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.

The Story.

Once upon a time, there was a land.  It was a place that stretched from one sea to another.  It was and is a very young country in comparison with all the others.  Perhaps this accounts for some of its problems, though it's just as likely that the nation's troubles stem from old world ailments planting a flag for itself on the same shores as those looking to leave it all behind.  In any case, for a brief span of time, the land fell into disorder.  It was another time which tried men's souls.  It was said that things were so bad that brother fought brother.  One could almost go as far to say that it was possible for an entire country to have a schizophrenic nervous breakdown.  Perhaps the greatest irony for some is that even a breakdown could be mended.  For any subject under a severe amount of stress, the possibility of a cure seems almost like a fairy tale compared with whatever emotions of the moment are currently wracking the mind.  From that vantage point talking of a cure seems as much a chimaera as the very idea of sanity itself.  I suppose that's what makes the very appearance of a solution to one's problems seem all the more miraculous.  Either that or it's just a big mistake to narrow one's sense of expectation.

In any case, a cure did come along.  It came wrapped in perfect irony when you realize that the one person who kept the land from splitting apart was a jack-legged lawyer from Illinois.  For whatever reason, he was one of the few to give the profession a genuine sense of proud dignity.  This Lawyer was able to channel his own sense of common integrity and respect for others into the highest office in the land.  From that lofty perch, the Lawyer managed to find a way to put all that good sense into use.  Whatever flaws he may have had, and whatever was left undone, one thing remains certain.  What can't be denied is that this simple King of Torts was able to hold the land together, and keep the country from splitting in half.  It was a long and bloody struggle, in part over what qualifies as a human being.  A lot of lives bit literal bullets in bringing everything to a close, and in the end, the nation held together.

When the dust had settled, the Lawyer took a good look around and came to a few conclusions.  He might have won the war, yet he of all people knew there was still a lot of work left to do.  For one thing, the core issues that caused the conflict were still festering, and had to be dealt with in some fashion.  In addition, the conflict itself needed some addressing, some kind of statement that would help the nation deal with what it had just been through.  Pretty soon a public meeting was arranged where various speakers would attempt to do just that.  It was part of a dedication for the erecting of a cemetery for those who had given their lives for the cause of their country.  The Lawyer got himself an invite to speak at the occasion.  Well, he accepted, and spent the whole train ride over there agonizing over whether he had much of anything important to say.  On or about Thursday, November 19th, the train pulled in at a town called Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania.  The Lawyer showed up, and said a few words.  The cemetery is still there to this day.

There was one young strip of a lad in the crowd there that day when the Lawyer gave his speech.  He was made to repeat and recall every single word the Lawyer said.  When the ceremonies were over and the crowd dispersed, that boy, like everyone else there that day, went back to something known as "the real world" and picked up his life where it left off, same as other folks.  In one sense, however, the boy never quite left that day.  It got stamped like an official seal on his mind.  Whatever details may have grown hazed by the years, the basic memory itself remained.  What the boy never forgot, even as he became a man with kids of his own, was the contents of that speech.  He remembered it right down to his last minute.  He recalled it so well that the memory got passed down through family for generations.  The memory itself became a sort of family legend.  It struck one of the boy's descendants with a very particular clarity.

Walter Bayes has been fascinated with Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg for a very long time.  He grew up hearing the story from his own grandfather.  That's the way he learned of how great-grandad got to hear the 16th president deliver his memorial to all those soldiers, and the cause that brought them all there that day.  It's a family tradition that has left Walt a man inspired.  Once that happens, guys like Walt are usually left with a sort of drive to get other people to understand.  For the longest time, Walt has spent the past few years of his life trying to bring the importance of that memory home to the public at large.  He went about saving every penny, nickel, and dime for one goal.  He amassed and spent a fortune all for the sake of one project.  He has built a perfect animatronic replica of Abraham Lincoln.  It's to be a permanent exhibit at the memorial dedicated to the same president.  Tonight is kind of a big day for Walt.  After all those years of hard labor and having to break the mold several times over just realizing every single detail of a vision born out of a memory, it's all about to be unveiled, right up there on stage.

There might be just one hitch for everyone's plans.  In addition to all the invited guest, among whom are several dignitaries, tonight's ceremonies will include one uninvited party-crasher whose name doesn't appear on the roster.  How he got there isn't the important part.  What he's doing there, and what are his plans for the evening is another matter.  The individual's name is Booth.  When he learned there would be an unveiling of a brand new "living exhibit" at the Lincoln Memorial, the young man realized he had an opportunity that he couldn't pass up.  After forging his way past the security detail, he made a beeline for the jakes in order to rehearse.  As far as Mr. Booth is concerned, he has an appointment to keep with the 16 president, even if their meeting is just in spirit.  Besides, it's the damage you can inflict on the spirit of a thing that matters most.  It's what lingers long after the event itself has vanished.  Tonight, the troubled Mr. Booth plans to gate-crash Walter Bayes's celebration, and make America re-live one it's worst nightmares.

Backstory 1: The Leader and the Dreamer.

In order to understand where a short-story like "Downwind from Gettysburg" comes from, we're going to have to take a few trips back to the past.  The reason why is because the whole thing came about due to a confluence of several elements joining together at different levels of American history.  The one who really got the whole thing started, aside from Lincoln himself, was the man he helped inspire.  Here is where I think I'll have to turn part of the narration over to the historians over at Happy Place Explorers.  They can provide the necessary detail better than I can.  As they explain, "Walter Elias Disney was born amidst the national hubbub of Lincoln's 10th birthday.  These days would have seen several nation-wide events and commemorations.  As in these subsequent years, construction on the Lincoln memorial would have officially begun, and commonplace reminders of Honest Abe (like the Lincoln Penny) would be introduced.

"Gone over 40 years, Lincoln was the apple of America's eye more than ever.  And he was placed in regard no higher than that of Illinois native, and young boy, Walt Disney.  A youthful Walt was captivated by Abraham Lincoln.  He studied the man.  He poured over his history.  He memorized his words.  One year, upon the celebration of Lincoln's birthday, a ten year old Walter would enter his fifth grade classroom in Kansas City, Missouri, dressed up in presidential regalia, complete with a glued on woolly beard, and a childishly manufactured stove-pipe hat.  To the amazement of his teacher, Walt went before the class and presented the Gettysburg address in its entirety, from memory, to his fellow students.  Walt gleamed with a respectful intensity, accenting the words and conducting his movements, giving the perfect punctuation to each one of the powerful sentences in Lincoln's dignified eulogy.

"Walt's teacher was astonished.  She promptly took him by the hand and lead him directly to the school's principle's office.  Where she excitedly requested an encore performance.  The principle, a lover of history, was equally impressed, and took Walt to each class of Benton Elementary School.  Where he would confidently recite the famous address to each of his peers.  Walt Disney would do this for every following year he attended the school. Each year Walt would gain confidence in his performance.  Learning more about presentation and the person of Lincoln himself, making every display better and more nuanced than the last.  Perhaps these are the roots of Disney entertainment, as Walt's knack of showmanship and storytelling, and even exhibitions featuring Abraham Lincoln himself can find their roots as far back as then.  Even as a child, Walt Disney, a true American patriot, held President Lincoln with the highest devotion.  This was more than just a kid dressing up in a beard to illicit laughs from his classmates.  It was a respectful memorial to a man who was carving a young boy's broadening worldview.  So when the dream of Disneyland became a reality, it was only a matter of time before Abraham Lincoln made his way there as well (web)".

In order to move the story forward now, we have to switch gears just a bit.  What's needed is a change of perspective, as Walt's input is just half the story.  However, it has to be stressed that none of it would have got off the ground if he wasn't as dedicated a student of Lincoln.  The rest of this particular aspect of Walt's story can be seen in the rest of the Happy Place Explorers retrospective.  It's a very informative piece of work, and I'd have encourage anyone who is a fan of both history and the arts to give a look.  You won't be disappointed.

The Backstory 2: The Dreamer and the Writer.

 To understand exactly where Ray Bradbury fits into all this, we have to turn to Sam Weller's The Bradbury Chronicles, the closest anyone has got to an official and authoritative biography at this date.  It's Weller who provides all the details about a very fortuitous meeting of minds.  "The 1964 Christmas holiday season was in full swing in Beverly Hills...and Ray was shopping for gifts for his family.  He was cutting through a department store crow when, through the hustle and bustle, he saw Walt Disney.  To Ray it was as if, for a brief moment, time slowly ground to a halt; he considered Disney to be one of the great imaginative men of the twentieth century.  In 1929, seeing The Skeleton Dance at the Genesee Theater in Waukegan, Ray had marveled at Disney's talent.  Then, in the summer of 1940, Ray's opinion of Disney was magnified tenfold when he...saw Fantasia, a film that would be counted as one of his favorites.

"Disney was holding boxes of Christmas gifts, one stacked upon another, piled up to his chin.  he was dressed, as ever, in a classic 1960s tailored suit and skinny and sported his famous pencil-thin mustache.  Ray rushed up to introduce himself.  "I know your books," Disney responded, matter-of-factly.  Ray was (astounded, sic). Walt Disney knew his work!  "Thank God, Ray said, finally.  "Why?" Disney said.  "Because," Ray replied, "someday I want to take you to lunch.  Disney smiled.  "Tomorrow?" he offered.

"The next day, Ray visited Walt Disney's office at the Disney studio in Burbank.  For a child of imagination, nurtured in part by the animated films of Walt Disney, it was like visiting Saint Nick at the North Pole...The first meeting between Ray Bradbury and Walt Disney was wonderfully understated - soup and sandwiches served atop a card table in Walt's office.  The two men talked about their work, their ideas, and then discovered that they shared a common sorrow.  In discussing the history of world's fairs (just like Ray, Disney had contributed to the 1964 fair), they both lamented the tragic, even ridiculous fact that when these global celebrations closed, all the wonderful buildings, all the architecture of tomorrow, all the pavilions, transports, amusement rides - everything - was demolished.  Walt Disney had an idea for a cure to this pain that he shared with Ray: a year-round world's fair that, once built, would never be torn down.  (To the contrary, it would never be completed.)  Ray loved the idea.  But for Walt Disney, it was a long way from becoming a reality.  His concept of a year-round world's fair was, at this juncture, still just a vision.  When realized, it would feature all sorts of pavilions, fusing education and entertainment, and comprise exhibits from cultures spanning the globe.  This grand dream of Walt Disney's would be called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow: EPCOT.

"When Ray's hour was up, he stood, ready to leave, but Disney said, "Wait!  I have something to show you."  Disney took Ray out to the studio lot, and gave him a walking tour.  Inside a vast workshop, he showed Ray a series of unrecognizable spare robot parts, built for a display that would feature the world's first audioanimatron, a perfect, fully functioning likeness of Abraham Lincoln that could sit, stand, and speak.  Of course this concept sent Ray's imagination into hyperdrive.  He wondered aloud what would happen if an assassin came in and murdered the robotic Abraham Lincoln.  Disney liked Ray's idea so much that he told him to go home and write a short story, right away.  (Ray did just that; the result was "Downwind from Gettysburg (271-2)". 

The Ray Bradbury Theater.

"People ask, "Where do you get you ideas", the author tells us.  "Well, right here!" he replies.  It's the answer we are given as we see Ray step inside his writing quarters.  The whole place looks like a cross between an office space and an old-fashioned nerd's paradise.  There are bits and pieces of memorabilia everywhere.  On one wall are photos of an old actor named Lon Chaney, maybe from his most famous work (Phantom of the Opera) or perhaps one of his lost films (London After Midnight).  An old cut-out of Mickey Mouse is seen decorating the entrance to the place.  In one episode we are given the most fleeting glimpse of a portrait of the writer's Illustrated Man.  The typewriter is situated on a simple writing desk that almost looks like its exploded into an incomplete steam punk artwork.  Behind the writing desk, several collected volumes of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers are lodged together with the more familiar editions of Dickens and Poe.  In front of a very basic looking typewriter range several model dinosaurs, while Captain Nemo's Nautilus holds the pride of place.  Ray informs us that "All this is my magician's toy shop.  I'll never starve here!  I just look around, and begin.  I'm Ray Bradbury, and this is..." At this point the narration ceases, and we are given, once more, a very simple fonted title card reading: "The Ray Bradbury Theater".

We've been told where Ray came up with the idea for tonight's episode.  In many ways it was all just a matter of looking and observing.  Other times, Bradbury has said that it happens for him like it does a lot of authors.  He'll be going around doing his daily chores, and then, sometimes, and idea will just pop into his head unbidden.  It's almost a prototype for how most of the best stories came to be.  Ray published Gettysburg as a short story sometime in the 1970s.  As the age of polyester gave way to the so-called "Morning in America" Ray found himself approached with a surprising offer.  By the time the offer came along, the concept of the anthology TV series (a show that focuses on different stories happening to different people each week, rather than a single set of characters in an episodic format) was nothing new.  Weller is even willing to go far enough to suggest, along with others, that Bradbury is perhaps an unacknowledged key influence on the whole look and feel of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone (250-55).  The difference is that this time it was Bradbury himself who was being asked to take a swing at the same concept.

"The idea for Ray's television series began in 1984 when Larry Wilcox (perhaps best known as a California highway patrolman on the television series Chips) and his business partner, Mark Massari, began courting Ray. They imagined a series with episodes based on his short stories, Ray would be the host, introducing each program.  Ray was flattered, but declined the offer.  "I'd seen the way the studios treated Hitchcock," he said.  "When he needed extra money to re-shoot some scenes, like we did on the episode I wrote, "The Life and Work of Juan Diaz," the studio wouldn't give it to him.  At the time, I thought, if I ever have a series, I'm not going to be in a position where that happens to me, so help me God".

"...But...Wilcox and...Massari were Bradbury fans.  They loved and respected Ray's work.  As "baby boomers," they had grown up reading his books.  "They took me out to lunch and dinners and bought me wine and met Maggie and took us both out and they spent a year combing my hair and fixing my feathers until they convinced me they really meant it," said Ray.  "They would respect my right and my tastes and I would control and write the whole thing.  When they convinced me of that, I signed the contract (310-11)".

The way the whole deal wound up is something of a marvel when looked at through today's lens.  We've had multiple opportunities to see show-runners and programmers come along and claim to be fans of any given series, and then proceed to drive the property into the ground for an ongoing series of reasons that still remain very obscure to me.  The main reason for this is because a lot of the latest artistic choices don't seem all that creative.  The most puzzling aspect, however, is that these same choices result in the exact opposite of one of the prime motivators for a franchise like, say, Star Trek.  In a case like that, the main goals goes something like, "Thou shalt not take a guaranteed cash-cow and lead it as a lamb to slaughter.  Such profit killing is to be strictly verboten!"  Instead, the show-runners turn right around and break every letter of the money-making law.  It all makes me wonder if the only reason Bradbury agreed in the long run was because he managed to beat them down to the point where they ran out of leverage, and all their planned shenanigans.  Either that or I'm just looking at things from the perspective of an industry that's in a state of ill-defined free-fall.  Perhaps things really were different back then (i.e. there was a lot more trust and spare change to go around).

Either way, the outcome was one of the rarest forms of the species, a TV show where the inspiration held the reigns, and the final results were a success more often than not.  Taking a risk on a TV show like the Bradbury Theater is always something of a gamble.  There used to be a saying in the industry that you were only ever as good as you're next picture.  Bradbury, Wilcox and company had to try and prove that on a weekly TV schedule.  That they succeeded more often than not has to stand as testament to some kind of talent involved.  I suppose this can go double for the realms of programming geared toward the fantastic and the Gothic.  It's best to think of a show like this as a game of target practice.  On each airdate, you have to take up the bow and arrow and hope to the powers that be you're able score some kind of point.  In Bradbury's case, I'm willing to argue there were a lot more hits than misses.  Some were better than others, yet that's not the same as diminishing the value of all the rest.  The real good news is that it even worked at all.

Bradbury really did take the reigns and was more or less able to conduct the show to his liking.  "It was an ideal situation", as Weller observes, "Ray would serve as sole writer and executive producer, and all the episodes would be based on his stories.  Ray was given complete creative control.  He would also host the program, a la Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling (311)".  It isn't until you stop and go over those words from the biography again that a few things begin to sink in.  Compare the deal Bradbury was able to secure to a time like now when, if he were still alive, the chances are high he would just be little more than a hired hand on a production of one of his own stories.  The situation seems to have been just a bit more than ideal.  It was an remains downright unprecedented in an industry where everyone has to fight for controlling interests in making and owning the final product.  It marks out the existence of the whole series as not just a testament to individual talent, but also as a kind of unexpected triumph of said talent over a system.

Bradbury's Socratic Dialogue.

That brings us, at last, to the episode itself.  When boiled down to its very basic components, the story really turns out to be like a one act play involving two characters isolated, almost framed, within a single secondary space.  Technically, there might be a third figure involved, although if that's the case, then he exists more as a summation of ideals rather than as a concrete personality.  That's sort of an ironic way to talk about a flesh and blood human being.  It's also the way Bradbury portrays this hovering, off-screen third presence.  What you've got is the two main leads, Bayes and Booth.  Then what might be called the Figure of Lincoln is added to the mix.  His inclusion situates the leader as more of a symbol around which the other characters oscillate.  The entire setup is so simple that it can, in the right hands, attain an almost purity of artistic expression.

The situation goes about as you'd expect.  Bayes tries to unveil the robotic recreation before an admiring public.  Booth steps in, and his interference causes the necessary drama to unfold.  What may strike the latest viewers as somewhat astonishing is the way Bradbury is able to generate drama from his characters.  Rather than find some way to insert a spectacular explosion, or have the protagonist and antagonist duke it out hand to hand for half and hour, the writer instead chooses a rout that was still not entirely unprecedented when the episode aired, though it has become that way now.  All he does is let the characters begin to talk.  That's all.  There is one brief burst of violence near the start.  After that, we're just left with what amounts to two characters in a room, talking.  This goes on until the credits role.

It's an open question in my mind on just how this all comes off to a millenial audience raised from the cradle on a steady diet of action and constant motion.  They may have no choice to except to view it as staid and static.  Perhaps it is.  Even if that is the case, it doesn't answer the question of whether the still, small point approach to aesthetics is a bad thing.  Perhaps it needs to be said that there is no intrinsic problem if a story is told in the current fashion of fast action.  In the same way, it can't change the fact that the current approved method is an enthusiasm of the of moment.  There is nothing to keep it from fading into the background the very instant that boredom begins to overtake the collective audience.  If that were to happen, then you could expect a period of artistic flux, as audiences struggle to latch onto whatever the next big thing is.  It's sure to come along in time.  The mistake to be avoided is falling into the misguided belief that the older forms have either been off-stage forever, or that they are in any way obsolete.  They have not vanished, by any means.  They have just lapsed from our attention.  Bradbury's method of artistic approach is one of these older forms of writing.  It's so old, in fact, that it is just possible to trace its ancestry all the way back to Ancient Greece.

The whole style and approach of Gettysburg is so particular and old-fashioned, that is has be to defined before a modern reader can begin to get any kind of proper understanding on the material.  In order to do that, I really am going to have to make what looks like a left turn on the surface, yet its very much still on point.  At the crux of Bradbury's story is a form or style of writing known as the Dialogue.  If it still exists in any kind of artistic format, then the changes in the way we prefer our art has limited it to either the big screen, or else the remnants of the theater stage.  Back before anyone conceived of projecting photographs in a moving sequential series on a blank piece of canvas, all that our ancestors, or anyone had in the way of entertainment was to be found on the same theater set, or else they could always just swallow or demolish their pride and see what happens when you open a book.  It was either of those two options, or watch the grass grow and start to see faces staring back at you from the clouds.

The particular Dialogue format that Bradbury uses saw its heyday, in both text and performance, from roughly the start of the Classical period up to about the Edwardian, before the start of the First World War.  Before then, it is just possible that even illiterate readers could still have a sort of passing familiarity with the kind of format that Bradbury's story utilizes.  It's correct to call it dramatic, even though our current aesthetic outlook may not be able to grasp how or why right away.  The challenge in a story like Gettysburg is that it has to generate all its narrative excitement from almost nothing else except the pure exchange or words between characters, while the setting or background itself remains almost entirely static.  It may be hard for modern audiences to believe that any legitimate imaginative diversion can be had from such a format.  The truth, however, is that older audiences seem to have known better in this regard.

They had no computers to create wall-to-wall explosions for themselves.  Besides, even their highest flights of fantasy tended to rely more on character, choice, and consequence more than mere mindless "action".  Even when spectacle did occur, there is always the lingering sense that they are more restrained, almost considered and careful in their approach.  You may call this form of storytelling primitive.  However the label just won't quite hold.  The age of a narrative trope tells us nothing of its value.  All it can tell the beginner is that, like Mt. Everest, there it is.  It's value can only be determined by careful and unbiased analysis of the trope's contents.  As such, the Dialogue does not fit the definition of outmoded, as it's still in use in a lot of the work that never reaches the cineplex or the bestsellers list.  Even if it does, it's not too difficult to see why modern audiences remain in the dark about the fact when the critics won't bring it to our attention.  It's a format that differs from the current approach we are used to, yet it still capable of entertainment.

The Allegory of a Nation.

The way Bradbury puts this particular format to use is interesting.  On the one hand there is Bayes as the main character, with Booth serving as the antagonist.  Once these two are on-stage, the spotlight remains trained on them.  Their interactions with each other create an interesting dynamic.  There is a sense in which both characters go on to represent more than just their clashing personalities.  As the show goes on, the whole scene becomes one extended interrogation, with Bayes trying to puzzle Booth out.  He wants to know why he committed the act he just did on-stage, and the gate-crasher keeps doling out information, one piece at a time.  As Booth is allowed to go on, a clearer picture of the situation emerges.  When this happens, the contents of the ideas the characters seem to represent becomes a bit more understandable.  Bayes, for instance, can best be thought of as someone who either represents, or else points to what Aristotle referred to as the Mean.  It's the exact ordered point in which everything is in harmony.  Booth, on the other hand, is the very antithesis of the kind of value that Bayes represents.

In this sense, both figures make up a kind of Socratic Dialogue in which opposing principles struggle for supremacy.  Because of this, I think it's safe to bring two figures from Myth on-stage once more.  Their names are Apollo and Dionysus.  I bring them up because I think Bradbury's story fits into a familiar mold.  At it's heart, Gettysburg is a Gothic story about one troubled soul's obsession with certain ghosts of the past, and the way they plague and haunt both his memory, and his daily existence.  When looked at from this angle, some may speculate over whether this means my talks of ghosts should be taken as literal or else just left as metaphors.  I don't see how it makes much of a difference, really.  Though if push comes to shove, I'd rather all talk of spirits remain more as subtext rather than text, at least for this story.  All that matters, in the strictest sense, is that Booth is a Dionysian figure that is more than familiar in American letters and life.

We've seen guys like him before.  He explains himself in the following terms.  For starters, he doesn't consider himself a coward.  Instead, he claims he's "Brave enough to know I had to do something about fear...(Fear of) things, people, places.  Things I've wanted to have, but never took.  People I've wanted to boss around, but never could.  Places I've wanted to go, and never went.  So I thought, if you can't find something to be glad about, find ways to be sad.  Find something awful to do, and cry about...You ever kill a turtle?  They live forever.  At least, long after we're dead.  When I was ten I took a brick and broke a turtle's shell.  And he died...Don't you see?  I'm jealous.  Jealous of anything that works, anything that lasts, anything that's perfect".  "Machines"?  "You're damned right machines!  I could never be as perfect as that.  That eternal president!...And who do you think you are, God?  Are you playing God trying to recreate him?!  Well I played God too, didn't I?  Taking him out for the second time!  It was meant!  Destiny!  Booth and Lincoln!  I had to come".

The character is, in short, a narcissist.  As such, in obedience to urges that he probably never looks in the mirror at for too long, Booth is under the impression that the only logical thing to do is to cause as much disorder as possible.  The figure's entire stated thought process is what makes him out as the perfect Dionysian representative, and it's his actions that drive the plot.  I don't say this makes him the main character, however his actions do make him the central focus of Bayes's investigation.  I think the term investigate is particularly apt here.  The story really does play out almost as a miniature homicide procedural, with Bayes playing Holmes to Booth's Moriarty.  In that sense Bayes is perhaps easiest to understand by calling him an Apollonian agent.  He's someone who tries to look for patterns of order in things, and then does his best to highlight their significance.  Compare, for instance, his own monologue near the beginning, and the contrast with the likes of Booth becomes more than apparent.

In the opening, we see him musing over his Lincoln Memorial project.  It's pretty clear he takes it seriously.  There's one particular moment where he and an associate are looking over an ancient photograph of the actual 16th president.  Walt talks over how his ancestor was there the day of Gettysburg Address delivery.  "It isn't it fine," Bayes wonders.  "They will stand in the meadow fields of Gettysburg.  Listen, learn, see.  Hone the edge of their razor souls, and live"!  I suppose its possible to argue that Bradbury devotes a bit less time to Bayes thoughts than he does Booth.  However, even if it is a criticism, I'm not sure that it points out any real flaw.  The goal of the story is less to figure out what is right, but rather concerns itself with what happens when things go wrong.  In this sense, Bayes, as an Apollonian character is there to stand for all the things that Lincoln symbolizes.  As he says near the start,  "He's not just news, he's an affirmation".

If the basic clash at the heart of the story is the contest between Apollonian and Dionysian mindsets, then it is interesting the way Bradbury positions the conflict in terms of American History.  This is what makes the story somewhat problematic.  It is very easy to picture a lot of today's viewers looking at this episode, and then seeing in it a reflection of whatever the current issues happen to be.  It doesn't help that one of the figures at the center of this story happens to be someone like Lincoln.  Plot elements like this help make it easier for others to turn a straightforward story into any kind of cudgel for whichever ism you please.  I don't know how my read on this story is going to sound in today's climate.  It could sound either too tame, too radical, too nonsensical, or else just outmoded, depending on the year in which it is read.

For whatever it's worth, my take on the ultimate meaning of story centers around the genre history Bradbury was working in when he wrote it.  I said a moment ago that it's a short story in the Gothic tradition of American letters.  That's a very key statement for me.  It means, so far as I can tell, that the narrative is an unconscious reaction to certain aspects of the Nation's often turbulent history.  It's true the Civil War is another obvious ghost haunting the stage.  However I can't shake the idea that Bradbury is searching further up and further in with this plot.  We know that Booth the character is also meant as a sort of stand-in for Booth the real life assassin.  However, when it comes to exploring the fictional character's motivation, he seems to take it a bit further.  It may start out with Booth as a historical figure.  However, in my opinion it doesn't just stop there, it goes further.  From an attempt to try and figure one of the great national tragedies, Bradbury's story seems to burrow beyond it.  The story seems to want to go less into the action, and more into what kinds or systems of thought would produce such an action.

I think this distinction is important.  It doesn't ask what were the Civil War and the death of Lincoln, it's more concerned with why they happened.  What kind of mindset could bring both situations about?  By focusing the spotlight on motivations, and not just material causes and effects, I think Bradbury, whether intentional or not (and most likely the latter), has shifted attention away from any easy path of ideology.  He's forcing us to consider the harder facts of human psychology, and how they can effect the national character.  Booth is a man with a fundamentally broken life who can only find any value in passing on that broken sense or sensibility onto others.  Bayes, on the other hand, seems like an individual who has been able to realize some (if perhaps not all) aspects of whatever the American Dream is supposed to be in his life.  Taken together, we have the two polarities that don't define just Bradbury's story, but also the nation's history.

It is just possible that some viewers can accuse Bradbury of taking a personal tragedy and making it too abstract.  However, I think there's more going on here.  By making Bayes and Booth symbols of two aspects of the Country's history, I think the attentive reader can be granted a bit of insight into the competing philosophies that have shaped who we are.  If I had to take a guess as to what both main characters symbolize, then it would have to be in the following way.  I think Bayes can roughly be equated with the ideals of Lincoln.  In that sense, he is placed nearer to the ideals of America's Founding.  He still has something of the optimism and outlook that made a group of acquaintances decide to cast off the English Crown and choose how they want to live.  It appears to be this same spirit that urged another group years later across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

While Bayes's symbolism appears to be more or less straightforward, Booth seems to represent a side of U.S. history that is, I'm unsure whether interesting or colorful are at all the right words here.  The single reason I had for even considering either term has to do with the fact that the historical facts represented by a character like Booth are grounded in an aspect our culture that has given us a great deal of all the Gothic tropes that genre fans are familiar with by now.  Booth comes from all those features of our history that have given us the haunted house, the cursed family tree, the guilty past.  All these popular elements, and the fictional characters who make them up, seem to stem less from America's Founding, and more to places like Plymouth Rock.  This brings us back to a subject I've talked about once before.  In my review of Joe Hill's Faun, I posited the idea that the American Gothic genre owes its roots to the sordid history of America's Puritan heritage.  It is, on the whole, a very dark chapter in our history.  It's also, I'm convinced, still something of a motivator in current events.  We're still a very young country.  In that sense, it shouldn't be too surprising if there are lingering philosophical ghosts from a relatively recent past that can still find ways of plaguing the Nation's collective psyche

At the same time, the history of the Founding, to me at least, seems to represent the opposite tendencies.  The Founders were never flawless.  In fact, the politest thought I've had about them is that their best achievement is also their greatest irony.  They wanted names for themselves, and for their sins, a chance was given to them.  Hence, they wound up paying the price by their very victory.  The irony is that their own personal faults didn't stop them from creating something that can still be a great gain to the American public.  I think Lincoln was one those who recognized this potential, along with the Founders.  The very fact that he could see a lot of the right things has to amount to some kind of achievement.  The point is that together, these two polar oppositions (Lincoln/Booth - Bayes/Booth) seem to stand as story representatives for the two outlooks or worldviews that have continued to define this country.  It's an almost perfect, dichotomous contrast, light and dark, high and low, "Booth and Lincoln".

Dionysian and Apollonian are the two literary terms used to discuss these antithetical tendencies.  Neither of them are mine, by the way.  I first came across them in the pages of a non-fiction study called Danse Macabre.  However, as I've kept exploring further works of Gothic fiction, I'm sort of surprised at how much it applied to whatever text I was reading at the moment.  These terms seem applicable to Bradbury's story for the very reason that it looks to be all about the the clash of these two forces, and the way they shape American thought.  It's a very difficult, high concept to tackle for even a short story.  It's so complex, in fact, that I think it might be the reason for my own difficulties in just trying to make my way towards it.  Whatever the case, the major theme in back of this particular production of make-believe seems to be that any American has to be aware that his life, as it is lived in this Country, must, by its very nature, be defined as a pendulum which can swing from the centered order of the Apollonian to the opposite number of a Dionysian hornet's nest.  The story seems to be implying that not only have each of these mindsets planted a foot in the national soil.  It also seems to say that, whether we know it or not, the choices we make can define where we fall in respect of each camp.


I mentioned a while ago the idea that ghosts play a part as the subtext of Bradbury's drama.  If the whole story is one, simple platonic dialogue about the two poles of the national character, then it still leaves us with the question of where the writer might fall in all this.  In the strictest sense, I'm not sure how much help the author could be in answering that question.  Bradbury seems to have been a very apolitical public figure.  What interested him wasn't politics as such, so much as the tap root ground out of which the public life emerged.  In that sense, he seems to have believed all politics has some sort of origin in things and actions that are unpolitical to begin with.  That's why the best answer I can offer is to wonder if there may be at least one moment, near the very end, when those metaphorical ghosts quit hanging around in the rafters.  Maybe there is a point in the story during which the sub-text becomes text.  Either that or its a trick of the light.  Still, maybe in that moment the audience has the closest thing Bradbury has to at least some kind of affirmation on this particular subject.  What do you think?

All I know for certain is that I came away getting more or less a kick out of things.  The episode can be regarded as heavy-handed in places, and the action in general still remains outside what viewers have come to expect nowadays.  Somehow, this never bothered me as I was watching it unfold.  On the contrary, I was engrossed.  I think one of the overlooked qualities in good writing is it's ability to help engage with topics that we might otherwise find boring as hell.  That's what Bradbury did for me as he unspooled his yarn and let it play out up on the screen.  Aside from this, I've got to admit there is a particular charm about these old, 70s and 80s centric late-night fright-fest anthologies.  I don't know if this makes me one of those sentimentalists who are somehow always old before their time.  I don't think it should have to be looked on with such scorn either.  A lot of those old shows were just plain fun, damn it!

Bradbury was offered his deal at what in retrospect seems a very unique time in the history of dramatic television.  There have been anthology programs like it before.  There's a list of usual suspects who tend to stand shoulder-to with each, the two major names being both Hitchcock and Serling.  Aside from Hitch and the Zone, however, a lot of the other names seem to have fallen by the wayside.  People still have vague ideas about The Outer Limits, yet where do you see the love for an old classic like Amazing Stories, Tales from the Darkside, or even One Step Beyond, which could said to have pioneered the supernatural anthology as we know it today?  A lot of the latter shows owe their very existence to the brief popularity enjoyed by sci-fi, fantasy, and horror in the wake of films like Star Wars, Close Encounters, and Halloween.  It can be argued that because each of these films gained such a big following, a lot of West Coast TV suits took notice, and were sometimes smart enough to hire quality talent to make anthology shows that really worked.  I'm not sure anyone dares to take the kind of creative risks like they did back then.  Everything has become too homogenized.  If it's not a tent-pole, there's no way to make money, so why bother.  Still, it was a great moment of glory for guys like Bradbury all the same.

I can see how a lot of youngsters in the audience will complain about the production quality of a lot of these old shows.  Hell, they might even point out some of the most obvious limitations on display.  For instance, how come a lot of the episodes in these shows usually tend to feature no more than five characters in a room where the entire action takes place?  Why confine yourself like that, it's borrinnggg!  It's true episodes like that are moments where the TV production was really showing the restraints of its budget.  However I'd argue that sometimes this necessary restraint could often result in the writers and show-runners finding more creative outlets for storytelling.  For instance, there's a Darkside episode which features little more than a young teen girl on a train.  The results might seem corny by today's standards, yet there's still something about that particular narrative, especially a final reveal that still manages to give a more old-fashioned sense of the creeps, one that I worry is being lost today.

The production values of the Bradbury Theater seem a bit more lavish and high quality if that's your hang up.  It ain't the Ritz, yet perhaps it can still stand as one of those old grand hotels where they still make sure the carpets are cleaned every day.  They've also got some good star quality for the celebrity watchers.  You've got William Shatner, Peter O'Toole, Elliot Gould, Drew Barrymore, and Jeff Goldblum headlining in a few occasions.  What matters most, however, is the quality of the writing, and that, in my opinion is where the series shines its brightest.  Every script was penned by Bradbury himself, and it shows in the tones, setting, characterization, and above all the language of the episodes.  I've had the chance to read some of the flack that gets tossed Ray's way for the style in which he composes his sentences.  The curious part is how it's never really managed to bother me all that much.  It just reads like a kind of fine, ornate wine.  Then again, as Mark Twain observed: "My books are water.  Those of the Great Masters are wine.  Everybody drinks water".  If that makes Bradbury's style an acquired taste then so be it.  I see no need to apologize.

Anyone who has an interest in classic sci-fi and horror will be doing themselves a great favor in checking out The Ray Bradbury Theater.  It's a look back into a certain type of sophistication that kind of needs to be kept in mind when reading or viewing a work of fantastic fiction.  As for the particular episode under discussion here today; on the whole, I'd say it works.  Mileage often tends to vary, yet anyone who is willing to take the time to enjoy an older form of writing might just be able to get something out of it.  For my part, it remains one of the series best.  It's an unforced meditation on the nature of the American character.  It might not always show us a pleasant aspect, yet even then, it never manages to just throw in the towel.  I think episodes like this are useful for a number of reasons.  One is to bring viewers a bit closer to a sense of their own history.  The other, however, is simply that it can be one of the many way for new audiences to familiarize themselves with the work of a writer who it turns out is a bit more than pretty darn good.  In fact, at this late date I'd say he was something of an essential.  You can do a lot worse than gain an interest in The Ray Bradbury Theater.      

No comments:

Post a Comment