Sunday, July 3, 2022

War of the Worlds (1953).

We almost could have had a Hitchcock version.  Let that sink in for minute.  This would have all happened a long time ago.  Some way back during the 1930s, or so I'm told.  What I've heard is that old "Hitch" once went so far as to track down the author of the original, 1897 Sci-Fi novel, The War of the Worlds, just so he could get his permission to adapt it into a feature-length film.  This is information I picked up from within the pages of Bill Warren's massive, encyclopedia length survey of Science Fiction films from the 1950s, Keep Watching the Skies (878).  As far as I was concerned, I'd never had a clue that ever happened.  It's one of those pieces of trivial information that doesn't matter much except to a small sector of the world known as either bookworms, or various genre geeks and aficionados.  To the vast majority of the world, such information has no choice except to come off as unexpected, and confusing.  That reaction is pretty much the same for biblio and SF cinephiles.  The difference in our case is that rather than just giving a shrug of the shoulders, that kind of information can't help but sound incredibly cool to our ears.  It sort of explains why we're a minority, and yet there's no apologizing for it.

For guys like me, the fact that an auteur genius like Hitchcock would turn out to be enough of a fanboy of the prototypical alien invasion story gives the old Hollywood legend this strange sense of humanity that goes a long way toward making him seem less aloof, cool, and detached as his now famous public persona.  It suggests the image of this young kid growing up on the outskirts of London, and rather than a pint-sized version of the dapper, sadistic Master of Suspense, he's like this walking cliche of geekdom.  The sort of kid you might expect to find making his way home from school in suspenders, with maybe a bottle of soda pop in one hand, and either a newspaper comic, a dime novel purchased off a drugstore rack, or maybe the latest issue of The Strand Magazine tucked under one arm, hoping against hope that Arthur Conan Doyle might have found his way back to Baker Street one more time.  

The information provided by Warren allows us to imagine a further variation on this image.  Instead of an Across-the-Pond equivalent of a Pulp Crime serial, its one of those early periodicals that were making their first tentative stabs at Interplanetary fiction, just before the advent of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories helped launch the genre's much touted Golden Age.  The picture of a young nerd immersing himself in the Fantastic genres is as cliche, and dime a dozen as they come.  Nor was it anything like an isolated incident even back then.  The proverbial woods, as the saying goes, was and is still "full of 'em".  What comes as a shocker is to find out that a guy like Hitchcock counts as one of the tribe.  In retrospect, I guess that knowledge shouldn't come as too great a surprise.  Hitch would never have been the artist he became if didn't have an understanding and sympathy for the popular forms of storytelling.  I think it's just the way he presented himself in public, and the style he infused into his best work always manages to give off this sense of class, and taste.  He makes you feel as if you're watching a type of cinema for sophisticates.  Realizing he was a Sci-Fi nerd is a left field surprise.

What Warren's information tells the astute reader, more than anything, is just how much of an impact H.G. Well's Martian novel has left on artists and fans throughout the world.The best way to describe a phenomenon like that is to label it a template setter.  It's the sort of thing that, like Mt. Everest, just happens  every now and again.  Some artist comes along, and either by the purest dumb luck, a burst genius, or most likely a combination of the two results in one of those stories that manages to burrow its way into the unconscious zeitgeist of the culture at large.  This seems to have been the fate of Wells's space yarn, and it's shelf life in the public consciousness appears to be guaranteed for quite some time.

It appears to have left enough of an impact on the mind of someone like a young Hitchcock to such an extent that the man who would later leave a definitive stamp on the Mystery genre still felt compelled to hunt down one of the main shapers of Speculative Fiction all the way in Nice (ibid), and try to ask his permission to make a movie out of it.  It's one of those great what-if moment that history like to tease us with.  Because: reasons.  It means at one point, we could have had an early, big screen, Invaders from Mars epic from the same director who brought you Psycho, and quite possibly featuring Orson Welles himself in the starring role.  None of that ever happened. And it's at moments like these when it's possible to understand how people keep asking the question: Why can't we have nice things?

Wells doesn't seem to have shown any reluctance to Hitchcock's film proposal.  The one monkey in the wrench, as Wells pointed out, was that the rights for the novel were then locked up with Paramount studios, and Hitchcock was still a young novice at the time.  His star was rising, yet even though his career would soon be on the make, it was still at that point were he was considered "Little People" by the moguls running Hollywood at the time.  That's got to be one of the sharpest kicks in the teeth history had in store.  What makes it worse is that it was lying in wait for such a long time, and still you never see it coming.  So, the movie rights to the book languished away, possibly in some studio vault, way out there in the Paramount lot in Hollywood.  There the rights to the novel sat, and waited, with all the time in the world, and nothing to do.  Hitchcock became a film legend, and still no one bothered with the property.  H.G. Wells himself, the man who first brought Mars down to earth, shuffled off whatever we think these mortal coils are supposed to be, and the rights to his work stayed right where the were.  A carbon copy paper version of the Sphinx, and just as inscrutable.  Nothing important happened with them for the longest time.  And then Hungarian producer George Pal took them up.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Pitch Black (2000).

For the longest time, I thought this was a Dan O'Bannon film.  I'm pretty sure of where I got the idea.  Over at the Moria Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Film Review site, there is a neat set of retrospectives taking a look at movies such as Dark Star, Alien, Heavy Metal, and Total Recall.  The one thing each of these films have in common boils down to just a name: O'Bannon.  He's become something of a known-unknown quantity for today's filmgoers.  He's a name that sounds familiar, like a memory on the very tip of the tongue.  It's just that no one can think of a good reason why that should be the case.  These days almost everybody can recall the impact left on them by Ridely Scott's haunted house film in space.  They might have a bit of trouble recalling every last scrap of that film's opening credits, however.  

No matter how iconic the damn thing is.  If any names stick out among that film's cast and crew, then it's a pretty short list, mainly consisting of the usual suspects.  There's the First Lady of Cinema Badasses herself, of course: Sigourney Weaver.  Then there's our favorite Chest Burster victim, the legendary John Hurt.  Beyond that, the memory palace is sometimes able to reserve reservations for the rest of the film's cast who lent their talents on-screen.  Names such as Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, and Veronica Cartwright.  A few may even recall the name of H.R. Giger, the man responsible for bringing the Xenomorph to life.  Beyond this, the rest is a blank, including who wrote the damn thing.

Such is the ironic fate of Dan O'Bannon, the man who wrote the original screenplay for Alien.  The fact that he has to dredged up from the clouded swamps of the attic storage files means that not only has the man (if not his legacy) been half-forgotten, it's also sometimes easy to confuse his own work with that of others.  This is what happened to me in the case of David Twohy's Pitch Black.  What happened is Richard Schieb, the owner and operator of, posted the following question at the start of a review:

"One of the great mysteries of the 1990s and 00s was “What ever happened to Dan O’Bannon?” As scriptwriter, Dan O’Bannon made two grandslams in the 1970s with the scripts for Dark Star (1974) and Alien (1979). O’Bannon then went on to deliver some fine hard-edged scripts, including the likes of Dead & Buried (1981), Heavy Metal (1981), Blue Thunder (1983), Lifeforce (1985) and Invaders from Mars (1986), before making an excellent directorial debut with Return of the Living Dead (1985), which inverted George Romero’s Dead trilogy with a cheerful punk cynicism. However, in the 1990s, Dan O’Bannon almost entirely dropped from the cinematic radar. There were a number of scripts with his name attached – Total Recall (1990), Screamers (1995) and Hemoglobin/Bleeders (1997) – but all of these were old scripts that had been reworked by other writers (web)".

In just a single paragraph, Schieb has given the reader what has to be one of the most succinct summaries of the ups and down's of one of the most distinguished, yet unjustly neglected careers in the history of movies.  For the purposes of this review, however, what it did was get cross-wired somewhere in the old memory banks.  The result is that I labored until just recently under the assumption that O'Bannon was the one responsible for helping to bringing Vin Diesel to a wider audience awareness after his first big break with Spielberg the year earlier.  Turns out I was dead wrong, while also being kind of right.  It's true that O'Bannon never had a thing to do with Pitch Black, however, I'm not the first one to see a link between him and the Diesel film.  Perhaps I'd better explain.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Cage of Light (1984).

Not long ago, I made first introductions to an obscure piece of media.  It was a long forgotten radio program, known simply as Nightfall.  One of those fly-by-night creative experiments of the early to mid-1980s.  Looking back now, I almost want to call it the last Golden Age of artistic achievement.  It was a time when there always seemed to be enough loose change lying around, with enough imagination left over to spare.  The result was this brief, yet vibrant span of time for the entertainment industry worldwide.  It was a window of opportunity where the basic rule of thumb was, if you can dream it, try and see if you can make it real.  As a result, part of the charm of the 80s was that it was something close to the last time anyone thought of trying to take a chance on the now rare, anthology show format.  That's the kind of show where there's no single cast of characters, or plot, and instead each episode of the show is dedicated to a simple, stand-alone story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.  It's became a near endangered species in an age devoted to franchise tent-poles of higher budgets and lessening returns.

While the format is practically a collector's antique these days, it still remains one of my favorite types of programming.  I think part of the charm of the anthology format is that it's the one media style that comes closest to the experience of reading a story in its purest form.  By that I mean simply that the best thing about an anthology series is that it comes closest to the experience of picking up one book, living within its pages for a span of time, and then being lucky enough to find another story, just as good as the one that came before, just for different reasons.  There must have been some sort of mutual wavelength going on back then.  As the 1980s appears to have been something close to the last final bow for the genre anthology.  I think part of what explains this is that a lot of the people who grew up as young kinds watching shows like The Twilight Zone, or Alfred Hitchcock Presents came away inspired by what they saw, and now that they were established names in the industry, they wanted to revive the particular creative thrill each of them got out of  the efforts of format pioneers like Rod Serling.

It helped in no small part that the original Big Three TV networks who were responsible for giving us shows like The Outer Limits, and One Step Beyond, were now eager to try and see if each of these old war horses still had some life in them.  Could the old, gray mare still run with the input of some new blood, in other words?  By and large, the answer to that question seems to have been, pretty much, yes.  That's how we wound up with a slate of new and improved anthology shows, such as the first (and so far, the most successful) reboot of the Zone, along with new offerings such as Tales from the Darkside, or Steve Spielberg's Amazing Stories.  Even good ol' Uncle Freddy Krueger got his own Tales from the Crypt style series for a brief span of time.  In fact, however crazy that sounds, let it at least stand as a good example of just how the networks were willing to take risks on real, actual creative challenges.

This spurt of creativity didn't apply solely to the Idiot Box, however.  The format of dramatic radio, what some have referred to as the Theater of the Mind, was also able to get in on the act.  In addition to shows like The Ray Bradbury Theater, the full cast audio performance began to find the start of a new footing for itself, after a long span of dormancy, which started sometime in the early 60s.  By the time the 80s rolled around, the OTR format was beginning to show signs of stirring back to life.  It was a revival composed of many parents.  For the purposes of the article, the creator we have to focus in on is known as William Lane.  If the name has any familiarity to a few of you reading this, then it's because we've already covered his efforts once before.  Lane was the primary wunderkind behind the Nightfall radio dramas.  A good way to sum up his achievements there is to claim that Bill Lane might have been the man responsible for bringing the legitimate Gothic story of Horror and the Supernatural back to the airwaves.  It's the sort of achievement that no one ever talks about, and barely anyone remembers, all the while going on to leave ripple effects across the genre and various mediums for ages to come.

I suppose it's safe to claim that Nightfall remains Lane's chief claim to fame.  It was his baby, and he found the right way of raising and treating it that catapulted them both into a minor, yet genuine, form of the stratosphere.  Even if that's the case, it's still a mistake to treat him as the radio equivalent of a one-book-wonder.  In addition to Nightfall, Lane seems to have had one other long lasting endeavor to his name.  Much as he'd done for the Horror genre in his first big breakout series, he then went on to pay the same compliment to the related, literary strain known as Science Fiction.  The title for this new, spaced out anthology was The Vanishing Point. In many ways, this seems to have been a natural outgrowth of Lane's earlier efforts.  The Nightfall series ran from 1980 to 83.  By that time, Sci-Fi and Horror where reaching a height that they've never been able to achieve since.  Lane picked up on all this, and his successful effort in audio Tales of Terror must have left him eager for more of the similar.

It's been difficult, if not impossible, to find a sufficient amount of background material to this anthology.  In that sense, Vanishing Point is very much in the same boat as its earlier, sister show.  Each of them is an unjustly neglected, under-documented aspect of real life history, and so we've let each of them slip way back in the corridors of memory.  This makes the critical historian's task a bit more difficult, though not always insurmountable.  The most reliable facts available are that "Vanishing Point was the CBC’s follow-up to Nightfall, which had instilled new life into its many regional drama centers.  Like that series, Vanishing Point drew from the CBC's entire coast to coast network, gathering together the CBC's finest production, engineering, writing, and acting talent to mount one of the better radio dramas in CBC history.  

"While primarily a science fiction series, the anthology presented a wide range of genres, including thriller, horror, detective, psychological drama, comedy and even the occasional musical.  A number of episodes were adaptations of short stories from famous authors like Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl or Evelyn Waugh, but many were original plays from Canada's top talent.  Bill Lane workshopped plays from the winners of various Canadian literary competitions as a way of "reaching the audience by developing the talents of new playwrights (web)". And that, believe it or not, is all the background information I can find on the whole thing.  The only other interesting piece of trivia I've been able to find was something dredged up by accident.  It was a brief promotional line for the show.  It's tagline was promoted as: "The point between reality and fantasy (web)".  One critic goes on to describe it in the following terms: "Don’t expect to make sense of -these- as you would any other show. These stories are taken from the dream state that you slide into at night, just out of grasp of your senses, completely surreal, but in the dream, it makes every bit of sense… The shows are designed to confuse and twist; they have small meanings that resonate only with the dreamer’s subconscious (ibid)".

What's interesting about this circumstance is the way it can have of creating a proper sense of mystery surrounding the whole production.  It's one of those neat little unsung endeavors that fly under the radar during its moment in history.  Then it re-emerges as a relic of time at some later date, leaving an interesting enigma for people to wonder about.  That seems to have been the legacy of Vanishing Point.  In order to get better acquainted with it, maybe the best way of making first introductions is by taking a look at one of the show's sample offerings.  It's a first contact yarn, known simply as, Cage of Light.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Death on the Nile (2022).

There's a dirty secret that few know about.  I've never been impressed by how movies look.  I guess that's supposed to be this major shock in a lot circles.  I'm just not sure I've run into any one of them.  All I know for certain is that as far back as I can recall, what made me like or dislike any work of art, whether on the page or on the big or small screen wasn't its production quality, or its "star" value.  Nor am I at all certain that this is something that the majority of the audience cares about all that much.  If audiences really had a care about the performers, then actors like Katherine Hepburn, Clarke Gable, or Donna Reed would still be familiar names in the back of the minds of viewers almost everywhere.  

The fact this isn't the case tells me it's more of mistake to rely on the so-called "quality" of any given film production than is normally assumed to be valid in most movie-going quarters.  For what it's worth, I've also heard talk that the importance of movie "stars" is something that's on the way out as far as modern fandoms are concerned.  This could either good or bad.  The only constant I've been able to find, the one that has proven the most reliable over the years, all boils down to a single question.  Is the writing good?  If the answer can manage to be yes, then I don't care how poverty row the "production" side of things gets.  You could strip it right down to no real props or background, just a bunch of unfamiliar faces saying the lines on an undressed sound-stage, like Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and all I'd still care to know, even then, is whether or not the narrative itself is able to hold up to close scrutiny.

I say all this as prelude to a simple observation.  I want you to know that I can't be bothered to give much of a rip about how well Kenneth Branagh does either in front of or behind the camera.  I don't know how that makes me sound, and I'll swear I don't care.  All I know is he's got one of those MST3K type reputations in the industry, and among audiences.  He's accused of being over-the-top, with an incurable hankering for "Ham 'n Cheese", no matter what film he makes, or is in.  It's the kind of thing that acts as a distraction for most people.  The minute he starts doing his thing, whatever that is, he gets folks laughing at him, like this unintentional Ringling Bros. clown.  The main claim in all this is that he makes himself impossible to take seriously as an actor, for some reason.  To which, all I can say goes as follows: "Good for him, where's the story"?  If we're going to go the whole Hot Topic route on this, drop me a postcard, cause I fundamentally count myself out of all such considerations.  To me, the gossip columnist approach to works of fiction is the gutter where all legitimate criticism of art goes to die.  And I have too much respect for the medium of storytelling to even think of writing like that.

So that means when it comes to talking about Branagh's next film, if you want to know anything about plotting, characterization, or themes, all that boring good stuff, then you've come to the right place.  If it's a Soap Opera you're looking for, then aren't there still 24 hour cable TV channels for that sort of thing?  I don't know, I've never bothered to look any of that up.  I just took a wild guess, here.  Either way, the answer remains the same, no.  I'm here to concentrate on the importance of story, as story, nothing more, and never less.  With that in mind, let's talk Agatha Christie.  I said a moment ago that names like Kate Hepburn tend to get lost in the sands of time.  I don't know whether that's a basic rule of thumb, yet it does seem to be a cruel fate for a lot of once great talents that perhaps shouldn't be forgotten.  I guess that's what makes Christie's ability to hang on for so long all that more remarkable.  She's an exception that proves the rule, and yet she is also one of the most common of phenomenons to any longtime bookworm.  She's a reliable dime store rack novelist, and she's still hanging around, while other great practitioners in this trade (and here I'm thinking of names like David Goodis or John D. MacDonald) have long since faded from memory.  I'm not saying this makes her bad, by the way.

Far from that being the case, I think I'd have to go so far as to call her one of the undisputed geniuses of the Mystery Noir genre of writing.  What would be interesting to me is to figure out just what it is about her work that makes her linger in the memory after such a great passage of time.  John Fowl's The Collector used to be a Very Big Deal to audiences everywhere, until one day he wasn't, and now everyone wonders who the hell I'm talking about?  Christie still doesn't seem to need that much in the way of an introduction just yet, and its something like a modern marvel in a short term memory loss culture like ours.  Whatever the case, stories like Death on the Nile are still regarded fondly, whereas I'm not sure anyone has a idea who Mickey Spillane is.  To this day its held up as one of the best examples of the genre, and it has proven famous enough to have gained at least two prior adaptations to the Cinema and TV screen, first with Peter Ustinov, and second as part of the classic David Suchet series.  Branagh's efforts make it a trifecta, which brings us to the important point, the story itself.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

McCay (2018).

When we think of the Comics Industry at all these days, it's usually less for the the actual art and format, in and of themselves.  And that's kind of a shame, really.  As it tells you a lot about the shape things are in, when you find any behind the scenes drama a lot more memorable than any of the stories contained in the pages of DC or Marvel.  For my part, I just know what it's like to be able to grow up in a time when this wasn't the case.  I got here in 1984, and if you do the math, it means that while I was sort of too early and young for the party, I arrived just in time for what in retrospect is the last great burst of artistic creativity in the world of comic books.  When I was still learning to walk and say or read my own name, guys like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave McKeon, and Neil Gaiman were all finding ways to bring all the various comics they grew up with as kids into a more sophisticated format, written and designed in a way that even the most snobbish of adults could respect.  Looking back on it now, it's that over-arching desire for respect that stands out the most about it, at least to me.  Comic books had fully entered into what is now known as the Bronze Age, with all the major superheroes and their brands having gone into a major slump.

Moore, Gaiman, and the others, all held a shared conviction that the comics art form was capable of much more than it was putting out at the time.  It's what led them to conceptualize stories, layouts, and designs that would go on to be hailed as a revolution that revitalized the Comics Industry, and gave it a new lease on shelf life.  What I find ironic about such statements isn't the effect it had.  It's more to do with the familiar adage that everything old is new again.  A lot of the main reason for why Morrison and McKeon succeeded as well as they did in their endeavors is because aside from being real talented at the drawing and drafting board, each of them was highly literate as an artist.  What they did was to take the techniques, practices, and above all the themes from some of the best works of Great Literature, and apply them to the world of sequential storytelling art.  The result could sometimes be stories with influences drawn from the interconnected worlds of classical film, painting, and literature.

We have Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum, for instance, of which he had this to say.  "The story's themes were inspired by Lewis Carroll, quantum physics, Jung, and Crowley; its visual style by surrealism, Eastern European creepiness, Cocteau, Artaud, Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay, etc".  Also, "We were also referencing sacred geometry, and the plan of the Arkham House was based on the Glastonbury Abbey and Chartres Cathedral (web)".  In this, all Morrison was doing is taking the lead from Alan Moore, who often worked the symbols or archetypes from ancient myth and ritual practices into the plotting and structural schemes of work like Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Promethea.  Moore was even able to take this further by writing prose poems, or poetic essays such as Snakes and Ladders, and then have them transcribed into comic format with the help of illustrators like Eddie Campbell.  In a similar vein, Neil Gaiman seems to have found the knack for taking the ideas and plot beats from some of the best writers in literature, and giving them a home for people who've never even heard of H.P. Lovecraft, or James Branch Cabell.  It is just possible that some readers picked up a liking for Shakespeare from the pages of Sandman.

Is it right to call all this a golden age?  At the very least, it was something a hell of a lot close to a Renaissance of sorts.  What makes it kind of sad, thinking back on things as they are now, is that it is possible to debate whether it has ever gotten as good as it was back then.  My guess is that most fans, even the most casual of comics readers, would be willing to go with the idea that it isn't.  Maybe what's happening is that we're all busy waiting for that next creative spark to ignite things once more, and usher in a further renascence of the medium.  It's something that should probably be looked forward to.  In the meantime, all we can do is wait, and hope for the time when that next creative spark manifests itself.  In the meanwhile, part of what can help to pass the time is to recall some of the influences that helped inspire the creators of the format now known as the graphic novel.  There is at least one name that gets banded around a bit, here and there.  It's the work of one particular artist who keeps cropping up at random, whether it be in interviews, or in the panels of some of their most famous works.

Gaiman even dedicated one of his shot story collections to this very graphic artist, featuring a panel from his work as part of the collections frontpiece, just opposite the table of contents.  It's the picture of what looks to be a seven year old boy in pajamas climbing up the side of an otherwise ordinary city building.  The surreal touch comes in when you realize the scale of the windows the little boy is climbing past makes him two or three times the size of the average office floor.  It's like we're looking at a minuscule, human version of King Kong, making his way up the Empire State Building.  The interesting thing is I'm pretty sure this image was created quite some time before even the idea of Kong was ever conjured up out of the topsoil of the imagination.  In the drawing, the little boy is looking down onto the unseen streets, miles below.  As he does so, he muses aloud to himself.  "These people ought to know who we are, and tell that we are here".  It's a curious, strange, and somehow beguiling observation.  The sort of thing you never expect to hear anywhere except within the realm of dreams.  

That's because the artist responsible for this otherworldly picture is doing his best to conjure up an idea of what the inside of a dream might look like.  The man responsible for this image, and the observation is known today simply as Winsor McCay.  I've never found out if the boy in his drawing ever had a proper last name.  He's always young, like Peter Pan, yet slightly more timid, yet just as possible of courage and equal acts of mischief and bravery as the circumstances call for it.  So far as I can tell, he's always just been known as Little Nemo, and he is McCay's greatest creation.  In his short story collection, Fragile Things, Gaiman at least hinted at the kind of influence that a graphic artist like McCay had on his own efforts as a writer.  He originally wanted to name his anthology after the word balloon caption in the image described above.  With this tacit admission in mind, it's not too difficult to see just where and how Gaiman would take a great deal of his inspiration for the concepts, ideas, and sometimes even the visual elements of a graphic novel like Sandman.  He's not the only one, either.

McCay's Nemo comics have so managed to cement their way into the submerged pop cultural consciousness that he keeps cropping up every now and then, like a half-remembered dream recalled at the very tip edges of memory, which is essentially what Nemo and his stories are now.  Aside from Gaiman, here's a partial list of the artists that have taken inspiration from McCay's original land of dreams.  Alan Moore patterned the plot of the fourth issue of Miracleman after McCay's secondary world of Slumberland.  The rock band Genesis released a track known as Scenes from a Night's Dream, in their post lineup album,...And Then There Were Three.  Which gives listener's a summary outline of the basic setup of the Nemo comics.  French Surrealist Jean "Moebius" Giraud tried to write a sequel or two to McCay's work in the early to mid-90s.  Maurice Sendak's style owes a great deal to the original Dream newspaper strips.  Finally, one of McCay's biggest fans, an entrepreneur named Walter Elias Disney, once took the famous illustrator's son into his office, and showed him a blueprint for the park that would one day bear his name.  Then he admitted to Robert McCay that all this really should have belonged to his father.  That's the kind of imapct and legacy that Winsor McCay has left behind.

In other words, what we're talking about with Little Nemo in Slumberland, and its creator, is one of those pop-cultural touchstones that keep finding ways of influencing one generation after another.  As of this writing, awareness of McCay's most famous creation still manages to hover around the 50% mark.  That means half of the world still carries on and keeps the memory alive.  That's got a be a gosh damn record for a globe that's lucky if it still recalls an event like the signing of the Magna Carta.  I've seen enough of this guy and his work, off and on, over the years to grow a certain amount of curiosity about him.  I've leafed through enough of the comics to know I'm dealing with an actual talent.  He's good at what he does.  Very good, to be honest.  In fact, based on what I've seen, I'm afraid there's just no way to avoid calling him an artist.  That is also the sum of what I know about this guy.  Aside from his comic creation, the rest of his life comes off as something of a complete and total mystery.

I suppose that's what made me snatch up a copy of Thierry Smolderen's graphic novel.  The funny thing is I can't at all claim that it was something I was deliberately searching for.  I was busy looking up what I thought was a completely unrelated topic at the time, and there it was, as part of the options brought up as a part of my search engine results.  I'll have to admit I wasn't expecting McCay to put in an appearance, sort of .  What was I looking for that could have brought Smolderen's graphic novel up in the first place?  And what does all this have to do with the creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland?  Yeah, when you put it like that, I guess it all does call for a bit of a damn good explanation.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

House Taken Over (1946).

It's kind of amazing to realize just how many things we use without a proper understanding of them.  Take the case of Magical Realism, for example.  What on earth am I even talking about when I use that phrase in a sentence?  The plain fact is I'm not sure how many of us have even so much as a first clue.  It's got to be a genre of some kind, that much is clear.  If it weren't, then odds are even no one would even bother to use the term at all.  Some of the more adventurous sorts might venture as how they heard it came from somewhere in Latin America, wherever that is.  Whether or not such a statement is at all "fair", what can't be denied is the sentiment is bound to come from someone being no more than as honest as they know how.  Come to think of it, though, isn't it supposed to be like just some form of fantasy writing?  And didn't Disney try their hand at it with movies like Encanto?  The best reply I can think of for all of the hypothetical questions given above is that they each represent a given amount the truth, while still not ever managing to get as clear an outline of a vaster, more expansive countryside.

If you can bear to hang on for an annoying, abbreviated history lesson, the whole thing started as an out growth of several influences converging into something old that was new again (accent on the "was").  Magical Realism is best described as what happens when works of European Surrealism in general, and German Romanticism in particular is able make its way into the environs of Mexico and South America.  Where it was able to leave a considerable impact on a goodish number of impressionable, young, Latino minds.  Fellows like Jorge Luis Borges were able to find a moment to pick up translations of writers like Edgar Alan Poe and E.T.A. Hoffman in their spare time, and as they made their way through pages of the accumulated phantasmagoria of Europe and America, the gears of their imaginations just began to turn is all.  It's the same kind of phenomenon that happens in musical genres, such as Metal and Grunge, except this time there's no music to speak of, just words.  That and maybe a bit of painting here and there.  It's no lie to claim that Surrealism helped play a part in jump-starting the Latin American fantasist craze.  Painters like Dali and Magritte, in particular, were able to find a very receptive audience waiting for them in the hills of Columbia and the city streets of Brazil.  

What happened next is a process that has continued to play itself out across all cultures and nationalities.  It's more or less the exact same process that appears to happen every time an accumulative number of readers out there are to able pick up any quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, and find themselves converted into book nerds for life.  The specific details of how this plays out in real life is pretty simple.  You open the text in front of you, and then start to read.  If you're lucky, the text you've chosen to parse through is one of those genuine winners.  Something from the likes of Bradbury, Conan-Doyle, or Richard Matheson.  Any story that is told so well, in other words, that it is able to "set up shop" in your mind, and then you're hooked on storytelling for life.  It's one of those cases of a perfectly normal enough phenomena that is still nonetheless looked at somewhat askance.  It also never really stops such fandoms from gathering together over time, and that's what happened in city, suburban, and even country households all across South America.  The net result was a young population that grew up influenced by the best that European Romanticism had to offer.  Some of these fans, in turn, would grow up to be writers themselves one day, their imaginations have been kindled and nurtured by the collective legacy of popular Fantastic fiction and painting.

It's what allowed these later writers to give birth to what is now known as the Latin American Boom.  There seem to be at least five big names associated with this movement in Latino Letters.  We've already brought up Borges in this regard.  Others who followed in his wake include Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and then of course, there's Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Put them all together and we've got an assembled list of all the guys who used to scare the crap out of you during English 101 from high school to college.  All of which is to say that, yeah, maybe the Magical Realists are the type of author best encountered outside of the classroom.  That way there's no intimidation factor involved.  There's no greater kiss of death for a school of writing than having your class teacher spout off and on about how important Magical Realism is.  Instead, experience has taught me that the best way to get acquainted with all of this stuff is to have heard next to little of anything about it, and then just stumble across a good specimen of the genre while going about your normal routine.

The best sort of way to get acquainted with the work of the Magic Realists that I'm aware of is to be working your way through any half-way decent anthology of Fantastic fiction, and then stumble upon a story with curious, enticing titles, such "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings".  If just the marquee description is enough to get you interested, then trust me when I say the story that follows will be enough to set off a bomb in your mind, in the best way possible, of course.  Part of what makes this approach such a good icebreaker for the sub-genre is that it goes a lot farther towards helping the reader get a sense of just what type of story they're dealing with here.  A lot of the assistance comes down to the good instincts of helpful editors who somehow manage to have a knack for giving these stories their proper context.  It makes sense that you would place a story such as "The Library of Babel" somewhere within in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, because such an editorial choice just seems to show a proper awareness of what type of writing Magical Realism amounts to.

Another reason for championing such an approach is because that's kind of the way it happened for me.  It's been a while now, however.  So that means I can't recall with entire clarity just where I learned how to appreciate the work of Julio Cortazar.  I want to say it was a chance encounter on a website somewhere.  I think what happened is I was reading through a review of Antonioni's Blow-Up and the reviewer happened to mention that it was based off of an actual written short story.  So that was what got my interest, and how I found out about Cortazar.  If I had to detail what that was like, then the all I can say for the moment is that it was akin to stumbling upon a rich, yet overlooked country.  Like a cul-de-sac of vibrant wilderness hidden away by an otherwise blank mass of rock and mountainous terrain.  In other words, as some of you are no doubt thinking, it means I must have stumbled upon the literary equivalent of the Madrigal Stronghold.  To which I say, close, yet no dice.  Try going someplace weirder and far out there.  Let me put it you this way.  It was an interesting discovery, yet also no real surprise to find out Stephen King included Cortazar's Blow-Up: And Other Stories (the volume which incidentally contains the story we're about to examine here today) on his list of influential novels or anthology collections that have made a substantial contribution to the field of the Horror genre.  

It's a rather strong claim to make, and from a pretty heady source, when you stop and think about it.  King's endorsement almost manages to cast Cortazar in a whole, other, Latin American Gothic light.  The more you explore the work of this writer in particular, the easier it becomes to understand why King would find himself making such a judgement call.  At the same time, there is enough diversity in his output to make me think he's best described as a Magical Realist proper.  One who is capable of making a side contribution here and there to the Horror genre, in an occasional, off-handed, not really trying but succeeding anyhow sort of way.  It might be that there's this kind of borderland status to his work that makes it accessible to both kinds of writing at once.  In order to explain what I'm talking about, however, perhaps its best if we stop wasting time, and get to the main attraction.  The way to do that is to take a sample from Cortazar's work.  A short story known simply as, "House Taken Over".

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Operation Avalanche (2016).

The first thing I did after the credits was to head for one of my bookshelves.  I was looking for a poem.  I knew I had to look it up, because that's what the movie planted in my mind.  The idea was that if I found and re-read it, it would help put the finishing touch on everything I'd just watched.  It provides the last piece of context that completes the puzzle.  Before we get to all that, however, it's best to start at the right place.  In the beginning, there was a filmmaker, and a genre.  It all started with a break-in at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  The whole thing was sort of a joke, really.  If only it were something interesting, like international spies trying to steal valuable secrets for nefarious purposes.  It might be just the stuff of pulp fiction, however at least its more interesting than the truth.  The actual facts of the case is that it was just this group of random punks off the street.  They weren't even affiliated with any dark organization at all.  These were just a bunch of indie filmmakers, who somehow managed to talk their way past the front gates, and enter NASA under false pretenses.

The leader of this band of erstwhile merry pranksters is a fellow by the name of Matthew Johnson.  From the looks of him, and the way he lists himself in the film credits, he seems like the kind of guy who tells you to just call him Matt right on first acquaintance.  He's a Toronto native who seems to have grown up with an early interest in the art of film.  He enrolled at York University, and from there began to establish himself on the Independent Cinema circuit.  Johnson is still a relatively new kid in town as of this writing.  So it poses the question of how much there is to discuss at such an early juncture.  One of the key bits of information I was able to pick up about him was that Johnson cited films like Zelig, and Forrest Gump as two major influences on his current style of filmmaking (web).  It's an admission that does the critic a favor in at least figuring out why Johnson would find himself drawn to the particular format he seems comfortable using for the moment.  Let's put it this way.  I'm surprised that Matt didn't think to add the likes of The Blair Witch Project to his list of influences.  All of which is to say that it's time to to talk once more about everyone's "favorite" form of black sheep filmmaking.

I'm talking of course about the Found Footage Genre.  Whether you love or hate it, the inescapable fact is that it seems like the format that's here to stay, even if its just the new type of poverty row cinema.  My own approach to the whole thing remains pragmatic, whether you think it's a fault, or not.  What's important to note is the two films that got Johnson interested in using this particular style.  One of the things that I think  lot of audiences and critics are slow to understand is just how old the Found Footage trope really is.  Something like Forrest Gump can be cited as an example of a straight-forward narrative film.  However, a movie like Zelig is one of, if not the earliest examples of what's now come to be known as a Mockumentary feature.  Just as Robert Zemeckis would go on to do a few years later, Woody Allen was one of the the first to beat the idea to the finish line by a good chunk of a decade.  Another example would have to be Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.  Allen's technique was much the same as in the Tom Hanks film, except that the decade and subject matter were different.

He would shoot modern day footage of himself using old film stock and cameras dating from, at. or around the 1920s or 30s.  This gave the overall appearance of his movie the look of an antique from another time.  He then used roughly the same effects compositions as Zemeckis to help splice him into footage from the late dawn of the 20th century.  As a result, we're able to see moving images of Allen lounging around the New York Yankees baseball field circa the Jazz Age, or mingling with the likes of Eugene O'Neil, or Ada "Bricktop" Smith.  Allen's little experiment amounts to an example of movie magic at its finest, yet most understated.  It was this, combined with Zemeckis' achievement a few years later than appears to have acted as just the right spark on Johnson's imagination.  The director was born in 1985, so if we take that as our starting point, do a bit of math, and extrapolate from that.  Then it sounds as if Johnson's later exposure to the growing Found Footage format, combined with what he learned earlier from Allen and Zemeckis is what led him to choose the sub-genre as his own format.

One of the first uses that resulted from Johnson's enthusiasm turned about to be 2013's The Dirties.  An effective, troubling slow burn meditation on the phenomenon of occurrences like Columbine, or Sandy Hook, and all told from the perspective of a pair of high school students who decide to bring a camera to class one day, and film themselves in their slow descent into insanity.  In real life, Johnson and his frequent collaborators Owen Williams and Evan Morgan are much more of the affable slacker types.  Think Clerks except with none of the whiny angst and emotional baggage.  These guys know where they're supposed to be today, and they all seem perfectly happy with it.  Part of the appeal for these guys might stem from the fact that they take the concept of guerilla filmmaking seriously.  

In order to ensure a sense of "authenticity" for their first feature, Johnson and Williams went the extra mile of actually enrolling in a local public high school in order to not let themselves stick out like a sore thumb.  The filmmakers and their efforts received a generous amount of help and support from none other that the administration of the very school they were filming in, and they spent their time pretending to be individuals that they never were in real life.  The fact that they were never hassled, or that no one ever seems to have bothered to call them out must be some kind of testament to the skill involved in the filmmaker's efforts.  It may also be say something of the director's abilities for making this kind of movie.  He was so good at it that Johnson and his friends tried the same trick again with NASA.

The director explained the whole situation over the course of an interview with The Take.  The initial idea for his next film came together "when we were flying home from Slamdance in 2013, when we’d just premiered our first feature The Dirties (2013). We were trying to figure out how we could make a movie in the same style except about something slightly bigger, and we were looking at historical moments that we could make a fake documentary about. And the moon landing just seemed so catchy and interesting that as soon as we started talking about it we had, like, 200 ideas, basically, on how to make the movie that you saw".  Miller explains: "It was of those ideas that we were shocked nobody had done it like this before".

Johnson continues: "All those things we’d developed in our first movie, so those are holdovers from [The Dirties]. So it was a given that I was going to play myself, and there were going to be lots of tricks and lots of lies and things like that, and because we were already comfortable working in that style, we applied all those things instantly. In fact we never even really talked about them from a creative point of view. It was more like, Oh, it’ll be so cool that those things are going to come up. But it’s not like we were making those discoveries because we had already discovered those things".  Miller adds, "But we didn’t quite know, for instance, that the movie was going to be about Matt pretending to be a filmmaker sneaking into NASA as his cover and us basically doing the same thing in order to pull it off from a production standpoint. Those are some things that, as we were figuring out how we were going to make the movie, we stumbled onto that were very cool".  

When it comes to the major feat of sneaking into the the center of the central hub of the nation's actual freakin' Space Program(!), Johnson proved incredibly casual and off-the-cuff about it.  "It’s mostly what you see in the movie. In both cases, in fact, what we show the audience is more or less what we did. With NASA, we went in posing as a documentary film crew saying that we were from a film school in Toronto, which we both were at the time. And we said we were making a documentary about the Apollo program, in the exact same way the characters say they’re making a documentary about the Apollo program.  And then at Shepperton we did more or less what the characters do there as well, which is we just showed up. That was different because it was a private studio, but nobody kicked us out right away, and so we just went in and shot as much as we could before they did throw us out. They were filming The Avengers 2 [Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)] at that studio at the time. And when they did finally catch us they thought we were paparazzi trying to film Chris Evans or something (web)".

Based on just a simple reading of the director's comments, it's hard not to get the sense that there's a lot more bluster to his words than he lets on.  I don't doubt that he managed to sneak into NASA, believe it or not.  The film itself is his own backup on that score.  The finished product bears out everything Johnson says, and its a testament to his tenacity as an artist.  I just can't help thinking his words are a textbook example in studied nonchalance.  Something tells me that while he's learned how to put up a brave face on the aftermath of things, at the time it was all happening, he could have supplied an entire brick making factory.  I don't see how you can just waltz into a place like NASA and act like you have the right to be there without authorization.  Say sorry, yet it just can't be done.  It may be possible to bluff your way through there.  Johnson's exploits are proof enough of that.  Yet its sheer hubris to claim you don't have a care in the world while your trying to pull the bullshit off.  If he'd been caught, that was the kind of thing that could have landed him jail time, and maybe even the ruination of his career. 

You'd be better off trying that same stunt in a place like Disneyland, rather than an actual government facility.  What Johnson was able to pull off will have to go down as a textbook example of sheerest dumb luck.  The only thing weirder than the stunt Johnson got away with, are the results that wound up making the final cut.  Believe it or not, here's where the hole in reality begins to grow and widen.