The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, February 19, 2010

Dinner with a Bud

Had dinner last night with Harlan Ellison and some of his merry friends. What an incredible evening, filled with stories and jokes and general bonhomie. When I think back over my life, I realize that there are a handful of relationships I treasure almost absurdly much. And one is definitely this man, the most honored living fantasist. When I first heard about Harlan, I was reading strange little stories by him, loving them, but not really paying attention to the name on the byline. Then I read a series of articles in the Free Press, stuff about television called "The Glass Teat." Brilliant column written by a man who seemed totally fearless, would express controversial ideas so clearly that I had to just shake my head, and make jokes so incredibly un-PC (I remember a joke about "interracial faggotry" that had me on the floor) that I just HAD to meet him. And then there was this guy on the radio, interviewed by somebody on KABC, and I thought he had the fastest mind I'd ever heard outside certain comedians in programmed, controlled contexts. This guy worked without a net.

Then I discovered that these three men were the same guy. I started going to lectures at college campuses, sitting in the front row, over about eighteen months. Always polite, asking good questions, not buying into the "insult Harlan and get him going" mood often present at these things. And over time I could see him start to wonder who in the hell I was. Finally, I out-bid everyone else and got dinner with him at an awards dinner. I was going to try to find an opportunity to catch his attention, make him really notice me. Just one opening...

At the dinner, Sammy Davis Jr was given an award for the TV movie "Poor Devil." I leaned over to Harlan and said: "they only gave it to him because he's Jewish."

Harlan looked at me scornfully and said, in an instant, "shut up and eat your watermelon."

Sigh. Memories are made of this. It was so wonderful to see him again, really.


I hear "The Wolfman" is really, really terrible. Is that right? And why does it seem so hard for big-budget horror movies to work worth a damn? I have to suspect that the best horror comes from one artist's nightmares. Corporate horror will be a collection of "this scared 'em last time" moments. Hmmm. Is the same thing true about sex? Can I think of a really sexy moment in big movie? There must have been a few, but nothing is coming to mind at the moment. I think the intimacy of sex and death make it hard to create by committee. Now, I'm looking forward to "Shutter Island," which is big studio, but Scorsese has the juice to pull it off. Hope he does.


Am I really duping the Hero's Journey course next week? Good Lord! I can't believe it. And can't believe how good it feels to get this all down, all out of myself. I have to mail out the copies. I feel emptied out, husked. Like I had to get all of the things I've ever been taught out of my head, to make room for...what? I don't know. What I do know is that I would hate to die without sharing everything I've been given. Perhaps none of us ever get to do that completely. But the effort is worthwhile. I ask myself if I'm just doing it for money. That voice is in my head, some kind of nasty little bug that is probably left over from my childhood, some kind of negative associations with making a profit. All I can say is that if Bill Gates gave me a billion dollars, I wouldn't just give "Hero's Journey" away for free. I'd pay people to listen to it. That's as close as I can come to shutting that little voice in my head up.


Tiger Woods is giving a press conference as I write this. Tananarive asked me if I thought he should have made this conference. I asked: "as a person, or as a corporation?" As a person, he owes nothing to anyone but his family, and his own heart. As a corporation, he sure as hell needs to--there are millions of people who identified with him deeply. This is nothing new in human culture: we have always had heros, royalty, and so forth. I'm sure that the village's best hunters got applauded by the village, and that is appropriate. People act as if there is something unique to the 20th or 21st Century about such behavior. At least we don't act as if royalty is divine. So the Tiger Woods' of the world are given the awards we used to reserve for people whose ancestors slaughtered thousands to take the throne...hmm. I can deal with that. And he went haywire, living out a fantasy of endless sexual conquest. To my knowledge, no one has written a book on how to deal with massive fame and success. Even the small, isolated versions of this I've experienced can be disorienting. It would seem that he made the traditional promises of fidelity to his wife, and violated them big time. If I were her, I would divorce him, take the money, and do whatever I wanted with it. Create educational foundations for my family, perhaps. Then I'd see if he would court me. If so, I might be able to forgive him. But that money would be in MY account, not a joint account. Yep, I think I would.


It would be difficult to imagine a culture in which those who perform at extreme levels of competence were not revered. People who complain that teachers aren't given that kind of acclaim or money miss the fact that as a group they earn far more than athletes. And as individuals they assiduously AVOID the kind of hierarchical rankings that would ever create celebrity. If we clearly knew who the best teachers in the world were, trust me, those individuals would be celebrated, as Plato and Aristotle have been celebrated for centuries for being the greatest teachers of their time. You can't have it both ways. The higher the safety net, the lower the ceiling. The people who get fantastic rewards are always in professions where the least successful get NOTHING. Always. We can disagree on which behaviors and skills should be most prized, but I suspect that they will remain things that can be visually identified, and that engage large numbers of people simultaneously. Tony Robbins is just a teacher--there is much he is doing that is also done at Learning Tree, Community colleges, and even advisers at junior high schools. The difference is marketing. THAT is actually his genius. Any time you can cut someone from the pack and hold them up as "the best in the world!" it can be promoted. We care about that, no matter what "best" it is. And that will probably never change.

Should it?


Pagan Topologist said...

I have been on occasion been referred to as the best person in the world in continuum theory, my small subspecialty within topology. It is disconcerting in a way, and more than that, I think that from my perspective there are others just as good as I. I just happen to have solved some more flashy, famous problems. So, yes, I think this sort of thing should change, not because the lucky leaders in the race get accolades, but because by comparison, the others who are just as good but not as famous all too easily get overlooked, creating an artificially steep gradient of apparent excellence. But then, I have always been suspicious of marketing since I think form should never triumph over substance.

I assure you that the fact that my fame in this very small community does not lead to any sexual opportunities like T. W.'s has nothing to do with my holding this opinion.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Pagan Topologist, it's my impression that some people in math and science seek out the problems whose solutions are likely to be important, and others don't. If so, luck still plays a part, but it's hardly the only thing.

Also, from what you've said, you knock yourself out to make sure that your presentations of your solutions are very clear. Wouldn't that be good for your reputation?

As for books about dealing with sudden success, I think one of Richard Bach's (author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull) autobiographical books has somewhat on the subject, though it might be mostly complaining about how he screwed up because he had no idea of what he needed to pay attention to.

Steve Perry said...

I recognize Harlan, but -- who's the old black guy with him?

Scott said...

Wolfman was pretty bad, except Anthony Hopkins scared me again. Not as a werewolf, the monster stuff was lame. But he comes across again as genuinely evil. There are a few actors who can pull it off: Nicholson, Walken, Hopkins... Ledger, once, but that might have been very bad for him, you know?

Dave said...

Maybe I'm off somewhere, but I think that's a fourth chakra and below thing. This is predominantly a fourth chakra and below culture. I think individuals and cultures that have a center of gravity at fifth chakra and above have different impulses. Obviously, we're a long way away from being a fifth chakra culture. -Dave in Anaheim

Steven Barnes said...

Curious. Do you know of a culture you would consider a full-chakra culture? Or a "fourth and above" culture?

Jan said...

Steve, that is such a great picture of you and Harlan. That expression on his face makes me think he has either just said something incredibly rude or is about to. I recently saw a documentary about Harlan called "Dreams with Sharp Teeth." It was wonderful. Knowing that this crazy, brilliant curmudgeon exists in our world makes me happy, and I wish he could live forever.

Dave said...

Great question. But no, none exist. Yet. As I say, it's a ways off, but we're inching towards it. My estimate is that currently about 2% of the population has a center of gravity at fifth chakra and above. I'd say a minimum of 5% would be necessary for any kind of a corresponding culture to accrete. 10% is more likely. I think that's a century away, but I'm perhaps too pessimistic. But, no, fifth-chakra-center-of-gravity culture doesn't exist yet, as fourth-chakra-center-of-gravity cultures never existed until about 300 years ago. It's an evolving kosmos, we're an evolving species, the flower continues to unfold, gradually, over the millennia...

Bobbe Edmonds said...

The Wolfman was beyond horrible - It was the Thing That Ate My Matinee Price and Sanity.

The first movie I go to see after being in relative paralysis for a year, and it turns out to be the worst thing I've seen since visiting that leper colony in Sri Lanka. They got the PERFECT person to play the Wolfman - Del Toro delivers in every scene. Sadly, they got the same writers for Ghost Rider, and Jesus Christ himself couldn't resurrect this turkey from the grave of horrid movies. (Okay, maybe it wasn't the EXACT writers from Ghost Rider, but it sure as hell played that way.)

It's not scary. It's not horrifying. It's mostly not even interesting. I knew how it would turn out 15 minutes into the first act.

Oh! I almost forgot - That guy from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hugo Weaving - HIS scenes were amazing, they should have built the movie around him. Maybe make it more of a cat-and-mouse deal, like Holmes and Moriarty. The best part of this movie was the ending - As in, "Finally, it's over!".