Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fake It Til They Make a Movie About You

Con artists work by gaining your confidence.  Hell, it's in the name.  Sometimes this is done by creating a thorough and plausible identity.  Other times, they just wing it and hope no one will ask questions. Perhaps one the most ballsy types of  this scam are people who claim to be close relatives of famous people, especially when those people do not exist.  I recently heard about the case of Alison Reynolds, who in 2003 went around claiming to be TS Eliot's twin daughters, Claire and Chess, while scamming the British theater establishment for large sums of cash.  There are two basic problems here: TS Eliot had no children, and Reynolds was incapable of being in two places at once. She was forced to drop the identity "after theatre staff became suspicious that they had never seen Claire and Chess in the same room."  What's baffling is that she was able to get away with this in the age of Google.  I'll be honest, I'd watch a movie about a con woman claiming to be the non-existent twins of a famous playwright and, if history is any indication, we might well get one.
A similar scam was perpetrated in Manhattan in the early 1980s, when David Hampton went around claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son. (Poitier has six daughters, but no sons).  His story was the basis of the play and movie Six Degrees of Separation

But of course, if we're talking about celebrity impostors, we have to acknowledge the infamous Alan Conway, who didn't settle for pretending to be related to Stanley Kubrick, but claimed that he was Stanley Kubrick.  If you think it's a bit funny that a con artist would be named Conway, well so would he, considering that he chose the name for himself, after being charged with numerous frauds. But this is just the kind of boldness you'd expect from a guy who, despite being British, clean shaven, and having "had apparently only seen a couple of Kubrick's films," managed to keep convincing people he was the real deal.  The story of his unmasking is worth a read.  It was largely left up to the real Kubrick's assistant, Anthony Frewin, who later went on to write a screenplay about the ordeal, titled Colour Me Kubrick.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Much Did You Chafe Today?

Every now and then, it's nice to remember that president's are still people, who have the same problems as the rest of us.  And, the persistent use of secret recordings in the Oval Office from FDR up through the Nixon administration, gives us the ability to hear some of the more mundane difficulties that presidents face.  Such as finding a pair of pants with enough room to "let your nuts hang."  LBJ's call to his tailor is scandalous in a different sense than most secret white house recordings.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Flynn Precedent

While there have been a lot of comparisons made between Trump and Jackson (by supporters and opponents), one important similarity keeps getting overlooked. As far as Jackson was concerned, there was only one quality that proved someone's character: Loyalty to Andrew Jackson. While this caused plenty of turmoil within the cabinet (most notably the Eaton Affair), there's one particular event I want to bring up.
Samuel Swartwout had a checkered past. A military man with plentiful New York political connections, he was rounded up as part of the Burr conspiracy but was eventually released. During the election of 1828, he was a vocal campaigner for Jackson, so the new president decided to give Swartwout a cozy patronage position, as Collector of the Port of New York. To quote from Remini's "Life of Andrew Jackson:"
"And when Van Buren learned that Jackson intended to appoint Samuel Swartwout to the office he almost collapsed. Not only did Swartwout have criminal tendencies but the [Albany] Regency detested him. Van Buren alerted the President immediately and warned him that Swartwout's appointment would 'not be in accordance with the public sentiment, the interest of the Country or the credit of the administration.' Unfortunately, Jackson refused to listen. He liked Swartwout because he had been an early supporter -- unlike Van Buren -- and so he went ahead with the appointment. In time, of course, Swartwout absconded with $1,222,705.09. It was a monumental theft...
When the scandal broke, Jackson's opponents doubled over with laughter. All the talk of rooting out corruption in government, they said, and here the greatest theft in the history of the Republic..."
Jackson, like Trump, campaigned on a promise of fighting corruption and waste in government, but, through his own shortcomings, appointed people who were more corrupt than those they replaced.  




Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Itsy-Bitsy Spider Has a Name, pero Solo en la Hispanidad

One fun thing about living abroad and meeting expats from all over the world is seeing how bits of culture make their way from place to place and the often unpredictable changes they undergo in the process.  I was speaking with some grad students from Bolivia and China, the latter explaining how, due to the difficulty most westerners have with pronouncing the different tonalities in Chinese names, she uses a transliterated version of her real name pronounced in Spanish or English, depending on who she's talking to.  (N.B.  This is actually a trend I've noticed among Chinese students here in Madrid, although many I've met have chosen a typical American/Spanish name rather than a direct transliteration of their real name.)  Her name, in Spanish, is pronounced "Huizi" (woo-EET-zee), which the Bolivian pointed out was just like the name of the spider from the kid's song she grew up with.



Witsi Witsi Araña trepó a la canaleta,
vino la lluvia y se la llevó.
Luego salió el sol, y la lluvia evaporó,
y Witsi Witsi Araña de nuevo subió.


"Witsi Witsi" seems to be the most popular version of the name, but there are variations ranging from "Huitzi Huitzi" to "Gusi Gusi."  Otherswise, the lyrics are pretty much identical to the English version of "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider," as is the melody.  Any suspicion that this might have been a local variation or the creation of a particular teacher evaporated when one of the student's friends arrived and recognized the song.  The friend was from Ecuador. (For those without maps handy, Ecuador and Bolivia aren't exactly neighbors.)

I haven't drawn any special insights from this.  I just think it's an interesting example of cultural transmission.




Monday, January 23, 2017

#95 Mulengro by Charles de Lint

Mulengro (1985) is the fourth novel by Canadian author Charles de Lint (1951-    ).  De Lint is a frequent World Fantasy and BFA nominee, and won the former in 2000 for his collection Sweetgrass & City Streets.

Cover art by Fletcher Sibthorp


As the cover notes, this is "a Romany tale," which is to say that the novel is largely based on gypsy lore and culture (which the author admits to not being an expert on, and, my own expertise being less than his, I really don't know enough to evaluate for accuracy).  The main character is Janfri, a gypsy who lives among the gaje (i.e., non-gypsies) in Ottowa, whose house is burnt down by an unknown enemy.  Meanwhile, another gyspy from Janfri's kumpania is murdered in a bizarre fashion, and the death is investigated by two policemen, Briggs and Sandler who don't have time for any of this magic nonsense.  Neither of them actually say, "I'm getting to old for this shit," but I always felt that that would be the next line whenever they showed up.  Anyway, many of the gypsies believe that the killer is a dark magician, bent on purifying the gypsies, who he feels have been tainted by modern society. Janfri is sent to find Ola, a young gypsy woman with great power who's the key to stopping the killer.  And while Janfri is searching for Ola, the police and the killer are searching for him.

On the one hand, it's neat to see an urban crime mystery set in Canada, which we don't get much of.  While the forays into Romany culture were often interesting, I was underwhelmed.  As I said before, I don't know enough about gypsy culture to call anything out as wrong, but I couldn't help shake the feeling that the gypsy kumpania in Mulengro was very carefully crafted to be a template of gypsy social groups, kind of like the difference between a model house and a house people actually live in.  

In the end, Mulengro is an entertaining horror/urban fantasy/mystery novel, but I don't really see anything to set it apart from other books of the same type.


Just the stats:

Published: Oct 1985 (Ace Books paperback edition), Canada

Pages: 357

Awards:

Placed 12th for 1986 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel
Nominated for the 1986 Prix Aurora Award for Prix Casper - English











Monday, January 16, 2017

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - David Cross #18

Or, Star-Crossed Lovers



Director: Michel Gondry
Runtime: 108 minutes     

I've seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind multiple times before.  This is Michel Gondry's second feature film, and second time working with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Human Nature (2001), both of whom won the Oscar for best original screenplay for this film.  Kate Winslet received a best actress nomination, losing out to Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby.  

The film begins with Joel Barish (Jim Carey) ditching work to go to the beach in Montauk in the middle of winter.  He's a tightly wound guy, not particularly communicative, and essentially the opposite of the talkative and artsy Clementine (Kate Winslet).


  They meet on the beach, and quickly fall for each other.  We then cut to the relationship having fallen apart, and a heartbroken Joel running to his friends Rob and Carrie (David Cross and Jane Adams) for advice.  Things get strange, his friends had received a letter from a medical clinic claiming that Clementine has had all memories of Joel erased.  Joel drives to the clinic, and demands the same procedure.  Most of the remaining movie either takes place in Joel's deteriorating memories or among the employees and technicians performing the memory wipe (played by Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, and Mark Ruffalo.  (And on a sidenote, does anyone else realize how much of a weirdo Elijah Wood's characters tend to be? Not only in this movie, but in Chain of Fools, where he plays a teenage hitman who just wants a friend, or Sin City, where he plays a cannibalistic serial killer.)

As I've mentioned before, I'm not a huge Jim Carey fan. He's fantastic at a style of humor that I don't particularly care for, which is really just a matter of taste, and probably why this is one of my top three Carey movies (along with The Truman Show and Man on the Moon).

Eternal Sunshine takes a drama about the collapse of a relationship, and uses creative narrative techniques to turn it into an emotionally powerful tale about loss and the unavoidability and necessity of pain in any personal growth.  It's a beautiful film.


Rating:



The Cross Section:



David Cross plays Rob, a friend of Joel Barish.  His longest scene is by the beginning of the film, after Joel and Clementine's breakup.  We only get brief glimpses into his life and his presumably troubled relationship with his girlfriend (or wife? fiancee?  It's never made clear).  The character is a bit acerbic, but otherwise there's nothing that sticks out about him.  










Monday, December 12, 2016

Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi (2005)

Cover art: Donato Giancola

The bits I'd heard about Scalzi's Hugo nominated first novel suggested that it was your standard military scifi, with a twist:  In this society, it's the elderly who are sent to war, not the young.  This is a technically accurate description.

In Old Man's War, humans, represented by the Colonial Union, are just one of the numerous species seeking to colonize the far reaches of space.  Information from off-Earth is practically nil, and the CU isn't interested in sharing its technology, which is drastically superior to what's available on Earth.  The only way to travel the stars is to be a colonist (an option only open to refugees from the parts of the world that were nuked in a somewhat recent war) or to join the Colonial Defense Forces as a senior citizen.  Our protagonist, John Perry, does the latter.  If you're wondering how a military with a minimum age of seventy-five is able to function, the answer is simple.  Recruits' consciousnesses are quickly transferred to a souped-up clone of their younger selves (with a green chlorophyll tint and cat-like eyes, as well as enhanced strength, stamina, etc.).  So, a couple chapters in, and the old guys ain't old anymore.  They're still old on the inside, of course, though they could just as easily be forty or fifty as seventy-five.

The one thing Old Man's War manages to do exceptionally well is walk the line between escapist shoot 'em up fantasy and "war, what is it good for?"  The ethical considerations are present throughout, without themselves dominating the narrative.

Despite the novel premise, Old Man's War is a solid, but otherwise pretty run of the mill, military sf novel.  If you're a fan of that sub-genre, you'll probably like it.  If not, I'd recommend Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974) instead.

Rating: