Leviathan – the movie that makes you realize your life ain’t so bad

Movies can do many things to improve your quality of life. They can make you smile, entertain the hell out of you, make you laugh, scare you of the dark in a good way, and so on. They can also make you realize your life just ain’t that bad. Thus when you wake up in the morning after viewing such a movie you’re like, oh, well, at least I’m not those people.

This is Leviathan. It’s essentially an ancient tale. The weak have their land stolen by the powerful. And things go from there. It just happens to fascinate me because the tale is Russian, and is one of the better Russian movies of the post-Soviet realm. Please be sure to enjoy this kind of thing while you can. For one of two things will likely occur in the near future:

– Filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev will eventually give up his independent streak and be coopted (he’ll sell out) by the totalitarian state (for whatever reason) and become a tool of the system like other noted formerly awesome filmmakers such as Nikita Mikhalkov or Zhang Yimou.

or

– Vlad and his buddies will simply ban such films from being made.

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know what you are getting yourself into when the film’s money shot is a distraught child sitting next to a whale skeleton

Leviathan is set in modern Russia’s north. Not Siberia, but rather the Kola Peninsula. Specifically Murmansk Oblast, home to reindeer, discarded nuclear submarine hulks, fish processing infrastructure, and lots of other cold things. It’s a place that all things being equal, human beings probably have no business living there.

The first few minutes of the movie are nothing but nature shots as Zvyagintsev makes damn sure you realize this place is the end of the planet. Not a word of dialogue occurs until about five or ten minutes in as you the viewer are acclimated to a wasteland of concrete, rock, and snow. This tone remains throughout the entire film.

The protagonist is Kolya, a middle aged car mechanic, drunk, husband, hothead, father, and part time firearms enthusiast who is having his fairly decent sized home unjustly expropriated by the state for a fraction of its total value. He enlists the help of his friend and/or brother who’s a lawyer from Moscow. Also within the mix are Kolya’s second wife and son. Crucially, his son is by his first wife.

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As you can imagine in this kind of movie, everything goes swell. The local mayor is a paragon of decency, the courts do their job well, the cops can be counted upon to keep law and order justly, folks drink only in moderation, the local economy is humming along with glorious abandon, kids get along well with their parents and are otherwise well adjusted, and so on.

Bizarrely this wire brush beating of a flick was actually 1/3 funded by the Russian State, who apparently didn’t bother to read or approve the script. I’m rather shocked they let the film stand as is. I think the reasons are thus:

– Vlad is only pictured in the movie once, as a nondescript portrait in the local mayor’s office. He is otherwise not mentioned or discussed.

– Since all of the film’s arch-villains are all local politicians and authorities, it fits perfectly with the authoritarian propaganda narrative. As in, if folks view the Russian state as predatory and corrupt, it’s because the local authorities are to blame, not national level leadership. After all, it’s your local traffic cop bribing you on a Wednesday afternoon, not the Minister of Forestry. If only Vlad knew the truth, he’d clean up that local filth.

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fuck all four of these parasites

So Zvyagintsev got away with it, somehow. The result is a darkly haunting movie that deals with living under a predatory state that sees its citizens as nothing more than cash machines. But Zvyagintsev takes the story to another level by incorporating the deep flaws of average human beings that struggle because they’ve had all the powers of man and nature pinning their necks against bare rock for almost all their lives.

It this weird, twisted, screwed up world where lunatics are being voted into office by those who rightly feel the modern world has left them behind, it’s worth exploring a character study on how human beings who would otherwise be normal, can be turned into puddles of despair by their surroundings and the events that shape their lives. That is, no matter how squared away your life currently is, if you lived there too, maybe you’d be just like them. It’s a very cynical thought, but worth exploring.

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not the place to live

eclipse! eh, or not

This eclipse thing was apparently a big deal. Folks cashed in their retirement savings to fly to a city within the path of the total obscuration. Only to pray to their deity of choice that there weren’t thunderstorms.

I on the other hand had a plane to catch back home for work. So I assumed I’d be airborne when the eclipse actually occurred. We get aboard the aircraft and the stewardess goes through the typical excruciatingly long six minute United introduction which includes instructions on air travel, United ads, and directions on how to construct your own log cabin. After she’s done, the captain actually leaves the cockpit and stands in front of first class to address the whole plane.

He basically says all will be well, both he and the copilot have eclipse glasses (which he shows us), and that the aircraft is rated as “100% capable of solar eclipse flight”. This got many chuckles from the passengers who weren’t mind melded with their smartphones. I didn’t laugh though, because I know what solar flares can do (in theory) to a fly-by-wire aircraft. Can a solar eclipse enhance a solar flare? I have no idea. But I had a lot of beer and coffee in the 12 hours prior to this flight, so in that psyche anything is possible. Even elves. So many elves in the forest. Run!

So based on my understanding of how the eclipse was supposed to play out, and the pilot’s comments, you would think the eclipse would have happened while we were aloft, right? Nope. First off, I was right side center seat. The guy on the window was a 300 pound former NFL headhunter with a Kansas City barbeque shirt. He played freecell for a half hour then fell asleep. All without ever opening his window shade. So I kind of had to peer around other windows. Did the sun darken? Eh, maybe, I wasn’t sure. But by the time I’d landed on the east coast I’d concluded that the eclipse was over. I was ready to get on with my day.

Then they’ve got CNN [sigh] on at the baggage claim and it shows the eclipse just beginning in Oregon. So I’m wondering if I traveled back in time or what. Nope, no eclipse while in flight. It seems the United pilot executed the verbal equivalent of a placebo. I wonder if the United corporate hacks told him to do it? Either way, it was entirely unnecessary because nothing actually happened while we were in the air.

So I get my car back from the haunted, overpriced airport parking garage and go pick up the dogs. Every once and a while I glance up at the sky to see if the sun has changed. Yes, I broke the dreaded rules. I looked at the bare sun with mine own eyes. Because nobody ever does this at the beach or on a regular basis. But the nannies of modern society would have you believe up to yesterday, that if you looked at the eclipse with bare eyes for three seconds your eyes would burst into flames and three kittens you did not know would die horribly.

Anyways, eventually I got home with the dogs and began to unpack, occasionally looking outside. Nothing ever happened. Did it get a little darker out? Maybe, or was that because of the scattered clouds? Who knows? I’m out there to get the mail and my neighbor Jimmy (who’s a little slow, but is a real nice guy) is like, “Hey [insert degenerate blog author name here], where is the eclipse?”

I told him I had no idea, that it was a bust, and that I’d given up. And so it was. I had 80-85% obscuration of the sun where I live, or so the Internets told me. But without eclipse glasses the sun is too bright to be able to see much of it at all. Go get eclipse glasses? Eh, maybe. But what’s the fun of looking at this through special darkened glasses. I might as well observe astronomy through a telescope with a lens made of aluminum foil.

Oh well, what a waste, whatever. I’ve developed one very specific conclusion from my only eclipse experience. It’s either total eclipse or bust. Anything less than 100% is like drinking non-alcoholic beer or driving below the speed limit. I have no idea when the next American solar eclipse is. Maybe I’ll be a bleached skeleton before it occurs? But if it does, and I care enough, I’d rather fly somewhere to see 100%. And pray to my deity of choice that there weren’t thunderstorms.

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Yep, didn’t see that.

so every company wants to dance with sriracha

I guess you know a food ingredient has become all powerful when McDonalds starts to hock the stuff as part of their latest harebrained scheme to forestall irrelevance. They got Ronald McDonald to descend into the Thai jungle to pick up some ideas.

Given the danger he brought a large number of his posse. McDonald got the map and compass. Grimace essentially functioned as a pack mule. The Hamburglar got the grease gun. Birdie carried the radio, and Officer Big Mac, wait, wait, who the hell are all these other mascots?

Anyways, but seeing as only Ronald McDonald emerged from the jungle alive and without product, they just came up with this thing called Sriracha Mac Sauce. Which they trademarked. Seriously.

Sriracha is everywhere. Almost any restaurant chain or potato chip maker is all over this. I guess it’s trendy? Everybody loves spice and Asian so folks think they can mint money on this. But what really is sriracha? It depends.

In Thailand it’s basically just a random chili sauce with vinegar and spices. But in America what folks know as sriracha is just the Huy Fong Foods bottle. It’s just one kind of sriracha. But to most people I suppose it’s the sriracha.

Huy Fong’s story is actually pretty awesome. David Tran fled recently conquered South Vietnam in 1978 and was eventually granted asylum in America. He named the company after his refugee ship Huey Fong.

To me, the look of the bottle is pure genius. The contrast between the green and red, the unique rooster logo, the various languages and styling, it’s just great. It’s what made them successful, that and the unique taste.

But because Tran either cannot or will not trademark the word sriracha, basically everybody else can do what they want. So folks might think that McDonalds is partnering with Huy Fong to make their sauce, but they’re not. McDonald just made it on their own. Hence McDonald’s own trademark on their version of the sauce.

Hey I want to expand the planet’s variety of food choices too, but not at the expense of silly fads driven by faceless corporate goons in suits. Sriracha is basically just Thai ketchup. It’s not the emperor of all Asian hot sauces. I wonder how many folks have ever heard of Korean gochujang paste? It’s mind bogglingly awesome in its own right.

Want sriracha in America? Go ahead and buy the Huy Fong bottle. Or, go get a unique version from an Asian grocery. Don’t give Ronald McDonald more cash to file his next cutthroat trademark.

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Based designed sauce bottle in human history.

San Diego – Cuyamaca Rancho Park

On travel for work?  Got that rare day off?  Get outside, run.  Run away before they change their minds.  They know where you live, it’s how they pay you.  Run!

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Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, about a hour or so east of San Diego depending on whether you exceed the posted speed limit.  The park itself is massive and you could spend weeks there without seeing it all.  I had a day.

I did no research other than just to drive to the park.  The state highway snakes through it and you can get off at various campgrounds, trails, etc.

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Stonewall Peak.  One of the greatest feelings on the planet is to see a mountain and you’re like, “I want to climb that.”  So you do.  A campground sits at the base, you can park there for ten bucks or so with the park rangers.  It’s two miles up and two miles down.  It’s not too difficult if you regularly hike.  I did some other shorter hikes off the highway, but this was the longest and best part.

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The climb for the most part is a series of switchback trails carved into the side of the mountain.

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After a while you get the creepy idea that this place burned in the past.  Turns out I was right.

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In 2003 a lost hiker lit a signal fire in Cuyamaca Rancho and started one of the largest wildfires in California history, which is saying something.  Nearly the entire park burned including just about every long growth tree.

Once upon a time, the firefighters of the American West were dedicated to putting out every fire no matter how natural, no matter where it was.  This was a mistake.  It allowed decades worth of growth to accumulate into the forests.  Nature needs fire.

A forest of the West needs to burn as part of the natural progression of its ecosystem.  It cleans out brush, certain species of plant need the flames to reproduce, etc, etc.  By putting out every fire folks got in the way of this.

So when Cuyamaca Rancho burned for the first time in like five decades.  It burned hot and massive.  If you have a wildfire once every ten years or so, the ecosystem can recover.  That’s the way it’s meant to be.

But it seems when it burns once in a century, that the system can’t recover.  They’ve waited for Cuyamaca Rancho to regrow for these near 15 years and it’s become clear that some species aren’t coming back.  They were wiped out by the intensity of the flames.  So the park service has begun replanting by hand instead.

When you hear people talk about allowing natural wildfires pay attention.  This stuff is important.  It’s also why some folks who build brand new swanky houses up in the forests and then demand the state protect them are in many cases actually doing their surrounding forests genuine harm.

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Stonewall Peak and the nearby abandoned mine were named after Jackson by former Confederate veterans who’d come out West after the war.  What a tale some of those lives must have been.

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Immune to fire.

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At the summit.  The folks who put this up here were the real deal.  They got to the top before proper trails, before online park maps, and so on.

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Just one hill among many.  So much else to see.