Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Legend of William Hjortsberg

            It's always a pleasure to meet someone who isn't normally recognized and tell them you know who they are and that you're an admirer of their work. Tell Tom Cruise how much you admire his work and yeah, so what else is new. He's heard it a million times. But I was at a party and the host introduced me to someone named Gatz Hjortsberg. I asked him if he was any relation to William Hjortsberg, one of my favorite writers. "I'm William Hjortsberg," he said, "my friends call me Gatz." Nothing like getting a compliment from someone who doesn't even know that they're complimenting you.
            Yeah, we met cute, just like in the movies.
            Man oh man, have you ever read Gray Matters? Takes place in a giant repository of brains, the only remains of the human race. Since no one can move, the whole book is thought. An amazing, entertaining, and very serious piece of science fiction about the workings of consciousness. Then there's Alp, one of the funniest and most demented books ever written, featuring mountain climbing, dwarves, nuns, and cannibalism. His next book, Falling Angel was made into Angel Heart, a pretty good film by Alan Parker but, of course, not as good as the book.
            Hjortsberg lived on a ranch in Montana. He rarely came to Hollywood and was totally stunned to meet someone who had actually read his books, which sold dismally and were out of print. He had flown into town because Ridley Scott was making a film of his first original screenplay called Legend. I demanded a copy and damned if he didn't give it to me the next day.
            Still one of the greatest scripts I'd ever read, suckering you into this fairy tale fantasy world that gets progressively more bizarre, leading to a spectacular twist ending in which the hero goes to save his girlfriend who has been kidnapped by a demon from hell, only to find that the demon has changed her into a dog and is routinely fucking her, which is precisely what they're doing when he bursts in to rescue her. Not exactly what you expect to happen.
            We hung out a bit for the next few days and I couldn't help but ask. I looked him in the eyes. "Ridley Scott is making Legend?"
            "And the heroine gets changed into a dog and is fucking the demon when the hero finds her?"
            "Not exactly."
            Hollywood rears its ugly head. He didn't have to tell me. They were going to make his screenplay while incidentally leaving out the point, the whole Orpheus thing of saving someone from hell only to find out that they've totally lost the innocence that attracted you to them in the first place. It was truly an intelligent fairy tale for adults.
But then Ridley Scott came aboard and it was starring Tom Cruise and the budget was $50 million which was good news because it would look great and bad because no studio on the planet earth is going to put all that money into an R-rated fairy tale where the innocent, bright-eyed, unicorn loving heroine gets fucked not just like a dog but as a dog.
            Just like that, the entire project lost its edge, its irony, its depth, everything that made me want to see it. Hjortsberg agreed. Scott agreed. The studio didn't. They were asking him to rewrite the script so that all the kids who were coming to the film for the unicorns wouldn't be traumatized by the bestiality, integral to the plot though it may be. He did what I would have done. He took the money and ran. Hell, if he hadn't rewritten it himself, some studio hack would have done it for him.
            The film famously bombed and I picture him years later, a bitter old man complaining to the other octogenarian sharing a room with him in the nursing home. "Man, Hollywood fucked me over. Legend would have been a hit if they'd only ended it MY way."
            "And what way was that?" the tired old roommate would ask.
            And he'd tell them and they would slowly edge to the far side of the bed, pick up the phone, call the nurse, and demand to be moved to another room.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Man Bites Dogma - A Conversation with Robert Anton Wilson about Politics, Religion, Drugs, and Quantum Mechanics

             He's been called a cult figure to various lunatic fringe groups, Tom Robbins calls him "a dazzling barker hawking tickets to the most thrilling tilt-a-whirls and daring loop-o-planes on the midway of higher consciousness," he calls himself an iconoclastic comedian, and whether Robert Anton Wilson is a philosopher or a public nuisance is now up to you. His books, The Illuminatus Trilogy, Schroedinger's Cat, and The Cosmic Trigger all fall somewhere in between non-fiction and pure fantasy, full of unquestionable facts and quotes that somehow always add up to utterly preposterous conclusions. This devotion to eccentricity and breaking down barriers reaches its zenith in The Illuminati Papers, a book seemingly written by characters from all his other books. It contains, among other esoterica, a whole page of Haiku by Raymond Chandler in which Wilson has simply taken short descriptive excerpts from Chandler's work and reformatted them into beautiful miniature poems.
             With all the passion of a religious crusader, Robert Anton Wilson is out to destroy all personal belief systems, to force every one of his readers to seriously question any and all thoughts they hold dear. His specialty is in analyzing systems that seem to contradict each other and trying to find the points at which they do agree. In Promethius Rising he synthesizes the works of Leary, Jung, Freud, Sagan, Gurdjieff, Berne, and several others into a general system that shows how much they have in common, where they disagree, and why. His newest work, Reality is What You Can Get Away With, reads like a screenplay by Picasso - it's cubist, outrageous, completely non-linear, constantly startling, and very funny. All of his books are part of a series; they're cinematic, full of cross cutting, montages, flashbacks, and flash forwards. But no one seems to be able to figure out if this new one is a movie or a book since it actively defies both definitions. He's raised the put-on to the highest art form.
             Wilson holds a Ph.D. in psychology, edited the Playboy Forum for six years, has made a comedy record (Secrets of Power) and a punk rock record (The Chocolate Biscuit Conspiracy), the stage version of his Illuminatus trilogy has been seen in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Seattle, Jerusalem, and was performed recently in Liverpool by the London National Theater in a 12 hour noon to midnight marathon. His latest play, Wilhelm Reich in Hell has only been seen in Ireland where Wilson has lived for the past five years. A screenwriting job brought him to Hollywood recently, where he has been delivering lectures and running fantasy role-playing encounter groups. These evenings are enlightening, self-contradictory, very funny, and hazardous to your dogma. We started out talking about one of his favorite subjects.

Do you see everything as a conspiracy?

No. Somebody once accused me of claiming that everything is subjective, but I don't make statements about everything, I only make partial statements. I think conspiracy is very prevalent behavior on this planet. It even precedes humanity. Lions conspire - one lion will frighten a herd of antelope to get them running in a certain direction where the other lions will be waiting there to eat them. That's a conspiracy against antelopes, and I'm sure the antelopes are very bitter about it. Ants conspire, they seize territory and drive off interlopers, rats have very vigorous conspiracies, when a rat from a strange pack gets into a house they'll hunt him down and kill him. It's just like the mafia, "Don't do anything on our territory."

Is it possible for a conspiracy to be benign?

It would have to be open. The difference between a conspiracy and an affinity group is that when me and my friends do it it's an affinity group and when someone we don't like does it it's a conspiracy. Conspiracies run the literary world, the art world, marijuana arrives here due to conspiracies. It's a conspiratorial world.
     People naturally form groups and to the extent that they're competing with each other, they try to hide what they're doing. The best explanation of conspiracy is in The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, a very thick mathematical treatise. It explains that it's very beneficial to have conspiracies in competitive situations - the bigger an alliance you form, the quicker you move ahead.
     The function of every alliance is to conceal information from the other alliance and to spread false information, just like in a poker game. You don't want them to know what hand you've got but you want them to think they know. Poker is the essence of conspiracy. Everybody's trying to deceive one another. A benevolent conspiracy would have to be open, without the factor of concealment, and everybody's invited in. That's the only kind of conspiracy that could really improve the world.

So you think that Summit Conferences should be broadcast live to everybody?

Of course. People are so paranoid about the Bilderbergers because they're so secretive. For all we know they're only getting together to look at stag movies once a year. The Bilderbergers have a lot of members in common with the Tri-Lateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations and the Royal Institute of International Affairs. To a great extent they're financed by the Rockefellers and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. They're all part of one gang that meets once a year in secret. They're called the Bilderbergers because their first meeting was in Bilderberg. They get more coverage each time they meet because they're so secretive about what they're doing. They say they're meeting to discuss international harmony and the peaceful resolution of our problems, but no one's allowed to hear what they're talking about.

Would giving away the Bilderberger's secrets make them more benign?

No, it would just make them more paranoid, more devious. My business is not to expose but to collect comparative exposes so that the readers can see that conspiracy is normal behavior and that there's no one big conspiracy that runs everything.
     In the '30s, the Nazis were very much into the theory that the Jewish bankers controlled everything, and that led to such horror that it became forbidden to think about conspiracies at all for decades thereafter. The first people who said there was a conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination were all denounced as obstinate nut cases and wandering loonies. My attitude, after looking at the evidence for a long time, is that there is no one big conspiracy, that the historians who refuse to admit conspiracy as a factor in history are just over-reacting to stupid conspiracy theories.
     There really are conspiracies of varying sizes, but they're so busy fighting each other that they have nothing to do with us. Most of them are for monetary reasons. There are conspiracies to decide whose book is going to be reviewed on page one of the New York Times or the Herald Tribune. Often it's the same book in both, more often than coincidence or even synchronicity can account for. There are commercial conspiracies to fix prices. Some have ideology or mysticism behind them. I don't think you can understand history until you understand the element of poetic whimsy and sheer irrationality in the minds of so called practical people.
     In WW2, both Churchill and Hitler thought they were in direct communication with God. So did MacArthur and Patton. Hitler and Mussolini both outlawed Freemasonry in Germany and Italy. The leaders of the war against them were Roosevelt, a 33rd degree Freemason, Churchill, another high ranking Freemason, Hoover, the head of the secret police in America was a 33rd degree Freemason

What exactly to those degrees stand for?

They indicate how many initiations you've gone through. Actually, any Freemason who is nominated to the presidency of the United States gets elevated to the 32nd degree right away. Then if he's elected, he's given the 33rd degree, which is only honorary. The 32nd degree in mainly concerned with the Knights of Malta, who are the enemies of Freemasonry.
     The Freemasons claim that the Knights of Malta have sworn an oath to stamp out liberalism, free thought, and restore the total reign of tyranny and superstition that existed in the dark ages. It's a secret society within the Catholic Church that doesn't seek publicity at all. Very little is known about it. William Casey of the CIA was a Knight of Malta, Alexander Haig is a Knight of Malta. According to Gordon Thomas, an English journalist, the Knights of Malta now act as couriers between the Vatican and the CIA. His theory is very complicated, but it illustrates how conspiracies operate in the real world as distinguished from paranoid fantasy.
     The Gray Wolves are a Muslim fundamentalist group who deal heroin to get money to buy arms to carry on their campaign to exterminate Israel. They've been very involved in gunrunning because they have a link with the Bulgarian secret police, who are very much into selling munitions underground. The KGB uses the Gray Wolves for operations that, if they're ever blown, can't be traced back to Russia. Roberto Calvi of Banco Abrosiano was taking a great deal of this heroin money from the Gray Wolves and the mafia and running it through the Vatican Bank, which doesn't have to show records to anybody. The Italian government can't examine their records, it belongs to the government of the state of the Vatican, so they're the only ones who can look at their own books. If you can get illicit money into the Vatican Bank, it disappears forever, nobody can find any trace of it.
     The Gray Wolves had a grudge against the Pope because of his involvement with Calvi, who embezzled so much money that everybody got swindled. He was found hanging from a bridge in London, his secretary was pushed from a window at Banco Abrosiano the same day, a few more executives have died mysteriously since then. Calvi's partner in the swindles, Michele Sindona, was convicted in this country of 65 counts of stock and currency fraud and faking his own kidnapping to escape prosecution. Back in Italy, he was convicted of the murder of the examiner hired to investigate his bank. After that they were going to put him on trial for conspiracy in 80 murders, but he was poisoned in his cell. All of this is part of how the Bulgarian secret police hired a killer from the Gray Wolves to get the Pope.

Isn't the Pope just a figurehead without much power, sort of the Gerald Ford of the Vatican?

That's not true, the Pope does have a lot of power. Consider the case of Pope John Paul I. He was a rebel who didn't like the way the church was being run, and in 1978 he announced that he would be going through a complete overhaul, throwing out a lot of the old crowd and bringing in new people. Observatori Politico sent him a list of 115 Freemasons in the Vatican, including members of P2, who had infiltrated 900 members into the Italian Government, including the secret police. John Paul ordered an investigation, and within a few days he was mysteriously found dead.
     The Vatican has never shown a death certificate and no autopsy was performed. They told two different stories about who found him dead, things disappeared out of his bedroom that have never been accounted for, including his will, his medicine bottle, and his glasses. Pecorelli, the editor of Observatori Politico who sent him the list of P2 and other Freemason members in the Vatican, was shot to death through the mouth, Mafia fashion, on the streets of Rome a few weeks later. You can't explain that in terms of one big conspiracy, there are obviously interlocking and feuding conspiracies - the Mafia, P2, the Freemasons, the Bulgarian secret police, the CIA, and God knows who else.
     Liccio Gelli, the grandmaster of the P2 Lodge, was on the payroll of the CIA and the KGB. He was that kind of operator. He disappeared from Italy, which shows how many friends he had in the police. He showed up in Switzerland a few months later to take some money out of a bank account, and he was recognized and arrested. The Swiss put him in a maximum security prison but he was out within two days. One guard claimed he was hypnotized. The fascinating thing is that if you look at pictures of Reagan's second inaugural, you'll see Liccio Gelli right next to Reagan.
     Most of this information can be found in two books, In God's Name by David Yallop, and In Banks We Trust by Penny Lernoux, which explains how the whole international banking system interlinks with the heroin and cocaine laundering business that the Vatican has been running.

Are you saying the Pope is a drug dealer?

The biggest drug laundromat ever busted in this country was the World Finance Corporation in Miami. The president and several other senior executives were convicted. Two directors of the bank were allegedly former CIA agents, but the prosecutors were blocked in Washington when they tried to investigate the connections between the bank and the CIA.
     In any case, the WFC had all this money going into it from South American countries that are in the cocaine business, and they sent it to the CIS Alpine Bank in the Bahamas, which is owned by Archbishop Marcinkus who runs the Vatican Bank, which is where the money ended up. After that it's in a black hole, it disappears from human vision forever, most likely ending up in Swiss bank accounts. The profits from this go towards keeping those dictators in power, maintaining the secret police and the death squads.
     After the second world war, Liccio Gelli was shrewd enough to start an escape route for Nazi war criminals, getting them to South America for a fee, giving them new identities, and complete cover. He kept in touch with them as they found jobs as organizers of the death squads, doing the same sort of things they did in the '40s, only now they're doing it for Ronald Reagan and the money is going into the Vatican Bank. Obviously you can't run a church on just Hail Marys.
     The only reason cocaine is illegal is because there's so much money to be made out of it while it's illegal. If it were legal, the prices would go way down.

So Nancy Reagan's whole JUST SAY NO campaign is just a ploy to keep the prices up?

Or sheer stupidity. There's so much money in the cocaine business that a lot of Latin American governments depend on it for their survival. The CIA has been in the cocaine business for 20 or 30 years now, and it's very useful for them to keep it illegal. That way they can use it as a form of currency that doesn't leave any records. When you hear about big cocaine busts, those are just renegades, the entrepreneurs who were trying to work outside of the system.

You've painted a rather bleak picture of a conspiratorial world. Are there any positive actions we can take to change things?

In my books, I'm trying to show people how to free their own minds. I think that's the first step. People have got to become less mechanical and more aware. My books are all constructed as mindfucks, to get the readers to open their brains up, receive new signals, and come out of their conditioned patterns of thought and perceptions.
     There are a lot of Utopian ideas in my books that I don't think are impractical at all. I call them Utopian because they're beyond anything the human race has achieved in the past, but we're moving incredibly fast. I think there are changes right ahead of us that are even bigger than the industrial revolution. The human life span will be doubled by the year 2000 and quadrupled by 2010. One man flew the Atlantic in 1928, 200 million flew the Atlantic in 1978. Taking that fifty year time span as a model, people started going into space in the 1960s so by 2010 we should have 200 million going into space every year.

Are there any existing political systems you admire?

Scandinavian socialism. I found the Scandinavians to be about the most admirable people in Europe. clean streets, a low crime rate, a general air of high civilization - luxuries for all and a total absence of slums, poverty, and ugliness. They seem very happy and productive, with one of the most way out futurist movements in the world. They're the California of Europe.
     I hate to sound like a Marxist, which I'm not, but the reason you haven't heard about Scandinavian Socialism is because the media of this country is controlled by rich people who are scared shitless of socialism. They want Americans to think there's only one type of socialism, Soviet Communism, which is the kind of place where dissident scientists get thrown in lunatic asylums, all of which is true. Americans are paranoid about Russians but Scandinavians regard them with amusement; they're those backwards people who think that you can only have socialism by putting all the poets and painters in jail. The Scandinavians reward their poets and they don't put anyone in jail for dissident political opinions.

Aren't you scared of getting in trouble, of finally saying the one thing you shouldn't have said?

We're all living in a world in which one cannot apply one's highest ideals without getting into a lot of trouble. I've gotten in trouble, but I haven't gone to jail, which shows I may have more common sense than Tim Leary. I certainly don't claim to be more intelligent than him. He's the most intelligent human being I've ever encountered.

Do you share his conclusions about LSD?

LSD breaks up habitual circuits of the brain. It opens new circuits, breaks down old circuits, and there's no evidence whatsoever that it destroys brain cells. LSD is very much a metaprogramming device, it changes the basic programs, that's why it's dangerous. It creates acute paranoid states in bureaucrats who've never used it.
     To get the best out of it needs a scientific or religious approach, one or the other. People who are just tripping for the fun of it are more likely to imprint a whole new reality tunnel or personality on themselves that they weren't looking for. If you're going to do LSD, you should decide the changes you're aiming at and structure the trip to lead to that kind of change.
     There's no doubt that you can change every part of your personality with LSD, that's why Leary calls it a reimprinting drug. It changes basic imprints which are much more rigid than conditioning. There's no doubt that I am a different person than I am before I took it.
     I was a statistical materialist before I started experimenting with LSD, that is I didn't believe the laws of the universe were absolutely deterministic because I knew enough quantum mechanics to know that it broke them down. But I was still a statistical materialist, everything could be explained by the accidental permutations of little hunks of energy that solidify into matter. I was perfectly satisfied with that explanation of the universe, and I never realized that I was as dogmatic about it as any Catholic was about their faith. After LSD impacted on me, I became a total agnostic, and I'm not dogmatic about anything any more. I know that every system I make up is my own brain making up a system. None of the systems is big enough to include the whole universe, so all of my beliefs are only relatively true. Some are undoubtedly wrong because I'm not that brilliant that I never make a mistake.
     There are a lot of people who don't realize how conceited they are. By asserting with such certitude the things they believe in, they don't realize that they're saying "I'm the smartest person in the world, I can answer all the questions." People like Carl Sagan. I just don't know how he can be so sure of everything when, by and large, the more intelligent you get, the more you realize you can't be sure of anything.

Since Newtonian physics don't apply to sub-atomic particles, how can you apply logic on the quantum level to objective reality?

There's a lot of disagreement among quantum physicists on that subject, but I am very interested in, and almost believe, the school that includes David Boem, who was driven out of the United States during the McCarthy era, and considered the most brilliant pupil of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
     There is a non-locality principal in quantum mechanics, which means that things are correlated even if they're not connected mechanically or by energy transmissions. Up until this was discovered, everything in physics could be explained by energy transfers. You hear me because sound waves move from my voice to your ear, and so on.
     Then they discovered that there were things that were moving in harmony with each other, and that there was no way that energy could be getting between them. Energy can't move faster than speed of light, and yet these actions were instantaneously correlated. There are several approaches towards understanding non-locality, but, as Schroedinger put it, the sum total of all minds is one. The appearance of separate egos is only a hallucination, like that of the flatness of the earth or the movement of the sun around the earth. These ideas have all been corrected, and the idea that we're different from the animals has created mass hysteria. The appearance of separate egos is a hallucination. We are all facets of one mind.

But it's a necessary hallucination. You can't play chess with yourself.

It's necessary for the game on this planet that every organism have a sense of self and a sense of the hive, the pack, it's us against the rest of them out there. Antland Uber Alles is the song the ants sing in T.H. White's Merlin stories, and every gene pool has that basic philosophy, just as every individual has its "self". You can go through consciousness alterations by means of yoga, certain types of shamanic magic, and various drugs that teach you how to identify with the gene pool instead of your private ego. You can get beyond that and identify with the whole biosphere.

Can you actually affect your own genetic structure so that these structural changes can be passed on to other generations?

I tend to believe in Sheldrake's morpho-genetic field, in which he proposes that there's a non-local connection in biology too. Biologists are denouncing him as a nut and a heretic. Though the first two experiments to check Sheldrake have tended to very strongly support him, they've been ruthlessly criticized.
     It makes sense that if you've got non-local connections in physics that you could have them in biology too. Freud and Jung and Leary have all tried to account for racial memory or our ability to remember past lives. They've had to posit that somehow genes are carrying information from one organism to its descendents, but this part of modern psychology has always been rejected by biologists because there's lots of evidence that genes can't do that. Freud had racial memory, Jung had the collective unconscious, Leary has the neurogenetic circuit, but there's no way any of it can work mechanically, and that's why biologists reject it. The only way it can work is with Sheldrake's non-local morpho-genetic field, which, if it exists, would let me send signals that will be able to effect the genes of future generations, and not just those directly descended from me. I can control the direction of evolution through thought forms I'm putting out, and so can everybody else.
     People can't stay in their old reality tunnels any longer, they've got to start accelerating their brain activity. Very specifically, a world full of Islamic fundamentalists, Protestant fundamentalists, dogmatic Marxists, and Reaganite chauvinist Americans is moving us closer and closer to World War III, and the only thing that's going to head that off is if people stop being midwestern methodist bankers or Shuto computer executives or Muslim heroin smugglers and develop a bigger identity. They've got to get out of these narrow little trips. Buckminster Fuller used to say that one of the consequences of the traditional game is nationalism. Planet earth is a spaceship with 150 independent and sovereign admirals all steering in different directions.

What is the next stage in evolution?

The model I use is adapted from Leary. The oral-bio-survival circuit is what the amoebas operate on - taste everything. Babies operate on that too. That's the circuit we go back to whenever we're in danger, and depending on what we imprinted there, we will either attack or run away.
     Then there's Freud's anal circuit, which has to do with claiming territory and status within it. That's when we go through the mammalian rituals concerning who runs the family, outsmarting our brothers and sisters and trying to run the whole show, imprinting our domination and submission reflexes. It's why people can hold jobs; their boss becomes a father substitute and they attach all their reflexes to him.
     Next there's the rational circuit in which we do our abstract reasoning with words and mathematics, and the sociosexual circuit where we imprint the pattern of how we relate to people; with what degree of amity or sexuality. Everybody has a different imprint, and society has only one general set of rules, so everybody is a heretic as far as that circuit is concerned. Those four circuits are the natural child, the adoptive child, the adult, and the parent in Berne's system.
     Beyond that is the neurosomatic circuit, where, through yoga or drugs or body work like Rolfing, one gimmick or another, you are able to turn on to your own body in a new way, and instead of just reacting to the conditioned and imprinted programs on the first four circuits, you are able to relax and go with the flow and enjoy life.
     The sixth circuit is the neurogenetic circuit, which has to do with morpho-genetic resonances, coming in contact with the experience and religious symbols of your ancestors, learning that they've been controlling you below the level of consciousness all your life. This is what Shamanism traditionally deals with. Jungian psychology was the first attempt to deal with it scientifically, now we've got dozens of others trying to bring people into harmony with archetypes of the collective unconscious or genetic heritage.
     The next is the metaprogramming circuit, which is learning how the brain can work on the brain, how you can imprint different identities and reality tunnels as you go along. Before you get to that circuit, you have no idea what true freedom really is, you're being manipulated all the time whether you know it or not. It's the circuit where you develop true choice.

How do you get there?

If you do a lot of work on the 5th and 6th circuits, the 7th tends to click on. First you get a lot of synchronicities, meaningful coincidences, accidental reinforcement from your environment, like someone coming by to loan you a book that's exactly the one you were looking for. Jung found that his patient's dreams had more and more symbols out of Greek and Egyptian and Hindu mythology as they progressed into that circuit, even without studying them consciously. They pulled them out of the collective unconscious, which I think is actually the morphogenetic field.
     Above that there's the non-local quantum circuit, which is the circuit in which we get true out of body experiences, cosmic identification with the whole of existence.
     We're learning so much about the latter four circuits, which Leary calls the extraterrestrial circuits, that we're moving into a new stage of evolution. More people are on the fifth circuit than ever before in history, and there are growing sixth and seventh circuit minorities. It's not an accident. We're changing just as we have to change. These circuits were there, ready to be used, when we got to this point in evolution. Earlier, mankind could just coast along on the first four circuits, and only visionaries and mystics and poets ever turned on the higher circuits. Now everyone does it.

How to you teach people to turn on their higher circuits?

You've got to teach with humor to make the pill palatable. Besides, humor is the essence of realizing our true situation in space and time. We are these tiny fallible beings crawling around on a relatively small planet, and anybody who pontificates dogmatically about anything is giving evidence that they are an idiot, even if you agree with them. They shouldn't sound that certain. We think we're so damn smart and we know so fucking little.

Years later, I remember one of the most important 
things Robert Anton Wilson Taught me


Monday, November 10, 2014

My Best Birthday Present

            I haven't had a birthday party in fifty years. Sure, when you're a kid it's exciting to add a year to your age, have your parents gather your friends, blow out the candles, and get presents, but today I turn 63 and I don't feel much like blowing out a fire. Nothing very special about November 10th other than it is the day that Stanley found Livingston. Okay, I wouldn't mind a present or two, but that's more a matter of actually needing stuff than thinking I deserve any sort of reward just for having survived another year. I've always felt it was a wee bit egomaniacal to throw yourself a big birthday party. Nothing wrong with celebrating others, but when it comes to celebrating yourself, it shouldn't be in public.
            Many decades ago today it was also my birthday and, as normal, I was doing what I always do, what I still do, what I'm doing right now, writing at my computer, when there was a knock at the door. I opened it and there was Timothy Leary who said "Hi, I'm your birthday present." He wouldn't explain how or why this came to be, or who in particular was bestowing him upon me. He was simply there, and he would hang out for at least an hour. All he would tell me was that he was told I was someone he should meet.
            Whenever you meet someone famous in a personal situation, it's hard to know how to behave, particularly if they're enormous media stars. After all, you've spent hours gazing at them, thinking about them, perhaps days or weeks staring at their image. Imagine the hundreds of hours you've spent with certain stars broadcast regularly into your living room. They feel like a friend, like you actually know them. They're not and you don't, but it's a hard feeling to shake when they're standing right in front of you, coming into your house, sitting on your sofa, checking the place out while waiting for you to bring them a drink. No matter how many memories you have of them, they have none of you. To them, you are a total stranger. Act like a fan and you risk becoming part of their teeming crowd of lookie loos. Treat them like you don't know who they are and they could get insulted. No way to make a friend. Friendships deserve an even playing field, so it's hard to think of yourself as the friend of a celebrity until they know as much about you as you know about them. Which is why celebrities are SO interested when you interrupt them somewhere in public and tell them about your uncle Sid's gall bladder operation.
            I wanted to be friends with Timothy Leary so he had a hell of a lot of catching up to do because he knew nothing about me and I knew a lot about him, or at least I thought I did. I shifted into show-and-tell mode, whipping out a book of Polaroids for him to peruse. He enjoyed my madness immensely and demanded I loan him the book which he promised to return.
            I proceeded to tell him something I'm sure he heard a million times. My life was profoundly changed by his research into psychedelia, combined with reading Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Beatles, and meeting a guy named Mario in 1970 who claimed to be the husband of the actual Alice that Arlo Guthrie sang about but who supported his acting habit by selling acid at Lee Strasberg's studio where I happened to be studying at the time.
            But I digress. The first and foremost influence that Timothy Leary had upon me was my art, which simply didn't exist. Before my first acid trip, I was an actor but not an artist. I had never played guitar, had certainly never created any impressionism, and hadn't written a single word other than school assignments. Maybe I would have discovered these talents on my own, but if my Polaroids remind you of acid flashbacks, welcome to the club. On acid, what I do to my Polaroids, you can do to reality. Move it around a little. Make big things look small, small things look big, marvel at the infinite depths you're capable of perceiving, as though reality were a 3D comic book and for the first time you were looking at it with the red-and-blue glasses.
            Pre-acid, I was only interested in being an actor, moving to New York to study with Lee Strasberg, and getting in a Broadway play. On acid, I actually attempted to give a performance from Spoon River Anthology in front of the man himself, a performance he declared "interesting," a performance that convinced me that acting was a very strange profession. While personally communicating with the infinite miracles of the universe, I had an extremely hard time convincing myself that the most important thing I could be doing was pretending to be a fictional character while reciting dialogue written by a writer I'd never met. Post-acid I walked home from the Village to my boarding house at 39th and Park, picked up my roommate's guitar and started playing. It wasn't long before I was a better guitar player than actor, and I ended up composing music for several off-Broadway shows. Way off Broadway. The Company Theater at La Cienega and Pico in Los Angeles to be precise.

        Other acid trips were less eventful and I stopped taking it, but not before playing with my first SX-70 Polaroid camera and discovering I didn't need acid to change reality to my own specifications.
            We talked and talked. He wasn't a drug addled guru and I wasn't an acid burnout. He was extremely intelligent, certainly one of the smartest people I ever met. My vision of Leary had been fogged by his media image, and I had forgotten that he was a Harvard professor. Luckily, some others forgot too and that's how he escaped from prison. The most amazing story he told me was this one...
            When he was busted by the Feds for possession of one single joint of pot and sentenced to 20 years in a Federal penitentiary, the prison officials did what they always did with new prisoners, they gave him a psychological test to determine whether he would go to a minimum or maximum security prison. He passed the test with flying colors and was sent to minimum security where he promptly escaped. What the officials didn't know was that Leary himself wrote the psychological test for the Federal prison system when still at Harvard, so he knew exactly what answers to give.
            After an hour or so, my birthday present had to leave, but in his new life as Hollywood gadfly I kept running into him over the years at video shows and art galleries. I'm glad he lived long enough to experience the Internet, I'm glad I got my Polaroid portfolio back five years after his death when it was found among his belongings, and I hope some day to be someone else's birthday present.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Life's Abyss and then You Die - An Interview with James Cameron

    (originally published in Movieline Magazine)
           James Cameron looks much too relaxed for a man who has just made what may be the most expensive motion picture ever made. The fate of an entire major studio may rest on his shoulders, but he seems to shrug it off. Maybe he's just relieved the whole mammoth production ordeal is over. Maybe he's giddy over getting married next week to fellow director Katherine Bigelow. But he's probably in such a good mood because in two more years he gets to go to his twenty year high school reunion and casually mention that he turned a short story he wrote as a student into a $50 million sci-fi extravaganza. (And what have you done with your high school papers?)
           The Abyss, which Cameron wrote and directed, was a massive undertaking. It's certainly the most complex underwater extravaganza ever filmed, and 20th Century Fox could have sunk a real oil rig for the same cost as making it. But Cameron seems to be a safer bet than oil. When he cranks up the cinematic pressure, everybody in the theater stops nibbling popcorn and starts on their fingernails. His chase sequences contain so much urgency that it's surprising more people haven't had heart attacks while watching them. He puts you in situations you really wouldn't want to be in, and he never goes for the easy out. We go to his movies to face some deep primal fear we didn't know we had; there are no cheap shocks in a Cameron film, just a neverending onslaught of supreme danger.

           Cameron is a Corman alumnus who starting out as art director and production designer for dozens of cheapo shlockos. He made his directorial debut with another undersea adventure, Piranha II - The Spawning, about which the less said the better. It doesn't even appear on his resume, and who can blame him when his second film was such a monster.

           The Terminator was a barrage of science fiction mayhem directed with non-stop momentum, presenting a relentlessly bleak but visually fascinating vision of tomorrow. Up until that time, it had been considered a drawback that Arnold Schwarzenegger's performances were robotic. But Cameron cast him impeccably as a killer cyborg from the future, and the film was an enormous hit, giving both their careers a boost.

           After writing the screenplay for Rambo: First Blood II, he then wrote and directed Aliens. It was an even bigger hit than its predecessor, earning seven academy award nominations and more than $180 million.

           All this paved the way towards The Abyss, a technological marvel full of brilliant set pieces. The world is still dangerous, things can still go wrong in the most unlikely ways, but Cameron's focus is more on character than it's ever been. It's the couple that counts, not the mysterious inexplicable force surrounding them.

           The idea for the film came from a science experiment that Cameron saw performed in high school, which he eventually turned into a short story. "There was a guy named Frank Felacek, a human guinea pig who actually breathed a liquid in both lungs," Cameron explained from his posh hotel suite in Beverly Hills. "They started with one lung and then the other. He thought he was going to die, and everyone got real nervous, so they pumped the stuff out of his lungs. It didn't work very well because a saline solution couldn't hold enough oxygen. But later they started experimenting with flourocarbon, and they've done it very successfully with dogs and monkeys. The FDA won't let them use it in human experimentation, so the research has sort of hit a wall, but the proposition is that if there was ever a strong enough military application for it, it would proceed again. In the film, when the rat breathes it, it's the real stuff, it's really happening, the rat is breathing flourocarbons."
           It's one of most disconcerting visuals in the film, when Ed Harris seems to be breathing liquid rather than air in a diving outfit that's full of water. It looks like a truly death defying act, and you might assume that there was hidden breathing apparatus somewhere in the suit. Wrong. "He just had to hold his breath for a long time," said Cameron. "Any hidden breathing apparatus would have leaked, so there would have been bubbles coming up all the time. Ed didn't like it. It was very uncomfortable, but I don't think it was ever really dangerous.

           "In the film, you see the helmet seal down into a neck ring that looks like one integral unit. In actuality, the whole faceplate popped open on a hinge and he would just breath through a standard regulator. When we were ready for the take, the regulator would be removed, the bubbles would be cleared away, and the faceplate would be closed. It had a very delicate latch that could be easily over-ridden if necessary. It took a lot of nerve, but Ed did almost all his own stunts. The wider shots where he's tumbling down the wall are the only places where we doubled him."

           I accused Cameron of being a victim of techno-lust and he laughed it off. "In Good Morning, Vietnam, a guy says 'In my heart, I know I'm funny.' Well in my heart, I know I don't have to do science fiction. I think it's all these residual images from my childhood, when I read science fiction voraciously, like Bradbury, Clark, and Heinlein. It's such a visual form. I was always interested in the fantastic, like the Sinbad films, anything with spectacular mythological energy. I tend to be less interested in pure fantasy. I like to be grounded in a sense of the possible, or at least creating an illusion of the possible for the audience. In science fiction, there's always the greater possibility to take people someplace they've never been and showing them something they've never seen, more than there is in a contemporary story set in Manhattan."

           Will he ever make a non-science fiction film? "I'm now being forced to realize that that's a challenge I have to set for myself. I have to take people someplace new, given relatively mundane props and visual set pieces. I have to do it through psychology, through performance. I think I'm over that threshold now. The scenes that people respond to the most are not the techno-lust scenes. The two scenes right at the heart of the picture which are the most emotionally intense, involve absolutely no support from any mechanisms like special effects or production design. It's two people talking in a four foot diameter tin can."

           He's got that one right. In The Shining, Stanley Kubrick was the first to postulate that absolutely nothing is more frightening than a husband and wife trapped together. Cameron takes this concept one step further in The Abyss, giving us one of the most harrowing life-or-death scenes of all time.

           He takes an estranged husband and wife who secretly love each other but whose passion can only reveal itself through sarcasm - and puts them under pressure. A lot of pressure - like at the bottom of the ocean in a leaky two man submarine with only one set of diving gear. The leak can't be fixed, and they've only got a few minutes till the whole sub is full of water. One of them has got to die. They've probably both secretly wished for the other's demise, but not like this. The one who lives will have to watch the other drown. Close up.

           Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are so good in this scene, their fear and devotion so raw and vital, that I can't think of any episode in any other picture that rivals it in emotional intensity. It's so ferociously performed that it overshadows the big special-effects finale. The alien force becomes just a sub-plot. (Come to think of it, the whole film is a sub plot)

           I casually mentioned something concerning the aliens, but Cameron is reluctant to talk about the specifics of the ending. He doesn't want it given away, and he wants the audience to figure it out for themselves. He also dismisses any charges that the film is too derivative. "Most people think if you're doing a story about human contact with a bad monster, it's going to be Alien, and if you're doing a story about human contact with an intelligent species from another place that's mysterious and strange, it's going to be Close Encounters. I refuse to accept the idea that there are only two choices left and nobody else can make a film on any subject even remotely similar. E.T. and Close Encounters are amazing and beautiful films. This film uses the concept in a different way."
           "I think this is a less cynical picture than my others. I've always been very positive about people and negative about trends. This film has the same kind of balance between positiveness and paranoia. There's still the paranoia of nuclear weapons, the potential for war, even though we're in a 'glasnost' period. As long as the president of the United States is the ex-head of the CIA, and the premiere of Russia is the ex-head of the KGB, there's a limit to how much you can really relax. Ultimately, it's a more optimistic picture because it deals with people I see as positive role models."

           In an attempt to play devil's advocate, I told Cameron one of the arguments against the film. The Abyss is essentially about a relationship between husband and wife. People who are into relationship films don't necessarily go see big science fiction films, and techno-nerds who go see big science fiction films don't necessarily care about relationships.

           His reply was fast. "The counter argument to that would be that techno-nerds need love too, and relationship people also live in a technical world. I don't think there's a hard distinction between those two groups. There's a big intersecting set of people in the middle who both acknowledge that we live in a technological world and feel all those normal human emotions that everybody feels. They have to address that in their lives as well. I see it as a film for anybody living in the latter half of the twentieth century who happens to be human, male or female. I hope that's not too narrow a band."

            I wanted to ask him why the crew referred to the film as The Abuse. I wanted to ask him why the alien neon hairdrier saved some people but not others. I wanted to ask him about the water tentacles and what the film was really about, but our time was up much too quickly.

           He was dragged to the door by a publicist, but before he left, I asked him one more question. "If there's a water that men can breath, then why isn't there an air that fish can breath?"

           "I don't know," he replied. "I guess fish aren't doing enough research in that area."