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.

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Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018

June 29, 2018

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

Harlan.

And now there are none left.

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

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

Harlan was part of the second wave of fantastic fiction (the third if you count Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, but I want to simplify), following behind Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and the other pioneers. His generation — Norman Spinrad, J. G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin, even Kurt Vonnegut — tested the boundaries of what had been known as “science fiction” or “fantasy.” Why was legitimate metaphorical musing on the human condition relegated to a literary ghetto? Somebody (Fred Pohl?) once said, “Science fiction deals with all places in the universe and all times in infinity. Therefore, ‘mainstream’ fiction — 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, when or where) 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 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 was part of mine, and I will definitely miss that growl “DUPREE!” on the phone. Any suits at any hereafters which might get the Ellison assignment would be well advised to play by the rules. Or else you’re gonna be so sorry.


So Long, Keppler

June 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Christ Goes To Brooklyn

April 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Josh Mostel as Herod in the movie.

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

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


An I For An Eye

December 21, 2016

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I’m having the video equivalent of what serious audiophiles must have gone through when digital recording appeared in the Eighties. I can barely believe I used the term “video,” but that’s the age we live in. Sometimes it’s all too digital.

We bought each other a holiday gift this year, a new tv to replace the ten-plus-year-old one. Back in vinyl days, all you had to worry about on your stereo was whether the left channel was connected to the left speaker: you uncrated and assembled in half an hour and thought you were MacGyver. But today’s gear is so complicated that rather than bang our heads in frustration, we just call in “Agents” from the Geek Squad — Best Buy is literally across the street from us, maybe 100 paces away. First we got a consultation visit. All our stuff still worked, but we were wondering if we weren’t missing out on some tech developments over the last decade, and on a few components we were. (Not everything new is necessarily good. We were actually warned against buying a set that could play 3-D; evidently that’s the Google Glass of home video just now.)

When we installed our old tv a decade ago, the big new thing was high definition in broadcast, Blu-Ray in physical media. Most major network shows had only recently gone hi-def for a quantum leap in picture clarity: video-taped chat shows appeared to be coming through a window and DPed film series like LOST were crisp and sharp, stone cold gorgeous. People my age can remember when they first had access to a color tv set: you’d uncritically watch anything just because it was in color. Same deal here. Hi-def was the bee’s knees.

Now they’ve ramped it up to “Ultra” HD, “4K” encoding. By coincidence we’ve caught this wave earlier in the cycle. The networks aren’t there yet, but Netflix is already streaming in 4K, and no big home video release arrives without an “Ultra HD” version (continuing to represent the leading edge, all Criterion releases are 4K transfers now). So, let’s give the new tube a spin!

The resolution is indeed immaculate: you can see pores on the anchorman’s face, a tiny drop of hot-light sweat from a talk-show guest that would have been undetectable before. For live or taped material it’s as if you were sitting in the control room with the director. Amazing. Then I put in a Blu-Ray of a film and the strangest thing happened: all of a sudden, I didn’t like the effect any more.

To my surprise, even images captured on celluloid and realized using an emulsion looked like studio-bound video tape. On old black-and-white pictures the effect can be refreshing, making them appear to be immaculately preserved. But everything else was somehow cheapened, as if we were screening videocam dailies rather than the full cinematic monty. Expensive visual effects looked awful, traveling mattes shimmering, CGI performers out of match with their real-world counterparts. Everything was this way. THE GODFATHER. THE WIZARD OF OZ. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S frickin DREAMS! Films I knew by heart looked as if their production budgets had been cut in half. Yes, resolution was indeed off the scale, but the bald, flat end result was plug ugly to me.

I had a week with the system before my Geek Squad agent returned to install a small piece of audio gear, and by then I was ready for some help. At first I had a little trouble explaining what was wrong, but then he said, “You mean everything looks like a soap opera.” Exactly! “That really annoys some people.” Count me in! “Easy fix.” Evidently it has something to do with how movement is depicted on the screen, a feature you can toggle. He did, and now the ultra-sharp image wasn’t quite as ultra-sharp as before, but a movie looked like a movie again. (I’ve noticed that an object which isn’t moving at all, like a framed photograph on a desk, can look a tad sharper than the rest of the scene.)

My reaction was interesting because it goes against the grain. My eyeballs have become desensitized enough that I actually prefer digital images. I first noticed it at the New York Film Festival two years ago, when P. T. Anderson made a big deal out of the fact that we were going to screen his new movie INHERENT VICE by actually running film through a projector. Goosebumps! Then the thing rolled and my heart sank, because the very imprecision that makes film film now reads as murkiness, deterioration of focus, mere proximity to the image I really wanted. The same sequence repeated this year with James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z. Note that I’m not commenting here on the artistic quality of the work, only the physicality of the visual image as seen through my eyes. Celluloid projected at 24 frames per second can only approach perfection. Digital projection ensures focus, balance, and no deterioration whatsoever. (Also no reel-change dots: some people think that’s weird.)

I’m not saying digital is necessarily better. But it is what I’ve become accustomed to, what I expect. Hard-core stereo freaks had to clap their ears closed at compact discs when they first appeared, and even I could imagine a clipped, mechanical aspect to early full-digital recordings like TRICYCLE by Flim & the BB’s or Dire Straits’ BROTHERS IN ARMS. And why not? It’s the difference between the physical back-and-forth vibration of a record needle and the ja-or-nein precision of a stored byte, the way a string player creates vibrato versus the way a bunch of electronic cables are routed. But thirty-plus years later, digital audio sounds normal to me. It’s what I’ve become accustomed to. What I expect.

Filmmakers who still shoot on film are a dying breed. Anderson, Gray, Spielberg, Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow — you can almost call the roll in your head. Even the Coens have thrown in the towel. Digital is just faster and cheaper (the current trendiness of handheld doesn’t hurt), making it the medium of choice for young DPs, and in a generation or two it’ll be hard to put together a “slow” celluloid crew at all. TV and indie crews tear through many times the script pages of a lumbering big-time feature, but do you have any tech complaints about, say, GAME OF THRONES?

Digital still looks great when projected, not at all like the “soap opera” on my badass monitor. I cannot recognize a digital shoot just by looking at it. Again and again I’ve been surprised by end credits or festival Q&As when it’s revealed. (Some productions even brag: it’s no longer uncommon to see “Captured in…” rather than “Filmed in…”) Vinyl-record devotees still maintain their purity, and someday film snobs will rage, rage against the dying of the light. But face it: we’ll still call them “films,” just as we still call them “albums,” which they haven’t been since the days of the 78rpm single. Things change — which I believe is also a comprehensively stated history of the universe.


Spoiler Alerts!

May 16, 2016

WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS POST if you’re not yet caught up on the current sixth season of GAME OF THRONES through at least S6E3 and you care about whatever’s going to happen next. Also READ NO FURTHER if you’re a TVphobe or non-subscriber to HBO still slogging your way through the bloody but convivial George R. R. Martin source novels. In truth, the following essay is frickin JAM-PACKED with pop-culture spoilers, including the illustration below. Hear me, O reader: MULTI-SPOILER FRICKIN MEGA-ALERT!!

I was standing in line at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival behind a friend who had just seen Lars von Trier’s DOGVILLE elsewhere at the fest. She was talking to somebody ahead of us, and their conversation somehow wandered to Nicole Kidman, the film’s star. (I was flitting between that vocal thread and the one behind me, which included my wife and our hostess.) Then she said something like, “Yeah: it was so odd when Nicole killed them all at the end.” She caught my eye and realized, shit: I just ruined the ending for him. You have to be a bit of a masochist to watch much of any von Trier, but no, I hadn’t seen the flick quite yet. (I have now. It was indeed ruined, but not by her.)

Since my friend’s mortified facial expression showed that she was really sorry, it had just been an accidental slip of the tongue, I decided to have a little fun with her. I acted wounded and “retaliated” to try and make her laugh. “It was his sled! He thinks he’s his own mom: he’s frickin crazy! They mash up dead people and serve em as food! They didn’t go anywhere, they landed in future New York City! He’s been a ghost this whole time!” She knew exactly what I was doing in my mock rage, and judging from the giggles, she was amused as well as relieved. That had certainly been my intent.

But damn: a decade later, it’s harder than ever to keep secrets from the popular culture, and you don’t have to stand in a festival line any more to get pre-hipped. One day it will be impossible to prevent leakage, but that day has not yet arrived, and for proof I cite both HBO and Lucasfilm.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS was so eagerly awaited that the producers even released photos from the table read. Yet by sternly restricting access and keeping mouths shut, they concealed a major plot point that caused an audible reaction in the theater where I saw it, and probably everywhere else too. (I’m withholding this spoiler in case you haven’t yet seen the flick, but you’d better hurry up, because missing STAR WARS might be illegal by now.) But the equally massive GAME OF THRONES machine also kept a corker to itself, for the better part of a year.

I thought readers of Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” novels had been quite courteous in keeping mum about surprises, beginning in the series’ first season. Most of the show’s rep company have now become household names, or at least household faces. But at the beginning the only actor many viewers recognized was Sean Bean, of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies. The single most shocking event of the first season was “Ned Stark”’s execution at the command of sadistic young tyrant King Joffrey. Plop went the head of the character we assumed was the star of the show, establishing THRONES’s grisly dictum: on this show, nobody’s safe. Thing is, though, readers of the source novels had well known about this twist, some for as long as twenty years. They also knew in advance how and when Joffrey himself would die. They knew about the carnage to come in the notorious Red Wedding. They knew why Tyrion Lannister (as played by Peter Dinklage, he became the real star of the series) would be forced to commit patricide. And lots more. The reading public is probably a small fraction of THRONES’s worldwide viewership, but it still largely remained silent, even amidst the din of the Internet. That’s remarkable restraint: maybe readers were so pleased to see such a faithful, gorgeous adaptation that they felt protective.

George R. R. Martin is a fine writer, but he’s also relatively, and notoriously, slow. It has taken him two decades to produce the five long, intricate novels which are the basis for GAME OF THRONES. (I would say six, since he seems to be very close to finishing the latest one, but he’s left at least two deadlines unmet, so we’ll have to believe it when we see it.) As the HBO series gained popularity over five years, it became evident that neither the network nor the showrunners could wait for the author to finish the cycle (and two of the books take place simultaneously, shortening the timeline even further). Though they have already made slight changes from the printed version of Martin’s story (for example, the bodies strewn in the Red Wedding include victims new to readers as well), in the current sixth season the tv people move past the published books. This year, for the first time, loyal readers are in the dark along with the rest of the audience.

The cliffhanging development at the end of last season was the assassination of fan heartthrob Jon Snow, played by Kit Harington. Dashing leading men have been dropping like flies on this series and there are precious few left. (Nobody is safe, sure, but if they ever decided to kill off Dinklage’s Tyrion, they might as well just pack up and close the store.) The last shot of the season finale showed Jon’s multiple stab wounds staining the white snow. Cut to black.

AAAUGH! screamed anguished viewers. He can’t be dead! Message boards and chat rooms erupted with resuscitative theories. But for the rest of the summer, for the rest of the off-season, up until about two weeks ago, the producers assiduously misled everybody and maintained a real-life fiction to rival their elaborate medieval melodrama. For it had been their plan to bring Jon Snow back from the dead all along. The magical Melisandre — who revealed her own surprise in the previous episode — incanted away in a scene so languid that it was parodied on the following week’s SNL. Some ritual smoke, a sexy sponge bath, and Jon Snow was good to re-go. In this day and age, though, it took a titanic effort to keep the secret until air time.

First, there was no mention of Jon Snow whatsoever within the production: his name was as taboo as Voldemort’s. Harington’s lines in typed Season 6 scripts were given only to “LC,” or “Lord Commander,” Jon’s rank in the Night’s Watch (don’t ask). As the questions arose immediately after last season’s murder, Harington asserted, “Jon Snow is dead.” Same message from anybody associated with the show. (It’s not really a lie, is it? He was dead.) Then somebody spotted Harington in Belfast, where his scenes are shot, wearing the Snow character’s hair and beard. “I have to play him as a dead body,” he demurred. The conspiracy was so vast that Entertainment Weekly, allowed in on the ruse, was on the stands with a “He’s Alive!” cover story less than a week after air. And now Jon Snow is roaming the land of Westeros again. Mission accomplished.

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The EW cover. I put it down here “below the swipe” so people wouldn’t stumble onto it.

All that trouble just to surprise people? It was easier back in the day. To preserve the jolt of a lead character’s murder midway through PSYCHO (shaking up its audience just as Ned Stark’s beheading does), Alfred Hitchcock simply forced exhibitors to close their doors after the film began. Nobody admitted during the performance, as opposed to the come-in-any-time policy for most other movies. Theater managers were indignant at first, fearing the loss of casual walk-in business, but patrons waiting for the next show formed lines nearly everywhere, making PSYCHO look like a hit and then becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as others got curious. All because Hitch was concerned that late arrivers wouldn’t understand why they weren’t seeing the star.

Is there a statue of limitations on revealing a plot twist? When I was working on the PSYCHO entry for GEORGE LUCAS’S BLOCKBUSTING, my editor objected to the line, “Because a key character does not survive PSYCHO’s halfway point…” He thought I was being too coy and wanted me to spell it out. But I strongly objected: even though most readers will know exactly what I’m talking about — the scene in question has entered general mass culture and is constantly lampooned — there are others who don’t, people who have never seen PSYCHO. It would be a disservice to Hitch to obviate his chance to startle. (P.S.: I won.) I hated so many reviews of Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO remake because the critics assumed familiarity with the story. Why would you ruin a thriller that way? I already spoiled PSYCHO’s big reveal up there in the Sundance line, but this is different: I warned you fair and square. A pox on anybody who sneaks a spoiler in, and that goes double for online comments. Follow the lead of SIGHT & SOUND, the best film magazine there is, and warn people away from TMI.

Sometimes the secret is so sublime that journalists just naturally give it a wide berth. I never saw any mention of the big surprises in THE CRYING GAME or THE SIXTH SENSE before I saw them. Others seem to be fair game. The stunning development in MILLION DOLLAR BABY was all over the press, even in feature stories; a non-entertainment headline in a plane passenger’s newspaper spoiled it for me from across the aisle.

The horror writer Clive Barker remembers seeing PSYCHO one afternoon back in England. Blown away, he stuck around for a second showing. Two schoolgirls came in and sat in front of him. As Barker tells it, the second time he was paying more attention to their reactions than to the film itself. He says he couldn’t wait until one character went snooping in a creepy place toward the end — and the resulting shrieks from the girls didn’t disappoint. He appreciated Hitch’s unspoiled surprises on a different level. He knew what was coming — and that was the suspense.


Late And Later

January 12, 2016

With the current round of Late-Night Musical Chairs nearly complete (THE DAILY SHOW’s Samantha Bee will finish it next month), it’s a pretty good time to survey the landscape. They say it takes about six months for long-term tv viewing patterns to set in, and Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Trevor Noah haven’t gotten there yet. The seats of Larry Wilmore, Seth Meyers and John Oliver are barely warm, and it still feels a little funny to remember that the current host of THE TONIGHT SHOW is Jimmy Fallon.

378777_origThe most burning question in this real-life game of thrones was, what kind of show would Colbert conjure after dropping the faux right-wing persona he’d been playing for nine years? It turns out the “real” Colbert is a bouncy, brainy fanboy who can fawn over Robert De Niro one moment and joust with Bill Maher the next. One can’t stray too far from the venerable band-and-desk format, but now the band is the versatile, multiethnic Jon Batiste & Stay Human, which plays what its 29-year-old bandleader calls “social music,” meaning the musicians will more than likely parade into the crowd in the best New Orleans tradition. And Colbert’s writing team hasn’t lost its sly sense of just how far to push a bit of mockery.

The switch from David Letterman to Colbert was immediately visual: the band is now to the hosts’s left in the newly digitized Ed Sullivan Theater. Colbert claims that was Letterman’s suggestion, one thing Dave said he regretted from the old show. And remember, the current setup was how the stage looked for Johnny Carson. (My brother’s going to see it live later this month: I’m jealous.) But the more general shift is toward a different avenue. Old-school stand-ups like Dave, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart are gone; only Trevor Noah, who is packed with a world’s worth of characters and dialects, made his living on stand-up. The new hosts come from sketch comedy (Fallon, Meyers), improv (Colbert, Bee, Oliver), theater (Corden) and the writers’ room (Wilmore, Conan O’Brien holding forth on a new network). They can do stand-up, they just aren’t from stand-up.

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The new hosts are starting to imprint their shows. After the new year and several weeks’ worth of viewer reassurance, THE DAILY SHOW changed its theme music and Noah began billboarding each episode by walking into the studio, far from the desk. He occasionally performs the entire first segment (what they call “Act I”), uh, standing up. Colbert bounds on stage at the top of his show and the billboard comes later. After the new year, the funky bass-based lead-in to Colbert’s theme music subtly yielded to Batiste’s piano; I’d imagine it was becoming too familiar.

Two years ago, late night was pretty easily compartmentalized. Leno was the popular one, winning in the ratings; Dave was the smart one, dripping with irony; and Jimmy Kimmel was the funky one, experimenting with the format to provide food for the emerging social media (remember the “music videos” for “I’m F—-ing Matt Damon/Ben Affleck”?). Now everybody wants on YouTube. Fallon may well be the king of the viral video, but his competitors are also dicing their shows to produce five-minute fodder, and Colbert is no exception. On most nights, his headline guest appears in two segments: first comes the expected interview, and then a bit of silly participation, such as three DOWNTON ABBEY stars reading their lines with American accents, or John Krasinski having a fake-vomit-off against Colbert, as his wife Emily Blunt had done the week before. The aim of these goofy stunts is to entertain not only the television audience, but also web surfers for days to come.

Then there are prerecorded “field pieces,” bits shot outside the studio, at which Colbert has always excelled, even back when he and Steve Carell pretended to be news correspondents on THE DAILY SHOW. The only others in his league are Conan and the master, Dave Letterman (who used to screen historic field pieces to entertain his studio audience before the show). Colbert’s format keeps things unexpected: a juicy field interview could roll even after the first guest is gone, well into the show. Purpose: no flipping, as Larry Sanders used to say.

It’s in the classic in-studio interview segments where Colbert outdoes Fallon. His guests in his first few months have not only included the obligatory presidential candidates (Jeb Bush inaugurated the interview seat, which is probably as close as he’ll ever come to an inaugural), but Cabinet members, serious authors including Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders (who played the guitar), and interesting notables such as Michelle Dorrance, who won a MacArthur “genius grant” for her tap dancing skills. One of our great improvisers, Colbert is able to pull real emotion from his guests while entertaining. Things seem less scripted and more in the moment. As he told John Dickerson on FACE THE NATION, Colbert is aiming for “discovery, not invention.” His interview with Joe Biden, in which the two men bonded on-air over wrenching family losses, was an instant classic. He shushed a few audience members who were booing Ted Cruz: “he’s my guest.” If the bad vibes between Colbert and Bill Maher — who seemed rigid and out of place — weren’t genuine, then their interview was a master class in performance art. I’m betting they honestly don’t like each other.

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Colbert and Trevor Noah still look like the new kids, but so did Conan, Jon, Jay and the Jimmys when they first started. In time their presence will feel normal. Nobody has yet deconstructed late-night like Dave did (John Oliver has added real journalism to the satirical news format, completing the circle for young viewers who actually get information that way), but it’s interesting to see the various personalities peeking out from a format that has survived since the days of Jack Paar. Meanwhile, the busiest guy in New York has to be Lorne Michaels, who produces Fallon, Meyers and SNL, all in the same building. Thus, come to think of it, saving NBC a fortune in cab fare.

8/15/16: Comedy Central said today it is pulling the plug on THE NIGHTLY SHOW as of this Thursday, making Larry Wilmore the first-late night casualty.


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