Tag Archives: Harlan Ellison

So much for that idea

I knew John Boorman was one of the parade of filmmakers who took a run at adapting The Lord of the Rings but I didn’t know the details of the script Boorman wrote. Apparently one of the high points of the Lothlorien sequence was Frodo getting it on with Galadriel:

United Artists (which acquired the movie rights to The Lord of the Rings from Tolkien before his death) originally was going to have John Boorman write and direct a film adaptation, but Boorman’s script confused the heck out of the studio. (Actually, with its Frodo/Galadriel love making scene, his script confuses the heck out of me as well.) And to make matters worse for United Artists, they had agreed to pay John $3 million for this badly written piece of garbage. As they were deciding whether to move forward or not, Ralph Bakshi (a big fan of Tolkien) approached them and asked the studio heads what they thought about having him direct three animated films that were closer to Tolkien’s original books. United Artists said that was fine, but they needed $3 million to cover the cost of throwing away Boorman’s script. At that point, Bakshi approached MGM (which wasn’t hard, because they shared the same building with United Artists) and MGM was so interested, they bought all the rights from United Artists for the $3 million, wiping UA’s books clean and taking on the project themselves with Bakshi as director. Unfortunately for Bakshi, the man who made that decision for MGM (Dan Melnick) was then fired, and the new guy (Dick Shepherd) didn’t want anything to do with Tolkien. That’s when Bakshi contacted Saul Zaentz, whom he had previously worked with, which led to Zaentz acquiring the movie rights from MGM and asking United Artists if they were still interested in doing the project. United Artists was back on board, and Bakshi ended up making the animated film that cost $4 million to produce and grossed $30 million. (Despite making money, neither Zaentz nor United Artists had any interest in a second or third part.)

Well now. I think we can agree that it’s just as well United Artists pulled the plug, even if it did lead to Ralph Bakshi’s inept and incomplete animated version. The daisy chain continued for another couple of decades and at the end waited Peter Jackson, so happy smiles all around.

Something just as ridiculous almost happened to Dune, another bulky classic that defeated a number of directors before making it to the screen. According to Harlan Ellison, the screenplay written by Alejandro Jodorowsky added an incestuous relationship between Paul Atreides and his mother. (That version, needless to say, was never made, but Jodorowsky had hired Swiss artist H.R. Giger for design work, and through him Giger met Ridley Scott, who used him on Alien, so once again happy smiles all around.) There must be a dumb screenwriter’s textbook somewhere that advises spicing up a difficult literary property with a sex scene between the two least likely characters. It’s been done over and over with Beowulf, and each time the screenwriter was convinced he’d concocted something outrageous and original. The saying “there’s nothing new under the sun” goes double for bad ideas.   

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My new favorite noir author

  • The Singer

Among other things, Cathi Unsworth’s novel The Singer does for the British punk rock scene what Harlan Ellison’s Spider Kiss did for the formative years of American rock and roll: uses a fleeting moment in pop history, described with great knowledge and appreciation for the excitement it generated, as the foundation for a gripping page turner. Ellison’s story was a study of how celebrity enabled a run-of-the-mill creep to turn himself into a genuine monster, albeit one with undeniable talent; the protagonist, a morally conflicted PR man, must decide how long he wants to wallow in his personal gutter before he is stained beyond redemption. Unsworth’s tale revolves around an even more monstrous punk rock singer, Vincent Smith, whose brief fame as leader of a group called Blood Truth ended in a cloud of violence and personal tragedy; the protagonist, a U.K. journalist trying to learn what happened to Smith decades after the fact, stands to lose a great deal more than his soul, though he doesn’t realize until too late.

All three of Unsworth’s novels to date offer very evocative descriptions of London in very specific places and periods. Her debut, The Not Knowing, centers on the Camden Town murder of a Tarantino-style filmmaker in the Nineties. Her third, Bad Penny Blues, takes off from an unsolved series of gruesomely violent murders in Ladbroke Grove between 1959 and 1965 that U.K. tabloids dubbed the “Jack the Stripper” case. And The Singer shows the punk-rock scene of the late Seventies and early Eighties moving away from its initial energy and enthusiasm. Unsworth’s background as a music journalist for Sounds and Melody Maker is put to good use here — you get the fannish thrill of seeing Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones cranking up onstage, even as the dark momentum of the story warns that something worse is waiting in the wings.

Unsworth introduces Vince Smith at a Sex Pistols gig, from the time when their infamy forced them to tour as the Spots, or Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly. Fledgling guitarist Stevie Mullin sees him with blood trickling down his face. (“I kissed Sid Vicious’s bass,” the eyes now rapturous. “Trouble was, fucker kissed me back!”) When Smith tries out for Stevie’s band, Unsworth’s description of the rehearsal captures the thrill of a group coming together in a way I haven’t seen since Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments:

From the moment they’d assembled in the garage, on Stevie’s orders later that afternoon, it was as if Vince had taken over, assumed the gig was his before he’d even sung a note. Worse still, Stevie didn’t even seem to have noticed.

Instead he was boasting to his new friend about how they’d taught themselves a few cover versions over the summer — “Anarchy,” “New Rose” by The Damned and Link Wray’s instrumental “Rumble.” Vince decided instantly that demolishing Dave Vanian would be the best way of demonstrating his skill.

Doesn’t want to measure himself up against Johnny, thought Lynton, tuning up his bass. Kevin was so nervous it had taken him forever to set up his kit, crashing around all fingers and thumbs, dropped cymbals left, right and centre. Lynton had helped him in the end, then sullenly wired up their only vocal mic, while Vince and Stevie jawed on about the gig last night, oblivious to their discomfort.

“All right, you ready?” Stevie slung his guitar around his neck.

“Yeah,” Kevin’s voice came out high and shrill, making Vince snigger.

Lynton just nodded. I’ll show that freak, he thought. Bet he knows nothing about music.

“New Rose” had an explosive intro anyhow, drums, bass and guitar all crashing in together, and the moment the three of them got going it was like a shower of sparks went up. Stevie nailed that subverted rockabilly riff the way a surfer catches a wave. Kevin drummed faster than he’d ever managed before, drummed like his life depended on it. Lynton felt hairs standing up on the back of his neck as his fingers flew up the fretboard, finding the notes as if of their own volition.

Then Vince grabbed hold of the mic, swung it backwards and let rip a deep, almost yowling voice. That it wasn’t entirely pleasant on the ear wasn’t the point. From the moment his fingers touched the mic, Vince Smith looked like a star. He moved that microphone back and forth with a louche magnificence, like a hellbound punk Gene Vincent, already caught in the spotlight’s glare. It didn’t seem like he knew most of the words, or maybe he was just making up couplets that amused him more. But there was an aura about him that was electrifying. You couldn’t stop staring at him.

Jesus, thought Lynton, that freak is showing me. And then he had to smile as his heart filled up with the rush — the four corners had touched and the magic had come forth. They actually sounded like a band.

That three minutes was the best noise they had yet to make together. When it was over, they stared at each other, almost shocked by what they’d done.

“Oooh ‘eck.” A flushed Stevie looked round at his bright-eyed companions. “Was that really us? Shall we do that one again and prove it?”

Unsworth cites James Ellroy and David Peace as huge influences on her work, and while I can see the connection with Ellroy, I think she outdoes him in a number of crucial ways. Her fourth novel, Weirdo, has just been published, and I want to get to it as soon as I finish Bad Penny Blues.  

It’s nice to see Unsworth giving props to The Damned, a first-generation English punk band that never quite escaped the combined shadows of the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Though they blazed some trails (first British punks to score a legitimate album release, first to tour the U.S.) they were often dismissed as clowns. The singer, Dave Vanian, went in for a Count Dracula look, while bassist Captain Sensible frequently took to the stage in a ballet tutu, or nothing more than his birthday suit. Original guitarist Brian James had his broody Keith Richard/ Mick Jones look down cold, and Rat Scabies was a relentlessly pushy drummer in the Paul Cook mold.    

(Back when, if somebody asked me to define the difference between punk and New Wave, I’d refer him to “Idiot Box,” a tune off the Damned’s Music for Pleasure, inspired by their brief, unsatisfactory time with Tom Verlaine as a would-be producer. Any subtlety involved in the title, a play on the name of Verlaine’s band, Television, was abandoned with the lyrics: “Tom Verlaine, you may be art/ But you sure ain’t rock and roll . . . supersonic, oh come back soon/ Cos all we got is a Marquee Moon.” And while Brian James was nowhere near Verlaine’s class as a guitarist, he managed a pretty amusing piss-take on the maestro’s “Marquee Moon” solo toward the end.)

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Friday finds

In which the pioneering rapper talks up a Los Angeles architectural landmark. Learn more about the Eames House here. Some of Ice Cube’s best raps here, here, here, and here. NSFW, unless you work at Death Row Records.

You know you want to hear Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” So what are you waiting for?

Ace thriller writer J.D. Rhoades talks about why he decided to go indie and start publishing new books (and out-of-print backlist titles) as e-books.  His new one, Gallows Pole, will scare the snot out of you.

Madam Mayo, author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, interviews Solveig Eggerz, author of Seal Woman.

When you’re introduced to a fencer, don’t do the squiggly arm thing. Just don’t.

In which Frederik Pohl reminisces about the Battle of the Douchebag, the Battle of the 4-Color Border, and the night spent with Harlan Ellison on Long John Nebel’s talk show.

From Psycho to Casino, from The Man with the Golden Arm to Anatomy of a Murder, it’s a tribute to the title sequences directed by Saul Bass.

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Friday finds

When people say they don’t like Ernest Hemingway’s work, they usually mean they don’t like his carefully cultivated man’s man image. That’s understandable, but it’s not exactly fair to Hemingway’s work — or, for that matter, to Hemingway himself, as Clancy Sigal reminds us.

I want my Wire lunchbox!

The most collectible book in the Harlan Ellison catalogue doesn’t even have Harlan Ellison’s name on it.

“The real problem is the dickishness of our mainstream political analysis, especially from the ‘savviest’ practitioners. Back during my days as media critic, I argued in Breaking the News and a related Atlantic cover story that the laziest and ultimately most destructive form of political coverage came when journalists seemed to imagine that they were theater critics or figure-skating judges. The what of public affairs didn’t interest them. All they cared about was the how.

I’ve known some administrators like this.

When I heard the premise of the new “children’s book,” Go the F*ck to Sleep, I laughed long and loud, which was appropriate — the book is a steam-release valve, as anyone who’s raised children will recognize. Unfortunately, the book is out in the world now, and as such becomes fodder for columns by the humor-impaired.

All of Ray Harryhausen stop-motion creatures in one video clip. And while we’re we’re at it, here’s another tribute to the man, because before the special-effects revolutions that began in the late Seventies, Ray Harryhausen was a good as it got. I mean, the first encounter with Talos in Jason and the Argonauts still looks pretty damned cool, doesn’t it?

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Exit, pursued by harlequin

Harlan Ellison says the end is near. For him, that is. I appreciate the warning, because if there’s any one person I can point to and say, “That’s who first showed me how writing can come alive on a printed page,” it’s Harlan Ellison. Never met the man except through his work, which is just how it should be with a writer, but when he goes it’s going to take me quite a while to sort out my thoughts and feelings on the matter.

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It took a lickin’ and kept on clickin’

If Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter could land a quarter-million-dollar bid at Christie’s last year, I would think Harlan Ellison’s very first Shraybmashinke would fetch an equally princely sum. For details, and more pictures like the one above, head thisaway. The description of the typewriter’s background is particularly poignant if read in conjunction with volume three of On the Road With Ellison. (Bird dogged by Steve Perry and Freddy the K.)

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Friday finds

I hope this doesn’t spoil your day, but the opening of the long-planned museum devoted to the Swedish pop group ABBA has been delayed for at least two years. ABBA fans will just have to console themselves by looking forward to a worldwide touring exhibit of ABBA-related paraphernalia, stocking up on ABBA hair-care products or ordering some ABBA stage costumes. Or they can rent out Muriel’s Wedding (above), the tale of how a young woman living in the Australian town of Porpoise Spit sets out to make her life “as great as an ABBA song.”    

Literary blogger starts her own Brooklyn bookstore. Go thou and buy books.

In memoriam, Steve Gilliard.

The new issue of The Biographer’s Craft is ready for your perusal. So, for that matter, is Ansible.

“. . . if he is your friend, you could call him to help you bury a body. He’d bitch about his aching back the whole time, but he’d still grab a shovel.”

It’s been a bad week for film actors associated with the martial arts. First David Carradine was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room, and now Shek Kin has passed on as well.

Biblical microfiction from Joe Z. Elisheva: “This angel sits here, silent, forever by my side. His head is bowed, but his eyes look up toward me, here as I lie on this soft stone bed of comfort. His wings, his feathers whisper without words in the gentle breeze that flows through this sealed room.”

Only a few hours left top hear Ian McMillan talk with poet Seamus Heaney.

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Call him cribber

The wheels of hype are starting to turn for Avatar, a science fiction adventure, set for release in December, that will mark James Cameron’s return to big-ticket filmmaking after breaking the bank with Titanic in 1997. The advance word has focused on the film’s 3-D technology, which is supposed to be amazing, but now that I’ve seen an outline of the plot I’m afraid there may be a low-tech storytelling problem waiting to trip Cameron up.   

It’s pretty widely known that The Terminator, Cameron’s 1984 commercial breakthrough, got him into hot water with SF writer Harlan Ellison, who accused the director of plagiarizing “Soldier,” one of the scripts Ellison wrote for the original Outer Limits series. Ellison walked away with an undisclosed cash settlement and an acknowledgement on the closing credits of the cable and video releases of the film.

Now here comes Avatar, in which a paralyzed man is telepathically linked to a genetically engineered body that enables him to interact with alien creatures on a planet inhospitable to humans. I can’t help but be reminded of “Call Me Joe,” a classic 1957 story by the late Poul Anderson, in which a paraplegic man is telepathically linked to a genetically engineered body that enables him to live on and explore the surface of Jupiter. The science aspects of the story are pretty quaint now — not a whole lot was understood about Jupiter at the time the story was written — but the focus on the hero’s bitterness over his physical condition, and the joy he takes in his powerful Jovian avatar, gives the story considerable punch.

I like Cameron’s films. I also appreciate the fact that he knows his way around the SF genre and doesn’t try to obscure the fact with hocus pocus about Joseph Campbell and ancient myths, a la George Lucas. The leaked plot details of Avatar show that Cameron has taken the “Call Me Joe” premise in a direction all his own, but that was also true of The Terminator, as even Ellison has acknowledged. Poul Anderson is no longer with us, but a friend tells me Anderson’s widow and daughter are very much so. With the film’s release half a year away, Cameron might want to take the time to do some bridge-building with the Anderson family, and thereby save himself some embarrassment, if not money.

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Friday finds

Time for a Tobias Wolff mini-festival, for no reason other than that he’s one of the all-time champion short story writers and I once had the pleasure of hearing him read his story “Smorgasbord” in Princeton, on a double bill with Robert Stone. Up top he reads an excerpt from his story “The Benefit of the Doubt,” here he sings along with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats and here he reads Denis Johnson’s story “Emergency” and talks about its qualities with Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker. Wolff’s 1997 book The Night in Question is a perfect, gem-studded introduction to his work; his memoir This Boy’s Life (which was made into a pretty good movie) is also a great read.  

C.M. Mayo’s new novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, gets a great review from Bookslut

How Nineteen Eighty-four killed George Orwell.

Rescuing the work of Hubert Harrison, a pioneering Harlem cultural journalist, from obscurity. 

“Final Shtick,” the opener in Harlan Ellison’s 1961 story collection Gentleman Junkie, is about a Jewish stand-up comedian who returns to Gentleman Junkiehis hometown to accept an award, then punks out on his plan to lacerate the crowd with his memories of the anti-Semitism and cruelty he endured as a child there. Apparently Ellison, an Ohio native, was not tempted to reenact that story. Before anyone tries to paint Ellison as an ogre for turning down the Cleveland Arts Prize, it should be pointed out that the award’s organizers don’t come across as terribly well informed — or even very bright, for that matter. Most of the jury hadn’t heard of Ellison, they asked him for help in selling advertising space, expected him to travel from L.A. to Cleveland on his own dime, and then restrict his remarks to a three-minute window. In short, they came across like a bunch of pishers — a word I know from reading Ellison — so it’s hardly surprising the guy told them to get lost.  

How an academic journal can piss away its hard-won reputation, almost overnight. Perhaps some repercussions are in order.

The journey that I’m speaking of starts with the slave days, when slaves had to dig a hole in an inconspicuous place in the cabin, just to keep the food cool. That’s where they would hide the food. The analogy for me is that this album is my potato hole, it’s where I put my goodies, where I have my stuff stored to keep it cool. But you might use your own imagination and go through the changes from then to now. Now there’s an African-American President of the United States, and we’ve come so far so fast. And it’s a good journey. It’s a good direction for a country to be going in.

An Artist’s Guide to Human Typesaverage physical attributes for people around the world, for sketch artists in need of a quick tutorial.

Having seen Jerry Hall in person, I can attest that she’s even better looking in real life than in her pictures. Turns out we won’t be getting a chance to read her reminiscences about Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry and others.

I’m not worried about the robot apocalypse, à la or The Matrix. I’m rather more worried about the WALL-E scenario, in which robots do all the work — happily — and people become pudgy balls of flesh lolling about all day without the slightest idea of what to do other than eat pureed food because it’s just too much trouble to chew. This is totally realistic. Hell, I spend more than eight hours a day in front of a computer screen as it is, sucking down Coke Zero and being glad there’s only one flight of stairs between me and my fridge. If I had C3PO to get me my Cokes, I might have already fused into my desk chair by now.”

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Harlan Ellison is suing Paramount Pictures for his share of revenues from merchandising spinoffs — everything from a series of Star Trek novels to a Christmas orament — drawn from his teleplay for “City on the Edge of Forever,” arguably the best episode of the original Trek series. He’s also suing the Writers Guild of America for failing to make Paramount live up to its contractual agreements on the issue. In the case of the WGA, he’s only asking for a dollar in damages — the purpose of naming the guild is to get a legal judgment on whether it was living up to its mission of watching writers’ backs in Hollywood.

The press release announcing the suit is vintage Ellison:

“The arrogance, the pompous dismissive imperial manner of those who ‘have more important things to worry about,’ who’ll have their assistant get back to you, who don’t actually read or create, who merely ‘take’ meetings, and shuffle papers – much of which is paper money denied to those who actually did the manual labor of creating those dreams – they refuse even to notice…until you jam a Federal lawsuit in their eye.  To hell with all that obfuscation and phony flag-waving: they got my money.  Pay me and pay off all the other writers from whom you’ve made hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars…from OUR labors…just so you can float your fat asses in warm Bahamian waters. “The Trek fans who know my City screenplay understand just exactly why I’m bare-fangs-of-Adamantium about this.” 

When Mr. Ellison calmed down, he continued, soberly, “They maintain fortresses staffed and insulated with corporate and legal Black Legions whose ability to speak fluent bullshit is the ramadoola of gyrating, gibbering  numbers via which they cling to every dollar.  And when you aren’t getting paid for the marvels you helped bring forth — fine, hard, careful artifacts that are making others pig-rich — at some point any sane person knows he has three, and only three choices: the first is to sit around dinner parties and ceaselessly whine over your sushi about how they screwed you, boo hoo, but you can’t beef about it Out There in the World or they’ll blacklist you; the second is to pick up an Uzi somewhere, crash your SUV through a Studio gate, and just run amok; and the third, last, choice is this one – to act like an adult, to take ‘em on in Federal Court and to make the greedy, amoral bastards blink blood out of their eyes.  What they do is tantamount to common street-thug robbery… just add the pig-rich Madoff-style smoothyguts attorneys.

Talk about a morning tonic.

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