Eight years ago today, I was in a state of panic and fear and the sun hadn't even risen yet.
I had just quit a safe
and secure full-time job to return to graduate school. Less than
two weeks into this esteemed writing program, I found the pace and workload and creative demands so intense and challenging that failure seemed all but inevitable.
Reading was not just an assignment, but a solace. Whenever I couldn't sleep, I had a shelf of new theater texts to reach for. That day's assignment was Aeschylus' incredible
play The Persians,
written circa 472 BC. And this is what we were discussing later that morning in a History of Drama seminar at the exact
moment the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil took place.
The play is told from the point of view of the Persians,
whom the Greeks had defeated years earlier. I believe this to be the
only surviving Greek play based on an actual historical event. It's
remarkable because it asks the audience to feel pity for the invading army seeking to topple the Greek
The play asks: Why did the Persians lose the war? They were a great
army led by Xerxes, a powerful leader, and they believed the gods were on their side. They fell, we learn, because of their
unmitigated pride. Hubris.
This is a play about wars and the fools who lose them. Aeschylus served
up this tragic and chilling cautionary tale to an audience that
would've felt freshly the wounds of this conflict.
When this play was first performed, it wasn't long after the Greeks
had defeated the invading Persian army, maybe just a generation or less. As my wonderful professor Brian Johnson
pointed out, the audience was probably filled with war veterans, some
of them horribly scarred and maimed, as well as families mourning lost
loved ones. In fact, there's a very good chance the audience was
still sitting amidst blood-stained rubble, their very own Ground Zero.
Aeschylus sought to dramatize this defeat from the Persian
perspective, but he didn't want his fellow countrymen to gloat or revel
in superiority. He believed such things were fatal flaws. So he
portrayed the Persians as being defeated not so much by the might and
valor of the Greek army, but by their own corrupt values.
The play's theme -- warning against hubris,
against the foolishness of believing one's nation is invincible and
divined by supernatural higher powers -- has, sadly, become more
relevant with each passing year.
Whenever anyone invokes a higher power in the name of war, you have reason to be very afraid.
When my classmates and I emerged from class that morning, we
instantly knew something was wrong with the world. People everywhere on
campus were hugging each other and crying in disbelief. As we learned
of the attacks, each of us began to wonder: what the hell good is freakin' drama on a planet where this can happen?
Like everyone in the days following the attacks, we questioned the
paths our lives had chosen and wondered if we were wasting valuable
took me a while but I finally realized that, when catastrophe reared
its ugly head, I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing. The
poetry and vision of The Persians informed and validated that
feeling like nothing else. Even today, whenever I need motivation to
write (or even just to get out of bed each morning), I think of
Aeschylus and how his words speak to us across the centuries. This
is why I write. To speak. To communicate. To let others in the world
know that we share the same dreams and blessings and curses, no matter
who -- or when -- we are.
We are incredibly fortunate that this play has survived the ravages
of time. I hope that one day we will truly hear its message.
bust of Aeschylus; photos from production of "The Persians" mounted in
2006 by the National Greek Theater; bottom photo from 2005 production
by Washington, DC's Scena Theatre)
Theater: FARRAGUT NORTH Geffen Playhouse Beau Willimon's script is strictly West Wing lite, but Chris Pine (Star Trek's new Captain Kirk) commands with a solid stage presence. Girls (and hey, some guys) go for Pine's early underwear scene but stick around for his manic exploration of a sordid and soulless political machinator.
Movie: MOON Direced by Duncan Jones Sturdy little sci-fi movie starring Sam Rockwell. No explosions or ray guns or bug-eyed aliens, just a quiet study of human isolation in the vein of 70s films like Silent Running. In an age of increasingly desperate special effects and hyperkinetic editing, Moon is like a little breath of fresh air in an airless void.
Book: COLUMBINE by Dave Cullen
Do you remember Columbine? If you're like me, you think you do -- and you're deeply mistaken. Almost everything we were told about this school massacre was wrong. This is hands-down the most disturbing book I've read in years. It's a work of true crime that rises above the generally sordid genre to stand alongisde works of art as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.
Music: 25 O'CLOCK & PSONIC PSUNSPOT The Dukes of Stratosphear In the mid-1980s, members of Brit-pop band XTC found themselves between projects so they ducked into the studio and pretended to be the Dukes, a long-lost psychedelic-rock band from the 1960s. Aided by legendary producer John Leckie (Pink Floyd, Stone Roses), what began as a lark eventually produced some incredibly fun and authentic music. It's sometimes laden with irony and cynicism (this is XTC, after all) but underneath it all is a heartfelt enthusiasm for the trippier side of The Beatles, Beach Boys, Animals, and many other 60s musical legends. These two albums have been freshly remastered with extras such as demo tracks, extensive liner notes & video clips. I'll be blasting this catchy LSD-tinged goodness all summer long.
Movie: THE HURT LOCKER Directed by Kathryn Bigelow A tense and well-crafted movie about a bomb squad in Iraq and the daily dangers they face, with stunning breakout performances from actors Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie. Despite its Baghdad setting, I wouldn't call this a war film. Mark Boal has written a taut thriller showing us the dangerous if admirable soul of a man who is psychologically addicted to the risks that could one day kill him. Director Bigelow proves (once again) her fierce action chops.
It doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s something I love to do, and it doesn’t
hurt anybody. And the world probably doesn’t need any more songs, but I
need more songs. It’s satisfying and lovely to do. I feel better, and
as a band—I think I can speak for everyone—we feel better making
something that wasn’t there ten minutes ago. Whatever spirit there is
in the universe, I think that puts you closer to it. The act of
creation, you know, it’s a very powerful thing, and very gratifying. I
wish it on everyone. I wish everyone could enjoy making something that
wasn’t there before.
I don't know what was worse during last Sunday's otherwise fun presentation of the Oscars: the omission of so many artists from the In Memoriam tribute, or the ridiculous swooping camera work that made the segment almost completely unwatchable. I'm glad it's been posted to YouTube where we can actually see the faces and names.
I don't get worked up over the Oscars. The Academy votes however they wanna vote. Sometimes they like the stuff I like, sometimes they don't. Whatever. Just give me an entertaining host who whisks things along, and Hugh Jackman was pretty good at that.
But anyone can print a list of people who died over the past year: actors, directors, writers, designers, producers and others. And while I understand that you can't include everybody in such a tribute, this year's omissions are staggering.
And this comes one year after the Academy failed to recognize the late Brad Renfro, a talented young actor whose oft-publicized struggle with drug addiction ended in a fatal overdose. His death was eerily similar to that of Heath Ledger's ... except that Renfro hadn't delivered a haunting performance as a super villain in an eagerly-anticipated blockbuster.
Sometimes I worry that this blog reads like an obituary column. But I'd rather say too much about someone whose life and work have influenced me than let their passing go unnoticed. I wish the Academy felt the same way.
I am immensely, hugely, deeply sad. One of the most electrifying rock performers has left the building: Erick Lee Purkhiser, better known as Lux Interior, lead singer of the psychobilly group The Cramps, died this week of heart complications.
I saw the Cramps perform four times but I wish it had been forty or four hundred times. They flat-out fucking rocked and they fucking knew how to put on a fucking show. With his collaborator and soulmate Poison Ivy (Kristy Wallace) on lead guitar, Lux merged roots rockabilly with cheesy B-movie subject matter and made music that was fun, danceable, and wonderfully twisted.
In interviews, Lux revealed himself to be a huge fan of old monster movies and his onstage persona -- a lanky, shambling, wild-eyed and athletic showman -- was a shout-out to horror movie fans everywhere. I always thought Lux would be perfectly cast as a zombie in some horror movie. You wouldn't even need that much makeup. Alas, the closest he came was when The Cramps contributed a fun song, "The Surfin' Dead," to the soundtrack of Dan O'Bannon's cult 1986 horror flick Return of the Living Dead.
In concert, Lux's crazy cavorting always thrilled me to the point of unbridled laughter. By the end of one show at an outdoor music fest in Tampa, Lux was wearing nothing but a g-string and cherry red high-heeled shoes, hanging upside from speaker scaffolding while he gave the microphone what can only be described as feral fellatio. That is showmanship, people.
I last saw them perform a 2006 Halloween concert at Hollywood's House of Blues, Lux wore black leather, huge black sunglasses, and screamed and sang and cackled from beneath a shock of bone white hair. As he aged, Lux became more spectral in appearance but no less physical onstage. He jumped and stalked and twisted his wireframe body like a caged animal set free.
A lot can and should be said about the deviant sexual vibe The Cramps payed homage to both in style and song. Whether Lux was frantically dry-humping the stage or Ivy was blazing a killer solo on songs like "Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?" or "Let's Get Fucked Up," the band's blatant hedonism spoke for itself. But there's something I haven't read a lot about, at least not yet, and that's the fun and playful approach these two core members brought to their music.
Monsters are everywhere in their songs ("When the sun goes down and the moon comes up / I turn into a teenage goo-goo muck") and sometimes they're mixed in with the carnal ("Creature From the Black Leather Lagoon"). Their record and CD artwork was often like a cross between Forry Ackerman's Famous Monsters magazine and some cheapo girlie rag. Ivy always dressed like a stripper from Hell but she never danced or shimmied or spoofed her image, whereas Lux would strut like a speed-addled midnight horror movie host. Stalwart and rarely smiling, Ivy would mostly just walk back and forth playing the hell out of her guitar. He was the crazy one, she was the grounded one, and together they maintained a balance. They were at once darker and more playful than anything film director Tim Burton has ever done, and they never let their anger outweigh the sheer simple fun of kick-ass rock-n-roll.
The Cramps have many fine albums. I think Stay Sick is one of the best party records of all time. But the one that truly introduced them to me, 1984's Bad Music for Bad People, is a classic platter of lo-fi fuzzy stompin' that provided the core soundtrack to my undergrad college years. It's also one of my favorite album covers of all time.
You can and should watch the great video clips collected here. I highly recommend their controversial 1978 performance to patients at Napa State Mental Hospital. The video is grainier than a day at the beach and the sound is muffled beyond distortion, but it captures the crazy raw vibe of their live shows. "They tell me you people are crazy," Lux barks at these mentally disturbed but seriously groovin' people between songs, "but I dunno, you seem awright to me!"
In Lux's eyes, as long as we were dancing, everybody was awright.
Thank you, Lux, for all that great goddamned rock and roll.
Although I didn't know Forrest J Ackerman personally, his death is resounding in many unexpected ways. It's more than a trip down nostalgia lane, although to say my emotions haven't taken me there would be a total lie. I've got a crate of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine in storage and I cannot wait to lose myself again in those musty yellowed pages filled with monsters and demons and spacemen. Talk about a time machine!
What's hitting me in new ways each day is the realization that because Uncle Forry gave himself so completely and devotedly to his passions, he enabled and fired the dreams of so many others. Incredible and moving life lesson there. Thanks again, Forry.
I think he would be touched by all the fond remembrances that have appeared this week -- and amused at those featuring bad puns, a well-known weakness of his. Below are some notable links I've run across.
Words can't describe all the things I've been feeling since news arrived of Forrest J Ackerman's death last week. Actually, these feelings have been churning since early November when the man fell gravely ill. The past few weeks have been a death watch for his many friends and fans, although one filled with hopes and prayers that the beloved 92 year-old Ackerman would pull through. At the very least, it gave thousands of people the chance to tell him one last time how much he's meant to them.
Ackerman is single-handedly responsible for science-fiction fandom in the world and, by extension, fandom and fanzine publishing of any kind. He was the first person to show up at a sci-fi con dressed in a costume. He even coined the term "sci-fi." And as editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland, he influenced legions of youngsters fascinated with monsters and spaceships. Some of those kids were Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Landis and many other artists who have publicly acknowledged their debt to him.
I read Famous Monsters all through the 1970s and it became an instant cultural and aesthetic touchstone for me. Its pulp pages were packed with rundowns on movies I'd never seen, everything from current drive-in schlock to classic Universal horror pics. Huge photographs featured heroes and villains that seemed to exist in some parallel universe just around the corner. I was helplessly doomed to spend countless hours hand-tuning the insectile antenna that rose from our old TV set. I knew that if I found the proper frequency, I might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of those amazing worlds.
Uncle Forry, as he was called, didn't just gush over genre movies. He featured extensive profiles of actors, writers, special effects gurus and filmmakers. He gave me my first real look at how movies are made. Behind the alien worlds and creepy ghouls were armies of real people like you and me. Forry's endless enthusiasm drew you in and encouraged you to pursue your own dreams, whatever they may be. Like Stan Lee with his loquacious Soapbox columns in Marvel Comics, Forry was a grown-up who never grew up, a cool and happy guy who made you feel like a member of the club.
I didn't know Ackerman personally. We met two years ago through mutual friends, and I got to tag along on a tour of the famed Bradbury Building downtown (designed by a distant relative of Ackerman's), a lunch at Clifton's Cafeteria, and later a dinner that included actor Angus Scrimm, the villainous Tall Man of the Phantasm series of horror pics. It was a pleasure just to sit back and listen to their stories.
I did share one private moment with Forry. We were sitting in the living room of his Los Feliz house, just a few blocks from where I now live. I didn't get to visit the original Ackermansion in Beverly Hills before it was vacated and torn down, its unparalleled collection of sci-fi fandom auctioned and scattered to the winds. I recall vividly a couple of pictorials in Famous Monsters that showed the depth of Forry's sci-fi & horror museum, and I can't tell you how much I yearned to visit Hollywood and take one of Forry's free tours. But as I sat in this cozy bungalow festooned with movie props, original art work and rare first editions, I had an inkling of the original museum's grandeur.
My friends decided to take a little drive into the Hollywood Hills and search for famous B-movie shooting locations. I was a bit weary and begged off so they left me to relax with Ackerman. He was very old and hard of hearing but a gracious guy nonetheless. I wanted to take a moment and tell him how much his work meant to me -- how I used to be a wide-eyed Alabama boy mowing lawns so I could subscribe to his magazine, and now here I was years later having followed those same dreams all the way to Hollywood.
Ackerman sat down in a recliner next to me and reached for the TV remote. As I was about to speak, he punched up his favorite afternoon show: Judge Judy. I sat there silently and watched him grin at the litany of courtroom absurdities. During one ridiculous case that had Judge Judy tearing into some buffoon, he turned to flash me a happy little sneer, a crooked smile that said, "Can you believe how silly people can be?" I grinned right back at him.
When the show was over, Forry's caretaker came to fetch him for his afternoon nap. I quietly floated around the living room, looking at the death mask of Bela Lugosi, a life-size 1970s Cylon robot, and framed prints from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Forry's favorite movie. Soon I could hear Uncle Forry snoring lightly in the next room. I suddenly felt light-headed as I realized I was walking through his dream world, and it was a place I knew very well because it was also my own.
Thanks for all the dreams, Uncle Forry. Sleep well.
Over at Fierce and Nerdy, my gal-pal Ernessa directs our attention to this New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell on late bloomers. Fancy that. Not only did I just celebrate a birthday (a good time to take stock of one's accomplishments and unfulfilled goals) but I'd just read an inspiring interview with the bestselling author in which he declares the 10 secrets of success aren't secrets at all. They're common sense. I find that immensely reassuring:
“Achievement is talent plus preparation. The thing I keep coming back to, after 18 months on this book, is
the work thing. I always say to young writers who are struggling, well, how
many drafts do you do? And then I say, what, you only do three drafts? I do
“What’s surprising is how much work it takes. Ten thousand hours is a long
time. It’s both a daunting and an empowering lesson. It says that, if
you haven’t made it, it may not be because you don’t have what it takes. It
may just be that you have misunderstood how extraordinarily long it takes
for everyone. When you see how long the Beatles put in before they arrived
in the USA in 1964 . . . There’s not a shortage of talent in the world.
There’s a shortage of people willing to go to Hamburg to play eight-hour