I have a new favorite absurdist movie: The Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. This Swedish farce, adapted from the book by Jonas Jonasson, was a huge hit in its home country, then proceeded to take the rest of Europe by storm. It didn’t make much of a splash here in the U.S. (yet), but of course movie studios were falling all over themselves to get the rights to it and they will, of course, make it with American actors and adapt the script where it will never be as good as the original.
I saw it on Apple TV, but I’m sure it’s rentable all over the place.
Anyway, on to the movie.
The premise is, on his 100th birthday in a senior-care facility, Allan Karlsson just gets up and leaves the facility, picks up a suitcase full of ill-gotten drug money, and is chased by those tasked with recovering the suitcase and the money intact.
Sounds like a typical Hollywood formula movie, huh?
Not so fast.
It gets weirder and funnier. The 100-year-old man runs into a bevy of odd–but lovable–friends, experiences some very funny flashbacks where he plays pivotal historical roles with Franco of Spain, Robert Oppenheimer at the Manhattan Project, and even runs into Albert Einstein’s dim-witted brother, Herbert. Along the way, Allan blows up a lot of Russian nesting dolls, bridges, a treacherous local merchant urinating in a field, and even a ravenous fox that that kills his favorite cat, Molotov. And the bad guys (and a few good, but misguided ones) die in scenes that had me roaring with laughter.
At the moment of his death, Belgian astronomers registered a lightning-bolt-shaped constellation of stars for David Bowie, in honor of the iconic photograph of him as Ziggy Stardust on his Aladdin Sane album. I’ve always suspected that he was a hyperintelligent extraterrestrial. There’s no other way to explain his phenomenal talent.
There are no explosions in Ex Machina. No battling armies firing high-tech weaponry. No viral agents being released into Earth’s atmosphere. No gloomy post-apocalyptic landscapes decimated by nuclear wars or android invasions.
The action that takes place in this thrilling science-fiction film occurs in your head. Well, and in a drop-dead gorgeous and sleek modernist home deep in the mountains of Norway. (Those parts that aren’t on a movie set, that is.)
If you haven’t yet seen this film, it’s astounding. The actors, the sets, the cinematography, the plot and the music all come together to create a tell a gripping story of Artificial Intelligence where it’s difficult to know who to trust.
I won’t throw in any plot spoilers, but as I watched this movie a second time (on Apple TV…just $5.99), I realized what a classic science-fiction movie this will become. If you haven’t seen it yet, go rent it. Or buy it. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. I picked up even more the second time around.
Terry Pratchett is the best-selling fantasy author many people have never heard of. By the time he died in 2015, he had sold over 85 million books (based mostly on his Discworld series), and until JK Rowling rolled around, he was the best-selling author in Britain. Including his last book, The Shepherd’s Crown, he published over 41 Discworld books. Not to mention dozens of others in different genres and subgenres.
So who was this guy?
First, he wrote fantasy books. With a comic twist.
Now before some of you start groaning, these fantasy characters aren’t like anything you’ve ever read. First of all, they’re funny. There are dwarfs six feet high, vampires who’ve taken a pledge not to drink blood, and a witch who hates riding brooms.
Secondly, they have real depth. They come alive. They have idiosyncrasies and flaws, but what makes them so endearing is that we can see ourselves in them. They’re us. Granted, they’re us if we lived on a flat world supported by four elephants standing on an enormous tortoise that soars through the cosmos.
And they’re likable, including Death, which became one of his most beloved characters.
Are you still with me?
It’s not just the characters that draw fans to his series. In each novel, he managed to slip in some wry social commentary, allowing us to see our world reflected in his.
In Thud!, he draws attention to racial prejudices, taking aim at those who fan the flames of hatred against particular groups. In Equal Rites, he makes a case for equal opportunities for women way back in 1978. And in Small Gods, he has something to say about the misuse of religion for political (or personal) gains.
Besides everything mentioned above, few authors could mix science and fantasy with such flair. Of course on Discworld, science became magic. Tiny ants build sugar pyramids to their dead queen under the flagstones of the Unseen University. Magic causes light to slow down and take its time crossing Discworld, sometimes piling up at the foot of mountain ranges. Tantric sex magic books have to be stored under cold water to keep them from bursting into flames and “scorching their severely plain covers.” And of course, few can coin a phrase like him. In the bad parts of town in Ankh-Morpork, he has “ladies of negotiable affection” working the street.
These are not just silly, harmless fantasy romps. They make us think. And wonder. And laugh. All at the same time.
That’s an amazing legacy to leave behind.
(Postscript: The author himself, in his biographic-essay collection A Slip of the Keyboard suggests beginning Discworld readers not start with his first two books, The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic. True, as time went on, Mr. Pratchett’s writing became more masterful and in some cases, darker, but his first two entries are awfully darn good. If you want to start a bit later in his series, I suggest Hogfather and Mort.)
I chanced on this great website while looking for, as usual, all things scientific. Besides great podcasts (the one that led me here was about parallel universes…a subject near and dear to a sci-fi writer’s heart), studio 360 has articles, videos and blogs about current music, books, movies, and other pop culture happenings with a good dose of comedy thrown in (another subject near and dear to my heart as a comedy writer). It’s kind of like an alter-ego to another podcast favorite, Radiolab. Best of all: it has a separate page for science and technology, containing for example, videos of Darth Trump, artists at CERN, and what dark matter would look like if you could draw it.
Human ingenuity will never cease to amaze me. And neither will the way that science makes its way into nearly every facet of our daily lives.
Especially when it comes to extreme sports. In fact, from wingsuit base jumping to ice climbing, these unbelievable sports wouldn’t exist without making use of scientific principles.
Take what I’ve been seeing more and more off the coast of California in the last year.
Kite surfing is nothing new. You combine a huge inflatable, curved kite and a short surfboard and you go sailing across the top of the water.
At some point, someone must have said to themselves: “This is really great, but I want to go faster. And I want to take advantage of really windy days, but not put up with the choppy surf that high winds create.
Someone, somewhere, must have seen—or ridden—on a hydrofoil boat and noticed that it provides a smooth ride even on choppy seas, it cruises much faster, and turns quicker.
Some smart person attached a hydrofoil to a surfboard and a new sport was born. It makes you do a double take, watching a person sailing three or four feet above the water.
So what’s next?
Once we humans make traveling into space an everyday thing, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see someone whizzing by at a million miles an hour on solar wind sail.
And after that? It’s anyone’s guess. Black hole base jumping? Pulsar catapults?
(If you’re really interesting in the principle of using foils to lift a boat, here’s what MIT says about it: hydrofoils
I’m a comic writer. I write funny things. Books, essays, tweets and short videos. Mostly because I like to laugh. And I like to get laughs. It makes me feel like I’ve made the world a nicer place to live. Just a teensy bit.
There’s a second, but equally important reason I write things that are funny: I can’t help it. It’s my way of coping with the fact that I just can’t make sense of this planet. The people on it. The funny, bizarre and sometimes cruel things they do to each other. Even the way the universe is constructed. Bosons, leptons, quarks, gravitons, dark energy, dark matter, black holes, white holes, parallel universes, sheesh! The universe seems not only to be run by a bunch of maniacs, to quote sci-fi great Douglas Adams, but designed by one as well. It’s all wildly, entertainingly, hysterically insane. Making fun of it all seems like a natural.
I suppose I could make a placard and march up and down the street, screaming my dissatisfaction with the way things are. Or break some store windows or throw Molotov Cocktails into businesses along Sunset Boulevard.
I’m just not the violent type.
So instead of getting nihilistic, angry or bewildered about it all, I take another tack. I draw attention to whatever craziness I see by exposing it with exaggeration and humor. It’s called satire.
The problem is that most people don’t take comedy seriously. They hear the joke, utter a quick laugh, and assume that’s the end of it.
No real lasting change, right? Only drama can do that.
The pen isn’t mightier than the sword, is it?
Comedy can be a powerful instrument for change, but we humans fail to see the subtle change in our thinking because we’re too busy laughing.
Consider this. Comedian John Cleese says that when people saw Beyond the Fringe, the early 1960s London comedy stage review, the audience screamed with laughter. “It was a liberation!” Decades of stuffy protocol dissolved in a matter of minutes. Indeed, until that point, comedians rarely made public fun of the Queen, the clergy, the Prime Minister or members of Parliament. Things started to change and it all started with humor.
Since I’m on the subject of British humor, take what I noticed while watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail recently. The scene: two peasants challenge King Arthur’s authority by flatly stating that they didn’t vote for him. Arthur counters by saying that a lady of the lake held forth a sacred sword, Excalibur, for him to carry, signifying his rule by divine right. The peasants still weren’t buying it. “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”
While I find this scene very funny, it’s also making a very serious point about the insane methods royalty used to justify their power. Divine right is up there at the top of crazy thinking, but it has plenty of company with prophesies, omens, bloodlines or familial assassinations.
So am I advocating that this scene is going to make people in the Middle East or Southeast Asia rise up and overthrow their ridiculous monarchs or totalitarian regimes?
Hardly. But like a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples fan out, causing waves on the shore. Little by little, splash by splash, the shoreline is changed. Watch a few episodes of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, or Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal and you’ll understand how you can laugh and be angry at the same time.
In ending, I’d like to see comedies taken more seriously. To point, in the 86 years that the Academy Awards have been given out, only six Best Picture awards have been given to pure comedies.* Just because the messages in a comedy come in on little cat feet, doesn’t mean they don’t have impact. It’s just that we lovers of really great comedy prefer our messages served up with a few good laughs.
*Dramadies not included in this figure.
Now that the holidays are upon us, it’s time to deck the halls with boughs of holly and flesh-eating zombies. What better way to celebrate our annual bout of family dysfunction and commercial overconsumption than by reading a comedic tale of a coastal California town overrun by zombies brought to life by an inept angel. Throw in a C-grade movie star, a pot-smoking town sheriff and a repulsive Santa who takes a fatal shovel to the face and you have a heart-warming tale the whole family can enjoy. Brought to you by one of the funniest comic authors around: Christopher Moore. So buy it and curl up next to the fire with this very funny book. Just keep a shotgun by your side. Ho ho ho.
It’s also where we humans got taken down a peg or two from our lofty, self-awarded importance in the cosmos. Not that Copernicus didn’t give us a well-deserved kick in the ass by putting the sun at the center of our solar system. But it’s at Mount Wilson where we really got a good booting up the rear.
You see, up until the 1920s, most astronomers believed there was only one galaxy in the universe: ours.
The universe was all about us.
Along comes upstart Edwin Hubble working on the newly installed 100-inch telescope and he turns astronomy on its head by discovering that the fuzzy patches in the sky that everyone else had called “spiral nebulae,” weren’t gaseous clouds inside our Milky Way. They were separate galaxies* millions of light years away. And there were billions of them.
Humans had just learned that the universe was a very big place. Far larger than anyone had ever imagined.
Astronomers and cosmologists were thrilled. The human race, however, was beginning to feel a tad unimportant.
As if this finding wasn’t bad enough, Hubble added insult to injury in a paper published in 1929, announcing an even more shocking finding: the universe was expanding.** The idea that the cosmos was eternal, unchanging and reassuringly dull, was dead wrong.
Not only was our conception of the universe wrong, but it threw out another unsettling idea: it seemed to be flying apart. Most galaxies were moving away from each other, and those at the furthest reaches of the known universe were moving away at even higher velocities.
The universe was careening out of control.
There it was in a horrible, little nutshell: the universe was not all about us. In fact, it had nothing whatsoever to do with us. In less than a decade, we had gone from our smug, safe and comfy position in a galaxy that was the center of the universe to nothing more than tiny, insignificant life forms living on a laughably small planet that was no more than a speck of dust, helplessly hurtling through an incomprehensibly large universe that would either rip itself to shreds in the far future, eventually contract back on itself and end in a fiery explosion—or worse—just expand forever until it became a soul-annihilating frozen deadness in lonely, cold blackness.
The human psyche has never been the same since.
It’s probably a good thing that most humans are blissfully unaware of recent theories that say there may be billions of universes. Perhaps an infinite number.
Let’s just keep it our little secret for now.
*Even though he proved their existence, Hubble refused to call his discovery galaxies. This was due to the fact that he linked the term to a rival astronomer Harlow Shapley, who also worked atop Mt. Wilson and was kind of a dick to Hubble and his theory of separate galaxies outside ours. Shapley’s taunts may have been sour grapes caused by the fact that he had to work with the 60-inch telescope while Hubble got the sexy 100-inch.
**I know, I know. Georges Lemaître had come to the same conclusion, some say, two years earlier.
Unable to find work after graduating from the Zürich Polytechnic with a teaching diploma, he wrote to his sister and said that it would have been better had he never been born.
Can you imagine?
The job he eventually got as a lowly clerk at the patent office in Bern gave him what he really needed besides a paycheck: time to think. He put his time there to good use, indulging in his thought experiments, and writing the three papers that changed how we understand the universe. Even after these papers were published, they weren’t universally accepted. It took time. Many years, in fact.
The key thing was, he never gave up.
For those of you still waiting tables or tending bar or working retail, hang in there. If you have talent, the only other thing you need is a belief in yourself. And a little patience.