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!