Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Benin Bronzes and Colonial Theft

In the movie Black Panther, Killmonger talks to a British museum curator, testing her expertise on various African artwork and artifacts. When Killmonger finds the item he's looking for and not so coincidentally tells the curator that she is incorrect about its origin, he informs her that she need not worry about such things any more as he is going to take it off her hands. 

She haughtily tells him that the item is not for sale. Killmonger asks her how does she think her ancestors obtained these items in the first place? Did they pay a fair price for them? Or did they, secure in their greater capacity for violence and total contempt for anyone not white, just take them. It's a powerful scene.

People, unfortunately too often especially people who have benefited from colonizers and imperialists, often forget that much of the world's greatest art is in European museums not because of honest trade but because of violence and theft. I was reminded of this because of a recent NY Times article that detailed the halting and slow efforts of two people to convince European museums (in this case a British one) to do the right thing and return stolen art (in this case masks from Benin in what is now Nigeria).

In 2004, Steve Dunstone and Timothy Awoyemi stood on a boat on the bank of the River Niger. In the back of the crowd, Mr. Awoyemi, who was born in Britain and grew up in Nigeria, noticed two men holding what looked like political placards. They didn’t come forward, he said. But just as the boat was about to push off, one of the men suddenly clambered down toward it. “He had a mustache, scruffy stubble, about 38 to 40, thin build,” Mr. Dunstone recalled recently. “He was wearing a white vest,” he added. The man reached out his arm across the water and handed Mr. Dunstone a note, then hurried off with barely a word. 

That night, Mr. Dunstone pulled the note from his pocket. Written on it were just six words: “Please help return the Benin Bronzes.” At the time, he didn’t know what it meant. But that note was the beginning of a 10-year mission that would take Mr. Dunstone and Mr. Awoyemi from Nigeria to Britain and back again, involve the grandson of one of the British soldiers responsible for the looting, and see the pair embroiled in a debate about how to right the wrongs of the colonial past that has drawn in politicians, diplomats, historians and even a royal family. 

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Movie Reviews: Joker

directed by Todd Phillips
The mixed and somewhat negative critical reaction to Joker was in some aspects more interesting to me than the movie itself. Some people dismissed this movie because they, in my opinion wrongly, assumed that the film was making a politically sympathetic depiction of the type of predominantly though hardly exclusively Caucasian men who describe themselves as incels (involuntary celibates), stalk women, shoot up schools, or vote for Trump. 

That interpretation was so wrong that words almost fail me in rejecting that notion. I am old enough to remember when some "mainstream" commentators argued with a straight face that depictions of racialized violence in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing would cause Black people to go crazy and start burning, looting and rioting just because of what they saw on the screen. Some people made similar statements about Joker

Although it's a mug's game to try to determine what people's purposes are when they make such statements, I think it's fair to say that for some critics, Joker depicts a certain type of person whom they despise not just on ideological grounds but also on existential ones. The joke, if you will, is on them. The title character is not ideological at all. He's mentally disturbed. And that is what drives all of his actions. He's not a mens' rights activist or a political ideologue who's sending pipe bombs to left wing activists. The character is beyond politics. 

The director, though he's definitely not beyond politics, seems to be bemoaning a failure of the social safety net in helping to create a man like the titular character. It's something that is more in line with a left wing approach than a right-wing one. 

Michigan Man Returns $43,000 He Found

Imagine that you bought a couch or similar item from a thrift store. After you bring it home you find some cash inside of it. And not just a few dimes and pennies or some crusty dollar bills, but about $43,000 in crisp 100s and 20s.

Now in movies and books, the sorts of people who casually leave that kind of money lying around their home also tend to be people who will hire other highly motivated single minded individuals to retrieve that money. 

Such folks often ask questions in a direct way that may involve blowtorches, meat hooks, cattle prods, and butterfly knives. So I wouldn't want to deal with anyone like that. And what's right is right. If someone really did misplace that money it's probably not right for me to keep it, is it? Or is it?

I like to think that I would try to discover the rightful owner of the cash. Doing the right thing is important. On the other hand finders keepers, losers weepers. Finding an unexpected $43K is like a wolf finding a bird nest on the ground. You don't ask how it got there, you just eat!

But a Michigan man named Howard Kirby who found this money said he had to do the right thing and return it, even though like many people, he had his own pressing needs. People have come together to praise Kirby and help him with some of his issues.

OVID, MI — When Howard Kirby returned more than $43,000 in cash he found in a couch cushion he bought at a thrift store, the mid-Michigan man said he didn’t want attention or expect a reward.
But doing the right thing has touched others who are now helping Kirby with his needs.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Book Reviews: Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures

Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures
by Walter Moers
There are some programming languages in which before you even begin the program you are required to list and define every variable that the program uses. Every last one. No exceptions. 

If you don't do this the program won't compile and can't be used. This can be slow and monotonous work but it also is a good way to idiot proof some programming work. 

In other programming languages the coder doesn't have to do anything as old fashioned as all that tedious listing and defining. He just names the variable and defines it on the fly. In short he makes it up as he goes along. 

The book Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures would definitely fall into the 2nd category were it a programming language. It is a gloriously chaotic novel. It's the second book I've read by Walter Moers.

It's only near the novel's midpoint that the reader may realize (well smarter readers than I likely saw this much earlier) that for all of the insane breakneck pacing, interminable asides, farcical and fanciful creatures that pop up for seemingly no reason, and unrelenting silliness, that the author has pretty methodically followed the steps from the classic Hero's Journey, as popularized by Joseph Campbell. 

So I don't want to discuss the plot too much. In a world like our own in times long gone, there is a continent named Zamonia, which contains a bewildering number of non-human creatures, along with a few humans.  

A nameless orphaned puppy like creature who is the beloved pet of a kind dwarf family discovers that he can walk on two legs and talk. Unfortunately, soon afterwards he and his entire family are kidnapped by a nomadic group of mentally slow one eyed giants known as Demonocles, whose greatest pleasure involves eating other creatures alive, preferably kicking and screaming. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Trump Wants War With Iran

Recently President Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qassim Suleimani. Trump did so without informing Congress, asking permission of Congress or certainly not doing anything as old fashioned as asking for a declaration of war on Iran. 

Shortly afterwards Iran responded with missile launches on American bases in Iraq. It appears that Iran may well have provided advanced warning of their response because from what we know now there were no American casualties inflicted.

I don't have much to say about all of this because (1) I've said most of it before ; (2) I'm disgusted at the ugly Pavlovian response to bloodshed by some people, generally conservatives, including one former Facebook friend who joked that Suleimani's funeral would be a good target of opportunity; and (3) this is a very busy time of year for me at the Day Job. 

As I wrote when President Obama got trigger happy with drones, Obama was not going to be the last President!!! To paraphrase a certain moralistic fictional character from a popular book series and HBO show, killing becomes too easy when someone can do it from afar or order other people to do it. War is such serious business that (1) it should not be undertaken unless there is no other choice and (2) Congress gets to declare war and commit the country to bloodshed, not the President. 

Movie Reviews: Rambo: Last Blood

Rambo: Last Blood
directed by Adrian Grunberg
Some VERY IMPORTANT SERIOUS critics get upset when films that they think ought to be watched and enjoyed by everyone are only or primarily enjoyed by a particular demographic. They rant and rave about this. They are less interested in film's entertainment value than in film's didactic purpose.

I doubt that any of us are always immune to such sentiments. But, I don't think it's ultimately that big of a deal. Although we all have more in common than not, regardless of our race, sexuality, gender, age, nationality, etc. it's also true that those listed characteristics all influence our real life experiences and our fantasies.

And that's ok. I'm not in the target audience for Victorian/Edwardian period comedies or dramas about whether some woman should marry John Puff-n-Stuff, the short, drab but responsible barrister or instead run away with the tall, dashing and reckless cad Harry Darkeyes Handsome, who allegedly has women and children in every port. Some princess film that has the titular character beating and berating the audience (and all male characters) upside the head with how strong and independent and special she is, probably won't be my preference.

Just as some films are aimed at the female audience, other films are directed at the male audience. Rambo: Last Blood is one such film. Doubtless there were some women who enjoyed this movie but I would imagine that most people who watched this film had XY chromosomes. The problem is not that a particular film is aimed at men or women. The problem or rather question is whether the film is good or not. And this wasn't really a good movie. The issue isn't that it's gruesomely violent or that it depicts Mexico as a vile depraved place where everyone is out to sell young women into the sex trade. 

More Snowy Owls in Michigan

I ran across this wonderful picture of a snowy owl on a local news website. It was taken by a lady in SE Michigan. I saw a snowy owl in my front yard a little less than a month ago.

I imagine that all the neighborhood squirrels, raccoons, and other birds suddenly found something else to do. Nothing brings more mental clarity than someone showing up in your neighborhood who will kill you with a naturalness and quickness. There have been a lot of snowy owls showing up in Michigan of late.

Photos of snowy owls across Michigan have been showing up and going viral across social media over the past few weeks. The beautiful white bird, normally seen in northern Canada and even in the Arctic tundra, has made its way south. According to , the snowy owl's migration is not well understood, but a map from the website shows that Michigan is the southern-most location for its common migration. 

Movie Reviews: Mob Town

Mob Town
directed by David Abeckaser
The Mob underwent turmoil in the 50s. This was due in part to the return to NYC of the notoriously greedy, shady and dangerous Vito Genovese. Before WWII Genovese had murdered his way to the underboss position of the crime Family that would one day bear his name. 

The only person ahead of him was his boss, the equally notorious and imprisoned Charles "Lucky" Luciano.  Fleeing a murder rap, Genovese went to Italy where he befriended Benito Mussolini and profited accordingly. Genovese's friendship with Mussolini did not prevent him from switching sides when the Americans invaded. Genovese offered his services to the Americans as an interpreter, guide and liaison to the Italian partisans. The wily Genovese used the Americans to profit in the black market, selling anything he could steal.

However, an American officer recognized Genovese and returned him to America to face justice, despite the infuriated Genovese's pleas and threats. Genovese was either very lucky or very resourceful as the remaining witness against him died from poison.

After the war when Luciano was deported, Genovese thought that he would become boss. But Luciano had never liked Genovese. During Luciano's imprisonment and Genovese's overseas sojourn Frank Costello, the Family's urbane counselor and top fixer, had profitably and peacefully run the organization. After Luciano's permanent deportation Costello was formally recognized as the new boss. 

Movie Reviews: Dead Reckoning

Dead Reckoning
directed by John Cromwell
"I don't trust anybody, especially women!"
This is yet another Humphrey Bogart film noir. As in most of his films Bogart shows how a man of slight stature and average height can light up the screen through easy confidence and occasionally understated threat. His character here is a WW2 veteran. He's not going to be put off by any gangsters. 

As the fictional Michael Corleone remarked to his brother Sonny, did Sollozzo have any artillery or air support? No? Well then Michael wasn't worried. 

This movie is told in partial flashback and has all the normal cliches and tropes you would find in noir films of this time. It was set in the south so something else it has are some very stereotypical Black characters. They don't exactly bug their eyes and tap dance but it's clear that they are seen as secondary or even irrelevant to the larger storyline. 

Captain Warren "Rip" Murdock  is an Army paratrooper and good friend/big brother substitute to a man in his company, Sergeant  Johnny Drake (William Prince).  After the war's completion they're both ordered to report to Washington D.C. for the first and second highest medals the military can bestow. Yeah, these are tough guys, heroes. 

But Drake is not really happy to hear that he's going to get an award and the resulting publicity. He takes off without telling anyone why. 

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Book Reviews: Ancestor

by Scott Sigler
Michigan born and bred Scott Sigler has carved a niche in the scientific bio-thriller genre over the past two decades or so. All of his work that I've read so far explicitly or at least generally eschews the supernatural. 

Sigler's stories can usually be scientifically explained. That doesn't make any of his stories less thrilling or horrifying. If you dislike authors who make up contradictory rules as they go along and hand wave away inconsistencies by yelling "Magic!!", you might like Sigler's style.

Some respected authors have repeated possibly apocryphal quotes from older authors and screenwriters that there are only a small number of stories from which all writers draw. I don't know about that. I do know that human beings are angered and frightened by death. We can't solve death. 

We are occasionally frustrated that although we can create life in our own image, provided we find a willing fertile partner of the opposite sex, doing so is a messy, chaotic and oft thankless process that may not deliver what was expected. The other parent's genes along with various haphazard experiences impact and mold the child in unplanned ways. We can't create life to exact specifications from scratch.

What if we could create a quick breeding flying creature that eats mosquitoes, breathes carbon and exhales oxygen. That might reduce the dangers of global warming. Or perhaps we could create a mammal that could provide organ donor matches for every human who needed one? What would it be like to have, however tenuously, the power of God (or evolution) to create? That's the theme in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. And that same theme is echoed in Ancestor. This story has some characters seen in the Infected series.