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Friday, June 5, 2020

The Problem of Police Authority

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has got me thinking - as it should everyone - about what we can do about this problem of homicide not prevented by but perpetrated by police who are supposed to protect us.  It's a problem that has been erupting in America for decades, and caught on video ever since Rodney King was savagely beaten in 1992, which showed it's also a problem of assault and crimes committed by police that are less than murder.  And though African-Americans are all too too often murdered and brutalized by cops, Caucasians are also afflicted by life-threatening violence from police, as was the 75-year old man (Martin Gugino, a peace activist) thrown to the ground last night by Buffalo police and now in serious condition in the hospital.

And, actually, I've been thinking about this since the late 1950s, when I was a 12-year-old kid in the Bronx.  I was standing by a Carvel with my friends, a few days before July 4.  A cop car pulled up, and two cops got out of the car, and announced they were looking for kids with firecrackers.   When one of the cops approached me, I told him I didn't have any firecrackers (true).  He asked me to empty my pockets.  I asked him if he had a search warrant.  His response was to shove me up against a wall, and frisk me.  Later, when I got home, I told my father, who was a lawyer.  We went to the police station and filed a complaint.  Although I described the cop, I didn't get his badge number.  The "case" was settled by the police about a week later telling my father that the cops on the mission to reduce illegal firecrackers that night had no recollection of any such incident.

I came to realize something which was repeated years later when I was driving my teenage daughter home and I was pulled over.  "Can I help you?" I asked the officer.  "Can I help you?" he angrily repeated.  He proceeded to give me a ticket for going through a stop sign that wasn't even there. (I never did find out why he pulled me over in the first place - maybe it was the Hillary Clinton for Senate sticker on the bumper.)  I got the ticket dismissed because the cop didn't show up for the hearing, but I didn't appreciate spending my whole evening in town court.

I did appreciate, as in understand, that cops had no tolerance for any challenge to their authority.  And as I heard the news about the murder of black men and women by police across America over the years, I came to understand that I had gotten away lucky.  I was white.  I was pushed up against the wall, I was illegally ticketed.  Had I been black, I might well have been slaughtered.  The common denominator in all of these cases is some challenge to police authority.  The intolerance of police to such challenges pertains to all people.   But when you add racism into the mix, you get police murdering George Floyd and hundreds of unarmed blacks over the years.

What can be done about this?  I'm not a psychologist, but it's obvious that, ironically, people who are insecure about being taken seriously, being respected, seem to line up to become police.  Whether they can be trained to overcome this insecurity, I don't know.  Maybe a more effective approach would be to weed them out in the first place, if possible, though that would no doubt deplete the pool of police candidates.  In the long run, the very long run, and I mean this only semi-sarcastically, perhaps the best solution would be to replace human police with robot police - robots which would be programmed to take challenges to their authority in stride, and which wouldn't be racist.*

But we can't wait for a run that's long, or any length at all.  As the Rev. Al Sharpton said in his eulogy for George Floyd yesterday, in a speech whose power and eloquence was right up there with MLK's, we need change right now.  And that begins with police not only being suspended and fired, but brought up on the maximum charges that can be brought against them for their murder and assault of innocent people.

*Notes added: Over on LinkedIn, where I put a link to this post:

1.  Dan Pesta, whom I hardly knew previously, wondered "Who programs the robot police?" I responded, "Yes, that would be crucial. My initial thoughts would be a broadly representative community of ethicists, lawyers, law enforcement, people from relevant communities, and of course, programmers. And they would appoint a different group to actually implement the code. Such a development would be at least as important as robotic cars. Since the robotic police couldn't be killed, only damaged, that would remove one big motive for police application of violence right there."

2. Madhusudan Mukerjee, whom I do not know at all, then commented, "To add to that: who will program the people who will program the robots? Or shall we replace the people who program the robots with robots? In that case, Dan's question resurfaces... I cannot yet imagine a robot going down on one knee in deference to a crowd and to join a protest that they believe in." I responded, "There are good people in the world, more than enough to program the robots. And if the robot programming were successful, it would't be necessary to go down on one knee any more to protest police brutality, because police brutality would be a thing of the past."

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Killing Eve Season 3 Finale: Cold Turkey

In a show like Killing Eve, cold turkey could mean a lot of things.  But especially in this third season, it's meant two things: leaving the killing/spying business; Eve and Villanelle leaving the fatal attraction they have for each other.

Obviously, for the show to go on, at least in the way it's been going, neither can happen.  So, what keeps the show attractive and provocative, is the way in which neither kind of cold turkey happens.

Villanelle has been saying all season she wants to stop doing the hands-on killing.  As good as she still is, this is like Mickey Mantle or Whitey Ford hanging it up in the middle of their incandescent careers (right, I'm a New York Yankees fan).  But no one, no one wants to accommodate her.  Not Dasha, never Konstantin. and, tonight, apparently not even Carolyn, either, who refuses to hire Villanelle as a spy for MI6, after she offered her that job, unless Villanelle were willing to kill for Carolyn.

As for Eve, it's not entirely clear what exactly she wants.  She already effectively left MI6, and came back only to find Kenny's killer.   Given the beyond complex feelings that Carolyn has about her son's death, finding his killer and working for Carolyn was bound to be an impossible combination.   And, indeed, Carolyn's feelings are so complex that even I can't completely understand them.  Yeah, the 12 were responsible for Kenny's death, but Carolyn's attitude about them is even more inscrutable than her feelings for Kenny.

But clearly, Eve and Villanelle do very much want each other.  The very existence of each has come to give the other's existence meaning.   So when, at Villannelle's suggestion, they turned their backs on each and started walking away, we all of course knew they wouldn't get very far at all on that bridge, which they didn't.

Hey, I have a suggestion for the ending of the series: Eve and Villanelle both die at the same time.  That would be a happy ending for their affair, since neither would have to go cold turkey and leave the other.

See you back here, I guess next year, when the next season is on.

See also Killing Eve 3.1: Whew! ... Killing Eve 3.2: Bringing It Into Focus ... Killing Eve 3.3: The Third Time's the Charm ... Killing Eve 3.4: Tip Toe Through the Tulips ... Killing Eve 3.5: The Darkness ... Killing Eve 3.6: Wounded ... Killing Eve 3.7: The Omelet

Hightown 1.3: Dirty Laundy

Another standout episode of Hightown - 1.3 - in which dirty laundry figures prominently.  Not the Don Henley song (which is also excellent), but Krista's suitcase, filled with it, which Jackie and a reluctant Junior retrieve.

This first leads to Jackie telling Junior not to call them "panties" - she prefers "underwear" (my wife agrees with Jackie, I'm with Junior) - and then to a silver lining discovered by Jackie in the suitcase, a list that leads her to some connection Krista has, or business she was doing, in Wareham, just off-Cape.

We pass by Wareham - that is, my wife and I - every time we drive up to the Cape, and never knew it could play a role in Jackie getting to the bottom of Sherry Henry's murder.   And, actually, so far, at this point, she's making better progress than Ray, who is progressing only with sleeping with Frankie's wife Renee, and only because Frankie asked her aka ordered her to do.  The only hope for Ray, if this keeps going this way, is that Renee falls in love with him and tells him what's really going on.  That's possible, but not very likely, because Renee has to be very afraid of Frankie, not to mention Renee needing above all else to protect her little boy.

It's a suitably tense, frightening situation that never lets up, and is always on the verge of getting much worse when Osito is on the scene.   There's something about him that's genuinely unsettling, which means that Atkins Estimond who plays the role, and I've never seen before, deserves a lot of credit for a fine performance.  If he keeps this up, he could enter the pantheon of memorable villains.

As I said after seeing the debut episode, Hightown is way at the top of new cop shows, and thus aptly named, and I'm looking forward to more.

See also Hightown 1.1: Top-Notch Saltwater and Characters ... Hightown 1.2: Sludge and Sun

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Spaceship Earth: The Misunderstood Success

I don't often watch documentaries, and review them even less often, but Spaceship Earth is an exception, because it tells at least two highly significant stories: (1) the attempt to construct a totally self-contained environment or biosphere (Biosphere 2) on Earth, with human inhabitants, as a template for what could be sent out to our solar system and beyond in the future; and (2) the media misreporting of what Biosphere 2 accomplished.

The truth is that Biosphere 2 was unable to maintain total self-sufficiency.  At seventeen months into its two year 1991-1993 mission, oxygen was imported from the outside into the biosphere to combat the sharp reduction in oxygen from 20.9 to 14.2 percent of the biosphere atmosphere.  Obviously, this is not something that could have been done in the middle of a mission to Mars or anyplace off the Earth.  But the media were wrong to report this as evidence that the Biosphere 2 mission failed, or was some kind of publicity stunt rather than a scientific experience.  Apparently no one in the media read British philosopher Karl R. Popper (for example, The Logic of Scientific Discovery), and his widely accepted view that mistakes are the way that science learns and progresses.

The Hulu documentary, named after Buckminster Fuller's apt characterization of our planet as "spaceship Earth," does a fairly good job of reporting and assessing the above, relying on extensive current and historical in-situ interviews with most of the central players in the Biosphere project, including the Biosphereans themselves.   I know at least two people who provided support for Biosphere 2, Carl N. Hodges, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Arizona, who was not in the documentary, and Kathy Dyhr, Director of Public Affairs for Biosphere 2, who had a major role in the documentary.   I had long and riveting conversations with each of them in the mid-1980s, when Biosphere 2 was under planning and construction, and both were students at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute pioneering online education program, where I was a faculty member and was first introduced to online education, which gave me the idea for Connected Education and which has become so important during our current Coronaviris pandemic.  These conversations, as well as my knowledge of how science works, and plain common sense, are what led me to conclude that the media assessment of Biosphere 2 was so wrong.

But why, then, did the media jump on the bandwagon of Biosphere 2 failure?  The documentary provides one of the two answers.  Steve Bannon - yes, that Steve Bannon - was brought in by financer Ed Bass to run the Biosphere managing company (Space Biosphere Ventures).  Apparently Bannon sought to make a name for himself by publicly and repeated denouncing the project (including destroying some of the crucially valuable data it had collected, according to the documentary).

The second reason is more endemic and intrinsic to the media and to us, its public.  As Phil Ochs pointed out so well in his song "The Crucifixion" (1966), we love to tear down, or see torn down, that which we have built up for adulation.  The idea that we could build here on Earth a habitat which with proper propulsion could take us to the stars was heady, intoxicating stuff.  When it failed to achieve that goal in at least one critically important way, the disappointment that resulted was enough for the media and many viewers to discard the entire project as an ambitious entertainment gambit that flopped.

But facts are stubborn things, and I expect the documentary to continue to bring the truth of Biosphere 2 out to the world and the future, which is that it was an important and major first step that taught us a lot about how we can get beyond this planet to the cosmo beyond.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Angel Has Fallen: Great Performances and Resemblances

So we saw Angel Has Fallen (2019) on Netflix last night.  It's the third in the "Fallen" series - Olympus Has Fallen (2013), London Has Fallen (2016) - a nonstop adrenalin saga of Agent Mike Banning overcoming traitors and what seems like hundreds of armed commandos against him to save the U. S. President, now Allan Trumbull, played by Morgan Freeman, who has moved up from Speaker of the House, to Vice President, to now President in the trilogy.  I enjoyed the first two movies a lot, but didn't review them, for who knows why.

What I liked most about Angel Has Fallen is Nick Nolte, who puts in an appearance as Clay Banning, Mike's father, a hermit with munitions savvy whom Mike aptly characterizes as one step away from the Unabomber.   But Clay plays a crucial strategic role in this story, and I'm maybe only slightly exaggerating when I say this may be Nolte's best performance and part since Rich Man, Poor Man in 1976, though I truthfully can't think of another movie or television series in which Nolte was so surprisingly effective.

Also notable in this movie is Danny Huston, who has been one my favorite villains since his Ben Diamond in the all-too brief Magic City TV series (2012-2013).  He projects a combination of intelligence, moral structure that allows him to do great evil, with an underlying adherence nonetheless to some kind of code with some trace of, if not integrity at least its style, that makes him the ideal ultimate antagonist for Mike Banning.

Freeman as Trumbull of course makes an angel to devil comparison of what's now in the White House in our off-screen reality, but there was an eerie suggestion of Trump nonetheless in Trumbull's Vice President, played by Tim Blake Nelson, who reminded me of current U. S. Secretary Steven Mnuchin.   Check out the photos below if you think I'm crazy:

Steven Mnuchin

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Outer Banks: Top Notch Waves and Intrigue

As I mentioned in my review a couple of weeks ago of the first episode of Hightown, I'm always up for a TV series or movie that takes place in a sea town on the East Coast of the United States.  But with the lockdown keeping me and family from going up to Cape Cod, it's especially good to see those Atlantic waves splashing around a narrative.

So, I would've likely liked Outer Banks, which takes place on the string of islands off the North Carolina coast, in any case.  But by the time the 10-episode first season of the series concluded on Netflix, which my wife and I binged the past two nights, I found myself riveted to the screen and loving it.

Outer Banks actually starts off just ok, not great, a mildly diverting story of teenage shenanigans, rivalries, and romance on one of those islands.  But there's a dark undercurrent from the beginning - the father of one the lead players, John B, has been missing for months - which soon turns into a powerful story of parent-child relationships and edge-of-your-seat pursuit of lost treasure with all manner of plausible, sharply focused heroes and villains.

The acting was also surprisingly excellent - surprising, because I didn't know most of the actors.  I did know and liked Charles Esten from Nashville, and he brings to Outer Banks an unexpected range.  Chase Stokes was excellent as John B, as was Madelyn Cline as his girlfriend Sarah.  The two were very impressive in portraying a relationship that progressed from dissing to flirting to running for their lives.  The supporting cast was also top-notch, with especially notable performances by Jonathan Daviss, Rudy Pankow, and Madison Bailey.  But everyone in this vibrant cast made an impression on me, and I'll be looking for them from now on when I coast through Netflix and Prime Video.

I won't say anything more about the plot - because I don't want to give anything away - except that you can always distinguish a well-written narrative from the others in that surprises in the well-written narrative seem thoroughly plausible when you think of them in retrospect.  Outer Banks has a lot of large and small moving pieces, which are brought together perfectly in the end.  Hey, it's not as good as jumping in the cool waves off Cape Cod Bay, but I'll take it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Uncut Gems: Drama at the Speed of Light

I realized years ago when I saw Milton Berle in a serious dramatic role - I think in The Oscar in the 1960s - that, contrary to what you might think, comedians can make excellent dramatic actors.  Robin Williams confirmed this decades later, with a vengeance, in Insomnia.

Adam Sandler plays a serious role in Uncut Gems so frenetic that's it's almost beyond serious.  But it's certainly not comedic. at least for the most part.  Howard Ratner's a jeweler and a gambler, with a keen sense of both.  But he moves so quickly that he's almost always out on a limb, in danger of being beaten or worse, and this applies to his personal as well as professional life.

His main adversary is his brother-in-law, played by Eric Bogosian, who is dead serious as Arno, and moves at a tenth of Sandler's speed, all of the time.  Julia Fox puts in a good, even lovable performance as Howard's girlfriend Julia, and Idina Menzel has the perfect face and expressions for Howard's cheated-on wife.   There's a greater seder scene, and I'm always a sucker for Yiddishkite.

Back to Howard, the thing is that he knows what he's doing, as a jeweler as well as a gambler.  He has almost limitless confidence, however, and although it's often borne out, it also leads him to make difficult and dangerous bets.   The formula leads Howard to near misses with fortune and death, and a face that looks increasingly like a punching bag.

But basketball not boxing is the sport in this fast-paced movie, and it all builds up to a crucial, complex, multi-faceted bet on a basketball game.

You can bet on its yourself if you like, but you'll never guess how the movie ends.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Joker: Fantasy and Canon

Checking in with a late review of Joker (2019), which the wife and I saw on HBO last night.

Let me stipulate several things:
  • Joaquin Phoenix was brilliant, inspired, incandescent, whatever superlatives you can find, in the title role.  He eminently deserved the Oscar he won for that.
  • I know a middling amount of Batman canon, but am no expert.
  • I thought the movie held together very well as movie, which means I disagree with, for example, the inanely critical review in the New York Times, as I often do.
I do have question about the ending, though.  And the fact that I have questions makes me think that maybe the movie would have been better ending before this ending.
Arthur Fleck, having actualized his impulses and become the Joker, is seen talking to his state-appointed shrink or social worker, but in a less dingy setting than at the beginning of the movie.  One explanation of this scene, which I'd like to think is correct, is that Fleck, after escaping the cops in what I was wish was the closing scene, is nonetheless apprehended at some time in the future, and is now in some kind of penitentiary serving a life sentence for his crimes (or is he maybe on death row?).

But there's an alternate explanation (which my wife wondered about, and now I'm thinking about it too).  We already saw, in the movie, that Fleck imagined making love and all the good things he did with his neighbor down the hall, Sophie.  This establishes that Fleck's fantasies played a major part in the narrative we see on the screen.  Is it possible that everything else we saw in the movie - Fleck's killing of De Niro's Murray Franklin (who, to me, is just as much Joe Franklin - believe it or not, I was once on his show, talking about my album, Twice Upon A Rhyme - as Murray is Johnny Carson), etc - were also just in Fleck's mind?   Or, at least more of the major sequences than just Sophie as girlfriend?

In at least one Batman movie, if memory serves, the Joker kills Bruce Wayne's parents.  In Joker, one of the myriad angry people with a clown face does the deed.   This suggests that Fleck did not make all of this up - another clown killing Bruce Wayne's parents is consistent with the historical Batman canon of his parents being killed.

In any case, I rate this movie as maybe a masterpiece, and, the more I think about it, the more I think that's right.

Snowpiercer 1.2: Freezing Prospects

So, the second episode of Snowpiercer - 1.2 - didn't pierce too many veils, snowy of otherwise.

We learned that

  • the administration is a cruel bunch, freezing off a tailee's arm (but we already knew they were cruel) by sticking it out of the speeding train into the freezing cold
  • Andre and his former wife are still good in bed together (of course they are)
  • thawing someone out of the cryogenic drawings is no quick or easy process
But on that last point, I do find those drawers worthy of more unpacking.  It's interesting that, in a frozen world, the people on the train use freezing to take people found guilty of murder out of circulation.   I wonder if there are cryogenic drawers anywhere on frozen Earth outside of the train?  Hey, it's apparently so cold out there that you might not need any special cryogenic process to freeze anyone.   Maybe there are hundreds, thousands, even millions of people unintentionally cryogenically frozen, or frozen by nature not technology.

Also, this may have been explained and I missed it, but why don't they just execute someone found guilty of murder, rather than freezing them.  Were there some doubts about the condemned?  We already know how brutal the administration is, and it must cost plenty of energy to keep someone cryogenically frozen.

And, while we're on the subject of cryogenics, why not just freeze a whole bunch of people and send them on a ship to Alpha Centauri?  Better than dying here on Earth, right?  And better than a train. Well, maybe there wasn't time for a space launch, but surely the snowpiercer took some time to put together.

Looking forward to seeing how some if any of these frozen prospects pan or thaw out in the weeks ahead.

See also Snowpiercer 1: Promising Hybrid

first starship to Alpha Centauri, with just enough fuel to get there

Killing Eve 3.7: The Omelet

My favorite scene in Killing Eve 3.7 tonight was the omelet near the beginning - more specifically, the way Carilyn uses the omelet as a token of her approval or not, withdrawing it from Mo, then giving it to Eve, then withdrawing it from Eve, because she's so obsessed with Villanelle.  And the omelet is spoken of again, in close to Mo's last words, before he is killed.  The symbolism is good.  The writers/directors/producers of whoever came up with it have no eggs on their faces.

The killing of Villanelle's handler might have been my favorite scene, except she wasn't quite killed, and, sure enough, turns up later alive if not well in a hospital bed.  Right next to Konstantin, who also could have died of a heart attack on the train station, but didn't.  Make that a semi-major and a very major character who are villainous and could have died in this episode, almost died, but didn't.  And who does die?  Mo, who was a good guy, if not a major player.

Indeed, the only reason to kill Mo is that it's more reason to unhinge Carolyn, after what happened to Kenny.  And she more or less takes it in stride, upset, for sure, but only breaking some valuable vases or whatever they were to express her inner anguish after prodded by her daughter.   If the killings of Kenny and Mo were both for the purposes of testing Carolyn's cool, that strikes me as too high a price to pay.  On the other hand, wasn't it V. I. Lenin who said that if you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs?  Yeah, but I guess that's a metaphorical omelet.

And next week is the season finale.  Eve and Villanelle tonight were like ships passing in the night, once again, or ships passing on the train, or trains passing in the night, or strangers in the night, to quote Sinatra.  I have a feeling, the way this season is going, that not much more will be resolved between them in the finale.  But I do think that the brunette who killed poor Mo will play a role, or maybe a roll, if another omelet is involved.

See also Killing Eve 3.1: Whew! ... Killing Eve 3.2: Bringing It Into Focus ... Killing Eve 3.3: The Third Time's the Charm ... Killing Eve 3.4: Tip Toe Through the Tulips ... Killing Eve 3.5: The Darkness ... Killing Eve 3.6: Wounded