By John Ruberry

Synesthesia: “A sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color,” so says Dictionary.com.

If there is a void in your musical life and you are a fan of the Kinks and the Beatles, or perhaps Oasis, then I suggest you explore the career of XTC, the most unappreciated band of its time.

And what a time it was. XTC was part of the Class of 1977, rock and roll’s last great year in my opinon, when the Clash, Blondie, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and many more burst onto the musical scene. By 1999, after a seven year strike against its British label, when they released their penultimate album, Apple Venus Volume 1, only Costello and XTC remained as active acts.

Like the Beatles, XTC evolved musically into a much different group when it was all over.

Late last year in Great Britain and early this year in the United States, the documentary, yes, rockumentarty, XTC: This Is Pop was released. It’s available where I live on Showtime and Xfinity OnDemand.

What became XTC began in the southwestern English city of Swindon, the onetime home of the Swindon Works of the Great Western Railway, with a band started by its de facto leader, Andy Partridge. Bassist Colin Moulding and drummer Terry Chambers rounded out the nucleus of the group. London keyboardist Barry Andrews, the only XTCer who is not interviewed for This Is Pop, later joined; he appears on the band’s first two albums, White Music and GO2, which comprise the band’s punk period. After Andrews’ departure he was replaced by another Swindonian, guitarist Dave Gregory.

“I actually think we started pretty damn good and then got a lot better. And there’s not too many bands can say that’s their arc,” Partridge immodestly but correctly boasts about XTC.

Yet there is some humor in This Is Pop that offsets the braggadocio.

“Don’t you dare have-into this documentary,” Partridge waves off “that lugubrious keyboard player from that prog-rock group,” Rick Wakeman of Yes, who makes a hilarious cameo.

Partridge says of his troubled childhood, “I never thought I was good at anything until I got more and more into drawing and painting.”

Imagine if legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who early in his life aspired to be a painter, formed a rock group instead. It just might have sounded like XTC.

The band’s breakthrough in 1979 came not from a Partridge-penned tune but one by Moulding, “We’re Only Making Plans For Nigel” from their third album, Drums and Wires, which Little Marathon Pundit said of the other day, “That’s one song I like.” If its sonorous drum patterns seem familiar, that’s because engineer Hugh Padham discovered that effect while recoding “Nigel” before bringing the technique to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” Many other 1980s acts swiped that sound.

The next two albums, Black Sea and English Settlement, brought more–albeit modest–success and momentum to XTC as it rounded out its New Wave period. But as the Kinks often bungled their career, XTC’ sabotaged things too, although not intentionally as I’ve always suspected the Kinks did. The effects of Partridge’s Valium addiction, which went back to when he was 12, and the withdrawal effects, led to a nervous breakdown during a Paris concert–which is shown in This Is Pop. The lads from Swindon still traveled to the United States for their first tour as a headliner. But what should have been an American victory lap lasted just one show. Outside of a smattering of radio and television appearances, they never performed live again.

XTC’s pastoral era brought three albums, Mummer, The Big Express, and Skylarking. But within that period XTC’s psychedelic alter ego, the Dukes of Stratosphear, released two collections that outsold those last two in the UK.

Before recording Skylarking, Partridge tells us, their record label issued an ultimatum: You need to grow your American audience and hire an American producer. Presented with a list of unfamiliar names, Partridge chose the only one he had heard of: Todd Rundgren. The result was the band’s masterpiece, Skylarking. On it you find the conceptual orchestral greatness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But because Partridge and “Runt” butted heads–they probably had too much in common–the studio atmosphere mirrored the angst of the Beatles’ White Album recording sessions. XTC came close to blowing this moment too as the original pressings of Skylarking omitted the best song from the Rundgren sessions, the controversial atheist anthem “Dear God.” It was the B-side of the “Grass” single. American deejays elevated “Dear God” to prominence. Their record company was right, XTC needed a jump start from America.

Earlier I mentioned synesthesia. “How I write a lot of the songs, I will find a chord or a chord change on a guitar or on a keyboard,” Partridge describes his songwriting technique, “and I’m playing those but not I’m not hearing music–I’m seeing pictures. That’s how I write songs, it comes usually from the synesthesic level.”

And I wager you thought I was overreaching with the Akira Kurosawa comparison.

“Synesthesia is where you get stuff mixed up,” Partridge expands on his thoughts, “someone will say a number and you’ll hear a noise, or someone will show you a color and you’ll think of a number, or you’ll hear a peace of music or a chord and to me it makes a picture.”

And that is why XTC’s music is different.

The follow-up to Skylarking was 1989’s Oranges and Lemons, another success as XTC entered its proto-Britpop era.

Chambers left during the pastoral period and Gregory departed shortly after XTC’s recording strike ended. Their band’s final album, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), was released in 2000.

An eclectic group of commentators contribute context to This Is Pop, including Stewart Copeland of the Police, Blondie’s Clem Burke, and a veteran mockumentary performer, Harry Shearer, who, unlike Wakeman, plays it straight here.

Woven into This Is Pop is the countryside of southwestern England and a model train set winding through an intricately-reconstructed Swindon, because it doesn’t seem possible to separate XTC from their hometown.

XTC: This Is Pop is an essential film about an essential band, a group that belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The documentary can be streamed on Amazon.

John Ruberry, who has been an XTC fan since 1979 after hearing “We’re Only Making Plans for Nigel” on WXRT-FM in Chicago, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Sipping whisky from a paper cup
You drown your sorrows ‘til you can’t stand up
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf
Shooting junk ‘til you’re half insane
A broken needle in a purple vein
Why don’t you look into Jesus
He’s got the answer

 

from “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” by Larry Norman

 

On “Center Of My Heart,” a song from Tourniquet which was Larry Norman’s final studio album before he passed away ten years ago, he included the line “I’m a walking contradiction.” After reading Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, it’s obvious truer words have seldom been spoken.

Thornbury’s biography of Larry Norman, Christian rock’s founding father in the 1960s and most polarizing figure to this day, is a fascinating and sobering look at the life of a man almost perpetually surrounded by controversy. Much of it was Norman’s own doing, intentional or no; his incessant need to be in control and insistence on being a lone wolf utterly convinced of his selected path’s correctness often frayed and sometimes shattered relationships both professional and personal. Yet, he could also be generous to a fault with his time, money, and talents. He was also a brilliant songwriter and performer, penning and recording work that remains stunningly powerful and genuinely life-changing for those who have ears to hear.

Norman, to quote from a song by Mark Heard whose early career was directly influenced by Norman, was too sacred for the sinners and the saints wished he’d leave. The former were often off-put by Norman’s frequent references to Christ crucified and risen, while the latter routinely freaked out over his mixing straightforward love and political songs, plus generous use of allegory and parable, into his body of work. Norman didn’t care. It was his vision, done his way, take it or leave it.

The book does an excellent job in painting the backdrop for Norman’s life and times, managing the not inconsiderable feat of detailing such elements as the Jesus People movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s in a manner both informative to the uninitiated and not dreary for those already in the know. Some biographers tell a tale of life well; others specialize in times. Thornbury does both well.

Thornbury mentions more than once how Norman in concert sought not to entertain, but rather to challenge his audience, having no hesitation about making it feel uncomfortable through in-between song musings as well as in the songs themselves. He posed questions about faith and how believers should conduct themselves in the world, detailing the need to demolish the Christian ghetto and actually be in the world but not of it. Norman was simultaneously icon and iconoclast, the one without whom most every contemporary Christian artists would not be there while at the same time asking what they were doing there, as they were neither witnessing to non-believers nor edifying those who were already Christians.

The book is unflinching in its examination of Norman and those around him; his first wife Pamela and his early protege Randy Stonehill both come off quite poorly. However, the book also tosses bouquets as easily as it does brickbats. It is no hatchet job designed to speak maximum ill of the dead or the living. In lieu thereof it is, as best as Norman can be capsulated, a multi-level study of a multi-level man who won friends, made enemies, influenced many far more than they are willing to admit, and left it for others to argue about as he decidedly did it his way. If you love Larry Norman, or have no idea who he was, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock is enriching reading that, even as Norman did with his work, forces reflection.

The book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

In the early to mid 1970s, commercials for Mennen Skin Bracer aftershave were a staple of network television, especially sports programming. The tag line was simple: after the announcer deeply intoned how Skin Bracer’s skin tightner and chin chillers wake you up like a cold slap in the face, a man would slap some on – always twice – and end the commercial with, “Thanks – I needed that.” While minister, teacher, musician, and author Kemper Crabb’s aftershave preference is known but to himself and immediate family, he has taken Skin Bracer’s message to heart. His book Liberation Front: Resurrecting the Church is a Scriptural muscle-guided slap in the face to both individual believers and the church as a whole calling them, and it, back to the Biblically-ordained role and power the church has been divinely ordained to uphold in earth and in heaven.

Crabb is a Renaissance man, not only in how his music over the years has often referenced said era and earlier both musically and lyrically, but in his thorough knowledge of both Scripture and history. He makes his case both straight from the Bible and early church teachers/teachings that church membership is vital to every believer, alongside this outlining and then carefully detailing what Crabb labels the church’s seven modes (Romance, Family, Body, Temple, Pillar and Ground of Truth, Weapon, Liberating Army). Throughout the text Crabb exhorts, challenges, and confronts the reader to discard what he perceives as an emasculated view of the church’s role in society on all levels, instead embracing the Scriptural mandates and promised empowerment to be an effective force in first the lives of believers and from there the lives of others.

The book is not a mere recitation of the Riot Act to Christians equally afraid of their own shadow and determined to go it alone. Crabb points out that the way to genuine peace in Christ comes through embracing His divine empowerment, and its corresponding ramifications, in both the present day heavenly places and here on Earth. In his view, the church is painfully shortchanging itself, and its members painfully shortchanging themselves, by failing to embrace and live out the nearly unimaginable strengths available for the asking once the entirety of Biblical guidelines and promises are accepted, with tremendous emphasis on the neglected if not outright rejected supernatural portions of true life in Christ.

Liberation Front is not an easy read on multiple fronts. Crabb refuses to dumb down his writing, and as noted the book is void of warm spiritual-sounding fuzzies designed to make the reader feel good about him or herself regardless of where they are in life. But for the believer seeking adherence to, and clarification of, his or her true place in the church, the church’s true place in the world, and what God has in mind for His Bridegroom the Church, Liberation Front is as vital and mind/heart/soul-expanding as it gets in today’s world.

The book is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

By John Ruberry

Season four of the post First World War-set British gangster drama Peaky Blinders returned to Netflix ten days ago. It aired last month on the BBC.

Read my review of the first three seasons here.

For the uninitiated, the show is about, yes, the Peaky Blinders; who are named for the razor blades sewn into their flat caps which they use to attack their foes, that is when they are not shooting them. They are a Gypsy organized crime family headed by Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy). In 1919 Shelby Family Limited is a nothing more than a bookmaking operation based in the grimy Small Heath neighborhood of Birmingham. When season four begins at Christmas in 1925 the Peaky Blinders operation has expanded into London and it has extensive legitimate business holdings.

Hyman Roth told Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part Two, “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” Tommy has no such line Peaky Blinders, but it would be credible if he did.

The next paragraph is worthy of a spoiler alert if you haven’t watched the first three seasons.

Season three was a mixed bag for me as the Russian caper that dominated it was a road to storyline-nowhere. That season ended with a bang as Tommy rats out the rest of the Shelby family–and season four picks up from there. And that’s not the only season three hangover. New York mafioso Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody) is seeking vengeance for the murder by the Peaky Blinders of his father and brother. Brody’s performance ranks among his best work. As Changretta, there are traces of Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone accented with the psychoses of Joe Pescsi in Goodfellas.

The 1920s weren’t roaring in Great Britain–the economy struggled and communism gained a foothold within the political sphere. An attractive young communist woman. Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy), is stirring up trouble in the Shelby factories. Hmm, I wonder where that is heading? Tommy clearly hasn’t forgotten his gambling business roots–he hedges his bets in the struggle by also scheming with the 1st Baron Stamfordham, the king’s private secretary.

To fight Changretta Tommy hires another Gypsy, Aberama Gold (Aidan Gillen), whose reputation for evil even unsettles the other Peaky Blinders. Yes, Gillen is Littlefinger from Game of Thrones.  Gold and Tommy hatch a boxing match caper involving Jewish mobster Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy).

There is much bloodshed much betrayal. But Tommy perseveres and like a snake slithering up a flagpole, he keeps climbing despite the odds against him in class-obsessed Great Britain.

Will Tommy fall? If he does, we’ll have to wait until at least until season five to find out.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

I was out of town in July when Detroit, the movie about the destructive 1967 riot and a police attack on a small group of guests at the Algiers Motel, hit the theaters. Directed by Kathryrn Bigelow, who is best known for Zero Dark Thirty and the Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker, is again teamed with scriptwriter Mark Boal. It stars John Borega, renowned for his role in the Star Wars reboot, as a torn African-American, who despite good intentions gets pulled into the carnage and the aftermath of the upheaval.

But by the time I got back home and found the time to see Detroit it was gone from theaters. Even before the Harvey Weinstein-ignited sex scandals, 2017 was an annus horribilis for Hollywood. Yes, Wonder Woman and Beauty and the Beast were tremendous hits, there were many notable flops, and among them was Detroit. That’s a pity because it is a masterful piece of filmmaking.

Last night I watched it by way of OnDemand on Xfinity.

The 1967 Detroit Riot is the demarcation line in history for that city, just as the Potato Famine is for Ireland and the defeat of the Armada is for Spain. It’s the Motor City’s before-and-after moment. “Ah, but that was before the riot,” or “riots,” sometimes the plural form is used, is something all Detroiters of a certain age say. Prior to the riot Detroit was America’s fifth-largest city, but now, for the first time since 1850, Detroit is not among America’s twenty-most populous cities. In 1950 Detroit was America’s most prosperous municipality, now it is one of its poorest. True, Detroit’s problems were evident in the 1950s and early 1960s, but at the time the few people paying attention to such things viewed that period as a rough patch or perhaps nothing more than a modest transitional period.

Fox Theatre one month ago

The world premiere of Detroit took place at the Fox Theatre two days after the 50th anniversary of the start of the riot, the old movie palace is the setting of one of the scenes in the movie. The film begins with an undermanned police raid of a black-run speakeasy–called a “blind pig” in Detroit–that quickly turns into a widespread tumult of looting, arson, and death. Archival news footage shows the devestation followed by a clip of Governor George Romney, Mitt’s father, announcing that the Michigan National Guard has been called out. By the end of the five-day riot Michigan state troopers and federal troops had been dispatched to Detroit as well.

Among the riot scenes is one with now-disgraced US Rep. John Conyers (Laz Alonso) urging a crowd for calm–they ignore him. Five months ago Conyers was still a civil rights icon. Now Conyers is shunned.

But most of the movie is centered on police tormenting suspects and witnesses at the Algiers, the reputed site of a sniper attack. After a performance by the Dramatics–who later gained fame for the hit “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” one of the group’s members, Larry Reid (Algee Smith), along with his personal assistant, take refuge at the Algiers, which is located just outside of the Virginia Park neighborhood, the heart of the riot zone. For a while it seems that despite the haze of the smoke from the arson fires and the constant sirens, the Algiers is the smart choice to have a party while Detroit burns. That is until an evil Detroit police officer, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), his two racist partners, troops from the National Guard, and Melvin Dismukes (Borega), a security guard, storm the Algiers in search of a sniper, who we know is Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), who simply but recklessly fired a track and field starting pistol. What follows is a series of intense torture-filled series of interrogations. Two young white prostitutes, one of them is portrayed by Hannah Murphy, who plays Gilly in Game of Thrones, are among those brutalized.

“I’m just gonna assume you’re all criminals,” Krauss tells them. One of those “criminals” is Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie), a Vietnam veteran who came to Detroit like hundreds of thousand of others before him–he is simply looking for work. Don’t forget, the blind pig raid busted up a party welcoming two other Vietnam vets home. Krauss denigrates Greene, says he “probably just drove a supply truck” while serving and accuses of him of being the pimp for the prostitutes.

Later Krauss asks the women, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves, having sex with n*ggers?” The other prostitute replies, “It’s 1967, a**hole.” But the mixing of blacks and whites was still a problem for many 50 years ago.

Blogger at the site of where the riot started

Finally and tragically the Algiers incident ends but the legal ramifications please few. Conyers appears again. And one of the characters finds deliverance.

Like Zero Dark Thirty, the feeling of Detroit is claustrophobic, which of course is intentional. The lighting isn’t perfect, that approach undoubtedly was chosen to enmesh Bigelow’s scenes with the archive footage.

Understandably Detroit is still coming to terms with the ’67 riot. I visited Virginia Park last month, while there are still many abandoned homes–this is Detroit after all–there are some new ones too. The site of the long-ago razed blind pig and the neighboring stores where the riot broke out is now a park–albeit one that no children were playing in. To be fair it was a chilly autumn afternoon. In July a Michigan historical marker was erected at that site. On the flipside, sandwiched between New Center and the mansions of Boston-Edison, where Henry Ford, Ty Cobb, Joe Louis, and Berry Gordy once lived, Virginia Park’s future appears bright. Deliverance may be coming there soon too.

Besides Xfinity OnDemand, Detroit is also available on DVD. The trailer is viewable here.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

If you know a millennial who craves communism, then I suggest that you sit that person down to watch the documentary Karl Marx City by Petra Epperlein and her husband, Michael Tucker, which was released last year. Epperlein was born in 1966 in Karl-Marx-Stadt, East Germany, which is now, as it was before, the city of Chemnitz.

And as it is was when she was a child, the most noticeable feature of her hometown is the giant bust of Karl Marx, which looks over the dwindling population of Chemnitz. Its bulk makes it too expensive to remove from its perch on the former Karl-Marx-Street.

The Marx monument is the ideal metaphor for the former East Germany. Just as Big Brother is always watching in George Orwell’s 1984, the Ministry for State Security, colloquially known as the Stasi, was watching too. Cameras were seemingly in every public space, as were Stasi agents and informants. In a nation of 17 million people, there were an astounding 90,000 Stasi agents aided by 200,000 informants. In contrast, the FBI employs a paltry 35,000.

What was the Stasi looking for? Everything. Just grab whatever information that can be found and use it for a case later. Because not only was everyone a suspect in this worker’s paradise, everyone was probably guilty. And if they weren’t guilty they likely would be soon.

Early in Karl Marx City Eppelein tells us that her father, 57, committed suicide in 1999 after washing his company car and burning his personal papers. Afterwards her family discovers cryptic typed letters anonymously mailed to her father that accused him of being a Stasi informant.

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

Shot in black and white, perfect grim communist hues, Epperlein, looking similar to Liv Ullmann’s mute character in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, in a bit of twisted humor wanders the decrepit and mostly empty streets of the former Karl Marx namesake town holding a massive boom microphone and wearing vintage headphones while we listen to her voiceovers–in contrast to the clandestine recording done by the Stasi.

Epperlein visits the Stasi archives in Chemnitz and Berlin where we see file after file on multiple floors. She’s looking for her father’s file, but we learn that the German Democratic Republic didn’t organize its files in the manner that Google stores information on mainframes where we can instantly retrieve volumes of information on just about anything. Instead there’s something here, there’s something there.

We see a grainy Stasi film of a couple walking on sidewalk. The man picks up an object. Then he puts it down. Why did he do that? Another man picks it up. The object turns out to be a knife. He keeps it. Why?

Epperlein tracks down a childhood friend who was a true-believer in communism. Now she worships trees. Her father, a retired Stasi agent, recounts his regular break-ins at apartments. What was his most common discovery? Handwritten schedules of West German TV shows and small bags containing a tooth brush and other personal hygiene items, just in case the occupants are arrested–or forced to escape to the West.

Many political prisoners were indeed locked up for subversion. Many ended up in the West, but rather than this being an innocent Cold War liberation, we learn they were sold by the workers’ paradise for ransom to the West for much needed hard currency.

The suicide of Epperlein’s father was hardly an anomaly, taking one’s own life in the GDR was common after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Recently Chemnitz had the lowest birthrate of any city in the world.

One of the experts interviewed for the film scorns the Oscar-winning film, The Lives of Others. While Oskar Schindler of Schindler’s List was real, there was no Stasi hero fighting back against oppression.

Near the end we learn the truth about Epperlein’s father.

Karl Marx City is available on Netflix and on Amazon.

John Ruberry, whose wife was born in the Soviet Union, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

The Netflix neo-western Longmire has ridden into the sunset after six years. The final season started streaming on the network nine days ago and the results should please its fans. I enjoyed it.

My Da Tech Guy review of the first five seasons of is here.

Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor), a widower, is a sheriff in the fictional county of Absaroka in Wyoming. He and his three deputies patrol an area that is larger than Delaware. While Walt, an old-school lawman who knows the difference between right-and-wrong and who rarely crosses the ethical line, at first glance appears to be an anachronism, he still has the smarts and the brawn to set things straight.

If you haven’t watched Longmire but think you might, I suggest you skip the next paragraph as there are some series spoilers.

At the end of Season Five, Walt’s personal and professional life are in shambles. The smartass mayor of Durant (Eric Lane) wants Longmire to resign, and he gets in a brutal knock-down bar fight with his best friend who has turned into a vigilante, Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips). Henry’s situation gets worse after he is kidnapped by corrupt former Bureau of Indian Affairs police chief Malachi Strand (Graham Greene) and his goons. Walt faces a wrongful death lawsuit from the estate of a businessman who also happened to be the father of one of his deputies and the brother of Longmire’s predecessor as sheriff. (Hey, not many people live in Absaroka County.) Walt’s most trusted deputy Victoria “Vic” Moretti (Katee Sackhoff) is pregnant–no one knows who the father is. And the Native American casino in Absaroka, run by the compromised Jacob Nighthorse (A Martinez), is fostering the crime Walt predicted would result, although I’m pretty sure that he didn’t expect Irish mobsters from Boston being part of it. Walt’s daughter, Cady (Cassidy Freeman) is running a free legal aid clinic on the Cheyenne reservation, but she’s being paid by Nighthorse.

Season Six kicks off a new story thread about a serial bank robber known as “Cowboy Bill.” A stereotypical blogger–who is bearded, overweight, and shoves iPhones into people’s faces while garnering minuscule traffic on his site, causes another headache for Walt when he reports that the sheriff  “ambled in” to the robbed bank long after Cowboy Bill made off with his loot. Of course that infuriates the mayor. As for this blogger, I’m thin, clean-shaven, I own a camcorder, and I have many more hits daily on my blog than that other guy has received in the life of his blog. Da Tech Guy of course crushes the traffic of that fictional blogger’s site too.

Anyway…

John “Lee” Ruberry of Da Tech Guy’s Magnificent Seven

The lawful death lawsuit against Walt begins. Cady continues to face difficulty striking an equilibrium between the law, her ethics, Native American culture, and Nighthorse. As for the casino operator, his juggling act becomes even more difficult, as it does for Walt’s pal Henry. And we learn that the Irish mob doesn’t take “no” for an answer from a Wyoming sheriff.

The series ends with a surprise twist, one that is satisfactory too.

The first three seasons of Longmire ran on A&E, and while the ratings and the critical response were favorable, the network cancelled the show because the demographics favored older viewers. A&E is run by dopes. Thank you Netflix for rescuing the program.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Manhunt: Unabomber, is an engrossing eight-episode Discovery Channel mini-series, which is also available on Netflix, that dramatizes the search for the man dubbed the Unabomber by the FBI, Ted Kaczynski.

Sam Worthington, best known for his starring role in Avatar, stars as James “Fitz” Fitzgerald, the FBI profiler and linguist who connects what became known as the Unabomber Manifesto to writings by serial bomber turned into the FBI by Kaczynski’s brother, James.

The Unabomber’s attack spree began with the explosion of a device that caused minor injuries in 1978 at Northwestern University and ended the fatal attack with a much more sophisticated bomb that killed a timber industry lobbyist in California in 1995. Two other people were murdered by Kaczynski’s bombs, several more were permanently maimed.

Shortly after the murder of he lobbyist, in what the still-unidentified Kaczynski later dismissed as a prank, he threatened to blow up a jet airliner. Ten months later Kaczynski was arrested in his primitive cabin Montana after a search warrant was issued that was based largely on the FBI’s linguistic analysis. Inside the cabin loads of incriminating evidence was discovered, including a bomb ready to be mailed.

FBI sketch of the Unabomber

Paul Bettany portrays the former mathematics professor in an appropriately enigmatic fashion. Is Kaczynski, who is serving six life sentences at the “Supermax” prison in Colorado, an evil man? Or is he a deeply troubled genius trying to find the elusive balance between creativity and madness, in a manner reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s struggles?

Manhunt explores Kaczynski’s youth in the blue collar southwest Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park. A social misfit, Kaczynski was double-promoted in elementary school but, as his Manhunt character says, “I was still the smartest one in my class.” Entering Harvard at 16, Kaczynski was mentally tortured in cruel experiments conducted by psychiatrist Henry Murray (Brian d’Arcy in the series). In this statue-razing era, I say if there is one of Murray standing somewhere, tear it down now.

Kaczynski gets into the head of Fitzgerald in his many jailhouse interviews with him. But there’s a problem here. This is a dramatization of the Unabom story–there were no meetings between the two. Here’s another: the linguistics professor with whom the married Fitz has a soft romance with in the series, was in real life a man.

Abandoned rail line north of Chicago

On the other hand, Kaczynski gets into the heads of viewers, or at least this one. My degree of separation with the Unabomber is three. A friend of mine who lives in Lombard, Illinois, where Kaczynski’s parents moved to around 1970, used to have coffee at the home of his parents. “A nice and sweet old couple,” she told me. They never mentioned anything about their sons to her. Just a couple of blocks from the Kaczynski’s modest frame house in Lombard is the Illinois Prairie Path, which was constructed in the late 1960s, it was the first trail in America created from an abandoned rail line. After the terrorist’s arrest and conviction, I mused while running on the Prairie Path that perhaps he was inspired by the pastoralization of the old Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railway. Perhaps post-industrial society was that not far away, Kaczynski may have reasoned. He lived with his parents in Lombard for a while in the 1970s.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race” is the opening sentence in the Unabomber Manifesto. A few paragraphs later he adds, “We therefore advocate a revolution against the industrial system.”

Bettany’s Unabomber is a bit too sympathetic of a portrayal for me. Missing are the cold-blooded journal entries recounting his bombings, including one described as “excellent.” In another recounting, Kaczynski expressed “no regret” that his last murder victim was not his intended target.

“People with advanced degrees aren’t as smart as they think they are,” Kaczynski mockingly wrote to one of his victims who was severely wounded by one of his bombs. “If you’d had any brains you would have realized that there are a lot of people out there who resent bitterly the way technonerds like you are changing the world and you wouldn’t have been dumb enough to open an unexpected package from an unknown source.”

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit and he is a native of Chicago’s southwest suburbs.

By John Ruberry

Much well-deserved criticism has been leveled at the BBC for compelling Doctor Who to go transgender by having, after 41 years, a woman take the lead role. Not because, as DaTechGuy himself noted two months ago, the best performer was hired, but because the Doctor Who franchise apparently needs more diversity.

Keep in mind that the most recent companion of the Doctor was a black lesbian with a Colin Kaepernick-style afro. Oh, I am not automatically opposed to a female Doctor. Let’s say Judi Dench wanted the role. Would I watch? Sure, I would. It would be the same for me if Meryl Streep grabbed the controls of the TARDIS. But that last one can never happen. An American playing the Doctor? And one from New Jersey? Imagine the uproar!

But I’m here to review a different TV show.

Y Gwyll, which is Welsh for The Dusk, is called Hinterland in English. It’s a production of S4C, a Welsh-language public television network in Britain. So far three seasons have been released. Hinterland is also broadcast on BBC Wales–which ironically produces Doctor Whoas part of its commitment to provide more Welsh cultural offerings there. And BBC One offers the show too.

So does a political agenda and enjoyable television viewing mix? In this case, yes, they do.

Hinterland is a noir crime drama, a genre that is very popular in Scandinavia, where some of the funding for the program comes from. It’s an expensive series to shoot as every scene with dialogue is filmed twice, once in Welsh and then in English. And there is much outdoor filming which costs more than controlled studio shots.

After ten years working for the London Metropolitan Police, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) relocates to the coastal town of Aberystwyth in western Wales after a family tragedy. The laconic and brooding character lives in a caravan, what the Brits call a trailer home, in front of the stone ruins of presumably an old farmhouse. Does this symbolism mean that Mathias cannot rebuild his life?

In the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, which is set in Cardiff, we see a gleaming modern city, which is not surprising as the Torchwood alien-hunting team is led by a post-American time traveler from the 51st century. The Wales of Hinterland is one of collapsing old homes, crumbling walls, and failing farms. Yes, I love the cinematography here, but remember, I’m someone vacationed in Detroit two years ago to snap urban exploration photos. And in every Hinterland episode it seems to be early March–a stillborn spring. The countryside is gorgeous, reminiscent, to me at least, of the Flint Hills of Kansas.

Detective Inspector Mared Rhys (Mali Harries), a single mother is also burdened by a complicated past, is Mathias’ primary assistant; he is also ably aided by Siân Owens (Hannah Daniel) and Lloyd Elis (Alex Harris).

Hinterland is a slow-moving program–if car chases and gun battles are your Jones, then move along, there is little here for you. And it takes a while for the series plot to play out as a murder in the first episode of season one doesn’t begin to expand into other crimes until the end of that season. It builds from there as Mathias confronts Iwan Thomas (Geraint Morgan) who used to hold his job in Aberystwyth and whose past is as troubled as his own. Chief Superintendent Brian Prosser (Aneirin Hughes), Mathias’ recondite boss, discourages him from pursuing the Thomas angle in his investigations.

Season three was my favorite, as many loose ends are tied up. There are no plans for a fourth Hinterland batch–but the series hasn’t been cancelled either. But as Hinterland also receives funding from the European Union, politics could push the show out of its stillborn spring and into permanent winter.

Ah, politics. It really does ruin everything.

All three seasons of Hinterland are available on Netflix in the United States and in DVD form on Amazon.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

by baldilocks

It’s another one of those times when I just start typing and see where it leads. Rest assured that you will not get the first draft.

At any given waking moment, there are dozens of things I’m pondering simultaneously. Here’s one of the contemporaneous things: Hillary Clinton’s new book, entitled What Happened, which purports to outline the reasons she lost to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Others are ridiculing bad (ghost-)writing and worse blame-shifting on Clinton’s part, but what I want to know is this: what no-imagination-having one-dimensional thinker came up with the title? And is it “What Happened” with a period or What Happened” with a question mark?

Even calling it “WTF Happened,” or “Stuff Happens” would have demonstrated a bit of sparkle and a sense of humor. But, I think that such a demonstration is probably too much to ask. Even if the publisher wanted to give the title some zip, Herself would have never allowed it. The blandness of the book’s title reflects the personality of the protagonist, it seems.

I heard – but am not interested in confirming — that Amazon is deleting all the one-star reviews on Mrs. Clinton’s latest demonstration of her tendency to blame others when things go wrong. Too bad. One-star review swarms can be quite entertaining as long as most people realize that it’s political trolling and not serious reviewing.

It just occurred to me that these after-action reports by presidential campaign losers are a form of political trolling, as well — a “you-all-stink” note from the candidate. Pathetic, isn’t it? Almost makes me feel sorry for the woman. Thing is, if she were president, I think we would already be nuked by now. Thank God for all favors, regardless of size.

Love the Bond villainess look.

Juliette Akinyi Ochieng blogs at baldilocks. (Her older blog is located here.) Her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game, was published in 2012. Her second novel tentatively titled Arlen’s Harem, will be done one day soon! Follow her on Twitter and on Gab.ai.

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