The writer on the edge of forever

 

© Los Angeles Times

 

Harlan Ellison, who was often categorised as a science-fiction writer although he once memorably warned anyone who called him a science-writer that he would come to their house and ‘nail’ their ‘pet’s head to a coffee table’, passed away in his sleep on June 27th at the age of 84.

 

In his lifetime the Cleveland-born Ellison authored some 1800 stories, scripts, reviews, articles and opinion pieces, but it’s as a short story writer that he was best known.  In fact, when he was in his prime, from the 1960s to 1980s, he was responsible for some of the boldest and most exhilarating short stories I’ve ever read.  As a writer, he seemed to push both his imagination and his writing energies to the very limit.  Describing his stories is difficult, but the nearest comparison I can think of is the fiction of Ray Bradbury.  However, Ellison’s work also had counter-cultural and radical political tones that encompassed both the idealism of the 1960s’ civil rights movement and Summer of Love and the cynicism and despair that came with the Vietnam War and Watergate in the 1970s.

 

Frequently his short stories contained a palpable anger too.  Yes, Ellison had a lot of anger in him.  More on that in a minute.

 

Incidentally, by focusing on his short stories, I don’t wish to denigrate his occasional novels.  Indeed, I’d rate 1961’s Spider Kiss alongside Iain Banks’ Espedair Street (1987) and John Niven’s Kill Your Friends (2008) as one of my favourite rock-and-roll novels ever.

 

© Pan Books

 

Ellison wasn’t a big name in the UK, but in the 1970s – perfectly timed for my development as a teenager – Britain’s Pan Books brought out editions of several of his short story collections, like The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969), Approaching Oblivion (1974) and Deathbird Stories (1975).  All had gorgeously psychedelic covers by (I think) the artist Bob Layzell.  It’s fair to say that my 14 or 15-year-old mind was blown by these volumes.

 

I also loved how Ellison prefaced each story with a short essay describing how it had come into being.  These pieces gave insight not only into his combative personality but also into the rich life-experiences he’d had (or claimed to have had).  Before establishing himself as a writer he’d been, among other things, a truck driver transporting nitro-glycerine, a hired gun and a tuna fisherman.  This inspired me when I was a budding writer to try my hand at different jobs and build up my experiences too, though predictably the stuff I ended up doing – stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s, working in a shoe warehouse, serving as a deputy warden at Aberdeen Youth Hostel – was rather less glamorous than the items on Ellison’s CV.

 

Some of his work also appeared on television although TV was a medium he generally had a low opinion of – in a 2013 interview he accused it and other modern forms of entertainment and communication of having “reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form that it is beyond my notice.”  For instance, he scripted the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, which has Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr McCoy catapulted back in time to 1930s America and confronted with an agonising time-travel-related moral dilemma.  Do they intervene in an accident and prevent the death of a woman called Edith Keeler who (despite being played by Joan Collins) is a noble political activist dedicated to peace, pacifism and public service and with whom, predictably, William Shatner’s horn-dog Captain Kirk has fallen in love; or do they let her die, which means her political movement won’t gain power in the USA, delay her country’s entry into World War II and allow the Nazis to become masters of humanity, which will happen otherwise?

 

© Desilu Productions

 

Thanks to its inventive and thought-provoking spin on time travel, The City… is the best episode of the original series of Star Trek.  In fact, as I don’t like any of the later TV incarnations of Star Trek, I’d say it’s the best Star Trek episode full stop.  Ellison, however, was unimpressed with how the show’s producer Gene Rodenberry and his writing staff rewrote his script and watered down some of its themes and was never slow to sound off about it afterwards.  It may be significant that his later short story How’s the Night Life on Cissalda? (1977) features William Shatner attempting to make love to a revolting-looking alien creature.  Shatner’s toupee falls off in the process.

 

More time-travelling figures in the Ellison-penned episodes Demon with a Glass Hand and Soldier that he wrote for the TV anthology show The Outer Limits (1963-65).  Years later, he was incensed at what he saw as plagiarism of elements of his Soldier script by James Cameron while Cameron was making the first Terminator movie in 1984.  Ellison threatened to sue and got a payment of 65-70,000 dollars from Cameron’s financiers and an acknowledgement on The Terminator’s credits.  By 2014 Ellison had mellowed to the point where he could see the funny side of it.  He played himself in an episode of The Simpsons in which he gets into an argument with Milhouse Van Houten.  When Millhouse comments, “I wish someone would have come from the future and warned me not to talk to you,” Ellison grabs him by the throat and screams, “That’s my idea!”

 

In fact, Ellison was highly litigious.  After discovering his writing, I found an interview with him in an American magazine called Future Life where he talked about suing Paramount Television.  He accused Paramount of stealing the premise of a story about a robot policeman that he’d co-authored with the writer Ben Bova and turning it into a TV show called Future Cop (1976-78) without their permission.  “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” he declared in the interview.  Later, when I was playing rugby for my school and while we were trying to psyche ourselves up against our opponents, I inadvertently let slip with Ellison’s phrase: “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” I exclaimed.  That earned me some strange looks from my teammates.  Nailing asses to barn doors was not common lexical usage on south-of-Scotland rugby pitches.

 

I can honestly say that for a period when I was a teenager Harlan Ellison, with his mind-bending fiction, his braggadocio, his adventurous backstory and his take-no-shit-from-anyone attitude, was the person I wanted to be.  Of course, that changed as I grew older, became less impressionable and more mature, and learned more about Ellison and revised my opinions.  I began to appreciate that Ellison’s persona involved a fair bit of self-mythologizing, egotism and unwarranted cantankerousness and bloody-mindedness.  When Stephen King commented that he knew one writer who regarded Ellison as the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift and another writer who regarded him as a ‘son-of-a-bitch’, I found myself in sympathy with both viewpoints.  And by the time I read a profile of him in a non-fiction book about science-fiction writers called Dream Makers (1980), written by Charles Platt, I was disappointed but somehow not surprised to encounter a character rather too driven by vanity and rather too desperate to impress.  Ellison and Platt later fell out badly – violently, it’s said – though not as far as I know about the unflattering profile in Dream Makers.

 

Also falling out with Ellison was the English writer Christopher Priest, who took issue with Ellison’s editorship of the Dangerous Visions series of science fiction anthologies in the early 1970s.  There was meant to be a third volume in the series but for reasons known only to Ellison it never appeared, leaving a lot of submitted stories in limbo and depriving a lot of authors of potential earnings.  This seems hypocritical of Ellison considering how famously touchy he was about payment for his own work – he’s said to have once mailed a dead gopher to a wayward publisher as a protest.  And although Ellison was a vocal supporter of the USA’s Equal Rights Amendment, much of that good work was undone in 2006 when, in a moment of dirty-old-man madness, he fondled a female writer’s breast onstage at an awards ceremony.  From the footage I’ve seen of it, I suspect Ellison thought he was just indulging in some ‘innocent’ schoolboy malarkey.  Understandably, though, the writer at the receiving end was highly pissed off at him.

 

© Pan Books

 

But while I came to have mixed feelings about the character of the artist, my enthusiasm never waned for the art itself.  And Ellison’s literary legacy includes at least ten short stories that I’d number among my all-time favourites by any writer.  I’ve listed them below:

 

A Boy and His Dog: a post-apocalyptic satire that’s a spot-on blend of anarchy and irreverence, featuring as its main character a telepathic and sarcastic canine.  It was filmed in 1975 by L.Q. Jones and though the movie version isn’t perfect, it still holds up better than a lot of other, more portentous sci-fi films made in the same decade.

Along the Scenic Route: a biting analysis of the relationship between Americans and their cars.  Detailing how a couple out for a leisurely drive end up competing in a lethal demolition derby, it prefigures movies like the Mad Max ones.

Bleeding Stones: quite simply a story that made my jaw drop with its combination of brutality, blasphemy and surrealism.

Count the Clock That Tells the Time: describing how a lethargic never-do-well gets trapped in a weird, ghostly netherworld, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of wasting your time and frittering your life away.

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer: an unremarkable little man suddenly finds his soul transplanted into the body of a Conan the Barbarian-type swordsman in a blood-and-thunder fantasy land.  What follows is a merciless dissection of the inadequacies of the nerdy males who read sword-and-sorcery stories.

Hindsight: 480 Seconds: a haunting story about a poet who volunteers to stay on an about-to-be-destroyed earth after the rest of humanity has been evacuated, so that he can provide a commentary on his planet’s dying minutes.

I’m Looking for Kadak: Kurt Vonnegut meets Woody Allen in this comedy about the frustrations of a group of aliens on a far-flung planet who’ve converted to Judaism.

One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty: another time-travel tale, this one about a man going back in time and befriending his younger self when he’s a bullied, insecure child.

Pretty Maggie Money Eyes: a sad and unexpectedly tender story of a woman’s spirit inhabiting a Las Vegas slot machine.

Shatterday: the unsettling tale of a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself.  In fact, this other self is a sinister doppelganger who’s appeared from nowhere and is planning to usurp him from his existence.

 

And that’s my Harlan Ellison Top Ten.  Thank you for the entertainment and inspiration, Mr E., and Rest In (non-cantankerous) Peace.

 

© Pan Books

 

Bill Paxton too? That’s just f***ing great, man…

 

© F/M Entertainment / DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group

 

Despite my best efforts, this blog in the last couple of years has tended to resemble a series of obituaries.  I’m afraid this tendency must continue today as I’ve just heard the news that the American actor Bill Paxton has died at the age of 61 from complications following surgery.

 

In American movies of the 1980s and 1990s Paxton seemed ubiquitous.  He turned up in the populist likes of Stripes (1981), Weird Science (1985), Commando (1985), Navy Seals (1990), Predator 2 (1990), Tombstone (1993), Apollo 13 (1995), Twister (1996) and Mighty Joe Young (1998).  Though not all his films could be described as ‘populist’.  I suspect I’m the only person in the world who remembers he was in Jennifer Lynch’s arthouse misfire Boxing Helena (1993) with Sherilyn Fenn and Julian Sands.

 

From all accounts an affable and good-humoured Texan, he probably had the right temperament to get on with certain directors who had the reputation of being hard-asses.  He worked with Walter Hill in Streets of Fire (1984) and Trespass (1992) – the latter movie I like to think of as ‘the Bills versus the Ices’, since it’s about a pair of treasure-hunting firemen played by Paxton and Bill Sadler falling foul of a pair of gangsters played by Ice Cube and Ice T.  He worked too with the no-nonsense Katherine Bigelow in the haunting horror-western Near Dark (1987), playing one of a band of vampires who roam the dusty prairies and prey on unsuspecting cowboys.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

But it was with Bigelow’s former beau, the single-minded James Cameron, that Paxton got some of his most famous roles: as a punk clobbered by a naked and just-arrived-from-the future Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984) (“I think this guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack!”), the alternatively bragging and blubbering man-child Private Hudson in Aliens (1986) and the sleazeball car salesman Simon who pretends to be a secret agent in order to get into Jamie Lee Curtis’s pants in True Lies (1994).  He was also in one other movie Cameron made in the late 1990s – I can’t remember its name but Leonardo DiCaprio was in it.  Whatever happened to him?

 

The great thing about Paxton was that though he frequently performed in a supporting role, he was often the most memorable thing in the movie.  His characters were commonly loud and obnoxious and had an inflated sense of their abilities, but they were very funny as a result.  This was never more so than with the motor-mouthed Private Hudson in Aliens, who despite everything else that’s going on in that movie manages, just about, to steal the show.  Before the aliens show up, he’s a swaggering, show-offy git – “Hey Ripley, don’t worry.  Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you…  We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks!”  And after they show up, he’s a quivering, whiny git – “Hey, maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked!”  Inevitably, many of the people paying homage to Paxton on Twitter last night were tweeting another of his Aliens quotes, the brief but legendary “Game over!”

 

© I.R.S. Releasing

 

Occasionally, he got a chance to step forward into the shoes of leading man and the results were excellent.  He was tremendous in Carl Franklin’s One False Move as Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon, the good-natured but naïve hick sheriff who’s doesn’t seem to know what’s coming when a trio of murderous psychos (including one played by the movie’s co-writer, Billy Bob Thornton) flee the law in Los Angeles and head for his town.  You find yourself seriously fearing for him as the movie nears its end.  He also impressed in Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) about three people in a wintry mid-western town – Paxton’s blue-collar plodder, his wife (Bridget Fonda) and his slow-witted brother (Billy Bob Thornton again) – whose lives are drastically changed, seemingly for the better but in reality much for the worse, when a mysterious crashed plane sets a huge cache of money in their laps.  Also worth checking out is the horror film Frailty (2001), which Paxton directed as well as starred in, alongside Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe.

 

Six years ago, I unexpectedly found myself present at the making of history – and I unexpectedly found myself thinking of Bill Paxton too.  I was living in Tunis at the time and one January morning I wandered down to the centre of the Tunisian capital to find out why a huge crowd of protestors had gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior building.  This would have been unthinkable just 24 hours earlier – Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s security goons would have dragged any protestors away, thrown them into a cell and beaten the shit out of them.  This mass protest, it transpired, was the tipping point of the Arab Spring.  Ben Ali fled the country that same day and other Arab dictators started toppling like dominoes soon after.  Anyway, I noticed how some protestors were holding signs towards the ministry building that bore the message GAME OVER! – Private Hudson’s famous line from Aliens.

 

I know it’s improbable, but I’d like to think this showed that even the murky and complicated world of North African Arab politics had been affected by the acting talent and sheer entertainment value of the great, but now unfortunately late, Bill Paxton.

 

© Times of Malta

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

God save the Queen

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Scene: The living room of the Parochial House on Craggy Island during a 1996 episode of Father Ted.  The elderly and infirm Bishop Jordan, one of a visiting trio of church dignitaries, has just been explaining how he had a heart attack last year and needs to avoid having sudden surprises and shocks.

Father Dougal (bellowing at the top of his voice): AAAAAHHHHH!

Bishop Jordan nearly suffers another heart attack on the living room sofa.

Father Ted (seeing Bishop Jordan’s distress): Dougal!  What are you doing?!

Father Dougal: Sorry, Ted – I just remembered.  Aliens is on after the news!

Father Ted: Dougal, for God’s sake!  (To the stricken Bishop Jordan, who has almost collapsed off the sofa.)  I’m sorry, Bishop Jordan!  (To Dougal.)  Did you not hear what he’s saying about his heart?

Father Dougal: I know, but it’s just that it’s the Director’s Cut!  Come on everyone, let’s all have a lads’ night in!

Father Ted: Dougal, just shut up!  (To Bishop Jordan.)  Ha-ha.  A heart attack?  That’s rare enough these days.

Bishop O’Neill (trying to help Father Jordan back onto the sofa): There were certainly a lot of prayers said for Bishop Jordan –

Father Dougal: I don’t know why we can’t look at Aliens

Father Ted: Dougal!  Bishop O’Neill is speaking.

Father Dougal: But…  They’d love it, Ted!

Father Ted: No, they wouldn’t!

Father Dougal: But bishops love sci-fi –

Father Ted: DOUGAL!  WE ARE NOT WATCHING ALIENS!

 

* * * * *

 

Here’s yet another anniversary that makes me feel ancient.  It’s now exactly thirty years since the James Cameron-directed sci-fi / horror / action movie Aliens was released in the United Kingdom.  A few days from now, it’ll be exactly thirty years since I first laid eyes on it in a crowded cinema in Aberdeen.  And like Dougal in that old episode of Father Ted, I still get irrationally excited when I discover that it’s due to have another airing on TV.  And during the first occasion I watched it, there were a few moments when, like the beleaguered Bishop Jordan, I thought my heart was about to pop.  Yes, Aliens is a film that gets the adrenaline sluicing through you like no other.

 

It’s remarkable that the film achieves this when it’s a sequel.  One of the Great Laws of the Cinema is that, compared to the original films, sequels are almost always rubbish.  Certainly, that law seemed to hold true in the 1980s, when cinema audiences were subjected to such puddings as Halloween II (1981), Grease 2 (1982), Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985), Jaws 3-D (1983), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Beverley Hills Cop II (1987).  Oh, and Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981), which was directed by a certain James Cameron…

 

Aliens’ task was particularly daunting.  It was to be the follow-up to Ridley Scott’s magnificent haunted-house-in-space movie, 1979’s Alien.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

It’s unsurprising that while Cameron was shooting the sequel at Buckinghamshire’s Pinewood Studios in the mid-1980s, he had to put up with a sceptical British crew who were of the opinion that this bearded thirty-something Canadian wasn’t fit to kiss the boots of the mighty Ridley Scott.  Mind you, the contempt was reciprocated by Cameron.  A man used to pursuing his vision with the single-minded determination of The Terminator (1984) – the film that he’d directed between the Piranha sequel and the Alien sequel – Cameron was not impressed by his crew’s Great British working practices like stopping every couple of minutes to have a tea-break.

 

The resulting movie shows no disrespect to Ridley Scott or the original Alien.  It simply takes a very different approach to the hideous, slimy, fanged, multi-jawed, acid-blooded title creatures.  Whereas Alien set one of them loose in a giant spaceship and Scott milked the scenario for all the clammy, claustrophobic horror it was worth, Cameron unleashes a whole army of them in and around a base on a distant planet and declares out-and-out war on the bastards, courtesy of a well-armed platoon of space marines who’ve journeyed there in the company of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, heroine and sole survivor of the first film.   Yes, there’s clamminess, claustrophobia and horror to be found in Cameron’s creation too, but that doesn’t prevent Aliens from also being one of the best action films ever made.

 

That’s not to say that Aliens is a non-stop rollercoaster from start to finish.  Cameron actually takes his time getting his characters to the base (after contact with the 160-strong space colony there is suddenly and mysteriously lost).  Wisely, and unlike a lot of directors of scary movies who’ve come since, he gives the audience a chance to get to know, and get to like, his characters.  So that when all hell does break loose, halfway through the film, we’re genuinely on the edge of our seats because we’re rooting for those characters to survive.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Cameron does such a good job of it that, thirty years on, I still know those characters like they’re dear old friends.  There’s Michael Biehn’s reliable Corporal Hicks, who packs a vintage pump-action shotgun alongside his space-age weaponry (“I like to keep this handy… for close encounters”) and who finds himself in the unexpected position of platoon leader after the aliens’ first onslaught wipes most of it out.  There’s Lance Henriksen’s Bishop, the regulation android whom Ripley – mindful of what happened in the first movie – is extremely wary of; though after he’s saved her and saved the other surviving humans three or four times (even after he gets ripped in half), she accepts that he’s a good, if synthetic, bloke.

 

And there’s the motor-mouthed Private Hudson, played by the great Bill Paxton, who gets the film’s best lines.  This is both before the aliens show up, when he’s a swaggering, show-offy git – “Hey Ripley, don’t worry.  Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you…  We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks!” – and after they show up, when he’s a quivering, whiny git – “Hey, maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked, pal!”

 

But Aliens is hardly a testosterone-fest.  Dougal in Father Ted might have earmarked it for a ‘lads’ night in’ but it’s also, subversively, a chick-flick.  At its heart are no fewer than four powerful female characters.  There’s the splendid Sigourney Weaver, of course, back in the role of Ripley – though it’s in Aliens that both Weaver and Ripley properly achieve the status of cinematic icons.  There’s Carrie Henn as Newt, the waif-like little girl who’s the colony’s only survivor and who, gradually, awakens Ripley’s maternal instincts.  While Ripley spends the original movie reacting to and mainly running away from the horrors around her, it’s thanks to Newt that in Aliens she becomes increasingly proactive and ends up running at them.  Admittedly, that’s when she’s armed with a M41A Pulse Rifle / M240 Flamethrower.

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

And let’s not forget the impressive Private Vasquez, played by Jenette Goldstein, who’s more than a match for any man in her platoon.  “All right,” she snarls at one point, “we got seven canisters of CM-20.  I say we roll them in there and nerve-gas the whole f***in’ nest.”  And when she’s not shooting down aliens, she’s shooting down Hudson’s bullshit, as happens in the following exchange: “Hey Vasquez.  Have you ever been mistaken for a man?”  “No.  Have you?”

 

The film’s final trump card also takes female form: the Alien Queen.  Here, Cameron combines the design of the original alien, by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, with the concepts of an egg-laying queen termite and of a tyrannosaurus rex.  He creates a twenty-foot foe of terrifying savagery, strength and tenacity.  And when she comes bearing down on Ripley at the movie’s climax, Aliens turns into the Battle of the Big Bad Mamas.  By this time, the Queen has seen her whole hellish brood destroyed and wants revenge.  Meanwhile, Ripley is determined to defend what’s left of her family – Newt and the now-incapacitated Hicks and Bishop – to the death.

 

What more can I say?  Three decades later Aliens is still riveting and I envy anyone sitting down to watch it for the first time – especially on a big screen with a big sound-system.  In the words of Private Hudson: “We’re on an express elevator to hell, going down!”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-Xj24Gdxds

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjhkhi0Ye6s

 

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox