Bill Nye Saves The World features Rachel Bloom performing My Sex Junk, and, well, I don’t even know what to say:
I noticed that The Poseidon Adventure was leaving HBO soon, and I’d never seen the classic 1970s disaster movie, so I started watching it, not expecting a Christian parable:
Right at the start we’re introduced to the hero, the Rev. Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), a renegade priest whom we soon come to realize is a modern-day stand-in for Jesus Christ.
Some of the parallels are subtle. Scott is introduced during an onboard religious service by a priest named John, as in John the Baptist. Before disaster strikes the ship, Scott sits at a table with a former prostitute. He raises his glass to toast “Love.” After the ship turns over, someone looks at him and says, “Jesus Christ, what happened?”
There is just one way out. It’s to climb up a huge Christmas tree. Yes, salvation can be achieved only by way of the tree. Scott is shown dragging it like Jesus carrying the cross. “Life! Life is up there!” he admonishes the passengers. But half of them won’t listen to him, and even his followers are put off by his confidence and stridency: “Who do you think you are, God himself?”
No sooner have Scott’s followers climbed the tree to safety than the walls collapse and water floods the ballroom. Interestingly, director Ronald Neame (“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “The Odessa File”) doesn’t film the resulting chaos from the viewpoint of the doomed passengers. He shoots their scrambling and flailing from a cold distance, in much the same way that Cecil B. DeMille filmed the doomed Egyptians in “The Ten Commandments” (1956).
Neame brings the same distance to a later scene, in which Scott and his followers come upon a group of survivors led by the ship’s doctor. Scott tells them that they are headed in the wrong direction, but they walk by like zombies. “We’re following the doctor,” one says. They are people in the trance of a false doctrine.
Any doubt that Scott is a Christ figure is eradicated in the climactic scene in which Scott sacrifices his life for the remaining passengers. His method of self-sacrifice is telling. After an agonized and angry prayer (“What more do you want from us?”), he leaps onto a steaming valve and closes it, using his body weight to turn it shut. After hanging from the valve for a few extra seconds (so we catch the crucifixion reference), he drops to his death.
Michael Zapolin is a former dot-com entrepreneur and a New Age author who wants to save the world with psychedelics — and make a reality TV show about it:
The team includes a shaman who was once the Vice President of JP Morgan Europe, a cameraman who moonlights as a Spanish voiceover artist for McDonald’s and celebrities like actress Michelle Rodriguez and spiritual guru Deepak Chopra.
The reality show we’re filming, tentatively titled Pyschenauts, is based on the group’s endeavors and already has big-time executive producers attached; namely, David Hurwitz, an executive producer of Fear Factor, and the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated producer Joe Berlinger, who just made Tony Robbins’s Netflix documentary I Am Not Your Guru. Each episode of Pyschenauts follows Zapolin’s team as it whisks away a troubled celebrity or person suffering medical trauma, administers them an intense psychedelic experience and documents their spiritual transformation on video.
Zapolin, who studies Jewish mystical cabala and co-authored a book with Deepak Chopra on the subject, became interested in master plants after reading the Hebrew Bible. “I was looking at the Book of Exodus around five years ago,” Zapolin recounts. “I was looking at the manna stuff. It says that manna was a small round thing that appears in the morning dew and if you put it in your tent, worms will come out of it and it will stink. I was like, ‘Well that’s what happens with mushrooms.’ And if you carry it over to the Jesus story, where he turned water into wine, according to the Cabalistic oral tradition, he put manna in the pots. And the people who drank it reported that Jesus’s wine was incredible, that they were connected to the angels. So I was like, I gotta call Deepak,” he says, starting to laugh. “He’s gonna tell me I’m nuts, but I had to get it off my chest. So I called him and said, ‘I think that this manna that’s described in the Bible may have been mushrooms.’ And he’s totally silent. He’s like, ‘The reason why this resonates with me is that in my Vedic tradition, there’s the plant soma, which was described as a mystery plant that would connect you to God. According to them it doesn’t exist anymore, but based on our scientific knowledge now, it’s obvious that it was mushrooms’.”
Although half of the team here in Mexico are natives of the country, the shaman, Fabian Pierkowski, is a white German national who likes to offer insight on Western-indigenous dichotomies. One of the most well-known shamans in the West, Pierkowski quit his job as Vice President of Asset Management for JP Morgan Europe in 2008 to pursue shamanism full-time. He holds around 250 ceremonies annually, reaching more than 5,000 people a year.
Pierkowski believes that what makes master plants exciting at this point in history is the possibilities for their application in the Western Hemisphere. “You have these upper class people who want to go to Peru, like Chelsea Handler,” he says in a somewhat condescending tone. “You have to understand: someone might be a seventh-generation shaman in Peru, but they don’t understand the context of a Westerner. With all due respect, they’re less fucked up than we are [in the West]. I say you need to work with someone who understands your context, which is where I come in. There are things you can do in traditional medicine, and there are things you can do in Western medicine, so you have to understand how they work together. They’re based on sacred medicines from thousands of years ago, but I’ve brought them to a standard that’s almost clinical.” As an example, Pierkowski boils his medicines for almost two weeks to remove impurities — far longer than ayahuasca is traditionally prepared, but it eliminates much of the uncomfortable throwing up the vine induces.
It is this new, 21st century fusion of Western standards-of-care traditional medicine, reality television and spiritual experiences that excite evangelists like Pierkowski and Zapolin. “In 20 years, this is going to be what yoga is now,” Zapolin says. It’s hard not to believe him; Zapolin made his fortune by predicting the future value of new technologies. It’s no coincidence that Zapolin’s peers, the risk-and-reward-seeking futurists in Silicon Valley, are some of the plants’ biggest enthusiasts.
In a genre often plagued with forsoothery and faux-archaic speech, it is a wonder to read an author who can pen an entire novel in Elizabethan English without a false step.
But be warned: this is like hearing a classical symphony after a hearing nothing but jazz, rock, and dance music. It is almost not English, but a language older, richer, more elfin yet more gigantic, and as dignified as a king in full regalia leading a pavane, not merely of noblemen and gracious ladies, but demigods in all their splendors.
If there’s one overwhelming conclusion to be drawn about [L. Ron] Hubbard’s career, it isn’t that he wrote science fiction, or even that he was influenced by its ideas. It’s that he ended up writing science fiction almost against his will, and for much of his life, he seems to have actively despised it.
Most of his stories displayed little, if any, interest in science itself, an attitude that extended to his protagonists. The heroes of Hubbard’s adventure yarns were invariably tall, virile, and masculine, while the central figures in his science fiction and fantasy stories were more likely to be henpecked weaklings. As Isaac Asimov wrote of his first meeting with Hubbard: “He was a large-jawed, red-haired, big and expansive fellow who surprised me. His heroes tended to be frightened little men who rose to meet emergencies, and somehow I had expected Hubbard to be the same.” His constant use of such characters reflected his low opinion of his audience, and even when he offered up a more conventional lead, as in the relentlessly sour series The Kilkenny Cats, the result reeked of contempt.
The war offered Hubbard the chance to become the kind of hero that he had always wanted to be:
Campbell wrote to Heinlein: “I imagine that the thing that would really satisfy [Hubbard’s] nature . . . would be a chance to command a sub sent out to raid Tokyo harbor. I wouldn’t permit him to, if I were running the Navy. He’d probably try to up ship and bombard Hirohito’s hovel with his deck gun, just for the hell of it.”
As it turned out, Hubbard alienated his superiors in Australia and Massachusetts, attacked two nonexistent submarines off the coast of Oregon, and fired without authorization in Mexican waters, causing him to be relieved of his command. He would later say that he had been crippled and nearly blinded in action — he really suffered from a duodenal ulcer — and he spent much of the war in the hospital, although he continued to play the charming rogue in public. In late 1944, Asimov attended a party at which Hubbard told stories, played the guitar, and effortlessly dominated Heinlein and the author L. Sprague de Camp, who listened “quietly as pussycats.” The writer Jack Williamson, who was also there, came away with a different impression: “I recall his eyes, the wary, light-blue eyes that I somehow associate with the gunmen of the old West, watching me sharply as he talked as if to see how much I believed. Not much.”
Before long, the mask began to crack, and Hubbard grew visibly depressed. His appearance startled his friends — Campbell wrote that Hubbard was “a quivering psychoneurotic wreck” after the war, and that “his conversation was somewhat schizoid at points.” The reasons for this downturn are unclear, although de Camp may have come closest to the truth in a letter to Asimov: “What the war did was to wear [Hubbard] down to where he no longer bothers with the act.”
One of those who noticed Hubbard’s fragile mental state was Heinlein, who had spent the war at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with de Camp and Asimov. He had recruited Hubbard — on Campbell’s recommendation — for a think tank in which science fiction writers gathered on weekends to brainstorm responses to the kamikaze threat. None of their ideas were ever used in combat, but Heinlein was moved by Hubbard’s tales of being repeatedly bombed, sunk, and wounded, and he evidently encouraged Hubbard to have a sexual relationship with his wife Leslyn. Hubbard later recalled: “He almost forced me to sleep with his wife.”
After the war, Hubbard briefly lived with the Heinleins in Laurel Canyon, where they set up a shared working space. Heinlein was undoubtedly impressed by Hubbard, whom he credited with introducing him to the plot formula of “the man who learned better,” and he introduced him to Jack Parsons, a rocket engineer in Pasadena with an interest in black magic. Hubbard became housemates with Parsons in December 1945, and he took part in occult rituals before the two men had a falling out, caused in part by Hubbard’s affair with Parsons’s lover Sara Northrup. Hubbard married her the following year, without bothering to divorce his first wife.
Definitely an odd circle. Anyway, Hubbard moved on from science fiction — sort of:
“Terra Incognita: The Mind,” which marked the inauspicious debut of dianetics in print, was published in the Winter/Spring 1950 issue of The Explorers Club Journal. Hubbard’s membership in the Explorers Club, a scientific society based in New York, had long been a feather in his cap. He had applied years earlier on the strength of some unremarkable travels in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, and after he was accepted, he took enormous pride in the achievement, frequently mentioning the club in his stories and using its address on his personal letterhead.
In the article, Hubbard provides a brief description of dianetics, his new science of the mind, and makes the strange claim that he developed it to provide expedition leaders with a way to screen team members for mental problems, as well as a form of emergency medicine in the field. It was a clear attempt to frame his work in terms of how he liked to see himself — as an adventurer and man of action. The piece aroused no perceptible response, but it sheds a revealing light on the audience that he was hoping to reach. Hubbard wanted to attract explorers and men of the world. Instead, he ended up with science fiction fans.
And they weren’t his first, or even his second, choice. Hubbard had been working on dianetics for years, and he had approached a number of professional societies with offers to share his research. None of them took the bait, and he ultimately returned to a proven market, writing to Campbell in the spring of 1949. At the editor’s invitation, Hubbard and his pregnant wife Sara moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, not far from where Astounding had recently relocated. Campbell could have collaborated with him at a distance, as he had with so many other writers, but he seems to have decided early on that he wanted to keep this one close.
When the two men met again, Campbell was impressed with Hubbard’s appearance, which was newly composed and confident, and he became convinced that the author had healed himself using his own techniques. He was primed to be receptive. Like Hubbard, Campbell had grown depressed after the war. Atomic weaponry had always been a staple of science fiction, but the reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led him to publish a series of bleak postnuclear stories, and he became obsessed with making a discovery that would save the world from the bomb.
Over the following year, Campbell worked intensively with Hubbard to develop dianetics into a science that could prevent a nuclear catastrophe. His goal was to turn Hubbard’s “rules of thumb” into something that his readers could accept. Hubbard himself took a more casual approach, and he spent much of that summer looking into jobs in Hollywood. For a working writer, dianetics was just one angle among many, and Hubbard was cheerfully willing to allow Campbell to turn it into whatever he thought it needed to be.
What emerged was rather different from what Hubbard had initially envisioned. It was a theory of the brain as a kind of computer that could be damaged by recordings, or engrams, implanted when it was unconscious. The treatment, called auditing, required no special equipment, and it could be conducted by an auditor and a “preclear” in any quiet room. After entering a state of reverie, the preclear would relive memories going back to the period before birth. If successful, the subject would be left with total recall, a heightened intellect, and freedom from psychosomatic illness — a “clear” free at last to achieve his or her full potential.
When the first article on dianetics appeared in the May 1950 issue of Astounding, followed by the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it seemed unlike anything else Hubbard had ever written. Campbell — who appears anonymously in several of its case studies — wrote some of the text, borrowing terms and ideas from the new discipline of cybernetics to give it a veneer of scientific respectability. Still, it’s a truly weird book, with a level of sexual explicitness that must have taken many readers by surprise: “Mother is saying, ‘Oh, I can’t live without it. It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful. Oh, how nice. Oh, do it again!’ and father is saying, ‘Come! Come! Oh, you’re so good. You’re so wonderful. Ahhh!’”
On the whole, however, its tone is unexpectedly restrained. Hubbard calls it a provisional theory, subject to revision, and he concludes: “For God’s sake, get busy and build a better bridge!” In fact, it was conceived as the beginning of an ongoing scientific revolution. Campbell saw the newly founded Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth as a think tank for the superior brains that dianetics would produce. Many of the earliest converts were science fiction fans, who had always believed that a major discovery would emerge from their ranks. And no one was more surprised by its success than Hubbard, who embraced his sudden celebrity and boasted to his agent: “I’m dragging down Clark Gable’s salary.”
Campbell thought that he had found his life’s work, but the dream quickly fell apart. Once it became clear that dianetics would be a greater financial windfall than anyone had anticipated, Hubbard grew convinced of his own infallibility. (One of his few works of fiction from this period, Masters of Sleep, is an Arabian Nights tale that turns halfway through into a piece of propaganda for dianetics, which has rendered psychiatry obsolete.) Money was spent as quickly as it came in, and a series of messy internal disputes led Campbell to resign. As Asimov later observed: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.”
Hubbard subsequently said that Campbell became “bitter and violent” after his ideas were rejected, while Campbell, who had staked his position and reputation on dianetics, dismissed Scientology years afterward as “intellectual garbage.” He also claimed: “It was, as a matter of fact, I, not Ron, who originally suggested that it should be dropped as a psychotherapy, and reconstituted as a religion. Because only religions are permitted to be amateurs.” It’s impossible to verify this statement, although the notion of a religious cult founded by scientists frequently recurs in the stories that Campbell published, and the editor Lloyd Eshbach — to whom Hubbard allegedly made his famous remark that a religion would be a good way to make money — said in a memoir that the plans for the church were drawn up in Campbell’s kitchen.
With Campbell out of the picture, Hubbard published no more stories for decades, but a strain of science fiction remained in his work, and it grew even stronger after he set up shop in Wichita, Kansas, where a businessman named Don Purcell had offered to underwrite his research. Many of the disciples who followed him there owed their first exposure to his ideas to Astounding, and he began to tailor his teachings, consciously or otherwise, to the audience he had left, just as he had opportunistically turned to science fiction to satisfy his publishers and allowed the terminology of dianetics to be shaped by Campbell.
Off and on from 1949 to 1953 Laura Bohannan and her husband lived among the Tiv tribe of southeastern Nigeria. After the harvest and before the planting season, the swamps rise, and during this period of enforced isolation, she found herself reading Hamlet, while the tribe spent their days drinking maize and millet beer and singing and telling stories:
“You should sit and drink with us more often. Your servants tell me that when you are not with us, you sit inside your hut looking at a paper.”
The old man was acquainted with four kinds of “papers”: tax receipts, bride price receipts, court fee receipts, and letters. [...] I did not wish them to think me silly enough to look at any such papers for days on end, and I hastily explained that my “paper” was one of the “things of long ago” of my country.
“Ah,” said the old man. “Tell us.” I protested that I was not a storyteller. Storytelling is a skilled art among them; their standards are high, and the audiences critical — and vocal in their criticism. I protested in vain. This morning they wanted to hear a story while they drank. They threatened to tell me no more stories until I told them one of mine. Finally, the old man promised that no one would criticize my style, “for we know you are struggling with our language.” “But,” put in one of the elders, “you must explain what we do not understand, as we do when we tell you our stories.” Realizing that here was my chance to prove Hamlet universally intelligible, I agreed.
The old man handed me some more beer to help me on with my storytelling. Men filled their long wooden pipes and knocked coals from the fire to place in the pipe bowls; then, puffing contentedly, they sat back to listen. I began in the proper style, “Not yesterday, not yesterday, but long ago, a thing occurred. One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.”
“Why was he no longer their chief?”
“He was dead,” I explained. “That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him.”
“Impossible,” began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted, “Of course it wasn’t the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. Go on.”
Slightly shaken, I continued. “One of these three was a man who knew things” — the closest translation for scholar, but unfortunately it also meant witch. The second elder looked triumphantly at the first. “So he spoke to the dead chief saying, ‘Tell us what we must do so you may rest in your grave,’ but the dead chief did not answer. He vanished, and they could see him no more. Then the man who knew things — his name was Horatio — said this event was the affair of the dead chief’s son, Hamlet.”
There was a general shaking of heads round the circle. “Had the dead chief no living brothers? Or was this son the chief?”
“No,” I replied. “That is, he had one living brother who became the chief when the elder brother died.”
The old men muttered: such omens were matters for chiefs and elders, not for youngsters; no good could come of going behind a chief’s back; clearly Horatio was not a man who knew things.
“Yes, he was,” I insisted, shooing a chicken away from my beer. “In our country the son is next to the father. The dead chief’s younger brother had become the great chief. He had also married his elder brother’s widow only about a month after the funeral.”
“He did well,” the old man beamed and announced to the others, “I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they really were very like us. In our country also,” he added to me, “the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children. Now, if your uncle, who married your widowed mother, is your father’s full brother, then he will be a real father to you. Did Hamlet’s father and uncle have one mother?”
His question barely penetrated my mind; I was too upset and thrown too far off-balance by having one of the most important elements of Hamlet knocked straight out of the picture. Rather uncertainly I said that I thought they had the same mother, but I wasn’t sure — the story didn’t say. The old man told me severely that these genealogical details made all the difference and that when I got home I must ask the elders about it. He shouted out the door to one of his younger wives to bring his goatskin bag.
Determined to save what I could of the mother motif, I took a deep breath and began again. “The son Hamlet was very sad because his mother had married again so quickly. There was no need for her to do so, and it is our custom for a widow not to go to her next husband until she has mourned for two years.”
“Two years is too long,” objected the wife, who had appeared with the old man’s battered goatskin bag. “Who will hoe your farms for you while you have no husband?”
“Hamlet,” I retorted, without thinking, “was old enough to hoe his mother’s farms himself. There was no need for her to remarry.” No one looked convinced. I gave up. “His mother and the great chief told Hamlet not to be sad, for the great chief himself would be a father to Hamlet. Furthermore, Hamlet would be the next chief: therefore he must stay to learn the things of a chief. Hamlet agreed to remain, and all the rest went off to drink beer.”
While I paused, perplexed at how to render Hamlet’s disgusted soliloquy to an audience convinced that Claudius and Gertrude had behaved in the best possible manner, one of the younger men asked me who had married the other wives of the dead chief.
“He had no other wives,” I told him.
“But a chief must have many wives! How else can he brew beer and prepare food for all his guests?”
I said firmly that in our country even chiefs had only one wife, that they had servants to do their work, and that they paid them from tax money.
It was better, they returned, for a chief to have many wives and sons who would help him hoe his farms and feed his people; then everyone loved the chief who gave much and took nothing — taxes were a bad thing.
I agreed with the last comment, but for the rest fell back on their favorite way of fobbing off my questions: “That is the way it is done, so that is how we do it.”
I decided to skip the soliloquy. Even if Claudius was here thought quite right to marry his brother’s widow, there remained the poison motif, and I knew they would disapprove of fratricide. More hopefully I resumed, “That night Hamlet kept watch with the three who had seen his dead father. The dead chief again appeared, and although the others were afraid, Hamlet followed his dead father off to one side. When they were alone, Hamlet’s dead father spoke.”
“Omens can’t talk!” The old man was emphatic.
“Hamlet’s dead father wasn’t an omen. Seeing him might have been an omen, but he was not.” My audience looked as confused as I sounded. “It was Hamlet’s dead father. It was a thing we call a ‘ghost.’” I had to use the English word, for unlike many of the neighboring tribes, these people didn’t believe in the survival after death of any individuating part of the personality.
“What is a ‘ghost?’ An omen?”
“No, a ‘ghost’ is someone who is dead but who walks around and can talk, and people can hear him and see him but not touch him.”
They objected. “One can touch zombis.”
“No, no! It was not a dead body the witches had animated to sacrifice and eat. No one else made Hamlet’s dead father walk. He did it himself.”
“Dead men can’t walk,” protested my audience as one man.
I was quite willing to compromise.
“A ‘ghost’ is the dead man’s shadow.”
But again they objected. “Dead men cast no shadows.”
“They do in my country,” I snapped.
The old man quelled the babble of disbelief that arose immediately and told me with that insincere, but courteous, agreement one extends to the fancies of the young, ignorant, and superstitious, “No doubt in your country the dead can also walk without being zombis.” From the depths of his bag he produced a withered fragment of kola nut, bit off one end to show it wasn’t poisoned, and handed me the rest as a peace offering.
“Anyhow,” I resumed, “Hamlet’s dead father said that his own brother, the one who became chief, had poisoned him. He wanted Hamlet to avenge him. Hamlet believed this in his heart, for he did not like his father’s brother.” I took another swallow of beer. “In the country of the great chief, living in the same homestead, for it was a very large one, was an important elder who was often with the chief to advise and help him. His name was Polonius. Hamlet was courting his daughter, but her father and her brother . . . [I cast hastily about for some tribal analogy] warned her not to let Hamlet visit her when she was alone on her farm, for he would be a great chief and so could not marry her.”
“Why not?” asked the wife, who had settled down on the edge of the old man’s chair. He frowned at her for asking stupid questions and growled, “They lived in the same homestead.”
“That was not the reason,” I informed them. “Polonius was a stranger who lived in the homestead because he helped the chief, not because he was a relative.”
“Then why couldn’t Hamlet marry her?”
“He could have,” I explained, “but Polonius didn’t think he would. After all, Hamlet was a man of great importance who ought to marry a chief’s daughter, for in his country a man could have only one wife. Polonius was afraid that if Hamlet made love to his daughter, then no one else would give a high price for her.”
“That might be true,” remarked one of the shrewder elders, “but a chief’s son would give his mistress’s father enough presents and patronage to more than make up the difference. Polonius sounds like a fool to me.”
“Many people think he was,” I agreed. “Meanwhile Polonius sent his son Laertes off to Paris to learn the things of that country, for it was the homestead of a very great chief indeed. Because he was afraid that Laertes might waste a lot of money on beer and women and gambling, or get into trouble by fighting, he sent one of his servants to Paris secretly, to spy out what Laertes was doing. One day Hamlet came upon Polonius’s daughter Ophelia. He behaved so oddly he frightened her. Indeed” — I was fumbling for words to express the dubious quality of Hamlet’s madness — “the chief and many others had also noticed that when Hamlet talked one could understand the words but not what they meant. Many people thought that he had become mad.” My audience suddenly became much more attentive. “The great chief wanted to know what was wrong with Hamlet, so he sent for two of Hamlet’s age mates [school friends would have taken a long explanation] to talk to Hamlet and find out what troubled his heart. Hamlet, seeing that they had been bribed by the chief to betray him, told them nothing. Polonius, however, insisted that Hamlet was mad because he had been forbidden to see Ophelia, whom he loved.”
“Why,” inquired a bewildered voice, “should anyone bewitch Hamlet on that account?”
“Yes, only witchcraft can make anyone mad, unless, of course, one sees the beings that lurk in the forest.”
I stopped being a storyteller and took out my notebook and demanded to be told more about these two causes of madness. Even while they spoke and I jotted notes, I tried to calculate the effect of this new factor on the plot. Hamlet had not been exposed to the beings that lurk in the forests. Only his relatives in the male line could bewitch him. Barring relatives not mentioned by Shakespeare, it had to be Claudius who was attempting to harm him. And, of course, it was.
For the moment I staved off questions by saying that the great chief also refused to believe that Hamlet was mad for the love of Ophelia and nothing else. “He was sure that something much more important was troubling Hamlet’s heart.”
“Now Hamlet’s age mates,” I continued, “had brought with them a famous storyteller. Hamlet decided to have this man tell the chief and all his homestead a story about a man who had poisoned his brother because he desired his brother’s wife and wished to be chief himself. Hamlet was sure the great chief could not hear the story without making a sign if he was indeed guilty, and then he would discover whether his dead father had told him the truth.”
The old man interrupted, with deep cunning, “Why should a father lie to his son?” he asked.
I hedged: “Hamlet wasn’t sure that it really was his dead father.” It was impossible to say anything, in that language, about devil-inspired visions.
“You mean,” he said, “it actually was an omen, and he knew witches sometimes send false ones. Hamlet was a fool not to go to one skilled in reading omens and divining the truth in the first place. A man-who-sees-the-truth could have told him how his father died, if he really had been poisoned, and if there was witchcraft in it; then Hamlet could have called the elders to settle the matter.”
The shrewd elder ventured to disagree. “Because his father’s brother was a great chief, one-who-sees-the-truth might therefore have been afraid to tell it. I think it was for that reason that a friend of Hamlet’s father — a witch and an elder — sent an omen so his friend’s son would know. Was the omen true?”
“Yes,” I said, abandoning ghosts and the devil; a witch-sent omen it would have to be. “It was true, for when the storyteller was telling his tale before all the homestead, the great chief rose in fear. Afraid that Hamlet knew his secret he planned to have him killed.”
The stage set of the next bit presented some difficulties of translation. I began cautiously. “The great chief told Hamlet’s mother to find out from her son what he knew. But because a woman’s children are always first in her heart, he had the important elder Polonius hide behind a cloth that hung against the wall of Hamlet’s mother’s sleeping hut. Hamlet started to scold his mother for what she had done.”
There was a shocked murmur from everyone. A man should never scold his mother.
“She called out in fear, and Polonius moved behind the cloth. Shouting, ‘A rat!’ Hamlet took his machete and slashed through the cloth.” I paused for dramatic effect. “He had killed Polonius.”
The old men looked at each other in supreme disgust. “That Polonius truly was a fool and a man who knew nothing! What child would not know enough to shout, ‘It’s me!’” With a pang, I remembered that these people are ardent hunters, always armed with bow, arrow, and machete; at the first rustle in the grass an arrow is aimed and ready, and the hunter shouts “Game!” If no human voice answers immediately, the arrow speeds on its way. Like a good hunter, Hamlet had shouted, “A rat!”
I rushed in to save Polonius’s reputation. “Polonius did speak. Hamlet heard him. But he thought it was the chief and wished to kill him to avenge his father. He had meant to kill him earlier that evening….” I broke down, unable to describe to these pagans, who had no belief in individual afterlife, the difference between dying at one’s prayers and dying “unhousell’d, disappointed, unaneled.”
This time I had shocked my audience seriously. “For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father — that is a terrible thing. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched.”
I nibbled at my kola nut in some perplexity, then pointed out that after all the man had killed Hamlet’s father.
“No,” pronounced the old man, speaking less to me than to the young men sitting behind the elders. “If your father’s brother has killed your father, you must appeal to your father’s age mates: they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives.” Another thought struck him. “But if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be a good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother.”
There was a murmur of applause. Hamlet was again a good story to them, but it no longer seemed quite the same story to me. As I thought over the coming complications of plot and motive, I lost courage and decided to skim over dangerous ground quickly.
“The great chief,” I went on, “was not sorry that Hamlet had killed Polonius. It gave him a reason to send Hamlet away, with his two treacherous age mates, with letters to a chief of a far country, saying that Hamlet should be killed. But Hamlet changed the writing on their papers, so that the chief killed his age mates instead.” I encountered a reproachful glare from one of the men whom I had told undetectable forgery was not merely immoral but beyond human skill. I looked the other way.
“Before Hamlet could return, Laertes came back for his father’s funeral. The great chief told him Hamlet had killed Polonius. Laertes swore to kill Hamlet because of this, and because his sister Ophelia, hearing her father had been killed by the man she loved, went mad and drowned in the river.”
“Have you already forgotten what we told you?” The old man was reproachful. “One cannot take vengeance on a madman; Hamlet killed Polonius in his madness. As for the girl, she not only went mad, she was drowned. Only witches can make people drown. Water itself can’t hurt anything. It is merely something one drinks and bathes in.”
I began to get cross. “If you don’t like the story, I’ll stop.”
The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more beer. “You tell the story well, and we are listening. But it is clear that the elders of your country have never told you what the story really means. No, don’t interrupt! We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work. We told you it was the great chief who wished to kill Hamlet, and now your own words have proved us right. Who were Ophelia’s male relatives?”
“There were only her father and her brother.” Hamlet was clearly out of my hands.
“There must have been many more; this also you must ask of your elders when you get back to your country. From what you tell us, since Polonius was dead, it must have been Laertes who killed Ophelia, although I do not see the reason for it.”
We had emptied one pot of beer, and the old men argued the point with slightly tipsy interest. Finally one of them demanded of me, “What did the servant of Polonius say on his return?”
With difficulty I recollected Reynaldo and his mission. “I don’t think he did return before Polonius was killed.”
“Listen,” said the elder, “and I will tell you how it was and how your story will go, then you may tell me if I am right. Polonius knew his son would get into trouble, and so he did. He had many fines to pay for fighting, and debts from gambling. But he had only two ways of getting money quickly. One was to marry off his sister at once, but it is difficult to find a man who will marry a woman desired by the son of a chief. For if the chief’s heir commits adultery with your wife, what can you do? Only a fool calls a case against a man who will someday be his judge. Therefore Laertes had to take the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches.”
I raised an objection. “They found her body and buried it. Indeed Laertes jumped into the grave to see his sister once more — so, you see, the body was truly there. Hamlet, who had just come back, jumped in after him.”
“What did I tell you?” The elder appealed to the others. “Laertes was up to no good with his sister’s body. Hamlet prevented him, because the chief’s heir, like a chief, does not wish any other man to grow rich and powerful. Laertes would be angry, because he would have killed his sister without benefit to himself. In our country he would try to kill Hamlet for that reason. Is this not what happened?”
“More or less,” I admitted. “When the great chief found Hamlet was still alive, he encouraged Laertes to try to kill Hamlet and arranged a fight with machetes between them. In the fight both the young men were wounded to death. Hamlet’s mother drank the poisoned beer that the chief meant for Hamlet in case he won the fight. When he saw his mother die of poison, Hamlet, dying, managed to kill his father’s brother with his machete.”
“You see, I was right!” exclaimed the elder.
“That was a very good story,” added the old man, “and you told it with very few mistakes.” There was just one more error, at the very end. The poison Hamlet’s mother drank was obviously meant for the survivor of the fight, whichever it was. If Laertes had won, the great chief would have poisoned him, for no one would know that he arranged Hamlet’s death. Then, too, he need not fear Laertes’ witchcraft; it takes a strong heart to kill one’s only sister by witchcraft.
“Sometime,” concluded the old man, gathering his ragged toga about him, “you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.”
Long before there were hackers and makers, there were tinkerers, and long before magazines like Wired and Mondo 2000 pushed a vision of the cyber-future, magazines like Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories pushed a vision of the electronic future. Hugo Gernsback was the tinkerer who coined the term scientifiction and published many of the magazines that blended science and fiction:
First, though, he was a radio man, immersed in and obsessed with the new technology of wireless communication. He was an inventor in the turn-of-the-century generation inspired by Thomas Edison; among his eighty patents are “Radio Horn”; “Detectorium”; “Luminous Electric Mirror”; “Ear Cushion” (for telephone receivers); “Combined Electric Hair Brush and Comb” (“may also be used as a massage instrument”). He formed the first radio hobbyist group, the Wireless Association of America, when he was twenty-five years old, and incorporated its successor, the Radio League of America, six years later; created Radio News magazine; and started one of New York’s first stations, WRNY, broadcasting from atop the Roosevelt Hotel on Madison Avenue. The station and the league promoted the magazine, and the magazine promoted the station and the league, and all promoted Gernsback. He was an evangelist for the church we might call electronic culture. Most of us are its parishioners nowadays, with our magic boxes.
Gernsback left a trail of technical writings, patents, interviews, newspaper clippings, and prophetic essays, and the best of these have now been gathered into a beautifully illustrated compendium and sourcebook titled The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, by Grant Wythoff, a Columbia University historian of media studies.
Born Hugo Gernsbacher, the son of a wine merchant in a Luxembourg suburb before electrification, he started tinkering as a child with electric bell-ringers. When he emigrated to New York City at the age of nineteen, in 1904, he carried in his baggage a design for a new kind of electrolytic battery. A year later, styling himself in Yankee fashion “Huck Gernsback,” he published his first article in Scientific American, a design for a new kind of electric interrupter. That same year he started his first business venture, the Electro Importing Company, selling parts and gadgets and a “Telimco” radio set by mail order to a nascent market of hobbyists and soon claiming to be “the largest makers of experimental Wireless material in the world.”
His mail-order catalogue of novelties and vacuum tubes soon morphed into a magazine, printed on the same cheap paper but now titled Modern Electrics. It included articles and editorials, like “The Wireless Joker” (it seems pranksters had fun with the new communications channel) and “Signaling to Mars.” It was hugely successful, and Gernsback was soon a man about town, wearing a silk hat, dining at Delmonico’s and perusing its wine list with a monocle.
Public awareness of science and technology was new and in flux. “Technology” was barely a word and still not far removed from magic. “But wireless was magical to Gernsback’s readers,” writes Wythoff, “not because they didn’t understand how the trick worked but because they did.” Gernsback asked his readers to cast their minds back “but 100 years” to the time of Napoleon and consider how far the world has “progressed” in that mere century. “Our entire mode of living has changed with the present progress,” he wrote in the first issue of Amazing Stories “and it is little wonder, therefore, that many fantastic situations — impossible 100 years ago — are brought about today.”
So for Gernsback it was completely natural to publish Science Wonder Stories alongside Electrical Experimenter. He returned again and again to the theme of fact versus fiction — a false dichotomy, as far as he was concerned. Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells were inventors and prophets, their fantastic visions giving us our parachutes and submarines and spaceships. “In time to come,” he wrote in one editorial, “there is no question that science fiction will be looked upon with considerable respect by every thinking person.” He declared, and believed, that science fiction would be the true literature of the future.
Molly Brigid Flynn laments the decline of the Western, as she contrasts the original Magnificent Seven against the recent remake:
In the original Magnificent Seven, a Mexican village beset by bandits cannot count on the absentee rurales (mounted police). The Old Man advises the farmers to buy guns north of the border — “guns are plentiful there” — but they buy gunmen instead. The seven hired loners lead the village’s defense against Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his gang. The film displays the superiority of the quietly industrious village over the Old West town. Yet, the farmers’ settled, communal life requires defense by unsettled, strong individuals, naturally drawn to other goods.
In an early scene, a traveling salesman (ladies’ corsets) passing through the Old West town does “what any decent man would” — pays the coroner after watching people step over the corpse of Old Sam in the street. But some townsmen object to the Indian’s burial in the potters’ field filled with white murderers and robbers. “How long has this been going on?” the salesman asks. “Since the town got civilized,” the coroner responds, apologetically.
“I don’t like it,” he adds. “I’ve always treated every man the same — just as another future customer.” The mixed blessings of capitalism, encapsulated in a sentence. Whether from decency or morbid self-interest, the two businessmen rise above bigotry, but still need tough guys Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen), who volunteer to drive the hearse past the shotguns. This one scene in the old movie packs more thought about commerce and civilization than the new movie’s entire 133 minutes.
In their youthful independence, Chris and Vin’s main objection to civilization is that it’s boring. But once their gang arrives to defend the village, the quiet life becomes charming, admirable, worth defending. The American individualists gradually appreciate its wholesome excellence. Like midlife, civilization has its goods — but so do youth and independence. Superior in one way, inferior in another, Chris and Vin ride off after saving the village, while Chico — in love — stays for the long haul of settled life.
Erasing these reflections on capitalism and civilization, community and character, Antoine Fuqua’s new Magnificent Seven hunts smaller game.
The new movie only superficially displays a contemporary liberalism. Much has been made of its ostentatiously diverse seven, “a rainbow coalition.” An African American leads the team, which includes a Native American, a Mexican, an Asian American, and a minority of white guys (all three die). As Anthony Lane comments in The New Yorker, “It was difficult to ignore the patronizing tone of Sturgis’ tale, in which helpless Mexican villagers in white blouses are saved and blessed by the intervention of American tough guys, so the new version is wise to recruit a Latino gunslinger to the front line.”
Here Lane betrays a common prejudice against midcentury America. In Sturges’ film, Chico is Mexican, “from a village just like that one,” and Bernardo half-Mexican, even though the actors playing Chico and Bernardo (Horst Buchholz and Charles Bronson) were not. Also, in Sturges’ version the problem was not that Mexicans cannot be “tough guys.” The trouble was that the wrong people were tough. Westerns often emphasize the fact — a truth across ethnicities and a difficulty for all civilizations — that good people are less likely to be good fighters. Worse still, lost on Lane and director Fuqua is that the 1960 film asserts the Mexican village’s superiority over the American town.
Subtle it’s not, but for me, awesome always beats subtle. The stage: Homeschooling dad Captain Fantastic and his six kids are visiting his mundane sister and her two kids (Justin and Jackson). The sister lets her brother know she’s not too happy with his child-rearing…
Sister: They’re children! They need to go to school. They need to learn about the world.
Captain: [shouting] Justin. Jackson? Would you please come down here for a second?
Captain: How old are you now, Jackson?
Captain: Can you tell me what the Bill of Rights is?
Jackson: Um, what something costs, I guess.
Captain: That’s a good guess. Justin, you’re in high school?
Captain: Do you like your school?
Justin: It’s whatever.
Captain: Do you know what the Bill of Rights is?
Justin: It’s a government thing, right? Like, rights that people have in America and stuff.
Captain: Yep. [shouting] Hey, Zaja?
Zaja: [Captain's 2nd-youngest kid] Yes?
Captain: Would you please come down here a moment, sweetie? I wanted to ask you a quick question. Zaja’s just turned eight, by the way. The Bill of Rights.
Zaja: Amendment one: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; Or abridging the freedom of…
Captain: Stop. Regurgitating memorized amendments isn’t what I’m asking for. Just tell me something about it in your own words.
Zaja: Without the Bill of Rights we’d be more like China. Here, at least, we don’t have warrantless searches. We have free speech. Citizens are protected from cruel and unusual punishments…
Sister: That’s enough.
Although my first view about a decade ago did not leave much of an impression; I recently rewatched this cartoon Hobbit, and enjoyed it considerably — being very impressed by the seriousness of intent that went into making it.
(Especially by contrast with the unskilled, self-indulgent and irresponsible Peter Jackson Hobbit movies which I find excruciatingly awful — except for the occasional scene such as Bilbo and Gollum.)
Aspiring screenwriter-adaptors could study Romeo Muller’s truly masterful reduction of the approx 250 pages of the book into just about 80 minutes of movie; without any rushing or haste, with full value given to the key scenes — and focusing on the most psychologically important moments (e.g. Bilbo’s interactions with Gandalf and Gollum, the sunlight on the keyhole, Bilbo’s courage in creeping down the tunnel to Smaug, the conversation with Smaug, his scene at Thorin’s death bed). This little cartoon gives the heart of the Hobbit.
Why isn’t it better known then? The problem is the cartooning — or rather some of it. The backgrounds are very well done, indeed rather beautiful in a Japanese precursor-to-Ghibli kind of way; but the characterisation of some characters is frankly hideous. To be fair, Gandalf is fine, Gollum is fine… but Bilbo himself is horrible, the dwarves pretty silly, the elves absurd, and Smaug is more like a long-necked fat pussy-cat than a dragon. The ‘battle’ of the Five Armies is just embarrassing.
Furthermore that actual animation, the movement of the cartoon, is very poor — jerky, insufficient frames, and indeed extremely crude — for instance in the movement of Smaug’s jaw which looks like a piece of cut-out card being slid back and forth (rather like Captain Pugwash, which was done by real time filming of actual cut-outs). This was probably not the fault of Rankin/Bass because animation was at a very low ebb in 1977 (the tide began to turn in 1978 with Watership Down — which is beautifully painted, but — again — jerkily animated).
On the plus side; the voice acting is excellent; for example Thorin is done by the great Hans Conreid, who was the Disney’s Captain Hook — perhaps the best ever vocal characterisation?
The songs are good — and even have a touch of magic about them.
The main problem facing today’s aging women is not sexism, Camille Paglia argues, but the lingering youth cult of the 1960s:
Traditional mating patterns have been disrupted: Marriage is postponed by extended education and early career demands. Because of easy divorce, middle-aged women are now competing with younger women for both men and jobs — and thus are resorting to costly interventions to look 20 years younger than they are.
If aging stars want to be taken seriously, they must find or recover a mature persona. Stop cannibalizing the young! Scrambling to stay relevant, Madonna is addicted to pointless provocations like her juvenile Instagrams or her trashy outfit with strapped-up bare buttocks and duct-taped nipples at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala in May. She has forgotten the legacy of her great precursor, Marlene Dietrich, who retained her class and style to the end of her public life.
I haven’t read the novel, but I have seen the movie — and, perhaps more importantly, I’ve seen the DVD extras. In one of the making-of pieces, he explains that he wrote the story as a piece of pro-Catholic propaganda! My jaw dropped. But I guess I wasn’t his target audience.
He knew a thing or two about propaganda, by the way. Earlier in his career he had worked his way up to become head of the Policy Branch of the USAF Psychological Warfare Division.
He also got divorced three times (and married four).
It’s directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, and narrated by Gillian Anderson.
Adams did not begin writing until 1966, when he was 46 and working for the civil service. While on a car trip with his daughters, he began telling them a story about a group of young rabbits escaping from their doomed warren.
In an interview with the Guardian two years ago, the author recalled: “I had been put on the spot and I started off: ‘Once there were two rabbits called Hazel and Fiver.’ And I just took it on from there.”
It was made into an animated film in 1978, and the following year the film’s theme song Bright Eyes, sung by Art Garfunkel, topped the UK charts for six weeks.
The book, which critics have credited with redefining anthropomorphic fiction with its naturalistic depiction of the rabbits’ trials and adventures, won Adams both the Carnegie medal and the Guardian children’s prize.
The statement announcing his death quoted a passage from the end of his best-known work. It read: “It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“‘You needn’t worry about them,’ said his companion. ‘They’ll be alright — and thousands like them.”’
A spokesman for Oneworld publications, which brought out a new edition of Watership Down with illustrations by Aldo Galli, said: “Very saddened to hear that Richard Adams has passed. His books will be cherished for years to come.”
A new animated TV mini-series of Watership Down, co-produced by the BBC and Netflix, is due to air next year in four one-hour parts.
Hollywood and the gun industry see themselves as mortal enemies, but they have a lucrative, symbiotic relationship:
“Until they stop making films and outlaw weapons altogether, we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” says Gregg Bilson Jr., president of the American Entertainment Armorers Association and head of the Independent Studio Services, one of Hollywood’s biggest prop houses.
ISS is a massive, family-owned business — renting everything from Chinese takeout containers to canoes. With more than 16,000 guns in its arsenal, nearly all real, ISS is the largest armory in Hollywood (about 80 of the guns at the NRA’s Hollywood exhibit are on loan from ISS). Bilson’s crew of armorers and gunsmiths helps finicky directors from Michael Mann to Oliver Stone find and use historically appropriate weapons, train A-list actors (like Bradley Cooper, Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro) in how to wield them safely and shepherd complex projects to completion. “You can’t have a modern movie without a car rolling down the street or someone taking out an iPhone,” says Larry Zanoff, an ISS armorer who has worked on many big Hollywood productions. “Seventy-five percent of the time there’s at least one gun involved.”
This bit of trivia amused me:
To serve Hollywood’s marquee felons like Mark Wahlberg (currently brandishing a Glock 17 as a cop in Patriots Day) and Danny Trejo (most recently armed with an M1911A1 pistol in 2013′s Machete Kills) — who aren’t allowed by law to bear arms — ISS has a roster of realistic electronic guns (also known as e-guns or non-guns) that can stand in for everything from Smith & Wessons to Uzis. “They get a lot of use on hip-hop music video shoots,” says one weapons specialist. Producers working with ex-cons or shooting outside in neighborhoods with noise restrictions rely on them since they discharge at a much quieter level. They also are used in close-fire situations like a point-blank execution scene, where real weapons firing blanks are deemed unsafe (e-guns don’t eject shell casings).
Filmmakers now have much more incentive to get things right technically:
IMFDB.org is a wiki list-serve that functions as a clearinghouse for every possible bit of trivia, analysis and commentary on the interplay between guns and movies. Able to be cross-referenced by virtually any metric — actor, movie, firearm or manufacturer, for instance — the site is a testament to the appetite for information on Hollywood guns. There are 71 gun manufacturers listed and more than 1,500 pages in the “gun” category, along with thousands of actors and more than 5,000 movies.
“The only other product that gets people as excited when it appears in movies is cars,” says Chris Serrano, 32, the self-described “geek” who started IMFDB in 2007 from his home in Glendora, 30 miles east of Hollywood. At the time, there was much discussion but little agreement about guns in movies on the web. Serrano, who worked in real estate at the time, thought IMFDB would be a good way to crowdsource consensus.
Interest was immediate. The first visitors were fans of Westerns eager to weigh in about history and authenticity. Some modern movies generated intense discussion. The entry on Michael Mann’s Heat now tops two dozen pages. When Chad Stahelski and David Leitch debuted the 2014 thriller John Wick, IMFDB editors began itemizing the array of weaponry on display in the gun-heavy film. “As soon as it came out, it was big on the site,” says Serrano, a gun enthusiast who says he likes “a nice lever action” rifle.
Today, IMFDB gets more than 1 million unique visitors a month and has a team of 12 administrators and editors scattered around the world. “I’ve gotten word that Hollywood people do come and do research,” says Serrano. It’s mostly prop masters and armorers, but sometimes actors also come to the site to do research for their shows.
I didn’t know they traced this one back to its origin:
Sometimes armorers find that their onscreen handiwork worms its way back into real life. John Patteson, a Florida-based armorer (Cape Fear and Bad Boys II), recalls an experience on a 1980s TV show that he will not name in which a director wanted two guys with semiautomatic handguns to fire while standing next to each other. Patteson pointed out that the ejected rounds from one gun would hit the second man, at best creating an annoyance and at worst a potential safety hazard. “The director says, ‘How about we ask the left guy to tilt his gun sideways, so brass goes up and arcs away?’ ” Patteson adjusted the scene accordingly, but “next thing you know, I’m seeing guys in 7-Eleven videos holding the guns sideways.” There’s no way to trace whether incidents of sideways shooting in real life increased as a result of movie portrayals, but the anecdotal trace of his craft in real-life criminal activity left Patteson feeling disconcerted. At some point, he says, people do get “educated” by cinema: “A lot of the time, unfortunately, it takes on a life of its own.”
Apparently the initial article referred to Clint Eastwood’s iconic Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum — “the most powerful handgun in the world” — as a “massive Smith & Wesson Colt .44″. Sigh.