Archive for the ‘1970s’ Tag

[50/50] Sci-Fi/Fantasy Book #15: “Gateway”

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Science Fiction or Fantasy Book #15: “Gateway”—Frederick Pohl (1977)

gatewaynovelIn Good News/Bad News news this week, it was announced that “Gateway,” Frederick Pohl’s bleak ’70s masterpiece, has been optioned for development as a TV series. Considering how dark and full of existential dread television has gotten in the last decade, Pohl’s novel of desperate humans on an abandoned alien starbase will fit right in. On the flip side, the production team that snagged the rights is one half De Laurentiis and one half the people who brought us the awful wild west mess “Hell on Wheels.”

Which is a shame. If any novel is well suited to episodic TV, it would be “Gateway” — but only if it was done right. Set years after the discovery of an asteroid full of alien ships is found orbiting the sun, the book chronicles the horrible living conditions humans endure on Gateway, all in the slim hope they might strike it rich. Unable to control, dismantle or decipher the pre-programmed ships, people gamble their lives by climbing in the alien vehicles and hitting the launch button. Most of the time the ships never return, and when they do the crew is frequently dead — on rare occasions, however, someone returns with an alien artifact or other great discovery, one that sets them up for life. Crossing a gold rush with Russian Roulette, the novel is, according to this reviewer, “coated in dread.”

While the core of the book is the unpacking of the mystery of what happened to the protagonist — and the slow unraveling of his post-traumatic stress — the most powerful parts of “Gateway” are the one-page ephemera that divide chapters. Official mission reports that detail the fates of random prospectors, made all the more horrific by the memo’s cold and bureaucratic language, bolstered by snippets of classifieds from Gateway’s newspaper of people reaching out for a connection — any connection — in an uncaring universe.

[50/50] Movie #15: Rollerball

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Favorite Movie #15: Rollerball (1975)

rollerball2Forget the Superbowl. The ultimate championship takes place at the end of Rollerball: “No substitutions; no penalties; and no time limit.” The resulting devastation brings to a head the showdown between the corporate masters of a dystopian future and a global superstar. The 1975 sci-fi cult hit is still probably the best of the bleak “dark future” films of the 1970s. (It has certainly aged better than its contemporary harbingers of doom: “Soylent Green” and “Silent Running.”)

I’ve written before about Rollerball. A lot. Hell, I even designed a board game around it. The title game is that exceedingly rare creation: a fictional sport that is believable as a sport. This is thanks, in great part, to the cast of stuntmen hired for the movie’s action scenes. Between filming they reportedly kept playing, coming up with their own set of rules for the game, and even rewriting their own lines. By the time the film made it thru editing (and an enthusiastic marketing dept., who actually released the official rules as part of the movie’s promotional packet), a completely new game had been invented.

While that isn’t the point of the film — it is a cautionary tale of ceding too much control to corporations — the violence of the game helps drive home the heavy-handed message. Of course the great irony is that the director, Norman Jewison, originally set out make a movie with an anti-violent message; yet if Rollerball is remembered at all today, it is for the three amazing action scenes that showcase this fictional future sport.

[50/50] New Fall Schedule for JPTV

Monday, September 30th, 2013

cbs_logoI watched too much television growing up. My dad always warned us that if we didn’t stop, we’d turn into one giant eye — like the CBS logo. And he was right. TV is a drug, a powerful narcotic, and I was an addict. I wasted many many hours on really stupid shows, hours that I wish I had back now to waste on something important.

That said, there was one thing I loved about television, and that was the strange modern custom American networks developed around the launch of the fall season. The TV Guide preview, the annual handicapping of new shows, the ritual sacrifice of the first cancellation. Even if I didn’t watch all the shows (and you couldn’t back then), I loved looking at the programming grid.

Head over to wikipedia and check out the grids for every TV season back to 1946: it is a fascinating time capsule, especially when it comes to shows, concepts and entire networks you’ve probably never heard of (Rhumba dancing in prime time! Something called the DuMont Network!)

It wasn’t just me — there were actually several different board games in the ’60s and early ’70s where players would compete against each other in creating successful programming lineups for fictional networks.

While I generally agree with Marshall McLuhan’s famous assessment of TV, there are a few shows I could watch again (and again in summer repeats) that I have fond memories of, or are just truly great on a literary, cultural or entertaining level. So with that in mind, I give you the perfect Fall Schedule for JPTV.

TV grid

[click on grid to enbiggen]

[50/50] Video Game #8: Cyclone

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Video Game #8: Cyclone (1988)

cyclone“We have a winner!”

Considering how many quarters I dropped in pinball machines over the decades, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at least one. This is no token appearance, however; this game earned its place on this list. Pinball, once a reigning symbol of juvenile delinquency, was dethroned as king of the arcade when video came along in the 1970s. Thanks to a revival lead by a handful of designers at Williams Electronics, the pinball game came roaring back in the late ’80s with digital interfaces and elaborate Rube Goldberg-like structures in titles like Bad Cats, Pin*Bot and Comet.

Williams’ follow up to Comet, Cyclone, was that rare sequel that’s better than the original. The roller coaster/carnival-themed game was so popular and so widely distributed — and so well constructed — you can still find working machines in many places today, the digital voice of its carnival barker announcer calling out insults as patrons pass by.

[50/50] Album #45: “Saturday Night Fever Original Soundtrack”

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Album #45: “Saturday Night Fever Original Soundtrack” — Various Artists (1977)

fever“I always hated Saturday Night Fever because it forever ruined the white suit.” — Tom Wolfe

“You should be dancin’, yeah” — The Bee Gees

A review in four part harmony

1) What the hell were we thinking? I don’t mean, “why did anyone ever like disco” but — “why did anyone hate this movie?” (Beyond Tom Wolfe and his somewhat-justified loathing.) Clearly no one who ever screamed “DISCO SUCKS!” actually saw “Saturday Night Fever” — a dark existential affair where the music served as much to ironically undercut the bleak, nihilistic lives of its characters as it did to get their asses out on the dance floor. Sure it had disco and dancing, but it also had a gang rape, ethnic violence and someone plunging to their death from a bridge. Are we having fun yet? Far from being some cheesy flick exploiting a craze (which, yes, it did eventually become) “Saturday Night Fever” had gritty cinematic aspirations born out of the ’70s auteurism of “Midnight Cowboy” and “American Graffiti” — in many ways an updated “Rebel without a Cause” for the Me Generation. If any argument remains, one of the fairest assessments of the quality of a movie is how easy it is to satirize, and “Saturday Night Fever” has been endlessly parodied —especially it’s cocky, strutting opening scene:

Then again, one of the reasons most of my 8th grade friends never saw the movie when it first came out was it’s R rating. In an effort to capitalize on both disco and the soundtrack’s popularity, “Saturday Night Fever” was eventually rereleased Rated PG with most of the violence and bad language left on the cutting room floor — and leaving it open to arguments of simply cashing in on the disco craze. “Saturday Night Fever” was the 1970s hitting bottom: It tried to have its quaalude and eat it too.

2) Spin the bottle. Whatever you thought about disco or this movie, there was no escaping the soundtrack. You couldn’t turn on a radio in 1977 or 1978 without hearing a cut from it. It was the No. 1 album for 24 weeks and spun off at least five #1 singles. Heck, even songs cut from the movie and the soundtrack — such as Samantha Sang’s “Emotion” — were Top 10 hits. Most of my friends had a copy, and I remember Side 1 was in heavy rotation the night we played Spin the Bottle (ironically, of course) down in Anne Dunlap’s basement. And if you ever needed an 11-minute cut of The Trammps “Disco Inferno,” you were set. The soundtrack also had one of my all-time Guiltiest Pleasures, the epically awful/awesome “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy. (If it pleases the court, let the record show that Walter Murphy’s LP was the first album I ever bought with my own money, and as it is nowhere on this final countdown, this is my only chance to play his one and only #1 hit. Number One, do you hear me? At some point in American history, this was the most popular song in the country. The only possible explanation is that everyone was on drugs.)

3) No escape. Of course, none of this explains why this album is in my 50/50 countdown, or why I still like it 35 years later. Quite simply, I was on drugs. In the spring of 1978, I spent several weeks hopped up on goofballs after tearing a muscle in my lower back trying out for the track team. The first week I spent recuperating at home — drugged out on the biggest muscle relaxers you’ve ever seen — with little to do except read “Lord of the Rings” and listen to the radio. The potent combination of pain killers, epic fantasy and Top 40 pop forever fused in my brain and that was that. When I think of Dungeons & Dragons or The Hobbit, even now, I don’t hear “O Fortuna” but Yvonne Elliman.

“Watch the hair!”

Goddamn could that Travolta boy dance. Seriously.

[50/50] Album #46: “Just Say Yes Terday”

Monday, February 18th, 2013

Album #46: “Just Say Yes Terday (Vol. VI of Just Say Yes)” — Sire Records/Various Artists (1992)

55352149The sampler. The mix-tape. The compilation. Hell, just say it: “New from K-Tel!”

Sometimes the best album is nothing more than a collection of singles. Sometimes they are carefully constructed with the highest of aesthetic and historical intentions (such as Rhino Records’ seminal New Wave collection “Just Can’t Get Enough”) — but most are thrown together just to make a quick buck (the aforementioned K-Tel, and their bastard demon seed “Now That’s What I Call Music?!”). Every record company puts out compilations as well, usually to hand out as swag, and sometimes — like Sire Records did in the late ’80s and early ’90s — to sell directly to the public.

The Just Say Yes series drew heavily on Sire’s new wave and alternative bands, and for Vol. IV they dove back into their archives to resurrect The Dead Boys and The Undertones, as well as unearth such gems as M (“Pop Muzik”) and Madness (“One Step Beyond”). The real revelation though, was a pair of ’70s songs I’d never heard of before: “Warm Leatherette” by The Normal, and “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand. I still can’t get enough of them. In fact I’m playing both, at the same time, as I write this.

Many of the singles on this sampler were also included in the Rhino series — and I briefly considered picking one of its 15 volumes for “the compilation album” — but “Just Say Yes Terday” was a birthday gift from my brother, and although he and I have exchanged a few mix CDs over the years (at least 50 at last count), this is the one commercial collection I keep returning to.

And the countdown continues:

[50/50] Video Game #19: Tail Gunner

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Video Game #19: Tail Gunner (1979)*

Tail_GunnerAnother space shooter, Tail Gunner put you in the back seat of starship where you had to fend off wave after wave of starfighters intent on blowing up your ride. Unlike the many pixel-based games that came to dominate the arcade in the 1980s, Tail Gunner was vector-based, using straight lines generated by electron beams to create objects. The glowing wireframe images certainly made you feel as if you were playing in a high-tech computer, and lent itself very well to space settings, as you will see.

I actually missed this game when it first came out and only discovered it years later in a forgotten corner of the massive arcade at Hersheypark, the summer I worked there. The amusement park had been collecting video and pinball games for decades, and with each new generation of releases, older titles were pushed further and further back into the building. The version they had — virtually the only one I ever saw, in any arcade anywhere — was a large enclosed cockpit with the joystick and controls on the side of the gunner’s chair. This unusual set up made Tail Gunner particularly challenging, and immersive in way few video games were at the time.

[50/50] Album #49: “The Stranger”

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Album #49: “The Stranger” — Billy Joel (1977)

the-wall-gerald-scarfeI was genuinely surprise to see the competition for this next slot. There was never any question “The Sound of Sight” would be on this list, or that it would kick off the countdown, so this position was the last opening for those records on the bubble. Should I pick Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” the angsty rock opera with mind-bending album art by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, or another favorite with an iconic cover: Electric Light Orchestra’s “Out of the Blue.” Or do I choose another high concept album, Thomas Dolby’s “The Golden Age of Wireless,” whose forlorn reverb kept me company many a late night in the studio during art school.

Thestranger1977Finally, I decided to go with Billy Joel’s breakthrough album, “The Stranger.” You have to understand, while I always enjoyed Joel’s lounge act just fine, he was THE all-time favorite of my brother the pianist. (In fact, in a famous bit of family lore, my parents had to talk Brent out of quitting school and running off to New York to play piano in a bar just like Billy Joel did!) Even if Billy Joel’s singles weren’t ubiquitous in the Top 40 at the time, he was in heavy rotation in our house. Of all of his albums, “The Stranger” finds Joel at his pop-music best, before his high-minded ambitions outstripped his song-writting abilities in the 1980s. And as an awkward eighth grader trying to figure out girls, I greatly appreciated the double-sided coin of “Vienna” and “Only the Good Die Young” Joel tossed to listeners.

While I eventually grew tired of rock operas, even the very idea of rock operas, I still love the pop operetta Joel serves up in his “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”