Thursday, August 16, 2018

Watching Dr. Strangelove

Even the film's opening title sequence is unique and famous.
One thing leads to another.  My recent reading of Michael Benson's book on the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey led me to want to re-watch that film.  But I haven't gotten around to that yet.  Instead, I renewed interest in Dr. Strangelove.  Benson makes clear that the success of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film paved the way for the creative independence and boldness that made 2001.  This is a review of Kubrick's satirical film with some added perspectives about the movie by a few of the director's biographers.  This post assumes you have already seen the motion picture.

When Kubrick completed Lolita in 1962, his mind was already preoccupied with the nuclear arms race and the concept of thermonuclear war.  This was at the height of the Cold War and the topic was pretty much in the back of every American's mind.  Nuclear war seemed a genuine possibility.  The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had occurred only 17 years earlier.  Nuclear testing in the US and the Soviet Union was a daily news item. 

Characteristically, Kubrick read everything he could get his hands on about the subject and eventually paid $3,500 for the screen rights to Red Alert, a novel about a military officer going rogue and ordering a military strike on the Soviet Union.  Kubrick immediately started working on a dramatic screenplay based on the novel. But, in happenstance and due to Kubrick’s expansive sense of humor, the long hours of writing often turned into late-night comical conversations.

While the screenplay slowly evolved in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis gripped the nation. Shortly thereafter, Kubrick made the fundamental decision to accentuate the comic rather than the tragic nature of the subject matter.  He felt that a satire would be a far more entertaining approach.  With that, he turned to writer Terry Southern to help develop satirical elements for the narrative. 

Kubrick originally wanted to shoot the picture in Los Angeles, but ultimately decided to film at Shepperton Studios in the United Kingdom.  Southern flew there and worked for two months with Kubrick hammering out a script that intentionally pushed the nature of the subject as far into the absurd as either thought it should go while maintaining realism and cohesion, totally believable.

The War Room, one of the most famous sets in cinematic history.
Set construction began in 1963 shortly before the screenplay was completed.  This included the famous “War Room” where much of the movie takes place.  The dimensions for this set were massive: 130-feet long, 100-feet wide, and 35-feet high. Designers also constructed a highly-detailed "educated guess" at what the interior of a B-52 bomber might look like.  At the time such information was classified but air force officials were stunned by how close Kubrick’s set team came to the appearance of the actual cockpit of the bomber.  It was so realistic that Kubrick verified his designers had obtained their ideas totally through public information.

To heighten the sense of realism a large number of photographs and filmed shots were made of Greenland and Iceland, representing terrain over the Soviet Union in which the B-52 in the film was supposed to be flying.  A model of a B-52 was used with front-projection for establishing the flight scenes.  From inside the cockpit, images were front-projected for each particular view of the plane, right-side, left-side, whatever. 

Kubrick was pleased that Peter Sellers, who played multiple roles under his direction in Lolita, agreed to play several different roles in the film.  Much of Sellers’ work in the film was unscripted; improvised between Kubrick and himself on the set.  Several days were spent shooting Sellers portraying US President Merkin Muffley as having a bad cold and constantly needing a nasal inhaler.   This led to some side-splittingly humorous shoots, with Sellers' gigantic wit running wild.  But Kubrick had to rein all that back.  The director decided that his film needed Sellers to play the president more sincerely in order to give the rest of the satire a grounded stability.  
Peter Sellers brilliantly portrayed a US president, a Nazi scientist, and a British colonel in the film.
There is little trace of Sellers’ original performance in the final film except for a shot of him folding a handkerchief when he is first introduced to the viewer. Nevertheless, Sellers still managed to almost steal the show with his portrayal of the president with comical improvisations that bubbled-up from the restrictions of playing the character (mostly) seriously.  This, of course, was one of the great advantages of working inside a dark comedy.  Click this scene to see a superb example of that.

George C. Scott is animated by the thought of how the B-52 can avoid detection and successfully strike its target, something that could trigger the end of the world.
Kubrick knew from the beginning that he would need a strong actor to portray the other star of the War Room scenes, General Buck Turgidson.  George C. Scott had the acting chops to match Sellers, though in a different way than Sellers, which allowed Dr. Strangelove to actually explore various styles of comedy inside the satire.  Scott and Kubrick played many games of chess in between takes, with Kubrick always winning.  Many critics believe that Kubrick used chess as a means to better control Scott's acting.  Kubrick constantly pushed Scott to go over-the-top in his performance, some of which were slapstick in nature.  Scott later did not care for how Kubrick cut his performance into the film.  He disliked the fact that Kubrick almost always chose the most outlandish takes from Scott.

Scott and Kubrick playing chess in the War Room.
Sellers also played the role of a British Colonel Lionel Mandrake, attached to the crazy US Colonel Jack D. Ripper (wonderfully played by Sterling Hayden, who worked with Kubrick on The Killing).  This Sellers role was closer to how the actor would later portray Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films, not as bumbling as that but depicted in situations that are every bit as absurd.  Finally, he was cast as Dr. Strangelove himself, another unique and incredible performance that comes only near the end of the film.

Kubrick wanted Sellers to play a fourth role, that of Major T.J. "King" Kong, the commander of the B-52.  Sellers actually shot a couple of takes as Major Kong before breaking his leg in an accident on the set, apparently as a result of arguing with Kubrick about a shot.  This was one reason the character of Dr. Strangelove was depicted in a wheelchair in the film (those scenes were shot after the break).  Kubrick was suddenly in a bind. 

The resolution came with the auspicious signing of Slim Pickens to play Kong.  While it is extraordinary that Sellers had the opportunity to play four major roles in Dr. Strangelove, it is also impossible to imagine this film without the performance that Pickens brings.  Pickens' natural quirky character, simply playing his western cowboy style self, added yet another comical dimension to the satire.  Pickens carried the weight of the B-52 scenes, and brought balance to the narrative as it switches from the bomber to the crazy colonel’s base to the War Room.

Dr. Strangelove is among the most brilliantly conceived and executed postwar films, as original as its maker and hard to categorize.  The quality of its ideas and the speculations they set up in the appalled mind are extended and transformed into so many various characters and evolving climaxes, so many ironic connections with man’s generative urge to destroy himself, that the film demands to be approached from not just one point of view but many – farcical, semantic, factual, surreal, nuclear.  Yet like all truly great works, it gives an impression of perfect portions.  Nothing is excessive.  All is there for precise effect.  All the ideas are so surely elaborated and absorbed into the wit of its writing and the superbly differentiated performances and then follow them through so logically that any tactical novelties of the plot can be accommodated so long as they fit in his predetermined strategy.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti) pp. 157-158)

The film is an aesthetic masterpiece.  It is dark and edgy but also absurd and silly. When Colonel Ripper orders the bombers to attack he does so out of concern over the Communist threat to “our precious bodily fluids.” When the president calls Soviet Premier Kissoff, the Russian leader must discuss possible nuclear annihilation while he is drunk and with a woman.  When Major Kong attempts to dislodge a jammed nuclear bomb he ends up, famously, riding the device all the way down to its explosion over the target.

Kubrick directing on the the film's combat scenes.
There is sophistication here, of course.  After all, this is a Stanley Kubrick film.  The sets are highly detailed, every aspect of picture looks and feels realistic.  All the humor rests on a bed of rock-solid validity.  All black comedy is automatically a complex mix of intense or dangerous circumstances with funny lines and behaviors. Dr. Strangelove is perhaps the best example of this genre. While Scott (pushed by Kubrick) served as the clown of the film, Sellers as the president, offered straight humor, Sellers as the British colonel is Monty Python-like, Sellers as Dr. Strangelove is an outlandish Nazi, and Slim Pickens, being more or less himself, is naturally over-the-top. Dr. Strangelove offers a rich mix of humor. 

That was not obvious at the time the film was shown to its producers and this led to several major edits in the film, including Kubrick completely changing how it ends.
“When Dr. Strangelove was screened for executives at Columbia Pictures, the reaction was far from enthusiastic.  Vice president in charge of production Mike Frankovich, the adopted son of comedian Joe E. Brown, and his wife, actress Binnie Barnes, were distressed when the lights came up in the studio screening room after they had just watched a comedy about the destruction of the earth.  Frankovich found the film unshowable, a disgrace to Columbia Pictures.

“It certainly didn’t help that at the time the film contained a sequence inspired by great screen comedians.  Throughout the film the War Room sported a buffet table filled with fine food.  Also on that table was a series of creamy custard pies.  The Russian Ambassador grabs a pie and throws it.  The pie misses its target and hits the President squarely in the face.  In the great tradition of pie-throwing sequences, pandemonium breaks out and the custard flies across the War Room, leaving everybody covered with cream….The sequence took nearly two weeks to shoot.

“Kubrick eventually decided to take out the pie-throwing sequence, telling Gene Phillips, ‘It was too farcical and not consistent with the satric tone of the rest of the film.’” (LoBrutto, pp. 245-247)

As with other Kubrick films, all of the outtakes were either destroyed or protected from the public by the British Film Institute - including all the footage shot of Sellers playing President Muffley with a nasal inhaler.  All that publicly remains of the pie-throwing scene today are a few photographs.

Dr. Strangelove explores several themes, but one strong, underlying current is sexuality.  It is nothing new for Kubrick to explore sex (he had just finished Lolita, after all), and to equate warfare with sex is a common analogy. 

“The sexual content of Dr. Strangelove, what one critic labeled a ‘sex allegory’ and another example of ‘erotic displacement,’ represents the most discernible and widely discussed mythopoeic element in the film.  The progress of the film from ‘foreplay to explosion,’ to quote one critic, is clearly and almost too neatly connected with the satiric characterizations.” (Nelson, page 93)

As examples of this Nelson offers: Jack D. Ripper is named after history’s more notorious sex offender. A Playboy Magazine centerfold is featured on the B-52 and the ultimate target for the bomber ends up being a Soviet base at “Laputa” (Spanish for ‘whore’). Turgidson tells his scantily dressed girlfriend (who is also the centerfold) to start her "countdown" and "Bucky will be back before you can say ‘blastoff’." President Merkin Muffley's name is a reference to vulva, according to Nelson.  Finally, “Dr. Strangelove brings Ripper’s madness into the ‘rational’ world of the War Room and links it to man’s intercourse with the machine and a sinister love affair with death.”

“Consequently, the film’s ‘sex allegory’ is only one of several conceptual levels that are interconnected and hold this fictional world together.  Everywhere you look in the film, for instance, there are hints of primal and infantile regression that suggest a reverse descent not into space but into time.  There is Kong’s Neanderthal Man and the primitivism of Turgidson, who slaps his hairy belly while standing over his mistress and in the War Room repeatedly assumes apelike stances.  There is Ripper crawling on all fours as his mind degenerates to the same level as those juvenile scrawls on his notepad that contains the recall code. There are the opening images of the film, a B-52 bomber being refueled in midair, suggesting both copulation and a mother giving suck, while on the soundtrack we hear ‘Try a Little Tenderness’…” (Nelson, page 95)

The negative reaction of the Columbia Pictures studio producers to film is similar to how Hollywood executives reacted to 2001. Dr. Strangelove also received some less than enthusiastic reviews, mostly due to the critics believing humor was inappropriate where the possibility of a nuclear holocaust is concerned.

Strangelove went on general US release on 30 January 1964, to classic mixed reviews, but an improving box office.  ‘A true satire,’ said the Saturday Review, ‘with the whole human race as the ultimate target,  I’m inclined to say that this mordant young director Kubrick has carried American comedy to a new high ground.’ Bosley Crowther in the New York Times harrumphed, ‘I am troubled by the feeling which runs all through the film, of discredit and even contempt for our whole military establishment.’  The Washington Post concurred: ‘No communist could dream of a more effective anti-American film to spread aboard than this one.’” (Baxter, page 192) 

The film's final hurdle was a completely unexpected one.  Its original premiere date was November 22, 1963.  But the assassination of President John F. Kennedy led to a cancellation until January 1964. The depiction of President Muffley and the seriousness of the subject matter was deemed by Columbia and Kubrick himself as being unsuitable given current events.  This also led to a slight change in dialog by Slim Pickens.

In the film Pickens rather comically runs through a content check of all the items in the crew's individual survival kits.  This include condoms and other "non-essential" items.  At which point Pickens originally said: "Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good time in Dallas with all this stuff."  Obviously, since Kennedy was murdered in Dallas the line had to be overdubbed.  In the final film you can see Pickens' mouth still utter "Dallas" but his voice overdubs the word with "Vegas."

Despite mixed reviews, Dr. Strangelove earned at the box office more than four times its cost, making it a financial success for Columbia and for Kubrick.  The director had taken a big risk with a serious subject.  The result is one of the greatest film's ever made.  I would give Dr. Strangelove a solid 9 on my rating scale.  I have seen it a dozen times or more through the years.  Each viewing feels entertaining and fresh, the dark humor is timeless.  Though theoretically the threat of nuclear weapons is as serious now as it ever was, it is no longer part of the zeitgeist of our times.  That Kubrick boldly turned the existential terror of that time into one of the world's greatest comedic films is no small achievement.  That Dr. Strangelove remains as enjoyable today as it was in 1964 is an even greater accomplishment.
The famous closing shot.  Slim Pickens rides the bomb all the way down.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Catching up with Jackson Browne

I guess I am going through a musical trip down memory lane lately.  

It all started, without any conscious provocation, with one of my latest obsessions, creating music mixes on youtube.  I find that the commercial interruptions are brief and minimal on youtube and it is a great way to make music I enjoy more accessible from any location.  Plus, I love mixing music myself.  It is fun.

Anyway, I started off simply with distilling down my favorite tunes by Neil Young in the 21st century (see previous post).  One thing led to another, as it always does, of course, and I ended up reacquainting myself with music from the 1970's that listened to in my high school and college days, much of it before I became a hardcore Neil fan.  It is a work in progress, I haven't mixed music by everyone I was in to back then yet.

Randomly, I created a Jackson Browne mix.  This was more than just collecting tunes I used to play a lot.  This was also an opportunity for me to listen to albums by him that I had only heard in fragments or had not heard at all yet.  The result was a robust collection by the superb singer/songwriter, incorporating the classic with the (for me) new-ish material. 

Jackson Browne was a natural part of the Southern California rock phase I enjoyed during my teens and into my early 20's.  I played the heck out of Late for the Sky, The Pretender, and Running On Empty when they came out.  Jackson's talent became less consistent after that, though each album offers a few great tunes.  

Though he rarely matched the creative height he reached on his earlier albums, the post-Hold Out releases offer some worthy songs.  2008's Time the Conqueror and 2014's Standing in the Breach are particularly noteworthy, very strong, mature efforts.  

Musically, his chord progressions are more complicated than they may seem.  Lyrically, he is a master of blending the melancholy with the sublime, the silly with the serious, the political with the emotional, giving him a distinctive philosophical sound that remains heart-felt and thought-provoking today.

Here are some songs I discovered in my Jackson Browne mix.

Many of these songs have not aged at all.  "Information Wars" is from 1996's Looking East, a rather mediocre album overall. This song still sounds truly fresh, as if it were written for our present circumstances.  I really enjoy the hearty mix and variety of layered instruments in this one - especially the stratocaster guitar at the end.

In 1997, he released his first "greatest hits" collection which was far from complete and was superseded a couple of years later by a more comprehensive assemblage.  A couple of new tunes were recorded for this album.  "The Next Voice You Hear..." was a really excellent addition to his oeuvre. 

His first venture in the 21st century was 2002's The Naked Ride Home. Again, I am nonplussed by most of the music on this record, but "The Night Inside Me" is a solid, medium rocker, reflecting the unique casual intensity that flows through most of Jackson's music and is one factor in making his sophisticated lyrics so accessible.

In 2005 and 2008 Jackson produced two live solo albums.  To be honest, he is a better piano player than a guitarist and his solo performances are not all that instrumentally empowered.  But the songs themselves are fairly strong, again thanks to his propensity for poetic, emotional, and politically charged lyrics.  "Your Bright Baby Blues" is from The Pretender.  But this stripped-down version is definitely worth repeating.
Ditto "My Stunning Mystery Companion."  This is another tune from The Naked Ride Home, but I prefer this version to the earlier studio rendition. Simply a beautiful song.

In comparison with most of his later work, 2008's Time the Conqueror is a masterpiece of mature rock.  Jackson has always worked with great producers and his albums are often multi-layer soundscapes.  There is no better example of that than this record.  So easy to listen to, yet so sharp and edgy in terms of its content.  Every track on this album is strong but here are my favorites beginning with "Where Were You?" - probably the best song presented in this post. 

Jackson will turn 70 in October this year.  He has slowed down a bit without compromising at all on the intensity of his music.  Six years passed before he put out his next and latest studio album, Standing in the Breach, another wonderful effort with multiple, excellent tracks.  Stuff like this makes me hopeful for my own energy and creativity when I reach his age in another 11 years or so.  Here are the tracks that stood out the most in my mind's ear.

A special shout-out on "The Birds of St. Mark."  The guitar on this song reminds me of music by The Byrds.  Well, there's a reason for that.  Jackson wrote this song back at the beginning of his career, partly as a homage to guitarist Jim McGuinn, but never recorded it.  He says he thought it was unfinished at the time. As one thing leads to another for all of us (karma-wise), he revisited the song over four decades after he wrote it, recording it without changing much of anything.  His decision to feature it on his 2014 album takes his career full-circle, back to his beginnings.  I can only hope there is another album (or two) in his future.  This time, I'll definitely be watching for whatever might come from him next.  I really love this slow rocker and am so grateful it saw the light of day.

If you like, you can enjoy my entire Jackson Browne youtube mix here.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Best of Neil Young in the 21st Century

Long-time readers know I am a huge, life-long Neil Young fan, something known as a "rustie" in Neil's fandom realm.  Neil is in the twilight years of a prolific career spanning 41 studio albums, 8 live albums, 4 soundtrack albums, among several others.  He has released 59 singles.  This doesn't count any of his collaborative work with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY.

I use the term "twilight years" loosely.  Neil has not slowed down any.  His energy level is frequently as high as it has ever been, especially since he reinvigorated himself performing with Promise of the Real beginning about three years ago.

Since 1969, like clockwork, he has produced a new album almost every year, not counting the release of 6 archival recordings (Live at Massey Hall 1971, one his best live performances, came out in 2007) and his massive online Archives project.

Neil's consistently "great" work was put out back in the 1970's with After the Gold Rush in 1970 (considered one the greatest albums of the 20th century), Harvest (considered the greatest Canadian album of all-time) in 1972, On the Beach in 1974, Tonight's the Night in 1975 (another greatest album of all-time), Long May You Run (with Stephen Stills) in 1976, Comes a Time in 1978, and Rust Never Sleeps (another greatest album choice) in 1979.  He also scored big with Freedom (featuring the insanely popular "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World") in 1989, Ragged Glory in 1990, and Harvest Moon in 1992. 

Neil has not let up any in the 21st century, though he has not attained the same level of critical and popular acclaim.  But that suits him just fine.  His musical muse is constantly experimenting, pushing into new areas and reinforcing successes he experienced in 20th century.  He still explores political themes with a heavy emphasis on environmentalism.  He still seeks new directions in his music, exploring new expressions of sound.  The man is an unrelenting genius at pushing the limits of his music while remaining true to his folk and rock beginnings.

This rare tenacity for exploration and production has yielded some top-notch results in the 21st century.  What follows are my personal choices for his best efforts since 2001 - so far - generally presented in chronological order.

In 2003, Neil teamed up with Crazy Horse (the world's 3rd greatest garage band) on Greendale, a concept album with mixed results.  Actually, guitarist Frank Sampedro was not used for the record; Neil carried the load alone, giving it a bit of stripped-down sound. "Be the Rain" is the most noteworthy part of that effort.

Neil rarely repeats his multifaceted style on consecutive albums.  In 2005 he produced Prairie Wind, something that hearkened back to his previous three folksy albums: Harvest, Comes a Time, and Harvest Moon.  "No Wonder" is a kicking acoustical number and the best tune on the album.

Probably my favorite 21st century Neil tune is the dense, semi-rappy and energetic "The Restless Consumer" from his 2006 album Living With War, conceived as a protest against the Iraq War.  This song not only protests war but America's neurotic consumer culture as well. The lyrics: "Don't need no dizziness, don't need no nausea, don't need no side-effects like diarrhea or sexual death" have got to be among the most potent of any in rock music over the past two decades. Don't need no more lies.  True enough in today's "fake news" Trumpian dystopia.   

Neil is famous for long songs that allow for a lot of improvisation and extended guitar riffs.  One of the best examples of this in his entire oeuvre is 2007's "No Hidden Path" off of the once mythical, very eclectic Chrome Dreams II album.  Ironically (and comically), there never was a Chrome Dreams I which makes the album title rather unique in recorded music.  This 14 and a half minute tune is about an intimate relationship between a man and a woman.  

2010's Le Noise is one of his most successful experimental ventures.  It features Neil solo and working in close collaboration with famous producer Daniel Lanoise, whose last name was played upon to serve as the fitting title to this effort.  Neil gave Lanoise unprecedented freedom to produce this record's unusual sound with a multitude of studio mixes and loops.  The album is as much a Lanoise creation as it is Neil's.  "Walk With Me" is a very strong representation of this work.  You can watch Neil play one of his famous "white falcon" electric guitar.  The album was recorded in Lanoise's home outside Los Angeles which features a empty elevator shaft.  They decided to blast Neil's amps into the shaft on the top floor and record the sound coming out on the bottom floor, which helps give Le Noise its big, cavernous sound. 

Neil's relationship with Crazy Horse goes back to 1969's Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.  The on-again, off-again teaming with the band through the years is typical of Neil's restless and constantly shifting creative impulses.  2012's successful Psychedelic Pill is, overall, one his best albums so far this century.  For me, "She's Always Dancing" is Neil at his rocking best, featuring that crunchy "Old Black" electric guitar sound.

Neil released a unique solo double-album in 2014 called Storytone.  One record/CD featured Neil performing all the songs stripped-down, acoustically, while the second record/CD had the same songs presented with an orchestral or big band arrangement.  While not particularly strong, Storytone is another example of Neil experimenting with his music.  "Who's Gonna Stand Up" is definitely a highlight for me.  It is a biting environmentalist tune that sounds weirdly pleasing with a traditional orchestra backing Neil up. He has always loved incorporating orchestrations into his music, going back to 1972's "A Man Needs a Maid."

In 2015 Neil teamed up for the first time with Lukas Nelson's band Promise of the Real (a group named after a Neil Young lyric).  This proved to be a terrific collaboration that invigorated Neil.  Lukas seemed like a reincarnation of Danny Whitten and Neil fed off the creative energy of the young band members.  He is still working with them today (off and on, of course).  The pure music on the The Monsanto Years works much better than the protest lyrics do in this case.  But tunes like "Big Box" are remarkable for their satisfying and accessible rocking nature.  This is probably my favorite tune on this list after "The Restless Consumer" with Lukas prominently playing a second lead to Old Black.

In 2016 Neil went solo again for Peace Trail, a rather mediocre effort.  The protest song "Indian Givers" was certainly timely but it failed to resonate with me.  His acoustic chops remained solid, however.  "Show Me" is a splendid example of how the intimate and emotional "acoustic Neil" lives on strongly to this day. 

2017's The Visitor is Neil's second studio collaboration with Promise of the Real.  It features a swipe at the Donald Trump presidency with "Already Great."  The song shows how Neil remains timely and relevant with political issues (always the case since 1970's "Ohio"), responding to Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again" with lyrics that point out America was great before Trump ever started his spiel.  But "Change of Heart" is the tune that really caught my ear.  A fantastic, smooth acoustical effort that features wonderful musicianship by Neil and his new favorite backing band.

Bonus Track: Though not written in the 21st century, this performance of "Love and Only Love" is the highlight for me off the 2016 semi-live album, EarthNeil is again performing with Promise of the Real, this time on tour after The Monsanto Years was released.  I use the term "semi-live" because much of the album is overdubbed with studio backup singers and, most prominently, nature sounds that occasionally pop up inside the songs and are used extensively between tracks to fuse the album into a continuous stream of sound and music.  The result is another interesting experimental effort. This 28-minute version of the song actually climaxes a little over halfway through.  Neil loves to toy around with sound when performing live and the spontaneous second half of this track is a splendid example of that.  It reminds me of what I listened to back in the day on Live Rust and Weld (though perhaps not quite as grungy).  You won't find any fading, growing old energy from the 72-year old Neil during this lengthy performance.  I can only hope I have this amount of oomph when I reach that age.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Sean Newcomb: The Rarity of 134 Pitches

Readers will recall that Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb did not pitch well when I saw him a couple of weeks ago.  Well, this past Sunday he came within one strike of pitching a no-hitter against a very good Los Angeles Dodgers team.  I watched as Newcomb got the first two outs of the ninth inning.  His pitch-count was unusually high for this day and age in baseball.  The Dodger lead-off batter Chris Taylor worked Newcomb into a 9-pitch at-bat by fouling off several pitches after the young Braves starter reached a 3-2 count against him.  The ninth pitch in the sequence was hit for a single. 

Newcomb was pulled from the game after that because of his excessive pitch-count.  He threw 134 pitches in 8 2/3 innings.  The entire time Newcomb battled Taylor I was wondering about the pitch-count.  When was the last time a Braves starting pitcher has thrown that many pitches?

After the game I was busy googling the internet and emailing friends to discover the answer.  My wanderings eventually took me to an article on Quora which mentioned that a pitcher for the New York Giants threw 211 pitches in a game played many decades ago.  More importantly for my quest, however, was the fact that the article mentioned a "Play Index" tool over at Baseball Reference that allows for all kinds of wonderful ad hoc statistical reporting on major league baseball.  The tool is a bit glitchy in terms of information, but I'm not a paying subscriber either.  Still, my queries yielded interesting results.

I played around with that for awhile and found the answer to my question regarding how long it has been since a Braves pitcher threw that many pitches in a game, along with other information.  Hall-of-famer John Smoltz  threw 152(!) pitches on May 3, 1989 in a 6-3 win against the Philadephia Phillies.  Since I am not  a paying customer, my ad hoc results were limited to the Top 11 records in my pitch-count query.  But I "cheated" by moving the pitch-count variable down a bit.  Smoltz threw 138 pitches on July 5, 1995 in a 4-1 win against the Dodgers.

If I switch the view to just left-handed pitchers it turns out turns out hall-of-famer Tom Glavine makes the Top 11 list five(!) times.  As I have mentioned before, Glavine is one of personal favorite all-time players.  I remember he threw a lot of pitches throughout his career but I never really paid attention to high pitch counts back in his day.  High counts were more frequent then than they are today with all the pitching changes and deep bullpens in contemporary baseball.  The most pitches Glavine ever threw was in the magical 1991 season when he hurled 138 pitches in a 5-1 win over the San Diego Padres. 

For the record, the most pitches ever through by a Braves pitcher according to the database is 159 - accomplished twice, once by Lew Burdette in 1954 and by Bob Buhl in 1956.  Looking at lefties, the great Warren Spahn, the lefty with baseball's most wins, threw 148 pitches for the Boston Braves in a 1947 6-3 win over the then Brooklyn Dodgers.  But, for reasons unknown, the database does not include the incredible performance between Spahn and the San Francisco Giants great Juan Marichal on July 2, 1963, when both pitchers went the distance in 16-innings - something that would never happen today.  Marichal beat Spahn that day with both pitchers throwing an astonishing 227 and 201 pitches respectively.  Incredible!

Back to the contemporary era, on June 6, 2000, Glavine threw 136 pitches in a 7-6 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.  That was the last time any Brave pitcher made that many pitches.  So, Newcomb's 134-pitch gem on Sunday is the only time a Braves has reached that high of a pitch-count in the 21st century.  In fact, according to the database, the most recent time any pitcher threw that many pitches was back in 2004 when it happened on three occasions.  Livan Hernandez did it twice that season, throwing 143 pitches in a 8-1 loss against the Braves on September 11, and 141 pitches in a 9-4 win against Toronto on June 27.  The other pitcher was former Braves player Jason Schmidt who threw 144 pitches for the Giants on May 18 in a 1-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Looked at this way, Newcomb's pitch-count performance on Sunday is unmatched by any pitcher in baseball in the past 14 seasons.  Pretty cool stuff!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Reading 'Space Odyssey': Part Two

Note:  This is the final part of a two-part review of Michael Benson's Space Odyssey.  It is assumed that the reader has already seen the movie.

Kubrick wanted to shoot the beginning of 2001 immediately after finishing Dullea's “hotel room scene.”  But, he had a problem, actually several problems.  No one had yet produced a man-ape costume that didn't look like a man stuffed in an ape suit.  Nothing looked like a realistic Australopithecus africanus, which was precisely something Kubrick and Clarke agreed upon in their collaboration to make a scientifically legitimate science fiction film.  So, the director decided, not for the first time, to defer the Dawn of Man until something more believable came along.

Discussions about the opening phase on the film, intended to happen 4 million years ago, continued between Kubrick and Clarke.  Kubrick thought Clarke was being too literal in how the alien intelligence illuminated Moonwatcher's mind.  The differences between the novel and the film grew more numerous.  As with the man-ape costumes, Kubrick didn't know exactly what he wanted, but no one was offering it to him yet.

The other thing bedeviling the Dawn of Man opening sequence was a lack of backdrop.  Kubrick sent a professional photographer with special 65mm cameras to capture specific African landscapes at specific times of day with specific attention to color hue and shadowing.  Afraid of traveling himself, Kubrick tried to dictate exact camera positions from England.  Air delivery of the negatives made Kubrick's international phone calls productive when directing camera corrections based upon the last shots.  The film begins with many of the shots captured in this long-distance fashion.

Instead of the Dawn of Man, Kubrick next filmed the scene where HAL's brain is disconnected followed by the various EVA (extravehicular spacewalk) shots scattered throughout the middle portion of the film, all of which involved wire-work.  While that began, his two-year fruitful collaboration with Clarke started to break down over the publication, or rather non-publication, of the novel.  Kubrick asked that the novel not be shown to potential publishers until he had had time to read it and offer suggestions.  Clarke, driven by a need for money and also by the fact that he felt the book was finished as it was, showed the draft to Dell Publishing anyway.

Dell was ready to publish the book but Kubrick, who had legal control over the novel since he had technically paid Clarke to write it, refused until parts of it were rewritten based upon what was happening to the narrative in the course of shooting the film.  To be fair, most of these changes had already been made by Clarke.  The writer from Ceylon failed in his attempts to persuade Kubrick, of course, and the author went home empty-handed but for Kubrick's promise to defer the director's portion of the novel's worldwide advance payment as compensation for the delay.  In reality, Kubrick had decided that the movie should be released before the novel was published.

Despite all this, Clarke – still writing possible narration segments for the film – remained highly loyal to Kubrick, understanding the motives of the director more than most.  Clarke wrote to a friend who was critical of how Kubrick was treating Clarke: “Actually, I do not agree with you that Stanley is insensitive to the needs of others – he is very sensitive, but his artistic integrity won't allow him to compromise.  I have to admire this attribute even when it causes me great inconvenience!”

Also in the summer of 1966, Kubrick met Dan Richter, a mime actor, through a mutual acquaintance. Up until now, Kubrick had been testing the man-ape suits with stuntmen and actors.  Richter showed Kubrick how subtle changes in physical body posture would completely transform the realism of the suit.  Kubrick quickly hired him to play Moonwatcher.  With Richter to coach others, it was almost possible to move forward with the Dawn of Man.

Meanwhile, Bill Weston, a stuntman, was handling the wire-work Kubrick needed for the spacewalk shots.  This involved placing the camera directly underneath Weston with an entire sound stage blacked out, lighting only the stuntman.  Benson calls this “some of the most physically and technically demanding scenes” in the film.  “Decades before digital effects, they constitute an extraordinary, largely unsung moment in film history.”  Weston performed while hanging from a wire in space suits that did not supply him with adequate oxygen and did not vent carbon dioxide, which made breathing increasingly difficult after about 10 minutes.  Every shot was a herculean effort by Weston and the crew to capture realistic looking weightlessness conditions in-camera within the span of a few short minutes with Kubrick shouting direction from a megaphone below.  

The grueling effort took weeks and was a constant danger to Weston's health.  Various solutions to make things easier for Weston were rejected by Kubrick because the authenticity of the shot would be somehow compromised.  Due to the fact the camera was positioned directly underneath the stuntman, every shot was made without a safety net.  An assistant camera man was injured when a piece of the Weston’s support apparatus snapped and fell down upon the camera area.  This spooked Kubrick, who directed the remaining shots off to the side of the camera for fear of being hit.  With much personal effort, Weston survived the shoot and the scenes look perfectly realistic in the film.

Later in 1966, Kubrick was at last ready to shoot the Dawn of Man opening sequence of the film.  The final impediments to making this portion of 2001 included fine-tuning the man-ape masks and finding the right backdrops to use as front projections that would make the man-ape scenes appear as if they were shot outside during a drought in Africa 4 million years ago.  

This last part is why Kubrick had sent a photographer (actually more than one) to Africa and sought to control each photo taken through the tedious process of having the negatives mailed to him and then telling the photographer over the phone precisely how to reshoot.  Among several shots he preferred, Kubrick pointed out that he really liked the prehistoric feel of certain aloe trees known as kokerbooms.  He instructed that he didn't like to location of the trees, however, and, in what turned out to be a difficult covert operation, asked that four of them be moved to another location.

Since the trees were endangered they were protected by a fence enclosure, which the photographer and his native assistants had to break in to one night.  The first two trees they attempted to cut down shattered like watermelons upon hitting the ground, they were so heavy and water-filled.  After that, the other trees were tied with ropes and lowered onto truck beds for transportation several miles away.  The shot Kubrick wanted was eventually captured at the cost of six trees, two lost when they were stolen and the other four destroyed and dumped into the river after being filmed and photographed.  In the end, the trees are in the film for a few seconds, but they are not those trees.  Kubrick ended up changing his mind and had the trees fabricated in England. 

With his backdrop shots chosen, with a troupe of dancers trained by Richter to act in the man-ape suits, and finally with believable man-ape masks allowing for a range of facial expression, Kubrick proceeded with what Benson calls “one of the most ambitious, technically complex shooting situations ever attempted.”  The backdrop South West Africa photos were front projected onto a special sixty-foot screen made of 3M's newly designed Scotchlite reflective material.  As I mentioned, the photos were all taken around dawn and dusk, which allowed Kubrick to tweak the lighting in the sound stage.

The lighting consisted 37 crates filled with 500-watt bulbs.  The array of lights was controlled through a system of 1,850 switches.  As he did throughout the shoot, Kubrick took dozens of Polaroid shots to check the set.  Altogether, the set used up to 1.5 million watts of light to capture the proper outdoor effect.  Sections of the lights could be dimmed or brightened to match the shadows and hues of color on the projected backdrop images. All of this light heated the sound stage to over 100 degrees which made things difficult for the performers in the man-ape suits.  A team of nurses stood by to assist with anyone who might pass out.  Kubrick had a refrigerator full of soft drinks available for the cast and crew between takes.

Another of the many surprises in reading Benson's Space Odyssey is the revelation that all the screeches and snorts and grunts you hear in the Dawn of Man sequence are uttered from the actors themselves.  They are not sound effects of “real” apes.  Benson calls this “an auditory confirmation of the profoundly intimate genetic linkage between Homo sapiens and its distant ancestors.”

After filming all the tribal scenes of the film's opening section, Kubrick shot Richter’s solo work as Moonwatcher, discovering how to use a bone as a weapon.  It is unclear whether or not Kubrick already had in mind what to do with Richter, but apparently, like other instances mentioned so far, what we see in the movie is the work of collaborative happenstance.  

Picking up the bone, Richter smelled it a little, and then started meditatively thumping it down on the skeleton fragments.  Lined up along the reflective beam of the front-projection plate, both the camera and Kubrick were fairly close, and Dan could communicate with the director as he did so.  In an early take, Dan banged the bone down, and a rib spun up in the air.  'Oh, sorry,' he said from behind his mask.  'No, no,' said Kubrick.  'Use it, it looks good.  Keep doing it.  Keep doing it.'  And so Dan continued, smashing down on the smaller bones around him in a escalating frenzy of liberated violence.  Finally, he rose on both legs and brought his bone club down on the center of the large skull – all in the fixed framing that the front-projection technique required, with the dry banks of the dead river behind him.

“Upon watching Richter's dry riverbed scene, however, everyone fell silent.  Dan had played it perfectly, all the way to the smashing of the skull, which functioned as a euphoric visual crescendo.  Although he knew it was good, Kubrick discovered he was still unsatisfied....He wanted to see Dan's arm with the weapon from below, in slow motion with the sky above – two things impossible to achieve with the front-projection technique, which required that the camera remain rigidly in line with the cumbersome projector.”

They waited until a day when London's skies were roughly similar to the sky in the African backdrop shot, built up a small platform and tossed some sand over the foreground.  On September 20, 1967 Kubrick filmed Richter's downward smash from below, the sky filling the shot above.  They shot take after take after take of Richter striking a film's collection of horse skulls.  

This “simple” shoot went on for seven days and reached a point where Richter was being told to toss his bone into the air after pulverizing one of the few remaining skulls.  Kubrick himself captured the shot of the bone turning end-over-end.  The director would use this shot to transition out of the Dawn of Man section to the year 2001 Space Station sequence, a 4 million year match-cut that is yet another iconic moment in this film, one of the most famous transitions in cinematic history.  

Parallel with the rest of production, Kubrick's special effects team worked around the clock to finalize more than 200 shots that required models and inserting literally hundreds of images into previously shot scenes.  These images included everything from computer displays to people walking around inside space stations and Moon bases.  

The magnificent shots of the 55-foot model of the space ship Discovery and of Space Station 5 were captured in the spring of 1967.  Benson explains how these models were shot so that additional effects could be added later: “Complicated worm-gearing rigs governed by 'selsyn' motors – a postmanteau of 'self-synchronous' – had been set up, allowing shots to be repeated with frame-by-frame accuracy.  This was necessary when adding tiny people moving around within the space station, for example, or the underground Moon base air lock, or showing Bowman on Discovery's bridge, and interior details of its open pod bay.

“In such cases, the model was lit with its window or pod bay areas blacked out....Then the camera was recalled down the worm-geared, studio length track and the shot repeated, now with the model dark and only the window areas alive with front-projected little figures or exquisitely detailed pod bay set photographs.”   

Yet another collaborative aspect of the film, again involving Trumbull and Kubrick, resulted in an innovation that would literally blow the minds of the audience in the final cut of the film.  For months Kubrick, Trumbull and others on the effects team had wrestled with how to depict Bowman's transition through the Star Gate, when the astronaut became an object of study by the alien intelligence.  

Trumbull developed a special system where the camera was mounted on a track in front of a 4 foot slit on an opaque black surface with a strip of lights directly behind the slit and a glass sheet of abstract translucent photographs on a second track moving side to side as the camera moved forward and back.   The result impressed Kubrick.  Trumbull's innovation made the Star Gate sequence yet another visually stunning and unforgettable aspect of the film.

“It's hard to overestimate how important the Star Gate is to 2001's larger narrative arc.  After two hours of perfectly realized photographic realism, it launched the film into a new realm of purely subjective audiovisual experience, much of it entirely abstract and nonrepresentational.  Even today the sequence doesn't seem of have dated.  For all their power, contemporary computer-generated images haven't really supplanted or superseded Trumbull's slit scan striations...”

The hours were grueling for all this effects work.  Painstakingly made shots were re-shot at Kubrick's request as the director perpetually pushed the limitations of his team.  This was not without some humorous moments. 

“When Kubrick commanded that one of Trumbull's effects sequences be repeated yet again, [animation cameraman Jim] Dixon rose from his seat with a menacing air.  'Who fucked up the shot this time?' he demanded.  Trumbull stood.  'You're embarrassing me,' he said coolly.  At this Dixon pulled out a gun, aimed for Trumbull's chest and fired.  A deafening bang echoed in the enclosed space.

“Trumbull spilled onto the floor of the darkened theater.  Everyone leapt to  their feet in horror.  He clutched his chest.  He stirred, groaning.  He writhed, moaning.  Finally, he sat up.

“Kubrick started to laugh.”

As hard as the team worked, however, 2001's additional special effects were dragging on and on in late 1967, as MGM began pestering Kubrick for a finished film to promote.  Kubrick brought in Colin Cantwell, a veteran effects man, to help.  Cantwell soon discovered two things: 1) that two-thirds of the film's effects were in “varying stages of incompleteness” 2) while Kubrick was king, the director really thrived on collaborative ideas.  Kubrick and his wife Christiane hosted weekend evenings in his home.  Cantwell attended and had a series of conversations with Kubrick about the play of symmetry and abstraction in 2001.  Cantwell used this dialog to develop most of the various alignments between Jupiter, its moons, and the Sun so poetically visualized in the film.

By now Kubrick was working around the clock every day to finish the picture.  Clarke continued to submit planned narration for the film.  Kubrick's intent at this late date was to still use it in some fashion.  He was even auditioning possible voiceover talent.  But the film was fundamentally diverging from the novel with its approach to the same subject matter.  Cantwell recalled a meeting between Kubrick and Clarke at this time.  

“'He would come in with new narration to explain a whole section of the film that he had seen last time,' Cantwell said.  'He thought that about three or four or five minutes' worth of narration would take care of any uncertainties and puzzlement these scenes would create.'  Kubrick would then screen new material for his collaborator, and each time, 'Stanley would have taken out more of the dialogue, more of the thing being handled nonverbally...So this polarity would be clearly between them.'

“When Clarke registered his worries over what he saw as the film's growing opacity, Kubrick effectively steered him back to the novel, saying, 'Don't worry about it, Arthur, just put it all in exactly as you'd like to have it.  Make the story clear in any way that you want, it's your book.'  

“At this, Clarke would seem 'anxious and subtly frustrated,' Cantwell observed.  'Arthur was very subtle in what he was expressing, very polite.'”  When the film finally premiered in April 1968 Clarke proclaimed “This is really Stanley Kubrick's movie.  I acted as a first-stage booster and offered occasional guidance.”

From the voiceover talent auditions, Kubrick selected Douglas Rain to be the voice of HAL.  HAL's lines are among the last pieces of audio to be recorded for the film. Kubrick was changing the script, tweaking HAL's phrasing.  “During the session, Kubrick sat four feet away from the actor, and they went through the script line by line, with the director making small revisions as they proceeded.  According to one account, Rain's bare feet were on a pillow throughout, 'in order to maintain the required relaxed tone.'”  Rain's voice is considered by some to be the best acted role in the entire film.  Rain's performance ended with his now famous singing of Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two) which Kubrick had him sing, hum, and speak at various cadences. 

Everything wasn't a success and sometimes Kubrick had to give up on an idea.  One such idea was how to represent the alien intelligence visually.  Various costumes and effects were tried.  Nothing satisfied him and, given how the film veered toward being opaque at the end of production, he decided not to show them/it at all apart from the monoliths themselves.

For years Kubrick had been screening the unfinished space ship and space station sequences with The Blue Danube as background music, just to fill in the lack of sound.  He made that choice, along with all his other brilliant selections of music for the film, by listening to hundreds of classical music albums that were bought as part of film's exploding budget.  

So, when it came time to officially “score” the film, Kubrick found himself attached to his previous musical choices over a score commissioned for the film ($25,000, another budget item) and composed by Alex North.  Not a single note of North's music is used in the final film.  Instead we get outstanding choices by Johann and Richard Strauss, Aram Khachaturian, and especially profound selections from Gyorgy Ligeti.  Kubrick had a brilliant sense for music, which is true throughout all of his films. 

Benson reports that Kubrick edited 2001: A Space Odyssey between October 9, 1967 and March 6, 1968, before boarding the Queen Elizabeth to come to the United States.  The film would be fine-tuned in the editing process almost continuously even after its premieres.  Throughout this time, Kubrick wrestled with using Clarke's narration much as he struggled earlier with trying to visualize the alien intelligence.  And he reached the same conclusion.  He would not verbally explain anything.  The film would be a visual experience with only the tiniest bits of dialog to orient the viewer.  Clarke was upset that Kubrick didn't use any of his scripted voice-over narration.  Always a gentleman, Clarke expressed his dissatisfaction by simply saying he would “be interested to see how you can possibly dispense with much of the narrative material...”

As the movie premiered: “A good two years after Clarke first insisted it was ready, Kubrick finally green-lighted the novel.”  New American Library bought the rights for $130,000, of which Kubrick took 40% on a deferred basis.  Still, the amount Clarke received was enough to cancel all his debts and give him a small nest egg to spare.  Benson makes it clear that Clarke had not changed the novel at all during those two years, while, as we know, Kubrick deviated a bit from what was agreed upon back in 1966.  Clarke dedicated the novel “To Stanley.”  The book would go on to be republished more than fifty times (so far) and sell over 4 million copies.

Clarke saw 2001 at a Washington DC press screening (Kubrick was not present) on March 31, 1968.  “Though he knew in advance that Kubrick hadn't used any of his voice-over narration, he was shocked and disappointed by the film's lack of concession to audience understanding.”  Almost everyone thought it was a disaster.  Each premiere across the US was met with jeers and hisses from the audience.  Many got up and walked out, 241 at the New York premiere alone.  The New York press almost universally criticized the film.  Kubrick understandably became despondent.  He cut 17 minutes from the film before its general release.  It was his final act in mostly tumultuous a four-year process. 

Benson writes: “Contrary to the myth that 2001 faltered at the box office and was on the verge of being withdrawn when younger audiences came riding to the rescue, box office data reveal excellent ticket sales on Day One.  Within a week of its premiere, the April 10 Variety was already recording advance ticket sales 30 percent better than they were for MGM's 1965 hit Doctor Zhivago.”

It was predominantly a younger audience that found 2001 compelling.  A few film critics, such as Roger Ebert (who attended the Los Angeles premiere) thought it was a special film.  In this case, the near universal chorus of negativity both from critics and from premiere audiences did not matter.  “2001 swept the entire sixties counterculture into theaters worldwide, inspiring raves from some leading figures.  Asked about the film in 1968, Beatle John Lennon quipped, '2001? I see it every week.'”

The film was incredibly divisive.  You either loved it or you hated it, which Clarke found quite amusing.  “Clarke found himself enjoying the heated debates engendered by 2001's willful ambiguity, sometimes positioning himself near theater doors just to overhear them.  'It's creating more controversy than any movie I can think of,' he told a Berkeley radio station in May 1968.  'I used to have great fun standing outside the theater and listening to the crowds, the people coming out and arguing all the way down Broadway...And this is fine.  We want people to think, and not necessarily think the way that we do.'

“Asked if the pervasive spread of technology was beginning to dehumanize us, Clarke replied, 'No, I think it's superhumanizing us.'”

Stanley Kubrick received $200,000 up front for directing and producing 2001.  He got another $50,000 for writing its screenplay.  Contractually, he received 25% of the film's net revenue after the film made 2.7 times its final, over-budgeted $12 million.  The film grossed $58 million in 1968 in the US alone, which meant Kubrick received several million dollars directly as a result of the film's financial success.

Fans of the film, like me, owe Michael Benson a lot of gratitude.  He has delivered a detailed, revealing, in-depth study of how Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke worked together on the primary story ideas and how Kubrick went on to overcome innumerable challenges to deliver one of the greatest and most innovative movies ever made.  Benson’s writing is entertaining and highly accessible, the book often reads like a novel.  Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was America's top-grossing film for 1968.  Clarke's novel was first published 50 years ago this month.