Nice Bit of Writing

Nothing much to say here, I just liked something I read during my morning commute. One of the most common scenes in any Star Wars-related novel is, of course, an enemy fighter getting pasted by the Millennium Falcon‘s mighty quad-mounted laser turrets. I’ve read countless variations on that theme over the years, and I imagine it’s an immense challenge for a writer to find some way of making it fresh and interesting. But I thought this particular instance was done with a lot of panache:

The enemy wriggled off the hook once more, but this one made an error, too: he got sore. Veering in a wide, angry, predictable loop, he came back to have his vengeance. Instead, he got four parallel pulsed beams of raw fusion-reactor output straight in the helmet visor.

And exploded, showering space with incandescent atoms.

That’s from Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon by L. Neil Smith… kudos, sir!

 

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Debunking Hollywood Babylon

If you’re at all interested in Hollywood history — by which I don’t mean the nuts-and-bolts of how any given classic film was made, or the ups and downs of the business, but rather the stories of the people behind the films and the business, the ones we revere, sometimes the ones we deplore, and especially those we’ve forgotten — then you owe it yourself to check out a podcast called You Must Remember This. I’ve been following it for about a year and a half now after first learning about it from Wil Wheaton, and I find it endlessly fascinating.

The podcast’s host, film journalist Karina Longworth, does two cycles or “seasons” per year, and each season is themed around a single topic that reveals “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” to borrow from the show’s prologue. These histories can range from a comparison of the lives and careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, to the evolution of Jane Fonda from a sex kitten to a political lightning rod, to the McCarthy-era blacklist. (Personally, I started listening during a season called “Dead Blondes,” about all the blonde sex symbols who’ve met untimely and sometimes horrific endings.) The show is very well researched and documented, with source notes and photographs available for each episode on a related blog. It truly is a treasure trove for dedicated movie buffs, or even just people who enjoy a good story.

The current season is of particular interest because I have a personal connection to the topic.

Way back in my teens, I stumbled across a tattered paperback book called Hollywood Babylon in a thrift store. Its author is a guy named Kenneth Anger, which is an apt name considering the book turned out to be 200-some pages of someone grinding a very large ax. Babylon is one of those works that seeks to destroy plaster idols and press hot buttons, and it does that very effectively as it recounts some of the saddest and most sordid tales of Hollywood lore in the cruelest manner possible. It was in the pages of Hollywood Babylon that I first heard the tale of washed-up Peg Entwhistle hurling herself off the “H” of the Hollywood sign… of Lupe Valez’ ignominious suicide (according to Anger, the Latina star had wanted to die in a beautiful, carefully staged scene on her bed, but became sick to her stomach and ended up drowning in her toilet after vomiting)… of va-va-voom girl Jayne Mansfield being decapitated in a car accident and permanently traumatizing the policeman who found her head… of Errol Flynn’s trial for statutory rape and the rumors that he was a Nazi spy (Timothy Dalton’s character in The Rocketeer is based on this version of Flynn, if you didn’t know)… and most shockingly to me, at that time anyhow, of silent-era comedian Fatty Arbuckle’s trial for raping a woman with a Coke bottle, causing so much internal damage that she subsequently died. (I don’t know why the Coke bottle thing troubled me more than the gory mental images of Valez or Jayne Mansfield, but I remember that it did.)

Hollywood Babylon outraged me when I read it. Not because its stories were taboo or breaking down the glamorous facade of the movies’ golden age, but because it was just so damn mean-spirited. Something about the tone of the writing suggested that Anger was having a good laugh at the thought of all those pretty people being cut down to size, and he wanted the reader to have one too. And if you were shocked instead of amused, well… Anger struck me as the sort of smirking asshole who would just laugh harder and louder. I’ve never had much use for the provocateur types who get off on riling people up just to see if they can.

Moreover, I had a hunch that a lot of what I was reading in that book was horseshit. Even in my teen years, when I was admittedly naive about, well, everything, Babylon smelled off to me. And yet I knew that many of the stories Anger told were out there in the culture, accepted by people who either didn’t know better or wanted to believe the worst about all those immoral movie folk. And that made me angry, too.

The whole experience of reading that book was highly unpleasant, and I very quickly got rid of the damn thing, after which I took a long shower.

Now, getting back to You Must Remember This, the latest season of the podcast, titled “Fake News,” is dedicated to refuting Hollywood Babylon, or at least pointing out the places where Anger exaggerated or insinuated things that aren’t supported by facts, and I’m loving every minute of it. It’s weirdly vindicating to hear this stuff, as if some great injustice is finally being corrected, even though the urban legends promulgated by Anger have been debunked before in various places. Besides, like I said earlier, these stories, the real stories, are just plain interesting.

You can listen to You Must Remember This yourself through the official website or iTunes, or I imagine any place else you go to hear podcasts, and I highly recommend you do so. It’s a great show.

And no, Fatty Arbuckle did not rape Virginia Rappe with a Coke bottle. The autopsy showed no evidence of a sexual assault, and Arbuckle was acquitted. Not that that saved his career, sadly…

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“Let Me Tell You What I Believe”

“We now stand at a crossroads — a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world. Two different stories, two different narratives about who we are and who we should be. How should we respond?

“Should we see that wave of hope that we felt with [Nelson Mandela’s] release from prison, from the Berlin Wall coming down — should we see that hope that we had as naïve and misguided? Should we understand the last 25 years of global integration as nothing more than a detour from the previous inevitable cycle of history — where might makes right, and politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions, and nations compete in a zero-sum game, constantly teetering on the edge of conflict until full-blown war breaks out? Is that what we think?

“Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good. That’s what I believe.

And I believe we have no choice but to move forward; that those of us who believe in democracy and civil rights and a common humanity have a better story to tell. And I believe this not just based on sentiment, I believe it based on hard evidence.

“The fact that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies, the ones with the highest living standards and the highest levels of satisfaction among their people, happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal that we talk about and have nurtured the talents and contributions of all their citizens.

“The fact that authoritarian governments have been shown time and time again to breed corruption, because they’re not accountable; to repress their people; to lose touch eventually with reality; to engage in bigger and bigger lies that ultimately result in economic and political and cultural and scientific stagnation. Look at history. Look at the facts.

“The fact that countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial or religious superiority as their main organizing principle, the thing that holds people together — eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war. Check the history books.

“The fact that technology cannot be put back in a bottle, so we’re stuck with the fact that we now live close together and populations are going to be moving, and environmental challenges are not going to go away on their own, so that the only way to effectively address problems like climate change or mass migration or pandemic disease will be to develop systems for more international cooperation, not less.

“We have a better story to tell. But to say that our vision for the future is better is not to say that it will inevitably win. Because history also shows the power of fear. History shows the lasting hold of greed and the desire to dominate others in the minds of men. Especially men. History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on those who look different, or worship God in a different way. So if we’re truly to continue [Mandela’s] long walk towards freedom, we’re going to have to work harder and we’re going to have to be smarter. We’re going to have to learn from the mistakes of the recent past. … ”

— Barack Obama, speaking in Johannesburg, South Africa, to honor the late Nelson Mandela, July 17, 2018

(italics mine; complete transcript here)

This was President Obama’s first major speech since leaving office. As usual, he articulated the same vision of the world and of the future that I have, the one that I’m trying very hard not to lose faith in.

I really miss this man.

 

 

 

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Ow, Quit It…

My recent joyful reaction to the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story not only reinvigorated my attitude about the whole damn Star Wars franchise, it also inspired me to revisit the original early adventures of Han and Lando: the Han Solo novels by Brian Daley, and the Lando Calrissian adventures by L. Neil Smith.

The Daley books are old favorites of mine, as I’ve surely mentioned before. I’ve read them many, many times, especially the first two — Han Solo at Star’s End and Han Solo’s Revenge. The Lando books, on the other hand… I’m not sure I even got around to reading all three of them back in the day. I want to say I only got through the first two in the trilogy, and I’m certain I’ve never gone back to them in all the decades since. And looking back now, I can’t really say why. I have a vague memory of thinking they didn’t feel very much like Star Wars to me, as if they were pre-existing works that the author had simply retrofitted with new character names. But I think it’s far more likely that it was simply bad timing. They were published the same summer that Return of the Jedi was first released in theaters, 1983, and it really felt back then as if the whole thing was just… over. Factor in my age at the time — I was thirteen going on fourteen — and I think there’s  a good chance I was simply ready to turn my attention to, shall we say, other things. (I’m talking about girls, if that’s not obvious.)

It’s a bit of a shame, really, as I find I’m enjoying the Lando books perfectly well this time around. They’re as “Star Wars-y” as any of the other tie-in novels I’ve read, and I can easily visualize Donald Glover — the young Lando we see in the Solo movie — having these adventures a couple years prior to the events of that film. (It probably helps that Glover’s Lando explicitly references a couple things from these books during the movie, a deliberate Easter egg for old-school fans like myself.) There is, however, one aspect of these books that’s bringing me down a bit, and that’s L. Neil Smith’s tendency to insert really awful jokes based on 20th century Earthly consumer goods. In the first volume, Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, there’s a throwaway line about “Lyme’s rose juice,” which would’ve gone right over my head when I was 13 but now instantly clicks as a play on the Rose’s lime juice I use to make cocktails with. I know, right? As bad as that is, though, Smith tops it in the second book, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon.

The Flamewind is a natural phenomenon in the star system Lando is visiting in this book, an effect caused by the local solar wind interacting with magnetic fields to fill the space between the system’s worlds with brilliant colors, something like the aurora borealis here on Earth. Neat idea… but tell me this doesn’t make you want to groan:

Outside, a braid of raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange twisted through the heavens, across a constellation locals called the Silly Rabbit.

Now, maybe that doesn’t mean anything to Millennials and Gen-Zs, but for we Xers who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and all the junk food that was advertised in between them…

Silly Rabbit indeed. Sigh.

 

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Friday Evening Videos: “Voodoo House”

I honestly can’t remember how many times I’ve seen Rick Springfield in concert.

What started off as a lark — “Hey, let’s go see that guy I loved as a kid and find out if he can still sing!” — and then evolved into something of a running gag — “Hey, let’s go see Rick again!” — has finally become a comfortable, reliably entertaining event that Anne and I look forward to more or less annually. Which isn’t to suggest that a Rick Springfield concert is the same old thing, year after year. While there are a lot of ’80s nostalgia acts who do essentially the same show every time — I’m thinking of Def Leppard in particular; they’re good, but if you’ve seen them once, you’ve seen them — I’ve personally had a wide range of experiences with Rick, everything from an arena-style state-fair show to a Las Vegas stage spectacular to an intimate performance in a small rehearsal space. We’re going to see him again tonight, this time performing under the stars with the Utah Symphony Orchestra. So that ought to be interesting.

I’d love to take all my Loyal Readers along with me, but since that’s not possible, I’ll leave you with a video instead.

“Voodoo House” is the second single from Rick’s latest album The Snake King, and the blues influence is even more obvious on this one than in the first release, “In the Land of the Blind.” Filmed on location in the bayous around New Orleans, an authentically grimy road house, and in the historic Dew Drop Jazz and Social Hall — reportedly the oldest rural jazz hall in the country — the video is dripping with humid atmosphere, redolent of sweat, sex, and the dark ancient forces that whisper to men and women alike when the sun drops low in the west. It’s cool stuff. Hope you dig it as much as I do.

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A Poem for the Fourth of July

The crackle and thunder of the fireworks is finally beginning to wind down, the traffic jam that’s been creeping past my house for an hour is breaking up, and a pall of smoke hangs over everything. Independence Day 2018 is nearly over. Am I the only one who feels sort of… relieved? Let’s be honest: It’s been a weird one this year.

Our country is a mess. It’s been a mess before, many times, but this mess, this year… this feels different, doesn’t it? The partisan divide is wider than I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime, and that’s saying something given the past 20 years or so. Tensions are high, and I’m willing to bet a dollar that there will be bloodshed before this long hot summer is over. Or at least before election day. Not exactly a celebratory sort of time, is it?

I’d like to share a poem I ran across recently that I think is worth your time and your thought. It’s by a gentleman named Langston Hughes, an African-American writer who was at the forefront of the artistic and social movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote this poem written in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, when the forces of fascism were on the rise in Europe. That world would look familiar to us in some respects and yet also be stunningly removed from our daily experience here in the 21st century. It’s a world 83 years in the rear-view, a time that was closer to the muzzle-loading, pre-industrialized Civil War than it is to our current-day social-media struggle to define the soul of America. Nevertheless, what Hughes is saying here remains true and relevant today: that America is what it has always been… not a tangible thing that we once had and somehow lost, but an ideal to strive for… an ideal we’ve never managed to completely obtain, which has never been shared equally among all our peoples, but which we still promise ourselves is within reach. That comforts me on this long, hot summer night when the air is as thick with tension as it is the smell of gunpowder…

LET AMERICA BE AMERICA AGAIN

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

 

 

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Tough Times for Truth, Justice and the American Way

I’ve been thinking for a week or so that I need to write something that will capture my thoughts about where we are as a country right now and where we appear to be headed, but you know what? Screw it. My heart’s just not into rehashing the rage, frustration, fear, contempt, shame, and, most of all, disappointment I’ve been feeling toward the old US of A lately. Not to mention that there are likely people reading this right now, people I know, friends and family members, who have exactly the opposite opinion about what’s going on. Who are maybe even elated by the very same things I find so utterly repugnant. And that’s really… discouraging.

I need some inspiration, some reassurance about the very concept of America. I need to look to one of my heroes, a symbol of everything that’s best about this country, the embodiment of our ideals and aspirations, a comforting mythical figure who…

Ah, shit. Doesn’t that just figure?

Make sense, though. That’s certainly where my America seems to be right now.

 

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Pity The Nation

One of the blog entries that got obliviated last week was simply a poem that I’d run across and appreciated. I’ve decided to put it up again because, if anything, it’s even more relevant now than when I first posted it a couple weeks ago. Alas.

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
And whose shepherds mislead them
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars
Whose sages are silenced
And whose bigots haunt the airwaves
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
Except  to praise conquerers
And acclaim the bully as hero
And aims to rule the world
By force and by torture
Pity the nation that knows
No other language but its own
And no other culture but its own
Pity the nation whose breath is money
And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed
Pity the nation oh pity the people
who allow their rights to  erode
and their freedoms to be washed away
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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A Couple of Sunday Afternoon Book Reviews

The Earhart BetrayalThe Earhart Betrayal by James Stewart Thayer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the enduring ideas about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart is the notion that her attempted around-the-world flight was a cover for some sort of covert activity… that she was a spy, essentially, and that she did not die in the ocean or on some lonely speck of land somewhere, but was in fact captured by the Japanese. That idea forms the basis for this novel, a nifty thriller set in post-war Singapore. An American intelligence operative and his wife arrive to investigate evidence that Earhart died in a nearby POW camp. But what ought to be a simple milk run turns out to be the entry into something much bigger and more dangerous. The couple quickly find themselves mired in the intrigue surrounding a priceless jade elephant stolen during the war and now sought by several powerful individuals, while long-simmering ethnic tensions threaten to boil over. The sense of place is particularly well done; the sweaty, oppressive environment is practically a character on it own. In addition, the human characters are all colorful, the action brutal, and the revelations unexpected, and underlying all of it is a plausible explanation for one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century… what really happened to Amelia Earhart? An excellent summertime hammock read.

View all my reviews

The Girl, the Gold Watch & EverythingThe Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A recent conversation about TV movies of the ’70s reminded me of this story, which I recall as a pleasantly cute film starring Robert Hays and Pam Dawber of Mork & Mindy fame. That conversation sent me questing for the original novel. Like the movie, the book is pleasantly cute: the story of a nebbishy young man named Kirby whose eccentric uncle dies and leaves him a mysterious gold watch and a big mess of trouble. It seems this watch has the ability to stop time for whoever is holding it, which was the secret behind the uncle’s unlikely success in life, and now there are unscrupulous people who want that power for themselves. In the wrong hands, the watch could unleash chaos on the world. Can Kirby uncover the secrets of the watch, outsmart the bad guys, and discover the self-confidence his uncle believed he has within him?

Written in 1962, the book is unquestionably a product of the Mad Men era, with all the pros and cons you might imagine. The recurring theme of Kirby’s sexual inadequacy, his inability to get laid and the suggestion that he’s not a real man because he doesn’t know how to score, is rather jarring to modern sensibilities, while his love interest Bonnie wouldn’t feel out of place in an Austin Powers movie. (She’s a groovy babe, you see.) Yes, this is a sexist book, but it’s made palatable by the fact that Kirby is more hapless than predatory, and the female characters are in fact the competent ones, the ones with the power to make things happen. It’s also presented in a lighthearted, broadly humorous style that’s difficult to dislike. Ultimately, if you can look past its dated elements, it’s a harmless bit of fun from another time.

And now I want to see that TV movie again…

View all my reviews

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Well, Hell…

When I logged into my blog this morning, I was planning to finish a draft entry that’s been hanging in limbo for several days, and then if my day job was slow enough, maybe throw together a Friday Evening Video for tonight. Instead, I discovered to my horror that all my published posts since April 29 and a number of in-progress drafts had evaporated. A quick text to my webmaster Jack confirmed the worst: he’d been forced to roll Simple Tricks back to an earlier state in order to solve a problem with the server. He said he’d try to recover the missing content, but wasn’t very confident that it could be done. The Internet Archive’s last snapshot was sometime last year, so no help there either.

It’s not a huge catastrophe — as best I can recall, there were only three published posts since April 29, and one of them was just a reprint of a poem, not my work at all — but it still bothers me to lose any of my writing. I do so little of it these days, it all ends up feeling so precious to me. Losing the obituary I wrote for Anthony Bourdain especially smarts. I wrote that one in a welter of emotions, straight from the heart, and I don’t think I could begin to recreate it now with a week’s distance from the event. Not that anyone would care if I did; the news cycle has already churned on and his death may as well have happened a year ago. The people who are interested in that subject have already read all about it and moved on to other things, and there’s no sense in looking back.

That’s the real bummer about mishaps like this: They remind me of just how ephemeral online writing is. If it’s not obliterated outright like these entries, it has a sell-by date that’s almost as absolute. I don’t blog much anymore, for reasons too complex to bother going into here, and when I do get around to it, I’m usually behind the curve already before I even get the entry published. And then you give it a week or two down the road and it’s as irrelevant as the newsprint wrapped around your fish and chips. Just more blathering into the void, and to what end?

Why yes, I am feeling like it’s all for nothing, thank you. I used to at least have my little community here, my Loyal Readers, to give me the sense that I was reaching somebody. And then social media happened and that absorbed all those other communities, and I myself got old and found I couldn’t sit up half the night writing this stuff anymore. Is there anybody out there right now? Anyone receiving? I tell myself I write for my own satisfaction, but that’s bunk, isn’t it? I like to think I’ve got an audience waiting to hear from me. But I don’t really believe it anymore. It’s hard not to feel like this blogging thing is over and done.

Even so, this morning’s little debacle has inspired me to make a couple of changes. I’ve installed a plugin that will make daily backups, saved to the cloud, and I’m exploring offline editing software. I could just type everything in Word, of course, and copy-and-paste it over when I’m ready to publish. But like I said… I’m exploring. I definitely want something that will let me save local copies of everything; no more blogging directly on the site! I lost The Girl with the Grey Eyes during the big hardware failure a few years ago, and now I’ve lost Bourdain, and I’ve had enough of losing my words. I should’ve taken these precautions years ago… but like I said, I’m always behind the curve.

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