Sunday, May 21, 2023

Incident at Loch Ness (2004).

It's difficult to tell just what the reputation of Found Footage, or the Mockumentary style film is like these days.  The best guess I can offer is that by and large, audiences range somewhere between a general indifference to disdain about the whole sub-genre.  If Horror fiction remains the black sheep of all the major popular modes of storytelling (the others being Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Comedy; all of whom share greater levels of public acceptance than the one where zombies routinely crawl out of the grave to sample a gourmet meal of human grey matter), then it seems as if the Found Footage tale is the outcast among the runts of the litter.  While there may be some who are able to find a genuine level of enjoyment from these types narratives, it looks as this is the one type of Horror story that is always going to remain an acquired taste.  It's fortunes are never really going to allow it to rise above its designated station.  Not even the help of a critically acclaimed filmmaker, someone like German New Wave wunderkind, Werner Herzog, will be able to allow these stories the same legitimacy as films Psycho (1960), or Halloween (1978).  It also helps to bear in mind, even these classics are regarded with a jaundiced eye.  The inescapable truth is that Horror lives the shadows of its fellow genre siblings, and Found Footage seems doomed to forever live within the shadow of those shadows.

Not that this is any major complaint, lots of movies out there are able to survive as products of  the niche market, and in an age where the niche demographic is slowly starting to become the norm in show business, it seems like even the blackest of sheep might one day have their own place in the Sun.  That in turn brings us to today's film.  It turns out I wasn't at all lying when I said a filmmaker of Herzog's stature once lent his efforts to the making of a Found Footage Mockumentary.  In retrospect, I'm no longer quite sure how I found out about a movie like Incident at Loch Ness.  I suppose I could have been looking up something to do with the legend of the famous Scottish lake when it happened, and I stumbled upon it that way.  Or else I might have been trying to study up on Herzog himself.  I'm a movie fan with an occasional taste for the more obscure and avant-garde types of cinema.  I'm also the kind of guy who gets a surprising amount of enjoyment from studying urban legends, and the types of ancient folklore that has managed to survive even up to the present day, and Nessie is one of them.  All I know for certain is that it was at a meeting point of one of these subjects that allowed me to stumble upon a trailer for the last kind of film project I could have expected.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Alan Moore's Cold Reading (2010).

A while back, I did a review of  book by Ramsey Campbell.  It was called Ancient Images, and it was one of those books with a winning concept that is hampered by the shortcomings of the novelist.  There are few fates worse than a good idea falling into the hands of the wrong artist.  That seems to have been what happened to the notion of an imaginary Horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and the terrible events that befall the main protagonist as she tries to hunt down a copy.  If I've made that idea sound exciting, then I'm both proud to be of service, and also have to apologize in the same breath.  There may have been something worth sinking your teeth into with a story concept like that.  

The trouble is the power of any artistic idea is at the mercy of the artist's capabilities in realizing it on the page.  It's a skill set that is as necessary as it is often overlooked.  This is the part of creative writing that's perhaps impossible to teach in any school.  What it all comes down to is the writer's ability to realize the story in words (for lack of any better term).  It is a matter of being able to set the narrative down on paper, yet it's also a bit more than that.  At the start of his 1985 masterpiece It, Stephen King notes what sets one of his characters apart as a good storyteller.  He's not just good a telling, but also seeing and making others catch a glimpse of whatever imaginative vision that's floating around inside the artist's mind.

I think King gets very close to an accurate description of what good writing is in that moment.  Another way to say it is that good writing is what happens when an author is able to inhabit the story in such a way as to help bring it to life for the reader.  At least that's one alternate way of putting it.  However, I think I'm being more accurate when I say that all good stories, the really gripping works of narrative art, are able to contain, or come with their own artistic power and draw more or less intact.  The draw and allure of good stories, to me, are best seen as part of what might be called the "natural" ingredients of any imaginative idea, or archetype, that the artist is able to dig up from the depths of the unconscious mind.  The real task of the true writer is seeing just how capable they are of matching the power of their imaginative vision when or if they ever decide to record it down for the sake of an audience.

The is probably where any serious talk of artistic talent comes in, and perhaps the truth is that the level of success that each writer has with this skill is what sets the good and the great apart from the merely competent and mediocre.  Guys like J.R.R. Tolkien and Mark Twain have this ability in spades, which is why secondary worlds such as Middle Earth are able to seem so real to the tons of people who encounter it for the first time, over the years.  Or why a simple river in the Eastern half of the United States, such as the Mississippi, is able to take on this almost talismanic quality for anyone who has ever decided to give a book like Huck Finn a chance.  All of that is just a demonstration of Twain and Tolkien's narrative skills.  Both are capable of inhabiting their stories with skill.  They are each able to get into the zone, or whatever is necessary to not so much bring their respective archetypes to life, so much as allow them all the room they need to breath.  I think a lot of that also has to do with how each imaginative setting is able to play to the authors' strengths, and its another component in telling any good tale.  The trouble with Ramsey Campbell, at least in the case of a book like Ancient Images, is that he can't or won't seem to take the time to get inside of the story in order to help it fly off the page.

This is something that Campbell seems to have difficulty with.  His prose style and sense of pacing are well written enough.  There's not much in the way of any glaring errors of spelling, phrasing, or diction to be had, and the narrative itself keeps moving at a brisk pace that would be a welcome value in a better book.  The trouble is that the novel always reads as if its story is stuck inside a goldfish bowl, or one of those glass formaldehyde cases, with the author either unable or unwilling to do anything to improve it.  This is something that a writer like Stephen King is aware of in his critical review study, Danse Macabre.  There, he writes: "Campbell is good, if rather unsympathetic, with character (his lack of emotion has the effect of chilling his prose even further, and some readers will be put off by the tone of this novel; they may feel that Campbell has not so much written a novel as grown one in  Petrie dish (381-2)".  This sort of disconnected, almost hands-off approach has been Campbell's great weakness.

You sometimes hear or read novelists talking about how the best thing they can do is to get out of the way and let the story tell itself.  That's not just a sentiment I agree with, I applaud it.  It's just the right frame of humility that any writer worthy of the title should practice.  The thing is that letting the story tell itself isn't the same as not giving it a ballpark to play in.  One of the key facets of good writing is the ability of the artist to record the inherent drama of the creative idea with as much accuracy as possible.  This is where the artist's ability to tap into the emotional content of the story comes into play.  It's a necessary and tricksy skill to pull off, and in terms of a book like Ancient Images, it seems to be one that Campbell has had some difficulty with.  That was a book I never set out to bad mouth.  What happened is the more I went along, the more the glaring errors in the composition stood out to me.

The result has been one of the most unsatisfactory reading experiences that I've had in recent times.  It's also kind of the explanation for this article.  What I wanted to do was to see if it was possible to find a story in the same genre as Campbell's, and that could act as a positive counterpart to the mistakes made in the last book I've reviewed on this site.  It didn't take long to dig up a likely specimen.  It's a short story entitled "Cold Reading".  The author also wrote stuff like Watchmen and V for Vendetta if it matters.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023).

It's been a while, yet I can still recall the first time I saw the old boy.  During the Christmas holidays way back in 1991, I remember my parents were very eager for my sister an me to take an interest in one gift in particular.  It was the first time I'd ever seen a Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and I think it says a lot about my credibility as a non-gamer that I didn't even know what to make of it.  I'm not lying about not being much of a gamer, by the way.  I was a child of the 80s, yet since I was born the year George Orwell made famous, a lot of my time was spent in watching the decade unfold from the sidelines.  That means while I occasionally came within reach of video game arcades, I think I was just too young to even know what to do with or about any of them.  Besides, the few memories of have of trips to Chuck E. Cheese's can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and there are only two or three that I recall with any great clarity.  

The clearest part of all those memories is the same thing.  Those stage animatronics belting out Bruce Springsteen's cover version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  Like I said, it was a long time ago, and I was just a kid back then.  One of those 80s brats whose attention is more concerned with questions of greater importance, such as whether an animated talking mouse can relocate his family on the streets of New York.  Or whether a manchild by the name of Paul Reubens will ever get his favorite bike back.

So by the time I first set eyes on a familiar plumbing expert from Brooklyn, it was kind of an unexpected arrival.  In addition to the Super Nintendo, my parents had also bought me and my sister a copy of a cartridge game to go along with it.  I can still recall the the box art imprinted on it.  A little man in blue work overalls, a red shirt and cap, riding on a slightly clever looking cartoon lizard.  The game was called Super Mario World, and the punchline here will forever be at my expense.  You see, the joke is that rather than being ecstatic at the prospect of being perhaps one of the few kids on the block to own what was turning out to be a real paradigm shift in the history of video games, I at first thought I just couldn't be bothered.  Now that I've painted a target on my head, let me go on assure everyone here that I soon fell victim to the game's charms.  My parents kept insisting I play it, probably more out of a concern for not throwing away hard earned income, more than anything, and it wasn't long before I was soon joining my sister in the antics of the most famous gaming mascot of all time.  That was really my big breakthrough with the character, though it wasn't my first ever encounter with him.

I'd known at least something of the Mario Bros. series of games long before this.  Mostly, however, it was limited to the occasional commercial I might have caught during the golden age of 80s and 90s TV.  In fact, the first time I ever saw the old intrepid savior of damsel's in distress was on an episode of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood if you can believe it.  If you can't, then here's a clip to prove I'm not lying.  That was literally the first time I'd ever heard of a game called Donkey Kong, and the cast and crew of the console that would all go on to become legends in their own right.  It's also in retrospect that it was the first time I ever saw the cinema legend now known simply as Keith David, yet that's another story.  The point is there goes my initial contact with the world of Nintendo's flagship franchise.  The next time I caught up with plumber from down under, he was now joined by his younger brother Luigi.  It was as part of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show.  And right about now, most of you have the Plumber Rap stuck in your heads.  Wallow in it 80s kids!  We never knew just how good we had it.  

So, yeah, like a lot of the rest of us, I got to witness a few episodes, here and there.  Not much.  In fact, I think I've only ever caught one or two in my lifetime.  However what I did manage to see impressed me enough to the point where I was frustrated by my inability to catch the show again.  That's the real reason I never got into the whole deal more than anything else.  I could just never really locate the show's schedule times.  I think I must have had the bad luck to catch each TV incarnation of the character during the tail ends of the run on the airwaves.  Once those offerings ceased to make appearances, all of us had to wait until the coming of DVD and digital media if we ever wanted to catch a rerun.  And so it goes.  As a result, while it piqued my curiosity, I never really had the chance in my household to ever sort "get into it" like everyone else.  Which at least helps explain my initial lukewarm reception to Super Mario World turning up on my doorstep.  I mean when you're a kid, life goes by pretty fast, even if it seems like aeons, and there was a lot more back then to distract yourself with.

Still, playing that game was enough to rekindle my initial enthusiasm, for a time, at least.  After I finally beat the game, I followed it up with Mario Kart, and then I think it was Super Mario All-Stars, which is where I got re-acquainted with all the others games in the series up to that point.  The last entry in the SNES series that I ever bothered with was Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars, back in 1996.  It was a time that is remarkably distant, yet seems just like yesterday, looking back on it now.  Oh yeah, and then there was the Bob Hoskins adaptation with Dennis Hopper as Bowser in 93.  It's one of those films I can recall not minding all that much as a kid.  In my memory, it seems to share a lot of similarities with shows like The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, if that's anything.  Apparently, however, it wasn't as far as most of the fans are concerned to this day.  And I've got to admit, looking at the film now, it all just falls apart if you give the setup so much as a moments thought.  The whole thing is a classic case of a property suffering from an identity crisis.  At no point can  the film ever quite make up its mind on what it wants to be.  Based on what I've heard on the behind the scenes drama, it's an opinion shared by both the stars and directors of the movie.

What I'm also able to say with a fair degree of certainty is that it was the box-office performance of the 93 adaptation which more or less put the kibosh on any ideas of translating the video game franchise to the big screen for the next three decades.  Then, low and behold, Nintendo decides to take a chance, and hires Illumination studios to try and make a feature-length, computer animated cartoon about everyone's favorite public works brothers, and their amusing exploits.  The result is now still in theaters as of this writing, and all of it begs the question.  Is this the Mario franchise adaption fans have been waiting for?

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Ramsey Campbell's Ancient Images (1989).

I think I'll have to start out with an apology.  It's directed at not one, but two recipients.  The first is Will Errickson.  He owns the popular blog, Too Much Horror Fiction, which serves as a great resource for unearthing the all the ghastly glories from the days of Gothic fiction past.  If you're the kind of discerning reader who likes the sort of charm that's found in those old types of paperbacks with lurid art decorations featuring a colorful variety of assorted nightmares from previous decades, then Errickson is the guy you need to talk to in order to sate that particular fix.  No matter how niche you may think your taste in the old classics are, whether it be a like for names like Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, Richard Matheson, or even more obscure names like Thomas F. Monteleone and Kathe Koja, Will's blog will always be there to both assure you that you're not alone, and help re-introduce you to a lot of obscure names that sometimes don't deserve to be forgotten.  The best part is that he accomplishes all this in a crisp yet descriptive prose style that is fitting for the type of blog he runs, and the particular tomes of terror that he was able to unearth dredge up from the crypt of yesteryear.

If it sounds like I'm going out of my way here to sing the Will's praises, then the sad news is there may be a reason for that, so I figure its best get the apologies up front and let everyone know that what I'm about to say next is nothing personal.  I also mentioned above that there was just one other person to whom a bit of groveling is in order, considering the places this review is going to head as it goes along.  This other guy is just some scribbler by the name of Stephen King.  Have you heard of him?  Well, whatever the case, even if you're a complete newcomer to the Horror genre, you can take my word for it that this second person I have to apologize to is a good place to start when it comes to the real subject of this review.  It all has to do with a book called Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell.  Now if neither the name, nor the title is familiar to you, then I'm not surprised.  Nor is it anyone's fault, although that faint and distant sound of sorrow you might be hearing right now is probably Will Errickson wailing and gnashing his teeth, while tearing his hair out.  In some ways, it's just possible for me to sympathize with such a reaction.  However, the sad truth is every artist is at the mercy of the audience.  Which means all fame is a victim of memory.  Writers like King are lucky in that he's become (by his own admission) the world's most recognizable brand name in the history of the Horror genre.

For people like Ramsey Campbell, however, the luck just never really appears to have been in the cards.  If you type in his name on Google Trends, the results are not what you'd call inspiring.  The search engine's recall doesn't reach back further than the year 2004.  And the further away you get from that point, the lower Campbell's fame and reputation seem to dip.  It bottoms out around December of 2006, and he's never really broken past the 25% mark since.  That's a good marker for showing that your reputation is in danger of sinking away into the cracks of history.  The final kicker is that in the US, at least, there are just two states where anyone shows any awareness of who Campbell is, and his entire reputation is confined to both New York and California.  That's not niche.  It's barely even an afterthought.  It's also kind of the reason I decided to bring Uncle Steve along for the ride.  In addition to being the best-selling Boogeyman of all time, King has forgotten more valuable information about the Horror genre than most of us will ever be able to recall under our own efforts going forward.

His memory of the Gothic is long, and one of the shames of real life is that I don't think we've ever capitalized on that as much as we should, while there's still time.  There will come a day (say sorry as hell) when such an immediate fount of knowledge will no longer be available, at least not as far as our own current perception of things goes.  When it does, it will be like watching a valuable treasure chest of information and genre knowledge sinking under the waves for the final count.  That's one of the great losses that can happen when a Titan goes silent, and the same can even be said of Campbell as well as King.  In addition to being ink-stained-wretches, both men are fans of their own genre, and one of the good things to know is that Campbell has been considerate enough to leave his own thought on the field, and its stories recorded down for posterity.  King has managed to do some of this as well, in his 1981, book-length study, Danse Macabre.  It's in that non-fiction book, as well, that he provides readers with what has to be one of the few good introductions to who Ramsey Campbell is, and what he writes for a living.  As always, the first step in getting to know a forgotten name is to know about his context.

From what I'm able to tell, Campbell is one of those writers who owe their entire career to being in the right place at the right time.  He wound up as one of the many handfuls of genre practitioners whose efforts received a strong shot in the arm once the Horror field began to experience its real renaissance during the 70s and 80s.  This is something Errickson is able to discuss in greater detail with his overview history, Paperbacks From Hell.  The basic gist, however, is that for whatever reason, starting somewhere in the early 60s, the spectral world of ghouls, ghosts, and everything that goes bump in the night experienced a new surge of popularity that, for a time, allowed the genre to build its reputation up in the public conscious, one strength at a time.  It's nadir was reached between the Carter and Reagan administrations, before finally beginning to dwindle into the kind of set pattern it now finds itself in, somewhere in the middle of the 90s.  Campbell's career in this publishing boom period marks him out as a somewhat interesting specimen of the format.  Much like King, Ramsey is a boomer who got bit the fright bug as a young lad in Liverpool, and his enthusiasm for the dark soon found more or less the same outlet, in first the writing, and later the eventual publication of his name in magazines and books.

It's the sort of familiar career trajectory that Campbell shares in common with King.  The basic plot beats of this artistic development might almost be capable of graphing like the notes of a well worn, yet still useful symphony.  What's somewhat remarkable in Campbell's case is the timing and speed of his arrival on the scene.  The British author's own self-admitted big step "into the abyss of full-time writing" came in 1973 (14)".  His years of published apprenticeship began as far back as 1961, at a time when the zeitgeist of Horror was being funneled through the likes of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, and Dan Curtis's Dark Shadows.  Campbell started out as something of a Lovecraft acolyte, even getting a job under the wing of Arkham House editor August Derleth.  As the Psychedelic era transitioned to the Disco Age, Campbell began to refine his efforts into the current voice he still has today.  This the part at which King's own study of the writer is able to help put flesh on the skeleton of the bare facts.  In chapter 9 of Danse Macabre King provide his readers with some very helpful bits of information.

King starts out by noting that Campbell is (or was, once upon a time) "part of a whole new generation of British fantasy writers who seem to be revitalizing the genre by cross-fertilization much as British poets helped to revitalize American poetry during the early sixties.  Besides Campbell...there is Robert Aickman (who could hardly be called a young Turk - but since such books as Cold Hand in Mine have brought him to a wider audience, it seems fair enough to classify him as part of the British new wave), Nick Sharman, Thomas Tessier, an American living in London, who has recently published a novel called The Nightwalker, perhaps the finest werewolf novel of the last twenty years, and a score of others.

"As Paul Theroux - another expatriate American living in London - has pointed out, there is something uniquely British about the tale of horror (perhaps particularly those which deal with the archetype of the Ghost).  Theroux, who has written his own low-key horror tale, The Black House, favors the mannered but grisly tales of M.R. James, and they do seem to summarize everything that is best in the classic British Horror story.  Ramsey Campbell and Jame Herbert are both modernists, and while this family is really too small to avoid a certain resemblance even in cousins twice removed, it seems to me that both of these men, who are worlds apart in terms of style, point of view, and method of attack, are doing things that are exciting and worthy of attention (376)".  Let me just pause right here to offer a brief, yet important after-the-fact observation, one that just goes to prove the adage about how hindsight is pretty much everything.  With the passage of years, it has now become possible to gain a clearer picture of what was going on in the field of British Fantasy during the years King was talking about.  Those words of his were written down between 1979-80, and as he was getting all this ready for publication, there were a lot of other artistic developments going on in the background of King's prose that tell a greater story.

It turns out that "whole new generation of British fantasy writers" who were busy "revitalizing the genre" back then has now been expanded to include a list of writers and artists who have now become greater household names than the one's King starts us out with.  This would include the likes of Alan Moore, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Dave Mckean.  At least these are the authors and creators who have gone on to achieve a worldwide level of fame as a part of that British Fantasy Boom that King talks about.  It's a crucial piece of information that serves to repurpose the context of the Danse Macabre scene setting given above.  With the clearer picture that we have now about how the artistic history shaped out, it becomes obvious that King's initial musings about British Fantasy are in fact one of the first notices ever given to the explosion in all the major Fantastic genres that would soon be inaugurated by Moore and Gaiman in the coming years.  King was therefore in the somewhat lucky position of being able to notice that at least something important was going on in the UK at the time, even if the picture was still not as clear as it later became.  The final irony here is that when we talk of people like Gaiman and Mckean, they're ususally lumped together with King.

That seems to be because of how their efforts shaped the history of the modern literary arts.  Peter Straub seems to have been aware of this, which is way in a later book of lit. crit. essays, he refers to people like Moore, King, Gaiman and himself as belonging to an informal group of clique of writers known as the New Wave Fabulists.  It's a moniker that still seems to be the best fit for a collection of disparate artists who nonetheless managed to come together and find ways of turning the mundane world around them into marvelous dream vistas of both terror and wonder in equal measure.  On the British front, guys like Al and Neil were accomplishing these feats with the publication of titles like Watchmen and The Sandman respectively.  Getting back to King's description in the Danse study, however, what becomes even more clear is that he initially saw Ramsey Campbell as very much belonging to, or forming a very crucial part of this then up and coming literary cadre of artists.

In terms of the writer's own efforts in all of this artistic ferment, King has the following to say. "Campbell, a Liverpudlian ("You talk just like one of the Beatles," a woman marvels to a writer from Liverpool in Campbell's new novel, The Parasite) writes a cool, almost icy prose line, and his perspective on his native Liverpool is always a trifle offbeat, a trifle unsettling.  In a Campbell novel or story, one seem to view the world through the thin and shifting perceptual haze of an LSD trip that is just ending...or just beginning.  The polish of his writing and his mannered turns of phrase and image make him seem something like the genre's Joyce Carol Oates (and like Oates, he is prolific, turning out good short stories, novels, and essays at an amazing clip), and there is also something Oatesian in the way his characters view the world - as when one is journeying on mild LSD, there is something chilly and faintly schizophrenic in the way his characters see things...and in the things they see.  These are the perceptions of (one of Campbell's other main characters from a different book from the one we're looking at here, today, sic) as she shops in a Liverpool department store in The Parasite:

"A group of toddlers watched her pass, their eyes painted into their sockets.  On the ground floor, red and pink and yellow hands on stalks reached for her from the glove counter.  Blind mauve faces craned on necks as long as arms; wigs roosted on their heads...The bald man was still staring at her.  His head, which looked perched on top of a bookcase, shone like plastic beneath the fluorescent lights.  His eyes were bright, flat, expressionless as glass; she though of a display head stripped of its wig.  When a fat pink tongue squeezed out between his lips, it was as if a plastic head had come to life.

"Good stuff.  But strange; so uniquely Campbell that it might as well be trademarked...Campbell has been turning out his own patented brand of short horror tale for some years now (like Bradbury and Robert Bloch, Arkham House published Ramsey Campbell's first book, The Inhabitant of the Lake, which was a Lovecraft clone).  Several collections of his stories are available, the best of them probably being The Height of the Scream.  A story you will not find in that book, unfortunately, is "The Companion," in which a lonely man who tours "funfairs" on his holidays encounters a horror beyond any ability to describe while riding a Ghost Train into its tunnel.  "The Companion" may be the best horror tale to be written in English in the last thirty years; it is surely one of the half dozen or so which will still be in print and commonly read a hundred years from now.  Campbell is literate in a field which has attracted too many comic-book intellects, cool in a field where too many writers - myself included - tend toward panting melodrama, fluid in a field where many of the best practitioners often fall prey to cant and stupid "rules" of fantasy composition.  

"But not al good short-story writers in this field are able to make the jump to the novel (Poe tried with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and made a conditional success of the job; Lovecraft failed ambitiously twice, with The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward and the rather more interesting At the Mountains of Madness, whose plot is remarkably Pym-like).  Campbell made the jump almost effortlessly, with a novel as good as its title was off-putting: The Doll Who Ate His Mother (376-78)".  We'll have to stop there if we want to stay on course.  However the point of all that preamble was to give readers an idea of how I first heard of the author King talks about.  As you might have been able to tell, it turns out the guy who wrote The Shining is also one hell of a better salesman than maybe even he realizes.  King's mini-essay into Campbell and his work did enough of a good job at detailing a writer that I'd never really heard of, except at second hand, that he accomplished the one feat all artists hope to succeed at.  He got me interested in the work of another latter day Gothic novelist.  My curiosity was gotten at enough, anyway, so that Campbell became a name I promised myself I would look into at some future date, and apparently that time is now.  All of which preamble leads us to the main subject.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Dunkirk (2017)

There's a long strand of irony running through the history of Film.  I suppose a good way to sum it up is with the maxim: "What's hip today, may tomorrow be passe".  The records of Tinseltown are littered with candidates who were once considered "the most important flick".  The one picture you had to see if you wanted to be considered serious about movies.  Cut to the present moment and most of them barely cast a reflection in the rear view mirror.  These are the offerings that had their moment once upon a time, and now somehow found their way somewhere nearer the bargain basement bin of cinematic glory.  

Off the top of my head, a few that I can recall are such examples as: American Beauty, Shakespeare in Love, Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowHugo and The Aviator (both directed by Martin Scorsese), and once acclaimed experiments like The Artist come to mind.  Nowadays, I think we have to remind ourselves that works like this still exist, every now and then.  I can't help wondering if the film we're about to look at today falls into that category?  Christopher Nolan is still no stranger to movie-goers, of course.  Just the name alone is able to conjure up some favorite image.  Whether it's Terrance Stamp on a revenge spree, Heath Ledger in the role of his life, or maybe the earlier, gritty Noir spectacle of a picture like Followed, Nolan has gotten lucky so far.  He's still has enough fond memories allow him a career in this business.

I'm just curious how far all that good will and its memory extends.  If anyone recalls Nolan these days, its as one in a long line of directors who have lent their talents to bringing the fabled Gotham Cape and Cowl to life on the big screen.  Something tells me its no real secret if a film like The Dark Knight becomes the one thing everybody will remember Nolan best for.  That just leaves the question of what about all of his other work?  Where does a film like Dunkirk fit into all of this?  Does it belong on the list given above?  I think it's best if we take a close look at it, and see what secrets it holds, and what it say about it's quality.  Maybe it doesn't deserve to slip all that far through the cracks of memory lane.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play (2012).

To tell you the truth, it's been a while since I've given any real thought to the subject.  There was a time when I would have considered myself a fan of The Simpsons.  These days, however?  Well, maybe not all that much.  Perhaps not at all is the more correct way of how things stand, with me, at least.  The funny thing is I can still recall how and where I first saw them, though there's a bit of a trick in the telling, and it goes like this.  I almost started to talk about the first ever episode of the show that I watched from start to finish.  Then I had to stop myself because I realized that wasn't quite correct.  That's not how I ran across the (former) First Family of Comedy at all, really.  It was through a tie-in arcade game the series once had.  It came in one of those big boxes that you find tucked away in old malls back in a long vanished analog age.  Does anybody here still remember those old arcade areas?  

It was a result of the first great video game boom during the 80s.  It's how we got stuff like Pac Man, Space Invaders,  or Super Mario Bros.  As the games got more sophisticated, so did the graphics, and pretty soon there were arcade boxes that offered games functioning as tie-in materials for favorite shows on TV, like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Hell, even Michael Jackson once had an arcade game dedicated to him, that's just how crazy and interesting things used to be back in the day.  Sure enough, Springfield's favorite family also got in on the action at one point.  It was this beat-em-up brawler were you got to choose between any of the four members of Che Simpsons as you battled your way through town in order to rescue the baby, Maggie.

I'm not sure the of exact place where I first saw that particular bit of shameless merchandising.  I think it could have been in the lobby of a long defunct theater chain, or maybe a local pizzeria type place.  My clearest memory, however, is of catching a brief glimpse of the game's setup, and finding it kind of intriguing, I guess you could say.  As far as first encounters go, that probably sounds simple enough.  Except there's just one problem.  My mind has played a further trick on me.  That's not the real first time I ran across The Simpsons at all.  Before that it all must have started off as a sporadic series of passing chance encounters.  Here's where the history begins to get sketchy.  Beyond a few crucial snapshot remembrances, I don't think I paid enough attention to all the times I was ever alerted to the presence of America's Favorite Dysfunctional Family on the airwaves.  It's possible the first time was catching a casual glimpse of a quickie promo on the TV at one point.  This, in turn, might have been followed by the first spate of toy commercials.  I know at some point I wound up the owner of a rubber-plastic Bart figurine.  Though it's been so long that I no longer recall how I got hold of it, or what's even become of it today.  It might even count as a lost collector's item these days, for all I know.

After that, things begin to come into a bit better focus.  Not a lot, though better than where it all started.  I can claim with certainty to have caught the tail-end of the episode known as Bart Gets Hit by a Car.  It's the one that ends with Homer and Marge commiserating with each other over a pint at Moe's, remember?  Marge just blew the family's chance on winning a hefty wad of money from Mr. Burns in court.  There was this shady ambulance chaser named Lionel Hutz who'd finagled it so they could all hit the jackpot in terms of a monetary settlement for the "damages" done to Bart at the episode's start.  All they needed to make it work is ensure that everyone was on the same page, and give the same false testimony.  Bart and Homer are onboard with this scheme.  Lisa and Marge, however, are not.  And it's Marjorie's decision to tell the truth which causes the court to turn against them.  The show then ends with Man and Wife apologizing and patching things up together at Springfield's best watering hole.

This is all stuff I found out about later on.  I first came in at the end, like I said.  Right at the point where Homer looks Marge right in the eye, and realizes that he still loves her with all his heart.  He tells her as much in front of all his drinking buddies, and everyone cheers, and decides to celebrate with a round of Duff Beer.  Hard to believe that's how it used to be, isn't it?  This was all in the future (once upon a past) for me, at the time.  Back then, all I saw was another snippet of a burgeoning pop culture phenomenon, and I still didn't have a clue what it was about.  The funny thing is I probably would have remained clueless of all this if I hadn't left a video cassette recording long enough to capture a rerun of the episode where Marge decides to get a job at the Nuclear Power Plant, and winds up catching the eye of Homer's boss.  I forget the name of the episode after all these years, yet I can still remember a lot of the shenanigans that went on in it.  It included a subplot riff on the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, involving Bart.  It's the one that ends with the couple being serenaded by Tom Jones, only he's being held captive by Mr. Burns as the result of one of his attempts to win her over to his side.

I don't think there's much of anything new about the patchwork story I've just told.  Odds are even the world is full reminiscences just like mine.  All of them, when placed together side by each other, would amount to little more than an anecdotal history of how America first came to know what used to be considered the funniest, and most clever sitcom satire in history.  At least that's how it all started out.  The key thing to note about that little bit of shared history written above lies in the way it was told.  I was having to work from memory the whole time just to get the facts straight, which is telling.  I also had to stop every now and again when I realized I hadn't told the whole story.  There were gaps in my history with The Simpsons that needed shoring up in order to give an accurate picture, and this is something that's even more significant.  All I was trying to do was recount how I came to know about a very famous (once popular) TV show, and yet it took effort because of how much time had lapsed between when it all happened, where I am now, and how much energy I gave to remembering it all.

The whole process teaches a sort of unintentional (yet very real) lesson on the sometimes perilous nature of human memory.  It's a natural enough aspect of life, and something that we all have along with other mental faculties, such as the Imagination (if there even is anything natural about make believe, or remembrance for that matter), and yet it's something you sort of have to work at if you want it to function properly.  If I had to give a good description of what a memory does, or is supposed to be, then I guess a good way to describe it is to call it a way to capture all the important moments of things that go to make up a life.  How much any of us is able to recall important events from our past probably says a lot about what we value, or hold to be important.  The intertwined subject of the persistence of memory, or the remembrance of things past is a topic of great concern to a writer like Anne Washburn.  It forms part of the core of a play she wrote not too long ago.  It concerns, of all things, nothing less than The Simpsons, the show's legacy, and they way we recall it in our collective memory.  It's an intriguing fable of remembrance, persistence, and the way we tell stories to each other, and how the best tales manage to survive through the passage of time.  It's called Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Nope (2022)

Jordan Peele has turned out to be one the major breakout directors in Hollywood over the past few years.  Seeing as how he got his start way back in 2012, as part of the comedy series Key and Peele, perhaps its a mistake to call him anything like a "new voice".  However, all of his important cinematic accomplishments have arrived within the span of seven years.  So that makes him a recent addition by the uncertain standards of pop cultural awareness.  From that perspective, Peele got his first big break with his directorial debut with 2017's Get Out.  That's a film which does everything that a good Horror movie should do.  It sneaks up on its audience from out of left field, and when it comes time to go for the jugular is where Peele demonstrates his skills at crafting a well told tale of terror.  

Rather than just one big jump scare, or resorting minor and unimpressive gore tactics, Peele plays his hand like an architect who is well aware of the genre he is working in, and hence knows a thing or two on how to elevate this type of narrative to the level of genuine art.  His entire story is a multi-layered trap lined with multiple springs and trip wires primed to go off at just the right movement of the plot.  The way Peele builds up his house of horrors in that movie rests upon the strengths the director has gleaned from past entries in the field, while utilizing them all to express his own individual talent.  In doing so, I think what Peele has done there is to give us the modern incarnation of the Body Snatcher Invasion trope.

Get Out proved to be the film that got the attention of a mass audience, and put Peele on the map.  A powerhouse breakout performance like that is sure to raise a lot expectations in viewers, though.  This is true especially for those who now consider themselves the directors fans.  To say that a lot weight was being placed on Peele's next effort is a bit like saying that a stock broker has to hope that the market goes in his favor.  In think the fan created site known as TV Tropes gives a better summary of the result of Peele's next film better than I can.  

"While critics and audiences almost unanimously loved Get Out (2017), Us is proving to have a greater divide between audience and critical reception.  Audiences seem to be more mixed on the film than critics, who see it as good as Get Out if not better.  Case in point, Get Out had a CinemaScore of "A-" (a rarity for horror films, many of which get "B+" rankings if they're adored by audiences) and Us had a less enthusiastic "B".  A big component of this seems to be that the film's slow-burn approach to horror is completely different than Get Out, along with the movie's central allegory being a lot more esoteric compared to the unsubtle but important moral presented in Jordan Peele's previous film.  Another common complaint is the movie's explanation of what the (film's horrors, sic) actually are, in that the movie puts too much effort into trying to provide a "logical" explanation that still makes distractingly little sense, and the (villains) were more interesting when they were left creepily unclear (web)".  Let me just state here, for the record, that I've got no problems at all with any Horror story that needs a slow burn in order to achieve its effect.  Some of the best work I've ever read or watched in the genre has come from narratives where a slow release of information was just the right ingredient necessary to curdle the blood.  So I don't think that's the most valid criticism for why this movie doesn't work.

I think the real reason why Us wasn't such as big a hit as the director's previous effort is explained once more by the same TV Tropes page, when it gives us an enlightening bit of backstage trivia.  "Jordan Peele has stated that one of the things that inspired the film was The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "Mirror Image", about a woman encountering her evil doppelganger (ibid)".  If we assume this is the truth, then everything about Us begins to fall into place, including why it never quite works like the director intended it should.  What Peele has done here is to commit a tactical error, of sorts.  He's a taken a very simple idea and complicated it to a level of epic proportions.  His problem is this is a storytelling weight that the initial concept just isn't able to bear.  The notion of a creepy run-in with an evil double, or duplicate, is one of those creative ideas that is best served in smaller doses, like that of either a short story, or half hour television episode.  This is a vital aspect of the concept that Rod Serling appeared to be very much aware of, so he was smart enough to make sure this fantasy didn't wear itself out by over-staying its welcome.  Instead, where Peele tries to make the idea fit into a mold it can't accommodate, Serling pairs it down to its very essence, delivering a lean, mean, and frightening exercise in paranoia and existential dread.  It's a good way of comparing and contrasting the two creator's strengths and weaknesses.  The latter waters the concept down, the former makes it iconic.

With this hindsight in mind, it's no wonder if Peele's Get Out follow-up didn't exactly live up to expectations.  In fact, I'm starting to wonder if a lot of the fallout from that film's release might have bled into the inspiration for his next project, the movie up for review and discussion here today.