Note: In August 0f 2014, we lost our good friend and Academy Award winning master of special effects, Joe Viskocil. Today I reprint my earlier post below, on what would have been his 65th birthday. The graphic above was shown on the air at the 2015 Academy Awards, during the portion of the program when luminaries from the motion industry who have passed away are honored and remembered.
Rest well, Giuseppe
Yesterday, we lost an uncommonly talented artist, a gentle soul, and powerful life force who – through his work on so many major motion pictures — freely gave joy and pleasure to millions around the world. He was a true master of his craft.
He was the recipient of many honors, including an Academy award, yet my guess is that those who knew and loved him are probably not thinking very much about his credits or distinguished career. We only hear his infectious laughter, see the joyous smile with which he greeted his friends and colleagues, and sit around struggling to imagine a world without him in it. Because when all the lofty words about his talent have been exhausted, many of us will be left with his simple legacy of joy that easily transcends any awards or movie reviews or glowing magazine articles.
He created joy. He inspired gut-splitting laughter. He was capable of absolutely glorious mischief, jokes, and teasing. He relished the kind and generous gesture. And – most importantly for me, at least — he lived a life in which the ability to make, have and share fun was virtually a sacrament.
Who knew that, in all this fun, he was actually teaching us a lesson? Because in the way he lived his life, you slowly came to see that fun and laughter, shared generously and with love, was deadly serious business, nothing less than one of life’s fundamental fuels. And, trust me; this was a guy who knew fun and laughter like nobody’s business.
Since we lost the comic genius Robin Williams yesterday, you may think I am describing him. A number of these details do apply. But this blog post is actually about someone else, a friend of close to 50 years and someone I wish you all could have known.
Today, I write about my friend Joe Viskocil, Academy award-winning visual effects artist and master of cinematic pyrotechnics, who died yesterday in California at the age of 63. There are many places you can find out about his professional accomplishments, from the explosion of Death Star in the early Star Wars to the destruction of the White House in Independence Day. My purpose here is simply to note the passing of one sublimely nice fellow, a bringer of joy par excellence, and share just how much he will be missed by so many.
Joe had many friends, friends that I did not know. To me, Joe was part of a small group of 5 high school friends who attended South Hills High School in Covina, California together. For decades we have competed for each other’s laughter (the more raucous the better), written sketches and parodies in which we were both the writers and sole audience members, and been there for each other when laughter was the last thing on the agenda.
Now we are four.
If my hunch is right, a lot of other people who knew Joe are also now doing the same, profoundly sad mathematics of loss, taking stock of their lives, factoring Joe into the equation, and trying to figure out just what the world will be like when so much joy is subtracted. I wouldn’t pretend to do anyone else’s math, but I’d be willing to bet just one more dinner with Joe and the gang at Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd. that most of us – after all the subtracting – will still be left with more belly laughs and giggling than we know what to do with.
Rest well, Giuseppe.
We need a Pete Williams network.
The alternative is the two-hour mess on MSNBC “News” I watched on Friday evening, November 27, 2015, when the national news media covered the particularly tragic incident at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood Clinic. I turned my television on at precisely 8:22 PM.
On to the mess.
I’m not sure I have ever seen MSNBC cover an incident of legitimate public interest with a more embarrassing hodgepodge of speculation by law enforcement professionals who were nowhere near the scene, goaded on by queries from MSNBC correspondents asking for guesses about what might be going on inside, how law-enforcement on the scene might have ended the situation, how the criminal justice system might play out for the perpetrator, and any other possible question into which “might” could be inserted.
Dear MSNBC: I know about your enormous news hole. I know you have to stay on the air. I know you have to fill the time. But I simply will not accept that newsgathering should ever be a process of gathering hypotheticals, mights, maybes, or possibilities, especially when not a soul could be heard uttering such old-fashioned, pre-digital curiosities as “Let’s wait and see,” “There’s no way of really knowing,” or the ultimate stone age newsgathering principle: “We have not yet been able to confirm.”
And the retired experts, for all they probably do have to offer in experience and expertise, seemed completely unconcerned that they were allowing the imprimatur of their experience to serve as a seal of approval for a guessing-game.
I know that guessing, speculating, gossiping, and passing on rumors are all quintessentially human activities. But since when does that mean that they should also be considered legitimate newsgathering tools?
I’m probably in the minority. MSNBC’s audience research must tell them that even in the midst of an ongoing violent incident, audiences want coverage modeled more on CSI then facts gathered according to broadly accepted professional standards.
Which leads to Pete Williams. Which always leads to Pete Williams, NBC News Justice Correspondent. There he was yet again in the middle of all this confusion and speculation offering confirmed facts, news gathered from high-level sources, and erudite legal analysis. The guy is a one-man integrity machine.
And then right back to the nonsense.
In fact, let me ask you a question: imagine yourself as the friend or family member of someone somehow connected to this incident, perhaps someone whose safety is in question. Now, imagine yourself filled with all that natural anxiety and concern, watching MSNBC and hearing a retired police officer begin to tell you about a case he covered a decade ago with some similarities. And then imagine yourself hearing a correspondent reporting rumors about the extent of injuries to victims that no local public safety official has confirmed.
It is a sad reality of the times in which we live that we do frequently need evidence-based, legally informed, moment-to-moment coverage of catastrophic violent events. But what we often get is one long episode of Law and Order, occasionally punctuated by a guess or a rumor.
I’ve been watching the same uninformed, speculative coverage for too many years to restrain my inner Howard Beale. And so, in the months ahead, I plan to highlight and even post examples of exactly the kind of speculation I’m talking about.
One last thing: most of the journalists and law enforcement professionals responsible for this coverage are smart, perceptive, ethical, and well intentioned. This is almost never a case of incompetence and negligence. These are good people who sincerely believe they are doing their job.
And that might be the scariest fact of all.
P.S. At 9:15 PM EST Friday night, while I wrote this rant, MSNBC switched over to Lockup, their regular Friday evening reality prison program. The coverage was over.
The problem is that at that exact moment, the front page of the New York Times reported that they had finally confirmed that a “tragic loss of life had occurred during the standoff.” Yet when I glanced up at MSNBC, I saw two inmates brawling with each other, being pulled apart at the Sacramento County Jail.
So finally, after hours of uncertainty, we had news. Sad news and confirmed news. And MSNBC, so eager to speculate just an hour before, was nowhere to be seen just when we began to learn the full extent of the tragedy. Now it wasn’t even speculation and rumor passing as news. It was no news at all.
And so it was that until 9:30 PM EST, as the other networks and major newspapers focused on what we actually knew, MSNBC shared commercials for Kia, Biotene, Ford, and the Home Shopping Network.
And, finally, yet another brawl on the reality show was interrupted with a 60 second update about the casualties of yet another act of tragic, shattering violence.
Pathetic. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment. Just stop calling it news.
And then along comes John:
I can’t believe it. I get to be effusive about something.
For almost 20 years, I have been on a tear against the phony experts and purveyors of pseudo-facts and pseudoscience who are regularly asked to serve as news sources. I once even promised — on the cover of the Washington Post Sunday opinion section — to keep my mouth shut when it was clear I wouldn’t really know what I was talking about.
We are victims of 24-hour panic-news outlets who cover serious social problems without even the minimal complexity they deserve. Instead, we are treated to “experts” like chiropractors without serious, evidence-based, graduate training in either immunology or virology who tell us to avoid childhood vaccines that have saved millions of lives.
All sorts of genuinely urgent threats to health and safety are virtually ignored while reporters in the 24-hour shoutocracy hyperventilate about incidents that, however genuinely painful and tragic, are extraordinarily rare. Yet problems that objectively pose a threat to enormous numbers of people remain all but invisible.
Take the problem of the injuries and fatalities that result from the accidental falls of seniors. These are statistics from the CDC:
So while we are treated to endless nonsense about incredibly rare things that worry us more than they should, we rarely get accurate, evidence-based information about social problems that, because of their frequency, should worry us.
And then along comes John Oliver.
It took a while for this to sink in, but I’m absolutely convinced that what John Oliver is accomplishing on his weekly HBO show represents an extraordinary contribution to serious public discussion about a host of serious problems that we have all but ignored in the past.
Week by week, using his gut-splittingly hilarious comic style, Oliver has been engaged in an effort to educate the public about what seems to be every possible under-publicized social problem. Whether prescription drug marketing, civil forfeiture, food wasting, or prisoner reentry, he has taken problem after problem out of the shadows and made incredibly persuasive arguments for why we should be more concerned.
In an ideal world, this kind of responsible public education would be anything but revolutionary. But in the confusing media mess of arguing pseudo experts, accompanied by a soundtrack of screaming and shouting that passes for debate on tabloid television, what Oliver is doing is nothing short of extraordinary.
Obviously, Oliver comes to us from one place on a wonderfully crowded ideological spectrum. I admit it is probably close to the place I reside. And I know there are many other interesting points of view on these problems that should also be heard. The problem, though, is that no one else from anywhere on the political spectrum has ever tried to do what he is doing with anything close to the elegant style and razor-sharp wit that he brings to the table.
Some years back, I was at a meeting of FDA consultants working on the question of how to get the public concerned about legitimate threats to health and safety. The whole session kept returning to the same questions: Why does it seem to be impossible to get people to care about W or X? Or to pay attention to Y or Z?
Thanks to John Oliver, we have an answer.
It isn’t impossible.
Find someone brilliant, someone who combines the analytical skills of a policy analyst and the humor of a hilarious social satirist, put him in the same room as a little understood problem like civil forfeiture (the name alone is a sleep aid!), and — poof! — suddenly it’s an issue of broad public concern.
Are the mainstream media capable of illuminating serious threats to health, safety, and social welfare? Absolutely.
His name is John Oliver.
So you think you’ve had some epic midnight snacks. Fair enough. You’re not the only one who knows the charms of cold Pad Thai.
But I’ll bet you’ve never gone downstairs in the middle of the night to check the freshness of a day-old tuna sandwich and encountered a vision of Jeanne Moreau in front of your refrigerator.
I did. And she sang to me.
Somehow, about two weeks ago, I found myself standing in front of my refrigerator at 3 AM, trying to decide between a leftover half tuna sandwich and some cold soba noodles. As I stood there, half asleep and humming some old French song, she appeared.
Jeanne Moreau was 33 years old again, at my side singing the same song, a catchy theme used by Francois Truffaut in his masterpiece Jules et Jim.
Now, that is one heck of a classy midnight snack hallucination.
We were singing Le Tourbillon de La Vie (“The Whirlwind of Life”). The name might not ring a bell, but you may have first heard it when I did, in Truffaut’s haunting film Jules et Jim, the story of a love triangle involving a French Bohemian Jim (Henri Serre), his friend Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jules’s girlfriend Catherine (Jeanne Moreau).
At first, I couldn’t remember the words. They are packed tightly into the melody, and in French are quite a tongue twister. But halfway through the sandwich, they began to come back to me. Unfortunately, Jeanne Moreau had disappeared, but at least I didn’t have to worry about her correcting my French:
Elle avait des bagues à chaque doigt,
Des tas de bracelets autour des poignets,
Et puis elle chantait avec une voix
Qui, sitôt, m’enjôla
In the film, she sings the song accompanied on guitar by the character Bassiak (played by Serge Rezvani, who actually wrote the song). The lyrics capture the spirit of the film beautifully, and speak of love that comes and goes so quickly “dans le tourbillon de la vie” (in the whirlwind of life). At first the song suggests pure whimsy, but the context in which it is used in the film suggests dark clouds on the horizon. Moreau’s voice is magnificent.
I found the scene in the film and watched it again:
Which leads directly to TurboTax® Tax Preparation Software. What?
Yup. This song and this story lead straight to TurboTax.
Here’s what happened:
A few days after my vision, I was cleaning up in the kitchen and heard Le Tourbillon de La Vie again, this time in a TV commercial. I didn’t catch the name of the product, but wondered what kind of advertiser would want to be identified with Le Tourbillon de La Vie?
On to Google.
My first try:
Ah, two American ad campaigns with a French theme. But not Le Tourbillon. I tried again.
And, finally, there it was: a commercial for TurboTax® Tax Preparation Software.
So here’s the commercial, which I think is brilliantly conceived and executed. And watch the beleaguered bride closely. She is played by Suzi Barrett, an immensely versatile and talented actor with brilliant comic timing who is definitely bound for the pantheon.
The song fits perfectly, implying that a disorganized, turbulent life can be tamed into order by tax preparation software.
Pretty shrewd message, I had to admit:
You may hate doing taxes. And you may loathe the idea of showing up every year to give a full-blown accounting of all the dumb things you’ve done. But do you really think you’re the first person who has ever made some dumb mistakes? Everybody screws up in the whirlwind of life. Stop the self-flagellation, hold tight for the turbulent ups and downs, and finish your taxes.
Silly? Of course.
But it is knowingly and gloriously silly, done by director Noam Murro with style and barely controlled lunacy. And it wasn’t until a few hours later that I realized the similarity between the name of the product, Turbo Tax, and the name of the song, “Le Tourbillon de La Vie.”
Update: Jeanne Moreau hasn’t returned to join me for another midnight snack.
But a word to Marlene: If you happen to be in the neighborhood, just say the word and I’ll be there with any kind of a sandwich you want. Just sing “Falling in Love Again” and I’ll pretend to be Emil Jannings.
No matter what problems you are dealing with, the people at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.