March Medialogging
By Dwip March 31, 2015, 3:58 pm Comments (0) RSS Feed for this post

Less books this time around, way more TV and movies. I don’t think it’s manifested itself on this project yet, but I tend to have giant pendulum swings one way or the other. One month I just want to read, one month I just want to watch TV, the next month it’s video games all the time. I’m fickle and capricious that way.

Also, I mean, I just blew through like 4 seasons of Stargate here. I gotta switch it up a bit.

YTD stats:

January: : 5 books; 5 fiction (2,398 p.) / 2 videos; 2 movies (4.8 h.)
February: : 11 books; 7 graphic (1,411 p.); 3 fiction (1,079 p.); 1 non-fiction (12.7 h.) / 2 videos; 1 anime series (5.4 h.); 1 movies (2.0 h.)
March:: 1 books; 1 fiction (108 p.) / 6 videos; 2 documentaries (3.3 h.); 1 movies (2.0 h.); 3 TV seasons (45.5 h.)

Year to Date: 17 books; 7 graphic (1,411 p.); 9 fiction (3,585 p.); 1 non-fiction (12.7 h.) / 10 videos; 1 anime series (5.4 h.); 2 documentaries (3.3 h.); 4 movies (8.8 h.); 3 TV seasons (45.5 h.)

Details for March after the jump.

03/01/2015 Brad Wright, Jonathan Glassner, et al., Stargate SG-1: Season One (2007 MGM DVD, 981 minutes, 21 episodes – Personal collection, 2009)

This one sure does get its own post.

03/09/2015 Blaine Lee Pardoe, ComStar Sourcebook (1992 FASA Corporation paperback, 108 pages – Personal collection, 2015)

Yeah, I’m supposed to run a ComStar game, why do you ask. So, time to do another Battletech sourcebook.

This book is (primarily) the history of ComStar, the one time interstellar communications arm of the Star League that turned into a techno cult and for a long time ran all the communications in the Inner Sphere. They’re a little bit like what you might get if you combined the medieval Catholic Church with AT&T back in its monopoly days – benign on the outside, power-hungry, apocalyptic, manipulative, ridden with schism, and kind of scary on the inside.

Pretty much since I’ve been a Battletech player, ComStar has been my favorite faction. I like connections to the Star League, thought the whole “keep technology alive while driving a dark age” angle was totally cool, and really liked their uniqueness among the Inner Sphere factions of the day.

And so you pick up a book like this, and you start reading, and man, these guys are ruthless. Jerome Blake conquers Terra in the name of peace. There’s a not inconsiderable chance that Blake got murdered by Toyama so that Toyama could turn ComStar from a secular organization into a priesthood. ComStar creates ROM, an intelligence agency that’s essentially a law unto itself, whose founder is assassinated as part of a power play, and who will go on to launch Operation Holy Shroud and begin a reign of terror and assassination that keeps the Inner Sphere in a dark age for centuries.

Oh, but you’d like to send a message from New Avalon to Timbuktu? Certainly. Would you like to pay with cash or credit?

And then you’ve got the Word of Blake interjecting little comments throughout, casting doubt on the official ComStar narrative presented here. Because like most Battletech sourcebooks, this one is written in character.

And this is something Battletech has always been very good at, writing sourcebooks that at once reveal the world but are also unreliable narrators. As crazy as the Word of Blake is, as obviously wrong as some of the comments they make are, the main text actually lies in a couple of spots and the Word of Blake is right. Myndo Waterly didn’t retire at all. She got killed.

This sort of thing, as well as the ComStar/Word of Blake schism begun here in this book, will ultimately reach its apex during the Jihad series of sourcebooks 15 years later. And, if you want to go really far down the rabbit hole on this book, go check out the Not-Named section of Jihad Secrets: The Blake Documents, which casts a ton of doubt on all the narratives presented here.

To my mind, one of the greatest strengths of the Battletech universe is its willingness to write its books like the actual primary source documents those of us who read actual history are familiar with. This fake history is very conciously modeled on real history in all the best ways and with way more giant robots and explosions, which just makes it that much better.

…This cover is really hokey though.

03/14/2015 Brad Wright, Jonathan Glassner, et al., Stargate SG-1: Season Two (2007 MGM DVD, 973 minutes, 22 episodes – Personal collection, 2009)

And this one gets its own post.

03/15/2015 Errol Morris, The Fog of War (2004 Sony Pictures Classics DVD, 95 minutes – Personal collection, 2009)

LeMay said if we’d lost the war we’d all have been prosecuted as as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He – and I’d say I – were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

This is a film in which Robert S. McNamara, most famous as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, spends about two hours essentially monologuing on film. This may sound quite dull – I assure you that it is decidedly not the case. McNamara had a long and rather profound career. He worked for Curtis LeMay during World War II, went on to work high up in Ford, then famously became Secretary of Defense where he witnessed the Cuban Missile Crisis and a good chunk of the war in Vietnam. And over the course of not quite two hours, he dissects all of that and attempts to draw some lessons from the things he has witnessed. He is at least partially candid, which makes this all the more rare.

There are ultimately elven lessons he draws, most of which seem reasonable to me:

1. Empathize with your enemy
2. Rationality will not save us
3. There’s something beyond one’s self
4. Maximize efficiency
5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war
6. Get the data
7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong
8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning
9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
10. Never say never
11. You can’t change human nature

The presentation of these varies.

In point 1, McNamara gives a rousing discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, noting that it was only the ability to empathize with Khrushchev and read his mind that saw us through the thing without blowing up the world before segueing into point 2 where he noted that Castro actually did want to blow up the world. Point 6 is wonderfully illustrated by his stories from Ford, where at one point they threw skulls down the dorm stairways at Cornell to figure out how to package humans in cars.

On the other hand, his discussion of the firebombing of Japan in point 5 is extremely powerful (see the above quote) but does not entirely make the point McNamara wants to make, I think. If anything, it’s more of a character illustration of Curtis LeMay, who looms quite large throughout the film. It’s clear that McNamara has a great deal of reverence for his old commander and later subordinate, but also a degree of revulsion at the sheer bloody-mindedness of the man.

Too, while McNamara is at times extremely candid (see the top quote), and is at one point moved to tears by his account of the JFK assassination, he is at other times frustratingly obtuse – those looking for a soul-searching depiction of the Vietnam years will find the film lacking; further, as with any man in his position McNamara is not always entirely truthful about various things. Given the length of the film, we also skip over lots of other McNamara-related topics that would have been interesting – his years at the World Bank, his attempts to reform the services during his tenure as Secretary of Defense, etc.

On the whole, though, McNamara comes across as the sort of man who is willing to be deeply reflective about himself and the things he has seen and participated in, and for the most part that comes across in the film. It could have been longer, could have covered more ground, could have been slightly more confessional, and Errol Morris could have been a bit more hard-hitting, but that is all more than I think one two hour film can provide. This is not the whole Robert S. McNamara, but it’s at least an important piece and well worth the time investment.

03/16/2015 Errol Morris, et al., The Unknown Known (2014 Anchor Bay DVD, 103 minutes – Corvallis Public Library)

“Are you saying that stuff just happens?”

“Well, we know that in every war there are things that evolve that haven’t been planned for or fully anticipated, and that things occur which shouldn’t occur.”

Donald Rumsfeld spends a good deal of time in this film talking about failures of imagination. He believes that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor constituted more than anything a failure of imagination on the part of US leaders, and how he more than anything wished to avoid being cast in that light himself.

This is, of course, a film about the failure of Donald Rumsfeld’s imagination. About 9/11, about Iraq, about a good many things. As we who lived through the time may attest, this failure of imagination is essentially total. There seems to me to be very little about his tenure in office that was correct.

The irony here is unnerving. Rumsfeld comes across here as a man who is not unlearned, and certainly no fool. And yet he comes across, thousands of requests for information via his famous “snowflake” memos notwithstanding, as fundamentally incurious. He knows the things that he knows. His is the rational course, and it is beyond him why others, let us say the Iraqis, react in a way contrary to this course.

It is here that the comparisons to Morris’ earlier film The Fog of War are strongest, and the reason I watched the two films together. Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld had strikingly similar tenures as Secretary of Defense. McNamara presided over Vietnam, Rumsfeld over Iraq and Afghanistan. Both attempted somewhat similar transformations of the military establishment. Both ended up ultimately disgraced.

And yet McNamara seems to be a man who has genuinely put a great deal of thought into who he was and the things he believed and how things turned out the way they did. Rumsfeld by contrast seems either unwilling or unable to confront these things in any meaningful way. Many a time in this film he shrugs, or states he did not know about some thing he ought certainly to know of given his station. More than once Morris gives him ample rope enough to hang himself in a lie.

To be sure, the differences between these two men do not escape Morris. McNamara he was mostly willing to let talk, and for good cause. With Rumsfeld he frequently interjects, his questions come more to the fore. He sounds frequently and increasingly incredulous as the film goes on and Rumsfeld seems to go further and further into a land of fantasy. He attempts as the film progresses to draw out Rumsfeld’s fascination with words and their meanings – many scenes involve some snowflake to Pentagon officials tasked with looking up the definitions of unconventional war or some other term.

It is ultimately possible to come out of this film more confused about Rumsfeld than you were going into it. Like McNamara in The Fog of War, I think Rumsfeld would like to be thought of as the sage elder statesman dispensing wisdom, but where McNamara has genuine wisdom to offer, Rumsfeld reveals himself as a counterfeit sage, offering only trickery and deception.

It is disturbing.

I’ll let Morris have the last word:

“At the end of my work on The Fog of War, my movie about Robert S. McNamara, I found myself incredibly moved by McNamara and his efforts to grapple with what he had done, his capacity for guilt, for reflection.

There was none of that here. Clearly Donald Rumsfeld is incredibly proud of everything he’s done. He sees the war as necessary and ultimately a success.

Two disastrous wars. It could be argued that both Rumsfeld and McNamara are war criminals. But McNamara did something extraordinarily surprising and powerful – he admitted he might be a war criminal. When has that ever happened? Where someone who might be a war criminal actually admits that that might be true.

Here, once again, none of that. Just self-satisfaction, vanity, and cluelessness.”

03/25/2015 Brad Wright, Jonathan Glassner, et al., Stargate SG-1: Season Three (2007 MGM DVD, 776 minutes, 22 episodes – Personal collection, 2009)

Yep, this one’s it’s own post too.

03/26/2015 Oliver Stone, et al., Natural Born Killers: The Director’s Cut (2009 Warner Bros. DVD, 122 minutes – Personal collection, 2015)

This is a film in which Oliver Stone attempts to satirize the news media frenzy of the ’90s by following two Bonnie and Clyde-like serial killers on a drug-fueled death spree across the southwest. It goes on to indict just about everyone else, too – the cops go all Rodney King, the possible hero strangles a prostitute to death, the scummy news reporter himself participates in a giant prison riot.

Lifting a page from U2’s Zoo TV tour, the film is cut together with frenetic energy and blinding cuts from color film to black and white to animation and sometimes all three in the same shot at such pace that it’s often less of a movie and more of an acid trip gone wrong. Over top of it is a brilliant soundtrack of God knows how many songs that, miracle of miracles actually add to the presentation. Overall this is probably Stone’s most brilliantly edited film.

That said, 20 years after the fact, it’s hard to know exactly what to think of the thing. The whole media feeding frenzy thing kind of came and went – who even watches cable news anymore? Do we even care about the killers of the moment? I confess that for somewhat lengthy swathes of the movie I was somewhat turned off and tuned out to all the unreal over the top violence occuring on screen. Bored, if you will.

Maybe that’s the point. A commentary on me too, if you will.

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