Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Richard Matheson (1926–2013)

Master of speculative fiction Richard Matheson might not have been the most famous of writers, but he was certainly revered by many noted names (most of all Stephen King). And while the average American might not know his name, for three or more generations, the chances are good that at least one of his many stories has stuck in their memory – or even more likely, that it's haunted them.

Matheson was a superb craftsman, and he thought through the worlds he created, thinking of the consequences of this or that element, tweaking and refining, starting perhaps with a random spark of imagination but then chasing it down, puzzling it out, kneading it, cultivating it, letting it grow. I think what I appreciated most about his work was that he made his characters smart. In some stories, you wind up yelling at the screen or the page because the protagonist does something dumb. Matheson's heroes and heroines weren't immune to panic and fear, but they tended to be very intelligent and proactive about the daunting (or even horrifying) challenges they faced. They acted as we hoped we'd act if we had the wherewithal. And, as I wrote for the late Iain Banks, Matheson's "twists" tended to be excellent and much more than mere gimmicks. Matheson built toward haunting finales and sometimes turned a story on its head, making us look back at events or characters in an entirely different light. Not every working writer aspires to such pinnacles, and even for those that do, it's one thing to aspire, and another thing to achieve it. (And it's still another thing to achieve it so often.)

Some personal favorites, in mostly chronological order:

"Born of Man and Woman" (1950): One of Matheson's most famous and chilling short stories, bound to make you scared to go down into the basement.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957): It's been ages since I've seen this, but it was on television all the time when I was a kid. The tiny hero being tormented by a cat – and later a spider – made for tense viewing.

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (1963): I first saw the version in The Twilight Zone film, but both it and the TV version are highly memorable. Matheson wasn't entirely happy with either version (and he gives good reasons), but the core of his story shined through, and he spooked many an air traveler's imagination.

Duel (1971): One of the greatest TV movies ever made, this was Steven Spielberg's first feature. It's skillfully directed, but immensely helped by Matheson's chilling premise and taut plotting, as an average man (Dennis Weaver) driving cross-country finds himself stalked by a murderous trucker whose face he can't see and motive he can't fathom. It's particularly scary because we can imagine it happening in real life; Matheson sells us on this.

The Night Stalker (1972): The TV movie that spawned the great but regrettably short-lived TV series. Matheson adapted Jeffrey Grant Rice's novel. It won't give away much to say it's the tale of a vampire in modern times (circa 1972). What I always liked about this is its believability. Given the premise, everything proceeds as it should. The medical examiner reacts with puzzlement to the victims as he would. The cops investigate the mysterious killer, and are dumbfounded by their findings. None of them believe in vampires, of course. But intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is more open-minded… and while he might be pursuing one hell of a scoop, he's also putting his life at risk.

I Am Legend (1954): Four movie adaptations and counting. This is probably Matheson's most famous tale, and rightly so. Countless post-apocalpytic stories have used it as inspiration or flat-out ripped it off, but no one has done it quite like Matheson himself. Who can forget the image of protagonist Richard Neville's neighbor Ben Cortman standing on his roof, or not imagine Cortman's voice calling to Neville in the night? Who can forget the intense, desperate loneliness Neville feels? Who can forget that killer ending? The bulk of the story is memorable and haunting enough, but oh, that ending. In the course of two to three pages, Matheson manages not only to flip the entire story, making us seeing it all in a completely new way, but flip the entire friggin' genre. If you haven't ever read it and don't know the ending, buy it or check it out from the library. You'll see why Richard Matheson earned his reputation as a true master.

Rob Vaux sums it up nicely in his memoriam:

The late Richard Matheson isn’t a household word like many of the writers and filmmakers he inspired. Science fiction fans always perk up at his name, but run-of-the-mill folks don’t recognize him like they do, say, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Rod Serling or George A. Romero. And yet all four of those gentlemen owe a considerable debt to him. His legacy extends beyond the dozens of novels, short stories and screenplays he penned to reach into the very fundaments of genre storytelling. This was the man without whom Serling might not have unlocked that door with the key of imagination. The man who inspired Romero to take a stab at the whole zombie thing. The man whose battle between hapless driver and crazy trucker launched the career of Spielberg. The man who King once cited as the biggest influence of his career. The man who showed us what life was like if the vampires won, how scary a house cat can be when you’re six inches tall, what dying of a broken heart truly looks like and – beyond the shadow of all possible doubt – that there was some thing on the wing of that goddamn plane.

Read the rest. Also:

Rob Vaux: "10 Best Richard Matheson Movie and TV Moments."

Stephen King's tribute.

Here's an excerpt of a much longer set of interviews with Matheson from the Television Academy Foundation. (There's some great stuff here for fans, even if you only watch the highlights.)

NPR: Obituaries from All Things Considered and The Two-Way.

The Los Angeles Times obituary.

The io9 remembrance.

Shock Till You Drop's remembrance.

Feel free to link any other remembrances in the comments.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Crooked Timber's 10th Blogiversary

The thoughtful, erudite, and whimsical site Crooked Timber turns 10 today. Head over to say hi. (One of the best posts, from last July: "Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace." If you read the threads and backtrack through the links, particularly the previous posts linked in the opening, you could easily wind up reading for hours. It's great stuff.)

Saturday, July 06, 2013

James Gandolfini (1961–2013)

I was sad to see that James Gandolfini had died at the relatively young age of 51. To expand on what I've written elsewhere, I saw Gandolfini on stage in God of Carnage in 2011. The play is slighter than Yasmine Reza's other hit, Art (a comedy with moments of depth), but both plays are fantastic actor showcases. Gandolfini and his costars (Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, and Hope Davis) were all great. Gandolfini always gave a very natural, grounded performance. The nuances, shifts and tiny beats in his longer speeches in The Sopranos – normally with Dr. Melfi – really were a joy to watch. He made it look easy. (In the Loop is another of my favorites.)

Justifiably, his most famous role was Tony Soprano, the crime boss and central figure of David Chase's TV show The Sopranos, which became a cultural phenomenon. The character Tony Soprano was smarter (and definitely shrewder) than most of his fellow gangsters, but it was the little touches of human insight – along with the refusal by Chase and Gandolfini to truly sentimentalize the character – that really made him great. (Roy Edroso writes well about this.) Tony was in the bulk of the scenes in almost every episode. Gandolfini essentially had to carry the series, sell the whole affair, and boy, did he. It's not as if he was just playing himself, either – he famously said, "I'm a neurotic mess. I'm really basically just like a 260-pound Woody Allen." To perform at the level he did – and sustain it – requires a serious dedication to craft along with superb intuition. The Sopranos became such a hit it might be easy to underplay or even forget how much of a coup it was for an actor who wasn't terribly well-known and didn't look like a typical leading man to get that part, and how uncommon the role itself was.

Let's take a look at two scenes. You can consider them and everything below minor spoilers. Several people linked and discussed this one (alas, the image is slightly distorted):

What's your reaction? For me, I'm drawn in, even seduced, and then pushed out. The beats/shifts are well-written, and Gandolfini hits them beautifully. This is a quintessential Tony-Melfi scene. He tells a story, it's somewhat funny but has a hard, even cruel edge, yet he shows surprising insight… only to undercut that at the end. The structure even mimics that of a joke, with Melfi giving the setup for Tony's topper at the end. If there's an audience surrogate in the series, it's Dr. Melfi; like us, she's observing Tony Soprano, and thinks she understands him, and may even become sympathetic, but may just be getting conned by a sociopath. (This becomes an explicit concern of hers late in the series.) Tony often shows these moments of striking insight into human nature and his own past conduct, and as an audience, we can marvel at this, even admire him, and think that he might change. But Chase and Gandolfini don't let us off that easily. What's Tony's last jab about, mocking Jimmy? Is he just regressing, unreflectively slipping back into familiar behavior, and making a joke he's made dozens of times before to get a laugh? Is this covering behavior, Tony rejecting his momentary vulnerability (but also his own insight)? Is there any real change, let alone progress? Laugh at the last gag, and you've become complicit. More likely, you feel disappointed in the briefly-insightful Tony mocking Jimmy again – and that means you've been seduced, perhaps conned, and complicit in a slightly different way. Either way, most of us keep watching.

"God is a luxury I can't afford." It's a fantastic character line in Woody Allen's great film Crimes and Misdemeanors, and it fits many of the characters in The Sopranos, perhaps most of all Tony and his wife Carmela (Edie Falco). Many critics (especially Emily Nussbaum) have commented on the scene where Carmela seeks counsel from a psychiatrist about their marriage, and is sternly warned to take her children and leave her current life, one of comfort built on evil. ("One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.") It's a striking, memorable scene. But not surprisingly, Carmela balks at this advice. She's willing to make some sacrifices, perhaps, but not that much. She wants to make a bargain. She's very much like her husband in this respect. In the very first episode, and for the bulk of the series, Tony Soprano doesn't truly want to change his way of life, certainly not to abandon his life of crime – he just wants his panic attacks to stop. Similarly, it's arresting to see the mafia dinner late in season 1 after seeing the entire series; so many of the characters are eventually killed off. This life takes its price. And Chase and Gandolfini don't let us completely off the hook as viewers, either.

Here's another great scene from late in the series:

Again, it's a well-written scene (and that shouldn't be overlooked), but it's also simply a superb performance. Straightforward emotion is relatively easy to play, but emotion under restraint, a character in true turmoil, wrestling with something, switching tactics, bargaining, anger at his son and Melfi but also self-loathing and guilt, losing it briefly and pulling himself back – that's really something. As an actor, Gandolfini is grounded, real, in the moment, fully present, and this makes Tony Soprano dangerous, sympathetic, and human. Not every episode had a scene this strong, but more than a few did, and most of them had scenes that came close. The Sopranos could boast a fine ensemble cast, and had some superb writing and directing, but it depended on James Gandolfini pouring himself into the role of Tony Soprano and selling us on it throughout 86 episodes. He was the real deal.

Many great actors never get a chance at such a role, but we're all lucky Gandolfini did. (And by all accounts, he was very grateful for it. I've heard several stories about the lavish gifts he got his fellow actors after his big contract.) RIP – he left us far too soon.

Other articles and tributes:

Roy Edroso.

Slate: "The Longform Guide to The Sopranos. A useful compilation of good articles.

Matt Zoller Seitz: " A Great Actor, A Better Man."

Gandolfini on Sesame Street.

GQ: "The Night Tony Soprano Disappeared."

Emily Nussbaum: "How Tony Soprano Changed Television."

David Remnick: "Postscript."

LA Times: Obituary, appreciation 1, appreciation 2, industry reactions, and remembering his stage work.

NY Times: Obituary, reactions, and a 1988 piece about "apartment gypsies" with Gandolfini before he made it big.

Condolence threads by Lawyers, Guns & Money and Balloon Juice.

Finally, the blog Master of Sopranos has "the definitive explanation of the end" of the series. This is exhaustive and very well done. (Honestly, when I watched the end, I thought the visual syntax of the sequence strongly pointed in one direction, and the only reason I found myself second-guessing my reading was because I thought David Chase was trying to achieve an ambiguous, open ending.) In any case, a memorable piece of work.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Independence Day 2013

Happy Independence Day! I tend to rerun some mix of these tunes each year (plus some spoken word pieces), but it's hard to beat 'em for the occasion. Every nation has things in its past it can take pride in and things to be ashamed about (and that's certainly true of the present as well in the U.S.A.). But as E.J. Dionne wrote back in 2006 for July the 4th, "The true genius of America has always been its capacity for self-correction." That spirit always needs nurturing, though. It helps to celebrate...

The soulful:

The wild and expressive:

The revolutionary:

The playful:

And the equality-loving and free-spirited:

Have a good Independence Day! Feel free to link any of your favorites for the day in the comments.