The Past Goes Up in Flames

Frederick Catherwood’s Drawing of Maya Ruins at Chichén Itzá

I wanted to write about the Notre Dame de Paris fire yesterday, but I held back. All I could have said at that point is, “What a horrible shame! I am completely aghast!” It needed me to sleep on he news before I was able to put the event in any perspective.

That perspective, as it comes to me now, is that our past is always and everywhere going up in flames, collapsing under the wrecking ball, or being abandoned and overgrown. The City of Los Angeles, for example,  is under the sway of greedy developers who think nothing of bulldozing our history. Much of the history of motion picture production in Hollywood is gone forever, with just a few isolated buildings such as the Chinese and Egyptian Theaters, the Lasky-DeMille Barn, and the Post 43 American Legion Theater standing out from the architectural Kleenex boxes.

Have you ever heard of the seven wonders of the ancient world? They are (or rather were) as follows:

  • The Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt
  • The Colossus of Rhodes
  • The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
  • The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
  • The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Greece
  • The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
  • The Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt

How many of these wonders still exist? Only one, the Great Pyramid. All the others were destroyed by natural disasters and other mishaps over the centuries and millennia. All the great cathedrals of Europe are vulnerable to fires, terrorism, floods, and what have you.

Overgrown Maya Ruins at Copán, Honduras

My visits to Maya ruins in Guatemala and Honduras in January brought home to me in the most vivid way the fragility of the past. I keep thinking of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

How many other cultural landmarks will disappear during our lifetimes? I have visited Notre Dame twice and marveled at the sheer artistry and magnificence of the place. I hope that the French succeed in reconstructing the interior, the roof, and the spire that were destroyed in the conflagration.

The Threat of Calamity

Volcán Agua Seen from Antigua

One thing my visit to Guatemala in January convinced me of is that certain places—perhaps all places—are susceptible to calamity. These include floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hurricanes, avalanches, and typhoons. In the highlands of Guatemala, there were several times that I was within sight of three volcanoes. One of them, Fuego, had erupted twice in 2018, causing 159 deaths and 256 missing persons, not to mention thousands of evacuations.

I frequently think back to the Sylmar Earthquake of 1971 and the Northridge Earthquake of 1994 and to the fear that both events caused me to feel. After the 1971 quake, we were screening Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage at UCLA’s Melnitz Hall showing a London power plant being attacked by a terrorist. At the same time, we felt an aftershock of the main quake followed by a power outage. The entire audience erupted in nervous laughter, with some feeling genuine alarm.

Although I have complained numerous times of drought in California, a bigger danger is a hundred year flood. In December-January 1861-62, there was a massive flood which, if repeated, woulod cause death and destruction on a scale large enough to challenge California’s aura of prosperity:

Beginning on December 24, 1861, and lasting for 45 days, the largest flood in California’s recorded history occurred, reaching full flood stage in different areas between January 9–12, 1862. The entire Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were inundated for an extent of 300 miles (480 km), averaging 20 miles (32 km) in breadth. State government was forced to relocate from the capital in Sacramento for 18 months in San Francisco. The rain created an inland sea in Orange County, lasting about three weeks with water standing 4 feet (1.2 m) deep up to 4 miles (6 km) from the river The Los Angeles basin was flooded from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, at variable depths, excluding the higher lands which became islands until the waters receded. The Los Angeles basin lost 200,000 cattle by way of drowning, as well as homes, ranches, farm crops & vineyards being swept-away. [Wikipedia]

Me Atop the Icelandic Glacier Vatnajökull, the Largest in Europe, Under Which Sits the Volcano Grimsvötn

Iceland is one country I have visited which has come close to being destroyed several times in the last thousand years. The Vatnajökull glacier sits atop a massive volcano which, when it erupts, causes a massive flood rushing to the North Atlantic. That’s in addition to the lava, of course. Nearby Lakagigar erupted over an eight-month period beginning in June 1783, pouring out some 42 billion tons of poisonous hydrofluoric acid and sulfur dioxide that led to a famine in which a quarter of the island’s population lost their lives.

We all live under the threat of calamity of some sort, much of it caused by our fellow man. Sometimes it feels like a bloody miracle that we survive at all.

 

Everything Changes

Try to Get Your Kids Interested in This!

This year for the first time in many years I have not attended the films at Cinecon. I did, however, go with Martine to the memorabilia dealers’ rooms. In the past, when my friend Norman Witty was alive, Martine enjoyed acting as his assistant; and she made a number of friendships with the other dealers. So while she chatted with her old friends and acquaintances, I found a comfortable chair and read a book. Also I devoted some time to thinking about what was happening to the dealers and members of Cinecon.

In short, they were getting older and passing on. I saw few people under the age of sixty at the dealers’ tables.

Why did I not go to the movies this year? Simply put, I remain an auteurist; and there were few films this year made by the directors whose work I follow. I am not interested in the films of William Seiter, Norman Panama, Archie Mayo, George Archainbaud, Alan Crosland, Alfred L. Werker, and any number of studio hacks who never signed their names to a great film. They were for the most part competent film makers whose work was light and entertaining; but I was after bigger game.

Then I thought,“Wait a sec! How many auteurists are around these days?” The answer is: damned few, and fewer every year. Instead people go to see superhero films intended for very young males, starring powerful guys and gals who like to wear their Underoos over their street clothes. Then there are the numerous independent productions, about the problems of young people who are altogether too full of themselves. What do I care about Hipster man with his man-bun and immaculately trimmed beard and all his digital toys?

Many of my posts have not been kind to the younger generation—mostly because the things they value are nothing to me, and the things I value, nothing to them. For how long will Cinecon be around to commemorate films of the 1920s and 1930s? I mean, people, we are talking about films that are not even in color!

After my generation leaves the scene, many whole worlds will disappear as if in a puff of cosmic dust.

 

Too Much Self-Esteem

The Whole Package for Guys Who Believe They’re Special

The worst thing about living in Southern California is that there are too many people—particularly males—who have been told all their lives that they are special. The result is a population that thinks they deserve all the good things in life without having to work for them. One sees on the road all the BMWs, Lexuses, Mercedes Benzes, Maseratis, Bentleys, Jags, and other high-priced vehicles that are the trademark for guys with tiny weenies who at the same time are big dicks … and who have to prove it several times each mile.

At the time I was sent to school at the tender age of five, I was not told I was special. My friend András and I were considered as little freaks who attacked our teacher because she refused to understand our Hungarian, which, after all, was the prevalent language of the Buckeye Road neighborhood in Cleveland where we lived. My teacher, Mrs. Idell, retaliated by sending me home with a note pinned to my shirt asking what language I was speaking. From that point until the fifth grade, when I finally knew enough English to get good grades, I was thought to be something of a retard. In Second Grade, Sister Frances Martin, the Dominican nun who was our teacher at Saint Henry, would come up to me, pull my nears hard, and call me “cabbagehead.”

When I came to Los Angeles in 1966, I encountered a widespread plague of high self-esteem. Everybody had to pretend to be richer, more handsome, and more of a stud than they in actuality were. I think that one result of all this is that many of my fellow students put themselves in debt up to their ears. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them are living on the streets in homeless encampments.

It reminds me in so many ways of many Honoré de Balzac novels, such as Lost Illusions, in which a whole society tried to live beyond its means. Some managed to do it; others fell hard by the wayside.

 

The Slippers of Abu Kasem

A Great Tale About a Miser During the Abbasid Caliphate

To begin with, Abu Kasem was a notorious miser, and his slippers were a disgrace. At the same time, these slippers came back to haunt him. Just when he made a particularly astute business deal, buying a huge consignment of little crystal bottles as well as a large amount of attar of roses with which to fill them. It was time to do something for himself, so he decided to show up at the public baths. In Heinrich Zimmer’s The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil, the following paragraph appears:

In the anteroom, where the clothes and shoes are left, he met an acquaintance, who took him aside and delivered him a lecture on the state of his slippers. He had just set these down, and everyone could see how impossible they were. His friend spoke with great concern about making himself the laughingstock of the town; such a clever businessman should be able to afford a pair of decent slippers.

When he returned from his bath, Abu Kasem could not find his disgraceful slippers. Instead he found a new pair that looked quite classy. They were, because they belonged to the Cadi of Baghdad, who had arrived at the baths a few minutes after Abu Kasem. Thinking they were a gift from his friend who read him the riot act over his old slippers, he appropriated them for himself. When the Cadi returned for his slippers, he found only Abu Kasem’s old, disgraceful pair.

Naturally, everyone knew who those belonged to. Abu Kasem was sent for and was found with the incriminating property on his feet. He was imprisoned and heavily fined, but he was given his old slippers back.

Here begins a series of attempts by Abu Kasem to throw out the old slippers, but they always kept coming back. And at each step of the way, Abu Kasem wound up paying heavily for damages of various kinds. At the last of these episodes, Zimmer writes:

Before he tottered home from the court, a broken man, he raised the unlucky slippers solemnly aloft, and cried with an earnestness that all but reduced the judges to hysterics: “My lord, these slippers are the fateful cause of all my sufferings. These cursed things have reduced me to beggary. Deign to command that I shall never again be held responsible for the evils they will most certainly continue to bring upon my head.” And the Oriental narrator closes with the following moral: The Cadi could not reject the plea, and Abu Kasem had learned, at enormous cost, the evil that can come of not changing one’s slippers often enough.

 

The Next Stage of Human Evolution

You Can Bet a Lot of Gamers and Smartphone Junkies Are Looking Forward to This

I am not looking forward to this, but the younger generation is, I firmly believe. I am referring to the merging of human beings with implanted electronics to create a new supposedly super race of human beings. You can see it in the mass acceptance of such dorky millenialia as e-scooters and Uber. This generation is so wedded to the smartphone that I believe it is inevitable that what today is a device carried in the hand will eventually be an implant. Then one will not have to worry about dropping your invaluable device in the toilet or gutter, leaving one completely at a loss on what to do and how to communicate with one’s fellow beings.

There is an old computer joke about people who die being escorted by Satan to Hell and finding it to be a refreshing place with green trees, splashing fountains, and unending sex. Naturally, they agree with enthusiasm to be admitted. Imagine their dismay when, instead of all the promised perquisites, they find fire, sulfurous fumes, and brimstone—not to mention fierce demons armed with spears and pitchforks.

“Why is this so different from what you showed us at first?” one of them asks with dismay.

“Oh, well,” winks Satan. “That was the demo.”

As one who has been involved in computing for over half a century, I can foresee with crystalline clarity what will happen. Naturally, there will be bugs. And you will wait endlessly to speak to a tech rep named Chip with a thick Gujarati accent when the software has malfunctioned. And it will. Why? Because we are not perfect. Ever since the beginning, technology gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

Looking for the advancement of the human race? No, but welcome to Malfunction Junction.

Incidentally, the illustration above comes from an interesting article from GizmoSnack entitled “Human Cyborgs—The Fusion of Organic Beings with Machines.”

 

 

Simulacrum

IRL Streamer Ice Poseidon, Alias Paul Denino

As I predicted, the heat wave I described a couple of days ago has persisted, despite the lies and blandishments of several so-called weathermen. To escape the heat, I spent time reading and lunching at the Westfield Mall in Culver City, followed by movies at the Cinemark at the nearby Howard Hughes Center. Yesterday, it was Whitney, which I described in yesterday’s post. Today, I saw Ant-Man and the Wasp. (Meh!)

Being in the midst of so many people, I was appalled to see that people escaping the heat at the air-conditioned mall depended on their smart phones for entertainment. I was probably the only one of hundreds of people at the mall who had a book. Two or three old men were reading newspapers. And hoards of others were playing games on their smartphones, checking their social media, and other utterly useless tasks. Children were using electronic devices that emitted the usual treacly bibblety-bobbledy-boop sounds of programs oriented for the young.

In addition to my book, I read an article in the July 9 and 16 issue of The New Yorker Magazine entitled “No More Secrets” by Adrian Chen. It was about an IRL (“In Real Life”) streamer named Paul Denino, who styles himself as Ice Poseidon. Imagine living your life hooked up to video equipment that captures your life from minute to minute. On YouTube, I saw a number of video clips from Ice Poseidon’s oeuvre and was thrown for a loss. Ice Poseidon’s life was not really life, but a series of situations in which the Streamer (or Screamer?) and his retinue got into various boring scrapes and liberally dropped f-bombs along the way. If that were my life, I would set about ending it in some dark corner far from the nearest video camera.

All these video devices were intended to enhance life. Instead, they have created a kind of empty simulacrum of life. I keep thinking of the little boy I saw yesterday staring into space while the video game on his tablet kept emitting nonsensical noises to which no one paid any heed.