Another One Gone

harlanThe passing last week of the American author Harlan Ellison deserves a belated mention. I neglect to describe him here as a science-fiction author as a mark of respect because he didn’t consider himself as such, although he always seemed to be, to me. That being said, I wouldn’t exactly consider myself a fan of his work. I’ve read some of his stories and of course seen the 1975 film A Boy and His Dog (based on one of his stories) and the much-celebrated (and much-maligned by him) Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, and the Outer Limits episode Demon With A Glass Hand.  I have a hardback book, a huge tome titled The Essential Ellison: A Fifty-Year Retrospective, that I bought back in 2001 and have only dipped into occasionally since. I do well recall a review of Star Trek: The Motion Picture that he wrote for Starlog back in 1980 that was pretty blistering and which I didn’t really agree with… but I remember it so well it clearly left some impression.  In hindsight, I think Ellison was right in what he wrote about the film, but back then I wasn’t ready to admit it.

Ellison was loud. He always seemed to have a rough and aggravating character, a reputation that always turned me off him. In truth it was probably narrow-minded and foolish of me, but there was always plenty of other authors’ work to read that didn’t carry all the background noise and politics of Ellison’s stuff. We were like chalk and cheese I guess, although as I have grown older maybe I find myself agreeing with more of his views than I once did.

Regular readers will know that I am forever loathe to neglect a Blade Runner reference when it slides into view. Did you know that when Ridley Scott was attached to the Dino De Laurentiis’ Dune project (eventually helmed by David Lynch), Scott approached Harlan Ellison to write the screenplay? I mean, just imagine that- a Dune film directed by Ridley Scoot based on a screenplay by Harlan Ellison: the mind boggles, and I dizzyingly think of Ray Bradbury and John Huston conjuring the 1956 Moby Dick (but hey, we got Blade Runner instead so its all good). In an essay in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,  Ellison recalled that he met Scott for breakfast in September 1979, and instantly declined the job. The book was too vast, too complex, to ever be made into a satisfactory movie, and “…besides, who needs to see Dune when David Lean has already made Lawrence of Arabia? Its just King of Kings with Sandworms… No.. there isn’t a writer living or dead who could beat this project,” he told Scott. Whether Scott came to agree is unclear, but he later left the project in order to make Blade Runner instead. Oddly enough, the new Dune project is being directed by Denis Villeneuve, director of the Blade Runner sequel- its weird how these connections come around.

One interesting note- this meeting between Ellison and Scott is when Scott remarked that he wanted to be known as the “John Ford of science fiction films,” a quote that was bandied around often back when Blade Runner first got released. With Alien and Blade Runner to his name I remember it seemed an admirable and exciting intention, but I guess the box office of Blade Runner nixed that intent.

One more Blade Runner note: while Ellison was apparently somewhat sour about the film in 1982 (feeling it inferior to the original Philip K Dick novel) he later warmed to it: “[Blade Runner] has come to look to me, after repeated re-viewings, as a significant achievement, deeper in human values than I’d supposed, far more than a glitzy melodrama of sci-fi machinery and thespic posturing. Over time, my respect and admiration for Scott’s vision has grown substantially.”

Withdrawing from the Blade Runner talk, the reason why I’m writing this is simply the obvious observation implied by this post’s title- another one gone. I have been lucky, more lucky than I ever appreciated at the time really, to have grown up in a world in which some quite remarkable people lived and worked. The names are quite extraordinary, when I think of them:

While I lived, these people walked the same Earth as I: Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Frank Herbert,  Frank Frazetta, John Buscema, James Blish, Jeffery Jones, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Philip K Dick, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, John Barry, Basil Poledouris, Jack Lemmon, Christopher Reeve, Stanley Kubrick, Chris Whitley, Eric Woolfson, Prince, Steve Dillon, Gil Kane… some of these names will be familiar to you, I have no doubt, some may have you curious enough to reach for the google search tool (please do, you should know these people’s work) and there are many, many others that I have not listed but should have.

What I am getting at is that, as I have gotten older, so many people that I grew up reading about or watching or listening to, are simply not around anymore. And the world is so much lesser for the loss. I honestly can’t see how many of the names I have cited above are ever going to be replaced by a successive generation because the world isn’t the same. Fame now is hardly earned, its almost stumbled upon for a few fleeting fifteen minutes in an entertainment arena which measures careers in months/years rather than the decades/lifetimes they used to be. The talent honed over years and decades seems to be lost to us when careers are so much louder and shorter. I’m no fan of the Rolling Stones, but its clear to me that when they are finally gone, they will be gone, and we won’t see the like again (good riddance, many of us may say, or hardly blink a notice, but we all should get the point that rock bands like that just don’t happen anymore and the world is missing something for it).

 

So anyway, Harlan Ellison is gone. Another name that featured in the culture-scape of my existence has been extinguished at last, joining an ever-increasing list.

Meanwhile, I think I shall go to bed tonight and dream about what that Dune film might have been like, with visuals by Ridley Scott in his prime and words crafted by enfante-terrible Harlan Ellison… I shall dream in 70mm, and Dolby Stereo…

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The Wimbledon Syndrome

chinasyn.pngHere’s a bit of a mystery. Jack Lemmon is probably my very favourite actor. I think he was some kind of genius and by all accounts an unassuming one at that, unusual for a profession dominated by egos and extroverts. I rate some of his films as my very favourite films.

And yet here is a film featuring him, widely praised over the years for being a memorable thriller, that I have not seen. Its strange, really, some of the films that slip us by, which we figure we’ll get around to one day. And that ‘one day’ seems to slip by endlessly.

Anyway, the great Indicator label has just released The China Syndrome on Blu-ray and I’ve naturally bought it, taking the release to finally mean that that ‘one day’ has finally come around for this movie. Well, almost. Wimbledon has curtailed much of my viewing for the next two weeks, not helped by my wife finally ‘getting’ the pleasures of 4K (“what do you mean its sharper than blu-ray?”) thanks to the BBC’s pretty amazing UHD feed on iplayer. It looks astonishing and even she can see it. Unfortunately she’s a Wimbledon junkie and she’s now monopolizing the OLED panel.

There ain’t no justice. Even Blade Runner on 4K disc is having to wait.  And there’s no rain delays in sight according to the weather forecast…

Listening to- Revolutions & Waiting For Cousteau

revLatest commute listening has been my Jean-Michel Jarre collection. I put it all on a usb stick filed in chronological order and have worked my way tfrom the classic  Oxygene onwards. Oxygene, of course is a classic and likely Jarre’s finest hour (all downhill from there, old boy) but its been fascinating to listen to his albums in the order he released them. I still have a soft spot for Magnetic Fields which really gives Oxygene a run for its money and this time around I rather enjoyed Zoolook more than I’d expected to.

Alas, I’ve today just come to his 1988 album Revolutions. Time has not been kind. I well remember buying the cd back then, from WH Smiths of all places (remember when you could buy cds etc from there?). Indeed, I particularly recall sitting on the bus on the way from town and passing the time  reading a magazine that WH Smiths were giving away free, you know, plugging latest film and album releases on VHS etc, when I turned a page and -boom- I was dumbstruck by a half-page ad for a new Vangelis album, Direct, out in a few weeks. This was, of course, way before the internet so news of any new Vangelis release was a big deal to me – this was back when Vangelis releases had seemed to  grind to a halt (funny, we hadn’t seen the worst of that phenomenon yet). So the funny thing is, I got home and half-listened to the new Jarre album but I was all buzzing with the news of a new Vangelis album.

And yeah, when it came out, that new Vangelis album was massively superior to Revolutions. I haven’t listened to Revolutions in years and returning to it on this commute its clear why- its really not very good. Its uninspired, following a pattern set on his last few albums. Big operatic, epic opener, throw .in a catchy single, a few shorter tracks on the b-side (back then albums still followed the traditional vinyl-dictated way of a/b sides of about twenty minutes each).  Overall its a pretty insipid collections of tracks- now I just listen and think wtf was Jarre thinking?  It does seem clear in retrospect that Jarre was pushing towards an almost analogue, ‘live’ band sound as if to make it easier to put the album into concert format (back then Jarre was possibly more of a live performer to huge firework/laser show events than he was a recording artist). Mind, the idea of Jarre as ‘live’ performer was odd enough considering how pre-programmed all his electronics had to be by virtue of what his music was, and it would appear that Revolutions was a response to that. Lots of drums and guitar and some voices, it doesn’t really feel like a Jarre album. Horrible really and a pale shadow of previous albums.

cousteauUnfortunately, Revolutions is followed by the absolute career nadir of Waiting for Cousteau, and I had to grind my teeth through this one in the grim conviction to not skip any track, whatever, as I listen through Jarre’s discography. Waitng for Cousteau is pretty bad, especially the awful Calypso 1 – 3 which are just painful to any ears. To some degree the album is almost saved by the lengthy ambient title track, but unfortunately it just drones on for nearly fifty minutes just going nowhere. More a soundscape really than a proper ambient track (Jarre rather missing the point I think), pleasant enough but charmless – albeit a relief after the repellent cacophony of the Calypso horror trio. Still, I will say the album probably features the best cover art of any Jarre album.

Thankfully tomorrow there’s the pleasure of Jarre’s return to form with the great Chronologie, which is one of his very best albums in my mind.

Missions (2017 – ?)

French tv series in an unusual 30-minute format comprising of ten episodes, and unfortunately it ends teasing a second season so doesn’t really have anything near a satisfactory conclusion. Which is doubly infuriating as it offers lots of stupid mysteries and then gets away without offering any decent answers.

The stupidity of the writing is what really nails it though. I don’t know how anyone could stomach this nonsense without shouting at the screen; the characters and the coincidences and the plot-twists are so infuriating- really, this kind of rubbish makes me rather furious. A bad Dr Who episode is usually more scientifically accurate (and sensical) than this. And did I not yet mention that this rubbish has, officially, the Worst Spacesuits Ever?

missions2

So anyway, here’s the story: A European manned mission to Mars (there’s the first gap in logic) approaches the red planet and they are summoned to a meeting to be told that, actually, they aren’t the first to land on Mars, the Americans at NASA have just beaten them to it. Gosh, boo, hiss from our motley crew. But actually there’s another twist- NASA has lost contact with this American expedition that somehow escaped ESA notice so now this is a rescue mission. Now, I don’t know intricate details of inter-planetary trajectory or orbital insertions, but just because you arrive in Mars orbit it doesn’t strictly infer you can just pop down wherever you like. If your landing target was the Acidalia Planitia I doubt you’re going to be able to redirect to the Terra Cimmeria without some kind of flight path change midway to the planet. Anyway, forget that science nonsense.

So our heroes decide to go down and save the day, although, wouldn’t you know it, during the trip down the decent module has a fault and cannot detach from the main ship so the captain has to go out and manually detach the ship and perishes in the attempt. So no leader! Much squabbling ensues, especially when they land without enough fuel to take off again and a ship computer that is on the blink (and life support fried). Oh, and the interior sets do not in any way match top the CGI ship exterior, at all. I mean, they ‘show’ members of the crew getting into the airlock from the interior but not where this airlock is on the exterior, because the sets do, er, not match the CGI ship.

mission1

Even if this turkey had any fuel, how, exactly, would it lift off?

So anyway, they get to the American landing-site and its a wreck. As if NASA satellites in orbit couldn’t have told everybody that. There are no survivors. Except one, but he’s not American- he’s Vladimir Komarov, a Russian cosmonaut who died during re-entry to Earth during a Soviet mission back in 1967. Well, isn’t that strange. What a mystery that he’s alive decades later, and on Mars no less. It just so happens that the last-minute replacement psychologist in the crew now has flashbacks to her childhood, and her astronomy-hobbyist father who considered Komarov to be his hero. Mere coincidence? We’ll return to this a paragraph later.

Meanwhile ANOTHER ship lands on the red planet. Human expeditions to Mars are like buses, it seems, you wait millions of years and then three turn up at once. This one, however, is another American expedition but financed by a billionaire philanthropist  searching for immortality because he’s a Rich Bastard With A Terminal Illness (somehow Mars is the key to living forever, although its never explained exactly why or how this logic has been arrived at).  This guy is more Eldon Tyrell than Elon Musk, so this crew has gun-happy goons on board and they throw their weight around, threatening to shoot dead the ESA folk. The lead woman on this crew of gun-totting goons though is the ex-girlfriend of the billionaire philanthropist who has financed/hitched a ride on the ESA mission. No, really, I’m not making this up. Maybe if our bearded rich guy apologizes for his romantic failure she might have a change of heart and betray the Rich Bastard With A Terminal Illness back on Earth? How very French.

So back to our pretty psychologist who now has special significance according to the enigmatic Komarov who, wait for it, may not be human. It then transpires that she was chosen for the mission because photographs of the Martian topography/landscape perfectly matched photographs of her face! Either that means the Martian landscape is pretty or she’s as ugly as a Martian rock. Anyway, when you see a woman’s face in Martian landscape photographs she clearly has to be put on a mission to Mars.

She is some kind of Chosen One and nobody told her until they dumped her on Mars. Anguished flashbacks to her father being ill. A trip to a Martian pyramid. The terminally-ill billionaire back on Earth decides if he can’t get his cretins on Mars to bring Komarov to him, he’ll get the next flight to Mars and do it himself (I had no idea missions to Mars were that easy to organise or so quick a trip). Somehow this all ties in with some Alien Intelligence which the scriptwriters confuse with Artificial Intelligence because now Mars/Komarov has taken over the ESA computer and their ship is now sentient and there is some twist that the Martians are all ancient (ha, ha! More initials- Ancient Intelligence!) and died out long ago except for -gasp!- the ones who flew to Earth to populate that world. Wait, what? Do you mean— WE are the Martians?

I’ll stop now. Hopefully that is more than enough to banish this hellish nonsense to the ‘AVOID’ pile. To be fair, some of the music sounds alright.

Did I mention it features the Worst Spacesuits Ever?

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Maybe we are alone….

Contrary to that wonderfully evocative Close Encounters poster (“We Are Not Alone”), here’s an interesting article that I read over at the Guardian website yesterday-

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/27/aliens-exist-survival-universe-jim-alkhalili

Bit depressing really, although yes there may be a positive side to it. Although if its true, I suppose that means we really are the most intelligent beings in the universe, and that’s REALLY depressing.