Friday, November 23, 2007
  PopSnap goes the Sarah Meyers
©2007 Brian Solis

Verging on the psychedelic is Brian Solis' splendiferous photo of winsome webcaster Sarah Meyers, creator and anchor of the new show PopSnap. She presents clever clips, tech news, her own videos and cyber situations in an interactive environment. Additional commentary turns up on her blog, Sarah Meyers

PopSnap has also been available on YouTube and Mogulus. Because of her previous experience as a lifecaster, Meyers is unique in that she allows viewers to see all the preparation, mistakes and pre-show glitches. It adds a unique, personal touch, and yet viewers can also see how PopSnap is improving with each episode.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007
  October in the Railroad Earth
Click title above to hear David Brent Johnson's Night Lights: Jazz and Jack Kerouac, and here Charles Laughton reads an excerpt from Kerouac's The Dharma Bums.

Tate Donovan has the title role in Noah Buschel's Neal Cassady with Glenn Fitzgerald as Jack Kerouac. The film's premiere was October 11 at the Woodstock Film Festival. The film poster is cleverly created to look like a tattered paperback from the 1950s. The designer is Marc Evan who also worked on storyboards and painted the recreation of the Merry Pranksters' bus known as "Further" (often driven by Cassady).

Jack Kerouac by Jim McDermott 
©2007 Jim McDermott

In On the Road, Kerouac gave Neal the name Dean Moriarty:
Dean was the son of a wino, one of the most tottering bums of Larimer Street, and Dean had in fact been brought up generally on Larimer Street and thereabouts. He used to plead in court at the age of six to have his father set free. He used to beg in front of Larimer alleys and sneak the money back to his father, who waited among the broken bottles with an old buddy. Then when Dean grew up he began hanging around the Glenarm pool-halls; he set a Denver record for stealing cars and went to the reformatory. From the age of eleven to seventeen he was usually in reform school. His specialty was stealing cars, gunning for girls coming out of high school in the afternoon, driving them out to the mountains, making them, and coming back to sleep in any available hotel bathtub in town. His father, once a respectable and hardworking tinsmith, had become a wine alcoholic, which is worse than a whisky alcoholic, and was reduced to riding freights to Texas in the winter and back to Denver in the summer. Dean had brothers on his dead mother's side-she died when he was small-but they disliked him. Dean's only buddies were the poolhall boys. Dean, who had the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint, and Carlo were the underground monsters of that season in Denver, together with the poolhall gang, and, symbolizing this most beautifully, Carlo had a basement apartment on Grant Street and we all met there many a night that went to dawn-Carlo, Dean, myself, Tom Snark, Ed Dunkel, and Roy Johnson. 
©2007 Jack Kerouac Estate

Listen to the evocative October in the Railroad Earth. It starts at the 29:17 mark in the Night Lights show at top. Kerouac reads with Steve Allen on piano. Here's the opening paragraph:

October in the Railroad Earth

There was a little alley in San Francisco back of the Southern Pacific station at Third and Townsend in redbrick of drowsy lazy afternoons with everybody at work in offices in the air you feel the impending rush of their commuter frenzy as soon they'll be charging en masse from Market and Sansome buildings on foot and in buses and all well-dressed thru workingman Frisco of Walk-up truckdrivers and even the poor grime-bemarked Third Street of lost bums even Negroes so hopeless and long left East and meanings of responsibility and try that now all they do is stand there spitting in the broken glass sometimes fifty in one afternoon against one wall at Third and Howard and here's all these Millbrae and San Carlos neat-necktied producers and commuters of America and Steel civilization rushing by with San Francisco Chronicles and green Call-Bulletins not even enough time to be disdainful, they've got to catch 130, 132, 134, 136 all the way up to 146 till the time of evening supper in homes of the railroad earth when high in the sky the magic stars ride above the following hotshot freight trains---It's all in California, it's all a sea, I swim out of it in afternoons of sun hot meditation in my jeans with head on handkerchief on brakeman's lantern or (if not working) on books, I look up at blue sky of perfect lostpurity and feel the warp of wood of old America beneath me and have insane conversations with Negroes in several-story windows above and everything is pouring in, the switching moves of boxcars in that little alley which is so much like the alleys of Lowell and I hear far off in the sense of coming night that engine calling our mountains.

©2007 Jack Kerouac Estate

Playlist for the Night Lights show at top:
Night Lights - September 01, 2007, 11:00pm - 12:00am
"Jazz and Jack Kerouac." Featuring Kerouac's spoken-word performances with Steve Allen and other musicians, recordings by Charlie Parker and Brew Moore, an interview with musicologist Phil Ford, excerpts from the underground film
Pull My Daisy and more.

Mexico City Blues 221: Deadbelly
Name: Jack Kerouac/Steve Allen
Name of CD: The Kerouac Collection
Track Label: Rhino
Release Year: 1958
Notes: Originally on the LP Poetry for the Beat Generation.

Mexcio City Blues 239-241: Charlie Parker
Name: Jack Kerouac
Name of CD: The Kerouac Collection
Track Label: Rhino
Release Year: 1958
Notes: Originally appeared on the album Poetry for the Beat Generation.

Name: Charlie Parker
Name of CD: One Night in Birdland
Track Label: Columbia
Release Year: 1950
Notes: With Bud Powell on piano, Fats Navarro on trumpet, Curley Russell on bass, Art Blakey on drums.

Fantasy: the Early History of Bop (excerpt)
Name: Jack Kerouac
Name of CD: The Kerouac Collection
Track Label: Rhino
Release Year: 1958
Notes: Originally appeared on the LP The Beat Generation.

San Francisco Scene: the Beat Generation
Name: Jack Kerouac
Name of CD: The Beat Generation
Track Label: Rhino
Release Year: 1958

Blue Brew
Name: Brew Moore
Name of CD: Bebop Spoken Here
Track Label: Proper
Release Year: 1948

American Haikus (excerpt)
Name: Jack Kerouac/Al Cohn/Zoot Sims
Name of CD: The Kerouac Collection
Track Label: Rhino
Release Year: 1958
Notes: Originally appeared on the album Blues and Haikus.

October in the Railroad Earth
Name: Jack Kerouac/Steve Allen
Name of CD: The Kerouac Collection
Track Label: Rhino
Release Year: 1958
Notes: Originally appeared on the album Poetry for the Beat Generation.

Pull My Daisy (excerpts)
Name: Jack Kerouac/David Amram
Name of CD: Pull My Daisy
Release Year: 1959
Notes: Narration by Kerouac, score by David Amram.

Parker's Mood
Name: Mark Murphy
Name of CD: Stolen... and Other Moments
Track Label: 32 Jazz
Release Year: 1981
Notes: Originally from the LP Bop for Kerouac. Text from Kerouac's The Subterraneans.

On the Road (excerpt)
Name: Jack Kerouac
Name of CD: Reads From
On the Road
Track Label: Rykodisc
Release Year: 1958


Sunday, November 18, 2007
  Uncanny Valley

To write about the 1980 Ottawa Animation Festival for Heavy Metal magazine, I traveled to Ottawa that summer. The highlight of the festival for me was seeing a Brothers Quay film for the first time. One afternoon session was on the state-of-the-art and advancements in computer animation by 1980. As the lecturer spoke, it became clear that he had only one goal: to make CGI figures identical to humans. I recall he said something like, "We're getting there." And my reaction was -- why? Why not use that technology to do something imaginative? 

A few years earlier, during the 1970s, the Japanese robotics expert Masahiro Mori had proposed his "Uncanny Valley" theory to describe the way humans react emotionally to robots. The more lifelike the robot becomes, the more humans have a pleasant and positive response. But humans are repulsed when the robot becomes corpse-like or zombie-like. However, if the robot continues to develop features and characteristics so that it is identical to a human, the human reaction to this is once again positive. Unfamiliar non-human aspects are found in the Uncanny Valley. Human movement is another factor. Mori detailed the psychological aspects:

Of course, human beings themselves lie at the final goal of robotics, which is why we make an effort to build humanlike robots. For example, a robot's arms may be composed of a metal cylinder with many bolts, but to achieve a more humanlike appearance, we paint over the metal in skin tones. These cosmetic efforts cause a resultant increase in our sense of the robot's familiarity. Some readers may have felt sympathy for handicapped people they have seen who attach a prosthetic arm or leg to replace a missing limb. But recently prosthetic hands have improved greatly, and we cannot distinguish them from real hands at a glance. Some prosthetic hands attempt to simulate veins, muscles, tendons, finger nails, and finger prints, and their color resembles human pigmentation. So maybe the prosthetic arm has achieved a degree of human verisimilitude on par with false teeth. But this kind of prosthetic hand is too real and when we notice it is prosthetic, we have a sense of strangeness. So if we shake the hand, we are surprised by the lack of soft tissue and cold temperature. In this case, there is no longer a sense of familiarity. It is uncanny. In mathematical terms, strangeness can be represented by negative familiarity, so the prosthetic hand is at the bottom of the valley. So in this case, the appearance is quite human like, but the familiarity is negative. This is the uncanny valley...

In Figure 1, a healthy person is at the top of the second peak. And when we die, we fall into the trough of the uncanny valley. Our body becomes cold, our color changes, and movement ceases. Therefore, our impression of death can be explained by the movement from the second peak to the uncanny valley as shown by the dashed line in the figure. We might be happy this line is into the still valley of a corpse and that of not the living dead! I think this explains the mystery of the uncanny valley: Why do we humans have such a feeling of strangeness? Is this necessary? I have not yet considered it deeply, but it may be important to our self-preservation.

This theory can also apply to animated films, although films like Tim Burton's whimsical Corpse Bride and John Semper's witty Crypt of Creeporia seem to be in a league of their own. Creeporia cleverly combines animation with live-action lampooning and razor-sharp comedy timing to mock the macabre. 

Corpse Bride adds a cuteness factor to visually appealing characters (both dead and alive), altering the color palette to transpose the land of the living and the land of the dead. The film interweaves references to Cab Calloway, Ray Harryhausen, Hamlet, Peter Lorre, Bojangles and Upstairs, Downstairs (1971). When the bride's hand falls off and goes scuttling across the keyboard, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) comes to mind, as does that disembodied hand Milton Subotsky used in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973). According to Russ Jones, Subotsky was delighted to discover filmdom's cheapest special effect: just wind up the mechanical hand, and it begins crawling.

When limbs fall off the corpse bride, it's amusing. But what if a biographical film about cartoonist Al Capp were to depict the day Capp's prosthetic leg fell off in the middle of a hotel lobby?

When Final Fantasy (2001) was released, 150 artists sitting at computers in Honolulu were ready to begin work on the sequel. When the film bombed, they were told to pack up and leave. The Polar Express (2004) left some to wonder why they were seeing a rubbery ersatz Tom Hanks instead of the real Tom Hanks. Refusing to give up, Robert Zemeckis has returned to the Uncanny Valley with more plastic people in Beowulf (2007).

But now jump back to 1994, a time when many thought Kenneth Branagh was joking when he said, "It is scary. Soon we won't need actors. In fact, I saw some demonstration the other day, a completely computer-generated 3-D person." Two years later, when MSNBC began (July 15, 1996), each weeknight they offered a primetime hour-long show about computers and technology, The Site, hosted by Soledad O'Brien. At the halfway mark each night, Soledad walked over to an espresso bar on the set and held an unscripted conversation with an animated cartoon character, Dev Null. The character was the creation of Leo Laporte in a motion capture suit, and as Soledad read viewers' emailed questions about computers, Laporte would give spontaneous answers. In 1999, Laporte detailed the creation of Dev Null and The Site:

My history with ZDTV goes back to 1994 when I was hired to do a show for them with Gina Smith called The Personal Computing Show. It aired for about ten minutes on CNBC in the fall of 1994 before being cancelled. Good thing, too. It was godawful. After that I continued to work for ZD developing show ideas that would never see the light of day. Late in 1995 I got a call from my boss saying that we might be able to do a deal with a new channel that NBC was starting with Microsoft. They were looking for a daily hour-long news magazine on technology. I wrote a 90-page treatment which we pitched for the NBC bigwigs at 30 Rock in a meeting that looked straight out of a Seinfeld episode. NBC loved it and agreed to co-produce the show with ZD. We went into development and launched when MSNBC launched in spring 1996. I had hoped to be a regular part of the show. ZD had promised me a role as chief correspondent and weekend anchor, but the NBC execs decided they didn't much like me on the air. I think the exact quote was, "Leo? Bleech!" Needless to say, this was incredibly disappointing. In fact, at the time, I felt like it was a career-ending blow.

The coordinating producer took pity on me, however, and offered a way to get on the air without anyone at NBC knowing. The show was to feature a virtual character, and the fellow they had been using to play the part wasn't working out. Would I like to try out? Virtual reality characters are essentially cartoon characters that are animated in real time using monster computers from Silicon Graphics. An actor wears a sensor suit that records his movements and relays them to the SGI Onyx which animates the character in real time based on the actor's motion. In the case of Dev, puppeteers animated his head and facial features at the same time. Because it happens live the character can interact with real people. The notion was that our human anchor, Soledad O'Brien, would spend a few minutes each night talking with an animated coffee bar hipster who had his finger on the pulse of Silicon Valley.
One of our producers, Matt Hawn, came up with the clever name of Dev Null, a play on the UNIX term for a non-existent device. I wrote (or more often ad-libbed) the copy and danced around in the suit, and puppeteers Karsten Bondy and Kristine Moss arched his eyebrows and spun his purple hair. The combination was a success. I think Dev was one of the best parts of The Site. He was mentioned in The New Yorker as Soledad's "purple pineapple-haired" sidekick, praised in the New York Times as "the real stand-out on The Site," and even won an Emmy award in 1997. And best of all, he is immortalized as "Zev," MSNBC's idiotic animated pundit in Al Franken's book, Why Not Me?

When MSNBC cancelled The Site in November, 1997, Dev died with it. The rights to Dev were split between ZDTV, MSNBC and the company that designed his appearance and software, Protozoa. His software still lives, I'm told, on the SGI Onyx in our studios - the same machine that runs Tilde - but the technology used to create Tilde is very different. We've talked about a Dev reunion, but the technical hurdles are pretty steep, and the demand is not particularly great. I loved doing Dev, and I appreciate the opportunity it offered to do something entirely new, but I doubt Dev will ever come back for real. His day is over. For a year and a half, I was the only person in the world working daily on TV as a virtual character. It was great fun: I got to say things no real human would ever be allowed to say, and I flirted like the dickens with the gorgeous Soledad O'Brien. And we were inventing a totally different kind of TV. But just like Pinocchio, all I ever wanted was to be a real boy.

Everything about Dev Null was successful--the character design, the coffee bar setting, the spontaneity, the content of tech info, the occasional flirting of cartoon man ("Show me your tattoo.") and real-life woman ("Do I look like the kind of person who would have a tattoo?"). As evident in the clip below, Dev's face could be wildly expressive.

After a year into the run of The Site, Dev changed. It was a minor change, but there it was. Dev had been reprogrammed to look less like a cartoon and more human. And this change was somehow disturbing. Overnight, Dev became less likable. He had begun a descent into the Uncanny Valley.

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Friday, November 16, 2007
  Stan MacGovern's Silly Milly
I first became aware of Stan MacGovern (1903-1975) and Silly Milly in the mid-1950s when I read Coulton Waugh's The Comics (Macmillan, 1947). Waugh called the strip "a rococo, girlesque epic... a cross between a turtle and three cashew nuts."

Stan MacGovern's father was George M. Cohan's publicist and his mother was an opera singer. Graduating in 1921, he worked as a copy boy in the art department of the New York Sun-Herald where he created the strip Dumbell Dan. After playing with a jazz band, he joined the New York Post where he launched his strip Extra, Extra on June 8, 1938. Since he used various news items as springboards for gags, he soon changed the name to Swing Out the News, and as Milly grew into the star of the strip, the title changed to Silly Milly. Readers noticed that MacGovern did not like to draw feet. Sinclair Lewis' 18th novel, Gideon Planish (Random House, 1943), directed satiric jabs at the fund-raising industry. The closing chapter begins:

      Carrie cried, "I have my job! Draftsman in a Hartford airplane factory. I'm leaving this evening."
      Peony fussed, "You'll never be able to stand it, away from New York."
      "With all my young men in the service, I won't miss one thing in New York, except Stan MacGovern's Silly Milly cartoons, and the music on WQXR," said the modern young woman. There was a distinct period in her sentence before she added, "Oh, and you and Daddy, of course."
      When Dr. Planish saw her off on the train, when it had slipped away in the mammoth cave of the Grand Central, he felt that it had been years ago that she had gone from him, and that he could not remember her face exactly.

In the strips of the mid-1940s, MacGovern and Silly Milly would occasionally review Broadway plays. In Leonard Lyons' column, "The Lyons Den," for September 5, 1945, Lyons wrote, "The Encyclopedia Britannica has invited Stan MacGovern, the political cartoonist and creator of Silly Milly--the cartoon strip which Sinclair Lewis says is his favorite in all America--to select six of his cartoons for the next issue of the Britannica."

The strip prompted a song, "Silly Milly," published by Mills Music with lyrics by Buddy Kaye, music by Ted Mossman and a sheet music cover illustration by MacGovern. As the popularity of Silly Milly increased during the 1940s, MacGovern was feted with a "Stan MacGovern Night" at Leon & Eddie's nightclub.

MacGovern lived in Malverne, New York, and took the Long Island train into Manhattan where he headed the art department at the New York Post. One of his friends at the Post was the journalist Jay Nelson Tuck (1916-1985), a WWII conscientious objector who won the George Polk Award for his coverage of racial violence in Florida in 1952. They sometimes collaborated on gags for The Yuk Yuk Department in the Post, such as "987654321012345678 or: Harvard University Unveils World's Largest Calculating Machine --Scientific Marvel of the Century!"

In 1950 MacGovern created a product called Hangover Horrors (aka Hangover Glasses), a set of six illustrated tumblers sold nationally. Each tumbler in the set displayed a different MacGovern cartoon about drinking or the morning after. The tumblers were advertised as "hand-painted," although the only color was a small bit of red on the noses of the characters. One unusual gag in the group shows a man looking in the bathroom mirror and saying, "You look awful!" The image in the mirror replies, "You don't look so hot yourself!" The gimmick is that the words spoken by the mirror image are reversed, so they can only be read correctly by looking inside the glass.

With a very limited syndication, Silly Milly was seen only rarely in newspapers across the country. In the 1950s MacGovern abandoned cartooning and opened an unsuccessful gift shop in East Rockaway, Long Island. In the last years of his life he worked at a Long Island furniture store. He was 72 when he committed suicide in 1975. His style of cartooning was a strong influence on Jack Mendelsohn.

           1939 editorial cartoon by MacGovern

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Sunday, November 11, 2007
  Franklin Booth
I previously posted in August a rare Franklin Booth (1874-1948) drawing which I scanned from the book Mimeograph Illustration Inset Portfolio: Drawings by Foremost Artists on Stencils Ready For Printing, published by the A.B. Dick Company (Chicago) in 1940. I say "rare" because how many copies of that catalog were ever saved by the schools and churches that used it? The newsprint paper quality prevented a full appreciation of Booth's line work, so here's another by Booth, a magnificent fantasy scene. When you enlarge, notice how the tiny figures in the distance provide a sense of scale amid the towering trees.

Growing up on a remote farm in Carmel, Indiana, Booth developed his unique pen-and-ink style as the result of a misunderstanding. Living in a rural area and having no knowledge of printing technology, Booth used pen and ink to copy the images he saw in 19th-century magazines, yet he was unaware that he was looking at wood engravings. He thought he was duplicating the look of the originals, as noted by Jim Vadeboncoeur:

Isolated on an Indiana farm and determined to be an artist, he studied what he saw on the pages of Scribner's, Harpers and the other illustrated magazines of the day. What he saw, and what there was to see, were wood-engraved images. Photographic reproduction was in its infancy and was used primarily for halftones of paintings. After all, everyone knew how to reproduce pen & ink work: you engraved it on wood. Booth, not knowing that the line and even the "feel" of the image was a product of the engraver, copied what he saw using pen on paper. By the turn of the century, when Booth was embarking on his incredible career, the technology had advanced enough so that his pen work could be reproduced as he crafted it. His style was an amazing amalgam of antique appeal and awesome artistry. Soaring, majestic scenes were crafted with thousands of lines, each placed in the precise position with respect to its neighbor to provide just the right density and shade...

The "old-time" feeling that hearkens back to the wood-engraved images of the 19th century really doesn't explain why modern art students are so taken with the approach. I think that what attracted interest then and now is the talent and compositional skills that were conspicuously absent in his contemporary mimics. These compositional abilities are even more amazing when one learns that Booth crafted his images a section at a time, painstakingly detailing a portion in ink that he had carefully penciled. He would complete a section in ink before applying the pencil to another part of the drawing. The innumerable strokes of the pen were prone to cause smudging if he were to have fully penciled the entire piece, so this piecemeal approach was his norm. To create and maintain a consistent and regular pattern and density of lines using this method must have been exceedingly difficult, yet he seems to have carried it off with aplomb.

Booth's New York studio was on 57th Street from 1910 until his death in 1948, but for many years he returned to his hometown each summer. In 1914, Theodore Dreiser and Booth made an automotive road trip from New York to Indiana, which they documented in A Hoosier Holiday (1916), written by Dreiser with illustrations by Booth. When Booth proposed the trip, Dreiser said, "All my life I've been thinking of making a return trip to Indiana and writing a book about it". With full chapters on the idyllic way of life in Carmel, this book is regarded today as a forerunner to the American road novel and a possible influence on Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

The Carmel paean by Dreiser and Booth put the town on the map, so to speak, and their book has been reprinted several times, most recently in 1997 by the Indiana University Press and last July by Kessinger Publishing. Yet curiously, not even a single sentence about Carmel's famous native can be found in the town's official online histories. Although Carmel has invested more than $10 million in the development of the Carmel Arts & Design District and the recreation of "historic" Old Town Carmel where "fresh new facades... create a Main Street of old," one can search in vain for any online mention there of Booth. Instead, the favorite son is Leslie Haines, an electrical engineer who designed and installed an early traffic light in 1923 when the population of Carmel was still only a few hundred people.

In addition to Scribner's and Harper's, Booth's art was published in Century, Cosmopolitan, Everybody's, Good Housekeeping, House & Garden, Ladies Home Journal, McClure's, Redbook and more. His work was collected in Franklin Booth: 60 Drawings (1925), reprinted in 1978 by Woody Gelman's Nostalgia Press as The Art of Franklin Booth. The illustration at top was used on the cover of John Fleskes' Franklin Booth: Painter with a Pen (2002), the first title from Fleskes' Flesk Publications five years ago. The book features an introduction by Roy Krenkel (1918-1983), who was greatly influenced by Booth and Norman Lindsay (1879-1969). The paperback edition was issued by Flesk this past summer. Manuel Auad included a 16-page color section in his Franklin Booth: American Illustrator (Auad Publishing, 2006).

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Thursday, November 08, 2007
  The Explainer
Click to enlarge.

©2007 Bhob Stewart and Paul Krassner

In 1965, Paul Krassner and I collaborated on a spoof of Jules Feiffer's weekly comic strip for The Realist, Paul's influential magazine of "freethought criticism and satire." I did a line drawing of Feiffer and made four copies to paste down amid copy written by Paul. My contribution to the writing was a reference to Feiffer's black panels similar to the  Little Lulu pages of Tubby and Little Lulu talking in darkened rooms. Some were fooled by the parody. Writer-designer Michael Dooley (The Education of a Comics Artist) recalled seeing The Realist for the first time:

In many ways Paul, who started a magazine called The Realist in 1958, was a major influence on many people of my generation. It was subtitled "Freethought Criticism and Satire," and it was really a proto-underground newspaper, where you could find everyone from Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut to Woody Allen and Dick Gregory to Ken Kesey and Tim Leary. I discovered it in 1965, when I was living in Brooklyn and had just begun studying design at Pratt Institute. The cover illustration looked like a Jules Feiffer cartoon, and since I was a big fan, I bought it. Turns out it was a parody written by Paul and drawn by EC fan-addict Bhob Stewart that poked fun at Feiffer. Ha! I’d been tricked, but delightedly so.

I was hooked, big time. I immediately mailed away for all available back issues and signed up for classes that Paul was teaching at the Free School in downtown Manhattan. His guest speakers included people like Michael O’Donoghue, who wrote the Phoebe Zeit-Geist comic for Evergreen Review, Abbie Hoffman, Emmett Grogan of the Diggers, just an incredible assortment of countercultural icons. Dick Guindon, an extremely talented but sadly undervalued cartoonist, was also involved in this class.

The signature does not say "Feiffer." It clearly reads "PK-bhob," but I tried to trick the eye and create an illusion that would resemble Feiffer's signature. I made an effort to extend such an illusion throughout by duplicating Feiffer's familiar layout, the use of a repetitive image and an attempt to mimic Feiffer's lettering style, complete with a double line on the emphasized words.

cartoon appeared on the front cover of the October 1965 issue of The Realist (#63) directly beneath A Little Play by Feiffer. This was very much in the previously established prankster nature of The Realist, but the juxaposition did not make Feiffer happy. Especially when he began to get phone calls from friends congratulating him on finally doing a self-satire. 

Feiffer demanded a clarification, so Paul told him to write a letter, which appeared at the top of the letters column in the February 1966 issue (#64) under the heading, "The Explainer," an ironic reference to Feiffer's book The Explainers (1960). That title returns in two months on a new four-volume collection, Explainers: 10 Years of Jules Feiffer's Revolutionary Weekly Strip (Fantagraphics, 2008).

Feiffer's reaction reminded me of something Henry Morgan once said: "I can dish it out, but I can't take it." A few years later, Feiffer actually did do a cartoon about himself in an ad to promote one of his books.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007
  The Blossomest Blossom
Dennis Potter disliked Rupert Murdoch so much that he gave the name "Rupert" to his cancer. In the weeks before his death (June 7, 1994), Potter was writing ten pages a day in a desperate attempt to complete his last two teleplays, the interlinked Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, before he died. On Without Walls (April 5, 1994) Potter took swigs from a flask of liquid morphine while he was interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, possibly the most unforgettable interview ever done for television. Potter talked with Bragg about his impending demise in a casual, celebratory fashion, seeing the world in a different way and marveling at the "nowness" of it all:

We're the one animal that knows that we're going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there's eternity in a sense. And we forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is is, and it is now only. I mean, as much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to, and ache to sometimes, we can't. It's in us, but we can't actually; it's not there in front of us. However predictable tomorrow is, and unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it's too predictable, they're locked into whatever situation they're locked into... Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there's the element of the unpredictable, of the you don't know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I'm almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.

Below my window in Ross, when I'm working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It's a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it's white, and looking at it, instead of saying, "Oh, that's a nice blossom"... last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There's no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance... not that I'm interested in reassuring people - bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.

The interview was the polar opposite of the last interview with dying, crying Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz shown near the end of last week's American Masters profile of Schulz on PBS. The documentary revealed how Schulz incorporated his own past into his comic strip, just as Potter reworked his life into The Singing Detective and other teleplays. Possibly Schulz was crying after a lifetime of seeing writers misspell his name as "Schultz." Even PBS couldn't get it right. (It's sort of like the mistake of adding a dot to "Dr Pepper".)

In this clip Potter tells Bragg about virtual reality and the other concepts that prompted the futuristic science fiction drama, Cold Lazarus (1996), his final work for television.

In Potter's Karaoke (1996), obsessive, self-destructive London television scriptwriter Daniel Feeld (Albert Finney) finds his health failing while involved with the post-production on his new TV drama, Karaoke. Potter was dying, and so is Feeld. The name is an obvious pun on "Potter's Field," yet as Richard Corliss has noted, it is the landscape of Potter's entire life. A hard-drinking heavy smoker, Feeld is in much physical pain as he struggles with pancreatic cancer. Going about his daily routines, he has some odd experiences leading him to conclude that his fictional creations are erupting into real life.

He overhears people speaking scraps of his own dialogue, including young Sandra Sollars (Saffron Burrows), hostess at a karaoke club run by petty thug Arthur "Pig" Maillion (Hywel Bennett). Feeld fears Sandra could be threatened by "Pig" Maillion in a manner similar to scenes he wrote for Karaoke, as his memory, fantasy and reality overlap and interweave into a complex mental tapestry that takes the viewer back to Potter's earlier works, Pennies from Heaven (1981) and The Singing Detective (1986). At the karaoke club, Feeld sings "Pennies from Heaven." "Stars in My Crown," the hymn Potter recalled from his childhood and featured prominently in The Singing Detective, is referenced in Karaoke, in Cold Lazarus and also in John Turturro's Potter-influenced Romance and Cigarettes (2005). It seems likely that, in his teens, Potter saw the movie Stars in My Crown (1950), starring Joel McCrea as the minister in a small frontier community after the Civil War.

Feeld returns three centuries later as a disembodied head in Cold Lazarus. While technology has advanced in the 24th Century, global corporate control has brought about an austere, antiseptic way of life. In the year 2368, the Luddites of the terrorist organization RON (Reality or Nothing) seek a return to the tranquility of earlier times.

At the Masdon Science Center, a team of scientists led by Emma Porlock (Frances De La Tour) work to extract memories from Feeld's cryogenically preserved head. The scientists glide about their lab in chairs which respond to their thoughts of movement and direction. Porlock says, "We can break into this man’s synapses. Imagine the wonder of it all. And if we wear our VR helmets we will live for hours at a time in the real past, the authentic past – and perhaps escape."

When they finally succeed, they watch in awe as Feeld's memories are displayed on the large "memory wall." His memories are, in fact, scenes from the earlier Karaoke. Aging Martina Masdon (Diane Ladd), the tyrannical owner of the Science Center, and international Murdoch-like media mogul David Siltz (Henry Goodman) see the potential for the commercial exploitation of Feeld's memories as entertainment.

As Siltz puts it, "Who would want made-up stories from a hack when you can mainline into the real thing? At last, privacy has a true market value." This is an intriguing notion, considering the rise of mobile webcam lifecasting in 2007, followed by the possibility of more reality TV shows triggered by the current Writer's Guild strike. (The long-run, unscripted Cops was launched by Fox in 1989 as a direct result of the 1988 writer's strike.) Lifecasters such as Sarah Meyers and Lisa Batey are skilled at sharing their inner thoughts with their viewers, sometimes verbalizing an ongoing stream-of-consciousness with surfacing memories. Lifecasting is a new medium that would have fascinated Dennis Potter. How will the corporate suits attempt to exploit the lifecasters?

This clip from Cold Lazarus incorporates scenes from Karaoke. The note on YouTube that Potter appears in this clip is obviously incorrect, since Potter was dead when Karaoke and Cold Lazarus were produced. That's actually the actor Ian McDiarmid (who portrayed Palpatine in the Star Wars series) as a character named Oliver Morse. McDiarmid has a striking physical resemblance to Potter, moreso when wearing glasses identical to Potter's, and his appearance makes this scene like Chinese nesting boxes... dialogue written by Feeld (and thusly Potter) is being overheard in a cafe by two different surrogate Potters. In another shot in the cafe (not in this clip), McDiarmid stares straight down into cream swirling in a coffee cup, momentarily suggesting Potter's Cream in My Coffee (1980), which we wrote about four months ago.

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