Sunday, September 24, 2023

Neil Gaiman's Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch (1998).

Neil Gaiman still doesn't need much of in the way of an introduction, at least as of this writing.  Experience has taught me that's the sort of thing that can always change, and sometimes faster than any of us fans might like.  The reputation of even the best stories, and their writers, has always been a precarious thing.  And it wouldn't surprise me to learn that it has always been a fragile minority of readers and viewers who have kept the reputations of even seeming titans like Shakespeare alive in a world that might otherwise consign him and every other artist to the dust bin of history.  For the moment, though, it does seem as if both Gaiman and Shakespeare can count on the continued goodwill of a sufficient enough minority of audience members to know who they are, and tell others that they were or are still here. 

For the vast majority of readers and viewers, Gaiman's reputation seems as if it can be boiled down to just two touchstone points in what is and remains an otherwise sprawling literary career.  The two works of his that everybody seems to remember is either his graphic novel series, Sandman.  Or else a smaller yet vocally substantial number will point to what looks like a simple children's novel on the surface, when in reality, it's a dark Gothic fantasy by the name of Coraline.  These are the twin poles around which Gaiman's current reputation continues to oscillate.  With either party eager to claim their preferred text as the superior product from the pen of the author.  While I'll admit I fall into the latter camp that favor's the adventures of Coraline Jones over the exploits of the Dream Kingdom and its Dominions, I'd also like to think I'm smart enough to realize both texts are also not the whole story.  In addition to one warped kids book, and a series of very influential graphic novels, Gaiman has had an otherwise vibrant and artistic career as a fantasy novelist.  It's an example, or specimen of this other career, the one that doesn't get as much exposure, or recognition that I'd like to shine a spotlight on.

Aside from giving the neglected side of Gaiman's career a day in the Sun, focusing on an otherwise unremarked upon short story such as "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" is helpful in serving another purpose.  One of the goals of this article is to help answer the question, "What's the next best place to start for introducing new or still novice readers to the literary magic of Gaiman's work outside of either the Dreaming or the Button House"?  I think that's where an underrated, easy to digest story like this one can come in handy.  So let's take our tickets and see how wild the ride gets.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Black Phone (2021).

What's the best way to tell a Horror story?  It's a question I haven't asked before, thought it's probably something that a lot of hard core enthusiasts of the genre might wonder about.  I think I should clarify here that when I bring this up this idea, I'm not asking what is the best work of fiction ever written within the Horror genre.  Nor am I trying to set down anything like a definitive "method" by which all such works must be composed.  That kind of notion is easily disproven by common, everyday creative practice.  Instead, I guess what I'm really concerned with is trying to figure out at what point does the Tale of Terror stop being effective, and risk the danger of drifting into the realms of, maybe not the unbearable or purely tasteless.  Gothic fiction, after all, is the kind genre that sort of relies on a sense of bad taste in order to get its effect across.  As Stephen King points out in his near text-book quality study, Danse Macabre: "The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.

"Such a work dances through these rooms which we have fitted out one piece at a time, each piece expressing - we hope - our socially acceptable and pleasantly enlightened character.  It is in search of another place, a room which may sometimes resemble the secret den of a Victorian gentlemen, sometimes the torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition...but perhaps most frequently and most successfully, the simple and brutally plain hole of a Stone Age cave dweller (4)".  King then asks a very important question.  "Is horror art?  On this second level, the work of horror can be nothing else; it achieves the level of art simply because it is looking for something beyond art, something that predates art: it is looking for what I would call phobic pressure points.  The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed one but you knew of - as both Albert Camus and Billy Joel have pointed out.  The Stranger makes us nervous...but we love to try on his face in secret (ibid)".  It helps to notice where King is going with this particular notion of his.

As I've said above, he's not about to dictate what the writer of modern Gothic fiction can or should write.  However, I think it is possible to claim that what he does with Danse Macabre as a whole is to plant a flag, of sorts.  The whole study text serves as an illustration of what the Horror story is like at its best.  This is what King seems to mean by saying that the genre can achieve a level of artfulness that is often denied by the mainstream critics, even to this very day, after all the years since Macabre was published.  A lot of it is down to pure snobbery.  Even at it's best, the Terror Tale is always going to be the black sheep of genre fiction.  Another reason for it, however, might be down to a sense of unnecessary overindulgence.  Here's what I mean.  For the longest time now, I've been convinced that the worst thing to ever happen to the Horror genre was also its greatest moment of triumph.  The genre experienced a kind of mixed blessing renaissance during the 1980s.  It was something that happened in the wake of a string of blockbuster performances at the box office during the 60s and 70s.  It started with Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960, and John Carpenter's Halloween is what took it all mainstream.

The success of Michael Myer's big screen debut seems to have been the film that let the genie out of the bottle.  It was the key that opened the doorway for the genre boom of the 80s.  In retrospect, it's success at the box-office was enough to prove to movie studios (mainly the independents, thought some of the major also took a kind of sideline interest) that Horror was a bankable commodity.  Hence you've got the genre explosion that has since become one of the defining features of the Brat Pack era.  I've called it a mixed blessing, however.  A lot of the reason for that is because while it's true, in a sense, that Horror had arrived in a big way.  The catch was that this arrival probably always came with a price tag that no one ever paid perhaps as much attention to as they should have.  In their eagerness to carve out a name for themselves in this newly opened playing field, the majority of Horror film creators sort of wound up tripping themselves up on the banner of creative excess.  This is where the problem sets in.

When most people think of 80s Horror, the two names that come to mind are always the same: Freddy and Jason.  For better or worse, they've become the twin poster boys for that decade, and my concern is that this is what most audiences think of whenever they even hear the word Horror.  If that's the case, then I'm afraid the vast majority of filmmakers did the genre a disservice in that decade.  By letting Fred and Jay become the de facto "faces" of the genre, they've saddled the Weird Tale with a reputation which it probably doesn't deserve.  It should also go without saying that each of them doesn't even begin to exhaust the creative potential the what good Tale of Terror can do.  Not by a long shot.

The trouble is that if a lot of the makers of the Cinema of Frights during the "Morning in America" years indulged in all kinds of excesses (by which I mean drowning the screen in as much fake blood and rubber and/or plastic guts as the budget will allow) and so the trouble begins to set in when this is all that the filmmaker can focus on in terms of any larger point to the story.  My own experience has been that the more the director keeps training the camera on the grue and viscera, the more obvious it becomes that their efforts at going for excess is pretty much telegraphing their own poverty of invention.  If you go too far in that direction, what you risk happening is audiences walking out on you.  The irony here lies in the reasons for why you'd start to loose customers.  It's not for the reason you might think.  They're not walking out thinking, "This is too much, I just can't take so much gross out, etc".  Instead, the real thinking behind the dwindling box-office return is more along the lines of, "Give me a break!  This is so damned ridiculous.  How can anyone ever think this is scary?  It's the most laughable thing I've ever seen".  This, then, is the complete irony at the heart of most 80s Horror films.

By letting excess become sort of like the unofficial, guiding principle of the day, it seems to have created a license for creative laziness.  This in turn lead to the mistaken notion that the buckets of stage blood will be enough to carry the day.  If things look like they're lagging, just toss a bit of gross out at the screen.  It doesn't matter how much.  People just tend to eat this stuff up, anyway, right?  The trouble is such a mindset totally underestimates the audience, it seems.  Horror in general appears to remain the most difficult of genres to get into, even at the best of times.  It always requires greater leaps of imaginative sympathy than what is required of other storytelling formats.  Even with this fact in mind, the one thing most audiences tend to agree on is that gore never seems to work all that much unless there is a good point to it, and even then, it only seems to work without the principle of excess.  This is how come, while I can't write off all the examples of 80s Horror, a lot of it is just overrated.

Don't get me wrong, there were and are plenty of examples from that decade of the Gothic genre firing on all cylendars up on the screen.  The trick here is that there's what has to be described as a shared reason for why the best examples work so well, even as most of them diverge in terms of plot, pacing, and overall dramatic approach.  What separates a work like Joe Dante's Gremlins from a myriad of Friday the 13th clones is that Dante is the kind of artist who takes greater care of how he handles the titular horrors at the core of his story.  He knows not just when to bring the proper note of Terror on-stage.  The director is also careful not to overplay his hand.  Dante seems to realize that less is always more, even when the subject matter is a Jim Henson Muppet from hell being roasted alive in a microwave.  While I don't think it's possible to point to Dante's efforts and claim it as any kind of gold standard.  It does seem reasonable to cite it as a good workman's sample of the difference between excess and one of many best possible examples of the right display of the art of fear.  Whereas someone like Wes Craven is content with relying on showing his villain walking around in a bloody ambulance bag, Dante first gives his horrors a legit build-up so that we know the moment of shock is coming.

Then, when it comes time to give his creature the proper introduction, Dante has set things up to the point that the big reveal has a greater sense of dramatic impact.  Seeing the mother in Gremlins come upon the first major specimen of the film's title works on not just an artistic but also something of a genuine thematic level.  To borrow King's own terminology, Dante has managed to hit several targets, or phobic pressure points at once.  First, the family home twisted from a place of warmth and comfort into a de facto hunting ground for dangerous animals.  Second, is the more elemental level of threat.  Will the monster be bested, or will it feed?  The third level is what gives the Terror of the scene its necessary sense of thematic weight.  The only reason the gremlin is there at all is because the Horror of the story was invited in.  Sheer human fallibility is what has turned a human place into a den for inhuman monsters.  While offering up some of the most famous moments of fright in the history of cinema, it's that final level of thematic depth that elevates the Terror into the realm of literary art.

This is what King was talking about when he discussed the best possible artistic levels of the Gothic genre.  It's a lesson the writer appears to have learned over the course of a long apprenticeship of trial and error.  The best place to look into how King made himself into a writer is to pick up a copy of his still essential autobiographical, how-to manual, On Writing.  The question lingering over all of this background context is what does any of this have to do with a recent Horror film that was released just two years and a half ago (at leas as of this writing)?  The answer is I brought up all this context because I'm hoping to show the reader just how a film like The Black Phone works as an example of Horror done right.  One of the best surprises about it is how it almost fits in well with the best examples of Gothic fiction that 80s cinema had to offer.  The trick here is that in order to demonstrate this idea, the audience will have to learn to look beyond the Freddy-Jason splatter-fest style of storytelling, and see if it is at all possible to arrive at an appreciation for a more artistic style of Gothic storytelling.

In order to see if this is possible, I've chosen to take a look at the kind of Horror film that might have been made under the Spielbergian lens of 80s supernatural fantasy.  It has a bit in common with films like Gremlins, while at the same time telling it's own narrative.  Perhaps its also somewhat fitting that it was initially written by King's own biological son, Gothic writer Joe Hill.  So why not join in and let's unpack what has to be one of the best sleeper hits of recent years, by answering The Black Phone?

Sunday, August 27, 2023

A Tribute to the UPA Cartoons (1943-1970)

This article is really best thought of as a sequel, of sorts.  For a while now, I've been on something of a self-reflective kick here on The Club.  It's not anything like a mid-life crisis sort of deal.  Instead, it's more a case of a critic being reminded of a lot of the reasons for why this blog ever got started in the first place.  I've been reviewing a lot of films and books on this site for a while now.  What I'm not so sure I've done quite as good a job at, however, is laying out, or getting readers to see the vantage point from which all of this stuff is critiqued.  In other words, whenever I've looked at a book or movie on this informal digital diary, everything I write, and all the judgment calls I make (whether it be a major blockbuster like Ready Player One, or an out of the way episode of an obscure radio show, or forgotten short story), all of it is based on an aesthetic philosophy, or at least a rough idea of what Art or storytelling is, and what it can accomplish.  To be fair, though, none of this is anything that any of the best critics out there have to work with.  Even Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert tend to give away hints of their ideas about movies and films over the course of their careers.  Kind of like an open secret.

What I'd like to do now is not just toss off the occasional hint in the midst of talking about something else.  That's something every critic winds up doing over the course of any review.  However, my focus today is going to be just a little bit different from all of that  Instead, I'd like to take some time to actually share one of the tenets that underlies the work done on this blog.  And the interesting thing is I know just the subject that will help me share all of this with you. It all has to do with a cartoon studio.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Rated K For Kids (1986-88).

This next entry in The Scriblerus Club is somewhat unique, and calls for a special kind of introduction.  I'll have to backtrack just a bit in order for any of what I say next to make sense.  A good way to start out is by stating the simple facts.  This article is written in something of a reflective mood.  No need to worry, however.  There's not going to be any grand, Wordsworthain rhapsodies here.  I may be a sentimentalist, yet I'm also smart enough to know when to reign it in.  Instead, it's more that the last review I did contained a lot of food for thought.  It was enough to get me thinking on my role as a blogger, and what that means in terms of wanting to be the kind of critic who reviews books and films for a living.  I have Martin Scorsese to thank for this (believe it or not as you will, I'm telling nothing less than the truth here).  His work on The King of Comedy, with its cautionary fable about the wages of fame and notoriety made me aware of how much of an ethical responsibility is needed on the part of not just the artist.  It's a moral imperative which appears to also be demanded of both the audience in general, and of any actual, legitimate critics there might be somewhere in the aisles.

I'm not sure I can even pretend to fit the role of a legitimate critic by any stretch of the imagination just yet.  It's the job description I want to have someday.  Until that moment arrives I'm just a journeyman, at best.  However, what Scorsese's film made me realize is that even a trainee isn't exempt for seeing if they can do a proper job well, even if it's just at the beginner's level.  Scorsese seems to be arguing that there's a lot of responsibilities that comes with being a critic, just as much as there is with being a storyteller.  And it is with this brief moment of insight that the last film I reviewed set off a spark in my mind.  Because a lot of the themes he and De Niro tackled in their little comedy project goes right to the heart of what a blog like this is all about.  The Scriblerus Club is a digital space concerned with a number of interlocking topics.  The first is relatively straightforward.  This is just a place where I can satisfy my own myriad fascinations about the making and telling of stories.  This includes what they are, where they come from, and what they mean to both writer and reader.  The other part of this blog concerns the latter half of the equation mentioned in the previous sentence.  In addition to an incurable wondering about stories, I've grown increasingly aware over the years of the role of the audience.

This was a topic whose importance I first began to realize maybe as soon as 2015 or 14.  The irony is it was an exposure to online troll culture that brought this to my attention more than anything else.  It was through stumbling across the work of "internet personalities" like Doug Walker and a host of copycat imitators that first made me aware of the various kinds of roles and outlooks that the audience can adopt or embrace in their dosing or intake of art.  It also brought me to a slow growing realization of just how much of a problem this kind of toxicity is for any possible discussion of the arts.  The good news is that it does at least seem as if the vast majority of the audience is aware of the issue as well, and really does wish for a healthier social space in which to discuss our enthusiasms for the art of stories.  So that's been one aspect of my concerns as a reviewer.  The other one has sort of taken me by surprise.  I also don't seem to be the only face in the crowd whose noticed a kind of collective fumbling when it comes to something like telling a mere story on the silver screen.  I can't even begin to give you explanation for why Hollywood in general seems to be going through its own moment of  existential crisis.

As of this writing, there is a mass walkout strike in all of the major motion picture studios, and television companies.  There seems to be talk and rumors on the street and in various chat forums that the American film industry is headed for a collapse of some kind.  At the very least, it won't surprise me if the entertainment complex undergoes some kind of shake-up transformation as a result of all of these events.  What the fallout of the Hollywood strikes will be, whether it will reshape American filmmaking, and what new form (if any) this next phase of cinematic storytelling may take, I couldn't really say.  If I had to go out on a limb, then I do wonder if one possible result could be a new democratization of making movies.  In other words, one potential outcome could be the either reduction or rebirth of motion pictures on a worldwide independent basis.  In other words, we could see all movies in the future as the product of a worldwide indie filmmaking model.  One with no real studio system to speak of anymore, and instead its all just various artists, actors, and crew coming together to create what they can on an open, crowdfunded environment.  At least this is one possibility out there.

This article, however, can't hope to begin to address all of these matters; or at least not all at once.  Instead, for this entry, I've decided to tackle another issue, and set my sights more on the way audiences take in the art and stories that they enjoy.  Part of the reason for a blog like this is a growing curiosity about what people are thinking when they either enjoy or dislike an offered story, and what this information might be able to tell on a broader level.  I'm wondering if maybe a review of the audience can help us figure out what kind of stories we like to tell ourselves, and see if this, in turn, can tell us something about the state of the arts.  Now, in order to do that, I've chosen the help of an old TV show.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

The King of Comedy (1982)

There are some artists who are difficult to talk about.  This is not for any of the usual reasons.  There's little in the way scandal or gossip to go around here.  Nor has the artist ever done or said anything controversial or incorrect.  In fact, he's gone on the record of making a number of worthy comments, and donating to generous causes.  Instead, the real challenge comes from having to deal with a filmmaker who has built up such an artistic reputation for himself, that any attempt to so much as tackle even the least of his films is intimidating to the critic.  This goes double for when you're trying to talk about the cinematic career of Martin Scorsese.  It's reached a point where just saying his name can sometimes make even the boldest of cinemaphiles speak in hushed whispers, as if some long honored potentate had entered the room.  Bear in mind, this is the response that he manages to get out of all of the major headline critics out there (however little of them remain).  Now can you imagine what kind of an impression he's bound to leave on someone who is literally just a face in the aisles?  The prospect of knowing where to begin with a director like him is discouraging, to say the least.  This stems from the fact that it seems in order to talk about Scorsese, or his films, one would have to talk a little bit about everything else there is in life, or whatever it is you choose to call an experience like this, such as it is..

Or at least this is crippling sense of obligation that his reputation is bound to leave the average critic saddled with.  The reaction is a purely psychological one, and it probably has even less basis in actual fact.  Odds are even the man who helped create Travis Bickle is a smart, mostly even tempered and mild, magnanimous sort of person if you ever met him.  It also doesn't help to keep a maxim of Stephen King's in mind, even when talking about the guy who made Goodfellas.  King said he has to put his pants on one leg at a time, every morning.  No doubt this inescapable fact applies to Scorsese as well.  It still leaves the critic with a formidable challenge.  Where do you begin to discuss the art of someone who is held to be the American Filmmaker?  Right now, the best place I can think of is with a brief history of the development of the artist's mind.  For Martin Charles Scorsese, the entire process of thought began on the day of November 17th, 1942.  His city of birth, the main setting of his life which would go on to become something of a recurring major character in all of his work, was New York City.

To claim that the Big Apple has left an impact on the kind of artist Scorsese has become is a bit like saying that Charles Dickens knew how to write about street life in London.  Both statements are true, and therefore don't even begin to take into account the ways in which an early exposure to the often perilous street life of a gritty urban center went on to shape the aesthetic approach of each of these creators.  In both cases, what the reader or viewer is confronted with is a pen or camera that can't seem to help showing off the Best and Worst of Times.  Whenever Dickens or his New York counterpart focus the lens in on a particular incident, it doesn't take long for either of them to start recounting all the important narrative details with an immediate, visceral quality that either makes the characters jump off of the page, and directly into your mind for all time.  Or else the imagery and the incidents depicted will grab you by the jugular, and then not let go for the entire runtime.  In Scorsese's case, his camera always winds up lingering on matters of transgression, guilt, and the held out possibility of redemption.

These appear to be the three intertwined themes that have haunted the stage of his particular brand of cinema, from the very first.  In every movie he's ever made, he returns to these three hands in the tarot card deck, and then will always proceed to play a constant stream of variations on these ideas with a passion that borders on the obsessive.  What's important to realize is that it was New York itself which seems to have taught him his first important lessons in exploring these related ideas.  It's a cinch to say he grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood.  For whatever reason, his parents, Charles and Catherine, moved into the Little Italy district of Manhattan.  Both of them deserve a bit of credit here, before we continue to look at the way NYC molded the artist's imagination, because in a very real sense, it started with the both of them in a way I never would have expected.  Both of his folks worked in New York's Garment District, yet each of them also moonlighted as (very small) part time actors.  Now this was something I wasn't aware of until I started doing research for this article.  It's one of those minor details that tend to jump out at you from left field.  It's the puzzle piece that helps to complete the picture.

Knowing that Scorsese's parents were actor paints his childhood in a light that I'm not sure how well known this was.  Although it's possible this crucial snippet of information probably is known among his most ardent fans.  Whatever the case, one key fact remains.  It is now possible to assume that the director was the product of an artistic household.  If this is the case, then we have an important answer in terms of figuring out where Scorsese originally got his artistic temperament from.  It was nurtured in him almost from the start, by the very people who helped create him together.  His parents were able to pass along their shared enthusiasm for the arts along to their son.  He, in turn, appears to have gone on to put some very good use to it.  The city itself, meanwhile, has gone a long way to conditioning the type of art that Scorsese utilizes in his stories.  Most of the director's films contain a heightened sense of gritty urban realism.  The major focus always tends to revolve around life on the street in various capacities.  It almost makes sense to describe the director as one of the major poet's of the City.

The way this aspect of his career got started appears to stem from a bout of childhood illness.  Scorsese was the victim of asthma as a boy, and this meant that he often was unable to participate in sports, or a lot of the other extracurricular outdoor activities that children were allowed to get up to in a more permissive age.  This meant the director was often confined to his room, or else the stoop of his apartment complex; the closest thing he had to a family household.  It was from both of these enforced vantage points that the young Martin was turned from a participant, into a viewer.  It might have even turned him into an accidental sort of voyeur, though never in the usual sense of the term.

Instead, his asthma had the effect of turning him into an often unwilling observer of New York street life.  Here's the part that's difficult to write about because of the relative lack of information.  This is one of the few topics that has resulted in a certain reticence on the part of the filmmaker.  It's clear that the time spent staring out the window of his own childhood room has left one of the final decisive impacts on Scorsese's cinema.  It appears to be the first vantage point that gave him an unwanted insight that the world could sometimes be a violent place.  One is reminded of a few early scenes in Goodfellas where the young Henry Hill sometimes catches sight of the brutal and violent crimes that are committed on the street, whether in broad daylight, or the darkest side of night.  While that film is based on the autobiography of another person, it has been implied, here and there, that the event of a young mind witnessing acts of violence on the "mean streets" is something that both Scorsese and the real life Hill share in common.  This also accounts for the director's seemingly natural indirectness, whenever he's seen fit to mention (he's never truly discussed) the criminal acts that crossed his path.

Unlike Hill (both on screen and in real life), Scorsese was never allured by gang land life as it played out in front of him.  Instead, much like Stephen King, it drove into his impressionable young mind that he should always watch out for the bad men, while also giving him the nagging curiosity of wanting to understand how seemingly normal people can be driven to such heinous acts.  If there is any influence that one should point to as perhaps the final determining factor in the kind of artist Scorsese has since become, then any future scholar on his life would do well to focus in on that childhood window.  For strange as it may sound, it was this location that might be cited as one of the crucial inflection points for the development of the street poet's mind.  It is just possible to look at that whole real life scene, and realize that one is looking at a reality which is also a kind of symbol, perhaps even a parable.  The image of the young child at the window conjures up the curious notion of the young man almost as the accidental spectator of an ongoing pageant play.  For a brief moment, it's almost as if Shakespeare's notion has taken on an ironic life of its own.  All the world has become a stage for the child, and all the men and women in it merely players with their entrances and exists, some of which are violent.

More than this it's impossible to say or comment on.  Scorsese's exposure to New York gang life appears to stem from the time when a bad chest turned him into a spectator of the mean streets.  It's clear enough that it left a mark on the young artist, and that a lot of his art stems from what he saw from his bedroom window as a boy.  In this, Scorsese's experience bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Robert Louis Stevenson, of all people.  The Scottish writer was another artist for whom the bedroom window became a kind of natural proscenium looking out onto a real world stage.  The difference is Stevenson's experience resulted in giving him a lifetime of inspiration for Romantic adventure.  While it's a mistake (even a gross simplification) to call Scorsese the Mr. Hyde to Stevenson's Jekyll, what can be said is that with the director of Taxi Driver, it's almost as if the childhood theater window has been flipped on its head, or else the "entertainment program" consisted of a far gritter kind of drama.

From his experiences at the window, the artist soon learned not just the reality of both personal and gang land related violence, but also the stirrings of wondering why and how such things occur in the first place.  What is it that could drive a human being to go so far out on a limb as to be in danger of losing himself?  It's a question that serves as the driving engine for just about every one of the director's films.  And while he seems to have arrived at his own answers to this obsessive question, there seems little doubt that it all got started by both the window and the street.  The final ingredient in the artist's development is the most straightforward.  Once again, it was the product of asthma, more than anything else.  Since young Marty couldn't just go outside and play like the other boys, his parents took pity on him, and escorted him through the streets to the location of their own favorite pastime, the local movie house.  It's the last piece of the puzzle that is Scorsese's mental storehouse, and it could almost speak for itself, if everyone in the audience had a greater knowledge of the history of the movies (web).

The fact is Scorsese is one of those people who are best described as a walking encyclopedia of film.  He's seen and is knowledgeable about more films that most of our parents have forgotten by the time they got out of college.  Scorsese is the one with an actual devotion to the medium and its history.  Something tells me that if you want to know the contents of the director's min,d you should either ask him to show the world both his library of books and films.  If a list or catalogue was ever made of those items, it would go a long way toward giving us the literal inside of the director's mind.  When it comes to catching a glimpse of the other directors and artists who have shaped Scorsese's mind, and hence his art, then a basic roll call would give you the following names: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Samuel Fuller, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Roberto Rossellini, Akira Kurosawa, Elia Kazan, Alexander Korda, David Selznick, Roger Corman, Orson Welles, and John Ford.  Now there are two ways of reacting to a casting call like that.  One of them is optional, the other isn't.  

The optional one is open to anybody in the aisles who winds up taking more than just a passing interest in the narratives that unfold up on the screen.  These are the people who don't just treat films, or storytelling in general, as a passing moment's diversion.  Those who believe the Arts to have an objective life value of its own will often wind up studying the narratives they love.  Their reasons for doing this all come down to one motivation.  They found something they enjoyed.  This enjoyment has reached a level in them that it doesn't for the rest of the audience.  Sometimes an exposure to the right story at just the right time can be enough to help the cinemaphile set their own course in Film Studies, and from there, they go on to learn all they can about the directors listed above.  They'll study their careers, which means acquainting themselves with all the films they made.  They'll grow a familiarity with the history of the movies beyond the current, late stage blockbuster era, which seems to be all that the rest of us know.  They'll learn about all the different types of stories you can tell, and of all the possibilities for artistic creativity this can lead to.  This is the kind of thing that guys like Scorsese, and later his friends such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did when they were growing up.

They've since been labeled as The Movie Brats, and that's how they were as kids.  These were the geeks tucked away in the corner of the classroom who often took the brunt of bullying in school, weren't all that popular with the girls, and always they tended to be considered kind of "out of it".  There was pretty much no way in hell someone like young Marty was going to be Mr. Popular growing up.  He, Steve, or George might have their own circle of friends, yet if you'd been around back then, you could have told from just one glance that they were the original Geek Squad, and their reputation back then wasn't as improved as it is now.  Basically they were all just a bunch of lonely outcasts who often went to the movies as a means of escaping from the hassles most of their classmates put them through.  The ironic outcome is that in looking for a place to escape to, all three of them found a shared way of plugging into reality.  It was the movies that gave them a sense of purpose, and above all, a future.

That's what separated them from the rest of the faces staring back up at the screen.  If you mention names like Sam Fuller or Kurosawa to the average person on the street, odds are even that person won't have much choice in the matter.  All he or she will be able to do is give you a puzzled look and maybe ask you why you're wasting their time?  Or if they're the Good Samaritan types, then they'll say maybe I can help you look for them.  Is your friend lost?  In either case, the result is the same.  Both examples are good enough snapshots of what became of Scorsese's classmates after they all left high school and college.  They all became Mr. and Mrs. Next Door, and have gone on to have lives that devotes little time to people like Melvin Van Peebles, or Frederico Fellini.  It really does seem to need a proper artistic temperament, like the one Scorsese has, in order to give those names a real appreciation.

And so, that is a pretty good beginner's summation of the career of a guy who is still regarded (in most pop culture circles, anyway) as the premiere filmmaker in America to this day.  Also, here I'm still left with the question I opened this article with.  Where do you even begin to talk about a director who has gone on to cast as big a shadow as that of Martin Scorsese?  As with every monumental task, the greatest advice on hand to offer seems to be that it's best to start out small, and then work your way up as you go.  That's why I've decided to begin my discussion of  Mr. Goodfellas by talking about one of the more obscure pictures he's made over the course of his career.  It's also something of an oddity in the director's filmography in that it's one of the few comedies he's ever tried to tackle.  The only other films of his that fit this description are After Hours (1985), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).  The one I'm here to talk about counts as the first time Scorsese ever tried to make the audience laugh.  It was a minor release that happened way back in 1982, starring Robert De Niro, called, The King of Comedy.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Renfield (2023)

I can remember the first time I met Count Dracula.  I might have been no more than six to eight years old.  At the time, I was being carted around by my folks in between a business errand, and we had some free time so they let me step into one of those old, now long defunct brick and mortar indie bookstores.  What made this place unique is that it was one of those bookseller-toy shop combos that I don't think you see much of these days.  Progress, and all that, especially where a person's childhood is concerned.  Because: reasons, or so say the "grown ups", anyway.  Whatever the case, I was browsing around the book racks and these quaint looking Playmobile display cases.  At some point I wandered around to a small corner bookcase, tucked away somewhere near the glass windows at the front of the store, and there he was, glaring balefully out at the reader from the cover of an old, children's beginning reader's edition.  The pale ashen face, those eyes that have a way of boring into your skull.  And then of course, there was the mouth pulled back into a feral snarl, revealing those deadly sharp teeth.  No question about it, I was eye to eye with one of the indisputable greatest icons in the entire history of the Horror story.  A legend, in essence.  And yet here he was, presenting his story in a way that was sure to capture a young genre fan's attention.

It was copy of a book series whose imprint was known as Ladybird Classics.  Has any veteran reader out in the audience ever heard of these?  They were really no more than just one in a long line of what might be labeled as Junior Primers.  I think you still see variations on the format to this day.  It's little more than an attempt to instill in the child an interest in the great classics of literature.  The way they do it is by packaging them in a format that youngsters can understand.  In that sense, a book like Bram Stoker's Dracula is a natural candidate for this type of venture.  It's the kind of narrative that has all the right ingredients for a built-in page turner about it.  Yes, it's one of (perhaps even the) premiere works of Gothic Supernatural fiction.  Yet the way its written, along with how the actions builds and progresses as the plot unfolds makes it one of the great "ripping yarns" of old capital L Literature.  In many ways, despite all the critical readings that have raised its esteem in the public's eye throughout the years, the essential seems to remain that behind all the book's Gothic trappings and machinery, what Stoker has given the public is something that is very much a kid's own adventure novel.  It's almost like a dark, modern day version of a fairy tale, complete with heroes, a villain, and and incredible quest.

In other words, it's exactly the kind of story that can survive, and even thrive from being condensed into an easy to read format for children.  I just turned out to be one of the lucky recipients that day.  I bugged my parents to get the children's version, and they proved just how good sports they were by letting me take it home, where I immediately dived into the pages.  Perhaps it's only in retrospect that we recognize whatever Rubicons might exist in our lives.  It took a while before I began to look back on my life as a reader (and hence the ultimate reason for this blog, I suppose), and it wasn't perhaps until just now (as I write this, in other words) that I begin to realize just how much of a turning point the choice of picking up that old, by now defunct Ladybird edition of Stoker's novel really was.  

In fact, I've just realized something.  It was a few years after reading through that Junior version that I soon began to take greater strides in the kind of author's I read.  Not long after that Ladybird book, I found out about Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, followed not long afterwards by Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and from there it was on the to the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, and Ray Bradbury.  In other words, I'd watched, listened to, or paged through some titles in the Horror genre before then.  Yet with the exception of Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, most of it was geared toward younger audiences.  That Ladybird edition might have been the first one that encouraged the reader to aim higher, to venture further up and further in to the type of more mature stories that were out there, waiting to be read. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that this was the book that showed me it was possible to expand my tastes in terms of reading material, that I lot of what I liked as a child could still following along with me as I grew into adulthood (whatever that it), and would always provide me with some type of companionship through the years.  At least there's one other explanation of why I continue to enjoy reading of things that go bump in the night even after all this time.  And I suppose this means I have the figure of Count Dracula to thank for everything that's come along since that day in the little toy shop.

That's quite the feat for a literary monster whose really supposed to be the villain of his own story.  In a way, time has been both cruel and kind of to Stoker's greatest creation over the years.  He's been kept alive (or undead for those in the know) in the public consciousness ever since the character's ink and paper debut way back in 1897.  Since then, the character's proliferation in popular media is perhaps best described as a mixed blessing of abundant generosity.  Even people who've never read the book or seen any of the films have at least this curious working knowledge of who the Count is, seemingly based on little more than the general grapevine of pop cultural awareness.  It's a form of ubiquity that few Set Texts are able to garner in a life where the only constants are either change, or at least the nagging desire to get away from something.  This makes Stoker's creation nothing less than a genuine achievement, both artistic, and otherwise.  For those who don't know of the world's most famous vampire from the original source material, there remains several shelves worth of movie adaptation to choose from.

These movies appear to span the entirety of the history of cinema, from its beginnings in the Silent Era with F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) all the way up to the current film we'll be looking at today.  There's even been a recent indie attempt (made with the cooperation of the Stoker Family estate) to recreate the original Victorian novel in the style of the Digital Diary Unfiction format.  This kind of makes sense if you go back to the book, and realize its entire narrative (and even the title character himself) is made or composed of a series of fictional letters, newspaper clippings, and personal journal entries written by various members of the story's cast.  It might not seem like much.  In fact, the whole conceit of a novel written in such a fashion might even seem quaint to those who don't pay close attention to the nature of what they're reading.  That's when the details tell an intriguing story. 

Any pop culture nerd whose also a dedicated bookworm, probably can't help noticing that what Stoker has done in those pages is to craft a narrative which is told in what was, for the time, the only known form of documentary storytelling that human beings were capable of at that particular moment of history.  It was the equivalent of what Sanchez and Myrick did when they schlepped a crew and a couple of battered Circuit City cameras into the backwoods of Maryland, and created the Blair Witch Project.  Looked at from this perspective, it is perhaps just possible to say that you can have Bram Stoker to thank for that.  As he's given us an example of one of the very first Found Footage stories ever told in a successful, full-length format.  That's not too shabby for a two centuries old pulp novel.

The say that the Count and his story has been a trail blazer, in these sense, is a bit of an understatement.  Out of all the adaptations ever made of Stoker's book, however, it has fallen to just a handful of films to stand out as the best remembered examples of that epistolary novel's legacy.  Aside from the Murnau film mentioned above, the other two notables are the star making turns done by Bela Lugosi's Universal Studios classic of 1931, along with Christopher Lee's breakout performance as the King Vampire a decade or so later in 1958.  There also seems to be a small cult following for the Francis Ford Coppola version from the 90s, featuring Lee Harvey Oswald and one half of Bill and Ted, from The Matrix.  

However, that's a venture that still seems to exist within the twin shadows cast first by Lee, and yet more so by the figure of Lugosi's pop cultural osmosis performance.  In between exists the honorable mentions (such as Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein and The Monster Squad, two very respectable and fun entries in their own right), and the cheap knock offs, such as the later sequels and cash ins that Lee wound up having to do in order to just stay in the acting industry, and which he always looked back on in shame and derision as unworthy of Horror as a genre altogether.  The latest entry we're here to look at was the brainchild of none other than the Walking Dead's Robert Kirkman.

Somewhere along the way, it seems as if his mind turned from the subject of Walkers, to that of vampires.  Specifically, his imagination seems to have got caught on a very particular creative hook found within the overall myth.  To be specific, Kirkman got to thinking about what it must be like to be the servant of the world's most famous vampire, and that seems to be the beginning of the story.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Jonathan Lethem's The Spray (2004).

I've talked more than once on this site about the concept of Writer's Collectives.  It's what happens when a number of different and disparate author find themselves assembling together in these kind of informal, off and on again groups that will sometimes meet up together, sometimes just to chat, though more often than not, the real goal of these literary gatherings of for the purpose of "talking shop",  or to "compare notes", as the sayings go.  It's roughly the same thing that happens whenever car enthusiasts gather together and discuss the finer details of makes and model, and how well you can get them to run.  The major difference is that here, the topic of discussion often turns to the mechanics of storytelling.  What's the right sort of phrase to use, does this particular scene play well, or does it need some work?  How good is the story at telling itself?  Is it okay, or does it need some sort of shot in the arm?  These are the types of questions that few of the majority in the audience will ever have cause to ask themselves.  The reason for that is because, by and large, most people out there will never have any intrinsic reason to bother themselves about what is the right way to tell a story.  It's a writer's concern, more than anything.

I suppose that's as good an explanation for why guys like Coleridge and Wordsworth would tend to meet up often to critique each others works.  For better or worse, a story never really exists unless it can find an audience.  That's the only way to tell if a creative idea has any life in it, when you can see the reaction of the crowd, and whether they like it or not.  If there's ever any moment when the author has managed to make them smile, laugh, scream, or else just hold their attention spellbound, that's when you know you've at least started to do something right.  Good luck trying to find out whatever that is, because most writing is a lot like a dice game.  You have to throw your hand out there and hope you've landed a good roll.  I guess that's a further explanation for why you get so many cases of ink stained wretches congregating together.  Sometimes you just need someone out there who can tell you whether out not you're doing right or wrong.  An unspoken rule of every one of these collectives that I'm familiar with is that if you want a sympathetic ear that's not just willing to listen, but also have some kind of idea of what it is you're even talking about with your novel or short story (or even something as simple as a mere piece of poetry) then the best person to turn to is someone who toils the same trench.

Hence, history is full of folks like Wordsworth and Coleridge forming the nucleus of the Romantic Movement.  Or else you'll get T.S. Eliot and James Joyce inaugurating what's now known as Literary Modernism.  Or else its Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Dylan Thomas forming the Beat style of writing.  That seems to be the case with the writer I'm here to talk about today.  Jonathan Lethem is best described as one of those obscure household names.  He is (or was?) regarded as kind of big deal amongst "Book People" back in the day.  This was around the time that Neil Gaiman was helping writers see just how many heights a literary artist could scale, provided they had the talent, and, above all, the Imagination necessary to pull a groundbreaking feat such as The Sandman off.  Lethem seems to have been one of the many new creative voices that were emerging roughly at or about the same time, along with other luminaries as Jonathan Carroll, Alan Moore, or Dave Mckean.  The one thing that unites all of them is the type of fiction that they have all helped spawn thanks to the informal Writer's Collective that they each belong to in varying ways.  They are known as the New Wave Fabulists.

I've talked about their efforts here and there in the past on this site, and now with today's offering by Lethem, we have our latest entry from this particular creative group.  There is a bit of a trick involved here, though.  It turns out we're dealing with one of those cases where in order to talk about Lethem's fiction, it kind of helps to know something about his life.  It's a key piece of useful information to have tucked away under the cap if you want to go in with any chance of making sense of his writings.  This is not the same as saying that Lethem is  one of those writers whose books are to obscure for his own good.  That's far from the case.  Instead, one of the first things that became clear to me is that Lethem is one of life's great, unaplogetic, literary avant-gardists.  It's not that his books are difficult to understand, he just likes go a bit "out there" with some of his plots.  How far out are we talking about here?  Well, his first novel is a Science Fiction story with a private eye Noir plot at its center, and one of the recurring characters is a cigarette smoking kangaroo that talks, wears three piece suits, and has fondness for whiskey.  This is something that actually happens in the author's first debut novel, and he just puts it all out there with no apologies, and expects the audience to just roll with it.  It's the kind of fantastical surrealist touches that dot the pages of all his work.  His plots tend to be straightforward for the most part, it's just that now and then, it's like walking through a landscape made by Salvador Dali.

All of this is explained by paying attention to Lethem's childhood.  His was a fundamentally artistic upbringing.  Lethem himself has described it as a bohemian experience that was "thrilling and culturally wide-reaching".  His dad was an avant-garde painter, and while he grew up in Brooklyn with his family, the way his mother is described puts me in mind of a particular type of artistic activist. You know, the kinds of youthful, bright faces that used to dot the landscape of New York's Greenwich Village back in the day.  In other words, Lethem's mom strikes me as the kind of woman who would spend her nights trying to find out if Bob Dylan was playing at any of the local folk music joints, and then by day she'd be keeping in touch with whatever contacts she might have in the Civil Rights movement.  His mother was also Jewish, and if you are unaware of the contributions they made toward the fight for equality in this Country, then someone's obviously been withholding the whole story from you.  The point is Lethem was born, in some ways, into something of the best possible idyllic household for a kid raised in New York.  His mother gave birth to him in 1964, and as was fitting for the time, Lethem's folks were part of an artistic community in what is now the borough or district known as Boerum Hill.

It was there that the future writer was introduced to the realm of the Arts more or less from the start of his existence.  His upbringing meant that by the time he'd entered the school system, Lethem was bound to have already had a pretty good head for reading, painting, and writing on his shoulders.  He lucked out once more in fourth grade, at NYC's P.S. 29.  That's where he met Carmen Farina, one of those teachers who seem to be an unaccountable blessing from on high.  She not only recognized Lethem's burgeoning talent, and encouraged him, she might have also taught of the future author a few of the ropes and tricks he later employed in his published works.  Lethem has listed the music of Bob Dylan, Star Wars, and the fiction of Philip K. Dick as the major influences on his life and books (web).  I think there's one more element that helps explain the way he writes, and its a bit more diffuse and intricate.  The simple way of putting is to claim that Lethem is a product of the entire artistic zeitgeist of the 1960s in or itself.  It was and remains (to my thinking, at least) perhaps the last great time of artistic expansion and experimentation.

It's like there was this kind of willingness to see how far you could get away with pushing the boundaries of artistic expression in all of the major fields; from music; painting; film; books; and cinema.  It's the kind of envelope pushing that required a much more open mindset than the one we currently labor under today.  And no, for the record, there's very little in the way of daring to be had in our current selection of storytelling.  When it's possible to claim that there's a kind of lock-step rote quality to a lot of the major releases and franchises going around, then the last thing we are dealing with is innovation, much less the kind of mindset that would allow artists to break out of the mold and explore new vistas.  It's a further example of the way in which Lethem, once more, just seems to have gotten lucky.  He was able to imbibe the sights and sounds of pop-culture in a way that allowed him to mix high and low art forms together in a method that has since been described as "genre bending".

I think it says something about just how much we've allowed our imaginative capacities to shrink when the search for the perfect free form of literary expression is described in such an unimaginative term.  Lethem himself later came to see it as a label of momentary convenience, and just explained that all he was trying to do was find out how to tell the kind of stories he either wanted or felt he had to write, in whatever way they were meant to be written.  In that sense, all of his works can be described as the search for the perfect form of open art.  In his case, this just tends to result, time and again, in the appearance of occasional surrealistic, inter-textual, meta-commentary touches populating the pages of his secondary worlds.  A good place to start with all of this is by looking at the story up for discussion.