Spielberg Marathon: Raiders of the Lost Ark

“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

“All your life has been spent in pursuit of archaeological relics. Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations. You want to see it opened as well as I. Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This, this *is* history.”

“The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it… is invincible.”

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If we sidestep Steven Spielberg’s previous outing “1941”, we can see within the span of 6 or so years, Spielberg had completely changed the landscape of popular culture forever.  Indiana Jones is a legend.  A character burned into the memory recesses of my childhood imagination.  A looming figure that I still revisit.  A hero who is undaunted by danger and courageous in the face of danger that include Nazi’s, booby traps, and outsized rolling boulders.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is so famous and well-known that it is impossible for me to know a world where the movie did not exist.  I was all of one years old when the film came out.  However, one day in the past, people (namely George Lucas and Philip Kaufman and an uncredited Spielberg) came up with this story inspired by old Saturday matinee serials and comic book plots.  Can you think of anything like this before the 1981 release?

Put simply, this is one of the best action/adventure movies of all time if not the greatest.  While the film never takes itself seriously, it does take seriously the cascading thrill ride that is presented to the audience.  The action is intensely relentless save for a few moments we are spared for the plot details to be discussed.

The action starts in the jungles of Peru where Dr. Indiana Jones and his crew are hunting for the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol.  They brave eerie caverns of cobwebs with tarantulas, hidden spears, fall away floors leading to deep pits, and falling concrete slab doors.  Dr. Jones is betrayed by his fellow traveler and then escapes the aforementioned rolling boulder.  After being chased by the Hovito people in the moments post Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) stealing the relic from him, he swims out to a biplane to fly away into the sunset.  He lets out a scream upon seeing a “pet snake” Ritchie sharing a ride with him.  “I hate snakes!”  Dr. Jones is fearless in the face of danger except for when those moments involve snakes.

Returning to his professor post at Marshall College, Dr. Jones is interviewed by two army intelligence officers who tell him that the Nazi’s are searching for his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood.  This is one of the breaks in the action as we learn that Ravenwood is an expert in the ancient city of Tanis in Egypt and possesses an ancient headpiece of the staff of Ra.  Dr. Jones deduces that the Nazi’s are searching for the legendary ark of the covenant.  Comments are made about the ark being able to level mountains and lay waste to entire cities.  A Hitler and his Third Reich on the ascendancy in 1936 would become indestructible with such power.  “Lightning. Fire. Power of God or something,” exclaims Dr. Jones.  How could Indiana Jones not get involved?

The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan has our hero venturing to Nepal, the deserts of Egypt, a couple of forgotten tombs, a secret submarine base and a remote island.  There is a gunfight in a bar that is on fire, cat and mouse foot races through Cairo, a pit of snakes, mysterious relics, an old fashioned auto chase along cliffs, and a climatic scene documenting the wrath of God (Spielberg sticks it to the Nazi’s).  Like the closest of friends, John Williams top notch score accompanies us on these adventures with his heroic theme (world famous) and slower music that communicates a more mysterious aura as Dr. Jones uncovers more important secrets.  One could travel the world over and not know any other languages but if they hummed the Indiana Jones theme music, how many human connections could they make on that basis alone?

There is a love interest, Marion Ravenwood (brilliantly played by Karen Allen).  She is the daughter of Abner and has an unpleasant history with Dr. Jones.  Yes, she becomes a damsel-in-distress in the course of the movie but she has a strong character and nature.  Several scenes show her drinking big grown men under the table and grinning as she takes their money.  A person of secrets, her relationship to Indiana Jones is unique to other action film characters.

Rarely do they ever make movies like this especially any more.  The movie is nearly perfect and yet with the minor imperfections, we would not change a thing.  Imagine the uproar if Spielberg pulled what George Lucas did with the Star Wars series and updated the special effects?  There would (hopefully) be a revolt.  The special effects at the end, when the ark is opened and the Nazi’s faces melt off or explode, are certainly dated but the scene adds to this film’s timeless character.

Even in Spielberg’s considerable filmography which contains multiple masterpieces and several films very close to that status, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is simply (and perhaps easily) one of his finest films.  Deservedly one of the all time greats.

Lester Lauding Level:  5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Jaws (Review here)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Review here)

Duel (Review here)

The Post (Review here)

The Sugarland Express (Review here)

1941 (Review here)

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Make America Read Again: We’re Still Alive So Grab A Book

Books, books and more books.

Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help by Larissa MacFarquhar

Here is a book that is right up my alley as New Yorker columnist Larissa MacFarquhar tackles the ethics of altruism and the relativistic minefield of utilitarian ethics.  What does it mean to devote yourself to helping others even above and beyond yourself?

Toward the beginning of the book, MacFarquhar throws out an ethical dilemma.  If your mother was drowning in a lake and at the same time two strangers were drowning, who would you save and why?  This assumes you would only have time to save one set.  The emotional response would be, of course, to save your mom.  This is what I would do.  However, if mom is saved, two lives end up being lost rather than one.  There are other complexities to consider with this question:  what is someone’s relationship to their mom?  Was their mom abusive toward them?  In some cases, people may save the two strangers.  How are principles of altruism applied in a case like this?

MacFarquhar relies heavily on the ethical paradigms of Australian philosopher Peter Singer who, as mentioned above, is an ethical utilitarian.  I have my serious issues with Mr. Singer which are especially prevalent in “Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics“.  MacFarquhar doesn’t delve much into that specific work of Singer’s but is more broadly focused on his utilitarian principle of doing good to the most amount of people possible.

Jesus is quoted with his commandments “taking up your cross and following Him” and “denying ourselves” but to what extreme do we take those teachings of Christ?  That is the question that MacFarquhar, a secular writer, is asking.

The book is full of real life profiles of “do-gooders”.  The author highlights people who make a certain amount of money but cut their own living expenses down to $17,000 or $18,000 a year to give more money away to those in need.  A Methodist minister opens her dwelling up to the homeless, a man in India turns his back on his own privilege and founds a leper colony, a woman braves credible threats of rape to start a women’s health clinic in Nicaragua, a couple who adopts 20 something children and more accounts.

The great thing about “Strangers Drowning” is the book is never preachy.  MacFarquhar is not exhorting anyone to necessarily be exactly like anyone that she profiles but she is asking us to think.  There is actually some detachment from the author herself because I don’t recall even MacFarquhar injecting her own personal thoughts (at least directly) regarding the actions of her subjects.

We are also taken through the philosophies of Adam Smith, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin and Maximilien Robespierre.  MacFarquhar especially quotes Immanuel Kant: “It was fortunate that so few men acted according to moral principle, because it was so easy to get principles wrong, and a determined person acting on mistaken principles could really do some damage.”

This is a compelling and extremely haunting book.  One of the more thought-provoking reads I have read in awhile.  My primary ethical system, as a Christian, is not centered around utilitarianism but there are some profound things here to contemplate.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Giving up alcohol is an asceticism for the modern do-gooder, drinking being, like sex, a pleasure that humans have always indulged in, involving a loss of self-control, the renunciation of which marks the renouncer as different and separate from other people.  To drink, to get drunk, is to lower yourself on purpose for the sake of good fellowship. You abandon yourself, for a time, to life and fate. You allow yourself to become stupider and less distinct. Your boundaries become blurry: you open your self and feel connected to people around you. You throw off your moral scruples, and suspect it was only those scruples that prevented the feeling of connection before. You feel more empathy for your fellow, but at the same time, because you are drunk, you render yourself unable to help him; so, to drink is to say, I am a sinner, I have chosen not to help.”

“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals…It is too readily assumed…that the ordinary man only rejects [saintliness] because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”

“The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.”

“An extreme sense of duty seems to many people to be a kind of disease – a masochistic need for self-punishment, perhaps, or a kind of depression that makes its sufferer feel unworthy of pleasure…In fact, some do-gooders are happy, some are not. The happy ones are happy for the same reasons anyone is happy – love, work, purpose. It is do-gooders’ unhappiness that is different – a reaction not only to humiliation and lack of love and the other usual stuff, but also to knowing that the world is filled with misery, and that most people do not really notice or care, and that, try as they might, they cannot do much about either of those things. What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence. They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) their joy is purchased with other people’s joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.”

“The life of a zealous do-gooder is a kind of human sublime — by which I mean that, although there is a hard beauty in it, the word “beautiful” doesn’t capture the ambivalence it stirs up. A beautiful object — a flower, a stream — is pleasing in a gentle way, inspiring a feeling that is like love. A sublime object, such as a mountain or a rough sea, inspires awe, but also dread. Confronting it, you see its formidable nobility, and at the same time you sense uncomfortably that you would not survive in it for long. It is this sense of sublime that I mean to apply to do-gooders: to confront such a life is to feel awe mixed with unease — a sense that you wouldn’t survive in that life for long, and might not want to.”

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

When the marketing press for this book came out, I became curious about reading “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate” because of the excerpts I had seen of comedian/author/Senator Al Franken taking down Ted Cruz in hilarious fashion.  And that part of the book is good if only a chapter or so.  Franken’s latest book though is a memoir that was released before the revelations that he had groped and harassed women.  Those accusations and subsequent evidence chased him from his Senate seat in early 2018.  Rightfully so.

The narrative follows the beginning of Franken’s career as a comedian and a founding writer on Saturday Night Live.  He has chapters devoted to SNL without drugs and SNL with the drugs.  More interestingly, he talks of his friendships with other legendary comedians including John Belushi and Chris Farley.

As a satire writer, he also penned opinion books where it is hard to tell what his political perspective is (sarcasm) including his first:  “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations” and the other famous work:  “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”

In 2007, he quit his radio show on Air America Radio and announced his candidacy for United States Senate against incumbent Norm Coleman.  This led to a razor thin win for Franken of 312 votes.  There were recounts and cases taken to the Supreme Court but Franken was declared the winner after a long grueling process.

A fascinating part of the book is hearing Franken discuss how Republicans used his past humor against him.  Political opponents would bring up lines he said in a stand-up routine and pull them from a comedy context.

After offering his origin story, the rest of the book finds Franken talking about life in the Senate including how often they have to dial for dollars.  Providing basic glimpses of what it takes to pass major legislation, he provides a basic window into the issues that he personally supports.  The episode where he rolled his eyes during a Senate speech by Mitch McConnell is discussed as well as their strange friendship.  John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Sessions also come up as colleagues that Franken joked around with to one degree or another.  All of that to say on the inside baseball stuff, the chapter on Ted Cruz is, by far, the funniest and most entertaining.

Taking us right through the election of Donald Trump, a weakness of the book is Franken’s reliance on falling back on all too familiar liberal talking points.  When this happens, there isn’t much elaboration or specific defenses of his policy positions.  I understand this is not a policy book by any stretch but a little more discussion on why Franken believes what he believes would have helped some of the writing from sounding so trite.

In summary, an interesting life and probably one of the funnier books one will read that is written by a Senator.

Lester Lauding Level:  3.5 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz…The problem with Ted isn’t that he’s humorless. It isn’t even his truly reprehensible far-right politics. No, the problem with Ted—and the reason so many senators have a problem with Ted—is simply that he is an absolutely toxic coworker. He’s the guy in your office who snitches to corporate about your March Madness pool and microwaves fish in the office kitchen. He is the Dwight Schrute of the Senate.”

“Virtually everyone in the world believes that climate change is real and is caused by human beings, except Republicans in the United States. Especially the people who would know best: 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and caused by human activity, and I suspect the other 3 percent are being paid by the fossil fuel industry.”

“But I really think that if we don’t start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it’s going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can’t have a real debate about anything.

“But now we seem to have entered an era where getting caught lying openly and shamelessly, lying in a manner that insults the intelligence of both your friends and foes, lying about lying, and lying for the sake of lying have all lost their power to damage a politician. In fact, the ‘Trump Effect’ yields the opposite result: Trump supporters seem to approve of the fact that he lies constantly, including to them.”

“Former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank once said, ‘I only voted once for someone who believes in 100 percent of what I believe. And that’s when I voted for myself—the first time.’”

“Today’s Congress is a polarized, dysfunctional body, rendered helpless by partisanship, more focused on scoring short-term political points than on solving our nation’s urgent problems. In short, the Washington of the past decade has been awash in nincompoopery.

“Politics is not just about power and money games, politics can be about the improvement of people’s lives, about lessening human suffering in our world and bringing about more peace and more justice. -Paul Wellstone (Minnesota Senator, Al Franken predecessor).”

Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath

Usually, I’m not a big fan of personality-type books.  Supposedly, they are a general unveiling into what motivates a specific person or how that person likes to communicate.  I operate on the assumption that human beings are complicated and not only may their personality, giftings, or style of communication change over time, it may change depending on what group they are hanging out in.

Admittedly though, “Strengthsfinder” has an interesting concept.  The author, Tom Rath, spends the beginning of the book ripping the movie “Rudy” (of all things).  His problem with the film is obviously not an artistic critique but the thematic message.  Rath argues persuasively that Rudy given his size and talents should not have been a football player.  The whole climax leading up to the sack at the end was built on someone performing a task that they were not good at.  While Rudy’s strength was not football, his talents lay elsewhere and he was missing out on an opportunity to connect with what he would be truly great at doing and further developing those skills.  Hence, Strengthsfinder.

This is a fascinating concept. Our culture highly values a liberal arts education.  We expose students to a lot of different fields with the goal in mind of making someone “well-rounded” with knowledge.  Rath is not necessarily saying to get rid of that but he would argue that we should spend more time honing in on the specific gifts and talents that individuals have.  Once we find those talents, that individual (rather then learning a bunch of other general information) should focus on refining and shaping those particular gifts.

Personally, I like the spirit of what he is saying but I’m not sure I’m fully onboard.  Even if I have gifts in certain areas, I actually may be able to refine and strength those gifts by learning about other fields or disciplines.

With that being said, I would still rank this as one of the more compelling personality books that comes with an internal test that I have read.

Lester Lauding Level:  3 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“From the cradle to the cubicle, we devote more time to our shortcomings than to our strengths.”

“When we’re able to put most of our energy into developing our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists. So, a revision to the “You-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be” maxim might be more accurate: You cannot be anything you want to be—but you can be a lot more of who you already are.”

“Talent (a natural way of thinking, feeling, or behaving) × Investment (time spent practicing, developing your skills, and building your knowledge base) = Strength (the ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance)”

“We were tired of living in a world that revolved around fixing our weaknesses. Society’s relentless focus on people’s shortcomings had turned into a global obsession. What’s more, we had discovered that people have several times more potential for growth when they invest energy in developing their strengths instead of correcting their deficiencies.”

The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Friedman

For our times, I decided to pick up New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat” which is the bible for globalism. Friedman is an unapologetic “radical free trader” and his metaphor for a flat world applies to economic commerce around the globe. Friedman argues that the internet especially has made a more level playing field wherein competitors have a roughly equal opportunity to jump into the global market and compete.

He also highlights corporations who have sent jobs to other countries as having an impact of lifting the living conditions of people in those countries. Embedded in those moving jobs overseas is how companies have adjusted as well (for instance, Walmart’s delivery chain that helps them keep stores stocked based on a sophisticated computer model which they invented).

Friedman introduces ten “flatteners” that he believes are radically reshaping the world, rapidly changing global capitalism and causing market upheavals. They are: the collapse of the Berlin Wall (11/9/1989), Netscape (1995 mass introduction to the internet), workflow software, uploading, outsourcing, offshoring, supply chaining, insourcing (using UPS as a prime example here), informing (Google, Wikipedia, etc), and the steroids (voice over internet protocol, file sharing, etc).

The book is exhaustively researched and is packed with information but my main criticism of the book is I don’t think Friedman dealt thoroughly with the negative aspects of the world flattening or globalization. An example would be what some commentators have spoken about with the election of Donald Trump in the US. One of the arguments for why Trump was elected is the disappearance of jobs in the heartland USA (Midwest) as they have gone overseas for cheaper costs for the business owners. Job displacement has been a huge cost of globalization and I don’t think is fully or properly dealt with by Friedman.

Also, there are certainly parts of the world that have become more economically developed as a result of the world flattening however, there is still exploitation of labor and has been a lot of reporting on that end. China is one of the biggest human rights abusers related to labor and large, multi-national corporations take advantage of the cheaper costs. Friedman’s excuses or arguments against these things that have happened are not at all convincing.

I would agree generally with Friedman that a greater economic cooperation across the world is a good thing for the world. Future generations will have to address the matters of a staggering inequality and exploitation but I will, again, generally agree with him bringing up the Dell theory of conflict prevention. That is if businesses and countries are making money off each other or are economically interdependent, this lowers the odds of a war. “The Dell Theory stipulates: No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.”

I would recommend the read for those interested in the subject matter and the political and economic implications of globalism. I just think Friedman’s counter arguments to the fallout were not convincing.

Lester Lauding Level:  3 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“It has always been my view that terrorism is not spawned by the poverty of money; it is spawned by the poverty of dignity. Humiliation is the most underestimated force in international relations and in human relations. It is when people or nations are humiliated that they really lash out and engage in extreme violence.”

“One of the newest figures to emerge on the world stage in recent years is the social entrepreneur. This is usually someone who burns with desire to make a positive social impact on the world, but believes that the best way of doing it is, as the saying goes, not by giving poor people a fish and feeding them for a day, but by teaching them to fish, in hopes of feeding them for a lifetime. I have come to know several social entrepreneurs in recent years, and most combine a business school brain with a social worker’s heart. The triple convergence and the flattening of the world have been a godsend for them. Those who get it and are adapting to it have begun launching some very innovative projects.”

“I once heard Jerry Yang, the cofounder of Yahoo!, quote a senior Chinese government official as saying, ‘Where people have hope, you have a middle class.’ I think this is a very useful insight. The existence of large, stable middle classes around the world is crucial to geopolitical stability, but middle class is a state of mind, not a state of income. That’s why a majority of Americans always describe themselves as ‘middle class,’ even though by income statistics some of them wouldn’t be considered as such. “Middle class” is another way of describing people who believe that they have a pathway out of poverty or lower-income status toward a higher standard of living and a better future for their kids.”

“Communism was a great system for making people equally poor – in fact, there was no better system in the world for that than communism. Capitalism made people unequally rich.”

“No matter what your profession – doctor, lawyer, architect, accountant – if you are an American, you better be good at the touchy-feely service stuff, because anything that can be digitized can be outsourced to either the smartest or the cheapest producer.”

“When Muslim radicals and fundamentalists look at the West, they see only the openness that makes us, in their eyes, decadent and promiscuous. They see only the openness that has produced Britney Spears and Janet Jackson. They do not see, and do not want to see, the openness – the freedom of thought and inquiry – that has made us powerful, the openness that has produced Bill Gates and Sally Ride. They deliberately define it all as decadence. Because if openness, women’s empowerment, and freedom of thought and inquiry are the real sources of the West’s economic strength, then the Arab-Muslim world would have to change. And the fundamentalists and extremists do not want to change.”

“Culture is nested in context, not genes.”

“To learn how to learn, you have to love learning—or you have to at least enjoy it—because so much learning is about being motivated to teach yourself.”

“No low-trust society will ever produce sustained innovation.”

2 Corinthians by Colin Kruse

Located within the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series, “2 Corinthians” by Colin Kruse is informative while not being an overwhelming read.  At 224 pages, it is brisk as commentaries usually go but still packed with quality information relating to interpreting the Pauline epistle. A real strength of the book is Kruse’s historical set up of 2 Corinthians.  He not only describes the history and culture of the area as well as going into Greece’s philosophical ideas at the time, he delves fairly in depth to the textual critiques of 2 Corinthians.  For instance, our 1 Corinthians is probably actually the second letter to the church (the true 1 Corinthians being lost to history).  Our 2 Corinthians is more than likely the fourth letter to the church as Paul references a “severe letter” (as the potential third) that he regretted sending.  As Kruse explains in his vital setup, many scholars believe that the severe letter (3rd Corinthians) is perhaps an appendix to the 2 Corinthian letter (perhaps chapters 10-13 and maybe mixed in elsewhere).  Chapters 10-13 of the letter represent a tonal shift in Paul’s narrative in comparison with the rest of the book.  Anyways, for anyone studying this famous epistle, I highly recommend Kruse’s commentary on the historical and textual background.

Kruse walks through the epistle verse by verse bringing out the meaning of the words as well as the contextual and historical backdrop.  This isn’t a technical commentary and bridges the gap between a more inspiration based commentary and a technical (must- know-Koine-Greek in order to understand) commentary.  He is not afraid to bring out Greek words and discuss the scholarship but all of this is easy to understand for the reader.

The minor thing that annoyed me while reading the commentary (while studying for multiple sermon messages in 2 Corinthians) is that Kruse doesn’t always quote the verse before launching into his explanation.  Sometimes he just lists the verse number.  I suppose that Tyndale probably did this because they realize that people studying this commentary would be using multiple translations.  I still would have liked to seen the whole verse quoted out every time.

For me, this is pretty close to the epitome of what a commentary should be.  The reader isn’t lost in trying to parse Greek words and sentence structures but is being informed about the cultural climate and the use of the words as it is important to understanding the epistle.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

 

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Spielberg Marathon: 1941

“Ladies and gentlemen, every where I look… soldiers are fighting sailors, sailors are fighting Marines! Directly in front of me, I see a flying blond floozy! Everywhere I look… everywhere, pure pandemonium… pandemonium!”

“You ain’t gettin’ shit out of me. I’ve been constipated all week and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it!”

“What the hell do you people think you’re doing? You’re acting like a bunch of Tojo stooges! What do you wanna do, put Yamamoto in the White House? The Axis is crawling like a slime all over Europe! I can’t believe it, Americans fighting Americans! We got the lousy Huns to fight!”

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What was Steven Spielberg thinking is the poignant response after watching his late 70s offering “1941”?  An attempted screwball comedy, “1941” is a piping hot, steaming pile of shit.  Within it’s omnipresent stench that stretches for over 2 hours and 20 minutes is that looming question of “what happened”?  The director who helmed “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and would go on to direct “Raiders of the Lost Ark” has this terrible film sandwiched into his filmography.  The three mentioned movies are considered not only some of the best movies in American history but also of all time.  What the hell is with “1941”?

I can only speculate that Spielberg was looking to expand his genre reach.  With “Jaws” he had created a masterful horror/suspense movie.  “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is definitely a drama but one that was more cerebral than other movies about alien visitation and which also featured a spiritual longing at its center.  I guess “1941” was supposed to be Spielberg’s venture into comedy.  It failed.

On paper, Spielberg had quite a lineup.  The stars of “1941” include Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and John Candy (before he was really famous).  Two of those three guys had come up through the Saturday Night Live circuit and all are really funny.  The puzzling thing about “1941” is there is so much going on with the plot that the talent of these comedians is completely wasted.  Belushi himself doesn’t even have many lines or scenes in a movie that spans over two hours.

The storyline involves the days in December after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Hysterical Californians are worried about a Japanese invasion on the west coast so they look to make the coast defensible against this possible encounter.

In the beginning of the film, a woman runs on the sand, takes off her clothes and jumps into the ocean for a swim.  We note that Haystack Rock (the famous natural monument of Cannon Beach, OR) is lurking in the background.  The woman moves out into the ocean and even lifts her leg in the air before sinking down beneath the waves.  What does this remind us of?  The opening scene of “Jaws” with Spielberg mimicking himself.  I had never seen “1941” before and I leaned over to Michelle and said, “Instead of encountering a great white shark, this woman is going to be intercepted by a Japanese submarine.”  This was so obvious.  The submarine is commanded by Commander Akiro Mitamura (Toshiro Mifune) and his fellow sailors talk amongst themselves about wanting to attack Hollywood- the perfect target.

Cut back and forth between soldiers in the Los Angeles area trying to set up a defense including Sgt. Frank Tree (Aykroyd), Private Foley (Candy), Col. Madman Maddox (Warren Oates), Captain Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson) and others.  Designated to try and keep the public calm is Major General Joseph Stilwell (Robert Stack, the creepy host of Unsolved Mysteries).  The military ends up taking over the Douglas home which is on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  The residents of the home, Ward (Ned Beatty) and Joan (Lorraine Gray) don’t have much of an option.

The film distracts itself with an massive amount of subplots and way too much going on.  There is the action described above and dance sequences and crazy guys (Eddie Deezen and Murray Hamilton) who are stuck on a Ferris Wheel (eventually attacked by the submarine) for most of the running time.  This bouncing around doesn’t leave an appropriate amount of time for any character development.

There really isn’t much of note in this movie.  The dog fight over Los Angeles involving John Belushi whizzing around in his World War II plane is probably a highlight but then it makes me wish he were in the movie more.  The screenplay (by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale) is supremely obsessed with sexual innuendo related to airplanes.  The amount of running time spent on characters making jokes about planes gearshifts and functions while, wink-wink, comparing those to sex acts becomes overwhelmingly obnoxious.  Moreover, the rape jokes and racist language tank the proceedings even further.

Toward the end of the movie, I mentioned to Michelle that I think we had found a Spielberg movie worse than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (yes, I’m going to make myself watch it down the line) and that is no easy feat.  Spielberg has reportedly said about “1941”: “I don’t dislike the movie at all. I’m not embarrassed by it.”  He should be.

Lester Lauding Level:  1.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):

Jaws (Review here)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Review here)

Duel (Review here)

The Post (Review here)

The Sugarland Express (Review here)

1941

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Spielberg Marathon: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”

“I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad. It’s okay, though. I’m still Dad.”

“We didn’t choose this place! We didn’t choose these people! They were invited!”

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Mysterious appearances of planes missing for 30 years.  Airplanes narrowly avoiding a mid-air collision with an unidentified flying object.  Lights in the skies.  Steven Spielberg’s classic, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” maneuvers effortlessly between meta events of humanity’s first encounter with aliens to the personal homes of families affected by the visitation.

That family includes Roy Neary, (Richard Dreyfuss returning to another Spielberg movie from his role in “Jaws”) an electrical lineman, who goes out to investigate a suspicious series of power outrages in Indiana.  While on the job, he has a close encounter with a UFO that slightly burns his face while passing overhead.  His truck starts acting haywire and after his truck returns to normal operating, he begins to pursue the UFOs with the police along a highway.

His family includes Ronnie Neary (Teri Garr) and their three kids.  She becomes increasingly dismayed by Roy as he becomes obsessed by the UFOs and begins to make a mountain-shaped structure that looks an awful lot like the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

Meanwhile, Jillian (Melinda Dillon) lives in Muncie, IN with her son, Barry (Cary Guffey) and they have a terrifying encounter with a UFO descending over their home.  The occurrence causes all of the appliances in the house to malfunction.  Bright shiny lights outside entice Barry enough that he moves toward them and is abducted by the aliens.

Eventually, scientists discover that the UFO makes a 5 tone musical phrase in a major scale.  When they broadcast this communication into space, a series of numbers come back.  Coordinates to the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.  Roy and Jillian watch the same television broadcast about a train wreck near the Devil’s Tower and the spilling of nerve gas (a falsely planted story by the United States Army).  They, along with other seekers, travel to Wyoming in search of answers and brave through the public scare tactics of the government.

Spielberg, who wrote the screenplay as well, juxtaposes between scientists studying and trying to solve the mystery of events around the visitation and the personal lives of families affected.  This isn’t a big blockbuster with aliens conquering earth with ray guns.  It is a unique film that tries to ground itself by visualizing what it would be like if intelligent life came down from space.  The conception of the alien space ship owes probably to influence of 1950s culture along with the mistrust and suspicion of government that was a product of the post-Watergate era.

Thematically, I can see an analogy of spirituality as well emanating from the film.  Roy and Jillian are seekers yearning to understand a transcendent experience that changes the courses of their lives.  Roy loses his family and Jillian has her son abducted.  Together, they are looking for answers while ignoring the authorities and the imposed safeguards.  Deeper truths are being sought.

Spielberg is playing with a much wider canvas with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” after dealing with a road rage tanker truck and a murderous great white shark.  In this movie, he introduces one of his signatures and that is an invitation for the audience to be overwhelmed with awe and wonder along with him.  Spielberg’s child-like imagination mixed with real adult themes would go on to have a massive impact not only in his career but in movies generally.

Incredibly, he was just getting started.  In the next ten years after “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, Spielberg would rocket to the very top of the most influential film personalities in all of history.  Deservedly so.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):

Jaws (Review here)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Duel (Review here)

The Post (Review here)

The Sugarland Express (Review here)

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In Memoriam: Nala the Beast

The first time that I even knew Nala existed was Michelle and I’s second date.  Entering her home in Bremerton to pick her up, we were on our way to Mount Townsend in order to do a hike with her friends from church.  On our first date, I think she mentioned having three dogs.  Walking into her house, I fully expected to meet them but she had them all in a different room.  Perhaps she thought it would be a little overwhelming to me on only our second hangout to meet her crew:  Boo Boo, the feisty chihuahua (read his remembrance here), Chief the spastic border collie and Nala the dominant greyhound/husky mix.

Nala welcomed me in once we officially met and I started showing up to Michelle’s house on most Monday nights and often on Saturdays (I lived in Seattle so Michelle and I put a lot of miles in during our dating chapter).  Later, when I walked into Michelle’s house one Saturday, Nala leapt about three feet off the hardwood floor planting her paw into the center of my chest while having her mouth open and tongue hanging out.  I knew I was in at that point.

Nala was a complex dog.  Michelle told me lots of stories including when she rescued Nala while living in Canada.  Involvement with training for dog sledding teams may have left Nala to be neglected and possibly abused.  When Michelle was driving back from first picking her up, she named her Nala (the previous name was “Sandy”).  I thought Michelle was reminded of one of the main characters from “The Lion King” but she actually wasn’t.  She just liked the name.

About 60 pounds and with beautiful tan fur, many of my friends thought Nala looked like a wolf.  In Michelle’s single years, she used to take Nala on runs through sketchy parts of Bremerton.  No one ever really messed with them.

The sophistication of Nala was all in her personality.  There was a sweetness to her that longed for connection.  She would prance elegantly up to a loved one and bury her head in their lap demanding to be petted.  Another tactic was brushing up against one’s knees, waiting for a fellow family member or friend to extend their hand out.  It was also true that Nala liked her space.  She would sometimes be out of sight, behind a couch or in another room lying down away from people.  The dichotomy was noticeable.

This was also a dog terrified of house flies.  Upon spotting one, she would race back to her kennel and hide as close to the back wall of her crate that she could.  Even while being scared of flies, she hunted possums in our backyard (why I gave her the nickname of “the beast”).  I caught her at least twice with a possum trapped in her jaws as she violently shook her head from side to side.  In the aftermath, there would be specks of the possum’s blood on Nala’s fur around her mouth.

One of those episodes, I remember looking into Nala’s eyes and she returned my look.  There was a stark wildness there.  I will never forget that.

So many memories are recalled.  A big one was hiking Mount McDonald with Michele, Nala and Chief early in our marriage. More come when I think about Nala and myself moving into our new home a few months before Michelle and I got married.  Jumping the six foot fence in the backyard, Nala embarked on an adventure into the neighbor’s yard.  That episode put me into a panic but Nala just simply leapt back over the fence.  Prior to getting married, I would come home from work and Nala would often just be in her crate with the door open.  Adjusting from her former house in Bremerton to a new one in the North Seattle area was quite a change.  Perhaps as a trip to nostalgia bliss, I started playing Tecmo Super Bowl on my old school Nintendo (the original) prior to getting married.  Nala would never come out of the dog room or her crate.  Puzzled by this I, of course, told Michelle and she mentioned that Nala probably hated the whistles on the old Nintendo game.  Being a former snow dog, whistles likely brought up unpleasant memories.  I muted the volume after.

The richest recollections are Nala interacting with my kids.  She seemed to understand their smallness and was always so gentle in her encounters with them.  My son, Reuben (one years old), and Nala especially made a connection.  Reuben was always fascinated with her and actually called both of our dogs “Nala”.

Of course, my boy is probably too young to have lasting impressions.  That is too bad.  Naomi, my daughter, is being introduced to the long term enemy- death and what death takes.  At the dinner table when Reuben called out for “Nala” one night after her passing, Naomi matter-of-fact told him:  “Nala isn’t coming back, Roo.  She died.”

With a presence missing in our house, it still doesn’t seem that Nala’s passing has settled in.  I haven’t come to terms with it really.  She got sick very quickly and at that point, the time was short.  Shocking.  A few times I have expected to see her as I have walked into our mother-in-law kitchen downstairs that doubles as the dog room.  Chief is always there waiting, a faithful friend but a member of the family is missing and not coming back.

Nala the beast ??? to Monday, June 18, 2018

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Spielberg Marathon: Jaws

“Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. Y’know, it’s… kinda like ol’ squares in a battle like, uh, you see in a calendar, like the Battle of Waterloo, and the idea was, shark comes to the nearest man and that man, he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’, and sometimes the shark’d go away… sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. Y’know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’… until he bites ya. And those black eyes roll over white, and then… oh, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, the ocean turns red, and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and they… rip you to pieces.” -Quint (Robert Shaw)

“Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all. Now, why don’t you take a long, close look at this sign.” -Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus)

“Smile, you son of a BITCH!”  -Chief Brody (Roy Scheider)

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Do you remember the first time you saw Jaws?  For me, sometime during my childhood is when I first encountered the manhunting Great White Shark chomping his way through people swimming in the ocean surrounding Amity Island.  An indiscriminate killing machine, the shark terrifies an entire small town over a 4th of July weekend celebration.  How many generations have been afraid to go into the water because of visceral fear summoned by this movie?  Every time I waded or swam in the ocean as a kid, I could hear John Williams’ famous score and could recall the legendary opening sequence where a teenage girl is pulled under water during a night time swim by an unseen menace.  The music starts slow with ominous chords and crescendos to an intensifying forte.

Reportedly, Steven Spielberg, upon being offered the chance to direct “Jaws”, agreed upon one condition:  that the shark would not be shown for the first hour.  Therein is a lot of the brilliance of Jaws.  The horror is off-screen, lurking beneath and any one can disappear into the watery abyss at any moment.  Are characters even safe on a boat?  ‘You’re going to need a bigger boat,” says Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) famously to the shark hunter, Quint (Robert Shaw).

“Jaws” did something to the collective American psyche that cannot be undone and stands as one of the greatest horror/ thrillers of all time.  Deservedly so. The film made history in other ways as Spielberg released the movie originally on June 20, 1975.  This practically invented the summer blockbuster for Hollywood.  Of course, this rocketed Spielberg to stardom and with future career offerings such as “Close Encounters with the Third Kind” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” upcoming, he would be transferred to legendary status.

Based upon Peter Benchley’s book (which I haven’t read), the killer shark movie opens at a night time bonfire on the beach.  Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) decides to go for a night time ocean swim and is violently pulled under water.  Upon finding her remains later, Chief Brody debates with local Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) about closing the beaches.  The mayor objects using his smooth manipulative tone we might expect from a government leader and tells Brody to blame the tragic death on a “boating accident”.

All hell breaks loose when a child Alex Kinter (Jeffrey Voorhees) is attacked and killed while people are swimming one day.  His mother, Mrs. Kinter (Lee Fierro), puts out an ad that is widely spread around that gives a $3,000 bounty on the shark’s head.  Suddenly, people are coming through Amity Island from all over trying to kill Jaws and collect the money.

Spielberg has the reputation of being a sentimental filmmaker that pulls on heart strings.  This description would fall on him later in his career.  With “Jaws”, he seems to meet the criteria for the uncompromising 1970s filmmakers who surprise audiences.  Not too many directors would have children murdered in a bloody eruption that spews out of the ocean while the boy’s lifeless body is thrown around like a rag doll but such is the fate of Alex Kinter.  It meets all the merits of a shocking death scene that may come close to the surprise of Alfred Hitchcock killing off his leading lady (Janet Leigh) in the middle of “Psycho”.

With the epic bone crunching violence and horror, if you watch “Jaws” again you will notice it has an unusual tone.  At times the dialogue is funny and characters joke around with each other.  During the third act on Quint’s boat, oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) and Quint brag about their various scars like soldiers exchanging stories of war wounds.  With a dramatic intensity, Quint shares a tale with Chief Brody and Hooper about the fateful USS Indianapolis struck by Japanese torpedoes in World War 2:  “You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour.  Thursday mornin, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland.  Baseball player.  Boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep.  I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended.  Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist…You know that was the time I was most frightened.  Waitin for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.  So, eleven hundred men went into the water.  316 men come out, the sharks took the rest…”  Like your grandpa telling scary stories by the campfire, a beam of flashlight casting his face in contrasted shadows and light.

Regarding this tricky tone, noted film critic Pauline Kael wrote:  “It may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made. Even while you’re convulsed with laughter you’re still apprehensive, because the editing rhythms are very tricky, and the shock images loom up huge, right on top of you.”  Lesser films could not pull off the balance of sheer terror and light-hearted laughs but Spielberg walks that fine line like the best ever.

I have probably seen “Jaws” more then 10 times in my life.  The movie never gets old, the music building the suspense is still creepy and it is still a masterful ride.  Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, the American Film Institute’s top 100 American films of all time, and the New York Times’ Top 1000 movies of all time, “Jaws” is worthy of all the acclaim.

Lester Lauding Level:   5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):

Jaws

Duel (Review here)

The Post (Review here)

The Sugarland Express (Review here)

 

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Spielberg Marathon: The Sugarland Express

“We’re in real trouble.”

“When I called you a son of a bitch, I didn’t mean it.”  “And you ain’t no mental subject neither.”

“You got me out here with no where to sit.”  “Why don’t you sit on your fist and lean back on your thumb.”

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An often forgotten entry in Steven Spielberg’s filmography is his theatrical debut, “The Sugarland Express” which arrived in 1974 and borrowed from the counterculture road trip movies that were popular at that time.  “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Badlands” are far superior movies for the record.  With “The Sugarland Express”, Spielberg toys with popular elements that would connect him to audiences in later work.  Unfortunately, his theatrical debut is an uneven mixture of comedy, tragic drama and absurdity.

Based upon a true story (I’m guessing fairly loosely) that happened in Texas 1969, a young Goldie Hawn (character’s name is Lou Jean) breaks her husband (Clovis played by William Atherton) out of prison with a nutty plan.  First, the jail break and then the drive across Texas in order to kidnap their own baby son who had been placed with foster parents. Clovis is a tad hesitant to follow through on the jail break as he just has four months to go on his sentence but Lou Jean is determined and impulsive.  Her desire is made clear from the outset:  she wants to bring her family back together.

Eventually, there is the inaugural car chase (in a movie that is essentially one big car chase) involving Lou Jean and Clovis and a highway patrolman.  At the climax of this chase, Lou Jean has grabbed the highway patrolman’s gun and tossed it in the general direction of Clovis who takes the patrolman hostage.  This is a dumb thing to do.  Surely, Clovis knows how this will end and the patrolman, Slide (played by Michael Sacks), constantly reminds him.  Lou Jean is so committed and dedicated to her goal of bringing the family back together that she may not even contemplate how all of this will inevitably play out.

Pursuing the pair with hostage Slide is Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) who is a good man that does not want to see the events de-evolve into bloodshed.  We see a vast quantity of camera shots showing us a seemingly endless line of police cars following the trio.  Spielberg seems to revel in the train of cop cars and flashing lights.  Also thrown in for action purposes are the cars slamming into each other during the chase and even cop cars flipping over on the road.  With the serious drama at the heart of this story, these sequences give the movie a madcap physical comedy feel.

As the caravan makes it’s way across Texas and toward Sugarland, the notion of celebrity is briefly explored.  The fugitives have become famous on the news and various people stand by the side of the road with signs encouraging them and their family.  In a small town, a parade of people jams the street and the cars drive slowly through.

All of these elements mixed together are a part of the problem, the uneven feel.  Does the movie want to be a slapstick comedy in the vein of showing cars smashing into each other?  Does it want to be a moving drama about a woman trying to put her family back together?  Does the film want to investigate the role of media with celebrities or in this case, overnight celebrities well before the age of YouTube and the internet?  With Spielberg and screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins exploring these different threads, they could not cohesively put it all together.

“The Sugarland Express” does have some very good moments and a viewer can see the Spielberg audience pleasing style coming into play which will be worked to perfection during future offerings.  As a matter of fact, Spielberg will have made leaps and bounds in his director duties by his next film which will always be one for the ages.

Lester Lauding Level:  2.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):

Duel (Review here)

The Post (Review here)

The Sugarland Express

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