My Sundance 2015

February 7, 2015

thThis year we nearly didn’t make to our annual movie-binge-orgy at Sundance. We’ve had some close calls and hastily rebooked flights before — after all, it is the dead of winter — but now the entire trip was in jeopardy. A storm-of-the-century Nor’easter threatened to dump an all-time record helping of snow onto New York City, so Mayor de Blasio and city officials decided to hunker down. As the blizzard began on Monday, basically all NYC transportation ceased and we were told to stay indoors and batten down against some seriously howling winds. Hold up a tick, weather gods: I got some flicks to watch! Fortunately, the brunt of the storm passed Manhattan by, and on Tuesday the same bloviating idiots who’d castigated Mayor Bloomberg for under-preparedness after a 2010 snowplop were all over the current mayor for freaking out when it wasn’t needed (this wisdom only evident in hindsight, which is any bloviator’s warm security blanket). Man, I’ll take over-prepared over the alternative any ole time. But still: movies!

So, with winter conditions temporarily at bay, our Wednesday morning flight took off on sked. It was much warmer when we got to Park City, and judging from the mountains on the way up from Salt Lake, I guess the snow must have skedaddled back east. For a ski resort in late January (they’ve permanently adjusted the festival so it will never again conflict with the Martin Luther King holiday, which is to them — get this — a huge three-day skiing weekend too often made redundant when all the pasty North-Faced Hollywood suits are hogging the hotel rooms and eatery tables), Park City was downright balmy. But the Lord works in mysterious ways: the snow was nice and puffy and white on the ski runs themselves, even if the rest of the mountain looked brownish. Getting it to snow only where you need it: that’s Harvey Weinstein pull!

It was warmer inside as well. This, our twelfth Sundance, was the most artistically cheerful slate we’ve yet encountered. Yes, it partially depends on the luck of the draw — you can peep as hard as you like for ten solid days (I had 4 1/2) and still not come close to seeing everything — but you can also infer a festival sense beyond what you yourself witness by talking to others waiting in line or sitting next to you just before a screening. The typical Sundance movie has become stereotypical: hardscrabble this dealing with opposing that, colorless gray or hospital-green filters, “brave” performances, etc. But today’s indie creative palette is much broader, and I attribute the growth both to a generational handoff and to the stripped-down digital technology that makes damn near all things possible, even on a budget. “Serious” movies are more playful. Homage now extends to films many of us remember fondly without a trace of irony.

Is it all getting too commercial? Gee, I dunno. Before I got there, Warner Bros. inexplicably hosted a surprise screening of the Wachowskis’ JUPITER ASCENDING at the venerable Egyptian Theater on Main Street, 3-D glasses and all. I read that the iconic Park City venue wasn’t even full, but if I’d been there, I’d have been there, if you know what I mean. Still, what were you Warnerians thinking? You abandoned indie budgets TEN YEARS AGO, so how could you possibly expect the parkascenti to give a shit about your new $175 million plaything?

Just before our final screening, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, we had the good fortune to stand in line behind Sundance juror (World Dramatic; they chose SLOW WEST; see below) Col Needham. Col is the founder, and still CEO, of IMDb (the Internet Movie Database, as if you didn’t already know), and I tried to bow down as low as you all would have done in my place. I also found out some stuff about the Sundance jury process which I can’t reveal, since it involves a few eldritch incantations that would burn up your screen if I invoked them. Since he’s a Brit, I assumed Col would know all about my mates at the Four Word Film Review — same country, right? — and he seemed mildly (actually politely) aware. As we were filing in, he challenged me: “OK then, give me a four-word film review after you see this.” I summoned all my skills, and while the credits were rolling I came up with one. It made Col and his lady both laugh, thank goodness. It was…

Here are my knee-jerk capsule thoughts, written for remembrance as much as for reportage, on the twenty flicks I saw this year, in order of screening, rated on a five-star scale:

th-3DON VERDEAN*** (World Premiere) This one was eagerly anticipated by the Utah crowd, since it’s by Salt Lake’s (and LDS’s) own Jared Hess, maker of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, and was filmed in the state. Mr. Verdean of the title (Sam Rockwell) is a Biblical archaeologist who makes his living by selling books and DVDs of his many travels. He gets on the radar of a rich evangelist (Danny McBride) who offers to bankroll ever greater expeditions: Verdean comes up with the remains of Lot’s petrified wife and claims to know the location of the Holy Grail. This is potentially interesting farcical stuff, but Hess’s tone is much too polite. Not even Will Forte as Verdean’s former-Satanist arch-enemy can pull this one out of the quicksand. For that we need Hess veteran Jemaine Clement (the tall one in FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS), who steals every scene he’s in as Verdean’s Middle East co-conspirator, who blackmails his way back to America and bumbles into their biggest looming score. Great potential is wasted here; it’s as if LIFE OF BRIAN had had all its teeth removed. Some funny moments, mostly from Forte and especially Clement (who could probably play Sacha Baron Cohen in a biopic), but in general a letdown.

th-2TIG***** (World Premiere) Tig Notaro is a supremely confident stand-up comedian, has a nice career, a little “alternative,” but coming on strong, a real comic’s comic. Then in a mere four months, she suffers one existential blow after another: her beloved mother dies, she goes through an agonizing breakup, and it’s all bookended by two life-threatening diagnoses. After the second one, as she’s leaving her oncologist’s office with the devastating news, the owner of L.A.’s Largo club idly texts to make sure she’ll be doing her scheduled set the next night. In that 2012 gig, Tig makes comedy history by coming out on stage and saying, “Good evening, I have cancer,” surprising everyone who knows her, and then proceeds to do 30 minutes of comedy on the subject. Comics like Louis C.K., who was present, were open-mouthed. This world-beating documentary takes on all that, with plenty of onstage footage to nail Tig’s comedy persona, and adds yet another drama, her sole and single attempt — she won’t get another try — to have a biological child through a surrogate. It is nearly impossible to describe how brave and resilient this woman is: any one of her trials would scar most people, any two of them would be really tough to take, but four? And the baby too? We even get to hear part of the legendary Largo set (club policy forbids any recording because the comics are working out their material, but before she came out Tig quietly asked the audio engineer to get this down) and we watch as, amazingly, that performance begins a process by which she pulls her life back together, one shitstorm at a time. Do not miss. I got to shake Tig’s hand and say thanks after the screening, for probably my favorite 2015 moment. (Meeting Col was #2.)

UnknownTRUE STORY*** (World Premiere) I didn’t realize this actually was a true story until some end-title cards revealed the principals’ fates, but it is. New York Times Magazine writer Mike Finkel gets caught fudging some details in a printed cover story. The paper has to cut him away and he’s instantly unhireable, sending him into a deep depression. Meanwhile, a man accused of murdering his family is arrested in Mexico; he’s been posing as “Mike Finkel of the New York Times.” Finkel goes to meet the defendant, Christian Longo (turns out he’s a fan), who offers to give him exclusive access if he promises not to publish anything until after the trial. Longo claims he’s protecting the real guilty party, and Finkel senses a huge true-crime book with an exclusive revelation, not to mention a path toward recovery of his sputtering career. The bulk of the movie is jailhouse interviews between Finkel (Jonah Hill) and Longo (a superb James Franco). Is he guilty or not? How much of this exercise is journalism, and how much is celebrity? Has Finkel sold his soul to the devil, or will his carefully cultivated friendship produce a truthful inside look at an accused murderer? Franco keeps us guessing: one minute he’s Hannibal Lecter, the next he’s Andy Dufresne, and he’s constantly wrong-footing us like a pro boxer. It’s fairly talky, but Franco earns our ticket money.

th-4ADVANTAGEOUS*** (U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision) In the near future, Gwen Koh is the spokesperson for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, a company that can transfer a client‘s personality and memories into a new body. When the Center tells Gwen they want to replace her with someone younger, she volunteers for the procedure herself. That’s all the premise writer-director Jennifer Phang needs for this soft, thoughtful meditation on relationships and family values. The science-fictional aspects are understated; we can see an occasional air-car whiz by and the procedure itself is a soothing visual impression in light blue, but this is almost completely a human-level story. A wonderful cast is led by co-writer Jacqueline Kim as the older Gwen and Freya Adams as “Gwen 2.0,” struggling to re-establish her relationship with a daughter who can no longer recognize her. This is a quiet festival-type film, sedate and haunting, which has precious few explosions (yes, there are some), but will reward patient attentive viewing.

western-ross-brothersWESTERN**** (U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Verite Filmmaking) A gorgeous, profound, instructive, ultimately heartbreaking documentary on the border towns of Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Mexico. The only thing that separates them is the Rio Grande. For years the sister cities have been living together in peaceful symbiosis: cattle are raised in Mexico and brought to market in America. Citizens of the two towns know each other, party together, have parades and celebrations together. Longtime Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster sets the tone: he speaks fluent Spanish and presides over the harmony and happiness that he helps instill and preserve. Martin Wall is a fifth-generation cattleman who agrees that they’re living next door to paradise. Then wolves appear at that door, as Mexican drug cartels begin a vicious turf war and the unthinkable happens: ordinary citizens, not just rival dealers, are murdered, and the carnage moves ever closer. Before long a border fence goes up, USDA inspectors are warned not to venture into Mexico to do their jobs, thus halting the cattle trade, and the sister cities’ idyllic existence moves ever closer to ruin. Directors Bill and Turner Ross make films about places, showing us what it feels like to live there. Although interviewees have plenty of opinions (Mayor Foster notes the obvious fact that you can simply walk around any fence that doesn’t cover the entire border), the Ross brothers remain apolitical and let their subjects speak for themselves. At the q&a afterward, they steadfastly resisted being goaded into expressing a political opinion, but it’s obvious that they encourage audience members to make up their own minds. I wish certain particular members of Congress could be forced to watch this beauty. Thing is, another viewer might agree with me, but pick entirely different members.

the-forbidden-roomTHE FORBIDDEN ROOM*** (World Premiere) As one of the most revered auteurs in avant-garde cinema, Guy Maddin is an acquired taste. He specializes in kneading and shifting the film form, as did the great first wave of underground filmmakers in the Sixties: Emshwiller, Mekas, Brakhage and the like. He is particularly fascinated with the silent and early sound eras of film and works their tropes into his features and art installations. This film, shown in Sundance’s “New Frontier” program as a kind of warning, tells a group of nested stories: for example, some men trapped in a submarine are interrupted by a woodsman(!) who has his own tale, etc. The film stock is sometimes black and white, sometimes color, sometimes distressed, sometimes crisp. In a scene with two characters, one of them might use silent-film title cards while the other speaks in sync sound. It’s like looking at a constantly moving kaleidoscope fashioned around 1930. Each of the credit cards at the top is presented twice, in the style of old movies: the card might resemble GONE WITH THE WIND, then the same info as if seen in MRS. MINIVER. The film opens with a deadpan bit of absurd instruction on how to take a bath, and a great deal of humor flies by: for instance, a group of apprentice woodsmen are only yet “saplingjacks.” To say this isn’t for everyone would be the understatement of the year. At 2:08 it’s far too long, but by then about a quarter of the audience at my screening had already walked out. Those who remained, the true Maddinheads, clapped their hands off. Among Maddin’s actors are Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, and Udo Kier.

cq5dam.web.1280.1280I AM MICHAEL*** (World Premiere) Michael Glatze was a gay-rights activist and founder of Young Gay America when he startled the movement in 2007 by announcing that he no longer identified as homosexual. A health scare had shocked him into reexamining his faith and his sexuality, and he became a Christian pastor, renouncing his former life. This dramatization of Michael’s journey, clearly made by people who believe he had come to deny himself, is nonetheless careful not to point fingers or make fun, and that is its main strength. James Franco (again!) does a terrific job of eliciting sympathy for Michael, even as his life’s contradictions are tearing him apart and he flails for something to believe in: Buddhism, anything. The first few minutes, confined to Michael’s activist group, are the weakest: the men seem to be mouthing talking points that we’ve all heard before. But as Michael’s quest becomes more complicated, even to the point of attracting sweet young Emma Roberts at a Bible college, the issues are less black and white — except to his former boyfriend, nicely played by Zachary Quinto. Writer-director Justin Kelly deserves a hand for leaving the issue open to the viewer’s own conclusions, and delivers a nifty final shot that can be taken two ways as well.

th-6WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?***** (World Premiere) A great documentary by Sundance veteran Liz Garbus on jazz and blues legend Nina Simone. A classically trained pianist destined for the concert hall, she found her way into vocals out of necessity, playing dingy clubs to make ends meet. She became incredibly popular, known as the “High Priestess of Soul,” but her genius had its downside. She could be sullen to audiences, the female Miles Davis; after watching this film, I believe she felt she deserved the same type of silent attention that is given to classical artists, and resented being treated otherwise. She lived through the civil rights movement in America, and racism made her so angry that she began to speak out and sing out; she wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” one of the most searing songs of the era, and gave no thought to how her activism might affect her career. (She once told Martin Luther King, “I am not nonviolent.”) This beautifully researched film gives us plenty of concert footage, some of it newly unearthed, and an unvarnished look at her mercurial personality from Simone herself and from the people closest to her, including her daughter. Even viewers familiar with her work will learn something about Nina Simone; those to whom her name is new may well be flabbergasted. This movie was co-produced by Netflix (of particular help in obtaining the many music clearances needed), which will stream it beginning in June after a token, Academy-qualifying theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles.

th-7GLASSLAND* (World Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting: Jack Reynor) I saw this movie and I’m still not sure what happened in it. This kid drives a taxi in Dublin. His mother is drinking herself to death. That is all I’m positive about. I don’t know what’s in the mysterious package he delivers in an early scene. I’m not sure who his customers are, but I think they may be pimps. I don’t know how he got the money to send his mom to an expensive dry-out clinic. I don’t know who called him to drive to a mysterious house, or why. I don’t understand what was resolved in the end. Jack Reynor won an award for acting, and Toni Collette gave it everything as his mom. Will Poulter, he of the eyebrows, is also in it. Beyond that, I just do not know.

grandma1GRANDMA**** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) A very good dramedy by the dependable Paul Weitz that I predict will earn Lily Tomlin an Academy Award nomination next year. She plays Elle Reid, a misanthropic grandmother who has just broken up with her girlfriend of four months (Judy Greer), herself a rebound after the death of Elle’s lifelong love. But there’s no time to mope, because Sage, her 18-year-old granddaughter, shows up with a ticking-clock emergency. They’ll have to drive all over town, stopping in on various pieces of Elle’s past. Marcia Gay Harden shines as Sage’s distracted tycoon of a mother, and Sam Elliott makes the most of a ten-minute appearance, but Lily Tomlin is in every single scene, growling out the wisecracks one minute and suffering through pain and loss the next, a very human being that we’re glad to have met.

lilaandeveLILA & EVE*** (World Premiere) THELMA & LOUISE meet RAMBO. After her son’s horrifying drive-by murder, a grieving mother joins a support group. There she meets a friend who is also frustrated by the police’s inability to provide justice, and together they determine to find and punish the killers, no matter what it takes. You’ve seen it all before, even down to a critical plot point (I can’t identify the movie without giving it away). But Viola Davis, in the lead, is spectacular, registering all the colors of grief and determination, never veering into self-parody. Jennifer Lopez keeps up as the hotheaded partner who eggs her on, but this is Davis’s movie and it’s a master class in performance.

th-8PEOPLE, PLACES, THINGS**** Jemaine Clement again, but this time he gets to carry a picture as the leading man. The knowing script by writer-director Jim Strouse is funny and wistful too, as a cartoonist and father of adorable twin girls must put his life back together after breaking up with the girls’ mother. In his natural New Zealand accent, Clement offers droll commentary (to a woman who judges his country beautiful because she saw the HOBBIT movies, he replies, “So you know our ways.”) and charming gangly unease as a solitary artist and teacher with a heart of gold; you’d love him as a friend or a father. THE DAILY SHOW’s Jessica Williams is great as one of his students at New York’s School of Visual Art, and it’s fun to sit in on his classes, especially as he deconstructs the medium of panel art (it’s straight out of Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS, including some illustrations). We made sure to see this one because Jemaine Clement had the lead; I hope more and more people will develop the same preference and Jemaine becomes a household name, as has already happened to Steve Carell.

th-9THE OVERNIGHT*** A mildly amusing trifle about a couple new to Los Angeles who are invited to the neighbors’ for a get-to-know-you pizza dinner. Once the kids are put to bed, the hosting couple gradually reveal themselves to be farther and farther and farther out there. Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling are the “normal” couple and the audience’s proxies. The main reason to see this movie is Jason Schwartzman, who revels in his increasingly bizarre role: he’s next to nuts, but it’s a lovable kind of nuts, the charming-rogue type a la Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray. Warning to prudes: the same kind of special makeup effect used toward the end of BOOGIE NIGHTS is seen here too. In fact, I counted two of ‘em.

th-10RACING EXTINCTION*** Before we saw it, I kept calling this “COVE II,” after one of my favorite films of the 2009 festival. Louie Psihoyos is one of the world’s greatest nature photographers, and when he turned to polemical filmmaking against savage dolphin hunting with the Oscar-winning THE COVE, I was riveted. Now the subject is the wanton extinction of species, far beyond the rate allowed by natural selection; we could lose half of all species within a century. This is perhaps the greatest obscenity perpetuated by those who refuse to lift a finger against climate change, simply because it is in many cases revokable. However, though indisputably gorgeous, this film is far less powerful than THE COVE. There, we were limited to a specific crime against nature, not to mention the deflatingly banal end result, the amusement of humans. Here, the subject is so huge that we are forced to dart around too much. The last bird of its species sings for a female who will never answer: that’s poetic, Shakespearean. But then we are pulled back into the illegal sale of whale meat in a restaurant (exposed by a COVEian sting which helps shutter the joint), or the harvesting of manta rays to be used in Eastern folk remedies, or the communicative powers of whalesong, or the unsustainability of exotic fare like shark-fin soup, or the dangers of depending upon animal protein for nourishment (livestock damage the worldwide atmosphere more than all forms of transportation combined). Then there are unintended consequences to consider: I wanted to know what the filmmakers would do with the people in the manta-ray village whose sole livelihood had now been cut off. We heard some muttering about “tourism,” but nothing concrete. The finale looses a tricked-out Tesla with state-of-the-art gear that can project video images onto the sides of buildings for a few multimedia joyrides in New York City, culminating with a spectacular show at the United Nations complex. (Not too green, maybe, but what the heck.) This film should be required viewing in schools everywhere — after all, it’s school-age kids who will have to live with our filth — and producing it was a fine service, but as a work of art it pales next to its predecessor.

brooklynBROOKLYN**** (World Premiere) Money in the bank, mates: a sumptuous period piece that’s largely set in 1950s New York. A young Irish girl (Saoirse Roman) decamps for a more promising life in Brooklyn. Her deep homesickness is only alleviated when she meets a young Italian lad. But even though she’s romantically attached, a family emergency forces her back to Ireland, where a divergent potential life awaits. John Crowley directs an adaptation by Nick Hornby, and is it ever beautiful. Each period detail is perfectly rendered, and Yves Belanger’s drop-dead-gorgeous cinematography, on both sides of the Atlantic, is thrilling in its ability to nail a place with just a couple of setups. Ms. Roman is splendid: her early sad-sack face morphs into radiance once she finds her footing in New York and then surrenders to a love affair: the production design and particularly the costumes mirror her burgeoning emotional maturity, and by the time she goes back to Ireland, she’s become a rather sophisticated colleen, both in dress and manner. Too girly? Not by me, and I don’t watch most of that BBC stuff. It’s an exemplary job, well written, acted, and shot. I predict great things.

th-1ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL***** (Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Dramatic; Audience Award, U.S. Dramatic) It starts as a knowing movie about “the real high school,” but that’s just to gird your grid for some serious stuff to come. Greg (Thomas Mann, who will also show up in THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, below) assiduously avoids becoming a member of any clique, only close enough to fist-bump them all. He makes wise-ass movie parodies with his childhood friend Earl. You get to see a few clips from these beauties: my favorite was A SOCKWORK ORANGE, using sock puppets against Purcell’s now-iconic Queen Mary Funeral music. His mother (Connie Britton) forces girl-shy Greg to spend some time with classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who is dying of leukemia. Those are the basics. Now the movie spreads its wings far beyond the expected. Part of the enjoyment is how director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon realizes a brilliant script by Jesse Andrews that upends your smug knowingness at every turn. It all comes down to a bravura ten minutes at the end that raises you up and down on the emotional scale through sight and sound alone, because the camera’s locked. Bring hankies. I’m not sure how this may be received commercially, but we loved it. This movie exudes great respect not only for its fully-drawn characters, but also for cinema in general. Watch and hear what’s playing on tv in the background. If you’ve seen THE 400 BLOWS, you’ll receive something even deeper. This is the third straight year that the audience and the jury have agreed on the U.S. Dramatic winner: PRECIOUS, WHIPLASH, and now this one.

Unknown-1SLOW WEST**** (Grand Jury Prize, World Dramatic) Remember how strange the Western vistas used to look in those classic Sergio Leone movies? Just like the craggy mugs shown so close-up that you could see facial pores, the background off-kilter, as alien as those long dusters that billowed in the wind. That’s because we were actually rolling film half a world away from John Ford’s Monument Valley: we were in Spain, amigo. This very fine movie gives the production globe another twirl, to the wide-open spaces of New Zealand, d/b/a the American West. A lovestruck teenage Scot travels to America to find his former squeeze. He is nearly killed along the way but is saved by a highwayman (excuse me, a bounty hunter), played to perfection by Michael Fassbender. (Is there anything he can’t do?) The scofflaw offers to escort the lad for a fee, but he has a darker reason, and thereby hangs a tale. Now we are down to stunning vistas and superb closeup eye candy from writer/director John Maclean and DP Robbie Ryan. This is an old-fashioned Western quest in many ways, but it possesses an arch attitude that renders it contemporary. G’day to my favorite Aussie character actor, Ben Mendelsohn, who joined the canon here at Sundance with ANIMAL KINGDOM, and to Rory McCann, the Hound of GAME OF THRONES, who gets a sympathetic part. It was wonderful to see a terrific frontier film at a time when I thought they’d all gone away.

Unknown-2THE WOLFPACK*** (Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Documentary) I dimly remember reading about the Angulo family in the New York Times, probably in a report on the start of production on this film. Six brothers (and one sister, who barely appears) live with their parents on the Lower East Side. They have been home-schooled by their state-accredited mom and are quite articulate, but they have been largely kept insulated from society by their monomaniacal father, who ruled everything when his kids were younger and rarely let them leave the house for fear of contamination by the evils outside. Instructed to fear everything beyond the front door, they are culturally feral — or would be if it weren’t for the movies. They watch tapes and disks ravenously and produce their own homages (not unlike ME AND EARL, only these boys are serious, and several of them are fairly good mimics) by painstakingly copying down dialogue and faking the production design. But now they’re adolescents, and their worthless, alcoholic father suddenly looms less large. One boy breaks the ultimate rule, then everybody else wants to go outside too. We watch as they attend their first film in a real theater, head over to Coney Island, and enjoy a day in the park, making connections to scenes or locations in their favorite movies. You tend to feel for these boys and want a case worker over tout de suite, but this way-alternative lifestyle is a very strange and slippery form of child abuse: one or two of the brothers might even contest that description if you confronted them. They adore their mother, who has been complicit at the very least, but the household is full of blankness rather than authenticity, and it’s thus as dank and depressing as a Poe story. For these boys, “you need to get out more” isn’t just a catchphrase, it’s a life-or-death diagnosis. We fear for them, and we hope they can find the necessary courage before it’s too late.

_80675246_dream-with-jan-and-brian-crDARK HORSE**** (Audience Award, World Cinema Documentary) ANIMAL HOUSE meets SEABISCUIT. The remarkable story of a racehorse owned by a ragtag syndicate of pub denizens in a tiny Welsh village. In 2000, barmaid Jan Vokes decides to breed a contender and enlists locals to, um, pony up 10 pounds a week. The mare and stud fees are both on a tight budget; not an auspicious start. What emerges is a goofy foal, all spindly legs whose coloration looks like it has donned two pair of white kneesocks. But the village’s new beast — named “Dream Alliance” to represent his unusual ownership — has heart and a street-scrappiness which will take it far past hobbydom, to everyone else’s amazement and delight. The fun is in watching these yobbos and yobbettes gradually assert themselves as owners in the overly snooty world of racing: it’s the slobs versus the snobs, thanks to the determination of Ms. Vokes and a tight circle of people who actually know what they’re doing. The filmmaking carries us along with thunderous coverage of some big events, announced within the first few seconds (while watching I felt it a mistake to begin with The Big Race and interrupt to tell the backstory, but I was wrong, as the full tale reveals). These scenes are interspersed with contemporary footage of principals, all looking back now, which allows you to meet, know, and love them. And then there is “Dream,” a natural who follows his own trail, even galloping past a near-death experience. It’s all just adorable: as uplifting, in its own way, as is SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN.

Stanford.Prison.Experiment.Sundance1THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT***** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize) A chilling dramatization of the notorious 1971 experiment in group psychology and situational ethics, which was conducted just as I was leaving college for graduate school; I was pretty much the same age as the Stanford students who agreed (for a fee) to populate and administer a “prison” setting for two weeks. The roles of “prisoners” and “guards” were assigned randomly. The hypothesis was that even simulated authority could attain actual dominance when wielded in psychological isolation. “I’d rather be a prisoner,” one prospect blithely muses at his pre-screening session. “Wouldn’t have so much to do.” You really haven’t thought this through, kid. As with most “true stories,” we have no idea if it actually went down this way, but here it takes no time at all for the “guards” — who may not strike or otherwise physically harm their prisoners, but can use any psychological means of control necessary — to channel their inner sadists. Just as remarkably, the “prisoners” also revert to stages of pathetic subordination or scheming. Tim Talbott’s award-winning script is tight as a drum, and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez keeps it so sweaty and claustrophobic that you can feel the temperature change whenever we have to leave the “prison” to watch the watchers. The film depicts mastermind Dr. Philip Zimbardo, played by Billy Crudup, as a bit of a mad scientist, which may be a tad too harsh. But a troupe of terrific young actors laps up these roles like pudding, especially an incendiary Michael Angarano as a “guard” who decides his template will be Strother Martin in COOL HAND LUKE, shitkicker accent and all. At the screening I attended, you could hear a pin drop whenever we were in “prison”; you may well find this film too intense to “enjoy,” so consider yourself warned. I had to keep in mind that it was only a movie about only an experiment, for it’s as armrest-clenching as any thriller. When I read about the Stanford prison experiment at the time, I thought the takeaway was that a uniform changed everything, made it possible for you to follow any crazy-ass order you received. (Another Sundance feature which I missed, EXPERIMENTER, dramatized the equally notorious 1961 Milgram experiment, which set out to prove exactly that.) But as the Stanford kids found out, the uniform can affect behavior in the wearer as well as the beholder. It was a surprise only because until now, they’d never been to prison.

WISH I’D SEEN: BEST OF ENEMIES, CALL ME LUCKY, THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, DOPE, DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD, THE END OF THE TOUR, EXPERIMENTER, GOING CLEAR (it’ll be on HBO next month), MISERY LOVES COMEDY, THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER, THE WITCH, Z FOR ZACHARIAH

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Synchin’ ‘n’ The Reign

January 13, 2015
John Epperson at work.

John Epperson at work.

We went downtown to see the final performance of THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD, a show that we just couldn’t miss for two reasons. One, I met the co-star, Steve Cuiffo, last summer at Ricky Jay’s magic immersion weekend. Steve mentioned this piece from the stage and I made the mental note to see it next chance I got, because he then called out the second reason by name-checking the star, an old friend of mine from Mississippi theater days, John Epperson. John’s better known now by another name, as audience after audience screams with laughter and delight at the antics of his alter ego: the fabulous Lypsinka.

Calling Lypsinka a drag act is like calling Segovia a guitar player: it’s technically correct, but man, are you missing the point. What Lypsinka brings onstage tests the limits of a theatrical tradition and then explodes them. John Epperson isn’t just the best at what he does, he has no serious competition. That’s how five, six, ten years can pass between New York Lypsinka shows and her many fans, both gay and straight, will still be clamoring for tickets. Lypsinka rules, like the grande dame she is.

Drag itself is a venerable art form, and not only in gay-oriented places. For many years, “female impersonators” like Jim Bailey have been perfectly welcome in mainstream venues, including big Vegas rooms, the Sunday-night Ed Sullivan Show, even Carnegie Hall. I remember watching Bailey impersonate Garland, Streisand, or Phyllis Diller on Sullivan from my home in Jackson, Mississippi. About thirty miles away in a town called Hazlehurst, perhaps tuned to the same tv station, John Epperson was doing his best to cope.

John Epperson in mufti.

John Epperson in mufti.

John is years younger than I — discretion forbids the exact figure — and for his higher education he moved to Jackson and Belhaven College. I’d long since graduated from Millsaps College, two or three miles away. For years afterward, I used to tell people I had a “conservative-arts” education, bada-boom, but I kid Millsaps College. To a Mississippi just barely emerging from its Klan-ruled era, Millsaps (Methodist) looked, and felt, like Berkeley. Today it features MBAs and its own Phi Beta Kappa chapter. John’s Belhaven (Presbyterian), on the other hand, was the real deal: mandatory chapel, all of that. Not exactly the prime breeding spot for future underground musical comedy stars.

Because of the age difference, I didn’t meet John until after college, when I returned from Georgia and both of us hung around a troupe of local players at Jackson’s New Stage Theatre. I well remember a solo show John put up in the Hewes Room, a small performance space at the Jackson Little Theater. Just him and a piano. It must have been an early stab at what eventually became JOHN EPPERSON: SHOW TRASH (1), the makeup-free portion of LYPSINKA! THE TRILOGY, in which three of his already-established shows recently ran “in rep” for two months in New York. The other day, we saw THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD (2), to which I’ll return in a moment. The third piece was a full-blown Lypsinka show called LYPSINKA! THE BOXED SET (3). My favorite of such amazements is a long-ago production called I COULD GO ON LIP-SYNCHING! This is the uncut stuff that has made Lypsinka (like Cher, she’s fabulous enough to need only one name, but she is actually a scion of the Von Rasputinas) literally world-famous.

Every Lypsinka show requires its creator to produce not just one single miracle, but three of them. The first miraculous step is the prerecorded audio track. John assembles this personally, with an engineer (here, Alex Noyes). A typical Lypsinka piece employs hundreds of cues from radio, movies, tv, records, interviews, anything, all mashed into a bizarre lickety-split throughline that makes sense only in the performance. It’s far beyond simply lip-synching songs; a Lypsinka track is composed of tightly-cued bits of speech that play like music. About half of the CRAWFORD show reproduces the notorious interview conducted at New York’s Town Hall by public relations man John Springer on April 8, 1973, only weeks after Marlon Brando had sent a faux Indian to the stage to decline his Oscar for THE GODFATHER. While generational change is all around her, La Crawford is still living in the Forties, the obsequious audience applauds every mention of any past screen luminary, and this mindless adoration gets ever funnier as it continues. Then we have some shorter audio pieces, such as Miss Crawford reading the cloying but briefly trendy “Desiderata” on a tv appearance. Finally we descend into a major fantasia, with pantomimed telephones alternately ringing into her left and right ears to introduce lurid Crawford snippets wrenched out of potboilers ranging from classics to STRAIGHT JACKET to TROG. This last surreal section is a full-throttle Lypsinka sound assembly, so artfully devised that it might kill all by itself just coming out of an iPod. But then you wouldn’t know where to look.

The second miracle is memorization. I would love to be a fly on the wall at rehearsals for a new Lypsinka piece, especially this one, which uniquely requires TWO lip-synching actors. Last summer at the Ricky Jay weekend, Steve Cuiffo — who plays Springer, every other interrogator, and even that classic announcer Dick Tufeld Speaking — discussed this show in that very sense. He described how lip-synching demands a radically different form of preparation than for a more traditional role. Here, timing is everything and the cues are instinctive. I imagine they must sound something like music, but without the reassurance of countable rhythm. Anybody can learn a play’s worth of dialogue, trust me. But there has to be a certain natural awareness by which John and Steve can memorize the pauses too. For many years John’s day job was as rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theatre; you can see him in this capacity in a crucial scene in Darren Aronofsky’s film BLACK SWAN. Imagine the innate timekeeping ability required to support a classical dancer’s precision; he has to be more on-the-nose than most drummers. Maybe that’s how he’s managed to limber up that split-second timing. Steve was responsible for queries and pauses for perhaps two-thirds of one show. John performed all thirds of that same show, plus a full-length solo piece requiring the same unflagging concentration, not to mention SHOW TRASH as himself, and all of it in random order as the two-month “rep” engagement continued. No more complaining from any other actors struggling to get off book!

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and Lypsinka performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and Lypsinka performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

The miraculous trinity is completed in the visual performance. With classic-era diva makeup slathered on, Lypsinka is able to amplify the recorded track with movements so minute and dead-on that it’s possible to occasionally forget she isn’t actually speaking. For CRAWFORD, I was sitting in the stage-right front row, no more than ten feet from the two performers, and I noticed only five, maybe six slight “sync” errors during the entire hour-plus piece. (Those came at points where there was really no way to anticipate the cue, and each time the actors recovered instantly.) That’s all the imperfection I could see, and I was right on top of them! Lypsinka’s addenda are her eyes, lips, coiffure, diva-esque turns, and occasional drop-dead gazes at her interlocutor. Clothes hang nicely on John’s model-thin frame; Lypsinka is born to fashion (and has actually graced some famous runways), not some dragette stuffing himself into a costume. Sitting very close for the first time at a Lypsinka performance, I expected the show to be aimed beyond me, like some Broadway actors will do (Jason Robards Jr., for example, was an inveterate spitter, and some of his downstage histrionics could actually reach the front row). But I noticed some very subtle things between the two actors which might not even have projected. Or maybe I’m wrong about that: the reason you wear makeup on stage in the first place is so the folks in the back row can see your features plainly. Lypsinka’s makeup looks good up close in a maturing-diva sense (in other words, this Crawford’s no longer young enough to try to appear natural), but you can see every overly dramatic lip-tremble from the back row too. You can probably see it from the frickin International Space Station.

After the show, John came out for a very rare curtain talk: I’d never before seen him appear on stage out of character. It was the last night of the run, the final CRAWFORD, and in two hours he would end the entire engagement with a late-show performance of SHOW TRASH. As he thanked us, the soft-spoken Hazlehurst accent appeared, unamplified, and he seemed to lose an inch or two in height, in clear contrast to the over-the-top boisterous razzle-dazzle he’d just presented. Then a sly grin. “If we decided to do this again, maybe in a year or so, would you tell your friends…and come back?” Of course, the place went nuts. What a wonderful body of performance art this talented actor has created. Whenever you’re ready, just say (or sync) the word, man, and you can count on me.

P.S. It’ll take a little longer, because a year from now John is already booked, as we learned in the New York Times.

6/2/15: Jim Bailey, referenced above, left us this year.


John & Janis

December 29, 2014

UnknownWhat was it like to be Janis Joplin’s road manager, back in the day? Now you can find out for yourself. ON THE ROAD WITH JANIS JOPLIN is an illuminating, heartbreaking, educating, palpitating, emancipating tome, a new book you just have to read if you care at all about the preternaturally gifted bluesy chick from Port Arthur, Texas and the times that first embraced her and then, let’s face it, erased her.

Other talented authors have also written compellingly about seminal vectors in rock & roll history, but unlike the Greil Marcuses and Peter Guralnicks of the rock world, John Byrne Cooke isn’t so much a reporter as he is a storyteller, a novelist. So you get that journalistic eye and ear for detail, but it flickers through a sense of relaxed pace, rhythmic inevitability, narrative motion that feels more like an ambling river canoe float than the unrelenting, determined freight train of bald historical recitative. (In a typically charming choice of words, the author and a friend “bushwhack“ toward the Pacific coast in their rental car.) Mr. Cooke draws you alongside him, and that warm relationship continually renders this book less about me and more about us. But unlike us, Mr. Cooke was present for some world-shaking events.

cv_smlNow it’s time for full disclosure. Mr. Cooke is a former author of mine — I edited his historical novel THE COMMITTEE OF VIGILANCE, which dramatizes an infamous tumult in his beloved San Francisco — and he remains a personal friend. Among his other works, I particularly commend to you his masterful THE SNOWBLIND MOON, a first novel so fine that it persuaded the grizzled pros of the Western Writers of America to bestow not only their “Medicine Pipe Bearer” award for best debut, but also the prestigious Spur Award for best novel period, a remarkable double honor. So — trust me on this — dude be good. But, as with every other author I’ve had either the privilege (mostly) or the burden (don’t ask) to serve as editor, I would never lie, either to him or for him. What I say below is my unvarnished opinion; I’ll pick a nit or two, but as veteran readers may have already noticed, if I didn’t genuinely like a book, I wouldn’t bring it up in the first place. Vita’s too brevis, y’all.

Further disclosure. Years ago, I got down on my metaphorical knees and begged Mr. Cooke to write his musical memoir. He demurred. I don’t know what finally brought it forth so much later, but I’m not complaining. Even if I didn’t get to publish, I did finally get to read, and it’s a great comfort to know this unique perspective was eventually set down for the rest of us. Do not pass it by. It took me an unusually long time to finish this book, because stray comments kept compelling me to set the thing down and listen again to some primal music I thought I already knew inside and out. That same tug had produced similar revelations with the Beatles before, but this time my emotional stake went as far as the bloody road manager. Get close to the come-hither spell of this book and yours will too.

Mr. Cooke first describes the long and winding road that leads to her door. Like most real-life adventures, his journey hangs on the dual hinges of ability and luck. He’s a New England blueblood who, smitten by the Harvard-area folk scene — you had to be there, man — winds up in a bluegrass band, twanging out the real American songbook. The author’s Charles River Valley Boys (despite the group’s shitkickery-sounding name, the Charles runs by Boston, as any Standells-digging frat boy can tell you) have not only recorded for big-shot label Elektra, but were also debut-produced by the soon-to-be-legendary Paul A. Rothchild, who will figure in later. One thing leads to another, which might as well be the motto of this book, and the author’s music connections deposit him into the office of filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, who is planning to shoot the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival. “Penny” specializes in what they call cinema verite, meaning the product looks like it was simply caught on the fly. Not true, as we learn through the eyes of the guy who runs Nagra sound for Penny at Monterey — and there catches his first glimpse of the amazing Janis Joplin. The Boston folk scene and Penny had already led the author through Bob Dylan (via Penny’s DON’T LOOK BACK) to the Bearsville digs of his manager, Albert Grossman. Then, over dinner one night, Grossman offers Mr. Cooke the job of road manager for his newest client, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Shep Gordon, longtime manager of such acts as Alice Cooper, cogently reveals a manager’s main mission in Mike Myers’s entertaining new documentary SUPERMENSCH: ”one, get the money; two, always remember to get the money; and three, never forget to always remember to get the money.” A road manager, now, has much more on his mind (certainly not to belittle Shep’s Big Three, you understand), and Mr. Cooke does a wonderful job of describing how one corrals, sweet-talks and disciplines a bunch of less-than-punctual musicians as they go careering from one gig to the next. He is the authority, the responsible adult on tour, and he works for the band but establishes lines of demarcation immediately: I’m not your valet, you carry your own guitars. Only then can he begin to relate to Big Brother personally.

Mr. Cooke is a natural yarn-spinner who respects, even marvels at, the great historical tradition: after a cross-country airplane flight he muses, “In five hours I’ve covered what it took the emigrants of the nineteenth century’s great westward migration months of peril to travel.” Now he’s with a new group of pioneers, bringing the bluesy side of the “San Francisco sound” to an America that’s only now learning about the Haight-Ashbury district, itself already starting to find tourists underfoot. From 1967 on, absent one short break, Mr. Cooke manages the tours of Big Brother, the Kozmic Blues Band, and Full Tilt Boogie: he is with Janis on the road until her death.

As a result, we are able to experience her brief but meteoric career at a legato pace that resembles the speed of real life. For example, we see the making of Big Brother’s first major-label record, CHEAP THRILLS, as the debilitating slog it was. Producer John Simon (whose other work I greatly respect) didn’t click with the band and turned out to be an impediment. The resulting album — still my favorite of Janis’s recordings — was basically saved in the studio by co-producer Elliott Mazer’s clever editing and mixing, which gave the aural impression of a live performance. Mr. Cooke’s musical background gives him valuable perspective and some luscious personal moments. The 1970 “Festival Express” train on its cross-country tour of Canada was a “rolling hootenanny” stuffed with musicians who never quit jamming, and after trading Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers songs with The Band’s Rick Danko one night, the author gets an informal back-slap from Bandmate Richard Manuel: “Hey, man, you can’t sing like that. You’re a road manager.” It’s delightful to sit with Janis in the bar of a Holiday Inn in Austin as a lounge singer “with an electric guitar and a rhythm machine” strikes up “Me and Bobby McGee.” She’s astonished: at this point, the best-known version is on a Roger Miller album, but by coincidence Janis is planning to sing the song tonight at a private birthday party. She leaves the lounge unimpressed.

JBC-WebsiteHeadshotMr. Cooke can’t help but become personally attached, so the reader does as well. It hurts us to watch the dissolution of Janis’s first two bands. The reasons are varied, but the pain feels vindicated when she hits her stride with Full Tilt Boogie, the unit that records the exuberant PEARL (Janis’s private, personal nickname) with that same Paul Rothchild on the faders. The band and its singer are each at the very top of their games when an overdose — Janis almost certainly misjudged the potency of the heroin that killed her — ends everything. Our loss is of a pop icon. The author’s is of a close friend.

I love the tone and feel of the story, but if I were still Mr. Cooke’s editor, I’d suggest he watch the abrupt changes from present tense (it sounds more immediate) to past tense (it sounds more reportorial) and back again; they observe some kind of inner logic that isn’t readily apparent to the reader, sometimes occurring within a single sentence. I would also have corrected the repeated misspelling of Hugh Masekela’s name: a simple mistake by the author but very embarrassing for the copyeditor, who presumably understood pop music of the period but also managed to muff Ritchie Valens, a name easier to spell correctly. Also, John, James Gurley wrenches five guitar notes before the “Handelian silence” on “Ball and Chain,” not four, but that’s beyond the typical copyeditor’s powers: you’d have to luck into a CHEAP THRILLS nerd like me to correct that.

As I hoped and suspected all those years ago, this is a document we’re lucky to have. Nobody else could have told this story this intimately, because it requires unusual talent in both seeing and hearing. And besides taking us way backstage into the life of a glorious talent, John Byrne Cooke’s wonderful narrative also pays tribute in the best way possible: it encourages us to go back and reclaim the music, to honor what was  while we continue to luxuriate in what is.

2/17/15: Today we learned that Sam Andrew has passed away. Say hi to Janis, man.


Cuba, Si! Castro, Meh.

December 19, 2014

cubaIt’s amazing, the things you can do when you no longer have to be concerned about winning elections in Florida. President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba are historic not because they’re so surprising, but because the only guy who can get the ball rolling is a lame duck who will never have to run again.

In most of the country, all but the most virulent knee-jerk Commie-haters (or black-President haters) understand that our fifty-year trade embargo has done nothing to harm the Castro regime — it’s still there, after all — and everything to isolate innocent working-class people by denying them access to the world’s richest market, and, perhaps significantly, vice versa. The overwhelming view is that the embargo is a failed Cold War relic whose time has long past.

That’s most of the country. It’s different in South Florida.

This region is stocked with refugees old enough to vividly remember the brutality of Fidel Castro’s “revolution,” who consider it treasonous even to recognize the regime which split proud families into resentful diaspora, much less do business with it. They are a shrinking minority, but they are vocal and potent beyond their numbers. Younger Cuban-Americans tend to agree that the embargo has outlived its usefulness, but their parents and especially their grandparents are far more fervent and thus far more likely to vote. It is political dynamite for a Florida politician to suggest any relaxation of our rust-covered Cuba policy, which is why Presidential prospects like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are leading the outcries against the president (along with usual-suspect Obamaphobes like Lindsey Graham, that Ebola-shrieker who still yells “Benghazi!” whenever he can).

Some right-wing babblers have found themselves twisted into knots, praising the release of detained U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, then denouncing the President in the same sentence. But the general response to President Obama’s action — he was covertly assisted by Canada and the Pope! — has been sensible and supportive. Talk of withholding funds for creating a U.S. embassy in Havana is just that: talk. Here’s one thing nearly everybody can agree on, like the fact that our gun laws are too lax and our military budget is too bloated. But to actually propose a solution? After you, Senator.

So American tourists will be able to legally bring back some of those ass-kicking Cohibas (Cuban cigars are strong, mate — uh, I mean, that’s what I’ve heard), unless those rumors are true and Fidel’s so mean that he plans to flood the U.S. market with cheap counterfeits once we normalize. (Gang, Raul‘s in charge.) This Cuba deal’s such a no-brainer that it might actually get done. And as a new tourist spot for Caribbean-bound Americans, this beautiful island’s image might finally change. Imagine the marketing possibilities: “Cuba. It’s not just for torture anymore.


The River Of Retail

November 24, 2014

th-1I’ve just traveled back in time, to a more innocent age. I did it by reading a book about Amazon.com. “By the time you read this book,” opines business writer Robert Spector in the finale of his AMAZON.COM: GET BIG FAST, “Amazon.com will have changed in some profound way.” Man, did he get that right – because HarperBusiness published this tome way back in 2000, when Jeff Bezos’s website was just five years old and nobody’d ever heard of an “Internet bubble.” By the time I read this book, Amazon (the by-now-anachronistic “.com” was quietly dropped in March 2012) was barely recognizable.

Business books like this one are churned out mainly for eager MBA candidates and execs on the make who are busy taking notes or marking up the pages; Mr. Shelton helpfully provides summational “takeaways” at the end of each chapter so readers don’t even have to uncap their pens. The writing won’t win any awards – the market calls for simple, straightforward, didactic prose – and the book is poorly (hurriedly?) edited and proofed: dropped connectors, “baited breath,” “technocolor,” multiple introductions of the same event. But you do get a look at Amazon.com just as it was becoming an actual power, from a reporter who is still marveling at this new Internets thing. “The real winners,” writes Mr. Spector from 2000, “will be the so-called ‘clicks-and-mortar’ retailers that combine a physical presence with a virtual presence…the future belongs to these multichannel operations.” “One day,” he predicts, “we will even see Amazon.com in the physical world, either with stores or kiosks,” and in New York City, for the 2014 holiday season, his farfetched Hail-Mary concoction will have actually come true.

th-2Mr. Spector is much better at describing what has already taken place: the famed creation story in which Bezos quits his cushy job at D. E. Shaw & Co. – he’s flat-out brilliant – and, entranced with the mind-reeling growth of the Internet, uses Spocklike logic to choose an entry-point product (books) and a city from which to base his startup (Seattle). We watch as Bezos assembles a team of equally smart people who know nothing about retailing, yet build a crude infrastructure and go live on July 16, 1995. In a time period so compressed that it ate people up (you had to be young and driven to work there), Amazon.com became a constant exercise in scaling out, in keeping up with an unprecedented growth rate, in whacking the largest moles anybody had ever seen. The Amazonians fill more and more warehouse space and toss away their initial plan to be a store that is only virtual. They go public and charm investors by admitting they plan to lose money as far out as the eye can see, throwing every penny into getting big fast. They enter Britain and Germany by buying existing e-sellers and giving them an Amazon storefront. They add music and video to the mix and start a website buying spree. They hire executives from Wal-Mart and other retailers for adult supervision over the distribution chain. Within five years, they’ve survived their first soul-searing holiday rush and built one of the most famous brands in the world. In January 2000, they change their logo to the famous “smile arrow” that connects A to Z in the company name: we intend, they announce, to sell everything (except firearms, living creatures, pornography or tobacco). When Bezos holds up an unusual food product at a press conference, Mr. Spector is obviously getting his first look at what he calls an “edible (presumably)” turducken. And that’s where this book leaves them.

The author basically lionizes Jeff Bezos, who is named Time’s Man of the Year for 1999. Although Mr. Spector does note some early missteps – charging publishers for favorable placement on the site, just like Barnes & Noble and Borders had for years, only failing to tell customers about the sponsorships; Purchase Circles, which could let you see what others at your company are buying, which was TMI for outraged corporations like IBM; an unflattering fight with a lesbian bookstore in Minneapolis which had been using the name Amazon since 1970; and selling English-language copies of MEIN KAMPF from the US site to customers in Germany, where the book is banned – and reports some groaning from afar about working conditions, we never get a fully rounded view. For that we need thirteen more years to pass, and the publication of a very different book.

thTHE EVERYTHING STORE by Brad Stone isn’t written for business students: it’s a more major piece of narrative nonfiction. Mr. Stone has the benefit of the ensuing years in which Amazon has grown into a global colossus, large enough to push around his own publisher, Hachette (proprietor of this book’s Little, Brown imprint) and agitate for a larger piece of the pie, delaying or denying shipment of Hachette titles in the process. The dustup has only recently been resolved; click on the book cover to see how much Amazon has relented since I wrote this. I bought my copy, during the standoff, from Powell’s Books. (Fun fact: both Larry Kirshbaum, who ran an in-house publishing program at Amazon, and David Naggar, who presided over its settlement with Hachette, are former executives at the Warner Communications books group, which morphed into this particular member of the Big Five publishers.)

Amazon’s not a cute startup any more. But this is no Hachette job (sorry): though he does not talk to Bezos in person specifically for this book (as a business journalist he’s had the pleasure more than once), Mr. Stone does acknowledge the founder’s help in giving the go-ahead for “innumerable interviews with his friends, family and employees.” Bezos’s hesitation seems to be that he feels it’s still too soon to tell Amazon’s story comprehensively (I do not believe it has anything to do with the identity of the publisher), and the company is indeed a quickly rolling stone; it won’t be much longer before this book too is out of date.

Meanwhile, though, we get a ripping yarn about a scarily intelligent, scarily ambitious, scarily obsessed man who saw the face of the future back when everybody thought he was just a bookseller. Jeff Bezos reminds us naturally of Steve Jobs: the same driven personality, the same steely mind, the same screaming impatience with anything short of perfection, even the same “reality distortion field” that worked its will on every aspect of the innovative companies they built. They were both adopted by loving foster parents, and each man grew rich and famous without their biological fathers being aware of their relationship. It is clear from reading his story that Amazon as we know it wouldn’t exist without Jeff Bezos — the same existential importance as Steve Jobs had to Apple.

We inevitably go over some of the same territory as does Mr. Spector, but THE EVERYTHING STORE has caught up barely a quarter of the way in. Bezos’s vision was 20-20 even when he seemed to be the only guy with eyesight, back when the new company was called Cadabra (it sounded like “cadaver” to people on the phone. Another candidate was a little too on-the-nose: type in “Relentless.com” and, to this day, you’ll go straight to Amazon). You can’t succeed without having the guts to fail, and Bezos suffered some spectacular flops, primarily during Amazon’s big buildout during the dot-com boom, when the company wasted most of $2.2 billion in bond offerings in buying up smaller players that didn’t pan out. Its share price peaked on March 10, 2000, a few months after Jeff had been named Time magazine’s Man Of The Year, and Job One suddenly became simple survival.

th-3Amazon benefited both from Jeff’s foresight and the naiveté of others, to whom online commerce was viewed as a novelty, a technological fad that would eventually go away. Rather than do the hard, expensive work themselves, companies like Toys ‘R’ Us engaged Amazon to run their online presences. Later Circuit City, Borders and Target all entered into similar partnerships, but all they were doing was ceding advantage to Amazon. (About half of the in-person Borders stores were actually quite profitable when the company entered bankruptcy, but they were locked into too many pricey 15- and 20-year leases, more cannon fodder for Amazon’s lean, lithe business model.)

For anybody who is still surprised at the ruthlessness with which Amazon opposed Hachette (price wars are commonplace among other retailers but anathema to the cozy book industry, which sells its product on consignment and financially continues to press its historic advantage as the gatekeeper separating author and audience), one need only look back to 2002. Amazon’s contract with the United Parcel Service was up, but the shipper was facing union negotiations and felt it had no wiggle room. Amazon had already cultivated a relationship with Federal Express and that, coupled with driving its own trucks directly to the U.S. Postal Service, gave the retailer the necessary leverage. Amazon’s Jeff Wilke called supply-chain manager Bruce Jones and said, “Bruce, turn them off.” Within hours, unnoticeable by Amazon customers, its business with UPS simply dried up. A couple days later, Amazon received a bulk discount at UPS and taught the company “an enduring lesson about the power of scale and the reality of Darwinian survival in the world of big business,” writes Mr. Stone.

The flip side of that, of course, is that Amazon created a new revenue stream for the book industry by refining its desultory tentative steps into electronic documents. E-readers existed before Amazon’s Kindle debuted in 2007, but they were oriented toward the publishers, clunky and expensive. Amazon upended the industry by continuing to think about the customer (purchase of a Kindle book is even simpler than buying a paper copy on the Amazon site), and now it has a two-thirds share of the e-book market, which is not quite one third of all books sold in the US, a percentage which is likely to grow.

Much of this commotion seems intuitive, but only in hindsight. The fact is that Jeff Bezos is continuing to play a chess game against his competition — which is not only other retailers but also other technology firms — by thinking many moves in advance. The placement of Fulfillment Centers (i.e., warehouses) across the country is customer-centric, but not just for what Amazon sells today. These vast units are not tucked in the middle of nowhere: they’re near large cities, which will help Bezos achieve same-day service and gain the ability to deliver perishable groceries to most of the nation. Those infamous Amazon drones that Jeff proudly showed to 60 MINUTES sound crazy right now. But once so did Kindle, free shipping with a paid subscription, streaming audio and video as part of that same package, renting out server capacity, and a long, long list of other realities Jeff has basically willed into being. The notion of Amazon itself was judged to be nuts many, many times by graybeards who are still eating their words.

Mr. Stone concludes his book with a charming, lyrical bit of reporting. He tracked down and befriended Jeff’s biological father, 69-year-old Ted Jorgensen, who is the well-liked proprietor of the Roadrunner Bike Center in Glendale, Arizona. Mr. Stone explained who Jeff grew up to be, and Jorgensen’s eyes “filled with emotion and disbelief.” He sent letters via mail and e-mail to Jeff and his mother, and after a few months, the founder replied graciously and kindly. “He wrote,” reports Mr. Stone, “that he empathized with the impossibly difficult choices that his teenage parents were forced to make…he said that he harbors no ill will…and then he wished his long-lost biological father the very best.” There simply wasn’t room in Bezos’s makeup to waste time sifting through the past. It takes all his formidable skill to try his best to keep up with the future.


A Toy That’s Just My Type

November 16, 2014

th-3“Doris, take a letter!”

Have you ever heard anything like that? Dialogue in an old movie doesn’t count: I mean with your own ears in real life. The chances are greater if you’re older, greater still if you’re a woman. (And you may substitute any name, male or female, you wiseacre.) I’ll bet most of you haven’t, though it was once as unremarkable a phrase as the also-obsolete “this is where we came in.” (See footnote*)

“Take a letter” is the sound of a executive asking his (usually his) secretary (not “assistant,” secretary or steno, or, pace Kurt Vonnegut, one of the “Girl Pool”) to listen to him dictate a business letter, take down every word in shorthand on her (usually her) note pad, then go back to her desk and type it up for his signature. It is the way business was done for decades, and it was done this way because the executive hadn’t the faintest idea how to operate a typewriter.

We’re all made aware daily of the tremendous technological changes brought about by the ubiquity of digital devices over a fast (until you compare America’s infrastructure to the rest of the computing world’s, that is) broadband connection. But an even more vital cultural shift was in play long before the Internet revolutionized communications. In order to use a computer, you have to be able to type. So these days, everybody has learned. There isn’t just a computer on every desk. There’s also a keyboard.

There may remain a few emeritus execs who are senior enough to remember the steno pool, but today they are as rare as the three-martini lunches they once enjoyed. When these gents were growing up, typing was literally for girls. High schools offered classes, but they were as overwhelmingly female as “home economics”; the boys were in shop class. (The forward-thinking few who counterintuitively reasoned that typing class was therefore a great way to meet chicks tended to do well later in life, but they were still the few.) Young women dominated because typing class was seen as preparation for a job as a secretary, of which there were millions. Certain men made their living as typists, but as the operators of linotype machines.

Typewriters transformed the act of writing and dominated it for more than a century after their invention in the 1860s: now all output was eminently legible, no matter how ragged the author’s cursive scratching. But operating a typewriter is a skill, taught and learned — and without this skill the keyboard is useless.

Pretty damn close to my first one.

Pretty damn close to my first one.

Most writers I know who are anywhere near my age were fascinated by the limitless potential lurking inside their first typewriters. It’s the same feeling rockers describe upon beholding their new guitars. My first axe was a portable Smith-Corona whose hard carrying case latched over the top. Without the upper snap-on, it was light enough to rest on my lap in a chair or on the bed. It was the most amazing thing my fifth-grade eyes had ever seen. I couldn’t imagine a word this machine couldn’t reproduce so beautifully that anybody could read it! Hallelujah!

There was only one problem:

I didn’t know how to type.

The fullness of time has instructed me that I probably should have found somebody to teach me proper touch typing (those classes were in high school, still a few years off), just like I should have had somebody explain correct left-handed guitar stringing before I taught myself chords from right-handed sheet-music pages. Once their fingers are properly seated (that’s why there’s a tiny raised ridge on the F and J keys below your very fingers today), touch typists can type their asses off without referring to the keyboard, the same visual disdain employed by great musicians. That skill really helps, trust me. But, swimming upstream like the sturdy salmon (I flunked metaphor class), I got by, enough to casually entertain on the one hand and earn a living on the other.

I learned how to type by, well, typing. When I tell you that I began by copying some of my favorite Poe, Bradbury and Asimov stories single-spaced onto yellow legal-pad sheets (Shakespeare was just too quirky and difficult), you might at first think me extreme. But you would then be surprised (as was I) by the handful of professional authors who have told me they also did such copying as kids. There must be something universal about watching the wonderful words flow through your fingers and land on the page. If you’re attuned to the feeling, it fuels the fantasy that you could make them up yourself one day. Nuts? No more than communing with a record by playing air guitar. The simple mechanical process of retyping something you love engenders a real kinship with the author — even with Poe, who never saw a typewriter in his life.

There are actually still tons of writers whose prose arises outside the QWERTY board. Rod Serling, my all-time favorite crafter of dialogue, spoke his scripts into a Dictaphone for “Doris” or whomever to type up. My ole pal Kevin J. Anderson dictates first drafts to this day into a recorder while he’s exercising his body on hikes, the best self-administered healthcare program for an author that I’ve ever encountered. (When Kevin was just starting out, he used to economize by staying with us when he came to New York, and I can tell you, this guy worked well into the ((Eastern time)) night, and he did it on a keyboard. But by this point in a given project he was refining, not creating.) Tom Robbins writes his first drafts in longhand on a legal pad. So did Don Coldsmith, and that’s also how Jerry Seinfeld composes his bits. Harlan Ellison owns a sick number of replacement parts because he never wants to quit using a typewriter in favor of what I and nearbout everybody else is using right now: a word processor.

Point being this: if you have the basic talent, you can approach this writing bidness anyhow you frickin want, bucko. I’m not imputing any particular mojo onto a mechanical keyboard, but I do definitely declare that when toddlers can type in a Sesame Street way, that means the skill devolves to everybody lucky enough to attend a school where teachers actually motivate their students. Typing these days equals basic communication, even through rapid thumb-fire texting. If you can’t type, you can’t talk. Self-publishing on Amazon is simply the logical end result. When you see infants in strollers happily tapping their colorful tablets, you’re forgiven for getting that little frisson at the back of your neck: what happens when these kids learn how to type? I don’t know, mate, and neither do you.

* For most of the glory days of Hollywood, right up to the Seventies and the era of the blockbuster, most feature films played continuously and you could enter and leave the theater whenever you wanted, even in the middle of a movie. You would then see the part you missed during the next performance, until you recognized the part “where we came in.” Alfred Hitchcock famously upended this practice for the original 1960 run of PSYCHO, forbidding theater owners from letting anyone in once the picture had started. Disgruntled patrons were forced to wait in line out front, giving the impression that PSYCHO was a lines-around-the-block hit — and then the hype legitimately came true.

The Recall Of Cthulhu

October 27, 2014


UnknownThis story was first published in THE REPENTANT, a 2003 anthology edited by Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg. I send it out to all H. P. Lovecraft fans this Halloween. Boo!

One drives nervously through certain rural country in north central Massachusetts, far from the bustling metropolae of learning and commerce, without even knowing why. The crisp New England air becomes heavy and foetid, even inside an automobile insulated from the elements. The roadside flora offer no solace, for the traveller who might be soothed by the emerald grandeur of lush, verdant hills is instead assaulted by bramble patches and unkempt stands of forest grasping over the motorway, which is bathed in unremitting dusk even as the sun gleams its brightest. When the visitor finally can make out signs of human habitation, they too seem unnerving: broken, pitted wood fences long lain un-repaired; foul rusting yokes upon which large, lean black birds rest at odd angles and stare at passers-by with disquieting intensity; wilting plants of indeterminant genus that push obscenely out of denuded grey land once slit by a plow but thence shunned by its owner.

Nor can the crutches of civilization thrive here for long. When this dank region is spoken of at all, it is chiefly by returning travelers in muffled tones of dread and relief. One finds, they report, that the clammy hand of night can here reach even into the protective cocoon of an auto. No timbre save hissing static may be retrieved from a radio. Tape and disk mechanisms develop curious problems: they are unable to emit the sounds encoded on them and sometimes slow down or speed up unaccountably; various pilgrims have reported slow gutteral resonance not unlike the groaning song of the great leviathans of the deep, while others have heard distressing atonal piping that vaults upward on its alien scale to attain a painful pitch beyond hearing. The unluckiest have experienced mechanical problems, made most ominous by the imminent approach of night-fall, and more than one veteran of the long and lonely byways must suppress a shudder as he recounts the supreme unease with which he stepped out of the car to investigate this or that echoing rattle or metallic sigh.

The portable telephones which have so infested our sophisticated culture are here as useless as one of these Yankee farmers’ abandoned fenceposts — either the land brings its guests too far away from the technological world for communication to reach, or else there is some force, whether climatological or, worse, self-determined, which conspires to isolate this area from the orbit of rational discourse and reason. Looking this way and that, the visitor tends to slink back to the false shelter of the automobile and pledge to deal with the issue later, far away in a warm bed, if only the damned machine will successfully transport him. Never has anyone who has voyaged upon these dark lanes evinced the slightest desire to return.

Those who bravely or naively continue to peer out the window, while they negotiate the curving wooded roads toward blessed home, can usually discern the inhabitants of this forsaken clime. They are a solemn and oddly distanced lot, gazing without expression from well-trodden pasture or from the porches of tiny colonial-style houses which are not quite plumb, misshapen in a way that provokes revulsion instead of empathy, and glistening in a foul chitinous fashion as if constructed from the carapace of a giant insect. Their dwellings are spaced miles apart from each other, and no wonder, for they do not seem to particularly relish the company of humankind. There is no wave toward the passing vehicle, no smile, no acknowledgment. Only heads slowly turning to follow the progress of a car will betray the fact that the native watchers are indeed alive. The motorist wishes to escape their forbidding community no more ardently than the citizens of Dunwich wish to see him gone.

It was in the encroaching gloom of late afternoon that one of them, an ancient dairyman named Abner Brockman, followed the latest vehicle with his vacant and sallow gaze until the sound of its passing gave way to the stillness that always pervaded the stricken countryside at this time of the day. He turned back to his herd, a feeble collection of desultory animals which nosed their way through a dirt-pocked pasture nearly picked clean. The scent of mould and decay was on the air, and Brockman instinctively looked upward apprehensively in the direction of the table-like rock of Sentinel Hill. He was unable to make out the summit in the diminishing light, but he needed no visual confirmation of the barren hillock where no tree, shrub, or blade of grass would ever grow.

The first whippoorwill of evening raised its lonely moan, and Brockman pulled his jacket tight against his neck. These birds frightened and distressed the residents of Dunwich, where local superstition held that whippoorwills were creatures that waited for the souls of the dying, and that their cries are timed to the wretched victim’s last breath. It was still early and the bird was joined by no others, but that did not prevent a shiver from coursing through Brockman’s body as the dull silence descended again.

The metallic clang of a cowbell bit the air as old Sarah, Brockman’s doddering prize Guernsey, padded toward the fence. Something was bothering her. Her tail swatted furiously and she picked up speed. Now the other cows joined in, bleating pathetically and fighting to escape the middle of the field—not in one direction but toward all sides in a stampede from the center. Whatever the disturbance was, it emanated from a bald patch that the half-ton animals were laboring to flee. Brockman moved closer.

Suddenly the ground heaved with a sharp jolt, as if an explosion had been set off beneath. The cattle leaped away with even greater force. As Brockman stared in amazement, a tight plume of dirt sprayed into the air like water from a fountain and left a small hole in the pasture, through which something was struggling to emerge.

A cloven hoof pawed its way out of the hole and was joined by another. The hooves strained to widen the aperture, and a bovine nose appeared, snorting with a prodigious effort. Rooted to the spot, Brockman watched as the fawn-colored head of a full-grown Guernsey pulled into the light. How had the beast fallen into the earth?, he wondered. And how was it possibly attaining the strength to correct its condition? The rest of the herd had run as far away from the bizarre display as pasture fencing would allow, many of them headed in the direction of Sentinel Hill, which it had always before been their nature to shun.

The forward half of the cow was now free, and it used its hooves as leverage against the plane of the pasture. With a moist pop the rear half emerged, and Abner Brockman’s grip on sanity loosed to the point of dissolution. For he was accustomed to the creatures of a natural order; what he now beheld was an atrocity from somewhere outside the known laws of biology, from outside the three dimensions which deluded men of science into believing they had any inkling of the soul-shattering mysteries that long predated the emergence of Homo sapiens on the planet.

About halfway down its body, the creature simply failed to be a cow any more. It was covered with matted black fur, through which protruded dozens of wormy grey tentacles, each waving and undulating independently to create a horrible writhing skirt below which no legs protruded. At the end of each tentacle was a reddish sucker, opening and closing with a hideous sodden sound. Where the tail might have been on a normal beast was a longer, thicker trunk or feeler that swayed and pushed against the ground. A greenish-yellow substance with the consistency of syrup oozed from the fur surrounding the tentacles; its mouldy ichor attacked Brockman as surely as if he had been struck by a fist, and he felt the ache of nausea rise in his belly as the rank odor hung heavily on the still air.

As Brockman watched in stupefaction, sets of eyeballs asserted themselves among the fur and disappeared, only to re-emerge at another spot. They were constantly winking into existence and receding, all over the creature’s rear section. Then a slit appeared in the midsection and opened slightly to reveal a set of canine teeth, above which a larger set of reddened eyes appeared and set, then a nose. The dark fur over the obscene countenance lightened while Brockman watched and resolved into a half face, elongating impossibly along the side of the beast until it was better than a yard wide, an impossible imitation of the human form. It was still barely recognizable as the cruelly distorted face of a young man, topped by crinkly albino hair, whose eyes were now jutting wide with exertion as it attempted to speak.

The mouth moved slowly and a deep bass rumble issued forth from it, a noise that at first sounded like an animal growl. But as the cavity opened and closed, a ghastly green tongue occasionally protruded to help produce a variety of humming, clicking and sibilant sounds, and somehow Brockman understood that there was an intelligence operating this blasphemy. The cow’s head that remained on the damned pseudo-beast raised its snout skyward, and matched the unearthly noises coming from its torso. In unison, the twin vocal boxes spewed what sounded at first like gibberish, but then resolved into strange croaking words:

Ygnaiih…N’gai…Y’bthnk…Bugg-shoggog…my mother…YOG-SOTHOTH!”

That was enough for Abner Brockman. He fell to his knees, blubbering nonsensically, drool rolling out of the sides of his mouth, then pitched forward into a cowpie. His hair follicles were already beginning to lose their color, and his reason was forever lost with them as the abomination moved wetly toward him.

F’tagn Whateley slithered closer to the fallen man and his extensions drooped in frustration. He had tried everything he could think of to make a connection. He had taken on the frame of the creatures with which this human had surrounded himself. He had made the vibrations of welcome, had even used the human tongue—and eyes! F’tagn could smell success as the man watched and tried to comprehend, and he had undulated with excitement. But it was always the same. Was he so horrible? His life surely was. Some Great Old One he was making.

F’tagn couldn’t help that he was a halfbreed. It wasn’t his fault that mapped upon his handsome glutinous frame was part of a human face, elongated in a fetching way to be sure, but still there. He was a twin, born several human generations ago of Old One and earthly woman in an arcane ritual atop Sentinel Hill that was supposed to seal the eventual fate of humankind. But that still made F’tagn a pup in the multifaceted eyes of the rest of his dad’s crew. He hadn’t even been around for one single aeon. And it was so hard to fit in. Most of the other Old Ones turned their tentacles away whenever F’tagn oozed by, repulsed by the human half of him. They could sense it, smell it. After all, the rest of them were from some grand unnamable place beyond angled space. F’tagn was from Massachusetts.

Eternal life was so unfair.

Pop could have thought of this before he had congress with old albino Lavinia Whateley that randy night so long ago. In the phrase of the daemons of Nyarlathotep, what possessed him? Several of the night-gaunts that hung around the great stone city of R’lyeh, now sunken in the ocean, would chitter conspiratorially at the sight of F’tagn, and it was plain that his Great Old Man had done a bit of bragging at some point. Everybody was curious about the physical details: how’d you do it, stud? A couple of shoggoths had gone out and experimented with farm animals in the vast Midwestern regions, but when the smoke cleared, all that was left were mutilated cows and frustrated shoggoths.

But however he’d managed it, F’tagn was living proof that Pop was a sexual pioneer. F’tagn and his twin brother Wilbur. The lucky bastard—actually, they were both bastards—Wilbur had favored their mother. He could pass for human in Dunwich, and he grew up among people. They may have distrusted him, even feared him, because Whateleys tended to keep to themselves, and that kind of behavior attracts gossip, especially in New England.

But at least Wilbur got to be out there in the world. In contrast, F’tagn had been boarded up in the second story of his grandpa’s house for most of the time he was a Young One. That experience would create psychological problems in most any kid, but F’tagn had inherited something that nobody had expected, certainly not his dad. He had been conceived as a leader of the new generation. But F’tagn was proud of his human side, and he yearned to communicate with his half-kind.

It didn’t help that Wilbur had seemed as intent on bringing forth the reign of the Great Old Ones as fervently as any shambler from the stars. Wonderful. He gets the gene of human appearance, and what does he do with it? He devotes his life to the destruction of the world order and the domination of conquerors from the depths of time and space. Not to mention the fact that Wilbur hadn’t bothered to hide his disdain for their mother, insane and decrepit though she might have been. Toward the end, before Wilbur overstepped his bounds and got his just deserts, she had even grown afraid of him. F’tagn felt for her. But every time he tried to reach out like a good son, his mom would run screaming from the house.

Like most humans who were zealous enough or nuts enough to look into the apocalypse issue, Wilbur had gotten a lot of it wrong. The drill was that great Cthulhu, the Oldest of Old Ones, was dreaming in the ocean, in his house in the sunken R’lyeh, waiting for some clever folks to unearth certain forbidden books and spit out just the right incantations. That would open the cosmic gates and bring back the original rulers of the planet, the Great Old Ones. The entire posse would come roaring in to devastate the world and, of course, tear out the humans—including the incantors, which would make necromancy a pretty self-limiting career path.

Of course, this was all horseshit.

To call the Old Ones back, no mumbo-jumbo was needed. They had never left in the first place. Insanity and nightmare were their calling cards the world over, and they’d developed plenty of insidious ways to mess with human beings. And Cthulhu could pop in whenever he wanted, thank you very much. He was dreaming in R’lyeh, sure, but that was only because he was exhausted. In this aeon alone, he’d worked on the Black Plague, about three dozen major wars and the Holocaust—and those little numbers had happened without Wilbur’s or anyone else’s help. Why eradicate the human race when it was much more fun to play with them, to instill terror and suffering that would really last? The Old Ones learned their lesson when they snuffed out the dinosaurs. So dumb. The old-timers told F’tagn that it had been very, very boring for several aeons afterward.

But that didn’t prevent people like Wilbur from finding the old dusty tomes and trying to make sense of the ornate gobbledygook inside. The trouble was, these books only had small pieces of the picture, and more often than not, completely distorted ones. The one they called the Necronomicon in particular was fairly fashionable among the hooded-robe set, but it would embarrass them like crazy if they ever got a faithful translation. Like somebody just starting to learn a foreign language, these weekend wizards would say the most hilarious things. You wanted to finish their sentences for them and put them out of their misery. Wilbur himself spent more than one night up at the old stone altar on Sentinel Hill making this ludicrous pained face, clamping his hands to his temples like an idiot and screaming “YOG-SOTHOTH!” Which to Old Ones simply means, “How ya doing?” or, to a tentacled creature like himself, “How’re they hanging?” F’tagn had slipped into his native tongue when he was talking to the man lying before him; he realized he should have continued speaking in human, but the concentrated effort it required had just been too great.

This obsession of F’tagn’s with human connection, which most of the Old Ones considered a debilitating fetish, meant that he had few friends. He didn’t consider it a big loss: they lived in a dimension of their own, oddly shaped angles and all. These fuddy-duddies were so non-Euclidian! But he did get out socially. For example, there was the monster who had become close to a Boston painter named Richard Upton Pickman, even posed for him in his gallery. That was fascinating. F’tagn hung around him for a while, peppered him with questions about the relationship, but it became clear that there had been no real communication, that he was dealing with a beast who just enjoyed seeing himself in pictures. It was a matter of ego, not empathy. Plus there was the upsetting fact that the model had been rendered while in the process of devouring a human being. No matter how many times he heard somebody say that they were just animals, F’tagn could never develop a taste for human flesh.

In general, F’tagn was shunned and mocked as a disappointment to his father, whom he hadn’t seen in decades. No doubt Pop was out haunting some other poor lonely hamlet, making a hundred eyes at another disturbed human waif. He had a swaggering new reputation to uphold, after all. But F’tagn got the definite idea that Pop had wanted to use his cross-dimensional ardor to improve his own standing, to suck up to Cthulhu. It would be the ultimate desecration, creating a new race of conquerors from the very wombs of their prey. And starting off with twins, to boot! But the splitting of the seed from beyond had unexpected effects—as perhaps might have been expected if anyone had bothered to reflect on it in the first place. Wilbur got the looks. F’tagn got the heart. And the Whateleys would go down in history as the single most dysfunctional family on earth—or under it.

F’tagn was the first of a new line of Old Ones. Just not the kind Pop had wanted.

F’tagn was so sorry. Sorry that his own kind made dinner out of people. That his very countenance was enough to cause a simple farmer to go mad. That Old Ones carried such dimensionist bigotry along with them every century of their lives. The world was a big place—big enough so that one day, just maybe, if they tried very hard, two species might walk hand in feeler, together at last in peace and harmony. Well, any change begins with a single act. And F’tagn Whateley was going to be the being who got the ball rolling.

A sharp clap of thunder disturbed F’tagn’s reverie and he looked down at the wretched dairyman before him. Thankfully, he had lost consciousness. It was tough to make out his features in the deepening gloom. F’tagn brushed his face gently with a tentacle, an action that would probably have returned Abner Brockman to sleep had he witnessed it. The silence that had ruled the late afternoon gave way to the excited cries of a flock of whippoorwills, and F’tagn looked up to the sky. The hellish birds had massed above the barren Devil’s Hop Yard on the ridge, circling in frenzy. Then, on an invisible signal, they poured down the hill toward Dunwich.

F’tagn knew what that meant. They were trolling for the souls of those who were about to die.

Old Ones must be gathering, he realized, for a night of carnage.

He shambled down the hill as quickly as he could move and headed for the town square.

One of the many advantages Old Ones had over humans was that they could move among them unnoticed, walking as they will between the dimensional spaces. You could never fool an animal, not even one as dumb and sweet as a cow, and more than one victim-to-be had made the mistake of ignoring a barking dog or hissing cat which sensed the mind-shattering presence of an Other. Besides, the way most of F’tagn’s cousins looked, it would be impossible to sneak in anywhere without the protective coat of invisibility. He doubted that even Pop could have scored the way he did without sparing his paramour the family’s good looks. So most OOs began their fun with auditory and olfactory components. They’d bang on walls and doors, and leave their spoor in the middle of a room—it didn’t take long for it to develop a smell of decay so acute that it could fell a starving hyena. Another popular gag was to leave tentacular tracks in the dirt or snow and watch some superstitious outdoorsman babble with fear as he tried to explain. F’tagn didn’t approve, but this was all fairly harmless stuff.

But Old Ones couldn’t hide from each other. And when he arrived in town, F’tagn saw immediately why Dunwich had attracted so many whippoorwills. Though the locals may not have realized it yet, their fair township had just become host to a veritable Double-O convention. For some reason, lots and lots of things were here.

The square was a riot of slithering, crawling, scuttling, shambling beings of every description imaginable, and some that probably weren’t. The fishboys from Innsmouth were here, the pyramid people from frozen Antarctica, the three-lobed burning eye, the goat with a thousand young, the jelly things, the fungous orbs from Vermont, the shining trapezohedron creatures, the blasphemous bee buzzers, the haunters of the Monolith, and many more. Even Pickman’s model had bestirred itself to wander up from Boston for the occasion.

Of course. The occasion. All became clear.

Hallowmass.

It was the closest thing to a holy moment—had they dared to describe it as such—on the Old Ones’ eternal calendar, the night when, as one, they reaffirmed their dominion over their weak, timid enemies in a gruesome orgy of gluttony and debauchery. They always fasted before the big day to make sure they were supremely hungry. F’tagn had once described the celebration to a scale-crusted frog-man as “the spring break from hell,” but there was no response from the humorless batrachian.

This year, for Hallowmass, they had selected F’tagn’s home town, right under his nose. Why did it not surprise him that he hadn’t been invited?

The ghastly conveneers massed against a tiny schoolhouse, its windows warm with golden firelight. Judging from the agitation of the whippoorwills, now piping as loudly as they could, there were quite a few people inside—no doubt terrified by the cacophony of noises outside and a nose-burning aroma beyond description, so pungent that it threatened to beat down the door all by itself. F’tagn could hear wails through the walls, and was dismayed to make out the cries of children among them.

The front flank moved toward the door, as much in unison as their varying methods of locomotion would allow. F’tagn knew what would follow. The famished mob would take corporeal form and visit an unspeakable fate upon those inside—keeping them alive as long as they possibly could. Dunwich would become an abattoir, and augment its reputation as a haunted, doomed spot for years to come.

F’tagn screwed together his courage and slithered past the leading edge, his back to the door. The creatures halted, puzzled. Most of them had never met F’tagn before, and their antennae, feelers and eyestalks sent them mixed signals. The stench of human was definitely upon this one, but he looked as much like an Old One as did the most horrific of the Hallowmass revelers.

Panting with hunger and anticipation, a monkey-crab feinted toward F’tagn with his pincers and scampered back, but he held fast. The crowd moved inexorably closer, and F’tagn readied his most threatening infra-bass roar. He had no chance against so many, but maybe they would think twice about harming one of their own. If that was in fact how they regarded him.

Three pink, gelatinous rats, each the size of a large cat, ran in to attack. F’tagn let loose his howl and swiped at them with a tentacle, and they leaped back toward the crowd. But it was already so close that there was no room to retreat. As the front rank recoiled from F’tagn’s aria of aggression, they were pitched over by the body mass pressing in, and the rats took the full weight. Tiny bones cracked and the hellish rodents squealed in mortal pain. But what really turned the tide was the delicious iron smell of blood.

This was too much for the carnivores in the mob, which was just about everybody. Those closest to the rats literally fell on them and began dining, but they had to compete with a host of maddened rivals made delirious by the scent. One scratching, slicing fight led to another, and soon interdimensional blood was flowing all over the square as the Hallowmass convention proceeded to devour itself. It was the most horrible sight F’tagn had ever seen.

Upstairs, the whippoorwills had no idea what to do. Prepared to capture human souls from the schoolhouse, they were thrown into pandemonium. Without direction or purpose, they flew around at random, keening their annoying piping sounds and smashing into each other at full speed—only to become main courses themselves as they descended upon the grasping mob.

Within a few minutes, the crowd had lessened by more than half, and it was evident where the excess had gone. Happy, finally sated Old Ones exchanged pleasantries, made signs of mutual respect in the limited number of physical ways that they could manage, and promised to meet again next year. Only a few malcontents–like Pickman’s model, who had, not unexpectedly, survived–complained about the lack of human on the menu; many more raved over the exciting, unexpected way that the meal had been served. It was clear that this event would be one of those legendary stories told to jealous Old Ones who had had the misfortune to be elsewhere, for aeons to come.

F’tagn leaned back against the door, inside which the schoolroom had gone completely silent, what with the piping and clawing and chewing. Maybe he hadn’t communicated with his human half-kind. But he had saved them from a fate they would be better off not knowing about. F’tagn was happy. He’d started something between Old Ones and humans. Maybe even gone a small way toward affecting the Old One diet! He was just starting to plan what to do next, when. . .

. . .F’tagn Whateley disappeared from the spot, and from Dunwich, forever.

A long time must have passed, for F’tagn was groggy when he awoke in a great city of granite and marble, of monoliths and sepulchers. And water. Lots of water in this city. There was only one place it could be.

R’lyeh. Cthulhu’s undersea crib.

F’tagn started to get up, but his human-face torso was chained to a stone tablet and each tentacle was restrained. He had to shut all his eyes when he pulled against the chain.

The Hallowmass episode had gotten back to the boss somehow. How could it not? He sighed. Pop’s experiment with earthly union had produced a mutant. And evidently it hadn’t amused the big guy—F’tagn was responsible for too many dead and digested Old Ones. Not to mention disturbing a long Cthulhuian dream.

The leader had spoken. He’d pulled the plug. F’tagn was out of commission.

Well, so be it. Maybe R’lyeh was the right place for him now. Maybe he might even get to meet the great thing. Maybe talk to him. Maybe the next time Cthulhu woke up and rubbed his many eyes, they could reason together. Plan a new future for the dimension that gave F’tagn birth.

After all, stranger things had happened. Way, way stranger.

And besides, F’tagn had aeons to think about it.

“The Recall of Cthulhu” Copyright © 2003 by Tom Dupree.

All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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