When I was a young man summer always meant time to read for fun. I would inevitably binge read within a genre. In the summer of 1980 the topic was horror fiction. I devoured the Stephen King catalogue. I finally journeyed to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu. Revisited the classics of the genre by Shirley Jackson, Daphne DuMaurier, and Oscar Wilde. Throughout that long summer full of suspense and my screaming “don’t do that!” in my head just before someone on the page “did that” I was asked which book was the scariest. The answer I gave that summer is the same answer I would give to the question in 2016; Ghost Story by Peter Straub.
In 1980 when there was no such thing as the internet I relied on the clerk at my favorite bookstore to guide me to something I might like. As I was running out of possibilities I asked the guy who was working at the Grove Bookstore if there was a horror book I was overlooking. He smiled and told me it had just come out in paperback and pointed at Ghost Story. Most of my book buying at that time was driven by what was on the back cover describing the contents. The people who wrote the one for Ghost Story completely buried the lede in their description. I looked skeptically at my guide but trusted his taste more than the description on the back cover.
Peter Straub was an author in search of mainstream success throughout the 1970’s. At first he wanted to be a literary writer of novels of concept. After writing two of those his agent suggested Gothic might be a better genre choice which produced “Julia” with some horror elements. His fourth book “If You Could See Me Now” completely embraced the style which would set the stage for his fifth novel “Ghost Story”.
“Ghost Story” is the tale of five men from the town of Milburn, NY a small community where five young scions christened themselves “The Chowder Society”. As the book opens the members of The Chowder Society are old men drawn back to Milburn by the death of one of them who was found dead on the floor with a look of terror on his face. Another character is the nephew of one of The Chowder Society who has seemingly kidnapped a young girl and is also headed to Milburn. As the story reveals through the perspectives of each character the secrets we hold can sometimes transform themselves into actual monsters. As the town of Milburn slowly becomes enveloped in a winter storm the monster begins to kill.
“Ghost Story” is considered a classic of the horror fiction genre because Mr. Straub’s literary prose leant a formal air to the horrific proceedings taking place on the page. There were many times I re-read a passage because Mr. Straub would gut punch me with a shock related in beautifully connected words. There is a passage within the climax of the book where Mr. Straub sent delicious shivers throughout my body with the coming together of the plot and the imagery depicted on the page.
I stupidly finished reading Ghost Story around ten o’clock in the evening and then thought I might be able to go to sleep. Instead I called some friends to go to a midnight movie where I made sure we did not go to the screen with “Night of the Living Dead” on it.
If you need a scary story for this Halloween; Ghost Story is the scariest one I know of.
There are people who will tell you the best part of a movie are the previews. There is a big reason for that. They don’t operate under the same rules. They can put all the best jokes in it. They can scramble the narrative to the point that it becomes deceptive advertising. Yet there are sometimes where a preview, or a trailer as they are called, can just make me want to see a movie right now. That the most disappointing thing about it is the future date before I will be able to see the actual full movie. This past week the teaser trailer for the May 5, 2017 release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 achieved that.
In 2014 the original Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise hit. It grossed over $750 million dollars which was incredible for a movie based on comic book characters that few had heard of. Director James Gunn had not only heard of them but he clearly had an affection for them. He assembled a cast who inhabited these roles making them their own. The people at Marvel Studios knew they had a hit on their hands before they even released it. Which allowed them at add to the end of the movie “The Guardians of the Galaxy will return”. Next May that will come true with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
For big anticipated movies like this the advertising campaign starts about six months out. The first phase is the release of a teaser trailer. A short set of images meant to whet your appetite. The teaser is usually followed up rather quickly by a full trailer which runs for 2-3 minutes revealing plot details meant to draw you further in. The final long trailer usually arrives 60 days or so prior to the release. The bigger the anticipation the more these clips will be examined and broken down. A Star Wars trailer will be combed over with forensic detail looking for clues. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 just released the teaser trailer and it is one of the best examples of how to re-engage your audience in one minute and thirty seconds.
For a sequel of a big movie the director doesn’t need to introduce the viewer to what they are seeing. The job of a teaser is to remind you why you loved the original while promising more of the same. Mr. Gunn pulls this off by first using one of the 1970’s songs which made up the soundtrack of the first movie; Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Suede. That immediately reminds you of the fun of the music. Then over the first half of the trailer we see shots of all our returning heroes. Which leads to a scene between Star-Lord, played by Chris Pratt, and Drax, played by Dave Bautista. It captures all the fun of the way these characters interact in 30 seconds. The final shot shows us the only Guardian we hadn’t seen previously in a way much different than last we saw that character at the end of the first movie.
Kudos to Mr. Gunn for this kind of detail it raises my hopes for the sequel and it makes me look forward to the longer trailer which should be here in a few weeks.
When it comes to storytelling I am a fan of the kind which respects my intelligence by just tossing me inside their reality and letting me figure it out as I go along. Even more I like it when there are things for me to notice which have nothing to do with anything but go by in a flash for a laugh. I know this is not the preferred choice for many but for those who share my enthusiasm for this kind of storytelling I have a new TV show for you.
When I was at New York Comic-Con they previewed the first episode of the new BBC America series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. The story comes from the universe created in the two novels by author Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. Mr. Adams books are notoriously difficult to bring to life visually because on the printed page they careen around throwing off plot and whimsy simultaneously. It takes a special talent to do this correctly and Max Landis who wrote all eight episodes seemingly has done it; based on the evidence of the first episode.
If you are a fan of Mr. Adams’ Dirk Gently books you’ll be pleased to know that Mr. Landis isn’t adapting either. Instead he has crafted an entirely new third adventure for the Holistic Detective. In the first episode Mr. Landis’ script gets the spirit of the manic fun of the novels spot on. Emphasis on manic as the plot moves fast. This is not a television show to watch while doing something else. There is so much to see that taking your eyes off of the screen means you will miss something.
The first episode opens with a crazy tableau in a hotel room of carnage from something not quite natural. As the camera tracks through the scene it is one of those moments when you see lots of things which will eventually be explained but not right away. After the credits have rolled we meet Todd Brotzman, played by Elijah Wood, who wakes up to someone using a hammer to bash up his car. From there his day spirals into lunacy as Dirk Gently shows up to make sure that degeneration accelerates. Dirk Gently is played by Samuel Barnett who finds all of the nuances of the character. He can be a stream of consciousness but when it chooses to form an eddy for a moment it calms into real tenderness. There is a scene where he meets Todd’s sister Amanda where this momentary island of serene perception is at its best. Another standout is actress Fiona Dourif who plays a Holistic Assassin. She is the dark to Dirk Gently’s light. Ms. Dourif alternates really menacing with comedy extremely well.
Of all of the new things I saw at this year’s New York Comic-Con this is the one I am most excited to see more of. It premieres October 22, 2016 on BBC America.
When I’ve written about perfume brands which I have known since their earliest days I refer to them as “mine”. As in they will always belong to me because I knew them before everyone else. This attitude did not start with fragrance. It started with music. One of the first popular artists who I considered “mine” was Billy Joel.
When Mr. Joel had released his first big studio album “Piano Man” he had modest success mostly based on the title track. In the mid to late 1970’s the storyteller singer-songwriter was in vogue. The song Piano Man was one of the better examples of the form.
Where I became possessive of Mr. Joel came during the next few years as he worked hard putting out two more albums “Streetlife Serenade” and “Turnstiles”. During this time period he toured but there were two sections of the country which fully embraced him. His home town of New York City and Long Island along with South Florida. Because he was so beloved in South Florida I saw him often. Most of the time when he played in Miami he did so in a beautifully intimate Art Deco theatre called Gusman Hall which had been transformed from an old single-screen movie theatre called The Olympia. The hall has been renamed after that theatre these days. Gusman Hall was a perfectly attuned concert hall with the best acoustics in South Florida at the time. Seeing any act there was a treat. Mr. Joel turned it in to his home away from home.
Throughout the 1970’s I attended many shows there as he refined his sound and stage presence. Slowly adding in the members who would become part of the permanent band who still play with him today. What I remember seeing was a musician who loved being a musician. Even back then a sense of jadedness was creeping in to the music business; not for Mr. Joel. His concerts were parties which felt private in the small confines of Gusman Hall and I was one of the attendees. This made him “mine”.
It would all take off in 1977 when he released the album “The Stranger”. Now everyone knew and loved Mr. Joel. As his fame grew he never forgot the support he received from his fans in Florida. As he began his tour supporting “The Stranger” and was selling out arenas everywhere he did something different when he came back to Miami. Instead of playing the local arena he played a string of shows at Gusman Hall over a few consecutive nights. I was there for one of those shows and it was a wonderfully sincere thank you to this group of fans. Before he launched in to his final encore he said as much to the audience.
I own every album he has released and his music has always been special to me mainly because I knew him when he was starting out. Now he is “mine” and many other’s one and only Piano Man.
As I have related in many versions of this column I am fond of the late-night talk show. I have also stated previously that I believe we are in a Golden Age of these shows. There is one for everyone which should provide you a smile to take with you to bed. There is one host who I think does not get enough credit for the longevity of his late-night career, Bill Maher.
I remember discovering this weird show on Comedy Central back in 1993 called Politically Incorrect. The host was a comedic actor who I’d seen in a few movies and TV shows but nothing that memorable; that was Mr. Maher. The concept of the show was simple Mr. Maher would spend his time discussing the topics of the day with a diverse panel of four guests. From the very early days he would have experts from all over the political spectrum into which he would add celebrities. One of the more famous pairings on the show was that of Florence Henderson and Marilyn Manson. What took place was a substantial discussion beyond their surface images. It is something the show excelled at. In 1997 it would move to ABC where it would run until 2002. ABC would cancel it because of remarks by Mr. Maher about 9/11 which were judged insensitive.
One year later HBO gave him one hour per week to do Real Time with Bill Maher and he has been there ever since. In many ways the freer atmosphere HBO offers for the kind of discussion Mr. Maher encourages on the show has been freeing. Plus, nobody has to be concerned about language on HBO. To be informed you need to hear both sides talk about their ideas. Real Time is one of the few places where this interaction takes place. Mr. Maher has gotten very good at guiding the action over the 20-plus years of doing this. The panels are the centerpiece of each episode of Real Time but it is not my favorite part.
That comes at the very end when Mr. Maher does “New Rules”. In this segment he starts off with a series of topical jokes which lead up to a longer commentary on the final “New Rule”. It is in that longer soliloquy that I find Mr. Maher challenges my notion of the way I think. It provokes me to consider his perspective see if there is something there I want to take in more seriously.
I think Mr. Maher is underrated considering he was one of the earliest practitioners of this “news as comedy” format. There have been many great examples since Politically Incorrect but Real Time with Bill Maher reminds me that one of the originals is still going as strong as ever.
I probably watch too much television. It is certainly not a recent development. I have always had a love affair with the shows on television. There are life-defining moments for me that came out of the glowing screen. Which is why the first week of the new Fall TV season is always one of my favorite times of year. Prior to the internet, getting the extra-large edition of TV Guide with “Fall Preview” emblazoned upon the cover let me know there were new things coming. I would devour the issue reading about every single one of the new shows deciding which ones I wanted to try. In a few paragraphs on one page of a magazine my viewing habits for the next month would be set. There is a lot I love about being connected all the time but it has made the TV Guide Fall Preview obsolete.
I have spent the last month of the summer watching the trailers for the shows which interest me this year.
Kiefer Sutherland is one of my favorite actors. His new show is called “Designated Survivor” where he is the only government official to survive after an attack on the State of the Union address eliminates the government. I am hopeful the show will touch on how this event impacts the country along with the difficulty of repairing the government while they deal with the conspiracy behind the attack.
One of my favorite shows as a child was “The Time Tunnel” the new series “Timeless” seems like an updated version. A group of three time travelers are chasing a villain who is bouncing through history trying to alter the future. The first episode takes place at the crash of the Hindenberg. I am hoping they don’t get tied down explaining all the time paradox stuff and just have fun ala Time Tunnel.
The Cast of "Speechless"
Minnie Driver is another actor I am happy to invite into my world. Her latest comedy is called “Speechless”. She is a mother looking out for her son who is disabled. Ms. Driver is a blunt object with feeling. It is a sweet show with a vicious tongue, just my thing.
I am a sucker for family dramas and it has been a while since we’ve had one. The new show “This is Us” might provide it. As story of different groups of people dealing with their day-to-day crises. It is a show with heart and that is also my thing.
Of course Netflix will premiere the latest Marvel series, “Luke Cage” along with season three of “Peaky Blinders”.
There is no TV Guide anymore but the coller days of Fall brings me nack to my TV looking to be entertained.
In 1984 I took my first job in Danbury, CT which was about an hour from New York City. One of my friends from college was living in the City. In college he was one of the small group who spent some time trying to learn more about wine. Our birthdays are eight days apart in October. We decided that we were going to work our way through the great 4-star restaurants in NYC on the weekend in between our birthdays over the next few years. The first of these dinners was in the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center Towers called Windows on the World. Within the restaurant there was a special room called Cellars in the Sky. There they had a seven-course meal paired with wines chosen by the Windows on the World sommelier Kevin Zraly.
Mr. Zraly was one of the earliest voices to demystify the idea of drinking wine. Moving it from intimidating to welcoming. That night was a catalyst for a number of wine-related things. Mr. Zraly took the time to chat with us. I probably gushed a little bit while speaking too fast. Of all the wines we had tasted that night it was an American Cabernet Suavignon which was my favorite; Stags Leap Cask 23. Mr. Zraly became the first to relate the story of the Paris blind tasting of 1976 in which two American wines won the best in both white and red. The red was Stags Leap. In those pre-Internet days I actually had to go to a library to find the articles written about that tasting. It also fueled my interest in Napa Valley and American winemaking.
Stags Leap became the most prestigious address in all of Napa. So much so that neighboring vineyards started putting on their labels “Stags Leap district”. I was skeptical of this idea of wine from the same region sharing a particular quality. I also believed it had a lot to do with the people making the wine too.
Over the years though Stags Leap has continued to prove itself as a true vinicultural region. In 2007 it actually became the first named American Vinicultural Area (AVA) because of this sustained quality. I was returned to thinking about this when I attended a recent tasting of the wines from Dylan’s Ghost.
Dylan’s Ghost came from a walk through Stags Leap by two of the stars of American winemaking, Aaron Pott and Joseph Carr. Mr. Pott was a graduate of the University of California-Davis wine program after which he spent time in Bordeaux before returning to California and heading up Beringer vineyards. Mr. Carr is one of those raconteurs of wine who once he turned to producing wine under his own eponymous label showed that independent American spirit is what separates the Napa reds. As these two walked they decided that it was time to do a wine which was a blend of Stags Leap grapes beyond the famed Cabernet Sauvignon. The result is two different bottlings a year Dylan’s Ghost The Beast made up of one-third each cabernet franc, petit syrah, and merlot grapes; and Hell Hollow a near equal split between cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
Much like that night on top of the world I was enchanted by these wines especially The Beast. This is deeply dark wine which evolves on my tongue in waves of dark fruits which segue into a noticeable licorice before it fades. The Beast is as good as any of the more famous Stags Leap releases for a third to half the price. Plus because it is a blend it doesn’t require as much aging to let the tannins die down although the older vintages I tried showed some cellaring does add something.
I think my skepticism at American wine terroir might have just been misplaced pride in the independence which formed the Napa wine community fifty years ago. With wines like Dylan’s Ghost the evidence for Stags Leap is overwhelming.
Anniversaries are moments to acknowledge the events which are important to you. This first weekend of September has two of them. The somber one is the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It has been one of the most influential moments in the history of the United States continuing to affect nearly every American.
There is another anniversary which is much more pleasant to consider. On September 8, 1966 the first episode of Star Trek debuted on NBC. The existence of a television series in 1966 which showed a future where everyone worked together to explore the universe was a powerful message for entertainment to provide. Creator Gene Roddenberry has simply described the show to TV executives as similar to a current Western series “Wagon Train to the stars”. After numerous rejections it was Lucille Ball in her capacity as owner of Desilu Productions who saw the potential in the idea and gave Mr. Roddenberry a three-year development deal. He needed almost all of it as the road to that first episode was rocky. The first pilot was seen as “too cerebral” which sent Mr. Roddenberry back to the drawing board replacing the entire crew except the science officer played by Leonard Nimoy, Mr. Spock. Even after all of that the first episode to air was neither of the pilots it was one called “The Man Trap”.
As a six-year old I knew none of this. All I had seen were commercials about a crew in space. Living in Florida we were in the state where rockets were carrying men into orbit. At this time, we had begun the effort to land a man on the moon but it was almost three years away. Star Trek was the elementary school version of a water cooler show. As I would walk with my friends to school on the Friday morning after a Thursday evening episode. It was all about, “Didja see the alien last night? Weren’t the Klingons gross? Green skin.” What was amazing was never did anyone of my friends question the make-up of the crew. A black woman, a Russian man, an Asian man; at that time prejudice and racism was out in the open. Yet here was a television show where nobody questioned the competence of these fictional characters.
The other message Star Trek provided was no matter how bleak things look with the USSR pointing nuclear missiles at us; in response to us pointing an equal amount back at them. Racial strife warming up in the bullpen. Women beginning to redefine their societal roles. Star Trek told us as a species humanity somehow figured it out. In the future we are all together as explorers.
Those were wider impacts. Personally Star Trek was where I began to believe science was cool. I say it at every career day I do my inspiration to become a chemist was Mr. Spock. It was Star Trek and that character that made me want to follow a career in science.
The incredible longevity of the brand over multiple series and movies is testament to Mr. Roddenberry’s first vision. The crews of every Star Trek version do take us on a Wagon Train in to the stars where we are allowed to see a future full of potential.
Funny books, comic books or just the comics; these are all ways most commonly used to describe a story told in graphic form. They are terms which describe smiles and lightheartedness not seriousness. For the fifty years I’ve been reading comic books they still mostly get a funny look. As I page on my iPad on the bus I can see my seatmates looking over my shoulder probably wondering when I am going to grow up. For me they are what I use to entertain myself. They have put a smile on my face almost daily since I was a child. But there are some out there who think the medium can be used for more serious storytelling.
The first to do this was the artist Art Spiegelman when he released “Maus” in 1986. It told the story of Mr. Spiegelman’s father’s time in Nazi Germany and his imprisonment in a concentration camp. The story was told with a power only a graphic medium could bring to the story. It helped bring the term “graphic novel” into the lexicon. It won a Pulitzer Prize and has been considered a piece of literature since its publication.
Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell, and John Lewis (l. to r.)
These are not going to be themes which are easily turned into monthly fodder for the people who read comics. I could even say it took almost thirty years for the next “Maus” to appear. That graphic novel has arrived with the publication of March Book 3 completing the trilogy begun three years ago.
“March” is the story of the civil rights movement as told by one of the most integral members of it, Congressman John Lewis. He was there standing next to Martin Luther King, Jr and he participated as a key part of the effort.
Congressman Lewis would talk about his times in the civil rights movement with his telecommunication aide on his re-election effort in 2008; Andrew Aydin. After hearing these stories Mr. Aydin began to write his master’s thesis on them. When he next ran into Congressman Lewis he brought up the idea of him writing his life story. He fired back only if Mr. Aydin would help. Somewhere along the process they decided to turn this into a graphic novel and asked illustrator Nate Powell to be part of the project.
Starting in August of 2013 there have been roughly one volume a year released of the graphic novel titled “March”. The story itself is enlightening just for the firsthand account of the civil rights movement throughout the 1960’s. There is so much to learn but much of it is done with a tone that lays out the facts of Congressman Lewis’ journey leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. The story is also more powerful for the way the graphics can make things more visceral. In the panel above the letters describing the movement of the police baton grab me much more than if just written out in a sentence. It is what can make telling a story this way better; when the material calls for it.
March has been a fantastic success and has found its way into high school and college curricula. Much like “Maus” before it “March” is a testimonial from one who was there for a time of man’s inhumanity to man. It is important to have them in the public record so we never forget. “March” is an unforgettable chronicling of one of these times.
I remember when I was a teenager, in the early 1970’s, listening to rock music at too loud a volume inevitably an adult would come and tell me to turn it down. If the adult was feeling particularly feisty on the day they might follow the request with this old chestnut, “you know this music won’t be around in 40 years.” It was a frustrating argument because rock had only been around 10-15 years at that point. How could you rebut that? It was also enough to plant the seed of doubt to whether I would still be listening to it in 40 years.
My iTunes library is a living document of my favorite music of that time which I still listen to. The answer is now yes this music is still around 40 years later. It has even matured to the point that there are the classic standards which make up those earliest days. I was reminded of how the best of those early songs have the same timelessness about them as any musical form when watching the ending of the Olympics which led into a preview of The Voice. At the end of that preview the current panel of judges; Adam Levine, Alicia Keys, Blake Shelton, and Miley Cyrus did a version of the song Dream On by Aerosmith (link here). It is certainly an appropriate song to be sung at the beginning of a singing competition. They did an incredible job. It reminded me of the legacy of rock music and how far it has come.
Aerosmith released Dream On in 1973 on their self-named debut album. It would be the band’s first major hit. That the band still exists 40 years later also shows the longevity of rock music. Aerosmith is particularly known for the lead singer Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry. Dream On shows off both of them at their best. There are few lyrics in Dream On and most of the song is taken up by Mr. Perry’s guitar playing. Lots of rock bands had songs which started off with picked out quiet sections of plucking which would eventually progress to full-on shredding of the guitar. Dream On does this and I remember listening to this the first time and thinking how good the guitar player was. I also was taken in by the range of Mr. Tyler’s vocals. Dream On starts off maybe a beat or two faster than spoken word. Just as Mr. Perry does with the guitar Mr. Tyler slowly amps up the vocals until the song crescendos with multiple implorations to “dream on” sung in falsetto. It all ends on a very of the day giant gong being struck.
Dream On like all classic music has timeless lyrics which apply no matter when they are sung. I know it is impossible but this week I kept wishing I could inhabit my 13-year old self listening to Dream On and when that adult made their prediction of its impermanence that I could just smile knowingly. And turn it up while singing along with Mr. Tyler in my less accomplished falsetto to “dream on”.