Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I am Spartacus!

If you're anywhere near my age, the 1960 film 'Spartacus', starring Kirk Douglas, made a big impression on you. It was my Baby Boomer generation's 'Gladiator'. Besides Mr. Douglas (who produced it through his film company 'Bryna' -- his mother's name), it starred Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, Woody Strode and Peter Ustinov (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance), as well as many other Hollywood 'names' too numerous to mention. You can see more details about the film here. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, of '2001: A Space Odyssey' and 'The Shining' fame (two among many of his great films).

So, it was with great interest that I came across the Kirk Douglas book 'I Am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist' [link to Amazon] -- published in 2012 when he was still only 95 (he turns 98 in December and is still writing terrific books)!!! Although the book does focus on the making of the film itself (Mr. Douglas hadn't seen it since 1960, but started to research the project to commemorate it's 50th anniversary), the second part of the subtitle is just as important to him. He gives a history of the Hollywood 'Blacklist', inexorably tied up with Senator Joe McCarthy's Communist witchhunts of the late 1940's and the 1950's. Here's a quick overview.

The upshot of this in Hollywood was that a number of prominent screenwriters were unable to continue to earn their livings, at least under there own names, because of either being tainted as having Communist leanings, or of protecting those who did. Among those screenwriters was the masterful Dalton Trumbull. Quite courageously, as the boss, Kirk Douglas not only hired Trumbull to write the screenplay for Spartacus, taken from Howard Fast's novel, but insisted that he be given the writing credit for the film under his real name. This caused quite an uproar at the time, but Douglas stuck to his guns (or gladius and shield in this case).

The book is beautifully written and satisfies not only in its telling of the Blacklist and its effects, but also has some never-before-revealed juicy behind-the-scenes stories about the actors involved in the film. Laurence Olivier was going through a separation/divorce from Vivien Leigh at the time and Vivien's outburst at a party that Kirk attended was quite sad. Charles Laughton quit at least once, Tony Curtis took advantage of his past friendship with Douglas to get a part in the film, and Peter Ustinov continuously wheedled and charmed his way into enlarging his role -- to great effect! I won't detail these stories, as you'll want to read them yourself (or listen to the audio version, narrated by a certain Michael Douglas).

My favorite anecdote though refers to the main title of the book itself. Kirk came up with the idea of this pivotal scene towards the end of the film, and suggested it to Kubrick (you can see a short clip of this here, as it opens the portal to the Kirk Douglas website -- and you'll want to watch the great highlight reel there as well). Apparently, Kubrick lacked a certain openness to any ideas that weren't his and not only failed to reply to 'the boss' (remember, this was Douglas's production) but subsequently refused to even film it as a test! He tells it much better than I do here, but it ends with Douglas astride his great stallion slowly forcing Kubrick to walk backwards until his back is literally against the wall. Douglas tells him in no uncertain terms that the scene will be filmed, and cut if it doesn't work. Kirk mentions in the book at this point that he can't believe some of the things he did in his youth! It became one of the best-remembered and most-loved scenes in the film.

I was very moved by reading the book, as it brought back so many memories of the movies that my father and I would go to see together when I was a boy (not a few of them starring Kirk Douglas), as well as by how well-written and insightful it was. I was also moved by the sheer will and intelligence that still motivates this man, having suffered a massive stroke so many years ago and continuing to embody the title of another of his great films, 'Lust for Life' about the artist Vincent Van Gogh.

Not one to write many fan letters in my life, I thought 'what could I share or give to this person that might give him a small bit of the joy and inspiration that he's given me?' What could be more appropriate in celebration of this wonderful book than a Stipula Gladiator pen? It was unknown to me if Mr. Douglas was still able to actually write with a pen, due to the effects of his stroke, but that wouldn't really matter in the end.

(You can see more photos of the pen here)

To make a long story somewhat shorter, I purchased a contact list for Hollywood stars, and was able to send the pen, ink and a personal note c/o one of his agents. It eventually reached Mr. Douglas and I received this note a couple of weeks ago from his assistant, Grace Eboigbe (whom I subsequently spoke with, to confirm that Mr. Douglas had actually seen my little 'thank you' video, which can be seen here).

Would I have liked a note penned in Mr. Douglas's own hand? Of course. But I understand his current limitations. As he says in the acknowledgments in his book: “I want to thank my assistant, Grace Eboigbe, the only person capable of transmitting my spoken or written words”.

So, other then selling a broccoli & cheese croissant to Meryl Streep (that's another long story), this will probably be my only brush with the Hollywood elite and my chance to be just a fan. Happy 98th Birthday to you on December 9th Kirk Douglas! I wish you many, many more.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones

As Lawrence Block's film 'A Walk Among the Tombstones' was released on September 19th (starring Liam Neeson), I thought it appropriate to show the beautiful, mint Montblanc Agatha Christie fountain pen that passed through my hands last year when Larry asked me to find an appreciative home for it. This was one of the originals and presented to him as a gift by Montblanc. You can read more of the story (and see more photographs) here, and see a clip of the man himself on the Craig Ferguson show this past week here. Watch the official trailer here rated R).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Bob Dylan: "Anybody Can Make A Video" (Radio.com Minimation)

"On Minimation, we comb through the archives of legendary New York radio station WNEW-FM and animate interviews with legendary rock artists. This installment is taken from a 1985 interview with Bob Dylan, where he discusses his feelings about the then-budding art form of music videos. This minimation was created for Radio.com by Elliot Lobell.

Bob Dylan’s 1966 short film for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is often cited as being one of the first music videos. Shot and released decades before there was any real outlet for the medium, it was something of a curiosity at the time. But in 1985, when this interview was recorded, it was a much different era. MTV was becoming a dominant cultural force, and it was pretty much mandatory that artists made at least one video (if not more) to promote their new albums. Ever the contrarian, Dylan’s mood on music videos had cooled by then.

“I don’t mind making videos,” he said. “It’s fake, it’s like making a movie, it’s all fake.” This, by the way, was two years before he’d co-star in the otherwise-forgettable 1987 flick Hearts of Fire , which he co-starred in with Rupert Everett and pop singer Fiona.
“Anybody can make a video. Anybody. All you need is a camera.”

Oddly enough, his son Jesse Dylan, went on to be a director of films as well as videos: his resume includes clips by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (“A Face in the Crowd”), Tom Waits (“God’s Away on Business”) and the Black Keys’s immortal “Lonely Boy” (which, to be fair, anybody could have made). Oh, and also a little 2008 video called “Yes We Can” that possibly helped get a president elected."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rustle, Tingle, Relax: The Compelling World of A.S.M.R.

Now I understand. More than one person has commented on my voice in some of my pen videos on YouTube. They've ranged from 'You sound like Clint Eastwood' (really? :-)), to 'His voice puts me to sleep' (I always took that as a negative, but maybe not!), to 'Your voice is perfect for A.S.M.R.'.

I looked up the definition of A.S.M.R. at the time, but it was only after reading this article in the NY Times just now that I learned how big this phenomenon is, and how many YouTube videos there are which address this.


A few months ago, I was on a Manhattan-bound D train heading to work when a man with a chunky, noisy newspaper got on and sat next to me. As I watched him softly turn the pages of his paper, a chill spread like carbonated bubbles through the back of my head, instantly relaxing me and bringing me to the verge of sweet slumber.

It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this sensation at the sound of rustling paper — I’ve experienced it as far back as I can remember. But it suddenly occurred to me that, as a lifelong insomniac, I might be able to put it to use by reproducing the experience digitally whenever sleep refused to come.

Under the sheets of my bed that night, I plugged in some earphones, opened the YouTube app on my phone and searched for “Sound of pages.” What I discovered stunned me.

There were nearly 2.6 million videos depicting a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response, or A.S.M.R., designed to evoke a tingling sensation that travels over the scalp or other parts of the body in response to auditory, olfactory or visual forms of stimulation.

The sound of rustling pages, it turns out, is just one of many A.S.M.R. triggers. The most popular stimuli include whispering; tapping or scratching; performing repetitive, mundane tasks like folding towels or sorting baseball cards; and role-playing, where the videographer, usually a breathy woman, softly talks into the camera and pretends to give a haircut, for example, or an eye examination. The videos span 30 minutes on average, but some last more than an hour."

Click on the link to read the complete article and to follow links to some example videos. Pretty fascinating!

Link to NY Times article

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Memory Wall

See how one man is honoring Afghanistan veterans with his amazing memory.

Ron White
Arlington, TX
Phone: 972-801-5330
Website: http://americasmemory.com/