Saturday, June 30, 2012

Movie Reviews-The Samaritan, The Vampire Lovers, Safe House

The Samaritan
I am trying to write shorter reviews and The Samaritan is an excellent source on which to practice that style. There's not a whole lot I can write without giving away some spoilers which are pretty essential to the plot.

This is a modern film noir starring Samuel L. Jackson as the con man and grifter Foley. Foley has just been released from prison after serving a twenty-five year sentence for murdering his former partner. This is shown in flashback. Now Foley finds that everyone he ever cared about is either dead, somewhere in prison, indifferent to his existence or lost in substance abuse. So Foley decides now would be as good a time as any to start going straight. His parole officer tells Foley that he can either be Foley's best friend or worst enemy and the choice is Foley's. Foley constantly tells himself and others that "nothing changes unless you make it change". And by constantly I mean every five minutes. I think after the third time or so I got the point. It was really reminiscent of A Bronx Tale's mantra of "The saddest thing in life is wasted talent". And you can sense that Foley has been wasting his talents.

Foley gets a job as a construction worker. He spends his nights in seedy bars trying to forget the past two and a half decades. Of course this wouldn't be a noir film if there weren't someone out there who didn't think Foley should forget and in The Samaritan, this person is Ethan (Luke Kirby), the son of Foley's former partner and a small time gangster with big plans for Foley. Foley's not interested, even when Ethan dangles the delectable but drugged out Iris (Ruth Negga) in front of him. 
Obviously things aren't as they seem. Foley finds it more and more difficult to refuse Ethan's increasingly insistent requests for assistance in making a move against Ethan's boss Xavier (Tom Wilkinson). The predominant emotion in this film is weariness and sadness. I really liked the characters, the cinematography and lighting. Nothing is as it seems. The film has its violent moments but this is far from a gangster shoot-em up. Jackson is quite restrained but powerful and shows again why he is one of the best actors working today. Give this one a look see. I liked Ruth Negga and will be on the look out for other films in which she's featured.  TRAILER

The Vampire Lovers
As I have mentioned before I am a big fan of Hammer Films, from the tasteful noirs of the early fifties, to the technicolor monster extravaganzas of the mid-fifties and sixties to the more sexually lurid horror films of the late sixties and early seventies. The Vampire Lovers falls into that last category. It was the first film in what became known as The Karnstein Trilogy. This film was one of the first Hammer Films to feature toplessness and nudity but if any film could be said to do so tastefully, it was probably this movie. Later entries definitely didn't do so (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) but here the storyline is not yet completely lost to cleavage, curves and plunging tops. But those things are all prominently featured nonetheless. For a short period of time those features co-existed with top line acting (well top line for horror anyway) and it makes for an exciting mix. As is usual with Hammer Films, the sets are lavish, costumes are great, the cinematography is top notch and the locations are mostly convincing.

Ok well what's it about? Well unless you are particularly dim which you're not because you're reading this blog you can likely guess. It's an adaptation of Sheridan LeFanu's vampire novella "Carmilla", which was written twenty five years before Bram Stoker's "Dracula". Here the vampire is female, independent, somewhat immune to daylight and with a very strong preference for female victims. The studio big shots as well as some of the (weakened) censors were concerned about the explicitness of the film both in terms of nudity and the apparent lesbian storyline but of course, much of that was in the book. 

In Styria, a Countess (Dawn Addams) leaves her daughter Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) with General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing). While the Countess is away doing whatever, Marcilla befriends, seduces and kills the General's niece, Laura (Pippa Steele). Marcilla disappears and shows up in a nearby estate. The Countess fakes a carriage breakdown and once again Marcilla (now calling herself Carmilla) is left to befriend a young girl Emma Morton (Madeleine Smith-later seen in "Live and Let Die" and who became just as big of a cult siren as Pitt). Only this time, Carmilla not only attempts to seduce and vampirise Emma but also Emma's governess, Madame Perrodot (Kate O'Mara) and the estate butler Renton (Harvey Hall), each of whom have some hidden desires which the vampish Pitt is able to bring out. In the meantime some other local girls have been dying mysteriously. This comes to the attention of the local authorities, including the grieving General and the aged Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer) who's had run-ins with vampires before and knows what needs to be done.

This was Ingrid Pitt's breakout role. This movie works not just because of her good looks, strong Polish accent, and womanly figure, she actually acts. Her vampire is someone that actually seems to feel both guilt and annoyance over her actions. Pitt had a pretty striking backstory and list of accomplishments, having grown up in a Nazi concentration camp. She was also an accomplished author, pilot and martial arts expert. By current standards the movie may be somewhat cheesy but it remains a cult favorite. It also remains something that would be censored on American television.

This was a satisfying if a bit predictable big budget thriller with Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Robert Patrick, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga,  and Game of Thrones actor Liam Cunningham. It has glimpses of past Reynolds movies such as Smokin' Aces and of past Washington films such as Training Day. It's shot in South Africa, which was a bit of a change from the normal locations for such films. However the movie really doesn't use this as much as it could have. Frankly it could have been in any country in the world without much changing the story or the action. As mentioned you've probably seen this story a million times before. I guess what makes it work is either the story touches some truth within ourselves so that we want to see it over and over again or the actors playing the roles are skilled enough to make us want to see them in whatever they do.The years are finally starting to catch up with Washington and Reynolds, albeit in different ways. Washington is a little long in the tooth for the action role but pulls it off with his characteristic aplomb and panache. As Frank from Blue Velvet might say to him, "Godd** ! You're one suave f*****!!". And at thirty-five it's a little hard to accept Reynolds as the lowest man on the totem pole, evidently fresh out of school but it is a movie.

What's it about?  Tobin Frost (Denzel Washingon) is a legendary rogue CIA agent who is in South Africa to close a deal with another intelligence agent, his friend Wade (Liam Cunningham). Wade has a file for Frost. But evidently someone else knows about this transaction because in short time Wade is murdered and people are after Frost in broad daylight. Chased down and surrounded he makes the only move he can by walking into the nearest American embassy. 

This sends off alarm bells throughout the American intelligence community, specifically the CIA. A trio of big shots (Gleeson, Farmiga and Shepard-the character names really aren't important-Shepard is the big boss while the other two are subordinate; Gleeson is Reynolds' supervisor) hit the roof and arrange for Frost to be transported to the nearest local CIA safehouse , which is being manned by Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), who before all the excitement was bored out of his mind, agitating to be sent home and wondering if he made the right career decision. But when Daniel Kiefer (Robert Patrick) and his goons bring Frost to the safe house for torture, Weston has to make some decisions about where his moral lines are. And then once the house is attacked both he and Frost go on a bit of a road trip in which each man will need to decide how much he can trust the other. Weston gets to learn how the world really works. This is an entertaining movie. I won't say it will stay with you or anything like that. And you will likely figure the twists out pretty quickly. Again, the question is not if you've driven the car before. The question is did you like the ride. I did...

Friday, June 29, 2012

Game of Thrones Political Ads

As a brief respite from the real life political issues of the day I thought it would be fun to have a quick jaunt back over to Westeros. If there were political campaign ads in Westeros what would they look like?*

*Do not go to youtube and read comments on these videos as most contain spoilers. Just watch them here. And as always please do not share any spoiler material. Many people (i.e blog partners) have not read the books and would be very upset with you if you spoiled their enjoyment of what has yet to be told in the story. They might even demand your head on a spike or ask you to decide between keeping your tongue or your hands or something like that...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Carter: Obama's Cruel and Unusual Record

We have previously discussed the horrible civil liberties and foreign policy record of the Obama Administration. Generally speaking, many liberals or progressives have assiduously ignored these things or blindly bleated that the Republicans would be worse. Some have argued that the President has access to information that we don't so we must trust him. Well maybe. But President Carter isn't having it. In a NYT column in which he never mentions President Obama by name he tears apart the post-9/11 dismantling of human rights and rule of law, which as he sees it, President Obama has accelerated.

This a really good read and you should check it out. I don't have a lot to say about this mostly because I've said it all before and somewhat because I happen to be in a bit of a pickle on the day job.
Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.  
Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable. After more than 30 airstrikes on civilian homes this year in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has demanded that such attacks end, but the practice continues in areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that are not in any war zone. We don’t know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington. This would have been unthinkable in previous times.These policies clearly affect American foreign policy. Top intelligence and military officials, as well as rights defenders in targeted areas, affirm that the great escalation in drone attacks has turned aggrieved families toward terrorist organizations, aroused civilian populations against us and permitted repressive governments to cite such actions to justify their own despotic behavior.

I will say that Carter's elegy for the US role as protector of human rights and guarantor of law is an excellent reminder that some values are above and beyond partisanship. There are greater goals for the republic than whether or not a Democrat or Republican is in the White House this time next year. Some things are just wrong no matter who is doing them. And the arc of the country does not seem to bending towards an appreciation of that fact or towards a limited executive branch power. Carter sounds quite close to Tariq Ali's analysis in a review we did some time ago.

You can read the entire piece here. There are good reasons why people who cherish civil liberties may not see either major party presidential candidate as worthy of their vote in the fall election. But ultimately I think both candidates reflect a spreading moral rot in the American body politic. Unfortunately, thanks to human nature, people only tend to see these dangers when it's the other party that is involved in making mincemeat out of constitutional and legal provisions. The Republicans who found new appreciation for Congress as an equal branch of government once Obama was elected are matched by Democrats who suddenly realized that the unitary executive theory wasn't a bad idea, so long as Obama was President that is. So it goes.

What's your take?
Is Carter right?
Do you think it is correct for him to criticize (implicitly) the previous two Presidents?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Anti-Immigration Violence, Racism, Illegal Immigrants, Israel and the Ethnostate

Riot victim explains what happened

I've been really busy with other things over the past month so I am just now getting around to writing about this. But I as it turns out with it's still somewhat timely because of our recent discussions over illegal immigration, the President's decision to administratively implement portions of the Dream Act and this week's expected Supreme Court decision on Arizona's SB1070 law.

Let's say that a group of Caucasians ran violently amok against Third World illegal and legal immigrants, whom they blamed for increased crime, disease, unsustainable fertility and basic cultural and racial incompatibility. Imagine that their political and religious leaders endorsed the rioters' concerns in explicitly white supremacist language and promised new steps to detain and deport illegal immigrants while preventing legal immigrant entry on the basis of stopping a clear and present demographic danger. Allow that the leaders spoke of shooting illegal immigrants dead and driving out legal immigrants who were the wrong color or who had had the chutzpah to either compete for jobs with citizens, open businesses or date/marry citizens. Finally let's say that political leaders started building new detention centers just so any particularly dense illegal immigrants got the hint.

You'd probably think that Arizona had finally lost it. You might say that the National Guard needed to be sent into Arizona to protect visibly Hispanic people from violence. And if you shared the immigrants' ethnicity or were otherwise just a decent person upset about violence and racist language, you might be demanding that President Obama make it clear through word and deed that these sort of actions would not be tolerated.

Israeli citizens express desire for Africans to leave
What I described above above all happened but it was not in Arizona and did not involve Hispanics. It occurred in Israel and involved Africans. So this didn't get a lot of mainstream U.S. media attention. Surprising I know. I was intrigued by it though because it touched on some basic truths about humanity and history that I think we overlook at our peril.

The United States is unusual in being (theoretically anyway) a country in which race and ethnicity are delinked from citizenship. As long as you are born here you are a citizen. Period. Most Americans may still be Caucasian but anyone on the planet can become an American. There is no way that you can look at someone and automatically say he's not an American. This country was multiracial and even multicultural from the start. The American political journey has been to formally recognize these facts and deal with the hypocrisies, challenges or opportunities that flow from them. 

But many other countries simply were not created like that and certainly aren't crazy about diversity now. Although times are changing there remains a pretty good chance that you can visually discern Ugandans from Finns or Japanese from Scots. Some countries make a link between ancestry, culture, ethnicity and citizenship. Israel is one such country. If you are non-Jewish, there is a slightly less level of citizenship enjoyed, that is if you are allowed to become a citizen in the first place, which you probably won't be. Israel intends to remain a Jewish state. 

So the current situation in Israel vis a vis the immigrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa is pretty interesting because there is hypocrisy enough to go around for everyone. Obviously I don't and can't agree with the ugly white supremacist thinking revealed and reveled in by some Israelis. One woman legislator compared the Africans to cancer patients and then apologized cancer patients. Seriously. Someone tried to burn down an apartment building inhabited by Eritreans. Netanyahu has said the Africans are a demographic threat. A rabbi who is the spiritual leader of Shas said that Africans are ruining the Jewish dream and need to go build their dream in their own countries.
"A society personifying a social time bomb of robbery, violence, sodomy as well as assimilation alongside the destruction of the institute of marriage and the proper family unit – such a society must be separate and distant, and the sooner the better. Listen up, dear and kind Sudanese people. In the United States, Martin Luther King's dream came true. Giuliani will tell you how he made it happen. Go forth and implement this in Sudan and Eritrea. We promise to help you, we'll even be delighted to help, as always."
Yishai, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told the newspaper Maariv on Friday he saw the African arrivals, many of whom are Muslims or Christians, as a demographic threat."The infiltrators along with the Palestinians will quickly bring us to the end of the Zionist dream," Yishai said, adding that Israel had its own health and welfare issues. "Most of those people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn't belong to us, the white man," Yishai said in the interview with Maariv.

Abraham Alu, a 35-year-old refugee from what is now South Sudan, was on his way to the store last Wednesday night when an anti-African protest in south Tel Aviv turned violent. Jewish Israelis chased and beat African asylum seekers, broke the windows of a car full of African men, and smashed storefronts of African-owned stores in south Tel Aviv. Alu, who was headed out to buy food, almost ran into a mob. But police pointed to the group headed in his direction and said, “Run, they’ll murder you! Run!” Alu turned around and headed back to the tiny, one-room apartment he shares with 11 other South Sudanese men.
TJ, a 29-year-old migrant from Nigeria, watched the violent chaos from his rooftop having been chased and pelted with rocks when he attempted to leave his house."There were protesters everywhere smashing shop and car windows," he said. "A group of about 10 or 15 boys stopped one black kid cycling on his bike. They pulled him off and were punching and kicking him in his head. The police just stood and watched until it got really out of control." Other witnesses described a gang assaulting a mother carrying a young baby so violently that she was forced to drop her child. Others stopped shuttle buses to search for migrant workers among their passengers.'TJ' says he is among the few who has left his home following the violence: "Black people have been too afraid to leave their homes to go to work today. Racism in Tel Aviv is not only getting worse it's getting out of hand and the police are no help. We are terrified." 
These immigrants and refugees generally aren't welcomed in Arab North Africa either or the Middle East, often for the same reasons. The overthrow of Qaddafi released some of the same anti-black hatred. Israel hardly stands alone. Egypt doesn't want these people any more than Israel does. Some Israelis feel that because Israel was set up as a place of Jewish refuge then it must be one for other refugees, even if they look different or have different cultures. Some Israelis are saddened and disgusted by the vituperative racism shown by some of their countrymen and countrywomen. Others say, racism or no, that there is a point beyond which a group or nation cannot accept outsiders without losing that which made the nation worth having in the first place. There are roughly about 5.8 million Jews in Israel. They have no intention of allowing immigrants to reach the numbers or percentages that are seen in America or France or the UK. Israel was not the former colonial power of Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia or Eritrea and in this point of view really bears no responsibility for economic or political refugees from those countries. A new law allows a three year detention of illegal immigrants to Israel.
The really incredibly disgusting hypocritical thing though is if any political leader in Europe dared to say anything remotely negative about the presence of Jewish people within their historic homelands, some of the same thugs yelling "Throw the blacks out" in Tel Aviv would be the first people howling about anti-semitism in Europe. And God forbid if an European nation experienced a new anti-Jewish Kristallnacht type riot. I have no doubt that the US ambassador to the UN would be standing up to loudly condemn that country while Netanyahu adroitly reminded everyone that this is how the Holocaust got started. But that's life I guess. Hypocrisy is deeply woven within humans. Perhaps we all have a tendency to look out for our own first and say to hell with the other guy.

Both liberal and conservative strands are part of what make us human. To horribly generalize for a moment, often the liberal wants to accept and help others and often has an issue admitting that peoples or cultures are different or that there really is such a thing as "in-group" or "out-group". Liberals are at their best making appeals to universal and transcendent human values and not necessarily parochial national or ethnic ones. Some liberals can be rather suspicious of or hostile to solidarity appeals based solely on group membership, especially if the group is one you were born into or is not a "disadvantaged group". At the extremes of course well this can fall into an inability to recognize that your own culture or way of life is valid and worth defending.

African immigrants seeking food
But the conservative person has no problem accepting in-groups and out-groups. Often such identities track closely with how he sees the world. "Ours" and "Mine" are not automatically bad words to a conservative. The idea that this particular bunch of goodies or patch of land belongs to the people who live there and not to those "others" is self-evident to many people with this pov. Again, taken to the extremes this falls into hierarchical thinking, an inability to recognize yourself in others, xenophobia and open gleeful racism. There is a serious conflict between democracy and racial/ethnic/religious tribalism.

This is not just a black-white phenomenon or even a First World-Third World issue. There have been anti-Chinese riots in Zambia, anti-African riots in China (The Tiananmen Square uprising mutated from anti-African clashes), Muscovite Russians rioting against Caucasian Russians, Indian Hindus seeking to slaughter Indian Muslims, Black South Africans attacking illegal immigrant Black Zimbabweans and so on. US/THEM thinking is something that may be ugly and seemingly atavistic in humankind but it's certainly not going away anytime soon. The trick is to recognize it and channel it properly without giving into it completely, as seems to be happening in Israel. There is a middle ground which welcomes the legal newcomer but doesn't ask to remove the concept of a nation. Despite all the epithets hurled at Americans who are opposed to illegal immigration, I don't see the current American political structure welcoming or endorsing the open violence we see in Israel. I think part of this is chickens coming home to roost as some forms of political Zionism lend themselves or almost require the sort of ugly chauvinism and racism that we see expressed. Zionism is not, after all, completely congruent with the American political system.

What's your take?
1) Had you heard about this? Are you surprised?
2) Do countries have a right to expel illegal immigrants and/or people who have different cultures? Do countries have a right to seek to maintain a certain demographic balance?
3) Does Israel have any special duty to accept refugees?
4) Should President Obama censure Israel for its actions?
5) Is the nation state passe? Should everyone have open borders?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Music Reviews-Ifang Bondi, Carmen

Ifang Bondi
Over the recent past years I've really gotten heavy into African music from the sixties thru the nineties. There is a vast universe of stuff out there from a variety of different countries with all sorts of different sounds. I enjoy it all and intend to learn as much about it as I can. There are just all sorts of links between African music and African-American music and American music in general. This is especially the case with West African music, which seems to have the closest relationship to my favorite American genres. One band which I've always appreciated is Ifang Bondi. Ifang Bondi is a Gambian-Senegalese group that combined some popular Afro-Cuban and African-American funk stylings with deep blues feeling and really deep traditional West African music. They deliberately went back to their roots instead of just playing Africanized versions of Western music. The mix is one I enjoy a lot but it's hard to find their stuff. Most of their music I've gotten from collections of Senegalese music

It really is hard to overstate how familiar some of this music sounds if you are at all interested in African-American or other African based music diasporic African music. And yet at the same time it's very obviously foreign. Some of the beats or changes aren't exactly where I would expect them to be and obviously in most cases I have absolutely no idea what the singer is talking about. But that doesn't prevent my enjoyment of opera and it shouldn't prevent you from enjoying Ifang Bondi.

Saraba is my favorite piece. It's really mournful sounding with riffs that intermingle distorted guitars and what sound like synths. Although Saraba sounds similar to what could have been an unreleased Parliament-Funkadelic cut, it also is very reminiscent of some old field chants I've heard. Other pieces you might find interesting include  Xalel Dey MaggSaya, and Salimata

I would imagine that everyone knows this story if not from Bizet's original opera then from the various popular remakes (Carmen Jones with Belafonte and Dandridge, Carmen with Phifer and Beyonce). If you don't the story is pretty simple. Uptight boy meets girl with loose morals, girl drives boy crazy, girl tells boy to get lost and runs off with another boy with higher status, boy kills girl in jealous rage. Why has this story resonated so much with so many people over the years? I don't know but it probably says something not so good about gender relations. Anyway I wasn't being facetious; that really is about the extent of the story.

In 1820 Seville a woman named Micaela searches for a soldier named Don Jose to give him a letter from his mother. The letter orders him to come home and marry Micaela. In the meantime though a gypsy woman named Carmen, who's been around the block a few times, makes eyes at Don Jose though he ignores her. After she gets in a fight with another factory girl she is arrested. She is supposed to be transported to prison by Don Jose. She sings about the pleasures of well, you know and offers to meet Don Jose later. He lets her escape. He's temporarily arrested. 

At a tavern Carmen is waiting for Don Jose and rejects the advances of the bullfighter Escamillo, who knows what he likes. Don Jose arrives and doesn't want to leave just yet with Carmen but after a fight with a superior officer he has nothing to lose and leaves with Carmen and her group of Gypsy desperadoes and smugglers.
Later Don Jose is not sure he made the right decision. Carmen has found him somewhat boring and has become a bit of a shrew. Carmen reads fortune telling cards that say that both she and Don Jose will die. Micaela arrives to tell Don Jose that his mother is dying. Escamillo shows up sniffing after Carmen. He and Don Jose get into a fight but it's broken up. Escamillo invites everyone (but mainly Carmen) to his next bullfight. Don Jose goes home but says things aren't over between Carmen and him.
But as far as Carmen is concerned they are. She's dropped him like a bad habit and gone with Escamillo. Carmen is warned that Don Jose is creeping around but she has no fear of confronting him. He begs, pleads and whines for her to leave with him. She tells him she has someone new and doesn't love him anymore, throwing away the ring he gave her. Enraged that he was number 999 on a 1000 man list, Don Jose kills her, just as Escamillo and the crowd emerge from the arena. 

My favorite versions of this opera feature Placido Domingo as Don Jose. This music is quite popular and you will likely have heard it, if not in the original opera format, then in various movies or parodies. This is pretty melodramatic stuff and was not a success in Bizet's lifetime. Who knows, maybe 100 years from now Tyler Perry's works will be considered high art. You never can tell.
Prelude  Habanera  Seguidilla  Les Toreadors  Finale

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Women in Combat?

You might have missed it but recently two female Army reservists decided to sue to have combat operations opened to women

Command Sergeant Major Jane Baldwin and Colonel Ellen Haring, both Army reservists, said policies barring them from assignments "solely on the basis of sex" violated their right to equal protection under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.  "This limitation on plaintiffs' careers restricts their current and future earnings, their potential for promotion and advancement, and their future retirement benefits," the women said in the suit filed in U.S. District Court.
I thought this was interesting because it appears at first glance that the women are more interested in their personal career options and monetary gain than they are in a supposed class based grievance. Of course to be fair, their personal interests and the larger class based unfairness would be congruent in this case if you buy their argument, which I don't. However, I am fascinated by hypocrisy as you probably can tell by now and this entire issue is full of hypocrisy on all sides.
I think the differences between races are usually small and often caused by environmental factors.  "Race" itself is often something which is ill-defined and somewhat arbitrary and can change in meaning from time to time or society to society. What is "white" or "black" in Latin America or the Caribbean or the Middle East may not be so in the United States. The racial biological differences simply don't exist to the level some think. But the biological differences between men and women are real. They are also shaped by environmental factors of course as none of us grow up in a vacuum but there are some very obvious irreducible differences between men and women. In a wartime/combat situation this comes down to the fact that men are stronger and more aggressive while women are simply worth more to their society reproductively. There have not been, as far as I know, any successful societies that routinely sent women marching off to war while the men stayed home.  No one ever says "save the men and children first" or angrily points out an enemy's perfidy by claiming "they killed innocent men".  No parent ever asks a prospective daughter-in-law how she will provide for and protect their son.  Men are, by and large, the replaceable gender when it comes to such things. That's not a complaint. It's just a fact.

Now in the modern feminist world we are not supposed to notice such things and if we do notice them we are supposed to believe that they are only and always the product of invidious discrimination. Well maybe. Maybe we really can go against thousands of years of evolution and turn the gender with seven times less testosterone into soldiers and warriors that are just as fierce as their male counterparts. After all, war has changed as the women litigants point out. A roadside bomb doesn't care what gender you are. And considering some of the people we're fighting against or for that matter allying with these days a captured male soldier might be in just as much danger of rape as a female one.
The problem though is that at the very same time that some women are chafing at the bit to be formally assigned and not just attached to combat units, we are also told that violence against women is the worst thing that can happen and therefore we need the Violence Against Women Act, tons of spending on domestic violence and anti-rape programs, etc. In fact the military itself has a big problem with rape. So I have trouble understanding, how if violence against women is such a horrible event, why we would want to place more women into an arena of organized brutal violence. 
The other issue is of course one of standards. Women soldiers do not have to meet the same physical standards as men soldiers. Some of them could no doubt but most could not. Do we believe that the standards are specifically designed to give a soldier and his unit the best chance to survive in combat operations ? Or do we think the standards are created for other reasons. If I were in combat I would want to know that the person beside me could carry their own load and if need be pull, carry or lift me out of harm's way. If I had good reason to doubt that would the unit be as cohesive? 
These pics of Air Force reservists are somewhat NSFW.(nursing mother and partially visible chest) These are not combat troops. But the pics exemplify my worries about women in combat. These images are simply not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of US combat personnel in particular or soldiers/warriors in general. In fact they are virtually the antithesis of what I think soldiers are about. There were no new mothers landing on the beaches of Normandy or making the last stand at Thermopylae. There have been about 1.3 million US military personnel killed in all US wars since the Revolutionary War. From what I can tell somewhere between 1000-2000 of those people were women. Now you will often hear women talk about all the male presidents or CEO's or other people at the top of the heap while intimating that women need to have an equal number of those positions for the next millennium or so. But it's quite rare that you would see women clamoring to make up an equal number of those killed, wounded or maimed in war so perhaps I should applaud the women litigants. Equality and all that.
I believe in legal and actual equality between men and women. I supported the Lily Ledbetter Act and oppose discrimination in hiring or promotion.  I think that every man and woman has some characteristics within that are stereotypically associated with the opposite gender. And I think that by and large women and men are more alike than different. But equality does not mean that men and women are identical. Because we aren't. To quote Meg from Madeleine L'Engle's classic A Wrinkle In Time, "Like and equal are not the same thing at all". Women do not currently play in the NFL because they are not capable of doing so. There's no shame in that. The vast majority of men are not capable of playing in the NFL (or dare I say of being a combat soldier). But in the NFL, as dangerous as it is, usually your life and the lives of those around you are not at risk. If women don't play in the NFL, which is after all a sport, why would we want women in the exponentially more demanding and dangerous combat arena. It doesn't make sense to me. The military is there to kill people and blow stuff up. It is not there to provide day care, career advancement, nursing stations or anything else along those lines. There are ways for women soldiers to serve their country proudly and with distinction without being in direct combat.
The obvious parallel of course is between the opening up of formal combat roles to black men and the desegregation of the US military. I don't think that's a good analogy. Even before Truman's order to desegregate black men had fought and died in every war America ever had. The battle to lift formal combat restrictions was based on the black male desire to prove themselves as men, get rid of segregation and discrimination in the larger society, including but not limited to voting rights. The lawsuit about women in combat seems to be as I wrote a more personal selfish desire for career advancement and perhaps a larger activist desire to blur or eliminate differences in gender roles.

Well to each his/her own but I actually like distinct gender roles and don't feel that they are automatically oppressive. But as you've probably figured out by now I am not a feminist. Not even close. I do believe in equality and if the women could meet the exact same standards as the men I would tell them to rock on with their bad selves and cheerfully send them off to combat. Yeah right. But I am no military expert and have no military experience. These are just my ramblings.

What's your take?

1) Should women have the right to serve in combat?
2) Should combat groups be gender segregated?
3) Should physical standards between male and female soldiers be made the same?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Music Reviews-Thin Lizzy, Chris Thomas, Step Rideau, Jimi Hendrix

Thin Lizzy: Vagabonds of the Western World
Phil Lynott was the bassist, singer, frontman and primary songwriter for the Irish rock band Thin Lizzy. He was literally Black Irish, as his mother was Irish and his father was Afro-Guyanese.

As Lynott was influenced by Hendrix in style and to a certain extent in songwriting I always thought it was a shame they never hooked up. Now that would have been quite the band!

Vagabonds of the Western World was the band's third album and their last with original guitarist Eric Bell. The band would go to much greater commercial success with a more generic hard rock, dual lead guitar attack but actually I always preferred Bell's tone and the trio sound, although obviously there are some overdubs here and there. I don't think Lynott ever sounded better on bass. He here has a very punchy (I think he used a plectrum to play bass), well defined and yet thick sound that is upfront and in your face. The album is very well produced. I never like rock music where you can hardly hear the bass or it's playing just the bare minimum. That's not a problem here as Lynott's bass has more bottom than a house full of hippos. He's busy but never overplays. Lynott has a deft melodic sense. It's close to Motown bass god James Jamerson and Paul McCartney. His singing voice can best be described as big and earnest.

This is a much more diverse album than anything the band would later record. It's not just hard rock. There's the nasty street funk of I'm Gonna Creep up on you which for some reason has always struck me as the perfect soundtrack accompaniment to an extended gangster film scene when the long overdue hits are made simultaneously across the city. The lurching drunken bada$$ rhythms of The Rocker (live version) and the hard funk meets blues tones of Slow Blues are also fun listening for me.

Mama Nature Said is a slide guitar driven eco-lament about what mankind has done to the world while Little Girl In Bloom is a dare I say sensitive insight into single motherhood which uses tasteful delay and round singing. The title track is a melding of Celtic themes of exploration and magic with modern funk-rock. This album produced a hit with the band's version of the traditional Irish ballad Whiskey in the Jar, which saw Lynott on acoustic guitar. Black Boys on the Corner is a semi-autobiographical protest against racism which showed if nothing else Lynott had been listening to Issac Hayes "Theme from Shaft". Randolph's Tango is another number that shows off a tasteful acoustic guitar solo.

As mentioned Eric Bell left the group shortly after this album, evidently exhausted from the touring and the relative lack of success. That was a shame because soon afterwards the band had some huge hits and started to move into headliner status. But before Jailbreak and The Boys are Back in Town became two of their defining hits there was a different bluesier Thin Lizzy that you might want to check out.

Chris Thomas: Simple
Chris Thomas is the son of bluesman Tabby Thomas.
Chris Thomas has visited a huge variety of music styles. This is unusual for so-called blues artists but is something that rock artists do all the time. Perhaps because of musical stereotyping and expectations that tend to limit opportunities for black rockers, his earlier music wasn't hugely commercially successful. In fact he had to go overseas for a while to get a chance at some wider attention. Much of Thomas' music is based in blues but he's not bound by blues. He has been insistent over the years that he has to make music that is meaningful to him and relevant to today's listeners, instead of just replaying things that were discovered by people of older generations.

His 1993 release Simple was his most straight ahead rock album. However he hasn't really revisited that sound since, preferring to focus on blues-rap melange or more straight ahead acoustic blues. This second style was given renewed focus and great commercial success by his acting role in the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou as bluesman Tommy Johnson. So whether you like straight ahead electric blues, funk, gentle soul a la D'Angelo, rap, acoustic blues, country, old timey gospel, electronica, blues-rock or hard rock chances are that Thomas has done something over the years since this album that you might enjoy. He has an authoritative voice but is not a screamer. His voice is somewhere between Terence Trent D'Arby (whose sartorial style Thomas used on his first album) and Lenny Kravitz's calmer moments. He's probably the only musician that I've heard who has successfully mixed rap and blues.

As mentioned Simple is the most rock oriented of all of his releases but like most albums of that kind then and now it was too "white" for black radio and of course too "black" for white radio. This is ironic as Simple has extremely obvious shouts out to Hendrix, Bob Marley, Chuck Berry, and other black rock, reggae or blues icons. Usually I don't like ranking guitarists because I think it's silly. I'll just say I liked this album and guitar tone here a lot. I don't think Thomas was revolutionary or super skilled here but I do think if you are open to some familiar high energy sounding rock-and-roll and an interesting take on Marley's War you might want to give this a listen. It may not have been Thomas' best or deepest work but it is fun and if you pardon the pun, simple listening.
Fool for love  War    Whatever happened to the revolution 
Itch   Blood on the dagger 

Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws
I am a big fan of various types of Louisiana based music, especially zydeco so it was a special treat when a friend of mine pulled my coat about Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws. Like a lot of modern zydeco it sounds like this music takes as much from blues and rock-n-roll as it does from zydeco but as the differences between those musics are rather arbitrary, especially in Louisiana and Texas, it's all good.

Like much of the music I like this music has relentless well defined bass lines. I hadn't heard of this group before but am quite happy to make their acquaintance. This music is really fun to listen to. If you don't feel like dancing while listening to this you immediately need to check your body to see if your soul and moneymaker are still attached and in working order!!
Step Rideau also has modern rap/crunk/electronica influences as heard most prominently on Zydeco Swing Out. I'm actually a little embarrassed that I wasn't previously familiar with him. Starting to slip in old age or something I guess. Hopefully my friend will read this post and realize she has good taste.

Anyway if you are already fond of zydeco or its half-brother cajun music, or any of the similar genres from Louisiana and Texas, you will probably enjoy Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws. This is an excellent example of how traditional music can naturally grow and change with the times without sounding either like a museum piece or looking like your great grandmother stage diving. Good stuff. I love the waltz meets blues rhythms of Let's talk about old times.
Please take me  Zydeco Swing Out   I see what u like   Let's Talk about old times
Pull it till it pops  Come on Over  Creole Way   Rockin Chair

Hendrix: Band of Gypsys
Hendrix had to produce this album to satisfy a previous contractual claim by somewhat shady music producer Ed Chalpin (who later produced Public Enemy). To make a long story short Chalpin was able to parlay an old $1.00 contract into an album owed him by Hendrix. Hendrix certainly didn't want to allow Chalpin access to anything he did in the studio so he and his (also somewhat shady) management decided to record a live album instead. Live albums then and now were often huge risks but as most of the monies from this release would be going into Chalpin's pockets and not Hendrix's it wasn't as if Hendrix was going to care too much about that.

Hendrix was also undergoing stress and friction with his original band, The Experience, particularly bassist Noel Redding. Redding was increasingly frustrated with Hendrix's studio perfectionism and penchant for redoing all of Redding's bass lines himself. Hendrix didn't appreciate Redding's mistakes, resistance to playing Hendrix-dictated bass lines or Redding's habit of trying to play in the treble register. Redding was a guitarist who had switched to bass. Finally fed up, Redding left the group.
Hendrix relocated to the US where he hooked up with his old bass playing Army buddy, Billy Cox. Hendrix had originally wanted to take Cox with him when he left for England but finances and timing hadn't worked out. The reunion seemed to kickstart some creativity within the exhausted Hendrix. The duo linked with drummer Buddy Miles, who was already something of a star, though not on Hendrix's level obviously. The trio jammed together, though still not as much as the notoriously perfectionist Hendrix would have liked and produced the concert album Band of Gypsys.

The Band of Gypsys was both sonically and literally a blacker band than The Experience.
Billy Cox was imo a far better bassist than Redding. He understood how to hold down the bottom. Although I don't think Mitchell was a bad drummer Miles brings a much funkier, fatter and deeper sound. It's John Bonham meets Clyde Stubblefield with a hint of Bernard Purdie thrown in. Cox and Miles understood both instinctively and through years of experience how to play behind the beat. Redding and Mitchell tended to zoom ahead of it. Hendrix showed, that not only had he been listening to people like Sly Stone and James Brown but also that all along he had been coming from the same roots. The music here would later be referenced and used by people as diverse as Miles Davis, EWF, The Isley Brothers, Nugent, John Lee Hooker, Funkadelic, The Jackson Five, Thin Lizzy, Norman Whitefield, Issac Hayes, Robin Trower (check out Daydream or Bridge of Sighs), Frank Marino and many many others. All in all this band was tighter than The Experience and exponentially funkier. There's impressive use of space.

The album opens with Who Knows, which is a catchy little funk-rock tune that features a co-verbal lead between Hendrix and Miles as well as a scat solo by Buddy Miles. I like it but even Hendrix thought that a little of Buddy Miles' singing goes a mighty long way so YMMV. The song also anticipates drum-n-bass music and dubstep. Then there is Machine Gun. In my opinion Machine Gun was not only Hendrix's masterpiece among masterpieces it was and still is the definitive statement of what an electric guitar can do. Howls of pain, screams, fire, helicopters, napalm, and of course machine guns are all heard in this song. It's a stream of consciousness onomatopoeic improv about war and evil. I don't think anyone anywhere has matched or will match what Hendrix did here. Hendrix did not change chords in this song. It was both an anti-war song and an updated modern blues piece in the key of E, reminiscent of some of Howling Wolf's one chord songs.

The remaining songs are somewhat underdeveloped but are evidence that Hendrix was intimately familiar with funk, soul and jazz. They make very explicit usage of call and response, melisma and other African-American musical stylings. Some songs would, were the lyrics changed, have fit perfectly at church. Listen to the clap-alongs Power of Soul and  We Gotta Live Together.  Them Changes became a signature tune for Buddy Miles who later recut it with Carlos Santana. Message to Love showed up in radically different forms on later Hendrix studio versions.

Hendrix's management was delighted to complete the Chalpin obligation but was not too thrilled with an all black band, black people, Black Panthers and other social activists showing up at Hendrix concerts or the new direction of Hendrix's music. To be fair there is some evidence that Hendrix himself did not see Buddy Miles at least, as a necessarily permanent band member going forward. We'll never know for sure as with a few notable exceptions Hendrix was famously not confrontational. The band broke up when after a poorly performed concert Cox had a bad reaction to something (some people say it was acid) and Hendrix's manager personally and gleefully fired Miles. The Experience was temporarily reformed but that didn't last long. Hendrix started a new band with Cox on bass and Mitchell on drums. Anyway, all that nonsense aside you should have this album if you are into the guitar, into Hendrix, into funk, rock or blues. Although I can't say everything here is a keeper, Machine Gun and Who Knows are more than worth whatever you would pay for this album. This was part of a group of concerts around New Year's Eve 1969. The expanded but apparently still not complete concert can be found on Hendrix: Live at Fillmore East, but as mentioned the best version of Machine Gun is here.