From (A)rgo to (Z)elazny

Casey St. Charnez - February 11, 2013

"...the suspenseful film is a genuine nail-biter that, with its seven Oscar nominations, is turning out to be an up-and-comer, with a serious shot at Best Picture"

So: Finally I saw “Argo,” and thought it was splendid.

Surely you already know that it’s about a 1979 CIA mission to rescue six U.S. diplomats hiding out at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran, as the Ayatollah Khomenei clamps down hard on Westerners in Iran. The outlandish plan for the “Mission: Impossible”-style extraction of the sextet is based in making everyone from Hollywood to Iran believe that a movie crew is scouting locations for a big sci-fi epic a la “Star Wars.”

An earnest pet project of director-star Ben Affleck (“The Town,” “Gone Baby Gone”) and his pal, producer George Clooney, the suspenseful film is a genuine nail-biter that, with its seven Oscar nominations, is turning out to be an up-and-comer, with a serious shot at Best Picture (despite the inexplicable absence of a Best Director nom for Affleck).

We’ll know more come Sunday February 24, as the Academy Awards are handed out for the 85th time, and until then I certainly urge you to see everything you can over the next couple of weeks.

However, this column isn’t about the movie; it’s about the movie’s one degree of separation from Santa Fe.

Along with many facts that were changed deliberately, or otherwise, for the 2012 movie, the phantom film project actually was based on the celebrated 1967 fantasy novel “Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny (1937-1995), a Santa Fe resident for 20 years. The esteemed Zelazny wrote more than 50 books and 150 short stories over his cut-short lifetime, acquiring six Hugo awards (voted by fans) and two Nebulas (bestowed by writers and editors).

He also displayed a real spirit of community here. He was big on supporting the efforts of young local writers, going to elementary schools to converse with the kids and reading his works aloud in high school classrooms. Plus, he served on the College of Santa Fe’s Creative Writing Council. 

But I wonder what he would have thought about “Argo,” which makes the phony baloney movie look as cheesy as it can. It’s basically “Jason and the Argonauts” in outer space, pretty low-brow.

The opposite is the truth. The epic novel “Lord of Light,” a cosmic drama with the Hindu pantheon of deities as the main characters, was a heady foray into what was then thought of as the New Wave in science-fiction and fantasy. Zelazny was the dean of this elevated echelon, which also included innovative envelope-pushers like Samuel R. Delaney, Harlan Ellison and Thomas Disch. No easy bedtime read, “Lord of Light” requires patience and attention; both efforts, however, are exceedingly well-rewarded. It’s exactly what one would expect from a fellow who got his M.A. from Columbia in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, whose structure, syntax, and themes sometimes found their way into his own written words.

As in “Argo,” Oscar winner John Chambers (Best Makeup for “Planet of the Apes”) fronted the sham, announcing it for his first movie as a producer. He already had production artwork by Jack Kirby, from a time when producer Barry Geller had tried to mount “Lord of Light” as a film.

(Somewhat grandiosely, but perhaps right in the spirit of Tinseltown overstatement, Geller had also proposed using the leftover sets as the basis of a $50 million amusement park called “Science Fiction Land” to be built in Colorado. But Geller’s amanuensis was also an embezzler, and the “Lord of Light” movie/theme park vision dissolved.)

Of course, Chambers’ movie didn’t get made. But nobody noticed. It simply joined the limbo of ballyhooed “Now in pre-production” titles that somehow never reach the screen. It was only in 1997 that the truth was revealed, when the official CIA documents about the mission were declassified. Yet it took another decade before journalist Joshuah Bearman deciphered the details in an article for “Wired” magazine. Then it became the movie about a movie that never was.

Still, it’s a shame that Affleck et al didn’t opt to mention Zelazny. Naturally, Roger never knew any of this, as he died two years before the government opened its files. For so many reasons, I wish he were still around, not the least of which would be to see his reaction to all the above.

For as he always loved a good joke, I do suspect he would be laughing his ass off.