Monthly Archives: April 2008

In Memoriam: John Berkey

John Berkey's cover art for the novelization of Star Wars

I just learned from the blog of Irene Gallo, the art director for Tor Books, that the illustrative artist John Berkey has died. Irene mentions something about him being in poor health in recent years, but so far, I haven’t been able to find any further details about his age or cause of death.

Berkey is probably best known for painting some of the very earliest pieces of promotional art associated with Star Wars — the image above was a poster concept for the movie, which ended up instead becoming the iconic cover of the film’s novelization — but his work was pretty commonly seen on all kinds of books and posters in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and it was a big influence on my developing sense of aesthetics. Several of his paintings still live in my memory; when I read of his death, I instantly recalled an image of his that appeared on Navy recruitment posters throughout my high school and early college years, and also this painting,which was the cover of a National Geographic coffee-table book called Our Universe. A friend of mine owned a copy of that book; as I recall, I borrowed it several times, but about all I remember about it now was that awesome cover painting.

Berkey’s work was more impressionistic than realistic, but one of the things it always conveyed was a true sense of mass. His starships and ocean-going craft and floating cities always felt huge and immensely powerful. It was a perfect style for the time of its greatest popularity, when Star Wars, with its mile-long Star Destroyers and moon-sized Death Star, set the tone for so much science fiction.

I don’t recall seeing any new work from Berkey in years, and I don’t know if that’s because he’s been ill or otherwise not working, or if his stuff just fell out of fashion. I rediscovered him a few years ago when I ran across a used art book at Sammy’s, and I spent several days marveling at how many of his paintings were familiar, and how much I still like them. That Star Wars piece above, for the record, is one of my favorites out of the hundreds of Original Trilogy-related paintings produced over the years; this companion piece is, too, even if it inaccurately depicts several Corellian YT-1300 light freighters at the Battle of Yavin, rather than just the one we all know actually was there…


The ’08 Summer Season: I’m Already Saying “Meh”

The first summer I worked at that movie theater job I’m always yammering on about was amazing. It was amazing for a lot of reasons: I had my first “real” job, I was positively goofy about this particular girl I happened to know, and I was making friendships with a posse of guys I’m still friendly with nearly 20 years later… it was simply one of the best times of my life. But one of the biggest reasons the summer of ’89 was so great was that the movies that were running in the background of all those coming-of-age moments were great, too. I’ve never done the research, so this is entirely subjective on my part, but I can’t think of any other summertime movie season that has been so chock-full of flicks that were both (a) immensely successful and (b) so damn good (or at least so really damn enjoyable, which isn’t necessarily the same thing). The line-up for the Memorial-Day-to-Labor-Day period that year included: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, Dead Poets Society, The Abyss, License to Kill, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, When Harry Met Sally…, and probably a dozen more I’m not remembering right now. There were just so many titles coming out that summer that caught my — and everybody else’s — attention, and we at the theater were all so aware of what was coming up. I miss being so plugged in to the scene. Or to any scene, really. Every weekend brought some new wonder, some new zap of electric anticipation for both us theater-drones and the patrons queuing up in the lobby. It was an exciting time to be working in the movie industry, and to be a movie fan.

However, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old curmudgeon who’s always going on about how much better things were back in his day, it’s been one long, slow downward slope ever since. I still reflexively get excited at the approach of the summer season, but year by year, summer by summer, the ratio of disappointment to awesomeness has been creeping upwards. Worse, it’s getting to the point where the upcoming releases aren’t even that interesting to begin with. (Of course, this problem isn’t confined to just the summer months; The Girlfriend and I used to go to the movies at least once a week, and sometimes two or three times, but over the last couple of years we’ve scaled back to about once a month. And it’s not because we’re all that busy — although we are — it’s mostly a function of how few flicks are coming out that we really want to see…)

Let’s examine this summer’s schedule (which officially kicks off this Friday with the release of Iron Man) and see what catches our eye, shall we?


Running with the Shadows

Coming home tonight after a late evening out, I was thinking about this song:

That’s Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night,” if you don’t know it. I’ve always liked this one; it’s probably my favorite Benatar tune, even though it was one of her lesser hits and seems to be somewhat unknown these days (at least, I rarely hear it out there in the world; whenever the oldies station — sigh — plays a Benatar song, it’s almost invariably either “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” or “Love Is a Battlefield”). I groove on its combination of romantic melody and rock ‘n’ roll bombast, I guess. I vaguely remembered the video showed her in a cockpit singing into an old-fashioned microphone, but wow, it turns out to be quite the little epic, doesn’t it?

A couple of thoughts:

  • I don’t know what kind of planes are featured in Pat’s daydream, but they’re not P-51 Mustangs, as shown on that poster she’s looking at in the framing scenes.
  • This was made in 1982, the year after Raiders of the Lost Ark came out. Could the Nazi theme have possibly been inspired by Raiders‘ success? It seem like there were a lot of Nazis and 1930s/1940s things in pop culture around that time, but did Raiders begin that or was it merely another example of the same zeitgeist?
  • Did you catch Judge Reinhold and Bill Paxton as the pilot in the red cap and the Nazi radio operator, respectively?
  • And finally, is it just me or are women in 1940s-style flying gear damn sexy? Maybe it’s me…

Benefit Concert for One of the Old Gang

I grew up in a place — Riverton, Utah — that, up until the late ’80s or so, was very much like the stereotypical small town you see in movies and old TV sitcoms. I lived on a pleasant road lined (at that time) with big shade trees; there was a single grocery store whose staff knew my mother by name; and my dad did a lot of barter work with the neighbors, trading his mechanical knowledge for labor to help build our barn, among other things. But even then, Riverton’s small-town atmosphere was something of a fading illusion — traffic along that tree-lined road grew heavier with each passing year, and tract houses were quietly springing up like mushrooms after the rain.

The community to the south of Riverton, however, a place called Bluffdale… well, that really was a small town. Bluffdale didn’t even have its own grocery store, or a school for its children, or much of anything really except alfalfa fields and cows and pick-up trucks. Bluffdale old-timers still refer to driving the three miles over to Riverton for groceries as “going to town,” as if they were trekking in from the Outback to the Big City. This is where my lovely Anne, a.k.a. The Girlfriend, grew up, playing with the neighbor kids that were her age, babysitting the ones that were younger, being watched over herself by the ones that were older.

It was the sort of upbringing that leaves deep and lasting roots. Many of Anne’s “old gang” still live right there in the old neighborhood, and the ones who have moved on in search of greener pastures — or any kind of pastures, considering that Bluffdale is now “developing” just like its big brother Riverton — seem to keep in better touch with their childhood friends than most. When something bad happens to one of them, the word gets around. And people do what they can to help.

A while back, Anne got the word that something very bad indeed had happened to one of the old gang. A guy named Nate Pemberton lost his wife Jenni and their unborn fourth child to something called an “amniotic embolism,” a rare and not-very-well-understood complication of pregnancy that kills nearly 80 percent of the women it afflicts. Just to make things more interesting, the couple didn’t have any health insurance. So now, in addition to trying to deal with his grief and raise their other three kids alone, Nate has to find a way, somehow, to cover a bundle of very large medical bills.

To try to help Nate, the old gang and the larger community of Bluffdale old-timers have set up a fund in the name of Jennifer M. Pemberton at Zions Bank to collect donations. (If you live out of state, there’s also a PayPal account that will feed into the same fund). More impressively, they’re mounting a benefit concert headlined by local country-western performer J. Marc Bailey. Now, I’m not a big fan of country music, but I have seen Marc perform — I’ve also met him via a mutual acquaintance — and I can attest that he puts on a good show. He’s had some rock ‘n’ roll influences and his music isn’t strictly country. This ought to be a decent night’s entertainment, and of course it’s for a good cause. If you’re interested either in contributing or attending the concert, you can find the details on this memorial blog or e-mail me and I’ll make sure you get the facts you need.

I have to confess that I don’t actually know Nate. I knew who the Pembertons were back in the day, but due to a quirk of timing they were all either ahead of me or behind me in school, so I never actually got acquainted with them. However, Anne knows them and the news about Nate’s troubles shook her. Shook me a little, too, to be honest. The word “tragedy” gets thrown around pretty easily these days, but if this story doesn’t qualify as a genuine tragedy, I don’t know what would. I don’t want to taint this noble cause with politics, but it seems to me the story of Jenni and Nate Pemberton is a damn good example of why we need to get serious about renovating our healthcare system in this country. It’s absolute nonsense that a country that calls itself the “richest nation on Earth” can’t set up something so good working people from small towns don’t have to worry about bill collectors pounding on their doors during the worst year of their lives. Stories like Nate’s are pretty common, and the injustice of them always makes me angry. The Europeans consider access to healthcare a basic human right, and they never have to worry about losing their homes when something unexpected happens. So why can’t we Americans, who used to lead the world in just about every way you can think of but lately seem to be sitting on the sidelines, say the same thing?

Forgive the mini-rant. As I said, these stories get my dander up. Anyway, if anyone reading this knows the Pembertons or lives in the Salt Lake/Provo area and wants to see a good concert, or even if you’re a total stranger who’s just looking for a way to spend some of that free money George W. is sending to us this month, please check out that blog I mentioned and throw a couple of dollars into the hat. It’s a good cause. And it’s a way to keep that small-town atmosphere alive just a little while longer…


Saturday Mornings Back in the Day

Saturday Morning Live Action Televison by Dusty Abell

Via Chris Roberson, here’s an awesome piece of art by a guy named Dusty Abell that probably won’t mean a damn thing to any of the younger folks out there in InternetLand, but ought to bring a smile to the faces of all us aging thirtysomethings.
In case you’ve forgotten (or never knew them), these are the heroes and villains of all those great live-action TV adventures that used to alternate with cartoons on Saturday mornings back in the ’70s. Children’s television back then was blissfully un-self-conscious, utterly lacking in the cynical sense of irony, marketing potential, and self-aware references to other pop culture that infest today’s kidvid stuff. It was also incredibly low-budget, heartbreakingly earnest, and broadly (i.e., poorly) acted. But it was wonderful stuff anyhow. Mostly fantasy or science fiction in nature, it stretched the imaginations of many a wide-eyed young viewer, and I didn’t realize how much I missed these shows until just now. I feel sorry for modern-day kids; Saturday mornings these days just suck.

Click on the image to blow it up large and see how many of these characters you can name. The complete roster is below the fold…


And the Hits Just Keep Coming on Simple Tricks Radio!

A couple of days ago, I brought you the wonder of a Japan-ified “Smoke on the Water.” Now as a little Saturday morning wake-me-up I present The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” played — quite well, incidentally — by two guys with ukeleles. Why? I dunno… it just amuses me:


Happy Birthday, Hubble!


The Bad Astronomer reminds us that today is the 18th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s hard to believe that Hubble has been sending back incredible photos of the universe around us for nearly two decades. Time flies.
To celebrate the anniversary, NASA has released 59 images of galaxies colliding with other galaxies, the largest collection of Hubble images ever released to the public in a single package. The image above contains some highlights. Click on it to see ’em large, or go here for the complete gallery.

Good stuff, Maynard!


An Exercise in Stating the Obvious

I was A Master!
I scored 86/100 on theClassic Guitar Solo Quiz

Can you identify classic rock songs by listening to their guitar solos?Quiz by Ibanez Guitar Blog


The text that didn’t get reproduced from the quiz site (and which inspired the title of this entry) reads: “You are a Master! You’re either an old man or a serious throwback!”

Um, yeah. We won’t comment any further on that…


Ricin Maker Charged

Roger Von Bergendorff, the guy who lapsed into a coma after handling deadly ricin in a Las Vegas hotel room, has been arrested and charged with possession of a biological toxin, as well as possessing unregistered firearms and firearms not identified by serial number. According to this article, he also had a couple of homemade silencers and drawings of a device for injecting the ricin into victims. He has supposedly admitted to making the ricin in Utah, “possibly in the basement of his cousin’s Riverton home” — which, if you’ll recall, is only a short distance from my own home.

All in all, Von Bergendorff comes across as something of a poseur, a guy with a big mouth and a vivid imagination rather than a genuine killer, something like the character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil who is always threatening to pour poison into the city’s water supply just to make himself seem more important. But still… it does give me a bit of a chill to think that somewhere right in my hometown, there was a guy who nursed private grudges and cooked up vengeance plans that sound like something out of a John le Carre novel. It’s all too easy to imagine this guy roaming the aisles of Peterson’s, the local grocery store, poking people with his little poison-spitter, and then laughing a few days later when the TV news is doing around-the-clock coverage while authorities try to figure out what the hell is going on with all the sick and dying people in an otherwise unremarkable bedroom community on the south end of the valley…