Rocket Raccoon and Bill Mantlo

Incidentally, if you’re wondering which of the Guardians of the Galaxy was my favorite, it turned out to be the one I was initially the most uncertain about:

guardians-of-the-galaxy_rocket-raccoon

I’ll be the first to admit that a computer-generated talking raccoon with a badass attitude and a fetish for large, complicated weapons is pretty damn ridiculous, even in the best-case scenario. There’s a thousand reasons why such a character could turn out to be really, really lame (not least of which is that his voice is provided by Bradley Cooper, an actor I find very, very difficult to like). Happily, though, he works. He works very well, stealing nearly every scene he’s in, and he even gets a couple of sensitive, introspective moments that will break your heart. As unlikely as it sounds, this guy is the new Han Solo. Seriously.

But here’s something interesting I learned about old Rocket Raccoon the other day: he was created in 1976 by a comic-book writer named Bill Mantlo. My ears immediately pricked up when I ran across that little factoid, because Mantlo was also the guy behind one of my favorite comic titles when I was a kid, a trippy series based on a line of popular toys (but oh, so much better than that implies!) called The Micronauts. I’ve written before on this blog about The Micronauts and Bill Mantlo… and the sad story of what happened to him. (The short version, if you don’t feel like clicking the link, is that he was struck by a hit-and-run driver in 1992 and suffered severe brain damage. He now lives in an assisted-care facility and requires constant, around-the-clock attention.)

Well, there’s a heartwarming sidebar to the success of the Guardians movie. Even though Mantlo’s contribution was work-for-hire, meaning he doesn’t own Rocket, Disney and Marvel Studios made sure he got namechecked in the film’s closing credits. And in a show of good old-fashioned human decency, they even arranged for a private screening of the movie for him. According to his brother and legal guardian Michael:

Bill thoroughly enjoyed it, giving it his HIGHEST COMPLIMENT (the BIG “THUMB’S UP!”), and when the credits rolled, his face was locked into the HUGEST SMILE I HAVE EVER SEEN HIM WEAR (along with one or two tears of joy)! This was the GREATEST DAY OF THE LAST 22 YEARS for me, our family, and most importantly, BILL MANTLO!

 

I can only imagine how satisfying it must be for somebody to see one of their creations — a work-for-hire job from 40 years ago, no less — come to life on the screen, and to know it’s going to reach millions, maybe even billions, of people before it’s all done. That he now has audiences who weren’t even born in 1976 about to discover and love his work… For someone who frankly has lost almost everything a human being has to lose… well, it’s got to be hugely emotional. And hugely gratifying. I’m so glad Bill was able to see that, to have one little moment of victory in a day-to-day existence that’s otherwise pretty bleak.

One final note: Bill’s care is enormously expensive, and he has very little human contact beyond his caregivers, so Mike Mantlo encourages fans to contribute whatever they can, large or small, to help out, and also to reach out to Bill with a card or letter. I would like to make the same request of my Loyal Readers. If you enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, if Rocket and Groot cracked you up and touched your heart, if you have an action figure or a bobble head or a t-shirt with this character on it, send Bill a few bucks. The cost of a movie ticket perhaps. Give up an extra screening of the movie for the guy who helped make it happen. And send him a card to let him know how much we love that little furball… to let him know he’s not forgotten, and he’s not alone. That’s what I intend to do as soon as I finish this.

Details on donating and how to contact Bill can be found here. I hope you’ll consider it. We all love these stories about heroes saving the universe. But more and more I think true heroism comes from just reaching out to another individual human being, and offering to help even if we really can’t do much…

 

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Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

guardians-of-the-galaxy-one-sheet

This entry is far beyond its window of relevance, considering there’s now probably only about a dozen people left on the planet who haven’t seen it yet, but for whatever it’s worth, I really, really enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest entry in the interconnected film franchise that’s come to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was everything I hoped it would be, and everything I’ve been craving for a while: a feel-good space adventure with likable heroes — hey, remember those?! — and a healthy sense of humor, balanced with just enough pathos and epic scope to keep the whole thing from tilting over the edge into outright comedy.

While I enjoyed the story and characters, honestly, a lot of the appeal for me was the environment of this movie. Like its distant ancestor, the original Star Wars, Guardians drops the viewer into a fully realized, busy, populated universe where it feels as if every individual on the screen has some life off the screen. We get the feeling that there are a billion stories in this universe and we’re only focusing on this one handful of characters for a while, that we could easily shift our focus to those guys over there and it would turn out to be just as entertaining. That sounds like no big deal, but it’s a trick very few sci-fi movies — very few movies in general, when you think about it — manage to pull off. I found myself really appreciating the sensation of verisimilitude, the feeling that I could crawl inside this movie and walk around and meet people. And since I had absolutely no background with this property going in, I also had the pleasure of discovering something entirely new. As much as I’ve enjoyed the other Marvel films — Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, as well as the X-Men movies (same comic-book publisher, different movie studio) — I already knew who those characters were and the rough outlines of their most famous adventures, so the pleasure I felt with those movies came from seeing how successfully they brought life to the familiar. Guardians, on the other hand, was a clean slate for me, and I dug the things it filled up with.

In addition, I liked the overall look of Guardians. It’s kind of a weird observation, but I was deeply struck by the way one of the main locations, the planet Xandar, was such a bright and sunny place, where the police aircraft are a shining gold and citizens wear brightly colored clothing. Such a refreshing change from the desaturated, grayscale visuals and perpetual nighttime setting of so many science fiction films in recent years.

I have to mention the soundtrack, naturally, which consists mostly of upbeat, bubblegum-flavored pop tunes from the 1970s. Kudos to director James Gunn for choosing just the right songs to evoke a mood, and for working with that old music I love so much instead of ironically mocking it.

About the only complaint I have with Guardians is one you’ve heard before, which is that the big action scenes are unfortunately cut in the jittery, zoom-in/zoom-out, lots-of-crap-flying-around, which-way-am-I-supposed-to-look style that’s been the vogue for the past decade or so, ever since those damned Bourne movies. I hate to admit this, because I’m fairly certain it’s a sign I’m getting old, but I simply can’t tell what the hell is going on in action scenes these days. Guardians wasn’t as bad in this regard as other flicks I’ve seen, but there were a couple of shots (mostly in the segment involving a dogfight in and around a place called Knowhere) that I had a lot of difficulty following.

Still, that’s nitpicking compared to the overall level of joy I received from this film. Honestly, how could I not love a space movie that references the Kevin Bacon classic Footloose? Am I right? And of course the cameo everybody’s been talking about absolutely made my night. Whoever thought we’d see that guy on the big screen again, in any form?

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In Memoriam: Robin Williams

robin-williams_dead-poets-societyAnd I’d been having a relatively good afternoon, too.

I was nearing the bottom of my inbox at work for the first time in several days, and I’d finally forced myself to break away and go for my afternoon walk, during which the incongruous sight of a fully armored Imperial stormtrooper strolling up South Temple Street brought a smile to my face. (I’m guessing he was a cosplayer on his way home from some event, but really I have no idea what the deal was… there was simply a stormtrooper walking around in broad daylight in Salt Lake City on a summer day in the early 21st century, and how can you not smile at that?) When I got back to the office, I went up a floor to see my friend Waylon. He had some DVDs I wanted to borrow, and I also figured he, of all people, would appreciate my “Imperial entanglement.” He sits just off the emergency staircase and, as I came through the fire door and approached his cubicle, I saw the headline splashed across the top of his computer screen: “Robin Williams dead at 63.”

“Dude,” I said, “Tell me that’s another one of those stupid damn Internet hoaxes.”

Waylon turned to me and from the solemn expression on his face, I knew this wasn’t a hoax. And I felt like I’d just taken a crossbow bolt in the chest.

I was on the verge of tears all Monday evening thinking about it. The last celebrity death that hit me this deeply, as best I can remember, was Jim Henson way back in 1991. And I imagine Robin’s death is affecting me so deeply for similar reasons that Jim’s did: Both men’s work were constant fixtures in my life from a very early age, both had a tremendous influence on my sense of humor and my view of the world, and both left this world very suddenly and unexpectedly.

Like everybody else, I suppose, I first encountered Robin Williams when he played Mork from Ork, a naive extra-terrestrial trying to understand the mysterious ways of humans, first in an episode of Happy Days, then in the spin-off series Mork & Mindy. I don’t know if people today realize how insanely popular that show was, at least at first, but I remember it well. There were Mork dolls and lunchboxes and board games and tie-in books (even a Fotonovel, one of those curious late-70s publications that used stills from the show and comic-book-style word balloons to tell the story). I myself proudly wore a t-shirt emblazoned with Mork’s face and catch-phrases — the greeting “nanu, nanu,” and the expletive “Shazbot!”  And I had a pair of rainbow suspenders like Mork’s, and a wall calendar. Hell, I even named a pair of kittens we acquired around that time “Mork” and “Mindy.”

In the world of three-camera sitcoms that were comfortable but utterly predictable viewing, Robin Williams seemed as if he really was a space alien. Nobody had ever seen anything quite like his style: the weird, squeaky child voices and celebrity impressions he could launch into without a moment’s hesitation, the warped-lens view of the mundane world, the rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness delivery, the barely contained physical energy. In fact, his tendency to be in constant, restless motion led to the innovation of a fourth camera on the Mork & Mindy set, because he couldn’t stay in his marks.

Robin’s improvisational nuttiness bore some resemblance to Jonathan Winters’ (who would become a cast member in M&M’s final season, playing Mork and Mindy’s child), but only some. Beyond a certain point of comparison, Robin was just Robin, a uniquely odd performer. And yet, unlike other oddball comedians who were more or less contemporary — Andy Kaufman, say, or Stephen Wright, or even the great Steve Martin — Robin was lovable in addition to weird. He had a cuddly quality that only seemed to grow as he aged.

I was just a kid when Robin played Mork. By the time I was a teenager, I was thinking of him primarily as a stand-up comedian. As I mentioned recently, I went through a phase when I was obsessed with stand-up, and Robin’s HBO specials (which I saw on VHS tapes rented from my local mom-and-pop video store, as we didn’t have cable), and especially his record album Reality… What a Concept!, were favorites of my rebellious young self. His routines have the zaniness of Mork, but with the added transgressive appeal of being dirtier than hell, all delivered at a pace that leaves the viewer gasping for breath while he’s already three jokes ahead. My God, that man’s mind was fast. I’ve always been awestruck by the way he could pivot from one subject to another, jump in and out of fully realized characters, and improv off audience feedback faster than the average human being could even process what had just happened. I realize, of course, that some of that incredible tempo was surely a side-effect of the cocaine that Robin snorted by the bucketful back in the day… but not all of it. Even when he got older and clean, he was still faster than you or me. (I’ll be honest, Robin’s live performances could be exhausting, and I’ve always had to be in the right mood for one. But that doesn’t lessen my appreciation of them!)

But of course, it is as a movie actor that Robin Williams is going to be most remembered, and I’ve been very interested over the past couple days to see which of his movies people are mentioning with the most fondness. My lovely Anne immediately brought up Popeye and Hook. (For a film that’s so critically reviled, Popeye seems to be surprisingly popular, especially among folks who performed in high school musicals… or so it seems from my perspective.) My literary and cineaste friends are sentimental about The Fisher King, while parents are all about the films they can share with their kids: Jumanji, the Night at the Museum series, and, of course, Aladdin. Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage both seem to be pretty large touchpoints. And even Patch Adams, a flick I don’t really remember anything about except the treacly bad taste it left in my mouth, has gotten some love.

My own favorites are from the mid-point of his filmography, a pair of deeply humanistic and compassionate dramas that came out during my theater-usher days. Awakenings, released in 1990 and based on real events in the life of Dr. Oliver Sacks, bears some resemblance to the old story “Flowers for Algernon,” as we watch a comatose medical patient (played by Robert De Niro) re-emerge into full consciousness, struggle to deal with the ways the world has changed while he’s been “sleeping,” and then regress back into his unaware state. The final scene, in which Robin, playing the doctor who revived and then befriended De Niro, tries to find some solace is devastating… a quietly powerful bit of acting that’s so far removed from Mork from Ork that it’s hard to reconcile the two characters emerging from the same artist.

And then there is Dead Poets Society, which came out the year before Awakenings, in 1989.

Honestly, I’ve become somewhat ambivalent about this one as I’ve gotten older. The “carpe diem” thing quickly turned into a tiresome bumpersticker slogan, and really what the hell does it mean, anyhow? How is it really possible to “seize the day” — every day? — when so much of adult life is by necessity composed of repetitive, mundane activities you’d really rather not be doing, but have to do in order to hold it all together? Believing too strongly in “carpe diem” strikes me as just one more set-up for disappointment and failure in a world that’s already filled with those.

I’m also pretty dubious these days of the film’s idealistic messages about the power of literature and fighting the system and the possibility of each and every special snowflake living an extraordinary life. But then I’m speaking from the perspective of a chronically sleep-deprived, stressed-out, frustrated, disillusioned fortysomething. Back when the movie first came out, though… back then I was nineteen years old, planning to declare an English major in the fall, and dreaming of writing novels for a living. I don’t know that there could have been a target audience more precisely suited for Dead Poets Society than I was. All that jazz about sucking the marrow out of life and letting the words drip from our tongues like honey… God, that was seductive. I wanted that. For a brief time, because of this movie, I even considered becoming an English teacher, imagining of course that I would be the cool, unorthodox, inspirational variety of teacher like Mr. Keating, the character Robin Williams plays in the film.

Dead Poets no longer speaks to me the way it once did… but it remains important to me because I remember the sound of its voice, and the tingle it sent down my spine, and the ghost of the young man I was then. And it’s important to me because the movie itself, the artifact called Dead Poets Society (as opposed to the story, the art), was such a big motif in the backdrop of a very dear and all-too-short-lived period of my life, that glorious Summer of ’89, when I was young and in love with my girl, my car, and the endless possibilities you only seem able to see at that age.

On the days I worked while Dead Poets was playing, I used to duck into the back of the auditorium to watch the final scene. I must’ve seen that one scene a hundred times that summer. I prided myself on opening the theater doors at just the right moment, as the screen is fading to black and the bagpipes are kicking in on the soundtrack, fulfilling my duty as an usher to bring the audience back into the real world with a little bit of class. I’m not at all surprised that I’ve been hearing that music in my head ever since I read that terrible headline on Waylon’s monitor.

I like to think that before Robin Williams passed from this world altogether, bound for whatever lies ahead for all of  us in that undiscovered country, he was granted a brief moment to pause and look back and see how many of us have been standing on our desks this week in solidarity and affection for our fallen captain. I hope the sight made him smile.

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What, Beards Are Cool Now? Really?

According to a lighthearted study commissioned recently by Wahl, a company that makes electric hair-trimmers, the fifth most facial-hair-friendly city in America is…Salt Lake? Seriously?! You’ll forgive me if I have difficulty believing that. My own personal experiences as a bearded man living in clean-cut Mormondom have largely been to the contrary.

I was once told in a job interview — an interview for a position that would have had me working alone in a back room with no contact whatsoever with the public — that I would have to shave my beard and make myself “presentable” if I wanted the job. More than one young lady shot down my request for a date because they didn’t like “scruffy” men. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve practically heard the record-scratching sound effect upon entering a room because I was the only male in the place with facial fuzz. (I should point out, for the record, that I’ve always kept my beard neatly trimmed. Think of Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation; I didn’t deliberately emulate him, but our styles were similar. Which is one of the reasons why hearing negative remarks about my whiskers has always pissed me off so badly, because they don’t look scruffy, which naturally has made me all the more determined over the years to hang onto them.)

Of course, all these incidents were 20 years or more ago, and I will concede that if I really think about it, I see a lot more mustaches, beards, and assorted variants out there than I used to, especially downtown. Which I suppose makes sense, since I’ve read that metropolitan Salt Lake City is the most liberal spot in the state, with a demographic breakdown that’s now less than 50% Mormon. (The ‘burbs, on the other hand, are far more homogenous… and conservative.)

Old paradigms die hard, though, and I still tend to think my beard marks me as an outsider… a loner… a rebel. Learning that times have apparently changed and I now live (or at least work) in one of the beard-lovingest places in the whole bloody country… well, that’s going to need some time to sink in…

Incidentally, if you’re wondering what other cities are down with ‘staches and whiskers, here’s the rest of Wahl’s list, in order from top to bottom:

1. Boston
2. Los Angeles
3. Miami
4. Chicago
5. Salt Lake City
6. Minneapolis
7. Austin
8. Seattle
9. Denver
10. Nashville
11. Dallas
12. San Diego
13. Philadelphia
14. Houston
15. Detroit
16. New York
17. Indianapolis
18. Atlanta
19. Washington, D.C.
20. Pittsburgh

(Originally spotted at Boing Boing. Of course.)

 

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Can Everyone Take a Deep Breath, Please?

I’ve seen a number of panicky Facebook posts and tweets about the Ebola crisis today, no doubt fueled by the news that a couple victims of that dread disease are now here in the U.S. instead of safely isolated on the other side of the world, and — I have to be honest — they’ve really annoyed me. Yes, Ebola is scary shit, and the idea of a pandemic wiping out the human race is one of my deepest fears, even worse than my worries about a nuclear holocaust followed by an army of chromium skeletons systematically exterminating the survivors. (Seriously, I grew up in the latter days of the Cold War, when Ronnie Ray-Gun had his finger on The Button and every third movie, TV show, and pop song was telling us we were all going to die in a planetwide crop of mushroom clouds; I jest because I remember what that fear was really like.) But everybody needs to take a deep breath and apply some rational thought to this Ebola thing.

The truth is, Ebola is actually pretty hard to contract, and the odds of it breaking out in any serious way in the United States — let alone turning into something out of The Stand – are extremely long. The Centers for Disease Control website has a lot of good information on the subject; the CDC has also produced a calming infographic, which I’m just going to leave here….

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You’re welcome.

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Resolution

Three-and-a-half years have passed since my coworker Julie Ann Jorgenson — a smart, beautiful, vibrant young woman — was killed in the frigid pre-dawn hours of a gloomy January day. She was in her car, stopped at a traffic light in downtown Salt Lake, when a speeding pickup truck plowed into her little Mazda with enough force to push it through the intersection and partway up the next block. Julie’s car burst into flames on impact and was quickly incinerated… with Julie still inside. I still struggle with the image of her lovely face and hair being consumed by fire. I want to believe she was killed on impact, before the fire reached her, but… well, let’s just say that a vivid imagination is a real curse sometimes, because I can see other ways it might have happened as clearly as if I had stood there watching.

Yesterday, the man who was driving the pickup, Shane Roy Gillette, was sentenced for the crimes of manslaughter and “operating a vehicle negligently causing injury or death.” He received two consecutive prison terms that could max out at 10 years. He’ll also be required to pay $5,000 in restitution.

According to the defense, Gillette was suffering from a psychotic delusion at the time of the accident, convinced that he was being attacked and was running for his life. Now medicated and rational again, he’s expressing remorse and lamenting that he’ll have to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life. I’m not unsympathetic to the guy. At least, I’m not now. (Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I wrote some pretty unkind things about Gillette back when this first happened, and then later got schooled by his brother, who somehow tracked me down after stumbling across my remarks.) He is a fellow human being, after all, and it’s not like he set out to deliberately harm anyone.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Julie is dead… suddenly, shockingly, and forever denied whatever future awaited her. And if I’m honest with myself, I find I’m still really angry about that. And I barely knew her, really. I can only imagine how her family and loved ones must feel.

If you were in Shane Roy Gillette’s shoes, what would you do — how would you spend the rest of your life — to try to atone for something like that? Is atonement even possible for something of that magnitude? Would you even bother to try? And how could you live with yourself if you didn’t? Stories of redemption tend to have a profound effect on me these days. There’s a certain category of movies and novels that will reduce me to sobs in fairly short order, because I so want to believe that you can somehow make up for the huge mistakes and failures of your life. But honestly, I think a big reason those stories are so appealing is because I know, somewhere deep down, that they’re impossible. Mere wish fulfillment. That there are things you just can’t take back and that you just can’t fix, no matter how long you live or how hard you try or how much you want it.

 

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Life Is a Highway

Due west of Salt Lake City, out past the big smelly pond that lends the city its name, and beyond the outermost fringes of suburbia, the landscape seems to open up. The dome of the sky, which feels much closer back home, suddenly pulls away from you and soars up to an untouchable height. You find yourself in a dried-out, otherworldly place, with few signs of human encroachment. A line of telephone poles, their bases crusted white with salt left behind by the receding lake. A lone factory refining minerals from that same dead sea. A 1950s motor lodge, long since boarded up and abandoned, the painted doors of its rooms bleaching into pastel shades in the sun. And the road, of course, the endless double ribbon of a divided highway unrolling across the floor of the basin, then slanting up into the hills in the distance before dropping to the bottom of the next valley over, rinse and repeat all the way to California.

Traffic is different out here too. The tight, congealed knots of cars you endure in city driving relax, and the space between the vehicles increases almost imperceptibly until you realize there’s a half-mile or more between you and the next one ahead, and the last one behind. That constant sense of defensive urgency you feel while commuting fades.

Out here, the outpost towns are a hundred miles apart with nothing in between, and you and the other drivers around you are long-haulers. The college-age kid in a Subaru station wagon, its windows obscured by boxes and garbage bags of possessions, on her way to a new, exciting phase of life. The middle-aged, pot-bellied salesman in the ten-year-old sedan with a couple of dress shirts hanging from the hook above the back seat and a quota to meet. A family in a mini-van, with Disney princesses on the flatscreen monitor in the rear to placate the bored kids. An RV towing an economy car, which will become a shuttlecraft once the big mothership docks someplace for the week. And the big rigs, of course, the eighteen-wheelers that snarl and claw their way up the inclines while you roll right past them like mobile cliff faces in a range that spans the country.

I’m barreling along in my Mustang with the cruise control holding the speedometer at 80. The top is down and  a hot crosswind tugs at the steering wheel. A mild stinging sensation is beginning to penetrate into the skin on my cheeks and my bare shoulders. I’ll slather on some Coppertone in another few miles, but for now, I let the sun have its way with me, ravage me with its delicious warmth. I fancy I can smell my own flesh cooking in the heat.

The famous Bonneville Salt Flats spread out around me, the eternal road like a pencil mark on an endless sheet of white paper. My breaths are deeper and slower than they’ve been in weeks, and something inside me has finally unclenched. Out here, alone behind the wheel with that road reaching toward the distant Pacific, I feel like I’m not so much of a screw-up, like redemption is possible, like maybe all kinds of things are possible. I feel authentically myself. I want to drive until I reach the sea and then stand on the beach or the pier or the edge of a cliff — whatever may be there at the end of this road — and watch the sunset, and then in the morning, drive on to some other place…

I want to be just another long-hauler in the open spaces between the outpost towns…

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This Makes Me Happy…

guardians_4_daysGuardians of the Galaxy — the next entry in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” that comprises the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America films, as well as the team-up movie The Avengers (not to mention its much-anticipated sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron, coming next year) — looks utterly ridiculous… and that’s a good thing.

Seriously, summertime movies are supposed to be fun, something a lot of film-makers (and film-goers, too) seem to have forgotten in recent years. Guardians looks like exactly the antidote I’ve been craving for all that Grim ‘n’ Gritty stuff…

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What Are We Doing?

I noticed this morning that I jumped the gun a bit when I posted my annual reflection on the anniversary of the first human footsteps on the Moon. I know, of course, that the Eagle landed at Tranquility Base on July 20, 1969, but for some reason, I got my dates confused and I threw my post up on the 19th. So mea culpa on that.

Phil Plait, a.k.a. the “Bad Astronomer” (not “bad” as in “bad at his job,” but as in “bad-ass astronomer who years ago started a blog to discuss the astronomy mistakes in movies and the popular consciousness, which he called bad astronomy“), did not make that mistake. His annual post went out on the correct day, curse his hide.

Now, he always writes a thoughtful call-to-arms on this subject, but I thought this year’s sentiments were especially stirring… and timely, considering that the U.S. has been without its own human launch capability for three years and public interest in putting people in space seems to be at an all-time ebb, even as SpaceX and the other commercial companies, as well as venerable old NASA, are making huge steps toward getting us back up there. Phil’s entire post is worth your attention, but I especially liked his concluding paragraphs:

When I look back over the time that’s elapsed since 1969, I wonder what we’re doing. I remember the dreams of NASA, and they were too the dreams of a nation: Huge space stations, mighty rockets plying the solar system, bases and colonies on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. Those weren’t just the fantasies of science fiction. We could’ve done them. Right now, today, those dreams could have been reality.

 

Instead, we let those small-minded human traits flourish. We’ve let politics, greed, bureaucracy, and short-sightedness rule our actions, and we’ve let them trap us here on the surface of our planet.

 

It needn’t have been this way, and it still needn’t be this way. There are those who still dream, who understand the call to space, and who are devoting their lives to make it reality. We’ve faced adversity before, and have not let it stop us.

 

I think we can overcome our own petty blindness. Sometimes we humans look up, not down, and see not just the Universe stretching out before us, but also our place in it.

 

We’ve done it before and we can—we must, and we will—do it again.

Something to ponder over the weekend…

 

 

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And Now for Something…

monty-python_2014

When I was about fourteen or thereabouts, my best friend was a kid named Kurt Stephensen, who lived a couple doors up the street from me. I suspect this convenient proximity was the major reason we became friends in the first place, but no matter… we shared a lot of good times at a fairly pivotal age, the time when we’re most open to discovering and adopting new tastes. While I can’t speak to any influence I might have had on him, I know he contributed a great deal to my developing aesthetic, particularly in the areas of music and comedy.

I don’t recall which of us was the first to become seriously obsessed with comedy as a thing, a fandom, to use a modern term that didn’t exist when I was fourteen. Possibly we came to that place independently, and our mutual interest in it was one of the things we bonded over. But however it happened, there was a period when Kurt and I collected and swapped comedy routines like other kids collected baseball cards or comic books. George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams were our heroes, their records and VHS concert tapes our totems. They were our mentors in wordplay, attitude, and innuendo, our spirit-guides to the often baffling adult world we were still grappling to fully comprehend, and frankly they were our relief valves, too. Their irreverent voices and funhouse-mirror perspectives — not to mention their naughtiness and outright vulgarity — were a transgressive antidote to the alienation we often felt growing up in buttoned-down, uptight Mormon Utah.

And then there was… Monty Python.

Kurt was very definitely the one who introduced me to the seminal British comedy troupe. I’d never heard of them; in fact, my ignorance of them was so complete that the first time he mentioned their name, I asked, “Who the hell is he?,” mistakenly believing this Monty person to be a single individual. My familiarity with British comedy at the time consisted of Benny Hill and a couple of decade-old sitcoms that were running on our local PBS affiliate, Good Neighbors (a.k.a. The Good Life) and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (all of which I loved, incidentally). Monty Python’s Flying Circus was on PBS as well (very late at night, I might add!), and at Kurt’s urging, I checked it out.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of the show at first. I’m not ashamed to admit that I flat-out didn’t understand much of it. Many sketches didn’t strike me as funny so much as just plain weird. But the bits that connected… oh, those were good. And the Python movies — Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — were much better, in my opinion, especially Holy Grail, which still has the power to reduce me to tears. Gradually, with time, repeated viewings, and a deepening grasp of British history and culture (not to mention my own), I too became a Python fan… although nothing they’ve done has ever made me laugh quite as hard as the time my old buddy Kurt, with a wickedly mischievous gleam in his eye, recited Eric Idle’s “Penis Song” verbatim.

I’ve been reminiscing about those days with Kurt a lot this week, ever since Sunday afternoon when Anne and I saw Monty Python Live (Mostly), the last of 10 on-stage performances the surviving Pythons delivered this month in London. No, we didn’t hop a plane and go to London in person (although that would’ve been awesome); the show was broadcast in real time to movie theaters all across the globe, so we were able to see it from the comfort of our regular cinema in suburban Utah, which is pretty awesome itself, when you think about it. And more than a little absurd, too. Our species has devised this amazing 21st-century communications technology that enables us to beam a high-definition video signal around the world, and we’re using it to watch 70-something-year-old comedians perform 45-year-old material. Absurd indeed!

As you may have gathered, Live (Mostly) was essentially a medley of greatest hits from the old Flying Circus program. Some of them updated to be a bit more current — for example, the aforementioned “Penis Song” now has new verses that celebrate the female genitalia as well — and the whole thing was stitched together by video clips from the old days and song-and-dance numbers performed by sexy young people. While many reviewers cast a jaundiced eye on the show, complaining that the Pythons were cynically rehashing the same old stuff to make a fast buck off nostalgic fans, I saw it as more a celebration of their legacy. Yes, the guys are old now, a long way from the peak of their powers (a line of 20 dancers performed John Cleese’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” moves, presumably because he no longer can). And yes, they blew their lines from time to time. And I can’t deny there was something ridiculous about seeing these antiquated duffers performing some of this material (John Cleese in drag was never a pretty sight, and it’s far worse now, while Eric Idle’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink routine is… odd… coming from a geezer). But there was also a pleasant warmth underpinning the proceedings, and my overall impression was that they were really enjoying working together again. My understanding is that the Pythons have had rocky personal relationships over the years, and there were rumors going into this show that they never got along and never liked each other, but you wouldn’t have known from the energy they were radiating on this stage. In particular, Cleese and Michael Palin — my favorites of the bunch, for what it’s worth — had the easy fellowship of people who’ve been through thick and thin and come out the other side with a shared wisdom and affection for each other.

A number of surprise guest appearances, from Stephen Hawking to Warwick Davis, enlivened the show, and even the late Graham Chapman, the sixth Python, who died way back in 1989, was present in the form of video clips from the old days. Of the five surviving Pythons, Eric Idle was the most polished, which is no surprise as he’s been more or less constantly immersed in the old material for years, between his solo tours (Anne and I saw him in person a few years back) and his adaptation of Holy Grail into a musical stage show, Spamalot!. Michael Palin retains his boyish demeanor and energy, but occasionally seemed a little flustered, especially during his signature “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. (Honestly, though, that one always had a manic air to it; it’s really not one of my favorite Python routines.) Terry Gilliam seemed rather uncomfortable being in the spotlight after many years behind the camera as a film director, but then, his contributions always were primarily behind the scenes anyhow. (He was the animator behind all the warped little interstitials that have always been a Python trademark.)

It was Cleese and Terry Jones who appeared the creakiest to my eye, and they were the ones who notably blew their lines a few times (causing Cleese to ask “Where were we?” to an uproarious response). But this show wasn’t about getting the lines right; I daresay the audience knows them better than the Pythons at this point anyhow. This show was about seeing the band together again, for one last time. (Supposedly this was the final time the Pythons ever plan to perform together.) Even Carol Cleveland, the so-called “Python girl” who appeared in so many of their classic sketches and, most memorably, played Zoot, the sexy nun who menaces the chaste Sir Galahad in Holy Grail, showed up to do her parts. (She still has fabulous legs!)

In the end, Live (Mostly) was like a family reunion. Hearing “The Lumberjack Song” and “Spam” and “The Dead Parrot Sketch” for the umpteenth time was pleasurable not because of the material itself, but — like those stories of our parents’ first meeting, or Uncle Joe’s war exploits — because we find value in the ritual of telling the familiar old stories, and of spending time with the tellers. And when the show wrapped up with a bittersweet rendition of the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” I was both smiling and a bit teary-eyed. It felt like Anne and I had witnessed something truly historic… the end of an era. The last opportunity we’d ever have to re-enact that ritual. I’m glad we chose to take it.

It’s been a long journey from my old buddy Kurt’s basement…

 

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