robinwilliams

An Elegy for Robin Williams and a Plea for Compassion

When you feel the earnest desire to kill yourself — as I did for about five minutes during the evening of June 26, 2014 — you truly believe that, no matter how kind and sharp and talented you are, there just isn’t a place for you on this planet. That none of the solicitude or the careful work or the unique qualities you offer the world can ever atone for the concatenation of persuasively exaggerated sins buttressed by a dark and singular and unforgiving demon who wants to pull you down, one smashing away at the beatific inner town that you’ve spent decades carefully constructing.

Who knows how many beasts and wraiths Robin Williams confronted? One was too many. This was a terrible and needless loss that, irrespective of Williams’s talent and stature, demands that we take several steps back. We know that Williams was trying to sell off his Napa Valley estate, that he had suffered an unsuccessful return to television (The Crazy Ones was canceled after only one season), and that, sometime in July, when he was trying to seek help for his pain in Minnesota, a picture of Williams at Dairy Queen made the rounds on on the Internet. He’s standing with his hands crossed, the obliging professional trying so hard to sustain a dutiful grimace when there were bigger stakes. All Williams wanted was an ice cream cone, one small step back into the hearts of those he entertained for decades.

There’s a moment at the end of World’s Greatest Dad, a highly underrated film by Bobcat Goldthwait containing one of Williams’s last great performances, in which Williams played an aspiring writer named Lance Clayton who covers up the embarrassing death of his son Kyle. Nobody cares about Kyle’s suicide until his note, penned by his father, is discovered and published in the school newspaper. Lance pushes the lie further by writing a phony journal, which attracts the attention of the prospective publishers that he had been coveting for years. It’s the devilish fatalism that happens far too often in America: the fifteen minute fluke propped up instead of someone who works eighty hour weeks and pays his dues, the middle-aged man pushed aside for the young life unlived, an act of unpardonable deceit promulgated for a notch up the ladder after years of honest labor.

In the film’s final scene, Lance confesses the truth to the school, saying via voiceover, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” What makes Goldthwait’s film and Williams’s performance so meaningful is how this declaration forces the audience to sympathize with the disgraced outcast nobody wants to deal with. Philip Seymour Hoffman, another formidable talent who killed himself, was also good at playing these pariahs, whether Allen in Happiness or Truman Capote. There are also resonances with David Foster Wallace, who also killed himself. One is reminded of the story, “The Depressed Person,” in which Wallace’s titular character sees her group of supportive friends vanish as the depression continues to corrode her core. There was something essential that these three mighty artists hid behind their humor, the understanding that America’s alleged desire for misfits inevitably collides against a hard and self-protective barrier. That all three suicides are as cruelly permanent as the emotional impact of their best work says something, I think, about what we now demand of artists and people in America.

Suicide doesn’t allow for heroes. Nor do the less tragic cousins: the attempt or the ideation. The person wishing to help, even when she likes the person, can often feel a begrudging duty or guilt that she does not care enough. The person who comes close to killing himself, which is a feeling not unlike being swallowed by a buckling whale with other concerns on his mind diving without mercy into a chilly deep sea, accumulates endless emotional debt that he can never repay, even as he seeks help and works very hard to stay positive and understand his illness, often with the callous stigma that he is permanently damaged. All parties come to know these terrible contradictions.

But the only truly common bond that all parties can have is compassion.

There has been a goodhearted clarion of calls on Twitter after Williams’s suicide, entreaties to anyone on the edge to call a hotline and know that they are loved. But suicide and depression aren’t nearly so pat, especially in a hungry and vituperative digital world that awaits some flawed figure to expose some chink in the armor (an appearance at Dairy Queen or, in my case, two deleted tweets reflecting a great deal of pain that I have spent much of the past six weeks sobbing out of me).

Williams will have the comedy. He will always be remembered for seizing the day, whether in the only Saul Bellow film adaptation ever made or as John Keating in Dead Poets Society. But I’ll remember him for the indelible, self-loathing characters he played so well in Cadillac Man, Death to Smoochy, One Hour Photo, and World’s Greatest Dad. There was a dark and tormented man inside those performances that wanted to reveal the contradictions of our nation and that demanded a grander compassion, one more vital to our humanity than shouting some feel-good catchphrase while standing at the top of a desk.

Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps, Hateful Homophobic Monster, Dead at 84

Fred Phelps is dead at 84. He claimed to be working on behalf of a religious deity, but he had more poison flowing through his veins than half the diamondback rattlesnakes in Florida. Like most venomous reptiles who live to be beheaded by the end of a shovel but that somehow elude that pragmatic instrument, Phelps found his greatest pleasure swallowing innocent mice whole. The small mammals that could not find their way down Phelps’s giant gullet became his willing accomplices and did his bidding through the Westboro Baptist Church.

Phelps was capable of striking at a distance of five states. “Troll” seems too miniscule a word for this craven and atavistic monster, who memorialized his words by picketing funerals of those he deemed immoral. There will be those, even those who stand against Phelps, who will play the “respect for the dead” card, but Phelps deserves neither esteem nor veneration. Let’s not sugarcoat the horror show. He caused insufferable grief to the families of men who served our country and those who struggled to come to terms with their natural identity. His hatred was so electric that it was capable of powering small towns in Kansas and turning innocent people into malicious beasts. Pissing on this ruthless hatemonger’s grave is a rare humanist act.

On the other hand, maybe Phelps’s repugnant conduct was needed to ignite a movement, to get America closer to a less bigoted society that accepts LGBT people as good and vital souls. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old man who was tortured and killed because he was gay. He was tied to a fence and left to die. It was an unspeakably barbaric act that only a sociopath could fail to shed tears over. Fred Phelps arranged for his followers to picket Shepard’s funerals and this was the beginning of his despicable actions. When Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, was asked how she felt about Phelps, she replied, “Oh we love Freddy. If it wasn’t for him there would be no Matthew Shepard.” And look how far this nation has come in the sixteen years since. Sixteen states that issue same-sex marriage licenses. 59% of America supporting gay marriage, according to a March 2014 Washington Post-ABC News poll. Phelps’s life and legacy raises the unsettling possibility that some extremism may be necessary to make a more tolerant nation.

There was a time in Phelps’s life in which there was a part of his vicious core committed to doing the right thing. As a lawyer in the 1960s, Phelps devoted himself to civil rights, taking on cases that no other counsel would touch. But some baleful piece stirred inside Phelps’s tormented spirit and turned him evil in the subsequent decades. But here’s the thing about intolerance. It has a way of courting intolerance in others. I felt guiltless relish in writing the first two paragraphs of this obituary. I had many friends of varying sexualities when I lived in San Francisco. I hated Fred Phelps with every fiber of my being. The fear he stitched into the American fabric, the insurmountable pain he summoned inside people who did nothing wrong. But I also resent Phelps for summoning these vengeful impulses in the name of humanism. It all makes me want to take a cold shower, yet I feel compelled to stare fearlessly back into the beast.

Near the end of his days, Phelps was excommunicated from the Westboro Baptist Church. He was too much even for that abhorrent entity, which will no doubt get a ride of free publicity in the forthcoming weeks. A snake is said to be a solitary beast when it isn’t mating. But it does not back away from confrontation. Its rattle is loud and aggressive, but slightly softer when it scuttles closer to humans. Time will tell if Phelps serves as an inspirational figure for more willing to saunter down the low path or just another poisonous coil dead in a forgotten cave.

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RIP Harold Ramis

On Monday morning, Harold Ramis passed away after a four year battle with autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. He was 69.

Much like the subtle and unassuming presence he exuded through his crisp form of comedy, Ramis stayed quiet about his illness. He was such a reliable bedrock in any film that he wrote, directed, or appeared in — whether as Ghostbusters‘s Egon Spengler, one of Ramis’s many doctors, or as Ben’s dad in Knocked Up — that comedy feels inequitably barren without him.

While Ramis worked with many Canadians, he was an American, Chicago born. In his early days, he had the tall hair and lanky mien of someone born to play scientists. Yet he brought an odd gravitas and clarity to his scripts. Of the three men who wrote National Lampoon’s Animal House, it was Ramis who was the one to write Bluto specifically for John Belushi. And it was Ramis’s knack for apt casting on the page that led him to become a natural director, where he restored Rodney Dangerfield’s flagging career in his first feature film, Caddyshack, and coaxed Imogene Coca to appear as Aunt Edna in National Lampoon’s Vacation, despite Coca’s reservations about the character being too vituperative.

As both writer and director, Ramis had a formidable dexterity with ensemble comedy. Aside from co-writing Stripes (it was Ramis who reworked the script for Bill Murray and himself) and Ghostbusters (Ramis was the one to balance Dan Aykroyd’s affinity for the paranormal within the rooted world of New York), he was also enlisted to direct four episodes of The Office, including “Beach Games” and “A Benihana Christmas.”

If his comedy films floundered a bit near the end (Analyze That, Year One, and an ill-advised remake of Bedazzled), Ramis atoned for this by attempting a blend of film noir and dark comedy with The Ice Harvest — a script written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton. But his directorial chops were very much alive in the energetic episodes he helmed for The Office. If the vasculitis hadn’t nabbed him, what would he have accomplished if he had been given a television series like Christopher Guest’s Family Tree?

We still have the summer camp heart of Meatballs, the carefully realized underbelly of road trips gone awry in Vacation, and the overlooked Stuart Saves His Family, among many others. Much like a John P. Marquand novel, Stuart managed to celebrate its subject without resorting to cheap ridicule. That human quality was what made Harold Ramis’s subtlety so masterful.

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RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman

On Sunday morning, Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York apartment. He was the victim of an apparent heroin overdose. The New York Police Department found a syringe sticking out of his arm. He was only 46.

Hoffman was a rara avis: an energetic and unforgettable vessel of thespic truth that comes once in a generation, if not every two. His dramatic range was as wide and as variegated as such indelible character actors as Paul Muni, John Cazale, or Lon Chaney Jr. You could watch three minutes of any Hoffman performance, even when he was cast in a mediocre movie, and learn six new things about acting. Hoffman’s smartest directors often imbued this great and irreplaceable performer with some physical limitation. In Charlie Wilson’s War, Mike Nichols put Hoffman behind glasses, dyed hair, and a mustache and Hoffman’s body moved inward, almost of its own will. One of his most memorable early performances was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, a scene in which Hoffman is situated behind a craps table for three minutes, and the force of nature that emerged when Hoffman ferociously fired up a cigarette or addressed his audience simply could not be contained as he stood coiled in the same place.

The man never gave a boring or derivative performance. He could swing from Lester Bangs’s cautious idealism in Almost Famous, masticating ever so slightly while addressing the young music journalist as if his own convictions were malleable, to vampiric addiction in Owning Mahowny, always keeping his head down in shame and his arms scooping up sad racks of chips with the routine need of a man who knows nothing else. He played heroes, losers, villains, and psychotics, but he used the titanic force of his charisma to demand that we peer inside men we would otherwise avoid. In this sense and many more, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a true artist.

He walked on the stage and screen as if he had a thousand souls trapped inside him, all screaming to come out. Yet he was also fighting a chronic drug addition. There were reports last year of Hoffman falling off the wagon and entering rehab. It is truly tragic that drugs got him in the end.

We may never know the true totality of Hoffman’s demons, or what Hoffman had to sacrifice to give us his electric performances. It seems vulgar to probe further, even as any cursory flip through his cinematic performances reveals that they were all great, not a dud among them.

The loss of a talent as huge as Philip Seymour Hoffman feels like a referendum on American culture: a baleful strike against the waning truth and intelligence increasingly in short supply within our motion pictures. You could find the people that Hoffman played all across America, yet neither time nor place could contain this giant. Philip Seymour Hoffman will not be easily forgotten.

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Richard Matheson: The Man and His Fiction

This afternoon, both John Shirley and Harlan Ellison confirmed that Richard Matheson, the author of some of the most awe-inspiring scripts and stories of the 20th century, had passed away. He was 87. The cause of his death is unknown.

On April 5, 2008, I wrote the following essay for The Los Angeles Times on Richard Matheson, pertaining to Button, Button: Uncanny Stories, a collection published by Tor.

* * *

Had he not cemented his cinematic rep with Richard Matheson’s horror story “Duel,” Steven Spielberg might still be struggling in television. Had George A. Romero not openly pilfered from Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, the flinty fount of zombie flicks might not have struck. And had not Stephen King studied Matheson’s tales for their focus on attention to American fears, he might not have become a mass-market juggernaut.

Yet Matheson’s influence remains somewhat understated. It’s almost as if he’s the second-string quarterback called up only when Ray Bradbury can’t carry a second-half drive.

Perhaps this is because Matheson’s concise stories, like the dozen in the new collection Button, Button: Uncanny Stories, read less like fantasy and more like domestic tales from the glory days of Collier’s Weekly. “Dying Room Only” features a couple making a pit stop for lunch at a desert cafe. The husband disappears into a washroom and the wife accuses the regulars of kidnapping her man. In the pitch-perfect title story, another couple is torn apart by an outsider’s unexpected offer: Push a button and collect $50,000, but at the cost of another person dying.

Matheson has a talent for sustaining tension through proximity. In “Button, Button,” a woman glares “at the carton as she unlocked the door” and a man reaches “into an inside coat pocket” to withdraw “a small sealed envelope.” In “Shock Wave,” a character’s fingers “lay tensely on the table.” His almost theatrical concern for where his characters are situated and where objects are located may explain why so many of his stories have been adapted for film and television.

He also builds narrative momentum with nouns and adjectives. In “Mute,” a home-schooled child who has been trained not to speak has survived a fire. His parents have died, and as the boy tries to blend into society, Matheson describes the boy’s predicament: “Words. Empty, with no power to convey the moist, warm feel of earth.”

Matheson often ends his stories with O. Henry-like twists, as in “Button, Button” and the lightly libidinous “A Flourish of Strumpets.” But surprises also arise from overly optimistic faith in the law. His characters often summon police to assist in pedantic matters. In “Dying Room Only,” a sheriff looks into the husband’s disappearance, even though he’s been gone only a few hours. “Strumpets” takes this further. Various women knock on the door of a happy couple’s home propositioning them to take part in “an experimental program.” A cop called in to investigate dismisses this as a sorority prank. An FBI man likewise brushes it off. The inability of authority to serve and protect allows Matheson to tap into the familiar American fear of helplessness.

When Matheson’s conceptual angles trump quotidian concerns, his stories can be a bit labored. “No Such Thing as a Vampire” is a competent yarn, but it dwells less on fear and more on traditional problem-solving to trap the ostensible vampire. Nevertheless, it’s worth observing that “Clothes Make the Man,” which deals with “magical” apparel, came a good seven years before Bradbury’s classic short story “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.”

As serious as Matheson is, he also has a marvelous sense of humor. “‘Tis the Season to Be Jelly,” a comic tale written in unwonted vernacular, begins with the eye-popping opening line, “Pa’s nose fell off at breakfast.” The satirical “Pattern for Survival” describes a manuscript’s journey from typewriter to typesetting, openly taking on science fiction publishers who boast too much about schlocky material: “[H]e dropped into his leather chair, restrained emphatic finger twitchings for the blue pencil (No need of it for a Shaggley yarn!).” And I suspect even the bleak-minded urban theorist Mike Davis could not resist “The Creeping Terror,” which depicts suburban sprawl afflicting the nation, with California citrus trees popping up in Nebraska cornfields. (In a nod to Robert Noble’s “Ham and Eggs” social initiative in the late 1930s, Matheson describes a “‘Bacon and Waffles’ movement . . . $750 per month for every person in Los Angeles over forty years of age.”)

Because Matheson wrote these stories in the 1950s and 1960s, well before Third Wave feminism and New Wave science fiction, some narrative elements don’t hold up as well. Wives sometimes remain troublingly submissive to their husbands. When Matheson describes a woman’s “sick feeling of being without help” in “Dying Room Only,” I expected a mustache-twirling villain to tie her to a railroad track.

But on the whole, these tales provide remarkably fresh evidence that Matheson deserves more than a footnote in speculative fiction.

I

The Culture Novels of Iain M. Banks

This morning, the BBC reported that Iain Banks had passed away from cancer. In 2008, I was commissioned to read all of Banks’s Culture novels, which had been reissued by Orbit in the United States, and I wrote the following essay for another outlet. The publication rights have reverted back to me. I am reprinting the essay here. My condolences to the Banks family.

* * *

In an Iain M. Banks novel, you will find sour antiheroes sweet-talking corpulent cannibal kings, erratic robot drones so caught up in lending a helping hand that they overlook the telltale traces of emotional breakdown within those they serve, and a febrile zeal for blowing things up which suggests that Banks isn’t so much an author of bawdy and exciting adventures as he is a giddy eight-year-old with an elaborate train set scattered across a football field.

When not committing his considerable energies to such intense Bildungsromans as The Wasp Factory or bleak-humored narratives like The Crow Road, Banks inserts an M into “Iain Banks” and writes science fiction novels. Most of these speculative volumes concern the Culture, a utopian-anarchist society that extends across a sizable cluster of the universe. These Culture vultures gambol across the galaxy in ships with such eccentric names as Don’t Try This at Home and Serious Callers Only. Culture citizens live for centuries, and can even change their appearances if they grow discontent with their corpora. These conditions encourage these civilized sybarites to have more fun than a flighty Dalmatian discovering a chiaroscuro sea of spotty companions. Never mind that there’s always an intergalactic war going on.

Red Smith once suggested that writing involves sitting down at a typewriter and opening a vein. But Banks’s unique form of bloodletting appears more modeled on the Black Knight’s stubborn persistence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He writes one book per annum, devoting three months of the year to writing and the remaining nine months to “thinking” about the narrative. And while Banks’s idiosyncratic approach has resulted in twenty-two novels, his methods aren’t entirely foolproof. When writing Matter, Banks became so addicted to the real-time strategy game Civilization that he blew his deadline. One can detect the video game addict within the book’s early descriptions. An army is described as “a single giant organism inching darkly across the tawny sweep of desert.” Sid Meier should be proud.

Part of the fun in reading a Banks book involves watching this boisterous Scottish author figuring out his elaborate plots as he goes along. There’s a moment in every novel in which Banks eventually meshes his anarchic energy into the needs of a narrative. At the onset of Use of Weapons, a reworking of an abandoned 1974 manuscript that Banks once claimed “was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions,” the reader can’t entirely pinpoint just where the book is heading. One series of chapters depicts a Culture agent attempting to recruit a non-Culture mercenary named Zakalwe for a “Special Circumstances” mission for a planet that the Culture hasn’t yet contacted. The other chapters unfold in reverse chronological order, depicting Zakalwe’s previous assignments. But as Banks stitches together these threads, he ends Use of Weapons with a devastating insight into the consequences of following authority without question.

The early Culture novels were inspired by grand space opera and Larry Niven’s Ringworld books. The first, Consider Phlebas, begins with its hero, Horza, standing shirtless in a prison cell, his hands tied above him, as murky liquid rises to his nostrils — a scene that might have come from Flash Gordon. But as Banks carried on writing, he began to imbue his universe with moral quandaries. In the second Culture novel, The Player of Games, Banks’s protagonist, Jernau Gurgeh, is a galaxy-renowned gamemaster who cannot seem to find an amusement worth his while and has grown bored. (There’s also a wry symbolic motif throughout the book of Guregh stroking his beard, as if to suggest that he’s constantly in doubt of his smarts.) Gurgeh sets off on a deranged adventure in which his very life becomes the wager, and the pleasure that Gurgeh takes for granted is juxtaposed against the realities of a three-gender species with severe class and enslavement problems. When Gurgeh witnesses just what this species is up to, he returns to playing, but with a newborn chill and intensity: Banks describes Gurgeh’s face as “a flag hoisted by a soul that no longer cared.”

Excession (1997), perhaps the most elaborate and entertaining of the Culture novels, sees Banks probing into the Minds that control the many spaceships in the Culture universe. Anticipating the frenetic outburst of instant messaging and blog commentary by only a few years, Banks includes elaborate communication transcripts between these Minds within the text. Each speaker is separated by the infinity symbol, suggesting that there isn’t an end to the constant chatter. But Banks also makes his Minds more empathic and personality-driven than his pleasure-seeking Culture characters. Some of the ships even go “Eccentric,” turning unpredictable. Status, contingent as always upon who one knows, appears to matter even when a ship or character inhabits an unfettered anarchy. But as one Eccentric ship, the Shoot Them Later, tells another, “Just because I’m eccentric doesn’t mean I don’t know some big hitters.”

In this novel, it is technology that shapes the Culture’s social equilibrium. Banks even anticipates Linda Stone’s idea of continuous partial attention when he has one Culture diplomat named Genar-Hofoen bond with an obstreperous, four-limbed alien named Fivetide Humidyear VII. As Genar-Hofoen is in the middle of a diplomatic game with Fivetide, he is interrupted by an urgent message in his mind. He is forced to use a “quicken” gland and performs “the mental equivalent of sighing and putting his chins in his hands while…everything around him seemed to happen in slow motion.” Likewise, Genar-Hofoen considers transforming into an Affront (Fivetide’s species). But this technological panacea is juxtaposed against Genar-Hofoen’s existential plight. He’s escaping the entrails of a previous relationship — a woman named Dajeil, whom he impregnated and left after being unfaithful to her. So while Genar-Hofoen might find plentiful distractions within the Culture’s plentiful baubles, they remain distractions that are not unlike narcotics. One is left with the possibility of the Minds inevitably adopting similar temperaments. But at what cost to the freewheeling libertinism sustaining the Culture?

Banks’s willingness to address these ethical issues while keeping his books brisk and enjoyable makes one wonder why his name isn’t often uttered in the same breath as Kim Stanley Robinson or Greg Bear in this country. While Banks’s reputation has soared in the United Kingdom and Europe, he is sometimes overlooked in the United States. Perhaps with the Culture novels now being reissued by Orbit, there’s a good chance that American readers will at long last be seduced by his magic touch.

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Remembering Lucille Bliss (1916-2012)

I was 23 years old when I first spoke with Lucille Bliss over the phone. I was shy and uncertain and rudderless, toiling nine to whenever at a San Francisco law firm with two very friendly Russian women who laughed at my jokes. I was good at my job: good enough to earn the right to hit the second floor balcony every hour, taking seven minute breaks for the cigarettes I inhaled with the Plan B desperation of someone who wanted to be somewhere else.

I read fat books and scribbled doggerel into notebooks and worked an endless string of unpaid film shoots. I had no idea if I could ever earn money doing something I loved. In those thin-skinned days, I thought that I was a fairly reprehensible human being — in large part because people continued to suggest this. I was cursed with a mellifluous yet idiosyncratic voice that always seemed to offend someone and still does to this day, no matter how benign my intentions.

One morning, my day job duties required me to locate an audio facility to clean up a murky recording. Being an especially tenacious and thorough researcher, I located a recording studio that not only did the job very well, but that offered a surprisingly swift turnaround time. Because of this, I tried to throw them as much work as I could. The guy on the phone, perhaps sensing the vocal exuberance I would later put into The Bat Segundo Show, took a shine to me and asked if I was interested in voiceover. I said yes. He told me about Lucille Bliss, who I learned was the voice of Crusader Rabbit and Smurfette, and intimated that I should get in touch with her.

But I had no money at the time. I was still smarting from a vicious tax bill on the installment plan because of a previous employer’s scurrilous math. My extremely amicable roommate had moved out, leaving me with an additional share of the rent to pay. Did I want to learn from Lucille Bliss? Absolutely. But I had no financial cushion. I had no idea how much Ms. Bliss would charge. It would probably be astronomical.

I called the number that the guy had given me. A very kind and cheerful woman in her early eighties picked up. She asked me all sorts of questions. What did I want to do? Where had I gone to school? How long had I lived in San Francisco? I told her that I was thinking of going to this conference I had heard about called South by Southwest, but I wasn’t sure I could make it. “Oh, you should go!” she said. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t afford her lessons, especially when she told me later that she could teach me all sorts of ways to enhance my voice, which she called “amazing” after I had performed, with her quiet encouragement, an improvisation of a nervous squirrel seeking nuts in a park and an on-the-spot cheerful narration of a fictional documentary on Stalin, in which I recall making some especially bleak yet cheery jokes that made her laugh. We talked for hours. I never got the sense that Lucille’s main motivation was to sign up. She was more curious about who this young man was.

I concluded our conversation telling her that I’d think about voiceover. But I think Lucille had picked up on the fact that I was a dessicated husk when it came to money. I never thought I’d hear from her again.

But a few months later, Lucille called me out of the blue to see how I was doing. I was very apologetic. I told her how much I wanted to work from her, but intimated that I was still going through some financial difficulties. “Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “We all go through that.” But despite this, she talked with me for more than an hour. The one thing she said was that I should take any creative opportunity that came my way. I wasn’t sure what it was she sensed in me, but she was absolutely certain that I would go somewhere.

In hindsight, it seems strange to have received a much-needed confidence boost from Smurfette. I had never had a mentor. For most of my life, people looked to me as if I knew all the answers. Having someone as formidably talented and indelibly quirky as Lucille declare that I was capable of something more meant a good deal to me. And I took her advice. A few years later, I would go to war against my diffidence: working at magazines, writing and directing odd plays, talking my way into idiosyncratic gigs, dispensing quiet help where I could. If it hadn’t been for Lucille’s much needed words, I doubt that I would have taken as many chances as I have.

We don’t always know how our enthusiasm lifts another soul, but Lucille taught me that life is too short to stay silent.

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David Rakoff (1964-2012)

The first time I met David Rakoff, he offered me food and food and more food. It was 2007, just after Thanksgiving. With typical munificence, David had made too much of it. It became very clear from David’s steadfast concern and his adamant offers, in which he also insinuated that he kept some modular storehouse in neat hidden niches throughout his modest Union Square apartment, that this wasn’t some commonplace matter of fobbing off leftovers, so much as an opportunity to feed every spare mouth he could find. And that included overly prepared literary journalists. The man was an entertainer. It extended to his conversations. It extended to his kitchen. It was always there in his work.

“There is little in this world that I find more galvanizing than someone in trouble,” Rakoff once wrote. “I am well aware of how dubious that sounds, coming from someone who makes a living writing in the first person.”

David wrote his essays extremely slow: just three slim yet pithy books (Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty) in a little less than a decade. And this deliberate snail’s pace had much to do with the high neuroses David brought to the writing process. I once pointed out a few vaguely similar images he had used over a few essays. And David, mortified, put his hand to his mouth and cried out, “I’m a hack!” I then spent several minutes ensuring Rakoff that he wasn’t. In a world besotted with writers who recycle their own paragraphs or who fabricate quotes, David’s commitment to the original must also be memorialized. He was a man so committed to precise language that, during a 2010 interview, David and I spent five minutes looking up the word “vitiate” to ensure that we both understood its nuances.

Last year, David won a well-deserved James Thurber Prize for American Humor. Like many of our great wits, he was a man determined to dazzle you in high style with bountiful modifers. Here is how Rakoff described an unhappy couple he observed on New Year’s Day in his essay “Tokyo Story”:

He began that unmistakable wet-mouthed, lip-smacking, compulsive swallowing that indicates the impending need to vomit. His upper lip shone with perspiration, and his eyes were closed. The woman had nowhere to go — indeed, there was nothing else she would be able to do until the train reached the station, and that might not be in sufficient time. If the first thing you do on the first day augurs the spirit and tone of your new year, this woman was in for a very bad 1987.

David described giggling at this woman, but he pointed out that the joke was on him, for 1987 was to be his shitty year. Such vicious ironies would race throughout his life, yet David would receive them with realism and good humor. A self-described therapy junkie, it was hardly accidental that, years later, he read Julie Norem’s The Positive Power of Negative Thinking very carefully (yet became so consumed in his research that he was never able to write a piece about it). At 22, he was hit with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but managed to beat the cancerous rap after eighteen months of treatment. But in 2010, he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor and, in one of life’s malicious replays, was forced to start chemotherapy again. But this didn’t stop him from living. From “Another Shoe”:

I try to comfort myself with the first-person accounts I’ve heard of those who die on operating tables and come back: the light, the warmth, and the surge of love from one’s dead ancestors urging you forward. But even that doesn’t help as I wonder what on earth the Old World, necromancing Litvak primitives from whom I am descended would make of me? You’re forty-four and not married? You’re a what? We had one in the shtetl and he was chased from the town with brickbats. How much treyf do you eat? What kind of writing? And from this you make a living?

Here was a man who personally apologized to me for having to stop tape every 30 minutes to take the medication that was keeping him alive. The apology was unnecessary. I told David that if he didn’t want to talk, we didn’t have to. But for David, the show had to go on. The man summoned some wonder to the very end.

Last night, David lost his battle with cancer. But we still have the three books, the many This American Life appearances, and David’s quiet suggestion that a comic yet realistic dignity is an extraordinary defense against life’s cruel setbacks.

Ray Bradbury

RIP Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury was America. He knew our hopes and our aspirations, and he was able to convey all this in beautiful economic language.

Bradbury spoke to us because there was something entrepreneurial in the way he unleashed his high concepts. He had so many great ideas that it is astonishing to recall that he was able to turn out a short story every week.

Many of these stories became classics. There was “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” in which a man’s efforts to clean up a murder transform into a new obsession, leading one to wonder what went wrong in the first place. There was the heartbreaking tale “All Summer in a Day,” in which the sun shines on rainy Venus every seven years and an incredible act of cruelty prevents one young girl from seeing it. There was “A Sound of Thunder,” in which a time traveler strays off the path and crushes a butterfly and returns home to find his present irreparably changed. The “butterfly effect,” coined by Edward Lorenz from this story, became part of chaos theory.

Ray Bradbury didn’t waste words. He knew we needed wonder and, with such indelible parables as “The Pedestrian” (a man taking a walk in a world where everyone was expected to watch television at night) and Fahrenheit 451 (a future in which books are destroyed), he wasn’t afraid to expose humanity’s dark underbelly. “The Flying Machine” sees a Chinese emperor burning a flying machine because he is concerned it will be used by those who “have evil in their eyes.”

But Bradbury’s tales weren’t just about the ideas. Comb through nearly any Ray Bradbury story to see how it was done. The impeccable balance of nouns, the clear emotional resonance demanding that we read further.

I want to be clear on this. I wouldn’t be reading today if I hadn’t found Ray Bradbury as a small boy in a library. And I know that I’m not alone. Ray Bradbury gave us the okay to believe in stories and the hunger to find more of them.

It is unspeakably awful that there will be no more fiction from Ray Bradbury. The world has lost a literary giant.

Here are some samples of what Bradbury is leaving behind:

“William Acton, whose fingers had stroked typewriter keys and made love and fried ham and eggs for early breakfasts, had now accomplished a murder with these same ten whorled fingers.”

* * *

“The dark porch air in the late afternoon was full of needle flashes, like a movement of gathered silver insects in the light.”

* * *

“It was a day to be out of bed, to pull curtains and fling open windows. It was a day to make your heart bigger with warm mountain air.”

* * *

“It was a dim undersea place, smooth and clean and published, as if something or other was always coming through and coming through and nothing ever stayed, but always there was motion and motion, invisible and stirring and never setting.”

* * *

“Silence lived in every room like a light turned off. Silence flowed like a cool wine in the tunnel halls. Silence came through the open casements like a cool breath from the cellar. They all stood breathing the coolness of it.”

* * *

“Birds lingered upon gigantic trees that took a hundred, two hundred, five thousand days to grow.”

* * *

“A wall collapses, followed by another and another; with dull thunder, a city falls into ruin.”

* * *

“He stopped the lawn mower in the middle of the yard, because he felt that the sun at that moment had gone down and the stars came out.”

* * *

richarddawsonfeud

Vital Facts About Richard Dawson

Richard Dawson, host of Family Feud and arguably the osculating Caligula of the late 20th century game show scene, passed away on Saturday in Los Angeles. Here are a number of facts about Richard Dawson, presented to aid others in etching Dawson’s legacy into the grand volume of American history.

1. It is estimated that Richard Dawson kissed about 20,000 women during his run on Family Feud. He regretted nothing. In response to the kissing criticisms, Richard Dawson replied, “I kissed them all for luck and love, that’s all.” (Source: The Associated Press, May 17, 1985)

2. Erma Bombeck offered a more reliable metric for Richard Dawson’s kissing quota. She watched a 30-minute episode of Family Feud, noting that Richard Dawson dispensed 23 kisses. (Source: The Milwaukee Journal, January 18, 1981)

3. Richard Dawson was fearless about contracting disease from kissing all those women. Dawson did not fear mono. He did not fear herpes. He did not fear any disease that stood in his path. “That has never crossed my mind,” said Dawson in 1984. His associate added, “He makes two million a year, and two million buys a lot of salve.” It is unknown if Dawson vigorously washed himself after a hot day of taping. (Source: The Durant Daily Democrat, May 27, 1984)

4. Fran Lebowitz had a lifelong dream to appear on Family Feud. Lebowitz called the show “relaxing…the minute I hear the theme, I perk up.” In 1985, Lebowitz’s agent Mort Janklow received a call from Cathy, Richard Dawson’s husband. The plan was to dedicate the March 4, 1985 episode entirely to Lebowitz, because Lebowitz had said many nice things about the program. Unfortunately, Lebowitz’s mother refused to do it. (Source: The Deseret News, March 8, 1985)

5. Richard Dawson did not shy away from politics. He marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama and campaigned on behalf of George McGovern. When co-hosting a local television show, he was branded “a far-out liberal.” Yet Dawson remained against Communism, maintaining an unabated faith in Western democracy. As he told an interviewer in 1973: “You tell the midwestern housewife that for the good of the state she’ll have to give up her washing machine and dryer and dishwasher and her electric conveniences and take to scrubbing clothes against a rock in a stream and she will have none of it. No one is going to take away her washing machine, least of all for the good of the state.” When asked about becoming a U.S. citizen, Richard Dawson said that he was felt incapable of assuming the responsibilities of casting a ballot. (He would eventually become an American citizen in 1984.) (Source: The Phoenix, July 20, 1973)

6. ABC once offered Richard Dawson a situation comedy involving two priests in a ghetto. Dawson replied, “There’s a lot of humor there, counseling young girls about abortions and heroin.” The conversation ended quickly and the offer was rescinded. (Source: The Pittsburgh Press, June 4, 1978)

7. Richard Dawson was a night person and felt the happiest when the sun was setting. He would stay up writing or reading, and read about five books a week. It remains unknown whether he practiced vampiric tendencies. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

8. As a young man in the merchant marine, Richard Dawson started out as a laundry boy and worked his way up to waiter. But this was not enough income for the young strapping Englishman. So he started boxing his mates on ship to bring in some extra cash. But Richard Dawson’s hustling didn’t stop there. When he transferred to the Cunard line, he slipped the maitre’d some cash to make sure he was waiting on the high-tipping tables. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

9. Dawson nabbed his first role by making up Shakespeare quotes on the spot. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

10. Dawson also secured employment in London by claiming to be a famous Canadian comic on vacation, looking for a few weeks work. A year later, Dawson was playing the Palladium. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

11. Richard Dawson had perforated eardrums. (Source: The Phoenix, July 20, 1973)

12. When it came to exercise, Richard Dawson was a real man. In 1966, he went for a brisk 15-minute daily walk. He also managed to get in a swim six days a week in weather foul and fair. (Source: Universal Press Syndicate, July 17, 1966)

13. Richard Dawson spent much of his time shooting pool. In the 1960s, he converted one of his five bedrooms into an antique poolroom, with the table acquired from Tommy Noonan. (Source: Universal Press Syndicate, July 17, 1966)

14. In the early 1980s, TV Guide wished to profile the top six game show hosts in the country. Richard Dawson was not profiled. The reason? He would only agree to an interview if he, and he alone, appeared on the cover. It is unclear whether Richard Dawson continued to make such bold editorial demands for the remainder of his life. (Source: The Leader-Post, February 1, 1985)

wayneshannon

Remembering Wayne Shannon (1948-2012)

In September 2006, I wrote an essay about a local television commentator by the name of Wayne Shannon. Shannon appeared frequently on KRON 4 Evening News, in the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up, in the 1980s. I was to learn later that Shannon had an illustrious career, with stints in Philadelphia and Detroit. I wondered why there was no online record of a man who had touched millions, a man who was a little ahead of his time with his acerbic television commentaries. Two decades later, there had been something about Shannon’s approach that had caked its way into my noggin. Was it his common sense arguments? His acid barbs? I remember that he had been so funny that even the guys behind the camera couldn’t suppress their laughter. Yet nobody had thought to memorialize him or write about him or upload video clips so that future people could see what he was all about.

I was able to piece together some information, learning that Shannon had left KRON in 1988 when news director Herb Dudnick became tired of his commentaries and after Wayne had tried to negotiate a new deal unsuccessfully with the appropriate brass. I learned that he had a stint on CNBC. But there was no real luck with the San Francisco Chronicle archives. Richard Grayson was kind enough to check LexisNexis, but that only went back to 1990. Shannon had been supremely popular in the San Francisco Bay Area, but he represented someone who had needlessly slipped through the cracks — the victim of being professionally active during an era that, from the vantage point of the last five years, allows some of its more localized and esoteric figures to slip.

So I put up my post and discovered that I wasn’t the only one searching for Wayne Shannon. There were a few emails and comments. And then Wayne Shannon himself showed up, leaving a comment (partially quoted below):

Hi Edward:

Wayne Shannon here. About once a year I get on the web and type in my name and see what I do/do not get.

And there you were. Thanks for remembering me at all, web failure or not.

My privacy continues to be paramount in my life, so, unfortunately, the email address above no longer exists. Sorry about that, but I’m not inclined to divulge the one I use these days.

An entry that had started from a single question turned into a veritable Wayne Shannon party. Other people named Wayne Shannon showed up, including an Atlanta-based arborist who wrote, “I am still around. You didn’t search hard enough.” But soon more people from Wayne’s life appeared, all of them remembering Wayne fondly. Wayne showed up intermittently. And I opened up another thread for Wayne to talk with his fans.

Wayne and I began corresponding. He graciously offered to send me a DVD featuring some of his clips (or as he called it “hatest grits”), and I said, yes, absolutely, send it my way. I’d love to see it.

My partner and I watched all the clips in one sitting. We couldn’t stop. It was absolutely clear that Wayne Shannon was a television talent, somewhere between consumer crusader and comedian, who was decades ahead of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He took on auto manufacturers over epic ten part segments (and I would later learn that Michael Moore would pilfer some of Shannon’s comedic approach with Roger & Me). He would assemble homages and parodies to popular movies on the local evening news during a time in which such experimentation was unthinkable. (But in an age in which The Daily Show pours out a steady stream of satirical graphics, this is now commonplace.)

What happened to Wayne Shannon? The biggest question I had was why this man had stopped.

My partner and I did some additional research and made sure that Wayne got a Wikipedia page. We made sure some of the clips found their way onto YouTube.

I asked Wayne if he would appear on The Bat Segundo Show. He agreed. You can listen to our conversation here.

He threw himself into his work, recording commentaries at a flurrious rate to keep what remained of his family together.

He had been through a brutal, an especially brutal divorce.

His kids had been taken away from him. His soon-to-be ex-wife demonstrated no quarter.

He suffered from low self-esteem for most of his life.

I learned all this from the interview. Listening to the conversation now, after hours of wrapping my head around a world without Wayne Shannon, I’m not only condemning myself for my journalistic detachment. I’m wondering if I should have done more. Wayne was crying at the end of the interview because I had dredged up terrible personal revelations. And I quickly put an end to our talk. Who the hell was I to push further? What good was this nostalgia? My efforts to tell the world about Wayne Shannon? Wasn’t the man in enough pain?

But Wayne and I still emailed. Wayne thanked me for “what will likely be my last interview.” He insisted that Wayne-Bo, the personality he had created for his commentaries, was dead.

I sent Wayne information on how to pitch NPR. I tried to persuade him to get on Twitter. I insisted that he needed to write. It was not the time for goodbye, but a time for revival. Surely there were other tapes of Wayne’s segments. We could get the entire video collection up somewhere.

No, Wayne reported back to me. The disc I had was all that remained. “It took me months to pile through boxes and boxes of old tapes,” Wayne wrote back to me. “You got the best of what was available…and some of that — as you have doubtless noticed — is well below par.”

Wayne was needlessly self-deprecatory to the end.

What I didn’t count on was that Wayne’s children would discover him on the Web — thanks to my page. He was able to send all of the information that chronicled and collected his life to his kids, including the “surprisingly accurate bio” on Wikipedia that my partner and I had assembled.

For a long time, he wondered if his children had been figments of his imagination.

For a while, I thought Wayne had been a figment of my imagination.

This was not the case.

* * *

The last time we contacted each other was a few years ago. His health was going. He said he was in pain. But he was cracking jokes to the end. He said that he was packing up his computer. That he was going offline for good. Well, wait just a goddam minute.

The last words he wrote: “Write like you’ve got less time than you think you have. It worked for me.”

I tried emailing Wayne back. The email bounced. I tried the phone number I had. It was disconnected.

I never heard from him again.

And then on May 1, 2012, I learned from his son that he had passed away.

* * *

It started with a question. Basic curiosity. Is there some marginalized figure who isn’t getting his due? Someone who Google can’t pick up?

Sometimes the difference between remembering and forgetting someone is what gives that person a new reason to live.

I miss Wayne Shannon.

[5/3/12 UPDATE: More information here. Wayne appears to have taken his own life. I’m utterly gutted about this.]

[5/4/12 UPDATE: For this unfamiliar with Wayne’s work, I have assembled a video tribute, featuring 21 videos from throughout Shannon’s career.]

[5/6/12 UPDATE: A new Tumblr, Wayne Shannon: What’s It All Mean?, has been started, featuring Shannon’s many commentaries.]

breitbart

Andrew Breitbart, Pillar of Hate and Distortion, Dead at 43

Shortly after the stroke of midnight, the last spasms of hate and homophobia flooded through a nasty man’s body. Or, to put it another way, Andrew Breitbart died of natural causes.

Breitbart was a malicious pontificator who liked to run websites which featured the word “big” — the three letter modifier existing in counterpoint to Breitbart’s small and shallow ideas. Big Hollywood, Big Government, Big Journalism, Big Peace. It was all bright and doddering fodder for Breitbart, who spent much of his career desperately seeking legitimacy from a mainstream media that enjoyed quietly pissing into his face. This was the only way to treat a man who was so subsumed with venom that, on the day Ted Kennedy died, Breitbart called him a “villain,” a “duplicitous bastard,” and a “prick.” This Tourette’s-like bile was appealing to a certain type of aggrieved and angry white male seeking a myopic demagogue during a time of political and economic uncertainty. Andrew Breitbart wasn’t terribly special. Yet if Breitbart did not exist, it would be necessary for Grover Norquist to create him.

The most frightening facet about Breitbart is that so many people believed in him. Did Breitbart ever have a nice thing to say about anybody? Why, yes. To Matt Drudge, the very man he sought to emulate. He liked to refer to himself as “Matt Drudge’s bitch.”

“I thought what he was doing was by far the coolest thing on the Internet. And I still do,” said Breitbart in a 2005 CNET interview. Yet Breitbart seemed confused about what real journalism entailed. “I guess I do a lot of new media,” said Breitbart during a 2009 C-SPAN appearance. “I have a website. Breitbart.com. Which is a news aggregation source. In all the years I’ve been on the Internet, all I’ve heard about is newswires. I figured out that that’s where the action is. When you watch CNN and FOX News, and somebody breaks in with a story and they act like somebody in that building actually discovered that story and reported on that story.”

Through such painfully simplistic observations, Breitbart erected a one man media empire devoted to loud eructations. He savaged political careers with unmitigated deception and selective editing — most notably, Anthony Weiner and Shirley Sherrod. With Sherrod, you could almost hear the self-satisfied swish of Breitbart hoisting his own private Confederate flag up a proud pole. In 2010, Breitbart posted two video clips of Sherrod, who was then the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture.

The videos suggested that Sherrod had deliberately discriminated against a white farmer. Breitbart seized upon this apparent smoking gun with a theatrical glee comparable to William Shatner’s performance in Roger Corman’s The Intruder as a speaker who moves from town to town stirring up bigotry through lies. “Sherrod’s racist tale,” wrote Breitbart, “is received by the NAACP audience with nodding approval and murmurs of recognition and agreement. Hardly the behavior of the group now holding itself up as the supreme judge of another groups’ racial tolerance.” The controversy forced Sherrod to resign. Yet the full video and the timeline reconstructed by Media Matters demonstrated that Sherrod was offering a far more complex take on race. The NAACP, White House officials, and the Secretary for Agriculture were forced to apologize with considerable embarrassment.

How could such a louche loudmouth, who enjoyed marinating his racism in the stew of libertarian entitlement, be taken so seriously? Because FOX News had him on all the time and because outfits funded in part by Richard Mellon Scaife were fond of giving Breitbart dubious honors such as the Accuracy in Media Award.

Yet when confronted with serious questions about what Breitbart’s “accuracy” entailed, Breitbert preferred fuming to reason. When James O’Keefe, the young man whose selective editing and faux undercover videos helped give one of Breitbart’s websites a big start, was revealed to be a racist and a white nationalist, Breitbart demonstrated that he wasn’t quite so courageous when it came to confronting the truth.

Journalist Max Blumenthal calmly asked Breitbart at the very same conference where he received the Accuracy in Media Award about all this. Breitbart fulminated back, “Accusing a person of racism is the worst thing that you can do in this country.”

Breitbart could not see the irony in his own remarks.

“Why are you so angry?” asked Blumenthal later in the video.

“Because you’re a punk!” sneered Breitbart. “You destroy people! Because you’re trying to destroy people’s lives through innuendo.”

Breitbart was so guided by deranged mania, so without reconsideration or nuance, that his unhinged homophobia would flow like an alcoholic’s stool sample from his Twitter account over the slightest emotion. When Dan Savage made a foolish remark on Real Time with Bill Maher and later apologized for it, Breitbart resorted again to his tired tactic of accusing the other side of the very thing he was practicing.

When he was dumped from ABC Election Night coverage in 2010, you almost wanted to send him a sympathetic fruit basket or a plate of fresh cookies. You figured that something would have to calm the man down — especially since the elephants couldn’t use the tranquilizer gun to put down one of their own. But then Breitbart would work himself into a lather and accuse the people who canned him of cowardice. And you realized he was beyond repair.

The American political kitchen is filled with pots that are fond of calling the kettles black. The American right is populated with leaders who not only refuse to compromise, but who refuse to understand that the beloved Republicans who came before them were forced to compromise to get things done. Andrew Breitbart represented the worst of them. Yet even as I write these words, this baleful pox is being lionized rather than lambasted, fondly remembered rather than coldly resented, even vaguely considered as a hero by the mainstream outlets. These lamentable results represent the nadir of present-day politics, but they also reveal why a gutless political fool placing bullying and spite before reason and might should be thoroughly denounced.

harveypekar

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

Harvey Pekar, the comic book writer best known for the long-running American Splendor, died this morning in his Cleveland home. He was 70 years old.

Pekar was devoted, more than many of today’s lifeless literary practitioners, to depicting the truth behind everyday moments. And it is especially painful to know that Pekar’s passing comes a little more than a month after David Markson’s. Like Markson, Pekar knew that life didn’t offer any tidy resolutions and that art, even at its best, served as an intermediary. “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” he would write most famously. It was one of the key lines that made it into the 2003 American Splendor film adaptation. But the film, as great as it was, couldn’t compete with the work on the page.

Pekar was not the type to pull punches or avoid the harsh truth. He wrote fearlessly about his testicular cancer scare, his failings with women, his anger, and his inadequacies. But his work was never solely about a lifelong exploration of the self. He wanted those who read his work to understand the world. For Pekar, that universe was Cleveland. And Pekar demonstrated that it was hardly just some flyover state to be overlooked by the bicoastal snobs. He described the hopeless art of trying to pick the right checkout line when standing behind an old Jewish lady. He wrote about Emil, the Ukranian laborer who lived next door to him in the mid-1960s, moved into a rough Cleveland neighborhood, and saw his idealism dissolve into racism. Of his jury duty experience, he would point to the hypocrisies of “rich people like Nixon and Agnew” staying out of prison while poor people were thrown into the slammer for less serious crimes. These anonymous lives presented stories that were just as important, but more recklessly forgotten.

Pekar’s later volumes became more ambitious than these Cleveland chronicles. There were graphic histories featuring Students for a Democratic Society and the Beats. With Michael Malice and Macedonia much like Emil, Pekar investigated the hypocrisies behind idealistic commitment. But regular people remained very much a priority with an adaptation of Studs Turkel’s Working.

Righteous indignation was an essential part of Pekar’s work. (Indeed, one story from 1986, “Hysteria,” depicts Pekar getting so worked up that he lost his voice.) But he did have a good deal to be angry about. Here was a very sharp autodidact toiling as a file clerk, who was often needlessly ridiculed. The most infamous scorn came from David Letterman, who booked Pekar on his show so that he could lob potshots at the weirdo he never bothered to read or appreciate. These regular appearances ended when Pekar got sick and tired of being the butt of the joke, shortly after he rightly condemned Letterman for his ties to General Electric. He would write about this experience in 1988’s “My Struggle with Corporate Corruption and Network Philistinism.”

But even Pekar’s most vocal mainstream supporters didn’t seem to ken him. I know this, because Pekar contacted me by telephone to talk about it. With Dean Haspiel’s help, he sought me out shortly after I had written a blog post in his defense. The Los Angeles Times‘s David Ulin claimed that Pekar was writing too much in his later years. But Ulin had failed to note 2005’s The Quitter, which I declared “an inarguably raw and mature portrait of a younger Pekar developing some of his anger while being tormented on the Cleveland streets.” And he had failed to cite anything specific in his criticisms.

“This David Ulin guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” barked Harvey over the earpiece. “Look, man, I’m trying to stay alive.”

He was. He took any gig he could and he did his best to offer something worthwhile. And should a man be condemned for his work ethic? Not when he’s constantly contriving new ways of staying fresh. Pekar employed eclectic artists to keep his stories new. There was Rebecca Huntington’s photorealist approach in the 1988 story, “I Don’t Wanna Seem Judg-Mental, But…,” the dependable boxiness of longtime collaborator Gary Dumm, Val Mayerik’s free-form frameless approach in 1985’s “A Marriage Album,” and, of course, those early innovations with R. Crumb. He was often quite generous in soliciting other artists to collaborate with. And the artists were very often supportive in return. In later years, he would refer to Dean Haspiel as “my agent.” Haspiel helped Pekar to book gigs as the post-retirement medical costs accumulated.

I was lucky enough to talk with Pekar very early into The Bat Segundo Show. I was new at this interviewing business at the time, but I did ask the man why he continued to use the “STRAIGHT OUT OF CLEVELAND!” line for so long during the American Splendor run. And he told me that he had always intended this declaration as an alternative to superheroes. And indeed, why bask in nothing more than spandex-soaked chronicles when the real world has never had to retcon its glaring realities? A comics world without a new Harvey Pekar volume every year will be a much sadder place. For Pekar wasn’t just some gloomy guy. He was a committed cultural chronicler.

RELATED: The Bat Segundo Show #40: My 2006 radio interviews with Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel.

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RIP Jose Saramago

Nobel Lecture: “The voice that read these pages wished to be the echo of the conjoined voices of my characters. I don’t have, as it were, more voice than the voices they had. Forgive me if what has seemed little to you, to me is all.”

Book Magazine, 2002: “You may disagree with such a pessimistic vision. But if there is a way for the world to be transformed for the better, it can only be done by pessimism; optimists will never change the world for the better.”

Julian Evans, The Guardian: “It is difficult to find dissenters from Wood’s description of Saramago as an ‘attractive and sinuous’ writer, though the Irish novelist John Banville is one.”

“The Unexpected Fantasist,” The New York Times, 2007: “Yet Saramago also often appears to be disliked. In part this is the resentment of a country that has long been dominated by a small elite. In part, it is a matter of Saramago’s own unaccommodating personality. Everywhere I went in Lisbon in June, people described him as ‘cold,’ ‘arrogant,’ ‘unsympathetic.’ When my interpreter inquired at a DVD store if a documentary about Saramago was in stock, the young salesman, startled by the request, replied, laughing, ‘I hope not!'”

davidmarkson

RIP David Markson

David Markson, who was one of my favorite living writers, has passed away. He was 82.

It’s difficult to convey just how much of a loss this is for American letters, but I’ll do my best as I now fight back tears. Along with John Barth, William Gaddis, and Gilbert Sorrentino, Markson was one of the few writers who proved that experimental writing need not be prescriptive. For Markson, chronicling the consciousness was often tremendous fun: both for him and the reader. And if you were fortuitous enough, it could extend beyond the book. If you lived in New York, Markson could often be located in the Strand’s basement, amicably chattering in good humor with any stranger willing to engage in wanton mischief. The first time I met him, when he was being inducted into the American Academy of Letters, he shouted, “You’re drenched!” in response to my offered hand. This was just after he observed my rain-soaked white shirt. There was the funny five-minute conversation about burlesque and Lili St. Cyr, where we talked about the geometric possibilities of a woman’s derriere. Another run-in where we discussed Ted Williams. On the fourth unexpected collision, he said he would do Bat Segundo if I gave him a call. I neglected to follow up. But maybe this was just as well. For Markson was one of those rare authors who was so great and so thorough that he didn’t really need to offer much more beyond the books. He’d write to you if he liked you. Or if you reminded him of some slinky figure from his carousing days. My girlfriend was the recipient of several flirtatious postcards.

His textual tinkering was never pretentious, never explicitly postmodern, and always good for great laughs. It’s extremely disheartening to know that Markson’s The Last Novel will have the misfortune of living up to its title.

Markson was best known for Wittgenstein’s Mistress, along with a remarkable set of novels beginning with Reader’s Block, whereby random facts about cultural figures were carefully interspersed in short paragraphs, with the “Author” or “Writer” often stepping in with jocular asides. “Writer is almost tempted to quit writing,” begins This is Not a Novel. Was the “Author” Markson himself or some construct? Well, that question was entirely up to the reader.

Roy Campbell was an anti-Semite.

And was one of the few writers or artists aligned with the fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

Like Dali.

Why is Reader always momentarily startled to recall that Keats was a fully licensed surgeon?

Does Protagonist even have a telephone?

Just consider how the associative mind is depicted in these five sentences from Reader’s Block. The Reader is not only invited to confirm these “facts,” but she is very interested in sharing the Author’s surprise about Keats. Was Markson, or the Author, alone in this sentiment? And why should cultural figures be lionized when they were just as fraught with human flaws as anyone else? Markson cemented most of his novels with a very specific consciousness, but he wrote his books in such a way as to include any reader who might be keenly excited about these questions.

The sad irony is that his books never sold very well. Perhaps in passing, Markson’s genius will be rightly recognized. Bestselling authors skimping out on such subtleties have prevaricated about a reader being a friend, but Markson understood that the author-reader relationship worked both ways. If life offers no tidy resolutions, then why should the novel? Does this have to be a depressing prospect? Or can we laugh at such folly along the way? Why can’t the reader share in the predicament? Markson’s books were shared connections between the author and reader, but all participating parties required other texts, other resources, and other souls to make sense of the madness. The other option was Donnean perdition:

Still, what I am finally almost sorry about is that I never did write to Martin Heidegger a second time, to thank him.

Well, and I certainly would have found it agreeable to tell the man how fond I am of his sentence, too, about inconsequential perplexities now and again becoming the fundamental mood of existence.

Unless as I have said it may have been Friedrich Neitsche who wrote that sentence.

Or Soren Kierkegaard.

That last passage comes near the end of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, where the narrator is a woman who believes she’s the last person on earth. But as we start to comprehend the real fiction that she has used to transform her reality, we see that her lonely sentiments matter more than anything else. Text itself is no panacea. Indeed, the very ability to remember text has dwindled without the emotional necessity of other souls. Or as Markson would declare in Vanishing Point, “Do certain people actually remember learning to read?”

Many of Markson’s “facts” were true. They were true in the sense that the tantalizing tidbits originated from some unspecified origin point, but could not be confirmed outside of what was inside the text. Much as an untrue rumor circulates without anybody bothering to consult the originating party. Much as an author would rather talk about his instant passions than the work he has long put away. Because living life is just too damn important.

(Image: adm)

UPDATE: Rather predictably, not a single newspaper or news outlet has thought to report this sad news. But additional remembrances can be found below:

UPDATE 2: Mainstream outlets are starting to get it together. The Associated Press’s Hillel Italie has the best article so far, getting quotes from Elaine Markson. There’s also a blurb from Los Angeles Times blogger Carolyn Kellogg with a quote from Martin Riker. I’ve also been informed by other editors that more obituaries will be arriving in newspapers over the next few days.

UPDATE 3: New York Times obit.

scithers

RIP George Scithers (With 2006 Interview)

Locus Magazine reports the sad news that George Scithers, who was a founding editor of Asimov’s, an editor of Amazing Stories, and who revived Weird Tales in 1987, serving as its editor through 2007, passed away on April 19, 2010 of a heart attack.

I ran into George at BEA in 2006, and conducted an impromptu interview for The Bat Segundo Show. Our conversation is transcribed below. This was still in the “wet behind the ears” stage of the program. In the transcript, I have spared people the dreaded you knows and likes that were then quite frequent. But I hope that the interview sufficiently captures George’s spirit. In my admittedly brief conversation, I found George to be a very friendly and encouraging man. (You can also listen to the conversation in the audio file attached to the end of this post. Or, if you prefer, you can listen to the entire show here.)

Correspondent: So I’m here with George Scithers of Wildside Press. He is also the man who revived Weird Tales Magazine. Maybe you can tell us about that and what’s coming up from Wildside.

Scithers: Oh, almost fifteen years ago, John Betancourt and Darrell Schweitzer and I decided that we’d like to revive Weird Tales. I had been editor of Amazing Stories. And they no longer wanted me. And I was getting bored. Anyway, we revived the magazine. And it’s been plunking along ever since. We’re up to Issue #20 — no, sorry, #340, with the issue that I have in my hot little hand right now. Which has stories by Jay Lake and Tanith Lee, Sarah Hoyt and Holly Phillips. We got interviewed by the Washington Post a little while ago. And the Los Angeles Times was good enough to pick up the article and run it also.

Correspondent: Now the new Weird Tales and the old Weird Tales. What are some of the overlapping kind of qualities? And what are the things that you’ve sort of changed to update Weird Tales? What have you been conscious of? What steps have you taken to do this?

Scithers: We’ve tried to put out what the magazine would be if it had continued, rather than digging it up and exhuming it. In other words, things have changed. When Weird Tales was first published, there was no such thing as science fiction. In the sense that the word had not even been invented. We carried science fiction — speculative fiction, if you will — as well as vampires and ghoulies and ghosts. We published the material of HP Lovecraft, who is unfortunately dead. So we can’t do any new stories by him. We published the original stories by Robert E. Howard. Conan the Conqueror and the like. And unfortunately, he’s dead. And we can’t do any more by him. And we also published Robert Bloch. And, alas, he’s dead too. And a few years ago, we published some poems by Ray Bradbury, who’s still alive actually.

Correspondent: Yes! Yes!

Scithers: But the modern science fiction stories are pretty well handled by specialized science fiction magazines. So that nowadays, Weird Tales has closed its scope a little bit. Basically supernatural horror. And every so often — because we must occasionally surprise the reader who expects everything to be supernatural — occasionally, the vampire may turn out to be a fake. Not every time. But, you know, every ten or fifteen years, we’ll run a story in which the ghost has a real explanation. Generally it’s a fantasy-based horror magazine. Or fantasy, which isn’t always horror. Sword and sorcery.

Correspondent: Now who would you say would be — which of your contributing writers would be the current sort of Lovecraft, Bloch, etcera. Or someone who has talent outside of that, but who is distinctive enough and yet also Weird Tales enough.

Scithers: That’s impossible to say. There isn’t any contemporary Lovecraft. Because Lovecraft was his own thing.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Scithers: And Lovecraft exhausted — well, didn’t exhaust, but worked over his particular mythos so well that it’s quite difficult to do another story in that now. And then someone does. But, again, in the current issue, Holly Phillips is a creature of her own. And that’s an entirely new thing. Tanith Lee has her own particular kind of fantasy. Which is not the same thing every time. She’s all over the place. I can’t really say that we’ve got one particular author. We’d love to have Stephen King all the time. But Stephen King does books these days. And we’re essentially a short story market.

Correspondent: Do you have problems? Because there’s always all these kinds of claims that the short story is dead. There are literary magazines that are just struggling to get by. Has any of this affected Weird Tales in terms of putting out issues or attracting talent? Maybe you can comment upon these issues.

Scithers: As far as the supply of short stories, no problem. If anything, there’s — I hate to say this, but we almost have too many writers in the field now. Our problem is that people do not go to cigar stores and magazine stores to the extent that they used to. Magazine circulation used to be in the hundreds of thousands. And then the tens and tens of thousands. And now in the low tens. And this is a problem throughout the fiction field. There aren’t an awful lot of fiction magazines. The Digest Group. Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. And on the other side, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. All of these have decreasing circulation over the years. As far as the availability of material, the thing is that there are annual courses on how to teach science fiction. I’ve been publishing books on how to write science fiction. I’ve been publishing guidelines on science fiction. As far as the supply of good, good material, there’s plenty. I see a higher percentage of buyable material nowadays. Back in the Asimov’s days, when I first started in this line of work — which is about 1978 — I figured about 1% of what I got in would be fit to put on the page. I’m seeing a higher percentage of stuff that’s fit to put on the page. But I can’t buy all the stuff that’s fit to put on the page. Because there’s so much of it.

Correspondent: How much of a higher percentage are you seeing now?

Scithers: I can’t say a percentage. Because I’d have to sit down and count how many manuscripts, and how many got the “good but not irresistible” reply, and how many got the “please don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again” reply, and how many got the “get a hold of Strunk & White and you better believe it.” Strunk & White is the essential book on composition, on how to write. It’s a thin volume. It’s extremely good. You learn the standard way to write. You change away from that for deliberate effect. You find that you’re disagreeing with it. And then, as you get better, you find that they were right all along. They are talking about the general case. And what you are writing is the special case. Typically, standard English is what you frame around dialogue. But what’s between the quote marks is how people actually speak. Which isn’t precisely literary. It isn’t precisely grammatical. And you vary from being precisely literary and grammatical in order to call attention to how people are speaking. In your exposition part of the story, if you want to call attention to what you’re doing, then you start breaking some of the rules. But if you drop into standard grammar, then all that comes across is “What words are you choosing? And in what order to you put them down?” Which are the basics of writing. It’s the basic poetry too, as Coleridge put it.

Correspondent: Well, going back to this issue of more manuscripts being suitable. It’s just a matter of finding the ones that are right for Weird Tales. Do you think that the rise of MFA workshops might have something to do with this?

Scithers: I don’t know MFA Workshop. Because I know that there are a great many workshops over the years, over the decades. So I’m not aware of what MFA Workshop is doing. Tell me about it.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I think it’s great that Scithers thought that “MFA Workshop” was a specific outfit. He was very much an old school, nuts-and-bolts kind of guy.]

Correspondent: Well, you know, workshops for people who get MFA degrees in creative writing.

Scithers: Right.

Correspondent: And so there are all these workshops around short stories. And so therefore you have this cottage industry almost for aspiring writers, who are then perhaps flooding Weird Tales, along with the remaining literary magazines and journals that we have in order to get some credits. I’m sort of speculating out loud, but maybe….

Scithers: Of course you are. Of course you are. The thing about workshops is, if somebody’s off in a garret writing all by himself, he’ll start writing for himself. And this is not good. So working with other people is helpful. But you have to remember that the opinion of somebody who is close enough to you that you can hit them, is not as good as somebody on the far end of an email line. Or of a mail line. In the end, however, the only opinion that really matters is that of someone who might pay you money for it. [interjection by another guy at the booth] Somebody’s trying to interrupt us?

Correspondent: Well, George, thanks so much.

[Confused stare from George.]

Correspondent: Do you want to continue your answer?

Scithers: Uh no. Do you want to expand with the question?

Correspondent: Oh, well, I mean, I guess I was getting a sense of like: Do you think that the MFA mentality of an approval by committee is perhaps damaging. Particularly when we’re talking about genre fiction, like Weird Tales, where these MFA workshops….

Scithers: Ah yes! Yes, yes, yes! Your problem is that in the group, if someone is using the group for other than learning how to write, and helping other people to write, then you’re in trouble. And you have to keep your antenna out for just exactly this phenomenon. That if somebody is trying to dominate the group. Somebody’s trying to show how much better he is or how much less good — that’s not the point of a group. The group is: what does a group, in general, think is good and bad about what somebody is writing. If the group is turning over people who are becoming so busy selling, that they no longer have time for the group, that is a successful group. If the group is a static group who simply get together to argue with each other, you see, this is a kind of a trap. The bouncing things off of other people is a faster way of getting a feel for it than sending it off by mail. But the opinion you get back by somebody who might buy it, and thinks it was good enough to say what’s wrong with it, that’s important. The kind of things that I see over and over again is somebody starts with a resume. Well, I’m not buying a resume! I’m buying a story.

Correspondent: Unless the story is actually a horror resume.

Scithers: No. No! There is a general remark about this. That if you don’t get the reader’s attention in the first paragraph, the rest of the message is lost. This was written by a rear admiral, who presumably was not writing about fiction at the time. But it’s still very appropriate. The thing that a writer’s group should do is take a look at a story and say, “You know, if you start it in the second paragraph, it will be just as good.” Well, in fact, it would be a great deal better. Because the first paragraph is simply getting in your way. And starting the story too late, or not starting at all, are the most irritating things that come across. Other than things that are in such awful format that you have to just throw them back.

Correspondent: Well, George, thanks so much. These were all very interesting things to hear.

(Image: Darrell Schweitzer)

The Bat Segundo Show: George Scithers (2006) (Download MP3)

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RIP Mark Linkous

Rolling Stone: “Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous has committed suicide…Linkous’ dramatic, lush music often came from a place of pain. In 1996, Linkous actually died for two minutes after ingesting a dangerous mix of Valium and antidepressants while on tour in the U.K. behind Sparklehorse’s 1995 debut Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. He recovered, but the incident left him crippled — he laid unconscious for 14 hours, cutting off circulation to his legs. He suffered a heart attack when medics attempted to straighten his legs, and underwent seven surgeries to save his damaged limbs. But after the incident, he recorded 1999’s Good Morning Spider, 2001’s It’s A Wonderful Life and 2006’s Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain.”

The above video was directed by Guy Maddin.

JD Salinger Dead

The Associated Press is reporting that JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, has died of natural causes at his home in New Hampshire. He was 91.

In honor of J.D. Salinger, I have recorded a dramatic reading of his famous short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which can be listened to below.

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” as read by Edward Champion (Download MP3)

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UPDATE: The Barnes & Noble Review has enlisted some folks for a Salinger tribute. My remarks can be found at the bottom.

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The Death of Ken Ober

Ken Ober is dead at 52. For all I know, Ken Ober was a nice guy. I truthfully hadn’t even thought about him for more than a decade until people fired the news my way. But since he is dead, his legacy — limited as it was to a somewhat forgotten and not terribly revered television show (well, that, and apparently writing and producing installments of Mind of Mencia) — will be framed around the talent he brought to said program. Like many who grew up during a particular era, I did catch several episodes. I even had a Remote Control T-shirt that I plucked from the Marshall’s bargain bin — largely for its bright hues and the affordability it presented to my parental units at the time. This sartorial decision resulted in me being severely ridiculed in the summer of 1989 by a girl I had a crush on (along with her friends). And even though this little anecdote doesn’t matter at all to me twenty years later, and I bear no malice towards the girl, the shirt, the program, or Ken Ober, I feel the need to preface any thoughts or feelings I bring to the table in order to avoid any possibility of prejudgment. It might indeed win me five points in the new game we are playing, which is certainly more complex than the older one.

What I can state, after reviewing the above clip, is that I’m not terribly interested in Remote Control now, nor am I particularly impressed. The terrible fashion sense embraced by the contestants cannot be helped, for it was of its year. But I find the vaguely stoned looks of this trio a bit troublesome. This is not the kind of condition, whether real or staged, that should be photographed. Unless you’re making a fun little movie like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. There is a striving here without any real effort that absolutely resembles the Williamsburg hipster, which brings us again to the perpetuation of stereotypes without an effort to puncture these impressions. I’m also not sure if Ken Ober really brought anything other than a conventionally smarmy stand-up act.

This doesn’t resemble my memories from the late 1980s. I recall enjoying the program. But today, in 2009, I can find very little to like about it. As tenable concessions, I’ll single out Ken Olin’s striped shirt and the now extinct LED point system that they used to serve up in game shows of the period. But then I have a strange fixation on sounds and symbols that are antediluvian.

The snack breaks, featuring popcorn and other crud drifting from unknown heavens and making a mess onto the contestants, may have been a slight draw. But it was eclipsed by the sticky possibilities of Double Dare years later — a show, like Remote Control, presently in diminished standing. So why are we hanging down our heads? Is it name recognition? Brand recognition? Some galvanizing point for brain-dead television?

I will leave others who soak their noggins in this stuff to argue the possibly legitimate position that Remote Control is good television, or more worthwhile than my admittedly snapshot trip down a certain mnemonic ghetto, and happily read their viewpoints. I only ask this: Was Ken Ober necessary? Or could another man have filled his place? (I can see a young Kevin Pollack doing this much better.) And if the latter is true, then why bother to go to the trouble of spending serious time taking in the death of Ken Ober? Perhaps he was entertaining. And for those who mourn Ken Ober’s loss and who feel some stir inside the heart based on a tenuous cultural relationship, my condolences. But what did Ken Ober really do for anybody aside from suggest that we scarf down Hot Pockets and keep our heads into the sand? Maybe I’m just hostile to the sustained celebration of bad television, but I’m genuinely curious.

On the other hand, Edward Woodward is also dead. Now that’s a great equalizer.

RIP Patrick Swayze

If you don’t enjoy Roadhouse, I’m convinced that you don’t have a soul. The fact remains that this cheesy movie wouldn’t be so magical had not Swayze understood the material so well. Watch how he sells the above scene. It’s all in the delivery and that modest Swayze head jerk. I liked Patrick Swayze. Who didn’t? He could take syrupy screenplays and give them backbone. Not unlike David Carradine, come to think of it.

RIP John Hughes

John Hughes was associated with launching the careers of Brat Packers Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall and for lacing his entertainments with candid teenage dialogue of rare understanding. But it was John Candy who made Hughes a true comedic filmmaker and who gave Hughes the heart that his films needed to extend beyond populist entertainments. Hughes’s “adult” period, initiated by his masterpiece Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, produced a series of unusually accessible takes into middle-class culture. And it’s a pity that Hughes didn’t trust himself to push his perceptive prowess further. She’s Having a Baby‘s unexpected explorations into parenthood was followed by the funny but predictable Uncle Buck. Was Hughes smarter than he was letting on? (On the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off director’s commentary, which was removed from subsequent DVD editions by Hughes’s request, Hughes mentions that he shot the scene in the Chicago Art Institute as his tribute to culture.) But Uncle Buck was the last film Hughes would direct until 1991’s Curly Sue. But by then, it was too late. Hughes’s talents were lost forever. And he knew it. Which may be why he disappeared or made a mad dash for the pots of gold that executives often wave in front of talented men with mortgages.

It’s no accident that, with Candy’s death in 1994, Hughes’s films slipped into a series of vile (and seemingly endless) Home Alone and Beethoven sequels, along with wretched and inferior remakes of childhood classics. Eventually, Hughes got off the grid entirely, never emerging in our present age of Twitter and Facebook, refusing all interviews and abstaining from all work, save the many scripts still circulating in Hollywood.

What happened? Only the Lonely may be “a Chris Columbus film” of rare quality. But it was John Hughes’s powerful script that gave Candy a rare dramatic stretch as a shy Chicago policeman. The needlessly maligned film, Dutch, scripted by Hughes, transcended its formula (working-class dad takes privileged kid home for Thanksgiving) and its Planes, Trains, and Automobiles hand-me-downs by not only presented Ed O’Neill the thespic opportunity to prove that he was more than Al Bundy, but throwing this bickering pair into a rootless urban wilderness.

Hughes wanted his audience to know that comic actors appealing to blue-collar audiences during the 1980s and the 1990s were capable of delivering more, and that regular audiences shouldn’t be shy about asking for more. His color symbolism was often blunt (watch the hotel room scenes in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and pay attention the blue worn by Candy and the white worn by Steve Martin, as well as the color of the blankets on the bed). He asked his actors, as seen in the above clip from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, for extremely stylized dialogue delivery and facial mannerisms. But none of these artistic decisions undermined Hughes’s ability to get through to regular audiences in a more intelligent way than today’s Dennis Dugans. Hughes had a surprising talent for embedding touching character revelations that never really felt phony. Maybe because, with all the lowbrow jokes about hot dogs coming from lips and assholes (The Great Outdoors) or the conversational image of men playing Pick Up Stix with their buttcheeks (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), we never expected the material to tug at our heartstrings. (No surprise that Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow are both heavily inspired by Hughes.)

But is it possible that Smith and Apatow, as skilled as they are, are mere craftsmen who have been spending their careers mimicking the genuine artist? And what does that say about the present state of the Hollywood sausage factory? If mimesis is the standard by which we judge a filmmaker great, then John Hughes’s passing certainly demands our reverence.

RIP Merce Cunningham

New York Times: “He went on doing so almost to the last. Until 1989, when he reached the age of 70, he appeared in every single performance given by his company, Merce Cunningham Dance Company; in 1999, at 80, though frail and holding onto a barre, he danced a duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the New York State Theater. And in 2009, even after observing his 90th birthday with the world premiere of the 90-minute ‘Nearly Ninety,’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music he went on choreographing for his dancers, telling people as they went to say farewell to him that he was still creating dances in his head.”

(via Books, Inq.)

RIP Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite died on Friday. He was great and irreplaceable. The last living newsman that America could trust, save perhaps Jimmy Breslin. One views the above clip in our present age of “journalists” relying on unconfirmed Twitter feeds and green-tinted avatars, and TMZ staffers shredding every form of privacy and decency to take cred for some haphazard scrap of dirty underwear, and it is almost inconceivable for any network television anchor to now state, as Cronkite once did, “This is a rumor. This we do not know for a fact.” As Salon’s Glenn Greenwald observed yesterday, one wonders why today’s “journalists” lack the basic ability to question the present government actions (the job now falls on guys like Matt Taibbi, venturing into onyx territory that those on the Goldman Sachs payroll will work very hard to keep unlighted). One ponders the paucity of courage among present newspaper editors — that failure to pursue a vital story that an executive might shoot down because an advertiser or another interest declares it “unprofitable.” Gutless men like David Bradley are now in the business of defending sick and sleazy occasions for egregious payola, which are canceled not because of inherent standards or basic decency, but because the publicists are tracking popular opinion.

Walter Cronkite’s death should not be a time for treacly tributes. It is a wake-up call. We must do better.

For Cronkite defied these Bernaysian impulses not because of pride, but because it was his duty. In Cronkite’s time, it was the journalist’s job to question everything, provide dependable veracity, and present vital information for the public to consider. But today’s anchormen and editors are more concerned about money. When there’s a mortgage and a college tuition to pay off, the “journalist” knows damn well where his bread is buttered. He knows precisely who to keep from the spotlight, and he knows precisely how to maintain those banalities that Jimmy Breslin once called felonious and that are now commonplace. Small wonder that the papers are dying. They can neither be read nor trusted.

So let’s forget all the speculative vapidity about who the Walter Cronkite of the blogosphere will be. Let’s forget all this trite talk of broadcast network news’s ostensible “golden age” during the 1960s and the 1970s. Cronkite’s gone. Why should we have to settle for halcyon pipe dreams when our many problems demand golden journalism today?

Michael Jackson Dead

While TMZ and Gawker are reporting that Michael Jackson is dead, I wish to point out that there has been no official confirmation of his death. I spoke with Craig Harvey of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office and he informed me that there was no official confirmation of his death as of 3:00 PM Pacific Time. The person who is legally obligated to confirm the death is Jackson’s physician. And as of yet, there has been no official announcement.

UPDATE: As of 3:15 PM Pacific Time, the Los Angeles Times reports that Michael Jackson is dead after arriving at a hospital in a deep coma.

UPDATE 2: Michael Jackson’s death confirmed by AP (as picked up by The New York Times). (Thanks for the minor correction, vidiot.)

RIP Farrah Fawcett

The above clip, from The Partridge Family, set a celebratory impulse into motion. Farrah Fawcett was 23. And even within the seemingly vanilla universe of the Partridges, she still wore a dress that revealed her tawny anatomy, which was always offset by her bubbly voice. Fawcett, of course, would become best-known for Charlie’s Angels for these qualities. And as I was to understand from friends who had surfed along the raging tide of puberty ten to fifteen years before me, Fawcett was the picture you had on the inside of your high school locker.

My generation viewed Fawcett as the sad and flighty space cadet past her prime making frequent appearances on David Letterman. The older woman who bared all in Playboy just as the term MILF was gaining popular usage. Robert Duvall’s troubled wife in The Apostle. Even Robert Altman exploited her as Richard Gere’s mentally afflicted wife in Dr. T and the Women. You couldn’t really make fun of Fawcett, because doing so would mean perceiving her through this troubling misogynistic prism. But if you empathized, would you fall into the same trap? Fawcett, unlike Marilyn Monroe, didn’t have the brains to match her beauty. What was the solution? Directors casting her in roles as the aging ditz? Celebrating her as a kitschy icon?

The cancer encouraged public sympathy. That 1970s pinup was dying. And so too was a sentiment that had lingered long after Third Wave feminism had settled the score. Fawcett carried this additional burden of public scrutiny, one that we can possibly never know, and thus deserves our condolences.

RIP David Carradine

David Carradine was one of the last grungy B-movie kings. The fight scene above from Kung Fu: The Movie, featuring Carradine fighting against Brandon Lee, is preposterous by just about every measure. But it captures our interest because Carradine truly wanted to sell the scene in his strange and distinctive manner. Carradine was the master of the silly gesture and the rip-your-guts-out expression, a combination rarely seen in contemporary cinema and, for that matter, rarely seen in the 1970s and the 1980s. But Carradine had the boldness to make it work. As Caine, Carradine had a higher tenor than you expected. His voice was slightly unsuited to his character. The constant declarations that he would not fight or that he was not interested in money proved to be a load of bollocks. But goddammit, he was interesting. He came up during a time in which schlocky filmmakers compensated for cheesy scripts by giving actors bizarre things to do. He was quirky yet strangely masculine. And it’s doubtful we’ll see his like again for some time.