Stupid in Their Straightforwardness

Scene During the Siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia

Ethnic hatreds have in the last hundred years led to some of the most barbarous episodes in European history. I have just finished reading Brian Hall’s account of the beginning of the fragmentation of Yugoslavia into independent republics, The Impossible Country: A Journey Through the Last Days of Yugoslavia. Again and again, he is brought up short by the mutual hatred of Croats, Serbs, Muslims, and the other peoples of that sad Balkan land. Toward the end of his book, the author muses:

It had now become a truism among journalists, including veterans of Vietnam, Angola, Cambodia, and the Gulf War, that Yugoslavia was the most dangerous assignment any of them ever had, the principal reason being that the Serbs seemed to be deliberately targeting them. Croats and Albanians had a history of getting what they wanted by ingratiating themselves, sometimes shamelessly. with one or another of the great powers, and so, by extension, their natural inclination was to seduce journalists. But the Serbs, used to relying on themselves, felt such calculation was beneath them, so at first they had simply shut western journalists out, while Croats and Albanians had taken them to dinner…. Then, when the Serbs perceived in western newspaper reports what any fool could have predicted, namely a Croatian and Albanian point of view, they could only conclude that journalists were enemy agents, and the only response they could think of was to start shooting. In short, of all the elements of the Serbs’ self-serving self-image, the truest was that they were stunningly stupid in their straightforwardness.

The weird thing was that Croats and Serbs spoke the same language—Serbo-Croatian—though they insisted that Serbian and Croatian were separate languages. Croatians were mostly Catholic, and Serbians were mostly Orthodox. The Croatians used the Roman alphabet, while the Serbians used the Cyrillic alphabet.

Frank Gorshin in the “Let That Be Your Last Battle” Episode of Star Trek

I am reminded of the famous “Let That Be Your Last Battle” episode of the original Star Trek, in which space aliens whose faces were black and white were in a life and death struggle with those whose faces were white and black.

The Serbs were ultimately the biggest losers in the Yugoslav breakup because they constantly whined that other people did not understand them; at the same time they acted in such a way that nobody could side with them. The defining moment of their history is their loss to the Turks at the battle of Kossovo in 1389 AD—very much like many Southerners see their defining moment as their Civil War loss to the Union.

So beware of ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural prejudices. When they continue unchecked, violence is the inevitable result.

Favorite Films: Get Carter (1971)

Production Still of Michael Caine Killing the Man Responsible for His Brother’s Death

I am rather new to Get Carter, which I saw for the first time last year. It is a tale of revenge by a London mobster on the Newcastle hoods who killed his brother and cast his teenage niece in a pornographic film. Once Caine has seen the film, he goes on a killing spree of unabated fury and brutality against the Newcastle mob. There was a remake shot in 2000, but the Michael Caine film directed by Mike Hodges is the version to see.

Interestingly, the role of Newcastle mob boss, Cyril Kinnear, is acted by playwright John Osborne of Angry Young Men fame (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, the screenplay for Tom Jones).

Particularly gruesome were the murders of two women who worked with Kinnear. Caine sleeps with one of them, locks her in the trunk of a sports car, and essentially shrugs his shoulders when his adversaries push the car into the harbor. Another one, who recruited the niece for the porno film, was told to strip, injected with drugs, and pushed into a pond. Caine left a trail of her clothes for police to follow to point to the location of her body.

This is a fairly violent picture, but it is well made and definitely worth seeing.

Bosko the Doughboy

Bosko the Doughboy (1931): Violence and Absurdity

Before the Hays Code was widely adopted around 1934, Hollywood produced a number of wild films that would be frowned upon even in today’s Quentin Tarantino environment. One of the wildest is a Bosko cartoon released by Warner Brothers in 1931 which shows the horrors of World War I in a graphic and yet insanely cheerful manner. Oddly, it was directed by Hugh Harman, whose Harman-Ising cartoon productions usually showed cute animals innocently singing and cavorting on farms and in the wilds.

In “Bosko the Doughboy,” one of the first shots is a brutal machine-gunner who turns his weapon to the camera and shoots the audience.

Machine-Gunning the Audience

I have seen numerous World War I films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) and the recent They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). Yet neither of these films can hold a candle to “Bosko the Doughboy,” whose experiences would shame the Good Soldier Schweik or Bertolt Brecht or Eugene Ionesco. This is a cartoon which remains on a manic and chirrupy plane even when many of its cute animal characters are shot to pieces by machine guns, cannon, or aerial bombardment. Nobody is sad, even when in articulo mortis.

You have to see this film to believe it. It’s only seven minutes long.

In the very last scene, a bomb explodes right by Bosko, turning him black. His response? He spreads his arms wide and shouts “Mammy!” a la Al Jolson.

The Problem With Our Super Heroes

There’s a Reason for Ferguson and Baltimore

There’s a Reason for Ferguson and Baltimore

Violence is woven into the warp and woof of American life. When we are young, it takes over our dreams and make us imagine a super self that can take revenge on the bullies that steal our lunch money and slam us into the hallway lockers. Even when we grow up and become strong, we want to have an edge over all the people we imagine could harm us. Perhaps these people are Black or Mexicans; they’re not our kind of people. Hence, they represent a threat to us.

Perhaps we don’t get into our superhero uniform and cosplay our way out of trouble. Instead, we get guns and use them when we are threatened. We go in for such nonsense as “open carry” and claim that we, in the spirit of the Second Amendment, constitute a militia. But we really don’t. Instead, perhaps our wives yell at us or make eyes at Ralph next door. We pull out our guns and blast away. Or Junior gets upset that Little Bobby stole his tricycle. He knows where Daddy keeps his loaded gun. He find it, and before you know it he’s on the evening news.

Notice that our superheroes are not interested in getting along with people, in negotiating calmly with them. It’s either blood, or you’re a wuss. We make fun of Europeans for being more civilized than us, but down which mean street would you prefer to walk? Laugavegur in Iceland’s Reykjavik? or Hough Avenue in Cleveland?

In his novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon depicted the cartoonists who created America’s superheroes as transferring the Jewish Ghetto hero that was the Golem to American streets. The problem is, things got out of hand. The translation went awry.

I’m not saying the superheroes are to blame: It’s just that they represent one of the elements in American life that symbolize the mess that we’re in.


Laughing in the Face of Death

A Viking Battle Scene

A Viking Battle Scene

Once again, I am inspired by one of Jóhannes Benediktsson’s “Daily Life” columns on the Iceland Review website. This one appeared on March 7 of this year, while I was involved in a typical tax season imbroglio not unlike the one illustrated above.

The subject of Jóhannes’s column was based on a meditation about the inevitability of death:

I’ve come to the conclusion, that I must somehow cheat death. Like artists do. They live on through their art. And the same goes for politicians. They will always be remembered in history books.

But there is another way to become immortal, I’ve discovered. And it is so much easier.

The trick is, according to the Icelandic Sagas, to say something incredibly witty, right before you die. It doesn’t matter who you are.

Following are some (well, actually most) of the highlights from his column. First up is a messenger sent by some assassins to see whether Gunnar of Hlidarendi was home:

“You’ll have to find that out for yourself. I do know his halberd was home.”

The name of the assassin, according to Njals Saga (the greatest of all the Icelandic sagas), was Þorgrímur Austmaður, and it is his only appearance in the saga. After his famous line, he collapsed in his own blood. Shown below is a halberd:

A Halberd

A Halberd

When gutted by a spear in the Gisla Saga (a.k.a. Gisli Sursson’s Saga), Véstein Vésteinsson cried out, “Bullseye!” (Mighty sporting of him, that!)

Then, in my second favorite saga, Grettir’s Saga, Átli Asmundarson cries out when hit by a broad spear: “Ah! It seems that broad spears have become fashionable.”

Finally, there is poor Þormóður Kolbrúnarskáld in The Saga of the Confederates who is all but disemboweled. Looking at his guts lying on the ground, he exclaims, “The king has fed us well!”

Now there are many reasons to love the sagas, and there is far more than gory violence and unbelievable sangfroid to be encountered in them (though it is by no means absent). I have read all the sagas from which Jóhannes quotes, most of them more than once, and keep finding myself sucked in by a frontier society that strives to arrive at some sort of balance in the absence of a king or any effective hierarchical government.

All the early Icelanders had to rely on was themselves, with the occasional help of some of the more prosperous families who offered their services as intermediaries in the disputes that inevitably arose.

In many ways, it was very much like our own Wild West.

Suburban Inferno

Evil Lurks in the Suburbs of America

Evil Lurks in the Suburbs of America

The motto comes from Walt Kelly’s late cartoon strip: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Here I am, a white male, a member of a demographic segment that is causing incredible violence across the United States. We would much rather persecute gays, Muslims, African-Americans, Hispanics—but what about us? Adam Lanza, the Newport shooter, was one of us. Is it time to start profiling white males?

After the Second World War, while the people of Europe and Asia were picking up the pieces of their lives, we went through an unprecedented period of prosperity. We moved from the cities to the suburbs, thinking we could leave all our problems behind us. But that is not what happened: We took the problems with us, in the form of our children.

There we lived in our self-contained ranch houses on cul-de-sacs across the country, hiding the fact that inside our cute little homes were millions of dysfunctional families. When mental health care began to blink into non-existence in the 1980s, we hid our shame as much as we could. That, however, did not work. You can’t suppress the horror. It will out. It did out last Friday in a Connecticut suburb.

That Says It All

That Says It All

What to do about it? We can begin the long, slow road toward gun control. That wouldn’t have helped at Sandy Hook Elementary School because the weapons were legally obtained, and then stolen from the shooter’s mother, herself a victim. We could talk about better mental health care, but mental health in this country is at a strange crossroads, where we are repudiating many old methods and increasingly relying on anti-depressant medications to do all the heavy lifting.

Perhaps we just have to admit our vulnerability. The craziest people in America today are white males. And you are reading this blog post by a white male. Don’t worry about me, however, I not only don’t have any guns; but I never want to own any firearms. I’m all right, but watch out for all the other white males. Some crazy shit out there!