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.


Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018

June 29, 2018

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Some musicians don’t need a last name. Cher doesn’t. Neither do 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 alongside J. D. Salinger, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury and Eudora Welty. There are 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 post-consultation with wife Susan) that his beef had not been 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) had already 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 sure 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.

 


Fabula Interruptus And Other Problems

July 5, 2015

This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

When I read that ABC was planning to turn Ray Bradbury’s short story “Zero Hour” into a tv series, I rolled my eyes, as I’m sure would most others familiar with the piece. It had been one of those pin-pricking yarns that really got to me as a kid, probably because of the parent issues involved. I was creeped out by “The Veldt” and Ray’s mushroom-growing boy in the same way. That ol’ Bradbury could really get under your skin, as in “Fever Dream,” another super-squirmish tale. The disquieting thing they all share is that the parents aren’t really, really listening, and it is they who putatively control reality for their kids. As a youngster in THE WHISPERS, the resulting series, tells her mother, grownups don’t know what’s really happening. They only think they do.

But wow, a whole tv series? This story can’t be more than 5,000 words long. Look it up and go read it right now. “Zero Hour.” It’ll take you fifteen minutes, tops. Then we’ll continue. If you have to order a Bradbury story collection to read “Zero Hour,” then I’ll see you after it arrives, at which point I will accept your gratitude for steering you to a really good book. You’re welcome.

Now. After watching as many episodes as tv critics usually get in advance to evaluate a new series (three or four), I have to concede that I’m rather pleased with how the WHISPERS writers have been able to “open up” the story. Having just read it (or watched or heard it; the previous two links guide you to tv and radio adaptations for printophobes), you already know, sort of, who or what the children’s invisible friend “Drill” is, and that is still the undercurrent that informs the entire shebang. But non-Bradburian plot points are opening up like flower petals as the little teeny story inspires a big multipart saga. And THE WHISPERS is hardly alone. We’re living in a Golden Age of scripted television. Not some fabled long ago. Right this dadburn second. But this age has brought with it some huge problems.

The LOST cast asks,

The LOST cast asks, “WTF?”

Everybody thought scripted tv had gone to hell after SURVIVOR ushered in a new wave of “reality” shows (they have their own writers, but let’s set that aside for now) as the century turned, and for a depressing little while it really looked that way. But creativity, like water, will always try to find a way into your home, and in my opinion the important hinge for scripted tv was fall 2004, when this same ABC premiered both LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. It’s true that THE SOPRANOS had started carving its path through the jungle as early as 1999. But subscription cable like HBO has a built-in ceiling. Even today, the recent record-breaking Season Five finale of GAME OF THRONES could only attract 8 million and change, meaning non-thief viewers coming from the subscriber pool. Those earlier two ABC series, in contrast, were beamed out on a Big Four broadcast network, and they flipped out the folks en masse.

(N.B.: Every time the Writers Guild calls a strike, it puts more writers out of work in the long run. “Reality” began as a palsied defensive salvo from the networks, but damn if it didn’t catch on!)

Soap operas and their prime-time cousins (e.g., DALLAS) aside, most dramas in the history of television had been episodic, meaning you could watch them in any order and they’d still make sense. LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES broke that mold on network tv. They were each one long serial tale, a series of weekly cliffhangers that not only required ordered viewing, but also felt compelled to feed the audience enough backstory at the top each week to create a new catchphrase: “Previously on LOST.” Now damn near everybody else works that way too.

The good news: a come-hither format that, when artfully executed, can deliver a sprawling story that resembles an epic novel but also makes you pant for next week’s continuation (this format took hold long before the instant gratification of streaming and bingeing became possible; see below). The bad news: these days it’s almost impossible to earn anything from domestic syndication, even with the jumbled-up episodic sitcoms that are perfect time-fillers and once celebrated their 100th episodes (they’d made enough of them to deal to local stations) more than their original green-lights: now we’re gonna get rich!

Even without the syndication market, LOST and HOUSEWIVES were such monster hits, bolstering ABC’s other shows on their air nights, that the law of diminishing returns was invoked and we began to see dozens of crappy imitators. Their fates helped change viewing patterns and, I submit, the very willingness of audiences to try out new programs.

THE EVENT cast asks,

THE EVENT cast asks, “WTF?”

An important personal touchstone was THE EVENT, a series that NBC launched in fall 2010, after LOST had just finally ended its six-year tale. Like LOST, THE EVENT was a vaguely foreboding story whose secrets and surprises began just out of camera range and were filled in gradually. The production looked like a million bucks, the cast were all seasoned pros, NBC promoted it as hard as humanly possible, and I started watching the 22-episode first season, having found a new hour per week with the finale of my beloved LOST. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough colleagues in dens and media rooms across the country, and NBC cancelled the program after a single season — even though the drumrolled “event” of the title had not yet taken place!

I felt cheated, foolish, taken advantage of. NBC had utterly wasted my time, pulled a rug out from under me. (Of course ratings are ratings and tv is a business, I get it, but I was still one disappointed customer.) However, THE EVENT did teach me a lesson. Now I’m wary enough to really pick and choose with healthy skepticism among the time-sinks competing for my attention. And I’m not alone. Nor is THE EVENT. While I was writing this piece, NBC pulled the plug on AMERICAN ODYSSEY, whatever that is, after one lone season. If you were interested in its story, better get disinterested right away.

This LOST/EVENT template, a weekly serial which may or may not actually reach its payoff, is being replicated all over the dial. Ten or twenty scripted mega-stories launch every year now. The latest innovation is the “summer series,” like UNDER THE DOME or THE STRAIN, which brings the tv calendar full circle and makes “the new season” year-round. But also spiking is the threat of cancellation.

An entire little town asks,

An entire little town asks, “WTF?”

This attrition-in-disgust resentment is not news to those who fashion our programs, the suits and showrunners. So some clever people decided to cut losses and introduce something new: the non-serial series. AMERICAN HORROR STORY proved so creepy and visceral that its producers said, renew us and we’ll reboot for another unrelated ten-episode story; all we’ll promise is the same sensibility. FARGO made the identical move: we’re going to set our ten episodes within the world of the Coen brothers’ movie, then we’ll reset and try another story within the same milieu. (That’s how you can get, say, Billy Bob Thornton to star: the gig has an end date.) I read that WAYWARD PINES was always planned as ten episodes with a beginning and an end, but it’s been doing pretty well, so we’ll see if Fox can resist the temptation to plod on serially.

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks,

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks, “WTF?”

THE WHISPERS, the Bradbury-inspired series, begins with the story’s unsettling premise — single-digit children in an idyllic Bradburian suburban setting begin playing “a game” with their friend, whom older siblings and adults cannot perceive — and then opens into a dark conspiracy involving defense secrets, an unexplainable something found on the other side of the world, an amnesiac who seems to be oddly connected to it all, and two troubled marriages that help keep the proceedings at human level. Like Stephen King’s best novels, like LOST itself, THE WHISPERS is most effective when the audience is still digging through the initial mysteries. As the writers inevitably begin to explain themselves, the piece visibly loses power, like many second halves of King novels. That’s also happening with Fox’s isolated-town tale WAYWARD PINES, whose “reveal” (if indeed true; I haven’t read the source books so can’t be sure) is so preposterous that it induces a bit of recoil in the viewer. Its isolated-town cousin, UNDER THE DOME, which just began its third season on CBS, is suffering from the same problem: the story is getting away from itself through weirder and weirder complications (LOST devotees may empathize). I have read DOME’s source novel — by our pal Stephen King — and if the book’s ultimate reveal is preserved for tv, there are going to be some angry viewers, because it just doesn’t support the ever more elaborate buildup.

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask,

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask, “WTF?”

The fly in the ointment, of course, is streaming. HOUSE OF CARDS fans on Netflix are watching a serialized story too, but they can consume a whole season’s worth over a weekend, because the entire batch is released at once. Network tv uses a different business model, so they’re obliged to beg you to take a chance. In opposition, Netflix is teaching viewers that they can put off weekly gratification in favor of having the whole enchilada. (Back in the heyday of DVD, many people would buy whole seasons on disk and tear through them all at once. Binge-watching is nothing new.) If the networks worked that way, they’d have to “drop” a season for streaming and wait for the reaction before green-lighting the next one. Meanwhile more and more viewers will still call their bluff and fail to commit until they’re sure there will be a satisfying major-chord ending. The relationship between creator and consumer may be turning into a Leone/Tarantino Mexican standoff.

And that’s gonna make a great open-ended series.

7/27/15: WAYWARD PINES ended with a startling turnabout (evidently departing from the source books) that will encourage some to want a theoretical second season. They did explode the initial premise, but they are not leaving it alone.

8/31/15: I knew it. UNDER THE DOME is no more.

10/22/15: And today we learned that ABC is sending THE WHISPERS to the tv graveyard after one season. It started strongly, but then the writers slowly went nuts. By season’s end, the only thing left from Bradbury’s story was the name Drill.

6/2/16: WAYWARD PINES, now ensconced in its Season One-ending setting and minus most of its Season One cast, has devolved into the Rebels against the Empire. I quit watching forever after about :20. Everything that was fresh in S1 has been leached out. Ugh.


(Imagined) Revenge Of The Nerds

August 30, 2013

Dice

By the time DUNGEONS & DRAGONS exploded as a full-bore cultural phenomenon in the early Eighties, my friends and I were already past high school and college, the game’s demographic sweet spots. So we were spared the inevitable schoolmate scorn and taunting that follow “D&D” players wherever they go. (Well, almost spared. The local paper did a story on the new craze and talked to a few of us, and for a week or so I got, “You actually play that nerdy game?”)

David M. Ewalt wasn’t so lucky. He caught the D&D bug at age ten and fell for it harder than anyone I know personally. He even went GAFIA (that’s fannish for Getting Away From It All, also something only a nerd would know) for a few years, became a journalist (he writes for Forbes now), met and married a beautiful girl – and then was pulled back into his lifelong hobby. OF DICE AND MEN is the story of one of the most creative and innovative games ever invented, told in a breezy, cheerful style telegraphed by its title. Mr. Ewalt wants to fix D&D in its deserved cultural place of honor, and also introduce you to the kind of people who are attracted to it: “My people,” as he writes.

My group of friends picked up the game out of sheer curiosity. The snippets we heard from the outside just didn’t add up: this isn’t a “game” in the usual sense because there is no winner; the players don’t compete, they cooperate; they each play a character that’s completely imaginary, as does an actor; and though you can trick up the experience to ridiculous extremes, all you really need to play D&D is a pencil and paper and some funny-looking dice. We bought a couple of rule books and shoved off – and were immediately fascinated.

Mr. Ewalt traces the game’s origins all the way back to chess, that iconic bloodless simulation of battle, and watches its evolution through “wargaming,” in which military buffs recreate actual battles from history and introduce an element of chance, so that with sound leadership and good luck, the side which lost in reality might even come out on top. The most famous mass-produced military wargame is Avalon Hill’s GETTYSBURG – you can imagine the appeal to descendants of both sides – but wargaming’s true believers keep it as real as possible, using tiny lead figurines atop ping-pong-table-sized dioramas of the genuine terrain. It was a group of wargamers who had the inspiration to leap from history into fantasy, improving kludgy medieval-battle rules and turning a player’s attention from hundreds of infantrymen to – and here’s the genius part – one individual, recurring, personality-possessing character. The bird’s-eye view gave way to the mind’s-eye view, and by fits and starts, the “fantasy role-playing game” was created and refined.

Mr. Ewalt is particularly adept at explaining this concept; he assumes you know even less about D&D than we did when we started. A group of “player-characters,” their skills and attributes determined by rolls of those funny-shaped dice, go on a cooperative adventure under the direction of a Dungeon Master (DM), who creates the fictional setting and acts as referee. The characters have their own individual personalities, abilities and even moral leanings. As they work their way through a scenario that only the DM can see, the players search for treasure, fight monsters (“monster” is the term used for any opponent), and face whatever trials the DM can conjure. This group’s story (the “campaign”) is open-ended and can last for weeks, months, even years. Success in most everything, including fighting, is determined by die rolls, some of them cast by the DM out of the players’ view. Besides completing the specific quest or mission, the long-term goal is to stay alive – each character has a finite number of “hit points” – and accumulate experience to make oneself more powerful and harder to defeat. The setting of most of these games is medieval, though the same general concept has been adapted to Westerns, postapocalyptic cities, outer space – even the cinematic world of STAR WARS has its own role-playing game. But the daddy of them all, and still far and away the most popular, is DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (the origin of one of our most recognizable trademarks is a delightful little anecdote which I’ll leave for you to discover in the book), whose DNA comes straight from Tolkien, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance.

If you’re following me here, you may have already observed that this game rewards creativity and improvisational skills. Unsurprisingly, its former players include improv geniuses like Stephen Colbert and Robin Williams, and an untold number of professional storytellers, including Neal Stephenson, Ray Feist, Mike Stackpole and dozens of others. Not to photo-bomb myself into that canon, but my own first pro fiction sales were to D&D paperback anthologies; it was a natural fit for me. I even used character names from our old group in homage – and I earned back every cent I’d spent on the game and then some, which made me feel great.

Mr. Ewalt doesn’t shy away from personal intrigue, such as the corporate politics that (depending on who you talk to) either victimized the game’s major creative force, E. Gary Gygax, or else finally gave him what had been coming to him all along. The other elephant in the room is addressed as well: the 80s “flap” (to use a UFO term, for that’s what it most resembled) over D&D’s supposed malefic influence on young people. If you still actually believe that D&D promotes either Satanism or teen suicide, you should probably stay away from this book and you should definitely stay away from me. As with the uproar against “death metal” that until recently contributed to the continued circumstantial incarceration of the West Memphis Three, these thinly sourced accusations proliferated, reaching as vaunted a megaphone as 60 MINUTES. CBS used a psychologist who was later stripped of his medical license, and ignored letters from two mothers of cited suicides who said the game had nothing to do with their children’s deaths. The low point was probably the terrible 1982 Tom Hanks TV movie MAZES & MONSTERS, based on a terrible novel by Rona Jaffe.

My only beef with this lighthearted, knowledgeable, authoritative work is something which veteran D&D players have long learned to shun: the “home-movie syndrome.” When you’ve all just gone through a harrowing adventure together, it can be fun to talk about it over a beer afterward. But the only thing more boring than hearing about another campaign waged by total strangers is your relatives’ home movies of their vacation trip. Unfortunately, Mr. Ewalt relies far too heavily on recounting a certain campaign of his Brooklyn-based gang: it’s useful at first for a real-time demonstration of how the game works in practice, but it soon becomes wearisome, and I’d imagine that goes double for anybody who doesn’t have any particular desire to play D&D.

He redeems himself, though, in a beautiful section reporting on a live-action role-playing (as opposed to D&D’s paper-and-dice role-playing) weekend called Overworld, held annually in Connecticut. It sounds at first like the Society for Creative Anachronism – a bunch of people in phony chain mail swinging padded broadswords – but the lovingly crafted, immersive experience turns out to be much more profound, inspiring Mr. Ewalt to create his own campaign setting for the very first time, and guess what: his invention sounds wonderful! He ends with a poignant, heartfelt coda in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, ancestral home of D&D, where he attends the annual convention held in Gygax’s memory and visits the old locations where the struggling little company got its start nearly forty years ago. Those structures are either gone or changed, but somehow their significance lingers – and, thanks to this lovely book, maybe that genuine cultural impact can now be made permanent.


How To Read The Lucasfilm Deal

November 6, 2012

In all the hullabaloo over the new Disney/LFL kissyface, who cares about something as mundane as books? I do, that’s who.

Yes, this is all speculation. Yes, I don’t know what I’m talking about. (Exactly how does that distinguish me from the rest of the blogosphere?) I don’t know what this deal will mean to jobs at either Disney or Lucasfilm, though as a survivor of a big publishing acquisition, I can assure you that the buyer holds all the cards. However, unlike most, I do speak as someone with a modicum of backstage knowledge anent the STAR WARS book-publishing program, b/c I was part of the team that revived it in the 1990s. This acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd. – and Lucas Licensing, let’s make sure to underline – by Disney may actually disturb the “canon” that has long been established in the library universe. If that should happen, the movie arm will simply swat that literary stuff away – or maybe it’s all bigger than that! I wouldn’t imagine Disney has even considered the issues I’m about to raise, but future fans will. So adjust your propeller beanies, and let’s blast off!

When Bantam offered to extend the fictional lives of STAR WARS characters in the early 90s, everybody assumed there was nothing to lose. As I’ve already written, the property itself was only on simmer. Let Han and Leia marry, and even have kids. Where was the downside? As it happened, though, Bantam’s releases ignited a long-simmering powder keg among STAR WARS fans, and demonstrated a huge pent-up demand for more stories in this universe. These books set in action a sequence of events that directly led to the filmed “prequel trilogy.” Without book-length kindling, you’d have no new movies. (I’ve heard a cynic or two say, “Great!,” but I don’t share that view. I’m inspired by the fact that printed books, just words on paper, were still able to have such an impact on popular culture at the end of the twentieth century, and I enjoyed the prequel movies, especially Episode III, far more than their detractors seem willing to concede is even possible.)

However, nobody – in my view, not even George – reckoned on a potential continuation of the cinematic STAR WARS story beyond the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI. He’s always said it was a nine-film saga (and if you believe Disney’s gonna stop after STAR WARS Episode IX, I have a storm-weathered suspension bridge to Brooklyn on which you might care to bid), but I truly don’t believe he ever thought his bluff would actually be called. That’s why he gave Bantam the go-ahead to set its first novel five years later. STAR WARS author Tim Zahn has already weighed in on this issue, and maybe there is some wiggle room. But Disney announced that as part of the deal, George has already delivered treatments for the next three films.

If Disney/Lucasfilm declares with a feature film that the generation-ago literary tie-ins must have occurred in some parallel universe, what will happen to the stories, some elements of which have already crept into the filmed “canon”? You’ll wind up with a Moebius-strip narrative that’ll make the hugely episodic STAR TREK story look Dickensian by comparison, the same kind of jam in which DC Comics found itself when it finally decided to blow everything up in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. Some comics fans still aren’t sure what’s what, and that happened twenty-five years ago!

The STAR WARS book publishing program has long been bled very thin, and its subjects these days are mostly outliers in the universe, increasingly decipherable only by fanboys and girls. That’s why most of the books no longer make the New York Times bestseller list. (Although I have no doubt they’re still hugely profitable, and that Del Rey Books is delighted to have the program around.) It will be fascinating to watch what happens if the next three films intrude on what has already been published. I assure you that new movies will take precedence over old books – but how then will the Empire manage to preserve what it already holds?

4/25/14: Today, as I predicted in graf 2 up there, Lucasfilm announced that new STAR WARS material going forward will only consider the movies, animated series, and certain aspects of 80s-era role-playing games to be “history.” The books and stuff, I guess, officially didn’t happen. Here’s Variety’s report.

11/2/15: Today we learned that Lucasfilm has requested that Del Rey postpone the hardcover publication of its Alan Dean Foster novelization of the next movie, THE FORCE AWAKENS — and Del Rey has, duh, said ok. The e-publication can go on for mid-December and the release of the movie, but Disney was concerned that the long lead time necessary for print publication, what with presses and proofs and such, created an environment ripe for fan spoiling. (It’s way harder to get an advance copy of an e-book.) This means that Del Rey must cede the lucrative holiday season for what would undoubtedly have been a huge bestseller, the ultimate tie-in; they’ll pub in print in January. But the former LFL is the proverbial golden goose, so any prudent publisher does whatever the hell it says. (Remind me sometime to tell you about Bantam and the DICK TRACY movie.)


L-U-C…

October 31, 2012

The news that The Walt Disney Company will buy the privately held Lucasfilm Ltd. for $4.05 billion in cash and stock is surprising but not unexpected. There is still a bit of George Lucas DNA within Pixar, whose hardware-oriented progenitor he founded in 1979, although there’s more of Steve Jobs’s in the company as it exists today. But you can bet they were watching in Marin and at the Presidio as Disney acquired Pixar in 2006 and integrated it into the larger company.

The Lucas people surely had one essential question: can Pixar retain its creative independence inside one of the world’s greatest marketing juggernauts? In other words, will the suits push Pixar around? They surely smiled as John Lasseter, Pixar’s human heartbeat, became Chief Creative Officer not only of Pixar but also of Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Principal Creative Advisor to Walt Disney Imagineering (i.e., theme-park attractions). Pixar’s Ed Catmull took over as President of the Disney animation unit. Far from stifling the Emeryville kids, Disney anointed Pixar as the future of its entire animation effort. Jobs – whom nobody pushed around – even negotiated hands-off exceptions in such mundane areas as human resources: for example, Pixar had no employment contracts before the acquisition, and it has none now.

The Disney guy who did the Pixar deal and agreed to all this stuff was Bob Iger, the chairman and CEO. He believes in two things: stewardship of Disney’s existing assets – mainly its iconic characters and franchises – and growth through acquisition of other iconic characters and franchises. Financial mavens thought he’d paid too much for Pixar, but their amazing string of blockbusters continues. They thought he’d paid too much for Marvel Entertainment in 2009, but its first movie for Disney, THE AVENGERS, blew past the billion-and-a-half mark worldwide and became the third biggest picture of all time. They’re going to give Iger a pass on Lucasfilm. Good call.

Disney gets ILM, Skywalker Sound, and other state-of-the-art outfits (it does not get Skywalker Ranch or any of George’s Marin real estate), but Iger really coveted just two words: Star and Wars. If George is to be believed, he originally planned STAR WARS as a nine-film saga, and as part of the deal he has delivered a “detailed treatment” for the next three films. Iger expects that Lucasfilm’s first production as a Disney subsidiary will be STAR WARS Episode VII in 2015 (the same year that the chairman will step down from hands-on control of the Disney empire), but you can also count on seeing new STAR WARS product on TV, in the parks, in the stores, everywhere. From Disney’s point of view, it’s a natural fit: one of the best-loved trademarks in the world, around the world. Indiana Jones is murkier, because the distribution deal is with rival Paramount; my guess is that Indy has permanently retired, but stranger things have happened. What this does is trade a sure thing (STAR WARS) for an iffy thing or two (JOHN CARTER) in the Disney schedule – and lets the studio take full financial advantage, rather than serving as distributor/marketer-for-hire, as Fox did with the prequel trilogy.

From George’s point of view, he never expected to be in this position. He was a USC Young Turk, a member of the “Dirty Dozen,” as they called themselves, talented indies who were going to change filmmaking in guerrilla style. But as fate would have it, he and another indie-centric filmmaker changed the business in ways which amazed even themselves. The unexpected success of both JAWS and STAR WARS ushered in the age of the summer blockbuster. And George – who formed Lucasfilm in 1971, just a few years after he was the toast of the town for his amazing student film ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB – was only transformed when he offered his services as the writer/director of STAR WARS for a modest fee in exchange for all sequel and merchandising rights, which at the time were viewed as worthless. Sequels? We’re in the George Lucas business, all right, especially after AMERICAN GRAFFITI, but this thing is so crazy, we might not even get the first one released; it’s science fiction, and that never makes money. Merchandising? It takes decades to sell Lone Ranger and Superman lunch boxes, my friend! Hindsight is 20/20, and today George Lucas is one of the two richest – and best known – filmmakers in the world. The other one is his old buddy Steven Spielberg. Definitely not what they signed up for.

You could hear George’s frustration when he went on Jon Stewart earlier this year to promote RED TAILS, a Lucasfilm production (i.e., George’s own money) about the WWII Tuskegee Airmen. He said there were two more potential movies on the subject, the backstory and the future, but no studio was interested. Neither, it turned out, was a big audience. You’re forgiven if while watching RED TAILS you think you’re just seeing the last reel of STAR WARS again, because Lucas and his editor and then-wife, Marcia, assembled WWII dogfight footage to guide and inspire the STAR WARS team. A circular progression. But still, it had to be a huge disappointment.

George understands that, however it happened, he’s created a multi-generational piece of fantasy that now belongs to the ages. Parents proudly show STAR WARS to their kids, and they love it in turn. The closest example I can think of is the 1939 film version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s also a timeless perennial. But unlike STAR WARS, since the dawn of home video OZ has only been able to hitch a ride on each new bit of technology: VCR, Laserdisk, DVD, Blu-Ray, etc. They’re already prepping a 2013 re-issue in 3-D. (Wanna feel old? If a new STAR WARS film is actually released in 2015, then the time span between it and the movie that started it all will equal the span between that moment in 1977 and the original theatrical release of THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s been that long, boys and girls.) In comparison, there’s so much more potential story in the STAR WARS saga. And it’s clear by now that this saga is going to survive George Lucas. His driving passion for the property may already be waning – after all, he was pretty much beaten up personally (and, in my view, too zealously) over the prequel trilogy. Why not hand it over to some people who will carry it forward – and judging from the Pixar track record, should be able to preserve the qualities that made it great?

George is only 68. Nobody believes this is “retirement” for him. I think he’s going to make smaller pictures and scratch that itch that brought him to film school in the first place, just like his mentor (and fellow blockbuster survivor) Francis Coppola is doing. With $4 billion more – and his new position as a major Disney shareholder – George will now have the time and treasure to think about other stuff besides his DIY empire. And woe be to the Disney exec who tries to release a STAR WARS film that George isn’t willing to publicly say he likes. But there’s an easy way to make people drool for tix to SW VII, and I’ll bet Lucasfilm’s new owner has already thought of it.

To direct, hire this kid on the Universal lot.

The name’s Spielberg.

11/1/12: Late yesterday afternoon, George announced that the bulk of the proceeds from the Disney sale would go to philanthropy, specifically to fund education programs.

3/13/13: And now we know that the director of Episode VII will be J. J. Abrams, the resuscitator of STAR TREK, who is Spielberg to a younger crowd.

12/25/15: And now we know that J. J. succeeded.


Ralph McQuarrie, 1929-2012

March 4, 2012

I knew Ralph McQuarrie’s name even before I began working on the STAR WARS property. This was the man who had helped George Lucas visualize what he was trying to do, back when the director’s eye was still earthbound. Here’s what George himself has to say.

By the time I finally “met” Ralph, I was editing a book called THE ILLUSTRATED STAR WARS UNIVERSE, which, with Kevin Anderson’s wonderful, in-character help, showed late-Nineties STAR WARS fans where it all came from. We printed, as accurately as we possibly could, some of Ralph’s concept paintings (he even did some especially for us), and Kevin’s beautiful, funny prose helped place them in context. We were focusing on places throughout the then-three-film canon, but also adding some locations that we book-people ourselves were concentrating on, such as Coruscant, the planet-spanning Imperial City.

I got to speak with Mr. McQuarrie during this project, and found him just as everyone else has: a soft-spoken, generous visionary who wanted his work reproduced as precisely as possible. I am so pleased that George continues to this day to acknowledge Ralph’s contribution to the STAR WARS universe. There was a great disturbance in the Force today.


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