Monday, November 28, 2011

Grey Owl

Directed by
Richard Attenborough
Written by William Nicholson
Starrring Pierce Brosnan, Stewart Bick, Vlasta Vrana,  Annie Galipeau

Grey Owl is the story of a real-life fraud.  Yet it is a fraud in such a charming and positive way that it becomes the story of a hero.

The movie introduces us to Grey Owl (Pierce Brosnan), a solitary trapper in the Canadian woods in the 1934s.  He's sought out by an Objibway woman Anahareo (Annie Galipeau), who sees her people living in modern society and losing their identity.  She wants Grey Owl to teach her how to be an Indian.  He agrees, and, as time goes by, she urges him to show what he knows about Native American lore to the rest of the world.

Reluctant at first, Grey Owl becomes a major early voice for nature and conservation.  His lectures were highly influential* and he was eventually asked to speak in the UK, where his secret is discovered.

It turns out that Grey Owl was no native American; he was born in the UK and emigrated to Canada, where he became enamored of the wilderness life.  The fraud was not revealed until his death** though afterwards his reputation suffered, even though most of what he said is basic conservation common sense, whoever says it.

Pierce Brosnan like these opportunities to play someone other than James Bond, and brings out Grey Owl's sincerity. If anything, the film is a bit too sincere, but it is a nice look at an early environmentalist.

*Richard Attenborough, who directed, said he was drawn to the story because his brother David, a well-known naturalist, became interested in learning about nature after hearing Gray Owl speak.

**When a newspaper that had been sitting on the story for three years, felt free to reveal the truth.  Journalistic ethics were different back then, and not necessarily worse than they are today.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Simple Plan

A Simple Plan(1998)
Directed by
Sam Raimi
Written by Scott B. Smith
Starring Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda, Billy Bob Thornton, Brent Briscoe.
IMDB Entry

I always like the offbeat.  And when a director is known for the off-beat, I like it when he tries something normal.  Sam Raimi is best known for horror, action and superhero films, but in 1998, he did a detour into serious drama.  A Simple Plan was one of the results.

The title is ironic.  Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) is hunting in the woods with his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob's friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) when they stumble upon a crashed airplane.  It's been there for months, as has its cargo -- $4.4 million dollars.

The question is what to do with it.  Hank wants to report it to the authorities, but Jacob and Lou insist they keep it.  Hank gives in, on the condition he holds the money.  That's the simple plan.

But, of course, the plan quickly starts going awry.  The three men have to continually change the plan, making it more complicated and having it turn deadly.  The money -- which the men and Hank's wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) think is the answer to their problems -- turns out to create new problems at every turn, as actions and emotions spiral out of control.  It's reminiscent of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, ultimately a tragedy caused by the characters' greed.

The movie got great reviews* and a couple of Oscar nominations, but the box office was mediocre.  Raimi tried one more serious drama -- For the Love of the Game -- before returning to more fantastic subjects, and later hitting it big with Spider-Man. 

*90% at

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Gardner F. Fox (comics)


Gardner F. Fox (art by Gil Kane)The names of the creators of most long-running comics are well known.  Jerry Siegel and Jerome Schuster created Superman; Bob Kane created Batman; Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created most of the Marvel superheroes.  But one of the greatest of comic creators, a man whose output ran into thousands of comics, is often overlooked.  That man is Gardner F. Fox.

Fox grew up in Brooklyn and went to college to get a law degree.  However, during the Depression, he realized he needed to supplement his income, so he began writing, hooking up with DC Comics and writing stories almost from the beginning of comic books.  He quickly became a top writer for DC, since he wrote well and met deadlines.  His first assignments was on the long-forgotten Speed Saunders, but he very quickly started writing for Batman, where he reached comic book immortality in his first story, where he created the utility belt. 

At about the same time, he created his first well-known characters, the Sandman.  This isn't the same one Neil Gaiman made famous, though Gaiman did include references to the original, but it was successful enough.

FlashHe came into his own in 1940, when he developed the Flash. The idea of a fast-running superhero caught people's imagination* and the Flash became one of the stalwarts of the Golden Age of comics.  He followed that up with creating another of the great names of DC comics:  Hawkman.  Other characters followed, including Dr. Fate and Starman (co-creator of both).

These read like a roll call of all the great characters of the 40s, but soon Fox topped them all by the simple expedient of showing them all together. Taking a group of characters from All-American Comics,** Fox put them all together and created the Justice Society of America. He wrote most of the JSA stories, and made it into one of the great name of the Golden Age.

But the Golden Age ended and the comics began to suffer.  Fox switched from superhero strips to western and science fiction comics and managed to keep working during the hiatus after Seduction of the Innocent.

But Fox wasn't through with superheros.  In the mid-50s, when editor Julius Schwartz decided that the time was right for more superhero comics, one of the first people he contacted was Fox, who helped with the revamp of the Flash, Hawkman, and the Atom and eventually, wrote the new version of the Justice Society, the Justice League.  He also came up with the Earth-1 and Earth-2 concept, which allowed the heroes from the Silver Age (Earth-1) to interact with the heroes of the Golden Age (Earth-2) to meet and interact. 

Fox's interest in science fiction also continued, and he wrote many of DC's SF titles, eventually creating their best-know SF heron, Adam Strange, in 1958.  In the 60s, he went back to writing Batman again, taking two obscure Golden Age villains -- the Riddler and the Scarecrow -- an turning them into important members of the Batman's rogue's gallery.

Fox left DC in 1968 over a dispute about benefits, and did a little bit of comic book work, but primarily wrote SF novels full time.***

Over the years, Fox wrote an estimated 4000 comic book stories**** and he was revered in the field.  So much so that when they created a new Green Lantern, he was named Guy Gardner in his honor.

Fox worked regularly up until his death in 1985.  His work is a bit dated, and even silly today, but that's due to a change in critical opinion, not because they weren't good stories in their time.  Probably no one else wrote more comic books.


*Even though the original story was awful by any measurement, other than the concept of the character.

**A part of DC, which in that time was split between All-American and National Periodicals Publications.  Eventually the two merged into National Periodicals, which became DC, the letters coming from their oldest title, Detective Comics.

***One of his novels, Escape Across the Cosmos was actually plagiarized twice and published as Titans of the Universe and Star Chase by different authors.

****The Grand Comics Database lists well over 3000, and there were probably more, since he was often uncredited. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

John Brunner (author)

Wikipedia Entry

John BrunnerIn the late 70s, I was growing tired of science fiction.  I had been devouring it since I saw The Space Explorers  when I was seven.  I would occasionally get away from it for a few months, usually during the school year when I didn't have time for non-school books, but always come back in the summer to read anything I could get my hands on.* But I was feeling that the genre was getting stale, with too much of it things I had seen before.  The ideas and sense of wonder were gone.

Then I happened upon The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner, and my faith in the genre was restored.

Brunner was an incredibly prolific SF novelist, with well over 100 books to his credit.**  He was born in the UK and published his first novel at age 17, and began to crank out books until he could begin writing full time in 1958.  His earlier works were competent space opera -- good reads and nothing more.  But by the mid-60s, he started adding far more depth of characterization and more intriguing ideas into his novels.***

The turning point was The Whole Man, about a telepathic individual who has to deal with his new power and about how the world looks at him.  It showed a new depth of characterization, and gave Brunner his first Hugo nomination.

By 1970, John Brunner was on the list of the top SF writers.  He reached stardom in the field in 1968 with his classic Stand on Zanzibar, a novel about an overpopulated world that uses a complex structure to not only tell the main story, but to give details about the world by small sections that illuminated particular aspects.****  It won a Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Brunner continued with his complex futures and narrative drive on other of his major works, like The Jagged Orbit and The Sheep Look Up. 

image The Shockwave Rider in 1975 was his last classic novel (though he continued with several very good ones).  It probably impressed me because it was cyberpunk before cyberpunk was invented, the story about a man caught up in a fight against an oppressive US government and surviving because of his computer skills.  The technology is dated (he uses touchtone landline phones), but it was far advanced for the time, and like nothing I had ever read.  Brunner even coined the term "computer worm" for the novel.

I am also a fan of his Total Eclipse, about an attempt to discover why an alien race went extinct, and which has some rather frightening implications for the human race.  In addition, his lighter The Infinitive of Go was a great concept and story using the idea of the transporter that doesn't work quite the way it does in Star Trek.

Brunner died in 1995, suffering a heart attack while attending the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow.  It was a sad loss to the field and to the cause of imagination.

*I'm perversely proud that, when I took the New York State English Regents (a statewide exam for high school students), I answered one question by using Jack Vance's Emphyrio, which had been serialized but not yet published as a book.  I knew the teachers wouldn't have read the book, but I could always show them a copy if they called me on it.

**Asimov's of course, reached nearly 500 books, but Brunner had far more novels.  Asimov also padded his total by being the editor of a book, where his main contribution was writing an introduction and lending his name.  Brunner tended to repacking his books under different titles, but I'm pretty sure he's still ahead of Asimov.

***In a way, his career path paralleled Robert Silverberg, who had the reputation of being something of a hack in his early days.  At a certain point, Silverberg decided he had made enough on hackwork to live comfortably, and announced he would write more serious sf novels.  Some people in the field thought it a joke, but he quickly became a multiple award winner for some great short stories and novels like "Passengers" and Dying Inside.

****He took the technique from John Dos Passos's USA Trilogy. For those who think that science fiction is about prediction, he predicted that Earth would have a population of 7 billion by 2010 -- only a year off from the actual date.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music)

(1955-1957) Wikipedia Entry for Richard Adler Wikipedia Entry for Jerry Ross
Adler and RossThey collaborated on only two musicals and one revue, but Richard Adler and Jerry Ross were two of the greatest composers for Broadway in the 1950s. Their scores were memorable, exciting, and popular and critical successes.  But their reputation has faded.  Part of that is because showtunes are no longer a popular form of music.  But even among Broadway aficionados, they were hurt because of their small output.
Adler and Ross grew up in New York City and soon took to composing music.  They met in 1950 and, under the mentoring of Frank Loesser, became a songwriting team.
They were different from most other songwriters working together.  Usually, when two people collaborated, one did music and the other did lyrics.  But Adler and Ross were both composers and both could write lyrics. The result allowed them to let the other have a go at it if they were stuck.  It seems a logical way to go, though most composers are probably not willing to let anyone else work on a song of theirs.
Their first success was in a few popular songs, which led to them contributing songs to the revue, John Murray Anderson's Almanac. It was successful enough to have the start on their first book musical.  Teaming up with Broadway great George Abbott, who wrote the book, the result was The Pajama Game.
The Pajama Game is an unusual musical, one of the few where the boy gets the girl halfway though the first act.  It's set in Sleepy-Time Pajama factory, it deals with the unlikely subject of labor-management relations.  The plot is not all that much, but the songs make it into one of Broadway's greatest musicals.
Here's an example (Broadway buffs should recognize who choreographed it by about 25 seconds in):
The show was a smash.  It won the Tony for Best Musical, Best Actress, and Best Choreography.  It was then turned into a movie starring Doris Day and John Raitt.
But Adler and Ross were just getting started.  The next year, the same team produced their best-known musical Damn Yankees, the story about how the upstart Washington Senators finally won the pennant, with a little help from the devil himself and his female demon Lola, who gets whatever she wants.
That is the great Gwen Verdon in the role, repeating her stage role.
Damn Yankees cleaned up at the Tonys, winning the three awards The Pajama Game won the year before, plus Best Actor* , Best Featured Actor and Actress, and other technical awards.
Winning consecutive Tonys in your first two book musicals should have been the beginning of a superb career, but, alas, a few months after Damn Yankees premiered, Jerry Ross had died at age 29.**
Adler could never recapture the magic.  Though he did provide musicals for a couple of shows, they flopped (though he did have some success doing musicals for TV).  He returned to advertising and wrote some very successful jingles.*** 
Their two musicals are perennials in community theater circuit,**** but though people remember the shows, the names of Adler and Ross don't create any connection.  But they deserve to be remembered as two of Broadway's greatest composers.
* Given to Ray Walston, later of My Favorite Martian and Picket Fences.
**Accounts differ as to whether it was due to leukemia or bronchiectasis, a lung disorder.
*** Including jingles for Kent Cigarettes, and "Let Hertz Put You in the Driver's Seat" (If you're unfamiliar with the ad, watch it to the end).
****Especially Damn Yankees; The Pajama Game is hurt by the effect of inflation:  the plot involves trying to get a 7 1/2 cent an hour raise from the company, something that seems pretty paltry today.