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Dead Man (1995)
Where the Spirits Come From And Where They Go., 23 March 2017

The plot is familiar enough. An innocent accountant in the old West is accused by the local strong man of killing his son and stealing his fine, spirited pinto horse. The head honcho is played by a magnificently coiffured Robert Mitchum, ably assisted by my one-time co-star John Hurt. Which reminds me -- what a cast. Half a dozen famous names showed up for one day's work. The accountant is injured and wobbles across rivers and over mountains at the timberline until he is discovered by an all-knowing and endearing Indian. The Indian is pretty weird but then, if the plot is familiar, perishing white man saved by Indians, the treatment is like nothing much you've ever seen before.

Lance Henrickson, whose work I've always enjoyed, is a heartless killer who shoots comrades in the back of the head on a whim. Gary Farmer is the plump Indian whose people are slowly being wiped out by the white eyes. He can smell them a mile away. They sell blankets smothered in the variola virus -- smallpox, which is a bad way to go unless you enjoy the sensation of your pustular skin sloughing off. Yet the Indian doesn't make a speech out of it. He's not a figure of pity. There's just a passing mention of these goings on.

As the Indian, Farmer was captured by while people as a child and sent in a cage from one city to another so the citizens could pay to take a look at the barbarian. At one point he found himself in England, where they forced him to go to school,. The name of the protagonist's character, played by Johnny Depp, is William Blake and Farmer adores the work of THE William Blake and gets his protogé mixed up with the author. He quotes the original Blake at odd moments, and not just "Tiger, tiger, burning bright," but the mystical stuff that nobody understands.

It ends on America's Northwest Coast, all rain, mist, decay, and sea scent. The viewer ought to take note of the art work. It's pretty distinctive and, if I can say so, quite beautiful in its own way, as stylized as the film itself. I don't think I'll spell out the end. It objectifies James Joyce's observation: "We'll meet again, we'll part once more."

The End, 22 March 2017

Germany surrendered to the Allies in May, 1945, and Japan in August of that year. I was a child at the time but retain flashbulb memories of the period. I recall rushing home from school and being caught up in gooseberry bushes in the backyard of my Aunt Helen, shouting that this was VE Day while trying to untangle myself.

I don't recall hearing about the Japanese surrender but I remember being in the back seat of the car of our neighbor, Uncle Leo Schneider, sitting next to my mother and asking why the radio announcer on WOR, New York, was sobbing as he described the tumult in Times Square. "Because he's happy," she replied.

Untold millions died in that war, including 20 million Russians, mostly civilians. Families with members in the service were permitted to hang a small gold-fringed banner in their windows with a blue star for every member of the Armed Forces. When one was killed, the blue star became gold. I have no idea of where those banners came from, who passed them out, who requested them. All I remember really is that there were so many of them. We only had one star, and it remained blue, although Uncle Flory was badly wounded in the spine at Anzio, spent years in a prison camp, and was paralyzed from he waist down when he finally returned to a hospital in Framingham.

Everyone was excited when we were first able to speak to him on the phone. Everyone in the family had a chance to say a few words. I recall asking if he had brought back a souvenir, say, a German helmet, like so many other returning warriors. He laughed and said he was sorry to disappoint me.

I was a child and understood nothing about combat. I understand more now. It was a horrible, bloody affair with few redeeming features. I hope we never see another.

Death By Fire., 20 March 2017

Quincy, Illinois, has a small airport with few runways and no tower and therefor no air traffic controllers. A regional airliner carrying 14 passengers lands according to plan and brushes against a smaller airplane with two people.

Everyone aboard the commuter airliner survives the initial impact. The problem is that they cluster around the main door, forward, the one they entered through, and the door wouldn't open, so everyone aboard died is smoke inhalation and burns. All deaths are horrible but waiting to be burned must be one of the worst.

As it turned out, the door malfunctioned because there was a bit of slack in the cable linking the handle to the cams that lock the exit. There were two other exits but they were ignored by the passengers because of the chaos and fire that immediately followed the crash.

When I first began watching these programs I was concerned that the responsibility, in the absence of any contradictory evidence, would be pinned on the pilots. "Pilot error" is a judgment that all pilots dread and feel is over-applied.

But as a previous reviewer has pointed out, there seems to be little hesitation in blaming the pilots, although the text is usually masked with words like "confusion" and "distraction." On the other hand, the aircraft manufacturers are treated rather gently and the National Transportation Safety Board seems, like Sherlock Holmes, never to err.

It's a gripping episode, and well done.

Flight Testing., 18 March 2017

A Lauda Airlines Boeing takes off for a flight across the opium poppies of the Golden Triangle in Burma. It reaches cruising level after a few minutes and plunges towards the earth at almost the speed of sound, breaking apart in the process. Everyone aboard dies and looters appear out of the jungle and cart off evidence.

This episode is mostly devoted to technology and its failures. We barely get to know the pilots and we learn nothing of the passengers. We see and hear more of Niki Lauda, owner of the four airplanes that constitute his airline, because he was a famous racing car winner in the 1970s.

The technology isn't too hard to follow, although it's more complicated than usual. A lot of problems came together at the wrong moment as usual, but basically, the problem was that a thrust reverser on one of the two engines deployed in mid-flight and made control impossible. It did so without warning.

Well, the thrust reverser is not supposed to do that. They're used during landings to slow the plane down once it's on the runway, like a pair of additional brakes. Furthermore, Boeing had already tested the accidental deployment of thrust reverser in flight, found that the affected wing lost on 10 percent of its lift, that the airplane was still controllable and could land safely.

What makes it interesting is the difference between Boeing's test flight and the reality of the Lauda disaster. Boeing tested its airplane at its normal speed at an altitude of 10,000 feet, where the dense air provided plenty of life. The crew were aware of what they were doing, so the failure was fully anticipated. They determined, correctly, that the accidental deployment of one thrust reverser was a spot of bother. The result was a manual listing some half dozen rather complex tasks to be done in the cockpit to retire the affected engine and regain control.

But reality, as is so often the case, makes its own unexpected demands. The Lauda Boeing was not at 10,000 feet. It was at about 27,000 feet and its airspeed was much higher. That meant a greater loss of lift in the affected wing -- not 10% but 25%. The airplane spun out of control almost at once.

Unlike the test crew in Seattle, the deployment of the reverser was immediate and unexpected. The crew had to figure out what was wrong before they could check the list in the manual, and simply performing the tasks recommended in the manual took six seconds, and eternity of time to the crew of a suddenly uncontrollable airplane travelling hundreds of miles an hour.

I find these distinctions between the ideal and the real fascinating. They remind me of an incident when President Reagan appointed Jim Webb to Secretary of the Navy (or some other high echelon job). Webb was a young man who had flown ground attack missions in Vietnam. A defense industry representative invited Webb to watch the use of a particular smart bomb. Webb watched as the airplane came in low and slow over the target and released its ordinance, which hit and destroyed the target exactly as it should have "That's bullshit," said Jim Webb. No pilot would make an attack at that speed and altitude while under enemy fire.

Two Big Ones., 16 March 2017

Since the Japanese show no inclination to accept the Potsdam Conference's demand of unconditional surrender, Truman puts Col. Paul Tibbets in charge of supervising the detonation of an atomic bomb -- Little Boy -- over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

The raid is a success and Hiroshma practically disappeared. The effect us devastating. A leaflet raid warns Japan that more is on its way unless there is a quick surrender. But there is no quick surrender. For one thing, communicating the effects of the blast take a day and a half to reach Tokyo because all the lines have been destroyed along with rods and railways. Plus there is the additional fact that the emperor is distant and rarely gives advice or orders. And then too, the Japanese bureaucracy grinds as slowly then as it does now.

Number two -- Fat Man -- is dropped three days later and demolishes Nagasaki. By this time the emperor is beginning to come around but some Americans hope he doesn't come around too quickly. This isn't in the film but Frank Merrill (of "Merrill's Marauders") told his daughter than General Curtis LeMay wanted the Japanese to continue their dilatory practice so they could drop third bomb on still another city.

The program does a fine job of sketching in some of the details of the delivery and detonation of the bombs. Of course, in an episode that runs less than an hour, not everything can be worked in. The pilot who delivered the second bomb went on to have a psychotic episode. The first bomb was armed in the air by a Navy officer so that it wouldn't be ALL an Army Air Force show.

Tibbets who piloted the first B-29, Enola Gay, named after his mother, became a hero. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross while each of his crew were decorated with the Air Medal. A feature film was made about Tibbet's involvement -- "Above and Beyond" -- which is best avoided because in fact you learn more about Tibbet's home life than the bomb. The movie has several scenes designed to be amusing. We all know what a deft comedian Taylor was.

End Game 0.2, 15 March 2017

The "Big Three" meet in Potsdam to decide the details of Germany's future anatomy and the fate of the unyielding Japanese resistance to surrender. Except by this time, July, 1945, the Big Three have really been transformed into the Big Two.

Winston Churchill, soon to be voted out of office, is Prime Minister of a small nation that has been economically and otherwise exhausted by the war. England is important but broke, leaving the contest to Truman, president of a rich, newly powerful, and democratic country, and Stalin, a ruthless expansionist and semi-paranoid dictator who killed more Russians than Hitler.

During the meetings, Truman took Stalin aside and confided that the US now had the atomic bomb. The president was surprised because Stalin was NOT. In fact, Stalin already knew all about the weapon. His was probably the most efficient spy network of the war years. When Russians were invited to England to watch the manufacture of one of the first jet engines -- openly asked to observe the secret work -- Stalin had his men wear gum soles on their shoes to pick up pieces of metal shavings from the factory floor, expecting the British to lie about the metal being used. His spies had spies.

Truman made the decision to drop the bomb on Japan. Since no one in America suspected that the communists were hard at work on their own bomb, Truman and his staff viewed the new weapon as a quick way to end the war and save millions of lives on both sides. It was just another bomb, although an almighty big one. Nobody, anywhere, had the kind of crystal ball that would show holographic images of the Cold War and the rogue nations of today. It was just a big bomb.

Brighter Than a Thousand Suns., 14 March 2017

The bomb. Here we have General (formerly Colonel) Leslie Groves, a no-nonsense Army engineer who had just built the Pentagon in 1940, put in charge of a horde of scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico, with the mission of building a couple of atomic bombs. The physicists are mostly academics from places like Harvard, Chicago, Berkeley, and Cornell. They all have PhDs while Groves may be a general but he has no PhDs.

Furthermore, engineers don't particularly like physicists -- snobs who walk around with their heads in the clouds and never get their hands dirty while the engineers do all the heavy lifting For their part, the professors aren't really snobbish. They're just completely indifferent to the engineers.

Want to see a sublime miniseries on the Manhattan project? See if you can get hold of a BBC production called "Oppenheimer" with Sam Waterston as the eponymous figure. (Avoid the by-the-numbers feature with Paul Newman.) Oppenheimer was quite a guy. Skinny, almost skeletal, with the gaunt but not unhandsome features of a movie villain, and with eyes that seemed hypnotic.

He claimed that a quotation from Indian scriptures, the Baghavad Gita, ran through his mind when the test bomb exploded in the desert: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." I've sometimes wondered if that tale is true. No atomic physicist, no matter how smart, should be able to read Sanskrit let alone quote from a 700-verse piece of Hindu scripture, even one set on a battlefield.

Also covered in less detail: The USS Indianapolis' delivery of the bomb parts to Tinian Island, whence the Enola Gay would take off; the meeting of Churchill, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam, calling for Japan's unconditional surrender; and the splitting up of Germany into its four components.

How To Fix It., 13 March 2017

Much more structured than Part 1, this episode takes a largely historical view of the social definition and treatment of the psychotic.

In England, as late as the 1600s, the mentally ill were either taken care of within the household or consigned to the desolate heath, where the mad King Lear shouts defiantly into the storm, "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!"

It's not easy to care for a psychotic at home unless there are a lot of people around to tend them when necessary. And in the Middle Ages there were lots of children. Almost half died from childhood diseases but the survivors had time to look after the disabled. At the beginning of the 1800s the mad were increasingly stored away in large drab buildings which one psychiatrist aptly called "warehouses."

Our host, Jonathan Miller of the sonorous voice, doesn't mention it because he's a doctor not a sociologist but it was during this period that many farming families gave up the land and moved to the industrial cities for wage work. The number of children dropped because each now became an economic liability instead of free labor. The burden of caring for the disabled was shifted from primary institutions (the family) to secondary institutions (state-run asylums). It's still going on. When my grandfather was in his 70s, my brother and I took turns washing his feet, cutting his toenails, and tying his shoes. When my mother was that age, the insurance company paid a podiatrist to visit the house and perform the same tasks. My grandfather had five children; my mother, two.

There isn't space enough to lay out the narrative in any details. Miller, who wrote and directed it, is a very bright and talented guy and is clearly emotionally involved in the sufferings of the insane and the disenfranchised. The doctors, unable in any sense to "cure" the psychotic, frantically tried all sorts of experiments, most of which carried unpleasant side effects with them.

One of the more drastic was the lobotomy, in which the frontal cortex was isolated from the rest of the brain. What was left afterward was a kind of stub of the patient's original personality. Miller again doesn't mention it but the foremost proponent of lobotomies, the Portuguese neurologist, Egas Moniz, believed that patients with obsessive behaviour were suffering from fixed circuits in the brain. He won a Nobel for his work in 1949.

The most extreme form of treatment appeared during the eugenics movement in the early 20th century. With the acceptance of Darwin, heredity came to play a greater role, not just in understanding madness but in treating it. In the US, Chief Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes sentenced a retarded woman to sterilization, with the comment, "Twelve generations of idiots is enough." In Nazi Germany the impact was profound.

Wonton Destruction, 11 March 2017

A DHL cargo plane takes off from Baghdad Airport carrying three crew and thousands of letters from military personnel during the Iraqi war. The Iraqi Army, whom we have just liberated from the yoke of Saddam Hussein, were faced with improvised terrorist groups and fled, leaving their arms behind in multiple caches worth millions of dollars.

The terrorists now use one of the shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles on the DHL cargo plane. They are overjoyed when they're able to clip the trailing edge of the left wing just after take off. The wing stays on but some leaking fuel burns modestly. Worse, the airplane loses all its hydraulic fluid, which enables the pilot to manage the control surfaces.

With no hydraulics the airplane does whatever it wants to do, so to speak, and begins a series of sinoidal climbs and dives. The crew discover that they can roughly control the airplane using nothing but the thrust of the two engines. Under a pressure that can only be imagines, they are able to turn the airplane around and land it on the runway, although they run off the pavement and plow through the sand at the end, No one had ever safely landed an airplane with no hydraulics before. It's a magnificent feat of airmanship and the crew is properly rewarded.

Almost as interesting as the stricken airplane are the terrorists who shoot it down. The incident was filmed by two French journalists who though it was a bluff. The airport was occupied by what they considered enemy troops (American and Australian) but they had no idea who or what the target airplane was. It was an opportunistic shot. (They later fired a second missile and missed.) The terrorists boast about the hundreds of enemy they've killed. (They're lying.) What's required to solve this problem is not aviation experts but social scientists.

Can You Be HALF Out Of Your Mind?, 10 March 2017

Jonathan Miller, the writer and host, is a polymath, an MD who is best known for his staging of opera and his TV presentations. He has a smooth, earnest, and convincing delivery, which is okay because he knows what he's talking about.

His approach to the subject isn't academic at all. It's a little historical, with one extended case history illustrating the battle of wits in the 1600s over whether madness was the result of some natural malfunction or witchcraft. It's not exactly about the evolution of treatment methods either. Pinel doesn't get to release the patients from their chains at La Bicetre hospital. If you're interested in how "loonies" were treated in Mozart's time, let me recommend two above average feature films: "The Madness of King George" and Val Lewton's "Bedlam." Instead of following one theme (eg., schizophrenia) or one hero (eg., Freud), it's a kind of scattershot overview of a problem that about ten percent of us will experience in some form in our lifetimes.

What's missing? Well, the American Psychiatric Association's DSM lists all the forms of mental illness known to Western man. After some recent events in the political arena, I've begun to wonder if the the social psychologists shouldn't develop a similar handbook covering the madness of crowds. The last hundred years should have demonstrated that crowds, or whole nations, can be far more puzzling and dangerous that one insane individual.

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