THE “OTHER” TERMINATOR ( MARVIN THE PARANOID ANDROID )

Marvin+the+Paranoid+Android single cover

It’s a signature time for robots. In real life we’ve got Curiosity taking a years-long constitutional on the red planet, Rosetta dropping in on Comet67P, drones over the White House and Iraq, and a Korean Man Machine doing some nifty stuff at DARPA.

In the movies, in this year alone we’ve already been seduced and terrorized by the babe-bots of the brilliant Ex Machina —

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— and now the granddaddy of all metal men, the Governator himself, is about to blast across the eons (again) in Terminator: Genisys.

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It’s easy for a human to feel a little overwhelmed and, frankly, a little redundant, with all this talk of self-driving cars, AI, and the imminently self-aware iPhone (okay I made that last one up but, hey, we all know Apple is working on it).

So, in this age of Terminators and drones, whizz-bang exterminators and pseudo-human love machines, might I suggest it’s time to remember a gentler breed of “Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With.” A robot who doesn’t have all the answers, even though, as he constantly reminds us, he does have “a brain the size of a planet”.

I speak, of course, of Marvin.

Marvin the Paranoid Android.

Marvin on telephone

Marvin, a prototype of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, equipped with the ground-breaking GPP factor, as in “Genuine People Personality”.

Marvin, who upon entering the room, is inclined to talk not of the weather or the traffic, or what passes for news on Alpha Centauri, but rather will announce with breathtaking candor:

“I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed”.

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Yup, that’s a Genuine People Personality all right. And yes, I know what you mean Marvin. It’s just so nice to hear someone else say out loud what many of us are thinking. Much of the time.

Marvin was the creation of Douglas Adams, a former script editor and writer on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Doctor Who.

Douglas Adams

Marvin is everyone’s favourite side-kick in Adams’s magnum opus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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This was originally a radio show for the BBC, but it was so popular it evolved into a series of books, a TV show, and, finally, a movie. But it is in its original radio incarnation that Hitchhiker’s shines most brightly.  For most fans, Marvin as personified by the lugubrious, jaded tones of Stephen Moore, is the bright star bringing just the right amount of cynical illumination to the Galaxy.

Marvin with Stephen Moore

Stephen Moore and friend

That is the genius of Marvin and the assorted droids and computers in the Hitchhiker’s universe: his too-human side. In trying to make machines more empathetic and relatable by giving them Genuine People Personalities, their creators (us) have made them uber-human to the point of ridiculousness. Thus we have elevators having existential crises: terrified of heights and cowering in basements.  Or Eddie, the shipboard computer, who either declares life to be fantastic, all the time — or who mothers you like that over-protective aunt who smelled of slightly rotten elderberries.

It’s a delicious take on the old fear that the technology we create will somehow inherit way too much emotion for its, or our, own good. (Hi there HAL).

Marvin, reduced for most of the time to menial labour (like parking cars), prefaces much of his complaining with “Brain the size of a planet…..”

Ah, I know how you feel, Marvin. No-one really understands the full extent of my unique skills either.

Like, for example, I know I could have been a pop star. I just needed that one big break…..

Yup, Marvin’s been there, done that.

Is there nothing in this world a paranoid android cannot achieve, if only he dreams big enough?

And long enough?

(from l. to r.) Douglas Adams, Geoffrey Perkins (producer), David Tate (Eddie etc.), Geoffrey McGivern (Ford Prefect), Mark Wing-Davey (Zaphod), Simon Jones (Arthur Dent), Alan Ford (Roosta)

(from l. to r.) Douglas Adams, Geoffrey Perkins (producer), David Tate (Eddie etc.), Geoffrey McGivern (Ford Prefect), Mark Wing-Davey (Zaphod), Simon Jones (Arthur Dent), Alan Ford (Roosta)

Marvin Your_plastic_pal_who's_fun_to_be_with!

 

 

IN A HOLLYWOOD STATE OF MIND

Chinese_Theatre vintage premiere

Living and working in Hollywood one is inclined, somewhat more than the general population, to suffer from a variety of movie states of mind. After all, wanting to escape reality is what brought us to California in the first place, and the Hollywood in our heads is substantially preferable to the reality. (Have you ever been to Hollywood and Highland, where they’ve turned the gates of Babylon from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance into a mall? And that’s the upscale bit of Hollywood!).

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Old Hollywood Babylon —

-- and Babylon Mall

— and New Hollywood Babylon

Hollywood is also intrinsically hyperbolic and, since making movies is actually a pretty arduous process, I’ve heard grown men who have Oscars in their cloakrooms liken it to war. Ridiculous? Maybe not so much. A little mental meandering can be a healthy counterbalance to too much Hollywood reality. (Or unreality).

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In fact, going from that blissfully innocent initial movie idea (“How about a shark terrorizing a resort? We can build a mechanical Great White, no problem, and film it in the real ocean so we don’t have to fake it. Easy!”), to actually opening a film is kind of like finding oneself in the third act of The Shining. During the required three plus years it takes to get a film made one mostly feels like that film’s seven year-old endeavoring to elude the unwanted homicidal attentions of an axe-wielding paternal figure (a Freudian mash-up of the studio, investors, critics, paying public).

Shining Nicholson axe door

The only way to offset the seemingly inevitable drop of the blade is to take one’s life into one’s own hands and, like little Danny, run out into the petrifying night, and lure the enemy into a frozen maze from which neither of you may return in one piece.

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Of course I exaggerate. No one would work in movies if it was really like that. (Yes they would! They want to meet movie stars!) It’s really no worse than being a lawyer or member of Congress. (Where are the axe murderers when you really need them?).

So, getting back to my point about Hollywood’s denizens entering into Hollywood states of mind, let’s consider some possible favorite choices.

The writer – for example – is susceptible to Sunset Boulevard. He’s found himself floating face down in a swimming-pool so many times he’s forgotten how he ever got there (or how to stop it happening again).

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Of course, writers live mostly in their heads anyway, and in Hollywood that can be a nice place — all that sun, sand and, well….

But what's in the box, Barton?

What’s in the box, Barton?

Yes, any writer who’s gone through what is politely called Development Hell will feel a particular empathy with Barton Fink. The prospect of seeing John Goodman’s gun-toting psycho charging down a spontaneously combusting corridor screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” will almost seem like a relief compared to another round of studio notes.

Barton Fink gif

The producer – a much-maligned creature in movie lore – might veer between two possible models of how to go about getting the show on the road. There’s The Bad and the Beautiful, in which a group of filmmakers reflect on how they were aided in their careers, and then terrorized, by the Machiavellian producer played by Kirk Douglas, who will charm, swarm, cajole and bully to get his way.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) 8

And then there’s The Producers, wherein the titular characters set out to make a deliberate flop out of an all-singing, all-dancing Nazi musical, and end up with a smash hit.

Just another day at work

Just another day at the office

But which of these two films represents how one should go about being a producer? Which one is the cautionary tale, and which one the blueprint for success?

The eternal dilemma of how exactly to go about producing hit movies is played out, second-guessed and dissected in the trades after every opening weekend. However, for every producer who yearns to cut through all the crap, Get Shorty will hold a special place in his or her heart for its gangster-turned-producer hero played by John Travolta because, deep down, every producer wishes he could make the odd recalcitrant collaborator/executive/critic/second-guesser an offer he cannot refuse.

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The studio executive on the wrong end of Travolta’s pistol will always have Robert Altman’s The Player to console him. Tim Robbins’s sleazy protagonist does, after all, get away with murdering a difficult writer – and ends up marrying his victim’s girlfriend. (Add this film to the writer’s list of grievances).

Greta Scaachi

The director who’s knocked around a bit channels Richard Mulligan’s beleaguered auteur in Blake Edwards’ sublime satire of Hollywood, S.O.B. (short for “Standard Operational Bulls**t”).

SOB poster

Driven to the brink of insanity by a mega-flop, Mulligan decides to wrestle victory from the jaws of box office defeat, and Robert Vaughan’s cross-dressing studio boss —

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— by reshooting for an R-rating. How does he do this? Well, he persuades his star (and ex) Julie Andrews that her wholesome family-friendly image needs retooling (literally). To accomplish this he revamps his central MGM-style musical number as a porno.

SOB fantasy

Its climax (ahem) is Mary Poppins going all spring break on us (“You like my boobies?” a squiffy Julie declaims in a state of deshabillé).

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That Mulligan gets shot to death for his pains —

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— and is buried at sea in a viking helmet by William Holden and his buddies (after a spot of fishing) —

SOB fishing

— is merely a tribute to his auteur credentials.

SOB sinking boat

Actors adore All about Eve, Joe Mankiewicz’s paean to theatre folk, and dissection of the naked ambition (and unsheafed knife) lurking in the sweet smile of one’s understudy.

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Cinéaste actors go nuts for Les Enfants du Paradis, Marcel Carné’s Dickensian canvas of a theater troupe’s lives and loves.

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Why are we so fascinated by actors and movie stars? Because life is a performance, and we’re all acting a part — as Shakespeare so pithily pointed out. Movie stars just do it bigger and better than we do. David O. Russell’s latest, American Hustle, hardwires into our pop cultural obsession with everything actorly. It finds the intersection between performance and the con in the pursuit of the American dream, and milks the results for all their worth. And as per usual Russell pushes his cast out onto an emotional high wire — the resulting thespian high jinks and precarious balancing acts are glorious to behold.

American Hustle cast

But for me the film that maybe most perfectly embodies the surrealistic double-think a screen actor must hold in his head is Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. This is the one where a daydreaming projectionist —

Sherlock asleep

— wanders into the movie he is screening.

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Surviving a series of jump cuts that launch him from one perilous, and hilarious, scene to another —

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sherlockjr in the film 2

Keaton. Sherlock Jr. Bike sit back.

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— he ends up solving the mystery and getting the girl, because he entered the movie. Now that’s what I call commitment to a role. What an endorsement of film’s curative powers. (For a later spin on this idea, see Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.)

But if you had to select just one film to embody all the obsessions of Hollywood in one convenient package, I suspect that would be —

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vertigo eye with spiral 1

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vertigo main title

But, I hear you say, that movie has nothing to do with the movies. Au contraire, I counter. It is, in effect, the ultimate metaphor for making pictures. Consider.

Jimmy Stewart falls in love with a fabrication, an illusion of a person, who in this case happens to be Kim Novak.

Vertigo Madeleine in bed

“Screen siren obsession” is, in my opinion, a completely certifiable medical condition; a symptom familiar to moviegoers everywhere since the dawn of moving pictures. (Erotic fixation upon fantasy figures lies at the heart of film’s mesmeric dance of seduction). Then, when Novak “dies”, Stewart sees another woman who reminds him of the earlier one, and proceeds to refashion her into a replica of his earlier love.

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What he does not know is that both women are actually one and the same.

Vertigo transformation

Vertigo transformation 2

Vertigo - Madeleine and Scotty

That he’s the victim of an intricate con-job to cover up a murder is largely co-incidental, and barely relevant to what the film is really about. That crafty Hitch – he made a movie about making movies, and the danger of trying to build real-world romances upon the flickering shadows of fantasy and obsession, projected or otherwise, with death as the trickster “I do”.

Vertigo Madeleine doll falling

“So what!”I can hear many a movie guy say. So what if the gal’s a fake, the guy’s a basket-case, and no-one gets to say “I do”. We’re making movies! How great is that! I know people who would kill to do what we do.

Vertigo dead Judy 1

Yup, in Hollywood, Vertigo is the one you come home to.

Vertigo Jimmy Stewart after nightmare

WHEN MARTIANS ROAMED THE EARTH ( THE STORY BEHIND “THE WAR OF THE WORLDS” )

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Ever wondered what an alien invasion sounds like?

Well, 75 years ago, on October 30th 1938, large swathes of America got to find out. Listeners to CBS radio heard their regular programming interrupted by news reports of strange eruptions in space, and objects crashing to earth.  That was only the beginning. It wasn’t long before the eastern seaboard was gripped by panic, and people were flooding into the streets – trying to escape what they thought was a full-scale Martian invasion.

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Meanwhile, word of the panic spread to the CBS studio, where Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre company of actors were gleefully rampaging their way through Howard Koch’s adaptation of this science-fiction classic.

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With little inkling of the furore outside, Orson Welles decided to defuse the situation. After speaking the last scripted lines of Professor Pierson, he announced – “out of character” – that the program had “…no further significance than the holiday offering it was intended to be”. With an impish smile in his voice he concluded: “And remember, please, for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned tonight.  That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living-room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and there’s no-one there, that was no Martian… it’s Halloween.”

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They went off-the-air. Then, leaving the cocoon of the studio, Welles was confronted by the magnitude of the panic he had unleashed. The laughter died on his lips. Even the master showman had been blindsided.

Young-Orson-Radio

History was made that night. It was the first major media “Got ya!” and it turned Welles, already a cause célèbre in the theater world, into a media star. Hollywood came calling with an unprecedented contract, which resulted in the equally unprecedented innovations of Citizen Kane and a film career of, in equal measures, maddening genius and frustrated intentions. Maybe the Martians had the last laugh after all.

WOTW-Cartoon-Callan

When I was producing radio theater for National Public Radio I had occasion to revisit that legendary night of broadcasting. L.A.TheatreWorks decided to record an updated version of Howard Koch’s script for Orson Welles with members of Star Trek, old and new generation.

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Thus Wil Wheaton and Gates McFadden joisted at the microphones with Brent Spiner, while Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, took the central role of Professor Pierson.

Leonard-Nimoy-MRT-Friday-AdventureHis voice commanded the airwaves in a manner all of these Hollywood old-timers, who grew up doing radio, theater and live TV, have to themselves. You felt every syllable of his awe and fear in the face of the alien invader. Researching the script for a subsequent rebroadcast on Halloween (naturally) I delved into the history of that original transmission, and of the book that started it all. There were a few surprises along the way. (In particular, Simon Callow’s excellent biography of Orson Welles provided a wealth of anecdotal material and pertinent observation, some of which I reference in the following.)

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H.G. Wells at the microphone in 1929

Science fiction, it is fair to say, was invented by H.G. Wells, along with Jules Verne.

jules verne prophet

Wells had found a new way to explore the greatest aspirations and deepest fears of humanity through the metaphors of science and technology, and the worlds they were unveiling.  But he knew the quest for knowledge was a double-edged sword, and fully exploited the unease that walks hand-in-hand with our boundless curiosity for the unknown.

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For his most famous prophetic warning of the fragility of  civilisation, Wells exploited the current fascination with the possibility that “We are not alone”.

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In 1894, the planet Mars had been near enough to Earth to be observed in detail. The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli identified linear patterns on the surface that he named “canalli” which, in Italian, means “channels”.

schiaparelli_marte_2 1890 diary page

A page from Schiaparelli’s diary, 1890.

But in one of the great mistranslations of all time, English-speaking peoples thought he meant “canals”, leading to widespread speculation about the possibility of life on the red planet. Another observer claimed to have seen a strange light flashing on Mars, fuelling the debate.

schiaparelli mars map 1888

Schiaparelli’s map of Mars, 1888

Meanwhile H.G. Wells was making his own observations closer to the Earth.  Germany had unified, and embarked on a program of militarization. Wells and others feared this might lead to war in Europe. Inspired to fire his own warning shot, he turned to the public’s fascination with the possibility of life on Mars as a way to warn of the danger.

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Title page from 1913 edition

In his hands, the utopian vision of disparate cultures uniting, of civilisation reaching beyond the stars, disintegrated in the beam of a heat ray.

wotw cover 1899 cohen zonen

1899 Cover Art

Instead humanity faced the nightmare of a pre-emptive first strike by superior technologies of Armageddon, serving masters whose only thought was: what was the point of sharing when you could have it all?

Title page of 1st edition, 1898.

Title page of First Edition, 1898

Wells told his fantastical fable in a semi-documentary style, giving it a credibility and power it might have otherwise lacked.

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When, in 1938, Howard Koch came to adapt War of the Worlds for the radio broadcast by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air, he faced two major challenges. How to find a modern-day equivalent for the book’s hyper-realistic style, and how to overcome the dated, provincial aspects of the novel because of its period setting in  England. He decided to move the action to America, randomly selecting the New Jersey village of Grover’s Mill as the site of the invasion. From then on, realistic imperatives drove the script. Koch made the medium the message, turning radio’s ability to broadcast live events as they happened into an integral part of telling the story.

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Welles with John Houseman

It was a brilliant narrative strategy, but Orson Welles and John Houseman, co-founders of the Mercury Theatre Company, were initially underwhelmed by the script. Preoccupied by what had turned into a hellish theatre production of Danton’s Death, they picked at the script in their usual way, pulling it about structurally and demanding more realism.  Welles dismissed it as “corny”. A lot of emphasis was placed on sound effects, in the hope they would distract attention from the thinness of the piece.

Despite – or because of this – Welles and his fellow actors went for broke, playing it for all it was worth.

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Everything was pushed to the extreme – the apparent breakdowns in transmissions, the desperate eruptions of dance music – all held longer than would be thought possible in order to build suspense. The vividness of the dramatization echoed the real-life newscasts whose bulletins so frequently concerned events ominously gathering in Europe. But whether Houseman or Welles intended any serious parallel is debatable: they just wanted to liven up the story, using what was going on all around them, on the air and in the papers.

Martin A. La Regina

So why did listeners think there was a real invasion from Mars being reported? Houseman attributed it to a chance circumstance. Broadcasting on another wavelength was the hugely popular Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show.

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At twelve minutes past eight the improbable principal act –  a ventriloquist and his assorted dummies – took a break, and so did listeners. They reached for their dials, surfed the frequencies, and happened upon a news report, well under way, of the Martian invasion.  As the play progressed so did the hysteria.

war-of-the-worlds film poster

An estimate for the number of American families who had radios at the time was  twenty seven-and-a-half million. The radio was frequently the principal, and often the only, source of information for Americans about the wider world.  And in those days listeners trusted unquestioningly that what they heard was the truth. Despite announcements that this was a dramatization of a book, people took to the streets, screaming that it was the end of the world.

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There are many colorful stories of that night. Here’s one of them. In Staten Island, Connie Casamissina was about to get married. Latecomers to the reception took the microphone from the singing waiter and announced the invasion. As Connie recalled: “Everyone ran to get their coats.  I took the microphone and started to cry – Please don’t spoil my wedding-day! – and then my husband started singing hymns, and I decided I was going to dance the Charleston. And I did, for 15 minutes straight. I did every step there is in the Charleston.”

After the program went off the air, terrified listeners who’d called CBS angrily threatened violence against Welles and the company, after discovering they were victims of what they thought had been a malicious hoax. One employee recalled: “Someone had called threatening to blow up the CBS building, so we called the police and hid in the ladies’ room on the studio floor.”

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The fallout from the broadcast was extensive. How would the populace have reacted in the event of a real air raid?

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There were calls for censorship,  but freedom of speech on the airwaves was fiercely defended.  In a striking piece in the New York Tribune,  columnist Dorothy Thompson acclaimed the broadcast as “one of the most fascinating and important events of all time… It is the story of the century… Far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize for having made the most amazing and important of contributions to the social sciences… He made the scare to end all scares, the menace to end menaces, the unreason to end unreason, the perfect demonstration that the menace is not from Mars but from the theatrical demagogues.”

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Danish edition

As for Orson, he made a chastened appearance in a newsreel, adopting the air of a schoolboy who’s not sure whether he’s gotten away with a prank.

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Welles at press conference after the broadcast

He wasn’t as worried about society’s judgment as he was about potentially more serious, legal penalties.  In the end nothing stuck, and it all turned out to be one of the most fortuitous events of his career.  But his personal creative responsibility for the show had been negligible, beyond the flair of his direction and performance.  In a foreshadowing of his attempts to take credit away from Herman Mankiewicz for the script of Citizen Kane, Welles repeatedly attempted to deny Howard Koch’s authorship of War of the Worlds. Unsuccessfully, to his considerable annoyance.

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There’s no evidence to support his contention that the program was planned as a Halloween prank all along. The idea was improvised on the spot as a sop to the panic released during the broadcast. Nor was there a conscious attempt to play on fears of a European invasion. The fact was that Welles barely thought about the program, being completely occupied until the last minute by his losing struggle with the theatre production of Danton’s Death.

However, he did get a Hollywood contract out of it.

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Grover's Mill, New Jersey, at the site of the supposed Martian landing.

Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, at the site of the supposed Martian landing.