on the north face.
3. Clint cutting the rope. 
4. Immediate transition from the desert scene when Hemlock leaves Miles standing alone, directly to a full face shot of the Eiger’s north face, an evil 6,000 foot face of ice and crumbling rock.  Whoa! 
.
-Zenwind.

.

24 April 2014

Book Reviews: A Piece of Blue Sky (1990/2013) by Jon Atack; and Bare-Faced Messiah (1987) by Russell Miller

.
I have always had a morbid fascination reading about weird cults, religions, philosophies, and infamous celebrities.  I’ve been reading extensively about Scientology for several years now, and I recently read two fine (unauthorized) biographies of L. Ron Hubbard. 
.
I just finished Jon Atack’s A Piece of Blue Sky, and it is one of the best historical accounts I’ve seen yet on L. Ron Hubbard (LRH) and his creation, the Dianetics movement and the Church of Scientology.  A new edition of Atack’s book has recently been published, and I got it on Kindle.  His title came from a remark Hubbard was said to have made around 1950 about creating a religion and making a lot of money from it: “Let’s sell these people a piece of blue sky.”  Atack shows us how Hubbard got rich while leaving a lot of damaged people in his wake.  The ruthless nature of Scientology as a mind-controlling, money-grubbing cult is well documented, in both the Hubbard and post-Hubbard eras. 
.
Russell Miller’s 1987 Bare-Faced Messiah:  The true story of L. Ron Hubbard is also excellent reading.  Miller traces Hubbard’s life history with special attention to the fables surrounding his early personal life.  Hubbard (LRH) was a pathological liar.  He lied about everything, about his childhood, his adventures, his explorations, and his military career.  (Did he also lie about the alien warlord, Xenu, and the Galactic Confederacy of 75 million years ago?  Or did he believe it?)  Such habitual liars never expect to be called out on their stories.  
.
For instance, Hubbard’s military claims were checked by researching his US Navy records.  He claimed to have fought in “all five theaters” of WW2; to have been the “first US returned casualty from the Far East” (machine-gunned on Java); to have commanded a “corvette squadron” in action in the Atlantic; and to have finished the war in hospital crippled and blind (injuries which he claimed to have self-cured by his Dianetics-Scientology mystic insight). 
.
In actuality, he never saw combat action.  At the beginning of the war, he was to be posted to the Philippines, but he was sent back stateside after only arriving in Australia, the reason being that he was “not satisfactory for independent duty assignment,” and he “will require close supervision.”  Stateside, he was relieved of the only two naval boat commands he ever had – one on the US east coast, before even sailing (“not temperamentally fitted for independent command”), and one on the west coast where he exhibited gross incompetence and poor judgment during his two short instances of commanding a naval ship at sail along the North American coast. 
.
His Navy fitness report after this rated him as “below average,” and continued:  “Consider this officer lacking in the essential qualities of judgment, leadership and cooperation.  He acts without forethought as to probable results. … Not considered qualified for command or promotion at this time.  Recommend duty on a large vessel where he can be properly supervised.”  LRH finished the war hospitalized stateside for an ulcer, not “crippled and blind.”  LRH was, as we used to say in the Marines, a “lying sack of shit.” 
.
LRH claimed that he was a “nuclear physicist.”  He never finished college, and he failed the only class he ever took in nuclear physics.  The scale of his life-long trail of lies and fabrications is stunning.  However, early in his pre-Dianetics career he was a prolific writer of pulp science fiction, churning out volume after volume. 
.
Both Jon Atack and Russell Miller – who collaborated a bit – owed a lot to the historical work of Gerry Armstrong, a dedicated Scientologist who found a treasure trove of early Hubbard letters and documents in an attic.  Armstrong started archiving and researching – with the blessing of LRH – for biographical purposes.  But Armstrong quickly found that the documentation was proving LRH to be lying about almost everything, and he eventually soured on the cult and left it.  The cult harassed him almost to death, but he got the documentation out to the world. 
.
Legal harassment and incredibly nasty dirty tricks campaigns (called the “Fair Game” policy) were a common recommendation of LRH, in his written policy letters, against perceived “enemies” of the Church.  Scientology’s leadership still uses these methods to this very day, as Atack and Miller can tell you.  Both have had horrendous personal experiences of endless Church attacks, and they document numerous cases of attacks on many other people.  They both document that this culture of nastiness originated with LRH himself and is his lasting institutional legacy. 
.
Miller’s 1987 book was published in the UK and Europe, but US publishers gave up after two years of legal battles with the Church, and it was never available in America.  The Church has such immense wealth that it can easily overwhelm its enemies in endless legal suits, as LRH taught them to do.  But, finally, this year Bare-Faced Messiah has been published in the USA, and it is now on Kindle also. 
.
One fact that might be unknown to many who have only passing knowledge of Scientology is that in the mid-1970s Scientologists, under the ever-paranoid direction of LRH and the cult puppets he created, infiltrated the US government to a degree unprecedented in history, copying reams of documents, thousands upon thousands of pages.  LRH called it “Operation Snow White,” and the reality of the extent of its spying is documented in Church of Scientology documents later taken by the FBI in its 1977 raid on the Church. 
.
The cult’s Guardian Office (GO), now re-named the Office of Special Affairs, infiltrated not only Interpol, but the US IRS, the DEA, the US Coast Guard, and the Department of Justice.  The GO agents burgled numerous offices of US government officials, including the US Courthouse in Washington and the office of the Deputy Attorney General, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, the Treasury, and US Customs.  They also burgled offices of attorneys for the American Medical Association and of a critical newspaper.  One must admit that, while all of this was stupid and had to eventually fail, it was ballsy. 
.
The 1977 FBI raid on the GO found all the paper documentation proving that Scientology had conspired and infiltrated the US government.  Eleven top Scientologists were sent to prison, including the number two in the hierarchy, Mary Sue Hubbard, LRH’s wife.  LRH was insulated from the GO directives, but he was named an “unindicted co-conspirator” and went into hiding for the rest of his life.  He threw his wife under the bus and ran.  It was his life-long style. 
.
The bottom line lesson from these two fine biographies (and from many, many concurring witnesses) is that L. Ron Hubbard, while sometimes appearing charismatic, was a vicious fraud, a liar, and a con man – albeit on a grand scale.  Rather than being a “Commodore” in command of himself and others, he was often panicky, childish, and one who threw horrendous tantrums when he couldn’t get his way.  But he was one hell of a storyteller. 
.
-Zenwind.

.

07 March 2014

Old-Style Haying on the Farm

.
In the 1950s, in the old days before my father started harvesting his annual hay crop in the form of compact bales, he gathered the hay loose and filled the bigger (west) haymow with it.  I was too young to help out, but I often went along for the ride.  These farm practices are long gone (except maybe among the Amish). 
.
My father used a “buck-rake” bolted to the front of his pickup truck to scoop the loose hay up off the fields and bring it to the barn.  It was like a huge comb, with many long wooden iron-tipped pikes as teeth sticking out in front at about ground level.  He could lower it to graze the ground and pick up the hay, or raise it up a bit for the transport of a full load, by manipulating a large lever just outside the driver’s side window of his truck. 
.
The hay was first prepared by a couple of archaic two-wheeled machines that were originally designed to be pulled by a horse team but were now adapted for towing by my father’s pickup truck.  First the hay was cut with a two-wheeled mower contraption that had a seat for a man on it to manipulate the right-side mechanical cutter blade arm via levers and gears, thus raising it, lowering it, putting it into cutting gear, etc.  The wheels of the unit drove the cutting blades, which were like a wide giant hair clipper throughout the length of its long arm. 
.
After the hay was dried a bit by the sun, a second similarly wheel-driven, truck-towed unit was used to dry it further.  This was the “tedder,” and it went over the fresh-cut hay to ted it, i.e., to scoop it and fluff it up for better air-drying with mechanically rising and falling forks that tossed up the hay in its wake.  My grandfather Wesley C. Barlow sat on the seat of each of these machines, controlling their levers and gears, as my father pulled them with the truck.  I remember in later years playing on and around that old, now-retired, tedder as it rusted down out behind my grandfather’s old poultry Incubator Cellar.  My sister has a photo of her on it as a little kid. 
.
Gathering the hay in the field was exciting, and I loved to ride along.  The tedded and dried hay would lie in rows, and my father would collect it into bigger piles with the buck-rake on the pickup truck.  When he had a full load all lined up, he would gun the engine and ram the pile fast – boom!  The impact with the huge pile of hay was a great thrill!  He would then lever the buck-rake’s teeth upward to transport the hay to the barn, and he could barely see around the load, craning his head out the window.  When crossing highways, he had to ask me, riding shotgun, if the automobile traffic was clear or not. 
.
Once at the barn, he would drive into the barn floor’s center then lower the buck-rake teeth to the floor, and then back the truck out, leaving a big pile of hay.  The barn had a rail up at its peak, going east-west along its ridge.  From this rail a huge pulley system with a hay-fork array was lowered, a cluster of big hay blades that were driven and kicked deep into the bottom of the hay pile from all sides and somehow locked to clutch it. 
.
The barn had a system of ropes (big old hemp ones over an inch-and-a-half thick) and big wooden pulleys.  The hay-fork with its big load was hoisted straight up by a rope tied via pulleys to our 1953/4 Chevy automobile, which my mother drove the dozen or so feet away from the barn necessary to haul it up.  My father stood by watching to yell “Whoa!” at the appropriate moment. 
.
When the hay-fork had reached the barn’s peak, it then traversed laterally on the rail over the big mow on the barn’s west side.  And there it hung.  A smaller rope was attached to the hay-fork and was its trip-rope.  My grandfather always authoritatively manned this rope.  One yank and it dumped the whole load of hay.  Whoosh!  One time I conned my grandfather into letting me pull the rope to dump the hay.  It was a small child’s thrill to control this spectacular part of the work, and I remember seeing the immense clouds of hay dust rise in the rays of late-afternoon sun coming in the west window.  
.
However, I got carried away by this new-found sense of power.  I decided to play a joke on my father because, after all, he always played jokes on everybody else (and if you knew him, you know this is true).  He would get into the mow both before and after the fork dump to manually fork and re-distribute the hay.  I thought it would be great fun to dump the load on him when he was under it.  (In the years since, every single time I think of this episode, I am aghast:  I could have killed him, broken his neck!)  Eagerly anticipating, I timed it until he was right beneath the fork, and I tripped the rope.  My grandfather, who was standing right beside me and who had given me this job, was aghast. 
.
My father emerged from under the pile of hay looking, not quite angry, but a bit embarrassed and uncomfortable.  That job of working the trip-rope was my first experience of being fired from a job. 
.
One more early memory from those long-gone days of loose hay gathering stays with me.  It has to do with a frightening lightning storm and the entrance on the scene of a local hero who was mostly a stranger to me before. 
.
My father was out in the field across the road, picking up hay with the buck-rake, and I had wandered up the street towards town.  It may have been one of my early runaway exploits or just an example of my curious rambling nature; I cannot remember my motive.  But I was a little guy who was blocks away from home when this tremendous thunder and lightning storm blackened the afternoon sky.  I had never seen anything like it and was frozen in place with fright. A big storm was coming in fast. 
.
The older kids in town, those old enough to ride bicycle, decided that someone should take me home.  Ray Abbott didn’t hesitate.  He told me to sit side-saddle on the cross-bar of his bicycle (first experience of this for me) and hold on tight, and he pedaled me home.  I remember looking straight upward as we went down the street, and I saw brilliant, flashing, intertwined forks of lightning in a display like nothing that’s ever impressed me since, followed by deafening cracks and booms.  Chilling cosmic chaos!  Ray saw my father about to leave the field with his last load of hay and rode me right up to the truck.  Safe inside it, I was still mesmerized by the storm. 
.
Years later, Ray was also known as the bravest diver in town at our old swimming hole, “The Willow” on Stillwater Creek, and he mastered the art of the high shallow dive off a tree limb.  The control and raw courage he showed in his dives was awesome to behold, and I never saw anyone duplicate them. 
.
Ray was killed in action in Vietnam in 1967 serving in the 7th Marines at An Hoa.  This tragedy sent shockwaves through the entire town.  Two-and-a-half years later I was out at An Hoa with the 1st Marine Division, and it was still a wild untamed combat zone.  Ray was a few years older than me and very quiet, so I never got to know him well, but I wish so much that I had.  I will always associate him with those days of old. 
.
That old time era of loose hay gathering ended when area farmers started baling hay.  The solid square bales stacked well in the lofts, and you could get a lot more hay packed into the barn.  My father’s operation wasn’t big enough to justify investment in the new baling equipment, so he hired out that job to neighboring farmers. 
.
When I came of age for heavy lifting, we picked up the bales from the field and loaded them on the back of the pickup truck, 45 bales per load, tied on tight.  Then we manhandled them up to the top of the loft.  When the green season ended, from Halloween to Beltane, my job was to climb the lofts and toss bales down to feed the cows.  That seasonal fodder cycle is still timeless.  Only the specific technology changes. 
.
-Zenwind.

.