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.
It bothers me to no end that Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man depicts boxer Max Baer as a semi-psychotic villain for the sake of narrative convenience. It’s cinematic license taken to an ugly extreme.
In general, the Hollywood biopic is a troubling compromise that will satisfy no one completely–or at least it shouldn’t. The best-case scenario is that you come away with some sort of an impressionistic truth but realize that, no, Richard Nixon never made a drunken, late-night phone call to David Frost.
Perhaps each film should be labeled with a Surgeon General-ish warning: “Believing the events of this film are true can be injurious to history.” That agreement has always been tacit, but I can’t tell you how many people over the years have cited the “facts” in Oliver Stone’s overwrought bullshit JFK. There’s really no easy answer.
Steven Levy, who reported on Steve Jobs and knew him, was troubled by his portrayal in the new Aaron Sorkin-Danny Boyle film. In a Backchannel Q&A, he interviewed the former about writing a screenplay on an actual historical figure. An excerpt:
Let’s take a specific example of history and fabrication. In the first act, you have Steve’s obsession with the 1983 Time Magazine story about him. You’re right to zero in on that — he was complaining about that when I interviewed him for Rolling Stone before the Macintosh launch, and he was complaining about it 20 years later.
But you took it a step farther. In your screenplay, someone at Apple ordered boxes of the magazine and was going to place one on every seat in the shareholder’s meeting until someone figured out it would make Steve crazy. In real life, that didn’t happen.
Right. That’s exactly the kind of thing I don’t mind making up. Here is what’s true, here is the important truth. As a matter of happy coincidence, Walter Isaacson, who was at Time Magazine in 1983 when all this happened, was able to tell me that Steve was never in the conversation for Man of the Year. Steve had always blamed Dan Kottke for spilling the beans in that article about Steve having to take a paternity test and that whole situation with Lisa and believed that was the reason why he didn’t get the cover. But, as Walter pointed out, it had nothing to do with Kottke — if you look at the cover, it’s a sculpture of a man at a desk with a computer, and that sculpture would have had to have been commissioned months and months in advance. In fact, the sculptor himself isa well known guywhose name I forget.
So that information is something that I want to use. I want to use it to introduce the paternity issue, I want to use it because it’s going to pay off in the third act both whenJoanna[Hoffman] is giving a demonstration of his reality distortion field… And the final payoff is that Lisa, who now has Internet access at school, has read it — has read about her father denying that he’s not her father.
So I never worried that what the audience was going to go away with was there were cartons and cartons of Time Magazine backstage at this event. It didn’t seem to be important that the audience gets that right or wrong, that it was a fact of history. It has no negative effect on anyone’s life. You can’t say, who was the idiot who put those cartons of Time Magazine backstage? But that [represented] something truer and I felt this was an interesting way to dramatize it.•
Saul Bass the late, great master of the film-title sequence, didn’t just have a burst of brilliance in the ’50s and ’60s and then fade to black. He still had plenty in reserve when major directors of the next generation who’d grown up on his work, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, came of age and enlisted his talents.
The Art & Science site at Medium has republished part of a 1977 interview Herbert Yager conducted with Bass. The opening:
How did you get involved with movie titles?
I began as a graphic designer. As part of my work, I created film symbols for ad campaigns. I happened to be working on the symbols for Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones and The Man With The Golden Arm and at some point, Otto and I just looked at each other and said, “Why not make it move?”
It was as simple as that.
Until then, titles had tended to be lists of dull credits, mostly ignored, endured, or used as popcorn time.
There seemed to be a real opportunity to use titles in a new way — to actually create a climate for the story that was about to unfold.
When The Man With The Golden Arm opened in New York in 1952, the symbol was used on the marquee, a testimony to the effectiveness in that medium. How did the symbol function when you translated it to film?
The film was about drug addiction. The symbol — the arm — in its jagged form expressed the disjointed, jarring existence of the drug addict.
To the extent that it was an accurate and telling synthesis of the film in the ad campaign, those same qualities came with it into the theater and with the addition of motion and sound it really came alive and set up the mood and texture of the film.
You made the transition from purely graphic devices to live action early in your career. How did the titles from In Harm’s Way and Seconds represent the next evolutionary step?
As I said before, I started in graphics. Then, as you’ve seen, I began to move that graphic image on film. Somewhere down the line, I felt the need to come to grips with the realistic — or live action — image which seemed to me central to the notion of film. And then a whole new world opened to me.•
Netflix is at loggerheads with the movie-theater industry because it’s making its own feature films to be released simultaneously on every screen, from big to pocket-sized. That makes financial sense in the macro, though not for exhibitors who bank on a period of exclusivity.
Even further: As the technology improves, why couldn’t you walk into a store on the day Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released and buy a pair of 3-D or virtual reality or augmented reality glasses preloaded with the film. Or better yet, have permanent headwear and just wirelessly download the film in one of these formats the day it drops. It removes the communal element of filmgoing, but our binging culture has made it clear that not everyone wants that.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this week published an Amazon patent for an odd-sounding pair of augmented reality smart glasses.
The patent explains how the smart glasses might be wired or wirelessly connected to a device such as a tablet and display video or images from that device in front of the wearer’s eyes. Tapping on the tablet, it explains, transitions a surface in the display from opaque to transparent, making it possible to interact with the real world without taking the glasses off.
“On the one hand, a large screen is beneficial for watching movies, playing games and even reading email comfortably,” reads the patent, which was filed in September 2013. “On the other hand, the larger the screen, the bigger the device, which may be less desirable for a light and portable product. Another problem consumers experience with portable devices, like tablet devices, is the lack of ability to immerse themselves in a tablet experience, such as watching a movie on an airplane.”
To wit: Smart glasses that can switch in and out of transparency might offer the best of both words, providing a big and immersive image while not completely isolating their wearers from the rest of the world.•
Say what you will about Bill Simmons, but the guy knows talent, as he abundantly proved when staffing up Grantland, his ESPN pop-culture-and-sports combo, which has gone far deeper in analysis of screen and sound and society than anyone had a right to expect. It’s been feared that an exodus of gifted people would follow his ugly divorce from the company, and that now seems to be the case. Sad, but even before the industry itself became fragile, the dynamic of the masthead always was. Erase the wrong name and others magically disappear.
Alex Pappademas, one the really perceptive critics there, has written about Aaron Sorkin’s new Steve Jobs dreamscape. An excerpt:
In Steve Jobs, Sorkin takes interactions and confrontations that occurred at different points in Jobs’s life, or not at all, and reimagines them as having taken place backstage in the minutes immediately before Jobs unveiled one of three new products — Apple’s Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the original Bondi blue iMac G3 in 1998. (Each sequence gets its own distinct look: grainy/nostalgic 16-millimeter for the Mac, sumptuous 35 for the NeXT, warts-and-all digital for the iMac.) The film’s more-than-a-little-bit cockamamy sub-premise is that on each of these crucially important days, Jobs also found himself scheduled for back-to-back come-to-Jesus meetings with people he’d wronged on his way to the top, including Lisa and her mother, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston); Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, putting deepening wrinkles of hurt in his Fozzie Bear rumble); and the company’s third CEO, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, perfectly wry and wounded).
Sculley shows up as a slayable father figure/level boss in all three chapters, even though in real life he and Jobs rarely spoke after spring 1985, when Jobs fought Sculley for control of Apple’s board and lost. And while Mac marketing guru Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) did follow Jobs from Apple to NeXT and was famously one of the few people who could stand up to him and live to tell the tale, she’d moved on to a position at General Magic and then to retirement by the time the iMac hit. I’m also going to assume Hoffman was more than the sassy-but-supportive Sorkin work-wife figure this movie makes her out to be. Of course, Sorkin has freely admitted that if any of these scenes actually happened the way he’s written them, it’d be news to him — but when you see the movie, chances are you’ll understand exactly why he played so fast and loose with history. By tossing out the biopic beat sheet and zeroing in on the parts of Jobs’s business that most resembled show business, Sorkin has moved Jobs’s story into his own comfort zone. It’s now a three-act backstage-panic comedy/melodrama about a brilliant, work-fixated white guy whose genius far exceeds his emotional intelligence and the people who can’t help but love him anyway.•
Who, after all, was Jerzy Kosinski? I wonder, after a while, if even he knew.
Like a lot of people who move to New York to reinvent themselves, Kosinksi was a tangle of fact and fiction that couldn’t easily be unknotted. He was lauded and reviled, labeled as brilliant and a plagiarist, called fascinating and a fraud. The truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere in between. In essence, he was much like the shadowy, misunderstood, paranoid characters from his own literature. One thing known for sure: He was a tormented soul, who ended his life by suicide in 1991, a plastic bag pulled over his face until he suffocated. He was a regular correspondent of sorts for David Letterman none too long before that. Here he is, in 1984, at the 23:35 mark, talking about overcoming his fear of drowning.
A spate of game-related deaths to high school football players early this season combined with the reported marked decline in youth participation makes me think that Super Bowl C in 2066 will be played, if at all, by robots. (It should be noted that while young people playing football far less is associated with growing knowledge about brain-injury risk, all American youth sports have declined in the time of smartphones.) The game’s partially cloudy tomorrow hasn’t stopped the reporters at Wired and Sports Illustrated from pooling their talents for a mixed-media look at the future of the NFL, wondering what it will be like when America’s most popular single-game sports event reaches the century mark. There are considerations of players using cutting-edge technology, data-driven exercise, even gene editing, though I haven’t yet come across anything on concussion prevention.
Baseball playoff season begins at the same time Henry Kissinger receives a biographical treatment, so here’s a video that mixes those two seemingly disparate subjects.
Like the first President he served, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger became quite a baseball junkie, especially in his post-Washington career. At the 15:40 mark of this episode of The Baseball of World of Joe Garagiola, we see Kissinger, who could only seem competent when standing alongside that block of wood Bowie Kuhn, being honored at Fenway Park before the second game of the sensational 1975 World Series. During the raucous run by the raffish New York Mets in the second half of 1980s, both Nixon and Kissinger became fixtures at Shea Stadium. Nixon was known to send congratulatory personal notes to the players, including Darryl Strawberry. It was criminals rooting for criminals.
A rose is a rose is a rose, but if you purchase an e-book written by Gertrude Stein, it isn’t what it seems.
When we bought literature in paper form, the “hardware” and “software” were ours for as long as we held onto the physical item, but virtual books (and articles, films, etc.) are leasing agreements that depend on all sorts of infrastructure remaining intact. And to quote the title of the most famous book by another author, Chinua Achebe, things fall apart. When the next companies destabilize today’s tech giants, Amazon and Google and Facebook and Apple, will there be a hole in the culture that’s difficult to recover?
From “When Amazon Dies,” an excellent piece on the topic by Adrienne LaFrance at the Atlantic:
Increasingly, the purchase of digital works is treated like the purchase of software, which has gone from something you buy on a disc to something downloadable with an Internet connection. “You might think you’re buying Microsoft Office, but according to your user agreement you’re merely leasing it,” [media studies professor Siva] Vaidhyanathan said. “You can think of music and video as just another form of software. There is a convergence happening.”
That convergence is built for a streaming world, one that’s driven by an expectation of instant gratification. “One of the things we’re doing increasingly is opting for convenience over dependability. And we’re doing it somewhat thoughtlessly,” Vaidhyanathan told me. “We have to recognize that it is temporary. Anything that is centrally collected in a server somewhere on Earth is ephemeral. Even if Amazon doesn’t go out of business in 20 years, Amazon will not exist as we know it in 100 years.”•
Even in the twentieth century, Philippe Petit was living in the wrong time.
The high-wire artist, a Marcel Marceau of mid-air, practiced a timeless art in an age when the clock had ascended, quantifying human activity, eclipsing slow progress. In scaling the Twin Towers, one of the major symbols of what Industrialization had created, he briefly chastened the new reality with his old-world acrobatics, conferring upon it a dignity and romance it hadn’t previously known.
You seem to have an ambivalent relationship with your computer. Inthe book, you call it your “necessary evil tool.”
I hate all electronic things that are supposed to help the human being. You don’t smell, you don’t hear, you don’t touch anymore. All our senses are being controlled. At the same time, I am a total imbecile because to have a little iPhone that can take pictures, that can find the nearest hospital, that can tell you the weather in Jakarta — it’s probably fabulous. I’m supposed to be a man of balance, but my state of mind in those things is very unbalanced. I love or I hate.•
“We observed a type of dancer because you couldn’t call him a walker.”
No contemporary authoritarian ruler would think the Internet an ideal tool for propaganda. For all its deficits, it’s still too anarchic to be controlled. Kim Jong-un, for one, just blocks it. Cinema in another era, however, offered fascists larger-than-life spin-machine opportunities.
From early on, Benito Mussolini, Italy’s vulgar, murderous clown, knew film could be manipulated and controlled in a world of limited home technology. He planned to open a sprawling movie studio in 1937 which was to surpass Hollywood, and like his trains were purported to do, it arrived on time, turning Italy into an insane asylum with a studio system. After Il Duce met the business end of a meat hook atop an Esso gas station and the nation was defeated in WWII, the lots served briefly as a refugee camp. Later, Cinecittà, as it was known, became the backbone of a rebuilt Italy’s film industry, acting as the backdrop to American-produced epics like Ben-Hur as well as numerous Federico Fellini projects.
An article in the April 16, 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle covered the massive studio’s construction, among other things. An excerpt from it is embedded below.
In the era before globalization, I always assumed every Hollywood motion picture was financed by gigantic cocaine deals. Now in a more modern age, I think weapons and human trafficking are also involved.
Where did legendary film producer Dino De Laurentiis get the funding to make his epics? Don’t ask questions, you ask too many questions. In 1976, when the mogul was at the height of his powers, Ralph Novak of Peopleprofiled the cinema King Kong, straining to paint him as something other than completely unethical and unlikable. An excerpt:
Since he moved to the United States in 1973, De Laurentiis, 56, has become Hollywood’s most successful producer, turning out a string of unlikely hits that began with The Valachi Papers and went on to Serpico, Death Wish, Mandingo and Three Days of the Condor.
De Laurentiis recently signed, for films now in progress or soon to begin, an international all-star team of directors that includes Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Miloš Forman. They and a half-dozen less celebrated directors are working with stories on, among other subjects, Buffalo Bill, boxer Jake LaMotta, the disintegration of a marriage and—if De Laurentiis gets some legal problems solved—on a new, improved version of King Kong. The films will feature such marquee names as Liv Ullmann, Paul Newman and Margaux Hemingway, not to mention a mechanical gorilla.
How has he corralled such an array of talent, in the process earning a reputation as “the Godfather of the movie business”? Actor Charles Bronson, who will star in his fourth De Laurentiis film when he finishes the current St. Ives, says, “Because Dino invests so much in material, he’s bound to have some good stories, and stars and directors are attracted by that. But when we come to the selling of a picture, that’s where Dino really shines because he has contacts all over the world. He can pick up the telephone and book pictures even before they’re made—he has such a good reputation for success.”
It is not accompanied by any such reputation for modesty, which is perhaps understandable.
“When I leave Italy it is from zero, to start a new life,” he says, apologizing that he is still “allergic” to English. “Everybody there, they want me to come right back with no money. Now, I’m no star like Redford, who has to be recognized when he walks down the street. But I spend $6 million for properties alone in the last year, and I have only one boss: the audience.”
De Laurentiis says he left Italy because production costs had risen too high, government bureaucracy was interfering too much in the film business, and he was “tired of making movies for Italian taste.” That Italian taste also seemed to be less enchanted with him than it once had been.
After World War II, De Laurentiis rapidly made himself a power in the Italian film industry, turning out financial triumphs that occasionally won over the critics, as in Federico Fellini’s La Strada. In the mid ’50s, however, De Laurentiis split with partner Carlo Ponti and decided to go international and epic at the same time. This led to a mixed bag of florid productions from War and Peace to The Bible and finally to Waterloo, which did about as much for De Laurentiis’ prestige as it had for Napoleon’s.
At his peak in the early ’60s, De Laurentiis built a mammoth, $30 million ultramodern studio just south of Rome, with heavy government financial support. He called it “Dinocittà.” When he was forced out of the studio by business rivals and it was turned into an industrial park, he began to call it “the biggest mistake of my life.” Though he has more than recovered his esteem and fortune in the U.S., De Laurentiis still scowls when Dinocittà is mentioned. He has little else to scowl about.
Even his reputation as a tough, cynical and not hyper-scrupulous man to deal with has been gentled. True, nobody seems quite sure how De Laurentiis finances his projects, using both “private investors” and intricate arrangements with studios. De Laurentiis himself says only, “Good stories are like real estate; if you have them you can always get money.”
Even discounting the fact that for film people De Laurentiis is a potential employer to be cultivated, not cut up, his personality has become the target of relative raves.
Some are restrained. An industry veteran says, “People are surprised, but he’s a gentleman…. Well, anyway, nobody walks around calling him a son of a bitch like they do with a lot of producers.”
Others are enthusiastic, such as author Peter Maas, whose best-sellers The Valachi Papers and Serpico became film hits and whose most recent book, King of the Gypsies, will also become a De Laurentiis movie. “Before I met Dino, everybody I knew in the movie business said he was a crook and told me to stay away from him,” Maas says. “But I’ve found him to be completely honest, straightforward and loyal. He has guts—he produced The Valachi Papers after one studio executive had told my agent he wouldn’t buy the book because he didn’t want to worry that his car was going to blow up when he started it in the morning. And he has a tremendous, little boy enthusiasm for what he’s doing. Nothing turns him on like seeing a long line outside a theater showing one of his movies.”•
I admire Jack Kerouac for not accepting the pretty version of things but could have withstood his self-seriousness, smoking and drinking for about five minutes without screaming. That being said, the embedded 1959 clip of him on Steve Allen’s show is fun. Before reading from On the Road, he defines the word “Beat” as meaning “sympathetic.”
In a 1952 New York Times Magazine piece, “This Is the Beat Generation,” which explained the movement to the masses, John Clellon Holmes also attempted to demystify the term:
Any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding, and yet the generation which went through the last war, or at least could get a drink easily once it was over, seems to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective … The origins of the word “beat” are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself. A man is beat whenever he goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth.•
The Olivier of oral, Harry Reems saw his work on the landmark 1972 skin-flick Deep Throat lead to years of prosecution on obscenity charges. Reems ultimately was victorious, and converted to Christianity in later life. An excerpt from Margalit Fox’s 2013 obituary of him in the New York Times:
Mr. Reems, who began his career in the 1960s as a struggling stage actor, had already made dozens of pornographic films when he starred opposite Ms. Lovelace in Deep Throat.
But where his previous movies were mostly the obscure, short, grainy, plotless stag films known as loops, Deep Throat, which had set design, occasional costumes, dialogue punctuated by borscht-belt humor and an actual plot of sorts, was Cinema.
Mr. Reems played Dr. Young, a physician whose diagnostic brilliance — he locates the rare anatomical quirk that makes Ms. Lovelace’s character vastly prefer oral sex to intercourse — is matched by his capacity for tireless ministration.
“I was always the doctor,” he told New York magazine in 2005, “because I was the one that had an acting background. I would say: ‘You’re having trouble with oral sex? Well, here’s how to do it.’ Cut to a 20-minute oral-sex scene.”•
In 1976, William F. Buckley “welcomes” Reems and his attorney, a wild-haired Alan Dershowitz.
Barbra Streisand chats up Golda Meir in 1978 as part of The Stars Salute Israel at 30, which is amusing, despite the atrocious canned laughter. Probably the best Meir inquisition wasconducted by Oriana Fallaci, who had an affinity for the Israeli leader, who reminded her of her mother, despite not agreeing with all of the Prime Minister’s politics. An excerpt:
Shall we talk about the woman Ben-Gurion called ‘the ablest man in my cabinet?’
That’s one of the legends that have grown up around me. It’s also a legend I’ve always found irritating, though men use it as a great compliment. Is it? I wouldn’t say so. Because what does it really mean? That it’s better to be a man than a woman, a principle on which I don’t agree at all. So here’s what I’d like to say to those who make me such a compliment. And what if Ben-Gurion had said, ‘The men in my cabinet are as able as a woman’? Men always feel so superior. I’ll never forget what happened at a congress of my party in New York in the 1930s. I made a speech and in the audience there was a writer friend of mine. An honest person, a man of great culture and refinement. When it was over he came up to me and exclaimed, ‘Congratulations! You’ve made a wonderful speech! And to think you’re only a woman!’ That’s just what he said in such a spontaneous, instinctive way. It’s a good thing I have a sense of humor….
The Women’s Liberation Movement will like that, Mrs. Meir.
Do you mean those crazy women who burn their bras and go around all disheveled and hate men? They’re crazy. Crazy. But how can one accept such crazy women who think that it’s a misfortune to get pregnant and a disaster to bring children into the world? And when it’s the greatest privilege we women have over men.•
Speaking of the think tank that helped Steven Spielberg create the world of tomorrow for 2002’s Minority Report, Wiredreconvened some of the principals of that very productive two-day retreat to mark the tenth anniversary of the film. It sounds like it was a fascinating experience if a harried and discombobulating one. An excerpt:
Alex McDowell (production designer, Minority Report):
It was two full days at the Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica.
We pretended to be a conference of dental technicians or something boring.
Douglas Coupland (novelist, author of Generation X and Microserfs):
We sat around a big U-shaped table like that scene in 2001 — in that conference room on the moon.
Joel Garreau (principal of consulting firm The Garreau Group, in 1999 a reporter at the Washington Post):
I don’t think many of us knew what the fuck we were getting ourselves into.
Peter Schwartz (futurist, co-founder of scenario-planning firm Global Business Network):
We would ask questions: What about advertising? What about transportation? What about newspapers? What about food?
Stewart Brand (editor of Whole Earth Catalog):
They had graphic artists there who could immediately draw things that were being described.
Harald Belker (automotive designer):
We were supposed to just watch and listen and see what people had to say.
It was a big deal back then to have that real-time feedback.
What about weapons? Surveillance — how did it work? One that moved very quickly was the gesture control of computers. That really began with Jaron. There was pretty quick agreement about what you saw onscreen.
We were doing these glove technologies that could be combined with displays. That was totally commonplace during that time as a demo thing — not as a consumer product. My recollection is that I brought in a working one. I could just pack one in the trunk.
I put together a whole book for it — a 2080 style book. We were told it was 2080, but then it ended up being 2050.•
Ken Kesey knew the truth could kill you just as easily as it could set you free, but he saw no other way. In 1966, the novelist and fellow Merry Prankster Mountain Girl met with the press after an arrest. In defending misfits hectored by police and government for refusing to try to fit in, he paraphrases a line from his novel of two years earlier, Sometimes A Great Notion: “A person should have the right to try to be as big as he believes it is in him to be.”
In 2010, the last year of Benoit Mandelbrot’s life, Errol Morris pointed his Interrotron at the mathematician who recognized patterns in nature that nobody else did and gave us fractals. Morris himself often deals in fractals, chipping away pieces of his subject’s minds that perfectly represent the greater self.
If someone was going to make a feature film about the lurid 2009 true-life story about two mini-luchadore brothers being accidentally drugged to death in Mexico City by female thieves posing as prostitutes, it’s probably good that it’s Arturo Ripstein, who has sociological and psychological curiosity and whose Deep Crimson covered similar terrain. The movie, titled (in English) Bleak Street, screened at Toronto and Venice, and has thus far received mixed reviews.
Alan Whicker’s great 1971 profile of the wet-dream merchant Harold Robbins opens with the trashy author making his way through his childhood neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen, during New York City’s bad old days. Robbins, who was the best-selling novelist in the world at the time as well as a dedicated orgiast, specialized in literature that was most suitable for the beach or masturbation, though preferably not both at the same time.
Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller and writer William Peter Blatty, collaborators on the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist, reconvened in 1984 for Good Morning America. According to legend, Blatty pretended to be an Arabian prince in the 1950s to get booked on the game show You Bet Your Life. He didn’t fool Groucho but did win $10,000, which helped him jump-start his writing career.
Just amazing footage of the late inventor David H. Shepard demonstrating his Optical Character Reader on a 1959 episode of I’ve Got a Secret. From his 2007 New York Times obituary:
David H. Shepard, who in his attic invented one of the first machines that could read, and then, to facilitate its interpreting of credit-card receipts, came up with the near-rectilinear font still used for the cards’ numbers, died on Nov. 24 in San Diego. He was 84. …
Mr. Shepard followed his reading machine, more formally known as an optical-character-recognition device, with one that could listen and talk. It could answer only “yes” or “no,” but each answer led to a deeper level of complexity. A later version could simultaneously handle multiple telephone inquiries. …
In 1964, his “conversation machine” became the first commercial device to give telephone callers access to computer data by means of their own voices. …
Mr. Shepard apologized many times for his major role in forcing people to converse with a machine instead of with a human being.•