This play's got robots and rayguns and aliens all over the place. It's even got a spaceship that looks something like this:
Yeah, they sure don't make 'em like they used to. Planet is about, among other things, how we used to imagine the future and how that future changes. And how some of us look back at those discarded futures and ask: what happened?
But it's not just the spaceships of Buck Rogers we've left behind. Look at these fantastic photos by Jonas Bendiksen of a spaceship junkyard in Kazhakstan.
Above: butterflies swarm as men climb on an empty rocket booster.
These images take me back to the 1970s-era short fiction of J.G. Ballard, who predicted a gloomy future in which mankind never reaches the stars.
I hope we get there one day. Until then, we just have to keep dreaming, and hope those dreams won't be forgotten.
Next week, the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica will stage a reading of my sci-fi play, The Planet on 158th Street. If you're in the area, please feel free to join the fun. Admission's free.
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 30th WHAT TIME: 8 pm WHERE: Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd Street, Santa Monica, CA
"A sci-fi romp that plays with magic realism a la Jonathan Carroll, in which other worlds, especially worlds created by artists, seep into everyday life." -- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Planet on 158th Street is about a group of friends in 1941 NYC whose young ideals drive them to extremes such as Communism, alcoholism, and sci-fi fandom. When one of them writes a Buck Rogers-styled yarn, the adventure comes to life in an alternating storyline. Life is all fun and games and the future's never looked better ... until they meet an amnesiac man haunted by visions of an impending apocalypse.
Inspired loosely by the Futurians (whose ranks included a young Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury), Planet premiered at the Carnegie Mellon New Works Festival. It was later selected for New York Stage & Film's New Play Series and has been seen at Epiphany Theatre and the Round House
Actors participating in the reading are: Kevin Larsen, Tia Robinson, Davitt Felder, Mark Engelhardt, Zachary Halley, and Ethan Hova. The reading is directed by Ryan Dixon.
So far, this is my favorite new show of the year (and I'm flat-out floored it came from AMC). MadMen is about a Manhattan advertising firm in 1960, and it's at once swank, disturbing, funny, and full of surprises. Weiner's years as a writer on The Sopranos helped hone his distinctive take on serialized TV drama:
“The truth is, I think the biggest difference between this and a lot of what’s on TV now is – and I will tell you right now, it hasn’t always been this way – TV is an escape for people in a different way. It’s an escape that reconfirms [that your life is OK]. I am not reconfirming that you are OK. I am reconfirming that you are having a hard time."
MadMen has great writing and an excellent cast that includes pal Aaron Staton (he's the towering guy with Weiner in the photo below). Season 1 of MadMen wrapped up last week, so watch for the reruns if you missed it the first time around. Great stuff.
If extraterrestrial intelligence exists, Stephen Dick concludes in an article in the International Journal of Astrobiology, it
has probably evolved beyond biology to an advanced form of artificial
intelligence that is the product of million or billions of years of
technological and cultural evolution, similar to the civilizations
Arthur C. Clarke envisioned that created the Tycho Monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a post-biological universe, machines are the dominant form of intelligence.
As a lifelong science-fiction fan, I try to keep up with new work. Sometimes it's nice to reach back to writers of yesteryear, like Alfred Bester and Philip K. Dick. When I need a full-court press of epic surrealism, I turn to Cordwainer Smith.
Graham Sleight at Locus offers this retrospective on Smith's work. The small presses and used bookstores have kept Smith's work around for die-hard fans to hunt down. Now the mass-market audience can read him once again, thanks to new editions from Baen Books.
And here's something I'm obviously late to the game on. A famous 1950s piece of pop psychology by Robert Lindner featured a chapter called "The Jet-Propelled Couch," a true story about a psychiatrist treating a patient who believed himself an intergalactic hero living adventures on other planets. The account inspired an early TV movie, an unproduced Stephen Sondheim musical, and later informed the 2001 Kevin Spacey vehicle K-Pax. Apparently there are rumors, unfounded but compelling, that the subject of this case was none other than Paul Linebarger, aka Cordwainer Smith, himself.
2001: A Space Odyssey is full of memorable visuals, many of them spherical: the graceful pirouette of planets and moons, HAL 9000's clinical red eye, and dozens of round waltzing spaceships.
Intruding into this increasingly concentric space: the enigmatic monolith. Rectangular, unreflective, impenetrable ... symbolically, it's a fertile choice. Visually, it's a simple and effective design that, in director Stanley Kubrick's visual context, relays a subconscious charge from that old adage about square pegs and round holes. By overtly establishing spheres as harmonic and graceful entities, Kubrick's oblong alien seems truly alien.
All of the above visuals are easily recalled whether you saw the movie just last night or when it premiered nearly 40 years ago. But if you've got a stopwatch and lots of patience, you may be surprised to learn that the face of astronaut Dave Bowman occupies the center of the frame more than any other image.
That's an interesting choice in a film whose few characters are purposely distant, emotionally contained, and moving through this cosmic storyline without much notable growth or arc. But Kubrick isn't telling a story about characters who change. 2001 is about an entire species that, under alien influence, undergoes apocalyptic shifts in psyche and biology.
Given that, it's not surprising that Kubrick chooses the clean-cut everyman face of actor Keir Dullea as a surrogate for the human race. He's bland and likeable, smart but uncomplicated, and you never once doubt his competence. He doesn't have the righteous screen presence of, say, Charlton Heston, who in the year of this film's release (1968) took his own mind-bending voyage through space and time in Planet of the Apes. Heston's heroic bombast would've been too much for 2001, but it's not at all hard to imagine Dullea as Heston's kinder, gentler offspring.
Although the nearly disastrous Apollo 13 mission was still 2 years away, the steadiness of Dave Bowman embodies what people remember most about that event: frightened, brave men choking down their fear to dutifully perform the next task that might get their bacon back home. We never relate to Dave Bowman in a three-dimensional way, but we empathize as he is forced to let fellow astronaut's Frank Poole's body drift back into the void from which he rescued it. As HAL's mind regresses to a childlike state, Dullea's steady voice breaks when he tells HAL he'd like to hear him sing a song.
In science fiction movies, alien encounters often arouse anger or fear in humans. That's a reasonable response when the visitors are here to rule, exterminate and/or eat us. Beginning in the 1950s, humans are increasingly shown perceiving aliens with the reverence and awe traditionally reserved for deities.
For example, Robert Wise's 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still concludes with world delegates solemnly assessing the plea for peaceful co-existence from the messianic alien Klaatu ... his tight-lipped threat of the alternative (global destruction) having raised eyebrows and not much else.
In the 1970s, we beheld the awestruck baby face of Richard Dreyfuss as he climbed aboard the starship and headed for the skies in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The following decade saw the giddy childlike wonder of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as she stroked the kaleidoscopic skin of a deep-sea alien in The Abyss. A mournful Jodie Foster in 1997's Contact, having traveled a journey very similar to Dave Bowman's, realizes the dead father before her is not a ghost, but an alien being who has borrowed a highly empathetic image from her mind.
The first monolith is greeted with hostility from our ancestors, and it quickly calms them with its eerie "voice." Millions of years later, in Dave Bowman's all-American countenance, fear and awe merge as he negotiates his surreal encounter with the Infinite. Here are some screencaps that show Kubrick continuing his circle motif with Bowman's face dead-center.
"Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL ... HAL, do you read me?"
HAL: "Without your space helmet, Dave, you're going to find that rather difficult."
HAL: "I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal."
Bowman risks his life to travel from one circle (his pod) to another (Discovery's habitat) by passing violently through an oblong hatch. With HAL out of service, the ever-reliant Bowman continues his mission and takes a pod to inspect the large monolith orbiting Jupiter. He begins his now-famous journey through the Star Gate in disbelief and fear. Like the apes from the film's opening segment, he cannot process what he is seeing (nor can we, but it sure is pretty). As he rockets through strange dimensions, Kubrick interrupts the psychedelic gliding visuals with these unsettling flash-frames of a man going insane.
Bowman's screaming face strains to pull itself away from from the sights warping past. It's only apparent when studying these stills, but note how Kubrick doesn't allow actor Dullea to move the positioning of his helmet. Wouldn't the astronaut in all likelihood be twisting and screaming with his entire body? The helmet itself remains resolutely forward, as fixed as the frame itself. Bowman bounces around like a brain concussed inside a skull.
And then, the closest close-up of all, and the most spherical: Bowman's eye color-shifting as he reaches his almost-final destination:
The aliens have prepared an antiseptic Louis XVI-styled hotel room to cushion Bowman's psychic landing. We find him trembling inside the pod, unmoored and in complete shock.
After a moment, he sees himself outside the pod ...
... only to realize he's now outside, looking at the empty space where the pod once sat.
His face now lined with wrinkles, Bowman is suddenly calmer but still dazed. As he begins to process his surroundings, he shuffles to a mirror and regards himself blankly.
Previous scenes with the spacesuited Bowman have been accompanied by the oppressive sound of his breathing. Now we hear nothing, as if Bowman has already crossed into the afterlife.
The silence is broken as something makes a light scraping noise. The astronaut peers through a doorway to see ...
... the strange spectacle of an old man eating a meal. The elder man seems to sense the astronaut. He rises and walks to Bowman ... but the spacesuited figure is gone, and we recognize the old man is Bowman, even older now and clad in a black robe. Nonplussed, he carefully resumes his meal of bread and wine. When he accidentally breaks a wine stem, the silent perfection of this sterile world has been broken. He regards the pieces intently, but before he can process what's happening, his attention is drawn to a nearby bed.
There lies an old man, breathing shallowly. He lifts one trembling hand towards the monolith that now stands at the foot of the bed ...
... And in an abrupt and silent cut that never fails to make me catch my breath, David Bowman becomes the being known as the Star Child.
Following a quick zoom-in on the monolith, whose darkness transitions to Earth hanging against a star field, we see the being Bowman has become. Its apparent size is difficult to determine (it seems as large as Earth), but the shape is unmistakable.
From its round head and wide eyes to the luminous sac in which it floats, humanity's next phase of evolution brings it closer to the circles that govern the cosmos. And the story itself comes full-circle: it began with mankind's first evolutionary leap, as programmed by aliens. And here is the next.
And yet ... after this final image fades, the audience is left staring at a black screen whose shape closely approximates that of a monolith on its side.
Are we finished? Are there more circles to come? Kubrick, like any great artist, leaves us with more questions than answers.