Der Golem

The golem is a monster of fascination.  It has been the subject of movies from quite an early period.  The earliest, now mostly lost, seems to have been Paul Wegener’s Der Golem (1915).  This film became the first of a trilogy, with the second (also lost) being, The Golem and the Dancing Girl (also originally titled in German, 1917).  The third film mostly survives and is therefore often called The Golem, based on the fact that it is the one we can still see.  Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World, 1920) is considered a must-see early horror film, although that designation comes from the fact of there being a monster.  It’s not scary.  It is, after all, a silent film.

Having watched some recent examples of Jewish horror I realized that I’d missed this one and set out to rectify the situation.  This film is actually the prequel to the other two, with Wegener’s golem having already established a cinematic presence.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from the story, but I supposed that it would be the oppressed Jews creating a golem to protect them and that it would eventually go berserk, as soulless people generally do.  It may have helped to have seen the two missing films, I suspect.  This golem is made to protect the Jews, but the edict against them is cancelled by the fact that the golem exists.  The emperor is impressed with the Jewish magic and allows the Jews to remain in their ghetto.  The golem, however, develops feelings for Rabbi Loew’s daughter, which is an interesting twist.

The rabbi does lose control of his creation, and it refused to allow him to deactivate him by removing the secret word revealed by Astaroth, under a star on his chest.  A little girl outside the ghetto, picked up by the golem, playfully pulls off the star and saves the day.  This really isn’t Jewish horror, at least not in the sense of more recent films.  It’s not very close to the Jewish golem legend and saving the Jewish community is left up to a gentile girl.  The ending clearly inspired James Whale’s Frankenstein some eleven years later, but the messaging of the film is pretty much what you might expect for a non-Jew trying to tell a Jewish story.  The fact that a demon is involved in bringing the golem to life puts us into a more Christianized view of things.  Still, this historic film, which is just over an hour in length, started something that has grown more sophisticated as Jewish horror started to come into its own.

Kenyan Mourning

We ignore religion at our peril.  I may be a voice crying in the wilderness here, but just because church numbers are declining it doesn’t mean religion still can’t motivate.  And in large numbers.  A New York Times story tells how 179 Kenyans starved themselves to death because their preacher told them they’d meet Jesus that way.  It’s amazing how many demons pose as angels of light, even if well-meaning.  All it takes is to hold up a Bible.  People are religious by nature and they tend to believe what they’re told.  Jonestown and Waco taught us nothing about religion.  Universities continue to hack away at its study, declaring it no longer of importance.  Meanwhile useless deaths still occur because of something that “doesn’t matter.”  Religion is so easily weaponized you’d think the Pentagon might want to get in on the action.

How am I to read without an interpreter?

Our world is increasingly secular but that may not mean what it seems to.  Belief, whether in traditional religions or not, is still belief.  We may believe we know certain things, but knowledge is a lot rarer than we often suppose.  Religion evolved—co-evolved, more accurately—with our species.  We need it, even if its gods have lost their divine luster.  And if we don’t have people who can teach us about it without resorting to mere metrics we may be on our way to perdition.  You see, here in America we tend to be a pretty literalist bunch.  I don’t know what it is about our culture, but we’re uncomfortable with metaphor.  Even so we believe in all kinds of things and then deny that we do.

My mind keeps going back to those Kenyans who, trustfully believing, starved themselves to death.  No doubt the introduction of the Bible, without proper instruction, into their culture, meant that such interpretations would eventually arise.  Perhaps inevitably.  Religious thinking isn’t a bad thing, but taking sacred texts from thousands of years ago as roadmaps for today is.  We so want answers in black and white—we want someone to tell us that life isn’t this complex and that “it’s all really quite simple.”  But it’s not.  Religion does help us get through this complex world.  Even though he was a Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau tried the monastic approach.  It works for a while, but if we all did it there’d be untold suffering in the world.  In other words, there’s no easy answer.  There never likely will be.  Until such a time as that, we should be studying religion more, not less.  And trying to make lives better, not worse.

Childhood History

It looked just like I remembered it.  Having recently read the account of a Hiroshima bomb survivor, I had a hankering to read it.  John Hersey’s Hiroshima was my brother’s book, growing up.  He read it and told me about it, but I’m not fond of war stories or accounts of human suffering.  Still, having read a contemporary account at work I realized how little I knew about what had happened to the survivors.  So when I saw this little book at a local AAUW book sale, I picked it up.  Even after all these years it’s still a page-turner.  In my mind, ever hoping for merciful resolutions, the atomic bomb had killed just about everybody instantly.  A lifelong pacifist, I believe war morally unjustifiable (prisons should be for autocrats, not for minor offenses).  Those who start wars, such as Vladimir Putin, should be required to read this book.

I wasn’t really quite sure of what to expect.  I’d heard that the account involved the interwoven stories of six survivors.  It wasn’t quite as complete as I supposed it would be.  Of course, it was published in 1946, after appearing as a New Yorker article.  As I came to the end, I wondered what had happened to these people.  None of the six, a year later, had any semblance of a normal life, and scientists even then didn’t understand the consequences of what might happen to those the bomb didn’t directly kill.  I guess, in my mind, the city had become an irradiated wasteland.  I didn’t realize it had been rebuilt and that over a million people now call it home.  The was a blank in my mind after the dropping of the bomb.  Hersey’s book has started to fill in that blank.

My mind tends to trace things to their origins.  I’ve always thought that way.  Those who enter into politics ought to be required to pass a test on corruption.  They should be required to study diplomacy.  They should have to read books like Hiroshima to see what the consequences of their selfish acts can do.  Considering the real life horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is important to me to see that the cities are rebuilt.  It’s like looking up the bio of an actor who dies in a movie, just to make sure s/he is really okay.  Why is it so difficult to treat other human beings as human beings?  Why do we still allow war mongers to become national leaders?  Have we learned nothing since 1945?

Reading Early America

Reading about Washington Irving is reading about early America.  And reading about early America is to read about what’s happening in politics today.  One thing that’s very clear, even among the founders of this nation, is the fear that politicians like those we have today would arise.  You see, nothing like America had happened before—a nation deciding to govern itself without a king or queen.  A democracy.  The founders weren’t blind to human weakness, however.  They repeatedly warned against what we now have—a two-party system (which will naturally deeply divide a people) that backs ambitious, wealthy individuals who crave power rather than the good of the country.  Instead of bravery, we elect cowards who dodged the draft because of their personal wealth, and then called veterans “losers” when they’re elected.

There’s some comfort in this long view, however.  The fear we all constantly feel is nothing new.  From 1776 onward, those who were architects and analysts of this republic have warned that we’re always on the brink.  Reading about such things at the same time as reading about the history of Russia is enlightening.  Russia was a monarchy.  It’s sometimes hard to remember that it has only been a hundred and five years since the Romanov family was executed and “rule by the people” became the norm in that nation.  That Mikhail Gorbachev was the first leader of post-Soviet Russia and that was only less than 25 years ago.  We are all part of history.  And history is very old.

America only works as long as those who lead it are dedicated to the nation, not to themselves.  What is the sense of a nation if not putting the needs of others on the same level, or even above, your own?  Sacrificial thinking is behind what used to be called “servant leadership.”  Instead, we tend to see those who find out how to game the system rising to the top through money, grift, or high self-regard.  And when multiple nations have such people in leadership roles we find ourselves in the situation that we face in the twenty-first century.  But we faced it also in the twentieth century.  And in the nineteenth.  People, it seems, do not change.  Monarchs, through no right other than extreme wealth, rule nations.  The idea never dies.  The thought that wealth equates with worth is a poison to all political systems.  This is something you learn by reading about early America.  Today’s an election day.  If you support democracy, make time to get out and vote.

Learning from Mother’s Day

Looking back over the past year, I see that we’ve still got a lot of progress to make.  It’s only been about five millennia of “civilization,” but we still haven’t figured our that women are just as important as men.  Probably more.  This Mother’s Day we stop to think of our moms and many of us wish we were closer to home so that being there this day were possible.  Even the spineless men who degrade women are probably on the phone to their moms today, or maybe sending flowers.  The real truth emerges tomorrow.  Did we learn the lesson?  Are women to be accorded the same rights as men?  And who, really, has the right to decide who’s more human than anyone else?

Born as human beings, we need our mothers to survive.  They nurture and comfort and provide for us, even if fathers step out of the picture.  I’m reminded of an experiment that I learned about in some science class along the way.  A baby monkey (I can’t recall the species) was given a choice of two artificial “mothers.”  One, made of wire, monkey shaped, had a bottle where the baby could feed.  The other had no bottle, but was covered in fur.  The picture of that poor monkey clinging to the bottle-less but “comforting” fur-covered mother has haunted me ever since.  The look of desperation on its face makes me want to weep.  Why can’t we treat all people equitably?  We require no experiments to reveal the truth here. I look forward to the day when such messages will no longer be needed.

Too often we allow our holidays to assuage our guilt over poor treatment for the rest of the year.  Churches used to be plagued with those living sinful lives making it to Sunday’s absolution only to start it all over again.  If only we would learn the lessons Mother’s Day has to teach us.  People depend on one another to survive.  We like to think of ourselves as independent and not requiring help from anyone.  That’s a lie on a Trumpian scale.  We need each other.  Every live deserves fair treatment.  The same wage for the same work.  The right to protect their bodies and their health.  The right to show us a better way of being in the world.  It’s Mother’s Day, and if you’re reading this you have a mother to thank for this very modest possibility.  When a new sun arises tomorrow, let’s remember what we learned today.  Thank you, Mom!

Mutant Madness

I’ve never seen Freaks, nor have I ever wanted to.  It’s an exploitation film of carnival actors that  Tod Browning, for some reason, thought might make a good follow-up to Dracula.  Most of us are aware that it’s bad enough exploiting  those with unfortunate deformities for money, and making a movie out of it doesn’t help.  I have to confess that I stumbled onto Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations thinking it was a creature feature, without realizing it was a seventies version of Freaks.  With a mad scientist thrown in for good measure.  Honestly, though, the carnies are the characters with the highest moral standards of anyone in the movie, so at least it has that going for it.  You’d have thought that by 1974, however, that people would’ve known better than to reprise a movie that wasn’t well accepted forty years before.

Professor Nolter, the mad scientist, is a university professor trying to force evolution’s hand by blending animals and plants.  So far, so good.  He uses his students as victims, which makes you wonder why their wealthy families don’t start any investigations when they go missing.  The professor is assisted in his experiments by one of the co-owners of the carnival, which allows for a presentation of the carnies in a most awkward piece of cinematography.  Two of his students are successfully made into plant hybrids, but one dies shortly afterward.  The other escapes, so he decides to replace him with yet another student.  Meanwhile, the carnies tire of their exploitation—rightfully so—and turn on the henchman/co-owner of the show.

The only real payoff here is the successful hybrid that turns into a student into a human Venus flytrap.  If he hugs you in his rubber-suited arms, you’re a goner.  And the film starts off with several minutes of time-lapse photography of plants growing, which is pretty cool, even amid the strangeness that’s to follow.  When I saw that the movie starred Donald Pleasence, and having Halloween on my mind,  I figured, “How bad can it be?”  It was, after all, free on Amazon Prime.  As with many exploitation movies, it’s poorly written and the props aren’t believable.  Some of the giant plant-animal hybrids are worth looking at, even though they’re never explained.  In the end the mad scientist’s creations kill him, as expected.  I would normally consider such information as a spoiler, however, considering that the movie spoils itself, I won’t worry too much about it.

Atomic Apocalypse

Avoiding Apocalypse, as the title suggests, is something most reasonable people would agree is a good thing.  This book by Jeff Colvin, a science advisor in the George H. W. Bush administration’s  Department of Energy, tells the story, in the words of the subtitle, How Science and Scientists Ended the Cold War.  Long time readers of this blog will know a couple things: I only comment on politics when I’m forced to by circumstances, and I’m an eclectic reader.  The latter point led me to this book and led to a bit of the former.  Nuclear war terrifies me.  Growing up in the seventies and eighties, when at times it seemed that we were a hair-trigger away from mutually assured destruction, I wondered why world leaders couldn’t see what all the rest of us did.  There may be some answers to this in Colvin’s book.

He initially makes the point that the only way for science to thrive is to have a democratic government.  (Think carefully, card-carrying Republicans, about running anti-democracy candidates!)  Colvin clearly shows how in the Soviet Union, repression and state-run thought-policing hampered scientific exchange and prevented Russian development.  It was only under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev that this connection was realized and dismantling of the Cold War was led by scientists, such as Andrei Sakharov, who was instrumental in the Soviet development of nuclear weaponry, but who was exiled for his activism in trying to prevent the apocalypse of the title.  The Soviet administration had to change enough to permit scientists to speak out before reason could enter the equation.

This is a scary book.  Democracy, which many of us advocate and which seems the best, even if flawed, system of government, is often captive to ideologues.  Even today anti-rational people adore Trump, despite the fact, as this book shows, he brought us dangerously close to annihilation by his sheer incompetence.  Tracing the history of arms control, and its great successes, leads to the little ray of optimism that shines through.  

One of the problems with the publishing world is its inherent slowness.  Although only published this year, this book was written in 2020.  I, for one, would be interested in the author’s take on things over the last year or so.  His understanding of what had been happening in Ukraine would, no doubt, shed some light on the tragedy going on there now.  One thing this important book makes abundantly clear is that democracies only work when, like scientists, people vote rationally, not with some gut feeling that a self-made messiah will lead us to bankrupt salvation.

Day of Earth

One of the questions thoughtful and mission-based publishers ask is why books on environmentalism don’t sell.  Since it’s Earth Day (by the way, Happy Earth Day!), I thought I’d ponder it here.  My own amateur sense, as a personal eco-warrior, is that younger people are very focused on fixing environmental issues.  In fact, it is often THE issue for them.  And honestly, reading books about our many, many failures to sustain our environment is downright depressing.  I’ve read several, and seldom do I put the book down without a profound sense of grief and hopelessness.  Many of us do what we can while watching others thoughtlessly carrying on as if our modern lifestyle is normal.  I don’t advocate getting out of the matrix and hunting mammoths with spears, but I do wonder how to get through to those who don’t think about it.

I’ve been on the “Green Committee” at work for many years.  I sense the hopelessness there as well.  Our business has gone about as green as it can but unless you can convince other, less concerned industries to reduce their footprints too, we’re all still walking through the new carboniferous age.  Little things matter.  Some of us may not be able to afford an electric car, but hybrids are somewhat reasonably priced (in as far as car prices are ever reasonable).  LED lightbulbs have dropped from over $10 a pop to two for a buck.  And why are we still using natural gas when electricity can be produced by wind?  My young next-door neighbor has been encouraging us to get solar panels.  We would, but we have to get the garage roof fixed first.  And so it goes.

Caring for the environment is a big job.  These days, however, we also have to keep an eye on politicians who get elected to serve only themselves.  And Supreme Court justices who do things that would get many of us fired for bribery.  Here’s the thing: justice doesn’t work unless it applies to everyone.  We share this planet.  It’s difficult to build forward momentum to save our home when corruption is so deeply entrenched among those who control budgets and who have so many unthinking followers.  Even so, we as individuals can do what we’re able.  We may not be able to afford to repair that garage roof yet to get solar panels installed—it really is in a prime location with uninterrupted southern exposure—but we can compost.  And be conscious of our energy use.  And even, if we’re brave enough, read some books on how to help make things better.  The earth, it seems, is something worth saving.

Image credit: NASA

Female Future

One thing we repeatedly heard during the early days of the pandemic is that people couldn’t wait for things to get back to business as usual (BAU, in corporate speak).  I told others then that we shouldn’t strive for “as usual,” but we should try for something better.  I got that same sense from Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto.  Beard is a classicist.  She’s studied ancient Rome and earned her reputation in that area.  Women and Power is the publication of two public lectures on, broadly speaking, why women aren’t ever truly allowed to share power.  The first essay focuses on how women’s voices are routinely silenced, as they have been since classical times.  The second essay, more akin to what I was hoping about the rebuilding of society, is that we need to redefine power and how it is ascribed.

You see, as a society we have the opportunity—mandate even—to decide what’s truly important.  Electing angry old men like Trump only served to set back our progress by refusing to address the problem.  The idea, and this has been true throughout history, is that what men value is more important than what women value.  And we can’t assume all women value the same thing.  In other words, some serious thinking has to be done.  It doesn’t surprise me that some of this thinking has been undertaken by a classicist.  Those of us interested in how ideas began can have insights into why things are the way they are.  That won’t hand us the answer to the dilemma—as Beard says, hard thinking must be done—but it does show that we can begin to understand.  Beginning to understand is the first step to coming up with a solution.

Biology, and the history of biology, has something to do with the dilemma.  Childcare is a necessity and although we might be able to train brains, it does seem that women tend to have more empathy than men.  History tells us that prior to the invention of baby bottles women had to be available to unweaned children to meet their nutritional needs.  Meanwhile, men had to provide  the social structure that made the agricultural revolution possible.  As far as we can tell, hunter-gatherers (and there’s no going back to that) were more egalitarian.  Beard is right—we haven’t hit an impenetrable wall.  There are ways forward.  Equitable ways.  Different ways.  We need to stop longing for “business as usual” and imagine a better future.

Eternal Return

Amazon gets a lot of bad press.  For me, anyone that sends me books gets a warm fuzzy association.  Besides, returns are a snap.  Amazon has sent me the wrong item a time or two.  You simply let them know and they’ll refund you.  No fuss, no muss.  Twice recently, in my effort to support both the planet and used book vendors, I have received the wrong item.  Here’s where I praise Amazon.  The most recent vendor (reputable and an old player in the used book market) required a multi-step effort to even make the claim of a wrong item, and then wouldn’t pay for the return.  Let me get this right: it is your mistake and I have to pay for it?  Just because someone who apparently can’t read the title put the wrong book in the bag and it took two weeks for me to receive it?  Is there any wonder people buy from Amazon?

To err is human.  I get that, believe me I do.  But if you make a mistake you fess up, you don’t charge the customer for your error.  Have they not realized that looking at the price tag after a trip to the grocery store is more effective than watching a horror movie?  I can’t afford to pay for their mistakes.  Then my existentialist friends come to the rescue.  Yes, they remind me, this is all absurd.  A world based on inheritance and privilege, where an active and alert mind sees that when an error is made, the one who did not make it takes responsibility.  I’m no fan of capitalism, but Amazon doesn’t make me pay for what I didn’t order.  I guess size matters after all.

Perhaps there should be caveats plastered across the internet: buy at your own risk.  If we make a mistake with your order, you will be responsible for it.  It just kills me to complain about book vendors.  Probably I care for books a little too much.  I try to buy responsibly, otherwise there’d be no house to, well, house the books.  I just don’t like feeling cheated when purchasing a used book.  It’s out of character for book vendors.  They’re the modern saints, those who are looking out for the good of the world.  Eventually the seller relented, but not happily.  My associations of Amazon will always go back to when I first discovered that there was a website on which you could find just about any book and have it delivered, and often cheaply.  I miss those days and their optimism.  I need that warm, fuzzy feeling again.  I need to buy a book.


Once again I’m reminded that Holy Horror was never intended to be comprehensive.  I recently watched The Cursed (the 2021 one, directed by Sean Ellis).  This appeared after Holy Horror was published, but it’s a good example of religion (and the Bible) and horror.  It’s artfully done but rather gruesome and difficult to watch.  I suspect such aspects as gruesomeness are why many people dislike horror.  That certainly isn’t my favorite part either.  I watch for the story.  The lesson learned.  The moral delivered.  And also to get a sense of what’s going on in the wider culture.  People tell disturbing stories for a reason.  And quite a lot can be learned from them.  The Cursed has a complex story that was, I suspect, influenced by the historical incident of the Gilles Garnier killings in early modern France.

Set in France, this movie focuses on disputed land and the inappropriately extreme measures wealthy landowners will take to keep it.  A group of Romani (“gypsies”) have laid claim to some aristocratic lands.  Seamus Laurent, a local baron, decides (with the advice of the clergy) to kill them off.  Foreseeing this, one of the women had a set of silver teeth made and put a curse on them.  After she’s killed, the teeth are found by the children of the town and the teeth make monsters.  There’s some confused imagery here, but the story-line is clear.  The monster is revenge for the cruel treatment of and land theft from the Romani.  They may be dead, but betrayal leads to revenge.

That’s where the Bible comes in.  Apart from the locals fleeing to the church for safety, it turns out that the silver was from the thirty pieces given to Judas to betray Jesus.  One of the murder victims had a page torn from the Bible with Ezekiel 22.22 highlighted.  Unlike Pulp Fiction, this quote from Ezekiel isn’t made up and the “prophecy” is taken to refer to the beast conjured by the injustice done to the rightful owners of the land.  This film is subdued, moody, and gothic.  The story is sincere and well told.  It leaves enough gaps for discussion.  It also shows, once again, how religion and horror benefit from each other’s presence.  Stealing land is a biblical crime.  Although the church doesn’t ultimately protect, the absent God in this movie is on the side of those oppressed and tortured by the wealthy.  Maybe it’s time for a sequel.


I’m sure it’s happened to you.  You’ve driven two or three places, often in different towns, then you simply give up, go home, and order it on Amazon.  I try to support local businesses whenever I can, but if you’re looking for something specific, Amazon can generally find it.  (And despite the advertising hype, eBay does not have literally everything.)  This happens often enough that I’d set up my favorite charity, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, as my Amazon Smile charity.  At least I could feel good knowing that my support of the internet giant was being shared to help find a cure for a major, often unspoken, disease.  The latest stats I’d seen said Amazon had donated, I believe, somewhere around $45,000 to the Foundation.  I felt good.

Then I received a notice that Amazon is retiring the Amazon Smile program.  The notice informed me that they’re focusing on other philanthropic causes.  I have to wonder what they are.  Will they help those suffering from terrible diseases?  I think of the Vlogbrothers (Hank and John Green).  They are internet personalities as well as successful authors and content creators, and they hold telethon-like fundraisers donating all of the proceeds to charity.  They do this once a year and additionally they’ve started several small businesses, again, with all proceeds going to charity.  Like that great Unitarian actor, Paul Newman.  If you have enough money, why not give the excess away?  Both John and Hank have families.  I’m sure they’re fiscally savvy enough to make sure their kids won’t have to struggle.  And yet they give millions away.

Philanthropy makes me smile.  It is the best that humans have to offer.  Those who’ve managed to break through realize that there’s an ethical obligation to give back.  What with political Christianity we’ve generally outlived morals, it seems.  They no longer have the hold on culture that the social contract seemed to dictate generations ago.  So it’s up to those with tons of lucre at their disposal to demonstrate largesse.   It nevertheless makes me happy when I hear of it.  I don’t understand finance and I don’t have a head for numbers.  Instead, I try to support those who believe in giving back.  For books that’s often  But time is limited, and weekends are too precious for spending driving hither and thither for something that’s only a click or two away from my restless fingers.  I just hope Amazon’s supporting some worthy charity.  Human need is too great not to. If they are it may make me smile.


In retrospect, I suppose I wrote Holy Horror a bit prematurely.  Back when I started writing it, I had thought that the Bible in horror wasn’t as common as I’ve since found it to be.  I still stand by what I wrote, but I could’ve included a lot more movies that I’ve watched over the years since.  The Sacrament is one of them.  Based on the Jonestown massacre, the film sets the movie in the early twenty-tens.  A reporter for VICE is going to find his sister who’s joined a religious commune in some unspecified country.  In an effort to get him to join, she invited him to visit.  She was unaware, however, that he brought another journalist and cameraman with him.  The movie gives creepy vibes right away since they’re greeted at the helicopter landing site by men with guns.  Eventually they’re allowed to enter.

“Father,” the leader of the commune bears a resemblance to Jim Jones and soon it’s clear where this is going.  Along the way, however, Scripture gets quoted to justify their communal lifestyle.  There are many fictional aspects thrown in—the young women seduce the journalist whose sister invited him.  She makes no bones about saying they do it to convince him to stay.  The camera crew is almost convinced that this is the paradise it claims to be, but they start getting requests for help.  The writers clearly did their research on Jonestown since several details of the final weeks of the Peoples Temple are fictionalized here.  The mass suicide is shown in graphic detail.  The number of the dead, however, is only about a fifth of those who actually died in Guyana in 1978.

The movie clearly shows that the commune is problematic, but it also raises uneasy questions.  If it weren’t for the murder of Leo Ryan, would Jonestown ever have happened?  Probably, but the film shows “Father” making the point that nobody was being harmed.  That’s belied by the introduction of an abused girl and the number of people who want to leave.  It’s true of Jonestown that mind-control tactics were used and people weren’t permitted to leave, especially as Jones’ paranoia grew.  The movie leaves the viewer wondering whether utopian communes can ever work, people being what they are.  We crave our freedom, even when things look great.  The movie condemns the exercise, but not so much that it leaves lingering doubts about whether, had things been different, it might’ve worked.  And it would’ve worked, had I seen it earlier, for Holy Horror.

Glen Da

My current fascination with Ed Wood is, strangely, related to waking up too early.  I’ve tried for years to calibrate my schedule to more like a normal one—I’ve always been an early riser—but have had difficulty doing so.  Weekends at home, therefore, include afternoons when I’m always too sleepy to read, so I watch free movies.  I’d heard about Plan 9 from Outer Space for years before I finally watched it, and it was an epiphany.  Ed Wood, the hapless director, became posthumously famous for his poorly made films, and I’ve been catching as many of those as I can.  While Glen or Glenda wasn’t Wood’s first film, it is the one that kicked off his notoriety.  Considering that it was made in 1953 it is also way ahead of its time.  It is very cheaply made and contains what would eventually become many Wood hallmarks.

Ed Wood was a heterosexual transvestite.  Even today, some seventy years later, this is a category that often confuses hoi polloi.  That’s largely because sex and gender are often misunderstood as the same thing.  Gender is a societally ascribed role—men do this, women do that—based on often unconsidered stereotypes.  Today men dressing as women and vice versa is often played for laughs, or, if serious, is mistaken as an indicative sign of homosexuality.  Glen or Glenda is sometimes classified as a docudrama that attempts to explain this distinction.  Wood, who also stars in the movie, was an actual transvestite, something that wasn’t accepted in the button-down fifties.  After all, one command in the Bible prohibits cross-dressing (likely confusing it with assumed sexual behavior).

None of this makes Glen or Glenda a great movie.  Way ahead of its time, yes, but a strange mix of things nevertheless.  Star billing goes to Bela Lugosi, washed up by this point in his life.  His role as a scientist—often presented as “God”—is unclear.  The devil also appears in the movie, as do several vignettes, reportedly added by the producer, to make this more an exploitation film.  What comes through clearly is that this was a deeply personal film for Wood.  He was trying, as directors and authors often do, to explain himself to the world.  The most successful tend to do this with panache and style, and, let’s be honest, big budgets.  Hollywood, like the publishing industry, is unkind to those who don’t come with well-lined pockets.  It doesn’t mean that the rest of us don’t have stories to tell.  Ed Wood persisted in telling his and, as Glen or Glenda shows, being way ahead of the curve.

Hard to Say

There’s no easy way to say this, so I probably shouldn’t try at all.  Still, I feel compelled to.  You see, I’ve sat on admissions committees and I’ve written my fair share of letters of recommendation.  The former (admissions committees) have a difficult kind of calculus to compute.  Schools need students and their tuition money—this is, after all, the capitalist way.  (Yes, there are alternatives, but boards of trustees have severe deficits of imagination.)  Some schools get around this by being elitist.  Generally they have endowments of very old money and can weather all but the most severe of storms.  Such universities are in the minority and so the rest, and various small colleges, need to compromise from time to time.  Money or integrity?  You cannot serve both God and mammon.

At the graduate level this becomes even trickier.  Grad students bring in more money, and getting into grad school used to (and here’s the difficult part) require what some admissions folks secretly call “special intelligence.”  The paperwork and in-person interview reveal it clearly—this candidate (not always from a privileged background) displays a canniness that suggests they might really have a truly unusual ability to reason things out.  This is someone who should be admitted for advanced work.  But if you apply that principle not only will you be called “elitist,” you’ll also run out of lucre.  The solution is simply economic—let those who don’t have this kind of special intelligence in.  I have seen Ph.D.s after names from schools that I had no idea offered doctoral-level research.  And they legitimately call themselves “Doctor.”

When choosing a grad program—go ahead, call me elitist, but then interview me and see that it’s not true—I knew it had to be at a world-recognized research institution.  I ended up at Edinburgh, and my bubble was already deflated when I told family from western Pennsylvania and they supposed I was going to Edinboro College (now Edinboro University of Pennsylvania), located maybe 50 miles from where I grew up.  I had been accepted at Oxford and Cambridge, however, neither of them could offer scholarships to a penniless Yank, but the famously frugal Scots were far more generous.  And let’s face it, Scotland is more exotic than England.  You have to admit that much.  Of course, the deciding factor was, in my case, money.  You have to wonder if there’s any possible way of escaping it.  From all appearances, mammon wins.