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.

RIP J.G. Ballard

Jeff VanderMeer is reporting that J.G. Ballard is dead. If that last sentence doesn’t cause your heart to sink to your feet, then get thee to a bookstore or a library and check the man’s work out immediately. Ballard was one of the greats: an imaginative giant, a profoundly erudite iconoclast, one of those rare talents who came up with a warped concept that needed to be wild while providing the speculative heft needed to keep a thought experiment going. And I hope to have more to say about the man as soon as I can collect my thoughts more coherently.

[UPDATE: Joanne McNeil, Jacket Copy, the AP, Tributes from the Guardian, even Gawker and Entertainment Weekly. But nothing from the New York Times or the Washington Post, who I presume are both too vanilla to appreciate a genius.]

[UPDATE 2: The New York Times and the Washington Post merely ran the AP obit off the wires. So John Updike gets independent coverage. But Ballard, being a mere “speculative” writer, does not.]

RIP Derek Weiler

weilerI was shocked to learn the terrible news that Derek Weiler, editor at Quill and Quire, has passed away at the ridiculously young age of 40. Derek and I had many heated arguments here in the comments and through email. (He once called me “pathological.”) But despite our feisty exchanges, Derek was a very fair-minded and reasonable man who deserved to live much longer. And I enjoyed our volleys. He had the balls to take me on, and the decency to understand positions that were contrary to his own, which I can’t say about a lot of editors. My profound condolences to Derek’s family and friends for this terrible loss.

RIP Patrick McGoohan

Patrick McGoohan changed the way I looked at television. Before McGoohan, I had believed that television was merely a medium devoted to passing entertainments. But when I first caught an episode of The Prisoner playing out its surreal madness through a fuzzy black-and-white Samsung television at a very young and impressionable age, I realized that television could transform into a medium that grabbed you by the throat and had you pondering the mechanics and complexities of the larger world. McGoohan was the guy who proved without question that television was art. He created mesmerizing landscapes and provoked without apology. There were always fascinating motivations behind his creative decisions. Who were the strange guys sitting behind the Rover shrine at the end of “Free for All?” Why did McGoohan heighten the ends of certain sentences in his lines? He was often an eccentric actor, but he was always interesting and he refused to explain himself. To some degree, he was the thinking man’s Robert Mitchum.

It certainly helped that, as an actor, McGoohan played the consummate badass. Nearly every kid I knew who had seen The Prisoner wanted to be McGoohan. They wanted to build a kickass boat out of a faux artistic sculpture. They wanted to enter a room and not take any shit. McGoohan’s characters did all this without a gun.

As both Number Six and John Drake, McGoohan had one of the most commanding presences I have ever observed in a television actor. His fierce eyes, buried beneath his tall forehead, would shoot laser beams through the glass, demanding that you do something. Because he sure as hell was going to do something. So why couldn’t you? McGoohan smiled when he damn well felt like it, which was rarely. But he would crack that telltale grin every so often, letting you know that you could be in on the joke, if you had the smarts and the instincts to keep up. When McGoohan exploded in a furious rage, which was quite often, he had the talent of making you believe that the feral act was somehow rational.

Underneath his brazenness, McGoohan was a first-class entertainer, both as an actor and a writer-director. He had the rebellious courage to know damn well what he wanted. It wasn’t James Bond (which he turned down twice). And it sure as hell wasn’t playing John Drake forever. Instead, he used his status to produce one of the best television programs ever made. The episodes that he wrote, directed, and acted in had McGoohan dipping into wild surrealism (“Fallout”), devastating political satire (“Free for All”), and Beckett-like power plays (“Once Upon a Time” — see above clip).

Hollywood didn’t know what to do with McGoohan, but he stayed busy on episodes of Columbo (many of which he also directed) and appeared in a short-lived series as the brilliant detective Dr. Sid Rafferty. He was possibly too smart for the film industry, but he wasn’t too stodgy to send up his most famous creation in an episode of The Simpsons.

McGoohan was a maverick in a medium that prides itself on conformity and the lowest common denominator. But his fierce determination to make television better inspired other creative forces to turn out smarter material. For this, we have McGoohan to thank and his output over the years to marvel at.

Donald E. Westlake Dead

The New York Times is reporting that Donald E. Westlake is dead. I am exceptionally stunned by this. Westlake was a very important writer. And I hope to have something coherent later. Needless to say, if you haven’t read the Dortmunder books or the Richard Stark Parker novels, get on it now. This man was just about the finest writer in mystery. His loss leaves a staggering chasm that won’t be filled anytime soon.

[UPDATE: Assorted links over at Sarah’s.]

RIP Harold Pinter

haroldpinterA: Is Harold Pinter dead?

B: He is dead.

A: Are you sure?

B: Yes, I’m sure.

(pause)

A: Well, who will fill his shoes?

B: I will fill his shoes.

A: You will fill his shoes. Are you a playwright?

B: No.

A: No?

B: No. Nobody can fill his shoes. I could fill his shoes if I were a playwright. But I’m not.

A: You know, the thing I suspect you’re getting at here is that Harold Pinter was unlike anybody else. But on a more literal level, I suspect you may have shared his shoe size. Assuming that you pay attention to feet. Specifically, the feet of those who contribute significantly to culture. Does anybody really know what Harold Pinter’s shoe size was?

B: His wife. The Nobel Committee maybe. I’m sorry for suggesting that I could fill his shoes. That was unintentional hubris on my part. I obviously knew that Harold Pinter was dead longer than you, and I’m still grieving.

A: Maybe they’ll offer Harold Pinter’s shoes at an auction.

B: An auction?

A: Yes, an auction. It seems the best place to consider Pinter’s legacy.

B: Will they begin selling off Pinter’s scraps of paper?

A: Maybe they’ll hold the funeral at an auction house. And there can be a little sniveling man crunched down under the bier offering work that hasn’t yet been published.

B: Work that hasn’t been published?

A: Work that hasn’t been published, yes.

B: At an auction house?

A: The publishing industry may not work this way, but maybe.

B: Oh, that’s wonderful.

A: If you’ve got the cash, perhaps.

B: As it so happens, I don’t have the cash. And I’m still a bit sad about Pinter dying.

A: I’m sad about Pinter dying too, although you wouldn’t know it from my morbid sense of humor.

B: Sometimes, a morbid sense of humor is just what it takes to take in the passing of a legend.

(pause)

A: You like the idea?

B: Not really. But we can argue about it over a game of tennis, old chap.

RIP John Leonard

If the reviews are read, it is by those who seek a confirmation, either of their own gut reaction to a new sit-com or of a suspicion that you are a jerk. You can no more review TV according to agreed-upon criteria than you can review politics or sports or old girl friends — or compile a mobile history of the infinite. The lout on the next barstool also considers himself an expert; “Seen in this matter,” says Borges, “all our acts are just, bt they are also indifferent. There are no moral or intellectual merits.” Less attention was paid in March of 1972 to Senator John Pastore’s hearings on the impact of televised violence than was paid to spring-training baseball.

However, the consolations made up for the desperations. (A) You are being paid to watch television, which means that you don’t have to apologize what all your friends do secretly and feel guilty about. (B) It is something you can actually do with your children, instead of reading Babar aloud for the 157th time or running a staple through your thumb. And (C) being powerless is liberating. You can say what you want about the play and the actors; it won’t close, and they won’t be fired, on your account. Since television is about everything, you can review everything. Attention may not be paid, but hostilities will be projected, and you’ll be the healthier for the projecting of them, even if your society is not. As Borges put it, “We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.”

— John Leonard, This Pen for Hire (1973)

John Leonard is dead. He was 69. Aside from serving as editor of the New York Times Book Review (back when it actually meant something) during its glory years between 1971 and 1975, Leonard contributed a monthly books column for Harper’s and served as television critic for New York Magazine.

Leonard was one of the last old-school greats, and one of the people I looked to in developing my own critical voice. (When I was commissioned to write a books column for the decommissioned 02138, John Leonard was one of my key models.) He wrote honestly and passionately about literature, was not afraid to take prisoners, was inclusive of genre and translated titles. When I plunged into his pre-NYTBR work for the first time some years ago (namely through the above-referenced quote), I was stunned to see how wonderfully feral and sensible he was. I’m convinced that if Leonard had started writing a decade ago, he probably would have been a litblogger. In the last two decades, Leonard had calmed down a bit, refraining from some of his take-no-prisoners pieces. As he explained at a BEA panel a few years ago, if he didn’t like a book, he wouldn’t write about it. He wanted to continue the conversation.

I had the good fortune of meeting Leonard just before this panel. Only an hour before, my bald pate had collided with a STOP sign, prompting considerable blood and a trip to Duane Reade. With a gargantuan bandage on my head, I looked something like an escaped mental patient. Leonard didn’t bat an eye. I thanked him for his years at the NYTBR, which I had read on microfilm as an undergrad. Leonard then told me that he read my site daily, and liked the work I was doing. When I asked him if he saw any comparisons between the ongoing print-digital debate and his early career as a journalist, he beamed up, “Oh yeah! This is nothing new. They said the same thing about the alt-weeklies, and look where they are today.” In an interview with Meghan O’Rourke, Leonard said, “Reviewing has all become performance art; it’s all become posturing. It’s going to have to be the lit blogs that save us. At least they have passion.”

It’s difficult to imagine a literary world without John Leonard. He was the rarest of critics: a sharp, populist-minded essayist with an open mind writing beautifully without fear.

More Tributes: Scott McLemee, Sarah Weinman, Emily Gordon, Hillary Frey, Jason Boog, and Mark Lotto.

See Also: Studs Terkel on John Leonard, Leonard archive at New York, Leonard archive at New York Review of Books, Leonard archive at The Nation, Leonard’s introduction to Paradise Lost, Leonard’s early championing of Toni Morrison, Leonard on Lethem, and Bill Moyers interview.

Also: A must-read autobiographical account of Leonard fighting for journalistic ethics as editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Michael Crichton Dead

Entertainment Tonight is the only news source I can find on this. But I’ve heard word from several sources that Michael Crichton has died after a long bout with cancer.

UPDATE: Confirmed by AP and HarperCollins Canada.

UPDATE 2: I am conducting independent investigation on this and will report anything I can ascertain in a future post.

UPDATE 3: Steven Spielberg has issued a statement: “Michael’s talent out-scaled even his own dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. He was the greatest at blending science with big theatrical concepts, which is what gave credibility to dinosaurs again walking the earth. In the early days, Michael had just sold The Andromeda Strain to Robert Wise at Universal and I had recently signed on as a contract TV director there. My first assignment was to show Michael Crichton around the Universal lot. We became friends and professionally Jurassic Park, ER, and Twister followed. Michael was a gentle soul who reserved his flamboyant side for his novels. There is no one in the wings that will ever take his place.”

RIP Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel is dead. And the radio world as we now know it has been permanently altered.

When I heard the news, I felt a horrible lump within me bunch up and plummet to the floor. I had been talking up Terkel only yesterday, openly contemplating to friends whether today’s podcasters and staid NPR types — who seemed narrowly concerned only with those caught within their fifteen minutes of fame — would even come close to Terkel’s deep and wide-ranging interest in people of all types. The only guy among my generation who has come close to Terkel is possibly Benjamen Walker, whose excellent Theory of Everything program is now sadly defunct. And over the past few months, I’d likewise been pondering whether I had an obligation to expand the range of my own program to include more people outside the cultural world.

Terkel demonstrated with his great journalistic genius that everybody had a hell of a story, that everyone was part of history, and that with enough curiosity, you could find the insight in damn near anyone.

He documented working people in a way that nobody on radio has been able to come close to in the past several decades. He provided an invaluable history of the Great Depression. One could listen to any of Terkel’s interviews and feel immediately humbled, almost insignificant by comparison. He brought so much life to the interviewing form, unfurling so many unexpected details in his subjects. The train hopper who described the way in which he packed hot dogs into his clothes to avoid starvation. The behavioral specifics devised and brought about by existing within an epoch.

Anybody interested in people would do well to revisit Terkel at length. This was a man who changed the rules of oral history. This was a man whose prolific professionalism simply asked us to look deep inside ourselves, and see the people around us. And I don’t know if we’ll see the likes of him again for some time. But his passing signifies that we all have to do much better.

(Image: Robert Birnbaum)

RIP Rudy Ray Moore

You could categorize Dolemite, which was “based on a short story by Rudy Ray Moore” and starred him, as a righteous blaxploitation assault on hayseed white culture, but, on a baser level, it’s a fun flick about a badass who didn’t let a damn thing stand in his way. I have no idea if it was Moore’s idea for Dolemite to wear the crazy white suit in the above scene, but the metaphor is clear. Moore could outdo Boorman and Dickey in his sleep.

One can’t imagine a film like Dolemite, which Moore sank his hard-earned comedy and concert earnings into, being made today. The so-called independent film scene now plays it too safe, fearing anything even remotely different being thrown to the audience, and remaining diffident about any film possessing even a modicum of sardonic fun. One of the great things about Moore’s films was the ferocious and iconoclastic energy, frequently evident in Moore himself. The brio was also there in the man’s raucous standup routines, which unapologetically unfurled “fuck” onto comedy records and inspired other performers to tell the truth without restraint. This was a man who, as the producer of The Human Tornado, had the good sense to let screenwriter Jerry Jones and director Cliff Roquemore run amuck: we see an antagonist’s testicles munched on by rats in a torture chamber, an utterly ridiculous sendup of martial arts movies, and shots of Dolemite eating ribs that are intercut during a sex scene.

The world is a lesser place without Rudy Ray Moore. His passing reminds us that we have a duty to push harder and crazier in these stagnant times, and to realize that the craziest artists may be unexpectedly entertaining people just as hard as they are provoking them.

Gregory McDonald Dead

Giles News is reporting that Gregory McDonald, the tremendously talented author of the Fletch series has died. I am now making efforts to confirm this. If this is true, this is a tremendous loss to American letters.

[UPDATE: I have confirmed by phone with Charlie of the Giles County Ambulance Service that Gregory McDonald passed away on Sunday. As soon as I have a chance to collect my thoughts and feelings, I plan to offer a full-length tribute here. I’m still in shock.]

I first encountered the Fletch books in the library when I was twelve. The ratty paperbacks were bound in taut cellophane. I didn’t understand why they hadn’t been released in hardcover. But as it turned out, there were complex reasons. I had, of course, known about the Chevy Chase movie. But Chase’s wisecracks (as conveyed through Andrew Bergman’s screenplay) weren’t even close to McDonald’s great barbs. The first Fletch book was driven almost entirely by dialogue, keeping up a momentum that sucked me into the text. The story goes that mystery purists were upset that McDonald published the Fletch books as paperback originals. They were also angered that McDonald had used sex and wit to draw readers into his novels. But McDonald wanted ordinary people to read them. McDonald’s Fletch books, however, were far from ordinary.

Here’s the first page from Fletch:

“What’s your name?”

“Fletch.”

“What’s your full name?”

“Fletcher.”

“What’s your first name?”

“Irwin.”

“What?”

“Irwin. Irwin Fletcher. People call me Fletch.”

“Irwin Fletcher, I have a proposition to make to you. I will give you a thousand dollars for just listening to it. If you decide to reject the proposition, you take the thousand dollars, go away, and never tell anyone we talked. Fair enough?”

“Is it criminal? I mean, what you want me to do?”

“Of course.”

“Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to murder me.”

The black shoes tainted with sand came across the oriental rug. The man took an envelope from an inside pocket of his suit jacket and dropped it into Fletch’s lap. Inside were ten one-hundred-dollar bills.

Now what sane person wouldn’t want to continue reading this story? This opening is as gripping as the first page of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice often taught in literature classes, but it likewise carries a concern for precision reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. McDonald stubbornly resists description until the very end. He lets his characters convey the specifics through dialogue. We learn that Fletch is a casual sort who can’t abide fussy types using proper names. We learn immediately that he’s sharp, that he’s not going to permit himself to get caught up in illegal activity without considering all the details. We learn that the mysterious interlocutor is more concerned with specifics rather than logistics.

And then there’s that magnificent amateur quality juxtaposed against this questioner’s wealth. The sandy shoes indicate that this mysterious questioner probably isn’t what you might call experienced. But he does have a lot of money.

McDonald was able to set this very careful relationship, along with its many nuances, in a mere 138 words. And he was able to do this almost entirely through dialogue. He was an extraordinary writer. And what made him so extraordinary was his ability to merge this concern for detail with a tremendous ear for dialogue, down to the comma, producing books that could be enjoyed and appreciated by both popular and literary audiences. (A telling indicator of his mass appeal is that filmmaker Kevin Smith learned to write dialogue by reading the Fletch books. Smith snatched up all the movie rights to the Fletch series many years ago, but movies have yet to appear.)

But because McDonald insisted that ordinary readers were capable of basic intelligence, because he insisted that his books should be priced affordably, he was not taken as seriously as he deserved by the old guard. Fletch, nevertheless, would go on to win an Edgar Award for Best Novel. And the book’s sequel, Confess, Fletch, would win for Best Paperback Original.

By all accounts, McDonald was a private person. But Vintage Crime reissued all of the Fletch books a few years ago. And the work will live on.

RELATED: Thankfully, Don Swaim talked with McDonald twice. From the 1987 interview:

MCDONALD: There is a very exciting thing going on in this country. And that is that there have begun to be small publishers in places like Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, wherever. And they are not doing what the big commercial houses are doing, of trying to publish the imitation of last year’s imitation of last year’s imitation. And I’m sorry that I can’t cite you chapter and verse. But I am finding that these small publishing houses are creating or letting be published for the first time in a long time in American history and American literature, and they are publishing very exciting stuff, very real stuff, very original stuff, and taking the risks that the big commercial houses wouldn’t do. And they are nurturing the work, and they are nurturing the writers in a way that the big commercial houses don’t do. And I don’t mind at all throwing my lot in with them.

[UPDATE: Mere hours after this post went up, The Rap Sheet’s Cameron Hughes offered his “tribute,” seeing fit to use the same excerpt, similar phrasings, and similar examples from this post. Gee, thanks a lot, assholes.]

Tony Snow Expires

One week after the death of Jesse Helms (and, alas, Thomas M. Disch), the universe illustrated once again that, despite its many abominations, it still maintains a self-correcting impulse. Tony Snow, the smug apologist for President Bush’s disgraces, finally expired after a bout with colon cancer. He was 53.

It was a particularly fitting way to go. For Tony Snow was far from a sweet man, and certainly neither a nice nor a reasonable one. On February 13, 2007, when CNN’s Ed Henry calmly asked the perfectly legitimate question about Iran’s purported influence in Iraq — a claim unfurled by Snow and company without a single shred of evidence — Henry was told by Snow to “calm down.” Snow, of course, could not provide a reasonable answer. It was a typical instance of Snow’s regular insults to reporters, something that also came to light when reporters asked Snow about Scooter Libby’s commuted sentence. (During this conference, one reporter declared, “You are insulting our intelligence.”)

Granted, one does not look to any White House Press Secretary as any particular upholder of the truth. But then Tony Snow was an innate liar even before he had taken the position. He claimed that evolutionary theory was comparable to intelligent design, that it “isn’t verifiable or testable. It’s pure hypothesis.” He defended the Swift Boat Veterans charges, despite tenuous evidence. And, of course, there were numerous other falsehoods. Snow’s inability to grasp the truth also made him perfectly qualified to serve as Bill O’Reilly’s permanent fill-in host. Swindling the public came natural to this confidence man, who took on the job of spinning implausible yarns to the public despite previous sullies against the Bush administration.

Snow demonstrated that if you served up enough hypocrisy and possessed nothing in the way of ethics, you too could live the spin doctor’s dream. You could even nestle your way into the baby arms of government itself. But even this utopia wasn’t good enough for Snow. He needed more than $168,000 a year to get by and was prepared to tell any lie to get more money.

But Snow’s lies weren’t those of the amicable “dog ate my homework” variety. They were deeply unsettling efforts to occlude a truth that has killed 4,000 American soldiers and untold thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Snow was the last somewhat savvy guy who could take on the job of White House Press Secretary and live with his daily hypocrisies. And it’s a telling indicator that Snow’s porous replacement, Dana Perino, didn’t even know about the Cuban Missile Crisis when she signed on.

RIP Bruce Conner

Jesus, July is a bad month for the iconoclasts. If you don’t know Bruce Conner, one of the found footage masters, heaven help you, start here.

Also, The Great Search is available in its entirety on YouTube: (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four) (Part Five) (Part Six) (Part Seven) (Part Eight) (Part Nine) (Part Ten) (Part Eleven) (Part Twelve) (Part Thirteen) (Part Fourteen) (Part Fifteen) (Part Sixteen) (Part Seventeen) (Part Eighteen)

The Great George Carlin is Dead

No words. The man was a genius, a major inspiration for me, a cunning linguist and iconoclast, and he will be sorely missed.

There isn’t a single YouTube clip that sums the man up. So start here:

George Carlin: On Location at USC (1977): (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four) (Part Five) (Part Six) (Part Seven) (Part Eight)

Carlin at Carnegie (1982): (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four) (Part Five) (Part Six)

Carlin on Campus (1984): (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four) (Part Five) (Part Six)

What Am I Doing in New Jersey? (1988): (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four) (Part Five) (Part Six)

RIP Stan Winston, Algis Budrys & Iris Owens

Stan Winston died yesterday. It is possible that the lackluster Aliens vs. Predator franchise would not be around had not Winston set down the conceptual flagstones in previous films. Nor would the Terminator and Jurassic Park franchises be what they are without Winston’s T-800 exoskeleton or the dinosaurs. Sometimes, Winston’s work entered derivative territory (see The Monster Squad and Pumpkinhead). But there was often a playful streak in his designs. He worked very well with Tim Burton, devising the mechanics of Edward Scissorhands and the decrepit corpulence of Batman Returns‘s Penguin. And I’ll certainly miss his continuing contributions to cinema.

* * *

The only American newspaper to include an obituary of Algis Budrys’s recent death is The Chicago Tribune. The other newspapers remain silent, including those that employed Budrys as a science fiction critic. But there have been many reactions online:

* * *

Finally, Richard Grayson sends word that Iris Owens has passed on, offering this remembrance. A guestbook is available here.

RIP Sydney Pollack

I have long been baffled by the suggestion put forth by hip film folk that Tootsie is an “overrated” picture. The film may not be on the level of Some Like It Hot, but it is nonetheless the kind of elaborate comedic farce, a natural descendant of Lubitsch, that nobody makes anymore. It is funny, immensely subtle, and full of wonderful performances (well, save Jessica Lange, a one-note performance that arose from a one-note character). It is a rare film in which the side characters are just as essential as the protagonist. It offers fascinating takes on gender through physical gesture. (Just watch Dustin Hoffman’s movement as he begins inhabiting Dorothy Michaels’s mannerisms over the course of the film.) The screenplay was infamously put together at the last minute, and it could not have happened without Sydney Pollack at the helm (and Elaine May on the revisions).

Pollack is now dead. And I will forgive him somewhat for the many turkeys he helmed over the past fifteen years. He didn’t always succeed. (Random Hearts is a mangy dog, Out of Africa is an overlong bore, and the less said about his atrocious remake of Sabrina, the better.) But the man gave us Tootsie, Jeremiah Johnson, and The Electric Horseman — all intelligent and well-crafted films directed at popular audiences. He always cast a major leading man in his films, whether it was Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffmann, or Robert Redford, who could be counted upon to deliver some modest human insight for mass consumption. Today, this seems like almost a quaint notion.

He was also a fascinating, if limited actor. In addition to the agent in Tootsie, I cannot forget Pollack’s fine performance as Jack in Husbands and Wives. The scene in which Pollack tries to leave a party with Lysette Anthony is one of the most harrowing depictions of a seemingly confident middle-aged man seeing his world crumble right in front of him. We realize at that moment just how much Jack relies on others to feed his being. Pollack was the only person who could have played that scene.

I’ll miss Pollack, because I can’t think of anyone who will replace him. He wasn’t the greatest filmmaker in the world. But he stood out in large part because today’s emerging filmmakers seem more interested in spectacle over substance. I suppose this is what sells tickets. But Pollack understood that the true spectacle lies in fascinating human moments. He may have focused mostly on lighter fare. He may have made mainstream movies. But when his films delivered, it was the natural spectacle that commanded your attention.

RIP Robert Aspirin

Robert Aspirin is dead. He was 61. His passing greatly saddens me. I read nearly all of the Myth Adventures books as a teenager, enjoying the way that Aspirin had transposed the Hope-Crosby Road movies over to fantasy. He wasn’t the greatest writer in the world. But I was very fond of his books, which were extremely enjoyable. As the Myth Adventures books carried on, at times, Aspirin perhaps had more characters and dimensions in his universe than he could possibly manage. But he always had a cheesy joke or a goofy situation he’d pull out of his hat. And I’ll certainly be revisiting the world of Skeeve and Aahz later in the year.

Charlton Heston

The phone rang.

“Charlton Heston died.”

“I know.”

“Well, what do you think?”

I hadn’t realized that my feelings for Charlton Heston were complex. I didn’t even know that I had feelings about all this. Heston was one of those dependable melodramatic actors, blessed with a wonderful and often ridiculous voice that opened the floodgates for the pleasantly overbearing masculinity one now sees in Harrison Ford, William Shatner, and Dennis Quaid. Even before he turned full-fledged conservative, he had a strange libertarian-minded approach to angst which provided an undeniable heft to the denouements of Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes. Of his film roles in the past few decades, only John Carpenter really knew what to do with him, casting him as a self-serving book publisher in his underrated film, In the Mouth of Madness. But his tedious turn as Jason Colby and his embarrassing roles in third-rate literary adaptations had made even Earthquake and Airport 1975 look like 1970s Hollywood New Wave classics.

There was also the matter of his involvement with the NRA, his ridiculous condemnation of “Cop Killer,” his stumping for numerous Republican presidents of questionable distinction — in short, his 180 degree turn from the days when he marched in support of civil rights and used his influence to assert that he would only appear in Touch of Evil if Orson Welles directed, thus giving Welles a comeback opportunity.

“Okay. Let’s say there’s a parallel universe in which some nutjob shot Charlton Heston around 1975 — let’s give him Airport 1975; I can’t imagine a world without the Airport movies — and John Lennon lived on,” I said.

Quizzical silence.

“No. Really. You asked. I mean, imagine if John Lennon had not been assassinated by Mark David Chapman in 1980. He might very well have gone the Sting or Phil Collins route. All the iconoclasm we now know Lennon for would have been overshadowed by music even sappier than Paul McCartney. All the protesting that he and Yoko did might have been forgotten. He might have embarrassed himself by campaigning for Michael Dukakis. Or recording some schlocky duet with Michael Jackson. Or going conservative.”

“Okay.”

“And to get all Man in the High Castle on you, Charlton Heston would be known even more as one of the great American leading men. An actor just on the verge of a comeback, but reduced to appearing in disaster movies. Possibly a subversive. Cultural historians would have recast him as a figure who would have spoken out against the guns that this hypothetical assassin used to kill him. All the bad things that he did during the last three decades would have been wiped from the cultural fabric. There would be TV movies and A&E biographies every few years. The Ten Commandments would be played four times a year on television instead of every Easter.”

“No.”

“Yes! And with John Lennon still living in this parallel universe, he’d be the one we’d all be going after. He’d be the one Michael Moore would confront at the end of Bowling for Columbine. He’d be the one Homer Simpson would be spoofing.”

“So you’re saying that you would go back in time and kill Charlton Heston in 1975.”

“Not at all. I’m saying that when we reconsider a person’s life, they’re known more for the mistakes they make in their final years than their early year accomplishments. I really don’t like Heston after 1975. But I don’t mind the stuff that came before. And I’d say that, by comparison, Lennon got off pretty easy from a cultural posterity standpoint. Heston had three additional decades to embarrass himself.”

“You’re a sick man.”

“Well, do you have a better way to take this all in? I mean, you have to give him Planet of the Apes and Touch of Evil. You have to give him watching Woodstock in The Omega Man.”

Silence.

“Just wait until Schwarzenegger dies. I suspect I’ll have an even crazier theory.”