Besides Rocky Horror

August 30, 2014

Phantom-of-ParadisePHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, Brian De Palma’s 1974 movie, has a special place in my heart – and in the hearts of only a select few others, as we shall soon see. Back when I was writing about rock music, my very first transcontinental record-company junket took me to Los Angeles, also a first for me. There, during my three-or-four-day visit, I interviewed the Hudson Brothers and their showrunner Chris Bearde at the fabled “Television City in Hollywood,” talked to and dined with Neil Bogart at his Casablanca Records office on Sherbourne Drive just off the Sunset Strip and a nifty little disk-biz bistro called Lost On Larrabee, partook of an American smoking mixture from a huge Hefty bag proffered by Casablancan Larry Harris back on Sherbourne, learned how to play backgammon, and actually attended one of those weird Hollywood parties you see in movies (at mine, one pontificator who claimed he was a “script doctor” and seemed falsely modest about his contributions to famous flick after famous flick had this rapt audience of dropped jaws, but I couldn’t call bullshit on him because culturally I might as well have been in Latvia: he could have been the scriptus emeritus for all I — “Tom’s with Rolling Stone down South” — knew). However, it’s a further activity on that trip which brings me back to our subject, which I still consider De Palma’s finest film.

My hostess, a music publicist, had arranged for us to see a very early screening on the 20th Century-Fox lot, but only a rough assembly, so I had to promise (in writing) not to write about it until the finished flick was released later in the year. There were only three in the audience: yhos, my hostess, and Charles Champlin, the chief film critic for the Los Angeles Times, who sat right next to me.

You might have been tempted to say, “loved THE GOLD RUSH, Mr. Chaplin, huh huh huh,” but I’d just been through a graduate-level curriculum in Radio/TV/Film, had not quite yet defended a thesis on Fifties monster movies that I’d written in spurts while tearing myself away from the Watergate hearings, and had been introduced to meaningful world cinema by an early-Seventies PBS series called FILM CLASSICS. It mined the storied Janus Films vault and screened these brilliant works of art as the distributor insisted: uncut, uninterrupted, undubbed. It was a film school on your television set. And this luminous series was hosted by none other than, let’s see if I can remember, oh yeah, Charles frickin Champlin.

The Phantom Of The Paradise. He got his face caught in a record-pressing machine.

The Phantom Of The Paradise. He got his face caught in a record-pressing machine.

At first I was just frozen, as you would be if Bill Clinton plopped down next to you at the multiplex. Yes, this was a screening room, yes, they did have quarter-cut sammidges for refreshment, yes, there was a tiny gooseneck light to help you take notes without disturbing the next film critic, but damn! Trust me, in the early Seventies Champlin was the tv face of movies, the Roger Ebert of his time, but for cineastic snobs he was even better: he was a fine-flick-crittin STAR! I stammered out something. My memory is, whatever I managed was inadequate. But “Chuck” – he was hot shit in this room, knew the projectionist by name, surely I was just piggybacking on a screening he’d already set up – shook my hand and then waved for the feature, tout de suite. We did not speak afterward except to say goodbye. But by then my face had already melted off by what we’d been summoned there to watch: De Palma’s movie.

The assembly we saw was raw, but it did begin with a two-minute opening narration by Rod Serling, the first thing we heard after the Fox fanfare. For some reason Serling’s uncredited bit was excised from most of the versions I saw on pay-tv or cassette over the years; it was recently restored for the DVD re-release, and now Shout Factory has presented a Blu-Ray edition that can make you a PHANTOManiac. I will pause while you purchase and watch this gem.

The three-man chorus that constantly re-invented themselves. P.S.: this was before Kiss.

The three-man chorus that constantly re-invented themselves. P.S.: this was before Kiss.

In case you didn’t, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is a musical satire about Seventies excess that mashes up FAUST, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. You know, the obscure one that doesn’t feature a character named Rocky Horror. Composer Winslow Leach (William Finley) has written a masterful cantata, but his music is stolen by Swan, a ruthless, powerful record exec (played by Paul Williams, who also wrote the movie’s great original songs) even more sinister than Phil Spector, on whom the character is evidently modeled. There’s a cute chanteuse (Jessica Harper, in her first movie) who’s born to sing Winslow’s work, but the evil Swan goes commersh instead and hires a glam-rock shrieker named Beef (Gerrit Graham in a show-stealing part). Meantime, Winslow has had his face mangled in a record press, so he wears a mask and cape that he steals from Wardrobe and skulks around a la Lon Chaney, determined to sabotage Swan’s artistic sacrilege. The funny yet plausible songs range from doo-wop to beach to piano ballad to metal (performed by an ever-morphing Greek-chorus of two guys from National Lampoon’s LEMMINGS and their pal), as Williams sheds the MOR roots that made him famous. And the whole clambake is built by the brilliant Jack Fisk, lit by the brilliant Larry Pizer, and staged by the brilliant Brian De Palma. It is a hoot and a half, and hasn’t lost its power to dazzle in forty years.

The hilarious Gerrit Graham as Beef. A little too close to emerging reality.

The hilarious Gerrit Graham as Beef. A little too close to emerging reality.

It had a rough start. In script form, this project was called PHANTOM OF THE FILLMORE, but Bill Graham didn’t like some of the stuff that would have happened in his putative theater, so he declined permission. The producers shortened it to PHANTOM, actually did opticals using that title, and then heard sternly from whoever owned Lee Falk’s old comic strip character. So, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. But wait, there’s more. Universal Pictures decided that the project trod upon its character the Phantom of the Opera (laughable, sure, U almost certainly would have lost a lawsuit, but in order to release their film the producers still had to settle), and finally, adding insult to injury, Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant sued over the pic’s use of the “Swan Song” record label, even though Zep had founded its identically named label after principal photography had wrapped. But Grant prevailed – he held a legit trademark, whether coincidental or not – forcing the filmmakers to optically remove each prominent representation of the words “Swan Song,” on which De Palma had based his narrative. There was to be a continuing visual motif that would introduce each scene by pulling back from a Swan Song logo – see, Swan was everywhere – but due to Zep’s lawsuit it was abandoned for release (you can compare one instance on the new Blu-Ray extras). For the rest of the movie, these horrible shimmering mattes obscure the Swan Song name and change it to “Death Records” (this is pre-CGI, remember). They’re ugly even to me; those mattes must absolutely break the hearts of the filmmakers. So it’s amazing that you can overlook these obvious warts – the poor schnooks were in trouble even before their title sequence was done – and settle back for a wild and wooly ride full of enough visual information to overpower any amount of ragged retro-fitting.

Paul Williams and William Finley. Lovely.

Paul Williams and William Finley. Lovely.

You think I’m some crazy outlier, the Cliven Bundy of cult movie fans? Well, you could be right. It sure looked that way after I came back from LA and told all my friends about this groovy new pic I’d just seen. A few months later, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE became a King Kong-sized bomb, one of the worst disasters in movie then-history. Nobody went to see it, mate; it’s almost as if they got together beforehand and decided to cross their arms en masse, like those Pubs did on Inauguration Day 2009. I don’t think PHANTOM even played in Athens, Georgia, where I lived, but in Atlanta it was being openly sneered at by some of my friends, including a guy who’d managed a group that had lowered the bar for the venerable Columbia Records by selling the fewest number of double-Lp units in this storied label’s history. Even he — maybe especially he — could smell an overripe turkey.

But it wasn’t a turkey, goddammit. Music plus horror plus comedy plus insane gonzo visuals just formed a combo that was simply too hip for the room. All except for two cities, and guess which ones they were? Winnipeg. And Paris. PHANTOM created its own cult, and imaginative kids who grew up in the day doted on it. Guillermo del Toro is a HUGE fan and invited Paul Williams to help score PAN’S LABYRINTH because of it. The deux hommes in Daft Punk told Paul they’ve probably seen the flick twenty times. And most important, after all this time seeing the picture again after all this frickin time, it still works as the product of a group of young mad scientists who couldn’t believe someone had given them the world’s best train set to play with. Huzzah to De Palma and his whole gang for PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. Never will we see its like again.


Don Pardo, 1918-2014

August 23, 2014

pardoI was waiting for the Don Pardo obit like a horror-film audience member peeking through hisser fingers, but when it finally came it was still a shock. “A light just went out,” as they say when somebody important to you passes away. Well, one just did last Monday, an announcer so strong and true that he was still strappin’ on the cans at age 96.

Don Pardo had been active since the heyday of radio, but he was best known to those of a certain age for his work on tv game shows, especially THE PRICE IS RIGHT and the original JEOPARDY!, the network version hosted by Art Fleming. (The Alex Trebek JEOPARDY! is syndicated.) We knew his voice because it was rock-solid, and we knew his name because the hosts of those shows would often call out to him on the air: “Don Pardo, tell her what she’s won!” His only real competition was a guy named Johnny Olson, who announced all the Mark Goodson-Bill Todman game shows and THE JACKIE GLEASON SHOW. Olson’s was the very excitable tenor voice that made a catchphrase out of the words “COME ON DOWN!”

So, in 1975, when Lorne Michaels hired Pardo to announce SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (originally called NBC’S SATURDAY NIGHT) it was certainly through a gauze of irony. The hippest thing on tv, billboarded by an ancient Mr. Game Show? And Pardo did indeed have enemies among the hipsters, including the curmudgeonly Michael O’Donoghue, who also loathed the Muppets with which he was forced to share the stage in the early days. When O’Donoghue briefly took over after the disastrous Jean Doumanian season, he tried to throw Pardo out along with the rest of the “old guard,” including longtime director Dave Wilson.

But Pardo and his strange stretched syllables had already become as totemic to SNL as Lorne himself. The record will show that Don Pardo billboarded every single SNL episode for 38 seasons, missing only season 7, when Lorne too was gone, even though Pardo flubbed the name of the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” on the first live broadcast. (There were a few more flubs that night, making the experiment even more thrilling: it was actually live.)

I’d wager most everybody who has ever been connected with the show, even those who hated the experience – and there are plenty of them – have “something in their eye” right now in memory of Don Pardo. Even we simple fans do. He was the sound of American comedy through thick and thin, his dulcet tones matching and encouraging our own excitement. Goodbye, Mr. Pardo, and please give our regards to Belushi after first slapping him around a bit for leaving us far too young. You showed us, and told us, how to do it right.


Tom, Cruise

August 16, 2014

cruise guyOver the years we’ve gone on four or five cruise-ship vacations, beginning with Linda’s attagirl sail as one of the year’s best-performing employees of the Stroh Brewery Company. It was a Caribbean jaunt on which the Stroh contingent – which, as you may have already guessed, brought along some of its own refreshments – seriously lowered the passenger median age. We would never have gone if it hadn’t been a freebie congratulatory occasion. We imagined stereotypical snoozing on chaise lounges, cocooned in blankets, as the ship poked its way through a dense black-and-white Thirties-movie fog.

While there certainly are many retirees who enjoy traveling this way, they have a perfectly good reason. The crucial advantage of being on a cruise ship is that you have to unpack only once: your hotel does the moving around. The trip is all about the destinations, as are most landlubbing vacations, but a driving-free mobile home base makes it all amazingly convenient and de-stressful, even in places where the language and customs may be unfamiliar. If you’re lucky, you share the experience with nice folks you meet on the spot or, as with the 2001 Alaskan cruise on which we hosted our parents, you live inside a Dickens novel for a week.

A Viking longboat on the job.

A Viking longboat on the job.

We have just returned from a different kind of trip. My sister-in-law and her husband are old pros at this (maybe twenty cruises in all) and we’ve been idly trying to put a vacation together since Alaska, only this time just us four. Maybe it was only after dozens of DOWNTON ABBEYs or PBS NEWS HOURs, but we finally succumbed to an outfit called Viking River Cruises and booked a week on the “romantic Danube,” upriver from Budapest to Nuremberg, with stops in Vienna, Melk, Passau, and Regensburg. A great trip, but apart from the destinations, it was the cruise line that made it great. This was the first river cruise (as opposed to oceangoing) for any of us, but trust me on this: not only are river cruises da bomb, but Viking is also now my favorite cruise line ever.

Heading into a lock.

Heading into a lock.

Let’s answer your first question first. Big seagoing vessels these days have honking stabilizers, so you rarely need “sea legs” under normal conditions; storms on the ocean can cause some commotion, but man up, hoss, it’s not like you’re in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. However, a river cruise on a “Viking Longboat”? Nothing at all, mate. We had returned from our first day in Budapest and were standing in a buffet line when somebody noticed we were moving – by looking out the window. There was no other way to tell: no rocking, no engine sound, no vibration, nothing. The sole and single exception may come when the ship is navigating one of the 26 locks that lift or lower it on the week-long leg. The fit is so snug that the ship may actually brush against the side of the lock with a hardly noticeable tremor (once, for us, a mild jolt as if we’d bumped a small log in the river) and a slight horizontal motion. You can hear the engines gun when the ship is headed toward a higher elevation just downstream of the mighty Inn River, which has flooded the town of Passau several times on its way to the Danube, the second worst flood in history occurring only last year. Beyond the Inn, the Danube is like glass (it’s not blue, mate, that’s just poetic license) and the ship floats again as if on air.

Our space-age lighting center.

Our space-age lighting center.

Our ship, the Viking Kara, was only six weeks old when we sailed on it. Though we have never ponied up for the grand luxurious staterooms that you can have if money is no object (think upstairs on the Titanic), we’ve thus found ourselves in cramped quarters with nothing but a porthole to see out of. In fairness, you don’t go on a cruise to stay in your room, which is basically just for sleeping and hygiene. This time, however, while our cabin was still rather cozy, it featured the best accommodations I’ve ever had on a ship. Lighting, plumbing, power, everything was brand new. Your key card inserted in a door-side slot turned on all the lights instantly. Shower doors swung both inward and outward to effectively make the bathroom a little larger; its permanent night-light saved us from unnecessary toe-stubbing. Whenever you slid open the large riverside picture window (we did spring for the “French balcony,” one step up from “Standard” but a long way from “Explorer Suite”), the heating/AC automatically cut off until you shut and locked the door again. You could recharge every electronic thing you had without a converter. The shipboard wi-fi worked nearly as well as my router does here at home, just a little slower because of the massive simultaneous bandwidth drain. A 40-inch hi-def monitor displayed trip news, weather, and even some entertainment (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, we gathered from several dinner companions, was quite popular, but we never watched any tv). Brand new, I tell you! The first day on the river, I went up into the Kara’s “wheelhouse,” where there is no actual wheel, only an electronic array that would make Mr. Sulu nod in admiration.

Die Braut und der Bier! (Did I even get close?)

Die Braut und der Bier! (Did I even get close?)

Oceangoing cruise ships have become so mammoth that their capacity is itself a point of interest: “we wash blah-blah towels every day,” etc. The biggest ones, like the ships that dock every week near our villa in Jamaica, look like skyscrapers with smokestacks. It is kind of perversely amusing that you can take so many people – maybe not entire cities, but certainly enough humans to fill many Stateside county seats – anywhere the winds can blow them. These ships have full casinos, lavish entertainment, even some abbreviated Broadway musicals – Vegas at sea. Our little Kara, long and low, could not compete with a nautical Rat Pack, but there was a sun deck up top (particularly nice for sailing through Wachau Valley, Austria’s gorgeous terraced wine country), an exercise track, miniature golf, shuffleboard, you know. Viking longships can dock alongside each other; passengers just walk straight through to go ashore.

Woh.

Woh.

The Viking River Cruises model is, simply stated, less is more. There were fewer than 200 passengers on our upriver Kara run (a big cruise ship can serve thousands), and the staff were also comparably fewer but thus more personable. The big ships sometimes shunt you onto a permanent dinner table where you can get to know your fellow diners and compare walking-tour notes (we have met some lovely people this way), but here you just sit down wherever you choose and make friends spontaneously. It gets to the point where you barely even need the tour guide’s “lollipop” (the circular sign s/he holds up in the town square to make sure everybody’s in the right place). You just look for familiar faces who you know are on the same tour; that’s “33-B.” Viking is about to launch some oceangoing ships itself, but they’ll be much smaller than the competition’s: the passenger capacity will only be in the 900s, which should preserve the line’s close-in experience.

Linda, her sister Roslyn, and her husband Cal waiting to dig some Mozart, Haydn and Strauss in Vienna.

Linda, her sister Roslyn, and her husband Cal waiting to dig some Mozart, Haydn and Strauss in Vienna.

On a Viking cruise all meals are included in the booking price, as are the accompanying beer or wine. (You run a bar tab when not at table.) Also included are walking tours of every port of call, led by carefully screened local guides (ours were all terrific). There are optional extra excursions available for a price: for example, we attended a concert in Vienna, toured the BMW plant in Regensburg, and saw Nuremberg through a World War II filter, including the infamous Zeppelin Field where Albert Speer staged giant Nazi rallies and the courthouse building where he was a defendant in the world’s first international war crimes trial. But we could have just as easily chosen to hang out, chomp sausages, and lift steins of Bavarian beer.

There’s a program director on board who has everything organized and is the go-to person for all kinds of questions; ours was a delightful six-foot Nordic beauty named Chantal who spent six years as a casino dealer until she got tired of making people sad. We saw her change plans on a dime when a couple of the locks had some mechanical trouble, pushing us slightly off schedule. Her problem, not ours. Because of our flights back home, we happened to be the very last four previous passengers to walk off the Kara while the staff were trying to prepare it for the new sail, yet they still treated us like honored guests unto the final moment. “Are you relieved?” I asked Chantal. “Not the right word,” she replied. “Weird.”

Chantal.

Chantal.

The ocean cruises definitely have their own charms, and different people expect different things from them. While my in-laws were indeed impressed with the Viking experience, they said they did miss “sea days” when you’re just en route and you can relax on that trusty chaise. Also, cheesy seaborne entertainment can be fun to watch. But if you’re mainly there for the travel, this gang operates from the Rhine to the Nile, from the Mekong to the Yangtze, and I even heard a rumor that they’re working on their first American cruise, on the Mississippi. I’ve already seen plenty enough of that river in my life, but on a Viking longboat? Wow, I just might check it out anyway.

Y'know, it IS kinda romantic on the Danube.

Y’know, it IS kinda romantic on the Danube.


A Congress That Actually Works

August 3, 2014

congressI had no idea what to expect when I signed up to attend Ricky Jay’s Congress of Wonders, a “weekend of magic appreciation” held last month in the charming village of Rhinebeck, New York. As I discovered when I got there, neither did our host, Ricky Jay. He might be one of the greatest card handlers and sleight-of-hand artists alive, he may have forgotten more about the colorful history of “variety theater” over the past half-millennium than you’ll ever know, he has kept so many secrets that he might as well be working for NSA, but the very first night he admitted to the audience that he was just winging it. practiceThis declaration came in a q&a after a late-Friday screening of DECEPTIVE PRACTICE, the new documentary of which Ricky is the subject. Director Molly Bernstein and producer Alan Edelstein were also there – more on Alan later – and I’d found the film an odd choice to open the “conference,” since most anyone serious enough about Ricky to pony up the registration fee, including your servant, had already seen it. (For the unwashed few, this flick is the ideal answer to the perfectly legitimate question, “Who is Ricky Jay?” So go watch it already.) Me, I was already having a good time, because I was enjoying one of the weekend’s subtexts: it was a means of connecting people who revel in the ornate ephemera championed and exalted by our host. I had earlier shared a short cab ride and a wonderful dinner with perfect strangers who nevertheless had some important things in common, and similar brain-cell hookups continued, at least for me, over the rest of the event. The conveneers I met were every bit as stimulating as the “talent.”

Now, I did hear, and have since read online, some grumbling. I’ve never been to a magicians’ convention, so I don’t know this from experience, but one can easily infer an atmosphere that I personally would go to great lengths to avoid, and the organizers were way ahead of me. Apparently some magicians (based on my own conversations, I’d say the attendees were overwhelmingly civilian, at least 3 to 1 fans and dabblers vs. past or present pros) were disappointed, even irritated, to read the following note from Ricky to “guests who are practitioners of the Mystic Arts” in order to “make it the best possible experience for the non-magician guests”: “Unlike the traditional magic convention, our focus will be on ideas, not tricks. Therefore I respectfully request that you not perform magic for the registrants. Please keep the cards, coins, bodkins and billets in your pockets…thank you for supporting our venerated Art.” Fine by me. But evidently not by all.

As best I understand, the gathering was produced by an outfit better known for “fantasy weekend” master classes with music notables such as Todd Rundgren and Leo Kottke. They must have asked Ricky if he’d be willing to teach a few sleights, and of course he said absolutely no, never ever, what part of this scowl do you not understand? But somebody on either side must have thought, then what would a Ricky Jay weekend really look like? Hence the Congress of Wonders. If I had to describe it to a Hollywood producer, I’d say it was a series of disparate TED Talks, each with a tendril that reached into the art of magic, plus a buncha Ricky Jay. (That’s a description of what was on stage: the connections within the audience were, as we say down South, lagniappe, though this aspect was almost certainly premeditated as well.)

The event was co-hosted by Michael Weber, Ricky’s partner in their “Deceptive Practices” company that provides “arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis” to movie shoots and other venues where we just need to know how to achieve this effect on this one day, goddammit! For instance, in the (rather forgettable) film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s CONGO, the ape-head worn by an actress was so stuffed with electronics for movement assistance that it couldn’t abide any liquid. How then could this zillion-dollar “mouth” plausibly drain a martini on camera? Ricky and Michael explained the (cobwebby, as we learned) solution, maybe the only method they freely gave up. My favorite statement of the entire weekend was uttered by Michael: “We don’t keep secrets from the audience. We keep secrets for the audience.”

Michael Weber.

Michael Weber.

Michael is a sleight student, like Ricky (in fact, a prodigy, as the Wells Fargo Bank learned one day), and he absorbed a lot from the legendary Charlie Miller, which is how the two connected. I presume you have to be patient to hang with Ricky Jay, because in real life he must grumble a wicked lot. But still, he’s constantly assimilating way-out influences, and to understand more about him, you have to meet some of his friends. Thus this weekend. It was all about creativity, beginning with Michael’s slot on Saturday morning. How to do something impossible? Michael offered three lines of thought that help Deceptive Practices address such a problem: (1) What would we never do?, (2) How might this have been achieved in the past? (e.g., the CONGO gag), and (3) What might be the polar opposite? Yes, these guys know more magic methods (i.e., mind-blowing short-cuts) than we do, but that’s still how they think when they sit down to ponder, as must we all, and to me it was beaucoup profound. Remember, on a big-time movie set nothing is impossible, only cost-prohibitive; you can imagine “unobtanium,” you just can’t afford it.

An Oakes work.

An Oakes work.

What we got later was this cornucopia of creativity, displayed by people from widely varying disciplines. Ryan and Trevor Oakes are identical twins who have developed a way to draw a concave view that more accurately mimics how our eyes actually work. Brilliant, curious, inventive and well-spoken, the boys have also experimented with matchsticks (when placed together with its pals, the tip of each identical matchstick represents a point on an outer sphere, as they demonstrate in a gorgeous and wry piece), pipe cleaners and corrugated cardboard to make the act of perception beautiful and fascinating. Their current show was at the Museum of Mathematics in New York. (I’d never heard of it: it’s on 26th Street, diagonally across Madison Square Park from the Flatiron Building. The following Friday I stopped by to see the show and checked outside, intending to say hi as they continued work on a Flatiron piece, but no Oakeses. I tried, lads!) As with other speakers, the twins hung around all weekend: it was easy to walk up to anyone and chat.

Gary Marcus.

Gary Marcus.

Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist and New Yorker writer, is the guy who devoted one intense year to learn how to play the guitar, and he explained his process in the bestseller GUITAR ZERO. His lecture began as a slapdown of fellow NYer scribe Malcolm Gladwell’s provocative thought, expressed in the book OUTLIERS, that roughly ten thousand hours of practice are minimally required for mastery in a given field. At least one audience member wanted to scream, but you didn’t attain mastery, mate! No matter; this guy’s game (if a scoche windy), and a q&a (from a “Mr. Weber”) revealed that serious neuroscientists are now being impersonated by crazies who believe magicians actually have arcane neurological secrets that they’re keeping from the rest of us! The pained expression on Gary’s face said all, just before he properly disassociated himself from such bozos. He’s basically Doug Hofstadter Lite, and I’ll never miss anything else he writes.

Steve Cuiffo as Lenny Bruce.

Steve Cuiffo as Lenny Bruce.

Most of these people were either introduced by Ricky or Michael. I think Ricky must have insisted on the personal perverse pleasure of calling actor Steve Cuiffo to the stage. Steve has developed a body of material based on Lenny Bruce, and he performed about a half hour before the bemused congregants: why the hell are we watching a Lenny Bruce bit? It was the most transgressive, thus courageous, performance of the weekend. Just like Lenny himself. Steve’s impersonation is impeccable, down to the vocal and physical fillips. At least one audience member felt he’d selected bits for this gig that showed off the character at the expense of the funny, but most others were only perplexed. At the conversation afterward with Ricky, Michael, Gary and Steve, the eddies which draw their arts together began to conflate. From the stage, Steve mentioned with fondness the challenge presented by an old friend of mine from Mississippi, John Epperson, who performs as “Lypsinka,” a Joan-Crawfordish drag character who expertly mimes prerecorded tracks, usually from classic movies. John and Steve worked together on THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD, a replication of a 1973 interview, for which both actors had to synch-in. That night I messaged John to tell him he’d been name-checked from the stage and he was delighted, which I was able to report to Steve the next day, just before he was brought back up to perform a flawless “The Homing Card” manipulation to a “Jack O’Diamonds” track by Bukka White. Whew!

Jesse Dylan.

Jesse Dylan.

Sunday began in the same movie theater where we’d inaugurated the weekend with two episodes of CONVERSATIONS WITH RICKY JAY, a fascinating series featuring Ricky and friends (Tom Waits, Martin Mull, etc.), shooting the shit around a big table at which Ricky will occasionally amaze them with some sleight but usually just grease the conversation. Each ep is called and shot by Jesse Dylan, who came up for a q&a with Michael afterward. At first he seemed reticent, mumbling into his mike. Then began his slide show – he’s a brilliant still photographer, never mind the moving pictures – and he got it out of the way immediately: the first slide showed an adorable little tyke in Woodstock with Bob Dylan, “my dear old dad,” and all of a sudden Jesse was much more grounded and forthcoming. He’s visually gifted but his heart is with the encouragement of creativity in others and its resultant wide-ranging effects. His photographs show the well-adjusted-but-weathered guy inside, talented enough to bring out the best in arty types, frequently progeny with issues – subjects just like Ricky.

Jules Fisher, mensch.

Jules Fisher, mensch.

Then we met Jules Fisher, the guru of theatrical lighting and one of my personal heroes. I’d gone up to him the previous day after a session for which I saw him help solve a lighting problem that shouldn’t have ever happened (see below); without introduction, I realized that has to be Jules Fisher. I told him (“I’m Jules”) that I saw the original Broadway production of HAIR, and after the climax of Act I, in which the players spread a giant sheet over the stage and those cast members who want to take off their clothes and then stand in this soft cinnamon light that makes you wonder for an instant body stockings or buck naked?, at intermission I searched in my program for the name of the lighting designer, that’s how affected I’d been, and there he was. This kind, gentle man listened to some blather very much resembling the preceding sentence, and said thanks as if he’d never heard anything like that before. Talk about knowing how to accept a compliment gracefully!

“I deploy light to help tell stories,” said “Jules” to open his presentation, the most thought-out of the weekend. He reminded us that theater begins with a black void. Now comes his task: what does the audience need to see? Besides countless Broadway spectaculars (and movies that need to depict stage lighting, like CHICAGO), he’s lit all of Ricky’s one-man shows, (the primal connection between the two artists), but he’s also made us able to see legendary rock shows, including the Stones and the iconic Mothership landing which begins Parliament/Funkadelic’s still-storied touring extravaganza. He lit Simon & Garfunkel’s famous Central Park concert, in part by hiring FDNY trucks to hoist lighting rigs up way higher than was “possible.” He constantly reminded us how closely related are the theatrical arts and the Magickal. (In fact, many magic effects depend upon strategic lighting…but I must say no more.) He demonstrated the intensity of a “foot-candle” – the wonderful pre-electric measure which lighting designers still use today, as “horsepower” still serves automakers – by lighting a single candle and letting it describe his face from one foot away. He showed us varying reflections of darkness, on white poster cards with identical black squares, realized with paint, then velvet, and finally with – nothing, as he passed his hand through the square-cut hole in the card set before a black background, while we in the audience were busy trying to decide which card was blacker. Magic!

Michael Weber then took the stage for his own set and regaled us with a story about his youthful publication of a hack of the “Rifkin Safety Sack” bank bag, and an entertaining phone-number illusion, followed by a bemusing discussion of “bad” magic vs. “good” magic, with Ricky at his side, which mainly consisted of YouTube clips which, sadly, we all could have seen elsewhere. Then off to dinner and one final meeting, featuring Ricky Jay.

For our sendoff session, Ricky sampled his only one-man show that hadn’t made it to New York, RICKY JAY: A ROGUE’S GALLERY. A 108-entry grid on the screen behind him triggered ruminations about magic history, stories from his past, whatever – but the actual numbers were picked randomly from the audience, so the sequence would be different every night, and only certain topics would be heard by any one particular audience. At first the numbers were obviously picked randomly – Ricky has a story for every single slot – but then he playfully “forced” them. “If you were at a 99-cent store, what do you think you might buy?” to a randomly-selected audience member. After the answer, “and what do you think it might cost?” We heard great tales – Ricky’s experience at Siegfried & Roy’s Las Vegas party only works vocally, but it has a HOWLING finish – and saw stuff we were obviously intended to see, like Steve Martin’s “The Great Flydini” routine, which Ricky helped him realize. Ricky is a natural curmudgeon, but I think he honestly wanted to thank us for attending, so as his finale he performed the latter bits from his famous playing-cards-puncturing-a-watermelon routine, beginning with the giant scissors – which, ever the showman, he’d been packing all along.

Earlier, Michael Weber – probably smarting from complaints by several who’d been expecting to see a weekend of Ricky Jay card tricks – had pointed out that connections were among the main reason to keep it small and immersive, and that we should all plan to stick around after the evening show and connect. Now, he said that the Rhinebeck restaurant where we’d had dinner had opened its back room for us. So the entire audience decamped, some through pouring rain, to Foster’s Coach House, where we continued to have a wonderful time together – by now, we all had new friends, and the commiseration became even more intense here. After about twenty minutes, the servers at Foster’s brought in trays heaped with slices of fresh watermelon for everyone: Ricky’s stage melon and two “understudies,” to be fittingly devoured by the gang. It just so happened that our table was served with a slice that bore two telltale marks of the deadly playing card.

The defiled melon slice.

The defiled melon slice.

A better look at the cowering fruit in a less-bar-roomy setting.

A better look at the cowering fruit in a less-bar-roomy setting.

Clearly, this was an icon that had to be saved, and shown to Ricky, the ole card-hurler himself, who arrived to great applause about five minutes later.

Ricky shows up.

Ricky shows up.

I didn’t ask for it, but eventually the slice got transferred to me for safekeeping (nobody, including me, wanted to eat it – the crowd because it was a new spiritual icon, and me because somebody had THROWN TWO FILTHY PLAYING CARDS THROUGH IT). So I asked the waitress if she could wrap it up or something, she asked why, and I tried to explain. It came back in a Styrofoam clamshell. By then, the crowd had thinned somewhat and Ricky himself plopped down at the next table. I pointed at him and said, this is the guy who threw the cards. She, and Ricky himself, looked dumbfounded. I leaned over: “She thinks I’m crazy.” He may well have agreed. But he must have sussed it all out, because half an hour later, when I got up to leave and didn’t take the Styrofoam, he said, “Don’t forget that melon.” Busted by Ricky Jay! Earlier, Alan Edelstein plopped down at my table. We’d been running into each other all weekend after a serendipitous Saturday lunch. He’s a bright-faced, cheerful (Oscar-nominated!) guy who knows a lot about movies, and I’d like to spend some more time with him. As Alan was checking out the next morning, I passed by once again, and said, “See you at the Oscars!” He replied, “Naw, see you at Sundance!” which is much more likely.

Alan Edelstein.

Alan Edelstein.

You may have perceived that I enjoyed myself, and I did. However, I have some beefs. Whoever devised the A/V for the weekend was so incompetent that they would have been fired from a Kiwanis Club luncheon in rural Iowa. Microphones screeched with feedback. (Poor Jules Fisher was particularly plagued.) Lighting was wrong or nonexistent. Simple calls for video playback were met with two-minute pauses. Nobody had bothered to calculate how many onstage chairs might be needed for the next event. Only when the 108 went up on Sunday night and Ricky was able to call out to somebody named “Coco” was there an instant response. Earlier Saturday, Ricky had just spent valuable oxygen instructing us never to perform unless the environment was correct, but that night he got so thrown by unending poor stagecraft (they moved his table offstage, then had to bring it onstage again and bend it at an angle) that he was unable to perform the simple “Fast and Loose” chain sleight. “Dreamcatcher Events,” I blame you. The only other explanation – and this could be more deflating – involves Ricky and Michael and a laissez-faire attitude which belies their own careful instruction. See, we all thought they were bringing their A game.

However, I have to say that the best part of the weekend was the folks I got to meet informally. (Trevor, Ryan, Steve, Jules, and Alan don’t count.) I can’t name them all because I only got first names. OK, Lance Stokes. But I did get to watch Armando Lucero explain the difference between good magic and bad magic using the example of a sandwich, which he pantomimed gorgeously. I got to watch this at my frickin dinner table the very first night, before Ricky ever appeared. I’d never heard of Armando before, and that first name was all I got at dinner; I looked him up later so I could tell you. Guess you just had to be there. And I hope – not guess, now, but hope – that for Ricky and Michael, whom I still had yet to meet, such moments had been the fine point of it all.

Richard Avedon's startling image of Ricky.

Richard Avedon’s startling image of Ricky.

P.S.: One final bit of magic happened on my way back, when I met a guy on a train.


Robinson Crusoe On Mars

July 27, 2014

MartianHere is my choice as the absolute best science fiction novel for people who don’t like science fiction. That’s because although Andy Weir’s beautiful book THE MARTIAN takes place almost exclusively on another planet, you won’t have to deal with any little green men, or time travel, or phantom dimensions, or anything you can’t heartily believe in. It’s a story of will and ingenuity, a fight for survival that’s shared not only by the poor schnook of the title, but also by a huge scientific apparatus that throws itself into his battle over the millions of kilometers that separate them. There’s even icing on the cake: it’s also funny as hell.

Mark Watney is a botanist, part of Ares 3, the third manned Mars mission, a planned 31-day exploration. But six days in, a powerful freak sandstorm forces an early scrub. During the fierce torrent, an antenna comes loose and pierces Watney’s EVA suit. He’s hurled face down into the sand and his vital signs read zero. Despite the mission commander’s frantic attempt to reach his (presumably dead) body, the escape vehicle starts to deteriorate, and she has no choice but to leave the (presumed) corpse behind to save the other crew members.

We learn all this in Watney’s own voice, via a mission log he keeps for posterity, and the first thing he tells us is, “I’m pretty much fucked.” (And don’t worry, pal, there’s plenty more bad luck still to come.) But Mars, and the reader, are about to learn two important things about Mark Watney: (1) he is as resourceful as human beings get, and (2) he is a world-class weisenheimer, opposing what might otherwise be paralyzing hopelessness with a self-effacing attitude that makes you just love him while he’s battling horrible odds. This post’s title may remind you of a fabled B-movie, but it’s a fairly accurate synopsis – only now we have to take the situation seriously.

CrusoeOK. We’re stuck on Mars alone. But we’re still alive, even if nobody else knows it. So. How to survive? How to get water? Food? Mark has the whole crew’s nutrient tablets for the rest of the month-long mission, but there’s no hope of rescue until much, much later – and that only if he can prove somehow that he’s still alive. So what he really needs right now are calories. Any suggestions, readers who have also thought about long space missions? (Hint: as the author has already told us, Mark’s a botanist.) Bit by bit, inch by inch, step by step, you are alongside this castaway as he figures out what he’s forced to figure out, and it’s all explained in a way that even non-scientists like me can grasp. Unmanned missions have already dropped certain key elements onto the Martian surface, making it possible for Mark to come up with a plan, but you have to hand it to him for putting the puzzle pieces together.

The admiration is joined by NASA back on Earth, once a sharp-eyed scientist surveying the scrub site realizes Mark’s still ticking. Mr. Weir also brings in the departed crew, aboard the return vehicle Hermes. This not only raises the stakes, but also provides some welcome shifts in point of view, breaks from Mark’s first-person narrative. I won’t go any farther except to say this piece has already been bought for the movies and, if done right, it’s going to be an APOLLO 13-like nailbiter.

I’ll add that THE MARTIAN is the poster child for self-publication. It was originally published as an e-book in 2011. People went nuts and trade publisher Crown swept in, publishing its edition only this year. I don’t think it’s perfect even now. If I’d had my grubby little editorial hands on it, I’d have asked Mr. Weir to pull out the third-person account of the sandstorm from where it is now (it interrupts the story and becomes a sore thumb) and get it closer to the top, when it actually happened – maybe at the very top so that Mark’s survival can be a mild surprise. I also felt the NASA characters and the Hermes crew were less well written than Mark himself: they were little more than stereotypes built to move the story forward (that won’t matter in a movie, believe me). But boy, am I impressed – because remember now, everything Mark Watney reasons was actually reasoned by the real-life author. Incredible tension, wonderful comic release, many points where all you can do is applaud – don’t you dare miss this one.

8/15/14: My friend Christian Waters pointed me to a press release that says the movie adaptation of THE MARTIAN will be released on Nov. 25, 2015, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. One ticket sold!


The Guy Next To Me On The Train

July 18, 2014

I was waiting on the platform at the Rhinecliff train station last Monday. I was talking to a newly-made friend who had also just attended Ricky Jay’s magic-appreciation-immersion weekend. The Amtrak train to Penn Station pulled up. I had to say goodbye because, weeks before, just after I’d ponied up the fee for Ricky’s “Congress of Wonders,” I’d also decided to treat myself to business-class seats on the train, up and back. A gentleman in a light brown suit pointed me to the right car. I walked through the “café car” and found only one empty seat, next to a window seat already saved by a small pack. The helpful gentleman returned from the café car; I’d begun to make myself at home without thinking that he might have been ordering a veggieburger and needing to slip past me.

“Do you know Marc Connelly?” he asked, once he’d settled in and gotten his burger situated on his tray table. Startled, I looked straight at him. “No,” I said. “You remind me of him, I thought you might be related.” I was aghast. “Are you in the theater?” “Yes,” he said, with an inimitable side-of-the-mouth grin, at which point I pegged him.

“You look like John Astin,” I said. “I get that all the time,” said he as he dressed his veggieburger. “And,” said I, “you sound like John Astin.” Now he reached for my hand. The next ninety minutes flew by as we plied each other with conversation. It was the final bit of magic from the Congress of Wonders; I’ll never know how Ricky did it.

astinMr. Astin was returning to his Baltimore home from teaching a master class upstate. (His base is Johns Hopkins, but he’s frequently elsewhere.) He knew who Ricky Jay was, and seemed interested in my weekend experience, which I could only describe to him as a series of outré TED Talks, each of which had at least one spoke aimed at the art of magic. He was amused by my inability to communicate, but sensed a fellow mind.

We talked about our upbringings, what brought him into performance, what led me into studying theater in college, the close relationship between theater and magic, how theatrical arts can be taught and what that means (in subsequent real life, I have depended far more on my college theater-major training than on my political-science-major training), one-man shows (he loved learning about the William Faulkner evening I co-wrote and described the opening minutes of his own Edgar Allan Poe piece, which are chillingly cool), and more and more and more.

He even mentioned Gomez Addams. That led to a discussion about fame, or simple notoriety. Chance had sat me next to Ricky Jay the previous night in the back room of a Rhinebeck tavern, and I couldn’t help but watch countless sycophants bring stuff up to Ricky to sign. This natural curmudgeon endured them all and, as I confessed to my new train-bound friend, the jagged line — you think you’re done, then one more person walks up! — actually became tedious to me, and I’m not even Ricky! He reminded me that he’d already enjoyed some tv notoriety before THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and that what you have to do is just be thankful and continue moving on: in truth, there’s nothing to complain about. I assured him that, even to ten-year-olds, it was his show that was the transgressive one, and the other one that was relatively square. He’d probably heard something similar before, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

As we were pulling up to the final stop, he thanked me for entertaining him on the trip. Heck, he’d done the same for me my whole life! As we departed inside the terminal, “See ya later, John!” “I think we just might, Tom!” Man, I hope so. What a well-read, well-spoken guy. I’m a deeper fan than I was before.


There Are No Angels Here

June 27, 2014

amazon-vs-hachetteWith World Cup fever in full flower – even in America, you proboscis-tilting non-USAers! – it is perhaps meet and right that we gather here to examine whether Amazon v. Hachette is an example of (a) the American-football-style strong-arming ground game, or (b) futbol-style “diving” – that is, clutching one’s knees and falling to the turf after “suffering” a killer-asteroid-length flyby from an opponent so that the entire darby may be temporarily halted while all beautiful-game athletes catch their verdammt breath. I think it’s a soupcon of each.

Amazon’s practice of punitively declining or delaying orders from one of the Big Five trade publishers – the others are Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan – has a very large echo in the cable tv business, where “content providers” (Disney; ESPN—wait, that’s Disney too; CBS) have been at war with cable resellers (Time Warner Cable, Comcast, etc. – wait, Comcast owns NBC-Universal, see how weird all this is getting?), but sorta reversed. In cable, the content providers have all the juice. Wanna see the NFL this weekend? Tell Time Warner they’re a buncha greedy late-for-service-calls bums! But in books, it’s as Tom Doherty and Ian Ballantine once agreed, I hope over a cocktail: the book business went to hell when the publishers lost control of their own distribution. To the wholesalers and middlemen who physically deliver books to retailers, they are renewable product like magazines – or loaves of bread – and have to be rotated nearly as often. To retailers, books are lent on consignment and can be returned at the publisher’s expense if they don’t sell, thus the decorative flower-petal stacks of blockbusters you used to see at Barnes & Noble. The idea was to make it easier for bookstores to take risks on unknown authors. The idea got out of hand. But all this is ancient history. People who are still moping about it are schmucks.

Since Alexandria, volumes of info, from the Iliad to Grey matter, have held an exalted status in the general culture. But books, even the finest ones, are no longer bestowed us by patricians or scholars: they come now from big, BIG, profit-oriented corporations. Seventy-five years ago you may have had an argument; that three-martini-lunch gentleman’s game was populated by the artisteic elite. Nowadays you’re encouraged not even to have lunch at all; editors, please dial it back to a drinks date if possible. I’m not saying that book publishing was never powered by heart and intellect. I’m only saying it’s not so any more. Privately owned publishers whose founders are still hands-on (e.g., in our day, McSweeney’s) behave very differently from conglomerates to whom books may be an afterthought, maybe even an asterisk. Many passionate people still work in book publishing: these folks have to auto-motivate, because they don’t make much money unless they’re at or near the top. In the current climate, the Big Five don’t have to nurture, because they can replace you in a heartbeat, get somebody less experienced for less dough, and to advance you don’t necessarily excel, you survive. Today’s book biz is built on bucks. Big Five execs aren’t mean. What they actually are is scared.

Amazon is the largest single retailer of books – remember, it began as a bookseller, founder Jeff Bezos reasoning that books were sturdy and easy to ship, and you didn’t have to try on or even touch one before you were ready to buy it – and is more crucial to the industry than even B&N. Yet book sales account for only 7% of Amazon’s total revenue, according to research by Jeff Bercovici of Forbes. So publishers need Amazon far more than it needs them. Furthermore, Amazon owns the e-book market: about 30% of all books sold in the U.S. are digital, and of that market Amazon has a 65% share. Put another way, nearly one of every five books sold in this country is a Kindle file.

Publishers just now are enjoying being on the noble side of the Amazon dustup; agents, booksellers and even some authors have long viewed the big houses as deep-pocketed suits. Now there’s a more monstrous foe: worse than mass-market editions (which first upended the hardcover pricing model), mail-order book clubs (which made trips to the village bookstore unnecessary), superstores (which strangled independents with, um, selection and discounting), and digital books (which – wait, didn’t they provide the monster’s only jolt in the neck in a generation? – were too cheap). Andrew Wylie, of the highest level of literary agency, wrote, “The book industry is overwhelmingly the repository of our nation’s culture. To destroy it is to destroy the culture.” Painters, composers, screenwriters, anyone else wish to speak up? No, the contemporary trade book industry is overwhelmingly concerned with making money, and screw the culture. Any one of the remaining Big Five trade publishers would gladly swap three Nobelists for one HUNGER GAMES franchise and throw in a few poets besides.

Amazon is pushing Hachette around because it wants to improve its profit margins, and everybody else is holding their breath not because they’re gallant brothers in arms, but because Amazon’s contract with Hachette happened to expire first. Whatever the company wrests from them will be the same deal it wants from all the others. This happens all the time in other industries; Bezos perhaps appears a tad scuzzy only to those who have been insulated from the real world all their corporate lives. In case you’re not absolutely sure yet that times have changed, Hachette responded by purchasing Perseus (in the movie business you’d call it a “mini-major,” like Lionsgate), making itself even larger. As the long case against Apple and and the then-Big Five (Penguin has since folded into Random House, which temporarily resisted Steve Jobs’s entreaties and was therefore not party to the antitrust action) wore on, one fact remained clear: when the publishers colluded (we don‘t have to say “allegedly” any more), they were no longer thinking about their customers, only their own profit margins. Publishers actually received more money for each e-book under Amazon’s “loss-leader” pricing than they did under Apple’s “agency model.” They weren’t working with Apple to prop up e-book prices because they felt competition was swell. They were defending nothing more righteous than, as federal judge Denise Cole remarked, “consumer perception of the value of a book.”

The printed retail price of a book has little to do with trim size, page count, all the physical factors you might expect. It’s derived from a larger profit-and-loss assumption that includes the expected distribution, the projected shelf life in paperback, and the amount initially expended (the “guarantee,” or “advance”). Why then does the breezily-set 400-odd-page MR. MERCEDES from Stephen King sell for $30? Because trade book prices only go one way, up, and because Scribner knows its “price” will be discounted down the line, even though the publisher keeps roughly half of whatever number it prints on the front flap. Kinda nuts, isn’t it – and here’s another wacko fact: all those “$30” hardcovers won’t come anywhere near paying out Uncle Stevie’s guarantee (huge authors get paid huge money up front, unless they’re “back-end” profit participants, like the biggest movie stars, but star authors are far rarer). As in movies, the publisher finally makes its profit downstream, years later, on the paperback — and digital — editions, which theoretically go on forever. Not this quarter. Much later on.

So Amazon is coming into a genteel industry and refusing to be genteel about it. I think it’s a PR minus for Bezos & company, who are supposed to be looking out for their customers above all – and now they’re making it harder to buy Hachette books? Not too bueno. They may have actually done a lefthanded favor by encouraging people to reconsider their online purchases. I just bought a Hachette book called AMAZON: THE EVERYTHING STORE from Powell’s Books – one of the great indies still standing – and though their site was clunkier than Amazon’s, I had no trouble sailing through the order process, and I felt kinda good about it. But the higher price I freely agreed to pay was pulled forth from Hachette’s ass.

Yes, Amazon is acting like a bully, and yes, the industry is doing its best to preserve its ineluctable pricing power. So be very careful before you pick sides in this fight. There’s plenty of venality to go around.

A sticker promoted on the air by Stephen Colbert, a Hachette author.

A sticker promoted on the air by Stephen Colbert, a Hachette author.


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