Friday, June 22, 2012

As You Really Want To Like It A Lot But Rarely See It Done So Well

You'll be reading a lot of raves today about Daniel Sullivan's Shakespeare In The Park production of As You Like It, and it deserves every one of them.  Read them and play The Lily Rabe Shot Game (you have to drink a shot of tequila every time a reviewer uses the word "coltish" to describe her Rosalind).  I saw it Tuesday night and I adored it.  It's warm and funny and sweet and heartbreaking and not only miles beyond the Bridge Project's version with Juliet Rylance a couple of years ago, it's light years beyond the misguided yet well-reviewed Rebecca Hall version of 2005.  I could rave about a lot of it too--the acting, the music, the way that Stephen Spinella's long hair and white-streaked gray beard make his Jaques look like Vincent Price vacationing from the set of one of those Roger Corman Poe movies in the 60's.  But I'd rather spend a moment on the real star of this production:  David Furr.

Furr plays Orlando.  I can honestly say, he is not just the best Orlando I've ever seen--it's like he's the FIRST Orlando I've ever seen.  The part is usually the wall against which Rosalind plays verbal handball, but not in this production.  Furr takes a part which has been a huge pothole in every other production of this play I've seen, and he turns it into a freeway.  He even makes Orlando's first scene work, which is pure exposition, and can be summed up by the words "Sit down a while, and let me fill your ears, with what you have already known for years."  How good is his Orlando?  It's right up there with Trevor Eve's performance of Torvald in the Juliet Stevenson Doll's House--which remains to this this day the only Torvald I've ever seen who breaks your heart.

Personally, I think the biggest reason why a lot of armchair critics and professional reviewers with Y chromosomes fall absolutely cock-a-hoop in love with the character of Rosalind is because every time they've read the play or even seen the play, Orlando is such a non-presence that Rosalind is effectively unattached--and therefore available for imaginary wooing.  You read their reviews and you can just hear them saying to themselves, "That Orlando isn't worthy of her, but by God I sure am."  (Check out the reviews of the Rebecca Hall Rosalind, and tell me all those male reviewers weren't just critically besotted.  Jeez.)

Because this Orlando actually IS worthy of this Rosalind?  There's no easy way to live out THAT fantasy while watching this production.  Which makes this another first--the first AYLI I've seen where Rosalind is definitely, irrationally, irrevocably, and unapologetically well-matched as one half of a couple--which makes this also one of the most joyful productions of anything that I've ever seen.

Get on line now, people.  Seriously.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Alien -2

Matthew’s Theory of Information proposes that every creative work of art has a Smart To Stupid Ratio that adds up to 100.  What this boils down to in science fiction movies is the unfortunate fact that, since CGI qualifies as information, the smarter the special effects are, the dumber the rest of the movie is.  Current example:  Prometheus, which is gorgeous to look at and painful to think about.  And totally in the closet.  It is the movie that dare not speak its name, because its name is “I am a prequel to Alien.”

It is also, in places, monumentally dumb. 

For instance:

Ancient cave drawings of giant aliens pointing to unique star clusters do not make a lick of sense if the aliens appear on your planet long before there is any intelligent life to see them.  It’d be like Annie Leibowitz taking a photograph of a Neanderthal.  (Possible response: the image was planted in the DNA with which the aliens seeded our planet.  Rejoinder: then why aren’t people with the same DNA still drawing this now?)

Only in Hollywood is there a planet in the universe with people smart enough to travel through space, and dumb enough to greet a slimy cobra-like form of alien life with baby talk and the words “Hey little buddy.” 

Captains of starships do not walk away from radio contact with terrified crewmen to shack up with their ice-queen commanders--even if they do look like Charlize Theron--without turning on a recording device in case they miss something while they’re shtupping the shiksa.


Men whose legs are so weak they can’t walk do not roll around in Roosevelt-era wheelchairs two centuries from now.

Women who are covered in blood because they just performed an alienectomy on themselves are not greeted with “Oh hey, it’s you” looks when they stumble into a room full of medics.

And pretty blond androids do not act like they have been programmed by five different people with five separate agendas--unless, of course, their on-screen actions represent five different script drafts which were never actually coordinated into a single final version.

 Copyright 2012 Natalie Nourigat

David The Android (as played by Michael Fassbender) is actually one of the best things in the film, even though his actions are so all over the place you find yourself saying "Wait--you just did--but now you're doing--huh?" about once every ten minutes.  He's fascinated by the film Lawrence of Arabia, modeling his look and air after Peter O'Toole's Lawrence, which (in the hands of a clever director) would have made for a brilliant casting choice.  A lot of reviews remarked on the fact that Ridley Scott put Guy Pearce in old man makeup rather than hire an actual old actor to play his part.  How much more (delightful?  thrilling? smart?) would it have been to cast Peter O'Toole in the role?  Given David The Android's Lawrence fixation, isn't it the obvious choice?  

Sadly, that's the one obvious choice they didn't make in this movie.  Visually?  It’s absolutely gorgeous. (Although in a lot of shots Noomi Rapace looks like she’s competing with Nicole Kidman for World’s Most Plastic Looking Cheeks.)  But like all prequels made years after their originals, Prometheus suffers from Advanced Lucas Syndrome, a disease which (a) causes the plot centers to reverse-engineer events instead of telling an actual story, and (b) creates a special effects condition in which movies portraying events which occurred in the twenty-second century display more advanced technology than events depicted in the twenty-third.  Which is why the spaceship Prometheus has state-of-the-art holograms and, a generation later, the spaceship Nostromo has up-to-the-minute DOS.

And as far as that reverse-engineered plot goes, this is possibly even Alien -3, because I can't see Ridley Scott adding to the confusion clearing up all the questions he and the screenwriters raised in less than two more movies.  Especially since one of the writers worked on Lost.  So I guess we should all be prepared to be monumentally disappointed by the time the final prequel comes out, huh?  Which should be long after we're monumentally disappointed by the Blade Runner sequel.

If I may assume the David The Android manner and damn this movie with faint praise, you will not be monumentally disappointed by Prometheus.  It's flaws are typical of movies where CGI takes precedence over script, and constructing beats that lead to a previously-created sequel takes precedence over story.  Instead of filling you with wonder, it fills in the blanks.  Which makes it the perfect example of Matthew's Theory of Prequels.

Or in Lawrence of Arabia terms: 

William Potter: My brain, watching this movie?  Ooh! It damn well 'urts!
T.E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
William Potter: What's the trick then?
T.E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Songs for a Tuesday Morning: Summer Reading Listening List

While reading The Illustrated Man this past weekend, and reconnecting with my inner teenage bookworm, I started thinking about musical versions of short stories and novels.  That's because one of the stories in the collection, "The Rocket Man," was turned into a bittersweet tune by a group called Pearls Before Swine back when I was in high school--one of those songs you hear once on the radio and it stays with you forever.  Which also got me to thinking about how that just doesn't happen these days, and I wonder--is that because there aren't songs like that anymore (possible), or because there are no radio stations like WBCN anymore (very possible) or just because I don't listen to radio at all anymore (ding ding ding ding ding)?  How do people get turned on to new music these days?  

MYSPACE:  That would be me. 
FACEBOOK:  No, that would be me.
THE INTERNET:  Sorry, kids--without me, you're nothing.

So in the spirit of using the internet as a radio station, here are four songs based on three novels and a story.  (I thought about including "White Rabbit,"  but that's one of those songs which, once you hear it, you can't really listen to anything else but that, over and over again, in order to recapture that initial musical high.  Which kinda makes it the perfect song about drugs, doesn't it?)

First, we have that Pearls Before Swine version of that Ray Bradbury story.  Then we have the Velvet Underground version of the novel on which the recently-closed Broadway show was based (for which Nina Arianda won the Tony, and rightly so).  We have the first Kate Bush song I ever heard.  (Probably the first one you ever heard too, if you're of a certain age.)  And, as evidence of either the breadth of my musical taste or its decadence,  a Jim Thompson novel as sung by (I kid you not) MC 900 Foot Jesus.


The Killer Inside Me

Monday, June 18, 2012

An Ancient Race

As much as I love The Searchers, whenever I see Once Upon A Time In The West in a theatre, I walk out three hours later thinking to myself, "Is there anything better than this?"  

The ratio of visual to spoken word is, what, maybe three to one?  Two to one?  Which makes it work as a silent movie; if you turned off the sound it would still work as a story.  As long as you keep the Morricone music.  It's the only western that successfully puts the opera in horse opera.  And it even has Monument Valley in it.

The great thing about living in New York?  This movie shows up about once every couple of years in a widescreen theatre.  Like yesterday at Film Forum.

I could watch it hundreds of thousands of times.  Thousands of thousands.

HARMONICA:  They call them millions.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Pearl Anniversary

Thirty years ago today I got off a Greyhound bus in Port Authority and lugged a suitcase four blocks north on 9th Avenue to 349 West 44th Street, where I sat on the steps and waited for the guy who lived in apartment 1RW to let me in to my new--my first--New York City apartment. And while I was sitting on the stoop, I was looking across the street at The Improv, which is nothing but a memory now, and this place, which is still there:

It was a sunny day.  Warm.  I was reading a book while I was waiting.  Given my reading habits at that age (five weeks away from my 30th birthday) it was probably a mystery or a science fiction book.  Whatever it was, I ended up reading it for approximately two hours before my new roommate (whose name was in a brain cell that was swept out to sea ages ago by a tide of tequila) raced down the street from the east, skidded to a halt in front of me, and then bent over with his hands on his knees to take four deep breaths.

The first words he said were: “Oh my God--I’m so sorry I’m late.”

The second words he said were: “Oh my God--you walked up 9th Avenue with a suitcase AND YOU STILL HAVE IT?!?”

New York in the 80’s.

Less than a month later I was walking out of the C-Town around the corner at about 4 in the afternoon, with two bags of groceries in my arms, and I got knocked over from behind by a thin guy in a white T-shirt and jeans sprinting north on 9th Ave and then turning east on 44th Street; and then, as I got to my feet, I was knocked over again by the guy chasing him, a burly fire hydrant of a guy in a light brown suit jacket who had the shortest crew cut and the biggest handgun I have ever seen in my life.

New York in the 80’s.

What defines that time for me?  One simple lesson: knowing where not to walk at night.  Or even during the day.  For instance: you wouldn’t know it now, but 43rd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue was THE place to get mugged in Times Square.  Why?   

Because the entire north side of the street was the New York Times Building, and the street-level floor was actually a block-long garage where the Times-owned trucks drove in and out all day and all night to pick up and deliver newspapers.  Nothing like a garage whose gates are almost always open to provide the perfect place for muggers to wait in ambush for unwary pedestrians.  Walking down 42nd Street, with all its crazy peep show and XXX movie madness? Piece of cake next to walking down 43rd.

ALL MY 1982 FEMALE FRIENDS:  Only if you were a guy, pal.

Sorry, you're right.  Only if you were a guy.  If you were a guy, you looked straight ahead with your best Do Not Mess With Me stare and you walked with purpose.  You walked with a destination.  No looking up; tourists look up.  No more than brief eye contact with people; anything more than half a second could get you a yell of "Whatchoo lookin' at?"  If you were a guy, you let your New York muscles take over, and you walked like you belonged.  And if you were a woman, then you walked down 42nd Street with a guy.

ALL MY 1982 FEMALE FRIENDS:  Bullshit.  You took a cab.

A couple of other places you never went? 

10th Avenue That’s where all the hookers and the drug dealers were, pretty much day and night, working the guys in Chevys who came in from Jersey or the guys in Cadillacs who worked in midtown.  Condoms and needles covered the sidewalk like October leaves in Brattleboro.  The hookers were also out in force at night around the Sheraton on 54th and 6th, believe it or not, wearing impossibly high heels and impossibly short skirts, all of them wobbling like Weebils as they made their way to the hotel bar to pick up (or, more likely, fall all over) visiting businessmen. 

Alphabet CityAvenues A, B, C and D were like descending steps towards an extended stay in Beth Israel.  The level of danger was expressed as a simple four-word warning, one for each avenue: Assault, Battery, Coma, and Death.  I risked assault my first year in New York by having a drink at Doc Holliday's and listening to music at The Pyramid Club.  Taking a cab to get there and a cab to get home, of course.  Because I may be dumb but I'm not stupid. And because living in New York was (and is) an education.  

Speaking of education, there's a story I've told many times about my first few months in New York, but I don't think I've ever set it down, so here goes.  I moved here in June, and went back up to Massachusetts five weeks later to celebrate turning 30.  The next time I went back to Boston was five months later, in November, for Thanksgiving.  I got off the train in South Station, left my luggage in a locker (remember when you could leave your luggage in a locker?), and walked through the city to Boylston Street.  By the time I got to Copley Square, I noticed two things: one about myself, and one about the city I was in.  The thing I noticed about the city of Boston was something I had never noticed before I moved to New York.  It was actually a question.  The question was: "Where are all the non-white people?"  After five months of living in the melting pot of Hell's Kitchen and riding the melting pot of the subway and walking the melting pot of New York's avenues, seeing the streets of Boston was like walking down a supermarket aisle filled with nothing but Wonder Bread.  Where was the rye?  Where was the pumpernickel?  And how had I never known they were missing?

And the thing that I noticed about myself?  I was nervous.  I felt vulnerable; I felt exposed.  I was much more unsure of myself walking between Copley and Dartmouth than I had ever been walking through Times Square.  It took me another block to figure out why, but when I did, the answer was obvious.  It was because, on Boylston Street, I could see the sky.  Five months of living in the canyons of Manhattan had gotten me used to the uniquely urban comfort of being hugged by walls of buildings everywhere.  On Broadway, the only sky I ever saw was straight up.  To suddenly have sky all around me made me feel like a deer in the middle of a field on the first day of hunting season. 

My New York in the 80's.  It wasn’t all graduate school.  And it wasn't all bad.  It was just, well, wild.

To give you a sense of how that 1982 wildness feels to 2012 Matthew, permit me to paraphrase that eminent (and eminently-readable) historian Harry Flashman, who notes that in the Old West, the pioneers who made their way by wagon train across the country during the Gold Rush years of the late 1840’s used to refer to those days as The Earlies.  Thirty years later, one of those same pioneers could board a locomotive to take him back East, and experience first hand the bitterness of History’s sense of humor when he looked out his window to see the wagon-wheel ruts from his hard-won westward journey etched deep into the desert sands ten feet away from the Union Pacific's gleaming brand-new railroad tracks. 

That traveler is me, and I'm here to tell you that there are damn few wagon-wheel ruts left from my Earlies in this city.  But like anyone who has lived in Manhattan for more than ten years, every time I walk down the street I get a memory hemorrhage as my Now Eyes see a truth that my Then Eyes know is a lie, the youthful eyes in me that see the ghosts of places gone, long gone--like Barrymore’s, where Christopher Plummer bumped into me while looking for his daughter Amanda after a performance of Pygmalion--or Curtain Up, where I sat two tables away from Jason Robards--or Madeleine, where Julie Ridge introduced me to Holly Hunter.

Jimmy Ray’s?  Burned up in a kitchen fire.  JR’s?  Closed and razed.  Howard Johnson's?  Melted away like last summer's ice cream cones.  

Sam Goody's?  History.  WNEW?  A fond memory--especially the night in October '82 when Alison Steele returned to do a DJ shift.  (God love the internet--you can find that here.)  Mildred Pierce on 46th?  Can't even find a picture of it online.  Crazy Eddie's?  Only the commercials survive on YouTube.  The Barnes & Noble on Seventh Ave and 43rd?  (That sound you hear is me laughing hysterically--imagine a bookstore in today's Times Square.)  Subway cars with graffiti?  Pictures of them are hanging in museums.

Orange Julius, Coliseum Books, Rumplemeyer's, CBGB's--the past is like a speakeasy and those names are its passwords.  Names like The Film Center Café.  After it got embalmed as a scene bar, it died the real death and now there's an Italian restaurant where it used to be.   

Names like The Jukebox Café, on 10th Avenue and 45th--the first actual place you could go to on 10th Ave without being required to fill out a next-of-kin notification--which made it the bar equivalent of church bells in Tombstone.  After God knows how many incarnations, it’s The Pony now. 

What’s left of my old 1982 haunts?  More places than you'd think.  More places than I expected, when I did the neighborhood walking tour this week.  Place like:


The Westway. 

The bicycle store on the corner of 47th and 9th, where I bought my first NYC bike.

The Galaxy.  The second-to-last table on the window side in the back is one of those city places my ghost will haunt as it waits for the ghost of the girl down the street to swing by for coffee before her shift at Smokestack Lightning.

The Blarney Stone.  Back in the 80's? There was one on every corner, like Starbucks.

The laundromat where I always used to bump into Jan Leslie Harding.  (Great minds rinse and repeat alike.)

The barber shop in the basement of 349 West 44th, where I got my first New York haircut, back when I didn't need to organize a safari to find some hair to cut.

What else is left of all the places where
I used to go, and all the things I did?
Just me, I guess.  Me and my memories.  
The ones I carry with me, and the ones 
I’ll make today, tomorrow, and the day
after tomorrow, in the only place
on earth I know that can keep up with me.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Million-Year Picnic

“Aw-w-w-w-w,” said the woman behind the counter at Shakespeare & Co when I bought The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man last Friday.  I smiled sheepishly, as if to say, "Yeah, I feel like an idiot having to buy them again, but damned if I know where my original copies of these are.”

“We must be all out now,” she said.

I shook my head.  “One left of each.  Which is more than any Barnes & Noble in the city.”

“You’re joking.”

“Nope.  Looked it up online.  Out of stock everywhere.”

“Well that’s a crime.”

“If it is, it’s the kind of crime independent bookstores were created to solve.”  Then I went “Heh,” and smiled, and said, “That sounds like the kind of story Bradbury would write, doesn’t it?"

The first Bradbury I ever read was in seventh-grade English class in 1964.  It was an excerpt from Dandelion Wine--I forget what it was called as a short story, but in the book, it's the chapter about the serial killer called The Lonely One, and how a couple of women find the dead body of one of his victims in the ravine as they’re on their way to the movies, and how one of the women, the coolest and the calmest of them, gets more and more frightened as she walks home alone, until she finally gets into the safety of her home, all of which is a set up for the final ten-word sentence, which took my breath away when I first read it.  And still did, when I re-read it on Friday. I didn’t know it was from Dandelion Wine until later, and if you ask me to label that story even now, I wouldn’t say it was science fiction.   And Dandelion Wine itself, with its picture-precise boy’s-eye-view of the world, and its various takes on time machines? Call it the birth of magic realism.  In the country of imagination, Green Town Illinois in 1928 is just across the river from Macondo.

Of the original fantastic four--Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein--Bradbury outlived them all.  I want to add “in life, as he will, from now on, in the literary afterlife,” but that’s as up in the air as a rocket ship.  More people read Emily Dickinson last week than they ever did while she was alive; who could have predicted that?  Not Emily, certainly.  And when it comes to science fiction, it’s even harder to predict.  (Which is a kind of a pun, yeah.)    

Why do I think Bradbury will outlive them all? Well, the Big Four had very different views of science.  The easiest way to think of it is, if there’s a rocket ship, then Clarke tells you how the engine works, Heinlein gives you the politics behind the rocket's construction, Asimov shows you the effect of rocket ships on society, and Bradbury tells you a story about the crew.  In his science-fiction stories, people trump technology.  Which makes the best of those stories timeless, because (so far at least) the big difference between human nature and technology is that only technology ever changes.

The fact that science fiction is a large enough province to claim both Clarke and Bradbury as model citizens ought to remind us not only of how false genre labels can be, but how certain attitudes and expectations can carry implicit value judgments.  Like, for instance, “Bradbury didn’t have enough science to be a true science fiction writer.”  Meaning like Clarke, or Larry Niven, or Ben Bova.  To which you could say “Neither did Philip K Dick, and he couldn’t write an elegant sentence if he transcribed The Importance Of Being Earnest.”  A reply which, I think, points to what makes Bradbury Bradbury.  The writing.  He’s more like a well-adjusted Poe than a Clarke or an Asimov.  In a lot of ways, their inclusion of social and technological speculation dates them ("Oh wow--this is how the 90's looked to somebody in the 40's!").  With Bradbury, it's more like: "Oh wow--what a cool fable about (Mars/time travel/censorship/a homicidal newborn/everybody waking up one day and knowing it’s the end of the world)."

For example: I re-read The Martian Chronicles this weekend, and in the chapter entitled "The Third Mission," which was originally published as “Mars Is Heaven” in 1948, there’s a line that jars like a pothole.  Instead of Martians, the crew of the ship encounters the inhabitants of a middle-America town who all think it’s 1926.  Trying to get his head around this, Captain John Black  says:

“I didn’t ask for a thing like this.  It scares the hell out of me.  How can a thing like this happen?  I wish we’d brought Einstein with us.”

Feel that bump?  That’s the kind of thing you feel when you re-read Clarke, and Asimov, and even Heinlein, and you’re brought up short by a detail that dates the story as surely as seeing a rotary phone in a 50’s movie about space travel.  When you realize that the Mars landing in the original 1948 story was supposedly taking place in 1960, it makes a little more sense.  But it’s still the kind of chronism (as opposed to anachronism) that you don’t normally find in Bradbury.

Bradbury may be at the same table with Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, but to me, he’s sitting with Poe on one side and Stephen King on the other--King, the other child who never grew up, who can tell a story that grabs you by the shoulders and throws you in the death seat of a Plymouth Fury and drives you to the gates of What The Hell and back.  Bradbury does the same thing, except more politely.  And, because his natural medium is the short story, more quickly. And double and, because King and Bradbury both enjoy the dismissive condescension of so-called Real Writers, their popularity becomes not only a badge of honor, but an implicit critique of those who think that reading should be work and not pleasure.

And pleasure, in the end, is what I think will make Bradury the Poe of our grandchildren, as opposed to the Dunsany of our grandparents.  (“Who?” you’re saying.  “Exactly,” I reply.)

In the story “--and the Moon Be Still as Bright,” which is a line from one of my favorite poems, Spender the archaeologist is trying to explain to Captain Wilder what made the Martians different:

“They quit trying too hard to destroy everything, to humble everything.  They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.”

Science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.

Can you see Asimov, Clarke or Heinlein writing that sentence?

I can’t.  And if they could, it wouldn’t sing the same way, or even sing at all. That’s what makes Bradbury stand out.  Like the best science fiction, what he wrote wasn’t just science fiction.  In his case, it was poetry.

The story above was originally printed in Weird Science #18; it was adapted by Al Feldstein and drawn by (the great) Wally Wood.  You can download it here.