Archive for July, 2015

Unlit: A driving anecdote

July 30, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 30, 2015

The other evening, I was driving along a familiar road in New Jersey while on my way to the airport. It was after 9. The sky was dark.

It was a busy road, lined by multistory office buildings on the east side and a large shopping center and other businesses on the right. Two heavily trafficked highways feed into this road’s northern end; just south of this stretch of the road are major exchanges with even busier transportation arteries.

“That car’s lights aren’t on,” I murmured* to my passenger, referring to a boxy red sedan a few cars ahead of us.

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Nuclear deterrence, nation-states and the real threat from nuclear proliferation

July 29, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 29, 2015

I’m not particularly eager to see Iran obtain nuclear weapons. For one thing, Iran’s government has traditionally shown extreme hostility toward Israel. For another, nuclear proliferation in general seems to hold great potential to destabilize any region.

Even so, I suspect the danger of Iran’s successful development of nuclear armaments may be somewhat exaggerated. The problem, I fear, is that atomic weaponry might fall into the hands of a terrorist organization such as the so-called Islamic State, al Qaeda or the like.

Nations can act recklessly — see Operation Iraqi Freedom — but generally, they do so with one underlying goal in mind: To insure their continued existence and, if possible, prosperity. A nation tied to a nuclear strike would almost surely face extensive shunning by the global community. Economic repercussions would be all but guaranteed; some kind of military counterstrike would be likely; the chances of a war being launched to unseat that nation’s rulers would rise significantly.

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John Scalzi’s ‘Redshirts’ explores the downside of life as a supernumerary aboard a TV spacecraft

July 24, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 24, 2015

John Scalzi’s 2012 novel, Redshirts, is a wonderful comic exploration of what life might be like for the crew of a spaceship featured in a campy television series.

Scalzi’s protagonist is Ensign Andrew Dahl, a 25th-century xenobiologist who has just been assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. He’s one of five new junior crew members who quickly become aware that their new starship is, well, a little unusual.

For instance, take Dahl’s first away mission, to a space station overrun by deadly robots:

Dahl screamed McGregor’s name, stood and unholstered his pulse gun, and fired into the center of the pulpy red haze where he knew the killer machine to be. The pulse beam glanced harmlessly off the machine’s surface. Hester yelled and pushed Dahl down the corridor, away from the machine, which was already resetting its harpoon. They turned a corner and raced away into another corridor, which led to the mess hall. They burst through the doors and closed them behind them.

“These doors aren’t going to keep that thing out,” Hester said breathlessly.

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In the symbolism-laden ‘Solaris,’ Steven Soderbergh explores a remote corner of space where the past is strangely present

July 22, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 22, 2015

Solaris is a work that I’ve engaged repeated over the course of my lifetime. The original book, by the great Polish author Stanislaw Lem, was penned in 1961. I’ve always held it in great regard, although my understanding of it is rather limited.

The premise is simple enough: Something has gone grievously wrong with a scientific expedition to the planet Solaris, an oceanic planet that manifests waves and weather patterns in ways that indicate the presence of some form of intelligence. A psychologist named Kelvin is dispatched to the research station to investigate why its communications have become erratic. While there, he becomes obsessed — some might say haunted — by a figure from his past, much like the surviving station crew members. To say too much more would be to give away part of the story’s mystery and power.

I first read Solaris as a young man, probably while I was in high school (if not even younger). Although I haven’t read it in many years, I remember the book being about the limits of human psychology and scientific inquiry. Lem ultimately positions Kelvin as neither a hero nor an expert — he is simply an average man baffled by, and at the mercy of, an immensely powerful force he can neither comprehend nor combat.

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A reporter’s nightmare

July 20, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 20, 2015

On Saturday morning, I dreamed one of those weird, detailed dreams that I sometimes dream.

I was working at a small newspaper. I was going through my e-mail. One of the items was about a space mission that would carry a single person to Jupiter. I was surprised, because I’d never heard anything about this expedition, but when I checked it out, it was true — and it was something that had hardly been publicized. I wrote it up and had a modest scoop for myself and my paper.

The dream evolved. The agency (private? public? I’ve no idea) that was launching the mission had arranged some kind of publicity tour, and one of the first stops (if not the very first) would be in my town or city. I got the assignment of covering the local event.

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My visit to the Confederate graveyard

July 16, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 16, 2015

I’ve lived the past decade and change in North Carolina, and for the most part, I’ve enjoyed it. This is not a knock on Henderson or Vance County, but I’m much better suited to Durham, and Durham is much better suited to me, than the small community where I lived for four years when I first came to the state.

My point here, however, is that despite those 11 and a half years, I am not a Southerner. I grew up outside New York City, went to college in Northern California, and returned to New York before moving to North Carolina.

As a result, my opinions on the Civil War are very different than they might have been had I been raised here. I view the Confederated States of America as a rebellion, not any kind of noble or lost cause. To me, symbols of the Confederacy stand for a group of secessionists who fought to maintain the cruel institution of slavery, not liberty-minded individuals who were standing up for states’ rights. Not until I had long been an adult, frankly, did it ever occur to me that any rational individual would think in the latter fashion.

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The romantic comedy ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’ suffers from crazy, stupid psychology

July 14, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 14, 2015

There’s a short scene about two-thirds of the way through the 2011 movie Crazy, Stupid, Love that captures its willful cluelessness about how the world works.

When a quartet of adult men brawl behind the house that Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) and Emily Weaver (Julianne Moore) used to share with a son and daughter, the police are called. But the officers don’t seem very concerned that two neighbors (one of them Cal, the other the father of a teenage girl standing in the back yard), Emily Weaver’s lover plus a fourth man have been involved in a melee. Instead, the cops blithely head elsewhere, pausing only to admonish the parties involved that in the future they should keep their fighting indoors, where it won’t attract as much unwanted attention.

It’s a remarkably cavalier response to the fight, which was sparked partly by Bernie Riley’s not-so-comic misunderstanding that Cal was having an affair with, or at least receiving racy pictures from, Bernie’s 17-year-old daughter and partly because of the very real infidelity that caused Cal and Emily to separate.

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Gunman for hire: George Clooney plays a man trapped by his vocation in ‘The American’

July 13, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 13, 2015

On a recent visit to a second-hand book-, CD- and DVD-store, I browsed the $2 DVD bin and noticed a movie called The American. It was from 2010 and it starred George Clooney, apparently playing a(n American) hit man on the run in Italy. I snapped it up.

The movie itself is somber and stripped down, as one might infer from the no-frills title and the two-tone movie poster, which was printed using only orange and black ink. (Or at least, the poster’s design suggests that it was made that way.)

Clooney plays an extremely reticent mercenary; he seems to be comprised of equal parts assassin, gunsmith and mystery. The character is known variously as Jack or Edward; I’ll refer to him by the first name, which the movie suggests is more genuine than the latter one.

As the film starts, Jack is enjoying a romantic interlude in a remote, snowy Swedish cabin. (“Enjoying” is a relative term — he seems reluctant even to smile at his companion.) About two minutes into the picture, someone shoots at Jack and his lover (Irina Björklund); two minutes further in, three people have been shot to death. It’s unclear why anyone wants to kill Jack, although presumably it has to do with his line of work. But one of the killings seems entirely unmotivated, and is therefore incredibly shocking, even though The American is relatively modest in its depiction of violence.

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Notes on tiny Kittrell, North Carolina

July 11, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 11, 2015

When you drive north along U.S. 1 from Raleigh, before you reach the city of Henderson, you’ll come across Kittrell, North Carolina.

To be frank, you might not notice Kittrell — and you could easily be forgiven for overlooking it. Here, according to the 2010 Census, were the populations of the three incorporated municipalities in Vance County, N.C.:

• Henderson (Vance County seat): 15,368.

• Kittrell: 467.

• Middleburg: 133.

If memory serves, Kittrell is a no-stoplight town. I worked for the daily newspaper in Vance County, which covered Vance and the counties immediately to its east and west, for more than four years. I can only remember going to Kittrell for work purposes once, to cover a community meeting about the proposed establishment of zoning authority in Vance County. (The proposal was quite controversial and was quashed by conservative rural property owners who were afraid the government would prevent them from doing whatever they wanted with their land.)

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‘Love and Mercy’ unevenly charts the personal struggles of the Beach Boys’ musical genius

July 10, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 10, 2015

Love and Mercy is the uneven new biopic about Brian Wilson, the brilliant but troubled musician who helped propel the Beach Boys to the heights of stardom in the 1960s.

The story unfolds on two tracks, not unlike Woman in Gold, another recent movie based on real events. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wilson, played by Paul Dano, wrangles with his occasionally baffled brothers, cousin and other bandmates about the direction of the band, which has already hit it big. He also fights with his manipulative father, Murry Wilson (Bill Camp). Murry, who is separated from Brian’s mother, openly berates his sons for having fired him as the Beach Boys’ manager, and he denigrates Brian’s musical experimentation. Brian, torn by these stresses, begins dabbling with hallucinogenic drugs and starts losing control of his life.

These scenes are intercut with a separate storyline — it seems to be set in the late 1980s — in which we see Wilson after he’s bottomed out due to mental illness and substance abuse. The main story here involves Wilson’s tentative romance with car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Ledbetter is baffled by the extent to which Wilson has surrendered control of his life to a manipulative father figure — in this case, a malevolent psychiatrist named Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

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