One of the television landmarks of my childhood involved magicians/dissectors-of-bullshit Penn & Teller, performing the classic splice-the-assistant trick. They then performed the trick once more on a transparent stage with transparent props in order to reveal the gadgetry and choreography that had effectively deceived us. My mother loathed the bit; to this day her stalwart faith in pure magic remains uncompromised. For me, it was an awakening.
I saw Penn & Teller’s commitment to debunkery as an invitation to question the unexplained, and to search for the truth tucked under the throw-rug of perception. This curiosity need not be an omnipresent obsession – I would much rather share in the astounded guffaws of David Blaine’s close-up audience than pry into the secrets of his masterful sleight-of-hand – but when trickery is but a front for a more nefarious purpose, this well-worn skepticism is a handy frock.
James Randi has been an activist for truth and an intrepid explorer of paranormal hucksterism for decades. When Copperfield transformed the Statue of Liberty into furtive air on national television, Randi made no effort to deflate our collective entertainment. But when pseudo-psychics make ludicrous claims of otherworldly powers in their pockets, James Randi is there to reach in and show us the lint of deception.
Naturally, he has pissed off a lot of people along the way.
The Amazing Randi rose to fame as a magician in 1956 when he broke Harry Houdini’s submersion record by having himself locked inside a sealed coffin beneath the surface of a hotel swimming pool for 104 minutes on The Today Show. But while Randi was happy to entertain a gawking audience, he was always critical of the mysticism that people would invite into their lives as fact. While employed by the Canadian tabloid Midnight, he penned a recurring astrology column by simply rearranging horoscopes from other publications and pasting them randomly under each sign. Read more…
For those who wax nostalgic about the Golden Age of Hollywood, who swoon over the catchlights dazzling in Rita Hayworth’s dark chocolate eyes, who are pushed to the brink of their seat cushions by a stabbing violin score, or who treasure a film’s complete batch of credits before the story gets rolling, you may need to taste that era’s whole truth. Sheltered in the oligopolic thatch of corporate hubris, the Big Five studios were paying themselves twice, fortifying their sweet-spot on the dais of celluloid art with soggy sandbags of nefarious business practices.
When the chips finally fell on the Golden Age, they landed with such a clatter the movie business crumpled into a slump the likes of which we’d never see again; even the modern age of easily-snatchable torrents and duplicitous street vendors pitching bootleg blockbusters hasn’t throttled the industry like this.
For the struggling filmmaker or the tiny fledgling production company, adrift without financial paddle in a sweaty sea of studio bullies, the Golden Age of Hollywood was an ordeal. It took until 1948 for the United States Supreme Court to peel the wings off the sleazy sideshow of backdoor studio arrangements, and they managed to pack the full heft of their punch into one near-unanimous decision.
Piecing together the components of a relatively new art form required some experimentation, allowing a few different business models to walk the industry’s catwalk while the studios toyed with the best way to maximize profits while maintaining the high aesthetic of the art form itself. I’m kidding of course; they wanted to make money, and it was clear from the moment Tommy Edison’s industry stranglehold was quashed by the feds in 1915 that the best way to do that was to keep everything in-house. Read more…
A spoiler for today’s article: it may shatter your innocence, lay waste to your humbling yet lavish optimism regarding the spirit of humanity, and rend into tatters your perceptions of Hollywood studio executives as upstanding, honest and forthright folk. If this won’t be a problem for you, read on.
The movie business is all about money, as evidenced by the fact that any film that coughs up some modest box office returns seems to get a sequel, or by the fact that Tyler Perry and Martin Scorcese technically have the same job. But beneath the big sparkly numbers earned by flicks like Avatar and Titanic lies an even more impressive act of CGI than those frolicking blue cats – they call it Hollywood Accounting.
Hollywood Accounting has nothing to do with the studios scamming the government to avoid paying taxes. I’m sure like any massive business they employ accountants to help them with that cause too, but specifically Hollywood Accounting is the insider method by which the movie studios can pilfer money from the very artists who concoct their revenue. It’s an ugly side of show business, but one that every aspiring actor, writer and director should be aware of.
To illustrate, let’s talk about this guy:
That’s Art Buchwald, whom you might remember from his Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated Washington Post column, or, if you’re under 50 you might not. He was a brilliant wordsmith though, which is why it was strange that Paramount Studios was unable to transform his treatment into a full-blown feature. His concept – entitled “King For A Day” at this point – was about an arrogant and wealthy African potentate’s visit to the United States, ensuing in wacky hijinks and goofy hilarity. It would have been a perfect fit for Eddie Murphy, who was under contract with Paramount at the time. Read more…
A survey of music lovers who possess even so much as a passing interest in the Beatles’ music will undoubtedly reveal “Come Together” to be one of the most universally beloved bullets in their melodic clip. From its swampy bass, its percussive “Shoot me” refrain to its absurdist and almost comically weird lyrics, the song righteously opens the gates to the magnificent Abbey Road album, tantalizing and gratifying most every pair of ears it meets.
It’s almost shocking to imagine the pretzel of nefarious backlash it provoked. “Come Together” may have begun its life as John Lennon’s attempt to pen a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s quest to unseat Ronald Reagan as governor of California, but it wound up inadvertently connecting Lennon with one of the most insidious corners of the music industry.
If only it were as simple as Lennon scribbling a new idea then slapping it onto vinyl with his buddies through the immaculate channel of producer George Martin. For the origin story of the madness that would follow, we need to travel back to 1956, back to when songs about cars were a veritable genre unto themselves. To a little single by rock ‘n roll’s illustrious grandpa, Chuck Berry.
In 1956, Chuck released a song called “You Can’t Catch Me”. Lennon’s song boasts a similar vocal melody and a set of lyrics (“Here come old flattop, he come goovin’ up slowly” to “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me”). The similarity ends there – Berry’s song is about driving quickly whereas Lennon’s is about something called ‘toe-jam football’ and some guy with feet below his knees. But it was enough to snag the ear of music publisher Morris Levy, who owned the rights to Berry’s song and promptly launched an infringement lawsuit against Lennon. Read more…
Those who know me (or who have read enough of my articles to have observed when my jokes and references get tired and therefore repeated) know that I love to write about bacon. Today I’m offering a new take on the topic; in fact, I’m refocussing my literary lens on a wholly different variety of bacon.
By now I’m sure everyone has heard of the game/meme/phenomenon that is Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. If you’ve somehow escaped this snippet of pop culture, or if you only ever visit the internet to read this site and play solitaire (hi mom!), this is a game in which you try to match any actor or actress to Kevin Bacon through their film and television appearances, using as few steps as possible. For example, Brian Dennehy was in Annie Oakley with Jamie Lee Curtis, who starred with Bacon in 8. Two degrees.
Even if you dip into the more obscure actors it’s hard to find a connection that requires more than three steps. I looked up Loni Nest, who had a small uncredited role as “child in window” in the 1925 silent German horror classic Nosferatu, and still it was only three paces away from Bacon (via Lil Dagover in Harakiri, who appeared with Max Schell in The Pedestrian, who appeared with Bacon in Telling Lies In America). It’s a little weird, really.
The game is based on the small world theory, that everyone is at most six steps away from everyone else via acquaintances. Its origins lie in a January, 1994 interview Bacon gave to Premiere magazine whilst hyping his new flick, The River Wild. He jokingly commented that he had worked with everyone in Hollywood, or at least with someone who had worked with them. Three months later the newsgroup rec.arts.movies began a lengthy discussion about Kevin Bacon as the ‘Center of the Universe’. Read more…