Thursday, September 28, 2017

In memorium: science fiction stars lost in 2017

This year has seen a precipitous drop in posts at ESE and for obvious reasons.
By "obvious" I mean either major depression or time lost to scouring job ads...or as I call them, "the lonely hearts column."

That means that I have been remiss in writing needed tributes to three actors who were pivotal in bringing a few of my favorite science fiction TV shows to life.

Just four days after the closing of Saint Joseph's College, I got another kick in the teeth. Richard Hatch died. He played Captain Apollo on the original Battlestar Galactica. As a noble hero Viper pilot with a profound sense of duty, he played the Iceman to Starbuck's Maverick, to remain in keeping with the fighter pilot conceit. Though the show ended in 1979, Hatch never lost faith that it could be brought back. In the 1990s he produced a pilot, proof-of-concept film that had Apollo taking over as leader of the fleet after the fall of his father, Adama. That production never came to pass, but Hatch was asked to be a recurring guest star on the Galactica reboot of the 2000s.

Go to the Ship of Lights, Captain.

Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau died last July. He had a few guest roles on Twilight Zone and especially The Outer Limits, but it was Space: 1999 that will always be memorable to me. On that show he played Commander John Koenig, leader of Moonbase Alpha, a research station on the Moon. A massive nuclear detonation breaks the Moon to pieces and the section holding Moonbase Alpha is sent hurtling through space. Koenig then found himself as not simply the commander of an installation but the de facto leader of a displaced people. Through it all, Landau just made Koenig seem so human
Of course Landau had an extensive career well beyond this genre fare. If you really want to see an amazing performance from him, check out his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. In a movie full of great moments and performances, Landau manages to stand out from it all.

Keep wandering the stars, Commander.

Almost one month ago to the day we lost Richard Anderson. He was a seasoned television and film actor (notably Perry Mason), but I will always know him as Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man. I guess you could say Oscar was the equivalent of a "CIA handler" for Steve Austin, the Bionic Man. Something about Anderson's presence and delivery made it seem like he was born to be a government administrator/spook.

As you might say to Steve, "Later, pal."

I could do without blogging any more obituaries. This year has seen enough tragedy.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The tweets are flares

If you're new to ESE, this post might seem out of place.

Fact is though, it's never been a blog to shy away from politics. So what's on my mind now? Probably much the same as everyone else in the nation, but in a different way. I shall explain.

As you undoubtedly know by now, the President, mostly via Twitter, called out NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem. The ensuing brouhaha has consumed news and social media for the past three days. I must say, President Trump has been very clever. Ingenious, really. He is practicing the rhetoric of distraction.

It's something of a fundamental rule: If you don't like what people are saying, change the conversation. In Twitter, Trump has a unexampled tool at his disposal to accomplish this and he knows it. You see unlike his predecessors, Trump was an active tweeter well before he became president. He recognizes, among other things, that this places him in a position unique up until this point in presidential history.

He can make statements directly to the world. They don't go through the White House communications department. They don't get massaged by speech writers, doubtless to the chagrin of at least a few senior staffers. The messages are raw and unmitigated. Trump has seen what they can do...and he likes it.

Try this analogy. If a missile is launched at a military aircraft, that aircraft can often fire a series of flares behind. The intent is that the missile will change course and follow the flares, leaving the aircraft to evade, fire back at its attacker, etc.

The President's tweets are those flares.

He tweets something and the media, and consequently the rest of us, go chasing after it. The more inflammatory the tweets, the more attention they garner. The text of the tweets become the focus of the national discourse (notice how Trump seldom speaks of the tweets in person, almost as if they were written and released by a hidden alter ego.) Now news media is entirely to blame for this. After all, the president has historically been sort of the nation's classroom professor. He (and I use the pronoun "he" because let's face it, it's been all men) sets both the agenda and tone of national discussion and the media covers it.

Given that unstated power, you might well wonder why the various levels of patriotism in NFL players is of national concern. I know I do. Well, consider the following:

-First of all, NFL players are something of an easy target for him. There has long been a growing opinion that the players are egregiously overpaid for playing a game and not doing "real work" (whatever that latter phrase might mean).
-A new football season has just started and there is all the usual excitement that goes with it, bringing the sport back on the national radar.
-The national anthem protests are full of charged energy involving highly emotional subjects like race and patriotism. A savvy rhetorician can further stoke those emotions by choosing equally emotional words and phrases such as "booing," "great anger," and "SOB" (the latter, it should be noted, was said in person and not on Twitter.)

Now consider what isn't at the top of national discussion in the wake of the tweets:

-The GOP push in the Senate to repeal ACA and leave millions without health insurance.
-Republicans are about to unveil their tax reform outline.
-Millions of Americans in Puerto Rico who are without power or aid after Hurricane Maria (granted, Trump has tweeted about this situation, but it seems lopsided by way of comparison to his NFL tweets).
-There's a nuclear standoff with North Korea that hasn't gone anywhere.
-And Robert Mueller keeps quietly plugging away.

Believe it or not, I don't write this to either bash or condone Trump. As I said, it's a clever maneuver and I'm rather fascinated by it. Also, one can use distraction to either good or ill ends. Social media is still rather new and its affect on politics and rhetoric is still to be understood. Trump seems ahead of the curve, knowing full well what a few tweets are capable of. Indeed he may be correct in that his use of Twitter is "modern presidential,"  ushering communication from the Executive Branch into the 21st Century...or rendering it without the dignity, eloquence, or moral arc it previously had depending upon who you talk to. Regardless, I would implore everyone to please keep their attention on the weighty matters that will affect us not only today but in the years to come. Try not to follow the hot, shiny flares.

Yes I would say that no matter who occupied the White House.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Yes, I'm writing a book about Saint Joseph's College

So I've had many questions asked of me about my writing a book.

I can confirm that I am indeed writing a book about the closure of Saint Joseph's College. After said confirmation, I'm then often asked "What exactly is this book going to be about?" To that, I answer in three parts:

1. I want to tell the story of those who were there. That means faculty, students, staff, alumni, and the people of the community of Rensselaer. Many have suffered much and their stories deserve to be told. We, sadly, have come to know many stories of what happens when a factory, steel mill, corporate office, or other such industry that a community depends on shuts down. How is it the same/different when it's an institution of higher learning? Unfortunately, the nation may know more as time goes on if Moody's Investment Guide is any indication. Which leads me to...

2. How does the closure of Saint Joseph's College compare to other college closures across the nation? If you're writing a book. you must also think of business and marketing. That means finding an audience beyond the Saint Joseph's community. How does what we experienced tie in to what has happened with other small, American colleges? It's been predicted that there will be a record number of small college closings in the coming years. Yes, I'm an academic and I tend to think in terms of compare/contrast. Also, does this have anything to do with the current political climate of the country?

3. Of course there have been many conspiracy theories about why the college closed...or "suspended operations" as the party line would force-feed you to believe. If any of the dark motivations are verifiable and if innocent people have been victims of chicanery, then I would like to bring the perpetrators to justice. That, of course, requires me having verifiable facts and that might be difficult. If I can gather enough solid facts and enough people who would be willing to talk, then yes...there are people whose careers I would love to ruin. But again, any accusations must be supported by the facts and the law must be on my side.

So how will the book be written?

This will be a work of literary nonfiction.

What does that mean? How can something be "literary" and still be nonfiction?

Let me put it this way:

This Monday will be the anniversary of 9/11. I could write a book about that day of terror using only the facts. I could give the exact time of when each plane hit each tower of the World Trade Center. I could give the exact number of people killed that day. I could cite the political deliberations in Congress in the days following the attacks via use of Congressional Record. But would that give anyone any idea of what it was like to be in New York City that morning? Would it convey what it was like to breathe in pulverized glass? Would it give any human depth of what it was like to experience such a day? No. For that, you need the techniques of a fiction writer. To find out what really happened, you need to leave the "just the facts, ma'am" position of the news and write in a way that brings home the descriptive truth of the moment.

What will this mean in terms of a book about St. Joe? Well...

1.The writer will be a character. I cannot be neutral about this in the way that a journalist could. This is my story. I am a character in my own story. I am writing about this in the way that I experienced it. Not only will I convey the facts as I observed them, but I will be offering my own thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is in keeping with the memoir style of writing, of which you can read more here.

2. Mobile stance. I can weave between subjects. While discussing Saint Joe, I can digress and talk about...say, Antioch College. How are we the same? How are we different? The more people I can draw connections to outside of the SJC community, the more people our story will resonate with. Believe me, my research has already demonstrated to me that there are several academics/students across the nation who have shared a similar experience and we should stand in solidarity. To present this, I will need...

3. Research, research, research. Though literary, the writing must first and foremost be in service to the truth. I will need to be become intimate with my subject. This means learning about what has happened at other colleges in the U.S. It also means learning about how not only Saint Joseph's College but the town of Rensselaer and the Society of the Precious Blood came to be. One must know the complete history of how something came to be in order to understand it. The Core program taught me that. I am also finding that I need to become at least semi-knowledgeable on the subjects of business and finance. I have already undergone a vast number of interviews with people both inside and outside of the Puma community. Here's well-known nonfiction writer Susan Orlean on the subject of research and "being there."

Still want to know what this book will be like? Well, then I have a reading list for you. What kind of a professor would I be if I couldn't assign readings? To get an idea of what I'm trying to do, check out these books...

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
Capote went to Holcomb, Kansas after he read a small blurb about a family that had been murdered in a botched robbery. Yes, I know Capote likely fabricated and condensed many facets of his narrative, but he spent copious amounts of time interviewing people in and researching the town of Holcomb. He pioneered the idea of the "nonfiction novel."

The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer.
I read this book in grad school and it really opened up my eyes to what nonfiction writing could do. Mailer is master of phrasing as he describes his participation in a march on the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. His relation of the events plus his gestalt-like observations of himself in the moment changed everything. Very meta. The novel as history. History as a novel.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe.
Research conveyed through the techniques of a fiction writer. True and riveting.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.
Hunter is the man. This is "gonzo journalism" at its finest. It's a true story but the writer is very much in it and engaged. Seemingly breaking the rules of journalism, the writer could not get closer to the subject...and it works. I hope I can convey the very same sense of intimacy in my book...only without all the drug use. Then again, maybe I should have been using drugs. Might've made the final days of St. Joe more bearable. But I digress...

This is not to say that I place myself or my work on equal parity with any of these writers or their books. Not at all. They are models, templates to follow. In fact, my biggest hope is simply that I can do justice to the people who were there at Saint Joseph's College and lived through this whole nightmare.

Also, this all depends on me finding a publisher who is interested. If any Pumas out there know of someone and want to help out, hit me up.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, September 4, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind rereleased

It is not only one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, it is one of the greatest films of all time. Period.

A digitally remastered edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is enjoying a serotinal re-release in theaters for its 40th anniversary. I went to see it today as I never had the chance to see it on the big screen when I was a kid. It's magnificent. I know there have been grumblings among techie cinephiles out there about aspect ratios or the loss of film grain. I. Don't. Care.

In the event that there is a reader who has not seen this landmark achievement yet, I will do two things. One, I will (mostly) try to avoid spoilers. Two, I will give a quick precis of the film.

Roy (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is an electrical line worker who on a call late one night, has an encounter with a UFO. From that point forward, his mind is obsessed with the image of an odd, conical formation of rock and the sensation that something momentous is about to take place.

This film is a straight masterpiece, top to bottom. Though I actively looked, I still could not find any flaws with it (except perhaps for one which I will address later). I could be here all day describing how Spielberg's genius is on full display in shot composition and a knack for terrifying suspense that rivals Hitchcock. Instead, I thought I would focus on one of his talents that seldom gets attention: writing.

How often we might forget that Steven Spielberg wrote the script for this film. And it's a corker.

The attention-grabbing opening scene, the believable dialogue, the pacing, it's all a tour-de-force example of composing narrative. As readers of ESE might imagine, I have always been drawn to how Spielberg deftly wove together so many actual facets of Ufology. Not only do they serve as "Easter eggs" for researchers both professional and armchair alike, they become seamless aspects of the narrative's fabric and not forced, winky nods as lesser writer-directors have a tendency to do. A friend of mine, as well as others I have spoken with in the past, said that CE3K probably started a lot of what we now know as the modern UFO narrative. Not at all. This film, didn't "start" anything. It simply brought what was already well-known to many researchers and UFO true-believers at the time into the consciousness of popular culture.

Here are but a few examples of which I speak:

-Flight 19, the group of Avenger bombers that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle in 1945.
-Police squad cars chasing UFOs.
-UFOs causing power outages.
-Project Serpo
-Airliner pilots and air traffic control having sightings, as well as midair near-misses, and not reporting them for fear they'd lose their careers.
-Of course, the physical appearance of what is now known as the standard "Grey" or "Gray" alien. 

What's more, the character of Lacombe (played by Francois Truffaut) is based on famous Ufologist, Jacques Vallee, who also served as a consultant on the film. Word has it that Vallee was rather disappointed in the movie's ending as the visitors turn out to be extraplanetary aliens in nuts-and-bolts spaceships and not the ethereal, "superspectrum"-styled beings that Vallee postulates. Also, watch for astronomer-turned-Ufologist J. Allen Hynek in the end sequence as he pushes his way to the front of the welcoming crowd and places his pipe in his mouth.

All of this UFO geekery is nice, but focusing on it overlooks a core component of the film. Yes, ostensibly this is about making contact with aliens. The true human story here, however, is about a family coming apart. It is regular people in ungodly strange circumstances. The strain, the emotional pain, the tragedy of once connected lives ripped apart, it hits a bit close to home. Spielberg creates utterly believable characters and then sends them through the wringer...because he has to. It's as moving as any other "mainstream" human drama. For me, it's the most poignantly written aspect of the film.

Which may make viewers sit up and go "WHAT??" the first time they see Roy make his choice at the end of the movie. How could he do that to his kids? Well, even Spielberg himself has said that jars him in later years, but as he astutely points out, he wrote it before he himself became a father. That tends to change one's perspective. Also, maybe the choice is due to the headiness of the moment and a character not thinking clearly, or even an actual character flaw. This is that one criticism I have that I mentioned previously.

Consider this as well. Up until its release in 1977, I can think of no other science fiction film that does what CE3K does. There is no combat. There is no "us vs. them" conflict between Earth and the aliens. Instead, the aliens emerge from their gorgeous, cathedral-like craft as all look on in wonder. They then greet humanity with peace and compassion. True, there is no verbal communication to express such sentiment, but Spielberg articulates it in so many other creative ways (most memorably the iconic "five tones" on the keyboard). The methods and motives of the aliens may be inscrutable and at times terrifying, but they seem to express that they have our best interests at heart. That might be just Spielberg's natural optimism at work, but there may be something else to it.

There is a nice little featurette before the re-released edition. In it, Spielberg is interviewed and he reflects on the 40th anniversary. He says, and I'm really paraphrasing it here, he never made this to be a science fiction film. It's only science fiction if you are someone who does not believe in life elsewhere. That brings new meaning to the tagline of one of CE3K's promotional posters...

"We are not alone."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets