I took the above picture a few years back when Kim Ryan and I were driving along the East Lancs Road in Liverpool. We were heading back into town, and coming towards us was a fleet of police cars. The lead car was doing that very dangerous thing that American cops like to do: veering across all the lanes of traffic, so as to force oncoming cars onto the side of the road. This is cowboy stuff, and the cops who do it are very silly, since they rely on the good sense and driving skills of the motorists in the oncoming lane. Good luck if there’s a Tesla barreling towards them! I’ve seen cops do this in the Arizona desert when they’re leading a wide load. But this was an urban environment with a lot more traffic, and the police were just showing off, telling us they owned the road.
And why did they need to own the road? Because behind them came the big, unmarked van you see depicted. What’s in there, I wondered. Prisoners, Kim replied. Apparently “high security” prisoners (drug dealers? terrorists?) are sometimes incarcerated in Manchester but tried in Liverpool. This was a convoy returning prisoners or a prisoner from court in Liverpool to jail. Who were these high-risk individuals (or individual) who required such a massive cop convoy? Kim didn’t know. I enquired of the Liverpool Echo. They had no idea.
So a secret trail was being held in my home town. The police were making a big show of it. Yet, apart from the authorities, no one knew who was being tried. I’ve no idea if the people/person in the van had a jury to adjudicate their case. Given the ostentatious secrecy, I doubt it. Like all the individuals named above, they probably faced one politically-appointed judge.
Which brings us to the list of names above the picture. Who are they?
Of course, you’ve heard of Julian Assange. Having saught asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and been given diplomatic status, the journalist/publisher found himself trapped in the building for several years. His “private” conversations with his lawyers and family were surveilled by hidden cameras and microphones. The US government plotted ways of kidnapping or killing him. The United Nations Rapporteur reported that his treatment amounted to torture. Then the English cops raided the building and he was taken to a high-security prison, Bellmarsh, where the torture could be improved. He has been held in Bellmarsh for two years, in solitary confinement until his fellow prisoners petitioned for him to be allowed to join the general population. His fate – facing extradition to the US and life imprisonment in a supermax – is being decided, very slowly, by a politically-appointed judge named Vanessa Baraitser. Baraitser replaced a previous judge, removed because her proximity to the Americans and the arms business was too close even for English justice to stomach. During his rare court appearances Julian is confined with prison guards in a glass box. He cannot communicate with his lawyers. He has been recognised as a suicide risk. He has never seen a jury. Yet his extradition proceedings – for the crime of journalism – continue. You can learn more about Julian’s case, and how to help him, here.
UPDATE — Julian Assange has suffered a stroke, and been granted permission to marry his partner, Stella Moris, in Bellmarsh Prison. He remains incarcerated.
Steven Donziger is an American attorney who won a $9.5 billion environmental case in Ecuador. Chevron was found guilty by the Supreme Court of Ecuador of deliberately dumping of billions of gallons of cancer-causing oil waste onto Indigenous ancestral lands. For the crime of doing an excellent job, Steven was targeted by a US judge who had investments in Chevron, Lewis Kaplan: he observes that this politically-appointed judge “targeted me with the first corporate criminal prosecution in the history of the United States. Private lawyers at the Chevron law firm Seward & Kissel were appointed by Judge Kaplan to “prosecute” me on contempt charges after I appealed a shocking and unprecedented order from Kaplan that I turn over my computer and cell phone for review by Chevron.” After months of house arrest ordered by Kaplan, Steven has just been sentenced by another politically-appointed judge, Loretta Preska, a leader of the Chevron-funded Federalist Society, to six months in jail. He has never seen a jury. You can learn more about his case, and how to help him, here.
UPDATE — Steven Donziger was released from a federal prison on 9 December 2021, to complete his sentence under house arrest.
Daniel Hale is an American whistleblower who went public about US drone murders. He was arrested in 2019 on allegations that he disclosed classified documents, believed to have been the source material for a series in The Intercept. A USAF veteran turned anti-drone activist, Daniel pled guilty to one count of espionage and was sentenced to 45 months in prison in July 2021 by a politically-appointed U.S. District Judge, Liam O’Grady. He has never seen a jury. You can learn more about his case, and how to help him, here.
Pablo Hasel is a rapper who has been condemned by the Spanish Supreme Court to nine months’ imprisonment, starting in February 2021, for the crime of “encouraging terrorism and insulting the king.” It’s worth remembering that Spain was a republic, and that the monarchy was reintroduced by the fascist dictator, Franco, as part of his deal to step down. The former King of Spain has been accused of multiple acts of corruption, and more than 200 Spanish artists and journalists, including Pedro Almodovar and Javier Bardem, have called for Pablo’s release. Pablo has never seen a jury. Insulting the monarchy isn’t a crime in England yet. We shall see how long that lasts.
UPDATE — A Spanish court has added an additonal year and four months to Pablo Hasel’s imprisonment, for failure to pay a fine of 29,340 euros. The fine was imposed by the court which imprisoned him in the first place. Meanwhile, the football club Real Betis has tried to have Pablo jailed for two and a half more years for injuring its repuation: the rapper had criticized a footballer for Nazi inclinations. This attempt was rejected by a Spanish judge in December 2021. Pablo remains in jail.
Craig Murray is a former diplomat and British ambassador. Since leaving the diplomatic service he has been an author, activist, political commentator and journalist. His has written extensively of the problems with the Skripal case, and his reporting of the Julian Assange and Alex Salmond trials put the MSM to shame. For the latter, he was found guilty by a politically-appointed judge, “Lady” Dorrian, of the novel crime of “jigsaw identification” and sentenced to eight months in prison. It’s worth noting that Salmond, the former head of the Scottish Nationalist Party, was accused of sexual assault (shades of Julian Assange and other annoying activists) and found innocent of all charges by a jury of his peers. This suggests that his accusers commited perjury, which is a crime. Nevertheless, Craig, and not the perjurers, was sent to jail. (It’s been suggested this was a stitch-up in order to prevent him travelling to Spain to testify as a witness in the trial of the private spy ring which illegally surveilled Julian Assange.) Craig is an old gentleman (almost as old as me). He has never seen a jury, and Dorrian is now calling for an end to jury trials in Scotland. You can learn more about Craig’s case, and how to help him, here.
UPDATE — Craig Murray was released from prison on St. Andrews’ Day, 2021.
Alex Saab is the Venezuelan Ambassador to the African Union. He was illegally detained in Cape Verde in June 2020, on the orders of the US, which seeks to extradite him. He has been imprisoned, tortured, and denied cancer treatments. His crime, according to the Americans, is attempting to circumvent US sanctions which deny Venezuelans food and medicine. His diplomatic status is being violated. He has never seen a jury. You can learn more about his case here. And you can sign a petition for his release here.
UPDATE — Alex Saab was turned over to the US on Sunday Oct 17 2021. His extradition process was still incomplete.. The MSM, predictably enough, described the kidnapping as an “extradition” or “arrest”, and the kidnapped diplomat as “a fugitive Colombian businessman” “a money launderer” “of Lebanese descent” and “a financial fixer.” You can read two African perspectives on the case, and its impact on Cape Verde, here and here. He is scheduled to attend a hearing on 7 January 2022, and be told when his case will be tried.
Early this year, it looked as if the US and Russia were about to go to war over the Donbas region of Eastern Europe, where many Russians and Russian speakers live, and which is part of Ukraine. Fortunately this did not occur. A couple of months later British and Dutch warships sailed through disputed waters adjacent to Crimea. The Russians fired warning shots. Again, fortunately, a war did not occur.
But, if you would like to know how the Americans propose to conduct a land war against the Russians, you can find out pretty easily. There is this wonderful thing called the Internet, and the US Army has placed copies of its war-fighting plans in several places. You can download one here. One click and you can view all hundred pages of TRADOC pamphlet TP52 5-3-1, The US Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, “approved for public release, distribution unlimited.” There’s a preface and an executive summary, if you just want the synopsis. But I encourage you to read the whole document, as it contains some gems.
Not that it’s entirely clear or consistent. The drift from peace to war in pamphlet TP52 5-3-1 is murky, as the US Army believes we’re already in the early stages of war with Russia and China. The evidence for this is their (particularly the Russians’) bad behaviour on the Internet. Many pages are devoted to the “unconventional” and “information” warfare our “near-peer competitors” are already waging non-stop against us. But fear not. This snowlake stuff doesn’t last for long. At some point, the bad guys are going to make their move – and the US Army will be ready! Not on its own, of course. The Army is but one player in a Multi-Domain Operation which includes the US Air Force, US Navy, US Marines, US Cybercommand, US Space Force, not forgetting NATO, of course, all of which will battle the aggressor in space, cyberspace, the air, the sea, the land, and the waters under the earth.
The way the Army’s war will go is this: at some point the Russians (or the Chinese) will seize territory which isn’t theirs: Donbas, perhaps, or a land bridge between Russia and Kaliningrad, or the American-held oil fields of Syria, or Taiwan. They will do this swiftly, in an attempt to present us with a fait accompli. The example the pamphlet gives of such a possible enemy action is “anti-Russian rallies in Kiev in 2015.” (Appendix D-4) It’s a strange example, since Russia didn’t seize Kiev. But, as we shall see, TP52 5-3-1 anticipates battles in “dense urban terrain” and so Ukraine fits the intended war scenario.
Obviously, enemy aggression cannot be allowed to stand. Perceptively, the pamphlet observes that the USA is a long way from its chosen battlefields, while Russia and China are comparatively close (said battlefields being on their borders), and so the US has to preposition large quantities of war material nearby. Prior to the war, the US must prepare and harden APS sites: bunkers fortified against cruise missile strikes, in order to supply the US expeditionary force (Pg. 37). To protect the bunkers and repel the attack, “Forward presence Army long-range fires must enable the Joint Force to immediately begin neutralizing enemy long-range systems (IADS, SRBM, long-range MRL, and command and control) and have munitions stockpiles in theater sufficient to support operations for several weeks.” (Pg. 30) Let us unpack that sentence, and what it means.
IADS means Integrated Air Defence System: in other words, Russian radar, aircraft, and anti-missile defences. An SRBM is a short-range ballistic missile. An MRL is a multiple rocket launcher: the Russians have many of these, and they are mobile. So, in response to a localised Russian or Chinese aggression, the Americans plan to take out all these air defences. And they propose to do so “during the transition to armed conflict” (pg. 33) In theory, the US Army will do it all, through ground-based, long-range artillery fire. In practice, they will probably receive assistance from the USAF. In the case of Taiwan, presumably the Army’s role in shelling enemy defences will be superceded by the US Navy. But since this is an Army document they don’t talk about that.
Apparently, the US Army will destroy Russian air defences via “converging capabilities across all domains, the EMS, and the information environment … high-volume analytical capability and sensor-to-shooter links enabled by artificial intelligence.” (Pg. 38) Perhaps the reader can detect some bullshit here. Fortunately, the pamphlet is more concrete on Pg. 34, where we are told that the Army will receive targeting information “from space- and high-altitude-based surveillance or low-observable air platforms, and striking those high-payoff targets within minutes.” At the same time, cyber-warfare will include decoys and simulated attacks in order to “stimulate enemy long-range systems” (e.g. radars), locate, and destroy them.
Armed conflict on the ground has not yet begun. “Forward presence maneuver forces and partner nation conventional forces use the advantages of the defense, particularly in dense urban terrain… Army forces leverage their preparation during competition to harden friendly urban areas…” We are not told how this “hardening” is to be done. At the same time, “proactively countering enemy space surveillance is particularly important.” This involves disabling the Russians’ “space ISR capablities.”
ISR stands for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and “space domain” is defined in appendix GL-8 as “the area above the altitude where atmospheric effects on airborne objects become negligible.” In other words, while the Americans are destroying the Russians’ radar and airfields, they will also take out their satellites.
Neutralizing all Russian air defences may take more than a couple of minutes. Pg. 40 notes that “while the enemy has dozens of long-range systems in each combined arms army, they possess hundreds of mid-range systems”, all of which must be destroyed for the plan to work. Nevertheless, at some point the Russians’ defences will be overwhelmed, and the much-anticipated “manouver in dense urban terrain” can begin. This fighting will be based on the recommendations of the Army’s Mosul Study Group (appendix D-1), a report on a nine-month long battle (Oct 2016 – July 2017) in which more than 100,000 US and Iraqi troops ultimately defeated between five and twelve thousand ISIS insurgents, destroying the city in the process. But the US Army and its partner nation forces now have a chance to improve on the Mosul experience as “dense urban terrain offers increased possiblities for using cyberspace- and EMS-based weapons.” (Pg. 44) EMS means elecromagnetic spectrum (not emergency medical services). The acronym also appears in the Executive Summary on pgs. vi and vii, in conjunction with the “information environment”, which seems to mean EMS weapons designed to knock out electricity grids or other infrastructure. The EMS referred to in the city-fighting section may be that, or anti-personnel weapons of the science fiction kind, or Tasers.
When we get to the section titled “Conclusion: Penetrate” we might assume the battle is almost won. But no: we are told that “the key to penetration is the neutralization of the enemy’s long range systems” – something which a few pages back was to be achieved “within minutes”, while the U.S. Army was still rumbling towards its chosen battlefield. Nowhere in the 100 page TP52 5-3-1 document is it clear how the war is to be concluded. Various words are defined in Section II – “Terms” – including adversary, battlefield, fix, reset, and destroy. But the word victory does not appear there.
Instead, the goal appears to be to fight the Russians to a standstill, in whatever cities have been selected as the battleground. The section titled “Conclusion: Exploit” reports that “in a conflict with a near-peer enemy armed with nuclear weapons, the operational exploitation, however, will conclude with some combination of policy, logistics, and resource constraints. Although the enemy’s conventional forces will be severely degraded, it will retain cohesion and capablities to remain a threat.” After thwarting Russian aggression, the US and its allies will oversee “a successful transition from conflict to return to competition.” (Pg. 44) On the next page, the pamphlet acknowledges total victory over Russia or China is impossible: “where peer enemies have nuclear capacity, it is an unlikely expectation to hope for a vanquished opponent”, so US occupation forces will be necessary “to consolidate gains.” Meanwhile the Army will embark on the “rapid regeneration of munitions stockpiles.” (Pg. 45)
Appendix A-2 is titled “Fundamental assumptions.” Assumption G is as follows: “Neither the U.S. nor adversaries will employ nuclear weapons. The use of such weapons would so significantly alter the strategic context that different operational approaches would be required.” This is good to know.
AN EXAMPLE IN PRACTICE
Let’s take one of the above examples and see how these US military plans might work in practice. The ideal war from the perspective of TP52 5-3-1 would be a Russian fait accompli seizure of Donbas. The US and NATO have armed Ukraine and presumably created substantial APS bunkers there. There are several large urban areas, including Donetsk and Luhansk, which could be hardened/reduced to rubble. But let’s look at a less-discussed, far more incendiary possibility: a Russian invasion of the territory which separates it from its enclave of Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea. Kaliningrad was a “spoil of war” allocated from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union at the Potsdam Conference that divided up Europe in 1945. The countries which lie between Russia and Kaliningrad are Latvia and Lithuania, both members of NATO. To the immediate east is Belarus, currently a Russian ally. Much effort is currently being expended by US and European intelligence agencies to encourage a “colour revolution” in Belarus, and overthrow its pro-Russian government. What if they succeed? Russia will then have nothing but hostile nations on its Western border. What if it decides its interests are best served by seizing a land bridge to Kaliningrad?
Lithuania is home to a 1000-soldier NATO detachment. Most of the soldiers are from Germany, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. A Polish Air Force detachment with four F-16 fighters represents NATO at the Siauliai air base. US Army and Special Forces troops also operate there. APS bunkers have been established at Marijampole: since 2014, the US has given Lithuania 200 million euros to buy weapons and store them there.
Latvia is home to a batallion-sized NATO battle group of 1,500 soldiders at Adazi, with troops from Canada, Albania, Poland, and elsewhere.
There is also a NATO battle group in Estonia, to the north – run by the English – and a much larger one, in Poland, to the south – run by the US. More than 10,000 US troops are deployed to Poland, with a “surge capacity” of 20,000 additional Americans availiable in the vicinity. Together these forces are known as NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States.
These are substantial forces, which surround Kaliningrad. The US Air Force and NATO practice near-constant training exercises in the vicinity of the Russian enclave, which contains the headquarters of the Russian Navy’s Baltic Sea fleet, a forward staging point for combat aircraft, ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles, and anti-ship and -aircraft defences. Some 25,000 Russian troops are based there. Let us assume that an increase in tensions, or just plain wickedness and hatred of freedom, causes the Russians to invade central Latvia and Lithuania, in order to secure a permanent link to these naval and air facilities.
Kaliningrad is two hundred miles from the Russian border. It seems unlikely that the 2,500 NATO troops in Lithuania and Latvia could hold back several Russian divisions. But as NATO’s website reminds us, “an attack on one Ally is an attack on the whole Alliance of 30 members.” What happens next?
Per the US Army plan, the US Space Force will knock out Russian satellites to deny them intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Simultaneously NATO artillery and air forces will attack Russian air defences, both in mainland Russia and in Kaliningrad. And US/NATO cyberwarfare will spoof Russian radar with multiple imaginary attacks, in order to locate and destroy them. American Aegis missile complexes in Poland and Romania will be activated. Meanwhile the tanks and artillery in Poland will be rolling.
Their air defences having been destroyed “within minutes”, the Russian expeditionary forces will be confronted in the “dense urban terrain” of small cities like Rezekne (population 30,000), Utena (population 30,000), and Kaunas (Lithuania’s second-largest city, population 300,000). Russia will become bogged down in Mosul-style streetfighting. Despite much greater numbers and vastly superior equipment (the Fourth Russian Tank Division has 12,000 active duty personnel, 320 battle tanks and 300 infantry fighting vehicles), the Russian military will be defeated just as ISIS were.
Armchair generals can interject at this point that tanks and armoured cars are useless, in the face of drones. And there is truth in this. But it’s still remarkably optimistic of TP52 5-3-1’s authors to equate several Russian armoured divisions with a lightly-armed band of terrorists. And even more optimistic, perhaps fanatically so, to imagine that the war will not go nuclear. With this in mind, let’s turn from this hopeful fantasy to:
THE LIKELY RESULT
When the Russians and the Chinese lose their satellites, and their radars show incoming missiles and aircraft, what will they do? Leave their own missiles and planes on the ground, to be destroyed? Or launch them?
In the case of Baltic warfare, NATO’s number one target will be Kaliningrad. It is, after all, the site of numerous air defences, which it is our policy to destroy. General Jeff Harrigan, Commander of US Air Forces in Europe, told the National Interest that “US forces know how to crack Kaliningrad.” But Kaliningrad is also the home of a nuclear weapons storage site at Kulikovo, as well as the fleet base at Baltysk, where frigates, destroyers, corvettes, and nuclear-capable submarines are berthed. The missile base at Chernyakovsk houses nuclear-capable SS-21 and SS-26 SRBMs (short-range ballistic missiles). And there are half a dozen S-300 and S-400 air-defense units. Kaliningrad is what General Harrigan and the authors of TP52 5-3-1 would consider a “target-rich environment.” Artillery and planes based in Poland, or at sea, can reach it within minutes.
What will the Russian response be, to an incoming attack on Kaliningrad? Leave the subs and aircraft and missiles to be destroyed? Or get as many planes and missiles in the air before the bombs arrive? As Daniel Ellsberg told us, local American commanders had autonomy to launch nuclear attacks in a time of crisis – especially if their “command and control” network was disrupted. And TP52 5-3-1 aims for disruption of Russian command and control.
The blithe statement that “neither the US nor adversaries will employ nuclear weapons” (emphasis in the original) seems unsustainable. Nuclear and conventional weapons are co-mingled in both US and Russian inventories. Aircraft can carry either type of weapon. SRBMs like the S-400 and the Aegis are dual capable: that is, they can be fitted with conventional or nuclear warheads. In the absence of a treaty-based inspection program, it’s impossible to know how many nukes either side fields. And even if nuclear missiles are not targeted, there are nukes in bunkers in the target area, nukes aboard aircraft, nukes aboard submarines.
The Russians have observed that if they are attacked they will respond “asymetrically” not just against the attackers, but against those who ordered the attacks. This is an important distinction, for it means that Russian missiles may not be reserved for “defence.” After all, what is there to defend if Kaliningrad is about to be destroyed? So rather than attempting to knock down incoming planes and missiles, the Russians may target the NATO capitals which sent them. Their “defensive” missiles, with a range of 500 kilometers, can reach Berlin and Warsaw. Those aircraft and ICBMs which get out ahead of the attack can target London and anywhere in Europe, plus the continental USA. Like the Americans, the Russians do not have a “no first use” policy and reserve the right to respond with nukes, if they consider the homeland endangered. They are committed to defending their little enclave, just as NATO is committed to defending tiny Latvia, with nukes if required.
As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” TP52 5-3-1 is an illuminating document, illustrating the wonderful American capacity for optimism and the belief that everything can be forced to turn out for the best. It also demonstrates a complete lack of imagination and a narcissistic inability to learn anything or to step outside themselves. If this is serious military doctrine, we don’t need to worry about global warming. Nuclear winter is on the cards.
Norman Saunders was a cover artist for the pulps. He painted lurid, action-filled scenes for the covers of Eerie Mysteries, Dime Detective, Wild West Weekly, Saucy Movie Tales, True, Saga, and Real. There’s an excellent site devoted to his work, curated by his son.
By the late 1950s, pulp magazines were in rapid retreat. Magazines in general started showing a preference for photographic, rather than painted, cover art. Saunders found himself working for the Topps Baseball Card Company, fixing flaws on trading cards and repainting the players’ uniforms when they changed teams. He made a living at it, but retouching baseball cards was not his calling. In 1961, the anniversary of the American Civil War, Woody Gellman – Topps’ head of product development – decided to produce a non-sports series on the subject. He asked Saunders to paint it, and Len Brown, a 21 year old science fiction fan who wrote the backs of the baseball cards, to come up with the text.
Based on Gellman’s and Brown’s suggestions, a sketch artist would provide an outline in a 4X6 inch frame on an 8X10 illustration board. Topps hired some of the best comic and pulp artists of the day, including Jack Davis, Basil Wolverton, Mort Drucker, John Severin, and Wallace Wood (all veterans of EC and Mad magazine). The sketch artist would deliver the board to Saunders, who painted it – making substantial changes and additions. Brown then provided text, in the form of a “contemporary” newspaper report (most of the battles were fictional). The cards were called Civil War News, and were released in packages of five, together with genuine, authentic Confederate banknotes, reproduced on parchment paper, and a piece of pinkish plastic, which children were expected to chew.
What made Civil War News worth collecting wasn’t the historical information, much of it bogus. It wasn’t even the Confederate banknotes, though walking around with a thick wad of the stuff, hundreds and tens and twenties in fake dollars, certainly made one feel like Paladin. The series’ unique selling point was its total grisliness. Most of the cards captured moments of intense hideousness: cannons exploded, killing their crews; soldiers were bayonetted or impaled on lances; cavalrymen tumbled from their horses onto spikes; wagon wheels crushed wounded men; little boys were hung as spies; sharks and alligators attacked. It was great stuff!
The cards were very popular. According to Saunders’ son, David, there was also a parental backlash, and Topps was flooded with letters of complaint. To mollify its critics, the company announced a card set titled Flags of All Nations. This gave Topps “educational” cover to produce an even more violent and blood-spattered trading card set: Mars Attacks.
Len Brown, inspired by a Weird Science cover, came up with the story (told in short paragraphs on the back of each card). Wallace Wood and Bob Powell sketched the outlines; Norman Saunders painted them. Apparently another artist, Maurice Blumenfield, painted five or ten of the 54 cards, which were then retouched by Saunders.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the plot of the Mars Attacks cards. It can be told quite quickly. Martians, knowing their Red Planet is doomed, mount a flying saucer expeditionary force and invade Earth. The attack focuses on major US cities and the US military, who are quickly routed. The Martians devastate China and England from the air. In the US, they land and engage in search-and-destroy operations. In addition to their deadly heat rays, the Martians deploy a frost ray, a shrinking ray, tidal waves, and giant shovels to clear the streets. Then, in a second attack wave, the Martians release giant insects, which prey on humans and assist in street clearing, a Martian priority. Surviving soldiers battle the insects with flame throwers. In Paris, a giant caterpillar destroys the Eiffel Tower. Amazingly, despite the Martians’ seemingly total dominance, humans are able to mount a worldwide rocket-based counterattack. Our forces atom-bomb the planet, then land and attack a magnificent domed city. Having destroyed it, we depart the planet. Mars explodes.
As an alien invasion story in the War of the Worlds vein, Mars Attacks is quite splendid. One can take issue with a couple of narrative points: are the giant insects strictly necessary? And how does mankind, having been so thoroughly pummeled by the Martians, manage to put together this massive rocket-based comeback? No matter. Mars Attacks compels the viewer the wayThe Triumph of Death does: as a massive and cohesive vision of the doom of man. Saunders’ invaders even look like Bruegel’s skeletons: skull faces in space suits, with massive, exposed, pulpy brains. (Saunders borrowed David’s Captain Video space helmet, placed a plaster human skull inside it, and used it as a model in his paintings.)
The Mars Attacks cards were a big seller, beloved by science fiction fans and malevolent little boys. One of the most offensive cards was number 36, Destroying a Dog, which as the reader might intuit depicts a space-suited, skull-faced Martian turning his ray gun on a poor pup, while Junior flails hopelessly, saucers hover overhead, and the mailbox burns… According to David Saunders, “The whole family and neighborhood friends loved to pose for Dad. He often dressed us in stage clothing and directed our acting roles under theatrical lighting. Our dog “Cindy” and I got to be zapped into ashes by a merciless Martian. At first Dad painted the scene with the dog roasted into a hideous charred skeleton, but Topps made Dad retouch the dog with a coat of fur. I’ve always wondered if the owner of that painting knew there was a more “x-rated” dog underneath that revision!”
In the late 1970s, in a comic book store in Hollywood, I encountered the original Destroying a Dog illustration board, for sale. The painting was four inches by six, but where the disintegrating dog had once been, was a US soldier – also disintegrating. Perhaps he was Junior’s older brother. Accompanying the painting was a card explaining that the painter had suffered remorse over the Martian animal cruelty, and painted over the pup. So – in the manner of certain Bruegels like The Massacre of Innocents – multiple retouchings changed the image’s impact, and meaning. I wish I had bought that painting. It probably cost more than I could afford, but… According to some sources, Topps had commissioned Saunders to repaint several of the most gruesome cards, so that a new printing of the series could be issued. Then a complaint from a Connecticut district attorney was received. Topps cancelled the second edition, and finally brought out Flags of All Nations.
No children bought these boring cards. But they gave Topps cover for one more grotesque saga: Battle! – a series of violent scenes from the Second World War in which Japanese planes machinegunned drowning airmen, beautiful women were flogged by swarthy Asians, schools were bombed, and Americans set Germans on fire with flame throwers. Like Civil War News, it was historical type stuff. Saunders painted some of the cards.
In 1966, a company called A&BC bought the rights to all three sets and released them in England. The first to come out was Mars Attacks. At the time, I wasn’t interested in trading cards, or bubble gum, but there was something about the images which fascinated an eleven year old boy: their delirium, their strong graphics, their gratuitous sadism. I set about acquiring a full set, buying cards and swapping them with my colleagues. Soon came the backlash. The cards were discussed in the venerable Houses of Parliament. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent was cited. Card number 16 was not mentioned. The cards were banned.
However, no system was put in place to return or destroy the corrupting cards, and I was able to make a deal with our local tobacconist to acquire what remained of his stock. Despite the Parliamentary ban, my collection was soon complete, my psychological ruin assured.
In the late 1980s I brought the cards to the attention of the producer John Davison, who had just made a popular ironic SF movie, Robo Cop, and was looking for another one. He got us a development deal with a company called TriStar, and I wrote two drafts of a script. On the title page of the first draft, the studio head, Mike Medavoy, wrote “This film will have huge grosses.” And yet it was not to be. Medavoy felt my scripts weren’t right, and wanted someone else to take a crack at it. He hired an English writer by the name of Martin Amis. I didn’t think this was a good idea, but what did I know? I was just the director, maybe. Or maybe not. Amis turned in a couple of drafts. I didn’t see them. Then he penned a piece in the New Yorker, in which he made fun of how stupid Hollywood studio executives are, with witty portraits of a thinly-disguised Medavoy, and other TriStar execs.
TriStar abandoned the project. A decade later it was picked up by Tim Burton, and made into a film. I don’t think either of us got it right. My scripts were too diffuse: too many stories running in parallel, and a nasty protagonist lifted from a Frederik Pohl short story, Children of the Night, whom actors didn’t want to play. Burton’s Mars Attacks! movie began with a brilliant scene based on card number 22: Burning Cattle. Thereafter, it became a celebrity fest, and suffered from being made at a time when all Hollywood movies had to be filmed in Las Vegas, for reasons unknown. Still, that scene based on card number 22 was key: for the right way to make a Mars Attacks movie would be to respect the cards – to have 54 discrete incidents. No stars. No continuous characters (most of them are swiftly killed). Just 54 two-minute scenes depicting, as the cards do, the war between Mars and Earth.
What a film that would be! And it is still to be made…
(Subsequently, Topps came out with several more Mars Attacks sets, including 2013’s Heritage Invasion, and a new one this year: Mars Attacks Invasion 2026, in which Elon Musk plays the leader of the Martians. There is also a ten-card Deleted Scenes set, featuring new paintings based on unused sketches by Wood and Powell, and captions by Brown, which you can have fun interspersing with your original set. The best of this add-on set, which merges the principal themes and aesthetics of Mars Attacks and Civil War News, is below.
Pablo and I talked on our podcast a couple of weeks ago about flying saucer films. My contribution was to watch EARTH VERSUS THE FLYING SAUCERS! – made in 1956, and more recently colorized. I enjoy colorized films, especially when they’re done well (MY MAN GODFREY and the Russian version of THINGS TO COME) and the work on FLYING SAUCERS was pretty good. And the visual effects were by Ray Harryhausen! Not that they are excellent. The death rays are pretty hokey, and the UFO interiors are absurd. But the flying saucers themselves, seen from without, ain’t bad.
Almost immediately, the MSM jumped aboard our bandwagon and have been babbling about flying saucers like the most avid choir. The official narrative, as Caitlin Johnstone observes, moved rapidly from “these really poor quality video shots of who knows what? are evidence of visitiors from outer space” to “these really poor quality video shots of who knows what? are evidence of Russian and Chinese high-tech drones and aviation and the poor US military need much, much more money to emulate them!”
Why anyone would believe anything the US military, or “anonymous intelligence sources” or their mainstream media flacks told them I cannot say. But the refrain “There must be something to it because it’s the US Air Force who are witnessing these incredible phenomena” is particularly absurd. Though I love flying saucer stories, and will soon write about my favourite, the Mars Attacks bubble gum card series, I don’t think the latest round of very poor quality video of who knows what? means that we have alien visitors. Nor do I believe it’s Russian or Chinese aerobatics. But I know there’s a lot of money to be made, by Lockheed, and Boeing, and Raytheon, and the generals who will soon retire and become high-ranking excutives in those corporations, by hyping “mysterious aerial phenomena” and claiming there’s a flying saucer gap.
As we now know, the original “UFO flap” of the 40s and 50s was a creation of the US Air Force. Why would this one be different? Back in 1994 I wrote an article about this for UFO Magazine. It was also published by the investigative journal The Fourth Decade. Since we are living through a manufactured re-run of the 1950s, with witch hunts and blacklists and anti-Russian propaganda of the most absurd kind, let me reprint a shorter version of that piece here:
System maintenance takes many forms. Could conspiracy theories serve to protect or benefit elite interests? One instance might be the origins of the "Flying Saucer" flap of the late 1940's - where the familiar shadows of certain intelligence figures can be seen.
Some years ago I had lunch with Jim Marrs, writer and lecturer on the JFK assassination. Our conversation was pleasant, familar, paranoid, inspirational -- and astonishing, when he remarked to me that "the real story, the real cover-up, is UFO's." He wrote a book about this, Alien Agenda.
Today, "Psy-Ops" designed to convince us that truth is a lie, and vice versa, are are part of our daily lives and the fabric of official discourse: designed to win elections, prolong wars, distract an already-alienated populace, and maintain business as usual.
To me the UFO business sounds a little like a "Psy-Op" too – partially because the Flying Saucer "scare" of the 1940's - the seed of the UFO reports and beliefs of the present day - was the creation of U.S. military intelligence.
From the mid 1940's, when the sightings began, all significant reports of flying discs and other objects - and the insistance that they "behaved like nothing on earth" - came from members of the U.S. military: first from the Air Force pilots and ground crews, later from the Navy. The "news" of the crashed UFO at Roswell came in the form of an official press release from the Army Air Force Base. George Adamski, the self-proclaimed "alien contactee," was a military man; he is buried at Arlington cemetery. Donald Keyhoe, a prominent Navy Commander, authored the book Flying Saucers Are Real, while Commander R.B. McLaughlin, a head of the Navy guided missile team at White Sands Proving Ground, N.M., wrote an article entlited How Scientists Tracked Flying Saucers for True magazine in March 1950. William Cooper, author of Behold A Pale Horse, claims to have been in Naval Intelligence, and accuses fellow UFOlogists Moore, Shandera and Streiber of being intelligence stooges.
Whitley Streiber was a science fiction novelist before becoming a UFO celebrity. He shares, no doubt coincidentally, a Navy and science fiction background with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard - who, legend has it, declared at a science fiction authors' conference in the 40's, "If a man wanted to make himself some real money, he'd get out of science fiction writing and start a religion."
Throughout the 40's, 50's and 60's, the most prominent UFO reports - though regularly debunked by the military - came from the military. "Non-military" reports came from police, state troopers, "civilian" aviators (often military-trained), even "off-duty" CIA personnel.
Edward Ruppelt, an Air Force captain assigned to investigate Flying Saucer reports for project Blue Book wrote: "during July 1952 reports of Flying Saucers sighted over Washington D.C. cheated the Democratic National Convention out of headline space." The reports came from Washington National Airport, and from Andrews Air Force Base. In 1957, a huge Saucer "flap" occurred immediately after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik II (Sputnik - which carried a doomed dog into orbit - was considered a scientific triumph for the Russians and a humiliation for the United States. The UFO excitement lessened the Sputnik story's domestic impact).
And who was running the "official" USAF investigation into UFO's, Project Blue Book - along with the allegedly "more secret" parallel investigations, Projects Grudge and Sign? In his Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Edward Ruppelt writes,
"Early in 1951, verbal orders came down from Major General Charles P. Cabell, then Director of Intelligence for Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, to make a study reviewing the UFO situation..."
Anyone who has superficially studied the cast of characters surrounding the JFK assassination will have heard of General Cabell. Former Head of Air Force Intelligence, Charles Cabell was Deputy Director of Intelligence at CIA under Alan Dulles. He was fired, along with Dulles and Richard Bissell, the Director of Plans, following the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A native Texan with extensive business interests in the state, Cabell returned to his home town of Dallas, where his brother Earl was Mayor. A few months before the assassination of the President, Cabell addressed a group of businessmen at the New Orleans Trade Mart, as the guest of a New Orleans booster called Clay Shaw. After the death of JFK, Cabell became an employee of Howard Hughes.
It was popular after the Bay of Pigs failure to debunk Cabell: in Dulles' absence from Washington, Cabell had been left to carry the can. Understandably, the Bay of Pigs vets did not like their nominal leader: they called him "Old Rice and Beans." But Cabell was a military intelligence professional, the highest armed forces rep. in a supposedly civilian organization. It is unlikely that his interest in UFOs was frivolous. As a hard-nosed military man, the General may have desired to debunk them, as Project Blue Book usually did. But as a covert operations specialist, Cabell may have decided that "Flying Discs" would serve as a handy cover for "Black" USAF and CIA aviation projects, or for the recovery of crashed Soviet satellites and space probes. At least once such incident appars to have occurred. James Oberg wrote in Omni (Sept. 1993) that the "crashed UFO" rumor which arose in Western Pennsylvania in 1965 was most probably a "Psy-Op" spun to mask U.S.A.F. recovery of the crashed Soviet Kosmos-96 Venus probe:
"In the 1960's, U.S. military intelligence agencies interested in enemy technology were eagerly collecting all the Soviet missile and space debris they could find. International law required that debris be
returned to its country of origin. But hardware from Kosmos-96,
with its special missile-warhead shielding, would have been too
valuable to give back... What better camouflage than to let people
think the fallen object was not a Soviet probe but rather a flying
saucer? ... And if suspicion lingered, why UFO buffs could be
counted on to maintain the phony cover story..."
In the 1950s, "Skunk Works" aircraft designer Kelly Johnson and CIA's Richard Bissell flew over Groom Lake, a dry lakebed in Nevada, and deemed it a good base for their top-secret, high-altitude spy plane the U-2. A few decades later, UFO true believers would gather on the highway near the USAF "black" base at Groom Lake, Nevada - nicknamed "Dreamland" - convinced that super-secret, alien-engineered craft were being flown out of there.
General Cabell is an enigmatic figure. I’ve seen only one photo of him, head and shoulders, square-jawed, in uniform. I have not seen his autobiography (unlike many contemporaries, Cabell didn't make it into print), although a copy apparently resides in Dallas, with his sons. He seems to have been seriously involved in the U-2 program. According to Michael Bechschloss' Mayday, Cabell may have been behind a covert op to give the Russians secret U-2 information, in order to wreck the Eisenhower/Khruschev Geneva Summit in 1960. After Clay Shaw was found innocent by a New Orleans jury, District Attorney Garrison claimed he was going to start proceedings against Cabell in connection with the JFK hit. But Garrison did nothing: presumably he had no jurisdiction in Texas. (Jim Phalen, a New Orleans reporter who took Clay Shaw's side in the trial, is mentioned in The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects as a friend of author Ruppelt's, calling from Long Beach with "a good Flying Saucer report...")
As Head of Air Force Intelligence, Cabell ran, through intermediaries such as Ruppelt, three differently-classified projects related to UFO's: Blue Book, Sign, and Grudge. This is sometimes cited as evidence that the Air Force "had to be covering something up." But the existence of not one, but three, Air Force investigations, potentially with three different explanations for the same event -- all of them potentially false -- also sugggests a classic intelligence-constructed "hall of mirrors" in which the "real" truth can be hidden, behind several veils, from foreign spies, and also from domestic watchdogs.
I‘ve never seen a UFO. So perhaps I’m too skeptical. But I have heard the sonic book of a once-top-secret USAF SR-1 Blackbird (successor to the U-2) flying low over Managua, Nicaragua, on election day in 1984, in a "Psy-Op" to convince the populace that bombs had begun to fall.
Back then, according to a Gallup Poll, one in seven Americans believed in UFO's, somewhat more than the one in ten who claimed to have spoken personally with the devil. And since President Clinton's military budget was higher than his predecessors, there were still trillions of dollars to be made from high-tech, ultra-secret aircraft like the B-1B (which President Carter tried to cancel, but could not), the Northrop flying wing B-2, the TR-3A, the SR-75 Penetrator, and the XR-7 "Thunderdart" hypersonic spyplane. (Wild Blue Yonder: Money, Politics & the B-1 Bomber, by Nick Kotz, Princeton University Press, 1988).
"Psy-Ops" involving UFO's and alien abductions may be the small additional surcharge we must pay, to keep our minds off the real bills.
Keep watching the sky!
When I was a wee boy, my grandparents used to go to Llandudno, in Wales, for their holidays. They stayed in a place called the Gogarth Abbey Hotel, which seemed to me a gigantic edifice, something like the Adelphi in Liverpool, but with a lot more sunlight. I can remember an enclosed walkway between two buildings, awash with afternoon light which illuminated a giant mural of the Walrus and the Carpenter, from the first Alice book.
This is what it looked like in the mid 1960s. My recollections weren’t very accurate. The mural which I so vividly recalled was actually a painting, hung in a frame in the dining room. And the building was an agglomeration of edifices. The oldest part was built in 1861 or 1862 for Dean Lidell, of Christ Church, Oxford. Then as now Christ Church was unbelievably wealthy, and the humble Dean was able to afford a four-storey holiday home at the foot of the Great Orme. Lidell called the place Pen Morfa, and we were told that Lewis Carroll, a mathematics professor who was great friends with Lidell’s young daughter, Alice, stayed there during the summer months, and wrote on the premises.
In the above picture you can see the original building, with its witch’s hat, surrounded by later additions: a flat-roofed dining room to the left, and faux-Tudor Victorian extensions, on the right of it. The walkway where I imagined I saw the mural is the dark-roofed, windowed mid section. Time went by and Corfu and cheap flights appeared, and fewer people went to Llandudno for their holidays. The town lost its lustre and, by some accounts, became a haven for English junkies. It was much poorer, and golfers like my grandad and my uncle went elsewhere. The hotel closed in 2006, and the property was acquired by “developers” who started pulling it down.
By 2008 all that was left was the part which Liddell had built – the original Victorian holiday home, where Lewis Carroll stayed. When the “developers” wanted to pull that down as well, the locals objected. This was a historic site. Part of Alice In Wonderland had been written there… Not so! said Cadw, the the historic monuments agency. Said agency claimed there was no evidence that Lewis Carroll ever set foot there: they gave the “developers” permission to tear the place down. This does seem somewhat strange. Prior to Cadw’s announcement, Carroll’s relationship with Pen Morfa was well known. In addition to the oil painting of the Walrus and the Carpenter, observed by puffins on West Shore Bay, there was a fine marble statue of his White Rabbit within view of the hotel.
Above is a picture of the statue, taken around 2008. It has been surrounded by an inelegant circular cage, for its own protection, after the junkies broke the Rabbit’s ears off. You can see the remains of Pen Morfa to the left of the cage. What happened next? You can probably guess. The “developers” demolished the remains of the building, left a pile of rubble, and departed. Nothing has been “developed” there.
Why do I tell this sad tale? Because I find it interesting, to see how things that loomed large in one’s childhood get whittled away, to witness the impermanence of a marble rabbit’s ears, to be told that what we knew to be true was never true, according to state-funded “culture” bureaucrats… and also because my friend the poet, David Selzer, has written a poem about the old hotel. I promised him I’d put some pictures up, as a visual aid for those who wonder about the poem’s subject. This I have done.
The piece, Myths and Photographs, goes live on 30 April. But David has many other good poems for you to enjoy in the mean time. You can find them here.
Even with the cinemas closed and independent production reeling, it’s still possible to watch really great, original, independent films. This week I saw two — both one-word titles beginning with S: SIN, and STRAY. Both are foreign pictures. Neither would ever play at your local Marvelplex. Yet you can see them both, thanks to the on-going alliance between distributors and independent art cinemas.
Sin (Il Peccato) is a Michelangelo bio-pic, by Andrey Konchalovskiy. Such a project is inherently risky, summoning up dire visions of heroic American (or, worse, Anglo-American) actors gritting their teeth as they paint the Sistine Chapel. But fear not! This is an Italian-Russian coproduction. The locations and cast are Italian. The VFX and some crew are Russian. The result is a film of incredible visual richness and moral complexity, with Charlton Heston and Christian Bale nowhere in sight. Alberto Testone plays Michelangelo as an agitated, enthusiastic, anguished individual who can’t say no to powerful patrons. It’s a brilliant, multi-faceted performance in a film full of excellent acting. The design is splendid, with much attention paid to the filthiness of the “Renaissance”. Cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov has shot the picture in “academy” ratio – 4X3 – rather than widescreen, which is usually obligatory in these ancient epics. But I think I understand his choice: the narrowness of the frame emphasizes the relationship of man not to his environment, but to the ceiling, to the sky, to God…
Of course, Sin needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, for it is about Big Things. One day, the IFS and the Loft and the other great art houses will be screening films with audiences again (the Texas Theatre is doing this, cautiously, I think), and Sin should prove a popular repertory item. But don’t wait. Watch it on your laptop now, and again when the Big Screens return.
(Tod and I had the pleasure of interviewing Konchalovskiy some twenty years ago for our Kurosawa doc. He was only “western” director to film one of Kurosawa’s scripts – Runaway Train – and he had some memorable stories to tell. Konchalovskiy hated Communism and had moved to the USA, whereas Kurosawa had been a Communist in his youth, and admired Lenin. A spirited shouting match ensued. Now Andrey is back in Russia, and his 2020 film, Hello Comrades!, is an anti-Communist tale. His family are pretty important in Russia – it turns out his father wrote the National Anthem, and his brother his head of the cinematographers’ guild – and the Russians are keen for Hello Comrades! to get an Oscar nomination. Such prestige will, it is believed, help the government party hold back the Communists in the coming elections. Konchalovskiy’s story sounds like a Russian novel – with more chapters still to come!)
When I went to the Mar del Plata film festival in Argentina, I was struck by the numbers of stray dogs who roamed the city. My hosts assured me that this was normal: Argentinians don’t exterminate stray animals, as certain other nations do, but coexist with them. This astonished me. Inevitably, people knew varous dogs by nicknames, and sometimes fed them, and could tell stories about them. What a film was to be made here! I pondered the project, and immediately gave it up, because it would have involved months, if not years, spent shooting on the streets, living in cities and never seeing my own dear dogs, back in the land of plenty… Well, I am pleased to say a braver, stronger filmmaker has stepped up and made that film – in Turkey. Her name is Elizabeth Lo.
Stray is the story of three stray dogs, living on the streets of Istanbul. Lo shot and edited it over a two year period. Her story of the smallest things – abandoned animals – is also a story of abandoned people – Syrian refugees begging, sleeping on the streets, sniffing glue – and of other marginals whom society values not at all, and like Sin, becomes a film about Big Things. Stray is wonderful in many ways. Its conclusion is extraordinary. And thanks to the pandemic, and this inventive reponse, Lo’s film may get a wider and more general distribution. In addition to the art houses, it’s also streaming in support of local animal rescues. So if you want to would like to watch Stray and support the Jackson County Animal Shelter in Southern Oregon just click here.
Stray is currently streaming via the IFS, the Loft, and elsewhere. The Animal Shelter screening is on March 13, followed by an interview with the director.
When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I went to the Honda dealership on Lincoln Blvd., in Venice, to buy a motorcycle. In England I’d had a small Honda – the featherlight CB175 – which had proved very reliable. Today this humble bike, modelled on the traditional English racing twin, is considered a classic.
The one in the picture looks very like mine, though it’s no doubt a bit cleaner (the illustrations are all of bikes that were up for sale, so all are freshly-washed with no visible dings or pools of oil beneath the crankcase). I was looking for something along the lines of my old bike: only bigger, of course, because this was America. An hispanic mechanic showed me two bikes – an older 350 and a 360 – and indicated with his eyes that I should buy the 350. But what did I know? I was impressed by the extra ten cubic centimeters of engine room and the sit-up-and-beg handlebars and the fact that the 360 was a newer bike, and so I bought it, instead.
The Honda 360 did not last long. On the way back from a trip to San Francisco, a head gasket blew. I limped the cycle back to Los Angeles on one cylinder, and got home after dark. No sooner had I slumped through the door than someone hammered on it. “Trick or treat!” Having no candy, I offered the kids some peanut butter. They declined. I had much to learn.
Mine was a reddish colour, but otherwise like the 360 seen here. A later model had a disk brake up front; mine had a drum. It handled well and after I painted it black I was allowed to affiliate with a motorcycle club based in a side street half a block from the Pacific Ocean, run by a colourful chap called Varnum. The name of our gang was the Ambrose Bierce Memorial Black English Motorcycle Club. Varnum had a Norton, in pieces in his shop. Rhys had a Norton, also plagued with technical issues. McGuire had a BSA, which Varnum swore would one day run again. I think they let me associate with them because I was the only one with a working motorcycle. Anyway, we talked a lot about motorcycles, drank a fair amount of Rainier Ale (though my preference was for Mickey’s Big Mouth, in the barrel bottle, rather than the can), and inevitably Varnum began scanning the classifieds (for there was no Internet, nor Computer, in those days) in search of a suitable new ride for me.
What I wanted was a touring machine: something to take me in effortless fashion to Arizona, or New Mexico, or Baja California. Since my mechanical abilities consisted of changing spark plugs and putting air in the tires, it needed to be simple and reliable. It did not need to seat two people, as none of my girlfriends enjoyed motorcycle touring in the least. Ideally it would have a windshield, or a small fairing, and panniers to carry the camping gear.
To his credit, Varnum came up with a fine, sensible option: a Moto Guzzi California. It fitted all my critera, and more: it had floorboards, panniers, a windshield and three headlights. It was a big V-twin, air-cooled, 850cc (that was considered big back in those days). Most wonderful to relate, it had a shaft drive! No more monkeying around with and replacing oily bike chains by the side of the road. Since I wanted a machine primarily to escape Los Angeles (plus travel to and from UCLA, where I was being thoroughly educated in the art of film) this was the perfect bike for me. I took it for a test ride. It was heavy, cumbersome to wrangle around at low speed, unlike the dainty Hondas to which I had been used. I wasn’t used to riding a motorcycle too heavy to pick up, if it fell over. Which brings us to the other motorcycle Varnum proposed:
The Norton Commando. 750ccs, two cylinders in that classic English style, drum brakes, four speeds, no electric start, no turn signals, no frills at all. The large fiberglass “fastback” touring tank and side covers were painted British Racing Green. I took it for a test ride through the neighbourhood. The shift worked in the opposite direction to the Hondas and the Guzzi: four speeds, one down followed by three up, which made more sense than five or six speeds starting with an upward shift. The gearbox was unbelievably smooth. With sufficient revs gear changes were completely seamless, the acceleration out of them actually joyful, at least compared to gear boxes I had previously enjoyed.
On the way back, I paused at a stop sign and the engine died. I trod down on the kickstarter and the Norton purred effortlessly back into life. Though nominally a “touring bike” – thanks to plenty of marketing and the big fuel tank – this machine was entirely unfit for this purpose. It had none of the accoutrements necessary for motorcycle touring. It was a racing bike. I bought it.
Varnum must have been pleased, for he rechristened our association the Ambrose Bierce Memorial Black (and Other Colors) British Motorcycle Club. But his bike still didn’t run, and nor did Rhys’s or McGuire’s, and I soon learned the reason that Nippon, rather than Blighty, now ruled the motorcycle world. My Norton was a beautiful bike to ride, when it was running, but it was incapable of remaining in running order for any reasonable period. It couldn’t take me out to Monument Valley, say. It couldn’t even get me to UCLA and back, with any reliability. Why was this? Ah, let me count the ways. And bear in mind this was a used machine. I have never bought a new vehicle. But, growing older, I have put more time into learning about things before I get into them. In the case of the Norton, I had not done this.
The main problem was the carburetors. These had originally been of a brand called Amal, which were apparently famous for sticking, and denying air to the engine, causing it to suffocate and die. My bike’s Amals had been replaced, but the replacements suffered the same problem, so the engine had difficulty idling, and a tendency to stall. Then there were the brakes. Disk brakes, fore and aft, were essential for a bike as powerful as this one. But it didn’t have them: they were a generation away, and came in (I believe) with the 850cc Commando a few years down the line. No matter how good the drum brakes were, they were entirely inadequate, particularly in the rain. But no matter! Because if you rode with your lights on, you would drain the battery, and the bike wouldn’t run any more. According to Varnum, Mr. Lucas, inventor of Lucas Electrics, declared that motorcycles weren’t meant to ridden at night, but only in the daytime. So if you rode a Norton or a Triumph or a BSA in the dark you would inevitably drain the battery. Makes sense, right?
All of this I could have dealt with, maybe. But for me the crowning glory of the 750cc Norton Commando was the kickstarter. Bear in mind, this motorcycle didn’t have an electric starter. There was no button to push (that too came in with the 850cc replacement, and added to the battery drain). If you wanted to get my machine going, you had to put your foot down. Now, on the Hondas this had never been an issue. Kick ‘em two or three times, they fire up, off you go. The Hondas had, Varnum told me with great resentment, “low compression.” Whereas the Norton Commando had very high compression and if you didn’t kick the starter just right – from something the cognoscenti called “top dead centre” you were in for an appalling pain as the starter flew back up and whacked you violently on the tender inside of your right foot. On my test drive, I had found “top dead centre” without a problem. Thereafter, less so. And the more times you failed to find it, and attempted to kick-start the bike, the more times you got physically hurt.
So, adios Norton. It took me forever to get rid of it. Whenever we got it running, it was a great bike and a joy to ride, and I didn’t want to sell it any more. Then it broke down again. Who wanted such a thing? If I had owned a garage or a place to store it, I could sell it for a lot of money nowadays… along with the comic book collection which my dad burned in our back garden… oh well…
Lacking reliable transport, I soon found myself the proud owner of two unreliable motorcycles: the Norton Commando, and a BMW 60/6.
We found the Beemer in the local British motorcycle shop, run by John Palfreyman. Do you see what a long time ago this was? Imagine a store, on a working class street in Venice, CA, selling and repairing used English motorbikes! Run by a limey name of Palfreyman. Anyway… in the back of the shop was a BMW 60/6, with its front end missing. It had been in a wreck, and needed a new wheel, tire, and struts. Other than that it was, John said, quite good to go. There was a ding in the metal fuel tank, which was painted black, as were the side covers. As I recall, it had low mileage: maybe 40,000 miles. Once again, I got involved in a deranged project. We found parts and Varnum rebuilt the front end, complete with the classic BMW 60/6 drum brake: a brake as inadequate, in its own way, as the drum brake of the 750 Norton Commando.
There is a reason motorcycles have disk brakes. For all I know, maybe they now have plutonium brakes powered by unicorns, which stop in record time, and disks are derided and laughed at. But drum brakes, front and back, on a reasonably powerful motorcycle, were and are entirely inadequate. I consider a reasonably powerful motorcycle to be anything above 350ccs. Drum brakes just weren’t up to the job of stopping a fast-moving machine, especially in wet weather. Other than that, the restored Beemer was a tremendous touring bike. Unlike the Norton, which was forever broken in some way, the BMW made journeys to Mexico, to the Anza Borrego Desert, to the hot springs of Kern Valley (now closed!), to Arizona and Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, often in the company of a Harley Davison, ridden by Bob Richardson, my cinematographer pal. Bob and I never considered a name for our outfit, which ultimately encompassed two Beemers (mine), a Moto Guzzi and a Harley (Bob’s). My old 60/6 remained a splendid bike right up until a regrettable road accident demonstrated the need for a better-braking machine.
The 60/6 was retired. And thus, at last, I acquired the best of all the bikes I rode: another BMW, of the same generation. A 90/6. This was a more powerful version of my previous Beemer, with few vices and the great virtue (in addition to its shaft drive) of a disk brake on the front. There was also a windshield and a modest fairing, both being attached to the handlebars – this was a set-up I found much more useful and manouverable than the attached-to-the-body fairing of all subsequent BMW models. The 90/6 wasn’t heavy: it felt lighter than the Guzzi, and a breeze to move around, even without the engine running, thanks to the low, balanced mass of the boxer engine.
All of the motorcycles I have described here were air-cooled! None of them had radiators, or computer chips, or two-liter engines, or stereos or GPS devices, or any of the improvements which have come along since then, and turned motorcycles from young people’s travel tools into retirees’s playthings. Later, I rode a Suzuki 550 and two BMW R100RTs, one of which appears in my film, Straight to Hell. But the best of the lot, based on the criteria discussed, was that 90/6.
In the late 1980s I left that bike with a friend of mine in Tucson: Bing. Apart from quick trips to the Loft, I didn’t visit the Old Pueblo for many years. I lost track of Bing. Then, not so long ago, I went back to Arizona to shoot Tombstone Rashomon. Sitting in the production office before things got up to speed, I wondered… whatever happened to Bing (and my BMW)? Odds were he’d long since sold it. But one never knew. I did an internet search, and discovered Bing had passed away only a few weeks previously. Since widows tend not to like complete strangers turning up on their doorstep saying, “Sorry about your loss; do you still have my motorbike?” I let sleeping cycles lie.
But I’ve managed to rustle up some pictures of that machine, including the one above, on one of its epic journeys through the American West. And in part 2 of this, I’ll tell that tale.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, I must apologise for how sparse it has been of late. Certainly, there are many things happening. But I would hate to be one of those individuals who consume a daily diet of partisan news, get driven into a frenzy, and regurgitate it into the blogosphere.
I can only write about things that I know about, whether through research or personal experience. So I can share my thoughts about science fiction, or Breughel, or the production of motion pictures… but what do I know about the latter any more? COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on so many many industries and peoples’ lives; independent, audio-visual drama is only one of them. I wrote a short piece about this last year: since then, fundamentally not much has changed. Some bigger-budget production has recommenced, with the cast and principal crew encased in “bubbles”. A friend is in one of these bubbles now, pre-producing a series in Puerto Vallarta. He is tested every few days for COVID. He stays in one hotel room. His family stay in a different room. They have no physical contact. Production is scheduled to start with the arrival of the principal cast in March.
Obviously this is very risky. What happens if the bubble bursts, and an unreplaceable cast member gets infected? There’s no production insurance to cover a pandemic. So this, plus the cost of the bubble, and regular, fast-result COVID testing, means that only deep-pockets, studio or Amazon or Netflicks or HBO or Apple can currently afford to make films. Sure, you can shoot a movie for nothing with your phone within your own “bubble”. But low-budget, independent features, where you pay the crew and hire SAG actors, aren’t happening right now.
And nor is exhibition! Good cinemas in Florence, OR, Tucson, AZ, Boulder, CO, Dallas TX, Hoylake, Wirral, and many other places struggle to stay afloat — and the audience response in every case has been greatly encouraging. What happens to the big cinema chains, with their monoform diet of Disney, superheroes and war, matters not. It is the independent cinemas – the ones not owned by media monopolies, the theaters which screen classic and foreign feature films, which must, and I believe will, endure. The Loft and the IFS and the Texas Theatre will survive the pandemic because they supply a need and satisfy a desire — for genuine cinema. The closest analogy I can think of is vinyl. Twenty years ago Big Media was telling us vinyl was dead. CDs were infinitely better quality, they never skipped, and hey! why not rent music from us, via a stream? Big Media lied, and lost, and vinyl is once again state of the art, not just for audiophiles, but for regular music enthusiasts.
I think art cinema will prove equally resilient. AMC may go the way of Blockbuster, but over the years art houses will survive, and, I predict, flourish. Good films have an enduring quality. Crap quickly rots.
If you’re interested in more filmic rambling, including a penetrating analysis of Navany’s Putin’s Palace, the documentary Collective, and Julien Temple’s Crock of McGowan, Pablo Kjolseth and I continue our IFS podcast here.
(Unfortunately Julian Assange, whose picture can been seen at right above, remains in a COVID-wracked, high-security prison in London. The magistrate in the case has declared she will not allow him to be extradited to the US on espionage charges; however she has ordered the journalist to remain incarcerated, while the US government “appeals” against her decision. The failure of the MSM to cover the persecution of Assange is horrific. Some of the best reporting has been done by Craig Murray and Consortium News. This week Craig is to be tried in Scotland by a politically appointed judge – like Julian, no jury trial – also for the crime of journalism. I’ll change the picture when Julian is finally released, as Chelsea Manning has been.)
Last Friday a federal judge agreed to the Department of Justice’s petition to “vacate” the Paramount decision. What does this mean? Why should you care? If you aren’t interested in films, or in going to the cinema again once there’s a vaccine, then it doesn’t affect you very much. But if you are still a cineaste, currently obliged to slake your thirst for art online, the decision matters… as we shall see.
The Supreme Court decision in US vs. Paramount Pictures in 1948 broke up the vertical integration of film distribution: the big studios could no longer own cinemas, and exclusively screen their own films. This is why there are cinemas – old, splendidly decorated movie palaces – called the Paramount in some American cities. They were built, and owned, by Paramount Studios, and showed Paramount films. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that studios couldn’t own cinemas, and for 72 years that was the case. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres found “that termination of the Decrees is in the public interest”, and set the Supremes’ decision aside. Judge Torres’ reasoning is bone-headed in many ways, and I don’t understand how a lower court gets to overrule the Highest Court in the Land. But apparently it does, and as of this week, Paramount can be an exhibitor again.
Not that they would want to, especially when all US cinemas are closed. Paramount is only a small studio, a modest beneficiary of this amazing pro-trust US government largesse. The real beneficiary is the mega-studio, Disney, which in 2018 swallowed its rival, 20th Century Fox. Last year Disney movies (which include the Marvel and Star Wars franchises) took forty percent of the US box office. Disney can extract extraordinary terms from theaters: insisting that its films play for X number of weeks, on the largest available screen. Given such power Disney doesn’t need to own theaters. But now it can, if it chooses to. Or if invited to. Last week, the US government ordered the Chinese company Tik Tok to sell its US interests to Microsoft. The AMC theater chain is also Chinese-owned. Disney would no doubt be happy to take it over, in return for generous taxpayer concessions.
“Multiplexes, broadcast and cable television, DVDs, and the Internet did not exist” when US vs. Paramount was decided, Judge Torres wrote. “Subsequent-run theaters no longer exist in any meaningful way.” Clearly the Judge is bang up-to-date on high-tech developments like broadcast TV, and DVDs. But what she says is untrue. There are hundreds of independent movie theaters in the US, which play a mix of “subsequent-run” studio movies, independent, and foreign films. The Judge’s contention that “consumers” only see films at home after their initial theatrical release is an evidence-free assertion. Has she never been to an art house? Never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show?
Even before the coronavirus and Torres’ dead-wrong decision, independent cinemas faced new difficulties – thanks to Disney. As this article from Vulture shows, since acquiring Fox, the Disney execs have dropped that studio’s back catalogue into what is apparently called the Disney Vault. Here old Disney (and now old Fox) films are kept in darkness. They are not let out to be screened, or seen, except perhaps at a favored venue such as Film Forum. Decades go by, and no one can see them, until the execs decide it’s time for an “official” re-release. Well, I supposed it’s their business, and looking at the list, pretty much all the films Fox made after Murdoch took over the company are rubbish, anyway. Still, independent cinemas derive a fair part of their revenue from showing old Hollywood movies on the big screen, and their inability to screen a DCP of Alien or Fight Club, say, impacts their finances and their ability to screen foreign, or independent, films. My films!
(The saddest think about the Vulture article is that none of the theater owners interviewed will go on the record about Disney’s business practices. They are all afraid of retaliation, from Disney.)
I see a solution. Rather than litigate separate anti-trust suits to ban the Disney Vault and vertical integration (save that fight for Amazon), the US government simply needs to lower the copyright period, from a ridiculous 95 years from publication, to something reasonable, like 20 years. That way all those great Disney pictures like Sleeping Beauty and Fantasia and Pinocchio will be in the public domain, along with the good movies Fox sometimes made before Murdoch came along.
I’m sure that this will be a priority for President Sanders, once he… oh… wait…
Over the years I’ve acquired a small collection of REPO MAN posters – some of them for theatrical or dvd releases, some of them art pieces made by people who were enthusiasts for the film. Some are quite sublime, and others awful. Let’s take a brief trip among my souvenirs…
This is the original poster, designed by Universal Pictures. Have you ever seen anything more lame? It looks like a poster for a spin-off of THE WARRIORS. Harry Dean Stanton, the first-billed actor, is stuck in the back behind his car. Emilio Estevez has been given leg extensions. The rays of light emerging from the trunk don’t line up with any source. The dreadful “Meet Otto… he’s a clean cut etc.” attempt at a written explanation of the film betrays the studio’s complete failure to understand it. And worst of all, the title of the film is in the wrong place, too small, in black against a dark background. Why… it’s almost as if Universal didn’t want people to see the film. The producers and I were so annoyed by this that we made a stencil and drove around LA grafitti’ing REPO MAN posters wherever we found them (see below).
As the reader will note, the explicatory babble has been overstamped with a much bigger REPO MAN logo, in red, and MAY 4, the Los Angeles release date, has also been added. The red has faded now, but was very bright it its day. This is the poster which hangs in the lobby of Melnitz Hall, at UCLA.
A couple of years later, REPO MAN got a theatrical re-release thanks to Kelly Neal, who was in charge of a division of Universal called “Special Handling.” He had two films to deal with, REPO MAN and RUMBLEFISH. He thought the studio had misunderstood both films and mishandled their original releases. He wanted to make new posters for the national re-release, but Universal wouldn’t give him a budget. Somehow he managed to fund a black-and-white one, which completely gets the film.
Universal washed their hands of REPO MAN internationally. Foreign distributors, such as Artificial Eye in the UK, picked it up. REPO MAN became Arty Eye’s biggest money maker, and their poster, while a bit fussy, is closer to the spirit of the film.
Whose poster was this? I’ve been told it’s from the Netherlands, but it might also be part of the growing realm of movie fan art, like the following:
Nice to see Sy Richardson’s character, Lite, celebrated here. And interesting how the artist, like Kelly Neal, relies on an exchange of dialogue as part of the composition.
And here’s some fan art for a REPO MAN 2 that never was – featuring a fluorescent Otto, and a score by Husker Du! This was not authorized by the author, but then such art never is. I love the colour scheme.
And who could forget the tin-box packaging (I know it’s not strictly a poster) of Anchor Bay’s REPO MAN dvd release? With a good US distributor, the dvd did so well that Universal asked Anchor Bay to give it back – someone told me they traded the dvd rights to REPO MAN for the rights to EVIL DEAD 2. And what did Uni do next? They brought a new dvd out via their “indy” subsidiary, Focus Features, packaged like this:
Ay, ay, ay. Never let a bad idea go to waste! Good to see Jennifer Balgobin made it to the final version, but guys… was this really the best graphic you could manage? The most original idea you could come up with? The Rolling Roadshow showed ’em the way to go a couple of years later, with a tour of films projected on the big screen in the locations where they were shot. They showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST in Monument Valley, and REPO MAN in an LA alley:
I think the best way to graphically represent a film – a good film, anyway – isn’t with pasted-up pictures of some of the cast, but with a single, strong, unique image. The Rolling Roadshow did it here, in 2005.
Criterion did something along the same lines for their dvd and bluray release in 2013 — with a similar colour scheme (it’s taken from Robert Dawson’s opening credits). Another strong, simple and effective graphic! And, meanwhile, the mad and chaotic school of poster design continues to thrive:
This is the poster from Ghana, apparently. I don’t know the date but the skull with digital mohawk seems to be referencing the Criterion poster. Not sure about those beheadings, either.
And this is my personal fave — the poster from the Harry Dean Stanton Fest in Lexington, KY, in 2019. If I succeed in getting REPO MAN 2 – THE WAGES OF BEER – a-going, this will be our poster.
Stay tuned! And a shout out to my dear pal Pablo Kjolseth of the IFS for turning me on to the Russian Film Hub, where you can see Russian features across the decades, for free. Numerous good pictures here — among them the deeply disturbing COME & SEE, and the brilliant HEART OF A DOG.