Danger In Delaware!

July 24, 2018

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Are you as nostalgic for a competent, compassionate executive branch as I am? Do you wake up every day with the same low-grade anxiety and check the “breaking” (sic) news with horror-movie dread? Do you hope today’s presidential antic or TWITTER TANTRUM! will just be idiotic as usual rather than potentially fraught with real harm? Would you prefer your head of state to care about others and speak in complete English sentences? Then I have a book for you. It’s only a short one, but take it from me, for a couple of hours it’ll make you feel better.

HOPE NEVER DIES is a mystery novel by Andrew Shaffer. This is Mr. Shaffer’s very first mystery novel. That’s because he’s actually a humorist who specializes in literary and pop culture parodies. I’m not actually a diehard mystery fan either. The reason I picked this one up is that the private investigators who set out to solve a murder are Joe Biden and Barack Obama.

Biden, hilariously, is the narrator and centerpiece. A beloved conductor on the Acela Express has been struck and killed by a train, and “Amtrak Joe” takes it personally. He’s been irritated that “44” has been enjoying all these glamorous vacations since leaving the White House — windsurfing, kayaking, hanging with Richard Branson and Bradley Cooper — without even calling. So imagine his surprise when Obama shows up in a black Cadillac Escalade with a Secret Service agent in tow. 

Mr. Shaffer juggles that funny Internet meme of Biden as a Ray-Banned muscle-car badass with the mundane reality of a seventyish suburban guy whose physical best days are behind him. Before long, Biden and Obama ditch the Escalade for Joe’s own ride, a “2017 neon-green Dodge Challenger T/A., 3.6-liter Pentastar VVT V6 engine with an 8-speed Torque-Flite automatic transmission.” Biden’s hardboiled monologue is priceless: a grizzled cop is “as tough as a two-dollar steak,” a rural lake is “as calm as a soul at rest.” Yet his prim Irish character shines through: where you might say “No shit, Sherlock,” Joe says “No crap, Matlock.” Obama is as cool as ever (if prone to overthink and overexplain), but Biden’s body is notably slowing him down. Both guys are terrified of their wives.

We spend much of the story on the mean streets of Wilmington, Delaware. Most of the typical detective-story ticks are laid before us, but personalized to the two politicians: “Barack placed one of his oversized ears on the door. Political cartoonists had loved to mock Barack’s elephant ears. If only they could see him now, using them for their God-intended purpose.” Obama’s own foibles are comedy grist: when he’s forced into a McDonalds, the only thing on the menu he can stand to eat are the apple slices. In a gas station, Biden chats up the counter girl:

“Hot one out,” I announced, tossing a five spot on the counter. Barack rolled his eyes—he wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. However, I was a Delawarean. And Delawareans make small talk. The girl looked out the window. “Global warming,” she said with a shrug. “Actually, it’s more of a gradual process than that,” Barack said, suddenly interested in our conversation. “That’s why we prefer the term ‘climate change.’ What you’ll see is a degree or two warming over the next fifty years, which will be enough to cause the sea levels to rise ten feet. When that happens—”

Again, I’m not a particular genre fan, so I found the first part of Act III a little flabby during a long passage in which the plot thickens around Biden with Obama offstage; aficionados will probably see nothing wrong at all. But the rest of the book is a wistful delight. The wistfulness comes from Mr. Shaffer’s ability to remind us why we respected the heart and dignity these men represented while making fun of them at the same time. That’s the soul of “An Obama Biden Mystery.” Late in the story, Joe warns Barack against stepping on the third rail in the Wilmington yard. “‘Guess they don’t call you Amtrak Joe for nothing.’ ‘I know some things,’ I admitted.” Oh, for leaders who know some things.

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Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018

June 29, 2018

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Some musicians don’t need a last name. Cher doesn’t. Neither does Beyonce, Madonna, Bjork or Beck. But there’s only one author I can think of whose surname became unnecessary through the sheer force of his personality.

Harlan.

And now there are none left.

Harlan Ellison passed away peacefully in his sleep Wednesday night. We shall never see his like again. Only pretenders and wannabes. Harlan is un-clonable. This DNA is RIP.

He built a career out of being an immensely talented person who would take no shit from anyone. (Not even a megacelebrity, as Gay Talese recounts in the opening scene of his landmark essay, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.”) An individual who dealt with Harlan professionally once told me that s/he figured in to any Ellison financial calculation a “PITA Factor,” which means exactly what you think it does. Not only didn’t Harlan suffer fools gladly, he didn’t suffer the fuckers at all. And in his luminous career he met plenty of fools, because after living the life fantastique, he moved to Hollywood.

Harlan was part of the second wave of fantastic fiction (the third if you count Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, but I want to simplify), following behind Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and the other pioneers. His generation — Norman Spinrad, J. G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin, even Kurt Vonnegut — tested the boundaries of what had been known as “science fiction” or “fantasy.” Why was legitimate metaphorical musing on the human condition relegated to a literary ghetto? Somebody (Fred Pohl?) once said, “Science fiction deals with all places in the universe and all times in infinity. Therefore, ‘mainstream’ fiction is simply a subset of science fiction.” Harlan began his career in the final days of the pulp-fiction era, when you sold your words by the pound. But I think he was forever torn between wanting to be that world’s hero and wanting to escape it completely.

When he relocated to Los Angeles, it was to write scripts for tv (mostly) and movies (his solo credit, THE OSCAR, was an infamous flop). But he was good at it, a particular natural at fantastic subjects. Harlan wrote “The City At The Edge Of Forever,” which many consider the finest STAR TREK story ever produced, and a couple of his scripts for THE OUTER LIMITS were evidently osmosed so subtly by the young James Cameron that, apres lawsuit, THE TERMINATOR’s end-credit crawl now includes, “Acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison.”

In print, Harlan wrote shorter fiction almost exclusively, which many feel is harder than writing a long novel because you have to stay precise. All I can tell you is that I consider “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktockman” worthy of inclusion in 20th-century tip-top short-fiction collections, up there among J. D. Salinger, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury and Eudora Welty. There are maybe ten more Ellisons that could fit in there too. As with Tom Wolfe (R.I.P.), Harlan’s energy and electricity make the pages crackle, again and again. Man, what a writer. So imagine my consternation after I muscled my way into the book business and heard my first Harlan story. 

A colleague (I won’t tell you who, where or when) answered the phone one day when hisser boss was out for lunch. It was Harlan on the line, furious because of something hisser boss had either done or failed to do (Harlan tended to assume the SUITS were ALWAYS SCREWING HIM), and he screamed at this recent hire, who went ashen: not only were hisser ears being blown off, but the screaming guy was a personal literary idol! After Harlan’s hangup, this new hire seriously considered resigning; it had been that vicious. Agonizing minutes passed. The phone rang again. It was Harlan in apology mode. He realized after the fact (probably with wife Susan’s consultation) that his beef was not with the poor schnook who’d had the bad luck to answer the phone. This schnook told me, “HERE was my hero: he was generous, funny, warm, sincerely sorry that he had upset me. THIS was the artist I loved and respected.” Um, pure Harlan.

You’re going to hear many more Harlan stories in the coming days, and he also won’t be the hero in a lot of them. But all I’m qualified to write about is what has personally happened to me. Though I’m perfectly aware of Harlan’s acerbic nature and have witnessed it at close range, I guess I managed to avoid pissing him off during an acquaintance that lasted more than twenty years, even though I was definitely a suit myself.

I was working in the publisher’s office at Bantam when I heard that Harlan admired the work of Don Coldsmith, who wrote historical novels about the American Indian from the tribe’s point of view. I asked for Harlan’s address and started sending him a copy of each new Coldsmith, out of the blue. Each time, back would come the Ellison method of communication, a 3×5 postcard crammed full of words of gratitude and a joke or two, all typed on a manual typewriter, the lifelong axe of this proud Luddite. Later I became Don’s editor and Harlan’s books began to arrive inscribed: now two cards would come back, one to Don ℅ me. We had still never met. Still later I moved on to science fiction, and one day I found myself at a convention a few feet away from Harlan and a group. I walked up to introduce myself, but he saw my name tag first and bellowed, “Now HERE’S a SMART EDITOR!” He had no idea whether that was true or not, but I’d done some nice things out of simple courtesy, and Harlan Ellison did not forget a kindness any more than an injustice. 

I never redeemed my Brownie points professionally, but we did stay in touch, usually by mail and then later on the phone, maybe once a year or so. One guy was thinking about the other (or Harlan flipped past my name on his Rolodex. Yes, his Rolodex) and had 15 minutes to spare. Only once did Harlan call for a favor. Somebody had told him he was a clue, “Sci-fi writer Ellison,” in that day’s New York Times crossword: would I grab him a copy? (His papers will probably be the most entertaining batch ever inspected.) He checked in after 9/11. I checked in after he had a stroke. All other calls were just how-ya-doin.

He had idly invited me over to his house for a visit next time I was in SoCal, and the chance came up. Before I left, I said on the phone, “Down South when we say something like that we mean it, but I’m letting you back out now.” “No, no,” he said, ”come on over.” I followed his directions in my rental car — I hate driving in LA! — and they were precise down to the individual bottleneck. I spent several happy hours eating Chinese and shooting the shit at the fabled Ellison Wonderland. 

Harlan shared something important with Ray Bradbury: they both never grew up. Not deep down where it matters. His home was festooned with the kind of collectibles young boys had a generation before mine: cartoon and Western and space figurines, pop culture oddities, paraphernalia of every kind extending back to the pulp and radio eras. It was the house you dream of when you’re a short Jewish kid in Painesville, Ohio, and real life is an actual physical battle. 

Later I started to write a little fiction myself, and one story in particular, about a world in which a company like Microsoft merges with one like Disney, was so obviously influenced by “Repent, Harlequin!” that I dared to send it to the maestro. He called up a few days later and asked me if I really wanted to know what he thought. Uh-oh. And he calmly, gently explained that I had ruined a great idea with lousy execution. His bedside manner was so deft that I wasn’t thinking, Harlan hated my story (he didn’t, he just thought I’d dropped an interesting ball) so much as, Harlan read my story. My piece was entertaining enough that Gardner Dozois (R.I.P. — what a terrible year this has been for authors, and it’s not even half over) later placed it on his Honorable Mention list in THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, a tyro’s Hugo, so I didn’t feel threatened or crushed. I felt honored, and I took Harlan’s advice to heart. So the same guy who was famous for tearing people new assholes did some laser surgery on me instead, and I’m a better writer for it. 

All he ever wanted was respect (and boy did he get it: he’s probably the most awarded writer there is). That, and for the scribes to get paid fairly by the Pharisees. Most of the articles you’re about to see will probably emphasize Harlan’s pugnacity, but I am living proof that he only resorted to opposition when he felt forced to. I wasn’t really part of his life, but he was part of mine, and I will definitely miss that growl “DUPREE!” on the phone. Any suits at any hereafters which might get the Ellison assignment would be well advised to play by the rules. Or else you’re gonna be so sorry.


So Long, Keppler

June 27, 2018

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Late-night comedy loses another promising voice tomorrow night, when THE OPPOSITION W/ JORDAN KLEPPER broadcasts the last of its 129 episodes. Comedy Central has been having trouble filling the key four-times-weekly slot following THE DAILY SHOW, the one ruled for years by THE COLBERT REPORT, and now they have to try again. First Larry Wilmore — frankly, a better writer than an on-air host — tried THE NIGHTLY SHOW, at the time the most color-centric program in late night. Then star DAILY SHOW correspondent Jordan Klepper earned his turn at bat. It’s a shame they’ve pulled the plug: his show was very good.

THE OPPOSITION is a creative cousin to THE COLBERT REPORT. Stephen Colbert spent almost ten years as a character named “Stephen Colbert,” a self-important, thick-headed right-wing blowhard modeled on Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and especially the one he called “Papa Bear,” Bill O’Reilly. (The show even parodied specific O’Reilly segments, only evident to those who’d actually watched THE O’REILLY FACTOR.) To appreciate this character you had to use some ironic detachment, but it was hilarious, and Colbert surprised everybody, probably even himself, when he was able to hold on to the bit and broaden the character over a mammoth run that extended from Dubya well into Obama. 

A similar character, “Jordan Klepper” — again saying basically the opposite of what the writers actually mean for you to understand — is a madman conspiracy theorist. His walls are covered with crazy-quilt lines of connecting string, there are piles and piles of binder-clipped sheets of paper scattered all over his desk. He resembles nobody more than Alex Jones, the goofy shouting nut who hosts something called INFOWARS. In fact, just as O’Reilly hipped to Colbert’s “homage” early on, somebody must have told Jones that there’s a guy on tv making fun of him, because he started fighting back on air — only, in true conspiracist style, he got it all wrong and kept calling the host “Keppler.” (THE OPPOSITION even did a segment on INFOWARS’s pathetic putdowns of “this guy Keppler” and it became a running gag.) That’s the concept, and they never drop the premise. The audience are “opposers.” Instead of “We’ll be right back,” Klepper says, “The fight continues.” During his nighty interview segment, his last question is always, “Tell me something I already know.”

Klepper is a great presenter and superb improviser, which “we already knew” from his stint on THE DAILY SHOW. On this very program, the host earned an honored place in television history with his brave MAGAMeal Challenge. But what I’ll miss the most about THE OPPOSITION is its correspondents; per the conspiracy theme, they call themselves “Citizen Journalists.” This gang, culled as usual from comedy clubs and improv stages, is the sharpest and most energized bunch since the heyday of Jon Stewart’s run.

While each Citizen Journalist helps Klepper take down imaginary threats from the Deep State, and each has posted brilliant field pieces, they’ve managed to carve out their own personalities in record time. Tim Baltz is the privileged white oaf with slicked-back hair, a wannabe Gordon Gekko. Laura Grey (Klepper’s wife) is an adorable wide-eyed ball of anger whose contradictions obstruct any feminism. Niccole Thurman is a black conspiracist who usually doesn’t see what the libtards’ problem is. Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson are flamboyantly gay men powered by their own hysteria. And Kobi Libii, my favorite of them all, has managed to find his way as a buttoned-down paranoid, inventing innumerable methods of gaming the system and presenting them with a self-satisfied kilowatt smile. These people are all aces, the best team on late-night. I hope each and every one of them gets another great gig right away. 

When I read of the cancellation about a week ago (they’ve been having fun with it on the air ever since — see, it’s part of the grand conspiracy to silence them!), I admit my first thought was that the dark maddened universe inhabited by Trump’s tweets is funnier and more outlandish than anything the writers could ever dream up. We’re living in a real world that looks uncomfortably like THE OPPOSITION’s invented world, and maybe it felt too on-the-nose; after all, Alex Jones frequently sounds like a comedian, just not on purpose. Maybe the format itself was too kinetic. And maybe THE OPPOSITION was simply too hip for the room. At any rate, thanks, gang, best wishes from a fan, and let’s all make sure the fight continues.

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Citizen Journalists, all. From left: Josh Sharp, Laura Grey, Aaron Jackson, Jordan Klepper, Niccole Thurman, Tim Baltz, and Kobi Libii.


Space And Race

June 21, 2018

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The other night at a campaign rally in Minnesota, Donald Trump added a new chant for his fans, who already yell “Build the wall!”, “Lock her up!”, “CNN sucks!”, and even, lately, “Nobel! He ordered them to start howling, “Space Force!”, and naturally they obliged. Trump proposes to establish a sixth branch of the U.S. military because “there’s no place like space.” 

A “Space Force” is a notion which might occur to any bored ten-year-old doodling his way through a droning civics lecture, and that’s pretty much Trump’s emotional age. Whether or not he has the authority to actually create a new military branch is unclear, like so much else about his administration. (He also told the Minnesotans that he was “re-opening NASA,” which of course has never closed.) But I thought he used an interesting phrase to describe how this new outfit would be apart from but equivalent to the other five branches. He said it would be “separate but equal.” 

I’m not going to give Trump “credit” for deliberately using a loaded term from the civil rights era to excite his base. I think it’s just something he heard on tv one day and it kept floating around in the burbling word-stew inside his brain. Just like the time Sarah Palin, another colossal dumbass, used the term “blood libel” without realizing (I’m betting) that she was rubbing next to some serious antisemitism. The words just sounded cool to her. But accidentally or not, Trump sent a message to his oldest (coincidentally his most virulent) fans, those good ole boys who can well remember when America was especially great — for white people like them. 

The doctrine that came to be known as “separate but equal” was established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which has come to be regarded as one of the worst decisions ever handed down by the Supreme Court. In Plessy, the Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality. For the first half of the twentieth century, segregation was the law of the land, and guess what: Plessy has never been explicitly overruled. It’s been hacked away at, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which held that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional when it came to schools and ignited the American civil rights movement. (Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat the following year.) But technically, Plessy is still on the books.

Again, Trump has probably never heard of Plessy v. Ferguson. But make no mistake, there are folks at his rallies who really miss the days of “separate but equal.” Man, that was when America was really great! And one of them who can remember is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the gentleman from Alabama. I believe the General knew exactly what he was doing on June 14 when he opened his Bible to defend the barbaric “zero tolerance” policy that cruelly tears kids away from their parents. 

“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” said Sessions. “I would cite you to the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” He was referring to Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God” (RSV). This passage has been especially popular in two American eras: it was frequently invoked during the Revolution by British loyalists, and again just prior to the Civil War by defenders of slavery — and Sessions knows it. Both groups were on the wrong side of history, as he is now. 

Besides, if you want actual Biblical advice on immigration, how about Leviticus 19:33-34 (RSV)? “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” You can cherry-pick the Bible to support almost anything, but that sounds pretty dadburn specific to me. 

Trump may not understand everything he utters. Or he may believe his own childlike fantasies. (Remember when he tried to take credit for coining the term “prime the pump” during an interview with The Economist? The Economist!) His level of ignorance is prodigious: he’s nothing but a game show host, mate! But there are people around him who do know exactly what they’re saying. At the moment things seem to be going their way — but they’re building up a tsunami of karmic debt, and one day it’s going to come crashing down.

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Fifty Years Ago, The Future

May 31, 2018

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If you like movies, you’ll periodically be delighted, surprised, tickled, thrilled, even amazed at the talent of the people who put them together. But only twice in my life have I walked out of a screening absolutely gobsmacked — emotionally flattened, finding it difficult to fully process what I’d just seen. The first happened just about this time of year exactly half a century ago, when some friends and I first saw 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

A carload of college chums drove from Jackson, Mississippi to New Orleans — a three-hourish trip — to the Martin Cinerama, for 2001’s original 70mm “road show” engagement. We saw the movie and then we drove three more hours back (we collegians hadn’t enough dough for anything else). But that return trip was almost completely devoted to awed conversation which is most accurately rendered as: “Holy shit!” In other words: minds blown, it was frickin worth it.

2001 was now the best movie I’d ever seen by leaps and bounds, a position challenged only once, about four years later, by a 16mm print of CITIZEN KANE in a grad-school film history class. Nothing else since has even come close. I’ve probably seen the flick twenty times by now and I feel like I know it pretty well. I’ve read every snippet I could find about it. So imagine my surprise when a new book for 2001’s fiftieth anniversary managed to take me to school dozens of times with endlessly fascinating arcane details. Michael Benson’s SPACE ODYSSEY is the only book on the subject you’ll ever need. 

Stanley Kubrick was on my radar for making the hilarious and transgressive DR. STRANGELOVE, but that’s all I knew about him. Only that this big-time director had teamed with science fiction titan Arthur C. Clarke to come up with a serious outer-space movie. My card-carrying, propeller-beanie-wearing sf fan’s heart fluttered. Plus, the normally secretive Kubrick had really clamped the lid shut on this production (Mr. Benson explains why). So we knew nothing, and we were dying. Of course we’d drive 200 miles, watch a movie, and drive right back!

The “road show” was how big extravaganzas were introduced back then: BEN-HUR, DR. ZHIVAGO, CLEOPATRA, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, HOW THE WEST WAS WON, etc. The initial engagement was restricted to larger cities. Reserved seats. An intermission. Printed programs. But this one had the added attraction of Cinerama, large-format film projected onto a giant curved screen to suggest peripheral vision, with audio speakers everywhere for the first surround sound I’d ever heard. We bought our tickets by mail, positioning ourselves in the Cinerama sweet spot, a third back in the dead middle. As we were filing in, this strange spacey “music” (which I now know to be Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”) softly caressed the auditorium because the film was already rolling. It was perfect. You can hear the Ligeti “overture,” just as we did, on the 2007 Warner Bros. Blu-Ray edition, which attempts to replicate the 1968 roadshow experience. Christopher Nolan — an excellent choice — is working on a 4K release for October of this anniversary year, but if you don’t have the gear, then the 2007 Blu-Ray is still your must-own version. We may not have Cinerama to play with any more, but after years of watching 2001 on tiny cathode-ray tubes, we’re finally arriving at large-screen hi-def home-theater tech that better deserves this film.

What we saw and heard was another kind of science fiction, another kind of art itself. 2001 is largely a nonverbal experience. Dialogue is heard for barely a fourth of its 142 minutes; the first spoken words (“Here you are, sir”) occur a full 22 minutes in. The pace is languid (more impatient viewers consider that a bug; I think it’s a feature) and deliberate. The story begins four million years ago and ends — well, that was the biggest topic on the way back home. And before your eyes is the most authentic-looking (eventually Oscar-winning) simulation of outer space ever put on film. I’ve never seen more convincing space effects in the ensuing half century, not with computerized motion control, not with CGI.

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Dan Richter as “Moonwatcher.”

By now 2001 feels so — inevitable, that it’s remarkable to learn from Mr. Benson how many decisions were actually made on the fly. Stanley Kubrick was an intensely driven, naturally curious polymath on whom the term “genius” was not squandered, as we frequently tend to do. His personal aim went beyond excellence and approached perfection, and he demanded the same fierce focus from his colleagues. The book is full of examples of artists and craftsmen striving to please Stanley, when what he really wanted was for them to surpass their presumed capabilities: he was a tyrant who still engendered devotion and even love. Many of 2001’s physical requirements were “impossible” given the technology of the day, so the production had to inquire, improvise and even invent. The many innovations developed for the film could fill a book, and now they have.

Mr. Benson is the ideal guide. Not only has he done voluminous research, but he is also a visual artist and filmmaker as well as a writer — and though he treats 2001 with a true fan’s respect, he’s not above having a little fun with his subject. As Kubrick and Clarke struggled for an ending, in one screenplay draft an “unbelievably graceful and beautiful humanoid” was supposed to approach the lead character and lead him into “infinite darkness.” As Mr. Benson writes, “how to achieve such grace and beauty had been left indeterminate. In any case, it wasn’t just inadequate, it flirted with risibility. Kubrick didn’t do risible.” He compares the creation of the trippy 17-minute “Star Gate” sequence to jazz improvisation among 2001’s “image instrumentalists”: “Like John Coltrane leaning into the mike after Miles Davis was done, [visual effects supervisor Douglas] Trumbull figured he’d take his turn.”

SPACE ODYSSEY is also a bagful of surprises. For example, I already knew that Canadian actor Douglas Rain provided the voice for 2001’s HAL 9000 supercomputer in two days without seeing a foot of film or any lines besides his own. But I didn’t know that Rain was the second actor to play HAL. The first was Martin Balsam, but later the director decided that Balsam had added too much personality and instead chose to go deadpan. Another thing I didn’t realize was that the “breathing” sounds heard when main characters are in their spacesuits were “acted” by the director personally, who recorded about a half-hour’s worth of “respiratory soundscape” wearing one of 2001’s prop helmets. Thus, as Mr. Benson notes in a lovely bit of writing, “as an example of his own handiwork, Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY bears evidence of his own life within it, a small segment of his human soundtrack.” 

The book is stuffed with little mini-dramas. There is mime Dan Richter’s laborious research and choreography for the “Dawn of Man” sequence (he plays “Moonwatcher,” the lead ape). The physical struggle to get daredevil flyover footage for inverted, solarized Star Gate shots, or Namibian landscapes for front-projection plates. The tug of war over Clarke’s companion novel, which Kubrick kept delaying along with the general production. Kubrick’s campaign to keep MGM at bay as the production slid egregiously over budget and behind schedule. The fate of a narration to help “explain,” which Clarke slaved over for years. The agony of would-be composers facing Kubrick’s determination to use the Strauss and Ligeti “temp tracks” he’d already dropped in (in hindsight they’re as right as can be, but the first time Kubrick saw the space-station footage against “The Blue Danube,” he asked, “Do you think it would be an act of genius or the height of folly to have that?”). 

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Kubrick (l.) and Clarke on set.

A bit of unexpected lagniappe came my way whenever the book located the production’s New York phases. (2001 was Kubrick’s last project not fully restricted to England.) The first film exposed for 2001 was high-speed footage of drops of colored paint in a tank of black ink and thinner, used in the finale. Kubrick himself operated the camera in an abandoned brassiere factory on upper Broadway, just a few blocks from where I lived when I first moved here 23 years later. Kubrick’s Lexington Avenue penthouse apartment, where lots of 2001 was hatched, was just three streets down from where I’m sitting right now. And years later, following a disastrous first screening, Kubrick trimmed the finished film in the basement of the MGM building on Sixth Avenue: I worked there when I was with the Hearst Book Group. 

Kubrick is the boss, but he’s not always the hero. It took VFX master Doug Trumbull — who learned his craft on this show — decades to forgive the director for including an end-credits card reading “Special Photographic Effects Designed and Directed by Stanley Kubrick.” There was actually a plausible reason for this: Academy rules prohibited more than three people from being considered for a VFX Oscar (same deal with Best Picture producers today), but 2001 had four credited special effects supervisors. So the solo credit probably kept 2001 under consideration, but Kubrick might have petitioned the Academy to bend the rules for such a quantum-leap production. Kubrick personally realized the oil-and-paint “galaxy” effects back on Upper Broadway, and he knew more about teasing results from photographic equipment than most DPs. But the space effects were definitely a collaborative effort, as this book richly illustrates, and he didn’t nail the “Purple Hearts” solarization technique discovered by Bryan Loftus, or Trumbull’s own “slit-scan” machine, both of which provided indelible images for the Star Gate sequence. What Kubrick did get was the only Academy Award he ever won. My impression is that what really stuck in Trumbull’s craw was the word “Designed.”

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Doug Trumbull’s “slit-scan” effect.

The most important thing Mr. Benson does for me personally is to finally scratch an itch that has persisted for fifty years. As all true fans know, 2001 was reviled upon its premiere but gradually caught on later. Well, no. That’s not what happened at all. The version which premiered in Washington, D.C. on April 2, 1968 and in New York the next day — crucially, the one that was shown to the nation’s film critics — was 161 minutes long. The dismal reaction (although he wisely kept his mouth shut, even Clarke hated it) traumatized Kubrick and forced him to call for intensive surgery in the basement OR at good old 1350 Avenue of the Americas, where he delicately excised nineteen minutes. For half a century, I have been dying to see that nineteen minutes. If 2001 is this good, wouldn’t that make it nineteen minutes better?

Mr. Benson has disabused me of that desire. 

We know and love the sequence in which Gary Lockwood jogs and shadowboxes in a 360-degree antigravitational loop — a mind-blowing illusion performed on what was then the largest kinetic set ever constructed. Some people think the scene goes on too long. Well, how about another 360-degree sequence featuring co-star Keir Dullea? The premiere audience saw it. Also, Dullea meticulously prepares for an EVA at the computer’s suggestion. Again, even today some viewers (not me) find the sequence fat. How about doing it yet again with the other astronaut? The filmcrits saw that too. 2001 is so hypnotic that a rapt audience member could even acquiesce to all this. But most others, nuh-uh. Kubrick didn’t know this because he’d never tested the super-secret film with real warm bodies: nobody had seen the virgin reactions of completely objective viewers. Whether MGM forced the cuts or not is unclear, but even Kubrick had to concede they were necessary.

At a trimmer 142 minutes, not only did 2001 immediately roar for MGM at the box office — it was 1968’s highest-grossing film, the only time Kubrick ever achieved #1 — but critics also began changing their minds upon subsequent viewings. Jeez, this is nowhere near as turgid as I remember! The funniest opinion morph, reprinted in Jerome Agel’s 1970 pop-arty THE MAKING OF KUBRICK’S 2001, was Time magazine’s weekly 25-word capsule movie review section from preem to dominance: it was as if different people had written each of eight or ten entries. Ash heap to masterpiece. 

Let’s leave it at masterpiece, for that’s where 2001 sits in my home. Therefore I’m not capable of judging this book objectively. Would it be as compelling to someone who has never seen 2001? Dunno. But only a couple of sentences on physical engineering were beyond me (kudos to the author, who keeps the rest of it earthbound), and I would imagine the fraught journey toward a lasting work of art could interest a seeker from any medium. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, my strong advice would be to see the movie before you dig any deeper. Get as close to our college-boy innocence as you can. Slow down. Lights off. Breathe. Exhale. Quiet. Still. Now hit play and dig some Ligeti.

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The best damn space effects in film history.


The Boys (And Girls) Who Cried Wolf

May 1, 2018

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Boy, did Michelle Wolf raise a ruckus last Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Or, more precisely, a ruckus was raised about her. Because, man, what did you expect when you hired a topical comedian? As Judd Apatow noted, “It’s like going to a Billy Joel concert and being shocked he played ‘Piano Man.’”

Did Wolf’s set step over a line? Judge for yourself. You can read what she said here, or watch her say it here. I would recommend going directly to the source, because the set’s already being misrepresented by guess which tribe. For example, despite what you may read and hear, Wolf did not make fun of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s appearance. She made fun of her mendacity and enabling as White House Press Secretary. True, Ms. Sanders was sitting a few feet away, and was visibly unamused, but all this has happened before, you know.

I’m thinking back to the 2006 dinner, when Stephen Colbert “bombed” by speaking truth to power. His show was brand new at the time, and not everybody realized his right-wing blowhard character, “Stephen Colbert,” was an ironic parody of windbags like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. I was in a COLBERT REPORT audience later that summer and overheard a guy explaining to his date before the taping, “You have to read between the lines of everything he says. And a running joke is his huge ego. Everything’s all about him.” The concept was still new enough to need a rundown. Now Jordan Klepper is doing the same thing to conspiracy “theorists” like Alex Jones by playing a character and trusting you to sift out the truth.

So it’s possible that whoever booked Colbert for the WHCA dinner was unaware of the gag and took him at face value. People are not always as subtly thoughtful as you may wish them to be, and conservatives are not known for their senses of humor. To the room’s apparent surprise, Colbert cleverly blasted George W. Bush while pretending to be a fawning acolyte: “tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate this president. We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say I did look it up, and that’s not true. That’s cause you looked it up in a book.” On he went. Watch the set here. Bush clearly did not find it funny, much of the laughter in the room was only nervous, and the first reports were that Colbert had died with a lousy bit. But then we noticed where those first reports were coming from: Fox News and other Bush promoters. When we later got a chance to read Colbert’s set, and even see him deliver it, we realized what had happened.

The prevailing attitude at occasions like this had always been, we kid you, Mr. President, but we do it with love and we’re grateful for your service. But what Colbert was saying now — and what the President was receiving — was, Mr. President, sir, we don’t think you’re doing a very good job. That’s what made the live audience uneasy. Colbert was turning on the right-wing spit for days afterward, just as Michelle Wolf is now, but when you look back twelve years later, Colbert’s remarks were both funny and spot on. The next year, WHCA overcompensated by booking the dangerous rogue mind of Rich Little.

At least Bush’d had the guts to show up. Wolf called Trump “cowardly” for skipping the WHCA dinner for a second time (in favor of a self-aggrandizing rally in Michigan) and that’s accurate. Trump’s legendarily fragile ego cannot coexist with even a smidgen of criticism; he’s still smarting from the time Barack Obama roasted him at WHCA — with some funny stuff — just after secretly giving the order to kill Osama bin Laden. Trump even refuses to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park, I assume for two reasons. First, he’s afraid of getting booed, which would certainly happen. Second, the 60 feet from mound to plate is a lot longer when watched by a mid-five-figure crowd, bigger than any rally he’s ever headlined — and as Trump himself might put it, “people are saying that he throws like a girl.”

Speaking of girls, Michelle Wolf. I didn’t find everything she said funny, but I could also say that about Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, even Lord flippin Buckley. Any comic who’s at all edgy is taking a risk with every joke. But, especially after the Colbert incident, if you aren’t aware of a comic’s body of work before you hire her, then any blame is on you. What is fairly irritating here is the faux outrage and abject hypocrisy. Wolf was “disrespectful”? Trump is permanently dripping with louche contempt and schoolyard meanness: these juvenile nicknames, cruelly mocking a physical handicap, treating women as pieces of meat, constantly punching down at people who are (temporarily, always remember) less powerful than he. Where is his dadburn respect? Wolf was “vulgar”? Again, the pussy-grabbing shithole in the Head Shed is Numero Uno among that rapacious gang of bottom-feeders who are his colleagues. When Trump does his best every day to delegitimize the very notion of White House correspondents, maybe we’re talking about a different kind of relationship, and perhaps some more acerbic words are in order. Even from a frickin comedian. 

There was something else unexpected about Wolf’s performance, probably what brought some caustic comments even from representatives of non-fake media like the New York Times and NBC. Michelle Wolf took them down too. “You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him. If you’re going to profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn’t have any.” It’s fun and games when politicians are in the crosshairs, less so when it’s you yourself — and deep down, White House correspondents know they actually do have a lot to answer for.

As Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained to those same correspondents after Trump seemed to question Rex Tillerson’s intelligence, “He made a joke. Maybe you guys should get a sense of humor and try it sometime, but he simply made a joke.” Maybe everybody should try it sometime.


Christ Goes To Brooklyn

April 13, 2018

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NBC’s live broadcast of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR on Easter Sunday was terrific, my favorite one of these network musicals that have been popping up lately. (For me, it supplants as #1 Fox’s live production of GREASE two years ago. I loved the way they used the whole Warner Bros. lot, not just the soundstages, to keep the momentum pumped up.) NBC’s huge ratings success also underlines the fact that JCS is now part of the musical canon, safe enough to show on Christians’ holiest day. So it’s hard to get your mind around how transgressive this piece was when it first appeared.

It began as a “concept album” in 1970 (a single had been released in late 1969). The concept was right there in the title, smacking you in the face. When Andy Warhol popularized the word “superstar,” he gave us his most lasting legacy: the cult of celebrity for its own sake. But to place pop culture sequins upon holy scripture? As the kids say, Oh. My. God.

Not that it hadn’t been done. The composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, had already produced JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, brushing a similar contemporary glaze onto another biblical story. And soon to come would be Stephen Schwartz’s GODSPELL, which gave us a happy, hippie Pied Piper of a Jesus. But nothing else had the thunderous sonic power or sheer cheeky courage of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

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Just those three words and a little iconic symbol on the dark brown cover of the double-Lp set. No clue as to what was inside. But the first people who played it kept dragging others to a pair of speakers, and it wasn’t long before this record-album “musical” had basically become the new HAIR — without appearing on an actual stage. This British audio production had gathered vocalists from the theater and rock music (Murray Head and Ian Gillan, who sang the two leading roles, were an actual veteran of HAIR and the new lead singer of Deep Purple, respectively), and arranged the orchestration squarely in the pop idiom (the key players were from Joe Cocker’s Grease Band). No offense to The Who, whose TOMMY is thoughtful and inventive, but this was a real “rock” opera, a sung-through story with musical motifs clearly stated by an overture and recapitulated in ways new and wondrous to the FM-and-doobie crowd.

But of course, it wasn’t the music that caused JCS to be banned by the BBC and made it a generational flashpoint in God-fearing America. It was the subject matter.

Presuming to set the final days of Jesus to a pop score is only JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s initial salvo. If you’re a full-throated tenor and a director offers you any JCS part you want, you probably wouldn’t choose the title role. Because the real superstar of the musical is the Biblical Betrayer, the villain Christians love to hate, Judas H. Iscariot. The story is largely told from his perspective, and not without empathy. He believes in Christ’s teachings, has been an enthusiastic apostle. What worries him is the blind adoration of a mob attracted only by celebrity: “You’ve begun to matter more / Than the things you say.” Judas also doubts Jesus’s divinity: “You have set them all on fire / They think they’ve found the new Messiah / And they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong.” This is fairly provocative stuff for a culture whose idea of biblical drama has been formed by the reverent movie spectaculars of the Fifties — but Judas indeed has the showiest part and most of the best numbers, culminating in a rousing climax that he performs as a glitter-garbed ghost.

Jesus gets some good stuff too — his high point is probably the power ballad “Gethsemane,” in which he addresses God with his agonizing doubts (“Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die / You’re far too keen on where and how, but not so hot on why”) — but in much of the rest of the show he’s basically just reacting. Though you don’t pay any attention to Jesus at all when Herod taunts him with a snarky music-hall tune that comes out of nowhere (“Prove to me that you’re no fool / Walk across my swimming pool”). My main disappointment with the NBC show was Alice Cooper’s performance of “King Herod’s Song.” It was nice to see “Coop” again, but the boisterous incongruence of the piece — what Broadway pros call “the noise” — demands tons of over-the-top movement, evidently more than the seventyish star could muster. Josh Mostel did a better job in Norman Jewison’s 1973 movie. 

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Josh Mostel as Herod in the movie.

Everything else about the NBC production was just great. This time “live” really meant something more than tiny flaws like the intruding shadow of a cameraman or the “Superstar” glitter girls visibly moving to their marks during a shot that was supposed to be pitch dark. Choosing to perform the show before a crowd of 1,500 at the cavernous Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn was a masterstroke. It was stage-bound (unlike GREASE), but what a huge honking stage. Audience members were close enough to touch John Legend’s extended hand as Jesus made his entrance, but more importantly, you could hear and feel their presence, roaring for a beloved song and palpably revving up the actors throughout. There were two directors: one for the theatrical action onstage, and another for the army of fleet-footed techies following it around. About fifteen minutes in, I found myself thinking, if they can keep this up, they’ve got something special here.

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By now, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is considered as tame as anything by Rodgers & Hammerstein, but it wasn’t always so. I expect some people take that as evidence that we’ve coarsened as a culture. But maybe the music is compelling enough to not only do justice to its gutsy premise, but also become classic on its own merits. This broadcast said, amen to that.


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