Sunday, October 13, 2019

At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub (2000).

This is less of a review and more of a first introduction.  Maybe it's best to think of it as a sort of user's guide, or the barest sketch of a cartographer's map.  What I'm really here for today is to get readers to shake hands with a guy who's worth knowing.  Even if he is kind of strange.   It's with this idea and setup in mind that Bill Sheehan's At the Foot of the Story Tree is a useful glimpse into the literary world of one of the Gothic genre's most interesting practitioners.  Sheehan is also a big help in that his book might bring a greater awareness to a talent could be in danger of falling off the map.  His name is Peter Straub, and he still (as of this date) writes Horror fiction for a living.

It is just possible that the name sounds familiar, yet the face or work it's associated with is somewhat vague, or hard to recall.  Maybe some readers will have heard something about this particular writer, but have forgotten his work with the passage of time.  Or else his name was mentioned and no one ever bothered to find out just who he was, or what made him in any way special.  Despite this, I'd argue that Straub's work is capable of a defense on its own merits.  Before we jump to conclusions, however, it helps to get a sense of the historical setting which in Straub first made his name.  If this sounds like a digression, I'd argue it's not on the basis that context is everything.  Gaining a proper literate understanding of Straub and his work means placing him in the proper setting from which he first emerged on the publishing scene.  To do this, it is perhaps best to start out with a decent summary of Straub's artistic milieu, and in particular the other writer who sort of defines it.

This is where Bev Vincent's Stephen King Illustrated Companion comes in handy.  Vincent is able to provide a neat capsule snapshot of Straub's context.  The irony is he does this by talking about the work of someone else.  "In part", Vincent writes, "it was all a matter of being at the right place at the right time.  Readers who had experienced the terrors of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist were primed for more, and (Stephen King) delivered.  By the time his third novel, The Shining hit the best-seller lists, King was already being called "the master of modern horror".  Seemingly overnight, he had become a "brand name" author.  However, few of the other writers he identified as his peers in other genres at the time are still household names...(6)".  It is here that the subject of this article comes in.  

It is debatable whether the Horror genre has ever been in any way respectable.  However, Straub, like King, was a beneficiary of a time when the genre was at it's most commercially viable.  To that extent, publishing houses everywhere seemed willing to lap up the next kid who showed up on their doorsteps with a Shilling Shocker manuscript in hand.  This setup seems to have been made possible by a previous explosion of talent during the preceding decades.  The 50s and 60s can be thought of as the time when Horror fiction began to come of age.  The genre had undergone some growing pains in the form of a series stylistic leaps and bounds dating all the way back to the Victorian Era.  Writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne brought the genre to mainstream awareness, while H.P. Lovecraft and the Weird Circle helped begin it's modern identity.  The process of bringing Horror to it's full maturity seems to have been the work of artists like Ray Bradbury and a group of writers known as the California Sorcerers.

They were the first to find ways of taking the horrors into settings like a modern suburban home,or of re-introducing the haunts of old folklore into the middle of a busy 20th century street, and turning all of it loose to mess up our cozy conceptions of order and stability.  King and Straub were effectively the inheritors of this tradition of the Modern Gothic, and it is safe to say that the latter was no slouch when it came to living up to his inheritance.

As Sheehan explains on the very first page of his study: "Peter Straub first came to prominence with the 1979 publication of Ghost Story, a gaudy, expansive novel of supernatural terror that was deeply rooted in the classic tradition of the American Gothic tale.  Ghost Story was an immediate popular  success that quickly established itself as one of the seminal works of late twentieth century horror fiction.  Like the very best examples of its kind - Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King's The Shining spring immediately to mind - it offered  conclusive evidence that art and entertainment, literature and "popular fiction" need not be regarded as mutually exclusive categories.

"Despite his apparent status as an "overnight success", Straub had been a working writer for more than a decade before Ghost Story put him on the map, having published two slender volumes of poetry (Open Air and Ishmael), a modest, rather tentative mainstream novel (Marriages), and a pair of striking, increasingly ambitious horror novels (Julia and If You Could See Me Now).  With Julia, Straub achieved a modest degree of financial success and began the process of discovering his own true voice.  At the same time, he demonstrated an instinctive affinity for the requirements of the Gothic form, a form that proved particularly suited to his own sensibility and narrative gifts.  With If You Could See Me Now, his grasp of those requirements deepened.  With Ghost Story, he achieved a new level of mastery, and made the form his own (11)".

I have written elsewhere that it is possible to notice how certain creative projects during the 70s and 80s tended to coalesce around the work of several differing authors into something resembling an informal artistic group similar to Bradbury and the Southern California writers.  I'd argue that Straub counts as one of that number.  By saying he is an inheritor, he is also part of a much larger literary tradition.  That would make his work uniquely placed and crafted in such as way as to help further set the definitions of Modern Gothic literature.  As such, this article counts as part of an ongoing series that examines the work of writers like Straub, and how they have shaped our understanding of the stories we enjoy.  It also helps grant a certain perspective on the nature of our favorite books and films over the past century and a half, when it's possible to see them as part of a greater, albeit informal, artistic movement.

Since this article is meant to be a user's guide, it's focus will be more on filling in a general outline of the author, as well as the thematic nature of his works.  Because of this, an emphasis will have to be placed on where he stands in the historical continuum of the Horror genre.  Straub's case is interesting in that he is one of the most self-aware writers operating in the confines of this particular category of narrative.  The best place to start is to discover how his life led to the work.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Halloween (2018).

Sequels have become something of a problem for me in recent years.  I started out more or less neutral at first.  I can't pinpoint the exact moment when I began to look at the proliferation or more of the same franchise as a problem, yet it has to have been pretty recent, as I don't recall having these issues, say, as far back as 2002.  If I had to say what brought about this growing negative outlook on dragging a story and it's characters on, then maybe it has to do with a perceived slip in quality among a lot of the popular franchises, such as Trek, Star Wars, DC.  It's like some kind of important narrative quality, or creative writing element got lost or mislaid somewhere along the way and now most filmmakers are scrambling to remember how to get the engine running like it used to.

I think a filmmaker like John Carpenter might know something of what I'm talking about.  At one point he found himself on the receiving end of a Hollywood's sequelitis complex.  The difference is he may have had only himself to blame.  In 1978, Carpenter made his name with the release of Halloween.  It remains something of a rare anomaly in the field of the slasher genre.  Unlike a lot of the knock-offs and imitations it spawned, Carpenter's original narrative somehow manages to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that mar a great majority of films that came in it's wake.  I'm afraid the same can't be said about the sequel that came a few years later.  I can remember being willing to give Carpenter a second chance as far as a follow up was concerned.  I wound up tuning out and turning off Halloween 2 somewhere near the middle of the whole thing.  It's kind of obvious that Carpenter's heart isn't really in it the way it was the first time.  The plot lumbers along with the struggle he had in coming up with a usable sequence of events that would pad out a standard movie-house runtime.  The director later admitted that when he wrapped up the first film, a sequel wasn't strictly a part of the package.

The trouble for Carpenter was that he chose to end his film on a shot that more or less begged a sequel of some kind.  To be fair, Carpenter did claim that the ending was meant to be taken on something like a symbolic level.  The disappearance of that film's villain, the now iconic Michael Myers, was meant to suggest the pervasiveness of evil, or a palpable sense of threat.  I suppose it means Carpenter's real trouble stems from the fact that sometimes most audiences can only read symbols on their most literal level.  Either way, fans were left wanting to know what happens next.  Over the following decade, each sequel detailing Michael's twisted life and exploits made everyone less anxious to find out what happens as time went on.  The original Halloween saga came to its inglorious end with Busta Rhymes kung fu-ing the Shape into cinematic irrelevance.  Rob Zombie tried to give the mythos his own spin, and as a result we don't talk about that particular episode.
Like I  said before, I've grown leery of sequels these days.  The gradual, disappointing slope of Carpenter's original vision is just one of many examples of why knowing when to write "The End" can sometimes be the most important way to guarantee a story has a meaning and therefore a purpose.  Now, after number of years, we have yet another entry in the Myers story.  The difference is this time, director David Gordon Green has decided the best course of action is to chuck the whole thing as a bad go and create what amounts to a soft reboot that starts more or less from scratch.  The big question is: does it work?

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of The Twilight Zone's Magic Man (2009).

Nobody knows him.  I'm not sure how many even realize he existed.  Is it possible for a real person to become a myth, or figment of the imagination if enough people never realize that you're there?  Either way, if you mention the name Charles Beaumont, the sad fact is people are going to have no other choice except to give you a blank stare in response.  If you mention someone like Rod Serling or The Twilight Zone, however, then you might be lucky enough for someone's eyes to light up.

The Zone premiered in 1959 as the brainchild of TV wunderkind Rodman Edmund Serling.  After half a decade of having to fight for his scripts to get an airing in the censorious world of 50s network television, Serling's idea for an anthology series centered around the horrific and fantastic was a spark of inspiration that provided just the platform that could solve his woes.  Serling found that network a lot of network executives were squeamish if you wanted to put on a dramatization of subject matter like the death of Emmet Till.  However, if you couched you're messages in the generic forms and formulas of Sci-Fi or Horror, then you were given sort of a free pass.

The reason why Serling was given liberty to say whatever he wanted with the Zone is very simple when you realize that that popular genre fiction was never regarded as something that mature people were meant to take seriously.  All that sort of thing was little more than juvenile trash.  Who could possibly care for any of it?  It's even less than a deck of cards.  The curious part is that a lot of viewers still remember and re-watch the Twilight Zone long after it's original critics have been shuffled out the door.  I think a lot of great names should be so lucky.

One of those names belongs to a part of the of crew that Serling gathered around him to help create his fabled 5th Dimension.  I'm not at all sure whether it's true to say that the Zone had anything like an actual writer's room, with a fixed staple of creative talent waiting in the wings and on-call whenever a new idea had to be brainstormed for next week, and the one after that.  It at least sounds like standard operating procedure as far as most contemporary television goes.  However, I still don't know if that's how Serling ran his operation.

What I do know is that Rod would employ a continuous, returning roster of talent to pen some of the most well-known and remembered episodes during the entire series run.  Richard Matheson, who wrote such classics as The Howling Man and Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, is probably the closest author anyone can recall in connection with the show.  However that unofficial roster included quite a few other names as well.  George Clayton Johnson was responsible for the Robert Redford episode Nothing in the Dark, Kick the Can, and what I still consider his best effort of the series, A Game of Pool.  There was a third name in that roster, however.
He was Charles Beaumont, and almost no one knows who he is.  That's why filmmaker Jason Brock has probably done history a favor by making a documentary about the creative legacy of a forgotten name.  The best part about Brock's efforts is that he gives his viewers more than enough clues to not just reconstruct the life of Beaumont, but also the nature of his imaginative writings, and how they have managed to shape the current nature of the fantastic genres in America.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Dave Made a Maze (2017).

Meet Dave (Nick Thune).  How does one describe someone like Dave?  There's no real outstanding feature about him.  He's just a regular guy living in an apartment complex with his live-in girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani).  The worst part is Dave is not some isolated loner.  He's got an active social life with plenty of friends.  In fact, one of Dave and Annie's closest acquaintances is Harry ( James Urbaniak), a documentary filmmaker.

With all this neat stuff happening all around him, Dave must have a lot of things worth doing, right?  At least that's probably how a normal person would handle it.  Don't misunderstand, Dave's very normal.  He so ordinary he qualifies as wall-paper.  That's sort of the problem.  In a world full of stuff happening, Dave somehow never manages to find out what to do with himself in all of it (his to-do-list includes: "Finish Concept Album.  Make Ultimate Sabbath Mix", and "Fix Front Door").  He's never made a real contribution anywhere, and he can't figure out where to begin.  To say Dave sort of has an inferiority complex about his troubles is a bit like saying Niagara Falls runs downhill.  The thing is Dave would like to be able to say there is at least something out there, in the world, that he can say he has achieved or accomplished with any kind of professional pride.  It's just that he can't figure out what that is.

One day, out of the blue, Dave had an idea.  He would try and build the world's greatest maze.  Right here, in the middle of his apartment.  He would just start from somewhere at random, and build on from there.  It sort of helps that Annie was away for the week, otherwise none of what happened next would be possible.  Dave built his maze alright.  He finally did something.  There is one minor setback, however.  You see once Dave got started, he didn't much of any ground-plan, or layout in mind.  He really just seems to have gone wherever his thoughts took him from one moment to the next.  He must have had some idea for an exit.  Though maybe he can't quite remember where it is, what happened to it, or if it even existed in the first place.  Dave made a maze right in the middle of his own living room, and now he's stuck there with no clear idea of how to get out.  The worst part is that somewhere along the way Dave made an unsettling realization.  He's not alone inside the maze.  And whatever it is that's stalking him, it's hungry.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Christopher Robin (2018).

All of us have childhood memories.  For both better and worse, they make up our introduction to the world, and how we will respond to it as adults.  One element that can sometimes be a part of this arrangement revolves around the kind of entertainment we take in as kids.  There are a great deal of us whose childhood is in many ways a catalogue of the cartoon characters we saw at an impressionable age.  Some of them left enough of an impact (and here I'm thinking of Garfield and the Three Stooges) that they can inform the ways in which we look at the world today.

Disney's Winnie the Pooh was never one of the big things for me growing up.  It was definitely something that was there, and I can remember watching it as part of my childhood, yet the character and his world are little more than just fragments scattered here and there as a sort of background noise in my memory.  As a result, the character spun off from a series of books by A.A. Milne was never one of those instant-recall figures for me.  It was more like something that was just sort of there, hanging around awhile before fading out of sight.  I don't know if this makes me the ideal audience for this picture, considering it's subject matter.  All I know is that after having a chance to sit down and watch it, my thoughts are as follows.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Art of Neil Gaiman (2014).

For some time now, I've had the idea that it is just possible to examine a specific strand of time which represented an astonishing period of artistic creativity among a number of several well-known authors.  While it is a mistake to believe that these authors make-up anything like an organized group, there can still be a sense in which each individual writer was responding to a phenomenon that is best described as the birth of the proper cultural and aesthetic climate which would allow them to find both their individual voices, and methods of expression.  The curious part is how often this disparate group of writers from the 70s and 80s often find ways to dialogue with one another in their works of fiction.  It is similar, in many ways, to the kind of artistic flourishing which saw another handful of differing authors produce a series of texts during the Victorian Age which now make up the canon of both children's and popular literature.

This seems to be a recurring phenomenon, of sorts.  Sometimes there will be moments in any potential age which can serve as a kind of igniting spark that will both draw in and produce artistic minds capable of churning out a surprising (and hopefully effective) level of creativity.  The children's authors (i.e. Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Edith Nesbit etc) of the Victorian/Edwardian eras are just one such example of this phenomena.  I'd like to argue that a similar group of authors is the product of a similar kind of cultural convergence.  These writers came of age either during or after the 60s, and were, in general, a mix of both Boomer and Gen X cultures.  The curious part is how this doesn't seem to have led to anything like an expected series of major clashes that can erupt between generations.  Instead, older scribes like Ramsay Campbell were able to get along just as well with relative youngsters like Neil Gaiman.

It is Gaiman as both an individual talent, and as part of this larger artistic phenomena that I'd like to examine here.  Gaiman is one of those semi-household words of the moment.  The good news is that a close examination of his works reveal that we are dealing with a genuine talent, and not just some ever vanishing fad.  Of all the names associated with this semi-group of writers under discussion, Gaiman is one of the few to win his way to mass popular ubiquity, along with the likes of Stephen King and Alan Moore.  In taking a closer look at Gaiman's life an art, the trick here will always be how to realize that Gaiman is one of those artists who does not exist in isolation.

I find that the most interesting aspect of Gaiman's writings is that he is one of those rare talents who is willing to pretty much wear all of his influences on his sleeve.  In both fictional writings, and real world essays, Gaiman has proven himself more than willing to talk about his artistic enthusiasms.  These range from obscure names like Hope Mirless and Lord Dunsany, to the work of popular comic book artists like Jack Kirby.  The result is that Gaiman's work demands that we see him as an individual talent in relation to the cauldron of story from which he returns to draw ideas from time and again.  Hailey Campbell's The Art of Neil Gaiman is just the sort of text that can help us in this regard.

Novelist and academic Audrey Niffenegger describes the book in rather succinct terms.  "As time runs along we can all look back and trace the large events in our lives (marriages, children, vocations, artistic triumphs) to some small conversation in a pub, a book encountered at random in a library or a chance meeting on the street.  In this book, Hayley Campbell rewinds Neil Gaiman's life and explores the connections between his life, his ideas and his work; She has interviewed Neil about every comic, novel, short story and movie he's ever created, excavated old photos and manuscripts out of boxes in Neil's attic and spoken to many of Neil's collaborators, editors, and friends.  She has written a delightfully comprehensive, matter-of-fact and sometimes surprising account of the development of Neil's entire body of work thus far (60)".  In addition to all of that, Campbell's book is good for one other thing.  It is perhaps the closest resource critics and fans may have at trying to gain an idea of the meaning and nature of Gaiman's work as a writer.

In what follows, I'll be focusing in on certain aspects of Campbell's insights.  In particular I want to see if she can tell us anything about what we're Gaiman's influences, does he have a relation to any kind of artistic cultural milieu, and would these two factors tell us about the thematic significance of her subject's work.  In trying to find this out, I will be not be focusing on any one specific text.  The goal here is to work toward an overall understanding of Campbell's subject.  In order to accomplish this goal, I will be focusing in on just a small handful of Gaiman's texts.  There is always the risk that such a method of approach can wind up giving the reader a distorted picture of the author.  However, I've never been able to shake the idea that at least a tentative beginning of an understanding of Gaiman's work can be reached if we first zero in on a small sample of his stories.  From there, it should be possible to build on the basic idea suggested by these works as each of Gaiman's other writings come under eventual examination.

It is true that Campbell provides an extensive look into Gaiman's creative output in her book.  Each book is given it's own two to four page chapter in the text.  These examinations of Gaiman's work come after a few opening sections dedicated to the life of the author.  Now a focus on the early chapters to the exclusion of most of his book's might be a disappointment to some.  However, it has to be remembered that this article is concerned with whether or not Gaiman belongs as a part of a disparate, yet related group of writers that together make up a sort of informal group that defined the nature of fantastic fiction for a brief span of time near the end of the 20th century.  If Gaiman does have a place in such a gathering, then it means we need to review the author as an individual talent in relation to whatever literary traditions might have informed his writing, as well of those of the other creative artists in this hypothetical collective.  This means we must first look at the author himself, and the ideas behind his writings, if we can ever hope to gain a better understanding of each of his individual stories in the future.  In this regard, Campbell's text can be of great help when the  time comes to look at each of Gaiman's artistic endeavors on an individual basis.  It's for all the above reasons that taking a critical look at Campbell's text might just help us to understand what kind of a writer Neil Gaiman really is.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Explorer's Guild: Vol 1: Passage to Shambala.

William Faulkner once observed, "The past is always with us, it isn't even past".  If that's the truth, then it's a problematic fact.  One of the most difficult challenges for modern readers is tackling the past as a subject of study.  This can best be illustrated if one turns to the works of literary fiction from a bygone age.  Part of the problem with the literary writings of the Victorian Age is that there is a particular sub-section of works which can more or less be grouped together as sharing the same generic space.  The trick is it's hard to know just what to call this style or genre of fiction.

That's an ironic fact which critic Gary Hoppenstand is more than aware of.  In the introduction to Perilous Escapades, Hoppenstand notes that "Adventure fiction, a popular form of fiction today, is one of the easiest narrative formulas to recognize and one of the hardest to define specifically (3)".  That's at least a half-truth.  Action is a common trope in most works of fiction, specifically in the movies.  However, to label the types of stories under consideration as "Adventure Fiction" is a bit too narrow.  While the Jungle Books of Kipling and the two novels of Lewis Carroll's Alice are not the same type of story, there is still a sense in which both texts fit neatly together on the same shelf, or in the same generic box.  Because of this, trying to find the right name for the box requires a bit more delicacy than Hoppenstand is able to give it.

Robert Fraser prefers the phrase Victorian Quest Romance.  This term is not without it's problems and caveats, yet it is at least somewhat closer to the mark.  Fraser provides an interesting take on the genre in question courtesy of Sir Walter Scott.  "As early as 1810...Sir Walter Scott had spelled out this equation: 'The mythology of one period,' he had written, 'would seem to pass into the romance of the next, and that into the nursery tales of subsequent ages.'  In other words, so late Victorians came to believe, people had begun with certain beliefs, which they had then embodied in legends.  These were in turn handed down from generation to generation until they 'degenerated' - a word often used by late-Victorian folklorists - into fairy stories.  The relationship between such stories and romance was of paramount importance to nineteenth-century theories of fiction, and determined contemporary thinking about...certain kinds of narrative (5-6)".

If we are willing to follow the genealogy laid down by Scott, the genre under discussion owes it's lineage to various old world myths.  In this light, perhaps a good starting point would be to use a label such as "Victorian Myths".  Such a label is a lot closer to the mark, as many of the stories in this genre are all about the re-discovery of ancient myths, including the lands and cultures that were once associated with them.  This type of setup often involved a group of characters, usually explorers, trekking out into what was once "unexplored terrain", and having all kinds of fantastic adventures along the way.  The works of Kipling and Rider Haggard fall into this category, or sub-section of the genre.

The trouble with labeling these works as "Myths", however, encounters two problems.  The first is that Haggard and Kipling are not composing myths in the proper sense of the terms, they are instead using the 19th century forms of novel and short story to tell their tales.  The second is that I believe the genre under discussion is multi-faceted enough to take in and accommodate more than just a jungle adventure, or lost world story.  If Kipling can share the same shelf with Lewis Carroll, that means the genre also features another type of story.  This one could be considered an early form of what is now known as Urban or Contemporary Fantasy.  This type of story is all about the intrusion of the fantastic into the mundane life of modern society.  The big over-arching theme of this particular type of story seems to be one of the breakdown of boundaries, whether between ordinary and extraordinary, or between new and old.  The works of Carroll, as well as the children's books of Edith Nesbit are prime Era centric examples of this kind of narrative.

The one thing that unites such a disparate collection of authors is that each seems to take their inspiration from a combination of Ancient Myth and the Medieval genre known as Romance.  Because of this, Victorian Romanticism, or Victorian Fantasy, are perhaps the best terms to describe the genre I'm talking about here.  It is broad enough to encompass Mowgli's Jungle and Alice's Wonderland, while still leaving room enough for novels set in Ancient or Medieval settings.

In a way, the nature of Victorian Fantasy was summed up best by one of its most famous inheritors.  According to J.R.R. Tolkien, it is "a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold...The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.  In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who report them.  And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys lost (web)".  At the very least, it is possible to grant the professor this much, trying to define the fantastic fiction of the Victorian Age (itself just one among many ingredients in the "Cauldron of Story") can be tongue tying.
As genres go, Victorian Fantasy has been one of those whose influence on future artists is big enough to be ubiquitous.  It's imprint can be found in places as diverse as a children's ghost story by Neil Gaiman, to a free-verse poem written by Stephen King, to the labyrinthine texts of Umberto Eco.  The influence is often so all-encompassing as to be unnoticeable by the great majority.  It's still there no matter how long it goes unnoticed.  Sometimes there will come along a person who does notice both the genre and it's influences.  Sometimes the person who notices will turn out to be an artist.  It can be a curious sight to observe what  happens whenever an artist becomes aware of the Victorian Fantasy, especially if the artist takes it into his head to try and do something in the same vein.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015).

"From my admittedly prejudiced viewpoint, successful novelists - even modestly successful novelists - have got the best gig in the creative arts.  It's true that people buy more CDs than books, got to more movies, and watch a lot more TV.  But the arc of productivity is longer for novelists, perhaps because readers are a little brighter than fans of the non-written arts, and thus have marginally longer memories.  David Soul of Starksy and Hutch is God knows where, same with that peculiar white rapper Vanilla Ice, but in 1994, Herman Wouk, James Michener, and Norman Mailer were all still around; talk about when dinosaurs walked the earth (36)"

Those were the words Stephen King wrote way back in 1998, in his novel Bag of Bones.  These days I can't help wondering if he's changed his tune on that score.  At the time, the prospects for writers and publishers was a lot more rose colored than it is now.  CDs, TV, and the movies haven't fair much better, for that matter.  We've lost both Herman Wouk and Harlan Ellison, and I'm not sure most folk even know they're gone.  It's an open question in my mind whether or not things will reach a point when people cease to realize that they ever existed.  As time goes on, it seems like W.H. Auden was more on point when he observed: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”

That's a harsh truth that's getting more noticeable as the 21st century continues it's implacable march.  If anyone mentions The Haunting of Hill House, most will immediately think about that HBO series that just finished it's run.  Very few will consider the possibility that it's also the title of a novel.  The truth is reading always seems to have been something of a minority practice, rather than the normative order of things.  That's not too much of a wild statement when you consider that about half of one percent of the population of medieval Europe could ever learn to read and write their own names.  The numbers have climbed since then, yet, anything like a true and full sense of literacy has always been evaded through the passage of time.  It's an unfortunate truth for a lot of great names.  For instance, does anyone know of Ramsey Campbell?  How about Alexander Dumas, Greta Garbo, Richard Matheson, Katherine and Audrey Hepburn, Manly Wade Wellmann or Charles Beaumont?  Who wrote The Haunting of Hill House?  Who's David Soul?  Is Raymond Douglas Bradbury the name of an actual person, or did I just make that up? 

The trick to being a giant is learning how to keep your longevity going well past your time.  It's something of an inevitable shame to see the names and works of great artists fade into obscurity.  The biggest irony I can imagine is that moment when a text that was considered groundbreaking on it's release becomes something that's barely remembered years later.  That's the sad fate of Hitchcock/Truffaut, a series of published interviews between French director Francois Truffaut, and an English-American filmmaker who used to be known as the Master of Suspense.  At the time the book was released it was considered a shot across the bows of the old establishment of Hollywood.  Today it seems like barely a ripple in the ocean.

That's why it' gratifying to know that director Kent Jones not only remembers the book, he seems to be one of it's biggest fans.  In 2015 Jones made a concerted effort to interview as many of the current and former biggest names in showbiz while they can still remember and remain to tell their stories of how this one simple book, made and released by a pair of eager cinema enthusiasts, left an impact on them.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Walt Disney and Live Action.

They say familiarity breeds contempt.  I think the more natural result is complacency.  If something is able to stick around long enough, sometimes people come to believe they know all there is to tell about that particular subject.  Something like this appears to have happened to Walt Disney.  He's a staple of childhood, he managed to make himself into something of a national treasure, and he's everybody's favorite family entertainer.  End of story, right?  That seems to be the price-tag that comes with ubiquity.  The trouble with being just about everywhere is that it's easy for anyone to assume that they know all there is worth knowing about the life of a man.

Take his films, for instance.  A lot of them can be named off the top of the head by anyone in the street.  There's Fantasia, Dumbo, Aladdin etc.  These seem to be the films that stick in the memory.  So what else did he do?  Is that all he made?  Was there nothing else?  What if I told you Disney once made a short animated cartoon with the help of a Pulitzer Prize winning author?  Does that sound too good to be true?  Didn't everybody look down on Uncle Walt back in the day?  Well, just don't tell Sinclair Lewis that, he seemed perfectly happy to lend his services as part of 1947's anthology film Fun and Fancy Free.  That's just one possible example out of many others.  The truth is that popularity of the moment seems to determine just how Disney and his film's are viewed from one year to the next.  This can be a saving grace in that the old filmmaker still has a solid life in the public memory.  At the same time, the trouble with memory is how selective it can be.  The net result is that only the best parts are preserved, while a lot of other material is deemed subpar.  A lot of Walt's live-action efforts fall into this category.

It's true that Mary Poppins is still the one live-action film everyone remembers (now with a bit of recent infamy attached to it).  After that, the closest picture anyone can recall in this same category is the studio's biggest mistake, Song of the South.  If you put those two together, I almost have to wonder if they don't form an ironic commentary on the nature of the public's awareness of Disney's efforts in the non-animated medium.  It wouldn't surprise me to hear future historians making the mistaken claim that because South is such an atrocity, Disney decided never to make another live-action flick ever again until the release of Poppins.  The sad truth is I don't think such an outcome is far-fetched in a time where cultural literacy and historical memory are on the decline.  I think it can become an even greater mistake if everyone just let's this sort of thing go on.

For these and other reasons, I've thought it might help to take a trip down a forgotten avenue of memory lane.  It turns out ol' Uncle Walt had more than a few trick us his sleeve, ones that didn't have to rely on the Ink and Pain department.  These are the films that have been left in history's dustbin.  Here you can also find authors who used to be big, like Robert Louis Stevenson, along with voices that have been unjustly neglected, like Johann David Weiss or Mary Mapes Dodge.  It's also a place where you could meet up with historical figures that used to be national phenomenons, and nowadays have more of a local fame, such as Davey Crockett.  The perfect entry point to explore this terrain is provided by John G. West's study, Walt Disney and Live-Action: The Disney Studios Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Tolkien (2019).

Most people like to read a well-written story.  The question is, how do you make the writing of that story interesting?  That's the challenge facing the makers of this film, an attempted biopic of the author of The Lord of the Rings.  It's a challenge that confronts the project right out of the starting gate, and director Dome Karukoski was given a daunting task when he signed on.  His job was to take the life of one of the most well known and revered authors around the globe, and try to make an interesting story out of his life.  Whether he succeeded or not is the big question.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

A Forgotten Renaissance Man: A.E.W. Mason

It didn't last long.  It was all just a brief moment of time.  The curious part is how much was accomplished in such a short space.  When the Victorian Era is thought about at all today, it is through the reflecting lens of adaptations of A Christmas Carol, or else it has been rebranded by the look and style of the Steam Punk movement.  The time itself was both less and more than this, however.  It's greatest legacy stems from its literary output.  There are tons avenues worth exploring from the many bookish corners of that era.  The one I find that holds the most interest is what might be called the Victorian Romantic Movement.  This label is taken to both designate and encompass an entire collection of writers and authors who, together and separately, created a series of popular texts that have gone on to reach canonical status.

Once you look at the titles of these books, you perhaps begin to get an idea of why they've earned their place in the current pantheon of great writings.  In this corner there are Dr. Jekyll and his shadowy partner, Mr. Hyde.  Here also is Stevenson's Treasure Island, the Africa of H. Rider Haggard, and Kipling's India.  It was during the reign of Queen Victoria that a stammering school teacher had the idea of a girl falling down a rabbit hole into a satiric parody of the world around her.  It was the best and worst of times.  In other words, it was during the British 19th century that most of the greatest works of fantasy and adventure literature were written.

This is one those literary legacies that manages to be all but forgotten while casting a shadow so large that the great majority will have little choice but to go through their lives never completely knowing that modern entertainment exists both under and within it.  It is one of the most amazing truths of history that the shape and form of the current popular genres were forged and molded by a small coterie of artists, working separately for the most part, but with something like an actual network made up of letters of correspondence and critique.  It's a phenomenon that can occur on occasions.  The original Romantic Movement is the prime example, while the 20th century Modernists are the most recent.

The real curious part however is that the works of these authors was able to go on to have any kind of major impact at all across both times and cultures.  No one seems to have intended for anything to get so big.  At the same time, it's what happened, regardless of what any of them hoped would become of their works.  In addition to being well told stories, there is something in or about a book like King Solomon's Mines, or Huck Finn, that also enables them acts as methods of literary transmission and inheritance.  Their quality is such that they are able to establish a tradition or standards for other artists to learn, grow, and find their own voices from.  

Another curiosity about Victorian Romanticism is that it was able to make the transition to the Edwardian Age without missing a beat, and with no discernible alterations in it's stylistic or storytelling methods, or in its choices of subject matter.  For all intents and purposes, the Edwardian Era seems, for a time at least, to be more like a continuation rather than a break with the past.  It would take the disillusionment of the First World War to create an actual break between past and present.  The irony is that while the Great War may have caused the Victorian strain of Romanticism to go out of fashion, it couldn't erase the hold it had on the imaginations of many of its inheritors.  The most famous of these was J.R.R. Tolkien, and his works on Middle Earth owe a great deal to his grounding in the kind of reading material that was later consigned to the nursery by the time he was a graduate student at Oxford University.  While Tolkien is the most famous example of a modern author taking inspiration from Victorian Adventure and Fantasy genres, it would be a mistake to believe his was the only one.  History is littered with the names of forgotten inheritors.

I have to thank another forgotten author, Roger Lancelyn Green for pointing all this out to me, even if he wasn't exactly around to do it.  While the author in question may have passed away in October of 1987, his textual voice can still find ways of remaining far from silent.  He was most notable in life as the author of a popular set of children's anthologies revolving around the various mythic cycles of both Norse, classical Greco-Roman, and English/Arthurian cultures.   In addition to this, Green was also a surprisingly capable scholar of Victorian Fantasy, and the men and women who created it.  One of them is A.E.W. Mason.

In 1952, Green published a biography of Mason.  So far as I can tell, it remains the sole book in existence to tackle this author, and the nature of the books that made him famous, at least for a time.  In setting out the life of his subject, Green is also giving his readers as good a snapshot of not just a time long vanished.  Instead, the biographer is trying to present an atmosphere or idea of the literary climate in which Mason worked and traveled in.  It is precisely the atmosphere of this climate that stands out so well in the biography.  A perfect example of what I mean is shown by Green on the first page of his book:

"As in the case of his novels, when one thinks of A.E.W. Mason one thinks first  of the swift, breathless, joyous rush of adventures: Mason as an actor; Mason as a struggling journalist leaping suddenly into fame with his second novel; Mason the traveler exploring the Sudan; Morocco, Spain, taking swift, eager journeys to South America, South Africa, India, Burma, Ceylon and Australia; Mason in his yacht coasting the Scillies, crossing the Bay, tacking up the Seine to Rouen or threading the canals of Holland;  Mason the mountaineer spending his Easter vacation from Oxford on the fells above Wastdale, and later going year after year to climb in the Alps - the Col du Geant, Mont Blanc (sixteen hours on the Brenva Ridge); Mason the member of Parliament; Mason the Secret Service Agent in Spain and Mexico during the first World War...(7)"  

The overall impression is of a passage that reads like something from a pulp novel.  It also might be the whole point.  In this one paragraph, Green has given his readers an insight into both the kind of larger than life personality that Mason possessed, as well as the tone and style of the kind of novels that made him famous.  On the very first page the reader finds himself in a realm that is close to that of someone like Robert Louis Stevenson, or Jack London.  It's a world where sometimes an adventure can still be found on the high-seas, and there are still unexplored corners that remain on the map.  This is the literary climate that produces films like King Kong or Lawrence of Arabia.  It is a product of the very same Romantics going all the way back to Dickensian England.  While it's true this was all before Mason's time, the fact remains that it is this particular style and genre of writing that has left the defining imaginative impact on Green's subject.  In that sense, the entire biography is an examination of literary survivals and revivals.

Green outlines the purpose of his biography as follows: "to tell the story of A.E. W. Mason as completely as possible, in his own words whenever they existed in letters, in odd passages from his books, and in a rare introduction or interview - following Graham Balfour's dictum that 'all biography would be autobiography if it could'.  I have tried also to describe the genesis of each of his books, plays or films, with a word or two of the contemporary reaction - reviews of the day or letters from his friends - and to offer a critical estimate of the whole body of his literary achievement (8)".  

My own goals are a bit less ambitious.  For me, this post is really a form of literary excavation with the hope of rediscovery as it's goal.  It is Green's book on Mason as both an author and as a person that I wish to examine here.  While the subject of Green's biography is not a household word like Tolkien or Rowling, Mason still provides a good jumping off point into the exploration of a greater literary landscape.

The final thing to note before getting started is that I've decided to take a thematic, rather than chronological approach to Green's book.  My reasons for doing this are because I think a brief outline sketch of all the salient points will be a better help toward giving the reader a good idea of the kind text they are dealing with if anyone should ever decide to pick it up.  The key part of Green's book is his exploration of Mason as an artist.  That means the best parts are when the reader is given a clue into both the author's creative thought process, and the relation of his imaginative exploits to the literary cultural tapestry of which it forms a part.  For these reasons, I think it's best to give an account of the ideas that make this biography worth a read.  It still helps to take things one at a time, however.  The best place to start is at the beginning.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

My Favorite Year (1982)

No one knows Melvin Kaminsky.  Who am I even talking about?  Nobody, at least as far as the world is concerned.  He was just some schlump from Brooklyn.  From there, he vanishes off the map, never to be seen again.  The public at large could care less about the Melvins of the world.  Back in the 1950s they were more interested in what was then a new medium: television.  Not long after Melvin disappeared off the map, the new TV format played host to a series called Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar.  In terms of impact and legacy it was the first breakout variety show of its kind.  It's possible to trace a line of influence and inspiration from Caesar's show all the way to Saturday Night Live, and from there to shows like The Office, and performers like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  Caesar was the one who got the ball rolling in the first place, however.

The mainspring of what made Your Show of Shows unique, however, was the group of writers that made up it's creative core.  The names in the writer's room were impressive, to say the least.  Besides Caesar, there was his partner in crime, Carl Reiner.  There were also little known guys like Mel Tolkin, who never became a household name, but still had a major impact behind the camera (especially if you take into account that he was one of the guys who got All in the Family off the ground).  In addition there were more recognizable figures like Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and Melvin Kaminsky.

The Brooklyn kid just got lucky is all.  He was one of those natural born class clowns, the kind of guy who somehow has a knack for finding the punchline even while lost in the middle of a crowd.  If I had to take a guess of where he got it from, the most logical answer is that it had to be some form of survival trait.  People can't beat the living snot out of you if you've managed to make them double over with laughter.  This survival trait soon became a lucky sort of meal ticket, as Melvin was able to impress Caesar enough to be invited to write for YSOS.  After all these years, Melvin had finally found a place where he belonged.  He also decided to change his name to Mel Brooks.

Of course the gig was never easy, and his boss could have a bit of a temper.  One time, when Melvin kept harassing his boss in the middle of lunch because the pressure was getting to him that day, Sid resolved the situation by holding Mel out the window by the scruff of the neck until he realized he was complaining about nothing.  Then there was this other time an actual horse got in the way of a bit.  According to Mel, Caesar was able to physically deck an animal twice his size and strength.  There may be just a bit of exaggeration around that last bit.  The point is sometimes life behind the camera was just as much of a cut-up as it was on-stage.
There was this one other time when Erroll Flynn was scheduled to be the guest star on Your Show.  He was an old actor from Hollywood's Golden Age.  Think of him as a cross between Schwarzenegger, Michael Caine, and Daniel-Day Lewis and your may not be close to the mark, but at least your within shouting distance of it.  Anyway, the point is that Flynn was booked on Caesar's show.  Therein lies a tale worth telling...

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Importance of Imagination: Stephen King's Misery (1987).

My last post was an attempt at offering a snapshot of the pitfalls and hazards of the current state of both pop-culture and the creative arts in general.  Researching that book, and it's adaptation was a bit of a discouraging and thankless task.  I say this based on the mindset the reader is forced to endure when making it through both versions of Ernest Cline's text.

With that in mind, I thought it fair to offer a positive contrast to the negative impacts of a story like Ready Player One.  Perhaps a horror novel by Stephen King seems like an odd choice to make as a light and positive example.  I think it works, however, because of several factors.  The first factor is that as a story in itself, it's pretty darn great.  Part of the reason for the book's literary worth has to do with it's creation.  In his non-fiction study, Danse Macabre, King shares a series of recurring nightmares, some of which might have acted as inspiration for his own published works:

"In another dream - this is one which has recurred at times of stress over the last ten years - I am writing a novel in an old house where a homicidal madwoman is reputed to be on the prowl.  I'm working in a third-floor room that's very hot.  A door on the far side of the room communicates with the attic, and I know - I know - she's in there, and that sooner or later the sound of my typewriter will cause her to come after me (perhaps she's a critic for the Times Book Review).  At any rate, she finally comes through the door like a horrid jack from a child's box, all gray hair and crazed eyes, raving and wielding a meat-ax.  And when I run, I discover that somehow the house has exploded outward - it's gotten ever so much bigger - and I'm totally lost.  On awakening from this dream, I promptly scoot over to my wife's side of the bed (88)".

Later, in his semi-autobiographical On Writing, King reveals that the basic setup for his plot came from a dream where the main character and the antagonist appeared in a kind of tableau.  King barely knew who they were.  All he knew is that the image presented to him was enough to suggest the outlines of an actual plot, one that might be worth setting down on paper.  However, he did admit one piece of information that could be telling: the protagonist of his dream "may or may not have been me (161)".  I think a case can be made that the idea for Misery was always swirling around somewhere in King's mind for quite a while.  It started with the idea of being stalked by the ax-happy, witch-like figure.  Over time, this image progressed and developed until the madwoman had morphed into the form she now appears in between the covers of her own book.  All this germinal idea needed was time to marinate in his imagination until it was ready to trod the boards.

The second reason for Misery being a good example of a positive contrast is that no matter how dark the subject matter, it's ultimate vision is, at it's heart, a positive one.  It is the art of writing, and the viewpoint King brings to the table for his reader's consideration that makes the novel stand out as the exact opposite of the mercenary nihilism of Cline's work.  In Misery, we are presented with an idea of writing, and it's relation to real life that has a genuine substance to it.  Part of the approach to this subject matter is to realize that Misery is very much a novel of layers, and it helps to reach a deeper understanding of the book if we dig through one layer at a time.  With any luck, this method of approaching the novel will help readers gain an understanding of why it is able to work so well as a story, and why it has been able to hold on to its staying power after more than a whole decade.  It is also this approach that will help illustrate the substance at the heart of King's story.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Descent into Escapism: The Problem of Ready Player One.

I thought there was more to talk about.  Turns out it's just not worth it.  When it comes Ernest Cline's Ready Player One my opinions tend to be somewhere on the strong negative side of things.  Because of this, I thought there might be enough material to devote to a multi-part review.  However, as I dug further into the novel and it's cinematic adaptation, I soon realized that it's hard to talk for a long time about little to nothing.  If you can't guess already, I have issues with this book.  It doesn't all have to be a bad thing, though there's no way I can call it good.  The benefit of Cline's text is that it does present a useful picture for examining the state of the modern pop-culture audience, even if it's not pretty.

For the longest time, one of my concerns has been what to make of the current state of both pop-culture, and the ways in which it is discussed, examined, and talked about.  I think the first time I ever realized this was a topic that needed looking into was when I ran into the phenomenon of professional YouTube vlogging.  I should stress here that some of it is worthwhile.  However, I was struck by the lack of knowledge or literacy on the part of the creators of a lot this content.  What I mean is that I would run across a critic who would try to tackle cinematic classic like the Godfather, or Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars.  These are two films generally regarded as classics.  However, all this millenial vlogger could think about is how dull or slow moving the action or plot is.  He seemed unable to grasp the finer shades of characterization and tension building that has to go into making a story work.  His entire aesthetic outlook was limited to the modern blockbuster mindset.  The irony is that he wasn't too far removed from the mindset of Cline's novel.
  
From there, I began to discover a similar lack of critical insight in other places like actual journalism.  In some ways, Cline's writings are best thought of as a resource where I can pinpoint all that is wrong with the state of the arts today.  It has helped this much in that I can now point to something that explains the plight of both the audience and the arts at early start of the 21st century.  I'd like to examine the book and it's adaptation in order to take a closer look at the problem of this lack of modern cultural literacy.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Lance Parkin's Magic Words

This is going to be difficult.  The reason for saying this comes from the fact that I'm sort of working at cross-purposes for this post.  On the one hand, what you can expect to get here is a brief review of a biography of Alan Moore, the legend who helped redefine the nature of comics and graphic novels in the 80s.

At the same time I'm sort of fascinated just a bit more with the kind of zeitgeist that was capable of producing an artist like Moore in the first place.  It helps to understand that Moore was just one of several names to appear in a brief moment of artistic activity that may have started somewhere around the mid to late 70s, and gained it's peak notoriety during the 80s before disappearing into separate elements by the mid 90s.  This activity consists of at least two discernible shared traits.  The first was that most of it was centered in Britain, though I guess a few Americans were able to make some contributions here and there.  The second was that it revolved around a kind of minor vogue in both the graphic, literary, and performing arts.

It's difficult to talk about this moment of history.  Modern pop-culture is familiar with the names of the individuals associated with this creative explosion, such as Moore, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Terry Gilliam, etc.  However I still haven't seen any attempts to look at these artists as a kind of semi-group which formed as parts of a bigger creative enterprise.  This is explainable in that it was all fairly recent, and most of it's participants are still alive as of this writing.  It could be that not enough time has passed for anyone to take proper stock of this historical moment.  Still, the creative time span was there, however brief, and sooner or later some efforts should be made at trying to trace out the larger patterns of the artistic undercurrents that gave us V for Vendetta, The Sandman, and lesser known productions, such as Peter Straub's Shadowland, or Kim Newman's Diogenes Club.

I'm not sure this group deserves to be called a movement or anything like that.  On the whole, they all seem too individualistic to be considered anything like a unified front.  However, lack of unity doesn't perhaps rule out a certain degree of shared or thematic overlap.  If it's at all possible, what I'd like to do here is see how far I can trace out any hint of these underlying patterns and themes by examining individual novels or comics from this brief period of time, along with exploring the lives of their respective authors, and seeing whether or not they help to form a greater thematic whole.
That's a tall order for any critic to undertake.  Perhaps such a goal is misguided.  It sure doesn't help that this is not something I can tackle in a more organized fashion.  Rather I've known since the first word of this post that this project would have to be an off/on type of deal.  I may start here, with Moore, then nothing connected with it for several posts, only to to turn my attention back to this zeitgeist and it's artists out of the blue and with no more warning other than the whim of the moment. Maybe this idea I have really is too far fetched to make sense.  It doesn't shake the conviction that the authors who made a name for themselves in the aftermath of the 60s make up a creative period in the history of Western literature, and that, like a lot similar moments before it, this creative span of time is capable of, and actually deserves a critical-aesthetic examination.
I'd like to start by using Parkin's life of Alan Moore as he seems to be one of the most covertly versatile participants in this unofficial group.  In addition to his work in the field of comics, Parkin's also takes readers on a tour of the other aspects of Moore's that get little to no interest from the mainstream media.  With all this in mind, and with hopefully some awareness of my own critical limitations, let's begin.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Cuckoo's Calling (2013)

Shakespeare once said that "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts (web)".  This kind of sentiment can always be chalked up to the idea that to a carpenter everything looks like a nail.  Still, it is possible for a person to wear more than one hat.  You get them every now and then, like versatile freaks of nature.

A good case in point is J.K. Rowling.  She doesn't need much in the way of an introduction.  She made Harry Potter after all.  What more is there to say?  For a fan of Hogwarts the answer might be that there really isn't any need to say more.  You have her books and their adaptations.  That seems to be all the fans want.  If there's any truth to that, then the bad news is that Ms. Rowling must be one of those restless sorts by nature.

If I were to say that she had an idea for a new book series, one different from the exploits of Harry and his friends, would you be interested?  Even if the answer is no, it doesn't change the fact that in 2013 Hachette Books published The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith.  It came and went while making barely a ripple on the popular front.  There was no fanfare, and the publishing hype was the modest sort you tend to expect for old mid-list fiction authors like Donald Westlake or Mary Higgins Clarke.  It took a while for some readers to figure out that Galbraith is a man who never lived.  The name was a pseudonym Rowling used as a cover for her latest literary endeavor.

The idea sounds kind of far-fetched and counter-intuitive.  What would an author who writes and about wizards and fantasy creatures want with a drug-store rack thriller?  If this is the natural response from her fans, then this also doesn't change the fact that it was her creative choice and she made it.  The surprising part is that she was able to succeed in her efforts.  I'd like to take some time to explain why I think The Cuckoo's Calling is worth a read, as well as being something of a nostalgia trip for certain types of readers.  You're welcome to join along, if you're willing to take a walk on the wild side.  The game's afoot!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

An Film You Wouldn't Expect: The Collaboration of John Ford and Shirley Temple.

Imagine this.  You are just an ordinary guy, like a lot of others.  Then one of your older brothers heads out West, and winds up working in Hollywood.  It's interesting, yet what dos that have to do with you?  Time passes, and nothing extraordinary happens until you receive a letter from your big bro asking if you'd like to visit him in Tinseltown?  You're the kind of fellow who is a natural round peg in a field of square holes.  It's hard to get a sense for what you want to do with your life, and there are no prospects on your home turf.  So, why not?  You wire your brother and tell him you'll be right over.

You arrive on the West Coast to discover that Big Brother has made something of a name and reputation for himself.  He's smart enough to see that baby bro doesn't know what to do with himself, so as a humiliating form of pity, he takes you under his wing.  You help him out on minor stuff, mainly lighting and handling the film cameras.  One day you run across Mr. Carl Laemmle.  For what ever reason, this man you've hardly met before thinks he "sees something" in you.  The guy's delusional, there's no doubt about that, but he's the boss, so you humor him and go along with whatever he wants.  Mr. Laemmle does the irresponsible thing by placing you in a director's chair, and gives you a film to make.

The job is okay, at first.  You spend most of your time trying to get a ship of fools to follow orders.  The funny thing is you discover a knack for always finding where you want the camera to be.  You also have a way of making the actors hit whatever mark the script says they should.  One day you wake up to discover you've made name for yourself.  This is both wonderful and horrifying at the same time, with the latter tending to dominate.  For one thing while it's great to have a secure future, you find that perhaps you don't really fit in any better in Hollywood than you did in your old hometown in Maine.  You grow famous by telling stories of heroes and the history of the American West.  You even have the knack for discovering talent in the form of a big lug with the ridiculous name of Marion Morrison.  After some deliberation, the kid (who prefers the nickname of "Duke") settles on John Wayne as a title.

Together you and the Duke manage to give an identity to what some will go on to call Hollywood's Golden Age.  None of it makes you comfortable and it never gets any easier.  You care about you're wife and kids and yet you make a series of unfortunate discoveries.  The worst of it is that you focus on heroism in your film's so much because you are either a coward, or else you just can't help thinking that you're one.  This makes you unhappy enough to have a fair temper.  You lose it because you're unhappy and you're unhappy because you lose it.  You wonder if there's a way it could ever have been different?  Who knows.  Perhaps you're own cowardice is the reason you are able to depict heroism and its darker shades, so well  Still, you can't deny the accomplishments of John Ford, even if he never existed.  "This is the west, sir.  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".

This at least is what happened with the life of John "Jack" Feeney.  In a career that lasted from the Silent Era to the birth of New Wave Cinema, he managed a creative arc that is both iconic and, sadly, almost forgotten in a post-millennial age.  Ford cemented his identity with Stagecoach, released in 1939.  It was also John Wayne's breakout role, and it helped cement the both of them as artists who specialized in the Western genre.  Their subject matter would be a gritty merciless examination of the history of the frontier.  That's the popular legacy of Ford, and while it is true to an extent, it is still just one facet of much wider story.  The irony is what do you do when even the truth sells you a bit short?

In addition to the films that made his reputation, there was also an intermediate period where Ford tried his hand at a number projects in different genres.  Most of these were were best described as social realist dramas, although he did branch a bit further on occasions.  When that happened, you could get an adaptation of Steinbeck or Eugene O'Neil.  He made a jungle adventure story with Clarke Gable if you can believe it.  He even did a slice of life crime drama at one point.  In Hollywood anything can happen.  I mean anything.

Scholars and critics tend to view 1939 to perhaps 1946 as the director's peak years.  Those were the years Ford directed Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green was my Valley, and My Darling Clementine.  All of these films are of value.  Each of them deserves a post of their own.  To start with, however, I'd like to take a look at the one film that in many ways is the last one anyone could expect of John Ford.  The irony is that while the film can be described as "out of character" for its director, it also contains a lot of the themes that reappear in his other films.  In order to make sense of all this however, we have to get to know the star of the picture.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 6: Dark Empire.

I started all this to try and reach an understanding of just what kind of story Star Wars is and what are the themes and ideas that give it its identity.  I set about trying to find the answers to these issues by examining both the original trilogy, along with a selected series of materials stemming from the Expanded Universe.  The big take-away from this attempt at a deep dive into the franchise has revealed a number of thematic concepts that more or less define the core of both the first trilogy and its literary, audio, and digital off-shoots.  These concepts can be divided into three categories.

The first is the surprising number of symbols, characters, and even plot elements that can be discerned as deriving from Elizabethan Drama.  In particular the characters of Luke, Vader, and the Emperor contain character notes and trajectories similar to those found in the work of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.  The main Renaissance theatrical texts that find a modern echo in the OT are Doctor Faustus, Macbeth by way of King Lear, and Hamlet.  It is the thematic content of these plays which seems to inform a great deal of plots of ANH, TESB, and ROTJ.

The second shared element in all the narratives under consideration is the subject of characters who change from one type of individual into another.  Each of the main films, even the novels and video games in the franchise concern themselves with how a person's outlook, and hence their entire identity can reshaped by the force of the narrative events that happen to them.  The best way to gain an understanding of what I'm talking about is not to focus on the heroic trio of the OT.  Those characters have become a bit too familiar to audiences everywhere to the point that there might be a risk of turning them into ciphers for one's own personality or outlook at the expense of objectivity.  A better candidate to help understand this theme of change from black to white is the spinoff figure of Kyle Katarn.  He is a character who begins as an anti-hero who finds himself turning into a Jedi.  The dichotomy at work here is like what happens when a professional thief one day decides to become an aid to the police in catching others just like him.  The transformation of Kyle is from that of a negative to a positive state by the time his story reaches its conclusion.  It is the one theme he shares with the OT crew.

Because this theme of narrative transformation is so prevalent in each of the franchise stories I've chosen, it may help to point out the worldview behind this constant motif.  I said above that the nature of change demonstrated in the SW story was that of  going from a negative to a positive.  The reason for this might have something to do with the final third element in these stories, and it has to do with storytelling modes and genres.  I would argue that it is necessary to understand that the SW trilogy and its EU off-shoots are fundamentally works of Romantic fiction

This is an important point to emphasize, as establishing what genre tropes and structures make-up both the OT and EU will go a long way toward clarifying the nature and definition of the franchise.  If you can define what gives SW it's identity as a story, then you can comes as close as possible to defining which possible sequel material deserves to be singled out as canon.  I think the fact that the trilogy counts as a Romantic tale means that whatever comes after has to be consonant with that mode.  Too much of a deviation would strike a false note that would be noticeable to most of the audience.  Even if they can never find the words for it, the existence of that false note will cause them to use phrases like "something just seems off somehow".  The reason things seem off is because of the introduction of a discordant note in what is supposed to be a harmonious Romantic mode.

The best proof of SW as a work of Epic Romance comes from one it's main sources of inspiration: Joseph Campbell.  According to his biographer Stephen Larsen, Campbell spent the better part of his career in teaching a class on German Romanticism (233).  This study course was aided a great deal by his meetings with scholars like Heinrich Zimmer (319).  For better or worse, the net result is that it means Campbell is in some sense an heir of the Romantic School of creative writing.  It is a method of approach to both writing and criticism that is contained in a text like The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book that went on to influence directors like George Lucas.  Because of this historical excavation it is possible to make the case that SW does count as a work of Romantic fiction.  This forms an identifiable tie-in with the works of Shakespeare inasmuch as the Romantics were the inheritors of many of the tropes and dramatic practices from the playwright's day.  From this vantage point it is possible that the constant recurrence of certain types of Shakespearean motifs begin to make just a bit more psychological and thematic sense. 

The ability to define the franchise as a Romantic work of art does carry with it a certain amount of limitation in terms of what kinds of stories you can tell in this fictional universe.  What works in a horror story, for instance, will always be out of place in the Far Away setting.  There has been at least one attempt to wed the Romantic setting of SW to the gory aesthetic of a horror story.  The problem is while there's talent involved, the writer still can't bring his ingredients together to create a unified whole.  The styles of Romanticism and Lovecraftian Cosmicism are always clashing in a way that fails to gell in a satisfying final product.  This doesn't seem to be the only literary mode that serves an ill fit with the franchise, as it seems to be the natural function of the Romantic or Epic mode to act as a contrasting or transformative agent to the anti-heroic nihilism to which it acts as a form of counter-cultural response.

While it might not be possible to set a work of horror in the SW galaxy, it may still be possible to tell a Romance Epic with elements of Gothic fiction thrown into the mix.  Such appears to be the case with Dark Empire.  It has to be stressed that here that it is possible to draw a dividing line between between the modern genre known as horror and the elements and themes labeled as Gothic.  The genre of horror was an outgrowth of certain narrative and atmospheric tropes first utilized in the work of the Romantic poets such as Coleridge's Ancient MarinerThese tropes were then transferred to the burgeoning novel format by Victorian author Horace Walpole with the publication of The Castle of Otranto.  While this work and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein helped cement Horror as the main genre of Gothic aesthetics, it must be remembered that the tropes normally identified as Gothic (an atmosphere of foreboding and dread, confusion on the part of the protagonists, the blurring of illusion and reality) all had an independent existence in myth and folktale before each separate element came together to form the modern horror story.  It is, after all, just a version of a fairy tale where the emphasis has been placed on the ogres, goblins, and trolls under the bridge instead of the elves and nymphs in the pastorals.

Dark Empire serves as a neat blend of both the Science Fictional and the Gothic.  There are other reasons as well for taking a deep dive into an entry in the Star Wars Expanded Universe that has had the bad luck to fall through the cracks of mass audience attention.  I'd like to examine not just the Gothic strands in the story, but also its connection to classical myth.  I'd like to go so far as to argue that part of the writings of Plato is a the heart of what I consider a fitting end to the Skywalker saga.  In order to do this, I will be reviewing yet another audio drama.  This time the production is based off the first series of a graphic novel run.  I will be focusing strictly on the audio adaptation because I consider it a general improvement on its source material.  In this regard, it is interesting to note the way that characters and situations in this universe can expand and grow when given enough time and actual creative effort.  With that in mind, let's go exploring.