Happy 88!

Another year, another birthday for the one and only William Shatner, 88 years young today.

Although his latest television series Better Late Than Never (which I wrote about on his birthday last year, and from which today’s photo was snatched) was cancelled after two seasons, the irrepressible man of the hour isn’t letting that slow him down. He’s a force to reckoned with on Twitter; his annual Hollywood Charity Horse Show is coming up in June; he’s hosting screenings of The Wrath of Khan at various locations around the country (sadly, none in Salt Lake!); and he has a number of conventions on the calendar, as well as a Star Trek cruise a year from now in March 2020. As I’ve said before, I admire his vitality and drive to stay engaged, to stay curious, and to keep having fun. I hope I age with a fraction of that grace.

So happy birthday to the once and future Captain Kirk… and as always, my offer to buy him a celebratory drink applies any time he (a) hears about it and (b) wants to take me up on it.

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Ripley

Sometime tonight, hopefully, SpaceX will launch its latest innovation, the so-called Crew Dragon (aka Dragon 2). This is a variant of the reusable Dragon capsule that’s been ferrying supplies to the International Space Station for several years, but in this case, the intended cargo will be human beings. There won’t be any actual people on board tonight, though; this is only a test flight. But if it’s successful, Crew Dragon could be carrying real-live astronauts into space before the end of the year… the first time Americans will fly on an American spaceship since the shuttles were retired in 2011. I’m not generally prone to nationalism, but it can’t come soon enough in my view. It’s been a long eight years.

Although Crew Dragon isn’t carrying a real crew tonight, it won’t be flying empty. There’s a mannequin on board, dressed in one of SpaceX’s sleek ‘n’ fancy pressure suits, and equipped with various sensors to verify the forces a human body will be subjected to by this new ship. And you’ll never guess what SpaceX’s eccentric gazillionaire founder Elon Musk has dubbed the dummy: Ripley.

As in the heroine of the Alien film franchise.

He may be walk on an entirely different plane of existence than you and me, but when you get right down to it, he’s just a geek like the rest of us. Say it with me, kids:

One of us, one of us, one us…

 

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Quick Takes: Cutter’s Way

One of several noir-ish thrillers Jeff Bridges made in the early ’80s, Cutter’s Way is a bit confounding in the way it keeps refusing to be quite what you expect it to be. It’s not the murder mystery it initially appears, because the protagonists reach their conclusion quickly and that conclusion is never questioned. It’s not the Hitchcockian case of mistaken identity it has the potential to become, because Bridges never gets accused of the killing that sets everything off, and the maybe-villain never denies he did it (nor does the audience ever find out for sure if he did). It’s not even a satisfying revenge flick because the vengeance, when it comes, is perfunctory and open-ended. It’s a film noir that’s not especially interested in the usual trappings of noir. What keeps the film interesting is the characters.

Jeff Bridges is Richard Bone, a feckless young man going nowhere fast, who might in fact be a gigolo based on the first scene where we encounter him. Bridges’ youthful good looks and rangy build, so different from the grizzled “Dude” persona we’re so familiar with now, were perfect for this role. He even sports a ’70s porn-stache to complete the look. But he also uses his considerable skill to create a character whose main attribute is indecision.

On the other hand, Bone’s buddy Alex Cutter is reckless and impulsive, making decisions in the blink of an eye and then refusing to back down from them. Played by John Heard, Cutter is a Vietnam vet who was badly injured in the war. Heard is simply mesmerizing, a ball of barely contained rage and self-pity that dominates the screen whenever he appears, swaggering, drunk, hateful, and yet also magnetic and in a weird sense, heroic. Heard’s performance is fearless, and all the more remarkable in that he convincingly plays a man with only one arm and an artificial leg long before CGI was available to create those illusions.

Finally, there is Mo, played by Lisa Eichhorn, Cutter’s long-suffering wife who’s been thoroughly drained by the constant stress of putting up with Alex and his tantrums.

All three of these characters are drifters of one sort or another, moving through their lives like ghosts as they nurse their various hurts. They’re the last people who should be trying to solve a mystery… but then, like I said, this movie isn’t much interested in that mystery. I kept watching to see what happened to Cutter, Bone, and Mo, and what they said along the way.

 

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Friday Evening Videos: “If I Could Turn Back Time”

After spending a good part of the preceding decade proving her acting chops in well-regarded films like Silkwood, Mask, and Moonstruck (for which she won an Academy Award), the legendary Cher came roaring back to the music world in 1987 with a self-titled album and a new sound that was more rock-oriented than what she’d been doing in the ’70s. (No doubt having Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora coproduce the album had something to do with that!) I liked the big single from that album, “I Found Someone.” But I loved the one that came from her follow-up Heart of Stone a year and a half later.

“If I Could Turn Back Time” was well-nigh inescapable during the summer and fall of 1989, peaking at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and coming in 35th on the year-end chart. If anything, “Time” was even more bombastic and dramatic than “I Found Someone,” and that was just perfect for where I was and what I was feeling around the time of my twentieth birthday. It was one of those songs that comes along at just the right moment and clicks into your life as if someone is programming your own personal soundtrack.

As much as I liked the song, though, I honestly hadn’t thought about it in a very long time. It’s not in rotation on the classic-rock radio stations I follow, and my iTunes hasn’t chosen to shuffle it up in, well, a very long time. Earlier this week, however, I ran across a clip from last month’s Kennedy Center Honors ceremony at which Cher, along with country singer Reba McEntire, composer Philip Glass, and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, were given the prestigious lifetime achievement award. Cher’s friend and fellow ’80s icon Cyndi Lauper performed the song to honor her, and I thought it was pretty awesome. So here it is to help you start your weekend:

And just for fun, here’s the original:

Cher strutting around the decks of the battleship Missouri in a little bit of nothing, with a bunch of sailors and their giant, erect… um… cannons… looming overhead… that was 1989 for you.

Incidentally, this video was hugely controversial at the time; MTV initially banned it, then relented but would only show it after 9 PM. Meanwhile, the US Navy caught quite a lot of flack and hasn’t allowed any music videos to be filmed aboard its ships since. Rock and roll!

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Welcome to the Future

(Remember, Blade Runner takes place in the year 2019… I can’t tell you how weird it feels to be arriving in the landmark years in which the fantasies of my youth were set. The next big one that comes to mind is 2029, the “Year of Darkness,” according to the original Terminator. That sounds fun.)

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Summing Up

Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, the final night of 2018.

Is it just me, or did the past 12 months feel more like 72? A lot of stuff happened in 2018. A lot.

There was the brouhaha over kids eating Tide Pods. A false alarm scared everyone in Hawaii into thinking they were about to be nuked — welcome back to the Cold War. Not long after that, Kilauea erupted. Then Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas hard.

Around the world, a bridge collapsed in Italy, killing 43 people, many of them motorists who were just unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ireland legalized abortion and Canada legalized recreational pot. Saudi Arabia decided to let women drive. The National Museum of Brazil in Rio was destroyed by a fire, along with 90-something percent of its collections. And the “yellow vest” movement in France is being called the worst civil unrest in that country since the infamous protests of 1968.

2018 was the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, once thought to be the “war to end all wars.” It was also the year the northern white rhinoceros became functionally extinct (there are still a few left, but they’re all female, so…)

A Chinese scientist claimed to have altered the DNA of human babies, provoking much controversy and protest. A subway station in lower Manhattan reopened for the first time since being wrecked in the 9/11 attacks 17 years ago. A journalist for the Washington Post was murdered by the Saudis inside their consulate in Istanbul. And the Camp Fire in California destroyed 18,000 buildings and killed 88 people.

The Avengers: Infinity War broke our hearts and Solo: A Star Wars Story was deemed enough of a box-office failure that Disney has cancelled any further “standalone” SW films (despite Solo being, in my humble opinion, the best, most purely fun SW film since 1983).

Bill Cosby was convicted of rape. Enough said about that.

There was an average of one deadly mass shooting incident in the U.S. per month, including the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (17 killed), another at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas (10 killed), a shooting at a Maryland newspaper office (five killed there), and the 11 worshipers killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Former president George H.W. Bush died, as did Stephen Hawking, Aretha Franklin, Burt Reynolds, Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz, and the travel writer and TV presenter Anthony Bourdain. Meanwhile, Britain’s Prince Harry married a biracial, divorced American actress, and… everybody was pretty cool with it, so there’s some progress for you.

NASA declared the Kepler space telescope dead after nearly a decade in space, during which it discovered nearly 2,700 planets orbiting other stars. In other space news, the Mars InSight probe successfully landed on the red planet, Voyager 2 entered interstellar space, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully tested the Falcon Heavy rocket by sending a red Tesla roadster with a mannequin at the wheel into deep space.

I won’t even mention the barking chaos that is the Trump administration.

***

Also in 2018, Anne and I met my main man Rick Springfield at an album launch party in Los Angeles, and we spent a week in the New Orleans, something that’s been on my bucket list for decades. We attended two instances of FanX, the convention previously known as Salt Lake Comic Con, as well as numerous concerts and other events. In between the fun stuff, my job at the ad agency seemed to keep me busier than ever. And a year-long construction project finally wrapped up, transforming the two-lane road in front of our house into a seven-lane highway. Yay for progress.

I turned 49 in September. And then in October my Mustang got rear-ended during what had been a pleasant Sunday afternoon drive. It’s repairable, but it’s still dry-docked three months later — long story. I miss it.

But you know, in spite of all the things that were happening in 2018, one thing that most assuredly was not happening was this blog. I averaged only two entries a month during the past year, and many of those were just poems or quotations that I reposted from other sources. Not much original content, mostly just book reviews, Friday Evening Videos and a handful of my patented celebrity obituaries. (And doesn’t it just figure that the best of this year’s obits, the one I wrote for the aforementioned Anthony Bourdain, was vaporized by a server failure? Why do those damned hiccups always take my favorite pieces?)

I had such grand ambitions for this blog, once upon a far more innocent time. I wanted it to be something along the lines of John Scalzi’s Whatever or James Lileks’ Bleat, a daily long-form essay that would be insightful and entertaining, good writing that was worthy of whatever talent I might actually have, something that actually meant something. And maybe I did hit that mark from time to time — I like to think I did — but that was long ago. In the immortal words of every Hollywood producer who ever held a writer’s ambitions in the palm of his hand, “What have you done lately?” As much as it pains me to say it… not much. Not much.

Much of the day-to-day chitchatty stuff I used to do around here has been supplanted by social media, and as for longer thinkpieces… who has time to think anymore? It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t work in my industry just how draining it really is, and if I try, it just sounds like I’m making excuses. “Well, make the time,” people say. Believe me, I’ve tried. Maybe someone who’s wired differently from myself can do it. I haven’t been able to.

Not that it matters. Blogging is pretty much over, isn’t it? It certainly feels like it. I’ve poured so much energy into this thing over the years, thinking my words were becoming immortal, that it was making some kind of difference… the reality is I was just pissing into the wind, one more voice among the millions contributing to a cacophony… and then the cacophony went elsewhere. My words still live here, as long as the server stays up, but nobody is going back and looking at them. And just lately I’ve been thinking about how I could’ve better spent all that time and creative mojo on other things… the novels I used to imagine myself writing, perhaps. As the song says, “Regrets, I have a few.”

All of which sounds like I’m gearing up to sign off for good, doesn’t it? Well… I’ll be honest, the thought has occurred to me. End of one year, start of a new one, good time to clear out the metaphorical closets, right? But… I’m not there yet. Not quite. I’ve been the proprietor of Simple Tricks and Nonsense for a very long time, and it’s hard to imagine not being that any more. I just don’t know how to improve the situation any. I’d like to get back on track, get my rate of posting up to at least once a week again. Of course, I’d also like to write some fiction again… try to reconnect with the ambitious young dreamer I used to be. And I don’t know how to do that either…

It’s about to be a new year, though, right? A fresh beginning, endless possibilities… at least, that’s the story we like to tell.

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In Memoriam: Melvin Dummar

I’ve just learned of the passing of Melvin Dummar, the one-time Utah gas-station owner who claimed to have run across a hypothermic old man on a cold night in the Nevada desert and given him a lift to the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. You all know this story, or at least you ought to, as it truly is the stuff of urban legend: The old man supposedly was Howard Hughes, the reclusive billionaire, and not long after Hughes’ death in 1976, a handwritten will turned up that named Dummar as one of the inheritors of Hughes’ immense fortune, in gratitude for his act of kindness. Sadly, a probate court determined the “Mormon Will” — so-called because it also named the Mormon Church as a beneficiary — was a fake, and Dummar spent the rest of his life drifting from job to job, and place to place, trying to live down his reputation as either one of the most inept forgers in history or a complete crank. He eventually landed in Pahrump, a town on the Nevada/California border not far from Vegas, where he died last Saturday at the age of 74.

I’ve written about Dummar on this blog a number of times. He was something of a legend in these parts when I was a kid… if not exactly a hometown hero, at least a local character. One of ours, if that makes sense. But in addition to the local-interest angle, I’ve always been drawn to tales of the little guy standing up to the establishment, and Dummar’s tale fit perfectly into that category that includes pirates, eccentrics, and renegades of all stripes. The fact that the establishment crushed the little guy in this particular tale only made it all the more compelling for me. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Paul LeMat, the actor who played Dummar in the 1980 film Melvin and Howard, has always reminded me of my dad.

For what it’s worth, I believe Dummar’s story.

Not just that he gave Howard a lift, but I also believe that the Mormon Will was the real deal, likely one of many that Howard produced toward the end of his life as drugs, mental illness, and neglect took their toll on him. I further believe that Hughes’ inner circle of advisors, bodyguards, lawyers, and sycophants took advantage of their boss’ mental condition to fatten their own wallets, that they were responsible for the appalling conditions in which he evidently spent his final years, and that they weren’t about to allow any gas-station attendant from Willard, Utah, to have a slice of their pie. In my opinion, they pulled out all the stops to discredit Dummar and the will, and sadly, Dummar helped them through several naive blunders of his own. This is all far more into the realm of conspiracy theory than I usually like to venture… but it is what I am convinced of. The tale of Melvin Dummar is a tragedy, in my opinion, a rags-to-riches story that would’ve been the end-all, be-all of that genre if it hadn’t been strangled in the crib by a gang of craven villains.

Not that any of it matters now, forty years down the road. And not that we’ll ever really know, since everyone who was there is now dead. I only hope that Melvin Dummar had found some peace of mind in the end.

Howard Hughes and Melvin Dummar, both pictured in their younger days.

 

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The Work Goes On

The votes are still being tallied around the country as I write this, but it appears that the Democrats have at the very least retaken the House of Representatives and scored a few gubernatorial wins.

Over on social media, some of my liberal friends are lamenting that this isn’t good enough, that we needed that legendary “blue wave” to decisively show that this country isn’t what Donald Trump represents, and they’re disappointed it didn’t happen at the scale they hoped for.

Well.

Their negativity is irritating the hell out of me, to be honest.

Considering how gerrymandered so many states are, a blue wave was never likely. Perhaps it wasn’t even possible. But we did pretty damn well winning the House in this environment. The House is a start. The House means investigations, and it means applying the brakes to Trump and the Trumpist GOP’s corrosive agenda of undoing everything progressives have fought for over the past century.

Look, the ugly reality is that America is a land of bigots and know-nothings, and it always has been. Also, this nation was founded on blood and cruelty and it has never lived up to the ideals of its founding documents. That’s just the way it is. The mistake that progressives keep making over and over is believing that a single big win is somehow all it takes to overcome that reality. Remember how many people honestly believed that electing Obama meant we were now a “post-racial society?” Such naivete now seems heartbreakingly quaint.

The last two years — not to mention all the nasty bullshit Obama endured during the preceding eight years — have been a slap in the face to remind us that the work must go on. It will go on, and it is going on. Because the ideals we haven’t managed to live up to are as baked into the American makeup as the cruelty. Yin and yang, constantly struggling with one another, rocking back and forth but slowly, bit by bit, rolling forward. This country is about the aspiration, not a finished thing in itself. At least that’s how I’ve come to see things over the past decade.

It’s worth noting that many of those new representatives who will be seated come January 2019 are women, and many of them represent “firsts”: the first Muslim woman, the first Native American woman, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. And all of them were elected tonight, in 2018, with Donald Trump in the White House. That’s America.

That’s the work going on…

 

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The Kind of Fiction We Need Right Now

I’ve never read David Foster Wallace and have only peripheral awareness of who he even is, but based on this quote (from a book called Conversations with David Foster Wallace), I like the cut of his jib:

Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

(Thanks to my friend Karen for this little ray of light against the grimdark… )
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