About alexcoxfilms

film director, writer, actor

THE FLYING SAUCER GAP

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 by 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!




THE GOGARTH ABBEY

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.

TWO EXCELLENT INDEPENDENT FILMS

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.

MOTORCYCLE BOY part 1

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.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

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.

On the subject of film, here are links to a couple of other articles I wrote last year: one about recent Russian WW2 films, and one describing an idealized film festival celebrating the year 1972.

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.)

PARAMOUNT WINS; WE LOSE

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…

 

REPO MAN POSTERS

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…

RM_Poster_1This 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).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 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.

RM_Kelly_Neal  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.

RM_UK_Poster 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.

RM_Netherslands_Poster 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:

RM_Fan_Art_2  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.

RM2_Fan_Poster 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.

R-12039470-1558765233-5730.jpegAnd 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:

RM_Focus_Features  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:

RM_LA_Road_Rally_2005  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.

RM_Criterion_Poster_2013  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:

RM_Ghana_Poster  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.

RM_HDSfest_Poster 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.

 

 

TED CRUZ’S EXCELLENT HOLLYWOOD IDEA

My Republican friends do not like Ted Cruz. They say he is a devious and unpleasant character unpopular within his own party. My Democrat friends do not like Ted Cruz: he is a Republican. Yet the Texas Senator has come up with a proposal which seems eminently sensible. In April he introduced legislation which he called the Stopping Censorship, Restoring Integrity and Protecting Talkies Act – SCRIPTA – which would free Hollywood studios from having to submit to multiple forms of state censorship.

Ted CruzTed Cruz, R-Texas, King of the Talkies (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Rejoice, Hollywood! For surely this is good news. In theory, of course, the studios don’t have to submit to any kind of censorship – not since Roger Corman and AIP broke the back of the Production Code some six decades ago. But in practice, the reader will be shocked to learn, over the last few years Hollywood has been subject to censorship from not just one, but two, powerful sources.

The first is the Pentagon. For, in order to gain access to a smorgasbord of military goodies – tanks, planes, uniforms, permission to shoot at Camp Pendleton – the studios must submit their scripts, and make changes. Let us assume that the scripts are the usual war-mongering, platidudinous balderdash that Hollywood invariably offers up. No matter! The military brass can always identify some problems: too much swearing, perhaps. Or not enough diversity to satisfy current recruitment aspirations. Or no hand sanitizers in the CIA torture chamber. So there will be changes made.

Fair enough. Hollywood isn’t going to make an anti-war movie any time soon so it probably doesn’t matter if TOP BUN 2 puts on a few extra pounds of patriotism. And the rewards are great! Free stuff for the studios! Well, not free, really, as we the taxpayers pay for it. But hey, that’s not what Ted Cruz is complaining about.

Cruz’s SCRIPTA bill points out that, after receiving US taxpayer largesse from the Army or the CIA, the studios shoot part of the picture in China, with Chinese producing partners, and/or distribute the finished film there. And in order to do this, they – you’ve guessed it! – have to submit the script to Chinese state censors. Not just the script – the finished film itself has to be screened for the Chinese censors, and, if required, further changes must be made. An example given in Variety is from TOP BUN 2, co-financed by China’s Tencent Pictures, where the wardrobe department had sewn the flags of Taiwan and Japan on the back of Tom Cruise’s flight jacket. A complaint from China, and they were digitally removed.

The same thing happened on the remake of RED DAWN, where the Chinese invaders had to be digitally converted into North Koreans. Ted Cruz is tired of this stuff, and the way it impacts our “talkies”. His legislation proposes that any film which submits to Pentagon censorship cannot submit to Chinese censorship as well.

Let the bells of freedom ring! Strangely, Variety is less than enthusiastic, reporting that “the Script Act asks American companies to give Congress a list of all titles submitted to Chinese authorities for approval in the past decade for review — “Good luck with that,” laughs one top film executive with deep ties to China — but more troubling is its prohibiting studios engaged in co-productions with Chinese companies from accessing government assets.

“Chinese regulations require that there is only one version of a finished Chinese film, meaning that the version of a co-produced movie released in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere should be the same as the one censored for Chinese audiences.”

It’s worth reading that last sentence a second time, since it appears that the Hollywood studios, in order to gain access to a very large market and make more money — have agreed to submit all co-produced films to worldwide Chinese censorship. So if you make a “talkie” for Disney, and Disney make a coproduction deal with Tencent, Disney must submit your script to the Chinese government for prior approval, and the version that Beijing approves is the one that you must shoot, and the only one which can be screened anywhere.

Possibly, it could be said that Cruz isn’t sincere. That his attempt to save our talkies will go nowhere, and is just part of a bi-partisan campaign of China-bashing. This may be so. Yet it seems to me that Cruz’s proposal is useful, throwing light on a very serious problem: a covert, internationalized film censorship regime. The official journal of our industry doesn’t seem to have a problem with multiple censorship regimes and their impact on the quality of the art, yet only offers up anonymous responses:

“What are they going to do, demand copies of each draft of each movie script? Gimme a break!” laughs one veteran exec.”

But why not? The studios provide the Pentagon with copies of each draft of every script. They provide the Chinese censor with a similar package, and a screening of the finished film. They can deliver the same materials to Cruz’s office. And if this whole deal is just a storm in a teacup, political grandstanding, why can’t Variety find an American producer who’s willing to go on the record, to talk about it?

[Next week I’m going to write about plans for reopening film production during the pandemic. But first I must do more research…]

Oh… if you would like to support independent cinema and watch a couple of my old flicks, the Texas Theatre in Dallas is streaming a double bill of EL PATRULLERO and STRAIGHT TO HELL. Kino Lorber, the distributor, is splitting the gate with them, so as with the IFS and Loft online screenings, your support keeps independent theaters (and distributors) alive! Thank you.

 

THE BEST SITE ON THE WEB

At the start of April, one of the film editors at the English newspaper/website The Guardian asked me to write a piece about what I was doing in the lockdown: what films I was watching, what music I listened to, what I was reading and where I got my news. I wrote the piece (you can read it here) within the required word limit, fired it off to them, and it was published … sort of. What got published was the first half, about films and songs. What got omitted was the stuff I wrote about sources of information.

To be fair, I expected this. The Guardian has become so conservative in its politics that any mention of The Canary, say, will be thoroughly excised. The editor of The Guardian is traditionally a timorous person from a private school, who can be relied upon to shop whistleblowers and quake before the fearsome might of the “intelligence community.” But during the general election campaign, the former newspaper excelled itself in doing its master’s bidding, and going out of its way to stop Corbyn winning a general election: peddling anti-semitism smears and red-baiting one of the very few decent individuals left in English politics. Pretending the Labour leader was a Russian dupe is par for the course for the BBC and the Murdoch press. When The Guardian joined the pack it was a media fait accompli.

One might argue that really it was the Blairite fifth column in the administration of the Labour party which sank the ship. There’s a long article about that here. which discusses an 841-page Labour investigation into its various failings. The leaked document “shows that some of the most senior employees of the Labour Party held its elected leadership in contempt, despised their own party members and even acted in a conspiratorial manner that undermined our 2017 general election campaign.”

So the Blairite faction in the Labour Party preferred to lose an election than win one. Their only goal was to ensure that their own, moderately-leftish, socialist candidate wasn’t elected. Does that remind the American reader of anything? Is there another political party anywhere with an entrenched neoliberal administration who despise their own supporters and would rather lose than see a moderately-leftish, socialist candidate win?

In the general election, the Conservatives didn’t pick up many extra votes. What won it for them were the 800,000 Labour voters who didn’t turn up at the polls. In several cases, anti-Corbyn Labour MPs lost their seats – including the egregious Ruth Smeeth, peddler of the “anti-semitic” calumny against her own party. There are surely numerous reasons why those Labour voters didn’t vote. They may have detested the local candidate that the London-based party imposed on them. They may have opposed Labour’s support of a second Brexit referendum. They may have believed the “anti-semitic” or “Russian agent” propaganda of the mainstream media. They may have felt the opposite, and given up on Corbyn and the party for not responding strongly and forcefully to obvious lies and bullshit. I don’t imagine we shall ever know.

Nor, I suppose, will we ever know why Bernie Sanders threw in the towel so early, in the face of blatant vote-stealing and vote suppression by the Democratic Party. Sure, the DNC were stealing primary votes and making voting difficult, just as they did in 2016. What did he expect? The Coronavirus affects everything, which is why we need a political class who understand the need for universal health care and a minimum basic income. In terms of the presidential race, Sanders was the only candidate close to such positions. Now that he is gone, what professional politician represents us?

Anyway, the point I have wandered from is, if one doesn’t read MSM any more, or watch stupid-ass TV “news”, how does one get one’s information? I have no social media, and a cheery disposition as a result, so I’m reliant on books, of course, and for daily information on those old-fashioned things called websites.

Which news-oriented websites to visit? Here we are in luck. A few years back an “anonymous” propaganda outfit called Prop Or Not was heavily promoted by the Bezos Shopper. Prop Or Not had a website, and the website told you which other websites were secret channels for Russian disinformation. I made a little informational video about the Prop Or Not blacklist, which you can watch here.

Prop Or Not remains entirely anonymous (“an independent team of concerned Americans”) unlike other state-sponsored propaganda outlets like SmellingRat and the Integrity Initiative, which offer contact info. But the Bezos Shopper article promoting their wares turned out to be fantastically useful, as it directed me to several excellent blogs and websites I hadn’t known before.

Of course, antiwar.com and Counterpunch were old favourites.

But have you visited Naked Capitalism? I think this is the most fascinating and useful site on the web. It contains commentary on finance, economics, politics and power. Its valiant team daily scour the internet for articles of interest, commission their own pieces, and provide links. There is always a focus on the environment, a cute animal or plant picture, and an extremely informed and informative commentariat. I love this site, and encourage you to visit it. Thank you, Prop Or Not!

(None of the sites I visit hide behind paywalls. It’s always possible to make a contribution to the project, which I try to do.)

Among the other sites which I mentioned in my [redacted] Guardian piece are Craig Murray’s blog (very valuable news regarding the dreadful trial-by-judge of Julian Assange and the attempted stitch-up of Alex Salmond. The authorities are coming after Craig Murray now, accusing him of contempt of court which means he, like Assange, will be tried by a politically appointed judge, not a jury. He faces two years in jail, with no freedom of speech defence permitted. Please support Craig if you can!), Consortium News, TeleSUR (a Venezuelan daily news site, in English), Mint Press News, The Gray Zone (some excellent reporting from Latin America), and EU Referendum, the site of a pro-Brexit philosanitary expert, Richard North: he is very knowledgeable about the complexities of Brexit (and disease communication) in a way that politicians and the MSM aren’t. And Black Agenda Report! And World Socialist Website! And also Wildfire Today, a very useful site about fighting wildfires, which probably Prop Or Not and The Guardian won’t mind if you visit.

One of the most worrying things about the current crisis – apart from the deaths and the sickness and the loss of jobs and ruin of small businesses – is the way gubmint and the tech companies are taking advantage of it to push their surveillance/censorship agenda. Some of the above sites you won’t find represented on Twitter or Facebook – their accounts were closed a while back. Yes, there is stupidity in the world and on the web, and much of it is amplified by social media, google, and youtube. But to deny dissenting voices the right to speak is worse than stupid. It is criminal. Indeed, in a “free” country it should be considered treason.

Meanwhile, Julian Assange, a journalist to whom all “free” people should be grateful, languishes in an English jail designed for terrorists. He has been convicted of no crime. He is denied access to his lawyers. Brought before the judge, he is confined in a glass box with uniformed guards. Assange_Glass_Box_Belmarsh He cannot hear the proceedings. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture says he is being tortured.

What does The Guardian have to say about this?

Nothing at all.

Fortunately the alternative media do report on Assange’s situation. Mint Press has some good articles, and Consortium News – perhaps the oldest news reporting site on the Internet! – also pays close attention to the journalist / publisher’s plight.

BEHOLD THE SPACE FORCE!

Karl Grossman has written a number of very interesting and enlightening pieces about the US nuclear industry and the corporate/military push to weaponise space. There are numerous funny and absurd pieces already on the internet about the new US Space Force (a re-named branch of the US Air Force with added budget and bureaucracy), especially regarding the contest for its logo and the design of its uniform. I shall not make any such jokes, since I am very much in favour of the wonderful new US Space Force, for reasons which will become clear. Instead I’ll point you towards this piece by Grossman, in which he shows that the Space Force is not the insane, treaty-busting scheme of a lone despot in the White House, but rather a bipartisan project, supported by Republicans and Democrats alike.

It is salutory to think of all the Democrats who made possible this new arm of the US military, dedicated to war in space. In the House of Representatives, 188 Democrats joined 189 Republicans in voting in favour. Only 41 Democrats (including Gabbard, DeFazio, Lee, Jayapal, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar) voted against.

In the Senate, 37 Democrats joined 48 Republicans in ushering in the militarization of the stratosphere. Only four Democrats – the two Merkleys, Gillibrand, and Wyden – voted against. Not wishing to offend anyone, Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, Booker and Harris did not vote.

Why, the astute reader might ask, do I support this insane plan, a multi-billion dollar boondoggle which will benefit Boeing (poor Boeing! They need our money!), General Electric, and the usual suspects? Because I am a fan of 40s and 50s and 60s science fiction, and novels like The Space Merchants in which everything has been converted into a corrupt, money-making scam? Because I like the visual lines of the orbiting nuclear weapons we see in Kubrick’s 2001, after that memorable cut from the graceful, ape-man bone? Because I like treading on the same rake, and having it fly up and hit me in the face?

Not at all. The Outer Space Treaty (signed by the US in 1967) forbids the placing of weapons of mass destruction in space. The US and the other signators abide by this not because they are good, but because putting nuclear weapons in orbit around earth is simply not worth it. If this were easy to do, by now all the nuclear powers would have done it – and there would be American and Russian and Israeli and Chinese and British and French and Indian and Pakistani nukes circling over our heads now.

Putting useable nuclear weapons in orbit is a huge and difficult project. It isn’t like blasting the Cassini probe – with its 72.3 pounds of Plutonium-238 fuel aboard a Titan IV rocket – into space and hoping for the best (Grossman has an excellent piece about that here). Nuclear weapons like the ones in 2001 would have to be hefted into orbit and maintained there, indefinitely. If the weapons’ orbit decayed, they would have to be destroyed in space. Nukes in space would be a target for any nation which felt threatened by them – just as ICBMs and air bases and submarine pens are now.

Instead, the Space Force will probably aim for full-spectrum dominance – in the unfortunate event of war, or sanctions, or whatever – by taking out some or all of the assets our “foes” currently have in orbit. This will be done, at first, by ground-based missiles, though I imagine Raytheon have a nifty hypersonic missile in the works for later (two trillion dollars! cheap!) Of course, the Space Force will need lots of “eyes in the sky” too (though these will largely duplicate what the NSA and military already have up there), plus “anti-jamming” communications satellites, and there will no doubt be expensive tests of “satellite killer” missiles and “missile killer” satellites, and even of space-based missile interceptors (Grossman discusses the Missile Defense Review here).

Right now it all sounds ever so exciting. Air Force General John “Jay” Raymond has praised “the uniforms, the patch, the song, the culture of service…” And well he might, for he is not only Chief of Space Operations, he is also Chief of the Space Force and Commander of US Space Command, too! And the bipartisan site Defense One wants us to know that “The US Space Force is Not a Joke.” So there. And the US National Guard is asking the Pentagon to create a “Space National Guard” as well.

The wonderful thing about all this is that is it so painless! It doesn’t even have to involve any “nudets”. On the one hand we have a George Lucas/Buck Rogers star wars scenario, with spacepersons, badges, uniforms and songs…

And on the other hand, since all the best science fiction veers towards the dystopian, not the frivolous, we have the likely result: that the US Space Force (or the Russian Space Force, or the Chinese, it doesn’t matter), by accident or design, actually tries to destroy another state’s surveillance or communications satellites. What happens then? The victim state, less technologically advanced perhaps, retaliates with air-burst missiles in the upper atmosphere, a crude but entirely effective way of crippling any satellites (including those “anti-jamming” ones) in the vicinity.

Space debris, we are told, is already a problem. It bedevils the Space Station, and is the starting point of the popular movie, Gravity. If the US Space Force succeeds in its mission, and fights wars in space, Earth will be surrounded by a dense skein of space wreckage. Long distance communication and navigation systems will be degraded. Intelligence and surveillance satellites will be destroyed. For a while there will still be GPS — GPS satellites orbit at higher altitudes than ICBMs can reach, and would need to be destroyed by space launch vehicles, assuming they could make it through the debris belt. Either way there will be no more space travel. Elon Musk and Richard Branson will never fly to Mars.

Imagine, all the clever brains and rare earth metals and fossil fuels currently engaged in blasting stuff into space, being redeployed to more useful activities on Earth.

The astronomers may complain, as will the unfortunates flattened when burning chunks of space junk come hurtling home. But planet-wide, reality-based science and discourse are long overdue, and the US Space Force could be the way to acheive this change of emphasis.