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Ladies and gentlemen, we got him

U.S. forces have captured Saddam Hussein. This is exceptional news! And it figures that I had just commented on how intelligence successes are transparent, that we never see them. D’oh! This is a major intelligence victory. We developed an intelligence infrastructure that allowed us to find Hussein, who had burried himself in a hole in a family member’s cellar. We captured him with shovels. This will most likely lead to an intelligence windfall, as already captured Iraqi officals who may have been biting their tongue for fear of Saddam may start talking… (not to mention Saddam himself)

The circumstances of the arrest are about as good as we could ever hope:

  • It is speculated that he was turned in by a family member (this is looking less likely, I’m not sure how we found him…)
  • Not a single shot fired, not even by Saddam. He had ample opporunity to shoot himself, but he didn’t. That he was captured alive and well will be very beneficial, as it will shut up those conspiracy theorists who would have claimed that it was very convenient that Saddam “killed himself.” I’ve actually seen people who said the same thing about Saddam’s sons express suprise that he was taken alive.
  • That it took so long to get him demonstrates just how dedicated and persistent we are when it comes to tracking down someone of Saddam’s importance. I wonder how Osama must feel…
  • That his actions were so cowardly (and his visual appearance) will go a long way towards demolishing his image.

This will increase support from the U.S. public as well as support from the Iraqi people. A major worry of Iraqis was that Saddam would come back and punish those who cooperated with the coalition. No more. This will allow the Iraqi people to embrace the new government without fear of retribution from Saddam (though they do still have to worry about the terrorists). And this will represent a major blow to the terrorists. No one knows how involved Hussein was in the attacks against coalition forces, but in almost any scenario, this is bad for the terrorists. I believed Bush to be very vulnerable, but this is big for him. The Democratic candidates have been roundly criticising Bush for this, and this will hurt them.

A lot will depend on how things go from here. The impending trial and how it is executed will be very important. We will also need to make sure Saddam doesn’t kill himself or get killed (a la Goering or Oswald). If he turns up dead, we’ll lose out on a lot.

Lots of others are commenting on this, so here goes:

  • Glenn Reynolds: Duh. He has several good posts, including one in which he mentions: “THE LESSON: Saddam’s capture also shows the importance of patience, and of ignoring the kvetching of the Coalition Of The Pissy. While people bitched, the military just kept gathering intelligence and keeping Saddam on the run until he slipped and they caught him.”
  • A BBC reporters log: “We all imagined that if the Americans got a tip off they would just bomb somewhere off the face of the earth.” [via Instapundit]
  • Steven Den Beste: “He’ll almost certainly end up on trial in an Iraqi tribunal which was created just a few days ago.”
  • Merde in France: “Baghdad celebrates, and Paris frowns.”
  • Hammorabi: An Iraqi blogger comments
  • Baghdad Skies: Another blog run by an Iraqi
  • Deeds: CPA member John Galt comments
  • Buzz Machine: Lots of good stuff from Jeff Jarvis
  • The Command Post: They’re all over this. More here.
  • L.T. Smash: A veteran of this war comments and has a good collection of links…
  • IRAQ THE MODEL: Iraqi blogger Omar comments: “Thank you American, British, Spanish, Italian, Australian, Ukrainian, Japanese and all the coalition people and all the good people on earth.

    God bless the 1st brigade.

    God bless the 4th infantry division.

    God bless Iraq.

    God bless America.

    God bless the coalition people and soldiers.

    God bless all the freedom loving people on earth.

    I wish I could hug you all.”

  • Dean Esmay: “Score!” My thoughts exactly!
  • Belmont Club: Wretchard comments and makes a good point too: “The magnificence of nations often conceals the smallness of their acts; and from their petty corruptions and idiocies this tapestry of tragedy has been woven.” Saddam wasn’t the only one responsible for the suffering of Iraqis… Look for more from him, as he has proven very insightful…
  • Random Jottings: John Weidner comments. “My guess is that they will now sneer that ‘we were promised peace after Saddam was captured.’ Well. Tough luck.”
  • Porphyrogenitus: Porphy comments: “Today, for me, is a day of happiness for the people of Iraq, off of whom finally the shadow of Saddam will lift.”
  • Winds of Change is on the case…
  • The Dissident Frogman: “I’m under the impression that Saddam Hussein would deserve an award for the Most Ridiculous Fall for a Dictator”
  • Sneaking Suspicions: Fritz Schrank comments: “And by the way, who told Hussein it was a good idea to try to pass himself off as Ted Kazsynski?” Heheh, check out the picture he has…
  • Tacitus: “Got him. Good. Now comes the real fun — weeks and months of debriefing and interrogation at our hands, followed by trial at the hands of his fellow Iraqis. There are so many questions that he can answer: his regime’s true WMD status; the nature of and preparation for the Ba’athist-supported insurgency; the tragically long missing persons list from Kuwait and among his own people; the true extent of his collaboration with terror networks abroad. Psychologically, it will be a fascinating experience — the closest we may ever have come to having a truly Stalinesque personality in the dock. Will he prove himself pliable and brittle, or will sick megalomania impart qualities of fierce resistance?”
  • Jim Miller: “I just heard that December 13 may become a national holiday.”
  • Donald Sensing: “CNN says that an Iraqi gave the tip to US forces. Only three hours later, we had him.”
  • Baghdaddy: He comments: “Early Sunday morning, the U.S. Army delivered to the peoples of the world, an early Christmas present. The capture of Saddam Hussien. There is such celebrating among the general population, that the spirit of Baghdad has changed to one of jubilation. … The celebratory fire, and the smiles on everyones faces is reminisent of the victory scene at the end of Return of The Jedi, when the Death Star was destroyed signifying the end of the Empire. The scene here in Baghdad is truly one worthy of a John Williams soundtrack!” Ha!
  • A Small Victory: Michelle has lots of stuff… “We got the bastard!”
  • The Messopotamian: Iraqi blogger Alaa comments: “The Baghdadis are expressing what they really think again. Can you hide this now CNN & others? I don?t like swearing, but for those foul friends of the murderers, of all nationalities and kinds, it is like a spike has shot up their asholes to come out of their mouths.”
  • Chicago Boyz: Lex comments: “All morning I have been breaking into a smile and Motorhead’s Ace of Spades has been running through my head” Other ChicagoBoyz comment.
  • Solport: Don Quixote comments…
  • Horsefeathers: Stephen Rittenberg has a roundup of the Democratic candidate’s reactions
  • Tim Blair has lots, including a roundup of Aussie reactions
  • Calpundit: Kevin Drum comments
  • Joe User/Right Wing Techie: Brad Wardell comments…
  • Lee Harris comments “The man who called upon his countrymen and fellow Muslims to sacrifice their own lives in suicide attacks, to blow themselves to bits in order to glorify his name, failed to follow his own instructions. He refused the grand opportunity of a martyr’s death…”
  • Boots on the Ground: Kevin, a soldier in Iraq, comments on this and his experiences when Uday and Qusay were killed.
  • The End Zone: Hamas is echoing Lee Harris: “CNN reports the head of Palestinian Hamas has issued a statement expressing outrage that Saddam would encourage martrydom in others, yet personally go down without a fight.”
  • HipperCritical has an anti-war blogger reaction roundup… [via instapundit]
  • Power Line has lots of good info
  • Andrew Olmsted comments with a nice Bull Durham reference: “Yes, it is phenomonal news that Saddam has been captured, and I’ve been fairly bouncing up and down with excitement since I heard the news. … But as good as this news is, this moment, too, is over.”
  • Wolverines!

Gah! Information overload! I could probably find a million other links to put here. Perhaps more later…

Update: I’ve been updating the link list like crazy…

V is for Victory!

A Thumbs up from Kuwaitis

Update: Dean Esmay steals my picture! Hee hee. He’s got more good stuff as well..

Update 12.15.03: And I thought yesterday represented information overload. Tons of new stuff appearing today, much of it excellent, and a lot of it having to do with the challenge of what to do with Hussein…

  • Belmont Club: I told you so – another excellent and insightful article today which examines the strengths of Saddam’s current position.
  • Chicago Boyz: Along the same lines, Lex questions the assumption that “it will go well for the ‘prosecution’ and end without too much hassle in Saddam’s execution.”
  • Stephen Den Beste weighs in on the situation, focusing more on the success of US intelligence and the importance and effects of what we do with Saddam.
  • Ralph Peters also talks about the intelligence successes in Iraq.

Is the Christmas Tree Christian?

The Winter Solstice occurs when your hemisphere is leaning farthest away from the sun (because of the tilted axis of the earth’s rotation), and thus this is the time of the year when daylight is the shortest and the sun has its lowest arc in the sky.

No one is really sure when exactly it happened (or who started the idea), but this period of time eventually took on an obvious symbolic meaning to human beings. Many geographically diverse cultures throughout history have recognized the winter solstice is as a turning point, a return of the sun. Solstice celebrations and ceremonies were common, sometimes performed out of a fear that the failing light of the sun would never return unless humans demonstrated their worth through celebration or vigil.

It has been claimed that the Mesopotamians were among the first to celebrate the winter solstice with a 12 day festival of renewal, designed to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year. Other theories go as far back as 10,000 years. More recently, the Romans celebrated the winter solstice with a fest called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture.

Integral to many of these celebrations were plants and trees that remained green all year. Evergreens reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun returned; they symbolized the solstice and the triumph of life over death.

In the early days of Christianity, the birth of Christ was not celebrated (instead Easter, was and possibly still is the main holiday of Christianity). In the fourth century, the Church decided to make the birth of Christ a holiday to be celebrated. There was only one problem – the Bible makes no mention of when Christ was born. Although there was some evidence to draw from, the Church chose to celebrate Christmas on December 25. It is believed that this date was chosen to coincide with traditional winter solstice festivals such as the Roman pagan Saturnalia festival in the hopes that Christmas would be more popularly embraced by the people of the world. And embraced it was, but the Church found that as the holiday spread, their choice to hold Christmas at the same time as solstice celebrations did not allow the Church to dictate how the holiday was celebrated. And so many of the pagan traditions of the solstice survived during the next millenia, even though pagan religions had largely given way to Christianity.

And so the importance of evergreens in these celebrations continued. The use of the Christmas tree, as we now know it, is generally credited to sixteenth century Germans, specifically the Protestant-reformer Martin Luther, who is thought to be the first to added lighted candles to a tree.

While the Germans found a certain significance in the pagan traditions concerning evergreens, it was not a universally held belief. For instance, the Christmas tree did not gain traction in America until the mid-nineteenth century. Up until then, they were generally seen as pagan symbols and mocked by New England Puritans. But the tradition gained traction thanks to German settlers in Pennsylvania (among others) and increasing secularization of the holiday in America. In the past century, the Christmas tree has gained in popularity, as more and more people adopted the traditon of displaying a decorated evergreen in their home. After all this time, Christmas trees have become an American tradition.

There has been a lot of controversy lately concerning the presence (or, I suppose, the removal and thus absence) of Christmas trees in schools. Personally, I don’t see what is so controversial about it, as a Christmas tree is more of a secular, rather than religious, symbol. Joshua Claybourn quotes the Supreme Court thusly:

“The Christmas tree, unlike the menorah, is not itself a religious symbol. Although Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, today they typify the secular celebration of Christmas.” Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 109 S.Ct. 3086.

It does not represent a religious idea, but rather the idea of renewal that accompanied the winter solstice. One can associate Christian ideas with the tree, as Martin Luther did so long ago, but that does not make it inherently Christian. Indeed, I think of the entire Christmas holiday as more secular than not, though I guess my being Christian might have something to do with it. This idea is worth further exploring in the future, so expect more posts on the historical Christmas.

Update: Patrick Belton notes the strange correlations between Christmas Trees and Prostitution in Virginia.

The Iraqi Art Scene

Steve Mumford’s latest Baghdad Journal is up, and it is, as usual, excellent. In it, he actually focuses on the burgeoning Iraqi art scene (How dare he? I’ve become so accustomed to his other observations that I was somewhat surprised to see him talking about art. Then I remembered that he is an artist and that his articles are published in an internet art magazine. Duh.) Instead of showcasing Mumford’s art, as previous installments have done, this article exhibits the works of various Iraqi artists that Mumford was impressed with (and for good reason, at least according to my unrefined eyes). The artistic community is growing in Iraq, in no small part due to the newfound access they have to information from around the world…

Of the younger generation, Ahmed Al-Safi is a particularly talented painter and sculptor who’s managed to make a living selling his art. He paints simple, almost crudely rendered figures reminiscent of the German Neo-Expressionists of the 1980s (whose work he immediately investigated on the web when I told him about them). Ahmed has a wonderful studio in the slummy but picturesque part of town near Tarea Square, where he has bronze-casting facilities.

Emphasis mine. Change is coming to the Iraqi art scene, and while they are now soaking up that which is newly available to them, I find myself eager to see what the Iraqis contribute back to the world art scene…

One widely repeated observation here is that abstraction was a convenient technique for a time when all narrative content was suspect. Everyone expects art to change with the passing of Saddam’s regime, though at this point, no one I talked to is making any predictions about future trends in Iraqi art. I’ve seen no video art and practically no photography in Baghdad. Installation art is unknown. Indeed, few artists in Iraq have even heard of Andy Warhol. Now that communication with the rest of the world is starting to open up, Iraqi artists will discover just how large an ocean they’re swimming in.

I’m not an artist, but I know what I like and if the art that Mumford posted is any indication, I hope and believe we’ll find that the Iraqis will be strong swimmers in the large ocean of art. More on this subject later…

Update: I just thought I’d pick one of my favorite paintings to display here…

Muayad Muhsin

oil on canvas


Mumford describes Muayad Muhsin as “a younger surrealist painter from Hilla” and I like this painting a lot. I don’t know art, but have some general knowledge of the visual medium from film, and while it may be foolish to apply film theory to art, I think it might provide some insight. The cool colors suggest an aloof tranquility, a calmness, but the oblique angle produces a sense of visual irresolution and unresolved anxiety. It suggests tension, transition, and impending change. The end result is a feeling of calm, but tense and unstable, transition. It seems appropriate…


Halloween has past* but since horror is one of my favorite genres, I figured I’d list out some good examples of horror books & movies because it’s always fun to scare yourself witless. When it comes to film, horror is one of the more difficult genres to execute effectively and, as such, the genuinely great horror films are few and far between. What’s left are a series of downright creepy, but flawed, films. Because of their flaws, many horror films are often overlooked and underrated and these are the films I’d like to mention here. Books, on the other hand, tend to be overlooked and underrated as a medium. Horror books doubly so.


I’ve never been a fan of the classic 1950’s horror films like the Mummy, Dracula, or Frankenstein… They’re not without their charm, but when it comes to the classics, I prefer their source materiel to the films. For classics, I would mention Halloween (1978, it started the lackluster “slasher” sub-genre, but it is an excellent film, particularly it’s soundtrack), Jaws (1975, another excellent soundtrack here, but there was plenty else that made people afraid to go back into the water again…), Psycho (1960, the sudden shifts and feints coupled with, again, a distinctive and effective soundtrack, make for a brutally effective film), Alien (1979, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Director Ridley Scott really knew how to turn the screws with this one), The Exorcist (1973, The power of Christ compels you… to wet yourself in despair whilst watching this film) and The Shining (1980, Kubrick’s interpretation of King’s masterwork is significantly different, but it is also one of the few examples of an adaptation that works well in it’s own right).

But those are all films we know and love. What about the one’s we haven’t seen? Director John Carpenter built an impressive string of neglected horror films throughout the 1980s and early 1990s (a pity that he has since lost his touch). Aside from the classic Halloween, Carpenter directed the 1982 remake of The Thing, which was brilliantly updated and downright creepy. It has its fill of scary moments, not the least of which is the cryptic and ambiguous ending. He followed that with Christine. Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, Carpenter was able to make a silly story creepy with the sheer will of his technical mastery (not his best, but impressive nonetheless). His 1987 film Prince of Darkness was flawed but undeniably effective. Many have not heard of In the Mouth of Madness, but it has become one of my favorite horror films of the 1990s.

If you’re not scared away by subtitles or foreign films, check out Dario Argento‘s seminal 1977 gorefest Suspiria, which boasts opening and ending scenes amongst the best in the genre. Argento’s rival, Lucio Fulci, also has an impressive series of gory horror classics, such as the 1980 film The Gates of Hell. Both Argento and Fulci have an impressive body of work and are worth checking out if you don’t mind them being in Italian…

The 1970’s and early 1980’s were an excellent period in horror filmmaking. Excluding the films already mentioned (a significant portion of the classics are from the 1970s), you may want to check out the 1980 movie The Changeling, an excellent ghost story, or perhaps the disturbing 1981 film The Incubus. And how could I write about horror movies without mentioning my beloved 1979 cheesy creepfest Phantasm. Other 70s flicks to check out: The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Salem’s Lot (a 1979 TV miniseries based on Stephen King’s book), The Omen (1976), Carrie (1976), Blue Sunshine (1976, almost forgotten today), The Wicker Man (1973), The Legend of Hell House (1973, a personal favorite, adapted from a novel by Richard Matheson, who we’ll get to in a moment), and of course we can’t forget that lovable flesh-wearing cannibal, Leatherface, in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Ok, so I think I’ve inundated you with enough movies, hopefully many of which you’ve never heard of, for now so let’s move on to books (naturally, I could go on and on and on just listing out good horror flicks, but this is at least a good start).


My knowledge of Horror literature is less extensive than horror film, but I have a fair base to work from. We all know the classics, Dracula, Frankenstein, and the works of Edgar Allen Poe, but there are many overlooked horror stories floating around as well.

M.R. James (1862-1936) is one of the originators of the modern Ghost Story, and there are several exemplary examples of this sub-genre in his oeuvre. His works are public domain, so follow the link above for online versions… I especially enjoyed the creepy Count Magnus.

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a classic that is rightly praised as one of the finest horror novels ever written.

Richard Matheson’s brilliant I Am Legend is a study of isolation and grim irony that turns the traditional vampire story on its head. This might be one of the most influential novels you’ve never heard of, as there have been many derivatives, particularly in film.

H.P. Lovecraft is another fantastic short story author whose work has been tremendously influential to modern horror. His infamous Cthulhu Mythos and Necronomicon were ingenious creations, and many have seized on them and attempted to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, many even believe his fictional Necronomicon to be real!

You might have noticed Stephen King’s name mentioned a few times already, and there is a reason so many of his books are turned into movies. I’ve never been a huge King fan, but The Shining is among the best horror novels I’ve read. I’ve always preferred Dean Koontz (sadly he has absolutely no good film adaptations), who wrote such notable horror staples as Phantoms, Midnight, and The Servants of Twilight. Both Koontz and King can be hit-or-miss, but when they’re on, there’s no one better.

Other books of note: Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (which was adapted into the 1987 film Hellraiser) is an excellent short read (about 120 pages), and some of his longer works, such as The Great and Secret Show and Imajica, are also good. F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep is one of the few books that has ever truly scared me while reading it. I’ve always found William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist, to be more effective than the movie (and that is saying a lot!). Brian Lumly’s Necroscope series is an interesting take on the vampire legend, and his Titus Crow series builds on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos nicely.

Well, there you have it. That should keep you busy for the next few years…

* One would think that this post should have been made last week, and one would be right, but then one would also not be too familiar with how we do things here at Kaedrin. Note that the best movies of 2001 is due sometime around mid-2004. Heh. This whole being timely with content thing is something I have always had difficulty with and need to work on, but that is another topic for another post…

Hindsight isn’t Necessarily 20/20

It is conventional wisdom that hindsight is 20/20, but is that really accurate? I get the feeling that when people speak of clarity in hindsight, what they are really talking about is creeping determinism. They aren’t really examining the varied and complex details of a scenario so much as they are rationalizing an outcome perceived to have been inevitable (since it has already happened, surely it must have been obvious). This is known in logic as “begging the question” or “circular logic.”

In the creeping determinism sense, hindsight is liberally filtered to the point where only evidence that leads to the scenario’s conclusion is seen. All other evidence is dismissed as inaccurate or irrelevant.

Which leads me to an excellent article by Adam Garfinkle called Foreign Policy Immaculately Conceived. In it, he argues:

The immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy operates from three central premises. The first is that foreign policy decisions always involve one and only one major interest or principle at a time. The second is that it is always possible to know the direct and peripheral impact of crisis-driven decisions several months or years into the future. The third is that U.S. foreign policy decisions are always taken with all principals in agreement and are implemented down the line as those principals intend – in short, they are logically coherent.

When these premises are laid out in such a way, one can’t help but see them for what they really are. And yet so much of what passes for commentary these days is based wholly upon this immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy .

Case in point, the American liberation/occupation of Iraq is often portrayed as a failure. They say that we are not “winning the hearts and minds” of the Iraqis, or that we have “gone into the God business” and that “we want the Iraqis to love us for destroying their orchards too.” (Never mind that this is emphatically not what we’re doing, but I digress) These people are engaging in creeping determinism before the situation has even played out! They’ve started with a conclusion, that we have failed in Iraq, and they then collect any and all negative aspects of the occupation and proclaim this outcome inevitable (some perhaps hoping for a form of self-fulfilling prophecy).

But even this is hardly new. Jessica’s Well points to a pair of magnificent historical examples. Do you remember that other time when we were mired in a quagmire, failing to win the hearts and minds of our occupied foes? The one in Europe, circa 1946? Yes, you know, the one that resulted in Europe’s longest unbroken peaceful period since Charlemagne? These articles are amazingly familiar. Replace “Hitler” with “Saddam”, “Nazis” with “Baathists”, and “Germany” with “Iraq” and you’ll see what I mean.

Naturally, since the overwhelmingly positive results of the US military occupation of Europe are generally acknowledged, these articles are pushed by the wayside, dismissed as irrelevant and forgotten forever (or until an intrepid blogger takes the initiative to post it). Success in Europe was by no means inevitable, both during and after the war, and in a certain respect, these articles are a great example of creeping determinism or Garfinkle’s immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy.

They’re also an example of just how shortsighted pessimistic reporting on a lengthy process can be. As Garfinkle notes:

American presidents, who have to make the truly big decisions of U.S. foreign policy, must come to a judgment with incomplete information, often under stress and merciless time constraints, and frequently with their closest advisors painting one another in shades of disagreement. The choices are never between obviously good and obviously bad, but between greater and lesser sets of risks, greater and lesser prospects of danger. Banal as it sounds, we do well to remind ourselves from time to time that things really are not so simple, even when one’s basic principles are clear and correct.

Indeed. Hindsight isn’t necessarily 20/20, but it always purports to be.

Update 10.21.03 – I don’t remember where I found this, but I had bookmarked it: That Was Then: Allen W. Dulles on the Occupation of Germany provides some more perspective on post-war Germany. He outlined many of the difficulties they faced and lamented, despite his obvious respect for those in charge, that “the problems inherent in the situation are almost too much for us.” It’s an excellent piece, so read the whole thing, as they say…

Style as Substance

Kill Bill: Volume 1 is one of those movies that I’ve been keeping track of for years. From the beginning, I wondered why Tarantino was choosing such material for his next film. The plot certainly isn’t edgy. Uma Thurman plays The Bride, a woman miraculously survives a bullet to the head on her wedding day (the groom was not so lucky). After an extended stay in a coma, she awakes and makes a list of five people to exact revenge upon. Then she goes and kills them. That’s the plot.

And yet it’s still a good film (not a great film, but good). The plot doesn’t matter. Nor, really, do the characters. None of them are developed, or really likable. You root for the Bride, a textbook anti-hero, not because she’s been wronged and is seeking revenge, but because she’s such a badass. It is the style of the film that gets me, and like it or not, Tarantino is a master of style. The man knows how to manipulate the audience, and he is brutally unmerciful in this outing.

Let me rewind a bit. Do you remember the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent blows Marvin’s head off by accident? Somehow, Tarantino is able to make that scene, and the ensuing events, funny. Not ha-ha funny, it’s still black comedy, but funny nonetheless. You don’t really know why you are laughing, but you are. And that is what this movie is like. It’s like two hours of that one scene in Pulp Fiction.

Blood. Hundreds of gallons of it. Spraying, shooting, fountains of blood. The grisly murder rate in this film approaches triple digits. It’s not for everyone. James Lileks says he had “no desire to see clever violence,” and that is certainly understandable. These scenes are cold, merciless, and often disgusting, yet I found myself laughing. It’s just a natural reaction when you see someone’s head cut off and blood sprays out like a sprinkler. The gore is so over the top that it eventually ceases to be disgusting and takes on a blurry, surreal quality. Tarantino knows this works, but he’s not content to leave it there.

This isn’t an easy movie. It’s not the roller coaster kung-fu action flick it’s advertised as. It’s difficult. Why? Because in those moments where the gore goes beyond the surreal, you still sense gravity in the violence. Tarantino grounds the violence just enough so that you laugh when it happens, but you’re hit by an aftertaste of guilt a few seconds later. The blood may be completely over the top, but other details are what got me. The gurgling, the spasms, the screams. These things creeped the hell out of me. And on top of that, towards the end of the film, Tarantino keeps the film rocketing along at such a pace that your conscience can’t keep up with the violence, and you know it. That is, I suppose the essense of black comedy. It’s not easy and it’s not fun, but it makes you laugh anyway.

It is difficult to say, though. It’s not as obvious as I’m describing. The black comedy is more subtle than you might think from reading this, so take it with a grain of salt.

Walter sums it up perfectly:

I think Tarantino wanted a 180 from Pulp Fiction’s tone. I think he feinted high and then socked us in the gut. And it worked. Bold as hell, and he pulled it off. Now I’m sick to my stomach, but I respect the bastard.

I don’t like this movie the way I like Tarantino’s other work. I like it like I like Taxi Driver or Requiem for a Dream, which is to say, I don’t like it, but it is so well done that I can’t stop myself from watching it. The filmmakers, damn them, are so good at manipulating the elements of cinema that I’m spellbound even as I’m wimpering.

Kill Bill doesn’t have the weight of Taxi Driver or Requiem and it’s a flawed film, but it has it’s moments of brilliance too. There is a lot more to say about it, but I am at a loss to say more. It is difficult to describe because what’s important about this film isn’t what happens, it’s how it happens. It’s style as substance, and Tarantino makes it work. Damn him.

Pynchon’s 1984

I stopped by the bookstore tonight to pick up Quicksilver and while I was there, I happened upon the new edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. This new edition contains a foreward by none other than Thomas Pynchon, vaunted author and recluse whose similarly prophetic novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, has been giving me headaches for the past year or so… Pynchon was a good choice; he’s able to place Orwell’s novel, including its conception and composition, in its proper cultural and historical context while at the same time applying the humanistic themes of the novel to current times (without, I might add, succumbing to the tempation to list out what Orwell did or didn’t “get right” – indeed, Pynchon even takes a humorous swipe at the tendency to do so – “Orwellian, dude!”). And to top that off, I’m a sucker for his style – whatever one he might be employing at the time (this time around it’s his nonfiction style, with an alternating elegance and brazenness that works so well).

It’s interesting reading, though I don’t agree with everything he says. Towards the beginning of the forward, he mentions this bit:

Now, those of fascistic disposition – or merely those among us who remain all too ready to justify any government action, whether right or wrong – will immediately point out that this is prewar thinking, and that the moment enemy bombs begin to fall on one’s homeland, altering the landscape and producing casualties among friends and neighbours, all this sort of thing, really, becomes irrelevant, if not indeed subversive. With the homeland in danger, strong leadership and effective measures become of the essence, and if you want to call that fascism, very well, call it whatever you please, no one is likely to be listening, unless it’s for the air raids to be over and the all clear to sound. But the unseemliness of an argument – let alone a prophecy – in the heat of some later emergency, does not necessarily make it wrong. One could certainly argue that Churchill’s war cabinet had behaved on occasion no differently from a fascist regime, censoring news, controlling wages and prices, restricting travel, subordinating civil liberties to self-defined wartime necessity.

Though he doesn’t clearly come out and say it and he is careful even with his historical example, Pynchon clearly fears for America’s future in the wake of the “war on terror” and sees Orwell’s work not only as a commentary on the perils of communism, but as a warning to democracy. As a general point, I can see that, but you could read Pynchon as believing that Orwell’s point equally applies to the policies of, say, the current administration, which I think is a bit of a stretch. For one thing, our system of limited governance already has mechanisms for self-examination and public debate, not to mention checks and balances between certain key elements of the government. For another, our primary enemies now are no longer the forces of progress.

As Pynchon himself notes, Orwell failed to see religious fundamentalism as a threat, and today this is the main enemy we face. It isn’t the progress of science and technology that threatens us (at least not in the way expected), but rather a reversion to fundamentalist religion, and Pynchon is hesitant to see that. He tends to be obsessed with the mechanics of paranoia and conspiracy when it comes to technology. This is exemplified by his attitude towards the internet:

…the internet, a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th-century tyrants with their goofy moustaches could only dream about.

As erich notes, perhaps someone should introduce Pynchon to the hacker subculture, where anarchists deface government and corporate websites, bored kids bring corporate websites to their knees with viruses or DDOS attacks, and bloggers aggregate and debate. Or perhaps our problem will be that with an increase in informational transparency, “Orwellian” scrutiny will to some extent become democratized; abuse of privacy will no longer limited to corporations and states. As William Gibson notes:

“1984” remains one of the quickest and most succinct routes to the core realities of 1948. If you wish to know an era, study its most lucid nightmares. In the mirrors of our darkest fears, much will be revealed. But don’t mistake those mirrors for road maps to the future, or even to the present.

We’ve missed the train to Oceania, and live today with stranger problems.

Stranger problems indeed. But Pynchon isn’t all frowns, he actually ends on a note of hope regarding the appendix, which provides an explanation of Newspeak:

why end a novel as passionate, violent and dark as this one with what appears to be a scholarly appendix?

The answer may lie in simple grammar. From its first sentence, “The Principles of Newspeak” is written consistently in the past tense, as if to suggest some later piece of history, post- 1984 , in which Newspeak has become literally a thing of the past – as if in some way the anonymous author of this piece is by now free to discuss, critically and objectively, the political system of which Newspeak was, in its time, the essence. Moreover, it is our own pre-Newspeak English language that is being used to write the essay. Newspeak was supposed to have become general by 2050, and yet it appears that it did not last that long, let alone triumph, that the ancient humanistic ways of thinking inherent in standard English have persisted, survived, and ultimately prevailed, and that perhaps the social and moral order it speaks for has even, somehow, been restored.

… In its hints of restoration and redemption, perhaps “The Principles of Newspeak” serves as a way to brighten an otherwise bleakly pessimistic ending – sending us back out into the streets of our own dystopia whistling a slightly happier tune than the end of the story by itself would have warranted.

Overall, Pynchon’s essay is excellent and thought-provoking, if a little paranoid. He tackles more than I have commented on, and he does so in affable style. A commentor at erich’s site concludes:

Orwell, to his everlasting credit, saw clearly the threat posed by communism, and spoke out forcefully against it. Unfortunately, as Pynchon’s new introduction reminds us, the same cannot be said for far too many on the Left, who remain incapable of making rational distinctions between our constitutional republic and the slavery over which we won a great triumph in the last century.


Update – Most of the text of Pynchon’s essay can be found here.

Another Update – Rodney Welch notices a that Pynchon’s theory regarding the appendix appears to have been lifted by Guardian columnist, Margaret Atwood. Dave Kipen comments that it’s possible that both are paraphrasing an old idea, but he doubts it. Any Orwellians care to shed some light on the originality of the “happy ending” theory?

Another Update: More here.

My God! It’s full of stars!

What Galileo Saw by Michael Benson : A great New Yorker article on the remarkable success of the Galileo probe. James Grimmelmann provides some fantastic commentary:

Launched fifteen years ago with technology that was a decade out of date at the time, Galileo discovered the first extraterrestrial ocean, holds the record for most flybys of planets and moons, pointed out a dual star system, and told us about nine more moons of Jupiter.

Galileo’s story is the story of improvisational engineering at its best. When its main 134 KBps antenna failed to open, NASA engineers decided to have it send back images using its puny 10bps antenna. 10 bits per second! 10!

To fit images over that narrow a channel, they needed to teach Galileo some of the tricks we’ve learned about data compression in the last few decades. And to teach an old satellite new tricks, they needed to upgrade its entire software package. Considering that upgrading your OS rarely goes right here on Earth, pulling off a half-billion-mile remote install is pretty impressive.

And the brilliance doesn’t end there:

As if that wasn’t enough hacker brilliance, design changes in the wake of the Challenger explosion completely ruled out the original idea of just sending Galileo out to Mars and slingshotting towards Jupiter. Instead, two Ed Harris characters at NASA figured out a triple bank shot — a Venus flyby, followed by two Earth flybys two years apart — to get it out to Jupiter. NASA has come in for an awful lot of criticism lately, but there are still some things they do amazingly well.

Score another one for NASA (while you’re at it, give Grimmelmann a few points for the Ed Harris reference). Who says NASA can’t do anything right anymore? Grimmelmann observes:

The Galileo story points out, I think, that the problem is not that NASA is messed-up, but that manned space flight is messed-up.

Manned spaceflight is, in the Ursula K. LeGuin sense, perverse. It’s an act of pure conspicuous waste, like eating fifty hotdogs or memorizing ten thousand digits of pi. We do it precisely because it is difficult verging on insane.

Is manned space flight in danger of becoming extinct? Is it worth the insane amount of effort and resources we continually pour into the space program? These are not questions I’m really qualified to answer, but its interesting to ponder. On a personal level, its tempting to righteously proclaim that it is worth it; that doing things that are “difficult verging on insane” have inherent value, well beyond the simple science involved.

Such projects are not without their historical equivalents. There are all sorts of theories explaining why the ancient Egyptian pyramids were built, but none are as persuasive as the idea that they were built to unify Egypt’s people and cultures. At the time, almost everything was being done on a local scale. With the possible exception of various irrigation efforts that linked together several small towns, there existed no project that would encompass the whole of Egypt. Yes, an insane amount of resources were expended, but the product was truly awe-inspiring, and still is today.

Those who built the pyramids were not slaves, as is commonly thought. They were mostly farmers from the tribes along the River Nile. They depended on the yearly cycle of flooding of the Nile to enrich their fields, and during the months that that their fields were flooded, they were employed to build pyramids and temples. Why would a common farmer give his time and labor to pyramid construction? There were religious reasons, of course, and patriotic reasons as well… but there was something more. Building the pyramids created a certain sense of pride and community that had not existed before. Markings on pyramid casing stones describe those who built the pyramids. Tally marks and names of “gangs” (groups of workers) indicate a sense of pride in their workmanship and respect between workers. The camaraderie that resulted from working together on such a monumental project united tribes that once fought each other. Furthermore, the building of such an immense structure implied an intense concentration of people in a single area. This drove a need for large-scale food-storage among other social constructs. The Egyptian society that emerged from the Pyramid Age was much different from the one that preceded it (some claim that this was the emergance of the state as we now know it.)

“What mattered was not the pyramid – it was the construction of the pyramid.” If the pyramid was a machine for social progress, so too can the Space program be a catalyst for our own society.

Much like the pyramids, space travel is a testament to what the human race is capable of. Sure it allows us to do research we couldn’t normally do, and we can launch satellites and space-based telescopes from the shuttle (much like pyramid workers were motivated by religion and a sense of duty to their Pharaoh), but the space program also serves to do much more. Look at the Columbia crew – men, women, white, black, Indian, Israeli – working together in a courageous endeavor, doing research for the benefit of mankind, traveling somewhere where few humans have been. It brings people together in a way few endeavors can, and it inspires the young and old alike. Human beings have always dared to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Where would we be without the courageous exploration of the past five hundred years? We should continue to celebrate this most noble of human spirits, should we not?

In the mean time, Galileo is nearing its end. On September 21st, around 3 p.m. EST, Galileo will be vaporized as it plummets toward Jupiter’s atmosphere, sending back whatever data it still can. This planned destruction is exactly what has been planned for Galileo; the answer to an intriguing ethical dilemma.

In 1996, Galileo conducted the first of eight close flybys of Europa, producing breathtaking pictures of its surface, which suggested that the moon has an immense ocean hidden beneath its frozen crust. These images have led to vociferous scientific debate about the prospects for life there; as a result, NASA officials decided that it was necessary to avoid the possibility of seeding Europa with alien life-forms.

I had never really given thought to the idea that one of our space probes could “infect” another planet with our “alien” life-forms, though it does make perfect sense. Reaction to the decision among those who worked on Galileo is mixed, most recognizing the rationale, but not wanting to let go anyway (understandable, I guess)…

For more on the pyramids, check out this paper by Marcell Graeff. The information he referenced that I used in this article came primarily from Kurt Mendelssohn’s book The Riddle of the Pyramids.

Update 9.25.03 – Steven Den Beste has posted an excellent piece on the Galileo mission and more…

The King Lives!

Cult films are (generally) commercially unsuccessful movies that have limited appeal, but nevertheless attract a fiercely loyal following among fans over time. They often exhibit very strange characters, surreal settings, bizzarre plotting, dark humor, and otherwise quirky and eccentric characteristics. These obscure films often cross genres (horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc…) and are highly stylized, straying from conventional filmmaking techniques. Many are made by fiercely independent maverick filmmakers with a very low budget (read: cheesy), often showcasing the performance of talented newcomers.

Almost by definition, they’re not popular at the time of their release, usually because they exist outside the box, eschewing typical narrative styles and other technical conventions. They achieve cult-film status later, developing a loyal fanbase over time, often through word-of-mouth recommendations (and, as we’ll see, the actions of fans themselves). They elicit an eerie passion among their fans, who enthusiastically champion the films, leading to repeated public viewings (midnight movie showings are particularly prevalent in cult films), fan clubs, and active audience participation (i.e. dressing up as the oddball characters, mercilessly MST3King a film, or uh, jumping around in front of a camera with a broomstick). Cult movie followers often get together and argue over the mundane details and varied merits of their favorite films.

While these films are not broadly appealing, they are tremendously popular among certain narrow groups such as college students or independent film lovers. The internet has been immensely enabling in these respects, allowing movie geeks to locate one another and participate in the aforementioned laborious debates and arguments among other interactive fun.

One of the first examples of a cult movie is Tod Browning’s 1932 film, Freaks, which was deliberately made to be “the strangest…most startling human story ever screened,” and featured real-life freaks as circus performers. Perhaps the most infamous cult film is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a 1975 film which inspired a craze of interactive, midnight movie screenings where members of the audience dress up as any of the garish and trashy characters and sing along with the music.

Sometimes a cult film will break out of its small fanbase and hit the mainstream. Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t become popular until many years after its initial release. Repeated television showings during the Christmas season, however, have become a holiday tradition.

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now are all considered to be classics of modern cinema today, yet were all largely ignored by audiences at the time of their release.

Most cult films don’t fare that well, though I can’t say that bothers anyone. Their unpopularity is generally considered to be a part of their charm. They’re strange beasts, these cult films, and their appeal is hard to pin down. They’re often very flawed films in one way or another, yet they strike a passionate chord with specific audiences, and their flaws, strangely, become endearing to their fans. Outsiders just don’t “get it”.

This doesn’t just apply to movies either. Many authors don’t become popular until after their deaths (Kafka, Lovecraft) and many works are initially shunned, but eventually pick up that devoted cult following through word of mouth and interactive fun and games. The Lord of the Rings was massively unpopular when it was published, but a small but extremely devoted fanbase grew, and it wasn’t too long until people were creating role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons based in part on Tolkien’s enormously imaginative universe. D&D itself garnered a cult following of its own, as has role-playing in its own right. Lord of the Rings is now immensely popular, and its stunningly brilliant movie adaptations by cult filmmaker Peter Jackson (known for his disgusting work in Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead Alive, among others) which have met with both popular and critical success.


One of my favorite cult films is the cheesy 1979 horror flick, Phantasm. Several years ago, as I first began to explore internet communities, I realized that I needed a “handle,” as it was called. I was watching said horror flick almost every day at the time, so I chose tallman as my handle, despite the fact that I do not resemble the nefarious Tall Man present in the Phantasm films (and that, uh, I’m not tall). It is inexplicably one of my favorite films of all time, and it is a dreadful movie. The effects are awful, the acting is often laughable, and the plot is incoherent at times (especially the ending). But I still love the film; I cherish the creepy, surreal atmosphere and to this day, the Tall Man haunts my dreams (nightmares, actually). The bad effects and acting make me laugh, but there are some genuinely brilliant moments in the film, and the unreality of the ending actually serves to heighten the tension of the film, providing an eerie ambiguity that lasts long after viewing the film. The film has its moments of brilliance as well. The score is especially haunting, and the mortuary sets, when combined with director (and producer, and writer, and cinematographer, and editor, and did I mention that cult filmmakers are often fiercely independent?) Don Coscarelli’s talented visual style, are stunningly effective.

Like many cult films, it has become a cinematically important film, sparking the rise of surreality in many horror films from the 1980’s (most notably A Nightmare on Elm Street, which lifted the ending almost verbatim).

Another favorite cult hit is Sam “For Love of the Game” Raimi’s (er, I guess that should be Sam “Spiderman” Raimi’s) Evil Dead films, featuring the coolest B-Movie actor ever, Bruce Campbell. Raimi’s inventive camera-work and Campbell’s gloriously over-the-top performance make these films a joy to watch.

The reason I started this post, which has gotten completely out of hand as I’ve laboriously digressed into the nature of cult filmmaking (sorry ’bout that), was because of a new film, destined for cult success, in which Phantasm director Don Coscarelli and Evil Dead actor Bruce Campbell join forces.

The new film is called Bubba Ho-Tep, it looks like a doozy. Based on a short story by cult author Joe R. Lansdale, tells the “true” story of what became of Elvis Presley (he didn’t die on a toilet) and JFK (he didn’t die in Dallas). Oh, did I mention that JFK is now black (THEY dyed him that color; the conspiracy theorists should love that)? We find this unlikely duo in an East Texas rest home which has become the target of an evil Egyptian entity (“Some sorta… Bubba Ho-Tep,” as Campbell’s Elvis opines). Naturally, the two old coots aren’t going to just let Bubba Ho-Tep run hog-wild through their peaceful nursing home, and so they rush forward on their walkers and their wheel chairs to save the day. Its got that mix of the absurd that just screams cult film.

The trailer is great, and it features some of those trademark Coscarelli visuals (which I never realized he had before, but he does. Its tempting to throw out the term Auteur, but I’m way too subjective when it comes to Coscarelli), music that sounds suspiciously like the Phantasm theme, and Campbell’s typically cheeky delivery (including Elvis-fu, complete with cheesy sound effects). I can’t wait to see this film. Alas, it doesn’t look like its coming to Philly very soon, but I’m hoping it will eventually make its way over here so that I can partake of it in all its B-Movie glory. The King lives!

Villainous Brits!

A few weeks ago, the regular weather guy on the radio was sick and a British meteorologist filled in. And damned if I didn’t think it was the best weather forecast I’d ever heard! The report, which called for rain on a weekend in which I was traveling, turned out to be completely inaccurate, much to my surprise. I really shouldn’t have been surprised, though. I know full well the limitations of meteorology, and weather reports can’t be that accurate. Truth be told, I subcounsciously placed a higher value on the weather report because it was delivered in a British accent. Its not his fault, he can predict the weather no better than anyone else in the world, but the British accent carries with it an intellectual stereotype; when I hear one, I automatically associate it with intelligence.

Which brings me to John Patterson’s recent article in the Guardian in which he laments the inevitable placement of British characters and actors in the villainous roles (while all the cheeky Yanks get the heroic roles):

Meanwhile, in Hollywood and London, the movie version of the special relationship has long played itself out in like manner. Our cut-price actors come over and do their dirty work, as villains and baddies and psychopaths, even American ones, while the cream of their prohibitively expensive acting talent Concordes it over the pond to steal the lion’s share of our heroic roles. Either way, we lose.

One could be curious why Patterson is so upset that American actors get the heroic parts in American movies, but even if you ignore that, Patterson is stretching it pretty thin.

As Steven Den Beste notes, this theory doesn’t go too far in explaining James Bond or Spy Kids. Never mind that the Next Generation captain of the starship Enterprise was a Brit (playing a Frenchman, no less). Ian McKellen plays Gandalf; Ewan McGregor plays Obi Wan Kenobi. The list goes on and on.

All that aside, however, it is true that British actors and characters often do portray the villain. It may even be as lopsided as Patterson contends, but the notion that such a thing implies some sort of deeply-rooted American contempt for the British is a bit off.

As anyone familiar with film will tell you, the villain needs to be so much more than just vile, wicked or depraved to be convincing. A villainous dolt won’t create any tension with the audience, you need someone with brains or nobility. Ever notice how educated villains are? Indeed, there seem to a preponderance of doctors that become supervillains (Dr. Demento, Dr. Octopus, Dr. Doom, Dr. Evil, Dr. Frankenstien, Dr. No, Dr. Sardonicus, Dr. Strangelove, etc…) – does this reflect an antipathy towards doctors? The abundance of British villains is no more odd than the abundance of doctors. As my little episode with the weatherman shows, when Americans hear a British accent, they hear intelligence. (This also explains the Gladiator case in which Joaquin Phoenix, who is Puerto Rican by the way, puts on a veiled British accent.)

The very best villains are the ones that are honorable, the ones with whom the audience can sympathize. Once again, the American assumption of British honor lends a certain depth and complexity to a character that is difficult to pull off otherwise. Who was the more engaging villain in X-Men, Magneto or Sabretooth? Obviously, the answer is Magneto, played superbly by British actor Ian McKellen. Having endured Nazi death camps as a child, he’s not bent on domination of the world, he’s attempting to avoid living through a second holocaust. He’s not a megalomaniac, and his motivation strikes a chord with the audience. Sabretooth, on the other hand, is a hulking but pea-brained menace who contributes little to the conflict (much to the dismay of fans of the comic, in which Sabertooth is apparently quite shrewd).

Such characters are challenging. It’s difficult to portray a villain as both evil and brilliant, sleazy and funny, moving and tragic. In fact, it is because of the complexity of this duality that villains are often the most interesting characters. That British actors are often chosen to do so is a testament to their capability and talent.

Some would attribute this to the training of the stage that is much less common in the U.S. British actors can do a daring and audacious performance while still fitting into an ensemble. It’s also worth noting that many British actors are relatively unknown outside of the UK. Since they are capable of performing such a difficult role, and since they are unfamiliar to US audiences, it makes the films more interesting.

In the end, there’s really very little that Patterson has to complain about, especially when he tries to port this issue over to politics. While a case may be made that there are a lot of British villains in movies (and there are plenty of villains that aren’t), that doesn’t mean there is anything malicious behind it; indeed, depending on how you look at it, it could be considered a complement that British culture lends itself to the complexity and intelligence required for a good villain we all love to hate (and hate to love). [thanks to USS Clueless for the Guardian article]