Acting Residential

April 29, 2019

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I think I know the secret identities of the (probably only) four original Residents. In fact, I’m so confident that I’ll name them now: Jay Clem, Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, and John Kennedy. Four monikers you and I have never heard of. So who cares? Well, that’s kind of the whole point.

That reveal is germane because when these (probably all) boys set out from Shreveport, Louisiana (one Resident may be from Texas) for the West Coast, to live the bohemian life among like minds that didn’t much exist in the Bayou State, they settled almost immediately on the Theory Of Obscurity. Only the art matters. Only the work. The cult of celebrity demeans and dilutes the end product by its very nature. Therefore we will forever remain anonymous, and go to great lengths to preserve that state. It’s as if Clark Kent were in reality a black hole: there they are, up there live on stage, but they steadfastly decline to acknowledge identity, and that’s why they always wear disguises in public. Sia is working the same street nowadays, but The Residents paved it a very long time ago. Their road work began about 1970.

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Devotees believe the soon-to-be Residents came from the visual arts, oriented toward images intended for the optic nerve. (More on eyeballs later.) Arriving in a Bay Area that had already upchucked the excesses of the Summer of Love, they noticed that popular music was reorienting itself from the anything-goes era of Hendrix and Zappa toward a Laurel Canyon-lite soft sound. Icky! They found some instruments and a place to record them and produced avant-garde (actually more like en garde!) tracks that deconstructed the barriers between the givers and receivers of music, as the Fugs had done in New York years earlier. Legend has it that a major label declining their anonymously submitted demo tape sent it back addressed to “Residents.” Aha. A band name!

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The original Residents — I say that because there’s no telling just how many different people of either gender have performed or created with or as The Residents over the years — were conceptual artists; they have never professed to be accomplished musicians. Heavily influenced by such mavericks as Captain Beefheart and the Sun Ra Arkestra, they produced freewheeling audio tracks that were energetic, dissonant, thought-provoking, offputting, funny, freaky, fascinating, difficult, and utterly unique in American culture. But although they have released dozens of albums and performed these compositions in live shows, it’s not quite accurate to think of The Residents as a “band.” Again, they are primarily visual artists, and their media are multi.

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They were true pioneers of music video (some of their work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where The Residents have been represented in five exhibitions) and digital media (they did two acclaimed discs for Voyager back when CD-ROM was the Hot New Thing). Yet if you leaf through The Residents’ audio catalog, you will nevertheless find among the outre screeching some interesting slices of Americana: covers of songs by Elvis, Hank Williams (they perform “Kaw-Liga” under a sample of the opening beats from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”), even John Philip Sousa. And rising from the gleeful cacophony, their remarkable 2002 album DEMONS DANCE ALONE is one of the most sensitive reactions to 9/11 that I’ve ever heard. So their sonic creations are not without meaning. In fact, an indicator I once employed to quickly evaluate the savvy of any newly visited record store, back when there was such a thing, was to head straight to the Rs. (The Virgin Megastore that opened in the Times Square building which also housed my employer, Bantam Books, was outstanding in this regard.)

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But The Residents are, above all, provocateurs. Their most famous stage costume features formal top hat and tails, white tie, elegant cane — and a giant veined eyeball mask covering each Resident’s head. They want you to stare back at them just as hard.

The most amazing thing about The Residents is that, without the slightest care for fashion, they have been making a living producing art on their terms for almost fifty years now. How long can one swim upstream? Yet here they still are.

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But we may have arrived at an inflection point. Sadly, last November, Hardy Fox, longtime president of The Residents’ business entity, the Cryptic Corporation, passed away at 73. The other three gentlemen named above have also been Cryptic officers. You can see them all interviewed in the wonderful Residents documentary THEORY OF OBSCURITY. They “work for” The Residents, to whom they always refer in the third person. Who knows who’s up on stage these days? (It’s probably not septuagenarians.) And who knows how the collective’s creative output has been derived? Maybe Hardy’s death will finally break up the group, or maybe Obscurity Theory will allow it to continue as long as it wants. I so admire how these stalwarts have carved themselves a place in the culture despite all odds, despite all evens, despite everything. I’d tip my hat, but the eyeballs below it are far too small.

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P.S. To hear a curated sample of The Residents’ music, check out the 2017 compilation 80 ACHING ORPHANS, with extensive liner notes by Homer Flynn. To see their amazing and sometimes disturbing music videos, get ahold of the compilation DVD, ICKY FLIX.  

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The Medium Is The Massage

March 28, 2019

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Think the world is getting smaller, sometimes even to the point of claustrophobia? You’re not alone. Furthermore, people have always felt that way. The technological pace keeps quickening at an ever-quickening pace. But today we may have reached a point where we can actually notice the acceleration in our lifetimes, for an inchoate feeling of turbulence just outside our grasp. It feels strange because it is strange. But where mass media are concerned, strange is normal.

I think the first real jolt in the media was the invention of movable type. It made books and newspapers easier and cheaper to produce (if much less breathtaking than those monk-inscribed illuminated manuscripts), and it released them from the arcane possession of the privileged and the consecrated. But movable type still had to be set by hand, letter by letter, an excruciatingly laborious process that limited daily newspapers to eight pages until the late 19th century. That’s when the “linotype,” a machine that could set individual letters much faster than any human, blew open the newspaper business and made possible the much greater proliferation of much fatter daily editions. But the next quantum leap in mass communication was already upon us.

“What hath God wrought!” is a phrase from the Book of Numbers (23:23, to be exact), but it’s far better known as the first Morse code message transmitted in the U.S. On May 24, 1844, the “wire” arrived (at least the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line) and changed everything yet again. We had received our news with a time delay ever since town criers were our anchormen. But now the transmission of news had become nearly instantaneous. Newspapers’ timeliness was transformed by the telegraph, especially when press barons got together to share field reporting: the Associated Press and Reuters were formed almost immediately, and the United Press Association and International News Service (which later merged to become UPI) just after the turn of the century. It was amazing: today’s front page could tell readers anywhere what had happened yesterday — or, in the case of afternoon editions, what had happened just this morning. Paul Revere was so passé.

Reading a book or a newspaper is a private, individual act that you can enjoy any time you like. The next step forced the audience to adhere to a schedule. When the first AM radio broadcast was achieved in 1906, the buildout of national networks was still some twenty years away. But for nearly three decades thereafter, commercial radio was far and away the most popular form of home entertainment. Families gathered around the box at nighttime for dramas, comedies, music, and the occasional chat from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Radio listening was still a private, individual (maybe with relatives) act, but now the event was happening everywhere simultaneously. Never before had it been possible to assemble a mass audience in real time. The implications for marketers were enormous.

Movies were once far more important in our cultural life than they are today. In 1930, nearly two thirds of Americans attended a movie at least once a week. But movie attendance peaked in 1946, with 90 million tickets sold, and it isn’t hard to finger a culprit: the emerging medium that could bring movies into your home, and was so mesmerizing that it actually created addicts. Television. The baby boomer generation was the first cohort of Americans who were weaned on the boob tube, which strained for lowest-common-denominator advertising-supported programming and squandered the dramatic potential of pioneers like Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and Rod Serling. But then came a series of new media explosions that are still reverberating today — and reforming our world faster than we can process the alteration.

When I worked at Bantam Books, I became friends with Ian Ballantine, the company’s founder, whose office was near mine. Ian was in his late seventies, but unlike most people who have attained that age, he didn’t sit around grousing about some vanished “good old days.” He was the most forward-thinking septuagenarian I’ve ever known, embracing progress with the fervor of an adolescent. One day I asked him, what’s the biggest technological leap of your lifetime? Without hesitation he answered, “Aviation.” He batted the question back to me. “The personal computer,” I said. But that was some twenty years ago. Now I still wouldn’t hesitate, but my answer would be different. Now I’d have to say, “the Internet.”

We would still be restricted to processing words and slinging spreadsheets were it not for the power of near-instantaneous individual communication, which has come a long way in a short time. When Ian and I were chatting, a generation ago, I was Bantam’s titular editor for Arthur C. Clarke. Sadly, I didn’t get to work on any fiction with Sir Arthur, but there are many housekeeping duties inside a big publishing house that require regular contact — for example, we always informed the author and agent whenever a book of theirs went back to press. Occasionally I had questions. But I was in New York and Sir Arthur lived in Sri Lanka, halfway around the world. One day I noticed a PC connected to a dial-up modem, the only one on our floor. I brought in one of those formerly ubiquitous AOL disks and sent Sir Arthur an email. By the time I got to the office the next day, my answer was already waiting for me. We went back and forth like this, one emailing while the other slept. The main reason I remember this is that one of Arthur C. Clarke’s replies marveled at this new super-speedy form of communication; it was “so science fictional!” This from the man who proposed the geosynchronous communications satellite! And by now, having to wait overnight for a reply already seems rather quaint, doesn’t it?

Digital technology, and its communication at electronic speed, are upending entire industries and altering the way we process information. Mass media are still mass media, but we also consume them as private, individual acts: the great, almost unimaginable numbers of users represent an aggregate, not a coordinated movement. Pondering is becoming extinct: whenever a group is unable to remember a specific fact, somebody will whip out a smartphone and the answer is instants away. The major movie studios are now forced to focus on blockbusters, the presentation of spectacle, because contemporary home entertainment gear is getting close to replicating the experience of seeing a movie in a theater; it’s up to the moguls to top that somehow. The “Big Five” book publishers have all but abandoned the “midlist” in favor of “brand name” authors or newsmakers whose candles burn briefly indeed. Newspaper print editions are shrinking and dying, and with them goes local reportage that helps us sift truth from chatter.

Certainly there are upsides. The rise of digital media can be empowering. You might not have $100 million to spend on a superhero movie, but it’s cheaper and faster to shoot a modestly-budgeted independent film than ever before. You no longer need to pay a kingly hourly rate to a fancy recording studio or mastering plant. You can self-publish a book and have it on sale at the largest retailer on earth within a few minutes. You can become your own newspaper, specializing on a location or niche interest. Even radio is making a comeback with the rise of podcasts. There’s lots to love.

The problem is that media are inundating us, faster and faster, led by the din of “commenters” whom we’d cross the room to escape at any cocktail party — yet when we do escape them we escape dissenting views, which isn’t healthy for a society. We can feel our own attention spans contracting; what will life be like for children who have never known anything else? When will we finally lose the patience to sit through a two-hour movie, let alone a 500-page book? Or pay attention to somebody with whom we emphatically disagree?

All we know for sure is that we don’t know. “The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan (I just confirmed the spelling of his last name on Google), but with a world’s worth of information at our fingertips, maybe instead it’s become the massage: lulling us into thinking we’re smarter and more erudite than we actually are. Absent a nuclear attack’s electromagnetic pulse, there’s no going back. We’re headed into a world almost unthinkable only a quarter century ago, moving faster than the ability of most futurists to speculate. We can only watch in wonder and try our best to enjoy the ride.

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Fifty Years Ago, The Future

May 31, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dan Richter as “Moonwatcher.”

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

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

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

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

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Kubrick (l.) and Clarke on set.

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

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

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Doug Trumbull’s “slit-scan” effect.

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

Mr. Benson has disabused me of that desire. 

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

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

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

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.


Autoelectric Stimulation

January 19, 2018

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I have a ball cap with the Tesla logo on it. I wear it in nice weather when it’s OK to be informal. It’s amazing how many people stop me and comment.

The most typical question is, what kind of Tesla do you have, but I only have a cap, not a car. I haven’t owned an automobile of any kind for thirty years now. My interest in Tesla is thus oblique: we are modest shareholders in the company but don’t use its product.

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The Tesla Model S.

People seem fascinated by Tesla and its founder, Elon Musk. If you became wealthy beyond imagining, what would you do with so much dough that you couldn’t possibly ever spend it all on yourself? Musk has decided to try and change the world with his particular fortune, and one of his earliest goals has already been accomplished: he has proven that many drivers would choose renewable energy if they only had the chance.

At this point, of course, Tesla ownership is restricted to those affluent enough to afford the beautiful, super-functional, digitally-decked-out vehicles. As the company ramps its production of the far less expensive Model 3, it faces a second test: can it scale up to serve a larger market? There have already been some, ah, speed bumps, and the company’s sustainability as a business rather than an idea is by no means assured. That share price is, frankly, aspirational, and we realize it.

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Inside.

Yet I say again, Tesla has already succeeded at Musk’s basic mission. The corporation itself may live or die — we just don’t know yet — but it has woken up the major automakers. Driving a car powered by electricity is no longer just for tree-huggers and NPR fans. Teslas are cool, and people are noticing. The wave of renewables about to hit the roads may or may not be Teslas, but if you aren’t making one on your own assembly line, you’re giving away a chunk of potential business.

It’s a virtuous circle. Before long every reasonable objection to renewable power will be addressed (what about long interstate highway trips? can’t you make it charge faster?), and eventually we’ll reach the point where sucking up oil from the ground and spitting out noxious fumes just to get to Grandma’s house will seem as anachronistic as smoking in the office does now. It doesn’t take long once the ball gets rolling.

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The dash.

I certainly remember the exhilarating feeling of hopping into my own brand new car back in the day. But some of the people who stop me to chat are Tesla owners, and you can see something more on their faces, something almost beatific — way beyond the thrill of a new toy. They feel like they’re actually doing some good when they drive their cars.

They say you should never invest anything in equities that you can’t afford to lose. Tesla could go under tomorrow. But it wouldn’t matter. Uniquely among our investments, making a profit here is not the point for us. We just want to help support a societal change that has to come. Has to. I think most people even welcome it, they’re eager for it — at least it seems that way whenever my gimme cap catches somebody’s eye.


Storms, No Chasers

April 11, 2017

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The National Weather Center is housed in a 250,000-square-foot, five-story building on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman. There’s a big observation deck facing south, because around here that’s where severe storms usually come from, and these people love to watch.

NWC is a partnership among OU, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and state agencies. OU’s School of Meteorology is the largest such program in the country, with about 250 undergrads and some 90 postgraduate students. But these folks aren’t exactly studying for a slot on the evening news. Their facility also houses some of America’s most capable pros. Whenever there’s a tornado or severe thunderstorm watch anywhere in the contiguous 48 states, the call originates in Norman, Oklahoma.

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The building is pretty new — it opened in 2006 — but America’s severe-storm research infrastructure has been migrating to Norman since the early Sixties. Even before that, scientists deployed the first Doppler weather radar system here. It’s a great location because the topography is fairly flat — you know, the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain — and it sits smack-dab in the middle of Tornado Alley. The National Severe Storm Laboratory (NSSL) studies most kinds of awful weather, but the National Hurricane Center is closer to the action, in Miami. (Although fracking has of late cursed Oklahoma with more than its share of earthquakes, the seismic experts are in Denver.)

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The coolest part of NWC is the Storm Prediction Center, where the forecasters work inside a ring of honking black Dell monitors that looks like a Bond villain’s lair. They are looking for any severe conditions across the country, including winter and fire weather. When they’re confident Mother Nature’s about to get mad, they issue watches covering the affected areas. Local National Weather Service offices take it from there and spit out on-the-ground info, such as a tornado touchdown, in the form of warnings. Each NWS office serves a strictly delineated jurisdiction, which is why severe weather watch areas are always expressed by a list of specific counties.

NWC is a resource for every sort of person. They’re diverse in age, gender, nationality, you name it, but nearly all of them have one thing in common. Their favorite movie is TWISTER. Not just because weather people are the heroes, but because their own work basically inspired the whole darn thing.

The notion of collecting data from inside a tornado, which drives TWISTER’s plot, is genuine. NSSL tried its best to do so in the Seventies and Eighties. They created a nifty device and wryly named it the Totable Tornado Observatory, which of course works out to TOTO, after the canine character in another big movie that featured a twister. The screenwriters Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, who came to NSSL for research, took that as a jumping-off point and dubbed their fictional device “Dorothy.” Several actors including leads Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, as well as producers Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, also spent time in Norman.

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From left: “Dorothy,” the competitors’ “D.O.T. 3,” both movie props, and NOAA’s TOTO, which is for real.

The TWISTER folks wanted to acknowledge OU by putting the university’s seal on the side of “Dorothy.” But to their surprise, permission was declined. Why in the world would OU do that? Because storm chasing is dangerous (as TWISTER viewers well know) and the school cannot support or even condone such daredeviltry, not even in a fictional movie. So the TWISTER production was forced to design its own phony academic seal, and the team retaliated by dressing the very craziest storm chaser, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an OU ball cap for the entire picture, and stenciling “O.K. L.A.” on the side of one of the props. No hard feelings: the Weather Center’s canteen is called the Flying Cow Cafe, after one of TWISTER’s best-known shots.

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Helen Hunt says thanks.

Some people at the Center nevertheless throw caution to, well, you know, and strike out themselves, but they’re doing so at their own risk. There are some beautiful color photos of severe storms on the walls, and one student told us, “If you can’t look at these photos and determine the vertical wind shear, you have no business chasing storms.” NSSL took the TWISTER actors out on a real tornado chase, but it had nothing to do with OU, wink wink. We visited the Weather Center on a gorgeous day: blue sky, low 70s, hardly any wind. They call that “boring.”

Severe weather predictions are one more of those things we take for granted, but they’re the result of hard work, eureka moments and sheer persistence. In 2009, a piece of equipment called VORTEX 2 successfully intercepted a tornado, more than thirty years after the first halting efforts that inspired TWISTER. I read once that local tv weather people tend to forecast gloomily because of human nature: if they predict rain and it turns out nice, everybody feels happy, but viewers resent being caught in bad weather by surprise. The scientists at the Storm Prediction Center don’t have the luxury of approximation, even though our climate is almost unbelievably complex. They’re not merely suggesting that you take along your raincoat. By giving everyone fair warning, they’re actually saving people’s lives.

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Readi, Steadi, Go!

February 28, 2017

exovest_girl.jpgLast year was the 40th anniversary of the Steadicam, which revolutionized filmmaking as much as CGI did a tech generation later. The very first Steadicam shot was realized for Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie pic BOUND FOR GLORY (Steadicam shots in MARATHON MAN and ROCKY were filmed later but released earlier), and within a year or so the amazing contraption became available to everybody. Even to us in Mississippi, where I was the first producer in the state to rent a Steadicam, for use in a tv commercial. The leading edge is sometimes the bleeding edge: I wound up wasting money, but I learned a lot in the process.

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Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (l.) with Stanley Kubrick and Danny Lloyd on the set of THE SHINING. The Steadicam absolutely made that movie.

A cinematographer named Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam and operated it for each of those movies. The “cam” part of the trademark is a tad misleading. There’s nothing special about the camera itself, which is the very one you already owned. It’s the rig that rocks. The camera operator wears a vest attached to a series of gimbals and counterweights so ingenious that when you adjust everything just right — it’s different for each operator — the camera sort of floats. You can guide it on the gimbal with one finger. Yet the weight of the counterbalance and camera maintains a stubborn inertia, as a bowling ball does when you try to shake it quickly. So minor movements of the operator don’t affect the camera’s orientation. You can take it down to ground level and operate from above. You can walk with it and get an unusually smooth shot. You can run with it. Dash up a flight of stairs (ROCKY). Follow your subject down a hotel hallway or inside a hedge maze (THE SHINING). Walk through a set, twisting and turning as smooth as silk, for a complicated “impossible” shot (BOOGIE NIGHTS, GOODFELLAS). You can even simulate high velocity, as in RETURN OF THE JEDI, for which Brown shot the speeder-bike chase by walking through a redwood forest cranking at only one frame per second instead of the normal 24.

Or you can take a Steadicam up in a helicopter, which is what I did.

That first shot in BOUND FOR GLORY had DPs all over Hollywood abuzz as soon as they heard about it. It began with Garrett Brown shooting from high up in an elevated crane, which slowly boomed down until he could step off and walk forward through the set, all in the same smooth motion. It didn’t look “hand-held” — even the best operators can’t prevent the camera from shaking a little — but what kind of quantum-physics crane was this? Veteran camera operators tended to be rather beefy guys — sort of natural-built Steadicams — but this changed everything and flung the craft open to anybody who could walk a straight line. Panavision marketed its own “Panaglide” stabilization system, and Dean Cundey used it to perfection in HALLOWEEN, especially in the bravura swooping, twisting killer’s-eye-view opening shot.

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For our advertising client, a junior college, we wanted to show prospective students that there was a world of possibility at this one institution — both solid vocational training and excellent prep toward finishing a degree at a four-year school. To seize tv viewers’ attention, I imagined doing a reverse BOUND FOR GLORY shot. We’d bring representative gear and people from as many departments as possible outside into a large open space on campus — bigger than a “quad,” but still surrounded on three sides by buildings — to illustrate the school’s vast array. After cutting and dissolving in closeups without revealing where we were, we’d fix on one setup and then pull back, up, up, up, higher than any crane, until we could see the whole tableau from the air. We’d achieve that last shot using a Steadicam.

I did everything I could think of as a producer: organizing the complicated process, setting up weather options just in case, renting the harness a couple days ahead so our operator could get used to it. Shooting day dawned bright and clear, and we’d already begun setting up before sunrise. Our chopper arrived on time and we strapped the operator in so he could lean out the open passenger door. We experimented with a couple of passes and ran into two problems nobody had anticipated.

First, it turns out a Steadicam works better when the operator himself is actually in motion rather than sitting still in a moving vehicle. The shot looked smoother than we could have otherwise gotten, but it wasn’t as mind-blowing as we’d hoped. A little practice, and we learned that slight impromptu camera motion on the way up helped sell the “impossibility.” But by then we’d already stumbled upon the second problem.

There was a soft breeze on that bright sunlit day. Not enough to make flying dangerous, but just enough to create a modest crosswind once we passed the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, which were protecting the people on the ground. Try as he might, our pilot couldn’t avoid a slight horizontal motion as he adjusted for the wind change. We hated it, but there was nothing to do except keep trying until we got lucky, so we did, and on one take we did. We’d hoped to do the final move three or four times starting with various departments to make alternate versions of the spot, but we had to settle for the good one in the can. It was nice, but we would have gotten pretty much the same result by bolting the camera down and packing it with sandbags and stuff to muffle shimmy. Then again, as a friend of mine likes to say, it’s all part of life’s rich pageantry.

These days that shoot would have been a piece of cake. We’d have used a drone and beaten the breeze by pulling the shot fifty times instead of fifteen. But in the late Seventies such niceties didn’t yet exist. What did was the baddest piece of gear around, we had it, and we absolutely loved going steadi with our new friend.

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The Steadicam map for the opening shot of BOOGIE NIGHTS, which lasts 2 minutes and 45 seconds.


My NYFF 2015

October 11, 2015

Unknown-2Had to miss some second-week movies this year due to a temporary ailment, but I did manage eight, including all the ones I was really, really anticipating. The weather again cooperated, but not the Pope’s visit, for which FSLC had to postpone the fest opening by one day. It was the cusp of autumn, maybe a little warmer than usual. Some friends and I went inside for DE PALMA in almost mild-summery conditions, and when we came out two hours later, the temperature had dropped 20 degrees. My fest, on a five-point scale:

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MIA MADRE**** (U.S. Premiere) That rarest of avises: a heartfelt, human-sized, accessible drama made by and for intelligent adults. A film director in Rome (Marguerita Buy) tries to cope with both her latest shoot, featuring a comically imperious American actor (John Turturro, hilarious even in Italian), and the fading health of her beloved mother. Nanni Moretti’s beautiful film juggles these stresses and points of view in a non-linear fashion that gradually reveals itself to be impressionistic. Inspired by the passing of his own mother, Signor Moretti (who personally takes a crucial role) provokes moments of quiet recognition amongst many belly laughs, affirming that our lives are really more similar than they are different, each personal journey strange and beautiful in its own way.

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DE PALMA**** (U.S. Premiere) The complete career of one of our most fearless, most unpredictable directors, an illustrated monologue which takes us from Brian De Palma’s short student films (featuring a very young Robert De Niro) to his latest pictures, made in Europe to escape the studio system, with nothing omitted in between. Unlike most film retrospectives, there are no talking heads except De Palma’s: co-directors Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach are skilled and confident enough to get out of the way of a great storyteller while beautifully curating the clips and memorabilia that engage us visually. Because of this one-note format, DE PALMA is probably not for everybody — no aspect of the filmmaker’s wide-ranging career, including projects that went nowhere or were eventually made by somebody else, is left uncovered — but catnip for anyone with a deep interest in movies. It’s an ideal festival film. De Palma’s artistic breadth is remarkable: the same man has dipped into blade-wielding thrillers, space science fiction, searing war stories, L.A. noir, even a pioneering rock musical. My main takeaway was how capricious the American movie business really is: De Palma careers from project to project in a series of happy (or otherwise) accidents and keeps going from chump (THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES) to darling (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) and back again. You have to be devoted to your craft to withstand the many indignities wrought by a constantly shifting cultural landscape, and though his wild career has toughened De Palma, he remains gracious and warm (he charmingly expresses surprise as, “Holy mackerel!”). He has thus earned the love and respect of the next generation, exemplified by the two young Turks who honor him here.

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WHERE TO INVADE NEXT**** (U.S. Premiere) That populist provocateur Michael Moore is at it again, but his new film feels more playful, hopeful and uplifting than usual. Armed only with an American flag, Moore “invades” European countries and Tunisia to plant Old Glory on their soil and steal their best ideas. In France he discovers vacation/parental policies that would make the greediest American union member blush, yet companies are doing just fine and French workers are happier and more productive than we are. In Iceland, scene of the worst banking catastrophe of the 2008 financial crisis (every bank failed except the one run by women), all the big shots were prosecuted and are now in prison. He examines female empowerment, incarceration policies, health care and education, and finds real-life solutions demonstrated to be effective by others. And the thing is that all this progress is based on American ideas; even the banker prosecutions were aided by a veteran of the S&L scandal hired by the Icelandic government. (Y’know, he was available here too…he lives here.) Time and again, the interviewees demonstrate the natural state, a concern with the welfare of others alongside oneself, which is sorely lacking in the US. One Icelandic executive — where by law all corporate boards must have no less than 40% representation by the minority gender — says she wouldn’t live in America if they paid her, and our lack of devotion to our larger community is the reason why. These people are flabbergasted that there exist poverty-level Americans in the richest country on earth. After the screening, ushers handed out Faber-Castell pencils from a factory we’d just visited and a genuine application form from Slovenia that allows even non-nationals to study at the college level, in English, tuition free. Here’s a new aspect of Michael Moore: not sniping, just presenting time-tested solutions that work because labor and management — who have been at each others’ throats, to be sure — or the general citizenry which insists on proper education and health care want them to work. It’s constructive, not polemical, unless you stop for a moment to consider that solutions to many of our societal ills are right at hand, if only we could rouse ourselves to demand them of our elected leaders.

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STEVE JOBS*** (Festival Centerpiece) A dedicated and assured effort by all concerned, but considering the pedigree, I felt a little deflated. You have red-hot Danny Boyle directing a script by rock-star screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, a stellar cast led by Michael Fassbender, and most of all, the mercurial personality of the subject, a zen visionary who still had to learn to care about other people. Though it’s assembled from Walter Isaacson’s biography, the creative point of view seems one-dimensional. I blame the screenplay. Yes, it’s boldly distilled into three long scenes, each taking place backstage just before a Jobs product launch: for the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT workstation in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. It’s nifty the way Sorkin makes us infer outward each time at all the inspiration and bullying that brought us to this place, while Jobs does the patented Sorkin “walk-and-talk” from one crisis to the next. But the throughline of the movie is Jobs’s relationship with his daughter Lisa (he originally denies paternity and that he named an Apple computer after her), not his effect on the broader culture. Furthermore, although a mellowing in Jobs is treated as a denouement at the iMac launch, we don’t get to see the achievements of his happier and more peaceful third act, including more traditional fatherhood: the coming iPod (though he briefly alludes to it and to the concept of a touchscreen), iPhone and iPad, which have arguably changed the world without any parallel competition from Bill Gates. Some of Jobs’s younger devotees may be disappointed, even puzzled, by the early stopping point. The acting is uniformly top-notch, although Ashton Kutcher put up a better physical impression than Fassbender does here. Jeff Daniels as John Sculley stands out among many good players; of contemporary actors he is probably Sorkin’s best motormouthpiece. But the summed-up whole was far from what I expected, which was a great movie. This is merely a good one.

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MICROBE & GASOLINE**** (U.S. Premiere) A wonderful laugh-out-loud coming-of-age/road picture/fantasia by the inventive Michel Gondry. It’s based on his childhood memories, but only up to a point. Two loners who are too hip for the classroom become friends, tax the system a bit, and then decide they’re going to split their oppressive school and family scene by building a car (actually not much more than a go-kart powered by a barely heavier engine) and sputtering through the French countryside; they solve all lodging issues by attaching a garden shed to the contraption. Here Gondry vaults into fantasy, for the movie boys go beyond his real-life dreams: they actually build their vehicle and head out into a picaresque series of adventures. The goading, teasing relationship between young actors Ange Dargent and Theophile Baquet is delightful, and Audrey Tatou as Dargent’s long-suffering exasperated mother is particularly fine. There is an undercurrent of sadness and danger, but Gondry means this as a loving toast to boyhood passions of several different kinds. You feel better just for watching it.

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BRIDGE OF SPIES**** (World Premiere) A tense, period-rich story about the famous 1962 swap that returned U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers to the West at the jittery nuclear-terror height of the Cold War, the first time the U.S. had been caught red-handed spying on the Reds. In exchange, the Soviets got Rudolph Abel, who had spent twelve years in America (though he was never actually proven to be a spy, key to what takes place after his kangaroo-court trial). Mark Rylance as Abel is the real discovery: he’s a quirky stage actor who hasn’t been seen much on screen, and here he creates the most hated man in America with an oddball humanity that radiates in every scene. His public defender is Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks, today’s Jimmy Stewart) who thus becomes the second most hated man: these are serious Commie-fearing, rule-of-law-ignoring days. He resists the nearly unanimous calls for execution by pointing out that some day Abel might be useful in a trade for our own spy. Soon that very situation arises and Donovan himself is tapped as the negotiator in Berlin, since the governments can’t be officially involved (that would require officially admitting that Powers and Abel were in fact spying). Donovan and Abel develop a real respect for each other, for each man serves with honor in his way. All this is tossed together by Steven Spielberg, who displays his natural affinity for storytelling and for the joys of moviemaking. To some directors, the set is a workplace; to Spielberg, it’s a playground. For example, after one volatile press scrum the floor is littered with flash bulbs, and the photographers scrunch them with their shoes as they fly to the next opportunity — a great way to show frenzy. We learned in the q&a that this shot was unplanned, caught on the fly. Period detail in Brooklyn and Berlin is perfect: everybody smokes, everybody wears a hat. The script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen (!) is very sharp and manages to nail the era of paranoia without tiresome exposition: Donovan’s own children have learned atomic-war drills in school, and they come in handy when a vigilante takes aim at their home. Only time will tell how many viewers will want to relive this remarkable period, but they will find lush detail and a propulsive story: it’s another adult-oriented feather in Spielberg’s fedora.

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CAROL**** Todd Haynes’s lovely adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, in which a mousy salesgirl and would-be photographer (Rooney Mara) meets a wealthy, assured socialite (Cate Blanchett) and falls madly in love. Their chief problems include the fact that Blanchett is married with a daughter, and that they live in New York in the early Fifties, when so much as a stolen glance is suspicious. The picture belongs to the two leads: their erotic chemistry never wavers during storms of tribulation, even as their relationship mutates with changing fortunes. The design and photography are superb. Sets, costumes, coiffure and lighting utterly transport us to the days when the Forties reluctantly give way and Eisenhower ascends, but the look is muted, darker, a world away from the hyper melodramatic Fifties of Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN. Every buck is up there on the screen. Longtime Haynes watchers know to expect the unexpected (his previous film, I’M NOT THERE, is probably the wildest reach since his notorious Karen Carpenter short), but this intense yet gentle piece plays as the kind of surprise you’d been waiting for without even knowing it.

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MILES AHEAD*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) Making a movie about Miles Davis is a tall order. Don Cheadle tries it as a quadruple threat — co-producer, co-writer, director and star — with mixed results. The film finds Davis in one of his hated interviews, swatting away questions with hipster grumbling and faux-zen pronouncements. He’s later revealed to be holed up in his Manhattan apartment, unsettlingly near madness, toward the late-Seventies end of his self-imposed five-year artistic silence. The MacGuffin is a reel of self-recorded audio tape that could reignite his career: everybody wants it, including a sleazeball from Davis’s label (played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who was also great as put-upon engineer Andy Hertzfeld in STEVE JOBS). The historic information is presented in a series of flashbacks that are intentionally jarring: a downbeat on Miles’s trumpet shock-cuts to a car chase, the rear of an elevator magically opens like a doorway onto the next scene. There is a backstory — we see Davis’s early Village days, the wooing and winning of wife Frances (the ethereal Emayatzy Corinealdi), and the roots of a rage that both buoyed and tortured him — but too much of the movie is basically an unwelcome heist caper and chase, all for that golden tape reel. Cheadle’s acting interpretation is likewise jagged and uneven: his vocal performance is monochromatic whispered anger, but unlike most music biopics, he does look like he’s actually playing his instrument, even in the tightest shots. Some Miles fans may insist the staccato form does indeed mirror his life, and his estate certainly cooperated with this project. But I still felt underfed after spending two hours with this game-changing musician. However, Cheadle does manage to bring the music front and center — there’s plenty of tremendous Miles Davis trumpet throughout.

WISH I’D SEEN: EXPERIMENTER, MAGGIE’S PLAN, THE MARTIAN (a quickly added surprise screening), NO HOME MOVIE (sadly, director Chantal Akerman passed away on October 5, two days before her U.S. premiere), THE WALK

ALREADY SAW: BROOKLYN****, THE FORBIDDEN ROOM***

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