It Began With Barney

Gregmorris In Sunday's NYT, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott offered up a seemingly comprehensive dissection of the ways in which Hollywood has, since the days of Sidney Poitier, given us archetypes of the black male hero: the Black Everyman, the Black Outlaw, the Black Provocateur, the Black Father, the Black Yoda, and the Black Messiah.

But they forgot one important recurring role: the Black Techie or, if you prefer, the Black Geek. These guys are everywhere in TV shows and movies, programming computers and setting explosives. (I'm not even counting the many doctors.)

Here's a small selection: Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park, LaVar Burton in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Joe Morton in Terminator 2, Don Cheadle in the Ocean's movies, and Ving Rhames in the Mission Impossible movies. Even the German bad guys in Die Hard used a black guy (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) as their tech expert (though the character's reviews aren't good). And Sidney Poitier made it into Sneakers.

With all due respect to Geordi, the greatest black techie was, in my estimation, Dr. Miles Hawkins, the Reed Richards-meets-Tom Sowell protagonist of the short-lived superhero series M.A.N.T.I. S., who played by Carl Lumbly.  (Now that the surprisingly glamorous white ubernerd Gil Grissom has left CSI, maybe Laurence Fishburne has a shot at at creating a new prototype of the black supergeek. Given his character's medical training, however, it will be hard to beat Omar Epps on House. And I did say I wasn't counting the doctors.)

Now black nerds are hardly a cultural stereotype. What gives?

One explanation is simply imitation. The Ur-black techie was, of course, the original Mission Impossible's immortal Barney Collier, played by Greg Morris, who reprised the role in three episodes of the remade 1988 series (which featured his son Phil Morris, who, like Lumbly has also played Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onzz). Maybe Barney was so memorable that he imprinted Hollywood with a new casting stereotype, à la Louis Gossett Jr.'s Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman.


But where did Barney come from? Why, in 1966, would a TV series feature a black man as its team's technical expert?

I suspect Barney came from the same impulse that in 1977 led my high school's senior class play to cast a black student as the boss in Meet Me in St. Louis. That selection wasn't an attempt at verisimilitude--not many white professionals had black bosses in 1903 St. Louis--nor was my South Carolina drama department devoted to color-blind casting (though the student in question did a fine job). No, the reason was that the boss had no visible family: no wife, no kids, no romantic entanglements. He was non-threatening because sexually neutral.
And who could be more non-threatening and sexually neutral than a techie?

That makes Joe Morton's Dr. Miles Bennett Dyson a breakthrough role. Not only does he create (and destroy) Skynet. He actually has a wife and son.

Now if only they hadn't made that horrible Terminator 3.

(In The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the TV spinoff of the Terminator movies, Miles Dyson appears only in a photo, where he is portrayed by Phil Morris. So he, too, is a son of Barney.)

Gay Superhero Springs From Stan Lee's Loins (Well, Not Exactly)

The world will soon have its first gay superhero. I know, I thought that was Tom Ford, too, but this is the fictional kind.  Or rather, the graphic novel kind.  (Did I mention going to an estate sale and buying a copy of Suckin' Truckin' Super-studs? Remind me, sometime--it's graphic as hell.) Actually it's the comic book kind.TomFord copy2

Stan Lee will unveil his newest creation, high school basketball whiz and closeted crimefighter, Thom Creed, in a series for Showtime, based on Perry Moore's novel, Hero.

The Gay League forums aren't exactly buzzing about this,  but maybe it's old news to them. Creed's superpowers include the ability to heal people and an uncanny way with accessories.

Frank Miller's Bucking No Trends: Matt Haley Disapproves

Unknown Artist Matt Haley and writer Thomas Gerhardt have a rather strong reaction to the news that Frank Miller would be directing the Buck Rogers movie. Haley told us:

It's not that I dislike Frank Miller comics or movies, I just wish he'd try something different once in a while.

The Spirit, direct by Miller, opens Christmas Day. And yes, it's noir. Like Sin City. Buck Rogers will also get that same treatment.

The Eyes Have It

BBC: "It may be possible to read a person's personality through their eyes, Swedish researchers have said. They have detected patterns which show warm-heartedness and trust or neuroticism and impulsiveness."

See, as the Discover Magazine explained, crypts  are the squiggly lines radiating out from the pupil  and furrows are teeny tiny circular lines curving around the outer edge of the iris. (click here to see the far left eye with few crypts, the center eye with large crypts and the right eye with furrows).

"[Researcher Mats Larsson] found that a low frequency of crypts was significantly associated with tender-mindedness, warmth, trust, and positive emotions, whereas more distinct and extended furrows were associated with impulsiveness."

"Yeah, but we just found this out in 2007," you're saying. "We didn't really know what to look for until now." But maybe we've known all along.

Look, for instance, at the drawings of pretty girls in Anime, consistancy of one color (and always a glint of light) signify the most sought-after, tender-hearted girl.Anime

The polar opposite of the mild character are the I'm-about-to-freak-out eyes with lots of circles (aka furrows) which universally signal something's about to go down. Think about cartoon character who's eyes are turned into swirling circles when they see the girl of their dreams, or morph into bulls eye's when they are angry beyond control-- "people with more furrows found it less easy to control cravings and were more impulsive."

So maybe in our collective unconscious, we've always understood that less crypts means sweet natured and more furrows mean impulsive behavior; apparently even kids can read what's really what simply by watching cartoons.

Anyway, turns out you can test out real anime eyes for yourself. Go get yourself some pretty anime contacts and go do some own experiments out in the field, just make sure to let dear Mats Larsson know what transpired.

Quotable: Jeff Greenwald On James Bond...and Spock

Spock “If there were two characters I wanted to be during the sixties, they were Mr. Spock—and James Bond. The relationship is quite logical. Both displayed total self-confidence and amazing problem-solving skills. Both traveled to exotic locales, surviving any number of deadly perils. Both were irresistible to women. And both shared a quality that my generation lacked completely: composure. 
Bond, of course, had his weaknesses; his tackle rattled like a crib toy at the sight of a well-filled bikini. But Mr. Spock was virtually unassailable. The most startling marvels in the cosmos were “fascinating.” Disasters were “unfortunate,” perhaps even “tragic.” The raised eyebrow, the vaguely sarcastic mien—these were coins of the realm to my circle of adolescent friends. How did we weather the terrors of grade school? We became Spock. How did we survive the irrational outbursts of our parents? By invoking Spock. Who served as our logical, enlightened counterpoint to the madness of the late 1960s? Who else, I say, but Spock?”

Jeff Greenwald, Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth 

Fan Glam: MTV Seeks Comic Con CosPlayers

Glamour means different things to different people, which might account for this opportunity of a lifetime:  New York Comic Con and MTV want to cast a fanboy or girl for a segment in the True Life docu-series.
Applicants, who must appear to be 16 to 28 years old, can express their love for comic books, anime, fantasy or manga by dressing up as a favorite character at New York Comic Con and letting themselves be stalked by an MTV True Life production crew. (Emphasis on appear--as well as appearing normal, but not over muchly so.)  Apply here

CC_2008_0961 Applicants need to think long and hard about the effects this appearance might have upon future employment and romantic relationships. Dressing up as Hellboy or King Leonaidas could do wonders for even the biggest geek; parading around as the cancer patient from Fanboys will ensure a lifetime of misery.

Speaking of Hellboy--you know what they say--big hands, big gloves.

More Futures Past

Bonneville_2In 2005, Steve and I happened to catch this great exhibit, "Driving Through Futures Past," at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Although the highlight of the exhibit had to be the 1954 Bonneville Special (sorry for the low-quality of my snapshot), the real revelation was the art on the walls: concept car renderings done by mid-century car designers. (Here's a slide show of samples from the exhibition.) Although I'm far from a car buff and don't even like the fins-and-chrome look of mid-century cars that much, I loved both the aesthetic feel of the renderings and their exuberant futurism. What a great thing to collect, I thought. I wonder where you get them?

At the June Art Deco and Modernism Show in San Francisco, I met one of the sources: Leo Brereton, who has rescued many of these drawings from Detroit area basements and attics and sells them to collectors. (He also collects and sells original illustrations from pulp fiction and, as you can see from the photo, mid-century science fiction.) He talked to me about car renderings.

Q: How do you define what you collect and sell?Leo_6

A: I deal in automotive concepts or renderings, which are the drawings done by the designers for the Big Three as well as independent automobile manufacturers, from the '30s through the '70s, with an emphasis on the '50s and '60s.

Q: Where do you get the drawings?

A: Primarily from the designers themselves. As a designer, you were not encouraged to keep the stuff you were working on. However, if you were the guy who worked for 24 years in the Buick Division and all of a sudden you were transferred to Cadillac, your boss might say, "All the stuff in these files that we haven't cleaned out in 20 years, if you want it fine. If not just throw it out."

There was no thought--not a moment's thought--at a place like GM that this archive might be important one day, that we should open up a museum, if nothing else to toot our own horn. That lack of vision is astounding. So routinely the work is now found in landfills across Metropolitan Detroit.

Q: How long have you been doing this?

A: About 10 years. There really wasn't a market for it when I started.

Q: And what do these represent to people who buy them today?

A: Visions of the past, examples of great designs. It's a nostalgia thing, as well as a clear recognition that this work has gone unrecognized.

I wound up buying several renderings by automotive designers from Leo. Here's a slide show. But only one of the drawings, by a Czech designer Leo knew nothing about, is of a car of the future. The rest take the glamour of high-speed transportation to the sea and to space, in inspiring but wildly impractical forms. When I showed them to our friend Greg Benford, the astrophysicist and hard science fiction writer, he rolled his eyes. Looking at the moon vehicle John Aiken (later famous for the Mercury Cougar) designed as a student project, he asked, "Why would you want streamlining in a place with no atmosphere?" For the same reason Golden Age Hollywood put actresses in gowns they couldn't sit down in and Cecil B. DeMille demanded high heels even for Paulette Goddard in Northwest Mounted Police--to transport viewers to a world that transcends the practicalities of real life.

Here's a gallery of renderings from designers' student days from a blog devoted to concept car art. And here's design critic Phil Patton on automotive illustrations.