Sunday, September 27, 2020

The First Found Footage Story?: Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds.

A while back, I decided to set down what I expected to be just some minor opinions of my own on a very old art form.  The whole thing was really just a collections of notes and appreciations.  Nevertheless, the art known as Old time Radio was and still is something that I tend to hold in a rather high regard.  Its chief value lies in the way it forces you to pay attention to the stories it has to tell.  Because the medium relies on the very absence of any possible visual element, this very limitations forces the audience to pay closer attention to the writing of the story, and the quality of its language, rather than on questions of production value, or an ephemeral and fleeting star power.  Instead, the audience is left alone in the room the narrative itself, and all the possible impacts it can create and reverberate in the mind.

When I wrote down that original post, all I expected was a polite casual interest, the kind of thing you might look over once in some spare time between more important activities.  What came as a real surprise was just how much of a seemingly positive response that lone article was able to generate all by itself.  As of this writing, it has 314 views to its name.  That's not much in the big leagues, but in the starting circle of first time amateurs, that comes as something of a shock to me.  It's a very pleasant one, however.  I guess I'm just stunned to learn to that modern audiences can still hold such fervent interest in an art-form whose heyday was sort of already on the wane even to before the advent of the Beatles, and the whole Rock scene kind of eclipsed it for quite a while.  However a look at Google Trends reveals that interest the Golden Age of Radio currently stands at approximately 75%, with that number often rising sometimes as high as the 100 mark.  I am curious to know where this revival of curiosity for the format came from, as one of the stated goals of this site is to help foster just such a positive reaction to a lot of forgotten arts.  Whatever else this enthusiasm may mean, all I can be is grateful.

It's in the spirit of that gratitude, along with the mood turning toward Autumn and the season of haunts, that I thought it worth while to take another look at the old art form.  In particular I thought it would be interesting to examine a possible relation between Old Time Radio and one of the most notable (or just plain notorious) elements of our current Horror genre, the Found Footage Story.  It won't surprise me to learn that half the audience just left the room the moment they read that phrase.  In the strictest sense, I don't see how that's anything new.  Right now, Found Footage is shaping up to remain one of the most contestable sub-genres in the artist's toolbox.  It's a format that's regarded with both approbation and contempt in equal measure, and I don't see any sign of these disagreements going anywhere soon.  As long as some artists are tempted to try their hand at it, the argument over the format's strengths and faults will just keep right on going.


I'm pretty sure I'm the wrong person to throw my hat into this particular ring.  For one thing, I can't say whether I know much about it.  I don't care all that much about visuals in storytelling, not even when I'm convinced it's really good.  The question of production value and performance just never seems to have factored all the much into whether I consider a film good or bad.  Because of all that, I'm not quite sure where to begin or what to say about it.  The best I can do is offer an interesting idea.  What if films like the original Blair Witch or The Last Broadcast were really not the first actual Found Footage entries?  What if it's possible there were others who had beaten all these guys to the finish line?  Even better, what if a lot of the pioneers in this particular field are older than the 90s?  What if it's just possible to trace the roots of the sub-genre all the way back to a Golden Age in Hollywood?  It's quite a claim to set before a post-Paranormal Activity audience.  You'd have to find some very definite evidence to back up that kind of claim.  The good news is I think I've got all the proof I need, and a man named Orson Welles is just the artist to help out.

 Portrait of the Artist as a Young Auteur.

As of this writing, the reputation of Orson Welles stands at a respectable 50 to75% on Google Trends.  That's none to shabby, if you ask me.  It's even more of a surprising feat when you consider the fact that the guy has been six feet under since the mid-80s.  People from his era of filmmaking are in an interesting place right now.  In some ways, it seems like a mistake to claim they are forgotten.  In another sense, however, they do seem in danger of being overlooked.  There may be some who don't think this is such a big deal, however I tend to think it's a mistake.  For one thing, I've long been of the opinion that the nature of life is such that it often tends to force most of us into situation where a lot of us have to learn from the past in order to have a future.  That can often mean having to preserve as much of it as possible for the next generation.  It's the reason why human beings cook up such institutions like the Smithsonian and the Louvre.

Another reason is a lot more difficult to get across.  That's because it places guys like me in an awkward situation.  One of the hardest lessons I've learned is that it is more than possible to make a cogent, objective argument for the validity of older forms of entertainment and media, and yet if the listening audience doesn't have a certain amount of literacy under the lid, then its almost like they have no real choice in the matter.  There's no way their own heritages can come off except as something from another planet.  To my mind, it doesn't say anything good when we a culture begins to forget the best of its own artistic legacies.  This fault gets compounded when a film like Casablanca gets dismissed just on account of its being old.  I can't deny the fact that its in black and white.  The charge also tells me nothing about where the value of a film like the one mentioned above lies.  Why does it even exist?  Is there something important about it?  These are the questions that should be asked about a lot of motion pictures, and books, that have gone on to achieve an objective classic status.  The trick is to get others to realize that.  Orson Welles is a good place to start in this regard.


He was the son of an affluent, middle-class household in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  All the trappings were in place for a fairy tale childhood, including a late Victorian American setting.  This prospect was dashed when his parents divorced, and from there the entire family began to fall apart one piece at a time.  Pretty soon, the young Welles was on his own.  During all that, Orson somehow managed to find the time to achieve the closest thing to an education he ever had at the Todd Seminary.  There he met a tutor named Roger Hill, who would later be acknowledged as the greatest influence on his life.  That really seems to have been the best part of his formative years.  With Hill acting as a father surrogate, Welles was allowed the opportunity to dive into all the subjects that interested him the most by that time.  These preoccupations all tended toward the field of the arts, and Welles seems to have taken to the subject like it was almost second nature (web).  In particular, it seems like it must have been during this time that Welles became familiar with the two topics that remained vital sources of inspiration throughout his life.  The first was the art of Renaissance literature and stagecraft.  The second, and to which he was the most devoted, was the writing of William Shakespeare.

Welles never seems to have had a college education.  Instead, he decided to travel the world (ibid).  In later years, Welles always preferred to embellish his own exploits at this time.  This has often left his biographers with the unenviable task of sifting fact from the director's own self-spun legend.  Welles liked to adopt a larger than life persona in almost all of his exploits.  It's something of a defining character trait.  Peter Conrad's Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life is pretty much devoted to all the masks the great performer liked to don throughout his years.  "He made up myths about himself, and permitted others to add to their store, because there was no other way to account for such a self-begotten being.  Once, trying to rid himself of all his accumulated lore, he claimed that his gigantism was forced on him by his bulk.  'I always have to be bigger than life,' he said.  'It's a fault in my nature (3)".  It may have been one of the more honest statements he ever made.  The curious part is how Welles often found ways of turning this penchant for myth-making to a surprising advantage.  It marks perhaps one of the few times when a potential bad habit is somehow put to good use.

 Welles got his start in the word of professional theater, yet he seems to have been one of those artists that are always on the lookout for whatever innovation might help either shape or broadcast their craft to a wider audience.  This led him, eventually, into the world of dramatic radio.  It was the new exploding medium of the time.  Perhaps that's a difficult idea for us to picture today, in an age when we habitually choose to eclipse a lot of the older formats in favor of everything digital.  It seems like there's a kind of historical irony attached to this preference, however.  Right now, the real big deal seems to be everything to do with streaming and online services.  I guess you could say that radio used to be the format that stood in for the streaming of its day.  The upshot, however, is that the advent of online broadcasting has somehow managed to serve up a minor, yet noticeable revival of what was once a lost art.  We're starting to see little indie groups coming together to stage various amateur or professional air-wave theatrical productions here and there.  Some good examples I know of include ongoing series such as Welcome to Night Vale, Alice isn't Dead, and Dark Adventure Radio Theater.  The success of projects like these seems to account for the new surge in popularity for a lot of the older broadcasts.   It was a type of performance that was at the height of popular demand in Welles's day, and the young artist was quick to notice.  It didn't take him long to find a way into that whole new world, and carve out a place for his own brand of art.

 
Welles founded the Mercury Theater on the Air.  It was his biggest break into the medium, second only to perhaps his performance as an old superhero known as The Shadow.  He showed a surprising amount of talent for it.  His penchant was to try and take the classics of world literature and give them a place on the airwaves.  This is one of those daring moves that I think might have got swallowed up by time, if Welles hadn't been as shrewd as he turned out to be.  When Welles was just starting to become a name in the business, radio was a lot like the early start of television.  It was mostly comedy-variety shows or various serials like The Lone Ranger.  It's not to knock any of these old efforts, its just there's the slight possibility that Welles might have been one of the first artists to get both producers and listeners to realize the full dramatic potential of the medium.  The result has to have been one of the first times people in their homes had ever heard of figures like Dracula, or The Count of Monte Cristo.  Welles might even have helped the resident of 221B Baker Street get his first bow in front of a popular audience.  The major difficulty was that not many people were listening in.  The Mercury Theater was a big hit with the critics, and yet it required some much needed income if it wanted to keep itself afloat.  The solution Welles hit upon was found in an old, Victorian Sci-Fi novel.  The net result was a leap into the next phase of his career.

Crafting the War of the Worlds.

It has to be the closest we will ever get to something like a prototype for the Outer Space Invasion story.  Hebert George (H.G.) Wells wrote wrote his novel about an alien takeover of Earth from the planet Mars way back in the 1890s, at the very tail end of the great boom in Victorian Literature.  Between the writer's glory days and that of the other Welles, an entire societal shift had taken place.  The Industrial Age had discovered its modern (or at least Modernist) face, and America had discovered what the possibility of a global conflict could look like.  The question the young Welles had to face in crafting his next radio play was how do you make it relevant?  How can you present the Earth being invaded by Martians in a way that doesn't have people rolling in the aisles, instead of cowering in terror?

Stated in those terms, the whole problem Welles faced centered around questions of respectability.  The director seemed to have been a fan of a lot of the popular genres in an age where all the taste-makers and respectable Book People had declared that Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror were persona non gratis in any format.  Authors like H.G. Wells had found their once great reputations consigned to what was known as the Sci-Fi Ghetto of the period.  If you wanted to read guys like him back then, you had to be prepared to fork over a nickel or two for collection of stories printed in magazines that were so shoddy they earned the nickname of the Pulps.  It was this bad reputation that Welles had to fight against, and it might also be the dilemma behind his now infamous choice of presentation.  

Perhaps the nature of the dilemma Welles was facing is one that summed up a few years ahead on the timeline.  It has to do with something Stephen King said about the greatest drawback and limitation of any given work of horror.  "(The) artistic work of horror," according to King, "is almost always a disappointment (Danse Macabre, 117)".  "It's the classic no-win situation.  You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time...but sooner or later, as in poker, you have to turn your down cards up.  You have to open the door and show the audience what's behind it.  And if what happens to be behind it is a bug, not ten but a hundred feet tall, the audience heaves a sigh of relief and thinks, "A bug a hundred feet tall is pretty horrible, but I can deal with that.  I was afraid it might be a thousand feet tall."  "The thing is - and a pretty good thing for the human race, too () - the human consciousness can deal with almost anything...which leaves the writer or director of the horror tale with a problem which is the psychological equivalent of inventing a faster-than-light space drive in the face of E=MC2 (117-18)".  Bear in mind, Welles was supposed to sell an entire Martian armada to his listeners.

Two terms jump out at me from reading King's thoughts.  He never uses either term, yet they get right to the core of what he's talking about.  The struggle that a story like War of the Worlds faces is that is has to run a very difficult gauntlet between two poles of audience expectation.  They are called Literary Naturalism, and Romanticism, respectively.  I'm not sure how much airplay either phrase gets nowadays, however my own research into these matters leads me to believe that a lot of the reason the Horror genre, and its Found Footage incarnations get looked down upon so much is because it's a fundamental impossibility to for a story in that mode to bow to the demands of artistic realism, at least not if it wants to be true to its own identify, and hence do its job.  Even a film like Blair Witch is forced to break a lot of the rules in order to achieve the effect it was going for.  King talks about this placing the writer or director of such a story in a bind, however I don't think anyone gives enough attention to the necessary corollary to this problem.  The fact is the audience itself is always caught up in this same rattrap.  In the end, every work of Romanticism asks how far you are willing to go along with its flights of fancy, bearing in mind, some imaginations just like to go way out there, rules of real life be damned, they've got a story to tell.

In the end, I'm afraid the best answer is that its a problem each artist and audience member is going to have to figure out for themselves, on an individual basis.  You can never really coerce anyone into liking art, just as a thing, however it can be possible for open minds to learn to develop a higher imaginative taste, even for a film like It Came from Outer Space.  King himself posits that, at the end of the day, its best to just throw the door open and let the cards fall where they lie.  Though, to be honest, I think he sort of backtracks on that statement in his own writing.  In his books and films, King seems to prefer to follow the suggestion of another writer.  In Danse Macabre, he notes that Lovecraft came up with an interesting solution to how much horror can or should you show.  "Lovecraft would open the door," King says, "but only a crack (119)".  King says he disagrees with this practice, yet his own efforts seem to show him choosing that route more often than not.  Even the creature in It is never described.  It may be that Lovecraft provided the best solution?  Open the door, yet just a crack, thus giving the audience a taste of the horror, while also leaving a lot unsaid?


In any case, Welles's solution seems to have been to apply a version of the ideas outlined above.  Here is the point where I begin to wonder if he didn't kick-start the kind of tropes that are now known as Found Footage.  The idea that a Millennial sub-genre has its roots in a lot of older art forms is one of those theories that are often met with skepticism by a modern audience.  That's why it's something of a relief to realize I'm not just one voice crying out in the wilderness on this subject.  Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is one of the actual published voices to note how the Found Footage story may owe something of a debt to Welles.  This can all be found in her book-length study, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality.  In the opening sections of her study, Nicholas notes that while "The Blair Witch Project marked the beginnings of" all the tropes we are familiar with today, "the subgenre's origins stretch back much further.  Few would debate the importance of previously identified ancestors such as Orson Welles's notorious...radio broadcast from 1938 (6)".

She goes on to make a claim that may sound either bold, or else just plain nonsense.  Yet I'm willing to go along with the idea that there is at least a decent enough amount of sense in a few of the words she has to say about Welles's Airwave Panic Play.  Nicholas tells us, for instance, that the "essential elements of contemporary found footage horror were to some degree established in this notorious radio broadcast, both in terms of the mechanics that create confusion about the ontological status of a text (is it real? is it fake?), and - perhaps even more crucially - that create fear in its audience.  It was described by Chuck Berg and Thomas Erskine as nothing less than "the most sensational program in the history of radio...It's notoriety stems from the fact that many members of the listening audience believed what they heard to be true primarily because it so convincingly mimicked the familiar news radio format, leading Craig Hight to define it as an "aural mockumentary."  Listening to a recording of the broadcast today, it is noteworthy that the fictional status of the Welles' story is flagged throughout, with Welles himself even stating at its conclusion that their adaptation was their "own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying 'Boo!'"  As has been observed in a number of critical evaluations, however, timing is everything.  For a number of reasons, it was highly likely that a significant portion of the original listening audience missed these admissions of fictionality (37)".

It's in paying attention to Nicholas's words that a subtle, yet overlooked truth can reveal itself.  A lot of the reason for the the fame of Welles's manufactured invasion stems from the fact that people still like to talk about how it scared the crap out of listeners to this day.  As a result, a lot of the discussion of the radio War of the Worlds is to a large extent a discussion less of the story, and more of the history of its audience reception.  It's got to be one of the rare occasions when the reception has almost occluded the original event that set it all in motion.  It does sort of beg the question, is there no value in narrative?  Isn't a story supposed to be weighed and valued on its merits as story?  Turning to examine the text itself, we find an interesting aspect that I don't think gets as much space devoted to it.  It's true enough, I think, to call the broadcast a forgotten mockumentary.  However, no one pays much attention to the fact that right at the mid-point of the action, Welles, and the narrative, switch gears.  

The story is a fascinating blend of of two storytelling modes rolled into one, and comprised of two acts.  Act one is where all the new ground gets broken in.  The audience is introduced to a fake historical event using the trappings of factual journalism to put the audience under its spell.  Once Welles has done that, he then decides to drop the mock format of the first half, and switches over into to straight up narrative in the second.  The net result is one of the first notable mockumentaries that is also something of a hybrid text.  It isn't any kind of pure, singular and sustained narrative format.  Instead, it's a deliberate unification of opposing narrative strategies.  The question with such a composite narrative is whether or not the final product is able to hold together in any satisfactory way.  On the whole, I'd have to say, yeah, it works.  I can recall the first time I actually listened to the whole thing from start to finish.  What makes looking back at it now so interesting is the possibility that I didn't have a clue what was going to happen next, and I suppose its possible I might have had some guesses about how the story could go on, and yet the final result is that I was kind of blind-sided to hear a straightforward narrative after all the strangeness of the first act.  The good news is that Welles was the kind of director who was just as talented at straight narrative as he was in helping innovate the early prototype of the Found Footage tale.

Conclusion: A Forgotten Legacy.

I may as well admit I didn't expect to arrive here in so short a time.  Anyone whose read any of the posts on this blog will know I tend write non-fiction articles that can sometimes be the length of a legit short story.  In some ways, while I've devoted at least a decent enough amount of space to highlight all the trail-blazing aspects of Welles's production, the net result still comes off looking cramped compared to my usual format.  That could be a mistake when talking about a important production like that.  I just get the sense it's the kind of thing that deserves a more in-depth conversation.  It's easy enough to see why an attempt like this ought to be made.  We're talking about a very submerged, and almost overlooked legacy of one of the pivotal moments in the history of old time radio.  Not only was The War of the Worlds a landmark in terms of storytelling technique, but it also highlights a forgotten legacy of one of the most talented artists in the history of American entertainment.  The idea of Welles as one of the unsung co-creators of the Found Footage genre is something that still doesn't seem to get talked about enough.  Alexandra Nicholas is one of the few who recognize the old auteur's achievement.  This article here is just one more attempt at getting the word out there.

 In some ways, however, the story about this one, single radio broadcast is not quite over.  Don't get me wrong I've had a blast writing this one up.  It's just that I soon realized I haven't really devoted all that much space to the most important thing of all.  I talked above about the importance of story as story.  It's the one element that remains paramount above all others when talking about any possible work of entertainment, regardless of medium.  It's also the first time I've talked about it the least in anything I've written.  That just comes off as a missed opportunity, really.  If you fail to pay attention to the one thing all the other narrative elements hang on, then it almost feels like I've unintentionally cheated the reader on some level.  Don't get me wrong, focusing on the Found Footage legacy of Welles's project is something that needs to be said and discussed at great length.  


The one major drawback of that discussion, however, is that all we're talking about, really, is just the matter of style and technique.  That may be enough for some.  I have heard that there are some critics and writers who contend that style is the most important factor in storytelling.  It's an idea to which I have always had just one reply.  The medium, in and of itself, can never truly be any kind of message.  All it is is nothing but a simple mode of transmission for the message.  If there were no information to broadcast, all transmission mediums would lay dormant, or else just cease to exist.  By limiting the conversation to questions of style, the main ingredient, content, gets left out of the proceedings.  To talk about how Welles pioneered certain mockumentary conventions while leaving out the story it was all in service of leaves a great deal of useful information untold.

It's why I kind of have to end this post with an apology.  What I  realize now is that what drew me to completing this particular article is precisely the realization that Welles had made a contribution to a modern sub-genre.  In that sense, this article is not a total screw up, inasmuch as it does accomplishes the goal it set out to achieve.  I think I'm also repeating a big mistake, however.  It's one that's been repeated by just about all the major writings on the Panic Broadcast.  In all of the books I've read on the subject, it's always the same.  They either devote their time and effort to the technique used to pull the whole thing off, or else they obsess, dissect, and in some cases even try to dispute the audience response to the way Welles told the tale.  It's never about the narrative itself.  It makes me think all I'm doing is just perpetuating a mistake made by others.

The good news is that if the actual content of Welles's project remains a relative form of virgin territory, then that means this whole thing is just getting started.  There are still whole realms of secondary vistas to unpack in the story Welles had to tell.  Right now I think all that is going to have to be the subject of later revisits back to this same topic, albiet with a better and proper focus on the actual engine of the story itself.  All I've done here really is to take a brief pause and draw everyone's attention to what seems to be an overlooked aspect of what has shaped up to be the most influential dramatic radio broadcast in American history.  

If it makes sense to view Welles's War of the Worlds as a Found Footage story, or Mockumentary, then it at least raises one intriguing question.  Are there other examples of this same technique lying around out there in Radioland?  It's a question that I think is kind of worth asking.  Maybe it doesn't make as much sense to label these hypothetical audio episodes as undiscovered, so much as that they remain unheard of.  The high popularity of the older dramatic format of radio, even at this late date, has to mean that a great number of listeners out there have had more than enough time to reacquaint themselves with titles such as Quiet Please, X Minus One, of Suspense.  Each of these shows was devoted to telling tales in a fantastic genre in one way or another.  Whose to say there might not be other dramatic broadcasts out there that try to replicate Welles's formula in their own way?


I think a better way to view the particular phenomenon I'm talking about is to say that they are not missed, or missing, so much as they are perhaps not paid as much proper attention to as they deserve.  My basic working hypothesis at the moment is this.  If Welles helped bring the Mockumentary format to radio, then it stands well enough to reason that there are more than a few other examples of the same style out there, each time being utilized in the service of the same dramatic audio format.  It's the kind of idea I find easy to latch onto.  I can think of a number of potential candidates that match the specific kind of programming I have in mind.  Maybe this is something that deserves a deeper dive into in its own right.  I'll have more to say on this later, and perhaps more than just once or twice.  For now, it's enough to acknowledge an aspect of Welles's artistry.  It's probably some kind of testament that even after all these years, the man many consider to be the greatest filmmaker out there can still find ways of getting our attention and keeping us thinking and evaluating his achievements after all these years. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval (1995).

Lately, I've had time to reflect.  This seems to have been something of a gradual process.  After giving a few genre matters a lot of thought, my mind seems to have started out on a process of some kind.  My thoughts keep turning back to the Horror genre, though perhaps not in what's expected as the usual way in which the genre gets practiced today.  For some reason, in particular, I find myself going elsewhere.  I keep thinking about some of the old pioneers who helped give the Horror field the kind of shape and definition as we know it today.  I seem to be coming back to a concept I've mentioned once or twice before.  There are moments in history where the minds of several differing artists can nonetheless find themselves beginning to combine or coalesce into a series of mutually sustaining creatives groups.  These artistic formations seem to come about largely as a response to elements going on in the cultural zeitgeist of the times in which the artists find themselves.  It's happened once before in the Renaissance when scribbling fellows like John Donne, Ben Jonson, Chris Marlowe, and Bill from Stratford, England went on to make up a collection representing the high point of early modern literature.

The phenomena has repeated itself in various ways throughout the years since then.  The rise of the Modernist Movement in the early years of the 20th century may still be regarded as the most memorable forms this process can take.  For some reason, nobody has taken the time to look at other examples of this same experience.  I can think of at least two other times this happened in the field of American letters.  Author Peter S. Beagle, for instance, recalled being accepted for a Wallace Stegner Fellowship college grant that sent him packing to the shores of the West Coast to attend Stanford University.  What stands out about his time as a college student, aside from coming of age in the 60s, was the contents of the English class he had to attend.  It was less the course itself, and more the students Beagle found himself surrounded by.  When one considers the nature of these students, perhaps it makes better sense to speak of the talent involved in that long ago classroom.

According to Beagle's own account, it was "An amazing gang.  I admit that at times I felt completely overwhelmed.  There was Larry McMurtry, the first friend I made there, known now for Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show...He was only a couple of years older than I was, and really talented.  He wrote most of Leaving Cheyenne during our sessions.  There was a 25 year-old Ken Kesey, at that point working on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  There was Judith Rascoe, who was the niece or great-niece of a very influential critic named Burton Rascoe; Judith went on to write stories and some very good screenplays.  There was a Scottish guy named Robin MacDonald, whose wife, Joanna Ostrow, was Bronx Jewish like me.  Robin was the one with the fellowship, but Joanna turned out to be the real writer.  She would sit in on the class and years later, after the class was long over, she published an excellent novel called In the Highlands Since Time Immemorial.  There was Chris Koch, an Australian writer whose best-known work over here is probably The Year of Living Dangerously (The Last Unicorn, Deluxe Edition, 251)".

What's interesting to note about Beagle's experience is the way it sheds light on the phenomena of artists getting drawn together in order to create a series of landmark works.  What's interesting to note, however, is the idea or at least suggestion that a sense of group interaction is part of what makes such creativity possible in the first place.  It may sound speculative, however I'm willing to go out on a limb and maintain that the same creative clustering that formed the Renaissance writers and the Modernists was also at work for a brief time in that simple Stanford classroom.  If it all sounds haphazard, then it begs the question of why any conscious planning of these events is necessary at all?  I know there are authors or individuals who often can't go through a single day without trying to plan ahead.  The difference is that for the most part, what history reveals is that each creative voice starts out in isolation, then there's a connecting period where various voices are allowed to establish various form of contact with each other.  This is followed by a situation where inspiration, criticism, and feedback occur.  This moment, for however long it lasts, is often when the most competent voices are able to create their best work.  It is just possible, for instance, that Shakespeare would never have perfected his craft so well without the encouragement and criticism of Marlowe to spur him on.

The reason for highlighting that Stanford Class Collective is because of the way Beagle sort of helps link up one group of writers with another.  I've written about this second cast of characters before.  Together, they form of a collective known as the California Sorcerers.  I think Christopher Conlon still provides the best summary of this particular group, and their artistic achievements.  "For these men were, from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, part of a close-knit brotherhood of writers centered in the Los Angeles area that came to dominate not only printed SF and fantasy, but movies and TV as well as scripting between them many of the period’s best-known films (including most of the Roger Corman / Edgar Allan Poe movies), along with classic segments of Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, and virtually every episode of The Twilight Zone. At its peak this association of creative artists also included, among others, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Jerry Sohl, Ray Russell, and Harlan Ellison. These outstandingly gifted men were collectively referred to by several names, including “The Southern California School of Writers” and “The Green Hand” (after the Mafia’s “Black Hand”). But they were most commonly called, simply, “The Group (web)".  It's not much of an exaggeration to say this is the group responsible for our sense of the Modern Fantastic in arts and letters.

I'd like to take another look at one of their number.  The one I'm focused in on this time is a fella named Rodman Edward Serling.  He's lucky in that I don't think he needs much of an introduction.  If you know about The Twilight Zone, you might still have a rough idea of who he is.  He's that cool, creepy guy introducing everything to us.  Fair enough, yet where did he come from?  How many people know the host didn't emerge out of nowhere from the ether, and instead represents something of an American anomaly.  He was a Jewish New Yorker who was born and raised in an almost idyllic small town.  Apparently they still still had those back in 1924.  That's just one element many people don't know about him.  There are a lot of other facts worth uncovering.  Part of the reason for telling it has to do with questions of definition.  I've had some time to do a lot of thinking about the nature of Horror fiction.

After reading and looking around long enough, my mind seems to want to lay out a lot of things, so that modern audiences can gain a sense of bearings in the genre.  Part of that means helping to gain a realization of where all the best bad dreams come from.  In order to do that, sometimes it helps learning where certain tropes and ideas come from.  That's where shows like the Zone and guys like Serling come in.  For better or worse (and I'm more than inclined toward the former category), the host of the 5th Dimension is one of those sorts who helped shape and mold both Horror, Fantasy, and even a bit of Sci-Fi into what they are today.  How and why he did it are the real questions worth asking.  If you can provide at least part of the answer to either of them, then you're closer to understanding the works of art that help define a culture.  That's why it's gratifying to know that at  some point in the mid-90s, PBS devoted a slot of their time to what, at this writing, seems to remain the only full-length biography of the man who unlocked a door with the key of imagination, and found beyond it another dimension.  It was called Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval, the reasons for looking into it go as follows.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Ray Bradbury Theater: Downwind from Gettysburg.

If I had to describe the author in just a few words for today's audiences, then I guess you'd have to call him an unknown tap root; a well or source of inspiration.  It won't surprise me too much if that doesn't make sense to most folks.  "What the hell are you even talking about?" is a question they sort of can't avoid if they don't know any given subject.  In our day and age, a lot of the past is an undiscovered country.  I'd have to advise anyone who stumbles upon it to tread lightly.  As long as you're dealing with the all the stuff you know about, then you're in your element.  If you come across a piece of the past that just happens to be lying around, then watch out.  If you're not careful, pretty soon you'll find out what it's like to be reduced to the level of a five-year old once again, long after you've left the crib far behind.  If you insist on digging up the past, then pretty soon you'll have no real choice in the matter except to ask what this or that element means, and why, and how come?  The only other option is to just leave the past where you found it and pretend as if nothing happened.  This can seem like a very safe option for a lot of people.  The only trouble is that your choices get a bit more complicated if it turns out that the only to move forward is to explore backwards just a bit.

My point is that when you bring up guys like Ray Bradbury, the topic becomes difficult to discuss on account of there's a lot to talk about, and most folks don't know it, and so they don't have much choice in knowing where to begin.  Who was this guy, anyway?  The simple answer is that he was a writer.  Just one of those old geezers who used to be a phenomenon in the drug-store paperback trade.  There was a time, maybe some of your grandparents still know it, when you might be lucky catch one of his short stories tucked away in the folds in an old copy of The Saturday Evening Post, or even Playboy.  Sometimes one of his books could be found on those old revolving racks they had placed up on the counter.  There, if you were lucky, you might spot one of his titles.  The name tags to look for would have been such fair as The Illustrated Man, R is for Rocket, and S is for Space.  If you were in luck, sometimes one of those old magazines would feature a macabre little gem like The October Game written under his hand.

There was a span of time when the writing and publishing of printed stories was a great deal more profitable than it is now.  Back before the 80s, if a story wasn't on TV or the movie theaters, it could still be found in the pages of a peculiar artifact known as a book.  This odd looking specimen, composed in the main of processed pulp wood and smeared from cover to cover with ink and paint once represented the height of literacy for countries all over the world.  Raymond Douglas Bradbury was one of the many ink-stained wretches who able to earn a living by getting his name published in those artifacts.  He set a great deal of store by them.  I think I recall him saying in an interview once that all anyone needs to start a civilization is to create a library.  I'm willing to argue he has a point.  I'd just be sure to add essentials like fertile soil and a usable water source into the bargain.

That's perhaps as decent an introduction as anyone can provide for an author like Bradbury.  The trouble is it doesn't really go far enough.  It's serviceable for a first introduction, and like many initial greetings, it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of things.  It might seem odd to make such a fuss about a writer whose no longer around anymore.  However, if that's the case, then who is H.P. Lovecraft?  If you can provide an answer to that question, then why do you value him so much?  What is it that makes him special?  I know the answer, I just wanna hear it from the fanbase.  Public awareness of the writer from Providence remains at a healthy 50 to 75 percent.  Bradbury's name also hovers around in that same percentage bracket.  The main reason Lovecraft is still hanging around, even from the grave, is that all these years later his writing still has a way of creeping underneath the readers skin and attacking the place where you live.  It's one of the best hallmarks of a good Horror writer.  Because of this, fans keep his work alive, even while trying to grapple with the more problematic aspects of his life and thought.

For some reason, it's easier to recognize the legacy of certain artists more than others.  Lovecraft is one writer with a noticeable legacy.  Walter Elias Disney is another.  However I don't know for certain whether it's realized that Bradbury has left just as big an impact as the other two.  In order to understand Bradbury's innovations, I think it really does help to situate him between the two other artists just mentioned.  If you talk to any genuine Lovecraft fan, he'll tell you that what makes the author unique is how he was able to provide a voice for the Horror story that was able to bring the genre into a modern idiom.  If we take that claim as our starting place, then it serves as a decent enough point to figure out where Bradbury stepped in.

The one element that ties Lovecraft and Bradbury together is that they are both products of a thriving Pulp Magazine market.  Like Howard Philips, Bradbury got his start in such publications as Weird Tales and worked, or wrote his way on up the ladder.  There are a few things that Bradbury does in his own writing that sort of echoes Lovecraft, even if he winds up taking it all in a totally different direction.  Like Howard Philips, Bradbury could utilize the basic concept of taking some kind of fantastic element (an object,wraith, or creature) and set it down in a contemporary modern setting.  So far, there's nothing that would differentiate his work from the Providence scribe.  The difference really begins to come in when you notice the branching directions each writer takes.  One of them seems to withdraw from the world, while the other tends to expand outward towards it.  Where Lovecraft might start his tales in the normal halls of academe, or in wooded lanes and country roads, his narratives often take a direction that tends to leave these normal setting behind.  The Great Old Ones tend to cut the reader off from his surroundings, and leave everything in an impossible plain of existence.  In this sense, Lovecraft's work is more introverted and solitary.

Bradbury, on the other hand, will often cause both monsters and marvels to enlarge our picture of the world.  Rather than have his protagonists withdrawn from their normal settings, Bradbury's characters often have to learn to adjust their picture of reality to the kind that leaves room for the possibility that one day a dinosaur might be seen lumbering down Main Street, or that a Martian can move in next door, or that witches can still travel in night sky lit up with all the benefits of the electric light.  The most noticeable aspect of these tropes lies in exactly the way the artist uses them.  It seems as if Bradbury's major literary accomplishment was to discover a modern expression for a lot of the elements of ancient myth.  He appears to have found a way to make a poltergeist in the attic relevant to modern audiences.  This might sound like a very minor narrative element to highlight.  If that's the reader reaction then I'm going to argue it says less about Bradbury as a writer, and more about how audiences have grown dulled to the original innovation.  These days we've become so used to a lot of the tropes the Waukegan native helped put on the map that we don't even recognize where they came from.

Perhaps that's the real irony about Ray Bradbury's career.  His achievement may very well have been so all-encompassing, that it's managed to obscure the writer who made it all possible.  If Ray's biggest artistic achievement is to bring the fantastic into modern suburbia, then it also forces the attentive reader to realize just how much this creative inspiration has affected all the other artists who came after.  Bradbury's stories of myth's encroachment on the contemporary world in a modern garb finds its inheritance in the concept of vampires taking over a small New England town, to a lone alien getting lost and stranded on Earth having to find his way home.  The key thing to notice is that none of these ideas would have been anywhere near as possible if Bradbury hadn't come along to test the waters first.  From that perspective, it makes sense to argue that Ray's impact on the history of genre fiction is just as big as Lovecraft's.  It is just possible that Bradbury's legacy goes perhaps just a bit further.  Philips's impact seems to extend to the nature of the Gothic field, whereas Ray's manages to effect a very quiet revolution in how authors across to popular fantastic genres compose a lot of their works in terms of style, tone, and a wider range of content.

Some may argue that I'm trying to turn a molehill into a mountain by pointing all this out.  I'm gonna have to reply that somewhere along the way we got a bit too used to treating a mountain as if it weren't even there.  Without Bradbury, guys like Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, or Stephen King wouldn't have had the basic building blocks they needed in order to jump start their own careers.  None of them could afford to be sui generis.  Each of the three just mentioned had to go through their own creative apprenticeship in order to get at where they are now, even if, in some cases, the audience no longer quite realizes it.  That's no small feat, even if you can't bear to look at it.  I guess what I've been trying to say through all this is that everyone remembers freaks of nature like Lovecraft, however Bradbury was the major league champion who gave the others a kind of necessary ballpark to play in.  I think any genre fan would do well to remember that.  If that fact is kept in mind, then a lot of the tropes associated with the genre, and their usage over the years begins to make a bit more sense.  It's less of a series of disconnected fragments, and more like a collage that goes together to make up something like a coherent secondary world, or maybe something close to a shared stage in which each could find a place to perform their respective arts.

I brought up at least one other artist in the menagerie of names listed above.  Unlike Bradbury, this one is still somewhat lucky.  He doesn't need much in the way of an introduction.  Almost everyone who's anybody knows, or thinks they know who this other artists is.  However, there are a few gaps and omissions in the dossier.  Part of the problem with being a recognized brand name is that all anyone can ever know about is based on little else except popular reputation.  When you hear the phrase "The Happiest Place on Earth", you more or less know who and what you're dealing with, up to a point, anyway.  The very name tag conjures up a kind of collective memory of images and associations, whether for good or bad.  The one subject it doesn't necessarily conjure up right away is the figure of Ray Bradbury.

To be fair, why should it?  Places like Disneyland are a lot more than just one ink-stained wretch scribbling away in a corner.  What the hell would a guy like the author of Fahrenheit 451 have to do with the park franchise that gave us the new Guardians of the Galaxy ride?  If you reach a point like this, you've essentially reached the limits of the popular reputation for both artists.  Try and go beyond that point and you'll soon discover that the great majority of the audience simply can't talk about what it doesn't know.  Therefore you really can't blame them if they are surprised to discover that not only is there a connection between the respective creators of Main Street USA and Green Town, Illinois.  There is also a work of fiction which has forever joined them together.  It's tale well worth telling, if you've a mind to listen.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011).

There's a chapter in Stephen King's full-length non-fiction study Danse Macabre with the curious title of "The Horror Movie as Junk Food".  At the start of the chapter, the author claims, "I am no apologist for bad filmmaking, but once you've spent twenty years or so going to horror movies, searching for diamonds (or diamond-chips) in the dreck of the B-pics, you realize that if you don't keep your sense of humor, you're done for.  You also begin to see the patterns and appreciate them when you find them (212)".  A bit earlier in the book, King made another claim that I think has a pretty essential relation to the concept of what he refers to as "B-pics".

He says words to the effect that the particular genre he works in as an uthor is the kind that requires an extra bit of heavy lifting from the imagination.  The reason for that is simple.  What would you do if someone came up to you and claimed there was a shape-shifting monster hiding in a sewer?  Or that an old 1958 Plymouth Fury was either haunted, possessed, or else had a malevolent mind of its own, and was going around killing people?  I'm pretty sure the Flying Spaghetti Monster was cooked up as a way of mocking that kind of thinking.  The point is that once you strip a lot of modern Horror tropes down to their essentials it gets easy to see just how ridiculous they all are pretty damn fast.  It is just possible that some of the concepts, such as the monster hiding under the bed, are able to retain an elder statesman form of dignity because some childhood fears are just that universal.  It also helps that the trope itself seems to be a kind of recurring right of passage in the budding human imagination.  Beyond that, however, it really does seem like there's this inherent hokey quality that the genre has to rely on in order to achieve its desired effects.

That's a real big deal breaker for a lot of people.  And it probably explains why Horror has been (and probably always will remain) the black sheep of the popular genre family.  It is just possible that you need a certain "hitch" in your mind in order to, as they say, "get into" it.  I'm not bothered if that's the case.  I just wish those on the outside looking in would realize that just because some of us gravitate toward things that go bump in the night, that isn't the same thing as being warped or morbid.  My own experience has been that the warped aren't interested in Horror fiction for its artistic merits.  Instead, they just use as a means to ends that are, in the long run, selfish and diminishing.  An actual Horror fan, on the other hand, is able to appreciate even the lowest rent level of schlock because sometimes even second-run material can contain trace elements of gold.

That seems to have been the case with the format known as B-pics, or B- pictures, to give genre it's full name.  It also brings us to the subject of this review.  King has a great deal of kind words for a lot films detailed in Danse Macabre that most critics would consider to be "dreck".  Nonetheless, he finds himself drawn to them.  It could be because he has a junk food mind.  Another possibility, however, is that he really can see the artistic merits of these films, and in particular of one certain filmmaker.  In the second chapter of his study, King makes mention of a small independent film company known as American International pictures.  It was the brainchild of two men, James H. Nicholson, and Samuel Z. Arkoff.

King attributes the creation of American International directly to the field of modern Horror fiction.  He explains that while the genre has always been popular, there are times when it has enjoyed various cycles of mass popularity.  "These periods almost always seem to coincide with periods of fairly serious economic and/or political strains, and the books and films seem to reflect those free-floating anxieties (for want of a better term) which accompany such serious but not mortal dislocations.  They have done less well in periods when the American people have been faced with outright examples of horror in their own lives (29)".

The moment that Nicholson and Arkoff created their new studio was during a post-war lull in the genre's prospects.  "So horror languished in the dungeon until 1955 or so, rattling its chains once in a while but causing no great stir.  It was around that time that...Arkoff and...Nicholson stumbled downstairs and discovered a money machine rusting away unnoticed in that particular dungeon.  Originally film distributors, Arkoff and Nicholson decided that, since there was an acute shortage of B-pictures in the early fifties, they would make their own.

"Insiders predicted speedy economic ruin for the entrepreneurs.  They were told they were setting to sea in a lead sailboat; this was the age of TV.  The insiders had seen the future and it belongs to Dagmar and Richard Diamond, Private Detective.  The consensus among those who cared at all (and there weren't many) was that Arkoff and Nicholson would lose their shirts very quickly.

"But during the...years that the company formed, American-International Pictures...has been the only major American film company to show a consistent profit, year in and year out.  AIP has made a great variety of films, but all of them have taken dead aim on the youth market; the company's pictures include such...classics as Boxcar Bertha, Bloody Mama, Dragstrip Girl, The Trip, Dillinger, and the immortal Beach Blanket Bingo.  But their greatest success was with horror films (31-2)".

A lot of that success was due to the fact that Nicholson and Arkoff had the bright idea of hiring a struggling young director who was pretty well fed up with the industry by that time, and who was willing to sign on to the two older men's endeavor on the agreement that they were willing to give him free reign to make whatever he damn well pleased on his own terms.  Nick and Sam told him yes.  The rest is a very interesting chapter of cinema history.  What makes it not so much unique, but something more like resonant is the extent of the influence that one man can have on an entire field of art.  It's interesting in the way that it is ever present, and yet neglected at the same time.  There are a multiple number of reasons for this.  I think the one that sticks out to me the most is that after all these years it's easy to look down on certain films just because they don't meet Hollywood's A-list standards.  That's the sort of cudgel that can be wielded with easy use, especially if we're going by a kind of adult form of the typical high-school popularity contest.

It’s hard to defend the things you love.  It’s always something personal, that can only have value to you alone.  Perhaps that explains why an average movie fan can only shake their head and wonder why artists like Robert De Niro or Martin Scorsese would heap praise on a film called Teenage Caveman.  Believe it or not, both have reason for their enthusiasm.  The director of the above title was named Roger Corman.  It also happens that Corman gave the same two men their first professional gigs as an actor and director.  For Scorsese, it was behind the camera shooting a film called Boxcar Bertha.  For De Niro, it was starring opposite Shelly Winters in Bloody Mama.  It can be a weird admission for artists of their stature to make (assuming they still have any).  I'm willing to call it legit, however in order to understand the nature of such an enthusiasm, and where it comes from, we have to talk a bit about the guy who helped them reach such an appreciation.  That brings us to the film under discussion, Alex Stapleton's 2011 documentary on The Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Kong: Skull Island (2017).

This is awkward.  It's not the sort of confession you make in an article dealing with this kind of subject.  The fact is I'm not sure I was ever all that much of a Godzilla fan as a lot of others out there.  I remember watching a very truncated, Americanized version (featuring Raymond Burr, of all people) back when I was too much of a non-grown-up to know any better.  And that's sort of the whole point.  My knowledge about the Great Big Lizard and his exploits haven't really advanced much since then.  The closest I've come to advancing my understanding of the lore is to watch a very useful retrospective documentary on the subject that lays out all the facts about the original first film that I've seen in just a fragmentary fashion.  Aside from that?  The awful truth is I've just never really managed to find the right door into this particular franchise.

If talking about the giant radioactive lizard sounds like a strange way to begin a review of a film about a giant ape, then that's also sort of the point.  The trouble is I can't just talk about Kong: Skull Island without mentioning the franchise of which it forms an ostensible part.  It doesn't help that I don't have a clue where to begin talking about that either.  Some time ago, it was decided to try and relaunch the long-standing Fire Breathing Monster franchise for Millennial audiences.  The first attempt out of the gate, 2014's Godzilla was a respectable hit with audiences.  The film under discussion today was meant to be it's follow-up.  And as of this date it's the only franchise entry I ever bothered to see.  Even then the reason was pretty simple.  It featured the big damn ape.

I'd been more or less a fan of his ever since he made me keep running to hide behind the couch at the age of about 8.  I'm talking about the original 1933 version.  Some people, after viewing that film, will say its impossible to get any kind of genuine reaction out of a relic like that.  I'm inclined to ignore such judgments.  Besides, their skepticism doesn't change the fact that it's what happened.  It's the only possible reason for why I should have any kind of interest in Jordon Vogt-Roberts's attempt to bring the King to life again.  The real question is, is it good or bad?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Wolves in the Walls (2003)

'These are the days of miracle and wonders
This is the long-distance call.
The way camera follows us in slow-mo,
The way we look to us all - Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble.

Where do fairy tales come from?  It a question that takes a certain frame of mind to even bother asking.  By and large, most of us never bother with such a thought.  One doesn't have to be at or near the years of the cradle in order to have such curiosity, yet it does take a certain frame of mind.  The fairy tale itself is, without doubt, perhaps the closest we will ever get to defining the oldest possible form of storytelling.  The question of defining the term is never easy.  It's made all the more difficult by the fact that the fairy tale itself has existed under several different names, and has been able to encompass more than one genre form in its history.  At the beginning of things (or at least as close as anyone has been able to get) they were often described as myths.  It's a phrase whose usage can be attested to even in the writings of ancient philosophers like Plato or Aristotle.  Later, when there began to be enough odd souls left around for an actual analytical curiosity to develop about the subject, all the myths were slowly compiled together over the ages.  When enough tall tales of gods, immortals, heroes, and otherworldly creatures had been gathered together from several cultures, these curious readers made several interesting discoveries.

The first was that all the differing cultures of the world had their myths.  The second was the unaccountable fact that so many myths, told by differing storytellers who never had the opportunity to meet one another, somehow managed to craft different fables with a surprising amount of narrative similarities.  Why this should be is a puzzle that no one bothers about very much, except for a similar small handful, to this very day.  The upshot, however, is that once all the tales had been compiled, the term folklore was used to designate them.  This stems from the fact that there was a time when storytelling was a common thing done by an actual majority of the folk of any given culture.  It was the mythology they used to explain who they were, what they were, and the meaning of their own lives.  The fact that the average person on the street would be surprised such things were even possible once upon a time says a lot about how much things have changed.

The best answer to the question of where do fairy tales come from is also the simplest.  The imagination put them there.  It's accurate so far as it goes, yet it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the topic.  It takes more than just a single article on a blog to answer that question.  All I can do is to take the problem one story at a time.  I do know that one, if not the only reason fairy tales came into existence was as an explanation for or a way of coping with a sense of threat.  Many of the first folktales originated in primitive hunter-gathering cultures in a time when everyone lived in the forest, and we lived almost nowhere else, because in a sense, there was no other place to go.  It was you, the world around you, and the  animals and fellow inhabitants you had to share it all with.  There wasn't even such a thing as Broadband, difficult as it is to conceive now.  Living with animals is really just another way of saying living with predators.  Part of the reason so many tales originated around a campfire is because it was one of the easiest ways of our ancestors to guarantee at least a small amount of safety for themselves in the watches of the night, when the eyes began to peer out of trees and thickets.

The animals of the woods would be drawn to the fire just like moths.  The  fireflies were the only ones daring enough to come right up to the flames, however.  The rest had an instinctive realization of fire, and the kind of damage it could do, and so kept a wary distance.  It didn't make the hunger, and therefore the threat, go away though.  Perhaps that's one of the reasons the more industrious of those ages soon began to contemplate an idea that eventually became indoor housing.  It might have solved a few concerns and safety issues.  However it was still a long time before the wolves no longer lingered at the door, clawing, scratching, and waiting for a chance, or a weak spot to get in.  I mention all this because in some ways it is those same primitive concerns that form at least one aspect of the title under discussion here today.

Neil Gaiman is still no stranger to the world of pop-culture as of this writing.  At the time the current book was written, he had already made a name for himself with such titles as The Sandman, Neverwhere, and American Gods.  At some point during all of that, he manged to become the father of a family.  He'd married into an American household, and his wife Mary still had relations she was very fond of and close to.  That meant sooner or later, Gaiman would have to knuckle under and move out to the States in order for her to be close to the people she loved.  The place Gaiman settled his family down was way out in the the near-wilderness of Minnesota.  It was this move to a new home that first brought the Wolves to Gaiman's attention.  He talked about it at some length to Hayley Campbell in her book about the author.

"We were living in a house that definitely had things in the walls.  I live in that house now, but lots of rebuilding has happened and the inside and the outside are a little more discrete, but back then there were bats in the walls, possibly rats in the walls, definitely mice in the walls.  And you would hear them.  They would scritch and they would scratch (250)".  There's a minor yet puzzling gap in the recollection here.  The good news is it can be filled in with the help of Hank Wagner's and Christopher Golden's brief account of the storybook's creation in their multi-part study, Prince of Stories.  According to Wagner and Golden, the whole thing got started by "Neil and Mary Gaiman's younger daughter Maddy, whose nightmares about hearing...scratching...within their home's walls inspired this book (355)".  It's from here that Gaiman is able to fill in the rest of the narrative.

"I went upstairs and heard crying coming from the bedroom.  And at that time (Maddy) was still sharing a bedroom with me and Mary.  She had her own little bed down in the corner of it, but she was asleep in my bed.  And she woke up.  She was crying.  I said "What's wrong?"  She said, "The wolves came out of the walls, they took over the house!  I had to run away from them!"  I said, "It's okay, it was just a dream."  She said, "It wasn't a dream.  I can prove it."  And I said, "How will prove it?"  She said, "I can show you the place in the wallpaper they came out from."  So she showed me the place in the wallpaper they came out from.

"Over the next few days she was still deeply worried about the wolves in the walls.  And I would tell her little stories in which she and I would take on the wolves in the walls, and we would win once they came out of the house.  They were definitely wolf-battling stories.  After a while she stopped worrying that the wolves were going to come out of the walls and I thought, "This is such a story.  This is so awesome (250)".  Gaiman had already published a previous illustrated book for young readers with longtime collaborator Dave Mckean when his daughter gave him the inspiration for a follow-up.

Campbell continues: "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish had come out the previous year, so Gaiman was now a writer of children's books, and he sat down to write what would become The Wolves in the Walls.  Afterward, he looked at his two thousand words and decided they were "really lifeless and really dull" and contained none of the vibrancy of the thing in his (or Maddy's) head.  "So I went away and thought about it a bit.  And one day I was walking home and I suddenly thought, 'When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over'.  And I knew the rhythm of that.  And knowing that, I thought, Okay, I know what the rest of this sounds like.  I think I have a tone of voice (250-1)".  That just leaves three questions to be answered.  What does the tone of voice have to say.  Is there anything the voice has worth saying?  The most important question is what does the voice mean?

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Animaniacs (1995-99): A Retrospective

It all happened a long time ago.  The way it started was more like something out the corner of the eye.  All I knew at first is that I was watching TV.  The channel must have been tuned to one of those old children's television networks such as Nickelodeon, or something like it.  I know that was the station I watched most often back during the year 1994.  I can't remember what show I was watching, however, which probably says something about its quality (or lack thereof), unless it doesn't.  At one point during a commercial break, this very odd cartoon promo pops up.  I remember it was the Warner Bros. logo, and that there something off about it.  It's colors were muted and somewhat distorted.  There was this trio of strange, grinning, black and white animal characters that poked their heads out of the logo.  From there the commercials was a blur of almost surreal looking images.  I saw a series of shots of the characters as they capered around the screen.  I can't recall exactly what those actions were now, except to call them the standard basic tropes you'd associate with a cartoon character.  What I remember most of all is the strange shades of dark reds and blues that the characters and the whole background scenery were drawn in.

I hadn't a clue what I was looking at.  All I was told is that it was a TV spot for a new theatrical short.  It had the simple title of I'm Mad.  I think I also remember the commercial telling me it was produced by Steven Spielberg, or something like that.  Anyway, it came and went.  I was left puzzled for a few brief moments, and that was it.  I never saw it in theaters and it's possible the whole thing would have slipped my memory, except as one of those vague and ill-defined images of some lost event that either may have happened to you, or else you just imagined it.  It occurs to me now that the second run in I had with the figures in that commercial happened perhaps less than a year later.  Enough time had gone by so that it was no longer on my mind.  However, the event was still fresh enough so that when the second encounter happened, there was just enough memory left over to give things an air of familiarity.  It was a sense of, "Oh yeah, I've seen you before.  Who are you again"?

I encountered the figures from I'm Mad for the second time as illustrations decorating a Happy Meal box.  There were the same three figures, still looking as if they'd strolled right out of a 1930s Max Fleischer cartoon.  The difference was that now I slowly began to learn their names.  They were about what could expect from characters drawn the way they were.  In addition to this, I was also shown a number of other characters I hadn't seen before.  There were a duo of mice who claimed they were bent on world domination.  Also I recall a trio of pigeons known as the "Goodfeathers".  The complete and total irony of that discovery means that I knew the parody of a Martin Scorsese film long before I even knew it existed.  Hell, I didn't even know who Scorsese was at this point in my then very young life.  It is just possible I learned about one of the best filmmakers of the modern age from that Happy Meal box.

They say that third time's the charm, and I guess that must have happened in my case.  Because the third encounter I had with these figures was the one that reeled me in.  The theatrical short was the hook, and the Happy Meal was the line.  The sinker came in the form of channel surfing out of pure boredom and running into the same three figures again.  This time they were busy giving the Queen of England a headache as she tried to re-build Windsor Castle.  It sounds like something out of an old Looney Tunes feature and that's pretty much what it was.  These three characters (who I then learned were siblings), all displayed actions that hearkened back to an entire era of filmmaking.  From there, I started to track down where I could watch more of the show they were in.  I got lucky in finding out which channel carried them, and the rest is more or less what I'm here to talk about.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Peter Pan Myth 1: Finding Neverland (2004).

There are some ideas that a critic would like to tackle because of the potential that can, or could, exist in them.  The trouble with these ideas is that if they are left alone, they tend to grow big in the critic's mind.  Sometimes, it seems, if the critic is not careful, the weight of these ideas tends to make them not just grow, but tower long enough to cast a kind of shadow over the mind.  It's what can happen when you know you have a pretty good idea not just for an article, but for an actual series touching on the same subject.  It is possible because sometimes certain books are able to get big enough to warrant such a treatment.  These are the tomes that have become standards.  They're the kind of stories that are familiar even if you've never read them.  They are the texts, in short, that have had a shaping influence on the nature and direction of the culture, even if the great majority are never able to realize it.  The philosophical texts of Aristotle fits into this category; Middle Earth and the tall tales of Mark Twain are another.  I think something Stephen King once said about this kind of work applies here.

He spoke of them while describing a certain category or type of author in his how-to autobiography On Writing.  I'd argue what fits these writers into such a high place on the great chain is precisely their ability to write such definitive texts.  "These are the really good writers," according to King.  They are "the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys.  They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain.  Shit, most geniuses aren't able to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks...who just happen to...fit the image of an age (136)".

Peter Pan is one text that sometimes gets fitted into that category.  Everyone knows the characters, and the outline of the story, even if they've never read the book, seen the play, or watched a single of its adaptations.  The dirty little secret here is that perhaps not many have paid much more than a tangential form of attention to the whole thing.  The demands of life are too many, and any genuine interest in the arts in general, or the Pan mythos in particular, is too minuscule to be anything other than a coterie affair.  It's the kind of thing only a few nerds tucked away into a corner ever seem to really bother with.  It's awkward, considering literacy is one of the many requirement most folk will need to get on with reality.  You might even make a paradox of it.  You can't earn a living until you learn make-believe, it's history, and its environs.  It's a perfect natural, perhaps inevitable, state between a rock and a hard place.  The rock itself is the same reality that confronts you one day after another, the hard place are all the facts you need to learn to even use the whole damn thing properly.  Perhaps its the tension between these two facts that generates the quality we humans have decided on calling drama.  There seems to have been no other decent enough word lying around, really.

The story of the boy who could fly makes up part of the toolkit most folk will need to get ahead in life.  Like the billboard in The Great Gatsby, its always there, flashing its sign for anyone who cares to pay attention.  Even those who have never stopped to look into the story know its basic outlines.  There's the Darling Family, a pirate ship, Hook, everyone's favorite, Smee, and then there's The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up himself.  Where did they all com from, however?  Even if there is a sense in which story's just emerge out of thin air (though I suppose its proper term is just Imagination) there's always got to be "the person" around in order to make it work.  This "person" can be anything from a conscious inventor to little more than a glorified secretary taking down lists of names and make-believe incidents as they emerge from whatever the imagination is.

In the case of Neverland and its environs, the person was named James Micheal Barrie.  He was the one responsible for penning the story and cast of characters that premiered on the London stage on December 27th, 1904.  The play was enough of a success that the demand for a novelization soon took place.  After a long time of indecision, Barrie wrote and published Peter and Wendy.  Both play and story seem to be the original impetus for everything that most audiences have ever known about the Pan mythos.  The question is how did it all come about?  What were Barrie's inspirations?  Where did he get his ideas?  These are all very good questions, therefore it never occurs to the vast majority of the world to even bother asking them.  However, a few intrepid souls have made the effort to discover where the stories come from.  Some of them, like Alan Knee came away determined to try and dramatize the creative process that led to the birth of the Boy Who Could Fly.

Here's where things get just a bit a complicated.  It's obvious enough that at some point Knee, the original playwright was inspired to write the play that later turned into the film under discussion here.  The trouble I can't find a single scrap of backstage info that would tell anyone how his inspiration came about and what fascinated him about the subject matter in the first place.  I can't even tell whether or not we're talking about inspiration when it comes to the events not just at the heart of this play, but also the story that made it possible.  All I know is that at some point Knee's play was adapted into a movie by Marc Forster with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet as the two leads.  The film received a critical lauding at the time.  However, the question is whether or not it holds up after all this time?