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Wednesday, Oct 3, 2007


Back in the ‘80s, it was a running joke. It seemed like, every time you turned around, another Stephen King work - no matter how minor – was being prepped for a cinematic styling or on its way to your local Bijou. To call it overkill would be too simplistic. It was, as if, the man’s massive imagination was being purposefully corralled by an industry that believed his muse was all too fleeting. The “hurry up and hit it” mentality (otherwise known as strike while the iron’s assets are liquid) meant that, in some cases, the film version of a famed tome was in preproduction before the book even made the bestsellers. It was a buyers market and the author had literary real estate to spare. Among his many novels, numerous short stories, and projects purposefully created for the movies, he was a one man idea factory. A funny thing happened on the way to maximum production capacity, however. Audiences began to balk.


At first, all was business as usual. The studios kept churning out the chum, delivering subpar motion pictures and endless, unnecessary sequels. And while they weren’t overwhelmed, the crowds kept coming. But diluting your inventory never results in quality, and before long, King’s name was as marginalized as his turnstile reputation, a lamentable presence in a genre that had long since surpassed his undeniable storytelling expertise. Additionally, the remaining items in his oeuvre were becoming more and more complicated to realize – massive magnum opuses sprawling out over hundreds of pages and dozens of subplots. With visionary elements far exceeding Hollywood’s ability to realize them, and narratives that touched on subjects both controversial and complex, the days of simple story arcs (killer dog, killer car, killer kid) were long over. So while the viewers were turning to other macabre makers, Tinsel Town turned its back on the once heralded cash cow.


But that doesn’t mean King is tapped out. Far from it. As a matter of fact, there are a half dozen or so interesting production possibilities just lying around, waiting to be discovered. At SE&L’s suggestion (and we will gladly accept any and all finder’s fees, thank you), here are six wonderful works that would make riveting entertainment options. We’ve purposely avoided anything already planned (The Talisman, Cell, From a Buick 8) as well as remakes, reimaginings and outright rip-offs. As far as we known, this sextet of stellar novels are languishing in limbo, caught somewhere between 1408’s recent success and past calamities still stinking up the artform. Each one argues for two incontrovertible truths. First, there has never been a man as prolific as Stephen King. And second? That for every mediocre motion picture pried from his prose, there’s a possible gem waiting in the wings, beginning with:


The Long Walk


As part of his Richard Bachman persona, King tackled the dystopian future as only his insular mind could imagine it. The results are this spellbinding thriller about a group of 100 randomly picked boys sent on a mandatory trek across a totalitarian American landscape. With a storyline similar to Speed (the lads must maintain a certain pace to avoid being ‘warned’ and then ‘ticketed’ by the accompanying soldiers) and a breathtaking narrative drive, it has the makings of a fine action adventure. Even better, the Lord of the Flies like characters, each one bringing their own precarious personal situation to the contest, allows for endless subplotting and openness. Rumor has it that Frank Darabont owns the rights. If anyone can realize this intricate tale, he can.


The Regulators


Granted, the plot feels like a revamp of the classic Twilight Zone episode where little Anthony is the “monster” who can create unimaginable evils with his mind, but in a CGI reliant industry desperate for more bitmap magic, this could be the next horror hybrid hit. Maybe studio heads are waiting to see if the similarly styled The Mist makes a mountain of money come theatrical release time. Remember, King is still considered a tenuous source of material at best. And because this book is another example of his Bachman alter ego, there’s the possibility of a less than bestseller backlash. In the hands of the right visionary director, however, this reality in flux narrative could be a sensational slice of eerie eye candy.


Eye of the Dragon


Why this excellent sword and sorcery epic hasn’t been made into a movie is baffling? After all, if subpar crap like Eragon can stumble along and stink up a Cineplex with its dumbness and dragons, why not the work of an actual adult writer? Part of the problem, at least at the time of publication, was realizing the more “magical” elements of the story. It was reported that animation was initially suggested, the cinematic category’s open palette more readily capable of bringing the fanciful to life. But just like The Regulators, the supercomputer has changed the face of filmmaking, and with the proper director – someone in tune with the genre’s inherent pitfalls and possibilities – this excellent example of good old fashioned yarn spinning would make a wonderful bit of wistfulness.

 


Gerald’s Game


Actresses are always complaining that there are no good roles for them. King, fortunately, loves to feature women in complex, life changing situations. In this very dark single character piece, our heroine Jessie Burlingame finds herself alone, tied up, and very afraid after her husband dies during some rather rough sex. As she lies in bed, hunger and dehydration taking its toll, she recalls horrors from her past, while envisioning even more dreadful terrors in the shadows of her isolated cabin. While it’s true that any star who wanted the part would have to agree to some demanding physical trials (nudity, suggested violence), the rewards would be well worth it. Within the usual setting, the author creates some undeniably powerful prose.


Insomnia


It stands as one of his oddest ideas – an old man, unable to sleep, who can literally see the “strands” or mortality that rise from our body…and the creepy creature killers carrying the scissors to ‘cut’ them. And then there’s the whole abortion subtext filled with dogma and social terrorism. But Insomnia is still one of the author’s best books, a character driven exploration of mortality and aging drenched in a weird wickedness that is hard to shake. Even better, the book finally explains King’s favorite setting – the paranormal plagued town of Derry. With all this amazing material at their disposal, the right creative team could make something truly special. And with a lot of great actors approaching their twilight years, the casting possibilities are also tempting.


Blaze


Another Bachman book, another potential for some major acting tour de forces. The story revolves around a mentally deficient con man who decides to kidnap a wealthy couple’s baby for the ransom money. The crime begins to go awry, and Clayton Blaisdell, Jr. (or “Blaze” for short) starts flashing back to his own childhood, and the reasons for his own damaged brain. Imagine this unusual tale told by one of our modern movie icons, or better yet, driven by a fascinating newcomer (like Casey Affleck, perhaps) and you could have a character based dynamo. Though it was written way back in the early ‘70s (in between bouts with Carrie), there is a modern mentality to the piece that plays perfectly in these desperate post-millennial days.

 


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Wednesday, Oct 3, 2007

Economists are very excited by the Radiohead’s voluntary pricing scheme, mainly because it will provide a data set with which to test assumptions about tipping and about the future of the music industry. Prognosis? It’s fucked, according to Bob Lefsetz (quoted here): “This is big news. This says the major labels are fucked. Untrustworthy with a worthless business model. Radiohead doesn’t seem to care if the music is free. Not that they believe it will be. Because believers will give you ALL THEIR MONEY!”


There’s a strong temptation to be faintly cynical about Radiohead’s motives and look for the advantages the band reaps through this highly publicized gambit. Tyler Cowen explains how it’s a good publicity stunt for bands that make their money by seeming cool to their fans and by touring. Megan McArdle points out the clever deployment of price discrimination:


While the download is free, the physical discs with all the notes and bonus material are 40 quid . . . or about $80. This is quite a lot to pay for an album, even if you really, really like the band. So in effect, Radiohead may have created a really effective price discrimination system: the free download might not only rope in lukewarm fans like me who would have put off the purchase, possibly to forever, but also create goodwill that encourages more of their fans to buy the super-expensive (in America) discs.
Another way it might work is that the very popularity of the free (or low cost) download might force dedicated fans to spend a lot in order to signal their committment to the band. Music has a substantial status component to its consumption. If everyone and their lame younger brother has downloaded the new album for a pittance, you might have to order the discs just to set yourself apart from the hoi polloi.


Price discrimination can seem sort of nefarious, but in charging people different sums in order they may have a slightly different experience of the same basic good, just enough rope is supplied to consumers to hang themselves how they choose. And superfans can try to feel connected to their idols by making larger and larger pecuniary sacrifices. That they are buying an illusion doesn’t necessarily mean they should be kept from doing so.


As someone who grew up listening to music on a collection of homemade cassette tapes, I have never understood the idea of showing one’s loyalty to a pop band by finding occasions to pay them for their work; in the crowded world of pop music, it seems enough just to pay with the much scarcer currency of attention. In fact, people may have few qualms about stealing music because they see no correlation between the amount they pay and the value they get out of the work—because they don’t price aesthetic pleasure, despite the culture industry’s desperate wish that they do so (I paid $5 for an Astral Weeks LP; I got the unspeakably awful Poetic Champions Compose for $15. I certainly didn’t get three times as much pleasure from it.) Some peope might find that investing money in cultural product commits them to putting in the time necessary to embellish its value, to weave it into the fabric of one’s experience, bind it up with memories; but when price isn’t an issue, the process seems to me a little bit more organic (if not altogether arbitrary).


You also can’t put a price of being socially relevant, and that is something you can monetize in innumerable ways, something Radiohead is probably aware of. My impression is that the artists making music worth hearing would make it even without the financial incentive (expression at that level is its own reward), so there’s no need to worry about “supporting” them so that their innovations can make it into the world. Intellectual property arguments applied to artistic expression seem to me to debase art out of all recognition and turn it into nothing more than a patentable idea, art as entrepreneurship.


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Wednesday, Oct 3, 2007

What’s the future hold for music journalism with commercial sites increasingly providing reviews and interviews?

Photograph by Soul Portrait

Photograph by Soul Portrait


Radiohead has announced on its website that its new album In Rainbows will be available for download from its website at a price to be determined by the buyer (on October 10) and in December as a boxed set of vinyl albums. Artists taking control for the selling of their recorded musical works, and the music being simultaneously an artwork and advertisement for itself is nothing new. Singer and lyricist Johnny Mercer founded Capitol Records in 1942, and in the same year the Musicians Union called on its members to strike to protest at recorded music being played on the radio for free, fearing that it was putting musicians out of work. We’ve circled back now to the realisation that was arrived at after the musicians strike, that the piece of music being played on the radio is an advertisement for the musicians and their live performances and other types of merchandise, as well as the record itself.


The recorded musical object may now be almost literally something throwaway. A few weeks ago the Sydney Morning Herald gave away a compilation Jazz cd followed by a soul compilation in order to make cheesy marketing puns, make your Sundays swing, give your Sundays soul with the Sydney Morning Herald. In July Prince gave away cd copies of his new album Planet Earth with the British Mail on Sunday. And Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell bypassed record stores and are selling their new albums at Starbucks. I’d buy Joni’s new album Shine through Amazon’s new MP3 sales center if it weren’t limited to the U.S.


What’s fascinating is how the new sales systems are subtly beginning to affect criticism. I first found out about Bruce Springsteen’s new album Magic from Bruce himself, through an e-mail, because I’d signed-up for his newsletter. A link directed me to Amazon.com for the preview of the video for the song “Radio Nowhere”. In the not-so-distant past I probably would have found out about a new Springsteen album from Rolling Stone, or a pre-release story in the New York Times. I don’t read the customer reviews or put much store by the purchase suggestions on Amazon.com but it occurred to me that while I’m making a purchase on something I already trust from another source (a William Gibson novel, because I read every novel he writes) I’ll listen to an Amazon.com podcast interview with Gibson and listen around the marketing pitches.


And I’ve unthinkingly gone to the author interviews on the website for the Powells bookshop when I want to find out something about a book I’m interested in. There’s an interview with Greil Marcus on Powells.com about his new book The Shape of Things To Come. I’m an indirect writer reading and thinking about things from a distance and probably too much of my fieldwork is through a trip to the library so I’m inspired by what he says about the directness of his writing, that insights come to him from visiting the places where events happened.


I’m a great believer in ambient research. Once I was talking with a woman who was writing a book on the Lindbergh kidnapping. I asked her if she’d been to the house where it took place — or, supposing the house might have been torn down, to the place where it had been. No, why? she asked. Because there might be something there that would open doors for you that no one else would ever think to mention, I said. That’s what I learned when I went to Zurich in 1983 to visit the site of the Cabaret Voltaire, where dada was proclaimed? invented? discovered? in 1916. It was on a strikingly twisted old-town street. Nearby was a plaque indicating the house where Lenin had lived before returning to Russia on the sealed train. The building that had housed the Cabaret Voltaire had a plaque too, with graffiti I tried to convince myself was interesting. But no one had thought to mention that a nightclub where the 20th century first announced itself was now the Teen and Twenty Disco.


Greil Marcus


.


And there are original essays on Powells.com. My friend Damian had been mesmerised by Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi and after swooning gloriously over the book myself (which I read in India, after staring at a sweetly kitten-like Bengal Tiger batting at a rope in the Mysore Zoo) I was compelled to read the essay Yann Martel contributed to Powells.com on how influence, inspiration and hard work led to The Life of Pi.


I visited all the zoos I could find in the south of India. I interviewed the director of the Trivandrum Zoo. I spent time in temples, churches and mosques. I explored the urban settings for my novel and took in the nature around them. I tried to immerse myself as much as possible in the Indianness of my main character. After six months I had enough local colour and detail.


I returned to Canada and spent a year and a half doing research. I read the foundational texts of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. I read books on zoo biology and animal psychology. I read castaway and other disaster stories.


All the while, in India and in Canada, I took notes. On the page, in a smashed-up, kaleidoscopic way, Life of Pi began to take shape. I took a while to decide what animal would be my main animal protagonist. At first I had an elephant in mind. The Indian elephant is smaller than the African, and I thought an adolescent male would fit nicely in the lifeboat. But the image of an elephant in a lifeboat struck me as more comical than I wanted. I changed to a rhinoceros. But rhinos are herbivores and I could not see how I could keep a herbivore alive in the high seas. And a constant diet of algae struck me as monotonous for both reader and writer, if not for the rhino. I finally settled upon the choice that in retrospect seems the obvious one: a tiger. The other animals in the lifeboat ? the zebra, the hyena and the orang-utan ? arose naturally, each one a function of a human trait I wanted to embody, the hyena cowardliness, the orang-utan maternal instincts and the zebra exoticism.


Yann Martel


I’m an intrepid consumer of media. Today I was standing in front of the foreign newspapers at my local newsagent in Kings Cross, trying to decipher them, grabbing at unfamiliar mastheads. And through the combination of training in analog 20th century journalism and writing about 21st century digital media (and talking to the inventors of new formats and artists who are experimenting with them) I hope I have a good radar for what’s worthwhile and trustworthy. Things are different with books and music. I’m a consumer first, my interest is mostly recreational. I tend to read and re-read the same authors and listen to and listen for new works recommended by musicians I’m already familiar with: I was a music journalist first, and most of the bands that I knew and wrote about as a teenager are still doing worthy, even extraordinary works. I can navigate around the marketing on sales sites because I don’t need to be sold, I’m already buying. But what about authors I don’t know about and that friends don’t tell me about, how do I find out about them if the Los Angeles Times Book Review page isn’t something I read very much any more and I’m suspicious of marketing without a context?


 


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Tuesday, Oct 2, 2007


There is a rare volume of forgotten lore, a work that remains the standard bearer for such determinative discussions. The (fictional) work of wonder is called Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time and included chapters on giving Pat Sajak a talk show, the introduction of Rambo Black Shrapnel Candy, and competitive ice dancing (with recent updates including entire volumes on Bob Mould’s new techno groovin’ and the whole tween whore phenomenon). But one of the main segments of the digest deals with a very famous author. Indeed, the Stephen King portion - featuring sections of bringing his books to the silver screen as well as how this acclaimed novelist also plays lame rock and roll with a band of fellow fiction crafters - contains a subgenre centering on permitting the brazen bringer of the bestseller to direct a motion picture.


To mimic the tome’s title, it really did seem like a swell concept at the time. Film companies were buying up the rights to King’s works and, with more miss than hit, the audiences were suffering under the less-than-successful translations. So someone determined that the biggest critic of all this cinematic crap - King himself - would probably be best to helm his own horrors. Unfortunately, the result was Maximum Overdrive, a movie the equal or worse than many of the malformed features flopping all over the screen. Of course, Steve had never, ever made a movie before, but that didn’t stop Dino De Laurentiis from sticking his well-paid publishing ass behind the camera.


At the start of our story, it’s a typical day on the Earth circa 1986. Poison are a pop culture dynamo, breaking hearts and making hits. Reagan still believes it’s morning in America, even if the heavily napping leader barely sees the AM. And a rogue comet flies a tad too close to the globe and a gross green haze encases us all. During this state of cosmic mistiness, all the machines go wonky. Lawnmowers cut down their owners and soda dispensers unleash unholy flying terror from their can compartments (in both regular and diet dimensions). But the most hideous of all horrors comes when the long haul rigs, the Peterbilts and the Macks, start developing a diesel-fueled mind of their own.


Soon the workers and customers of the Dixie Boy Truck Stop notice something strange. Unmanned vehicles start showing up at the station, running over anyone who gets in their way. Among those immersed in the mayhem are short-order cook Billy; hitchhiking college girl Brett; fiery, foul-mouthed depot owner Mr. Hendershot; and Deke, the son of one of the mechanics. The humans must make a stand to protect their lives. Luckily, the Dixie has quite the armory in the basement. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to deter the demonic vehicles one bit. The survivors must learn how to pump more than gas if they intend to live through this crankcase-inspired chaos and avoid the mayhem associated with contraptions having conniptions.


Here is the problem with Maximum Overdrive in five simple words - all the characters are idiots. Every single underwritten one of them. For someone who makes his living telling stories, King is proficient at providing a fun foundation for Maximum Overdrive (though, as an example of his short story acumen, “Trucks” is not one of his better mini-macabres). For a while at least, the machines gone wild mayhem works. The opening set piece sequences—with ATMs cursing out their customers and bridges balking at the whole “opening and closing” routine—are rich in sinister silliness. They balance out some of the inanity within the set-up by highlighting the payoff potential inherent in the premise. But the minute we head over to the Dixie Boy, and King’s mindless plot pawns open their mouths to squeak, the entire enterprise goes garbage.


Never before in the history of even the most scorching summer beach read has there been dialogue as retarded as the lines spoken during the irritating interpersonal exchanges in Maximum Overdrive. Trying to capture colloquialisms and build-up individuality with dumb running verbal clicks, there’s not enough exposition or expression in the offal orations. The script makes no attempt to link up the people populating its places, so we just have to start making assumptions: that the young players will end up together, the sour old man will be the heavy, and everyone else is fodder for the frights. The characters come and go so randomly, without any effort to make an impact or logical connection to the events unfolding, that we really don’t care what happens to anyone.


Thanks to such imbecilic script issues, none of the actors here stand a chance. Emilio “Still Waiting for a Brat Pack Reunion Project” Estevez uses every expression he carries in his toolkit of method emoting—both defiant consternation and goofball smirk - to turn the hero Billy into something other than a nonsensical narrative doormat. He fails in every possible way. And whoever hired Laura Harrington to play the romantic lead across from the pseudo-Sheen must have been having a bad eye day. While it may not be fair to call this actress as repellent as a repugnant ranch hand’s jock rot, if the ugly stick fits…to be fair, Ms. Harrington is only working with what the good Lord gave to her. Too bad the big guy was obviously feeling stingy that day.



Other obvious agent firers include Yeardley Smith (practicing a countrified rube characterization that will have fans of The Simpsons recalling an overweight Lisa asking her trailer trash husband Ralph to take her to the li-bary), Pat Hingle (did the man ever look like he was regular?), and Ellen McElduff (who did go on to play important roles in JFK and TV’s Oz). There are also a couple clever blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos - Marla Maples (quick, a dollar for whoever remembers who the hell she is/was) and King himself (playing a brain dead dufus better than you’d expect from a high paid scribe) - but for the most part, this is an ensemble piece with lots of the parts either missing or defective.


And yet, somehow, this creatively bankrupt bonanza is still oddly watchable. It’s not good by any far stretch of the imagination, but it does recall the description King once gave to his books: Maximum Overdrive is the cinematic equivalent of a stack of fast food, albeit a meal left out in the sun too long and swarming with bugs. For every appetizing element - the delirious appliance-based deaths, the hilarious hick accents - there is a basic moviemaking mistake - lack of interesting characters, a completely pat third act - that thwarts all attempts at maintaining an attention span.


Watching Maximum Overdrive is a lot like living with a roommate who constantly wakes you up throughout the course of a night’s sleep (banging into walls, evading the police, et cetera). Just when you’ve gotten into a comfortable groove of bad film friendliness, one of the players will blather on like a chattering chimp and that old feeling of bored butt-bother comes calling. There may be a time in your otherwise busy life when a minutely engaging movie like Maximum Overdrive serves its entertainment purpose - and people who are partial to pathetic motion pictures may actually enjoy King’s freestyle folly - but don’t expect a great deal of the master storyteller’s talent. This movie manages to undo years of reputation gained from a catalog of classic novels.


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Tuesday, Oct 2, 2007

Bruno Schulz was shot dead in the street by a Nazi, not an unusual fate for a Polish Jew in 1942. A hundred nameless people shot dead in the street by Nazis (vaguely, historically, without anything to connect us to them any more than we were intimately connected to the Chinese miners suffocating underground or the limbless torsos of Rwanda years ago) is a statistic, but the author of Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass shot dead in the street by a Nazi is a literary outrage, mentally palpable, a cut that time will never mend; there will not be another Schulz. Never again that particular, melting, ecstatic prose, that combination of Kafka and backwards-looking sorrow, a yearning after childhood so vivid, so intense, that he had to resort to Symbolism to explain it. Rubbing salt in the wound come rumours of one final manuscript, The Messiah, which seems to have vanished completely, drafts and all.


Donne can ask us not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, but in Schulz it tolled for this one world, this capsule of beauty that was Bruno Schulz, tucked away in his backwater village of Drohobych, a bachelor whose self-portraits show him with a slightly bowed head, peering sideways (a requirement of self-portraits you might think, the artist having to look sideways at the mirror, but witness old Rembrandt calmly gazing forward or Mervyn Peake with his globular eyes and stallion hair), alert, even wary, as if he spent his life waiting for that bullet. Here he was at 50, only just starting to have his stories published, the beginning of a new career, really, before this thug put a bullet in him, not knowing that this man had a history, not knowing about the father, Schulz Senior, who turned into a horsefly, a cockroach, and a crustacean, who dried up and was swept away, who collected birds, did deals with a black-bearded man who might have been the devil, and preached the genesis of creation around the figure of a tailor’s dummy—not knowing about Adela the housemaid of unusual and suggestive powers, or the other housemaid Genya who made white sauce out of invoices—not knowing Nimrod the puppy or Dodo and his brain disease—not knowing the mysteriously Proustian and metamorphic Book, “a large, rustling Codex, a mysterious Bible … an enormous petal-shedding rose”—oh this foul dumb goon, whose only claim on our attention is that he shot Bruno Schulz.


Some writers die of old age, some of sickness or cancer, some of suicide or drinking, and some die like this, stupidly, but leaving great beauty behind: “enclosed in a glass capsule, bathed in fluorescent light, already adjudged, erased, filed away, another record card in the immense archives of the sky.”


(The quotes in this post come from Celina Wieniewska’s translations of Schulz’s Sklepy Cynamonowe and Sanatorium pod Klepsydra.)

Further Reading:
A Schulz website in Polish.
A Schulz website in English.


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