On the road! Here are some events -- talks and teaching, writers conferences and writing festivals -- I'm doing this spring in the Boston area, plus the North Shore, and Philadelphia
February 21, 2013--For Immediate Release
For more information, contact Marita Coombs, Somerville Public Library,
617-623-5000 x 2942, firstname.lastname@example.org
More info here: http://www.somervillepubliclibrary.org/blog/?p=1563
"Teens have something important to say":
Free Teen Creative Writing Program at Somerville Public Library
Are you a teen who likes to write stories about aliens, blogs, flash fiction, or poems? Are you interested in becoming a novelist, short story writer or poet?
Somerville Public Library's Teen Creative Writing Program will offer teens writing exercises to flex their writing muscles in a fun, low-pressure, supportive environment.
The Somerville Public Library is pleased to announce the start of a free Teen Creative Writing Program, designed for any teen aged 13-17. The program will be offered once per month on Sundays, beginning Sunday, March 24, from 1pm to 4pm. Seven three-hour, stand-alone sessions will be offered.
The sessions will be run by Somerville writers Ethan Gilsdorf and Becky Tuch, who will lead writing exercises in a variety of genres, from fantasy fiction to lyric poetry.
No previous writing experience is needed. Students are encouraged to come as they are and need not attend all seven sessions. Materials and lunch will be provided.
Advance sign-up is requested. To register, please contact Marita Coombs, Somerville Public Library, 617-623-5000 x 2942, email@example.com. Additional program dates are Sunday, April 14, Sunday May 19, and Sunday, June 9. The final three session dates will be announced at a future time.
More info here: http://www.somervillepubliclibrary.org/blog/?p=1563
"We'll provide unexpected writing prompts to get teens to generate as much new work in as short a time as possible," said Gilsdorf, an essayist, journalist and author of the book "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks." "Teens have something important to say."
Both Gilsdorf and Tuch are published writers, and teach at Grub Street Writers, Boston's independent creative writing center. Both have extensive experience teaching teens creative writing.
"Nothing inspires me more than my students, at all ages and all stages of their writing careers," said Becky Tuch, a fiction writer whose work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and has taught fiction to kids, teens, and adults throughout Boston. "As a Somerville resident myself, I can't wait to teach and learn from the young writers in the area."
The Teen Creative Writing Program is funded by the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Mass Cultural Council, as well as the Friends of the Library.
More information about the instructors:
Becky Tuch has received literature fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and The Somerville Arts Council, awards from Briar Cliff Review, Byline Magazine, and The Tennessee Writers Alliance, and her fiction has been short-listed for a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train's Very Short Fiction Award. Other stories and essays have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Hobart, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of The Review Review, a website which has twice been listed by Writer's Digest as "Best of the Best" among 101 Best Websites for Writers. She is also one of the founders of the writing and publishing blog, Beyond the Margins.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and geek. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, he publishes travel, arts, and pop culture stories, essays and reviews regularly in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Salon.com, wired.com, PsychologyToday.com, and WBUR's Cognescenti blog. He is a book and film critic for the Boston Globe and is the film columnist for Art New England. An award-winning poet, he has published poems in Poetry, The Southern Review, and The North American Review, and several anthologies. He is co-founder of Grub Street's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP) and teaches creative writing workshops at Grub Street, where he also serves on the Board of Directors.
Exercises for the nonfiction workshop to overcome the problems of the "I" and "me"
Ethan Gilsdorf | www.ethangilsdorf.com | Grub Street, Inc., Boston
1) "Joan Didion and Bob Seger Meet in a Bar" Exercise
Goal: What didn't happen is as fruitful a road to travel as what did. But, too frequently, writers of nonfiction tend to write only about the actual details of their lives, and neglect the goldmine of regrets and "what if" musings that (to me, anyway) seem as "real" as real life. This exercise forces nonfiction writers to reflect about possible/probable outcomes in their lives, had they made different choices. The goal also is to get writers to include imaginary "what if" scenes and passages of musing and specialization about their choices and actions.
Method: Make a short list of key moments/choices/actions/conversations /turning points in your life. Now, choose one and begin to imagine how things might have been different had you made a different choice or had (or did not have) information at the time you made the choice or took action. Ideas for topics include: that you married a different person; that you spoke up when you remained quiet; that you took back something you said; that you had been courageous instead of fearful.
Now, begin to free-write for minimum of 15-20 minutes using one (or more than one, if you want) of the following lines as the first line for an extended passage of writing. The passages you write should include real details from your life but also speculate and imagine a possibly different turn of events and life you might have had. In addition to exposition and musing, you are encouraged to include imaginary scenes with imaginary dialogue in this exercise.
1) If I only knew then what I know now ...
2) If I had only X (done something, made a different choice, etc ) instead of Y ...
3) Begin with this line by Joan Didion (from her essay "Goodbye to All That”) and see where it takes you: "It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends."
4) Here's another Didion line: "Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different..." Think of a "city" from your personal experience, or substitute "city" for some other noun: person, summer camp, car, father, college, wife, etc.
5) And because I could not resist: Use this line from the Bob Seger song "Against the Wind" as a way to reflect on your own life. "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then ..." (it's a double negative, so take a sec to figure it out.)
2) Where I'm From
(adapted from http://georgeellalyon.com/where.html and http://www.swva.net/fred1st/wif.htm)
Goal: Often nonfiction writers worry that they need to make their personal experience "universal," and in that worry, they can sap all the specific, local and personal details from their prose. This exercise gets nonfiction writers to include specific concrete detail from their lives into their writing: actual names, phrases, local information, family secrets and stories, period products, species of plants, etc. This exercise teaches the power of a simple list in creating a rhythm and lyric quality in prose. On its own, this exercise also makes a lovely, stand-alone self-portrait.
Method: "If you don't know where you're from, you'll have a hard time saying where you're going," said Wendell Berry, voicing the idea that we need to understand our roots to know our place in the world. This prompt has a way of drawing out memories of the smells of attics and bottom-drawer keepsakes; the faces of long-departed kin, the sound of their voices you still hold some deep place in memory. You'll be surprised that, when you're done, you will have said things about the sources of your unique you-ness that you'd never considered before. If you remember the silly fill-in-the-blank word game Mad Libs, then you'll love this exercise. It's completely foolproof. Follow this template, but feel free to improvise or stray from the categories once you get the hang of the voice and rhythm -- just be sure to make your examples specific and concrete.
The Where I'm From Template
I am from ________________________ (specific ordinary household item), from ________________________ (product name), ________________________ (another household item), and ________________________ (common household odor from your childhood).
I am from the ________________________ (home description: adjective, adjective, sensory detail).
I am from the ________________________ (plant, flower, natural item), the ________________________ (plant, flower, natural detail)
I am from ________________________ (family tradition) and ________________________ (family trait), from ________________________ (name of family member) and ________________________ (another family name) and ________________________ (family name).
I am from the ________________________ (description of family tendency/trait/habit) and ________________________ (another example).
From ________________________ (something you were told as a child) and ________________________ (another example).
I am from ________________________ (representation of religion, or lack of it). From ________________________ (further description).
I'm from ________________________ (actual place of birth and/or family ancestry), ________________________ (two food items representing your family).
From the ________________________ (specific family story about a specific person and detail), the ________________________ (another detail or anecdote), and the ________________________ (another detail about another family member).
I am from ________________________ (location of family pictures, mementos, archives and several more lines indicating their worth).
Sample: Where I’m From, by Ethan Gilsdorf
I am from plungers and wood bins, from the Downy bottle that scared me from across the kitchen, straw brooms and the smell of cat urine. I am from the rotted floorboards of a house built in 1803. I am from the lilac hedge, and chives, and garden tomatoes. I am from going to the movies on Thanksgiving, from the land of avoidance, from Florences, Briggs and Normans, from a triumvirate of mothers: Alice, Sara and Susan. I am from keeping your options open. I have climbed from deep trenches of passive-aggression. I am from keeping your expectations low and having a Plan B (better yet, Plan B and Plan C). I am from the church of the forest, the cathedral of sandpits and swift rivers. From the Teachings of Yoda and Gandalf. I'm from Lee, New Hampshire, and from surviving pot roasts and meatloaf made from your bare hands. From the cousin who robbed a bank, they say, the mother who learned to smoke in her high school play, and the father who finally got away. I am from the round box that might have housed an elaborate hat, or perhaps a drum, which I keep in my office, under a pile of books, and look at only when I dare.
Where to Go with "Where I'm From"
While you can revise (edit, extend, rearrange) your “Where I'm From” list into a poem, you can also see it as a corridor of doors opening onto further knowledge and other kinds of writing. The key is to let yourself explore these rooms. Don't rush to decide what kind of writing you're going to do or to revise or finish a piece. Let your goal be the writing itself. Learn to let it lead you. This will help you lead students, both in their own writing and in their response as readers. Look for these elements in your WIF poem and see where else they might take you:
a place could open into a piece of descriptive writing or a scene from memory.
your parents' work could open into a memory of going with them, helping, being in the way. Could be a remembered dialogue between your parents about work. Could be a poem made from a litany of tools they used.
an important event could open into freewriting all the memories of that experience, then writing it as a scene, with description and dialogue. It's also possible to let the description become setting and directions and let the dialogue turn into a play.
food could open into a scene at the table, a character sketch of the person who prepared the food, a litany of different experiences with it, a process essay of how to make it.
music could take you to a scene where the music is playing; could provide you the chance to interleave the words of the song and words you might have said (or a narrative of what you were thinking and feeling at the time the song was first important to you (“Where I'm Singing From”).
something someone said to you could open into a scene or a poem which captures that moment; could be what you wanted to say back but never did.
a significant object could open into a sensory exploration of the object-what it felt, sounded, smelled, looked, and tasted like; then where it came from, what happened to it, a memory of your connection with it. Is there a secret or a longing connected with this object? A message? If you could go back to yourself when this object was important to you, what would you ask, tell, or give yourself?
Remember, you are the expert on you. No one else sees the world as you do; no one else has your material to draw on. You don't have to know where to begin. Just start. Let it flow. Trust the work to find its own form.
TIM AND ERIC”S BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE
Directed by: Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim
Written by: Heidecker, Wareheim, Jonathan Krisel, Doug Lussenhop, Jon Mugar
Starring: Heidecker, Wareheim, Robert Loggia, Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Zach Galifianakis
Running time: 93 minutes
At: Kendall Square
Rated: R (nearly every bodily and sexual function and dismemberment possible)
by Ethan Gilsdorf
If you enjoy the off-kilter, sketch-based humor of “Kentucky Fried Movie,’’ Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life,’’ and anything that cranks up the Farrelly brothers’ raunch factor to 11, then “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie’’ should please you.
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, co-creators of the TV series “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!,’’ wrote and directed this celebration of bad taste. The movie has Heidecker and Wareheim playing Hollywood newbie filmmaker morons, who have squandered a billion of the Schlaaang Corporation’s dollars on a rom-com dud. Tommy Schlaaang Jr. (played by cantankerous Robert Loggia) wants his money back. Tim and Eric shave their soul patches, toss their designer jeans, and fire their spiritual guru, a pony-tailed Zach Galifianakis (uncredited), who pops up in Obi Wan-like visions to say, “I’ve got some poetry about regret I’d like to share with you.’’
Eric and Tim, our wholly unlikable and clueless protagonists (think “Dumb and Dumber’’), skip town, determined to make back that billion dollars they owe by resurrecting the Swallow Valley Mall, deep in the middle of somewhere. Our heroes, remade now as the Dobis PR company, literally jog across the country, as Aimee Mann’s “Two Horses’’ plays and their journey is intercut with slow-motion footage of stallions.
They arrive at the decrepit, squatter-filled mall to find stubborn entrepreneurs selling swords and recycled toilet paper. The mall is run by creepy Damien Weebs (Will Ferrell, also uncredited), who occupies himself in a back room endlessly watching “Top Gun’’ on VHS. Among the best performers is John C. Reilly (yes, uncredited) as the sickly, sore-covered Taquito, Damien’s henchman, abandoned by his family at the mall decades ago. “Also,’’ Damien warns, before handing over the operation to Tim and Eric, “You’re going to have to look out for the wolf.’’ A wolf stalks the mall. And the “Yogurt Man’’ haunts the defunct frozen yogurt kiosk.
You could view all of this as a bold, thinly veiled critique of the current economic depression. Or an exegesis of a nation driven by cable access infomercials and self-help shams. Or you could simply enjoy - if enjoy is the right sentiment - this gross-out comedy that graphically depicts masturbation, defecation, body piercing (you can guess which parts), grannies getting their fingers chopped off, and every smooshy and farty sound-effect possible. See it in the right sick frame of mind, and “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie’’ can be shockingly and terribly hilarious. Or not.
UPDATE TO THIS REVIEW: Edward Lee Elmore -- a black man who faced execution after he was wrongly convicted of killing a white woman in South Carolina -- was released from prison today after serving nearly thirty years. His release comes after numerous appeals and as the direct result of a plea deal negotiated by his attorney. Elmore's story is the subject of Raymond Bonner's new book ANATOMY OF INJUSTICE. Bonner, who was present at the Greenwood SC courthouse at the time of the announcement, said “It can hardly be called justice when, in order to obtain his freedom, a man had to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit.”
For those seeking more ammunition for their battery of anti-death-penalty arguments, look no further. “Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong’’ is Raymond Bonner’s accomplished and meticulously researched investigation into a murder case that, as the clumsy title suggests, was egregiously bungled.
In 1982, in Greenwood, S.C., Edward Lee Elmore, 23, is accused of killing an elderly widow.
Elmore had occasionally done odd jobs for the victim. When her body is found in her closet, stabbed dozens of times and possibly raped, Elmore is fingered as the prime suspect, despite a notable lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime.
The small-town police officers, prosecutors, and medical examiners work together and cram his arrest, trial, conviction and eventual sentencing to death into three months - astonishingly rushed, given that most capital cases drag out for years. Elmore’s legal team is described as, at best, dispassionate, and at worst, incompetent. Bonner complains they did “virtually nothing.’’
Thickening the plot and heartbreak: The accused is poor, African-American, and mentally disabled, facts that seem never to bother the judges and juries over Elmore’s 27-year trail of legal appeals. He could not “tell time or draw a clock. He didn’t understand the concept of north, south, east, and west or of summer, fall, winter, and spring.’’ He could not do the elementary math to keep a bank account. Cross-examined on the stand, he simply replies, “I didn’t - ’’ “I couldn’t . . .’’ “No, sir, I wasn’t there.’’
A longtime reporter for The New York Times, where he shared a Pulitzer Prize, and a former New Yorker magazine staff writer, Bonner writes prose best described as workaday. It’s only in part two, when he introduces his narrative’s plucky heroine, Diana Holt, an idealistic lawyer with a sketchy criminal past who becomes Elmore’s guardian angel, does Bonner risk literary flourishes. “What the hell am I doing?’’ he has Holt thinking as she leaves Texas and her children behind to work at the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center. “Am I a horrible mother?’’
Holt makes a compelling protagonist. We invest in how, and if, she will get Elmore off death row. True-crime junkies also will be entertained by prurient details, from descriptions of the victim’s bludgeoned body to baggies of hair samples and blood-spattered jeans. We read transcriptions of courtroom proceedings, and we delight as witnesses are caught in lies. Neophytes to criminal law (this reviewer included) learn that despite new evidence proving a person’s innocence, fresh trials are rare. In this case, lawyers must prove not that Elmore was not the killer, but that his “constitutional rights had been violated.’’
If, voice-wise, “Anatomy of Injustice’’ can at times fall flat, as a piece of reporting, the book is masterful. Bonner builds the story, and his argument, carefully, rarely editorializing, mixing in a précis of capital punishment in the United States, and letting readers draw their own conclusions. And while Bonner’s investigation does not prove Greenwood’s law enforcement officials framed Elmore, he does make a convincing case that justice was not served. “Elmore’s story raises nearly all the issues that mark the debate about capital punishment: race, mental retardation, bad trial lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct, ‘snitch’ testimony, DNA testing, a claim of innocence.’’
Bonner’s book is an important addition to the body of evidence against the death penalty. As he argues, our system of justice thrives on conflict. In any trial, among the cast of conviction-seeking prosecutors and appellate lawyers hoping for a break, there must be winners and losers. “[T]he adversarial nature of it outweighs justice,’’ Bonner writes. “Justice often gets lost.’’
And while it would be unfair to reveal here whether Holt and Elmore win, beyond a shadow of a doubt it is worth reading “Anatomy of Injustice’’ to find out.
by Ethan Gilsdorf
Who are Viggo Mortensen’s heroes? Ask him, and he doesn’t hold back. That’s what we learned when, after a recent interview, we sent the actor some follow-up questions via e-mail. Here are his responses.
1) Who were your heroes growing up as a child, and who are they today?
Okay, you asked for it...
As a child — say, before age eleven — I suppose they were my father, my mother, various horses and dogs, soccer players for San Lorenzo de Almagro (a club founded in Boedo, Argentina, in 1908 by Salesian priest Lorenzo Massa) like “Lobo” Fischer, “Loco” Doval, “Bambino” Veira, “Sapo” Villar and too many other legendary players from that club to mention — Viking Leif Eriksson, fictional gaucho cowboy Martin Fierro, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Odin, Thor, Jesus of Nazareth, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, the character Don Quijote, his horse Rosinante and his trusty servant Sancho Panza, Achilles, Odysseus, Theseus, Joan of Arc, explorer Roald Amundsen, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, Thor Heyerdahl, Roger Bannister (the first man to break the four-minute mile barrier), marathon champion Abebe Bikila, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé), long jumper Bob Beamon, Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, Emil Zátopek, Wilt Chamberlain, Cassius Clay, swimmers Don Schollander and Dawn Fraser, Peter O’Toole’s impersonation of T. E. Lawrence, the crew of Apollo 11, the recently-deceased rock legend Luis Alberto “El Flaco” Spinetta, Carlos Gardel, Bela Lugosi, Greta Garbo, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Edith Piaf, Beethoven, Mozart ... I could probably name more, but surely that gives an idea of how and where I dreamed back then.
Although as an adult I have come to see that no human being is perfect, I now would place at the top of the list the many unheralded people whose small acts of selfless kindness and courtesy, of grace under pressure that we come across every single day are there to be noticed and emulated if we simply pay attention. In terms of individuals who are relatively well-known, I would single out Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Helen Caldicott, Dennis Kucinich, Baltasar Garzón, Aung San Suu Kyi, Julian Assange and anyone who speaks truth to power, stands up against injustice and cruelty regardless of any consequential risk of ostracism or personal physical danger. Of course, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mark Twain, my father, my mother, and some of the others previously mentioned, are still heroes to me. I can also add, among other diverse sorts of heroes, my son Henry, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Sabina Spielrein, Heraclitus, Kierkegaard, Lao Tzu, Epictetus, writers Marguerite Duras, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Albert Camus, Jonathan Swift, E. E. Cummings, Julio Cortázar, Mario Benedetti, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Juan Carlos Onetti, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Francisco Quevedo, Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega, Haroldo Conti, Oscar Wilde, Knut Hamsun, Saxo Grammaticus, Schopenhauer, Ludvig Holberg, Anton Chekhov, Anna Akhmatova, Johannes Ewald, Euripides, Stanley Kunitz, Theodore Roethke, Lewis Carroll, Joseph Conrad, Osip Mandelstam, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Seamus Heaney, Oscar Wilde, Cormac McCarthy, Edgar Allan Poe, Rainer Maria Rilke, Heinrich Heine, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, William Burroughs, Walt Whitman, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Campbell, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, directors Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, David Cronenberg, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Luis Buñuel and Yasujirō Ozu, actors Richard Jenkins, Sandy Dennis, Geraldine Page, Meryl Streep, Maria Falconetti, Ghita Nørby, Ariadna Gil, Jessica Lange, Paco Rabal, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Dirk Bogarde, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Federico Luppi, Montgomery Clift, and Robert Duvall, stuntman Mike Watson, sculptors Bertel Thorvaldsen, Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, painters Giotto, da Vinci, Juan Gris, Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Andrei Rublev, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Edvard Munch, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Utagawa Hiroshige, Minerva Chapman, Franz Kline, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Diebenkorn, Per Kirkeby, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and photographers Jacques Henri Lartigue, Jacob Riis, André Kertész, Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Julia Margaret Cameron, Martin Munkácsi, August Sander, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, Garry Winogrand and Dennis Hopper, tennis champions Rafael Nadal, Björn Borg and Guillermo Vilas, skiers Bill Koch, Juha Mieto, Jean-Claude Killy and Bjørn Dæhlie, newer San Lorenzo players like “Beto” Acosta, “Ratón” Ayala, the heroic 1982 San Lorenzo team that came back from the club’s only descent to Argentina’s second division breaking national attendance records along the way, Guy Lafleur and the great Montréal Canadiens teams from the 1970s, the 1969 and and 1986 New York Mets, Tom Seaver, “Doc” Gooden, New York Knick stars Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Bernard King, Oscar Reed, Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird, “Magic” Johnson, the U.S.A. 1980 Olympic hockey team, the ’87, ’91, 2008 and 2012 New York Giants teams, Danish soccer stars Allan Simonsen, Michael Laudrup, Peter Schmeichel and Denmark’s 1992’s soccer cinderella-story European Champion team, Johan Cruyff, Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona, Real Madrid’s/Schalke’s Raúl González Blanco, Leo Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Zinedine Zidane, Bob Dylan, Ada Falcón, Leonard Cohen, Chet Baker, Gustav Mahler, Arvo Pärt, Carl Nielsen and so on...
Sorry to give you such long lists. Could have been even longer...
2) What are your favorite films, or films influential on your career, and/or what actors do you admire, and why?
Movies, to name a few: The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Godfather I & II, A Separation, The Fog of War, The Conformist, Los Santos Inocentes, The Deer Hunter, Casino, Lawrence of Arabia, Tokyo Story, Autumn Sonata, Sunrise, Andrei Rublev, Citizen Kane, A Place in the Sun, City Lights, Casablanca, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Greed, The Night of the Hunter, The Third Man, Gallipoli, Mother and Son, Stalker, Ivan’s Childhood, Red River, Taxi Driver, Frances, Network, Grand Illusion, L’Atalante, Throne of Blood, The Seven Samurai, The Sword of Doom, Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy, Carnival of Souls, Solaris (Tarkovsky’s original)...
Actors, to name a few: Montgomery Clift, Maria Falconetti, Meryl Streep, Marlon Brando, Richard Jenkins, Sandy Dennis, Ellen Burstyn, Geraldine Page, Robert Duvall, Anna Magnani, Peter O’Toole, Toshiro Mifune, Dennis Hopper, Jessica Lange, James Dean, John Hurt, Dirk Bogarde, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Pickford, Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Bergman, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Gabin, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Ulrich Thomsen, Max von Sydow, Bruno Ganz...
3) Did you read much fantasy or science fiction as a kid? Did you ever play Dungeons & Dragons or know anyone who did?
Never have played “Dungeons and Dragons.” As a kid I read Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and a few others. As an adult have admired Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and notebooks.
4) We talked a little about your work as an actor, painter, poet and musician. They all seem linked by story. So I’m wondering what you think is the significance or power of stories? Why are they so important?
We are the stories we tell about ourselves, the stories we tell about others, the stories we read about everyone and every thing.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com
He’s best known for inhabiting a haunted and reluctant hero-king. But he’s also been a trailblazing thinker, a vigilante family man with a dark past, a Russian mobster, a swoon-worthy traveling salesman, and one of the last men alive on earth, determined to make sure he and a boy survive.
Starring in these movies - the “Lord of the Rings’’ trilogy, “A Dangerous Method,’’ “A History of Violence,’’ “Eastern Promises,’’ “A Walk on the Moon,’’ and “The Road’’ - actor Viggo Mortensen assumes the shape of outsiders. His characters drift, wander, and resist the status quo. They eschew the spotlight. They forsake the obvious path to their fates.
That the actor is attracted to these roles - quiet, contemplative, often loners, men who conceal secret doubts, identities, and rages - “probably has something to do with who I am,’’ Mortensen says on the phone from Madrid. “I suppose I am conscious of being drawn to people who are a little different. Or who think for themselves.’’
On Monday, Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre will honor Mortensen for his independent outlook. Its Coolidge Award annually recognizes a film artist who “advances the spirit of original and challenging cinema.’’
Mortensen, 53, says he simply craves “connections’’ and “experiences’’ - two words that frequently punctuate his drawly, meditative speech (as do ruminations on art and mortality). Guided by a thirst for off-kilter adventures, he seeks projects that make him feel alive.
“I just try to choose things that are interesting, that are going to challenge me, that are going to make me a little nervous,’’ says the soft-spoken, gravelly voiced actor. “Because I know what makes you nervous, what makes you afraid. It’s usually things you don’t know anything about.’’
Example: Mortensen recently relocated to Madrid to perform in a Spanish-language play called “Purgatorio.’’ “[I was] afraid I wasn’t up to the task as an actor,’’ he says. Yet he discovered, “as usual,’’ that the work with the most emotional challenges ended up being the most enjoyable.
That kind of risk-taking is what the Coolidge is rewarding. Denise Kasell, executive director of the Coolidge, cited the eclectic, courageous choices of the actor, who also paints, writes poems, shoots photos, sings, plays piano, and runs his own small publishing house. “He’s a very accessible gentleman. He’s an artist himself,’’ Kasell says. “He really understands and gets what we are all about.’’
“And he said yes,’’ Kasell adds. “It’s that simple.’’
This week, the Coolidge has been mounting a retrospective of Mortensen’s films, which continues through Sunday with a rare marathon of the extended editions of “The Lord of the Rings’’ trilogy, followed by a Monday afternoon screening of “Eastern Promises’’ - the David Cronenberg film that earned Mortensen a 2007 best actor Oscar nomination - and a post-screening Q&A with the actor. Then comes a sold-out award presentation Monday night.
Asking Mortensen about his ideals can elicit passionate responses. When questioned in a follow-up e-mail, “Who were your heroes growing up as a child, and who are they today?’’ the actor sends an astounding 800-plus word answer, listing childhood heroes that range from “my father, my mother, various horses and dogs’’ to Mahatma Gandhi, Thor, Jesus of Nazareth, Odysseus, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé), Jesse Owens, the crew of Apollo 11, Greta Garbo, Louis Armstrong, and Mozart, plus adult heroes including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, Anna Akhmatova, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, Luis Bunuel, Matisse, Margaret Bourke-White, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Leonard Cohen, and Gustav Mahler.
Mortensen’s passion extends to his commitment to his roles. To get under Aragorn’s skin for “The Lord of the Rings,’’ he wore his costume even while not shooting, and kept his practice sword always close at hand.
But fans who know the actor only from his Middle-earth orc-slaying may be surprised to learn that he’s been acting for nearly three decades. He made his film debut with a small part in 1985’s “Witness.’’ In those days, he would do “anything, something, anything’’ for acting experience, and to pay the rent. Which explains his journeyman gigs in TV’s “Miami Vice’’ and a couple of ABC “Afterschool Specials,’’ as well as in horror films such as “Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.’’
Whenever possible - “anytime it was really up to me and not the landlord,’’ he says - he chose parts that pushed him as an actor. Through the late 1980s and 1990s, he had supporting roles with indie directors such as Jane Campion (“The Portrait of a Lady’’), Sean Penn (“The Indian Runner’’), and Gus Van Sant (“Psycho’’), as well as a few mainstream films such as “Young Guns II,’’ “Crimson Tide,’’ and “G.I. Jane.’’
Directed by a relative-unknown at the time, Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings’’ felt like a gamble. “While we were making it, no one had any idea it was going to be a huge smash hit,’’ Mortensen says. The success quickly cemented his status as a leading man and introduced him to the fun-house world of celebrity life. “Walking down the street in any town or city in the world and having people look at you and start talking to you, convinced that they know you as well or better than they do members of their own family, that’s just an odd phenomenon,’’ he says. “I wouldn’t say it was a bad thing. It’s interesting.’’
Mortensen could have leveraged his “Lord of the Rings’’ fame into a parade of action-adventure paychecks. Instead, he’s largely championed diverse roles in smaller movies. How many fantasy heroes would go on to play a Russian mobster in “Eastern Promises,’’ and dare to let it all hang out, buck-naked, in a steam-room fight scene? Next up for Mortensen: playing the William S. Burroughs character in an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.’’
The idea of a career trajectory hasn’t crossed his mind. “Maybe I would have been smarter to have written down in a notebook, ‘Well, I’m going to play this part and this part before I’m too old to play this part,’ ’’ he says.
He views acting as “an extension of childhood play,’’ Mortensen says. “You have to just go for it. Just let yourself go and let yourself believe.’’
And each role is a chance to learn something new: “Each time I’m looking at the world or a part of the world from a point of view different than my own. Sometimes radically different. Sometimes from a point of view I would never care to have or identify with. But that’s the job.’’
Such a job has its own internal rewards, Mortensen emphasizes. “You can wake up feeling so-so about the world, and then because of what happens as soon as you get out of bed, something happens. You connect with someone, something, a book, and something happens that’s bigger than just you. It’s a connection with nature, a connection with people, a connection with a story that you are part of telling. . . . That’s what’s great about it.’’
But loyalty to indie cinema is a double-edged sword. Mortensen has at times grown frustrated with “irritating, dishonest, disappointing’’ people in the business, he says. He’s even contemplated quitting, but never has.
He harbors strong feelings about the Hollywood movie-making machine - its “frenetic quality,’’ the “money at stake,’’ the “hyping of the product,’’ the “award shows and prizes.’’ He complains that Cronenberg has never won an Academy Award or Golden Globe. “He deserves it way more than many who have won and more than half of those who get nominated every year,’’ Mortensen says. “I know he’s in the pantheon of greatest living directors, unquestionably, and he’s never been nominated.’’
Yet isn’t that the fate of those who take the road less traveled? They want recognition, they shun recognition. Yet they still hold out hope.
“Every once in a while, every couple of years, there’s one or two movies that really surprise you, because there is innovation,’’ Mortensen says. “Or people just do such honest work. Or such pure work or such interesting, original work every once in a while that it is the real thing. And it makes you hopeful.’’
Now that Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is wailing on his opponents Newt, Rick, and Paul, perhaps it's time for his deeds to be enshrined as a D&D character.
Artist Casey Jex Smith has been working on a series of works that depict people as D&D characters. Here, Mitt Romney, although unnamed, is shown as Lord Spelldyal, a 21st level warlord with 152 hit points, Boots of Speed and a Helmet of Authority.
The drawing was one of the works in the Dungeons and Dragons On & Ever Onward art show at the Soho Gallery of Digital Art in New York City. The show, which closed Jan 11, 2012, was curated by Timothy Hutchings, and featured works by Casey Jex Smith, Ryan Browning, Sean McCarthy, Rebecca Schiffman, Josh Jordan, Jeffrey Brown, Giovanni Garcia-Fenech, Chris Bors, Owen Rundquist, Andrew Guenther Jason Phillips, Ketta Ioannidou, Fiona MacNeill, Kitty Clark, Erol Otus, Steve Zeiser, Matt Brinkman, Chris Coy, and others.
And it featured historical selections from the Play-Generated Maps and Documents Archive.
Image courtesy Allegra LaViola Gallery
[a version of this post originally appeared on wired.com's GeekDad]
Unable to shoot straight. Weak in the knees. Apt to fall for Jedi mind tricks, and fall over at the weakest of laser blasts.
In the Lucas universe, the typical stormtrooper is portrayed as a hapless soldier in service of the Empire.
Stormtroopers don’t tend to be very yummy, either … we assume.
But this footsoldier (pictured at left) was solidly-built, very tasty, and served not only Darth Vader. He also served several hundred hungry science fiction fans.
A crew from Boston-based Amanda Oakleaf Cakes worked like crazed jawas for two weeks to complete this 6-foot, 4-inch high, edible Imperial stormtrooper.
Constructed of white cake, Rice Krispies Treats and fondant (an icing made from sugar used to decorate and sculpt pastries), it weighed 300 pounds — and was devoured this weekend at the Arisia science fiction and fantasy convention by some 600 conventioneers in just two hours.
“Everyone assumes that because it’s such a crazy cake we must be ‘cheating’ in some way, but this isn’t the case,” said head baker Amanda Oakleaf. ”All sculpted and tiered cakes you see, be they ours or others, have some type of inner structure as cake simply collapses if staked over eight inches high.”
Creating the stormtrooper wasn’t easy as cake. Much like in sculpting with clay, making this massive dessert required an interior armature to support the cake. Oakleaf and her team made one from iron pipe, wrapped in plastic for food safety purposes. Every four inches (vertically), they inserted a cardboard divider to separate layers of cake, and every eight inches they attached a masonite board, secured to the iron pipe with pipe clamps.
“This does a number of things, including making the cake incredibly sturdy, but also making it easy to slice and serve,” said Oakleaf. The arms were made of solid sugar “because they were too narrow to use cake.” The lower legs below the knees and the bottom of the head were made of Rice Krispies Treats. She said the overall percentage of Krispie was 15 percent or less; the majority of the cake was, well, cake.
“The main reason that we used Krispie at all wasn’t because we couldn’t have used cake, but rather we just wanted to get a head start and Krispies stay fresher a lot longer than the cake does. Cake is a very time sensitive medium, and that is always our biggest challenge. Once it comes out of the oven the clock is running on freshness.”
Amanda Oakleaf started her cake business with her husband Tyler Oakleaf out of their bedroom apartment in 2008. Now they’ve expanded into a storefront in Winthrop, MA (just outside Boston) and currently employ ten cake artists.
Their previous best was a 5-foot tall Dora the Explorer cake for a Food Network Challenge a few years back. “Her head was massive (3 feet wide),” Oakleaf remembered. “It ended up crashing to the ground when we moved it to the judging table when the inner support slipped out of its socket.”
For now there are no plans for other geek-themed cakes. But, there’s always the possibility of a special request.
“We are a completely custom bakery so we take the orders as they come in,” Oakleaf said. “It’s always fun, and always a challenge.”
And may the fondant be with you, always.
(photos courtesy of Amanda Oakleaf)
So what if the expression is a cliché? For one small-town kid suffering from a disease, dreams — even medieval-themed dreams of knighthood, chivalry and adventure — do come true.
The back yard of his house in a small N.H. town called Epping now includes a castle.
For some five years, David Morasco has been fighting the disease, which causes abdominal tumors that can grow into and even destroy adjacent tissue, organs and bones, and are often treated with chemotherapy.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation of New Hampshire made his day — and possibly his life — when it pulled out all the stops to create this impressive and possibly impenetrable gift.
As it turns out, the project happened to be the foundation’s 1,000th wish granted to a N.H. kid. Not bad.
“It’s mind-blowing,” the 7th grader was quoted as saying. “It’s more than I could have imagined.”
The 24 foot by 24 foot formidable fortress, which took several months to build, has many of the features you’d want your real or fantasy castle to include: heavy double doors; crenelations, or battlements, at the top of a curtain wall (made of wood); four towers; staircases; a courtyard; two rooms; and a great hall. A catwalk behind the merlons winds around the structure. It’s even made of stone (stone facing, anyway).
The unveiling was a big enough deal to attract N.H. Gov. John Lynch, who showed up, took a tour and stayed around for castle-shaped cake. (Coincidentally, young Morasco lived in the town adjacent to where I grew up, Lee.)
“The anticipation of all this when he’s been through the dark periods, this is just something that’s really raised his spirits so much,” said David’s father, Mike Morasco.
As for King David, he told the TV cameras, “I’ve already started planning wars and parties and stuff.”
Go David. And get out there and slay that dragon.
Growing up in the suburbs of Boston, and raised on secular Judaism, Cocoa Puffs and Gilligan’s Island, Peter Bebergal found himself on a quest. A spiritual quest that, as a teen, led him through comic books, Dungeons & Dragons and Carlos Castaneda, with stops in the world of hallucinogens, rock ‘n’ roll, and occultism. All were attempts to find a deeper, more meaningful path to personal illumination.
Bebergal’s new coming of age memoir, Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood (Soft Skull Press) recounts that journey, using his own story and extensive research to explore the connections among popular culture, drugs, religion, and the craving for spirituality that America’s youth seeks, but rarely finds.
Bebergal is the also co-author of The Faith Between Us. He studied religion at Brandeis and Harvard Divinity School and writes frequently on the intersection of popular culture, religion, and science as well as reviews on science fiction and fantasy. Some of his essays and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House, Times Literary Supplement, Tablet Magazine, The Revealer, and The Believer. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife and son.
I had a chance to ask Peter Bebergal some questions — as well as happily geek-out on ’70s pop culture, D&D, Led Zeppelin and … wait for it … Freakies cereal.
Ethan Gilsdorf: Peter, why did you decide to write the book?
Peter Bebergal: At the age of 40, sober for many years, I found myself collecting psychedelic music again and reading counterculture/fringe spiritual texts, digging through the bins of underground comics at Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square. I realized that all these years later I was still drawn to this world. At the same time I started investigating and writing on the recent upsurge of psychedelic drug research and the burgeoning psychedelic subculture. I started to ask myself why my experiences led to where they had and despite them, why I still loved these ideas, this music, and these stories. I decided to investigate my own life and try to get beyond the traditional memoir by looking at myself as part of a particular cultural moment, the post ’60s generation who grew up in the shadow of that time.
Gilsdorf: What was so unique about the era of your coming-of-age?
Bebergal: The mid to late ’70s was a time of incredibly weird and wonderful fringe pop culture. You could buy ESP cards at any bookstore, Creepy and Eerie Magazine were part of a revival of horror and supernatural comics, In Search Of and books on UFOs were commonplace, but the undercurrent was a kind of spiritual dissociation. The Aquarian age never happened, but the doors of altered consciousness had been opened. There was no looking back. I began to understand how my own story was part of a much larger cultural moment. I was symptomatic of a kind of Phillip-K-Dickian-post ’60s spiritual schizophrenia.
Gilsdorf: As a kid also growing up in the same era, I remember being haunted by Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of TV series, as well as devouring books about the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot. There are tons of examples of the weird and occult breaking through in the ’70s to the mainstream, aren’t there? Think of the X-Ray Vision glasses you could order from the back of a comic book, or plans to build your own hovercraft, or spy cameras, ventriloquist dummies, all kinds of tricks and magic. Remember Freakies breakfast cereal? All about a post-hippie commune of misfit toys who lived in a tree. What was that about?
Bebergal: Freakies cereal is an amazing example of the fringe making it into the mainstream. But it was so giddily counterculture, almost like a hippie practical joke, and yet it seemed to have this deep mythology, replete with individual characters with their own personalities, and even the great mythic trope, a world tree where all the Freakies gathered. I had to have it! I recall it was hard to find though, and that it actually tasted kind of horrible, but they came with a terrific prize, a magnet in the likeness of one of the characters.
Gilsdorf: Yes, even to be a “freak” was celebrated, and money was to be made from that. I saved up whatever it was, 17 proofs of purchase from Freakies cereal boxes, to get my own “Snorkeldorf” T-shirt. There was a kind of vast commercialization of the unknown, of the weird and the unexplained. Big change from the 1960s, huh?
Bebergal: The end of the 1960s was the end of a grand narrative, one that was both political and spiritual, and that spoke to a young person’s rebellious instincts. By the 1970s all the ideas of the ’60s were now part of the popular imagination, and lost their edge, could no longer inspire the next generation in the same way, and church/temple hadn’t changed since the hippies showed the emperor had no clothes.
Gilsdorf: So where did one go from there, in the wake of this disillusionment?
Begergal: Many like myself turned to more fantastical narratives to fill the void. Marvel Comics, for example, contained an entire fully imagined universe. Characters from one comic appeared as guest stars in others, and their lives were linked by not only common cause, but by familial relationships, and strange genetic connections and mystical connections. The complex and cosmic Marvel Universe was all about the connections between one hero and another. I was obsessed with the Magneto/Wanda/Quicksilver family tree that also, inexplicably, involved the High Evolutionary [Editor's note: I didn't know who High Evolutionary was; turns out he's a superhero with extrasensory powers of clairvoyance, cosmic awareness and astral projection, among others. -- E.G.]
Gilsdorf: Somehow I missed drinking the superhero comic Kool-Aid. But I discovered D&D big-time. In Too Much to Dream, you talk about the connection between D&D and fantasy fiction and then the occult and psychedelics in your life. Can you explain it here?
Bebergal: I think D&D was the perfect early antidote to what had been an entire childhood filled with magical thinking and a kind of spiritual unease. D&D gave me a healthy channel to express these abstract feelings. It was a concrete manifestation of the imagination, but it had rules and structure. When I started reading the books about psychedelic experiences written in the ’60s, they were as wondrous and exciting as any D&D game or Silver Surfer comic, but they spoke to that deeper existential need. I put down my maps and rule books and picked up sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Gilsdorf: Being a huge Led Zeppelin fan, I have to ask: Where does Tolkien and Zeppelin fit into all this?
Bebergal: In the ’60s and ’70s there was a resurgent interest in Tolkien. Publishers put out encyclopedias of his world, linking the books to this vast mythology that by the sheer immensity of detail felt somehow real and maybe even a little “true.” This is what happens to the richest kinds myths, how they take on a quality of truth. Even Led Zeppelin sang about Mordor as if it was place they had visited and returned from. And for all of this, the new phenomena of role-playing gave you the tools to act out these stories, to create new worlds drawing from Tolkien, comics, even rock ‘n’ roll music.
Gilsdorf: I love that idea that, in their music, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were essentially role-playing characters who had gone on an adventure in Middle-earth, interacting with Black Riders and Gollum. Great concept. Any other musicians that did this? Styx? Kansas? Blue Oyster Cult?
Bebergal: That era was a wonderland of rock as hero quest. Styx sang about a great voyage by sea that turns into a journey into space, Kansas wrote about sky gods, prophecy and mystical insight, and my personal favorite Rush’s Farewell to Kings was an entire fantasy epic that ends with a journey into a black hole. And then of course there is the great 1970s science fiction band Hawkwind, who collaborated with and were inspired by Michael Moorcock.
Gilsdorf: What do you think makes some people look for meaning so desperately they are driven to the point of madness?
Bebergal: It starts with what is a fundamental part of the human experience. Religion and myth are attempts to contain this pursuit, to give it some symbols and ritual, to give it language. But for some people, the more structure you try to impose, the more they see it as an empty gesture, that God or whatever you want to call it cannot be contained by any hierarchy or imposed regulations. Occult or esoteric traditions are attempts to get beyond conventional wisdom to something more experiential, but in the modern world, they have become bound up with every kind of paranormal and fringe idea. Go into any New Age bookstore and conspiracy theories about Freemasons are on the shelf below Aleister Crowley, right next to the books on UFOs. Of course it can weigh you down. I have come to love this stuff with a bit more critical distance these days.
Gilsdorf: Have you ever thought, OK, all this spiritual stuff makes some sense, but maybe I just liked getting high?
Bebergal: This is, in many ways, the central question. There is no doubt that at the bottom of all this is my drug addiction. It ruled me for sure. But like all things, it too did not exist in a vacuum. All the expectations I had for what these substances would do for me were intimately tied into all things that drove my psychology; Fantastic Four comic books, the writings of Timothy Leary, the music of Pink Floyd. My expectations could never be met. I would always be let down, and therefore always be looking for the next high. At some point, though, that is all there was.
Gilsdorf: To me it seems geek culture — sci-fi, fantasy, gaming, etc. – is increasingly replacing traditional culture (church, parents, government, community) as a source of moral or spiritual guidance to a whole generation of folks. Think of the wisdom received not from priests but Yoda and Gandalf. Can you comment as to why this phenomenon exists?
Bebergal: I think that there is this amazing intersection between geek culture and Wiccan/pagan communities. Even geeks need spirituality, but continue to turn to non-traditional places to find it. These traditions also speak, of course, to an interest in the fictional worlds of magic and old gods, etc.
Gilsdorf: What lessons do we learn from geek culture?
Bebergal: I seek the divine now in more mundane places; playing Legos and Minecraft with my son, watching a heron take flight from an inlet on the Charles River, looking at Saturn’s rings and moons through a telescope, listening to John Coltrane.
Gilsdorf: What about gaming. Have you returned to the fold?
Bebegal: The truth is, I am playing D&D again these days, another attempt to recapture some of that adolescent adventure without the drugs. But never, I must say, without the rock ‘n’ roll!
Gilsdorf: Yes, and rocking out to Zeppelin, I hope. “So I’ve decided what I’m gonna do now | So I’m packing my bags for the Misty Mountains | Where the spirits go now, | Over the hills where the spirits fly | I really don’t know.” I’ll pack my bags too, and see you in Middle-earth.
For more information about Bebergal and his book Too Much To Dream, visit toomuchtodream.net.
Bebergal: I think the best recent example of this is the comic Hellboy, a devil spawn struggling to maintain his humanity and his goodness. His is the great lesson that we are more than our genes, more than our destiny even, be it familial, cultural, political. Most recently he had to sacrifice himself to save the earth. Pro sports and American Idol cannot tell this story. Only a comic book on cheap newsprint somehow has access to the deepest layers of myth and can make them modern and relevant.
Gilsdorf: Do you still crave mystical experiences? How do you access them?
Bebergal: At first I was worried any mystical search would lead me back to the self-destruction, but despite myself, in the years past I have had deep spiritual experiences. They did not singe the hair off my head, but they were profound and have been a reminder that our normal waking consciousness is capable of experiencing so much more. Whether or not psychedelic drugs are a positive catalyst for this, I cannot say. Some people, particularly those ingrained in traditions that use them as part of their religious rituals (the Native American Church for example), have found deep spiritual significance with them. All I know for sure is that they are not meant for me.
Gilsdorf: So where do you seek safer transcendental moments?
As reported on TheOneRing.net and elsewhere, a handwritten note written by J.R.R. Tolkien that he’d addressed to a couple he and his wife Edith had met on an unfortunate holiday just sold to an anonymous internet bidder for £1,700, or about $2,700.
“It’s a complete mystery how it turned up,” said Adrian Rathbone, an associate at Richard Winterton’s, the UK auction house where it was sold. In another report, Rathbone said the person who sold the letter had unexpectedly found it in the most unlikely place — tucked into a book the seller owned. One day, the letter fell out.
“It dropped out of a book they had,” Rathbone, said. “It wasn’t even a Tolkien book. We’ve brought in several experts who say it is real.
The letter, written in Tolkien’s script recognizable to anyone who has pored over maps in The Hobbit, dates to 1963.
“Rather a disgusting and costly holiday, but for us it was at any rate made memorable by your company and kindness,” Tolkien writes to the couple. “We thought of you yesterday, and hoped your journey home would be less unpleasant than our icy winds and snow have foreboded.”
Included with the letter was a Christmas card and a photograph of Tolkien and the couple the Tolkiens met on the trip (who are named Wilfrid and Nora). The couple the letter was addressed to wasn’t related to the seller, apparently, and the seller was also unnamed. So how that letter ended up in the seller’s hands is a mystery only a few people know — the seller and the auction house, perhaps. And the ghost of Tolkien himself.
Time travel is tricky. Problem number one: You probably don't have a time machine parked in your garage. Not yet, anyway.
But let's assume you do. You rev up your metallic silver Chronos 1000. But the future doesn't interest you. You're tempted to visit the past. Because who can resist mucking with history? Nobody.
Depending on which rules of time travel are in effect, the outcome of your meddling will differ. If history is fixed and unchangeable, nothing happens. If alternate parallel histories can coexist, you may visit 1912, warn the Titanic's captain to watch for icebergs, and save those doomed passengers. Unfortunately, they'll still perish in the original timeline. Not a terribly satisfying save-the-day scenario.
Or as Stephen King posits in his new science fiction thriller "11/22/63," there's theory number three: history is flexible. Your backward travels can warp the course of future events (as long as you don't create a paradox, like challenging yourself to a duel).
King wonders what would happen if you time-trekked back to 1963 and killed the assassin before he got to President Kennedy. Would changing that watershed moment have prevented the country’s military escalation in Vietnam, saved the lives of RFK and MLK, yadda, yadda yadda -- in short, prevented many of the latter half of the 20th century’s ills? Those questions frame the basic premise of King’s book.
Assassinations and rifts in the space-time continuum are not foreign concepts to America’s King of Pulp. In “The Dark Tower’’ series, magical doors link far-flung worlds. In “The Dead Zone,’’ the clairvoyant protagonist shoots the president to avert nuclear Armageddon. Here, to kick-start the plot, King builds a wormhole in the pantry of a diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine. Like an express train, the time tunnel connects two destinations in history: the present and Sept. 9, 1958. Al, the diner’s tetchy proprietor, has been there and back a few times, mainly to buy hamburger at 54 cents a pound so he might sell 2011 burgers for $1.19. “Turns out I’m no longer tied to the economy the way other people are,’’ he jokes. Then Al finds a higher cause: Surveil Lee Harvey Oswald, determine whether he is the lone gunman, and take him out.
King ups the stakes with his own twists. Every visit back in time, no mat ter how long, takes only two minutes in the present. While in the past, travelers age normally. To accomplish his mission Al would need to go back to 1958 and stay five years. But his lung cancer would prevent him from lasting until 1963. The solution? Recruit Jake Epping, a 35-year-old high school English teacher, divorced, no children, and our first-person narrator. Jake takes up the quest, chucking his cellphone - “Keeping it would be like walking around with an unexploded bomb’’ - to live full time 53 years ago, pseudonymously as George Amberson. Jake/George soon discovers history is resistant to change, in direct proportion to the size of the event he wants to bend. “Obdurate’’ is the refrain. But the past can also be redeemed. If Jake kills Oswald and returns to 2011 to find the world ain’t better, a journey back restores history. “Every trip is the first trip,’’ Al says. “Because every trip down the rabbit-hole’s a reset.’’
The historical novel is already a well-established literary time machine, and King, who was 16 when JFK was shot, has done his homework, setting his characters on plausible collision courses with actual people and lovingly populating his “Land of Ago’’ with period details: drive-ins, pop songs, pep clubs, and finned convertibles. King balances his nostalgia on the cusp of tumult, just before this more naive world would be homogenized by television and strip malls and its smaller mind would wake up to racial injustice and military quagmire. As the author said in a recent interview, “11/22/63 was our 9/11.’’
No overt evil or supernatural presence haunts the novel, but buildings like an abandoned factory in Derry (a fictional Maine town readers of “It’’ and “Bag of Bones’’ will recognize) feel menacing. The Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald erects his sniper perch, emanates red-hot historical radiation. “The past harmonizes with itself,’’ Jake says, feeling more wraithlike than human. All through “11/22/63,’’ coincidences - often violent ones - ripple and accrue the longer Jake hangs around.
King’s thriller is full of suspense, and yes, you’ll want to know whether Jake gets to Dealey Plaza in time to stop the assassin’s bullet. If you’re not turned on by JFK conspiracy theories, the painstaking details of Oswald’s every move might feel tedious. You’ll also want to overlook how resourceful King makes his teacher, who conveniently knows about guns and surveillance techniques, and how to smooth-talk FBI agents.
Yet, uncharacteristic for Stephen King, a love story overshadows Jake’s creepy rendezvous with destiny. While in singular pursuit of Oswald, our hero settles in small-town Jodie, Texas, where he becomes a schoolteacher, falls for a clumsy librarian named Sadie, and starts accumulating his own cause-and-butterfly-effect. Helping a football player blossom into an actor, Jake/George finally sheds his ghostly trail - “It was when I stopped living in the past and just started living.’’ “11/22/63’’ ends up shining brightest as a metaphorical journey about “stupidity . . . and missed chances,’’ the perils of memory and regret, and the fantasy of starting over. To redeem America’s wounded psyche, Jake may or may not save the president. To redeem himself, he merely has to decide where to be present, and how to be present, in time.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.’’ He can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.
[this first appeared in the Boston Globe]
To reprint this or one of Ethan Gilsdorf's other articles, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.featurewell.com
A timeline of key moments in Muppets history.
1955: Jim Henson debuts Kermit the Frog on Washington, D.C.’s WRC-TV’s program “Sam and Friends,’’ in black and white. Henson goes on to perform Ernie, Rowlf the Dog, the Swedish Chef (Henson did the voice and Frank Oz did the hands), and Dr. Teeth.
1963: Frank Oz, age 19, is hired by Muppets Inc. His first role is playing right hand for Rowlf the Dog. Oz later is the voice and hand inside Bert, Grover, Cookie Monster, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Sam the Eagle, and Animal.
1969: Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) premieres “Sesame Street.’’ A generation learns to count and spell thanks to a giant yellow bird and a grumpy monster who lives in a garbage can.
1976: “It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights’’; “The Muppet Show’’ debuts, running until 1981. Set in a fictitious vaudeville theater, the variety show totals 120 episodes, and features hundreds of guest stars and musical comedy sketches.
1979: “The Muppet Movie,’’ the first of seven Muppet theatrical films, opens in theaters. The soundtrack single, “The Rainbow Connection,’’ stays in radio’s Top 40 for seven weeks, eventually reaching number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.
1980: Frank Oz performs as Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back.’’ The voice is, essentially, Grover mixed with a little Gonzo. “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try’’ schools a generation of geeks.
1990: Jim Henson dies of bacterial pneumonia at age 53. Big Bird sings “It’s Not Easy Being Green’’ at Henson’s memorial service.
1999: The sixth feature film, “Muppets From Space,’’ is released, the first since Henson’s death with an original screenplay (1992’s “The Muppet Christmas Carol’’ and 1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island’’ were adaptations.)
2004: Excluding the “Sesame Street’’ characters, the intellectual property rights to all other Muppets are sold by Henson’s heirs to the Walt Disney Company. Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) also loses rights to Kermit the Frog.
2009: The Muppets are featured in a hilarious parody of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,’’ proving their old “Muppet Show’’ mojo is still conjurable. The video attracts 23 million views on YouTube (and counting).[this originally appeared in the Boston Globe]
PLYMOUTH - A dozen years have passed since the Muppets last appeared on the big screen. Their founder, Jim Henson, died in 1990. Most Muppet characters, with the exception of the “Sesame Street’’ stable, were sold to Disney in 2004. All of which explains why Chris Cooper, who stars in their new movie, “The Muppets,’’ has concerns. And he’s not alone.
One fear: that the Muppets might not be ready for 2011. Or that we’ve grown up and don’t need them anymore. And then there’s the reality of our evolved techno-savvy: To pass off the shared delusion that is the Muppets - to make a new generation of fans believe in a world where googly-eyed cloth puppets and humans overlap - would require a CGI Kermit interacting with a motion-capture Fozzie.
“I know there are some Muppets purists who have some concerns,’’ said Cooper, who plays the film’s dastardly arch nemesis Tex Richman. “But I think I can say with some accuracy [we’ve] kept it pretty pure and not pushed the envelope.’’
“The Muppets,’’ which opens nationwide on Wednesday, is their comeback story. Fans can rejoice: Their purity - their wholesome, G-rated and pun-filled, slapstick-style comedy - remains intact. As does their low-fi, sock-puppet technology.
“These Muppets are . . .’’ Cooper said, pausing for effect over lunch near his home in Kingston. “. . . Muppets. There was no special effects. This is an old, old process going back to the late ’60s and ’70s.’’ In early rehearsals, Cooper said he first wondered how he was going to act opposite a hand shoved inside brightly colored cloth. “My imagination gets the better of me,’’ he recalled, munching on a panini, and without a trace of the smirk that dominates Tex. “On the first day of work, with all these handlers and Muppet characters, it took about a half hour [to fall for the illusion].’’ As soon as a performer put his hand in a Muppet, “he became that character,’’ Cooper said.
Ever since “Sesame Street’’ debuted in 1969, no one batted an eye when a man-on-the-street journalist wielding a microphone was actually an amphibian, a stand-up comic was a bear, or a pig could beat out “real’’ lovely ladies to be crowned a beauty queen. “The Muppet Show’’ (1976-81) further blurred that fuzzy fringe between fantasy and reality, asking: What if the Muppets had to stage a weekly variety show and we were privy to both the musical-comedy numbers and the chaos backstage? The first “Muppet Movie’’ in 1979 provided additional layers, giving us back stories and exploding beyond the confines of a puppeteer’s maneuvers and the soundstage. It gave these creatures’ dreams.
In the new movie, Muppets still inhabit our world. But the larger question remains: Are they at odds with the current times? Will audiences be unfazed by the old-timey villainy of Cooper’s character, who wants to raze Muppet Studios and drill for oil? “Those Muppets - they think they’re so funny,’’ Richman sneers. “We’ve all moved on. The world is a cynical place.’’ In the words of the jaded TV executive Kermit and Co. try to convince to give them airtime, “In this market, you guys are no longer relevant.’’
Maybe. Or maybe their sweet, dream-catching credo is just what our money-grubbing planet needs.
To share in Muppet aspirations, we’ve always had to extend a rainbow-colored bridge. “The Muppets’’ adds the logical next step in the illusion, making the question of their cultural relevancy part of the plot. Time has passed since the 1970s and ’80s and the hippy-dippy humor of Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, and Mel Brooks. Some assumed the Muppets were dead when Henson, voice of Kermit, died of bacterial pneumonia at age 53, and Frank Oz, the lifeblood of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, retired in 2000. The last full-length Muppet feature, the made-for-TV “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz’’ (2005), was considered a failure. Their influence has lapsed, evidenced by their last theatrical feature, 1999’s “Muppets From Space.’’ Aside from appearances in YouTube parody videos, the Muppets have largely disappeared from America’s cultural radar.
“I guess people sort of forgot about us,’’ Kermit laments, in his empty, Beverly Hills mansion.
Ignoring the intervening Muppet movie capers, Christmas stories, and trips to Treasure Island and outer space, the plot is in keeping with the nostalgic theme, focusing on the characters’ “real’’ lives, just like their movie debut. Muppet super-fans and brothers Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (a new Muppet character) must persuade Kermit to stage a telethon to save the endangered Muppet Studios. Cue the “let’s reunite the gang for one last show’’ road trip: Miss Piggy works in Paris as the plus-size fashion editor at Vogue, Gonzo is a plumbing magnate, and Fozzie is a member of a cheesy Reno casino tribute band called the Moopets. Dr. Teeth’s Electric Mayhem Band may or may not have smoked controlled substances back in the day, but Muppetland is too wholesome for any rehab narrative. Instead, Animal has to be sprung from the anger management recovery program he’s joined, led by Jack Black. (His trigger word - “drum’’ - must never be spoken.) Wakka wakka wakka.
A Muppet fan since he was five, 39-year-old British director James Bobin, creator of “Da Ali G Show’’ and “Flight of the Conchords,’’ was eager to introduce the joy and irreverence of what he called a “national treasure’’ to his own children. Knowing what fondness older fans have for these felt and foam beings, he didn’t want to disappoint. “My inner child told me make sure this is good, do it justice.’’
Bobin felt that his work on “Flight of the Conchords’’ was the perfect training ground. “Both are musical comedies,’’ Bobin said via telephone from Los Angeles. “ ‘Conchords’ is a very warm-hearted and gentle and positive comedy. Never mean spirited.’’ And both share a tongue-in-cheek, self-referential sensibility. “It can be surreal - the world where puppets and humans coexist. But it has a very positive feel.’’
While neither Bobin nor others involved in the film wanted to change the essential Muppet psyche, they did want pizzazz. One, A-list cameos are again in abundance. Two, Segel, as massive a Muppet fan as the character he plays, co-wrote the script. If you recall, Segel’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall’’ ended with a Muppet-like musical. Writing and starring in that movie got Segel fired up to update the Muppets for a new generation.
For younger fans to glom onto the new goofy antics, the music and comedy needed to reference current, edgier pop culture. Which explains the hip-hop send-up Cooper raps and hoofs to: “Let’s Talk About Me.’’
“I have an early background in song and dance. The opportunity to do that was terrific,’’ said Cooper. “I have a huge new-found respect for hip-hop.’’
The new movie also makes sure that the Muppet blend of satire and silliness endures. “The great joy of the original series was that Jim [Henson] never wrote down to children,’’ said Bobin. “It’s for everybody. Grandparents can watch it, kids can watch it, parents can watch it. Everyone can get something out of it.’’
Henson may be gone. Oz may have hung up Piggy and Fozzie (Steve Whitmire now performs Kermit; Eric Jacobson takes on Oz’s roles). Fans may be jaded since Henson’s heirs sold the Muppets to the House of Mouse. But the new movie’s riff on the highs and lows of fame is an argument for, and proof of, the very relevancy of these creatures. “The Muppets’’ also doles out sentimental moments, including a reprise of “The Rainbow Connection,’’ that remind us why we loved these characters so much in their heyday, which might be our heyday, too.
Perhaps nothing’s changed. Including the hokey, obsolete, yet necessary need to fall under their spell - lovers, the dreamers and, as Piggy would add, Moi.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.
[this article originally appeared in the Boston Globe]
* [one star]
THE ROAD TO FREEDOM
Directed by: Brendan Moriarty
Starring: Joshua Frederic Smith, Scott Maguire, Nhem Sokun, Tom Proctor
Running time: 93 minutes
Rated: R (violence to bodies and normal speech patterns)
During the Vietnam War, film star Errol Flynn’s son, Sean, gave up an acting career to become a photojournalist. He went to Vietnam, where he helped break the story of the My Lai Massacre. In 1970, on assignment for Time magazine, he talked his way across the Cambodian border with fellow journalist Dana Stone. The two men disappeared, probably captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge.
“The Road to Freedom’’ aims to imagine their final days. Sean (Joshua Frederic Smith) is a libidinous loner-wanderer type, playing polar opposite to sincere and pious family man Dana (Scott Maguire). They putt-putt around the Cambodian countryside on little motorcycles, documenting atrocities. Oddly, these photojournalists don’t carry telephoto lenses or extra film. Still, every time a guerrilla guns down a peasant, we get a close-up black-and-white freeze frame that approximates what might have been a prize-winning shot.
Once captured, they are befriended by a fellow prisoner, Po (Nhem Sokun), whom Sean makes promise to “tell their story.’’ The delivery of this information to another journalist back in the capital, Phnom Penh, is meant to bookend the film with import. But the colleague (Tom Proctor) wields a foreign accent so weird that, instead, “The Road to Freedom’’ kicks off under a curious cloud of amateurism.
Unfortunately, beyond orchestrating crane shots sweeping over lush jungles and rice paddies, newcomer Brendan Moriarty is fairly clueless as a director. Most egregious is Smith’s performance. Worse than wooden, it’s flimsy as balsa, and more hollow than bamboo.
The clumsy, cringeworthy script, co-written by Margie Rogers and Thomas Schade, doesn’t help matters. “Maybe I am still searching,’’ Sean is forced to say. “But I know one thing’s for sure: Whatever’s going on here is bigger than you or me both.’’ One Cambodian woman must warp her mouth around lines such as “Cambodia, a once peaceful land, is now full of death and destruction.’’
Even the title remains perplexing - neither a road nor freedom figures in the plot.
A mere 20 years old when he filmed “The Road to Freedom,’’ Moriarty grew up in Cambodia. Clearly, he possesses a big heart and wants to tell a story of consequence. But this micro-budgeted “The Killing Fields’’ disappoints on almost every level, failing to win our hearts or our minds. But it does win some giggles.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at email@example.com.
[this review originally appeared in the Boston Globe]
Usual chumps, chomps in horrid horror flick
Directed by: Fred M. Andrews
Starring: Mehcad Brooks, Serinda Swan, Sid Haig, Daniel Bernhardt
Running time: 93 minutes
Rated: R (cliched gore, nudity)
Deep in the swampy hearts and minds of some filmmakers, embarrassing stereotypes still fester, gathering moss and slime.
According to “Creature,’’ rural Louisianans - Cajuns, in particular - are inbred, brown-toothed, and filthy. They live at the bayou’s edge in creaky wooden shacks. They speak about “the Loooord’s will.’’ And, in the cliched horror world of newbie director Fred M. Andrews, they adhere to backwoods, backward rituals that involve blood rites, incest, and a goofy lizard man.
You see, once upon a time, a hick named Grimley lost his loved ones (including his pregnant bride/sister) to a giant white alligator. Overcome with rage, he killed the reptile with his bare hands, ate it, and “became one with the gator.’’ As generations passed, the Bigfoot-like legend of Lockjaw grew.
Naturally, the bumpkins must sacrifice a woman every so often to keep the creature happy, and keep the ancient bloodline pumping, or some such moonshine. So we’ll need the hackneyed trope of outsiders rolling into town: 20-somethings Mehcad Brooks (TV’s “True Blood’’), Serinda Swan (TV’s “Breakout Kings’’) and other hot young things - six in total, three babes and three hunks - road tripping to N’awlins. So our fresh meat has a fighting chance, two of the guys are ex-Marines.
Taking a pit stop, our protagonists meet said yokels who tell them about the alligator man. Curious, they decide to camp on the bayou near the old Grimley shack. Cue the campfire, the pot smoking, even a woman-on-woman sex scene (this is 2011, after all). Off camera, the scaly beast snarls. One by one (except for two survivors) the nobodies go down. Creature: 4, Originality: 0.
All this would be gator-jerky-chomping, tongue-in-cheek fun, if the writers had any clue where their cheeks were located. But the dialogue is written, and played, straight. Our monster is about as convincing as a “Creature From the Black Lagoon’’ man in a rubber suit. Heck, within the first 30 seconds, in a “Jaws’’ rip-off, some woman disrobes, swims, and is promptly gnawed in half.
A more interesting angle might have been to explore the creature’s sorrow, from its point of view. But aside from a brief flashback showing how Grimley’s grief led him to become, like Gollum, more and more mad and reptile-like, it’s hunt and chase and supper time.
Y’all come back, now, y’hear?
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.
[this review originally appeared in the Boston Globe]
** [two stars]
PUNCTURE Directed by: Mark and Adam Kassen
Starring: Chris Evans, Mark Kassen, Vinessa Shaw, Marshall Bell
Running time: 99 minutes
Rated: R (drug use, language, nudity)
In “Silkwood,’’ Meryl Streep blows the whistle on the plutonium processing plant that caused her cancer. In “Erin Brockovich,’’ Julia Roberts sues a groundwater-polluting power company. “A Civil Action’’ pits John Travolta against corporations responsible for dumping toxic waste.
“Puncture’’ joins this genre of scrappy-underdogs-taking-on-corporate-malfeasance films. Here, two Houston personal injury lawyers, high school buds Mike Weiss (Chris Evans) and Paul Danziger (codirector Mark Kassen), accept the case of an ER nurse (Vinessa Shaw) who’s been pricked by an HIV-contaminated needle on the job. Her friend, a local entrepreneur (Marshall Bell), has been mysteriously unsuccessful in selling his “Safety Point’’ syringe to hospitals. This is the late 1990s, before retractable needles are in use. This invention could save thousands of lives, but a corrupt arrangement between hospital purchasing cartels and a pharmaceutical giant is blocking the needle’s path to the marketplace.
Audiences love to watch Goliath stumble and fall, especially when that giant is real. Like “A Civil Action’’ and its ilk, “Puncture’’ is based on an actual court case. But is this a story best served by focusing on the legal battle or the arc of Mike’s flawed hero?
Kassen plays the sensible, furrowed-brow Paul. Evans (Sudbury’s own “Captain America’’) brings an intensity to his portrayal of Mike, a self-destructive, narcissistic idealist. Upping the ante: Mike is also a functioning drug addict. After his own needle-sticking or pill-popping binge, he calls Paul at 2 a.m. with brilliant case insights. To practice for court appearances, he persuades his druggie friends to role-play witnesses on the stand.
Whether Mike will show up for the deposition after snorting coke with the paralegal in the parking garage provides tension. Yet we never learn the names of the demons haunting him. No meaty scenes to flesh out the friendship between Mike and Paul, either. In one implausible scene, after Mike hits rock bottom, a doctor tells Paul his friend is “a pretty heavy user.’’ Paul replies, “I had no idea.’’ In place of any sort of explanation, codirectors Kassen and his brother Adam Kassen give us dreamy time-lapse shots of the Houston skyline.
This story of how corporate interests collude against the common good is surely worthy. But you might ask if the facts of the case might have made a better documentary, not a drama.
[This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe]
Seeing the light in cancer story: Seth Rogen helps turn his friend’s screenplay into comedy-drama ‘50/50’
“You can’t pitch a comedy about cancer,’’ Seth Rogen said, recounting how his new film “50/50’’ got made.
“50/50,’’ which stars Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and opens Friday, tries to walk that funny-touching scalpel edge.
To clarify: The illness itself - what Rogen’s character, Kyle, calls “stage four back cancer’’ - isn’t cause for laughter. Rather, as is often the case, comedy stems from dark places. With “50/50,’’ the humor bubbles up from pain and clumsy human interaction. It turns out the premise of a massive, malignant tumor growing along a spinal column can provide plenty of laughs - if the material is handled carefully, and the jokes are among friends.
“To us that was never scary, the idea of blending drama and comedy, because we had all done it before,’’ said Rogen as he slumped into an armchair at the Four Seasons and harkened back to his days on the show “Freaks and Geeks.’’ The actor was in Boston with screenwriter Will Reiser earlier this month to promote their film.
“50/50’’ chronicles a chummy but otherwise distant friendship between Kyle (Rogen) and his cancer-stricken buddy Adam, played by Gordon-Levitt. When their tentative bond is suddenly saddled with medical tragedy, they tackle the situation, despite being awkward 20-something males already ill-equipped to speak of intimacies.
When it came time to convince a studio to green light “50/50,’’ it didn’t hurt to have the involvement of a heavy-hitter like Rogen, star of “The Green Hornet,’’ “The 40-Year-Old-Virgin,’’ “Knocked Up,’’ and “Pineapple Express.’’
“Having Seth attached not only as a producer but as a star certainly helped make the movie much more commercial,’’ said Reiser. In fact, Reiser, Rogen, and their producing partners didn’t even try to sell “50/50’’ based on an elevator pitch. “I just figured I’ll write it and then I’ll sell it,’’ Reiser said.
Not that Rogen even likes to “pitch’’ his movies. “None of my movies are really that pitchable,’’ Rogen said. As a producer, he’s more comfortable working with a completely written script. “Nothing we’ve done really looks good on paper. It was really awesome that Will was willing to just write. It afforded us a lot of creative freedom.’’
They both agreed that genre definitions and boundaries “get in the way.’’ They don’t go for discussions of “tone’’ either.
“We as filmmakers never talk about that,’’ Rogen insisted. “There’s never the ‘genre’ conversation. People like to know how to describe it to each other…’’
“For marketing purposes,’’ Reiser added.
“Right. We were pitching a movie a couple months ago and the studio called us after and said, ‘What’s the tone of the movie?’ and I said like ‘Go [expletive] yourself. That’s what the [expletive] tone of the movie is,’ ’’ Rogen, the more gregarious of the two, said with a throaty laugh. (Reiser, the cousin of comedian/actor Paul Reiser, is more modest and unassuming.) “How do you describe that when it hasn’t happened yet? The tone is whatever we shoot… . Aside from saying ‘it’s realistic’ or ‘it’s broad,’ I don’t know how to describe the tone until we complete it.’’
As expected, no major studio expressed interest. In the end, “boutique studio’’ Mandate Pictures, backer of off-beat comedies such as “Juno’’ and “Stranger Than Fiction,’’ financed the relatively low-budget, $8 million picture. The film also stars Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air’’) as Adam’s newbie psychiatrist, Bryce Dallas Howard (“The Twilight Saga: Eclipse’’) as his distracted girlfriend, Anjelica Huston as his estranged mom, and character actor Philip Baker Hall as a fellow chemotherapy patient. The director is Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness’’).
Reiser said he was aiming for the feel of his favorite films by Hal Ashby, Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, Billy Wilder, and Woody Allen. “Typically their characters are always grounded, they’re smart, they find humor more in the slice of life you’re examining in their more everyday scenarios,’’ Reiser said. “That for me was what I wanted this movie to be like. You’re seeing this guy go through this journey. It doesn’t have to be far-reaching, overdramatic. The stakes are real enough.’’ Had a big studio turned Reiser’s quiet script into a $100 million blockbuster, they would have probably gone “broad comedy’’ with wacky situations and goofy high jinks.
The filmmakers had another selling point up their sleeves: The story of “50/50’’ is based on real events.
Reiser and Rogen became real-world friends on the American version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s TV program “Da Ali G Show’’ eight years ago. Rogen and “50/50’’ producer Evan Goldberg were working as writers, and Reiser was the show’s associate producer. In their early 20s at the time, the trio were the show’s most junior staffers, and became fast friends. Then, Reiser was diagnosed with cancer: Doctors discovered a giant tumor growing along his spine. Two years after his successful fight against the illness, the newcomer to feature film writing felt he had gained the proper perspective to write about the experience and began to draft a screenplay.
Not that he simply wrote down everything that happened. Reiser, 31, insisted that the film is “inspired by real events’’ and is not a true memoir. “I’d say that Adam is not as funny as I was back then.’’
“Easy …’’ Rogen joked. “No, I agree with that.’’
“Adam is very much an extension of who I was and how I was feeling,’’ Reiser continued. “I just suppressed everything.’’
“But he doesn’t act like Will,’’ Rogen, 29, added. “The real you complained more than the character. Not about the cancer, but about everything else.’’
As for whether Rogen was as much of a pothead as his character, Kyle, they did not say. But “50/50’’ includes a couple of scenes in which Kyle uses Adam’s condition to talk to girls in bookstores and bars, and even lure them into acts of sympathy sex. Truth or fiction?
“We joked about it,’’ said Reiser. “We never actually did it.’’ But he admitted that once the C-word - cancer - was out in the open, “women would give me a lot of attention.’’
Reiser said that the character of Kyle embodied the idea of how, at 25, men just can’t handle the looming death of a good pal. “Friends said stupid things. Sometimes insensitive. Ultimately, they cared; they just did not know how to… . You find out in the end, [Kyle] really does care.’’ Reiser turned to Rogen. “Seth and I, our dynamic back then was, I was neurotic …’’
“And …’’ Rogen added, finishing his friend’s line like the two had spent a lifetime together, “I would make fun of you for it.’’ His voice then became soft and gentle. “Which has changed somewhat over the years.’’
The two paused for a moment, their heads looking this way and that, almost at each other. A millisecond of intimate quiet settled into the room. Rogen continued. “Now you’re an egomaniac.’’
Then the joking resumed.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Techno thrills and gunplay, spelled out in great detail
Neal Stephenson’s “Reamde’’ opens with a target practice session at the Forthrast clan’s annual Thanksgiving gathering. Various firearms - shotguns, Glocks, assault rifles - are discharged into an Iowa pasture. Fun for the whole family.
The spasm of gunfire is prophetic. By the time Stephenson’s world-girdling novel has reached its exhaustive conclusion, countless rounds have been fired. As Stephenson notes in his acknowledgments, he required the services of a “ballistics copy editor’’ to fact-check the inner-workings of every Kalashnikov and bolt-action .22.
Stephenson is already notorious for churning out tomes sprawling in both page count and plot. But fans of his genre-blending touch that often welds historical to science fiction with a bead of cyberpunk might find themselves displeased with the ride of this narrative machine. Whereas “Snow Crash’’ and “Cryptonomicon’’ commingled code breaking, memetics, and nanotechnology with Sumerian myth, Greek philosophy, and economic theory, “Reamde,’’ set on present day planet Earth, barely traffics in such esoterica. Here, you’ll mostly find a techno-martial thriller, much in the same vein as Tom Clancy, albeit expertly crafted and often gorgeously written.
Richard is the dispassionate, outcast middle-aged brother of the Forthrast family who founded T’Rain, a World of Warcraft-like online fantasy game whose millions of devotees role-play mages and dwarves and build networks of vassals. Richard’s niece Zula, an Eritrean refugee and geoscientist, helps manage the virtual mineral deposits that players must “gold mine’’ to generate wealth. The MacGuffin? Zula’s cash-strapped, dimwit boyfriend bungles the black-market sale of stolen credit card data, which becomes corrupted by a virus called REAMDE, an anagram for “read me’’ - the file nobody reads when installing software. To restore the infected files, victims must deliver virtual ransoms to a “troll’’ (hacker), in the game. Meanwhile, bandits rob and kill these gold-ferrying avatars. Chaos rains down upon T’Rain.
When it’s determined the REAMDE hacker lives in China, the client for the data is none too pleased. That sets into motion Stephenson’s scenario tangling the fates of manifold characters: Russian mobsters, a Chinese tour guide, a British MI6 agent, a Hungarian techie, Islamic jihadists, and two Tolkienesque storytellers, among others. The action intercuts among these players who hop, skip, and jump vehicles, jets, and boats from the Pacific Northwest to China to the Rocky Mountains. Kidnappings trigger escape attempts. Plotlines collide. Bodies pile up.
This frenetic scope is tempered by Stephenson’s lingering pace. He tunes into the precise frequency of each character, how they process and remember stimuli, be they terrorist or innocent.
In one typical passage, Zula ruminates on the trauma of her capture, “shocked by how little effect it had on her, at least in the short term. She developed three hypotheses: 1. The lack of oxygen that had caused her to pass out almost immediately after she’d killed Khalid had interfered with the formation of short-term memories or whatever it was that caused people to develop posttraumatic stress disorder.’’ That’s just hypothesis number one.
Stephenson - a minimalist, he’s not - takes us deep in these warrens of thought, cause, and effect. (He resorts to awkward “exposition as dialogue’’ info dumps, too.) Moments are narrated with painstaking precision. The events of “Day 4’’ - a pitched battle among spies, mafia, extremists, and trolls, told from a kaleidoscope of perspectives - requires 200 pages. Decision tree huggers will revel in these tactics and processes; others will find the obsessive detail tedious.
Call “Reamde’’ baroque, or call it bloated. You decide.
The meat of the novel comes before the real-world gun-blazing begins: sly jabs at the war on terror, consumer culture, our online demeanor and misdemeanors, and insights into the shifts in consciousness that social and technological change have wrought. “[Y]ou kids nowadays substitute communicating for thinking, don’t you?’’, a Scotsman involved in the identity theft scheme complains. Walmart is likened to “a starship that had landed in the soybean fields,’’ and “an interdimensional portal to every other Walmart in the known universe.’’
These adroit touches may be enough to sustain readers caught in the crossfire. That said, Stephenson probably realizes that gunplay will gain the author new fans, while also losing him loyal legions of the old.
Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,’’ can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.