To Be Hopeful…

Here’s something I’ve been needing to hear recently:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.


What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.


And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

— Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times


Book Review: Ghost Story

Ghost StoryGhost Story by Peter Straub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was inspired to track this down after seeing the 1981 film adaptation last year. I’d heard the film left out a lot of material and was generally inferior. While it’s true that the movie does pare down the story quite a bit, as well as substantially changing the nature of the monster, I’m undecided as to whether I’d call it inferior or not, because the book really didn’t do much for me.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t like the book. I did. But I didn’t love the book. I thought it had a really interesting idea at its core, namely that the vampires, werewolves, and ghosts that have been talked about throughout human history are all in fact the same kind of creature, a very long-lived creature that preys on humanity and genuinely enjoys screwing with its prey. There were a few moments of genuine dread. And I thought the story was interesting on a metatextual level, as it was a ghost story in which many people tell ghost stories, and those stories both influence and explain the events the characters experience. But I’m sorry to say none of the characters, out of an entire townful of characters, ever really came alive for me. I’m afraid Stephen King has the corner on that market. And the author’s prose style kept me at arm’s length for reasons I haven’t quite been able to work out.

Bottom line, I respected it intellectually, but I just didn’t have much of an emotional response to it. A disappointment, but not a complete misfire.

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Friday Evening Videos (All Hallow’s Eve Edition): “Christine”

Here’s a little something for the season, from the man whose name is synonymous with Halloween — Halloween the movie, that is — film writer and director John Carpenter.

Carpenter is essentially retired from movie-making these days, but he’s been keeping himself plenty busy with musical pursuits. Working with his son Cody (whose mother is the actress Adrienne Barbeau) and godson Daniel Davies, he’s recorded two albums in recent years, Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, both of which sound like the throbbing synthesizer soundtracks he used to create for his films. (That’s a good thing, in my book.) He’s even done a few live performances, like a bona fide rock star. (I’ve not been fortunate enough to see him… yet. But I’m hopeful.)

Now, however, he’s stepped back behind the camera and behind the wheel of a familiar old friend to promote his latest release, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998. For an old-school Carpenter fan like myself, the result is pretty close to sublime:

I don’t know about you, but the hair on my arms rises when those tires start to squeal…

Anthology, a collection of Carpenter’s iconic movie music re-recorded using modern equipment and updated arrangements,  came out last month and is available in all the usual formats, from all the usual venues.

And remember, kids, when you’re out trick-or-treating tonight…  if a strange old man driving a red ’57 Plymouth rolls up and offers you a ride… don’t be scared. It’s only Halloween…








The True King

Back in the heady days of my career as a technical writer — which, as it happened, more or less coincided with the heady days of the Internet going mainstream  and the dot-com boom — we used to talk a lot about “content is king,” i.e., the most important thing. Of course, people said a lot of things back then that later got re-evaluated.

“Content isn’t king, conversation is king. Content is only something to talk about.”

–Attributed to Cory Doctorow, but I can’t confirm that.


Tonight, on a Special Halloween Episode of…

Anne and I went to a party last night at which the guests were asked to brainstorm “a teaser for a gruesome Halloween episode of a popular TV show” as part of a game. (Actually, the results would more accurately be called loglines, but hey, why quibble?) Winners were chosen for funniest, goriest, and overall best ideas. I thought it was a fun little exercise, and I’m rather proud of what we came up with, so naturally I must share:

Tonight, on a spooooky episode of Hogan’s Heroes: One by one, the men of Stalag 13 are growing sick and dying. Colonel Klink has gone mad with religious fervor. General Burkhalter has gone to the Russian Front where it’s safe. And Hogan realizes that no one sees Schultz during the daytime any more…

And the second one:

In this very special episode of The Andy Griffith Show, the dead are walking the streets of Mayberry. Andy, Opie, and Barney have barricaded themselves in the courthouse. As Andy begins to rave delusionally after being bitten by the zombie Floyd, Barney ponders the best use for his one bullet…

Why yes, we do watch a lot of MeTV, why do you ask?


“We Wouldn’t Deserve To”

I never thought I’d be quoting John McCain, of all people, but when you’re right, you’re right:
“To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain the last best hope of earth for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history,
“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did.
“We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”
Well said, sir.

Friday Evening Videos: “Learning to Fly” (RIP, Tom Petty)

Just between you and me, the sudden, shocking death of Tom Petty earlier this week sent me into a deep funk.

I’m sure it didn’t help that I was already upset about the bloodbath in Las Vegas the night before the news about Petty broke. But even so, seeing the initial report that he’d been found in full cardiac arrest a mere week after the triumphant finish of what he’d been saying would be his final tour… it hit me like a piledriver to the solar plexus and I’m still trying to find my breath.

What surprises me about my reaction is that I’ve only ever thought of myself as a casual, “greatest-hits” level fan. Hell, for a long time, I didn’t even have a clear idea of who Tom Petty was, other than the skinny blond dude in that really messed-up “Alice in Wonderland”-themed MTV video. But then came The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1, the collaborative project he did with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne. I adored the Wilburys. Then came Full Moon Fever, his first solo album without his usual band, the Heartbreakers, and I adored that, too. And then I heard “American Girl” in the film The Silence of the Lambs, of all places, and decided I needed to check out this guy’s back catalog, whereupon I realized that I really did know quite a lot of Tom Petty’s work after all, and I liked what I’d heard. Like Springsteen and Mellencamp, he had a knack for capturing a particular flavor of everyday American life that I strongly related to. For whatever reason, though, I’ve just never explored his oeuvre beyond the radio hits. Hence, my feeling of being a casual fan at best.

Nevertheless, there are two Tom Petty songs that are very important to me, both of which just happened to come along right when I most needed to hear them, and I think it’s because of the personal meaning attached to those two songs that I’m feeling his death so keenly.

The first was “Free Fallin’,” the third single from Full Moon Fever and one of Tom’s biggest hits. It was released in the fall of 1989 and peaked on the charts in January of ’90. As fate would have it, I was experiencing my first big heartbreak during that period, and while there were many songs that spoke to me around that time, it’s “Free Fallin'” that I remember playing over and over. Its mood, if not its actual lyrics, reflected my emotional state almost perfectly: a melancholy stew of loss, regret, guilt, and most of all, the gnawing, inescapable truth that there wasn’t a damn thing I could have done to prevent any of it. You might think that listening to a song that reminded me of all that would be masochistic under the circumstances, and I suppose it was, to a degree. But weirdly, it also brought me some comfort to know that I wasn’t the only person who’d ever experienced these feelings. Without being too dramatic about it, I credit this song with keeping me sane during that time.

A year and a half later, I was still trying to pick up the emotional pieces — hey, what can I say, I’ve always been slow to get over stuff — when Tom Petty got back together with the Heartbreakers for the album Into the Great Wide Open. The first single from that one was “Learning to Fly.” And again, somehow, improbably if not impossibly, this tune by a guy 20 years my senior managed to capture exactly what I was going through. I hear in it the weary but hopeful voice of someone who’s been in a tailspin but is now beginning to pull out of it and face the world again, just like I was in the summer of 1991. I still like “Free Fallin’,” but it no longer resonates with me so much. “Learning to Fly” does, because that’s how I still feel at any given time. Like a battered survivor who’s still trying to sort things out. I think maybe I feel that way more now at the age of 48 than I ever have. And so of course that’s the one I must post this week, in honor of a fallen troubadour who meant a lot more to me than I ever realized while he was still here.

I was going to post the official video, but then I spotted this clip, recorded at a concert 12 years ago. It’s the perfect farewell, in so many ways. The slower, more meditative pacing, the audience calling back to him in one of those moments of transcendence you sometimes experience at concerts with your long-time heroes… and yes, that is my beloved rock goddess Stevie Nicks singing backup. She and Petty were friends and occasional collaborators for 40 years. She’s even said she almost joined the Heartbreakers when Fleetwood Mac started going south; instead, she forged a solo career with Tom frequently lending his talents on songs like “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” I can only imagine what she’s been going through this week… and thinking of it makes me all the more sad.

One final thought: Tom Petty was one of the last remaining names on my wishlist of artists I’d like to see in concert. I never got the chance, and I’m going to regret that for a long time. Even worse, though, Tom’s passing is a reminder that my rock-and-roll imaginary friends are getting old. Realistically they’re not going to be out there on the road for very much longer, and then some time after that, they’re not going to be out there at all. And once they’ve all gone… how old will I feel myself? What happens when you outlive the heroes of your youth?


“The Classic Legend Begins An All-New Adventure…”

Here’s an addendum to my previous post: It’s the introductory preview that aired just before “Encounter at Farpoint,” the two-hour premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or, as the announcer dude says it, “Starrrrrrrr Trek!”

See what I mean about the ads making this show look action-packed? Let’s just say this impression was… not entirely accurate. The ratio of long-winded speechifying to fisticuffs and/or phaser fire was pretty broad in “Farpoint.” But it’s just as well, since TNG never did do action very well, in my opinion. I don’t know if the cast or directors weren’t comfortable doing action, or if the show’s tone of benign enlightenment simply wasn’t compatible with it, but TNG was always far better in moments of quiet drama than the sorts of shenanigans that Kirk and company often engaged in.

Still… it’s fun to see this little clip again. I think it conveys some of the excitement that swirled around the premiere, which is so very different from the blase’ or outright hostile attitudes with which the new Star Trek: Discovery is being met…


Thirty Years of Making It So

Facebook has been utterly determined this week to make me feel how swiftly time rushes by as we get older. First, it was regurgitating photos from my trip to Massachusetts last year. Then it was photos from my trip to Scotland two years ago. But today the almighty algorithm has decided to pull out the really big guns by showing me every post everyone in the world has been making about the anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted on this date — are you ready for this? — 30 years ago.

Thirty. Years.

Can it possibly so long? That’s an entire generation in its own right, isn’t it? Longer than the span between the debut of the original Star Trek in 1966 and The Next Generation in 1987. Thirty years ago tonight, I had just turned 18. I was a couple weeks into my first quarter as a college freshman, still feeling very much like a little kid as I wandered around the big grown-up campus of the University of Utah. I was commuting to school in a yellow, four-doored Volkswagen Rabbit, and I was dating a cute brunette girl with bright blue eyes, but not seriously. I remember that she pissed me off by calling right in the middle of the two-hour Next Generation premiere; luckily, I was recording it on my trusty VCR so I could catch up later on the bit I lost while I was talking dirty with her on the phone.

I also remember that I wasn’t terribly impressed with TNG at first.The premiere wasn’t nearly as action-packed as the commercials had made it appear, and none of the cast seemed very comfortable with their roles. In fact, Sir Patrick Stewart was so stiff as the new captain that I mistakenly believed for a time that he was a lousy actor. Or perhaps he was just playing a lousy character. They were all lousy characters in those early days, all prone to shouting while delivering lots and lots of expository dialog that moved the plots along, but did little to deepen the characters themselves. There wasn’t much chemistry between the actors either; the warmth and camaraderie that was such a notable feature of the original 1960s Star Trek was sorely lacking.

Speaking of the original series (TOS, to those of us who are “of the Body”), TNG had a weirdly schizoid relationship with its progenitor until well into its second or possibly even third season, which, as a lifelong fan of the original, I found deeply frustrating. On the one hand, TNG seemed desperate to establish its own identity apart from the adventures of the first Starship Enterprise, which was understandable, but it went so far out of the way to avoid mentioning any characters or events from TOS that the omission called attention to itself, even as the show was cannibalizing story ideas from the original. (The second episode, “The Naked Now,” was an almost beat-for-beat remake of the original series segment “The Naked Time,” which was either really gutsy or really stupid considering that TOS was still in reruns at that time, and there was a good chance everyone had seen “The Naked Time” very recently. Not that true Trekkies didn’t have it memorized anyhow.)

TNG was preachy, too. Oh, lord, was it preachy. Star Trek had always delivered social messages along with the space-opera, of course, but rarely so heavy-handedly as TNG was in that first season. It seemed like every single episode included an aside where someone wondered how humanity had survived the barbarous 20th century, or pointed out how much more evolved human beings were in the 24th century. It was tedious and condescending, and frankly, it got to be a little insulting at times.

Hell, I didn’t even like the Enterprise-D at first. (A note for non-Trekkies: the Enterprise flown by Captain Kirk and company carried the registry number NCC-1701; when it was destroyed in one of the feature films, it was replaced by a new Enterprise — actually the same model with a new paint job — and the letter “A” was added to differentiate it from the earlier one: NCC-1701-A. The TNG Enterprise was supposedly the fifth starship of that name, designated NCC-1701-D.) The ship’s proportions looked all wrong to me. The saucer-shaped primary hull was too long and wide compared to the compact lower section, making it appear both top- and nose-heavy, and the ship’s relatively flat side profile suggested to me that it had been stepped on by some cosmic giant and squashed. The interior sets, meanwhile, were downright boring, all beige carpeting and flat lighting, reminiscent of a nice but sterile hotel lobby, right down to the knick-knacks from Pier One.

I was certain the show wouldn’t last beyond its first season.

And yet, it did last, eventually running seven years, spawning four feature films after that, and unquestionably paving the way for the Star Trek franchise to become the cultural juggernaut it was during the ’90s, and is attempting to become again today. I continued to watch despite my early misgivings, although I’m not sure if it was in the hope that the show would improve, or out of morbid curiosity to see just how badly it was going to flame out. Either way, I endured every episode of that shaky first season. My viewing was a bit more sporadic during the second year, but starting with the third, TNG seemed to have found itself at last… and I finally began to consider myself a fan. In the end, I grew to quite like the crew of Enterprise-D and the actors who played them. There are some individual episodes I would hold up as some of the best television of its era, certainly equal to the best of TOS. (For the record, I’m thinking of “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1,” “Family,” “The Inner Light,” and “Tapestry.”) I shed a tear when the series ended on the perfect emotional gracenote. And I even developed a soft spot for that strangely flattened starship too, enough that it pissed me off when she was destroyed in the TNG cast’s first big-screen outing, Generations.

Even so, to this day I am baffled by those fans who consider TNG superior to TOS. I know there are even people, both fans and “civilians,” for whom TNG is Star Trek. It’s the show that first comes to mind for these people when they hear the words “Star Trek.” Unapologetic old-school Trekkie that I am, that really grates on me. I suppose I can’t blame younger viewers who grew up with TNG the way I did with TOS, but I know people my age who for some reason champion Picard over Kirk, and that just makes no sense to me. Because while I do like TNG, I love TOS. For me, it’s overall far more dynamic, far more fun, far more meaningful, and frankly far more timeless, in spite of the outdated visual effects and miniskirts. (Note that I said “overall”; you can always cherry-pick specific example to prove or disprove my points.) I’ve recently been rewatching TNG and while it’s nice to revisit it again after quite a few years away — I’ve found it holds up pretty well, and in some cases is better than I remember — I just can’t see myself ever enjoying the show over and over to the point of memorization, the way I still enjoy the 1960s Star Trek. For me, it will forever be the spin-off. That’s a term you don’t hear much anymore; in the modern-day franchise model, something like TNG is thought of as a continuation. But in the old days, it was a spin-off, a derivative. It was a very good derivative, and like I said it did find its own voice eventually… but it was still a derivative.

However, time has a way of veiling just about anything with nostalgia, and when I think back three decades to a September night in 1987 and picture myself sitting on the edge of my chair with the VCR remote in my hand (so I could screen commercials out of my recording), my knees bouncing with anticipation, I can’t help but smile. It was such an outlandish idea back then, a whole new Star Trek with a whole new cast, set 70 years after the first Star Trek. I think the only thing my 18-year-old self would’ve found more unlikely would be more Star Wars movies, or a sequel to Blade Runner










Book Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade's Greatest Movie!Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade’s Greatest Movie! by Bob Balaban
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for an in-depth history of the production of the classic Spielberg film, this isn’t it.

Instead, it is exactly what the title promises, a transcription of the diary kept by actor Bob Balaban during the time he spent working on CE3K. While there are some behind-the-scenes tidbits of movie magic — for example, I never knew that the curving mountaintop road where Richard Dreyfuss’ character Roy Neary nearly runs over a young boy in his truck, and then moments later gets his first good look at several UFOs, was in fact built on a soundstage — the book really is just Balaban’s personal experiences on location and on set. Fortunately, he’s an engaging writer, and there is a certain wistful innocence about the the time he’s describing, when it was still very unusual for actors to have to react to objects that wouldn’t exist until the visual-effects teams constructed them months later.

The most charming aspect of the book, however, is the growing friendship between Balaban and his costar, the famed French director and actor Francois Truffaut. Balaban plays Truffaut’s interpreter in the film, and he filled a similar role in real life, helping Truffaut learn his English lines and generally navigate an American film production that was shooting in very American locations. I’ve always had the sense that Truffaut was fundamentally a kind man, and I was pleased that Balaban’s descriptions of him support that impression. One moment in particular stands out to me, when Truffaut befriends some young boys on a Wyoming street corner and passes the time with them tossing pebbles at an old candy bar wrapper, the language barrier between them completely negated by Truffaut’s inherent warmth and openness.

Highly recommended if you’re a fan of the film, or of Truffaut.

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