Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Howls From the Wasteland: Prophetic Analysis from 1998

What follows is the introduction that I wrote to my creative writing student's magazine, Howls From the Wasteland, in 1998. It now seems more prescient than it did then, 18 years ago, pre-9/11. We only published the hard copy one more year before the magazine was published exclusively online; this was also six years before Facebook and its progeny changed social media forever..................

In 1920, T.S. Eliot published his poem,"The Wasteland," chronicling the nihilism, despair, and confusion of his "Lost Generation." In 1950, Allen Ginsberg published his poem, "Howl," chronicling a similar malaise of the "Beat Generation." 

Now, with the millennium fast approaching, we are experiencing a new cacophony of fear and loathing—dark and disturbing evidence of disintegration—disgruntled employees, anguished children, disenfranchised loners—a generation whose hopelessness soars in the face of scientific advance, whose loneliness grows in the face of a burgeoning"communication" technology, whose spiritual emptiness deepens in direct correlation to its economic success

This is the generation whose perceptions of the world have been shaped by an ever-spiraling cynicism. Every administration of the last two decades has been accused of involvement in high level malfeasance. Political discourse has been replaced by unmitigated vitriol in the hands of masters like Rush Limbaugh, James Carville, Newt Gingrich, and Bill Clinton. Mischievous Dennis, “The Menace,” became impertinent and ill-mannered Bart Simpson, who, in turn,became the nihilistic, antisocial, cruelly malevolent Bevis and Bullhead.

And what of the two Jerry's, perhaps the two most influential TV shows of the decade: Jerry Seinfeld and Jerry Springer? The former show's ensemble spent nearly ten years introducing ever more graphic discussions of bodily functions while competing as to who could be more cruel and disdainful to each other, to their loved ones, and to total strangers. Jerry Springer upped the ante. He brings us the absolute dregs of society and allows us to wallow in and relish their aberrant behavior and mindless violence while, with a few show-ending homilies, he encourages us to pretend that our slack-jawed awe and our taunting guffaw is simply spirited, audience participation and not the self-degrading, culturally-damaging, mind-numbing voyeurism that it actually is

Pop stars have become paparazzi fodder, creating a feeding-frenzy mentality that has killed public icons and altered our perceptions of ourselves. The ever-present video camera has made its contribution. It has captured racist cops beating a black man and going free; a black star found guilty in the press of killing his wife, then acquitted in a media circus trial; religious fanatics challenging the government to a game of chicken and getting blown up in Waco and gunned down in Ruby Ridge; other fanatics blowing up clinics and killing doctors and nurses tosave lives” in God's name; the government and the United Slates being retaliated against in the New York Trade Center, the Atlanta Olympics, and the Oklahoma City Bombings; and the now almost daily litany of lonely, loony losers who grab a gun (Thank you, NRA) and kill their parents, children, spouses, bosses, co-workers, teachers, classmates, fellow commuters, and absolute strangers. 

This is the milieu from which the following pieces arose. Many of them are dark; some are violent; most are harsh. Some smack of self-indulgence and self-absorption, but isn't that the source of a great deal of timeless art? Ultimately, they are honest. They offer the artist's struggle to understand and communicate. Some even offer a glimmer of hope and a ray of sunshine. Still, they are all, in one way or another, “Howls From the Wasteland.” 
Tim McMullen, Creative Writing Advisor 

©1998 Tim McMullen
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Fallacy of the Ironically Claimed "Vote of Conscience" in this Election

I would argue that this graphic shows exactly the opposite of what they think it does. Yes, America is filled with millions of people who, for whatever reason, choose not to vote. Having voted in EVERY election, from local to national, since I became eligible to vote over 46 years ago, I do not understand their refusal to participate in the only chance that we have to create a working democracy, but I accept it as a given. In large part it is the direct result of the machinations of the oligarchs who have an interest in breeding despair and apathy fomented by a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. It has worked on too many.
On the other hand, let's look at the pie chart. Just how many of those Nader voters do we suppose would have supported the Republican candidate? Nader's people were not middle of the road fence sitters. These were committed liberal and progressives who placed their bet on an an outsider to push their progressive dreams. Again, as with our current alternative candidates, Nader never had the inkling of a chance to become president. Not ANY chance AT ALL. He was supported by only a tiny fraction of the American people, both the voters and the non-voters. So, if even half of those Nader voters had voted for the Democrat, and it is a given that almost NONE of them would have voted for Bush, the Supreme Court could not have intervened with Gore winning by over two million votes. The argument that Nader had no impact on the outcome just doesn't fly.
In the subsequent 16 years, the move to dishearten and disenfranchise voters has increased exponentially, aided by corporate media and that same radically regressive, politically motivated, 5-4 Supreme Court majority that stole the 2000 election with the help of Nader voters. Were we foolish enough to waste a vote on Stein, or Johnson, or Sanders while Republican governors and legislatures all across the country attempt to disenfranchise many millions of likely Democratic voters from students to seniors, we could very well face a debacle so much worse than the Bush presidency that could have an impact for many generations to come. The Supreme Court offers lifetime appointments. Two to four nominations could occur in the next term.
To pretend that a vote for Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders, or much worse, Gary Johnson—each of whom certainly have their own significant drawbacks—is a vote for "conscience" or "purity" is tragically misplaced in this election.
For the record, I have supported Sanders for decades both monetarily and philosophically, having given to his campaigns many times over the years, having given several times prior to this election's primaries, and having given to his new "movement" after he lost.
Voting for someone who has no chance to win, like the Nader vote in 2000, is precisely what those Republican operatives have dreamed of and worked for these past two presidential elections. Thousands of them trolled the Sanders campaign, enflaming the NEVER HILLARY lies that they have been perpetrating and perpetuating for thirty years.They have fomented the anti-"Democratic Establishment" vote that would hand total control of the country to the corporatocracy.
Hillary Clinton, like most people, has swallowed the "magic free market" fallacy for the last thirty years (including not merely all the current Republican politicians and most corrupt corporate management, but most Democratic politicians including Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama). However, like Obama, she also has progressive tendencies that need to be constantly prodded and pushed toward more progressive goals both socially and economically. A Trump win will NOT accomplish any of this. In fact, it is much more likely to entrench the power mongers and consolidate their stranglehold for many decades.
This is not an attempt at fear-mongering. It is an attempt to analyze clearly that chart and the argument proposed above. It is an attempt to reveal the likely outcome of the ironically claimed "vote of conscience" which elects Trump and renews the Republican legislative majority.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Intolerance Does NOT Breed Tolerance: We need to talk

I and a vast majority of people in this country would choose to defend ourselves and our loved ones by making it impossible for individuals to buy or possess weapons designed for military use. Unfortunately, the absurd misreading of the 2nd Amendment by a 5-4 majority of the Scalia court and the irrational shilling for arms manufacturers by the once reputable National Rifle Association (read their history—they only went crazy a few decades ago when greed, marketing, and outrageous right wing ideologies took hold of their national leadership) has caused the dangerous proliferation of weapons in this country.

I am approaching 70 years of age, and I guarantee that this horrific proliferation of gun deaths and mass murder is a very recent phenomenon that is spiraling exponentially. Rational, civic dialogue and reasonable restraints on access to firearms must occur. Play out in your own mind the actual scenario as espoused by the NRA, congressional Republicans, and Donald Trump. Guns in the hands of every teacher, every administrator, and every student in every school from kindergarten to college; guns in the hands of every employee and every employer on every job; guns in the hands of every driver on the road; guns in the hands of every passenger on every bus, train, or plane; ad infinitum. This will make us SAFER?

It is an absolutely absurd and unworkable vision, foolish in the extreme, yet just this kind of argument is trotted out whenever some horrendous tragedy occurs.

I actually encourage complex analysis, nuanced positions, and civil discourse. Put simply, we shouldn't tar whole cultures, religions, races, or nationalities with the brush of a violent few, yet we have to find ways of limiting or eliminating that violence as best we can.

Of course, we will never completely or permanently eliminate violence from any society; still, it seems clear that we have actually done a worse job than many. The proliferation of personal weapons and the increasing deadliness of those arms has certainly not made us safer. Our interventions in the affairs of other countries since WWII have had little to do with "protecting freedom"; in general, they have had much more to do with maintaining or increasing political domination of a region for private profit.

I do find that an alarming number of violent incidents (especially mass murder outside of war), are performed by those who I would characterize as having a fundamentalist point of view—the particular religion is irrelevant. They justify their actions on the grounds of a religious or political view that both encourages and justifies deadly behavior, whether attacking a black church, burning a clinic, killing a doctor, attacking a gay gathering, blowing oneself up in the middle of a crowd, or flying a plane into a building.

Intolerance is at the heart of most of these inhumane acts; a few are simply the work of some tragically unhappy or disgruntled person whose rage at "the other" has overcome his own self-pity, humiliation, loneliness, and emptiness. The problem with intolerance—whether factions, sects, or other “us vs them” groupings—is that intolerance does not breed tolerance. On the other hand, tolerance, in the long run, may actually confront, confound, and convert intolerance. The problem, of course, is that it can take decades, even centuries, to accomplish. Still, although so many of our compatriots do everything that they can to discourage tolerance and encourage intolerance because of their identification with their "team," this country, despite all its historical flaws and contradictions, really has moved slowly toward wider acceptance of others, from Roger William's "Bloody Tenent of Persecution" in the 1600's to our current battle for women's rights, LGBT rights, immigrant rights, et al.

As to the NRA’s advocacy of gun proliferation and Trump’s cheerleading for violence and discrimination, do I think that “good” civilians armed with AR-type rifles or most other weaponry will make us safer? Not on your life or mine. I feel quite certain, both intuitively and intellectually, that more and deadlier guns will make us much less safe; neither do I consider those who purchase these weapons on the pretense of defending or protecting this country to be heroes by any definition.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Rise of Donald Trump is Remarkable, but Not Surprising.

The rise of Trump is truly remarkable, but not surprising. This is what true tribalism looks like, and those who control this society have been marketing this premise for forty years. Ever since Nixon sent Agnew after the "liberal" press (and even before with his "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore"), the implication was created that the press is just "out to get people.”

Then, since deregulation under Reagan and his, “Government is the problem” and “it’s your money, NOT the government’s,” the hypocrisy has been unrelenting. The news media truly did become “infotainment” and "the game” became all that mattered.

The greed and selfishness and the mantra of “it doesn’t matter how you win just as long as you win” became the steady media diet in commercials, game shows, sit coms, and celebrity worship. Remember “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”? With the help of Jerry Springer turning “lowlife, wretched behavior” into popular entertainment, we moved directly to Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, Duck Dynasty, and Honey Boo Boo. Nearly every show on the Food Network, which used to actually demonstrate cooking, is now competition with only one winner, including several shows where you get to literally sabotage your competition or pay to screw them up. We conspire to “kick people off the island” or “out of the house.”

It has become the same in politics. Term limits eliminate knowledgable public servants and replace them with ideologues and corporate shills. The media provides very little actual background or context for any statement, nor does it actually refute even the most egregious and obvious lies. It merely plays the “he said/he said” game; it’s the outright proliferation of falsehood in the guise of fairness. The "US against THEM” mentality in politics has risen to a fever pitch to the point where people can honestly comfort themselves with the idea: "I don’t care what they say about my guy or what my guy says, our team picked him, so I’m for him. Also, I don’t care how specious the attacks on our opponents; even when I know they are false, I will repeat them incessantly. More importantly, the second I vote, I’m done and can get back to 'reality TV' and complaining about the government.

This tirade is not just aimed at Republicans although it fits them most completely, but it has come to apply to most of society, who only vote at about a 40% rate or even less in non-presidential years.


Trump is, in part, the result of the philosophy of Ayn Rand pushed by Ronald Reagan, Paul Ryan, Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Justices John Roberts and Clarence Thomas, and the corporate oligarchs. Trump is an absurdly wealthy man with a populist, jingoistic, simplistic message. He is the radical right wing’s answer to FDR, except he has the added appeal of racism, sexism, ignorance, belligerence, and arrogance. He is nearly the perfect package. It's about time that we demand much better from both sides.

If Clinton is the nominee who faces Trump, those who want to make things better need to start today to defeat Trump, who is unquestionably the least qualified, least prepared, most reprehensible individual to stand for the office in any of our lifetimes.

Then, the second that Clinton wins, we need to work for greater transparency and limits on campaign spending; we need new and more effective regulation of the banks and Wall Street, including actually incarcerating wrongdoers instead of letting them merely write off fines or pass the costs to customers; we need to engage in much greater diplomacy and seek a significantly diminished role for the military in international affairs; we need a demilitarization of our local police forces; we need to bolster our social safety net, including Social Security and health care; we need to much more aggressively pursue alternative fuel sources; we need a serious effort to rebuild our infrastructure; we need to enforce and improve our environmental protections; we need to counter the 30 year push to privatize education, the military, government, public spaces, etc.; and we need to bring civil dialogue and negotiation back into our civil society. 

NONE of this will be easy, but hopefully Warren, Sanders, Franken, Clinton and many millions of dedicated citizens can begin to accomplish the changes that most of us know we need. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Wake UP Call? If Not Now, When?

With the crude, crass, vacuousness of the Republican debates now behind us, it is Donald Trump's rallies that have become the focus of his campaign. Empty catch phrases, sometimes meaningless, rambling non sequiturs are met with loud applause and chants. These displays, however, have very little traction. 
The media has now turned its attention to Trump's gleeful cheerleading of violence at his rallies: his offering to pay legal fees for those who might be arrested for using violence against protestors; his saying from the podium about a protestor that he'd like to "punch him in the face"; his encouraging the crowd to "knock the crap" out of protestors. These are simply escalations of his mocking of women, mocking of his Republican opponents, mocking of Democrats and President Obama, and his mocking, early in the campaign, of a handicapped reporter. A recent graphic showed a picture of the crippled reporter juxtaposed with a picture of Trump imitating him. The text asked, "Is this 'Making America Great Again'?" Here is my response.
It's called "playing to your audience." Remember, they laughed and cheered when he did this. Trump didn't make these people—he just empowered them to be as ugly as they really are and then encouraged them to compete to one-up each other. 
We are who we have allowed ourselves to become, and we have allowed the worst among us to drive our national narrative for the last thirty years. Selfishness, greed, self indulgence, ugliness, coarseness, baseness, violence: In the hands of our consolidated corporate media they have come to redefine our national character. From Jerry Springer to Seinfeld (the show, not the comedian), from waffle and ice cream commercials to hotel commercials, these traits are not ridiculed or vilified, like they generally have been in our own past; no, they are championed as the means to success.
So often it goes under the guise of "values"—traditional values, family values, conservative values, religious freedom, PATRIOTISM. The tragic irony is that most of us have stood by while our language, our values, and our country were co-opted by liars, swindlers, cheats and thieves whose ironic double-speak has led to unfathomable hypocrisy, cruelty, greed and violence in both domestic and foreign affairs. Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, Ryan, McConnell, Palin, Bachmann, Gohmert and the hundreds of other little wannabe conservative extremists are the result of our own national apathy, ignorance, and complacency.
We need to WAKE UP, and just possibly, the vile and repugnant Trump campaign will be our wake up call although the ugliness of the similarly themed McCain/Palin and Romney/Ryan campaigns were not. More important than merely waking up, however, we need to fight this pernicious moral cancer and restore honor, integrity and a true sense of freedom and justice for all. That just might "make America great again."

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Game Needs to Change—We Need to Put the Civil Back into Civil Society

I am deeply tired of the "who can be uglier" race that we currently have going on in both parties. On the Republican side, it is the candidates themselves that have tried to prove that they are MORE racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and greedy than the next guy. On the Democratic side, we have the spectacle of the candidates being relatively cordial and actually talking about (to be honest, rather minor) differences of opinion while their partisans on social media bend over backwards to be the most offensive, outrageous, hate mongers and conspiracy theorists, outdoing the Republican machine in their trashing of the other's candidate. It's like the idiotic anger and elation at a mindless and meaningless sporting event except, in this game, the opponent is, obviously, the Devil incarnate.
This election is serious, perhaps the most serious in my experience with politics, and I remember the Eisenhower/Stevenson contest in 1956. The first time that I was eligible to vote for Governor was 1970, and I voted against Ronald Reagan. I have voted in every election since then. I have also watched the intentional dumbing down and incivility of the electoral process since the Republicans lost so badly with Goldwater in 1964. The rhetoric of Nixon but especially Agnew took the discussion to a new level of vitriol. Reagan continued the all out assault on "liberals," but it was the election of Bill Clinton that ushered in the new era of Conservative talk radio and, with the deregulation and consolidation of media, the advent of NEWSCorp, FOX News, Clear Channel, and and the no-holds barred, partisan, mischaracterization, distortion, and outright lying that has simply come to be accepted as spin. The media, including social media, has been not merely complicit but instrumental in this negative transformation. Just like Scalia's court decision about innocence, the actual truth is completely irrelevant. The news no longer presents actual perspective or context. They don't even try to find and present the truth. They merely offer a "he said/he said" paraphrased report or 3-seconds of edited footage with whichever slant their corporate masters have demanded.
Unfortunately, most people have not demanded better; instead, we have bought into their game. We do not find ourselves talking about what really matters and our vison of what this country should be or how we might get there. We simply post ridiculous graphics with false quotes and sarcastic gibes to make the other side look foolish or corrupt and then gleefully attack the other side for their obvious ignorance, stupidity or evil.
I posit the following. I don't care if you are for Sanders, Clinton, Warren or Obama, Trump, Cruz, Kasich or Paul. The only way that we will ever crawl out of the miasmic mire in which we have sunk ourselves is to begin to actually think deeply, discuss civilly, and listen carefully—repeating the process indefinitely—until the fog of corrupt corporate control has lifted, and we can return to the business of creating a civil civil society (This is not a mistaken repetition—"civil" needs to be at the heart of a progressive civilization).

Monday, January 18, 2016

Frost—Lovely, Dark and Deep—An Explication

Frost—Lovely, Dark and Deep
by Tim McMullen

A critical analysis and explication of the poem, “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

At first reading, the circumstances of “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” seem highly uneventful. A man traveling down a road stops by woods. There is nothing else around, and he is struck by the beauty of the scene. Though inclined to stay, he realizes he has commitments and must proceed on. We might suggest that the conflict is between duty and beauty, or “work before (or instead of) pleasure.” This characterization, however, fails to account for the emotive penetrability of the poem. This poem touches the reader, almost unconsciously, and suggests somehow that there is something going on: some deep tension or struggle that, though not readily explainable, is nevertheless imposing and significant.
Much of this affective response comes from two sources: one, the tone and mood of the poem; the other, the specific images employed. Frost, in the midst of mood, hides the conflict of his images. The initial picture one gets is that of beauty, a snowy woodland scene; it is unblemished by farmhouse or farmer, nature in its pristine state. “The woods are lovely...”— we can almost hear him sigh after each word, dark and deep. He must, however, move on; he cannot remain in this idyllic locale.
At this point we might identify the significance of the poem as the conflict between man and nature. Nature is seen in the symbols of the woods, the snow, the lake, the wind. The symbols which set man apart from nature are houses, village, farmhouses, reins of the horse (which are man-made) and promises (which are also man-made). Man is a part of Nature; that is, he is part of the organic whole. He is born into nature in its undifferentiated whole, but as he becomes Man, he is severed from the rest of Nature. By recognizing or experiencing his uniqueness, he becomes “wholly other” than the rest of nature. One of the attributes of the uniqueness of man is that he cannot return to his natural beginnings. Notice that he lies between the woods. He may go into them in a spatial sense, but he cannot be part of them in a substantial sense. He must, therefore, remain with his promises to men (Man) and exist outside nature. He has miles to go, and these must be in Man's world.
(Note: I recently read an article on Frost's poem by Earl Daniels, in The Creative Reader, by Stallman and Daniels, on Page 932. His comments, I think, are so significant that I must include them here. Daniels begins with a paraphrase very close to the one I offered in the beginning, identifies this as a real experience, then further states:

“…[P]oetry, reduced to its simplest, is only experience...Experience moved the poet; he enjoyed it, and wanted to put it down on paper, as experience and nothing else [my italics] partly because writing is a self-contained action which is fun for the writer, partly because he wanted the reader to enjoy the experience with him. If we are to learn to read, we must begin with elemental, irreduceable facts [mine also] like this” (P. 934).

I find this definition of the creative process and the creative goal as appalling as it is useless. Daniels' was responding to the attempt to find philosophica1 or intellectual meaning in Frost's poem. It is a call to pure literalism; in his use of experience, he denies both the poet and the reader any derivable insight, but deals specifically with the phenomena. He further implies that if an author meant his work to have any social or philosophical meaning, it would be obvious and explicit. He gives as examples of such writers Milton and Lucretius. I don't feel the need to refute this absurd claim, but merely to ask the holder of this view to point to any great poet that can be thoroughly entombed in this Procrustean Bed. I offered this note in order that I may continue examining the intricacies of the poem, because, using Daniels' criteria, I had completed my only legitimate exegesis of the poem in the very beginning.)
We have, then, suggested two levels on which the poem may be read, but neither of these fully explains the emotive quality of the work. This limitation occurs because, as yet, there has been no analysis of the specific images that lend the feeling of depth. Several of the symbols were enumerated before in differentiating between nature and man. These images when viewed deeper may illumine the whole.
Woods are the first image we see; they are a part of nature, and the image is one of life. By the fourth line, however, we find that the scene is not the exultation of life, but the intrusion of death through the winter and the snowfall. Rather than joyful seclusion, there is a hint of desolation: the village is far from this place; there are no farmhouses, farmers or other people; the only sound other than the sleigh bells is the whisper of the wind. Reinforcing the specter of death is the frozen lake. What is more barren?
Further, water is, like nature, usually a symbol for life: the endless flow of the river, or the life-giving moisture that is essential to existence; but frozen lake water is useless; it is a complete denial of the life water brings. Also, it is “the darkest evening of the year.” Surely, the initial image of a pleasant halt in the woods is negated by this foreboding scene as it now takes shape. It is desolate; the evidence of nature on every side shows the presence of death. Whereas, previously, man would have been an intrusion on the simple, peaceful, scene of life, he is now the only symbol of life. Our use of life is the same as when we say, “there's no sign of life.” Life means human life, and nature is distinguished from it.
We obviously recognize, though, that the tone and feeling of the man (and the poem) is not of dread and repulsion but rather of fascination and attraction. Somehow, the peace and the void of death are especially alluring, and the sighs of “dark” and “deep” are even more real than when directed merely at the virgin beauty of the woods. Now, they emphasize the longing for the peace and rest of death: the woods are lovely, dark and deep. And, of course, the final image of repose is the sleep of the last line. The first sleep is a transitory state from which we will awaken, but the last line is a final sleep, and sleep related directly to deep, indeed the last and deepest sleep of all.
Despite the presence and the lure of death, the man does not acquiesce to its inducement; he recognizes that he will sleep, but that sleep is in the future. At present, he has a responsibility to life; that is his promise. It is a pact to fulfill the nature of man, which includes a predisposition to keep on living. These images of life and death are the symbols which develop the tensions found in the poem. They are not, however, a cohesive and complete explanation; we still require a final interpretation in order to understand the poem as a unified whole.
To apprehend the unity and to include all the symbols, we must make an even deeper and more extensive study. The setting for the poem now is not the roadside wood but the mind of man. “Whose woods these are I think I know” utilizes woods to indicate thoughts of death. “His house is in the village though” speaks of where man resides; that is, the village (or life) should be the realm of man's thoughts, but they sometimes steal over to contemplate death. The stealth or hiding is implied in “he will not see me….” To rephrase it, the woods are thoughts of death; the speaker is the owner of the woods, but he belongs in the village, not in the snow-filled woods– that is, not with thoughts that are full of death. We have already acknowledged the death symbols in the vacancy of other human life (“no farm houses”); “the woods and frozen lake”; “the darkest evening of the year.” To complete the full concept of the poem, however, we have one more major theme: that of the horse.
If we remember that our present context is within the human being, we can integrate the horse symbol into our schema. To do this we must view the sleigh as a total machine, a single entity; the horse and driver are part of the whole. The driver cannot drive the sleigh without the horse; the horse cannot have direction without the driver. We must, of course, discard the desire to see the horse as just a part of nature; he is too much a part of the integrated whole. The middle two stanzas, one-half of the poem, are directly concerned with the horse. Lines six, seven, and eight explain why he would think it queer to stop; and nine, ten, eleven and twelve explain his desire to go on. Literally, a horse shakes his head not in question, as is ironically assumed, but in apprehension and anxiety from the foreboding desolation of the woods. As for the sleigh as a unit, the horse is seen as the physical impulse or instinctive part of man, biologically disposed toward maintaining life; the driver is the mind of man, the steering intellect, the part of the unit that can contemplate, accept and even desire death.
The life instinct suggests pushing on by pulling at the reigns, that “there is some mistake” in stopping, but the intellect offsets this with listening to the “sweep of easy wind and downy flake.” The sweep of downy flake evokes the image of a shroud being gently laid. What follows is surely the most evocative and intense image in the poem, an image which leads to a peak of emotion and then a swift climax and conclusion. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” is an exquisite image, acute in its conflict. “Lovely” emotes warmth and attractiveness, whereas “dark and deep” woods suggest the gloom and despair of death. The words, due partially to the alliteration, seem almost to echo in the brain, “lovely, dark and deep”!
But he will not sleep yet, the life-force, the insistence of the horse, the will to live, remind him of his solemn obligation to fulfill his role as man. “His house is in the village”; his promise is to life, the village and the company of man. He rejects the isolation of death and thoughts of death and returns to his journey. The journey being an obvious allusion to the “road of life,” he still has miles to go (and time to spend) before he ends his journey and rests; and more places to go (things to do; life to live) before his final sleep.

Submitted to Dr. Philip B. Nordhus, English Professor, English 101, Chico State College (now CSU, Chico) in 1970.

©1985 Tim McMullen
All rights reserved

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

May the FARCE BE With ME

I notice that I have only posted three times since June, and two of them are movie reviews. This one is prompted by Michael Hiltzik's review of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in the Times. His review is under the headline: Admit it: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' stinks -- and here's why.

Here's the irony. I was not a big fan of the original Star Wars, but at least I did go see the second film. I have not seen any of the other four sequel/prequels. Nevertheless, and knowing what I know of the original, unoriginal Star Wars, and despite Hiltzik's cogent attack, I will still probably go see this one in IMAX 3D because I like the format of the big screen, big sound, and these days I watch most of the "gotta' drive backwards at least once in the car chase" movies (in other words, nearly every movie that makes it to the IMAX action/adventure screen) if only for the nostalgic glimpse of Harrison Ford in the "Chewie, we're home," scene that has already played 20,000 times in the previews and ads over the last year.

In 2014, I saw 55 movies in the theater. This year, I saw only 40 although Star Wars will make it 41. I didn't venture out to any of the "art house" movies this year. We didn't even see the Woody Allen movie this year which we used to go to every time one opened, but it didn't play close enough to home, and we were busy enough that we didn't get out to see his latest.

I give ratings to all the movies that I see at AMC (where I see 99% of my movies), and these are the ones that got "5 stars" from me this year (in the order in which I saw them): "Selma," "Birdman," "Spy," "Love and Mercy," "Mr. Holmes," "The Intern," and "The Martian." I wanted to see "The Walk," but I was busy those couple of weeks.

The ones that I gave top marks to were simply because they were fully satisfying films within their genres. The docudramas on a period in the lives of Martin Luther King and Brian Wilson focused on interesting and well-told aspects of those lives, though quite different in presentation. Except for those two, I noticed that each of the movies is in a different genre. "Birdman" is a quirky flight of fantasy comedy and gritty realism intertwined. "Spy" is a funny spoof of the genre, far more satisfying than "The Kingsmen" or "The Man from Uncle" because of much greater wit and humor, while balanced with a star turn for Melissa McCarthy. This is the first time that I truly enjoyed her because they allowed her to be other characters than the brash, crude, slovenly, obnoxious character that has been her stock and trade.

"The Intern" was a modest "non-rom com" casting DeNiro against type, and exploring the vagaries of today's corporate world against the questions of life and home (something that we are exploring with a political vs. business twist as we are binge-watching the Danish series "Borgen" with which we were gifted as a Christmas present). Whereas "Borgen" is gritty and dark, but enjoyable, "The Intern" was very light, but very enjoyable. "The Martian" is the only big "blockbuster" on the list, and despite being somewhat predictable, it was carried off with the right amount of humor, drama, action, and "McGyveresque" ingenuity to offer a satisfying theater experience.

I have saved "Mr. Holmes" for last because, for me, it was the best. It was perhaps the gentlest of the seven films (and the other 40 films that I saw), but it had fine character development, it had marvelous performances from the three principal actors (the child actor was terrific), and it was intriguing, powerful, and touching in a very nice combination of those emotions. "Mission Impossible-Rogue Nation" got a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes; "Inside Out" got a 98%; whereas, "Mr. Holmes" only got an 87% and only 75% of the audience liked it. Nevertheless, I rank it as my most enjoyable movie of the year. By the way, I did see both of those, and I gave them each 4 stars.

The worst on my list from this year are the remarkably story-less, character-less, "The Fantastic Four"; the mindless regurgitation with an alarmingly uninteresting protagonist and plot of "The Transporter" (the TV series is actually much more amusing, compelling, and interesting than any of the franchise movies); and my surprising number one entry for over two hours of mindless tedium was "Mad Max" which I already panned in great detail in earlier blog.

And if you haven't seen it, I still recommend my last year's top disagreement with the critics and the fans, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," for it's marvelous blend of humor, character, story, fantasy, and marvelous cinematography. I blogged about it last year in my negative reviews of "American Hustle" and "Inside Llewyn Davis."


Now, I'm gearing up to go see "Star Wars 7: The Marketing," in a couple of hours. May the farce be with me.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Plan for Iran and the Deal's Detractors

Here is the comment from and my answer to a Facebook friend who wrote about a satirical video featuring Jack Black and Morgan Freeman in support of the Iran Nuclear deal:

  • I think celebrities endorsements are irresponsible. What do they know any more than any citizen of this country. We have to be mindful of with whom we are dealing. Iran wants the U.S. and Isreal wiped off the globe. The Iranian government will not be honorable and keep their word. For lack of diplomatic venues, we , the U.S. and Isreal , may need to settle this with force.

    • Tim McMullen Wow, look at those statements. "I think celebrities endorsements are irresponsible. What do they know any more than any citizen of this country." Yet, clearly, you think that you know more than they do. Did you actually watch the video? It uses satire with which each alarmist statement of the actor is met with a more reasoned response from a more knowledgeable person. 

      Secondly, you say, "We have to be mindful of with whom we are dealing. Iran wants the U.S. and Isreal (sic) wiped off the globe." So, not only do you know more than the "celebrities," but you can also read the minds of millions of Iranians. 

      Do you know anything about the history of Iran and the United States? We overthrew their democratically elected leader and imposed a ruthless tyrant, the Shah, and his family as a proxy government. He was a terrible dictator for decades. When he was finally deposed in a revolution, we sheltered him from the wrath of his people. The Islamic revolution that deposed him was the direct result of our corrupting their system, destroying their democracy, and opposing their revolution on both economic and religious grounds. We had scurrilous American military in positions of leadership suggest that we should wage a Christian Crusade against Islam. If they hate us, which so many in their country do not, they certainly have reasons. Their leaders, just like Netanyahu or right-wing politicians here, use the vilification of a particular country or countries (the "AXIS of EVIL") to rally support for all sorts of internal agendas that would otherwise go nowhere.

      You then say, "The Iranian government will not be honorable and keep their word." Hopefully, given the history just mentioned, you see the irony in that statement. So, not only do you know more than the celebrities and the diplomats and negotiators for the US the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and China, who support this deal, you are clairvoyant and can actually predict the future with certainty. 

      The people making this argument about "untrustworthy Iran" are the exact same people who made this argument about Iraq, who claimed that they were "HIDING" WMDs, who led us into an illegal, useless, and costly war in which we lost thousands of American lives and injured hundreds of thousands of American soldiers; we destroyed hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of innocent Iraqi lives (in fact, every single Iraqi, even Saddam Hussein, brutal dictator that he was, was completely innocent of every lying accusation that the Cheney/Bush administration used to get us into that war, a war that had been planned by right wing think tanks for over a decade prior to 9/11).

      Finally, you say this: "For lack of diplomatic venues, we, the U.S. and Isreal , may need to settle this with force." Have you learned NOTHING from Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq? Why on earth do you trust Netanyahu's overt political maneuvering, who has been consistently wrong in his predictions, rather than hundreds of diplomats, including 5 former ambassadors to Israel who believe that this is the much better approach? Besides, Netanyahu does not expect or plan to fight this war; he is doing everything that he can do goad the US into doing it for him.

      More importantly, you open that argument for war with this: "FOR LACK OF DIPLOMATIC VENUES"???
      These negotiations were worked on for a very long time; millions of hours of prep behind the scenes; they involved the world's superpowers, both those who are aligned with us and against us, as a way to resolve a very difficult issue. This WAS the "diplomatic venue" on a grand scale. 

      Those who oppose this deal, including the three main talking points of the TV commercial against it, have been claiming the same false things about this deal for many months, if not years, before they knew anything about it. The Republican Presidential candidates and legislators who have offered furious opposition, are stating the exact same false talking points months before they had read a single word of the agreement. My guess is that most of them have still not read it. 

      Part of the irony and stupidity of the naysayers' arguments is their parroting of Netanyahu—who only months ago was claiming that Iran was within months of having a nuclear bomb—and despite the fact that no one disputes the fact that this will absolutely prevent them from accomplishing that for at least ten years (ten years is an incredibly long time in this current world of international flux), Netanyahu and his Republican backers and hacks claim that this deal is worse than the status quo. It's ridiculous on its face if you actually listen to and think about their claims.

      Please consider actually reading this article by James Fallows in which he identifies those who are against and for the Iran nuclear agreement and articulates an analysis of the actual terms of the agreement. Then, if you want to argue on the merits of the agreement, please feel free.

      http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/07/the-iran-debate-moves-on/399713/

Friday, June 12, 2015

"Mad Max" — It wasn't my fault; she wanted to see it, but I still had to apologize to Carolyn for this one.... We should have known better.

The high praise for this movie must be seen for what it is: adoration of one element in filmmaking at the expense of most others. The claim that it has a complex, but subtle story, or worse, that its story is "dense" seems excessively hyperbolic. It is clearly meant to be an adrenalin rush, and it is. Unfortunately, it is an excessively redundant exhilaration. Praise is heaped on the myriad forms of inventive destruction; others note the uniqueness of the various vehicles. Notice, therefore, that I do not claim "repetition" but merely redundancy. This next observation is a personal judgment to be sure, but I also found the score to be overtly manipulative and unsubtle (although occasionally silly—the guitar player being particularly goofy and amusing...one or twice...then just gratuitously absurd, especially when it became part of the climactic action). 

This is minimalist storytelling and maximalist filmmaking, offering two hours of remarkably adept choreography of acrobatic and balletic crashes, explosions, immolations and mayhem, predicated on five minutes worth of story,  two minutes of uninteresting dialogue, and thirty seconds of character development. To be honest, though, it might have actually been more interesting if it had offered no dialogue at all (I mean this sincerely).

The young acolyte who turns (absurdly quickly) from bloodthirsty minion to devoted paramour to altruistic martyr is the only dynamic character in the film. Every other character is static, as is to be expected in a video game actioner. The emerging trust between the two main characters or the young, chrome warrior was never in doubt, though hardly credible from any character's viewpoint or experience. Of course, we didn't have time to offer a rational explanation for this instantaneous teamwork because we had gauntlets to run and endless stuff to blow up. As for the great sci-fi setting credited by some, again minimalist to the extreme: sand, mud, funny cars, stilts, and a treadmill—that's it.

Many commenters have praised the film for its subtle themes and its "showing and not telling" approach, but those themes are extremely underdeveloped; in fact, they are merely nods to a range of well-worn (but significant) and much better explored (elsewhere) themes of religion, economics, exploitation, tyranny, demagoguery, fanaticism, patriarchy, feminism, ecology, war, loyalty, courage, heroism. They are all in there, but this movie neither tells us nor shows us anything of substance about any of them. It's basically, "Yeah, society's foibles...yada, yada, yada...."

I've tried to give as few spoilers as possible and still give a reasonable assessment, but as for the ending, let's just say it was the most inexplicable and unlikely part of the movie, but since we'd wasted all of our time on all that great action, the denouement just happened, voilĂ , and "happy ever after," which, again, was never in doubt for a moment. I am guessing that even if you knew absolutely nothing about the Mad Max franchise, an objective viewer would find every single development thoroughly predictable.

Having watched "San Andreas" the day before, I found that movie's action sequences relatively implausible, its mass destruction derivative (or typical ala most apocalyptic movies and every Marvel superhero movie), its deus ex machina plot contrivances and coincidences completely absurd, and its saccharin family plot line cliched; nevertheless, perhaps especially because I'm a fan of Caltech, I didn't walk away feeling that I had really wasted two hours on a pointless shoot-em-up like I did with "Mad Max." 

Don't get me wrong, from an artistic point of view, as an action movie, "Mad Max" is very well done, and if all you demand from your action movie is non-stop action, then "Mad Max" is nearly perfect. On the other hand, if you want a story that at the very least challenges you to think, even slightly, about issues or ideas, then any of the three earlier Mad Max movies and nearly any other sci-fi offering, no matter the logistical gaps, will offer you more (I would, however, exclude "Lucy" from that group—it was too silly, illogical, and gap-filled to merit viewing except as an exercise in unintentional and ludicrous humor). 

It is the hyperbolic, euphoric praise and the absurdly high rating on Rotten Tomatoes that prompted me to respond to this thread. If you want to see a fine, articulate review of the movie that offers a reasonable explanation of the praise, I encourage you to read super-reviewer Nate Zoebl's analysis at the bottom of the RT page for "Mad Max." It is very well done.

By the way, below I have offered the link to a short video, "Chains," created by Sharon Lewis, that adeptly, and with minimal budget, covers nearly all of the aforementioned themes in a meaningful and memorable way (and not a single car crash) in just ten minutes. It is a video that I used with both my creative writing students when exploring science fiction and with my video production students when looking at short, narrative film making. I am sorry for the 40-second intro (although the film series is worth viewing). Check it out.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/28/black-voices-breakthrough-theater-chains-_n_3517684.html