Thursday, June 25, 2015

The KLF, the universe and everything

Depending how you look at it, JMR Higgs’ book “KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money” is either a book about the British pop band The KLF or it’s a book about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. Or maybe it’s a book about how something may appear to be one thing while also appearing to be something else entirely.

It’s a story that begins in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and ends Aug. 23, 1994, on the Scottish island of Jura, where The KLF, then known as The K Foundation, burned their last 1 million pounds. According to an online exchange rate calculator I found, that amounted to more than $1.5 million at the time.

These two incidents — the death of a president and the burning of 1 million pounds — either have nothing in common or everything. The complex web of relations linking them are either the product of coincidence or something more or possibly both — again, depending on how you look at it.

Both incidents are mysteries. Theories about the Kennedy assassination are endless. Theories about why The KLF burned 1 million pounds are less so but usually amount to “because they’re A-holes.”

Needless to say, Higgs has not written a typical music biography. But The KLF were not your typical band. “KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money” is a detective story in search of a motivation for something The KLF themselves cannot explain.

The KLF were Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, and while they were far more popular in the United Kingdom than in the United States, they greatly influenced music on both sides of the Atlantic, making contributions to hip hop, dance and techno, and helping invent chill out.

The KLF recorded under other names, too. Sometimes they were the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. At other times they were simply the JAMs. They had their biggest hit while as the Timelords.

Here we see the first clues. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu leads us to “The Illuminatus! Trilogy” by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, a cult sci-fi novel that mixes occultism, conspiracy theories, joke religions and cutting edge physics into one of the most mind-bending works of fiction ever conceived. The Timelords is a reference to “Doctor Who,” and the Timelords’ hit single, “Doctorin’ the Tardis,” is a novelty cover of the “Doctor Who” theme.

Wilson and his ideas about how we perceive the world are central to Higgs’ story. So, too, is modern neuroscience, which sees the human brain as mainly occupied with finding patterns, even where they may not exist. Higgs’ pattern brings in acclaimed comic book writer Alan Moore and Discordianism, a parody religion co-created by Kerry Thornley. It also features a cameo appearance by “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” author Douglas Adams, by way of Adams having written episodes of “Doctor Who.” Discordianism is a major factor in “Illuminatus!” and Thornley knew Lee Harvey Oswald, which leads to the JFK connection. JFK was killed on Nov. 22, 1963, and “Doctor Who” first aired the next day, Nov. 23, 1963. The number 23 is a holy number in Discordianism, and Wilson plays up the significance of 23 in “Illuminatus!” What does this have to do with The KLF? Nothing. Or everything.

As I said, Higgs has not written a typical music biography. But what he has written is fascinating and consistently funny. It may be the first music bio where knowing or caring about the band isn’t necessary, or even relevant. Higgs’ method is like that of a Douglas Adams character whom Higgs doesn’t mention: Dirk Gently, a “holistic detective” who investigates cases by first assuming that everything in the universe is connected. To solve the KLF mystery, you start with the JFK mystery.

Is it coincidence KLF and JFK share two letters while J and L are mirror images of each other?

But there are traps along the way. Once someone tells you the number 23 is everywhere, you start seeing it everywhere. It’s a glitch in our brains’ pattern recognition software. It could have been any number. For Adams, the number was 42, his nonsense answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. Still, was Adams’ choice of 42 mere chance?

Forty-two and 23 are related: 4 plus 2 equals 6, while 2 times 3 also equals 6. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, as they say. But don’t panic. It probably means nothing.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Good night, Sweet Prince (of Darkness)

Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in 1973's "The Wicker Man."
When you live to the ripe old age of 93, you collect a lot of stories — both the ones you tell and the ones others tell about you.

In the week since news of his death became public, people who knew him, and many who didn’t, have told a lot of stories about Sir Christopher Lee. Lee appeared in roughly 250 films yet never quite escaped his earliest starring role as Dracula in Hammer Films’ 1958 movie “Horror of Dracula.”

My favorite Christopher Lee story goes like this: Asked by an interviewer about his still-classified exploits during World War II, Lee sat forward conspiratorially and asked, “Can you keep a secret?”

Excitedly, the interviewer said, “Yes,” to which Lee, sitting back in his chair and smiling as only he could, with a combination of menace and charm, replied, “So can I.”

Lee’s wartime exploits, some reportedly involving Winston Churchill’s clandestine special ops force, nicknamed “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” and his postwar Nazi-hunting activities would be enough for most men. You could call that a job well done, a life well lived, and write your memoirs. But Lee was only in his early 20s when the war ended. He was just getting started.

It’s for his second act — as an actor — that we will remember him. It’s not the stories he told — no matter how well — nor the war stories he lived that will endure, but the stories he helped bring to life on the screen. In a movie career that spanned nearly 70 years, he went from “uncredited spear carrier” in Sir Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” to Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies. In between he was Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and Fu Manchu (all roles also played by Boris Karloff), as well as Bond villain Scaramanga in “The Man with the Golden Gun,” “Three Musketeers” antagonist Rochefort, lecherous Russian holy man Rasputin, and countless other silver screen adversaries.

While somewhat resenting his villainous typecasting, Lee also realized early on that the bad guys got all the good lines — except when they didn’t get any lines at all.

Lee claimed he played the part of Dracula mute in the 1966 sequel “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” because the lines he was given were terrible. (For his part, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster claimed not to recall having written Dracula any lines in the first place.)

The true mark of a great actor isn’t how good he is with great material, or even good material, but how good he is with lousy material. By that standard, Lee was one of the greatest who ever lived.

Even without lines in “Dracula: Princess of Darkness,” Lee hisses and snarls and dominates the screen. Just as his dear friend and frequent co-star Peter Cushing did for the original “Star Wars,” Lee brings menace and gravitas to its prequels, which need all the menace and gravitas they can get. He took his roles, however outlandish, seriously, and when he is on-screen, so do audiences.

Occasionally, Lee’s perseverance paid off and he’d get a great role, such as his own favorite, Lord Summerisle in the 1973 version of “The Wicker Man,” or Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.” But great role or not, he was a professional, bringing to his craft the same discipline that must have kept him alive during World War II.

Lee may not have won any Oscars, but he racked up the Guinness world records: most screen credits for a living actor (in 2007), tallest actor in a leading role (tied with Vince Vaughn), actor in most films featuring a sword fight, oldest video game voice actor, and most connected living actor (meaning Six Degrees of Christopher Lee is a lot easier to play than Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon).

The man of many roles was also a man of many contrasts. He was a British aristocrat often cast as the shadowy foreigner. He was prickly and reserved, yet warm and generous with those who got to know him. He sang opera, then later, in his 80s, recorded a heavy metal concept album. And he was a serious man who could become a babbling fanboy upon meeting his hero, J.R.R. Tolkien.

For most of the world, though, Christopher Lee was an unforgettable actor who often made even the most forgettable movies worth watching. And for an actor, there’s probably no better life story.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

‘Hannibal’ becomes a fairy tale

NBC’s “Hannibal” is many things: a horror story, a police procedural, a dark comedy, even a cooking show — albeit a cooking show where sometimes the main ingredient puts up a fight.

I, for one, approve of the entrée getting a fighting chance. That’s something we couch potato foodies haven’t seen since Food Network stopped showing reruns of the original — and vastly superior — Japanese version of “Iron Chef.”

Who, having seen it, can forget Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai’s battle to the death with an octopus?   There is something primal about a chef literally wrestling with his main course and, in the end, producing a dish that looks, as the cliché goes, too good to eat. Sakai, nicknamed “the Delacroix of French Cuisine,” after the French painter, often produced just such dishes.

So does Dr. Hannibal Lecter, portrayed with sinister serenity by Mads Mikkelsen (“Casino Royale”). Maybe there is a warning in that. On “Hannibal,” you never know whom you might be having for dinner. Then again, when has “looks too good to eat” ever stopped anyone?

The best — and best looking — show on television opens its third season with Hannibal and his former therapist and colleague (now accomplice?) Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) having escaped to Europe and assumed new identities.

When last we saw FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Hannibal had left them all for dead, and the first episode keeps their fates simmering in suspense. Showrunner Bryan Fuller has elected instead for a palate cleanser, setting up Hannibal and Bedelia’s new status quo.

With the change of setting, “Hannibal” becomes something new, too. Now it’s a fairy tale, in addition to everything else it is. Eddie Izzard’s wonderfully batty Dr. Abel Gideon, whom Hannibal ate last season, one severed limb at a time, tells Hannibal as much during a flashback.

“Let it be a fairy tale,” Hannibal replies as he pulls back a curtain to rejoin the story in the present, where the fairy tale is a grim twist on “Beauty and the Beast.”

After a brief sojourn in Paris, Hannibal and Bedelia land in Florence, Italy, where Hannibal assumes the identity of a Dr. Fell, as well the late doctor’s position as a resident scholar of Renaissance Italy.

But Hannibal is becoming restless and Bedelia increasingly apprehensive. Hannibal has barely killed anyone since arriving in Florence, but clearly that is about to change. One of his jealous colleagues is practically begging for a dinner invitation. Hannibal now kills for aesthetic reasons.

As Bedelia, Anderson is doing her best work to date, and her elevation to series regular — at least as long as her character survives — makes a great show even greater. As for Mikkelsen, he is simply the definitive Hannibal Lecter, which is the highest praise I can summon.

Fuller’s breaking of the fourth wall with Hannibal’s curtain reveal shows he is confident and fully in control of his story. It also shows him playing with themes that run through Thomas Harris’ Lecter novels. The idea of becoming something else is central to both “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Red Dragon.” As “Hannibal” the series reenacts “Hannibal” the novel, in all of its over-the-top, Grand Guignol glee, some sort of transformation is inevitable.

In Florence, everything is bright and colorful. The show reserves the clinical, desaturated look — so prevalent at times in the previous seasons — for the flashbacks. Fuller is painting in broader strokes.

Thanks to the quirks of intellectual property, “Hannibal’s” producers have the rights to all of the Lecter novels except “The Silence of the Lambs.” That means no Clarice Starling. Fuller has adapted by moving up the Italy story line and creating characters to fill the Clarice-shaped voids. Anna Chlumsky’s Miriam Lass is Clarice as trainee. Bedelia is Clarice at the end of “Hannibal” the novel. Fans dissatisfied by where Harris left things are finally getting a resolution, of sorts.

So far, it has all come together beautifully. That almost qualifies as a fairy tale ending.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Victorians cast a long shadow

The cast of Showtime's Victorian horror series "Penny Dreadful" season 1.
They lived more than 100 years ago, but our Victorian forebearers cast long shadows.

Every so often, we get a TV show set in a recent decade, say the 1960s, and TV critics go mad for it. But the Victorian era (1837-1901), especially the latter half of it, seems quietly ubiquitous on our screens of late, much as it was 50 years ago, when Westerns dominated the airwaves.

This, however, is a proper Victorianism, a Victorianism of the city and not of its frontier periphery.

Last month, Showtime’s excellent horror series “Penny Dreadful” returned for its second season. “Penny Dreadful” is the latest from the sub-genre of Victorian literary mash-ups, which include Kim Newman’s recently reissued “Anno Dracula” novels and Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics.

(Fox turned “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” into a movie so bad it drove Sean Connery into retirement, and just last week news leaked that Fox wants a mulligan on the property. If at first you don’t succeed, and so on.)

Like its predecessors, “Penny Dreadful” weaves its narrative out of threads of late-Victorian fact and fantasy: “Dracula,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Jack the Ripper — and some pre-Victorian “Frankenstein” just for a bit of Romantic contrast.

But this would be trivia if “Penny Dreadful” were an isolated incident. It isn’t. BBC America has “Ripper Street.” NBC recently tried to give Dracula a makeover by turning him into Nikola Tesla. And Sherlock Holmes is always with us — doubly so at present, with the BBC’s “Sherlock” and CBS’s “Elementary,” which both transport the Great Detective from gaslit streets to Internet cafes.

When Holmes first met Dr. Watson, he greeted the doctor with, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” and indeed Watson had just returned from a war in Afghanistan. No wonder Sherlock Holmes adapts so easily to the 21st century; even the historical particulars are still current.

Holmes isn’t alone. Whenever Hollywood returns to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” or some other Victorian best-seller, it’s as likely to bring the story forward to the present as leave it where it was. Wells’ Martians have invaded Earth three centuries straight, and may well do so again in the next.

You don’t usually see this with works and characters from other periods, excepting the occasional updated fairytale or gimmicky out-of-time, out-of-place stagings of Shakespeare. (“Richard III” set in a thinly veiled Nazi Germany? Why not?)

The human condition hasn’t changed much throughout history, although we’re slightly less violent nowadays, arguably. But the Victorians were the first people really like us — and by “us” I mean 21st century inhabitants of the small-l liberal, small-d democratic, small-c capitalist West.

Caricatured as pearl-clutching prudes both by those who like to feel superior and by those who’d like society to “go back” to the caricature, the Victorians were the first moderns.

The Victorians, both in England and the United States, had the first sizable middle class. They had the first mass-produced popular culture in the form of novels and magazines. They ordered from catalogs. They were wooed by advertisers. They consumed lots of pornography, then felt guilty about it and took cold baths. Their doctors turned every bad mood into a disease, especially when it came to women patients. They invented our modern notions of childhood and the serial killer.

It all seems familiar because it’s so like us. We have Netflix and iTunes instead of plays and the opera, but apart from the new wrinkle of mobile phones and instant communication, we’re little changed from the Victorians. They struggled with war and peace, science and faith, sex and family,  race and ethnicity much as we do.

With “Penny Dreadful” and the like, we continue to mine the Victorian era. It’s as far back as we can go and still feel we’re with people we really get. The main difference is the value of the penny.