Superman and James Spader, in love (no, not with each other).

Despite his success directing Superman, Richard Donner locked horns with producers Alex and Ilya Salkind often enough that they ditched him with Superman II unfinished (they were saving money by shooting both at the same time, as the Salkinds had done with Three and Four Musketeers). Donner shot enough footage, however, that Warners eventually assembled SUPERMAN II: The Donner Cut (2006) by combining his work, some of the Richard Lester film, and some screen test material. The result is a bit of a mess (continuity is all over the place) but it works well enough I wish Donner had completed the theatrical version.

The film starts off with Lois, very much in Silver Age mode, realizing Clark is Superman, then jumping out the window to prove it; he saves her, of course, but without revealing himself. The reveal comes at Niagara, and not by accident: Lois fires a gun at Clark who confesses, but points out she could have killed him. “With blanks?”

Another change is the battle at the White House, with Zod and his lackeys coming off much more violent and murderous. The really big change is after Superman flies Lois to the Fortress. At the time Lester assumed control of II, Marlon Brando was suing the Salkinds for allegedly stiffing him on his cut of the first film’s profits. They axed him from II and put in Lara instead of Jor-El. That’s a shame — as Donner says on the commentary track, using Jor and showing how his relationship with his son fractures has more punch.

Where Lara gently gives Clark advice, Jor-El is pissed: loving Lois means he’s choosing the One over the Many which is not his role on Earth (the Christ overtones are undeniable). Clark demands the right to be happy, and Jor-El reluctantly accedes. In the theatrical movie, we don’t really see how he regains his powers; here he shows up at the Fortress, sobbing and admitting he was wrong. Jor-El’s hologram materializes and sacrifices its existence to recharge Superman’s powers.

The showdown in the Fortress at the end is quicker, stripped of all the teleporting and holograms that treated Kryptonian powers like magic. Instead of the magic kiss that erases Lois’s memory, this has Superman rewinding time so none of the events (including the Phantom Zoners breaking loose) have happened. That’s a jarring repeat of the original movie’s deus ex machina; Donner says he’d always intended this as II‘s finish, but the Salkinds moved it up to the first film when nobody could think of a good ending. “There is one man here on Earth who will never bow before you.”

STARCROSSED (1985) has James Spader offering sexy defector Belinda Bauer (“Your accent suggests there’s an Iron Curtain in your past.”) shelter from what he assumes are the KGB agents trying to drag her from the land of freedom. Instead, it turns out she’s an ET refugee hunted by agents of the imperial power that conquered her peaceful world (making her entire race peaceful is the flip side of Othering alien invaders by making them all monstrous warmongers). Can they stay one jump ahead of the bad ETs? Will Spader show her how much fun human-style sex is (if you can’t guess, you ain’t watched enough TV movies)?

Although Bauer is stiff, Spader’s personal charm and talent makes this run very well until they throw in some Men in Black also hunting for Bauer; at that point the film just seems to bog down. Still, Spader does make it watchable enough. And I do like his explanation for why Bauer looks human (“God made us in his own image, right? How many images do you think God has?”). “When your people have been doing something for so long, you think of it as natural.”

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TYG and I weren’t planning to become a two-cat family

But we’ve had “White Cat” (placeholder name) irregularly sniffing around our house for a couple of months now. More recently she’s been sniffing and mewing plaintively for food, so we fed her. Happily she likes a brand of soft food I bought for Wisp much more than Wisp does.

Wisp, surprisingly, is quite chill with her. None of the aggressive territorial defense I’ve seen with other cats. I don’t know what the difference is. She’s nowhere near as skittish as Wisp. She runs away from us if we get too close, but it took Wisp a year before she’d let me come as close as White Cat does here.She’s definitely been a house pet, probably more recently than Wisp was when we met her. White Cat also seems a lot less comfortable surviving on her own. Did someone just decide to dump her? We’ll never know.

We have an appointment at the feral/stray cat clinic Sept. 26  for spay/neuter and general checkup. Hopefully our new acquaintance will show up the night before and get trapped (we have the trap cage already). Where we go from there, who knows? We aren’t looking for more pets, but as the saying goes, you cannot leave the work unfinished.

Speaking of work, I did get some of that done too. I squeezed in seven Leaf articles at the start of the week, then for whatever reason the flow stopped. The timing is convenient as that meant more work on Alien Visitors; that said, it probably means lower than usual income for the month. I did sell another copy of Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast and made $24 in royalties on my film books for the past six months, but that won’t pay the bills. Which isn’t to say I’m unhappy — it’s a real kick that 20 years after it came out, Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan still sells a few copies a year.

Work on Alien Visitors is going well but it takes much more time than I anticipate. Given my looming deadline, that makes me a little uneasy, but if I keep my nose to the grindstone, it’s doable. I did some scheduling today to make sure of that. I want to make sure I write some of it every day — not that this is more efficient but I noticed at the start of the week, when I’d done nothing but watch movies and write Leafs, I slept very poorly. Stress does that.

I also proofed the introduction and first two chapters of Undead Sexist Cliches and I’m pleased. My previous editing was good enough I only had one section where I needed to make major changes. So I think I’m still on track for an end of October release.

All in all, not a bad week.

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Trixie and the very large cone of shame

Both our dogs are prone to allergies, which leads to constant gnawing on themselves. After their last shot, Trixie kept on gnawing at her back left foot, which made it sore so she gnawed on it more.

We went to the vet who gave us a numbing skin powder and recommended we keep her in the cone of shame. It turns out she can, with a little effort, reach past the edge of the cone and keep gnawing. It’s still effective if we watch her close enough. However we did try swapping it out with Plushie’s much larger cone of shame.Ultimately it was just too awkward so we switched back. Her foot is recovered so we made the right call.

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Peace and prosperity are the point (a late 9/11 post)

“For all the nostalgia for the sense of national unity in the 9/11 aftermath, I remember feeling rubbed the wrong way by one specific variant of triumphalism: the idea that post Cold War we’d grown soft and frivolous and now we’d at least toughen up and deal with reality. [But] Peace and prosperity are the point of all the policy, right? The goal? Give me a soft society doing yoga and pottery and starting businesses and going on nice vacations over a tough, purpose-minded society where everyone is joining the military to fight a big foreign threat. The latter is necessary at times but it’s hardly to be desired for itself.” — from Lawyers, Guns and Money.

As Corey Robin documents in Remembrance of Empires Past (which I’ve blogged about before), that was a controversial view back when 9/11 hit. Pundit Frank Rich declared the attack “has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decade-long dream” and David Brooks celebrated that “it is no longer possible to live so comfortably in one’s own private paradise.” None of this sitting around on our butts enjoying life, nosirree! We’d be forced to fight! To achieve greatness! No more living comfortably … unless you were multimillionaire David Brooks, whose sacrifice to the war effort was devoting columns to how embarrassed liberals would be for criticizing W’s stunning success rebuilding Iraq (when he later wrote about how our leaders misjudged Iraq, he somehow forgot to mention his own errors). He remains enthusiastic about other people fighting wars while he cheers them on.

The belief (as John Stuart Mill put it “that savage life is preferable to civilized; that the work of civilization should as far as possible be undone” is not a new one. Nor is the belief of countless rich conservatives that working minimum wage jobs to support yourself is a proud and noble endeavor. That doesn’t make these views any more palatable or sensible. It’s true that someone who can work 40 hours a week, then chill in front of the TV knowing their bills are paid (during the Clinton years a lot more people could live that way) may never be driven to high achievement. But while someone who has to work 60 hour s a week to keep a roof over their kids’ head may be struggling harder and showing greater self-sacrifice, their life is not preferable.

And while I have respect for people who serve honorably in the military, coming home from Afghanistan with PTSD or a missing limb from combat is not preferable either. Certainly not compared to not getting involved in wars when it’s not necessary. Some conservatives wail that we’re not all stoic like the Donner Party, but you know what? Avoiding situations where people have to resort to cannibalism is preferable. If that takes government intervention, I’m okay with that.

It’s possible that people who have it easy will never achieve greatness, but struggling just to survive isn’t achieving greatness either. I’ve done a small bit of that and it’s not pleasant. Living more comfortably actually makes it easier to achieve: less stress, more time, greater mental resources.  It’s also possible to make sacrifices and contribute to the public good even in time of peace and prosperity. Donate to charity. Run a food bank. Give blood. Volunteer at an animal shelter. These are also easier to do when you have time and money.

There’s a line in the film Things to Come to the effect that “our revolution didn’t abolish danger or death, it simply made danger and death worthwhile!” That’s what people like Brooks and countless others who shit on peace and prosperity (for the common throng, that is — they ain’t giving up their own) don’t get. The challenge and struggle of launching a business, painting a masterpiece, writing a blockbuster investigative journalism piece, trying to change public policy, those mean something. The challenge and struggle just to put bread on the table? That’s necessary, but it’s not a desirable way to live. It’s depressing that some people think otherwise.

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Mostly depressing stuff about global warming, plus other science links

“At its worst, net zero by 2050 is a device for shunting responsibility across both time and space. Those in power today seek to pass their liabilities to those in power tomorrow. Every industry seeks to pass the buck to another industry. ” — a Guardian columnist on how our current goals for fighting global warming fall short.

As the world heats up, air conditioning becomes more vital, but it also makes the problems worse. What are the alternatives?

Air-travel contributes to global warming too. Here are the big problems they need to solve.

Global warming and other factors have put the Komodo dragon on the endangered list. There are dangers for vanilla and avocado crops, too.

The world’s largest carbon-capture machine has gone live.

Floating wind turbines could be a great clean energy source, but there are obstacles to overcome first.

“Black cemeteries are now at a disproportionate risk of being lost, some before they have even been officially found.”

The U.S. Army is looking to a cyborg future and worried movies will bias us against cyborgs.

To tighten its grip on the people, the Russian government is deploying its own internet.

Millionaire Julia Davies is helping acres of British farmland go back to nature.

How a rare New Zealand parrot may have removed harmful mutations from its gene pool.

Environmental activism around the world leads to activists being murdered.

“You do pi because everyone else has been doing pi.” — an article on whether there’s any point to calculating pi out to the trillions of digits.

Dogs are amazing — even as covid detectors. I’m sure Plushie could handle it.

What we’re still learning about the asteroid that ended the dinosaur age.

The technical and ethical challenges to resurrecting the woolly mammoth.

The California condor population has gone from 22 to more than 500.

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Covers for a Tuesday

First, a Richard Powers cover.Next an uncredited cover with a very, very large newt.Then a thriller cover.And that’s it for today. Second and third covers are uncredited.

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Vaclav Havel and the Trump Virus

Reading the news this week puts me in mind again of Vaclav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless” and how modern tyrants claim “the center of power is identical with the center of truth,” — it’s not simply that they’ve seized power, it’s righteous and just that they’re in charge.

I think that explains some of the deranged pushback against getting vaccinated. They talk about “choice” but obviously a lot of them are seething that anyone is making a different choice than they are. Harassing and threatening healthcare workers to prevent vaccinations. Coughing on people in stores. Mocking a kid for discussing his grandmother’s death from covid. Their god king, The Former Guy, said the virus wasn’t a big deal. His toady, Sen. Ted Cruz, said if Biden won, Democrats would immediately end all pandemic precautions. The center of power — remember, a lot of Republicans have chosen to believe that Trump is still president — has spoken. By refusing to conform, we dissent from Republican orthodoxy, and their fragile fee-fees can’t stand dissent, any more than they tolerate criticism. And as Paul Campos says, if they question any one part of the truth, their whole belief system could collapse.

So at the local level, even with school cases rising, they freak out at efforts to change that. A group of anti-maskers drove one San Diego-area school board out of its meeting, then appointed themselves the new board. One father compares the school’s directive to keep his kid in quarantine for a few days with a Gestapo order and brought zip ties to the school to make a citizen’s arrest of the principal (didn’t happen, fortunately). Dude, if this were Nazi Germany you’d face a shit-ton worse for challenging the authorities.

QAnon cultists are pressuring hospitals give Trump Virus patients ivermectin (feed stores are now selling out of it) instead of valid medical treatments. And we have predators like “Typhoid Ron” DeSantis ignoring Florida’s rising number of cases and trying to hide the numbers. Idaho gubernatorial candidate Janice McGeachin claiming vaccines are lethal. Or Rand Paul who wants Dr. Fauci in jail. Dave Daubenmire insists he hasn’t caught Covid, he’s been sickened by electrical energy from vaccinated people. Joe Rogan, who came down with Covid after performing stand-up shows in Florida, but still won’t piss off his audience by accepting science. Given his past claims that vaccine passports lead to dictatorship, we can assume his audience doesn’t want to hear “I was wrong, everyone should get vaccinated.”

We’ve had 800,000 excess deaths since February but the Republican stance remains the same, as Rebecca Solnit says: “some have the right to determine the truth more than others, and facts, science, history are likewise fetters to be shaken loose in pursuit of exactly your very own favorite version of reality, which you enforce through dominance, including outright violence.”

It doesn’t help, as LGM says, that a lot of media still won’t say outright that the real, if not the only issue, is the antivaxxers. If we’re stuck figuring out the endgame, it’s because too many people won’t get vaccinated. That’s what leads to the surge in cases (including among the vaccinated) which is why military doctors are having to help out. Eric Boehlert suggests after years of Trump safaris — talking to white, working-class Republicans about why those simple, plain-spoken Americans supported The Former Guy — reporters are having trouble seeing them as politically paranoid, anti-rational extremists (none of which ever came out during those safaris).

So the end result is we’re starting to debate whether it’s justifiable for hospitals to turn away the unvaxxed when space is tight (I don’t think the often-used comparison to smokers is justified  — smoking is an addiction, staying unvaccinated isn’t. And let’s face it, beds in ICUs are not currently unavailable because of too many smokers in hospital for cancer). And hospitals going short-staffed because of staff refusing vaccine mandates.

I think a harder line is definitely good, such as Biden now mandating vaccination for all federal workers and many employees outside the government. And increasing fines on airplane travelers who don’t wear masks. Unsurprisingly, Republicans who feel perfectly entitled to tell private businesses No Vaccine Requirements are furious that Biden dares tell private businesses what to do (I’ve heard speculation a lot of business owners will be thrilled — now they have an excuse to push vaccinations).

That said, Medscape concludes the way to change vaccine-hesitant minds is less confrontation, more persuasion — even allowing them to do it discreetly so their anti-vax peers won’t know (which is insane, but if it gets results, hey).

We should have been largely back to pre-pandemic normal by now. It does not bode well for this country that we aren’t getting close.

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From phantom hitchhikers to slave revolts: books and graphic novels

THE GIRL IN THE GREEN SILK DRESS is Seanan McGuire’s sequel to Sparrow Hill Road, returning us to the ghost roads and the unlife of ghostly hitchhiker Rose Marshall, the Phantom Prom Date. Rose ended the first book on a high note, protected against Bobby Cross murdering her again (the souls of those he runs down or off the road fuel his car and make him immortal) and reunited with her high-school sweetheart.

After a couple of chapters of exposition (I don’t know I’d have gone further if I hadn’t read V1 — but it does help set up Rose’s “normal” compared to what’s coming), Bobby traps her and weakens her protection. A couple of chapters later, he turns her mortal. Rose has powerful allies in the ghost world, but in reality she’s easy prey. Her only hope is a folklore professor who has a grudge against her, but will that be enough when Bobby comes hunting?

There were bits of this that I found cliched — Rose’s reaction to the 21st century could just as easily be Captain America thawing out of the ice — but overall this was great reading and better than the first book. I look forward to catching the concluding volume before too long.

FRIEND OF THE DEVIL: A Reckless Book is part of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ noir series about 1980s PI Ethan Reckless. In this story, his new girlfriend asks him to find the sister who left for Hollywood a decade earlier, then vanished without a word.

The story doesn’t reinvent the hardboiled PI, and some elements of the mystery are stock. Overall it worked, though, and I really liked the emphasis on how different hunting someone was back then — even finding a list of movies the sister appeared in takes work in the pre-Internet age.

UNITY: To Kill a King by Matt Kindt and Doug Braithwaite is set in the same Valiant Universe as Archer and Armstrong and is, I think, a crossover event between several characters (including Armstrong’s brother Gilad, the Eternal Warrior). The medieval warrior known as X-O Man of War has used his powers to bring his Visigoth people back to their ancestral home in Rumania; this freaks out Russia enough that they’re close to going nuclear. Can the telekinetic Harada put together a team to take Man of War out? And what happens after?  As I don’t know any of the cast besides Gilad, I was hardly excited about this book, but it was still fun enough to spend time with.

SUMMIT: The Long Way Home by Amy Chu and Jan Duursema was less engaging. The story involves an astronaut on a blow-up-the-meteor suicide mission; against all odds she somehow survives but with the ghosts of her team in her head and strange powers manifesting in her body. What’s going on? And is it possible even her mentor has a hidden agenda? This is perfectly competent but it felt perfectly formulaic, nothing I haven’t seen a dozen times before.

WAKE: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez, is frustrating because, as Hall shows, there’s so little on the record about the topic: historians often missed signs that women were taking up arms and many sources are inaccessible (Hall’s tried researching slave-ship uprisings at Lloyds of London, but they’d rather their role insuring those voyages be forgotten). While Hall discusses what little we know, most of the book is about her research efforts and the painful feelings diving into this stuff dredges up in her. Don’t get me wrong, that works as a narrative, but like Hall, I wish I could learn more.

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Aliens and deserts, a match made in the stars?

Keep Watching the Skies says IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), with its poetic musing on the harsh desert environment, was a major influence on 1950s SF, prompting multiple other movies to go with a desert backdrop (it didn’t hurt that the desert was close to Hollywood and cheap to shoot in). Rewatching for Alien Visitors it strikes me as one of the few where there’s ambiguity on whether the aliens pose a threat: they’re initially presented as spooky, ominous and very alien looking, they’re kidnapping people but it turns out they’re simply as terrified of us as we’d be in the same boat. In its own right, a good film. “A thousand years of work and you’re willing to give up and let it all end here, on this strange planet?”

ALIENS AND GUFORS (2017) is a pointless comedy about a trio of aspiring UFOlogists in a small desert town with a high level of UFO encounters; can they tolerate the annoyances of small-town life long enough to get a book out of it? And when their old fart landlord claims he’s had a close encounter, is it the guys’ ticket to the big time or a hoax that will ruin them? Feels like Doc Hollywood with aliens as the heart of the film is the guys adjusting to small-town life (and like Beyond the Sky it has fake UFO sightings co-existing alongside the real deal). “I am not breastfeeding that thing!”

SEARCH FOR THE GODS (1975) is a TV movie in which a dying Native American gives Stephen McHattie part of a mystical medallion of unearthly metal — could it be a key to the truth about Gods From Outer Space? In the years since I watched this for Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan I’d forgotten how horribly dull it is. A big part of that is everyone being so vague about what sort of secrets we’re dealing with, as if they were afraid to say it outright — when they find a hidden chamber at the climax, it’s got nothing in it but Native artifacts, rather than lost secrets of ancient extraterrestrials. The presence of Kurt Russell (amoral drifter), Raymond St. Jacques (ruthless rival hunter) and Ralph Bellamy (archeology expert) don’t help. It was interesting to notice that while one character alludes to passing through Roswell, they attach no significance to it — as I’ve read elsewhere, Roswell’s status in ET lore didn’t really kick off until the 1980s. “It usually is a big mistake to value sentiment too highly.”

Leaving the desert, MONSTERS VS. ALIENS (2009) would probably be a spotlight in the comedy chapter of Alien Visitors except the parody is more 1950s SF films with the alien invasion played relatively straight. Reese Witherspoon provides the voice of Susan, transformed by a radioactive meteor into Ginormica and sealed away with fellow monsters Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), the B.O.B. and the Missing Link — until the invasion forces General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) to set them free to fight for America. I’ll probably mention this in the Romance chapter as an example of an alien encounter disrupting the course of seemingly true love, first by blocking Susan’s engagement, then showing what a heel her fiance is. I like this one quite a bit. “Dr. Cockroach, would you mind not giving your mad scientist laugh while I’m sitting in this chair?”

Ginormica being inspired by 1958’s ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN, I naturally checked that one out: Allison Hayes plays a wealthy alcoholic whose mental condition isn’t improved by the way her sleazeball husband is carrying on an affair with Bad Girl Yvette Vickers; when she claims to have had a close encounter in the desert with a spaceship (which everyone refers to as a satellite — this was right after Sputnik), hubby thinks he can send her to the nuthouse, but then it turns out  Hayes’ encounter has had a few side effects (though they do not make her anywhere near as large as the spectacular poster).

This is a very bad movie with no end of dumb moments (Hayes seems perfectly comfortable in her bedroom even after she grows titanic) but it does boast some competent acting by the leads. It’s also interesting in structure — just as Predator is an action movie disrupted by an intrusion SF story, this is a B-movie drama disrupted by an alien. It later inspired a remake with Darryl Hannah and Attack of the 50-Foot Cheerleader is obviously another knockoff, if only in name.  “You’d make a wild driver Harry — with 50 million bucks.”

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Despite a moment of panic, this week went well

So after my crown went in Wednesday, I celebrated by having a meal of crunchy granola … and felt a grinding sensation, not from my crown but the cap on the other side. And when I checked with my tongue, I found it was missing. So I called the dentist … and it turned out I was imagining it. No gap that wasn’t there before. Everything’s fine. It still feels funny, but I’m confident my dentist is more objective than I am.

Leaf articles didn’t start back up until the end of the week so I put in a lot of time on Alien Visitors. I have three chapters and the introduction in good, though rough shape; barring disaster, it is actually doable by deadline. I do have to start ordering posters and photos as illustrations though — I’ve left that too long. My original plan was to buy them a couple each month; it won’t be easy to absorb now, but it’ll be manageable. I watched fewer movies than planned, but I’m still on track there, too.

I also started on the final proof of Undead Sexist Cliches and began to think about marketing, promotion, book blurbs (trigger warnings will be a must — some of this stuff I’m critiquing is creepy as shit).

Less than a couple of months and both books will be done. Then it’s back to fiction at last.

And now, time to put up the computer and relax. Have fun, y’all.

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