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 were 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 who is 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?