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 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 come 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 Michael 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.