Sunday, May 24, 2020

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).

Quentin Tarantino can be a difficult artist to talk about.  Not because there's nothing there.  The problem is kind of the exact opposite.  I don't know if it's too much to say guys like Tarantino contain multitudes.  I know anyone who's talked with him in person claim the guy has so much of a mouthful that sometimes you can't keep up.  In a way, that's a good metaphor for the whole problem.  The fact that its drawn from life just gives a bit of needed weight.  With directors like Tarantino, the problem is there can sometimes be so much to talk about that often the critic doesn't even know where to begin.  The worst part is that in a way, the director himself presents very little challenge at this late date.  The real worry in writing about the films of Tarantino is that you have to keep looking over your shoulder in case someone else made your own point for you a long time ago.  There's very little original to be said or unearthed about one of the most successful and defining careers in the history of filmmaking.  In other words, there's a lot to talk about, and its all been said before.  Still, the critic has to report something about his subject if he's to do the job right.

I suppose the best place to start is with the guy himself.  That can also be difficult because there are ways that his life can sound like that of a fictional character who shouldn't even exist.  He was a video store clerk, a rare and by now almost extinct form of retail wildlife that flourished for a brief span of time during the 80s and 90s.  What used to happen is people would actually bother to leave their houses, get in their cars, and go to an actual block of brick and mortar where VHS copies of old films were stored and housed.  They did that because back then it was possible to buy or rent the movie you wanted to watch right there in the store itself.  It was even possible, during this brief span of two decades, when some of these video stores were successful enough to become an actual business chain.  The most famous of these remains Blockbuster Video.  Tarantino never worked at one of these.  His own place of employment was an indie outlet called Video Archives.

This seems to have been the place where Tarantino first cemented a public awareness for himself.  He would sit behind the counter and market with the customers.  This was easy enough and enjoyable because all he had to do was tell anybody who chanced to walk in how much he loved the movies.  He would try and spread the enthusiasm around, get the buyers talking about what they liked, what films they found enjoyable, and what was it about the art-form that even made them want to set foot in establishments like the Archives?  It was a good way to drive up sales.  On personal level, though, it got customers talking not just about the business, but also about a motor-mouth clerk who also seemed like he had something promising in him.  It helped a lot that Quentin was an avid consumer of all things celluloid.  The man has been able to amass an incredible amount of detailed knowledge about movies past and present.  He was already well read, film wise, when he got his start back in the early 90s with Reservoir Dogs.  I don't even know how much more he's been able to accumulate since then.

Just recently Tarantino released his 9th film in theaters.  It's kind of a big deal because some time back he declared that he was going to limit himself to just 10 films under his own banner as a director.  This sort of marketing scheme is interesting for several reasons.  On the one hand, it creates expectation in audiences.  It gives them something to think about in a way that keeps the buzz around your name going.  At the same time, it puts a necessary amount of pressure on the artist to deliver on his promises.  Tarantino knows he has to make every film he releases count.  Any kind of screw-up on his part is going to put a dent in both his reputation and prospects.  That means every film he makes has to be as top quality as he can possibly make it.  The guys must hav a great luck to go along with his natural talents if he wants to succeed.  So far, most of his output has been greeted with popular and critical acclaim.  It's the reason why audiences are now in a heightened state of anticipation because they know his last film has to somehow sum up and account for it all.

According to the director himself, that film is still somewhere on the horizon.  Part of his strategy is to space out his work so that a legend is able to generate around his oeuvre.  It's another bit of his marketing skills.  Right now, his latest film is a bit of a nostalgia piece.  It's called Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and as the penultimate notch in his belt, it seems worth a look to determine just how well it holds up.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Guns Akimbo (2019).

It all started with a meme.  It was a picture of Daniel Radcliffe, the actor forever to be associated with Harry Potter.  In the picture, Radcliffe is seen holding up a pair of guns, looking disheveled and dressed in a style best described as late-stage Arthur Dent.  Like all memes, this one originated online somewhere back in 2018, and it didn't take long for the photo to accumulate its own collection of varying levels of wit.  I'm told the first one out of the gate read something like: I'm telling you Ron, these things are better than magic wands!  Other examples of the kind of humor the image was able to attract were along the lines of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Bullets; Harry Potter and the End of a Vivid (yet prolonged) Hallucination; and, of course, Say hello to my little friends, avada, and kedavra!  It took the release of an actual 2019 trailer to go along the image and place it all in its semi-logical context.  It was a promotion for a movie called Guns Akimbo, and it featured Radcliffe as the star.  The upshot of that clip was that I ran across another meme in the YouTube comments section: Harry Potter and the Stoned Philosopher.

When I first saw the trailer my initial reaction was to be dismissive.  On first glimpse it looked like just another mindless action flick with the only novelty being that it featured the Boy Who Lived.  What else was there?  What was sort of able to draw me back was that I somehow managed to stop and give the setup of the trailer an actual moment's bit of thought.  I began to wonder about various elements of the what I was shown in the preview, and how they might relate to Radcliffe's most famous character.  I began to see how it was just possible there might be some interesting level of commentary attached to the whole schlocky premise.  Besides which, if there's one thing I've learned as a fan of the Horror genre, it's that Schlock can sometimes have it's place.  More than that, it is even possible for some items of Schlock to achieve their own crude yet genuine level of art.  The question is does the final product live up to all these critical musings?

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Joe Hill's Faun (2019).

One of the main goals of this blog is to bring the forgotten pieces of artistic history back from the past, and give them their moment in the spotlight.  At the moment, I don't think the subject of today's post needs that much introduction.  If you mention the name Joe Hill to anyone, chances are there will be a sizable enough number of people that know who you're talking about.  He's managed to carve out a place for himself in the current pop-culture landscape, and emerge as a pretty good example of what modern Horror fiction is capable of producing.  His most famous creation remains the multi-part graphic novel known as Locke and Key, while his 2008 novel, Horns, was recently made into a Daniel Radcliffe vehicle a while back.  His name has received its most recent boost from having his 2013 novel, N0S402, translated into an open-ended TV series adaptation of the same name.

It's an admirable achievement for the most part, and Hill has been able to demonstrate a remarkable sense of talent when it comes to entertaining his audience.  This begins to make a bit more sense when you take the author's family history into account.  In the strictest sense, Joe Hill the writer is a man who doesn't exist, except as a limited number of words that make up a fictional pseudonym.  I suppose it looks good or at least serviceable enough for a book jacket byline.  However, that still doesn't tell readers the whole truth.  His real name is Joseph Hillstrom King, and for whatever reason, he was lucky enough to have the famous Horror author Stephen King as a father.  Once this important fact is kept in mind, the outlines of Hill's creative output begins to perhaps make a bit more sense.

The introduction to his recently published anthology series, Full Throttle, is unique in that it marks the first time Hill has opened up about how the writings of his own Dad have influenced the nature of his career.  "Most sons fall into one of two groups.  There's the boy who looks upon his father and thinks, I hate that son of a bitch, and I swear to God I'm never going to be anything like him.


"Then there's the boy who aspires to be like his father: to be as free, and as kind, and as comfortable in his own skin.  A kid like that isn't afraid he's going to resemble his dad in word and action.  He's afraid he won't measure up.  It seems to me that the first kind of son is the most  truly lost in his father's shadow.  On the surface that probably seems counterintuitive.  After all, here's a dude who looked at Papa and decided to run as far and as fast as he could in the other direction.  How much distance do you have to put between yourself and your old man before you're finally free?

"And yet at every crossroads in his life, our guy finds his father standing right behind him: on the first date, at the  wedding, on the job interview.  Every choice must be weighed against Dad's example, so our guy knows to do the opposite...and in this way a bad relationship goes on and on, even if father and son haven't spoken in years.  All that running and the guy never gets anywhere.

"The second kid, he hears that John Donne quote - We're scare our fathers' shadows cast at noon - and nods and thinks, Ah shit, ain't that the truth?  He's been lucky - terribly, unfairly, stupidly lucky.  He's free to be his own man, because his father was.  The father, in truth, doesn't throw a shadow at all.  He becomes instead a source of illumination, a means to see the territory ahead a little more clearly and find one's particular path.  I try to remember how lucky I've been (2-3)".

Hill doesn't leave it at that, and is kind enough to provide the reader with a kind of map of his own development as a writer.  It kind of helped that both his parents were not just "book people", but were also dedicated to the art and crafting of a good story.  In spite of this, Hill says he was a poor student.  Here again, his parents demonstrated just how much they cared about their son's ambitions.  There big discovery was that Hill was able to remember things better if it came to him from the pages of a book.  It was a copy of Ray Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing which began to unlock all the important doors in Hill's career.  The writer also mentions how make-up artist Tom Savini acted as a kind of "second father" and role model for him to look up to.

It was from Savini that Hill inherited the sometimes impish sense of glee the writer demonstrates in bringing some of his wackier and off the wall concepts to fruition.  I can see how some readers might be inclined to turn their noses up at these moments as a kind of sophomoric sensibility that the author allows to get in his way.  In Hill's defense, I'm willing to maintain he is able to pull off such stunts, more often than not.  Even when he doesn't make the jump shot, it's not for a lack of either talent or inspiration.  Instead it seems to a phenomenon I was puzzled about at first, but have since come to realize as those unfortunate, yet genuine moments when the inspiration is there, yet it also somehow manages to remain just out of the artist's reach.  I can't even begin to consider the level of frustration that must bring to someone who is such a perfectionist at his craft as Hill is.  The good news is that he never let it discourage him for long.

With all that in mind, it's refreshing to see Hill is the type of writer who isn't shy or ashamed of the influences on his sleeve.  There are two interesting aspects about Hill's work.  The first is the most obvious in the sense that it's plain as day that he's followed in his own dad's footsteps.  The second and more important is the way his work serves as both an extension and continuation of the type of Gothic tale that helped put Stephen King on the map.  I'll get into that subject in it's proper place.  For the moment its enough to stop and take a quick, close look at one of the stories in Full Throttle.  It's an intriguing sort of yarn in its ability to take old ideas, tropes, concepts, and give them a fresh spin.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Souls of Wit: A Tribute to the Algonquin Round Table.

Does the name sound familiar?  Even if it does, the faces escape us.  That's not too much of a surprise.  The trouble with history is that its what everyone wants to get away from and everybody has to have.  It's a sentiment the knights of the old Round Table would have known and applauded.  They were made of different stuff back then.  Another aspect of history is that it all happened in the past.  What that means is sooner or later everyone has a jigsaw puzzle dropped right in front of them, and its our inglorious task to try and see if the pieces fit together.  Whether any of us learn to warm to this subject depends a great deal on whether its able to capture your interest.  That makes it a very haphazard affair, and even when the past is able to bait the hook, it's still no guarantee that the final picture is correct in every detail.

Very few remember the legends of the Round Table.  Not the one I'm talking about, anyway.  I call them knights, although perhaps a better way is to describe them all as a scrappy lot of literary talents looking for some kind of professional home.  At least, that was how it all started out.  It all happened in New York, not long after the First World War.  A lot of the decommissioned war correspondents made their way back to the Apple and somehow found themselves lounging around the dining are designated as the Rose Room of the Algonquin hotel in between waiting for the next gig.  In that sense they were pointers to a more noticeable facet of today's economy.  Back then, however, their professional credentials just made them third-class citizen of a second-class society.  Still, they were able to keep their heads above water.  Some of them like George S. Kaufman and Robert Benchley were up and coming names in the theater circuit.  Both Kaufman and Benchley were critics reporting on the products of the Great White Way at the time the story started.

They were returning vets in one form or another, and were at New York's Algonquin Hotel to welcome back another fellow ink-stained wretch.  His name was Alexander Woollcott, and it was his strange stuffiness mixed in with a bit of low-lying snobbery that made Benchley and the others decide to play a prank on him.  The nature, meaning, and intent of the prank itself is so small as to be unremarkable.  They erected a welcome back banner for Woollcott with his name deliberately misspelled and they were even considerate enough to add in the byline of a fellow critic that Woollcott despised to the masthead.  The prank itself was a minor thing, however the sense of camaraderie it inspired in the participants, even Woollcott as it turned out, made one of them ask, ""Why don't we do this every day (6-7)".

A better sense of the context of that moment in relation to its own time is I think best provided in the following description.  "The period that followed the end of World War I was one of gaiety and optimism, and it sparked a new era of creativity in American culture. Surely one of the most profound — and outrageous — influences on the times was the group of a dozen or so tastemakers who lunched together at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel. For more than a decade they met daily and came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. With members such as writers Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of The New Yorker) and Robert Benchley; columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun, and Broun’s wife Ruth Hale; critic Alexander Woollcott; comedian Harpo Marx; and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, the Round Table embodied an era and changed forever the face of American humor.

"It all began with an afternoon roast of the New York Times drama critic, Alexander Wollcott. A number of writers met up at the Algonquin Hotel on 44th street and had such a good time that the event was repeated the next day, and the day after that, until the lunch table at the Algonquin was established as a ritual. The core group of friends was sometimes joined by others who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group, including such notables as actress Tallulah Bankhead and playwright Noel Coward. The Round Table was made up of people with a shared admiration for each other’s work. Outspoken and outrageous, they would often quote each other freely in their daily columns.

"Round Tabler Edna Ferber, who called them “The Poison Squad,” wrote, “They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done, they did say so publicly and whole-heartedly.” Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent, and very, very tough. Both casual and incisive, they had a certain terrible integrity about their work and boundless ambition. Some of the most notable members of the Round Table came together to work on significant collaborative projects. George Kaufman teamed up with Edna Ferber and Marc Connelly on some of his best stage comedies, including Dulcy and The Royal Family. Harold Ross of The New Yorker hired both Dorothy Parker as a book reviewer and Robert Benchley as a drama critic (web)".  I think its somewhat telling that another member of the group was named Bill Murray.  As the later comic once observed, "Like you, I am shocked".  I suppose the final ingredient to the mix, the one acts as a decent capper, is the addition of the Brothers of the aforementioned Mr. Marx.

One of the things I've begun to notice is how a lot of the really great artistic accomplishments are either the result of the kind of informal group collaboration like that described above, or else they're at the very least interlinked by what I can only describe as a wave of inspiration that effects the culture of which each artist forms an integral part.  In the case of the Round Table, it seems as if a little bit of both was at work.  I've only begun to dive into this particular artistic group, yet what I've found already is enough to warrant a closer look or two.  As of this writing, I've familiarized myself with the work of four the members, or hangers-on of the the Tablers: Benchley, Kaufman, James Thurber, and  E.B. White.  Right now these four seem to represent to me the core artistic principles that forged a kind of informal bond for the Table.

It's the nature of those principles that I'd like to take a moment to examine.  I think unpacking the toolbox the group used to compose their works can help gain a better understanding of the ideas that drove the collective.  What makes it interesting is that what I've found convinces me that the Round Table as an artistic collective can help throw some interesting light on a forgotten influence on the nature of not just modern fiction, but on the practice of fantasy writing in the twentieth century.  The core principles of the Table that I've been able to discover come down to just three elements.  The first is that I think it helps to see the four knights discussed here as part of the Modernist experiment in world fiction at the time.  While guys like Benchley, Thurber, and White were making a name for themselves at The New Yorker, across the pond, guys like Ezra Pound and James Joyce were also busy mapping out the parameters of what Post-War literature could become.

The second element that was spread out over the work of the entire Table was that of Humor.  This is an arena in which guys like Kaufman and Marx were able to shine.  In particular, a brief look at the collaboration between the two can help to demonstrate the legacy they've left behind for up and coming modern comics.  The third and final element that united the group was their revelatory and unexpected approach to the topic of Myth.  In some ways, this is the biggest surprise I was able to uncover about the group, and the best part is I wasn't even on the lookout for anything.  I just kept going through the bibliography of guys like White and Thurber, or the list of performances made by Benchley, and somehow it finally got through that there was a genuine sense of respect for the kind of storytelling that was frowned upon by all the important taste-makers of the time.  It's the most overlooked aspect of the Round Table, and I think it may also be the one subject I'd like to go through the most.  So, grab a a favorite drink, a chair, put on some proper mood music, and meet some interesting people.


Sunday, March 29, 2020

St. George and the Witches (1938).

Nobody knows him and he's a total weirdo.  That sums up the whole plight and nature of J.W. Dunne's entire reputation.  He exists on the fringes of pop-culture as the guy who once theorized about something to do with dreams and time travel.  Other than that he's not what's trending, so who cares?  Then again, it is always possible to point out that its the basic nature of trends to be fleeting and momentary.  You could almost say its their basic nature to cancel themselves out.  On the other hand, the weirdo has managed to hang around since the 1920s.  What does that say about staying power?  If nothing else, it means there's an aura of fascination surrounding Dunne that he's never quite been able to shake off.

The main reason for this has to do with his 1927 book, An Experiment with Time.  He used it to expound a theory about the nature of chronological progression and its relation to dreams.  His basic idea was that sometimes dreams can help us to realize that time is not something like a solid, immovable force.  Instead, its more like a spiral enfolding on itself.  If that last sentence made little to zero sense, then take a number and get in line.  Guys like Dunne always have that effect on ordinary people.  It's like a natural necessity given the way modern life is lived.  The minute an anomaly like Dunne's book shows up, the inescapable result is that its like there's really nowhere for it to go.  In works of fiction, there is usually a reason given for why this should be.  The usual trope explanation is that the irruption of the unnatural into the natural tends to upset things too much for the health of society, or something like that.

Either way, in real life terms, An Experiment with Time remains Dunne's main claim to fame.  It's very nature consigns it to sort of the fringe level of publication.  Its easy to imagine an artist like Alan Moore having a copy of it lying around somewhere in his bookshelf.  If this were a work of fiction or more like a folktale, then the typical plot trajectory for this sort of narrative would have Dunne simply leave his text, and then vanish off the map as mysteriously as he came.  It's telling of the difference between myth and real life that Dunne's exploits were a bit more multi-faceted than the neatness of any fictional narrative.  After he finished his Time book, he penned several related volumes in which he tried to expand on his meaning for popular audiences. 

There even seems to have been a brief span of time when his ideas gained a certain kind of popularity in literary circles.  Guys like W.B. Yeats showed an occasional interest in Dunne's ideas.  And I'm convinced his concepts lie behind a lot of the work of J.B. Priestly.  I suppose that's not too shabby for an unassuming aircraft engineer with strange dreams.  However the record shows that Dunne was capable of finding ways to make things odd, and therefore just a bit more interesting.  He didn't just pen off-kilter non-fiction works on theoretical physics.  He also took the time to publish books meant to entertain children.  Dunne has at least two titles to his name in this particular genre field.  The first was a tome with the curious name of The Jumping Lions of Borneo.  The second is the book under discussion today, An Experiment with St. George, or as it is known under its American publication, St. George and the Witches.

I ran across the whole thing almost by accident.  I think it was the result of just googling the guy out of sheer curiosity, and there it was, listed among his bibliography.  A bit more searching revealed that somehow the St. George text has managed to find a digital re-release as of this writing.  I don't how that's possible, considering its a book that has been lost to obscurity for all intents and purposes.  In a way, it forms the perfect sense of contradictory logic of Dunne's career.  It's a book that has vanished through the cracks, and has been lost to memory.  So here it is, for a new generation to discover. If its a contradiction, then somehow that never got in the way of the book's fortunes.  Se la Vie, I suppose.  Either that or its just further proof I was born and raised in one great, big, surrealist painting.  What I do know for certain is that I felt I had to go the extra mile and track down an actual physical copy of Dunne's book.  Somehow there was one single edition left intact in all of Britain, and now its stored away in my library (current location, Ancient Babylonia (or was it Alexandria?  I keep getting those places mixed up).  The upshot is that I had to fork over a great wad of cash to get my hands on it.  So it was delivered.  I read it.  The result is as follows.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Insomiac Dreams: Experimenting with Time by Vladimir Nabokov (2018).


In his 1989 graphic novel From Hell, Alan Moore posed a serious, yet out of the ordinary question to the reader.  “What is the fourth dimension”?  It was and remains an out-of-left-field topic to bring up for discussion in the midst of a narrative that was already in danger of careening away from all the comforts of the norm.  From there, Moore takes the reader on a kind of guided, mini-history tour into a topic brought up by Charles Howard Hinton in a book whose title is the very question that we’re being asked.  What is the Fourth Dimension?  The topic itself is unfamiliar to the great majority of people.  Therefore it has no choice in the matter, except to come off as strange at best, or else just sound like a bunch of nonsense.  You can't expect familiarity where new acquaintances are concerned.  Just as you can't expect old minds in young heads.

This lack of a familiarity was never enough to deter a writer like Moore from taking a deep dive into the subject with all the passion of a true enthusiast.  Nor is the topic limited solely to his work on Jack the Ripper.  Hinton’s Fourth Dimension, the area of Time, has made numerous appearances in others works by the author.  According to John Semley, from an article published in Maclean’s:

“It is, perhaps, a heady idea: that time itself constitutes its own dimension, its passage perceptible to humans while its grander design remains hidden out of view. And yet Alan Moore is the perhaps the most conspicuously heady of comics authors, equal parts deconstructionist, postmodernist, and bug-eyed mystic oddball. The view that history possesses a discrete but invisible “architecture” (as it’s described in Moore and Eddie Campbell’s Jack the Ripper comic From Hell) crops up repeatedly throughout his work, as it does in his new non-graphic novel Jerusalem”.

Semley is also quick to point out a detail that is “curiouser and curiouser”.  The exploration of the nature, dimensions, and possible functions of time has not been limited in history to just guys like Moore, or even to authors of fiction.  According to Semley, an entire series of diverse names ranging from physicists like Einstein to authors like Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon have made up just a small handful on the list of notables who've tried to grapple with the subject.  The purpose of this essay is to take a closer look at two other men who tried to grapple with time’s other kingdom.  One was a physicist like Einstein, the other was often mistaken for a pervert.  

I don't blame those who turn away in disgust.  I also can't pin a fault on anyone with no other choice than to ask who the hell am I even talking about?  Vladimir Nabokov might exist today as a name on the tip of the tongue.  He's supposed to be famous, or something, but for what?  A few of the more bookish types might ask if he wasn't that old perv who wrote a book about the same?  The text they're thinking of is called Lolita.  It was known as a "successful scandal" in its day, and even a synopsis of its subject matter is enough to turn away the most dedicated of bookworms.  I know that's true, I still don't care to go near it.  The strangest part is that the author of a book like that seemed to have nothing in common with its contents.

Vladimir Nabokov first saw the light of day in April, 1899, on the turn of a new century in St. Petersburg.  He was born into an affluent household, complete with servants, a nanny, a quaint little country estate, and a lawyer/statesman for a father.  Nabokov's own words describe his early years as a time out of a fairy tale.  At least that is the constant, over-arching impression given off by his prose.  He was also something of a precocious lad, often given to pause and examine various persons, places, and things that caught his interest.  This kind of behavior makes sense from at least one angle.  If you're going to be a writer for a living, it helps to know how to gather material for your work based on observation, and Nabokov was a life-long stickler for reading the details.

The early interest in literature was combined with a fascination for the natural world.  He became a devoted butterfly collector, and his hobby soon became a part-time professional occupation as the writer could add recognition as a lepidopterist to his list of achievements.  The most interesting aspect that his scientific explorations held for his literary endeavors, however, is what it led Nabokov to conclude about the nature of reality.  It's not too much of a stretch to claim that the author's definitions of the real world were peculiar, to say the least.  A good example is provided from the following passage of his autobiography, Speak Memory, where he tries to grant the reader a suggestion of the very nature of time itself: "In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free.  I thought this up when I was a schoolboy, and I also discovered that Hegel's triadic series (so popular in old Russia) expressed merely the essential spirality of all things in their relation to time.  Twirl follows twirl, and every synthesis is the thesis of the next series (265)".   

The closest author most of us could even begin to compare any of that to would, of course, be the tripped out panels of the graphic novels of Alan Moore.  I don't believe it is correct to say Nabokov is the literary equivalent of Moore.  There are too many stylistic and narrative differences for that.  A better way of thinking about it is to say that Moore and Nabokov may possibly be working in the same business, if not on the same office floor.  Either way, it is this mixture of the mundane interlaced with just a hint of the phantasmagorical that marks out Nabokov's approach to all his material, even if the events described are as prosaic as a couple moving to a new residence.

This fairy tale quality to VN's writing has not been lost on other critics.  Roger Ebert was one fan who picked up on this element.  "An odd thought occurred to me a few hours after I saw writer/director Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time. It was that Anderson would be the ideal director for a film of Lolita, or a mini-series of Ada. Now I know that Lolita has been filmed, twice, but the fundamental problem with each version has nothing to do with ability to depict or handle risky content but with a fundamental misapprehension that Nabokov's famous novel took place in the "real world." For all the authentic horror and tragedy of its story, it does not. "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art," Humbert Humbert, the book's monstrous protagonist/narrator, writes at the end of "Lolita." Nabokov created Humbert so Humbert might create his own world (with a combination of detail both geographically verifiable and stealthily fanciful), a refuge from his own wrongdoing (web)".

Likewise, Lila Azam Zanganeh notes the presence of this same folkloric element in her apt-titled study, The Enchanter.  "But I had expected to find enchanters and demons in Nabokov.  Shuddering magic.  The stuff of fairy-tales, "noble, iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings (xviii)".  Such is the apparent response Nabokov is able to leave with those readers who are able enough to find the garden path that leads them into being one of his fans.  My own way in was a lot more modest.  Though perhaps there is a sense in which it can be described as "somewhat out there".  I know it was off the beaten track.  I'm not sure if I took a dive right into the deep end, though for certain I've wound up in the kind of place where all the normal rules of life take an odd turn.

One of the first VN related books I picked up was a piece entitled Insomniac Dreams by Gennady Barabtarlo.  It wasn't a novel, and I'm not sure why they chose to stack it in the fiction section.  Either way, what I discovered on opening the pages was a curious form of journal.  The publication of the private diaries of famous writers is a common literary practice that I think goes as far back as the 1800s.  The earliest such publication I can recall belonged to an old timer name Samuel Pepys, and his journal dated from the 18th century.  However, what was between the covers of the book I picked up was less a standard record of a writer’s insights into life and the work of his own hands.  It was more like a very weird science experiment.

It’s when I try to describe the nature of Nabokov’s experiment that things get difficult.  Part of the reason is because of how strange it sounds, whether you try and say it out loud, or even just write it down.  In order to talk about the experiment, I have to discuss not one, but two authors.  In addition to Nabokov, this experiment concerns a man he never met, and who was long gone by the time it was attempted by the author of Lolita.  The other man’s name was John William Dunne.  He wrote a book quite a while back that acted as something of an inspiration for Nabokov.  He took Dunne’s book to heart and decided to try it out for himself.  
   
The diary that made up that experiment is the subject of Barabtarlo’s new book about the whole affair.  It's the secrets hidden in this private diary that makes up the main content for the book of Dreams under discussion here today.  I had no clue what to expect, and the results are hard to quantify.  The good news is I'm just here to give a fail or passing grade.  With any luck, however, there may still be a few morsels for thought along the way.     

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982).


There's a certain kind of perk that comes from being a pop-culture junkie.  For one thing, you're blessed with the kind of curiosity that won't shut up unless you go exploring down forgotten nooks, crannies, and side alleys that have been overlooked by time in search of rare and exotic curios and artifacts.  The way it starts is you here a rumor about some old film that starred a major Hollywood talent.  The catch is no one seems to now what it's about because its so far off the map that it's seldom seen or talked about.  That's just the kind of setup that certain types of geek are willing to go out of their way to discover.  Sometimes the search is a long and arduous, with little to show for it except a trail of breadcrumbs leading nowhere.  Other times it's as simple as one click order and you've got the item in your collection.  In my case, I was lucky enough to land the second option.  And I owe it all to what I read in a book.

One of the goods things to be said about Nick De Semlyan's Wild and Crazy Guys is that on occasion the author is willing to throw his readers a bone.  This study of the Comedy Movement of the late 70s and 80s is often a dry and matter-of-fact affair, for the most part.  Yet here and there Semlyen would mention hints and clues about a number films and flicks that have been shoved into the background by the growing popularity of their more famous contemporaries.  Everyone knows about Ghostbusters.  Who ever heard of a film called Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid?  The answer seems to be: not much.  It looks like Semlyen is one of the lucky few who've seen the film and are able to shed at least some light on it.

In his book Semlyen notes that the film is all of a piece with the kind of humor Steve Martin was known for.  "More so than any of his contemporaries, Martin was a one-man variety show.  He juggled, made balloon animals, did card tricks, performed magic.  But he did all of it with a thick dollop of irony.  Adopting a the persona of a slick, preening show-biz guy, he honed a high-voltage club act that mesmerized crowds...What he meticulously crafted throughout the '70s was a postmodern style that his friend Rick Moranis later labeled "anti-comedy."  He shunned punch lines, opting instead to address audiences with with surreal lines such as "Does anyone know where I can get a pair of cat hand-cuffs?" of "Hello, I'm Steve Martin and I'll be out here in a minute."  As he explained to a reporter, "Another comedian will do anything to get a laugh.  But in my act I think it's abstracted back to the point where the idea of someone doing anything for a laugh is funny, not the action.  That's the way I like it (17-18)".

It's a very odd sounding concept, and I think it might be a bit difficult to grasp in an age when audiences prefer their humor more or less straight-up, no matter how surreal the circumstances.  A good way to explain it is that it might be something of an inheritance from guys like Monty Python.  Their style of humor was always aiming for the farthest left field effect they could manage.  They often used surrealism to carry this technique across.  It was a gamble that turned out to be a good one, as audiences then and now are able to quote whole routines and sequences from the troupe's work.  I think that Martin is sort of a more quiet and low-key form of that same style of humor.  It's just been slightly Americanized while style maintaining that same kind of style that is anarchic, detached, and self-questioning by turns.  It's a style of humor that's meant to reward audiences for being intelligent about fart jokes.
It's also the main driving engine for some of Martin's early film experiments.  I call them experiments because there's just no other word for what he was able to accomplish during the early 80s.  Those seem to have been his peak years.  It was during that time span that audiences were treated to a Martin that was willing to break as many rules in the service of getting a laugh, and not caring about the consequences.  He's settled down since then, and is willing to play it all straight.  This is the Steve most audiences have come to embrace and enjoy.  However this has led to the neglect of the other side of the comedian's work.  I'd like to see if it can be brought back into the spotlight.  This examination of the comic's 1982 Noir parody, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, might be at least a step in that direction.