Sunday, March 31, 2019

Lance Parkin's Magic Words

This is going to be difficult.  The reason for saying this comes from the fact that I'm sort of working at cross-purposes for this post.  On the one hand, what you can expect to get here is a brief review of a biography of Alan Moore, the legend who helped redefine the nature of comics and graphic novels in the 80s.

At the same time I'm sort of fascinated just a bit more with the kind of zeitgeist that was capable of producing an artist like Moore in the first place.  It helps to understand that Moore was just one of several names to appear in a brief moment of artistic activity that may have started somewhere around the mid to late 70s, and gained it's peak notoriety during the 80s before disappearing into separate elements by the mid 90s.  This activity consists of at least two discernible shared traits.  The first was that most of it was centered in Britain, though I guess a few Americans were able to make some contributions here and there.  The second was that it revolved around a kind of minor vogue in both the graphic, literary, and performing arts.

It's difficult to talk about this moment of history.  Modern pop-culture is familiar with the names of the individuals associated with this creative explosion, such as Moore, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Terry Gilliam, etc.  However I still haven't seen any attempts to look at these artists as a kind of semi-group which formed as parts of a bigger creative enterprise.  This is explainable in that it was all fairly recent, and most of it's participants are still alive as of this writing.  It could be that not enough time has passed for anyone to take proper stock of this historical moment.  Still, the creative time span was there, however brief, and sooner or later some efforts should be made at trying to trace out the larger patterns of the artistic undercurrents that gave us V for Vendetta, The Sandman, and lesser known productions, such as Peter Straub's Shadowland, or Kim Newman's Diogenes Club.

I'm not sure this group deserves to be called a movement or anything like that.  On the whole, they all seem too individualistic to be considered anything like a unified front.  However, lack of unity doesn't perhaps rule out a certain degree of shared or thematic overlap.  If it's at all possible, what I'd like to do here is see how far I can trace out any hint of these underlying patterns and themes by examining individual novels or comics from this brief period of time, along with exploring the lives of their respective authors, and seeing whether or not they help to form a greater thematic whole.
That's a tall order for any critic to undertake.  Perhaps such a goal is misguided.  It sure doesn't help that this is not something I can tackle in a more organized fashion.  Rather I've known since the first word of this post that this project would have to be an off/on type of deal.  I may start here, with Moore, then nothing connected with it for several posts, only to to turn my attention back to this zeitgeist and it's artists out of the blue and with no more warning other than the whim of the moment. Maybe this idea I have really is too far fetched to make sense.  It doesn't shake the conviction that the authors who made a name for themselves in the aftermath of the 60s make up a creative period in the history of Western literature, and that, like a lot similar moments before it, this creative span of time is capable of, and actually deserves a critical-aesthetic examination.
I'd like to start by using Parkin's life of Alan Moore as he seems to be one of the most covertly versatile participants in this unofficial group.  In addition to his work in the field of comics, Parkin's also takes readers on a tour of the other aspects of Moore's that get little to no interest from the mainstream media.  With all this in mind, and with hopefully some awareness of my own critical limitations, let's begin.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Cuckoo's Calling (2013)

Shakespeare once said that "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts (web)".  This kind of sentiment can always be chalked up to the idea that to a carpenter everything looks like a nail.  Still, it is possible for a person to wear more than one hat.  You get them every now and then, like versatile freaks of nature.

A good case in point is J.K. Rowling.  She doesn't need much in the way of an introduction.  She made Harry Potter after all.  What more is there to say?  For a fan of Hogwarts the answer might be that there really isn't any need to say more.  You have her books and their adaptations.  That seems to be all the fans want.  If there's any truth to that, then the bad news is that Ms. Rowling must be one of those restless sorts by nature.

If I were to say that she had an idea for a new book series, one different from the exploits of Harry and his friends, would you be interested?  Even if the answer is no, it doesn't change the fact that in 2013 Hachette Books published The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith.  It came and went while making barely a ripple on the popular front.  There was no fanfare, and the publishing hype was the modest sort you tend to expect for old mid-list fiction authors like Donald Westlake or Mary Higgins Clarke.  It took a while for some readers to figure out that Galbraith is a man who never lived.  The name was a pseudonym Rowling used as a cover for her latest literary endeavor.

The idea sounds kind of far-fetched and counter-intuitive.  What would an author who writes and about wizards and fantasy creatures want with a drug-store rack thriller?  If this is the natural response from her fans, then this also doesn't change the fact that it was her creative choice and she made it.  The surprising part is that she was able to succeed in her efforts.  I'd like to take some time to explain why I think The Cuckoo's Calling is worth a read, as well as being something of a nostalgia trip for certain types of readers.  You're welcome to join along, if you're willing to take a walk on the wild side.  The game's afoot!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

A Film You Wouldn't Expect: The Collaboration of John Ford and Shirley Temple.

Imagine this.  You are just an ordinary guy, like a lot of others.  Then one of your older brothers heads out West, and winds up working in Hollywood.  It's interesting, yet what dos that have to do with you?  Time passes, and nothing extraordinary happens until you receive a letter from your big bro asking if you'd like to visit him in Tinseltown?  You're the kind of fellow who is a natural round peg in a field of square holes.  It's hard to get a sense for what you want to do with your life, and there are no prospects on your home turf.  So, why not?  You wire your brother and tell him you'll be right over.

You arrive on the West Coast to discover that Big Brother has made something of a name and reputation for himself.  He's smart enough to see that baby bro doesn't know what to do with himself, so as a humiliating form of pity, he takes you under his wing.  You help him out on minor stuff, mainly lighting and handling the film cameras.  One day you run across Mr. Carl Laemmle.  For what ever reason, this man you've hardly met before thinks he "sees something" in you.  The guy's delusional, there's no doubt about that, but he's the boss, so you humor him and go along with whatever he wants.  Mr. Laemmle does the irresponsible thing by placing you in a director's chair, and gives you a film to make.

The job is okay, at first.  You spend most of your time trying to get a ship of fools to follow orders.  The funny thing is you discover a knack for always finding where you want the camera to be.  You also have a way of making the actors hit whatever mark the script says they should.  One day you wake up to discover you've made name for yourself.  This is both wonderful and horrifying at the same time, with the latter tending to dominate.  For one thing while it's great to have a secure future, you find that perhaps you don't really fit in any better in Hollywood than you did in your old hometown in Maine.  You grow famous by telling stories of heroes and the history of the American West.  You even have the knack for discovering talent in the form of a big lug with the ridiculous name of Marion Morrison.  After some deliberation, the kid (who prefers the nickname of "Duke") settles on John Wayne as a title.

Together you and the Duke manage to give an identity to what some will go on to call Hollywood's Golden Age.  None of it makes you comfortable and it never gets any easier.  You care about you're wife and kids and yet you make a series of unfortunate discoveries.  The worst of it is that you focus on heroism in your film's so much because you are either a coward, or else you just can't help thinking that you're one.  This makes you unhappy enough to have a fair temper.  You lose it because you're unhappy and you're unhappy because you lose it.  You wonder if there's a way it could ever have been different?  Who knows.  Perhaps you're own cowardice is the reason you are able to depict heroism and its darker shades, so well  Still, you can't deny the accomplishments of John Ford, even if he never existed.  "This is the west, sir.  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".

This at least is what happened with the life of John "Jack" Feeney.  In a career that lasted from the Silent Era to the birth of New Wave Cinema, he managed a creative arc that is both iconic and, sadly, almost forgotten in a post-millennial age.  Ford cemented his identity with Stagecoach, released in 1939.  It was also John Wayne's breakout role, and it helped cement the both of them as artists who specialized in the Western genre.  Their subject matter would be a gritty merciless examination of the history of the frontier.  That's the popular legacy of Ford, and while it is true to an extent, it is still just one facet of much wider story.  The irony is what do you do when even the truth sells you a bit short?

In addition to the films that made his reputation, there was also an intermediate period where Ford tried his hand at a number projects in different genres.  Most of these were were best described as social realist dramas, although he did branch a bit further on occasions.  When that happened, you could get an adaptation of Steinbeck or Eugene O'Neil.  He made a jungle adventure story with Clarke Gable if you can believe it.  He even did a slice of life crime drama at one point.  In Hollywood anything can happen.  I mean anything.

Scholars and critics tend to view 1939 to perhaps 1946 as the director's peak years.  Those were the years Ford directed Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green was my Valley, and My Darling Clementine.  All of these films are of value.  Each of them deserves a post of their own.  To start with, however, I'd like to take a look at the one film that in many ways is the last one anyone could expect of John Ford.  The irony is that while the film can be described as "out of character" for its director, it also contains a lot of the themes that reappear in his other films.  In order to make sense of all this however, we have to get to know the star of the picture.