Cuba, Si! Castro, Meh.

December 19, 2014

cubaIt’s amazing, the things you can do when you no longer have to be concerned about winning elections in Florida. President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba are historic not because they’re so surprising, but because the only guy who can get the ball rolling is a lame duck who will never have to run again.

In most of the country, all but the most virulent knee-jerk Commie-haters (or black-President haters) understand that our fifty-year trade embargo has done nothing to harm the Castro regime — it’s still there, after all — and everything to isolate innocent working-class people by denying them access to the world’s richest market, and, perhaps significantly, vice versa. The overwhelming view is that the embargo is a failed Cold War relic whose time has long past.

That’s most of the country. It’s different in South Florida.

This region is stocked with refugees old enough to vividly remember the brutality of Fidel Castro’s “revolution,” who consider it treasonous even to recognize the regime which split proud families into resentful diaspora, much less do business with it. They are a shrinking minority, but they are vocal and potent beyond their numbers. Younger Cuban-Americans tend to agree that the embargo has outlived its usefulness, but their parents and especially their grandparents are far more fervent and thus far more likely to vote. It is political dynamite for a Florida politician to suggest any relaxation of our rust-covered Cuba policy, which is why Presidential prospects like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are leading the outcries against the president (along with usual-suspect Obamaphobes like Lindsey Graham, that Ebola-shrieker who still yells “Benghazi!” whenever he can).

Some right-wing babblers have found themselves twisted into knots, praising the release of detained U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, then denouncing the President in the same sentence. But the general response to President Obama’s action — he was covertly assisted by Canada and the Pope! — has been sensible and supportive. Talk of withholding funds for creating a U.S. embassy in Havana is just that: talk. Here’s one thing nearly everybody can agree on, like the fact that our gun laws are too lax and our military budget is too bloated. But to actually propose a solution? After you, Senator.

So American tourists will be able to legally bring back some of those ass-kicking Cohibas (Cuban cigars are strong, mate — uh, I mean, that’s what I’ve heard), unless those rumors are true and Fidel’s so mean that he plans to flood the U.S. market with cheap counterfeits once we normalize. (Gang, Raul‘s in charge.) This Cuba deal’s such a no-brainer that it might actually get done. And as a new tourist spot for Caribbean-bound Americans, this beautiful island’s image might finally change. Imagine the marketing possibilities: “Cuba. It’s not just for torture anymore.


The River Of Retail

November 24, 2014

th-1I’ve just traveled back in time, to a more innocent age. I did it by reading a book about Amazon.com. “By the time you read this book,” opines business writer Robert Spector in the finale of his AMAZON.COM: GET BIG FAST, “Amazon.com will have changed in some profound way.” Man, did he get that right – because HarperBusiness published this tome way back in 2000, when Jeff Bezos’s website was just five years old and nobody’d ever heard of an “Internet bubble.” By the time I read this book, Amazon (the by-now-anachronistic “.com” was quietly dropped in March 2012) was barely recognizable.

Business books like this one are churned out mainly for eager MBA candidates and execs on the make who are busy taking notes or marking up the pages; Mr. Shelton helpfully provides summational “takeaways” at the end of each chapter so readers don’t even have to uncap their pens. The writing won’t win any awards – the market calls for simple, straightforward, didactic prose – and the book is poorly (hurriedly?) edited and proofed: dropped connectors, “baited breath,” “technocolor,” multiple introductions of the same event. But you do get a look at Amazon.com just as it was becoming an actual power, from a reporter who is still marveling at this new Internets thing.“The real winners,” writes Mr. Spector from 2000, “will be the so-called ‘clicks-and-mortar’ retailers that combine a physical presence with a virtual presence…the future belongs to these multichannel operations.” “One day,” he predicts, “we will even see Amazon.com in the physical world, either with stores or kiosks,” and in New York City, for the 2014 holiday season, his farfetched Hail-Mary concoction will have actually come true.

th-2Mr. Spector is much better at describing what has already taken place: the famed creation story in which Bezos quits his cushy job at D. E. Shaw & Co. – he’s flat-out brilliant – and, entranced with the mind-reeling growth of the Internet, uses Spocklike logic to choose an entry-point product (books) and a city from which to base his startup (Seattle). We watch as Bezos assembles a team of equally smart people who know nothing about retailing, yet build a crude infrastructure and go live on July 16, 1995. In a time period so compressed that it ate people up (you had to be young and driven to work there), Amazon.com became a constant exercise in scaling out, in keeping up with an unprecedented growth rate, in whacking the largest moles anybody had ever seen. The Amazonians fill more and more warehouse space and toss away their initial plan to be a store that is only virtual. They go public and charm investors by admitting they plan to lose money as far out as the eye can see, throwing every penny into getting big fast. They enter Britain and Germany by buying existing e-sellers and giving them an Amazon storefront. They add music and video to the mix and start a website buying spree. They hire executives from Wal-Mart and other retailers for adult supervision over the distribution chain. Within five years, they’ve survived their first soul-searing holiday rush and built one of the most famous brands in the world. In January 2000, they change their logo to the famous “smile arrow” that connects A to Z in the company name: we intend, they announce, to sell everything (except firearms, living creatures, pornography or tobacco). When Bezos holds up an unusual food product at a press conference, Mr. Spector is obviously getting his first look at what he calls an “edible (presumably)” turducken. And that’s where this book leaves them.

The author basically lionizes Jeff Bezos, who is named Time’s Man of the Year for 1999. Although Mr. Spector does note some early missteps – charging publishers for favorable placement on the site, just like Barnes & Noble and Borders had for years, only failing to tell customers about the sponsorships; Purchase Circles, which could let you see what others at your company are buying, which was TMI for outraged corporations like IBM; an unflattering fight with a lesbian bookstore in Minneapolis which had been using the name Amazon since 1970; and selling English-language copies of MEIN KAMPF from the US site to customers in Germany, where the book is banned – and reports some groaning from afar about working conditions, we never get a fully rounded view. For that we need thirteen more years to pass, and the publication of a very different book.

thTHE EVERYTHING STORE by Brad Stone isn’t written for business students: it’s a more major piece of narrative nonfiction. Mr. Stone has the benefit of the ensuing years in which Amazon has grown into a global colossus, large enough to push around his own publisher, Hachette (proprietor of this book’s Little, Brown imprint) and agitate for a larger piece of the pie, delaying or denying shipment of Hachette titles in the process. The dustup has only recently been resolved; click on the book cover to see how much Amazon has relented since I wrote this. I bought my copy, during the standoff, from Powell’s Books. (Fun fact: both Larry Kirshbaum, who ran an in-house publishing program at Amazon, and David Naggar, who presided over its settlement with Hachette, are former executives at the Warner Communications books group, which morphed into this particular member of the Big Five publishers.)

Amazon’s not a cute startup any more. But this is no Hachette job (sorry): though he does not talk to Bezos in person specifically for this book (as a business journalist he’s had the pleasure more than once), Mr. Stone does acknowledge the founder’s help in giving the go-ahead for “innumerable interviews with his friends, family and employees.” Bezos’s hesitation seems to be that he feels it’s still too soon to tell Amazon’s story comprehensively (I do not believe it has anything to do with the identity of the publisher), and the company is indeed a quickly rolling stone; it won’t be much longer before this book too is out of date.

Meanwhile, though, we get a ripping yarn about a scarily intelligent, scarily ambitious, scarily obsessed man who saw the face of the future back when everybody thought he was just a bookseller. Jeff Bezos reminds us naturally of Steve Jobs: the same driven personality, the same steely mind, the same screaming impatience with anything short of perfection, even the same “reality distortion field” that worked its will on every aspect of the innovative companies they built. They were both adopted by loving foster parents, and each man grew rich and famous without their biological fathers being aware of their relationship. It is clear from reading his story that Amazon as we know it wouldn’t exist without Jeff Bezos — the same existential importance as Steve Jobs had to Apple.

We inevitably go over some of the same territory as does Mr. Spector, but THE EVERYTHING STORE has caught up barely a quarter of the way in. Bezos’s vision was 20-20 even when he seemed to be the only guy with eyesight, back when the new company was called Cadabra (it sounded like “cadaver” to people on the phone. Another candidate was a little too on-the-nose: type in “Relentless.com” and, to this day, you’ll go straight to Amazon). You can’t succeed without having the guts to fail, and Bezos suffered some spectacular flops, primarily during Amazon’s big buildout during the dot-com boom, when the company wasted most of $2.2 billion in bond offerings in buying up smaller players that didn’t pan out. Its share price peaked on March 10, 2000, a few months after Jeff had been named Time magazine’s Man Of The Year, and Job One suddenly became simple survival.

th-3Amazon benefited both from Jeff’s foresight and the naiveté of others, to whom online commerce was viewed as a novelty, a technological fad that would eventually go away. Rather than do the hard, expensive work themselves, companies like Toys ‘R’ Us engaged Amazon to run their online presences. Later Circuit City, Borders and Target all entered into similar partnerships, but all they were doing was ceding advantage to Amazon. (About half of the in-person Borders stores were actually quite profitable when the company entered bankruptcy, but they were locked into too many pricey 15- and 20-year leases, more cannon fodder for Amazon’s lean, lithe business model.)

For anybody who is still surprised at the ruthlessness with which Amazon opposed Hachette (price wars are commonplace among other retailers but anathema to the cozy book industry, which sells its product on consignment and financially continues to press its historic advantage as the gatekeeper separating author and audience), one need only look back to 2002. Amazon’s contract with the United Parcel Service was up, but the shipper was facing union negotiations and felt it had no wiggle room. Amazon had already cultivated a relationship with Federal Express and that, coupled with driving its own trucks directly to the U.S. Postal Service, gave the retailer the necessary leverage. Amazon’s Jeff Wilke called supply-chain manager Bruce Jones and said, “Bruce, turn them off.” Within hours, unnoticeable by Amazon customers, its business with UPS simply dried up. A couple days later, Amazon received a bulk discount at UPS and taught the company “an enduring lesson about the power of scale and the reality of Darwinian survival in the world of big business,” writes Mr. Stone.

The flip side of that, of course, is that Amazon created a new revenue stream for the book industry by refining its desultory tentative steps into electronic documents. E-readers existed before Amazon’s Kindle debuted in 2007, but they were oriented toward the publishers, clunky and expensive. Amazon upended the industry by continuing to think about the customer (purchase of a Kindle book is even simpler than buying a paper copy on the Amazon site), and now it has a two-thirds share of the e-book market, which is not quite one third of all books sold in the US, a percentage which is likely to grow.

Much of this commotion seems intuitive, but only in hindsight. The fact is that Jeff Bezos is continuing to play a chess game against his competition — which is not only other retailers but also other technology firms — by thinking many moves in advance. The placement of Fulfillment Centers (i.e., warehouses) across the country is customer-centric, but not just for what Amazon sells today. These vast units are not tucked in the middle of nowhere: they’re near large cities, which will help Bezos achieve same-day service and gain the ability to deliver perishable groceries to most of the nation. Those infamous Amazon drones that Jeff proudly showed to 60 MINUTES sound crazy right now. But once so did Kindle, free shipping with a paid subscription, streaming audio and video as part of that same package, renting out server capacity, and a long, long list of other realities Jeff has basically willed into being. The notion of Amazon itself was judged to be nuts many, many times by graybeards who are still eating their words.

Mr. Stone concludes his book with a charming, lyrical bit of reporting. He tracked down and befriended Jeff’s biological father, 69-year-old Ted Jorgensen, who is the well-liked proprietor of the Roadrunner Bike Center in Glendale, Arizona. Mr. Stone explained who Jeff grew up to be, and Jorgensen’s “eyes filled with emotion and disbelief.” He sent letters via mail and e-mail to Jeff and his mother, and after a few months, the founder replied graciously and kindly. “He wrote,” reports Mr. Stone, “that he empathized with the impossibly difficult choices that his teenage parents were forced to make…he said that he harbors no ill will…and then he wished his long-lost biological father the very best.” There simply wasn’t room in Bezos’s makeup to waste time sifting through the past. It takes all his formidable skill to try his best to keep up with the future.


A Toy That’s Just My Type

November 16, 2014

th-3“Doris, take a letter!”

Have you ever heard anything like that? Dialogue in an old movie doesn’t count: I mean with your own ears in real life. The chances are greater if you’re older, greater still if you’re a woman. (And you may substitute any name, male or female, you wiseacre.) I’ll bet most of you haven’t, though it was once as unremarkable a phrase as the also-obsolete “this is where we came in.” (See footnote*)

“Take a letter” is the sound of a executive asking his (usually his) secretary (not “assistant,” secretary or steno, or, pace Kurt Vonnegut, one of the “Girl Pool”) to listen to him dictate a business letter, take down every word in shorthand on her (usually her) note pad, then go back to her desk and type it up for his signature. It is the way business was done for decades, and it was done this way because the executive hadn’t the faintest idea how to operate a typewriter.

We’re all made aware daily of the tremendous technological changes brought about by the ubiquity of digital devices over a fast (until you compare America’s infrastructure to the rest of the computing world’s, that is) broadband connection. But an even more vital cultural shift was in play long before the Internet revolutionized communications. In order to use a computer, you have to be able to type. So these days, everybody has learned. There isn’t just a computer on every desk. There’s also a keyboard.

There may remain a few emeritus execs who are senior enough to remember the steno pool, but today they are as rare as the three-martini lunches they once enjoyed. When these gents were growing up, typing was literally for girls. High schools offered classes, but they were as overwhelmingly female as “home economics”; the boys were in shop class. (The forward-thinking few who counterintuitively reasoned that typing class was therefore a great way to meet chicks tended to do well later in life, but they were still the few.) Young women dominated because typing class was seen as preparation for a job as a secretary, of which there were millions. Certain men made their living as typists, but as the operators of linotype machines.

Typewriters transformed the act of writing and dominated it for more than a century after their invention in the 1860s: now all output was eminently legible, no matter how ragged the author’s cursive scratching. But operating a typewriter is a skill, taught and learned — and without this skill the keyboard is useless.

Pretty damn close to my first one.

Pretty damn close to my first one.

Most writers I know who are anywhere near my age were fascinated by the limitless potential lurking inside their first typewriters. It’s the same feeling rockers describe upon beholding their new guitars. My first axe was a portable Smith-Corona whose hard carrying case latched over the top. Without the upper snap-on, it was light enough to rest on my lap in a chair or on the bed. It was the most amazing thing my fifth-grade eyes had ever seen. I couldn’t imagine a word this machine couldn’t reproduce so beautifully that anybody could read it! Hallelujah!

There was only one problem:

I didn’t know how to type.

The fullness of time has instructed me that I probably should have found somebody to teach me proper touch typing (those classes were in high school, still a few years off), just like I should have had somebody explain correct left-handed guitar stringing before I taught myself chords from right-handed sheet-music pages. Once their fingers are properly seated (that’s why there’s a tiny raised ridge on the F and J keys below your very fingers today), touch typists can type their asses off without referring to the keyboard, the same visual disdain employed by great musicians. That skill really helps, trust me. But, swimming upstream like the sturdy salmon (I flunked metaphor class), I got by, enough to casually entertain on the one hand and earn a living on the other.

I learned how to type by, well, typing. When I tell you that I began by copying some of my favorite Poe, Bradbury and Asimov stories single-spaced onto yellow legal-pad sheets (Shakespeare was just too quirky and difficult), you might at first think me extreme. But you would then be surprised (as was I) by the handful of professional authors who have told me they also did such copying as kids. There must be something universal about watching the wonderful words flow through your fingers and land on the page. If you’re attuned to the feeling, it fuels the fantasy that you could make them up yourself one day. Nuts? No more than communing with a record by playing air guitar. The simple mechanical process of retyping something you love engenders a real kinship with the author — even with Poe, who never saw a typewriter in his life.

There are actually still tons of writers whose prose arises outside the QWERTY board. Rod Serling, my all-time favorite crafter of dialogue, spoke his scripts into a Dictaphone for “Doris” or whomever to type up. My ole pal Kevin J. Anderson dictates first drafts to this day into a recorder while he’s exercising his body on hikes, the best self-administered healthcare program for an author that I’ve ever encountered. (When Kevin was just starting out, he used to economize by staying with us when he came to New York, and I can tell you, this guy worked well into the ((Eastern time)) night, and he did it on a keyboard. But by this point in a given project he was refining, not creating.) Tom Robbins writes his first drafts in longhand on a legal pad. So did Don Coldsmith. Harlan Ellison owns a sick number of replacement parts because he never wants to quit using a typewriter in favor of what I and nearbout everybody else is using right now: a word processor.

Point being this: if you have the basic talent, you can approach this writing bidness anyhow you frickin want, bucko. I’m not imputing any particular mojo onto a mechanical keyboard, but I do definitely declare that when toddlers can type in a Sesame Street way, that means the skill devolves to everybody lucky enough to attend a school where teachers actually motivate their students. Typing these days equals basic communication, even through rapid thumb-fire texting. If you can’t type, you can’t talk. Self-publishing on Amazon is simply the logical end result. When you see infants in strollers happily tapping their colorful tablets, you’re forgiven for getting that little frisson at the back of your neck: what happens when these kids learn how to type? I don’t know, mate, and neither do you.

* For most of the glory days of Hollywood, right up to the Seventies and the era of the blockbuster, most feature films played continuously and you could enter and leave the theater whenever you wanted, even in the middle of a movie. You would then see the part you missed during the next performance, until you recognized the part “where we came in.” Alfred Hitchcock famously upended this practice for the original 1960 run of PSYCHO, forbidding theater owners from letting anyone in once the picture had started. Disgruntled patrons were forced to wait in line out front, giving the impression that PSYCHO was a lines-around-the-block hit — and then the hype legitimately came true.

The Recall Of Cthulhu

October 27, 2014


UnknownThis story was first published in THE REPENTANT, a 2003 anthology edited by Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg. I send it out to all H. P. Lovecraft fans this Halloween. Boo!

One drives nervously through certain rural country in north central Massachusetts, far from the bustling metropolae of learning and commerce, without even knowing why. The crisp New England air becomes heavy and foetid, even inside an automobile insulated from the elements. The roadside flora offer no solace, for the traveller who might be soothed by the emerald grandeur of lush, verdant hills is instead assaulted by bramble patches and unkempt stands of forest grasping over the motorway, which is bathed in unremitting dusk even as the sun gleams its brightest. When the visitor finally can make out signs of human habitation, they too seem unnerving: broken, pitted wood fences long lain un-repaired; foul rusting yokes upon which large, lean black birds rest at odd angles and stare at passers-by with disquieting intensity; wilting plants of indeterminant genus that push obscenely out of denuded grey land once slit by a plow but thence shunned by its owner.

Nor can the crutches of civilization thrive here for long. When this dank region is spoken of at all, it is chiefly by returning travelers in muffled tones of dread and relief. One finds, they report, that the clammy hand of night can here reach even into the protective cocoon of an auto. No timbre save hissing static may be retrieved from a radio. Tape and disk mechanisms develop curious problems: they are unable to emit the sounds encoded on them and sometimes slow down or speed up unaccountably; various pilgrims have reported slow gutteral resonance not unlike the groaning song of the great leviathans of the deep, while others have heard distressing atonal piping that vaults upward on its alien scale to attain a painful pitch beyond hearing. The unluckiest have experienced mechanical problems, made most ominous by the imminent approach of night-fall, and more than one veteran of the long and lonely byways must suppress a shudder as he recounts the supreme unease with which he stepped out of the car to investigate this or that echoing rattle or metallic sigh.

The portable telephones which have so infested our sophisticated culture are here as useless as one of these Yankee farmers’ abandoned fenceposts — either the land brings its guests too far away from the technological world for communication to reach, or else there is some force, whether climatological or, worse, self-determined, which conspires to isolate this area from the orbit of rational discourse and reason. Looking this way and that, the visitor tends to slink back to the false shelter of the automobile and pledge to deal with the issue later, far away in a warm bed, if only the damned machine will successfully transport him. Never has anyone who has voyaged upon these dark lanes evinced the slightest desire to return.

Those who bravely or naively continue to peer out the window, while they negotiate the curving wooded roads toward blessed home, can usually discern the inhabitants of this forsaken clime. They are a solemn and oddly distanced lot, gazing without expression from well-trodden pasture or from the porches of tiny colonial-style houses which are not quite plumb, misshapen in a way that provokes revulsion instead of empathy, and glistening in a foul chitinous fashion as if constructed from the carapace of a giant insect. Their dwellings are spaced miles apart from each other, and no wonder, for they do not seem to particularly relish the company of humankind. There is no wave toward the passing vehicle, no smile, no acknowledgment. Only heads slowly turning to follow the progress of a car will betray the fact that the native watchers are indeed alive. The motorist wishes to escape their forbidding community no more ardently than the citizens of Dunwich wish to see him gone.

It was in the encroaching gloom of late afternoon that one of them, an ancient dairyman named Abner Brockman, followed the latest vehicle with his vacant and sallow gaze until the sound of its passing gave way to the stillness that always pervaded the stricken countryside at this time of the day. He turned back to his herd, a feeble collection of desultory animals which nosed their way through a dirt-pocked pasture nearly picked clean. The scent of mould and decay was on the air, and Brockman instinctively looked upward apprehensively in the direction of the table-like rock of Sentinel Hill. He was unable to make out the summit in the diminishing light, but he needed no visual confirmation of the barren hillock where no tree, shrub, or blade of grass would ever grow.

The first whippoorwill of evening raised its lonely moan, and Brockman pulled his jacket tight against his neck. These birds frightened and distressed the residents of Dunwich, where local superstition held that whippoorwills were creatures that waited for the souls of the dying, and that their cries are timed to the wretched victim’s last breath. It was still early and the bird was joined by no others, but that did not prevent a shiver from coursing through Brockman’s body as the dull silence descended again.

The metallic clang of a cowbell bit the air as old Sarah, Brockman’s doddering prize Guernsey, padded toward the fence. Something was bothering her. Her tail swatted furiously and she picked up speed. Now the other cows joined in, bleating pathetically and fighting to escape the middle of the field—not in one direction but toward all sides in a stampede from the center. Whatever the disturbance was, it emanated from a bald patch that the half-ton animals were laboring to flee. Brockman moved closer.

Suddenly the ground heaved with a sharp jolt, as if an explosion had been set off beneath. The cattle leaped away with even greater force. As Brockman stared in amazement, a tight plume of dirt sprayed into the air like water from a fountain and left a small hole in the pasture, through which something was struggling to emerge.

A cloven hoof pawed its way out of the hole and was joined by another. The hooves strained to widen the aperture, and a bovine nose appeared, snorting with a prodigious effort. Rooted to the spot, Brockman watched as the fawn-colored head of a full-grown Guernsey pulled into the light. How had the beast fallen into the earth?, he wondered. And how was it possibly attaining the strength to correct its condition? The rest of the herd had run as far away from the bizarre display as pasture fencing would allow, many of them headed in the direction of Sentinel Hill, which it had always before been their nature to shun.

The forward half of the cow was now free, and it used its hooves as leverage against the plane of the pasture. With a moist pop the rear half emerged, and Abner Brockman’s grip on sanity loosed to the point of dissolution. For he was accustomed to the creatures of a natural order; what he now beheld was an atrocity from somewhere outside the known laws of biology, from outside the three dimensions which deluded men of science into believing they had any inkling of the soul-shattering mysteries that long predated the emergence of Homo sapiens on the planet.

About halfway down its body, the creature simply failed to be a cow any more. It was covered with matted black fur, through which protruded dozens of wormy grey tentacles, each waving and undulating independently to create a horrible writhing skirt below which no legs protruded. At the end of each tentacle was a reddish sucker, opening and closing with a hideous sodden sound. Where the tail might have been on a normal beast was a longer, thicker trunk or feeler that swayed and pushed against the ground. A greenish-yellow substance with the consistency of syrup oozed from the fur surrounding the tentacles; its mouldy ichor attacked Brockman as surely as if he had been struck by a fist, and he felt the ache of nausea rise in his belly as the rank odor hung heavily on the still air.

As Brockman watched in stupefaction, sets of eyeballs asserted themselves among the fur and disappeared, only to re-emerge at another spot. They were constantly winking into existence and receding, all over the creature’s rear section. Then a slit appeared in the midsection and opened slightly to reveal a set of canine teeth, above which a larger set of reddened eyes appeared and set, then a nose. The dark fur over the obscene countenance lightened while Brockman watched and resolved into a half face, elongating impossibly along the side of the beast until it was better than a yard wide, an impossible imitation of the human form. It was still barely recognizable as the cruelly distorted face of a young man, topped by crinkly albino hair, whose eyes were now jutting wide with exertion as it attempted to speak.

The mouth moved slowly and a deep bass rumble issued forth from it, a noise that at first sounded like an animal growl. But as the cavity opened and closed, a ghastly green tongue occasionally protruded to help produce a variety of humming, clicking and sibilant sounds, and somehow Brockman understood that there was an intelligence operating this blasphemy. The cow’s head that remained on the damned pseudo-beast raised its snout skyward, and matched the unearthly noises coming from its torso. In unison, the twin vocal boxes spewed what sounded at first like gibberish, but then resolved into strange croaking words:

Ygnaiih…N’gai…Y’bthnk…Bugg-shoggog…my mother…YOG-SOTHOTH!”

That was enough for Abner Brockman. He fell to his knees, blubbering nonsensically, drool rolling out of the sides of his mouth, then pitched forward into a cowpie. His hair follicles were already beginning to lose their color, and his reason was forever lost with them as the abomination moved wetly toward him.

F’tagn Whateley slithered closer to the fallen man and his extensions drooped in frustration. He had tried everything he could think of to make a connection. He had taken on the frame of the creatures with which this human had surrounded himself. He had made the vibrations of welcome, had even used the human tongue—and eyes! F’tagn could smell success as the man watched and tried to comprehend, and he had undulated with excitement. But it was always the same. Was he so horrible? His life surely was. Some Great Old One he was making.

F’tagn couldn’t help that he was a halfbreed. It wasn’t his fault that mapped upon his handsome glutinous frame was part of a human face, elongated in a fetching way to be sure, but still there. He was a twin, born several human generations ago of Old One and earthly woman in an arcane ritual atop Sentinel Hill that was supposed to seal the eventual fate of humankind. But that still made F’tagn a pup in the multifaceted eyes of the rest of his dad’s crew. He hadn’t even been around for one single aeon. And it was so hard to fit in. Most of the other Old Ones turned their tentacles away whenever F’tagn oozed by, repulsed by the human half of him. They could sense it, smell it. After all, the rest of them were from some grand unnamable place beyond angled space. F’tagn was from Massachusetts.

Eternal life was so unfair.

Pop could have thought of this before he had congress with old albino Lavinia Whateley that randy night so long ago. In the phrase of the daemons of Nyarlathotep, what possessed him? Several of the night-gaunts that hung around the great stone city of R’lyeh, now sunken in the ocean, would chitter conspiratorially at the sight of F’tagn, and it was plain that his Great Old Man had done a bit of bragging at some point. Everybody was curious about the physical details: how’d you do it, stud? A couple of shoggoths had gone out and experimented with farm animals in the vast Midwestern regions, but when the smoke cleared, all that was left were mutilated cows and frustrated shoggoths.

But however he’d managed it, F’tagn was living proof that Pop was a sexual pioneer. F’tagn and his twin brother Wilbur. The lucky bastard—actually, they were both bastards—Wilbur had favored their mother. He could pass for human in Dunwich, and he grew up among people. They may have distrusted him, even feared him, because Whateleys tended to keep to themselves, and that kind of behavior attracts gossip, especially in New England.

But at least Wilbur got to be out there in the world. In contrast, F’tagn had been boarded up in the second story of his grandpa’s house for most of the time he was a Young One. That experience would create psychological problems in most any kid, but F’tagn had inherited something that nobody had expected, certainly not his dad. He had been conceived as a leader of the new generation. But F’tagn was proud of his human side, and he yearned to communicate with his half-kind.

It didn’t help that Wilbur had seemed as intent on bringing forth the reign of the Great Old Ones as fervently as any shambler from the stars. Wonderful. He gets the gene of human appearance, and what does he do with it? He devotes his life to the destruction of the world order and the domination of conquerors from the depths of time and space. Not to mention the fact that Wilbur hadn’t bothered to hide his disdain for their mother, insane and decrepit though she might have been. Toward the end, before Wilbur overstepped his bounds and got his just deserts, she had even grown afraid of him. F’tagn felt for her. But every time he tried to reach out like a good son, his mom would run screaming from the house.

Like most humans who were zealous enough or nuts enough to look into the apocalypse issue, Wilbur had gotten a lot of it wrong. The drill was that great Cthulhu, the Oldest of Old Ones, was dreaming in the ocean, in his house in the sunken R’lyeh, waiting for some clever folks to unearth certain forbidden books and spit out just the right incantations. That would open the cosmic gates and bring back the original rulers of the planet, the Great Old Ones. The entire posse would come roaring in to devastate the world and, of course, tear out the humans—including the incantors, which would make necromancy a pretty self-limiting career path.

Of course, this was all horseshit.

To call the Old Ones back, no mumbo-jumbo was needed. They had never left in the first place. Insanity and nightmare were their calling cards the world over, and they’d developed plenty of insidious ways to mess with human beings. And Cthulhu could pop in whenever he wanted, thank you very much. He was dreaming in R’lyeh, sure, but that was only because he was exhausted. In this aeon alone, he’d worked on the Black Plague, about three dozen major wars and the Holocaust—and those little numbers had happened without Wilbur’s or anyone else’s help. Why eradicate the human race when it was much more fun to play with them, to instill terror and suffering that would really last? The Old Ones learned their lesson when they snuffed out the dinosaurs. So dumb. The old-timers told F’tagn that it had been very, very boring for several aeons afterward.

But that didn’t prevent people like Wilbur from finding the old dusty tomes and trying to make sense of the ornate gobbledygook inside. The trouble was, these books only had small pieces of the picture, and more often than not, completely distorted ones. The one they called the Necronomicon in particular was fairly fashionable among the hooded-robe set, but it would embarrass them like crazy if they ever got a faithful translation. Like somebody just starting to learn a foreign language, these weekend wizards would say the most hilarious things. You wanted to finish their sentences for them and put them out of their misery. Wilbur himself spent more than one night up at the old stone altar on Sentinel Hill making this ludicrous pained face, clamping his hands to his temples like an idiot and screaming “YOG-SOTHOTH!” Which to Old Ones simply means, “How ya doing?” or, to a tentacled creature like himself, “How’re they hanging?” F’tagn had slipped into his native tongue when he was talking to the man lying before him; he realized he should have continued speaking in human, but the concentrated effort it required had just been too great.

This obsession of F’tagn’s with human connection, which most of the Old Ones considered a debilitating fetish, meant that he had few friends. He didn’t consider it a big loss: they lived in a dimension of their own, oddly shaped angles and all. These fuddy-duddies were so non-Euclidian! But he did get out socially. For example, there was the monster who had become close to a Boston painter named Richard Upton Pickman, even posed for him in his gallery. That was fascinating. F’tagn hung around him for a while, peppered him with questions about the relationship, but it became clear that there had been no real communication, that he was dealing with a beast who just enjoyed seeing himself in pictures. It was a matter of ego, not empathy. Plus there was the upsetting fact that the model had been rendered while in the process of devouring a human being. No matter how many times he heard somebody say that they were just animals, F’tagn could never develop a taste for human flesh.

In general, F’tagn was shunned and mocked as a disappointment to his father, whom he hadn’t seen in decades. No doubt Pop was out haunting some other poor lonely hamlet, making a hundred eyes at another disturbed human waif. He had a swaggering new reputation to uphold, after all. But F’tagn got the definite idea that Pop had wanted to use his cross-dimensional ardor to improve his own standing, to suck up to Cthulhu. It would be the ultimate desecration, creating a new race of conquerors from the very wombs of their prey. And starting off with twins, to boot! But the splitting of the seed from beyond had unexpected effects—as perhaps might have been expected if anyone had bothered to reflect on it in the first place. Wilbur got the looks. F’tagn got the heart. And the Whateleys would go down in history as the single most dysfunctional family on earth—or under it.

F’tagn was the first of a new line of Old Ones. Just not the kind Pop had wanted.

F’tagn was so sorry. Sorry that his own kind made dinner out of people. That his very countenance was enough to cause a simple farmer to go mad. That Old Ones carried such dimensionist bigotry along with them every century of their lives. The world was a big place—big enough so that one day, just maybe, if they tried very hard, two species might walk hand in feeler, together at last in peace and harmony. Well, any change begins with a single act. And F’tagn Whateley was going to be the being who got the ball rolling.

A sharp clap of thunder disturbed F’tagn’s reverie and he looked down at the wretched dairyman before him. Thankfully, he had lost consciousness. It was tough to make out his features in the deepening gloom. F’tagn brushed his face gently with a tentacle, an action that would probably have returned Abner Brockman to sleep had he witnessed it. The silence that had ruled the late afternoon gave way to the excited cries of a flock of whippoorwills, and F’tagn looked up to the sky. The hellish birds had massed above the barren Devil’s Hop Yard on the ridge, circling in frenzy. Then, on an invisible signal, they poured down the hill toward Dunwich.

F’tagn knew what that meant. They were trolling for the souls of those who were about to die.

Old Ones must be gathering, he realized, for a night of carnage.

He shambled down the hill as quickly as he could move and headed for the town square.

One of the many advantages Old Ones had over humans was that they could move among them unnoticed, walking as they will between the dimensional spaces. You could never fool an animal, not even one as dumb and sweet as a cow, and more than one victim-to-be had made the mistake of ignoring a barking dog or hissing cat which sensed the mind-shattering presence of an Other. Besides, the way most of F’tagn’s cousins looked, it would be impossible to sneak in anywhere without the protective coat of invisibility. He doubted that even Pop could have scored the way he did without sparing his paramour the family’s good looks. So most OOs began their fun with auditory and olfactory components. They’d bang on walls and doors, and leave their spoor in the middle of a room—it didn’t take long for it to develop a smell of decay so acute that it could fell a starving hyena. Another popular gag was to leave tentacular tracks in the dirt or snow and watch some superstitious outdoorsman babble with fear as he tried to explain. F’tagn didn’t approve, but this was all fairly harmless stuff.

But Old Ones couldn’t hide from each other. And when he arrived in town, F’tagn saw immediately why Dunwich had attracted so many whippoorwills. Though the locals may not have realized it yet, their fair township had just become host to a veritable Double-O convention. For some reason, lots and lots of things were here.

The square was a riot of slithering, crawling, scuttling, shambling beings of every description imaginable, and some that probably weren’t. The fishboys from Innsmouth were here, the pyramid people from frozen Antarctica, the three-lobed burning eye, the goat with a thousand young, the jelly things, the fungous orbs from Vermont, the shining trapezohedron creatures, the blasphemous bee buzzers, the haunters of the Monolith, and many more. Even Pickman’s model had bestirred itself to wander up from Boston for the occasion.

Of course. The occasion. All became clear.

Hallowmass.

It was the closest thing to a holy moment—had they dared to describe it as such—on the Old Ones’ eternal calendar, the night when, as one, they reaffirmed their dominion over their weak, timid enemies in a gruesome orgy of gluttony and debauchery. They always fasted before the big day to make sure they were supremely hungry. F’tagn had once described the celebration to a scale-crusted frog-man as “the spring break from hell,” but there was no response from the humorless batrachian.

This year, for Hallowmass, they had selected F’tagn’s home town, right under his nose. Why did it not surprise him that he hadn’t been invited?

The ghastly conveneers massed against a tiny schoolhouse, its windows warm with golden firelight. Judging from the agitation of the whippoorwills, now piping as loudly as they could, there were quite a few people inside—no doubt terrified by the cacophony of noises outside and a nose-burning aroma beyond description, so pungent that it threatened to beat down the door all by itself. F’tagn could hear wails through the walls, and was dismayed to make out the cries of children among them.

The front flank moved toward the door, as much in unison as their varying methods of locomotion would allow. F’tagn knew what would follow. The famished mob would take corporeal form and visit an unspeakable fate upon those inside—keeping them alive as long as they possibly could. Dunwich would become an abattoir, and augment its reputation as a haunted, doomed spot for years to come.

F’tagn screwed together his courage and slithered past the leading edge, his back to the door. The creatures halted, puzzled. Most of them had never met F’tagn before, and their antennae, feelers and eyestalks sent them mixed signals. The stench of human was definitely upon this one, but he looked as much like an Old One as did the most horrific of the Hallowmass revelers.

Panting with hunger and anticipation, a monkey-crab feinted toward F’tagn with his pincers and scampered back, but he held fast. The crowd moved inexorably closer, and F’tagn readied his most threatening infra-bass roar. He had no chance against so many, but maybe they would think twice about harming one of their own. If that was in fact how they regarded him.

Three pink, gelatinous rats, each the size of a large cat, ran in to attack. F’tagn let loose his howl and swiped at them with a tentacle, and they leaped back toward the crowd. But it was already so close that there was no room to retreat. As the front rank recoiled from F’tagn’s aria of aggression, they were pitched over by the body mass pressing in, and the rats took the full weight. Tiny bones cracked and the hellish rodents squealed in mortal pain. But what really turned the tide was the delicious iron smell of blood.

This was too much for the carnivores in the mob, which was just about everybody.Those closest to the rats literally fell on them and began dining, but they had to compete with a host of maddened rivals made delirious by the scent. One scratching, slicing fight led to another, and soon interdimensional blood was flowing all over the square as the Hallowmass convention proceeded to devour itself. It was the most horrible sight F’tagn had ever seen—but they had completely forgotten about the people in the building.

Upstairs, the whippoorwills had no idea what to do. Prepared to capture human souls from the schoolhouse, they were thrown into pandemonium. Without direction or purpose, they flew around at random, keening their annoying piping sounds and smashing into each other at full speed—only to become main courses themselves as they descended upon the grasping mob.

Within a few minutes, the crowd had lessened by more than half, and it was evident where the excess had gone. Happy, finally sated Old Ones exchanged pleasantries, made signs of mutual respect in the limited number of physical ways that they could manage, and promised to meet again next year. Only a few malcontents–like Pickman’s model, who had, not unexpectedly, survived–complained about the lack of human on the menu; many more raved over the exciting, unexpected way that the meal had been served. It was clear that this event would be one of those legendary stories told to jealous Old Ones who had had the misfortune to be elsewhere, for aeons to come.

F’tagn leaned back against the door, inside which the schoolroom had gone completely silent, what with the piping and clawing and chewing. Maybe he hadn’t communicated with his human half-kind. But he had saved them from a fate they would be better off not knowing about. F’tagn was happy. He’d started something between Old Ones and humans. Maybe even gone a small way toward affecting the Old One diet! He was just starting to plan what to do next, when. . .

. . .F’tagn Whateley disappeared from the spot, and from Dunwich, forever.

A long time must have passed, for F’tagn was groggy when he awoke in a great city of granite and marble, of monoliths and sepulchers. And water. Lots of water in this city. There was only one place it could be.

R’lyeh. Cthulhu’s undersea crib.

F’tagn started to get up, but his human-face torso was chained to a stone tablet and each tentacle was restrained. He had to shut all his eyes when he pulled against the chain.

The Hallowmass episode had gotten back to the boss somehow. How could it not? He sighed. Pop’s experiment with earthly union had produced a mutant. And evidently it hadn’t amused the big guy—F’tagn was responsible for too many dead and digested Old Ones. Not to mention disturbing a long Cthulhuian dream.

The leader had spoken. He’d pulled the plug. F’tagn was out of commission.

Well, so be it. Maybe R’lyeh was the right place for him now. Maybe he might even get to meet the great thing. Maybe talk to him. Maybe the next time Cthulhu woke up and rubbed his many eyes, they could reason together. Plan a new future for the dimension that gave F’tagn birth.

After all, stranger things had happened. Way, way stranger.

And besides, F’tagn had aeons to think about it.

 

“The Recall of Cthulhu” Copyright © 2003 by Tom Dupree.

All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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How Are You Julian?

October 22, 2014

Alex-Podulke-as-Julian-Barbara-Kingsley-as-Claire-in-Uncanny-Valley-by-Thomas-Gibbons-photo-by-Seth-Freeman.UNCANNY VALLEY is a provocative piece of social science fiction in the form of a play. In a just world, this is the sort of thing that would be winning the Hugo Award (science fiction’s Oscar) for Best Dramatic Presentation instead of the latest fan favorite from tv or the multiplex. Despite its out-of-genre antecedent, it certainly deserves to be considered alongside other serious works in the field. After all, the very term “robot” is derived from a play: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

This play, by Thomas Gibbons, tackles serious moral and ethical questions about robotics and artificial intelligence, based on one Big Lie, the “What If?” proposition that underlies nearly all worthwhile sf. In other words, let’s pretend just for now that a particular bit of technological advancement is not only possible, but already achieved in the “not distant future” of the piece’s setting. What might happen then?

There are two actors. Only one of them plays a human being. She is a neuroscientist named Claire whose team created a state-of-the-art automaton known as Julian. The two of them converse in her office, and in the process we watch Julian progress from childhood to…but that would be telling.

The night I saw it, Claire was played to perfection by Barbara Kingsley, whose resume is long and distinguished. In the role of Julian was the amazing Alex Podulke, a name new to me, one of those actors who can utterly control his facial features, even refrain from blinking when necessary; he has also perfected that rigid head-turn and slight overshoot-and-correction that suggest his movements are being powered by servomotors. (Street mimes can do that too, but usually it’s all the act they have.) Thus can a talented and committed flesh-and-blood actor regress into the “Uncanny Valley.”

The term was coined in 1970 by Prof. Masahiro Mori, who hypothesized that we can easily feel empathy for stylized characters (like those in cartoons), but as a representation comes closer to actual human appearance and behavior, we approach an area that inspires revulsion, or at least creepy wariness, a phenomenon that climbs back into empathy once again as we move closer still. That empathetic dip is the Uncanny Valley. To experience this phenomenon and perhaps nod to Prof. Mori’s insight, I invite you to consider Tom Hanks’s animated avatar in THE POLAR EXPRESS, or any of the characters in the 2001 film FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN. There are many reasons that 2011’s MARS NEEDS MOMS was a colossal failure (lousy script, an ill-advised moms-in-peril story, etc.), but prominent among them, in my view, was that audience members were forced to stare into the Uncanny Valley for an hour and a half. Or, to save you some trouble, just look at this “actroid” from Japan, where very sophisticated work in robotic simulation continues, and imagine “her” moving and speaking.

th-1We discover Julian as a disembodied head on a stand, crammed with raw information but lacking any emotional intelligence, which he learns from his mentor. He gains body parts in a series of time-lapse blackouts as the unseen engineers gradually construct him: first a torso, then right arm, then left arm, and finally legs that allow him to walk around and explore. This represents his early education at Claire’s hands, and when we first see Mr. Podulke, he is damn near drawing the Uncanny Valley all by himself. He and his mentor even talk about it. (This play swats away the storied Turing Test — can a machine fool a person into thinking it’s human? — within five minutes. Kid stuff. Our ethical journey is already far more nuanced than that.)

The blinking comes first, perhaps so the audience can be gently brought up to speed regarding the Uncanny Valley. Claire explains that humans blink an average of five times a minute. But Julian’s blinking — of course, he has no physiological reason, unlike we dry-eyed people — is programmed for random intervals rather than once every twelve seconds, to help him avoid acting like a machine. One of Julian’s first questions when he sees his face in a mirror is, “Why are my eyes blue?” It sounds charming and naive, but it is actually an important plot point and will in fact be answered later. The servo-like movements are most pronounced when we first meet Julian and gradually dissipate as he gains appendages and social experience. I won’t go any farther except to tell you there is another dimension to Mr. Podulke’s performance, and that’s when the proceedings really transcend. The intricacies of Mr. Gibbons’s story give each character plenty of room to roam, and enough conflict to let both actors summon every note on the histrionic scale.

The trite greeting “How are you, Julian?” actually becomes profound when one removes the comma, and that tiny snip is the very crux of this smart, thought-provoking play. I don’t seriously think you’ll be able to catch it before it ends its New York run this coming Sunday, but I bring it up because its producer, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, is billing it as “A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.” I take “rolling” to mean that there may well be an engagement near you; check their website. If it gets close, buy a ticket, and let me hear from you. Me, I loved it.

P.S.: Don’t confuse this with a similarly titled play. I haven’t seen that one, so can’t comment.


My NYFF 2014

October 11, 2014

thThe New York Film Festival is so convenient to me that I can get there on foot in less than an hour, so, often encouraged by the newly brisk but still mild fall weather at this time of year, I frequently do hoof it over. The stroll helps me enjoy the movies, I find. Breathe. Relax. I don’t feel the need to cram everything into a few days like I have to as a Sundance visitor and besides, there are fewer simultaneous screenings; you can theoretically see every single picture in the “Main Slate” if you have the dough and the time. There’s no fest competition, no awards, no secondary marketplace for distribution deals. It’s all about the performances. (Olde Flickspeak for “screenings.”)

I saw eight films during the two weeks of this year’s 52nd NYFF, seven Main Slaters and a “Spotlight on Documentary” piece that knocked my socks off. My screenings were spaced far enough apart that I was often able to post my knee-jerk thoughts, usually the same day, on Facebook (hey, it’s still more substantial than Twitter, the frickin Mines of Khazad-dûm of knee-jerk thoughts). Most of the following capsules began with those impromptu FB posts, which I expanded and cleaned up, first for me, then for you. Read me with confidence: I never spoil.

gone-girl-01_1485x612GONE GIRL**** (World Premiere, Festival Opening Night) I hadn’t read the source novel, Linda had, so I was even more rapt over the twisty turny plot and unending (though sometimes funny) sense of dread, courtesy of director David Fincher, author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn, and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. GONE GIRL will probably go down in cinema history as minor, maybe C+ Fincher — this one’s more about story than style — but the 2:30 r.t. flies by and there are lots of juicy parts (about fifteen actors, along with Fincher and Flynn, were introduced onstage in the pre-show). Rosamund Pike in the female lead is particularly stunning and not just from physical beauty; her ethereal look reminded me of Deborah Kara Unger of Fincher’s THE GAME and David Cronenberg’s CRASH. Your level of enjoyment of this missing-wife story may be affected by whether or not you know what’s coming — plot developments slam into and upend your expectations — so if you haven’t yet read the book, don’t do so until after you see the movie. (I used the novel later as my “second viewing.”) But even if you know the plot by heart, this is a crowd-pleasing, thoroughly assured bit of filmmaking.

mapsMAPS TO THE STARS**** (U.S. Premiere) The blackest movie about Hollywood I’ve ever seen, a laser-bladed satire. The screenwriter is Bruce Wagner, who specializes in depicting Tinseltown vanity and vapidity (“the road to hell is paved with laughter,” Wagner told us before our screening), and the director is David Cronenberg, who specializes in disturbing an audience almost beyond the point of bearability (sometimes you can even strike the “almost”). Julianne Moore (Best Actress co-winner at Cannes) is sensational as a fading star who serves as the center of a Venn diagram uniting one of the most fucked-up families you will ever meet in the movies. It’s technically dazzling — Cronenberg is a master, and most of the key production posts are filled by longtime dependable cronies — but it’s enough of a downer to make barbiturates jealous, and when you leave, the only song in your heart will be a dirge. Fun fact: although it was largely shot in Canada as usual, this film represents the first time in his long career that Cronenberg has ever brought a crew to the US.

turnerMR. TURNER*** Another sumptuous period piece by the skilled and discerning Mike Leigh: a Victorian study of J.M.W. Turner, the last of the great British Romantic painters. This gruff eccentric and misanthrope is fabulously realized by Timothy Spall (Best Actor winner at Cannes), dotting his performance with grunts and murmurs that communicate through context. A large supporting cast of British character actors are unerring in realizing Turner’s colleagues, patrons and partners both commercial and carnal, costumed spectacularly against a breathtaking, golden-hued background. Fair enough. The bad news is that here, 2:30 takes its sweet time to unspool, and once we “get” Turner, we’ve got him. It’s gorgeous, though, no question: the images are so lush and sensuous that one questioner asked d.p. Dick Pope after the screening, “What did you do to the [film] stock to get that beautiful tone?” Pope’s surprising response was that there was no stock; MR. TURNER was shot digitally. You could have fooled me too. (See also the next entry.) Pope added that for a softer feel, he’d used a classic set of lenses that were ground in the Forties; Leigh said he was told that among their many other missions, the lenses had been used by Stanley Kubrick to shoot SPARTACUS. The best thing about this picture is that the eminently dependable Mr. Spall, who has given us a mountain of superior character work, here acquits himself grandly in a well-deserved leading role. As Turner might say, hmrhm.

viceINHERENT VICE*** (World Premiere, Festival Centerpiece) I’m sad to say that for me, this hilarious, inventive Thomas Pynchon novel doesn’t really work as a movie. Sad because I’m such an admirer of the source novel and of the other films of Paul Thomas Anderson, who bragged before the screening that the festival slogan, “Film Lives Here,” was especially apt tonight because he was about to roll a 35mm celluloid print. Weird thing: just as our ears have been trained over time to accept digital audio playback over much warmer analog-needle-vibration sound, our eyes are also becoming accustomed to digital projection, so the periodic schmutz and reel-change dots made the print look dirty to us. A laudatory review in Variety — a NYFF sponsor — suggested this effect was deliberate, but if so it’s far subtler than, say, GRINDHOUSE’s, and trust me, it went over the audience’s heads. (I’ve since seen the “distressed” effect again in a ten-second production-company logo, but I still say it entertains few beyond the folks at the animation studio and maybe their parents.) Much worse was a terrible overgained sound mix, at least in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall: the colorful performances in VICE are swell (in particular, Josh Brolin and Jefferson Mays kill), but this story is very quick and verbal, and various sound fx drowned out critical bits of dialogue throughout, for a frankly embarrassing Centerpiece performance. I hope you get a cleaner mix at your theater, because I don’t think I could have followed the deliberately convoluted plot at Alice Tully if I hadn’t already known it, which is death to Pynchon newbies, which is nearly everybody. Setting a classic L.A. detective noir in the late hippie era is intrinsically great ironic fun, but this movie could have been way beyond fun, and it simply wasn’t. Rumor has it that the notoriously camera-shy Pynchon has a cameo, and I noticed a couple of extras whom I might nominate, but I shouldn’t have had time to do that. A noble effort, but alas, despite Variety’s kudos.

merchantsofdoubtfredsingerholdingbrochuresverygoodmadmenMERCHANTS OF DOUBT***** A powerful documentary based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, on the for-hire PR pros who are trying to deceive you into doubting the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change. Their tactics are identical to and inspired by the smoking-doesn’t-cause-cancer and fire-retardants-retard-fire-and-are-safe long cons of the past, and in several instances use the same talking-head “experts” from the same bullshit “think tanks,” mostly funded by Big Fossil and Big Chemical now that Big Tobacco has at last surrendered. (“If you can do tobacco, you can do anything,” observes one flack.) Their marketing skills depend on misdirection, but as a real sleight-of-hand artist puts it in the film, “once revealed, never concealed.” One particularly garrulous interviewee brags about bombarding opposing journalists with phony, barely lucid emails threatening their lives; he thinks it’s funny, like Nixon’s nauseating little “ratfucker” Donald Segretti. There is a picnic-table-sized handful (not 31,000, as the thoroughly debunked “Oregon petition” hoax falsely claims) of (mostly former) scientists who support the deniers, usually for money but sometimes in genuine opposition to government regulation of any kind, which they are able to parse only as creeping socialism; one knee-slapping, oft-repeated neologism casts environmentalists as “watermelons” — that is, green on the outside, Commie-red on the inside. But the most poignant interview is with six-term Republican Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina, America’s reddest state, who scored in the 90s on most conservative report cards but had an epiphany on the climate issue and found the courage to speak out. He was targeted by the Merchants of Doubt and promptly swatted away by a 70-30 margin in the next election. To prevail, these amoral cynics don’t have to convince anybody of anything, only introduce enough gunk to slow the process down. “Gridlock is the climate diner’s best friend,” one of the mouths-for-money opines. Public outrage eventually prevailed over the tobacco barons (who knew their product was lethal all along), but it took fifty years. We might not have that long this time. Another great one from Robert Kenner, who also made FOOD INC. It opens commercially in February.

FoxcatcherFOXCATCHER*** Bennett Miller’s dramatization of the lurid John E. du Pont case, in which a filthy-rich chemicals heir decided to become a “wrestling coach” and had the immense financial resources to actually assemble a “national team” at his Pennsylvania estate, using some genuinely credible athletes. Steve Carell joins Will Forte (NEBRASKA) and Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (THE SKELETON TWINS) in the current comics-get-serious minitrend: he is impressively pitiful and spooky as the clearly unhinged du Pont, his features hidden under a ton of facial prosthetics and filthy dentures. Channing Tatum as gold-medal Olympian Mark Schultz (the real-life Schultz is an associate producer on the picture) glowers for two hours, but Mark Ruffalo is superb as David, Mark’s brother, mentor, and genuine coach (as opposed to the schizophrenic play-acting dilettante). There is a homoerotic subtext to Carell’s understated, subtly menacing performance, but it’s not depicted overtly; everybody suspected this was du Pont’s attraction to wrestlers but it’s not made literal here. The film is technically very fine and properly creepy, but it could be a hard ticket to sell because the viewer really has to let herself be drawn into the world of competitive wrestling, so good luck with that. (Miller’s MONEYBALL managed that tricky feat, but then it had Brad Pitt in its arsenal. This is Channing Tatum.)

aimer-boire-et-chanterLIFE OF RILEY (AIMER, BOIRE ET CHANTER)**** (U.S. Premiere) The legendary Alain Resnais’ final film, adapted from Alan Ayckbourn’s play RELATIVELY SPEAKING. M. Resnais was not only a director in the grand theatrical tradition, but also a devotee of the stage. The luminous star Caroline Sihol (above) told us before the screening that Resnais used live theater as a casting method; you’d receive a phone call later if the maestro liked what he saw during his unannounced visit. This film, though French, retains Ayckbourn’s English countryside setting, and employs stylized theatrical set design. Action and characters that exist only beyond camera range — in other words, out there with us — help dismantle that fourth wall in fascinating fashion. It’s a little like DOGVILLE in that respect, but it’s much, much better. The plot swirls around and through three couples who seem to be separate bits in Brownian motion, and a key character can only be perceived on our side of that former fourth wall. At first they are rehearsing a play (they are seen to be holding scripts of RELATIVELY SPEAKING and the first bits of dialogue in the film are “fictional”), but then the show and their larger offstage lives become harder and harder to tell apart. M. Resnais must have loved the way Ayckbourn experiments with time and place, because producer Jean-Louis Livi told us his next film would have been Sir Alan’s latest play, ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES, which we were lucky enough to see in its U.S. premiere engagement earlier this year. A great man of the cinema has passed, but he left us this one final gift.

birdman_lightsBIRDMAN OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF INNOCENCE***** (Festival Closing Night) In a word, wow. This very clever bit of magic realism — or is it? — is a triumph for director Alejandro G. Inarritu and everyone in the splendid cast. A fading movie star famous for playing an avian superhero long ago (Michael Keaton in a career-reviving and career-reminding performance — he was the cover boy on the current ish of Entertainment Weekly when we saw this) makes a last-ditch attempt at rejuvenation by writing, directing and performing in a Raymond Carver adaptation at Broadway’s St. James Theater (actually used as the location). Support includes a brilliant Edward Norton as an arrogant but gifted stage actor, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis. The result is a love letter to Broadway itself, to actors, to the theater, to New York, to thoughtful filmmaking and maybe even to constructive schizophrenia. Some of the scene transitions and smoothly gliding rides through the backstage areas of the St. James are so spectacular that they reminded me of GRAVITY‘s “impossible” shots. About two-thirds through, you will see the ultimate anxiety nightmare depicted before your very eyes to howling effect. Keaton’s award-worthy reemergence is probably the big story here, but this is such a fine collaborative effort that he had plenty of top-notch help. (It’s made to appear to be one continuous take, with locked-down positions to indicate longer scene changes like “the next morning.”) Before the screening, Keaton told us he felt he’d “lucked into a masterpiece.” Time will tell, but my thumbs are both way up.

WISH I’D SEEN: CITIZENFOUR, GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, MISUNDERSTOOD, PASOLINI, THIS IS SPINAL TAP (30th Anniversary Screening with Chris Guest Q&A: it conflicted with MERCHANTS OF DOUBT and I chose a bird in the bush, but the notion of seeing TAP on the big screen did indeed tempt, and so say we all!) ALREADY SAW: WHIPLASH


Adventures In Editing, Part VI

September 18, 2014

fansSo far we’ve been ruminating about the care and feeding of different kinds of authors. How does it work when your author isn’t an author at all? That’s what you face when you enter the land of celebrity books, always one of the hottest aspects of publishing.

I’m not talking here about biography, which doesn’t require the cooperation of the subject. I edited beautiful bios of the writers Terry Southern and Michael O’Donoghue and a haunting account of the parallel lives of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff, and in all three cases we had access to some private material — each of those books is the last word on its subject and will be used as reference material from now on — but no estate had any input into, or approval over, the finished manuscript. What I’m getting at instead is celebrity autobiography, usually by a star of stage, screen, sound or sport, or by a politician who is planning to run for President.

Pop-music autobios have always interested book publishers, nearly all of whom are boomers or later. And just now a notable subset is doing pretty good business: the Summation of the Aging Rock Star. It was probably kicked off by Bob Dylan’s CHRONICLES and Keith Richards’s LIFE, both huge bestsellers and genuinely good books, which have encouraged a host of other musicians (or at least their managers) to crack open the laptop: a month rarely passes without the announcement of another classic-rockin’ book contract.

That’s figurative, of course, the laptop: most celebrity books are co-written by someone who at least has recorded hours of tape, at most researched and reconstructed a life and spit it out in the subject’s voice. The good ones are so good that you can’t tell the difference. They’re credited as “with” or “as told to” in teeny type on the book cover. There’s no shame in that: it doesn’t mean the celebrity is incapable of forming a sentence, only that she became famous for something other than writing a book, and the best way to get an assured voice on the page is to hire a pro. (I heard that Bob Dylan actually wrote his book himself, and there are undoubtedly others who’ve rolled up their sleeves as well. David Byrne’s HOW MUSIC WORKS isn’t about his life but his art, yet it sure feels like it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.) There are also people who have celebrity thrust upon them, like Captain Sully Sullenberger, the commercial pilot who safely landed a huge Airbus A320 in the Hudson River in 2009. To write his book, the captain collaborated with a pro — not a “ghost writer,” since Jeffrey Zaslow’s name is right there on the cover. My old friend Bret Witter is making quite a career out of helping “ordinary” people relate their extraordinary narratives; he’s now officially a multiple New York Times bestselling author.

psychological-skills-training_eMusicians who write their own material are artistic cousins to authors; they’re firing similar synapses. Actors, on the other hand, and especially sports stars, are confronted with a type of expression that is utterly foreign to them. Their talent isn’t a natural fit with the process of writing a book. In my experience, some have been better than others in bridging the necessary gap. Once my company published a very famous athlete who was confronted with some incendiary comments in his book (you want to make news if possible), and not only did he deny making them, he was also a little too candid when he denied having read his own autobiography. That’s one extreme.

It all comes down to the individual, and one common attribute. When you’re evaluating a celeb proposal, you’re not only trying to predict how much interest there could be out there, you’re also judging the subject’s ability and plausibility as a storyteller. Because that’s the heart of any celebrity autobio, and here’s where actors regain some advantage, particularly those who’ve enjoyed long careers. It is the rare actor indeed who isn’t also a raconteur. If you can get that delightful quality on paper, you’re in for some fun.

snakenbaconIt helps if you yourself enjoy the subject’s work, though you normally can’t go so far as to persuade her to do a book (I made a pest of myself trying to talk the Lucasfilm folks into asking George Lucas to consider an autobio in his own voice. Wouldn’t you like to read that?). The already-assembled package usually lands on your desk through an agent, who is shopping the personality as much as the proposal. Which isn’t to say that you can’t sometimes create a book on your own. In the mid-Nineties we kept seeing hilarious, so-retro-they’re-hip cartoons by one “P. Revess” in places like the (late, lamented) Oxford American. I made a few calls, searched on this new Internets thing, and tracked down Michael Kupperman in my very own New York. I called him up out of the blue and asked him if he was interested in doing a collection of his work, along with some new material. At first (he later told me) Mike suspected it was a prank call. I invited him down to the office to establish my bona fides, and a year or so later we published SNAKE ’N’ BACON’S CARTOON CABARET; in a sense, it’s his autobio. No agent was involved, by the way. I’ve published two other books sans agency, but in all three cases I knew the authors’ work-ethics very well (one reason to have an agent), and each time I proved worthy of their trust by doing everything I promised I would, so they didn’t need protection from me (the other reason). Mike has since gone on to greater things, including a cover illustration for Fortune and many inside illos in The New Yorker and elsewhere, and he’s seen some of his work animated for television. Last year he won the Eisner Award, the Oscar of the comics industry. I didn’t discover Michael Kupperman: those magazine editors did that. But by God, I published his first book, which introduced him to Robert Smigel, who brought his stuff to tv…

al_green_bw2-905x1024As I said, it helps if you’re a fan. Some celeb books are bought because somebody at the publishing house wanted to hang out with the notable, and that can be tremendous (if expensive) fun. I “inherited” (see Part III) the autobio of the incomparable Al Green when I got to Avon Books, and upon putting it together after heroic work by Al’s co-author Davin Seay, there finally came that wonderful moment when the finished books showed up and the angels sang. Al (or “Reverend,” which is what everybody in his entourage calls him) came to New York to meet with us, do a signing or two, and headline a Central Park concert opened by Odetta. (!) I’d ridden in Rev’s limo to take him to to lunch and then the book signing; we talked about Memphis and music, it was an out-of-body experience in that I remember thinking how lucky I was while words were still coming out of my mouth. Rev invited me to bring my wife backstage before the concert, and we found his trailer just before Odetta went on. He hugged me like I was a long-lost brother (he’d met me only the day before), and after kissing my wife’s hand, he looked deeply into her eyes and said, “Tonight, I’m going to sing ‘Simply Beautiful’ for you.” As we were strolling away toward our seats, Linda noted, I realize that was probably the five millionth time he’s used that line, but my knees still got a little wobbly. I have never met a more adept, more piercing, more sex-exuding, let’s say ladies’ man, than the Rev. Ever. And it only happened because I happened to be a book editor. That’s what I mean: to enter such a milieu, book publishers fight for celebrities.

You may be a fan, yes, but as an editor you have to play dumb. Any celebrity autobio has to be understandable to a reader who’s never heard of the author. You can’t assume the reader knows about the time her boyfriend did that thing, or the day they got thrown out of that hotel. You can’t assume anything; the subject’s life should be understandable to a Martian. (Besides, if the reader knew everything, why in the world would he need to buy your book?) The exception that proves the rule is, you guessed it, Bob Dylan. His highly enjoyable CHRONICLES begins in medias res and jumps around in time, fitting his mercurial, iconoclastic nature perfectly. Some find it excruciating to make the leap. When I was at Bantam, we’d held the contract on Hugh Hefner’s mega-late autobio (wouldn’t you like to read that?) for many years, then one day the accountants said: time to clean house, cancel the contracts that are just fairy tales and get our money back. At Avon, we had a deal with Todd Rundgren to do the most amazingly creative autobio I’ve ever imagined. Upon inheriting the project, I was so reluctant to jettison it that I invited Todd up to the office to see if he was still serious. He showed up and said he was. But I think his creative eyes were bigger than his creative stomach, because he couldn’t make any progress and we had to cancel, me sobbing all the while. (It would have required die-cuts, a different kind of press run…don’t get me started!)

hillary-clinton-book-signingOne intangible which you frequently only discover on the fly is, how active will the celebrity be in promoting the book come crunch time? With a politician or a notable who is pushing a particular social issue, well, as the old saying goes, the most dangerous place you can be in Washington is between [POLITICIAN’S NAME] and a camera. (Conservative gasbags are having fun piling on Hillary Clinton right now, but Henry Kissinger — who, it’s safe to say, is not running for President — has been nearly as ubiquitous promoting his new book.) And book publicists, who usually spend too much of their day hearing the word no, enjoy finding themselves able to apportion appearances by their famous temporary clients. But artists and athletes have such a range of personalities that sometimes a guaranteed number of signings or tv appearances becomes a contractual deal point. No promote, no check. I’ve noted reluctance in some celebrity authors (interestingly, never directed at their fans), but then there were people like Richie Havens who not only played music at his signings, but also lunched with booksellers and spent hours autographing books and posters for key accounts. That’s another extreme.

imagesBooksellers, especially staunch independents (of which there are never enough, my friends), are sometimes ambivalent about celebrity publishing. Does a wall full of gold records give this “author” any right to the hallowed lectern occupied last week by Margaret Atwood? Most of these people have never set foot in my store before and never will again! But as I say to anyone who’ll listen, anything that causes anybody to enter a bookstore is good for everybody, whether the come-hither attraction was Jorge Luis Borges or David Lee Roth or Kathie Lee Gifford. A rising tide lifts all bookselling boats, in a bit of cultural magic most recently performed by young Master Harry Potter. All true book professionals are pleased (ok, maybe a tad jealous too) when anything becomes a huge hit, because it brings in customers all set to read something and eventually inquire about something else. The unfortunate part is that a year or two after any trend establishes itself, all the lesser pretenders show up, just as in movies and tv. Where books are concerned, I think the paranormal teens have just about worn themselves out in favor of the ordeals of Hungry Divergent teens, but, as noted, right on cue, here come the geezer rockers to make their grandparents happy!

MAC40_BOOKS06Publishers guarantee too much for celeb autobios because they bid against each other and it often boils down to, which house employs the biggest fan? You have to get your money back quickly because every year the notable’s career continues puts your book that much farther out of date, and only a well-researched, dispassionate biography can stick around long enough to strike gold on the backlist. Why are there so many serious bios about dead people? Hmmmm. Very few autobiographies can stand the test of time, and the ones that can damn sure don’t come from the entertainment field. But try not to begrudge the “author” who never picked up a book when s/he was in school. Maybe it’s nothing more than time for a little literary payback.

NEXT: Some final thoughts as our Adventures In Editing conclude.

 Previous Adventures:

Part I   Part II   Part III   Part IV   Part V


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