Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Merry Christmas Affair

Some of my fondest Christmas memories are of the years my sister and I were in college. We both had breaks at the same time, as did my nephew (then in the kindergarten/1st grade range), so we could all pack up and go together to our parents' house in our old hometown, for as long as the university gave us. That meant a lot of cookie baking by day, cable TV by night (exemplified by this clip from USA Up All Night), and putting whipping cream in my coffee instead of milk. Oh, the luxury and decadence!

One of those years, one of the cable channels was showing The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a show which, along with the original Star Trek and the campy Batman series, obviously had an undue effect on my aesthetic at an early age.


Look at those go-go boots! Then there's this shimmery gold number, with matching gold belt and boots, completely upstaged by the thought: "What's the deal with her bra?"


Since the show was canceled shortly after my fourth birthday, I really didn't remember it except in the vaguest way, so the mid-to-late '80s was really my introduction to the wonderful world of '60s spycraft.

The box set just came out, and it's 105 episodes, so it'll take me a while to digest. So far I've watched the first two (black and white) episodes, plus a voodoo episode, a "discotecque" episode, and a thuggee cult episode, choices which should surprise no one. All of them are titled "The Something or Other Affair," so, for example, the voodoo one is "The Very Important Zombie Affair."

Forty years later, seeing those first episodes finally explained the show's title. I always wondered why it was The Man From, when it should have been The Men From -- being the adventures of American agent Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and his partner, Russian agent Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). Although second-billed, Illya barely had cameos in the early shows. The show was originally even going to be called Solo (and by the way, it's no surprise that Ian Fleming himself came up with that crazy name for Vaughn's character).

It's a good thing they changed that, since McCallum is much the cuter, although neither of them is exactly painful on the eyes.

The first, Solo-centric season is more of a straightforward spy drama. By the second, with two leads, the show can get quippier and more fun. Napoleon is humorously smug, and prone to giving the bad guy looks like he can't believe their stupidity. Illya takes a more detached approach to proceedings, and makes sardonic comments like "It's amazing how quickly a girl can take her clothes off, and how long it takes to put them on again."

Then there's the bad guys:


He looks more like a wrestler from a Santo movie than a Papa Doc-eque Caribbean dictator.

A very interesting aspect of the show is its all-pervading air of casual paranoia. The aw-shucks good-old-boy who grew up on the farm down the road in Iowa (played by Slim Pickens!) is secretly spearheading an elaborate, atom-powered conspiracy to overthrow a Central American government. Cleaning services smuggle explosives in vacuum cleaner bags. The dopey nightclub DJ, egging on the most uncoordinated go-go dancers I've ever seen (a little reminiscent of Disco Godfather, oddly enough), is really a secret agent who'll kill anyone with a look from his boss.
Any small shop could be a front for U.N.C.L.E. or their nemesis organization, T.H.R.U.S.H. People even live in the apartments around the tailor shop that serves as U.N.C.L.E.'s entrance, and one of them starts to bring unwanted attention on the secret organization when they raise the rent to cover renovation costs -- ha!

At the same time, unlike more contemporary spy shows like La Femme Nikita or MI-5 (a.k.a. Spooks), the U.N.C.L.E. agents never seem to doubt the rightness of what they're doing, or what side they're on. They have a strong moral certainty, despite acknowledging they're in a world where nobody can really be trusted.

So if you'll excuse me, time to put some egg nog in my coffee and continue enjoying the pleasures of a "Voodoo-a-Go-Go" Christmas...

See the Mice in Their Million Hordes

Life on Mars (the original British version) is not only a fantastic series, with the depth and complexity of a good novel, but it's one of the few places where my extensive, instinctive knowledge of old David Bowie songs is actually relevant! When a character says in conversation that some people walk around in a "sunken dream," I know immediately that it's a quote from the title track, a song I've always loved, since there are so few musical tributes to us girls with mousy hair.

It's also a very meta choice for a title tune, since the lyrics go "Take a look at the lawman / Beating up the wrong guy / Oh man, I wonder if he'll ever know / He's in the best-selling show/ Is There Life on Mars?" I'm not sure who the wrong guy he's beating up is, though -- apart from, sometimes, himself.

We'll get back to the song later, but for the record (no pun intended), it's from the album Hunky Dory, possibly my favorite Bowie album. The most serious contender for the title is Scary Monsters -- oddly enough, the source of the "Ashes to Ashes" song that will give its name to the Life on Mars sequel. I'm clearly on a wavelength with somebody.

Life on Mars is the mind-bendy, time-twisty tale of police inspector Sam Tyler, who is hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973. He has the same name, but a new car, a new ID, and transfer papers from the more "modern" unit in Hyde (and it took me annoyingly long to think that there may be a "Jekyll and" identity tidbit in that name) to an unscientific unit run on instinct and machismo. Having seen star John Simm play the villainous Master (brilliantly) on the new Doctor Who, the line "that either makes me a time-traveller or a lunatic" made me yell at the TV: "Or both!"

Simm, by the way, looks so effortlessly cool in the role that there was a point in literally every episode that made me say, "Ohh, I need to get a new leather jacket." It's the same one throughout the series: not motorcycle black leather, but more a narrow, almost blazer-like cut. The kind of black leather that isn't trying too hard.

Anyway. It's not giving anything away to say that most of the series supports the Coma Theory of events, since that's the primary conclusion Sam comes to in the first episode. That is, that Sam's in a coma in the future, populating his mental landscape with metaphorical figures, and what happens to him is all a symbolic representation of his mental state. It's literally all in his mind.

If that's correct, then the actual events that take place within the show are all metaphorical. Which is kind of twisty-bendy, since the show is metaphorical outside itself, the way something like The Matrix is -- working as a metaphor for the human condition. What's real? How do we know? What does it all mean? How do we cope with the uncertainty of it all?

For one thing, most people don't really believe their co-workers are literally figments of their imagination, but a certain practical, everday solipsism isn't uncommon. We don't really register the reality of all the people outside ourselves; after all, there's millions of them. We can know it intellectually, but at the end of the day, most of us are concerned with our own reality and our own perceptions, and we act as if we know they're true. So to some degree Sam's dilemma parallels our own relationship to the larger world around us.

Interestingly, despite the fact that Sam is mostly convinced that he's in a coma, and none of what seems like his everyday life is real, that belief doesn't help when, say, an innocent person gets murdered. He still cares about what's happening, and despite the uncertainty about whether it's real, he still thinks it matters. And after all, as long as there's the slightest chance that his reality may be real, he has to commit to it in his actions and his concern, which he can give regardless of whether he thinks it's ultimately real. (For "real," one could almost substitute "meaningful.") He never blows things off, or even thinks his ethical concerns are insignificant, on the basis that none of it is real, or think that because it's all like a dream, he can do whatever he wants.

Tangent: this raised a question in my mind throughout the series. How much is the Sam personality in the show the same as the "real" Sam, who may be in a coma? If it's a mental projection, is it himself as he really is, or as he sees himself, which may be more what he'd like to be? Especially in regards to his sort of self-righteous, highly ethical qualities, which the show continually contrasts with his boss Gene Hunt's tough-talking, quick-fisted, "whatever gets the job done" attitude. The emphasis on this contrast between the two men and their different styles of policing has two interesting possibilities:

-- Maybe Sam isn't really as successfully ethical as he likes to think he is. Because his mental self-image is so strait-laced, it's obvious that he really believes, for examples, that the ends don't ultimately justify the means. But the negative results (lack of respect for the police and thus the forces of law and order; deals with the devil eroding the individual's value system; etc.) are all long-term, and the possible short-hand benefits (solving a crime, making powerful allies, putting a dangerous criminal away) are sometimes enticing. It's possible that there are times he's compromised his beliefs, or done the expedient thing to either play the game, or get results. A sense of guilt, deeply internalized, since his conscious belief is in himself as an ethical person, could create the symbolic character of Gene, who argues the point with him.

-- Conversely, if the real Sam were as ethical and strait-laced as his dream persona, he could still feel frustrated and hampered by circumstances, even while accepting the necessity for the higher moral ground. Deep down, though, he might wish he could take more direct or intuitive action, so that, when faced with crimes committed by terrible people, he need not worry about the letter of the law himself. If Gene is actually a part of his own self, then their interaction could be a process of Sam finding out who he really is, even the aspects that he keeps buried, which his conscious self would deny.

Now that I've seen the whole series (two seaons, sixteen episodes), I can't say that this has been conclusively resolved. (Spoilers ahead, ye be warned!) Fortunately, the ending didn't feel like a cop-out, because the themes (How do we know who we are? How do we know what's real?) have been explored so intelligently, and because Sam emotionally reaches what felt like a satisfying resolution. (scroll a bit for spoilers)



Let the Spoilers Begin!

Toward the end, when Gene is labeled as a symbol of a tumor that could kill Sam in the present day, that just doesn't seem right, because Gene, despite his occasional brutality, clearly isn't all bad. He's more a representative of the gut instinct, the animal appetites, the visceral experience of life, as opposed to the cerebral and abstract. As in life, those instincts and appetites can lead to things that are not healthy or morally defendable. But in the Coma Theory, Gene can easily be seen to represent the impulses that are keeping Sam alive. Sam himself, or at least the Sam who seems to be living in 1973, is the cerebral, logical side: if he's in a coma, his body is completely shut down, so in effect he's nothing but brain.

The series seems, for the most part, to suggest in the end that Sam is now actually dead. The reality of 2006 has been affirmed throughout the show by extra-textual details, like the accurate information Sam has about the present (Tony Blair, etc), which supports the Coma Theory, and the idea that 1973 is the mental projection, not the other way around. (More on that in a sec). We also hear the voice that we think belongs to his doctor, saying that they're losing him.

In this way, the ending implies that Sam's return to 1973 is in the nature of an afterlife. However, throughout the series, 2006 actually has had more the nature of an afterlife: it's a place he believes in, and gets glimmers of, but it's less "real" than 1973, which is where his actual physical present is. When dealing with crime, Sam's logical, by-the-book self is all about the evidence, and yet, he has no evidence to back up his belief about what has happened to him. Even if his belief were true, the only evidence of it he can ever get is if he wakes up from his coma. But if that happens, the only evidence he'll have is because it's happened, and he won't be able to prove the ultimate "reality" of the real world. Because the supposedly "unreal" world of 1973 felt just as real at the time. In the end, perhaps there's only so far reason can take us, and at that point, we have to go with our feelings (both physical and emotional).

It can of course be argued that, in the end, that's what happens: he wakes up from his coma, and no longer can tell the difference between the "real" world and what's in his head, so he makes a decision based on what he wants -- no longer trying to know what's real, but choosing to decide what he's going to treat as real.

The last episode sets up an equally plausible alternative to the Coma Theory: the Undercover Amnesia Theory. In this version, 1973 is actually what's real, and Sam is hallucinating his memories of the future, along with the communications he's been receiving, due to brain damage from his accident. If this theory is correct, then he's making the choice to commit to the only reality he can feel and touch, or has any empirical evidence of, rather than continually striving for a return to an idealized "home," the existence of which he can do nothing to prove. In effect, choosing to believe that his everyday existence is real, and that the other people in it are real and meaningful.

Either way, the ending feels (there's that word again!) more like an integration, in which Sam is finally reconciles the different aspects of himself. If the different characters and their lives are all playing out on a symbolic level inside his brain, it seems to have left him with a healthier internal landscape than he started with. Particularly in that the Sam we see at the end hasn't capitulated to the Gene Hunt way of seeing the world. Sam is still arguing for his vision of a more rational and more ethical future. Instead of escaping his present physical reality, he's working to improve the reality he's in. But while he's doing it, the two men are both together in the front seat, arguing, good-naturedly, in a sense about instinct versus intellect, body versus mind. The characters, or personas if you will, who symbolize these apparently contrasting elements are working side by side, equally important.

So I can't say in the end what it all means, and I'm sure the sequel will make a mess of my theories, and (hopefully) give me new ones. As Bowie said in "The Bewlay Brothers," also from Hunky Dory: "We were so turned on/By your lack of conclusions."

Oh, speaking of: I was going to say some more about the "Life on Mars?" song (the song title ends with a question mark). Like most of Hunky Dory, it's an odd thing. A girl gets kicked out of her house, wanders aimlessly, and goes to the movies, but this minimal story contains a lot of lyrical weirdness (mice in their million hordes, for one thing). It depicts a bleak, colorless existence, enlivened only by her becoming "hooked to the silver screen." But then, "The film is a saddening bore/'Cause she's lived it ten times or more."

The storyline has a recursive feel: her life seems alienated and numb (as she walks through that "sunken dream" we heard about before), as if it's not real. But when she watches the movie, to escape, it's really about her, and about other people who don't know that they're in the movie, maybe the same way she doesn't know she's in the movie. I know, I'm rambling, but it's that kind of song. The point seems to be that she attempts to escape her reality, but in doing so, it only highlights how she views her reality through a filter of unreality, when she's really starring in the movie of her own life. She doesn't realize it, so she views herself and her everyday life as insignificant.

The other intriguing bit is the recurring chorus, where "they" -- presumably the makers of the movie, whoever they are (which I can't answer, since I don't know if we're really talking the media, or a metaphor for existence, and thus fate? God? Chance?) -- "ask her to focus on" images of violence. That includes the lawman beating up the wrong guy, as well as the "sailors fighting in the dancehall." Reminds me of the words of that other famous British philosopher, the Streets: "Geezers need excitement. If their lives don't provide them this they incite violent. It's common sense. Simple common sense." People need to feel things. So for better or worse, entertainment that focuses on violent, visceral experience can make some people, who are otherwise as alienated and numb as that girl with the mousy hair, feel more alive.

One other song off Hunky Dory has a real hardcore Life on Mars feel. It's a cheerful ditty called "Fill Your Heart." If I could put together a Life on Mars fan video, I'd totally use it. At that point in his career (1971), Bowie was beginning to hone his upcoming oddball space alien persona, but his voice still largely sounded young, earnest, and slightly folky. It's a weird mix. The song starts like this: "Fill your heart with love today/Don't play the game of time/Things that happened in the past/Only happened in your mind/Only your mind/So forget your mind/And you'll be free."

(Spoilers! O, the Spoilers!) At the "You'll be freeeee" part, it would be totally perfect to show the part where he jumps off the roof.

One more quick footnote: besides his time on Doctor Who, John Simm played New Order frontman Bernard Sumner in that 24 Hour Party People movie! He even sang along with the chorus of "Digital" with them onstage, which made me ridiculously excited to discover. I thought I was an odd person when I went from Doctor Who to Joy Division, but everything comes around in the end. What rises must converge, etc. Check out the video here. "Day in! Day out! Day in! Day out!"

And here he is singing "Blue Monday" in a deleted scene. I love it when the worlds collide.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Snake Pit

Just how many unsubtitled VCDs with the word "Naag" or "Nagin" in the title would it be reasonable to purchase? How about, as many as Induna had in stock? That's perfectly reasonable, right? Especially considering that they were about a dollar apiece. Yeah. Sure! After all, we're friends on Facebook. Gotta support them.

Actually, it's all the fault of Deewani for Bollywood. She sent me this trailer for a movie called Wahan Ke Log, which forced me to go to Induna, and then while I was there...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sit Down und Eat!

If the professional media would do their jobs better, I'd see somebody saying what needed to be said, and I could keep my mind on happier subjects. Grrr. I may start a new feature about how this world needs people to talk sensibly and stop muddying the waters, and then I can sprout it off so everyone can ignore it more easily.

My day started with some research after Brittany Murphy's death. Because you want to know who else died at 32 of cardiac arrest? Karen Carpenter, the woman who inadvertently put anorexia on the map. Here's one of those cases where we probably won't have any trustworthy information until the print accounts come out, but the sources I've seen put Murphy at 5'5" and 105 pounds. Whatever other factors might be involved, that is just plain too skinny.

Once I got started, I was disturbed at how hard it is to find helpful info about healthy weight. If you look online for the health risks of being underweight, there's a sea of incomprehension, summarized generally as "OMG, how can being skinny be bad for you? That's not possible!"

This is the blurb about underweightness that I don't feel bad re-printing, since I came across it on a half-dozen health sites before I gave up looking for something more substantial in that direction:

"There are a number of reasons why someone may be underweight. Some people are just naturally thinner than others, because they tend to burn more calories or eat less. Other people may lose weight as a result of certain medications or an underlying medical condition. Sudden weight loss without trying can also be an indication of a health problem, so talk to your doctor.

"For some people, being too thin is a self-induced condition, known as anorexia nervosa. Anorexia is a condition where sufferers may diet to the point of near-starvation or exercise excessively all in the name of weight control. Though anorexia is a psychological illness, it can have serious physical complications, including heart and lung problems, osteoporosis, and, in some cases, death."

See what they're doing there? On the one hand, you're either just naturally skinny, or it's a medical condition. On the other, you have an extreme, clinically diagnosable mental disorder. Nothing about otherwise healthy people who DON'T FREAKING EAT. Many girls, and under-reported boys, are too thin, frequently because they're on dangerous diets and/or exercise regimens, without being close to technically anorexic (as I also know from my adventures in insurance, where all eating disorders are diagnoses with specific criteria).

If you search for the health risks of anorexia, you do find all sorts of information about the dangers, including to the heart, and the particular danger of cardiac arrest.

The problem here is that it's not the existence of an eating disorder as such that causes the health problem. It's not your self-image or your constellation of symptoms. It is the simple fact of not taking in enough nutrients to fuel the system, which is very dangerous for your health, especially over time. I wish the media would stop talking about anorexia and eating disorders and use some plain language for once: it is dangerous to be TOO SKINNY. Your heart doesn't care why you're too skinny. It doesn't know. It's just trying to work with what it has coming in, and if that isn't enough, there's too much stress on it.

Oddly enough, Kareena Kapoor, of the infamous "Size Zero," is also 32. I've found various sources for her weight, and the highest number I saw was 92 pounds. I've tested various healthy weight for height charts, and the lowest healthy weight I've seen for a small-framed woman of 5'4" is 111 pounds, although even Weight Watchers, who I'd assume would have different standards from mine, suggests 117. Get healthier, Bebo, before it's too late!

Full disclosure: yes, I'm a little vehement about this, because I know. I'm small-framed, of a nervous, high-metabolism temperament, and when I was skinny, I knew I was too skinny. I've never dieted a day in my life. Under no criteria could I have been considered anorexic, or diagnosable with an "eating disorder." I was just broke, and I wasn't making it a priority to take care of myself. And I didn't realize that the skinnier you are, the less margin there is. (Which all these skinny dieting girls don't either: skipping meals when you have a little padding is one thing, but skipping them when you're barely taking in enough to function in the first place is totally different).

I'm 5'6" and into my mid-twenties, I weighed about 95 pounds. I would wake up at night, and my heart would be racing, for no reason at all. It was very unhealthy, and I did not look good. People thought I looked sick. I am a million times better off with some meat on my bones.

I've made myself hungry, so yes! Time for bagel...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Is fun evil?"

Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973)

(cross-posted from my side project at Haunted Vinyl)

Never has a movie gotten so much publicity from being banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. For years, horror movie magazines advertised VHS copies of this movie by trumpeting that fact, as if its makers had been persecuted by a Vatican conspiracy, and that's why no one had ever heard of it. Or, come to think of it, like being disapproved of by the church is particularly difficult. Most of the movies in my collection, pre-Bollywood, probably fall into that category. Interestingly, one can now check the lists, and I don't find any verifiable evidence that the Catholic Legion of Decency ever even heard of the film. (The archived reviews and ratings are available on line here). Still, the factoid still turns up on the Wikipedia. And I'm more than happy to be proved wrong, if someone has a citation for me.

Lemora has got a Poe-like title, a Lovecraftianly-named town (Astaroth), and one of the best never-released movie soundtracks ever. That bluegrass banjo "Paper Angel" song, by a group called the Black Whole -- and doesn't that sound like a '60s coffeeshop? -- would be worth the price of a CD all by itself. Then there's the creepy old-lady singing, and all the spookily sincere church music.

Cheryl (Rainbeaux) Smith stars as Lila Lee, a church-going young "Singin' Angel" who's constantly fending off unwanted advances, and whose loss of innocence is symbolized by a weird occult tale of vampires and feral werewolf ghoul creatures. She takes a dream-like bus trip to visit her dying gangster father, during which the bus is attacked by what appear to be deformed children. Then she's locked up by the stony-faced Lemora (Leslie Gilb, an otherwise unknown actress with a definite Sigourney Weaver quality), who tries to woo Lila into joining her in a vaguely depicted vampiric existence. She tempts her with wine and dance, asking that most important theological question, "Is fun evil?" Maybe, sometimes, and evil is sometimes fun, as it in her performance.

On the side, Lemora kills whatever of the "diseased" feral creatures she can catch as they roam in the countryside around her house. The cause of all this supernatural mayhem is unfortunately unclear, but my theory is that Lemora's very presence in this isolated small town is causing it, given her line of dialogue: "I don’t do anything. I only show people who they really are."

That throws a Swedenborgian cast on the story: the idea that angels and demons (no, not a Dan Brown reference!) are the inner selves of people made visible. My Swedenborg anthology isn't handy, and all the online resources are unfortunately too long-winded, so you'll have to take my word for it. Just this once.

Unfortunately, the story falls apart, as so many do. It develops into escapes and chases and slo-mo battles between the different supernatural parties, which would probably be more effective if we knew who they were and what it all meant. So at that point it starts to drag, and the conclusion lacks the punch it should have. Nonetheless, thanks to all the publicity, and the stylistic air of low-rent surrealism, it's one of the must-see cult horror films.

Rainbeaux, of course, went on to star in movies like The Swinging Cheerleaders and The Pom Pom Girls, where she specialized in slutty-but-sweet (not a value judgment: the whole point of these movies was overt sluttiness. It was, after all, the seventies). This was a very unusual role for her, and while her characterization is definitely on the blank-faced side, that's the role. Actually, it makes her look sort of stunned and unbelieving by events, which is perfectly reasonable. She also screams with real conviction. Sadly, Smith died at 47, and her son touchingly visits the IMDB occasionally to thank people for remembering her.

Since I can't find them anywhere else on the Internet, here are the lyrics to "Paper Angel." I can't be positive about a few words, since they're drowned out by the stagy tableau of Sin in the Big City that it plays behind (the sounds of bar brawls, a guy shouting "I'll teach you to fool around with my friends!" and so on). But I'm relatively confident.

She was holy and divine, and I wished that girl was mine
Her eyes they were the bluest of them all
But on that dark black day when she laughed and walked away
I knew she was a-headin' for a fall

She had lovely golden hair that would perfume up the air
I told that girl that one day we'd be wed
But she only laughed at me, I wasn't good enough, you see
And that is what this paper angel said

Well I saw her late last night, Oh God, she was a sight
All painted up and powdered like a whore
And I knew that wife of mine is the one that's so divine
And there ain't no paper angel anymore

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Font of Nonsensical

The other day, one of our major filmi gurus, Beth, posted a hilarious review of Rafoo Chakkar, tranforming it in a moment from "Never heard of it" to "Must see, must see, must see!" After watching the film, all I have to add is "Yes, you must see!" And also a quick word about fonts.

A few weeks ago I read a book called Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture, by architecture critic Alan Hess. The faux space age style, with its famous "futuristic" boomerang and kidney-shaped signs and letters, is freqently called "Googie," the name of a well-known coffee shop that was one of the earliest to use it. There's a site with a good overview here.

Imagine my surprise on popping in the Rafoo Chakkar DVD and discovering this:


Causing me to cry out "It's Googie!" Like I'm not speaking in tongues enough already. Nonetheless, it is true: this may be the single Googie-est font I have ever seen. In fact, it looks like it belongs on a sign that would hang outside the Rishi Kapoor Tiki Bar, if only there were such a place. Just imagine the floorshows!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Vanishing Hitchhiker

Woh Kaun Thi? (1964)

The temperature is actually warmer than it's been, but looking outside, the world is still bleak and frosty and white. Inside, I'm chilly and flu-ish. I wasn't happy to see that the movie I picked to watch, more or less at random, contained an opening "thank you" to the Simla Ice Skating Club, but I stuck with it.

The movie takes a more promising turn when Manoj Kumar picks up a girl by the side of the road on a rainy night. She's strange, but in a way I can relate to.



Then she asks him to drop her off at the gates of the cemetery, where she mysteriously disappears.



Just like the course on Urban Legends I took in grad school. Resurrection Mary, Hindi film style!

After a recital of these events wins the coveted cry of "Bhoot!" from an old lady, the story settles down into Dr. Manoj Kumar's love life. He seems engaged-to-be-engaged to peppy Seema (Helen, who shines in her brief role, despite an unusually conventional wardrobe), while the boss's daughter, fellow doctor Lata, is clearly pining over him. When Seema drops dead of a cyanide injection (I was really hoping it would be a "spurious" one, but apparently not), suspicion clouds the gaggle of doctors.

This is all mostly forgotten, though, after he sees the ghost girl again, already dead when he arrives at a deserted mansion to treat her, and yet again, when he unveils her on the night of their arranged marriage. Much angst and suspicion ensue. More surprising is that Manoj's million dollar inheritance, mentioned in the first fifteen minutes or so, is also completely forgotten in the midst of these domestic woes.

Eventually, the cast decamps to Simla (aha!), hoping the rest will sooth his strained nerves, although cavorting on ice skates would not have that effect on me. Curse those weak ankles! While there, the comic servants discuss the ways of bhoots at some length: time means nothing to them; they don't need to wear winter clothes, which would be very handy; they generally do their singing between 1 and 3 am; and they like to sing film songs. After all, why should the dead be any different from the rest of us?

Saner people than me (hi, Memsaab!) have pointed out that this is a slow-moving story, Manoj is pretty dull, and the "mystery" is perfectly obvious. But frankly, some days all I want is a shadowy house full of cobwebs, misty cemeteries, organ music tinged with wind effects, and sinister holy men. Let's just say I've watched worse things on a gloomy day. But please, the next time you marry a doppelganger, save yourself some turmoil and look into their family history.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Semi-obligatory year-end retrospective

I suspect I'm out of sync with reality, since I had a really good year, at the same time that the public face of the country has been freaking out about the economy, the flu, and everything else that's wrong with the world. It's true, I could have done without that whole flood business last spring, and there've been a few bobbles along the way. But mostly it's been great. Better to be off-kilter in this direction than I was in the '80s, when I struggled and starved whilst hearing continual propaganda about how rich we all were. Ha!

The highlights of 2009:

1. 10th anniversary. Tenth! I mean, I was boyfriendless for years! Decades! CENTURIES! Or, well, when I did have boyfriends, they really weren't worth mentioning. If I can wake one morning and find I've been happily married for ten freakin' years, then it actually, really is possible that anything can happen. The starriest of Bollywood and/or Hollywood romantic fantasies have got nothing on me.

2. Speaking of Bollywood (a familiar transition in my everyday life): Trip to Boston! My first flight, which beat the odds and went so smoothly, my return flight actually arrived home early. Someone knew I needed to be encouraged. Then, of course, meeting a bunch of crazy-awesome Bollywood writers, who I wish I could see every day. Plus, the fun of visiting Boston and Providence (with visit to Lovecraft's grave!), sightseeing and much eating of good food, on the side. I decided that I could easily spend about a month on the East Coast doing nothing but visiting churches and cemeteries. With eating of good food. If anyone knows of a grant opportunity to do that, suitable for someone with no particular credentials, let me know.

3. Wahinis Reunion Show! Several years ago, one of my best friends had a debilitating stroke. This year she got together with her garage rock band and performed for the first time since. I got to hang out with her, her Mom, my other best friend I rarely see, and a whole slew of hipsters I knew back in the old days. And when she sang, her voice was exactly the same. Impressive for someone who had to pretty much re-learn how to talk.

My goals for the upcoming year are modest: apart from a desire to use my glassware more often (and believe me, that's a whole 'nother subject. If anyone wants to talk about Spode, comment away), all I really have in mind is more of the same. Reading, writing, movies, hanging out with friends, petting the kitties.

The only other things I'd really like are beyond my control: less violence in the world would be a good thing, guys. I'm not kidding about that. I'd like to see the people in this country, especially the ones in positions of power and authority, stop the nitpicking and the blowing stupid shite out of proportion, and actually work together to help actual problems. I'd like a copy of the Saigal Devdas, and even more -- hey, let's get those Fearless Nadia movies back in circulation! Or at least the documentary! If they can't reach an agreement to get us our Fearless Nadia, there probably isn't much hope that agreements will be reached on more contentious issues. Nonetheless, Rishi willing, I plan to forge onto another year of taking serious things lightly, and trivial things seriously...

Monday, November 23, 2009

No Child Left Behind

Because one apocalypse per day is just not enough in my family: we went to afternoon matinee of 2012, and then watched the last two episodes of Torchwood: Children of Earth.

I was finding 2012 surprisingly not annoying, until the actual disaster stuff really kicked in. Then it went from implausible to ludicrous, and from CGI spectacle to "okay, we get it, everything's collapsing." I will add that I believe the story owes something to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Representative humanity is going to be saved in giant arks, but because one of them was damaged, a whole group of rich paying customers (whose billion-Euro tickets financed the operation) is about to left behind, leading to a dramatic speech about what makes us human, etc. However, I kept thinking about the space ark that sent the Golgafrinchans to the planet Earth, under the ruse that the planet was about to be destroyed -- but really because they were "a bunch of useless bloody loonies."

Also, it's always good to see Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jimi Mistry. I wanted more of their exciting geophysicist adventures, and less of the Divorced Dad Drama. Next time the world ends, let's make our point of view character, oh, say, a girl who works at the mall or something. A little Night of the Comet action. I'm tired of the world ending being all about divorced dads earning the respect of their kids, because that's more important than the billions of people who got killed. Although to be fair, John Cusack makes this marginally more tolerable than Tom Cruise did in War of the Worlds.

And speaking about deciding what makes us human, and what sacrifices are acceptable to save a greater number of people, we have us some Torchwood. It's pretty hard to talk about Children of Earth without it becoming spoiler city, so consider this a warning. Leave now, or be spoiled!!



Okay, the story is: alien horribleness, and everyone dies. Hence, my favorite Torchwood yet! Okay, everyone doesn't die: Jack doesn't die, because he's immortal, which still sucks. Gwen doesn't die, and the Internet is full of rage at her Mary Sue-ness, which makes me sheepish because I never noticed it. I like Gwen, or at least I like Eve Myles, who plays her.

I particularly like the whole storyline with her and her husband, Rhys. When she started in the top-secret alien investigation biz, Gwen got a little caught up in the cosmic glamour of it all, and even had an ill-fated affair with one of her coworkers. But she stuck with the old boyfriend in the end, married him, eventually clued him in to all the alien threats, and he's actually proven helpful, giving her useful ideas, and risking his neck to help save the world. Not bad for a guy who had Mundane Boyfriend She's Bound to Outgrow written all over him in the first few episodes.

Now (more spoilers!) that Gwen's pregnant, I'd like to see the show come back and handle this more realistically than Angel did when they tried to put a baby in the middle of a supernatural investigation team. (They quickly gave up, and used the time-honored device of throwing the kid into a portal, so he'd re-emerge as a teenage Vincent Kartheiser after a few months). I'd like to believe that a woman wouldn't have to give up a career fighting alien menaces to have a child, although babysitting will always be an issue...

I also enjoyed the fact that Jack did something so intriguingly reprehensible that some online commentators think he's been "destroyed as a character": he sacrifices his grandson to stop the evil aliens who are abducting children for horrible uses, and threatening to destroy the planet. This is more or less an inhuman thing to do, being in the province of cold logic and almost impossible objectivity. However, as in 2012, we've seen the powers that be argue over what are acceptable casualties when it's the fate of the human species on the line. While they all agree that sacrifices need to be made, nobody wants to make the sacrifice themselves. Other people's children dying is a very different thing from one's own children dying. And should people be willing to risk the lives of other people's children, when they wouldn't put their own in harm's way?

Of course, it's natural for people to put their own families first. But that's why the moral dilemma is so interesting to me. In a way, Jack is a better person for being willing to sacrifice his own, rather than somebody else's, which is what everyone else is trying to do. It also makes him kind of a monster. This also seems clearly, in the context of the show, a result of the character's immortality. He's lived long enough to see how brief human lives are, even the long ones, so his perspective on it is different. It also seems realistic that, after what's done is done, he would feel how alienated he's become, and choose to leave the group and, possibly, the show. Although, supposedly, there is a Season Four on the way, so we'll see how long forever is.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Ready" or not

I just ordered the Telugu movie Ready, mainly for the insufferably catchy "Om Namaste Bolo" song that was really popular for awhile on the Hyderabad radio stations. Imagine my surprise to discover these lyrics:


Sometimes, I swear, it's like in all the world, they're writing them just for me...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Where I've "been"

Sorry, that is absolutely the WORST pun I hope to ever make in my life. It's really unexcusable. Sometimes I just can't help myself.

Anyway, I haven't posted in awhile because, well, I was totally double-booked over the Halloween season, and then as soon as that was over, November 1 was the start of National Novel Writing Month, so I've been busy with that. However, I had a huge triumph today in Bollywoodland, so I have to do some writing that doesn't contribute to my obsessive wordcount, unless I drastically change the plot of my future best-selling novel.

I have an absolute favorite song I hear on the Hyderabad radio stations, and all I knew about it was that I assumed it came from something nagina-ish, because it was in the "been" music style. (As you all know, that's the kind of snakecharmer music played on the been, or pungi, an instrument that looks like a bulbous recorder). Well, and that the lyrics go by really, really fast. I've tried periodic searches, using words that I thought were in the song, and been totally unable to identify it.

Today, they played it again, and although I can't say my early-morning Teach Yourself Hindi sessions have improved my comprehension any, maybe my ear is actually getting a little better. Because it was obvious to me that the chorus included the phrase "mere dil le gaya." Which wouldn't seem like much to go on, but when I plunked that into Google, it brought me immediately to the right song! Which is "Ek Pardesi Mera Dil Le Gaya," from the 1958 movie Phagun. I don't know what on earth I was searching by before: maybe "le gaye"? Whatever it was, it brought me to a bunch of random songs that had nothing to do with what I was looking for.

Click here for the the picturization on YouTube. It's Asha and Mohd. Rafi, picturized on Madhubala! (And someone named Bharat Bhooshan, who I obviously need to find out more about). With balloons in the background! It just gets better and better...

Of course, one of the top hits the turn-the-tide phrase brought me to was Atul's Bollywood Song a Day, which I swear was the first place I looked, using variations on "nagin" and "naagin" and "nagina," with no luck. But now, when I put in the word "naagin," there it is, easy as pie. Maybe I just wasn't meant to find it earlier. The stars had to align just right to get the right search engine karma....

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

It's raining anthropomorphic cats and dogs

What with all the celebrity voice imitations in Roadside Romeo, it's a shame they didn't take the opportunity to link a hero named "Romeo" with Mithun's character from the infamous Dance Dance. I know, that would be too much to ask from a kids' movie, but it would have been pretty hilarious.

Seriously though, I've had a long-standing grudge against this movie because of its promos, which were not only super-annoying, but NON-FAST-FORWARDABLE. When will DVD companies learn that they're only antagonizing us? Even without that, a Disney crossover/funny animal kids' cartoon isn't exactly my scene. So it was indeed the fickle hand of fate that made me responsible for a showing at my Place of Employment: I get to show a Bollywood movie and it's ... Roadside Romeo.

Still, it was far from the worst time-pass I've ever had, and the bunch of little Chinese kids in attendance laughed and laughed. They and their parents actually gave it an ovation when it was over! So I can feel good about that.

Only a few tidbits worth mentioning: the character of Romeo is very full of himself, with an unflagging sense that he's cool and has "the style." Since he's voiced by Saif Ali Khan, I couldn't help but think "Aha! That's what he thinks about those darn bandanas."

There were some gratuitous DDLJ moments, but that's better than the fawning over KKHH in Dostana. At least within my little brain.

And most crucially, the dogs are so anthropomorphic -- standing upright, with human-like bodies and features -- that I found the resemblance to the Omaha the Cat Dancer comics downright startling. Especially after we see the heroine onstage with a gaggle of backup dancers at a hound dog nightclub.

Omaha, for those who don't know, was a long-running comic book series about the life and loves of an exotic dancer in a funny animal version of Minneapolis. The situations are adult, in both senses. The characters have complex lives and emotions. For example, when one major character struggles with manic-depression, and another becomes paralyzed, both situations are really dealt with in realistic ways. Also, the sexual activity is very graphic: full nudity, full everything. It's well worth reading, but it was a little distracting thinking, Roadside Romeo could totally be taking place in the same universe as Omaha!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Today in character actors

The other night we binged our way through the first three episodes of the excellent 2007 British mini-series Jekyll (written by Steven Moffatt, of Coupling and Doctor Who fame). At one point,
the Jekyll character, long-suffering Dr. Jackman, discovers his wife has hired private detectives to figure out where he disappears to. When the Hyde side doesn't show up in the surveillance photos they give her, he knows something's wrong, and visits an agency run by two women (whom he eventually discovers are a couple).

One of them is played by the awesome Fenella Woolgar, who was the best Agatha Christie imaginable on an episode of Doctor Who. The other is Meera Syal, who I sweared played the receptionist at Patsy's magazine in Absolutely Fabulous. So I hit the IMDB later, and she did: she's the one who's really defensive about how hard she's working ("Everyone seems to think my job just happens"), but then it turns out she's just playing computer games.

That's only one episode, so it's a little weird that I'd recognize her, but then, the episode is "New Best Friend," which is possibly my very favorite. Some old friends, pretentious artists turned harried parents, visit Eddie with their newborn, leading to her famous pointing out of "Lacroix -- baby spew," and her ultimate condemnation of "this no-fun bloody baby world."

Oddly, though, I did not recognize Syal playing Bobby Deol's mother in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, which also appears in her credits. Whaa? She couldn't possibly be old enough to be Bobby Deol's mother. When I did the math, turns out she's six years older than he is. Although I only have a vague memory of his having a mother, she must be under the same old-age makeup from the Kumars at No. 42 Britcom, where she played the grandmother of her real-life husband.

Being an actor leads to a complicated life!

Then last night we polished Jekyll off, and there's a dramatic confrontation between Dr. Jackman and the life-long friend who's been secretly involved with the vast international conspiracy (the latter played with smarmy corporate villainy by Denis Lawson, last seen by me as a bastion of kindness and nobility in Bleak House). Lawson's character gives an impassioned speech to justify his horrible behavior, in the hopes of convincing Hyde not to kill him, using the phrase "the greater good" more than a few times.

I thought there was a kind of a burr in his pronunciation, and while I hadn't thought so before, his voice really reminded me of Ewan McGregor's Scottish speaking voice in Down With Love. I particularly envisioned the scene where he was talking about the new "wonder fabrics" with David Hyde Pierce, and two things suddenly hit me. It was the bit in the scene when McGregor says "Some bad Nazis are good scientists" -- it was the word "good." Just like the word "about" tips people off to the presence of Canadians, or a near geographical locale.

The other thing was: duh, Denis Lawson is Ewan McGregor's uncle!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tithe One On

This morning, the minister had the thankless task of preaching about tithes. He knew it was thankless, too, and mentioned that he gets complaints any time he talks about how people are supposed to tithe. I find it thankless because this is one of those biblical ideas that, once you look at it, falls apart into interpretative problems that he might not be purposely sidestepping, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to get into.

For one: there's the fact that an injunction to offer 10% of your earnings to "God" is a very, very different thing from offering them to "the church." Much less to any specific church. And then, when one gets into the biblical support for tithing, one discovers that some of the talk about tithes and "firstfruits" (as in Numbers 18 and 2 Chronicles 21) is about supporting the priesthood, which can be used as evidence for the Protestant viewpoint. But there's also a lot of "the blood of your sacrifices must be poured beside the altar of the LORD your God" business, where tithes are discussed as part of the system of animal sacrifice. (Deuteronomy 12:27. Thank you, Bible Gateway!)

What I like even better, also in the same intriguing chapter of Deuteronomy, is this: "You must not eat in your own towns the tithe of your grain and new wine and oil, or the firstborn of your herds and flocks, or whatever you have vowed to give, or your freewill offerings or special gifts. Instead, you are to eat them in the presence of the LORD your God at the place the LORD your God will choose." (Deut. 12: 17-18) You're supposed to take those tithes, and the firstfruits and your special gifts, and eat them yourself! There's even a handy loophole: "If the place where the LORD your God chooses to put his Name is too far away from you, you may slaughter animals from the herds and flocks the LORD has given you, as I have commanded you, and in your own towns you may eat as much of them as you want." (Deut. 12: 21).

I'd say that if I don't know where this place is, that God has put his Name on, it's not too legalistic to say that it's "too far away." (A scan of religious scholarship shows that most people assume that place was the Temple, long since destroyed, which is used to explain why the animal sacrifices fell out of vogue. As the religion evolved in a new direction without an official, Temple-based center, the ritual of bringing the tithes to the place that was destroyed didn't work any more). But if we're still tithing, and I accept the available evidence, then the old Temple would be the site to go to and again, I'm not going to be able to get there with my offerings every year. So I guess I have to eat and drink them at home.

Deuteronomy 14 reiterates the same idea, especially the part about how it's fair to sell your tithes, get to the holy place, and then use the money to buy whatever you want to eat there in God's name. Then it adds that every three years, the tithes should stay in your own town and be distributed to the needy. By this logic, I can party in God's name two years out of three, and then the third year, donate my ten percent to a local food bank (maybe the one where my dad works!), and be Old Testament certified!

Well, you know. From a certain point of view.

Deut. 14: 26 even kindly specifies "And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God." Personally, I much prefer the wine to the oxen, so it's nice that it's perfectly fine for us to lust after what we like, at least in the eating and drinking department.

By the time of the New Testament, the majority of the offerings and firstfruits are metaphorical. Individuals are offering spiritual sacrifices instead of physical ones, and are standing themselves in the place of firstfruits.

Research caused me to stray, as research so often will, and I stumbled into Acts 4: 32-35 as an example depicting financial obligation in the early church. (And I found a delightful article arguing that Christian attempts at "social Gospel" -- helping the poor and fighting social ills -- are based on "twisting and misunderstanding" how the finances of the early church worked in these verses). Here they are:

"All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need."

I'm not really clear how that's twistable. Umm. Well, that website was using the venerable King James for their quotes, so let's try there!

"And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need."

That's even more so! The New International Version I started with said that "from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them," whereas the KJV says that "as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them." Not just from time to time, as needed, but that everybody who owned something got rid of it upfront, and the funds were distributed to everyone.

Was the whole notion of "biblically"-based tithing, giving donations of 10% of one's income (a tax tradition going back to Babylon, if some people are to be believed), developed in order to avoid the implications of New Testament "communism"? Because it's obviously hard enough to get offerings out of people, much less get them to sell everything and put it into a common pot...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Numerology claims another victim

The first time I saw the "Ajay Devgn" thing, I thought to myself: typo. But the second time, I said "Ahhhh. Somebody went to the astrologist!"

And I was right! Okay, so this happened last August, but I didn't notice it until all the recent promos for his new movie.

See story here, among other places. (Many seem to be sharing the same story, and who knows who printed it first. Among the many hazards of Internetage is the citing of sources).

I love how this story says that people have apparently been after him for years to change his name "to 'make it more balanced' and therefore attract success." Because being a critically acclaimed actor who's MARRIED TO KAJOL makes you a failure? But even better, he finally did it "for health reasons."

That's the same thing Hollywood starlets say when they get nose jobs!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Inspecting the Inspectors, Part 2

Oh, the fifties -- a time when any film occupation, from police inspector to gangster's moll, could be endowed with dignity through sheer force of accessorizing. In C.I.D., the men sported suave white suits, the women wore beautiful gowns and veils, and they all drove around in enormous, aesthetically pleasing automobiles, while people like Mohd. Rafi and Geeta Dutt sang their inner thoughts and feelings.

Just thirty years later, no such dignity was available to the stars of the 1980s, who were forced to wear hideous headbands and spangly spandex in films with "Music Direction by Bappi Lahiri" in the credits. Disco king Mithun Chakraborty was obviously used to this kind of thing, but watching his Main Bhalwan (1986) in a double feature with C.I.D. puts the devolution of style in sharp relief.

The movie's first twenty minutes contains more plot twists than many full-length features. First, there's a father proudly passing on the family legacy of jewel thievery to his son, but it all turns into an argument when the son wants to go straight and get married. (The thief is a conventional criminal, insisting that he'll choose his son's wife. He also seems to be trying to channel Amrish Puri, but the evil laugh is tellingly overdubbed -- trying too hard). Then there's a shootout with the cops. Then the son brings home the fiancee, just in time for Dad to come home and beat her with a cane. Much shouting about how one man's rock is another man's diamond ensues, climaxing with the son sindooring her on the spot.

(By the way, the son, who is destined to spawn baby Mithun, is played by Suresh Oberoi, Vivek's father).

The jewel thief throws them out in the street. They go to take refuge with her brother Dharmendra, who's entertaining some prospective in-laws for her. Awkward! He throws them out, too -- at gunpoint -- in a scene that gives Dharmendra the opportunity to channel his inner William Shatner.

Later, Dharmendra stumbles across his sister, who's pregnant and being thrown in the street by the landlord (that's her third eviction in about five minutes), and begs her forgiveness. Across town, her husband has gone groveling to his father, who throws money at him and forces his son to do one more job. Just as the sister is going into labor, her brother gets a call that the fabled jewel thief is striking at that very minute. They storm the building, he gives chase, and shoots the thief, not realizing it's his brother-in-law until the culprit runs bleeding to his own door. Poor Vivek's Dad arrives just in time to meet his newborn son, blame his father for everything, and die in his wife's lap.

Before long, she leaves the baby sleeping and goes to confront the villain, who kills her and has her body thrown in the river. (Or did he? After all, we've seen Dance Dance). Flash-forward twenty-five years, and the villain is stalking his grandson from afar, hoping to corrupt him into taking up the mantle of famous jewel thief that his father so foolishly abandoned.

Also abandoned is a plot point about how the gangsters were slipping young Mithun "poison" -- I can only imagine some kind of addictive drug -- so he'll turn to a life of crime to support his habit. But it's not really necessary: he's involved in petty scams (tipping off criminals to his uncle's upcoming raids) just for money to impress chicks. When he gets caught, it breaks his uncle's heart, but the return of the jewel thief makes the police decide to train Tony as a double agent (after all, one of them points out, "He is a top dancer. He dances flexibly like a deer.")

Of course, we know this is belly-of-the-beastville. When Grandpa finds out, he exclaims "Wow! Whatever I wanted to do, the police officers are doing that." Especially since they train him in prison, without ever telling Mithun their purpose, so he thinks it's part of the punishment, leaving him vulnerable to be recruiting by the REAL jewel thief. Good plan.

(By the way, this film consistently translates "vah!" as "wow," including in a "vah! vah! vah!" ghazal-reciting scene, which is so logical and sounds so right, it actually makes me wonder about the etymology of "wow.")

So there's a good father figure/bad father figure dichotomy going on, complicated by the fact that if Mithun embraces the good father's values, he'll also get to marry his rather Flashdance-esque dance partner, who happens to be the police superintendent's daughter.

Small world! While you ponder that, here's the sprightly love duet "No Entry." That's not meant to be ... suggestive or anything. Certainly not with a bevy of disapproving nuns...

P.S.: D'oh! That's what I get for blogging in mid-film. Sometimes I just can't contain myself, though. The plot point wasn't dropped; I just misunderstood. It didn't occur to me that when a criminal was talking about poisoning somebody, he might just be metaphorical. After all: he's a criminal! He could actually poison somebody. But no -- the "poison" was that he bribed some small-time criminals to offer Mithun money for information, thus corrupting him. A little circuitous, yes, but far from the worst I've ever seen in a film.

In the end, pretty much all the minor characters I'd forgotten about (the prison body builder, the weaselly prison administrator, all those gamblers and sellers of "country liquor") turned up and were part of the jewel thief's elaborate conspiracy. The movie is really a sort of parable on existential paranoia: the forces of good (Dharmendra) and the forces of evil (Not Amrish Puri) are both manipulating Mithun's life behind the scenes, and he has no idea. The former lies to him with good intentions, and the latter tells him the (partial) truth in order to manipulate him. Somehow Mithun is supposed to muddle through all the grey and figure out who he is and what side he's on.

No wonder a guy turns to disco! (Or, in this case: "Break dance! Break dance!")

Inspecting the Inspectors

1956's C.I.D. has a solid film-noir feel, if lacking in the sort of existential moral despair I associate with the genre. And I'm impressed with any straight-faced crime drama that can get Johnny Walker to witness a murder committed by Mehmood.

Not only that, but I have never found Dev Anand more likeable than I did as earnest young police inspector Shekhar, a role perfectly tailored to his particular charms. Even his hair, while still sporting a poof, isn't yet a parody of itself; in fact, Mehmood's pompadour draws way more attention to itself.

An upright newspaper editor, on the verge of a big expose, is murdered by thug-for-hire Mehmood. Inspector Shekhar easily captures him at an opium den, but the sinister bigwig behind it all has him murdered in his jail cell, framing Shekhar in a birds/stone maneuver. Clearly about to be found guilty of the crime, Shekhar jumps bail and goes on the run (complete with a classic newspaper headline/police siren montage), with the goal of tracking down the real killer.

Favorite tidbits:
-- A group of girls at a birthday party play musical chairs around the harmonium!

-- The complex script was written by the father of my man Tinnu Anand. The crazy talent obviously runs in the family. (But I can't find any evidence that they were related to Dev and Vijay).

-- Four little words: "And introducing Waheeda Rehman." She could hardly be more ridiculously glamorous, especially when she's coolly holding a gun on hapless Dev, or slipping on the ghunghroos to distract a bad guy. Poor starring Shakila is stuck in the comparatively thankless role of good-girl love interest, and while she's fine, she just can't compete with that wardrobe and that sheer -- Waheedaness.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Boringness Personified

The last week or so I've done a lot of very interesting reading on subjects that would be very dull to talk about. But I highly recommend this trilogy of books, in this order (because one will build upon the other).

Thinking in Systems: a Primer - by Donella H. Meadows
The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education - by W. Edwards Deming (I called this "a real page-turner" in conversation the other day, flabbergasting the poor person talking to me)
Pragmatic Thinking & Learning: Refactor Your Wetware - by Andy Hunt

I've gotten a good background in systems thinking, and ways to see patterns related to why the economy, the government, and the world are so messed up. Not that I'm in a position to do anything about anything, but as we have learned, "Later you will realize that nothing has been superfluous." (as quoted in Ivan Illich's In the Vineyard of the Text: a Commentary on Hugh's Didascalicon, p. 54).

One helpful hint I picked up from the Hunt book was the idea of studying while in a relaxed, right-brainy frame of mind, so I've been reading a chapter of Teach Yourself Hindi first thing every morning, before I'm properly awake. I've already made more progress than I did when I was trying to make myself (gak!) "study."

This morning I learned one of the most useful pairs of phrases I might ever come across:

"तुमको क्या चाहिए?"
"मुझको काफी चाहिए."

(That is: "What do you want?" "I want coffee.")

(P.S. When I wrote this, I was in a hurry -- but I came back from lunch and thought, wait, did hitting the "Hindi" button make it "kahie" instead of "cahie"? "Cahie" is how the book transliterates, but it's pronounced with a "ch." And I was correct! So I've at least begun to be able to tell when I made a mistake. That's progress right there.)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

America's Health Care System Explained

Sorry -- I sincerely hope this is the most boring thing I will ever write. FYI, I am capitalizing major concepts willy-nilly, just to help clarify things. I do not claim this is done consistently. Also, I'm going to keep mentioning Suboptimization: that's when a part of a whole is motivated by what benefits itself as a part, rather than what benefits the larger system as a whole. Sometimes this is mere self-defense, other times it's downright pennywise/poundfoolish.

In light of all the recent arguments about health care, I offer this background information as a public service. Once up a time, I worked in a hospital business business, preparing claims for insurance billing. Then I worked for a large corporate insurance company, processing, paying, and denying such claims. In both places, I worked with all kinds of bills, but mainly specialized in inpatient claims. And it amused me that in both places, we were entrusted to deal with bills worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but were still nickel-and-dimed like we couldn't be trusted with a tiny pack of Post-It notes. Ain't that America?

To begin

While your medical conditions are real things that exist in the world, and the people in the doctor's office are generally decent, hard-working people doing all they can to help you, the bill you will receive is merely a pawn in a large game being continually played between the twin contenders of the Health Care System and the Insurance Industry.

Basically, the Health Care System will charge whatever they can get away with. If most of their revenue comes from insurance payments (rather than from the dreaded "Self Pay" category), then their only limiting factor is really whatever they can justify to an insurance company as medically necessary according to contractual minutiae. They have a profit-making interest in charging as much as they can per service, and in heaping on services. They will charge up to the limit of what an insurance company is willing and able (and/or legally forced) to pay for. Because they're a business, and that's their job, to generate profits.

This business strategy drives up the cost of every service at every level of the Health Care System. And if you happen to be someone who doesn't have insurance, a "poor get poorer" feedback loop kicks in. The lack of insurance implies you're underemployed and thus probably underpaid, but you are yourself responsible for paying costs that have been driven up by the ability of the richest of the rich to pay for them.

The Insurance Industry, on the other hand, will cover as little as they can get away with. Because they are also a business, and that's their job, to generate profits. Their money comes in from their subscribers, and they lose money every time they pay a claim. The fewer claims they can pay, and at the lowest possible percentage, the better it is for them. This means that the people who do have Insurance are definitely better off than people who don't, but it's doesn't mean they're on easy streeet here. Their medical bills are actually being paid by companies that have a vested interest in not paying the bills. Which means that a person can have insurance and feel absolutely secure that they're covered, and suddenly discover that the company is refusing to pay.

So, the game in a nutshell is: on one side, the Health Care System is trying to get as much as it can from the Insurance Industry. The Insurance Industry is trying to give as little as it can to the Health Care System.

Because their primary revenue is coming from Insurance companies, the Health Care System can easily price itself out of what an individual can pay. Those companies are large profit-making entities with big pockets. In addition, because their primary revenue is coming from either government funded or Employer groups, who can pool their resources, Insurance can easily price itself out of what an individual can pay. When dealing with either the Health Care System or the Insurance Industry, the Individual is not profitable enough to be a primary concern.

Important disclaimer: This is not in any way to imply that the people who work for Health Care Providers and Insurance Companies are evil, greedy people. My own personal experience is clearly that they are not. In a hospital business office, the front-line staff are mainly trying to show your Insurance Company that the medical care you came in for is worth paying for. At the Insurance Company, on the processing floor, they are trying to make sure that you get the actual benefits you deserve as much as they are trying to make sure you don't get ones you don't. It is not their fault that they are enmeshed in a system in which every component is Suboptimizing for that component's own gain.

So, back to those groups: apart from overtly government-funded Insurance systems (Medicare, Medicaid, and certain local entities), most insurance coverage comes from groups, primarily through Employers. Now, at some point, as the game entrenched between Health Care and Insurance, Employers realized that the cost of providing insurance to their employees was going up and up. Of course, they are also businesses, and making profit is what keeps them afloat (or else they're other agencies that get revenue from somebody, even if it's through taxes, so the same basic pressures apply). So they have done what the other entities in the system did, and Suboptimized. They started coming with new and creative ways to hire employees without providing Insurance benefits for them.

This leaves more working Individuals who have little or no access to affordable Insurance, and no access to affordable Health Care either. If they get sick or injured, they just have to somehow find a way to deal with the costs. As this amount of people increases, it actually decreases the number of people (subscribers) available to pay into the cost of supporting the Insurance Industry, which is what pays the cost of supporting the Health Care System. The system is straining under the pressure all over the place.

There are two additional complicating factors that are pretty important. First, Bureaucracy.

The system has spawned a huge, encrusted, cumbersome Bureaucracy which acts as the referee, making sure both sides are playing by the rules in every instance, no matter how minute. This bureaucracy, in turn, eats up loads of money, but at this point, it's a pretty necessary evil, because there have to be some limits on how much a hospital can expect an insurance company to pay, or what pretzel logic an insurance company will come up with to avoid paying something they've promised to pay. Without it, if a hospital could charge a million dollars to take your blood pressure, or an insurance company could reject every claim that crosses its desk.

Okay, that's an exaggeration, but there's a lot they could do, and would do, if they could get away with it. Over time, the Bureaucracy has grown huger and more complicated (as the Health Care System, the Insurance Industry, and the Bureaucracy itself react to new technologies, new laws, and in response to what the other entities are doing), which in turn complicates every step in Health Care System and the Insurance Industry.

It's as if after a football game, a fleet of referees had to scrutinize every second of every game, and every player had to fill out weeks of paperwork to explain every single thing they did on the field. Then, months later, the officials would compile a report and declare a winner.

That would be crazy, and nobody would create a system like that on purpose. But something like that builds up slowly, based on decisions that seemed to make sense at the time. By the time people realize how crazy it is, it's out of control, but that's how the refereeing has been done as long as anyone remembers it. You have to have a referee, because if it's the Super Bowl, there are millions of dollars riding on whether that play was good or not. And dismantling the system means a risk of throwing everything into chaos.

In addition, all the millions of companies and agencies that make up the Healthcare System, the Insurance Industry, and the Bureaucracy are all themselves Employers, who are Suboptimizing according to the same logic as all the other Employers. They are attempting to do more work with fewer Employees, and doing everything they can to avoid giving those staff people benefits (including the products of the Insurance Industry, which affects individual access to the Health Care System).

That means that at the same time the Bureaucracy has grown larger and unfathomably complex, and as medical and technological advances have also complicated the system, the day-to-day work of getting everything done is increasingly likely to be done by people who are temporary workers, or underpaid, underbenefited employees who are no longer invested in the system. That's because individuals are all Suboptimizing, too: doing what's best for them as individuals. And I'm not picking on these industries: it's happening everywhere in our country, in every industry. But it really has an impact on industries that are as detail-driven as the Health Care and Insurance Industries, with their Bureaucratic requirements, are.

Every individual change that works to make a system more complicated will increase the chances of error in the system. (Some people would add "exponentially," but I can't really do the math). The more complicated the work, the more difficult and time-consuming it will be to do, and the harder it'll be to catch and correct errors. To sum up: as the systems have grown more complicated, the industries have made an unrelated decision to Suboptimize as Employers, leading to undertrained, short-term, and uninvested staff performing day-to-day work. Thus, the error-ridden bills you frequently receive from your various Health Care providers, and the equally error-ridden benefits statements you get back from your Insurance company.

Sometimes the errors do, in fact, work in the patients' favor. If it impacts a small enough dollar amount, it won't get noticed. Apart from when errors lose an entity so much money that it draws attention to itself, it largely works like this: if a Health Care Provider sends out a bill and the Insurance Company pays it, then it's all good. If an Insurance Company processes a claim and the subscriber doesn't complain, then it's all good.

When the Health Care Provider makes a mistake in billing and gets away with it, it'll eventually trickle down to affect the customer's rates and the overall cost: in the long run, if more money comes in by making mistakes, there's little incentive for a company to fix them.

If the Insurance company makes a mistake in processing and gets away with it, again: in the long run, if more money comes in by making mistakes, there's little incentive for a company to fix them.

For a person who has insurance, mistakes in the Health Care Provider's incomprehensible forms are more the problem of the insurance company, where people are trained to interpret them. The situation leads to costly reprocessing, which adds to the cost of the overall system, but again, people with insurance are still better off than the people who don't have insurance, and who can't possibly have anything like the detailed knowledge needed to make head or tail out of that complicated bill.

If you have insurance, then the company will transform the bill, what they paid on it, and why, into their own incomprehensible "Explanation of Benefits" (ha ha ha!) which they will send to you. So if the Insurance company makes a mistake, that will have to be noticed either by the Bureaucracy, or by the patient, who, I'll say again, can't possibly have anything like the detailed knowledge needed to make head or tail out of that complicated statement.

My own rule of thumb when I get the claim statements from the Insurance company is: if what's left on the bill for me to pay is in the ballpark of what I expected, I don't worry about it. If it's not, or if there's something wrong that's glaringly obvious, then I call in. Because I worked on both sides, I know that there's a continual flurry of reprocessing going on between the Health Care Providers and Insurance, and between Insurance and their customers. So if my deductible and co-pay amount looks reasonable and there are no red flags, I just pay it.

However, when my bill for the new eyeglasses comes back with $50 for the anti-glare coating that I hate and never have put on, I know it's a mistake, and I'll call in. When the bill for my husband's 5-day hospital stay is rejected for a completely ludicrous reason, I fortunately know enough not to panic. I call in, and, just like with that $50 charge, someone looked at a computer screen for about two seconds and said, "Yup, our mistake. We'll reprocess." And the second time around, it was all done right.

In addition, I mentioned how the Employers afford their Insurance rates because they're organized in groups, thus bringing the costs down for all the members of groups, and driving up the costs for the uninsured. When Employers avoid offering Insurance benefits to some Employees, or in times of layoffs, for example, the negative impact on the uninsured is easy to see. What most people forget is that it also has a negative impact on the remaining people who are in the group. The insured can afford their Insurance because the cost was spread out over a large group of people. As that group shrinks to an elite few, the amount those individuals contribute will have to go up to cover the people who used to pay in.

To wrap things up:

At every point, all the different parts that make up the system are suboptimizing: the Health Care System, the Insurance Industry, and the Employers and other groups that provide coverage. But what's most profitable for any of those entities is not necessarily good for the actual physical health of the country, and the quality of life for the citizens who are paying, one way or the other, for the whole thing. Because the system has grown so complex, fixing it is also necessarily a complex and difficult task, and almost any change, however small, could be debated almost infinitely.

For now, the system is more less holding together, which is why people are so emotional over it. They're afraid of losing what they have. The reason that the examples I gave earlier were absurd is because if a hospital charges a million dollars for a simple test, then nobody will, or can, pay for it, insurance or no insurance. Insurance companies can't reject every claim willy-nilly, because if they did, nobody would bother to buy insurance from them anymore. The "market" does, to some extent, keep things from going too far in either direction. However, the game will drive up Health Care costs past the point where uninsured people can pay for them waaaaaay before it ceases to be profitable for the Health Care and Insurance Industries. And as long as the status quo is profitable enough for enough people, there is no incentive for the people making the money to correct the mistakes they're already making, much less reform their own industries. Reform will only come from within when it's more profitable overall to do so, at least within the paradigm we have now, which has the making of profit as the sole motivating factor.

I don't have a crystal ball, so I can't say how long the current system could go on unchecked, without a major rethinking. People who know a lot more than I do can't. But it seems reasonable to assume that this already unstable system cannot go on forever. Whatever eventually happens will be difficult, and potentially unsettling to society at large. But at least we can face the state of affairs as it currently exists.

One added sideline, not related to Health Care per se, but that arose out of this train of thought: as I mentioned, because of the expense, Employers spend a lot of time finding loopholes to avoid giving benefits to their Employees. This includes things like paid vacation days and holidays, pension plans, with insurance benefits being probably the biggest expense to the employer and the most imporant immediate benefit to the employee. However, benefits are really the only lever most Employers have to keep Employees.

What I mean is: if all you're offering is a part-time job with no benefits, you can find plenty of people to hire. But if anything about the job sucks, how are you going to keep them? There are plenty of other part-time jobs with no benefits out there, most of which probably pay about the same. When people are in benefitted positions, they'll put up with a lot more, because there's an incentive to stay.

Just thought I'd mention that, as long as we're already more or less discussing Unintended Consquences.

For the record, I am neither promoting nor opposing the Health Care Reform bill, largely because it's too complicated for me to understand with some hard-core scrutiny that I haven't done. But here's a link, if you want:
http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-3200

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Wit and Wisdom of Tilt

The Bad Movie Sundays just keep on coming! This week it's the long-awaited and never-before-seen (by me) 1979 Brooke Shields pinball epic, Tilt. Sandwiched in between the year she played a prostitute (Pretty Baby) and the year she had the nude body double (The Blue Lagoon), it's rather disconcerting that she barely looks 12 (although Shields and her character were both 14).

Tilt takes place in a strange world where country singers, in very tight pants and absurdly shiny shirts, make shady bets with grotesque bookies in sleazy saloons over ... pinball games. Middle-aged fertilizer salesmen have sidelines playing for cash in roadside bars, and when kids play (some of them pushed into it by hustling pinball parents), suave strangers in nice suits are lurking in the background, waiting to jump in with bets when things get interesting. I had no idea there was such a thriving pinball underworld in the '70s, so turns out, it's an educational film.

Rebellious self-described "pinball genius" Brenda, a.k.a. Tilt, falls in with unsuccessful (and, let's be honest, untalented) aspiring singer Neil, and they take to the highways of America to make money hustling pinball. She thinks it's to bankroll his demo tape, but he really just wants her to show up Charles Durning, pinball champion "the Whale," who caught him and his skinny friend Henry cheating with a magnet at the beginning of the film. Eventually, it takes an odd but belatedly likeable turn when Tilt goes to make a deal with the Whale, and they end up bonding over a private game.

Along the way, so many things make so little sense: one throw-away bit has a kid condemning Shield's parents as "crazy! They're all crazy in there!" because he took her sister to score quaaludes, and she had some kind of drug-induced freak-out. There are clearly editing problems that don't help: one minute the country singer (Neil) is whining in L.A. Then we see little Tilt walk through some farmlands and hitch a ride to the bar where she'll meet up with the singer. Then we learn she hustles pinball at this joint regularly. The school bus she dodged had "Hollister" on the side, so it seemed like she'd been hitchhiking the 200-some miles to downtown Los Angeles and back EVERY DAY.

Apparently, however, the quick shot of Neil on a bus was supposed to show his having travelled to another town for an audition with a rock music festival. When he leaves town, there's a bus in the background that says "Santa Cruz," which is only thirty-some miles from Hollister. Okay, that makes more sense, but it was way too much work to figure out what the heck was going on.

By the time "hero" Neil blames his life of lying and cheating on the sheer fact of growing up in Corpus Christi ("a poor man's country club"), I wasn't even surprised anymore. However, I was absolutely floored when Durning, who'd spent the movie to that point eating chicken and refusing to stir from his chair, suddenly busted out dancing at the pinball machine, even working the controls with his butt.

You'll definitely want to know if the soundtrack is available, with those memorable tunes "Long Road to Texas," "Rock 'n' Roll Rodeo," "Melody Man," and the "Pinball, That's All" song that the Whale loves to hear when he's playing. They'll be emblazoned in your brain after hearing them over and over and over in the film. Sadly, only on eBay -- also the only place to find this movie, since neither the record album nor the movie itself ever made the leap to digital formats.

Shields is actually more natural here, playing a smart-alec kid-next-door type, than she'd be in The Blue Lagoon or Endless Love, so maybe the woodenness in those movies wasn't her fault. Bland co-star Ken Marshall would surprisingly go on to star in Krull, and play Maquis defector Eddington on Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Rudy Durand, who served as writer, director, producer, musical director, and maker of "pinball machine musical effects," as well as co-writer for the "Long Road to Texas" song, sadly still has only one credit in all those categories.

That's a real loss to us bad movie fans, especially in the screenwriting, because the real highlight is the dialogue. Every character is devoted to the spouting of wisdom at every opportunity, and you won't want to miss a drop.

"First rule of business is always be on time when someone owes you money."

"You're like putting spats on a pig."

"Don't ever lose your head, boy. Because your ass always goes with it."

"Nobody says this town is ice cream and strawberries, darling." (Neil and Henry are improbably inseparable in the early part of the film, and they both call each other "darling" at different points, so it's hard not to envision them as a gay couple. Maybe that's why Tilt is so safe with him.)

"Us truck drivers were the first dopers in America, don't forget that."

"Analyzing is paralyzing, mister."

"Home? I live in a place called trouble."

"Life's like a seagull. The more you feed it, the more it dumps on you."

"You can swallow an elephant and choke on its tail."

And it goes on like that, in pretty much every scene.

The "blame it on Corpus Christi" scene -- Ken Marshall's big moment -- deserves a special mention. "Okay, I admit it. I'm all messed up. Don't you want to know why?" (Uhh, not really, but okay).

"You know what it's like growing up in a place like this, when you come from nothing? When people won't even talk to you? The damn rich people are cheaters, and the politicians work for 'em. And the rich think, if you owe money, or if you're poor, it means you're a thief." (Or if you cheat playing pinball for money, or talk a 14-year-old girl into quitting school and running away so you can leech off her gambling winnings, then people think you're a cheat and a conman! It's so unfair.) "And they keep you poor so they can use ya. Hell, we gotta steal. We steal just to survive, man, forget getting by."

Then all is revealed, that the Whale was actually a mentor to Neil, but, although we've seen the Whale as quite honorable in his dealings, and clearly didn't make his money by any foul means, the kid resented his success. Well, let's let him tell his sad tale in his own words:

"One guy I looked up to, respected...He always had a pocketful of cash. He never helped me. He's tighter than a tick. He's so stingy, he wouldn't pay ten cents to see the Statue of Liberty have twins. The Whale could -- he shoulda made me his partner. He didn't give me a choice. I had to rip him off."

As my bad-movie watching friend pointed out, the Statue of Liberty is, in fact, a statue. "What does that even MEAN?" I suspect that Neil once tried some "Brooklyn Bridge" scam, like, "Hey, for ten cents, you can see the Statue of Liberty have twins!" and Charles Durning barked, "Get outta my bar, boy!" like a sensible person.

At this point, with all revealed, it's hard to believe the movie is still going to try to redeem Neil, but alas, it does. "My name's mud around here, Tilt. You gotta clean it up for me." Yeah, like that's her job, grown man.

It's hard to top that, but my favorite line comes when Tilt's original pinball-hustling contact tries to warn her off Cowboy Neil, and she points out that he was using her, too. He replies with some warped words of wisdom, possibly the best line in the movie: "Well, it's okay to use people, if you throw in a little love."

I'll bet Brooke's mom used to say that every night when she tucked her in.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Green Wigglies

I just got my first order in the mail from the Warner Archives, which is a sort of DVD-on-demand service from Warner Brothers for movies not big enough to get full-fledged DVD releases. My purchases, for possible future reference, are the incredible South Seas walking killer tree movie From Hell It Came; the Gary Busey/Jodie Foster drama Carny; and Doc Savage: Man of Bronze.

Doc Savage never came to our theater, but it had TV ads that involved something called "the Green Wigglies." All summer long, my best friend and I would say "the Green Wigglies" to each other for no reason, and we'd giggle hysterically, usually until we cried.

Unbelievable as it may be, I cannot find the trailer on YouTube, only a remix with contemporary music, grrr. (If you're made curious, the fan trailer on YouTube includes a few shots of the Green Wigglies. See 2:09 to about 2:26). So I'll have to regale you with this amazing ad copy, which starts kinda normal, and then goes right over the top. In a very serious announcer voice, the narrator says,

"When slithering horror threatens ..." (Picturized by a pretty girl, menaced by a very rubber snake. Suddenly a knife is flung from off-screen, which impales the snake with a pronounced "boiinng" sound).

"When assassins narrow their sights ..." (Or it it "sites"? A guy's looking through the viewfinder of his gun, so it could be either one).

"When terrorists strike ..." (Guy throwing bomb, yawn).

"When killers fill the sky ..." (Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron airplane action, yawn).

"When the Green Wigglies are comin' to get ya ..." (Yes! A drunk-looking guy is menaced by a superimposed green special effect, which looks a little too phallic for comfort. But I'm oddly relieved that we didn't make up the phrase Green Wigglies, and it actually appears in the trailer).

Climaxing with:

"When you're all doomed to die a horrible death ..."

This cuts to some people in a cave. A man with long hair and some kind of tribal headdress says, very seriously, "We're all doomed to die -- a horrible death."

Genius! Alas, they don't write trailers like this anymore...