Tuesday, October 6, 2015

“The Martian” and Randii Wessen – Not Lost in Space

No surprise that this past weekend Ridley Scott’s (and Matt Damon’s) The Martian topped box-office charts. Given the widely publicized discovery last week of water on Mars, it almost seems as though NASA were staging a promo for the new film.

I certainly don’t accuse the nation’s top scientific thinkers of being on Hollywood’s payroll. But it’s true that aerospace scientists and those who love them are rooting for The Martian’s success. There’s nothing like a terrific outer-space movie to inspire public excitement about space exploration. In fact, Andy Weir, the author of the novel on which the film is based, was recently an honored speaker at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where engineers and scientists were thrilled to hear about a story with a serious science bent.

One JPL’er with more than a casual interest in The Martian is Randii Wessen, who has a most unusual sideline. Randii holds a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy, a master’s in aerospace engineering, and a PhD in operations research. He’s been in the field for thirty years, and now boasts the mysterious title of Team Lead Study Architect at the JPL Innovation Foundry. He’s also active in the JPL speakers’ bureau, which has sent him as far as Australia. (Hey, it’s not Mars, but it’s still a long way away.)

In  his spare time, Randii is associated with something called The Science and Entertainment Exchange. This organization was founded by filmmaker Jerry Zucker in conjunction with the National Academy of Science. Remarkably, it provides free resources to any screenwriter who wants to ensure scientific accuracy. If you’re a TV writer who needs to know all about crystal meth production (for professional reasons, of course), this is a good place to come.  

In addition to fielding questions from young writers, Randii has lucked into a few paying gigs. Two are with Disney: he has consulted on both an animated series called Miles from Tomorrowland and a TV movie known as Invisible Sister. It’s his mission, he feels, to make sure that nothing in these fanciful shows violates a natural law. On Miles from Tomorrowland, in which characters travel through space, he wants to make certain the writers understand the concept of gravity as it applies to the moon. For one episode, the writing staff suggested that the Dad-character put anti-gravity powder into pancakes, so that they float. Randii’s query: why don’t the eaters of the pancakes float too?

Like most scientists and engineers, Randii had his imagination sparked at an early age by sci-fi movies. He once thrilled to Lost in Space, E.T., and Forbidden Planet. Now he appreciates movies that are accurate in terms of physics: Apollo 13, Contact, even 2001. Regarding recent outer-space flicks, he has mixed emotions. He found Gravity, for instance, “beautiful and exciting.” It made him wince, however, when astronaut Sandra Bullock propelled herself through space with blasts from a fire extinguisher, since realistically she would not be able to control her direction as she does on screen.

Does Randii aspire to write his own science-fiction screenplay? He admits that at school he was a solid C student in English. Still, as an unexpected second twin, he was named after a Remington Rand typewriter. (It’s a long story.) And he’s not short on imagination. He wonders about what sunrise and sunset would be like on Uranus, whose tilted axis suggests nights that are 42 years long.  On Titan, so cold that its water would be rock-hard, he pictures ethane gasses producing “slow rain.”     

So maybe there’s a writer in him just waiting to come out.

This year’s JPL open house, a hands-on introduction to the wonders of space, will take place on October 10-11. It’s free of charge, and fun for all.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Yogi Berra Meets Yogi Bear

The loss last week of baseball’s Yogi Berra deprived us of a legendary athlete and a remarkable human being. His inspired mangling of the American language in itself will ensure that he never be forgotten. As he himself put it, “I never said most of the things I said." Still, you’ve got to love someone who’s at least capable of coining such phrases as “The future ain't what it used to be,” as well as “Half the lies they tell about me aren't true” and the evergreen “Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.” There’s a kind of rough wisdom in Yogi Berra-isms, like “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

Beyond this, Yogi Berra inspired one of Hollywood’s most beloved characters. Yes, I’m talking about Yogi Bear. He was created by the Hanna-Barbera animation team in 1958, as a supporting player on the Huckleberry Hound TV cartoon series, but became so popular that he got his own show three years later. On his decidedly family-friendly series, Yogi hangs out in Jellystone Park with his young sidekick, Boo Boo, stealing picnic baskets, tussling with Park Ranger Smith, and frequently proclaiming himself “smarter than the av-er-age bear!" Over the years he’s appeared in scores of TV shows, animated features, and made-for-TV movies. As recently as 2010, he was featured in a 3-D film, and also starred in a Nintendo video game.

To my surprise Yogi Berra, the Yankee legend, was not thrilled by the introduction of Yogi Bear. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, Berra actually sued Hanna-Barbera for defamation, but lost the case when the other side somehow convinced the judge that the similarity of the two names was pure coincidence. Hey, who wouldn’t want to be the inspiration for a lovable cartoon character? Personally, I suspect I’d be flattered.  But of course, as Yogi Berra himself (maybe) said, “There are some people who, if they don't already know, you can't tell 'em.”

At the time Yogi Bear first appeared, Hanna-Barbera was a new company, founded in 1957 by two former MGM animation directors who had once created Tom and Jerry. Yogi’s success soon led to a raft of other Hanna-Barbera TV shows. The ones I remember are from the Sixties. The Flintstones, which surfaced in 1960 as a primetime series, was a sitcom with a difference: its transformation of suburban family life into pre-historic days was so cleverly realized that it amused kids and parents alike. And then, having conquered the caveman era, Hanna-Barbera took a similar nuclear family into the future with The Jetsons, another show made with real wit (but certainly not the kind of snarkiness we expect in TV animation today).

As an entertainment journalist I visited Hanna-Barbera only once, while writing an article on voice actors. It was my pleasure to watch a recording session (for something called The New Shmoo Show) during which talented adults played a fascinating game of let’s pretend. Here’s what I wrote in Performing Arts magazine about the much-admired Frank Welker, who starred as Al Capp’s lovable Shmoo character: “Like many voice people, Welker immerses himself in a character so totally that he punctuates his lines with emphatic body language. While he chortles, squeaks, and makes remarkable ‘greeble’ sounds, his hands saw the air and his face contorts into truly Shmoo’ish expressions.”

Watching Frank Welker perform was a delight. And I would have been delighted to meet Yogi Berra too. I’ll sign off with one final all-too-apt Berra-ism: “You should always go to other people's funerals; otherwise, they won't come to yours.”

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Rain in Spain: “Hotel Florida”

Robert Capa's photo of a dead man in a tree
The Iberian Peninsula is in the news again, via the parliamentary election in Catalonia that is sending a signal of the region’s desire to be independent of Spain. And the whole world has been shaken by the photos of a Syrian toddler lying dead on a Turkish beach, one victim of the current refugee crisis. Both the news accounts and the photos have sent me back to Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill’s fascinating 2014 account of “truth, love, and death in the Spanish Civil War.” Vaill’s book has a lot to say about the role of both movies and still photography in shaping popular opinion about a conflict that turned out, sadly, to be a rehearsal for World War II.

At the heart of Vaill’s book are three romantic couples. Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar came together unexpectedly when both were serving as press officers on behalf of the Spanish Loyalist cause. Robert Capa, originally from Hungary, and Gerda Taro, born in Poland, were war photographers on the lookout for the next big story. They gave their all to the Loyalists, and ultimately Taro gave her life. Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, both of them journalists and authors, were Americans who loved Spain and craved adventure. Hemingway, looking for a way to be involved in the conflict, found it in the making of a pro-Loyalist film, The Spanish Earth.

All of these characters passed, at one time or another, through the lobby of Madrid’s Hotel Florida, which explains the book’s title. Vaill paints a vivid picture of Spain’s capital as a place where it seemed “as if the war were a movie on a distant screen.” Early in the conflict, life in Madrid goes on as usual: at the Genova movie palace at Plaza de Callao, you could buy a ticket to see Lionel Barrymore performing in David Copperfield. Hemingway, chronicling the war for a global audience, noted that  “readers in New York, and Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco, would never believe you could be in a war zone where there were bars and functioning movie theaters and shops selling perfume; they needed to smell cordite and hear guns.” Later, though, Madrid too suffered bomb attacks. The Paramount Theatre near Hotel Florida took a direct hit, one that damaged the giant sign advertising Chaplin’s Modern Times.

Out in the countryside, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro were risking their lives to capture images of fallen soldiers, weeping women, and murdered children. Early in the war, Capa had participated in staging faked war footage, and he would do so again years later on behalf of The March of Time. But for the most part he was deeply committed to photography as a form of honest recording of reality at its most raw. His motto: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”  The quintessential combat photographer, he died in 1954 in Vietnam, while shooting photos for Life magazine.

Hemingway, while playing at documentary filmmaking, was involved with creatively shaping material that made the causes of the Spanish Civil War seem simple and direct. Later, dramatic devices were added, like artificial sound effects and the reading of a purely fictional letter. Back in the U.S., screenings of The Spanish Earth were hosted by such Hollywood celebs as Joan Crawford, John Ford, and Darryl Zanuck. Lillian Hellman sponsored a similar gathering at the home of Frederic March. Hemingway himself made a speech at Carnegie Hall, and through Martha Gellhorn’s contacts got his film into the hands of Eleanor Roosevelt.  Thus did Hemingway use his movie-star status on behalf of the Loyalist cause.   

Capa photographs a young refugee  

Capa's most famous photo of a dying soldier

Friday, September 25, 2015

. . . We All Scream for Jamie Lee Curtis

The debut this week of Fox’s Screen Queens series reminds me how much I love Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s not that -- despite my Roger Corman past – I’m a huge fan of horror films in which pretty girls in their undies  try to fend off rapists and killers. (Really, isn’t enthusiasm for these flicks largely a guy thing?) Yes, Jamie Lee got her showbiz start as Laurie Strode, the good girl who survived Halloween, and then went on to star in such chillers as  Halloween II, The Fog, and Prom Night. But it’s what she’s done since that impresses me.

In one way, Jamie Lee was predestined for stardom. After all, her mother was perky blonde Janet Leigh, who was featured in scores of films in the 1950s and thereafter. I think of her in such light romantic comedies as My Sister Eileen and Bye Bye Birdie. But of course her best-known role was that of the original scream queen, Marion Crane, who took a deadly shower in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Jamie Lee’s father, Tony Curtis, was also a Hollywood superstar, both as a glamour-boy and as a serious actor in films like The Defiant Ones.

Once she’d made her mark in horror films, Jamie Lee started looking for cinematic respectability. Of all places, she ended up at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, where Amy Holden Jones wanted to follow up her Slumber Party Massacre with something completely different. Jones wrote and directed Love Letters (1984), a romantic drama in which a young woman is inspired by her mother’s long-ago example to start a torrid affair with a married man. True to form, Corman demanded more nudity than was contained in Jones’ original script. She and Jamie Lee had no choice but to comply. Surprisingly, the eventual New World Pictures poster (which I recall on display in our office entryway) was the opposite of sleazy. And Jamie Lee moved on to bigger and better things.

Since then her films have included sparkling comedic performances in A Fish Named Wanda (1988) and True Lies (1994), for which she won a Golden Globe. The latter film took advantage of her persona as an apparently average suburban wife and mom who turns out to have a secret yen for adventure. Her ready-for-anything style also enhanced the 2003 screen adaptation of Freaky Friday, in which she and daughter Lindsay Lohan switch bodies.

I love these last two films because they “prove” that middle-of-the-road women, well past the sexpot stage, can still have hidden depths. That’s something Curtis has been proving in real life as well. She’s been married since 1984 to her one and only spouse, the hilarious Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap and Best in Show fame. Though she actually became a British baroness when Guest came into the title of Baron Haden-Guest in 1996, they apparently have a modest lifestyle. Together they’re raising their two children in (yes!) Santa Monica, though I admit I’ve never seen them wandering around town.  While in child-rearing mode, she wrote a number of well-received kids’ books, including one, Today I Feel Silly, and Other Moods That Make My Day, that spent ten weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.   

But what I love most about Jamie Lee Curtis is her honesty about herself and her failings. Seeking to debunk the myth of Hollywood glamour, she actually posed for MORE magazine in 2002 wearing nothing but her underwear. Unadorned, unretouched, she was showing the world what a forty-year-old looks like, sans Hollywood magic. She’s earned every one of her now-abundant grey hairs. You go, girl! 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Americanah-- What Happens When Migrants Move In

The migrant crisis in Europe keeps growing. Today alone, some 20,000 refugees fleeing from Middle Eastern conflicts are trying to pass through Austria. Like the rest of the world, I have no smart ideas on how to solve a problem of this magnitude. But there’s no question that the fate of displaced persons has been a part of our global history from time immemorial.

Which means, of course, that scores of movies have been made about people who cross borders in time of duress, and end up finding themselves strangers in a strange land. We Americans are, whether or not we’d like to admit it, a nation of immigrants, and for the moment I’ll confine myself to films that detail the stresses and strains of coming to America.

Yes, Coming to America is -- as those with long memories know -- the title of an Eddie Murphy comedy about an African king who visits our shores to find a bride. (It was also the subject of a precedent-setting lawsuit by humorist Art Buchwald, who proved in a court of law that Paramount Pictures had lifted his original script treatment, without compensation.) But I’m not concerned today with the notion of visits by foreign potentates. I want to confine myself here to movies in which desperate people cross the ocean in search of a new life.

One such film was made by the great, though controversial, Elia Kazan, who was born in what was then called Constantinople, Turkey, of Anatolian Greek parents. His America America (1963), based on his own novel, is a loose dramatization of the life of his uncle, who traveled from Anatolia to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to escape the grinding poverty of his homeland. Along the way, the hero loses his nest egg, survives some life-or-death encounters, and changes his destination. It’s not until the very end of the film that he sees the Statue of Liberty rise before him in New York harbor.

I’m a great fan of the charming 1975 indie, Hester Street, in which an arrival in Manhattan makes all the difference in the life of a Jewish immigrant family from Eastern Europe. Jake has preceded his wife to the Goldene Medina (Yiddish for “Golden Land”) by several years, in order to establish a toehold in his new country. By the time wife and son arrive, Jake’s a stylish gent who’s enjoying his new freedoms on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Poor Gittel, with her old-world ways, quickly feels she’s not entirely welcome. How she handles this sticky situation is what the movie is all about.

Much more recently, there’s Amreeka (2009), the rare Palestinian movie that is less about Middle Eastern political issues than about adapting, both joyfully and painfully, to life in the United States. This is another film I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Which brings me to a major 2013 novel I suspect will make an important movie. It’s called Americanah, by award-winning Nigerian émigré Chinamanda Ngozi Adichie. Its two main characters -- bright, middle-class young people -- leave their homeland, he for England and she for the United States. It’s a love story, but also a tale about the meaning of blackness in countries where skin color helps determine destiny, for better or for worse. I’ve heard Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar-winner for Twelve Years a Slave,  has signed on for a role that would capitalize on her gloriously ebony complexion. Once upon a time, the elegant and talented Nyong’o would have been wholly shut out of Hollywood glamour roles. Now she’s the new face of Lancôme cosmetics, and let’s hope the sky’s the limit.