Sunday, August 18, 2019

Christopher Robin (2018).

All of us have childhood memories.  For both better and worse, they make up our introduction to the world, and how we will respond to it as adults.  One element that can sometimes be a part of this arrangement revolves around the kind of entertainment we take in as kids.  There are a great deal of us whose childhood is in many ways a catalogue of the cartoon characters we saw at an impressionable age.  Some of them left enough of an impact (and here I'm thinking of Garfield and the Three Stooges) that they can inform the ways in which we look at the world today.

Disney's Winnie the Pooh was never one of the big things for me growing up.  It was definitely something that was there, and I can remember watching it as part of my childhood, yet the character and his world are little more than just fragments scattered here and there as a sort of background noise in my memory.  As a result, the character spun off from a series of books by A.A. Milne was never one of those instant-recall figures for me.  It was more like something that was just sort of there, hanging around awhile before fading out of sight.  I don't know if this makes me the ideal audience for this picture, considering it's subject matter.  All I know is that after having a chance to sit down and watch it, my thoughts are as follows.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Art of Neil Gaiman (2014).

For some time now, I've had the idea that it is just possible to examine a specific strand of time which represented an astonishing period of artistic creativity among a number of several well-known authors.  While it is a mistake to believe that these authors make-up anything like an organized group, there can still be a sense in which each individual writer was responding to a phenomenon that is best described as the birth of the proper cultural and aesthetic climate which would allow them to find both their individual voices, and methods of expression.  The curious part is how often this disparate group of writers from the 70s and 80s often find ways to dialogue with one another in their works of fiction.  It is similar, in many ways, to the kind of artistic flourishing which saw another handful of differing authors produce a series of texts during the Victorian Age which now make up the canon of both children's and popular literature.

This seems to be a recurring phenomenon, of sorts.  Sometimes there will be moments in any potential age which can serve as a kind of igniting spark that will both draw in and produce artistic minds capable of churning out a surprising (and hopefully effective) level of creativity.  The children's authors (i.e. Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Edith Nesbit etc) of the Victorian/Edwardian eras are just one such example of this phenomena.  I'd like to argue that a similar group of authors is the product of a similar kind of cultural convergence.  These writers came of age either during or after the 60s, and were, in general, a mix of both Boomer and Gen X cultures.  The curious part is how this doesn't seem to have led to anything like an expected series of major clashes that can erupt between generations.  Instead, older scribes like Ramsay Campbell were able to get along just as well with relative youngsters like Neil Gaiman.

It is Gaiman as both an individual talent, and as part of this larger artistic phenomena that I'd like to examine here.  Gaiman is one of those semi-household words of the moment.  The good news is that a close examination of his works reveal that we are dealing with a genuine talent, and not just some ever vanishing fad.  Of all the names associated with this semi-group of writers under discussion, Gaiman is one of the few to win his way to mass popular ubiquity, along with the likes of Stephen King and Alan Moore.  In taking a closer look at Gaiman's life an art, the trick here will always be how to realize that Gaiman is one of those artists who does not exist in isolation.

I find that the most interesting aspect of Gaiman's writings is that he is one of those rare talents who is willing to pretty much wear all of his influences on his sleeve.  In both fictional writings, and real world essays, Gaiman has proven himself more than willing to talk about his artistic enthusiasms.  These range from obscure names like Hope Mirless and Lord Dunsany, to the work of popular comic book artists like Jack Kirby.  The result is that Gaiman's work demands that we see him as an individual talent in relation to the cauldron of story from which he returns to draw ideas from time and again.  Hailey Campbell's The Art of Neil Gaiman is just the sort of text that can help us in this regard.

Novelist and academic Audrey Niffenegger describes the book in rather succinct terms.  "As time runs along we can all look back and trace the large events in our lives (marriages, children, vocations, artistic triumphs) to some small conversation in a pub, a book encountered at random in a library or a chance meeting on the street.  In this book, Hayley Campbell rewinds Neil Gaiman's life and explores the connections between his life, his ideas and his work; She has interviewed Neil about every comic, novel, short story and movie he's ever created, excavated old photos and manuscripts out of boxes in Neil's attic and spoken to many of Neil's collaborators, editors, and friends.  She has written a delightfully comprehensive, matter-of-fact and sometimes surprising account of the development of Neil's entire body of work thus far (60)".  In addition to all of that, Campbell's book is good for one other thing.  It is perhaps the closest resource critics and fans may have at trying to gain an idea of the meaning and nature of Gaiman's work as a writer.

In what follows, I'll be focusing in on certain aspects of Campbell's insights.  In particular I want to see if she can tell us anything about what we're Gaiman's influences, does he have a relation to any kind of artistic cultural milieu, and would these two factors tell us about the thematic significance of her subject's work.  In trying to find this out, I will be not be focusing on any one specific text.  The goal here is to work toward an overall understanding of Campbell's subject.  In order to accomplish this goal, I will be focusing in on just a small handful of Gaiman's texts.  There is always the risk that such a method of approach can wind up giving the reader a distorted picture of the author.  However, I've never been able to shake the idea that at least a tentative beginning of an understanding of Gaiman's work can be reached if we first zero in on a small sample of his stories.  From there, it should be possible to build on the basic idea suggested by these works as each of Gaiman's other writings come under eventual examination.

It is true that Campbell provides an extensive look into Gaiman's creative output in her book.  Each book is given it's own two to four page chapter in the text.  These examinations of Gaiman's work come after a few opening sections dedicated to the life of the author.  Now a focus on the early chapters to the exclusion of most of his book's might be a disappointment to some.  However, it has to be remembered that this article is concerned with whether or not Gaiman belongs as a part of a disparate, yet related group of writers that together make up a sort of informal group that defined the nature of fantastic fiction for a brief span of time near the end of the 20th century.  If Gaiman does have a place in such a gathering, then it means we need to review the author as an individual talent in relation to whatever literary traditions might have informed his writing, as well of those of the other creative artists in this hypothetical collective.  This means we must first look at the author himself, and the ideas behind his writings, if we can ever hope to gain a better understanding of each of his individual stories in the future.  In this regard, Campbell's text can be of great help when the  time comes to look at each of Gaiman's artistic endeavors on an individual basis.  It's for all the above reasons that taking a critical look at Campbell's text might just help us to understand what kind of a writer Neil Gaiman really is.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Explorer's Guild: Vol 1: Passage to Shambala.

William Faulkner once observed, "The past is always with us, it isn't even past".  If that's the truth, then it's a problematic fact.  One of the most difficult challenges for modern readers is tackling the past as a subject of study.  This can best be illustrated if one turns to the works of literary fiction from a bygone age.  Part of the problem with the literary writings of the Victorian Age is that there is a particular sub-section of works which can more or less be grouped together as sharing the same generic space.  The trick is it's hard to know just what to call this style or genre of fiction.

That's an ironic fact which critic Gary Hoppenstand is more than aware of.  In the introduction to Perilous Escapades, Hoppenstand notes that "Adventure fiction, a popular form of fiction today, is one of the easiest narrative formulas to recognize and one of the hardest to define specifically (3)".  That's at least a half-truth.  Action is a common trope in most works of fiction, specifically in the movies.  However, to label the types of stories under consideration as "Adventure Fiction" is a bit too narrow.  While the Jungle Books of Kipling and the two novels of Lewis Carroll's Alice are not the same type of story, there is still a sense in which both texts fit neatly together on the same shelf, or in the same generic box.  Because of this, trying to find the right name for the box requires a bit more delicacy than Hoppenstand is able to give it.

Robert Fraser prefers the phrase Victorian Quest Romance.  This term is not without it's problems and caveats, yet it is at least somewhat closer to the mark.  Fraser provides an interesting take on the genre in question courtesy of Sir Walter Scott.  "As early as 1810...Sir Walter Scott had spelled out this equation: 'The mythology of one period,' he had written, 'would seem to pass into the romance of the next, and that into the nursery tales of subsequent ages.'  In other words, so late Victorians came to believe, people had begun with certain beliefs, which they had then embodied in legends.  These were in turn handed down from generation to generation until they 'degenerated' - a word often used by late-Victorian folklorists - into fairy stories.  The relationship between such stories and romance was of paramount importance to nineteenth-century theories of fiction, and determined contemporary thinking about...certain kinds of narrative (5-6)".

If we are willing to follow the genealogy laid down by Scott, the genre under discussion owes it's lineage to various old world myths.  In this light, perhaps a good starting point would be to use a label such as "Victorian Myths".  Such a label is a lot closer to the mark, as many of the stories in this genre are all about the re-discovery of ancient myths, including the lands and cultures that were once associated with them.  This type of setup often involved a group of characters, usually explorers, trekking out into what was once "unexplored terrain", and having all kinds of fantastic adventures along the way.  The works of Kipling and Rider Haggard fall into this category, or sub-section of the genre.

The trouble with labeling these works as "Myths", however, encounters two problems.  The first is that Haggard and Kipling are not composing myths in the proper sense of the terms, they are instead using the 19th century forms of novel and short story to tell their tales.  The second is that I believe the genre under discussion is multi-faceted enough to take in and accommodate more than just a jungle adventure, or lost world story.  If Kipling can share the same shelf with Lewis Carroll, that means the genre also features another type of story.  This one could be considered an early form of what is now known as Urban or Contemporary Fantasy.  This type of story is all about the intrusion of the fantastic into the mundane life of modern society.  The big over-arching theme of this particular type of story seems to be one of the breakdown of boundaries, whether between ordinary and extraordinary, or between new and old.  The works of Carroll, as well as the children's books of Edith Nesbit are prime Era centric examples of this kind of narrative.

The one thing that unites such a disparate collection of authors is that each seems to take their inspiration from a combination of Ancient Myth and the Medieval genre known as Romance.  Because of this, Victorian Romanticism, or Victorian Fantasy, are perhaps the best terms to describe the genre I'm talking about here.  It is broad enough to encompass Mowgli's Jungle and Alice's Wonderland, while still leaving room enough for novels set in Ancient or Medieval settings.

In a way, the nature of Victorian Fantasy was summed up best by one of its most famous inheritors.  According to J.R.R. Tolkien, it is "a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold...The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.  In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who report them.  And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys lost (web)".  At the very least, it is possible to grant the professor this much, trying to define the fantastic fiction of the Victorian Age (itself just one among many ingredients in the "Cauldron of Story") can be tongue tying.
As genres go, Victorian Fantasy has been one of those whose influence on future artists is big enough to be ubiquitous.  It's imprint can be found in places as diverse as a children's ghost story by Neil Gaiman, to a free-verse poem written by Stephen King, to the labyrinthine texts of Umberto Eco.  The influence is often so all-encompassing as to be unnoticeable by the great majority.  It's still there no matter how long it goes unnoticed.  Sometimes there will come along a person who does notice both the genre and it's influences.  Sometimes the person who notices will turn out to be an artist.  It can be a curious sight to observe what  happens whenever an artist becomes aware of the Victorian Fantasy, especially if the artist takes it into his head to try and do something in the same vein.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015).

"From my admittedly prejudiced viewpoint, successful novelists - even modestly successful novelists - have got the best gig in the creative arts.  It's true that people buy more CDs than books, got to more movies, and watch a lot more TV.  But the arc of productivity is longer for novelists, perhaps because readers are a little brighter than fans of the non-written arts, and thus have marginally longer memories.  David Soul of Starksy and Hutch is God knows where, same with that peculiar white rapper Vanilla Ice, but in 1994, Herman Wouk, James Michener, and Norman Mailer were all still around; talk about when dinosaurs walked the earth (36)"

Those were the words Stephen King wrote way back in 1998, in his novel Bag of Bones.  These days I can't help wondering if he's changed his tune on that score.  At the time, the prospects for writers and publishers was a lot more rose colored than it is now.  CDs, TV, and the movies haven't fair much better, for that matter.  We've lost both Herman Wouk and Harlan Ellison, and I'm not sure most folk even know they're gone.  It's an open question in my mind whether or not things will reach a point when people cease to realize that they ever existed.  As time goes on, it seems like W.H. Auden was more on point when he observed: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”

That's a harsh truth that's getting more noticeable as the 21st century continues it's implacable march.  If anyone mentions The Haunting of Hill House, most will immediately think about that HBO series that just finished it's run.  Very few will consider the possibility that it's also the title of a novel.  The truth is reading always seems to have been something of a minority practice, rather than the normative order of things.  That's not too much of a wild statement when you consider that about half of one percent of the population of medieval Europe could ever learn to read and write their own names.  The numbers have climbed since then, yet, anything like a true and full sense of literacy has always been evaded through the passage of time.  It's an unfortunate truth for a lot of great names.  For instance, does anyone know of Ramsey Campbell?  How about Alexander Dumas, Greta Garbo, Richard Matheson, Katherine and Audrey Hepburn, Manly Wade Wellmann or Charles Beaumont?  Who wrote The Haunting of Hill House?  Who's David Soul?  Is Raymond Douglas Bradbury the name of an actual person, or did I just make that up? 

The trick to being a giant is learning how to keep your longevity going well past your time.  It's something of an inevitable shame to see the names and works of great artists fade into obscurity.  The biggest irony I can imagine is that moment when a text that was considered groundbreaking on it's release becomes something that's barely remembered years later.  That's the sad fate of Hitchcock/Truffaut, a series of published interviews between French director Francois Truffaut, and an English-American filmmaker who used to be known as the Master of Suspense.  At the time the book was released it was considered a shot across the bows of the old establishment of Hollywood.  Today it seems like barely a ripple in the ocean.

That's why it' gratifying to know that director Kent Jones not only remembers the book, he seems to be one of it's biggest fans.  In 2015 Jones made a concerted effort to interview as many of the current and former biggest names in showbiz while they can still remember and remain to tell their stories of how this one simple book, made and released by a pair of eager cinema enthusiasts, left an impact on them.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Walt Disney and Live Action.

They say familiarity breeds contempt.  I think the more natural result is complacency.  If something is able to stick around long enough, sometimes people come to believe they know all there is to tell about that particular subject.  Something like this appears to have happened to Walt Disney.  He's a staple of childhood, he managed to make himself into something of a national treasure, and he's everybody's favorite family entertainer.  End of story, right?  That seems to be the price-tag that comes with ubiquity.  The trouble with being just about everywhere is that it's easy for anyone to assume that they know all there is worth knowing about the life of a man.

Take his films, for instance.  A lot of them can be named off the top of the head by anyone in the street.  There's Fantasia, Dumbo, Aladdin etc.  These seem to be the films that stick in the memory.  So what else did he do?  Is that all he made?  Was there nothing else?  What if I told you Disney once made a short animated cartoon with the help of a Pulitzer Prize winning author?  Does that sound too good to be true?  Didn't everybody look down on Uncle Walt back in the day?  Well, just don't tell Sinclair Lewis that, he seemed perfectly happy to lend his services as part of 1947's anthology film Fun and Fancy Free.  That's just one possible example out of many others.  The truth is that popularity of the moment seems to determine just how Disney and his film's are viewed from one year to the next.  This can be a saving grace in that the old filmmaker still has a solid life in the public memory.  At the same time, the trouble with memory is how selective it can be.  The net result is that only the best parts are preserved, while a lot of other material is deemed subpar.  A lot of Walt's live-action efforts fall into this category.

It's true that Mary Poppins is still the one live-action film everyone remembers (now with a bit of recent infamy attached to it).  After that, the closest picture anyone can recall in this same category is the studio's biggest mistake, Song of the South.  If you put those two together, I almost have to wonder if they don't form an ironic commentary on the nature of the public's awareness of Disney's efforts in the non-animated medium.  It wouldn't surprise me to hear future historians making the mistaken claim that because South is such an atrocity, Disney decided never to make another live-action flick ever again until the release of Poppins.  The sad truth is I don't think such an outcome is far-fetched in a time where cultural literacy and historical memory are on the decline.  I think it can become an even greater mistake if everyone just let's this sort of thing go on.

For these and other reasons, I've thought it might help to take a trip down a forgotten avenue of memory lane.  It turns out ol' Uncle Walt had more than a few trick us his sleeve, ones that didn't have to rely on the Ink and Pain department.  These are the films that have been left in history's dustbin.  Here you can also find authors who used to be big, like Robert Louis Stevenson, along with voices that have been unjustly neglected, like Johann David Weiss or Mary Mapes Dodge.  It's also a place where you could meet up with historical figures that used to be national phenomenons, and nowadays have more of a local fame, such as Davey Crockett.  The perfect entry point to explore this terrain is provided by John G. West's study, Walt Disney and Live-Action: The Disney Studios Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Tolkien (2019).

Most people like to read a well-written story.  The question is, how do you make the writing of that story interesting?  That's the challenge facing the makers of this film, an attempted biopic of the author of The Lord of the Rings.  It's a challenge that confronts the project right out of the starting gate, and director Dome Karukoski was given a daunting task when he signed on.  His job was to take the life of one of the most well known and revered authors around the globe, and try to make an interesting story out of his life.  Whether he succeeded or not is the big question.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

A Forgotten Renaissance Man: A.E.W. Mason

It didn't last long.  It was all just a brief moment of time.  The curious part is how much was accomplished in such a short space.  When the Victorian Era is thought about at all today, it is through the reflecting lens of adaptations of A Christmas Carol, or else it has been rebranded by the look and style of the Steam Punk movement.  The time itself was both less and more than this, however.  It's greatest legacy stems from its literary output.  There are tons avenues worth exploring from the many bookish corners of that era.  The one I find that holds the most interest is what might be called the Victorian Romantic Movement.  This label is taken to both designate and encompass an entire collection of writers and authors who, together and separately, created a series of popular texts that have gone on to reach canonical status.

Once you look at the titles of these books, you perhaps begin to get an idea of why they've earned their place in the current pantheon of great writings.  In this corner there are Dr. Jekyll and his shadowy partner, Mr. Hyde.  Here also is Stevenson's Treasure Island, the Africa of H. Rider Haggard, and Kipling's India.  It was during the reign of Queen Victoria that a stammering school teacher had the idea of a girl falling down a rabbit hole into a satiric parody of the world around her.  It was the best and worst of times.  In other words, it was during the British 19th century that most of the greatest works of fantasy and adventure literature were written.

This is one those literary legacies that manages to be all but forgotten while casting a shadow so large that the great majority will have little choice but to go through their lives never completely knowing that modern entertainment exists both under and within it.  It is one of the most amazing truths of history that the shape and form of the current popular genres were forged and molded by a small coterie of artists, working separately for the most part, but with something like an actual network made up of letters of correspondence and critique.  It's a phenomenon that can occur on occasions.  The original Romantic Movement is the prime example, while the 20th century Modernists are the most recent.

The real curious part however is that the works of these authors was able to go on to have any kind of major impact at all across both times and cultures.  No one seems to have intended for anything to get so big.  At the same time, it's what happened, regardless of what any of them hoped would become of their works.  In addition to being well told stories, there is something in or about a book like King Solomon's Mines, or Huck Finn, that also enables them acts as methods of literary transmission and inheritance.  Their quality is such that they are able to establish a tradition or standards for other artists to learn, grow, and find their own voices from.  

Another curiosity about Victorian Romanticism is that it was able to make the transition to the Edwardian Age without missing a beat, and with no discernible alterations in it's stylistic or storytelling methods, or in its choices of subject matter.  For all intents and purposes, the Edwardian Era seems, for a time at least, to be more like a continuation rather than a break with the past.  It would take the disillusionment of the First World War to create an actual break between past and present.  The irony is that while the Great War may have caused the Victorian strain of Romanticism to go out of fashion, it couldn't erase the hold it had on the imaginations of many of its inheritors.  The most famous of these was J.R.R. Tolkien, and his works on Middle Earth owe a great deal to his grounding in the kind of reading material that was later consigned to the nursery by the time he was a graduate student at Oxford University.  While Tolkien is the most famous example of a modern author taking inspiration from Victorian Adventure and Fantasy genres, it would be a mistake to believe his was the only one.  History is littered with the names of forgotten inheritors.

I have to thank another forgotten author, Roger Lancelyn Green for pointing all this out to me, even if he wasn't exactly around to do it.  While the author in question may have passed away in October of 1987, his textual voice can still find ways of remaining far from silent.  He was most notable in life as the author of a popular set of children's anthologies revolving around the various mythic cycles of both Norse, classical Greco-Roman, and English/Arthurian cultures.   In addition to this, Green was also a surprisingly capable scholar of Victorian Fantasy, and the men and women who created it.  One of them is A.E.W. Mason.

In 1952, Green published a biography of Mason.  So far as I can tell, it remains the sole book in existence to tackle this author, and the nature of the books that made him famous, at least for a time.  In setting out the life of his subject, Green is also giving his readers as good a snapshot of not just a time long vanished.  Instead, the biographer is trying to present an atmosphere or idea of the literary climate in which Mason worked and traveled in.  It is precisely the atmosphere of this climate that stands out so well in the biography.  A perfect example of what I mean is shown by Green on the first page of his book:

"As in the case of his novels, when one thinks of A.E.W. Mason one thinks first  of the swift, breathless, joyous rush of adventures: Mason as an actor; Mason as a struggling journalist leaping suddenly into fame with his second novel; Mason the traveler exploring the Sudan; Morocco, Spain, taking swift, eager journeys to South America, South Africa, India, Burma, Ceylon and Australia; Mason in his yacht coasting the Scillies, crossing the Bay, tacking up the Seine to Rouen or threading the canals of Holland;  Mason the mountaineer spending his Easter vacation from Oxford on the fells above Wastdale, and later going year after year to climb in the Alps - the Col du Geant, Mont Blanc (sixteen hours on the Brenva Ridge); Mason the member of Parliament; Mason the Secret Service Agent in Spain and Mexico during the first World War...(7)"  

The overall impression is of a passage that reads like something from a pulp novel.  It also might be the whole point.  In this one paragraph, Green has given his readers an insight into both the kind of larger than life personality that Mason possessed, as well as the tone and style of the kind of novels that made him famous.  On the very first page the reader finds himself in a realm that is close to that of someone like Robert Louis Stevenson, or Jack London.  It's a world where sometimes an adventure can still be found on the high-seas, and there are still unexplored corners that remain on the map.  This is the literary climate that produces films like King Kong or Lawrence of Arabia.  It is a product of the very same Romantics going all the way back to Dickensian England.  While it's true this was all before Mason's time, the fact remains that it is this particular style and genre of writing that has left the defining imaginative impact on Green's subject.  In that sense, the entire biography is an examination of literary survivals and revivals.

Green outlines the purpose of his biography as follows: "to tell the story of A.E. W. Mason as completely as possible, in his own words whenever they existed in letters, in odd passages from his books, and in a rare introduction or interview - following Graham Balfour's dictum that 'all biography would be autobiography if it could'.  I have tried also to describe the genesis of each of his books, plays or films, with a word or two of the contemporary reaction - reviews of the day or letters from his friends - and to offer a critical estimate of the whole body of his literary achievement (8)".  

My own goals are a bit less ambitious.  For me, this post is really a form of literary excavation with the hope of rediscovery as it's goal.  It is Green's book on Mason as both an author and as a person that I wish to examine here.  While the subject of Green's biography is not a household word like Tolkien or Rowling, Mason still provides a good jumping off point into the exploration of a greater literary landscape.

The final thing to note before getting started is that I've decided to take a thematic, rather than chronological approach to Green's book.  My reasons for doing this are because I think a brief outline sketch of all the salient points will be a better help toward giving the reader a good idea of the kind text they are dealing with if anyone should ever decide to pick it up.  The key part of Green's book is his exploration of Mason as an artist.  That means the best parts are when the reader is given a clue into both the author's creative thought process, and the relation of his imaginative exploits to the literary cultural tapestry of which it forms a part.  For these reasons, I think it's best to give an account of the ideas that make this biography worth a read.  It still helps to take things one at a time, however.  The best place to start is at the beginning.