Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Book Review: Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad

A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, is a well detailed and no holds barred history of the early years of SNL.  The bulk of the book covers the first five seasons with the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players", with a few chapters on the 1980s and the rise of Eddie Murphy.

For American television in the 1970s, Saturday Night Live signaled a new era.  TV comedy appealed mostly to a middle aged audience with humor from a bygone era.  There were precursors to SNL such as The Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In.  In England, Monty Python set the template for SNL: witty and irreverent. 

Lorne Michaels, a comedy writer and producer from Canada envisioned a Saturday night TV show to reflect the counterculture ethos: confrontational, irreverent, loud, taking on the powers that be.  In the mid 70s, Saturday night remained a dead zone of reruns and old movies.  

Saturday Night Live debuted on October, 11 1975 with George Carlin hosting.  While the first show looks unremarkable in retrospect, it did set the tone for what was to come.  Unable to perform in skits, Carlin performed his stand up material.  One routine mocked the idea of God, setting network executives through the roof.  The opening sketch with Belushi and Michael O'Donoghue set the tone.


The first season of SNL could very well be the best.  Chevy Chase dominated the season.  A veteran of National Lampoon, a syndicated radio show and magazine, Chase epitomized their fratboy/political humor the show continues to this day.  Chase portrayed President Gerald Ford as a clueless klutz who fell down all time may have tipped the scales in favor of Jimmy Carter.

When Hollywood came calling Chase left midway through the second season.  And the show evolved into something else entirely.

John Belushi, long resentful of Chase's success (envy and jealousy plagued SNL), proved the most funniest and unpredictable cast member with countless classic skits that still hold up, my favorite is the "no coke, pepsi skit" set in a deli.  A Jekyll and Hyde personality, Belushi had the reputation of blowing up at anyone without notice (and would usually immediately apologize).  As his star rose after the Box Office smash of Animal House, his drug use and erratic behavior increased, often too drunk or high to perform on live television, but even in his inebriated state he was electric.


Dan Aykroyd, according to Eric Idle was the only SNL member who could've made it as a Python, proved the most dynamic writer and performer. A mysterious character who believed in the supernatural and UFOs seemed an enigma to many on the show.  He found a soulmate in Belushi. They created the Blues Brothers together which turned into a hit film.  

Bill Murray replaced Chevy Chase and seemed the most unlikely of all to have the most successful movie career.  A native of Chicago, Murray was a working class tough from Chicago who liked to start fist fights. When Belushi and Aykroyd left the show, Murray had to carry their weight.  He went on to a successful movie career with Stripes and Ghostbusters and in recent years reinvented himself as a hipster deity.


The female members of the original cast typically had to step aside for the guys.  Gilda Radner created many memorable characters, including "The Nerds." Lorraine Newman's refusal to do recurring characters and instead be a chameleon by playing all sorts of roles. Jane Curtain, known for distancing herself from the rest of the cast, basically saw SNL as just another job.  Her rivalry with Belushi often veered from friendly to hostile.  

The 80s proved a shaky decade.  Only when Eddie Murphy came along did the show find its footing.  Murphy's work on the show remains unsurpassed: pure comedic genius.


At the heart of SNL is a drama of excess, ego, addiction, rivalry and creativity.  Drug humor proved a big part of the early years and it's well known most of the cast partook in the drug of the era - cocaine. The untimely death of Belushi at age 33 seemed an indictment of 70s and 80s show business culture above all else.

For anyone looking for a definitive account of the early years of SNL, this is the book to read.  

Also, see Live From New York by Tom Shales to hear from the actual players themselves.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Coast to Coast AM With George Noory or On Being a Night Owl

For night owls like myself staying up late instills some notion of freedom: everyone else is asleep, but I'm wide awake.  Lucky me.  Everything gets peaceful and quiet. The world slows down.  Thoughts find some lucidity.

Most people I know are morning people who enjoy getting up early and living a normal time span.  At times I envy those who wake up and go to bed with the sun.  Nothing like an even pitched flow to the day.

At other times I'm so glad to be a night person and feel sorry for those who miss out on the excitement of staying up late. 

Movies play differently late at night.

Same goes for music.

And youtube - go down the rabbit hole and see where it leads you.

Then there is Coast to Coast with George Noory, an AM radio show that airs from 1am-5am.  Started by the mysterious Art Bell in the 1990s, the long running show routinely discussed UFOs and other conspiracy theories, a sort of extension of pre-millennial X-Files paranoia.

George Noory took over in 2003 and expanded the audience of Coast to Coast. A native of Detroit, Noory brought years of experience in radio and TV to the show. Noory's topics are a dizzying variety ranging from witches and demons among us, earth changes, shadow governments, shadow people, secret moon bases, secret societies, historical mysteries, cyrpto-zoology, hollow earth, Illuminati . . . 

On Friday nights Noory still devotes 2-3 hours of "Open Lines" when he takes calls on any subject. Over the years some of the calls stand out: a man claiming his entire family were werewolves, a philosopher who specialized in mirrors, terrifying ghost stories, even some moving personal stories of redemption.  Stuff no one can make up.  For years a supposed Christian fundamentalist known as J.C. would sometimes call in and go on hilarious rants on America's moral decay (I always figured J.C. was a fictional character).

I don't tune in as much as I did back in the mid 2000s.  Maybe the show's lost some luster. Conspiracy theories and the paranormal are cliche in the even more absurd world of social media where everyone can take part in the insanity.

So if you ever have some insomnia and tune in and join the party . . .

Late Night Radio Play List

"Chase" by  Giorgio Moroder
"Escape from New York" by John Carpenter
"Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones
"Roadrunner" by The Modern Lovers
"96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians
"The Party" by St. Vincent
"Subterranean Homesick Alien"  by Radiohead
"The Midnight Special"  by Creedence Clearwater Revival
"People Are Strange" by The Doors
"Nobody Told Me" by John Lennon
"Hangin' Party" by The Replacements
"Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd
"Shouldn't Be Ashamed" by Wilco
"Late Night Radio" by David Gray




Thursday, November 26, 2015

Book Review: Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Sometimes reading a novel is not unlike getting a root canal. You know when the dentist comes in and provides the Novocaine and makes idle chit chat and you start to feel relaxed. The same with Purity, the first 80 pages are tolerable, I came to like Pip and her squatter mates. Then all the drilling starts, the pressure and loud noises start to irritate, and you would do anything to get the hell out of that chair. Once the scene shifts to East Germany and the dreadful Mr. Wolf shows up we are suddenly in a third rate Bergman film. And it goes downhill from there. It's like being trapped on an elevator with the most dreadful people on the planet. In Franzen's universe Mommies are the root cause of all evil. Franzen writes nice prose and does have his moments, but I don't get all the hype. Many modern writers are engaging with history, gender, economics, and class in more interesting ways than Franzen, Marlon James being one example. Let's be honest, he writes for the New Yorker crowd. Nuff Said.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Concert Review: Dead & Company at The Nationwide Arena 11-13-15

After their triumphant final concerts at Soldier Field over the summer, three original members of the Grateful Dead have teamed up with John Mayer for a late autumn tour. Last Saturday they performed for over three hours before a capacity crowd at the Nationwide Center in Columbus - putting out good vibes for everyone involved.

Saturday night was my first experience with The Dead.  While I've come to respect their music and especially enjoyed their two epochal albums from the early 70s, American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, I never got the live experience.  

Grateful Dead concerts consist of extended jam sessions spanning a wide array of genres ranging from jazz, blues, country, and many more.

With Bob Weir and John Mayer on guitars and lead vocals, the night opened with Weir briefly acknowledging the tragic events that took place in Paris. 

The show began with a rollicking version of "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo."  The first set emphasized the blues, including a cover of the Willie Dixon classic, "Little Red Rooster."

Seated way at the top of the venue I got a panorama of the crowd jubilantly grooving to the music.  The spirit of the 60s made its presence known. I write that with no irony, the notion that music can bring community and transcendence was evident throughout.

After an intermission, the second set featured extended jams with "China Cut Sunflower" and "Eyes of the World." The most poignant moment for myself was a beautiful version of "Black Peter" from Workingman's Dead.

After an exuberant cover of "Good Lovin" by The Young Rascals, the band capped the evening with "Touch of Grey", a surprise hit for The Grateful Dead back in the 80s.

I found the concert exhilarating, relentless, uplifting. A truly unique experience. All the musicians were clearly having fun and playing in perfect harmony. Mayer's excellent guitar playing skills and Weir's passionate vocals made for a great combination.  

These shows are a must see for any devotee of rock and roll or for anyone looking for an introduction to discover what it's all about.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Concert Review: Wilco at IU Auditorium, 9-25-15

Coming off the heels of their summer release Star Wars, Wilco's taken to the road for a September tour.  I recently caught them at the IU Auditorium in Bloomington, Indiana.

In the past several years Wilco's continued to expand their audience and gain critical acclaim as the quintessential American rock band.  While Jeff Tweedy and his band always give their all for live shows, recently I felt they were getting predictable. But last Friday they sounded revitalized and even offered a few surprises.

The show consisted of three movements.  They entered the stage with a vintage 70s light show behind them and went on to play Star Wars straight through.  Jeff Tweedy and company whizzed through the ever changing styles of Star Wars ranging from Lennonesque pop to New Wave grandeur. 



During the second phase of the show they played straight up versions of their older material, showcasing the breadth of their catalog.  Lead guitarist Nels Cline really took over with virtuoso playing on many of the songs including "Impossible Germany" "Hummingbird" and "Either Way."  Two of their signature songs "Via Chicago" and "Handshake Drugs" were also highlights.

The last and most satisfying part of the concert consisted of an impromptu unplugged performance. With Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt on acoustic guitar, Nels Cline on steel guitar, Mikael Jorgensen on piano, Pat Sansone on banjo, and Glenn Kotche on percussion, Wilco performed "Misunderstood" "Bull Black Nova" "Jesus Ect.." "California Stars" and "A Shot in the Arm."  Thus ending the concert on a poignant note.

Tweedy now takes on a Neil Young stage persona: unassuming, determined, the occasional dry joke. Allowing his band to showcase themselves more prominently seems a step in the right direction.  

Over 20 years ago Wilco released their debut album A.M. and they show no signs of settling into an oldies act.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle imagines a culture moving towards "total transparency" where everyone can be held accountable when "The Circle" is complete."  A massive social network of the near future, the visionaries at The Circle believe democracy will only work when everyone knows what everyone else is doing.  Drawing upon Orwell's 1984, Eggers refashioned the allegory for the 21st century.

The novel's protagonist Mae Holland, an ambitious twenty-four year old who scores a job at the famous tech company because her best friend Annie is part of the "Gang of 40" who run the company.  They created "TruYou" a social networking site that overthrew Facebook and Google.  "TruYou" is a catch all network where anyone can conduct business, communicate by any means, document every moment of their lives.

The "visionaries" at The Circle aim for a world where privacy is considerd immoral: parents must implant chips in their children, place cameras in their homes to prevent domestic violence, all voting will be online (oddly politicians who oppose them often end up ruined by scandal). Meanwhile, Mae rises quickly with her plucky charm and "awesome" customer service skills.


Eggers is especially scathing on the "workplace culture" of social media companies: Utopian on the surface; cultish on closer scrutiny. Employees receive every perk imaginable; their masters are always watching.


It's a totalitarianism (is the term too 20th century?) with a smiley face. As the book unfolds the Gang of 40's ambitions grow increasingly ominous, suggesting their power will know no limits.  Big Brother may return as Ronald McDonald or some trendy meme.

Eggers also takes aim at the idea everything can be quantified. The Circle believes they can reduce everyone's self-worth to a number (real life recently imitated art with August NY Times story on the Social Darwinist culture at Amazon).  Every aspect of a person's life can be rated.  I imagine Patrick McGoohan screaming at No. 2 "I AM NOT A NUMBER, I"M A FREE MAN!"

Mae makes for a weak protagonist because she never questions anything. Perhaps that's the point. She's silent when her best friend Annie is victimized by the company. She rationalizes their passive-aggressive bullying tactics, just wanting to follow orders and please her bosses. We've seen that before.

What makes novel so creepy is the idea of dissent is repugnant at The Circle: They got the algorithms to prove you wrong.

The Circle is a wicked satire in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review:The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski

While many books are out there on the making of Star Wars, few deal with how the story itself evolved over time.  The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski fills the gap. Kaminski synthesized a wealth of secondary sources to unravel how Lucas developed the films.

Why did Lucas decide to go ahead and write Star Wars at the height of the New Hollywood era of the 70s?

From the inception of his career Lucas dreamed of crafting an epic space adventure in the spirit of the Flash Gordon serials.  Unlike his peers in the New Hollywood of the 70s, Lucas wanted to write a story for older children that would examine universal themes. But he was hardly alone, many filmmakers in the 70s had aspirations to make a Sci-Fi epic, the most famous case being Chilean director's Alejandro Jodorowsky's plans to adapt Dune to the screen.

What literary and film influences went into the original screenplay?

Quite a few influences went into the original film.  Lucas read comic books, fairy tales, and primers on world mythology.  A devotee of Akira Kurosawa's cinema, films like The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress were direct inspirations as well, he loved the idea of thrusting movie goers into an unfamiliar culture and forcing them to learn as they watched. Fantasy novels also shaped the story, especially J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert's Dune.  A blending of Western and Eastern spirituality are all over the original films as well.

Did Lucas write the initial script and then decide to slice it into six separate movies.


Not really, despite his statements in several interviews.  Lucas wrote four scripts from 1973-76 and Kaminski traces their evolution in meticulous detail.  While the ideas in those early drafts appeared in later films, there was hardly enough material for six movies. Each film to follow Star Wars: A New Hope were all written with no more than a rough outline. Typically Lucas would write a draft and then hand it over to another writer to polish, as in the case of the The Empire Strikes Back when he hired Leigh Bracket and later Lawrence Kasdan to work his outlines into a coherent script.

Did Lucas initially plan to make 9 films?

After Star Wars became a Box Office juggernaut, Lucas often spoke of plans to make nine films.  However, if you go back and watch Star Wars: A New Hope it pretty much works as a stand alone story.  The original opening crawl simply said Star Wars, the "Episode IV" appeared in later editions. Lucas briefly considered selling the sequel rights and going back to making low budget personal films, but got caught up in the mania surrounding Star Wars and decided to make the sequels.  By the time The Return of the Jedi came out in 1983 he was exhausted and went into temporary retirement, thus putting Star Wars on the shelf for over a decade. When Lucas returned to make the prequels (Episodes 1,2,3) in the 1990s he dismissed the idea of a sequel trilogy (Episodes 7,8,9), although Kaminski claims at one time Lucas probably did have nine films in mind.*

So there was no master plan, the entire saga was written on the fly?

For the most part. For example Darth Vader, who appears as a henchman for the Empire in A New Hope, gradually evolved into the central character of the saga.  When it came time to write The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas realized the film needed a stronger ending so he decided to make Darth Vader the father of Luke Skywalker, although this was never part of the original story.  The same goes for the controversial decision to make Luke and Leia brother and sister.


Why has Lucas made so many contradicting statements over the years?

Up until the 70s, the idea of telling a singular story through many films went against Hollywood convention.  Francis Ford Coppola's  The Godfather Part II changed the rules, proving audiences were open to the idea of one story being told through multiple movies. Kaminski gets very critical towards Lucas because of his contradicting statements over the years, but they should be taken in their proper context - in the 70s sequels were a relatively new innovation.  Unlike today when Marvel plans 10-15 years into the future to make their films, Lucas literally had to put everything on the line with each new Star Wars film since he was working in a completely different business model, basically financing the films on his own while over seeing all aspects of production.  

What can we expect in the the new trilogy?

All speculation at this point.  To paraphrase what Lucas once said: the first trilogy would deal with the rise and fall of empires, the next would focus on the journey from childhood to adulthood, and the last would focus on questions of good and evil. But with Disney taking over I suspect the new films will emphasize action and will have a "changing of the guard" type narrative.

Is the book worth reading?

For Star Wars fans it's a must read, especially on the making of the original trilogy. It's by far the most comprehensive source.  Kaminski's tone can get annoying at times, at one point attributing Lucas's success to sheer luck.  He should remember Obi-Wan's dictum "in my experience, there's no such thing as luck."  So if you can get past the nit picking, The Secret History of Star Wars provides a wealth of knowledge on the creative process itself.

*One of the crucial clues to the mystery of the "sequel" trilogy occurs in The Empire Strikes Back.  Luke, after abandoning his Jedi training with Yoda in order to rescue Han and Leia from Darth Vader, has Obi Wan sadly uttering to Yoda "That boy is our last hope," to which Yoda replies, "No, there is another."  While the next film Return of the Jedi reveals this "Other" as Princess Leia,  Kaminski suggests this "other" Yoda spoke of may have been a totally new character to be introduced in later films.


Kaminski, Michael.  The Secret History of Star Wars: The Art of Storytelling and the Making of a Modern Epic.  Toronto: Legacy Books, 2008.








Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, published in 1985, delivered a harsh critique of television and its negative effects on culture. Postman's thesis comes down to a basic premise: a civilization based on print communication will foster critical and analytical thinking, while TV trivializes everything.

Postman frequently notes George Orwell and Aldous Huxley's opposing visions of a dystopian society.  In 1984 Orwell imagined oppressive governments banning books and keeping citizens under constant surveillance.  Huxley's Brave New World envisioned a future with a population kept at bay through drugs and endless entertainments.  Why ban books when no one cares to read them?  Although Orwell's often invoked these days, Brave New World seems more prescient. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death goes to great lengths to establish differences between TV and print, whether it be news, political, or religious programming. TV will always favor entertainment above all else.  An example being the presidential debates: they are rarely critiqued in terms of how the candidate argues their points, but rather on who scores the most zingers or flubs the most lines. Entertaining content always trumps thought provoking content.

In the past 30 years since Amusing Ourselves to Death was written TV has changed and yet stayed the same. Critics often speak of a new "Golden Age" of television when writing about cable dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  But dramas have always occupied a high place in television and while they are getting more sophisticated - television remains mostly junk! From reality TV to Cable News, there's enough mindless babble to keep anyone hypnotized for hours.

Postman offered a few solutions to offsetting television, but the book is mostly a lamentation. There's a quiet eloquence to it. One can see the influence of Postman's thesis in writings to come later, David Foster Wallace especially comes to mind.  The literature of the future will no doubt confront and attempt to make sense of the post-print world Postman predicted.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in books. I teach freshman composition and I can say students do place some value on literature, but it's not a major part of their lives.  Walk around any college campus and you will rarely see undergrads immersed in On the Road or The Bell Jar. More likely they are in the middle of a Netflix binge

The generation born after 1995 (anyone under 21) are totally at ease with digital technology and they are building their own reality around it. Whatever happens, it will be a brave new world.  

People have mused upon the effects of technology since the beginning of civilization, a clip from The Magnificent Ambersons reveals how silly and profound these discussions can get: something is always gained and lost.




Monday, July 20, 2015

Comic Book Review: Millennium by Joe Harris & Colin Morimer

With The X-Files slated to return to TV, another cult classic from the 90s has returned in comic book form, Chris Carter's Millennium (1996-99). Unlike the UFO/conspiracy theory obsessed  X-Files, Millennium took a more philosophical approach to the supernatural.

Millennium examined popular anxieties as the year 2000 approached, especially the idea of an apocalyptic event that will change the course of history.  The protagonist Frank Black, brilliantly played by Lance Henriksen, can use his psychic gifts to aid criminal investigations. The series began with Frank settling in Seattle with his wife and daughter while working as a consultant for the ultra secretive Millennium Group.

Much of the show's mystery comes from the group who trace their origins to the ancients and have apparently influenced much of human history. While their agenda seemed ambiguous, Frank comes to believe they have sinister intentions.

Unfortunately many story lines were left unresolved, leading to the 'Back to Frank Black" campaign to revive Millennium in some form, especially since many of the themes explored on the show have come to pass: the spread of newer and deadlier viruses, a medicated society, acts of mass terrorism, and a growing convergence between humanity and technology.

Earlier this year IDW comics released a five issue set updating the story of Frank Black. Written by Joe Harris with art by Colin Morimer, the first issue begins with a haunting prologue set on December 24, 1999 and then moves to the present.  Now in his 70s, Frank's still haunted by his time with the group. He's been off the grid for the past decade trying to reconnect with his daughter Jordan who shared his gift. Mulder from X-Files appears and we even get a cameo from the Lone Gunmen.

Harris includes many references to the show fans will recognize. Meanwhile, the Millennium group remains at large.

Millennium worked because it reached beyond the headlines and suggested more mystical forces were driving the world. Each episode posed fundamental questions: Why does evil exist? What does it mean to be good?  Where can one find hope? A post-modern Pilgrim's Progress.

The comic book revival of Millennium stays loyal to the tone and look of the series and hopefully there will be more to come.

Remember: This is who we are.

http://www.idwpublishing.com/product/millennium-1/

Thursday, July 16, 2015

New Wilco Album Review: Star Wars

Earlier this evening Wilco released a new album entitled Star Wars, available for streaming on their website, their first batch of new songs since The Whole Love in 2011.

Composed of 11 tracks with a total running time of 33 minutes, Star Wars is heavy on pop hooks and sound collage.  As with many Wilco albums you are in 1978 one minute, then a jump ahead to 1989, and then you zoom back to 1972, only to rematerialize in 2001.

I hear some David Bowie on "You Satellite"; "Cold Slope" sounds a bit like Bowie's "Fame" (released almost 40 years ago to the day). And even some John Lennon on "Magnetized."

Jeff Tweedy sounds more like his old self on Star Wars, in contrast to the somber solo album he made last year. The lyrical word play from A Ghost is Born and sound experimentation from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are both back.

Wilco also beat someone to the punch with the album's title, surely some rock band in 2015 would title their album Star Wars, with the film series returning to the cultural conversation (maybe the 70s did survive?). 

With a mid-summer release, Wilco's set of ornately produced tunes will help fight back the inevitable summertime malaise.












Monday, July 13, 2015

Book Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor

With most of the civilized world anxiously waiting for the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a few recently published books have taken stock of the uber pop culture phenomenon, foremost among them How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor.

The book chronicles the creative journey of George Lucas, including chapters on the global influence of Star Wars.  Everything is covered from the inception of Star Wars in the early 70s, the heady process of making the original trilogy, and the fan backlash to the prequel trilogy.

The final section covers recent developments in the Star Wars universe, namely, Lucas's decision to sell the rights to Star Wars over to Disney, a move that will change the course of pop culture for decades to come.

A few chapters examine the "fandom" subculture surrounding Star Wars. The 2011 documentary, The People vs. George Lucas, marked the apotheosis of Star Wars fan outrage.  They love Lucas for creating the stories, but feel betrayed at his choice to alter the original films with CGI effects and their hatred of Jar Jar Binks and numerable other creative missteps made in the prequels.

Taylor, a journalist by trade, is at his best when tracing the life of Lucas in his triumphant and melancholy journey from experimental filmmaker to media mogul.  When his low budget 1973 film American Graffiti became a box office smash, Lucas found himself in a position he never expected: financial backing from a major studio to make his own movie.  

So he wrote a space opera against the advice of everyone around him.  By going against the grain, making a crowd pleasing movie in an age of cynical downers, Lucas tapped into an entirely new audience crazy for comic book space adventures sprinkled with the subtext of the hero's journey.

The book also does a great job of deconstructing the myth Lucas had a master plan of nine movies. The story went as follows: the original script had enough material for nine films so he took the middle section and made that into a movie. The truth is far more complicated.  

To make a long story short, Lucas has made conflicting statements on the issue over the years.  While it appears he had an epic story in mind, most of the details and plot developments remained sketchy and unwritten.

While the making of the original Star Wars trilogy is an often told tale, Taylor fills in some of the gaps. After the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, Lucas eschewed making personal films in favor of being a producer. In a way he became the very thing he was always against - a micromanaging CEO consumed with financial issues.

After the final installment Revenge of the Sith was completed in 2005, Lucas declared the Star Wars saga finished.  Plans for a TV show, Star Wars: Underworld, a darker take on the universe, never materialized.

Now the lion in winter, Lucas has stepped aside and is now "creative consultant" for the new films. As his former mentor Francis Ford Coppola once observed, Star Wars overtook Lucas's life and we'll never see those other movies he planned to make.  When revisiting THX-1138 or American Graffiti we see an artist with a vision of amazing depth, and one cannot but wonder if Lucas had decided direct his other pet project which went to Coppola, Apocalypse Now.  Ironically, he got trapped in a universe of his own making.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe tells the saga of Lucasfilm with wit and clarity, a worthy purchase for any Star Wars fan.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Book Review: Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s by John Kenneth Muir

John Kenneth Muir's insightful volume Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s takes readers on an odyssey through a compelling decade of genre movies.  The book includes in depth reviews of all the major releases, ranging from the iconic to the obscure.  In addition to the reviews, one can discern a larger narrative of history if the book is read from cover to cover. 

The first half of the 70s were a continuation of the 60s with the Vietnam War still raging and a youth rebellion in full swing.  The Watergate scandal had a profound effect on movies and culture, inspiring a number of movies dealing with cynicism and paranoia. Two events in 1977 marked a turning point, the inauguration of Jimmy Carter and the release of Star Wars both foreshadowed a return to conservatism.

Muir breaks down 70s Sci-fi/Fantasy genres into general categories including: The Planet of the Apes series commented upon issues of race and nuclear power, a flurry of dystopian and post-apocalyptic films of varying quality.  Other movies expressed anxiety about computers and technology, ecological concerns, government/corporate cover ups, and space age epics. 

The superhero film also matured. James Bond films such as Diamonds Are Forever and The Spy Who Loved Me took their inspiration from comic books instead of the Ian Fleming novels. Richard Donner's genre defining Superman continues to inspire, convincing audiences a man could fly.

Sci-fi films were bleak as the decade began. No Blade of Grass imagined food shortages and a violent breakdown of civilization.  Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange shocked theater goers with its depiction of urban decay, violent gangs controlling the streets, and repressive government.  A young George Lucas imagined a drugged out, emotionless populace living pointless lives beneath the earth in THX-1138.  As Muir argues, these films and many others reflected the newspaper headlines (back when people still read newspapers).

Many films drew directly from the news, such as the Peter Watkins disturbing Punishment Park, a fictional documentary made in response to the shootings at Kent. St.  A personal favorite of mine, The Andromeda Strain remains a cerebral masterpiece about scientists struggling to contain a space germ from over running the planet.  Soylent Green dealt with overpopulation, directly inspired by Paul Ehrlich's stark bestseller The Population Bomb.

Eventually the moody Sci-fi films gave way to grand, special effects laden space adventures.  Star Wars spawned a multitude of imitators from the terrifying Alien, to the James Bond howler Moonraker, and the Cold War allegory Battlestar Galactica.  

Star Wars also made a Star Trek movie possible. In 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture saw the return of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock to the big screen.  Muir's review will convince naysayers to revisit an often maligned effort, typically referred to as The Motionless Picture.

Muir also writes thoughtful reviews on the trashier films.  Titles like The Thing With Two Heads, Sssssss, Flesh Gordon, and The Giant Spider Invasion are treated with respect and evaluated on what they set out to accomplish.  For what they lacked in budget and quality, they made up for in spirit.

For any fan of the genre, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s deserves a place on the bookshelf.  Read it to revisit some old favorites and to discover some hidden gems.  

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Podcast Review: The Projection Booth: The Star Wars Episode

Recently The Projection Booth podcast released a marathon six hour episode on the 1977 George Lucas film Star Wars. The Projection Booth, hosted by Mike White and Rob St. Mary, produce one episode a week, usually reviewing a cult classic.  For the Star Wars episode Mike and Rob reflected on their own histories with Star Wars and interviewed several folks with a deep knowledge of the franchise and the fan culture it created.

Even though Star Wars made Lucas a cultural hero to a post-Vietnam generation, he never embraced the original version. So for the 1997 re-release he included CGI special effects, additional scenes, and most infamously the "Greedo shot first" uproar.  Personally, I was never annoyed with the revisions, although the dance sequence in Return of the Jedi bordered on camp.  As long as the original versions are kept available to the public, I have no problem. But Lucas is determined to erase them from existence, much to the chagrin of everyone.

His contradictory statements about the creation of Star Wars have added to the confusion.  Back in the 70s Lucas often spoke of there being nine films to the saga, sometimes twelve.  After completing the prequel trilogy in 2005, Lucas pronounced the story finished - as he originally envisioned it!  Then another about face came in 2012 when he sold the rights of Star Wars over to Disney with a big reveal: he had planned further installments.

The podcast features interviews with two authors who have written extensively on these issues. Chris Taylor author of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe and Michael Kaminsky author of The Secret History of Star Wars. Both shed light on the origins of Star Wars. Both books reveal Lucas never really had a grand vision and made most of the story up on the fly. For influences he turned to comic books, classic science fiction, Kurosawa's cinema, and Frank Herbet's 1965 novel Dune.  In many ways, Lucas did what Quentin Tarantino accomplished a generation later, mashed up a rich multitude of influences and created something vibrant and alive.

The trailers for the new J.J. Abrams version of Star Wars look encouraging.  Fans hope they will get the movie they've craved since Return of the Jedi.  No Jar-Jar Binks.  The core cast from the original will be back.  Toned down CGI effects. Hopes are running high.

I was born in 1979 so I missed the initial run of A New Hope, although I remember seeing Return of the Jedi in a theater. Jabba the Hut terrified me, but I loved the Ewoks, and was perplexed when Vader removed his mask.  I came to know Star Wars through home video, watching those VHS types over and over again.

In the early 90s Bantam published a trilogy of Star Wars novels by Timothy Zahn.  Those novels were okay, but never captured the transcendent experience of watching the movies. 

Finally in the mid-90s, Lucas announced plans for another trilogy and fans suffering from withdrawal waited with intense anticipation as the new millennium beckoned. The release of The Phantom Menace met with mixed to downright hostile reviews.

White also interviewed Alexandre O. Philippe, director of The People vs. George Lucas, a documentary on the fan vitriol that's accrued against Lucas over the years. While the fanboy temper tantrums get annoying, some pertinent questions are raised on the creative choices Lucas made.

In The People vs. George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola laments how Star Wars consumed Lucas's talent and we will never get to see the other movies he envisioned.   Imagine an alternate universe where Lucas, content with the success of Star Wars, sold over the rights in 1977 and went on to pursue his own personal projects? We'll never know.

For any fan of Star Wars, listening to The Projection Booth episode is a great way to prepare for The Force Awakens. Mike and Rob provide a great perspective on the history of Star Wars. Check it out!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Concert Review: Bob Dylan at the Ohio Theater

As Bob Dylan took the stage at the Ohio Theater in Columbus on Saturday night a full house waited in wide eyed anticipation.  And he did not disappoint. He opened with his Oscar winning song "Things Have Changed" and never looked back.

Dylan's recent material dominated the evening with six songs from his 2012 album Tempest, two from his 2015 release Shadows in the Night, including cuts from Love and Theft (2002), Modern Times (2006), and Together Through Life (2009).  The prevalence of his 21st Century work speaks directly to the quality of the material, Dylan's no oldies act.

The concert also showed off Dylan's musicianship and the unique sound he's honed for decades with his band.  Their style ranges from country, bluesy rock, ballads, folk rock, and rhythm & blues.  Dylan seemed to savor every line of the rocking "Pay in Blood."  He's a wounded romantic on "Forgetful Heart" and "Spirit on the Water." A harsh wisdom is expressed on the Homeric "Scarlet Town."

As the show winded down Dylan performed two Sinatra songs "Autumn Leaves" and "Stay With Me", adding a touch of class to the evening.

From the moment he walked onto stage to the moment he walked off Dylan had the crowd in the palm of his hand. A Great Performance!




Friday, May 15, 2015

Book Review: Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie

Cowie, Jefferson.  Stayin Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Jefferson Cowie's informative and provocative history of working class America does what a good history book should do - enlighten the present.  For the book traces how Americans discarded their class identity and embraced cultural identity.  Culture remains the buzzword of the 21st century; it's a highly prized commodity. Look at any progressive leaning online magazine such as Slate or Buzzfeed and the cover page will showcase articles on the newest trends in racial, gender, and sexual identities.  Class, in most cases, plays a peripheral role in these discussions. 

Economists overwhelmingly agree that the wealth gap in America widened considerably over the past decades. While the economic collapse in 2008 brought class issues back for a brief period, reaching its apogee with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the moment ended with a whimper. Cowie, a history professor at Cornell, who I'm sure is sympathetic to the left, does take the left to task for abandoning the working class to their fate. This is a complex story.

When the 70s kicked off the time seemed right for a rejuvenated labor movement, one poised to build upon the triumphs of FDR's New Deal.  A new generation of workers brought a "Sixties" attitude into the ranks of labor, often putting them at odds with post-war labor leaders who maintained a patronizing attitude towards their fellow members. The leadership believed workers were content simply with higher wages and benefits. And yet a restlessness grew among laborers. Blue collars wanted more control over the means of production, chances for advancement, and most important of all - dignity.  

In 1968 the political fault lines shifted dramatically. Robert Kennedy's intrepid presidential campaign envisioned a broad alliance between blue collar workers of all races.  RFK understood the dependable New Deal coalition, of which blue collar workers were the foundation, stood on shaky ground.

Meanwhile a resurgent conservative movement took advantage of the new political situation.  George Wallace and Richard Nixon both managed to channel the subterranean rage of the working class. Wallace, longtime governor of Alabama and champion of State's Rights, attracted national support in the 1968 race for his opposition to a big government of elitist liberals.

Nixon played a more complex game. His patriotic appeals and racially encoded language of restoring law and order to the streets spoke directly to his "Middle Americans." Nixon promised a "peace with honor" in Vietnam as half the country still supported the war. His narrow victory in 1968 turned into a landslide one in 1972. Republicans realized they were building a new majority.

As always with Nixon, the contradictions multiply.  Despite his divisive rhetoric many historians consider him the last liberal to occupy the White House.  His plans for welfare reform and affirmative action at least showed a concern for the working classes, specifically the working poor.  An admirer of the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli who brought conservative reforms during the Victorian era, Nixon envisioned something similar for America. Not ignorant to the challenges facing the working class, he at least tried to do something. Despite his cultural conservatism, his domestic programs would be considered progressive in 2015.

Cowie also integrated pop culture into his analysis, specifically the changing representations of working people in TV and film. If the 1930s found working class heroes in Tom Joad and Woody Guthrie; the 1970s had Archie Bunker, the lovable bigot of the CBS sitcom All in the Family.  Archie as portrayed by Carroll O'Conner personified the workingman's blues.

Movies in the 70s turned the white working class male into a dangerous, often violent figure. In the 1970 film Joe, Peter Boyle played a racist machinist who turns vigilante, ending with him joyously mowing down hippies. Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, features the repressed and terrified Travis Bickle who decides to clean up the streets of New York. Although not mentioned, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took things even further: the dispossessed rural folk are inhuman monsters. 

As the culture wars turned hot in the 70s over abortion, women's liberation, school integration - conservatism made further inroads. Labor's influence subsided with competition from abroad leading to massive layoffs and plant closings throughout the Midwest.

Intellectuals observed a shift towards a hyper individualism. Tom Wolfe in his epochal article "The Third Great Awakening" argued too much prosperity and purchasing power made workers selfish and more than willing to cast aside ideas of solidarity. Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism took issue with cultural elites for their obsessions with the self.

Late 70s pop culture and beyond further chronicled the descent and the eventual disappearance of the working class.  The 1977 box office hit Saturday Night Fever, followed Tony Manero, a working class kid in Brooklyn who lives for the disco to escape from his gloomy family life. Unlike his "going nowhere" friends, Tony's able to escape.

Paul Schrader's crude and perceptive 1978 film Blue Collar follows three auto workers in Detroit, two black and one white, who find themselves at odds with their union and management. In the end they turn against each other. Schrader enclosed workers in an existential rat maze.

At least The Deer Hunter, best picture winner in 1978, offered a compassionate portrait of steel workers in Pennsylvania during the Vietnam era.  In time, however, blue collar characters with any depth vanished from popular mediums.

Bruce Springsteen did bring a working class authenticity to rock.  Unlike other rockers who dabbled in blue collar personas, Springsteen actually lived it.  In 1975 Time and Newsweek put him on the cover with the release of Born to Run, an album celebrating escape.  On "Thunder Road" Springsteen declares, "It's a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win."  

Springsteen's next album Darkness on the Edge of Town, shifted focus to the losers, those who never escaped. What happens to them?  How will working people find meaning in a culture that ignores them?  Few albums evoked the dashed hopes of the 70s more - an elegy if you will, especially with the lyric "I walk with angels that have no place."




The "Reagan Revolution" cranked up the politics of resentment. A growing chorus of talk radio personalities attacked welfare moms and minorities as leeches on the system. The new ethos worshiped a market oriented world view. Corporations began to downsize in a big way as documented in Michael Moore's era defining documentary Roger and Me

The Red State/Blue State dichotomy of the 2000 election pertained directly to cultural definitions. Republicans continued preaching the gospel of guns, capitalism, God, and national defense.  Liberals, thinking John Edwards "two Americas" speech, offered rhetoric, but little action. Barack Obama's offhand comment about Red State Folk clinging to guns and religion, had a grain of truth, but also sounded like the armchair analysis of a detached academic.

When Obama encountered Joe "the Plumber" he politely explained why working people stood to benefit from his tax plan. Then Joe parroted right wing radio dogma about high taxes being bad for small business owners.  The exchange went viral and the McCain campaign cynically used Joe for campaign purposes. Joe quickly disappeared after the election. The media turned him into a punchline, indicative of how far working people had fallen in the eyes of pop culture.  As Cowie explains, the cultural discussion needs a new dimension:

The problem was not simply that other aspects of social identity- race, gender, sexuality, religious faith - were eclipsing class as points of reference in political life, but that working people, having transcended basic material deprivation of the sort they had struggled against in the 1930s, faced a form of class conflict more internal and psychological, pivoting on social power and self-worth rather than outward contests with powerful forces. (216)

As I wrote earlier Stayin Alive tells a complex story - raising as many questions as it answers.  I agree with Cowie's main argument that any new labor movement must be inclusive and put democracy at the center. America's a far more tolerant country than it was 50 years ago, and yet remains static on wealth distribution.  Stayin' Alive tells how we arrived in the current predicament and points to the possibility of an alternative path.