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.

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, who is one of those actors who can control his facial movements, 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 that’s usually the extent of it.) Thus can a highly 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.

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. We are already far beyond that in our ethical journey.)

The blinking comes first, perhaps for the audience’s benefit. Claire explains that humans blink an average of five times a minute. But Julian’s blinking — of course, he has no physiological reason — is programmed for random intervals rather than once every twelve seconds, to help avoid the Uncanny Valley. 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, studio 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 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 already knew the authors’ work well, and each time I did everything I promised I would, so they didn’t need protection from me. 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

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.

9/19/14: Today we learned that former longtime cast member Darrell Hammond, the impressionist who actually subbed for Don Pardo a couple of times when the elder voice was ill (and completely fooled us!) will be SNL’s new announcer, but as himself: the “Don Pardo voice” will be permanently retired out of respect.

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 centuries 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.



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 in the town square, 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.”



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.


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