Monday, December 30, 2019

A Tribute to Old Time Radio.

I sort of have my parents to blame for this one.  It all started a while back when was just a kid.  I was an avid book fan in the making back then.  I knew I liked what I had read to me, but I didn't yet know how to read.  Turns out this wasn't too much of a problem, however.  There were two reasons for that.  The first, and most important, is that I soon got rid of the whole illiteracy problem by learning to both spell out and pick up the meaning of the words, both on the page, as well as the ones my school teachers made me spell in notebooks.  Another factor in my favor was that I never lost the enthusiasm for books, and so it was the drive of that whole interest which finally made me drill down, grab a copy of R.L. Stine, and begin to pour over the letters I found inside.  It was something of a relief to discover they made sense.  It was even better when, a few minutes later, they also turned out to be pretty entertaining.

That was the major reason why I didn't have much trouble back then.  Another part of it has to do with the fact that I'd discovered an item that was called a "Book on Tape".  They were clunky, yet compact audio cassettes with little spools or reels of odd, ink-ish stuff woven around them like cloth on an old weaver's loom.  They had to be the novelest looking things I'd ever seen up to that point.  I don't think I had much time to give the cassettes all that much consideration however.  What riveted my attention was the cover of the miniature box the tape came in.  It was one of the familiar and macabre illustrations of an old artist named Stephen Gammell.  The cassette tape was an entire collection of the second volume in Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark series, and it was all mine.

I suppose it wasn't my first exposure to books on cassette.  However, the little I'd heard of this "hip new medium" was in the form of old collections of children's folk songs that my grandparents kept lying around, and maybe one of two condensed narrations of Disney's that I can still recall, but they are all a vague series of snippets of dialogue and one tune that I remember and yet can't make out at the same time.  I know there was perhaps one more in there, an kids audio of Return of the Jedi, however that's about as far as my exposure went at the time.  It's a bunch of voices from the aether that aren't quite live enough to be Memorex.

That Scary Stories tape, however, was something else.  I recall I had one of those cheesy old tape players, the kind with the sort of bright, garish colors painted on that would appeal to no one else except a little kid.  It's main casing was red with a yellow main speaker.  I could be wrong, yet it's just possible that the player buttons were blue, or something like it.  What I know a lot better is that I might have had a pair of headphones to go along with the whole ensemble.  I put on the head-set, unwrapped the cassette with what might have been careful eagerness or just plain carelessness.  It's the small details, after all, that seem insignificant as they happen.  It's the passage of time that somehow makes even the trivial seem like one big moment of important, like a form of code whose cipher has been lost.

Anyway, I know for a fact I opened the tape box and brought out a curious, squarish, white rectangular object.  You could just make out the spool of tape inside.  I don't think I knew what they meant, however.  I placed it in the tape player, and pushed play.  Or was it just an ordinary Walkman, and the multi-color player was from earlier?  Either way, a lever was flipped, there was an audible pop as the speakers began to work.  There was the arrival of a slow, rhythmic opening musical chord that in retrospect is sort of like a milder, slower form of the Halloween theme.  Or at least that's as close as I get get to a description.  The next thing I knew, I was listening to the voice of the Heat Miser from The Year Without a Santa Clause as he took me on a guided tour of a corpse who didn't know he was dead, vengeful wraiths from beyond the grave, a girl who survived a premature burial, a new mother with glass eyes and a wooden tail, as well as my first experience with the Gothic genre as a spoken performance.  That was my introduction to what is nowadays known as the audiobook.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Peter Pan Goes Wrong (2013).

It's part of the stated goal of this blog to take a closer look at the nature of stories in general.  Sometimes this can mean paying special attention to the way they are told.  One way to do it is to look at the narrative strategies used to tell a story.  Narrative strategy itself isn't all that common a word.  You're never likely to hear it outside of a creative writing seminar, or anything like that.  Since there's not a lot of familiarity to go with the phrase, it's no real shock to learn it's the kind of thing few people would bother to give a moment's thought about.  Like a great deal of ideas and concepts that fly under the radar, this doesn't mean they've ceased to exist.  Sometimes it doesn't even mean they''re no longer in use.

A good way to look at narrative strategies is to think of them as part of the bells and whistles that go along with the art of writing.  A particular use of the word could refer to the various techniques the writer has for getting across the desired artistic effect.  A good example is the way Spielberg is able to build up suspense around the main villain of Jaws.  Every scene in that film is about the build up towards the film's Great White.  When it makes its appearance at last, the moment is impactful because the movie spent the last half hour drumming into our heads the threat that it represents.  This is a relatively straightforward example of just one kind of narrative strategy.  There are other ways of telling a story.

One of them revolves around an old English theater tradition.  I suppose the most familiar label for this style of writing is Pantomime.  However, I think I prefer the more open-ended term of the Popular Dramatic Tradition.  The phrase isn't mine, by the way.  It belongs to someone else.  It's the main topic of Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition by S.L. Bethell.  That's a subject we'll get to in a moment.  For now it's enough to point out that the Popular Tradition amounts to a whole way of telling a story that's not so much different as it is out of sight and out of mind.  It also appears to be still in use today.

That's the only explanation I can offer for the existence of something like Peter Pan Goes Wrong.  It's a kind theatrical production I'm not quite sure most folks have seen before.  It's a commonplace across the pond, however.  Plays like this are older than the Bard of Avon and have managed to hang on as a staple of British entertainment long after the old scribbler for the Globe Theater breathed his last.  Pan Goes Wrong just seems to be the latest incarnation of the same Tradition I mentioned above.  It's the kind of play that might appear to offer little in the way of a serious artistic discussion.  The irony is that such a minor seeming jest really can point the way to an old alternative way of storytelling.  That's why I'd like to take some time to unpack this bit of theatrical sport and see what it can tell us about how much we've forgotten in terms of how to both write and pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves.  It might also be a decent enough way to spread a bit of holiday cheer to those who need it.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Man Who Would Be King.

The most common question an author gets asked is, "Where do you get your ideas"?  Part of what makes it so difficult to answer is that the ideas could just as well come from anywhere, at least to a certain extent.  J.K. Rowling has claimed that Harry Potter just stepped into her head one day while riding on a train.  Tolkien found himself faced with a blank sheet of paper and all at once wrote, "In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit", without any clue as to the meaning of the word.  Both cases are examples of what might be called sudden inspiration, or a story idea that occurs more or less of its own accord.  This is perhaps as close as anyone can get to a standard operating procedure in the creative arts.  However it's not the only way that a work of fiction is created.  It's also possible for writers to draw inspiration from the world around them.  Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" is one of those cases where sometimes real life encounters lead to the creation of a totally made-up situation.

Kipling scholar Richard Jaffa is able to provide a glimpse at the events that set everything in motion.  "The origins of the story can be found in Kipling's correspondence.  In a lengthy letter to his cousin...He goes on to experience he had...on a train on the other side of India.  He describes how he met a man who was also a Mason.  "Ships upon the sea' are nothing compared to our meetings in India."  The man told Kipling that he had a friend coming across the Empire by train from the East, (that) he could not meet him but that Kipling's route meant his train, if on time, would cross this man's route.  He asked Kipling to take a message which he would not write, to give to this man.  The message was unintelligible to Kipling.  "My brother gave me this message...." continues Kipling.  He goes on to describe how at 5:00 a.m., on a cold winter's morning the Calcutta train drew up alongside his and he sleepily put his head out the window.

"Kipling relates, "I didn't want to go threshing all down the train - there were three Englishmen on it - in my search for the unknown, so I went towards the window and behold, it was the man I was told to find; for he also (doesn't this sound mad?) was a brother of mine."  The man thanked Kipling and said he knew what the message meant.  Kipling comments that he didn't know the name of the man who gave him the message or the man who received it.  The description in this letter confirms the great enthusiasm that Kipling felt for Freemasonry and the concept of universal brotherhood.  It also demonstrates the contemporary significance of Masonry among its adherents in British India at that time (99-100)".

I'll have more to say on the topic of this symbolism later in the review.  At the moment it's enough to note that for a simple short work of fiction, it's amazing how many layers of depth there are to explore if you take a closer look.  It's one of those old curiosities that somehow stand as a kind of sentinel, or testament to the staying power of a well told story.  Perhaps just a handful of authors are able to keep the heads of their popular reputations above the tide of time in such a fashion.  Dickens was one, and Lewis Carroll seems to be another from the time when Kipling first wrote.   In what follows, I'd like to examine both the original story, and it's film adaptation in order to unpack the materials hidden in this simple tale.

This review will be a bit different as I've decided to see if I can't review both Kipling's original story, and its later movie adaptation all in one go.  I'm at least sort of confident in this approach because John Huston's film is an example of that rare beast where the adapter seems to understand his source material on an almost fundamental level.  The result is one of those cases where the text and the picture can be placed alongside without either doing harm to the other.  Huston's respectful approach to the material also has the added bonus that both versions share a thematic overlap.  This makes the critic's job a lot easier, as the underlying concepts of the text inform the movie in a way that is near beat-for-beat.

There are at least three levels that I'm able to unpack in Kipling's narrative.  The first is the lingering question of Imperialism, and how the story tackles this difficult subject.  The second revolves around Jaffa's recognition the presence of Masonic themes in the tale.  An examination of this symbolic aspect of the work leads to a further inspection of the story's third and final theme: the idea of antiquity, and the uses and abuses that this concept is subject to in an ill-informed modern age.