Sunday, May 9, 2021

Ray Bradbury Theater: The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone.

The Horror Genre found itself in a weird place during the 80s.  Another way of putting it is to claim that the species found itself in the middle of an interesting sort of crossroads at the time.  A lot of it had to do with the seemingly natural ups and downs the genre has found itself mired in over the years.  It's very nature as a home for ghosts rattling chains, flesh eating zombies, and the like has meant that its fortunes will probably always be relegated to a strange, popular outsider status.  The public at large tends to view it like a very exotic form of cobra.  It's form, patterns, sometimes even its very appearance can prove alluring.  At the same time, there's this sense that it's probably not all that healthy to hang around this particular specimen for too long.  It's got teeth, and it can bite you with them any time it damn well pleases.  The unspoken assumption seems to be that once you let that kind of poison into your system, you can pretty much kiss your sanity good night at some point down the line.  Will the last functioning brain cell please turn out the lights before your go.  Such is the perennial reputation enjoyed by the gothic format throughout its long history. 

I suppose that means its not too much of a surprise to discover that its precisely a bad rap like this that tends to draw in all those curious enough to see if it really is as dark and twisted as its critics contend.  This is one of the keys to the genre's staying power.  A lot of what keeps it going is the kind of anxieties and social fears that exist just underneath the surface of our daily existence.  Fictional horror exists, it seems, at least in part as an outlet for these psychological misgivings.  It's an idea that tends to hold a great amount of weight with scholars and students of the genre.  Digby Diehl, for instance, in a book-length history and examination of EC's Tales from the Crypt lays what seems to be a convincing enough pictures of the kind of social petri dish out of which the genre tends to spring, and from which it is able to find its most potent inspirations.  "Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Phantom of the Opera had sprung from the nightmare conditions of the early days of the Industrial Revolution.  Horror comics of the 1950s appealed to teens and young adults who were trying to cope with the aftermath of even greater terrors - Nazi death camps and the explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Fifties kids came of age in a booming, button-down America during an era punctuated by outbursts of national paranoia.  School duck-and-cover drills nourished the fear that at any moment a nuclear attack could send us into shelters to live on Ritz crackers for years.  As high school graduates were getting shipped off to Korea, the McCarthy hearings and the Rosenberg spy trial reinforced the idea that America's enemies were everywhere...It was difficult for adolescents to deal with these deep-seated fears for survival, rational or otherwise...Millions of young Americans, who had no frame of reference to judge how far the times were out of joint, were whipsawed by the dichotomy between mortal terror and creature comforts (28)".  It didn't take those same kids long, however, to discover just how disjointed their own world was.  When the year 1963 rolled around, the children of the 50s had been molded and primed into becoming the shapers and makers of the 1960s.  Their looming, unconscious fears had created a sense of threat in need of addressing.

This turned out to be one of several internal triggering mechanisms which allowed more than a few artists to vent these collective social fears into short stories, books, and films that were able to capture those anxieties in a gothic guise, and more or less preserve them forever in the literary and celluloid amber of those decades.  By the time the children of the 50s had becomes the adults and parents of the 80s, this self-understanding of their own fears had matured, at least to a considerable enough extent.  Now they had names and faces to place on the elements (both external and internal) that went bump in the night side of their own minds.  It was this nascent sense of development that seems to have been the key factor in helping the twilight terrors of our imaginations to find an mostly unremarked second life on the small screen during the Reagan years.  John Kenneth Muir gives a neat summation of the mindset that helped launch the second spring of Horror on the small screen as part of his encyclopedic work, Terror Television.  

For Muir, it's important to understand that a lot of the surge in popularity that the genre experienced during the 80s all tended to have its roots a bit back in the 70s.  "It is important to recall that the early 1970s...represented an epoch in which television violence was, by some standards, considered excessive.  Although positions soon changed, and the networks cleaned up their acts...early 1970s programming...somehow escaped drastic censorship and showed much more violence and intensity than previous series had.  The fun, brightly colored, action-packed, and optimistic TV visions of the 1960s, like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68) and Star Trek (1966-69) were (in the first half of the 70s) superseded by violent, dark, grim programming such as Night Gallery and Kolchak.  Many of these new series were actually lensed at night, so they were not merely dark in the philosophical sense, but in the literal sense as well.  The turn toward darkness was a shift in the national mood due, at least in part, to the shocking and graphic news footage coming back from the Vietnam War.  It was as if for the first time Americans were aware of a darker world, and television reflected that shift in perspective.

"Conversely, but not necessarily in contradiction, horror programming of the '70s also provided, as it always has, a catharsis and escape from real life dilemmas.  So, while Vietnam was a morass which inspired moral controversy at home, the "evil" vampires, werewolves, and monsters of these early 1970s shows offered viewer a world very unlike the real one.  On TV, monsters and other supernatural villains could easily be identified and dealt with.  The dark, disturbing reality of life was mirrored in the anti-establishment...philosophies of these shows, but such grim ideas were also subverted and made "acceptable" by their presence on the tube in what amounted to entertainment formats (12)".  I think Muir's take on things is both informative and incomplete by turns.  I'm not for a minute going to doubt that the fallout of Nam caused the great majority of Americans to believe their own government might not always have their best interests in mind.  Nor is Muir incorrect when he says this is reflected in a lot of the Gothic oriented programming of the years following the close of what amounted a misguided national embarrassment.  The real trouble is the lingering sense that the critic has narrowed the focus in just a bit too much.  As a result, the actual big picture is in danger of getting lost in the shuffle.


The real truth of what was happening not just in television at that time, but also cinema, literature, and the arts in general, is really quite obvious when given a bit of thought.  The simple fact was that the student hippies of the Nam years were starting to come of age.  That meant you were seeing a lot of former attendees of Monterey Pop, or Woodstock, slowly begin to invade the hallowed halls of respectability.  The trick to the whole development is this.  Though they may have stashed the tie dye shirts and peace medallions out of sight, their output on the creative front indicates that a lot of the philosophies, the thoughts, ideas, and above all the music and goals that made them turn on, tune in, and drop out were still very much in the forefront of their minds, guiding their actions to produce some of the iconic films and shows of that decade.  In addition, a widening of the lens reveals that the success of films like the original Star Wars, combined with the continuing success of Gene Roddenberry's efforts on the same big screen, all seem to point toward a greater sense of continuity than Muir is willing to credit.  It's a shared cultural ethos that I tend to think unites even those artists who are normally not considered in the same space. 

The 80s incarnation of the Twilight Zone might not be the same thing as John Carpenter's They Live, and that movie is the polar opposite of Spielberg's E.T.  The one thing each separate entity shares in common is the same, continuous, counter-cultural strand of thinking which sought (and perhaps still seeks) to challenge the abuse of authority in all its forms.  It's the one uniting element to be found in just about all of the Horror programming from that decade, and I'm convinced that it helped shape the kind of stories that a lot of the televisual and cinematic artists of the period had to tell.  There's a lot of soul-searching going on, a lot of trying to think forward as well.  The net result of all this combination and coagulation of elements was a TV network field in which the regular walls and boundaries had been knocked out, leaving the playing field a bit more open to experimentation (of the genuine kind) and risk taking.  It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  I'm not sure when the next one will come, if ever.


The curious part in all this is how it allowed one creative voice in particular to have a platform for the kind of stories he had to tell.  I guess what makes it standout so well against the pack is that his was an older voice that nonetheless managed to make the transition across the generation gap.  The main reason for this seems to have been a combination of luck and timing  It was impossible for Ray Bradbury to not be impacted by the events and social upheavals of the decade in the same way as a lot of his younger readers, many of whom were just fresh-faced college kids with a lot to worry about in their future.  The result is that when books like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles hit the drug store racks, these same readers found a voice that spoke to their situation.  Bradbury seemed to share a lot of their concerns about the state of the post-war world at large, and was willing to share his thoughts with others.  In doing so, he seems to have helped a lot of others find their own voices as the times kept a changin'.  The ripple effect from such humble beginnings wound up making Ray into a kind of global icon by the time executives from the fledgling USA network approached him with the offer of manning his very own TV series.  

The result was known as The Ray Bradbury Theater, one of few 80s anthology shows to survive getting dropped by its original network.  Each episode would open with Bradbury taking a somewhat iconic elevator up to his writing room office space.  The camera would follow Bradbury as he slowly leads us into his his inner sanctum.  It's one of those self-made nerd's paradises where all the walls are plastered over with old movie posters, stills of the stars, and various old masks and knickknacks.  The bookshelves, meanwhile, are stuffed to the gills with the sort of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore that would make book-dealers and bibliophiles itch just knowing they're there.  Bradbury would then inform us that this is the place where he gets his ideas.  I'm pretty sure the truth was a bit more complex than that, however it makes for a killer opening.  It's not as high rated as the ones found on the Zone, Outer Limits, or Tales from the Darkside.  However it helps to set just the right tone for the kind of stories Bradbury has to tell.  While he's mostly remembered today as a Science Fiction author, Ray was more like a genre fiction polymath.  He was the sort who was just as much at home in either a haunted house, or somewhere among the stars.  His anthology provides a showcase for this variety.


One episode in particular contains this opening narration.  "I'm surrounded by file after file of ideas, stories, poems, and fragments of novels, put away over some forty years.  I go through them constantly, and whichever story, poem, or play cries the loudest to be born gets written.  But I've often wondered.  If someone said to me, "Your stories or your life", would I save my life, or my stories?  And so, "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone" was born".

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Space Jam (1996).

Could someone please explain to me why this is such a big deal?  I don't get it, at least not quite.  Like, you do realize this is just a movie, right?  It's not anything like a cure for the common cold.  When it comes to assessing the importance of any given, potential work of fiction, there's always a trick involved.  I'm quite willing to go out of my way and stand up to declare certain books and films as genuine works of art.  That's the easy part.  What about the rest of the story?  I'm no longer talking about the Shakespeares, the Welles, or Harper Lees of the creative world.  While it's a mistake to describe that type of artist as an open and shut case, there is at least a certain amount of truth in saying that the critic's task is a lot less complex with a writer like Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, or Thomas Woolf.  Part of it is the way their writings make it easy for fans and critics to latch onto.  There is so much to talk about even in a simple short story such as "The Lady and the Tiger" to the point where they are sort of like a critic's dream come true.  The sharp-eyed reader can tell they are witnessing the kind of artwork that offers a great deal of hidden riches that are worth uncovering.  That still leaves us with a lot of other material out there, most of which goes unnoticed.

The type of writing I'm thinking of now belongs to that special category that might once have been known as mid-list fiction.  I'm talking about the books and films that might have been popular when they were first released, and that audience favor is probably still hanging around.  It's just that, for whatever reason, none of the books or movies I'm thinking of now have ever really gone as far in the fame and acclaim department as others of their kind.  Perhaps the best example of what I'm talking about can be seen if we take the example of two writers who sort of work not just with similar material, but also the more or less near identical style.  If I mention the number 42 out loud, some of you will wonder why I even bother to bring it up.  It just sounds too random to have any point in the argument.  Others, however, might just have a series of slow-spreading smiles on their faces as they try and re-contemplate the meaning of Life, the Universe, and the curious phenomenon of digital watches.  That's because the number 42 has to be one of the greatest punchlines to an entire book-length joke, as written and delivered by Douglas Adams.   


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
is one of those favorite texts that starts out as a cult following, and then over time gets lucky enough to find its status as a recognized classic.  There seems to have been just enough talent and inspiration involved to make the joke worth re-telling time and again.  Because of this, Adams's text has become something of a recognized icon.  Is the same true of the efforts of Terry Pratchett, however?  You might recall something about the guy, don't you?  He used to write that old Discworld series.  They were an extended collection of novels which, when taken together, amounted to a lifetime satire and parody of all the cliches, tropes and plot elements that make up what is still termed the Fantasy genre.  What Pratchett was doing for Sword and Sorcery, Adams was accomplishing for Science Fiction.  Both men adopted an absurdist style of British Satire, one whose identity seems to have been first solidified by the efforts of Monty Python, and applied to the written word.  They then used this style to tell and construct their respective novel length jokes.

The point I'm trying to make here has less to do with the books themselves, and more about how the efforts of each author has been received by the public.  I think the way Adams and Pratchett have been treated by audiences can tell us a bit about what distinguishes great writing from the merely good.  I don't know whether Adams counts as a one-book-wonder, with Hitchhiker's being this great spurt of inspiration which the author could never live down or re-capture.  I know it's the sort of phenomenon that has happened in the past.  Ken Kesey might have experience the same thing with Cuckoo's Nest.  Either way, what I'm getting at here is that Adams's first book has gone on to be recognized as containing elements that make his story a genuine classic.  I'm not so sure that the same has ever been said of Pratchett's efforts.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm not calling him a bad writer.  Nor am I about to deny that he's got whole legions of fans out there who admire his work.  I don't deny a single bit of that.  It's also a mistake to claim that he doesn't have a great deal of popularity, enough so that Pratchett's secondary world has often been lumped alongside places like Middle Earth and Earthsea.

It's just that I don't think I've ever seen him gain the same level of fame as Adams, or even Monty Python for that matter, have been able garner over the years.  This can be seen in the kind of notoriety attached to his name. People might have heard of the Discworld, but how many can point to any one story in the series that stand out from the rest?  That's where the trick and the irony lies.  Pratchett seems to have been skilled enough to be a genuinely good writer.  He also appears to have stopped at being just that.  He can create good writing, I'm not sure I've ever saw him produce a Great Book.  If he did, then the closest objective candidate I've got is that one time when he co-authored a book with Neil Gaiman, a name who probably has more than at least one Big Text to his resume.  The result is that while it's true to say that Pratchett's books are enjoyable, maybe even memorable, they do not hit quite the same note in the minds of the audience with the same precision as works like Hitchhiker's or Sandman and Coraline.  Hence, we're able to note a difference, and make a distinction between first and second tier types of fiction.


It's not a distinction that many people bother about, nor am I all that sure that it's as important as I've made it sound.  The reason for that is because while I rate a story like Hitchhiker's somewhat better than Discworld, and a film like The Godfather is able to pretty much clobber the both of them put together, I still insist that it's a mistake to make too big a deal about it.  The simple reason for that is because its too easy to allow various types of snobbery to creep and crawl its way into the conversation.  If you let that kind of thing go on for too long, pretty soon all sort of arbitrary and artificial exclusions will be made, where none can logically be said to exist.  I don't see the point, really, in trying to set all the texts of the world on exclusionary shelves.  I think it's more than possible to just set them all side by each other without discrimination.  With that in mind, there still remains the matter of one film in particular.

If I had to take a guess, I'd have to say that Space Jam is the type of story that fits in well as a good example of mid-list fiction cinema.  It came out a long time ago.  In many ways, it really is the product of another world altogether.  I must have just been starting high-school when I first heard about it.  It was 96, so that must have been during my first early freshman years.  This would have been during that strange limbo state between the last desperate grasping at genuine childhood, and the start of the teen years.  By and large, my major concerns at the time were learning how to fit in, and the first glimmering awareness of an author known as Steve King.  I think I had yet to take up reading in quite the serious way I do now.  The spark of interest was being ignited, however.  In the meantime, there was still classes, TV, and the movies to consider, as well as the other growing awareness that girls existed.  Somewhere in between all that, I managed to catch sight of Warner Bros. mid-decade tribute to basketball and anarchic, Golden Age animation.  I can remember some of my initial reactions.

I think a sense of familiarity must have played some part in it.  I'd caught Who Framed Roger Rabbit once during a very important and impressionable viewing session at a neighbors house.  So I knew about the combination of live action and animation.  However, it was a very niche sub-genre, and one I hadn't really been back to for a long while after that first viewing.  Part of it had to do with getting caught up in the daily grind of living, another, more important factor, had to do with Christopher Loyd in a performance that still remains the stuff of nightmares.  I didn't even work up the courage to go back and watch the earlier film for myself until sometime long after the Warner film had come and gone.  Some of you may be wondering why don't I get to the film itself already?  I think some of the reason for this delay is that it at least helps give a sense of just the kind of minuscule impact it must have left on my psyche at the time.  For me, the whole thing seems to have amounted to the following statement.  I came, I saw, I shrugged, it was okay, I guess.  It didn't set the world on fire, or anything, it was just a last bit of my childhood, and that seemed like enough for me.


That's why it's something of a genuine shock to discover how that just really sells the case too damn short for a great deal of the audience out there.  I'll confess, this is the last kind of film I would have expected to pick up the sort of following it enjoys now.  I can't say I know just where all this momentum came from.  It's status as a piece of mid-list fiction should have meant that it would have stayed at that level.  It turns that doesn't appear to be the case.  For whatever reason, Space Jam has become its own kind of phenomenon for a lot of 80s and 90s kids.  Like it's this something that everybody not only has memories of, they also turn out to be of the type that one reserves for favorites like Back to the Future or The Dark Crystal.  And here, believe it or not, is the part where it all gets interesting, complicated, and sometimes even downright contentious for some reason.  Maybe it's best to begin with the film that set this whole strange phenomenon into motion.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival (2007).

It's hard to tell what time it is.  The scene looks to be about mid-day, though it's impossible to tell for sure with all the color washed out.  Instead, the choice of camera turns everything into simple blacks and whites, reducing the entire sky to the same, monotonous shade of faded gunmetal gray, like an old photo album picture brought to life.  It's almost as if in trying to capture the event, the cameraman somehow discovered a curious way of making all time stand still.  The picture looks almost postcard perfect as the singer steps up to the microphone.  The cinematography has him look all dressed in black, although this could also be a trick of the light.  His eyes seem both focused and distant as he takes his place before the crowd, like he's in his element, and would rather be somewhere else.  Perhaps that ambivalence is reflected to an extent by the song he chooses sing for an opening number.  Before that, however, there are introductions to be made.  A woman's voice can be heard over a PA system.  

"At every period, every time has its heroes.  Every need has a solution and an answer.  Some people, the press and magazines, sometimes think that the heroes that young people choose lead the way.  I tend to think that they happen because they grow out of a need.  This is a young man who grew out of a need.  He came here, he came to be as his is, because things needed saying.  And the young people were the one's who wanted to say them.  They wanted to say them in their own way.  He somehow had an ear on his generation.  I don't have to tell you.  You know him.  He's yours: Bob Dylan".  "All I really want to do," the singer tells us, "is baby, be friends with you".  His voice is the same, familiar combination of the off-key and the melodic.  It's a trademark that is so distinctive, that even to this day it remains somehow unrepeatable.  The closest singers I can think who come anywhere close can be whittled down to just three candidates, Leon Redbone, along with the two Toms, Petty and Waits.  


That list might be expanded to include an act known as the Band, however that still remains about it.  I recall something that author Dave Barry once said about Dylan's style of singing.  Barry described him as "singing in a voice so unpolished, so non-showbizzy, so drastically unlike, for example, Bobby Vinton, that you either loved it or hated it, and the side you picked indicated pretty clearly whether you were going to be a willing participant in, or an opponent of, The Sixties (107)".  This is the subject at the heart of Murray Lerner's The Other Side of the Mirror, a chronicle of Dylan's Newport Folk days.  The trick here is that singers like Dylan, and the films people make of him, rarely exist in a vacuum.  I might just be able to understand how a lot of the readers out their might wish for the subject to be treated in some kind of isolation.  My own experience, however, is that life never allows itself to be so kind.  If you want to understand why someone would go to the trouble of cobbling together a concert film out of old footage of a singer, then it usually means there's a lot of backstory to go over.  It seems to be the only way of finding whether or not Lerner's film has any sort of worth to it.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey (2014).

Sometimes it can be tough to talk about certain subjects.  There are tons of reasons why that should be the case, and often a lot of it can be explained by the presence of a simple phrase such as controversy.  It's a word that at least one of the two subjects under discussion here was well acquainted with.  However, that's not the real reason for the difficulty, at least not in my case.  In that sense, I  guess you could say I've got off easy.  My problem just has to do with how do you discuss an artist whose work has gone on to be a major impact on your life?  We're talking here about one of those guys whose work is like a bomb going off in your mind.  It's the sort of quality that is able blow doors off in your thinking that you probably didn't even know were there until someone showed enough mercy to point them out to you.  That's sort of the favor Mark Twain did for me.  Yeah, I know, the guy who got forced inside your skull way back in high-school?  That stuff was old long before things like 8-track cassettes and corded telephones were consigned to the technical scrap heap of history.  

Well, credit where it's due.  You got one part of the equation right, at least.  Twain really is what you might call one of the Great Old Ones.  Often the first and last anyone ever hears of him is in the hallowed halls of classroom puberty, where a lot of other important stuff was going on, regardless of whatever the teacher was talking about.  Besides, everyone knows high school English is the kiss of death to any subject that gets brought up in such domains.  I was one of the lucky few, in that sense.  I never ran across the old geezer in a classroom.  I had to find out about him on my own, and even then, it's not as if I went out looking for him.  It was a lot more like bumping into an accidental stranger with a unique gift for the gab, and a genuine sense of wit to match.  In retrospect, it also kind of helped that the first time I ever saw him was on TV, long before I even knew what a classroom was. 


I didn't see the man himself, that sort of came later.  Instead it was an adaptation of one of his novels.  What makes it stick out in my memory after all these years is the way it all got started.  Imagine, if you will, the image of a young tow-headed kid and an African-American slave in a dark room, lit only by the combined, flickering specks of gold, red, and yellow cast off from a single kerosene lamp.  The boy is dressed in brown overalls.  The man was wearing blue railroad suspenders, as I recall, with a red and white checkered work shirt.  Both the man and boy were leaning in to get a look at a dead body draped across a chair in the dark.  They edged closer, step by step, until the grisly scene was brought in full up to the light.  As long as I live, I'm sure I'll never forget the sick looking, wide-eyed, rictus grin of the corpse as it glared up at the viewer from the unblinking gaze of the screen.  

The older man told the boy not to look.  Though to be fair, it was kind of like trying to shut the barn door long after the livestock had vacated the premise, isn't it?  Once seen, can't be unseen.  To sort of sweeten the deal, that has to be the first time I ever saw a corpse in a work of art.  This was before I even had a chance to be introduced to the concept of mortality.  Yeah, now how's that for first introductions?  Some of you still reading this are probably craning your necks to see the pile up damage by the side of the road.  If pressed, some might be willing to fess up that it's just their nature.  They might also ask where did that little freak show come from?  That, ladies and gentlemen, came straight the pen of a man who never existed.  His real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens.  You read his moniker and then quickly forget all about it, even if it is sort of convoluted and colorful.  Nobody ever remembers guys like him.  What no one has been able to do is erase the pseudonym that made him famous out of historical memory.  Everyone remembers the name of Mark Twain.

I suppose you could call him something in the  way of being a natural storyteller.  It's true enough to start with, anyway.  It's also kind of like saying Ray Charles knew how to play the piano.  The description is so basic it doesn't even begin to do the subject justice.  That's something Hal Holbrook seems to have understood in time.  For whatever reason, it would turn out to be one single Hollywood actor that would be responsible for helping to keep the memory of Twain alive.  Hal Holbrook is a name that might still be somewhere on the tip of the tongue these days.  If that's the case, then it's probably because he did a decent enough job of carving both his name and efforts into something approaching immortality.  The basic rule of thumb here appear to be, if you can accomplish something like that, then you might have a chance of sticking around even in something as fickle as memory.  It is just possible Holbrook was able to make that kind of grade.  If he's known for anything at all today, then it has to be for his efforts in the Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford vehicle, All the President's Men.  

In that film, Holbrook was tasked with bringing a real life, flesh and blood human being onto the screen.  This person's name was Mark Felt.  It's another moniker that goes in one ear and out the other.  The difference is this time it could be something of a mistake.  In real life, Felt was more popularly known as Deep Throat, the inside source who helped Woodward and Bernstein bring Richard Nixon to justice.  His role in the film, as in history, is relegated to that of a background figure.  This gives Holbrook a very limited amount of screen time.  However the actor never wastes a single moment that he's on camera.  As embodied in Holbrook's performance, Felt is shown as a man of the shadows, both paranoid, mistrustful, and maybe even just a little bit world-weary and regretful.  While not the biggest part in the film, whenever I think back on it, it's always that first introductory image of Holbrook, his face veiled in the blue sodium of parking lot lamps and constant trails of cigarette smoke that occurs to me the most, along with a handful of others.  Such is the role assigned to him by immortality.  Either that or else it's just the picture of him that's easiest for most of us to remember.


The one thing everybody seems to forget is what joined Holbrook and Twain almost at the hip.  Every so often, Holbrook would walk onto a theater stage located almost anywhere in the United States, and assume the role of a chain smoking writer from Missouri, who one day coughed up a book known as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This is the subject at the heart of director Scott Teems' 2014 documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey.  "The idea for the documentary came from Dixie Carter, Holbrook's wife...Mark Twain Tonight! was the longest-running one-man performance in theatre history. Hal Holbrook performed the show from 1954 to 2017 when he announced his retirement.[5] Director Scott Teems, who had worked with Holbrook and Dixie Carter on That Evening Sun, interviewed Holbrook, family members, fellow actors, and Twain scholars to go behind the scenes to reveal the challenges and rewards of life on the road (web)".  Apparently Holbrook and his family felt that the topic was important enough to be worth setting down on record.  All that remains to ask is whether or not the two subjects at the heart of the documentary have anything worth saying.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

The art of criticism doesn't exist in a vacuum.  It doesn't just appear out of thin air.  Like every other facet of human life, an opinion about a work of make-believe is one of those things that everyone just takes for granted.  This makes it no real big surprise to discover just how difficult it is to figure out where it all got started.  Critics of books and films these days are a dime a dozen, none of us will probably ever know who was the first human being to speak up and voice an opinion about a story they just heard.  I don't suppose I mind that all too much.  It's just that I like to know where stuff comes from.  I'm one of those types who tend to believe there's a great deal of value to be had in tracing down the origins of things.  It just might, with any luck, tell us a lot about why humans do a lot of the things we take so much for granted.

I think storytelling and its criticism can be one of those endeavors where, the more you know of its histories, and turns of thought, the more rewards you might be able to get from being able to understand how it all got started.  There may even be some who argue that the best part is that it's an ongoing task, one that can never be completed in a single lifetime.  Another value to be had in studying the history of arts criticism is that it can help you gain a better familiarity with a lot of the figures associated with it.  Just a brief glance at the history itself can offer a list of all the important pioneers and trailblazers who have helped shape the very nature of the critical format and the various discussions that have continued on throughout the years.  I think this is a task that some enterprising souls will have to undertake sooner or later, as learning not just about artistic criticism, but also the names who made it possible, is probably going to wind up being a pretty big part of keeping the the practice afloat.  This can also play a big role in keeping the Arts, in and of themselves, alive as a going concern.  This is the kind of task that presents no small challenge to any who would take it up.  It is also one that can be worthwhile.

There are a lot of names out there who are vital to the history and discourse of artistic analysis, and most of them have never been household names.  A lot of this has to do with living in a culture that values brand recognition.  Some of the later toilers in this trade actually have been able to gain a kind of popular familiarity for themselves.  For instance, what's the first name that comes to mind if I use the phrase "Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down"?  The answer should be easy enough for most reading this.  It's Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, of course.  Everybody knows those guys.  Ebert's old news columns for the Chicago Sun Times are still poured over, dissected, and examined by a constant streams of fans old and new.  This is a fact I can vouch for personally.  He's one of those writers whose skill at criticizing a work of art is so well done, that even if you don't always agree with his final verdict, you can at least understand the logic that is guiding all of his statements most of the time.  That takes talent, as well as good analytical skills, no matter how your slice it.  It's just part of what makes him so fondly remembered long after he has left the stage.


Almost anyone who is anybody knows about Roger Ebert.  I'm not so sure just how many people out there have ever heard of Pauline Kael.  At the same time, that's not much of a surprise, though it may scandalize the few out there who are willing to keep her memory alive.  It's what happens to famous names that fall through the cracks of history.  Like the phenomenon of love at first sight, I'm very sure it's the sort of thing that happens not just all the time, but pretty much every day with each tick of the clock.  The natural enough result of this process is always best defined as "The Unexpected".  The sole reason for calling it that rests in the fact that it seems more or less impossible to expect a new mind to know old facts, even if they should turn out to be vital.  Because of this, history always seems to be catching us unawares, and the resulting fallout leaves us scrambling as our minds try to catch up with a lot of unknown information.  Looked at that way, Kael's life and writings are just one more strand of information that life may or might not force us to try and catch up with.  So who was she, anyway?

Part of the answer can be found in the introduction to the Library of America volume of her collected writings, edited by Sanford Schwartz.  In his introduction to the collection, Schwartz lays out her work in somewhat hagiographical terms.

"(Perhaps) more deeply than any other writer, Kael gave shape to an idea of an "age of movies."  In a career that began in the mid-1950s and was fully underway by the early 1960s, she explored movies as an art, an industry, and a sociological phenomenon.  A romantic and a visionary, she believed that movies could feed our imaginations in intimate and immediate - and liberating, even subversive - ways that literature and plays and other arts could not.  But she also understood the financial realities and artistic compromises behind moviemaking, and she described them with a specificity and pertinacity that few other critics did.  As concerned with audience reactions as with her own, she could be caught up in how movies stoke our fantasies regardless of their quality as movies.

"She was also, as she wrote, "lucky" in her timing.  Her tenure as a regularly reviewing critic coincided with the modern flowering of movies, the period, primarily the 1960s (for foreign films) and the 1970s (for American films), when moviemakers were working more than ever with the autonomy associated with poets, novelists, and painters.  While hardly always laudatory (and to some readers plain wrongheaded), she nonetheless, in the earlier decade, gave a breathing, textured life to the aims and sensibilities of Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, and Michelangelo Antonioni, among other European and Asian directors; and she endowed Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Paul Mazursky, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola, among American directors of the following decade, with the same full-bodied presence.

"Kael's grasp of film history was encyclopedic.  She had seen silent films as a child, in the 1920s, sometimes taking them in on her parents' laps.  Speaking for her generation, she could thus write of motion picture that "We were in almost at the beginning, when something new was added to human experience"; and in her full-length reviews and essays (put together over the years in eleven volumes), and her short notices on films (collected in the mammoth 5001 Nights at the Movies), she encompassed much of that "something new (xi-xii)".     

The above paragraph may serve as a decent illustration of the kind of effect she could have (or at least used to) on some of her readers.  What's the net result then?  What does the critic herself have to show for her efforts?  The answer, as far as I can tell, goes as follows: "Who the hell is Pauline Kael".  If such a response comes as a surprise to some, then it kind of begs a further question.  What else did you expect?  Half the problem, as I  see it, is that a lot of older critics out there have either been too neglectful in their jobs in preserving the reputation of film in the 21st century, or else they just never could manage to make their voices heard.  Part of it I think is down to the way they framed their criticism.  It has to be written in a way that gives the reader a reason to care about the artwork under discussion.  If you can't do that, then the sports section is always just one turn of the page away.  It really is that simple, at least as far as the average reader is concerned anyway.  


However, does the fact that Kael and her writings barely register as a blip on the radar at this late stage mean that a valuable, maybe even an essential critical voice has been left behind?  There are some who would say so.  That's definitely what filmmakers like Robert Garver believe.  This particular filmmaker was such a devotee, in fact, that he took it upon himself to to create and build up an entire documentary around Kael and her writings on and for the screen.  It was completed in 2019, and it got a lot of good press before sinking into the soup of online content.  Garver dedicated his efforts to spending a whole hour and thirty eight minutes to rescuing this one film critic from the potential of vanishing into obscurity.  The question that remains is whether all this toil was worth it, or were his efforts in vain? 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Violent Cases (1987).

Sometimes books can have teeth.  You'd be surprised how many of them can come at you like a slap in the face once you turn to the first page.  For instance, here's Alan Moore's introduction to what has to be the first graphic novel to ever put Dave Mckean and Neil Gaiman on the map.  See if you can catch where the slap comes in.

"For the past forty or fifty years, comic books have muddled through their infancy at a slow and sedentary pace.  So slow, in fact, that it sometimes seemed as if it would last forever.  Though the infant would frequently show signs of early promise, if not indeed genius, its physical progress never seemed to get beyond the crawling stage.  This deceptive sluggishness often tended to mask the slow and occasionally painful process of maturation that the poor tyke was going through.  Those of us in charge of minding the baby were so resigned to its eternal and unchanging state of mewling immaturity that even when the first bumps, swellings, sproutings, and secretions began to make their presence felt, we remained oblivious to what was actually going on.  Then, one day, all of a sudden - Bang!  It's puberty!  Since then, comics have been changing so fast that we scarcely recognize the snub-nosed toddler that we used to call "Freckles."  In its place there's something spotty and gawky and strange looking, that's asking a lot of awkward questions about sex and politics, while striking unfamiliar attitudes and dressing itself in colours nobody over twenty-five would be seen dead in.  Its utterances range from the unbearably crass to the undeniably brilliant, and though its self-consciousness may prove irritating every now and then, it's still possible to catch glimpses of the confident and fascinating and adult persona that it's struggling toward (49)".

Did you catch it?  I think the slap comes right near the end, when Moore talks of the adult persona that comic books are struggling toward.  He then goes on to offer the following summation: Comics are starting to be viewed as a vibrant and viable art form, rich in unexplored possibilities and hidden capacities.  As a result, new talents that might otherwise easily have drifted into films or fine art or literature are starting to find their way to the medium and enriching it considerably by their presence.  As this process gathers momentum, comics find themselves on the verge of a quantum leap in which all the old barriers are shattered and the territory becomes strange and different, entirely without landmark (ibid)".  At least, that's what he said back then.  You've got to admit, at least it sounds nice on paper.

Perhaps the nature of the slap in the face can be elucidated like this.  Not long ago, I came across a bitof a debate about the latest issue of a Wonder Woman comic.  The way it drew the greatest super-heroine of modern times raised quite a bit of uproar from the fans.  My own two cents on the issue is to be pedantic.  Correct me if I'm wrong, however I always thought the character herself was based off the original figure from Greco-Roman mythology.  This can be seen in her very name, Diana, the ruler of the moon, leader of the great hunt, and very much a warrior in her own right.  In short, Wonder Woman is (or at least she was more or less meant to be) something of a goddess.  The way she was drawn on the issue cover I saw probably doesn't do her character any favors.  I've heard it described as the hill DC Comics is ready to die on.  It's the latest in an ongoing series of complaints that have grown in volume recently.  For my part, I think I can remember the moment I mentally checked out.  It was when the company tried to take Moore's Dr. Manhattan and use him as a scapegoat or villain explanation for various creative missteps and bad decisions.  I'm afraid just don't read much comic books anymore.

Meanwhile, here is where Moore's thinking on the medium rests today.  “To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence...It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times (web)".  At the same time, most of the other talents the ex-graphic novelist mentioned above have instead "(drifted) into film or fine art or literature".  The medium that helped put their names on the map, meanwhile, seems to be nearing a state of collapse.  In retrospect, it's interesting to consider a time and place when this might not have been, like a road not taken, or something valuable that wound up misplaced.  That's where the real slap in the face comes in.


Books can also have teeth in a more positive sense, of course.  It all comes down to the quality to be found in the final product.  The old graphic novels I'm thinking about used to be pretty good at it.  This was back around the time when Moore was singing the praises of guys like Gaiman and Mckean.  It was before the industry moved on and began what turned out to be a slow, yet glaring decay.  With this in mind, the best I can do is turn attention to one of the efforts that started the whole last hurrah.  It's a neat, concise, and nasty little piece of work called Violent Cases.  Hank Wagner can give a pretty good overview of how this little old gem came about.  "In 1986, Gaiman and Mckean were working for a magazine called Borderline.  Gaiman was a young journalist; Mckean was still attending art college.  After they met and hit it off, Gaiman suggested they work together on what became Violent Cases, based on a short story he had written as part of the Milford Writer's Workshop.

"We were intoxicated by the potential of the medium, by the then-strange idea that comics weren't exclusively for kids anymore (if they ever had been); that the possibilities were endless," writes Gaiman, in his introduction to the U.S. edition from Tundra Publishing (155)".  It was a start, at least.  They pretty much had nowhere else to go at that point except up.  Another good word for their little joint venture is to call it a very risky gamble.  That's not a word that deserves to be tossed off lightly.  The fact of the matter is they were kind of taking their livelihoods in their hands with this idea.  The very fact that the graphic novel itself still exists to decorate the bookshelves is something of a minor marvel.  They both got pretty damn lucky in that sense.  Perhaps the situation for either of them wasn't quite as precarious as it would be if they tried this stuff today.  If they were still young turks trying to make names for themselves, I'm not sure we'd ever hear of them in today's climate.  


The initial comic brand that offered to publish their work wound up having to turn them down, and they still managed to get it out there by a combination of word-of-mouth and sheer, stubborn willpower.  It's probably a sign of just how different the market was back then.  In the 80s there was still a window of space left open for the maverick to try their hand at leaving their mark on the world.  These days the whole industry just tends to come off as some kind of weird, stacked deck.  Even if that's the case, then there's still a lot to be said in the stand-alone issue's own favor.  Perhaps its time to give this old first effort a dusting off, and then hold it up to the microscope once again, and see how it stands in comparison to all that came later.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Bones of the Moon (1987).

I've spoken more than once on this site about an informal collection of writers and artists.  They made their respective names during a rough span of time that went on, more or less, from the mid 1970s, all the way to the end of the 80s and start of the 90s.  You may be familiar with some of their names.  Guys like Stephen King still don't need much in the way of an introduction.  At least, not yet.  The same applies to fellas like Neil Gaiman, Dave Mckean, or Alan Moore.  They are all a specific brand name-style of artist.  All I've got to do is just say their names, and sooner or later someone's going to turn up with a list of their favorite moments from a book like Watchmen, From Hell, or The Dream Country.  The same phenomena pretty much applies if you bring up names like Carrie, Christine, or Cujo.  It's that vaunted and dubious level of public recognition that goes along with popular awareness.  

It's the type of success that works as its own kind of double-edged sword.  On the one hand, there's a lingering sense of recognition about your name.  The flip side is there's always the danger that it all amounts to just passing familiarity.  Perhaps there's a difference between how many times you get your name in the papers or the news, versus how many folks have actually read anything you've published.  Is Stephen King a writer, or a filmmaker, for instance?  I think it would be interesting to find out just how many in the audience believe that guy is the latter, rather than former.  It might just tell us a lot about how the audience perceives both the artist, as well as the artwork in their midst.  There's the troubling sense that a lot of the common perceptions of authors like King really amounts to just a kind of halfway knowledge.  It's nothing more the than basest of trivial facts.  The full story, meanwhile gets lost in the image generated by the popular perception.  In that sense, perhaps the best definition of pop culture is to describe it as a place for you to put things in so that you can forget about them.  I suppose I wouldn't mind if my own experience has taught me that such actions carry too great a risk to be carried out with no strings attached.  Forgetting the past can sometimes be a good way to get caught out by it.

In the case of the type of artists I'm thinking of, one of the results has been that while everyone thinks they know about guys like Gaiman, King, and Moore, who else besides a small handful knows about a name like Peter Straub?  What about Dean Koontz, for that matter?  How about Robert McCammon, or Dan Simmons?  Do those names ring any bells?  I think the best answer most of us are left with is: perhaps not.  That's kind of a shame, really, because they make up just as much of the story as the creators of Morpheus or Miracleman.  It's something I might have spoken about more than once before.  For some crazy reason it just helps out if I think about all of these writers as part of an unofficial artistic movement.  One of those minor waves that like to happen every now and then in the field of the arts.  It just seems like a natural enough recurring occurrence, a regular part of the gig, if that makes any sense (and let's face it, is it any more of a puzzle than life itself?  Doesn't mean there can't be perks to it, though).  I can even remember discovering there's an actual, pretty good name for all the stuff they got up to way back in the day.  The phrase I've heard used to describe them is New Wave Fabulism.  It can be found in an essay composed by the author of Ghost Story and The Talisman.  

That's the first place I can ever recall hearing either Pete Straub, or his fellow literary contemporaries referred to in such a neat catch-all term.  I've got to admit, if you need to have a title for all of those scribbling names, then it's a pretty good label, so far as it goes.  I think part of the reason it's so fitting, however, is because it might just be possible to pinpoint its origins.  I wonder if the title might derive from an old 1967 Sci-Fi anthology edited by Harlan Ellison.  It was called Dangerous Visions, and it was billed as a flagship collection.  The stories in it were supposed to be offered as samples of all the new directions the speculative genres were headed for the latter half of the 20th century.  It is just possible that Ellison was aware of the direction things were headed in the writer's field.  If so, he was definitely there to see it all happen.  The curious (maybe even somewhat ironic) part is how few of the names found in the book (the one Ellison meant to act as a kind of brave new standard bearer) ever seemed to go on to leave their mark in this movement.  Most of the famous names in Dangerous Visions belong to older writers like Frederick Pohl, Philip K. Dick, or R.A. Lafferty.  The one writer who could be said to have any future influence was that of J.G. Ballard.  The rest of the field seemed to wind up in the hands of King, Straub, and Moore.  It's one of those weird twists of fate, yet I'm not sure there's much to apologize for.


The single, most recognizable, and shared trait among all the New Wave Fabulists mainly comes down to the way they had of giving a new voice to a lot of older fantastic tropes and concepts.  They could stumble across a cob web infested idea such as a vampire looking for victims, and give it fresh blood (so to speak) by taking that archetype, and placing it in a modern suburban setting, complete with phones, fax machines, and Monday Night Football.  The result would often amount to an interesting clash and creative tension between the old and the new.  The idea of ancient figures of myth and dream sharing the same space with a bunch of ordinary working stiffs has proven to be a surprisingly durable and enduring artistic paradigm over the last few years.  The trope and its assorted imaginary figures could even be said to have carried on even to a point in which their original creators are now in their elder statesmen years.  Part of it is down to the way it makes the old seem original again.  It carries the same type of charm as Michelangelo doing a riff on the image of a bunch of dogs playing poker.  The very idea itself in incongruous, and yet its carried off with such skill that you can't help being impressed. 


There is one name in particular, that belongs very much in the New Wave wheelhouse, which I haven't mentioned yet.  I also don't believe I caught him among the list of authors Straub mentions in the course of his article cited above.  I'm not even sure what kind of reputation or name recognition he has nowadays.  His name is Jonathan Carroll, and it's kind of difficult to know where to start with this one.  It could be argued, for instance, that his way telling stories is an almost perfect summation of the kind of fantastical surreality that you can find in many of the other Fabulists.  The danger with that sort of approach is that it makes him sound like an untalented copycat, and I'm not at all certain that's the case.  Part of the difficulty is knowing just how to talk about the writer without spoiling a lot of what's to come.  He can sound like some of the authors mentioned above (Jonathan Lethem is one easy example that comes to mind), and yet it's a mistake to say that he has no style or method of approach that's unique enough to be called his very own.  I guess part of the problem is knowing how to describe that approach in a way that makes sense.  Perhaps the best way to get that done is to just talk about it.  The best way to do that is to bring up the third book to published in his career.  It's called Bones of the Moon, and there's not much else way to describes it except...You know what, let me explain.