The Prescience of Art

I watched a few 1960s Cold War movies recently, most recently 7 Days in May which is interesting because it has the cast of the 2021 Insurrection in the costumes of Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and a bunch of other actors who were kind of before my time. Lynn Cheney is played by Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster plays Donald Trump. Frederick March plays Joe Biden, though there’s a little shifting around in the movie to fit it into 1 1/2 hour. The obligatory babe is played by Ava Gardner. She is a kind of 1960s Stormy Daniels.

The short jist of this film is that Kirk Douglas alerts the president to the fact that all but one of the Joint Chiefs is involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the duly elected government, that they have even developed a secret base in the desert (it’s always the desert) from which to launch their coup. The film makes the point that the Constitution is very clear that in this country the leader of the the government is chosen by a mandate of the people. Kirk Douglas (a Marine Colonel) personally agrees with the evil generals (led by Burt Lancaster), but he’s taken an oath to protect the Constitution, and that’s what he does.

The tech of the time was fascinating. Among that tech, in the office of the admiral (John Housman who plays the sole dissenter to the insurrection planned by the Joint Chiefs) was a Zenith Trans-Oceanic Radio exactly like my dad’s (fuzzy feature photo). When they wanted to get video of some of the conspirators they had to haul a full-on Hollywood movie camera into the woods. Everything was analog. The computers, of course, were immense and essentially mechanical. Tubes, not printed circuits, not even transistors. ❤

Since I grew up during the Cold War, and the Cold War supported my family, it’s intrinsically interesting NOW but not so much then. Back then it was the ambient reality. We lived 2 miles from the second major target the Soviets would go for so though we had a kind of bomb shelter in the basement, we’d have been vaporized. I learned this directly from my dad one night when I couldn’t sleep after watching On the Beach on TV. My dad was a war gamer for SAC and an adviser to the Joint Chiefs. Yep. Well, this knowledgable man comforted me by saying, “Don’t worry, MAK. We won’t have to worry about fallout. We live on a target. We’ll be vaporized. We’ll just go stand out in the yard and watch the whole thing then we’ll be gone.”

“OK, dad.”

“Now roll over and go to sleep.” And I did.

A little while ago, I watched another Cold War film from the 50s — 1955? — when the government was trying to SELL the American public on the Cold War and the development of a fantastically armed air force to keep the peace. I didn’t even KNOW such a sales pitch had ever been necessary but there is a film, Stategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allison that is pure Cold War propaganda. It’s very pretty with romantic cinematic shots of the B-36 (Giant airplane) in orange sherbet clouds with uprising music in the background and, with Jimmy Stewart as the hero? Who’s NOT going to love the Strategic Air Command?

BUT…by 1964 it seems that some Americans had caught on that developing bigger and “better” bombs was a dangerous con, and 7 Days in May opens with a demonstration between “hawks” and “doves” in front of the White House. The demonstration that turns into a fist fight. My adult life has brought me into contact with a lot of hawks and a lot of doves, the birds, and hawks don’t act that way and doves are not all sweetness and light.

Featured photo: My dad and his Zenith Trans-Oceanic Radio on which we used to try to listen to Russia but usually only got Mexico


One of my favorite authors when I was younger was Nikos Kazantzakis. He’d probably be a favorite writer now that I’m NOT younger, but I read everything. Yeah, right? It began when I saw Zorba the Greek sometime in 1974 when I’d recently gotten my BA and was (I felt) trapped in a terrible, violent marriage that kept getting smaller and smaller. The lines from the movie (that are also in the book) “You don’t want any trouble? What then DO you want. Life is trouble. To live life, you must undo your belt and look for trouble,” resonated, and informed me. The marriage ended a few years later and I continued reading Kazantzakis. The next line from one of his books comes from The Odyssey, a Modern Sequel. The line (as I remember it but I could be wrong) is, “This is the earth. The bloody arena of men’s souls.”

And so it is.

Recently Amazon told me that there is a film — Kazantzakis — that was recently made. I began watching it last night and it’s brilliant, beautiful, and brought all those books back into the front of my consciousness. The film is a biopic and necessarily rushed to fit into just under 2 hours as Kazantzakis lived through most of the 20th century’s major upheavals and was a literary and political force himself. I like that it focuses on his writing and doesn’t dwell on psychological motivations or things that many biopics of our time seem to, about things no one can even know. Kazantzakis recorded his own life, anyway, so it doesn’t really need to be second-guessed, and these film makers don’t. The film is in Greek with subtitles.

But at one point, after the Nazi occupation of Greece is over, the Kazantzakis character makes a comment about Goethe as having been a hero of the Nazis.

I wanted to know more about that so I spent a little time this morning looking into it. It only makes sense that he would have been, not because of Goethe’s OWN philosophy and ideas, but because it was an aspect of German nationalism at that time to claim to the Nazis every good thing that ever happened in Germany was evidence of a master race.

I didn’t find a whole lot to shed light on this for me, but I found a beautiful essay from 1999 (the year of Goethe’s 250th birthday, which I celebrated!) I want to share with anyone who might be interested. I “met” Goethe in 1998 and he evolved into the best of many “dead” friends I’ve had in my life. 

Goethe: Does this legendary literary figure have anything to offer us?

The article says most of what I have to say in response to that question. I don’t think transient politics were a focus of Goethe’s thinking or life. He lived through an invasion of Weimar by the Prussians and the Napoleonic wars. I am not sure what he would have done in Nazi Germany, but I do know that he wasn’t there. I’m going to keep looking into this question, but I agree with the author: “…everyone is aware of the canonical status Goethe’s work enjoyed during the Nazi period. This tells us more about cultural manipulation than it does about him…”

I thought it was cool that two of my very favorite writers at least met in this casual way in this lovely film. 

Cult of Personality

One of the the best movies I’ve seen in EVER is The Death of Stalin: A Comedy of Terrors. True, you need a very dark sense of humor. It might even help to deepen your appreciation if you have lived some of your life under totalitarianism. Admittedly, my little venture into totalitarianism was brief and mostly happy, but I definitely got the big picture on what it is and means.

The film shows — in an almost factual way — the last night of Stalin’s life and ensuing events. The focus of the film is on the central committee, its fears, rivalries and corruption. The humor is grimly slapstick. The committee is brilliantly played by a bunch of actors I don’t know and two I do — Michael Palin and Steve Buscemi. The director is Armando Iannucci about whom I know nothing except this film is a masterpiece.

One of the puzzling things to me about history is that the entire burden of stories of atrocities against humanity during the 20th century rests on Hitler, somewhat unfairly. It’s suspected that more than 20 million people were killed under Stalin’s leadership. How could a funny movie be made about this? I’m not going to tell you. The film isn’t for everyone, but I laughed out loud several times.

The Death of Stalin carries a meta-message warning of the dangers of personality cults. Like Chairman Mao, Stalin was a real (not merely hyped) hero and beloved by his people (many? most? some?) but for thirty years, he maintained his power through death lists, sycophantic followers and an ignorant public. One revelatory (and darkly funny) scene shows Stalin lying on the floor unconscious in his Dacha. The committee cannot figure out what to do. When they finally decide to bring in a doctor, one of them says despairingly, “But all of the good doctors are dead or in gulags…”

Free Solo — Rock Climbing is Not a Pathology

Last night I finally got to watch Free Solo. There were a lot of things about it that bothered me, but I was not in the least bothered by Alex Honnold’s quest to climb El Cap without any protection at all. I was glad someone was at the top with ropes so he could get down, though.

I hate the idea that wanting to do something as absolutely mind-blowingly dangerous as climbing that enormous rock without protection is pathological, and that theory riffled through the film. Was his dad on the Asperger’s spectrum? Why didn’t his parents ever tell him, “I love you”? Did it cripple him emotionally that his mother only spoke French at home (French teacher)? Did the fact that his mother had high standards for his achievement (he was a gifted kid in school and she WAS a teacher) cause him to seek out ever more challenging scenarios to prove his worthiness? Did his parents’ divorce sour him on romantic love? Is he emotionally deficient that he can’t form romantic relationships easily with a hot, dimpled chick who sees in him the fulfillment of her biological urges? The film was full of this.

To make a film that would have a wider audience than just a climbing film might have? I dunno…

The only pathology I saw was that he stayed with his girlfriend after climbing with her caused him to get significant injuries TWICE because of her ignorance and negligence. Compression fractures in his spine and a severely sprained ankle? I’d be, you know, “Hey, Sweetcheeks, I don’t think you get it. Get out of my van.”

I don’t think wanting to climb El Cap without protection is pathological. Climbing El Cap has gone in that direction since the first time it was climbed (a three day adventure if I remember right). Relentlessly climbers have sought to climb that rock with less equipment and faster.
There was a lot in the movie about Honnold’s view of death. If you’re going to climb — particularly a big rock face without protection — you are choosing to risk your life. Not everyone can make that choice. For most of us, death is thrust upon us one way or another, but none of us gets out alive. I personally believe a person has a right to choose to risk his/her own life. I don’t think it’s a pathology at all, and Honnold seems to have taken personal responsibility for his decision. I liked his mom saying, “It is what makes him happy. Who am I to try to stop him?” or something to that effect.

Honnold practiced, planned, evaluated, did every possible kind of preparation to prevent the abysmal (see what I did?) outcome. It was no spontaneous stunt; it was something that he prepared for over the course of years, a lifetime, just as a ballerina might prepare for the moment she enters the stage — finally — as the prima ballerina.

BUT I guess straight climbing might not net an Academy Award. Maybe all the squishy interpersonal relationship stuff and psycho-babble makes the story of a man climbing a giant rock face more entertaining? Relatable? More like reality TV?

CAVEAT I don’t really “like” either Honnold or his girlfriend. They’re not my kind of people. Honnold is walking billboard for The North Face (fine, an athlete needs a sponsor) who knew how to create drama around his amazing ascent of El Cap, and his chick? She hit the gravy train with him. To me, legit anything is done without an audience, and these two are all about audience. It’s a different generation, I think. That said, I still like Reinhold Messner.