Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In Search of . . . DVD Review

From 1976-198 In Search of ran on syndication, a half hour TV documentary exploring various mysteries involving "strange phenomena."  With Leonard Nimoy as host, each show featured expert talking heads, eyewitness testimonies, and even reenactments.  For what it lacked in production value, it did something television should do more of - stimulate the viewer's curiosity.

Many of the shows were unintentionally hilarious. Their "investigation" of the Bermuda Triangle hinged upon an obvious prank call to a radio station.  Many episodes also dealt with ancient civilizations, conspiracy theories surrounding historical conundrums, or New Age trends like talking to plants.  The most informative ones speculated on the future of science and foresaw the coming of cloning and stem cell research.  

Some of the subject matter dates itself.  Remember the coming ice age?  A Killer Bee Invasion from Mexico?  I believe they also predicted a fire ant invasion.  Thankfully we are not having snowstorms in July or living in domes to escape the bees!  NOT YET ANYWAY!!

In Search Of is not only a splendid time capsule of its era, but a forerunner of the future shows like The X Files and the ever popular late night radio show Coast to Coast AM (night owls know what I'm talking about). In its own unique way, In Search of played a crucial role in inventing an entirely new genre of popular culture.

Leonard Nimoy made for the perfect host.  Who better than Mr. Spock guide you through all the strange mysteries?   His calm and detached narration brought calming effect to the program.  

Episodes often weaved between real science with pseudo-science. Each show made it clear the producers were only suggesting solutions, not definitive answers.  Many of the topics still recur on mystery/documentary shows such as UFO's, ancient prophecy, and crypto-biology.  For a sort of cult history of the late 70s and early 80s, In Search of provides plenty of intriguing subject matter.

Thankfully, the show never took itself too seriously.  Usually In Search of gave equal time to believers and skeptics alike.  At the end of the day it was great fun.  Also, there's nothing like the theme music, such sounds could only emanate from 1977.

A brief revival appeared in 2002 on the Sci-Fi channel with Mitch Pileggi as host, those episodes are included in DVD package as well.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Twilight/Maine Circa Early 70s

Remember when you could drive into any old American town and find a tavern with character.  Those places where cigarette smoke oozed out of the walls and almost hypnotized you.  Nowadays every suburban dystopia has the “sport bar,” typically frequented by yuppies who scarf down chicken wings and guzzle beer as they endlessly discuss . . . sports.  Such establishments have all the appeal of a concentration camp. Thank God I lived through the 1970s before the Molochs of consumerism devoured everything of value.
Autumn evenings in Maine behoove one to get drunk and pontificate late into the night on obscure subjects.  My kind of place.
As I drove into a small town somewhere around Bangor, I noticed a watering hole on the corner with neon sign blinking WERE TOWARD ETERNITY.  Inside a collage of tables with four chairs and a bar.  Pall Malls dominated the air.   Like most taverns in New England the walls were covered with Red Sox memorabilia and snapshots of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski.  Pictures of writers everywhere.  American literature pulsated from the anxious New England mind - Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Longfellow, Dickinson - those exotic temperaments of the WASP persuasion.  A quote from Emerson, hung on the wall in gothic script, “All life is an experiment.  The more experiments you make the better.”  My kind of place.
I grabbed a stool beside two young men with long hair and coke bottle glasses.  They were having an intense discussion about Night of the Living Dead.  
. . . .”Romero made the film of the 60s man.  Social breakdown.  People literally eating each other to death - having their babies for breakfast - that’s where it’s going man!”
His friend replied, “Whatever you say Steve.  You need to slow down on the ale buddy.  I'm going home.”
“Come on man, it‘s Friday night.”
“Your better get home to your wife Steve.”
“Don’t worry, she likes her alone time.”
I sat down beside the boisterous guy, “Sounds like you're a horror fan?”
He looked at me with amusement, “That’s right, we got nothing better to do up here. The isolation can induce a little madness now and then.”
He offered his hand, "Steve King, nice to meet you man."
"Good to meet you. I'm Henry."
“So Henry, what are you doing in Maine if I may ask?”
“I’m scouting some locations for a movie.  But I love coming here, I’m from Boston, but live in L.A. now. I'm scouting locations, mostly of old haunted houses for a movie. I love being here - feels like home."
His face lit up, 'That's really cool man!"
“Let me buy you a beer. What do you do for a living?”
“I teach High School English."
“What's that like?"
“Well, the kids are cool for the most part.  But the hours suck and the job takes up all my time.  Man, it’s hard to find the time to write!”
“So, you want to write horror?”
"It's my favorite genre, some of the best writing of the 20th century came from horror- Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury - those are the writers I admire."
"What drew you to horror?"
A darkness came across his face: “Goes back to my childhood.  One day I saw a kid get run over by a train.”
He flashed  a deadpan look directly into my eye and then laughed.
“Just joking, if I ever get famous that’s what I’m going to tell people.  Because if you write horror, they always want to know what fucked you up as a kid.”
I laughed as well.  We watched the World Series with some interest, the A’s and the Reds.  Catfish Hunter threw a masterpiece that night.  He went on about his college experience with the professors.
“- No seriously man, in college they throw all that serious literature at you.  The professors have fascist tendencies when it comes to what counts as literature.  No respect for pop culture.   But it’s the wave of the future man - Psycho proved it.”
“Right, Hitchcock took a pulpy novel and made it into high art.”
The bartender came over and I ordered another round.  
I could tell he liked an audience; he possessed an infectious enthusiasm.  “We’re a pop culture nation now.  The professors don’t get that.  The generation that grew up on television is now coming of age.”
“Harlan Ellison thinks we're going down the tubes.  We’re all slaves to the Glass Teat.”
“Maybe, maybe not. I'm more optimistic.”
I replied, “As times get crazier will get more popular.  People love the idea of paying for their scares.”
“I suppose so man, that's a good point.”
The jukebox played “96 Tears” by ? And the Mysterians.
“So, who are you going to vote for - Nixon or McGovern?”
“Let me tell you something man, I used to be as conservative as they come.  Hell, I drove into college with a Goldwater sticker on my car’s bumper.  I changed - I went to the barricades in 1968 and got gassed by the Chicago PD.”
“So, McGovern, I presume.”
“You got it, he's the last decent man in politics.”
I agreed, “Nixon’s taking us to a dark place - the time seems perfect for someone like him.”
“I know man. America is built on corruption, but we're in a whole new thing now. Calling it corruption is way too easy, it's something worse than corruption. We don't have a vocabulary for it yet - whatever "they" are up to.  That‘s what I want my fiction to explore.  But hey man, it’s a beautiful fall night. Why go there?"
‘You’re right, but back to your point about pop culture.  I think some of the answers might be in the White Album."
Intrigued, he asked,“I hear you man, but how so?”
“Think about the mayhem in the music and all the mayhem it created.”
“You’re referring to the Manson family.”
“Not just that - any type of art which inspires a bunch of crazies must have something to it.”
Now on beer #8 at least, he looked at me thoughtfully: “It is something.  All the influence they had - there's something biblical about them."
We continued drinking as we watched the A's beat the Reds. Everyone started to clear out.
"Need a ride?"
"That would be great!"
Before getting into the car I asked him, “Before you go home - want to experience something truly frightening.”
He chuckled, “Come on, how could you frighten me?"
“Come with me. I can make it happen.”
“Where did the train hit the kid?”
“Are you serious, I was messing with you.”
“Sure you were.”
I perceived a fear in the young man’s eyes, he looked at me as if I was otherworldly.
“Ok man, I'll show you."
About three miles outside of town on country road we pulled off the road, “Come on man, this is where it’s at.  We’re gonna have to walk the rest of the way.”
The night had turned cold.  I could see my own breath.  The trees grew thicker; the moonlight glowed.  We arrived at a clearing in the woods and railroad tracks loomed in the distance.
“Are those tracks still in service?”  I asked.
“Nope they stopped a few years ago.  Some claim they hear them - phantom engines I suppose.”
“Is this where it happened?”
He shivered as he spoke, “To the best of my knowledge.  This is it.  I was maybe six or seven years old. We were just here playing hide and go seek in the woods.  Suddenly, there was a horrible bang and then a silence. I caught a glimpse of the remains.  It was awful.”
He paused and continued to speak in a lower tone:  
“The image of something alive and vibrant transforming into something inhuman and ghastly remains the ultimate horror we cannot escape."
I stood there in silence with him, lost in the past. Finally, he spoke like Nicholson in The Last Detail,  “Well, there man, you’ve seen it.  Let's get the fuck out of here!”
Before I answered a sudden gust of howling wind and the unmistakable sound of a train whistle. Then an animal like scream, possibly what a banshee sounds like.
We hurried back to the car.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Crime Story: Epic 1980s Televison

Winter's the right time to revisit Crime Story, a time capsule of 1980s TV.  Before Michael Mann became a big time Hollywood director of movies like The Insider and Heat, he created two iconic TV shows during the 80s, the wildly popular Miami Vice and the lesser known Cult series Crime Story. While Crime Story never quite transcended the limitations of network TV, its pulpy, neo-noir style, propelled by Del Shannon's "Runaway," had atmosphere and style.

Starring Dennis Farina (Mike Torello), a real life Chicago police officer turned actor, as captain of the Chicago PD organized crime unit. Imagine a Popeye Doyle with a heart and moral compass.  Set in 1963, Torello and his crew are in an all out battle for the streets of Chicago with organized crime, personified by Ray Luca (Anthony Denison).  Luca began the show as a low level operator who had a meteoric rise into the upper echelon of a major crime syndicate setting its sights on Las Vegas.  Denison brought a silent menace and a comical wit to Luca.  John Santucci added comic relief as Luca's sidekick Paulie. 

Midway through season one the scene shifted to Las Vegas as  leaders of the organized crime syndicate have chosen Luca as their point man in taking over Las Vegas.  Torello and his crew follow in pursuit. The new setting allowed the story to go in more interesting directions exploring the military-industrial complex of the American West.  The political and social forces of the Cold War often obstructed Torello's quest for justice.

Unfortunately, Crime Story began to falter during the second season.  Too many stand alone episodes about the culture of Las Vegas stole the focus from the Torello-Luca conflict. A lack of character development and lack of compelling female characters both hindered the show as well.

Despite its limitations, there are many reasons to revisit Crime Story.  The look and feel of the show channeled the mid- 60s.  The music, fashion, dialogue, and cultural references all exude a cool authenticity  Also, Crime Story proved a showcase for up and coming actors including Julia Roberts, Gary Sinise, and Kevin Spacey to just mention a few. Andrew Dice Clay appeared in several episodes as Luca's partner in crime.  Joseph Wiseman, who played the original Bond villain Dr. No, is brilliant as the elder syndicate leader who mentors Luca. 

Many have credited Crime Story as an influence over serial shows like The Wire and Homeland.  Mann envisioned an epic story designed to unfold like a novel over several years. Unfortunately Crime Story arrived too early, yet left its own mark etched in neon lights and jukebox music.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House

Peter Baker's balanced history of the Bush years (2001-2009) recalls all those great journalistic "you are there" accounts of the presidency from yesteryear.  Baker contends Cheney's influence in the White House never had the cache the media placed upon it.  Most of the book deals with the aftermath of 9/11: a life changing day for Bush and one of grim determination for Cheney.  For what it lacks in historical perspective, Days of Fire explains with painstaking detail the inner workings of the Bush years although some crucial questions go unanswered.

Baker begins the book with a parallel biography of Bush and Cheney before they joined forces in the 2000 campaign.  A native of Wyoming, Cheney flunked out of Yale briefly worked as lineman for the electric company.  Like Bush, he enjoyed drinking, cleaned up his act, and dived into politics.  A protege of Donald Rumsfeld, hawkish Cold Warrior with presidential ambitions, Cheney rose quickly in the post-Watergate Ford administration.  A ruthless bureaucratic warrior, Cheney knew how to stifle dissent in the ranks.  During the Bush 41 administration he ran the defense department and oversaw the first Gulf War.  He opposed marching into Baghdad fearing it would create chaos in the Middle East.

Cheney's grim determination rattle America's saber at any country wore thin. He imagined himself as an American Churchill, evidenced by his personal library.  But Churchill knew about war at firsthand. Would Cheney have thought differently if he had been in the military?

Bush's path to the White House can be read as a natural outcome or a historical fluke.  The son of a President from a powerful political family rooted in the Eastern Establishment, the last name Bush carried weight among the power brokers.  Up until age 40, Bush worked for his father and dabbled in the oil business. He built his reputation as the popular owner of the Texas Rangers and defeated a popular incumbent governor. Bush popularized the term compassionate conservatism, a series of initiatives encouraging the private sector to bring about reforms in education and poverty.  Unlike his father, he declared himself a born again Christian and had a distaste for Washington politics.

Baker provides a dramatic account of September 11, 2001.  Bush appeared confused and indecisive at first, but regained his footing.  Cheney immediately set his sights on Iraq, convinced they were building nuclear weapons.  The war cabinet unleashed the CIA and pursued a policy of no quarter when it came to terrorism.  The initial invasion of Afghanistan went smoother than planned despite their failure to capture Bin Laden.  Meanwhile the administration passed the Patriot Act, a reversion to the bad old days where any form of dissent spelled social ostracism, even more ominous in age resembling 1984.

Baker never provides a satisfactory answer as to why Bush and Cheney decided to invade Iraq.  To a thinking observer, linking Iraq to 9/11 made no sense. Did Bush have a personal vendetta against Saddam?  A drive to right his father's mistakes? Isn't this armchair psychology?  Does history hinge on such interpersonal minutia?  Maybe?  

The immediate justification, to prevent the regime from attaining "weapons of mass destruction", came back to haunt them.  Were larger issues of geopolitics involved?  Great game diplomacy?  Later on, the administration's rhetoric linked the war to spreading democracy in the Middle East. Whatever the logic that went into their decision, the consequences were grave.

After Bush won reelection in 2004, Cheney's influence declined significantly. Condoleezza Rice, always close to Bush, took a more moderate approach to foreign policy.  The second term saw one disaster after another as Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, Hurricane Katrina, a more aggressive Russia, and the 2008 economic collapse.  

Bush admitted to feeling emotionally drained by the end.  Who can blame him?  In his final week in the office, Cheney requested a pardon for former aide "Scooter" Libby. Bush refused.  The image of Cheney groveling to his boss reads like something in The Godfather - Tessio begging Mike for one more favor before going to the chopping block.

Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days on JFK emphasized heroism and political leadership, I miss those types of histories.  Accounts of Bush and Cheney (and their successors) will focus on their corporate mindsets and overblown rhetoric of 2002-03.  But I digress, whether you agree or disagree, Days of Fire will shed light on Bush/Cheney years.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

What We Talk About, When We Talk About Pynchon . . . Marc Maron and Paul Thomas Anderson

This past week filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson sat down for a fascinating two hour interview on WTF with Marc Maron.  While they discussed the many highlights of Anderson's career such as the making of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, they also shuffled around the subject of Thomas Pynchon.  For Anderson has directed the first ever adaptation of a Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice, which has gone into wide release this week.

Of all modern writers, Pynchon holds a special mystique.  Few photographs exist of him and he's never granted an interview or made a public appearance.  Nevertheless, his fiction has made a profound mark on the culture.  Every novel is a fun house maze where no one is who they appear to be.  Full of oddball humor and allusions to every subject imaginable, they stare directly into the abyss of "the system."

I recall reading The Crying of Lot 49 sometime after college.  It left a vivid impression. Where does one even go for an analogy?  Imagine a Twilight Zone story concocted by David Lynch done with the elan of a Chaplin film.  

I've made several failed attempts at Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon's 1973 novel of 700+ pages on rockets, mind control, twisted Nazis and many, many other things.  I shouldn't feel too bad, Anderson also admitted to having been unable to finish Gravity's Rainbow, although he has expressed interest in adapting the impossible novel to the screen.  

Later I moved on to his debut novel V, a hypnotic tale about randomness and history, a bit of Jack Kerouac and Graham Greene. Pynchon's short story collection, Slow Learner, would be a great staring point for anyone new to his work.  The story, "Entropy," seems a blueprint for the future novels.  

Pynchon took a hiatus from publishing novels between 1973-90 and reemerged with Vineland, a California novel set in the mid 80s pitting an aging hippy against a sadistic FBI agent.  I've yet to read the recent novels: Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, Inherent Vice, and Bleeding Edge.   

Therefore the release of Inherent Vice is something of an event. When Maron pressed Anderson on whether Pynchon took part in pre-production, he refused to answer with any specificity, "I can't be honest on that question."  When queried on what Inherent Vice is about, Anderson replied, "It's about Pynchon."

So, what do we talk about, when we talk about Pynchon?  Maron summed it as follows: the politics of drugs, the end of the 60s, politics of subversion, the stakes of being a provocateur and the fate of a sell out.  And finally to the question: What is reality anyway? And does it matter in the end?

Maron asked Anderson on whether he's got a response from Pynchon and he sheepishly replied, "I'm waiting on the call."  Anderson then spoke of their being "a weird agreement between them."  To which Maron interjected, "You've become a Pynchon character!"

Maron brought the right attitude to the interview.  Anderson is arguably the best director of his generation and their discussion gave insight into his creative process. I look forward to reading and watching Inherent Vice.

Anderson also talked about having David Foster Wallace as an English teacher at Emerson College back in the 80s.  Coincidentally, Wallace also held Pynchon in high regard. Anderson recalled Wallace being the one teacher he admired and calling him up one night to discuss Don Delillo's novel White Noise.  Another Pynchonian moment!

We now live (or maybe it's always been like this) in a Pynchon world. The year 2015 is the right time, maybe the only time, his work will grace the big screen.  Our brave new world, ever more reliant on technology, paradoxically connects us all, and yet leaves so many feeling disconnected.  And the paradoxes just keep piling up.  Meanwhile unseen chaos happens in the shadows.  And meanwhile . . . A Screaming Across the Sky
Thomas Pynchon once appeared on The Simpsons.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: A Yuppie Epic

Franzen's artfully structured novel traces the varying fortunes of the Berglund's, a Midwestern family adrift in 21st century America.  Be cautioned, his characters are unlikable.  Neither are they dull. Franzen's hard on them and lets the reader into deepest parts of their psyches.

Walter Berglund, the family's patriarch, works as a lawyer in Minneapolis.  He gave up his film making aspirations in favor of the law.  Walter wants to educate the masses on overpopulation and raise the perfect family.  His wife Patty, former basketball star at the University of Minnesota, settles uneasily into her role as wife and mother.  

I found Patty to be the most sympathetic character.  On the surface she is a typical suburban wife you see jogging on the sidewalk.  Through flashbacks, the reader learns about the unspoken pressures placed on her, usually by the men in her life. Her choices and actions drive much of the novel.

As liberal parents Walter and Patty are troubled by their son Joey, who loves capitalism with fervent passion.  Joey's qualities are like the boomer's worst nightmare of a millennial: a freakish confidence, tech savvy, in love with money, basically a smug asshole.  He makes a fortune though selling defective equipment to the army, but he made a profit and that's all that matters.  Right?  

Richard Katz, Walter's best friend from college, is a middling punk rocker who finally hits the big time in the 2000s.  Richard serves as Franzen's sardonic mouthpiece on American pop culture.  Of all the characters, I found Walter the most interesting, but hardly sympathetic.  Possibly Franzen's alter ego?  Don't miss the passage when Richard attends an Indie Rock concert- which he views as an orgy of young white conformity, united by their passionate (and sophisticated) consumerism and ironic detachment about it all.  

Ideas, specifically ideas about freedom, are the crucial theme.  How should one take advantage of their freedom?  Such dilemmas can wreak havoc, one at the heart of the American experience I suppose?  What happens when your own idea of freedom clashes with others ideas of freedom?  It never ends well.  Sections dealing with fracking, overpopulation, the war in Iraq, terrorism all tie into the FREEDOM theme.

Franzen paints wonderful portraits.  He's often criticized for writing only about rich white people (yuppies). I get it, his Midwest is foreign to my own experience.  But whether you're writing about Chinese peasants in the 17th century, Welsh coal miners in the 1930s, or Brazilian truck drivers in the 1950s - well drawn characters and a story can make all the difference - regardless of class and social setting.

To be honest, I probably skimmed the last 100 pages, I'd had enough of the Berglunds by that point.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

New History Wars in Colorado

Over the past two weeks High School students in Littleton, Colorado have protested the School Board's attempt to revise changes made to the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum. The new curriculum questions the traditional narrative common in textbooks with titles like, "The March of Freedom."  Conservatives see the new material as being too "negative" with units on slavery, oppression of women, the displacement of Native Americans, robber barons, Hiroshima, Vietnam, the disco era etc . . They favor content with a triumphant narrative emphasizing the genius of a free market system, glorious military victories, and "respect for authority."

Battles over history are nothing new. The culture wars of the 1990s came to a fever pitch in 1992 over the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America. The once gallant explorer suddenly found himself reduced to an amoral opportunist who introduced genocide, disease, and racism to the New World. Battle lines were drawn. Nowadays, Columbus Day looms as a day of trendy moral outrage and social awkwardness.

Most historians now recognize grand narratives of the past exist only in the imagination of the historian who writes them. You get a version of the truth, but nothing close to "the truth."  Therefore, the teaching of history has evolved into a maze of contradictions and red herrings. Since the 19th century, historians of all stripes have used history to advance political agendas and therein lies the anxiety in this debate.

The fear of indoctrination drives conservative advocates crazy. They suspect a “Progressive” agenda to brainwash students into believing the government is the answer to every social ill. Sure, a curriculum exploring negative aspects of history could lead to a political awakening. But a new generation of bleeding heart lefties? It’s no more indoctrinating than fiercely pro-capitalist, Reagan worshiping material that glosses over the difficult questions.

As Joyce's alter ego Stephen Dedalus observed, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." I partly agree. To explore the past takes fortitude and an open mind. But don’t fall into despair like Stephen. I applaud the students of Jefferson County taking a stand against a sanitized history curriculum. I would also tell them, don't rely too much on "the system" to set the record straight on the past. Go out and read a few history books on your own. Travel to a historical site. Ask a living person about a historical event.  Get diverse points of view.  And finally, realize history is part of the path to self-knowledge.