Sunday, June 20, 2021

Tiger in the Snow (1984).

In my last article I made a deliberate effort to draw the reader's attention to the way author Philippa Pearce used the image of a lion, or generalized Big Cat, as a symbol for the fantastic in her story.  The tale is told in such a way that the appearance of this Cat right out of the blue, on a normal city street, is meant to appear enigmatic, and out of the ordinary.  This is easily demonstrated by the way the story handles its titular character.  The human like attributes of Pearce's second main lead mark him out as something other than just a normal lion.  There is always an undercurrent of the odd about this strange talking cat, and it's perhaps to Pearce's credit that she was aware of this in composing her work.  As an artist, she appears to have been able to recognize just how unusual a note her talking cat is able to strike in the reader, along with the other fictional characters surrounding him.  It's a character note the author recognizes, and is smart enough to realize that this is the note she needs to latch onto if her story is to have any chance of success.  That element of the unexplained is precisely where the engine that's driving this peculiar narrative is located.  It's what gives even the most unbelievable elements in her story their gripping power.  As a result, the reader keeps turning the pages, and even when the book has been closed up and placed back on the shelf, it's very oddness manages to stay with you.  There's always this lingering sense of the uncanny emanating from the story, and it still hangs in the air well after the final line.

It almost has to be one of the more unique experiences I've had from going into a story cold and unprepared, yet more or less ready for anything.  Part of my reasons for not calling it the most unusual story I've ever read is because, in the strictest sense, I'm not all that sure that Pearce's story exists in a vacuum.  If a fable such as The Lion at School were a genuine one-off, then it might have amounted to something like a true literary anomaly, the printed-page equivalent of one of those old impressionist landscape paintings featuring a lion crawling up to an unsuspected sleeper in the dunes.  Instead, it turns out I can point out at least two other examples where different writers sort of wound up using the same or similar conceit at the center of their respective, individual works.  The first title is the one up for discussion today, Daniel Wynn Barber's Tiger in the Snow.  The second is an old short story by Stephen King.  By turning the focus onto separate and yet somewhat thematically united works from both authors, the atmosphere begins to take a slight turn.  Philippa Pearce recognized an element of the uncanny in her story, and yet her narrative as a whole is kept light and humorous, for the most part.  When we turn to the efforts Barber and King, however, the uncanny begins to take a firm grip on the genre proper.  Even if there's the possibility that we are still dealing with children's stories, we've nonetheless wandered onto the shady side of the street.  By taking up first Barber, and then King, we've more or less entered the precincts of what Ray Bradbury liked to call the October Country.

This in itself doesn't strike me as all that big a leap of imagination.  If Pearce was able to locate an element of the uncanny in her own story, then all it takes for guys like King and Barber is to take that slightly off-kilter note, and then tip it over into full-on Gothic territory.  This includes bringing the image's potential for all out horror right to the front of center stage.  The contrast may seem jarring to some, though any careful examination of literary history and practice will be enough to show that this sort of thing happens all the time.  What it can't show quite as well is just who the author of today's story is, or where he came from, nor have I been able to learn about anything that he might have done, or written since.  In that sense, Daniel Barber is one of the most interesting types of case for the critic to have to confront.  If writer's like Philippa Pearce are capable of providing just enough material to allow us to reconstruct a working, fact-based biography about them, then Barber is very much of the other kind.  All we have of him is a name on the author's byline space, followed by a blank nothing where all the useful background material should be.  

Instead, the closest I've been able to come in terms of a reliable chronological record is this story's publication history, as laid out by the helpful folks at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.  There you'll be able to find out all about the surprisingly long-lasting staying power of Barber's story.  It seems as if his simple efforts have turned out to be the little short story that could.  Tiger in the Snow is not a household tale like Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan, yet ever since its first appearance way back in 1984, that one effort has managed to stay in print, all the way up to the present day, in fact.  If nothing else, it's a textbook example of the reliability of good writing.  I'm just sorry that I can't find out anything else about the guy who wrote it.  The only other title Barber has to his name seems to be a 1985 effort known as Wings of the Hunter.  Nothing else is forthcoming.  In a way, while that does make the job of contextualization a lot more difficult, it doesn't render the task impossible.  A lot of the reason for that is because even here, Barber sort of conforms to a specific type.  He's one of several anonymous toilers in the trenches who have been able to leave some kind of mark behind, right before they vanish into the literary aether forever, never to be seen or heard from again.  


Barber isn't alone in this type of fate.  The most famous and similar example of this kind of author belongs to that of H.F. Arnold.  He is most known today (if at all) for a short subject known as The Night Wire.  In essence, the tale itself amounts to what has to be one of the first modern examples of apocalyptic horror ever printed.  It comes complete with an otherworldly fog, and what might be the first examples of flesh eating zombies in Horror fiction.  We also don't have a clue as to the life of the man who wrote it.  Dan Barber seems to amount to pretty much the same thing.  He' a name on a page, and his entire mystique stems from the fact that we know positively jack about him.  It's got to be the most anonymous way of gaining fame that exists out there.  You've got to admit, it's a genuine accomplishment of sorts, even if it is a headache for completionists.  The good news is that even if the author has slipped past the microscope lens, there is still plenty in the story itself worth talking about.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Lion at School by Phillipa Pearce.

One of the interesting perks of being a devoted bookworm is having the opportunity of exploring a new talent.  That opening statement is not dishonest exactly, though perhaps it doesn't tell enough of the whole truth.  The writer up for discussion today is no longer qualified as an unknown quantity when I decided to make this my first article on her.  I'd had the luck to discover the talent of a writer like Phillipa Pearce by the time I came to today's topic.  One of these days I really will have to get around to her most famous book.  There's a lot to talk about there, and I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it.  That's sort of the explanation for choosing this title to talk about.  Sometimes I find it helps to start out slow and small, then gradually climb to the top of the mountain when the reader is ready and willing for a clear view of the whole panorama.  What I've read from the author so far has left me curious to learn more about her and her type of storytelling.  The curious part is how she's left so little to go on.  It can be frustrating as hell for any critic who wants to present a good snapshot of the author for the reader.  At the same time, I can't deny that there's anything irregular about such circumstances.  The sad truth is sometimes things like this just happen.  It shouldn't comes as any kind of surprise to discover that a lot of genuine talent has an unfortunate habit of slipping through the cracks of awareness and memory.

Philippa Pearce is one of those writers who seem destined to present a challenge to anyone who would like to examine her life in relation to her art.  Some authors, like Dickens, are able to become famous enough for their lives to be presented as more or less open books.  Sometimes, however, you're lucky enough to stumble across what might be called the also rans.  These are the names that wind up as accidental flash-in-the-pans without really deserving such a fate.  Richard Matheson or George Clayton Johnson are two good examples of the kind of writer I'm talking about.  Both are pioneers in the fields of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.  Now can anyone tell me who they are?  If the answer turns out to be an impossibility, the sorta good news is you can't entirely be held responsible for something you don't know about.  It's more the fault of a show business model that seems fundamentally designed not to be able to keep track of the very names that helped build it up.  As a result, the Horror genre is dominated by names like Stephen King, yet it never pays attention whenever the very same author makes an open acknowledgement of the debt he owes to the two writers just mentioned above.


The net result is that writers like Pearce, along with Johnson and Matheson wind up as regrettable footnotes when they should probably be at least something approaching solid and respectable brand names, if not outright household titles.  The trouble is that a lot of elements that should be in place for such a preservation process just aren't when the artist needs them, more often than not.  That leaves a certain amount of avid readers out there having to scramble just to uncover anything as basic as a simple author biography.  In the case of Phillipa Pearce, one of the crucial factors that seems key in getting any proper read on her biography has to do with what might be called the importance of place.  Perhaps it should be stressed here that questions of nationality don't enter into it.  Looked at from that perspective, place doesn't stand any sort of chance.  Instead, the phenomenon I'm describing has a lot to do with the psychology of first impressions, the way any well made landscape can impact itself on the artistic imagination in a way that produces creativity, as opposed to ideology.  I can even think of several good examples of what I'm talking about.

J.R.R. Tolkien always liked to say that the first time he ever became aware of his surroundings was in the idyllic countryside of the late Edwardian period.  This was a time when industrialization still hadn't quite chipped away at the local ecology.  It was still possible to enjoy a few green fields of earth, and to any mind with the capacity or talent for artistic creativity, the impressions such a landscape can leave behind might, under the right circumstances, be able to find their way into the ranks of aesthetic immortality.  This is the case with Tolkien, as the fields and pastures of his childhood in Sarehole Birmingham later wound up becoming not just the Shire, yet also a great deal of the secondary world we now know as Middle Earth.  

Stephen King is another writer who seems to have discovered the artistic importance of place.  He's never talked about it as much as Tolkien, and yet if anyone picks up some of his books, one of the elements in them that strikes the perceptive reader is just how good the author is at making certain landscapes come alive and jump off the page, giving that novel's action a sense of immediacy that helps to draw the reader in.  It makes sense to me, for this reason, to think of King as one of the last great, almost pastoral-regional writers in the history of American letters.  There's just something about the old, Gothic, New England landscape that always manages to bring out the best in King's descriptive abilities.  The same process at work in both these authors appears to be in play with the writer under discussion here today.

In the case of Philippa Pearce, one of the first things to note is the place in which she was born and raised.  In her case, that meant the Mill House, down by the River Cam.  It's the kind of setting that manages to have a reputation, and not be well known outside of its own setting, or region.  The reason for that is pretty simple when you realize most Americans, for instance, have no curriculum incentive to learn about other places than their own home.  A place Cambridge, England, however, does at least carry a vague, general sense of familiarity about it.  Don't they have like some sort of famous university going on up there?  Well, as of this writing, that's still the case, yes.  It's also the setting for the location of both the River Cam, and the Mill House, where Philippa grew up.  She wound up as the daughter of Ernest Alexander and Gertrude Ramsden Pearce.  Her father was a miller and/or local flour and corn merchant.  It sort of explains why the whole family was even living at the Mill House in the first place.  Like many residents of certain New England factory towns, the House provided a useful, cheap, and efficient means of housing the local working population (web).  I can't tell for certain, yet this seems to be one of the few cases where the working men and women's accommodations weren't really bad, or degrading for the local morale.  On the contrary, there seems to have been little complaint about a housing complex that appears to have been more upscale and comfortable than the usual fair the working classes had (and in many cases still have) to put up with.


The Mill House of Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, was the first home Philippa ever knew.  Because of its more upscale living conditions, her childhood seems to have been able to be one of decent enough comfort and stability.  She seems to have been able  to enjoy the best of both worlds, as she came of age in a setting that combined elements of the metropolitan with the green and cozy enchantment of the Cambridge countryside.  It's almost as if she was given an interesting sense of options.  A turn in one direction would take you into a normal, thriving, civic population.  Just a few more turns of the corner, however, and you could find yourself in the midst of Geoffrey Chaucer country, with the rolling hills, and the steady quiet noise of the rivers and waterways.  It's easy enough to see how this strangely harmonious, and organic mixture of the urban and the English countryside could find a way to form a positive shape in the mind of a young future artist.  Tolkien, in that sense, was perhaps a bit less lucky than Philippa.  In addition to an equanimity of setting, she seems to have benefited from her specific sense of place in another way.  Philippa Pearce's educational history is sketchy, at least to start with.  Her schooling didn't really begin until she was eight years old.  The reason for that appears to have stemmed from a temporary on and off again childhood illness.


Nonetheless, I sort of have the impression that she suffered very little from what could have been a real setback in any other location.  It is just possible that the young Philippa entered her first day of school with a lot (if not all) of the academic ammunition she needed in order to get by tucked under her arm as she walked into class for the first time.  My reason for thinking this is because while normal class hours might have been denied to her for longer than usual, the same can't be said for any available reading material within reach.  As is the case with family settings like those of Tolkien or J.B. Priestley, Philippa seems to have been encouraged to take an interest in whatever it is that draws a reader to the words and worlds found within the pages of a book.  There are two reasons why they did this, one practical, the other less obvious.  The first is just plain common sense.  If you're a parent, and you know that school is on the horizon for your young pitcher, then I suppose it can at least make a kind of sense to encourage them to start taking to literature in the hopes of doing well in class later on.  That seems to have been part of the logic at play in Philippa's parents allowing her easy access to the world of books.  The second reason is a bit more interesting, as it has to do once more with the occasional importance that place can have on a developing mind.  

It's been established that the author's hometown was located in Cambridgeshire.  Since not everyone lives there, it probably takes more than just a few mental beats to realize that means Philippa was born, grew up, and spent a great deal of her early life never too far from the same University that has long since helped put Cambridge on the map.  The was a place that was long established before her time, way back in 1209 as it turns out.  That means it's had more than seven centuries to it; more than enough to time for the University to help set its stamp on the land surrounding it.  What few seem to realize (perhaps because this is a facet so fundamental as to be almost primal in its general lack of awareness) is just how much of a difference an academic setting can make to any society that is able to grow up around it.  It helps set a tenor, or specific character note to not just the landscape, but also the kind of people who are born, raised, or find themselves drawn to such places.  

Perhaps its a mistake to call such settings a Republic of Letters, however, on the whole, there does tend to be a certain sense of deference to learning and the Liberal Arts in places like Cambridge or Oxford than you tend to find elsewhere, even in most big cities.  This can sometimes result in households where the written word and the people who make it are held in a greater sense of regard than, say, places like Las Vegas.  This seems to have been the case with Ernest and Gertrude Pearce, as they gave their daughter ample opportunity to soak up the truths buried under various imaginary lives.  It takes perhaps a beat or two more before the full truth of the matter starts to sink in.  The reality seems to be that Philippa Pearce owed her skill with books to the fact that she was the ultimate product of a University setting.  She was, in effect, a College Town girl.  It doesn't seem to have hurt her chances, in any case.  Beginner's, Elementary, and eventually even College doesn't seem to have presented her with much of a challenge.  On the contrary, the final results tell of someone who thrived in an academic setting.  Again, luck of the draw, at least in terms of birthplace, seems to have been a good determining factor here.  


From there her professional career is best described as an admirable mixture of the remarkable and the pedestrian.  She seems to have had not much in the way of any personal drama, which might make her a boring subject for the contemporary biographer, yet is probably more of an accomplishment because of that.  Instead, she found herself a steady employment, first as a civil servant, then as a writer and producer of BBC radio programs for school kids.  In addition, she seems to have managed the job of children's editor for the Oxford University Press on the side.  Not a bad record, all things considered.  There's still the question of the stories, and where they might have come from.  I can't even begin to hope to find that kind of an answer in just a simple review article.  Still, it is sort of the ultimate question you have to ask if you want to get at the very heart of literary criticism.  What I think works best is to start out small, and then just keep building on from there as best one can.  That's why I decided to start out with a relatively light piece from her collection of works.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Grey Ones (1952).

He is one of those names that slip through the cracks.  I'm not sure whether that's because there's something forgettable about him, or because he just wasn't that much of an expert on leaving a lasting impact.  I hope the latter isn't the case, because what I've read of John Bertram Priestley, so far at least, sounds pretty good.  There's still the matter of popular unawareness to deal with, however.  The trouble with guys like Priestley is that everything has to be a first introduction.  However famous he might have been in his own day, that was then and this is now, as the saying goes.  That always means making a new acquaintance is in order, even if the name is very old.  The good news is that there are some out there who are willing to help break the ice.  John Baxendale is one such host.  He does a decent (if not perfect) job in granting the newcomer a good overview of his subject in the introduction to That Other Place and Other Stories.

"J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) was one of the most celebrated and prolific of English writers of his time.  Over thirty novels, as many plays, and a continuous stream of essays, journalism, film-scripts and radio broadcasts kept him in the public eye from the 1920s to the 1970s.  Priestley's novels such as The Good Companions (1929), Angel Pavement (1930), or Bright Day (1946) explore large themes across a broad canvas teeming with characters.  His more concentrated and focused ideas usually became plays.  Short stories were perhaps his least favorite literary form, but he never lacked ideas, and over the years some of them ended up in this form.  Reissuing (That Other Place, sic) in the 1960s, Priestley's publishers gave it a new subtitle, Stories on the Edge of the Marvellous", and that is what they are, thoughtful entertainments with more than a touch of the supernatural.  Priestley once said of the painter Pieter Bruegel that lurking behind the sharply-observed detail of his pictures of peasant life is a "fairy-tale country...poised on the edge of marvels and miracles...feeling a trifle haunted", and the same could be said of these stories: their tales of the uncanny and downright impossible are...set against the sharply-observed detail of ordinary post-war English life, and this is one of their pleasures (v)".

So much for a general outline of the book itself, for the moment.  What about the author?  I think a lot of help in answering that question comes from examining the social background Priestley was born into.  His parents lived their lives in Yorkshire.  What's notable about it that it's almost like an anomaly in its own setting.  Yorkshire was one of the few English townships with an established, and long ingrained liberal tradition running through it.  That meant the author was born and raised in what might be called a germinal open society.  He seems to have been lucky in terms of home life, as well.  His parents seem to have gotten along, and there is no real record of any of the usual details of marital strife, and/or the agonized contest of wills that results from piss-poor parenting.  On the contrary, his folks seemed to have encouraged their son.  As a result, Priestley burgeoning interest in the written arts all stems from an environment capable of fostering such a creative outlet without ever once encumbering or curbing it.

Priestley's Yorkshire background had one other effect on his thinking as an adult.  I have called his social atmosphere a liberal one.  That seems to be true so far as it goes, though just how much of an influence it held over some of the authors political outlooks is perhaps a matter of opinion.  What it all boils down to is the way that some of Priestley's life and thoughts falls into a surprisingly familiar pattern.  In fact, it you were to place him alongside a much more famous writer such as George Orwell, then there is a sense in which you could say it was almost like seeing double.  Both men grew up in a climate where they found themselves first drawn to the allure of Communism, followed by a gradual, growing sense of political disillusionment as the reality of the situation kept pummeling each of them into an acknowledgement of the difference between truth and fantasy.  What's interesting is that they also found themselves turning to the fantastic genres as a means of expressing what they had to say.

In Priestley case, the main ideas that occupied him for the rest of his life are, out of the ordinary, to say the least.  The one flaw in Baxendale's introduction is that he insists on seeing Priestley's life and writings through an ideological lens which the author himself had pretty much given up on by the time the 1950s got off to a start.  Instead, the shedding of one concern seems to have turned his attention to concepts that are perhaps a bit more esoteric and existential.  They were the sort of thoughts that lent themselves easily to the creation of fairy tale countries.  It's a career path of the author's that is never able to sit quite right with the critic.  One gets the sense of Baxendale wishing that Priestley would drop all this romantic tosh and go back to toeing the party line.  If this is the critic's desire, then the obvious irony is that he is several decades too late.  In any case, even if he could have confronted Priestley, I'm sure Baxendale would have come away empty handed and disappointed.  The nature of political disillusionment such as the one John Bertram experienced is very much a concrete illustration of what people mean by such phrases as "burning out the dross".  It is a change of mind, yet what guys like Baxendale seem to have difficulty grasping is that its also like shedding a disused and dangerous skin.


In Priestley's case, there seems to have been a great deal more compensation waiting from him on the other side.  He may have lost his sense of ideology, though I see no evidence that he ever lost his liberalism, which is very much something else.  It also seems to have been a more profitable ending than the one Orwell wound up with.  Priestley seems to have found a second lease on life with his other passions.  I don't call them newfound, because they seems to have been there from the start, even before getting mixed up in what some people refer to as politics.  I have described them as esoteric, and that is because the way Priestley expresses these ideas in his stories is remarkable for their level of familiarity.  In order to give the best idea of what I'm talking about, perhaps it'll help if we take a moment to look at one of these Stories on the Edge of the Marvelous, and see for ourselves just what was it about that Undiscovered Country that Priestley liked to explore so much.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Ray Bradbury Theater: The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Space Jam (1996).

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Saturday, April 10, 2021

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

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

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


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

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey (2014).

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

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


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

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

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

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


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