Charlton Heston Has Died

Here’s the LA Times obit. My favorite Heston movie? Toss-up between “The Omega Man” and “Soylent Green.” I’d give the latter a slight edge.


The Invaders

It’s a thrill to discover that something you liked as a kid has a pedigree you can respect as an adult. In this case, I’ve just learned that a classic “Twilight Zone” episode that scared the wits out of me when I first saw it 22 years ago (age eight or so) was written by Richard Matheson. Matheson is best known for his novella “I Am Legend,” which is getting yet another cinematic treatment later this year, this time starring Will Smith. (I’m a fan of the 1971 Charlton Heston version, “The Omega Man.” There have been variations as well — arguably the whole zombie genre, from “Night of the Living Dead” to “28 Days Later,” owes almost everything to “I Am Legend.”) The “Twilight Zone” episode that made such an impression on me is “The Invaders,” about twelve-inch-tall robots terrorizing a woman in a rural house. Seeing it again tonight, I could understand why I found it so creepy as a youngster: it’s not only heavily atmospheric (and almost dialogue-free, which adds to the feeling of alienation and claustrophobia) but surprisingly violent, from the radiation-burn blisters the robots inflict on the woman to the attempt by one of the robots to saw off her foot with a kitchen knife.

I remembered the twist ending quite vividly — the invaders turn out to be from the U.S. Air Force. I’ve been referring to them as robots, which is how I remembered them from the first time I saw the episode, but my memory was wrong: they’re actually humans in space suits and (in what’s a “Twilight Zone” cliche) the seemingly ordinary woman is actually a giant. No wonder it’s Matheson: “The Invaders” is virtually the same story as “I Am Legend.” Same set-up: solitary human being against a terrifying menace. Same resolution: a reversal of the monster-protagonist roles. What’s artful is that Matheson leads his readers/viewers to identify with different sides in each story. The harried woman remains the most sympathetic figure in “The Invaders” right till the credits roll. “I am Legend” gives us the story from the other side of the divide. Both stories play off of the ambiguity of who’s really the monster. Unfortunately, I don’t hold out much hope that the Will Smith “I Am Legend” will preserve any of the story’s essential ambiguity and irony: Smith presumably has to be a clear hero. “The Omega Man” didn’t preserve those elements either, but it did staple onto the story some Christian allegory, which counts for a little, and it had 70’s sci-fi Charlton Heston cred (it was filmed between “Soylent Green” and “Planet of the Apes”), which counts for a lot.

More about Matheson and his work can be found here. I highly recommend “I Am Legend,” though unfortunately I haven’t read much of his other work.

These Are the Sad Songs

Via LRC, a link to a list (with audio) of “the 25 most exquisitely sad songs in the whole world.” I think I could come up with a better list, and I certainly know a few other folks who could. But this one will do: it can’t be all bad if it includes “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Lost Cause” (a particular favorite of mine), and “I Know It’s Over.” You can’t go too far wrong with Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, either, though “In the Real World” and “Hurt” might not be the best picks.

Is Australia All Just Croc Hunters and Kylie Minogue?

Of course not, though I’m not at all sure that Aussie journalist Guy Rundle makes much of a case to the contrary. He argues that the negative image of Australia put about by left-wing British journalists is a substitute for dealing with what a “slatternly disgrace” the British working class has become. That rings true but doesn’t say much about the real state of Australian civilization one way or another.

I like what little I’ve seen of Australia just from spending a month or two a few years ago in Alice Springs, an outpost in the middle of the outback. Admittedly, I wasn’t looking for culture there — I was content simply to look at rocks and wallabys. But that’s better than what passes for culture in most parts of the world these days.

Captain America, RIP

I’m a little surprised at how much coverage the assassination of Captain America is getting. He’s not the best-known comic-book character, and Marvel Comics is renowned for its revolving door of death. I remember around 1987 when they nuked the Hulk — that was pretty impressive to a nine-year-old Daniel McCarthy. They couldn’t possibly bring him back from that: he got nuked, there was nothing left but his shadow burned into the ground. (As it turned out, he was actually teleported away to another dimension at the last minute — lucky, that.) Still, I guess offing Cap in these dying days of the Bush administration does strike a chord with the national mood, or at least mood of the national press.

Old Wave

I don’t think I’m adding to my enormous hipster cred by admitting that I’m rather taken with much of the work of the French band (or “project”) Nouvelle Vague, which takes new wave classics from the 1980s and covers them in styles ranging from bossa nova (“Nouvelle Vague” is itself a multilinguistic pun on “bossa nova” and “new wave,” the three terms being rough equivalents in French, Portuguese, and English) to, on the new album, “‘unplugged’ reggae,” mostly sung by alluring French or Portuguese indie chanteuses. It all sounds horribly pretentious, but it actually works better than anyone has right to expect.

The first album, released in the U.S. last year, came to my attention when I heard it playing over the PA in a local bookstore. How can you go wrong with a French girl purring along to an acoustic arrangement of the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton”? Obviously you can’t. I wasn’t familiar with “Guns” at the time, in fact, though I recognized XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel” a song or two later. The eponymously titled first album succeeds in part because the quality of the sources — the Clash, XTC, the Dead Kennedys, Joy Division, the Undertones — but it’s not all down to that. Even the covers of the Cure, Depeche Mode (Vince Clarke-era, at that), and the Sisters of Mercy sound surprisingly good. The take on “This Is Not a Love Song” is far and away better than the PiL original. I’d almost say the same thing about the cover of the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” (even if it earns me a visit from the furious ghost of John Peel) and several of the other tracks, for that matter.

The new album, “Bande a Part,” covers more mainstream material and misses the mark several times. The world doesn’t need any more covers of U2 songs, no more than it needs any more originals. A reggae arrangement doesn’t bring out much that’s new in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” The more obscure selections on the new disc, meanwhile, tend to come from the more electro end of new wave: ESG, Heaven 17, Visage. When a relatively aggressive track like “Guns of Brixton” or “Too Drunk to F—” is translated into bossa nova, the result is often melodic and accessible without being twee. When songs that were originally radio friendly to begin with get the treatment, though, the result is perilously close to schmaltz. That said, the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen In Love?” works, as do the two New Order covers on various formats of the album (“Confusion” and “Blue Monday” — to my surprise the latter is the better of the two, despite how overexposed the original is), and the interpretations of songs by two other one-time Factory Records acts, the Wake and A Certain Ratio, are also solid. The limited edition of the album has a very good take on the Smiths’ “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” as well. And whether or not it’s any good, Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” done as a near showtune certainly is a revelation — between that and getting covered on Paul Anka’s last album, Mr. Idol may be in the midst of a revival he’ll soon want to forget.

A few sample songs from both albums are on-line here, including “Guns of Brixton.” Or if all this Gallicism makes you feel unpatriotic — the Washington, D.C. date of Nouvelle Vague’s North American tour is going to be at the French Embassy in September — you can always visit the Right Brothers website instead and listen to samples from their new album, including “That’s Why We’re Here,” “Freedom Is Not Free,” “Stand Up,” and the all-American classic “Bush Was Right.”

Cinema = Oppression

Clark Stooksbury lets the ludicrous Stanley Kurtz have it. Kurtz is a prime example of how certain conservatives now display all the traits of the victim mentality conservatives once despised. They find oppression in every piece of pop-culture detritus that doesn't affirm their own worldview.

Kurtz is frequently in hysterics over a television show called "Big Love," which is apparently about polygamy, or what Kurtz calls "polyamory" (a bastard neologism of Latin and Greek roots, something else I can't stand). Like most people, I have never seen this show. It's on HBO — premium cable. I don't even have basic cable. And do you know why? Because I don't like the tripe that passes for mass entertainment. I have a hard time feeling oppressed by something that I don't watch and don't pay for.

But Kurtz thinks those of us who do the sensible thing and shut off the noise boxes ought to feel oppressed — be afraid, be very afraid:

Conservatives need to face the fact that our position in this culture is genuinely precarious. If we lose our hold on power, we’ll scream bloody murder on our outlets at everything the other side does. Yet those screams may only confirm our helplessness. The deep cultural dimension of our political battles makes an ordinary transfer of political power far more consequential than it was in the days when America had a bipartisan foreign policy and a broad cultural consensus.

How the blazes does Republican control of Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court translate into a more conservative culture? If America has suddenly become more conservative in its film, radio, and television in the age of Bush, I haven't noticed. And if Kurtz means that a.) Republican governments can censor culture he doesn't like and b.) Republican governments forestall liberal efforts to use the force of law against conservatives in the culture, I have bad news for him: any aggrandizement of the state that can achieve a.) will, at some point in the not too distant future, also undermine b.) When you make the state a censor, you give it power not only to prohibit what is wrong but also what is right.

Kurtz ought to know that, and I'm sure he does. But the culture war has become the equivalent of the old bloody shirt, a symbol to wave about to raise up the voters while distracting them from what's actually happening in government. Bush and his pet Congress are in no sense conservative — not with their Wilsonian wars, their schizophrenic and feckless immigration policy, their trashing of constitutional and traditonal liberties, and their record-breaking spending. Conservative voters should not give them a pass just because they dislike "the Da Vinci Code."

The Naomi and Harvey Podcast Show

It's not surprising that, as the BBC reports, women are driving the market for on-line music. A quick look at the iPod product line would let you deduce the same thing: the tendency is toward smaller, more expensive, and sometimes more colorful devices. To the masculine mind, paying more money for a thinner iPod with less memory makes no sense. When I bought one about seven months ago, I went for the hulking 60 GB model. I can't imagine any heterosexual male buying an iPod nano — unless he were a secret agent or something and really, really needed to conceal it.

The British study finds that there isn't actually much of a gap between the sexes and their iPod / on-line music habits — women lead all categories by less than 10%. All well and good; nothing to worry Harvey Mansfield.

But then I read this:

For the first time, more women are reading are reading metal magazine Kerrang than men, while almost half of Q's under-30 readership is now female.

More women read Kerrang? Ah, but wait a minute, this is a very soft-around-the-edges Kerrang. I can't say I've ever followed Kerrang, but I'm pretty sure at one point in its history — when metal was metal, you might say — you wouldn't have seen anything softer than Iron Maiden on the cover. I wonder what Manly Mansfield and Naomi Wolf (they ought to have their own show permanently — it'd be better than Conan O'Brien with Andy Richter) would make of the change?