Musings of a B-Film Junkie

The Gorilla, 1939
I put a DVD of the 1939 film, The Gorilla, into the player and sat back to watch. Bela Lugosi (above, centre) starred beside the Ritz Brothers (trio above), a popular American comedy trio contemporary with the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and the Marx Brothers. This would be the last year the Ritz Brothers worked for Fox; they stopped making films entirely in 1943. It’s the first full film of theirs I’ve seen, but am not impressed.

Lugosi is best known for his starring role in the 1931 film, Dracula. After which he was typecast as the villain, mostly in horror and monster films. Some of which were great (or at least watchable for those who love the genres), many weren’t. Despite his attempts to get into other genres, most of his roles stayed in that narrow vein, mostly in B-films. His final “A” film was the 1948 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (which I would personally have rated a B-plus-film), but he continued making B- and C-films until 1955, the year before his death. In the mid-1930s, he played the protagonist in the entertaining fantasy, Chandu the Magician, and later its 12-part sequel, The Return of Chandu.

But sometime in the mid-1930s, Lugosi had become addicted to morphine and later methadone, administered for painful sciatica, and only checked into a clinic for help in 1955. By then it was too late: he died in ’56.

The Ritz Brothers, in this film, look like poor mimics of other comedy groups. And where each character in the Marx Brothers or Three Stooges was unique, with highly differentiated styles, dialogue, and acting, the Ritz Brothers seemed interchangeable clones: indistinguishable from one another. Their work here seems derivative and thin.

The Gorilla was shot in black and white, of course, although colour movies were already being made (Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz being the two most famous). It co-starred Lionel Atwill, a polished English actor with a string of credits to his name; this, however, was not his best work. Nor was it Lugosi’s. Although I’ve enjoyed many of his films, in this one he felt wooden; going through the motions without any real effort. 

The GorillaBilled as a “horror-comedy,” I hoped it would be better — much better — than it was, something more along the Chandu lines. While not the worst B-film I’ve ever seen, it’s a long way from the best. And I’ve seen worse gorilla costumes in movies. Not often, however.

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Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra


We recently watched the Darmok episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, my third time seeing it, and I was struck again at how brilliant and quirky it was. Possibly the best of all the ST:NG’s 178 episodes. And, apparently, a lot of other fans agree with my assessment. Wikipedia describes it:

The alien species introduced in this episode is noted for speaking in metaphors, such as “Temba, his arms wide”, which are indecipherable to the universal translator normally used in the television series to allow communication across different languages. Captain Picard is abducted by these aliens and marooned with one other of them on the surface of a planet, and must try to communicate.


You can read the episode’s transcript here. Here’s a sample:

TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Kadir beneath Mo Moteh.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: The river Temarc! In winter.
(that wipes the smiles off their faces)
PICARD: Impressions, Number One?
RIKER: It appears they’re trying their best.
PICARD: As are we. For what it’s worth.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Shaka, when the walls fell. (to his officer) Darmok.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: (aghast) Darmok? Rai and Jiri at Lungha!
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Shaka. When the walls fell.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Zima at Anzo. Zima and Bakor.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Darmok at Tanagra.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Shaka! Mirab, his sails unfurled.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Darmok.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Mirab.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Temarc! The river Temarc.
(Dathon takes his aides dagger, and his own, and holds them out)
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

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The Long Read Lost

Reading by candlelight
“What we read, how we read, and why we read change how we think, changes that are continuing now at a faster pace,” wrote Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist, in her book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World (Harper Paperbacks, 2019). It’s the sequel to her previous book on reading and neuroscience, Proust and the Squid (Harper, 2007). In that latter book, Wolf famously wrote,

We are not only what we read, we are how we read.

Reading — Marcel Proust called it a “fertile miracle of communication effected in solitude” — is a breathtakingly remarkable, and uniquely human talent, yet one that we have no genetic disposition for, like we have for speaking or for social behaviour. No one is born knowing how to read. It must be learned by each of us individually, painstakingly from a young age and practiced through a lifetime. It is the classic case of nurture over nature. Yet there are an estimated 800 million illiterate people in the world today.

Learning to read changes our brains, rewires our neural networks, creates new connections, and helps us think. Not in a metaphorical sense: the changes have been mapped by neuroscientists like Wolf and her colleagues. Yet reading (and its co-host inventions, writing, and the alphabet; itself even younger at a mere 3,800 years old), is a very recent talent, historically speaking. The oldest known record of writing is a mere 5,500 years old; the oldest Sumerian tablets are about 4,400 years old. The first complete alphabet (ancient Greek: with symbols for vowels as well as consonants) is from around 750 BCE. In modern times, the first book was produced on a Western printing press only about 570 years ago. That’s a remarkably short time in the 300,000-400,000-year history of our species.

“In a span of only six millennia reading became the transformative catalyst for intellectual development within individuals and within literate cultures,” Wolf added. Right from the beginning of writing, stories were part of the written record: the imaginations of ancient civilizations were carved on clay and in stone, for us to read even today.

Literate cultures. The term might refer to cultures which have a reasonably high level in the ability to actually read regardless of its content, but could also refer to a civilization that has a culture of deep, passionate, and lengthy reading: one that celebrates in books, poetry, magazines, and other forms of the written word. It’s a civilization that has book clubs, discusses and shares books, has public libraries and bookstores, poetry festivals, and has plays performed and authors celebrated. A literate culture even has cursive writing (somewhat of a canary in the coal mine of literacy).

We are such a culture, even though — at least from my perspective — we continue to move at an accelerating pace to a more visually-oriented, non-reading culture, away from the written form; a short form culture where the tweet, the sound bite, and the YouTube video all have more reach than a long article or story. Our attachment to many of the longer written forms is dissipating. Long reads online are often prefaced by the initialism TL:DR — “Too Long; Didn’t Read” with a tweet-sized precis for those who will not (or cannot) read the longer piece.

The quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought, it is our best-known path to developing whole new pathways in the cerebral evolution of our species. There is much at stake in the development of the reading brain and in the quickening changes that now characterize its current, evolving iterations. (P. 2)

We live in an astoundingly complex, complicated, demanding, challenging world. To understand it even at a very basic level, we need to be able to read and read deeply; not simply watch videos or read tweets. We need to ignore the noise of social media and open books, newspapers (real newspapers, not merely the local ad-wrappers), and magazines to get a fulsome explanation of what is happening in our lives. No one can understand or learn about politics, economics, or science from tweets.

Not reading deeply is plunging us into an increasingly anti-intellectual age, suspicious of learning and science. We have world leaders who are barely literate or are even functionally illiterate, and yet who take pride in their ignorance. The result is the proliferation of conspiracy cults, pseudoscience, anti-mask and anti-vaccination movements, and both political and religious fundamentalism (most of which claptrap, not surprisingly, originates from the right wing of the political spectrum).

And it’s not just Donald Trump, although he is the epitome of the illiterate, uninformed, conspiracy-addled leader. Look at the leaders of Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines, and even here in Ontario: populist (rightwing) leaders like these share similar attributes, including a distrust of institutions, science, and experts. I’ve served with members of our local municipal council who never even read agendas or staff reports, let alone books (we now have a council replete with such non-readers). The result at all levels of government is evident in the decay of public debate, the reduction to populist, slogan-based oratory, slovenly and uninformed decision making, and lackluster governance. But I digress.

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Why Science Fiction Matters

Star Trek
In the past two years, we’ve watched all the Star Trek series (on Netflix) from start to finish, and all the ST movies (on DVD). We just started watching the Battlestar Galactica series on Blu-Ray this past week (which we had seen some years back, but with long gaps between seasons). Both of us love scifi.

Although the first ST series was often more space opera than scifi (as the Star Wars series has been), it matured quickly into some complex, adult-oriented storytelling in the subsequent series (a sad failing of the first several Star Wars films was their failure to mature). BSG is even more mature, and thus more compelling. 

If wisdom comes with age, then Star Trek—the series that’s taught us diplomacy, morality, and workplace ethics since 1966—has to be up there with Kant and Nietzsche by now.

So begins “Why Star Trek Matters,” a 2016 article in Popular Mechanics, by Tom Chiarella. Or rather, a paen to Star Trek. I would say the same of science fiction generally: it matters, deeply, and across cultures and generations, and affects a wider cultural range than other literature. It matters in all its forms: written, visual, gaming, and audio.  But I also admit to a soft spot when it comes to Star Trek.

Science fiction — and the ill-defined, but closely-related speculative fiction — is a prism through which we can shine the light of modern issues and events to see how they play out in other situations and conditions, from the near to the distant future, here or on other worlds. In his book, The Future of the Mind (pp 55 and 57), Michio Kaku says,

The highest level of consciousness, which is associated primarily with Homo Sapiens, is Level III consciousness, in which we take our model of the world and then run simulations into the future… Self-awareness is creating a model of the world and simulating the future in which you appear.

Sounds like a pretty good description of science fiction, too. Wikipedia adds, “It has been called the “literature of ideas”, and often explores the potential consequences of scientific, social, and technological innovations.”

I’ve been a scifi reader for more than 60 years.  I distinctly remember standing in my backyard with my father one October night in 1957 and seeing a tiny dot of light move across the sky. It was the first satellite: Sputnik, and right then and there, I wanted to go into space. My first encounter with scifi literature, as I recall it, came soon after in the form of Tom Swift Jr. books. My parents started buying these books as birthday and Christmas gifts when I was seven. I loved those stories and collected the first 18 or 20 of them.

When I was ten, my mother suffered a stroke and went into hospital for much of the next two years. During that time, when I got out of school, I went to the local branch of the public library (Bendale, and it’s still there), only  a few blocks from my home. I would wait there until my father got home from work. During that wait, I read. A lot. I quickly went through what was age-appropriate for me in the small children’s section and turned to the books for young adults, which included a few science fiction (and fewer fantasy) novels. I don’t recall much of them although I read them all, but I can remember reading some by Andre Norton.

(The lines between fantasy and scifi are often blurred. I read both, but tended to prefer scifi. As Arthur C. Clark wrote in Profiles Of The Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible,”…any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Harry Potter fans take note.)

Back then, there wasn’t the same sort of literary machinery to produce young adult titles as there is today (no Harry Potter!). The selection of books considered age-appropriate, especially in the scifi category, even for older teens, was limited. It didn’t take me long to graduate into the adult book section and find the treasure trove of science fiction there. Ray Bradbury, A.E. van Vogt, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, Frank Herbert, and many more. I consumed them. I’ve been reading scifi ever since, often with the same sense of amazement and wonder I had when I first began reading it. I remember reading Frank Herbert’s stunning novel, Dune, when it came out in 1965 (I’ve read it three times since).

These stories were not just promises of a future, but for a young boy faced with a troubled and unsure present, they were an escape vehicle. After my mother returned home I continued to read science fiction as one of my primary literary interests (I also discovered and read the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs; a delightful mix of scifi and fantasy).

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Dandelions and civilization

Whenever I see a lawn with dandelions, I think, “This is the home of civilized people. This is the home of people who care about the environment and their community. This is where bees are welcome.”

When I see a monoculture lawn, bereft of weeds or dandelions, I think, “Here is the home of an anti-social family; a place where life is restricted, wildlife discouraged; where community and the environment don’t matter.”

I feel the same when I see a lawn sign advertising that an anti-“weed” toxin has been applied: “Here is the house of someone who dislikes their neighbours, the local wildlife, and pets.” It’s the home of someone who doesn’t care about their and their neighbours’ drinking water, either, because everyone knows that those poisons drain off into our local water supplies and eventually poison everyone.

Bland lawns bereft of texture and colour, bereft of even a single dandelion just seem so artificial, so hostile, so arrogant. So anti-bee, so anti-life, so impoverished.

Dandelions, on the other hand, are a bright icon of civilization and conscience. After all, who doesn’t know that bees and other pollinators are in trouble, are suffering from the excesses of toxins sprayed egregiously on lawns and fields? Who really believes a drab, one-colour lawn is more attractive, let alone beneficial than a flower garden?

Dandelions have a long, storied history in human company: brought over from Europe in the 17th century for their healing properties, they have spread across the continent. 

Weeds get a bad rap, says Dan Kraus, national conservation biologist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada:

Weed is a very subjective term. There is no scientific definition that says: this is a weed, this is not a weed. They’re basically plants that are in a place where people don’t want them. People consider dandelions to be a weed, but if you just change your mind about dandelions, and you don’t mind them on your lawn, then they’re no longer a weed.

Just google lawns and weeds and up pop a horde of commercial sites offering to cleanse your lawn of weeds, mostly by spraying some toxic concoction on them that will also poison wildlife and your drinking water. And they do it for money, of course.  But that’s modern life and the culture of me-me-me: as long as your lawn is perfect, who cares the consequences?

Lawns have a long history, mostly as status symbols rather than anything useful. The word itself comes to us from the Old Enligh launde, meaning a communal grazing space. It devolved into laune by 1540. Back in Henry III ‘s time it meant a private area exquisitely and laboriously manicured (first by livestock, then by peasants’ hands, and later by paid workers) to show off your wealth and status. Nothing communal about them.

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Big G and Me

GojiraOne of my fondest childhood memories is sitting between my parents on a warm summer night, on the front seat of the family car, watching a movie through the windshield, above the dashboard. A single, metal-wrapped speaker hung from the glass of the half-opened window on the driver’s side. A box of salty popcorn passed between us, soft drinks too. Around us were dozens of other cars, all facing the giant outdoor screen, their occupants nothing more than dark shadows. Behind us was a low, concrete building with a screen-facing opening where we could buy snacks and drinks.

It was a treat to be allowed to stay up late, far later than the usual bedtime, to go to the drive-in, and many a night I fell asleep on the backseat as we drove home to the cottage along the unlit, unpaved rural roads a few miles from the village of Penetang. My immersion in film culture began early in this environment.

The films we watched were mostly what are called B-films; standard drive-in fare, many of them shot in stark B&W. What I liked best were the monster and scifi films: The Attack of the Crab Monsters, Them!, Forbidden Planet, The Mysterians, and others. Often scary for a youngster, but mostly a lot of fun. Sitting there with the comforting presence of my parents in the confines of the small car while the stars shone above the big screen usually made it less scary. While we likely saw also other films there – musicals, thrillers, westerns, romances – the only ones I can recall are the scary ones.

From the latter half of the 1950s until around 1962, we went to the drive-in frequently every summer. Then, circumstances forced my parents to sell the cottage. I don’t think I ever went back to another drive-in theatre after that. I did, however, watch many similar films on the small, black & white TV set in our living room – rainy day viewing on the four or five channels we received back then. Once hooked, I didn’t stop watching.

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