Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles Times

Asimov’s close encounter

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By the early seventies, Isaac Asimov had achieved the cultural status, which he still retains, of being the first—and perhaps the only—science fiction writer whom most ordinary readers would be able to name. As a result, he ended up on the receiving end of a lot of phone calls from famous newcomers to the field. In 1973, for example, he was contacted by a representative for Woody Allen, who asked if he’d be willing to look over the screenplay of the movie Sleeper. Asimov gladly agreed, and when he met with Allen over lunch, he told him that the script was perfect as it was. Allen didn’t seem to believe him: “How much science fiction have you written?” Asimov responded: “Not much. Very little, actually. Perhaps thirty books of it altogether. The other hundred books aren’t science fiction.” Allen was duly impressed, turning to ask his friends: “Did you hear him throw that line away?” Asimov turned down the chance to serve as a technical director, recommending Ben Bova instead, and the movie did just fine without him, although he later expressed irritation that Allen had never sent him a letter of thanks. Another project with Paul McCartney, whom Asimov met the following year, didn’t go anywhere, either:

McCartney wanted to do a fantasy, and he wanted me to write a story out of the fantasy out of which a screenplay would be prepared. He had the basic idea for the fantasy, which involved two sets of musical groups: a real one, and a group of extraterrestrial imposters…He had only a snatch of dialogue describing the moment when a real group realized they were being victimized by imposters.

Asimov wrote up what he thought was an excellent treatment, but McCartney rejected it: “He went back to his one scrap of dialogue, out of which he apparently couldn’t move, and wanted me to work with that.”

Of all of Asimov’s brushes with Hollywood, however, the most intriguing involved a director to whom he later referred as “Steve Spielberg.” In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, Asimov writes:

On July 18, 1975, I visited Steve Spielberg, a movie director, at his room in the Sherry-Netherland. He had done Jaws, a phenomenally successful picture, and now he planned to do another, involving flying saucers. He wanted me to work with him on it, but I didn’t really want to. The visual media are not my bag, really.

In a footnote, Asimov adds: “He went on to do it without me and it became the phenomenally successful Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I have no regrets.” For an autobiography that devotes enormous amounts of wordage to even the most trivial incidents, it’s a remarkably terse and unrevealing anecdote, and it’s hard not to wonder if something else might have been involved—because when Asimov finally saw Close Encounters, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this week with a new theatrical release, he hated it. A year after it came out, he wrote in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine:

Science Digest asked me to see the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and write an article for them on the science it contained. I saw the picture and was appalled. I remained appalled even after a doctor’s examination had assured me that no internal organs had been shaken loose by its ridiculous sound waves. (If you can’t be good, be loud, some say, and Close Encounters was very loud.) To begin with there was no accurate science in it; not a trace; and I said so in the article I wrote and which Science Digest published. There was also no logic in it; not a trace; and I said that, too.

Asimov’s essay on Close Encounters, in fact, might be the most unremittingly hostile piece of writing I’ve seen by him on any subject, and I’ve read a lot of it. He seems to have regarded it as little more than a cynical commercial ploy: “It made its play for Ufolators and mystics and, in its chase for the buck, did not scruple to violate every canon of good sense and internal consistency.” In response to readers who praised the special effects, he shot back:

Seeing a rotten picture for the special effects is like eating a tough steak for the smothered onions, or reading a bad book for the dirty parts. Optical wizardry is something a movie can do that a book can’t, but it is no substitute for a story, for logic, for meaning. It is ornamentation, not substance. In fact, whenever a science fiction picture is praised overeffusively for its special effects, I know it’s a bad picture. Is that all they can find to talk about?

Asimov was aware that his negative reaction had hurt the feelings of some of his fans, but he was willing to accept it: “There comes a time when one has to put one’s self firmly on the side of Good.” And he seemed particularly incensed at the idea that audiences might dare to think that Close Encounters was science fiction, and that it implied that the genre was allowed to be “silly, and childish, and stupid,” with nothing more than “loud noise and flashing lights.” He wasn’t against all instances of cinematic science fiction—he had liked Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, faintly praising the latter as “entertainment for the masses [that] did not try to do anything more,” and he even served as a technical consultant on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But he remained unrelenting toward Close Encounters to the last: “It is a marvelous demonstration of what happens when the workings of extraterrestrial intelligence are handled without a trace of skill.”

And the real explanation comes in an interview that Asimov gave to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, in which he recalled of his close encounter with Spielberg: “I didn’t know who he was at the time, or what a hit the film would be, but I certainly wasn’t interested in a film that glorified flying saucers. I still would have refused, only with more regret.” The italics are mine. Asimov, as I’ve noted before, despised flying saucers, and he would have dismissed any movie that took them seriously as inherently unworthy of consideration. (The editor John W. Campbell was unusually cautious on the subject, writing of the UFO phenomenon in Astounding in 1959: “Its nature and cause are totally indeterminable from the data and the technical understanding available to us at the time.” Yet Asimov felt that even this was going too far, writing that Campbell “seemed to take seriously such things as flying saucers [and] psionic talents.”) From his point of view, he may well have been right to worry about the “glorification” of flying saucers in Close Encounters—its impact on the culture was so great that it seems to have fixed the look of aliens as reported by alleged abductees. And as a man whose brand as a science popularizer and explainer depended on his reputation for rationality and objectivity, he couldn’t allow himself to be associated with such ideas in any way, which may be why he attacked the movie with uncharacteristic savagery. As I’ve written elsewhere, a decade earlier, Asimov had been horrified when his daughter Robyn told him one night that she had seen a flying saucer. When he rushed outside and saw “a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum” in the sky, he was taken aback, and as he ran into the house for his glasses, he said to himself: “Oh no, this can’t happen to me.” It turned out to be the Goodyear blimp, and Asimov recalled: “I was incredibly relieved!” But his daughter may have come even closer to the truth when she said years later to the New York Times: “He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

Handbook for morals

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Yesterday, the pop culture site Pajiba broke the strange story behind the novel Handbook for Mortals, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for Young Adult Fiction, despite not being available at most of the big chains or on Amazon. It soon became clear that somebody was gaming the system, calling stores, asking if they were among the retailers who reported sales data to the Times, and then placing bulk orders of the book. (Whoever did this was smart enough to keep all purchases below the threshold that would flag it as a corporate sale, which is usually around thirty copies.) But why bother doing this in the first place? An update on the site sheds some light on the subject:

Pajiba received details from two separate anonymous sources who got in touch, each claiming that author Lani Sarem herself admitted plans in multiple meetings with potential business partners and investors to push the book onto the New York Times bestseller list by fudging the numbers. Both sources also noted that the author and publisher’s primary concerns were to get a film deal, with the movie having been promised funding if it became a bestseller, hence a bulk-buying strategy with a focus on reaching the convention circuit.

In other words, the book, which has since been pulled from the Times list, didn’t have any value in itself, but as an obligatory stepping stone on the way to a movie deal—an important point that I’ll discuss later. For now, I’ll content myself with observing that the plan, if anything, succeeded too well. If the book had debuted a few notches further down, it might have raised eyebrows, but not to the extent that it did by clumsily clawing its way to the top. As Ace Rothstein notes wearily of a con artist in Casino: “If he wasn’t so fuckin’ greedy, he’d have been tougher to spot.”

The coverage on Pajiba is excellent, but it doesn’t mention the most famous precedent for this kind of self-defeating strategy. On April 15, 1990, the San Diego Union published an article by Mike McIntyre headlined “Hubbard Hot-Author Status Called Illusion,” which remains the best piece ever written on the tactics used by the Church of Scientology to get its founder on the bestseller lists. It begins:

In 1981, St. Martin’s Press was offered a sure thing. L. Ron Hubbard, the pulp writer turned religious leader, had written his first science-fiction novel in more than thirty years. If St. Martin’s published it, Hubbard aides promised the firm, subsidiary organizations of Hubbard’s Church of Scientology would buy at least fifteen thousand copies…”Five, six, seven people at a time would come in, with cash in hand, buying [Battlefield Earth],” said Dave Dutton, of Dutton’s Books, a group of four stores in the Los Angeles area. “They’d blindly ask for the book. They would buy two or three copies at a time with fifty-dollar bills. I had the suspicion that there was something not quite right about it.”

Michael Denneny, a senior editor at St. Martin’s, confirmed the arrangement, saying that Author Services—the affiliate of the church devoted to Hubbard’s literary work—promised to purchase between fifteen and twenty thousand copies, but ultimately went even further: “The Author Services people were very rambunctious. They wanted to make it a New York Times best seller. They were obsessed by that.” And in another article from the Los Angeles Times, a former sales manager for the church’s Bridge Publications revealed: “My orders for the week were to find the New York Times’ reporting stores anywhere in the east so they could send people into the stores to buy [Hubbard’s] books.”

If this sounds a lot like Handbook for Mortals, it wouldn’t be the first time that the church’s tactics have been imitated by others. After Hubbard’s death in 1986, the same bulk-buying techniques were applied to all ten volumes of the Mission Earth “dekalogy,” with the added goal of securing a Hugo Award nomination—which turned out to be substantially easier. The writer Charles Platt had become annoyed by a loophole in the nominating process, in which anyone could nominate a book who paid a small fee to become a supporting member of the World Science Fiction Convention. Platt wasn’t a Scientologist, but he wrote to the church suggesting that they exploit this technicality, hoping that it would draw attention to the problem. A few years later, the Church of Scientology apparently took his advice, buying memberships to vote in droves for Black Genesis, the second volume in the series. As the fan Paul Kincaid noted:

At least fifty percent of the nominations for Black Genesis came from people taking out supporting membership with their nominations. A large number of these came from people in Britain whom I’ve never heard of in any sort of fannish context, either before or since the convention. A lot of the nominations from people in Britain came on photocopied ballots with [Scientologist] Robert Springall’s name written on the bottom. It is within the rules to photocopy ballots and circulate them, providing that the person who has done the photocopying puts his or her name on the bottom…I didn’t make any record of this, but my impression was that a large number of people who took out supporting memberships to nominate Hubbard’s book didn’t actually vote in the final ballot.

In the end, Black Genesis came in dead last, behind “No Award,” but the structural weakness in the Hugos remained. Two decades later, the groups known collectively as the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies took advantage of it in similar fashion, encouraging followers to purchase supporting memberships and vote for their recommended slates. And the outcome was much the same.

It’s striking, of course, that methods pioneered by Scientology have been appropriated by other parties, either for personal gain or to make a political point. But it isn’t surprising. What the author of Handbook for Mortals, the Church of Scientology, and the Puppies all have in common is a shared disregard for the act of reading. Their actions can only be justified if bestsellerdom or an award nomination is taken as a means to an end, rather than as a reflection of success among actual readers. Sarem wanted a movie deal, the Puppies wanted to cause trouble, and the Scientologists wanted “to establish an identity for Hubbard other than as the founder of a controversial religious movement…to recruit new members into the Church of Scientology.” And the real irony here is that Hubbard himself wouldn’t have approved. The Union article notes of his novel’s publication history:

Harvey Haber, a former Scientologist who served as Hubbard’s literary aide, was dispatched to New York to sell the manuscript [of Battlefield Earth]. Hubbard demanded that the book be represented by a major literary agency and placed with one of the ten largest publishers. The church and Bridge Publications were to play no role. “He wanted to prove to everyone and all that he still had it,” Haber said. “That he was the best in the world.”

But fifty-eight New York literary agencies thought otherwise, Haber said. “Not one of them would touch it.” In Haber’s opinion, “The book was a piece of shit.” Church officials didn’t dare tell Hubbard his book was unmarketable, said Haber. “You would’ve been handed your head.” Thus, he said, was hatched the plan to offer guaranteed sales in return for publication.

Hubbard never learned that the church was buying his books in bulk, and he might have been furious if he had found out. Instead, he died believing that he had reached the bestseller list on his own merits. Whatever his other flaws, he genuinely wanted to be read. And this might be one of the few cases on record in which his integrity was greater than that of his followers.

My alternative canon #4: One From the Heart

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Nastassja Kinski and Frederic Forrest in One From the Heart

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next week and a half, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

Your feelings toward a movie can evolve over time, as in any other kind of romance. Occasionally, you can be persuaded to fall halfway in love with a film before you’ve even watched it, with a critic or an enthusiastic friend serving as the equivalent of a matchmaker, and that initial glow can blind you to even the most glaring of faults. Sooner or later, though, you start to see it more clearly, and you realize that it wasn’t meant to be—even if you’ll never forget how it once made you feel. One From the Heart, which in itself is a story about the ups and downs of a longtime relationship, is that kind of movie for me. I doubt if many viewers still seek it out these days, but for a few years in the early eighties, it was one of the biggest stories in Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola, coming off the hell and unlikely vindication of Apocalypse Now, had envisioned a new kind of movie studio, in which artists of all backgrounds could come together in a process of ongoing collaboration: it would be part theater troupe, part circus, part laboratory for audacious experiments. The test case would be a modest screenplay by Armyan Bernstein about a bored couple, Hank and Frannie, who take other lovers for a single night, then drift back together again. It’s a trifle of a story even by the standards of romantic comedy, but something in it seized Coppola’s imagination: he decided to set it in Las Vegas, which would give him an excuse to build gigantic sets at the Zoetrope Studios, and to test his new technology for computer-assisted review and editing. (Or, as an industry wisecrack quoted by Roger Ebert put it: “[Coppola] took an $8 million project and used the latest advances in video to bring it in for $23 million.”)

In other words, it was just the kind of doomed, lunatic project that excites me as a moviegoer, and it was even a musical, too. Not surprisingly, after my first viewing, I was convinced that I loved it. Over time, the flush of enthusiasm faded: the plot is so inconsequential that it seems to evaporate as you watch it, and most of the visual and aural delights on display never quite land as intended. (The one exception is the soundtrack by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, which I still think is one of the greatest ever recorded. It deserves to be part of everyone’s musical life.) But I can’t quite forget it, either. I was first turned onto it by a pair of reviews by Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times, the first of which was a rave, the second—written a decade later—a mediation on her own disillusionment. In retrospect, they anticipate my own experience with One From the Heart with eerie accuracy. When Benson first saw it, she thought it was “enchanting,” but a return visit brought her to her senses: “But ah, my foes, and oh my friends, the stuff that sticks the marvelous bits together now seems, frankly, strained beyond the most passionate loyalty.” That’s pretty much how I feel about it today, too, even if its immaculate opening credits and gorgeous title song still fill me with a wistful sense of what might have been. Few other movies have left such an incongruous dual legacy: it’s both a lightweight, frothy confection and the film that derailed the career of the most promising American director since Orson Welles. But it’s still worth seeking out. As Benson concludes: “Who knows, it may become the love of your life.”

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 15, 2016 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Simon Ramo

In the 1950s, [Simon Ramo] attended a series of key ballistic missile experiments at Cape Canaveral, Florida, with Air Force Gen. Bernard Schriever. One after another, the test rockets kept exploding on their launch pads. When one missile finally rose six inches before toppling over and bursting into flames, Ramo reportedly beamed and said: “Well, Benny, now that we know the thing can fly, all we have to do is improve its range a bit.”

Melody Petersen, in the Los Angeles Times

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2014 at 7:30 am

Thoughts on a Descending Nude, Part 2

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In my opinion piece in today’s Los Angeles Times, I describe the uproar that greeted Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, where it resulted in a sort of mass hysteria. After the first hostile reviews began to appear, the galleries were mobbed, with attendees standing in line for forty minutes to catch a glimpse of the painting before being whisked away, “shrieking for help,” in the words of one contemporary observer. It’s tempting to compare this response to the mayhem Duchamp witnessed firsthand three months later in Paris, at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, but there was something almost affectionate in the furor over the painting, which inspired dozens of parodies and become a favorite of viewers disposed to be skeptical of modern art, as if they suspected that Duchamp himself was in on the joke.

All the same, it’s instructive to compare the American response with that of the Paris Cubists, who forced Duchamp to withdraw the painting from the Salon des Indépendants one hundred years ago today: both saw the joke there, but only the Americans were happy to play along. And the punchline is that if hadn’t been for its ludicrous title and the ensuing scandal, Nude Descending a Staircase would probably only be of interest to specialists. It’s innovative, but in a limited way: it uses parallel outlines to map the motion of the body through space, an effect familiar from comic strips, but the result isn’t really successful—the figure lurches along with little resemblance to an actual human being. (One critic called it “a descending machine,” and to modern eyes, it resembles nothing so much as a kind of zombie.)

If he had been so inclined, Duchamp might have gone on to refine his technique, but he seems never to have been tempted to follow up on the initial impulse. Instead, he went beyond painting altogether. During his trip to Munich the year before, he was already chafing at the limitations of what he called “retinal art,” becoming increasingly obsessed with process, notes, and titles. Indeed, the deliberately provocative title of Nude Descending a Staircase may be the most Duchampian thing about it: the reaction taught him that the tension between a work of art and its title could be more interesting than the work itself, leading to the frequently eye-glazing or sophomoric titles of his ensuing pieces, like The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, which seem to be trying to recapture the magic of that first, indignant response.

Duchamp, in short, would always be an outsider and provocateur, a role that he seems to have embraced wholeheartedly. For the rest of his life, he lived quietly and simply, playing chess and working on projects for his own amusement, to the point where it’s often hard to tell the difference between his art and his private jokes—although in Duchamp’s best work, the line between art and leg pull is fine indeed. (The posthumous installation Étant Donnés, which he worked on in secret for twenty years, is either his final masterpiece or the most elaborate prank of all time.) And it all began with the response to Nude Descending a Staircasewhich, almost by accident, set the stage for the most influential career in modern art. Neither Duchamp nor the rest of us would ever be the same.

Thoughts on a Descending Nude, Part 1

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In 1912, Marcel Duchamp, who would one day be acclaimed as the most influential artist of the twentieth century, was twenty-four and living in the shadow of his two older brothers, one a highly regarded painter and printmaker, the other a celebrated sculptor. Marcel, by contrast, was a somewhat indifferent artist who was seriously hoping to pursue a career as a humorous illustrator. (A few years earlier, several of his drawings had been prominently displayed at a local skating rink.) As a painter, his work was characterized by cautious imitations of Cézanne and the Cubists, and although he had been allowed into Parisian art circles, this seems to have been at least partially out of respect for his brothers.

All the same, it was an exciting time to be an artist in Paris, where a politically engaged circle of Cubists met frequently in the shared garden of a row of artists’ studios in Puteaux, arguing over matters of theory and inveighing against their rival Futurists. Duchamp was often there, although he seems to have been less interested in theoretical debates than in playing boules on the lawn. Yet he had also begun to paint more seriously, and like any ambitious young artist, he would have welcomed the chance to display a piece at the upcoming Salon des Indépendants. The year before, a group exhibition of Cubists had caused a nice little scandal, and the Puteaux circle saw the upcoming show as their chance to make a case for a reasonable Cubism.

Unfortunately, as I’ll describe more fully in an opinion piece in tomorrow’s Los Angeles Times, Duchamp’s entry, Nude Descending a Staircase, was anything but reasonable. In the end, it was rejected by the Cubist hanging committee, and on March 18, 1912, Duchamp was asked to withdraw it from the exhibition. This embarrassing incident, in which his brothers had played no small part, evidently contributed to one of the most mysterious episodes in his early career: his decision, a few months later, to visit Munich, a city where he had no close friends. Duchamp never explained the reasons for this trip, but it seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the fact that there were no Cubists in Germany.

During his two months in Munich, Duchamp worked alone, away from the influence of other artists. He produced several important canvases, but also began moving in a direction that would take him past painting entirely. In particular, he made a series of notes toward a more ambitious work, one that would appeal to the mind, not the eye, and that would ultimately culminate in his first true masterpiece, The Large Glass. And he was still working on this project in Paris the following year when he discovered, much to his surprise, that Nude Descending a Staircase, the painting that had been so ignominiously rejected the year before, had unexpectedly made him one of the most famous artists in America.

To be continued…

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