The Astounding Mr. Campbell

November 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

 


Fifty Years Ago, The Future

May 31, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dan Richter as “Moonwatcher.”

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

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

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

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

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Kubrick (l.) and Clarke on set.

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

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

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Doug Trumbull’s “slit-scan” effect.

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

Mr. Benson has disabused me of that desire. 

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

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

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

10/28/18: Now I’ve seen the 4K transfer. Magnificent. It makes some of the tiny traveling mattes (like the little teeny views of red-lit cockpits) look worse, but almost all the space shots (like the one below) look amazing. Every once in a while you have to pinch yourself and say, this mutha is fifty years old!

11/13/18: Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL, has passed away.

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The best damn space effects in film history.


Two Good Movies (Four, Actually)

July 26, 2015

I saw two really good movies recently, but they’re both genre pictures and they might have slipped under your radar. Correct that if you care to: they’re both out on DVD.

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EX MACHINA is the latest and best in a mini-trend of thoughtful science fiction movies. (Even Tom Cruise’s recent EDGE OF TOMORROW has a tiny little brain under its light GROUNDHOG DAY veneer.) This one is about the essential Philip K. Dick concept, which has fascinated scientists for a century, readers for more than sixty years, and film honchos for maybe 35. It can be expressed in six short words: how do you know for sure?

You don’t have to be a techie to recognize the famous Turing Test. If a mechanical device can fool a human being into believing that it is human, does that not constitute intelligence? Alan Turing imagined a subject typing impromptu questions to a person and a computer and receiving their typed answers from the next room. If the interrogator can’t positively identify the human by session’s end, the contraption thus “passes” the Turing test. Should you find that laughably simple, consider the case of ELIZA, a program written at MIT in the mid-Sixties as (one would hope) a parody of Rogerian psychoanalysis. ELIZA simulates a responsive therapy session: “I’m troubled by bad dreams.” “Why do you think you have bad dreams?” “Because my father hates me.” “Who else in your family hates you?” The illusion of intelligence, which is actually only the ability to parse a few words, fooled many users, even after its amazed and delighted creator, Dr. Joseph Weizenbaum, patiently explained how ELIZA really worked. This blind tendency to map human emotions onto machines is today referred to as “the ELIZA effect.”

In EX MACHINA, we revisit the Turing test many, many, many iterations outward. In that proverbial Near Future, the young lad Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest staged by his employer’s brilliant, rich, eccentric founder, who became a modern Croesus by creating the greatest search engine in the history of the world. This Sergei-Musky figure, Nathan, is played by the mesmerizing Oscar Isaac, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite film actors. You can’t take your eyes off him, as you couldn’t in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS or A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, in which he will remind you of the young Michael Corleone a dozen times. (Isaac will get to have more colorful fun in Disney’s forthcoming STAR WARS and X-MEN flicks.) Nathan soon reveals that the grand prize wasn’t just to spend a week at his magnificent, sheltered, high-tech research facility and bachelor pad as advertised, but much more: to be the subject in the most awesome Turing test in history, d00d. Nathan has created the next best thing to a human being (he chose the form of the gorgeous Alicia Vikander, a dancer by training whose movements marry mechanics and grace in a pleasant new way), and it will be up to Caleb to get to know her and evaluate Nathan’s achievement. Then, the first time the two are outside the compound’s ubiquitous zone of security cameras, “Ava” whispers: “Don’t trust him. Don’t believe anything he says.”

Wow. We’ve already been led by the nose several times here by writer-director Alex Garland, and we’re not even at the halfway point. Caleb has our empathy as the dewy innocent youngster. Nathan has already proven himself more asshole than could possibly be imagined, and he keeps pouring it on. Ava is far from a blank slate. And there are reversals and revelations galore still to come, which I won’t dwell upon. This is the man who wrote 28 DAYS LATER…, SUNSHINE, the English NEVER LET ME GO, and DREDD, so he knows from screenplays. Knock yourselves out watching the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes Vikander appear to be mostly mechanical. What makes EX MACHINA work hearkens back to the Turing test. It’s all about the effect of technological achievement on human beings.

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IT FOLLOWS is both the title and a comprehensive two-word synopsis of a clever new horror movie that’s been getting a great critical reception since its release earlier this year. (THE BABADOOK is another recent modestly-budgeted terror triumph that I heartily recommend.) The premise of IT FOLLOWS is simple and diabolical: there is such a thing as a sexually transmitted demon. When you have sex with an afflicted person, the demon begins pursuing you instead. Object: brutal murder. It can inhabit the body of anyone, even somebody you know. There’s only one of it, but it can switch hosts at will. It doesn’t move fast, only plods with a rhythmic gait — but it will keep on following you, however long it takes, until it kills you. You can get rid of it by having sex with someone else, thus transmitting the curse, but if that person dies, the demon will work its way back down the carnal trail and come after you again. One more hitch: nobody else can see or hear it. Only you. (And the audience, of course.) It’s the paranoid’s worst nightmare: something actually is out to get you, and there’s no way to prove it to anyone else. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS time.

When I was a kid, I loved the classic Universal monster movies; I still do, after adjusting a bit for subsequent sophistication. To me, the most disturbing monster wasn’t Frankenstein’s experiment, or Dracula, or the Wolfman, or Mr. Hyde, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The one that really got under my skin was the Mummy. Because the Mummy was relentless. Classmates used to sneer: anybody can outrun the Mummy, man. True enough, but if ever you desecrated its tomb, even if you then flew in a plane to the U.S., it would walk across the ocean floor if it had to, step by step, and one day it would catch up with you. This thing requires no sleep or rest, unlike you. IT FOLLOWS brings the same creepy unending unease without traveling to Egypt.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

No, we’re in suburban Detroit, a bombed-out shell of a city that’s virtually deserted; this is that kind of “chamber piece” that exists in its own little claustrophobic world. The teenagers at the heart of the story encounter very few adults, and most of them are incarnations of the demon. There’s a quick gruesome shot early on to help establish how high the stakes are, but in general IT FOLLOWS depends on sustained dread, not graphic gore or cheap jack-in-the-box “gotcha!” moments. It’s a cousin to THE BABADOOK in this regard, and the polar opposite of such fare as the CHUCKY or FINAL DESTINATION franchises.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis get the most out of their digital gear, making a normal day look menacing (most of the setups in this horror movie are exteriors). They repeat a little motif I love, a slow left-to-right pan to set the scene. It’s innocent at first, but as they repeat the move once we’ve gotten used to the demon’s slow, determined rhythm, they’ll show it coming from way off in the background during the pan without visual comment. (Once we’re “punk’d,” but still.) By now we can make it out a mile away, but where a lesser talent would probably stop the move and push in, we just go, holy moley, girl, look behind you! A similar shot was one of the best moments in THE DESCENT (my fourth recommendation, a little bloodier though), as we pan past the trapped spelunking girls and get our first look at one of the cave-dwelling creepy-crawlies behind them. Did we just see what I think we saw? You don’t need a loud noise and a musical sting to jolt the viewer, or a big visual effects budget to make an impact. All you need is some old-fashioned creativity. The low-budget, high-powered IT FOLLOWS is crammed full of it.

That pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what's in the background, while you're screaming,

The pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what’s in the background, while you’re screaming, “Did I just go crazy?”

P.S.: If you’re interested in ELIZA, she’s actually available as an app. I doubt Prof. Weizenbaum is involved.

8/24/15: Maika Monroe, the young scream queen who stars in IT FOLLOWS (and THE GUEST, a terrific psychological thriller, so make that five good movies), was named today to VARIETY’s Ten Actors To Watch list for 2015. She is already getting attention among casting directors: she’ll star in the new INDEPENDENCE DAY flick.

11/30/15: ELIZA is now available in audio format via Amazon Echo (similarly known as “Alexa”). Just enable the “skill” and talk away. Same deal.


How Are You Julian?

October 22, 2014

Alex-Podulke-as-Julian-Barbara-Kingsley-as-Claire-in-Uncanny-Valley-by-Thomas-Gibbons-photo-by-Seth-Freeman.

UNCANNY VALLEY is a provocative piece of social science fiction in the form of a play. In a just world, this is the sort of thing that would be winning the Hugo Award (science fiction’s Oscar) for Best Dramatic Presentation instead of the latest fan favorite from tv or the multiplex. Despite its out-of-genre antecedent, it certainly deserves to be considered alongside other serious works in the field. After all, the very term “robot” is derived from a play: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

This play, by Thomas Gibbons, tackles serious moral and ethical questions about robotics and artificial intelligence, based on one Big Lie, the “What If?” proposition that underlies nearly all worthwhile sf. In other words, let’s pretend just for now that a particular bit of technological advancement is not only possible, but already achieved in the “not distant future” of the piece’s setting. What might happen then?

There are two actors. Only one of them plays a human being. She is a neuroscientist named Claire whose team created a state-of-the-art automaton known as Julian. The two of them converse in her office, and in the process we watch Julian progress from childhood to…but that would be telling.

The night I saw it, Claire was played to perfection by Barbara Kingsley, whose resume is long and distinguished. In the role of Julian was the amazing Alex Podulke, a name new to me, one of those actors who can utterly control his facial features, even refrain from blinking when necessary; he has also perfected that rigid head-turn and slight overshoot-and-correction that suggest his movements are being powered by servomotors. (Street mimes can do that too, but usually it’s all the act they have.) Thus can a talented and committed flesh-and-blood actor regress into the “Uncanny Valley.”

The term was coined in 1970 by Prof. Masahiro Mori, who hypothesized that we can easily feel empathy for stylized characters (like those in cartoons), but as a representation comes closer to actual human appearance and behavior, we approach an area that inspires revulsion, or at least creepy wariness, a phenomenon that climbs back into empathy once again as we move closer still. That empathetic dip is the Uncanny Valley. To experience this phenomenon and perhaps nod to Prof. Mori’s insight, I invite you to consider Tom Hanks’s animated avatar in THE POLAR EXPRESS, or any of the characters in the 2001 film FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN. There are many reasons that 2011’s MARS NEEDS MOMS was a colossal failure (lousy script, an ill-advised moms-in-peril story, etc.), but prominent among them, in my view, was that audience members were forced to stare into the Uncanny Valley for an hour and a half. Or, to save you some trouble, just look at this “actroid” from Japan, where very sophisticated work in robotic simulation continues, and imagine “her” moving and speaking.

th-1

We discover Julian as a disembodied head on a stand, crammed with raw information but lacking any emotional intelligence, which he learns from his mentor. He gains body parts in a series of time-lapse blackouts as the unseen engineers gradually construct him: first a torso, then right arm, then left arm, and finally legs that allow him to walk around and explore. This represents his early education at Claire’s hands, and when we first see Mr. Podulke, he is damn near drawing the Uncanny Valley all by himself. He and his mentor even talk about it. (This play swats away the storied Turing Test — can a machine fool a person into thinking it’s human? — within five minutes. Kid stuff. Our ethical journey is already far more nuanced than that.)

The blinking comes first, perhaps so the audience can be gently brought up to speed regarding the Uncanny Valley. Claire explains that humans blink an average of five times a minute. But Julian’s blinking — of course, he has no physiological reason, unlike we dry-eyed people — is programmed for random intervals rather than once every twelve seconds, to help him avoid acting like a machine. One of Julian’s first questions when he sees his face in a mirror is, “Why are my eyes blue?” It sounds charming and naive, but it is actually an important plot point and will in fact be answered later. The servo-like movements are most pronounced when we first meet Julian and gradually dissipate as he gains appendages and social experience. I won’t go any farther except to tell you there is another dimension to Mr. Podulke’s performance, and that’s when the proceedings really transcend. The intricacies of Mr. Gibbons’s story give each character plenty of room to roam, and enough conflict to let both actors summon every note on the histrionic scale.

The trite greeting “How are you, Julian?” actually becomes profound when the comma is removed; that tiny snip is the very crux of this smart, thought-provoking play. I don’t seriously think you’ll be able to catch it before it ends its New York run this coming Sunday, but I bring it up because its producer, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, is billing it as “A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.” I take “rolling” to mean that there may well be an engagement near you; check their website. If it gets close, buy a ticket, and let me hear from you. Me, I loved it.

P.S.: Don’t confuse this with a similarly titled play. I haven’t seen that one, so can’t comment.


Robinson Crusoe On Mars

July 27, 2014

Martian

Here is my choice as the absolute best science fiction novel for people who don’t like science fiction. That’s because although Andy Weir’s beautiful book THE MARTIAN takes place almost exclusively on another planet, you won’t have to deal with any little green men, or time travel, or phantom dimensions, or anything you can’t heartily believe in. It’s a story of will and ingenuity, a fight for survival that’s shared not only by the poor schnook of the title, but also by a huge scientific apparatus that throws itself into his battle over the millions of kilometers that separate them. There’s even icing on the cake: it’s also funny as hell.

Mark Watney is a botanist, part of Ares 3, the third manned Mars mission, a planned 31-day exploration. But six days in, a powerful freak sandstorm forces an early scrub. During the fierce torrent, an antenna comes loose and pierces Watney’s EVA suit. He’s hurled face down into the sand and his vital signs read zero. Despite the mission commander’s frantic attempt to reach his (presumably dead) body, the escape vehicle starts to deteriorate, and she has no choice but to leave the (presumed) corpse behind to save the other crew members.

We learn all this in Watney’s own voice, via a mission log he keeps for posterity, and the first thing he tells us is, “I’m pretty much fucked.” (And don’t worry, pal, there’s plenty more bad luck still to come.) But Mars, and the reader, are about to learn two important things about Mark Watney: (1) he is as resourceful as human beings get, and (2) he is a world-class weisenheimer, opposing what might otherwise be paralyzing hopelessness with a self-effacing attitude that makes you just love him while he’s battling horrible odds. This post’s title may remind you of a fabled B-movie, but it’s a fairly accurate synopsis – only now we have to take the situation seriously.

Crusoe

OK. We’re stuck on Mars alone. But we’re still alive, even if nobody else knows it. So. How to survive? How to get water? Food? Mark has the whole crew’s nutrient tablets for the rest of the month-long mission, but there’s no hope of rescue until much, much later – and that only if he can prove somehow that he’s still alive. So what he really needs right now are calories. Any suggestions, readers who have also thought about long space missions? (Hint: as the author has already told us, Mark’s a botanist.) Bit by bit, inch by inch, step by step, you are alongside this castaway as he figures out what he’s forced to figure out, and it’s all explained in a way that even non-scientists like me can grasp. Unmanned missions have already dropped certain key elements onto the Martian surface, making it possible for Mark to come up with a plan, but you have to hand it to him for putting the puzzle pieces together.

The admiration is joined by NASA back on Earth, once a sharp-eyed scientist surveying the scrub site realizes Mark’s still ticking. Mr. Weir also brings in the departed crew, aboard the return vehicle Hermes. This not only raises the stakes, but also provides some welcome shifts in point of view, breaks from Mark’s first-person narrative. I won’t go any farther except to say this piece has already been bought for the movies and, if done right, it’s going to be an APOLLO 13-like nailbiter.

I’ll add that THE MARTIAN is the poster child for self-publication. It was originally published as an e-book in 2011. People went nuts and trade publisher Crown swept in, publishing its edition only this year. I don’t think it’s perfect even now. If I’d had my grubby little editorial hands on it, I’d have asked Mr. Weir to pull out the third-person account of the sandstorm from where it is now (it interrupts the story and becomes a sore thumb) and get it closer to the top, when it actually happened – maybe at the very top so that Mark’s survival can be a mild surprise. I also felt the NASA characters and the Hermes crew were less well written than Mark himself: they were little more than stereotypes built to move the story forward (that won’t matter in a movie, believe me). But boy, am I impressed – because remember now, everything Mark Watney reasons was actually reasoned by the real-life author. Incredible tension, wonderful comic release, many points where all you can do is applaud – don’t you dare miss this one.

8/15/14: My friend Christian Waters pointed me to a press release that says the movie adaptation of THE MARTIAN will be released on Nov. 25, 2015, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. One ticket sold!

11/21/14: And Jessica Chastain.

9/11/15: An early festival review that makes the movie look terrific. It’s opening wide earlier than originally planned.


Spaced In

October 13, 2013

GRAVITYGRAVITY is every bit as good as you’ve heard. It’s not just a nail-biting thriller, not just far and away the best cinematic depiction of what it’s like to be in space, not just the finest performance ever from Sandra Bullock. Even more important, it introduces new concepts to the language of film: swirling, swooping, gyroscopic curvatures that observe no earthbound rules, that can take you inside a space helmet and out again without cuts or dissolves; the opening shot alone lasts for nearly 13 minutes. They’ll have to invent a new term to describe this constantly malleable point of view. But the story doesn’t stop long enough to let you ponder “how’d they do that?”* For all I know, they built some rockets and shot two game movie stars into Earth orbit. You’ve never seen anything like this. Nobody has.

It’s a howling, crowd-pleasing, eye-popping triumph for director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron. His resume is already impressive: besides directing the best Harry Potter film (PRISONER OF AZKABAN), there’s also CHILDREN OF MEN (he tops the opening shot here) and the delightful Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN. His friend Guillermo del Toro, also a fan of the fantastique, must be bursting with pride. But Cuaron leads an army of technical wizards so state-of-the-art that I didn’t recognize several of the jobs listed in the end credits.

The story, by the director and his son Jonas, is simplicity itself. Two astronauts are on a space walk as the film begins. Something bad happens, and now it’s all about survival. Playing opposite Bullock is George Clooney, who knows more about this mission than her medical officer does, and delivers perfectly timed moments of lightness (he listens to Hank Williams in space and tells “Houston” – the unseen Ed Harris – “it’s not rocket science”). That’s your entire on-camera cast.

The space effects are beyond disbelief, and so is the sound design. You never hear “sync” sound unless it would be physically possible, and space is by and large silent, emphasized by an opening fanfare under the title card that gets louder and louder and louder…until we cut to space and utter silence for the beginning of that first magnificent, marathon, multigravitational, POV-shifting, “single shot.” But there’s a top-notch music score by Steven Price which ratchets up the tension almost unbearably.

GRAVITY set an October-opening box-office record here in the States, and continued its financial rampage in the second weekend, which is when I saw it, earlier today. I attended a regular-screen 3-D performance, and though the 3-D effects were leagues better than those in the trailer for THE HOBBIT 2 which preceded it, GRAVITY is probably just as enjoyable flat. But real thrill-seekers will go me one better and screen it in IMAX.

Do not miss this one. See it in a theater if you can. “Amazing” isn’t strong enough. Maybe the word we want is “GRAVITY-like.”

*3/1/14: On Oscar Eve (I doubt GRAVITY will win Best Picture, but any Best Director who beats Alfonso Cuaron will always, in his heart of hearts, wonder why), I recommend the just-released DVD version of this film, especially the backstage “special features.” These things are usually fluff, but here you really do get a good look at how the stunning effects were achieved. Another nice bonus is a lovely short by Jonas, showing you the Earthbound side of Bullock’s frustrating radio conversation near the end.

3/3/14: GRAVITY topped the 2014 Oscar list with seven awards, including a well-deserved Best Director statue for Sr. Cuaron.


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