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Today I took the ultimate trip. I listened to the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey as I walked around the neighborhood.

I’ve had the soundtrack album on vinyl for years. It used to belong to my friend Bill, but when we were in high school—maybe even earlier—I talked him into trading it to me. I can’t remember what I traded—maybe a Fantastic Four poster. In any event, he’s resented it ever since. I can’t say I blame him.

However, Bill was willing to let bygones be bygones and he recently brought some of my albums up to Maine to our mutual friend, Mike, who had the apparatus necessary to convert them into MP3s. I’ve put some of the songs on my iPod, including 2001.

Today I stepped out the door listening to “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” better known as “The Theme to 2001.” It sounded great in all its brassy pomp and magnificence, although the pops and hisses betrayed its vinyl origins and made it sound like music heard in front of a crackling fire. Even with the pops the compositions by György Ligeti remained as mysterious and otherworldly as they were the first time I heard them. “The Blue Danube,” the background music to the scene where the Pan Am shuttle docks with the rotating space station—perhaps my favorite scene from any movie ever—still sounds so rich and lush it could have been recorded on velvet.

I didn’t see 2001 on its first release in 1968. I had to wait until a re-release sometime around 1974, when I was 13 or 14. I was home sick from school on the Friday it opened and nothing would persuade my parents to let me go that night. I cajoled, I begged, I pleaded, I sulked, to no avail. Bill and I had to go on the next night. His sister drove us. I can’t pretend we understood the movie, but we did a good job parroting things we had read about it on the way back, just to prove to his sister that we did.

I’ve seen 2001 a lot since then. I saw it at Boston’s old Nickelodeon Theater, in an auditorium at the University of Southern Maine, and at a repertory theater in Los Angeles. I saw a special 25th anniversary screening at the huge Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C., and I saw the last remaining Cinemax print at the IMAX theater of the National Air and Space Museum. That was disappointing, because the print, pieced together from several Cinemax prints, had faded terribly. But I did see a nice new print at the American Film Institute Theater at the Kennedy Center, and even later a gorgeous 70mm version, once again at the grand old Uptown. I’ve seen 2001 on television, on VHS tape, and on DVD. Just a few weeks ago a friend showed me a little bit of his Blue Ray version. I will have go back and watch the whole thing. It looked amazing.

When we were living in Washington, my wife and I even put a little bit of dialogue from 2001 on our answering machine message. It said, “Welcome to voice print identification. When you see the red light go on, would you please state in the following order: Your destination, your nationality, and your full name. Surname first, Christian name, and initial.” One day our rather ditzy landlady called and left an anxious message saying she didn’t see any red light and didn’t know what to do.

I love 2001 so much because it creates a sense of awe and mystery. I’ve never been able to look at the night sky the same way since seeing the movie. Somehow this film, shot inside film studios, captured the sense of how cold and vast our solar system is, and how insignificant we are in comparison. It is the anti-Star Wars. There are no explosions, no lasers, no sound in the vacuum of space. Nobody uses the Force. And although director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke fell quite short in their predictions of the future, their alternate-world 2001 feels like it’s the way the future should have been. Kubrick has often been described as cynical about human behavior, but a 2001 with moon bases and rotating space stations and routine flights into orbit and beyond seems incredibly optimistic today.

Science fiction geek that I am, I think the Jupiter-bound Discovery, looking like a huge vertebrae floating through space, is also a pretty cool spaceship.

Plus, there’s Discovery‘s HAL 9000 computer, the greatest serial killer in movies. True, he murdered a mere four people (astronaut Frank Poole and hibernating scientists Hunter, Kimball, and Kaminski), which one of today’s cinematic psychopaths would do before the opening credits. But Hal was both creepy and sympathetic. He killed because his human controllers had programmed him to lie about the mission’s true purpose. And then, just before his own consciousness was snuffed out, Hal discovers his own, for lack of a better word, humanity. “My mind is going,” he tells David Bowman as the only surviving astronaut disconnects the computer brain’s higher functions. “I can feel it.”

I can feel it.

When Hal, always in the same bland voice (provided by a Canadian actor named Douglas Rain), pleads with Bowman not to disconnect him it’s chilling and sad. “Stop, Dave,” Hal says as Bowman disconnects piece after piece of his mechanical brain. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave.” Dave doesn’t stop.

Hal also gets the movie’s funniest line. (Okay, the movie’s only funny line.) It comes when Bowman makes his way through the ship to disconnect the errant computer. “I can see you’re really upset by this Dave,” Hal says, his emotionless voice as smooth as pudding. “I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill and think things over.” If it weren’t for his inherent psychopathology, Hal might have found a job in a human resources department.

I once met 2001’s author, Arthur C. Clarke, in, of all places, Saudi Arabia. My aerospace magazine had sent me there to cover an astronaut conference. Sir Arthur was one of the speakers. Before one session I nerved myself up to approach the great man and give him a copy of a poster the magazine had done depicting all the people who had flown into space. He was very gracious and pleasant to me. I wish I could have remembered more about what we said, and I wish I had thought to point out that astronauts Poole and Bowman should have been on the poster, too. (Not to mention Hunter, Kimball, and Kaminski.)

So it was a joy to listen to the music from the soundtrack this morning. With those odd, cosmic sounds filling my ears, everything I saw became freighted with significance—the squirrel running across the sidewalk in front of me, the stop sign that came closer with each step before vanishing from my field of vision, the side of a house that I suddenly realized looks like an upside-down face. The “Gayane Ballet Suite,” which plays in the movie as Frank Poole jogs around the Discovery’s circular centrifuge, played in my iPod whileI trudged up a steep hill. It’s a beautiful and melancholy piece of music that perfectly captures the isolation and loneliness of a months-long mission to Jupiter.

The music cast such a spell, in fact, that when I got home I spent five minutes on the porch saying, “Open the pod bay door, Hal,” before I realized how futile that was. I entered through the emergency airlock instead.


Swingin AffairAsk me what my favorite Frank Sinatra song is and I’ll probably say “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” the version from Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. It’s an easy pick. The song’s a classic Cole Porter tune with a great Nelson Riddle arrangement. The Milt Bernhart trombone solo near the end kicks in like a musical afterburner to really give things a boot. Frank nails the vocal with the practiced ease of an artist at the top of his game. This is the Sinatra/ Riddle team working at its peak.

There are times, though, when I’ll tell you my favorite Sinatra song is one I heard as I walked this morning. “From This Moment On” is a cut from A Swingin’ Affair! It’s another Cole Porter song, and another superb Nelson Riddle arrangement. This one steps off nice ’n’ easy with some swirling flutes that lead into the vocal. Then things start to gradually build. The band picks up intensity, saxes and trumpets riffing off each other, trombones providing their own counterpoint, drums and bass pushing everything along, piano tinkling away in the background, and Frank just surfs along on top of the arrangement. The whole thing just sweeps you up and takes you along for the ride. Fingers feel an irresistible impulse to start snappin’. Near the end the rhythm section drops away and Frank and the horns keep things percolating for a few bars, and then everyone jumps back in for the finish. By this time I figure Frank had his eyes closed, head tilted back, arms stretched out, as he headed into the home stretch. Pure bliss. I sometimes think that if I could sing like that my life would be perfect. But Frank could sing like that, and he was a mess. So go figure.

I often see Songs for Swingin’ Lovers cited as Frank’s best work. For my money, A Swingin’ Affair! has it beat. The song choices are better overall, and the album swings harder. The CD version even includes “The Lady is a Tramp,” which is about as quintessential as Frank gets. It is, in a word, oke.

In a way I grew up with Sinatra. My father is a big fan and I can especially remember hearing Come Fly With Me playedcome fly with me at the house when I was a kid. The album also had a great cover, a painting of the jet-setting Sinatra preparing to board a TWA Constellation. His snap-brim hat is slightly askew and he gestures jauntily with the thumb of one hand while grasping some feminine digits that extend from off-cover with the other.

I never really fell under the spell of Sinatra myself until I attended college in Los Angeles. I remember exactly how it happened. Late one afternoon I was sitting on the roof of my apartment building, listening to KROQ on a radio and watching airplanes off in the distance descending into LAX as the evening sky turned the color of an orange popsicle against silhouetted palm trees. KROQ was a ground-breaking “new wave” rock station at the time, but this afternoon the DJ played “Come Fly With Me,” and that was it. The next day I headed off to the strip of used record stores along Fairfax Avenue and found a copy of the album. Thanks, KROQ.

At first I approached Sinatra somewhat ironically, liking the Joe Piscopo aspects of his singing, the “cats and “jacks” and “broads” and all that surface stuff. What can I say? I was a callow 21-year-old. But gradually, as I listened to the music, I discovered Sinatra as the great artist he was and always will be.

I started buying more albums, some of them the cheap reissues Capitol released in the early 1980s. The label routinely dropped songs from these new versions to save money, probably to make pressing them cheaper. A Swingin’ Affair! originally had 15 tracks, so some genius in marketing decided to leave three of them, including “Night and Day,” off the re-release. Insanity! That’s like trying to save a few pennies by leaving the meat out of the spaghetti sauce.

Often the songs on my iPod activate memories, long streams that cascade through my mind until the morning walk is over. There are times when I get so lost in thought that I can’t remember walking parts of my route. My body handles the navigation all by itself while my mind is busy elsewhere.

Older songs, naturally, carry more baggage. Sometimes the newer stuff triggers little more than memories of earlier walks. Not much fodder for nostalgia there.

little creatures“And She Was,” the lead song from Talking Heads’ Little Creatures, was the first song I heard this morning. It cast me right back to 1985, the year of the album’s release. I was a big Heads fan and living in a group house just outside Boston. I had quit my job as the editor of an obscure rock-and-roll magazine that spring to take a copy-editing position at a business magazine. The subject matter stretched the boredom envelope in all directions but the job did pay a living wage—at least for a 24-year-old single guy living in a group house.

It wasn’t long before I realized that Purchasing (“the magazine for purchasing professionals”) wasn’t quite right for me, so I began blindly sending out resumes to magazines I thought looked interesting. Much to my surprise, the editor of a once-prestigious publication in Washington, D.C., responded with a phone call asking me to come down and interview for the job of managing editor.

So the next Saturday I found myself sitting on an airplane at Logan Airport, my walkman headphones clamped to my ears, with a cassette  tape of Little Creatures filling my head with “And She Was” as the plane accelerated down the runway and lifted its nose into the sky.

From Washington National airport I got on the Metro and rode into town. I was early for the interview, so I disembarked at Metro Center to have a look around. I found it a little disappointing. There wasn’t a national monument in sight, just office buildings and an urban mall called The Shops at National Place. I got back on the Metro and headed to Union Station. Little did I know that about 17 months later I’d meet my future wife for our second date at those same Shops at National Place. Fate runs in unexpected directions.

The editor met me at a small restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue, across from the magazine’s offices and just up from Union Station. He was a short, somewhat fussy man with a mustache, friendly enough but perhaps a little reserved. I would later develop a loathing for him, but during the interview he seemed pleasant enough.

After lunch the waitress brought over the dessert menus.” I’m all set,” I said to her.

The editor looked at me with disbelief. “I can’t believe you don’t want dessert,” he told me.

“Well, I’m pretty full. That was a big sandwich.”

“Still, it’s dessert,” he said. “I can’t understand not having dessert. It’s my favorite part of a meal. Why, I consider myself to be quite the dessert connoisseur. No meal is complete without dessert.”

Well, I’m not stupid. I can take a hint. I turned to the waitress. “He talked me into it,” I said. “I’ll have a piece of the carrot cake.”

She turned to the editor. “And for you, sir?”

He briskly folded his menu and handed it to her. “Nothing for me,” he replied.

Maybe that should have tipped me off that this little fellow was kind of a jerk.

After lunch he showed me the magazine’s offices. When I mentioned my enthusiasm for the new Talking Heads album he told me how much he hated David Byrne. Another warning sign? (In fact, “Warning Sign” is a Talking Heads song. “Warning sign, warning sign,” it goes, “I see it but I pay it no mind.”) Months later the editor insisted on putting Byrne under the “Not Hot” listings in the magazine’s ghastly “Hot and Not Hot” issue.

So, yes, I ended up taking the job, for what seemed to me an astronomical salary of $25,000 a year. I didn’t learn until later that the woman I replaced hadn’t been fired until after I was hired. No wonder I had my interview on a Saturday, when the magazine offices were empty. I think that’s the way Machiavelli would have done it, had he worked in the publishing industry.

After a short and eventually somewhat stormy tenure I was told that my services were no longer required. The meeting took place in the editor’s office. The magazine’s publisher was there, along with two other staffers who were also losing their jobs. The publisher told us the magazine was moving to New York—which was not true—and that the three of us would not be going along—which was. The editor sat at his desk and stared glumly at the ground. Eventually he mumbled something about “one of you” not being good about following orders, or something to that effect. I think I knew which one of us he meant.

The magazine managed to put out one more issue before it ceased publication. Fortunately, I soon found another job at a brand-new aerospace publication, and I remained there for more than a decade before moving to Pennsylvania for another magazine position.

I remember playing “And She Was” as I drove to my interview for the Pennsylvania job. For years afterwards I credited the song with magical job-acquiring powers. Whenever I had a job interview I would listen to “And She Was” first. It might have worked for a while, but it hasn’t done much for me lately. Maybe it’s time to switch to a new Talking Heads song. How about “Found a Job”?

Third Man

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man.

The other day as I walked I couldn’t stop thinking about The Third Man. Released in 1949 and directed by Carol Reed, it’s an almost-perfect movie. I’ve seen it many times and have it on DVD in a beautiful edition from the Criterion Collection. I was thinking about it because a “Movie Answer Man” column on Roger Ebert’s webpage informed me that director Martine Scorsese is thinking about doing a remake, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Harry Lime, the part Orson Welles played in the original.

My initial reaction was to wail with outrage, but Scorsese is one of the finest directors around and someone who might be able to pull something like this off. But it would be tough.

The original film, written by Graham Greene, tells the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a naïve writer of pulp Western novels with titles like The Lone Rider of Santa Fe. He arrives in post-war Vienna, a city still scarred by bombs and divided into four zones by the occupying Allies forces, to take a job offered by his old school chum Harry Lime. To Holly’s shock, though, it turns out that Harry is dead, run over by a truck. Holly attends the burial, where he meets British officer Calloway (Trevor Howard), who tells him that Lime had been a notorious racketeer dealing in stolen (and diluted) penicillin. Holly, a true innocent abroad, doesn’t believe him and sets out to clear his friend’s name, but he soon learns that Vienna is no Santa Fe. (Neither is Santa Fe, apparently. “I’ve always wanted to see Texas,” says Calloway’s loyal assistant, Sergeant Paine, in a wonderful throwaway line. Paine, played by Bernard Lee–later famous as James Bond’s curmudgeonly M–is a fan of Holly’s books. “What I like about them is you can put them down and pick them up at any time,” he says, not exactly the praise an author seeks.)

 Holly looks up Harry’s old girlfriend, Anna (Valli) and asks her assistance, even as he begins to fall in love with her. Or maybe he’s in love with the idea of taking Harry’s place.  As Holly bumbles his way through old-world Vienna, he becomes convinced that a mysterious third man was present when Harry died, and that Lime’s friends–Baron Kurtz, a Romanian named Popescu, and Doctor Winkle–may know more than they let on.

They do, and Holly soon finds himself in over his head. And then one night, in a shadowy and wet Vienna street across from Anna’s apartment, he comes face to face with a dead man. It’s Harry, who hides in a doorway with only his feet visible until a light snaps on in a window across the way and illuminates his face. Harry cocks an eye at Holly, gives him a sly look, and then the light blinks out. It’s perhaps the greatest introduction of a character in film history, right up there with John Wayne’s arrival onscreen in Stagecoach. By the time Holly reaches the doorway, Harry’s gone, just a moving shadow cast up on the buildings to the sound of running feet on the cobblestones.

Turns out it that a medical orderly named Josef Harbin occupied Harry’s grave. Harry finally takes his proper place in the coffin as the film ends, brought down by a bullet Holly fires after a breathtaking chase through the Viennese sewers. Once more Anna is left to walk, alone and forlorn, from the cemetery, but this time, in one of cinema’s greatest final shots, she strides right past Holly without so much as a sideways glance.

There’s so much to love about the film. For one thing it looks fantastic, with luminous black-and-white photography that captures the crumbling grandeur of Vienna and seems more real than life itself. There’s Anton Karas’s justifiably famous zither score. And there’s Orson Welles, who is onscreen for a only few minutes but manages to steal the film, especially with his little speech after he and Holly meet on a huge Ferris wheel. “Don’t be so gloomy,” he tells Holly. “After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

I especially like that the movie keeps the courage of its convictions. “Oh, Holly, you and I aren’t heroes,” Harry tells his hapless friend. “The world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories.” There are certainly no heroes in The Third Man. Not only does Holly end up killing his former friend, he fails to get the girl, too. Reportedly, American co-producer David O. Selznick wasn’t happy with the movie’s stubbornly anti-Hollywood approach to the story. For the American cut Selznick deleted some footage that made Holly look bad in a futile attempt to turn him into a more of a hero.

Above all, it’s a deliciously witty film. I love the little throwaway touches—like the way a French policeman gallantly offers Anna her lipstick as she’s being arrested. I love the balloon man who threatens to call attention to Calloway and Payne as they wait in the shadows for Harry to show up for a meeting with Holly. I love the great character turns by the actors playing the Baron, Dr. Winkle, and Popescu. Wilfrid Hyde-White turns in a wonderful comic performance as the British cultural liaison, Crabbin.

As I said, almost perfect.

So how will a remake fare? That’s what occupied my thoughts as I walked through the neighborhood. I think they should do this: They should reverse the story and tell it from Harry’s point of view. 

I can see it beginning with a pre-credit sequence as Harry and his partners kill Josef Harbin.  The sequence ends with a shot of the porter from Harry’s building, watching from a window. Then we pick up the story as Harry and perhaps a lady friend or two indulge themselves with a picnic in the cemetery, on a vantage point Lime picked so he can watch his own burial ceremony through binoculars. There is much cynical jocularity, and perhaps a word or two of obligatory, if shallow, sympathy for poor Anna. And then Harry stiffens with surprise as he gazes through the binoculars and spots his old friend Holly standing by the grave. “Good lord, what on earth is Holly doing here?” he wonders, and then he remembers. He had offered him a job. In all the excitement it had completely slipped his mind.

From his safe haven in the Russian zone Harry begins to realize that poor, blundering Holly Martins is stirring things up by raising questions that Harry would prefer remain unasked. Eventually Harry feels he must kill the porter at his old apartment building, because Holly has revealed that the old man knows too much. Harry’s partners then demand that he silence Anna, which explains why he was waiting outside her apartment the night Holly spotted him.

Harry even plans to kill Holly on the Ferris wheel, until Holly tells him the police have found Harbin’s body in Harry’s grave. As the forces of authority inexorably close in, Harry and his compatriots have a falling out, leading to a scene of betrayal and bloodshed. Harry has no place to turn, so he agrees to meet Holly, unaware that Calloway and his men are lying in wait. Once again, Harry Lime meets his destiny in the sewers of Vienna.

Shoot it in glorious black and white and you might even end up with a passable companion piece to a true classic. Marty, are you listening? I’m available.


November 2009
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