The Way of the Word

30. November 2010

RIP Peter Hofmann

Peter Hofmann was born on August 22, 1944, in Marienbad (Germany) and died on November 29, 2010 in Selb (Germany) at the age of 66, apparently of pneumonia.

Hofmann joined a rock band as a singer and bass player at the age of 16. Before that, he was an exceptional athlete, and during his time as a Bundeswehr conscript he served as a paratrooper. He used the money he got when he retired from the Bundeswehr to finance his training as a singer at the Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe. He gave his debut as an opera singer (he was a tenor) in Lübeck in 1972 as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte. His breakthrough came in 1976, when he sang the role of Siegmund at the Bayreuther Festspiele. He sang there for 14 years. Afterwards, he sort of specialized in singing Wagner operas. His voice started to fail him in 1990, and he ended his career as an opera singer.

Parallel to opera, he performed as a rock singer and published several very successful albums. After retiring from opera, he joined the cast of Hamburg’s stage of The Phantom of the Opera, where he sang the title role during 300 performances. In 1997, he played Old Firehand in the Bad Segeberg performance of Winnetou and Old Firehand.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1994, but managed to conceal it with self-discipline and medication. He finally revealed his disease in 1999, and ended his career with his Christmas tour in 2000. After that, he suffered a fairly rapid and severe physical decline.  At the end, he was unable to speak, to eat without assistance, and he was bound to a wheelchair.

Looking at the above, his death was probably a kindness. His image at least was that of a very physical and athletic person, and for someone like that being so physically decreipt must have been the proverbial fate worse than death.

I still remember when I first heard him. It was when his debut rock album, Rock Classics, came out. I had no idea who he was, I just heard a song from the album on the radio and thought, “This guy will fail in the business. Because he can actually sing.” I found out afterwards that he was actually already a famous opera singer who was, let’s say, slumming in popular music. I loved his interpretations of those rock songs (and C&W), and his own songs as well. I have several of his albums, and I’m actually listening to one of them as I type this.

He made opera cool.


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Cowboys and Barbarians

I had wanted to mention this yesterday, but there were too many other shocks to digest, so I didn’t get around to it.

If you’ve looked at the “available works” list on the right, you’ve surely noticed a new entry: Cowboys and Barbarians Kindle Edition.  What that means is simple: I’ve made my crossworlds fantasy novel Cowboys and Barbarians available for the Kindle US and the Kindle UK.

Cowboys and Barbarians is the story of the barbarian warrior Dhargan. During a battle against an evil sorcerer, he is thrown through a dimensional portal into another world. A strange world where people act incomprehensively, wear strange clothes and carry thunderhammers that kill. All Dhargan wants is to get out of there and back to his own world. Unfortunately, along the way he ends up oweing someone a debt of honor, a debt that he needs to discharge before he can leave. If he ever can, because the strange world in which he is trapped has no magic, and the solutions he knows from back home don’t work here.

It is also the story of Justin McBride, a gunfighter in the American west of the 1880s. Running from a posse, McBride escapes through a glowing hole in the air — and ends up in a strange world full of monsters and magic. Joined by Cymra and Tauri, who are friends of a warrior named Dhargan, McBride quests to find the one sorcerer who might know where Dhargan is, and who just might put McBride back where he belongs.

29. November 2010

RIP Irvin Kershner

Irvin Kershner was born on April 29, 1923 and died on November 29, 2010, at the age of 87.

The second shock today, after the death of Leslie Nielsen.

Irvin Kershner had a background in music and art, and attended the Temple University – Tyler School of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Then he went to New York and Princeton, to study under the famous paiting teacher Hans Hofmann, before he went to study photography at the LA Art Center of Design.

His film career began as a teacher of photography at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where he also studied cinema. He went on to work as a photographer for the US State Department, which led to assignments as a director and cinematographer of documentaries about Iran, Turkey and Greece. After his return to the US, he did television work, developing and directing the TV series The Rebel, as well as several TV pilots. Then he turned his attention to feature films, and directed several that were both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, such as A Fine Madness, The Flim-Flam Man and The Eyes of Laura Mars.

I don’t think I need to do more than list the titles of his three best-known movies. If you read this, you probably know what I’m talking about just by the titles.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

James Bond: Never Say Never Again (1983, with Sean Connery as Bond)

RoboCop 2

Today is a black day to be a geek and a movie buff.

RIP Leslie Nielsen

Born February 11, 1926, in Saskatchewan (Canada); died November 28, 2010, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA, of pneumonia, at the age of 84.

According to his family, he died peacefully in his sleep.

It’s nearly impossible to list all the movies and TV roles he played in the course of his life. According to his Wikipedia page, he played in 100 movies and 1,500 TV programs, portraying more than 220 characters.

Can you say “Wow?” Then say, “Wow.”

Let’s face it: Nielsen was part of a very cool family. His father was a Mountie. His brother Erik was Deputy Prime Minister of Canada in the 1980s. His uncle was Jean Hersholt, a very famous silent film and radio actor of his time.

Nielsen actually credits his uncle as the inspiration to become an actor. Which he set about for after WW2, during which he was trained as an aerial gunner, but the war ended before he saw any action. After the war, he worked as a DJ and enrolled in the Lorne Greene (yes, that Lorne Greene) Academy of Radio Arts. While there, he received a scholarship for the Neighborhood Playhouse acting academy in New York.

He made his first TV appearance on an episode of Studio One, alongside Charlton Heston. Two years later, he had about 50 TV appearances to his credit. His feature film debut was 1956, in The Vagabond King, where he caught the eye of Producer Nicholas Hayfack, who offered him a part in the science fiction movie Forbidden Planet. The movie was a big hit in the 1950s, and lived on to be a classic of the genre. It led to more work, and Nielsen got to play both dramatic and romantic roles.

After he left MGM, he was all over the place. The next couple of years saw him on TV shows like Rawhide, Hawaii 5-0, Big Valley, The Virginian, The Fugitive, Dr. Kildare, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, M*A*S*H… As a rule of thumb, you can almost say that if it was on TV, Leslie Nielsen was there. He also did a lot of movies.

I don’t know how he felt about it, but with 20/20 hindsight… He had a strong start with Forbidden Planet, but after leaving MGM his career didn’t really follow as strongly. He was lucky for an actor, he always worked. But nothing really stood out, he didn’t became a star.

Not until 1980. Not until Airplane!. (In my opinion, the funniest movie ever made.) Again, he played a supporting role in this comedy movie, and delivered one of the most memorable movie quotes of all: “Surely, you can’t be serious.” “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” When the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrams, the men behind Airplane!, decided to bring their type of humor to television, they cast Leslie Nielsen as the main character for their TV series, Police Squad.  It ran for only 6 episodes in 1982. Nielsen’s character was a spoof of all the straight-laced police detectives of that era’s TV shows, a detective named Frank Drebin.

Nielsen, who had not worked in comedy outside of his Airplane! appearance, continued to do horror, drama, mystery and everything else. In 1988, the Zuckers decided to make a feature film based on Police Squad, and they knew they couldn’t do it without Frank Drebin.

The movie came out in 1988: The Naked Gun. If I need to say more, then you aren’t worth talking to. Anyway, The Naked Gun spawned two sequels, in 1991 and 1994, and made Nielsen into a comedy star.

On the downside, it typecast him: the characters he played after The Naked Gun were mostly thinly disguised Frank Drebin copies in spoofy of genres and popular movies: Father Jebedaiah Mayii in Repossessed (a personal favorite), a parody of the Exorcist movies. Dracula: Dead and Loving it. Spy Hard. Wrongfully Accused. 2001: A Space Travesty.  He played Mr. Magoo in the live-action version of the cartoon. Most of these movies were both critical and box-office failures.

In 1993, he published The Naked Truth, a Naked Gun-style absurdist novel pretending to be his autobiography.

He remained an active actor throughout his life. His last credits were Stonerville (2010) and the upcoming The Waterman Movie. Always busy, always working.

Since the 1980s, Nielsen’s image had become that of a clown, and he played that image to the hilt in his public appearances. However, a German journalist who interviewed him once wrote that at the beginning of the interview, Nielsen had been his standard absurd and silly persona. But once he realized that the interviewer wasn’t really interested in that, he became a well-spoken, well-informed, intelligent and thoughtful conversationalist. The Leslie Nielsen the world saw was not the real one. It was an act.

I was very sorry to hear of his death this morning. But he was 84, he was very good and successful at what he did, which was to make people happy, and he died peacefully in his sleep. A man can’t really ask for more.

 

25. November 2010

DRM – What it it Good For? (Absolutely Nothing)

As some of you have already noticed, I released my hardboiled mystery novel The Coldest Blood as an e-book for the Kindle (US-Version) (UK-Version). When you set it up, Amazon’s DTO program offers you the choice of putting DRM on the file.

DRM translates as Digital Rights Management, and it’s a copy protection scheme. Depending on the program, it restricts user rights in regards to how many copies they can make/use/keep, how long they can keep them, and it makes sure they can’t make any copies by themselves.

There is also another side to DRM, one that Amazon has been known to exploit. Does anyone else remember the event that became known as Amazon Fail 2? Basically, Amazon pulled supposedly pirated copies of George Orwell’s works Animal Farm and 1984 from the Kindles of people who had bought those copies. Without so much as an explanation (at least not until the brown mass hit the air circulation device).

I was not the only one to appreciate the irony that they did this with the works of George Orwell. If you don’t know why, I suggest you read 1984.

Anyway. DRM is one of the two buzzkill reasons why I don’t own an e-book reader. I’m used to owning what I buy (or at least not pay very much for borrowing – yes, I do have a library card). When I buy a book (as in, not explicitly borrowing), I do so with the expectation of getting to keep it, and not being at the mercy of whoever sold it to me. However, DRM turns the supposed purchase into a lending fee. Don’t believe me? Try transferring your Kindle book to another device after having used up your allocation.

If I want to borrow a book, I’ll use the aforementioned library card.

The major reason for DRM is the fear of piracy. If your work isn’t copy-protected, someone will make an illegal copy and make it available for illegal download, robbing the creator of their income.

Now, mind you this: I’ll come down on anyone who pirates my work. Yes. Because I’d rather get those royalties to pay my bills. Times are hard for me too.

But.

DRM isn’t the way. Seriously, any would-be pirate who knows what they’re doing will crack your DRM in one minute flat. Or possibly less. DRM is just a minor irritant for copy pirates. It doesn’t stop them at all.

I suppose you see what I mean now. Why I believe that DRM is not only worth absolutely nothing, it has only one practical use: to annoy the consumer.

Now, as someone who considers DRM a deal-breaker in buying an e-book reader, I was faced with the choice of putting DRM on The Coldest Blood. It was no choice at all: of course I didn’t. And as long as I get any say about how my work is uploaded, it will not have any DRM ever. I believe that if you buy something you should own it.

Plus, a pledge: If, despite everything, Amazon ever deletes my work from your Kindle, drop me a line. Prove that you actually did buy a copy (receipt or whatever). And I’ll provide you a new one, DRM free, at no extra charge, in a file format of your choice, that Amazon can never take away from you.

21. November 2010

A Book By Its Cover

Sometime ago, I wrote a hardboiled mystery novel, to which I attached all my hopes and dreams. It had the title The Coldest Blood, and should appeal to people who like traditional hardboiled and pulpy stuff, like Mickey Spillane’s work. I had expected this would launch my career and an entire series of Shaw mysteries.

Too many rejections later, I had to face it: instead of launching my career, it had served to bury it.

Almost a year after that realization, I decided that I, at least, consider the novel too good not to share. The emerging e-book market made it possible to publish it myself at a cover price that wouldn’t scare off too many potential readers.

I mean, really, $20 for a paperback novel? I don’t know how anyone would be willing to pay that much. But, $3.49 for the same novel as a DRM-free ebook? If I had an ebook reader, I’d look at the price, I’d see that it’s about half the cover price of a paperback novel, it costs less than a standard comic book (at least those published by Marvel Comics) while providing far more story than any comic book… I just might give it a chance.

We’ll see if others think that way. If all goes well, The Coldest Blood will be approved by Amazon within 24 hours or so.

Until then, have a look at the cover:

Not having a cover, and not being able to afford one, had been one of the biggest stumbling blocks. Then I happened on a website called Dreamstime. They sell royalty free stock photos. And they are actually affordable! The picture I chose as the cover for The Coldest Blood cost me a pittance. Two downloads, and it will be paid for! I played with the image in MS Paint, adding the title and the credit, and it was done!

The other thing is that those of you who read this blog regularly probably wonder if I have changed my mind about self-publishing. No. I haven’t. Self-publishing The Coldest Blood is simply admitting that I have failed at my ambition, and am therefore reduced to a hobbyist. And for hobbyists, self-publishing is all right.

11. November 2010

RIP Dino De Laurentiis

Born August 8, 1919 as Agostino de Laurentiis in Torre Annunziata (Italy), died November 11, 2010 in Los Angeles at age 91.

Like a lot of these obituaries that I post here, this came as something of a shock. For one thing, I had no idea he was even still alive. Then again, since he was a producer, he was more behind the scenes, with the actors and directors hogging the spotlight of his films.

His biography indicates a man who always knew exactly what he wanted, and who went about to get it. He dropped out of school at the age of 17 because he wanted to work in the movie business, and had his first acting role in a movie in 1938: Il grandi magazzini. During WW2, he served in the Italian army, afterwards he started to produce movies. His first credit as a producer was the Aquila Nera (1946). His first international success was the 1949 Riso amaro (Bitter Rice), directed by Guiseppe de Santis. The same year, he married the Italian actress Silvia Mangano, a marriage that was to last until her death in 1989.

He joined forces with fellow Italian producer Carlo Ponti, and together they produced several prestigious films. Most notably La Strada (directed by Federico Fellino and starring Anthony Quinn), which won several international awards, including the Oscar. Together, the two also produced the first Italian movie in color. De Laurentiis and Ponti broke up because De Laurentiis had a taste for huge blockbusters that Ponti didn’t quite share in this way.

And boy, did he produce them. Some bombed, inevitably, such as Hurricane, or Tai Pan, or the 1976 King Kong remake, or Maximum Overdrive. But whether they were bombs or hits, or controversial, or attracted a cult following, or became critical darlings, they always, always attracted attention.

I mean, I’m sure you’ve heard of at least some of these (in no particular order):

Barbarella, Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian, Death Wish, Orca, Hannibal, Hannibal Rising, Army of Darkness, Dune, The Last Legion, Danger: Diabolik, Ragtime…

And those are only a very few, which he produced after he moved from Italy to Hollywood. De Laurentiis went bankrupt a couple of times. His companies went out of business. But he never stopped making movies. His six children are also in various ways associated with the movie business. Most notably his daughter Rafaella, who is almost as famous a producer as Dino.

My own view of De Laurentiis films was that they were upscale B-List. The production values were usually not first rate. It was usually visible that the production had to remember their budgets. What they did have, always, was spectacle. Show. Grandeur.

In a word: fun.

Looking back, it seems clear that the artistic leanings of the movies he made before relocating to Hollywood were not so much his doing but rather that of his partner, Carlo Ponti. Granted, some of the movies he made after separating from Ponti and before going to Hollywood try to combine the best of both worlds: art and spectacle.

His last movie was 2007’s Virgin Territory, a romantic comedy based on the classic Decameron, starring Hayden Christensen and Misha Barton. That and the fact that it went straight to DVD in the US should tell you all you need to know about it. So let’s rather consider The Last Legion (also 2007) , which was much more of a success, De Laurentii’s last movie, okay?

I look at the list of the movies he produced, and I am shocked, shocked I say, at how many of them I have seen. At how many of them I have among my DVDs. Of course I haven’t always enjoyed the movies he made. But usually, yes, I did. I for one will definitely miss the particular brand of over-the-top craziness that his movies usually had.

De Laurentii’s took creative risks. That’s why his companies failed several times. But he always came back, and did the same as before: think big, take chances, be a little bit off-beat. So what if his movies failed? If they did, they failed spectacularly. And even many of the failures live on as cult hits. I’ll bet they’ll be remembered when the last 10 years of Hollywood remakes will be long forgotten. Today’s Hollywood suits should look at De Laurentiis’s resume and learn from it: it’s good to take risks, it’s good to be creative, and if you fail, you can rebuild from the goodwill that your creativity has earned you.

Rest in peace, Dino De Laurentiis. You will be missed, not in the least because there is no real worthy successor.

3. November 2010

Review: Megamind

USA 2010. Directed by Tom McGrath. Starring Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill. Runtime: 96 Minutes

The rivalry of Megamind (Will Ferrell), the coolest villain ever to torment Metro City, and his annoying arch-nemesis, the goody-two-shoes Metro Man (Brad Pitt) has lasted since their childhoods. Now Megamind has the perfect plan to defeat Metro Man: he kidnaps Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey) — again — and tricks Metro Man into thinking that they are in the old observatory outside the city. Metro Man walks right into Megamind’s trap, Megamind unleashes his death ray — and succeeds in killing Metro Man.

Unexpectedly.

Now Megamind is King of Metro City, master of all he surveys. And it bores him to tears.  He misses the fights against Metro Man. He misses the challenge.

What’s a supervillain to do?

Why, create a new superhero, of course. Using a sample of Metro Man’s DNA, Megamind creates a process that can bestow Metro Man’s superpowers on an ordinary human. By accident, it’s Roxanne’s cameraman Hal (Jonah Hill) who gets the powers. Megamind trains Jonah to be the hero Megamind wants to fight. As it turns out, however, Hal (now Tighten) is far too selfish, and becomes the world’s greatest villain. Now Megamind is forced to become a hero and save Metro City.

I’m somewhat ambivalent about Megamind. The animation is top-notch, and the in-your-face “look, it’s 3D!” effects aren’t very annoying. (Actually, Megamind is another example for why 3D should be restricted to animated movies. They at least get it right.) The movie is funny, and Megamind’s journey from villain to hero is quite believable. He’s also a lovable kind of villain: throughout the story, he is shown as not evil, just juvenile. If you accept that, the premise of his evolution makes perfect sense. (It also explains the really annoying habit this movie has: Megamind’s minion carries a ghetto blaster and plays a kind of soundtrack for its master. Among others, Highway to Hell and Bad. To which Megamind dances. Like a teenager would.)

Megamind also provides some metatextual commentary on the superhero genre. The title character is an old-school villain. Death rays, giant robots, elaborate traps and schemes. He engages the hero, loses, and is sent to prison, from where he escapes to try again. Part of his character evolution comes when he realizes that Tighten doesn’t play by the old rules.

If you’re familiar with the superhero tropes, Megamind offers nothing original. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s exciting and for once the 3D actually helps the movie instead of just looking silly. The characters are believable, and very very likable. I can’t imagine anyone not liking Minion, for example. (Seriously: if you liked Despicable Me‘s minions, you’ll love Minion and the Brain Bots.) The movie is charming, the production values are first rate. It’s definitely worth your time and money.

It’s just… Don’t go in expecting the next Incredibles. Megamind falls a bit short of that benchmark.

Verdict: recommended

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