The one time I interviewed Werner Herzog, in 2005, I asked him how he survived the threatening situations he encountered while making his sometimes death-defying films and in his life. He replied: “I’ve been fortified by enough philosophy.” Ever since then, I’ve always asked myself if I’ve been similarly fortified, if I’ve read and thought enough so that even when I’m deeply shaken, there’s something essential within me that remains solid.
Herzog just did a Reddit AMA, which includes an exchange that speaks to this idea. The excerpt:
You’ve covered everything from the prehistoric Chauvet Cave to the impending overthrow of not-so-far-off futuristic artificial intelligence. What about humankind’s history/capability terrifies you the most?
It’s a difficult question, because it encompasses almost all of human history so far. What is interesting about this paleolithic cave is that we see with our own eyes the origins, the beginning of the modern human soul. These people were like us, and what their concept of art was, we do not really comprehend fully. We can only guess.
And of course now today, we are into almost futuristic moments where we create artificial intelligence and we may not even need other human beings anymore as companions. We can have fluffy robots, and we can have assistants who brew the coffee for us and serve us to the bed, and all these things. So we have to be very careful and should understand what basic things, what makes us human, what essentially makes us into what we are. And once we understand that, we can make our educated choices, and we can use our inner filters, our conceptual filters. How far would we use artificial intelligence? How far would we trust, for example, into the logic of a self-driving car? Will it crash or not if we don’t look after the steering wheel ourselves?
So, we should make a clear choice, what we would like to preserve as human beings, and for that, for these kinds of conceptual answers, I always advise to read books. Read read read read read! And I say that not only to filmmakers, I say that to everyone. People do not read enough, and that’s how you create critical thinking, conceptual thinking. You create a way of how to shape your life. Although, it seems to elude us into a pseudo-life, into a synthetic life out there in cyberspace, out there in social media. So it’s good that we are using Facebook, but use it wisely.•
In 1921, before there were Talkies, Arthur Blanchard invented a machine to create plots for big-screen pictures. Thirty years later, B-movie Hollywood director Edward Ludwigbelieved the time was soon when computers would do the screenwriting. Is such a thing possible now? Not exactly, though there’s a new AI that probably could replace Michael Bay and his incoherent, big-budget Hal-Needham-in-space crap. Bay’s someone who needs to be technologically unemployed.
In an Ars Technica article, Annalee Newitz writes about “Sunspring,” a short sci-fi film about a futuristic love triangle that was wholly written by a neural network named Benjamin, the brainchild of NYU AI researcher Ross Goodwin. The resulting work is odd and spirited, an offbeat and stilted regurgitation of current sci-fi tropes but with something of an eccentric auteur’s touch and the Dada poet’s pen. In its own way, it’s compelling.
Newitz writes of her reporting on the film: “As I was talking to [director Oscar] Sharp and Goodwin, I noticed that all of us slipped between referring to Benjamin as ‘he’ and ‘it.'” (You can watch the movie if you go to the article.) An excerpt:
Knowing that an AI wrote Sunspring makes the movie more fun to watch, especially once you know how the cast and crew put it together. DirectorOscar Sharp made the movie forSci-Fi London, an annual film festival that includesthe 48-Hour Film Challenge, where contestants are given a set of prompts (mostly props and lines) that have to appear in a movie they make over the next two days. Sharp’s longtime collaborator,Ross Goodwin, is an AI researcher at New York University, and he supplied the movie’s AI writer, initially called Jetson. As the cast gathered around a tiny printer, Benjamin spat out thescreenplay, complete with almost impossible stage directions like “He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor.” Then Sharp randomly assigned roles to the actors in the room. “As soon as we had a read-through, everyone around the table was laughing their heads off with delight,” Sharp told Ars. The actors interpreted the lines as they read, adding tone and body language, and the results are what you see in the movie. Somehow, a slightly garbled series of sentences became a tale of romance and murder, set in a dark future world. It even has its own musical interlude (performed byAndrew and Tiger), with a pop song Benjamin composed after learning from a corpus of 30,000 other pop songs.
When Sharp was in film school at NYU, he made a discovery that changed the course of his career. “I liked hanging out with technologists in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program more than other filmmakers,” he confessed. That’s how he met Goodwin, a former ghost writer who just earned a master’s degree from NYU while studying natural language processing and neural networks. Speaking by phone from New York, the two recalled how they were both obsessed with figuring out how to make machines generate original pieces of writing. For years, Sharp wanted to create a movie out of random parts, even going so far as to write a play out of snippets of text chosen by dice rolls. Goodwin, who honed his machine-assisted authoring skills while ghost writing letters for corporate clients, had been using Markov chains to write poetry. As they got to know each other at NYU, Sharp told Goodwin about his dream of collaborating with an AI on a screenplay. Over a year and many algorithms later, Goodwin built an AI that could.•
Artifice used to be more real in a sense when the movie industry was in the business of “nation-building,” when sets were an elaborate, eye-popping selling point and simulacra was not sacred but esteemed, since there was not yet the technical acumen to create any sort of profound special effects. “A cast of thousands” was the un-humble brag used to peddle Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of his own epic, The Ten Commandments, and there was another “cast” of a similar size behind the scenes making the Nile run and bushes burn.
Then the collapse of the studio system hit in the 1960s, and moguls lost their religion, mostly downsizing scale and Labor. For a while, relatively cheap, personal productions by Hoppers and Fondas and Coppolas and Scorseses ruled the day. Eventually, the studios were ready dream big again, and in 1975, the robot-shark technology of Jaws captured the summer in its animatronic maw. Two years later, Star Wars relied heavily on Industrial Light & Magic to realize its vision. It was still a long way to the technology behind today’s tentpoles, but the rise of the machines and the diminishment of human craft began in Hollywood–as it did in a big-picture way all across America–decades ago. The Herculean returned, but Hercules was now a bit player.
2016 marks Intolerance’s centenary, and that shouldn’t be a milestone only to high-minded fans of cinema’s artistic dawn. Because [D.W.] Griffith predicted everything in movies, it’s also a milestone for any garden-variety filmgoer who’s ever been wowed by coarse and costly Hollywood spectacle. I suspect only prigs are completely immune to the delights of whole foreign environments—whether antique, exotically international, familiar but exaggerated, or just plain fantastical—that have been erected, populated, and photographed for no better reason than to knock our socks off. For my money, Intolerance is where fake movie architecture began its complicated dance with the real thing, affecting how audiences perceive the past, reconfigure their present, and anticipate the future.
The ambition of Intolerance did have precursors. Griffith himself had built a biblical town in the San Fernando Valley for Judith of Bethulia two years earlier. The imported Italian period epicsQuo Vadis? (1913) and Cabiria (1914) had stimulated both his ambition and his envy. But in scale and pull-out-the-stops grandeur, nothing like Belshazzar’s Court had ever been seen before—except by, well, Belshazzar and some two hundred thousand other lucky but very dead Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. Even Griffith’s own 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation hadn’t required particularly extravagant exterior sets, however unprecedented in scope (and vicious in sentiment—Intolerance was conceived in part to rebut its critics) his love song to the Ku Klux Klan had otherwise been.
One reason Intolerance’s Babylon still looks stunning is that the age of computer-generated imagery has all but ruined our capacity to experience Hollywood’s imagineering as something nonetheless rooted in the material world.•
New England tinkerer Arthur Blanchard didn’t patent a machine in 1916 to remove the guesswork from the pre-Talkie screenwriting process but merely to alleviate humans of the guessing. The so-called thinking machine was a handheld device that used a slot-machine method to cough up plots. It was marketed as “The Movie Writer,” though it was said to be helpful in the creation of poems and novels as well. In 1921, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran an article celebrating this simple technology.
Stanley Kubrick was, I think, the greatest filmmaker of them all, more than Lang or Wilder or Godard or anyone. Living a private life in London, he grew into a mythical figure, although he didn’t put on airs, enjoyed American football and was amused by White Men Can’t Jump. But he was an eccentric guy whose film productions often lasted longer than many wars. It’s somehow no surprise that one of his longest-tenured employees was a Formula One race driver who had no previous movie experience before signing on for a stint on A Clockwork Orange. That man, Emilio D’Alessandro, has written a book about his 30-year odyssey with Kubrick.
What were some of the projects that you would hear him talk about that didn’t end up being filmed?
Anytime we would be working on one film and we’d go down to a location, he would always be making notes or moves for another project. It was A.I. once, or Napoleon, which he really, really, really wanted to make. But he was always working on other projects while he was filming.
The thing he loved doing just as much [making movies] was the research. He had boxes and boxes of research done, so if one day he was able to finally make, say, this Napoleon movie, he would be ready. And I would keep it safe for him in case [producers] decided to actually do something with it. I would be ready to unearth it all myself. He never stopped researching, ever.
Do you remember where you were when you heard he’d passed away? Were you with him?
I’ll speak briefly because it really hurts me now, still. But yes, I was with him, I left him a note the night before on his desk like I always did. I said, “Everything is OK down in your office, your fax is clear, people got their messages. Please stay and have a rest, you’re very tired. You can come down in the afternoon—I’ll be here in the morning as usual.” Then unfortunately midday I got a phone call telling me that Stanley had died in the night. And I just screamed the biggest swear word, and I never swear. I had to drive to his house before I could believe it. And even when I got there and his wife took me by the hand to tell me, I still wasn’t sure it was real. And I drove back home that night not believing it. Sometimes I still don’t know if I do.•
A few years back, I blogged about how the dream factory in California had migrated North, shifting from Hollywood to Silicon Valley. While Jules Verne’s visions required more than a century to be born, The Truman Show needed only a decade, and Her essentially came into the world already talking.
Science fiction is no longer the starting gun for the future but is regularly lapped by it. It’s not only because Moore’s Law has speeded up research while culture still slowly gestates but because of the great wealth concentrated in the technology sector and the game-changing ambitions of those who possess it. They’re largely more concerned with legacy than bank ledgers, and ego is a powerful tool if harnessed correctly. Whether this new normal leads us to a better tomorrow is TBD.
Many new works of science fiction seem to represent a strain of pre-apocalyptic cinema, characterized by a willingness to dramatize disasters that are less hypothetical than poised to happen. Both Ex Machina and Her, for instance, unfold against backdrops whose production design suggests that viewers are witnessing only a lightly futurized version of 21st-century life. However technically fictional the gadgets on display, the advances the films imagine—an artificially intelligent OS, a Turing-test approved robot—strike audiences as not just possible, but highly probable. As Ex Machina’s partly mad scientist declares, “[t]he arrival of strong AI has been inevitable for decades. The variable was when, not if.” Spike Jonze’s Her similarly takes its paradigm shift—humans falling in love with machines—for granted. Unlike The Terminator and Matrix franchises, these films don’t predict an apocalyptic “rise” of machines so much as a gradual digital takeover, the next phase of a revolution already in progress.
As such, the worlds of newer sci-fi films can look and feel eerily familiar. The opening shots of Interstellar, which feature hardscrabble towns and actual Depression-era footage, initially lead viewers to suspect they’re witnessing, if anything, the recent past. As the critic A.O. Scott noted in The New York Times,“[the director Christopher] Nolan … drops us quietly into what looks like a fairly ordinary reality.” Or as NPR’s Amanda Fiegl put it, “it’s science fiction with an uncomfortable ring of truth.” It’s possible that such realistic settings—also seen in Ex Machina and Her—are meant to serve moralizing ends, reminding audiences that dystopia is nigh.•
Speaking of mind-altering substances, when a teenager, the French Surrealist writer René Daumal blasted his brain with the carbon tetrachloride he normally used to kill beetles for his insect collection. Not a good idea. By the time he was 36, he’d joined the bugs in the great beyond, no doubt in part because of his amateur chemistry experiments.
The simple fact of the matter is beyond telling. In the 18 years since it happened, I have often tried to put it into words. Now, once and for all, I should like to employ every resource of language I know in giving an account of at least the outward and inward circumstances. This ‘fact’ consists in a certainty I acquired by accident at the age of sixteen or seventeen; ever since then, the memory of it has directed the best part of me toward seeking a means of finding it again, and for good.
My memories of child-hood and adolescence are deeply marked by a series of attempts to experience the beyond, and those random attempts brought me to the ultimate experiment, the fundamental experience of which I speak.
At about the age of six, having been taught no kind of religious belief whatsoever, I struck up against the stark problem of death.
I passed some atrocious nights, feeling my stomach clawed to shreds and my breathing half throttled by the anguish of nothingness, the ‘no more of anything’.
One night when I was about eleven, relaxing my entire body, I calmed the terror and revulsion of my organism before the unknown, and a new feeling came alive in me; hope, and a foretaste of the imperishable. But I wanted more, I wanted a certainty. At fifteen or sixteen I began my experiments, a search without direction or system.
Finding no way to experiment directly on death-on my death-I tried to study my sleep, assuming an analogy between the two.
By various devices I attempted to enter sleep in a waking state. The undertaking is not so utterly absurd as it sounds, but in certain respects it is perilous. I could not go very far with it; my own organism gave me some serious warnings of the risks I was running. One day, however, I decided to tackle the problem of death itself.
I would put my body into a state approaching as close as possible that of physiological death, and still concentrate all my attention on remaining conscious and registering everything that might take place.
I had in my possession some carbon tetrachloride, which I used to kill beetles for my collection. Knowing this substance belongs to the same chemical family as chloroform (it is even more toxic), I thought I could regulate its action very simply and easily: the moment I began to lose consciousness, my hand would fall from my nostrils carrying with it the handkerchief moistened with the volatile fluid. Later on I repeated the experiment –in the presence of friends, who could have given me help had I needed it.
The result was always exactly the same; that is, it exceeded and even overwhelmed my expectations by bursting the limits of the possible and by projecting me brutally into another world.
First came the ordinary phenomena of asphyxiation: arterial palpitation, buzzings, sounds of heavy pumping in the temples, painful repercussions from the tiniest exterior noises, flickering lights. Then, the distinct feeling: ‘This is getting serious. The game is up,’ followed by a swift recapitulation of my life up to that moment. If I felt any slight anxiety, it remained indistinguishable from a bodily discomfort that did not affect my mind.
And my mind kept repeating to itself : ‘Careful, don’t doze off. This is just the time to keep your eyes open.’
The luminous spots that danced in front of my eyes soon filled the whole of space, which echoed with the beat of my blood- sound and light overflowing space and fusing in a single rhythm. By this time I was no longer capable of speech, even of interior speech; my mind travelled too rapidly to carry any words along with it.
I realized, in a sudden illumination, that I still had control of the hand which held the handkerchief, that I still accurately perceived the position of my body, and that I could hear and understand words uttered nearby–but that objects, words, and meanings of words had lost any significance whatsoever. It was a little like having repeated a word over and over until it shrivels and dies in your mouth: you still know what the word ‘table’ means, for instance, you could use it correctly, but it no longer truly evokes its object.
In the same way everything that made up ‘the world’ for me in my ordinary state was still there, but I felt as if it had been drained of its substance. It was nothing more than a phantasmagoria-empty, absurd, clearly outlined, and necessary all at once.
This ‘world’ lost all reality because I had abruptly entered another world, infinitely more real, an instantaneous and intense world of eternity, a concentrated flame of reality and evidence into which I had cast myself like a butterfly drawn to a lighted candle.
Then, at that moment, comes the certainty; speech must now be content to wheel in circles around the bare fact.
Certainty of what?
Words are heavy and slow, words are too shapeless or too rigid. With these wretched words I can put together only approximate statements, whereas my certainty is for me the archetype of precision. In my ordinary state of mind, all that remains thinkable and formulable of this experiment reduces to one affirmation on which I would stake my life: I feel the certainty of the existence of something else, a beyond, another world, or another form of knowledge.
In the moment just described, I knew directly, I experienced that beyond in its very reality.
It is important to repeat that in that new state I perceived and perfectly comprehended the ordinary state of being, the latter being contained within the former, as waking consciousness contains our unconscious dreams, and not the reverse. This last irreversible relation proves the superiority (in the scale of reality or consciousness) of the first state over the second.
I told myself clearly: in a little while I shall return to the so-called ‘normal state’, and perhaps the memory of this fearful revelation will cloud over; but it is in this moment that I see the truth.
All this came to me without words; meanwhile I was pierced by an even more commanding thought. With a swiftness approaching the instantaneous, it thought itself so to speak in my very substance: for all eternity I was trapped, hurled faster and faster toward ever imminent annihilation through the terrible mechanism of the Law that rejected me.
‘That’s what it is. So that’s what it is.’
My mind found no other reaction. Under the threat of something worse, I had to follow the movement.
It took a tremendous effort, which became more and more difficult, but I was obliged to make that effort, until the moment when, letting go, I doubtless fell into a brief spell of unconsciousness. My hand dropped the handkerchief, I breathed air’, and for the rest of the day I remained dazed and stupefied-with a violent headache.•
“Nothing in your education or experience can have prepared you for this film.”
I don’t trust the NSA or Oliver Stone with our information.
It was clear long before Edward Snowden to any American paying attention that our government had overreached into our privacy in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s not that there aren’t real dangers that need to be investigated, but treating every citizen like a threat is another kind of threat.
Stone is a very gifted filmmaker whose work seems informed by chemicals he (over-)experimented with as a youth. It’s galling that so many took his overheated JFK hokum seriously for so long and that some still do. His films are interesting provided no one uses them as history lessons.
That means the director’s upcoming take on Snowden should be…interesting? Well, let’s not prejudge.
Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter has an article about Stone’s paranoid approach to the making of the movie, which might be warranted in this case. He recently said this of the production: “We moved to Germany, because we did not feel comfortable in the U.S….we felt like we were at risk here.” An excerpt:
When Stone (whose films include Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Wall Street) was first approached to make the movie, he hesitated. He had been working on another controversial subject, about the last few years in the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and did not immediately wish to tackle something that incendiary again.
“Glenn Greenwald [the journalist who worked with Poitras to break the Snowden story] asked me some advice and I just wanted to stay away from controversy,” he said. “I didn’t want this. Be that as it may, a couple of months later, the Russian lawyer for Snowden contacts me via my producer. The Russian lawyer told me to come to Russia and wanted me to meet him. One thing led to another, and basically I got hooked.”
In Moscow, Stone met multiple times with Snowden, who has been living in exile in Russia since evading the U.S. government’s attempts to arrest him for espionage. “He’s articulate, smart, very much the same,” he said. “I’ve been seeing him off and on for a year — actually, more than that. I saw him last week or two weeks ago to show him the final film.”
He added: “He is consistent: he believes so thoroughly in reform of the Internet that he has devoted himself to this cause … Because of the Russian hours, he stays up all night. He’s a night owl, and he’s always in touch [with the outside world], and he’s working on some kind of constitution for the Internet with other people. So he’s very busy. And he stays in that 70-percent-computer world. He’s on another planet that way. His sense of humor has gotten bigger, his tolerance. He’s not really in Russia in his mind — he’s in some planetary position up there. And Lindsay Mills, the woman he’s loved for 10 years — really, it’s a serious affair — has moved there to be with him.”•
Oriana Fallaci conducted a famously contentious1963 interviewwith Federico Fellini, which marked the brutish end of what had been a lively friendship begun in the previous decade, the director’s ego and the journalist’s envy getting the best of the moment. In the preface, Fallaci wrote of Fellini’s colorful experiences in New York City when he lived there in 1957. The passage:
I have known Fellini for many years; to be precise ever since I met him in New York for the American première of his movie The Nights of Cabiria, at which time became good friends. In fact, we often used to go eat steaks at Jack’s or roast chestnuts in Times Square, where you could also do target shooting. Then, from time to time, he would turn up at the apartment I shared in Greenwich Village with another girl called Priscilla to ask for a cup of coffee. The homely brew would alleviate, though I never understood why, his nostalgia for his homeland and his misery at his separation from his wife Giulietta. He would come in frantically massaging his knee, “My knee always hurts when I am sad. Giulietta! I want Giulietta!” And Priscilla would come running to look at him as I’d have gone running to look at Greta Garbo. Needless to say, there was nothing of Greta Garbo about Fellini, he wasn’t the monument he is today. He used to call me Pallina, Little Ball. He made us call him Pallino, sometimes Pallone, Big Ball. He would go in for innocent extravagances such as weeping in the bar of the Plaza Hotel because the critic in the New York Times had given him a bad review, or playing the hero. He used to go around with a gangster’s moll, and every day the gangster would call him at his hotel, saying, “I will kill you.” He didn’t understand English and would reply, “Very well, very well,” so adding to his heroic reputation. His reputation lasted until I explained to him what “I will kill you” meant. With half an hour Fellini was on board a plane making for Rome.
He used to do other things too, such as wandering around Wall Street at night, casing the banks like a robber, arousing the suspicions of the world’s most suspicious police, so that finally they asked to see his papers, arrested him because he wasn’t carrying any, and shut him up for the night in a cell. He spent his time shouting the only English sentence he knew: “I am Federico Fellini, famous Italian director.” At six in the morning an Italian-American policeman who had seen La Strada I don’t know how many times said, “If you really are Fellini, come out and whistle the theme of La Strada.” Fellini came out and in a thin whistle–he can’t distinguish a march from a minuet–struggled through the entire soundtrack. A triumph. With affectionate punches in the stomach that were to keep him on a diet of consummé for the next two weeks, the policemen apologized and took him back to his hotel with an escort of motorcycles, saluting him with a blare of horns that could be heard as far away as Harlem.•
It may have looked suspiciously like an open casket, but Alfred Hitchcock had a casting couch. He wasn’t the chaste monk of the macabre he made himself out to be. It was just a few years ago that Tippi Hedren described how her career was held hostage post-Birds by Hitchcock, all because she wouldn’t give in to his sexual blackmail.
Oriana Fallaci interviewed the British suspense master in 1963 when his crowpocalypse screened in Cannes, but while she had a good understanding of the cruelty beneath the surface of the filmmaker she so admired, she clearly was hoodwinked by his narrative of being a devoted, even sexless, husband, entitling the piece, “Mr. Chastity.” What follows is most of her introduction, which paints the director as tiresome and homophobic.
For years I had been wanting to meet Hitchcock. For years I had been to every Hitchcock film, read every article about Hitchcock, basked in contemplation of every photograph of Hitchcock: the one of him hanging by his own tie, the one of him reflected in a pool of blood, the one of him playing with a skull immersed in a bathtub. I liked everything about him: his big, Father Christmas paunch, his twinkling little pig eyes, his blotchy, alcoholic complexion, his mummified corpses, his corpses shut inside wardrobes, his corpses chopped into pieces and shut inside suitcases, his corpses temporarily buried beneath beds of roses, his anguished flights, his crimes, his suspense, those typically English jokes that make even death ridiculous and even vulgarity elegant. I might be wrong, but I cannot help laughing at the story about the two actors in the cemetery watching their friend being lowered into his grave. The first one says to the other, “How old are you, Charlie?” And Charlie answers, “Eighty-nine.” The first one then observes, “Then there’s no point in your going home, Charlie.” …
My opportunity to meet him and really kiss his hand came at the Cannes Festival, where Hitchcock was showing The Birds, a sinister film about birds that revolt against men and exterminate them by pecking them to death. Hitchcock was coming from Hollywood, and I rushed to Nice airport to greet him. Three hours later I was in his room on the fourth floor of the Carlton Hotel, gazing at him just as my journalist colleague, Veronique Passani, had gazed at Gregory Peck the first time she met him–and she had subsequently managed to marry him. Not that Hitchcock was handsome like Gregory Peck. To be objective, he was decidedly ugly: bloated, purple, a walrus dressed like a man–all that was missing was a mustache. The sweat, copious and oily, was pouring out of all that walrus fat, and he was smoking a dreadfully smelly cigar, which was pleasant only insofar as it obscured him for long moments behind a dense, bluish cloud. But he was Hitchcock, my dearest Hitchcock, my incomparable Hitchcock, and every sentence he spoke would be a pearl of originality and wit. In the same way that we assume that intellectuals are necessarily intelligent, and movie stars necessarily beautiful, and priests necessarily saintly, so I had assumed that Hitchcock was the wittiest man in the world.
He’s isn’t. The full extent of his humor is covered by five or six jokes, two or three macabre tricks, seven or eight lines that he has been repeating for years with the monotony of a phonograph record that’s stuck. Every time he opened a subject, in the sonorous voice of his, I foresaw how he would conclude; I already read it. Moreover, he would make his pronouncements as if he knew it himself: hands folded on his breast, eyes cast up toward the ceiling, like a child reciting a lesson learned by heart. Nor was there anything new about his admission of chastity, of complete lack of interest in sex. Everyone knows that Hitchcock has never known any woman other than his wife, has never desired any woman other than his wife; because he’s not interested in women. This doesn’t mean that he likes men, for heaven’s sake; such deviations are regarded by him with pained and righteous disgust. It only means for him sex does not exist; it would suit him fine if humanity were born in bottles. Nor, for him, does love exist, that mysterious impulse from which beings and things are born; the only thing that interests him in all creation is the opposite of whatever is born: whatever dies. If he sees a budding rose, his impulse, I am afraid, is to eat it.
With the blindness of all disciples or faithful admirers, I took some time to realize his failings. In fact our interview began with bursts of laughter for a good half-hour. But then the bursts of laughter became short little laughs, the short little laughs became smiles, the smile grew cold, and at a certain point I discovered that I could no longer raise a laugh, nor could I have done so even if he had tickled the soles of my feet. That was when I realized the most spine-chilling thing about him: his great wickedness. A person who invents horrors for fun, who makes a living frightening people, who only talks about crimes and anguish, can’t really be evil, so I thought. He is, though. He really enjoys frightening people, knowing that every now and then somebody dies of a heart attack watching his movies, reading that from time to time a man kills his wife the way a wife is killed in one of his movies. Not knowing all the criminals whose master he has been is sheer torture to him. He would like to know about all such authors, to compliment each one and offer him a cigar. Because he can laugh about death with the wisdom of the sages? No, no. Because he likes death. He likes it the way a gravedigger likes it.•
Some years ago, I began reading Martin Scorsese’s 1983 King of Comedy in a very different way. I stopped seeing it as merely a fantasy about one man living out America’s dark obsession with fame. It was (almost definitely by accident) a prophetic film about the rise of the fan, the storming of the gates, the decentralization of the media. It unwittingly told us that democracy was about to get much more democratic, which would be both boon and bane. The world was to be a more open and less-stable place, and the ramifications would impact politics just as readily as it would pop culture. As Rupert Pupkin stood nervously on the stage at film’s end, a recognition comes over his nervous face, the realization that it might be hard to maintain his footing on the earth he helped shift.
The Internet has aggressively trolled professionalism of all kinds. The faceless, unpaid crowd is now sufficient. We’ll do. I mean, if the Encyclopædia Britannica and its grand tradition could be swept from the shelf by a band of Wikipedians, what was safe? For all the early flak absorbed by Jimmy Wales’ site, it became undeniably a wonderful thing, but it proved to not be complementary.
An astute critic like A.O. Scott knew what was happening as the pieces were just beginning to move. He seems to have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. (Of course, you might ask, what choice does he have?) Scott’s career may be regarded as redundant in a society that loves Likes, but he has enough generosity to appreciate the good aspects of such a new normal, even if something has been lost in translation. Populism has its price.
The problem here isn’t just one of tone or style — although a writer of Scott’s standing should know that both are crucial tools in the critic’s belt. Rather, you sense that the faux-populist diction doesn’t reflect this author’s real allegiances, which are evident in the works he selects for his loving and expert analyses: Rilke and Philip Larkin, Picasso and Henry James. (James’s 1877 novel The American, which begins with a scene in which a successful American businessman is overcome by tiredness in the Louvre, provides an amusing early example of “museum fatigue,” a phenomenon that the author investigates during a stimulating and subtle discussion about the difficulty of achieving “innocent” responses to art.) The admiring references you get here to hip-hop feel dutiful rather than deeply felt — attempts to demonstrate his pop bona fides.
So too with the halfhearted assertion — the focus of an entire chapter — that “it is . . . the job of the critic to be wrong.” To be sure, critics often turn out to be wrong, as Scott wittily reminds you during a recitation of some notorious critical gaffes: early and wince-inducing takedowns of John Keats’s poetry, of Moby-Dick, of Bringing Up Baby. But those errors of individual taste — the most crucial, if indefinable, qualification for serious criticism, along with expertise, both of which Scott (who has both) avoids talking about at length, as if to do so would offend the Amazon-rankers and cyber-tomato-throwers in his audience — are hardly proof that the critic’s duty is to be “wrong.” The critic’s job is to be more educated, articulate, stylish and tasteful — in a word, more worthy of “trust” — than her readers have the time or inclination to be; qualities eminently suited to a practice that (as Scott rightly if too glancingly points out) has validity and value only if it is conducted in public.
Whatever its occasional pandering, Better Living Through Criticism mostly exemplifies the rhetorical virtues it so enthusiastically celebrates as being peculiar to the critic: attentiveness to detail, alertness to context, a hunger for larger meanings. The critic, Scott declares in the book’s final dialogue, is “a person whose interest can help activate the interest of others.” In an era of reflexive contempt for erudition, taste and authority, qualities that Scott is perhaps too hesitant to name as the sine qua non of great critics, it is no mean feat to help activate, as this book will surely do, an interest in the genre of which he and others of his generation may be the last professional practitioners.•
Her latest salvo tries to locate the real legacy of Steve Jobs, who was mourned equally in office parks and Zuccotti Park. In doing so she calls on the two recent films on the Apple architect, Alex Gibney’s and Danny Boyle’s, and the new volume about him by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Ultimately, the key truth may be that Jobs used a Barnum-esque “magic” and marketing myths to not only sell his new machines but to plug them into consumers’ souls.
So why, Gibney wonders as his film opens—with thousands of people all over the world leaving flowers and notes “to Steve” outside Apple Stores the day he died, and fans recording weepy, impassioned webcam eulogies, and mourners holding up images of flickering candles on their iPads as they congregate around makeshift shrines—did Jobs’s death engender such planetary regret?
The simple answer is voiced by one of the bereaved, a young boy who looks to be nine or ten, swiveling back and forth in a desk chair in front of his computer: “The thing I’m using now, an iMac, he made,” the boy says. “He made the iMac. He made the Macbook. He made the Macbook Pro. He made the Macbook Air. He made the iPhone. He made the iPod. He’s made the iPod Touch. He’s made everything.”
Yet if the making of popular consumer goods was driving this outpouring of grief, then why hadn’t it happened before? Why didn’t people sob in the streets when George Eastman or Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell died—especially since these men, unlike Steve Jobs, actually invented the cameras, electric lights, and telephones that became the ubiquitous and essential artifacts of modern life?* The difference, suggests the MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, is that people’s feelings about Steve Jobs had less to do with the man, and less to do with the products themselves, and everything to do with the relationship between those products and their owners, a relationship so immediate and elemental that it elided the boundaries between them. “Jobs was making the computer an extension of yourself,” Turkle tells Gibney. “It wasn’t just for you, it was you.”•
Five years ago when I looked back at the 1978 Michael Crichton film, Coma, through the lens of the new millennium, I wrote this:
The nouveau tech corporations are aimed at locating and marking our personal preferences, tracking our interests and even our footsteps, knowing enough about what’s going on inside our heads to predict our next move. In a time of want and desperation and disparity of wealth, how much information will we surrender?•
It seems truer now than in 2011, as wearables multiply and the Internet of Things comes closer to fruition. Whenever data is collected, it will be sold, whether that was the original intent or not. And the collection process will grow so seamless and unobtrusive we’ll hardly notice it.
We already know that the majordata brokers like Acxiom and Experiancollect thousands of pieces of information onnearly every US consumerto paint a detailed personality picture, by tracking the websites we visit and the things we search for and buy. These companies often know sensitive things like our sexual preference or what illnesses we have.
Now with wearables proliferating (it’s estimatedthere will be 240 million devices sold by 2019) that profile’s just going to get more detailed: Get ready to add how much body fat you have, when you have sex, how much sleep you get, and all sorts of physiological data into the mix.
“Whenever there’s information that you’re collecting about yourself and you’re quantifying, there’s a very good chance that it will end up in a profile of you,” Michelle De Mooy, a health privacy expert at theCenter for Democracy & Technology, told me.
“Biometric data is perhaps the last ‘missing link’ of personal information collected today,” said Jeffrey Chester, Executive Director of theCenter for Digital Democracy.
“The next great financial windfall for the digital data industry will be our health information, gathered thru wearables, swallowable pills and an ever-present Internet of Things,” Chester told me. “Pharma companies, hospitals and advertisers see huge profits in our health information.”•
Mabel Normand was a Silent Era triple threat (writer-director-actor) who collaborated with Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Laurel & Hardy, Boris Karloff and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, so it would have taken a lot for personal life to overwhelm her career. Somehow, she managed.
Despite starring across Chaplin the first time he performed as the Little Tramp and becoming a big box-office draw, Normand’s star was dimmed by a cocaine addiction and scandal, most notably by being named the other woman in a divorce trial and by her close proximity to two mysterious shootings, one of which resulted in the death of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor. Her career had slowed considerably before tuberculosis killed her at age 37 in 1930. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the end of her tumultuous life in the February 24, 1930 edition.
From 1914’s “Mabel’s Strange Predicament,” which introduced the Little Tramp.
I recall reading and loving Michael Idov’s “The Movie Set That Ate Itself,” his strange 2011 GQ journalistic walkabout in which he reported from the insane Ukraine film set of certifiable auteur Ilya Khrzhanovsky. Several unforeseen WTF professional and geopolitical moments later, he found himself one of Russia’s top screenwriters, crafting successful TV shows and films during the chill of the Second Cold War, perhaps an astute social commentator or maybe an unwitting government stooge.
Idov’s written a piece about his unexpected life changes for the New York Times Magazine, which is the first excellent longform article I’ve read this new year (sorry, Sean Penn). A passage about how the magazine editor began to branch out from the news biz to show biz, which offered greater freedom from the Kremlin’s intentionally fuzzy censorship rules:
Russia and the United States had exchanged the first salvos in the new cold war. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, barring certain apparatchiks from entering the United States. In an asymmetric response, the Duma barred all Americans from adopting Russian children — a sudden jolt of direct discrimination, as my wife and I had been considering exactly that.
At work, too, not a week seemed to pass without a new law designed to curb free speech. Hastily adopted legislation basically made it illegal to offend any social group — though as wielded by the authorities, the new laws primarily seemed to protect the strong from the weak. Impugning the Soviet Union’s conduct in World War II was illegal. Disrespecting Russia’s ‘‘territorial integrity’’ was illegal. Mentioning drugs or suicide in a way that could be construed as ‘‘instructional’’ was illegal, and prosecutors could use an agency called Roskomnadzor to shut down any website for so much as an unruly user comment. A vile anti-gay law banned speech that ‘‘creates false equivalence between traditional and nontraditional lifestyle.’’ (This in a country whose pop stars’ wardrobes suggest that Russia’s biggest natural resource is rhinestones.) I had to fight Condé Nast’s in-house counsel for the right to publish a positive review of the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra; he objected to the use of the word ‘‘love’’ to describe a same-sex relationship.
The genius of all these laws was in their purposeful inconsistency, which ensured that almost anyone could be silenced at any time; they were designed to be implemented capriciously, to weed out undesirables. Editing a magazine became hazardous to your health — mental and otherwise. GQ’s political columnist, Andrew Ryvkin, was beaten up on the street by two pro-Putin writers of some renown, Sergei Minaev and Eduard Bagirov. I myself ended up slapping a Tatler editor on the steps of the Bolshoi Theater after he wrote anti-Semitic diatribes about me. This was shaping up to be the most surreal year of my life.
One night, I called Ryvkin with a spur-of-the-moment idea: ‘‘Let’s write Louie, but about me in Moscow.’’ Ryvkin had a similar background to mine (he spent his formative years in Boston) and similar comedic sensibilities; we both worshiped 30 Rock and Louis C.K. Three weeks, a few joints and several pizzas later, we had a pilot. The main character, a neurotic, blocked, broke Brooklyn novelist, comes to Moscow to promote his book, gets Jew-baited on live TV by a glib Russian oligarch and reconnects with his childhood friend Roman, now an out-of-control photographer modeled on Terry Richardson. The friends spend most of the episode crafting an appropriate response to the slur and finally head over to the oligarch’s club to beat him up. When they get there, however, the offender offers the novelist a plum job in Moscow, forcing him to sell out on the spot.
The script was a mishmash of autobiography and anger, filled with profanity, drug use, gay jokes, Nazi jokes and weird structural hiccups. I was venting every frustration of my day job. In a good measure of how little I cared about the pilot’s suitability for Russian TV, I named its protagonist Matt Rushkin, ‘‘Rashka’’ being an émigré’s derogatory term for Russia itself.•
Hanna Reitsch would have been a feminist hero, if it weren’t for the Nazism.
Like the equally talented Leni Riefenstahl, politics made her story the thorniest thing. Reitsch was a pioneering, early-20th-century test pilot, an aviatrix as she was called in that era, but her gifts and great daring were used in the service of the Nazi Party beginning in the 1930s. Her importance in the scheme of things was such that she visited Hitler in his bunker in 1945.
Although her reputation always sullied–and, of course, should have been–Reitsch nonetheless did enjoy considerable standing despite her past, becoming a champion glider, and even being invited as a guest of the White House during the Kennedy Administration.
In 1976, three years before her death, Reitsch was interviewed about her aerial exploits.
Even though he remains one of the pantheon filmmakers, Fritz Lang had mixed feelings about the medium. Talkies initially left him cold and later on he found then Hollywood studio system a discombobulating compromise.
In 1972, Lang was interviewed by two reporters, Lloyd Chesley and Michael Gould, and confided in them that he had tired of directing movies by the advent of talking pictures and decided to recreate himself as a chemist. A disreputable money man dragged him back into the business and gave him the creative freedom to make the chilling classic, M. An excerpt from the interview:
Your themes changed from epic to intimate when you began making sound films.
I got tired from the big films. I didn’t want to make films anymore. I wanted to become a chemist. About this time an independent man—not of very good reputation—wanted me to make a film and I said ‘No, I don’t want to make films anymore.’ And he came and came and came, and finally I said ‘Look, I will make a film, but you will have nothing to say for it. You don’t know what it will be, you have no right to cut it, you only can give the money.’ He said ‘Fine, understood.’ And so I made M.
We started to write the script and I talked with my wife, Thea von Harbou, and I said ‘What is the most insidious crime?’ We came to the fact of anonymous poison letters. And then one day I said I had another idea—long before this mass murderer,[Peter] Kurten, in the Rhineland. And if I wouldn’t have the agreement for no one to tell me anything, I would never, never have made M. Nobody knew Peter Lorre.•
In 1975, Lang and William Friedkin, two directors transfixed by extreme evil, engaged in conversation.
John Cale sometimes seems exhausted talking about The Velvet Underground, and who could blame him? An unlikely rock star to begin with, the Welsh musician was a classically trained violinist with strong avant garde leanings who arrived in New York City just as its rock and art scenes were exploding into one another, collaborating almost immediately with volatile Lou Reed and soon enough vampiric Andy Warhol. Cale lasted two albums with the band, but has never left its reputation. How could he?
“In Chicago, I was singing lead because Lou had hepatitis, no one knew the difference. We turned our faces to the wall and turned up very loud. Paul Morrissey (later the director of Trash) and Danny Williams had different visions of what the light show should be like and one night I looked up to see them fighting, hitting each other in the middle of a song. Danny Williams just disappeared. They found his clothes by the side of a river, with his car nearby … the whole thing. He used to carry this strobe around with him all the time and no one could figure out why till we found out he kept his amphetamine in it.”
“We worked the Masonic Hall in Columbus Ohio. A huge place filled with people drinking and talking. We tuned up for about ten minutes, tuning, fa-da-da, up, da-da-da, down. There’s a tape of it. Played a whole set to no applause, just silences.”
“In San Francisco, we played the Fillmore and no one liked us much. We put the guitars against the amps, turned up, played percussion and then split. Bill Graham came into the dressing room and said, ‘You owe me 20 more minutes’. I’d dropped a cymbal on Lou’s head and he was bleeding. ‘Is he hurt?’ Graham said, ‘We’re not insured.'”
“Severn Darden brought this young chick up to meet me there and he introduced her as one of my ardent admirers. This was a long time ago and I didn’t know about such things, so I said, ‘Pleased to meet you,’ and walked off. Two days later in L.A., here comes Severn again with this girl. I say hello again and leave. We’re all staying at the castle in L.A., and things are very hazy, if you know what I mean. Well, this girl is there too. I smile but I still don’t understand. About two in the morning the door of my room opens and she walks in naked and gets into bed. Went on for five nights. I don’t think I even got her address.”
The Velvets suffered from all kinds of strange troubles. They spent three years on the road away from New York City, their home, playing Houston, Boston, small towns in Pennsylvania, anywhere that would pay them scale.
“We needed someone like Andy,” John says. “He was a genius for getting publicity. Once we were in Providence to play at the Rhode Island School of Design and they sent a TV newsman to talk to us. Andy did the interview lying on the ground with his head propped up on one arm. There were some studded balls with lights shining on them and when the interviewer asked him why he was on the ground, Andy said, “So I can see the stars better.” The interview ended with the TV guy lying flat on his back saying, “Yeah, I see what you mean.”•
A 21-year-old John Cale the year he arrived in NYC and the one before he met Reed, on I’ve Got a Secret.
By the 1960s, Glenn Gould believed the new technologies would allow for the sampling, remixing and democratization of creativity, that erstwhile members of the audience would ultimately ascend and become creators themselves. He hated the hierarchy of live performance and was sure its dominance would end. It was probably partly a rationalization that helped enable his reclusiveness, but rise up the audience did.
Mr. Gould himself seemed to grow out of no particular musical tradition. He stressed, in fact, that his musical goal was to rethink the repertory in a radically different fashion. Though he had a career of nine years as a popular and critical success on the concert stage, after a performance in Chicago in March 1964, he never played in public again; after 1967, he said, he never even attended a concert.
He said he considered the concert form an ”immensely distasteful” musical compromise that leads to ”tremendous conservatism” in musical interpretation. Mr. Gould contended that the concert’s aura of commerce, its performing stage and its listening audience interfere with music, turning the artist into a ”vaudevillian.”
”The concert is dead,” he proclaimed. For him, the recording represented the musical future. Mr. Gould was also among the first classical musicians to treat the recording as a distinct art form, with its own possibilities and requirements. The phonograph record, for Mr. Gould, was no more a ”record” of an actual continuous performance than a movie was a record of actual continuous events. It was a spliced construction, edited from recording tape.
”During the last 15 years,” Mr. Gould said in an interview last year, ”I spent very little time at a recording session actually recording.”
About eight minutes an hour were spent at the piano, he explained, producing perhaps four different versions of two minutes of music. The rest of the hour would be spent editing, choosing aspects of one version to merge with those of another. His recording of Sibelius’s works, for example, experiments with different aural atmospheres in each musical section. In his most recent recordings, he acted as producer, working in his own studio.
The musical result could be a concentrated interpretation, put together with as much care as a film editor might put together a movie. Mr. Gould believed such pastiche no more detracted from spontaneity and energy than editing would detract from a well-paced film.
The results, though, have been controversial.•
“I detest audiences,” Gould tells that magnificent bastard Alex Trebek (unseen) in 1966.
From a1969 Life piece in which Oriana Fallaci recalls her misbegotten interview with Muhammad Ali:
Has anyone actually threatened to break your nose off for something you wrote?
Something like it happened with Cassius Clay. I had seen him a couple of times, and I went back to his house in Miami to finish the interview. He was eating a melon. I said, Good Morning, Mr. Clay. He keeps on eating the melon and suddenly belches very loud. I think he is just being impolite and I sit down with my tape recorder. And then oooaaagh. He belches again. A big one. Well, I said, let’s go on anyway. And just at that moment, buurp, buurp, whoops, whoops. I turned to him and shouted, I am not going to stay with an animal like you. And I was undoing my recorder, when he took the microphone and threw it against the wall. My microphone! I saw it flying past my head and I took my fists and bam, bam. Went against him. He stood there. So enormous. So tall. And he watched me in a way an elephant watches a mosquito. Black Muslims suddenly came out of all the doors into the room. Evil. Evil. They began to chant. You came for evil. It was like a nightmare. I backed out to my cab, trying to keep my dignity, but really afraid, and went straight to the airport. After the interview was published, Cassius Clay said he was going to break my nose if he ever saw me again. I said, we’ll see, if he breaks my nose, he is going to jail and we will have beautiful news in the papers. I saw him later in New York. I passed with my nose in the air, and he went by without looking at me.•
In 1976, when he was already showing the early, subtle signs of Parkinson’s Syndrome, Muhammad Ali sat for a wide-ranging group interview on Face the Nation, in which he was mostly treated as a suspect by a panel of people who enjoyed privileges that were never available to the boxer. Fred Graham, the Arkansas-born correspondent who’s distinguished himself in other ways during his career, doesn’t come across as the most enlightened fellow here, asking at one point, “Is there ever going to be another Great White Hope, a white heavyweight who will come in and whip all you black heavyweights?” Hyper-political earlier in life, Ali dodged election-year questions as much as possible.
Sailor, fisherman, OSS spy and all-around non-conformist, actor Sterling Hayden was ultimately as interesting just being himself as he was when inhabiting a character. In Kim Morgan’s 2014 LARB roundtable interview with Robert Altman collaborators Elliott Gould, George Segal and screenwriter Joseph Walsh, Hayden was discussed. An excerpt:
So you, George, and Elliott were both in movies with Sterling Hayden [Loving and The Long Goodbye].
I loved Sterling in the movies, but I never met him personally. [To Segal and Gould] Did you love Sterling?
I loved him. Dan Blocker was supposed to play the part. He was a very good friend of Altman’s. Dan Blocker died and the picture almost went south. And so then we were talking about John Huston, who I loved. Bob cast Sterling Hayden. So Sterling had been in Ireland doing something with R. D. Laing, the poet and philosopher who wrote a book called Knots. And so I asked to spend a little time, a moment alone with Sterling in the house where we shot, where Kathryn and Bob lived, down in Malibu. So we spent that moment alone. And so I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I understood him. So I just loved him.
I liked the way he wanted to live his life, Sterling Hayden.
I visited him on his péniche, which is like a barge. He had it in France on the Seine and I saw him there. And then he had it sent to Northern California and I visited him there too. He was a great guy. I think he worked in the Yugoslavian Underground during World War II.
Did he really? Wow. Okay.
And what’s interesting in The Long Goodbye is this modernized Marlowe, from what Bogart or Powell did but …
Oh, Humphrey Bogart was perfect. Our Marlowe was not perfect at all.
No, of course. But that’s what I love about it. And that Sterling Hayden, who is now an icon in film noir, he’s really this counterculture type of guy in real life. He fit perfectly in that Altman universe.•
In 1981, Hayden, a restless soul who began looking late in life like Tom Waits’ hobo uncle, visits with Tom Snyder for a long-form interview. In part one, Hayden discusses his failed attempts at writing an article for Rolling Stone about the funeral of Yugoslavia’s late dictator Marshal Tito.
Russia in the time of Vladimir Putin, a capo with nuclear capabilities, is the strangest thing. A kleptocracy littered with petro-oligarchs and poisoned journalists, it’s hard to get to the truth even when everyone knows where it lies.
Even beyond the Kremlin, the deaths can be shockingly violent and the crimes baffling and awful. Case in point: the Bolshoi Ballet, that grand thing, became a lurid headline after a sulfuric acid attack on its artistic director, Sergei Filin, at the outset of 2013.
As HBO prepares to screen Bolshoi Babylon, the New York Times’ Gia Kourlas (an excellent person I worked with once) has scored an interview with the Bolshoi’s usually reticent longtime principal dancer, Maria Alexandrova. It speaks to the opaqueness of the company and the wider culture.
New York Times:
Do you have much contact with Sergei Filin?
We practically have no relationship. He just basically publishes on the board what performances he wants me to dance, and I dance them. We say hello to each other as civilized people, but we have no relationship whatsoever. I’m not outside his office begging for parts. He gives me the parts. I dance them. And what he gives me, I use the opportunity and what he doesn’t, I use that opportunity to be involved in other projects.
New York Times:
Was it like that before the acid attack too?
Before that, when he was dancing, he was my main partner for eight years. [Nikolai] Tsiskaridze and Filin were my main two partners. You don’t necessarily have to love or hate someone; you just get on with it. There was no conflict. In Russian ballet, there are no easy people. We’re all difficult characters. Some are more intelligent and some are less intelligent, but you don’t have any people in Russian ballet who are angelic with easy characters. We live in a difficult country; we work in a difficult theater; we depend only on ourselves or you find whichever other way you want.
New York Times:
Within the Bolshoi, people took sides after the acid attack: Filin’s or Dmitrichenko’s? [The dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko was found guilty of arranging the attack and sentenced to five and a half years in prison.] Which were you on?
I chose the theater. I chose my profession. The hardest thing is to explain to people within the company, yes, a terrible tragedy has happened, but it’s part of life, and we should not take sides and divide people between good and bad and black and white. That was always my position. We should think of our profession; we should think of our theater. Even now, I am absolutely deeply convinced that we still don’t know the truth of what really happened and why it happened.•
If he hadn’t been in his prime in the 1960s, Terry Southern couldn’t have quite been Terry Southern as we know him. The era allowed him to stretch and bend, and he did what he could to warp it in return. The cultural explosion of those years and his own personality (perceptive, not protean) made it possible for the author to co-write with Kubrick and cover a political convention with Genet and Burroughs. Southern’s literary fantasia continued for decades, never betraying the unique time when his personal narrative began to be writ large.
It must have been a gas, to borrow one of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Terry Southern. Each was its own little acid trip, streaked with innuendo and poached in a satirical kind of intellectual flop sweat. He used thin, expensive paper and sealed some of his letters with wax. People were said to read them aloud to whoever was in the room.
It must further have been a groove, to use another of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Southern (1924-95) because he seemed to know everyone, from George Plimpton and Lenny Bruce to Ringo Starr and Dennis Hopper and had stories to tell.
It’s hard to sum up how brightly Southern’s star burned in the mid-1960s. A countercultural Zelig, he was nowhere and everywhere. Tom Wolfe credited Southern’s article “Twirling at Ole Miss,” published in Esquire in 1963, with jump-starting the New Journalism. Southern helped write the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), injecting the software (wit) into the hardware (dread).•
Because things aren’t murky enough, Oliver Stone is bringing his paranoid onslaught of fact and fiction to the topic of Edward Snowden, a mixed bag to begin with. Our default mode should be supporting whistleblowers, but this guy doesn’t make it easy. He told us what was fairly obvious in the age of the Patriot Act, and the information won’t really change much (though Snowden can’t be blamed for that). In this time, Americans are more afraid of terrorism than they are of losing liberties, wanting a brother to take care of them even if it’s Big Brother. It never was a lack of knowledge that allowed surveillance to take hold but a lack of will. Beyond that, government spying will likely end up being the least of the problem, with corporations and rogue groups and individuals far more of a threat.
In “The Hacking of Hollywood,” a very wonderful Backchannel piece, David Kushner writes of an ironic twist: The auteur is trying to prevent his film about the leaker from being leaked. The article retreats to the 2004 origin story of interlopers entering the Dream Factory, making its way forward to the Fappening, a dark weekend that was revealing in more ways than one. Kushner stresses that no great technical skills are usually required for such breaches. The opening:
It’s a cold day in Munich, and Oliver Stone, Hollywood’s most notorious director, is staring down the world’s most notorious hacker, Edward Snowden — or, at least, the actor who’s portraying him, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Stone’s here filming his controversial biopic of Snowden. The film, which will be released in spring 2016, traces the whistleblower’s rise from lowly army enlistee to the National Security Agency contractor who exposed the U.S. government’s classified surveillance program.
But Stone isn’t just concerned about capturing the saga behind Snowden’s incredible leaks. He wants to make sure that no hacker comes after his film and leaks its secrets before the movie’s release. “It’s a major concern for every filmmaker,” he tells me, during a break from shooting. And it’s one that’s even more pronounced with a movie that promises to reveal more about Snowden than the world yet knows. “If you can hack his story,” Stone says with caution, “it would be a big prize.” In a way, Stone is making a meta-movie that no one has seen before, building a firewall around a film whose subject is an icon of bad infosec.
This explains the stealthy guy with the Fu Manchu beard milling around the set. He’s Ralph Echemendia, Hollywood’s go-to digital bodyguard, a reformed hacker from the dark side who now helps filmmakers, celebrities, and moguls keep their valuable data secure. It’s a challenge that’s only compounding as Hollywood — like the rest of the world — moves more and more of its content and communications online. “The concern is a lack of control,” Echemendia tells me.
Stone says such precautions, while new, are “the wave of the future.”•
I think I went from devoted moviegoer (250-300 films every year) to completely uninterested in the medium for reasons deeper than the seismic shifts of the business wrought by globalization (i.e., the march of comic-book blockbusters not dependent on nuance or language), but these changes helped usher me out of the theater.
The new Star Wars is coming out and I don’t care, but at least Adam Rogers’ Wired article “The Force Will Be With Us. Always.” makes me interested in the dynamics behind the endless stream of familiar films that are more than mere sequels. The various productions are designed as an ever-expanding supply of “connective tissue” that can stretch and cover us with comforting entertainment until we’re mummies. Unless, of course, some unforeseen disruption takes the industry in another direction. I mean, nothing is truly forever. For now, though, the template is fixed.
The company intends to put out a new Star Wars movie every year for as long as people will buy tickets. Let me put it another way: If everything works out for Disney, and if you are (like me) old enough to have been conscious for the first Star Wars film, you will probably not live to see the last one. It’s the forever franchise.
These new movies won’t just be sequels. That’s not the way the transnational entertainment business works anymore. Forget finite sequences; now it’s about infinite series. Disney also owns Marvel Comics, and over the next decade you can expect 17 more interrelated movies about Iron Man and his amazing friends, including Captain America: Civil War, two more Avengers movies, another Ant-Man, and a Black Panther (not to mention five new TV shows). Thanks to licensing agreements, Disney doesn’t own the rights to every Marvel property—Fox makes movies about the X-Men and related mutants like Gambit and Deadpool. So you’ll get interrelated comic-book movies there too. Warner Bros. Entertainment, which owns DC Comics, is prepping a dozen or so movies based on DC characters, with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in 2016, Wonder Woman, and eventually the two-part team-up Justice League. Warner is also trying to introduce Godzilla to King Kong (again). Paramount is working on a shared universe for its alien robot Transformers. Universal continues, with limited success, to try to knit together its famous bestiary (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, etc.).
Everywhere, studio suits are recruiting creatives who can weave characters and story lines into decades-spanning tapestries of prequels, side-quels, TV shows, games, toys, and so on. Brand awareness goes through the roof; audiences get a steady, soothing mainline drip of familiar characters. Forget the business implications for a moment, though. The shared universe represents something rare in Hollywood: a new idea.•
In a 1968 Playboy Interview, Eric Nordern tried to extract a definitive statement about the meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey directly from the mouth of the horse, but Stanley Kubrick wasn’t having it. The director was happy, however, to expound on the potential existence of extraterrestrials of advanced intelligence and what it would mean for us relatively lowly earthlings. An excerpt:
Speaking of what it’s all about—if you’ll allow us to return to the philosophical interpretation of 2001—would you agree with those critics who call it a profoundly religious film?
I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001—but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguingscientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that its star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visibleuniverse. Given a planet in stable orbit, not too hot and not too cold, and given a few billion years of chance chemical reactions created by the interaction of sun’s energy on the planet’s chemicals, it’s fairly certain that life in one form or another will eventually emerge. It’s reasonable to assume that there must be, in fact, countless billions of such planets where biological life has arisen, and the odds of some proportion of such life developing intelligence are high. Now, the sun is by no means an old star, and its planets are mere children in cosmic age, so it seems likely that there are billions of planets in the universe not only where intelligent life is on a lower scale than man but other billions where it is approximately equal and others still where it is hundreds of thousands of years in advance of us. When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia—less than a microsecond in the cosmology of the universe—can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken? They may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities—and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.
Even assuming the cosmic evolutionary path you suggest, what has this to do with the nature of God?
Everything—because these beings would be gods to the billions of less advanced races in the universe, just as man would appear a god to an ant that somehow comprehended man’s existence. They would possess the twin attributes of all deities—omniscience and omnipotence. These entities might be in telepathic communication throughout the cosmos and thus be aware of everything that occurs, tapping every intelligent mind as effortlessly as we switch on the radio; they might not be limited by the speed of light and their presence could penetrate to the farthest corners of the universe; they might possess complete mastery over matter and energy; and in their final evolutionary stage, they might develop into an integrated collective immortal consciousness. They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods; and if the tendrils of their consciousness ever brushed men’s minds, it is only the hand of God we could grasp as an explanation.
If such creatures do exist, why should they be interested in man?
They may not be. But why should man be interested in microbes? The motives of such beings would be as alien to us as their intelligence.
In 2001, such incorporeal creatures seem to manipulate our destinies and control our evolution, though whether for good or evil—or both, or neither—remains unclear. Do you really believe it’s possible that man is a cosmic plaything of such entities?
I don’t really believe anything about them; how can I? Mere speculation on the possibility of their existence is sufficiently overwhelming, without attempting to decipher the motives. The important point is that all the standard attributes assigned to God in our history could equally well be the characteristics of biological entities who billions of years ago were at a stage of development similar to man’s own and evolved into something as remote from man as man is remote from the primordial ooze from which he first emerged.
In this cosmic phylogeny you’ve described, isn’t it possible that there might be forms of intelligent life on an even higher scale than these entities of pure energy—perhaps as far removed from them as they are from us?
Of course there could be; in an infinite, eternal universe, the point is that anything is possible, and it’s unlikely that we can even begin to scratch the surface of the full range of possibilities. But at a time when man is preparing to set foot on the Moon, I think it’s necessary to open up our Earth bound minds to such speculation. No one knows what’s waiting for us in our universe. I think it was a prominent astronomer who wrote recently, “Sometimes I think we are alone, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.”
You said that there must be billions of planets sustaining life that is considerably more advanced than man but has not yet evolved into non- or suprabiological forms. What do you believe would be the effect on humanity if the Earth were contacted by a race of such ungodlike but technologically superior beings?
There’s a considerable difference of opinion on this subject among scientists and philosophers. Some contend that encountering a highly advanced civilization—even one whose technology is essentially comprehensible to us—would produce a traumatic cultural shock effect on man by divesting him of his smug ethnocentrism and shattering the delusion that he is the center of the universe. Carl Jung summed up this position when he wrote of contact with advanced extraterrestrial life that “reins would be torn from our hands and we would, as a tearful old medicine man once said to me, find ourselves ‘without dreams’ … we would find our intellectual and spiritual aspirations so outmoded as to leave us completely paralyzed.” I personally don’t accept this position, but it’s one that’s widely held and can’t be summarily dismissed.
In 1960, for example, the Committee for Long Range Studies of the Brookings Institution prepared a report for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration warning that even indirect contact—i.e., alien artifacts that might possibly be discovered through our space activities on the Moon, Mars, or Venus or via radio contact with an interstellar civilization—could cause severe psychological dislocations. The study cautioned that “Anthropological files contain many examples of societies, sure of their place in the universe, which have disintegrated when they have had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies espousing different ideas and different life ways; others that survived such an experience usually did so by paying the price of changes in values and attitudes and behaviour.” It concluded that since the consequences of any such discovery are “presently unpredictable,” it was advisable that the government initiate continuing studies on the psychological and intellectual impact of confrontation with extra-terrestrial life. What action was taken on this report I don’t know, but I assume that such studies are now under way. However, while not discounting the possible adverse emotional impact on some people, I would personally tend to view such contact with a tremendous amount of excitement and enthusiasm. Rather than shattering our society, I think it could immeasurably enrich it.
Another positive point is that it’s a virtual certainty that all intelligent life at one stage in its technological development must have discovered nuclear energy. This is obviously the watershed of any civilization; does it find a way to use nuclear power without destruction and harness it for peaceful purposes, or does it annihilate itself? I would guess that any civilization that has existed for a few thousand years after its discovery of atomic energy has devised a means of accommodating itself to the bomb, and this could prove tremendously reassuring to us—as well as give us specific guidelines for our own survival. In any case, as far as cultural shock is concerned, my impression is that the attention span of most people is quite brief; after a week or two of great excitement and over-saturation in the newspapers and on television, the public’s interest would drop off and the United Nations, or whatever world body we had then, would settle down to discussions with the aliens.
You’re assuming that extraterrestrials would be benevolent. Why?
Why should a vastly superior race bother to harm or destroy us? If an intelligent ant suddenly traced a message in the sand at my feet reading, “I am sentient; let’s talk things over,” I doubt very much that I would rush to grind him under my heel. Even if they weren’t superintelligent, though, but merely more advanced than mankind, I would tend to lean more toward the benevolence, or at least indifference, theory. Since it’s most unlikely that we would be visited from within our own solar system, any society capable of traversing light-years of space would have to have an extremely high degree of control over matter and energy. Therefore, what possible motivation for hostility would they have? To steal our gold or oil or coal? It’s hard to think of any nasty intention that would justify the long and arduous journey from another star.•
Introduced byVernon Myers, the publisher of Look, the 1966 short film, “A Look Behind the Future,” focuses on the magazine’s former photographer Kubrick, who was then in the process of making 2001: A Space Odyssey at London’s MGM studios. It’s a nice companion piece to Jeremy Bernstein’s two great New Yorker articles about the movie during its long gestation (hereandhere).
Mentioned or seen in this video: Mobile phones, laptop computers,Wernher Von Braun, memory helmets, a 38-ton centrifuge, Arthur C. Clarke at the Long Island warehouse where the NASA L.E.M. (Lunar Excursion Module) was being constructed, Keir Dullea meeting the press, etc.
I would think I’m in the small minority of Don DeLillo readers who feel that his best novel is White Noise, a book about an airborne toxic event and other looming threats. From Nathaniel Rich’s just-published Daily Beast piece:
How did the novel that Don DeLillo originally titled Panasonic become the phenomenon that was, and still is, White Noise? Canonized at birth by rhapsodic critics and instantly ubiquitous on college syllabi, the novel won the National Book Award and journalists hailed its publicity-shy author as a prophet.
But White Noise was not different in kind from Don DeLillo’s previous seven novels. He had been writing about the same paranoiac themes for 15 years: nuclear age anomie, the tyranny and mind control of American commercial excess, the dread of mass terror and the perverse longing for it, the aphasic cacophony of mass information, and even Hitler obsession. In those earlier novels DeLillo had written in the same clipped, oracular prose, borrowing sardonically from bureaucratic officialese, scientific jargon, and tabloid headlines. Some of White Noise’s main insights—“All plots tend to move deathward,” declares the narrator, Jack Gladney—were recycled from the earlier novels, too. White Noise was more conventionally plotted than End Zone, Great Jones Street, or Players, and the characters more conflicted, more human. But something else had changed.
“The greater the scientific advance,” says Jack Gladney, “the more primitive the fear.” White Noise is bathed in the glare and hum of personal computers and refrigerators and color televisions. Like bulletins from the subconscious, the text is intermittently interrupted by litanies of brand names designed to be pronounceable in a hundred languages: Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue. At one point Jack observes his daughter talking in her sleep, uttering the words Toyota Celica. “It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered.”
Something is hovering all right.•
The 1991 BBC program, Don DeLillo: The Word, The Image, and The Gun, was originally aired the same year the author published that strange thing Mao II, a novel with wooden characters and plotting, but one so eerily correct about the coming escalation of terrorism, how guns would become bombs and airplanes would not just be redirected but repurposed. It’s like DeLillo tried to alert us to targets drawn in chalk on all sides of the Twin Towers, but we never really fully noticed. This program is a great portrait of DeLillo and his “dangerous secrets” about technology, surveillance, film, news, the novel, art and the apocalypse.
The 1980 killing of Scarsdale Diet creator, Dr. Henry Tarnower, by his longtime companion,Jean Harris, was a slaying that awakened all sorts of emotions about the dynamics between men and women. From “Murder with Intent to Love,” a 1981 Time article by Walter Isaacson and James Wilde about the sensational trial:
Prosecutor George Bolen, 34, was cold and indignant in his summation, insisting that jealousy over Tarnower‘s affair with his lab assistant, Lynne Tryforos, 38, was the motivating factor for murder. Argued Bolen: ‘There was dual intent, to take her own life, but also an intent to do something else . . . to punish Herman Tarnower . . . to kill him and keep him from Lynne Tryforos.’ Bolen ridiculed the notion that Harris fired her .32-cal. revolver by accident. He urged the jury to examine the gun while deliberating. Said he: ‘Try pulling the trigger. It has 14 pounds of pull. Just see how difficult it would be to pull, double action, four times by accident.’ Bolen, who was thought by his superiors to be too gentle when he cross-examined Harris earlier in the trial, showed little mercy as he painted a vivid picture of what he claims happened that night. He dramatically raised his hand in the defensive stance he says Tarnower used when Harris pointed the gun at him. When the judge sustained an objection by Aurnou that Bolen‘s version went beyond the evidence presented, the taut Harris applauded until her body shook.•
In 1991, the year before her sentence was commuted, Harris sat for a jailhouse interview with Jane Pauley, who has somehow managed to not murder Garry Trudeau.
Years before he was to become a Hollywood heavyweight, Ivan Reitman helped launch the career of affable, parody-ready illusionist Doug Henning, who came to attention in Canada with the stage performance Spellbound. Relocated to Broadway in the mid-1970s and rechristened The Magic Show, it was a long-running sensation. After a break from the NYC boards and some permutations in his personal life, Henning tried, with disastrous results, to recapture the old magic with his 1983 creation, Merlin. Before itwas delivered a death blow to the stomach, à la Houdini, by indifferent audiences, Henning was profiled by Mary Vespa of People. The opening:
Doug Henning learned one of his most valuable tricks not from another magician but from the manager of the famous mime Marcel Marceau: “Keep yourself scarce.” He has. Though he’s been doing his annual NBC-TV specials for eight years now, and frequently takes his act on the road, he hasn’t set foot on Broadway since The Magic Show, the popular revue that established him as big box office when he starred in it from 1974 to 1977. Now he’s back, this time with Merlin, a musical with a $4 million budget, lavish sets, stunning effects and stunts on a scale that, he says, “staggers the imagination.”
Indeed, the Mark Hellinger Theater has never seen quite such goings-on. There is exotic music. Beautiful women emerge from fire, burst into a constellation of stars, disappear into thin air. Chita Rivera, as the evil queen intent on doing in the young Merlin (Henning) before he meets the future King Arthur, changes a black panther into a temptress who tries to distract him from his magic. But Henning survives this and other hazards—at one point he disappears from a flaming cage being lifted above the stage—to triumph in the end.
Whether all this will dazzle the critics won’t be clear until the show, now playing to preview audiences, opens on Jan. 9. But for Henning, at least, Merlin is already a milestone that is not only professional but personal: The show’s water spirit, a lithe brunette dream woman he levitates above a fountain, is in fact a new wife who’s given him a badly needed lift.
Cut to 1981. Henning was trying to bounce back from a busted marriage. Exhausted after doing one of his TV shows, he retreated to a favorite haunt, the Transcendental Meditation Center at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. “Doug was just so sad and lonely,” recalls friend Jim Bagnola. “It seemed as though he was achieving all his goals and still remaining unfulfilled.” Call it luck. Timing. Or was it life playing a trick on a superillusionist? There, at a banquet, he met a beauty who would sweep away his woes like, well, magic.
“My friends said there was practically a flash of light,” says Henning, 35. “I had never felt anything like it in my whole life.” The dazzler was Debby Douillard, 27, an abstract painter with bottomless blue eyes who was taking classes at the university and also had just separated from her spouse. She, too, felt Cupid’s bolt: “It was like I blossomed right on the spot.”
They got engaged within the week and wed last December. He still marvels at the sorcery she’s worked on him. “When I perform, I could love a million people,” Henning admits, “but I had trouble loving one person. I would separate love and sex. Debby’s helped me overcome my fear of intimacy.” Her problem was shyness, and Henning’s Rx has been to use her not only in Merlin but also on tour, where she performs as a singer, dancer and his assistant. “I have a tendency to be inward,” says Debby. “Doug’s turning me inside out. Sometimes it’s painful, but it’s a great growing experience.”•
Not content with merely being a magus, Henning also founded a political organization, The Natural Law Party, which helped him lose elections very badly in both the UK and Canada. Sometimes democracy works.
Immanuel Velikovsky was an outsider scientist whose work was impressively elaborate nonsense. “Astronomers at Harvard consider the sensational theory of Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky that the earth stood still a couple of times in Biblical days sheer nonsense,” noted Popular Sciencein 1950.A charismatic guy, he nonetheless managed to befriend some of the greatest minds of the 20th century, including Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and Freeman Dyson. In a New York Review of Books piece, Dyson recalled their friendship. An excerpt:
After I came to America, I became a friend of Immanuel Velikovsky, who was my neighbor in Princeton. Velikovsky was a Russian Jew, with an intense interest in Jewish legends and ancient history. He was born into a scholarly family in 1895 and obtained a medical degree at Moscow University in 1921. During the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution he wrote a long Russian poem with the title “Thirty Days and Nights of Diego Pirez on the Sant Angelo Bridge.” It was published in Paris in 1935. Diego Pirez was a sixteenth-century Portuguese Jewish mystic who came to Rome and sat on the bridge near the Vatican, surrounded by beggars and thieves to whom he told his apocalyptic visions. He was condemned to death by the Inquisition, pardoned by the pope, and later burned as a heretic by the emperor Charles V.
Velikovsky escaped from Russia and settled in Palestine with his wife and daughters. He described to me the joys of practicing medicine on the slopes of Mount Carmel above Haifa, where he rode on a donkey to visit his patients in their homes. He founded and edited a journal, Scripta Universitatis atque Bibliothecae Hierosolymitanarum, which was the official journal of the Hebrew University before the university was established. His work for the Scripta was important for the founding of the Hebrew University. But he had no wish to join the university himself. To fulfill his dreams he needed complete independence. In 1939, after sixteen years in Palestine, he moved to America, where he had no license to practice medicine. To survive in America, he needed to translate his dreams into books.
Eleven years later, Macmillan published Worlds in Collision, and it became a best seller. Like Diego Pirez, Velikovsky told his dreams to the public in language they could understand. His dreams were mythological stories of catastrophic events, gleaned from many cultures, especially from ancient Egypt and Israel. These catastrophes were interwoven with a weird history of planetary collisions. The planets Venus and Mars were supposed to have moved out of their regular orbits and collided with the Earth a few thousand years ago. Electromagnetic forces were invoked to counteract the normal effects of gravity. The human and cosmic events were tied together in a flowing narrative. Velikovsky wrote like an Old Testament prophet, calling down fire and brimstone from heaven, in a style familiar to Americans raised on the King James Bible. More best sellers followed:Ages in Chaos in 1952, Earth in Upheaval in 1955, Oedipus and Akhnaton in 1960. Velikovsky became famous as a writer and as a public speaker.
In 1977 Velikovsky asked me to write a blurb advertising his new book, Peoples of the Sea. I wrote a statement addressed to him personally:
First, as a scientist, I disagree profoundly with many of the statements in your books. Second, as your friend, I disagree even more profoundly with those scientists who have tried to silence your voice. To me, you are no reincarnation of Copernicus or Galileo. You are a prophet in the tradition of William Blake, a man reviled and ridiculed by his contemporaries but now recognized as one of the greatest of English poets. A hundred and seventy years ago, Blake wrote: “The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents and Genius, but whether he is Passive and Polite and a Virtuous Ass and obedient to Noblemen’s Opinions in Art and Science. If he is, he is a Good Man. If not, he must be starved.” So you stand in good company. Blake, a buffoon to his enemies and an embarrassment to his friends, saw Earth and Heaven more clearly than any of them. Your poetic visions are as large as his and as deeply rooted in human experience. I am proud to be numbered among your friends.
I added the emphatic instruction, “This statement to be printed in its entirety or not at all.” A quick response came from Velikovsky. He said, “How would you like it if I said you were the reincarnation of Jules Verne?” He wanted to be honored as a scientist, not as a poet. My statement was not printed, and Peoples of the Sea became a best seller without my help. We remained friends, and in that same year he gave me a copy of his Diego Pirez poem, which I treasure as the truest expression of his spirit. I hope it will one day be adequately translated into English.•
Here is an amusing 1972 BBC doc about the Velikovsky and his catastrophist claptrap.
Here’s an oddity: In 1991, Doris Tate, mother of actressSharon Tatewho was among those murdered by theManson Family, appeared on To Tell the Truth hosted by Alex Trebek. The elder Tate became a campaigner for the rights of crime victims. This short-lived iteration of the venerable game show, which had a harder, more provocative edge than such fare usually has, provided a platform for Tate’s work. She passed away the following year as a result of a brain tumor. Begins at the 8:18 mark.
A piece from Frank Deford’s 1986SI profileof a most troubling artist, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, as an obstinate octogenarian:
Leni Riefenstahl is remarkably hale for 83. Her hair is an ingenue’s strawberry blonde, and she flirts with as much proficiency as ever. Her eyes are clear, a fawn brown with a ring of gray-green fringing the iris. Her mind is a well-lighted room, her will as unyielding as it was down all the interrogations and trials. She will not give an inch, growing testy now, then rude, to snoopers who would dare to trespass on those olden times she shared with evil men.
Only her hip, injured in a skiing accident, troubles her. For therapy she swims, diving with a camera as far as 50 meters down, alone amid the rocks and the coral and the sand. ”Underwater, I have no pain,” she says.
Above the water she works ceaselessly, carving out her memoirs, to finish them, for they are, she dreams, the one last proof of her innocence. For all the courts that cleared her, American and French and German alike, there was no public absolution for her and certainly no redemption in the world of film. Still, some consider her the greatest female director who ever lived, the creator of the greatest sports film ever made. It is 50 summers now since she shot Olympia and, like the athletes, won a gold medal for it. But after that there would be only one more movie, a fairy tale, named Tiefland. It’s ironic; all Leni Riefenstahl ever wanted was to tell fairy tales.
She looks at a photograph of herself, one taken a half-century ago. In it she is peering over folded arms, her shoulders are bare, her delicately beautiful face luminous–Germany’s Garbo, she was called–the woman at her most gorgeous. Riefenstahl taps the photograph. ”They killed me then,” she explains. ”I am a ghost.” Before I died. . . .
When World War II ended and the true horror of the Nazi regime–Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau- was revealed to the world, thousands of Germans were called to account for their associations, great or small, with the fascist government: There was execution for some, imprisonment for others, self-exile for a few, living ghosthood for Leni Riefenstahl. Has anyone else ever posed the question of an artist’s justification quite like Riefenstahl? The celluloid artifacts from the ’30s and ’40s cannot tell us for sure how much it was that she served herself or served art or served Adolf Hitler.•
This video is a really interesting 1965 CBC interview with the wonderful, terrible Riefenstahl, before she assumed her petulant late-life posture, still rationalizing but not yet resentful.
A funny and prescient piece of performance art by the great prankster Alan Abel, a blend of Lenny Bruce and Allen Funt, in which he responded to an ad placed by a 1999 HBO show seeking men willing to discuss their genitalia. Abel presented himself as a 57-year-old musician with a micro-penis. The hoaxer was ridiculing the early days of Reality TV, in which soft-headed pseudo-documentaries were offered to the public by cynical producers who didn’t exactly worry about veracity. Things have gotten only dicier since, as much of our culture, including news, makes no attempt at objective truth, instead encouraging individuals to create the reality that comforts or flatters them. Language is NSFW, unless you work in a gloryhole.
Alanna Nash’s 1997NYT articlecovered the making of the HBO biopic about Gia Carangi, recalling how uncomfortable the model was in the clothes the industry laid out for her. In retrospect, I’m sure the paper wishes it hadn’t referred to her as an “aggressive lesbian.” An excerpt:
In the late 70’s, as the dark-haired, dark-eyed teen-age daughter of a South Philadelphia hoagie shop owner, Gia began modeling almost by accident. A local photographer saw her on the dance floor and asked her to pose. Soon she was sought out as a startling alternative to the blond, blue-eyed standard of the day, and by the time she was 18, when she landed her first major advertisement, for Gianni Versace, she was earning $100,000 a year. In 1980, after she had become the ”top girl” at Wilhelmina Models in New York, she was expected to earn five times that much.
But inside, haute couture’s reigning ideal of feminine beauty felt like a fraud. Away from the camera, she dressed in black leather motorcycle jackets and men’s apparel from vintage clothing stores. She was an aggressive lesbian, coming on to models who roomed with her on faraway photo shoots. And once her drug problem got out of hand, she funneled her anger into frightening macho behavior, jumping through a car windshield when she found a female lover with a male friend, and pulling a knife on anyone she thought had slighted her.
When the track marks on her arms started showing up in pictures (other models called her Sister Morphine), only Mr. Scavullo continued to use her. Toward the end of her life, she was reduced to selling jeans in a Pennsylvania shopping mall and finally to living on the streets of New York.
In her prime, Gia sparked a rough-and-tumble reputation for walking out of sessions when a photographer kept her waiting, or when the hypocrisy of an assignment ticked her off. But to some, her free-spirited attitude was symptomatic of her search for truth, and every bit as seductive as her beauty. It’s that attitude that Ms. Jolie, the 22-year-old daughter of Jon Voight, hoped to get on film.
”When she’s free and just being herself, she’s unbelievable; that’s the tragedy of her story,” Ms. Jolie adds, sitting in her trailer beneath a poster bemoaning the death of Sid Vicious, the heroin-addicted bass player of the Sex Pistols. ”You think, ‘God, she didn’t need drugs — she was a drug.’ ”•
This 1978 video is a fun look inside the studio of legendary fashion and portrait photographer Francesco Scavullo, as he worked with the star-crossed model, a complicated subject to be sure.