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?

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Savageland (2017).

There is a kind of minor debate going on, here and there, in the community of Horror fandom.  It all started with The Blair Witch Project.  Ever since making its initial splash back in the last year of the 20th century, it seems to have sparked an ongoing, off-again-on-again, debate.  The whole thing kind of hinges on whether the modern method of the Found Footage, or Mockumentary style of filmmaking is useful as narrative tool for telling a story on film.  The style itself seems to have attracted an equal amount of praise and criticism from the very moment it got launched out of the starting gate.  Those who like it claim that it's able to give cinema a new form of realistic storytelling, while others just claim it's an excuse for poor cameramen to show all their faults without having to take the blame.

My own response has been forever on the fence.  I seem to have found a neat enough place that works out for me.  For the longest time, it has become ever clearer that what counts for me has nothing to with the visual quality of a film.  My approach to it just isn't tactile enough to be interested in how realistic any of it is.  I have no real idea why this should be, except to say that it is the ideas, themes, or concepts underlying a story that really interest me more than how it all looks in the mirror.  The upshot for my film and book intake is that my focus automatically seems to zero in on the narrative itself, rather than on questions of realism in either appearance or acting.  This seems to work out for me, more often than not, for some reason.  It can sometimes be an added bonus for those moments when I'm able to come away saying I was able to find some sort of merit in films or books that don't hold a favorable view with others.  On the converse side, certain artistic products that hold a popular appeal often just leave me puzzled or unsatisfied.  It's a natural circumstance which has sort of left me sliding back and forth among audiences with every turn of the see-saw.  It can be either amusing or disconcerting, depending on how you look t it.

All I know is I don't really need or ask for a certain amount or dosage of realism in anything I watch or read.  I'd also argue that most fiction in general is never, in the strictest sense, all that real to begin with.  This hang-up with whether or not the final artistic product can consider realistic in any shape or form seems to amount to a kind of collective chimera, rather than any objective value.  Besides, in back of all the arguments for realism lies the question, not of reality, so much as the ability to gain a sense of respect.  The real question doesn't amount to "is it natural", but rather, "is it respectable in the eyes of the neighbors"?  This may sound a like a surprising idea to some.  Why should anyone worry about whether a work of fiction is respectable?  It's just make-believe, after all.

I think the answer can be found somewhere in the very statement of the question.  It posits art as a fundamentally second-class citizen.  The kind of element that always takes a backseat to the more essential aspects of living.  The inescapable fact is that most civilizations have regarded the Arts as something of a trifle.  It's there whenever one's spirits need amusing, nothing more.  Stephen King seems to have been on-target when he observed the kind of social status and function that artists like him have in a modern society.

"America has turned the people who entertain it into weird high-class whores, and the media jeers at any "celeb" who dares complain about his or her treatment.  "Quitcha bitchin!" cry the newspapers and the TV gossip shows (the tone is one of mingled triumph and indignation).  "Didja really think we paid ya the big bucks just to sing a song or swing a Louisville Slugger?  Wrong, asshole!  We pay you so we can be amazed when you do it well - whatever 'it' happens to be in your particular case - and also because it's gratifying when you fuck up.  The truth is you're supplies.  If you cease to be amusing, we can always kill you and eat you (422-23)". 

When you have to operate under this kind of social handicap, is it really any wonder that so many artists, and even a good chunk of the audience, is obsessed with making the art look as respectable as possible?  It's a setup that would give even Shakespeare an inferiority complex.  The trouble is I can't get rid of the idea that it all amounts to a form of artistic prostitution.  When the artist lets concerns with respectability override the task of making sure the story gets told right, regardless of form and format, then I don't see how it's any better than caving to a form of prejudice.  Granted, this in itself is a topic that any half-way decent work of art can explore to good symbolist (not literal) effect.

That seems to be the case with Savageland, a 2017 mockumentary co-directed by Phil Giudry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan.  Like its predecessors in the sub-genre, the format is used to document an event that never happened, all the while filming it in such a way as to lead the audience into believing it did.  In doing so, it tries to raise a number of important topics.  Whether it is any good at delivering these ideas in an entertaining fashion remains to be seen.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Guns Akimbo (2019).

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

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

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Joe Hill's Faun (2019).

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, March 29, 2020

St. George and the Witches (1938).

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 15, 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982).


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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Wild and Crazy Guys (2019).

One of the interesting things to note about the history of the arts is how often you tend to find differing and separate individuals grouping together or clustering around what can only be described as a burst of creative energy.  This is a subject that's been examined more than once on this blog.  We've looked at least two types of this same phenomena, one of them occurring in the mid to late 70s.  The other happened quite a while back, and centered around artists like Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling.  Both of those instances had a kind of continuity between them, as each group was concerned with taking the major materials of the fantastic genres and molding them into the modern forms that we know today.  What's notable about this interlinked artistic development is how it is both important on both a historical and aesthetic level, while at the same time being all too easy to miss.  It's this lack of notice that poses a danger to valuable bits of history slipping through the cracks.

This same phenomena of artistic group clustering was not limited to just the fantastic genres, however.  There have been moments during the closing years of the 20th century when varying talents would come together in collaboration in the field of the comedic arts.  Unlike the New Wave Fabulists or the California Fantasists, this comedy oriented phenomena was a bit more noticeable, and has managed to carve out a lucky space for itself in the memories of pop-culture.  To this day, there are still people who can recall every single line of dialogue from Ghostbusters, or Beverly Hills Cop.  Guys like Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis have managed to use their talent to etch their place in the hearts and memories of an entire generation of grateful fans.  Their collective ability to bring a laugh out of others is so impactful that it seems they're now in the process of winning over a lot of millenial fans as this is being written.  It's the kind of thing you hope goes on long after time has made them all take a final bow.

It's sort of why it's a service to future generations when some aspiring fan decides to set down a chronicle of the accomplishments of each one of the funny men of the 80s.  That's the goal Nick De Semlyen set out for himself when he decided to write Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the 80s Changes Hollywood Forever.  At the center of this study lies a small, yet substantial number of talents, each of whom would go on to have a major impact in the shaping of the pop-cultural landscape, part of them originating, according to the author, from the NBC stages of Saturday Night Live.  "Many huge starts would be launched from the show, including Dan Ayckroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Eddie Murphy.  Meanwhile, up in the chillier and considerably less glamorous environs of Toronto and Edmonton, John Candy and Rick Moranis were working alongside people like Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O'Hara, cutting their teeth at SCTV.

"Together they made up a sprawling, smart, subversive collective...Their approach to comedy was freewheeling, hip, and fearless.  And whether their on-screen mission was to save the world from supernatural forces, get the girl, or make authority figures fizz with rage, they were about to inherit the Earth (xv)".

Semlyen follows this statement up by asking a rhetorical question that has, at least as far as this critic is concerned, a definite claim to validity.  "Try to imagine what cinema would look like without them.  Collaborating with behind-the-camera talents including John Landis, Ivan Reitman, Carl Reiner, and John Hughes - and fellow stars such as Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Goldie Hawn - this new wave would produce a litany of big, brash blockbusters and evergreen oddities: National Lampoon's Animal House, The Jerk, The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, 48 Hrs., Trading Places, The Man with Two Brains, Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Fletch, Coming to America, and Scrooged to name but a few.  That list alone makes a compelling case that this period is as good as things have ever gotten for big-screen comedy (xvi)".

I'd have to argue that at least in terms of wit and delivery, that might be the case.  Although I don't think that's enough to erase all the genuine accomplishments of past cinematic eras.  Just recently I've had the opportunity to examine the work of old-timers like Carol Burnette and Tim Conway, and I found myself having to hold my gut just take in air.  It's a testament to level of talent involved, even before the 80s crew came in to take over things.  Because of this, I've got to go with the idea that humor is perhaps just a bit more timeless than a lot of jaded and cynical reviewers (the kind that are too focused on, or just plain obsessed with the present moment) are willing to give it credit.  This holds true just as much for older funny guys and gals like Lucille Ball or Mel Brooks, as for those who came after.  Still, the comics of the 80s have a fair share of accomplishments to their name, and it's the nature of these achievements that Semlyen is here to look at.  He lays out his goals of his study in the introduction as follows:

"This is the story not only of how these classic movies were made, against the odds and frequently under the influence, but how their stars handled the perils and pitfalls of fame.  Murray, Murphy, Martin, and company all hurtled onto the A-list, becoming global celebrities pursued by paparazzi and fending off, or accepting, frequent offers of sex and drugs.  Not bad for a bunch of guys - and despite the early promise of Gilda Radner, it was exclusively the men who hit big - who generally looked more like maintenance staff, or appliance salesmen, than members of the Rat Pack.

"There was plenty of fun, as these stars lived out an extended adolescence, getting paid obscene amounts of money to goof about in lavish screen fantasies.  But when you're flying so high, the pressure is immense, and even the seeming perks could become nightmarish.  "When I started plying stadiums, I did have girls trying to get into my room a few time," Steve Martin recalls.  "But it wasn't a fun thing like you'd imagine.  You don't want someone knocking at your door at two a.m. when you're exhausted and trying to sleep"

"Everyone acclimatized to the lunacy in different ways.  Rick Moranis wound up retiring in the early 1990s.  Eddie Murphy embraced his celebrity with both hands, strutting around in a red leather boiler suit from the stand-up set Eddie Murphy: Delirious and employing a full-time entourage.  Johns Belushi and Candy died tragically young.  Bill Murray sailed through rumpled but uncrumpled, seemingly doing whatever he damn well pleased (xvi-ii)".  The artistic highs and lows of the comic talents that came out of the SNL era is the kind of story that's well worth telling.  The real challenge for any chronicler of this particular artistic movement all comes down to two simple questions.  Is the story told well, and is it the truth?  

Saturday, February 1, 2020

RKO 281 (1999).

Orson Welles is and was the kind of personality that generates stories.  He collected tall-tales about himself almost as if was his own folklorist.  He would use them often in his interactions with others, especially when it came to funding his many celluloid endeavors.  That much is a fact of history, though its an open question of just how many today still realize it.  Perhaps its the director's penchant for taking creative license with his own existence that accounts for the strange back story for the film under discussion today.

I remember hearing that RKO 281 was originally slated as a big screen production featuring Marlon Brando as the main antagonist.  For some reason, however, the deal never managed to come together.  Instead, the whole thing wound up as a TV movie.  To be fair, that in itself is no determination of a picture's quality, especially not today, when guys like Scorsese, De Niro, and Peschi can use the small screen to deliver a film like The Irishman.  All that counts in the end is that the story is intact, or that there's a narrative worth telling.

The subject matter behind RKO 281 is the stuff of Hollywood legend.  That makes it ripe for dramatization.  There is a problem with this particular story, however, and its adaptation into film, that winds up raising more questions than answers.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Soundtrack for a Novel: An Experiment.

Can novels have their own soundtracks?  It's not a question most people would bother to ask.  The most commonsense answer would be to point out that a novel is not something like a movie or a record.  All a book amounts to is just a series of words on a page.  There's no sound or music to go along with it.  Even if its possible to say you'd like you're copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Fellowship of the Rings to have its own soundtrack accompany the words as you read along, the fact remains you're not going to find it anywhere in the book itself.  You'll either have to find some music that could go well with the words, or else just use your imagination as best you can.

That's as far as everyday commonsense can go when faced with such an off-kilter question.  By and large, the majority of audiences, including even the readers in the crowd, do not tend to make an automatic connection between texts and songs.  The reason for this seems to be because there is no essential reason for the two forms of art to mix.  One can exist just as well without the other, unless of course you're a band like the Beatles and you're trying to make a concept album with something like an actual narrative attached to it.  Then the singer must learn how to be not just a songwriter, but also a kind of storyteller.  That's a task that can be harder than it sounds.  A lot of talented artists who make great musicians are also pretty lousy at trying to be straight-up writers.  When an concept album like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? is able to mix both music with a sense of narrative its usually an achievement that goes underappreciated by both music and book enthusiasts.

The irony is that the commonsense response itself has left the door open for certain creative opportunities.  Let's recall that the answer boils down to three statements.  (1) Books and music are separate artistic mediums. (2) If anyone wanted music to go along with their reading material, they would have find ways of incorporating it from vinyl, CDs, or clips off the Net.  Those are about the only options anyone has left in terms of where you can get music to listen to.  (3) The third and final option is to just use your imagination in order to fill in all the sonic gaps provided by the text, if any.

The good news is that it is possible to meet all three challenges, if you know how to do it.  Take Tolkien's aforementioned Fellowship, most Middle-Earth geeks already have a soundtrack all neatly laid out for them and waiting in the wings, thanks to, and courtesy of Howard Shore.  All anyone has to do is grab a headset, pop in the CD, open the book, press play, and begin to read.  All of that amounts to one way of proving that it is possible for books to have the potential for a soundtrack.

I'd like to see if it's possible to go a bit further than that.  I want to try something.  I don't know if it's new, or anything like that.  In fact all of the materials involved are all pretty darn old.  However there may be a lingering sense of novelty about the whole thing for those who've never tried or thought of it before.

What I'd like to do is take a random novel, a handful of old songs, and then see what happens when an imaginative attempt is made to combine the two.  I don't mean to create anything like a new hybrid medium where literature and music interchange with one another to the point of being indistinguishable.  Instead, I'm trying something that I might have got from Walt Disney.  Allow me to explain.  In his 1940 concert film, Fantasia, Disney took the concept of the animated film, and combined it with music in a variety of ways.  One of them was a mix of images and music, with the goal of setting up a mood or atmosphere.  This was done in the film with sequences like Toccata and Fugue.  Another was to use music in a way that told a story.  This goal was best on display in Night on Bald Mountain, The Rite of Spring, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice.  As it turns out, Fantasia was not the only time that Walt would find ways to utilize music in the service of a legit narrative.  One of my oldest childhood memories is seeing a Silly Symphonies adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.  It was an animated adaptation of the entire folktale, and it was free of any real dialogue from start to finish.  Instead, the symphonic score of the legend was used to punctuate and accentuate the action and story beats happening up on the screen.  The result was a film that used music to tell its story.

I think it's a technique that's been tried here and there, once or twice more, though it's never the sort of thing that has ever managed to really catch on with the public.  We seem to have reached a point where we tend to like our medias unmixed.  Part of the reason for this might be down to the ways we've allowed imaginations to shrink and atrophy with the passage of years.  It didn't use to be like this back in the days when everyone lived in forests, and no one could live anywhere else.  Back in the old, Medieval peasant cultures of Europe, most groups never minded if a fiddler decided to provide some violin accompaniment to retelling of an old folktale or legend such as that of Robin Hood.  In fact, such techniques were said to enhance the experience.  That's one of the reasons why storytelling minstrels flourished for such a long time in an age when books weren't really a thing like they are now (if they ever were).

I'd like to see if I can bring some of these old materials back in a minor way.  It's nothing major, just a brief moment's diversion.  What I'd like to do is take a text that lends itself easily to a musical soundtrack, and see what happens when we mentally use various Golden Oldies to provide something like a musical compliment or commentary for the text.  I think the best choice for now is to choose a book like Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis.  I think this is the best course of action because King is a writer who likes to sprinkle the artifacts of pop-culture here and there throughout his works.  He can erase 99% percent of the world's population, and then have one of Marvin Gaye's songs start to play in an abandoned, imaginary record shop.  This makes King's work an ideal test case for my experiment.  I want to take the narrative beats of a novel like Hearts and see if it's possible to make a soundtrack for an already established text.  From here on in, I think it's best if I actually show what I intend to do, rather than just talking about it.  With that in mind, let's take a bit of mental leap and see if there's anything to find.