Archive for Stephen Sondheim

Star-Craving Mad

Posted in literature, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2020 by dcairns

I went down a rabbit hole investigating The Jet-Propelled Couch, a chapter of the book The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert Mitchell Lindner, a celebrated collection of psychiatric case histories.

In The Jet-Propelled Couch, Lindner tells of successfully treating a “government scientist” seemingly involved in the atomic bomb project, who had gone partway off his rocker reading sci-fi novels in Polynesia as a child, and was spending increasingly long periods of mental estrangement when he believed himself to be away in the future, battling in distant galaxies. Lindner boldly combatted the obsession by going into it himself, identifying with his patient’s mania until he reckoned himself to be at some risk of getting lost in it. Fortunately, there wasn’t room in this particular constructed universe for two, and Lindner’s elbowing his way in helped “Kirk Allen” escape.

Lindner disguised his patient’s identity so carefully that we still can’t be sure who “Kirk Allen” really was. The best guess to date has been that he was science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, real name Paul Linebarger. If this is so, it kind of suggests that “Allen” wasn’t wholly cured of his obsession, since Smith was to construct an entire future history spanning tens of thousands of years, lovingly piecing together whole civilisations that rose and fell, spawning new species (the underpeople! a very appealing character in A Planet Named Sheol has been assembled from bits of cow) and leading to “the Rediscovery of Mankind.” His stuff is absolutely nuts, and it’s easy to find yourself believing the author had mental issues. But maybe he was just really good?

Harry Harrison, sf scribe, on British TV was asked if you needed a special mind to write sci-fi. “No, just talent.”

Linebarger was remarkable in all kinds of ways. As a China expert, Linebarger’s proudest achievement was aiding in the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops in Korea. Cordwainer Smith expert John J. Pierce writes that the troops were averse to surrendering, considering it shameful. Linebarger had leaflets printed explaining that the men could come forward shouting the Chinese words for “love,” “duty,” “humanity” and “virtue.” Say these words in Chinese in that order, and you have phonetically said “I surrender in English.” Smith’s stories are pun-happy too.

I came across the Linebarger-Lindner story in Brian Aldiss’s critical history of science fiction, The Billion-Year Spree. He got his info from one Leon Stover, who was subsequently very cagey about how he’d supposedly heard it from Lindsay. The Linebarger-Lindner connection is tenuous at best, though we know Lindner knew other sf writers including Theodore Sturgeon, and we know Linebarger spent a lot of time in analysis. In Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch, Alan C. Elms, at work since forever on a Cordwainer Linebarger bio, examines the evidence in detail.

Since Linebarger was a cultural expert on China for the Pentagon, not a nuclear physicist working at Los Alamos, we can see that Lindner must have disguised him pretty thoroughly, but a lot of the biographical facts do add up, or find equivalents in Linebarger’s lonely and dislocated upbringing. (Loneliness has been remarked upon as a recurring theme in his fiction, from the astonishing Scanners Live in Vain — “I need to kranch!” — right through to his final published works at the end of his short life.)

Remarkably enough, Lindner’s chapter was televized as an episode of Playhouse 90 in the fities, under the direction or Burgess Meredith and James B. Clark (the combined talents behind THE YIN AND YANG OF MR. GO and A DOG OF FLANDERS. The show starred David Wayne as “Kirk Allen,” Donald O’Connor as “Dr. Robert Harrison” (so Lindner gets his own pseudonym), and featuring Peter Lorre and Maila Nurmi in her Vampira guise. I’d love to see it. It sounds dreadful and/or wonderful. A live broadcast, it doesn’t seem to have been preserved.

The TV play evidently interested Stephen Sondheim, who planned to make a musical out of it, but this never materialized. I would be interested! One can imagine a more serious WALTER MITTY affair, and it would be best if the sci-fi elements had some real clout and conviction, instead of the more usual Flash Gordon parody stuff. If one had access to Cordwainer Smith’s work and knew of the rumoured connection… it’s not too late! Paging Mr. Sondheim!

Other plausible candidates have been proposed as the real Kirk Allen. “Kiko” Harrison, a scientist who really was at Los Alamos, and who also had similarities in his personal history to the case file recounted by Lindner, could be the man. Nobody had managed to find a series of sci-fi stories starring a character called Paul Linebarger or even just “Paul” which would fit the description Lindner gives of his patient discovering a hero with his own name. Other investigators have looked for a physicist called John Carter, assuming that the most famous sci-fi hero in print at the time was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian adventurer. Aldiss suggests E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series as a likelier fit to K.A.’s intergalactic romps. Which would, with a bit of shoehorning, fit — the Lensman books don’t have heroes with usefully similar names to any of our protagonists, but Linebarger did later adopt the name Smith for his sf writing.

Saul-Paul Sirag, championing the “Kiko” Harrison hypothesis, does find a sci-fi hero called Harrison, star of two stories by Stanley G. Weinbaum which appeared in Wonder Stories, a 1930s pulp magazine. It’s not a long series of books, but at least there’s a name-match. I don’t know how likely it would be for “Kiko” to find a US pulp mag in England, France or Scotland, where he was living as a kid in 1934 (going by how impossible it was to find Famous Monsters of Filmland in Scotland in the seventies, I’d say not very likely), but per Lindner Kirk Allen discovered his namesake in a crate of imported literature on a Pacific island, so “Kiko” Harrison could have done the same thing when his family moved to the Philippines.

(I’ve read one of Weinbaum’s Captain Harrison stories, The Valley of Dreams, and it’s terrific. Hawksian sf adventure with alien ecology and plenty of mystery.)

It would be an exaggeration to say you could go mad thinking about this. But I’m getting a bit obsessed. I do think Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger makes the most poetically beautiful candidate, because if it’s him, he OBVIOUSLY WASN’T CURED. Which is fine, because the tall tale Dr. Lindner span about “Kirk Allen” is wildly implausible and the techniques he describes would be highly unlikely to “cure” anyone suffering from a psychotic break. Still, schizophrenia, for instance, can come and go for no obvious reason, so maybe “Kirk” (the name suggests another, later space captain) just got better on his own? Or maybe he was never ill? He had a responsible position, but his bosses became concerned about his space fantasy obsession, his doodling on official documents using alien pictograms of his own devising, and sent him to a shrink? Lindner’s account of his therapy ends with K.A. saying that he’s realised for some time that all this futuristic stuff is “just nonsense,” but he didn’t want to admit it and disappoint Lindner, who seemed so into it. How much is Lindner distorting here? Obviously, he was duty bound to disguise his patient’s identity, falsifying details in the process. This of course means that we can’t fact check him.

Alan Elms points out that Linebarger/Smith’s working title for his only novel was Star-Craving Mad, which doesn’t work at all for the book that became Norstrilia (about a planet named after Northern Australia — Linebarger had an Australian friend so he got the vowels right), but would fit perfectly as an alternative title for The Jet-Propelled Couch.

Which ends with Lindner wondering about Kirk Allen and his apparently abandoned universe…

“How goes it with the Crystopeds? How are things in Seraneb?”

(Seraneb is Benares backwards. But that doesn’t seem to be a clue to anything.)

There is a fifth dimension…

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2017 by dcairns

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Rod Serling had acquired John Collier’s wicked short story The Chaser and made a memorable Twilight Zone episode from it, so I guess they felt entitled to “borrow” another of his yarns, Evening Primrose, and turn it into The After Hours, which isn’t quite as beautiful and complete as its unofficial source, but is still pretty incredible. Chalk it up as a NOSFERATU or FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, one of those examples of plagiarism you can’t help but feel grateful for.

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We start with an intriguing mystery — Anne Francis arrives at a department store with the intention of buying a gold thimble. A slightly odd elevator operator — you know, just slightly odd — takes her to the ninth floor, which is deserted save for one woman and one thimble. The woman sells Anne the thimble. It’s only after this transaction has occurred that Anne questions how strange it all is. Then, on the way back, she notices that the thimble is dented. She tries to return it —

Cut to an entirely different KIND of episode, one of the Zone‘s frequent and seldom wholly comfortable comedies, with a camp floorwalker and hammy manager discussing the strangeness of Miss Francis’ tale. You see, there IS no ninth floor.

The discussion spills out on to the shop floor, where Anne sees the woman who sold her the dented thimble — just as a shop assistant lifts the woman up — she’s a mannequin. Excellent close-up of the figure bobbing along as if walking herself, though we know she’s being carried. Anne faints, is forgotten about, and wakes when the store is closed.

(The director here is Douglas Heyes, who did KITTEN WITH A WHIP but also several very strong TZ episodes, including the celebrated Eye of the Beholder.)

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Now there’s another gear shift, as we learn the truth — the ninth floor is populated by department store dummies, who come to life when no one is looking, Toy Story style. Worse, Anne is one of them, but she’d forgotten this fact while on her annual holiday. She ends up accepting her new, limited half-life, but it’s haunting, melancholic.

This episode is simultaneously completely overwhelming, which means it MUST be good — and totally unsatisfactory in story terms. Where Collier’s yarn (also televised in musical form by Stephen Sondheim with Anthony Perkins) is beautifully self-contained and logical within its own nutty terms, Serling’s is a big plate full of loose ends. Why does Anne Francis think she wants to buy a gold thimble for her mother? How does the other mannequin know this? Why are the uncomfortable comedy characters unaware of the ninth floor? I’m in a troubling place here because I hate plot holes but I love unsolvable mysteries. Serling gets away with this uncharacteristically shambolic construction because the eerie, tragic place he parks us in at the story’s end — “in the Twilight Zone” is so touching, and because the superb Anne Francis expresses the yearning to be alive so well. Somehow the longing to be truly human is a universally recognized emotion, as if we all feel deep down that we haven’t made it yet.

The Abuses of Enchantment

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2016 by dcairns

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So, yes, Fiona is in a dark place — each morning we don’t know what level of anxiety and/or depression to expect. Good days are not as good as they ought to be, but are very welcome because the bad days are almost unendurable. This can make film viewing strange and risky — we both hugely enjoyed the John Cromwell PRISONER OF ZENDA but the teary conclusion was difficult for Fiona: “It’s too horrible!” she cried, a reaction the Ronald Colman swashbuckler has probably not often provoked.

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INTO THE WOODS is something I just clicked onto on NetFlix because I saw it was there and I’m trying to get a decent amount of use out of Netflix as long as I’m paying for it. (I did the same with Jonathan Demme’s pallid remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and was watching it in short bursts when the bastards deleted it on me.) I should have been warier but my main experience of Sondheim’s musical was decades ago when I watched a televised stage version. This was sort of diverting but of course I had the feeling of being too far away from the action all the time. Televised stage stuff has gotten a lot better and if it helps subsidize the theatre then it’s nice I suppose, but it’s not the real thing.

Still, this is, in principle, the sort of thing I ought to enjoy — what had put me off was not liking CHICAGO much. A friend had said “It’s brilliantly cut,” but it turned out he meant “There is a lot of cutting in it,” which is not the same thing. Some of the transitions are clever but the dances were slashed into an incoherent fruit salad, impossible to tell who was where and if it was really them at all. (Richard Gere, I’m looking at you — or am I?) Maybe Harvey Weinstein is to blame.

Anyhow, I missed out on the intervening films — except now I realise I didn’t, because Marshall did a fairly anonymous job on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, which I saw for my sins. I’m cheered to report that INTO THE WOODS is pacey without being frenetic, shots are allowed a chance to make their mark and sometimes do more than one thing, and the design is lovely in a fairytale way, never quite breaking with convention but then maybe it shouldn’t. Letting this Disney film look like a Disney film is the best way to allow the play to be subversive.

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Script is credited to James Lapine but he is surely not responsible for the VO, which is clumsily written (subject and object get jumbled) and which mainly just describes what we can already see. You don’t do that: that’s Page 1 of the Billy Wilder rulebook. Narration is for things we don’t see. It’s being used as a kind of glue here, to unite the fragmented stories, and to replaced the character of the storyteller deleted from the stage version, which is fine, but it just needs to be good English and to serve some purpose other that descriptions for the visually impaired. I suspect it’s been added by a producer or director, since I certainly hope nobody gets paid money to write this badly. If someone at the top wrote it, nobody would be able to say “This is not good, clear English and it’s not saying anything we need to hear.”

If Lapine DID write the VO, he wrote it in half an hour during post-production while in a very bad mood.

The cast is generally good. Johnny Depp is basically a cameo, in wacky mode, giving it a kind of imprimatur since he was Sweeney Todd. Meryl Streep is really good (apart from a strangely underpowered rendering of “I was just trying to be a good mother,” a killer line which everyone seems to have decided, inexplicably, should not be funny), and it’s the song where we see a sympathetic side to the witch that set Fiona off. Controlling mothers… something perhaps Fiona and Sondheim have a shared understanding of. Emily Blunt is pretty amazing, getting unexpected laughs and being a real human in the midst of all this make-believe. Agony, rendered by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, is properly hilarious.

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Some of Marshall’s ideas don’t work. Using a time-stop device so Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) can sing On the Steps of the Palace, moving about while she’s supposed to be stuck in tar, is more confusing than helpful. The palace itself is a dingy stone medieval edifice, a slab of masonry with no Disneyland about it, not what the situation seems to demand.

What I only vaguely remembered from my viewing of the stage/telly version is the bold way Sondheim and Lapine weave disparate stories together and create a great pile-up of happy endings at the halfway mark, then methodically smash them all to bits like a bratty child with a toy box, working out some issues. Which is what INTO THE WOODS is about, really. The compromises the play has gone through in reaching the screen are essentially formal, and the challenging refusal of fairytale happiness is, unexpectedly, intact and potent. Disney has actually decided not to Disnefy.