Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Win, Lose or Draw

A post at Topless Robot about the Top 20 Nerd Commandments plucked a painful memory for me. Specifically, this commandment:

5) All nerds must be able to sketch, from memory, the basic outlines of the Millennium Falcon, USS Enterprise (NCC-1701), and the TARDIS.

Yes, I drew the TARDIS as my big project for a High School art class. Sadly embarrassing in retrospect.

But then there was the embarrassment of doing something similar on NATIONAL TV.

In 1988, I appeared on the game show Win, Lose or Draw. Midway through the game, it was my turn to draw and I was shown my phrase: Beam Me Up, Scotty. As a lifelong Star Trek nerd, it felt like some kind of strange providence. But in my nerdliness, I could not figure out how to parse up the phrase into chunks that the "celebrities" could then guess. So I started drawing what I thought was a passable Enterprise, hoping the celebrities would get the Trek reference and start throwing out catch phrases.

It did not happen.

Vicki Lawrence, the host, complimented my drawing afterwards, but it didn't help. My celebrities were Peter Marshall, aged host of Hollywood Squares, and Marc Summers of Nickelodean game show "fame." He told me when I sat down on the couch that he had never seen even a single episode of Star Trek.


In the end, though, I did win the game. Woo hoo!

Favorite memory of that game: Our female celebrities were two women from soap operas, neither of whom I'd heard of before. I still can't remember the name of one of them. The other was Jackie Zeman who people later told me they recognized. At one point, while the women's team was taking a turn, we sat on the couch watching. Peter Marshall nudged me and pointed at Jackie, who was leaning forward displaying her cleavage. Peter Marshall smiled and winked at me.

Last memory: While I was being introduced, Vicki asked if there was anyone out there I wanted to say "Hi" to. I couldn't think of anyone right off hand, so I said something like "How about that blonde in the front row," indicating a very attractive young woman sitting in the audience. Well, for the remainder of the game, whenever I was on screen playing the game, viewers were graced with cutaway shots to that blonde in the front row. When the episode was over, I stood around chatting with Vicki while Marc Summers did what I should have done, what, in my infinite stupidity, I didn't even think to do -- he made a beeline to that blonde in the front row and started chatting her up.

And I'm embarrassed about the Enterprise.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Like Nothing You've Seen Before

Last night I saw part of a documentary about the making of Avatar, and one phrase just stuck in my craw. Cameron said a couple of times that he wanted to create something you've never seen before.

That's funny, because in my mind, if that was his goal, it didn't work. (As I sort of covered before.)

The plot, as has been mentioned in many places, is as old as the hills. White guy goes native. Seen it.

And don't get me started on the music.

Aliens. The movie, that is. It's influence is EVERYWHERE (as I mentioned before) in Avatar, from the colonial marines to the loader-like AT-AT things to Sigourney Weaver to the Paul Reiser-type corporate weasel guy to the design of the hardware.

The aliens. As in the life forms on Pandora. The devil dogs seemed not far from the "dog" that Christopher Lloyd's Klingon kept as a pet. The dragon-looking flying things were, well, dragon-looking. The blue people were, well, very much like people except with pointy ears and tails. Never seen pointy ears and tails before. Horses. Hammerhead dinosaurs, not anything like that Hammerhead guy from Star Wars or, I don't know, hammerhead sharks.

Landscape. Floating mountains. Like from an old Yes album cover. Trees. Waterfalls. Wow. How original. Oh but the forest floor lights up. And they have intelligent dandelion puffs. Wow.

Or am I just too jaded?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ark of Venus

Paul Magrs blogged about keeping a list of all the books he's read and, more specifically, books he's forgotten. I, too, have been keeping a record of all the books I've read. Mine started in 1987. I also tried to think through and list books I'd read before that, going back as far as I could. Lots of books inevitably slip through the cracks of time, but a lot of them came back to me. I haven't yet gone through the list of Alfred HItchcock and the Three Investigators books I read, but I know I devoured tons of them.

One of the books that "got away"was called Ark of Venus by Clyde B. Clason. In, oh, third or fourth grade, I moved to a new school where we participated in something called the SRA reading program. One of the books was Ark of Venus. I remember reading it and the descriptions of the jungles of Venus and the wacky space monkey they found. But I never finished reading it. I think we moved again before I got to the end, or the semester ended, I don't know the reason, but I didn't get to find out what happened to the intrepid space family and their space monkey in the jungles of Venus.

Flash forward to post-college and I mention this book to my friend Clif who, it turns out, remembered reading the same book when he was a kid. I was in Houston by then and I decided to see if I could find it at the library. They actually had a copy in the stacks, dug it out and let me borrow it. I read it. And now it's on my list of books read.

Sadly, it's now been another 15 years since I read it in Houston and I still couldn't tell you how it ended.

Amazing how, thanks to the miracle of the internet, I can find an image of the cover of this obscure book.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Ramblings After Seeing Avatar

I fear I’ve lost my sense of wonder.

I kept being pulled out of Avatar. The 3D effect often offered problems, a sort of going-out-of-phase that would last for awhile, maybe the length of a reel, like there was an occasional projector issue. When this problem occurred, subtitles, for instance, would look double printed and therefore really hard to read. The 3D distracted me because of these problems. Maybe it was my glasses. Maybe it was my eyes. The  friend who came with me didn’t seem to have any problems.

Next, I kept getting pulled out of the experience because of the bits I saw and heard that seemed lifted out of other movies. The spaceship at the beginning featured rotating arm things just like the one on the Leonov in 2010 (a similarity I sort of liked because I was seeing it in the year 2010). Of course, it’s a sensible design for artificial gravity, but still, it distracted me for a minute. The design of the sleeper chambers like in Alien. The Exoskelton suit thingy which was a sort of cross between Ripley’s loader in Aliens and the mini AT-AT things from Return of the Jedi. The space marines in general.

Horner. Sigh. Almost immediately I heard THE MOTIF the danger motif, those triplets this time sounding VIRTUALLY IDENTICAL to moments in Star Trek II. Then there was the recurring use of a section that seemed lifted from Brainstorm. And the opening bars of the theme that eventually turned in to the lame song at the end sounded EXACTLY like the opening bars of that Titanic song. Oh, Horner, Horner, Horner.

The plot points seemed overly easy to follow and predict. The biology on this alien world seemed essentially terrestrial. Humanoids, really? Oh, but they only have four fingers, so that’s different. And they’re taller and have tails. Wow. And trees. Just like our trees. And dogs. And big dragon things like we’ve drawn for centuries. I guess I just expected it to be more, well, alien. And I still can’t even begin to consider the physics of floating mountains.

But, all that aside, I enjoyed it. I wish the 3D wasn’t so intrusive in its lack of consistency or me, but I appreciated the way the effect added depth to the proceedings (when it was working) without resorting to a lot of “throw the spear at the audience” moments. I enjoyed the feeling that this was a world that was very thought out, both the Marine’s world and Pandora. James Horner did his job and made music that worked in the film. And it was a nice, big experience, one that would be difficult to duplicate on a small screen.

But I feel like I mostly appreciated it intellectually without ever getting sucked in emotionally, and this is where I think I’ve lost my sense of wonder, my ability to suspend disbelief. I shouldn’t CARE about physics or astrobiology or lifts from previous movies or Horner’s being Horner. But my stupid brain wouldn’t let me just sit and get sucked in. As a kid, Star Wars completely enveloped me, sucked me in so I was unaware of anything but the movie while I was watching it. But these days I can’t seem to do it. I guess Star Trek, which I loved (and let’s not get started on stupid physics there) got a lot closer to completely sucking me in, and I was able to appreciate the “meta” qualities of it as nods to its own history as a franchise. But instead of reveling in  a new world and moviegoing experience, I was lifted out too many times. I REALLY wish the 3D had been flawless for me, I think that would have really helped. But I wish I could also turn off my big stupid brain and just appreciate the movie for just being itself.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hawkins. Goldsmith. Brilliant.

I've never seen the TV show Hawkins. Essentially, nobody has.

Originating as a 1973 TV movie starring James Stewart, it became a short-lived series and vanished into oblivion. From the descriptions, it sounds like a progenitor to Matlock.

The show disappeared. But the music lives on.

Thanks to Film Score Monthly, Jerry Goldsmith's score for the pilot film, Hawkins on Murder, made it onto CD. And I'm so delighted that it did.

The disc opens with a rather shocking sting of electronics which soon gives way to the Theme from Hawkins. It's a terrific little title tune, also used in the subsequent series. It's eminently hummable and just plain charming. It mixes a sort of Goldsmithian americana sound with a touch of electronics, setting up musically the idea of a country lawyer in the big city. Goldsmith really was a genius at making music that truly deepened and underscored thematic material from the films themselves.  When I sat on Main Street practicing my saxophone, I'd often tune up by playing the theme from Hawkins. It's one of Goldsmith's unappreciated gems.

The remainder of the score for the film crosses into pretty typical territory, covering nice suspense builds and a touch of melancholy, with that sprightly Hawkins theme sometimes easing into the picture. There's a lovely theme, a Sarabande, often introduced with solo guitar, and some eerie Moog moments.

Synthesizer also features prominently in the next section of the CD, the score for an Andy WIlliams telefilm called Winter Kills. It, too, features a rather jaunty Main Title, but this time surrounded by some pretty harsh music. A lot of it has the same feel as the early segments of Logan's Run.

The third section of this wonderful CD highlights Goldsmith's score to a much-loved TV movie called Babe. Anchored by a lovely title tune introduced on guitar and harp, it's delicate and tender, bouncy and rhythmic, and, ultimately, tinged with sadness.

Goldsmith's contribution to Hawkins only lasted for the pilot film. The subsequent series featured scores by other composers, including the great Jerry Fielding. His music for Hawkins appear on another FSM release, Zigzag / The Super Cops. Fielding creates some lovely takes on the Hawkins theme while also bringing in his own signature sound. Some spots even reminded me directly of Fielding's Star Trek

I love Jerry Goldsmith. I love TV music. This disc is, as those darned kids today might say, all win.