The Astounding Mr. Campbell

November 8, 2018

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One of the most important influences on American science fiction is a man whose name you might not recognize, but twentieth-century authors lived for his approval. He wrote one of the field’s most famous stories, but he staked out his influence and made his lasting reputation not as an author but as a magazine editor. He was John W. Campbell Jr., and he is the subject of a wonderful new biography named for the magazine he ruled. Alec Nevala-Lee’s ASTOUNDING is also the story of the early careers and diverging paths of three colorful personalities whose work Campbell personally nurtured: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard. If you like science fiction, here is a delicious backstage view, a marvelous read that is long overdue.

A technical writer and editor and budding sf author, Campbell was only 27 when by sheer luck he stumbled into the editorship of Street & Smith’s Astounding Stories of Super-Science in 1937. It had been eleven years since Hugo Gernsback (the namesake for science fiction’s highest award) founded the first “scientifiction” periodical, Amazing Stories, but the field was still typified by garish “pulp” fiction, stalwart space heroes protecting toothsome femmes menaced by tentacled horrors (the fannish term is “BEMs,” or “Bug-Eyed Monsters”), pretty much what non-devotees think it all is. More than any other individual, it was Campbell who forced the genre to grow up.

Before his ascension, the fiction published in magazines — there wasn’t yet a book-length market for sf; Campbell’s proteges helped establish one — was more about action. Campbell wanted to print stories about ideas. He had a ton of intriguing what-ifs jingling around in his mind (the best known is the paranoia-laden story of an alien shapeshifter filmed as THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, “Who Goes There?”), far more than he could use as an author, and his first great contribution was to spread them around. It was Campbell who posited the Three Laws of Robotics that Asimov made famous, and the author was always candid in assigning proper credit. Campbell is also responsible for the notion of psychohistory that undergirds Asimov’s legendary Foundation series, and for showing the young author a passage from Emerson’s “Nature”: If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore. Aficionados will instantly recognize this as the premise for Asimov’s staggering career-best story, “Nightfall.”

Asimov was a special case to Campbell, a new kid whom he could mold and shape to help change the field by emphasizing the science rather than the fiction. Heinlein, a ramrod-straight Navy veteran, and Hubbard, a hamhanded wannabe adventurer and liar of Trumpian proportions, were already established professionals, but they also benefited from Campbell’s fount of ideas and the notoriety gained through appearances in Astounding. Heinlein in particular was most comfortable at novel length, and a series of books intended for juvenile readers (they say the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve, haw haw) drew a generation of new fans to the field and to his novels for adults.

Campbell’s relationship with Hubbard was more troublesome. A prolific author who could crank out fiction at dazzling speed, Hubbard was also an accomplished hypnotist, and the remarkable potential effects of the power of suggestion led him to experiment with supposed triggers for forgotten or repressed memories. Fortified by many conversations with his editor, Hubbard developed a technique — or maybe it was only a bit of snake oil — which he called “dianetics,” and after a few early trials Campbell became a fervent acolyte and even headed a research foundation for “the modern science of mental health.” Years later, amid the foundation’s inevitable financial ruin, the two men broke up. Since a creditor legally owned the word “dianetics,” Hubbard re-cast its revelations into the new theory of Scientology, which the Internal Revenue Service now regards as a religion. Campbell never signed on.

Mr. Nevala-Lee’s narrative is authoritative — he’s an sf author himself and has clearly studied the history of his field — and as propulsive as a well-crafted novel. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch three writers crawl out of the depths of dime-store fiction to become such household names — for radically different reasons — and march on the front lines of a genre that would one day come to dominate popular culture. The historic trio had little in common but this: one proud, willful, irascible, brilliant, imperious figure who used them to carve a path into the future.

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My NYFF 2018

October 15, 2018

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The New York Film Festival is a major fest in historical importance if not ballyhoo. NYFF was crucial in introducing American audiences to revolutions in world filmmaking that were themselves often inspired by Hollywood history. NYFF has never bestowed any awards. For 56 years it has chosen no more than thirty films for its annual “Main Slate,” with other goodies scattered about. It doesn’t really compete with Cannes, Venice, Telluride or Toronto for world premieres, though each year there are a few. Nearly all screenings are held on the close-knit Lincoln Center campus; at most other festivals you have to factor travel into your daily plan. But here, if you have the time, you can theoretically see everything on the Main Slate. “North American Premiere” means the film probably played at Cannes or Venice. “U.S. Premiere” means it probably played in Toronto. Here are the ones I saw this year:

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THE FAVOURITE**** (Festival Opening Night) I expected something a little more bizarre from Yorgos Lanthimos, who brought us DOGTOOTH, THE LOBSTER, and even THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. But as the film spooled, I realized the transgressive director was allowing 18th-century England to be its own dramatic geek. Courtly dances turn lewd and anachronistic. The foppish male fashion that BARRY LYNDON tut-tuts becomes leering, even menacing. And the three females who control the piece are each iconoclastic and riveting. There’s Rachel Weisz as the scheming Duchess of Marlborough and Emma Stone as a former lady turned servant, each competing for the favor of the triumphant Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. Things are just a little “off” throughout, aided by the repeated use of an extreme wide-angle (“fisheye”) lens to make squared turns appear curved. This picture won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice this year, and Colman won a well-deserved Best Actress award. The relative restraint might be Lanthimos’s ticket to serious award consideration; he’s long been one of the most exciting directors on the planet, but here he plays nicer than usual.

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HER SMELL*** (U.S. Premiere) Elisabeth Moss abases herself a la Charlize Theron as the demon-battling 90s-era front for a female alt-rock band: Amy Winehouse? Courtney Love? She’s past her creative prime and so zonked out that she’s near insane. (That’s GLOW’s “She-Wolf,” Gayle Rankin, as her drummer.) We meet her band at a club date, and I actually thought I’d never make it through two whole hours: the segment is all short hand-held shots, as if Michael Bay had done a whole gram of cocaine before taking a camera into CBGB. But that’s only the first of Alex Ross Perry’s five acts, each shot in its own distinct cinematic style. Moss is the main reason to watch, and although it may be hard to believe while enduring the first gonzo hour, there is a narrative arc. Bad: I thought it was a tad too long — the lead character isn’t the only one guilty of self-indulgence. Good: the actors are actually performing the musical numbers; no fakery here. 

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MONROVIA, INDIANA**** (U.S. Premiere) Frederick Wiseman is one of the most influential film documentarians in history. He invented — ok, maybe just refined — the fly-on-the-wall style of cinema verite: no narration, nothing to guide you through the “truth” he stitches together in what he concedes is a subjective process, which is only realized in post-production. For this one, the TITICUT FOLLIES and EX LIBRIS maestro spent ten weeks in a small Indiana town. Tribal viewers might be expecting scorn or defense, but no. The most profound takeaway is that aside from references to local high schools and universities, this could have taken place most anywhere. We go to the barber shop, Lions Club, hog farm, combine auction, tattoo parlor, grain elevator, gun store, etc etc etc. The only politics we see are at the Monrovia Festival, sort of a mini-state fair where the county Republicans have a booth, but Wiseman himself strives to remain above it all. The 88-year-old director introduced the film and stayed for a q&a afterward. It was thrilling to be in the same room with him.

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WILDLIFE*** The directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, who adapted the Richard Ford novel with his partner, actor-playwright Zoe Kazan. In Montana in the late Fifties, a peripatetic young family finds its life upended when the father loses his job and, after a desperate search, leaves home to join an ad-hoc group of men hired to fight fierce mountain wildfires for a dollar an hour. The mother grows restless before the son’s distraut eyes. Carey Mulligan (whose film this basically is) and Jake Gyllenhaal are superb as the parents, as is Bill Camp as a car dealer who gets into the mix, but the real find is a sensational 14-year-old Aussie named Ed Oxenbould, meaning two of the three family members are faking their Yank accents. Dano (and/or Kazan; it’s often hard to tell whether a movie’s directorial moment was already there on the page) make assured and interesting cinematic choices throughout. I’ll be in line for their next one.

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NON-FICTION**** Olivier Assayas’s new film is a dialogue-driven, actor-centered story in and about the world of book publishing, a realm of which I have some personally acquired knowledge. Turns out book people in Paris are talking about the same things we are here: the encroachment of the digital revolution on the printed word, e-books vs. physical books, the rise of the audiobook, and the very future of reading for pleasure. There’s an old-fashioned noble publisher, a tiresome author whose “auto-fiction” is a thinly veiled recital of his own life, a cyber-savvy publicist, a political operative, a cop-show actress — the movie is chiefly about how people deal with fundamental change, but since it’s also a French sex comedy, everybody’s sleeping with everybody else. A really fine cast is led by the radiant Juliette Binoche (who is name-checked in the fictional story for the movie’s biggest howling laugh). Tons of serious and vital conversation pass rat-a-tat, but the tone remains light and breezy enough to entertain without in-group pedantry.

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DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES*** In my book, Newt Gingrich and Roger Ailes are modern America’s two biggest scoundrels: they are more responsible than anyone else for the sorry state of political discourse we suffer through today. (Before his “service” is done, Mitch McConnell will likely join this sleazy pantheon.) Alexis Bloom’s documentary has one advantage journalist Gabriel Sherman didn’t when he published his bio THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM in 2014: Roger Ailes’s world came tumbling down soon afterward, and his final ignominies are all here on screen. “I’m glad it happened while he was still alive,” muses one wronged woman. Using clips from Ailes’s storied history and strategic talking heads (including actor-director Austin Pendleton, an old friend from grade school in Ohio), Bloom pieces together the career of one of the most darkly influential media figures of our age. Not only did Ailes enable Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Donald Trump, he will forever be remembered as the creator and show runner of the Fox News Channel, an enterprise which utterly transformed America. He was first an entertainment tv producer, then a political media consultant, then he founded a cable channel — but it wasn’t Fox News. “America’s Talking” was his first love, a 24-hour all-talk network featuring many future Fox stars. Ailes even hosted a show himself; we see him awkwardly dancing with Cyndi Lauper. But when Bill Gates bought the channel and turned it into MSNBC, Ailes flew into a permanent rage and vowed revenge. Then he joined forces with Rupert Murdoch, and the rest is sordid history. This story has been told before, but it’s interesting to see it on a screen, Ailes’s lifelong medium. We also get the best look at his bullying takeover of a sleepy little community in Putnam County, New York; the locals’ relief when Fox News’s Playboy-Club atmosphere finally brought Ailes down is palpable, though they’re too nice to gloat on camera. Roger Ailes turned “firing up the crazies,” as one former Fox News employee puts it, into the billions in profit which insulated him from justice for nearly two decades. He’s gone now, but his creation is still serving red meat to red states, causing permanent high blood pressure in the body politic.

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HIGH LIFE*** (U.S. Premiere) Claire Denis’s first English-language feature (while Olivier Assayas goes back to French-speaking) is not a science fiction film, she told us after the screening, even though it’s set in deep space. (Why English? “Nobody speaks French in space.”) The cold dark reaches surround a metallic-blue environment (it looks, sounds and feels reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS) in which a group of criminals have been enlisted to head toward a black hole to harness its energy for use back on Earth. That’s it with the science fiction. We start with a man (Robert Pattinson) alone in the void with a baby. Through shock-cut flashbacks, placed out of sequence so as to be impenetrable at first, we piece together the history of this voyage and peek at the planet-bound lifetime that once was. Denis cuts through the ennui with startling bursts of passion and violence, while the spacefaring vessel attains its metaphorical purpose as sole bulwark against the vast uncaring void. As with SOLARIS, this will be far too slow and imprecise for some viewers to embrace, but there’s so much to think about, plus you have a great layered Pattinson performance — he’s really quite the actor — and some more Juliette Binoche, as a, um, spirited scientist.

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ROMA***** (Festival Centerpiece) This year’s Golden Lion winner at Cannes is sensational. It’s a semi-autobiographical remembrance from Alfonso Cuarón, a year in the life of a Mexico City middle-class family circa 1970. A key figure helping to bind the family together is the beloved live-in nanny and housekeeper, played incandescently by Yalitza Aparicio. The story is confident, cadenced and unforced, calling forth a host of heart-tugging moments. You tend to forget that the director was a witness and participant (you cannot in RAY & LIZ, below), but with all the normal difficulties, this is still the kind of solidly nurtured childhood which produced a talented and observant artist. Interestingly, the main focus is not really on the children until the last act, when they become protagonists. It’s more of an eventful year for the adults, often beyond the youngsters’ knowledge. Cuarón’s black-and-white cinemascape is superb, as is an innovative sound design that focuses our hearing on what we can see: off-screen audio registers off-ear. Though there are many surprises, nothing feels artificial or out of place, despite the fact that the camerawork is executed with Kubrickian precision; as it should, the art overpowers the craft. Before the screening, the director brought out key crew and cast, then introduced the real-life person who inspired Aparicio’s character. From the balcony of Alice Tully Hall, we could still tell that this tiny woman onstage was a bundle of grit, spunk and heart, and the picture hadn’t even rolled yet. 

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ASAKO I AND II**** (U.S. Premiere) If I only had 15 seconds to oversimplify Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new one, I’d tell you it’s a love story that issues forth from a bent Japanese take on VERTIGO, only this time the identicals are the males. Cute earnest Asako falls for hip foxy DJ Baku in Osaka, but he vanishes abruptly, breaking her heart. Two years later, in Tokyo, she meets Ryohei, a dead ringer for Baku, a buttoned-down executive for a sake brewer who is Baku’s emotional opposite in warmth and devotion. At first she’s interested because of the resemblance (she understandably mistakes him for a cleaned-up Baku at first meeting), but gradually Ryohei wins her over. Still, how can she forget her bad-boy lover (who has gone on to become a famous supermodel) when she’s reminded of him at home every day? And then Baku returns. There are delicious unexpected emotional beats as this story works its way forward and the ensemble is delightful, but I must note the superb work of male lead Masahiro Higashide as both Baku and Ryohei. Talk about inhabiting your role(s): his work distinguishing the two men is so subtle that he actually makes you suspect the casting office found identical twins. Even when they “both” appear in the same scene, the effect is gorgeous.

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RAY & LIZ** (U.S. Premiere) A grueling 1:47 spent with some loathsome lower-class British yobbos whom I never want to meet again. However, I did meet one just after the screening, for this is photographer and first-time film director Richard Billingham’s dramatic memory of his own family, hyper-dysfunctional but not in an amusing way. I give the man huge props just for surviving. But that doesn’t make this film any easier to digest, opening as it does with a sadistic act of cruelty visited on a defenseless victim and giving us no room to breathe thereafter. The most heartbreaking line comes from the actor who represents Mr. Billingham himself: as his younger brother is mercifully taken away from their rank existence into the state’s care, he asks the case worker, “Can I go to a foster home too?” Anyone who doesn’t understand the searingly personal nature of this film — that is, most everyone — will find it an almost prohibitively tough watch.

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COLD WAR**** In 1949, a musician goes around to spots in rural Poland to find authentic ethnic songs and performers, Alan Lomax-style. He’s putting together a troupe that will bring Polish music and dance to popular audiences. It’s all smiles during the audition and training process, but then he falls for a talented blonde beauty ten years his junior, and life gets even more complicated when the Stalinist authorities badger him into featuring party-friendly content. We follow the maturation of this troupe, the girl, and the troubled but genuine love affair through the Fifties as they play the capitals of Europe and battle the political forces behind the Iron Curtain. The music is fantastic and actually becomes part of the story. Authentic Polish folk tunes, introduced at the top, reappear under different guises; one of the first ones we hear is skillfully morphed later into a sultry Julie London-type jazz piece. Writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski’s sure hand propels the narrative with a series of blackouts, so the passage of time is instantaneous, and he gets knockout work from stars Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (it seems b&w is the new color this year: besides, as the director noted, “Cold War Poland was not a colorful place”) is breathtaking. This is an Amazon Studios release; put it on your watch list.

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THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS**** (North American Premiere) If you liked the Coen brothers’ last one, HAIL, CAESAR!, then this is a similar romp, but it’ll help if you also liked FARGO, because in all its warped hilarity this movie is likewise suffused with sudden violent death. It’s an anthology of six short films, each set in the old West but each inhabiting its own milieu. The curtain-raiser is the wildest, with a perfect Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, a fourth-wall-breaking, white-hatted singing cowboy who also happens to be one of the most vicious gunmen you’ve ever seen. We also watch James Franco hilariously botch a bank robbery, and there’s Liam Neeson as the impresario of a traveling-show oratorical wonder, Tom Waits as a preternaturally determined prospector, Zoe Kravitz as part of a wagon train to Oregon, and a stagecoach full of character actors headed to a spooky destination. The humor is barbed and the picture is stuffed with surprises. A couple of the endings are even heartbreaking, but you’ll never be able to see them coming. What this film is actually about is not the West itself, but Western movies. It deliberately plays with the Hollywood conventions that we’ve all become accustomed to. This movie is wildly entertaining, the writing and acting are superb, and it looks beautiful. It’s uneven by definition — remember, it’s six disparate 20-odd-minute films and I had distinct preferences — but the two hours fly by. It’s still weird to see the Netflix logo on something as A-listy as this, but filmmakers are getting adequate budgets and a wider day-and-date release than they could ever have otherwise. 

WISH I’D SEEN: AMERICAN DHARMA, ASH IS PUREST WHITE, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, CARMINE STREET GUITARS, MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (on a big screen; I only know it from home video), THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (I trust I’ll get the chance somehow), WATERGATE (too long to fit in)

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Yankee Go

September 20, 2018

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Go is somewhat like cricket in that it’s played enthusiastically elsewhere in the world but it hasn’t really caught on in America. Some devotees are trying to change that, and they are the main subjects of Will Lockhart and Cole D. Pruitt’s wonderful documentary THE SURROUNDING GAME, now streaming on Netflix.

Go is deceptively simple in principle, maddeningly complex in practice. It uses a 19-by-19 grid, and the rules can be meaningfully described in just one sentence: “You may place your stone (playing piece) on any point (intersection) on the board, but if I surround that stone, I may remove it.” When it becomes mathematically impossible to alter the outcome, the player controlling the most stones is the winner. 

The game originated in China and has been played for at least 2500 years. In fact, it was considered one of the four essential arts of the Chinese scholar-gentleman: music, calligraphy, painting, and Go. There are millions of Go players, but almost all of them live in the far East, particularly in Japan, which formalized the version we use today. The highest skill level belongs to professionals, who learn to play as young children and devote their lives to the game. The main story arc of the movie is the attempt by top players to win a national tournament and become the first American Go professional. 

These guys — and nearly all of them are guys — are obsessed with and humbled by the game. Take a look at a board midway through and you’ll sense that Go is many, many times more complex than chess (on its wimpy 8-by-8 surface). The possibilities with every move are orders of magnitude greater. Go is a series of little neighborhood skirmishes, but they’re happening all over the board, everywhere you look. If you’re not thinking ten, twenty moves ahead, a competent player will clobber you, and it’ll come as a surprise as you watch him pocket your stones. 

Watching the Go players in the movie, I was struck by certain similarities to backgammon, an even older game. I’ve played enough backgammon now that I don’t think of numbers on the board any more, but shapes. That’s one level of sophistication, and the big Go players are using this same kind of cognition; a play just “looks right.” But people who play backgammon for money have to think another step ahead because the game relies on chance, the rolling of dice. (Bobby Fischer hated backgammon for this reason: he couldn’t control the outcome simply with sound play.) So they have internalized the mathematical likelihood of each possible die roll. They are playing the odds. The worst backgammon player in the world can beat the best one in a single game with lucky rolls, but over time, any money will migrate to the wallet of the pro.

Top Go players seem to be regarding visual patterns as well, but of course there’s no luck involved, and they’re thinking far ahead, as a chess player does. Toward the end of the film, a group visits the elderly master Go Seigen in Japan. The fragile expert visibly brightens when the board is set before him. He sees an early move and calls it “strong” — and there’s nothing anywhere near the stone. He points out other “strong” spots on a virtually empty board. Fueled by hard-won experience, his mind is already many moves down the line.

The American players are a rich mix of obsessives — one of them even moved to Korea to study the game full-time (“it’s the one thing I don’t suck at”). But I received a slightly different vibe from them than from their Japanese counterparts. To most of the Americans, Go is more like a sport: it’s about winning, rankings, battle. To the great Japanese players — who are also proud of public acknowledgment of their skill levels — part of their mission is to communicate the beauty of Go to the rest of us. It’s bigger than they are, and that heartfelt humility in turn elevates them even further.

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I Saw This In Lisbon (It’s Lynchian)

September 7, 2018

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It’s Lynchtime

August 28, 2018

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I’ve been living inside the mind of David Lynch. Strange place to be. Sometimes the offbeat can induce euphoria; other times, only puzzlement. But for Lynch, that’s the whole idea.

I saw ERASERHEAD, Lynch’s first feature film, not all that long after it came out in 1977. It was definitely projected onto a screen but I was long gone from film school by then, and Jackson, Mississippi didn’t have any art houses. So who knows how or where. ERASERHEAD is a black-and-white dreamscape of outre and disturbing images — it was billed, doubtless in exasperation, as a “horror film” — but I distinctly remember the creepiest thing about it was the grim and foreboding sound design, an aspect of filmmaking which Lynch would continue to emphasize throughout his career.

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Jack Nance in ERASERHEAD.

I remember regarding ERASERHEAD as the stereotypical Very Good Student Film: avant garde and crammed with bold visual provocations. Many students begin this way (they are hilariously satirized in They Might Be Giants’ song “Experimental Film”), and Lynch was indeed ensconced at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles during the five years he scrambled through production in fits and starts. He was just one of many at the time, and ERASERHEAD was no less baffling to me than the out-there pioneers like Brakhage, Emshwiller and Mekas. What I didn’t realize was that discerning people in the film industry were really responding to it, even more than the hipsters who showed up at midnight screenings. 

One of them was Mel Brooks, who hired Lynch to direct THE ELEPHANT MAN (also in b&w), a big movie that looked great but at first glance had little to do with ERASERHEAD. Now suddenly an A-lister, Lynch nearly lost that status on his next film, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling science fiction epic DUNE, for which he still regrets bring seduced by a comfortable budget. In Lynch’s view, by surrendering final cut and thus his own vision, he failed twice: once by not finding an audience and again by not believing in the finished product anyway. But despite the flop, he maintained a good relationship with impresario Dino De Laurentiis on DUNE, and that led to the film that put him back on track. 

I had not been paying close attention all this time. I recognized Lynch’s name but I hadn’t grasped a throughline in his work, as I could easily see in, say, Stanley Kubrick. I didn’t care for DUNE, although despite what I saw as frequent ludicrousness there’s still lots to like, and it does grow on you (as with nearly everything Lynch has ever touched). But then came a screening I’ll never, ever forget.

I was a Jackson-area “secret shopper” for a movie theater chain. Twice a month or so, I’d go in, buy some concessions, watch a movie, then go out and back in again for a late show. (They’d reimburse me and pay me to boot. Sweet!) I’d be filling out a checklist later — Did the ticket-taker smile? Did they tear the ticket? etc. — and one of my duties was to go to the front and physically count the house just as the studio logo appeared at the beginning of the feature. If I didn’t feel like sticking around for the second feature, tallying the late-show house was my last chore. But one night something made me stay. I counted fifteen people in the auditorium, most of them middle-aged, and they’d been summoned by a dark display ad with a skin-filled clinch and the words “Blue Velvet” in innocent romantic script. I plunked down as audience member #16. Like the others, I had no idea what to expect.

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Dennis Hopper as one of the all-time greatest movie villains, with Isabella Rossellini in BLUE VELVET.

In case you haven’t seen BLUE VELVET, I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but it takes place in a romanticized Anytown U.S.A. that looks like it belongs in a Fifties sitcom: perhaps ironically, perhaps not. Yet there is a deep noir undercurrent of sexuality and violence that reveals itself first gradually and then explosively with the arrival of Dennis Hopper, who plays a dervish of pure malevolence. His first scene, maybe twenty minutes in, is so jaw-droppingly off the scale that it cleared the house that night. There was only one person remaining by the time Hopper exited: me. And as the credits rolled past your shaken servant an hour and a half later, I had one basic question: what kind of mind could possibly dream up something like this? David Lynch was now officially on my radar. And next up was his single most famous creation. Of all things, this crazy guy got a television series.

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“Lynch’s work resides in the complicated zone where the beautiful and the damned collide,” writes Kristine McKenna in a wonderful new “biography,” ROOM TO DREAM. It’s also an “autobiography” because McKenna and Lynch trade chapters: she’ll objectively discuss one phase of his career and then he’ll go over the same timeframe in first person, sometimes even disagreeing with his co-author’s sources. He is “sensitive to the entropy that instantly begins eating away at every new thing.” Like Tim Burton, perhaps a creative cousin, Lynch is first and foremost an artist, in the drawing sense. But where Burton typically wraps an eccentric and enjoyable sensibility around an established pattern or genre, Lynch’s dream-logic becomes its own art form, in any medium which can contain it. Once you sync in, you must succumb, but the lushness and brassiness of Lynch’s images make it easy.

Judging from this book, Lynch had a happy, stable childhood, though he says he was “longing for something out of the ordinary to happen.” He was born in Montana and spent significant years in Boise, Idaho (as did another artistic anomaly, Matthew Barney). He was a popular, charming kid and had many good friends of both genders. David was fourteen when his father, a research scientist, was transferred from their beloved Boise to Alexandria, Virginia, and the culture shock was challenging. But here he met his lifelong best friend, Jack Fisk, and his first mentor in “the art life,” Bushnell Keeler. Since then, Lynch has been creating visual art in nearly every waking moment. His journey into film began in an art studio, when he imagined ”a little wind” in his own painting of lush green foliage. 

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Lynch often presents bucolic images against phantasmic, almost hallucinatory counterpoints. TWIN PEAKS is set in a little Pacific Northwest logging town, postcard-perfect like BLUE VELVET’s, which is immediately rent by the discovery of a homecoming queen’s corpse in the series’s first moments. It’s a slightly askew attitude that surprised and fascinated the audience: in the TWIN PEAKS universe, the banal is remarkable (at one point a man silently sweeps the floor of a barroom for two and a half long minutes, but there’s method to the madness) and the remarkable is banal (a woman carries a small log around everywhere she goes and claims it communicates to her, yet nobody thinks anything of it). 

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Catherine E. Coulson as the Log Lady.

TWIN PEAKS wraps the soap opera form around a murder mystery, but its out-there viewpoint made it a water-cooler sensation when the first nine episodes aired in 1990. It pervaded the culture. If you saw something a little strange, you might toot out the show’s Duane-Eddyish twangy-guitar theme; it became synonymous with that dee-dee-dee-dee TWILIGHT ZONE figure. I was way hooked and I wasn’t alone. But entropy started devouring the show almost immediately. As a flabbergasted ABC found a hit on its hands and ordered a second 22-episode season, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost were becoming overwhelmed by the petty demands of series tv, such as handing off writing and directing duties. Lynch himself was losing interest in the project as control slipped away, and worst of all, midway through the season they identified the murderer, a plot denouement from which the show never really recovered. It began hemorrhaging its audience. The TWIN PEAKS pop-cultural moment was over. Only diehards remained.

Thing is, though, I missed the comedown. Just before the second season I became a book editor (one who also had lots of catching up to do) and my tv watching time evaporated. I did not see a moment of the second season or a “prequel” feature which Lynch shot immediately after, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. Fade out, at least for me, on TWIN PEAKS.

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The Red Room, the most bizarre place on television.

Fade in, 25 years later. Showtime (meaning CBS) announces that Lynch and Frost are going to revive the series without the strictures of sponsored tv — no censors, no interruption, no commercials. Lynch and Frost personally wrote and Lynch personally directed all eighteen hours (in which a fictional 25 years have also passed for all the characters) and I had plenty of time to watch them last year. The frisson was back. I was blown away, even though some of it was lost on me. I know this because I deliberately worked on my ignorance by embarking on a TWIN PEAKS odyssey.

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A typically Lynchian image. Whaaaa?

Once the new series came to its time-twisting conclusion, I decided to go back and fill in the blanks in strict narrative order. So I watched the prequel movie (set during the week just before the series begins), then the first tv season from 1990, then the second season I’d missed in 1991, and finally I re-screened Showtime’s 2017 third season. It took me a couple weeks shy of a year to make my way through it all. (I didn’t rush myself, sensing that binging on TWIN PEAKS might be injurious.) 

My first takeaway, once I caught my breath, was the hyper-normality that infuses life in Twin Peaks. That’s descended from soap operas, to be sure, but here it’s frequently hard to tell whether “real life” is being celebrated or lampooned. Lynch, who earnestly uses phrases like “peachy keen” in conversation, is no help. Neither is the series’s lead character, “FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper,” played to square perfection by Kyle MacLachlan, also the star of Lynch’s DUNE and BLUE VELVET. Agent Cooper has been sent to town to investigate the murder, and everything delights him: he’s forever rhapsodizing about the coffee, the pie, the smell of douglas firs.

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Kyle MacLachlan as Special Agent Dale Cooper.

However, look more closely at this Ward & June Cleaver world and you’ll notice strange things lurking in the shadows, even sinister things. The surreal lives next door to the ordinary. Sometimes the weirdness is funny and sometimes it’s terrifying. The atmosphere remains truly unique to Lynch, even when the intensity noticeably drops during Season Two. That’s when the murderer is revealed and the program flails in search of a compelling storyline. Those quirky eccentricities among the main characters begin to be the show rather than feed the show. But judging from the final few episodes, the creators had no intention of tying things up in a neat package. In fact, the very last shot of Season Two gave us a terrific plot twist…

…which remained unexplored until 25 years had gone by, both on the show and for real. (True fans must have been livid to have been left with such a cliffhanger, but that’s how the cookie crumbled.) 

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On my first viewing of Season Three last year, I could tell I was missing little bits of significance because I’d left the story midway through. But it was amazing how well “TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN” worked for me even out of context. First, there were the amazing hi-def images. I saw INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch’s most recent feature, at the 2006 New York Film Festival, where he told us he didn’t think he’d ever shoot on film again. The freedom and spontaneity of digital photography really paid off on what must have been a massive and grueling shoot: Season Three looks spectacular. And because I was more accustomed to Lynch’s sensibility, I was able to ignore any blind spots and just float down the river with him. About halfway through, I knew I just had to get a deeper perspective by screening the entire epic.

Season Three felt so comfortable because, as much as possible, Lynch and Frost basically got the band back together: key actors and crew members, the eerie atmospherics and hypnotic “dream-pop” of composer Angelo Badalamenti, and a fabulous narrative that plays off the startling premise that fans had been denied for a quarter century. I was of course unschooled, so my second screening of Season Three turned out to be even more fun: in almost every episode there are callbacks to the original series, but lots of them were over my head the first time through. Lynch and Frost did a beautiful job of connecting loose strands from Season Two, the one in which they were largely absent caretakers, and giving them real retroactive significance.

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The beginning of an extended passage in S3E8 that gobsmacked everybody.

The eighth episode broadcast by Showtime is a particular amazement. The producers chose it to submit for Emmys (TP earned nine nominations, including for writing, directing and sound design). I’ve never seen anything like it on television. Most of this hour passes without dialogue. After some plot cleanup and a song from Nine Inch Nails at the Twin Peaks “roadhouse,” the rest of the episode depicts the arrival of pure malignant evil on Earth with the “Trinity event,” the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945. When it was over, I started telling people it was like watching outtakes from ERASERHEAD (most of this image-rich section is shown in black and white, for a retro as well as gonzo feel). So, immediately after seeing it, I went back and screened ERASERHEAD again after an even longer span of time had passed. I discovered there was a direct line to TWIN PEAKS — meaning Lynch does indeed have a Kubrickian artistic signature. 

Lynch’s sets are populated by people who have worked with him forever and it’s a tight-knit clan. The star of ERASERHEAD is Jack Nance (he’s appeared in every Lynch film except for the atypical pair THE ELEPHANT MAN and THE STRAIGHT STORY). Nance’s then-wife was Catherine E. Coulson, who was the assistant director and Lynch’s right hand on the film; she went on to play the Log Lady in TWIN PEAKS, which uses other crew members who’ve also been with Lynch since ERASERHEAD. There’s the famous Red Room zigzag carpet design (a bit of TWIN PEAKS iconography) in Lynch’s very first feature. It’s the same mind.

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The zigzag carpet, long before TWIN PEAKS.

That’s why TWIN PEAKS, in particular that gorgeous third season, is so exciting. Season Three is nothing less than an eighteen-hour David Lynch film, divined so freely that Showtime execs had no idea how many episodes there would be when they agreed to the project. Something like this will probably never happen again, because it’s already been established that when Frost and Lynch take their hands off the wheel, the work suffers. Lynch has earned the right to relax a little (he won’t) and suck on some of his beloved Lynch-Bages. (I’d probably love Dupree-Bages if such a thing existed.) But judging from ROOM TO DREAM, he hasn’t stopped moving yet.

David Lynch just makes me feel better. Following his career, I’m gratified that a man can assume “the art life” and continue on that personal path no matter what. No matter the public reception, the strictures of his chosen industry, the lack of resources, or any of the other gremlins which get in the way of most people and stand between them and their vision. This guy makes works of art that are all his own — and they’re nothing if not peachy keen.

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Lynch in his hilarious TP role as Agent Cooper’s boss, the near-deaf Deputy Director Gordon Cole.


Danger In Delaware!

July 24, 2018

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1683690397?ie=UTF8&tag=yoanmedu-20&camp=1789&linkCode=xm2&creativeASIN=1683690397

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.


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 — here and now — 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 my Century City hotel, I said on the phone, “Down South when we say something like this we mean it, but I’m letting you back out now.” “No, no,” he said, ”come on over.” I followed his directions to Sherman Oaks in my rental car — I hate driving in LA! — and they were precise down to the individual bottleneck. My reward was several happy hours eating Chinese takeout 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 delicate 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.


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