A Halloween Present for You

Lobby Card for Val Lewton’s The Cat People

Lobby Card for Val Lewton’s The Cat People

The following is a re-post which originally appeared in 2015.

There are horror films, and there are horror films. They can scare you out of your wits, like Curse of the Demon (1957) and Poltergeist (1982), or they can make you understand that the world is both light and dark in equal measure, like Val Lewton’s great films of the 1940s, such as The Cat People (1942).

Val Lewton, born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Yalta, Russia, was interested in making low budget films to compete with Universal Pictures’ highly successful Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, and Wolf Man franchises. The title for The Cat People was assigned to Lewton by RKO, and Lewton went to work on a psychological thriller in which there is no overt violence. Perhaps the greatest scene takes place in a swimming pool in which a young woman is swimming all by herself at night. In the shadows, we imagine there is a black panther, but neither the swimmer nor we the viewers are absolutely sure.

Even though Halloween is just about over, I highly recommend all the following Lewton films:

  • The Cat People (1942)
  • I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
  • The Leopard Man (1943)
  • The Seventh Victim (1943)
  • The Ghost Ship (1943)
  • The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
  • The Body Snatcher (1945)
  • Isle of the Dead (1945)
  • Bedlam (1946)


All are great films worthy of being seen multiple times. They are short, thoughtful, extremely moody, and highly successful. Also available is a Turner Classics biopic about Lewton’s career called Shadows in the Dark narrated by Martin Scorsese. Martine and I watched it last night and recommend you see it.

In all of Hollywood’s history, Lewton was probably the only film producer who controlled his products as if he were the director. Even though Lewton directorial protegés Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson went on to have brilliant careers, when one is watching a Lewton film, one recognizes it as a Lewton film.

The United States of Fear

Kalashnikov AK-47

Kalashnikov AK-47

When we won the Second World War, we changed as a people. It’s like the gunfighter who’s gained such a fearsome reputation that everyone comes gunning for him. And, indeed, as a nation we got our asses kicked in Korea, Viet Nam, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and a number of other places we never heard of before our famous victory. (Besides, truth to tell, the Second World War was more of a Russian victory than one for America and Britain: Stalin did far more to destroy the German war machine than we did.)

Sometime later, after we clumsily started being the world’s policeman, we discovered that we were not liked. For me, it all started in Caracas, Venezuela, in May 1958 when our Vice President, Richard M. Nixon, was met by an angry mob which attacked his limo. “How could that be?” I thought as a grade school student at the time. “Aren’t we the good guys?”

Then, shortly after I returned from Iceland in September 2001, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by Al Qaida terrorists. Then we learned there are all these Muslims out to get us, people who revered the terrorists and decided to name their sons Osama. As recently as yesterday, I heard a Syrian refugee blame Washington and Moscow for destroying his country—as if ISIS, Al Qaida, and the Syrian Baath Party had no part to play in it.

With the world turning against us, we started to look fearfully at Afro-Americans and Mexican immigrants (whom Trump calls “rapists,” except for a handful of good ones). Among our own kind, there were these strange homosexuals who started attacking our cherished institution of marriage.

Well, I guess we should all buy guns, the more the better. Let’s all build ourselves a fort and blow the heads off anyone who crosses its perimeter. Or if we’re feeling particularly depressed, maybe we could shoot up our old school or our workplace. How dare anyone criticize us? After all, aren’t we the good guys?

Not any more we aren’t.




A Global Threat

Reprinted from The New Yorker, May 2015

Reprinted from The New Yorker, May 2015

I don’t do this very often, but I am reprinting in its entirety the Borowitz Report from The New Yorker.  When I first saw it, I laughed so hard that I am still looking for some internal organs that I spewed all over my office.

Scientists have discovered a powerful new strain of fact-resistant humans who are threatening the ability of Earth to sustain life, a sobering new study reports.

The research, conducted by the University of Minnesota, identifies a virulent strain of humans who are virtually immune to any form of verifiable knowledge, leaving scientists at a loss as to how to combat them.

“These humans appear to have all the faculties necessary to receive and process information,” Davis Logsdon, one of the scientists who contributed to the study, said. “And yet, somehow, they have developed defenses that, for all intents and purposes, have rendered those faculties totally inactive.”

More worryingly, Logsdon said, “As facts have multiplied, their defenses against those facts have only grown more powerful.”

While scientists have no clear understanding of the mechanisms that prevent the fact-resistant humans from absorbing data, they theorize that the strain may have developed the ability to intercept and discard information en route from the auditory nerve to the brain. “The normal functions of human consciousness have been completely nullified,” Logsdon said.

While reaffirming the gloomy assessments of the study, Logsdon held out hope that the threat of fact-resistant humans could be mitigated in the future. “Our research is very preliminary, but it’s possible that they will become more receptive to facts once they are in an environment without food, water, or oxygen,” he said.


The Flyaway Bus from UCLA to LAX Airport

The Flyaway Bus from UCLA to LAX Airport

For the five months I was in physical therapy from my broken shoulder, I would walk twice a week past the Flyaway Bus stop at UCLA’s Parking Lot 32 on way way to UCLA Rehab Srvices. Each time, I would get a warm feeling of pleasure, thinking ahead to my next South America vacation. Now that vacation is only a few days away, and I will be trudging from work to Lot 32 to take the Flyaway Bus to the Tom Bradley International Terminal, from which I will take a TAM jetliner to Buenos Aires via Sao Paolo, Brazil.

I was sad to hear that the Flyaway service may be discontinued next year for lack of use. According to the UCLA Daily Bruin, the company that operates the service is running a large deficit and is looking to cut corners. That would be a pity, as the bus stops at all the LAX terminals. I have three other possible alternatives: the Santa Monica #3, the Culver City #6, and the LA Metro #781. All three stop at the Airport Bus Station, from which I have to take a separate free shuttle at the adjacent Lot C. That involves a bit more schlepping with heavy luggage—but I better get used to doing that anyhow.

For now, though, Flyaway is still in business.

“Spooky Action at a Distance”

Einstein Just Couldn’t Wrap His Head Around It

Einstein Just Couldn’t Wrap His Head Around It

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy—or even Albert Einstein’s philosophy.  It was not long after people were confused by Relativity than ever stranger things were being noticed by physicists. Here’s what drove the great physicist to exclaim, “God does not play dice!” and to call the whole affair spooky action at a distance:

How appropriate for Halloween!

  • Nothing travels faster than the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), right?
  • There are experiments in which photons are fired in opposite directions, each going at the speed of light.
  • If you change the charge of one of those photons, the one speeding away from it at the speed of light is changed to the opposite polarity.
  • How is that possible, since the two photons would have to be communicating at a speed greater than the speed of light?

Let me express it another way, according to RawStory.Com:

But let’s begin with the paper, published in Nature, which proves that the world is inherently spooky. All systems described by quantum mechanics can display so-called entanglement. For example an electron, like a coin, can spin in two directions (up and down). But two electrons can be entangled so that a measurement of the spin of one electron will define the spin of the other.

According to quantum mechanics, the spin of one electron cannot be known in advance of a measurement yet will be perfectly correlated with the other, even if it is in a distant location. Einstein didn’t like this because it seemed to imply that the information can be sent from one electron to the other instantaneously—breaking a rule that says nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. He instead thought that there were “hidden variables” encoded in each electron that could determine the result if only we could access them.

Things just got all crazy and non-intuitive from that point on. Could it be that “things” can exist whose parts are far apart yet could communicate instantaneously with one another? Could I flash a thought wave to my brother on Planet XZ-74Ah several light years distant and tell him to put a quarter in the parking meter because it’s about to run out? Is all really one in a way that proves Einstein wrong?

Check out this video from Doctor Quantum on the subject of entanglement, which is what this phenomenon is called.

Hmmm, maybe. Meanwhile, I have to let Schrödinger’s cat out of his box.

A Thin Place

Religious Festival in Chivay

Religious Festival in Chivay, Peru

I was reading an article about a small town in Israel on the BBC News website when I came across an interesting term:

Throughout it all, though, Tzfat has remained a “thin place”.

This Celtic term, invented to describe a place where the distance between Heaven and Earth is compressed, neatly captures a subtle quality that a few places possess. Heaven and Earth, the Celts believed, are often closer than we think. But in thin places, you can feel the divine.

Thin places are often relaxing, but not always. They might be enjoyable, or they might not. What they always possess, though, is the capacity to transform, to strip away the layers of falseness and striving that define so much of our lives, and to reveal something deeper, something more essential.

My most recent encounter with a “thin place” was Colca Canyon high in the Andes. From an elevation of 15,000 feet (4,500 meters) at Patapampa, we dropped down by stages to the town of Chivay, where a religious procession was taking place. My head was buzzing from the high altitude, but I felt that I was in a sacred place, within view of the Apus of the Andes with their snow-covered peaks.

The View Across Colca Canyon Beyond Chivay

The View Across Colca Canyon Beyond Chivay

Chivay was inhabited by a mix of Collaguas and Cabanas in their colorful costumes. While I was wildly snapping pictures, I felt I was not only living in a different layer of reality from the indigenous locals, but I was privileged to see a religious ceremonial that just happened to be taking place when we arrived in the main square. The mountain peoples of Peru have not always been accepting of foreign visitors. Fortunately, I was not part of a large busload of tourists, and I was the only person from my party viewing the procession.

Throughout my stay in Chivay and nearby Corporaque, I felt I was in a thin place. Overhead huge condors rode the thermals, and I was as close as I ever hope to be to the heavens.




Within a Stone’s Throw

Buenos Aires’s Recoleta Cemetery

Buenos Aires’s Recoleta Cemetery

As I have written on earlier occasions, Recoleta Cemetery is one of the major tourist attractions in Buenos Aires. I have visited it during my two previous trips to Argentina, in 2006 and 2011. And now, I will be staying in a hotel within sight of the tombs on Avenida Azcuénaga. It is possible that the blue-green building in the left background could be on Azcuénaga, but I’m not sure.

One of the nice things about staying in the Recoleta area is that it is full of classical old café/restaurants such as La Biela, El Sanjuanino, El Rincón, La Cocina, La Barra, and the Rodi-Bar—places that have been around for a hundred years or more and become national treasures.

On Saturdays, the Plaza Francia in front of the cemetery is the site of a craft fair  that features leather goods; items made with rhodochrosite, a magnesium carbonate mineral that is the national precious stone of Argentina; and yummy snacks. Nearby is La Biela, under the shade of a giant old ombú tree, where one can enjoy a cold Imperial beer and a light lunch.

I will be leaving a week from Tuesday, and as the time gets closer, I am looking forward to the trip more and more.



King Charles’s Head

Mr. Dick, Who Cannot Get King Charles I’s Head Out of His Writing

Mr. Dick in David Copperfield, Who Cannot Get King Charles I’s Head Out of His Writing

Today, I attended the European History Meetup Group at the Will and Ariel Durant Branch Library in Hollywood. The subject under discussion was “The King, the Parliament, and the Death of Absolute Monarchy in Great Britain.” We concentrated on the Seventeenth Century, particularly the arrest and trial of Charles I, the rule of Oliver Cromwell as Protector, and the Restoration.

It was for this meeting that I had read Christopher Hill’s great book, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. As usual, for these meetings I am usually more interested in cultural history than names, dates, and battles.

The group leader, Bronislaw Meyler, does an excellent job of introducing the subject and putting all the pieces together.


“Old Dog Trey”

House Select Committee on Benghazi Chairman Trey Gowdy

House Select Committee on Benghazi Chairman Trey Gowdy

The sad affair at Benghazi is probably the most-investigated terrorist event in America’s history. Currently, what we have is the eighth Congressional committee to prate and bray on what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton failed to do to prevent the death of four consular officials in Libya on September 11, 2012. That is seven more committees that investigated the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on September 11, 2001 with their thousands of casualties, and seven more than examined the Beirut terrorist bombing attack of October 23, 1983 in which 299 U.S. Marines and French military died.

I guess when the President on whose watch this type of thing is a Republican, he and his people generally get off scot-free. But it was not in the cards in our time.

Politics is a strange animal. By unstinting attacks, it could make the Machiavellian Mrs. Clinton look like a persecuted virgin and martyr and attack dog Trey Gowdy look like one of he Salem witchcraft judges. And the whole committee aims to generate a gotcha moment, in which Mrs. Clinton says something that could be used as a sound bite against her in next year’s presidential race, to be looped thousands of times in negative advertising.

So instead of getting their political victory and singing Gowdyamus igitur to their base, the many political enemies of Mrs. Clinton have drawn the following cards:

Ace Ventura, Pet Detective
Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo
Trey Gowdy, Failed Draco Malfoy Look-Alike

I keep saying I don’t want to get drawn into politics, but what’s happening is part of a critical time in our history; and I don’t feel right about remaining silent. Sigh!



“Probably Bacon Now”

“Probably Bacon Now”

I came across this poem in an excellent article by Joyce Carol Oates in the August 13, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books. It was quoted in an article about literary imagination entitled “Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature.”(When is this woman finally going to get her Nobel Prize? She deserves one five times over.) The poem is called “Pig” and it is by Henri Cole:

Poor patient pig—trying to keep his balance,
that’s all, upright on a flatbed ahead of me,
somewhere between Pennsylvania and Ohio,
enjoying the wind, maybe, against the tufts of hair
on the tops of his ears, like a Stoic at the foot
of the gallows, or, with my eyes heavy and glazed
from caffeine and driving, like a soul disembarking,
its flesh probably bacon now tipping into split
pea soup, or, more painful to me, like a man
in his middle years struggling to remain
vital and honest while we’re all just floating
around accidental-like on a breeze.
What funny thoughts slide into the head.
alone on the interstate with no place to be.

Oates writes in her particle: “(Parenthetically, I should mention that I read this poem when I taught several writing workshops at San Quentin in 2011, on my first meeting with the inmate-writers; in fact, I had to read it twice. The students were fascinated and moved by this poem, in which they saw themselves all too clearly.)”

What’s odd about the poem is that the driver begins to identify with the pig midway through the stanza.