Thursday, August 26, 2010

Culture Shock 08.26.10: Remembering Jack Horkheimer, the man who hustled stars

The name of his TV show might have changed, but Jack Horkheimer will always be the "star hustler" to me.

Horkheimer, the host of a weekly astronomy program aired by PBS stations nationwide, died Friday of a respiratory ailment. He was 72.

As executive director of the Miami Science Museum's Space Transit Planetarium since 1973, Horkheimer was already helping to bring the stars down to Earth. But his television show brought them to an entire generation, including me.

His show, "Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler" — renamed "Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer" in 1997 — was a weekly tour of the heavens. It helped make astronomy accessible both to youngsters too young for Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and to adults just learning to appreciate the wonders of the night sky.

"Star Hustler" began on Florida public television stations in 1976 and expanded to PBS stations nationwide in 1985, just in time for the return of 1P/Halley — better known as Halley's Comet — in 1986.

Depending on your local station, each episode ran either 5 minutes or 1 minute. In the '80s, Alabama Public Television aired the 5-minute "Star Hustler" on Saturday nights after "Doctor Who." It was a tag-team of science and science fiction.

Horkheimer's final "Star Gazer," taped before his death, airs next week, but it's already online at

Horkheimer's mission was to make astronomy fun for everyone, but especially beginners. His show focused on "naked eye" astronomy. So, he pointed out things you could see without the aid of an expensive telescope or even binoculars.

Still, a good pair of binoculars occasionally came in handy. Lucky for me, I'd bought a pair for once-in-a-lifetime Halley's Comet viewing.

If there was an interesting planetary alignment or a passing comet, Horkheimer let you know. He also gave his viewers tips for finding particular stars and constellations. For instance, instead of trying to find the constellation Sagittarius, the archer, by looking for the bow, Horkheimer would suggest looking for stars that seemed to form a teapot. Sagittarius is much easier to recognize that way. If only the ancient Greeks, who named the constellations, had known about teapots, maybe they would have thought the same.

Probably not. There's nothing heroic about teapots, but Horkheimer had that covered, too. He told the stories of the constellations, the mythology that drove the Greeks to find their gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters, among the stars.

From Horkheimer, I learned even the stars have stories, like the North Star, Polaris. Located in the constellation Ursa Minor, or the Little Dipper, Polaris guided sailors and let them know how far north they were, based on how high it was in the horizon.

The farther north you go, the higher Polaris is, until, at the North Pole, it's directly overhead.

If Sagan came across as the cool college professor who'd invite you out for drinks after class, Horkheimer came across as a somewhat nutty but lovable uncle. As others observed, his on-air delivery was a lot like comedian Rip Taylor, which I suspect he played up, especially in later years, when, like Taylor, he sported a terrible yet endearing hairpiece. He was also a master of bad puns and catchphrases.

Horkheimer's enthusiasm for astronomy was infectious. Maybe it was his lame jokes or just his personality, but when he signed off each week with his signature, "Remember to keep looking up," I ran outside to see what the sky had to offer.

Long before he died, Horkheimer wrote his own joking epitaph: " ‘Keep Looking Up' was my life's admonition / I can do little else in my present position."

He'd want us to keep looking up, too.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Culture Shock 08.19.10: Score for now: Scott Pilgrim 0, the world 1

It didn't take long for the recriminations to begin. It was clear late Friday that "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" was a box-office dud.

"Scott Pilgrim" took in just more than $10 million in its opening weekend — not a good showing for a movie that cost an estimated $60 million to make and probably another $30 million to market. That's despite months of hype, a crowd-pleasing performance at Comic Con and a flood of TV ads aimed squarely at the movie's target demographic of Nintendo-age gaming geeks. Adult Swim even aired a four-minute animated prequel — now online at — for that extra, last-minute buzz.

After all that, a mere $10 million seemed like an insult. But to add injury, "Scott Pilgrim" finished the weekend at No. 5, behind the geriatric action stars of "The Expendables," a Julia Roberts vehicle and two holdovers from previous weeks. ("Inception" isn't going away until everyone has seen it — and dreamed about it.)

How could this have happened? "Scott Pilgrim" had been a trending topic on Twitter for a week before it opened — it still is — prompting the movie's director, Edgar Wright, to tweet Tuesday night, "Still trending No. 1 worldwide. For over a week now. If the film was called Scott Pilgrim Vs Justin Bieber, the internets might explode."

So, how did the movie billed as "An epic of epic epicness" end up an epic fail at the box office?

No. 1: It was the studio's fault. Universal spent millions marketing "Scott Pilgrim," but it went about it all wrong. Universal sold it as an action movie when really it's more of a romantic comedy, only with video-game graphics and Kung Fu.

No. 2: It was the calendar's fault. Opening "Scott Pilgrim" against Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables" was a guaranteed fail. Both movies targeted the same demographic: people who played lots of Mortal Kombat.

No. 3: All of those free preview screenings backfired. Almost everyone who left the screenings loved the movie, but they didn't pay to see it again when it opened.

No. 4: It was Michael Cera's fault. Just about everyone has grown tired of Michael Cera playing Michael Cera in every movie. Portraying the same character in every film is fine if you're John Wayne or Jack Nicholson. It's not fine if you're Michael Cera.

(But to be fair, this time Cera does something different. Normally, he plays socially awkward smart guys. This time, he plays a guy who isn't smart enough to realize just how socially awkward he is.)

No. 5: It's a comic-book movie. Apart from "Iron Man 2," 2010 has been a rotten year for movies based on comic books. "Kick Ass," "The Losers" and "Jonah Hex" all flopped or underperformed. "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," based on the six-volume graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O'Malley, is just part of the curse.

No. 6: "Scott Pilgrim" was never going to appeal to more than a cult audience.

Whatever else it is, "Scott Pilgrim" is original. It's a movie that looks and behaves like a video game. It's "Superbad" meets "The Legend of Zelda," as Scott must battle his girlfriend Ramona's seven evil exes in order to date her. Each ex is a level of the game, with Ramona functioning as the prize at the end.

(O'Malley's graphic novels are deeper than that, but squeezing six volumes into a two-hour movie — while keeping all of Scott's showdowns with the exes — meant dumping a lot of the best character bits.)

Probably all of those reasons played some role in the movie's dismal box-office result.

But in the end, the box office doesn't matter much. "Scott Pilgrim" is the sort of movie that will live on.

It reminds me of another movie that was a disappointment at first but went on to become a much-loved classic. And 28 years later, "Tron" is popular enough to spawn a sequel.

So, maybe Scott Pilgrim's finest hour is yet to come.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Culture Shock 08.12.10: The future finally arrives for ahead-of-its-time show 'Max Headroom'

The future has finally caught up with "Max Headroom."

When it aired on ABC in 1987, it was ahead of its time — and ahead of most viewers. It was a critical darling, but a ratings disaster after ABC shifted it to the Friday-night death slot opposite "Dallas" and "Miami Vice." So, after just 14 episodes, ABC canceled it.

Yet if "Max Headroom" aired today, it would probably be a huge hit. It would go on for five or six seasons, have a complex and increasingly convoluted story arc, and just end up disappointing everyone with an unsatisfying series finale that resolves none of its major mysteries.

You know, maybe it's a good thing "Max Headroom" aired when it did. There are worse things to be than brilliant but canceled.

So, for those of you too young to remember 1987, who don't know how brilliant "Max Headroom" truly is, there's good news. All 14 episodes are now on DVD as "Max Headroom: The Complete Series."

An ambitious mix of "Blade Runner," Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" and what would later be known as "cyberpunk," "Max Headroom" is science fiction that confronts — head on, shall we say — the impact of technology and the media on everything from privacy and politics to religion and medicine.

Canadian actor Matt Frewer ("Watchmen") stars as Edison Carter, an investigative journalist for Network 23, the most watched and most powerful media outlet in a dystopian world set "20 minutes into the future" — or about 2004, actually — where all real power rests with the media.

In its never-ending battle for ratings dominance, Network 23 has a secret weapon: an unpredictable, anarchistic, computer-generated talking head created from Carter's memories — Max Headroom.

While Carter uncovers political and corporate wrongdoing, often involving his employer or its main advertiser, the nefarious Zik Zak corporation, Max has free rein to pop up whenever and wherever he chooses, both on Network 23's airwaves and inside its computer network.

Occasionally, Max stumbles upon information that helps Carter's investigations. And sometimes he even remembers to share it. For Carter, dealing with Max is like dealing with his inner child — a spoiled-rotten inner child who could probably do with a good spanking.

The show's creators intended "Max Headroom," in part, as a warning about the direction in which they saw society and the media moving.

For better or worse, some of their predictions have panned out, from e-mail to reality television.

Another purpose was to point out that the media often has an agenda of its own, which was always true, but not nearly so obvious before Fox News and MSNBC came along.

"Max Headroom" was subversive for its time, when three stodgy broadcast networks and PBS were the beginning, middle and end of the TV universe. But that doesn't mean it got everything right, and some of its predictions and warnings seem pretty silly today.

For example, Zik Zak is a Japanese-owned corporation run by stereotypical — and borderline offensive — Japanese bosses who speak loudly in broken English. Zik Zak represents 1980s paranoia about the Japanese "buying up" America, a non-threat at the time, and a ridiculous one in light of Japan's "lost decade" of economic stagnation.

On a larger level, "Max Headroom" overestimates the power of television, portraying it as an uncontrollable force that comes at you, whether you want it to or not. In "Max Headroom," TVs don't even have off switches; all you can do is change the channel. Television is top-down, authoritarian and inescapable.

In reality, in our world of 2010, we've never had more control over TV. We watch what we want, when we want, how we want. Between TiVo, Hulu, Netflix and on-demand, broadcasters have lost control. In effect, you can program your own network and, if you want, even avoid the commercials.

But even when it's wrong, "Max Headroom" is interesting. And science fiction always has more to do with its own time than any imagined future.

"Max Headroom" is a time capsule of a decade when we worried about all the wrong things.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Culture Shock 08.05.10: Roger Corman built legacy of B-movies, A-list moviemakers

Before the Academy Awards and the billions in box-office earnings — long before he became the "king of the world" — James Cameron was a lowly squire.

Actress Dey Young recalls Cameron as the guy who brought her coffee on the set of 1979's "Rock 'n' Roll High School."

Others tell stories about Cameron as an inventive, young special-effects technician who worked magic on the 1981 low-budget sci-fi flick "Galaxy of Terror."

But besides Cameron, "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "Galaxy of Terror" have two other things in common. Both are Roger Corman productions, and Shout! Factory recently released both on DVD and Blu-ray as part of its new "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" collection.

As big a year as Cameron has had with that whole "Avatar" thing, the past 12 months have also been pretty busy for Corman, who is enjoying something of a resurgence at age 84.

Last year, Corman received an honorary Oscar in recognition of his contributions to the movie industry. This year, he has unleashed "Dinoshark" and "Dinocroc vs. Supergator" on unsuspecting SyFy channel viewers. And a third movie, "Sharktopus," is still yet to come. The preview trailer for "Sharktopus" is already an Internet sensation because, let's face it, everybody wants to see a genetically engineered shark/octopus hybrid run amok and threaten to eat Julia Roberts' older brother Eric.

I mean, who wouldn't want to see that?

Yes, improbable as it may seem, the man responsible for "Sharktopus" has an Academy Award on his mantle. And that lone fact pretty well sums up the amazing and unlikely career of one of Hollywood's most successful moviemakers.

How successful, you ask? Well, Corman titled his 1990 memoir "How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime."

Never losing a dime, however, wasn't always easy. Corman re-released "Galaxy of Terror" multiple times under multiple titles until it turned a profit.

He also had other tricks up his sleeve. For instance, before striking the sets for "Galaxy of Terror," Corman put a second sci-fi movie into production just so he could get more use out of the same sets. The result was "Forbidden World," also just released on DVD.

Between them, "Galaxy of Terror" and "Forbidden World" are a crash course in the Corman formula. "Galaxy of Terror" is an "Alien" rip-off featuring the B-movie equivalent of an all-star cast and special effects that look like they should have cost more than they did. "Forbidden World," meanwhile, has an even smaller budget but makes up for that by upping the amount of exploitation, mostly in the form of a cheesy alien monster and gratuitous nudity.

Since the 1950s, Corman has produced or directed more than 300 movies. Combined, I'm guessing those movies cost less to make than Cameron spent on "Avatar" alone. But if there is one thing Corman knows how to do, it's make a movie on a limited budget.

It might not always be a good movie. But it will probably be an entertaining movie, at least in its own way. And an entire generation of filmmakers, including Cameron, rose to prominence after learning their craft from Corman.

Corman helped launch the careers of actors like Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, as well as directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme.

Working for Corman is the ultimate internship for aspiring filmmakers. You learn everything you can, then you are ready to take on anything Hollywood might throw at you.

And in the process, you might make a movie like "Galaxy of Terror" or "Piranha" or "Death Race 2000" — the movies discriminating fans of drive-in, low-budget and exploitation cinema buy on Blu-ray nearly 40 years later.