All the Aliens on Netflix

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Behold, mini-reviews!

Aerials: An alien invasion plot set in Dubai. It’s mostly about how people react when they are forced to hide out inside their houses, not knowing what is going to happen. (They mostly do nothing and argue a lot.) I enjoyed it for the glimpse of Dubai itself: the beautiful inside of the couple’s apartment, and how the main character relates to his wife versus to his men friends in the tea shop. Interestingly, the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) is featured in this movie. The alien spacecraft hovers directly above it, and the title would seem to imply that they showed up there because they took it for a huge antenna. But this point is never developed. It’s more a character study about the people.

Ancient Aliens: A nothingburger. The worst “documentary” I have ever seen.

The Darkest Hour: Two friends who arrive in Moscow to check out the club scene find their trip interrupted by aliens. Great views of Moscow in the summertime, and for once, a really creative kind of alien that is not organic.

Revolt: An American soldier and a French aid worker deal with an alien invasion in Kenya. Really disappointing. I want to see the actual aliens, not just their machines.

Rim of the World: I watched this a few years ago, so I don’t remember it very well, but I remember it being a good apocalyptic film with teenaged protagonists and satisfyingly horrible aliens.

Battle: Los Angeles: O.K. Kind of meh. Running around and getting killed. It’s a little bit better than Revolt, but the same type of thing.

The Fourth Kind: Supposedly, these are aliens, but they are obviously actually demons.

Stargate (the original movie, not the series): I will never not love Stargate. The nerdy linguist hero, the spaceship that fits down over the pyramid …bliss.

I Really Do Love Lucy

(Don’t cry, Lucy, I love you!)

I Love Lucy is one of those shows that everybody feels like they’ve seen, even if they haven’t. Or perhaps they have only seen one or two episodes, such as the famous Vitameatavegamin episode:

(This one was not her fault. The “medicine” had a high alcohol content.)

That was me until recently. I started watching it with my kids because in our chronological study of history, after several years of study we have made it up to the 1950s and 60s.

The first episode came out the year my parents were born. Now, their grandkids, of the generation that loves Anime, Minecraft, and Mario, watch it and they enjoy it. In TV terms, that’s practically Shakespeare. Timeless.

I’m no comedy professional, but here are some thoughts about why the show has aged so well, and what make Lucy so good (besides Lucy herself, of course).

Lucy and Ricky don’t have kids (in the show). This makes all their marriage foibles more lighthearted. The stakes are lower. It makes for a smaller cast (basically just them, Fred, and Ethel as regulars). It means things are less complicated, and the show doesn’t have to deal with all the problems that come up when you have a multigenerational family involved. In that way, it’s almost like Seinfeld, but less bleak because they are not living in New York City.

The show doesn’t always tie up at the end. Unlike the later generations of sitcoms were infamous for, Lucy doesn’t try to “solve all the problems in half an hour.” Sometimes it does, especially in the sense that the characters’ relationships usually reconcile. But often, things just get more and more chaotic, and then end suddenly right at the most chaotic point. Here are some examples of how shows have ended in the season I watched with my kids. Lucy is in tears because she got on the cover of Life magazine dressed as a hillbilly. All the extra meat, which Lucy hid in the building’s furnace (long story), has just been accidentally cooked. Lucy’s increasing efforts to get Ricky to stop ignoring her have escalated until she is dressed as Carmen Miranda.

The men and women are different. Different from each other, that is. Nay, they are stereotypes. And by stereotypes I mean the old-fashioned kind, not the generally much less pleasant modern kind. Ricky and Fred, though perfectly capable of cracking wise, are basically straight-man types who just want to go to work, come home, and eat a good steak. Lucy, while not dumb, is obviously a bit flaky, and prone to take a random idea and run it all the way out to its ridiculous conclusion. And her friend, Ethel, is usually willing to encourage her in this. These stereotypes of men and women stopped being used in entertainment, frankly, before I was born. Or at least before I started watching TV. By the time I tuned in, the women were all super smart, capable, and morally serious, and the men were either their sidekicks, the villains, or the incompetent weights they had to drag around.

Now, I strongly dislike being treated like I’m not capable. But for comedy at least, I’ve got to say, Lucy’s stereotypes of men and women are both funny and refreshing. I actually did not realize that being “the zany one” was even a role that was available to me, much less that such a character could be beloved and not an object of contempt. Ricky seldom loses his temper (beyond an eye roll), and he always still seems to respect Lucy, even when she has (in my view) humiliated herself. The standards are a little lower for respect in Lucy. You don’t have to be genius, perfect, or even competent all the time.

Netflix Wants Me to Doubt My Own Mind

So, within about the past month, I’ve watched two different psychological thrillers on Netflix. And they are both the same damn movie. (And I use damn advisedly.) In both, the viewer knows only what the point of view character knows. And he (it’s a he in both movies) is uncovering a conspiracy. Until, at the very end, it turns out that he’s delusional. Many of the major events in the movie, which were shown to the viewer as if in good faith, were actually happening only in his mind. Actual events were quite different. The interpretation he was putting on everything was completely wrong. In one of the movies, the point of view character is brought to realize this, at least briefly. In the other, it is made plain to the viewer only.

I am pretty ticked at both of these movies. Especially at them both being on Netflix at the same time.

On the one hand, they are well-written, well-plotted, well-filmed and well-acted. Tense as heck. They are an immersive experience that helps the viewer understand what it feels like to be delusional. (In both cases, the break with reality was brought on by trauma. In both cases, actually, involving the death of a child.) So, they are very good.

But this strength comes at a pretty steep cost. Namely, they can make you doubt yourself something fierce. I think that the reveal at the end of each movie was that the person was delusional. But who really knows? Maybe I am misinterpreting what the director was trying to say. Maybe I did not even watch the danged movies. Maybe there is no such thing as reality.

This has to be intentional, right? Two movies, running concurrently, aimed at people who like psychological thrillers, both of them trying to tell you that you can’t really know what is real. I mean, God help you if you’ve got dissociative disorder. (And I use God help you advisedly.)

I’m with G.K. Chesterton on this. Or rather, he is there, throwing me a lifeline. GKC believed strongly that we have a moral obligation to believe in reality and to trust our own perceptions of it. I don’t have any of the quotes in front of me, but I do remember that he said something like, “Every day you can hear an educated man utter the heretical statement that he may be wrong.” He also tells a long story, elsewhere, about how he spent an evening at a friend’s house where they had a brisk philosophical debate. GKC was maintaining that reality exists and can be known. His friend was maintaining the opposite. Having vigorously defended reality, GKC got into a taxi and, when he arrived at his destination, had one of those confusing conversations with the cab driver that make you feel as if you’ve fallen through a portal. The cab driver remembered picking up GKC at some other location, and remembered GKC having said something to him that he didn’t say. GKC argued with the man for several minutes, and after just a few minutes was starting to doubt himself and, thus, reality. Then, just when GKC was beginning to waver, the cabman got on his face a look of sudden revelation as he realized that he was remembering a different customer.

You might think that someone like GKC, who believes that “I might be wrong” is a heresy, would be arrogant and impossible to convince of anything. But that’s not necessarily true. If you believe in reality and trust your perceptions of it, then you can be presented with evidence. And if the evidence is good, you can change your mind. If you don’t have the baseline trust in your own mind, then no amount of evidence is going to convince you.

One more, equally sinister, aspect of all this. Traditionally, Hollywood likes to give us messages that we should not trust authority. The cops are on the take. The conspiracy goes all the way to the top. The experts don’t know everything. We are “sleeping with the enemy.” The two movies I watched recently give the opposite message. They play on our expectations that experts and authority figures in movies will turn out to be villains. In both of these particular cases, it is doctors (medical doctors in one; psychologists in another) who appear to be concealing the truth. They appear to want to treat the protagonist like he’s crazy, or else frame him for being crazy. There is bureaucracy and gaslighting and all the stuff we find in dystopias. But in this case, they turn out to be right. What to do you know? He actually is crazy. If only he had listened to them. Lives could have been saved.

I think both of these movies were made before you-know-what, so it’s probably a coincidence. Still, I’m not super comfortable when two pieces of well-done art say to me in stereo, “Trust us. We know what reality is and you don’t. We know best.”

The Word is Murder: A Review

“Why do you think anyone would want to read about you?” I asked.

“I’m a detective. People like reading about detectives.”

“But you’re not a proper detective. You got fired. Why did you get fired, by the way?”

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

“Well, if I was going to write about you, you’d have to tell me. I’d have to know where you live, whether you’re married or not, what you have for breakfast, what you do on your day off. That’s why people read murder stories.”

“Is that what you think?”

“Yes!”

He shook his head. “I don’t agree. The word is murder. That’s what matters.”

Anthony Horowitz, The Word is Murder, 2018, p. 25

The blurb on the back of this book calls it a “meta-mystery,” and that’s a perfect description. It is so, so meta.

Horowitz writes about himself, Anthony Horowitz, the guy who has created the TV series Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War and who has written a popular series for kids, and is now trying to break into the adult market. He has just published The House of Silk, a Sherlock Holmes novel in the style of Conan Doyle. He’s approached by this ex-detective, Hawthorne, who still sometimes does consulting work for the local police force. Hawthorne’s idea is that Horowitz will follow him around as he investigates, turn the investigation into a crime novel, and make both of them rich and famous. The problem is that the investigation has just begun, and it’s unknown whether Hawthorne will solve it and, if so, whether it will have a satisfying ending. Also, though Horowitz naturally has to be present while Hawthorne interviews suspects, he is under no circumstances supposed to interrupt, ask his own questions, or contribute in any way. If Hawthorne misses something due to one of these interruptions, it’s Horowitz’s fault.

But How Meta Is It, Really?

I still don’t know how much of this novel is truth and how much is fiction. I think the whole thing is made up. But references to Horowitz’s past books and TV shows, and his descriptions of the industry, seem to be real.

There’s a very funny, agonizing scene where Horowitz is in a meeting with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg to show them the script he’s written for a planned second Tintin movie. He’s been working on the script for months, and he’s feeling excited as well as startstruck to be in the same room as Spielberg. But Spielberg abruptly tells him that the Tintin book he has turned into a script is the “wrong” book, even though that’s the one he and Jackson had agreed to use. Into this tense moment, Hawthorne bursts in. He fails to recognize Spielberg, but recognizes Jackson and compliments him. He then insists that Horowitz leave with him. The directors insist that Horowitz leave too, saying they will call him back, which they never do.

That sounds awfully realistic, even if it didn’t happen with Hawthorne. Even if there is no such person as Hawthorne. There is also no such person as Damian Cowper, the British movie star, recently relocated to Hollywood, who is at the center of the mystery.

So, on the whole, I think this actually is, as they say, a “fiction novel,” weaving in nonfiction glimpses into Horowitz’s career, modern London, and the conditions in the publishing and movie/TV industry. Horowitz’s insights about writing and marketing his work are enjoyable. And the novel is extremely professionally written. The characters, the writing itself, the clues, and the satisfying nature of the mystery all show that Horowitz has been writing mysteries for many years.

The Tintin Rant

I do have to take one side trip to rant about a rant of Horowitz’s. If you will pardon a long quote:

Tintin is a European phenomenon and one that has never been particularly popular across the Atlantic. Part of the reason for this may be historical. The 1932 album, Tintin in America, is a ruthless satire on the United States, showing Americans to be vicious, corrupt and insatiable: the very first panel shows a policeman saluting a masked bandit who is walking past with a smoking gun — and no sooner has Tintin arrived in New York and climbed into a taxi than he finds himself being kidnapped by the Mob. The entire history of Native Americans is brilliantly told in five panels. Oil is discovered on a reservation. Cigar-smoking businessmen move in. Soldiers drive the crying Native American children off their land. Builders and bankers arrive. Just one day later, a policeman tells Tintin to get out of the way of a major traffic intersection. “Where do you think you are — the Wild West?”

The Word is Murder, p. 148

Side eye.

O.K., Mr. Horowitz.

First of all, I can tell you the exact reason Tintin isn’t popular in the United States: It’s just not available. Oh, sure, it’s available now. Now we can get anything, with the Internet. But when I was a kid, there was just nowhere in the U.S. that you would see Tintin albums for sale. I was first exposed to them because we knew a family who had lived in Europe for a time, and once we knew of his existence, my siblings and I enjoyed Tintin just as much as any kids would. The same goes for Asterix and Obelix, by the way. It’s still kind of difficult to get good-quality A&O albums. When I tried to buy some for my kids, one arrived with the pages falling out.

Secondly, it never occurred to me, reading Tintin in America in the 1990s, that it was a “vicious satire” of America. I just figured it was all the silliest and most extreme stereotypes about America, which is the same treatment that Herge gives pretty much every country he portrays. And, the idea that Americans would be shocked by this portrayal? I don’t know, maybe in the 1930s. But this generation Xer would like to point out that gangster movies are one of our most beloved film genres, and that we are taught from knee-high about the injustices done to the Native Americans (besides many films and books being made about same). And in fact, Herge’s portrayal of the way the Indians talk would not be considered acceptable in America today. So, yeah, Mr. Horowitz, I realize you are very smart British author — and it’s obvious from your craft that you are smarter than I will ever be — but I think you may have overestimated Americans’ provinciality just a tad, while also underestimating our IQ.

The Detective

The best thing about this book, in a way, is the detective, Hawthorne. He is also the most unsatisfying thing. He never does allow Horowitz to get to know him. He really does prove to be brilliant, and Horowitz sort of ends up playing Hastings to Hawthorne’s Poirot. This is all the more frustrating for Horowitz (and for the reader) because Horowitz is not dumb and he knows it. He’s an adult with a good career well underway, and he knows his way around a mystery novel. He just hasn’t had direct experience with real-life investigating.

Hawthorne is the sort of person that all of us have had to work with at one time or another. He comes off as unwittingly controlling, always telling Horowitz his business. He doesn’t like the title “The Word is Murder,” for example. He wants it to be “Hawthorne Investigates.” (Spielberg and Jackson back him up.) He doesn’t like the way that Horowitz sets the scene in the first chapter. Although not a writer, he thinks that Horowitz should methodically introduce every detail that Hawthorne would notice, without any atmosphere or description. He gives advice about choice of words. Whenever Horowitz objects “But I’m the one you asked to write it!”, Hawthorne says something like, “Hey, don’t get all upset! I was just trying to help.”

This is the kind of person that you cannot be around for very long. Unless you are pathologically conceited, all their “help” can’t help but make you doubt yourself. Although we cannot work long-term with such a person, it is nice to see one portrayed in fiction (if this … is … fiction?). It lets us know that even pros like Horowitz have had the same experience.

Yes, Virginia, There Is A … Wyoming

Ready for the latest fun conspiracy theory?

Wyoming doesn’t exist.

This theory uses the simple but brilliant logic that unless you have first- or second-hand experience with a thing (in this case, a state), then you cannot really accept it as proved. First-hand experience is demanded in the question: “Have you ever been to Wyoming?” Second-hand experience: “Do you know anyone from Wyoming?”

Delightfully, “One definition of Wyoming in the online Urban Dictionary says the Cowboy State is a fictional place and that people who try to drive north over the border will find themselves mysteriously transported to Canada, confused and sans clothing” (ibid). So, it’s a sort of Wyoming Triangle. This tickles me even more because, What about Montana? Montana is between Wyoming and the Canadian border. Do the conspirators not realize this? Is Montana so obscure that it doesn’t even get its own conspiracy?

Well, I am happy to tell you kids, that Wyoming does exist. I know because I live in its equally obscure neighboring state of Idaho. Wyoming is actually only a few hours from me, and if I drive an hour north, I can see the mountains on the border.

For further proof, here are myself and Mr. Mugrage (cropped out for privacy) standing in Wyoming, overlooking Jackson Hole (note the sign), on a big anniversary recently. The whole picture is in Wyoming, but for those who need extra proof, I have an added an arrow that helpfully points to Wyoming.

It’s cooold in Wyoming!

Finally, here is a trailer for a movie that is set in Wyoming:

At last, a conspiracy theory that I can personally put to rest. This might be the first (and, possibly, last) one.

Misanthropic Quote of the Week, from MawMaw

Teenaged J.D. goes to see his beloved grandmother, MawMaw, in the hospital where she has pneumonia. J.D. knows that older people often die of pneumonia.

J.D.: Are you going to die?

MawMaw: I don’t know.

[repeat several times]

J.D.: Just tell me. Are you going to die in here?

MawMaw: I don’t goddamn know.

J.D.: People know. Some people do.

MawMaw: No they don’t.

J.D.: Native Americans.

MawMaw: They’re called Indians, like the Cleveland Indians. And they don’t know, any more than other people. They’re not magic, just ’cause they don’t have microwaves.

from Hillbilly Elegy, on Netflix