Friday, October 31, 2008

poster for the 1953 Technicolor movie of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, which early boomers may remember. This year is the 110th anniversary of the novel, and this Halloween is the 70th anniversary of the 1938 radio "panic broadcast" by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the Air.

The War of the Worlds

This is the is the 70th anniversary of the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” on October 31, 1938. This year is also the 110th anniversary of the novel by H.G. Wells that was adapted for that broadcast.

Many early boomers like me (and Steven Spielberg) first encountered this story of a Martian invasion of Earth either in the Classics Illustrated comic book version, or the 1953 Technicolor feature by George Pal. The story has been adapted for one screen or another several times, and got the big Spielberg treatment in a 2005 movie starring Tom Cruise. There's been another radio (or CD) version produced by Alien Voices, and featuring several stars of Star Trek.

But it seems these days that a lot of people are encountering the story by way of that Orson Welles version, as written by Howard Koch. It's become a fashion for community theatres to re-enact radio plays on stage, often also broadcast on local radio stations, and "The War of the Worlds" is often their first choice--usually about now: Halloween.

Orson Welles, performing in the 1938 radio version of The War of the Worlds.
Early boomers may have heard stories about the 1938 broadcast from parents and grandparents. The broadcast is famous, of course, because a number of people who heard it actually believed the U.S. was being invaded by Martians.

It was 1938, after all, and as the Great Depression hung on, forces of war were gathering in Europe, Americans were nervous about invasion. Those who listened to the entire broadcast should have heard the disclaimer at the beginning, and the way it started: the narrator (Welles) set the story in 1939, a year later, when “business was better. The war scare was over.”

But lots of people didn’t tune until the program was well underway, and they heard ordinary dance music interrupted by what sounded like news bulletins, until the fake news took over. Nothing like this had been done before. The Welles group--the Mercury Theatre of the Air--transposed the story to the United States, and used the names of real towns, cities and states.

Historians dispute how many Americans actually panicked and tried to flee, etc., though comedian and writer Steve Allen wrote vividly about his aunt in Chicago being swept up in it when he was a child and she was taking care of him.

The "panic" made Orson Welles famous, but there were people who were definitely not amused. One of them was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who complained to Welles a few years later that it was his fault that some Americans
refused to believe that Japanese airplanes had suddenly attacked and destroyed much of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. They thought it was another radio hoax.

Someone else who was upset was the author of the original novel, H.G. Welles. Though when he actually met Orson Welles a few years later in Texas they seemed to get along, when he first heard about this broadcast he was livid. He was insulted that his novel had been turned into a "Halloween prank."

This book cover illustration gives a fair idea of how H.G. Wells described the Martian fighting machines in his 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds.
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells was first published in 1898. In it, Wells shrewdly combined two topics that separately inspired a number of popular novels of the time. One was invasion. Even then, Europeans could feel the Great War coming (what we call World War I), partly because the European powers were adapting new technologies to build up the machinery of war. So in popular novels, authors imagined mechanized invasions. (English authors imagined Germans invading England; German authors imagined English invaders, etc.)

The other topic was Mars. New telescopes led to increasingly better observations each time the orbits of Mars and Earth came closest to each other. In the 1890s, these observations led to sensational speculations. An Italian astronomer saw what he called “canali” or channels, but the word was translated into English as “canals.” American astronomer Percival Lowell thought these canals would prove the existence of Martian civilization. In 1894, a French astronomer reported “strange lights” on the Martian surface which might be signals. Eminent investigators, including Marconi and Edison, devised ways to signal back.

So in this frenzied atmosphere, more than 50 novels concerning Mars and Martians were published during the 1890s. H.G. Wells simply combined these two popular subjects into one story: an invasion from Mars.

That this novel became a classic and all the others are forgotten is testament to the story he told—and foretold. For one thing, he portrayed the Martians coming down from the sky. There weren’t even airplanes yet. He had them attacking real English towns and cities, when bombarding civilian areas was still relatively unknown in warfare.

But there were also levels of meaning within the story, which Wells deliberately created. One had to do with evolution. For much of the story, all the humans see of the Martians are their incredible fighting machines. Much later, an actual Martian is seen: a weak creature with a huge head.

The hero/narrator of the story recalls the theory of a “distant relative” (named H.G. Wells) that this could be what human beings might eventually look like. As technology got more complex, humans would need bigger brains, but not their bodies. Martians were simply an older civilization. So in a sense, humanity was being conquered by its own future.

Some scholars see the novel as anti-imperialist, and there is a lot in the text to support that interpretation. (The writer of the Spielberg version said he intended an anti-Iraq war movie, which is less clear.) Some scholars also dispute this interpretation. But what is indisputable is how Wells got the basic idea for creating the story.

It’s indisputable because Wells described it, several times. Wells was walking with his brother Frank in the Surrey countryside when the conversation turned to the Aborigine inhabitants of Tasmania, south of Australia, who were eradicated when the English transformed the island into a prison colony. What if some beings from another planet suddenly dropped from the sky, his brother wondered, and did the same to England?

In the novel, the narrator refers to the Tasmanians, who "in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years.”

The narrator didn’t attack Europeans for doing that—in fact, he was looking at the Martian invasion from the Martian point of view. “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"

Still, it is clear that the idea came from imagining how “we”—ordinary 19th English in villages outside London—would feel if we were invaded by beings as superior in destructive capability as the English were when they wiped out the Aborigines of Tasmania. (American Indians are also mentioned in the novel.)

In other words, the initial impulse was empathy: imagining from the other’s point of view. At the very least, Wells implied, empathy should limit if not destroy our hypocrisy. If we invade and destroy, we may not be so different from others who invade and destroy. That our machines are more powerful does not mean that the lives of those we conquer are worth less.

Empathy can provide a note of caution and realism to actions that otherwise are obscured by technological distance and comforting terminology, like “taking out” a “target.”

Empathy can guide us to think of the impact of all our actions on others, and in a more positive way, it can guide us in preventing and alleviating suffering, in providing opportunity.

That's the chief lesson I draw from it. Wells was in many ways the father of modern science fiction, especially the kind that I call the science fiction of consciousness. It's more than adventure stories or war stories with futuristic technology. It tells us something about the soul of the future.

The Classics Illustrated cover, the Alien Voices version (which I haven't heard yet) and a still from the 1953 George Pal version, available on DVD some neat extras--a good featurette, a bad bio of H.G. Wells, pretty interesting commentaries, and a particular bonus--the recording of the Orson Wells 1938 radio broadcast.
As for the other versions, it looks like the Classics Illustrated comic was issued in 1954 (though I'm not absolutely certain), so it may have come out after the George Pal movie was released. In any case, I'm pretty sure I read the comic after I'd seen the movie. The Martian fighting machines are different. They fly in the movie, but in the comic they're closer to how Wells' described them--moving on three leg-like appendages. These were the inspiration for George Lucas' Imperial Walkers (Lucas was just a couple of years older and also must have seen the 1953 movie at an impressionable age), and Spielberg uses this three leg model for his 2005 movie.

As for the 1938 broadcast, writer Howard Koch (who also wrote the screenplay of Casablanca) wrote a book about it called The Panic Broadcast. It's not entirely reliable--he claims that he used nothing of the Wells story but the premise, but he actually borrowed a lot more, including characters, plot and entire chunks of dialogue. He does say that doing it was Orson Welles' idea (and no, Wells and Welles weren't related) and that Orson suggested doing it as a series of news bulletins, which is what really gave it its power.

The 1953 movie--which I have on DVD and still love to watch--was based as much on the Mercury Theatre version as on Wells' novel. It also transferred the story to the U.S. and updated it to contemporary times. In Wells' time, people were fearful of the approaching Great War; in Welles' it was the approach of World War II. This film is very much a Cold War fear film: fear of the unknown Soviets, of nuclear bombs and advanced science, etc. which fueled a lot of 50s sf and Bug-Eyed Monster movies.

In the novel, the Martian invasion is mostly seen through the eyes of an ordinary (if educated) person. The radio play told the story through interviews of major figures: military leaders, political leaders, scientists. That pattern is followed in the Pal film, but there are two characters the audience identifies with: a young scientist and the young woman he falls in love with during the invasion.

The 2005 Speilberg movie returns the point of view to an ordinary person--there are no real authority figures in the film. But at the same time, the scientific curiosity of the novel's protagonist is gone. What we have is Tom Cruise as an errant father learning to assume responsibility as he and his children flee from the invaders.

When I saw the Speilberg film, something in particular interested me: as a child, I still identified with the scientist in the Pal film. I watched how he treated the young woman, and I rooted for him to come up with the scientific solution. In fact, one of the scariest scenes in the movie still is the moment when panicked humans--not the Martians--destroy the scientists' equipment and injure several of them, ending their attempt to find a solution. But even though there are children in the Spielberg film, I wonder who children seeing it would identify with. The kids? Tom Cruise? Neither seems very appealing to me.

Of course, Speilberg did dazzling effects, but the effects in the Pal movie were pretty amazing for their time, and if you don't look too closely at the DVD, most of them still work. This is especially impressive because alot of what they did were true special effects--that is, effects done live, not the "visual effects" created later, these days by computer. There was model work (the miniatures of Los Angeles buildings were very detailed) etc. but the models of the Martian ships had a lot of electronics and working parts.

Beyond the scope of the effects, there just seemed to be a lot more at stake in the Pal version--especially in the 50s, when such a movie could just as well end with the end of the world as with a happy resolution.

One other thing about the Pal movie. It begins with the narrator describing the Martians on their dying planet, looking to nearby worlds for a new home. All the planets in the solar system are considered before they settle on Earth--except Venus. This might be because in Wells novel, when the invasion of Earth fails, the Martians colonize Venus, and are no longer a threat to Earth.

I've written a lot more about the various versions of The War of the Worlds, including an unacknowledged remake called Independence Day, here at Soul of Star Trek.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Across the Universe

The best movie about the 60s made since the 60s so far is Julie Taymor's Across the Universe, which tells its story with songs composed by the Beatles.

The Best 60s Movie Yet

It's been out for awhile, but after seeing it for the third time I'm ready to pronounce Across the Universe as the best movie about the 60s made since the 60s.

This movie that tells a very 60s story mostly with Beatles songs has all the hallmarks of its director, Julie Taymor: the masks, the hints of Balinese dancing and whirling dervishes, the vivid and colorful imagination and surprising stylized sequences together with realism. But with an ingenious story and script by Ian La Frenais (who I remember as the first writer of the Lovejoy series from the BBC, which by coincidence I'm currently watching again on DVD), it depicts the 60s as I remember them, especially emotionally. There may be a few instances of incorrect chronology, but truly there are no false notes.

Using brilliant unknowns as stars, and pretty much hiding stars in musical performances, the story of a boy from Liverpool named Jude and his romance with an American girl named Lucy covers so much and so many characters that ring true. The dinner table debates with parents, the idiotic measures friends advised to flunk the draft physical--it's all exactly right.

So is the clash between a politically radicalized Lucy and the artistic Jude, whose drawings even resemble John Lennon's. The movie plays with 60s myth as well as realities, imagining what might have happened if Janis Joplin had hooked up with Jimi Hendrix. Or the clash of psychedelic egos when a Ken Kesey type is dissed by the Tim Leary figure, as West Coast fails to meet East. (There's even a brief shot on Kesey's bus of a guy typing madly--a Tom Wolfe joke?)

Sure, it's a romance, so instead of dying young from overdoses, the Janis and Jimi figures find true love in each other, and after Jude gets girl, and Jude loses girl, Jude and Lucy seem to reunite. And the LSD episodes are playful and magical and innocent--but the truth is that for a lot of us, it all was pretty innocent. At first anyway. The draft physical sequence may be overstylized to make a familiar point, but it does suggest how helpless and strange the experience was, and the Vietnam sequences have that Apocalypse Now surreal tinge that vets suggest was very real.

And sure, there's a lot left out (my beef with these stories about anti-war awakenings is that people are never seen reading, which is mostly how we learned this stuff. Not very cinematic I guess, unless you're French New Wave--they could show people reading as a dramatic act.) But it's stripped down to myth, and this myth represents the reality. If you weren't there and you want to know what the 60s were like, this gives you a pretty good idea.

At the same time it's also wish fulfillment--that is it fulfills our fondest wish of life as a series of Beatles songs. So that's a pretty satisfying way of identifying with this.

For serious Beatles fans, it's got endless layers. The music is done very well, first of all. By now that music has been absorbed into the cultural and musical bloodstream. But there are lots of wonderful references, right down to shots that homage Beatles videos and movies, A Hard Day's Night, Yellow Submarine and the last Beatles concert, on the rooftop in Let It Be. Early in the film there's a "With a Little Help From My Friends" sequence that veers from a fairly straightforward Sergeant Pepper's cover to referencing the Joe Cocker version. What ever happened to Joe Cocker? you're wondering. Well, in a few minutes, there he is, the real Joe Cocker: probably as you figured he'd end up, as a bum singing in the subway tunnel, and looking comfortable doing it.

Anyway, if you haven't seen it, do. It's long but there isn't a second wasted. The "Dear Prudence" sequence alone will knock you out, and the whole movie gets better with repeated viewings. It's visually brilliant, eclectic without being overbearing. (The 60s themselves mashed artistic and historical styles, with a lot more meaning, sincerity and glee than subsequent glib or grim postmodernism.) The casting is brilliant--you'll feel through these actors. Across the Universe is a boomer classic.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Heroes: Bucky Fuller

Buckminster Fuller was an unlikely hero to thoughtful Boomer students in the 60s and 70s.

Utopia or Oblivion with Buckminster Fuller

I’m making a list of people who helped me ruin my life. Marshall McLuhan convinced me that in this high tech age you can live anywhere and be a successful writer. Not really: constant on-site ass-kissing in NYC or LA is still required. Buckminster Fuller convinced me to try writing about large-scale connections and trends. Bad idea: when successful books are about toothpicks or salt, such writing is harder to get published than it is to finish. On the other hand, Fuller could start talking about salt and end up with the universe, the way you’d never thought about it before.

McLuhan was briefly big-time famous, but Fuller was a quieter force for decades, with his greatest fame on college campuses in the 60s and 70s. (I heard him and observed him closer up at M.I.T. in ’73 or so.) Talks of that time were excerpted in Hugh Kenner’s still classic book, Bucky, and in Calvin Tompkins New Yorker profile, which is as good an intro to Fuller as anything you'll find. Its reprinted in a new book: Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe, edited by K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller, and published by the Whitney Museum of American Art with Yale University Press.

These days Fuller is best known for the geodesic dome, and one of the essays here is on his contribution to architecture. There are lots of illustrations and photos, since it’s basically an exhibition catalog. But Fuller also introduced the concept of “synergy,” (the whole unpredicted by the parts before they work together) long before corporate consultants pounded it into fairy dust. His ideas on computers and information were practically a blueprint for Google and Wikipedia.

And he gave us “spaceship earth.” The thing about that is he meant it literally, and on many levels. The key to Fuller is that basically he was a sailor. His spaceship earth wasn’t some airy metaphor: earth is a ship that depends on efficient design to stay afloat and keep everyone aboard alive on the food etc. it carries. Ships are designed to make the best possible use of the space within them, as well as of the basic forces of the planet and the universe. (Hence another of his influential ideas: “doing more with less.”) Most technology originated because ships used it (or wars did, or both.)

Which is why he coined the phrase, “utopia or oblivion.” The planet has to be ship-shape or it will sink. It’s an either/or choice.

Fuller was unique. He started not only with first principles, but by re-thinking first principles. He accepted nothing as axiomatic, though he developed his own axioms--and almost his own language. Reading him raw is a very different experience, but having it done it, very worthwhile. The fullest Fuller for me was his Ideas and Integrities.

Kenner makes much of Fuller's childhood experiences as a boy with very bad (and for a long while, uncorrected) vision, whose main relationship was with boats and the sea on a small island. Because he could see only shapes and he had to figure out how those shapes functioned and related to each other, he developed his kind of logic, and his intuition for basic forces and big patterns. Having grown up partly deaf, this rings true to me. Kenner also maintains that Fuller was able to mesmerize large crowds for hours at a time because he was very responsive to the mood, even to individual moods in the audience.

I hope this book helps revive interest in Fuller, particularly when computers and the Internet are providing tools that his vision could guide to profound purposes. This book provides reevaluation and solid overviews of his influence, especially in how he related to both scientists and artists, but it’s just an appetizer for the depth and breadth of his ideas.

Though an essayist here writes that he “remained at heart a traditional humanist,” Fuller called himself “a comprehensive anticipatory design-science explorer.” We need more of those.

The Little Film That Did

The Steven Speilberg movie empire, including his production company--that's a photo of the entrance--started with a 25 minute student film in 1968, called "Amblin." And I've just seen it. On YouTube. See the post below.

The Speilberg 60s Mystery

In 1967-68, I was the go-between on my campus for an experimental film series. Compilations of films were sent from Hollywood or somewhere, and I booked the room, put up the posters and, not incidentally, saw all the films.They were short films, probably a lot of student work. As I recall, there was a lot of trippy animation and even trippier live action films, all very psychedelic. There was one short film in the first bunch, a narrative so straight that it was almost embarrassing. But it had charm, reality, and a line that I loved and still remember. It was about a guy hitch-hiking.

Several years ago I read something about the famous director, Steven Speilberg: that he made his first film in 1968, called "Amblin'," which is also the name of his film company, and that it was a short film about a hitch-hiker. So I immediately thought of those experimental film packages and that one short film I remembered.

Speilberg by the way was one of the earliest official baby boomers--not as early as me, but he was born just a few months later in 1946. He was the first boomer filmmaker to make it big in Hollywood, with a distinctly 60s sensibility.

But I could never find a video of "Amblin.'" Nor did I ever see it screened wherever I happened to be. (In Cambridge years ago, I actually saw director Brian DePalma's student film projected on a barroom wall--it was this weird combination of Godzilla and Beowulf done with like clay models.)

I was lamenting this the other day when I suddenly realized: oh yeah, YouTube. Sure enough, there it was, all 25 minutes of Amblin'. Not a great transfer, and really, not a great film. I was glad to see that Speilberg's youthful insecurities and neuroses were as obvious as mine probably were in my "art" of the period. He was probably more honest about his relationship to the counterculture than I was.

Anyway, big disappointment: it's not the same film.

"Amblin" is about this sort of Paul Simon lookalike shy neurotic, hitching with this willowy very 60s and very English looking beautiful young wish fulfillment hippie chick. And it was kind of trippy, in a hey hey we're the Monkees kind of way.

But the movie I remember was about a guy (not particularly freaky in the long-hair sort of way) hitching, who is picked up by a beautiful young woman in like a sports car, and they spend the night in a romantic cabin, or anyway, I remember a fireplace. But when he wakes up in the morning, she's gone. And the last shot is of him sitting on a hillside, looking down at the highway.

Here's the line I remember. She asks him more or less what he wants to do with his life. He doesn't know, but he confesses, "I'd like to be a Beatle."Well, of course. That's exactly what I wanted to be--what we all wanted to be! In 1967-68, absolutely!

So now I'm disappointed that I wasn't one of the first to spot Speilberg's genius, or even that I now knew that he made this movie and I could see it again, to see how it matches up with my recollection. And it leaves me with the mystery: who did make this movie? What's it called? Is it on YouTube?