Sunday, September 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval (1995).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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