This chair rocks

This morning I was surprised to read, in Sue Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists, that in Paris’s Universal Exposition in 1867 “The Americans exhibited an amazing new invention: the ‘rocking-chair.'”

Could that be true? I mean, it seems like such an obvious and fun bit of furniture as a rocking chair would have been around forever. And in fact it does seem to have an earlier provenance. Surprisingly enough, however, they were indeed an American invention. That’s where they apparently got their start in the early 1700s. Though cradles had been rocking since the days of ancient Rome. I wonder why the idea took so long to catch on.

I think Roe must have been thinking of Michael Thonet’s first bentwood rocking chair, which premiered in 1860. Which was a breakthrough but technically wasn’t the first rocking chair. Still, a much later development than I’d thought.

Go big

Humble beginnings.

So, over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching Godzilla movies (and a few of their close kin) for the past few weeks. Not the whole canon, which consists of 36 movies to date. Guinness World Records lists it as the longest-running continuous film franchise.

I grew up with the early Toho Godzilla movies. They were fun, and I think they still have a certain charm. I wasn’t aware of the original Gojira (1954) much later, and it really is a slightly different animal. More recently CGI has taken over, with mixed results. I can’t say I was blown away (or flattened) by anything though.

Here’s the list:

Gojira (1954)
Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)
Gorgo (1961)
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
The X from Outer Space (1967)
All Monsters Attack (1969)
Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)
Godzilla (1998)
Godzilla 2000 (1999)
Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)
Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)
Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
Godzilla (2014)
Shin Godzilla (2016)
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

What worries me

In an earlier post I mentioned how I thought the long-term consequences of the current pandemic were going to be staggering. I didn’t mean that in a medical sense. Bodies aren’t piling up in the streets. It doesn’t seem as though COVID-19 is going to have any significant impact on the world’s population, which is probably still going to peak somewhere around mid-century. But the economic and political fallout from the pandemic will be huge.

What I was thinking of is the comparison between what happened in the 2008 financial crisis and what’s happening now. Specifically, what’s happening now is that the pandemic is deepening economic inequality, which is already at a dangerous level after a decades-long widening of the gap between rich and poor. The subprime crisis was just another big step in this process, but the pandemic is proving to be even worse, exacerbating the so-called Matthew effect (“to every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”).

As Don Pitts writes in a recent piece for the CBC: “There was speculation early in the pandemic that the crisis might be the catalyst for a move away from wealth polarization. But just as they did after the 2008 crisis, lower-for-longer interest rates have once again flowed straight into the pockets of the wealthiest.” Funny how that always seems to happen.

On the individual level it’s well documented now that densely populated and poor areas (both within states and globally) have become virus hotspots, while minorities and workers in low-wage jobs are most at risk both of catching the disease and finding themselves unemployed. On the other side of the great divide, big businesses are able to ride out this crisis. For Amazon it’s even been a boon. And so corporate and capital concentration continues apace while, once again, the little guy goes to the wall.

There will be a political reckoning for all this and I think it would be foolish to think that it is bound to take a progressive turn. Of course that could be the case. As Rebecca Greenfield reports for Bloomberg, “Catastrophic events such as the pandemic have historically been a catalyst for reshuffling the economic order. During the Great Depression, with the New Deal, American workers gained a safety net. After World War II they won leverage with employers and higher pay.” So you can say it’s happened before. But I don’t see a lot of grounds for optimism. Instead we’re likely to see more divisive politics leading to even more regressive outcomes.

Buckets of blood

They’re gonna rise again.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching the so-called Blood Trilogy of the director Herschell Gordon Lewis: Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), and Color Me Blood Red (1965). I say “so-called” because that’s not a name Lewis himself used. They were only dubbed a trilogy later by a new distributor. In fact they have little in common but blood.

Lewis if often credited — and even more often credits himself — with having “invented” gore. Whatever the case may be, most of his movies are very bad: cheap exploitation work that only just clear a low bar of competence. That said, Two Thousand Maniacs! deserves its reputation as a cult classic. It’s a genuinely disturbing movie, and it got the ball rolling (downhill?) on a lot of later trends in horror, like the murderous rednecks and the showrooms of theatrically staged killings. Maybe we didn’t need to go here, but we did and Lewis in many ways drew us the map.

The committee for justice

For some reason an open letter “On Justice and Open Debate” appearing in Harper’s Magazine has been getting a lot of attention.

I say “for some reason” because the letter is short and doesn’t say much of anything. It’s been praised for being signed by names from across the political spectrum, but that spectrum is actually quite limited. Insofar as the letter has a political point of view it is anti-Trump, who is said to be a “powerful ally” of the “forces of illiberalism.” Given Trump as the bogeyman, it’s not too surprising that Noam Chomsky and Francis Fukuyama would find themselves on the same side.

As far as the rest of the letter goes, the message is (as some signers were quick to admit) anodyne. This is often what you get when you write by committee. The letter inveighs against “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments,” which is presumably referring to today’s “cancel culture.” Apparently such censoriousness has long been a staple of “the radical right” but has since spread. In any event, and in conclusion, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.”

No, it’s not quite J’accuse.

I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t sign on to such a banal pseudo-declaration. Still, some people did take exception. Richard Kim, a director at HuffPost, said he didn’t sign “because I could see in 90 seconds that it was fatuous, self-important drivel that would only troll the people it allegedly was trying to reach — and I said as much.”

More criticism has been leveled at J. K. Rowling’s name appearing. This is because Rowling herself has recently been the target of the “new set of moral attitudes and political commitments.” Oh well.

(An aside: I don’t know why people like Rowling are on Twitter. Just keeping her name out there? I really don’t understand. She has nothing to gain, and no good can come of it.)

Of course when I said that “for some reason” the letter was getting attention I was being deliberately obtuse. The reason the letter is getting attention isn’t for its statement of principles, whatever they are. It’s getting attention because of the roll call of prominent people who signed on to it. The vacuous letter wasn’t nearly as important as the function served by presenting us with a who’s who of media people whose opinions matter. It’s not even virtue signaling so much as celeb signaling: politics as a form of bird-watching.

I only wish some of the people whose opinions I am being told matter had opinions worth paying attention to.

Instead, one gets the sense that the letter was motivated less by an urge to declare some vague political position rather than as an exercise in celebrity brand management and collective self-preservation. As Billy Bragg put it, it’s “a howl of anguish from a group that has suddenly found its views no longer treated with reverence.”

Many of those who attached their names to the letter are longstanding cultural arbiters, who, in the past, would only have had to fear the disapproval of their peers. Social media has burst their bubble and they now find that anyone with a Twitter account can challenge their opinions. The letter was their demand for a safe space.

The mob has claimed many heads already and there probably isn’t a name on the list who isn’t worried that it might be coming for them. Indeed, with even Rowling being pilloried who could consider themselves safe from being canceled? Time to nip this #Movement in the bud.

I’m no fan of cancel culture, and I think its excesses will likely result in some nasty political backfire to go along the already considerable collateral damage it’s caused. That said, I can’t abide this self-interested moral posturing against it.

The anti-government mind

One of the things I enjoy the most about true crime books is the incidental insights they give into other people’s lives: the kinds of everyday details that never get mentioned in biographies or most other forms of general social reportage. These rarely have anything to do with the crimes that are the book’s main subject, but they’re the parts that stick in my head.

I registered one such moment while reading Monte Francis’s By Their Father’s Hand, an account of Marcus Wesson’s murder of nine of his own children in 2004. These were actually his children and grandchildren, as his incestuous relations require four pages of family trees at the front of the book to map only two or three generations of Wessons. If you want a true horror story, this is it.

But what jumped out at me the most in the book, probably because it’s a preoccupation of mine, was a moment during a conversation between Wesson and his wife that took place just after he had been arrested. The subject of politics comes up and things take an interesting turn. Of course the hatred the American Right has for government is well known, especially in its more contradictory expressions. Like the classic Tea Party slogan “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” (Medicare being a government program). Or, more recently, the opinion offered up by David Brooks on the PBS NewsHour that the best thing the federal government could do to respond to the COVID-19 crisis would be to get out of peoples’ way. Wesson, however, takes this anti-government attitude a step further.

To give just a bit of necessary background, Wesson, who at the time he was arrested was in his mid-fifties, had only worked for a few years over the course of his entire life. And that had been a brief stint in the army (that is to say, he’d been employed by the government). The rest of his life he’d lived off of welfare (he had an earlier conviction for welfare fraud), and been supported by his daughters. Now here are his political thoughts:

Republicans are mean-spirited, they don’t care about welfare and all that,” Marcus said. “But Democrats want to make government bigger. That’s why I’m not a Democrat . . . I don’t want the government in my life.”

The cognitive dissonance here, of someone living off of welfare not wanting the government in his life, is extreme, but not atypical of what we hear so often from anti-government platforms. What Wesson seems to have wanted was a life of absolute freedom, including freedom from responsibility. That this could only be achieved by becoming totally dependent on the government doesn’t seem to have registered with him. Now clearly Wesson was insane, but on this point he doesn’t seem far from a lot of mainstream thinking on the Right. And such attitudes are poison to any democracy.

Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw

Come down off your cross.

Ugh. Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching the Scarecrow movies: Scarecrow (2002), Scarecrow Slayer (2003), and Scarecrow Gone Wild (2004). Only because I’m a bit of a completist when it comes to franchises and I got them all on one DVD at some bargain sale. Most horror franchises go downhill, and so does the Scarecrow series, but few start off as badly and then go downhill. By the third instalment they weren’t even trying.

Life without life

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy discovering new words when I’m reading. Words like pulvinate and catena, oscitant, and equitation and toxophilite. Reading Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File recently I came across a description of a character as looking thin and weak, with a voice sounding “like a whisky ad.” In what amounts to a summation he is later tagged with the adjective “azoic.”

If you check a dictionary you’ll see azoic defined as “lifeless,” which is its literal translation from the Greek. I think its primary meaning is as a way of designating a period of geologic time, the Azoic Age being the period of the Earth’s history before the appearance of life. Since the date of the first appearance of life keeps getting pushed back, it has been a fluid label. It has also been largely replaced by the term Archaean.

A secondary meaning azoic has is of a type of dye. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used to describe a person before, and I think Deighton was having a bit of fun. Well played!

Monster of the week

Don’t know about you, but I know what I’m thinking.

I’ve been spending some time recently watching crime shows and in the last month alone I’ve noticed a recurring theme: that of the pedophile sex ring operated by a bunch of rich, well-connected types.

It first came up in Series 3 of Prime Suspect (1993), which had DCI Tennison investigating the death of a teenage “rent boy.” As the case progresses it turns out that there is a posh sex club that is trafficking in kids but which is protected from investigation because some of the members have powerful connections. Indeed, even high-ranking police seem to be involved.

Next up was “Sidetracked,” the first episode of the first season of the BBC’s Wallander, which aired in 2008 (the novel it was based on came out in 1995). Again there is a sex ring involving the abuse of underage girls, with the police involved in a cover-up.

Finally I watched the first season of True Detective (2014). Once again our heroes are investigating a bunch of murders that seem to point to some kind of ritual sex cult involving wealthy, powerful people (politicians, police, the usual suspects). I’d say more about the exact nature of this cult but very little is explained. It’s an interesting show in some ways, but calling the writing lazy would be to give it too much credit.

Obviously the pedophile sex ring has fully entered the bloodstream of pop culture, becoming a nightmarish part of our collective mythology. As I recall (and my memory here is hazy) such sex rings also pop up in the the Red Riding Quartet (1999-2002) of David Peace and the Lisbeth Salander novels of Stieg Larsson (2005-2007). Both of which were made into series of movies and both of which follow the same script: a club of rich predators who operate above the law, brought down by courageous investigators.

What basis do such stories have in reality? I can only think of the Marc Dutroux case, which was much publicized but only went to trial in 2004. It was also so complex I’m not sure if anyone has figured out what was going on, though the controversy over its handling, which continues to this day, means that it has only grown in the imagination.

It’s hard not to think that the pedophile sex ring involving corrupt police and politicians allied with secretive billionaires is mostly an urban myth and conspiracy theory. One of its more recent manifestations had a child sex-slavery ring being run out of the basement of a Washington pizza parlour (it became known as Pizzagate). Hillary Clinton was said to be involved.

Obviously sex trafficking is real. And it’s also true that such trafficking can involve victims who are under the age of consent. Rich people do pay a lot of money to indulge abusive behaviour. Hence sex tourism, or child prostitution more generally. These are, however, solitary crimes. I find it curious then that pop culture is so obsessed with these rings when it’s not clear to what extent anything like what we see on TV has ever existed. There’s the Jeffrey Epstein story, involving lots of big money and politicians and maybe even corrupt law enforcement agencies, but as far as I know the young women in that case weren’t being kidnapped and murdered.

Why then did the pedophile sex ring become such a popular topos? Is it just a way of feeding a generally held belief that rich and powerful men are almost certainly up to no good? That the 0.1%, with their flunkies and enablers in government, are preying on the poor in the most horrible ways imaginable? The monsters we read about in bestselling novels and hit TV series exist to meet a demand.