Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival (2007).

It's hard to tell what time it is.  The scene looks to be about mid-day, though it's impossible to tell for sure with all the color washed out.  Instead, the choice of camera turns everything into simple blacks and whites, reducing the entire sky to the same, monotonous shade of faded gunmetal gray, like an old photo album picture brought to life.  It's almost as if in trying to capture the event, the cameraman somehow discovered a curious way of making all time stand still.  The picture looks almost postcard perfect as the singer steps up to the microphone.  The cinematography has him look all dressed in black, although this could also be a trick of the light.  His eyes seem both focused and distant as he takes his place before the crowd, like he's in his element, and would rather be somewhere else.  Perhaps that ambivalence is reflected to an extent by the song he chooses sing for an opening number.  Before that, however, there are introductions to be made.  A woman's voice can be heard over a PA system.  

"At every period, every time has its heroes.  Every need has a solution and an answer.  Some people, the press and magazines, sometimes think that the heroes that young people choose lead the way.  I tend to think that they happen because they grow out of a need.  This is a young man who grew out of a need.  He came here, he came to be as his is, because things needed saying.  And the young people were the one's who wanted to say them.  They wanted to say them in their own way.  He somehow had an ear on his generation.  I don't have to tell you.  You know him.  He's yours: Bob Dylan".  "All I really want to do," the singer tells us, "is baby, be friends with you".  His voice is the same, familiar combination of the off-key and the melodic.  It's a trademark that is so distinctive, that even to this day it remains somehow unrepeatable.  The closest singers I can think who come anywhere close can be whittled down to just three candidates, Leon Redbone, along with the two Toms, Petty and Waits.  


That list might be expanded to include an act known as the Band, however that still remains about it.  I recall something that author Dave Barry once said about Dylan's style of singing.  Barry described him as "singing in a voice so unpolished, so non-showbizzy, so drastically unlike, for example, Bobby Vinton, that you either loved it or hated it, and the side you picked indicated pretty clearly whether you were going to be a willing participant in, or an opponent of, The Sixties (107)".  This is the subject at the heart of Murray Lerner's The Other Side of the Mirror, a chronicle of Dylan's Newport Folk days.  The trick here is that singers like Dylan, and the films people make of him, rarely exist in a vacuum.  I might just be able to understand how a lot of the readers out their might wish for the subject to be treated in some kind of isolation.  My own experience, however, is that life never allows itself to be so kind.  If you want to understand why someone would go to the trouble of cobbling together a concert film out of old footage of a singer, then it usually means there's a lot of backstory to go over.  It seems to be the only way of finding whether or not Lerner's film has any sort of worth to it.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey (2014).

Sometimes it can be tough to talk about certain subjects.  There are tons of reasons why that should be the case, and often a lot of it can be explained by the presence of a simple phrase such as controversy.  It's a word that at least one of the two subjects under discussion here was well acquainted with.  However, that's not the real reason for the difficulty, at least not in my case.  In that sense, I  guess you could say I've got off easy.  My problem just has to do with how do you discuss an artist whose work has gone on to be a major impact on your life?  We're talking here about one of those guys whose work is like a bomb going off in your mind.  It's the sort of quality that is able blow doors off in your thinking that you probably didn't even know were there until someone showed enough mercy to point them out to you.  That's sort of the favor Mark Twain did for me.  Yeah, I know, the guy who got forced inside your skull way back in high-school?  That stuff was old long before things like 8-track cassettes and corded telephones were consigned to the technical scrap heap of history.  

Well, credit where it's due.  You got one part of the equation right, at least.  Twain really is what you might call one of the Great Old Ones.  Often the first and last anyone ever hears of him is in the hallowed halls of classroom puberty, where a lot of other important stuff was going on, regardless of whatever the teacher was talking about.  Besides, everyone knows high school English is the kiss of death to any subject that gets brought up in such domains.  I was one of the lucky few, in that sense.  I never ran across the old geezer in a classroom.  I had to find out about him on my own, and even then, it's not as if I went out looking for him.  It was a lot more like bumping into an accidental stranger with a unique gift for the gab, and a genuine sense of wit to match.  In retrospect, it also kind of helped that the first time I ever saw him was on TV, long before I even knew what a classroom was. 


I didn't see the man himself, that sort of came later.  Instead it was an adaptation of one of his novels.  What makes it stick out in my memory after all these years is the way it all got started.  Imagine, if you will, the image of a young tow-headed kid and an African-American slave in a dark room, lit only by the combined, flickering specks of gold, red, and yellow cast off from a single kerosene lamp.  The boy is dressed in brown overalls.  The man was wearing blue railroad suspenders, as I recall, with a red and white checkered work shirt.  Both the man and boy were leaning in to get a look at a dead body draped across a chair in the dark.  They edged closer, step by step, until the grisly scene was brought in full up to the light.  As long as I live, I'm sure I'll never forget the sick looking, wide-eyed, rictus grin of the corpse as it glared up at the viewer from the unblinking gaze of the screen.  

The older man told the boy not to look.  Though to be fair, it was kind of like trying to shut the barn door long after the livestock had vacated the premise, isn't it?  Once seen, can't be unseen.  To sort of sweeten the deal, that has to be the first time I ever saw a corpse in a work of art.  This was before I even had a chance to be introduced to the concept of mortality.  Yeah, now how's that for first introductions?  Some of you still reading this are probably craning your necks to see the pile up damage by the side of the road.  If pressed, some might be willing to fess up that it's just their nature.  They might also ask where did that little freak show come from?  That, ladies and gentlemen, came straight the pen of a man who never existed.  His real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens.  You read his moniker and then quickly forget all about it, even if it is sort of convoluted and colorful.  Nobody ever remembers guys like him.  What no one has been able to do is erase the pseudonym that made him famous out of historical memory.  Everyone remembers the name of Mark Twain.

I suppose you could call him something in the  way of being a natural storyteller.  It's true enough to start with, anyway.  It's also kind of like saying Ray Charles knew how to play the piano.  The description is so basic it doesn't even begin to do the subject justice.  That's something Hal Holbrook seems to have understood in time.  For whatever reason, it would turn out to be one single Hollywood actor that would be responsible for helping to keep the memory of Twain alive.  Hal Holbrook is a name that might still be somewhere on the tip of the tongue these days.  If that's the case, then it's probably because he did a decent enough job of carving both his name and efforts into something approaching immortality.  The basic rule of thumb here appear to be, if you can accomplish something like that, then you might have a chance of sticking around even in something as fickle as memory.  It is just possible Holbrook was able to make that kind of grade.  If he's known for anything at all today, then it has to be for his efforts in the Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford vehicle, All the President's Men.  

In that film, Holbrook was tasked with bringing a real life, flesh and blood human being onto the screen.  This person's name was Mark Felt.  It's another moniker that goes in one ear and out the other.  The difference is this time it could be something of a mistake.  In real life, Felt was more popularly known as Deep Throat, the inside source who helped Woodward and Bernstein bring Richard Nixon to justice.  His role in the film, as in history, is relegated to that of a background figure.  This gives Holbrook a very limited amount of screen time.  However the actor never wastes a single moment that he's on camera.  As embodied in Holbrook's performance, Felt is shown as a man of the shadows, both paranoid, mistrustful, and maybe even just a little bit world-weary and regretful.  While not the biggest part in the film, whenever I think back on it, it's always that first introductory image of Holbrook, his face veiled in the blue sodium of parking lot lamps and constant trails of cigarette smoke that occurs to me the most, along with a handful of others.  Such is the role assigned to him by immortality.  Either that or else it's just the picture of him that's easiest for most of us to remember.


The one thing everybody seems to forget is what joined Holbrook and Twain almost at the hip.  Every so often, Holbrook would walk onto a theater stage located almost anywhere in the United States, and assume the role of a chain smoking writer from Missouri, who one day coughed up a book known as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This is the subject at the heart of director Scott Teems' 2014 documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey.  "The idea for the documentary came from Dixie Carter, Holbrook's wife...Mark Twain Tonight! was the longest-running one-man performance in theatre history. Hal Holbrook performed the show from 1954 to 2017 when he announced his retirement.[5] Director Scott Teems, who had worked with Holbrook and Dixie Carter on That Evening Sun, interviewed Holbrook, family members, fellow actors, and Twain scholars to go behind the scenes to reveal the challenges and rewards of life on the road (web)".  Apparently Holbrook and his family felt that the topic was important enough to be worth setting down on record.  All that remains to ask is whether or not the two subjects at the heart of the documentary have anything worth saying.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

The art of criticism doesn't exist in a vacuum.  It doesn't just appear out of thin air.  Like every other facet of human life, an opinion about a work of make-believe is one of those things that everyone just takes for granted.  This makes it no real big surprise to discover just how difficult it is to figure out where it all got started.  Critics of books and films these days are a dime a dozen, none of us will probably ever know who was the first human being to speak up and voice an opinion about a story they just heard.  I don't suppose I mind that all too much.  It's just that I like to know where stuff comes from.  I'm one of those types who tend to believe there's a great deal of value to be had in tracing down the origins of things.  It just might, with any luck, tell us a lot about why humans do a lot of the things we take so much for granted.

I think storytelling and its criticism can be one of those endeavors where, the more you know of its histories, and turns of thought, the more rewards you might be able to get from being able to understand how it all got started.  There may even be some who argue that the best part is that it's an ongoing task, one that can never be completed in a single lifetime.  Another value to be had in studying the history of arts criticism is that it can help you gain a better familiarity with a lot of the figures associated with it.  Just a brief glance at the history itself can offer a list of all the important pioneers and trailblazers who have helped shape the very nature of the critical format and the various discussions that have continued on throughout the years.  I think this is a task that some enterprising souls will have to undertake sooner or later, as learning not just about artistic criticism, but also the names who made it possible, is probably going to wind up being a pretty big part of keeping the the practice afloat.  This can also play a big role in keeping the Arts, in and of themselves, alive as a going concern.  This is the kind of task that presents no small challenge to any who would take it up.  It is also one that can be worthwhile.

There are a lot of names out there who are vital to the history and discourse of artistic analysis, and most of them have never been household names.  A lot of this has to do with living in a culture that values brand recognition.  Some of the later toilers in this trade actually have been able to gain a kind of popular familiarity for themselves.  For instance, what's the first name that comes to mind if I use the phrase "Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down"?  The answer should be easy enough for most reading this.  It's Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, of course.  Everybody knows those guys.  Ebert's old news columns for the Chicago Sun Times are still poured over, dissected, and examined by a constant streams of fans old and new.  This is a fact I can vouch for personally.  He's one of those writers whose skill at criticizing a work of art is so well done, that even if you don't always agree with his final verdict, you can at least understand the logic that is guiding all of his statements most of the time.  That takes talent, as well as good analytical skills, no matter how your slice it.  It's just part of what makes him so fondly remembered long after he has left the stage.


Almost anyone who is anybody knows about Roger Ebert.  I'm not so sure just how many people out there have ever heard of Pauline Kael.  At the same time, that's not much of a surprise, though it may scandalize the few out there who are willing to keep her memory alive.  It's what happens to famous names that fall through the cracks of history.  Like the phenomenon of love at first sight, I'm very sure it's the sort of thing that happens not just all the time, but pretty much every day with each tick of the clock.  The natural enough result of this process is always best defined as "The Unexpected".  The sole reason for calling it that rests in the fact that it seems more or less impossible to expect a new mind to know old facts, even if they should turn out to be vital.  Because of this, history always seems to be catching us unawares, and the resulting fallout leaves us scrambling as our minds try to catch up with a lot of unknown information.  Looked at that way, Kael's life and writings are just one more strand of information that life may or might not force us to try and catch up with.  So who was she, anyway?

Part of the answer can be found in the introduction to the Library of America volume of her collected writings, edited by Sanford Schwartz.  In his introduction to the collection, Schwartz lays out her work in somewhat hagiographical terms.

"(Perhaps) more deeply than any other writer, Kael gave shape to an idea of an "age of movies."  In a career that began in the mid-1950s and was fully underway by the early 1960s, she explored movies as an art, an industry, and a sociological phenomenon.  A romantic and a visionary, she believed that movies could feed our imaginations in intimate and immediate - and liberating, even subversive - ways that literature and plays and other arts could not.  But she also understood the financial realities and artistic compromises behind moviemaking, and she described them with a specificity and pertinacity that few other critics did.  As concerned with audience reactions as with her own, she could be caught up in how movies stoke our fantasies regardless of their quality as movies.

"She was also, as she wrote, "lucky" in her timing.  Her tenure as a regularly reviewing critic coincided with the modern flowering of movies, the period, primarily the 1960s (for foreign films) and the 1970s (for American films), when moviemakers were working more than ever with the autonomy associated with poets, novelists, and painters.  While hardly always laudatory (and to some readers plain wrongheaded), she nonetheless, in the earlier decade, gave a breathing, textured life to the aims and sensibilities of Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, and Michelangelo Antonioni, among other European and Asian directors; and she endowed Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Paul Mazursky, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola, among American directors of the following decade, with the same full-bodied presence.

"Kael's grasp of film history was encyclopedic.  She had seen silent films as a child, in the 1920s, sometimes taking them in on her parents' laps.  Speaking for her generation, she could thus write of motion picture that "We were in almost at the beginning, when something new was added to human experience"; and in her full-length reviews and essays (put together over the years in eleven volumes), and her short notices on films (collected in the mammoth 5001 Nights at the Movies), she encompassed much of that "something new (xi-xii)".     

The above paragraph may serve as a decent illustration of the kind of effect she could have (or at least used to) on some of her readers.  What's the net result then?  What does the critic herself have to show for her efforts?  The answer, as far as I can tell, goes as follows: "Who the hell is Pauline Kael".  If such a response comes as a surprise to some, then it kind of begs a further question.  What else did you expect?  Half the problem, as I  see it, is that a lot of older critics out there have either been too neglectful in their jobs in preserving the reputation of film in the 21st century, or else they just never could manage to make their voices heard.  Part of it I think is down to the way they framed their criticism.  It has to be written in a way that gives the reader a reason to care about the artwork under discussion.  If you can't do that, then the sports section is always just one turn of the page away.  It really is that simple, at least as far as the average reader is concerned anyway.  


However, does the fact that Kael and her writings barely register as a blip on the radar at this late stage mean that a valuable, maybe even an essential critical voice has been left behind?  There are some who would say so.  That's definitely what filmmakers like Robert Garver believe.  This particular filmmaker was such a devotee, in fact, that he took it upon himself to to create and build up an entire documentary around Kael and her writings on and for the screen.  It was completed in 2019, and it got a lot of good press before sinking into the soup of online content.  Garver dedicated his efforts to spending a whole hour and thirty eight minutes to rescuing this one film critic from the potential of vanishing into obscurity.  The question that remains is whether all this toil was worth it, or were his efforts in vain? 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Violent Cases (1987).

Sometimes books can have teeth.  You'd be surprised how many of them can come at you like a slap in the face once you turn to the first page.  For instance, here's Alan Moore's introduction to what has to be the first graphic novel to ever put Dave Mckean and Neil Gaiman on the map.  See if you can catch where the slap comes in.

"For the past forty or fifty years, comic books have muddled through their infancy at a slow and sedentary pace.  So slow, in fact, that it sometimes seemed as if it would last forever.  Though the infant would frequently show signs of early promise, if not indeed genius, its physical progress never seemed to get beyond the crawling stage.  This deceptive sluggishness often tended to mask the slow and occasionally painful process of maturation that the poor tyke was going through.  Those of us in charge of minding the baby were so resigned to its eternal and unchanging state of mewling immaturity that even when the first bumps, swellings, sproutings, and secretions began to make their presence felt, we remained oblivious to what was actually going on.  Then, one day, all of a sudden - Bang!  It's puberty!  Since then, comics have been changing so fast that we scarcely recognize the snub-nosed toddler that we used to call "Freckles."  In its place there's something spotty and gawky and strange looking, that's asking a lot of awkward questions about sex and politics, while striking unfamiliar attitudes and dressing itself in colours nobody over twenty-five would be seen dead in.  Its utterances range from the unbearably crass to the undeniably brilliant, and though its self-consciousness may prove irritating every now and then, it's still possible to catch glimpses of the confident and fascinating and adult persona that it's struggling toward (49)".

Did you catch it?  I think the slap comes right near the end, when Moore talks of the adult persona that comic books are struggling toward.  He then goes on to offer the following summation: Comics are starting to be viewed as a vibrant and viable art form, rich in unexplored possibilities and hidden capacities.  As a result, new talents that might otherwise easily have drifted into films or fine art or literature are starting to find their way to the medium and enriching it considerably by their presence.  As this process gathers momentum, comics find themselves on the verge of a quantum leap in which all the old barriers are shattered and the territory becomes strange and different, entirely without landmark (ibid)".  At least, that's what he said back then.  You've got to admit, at least it sounds nice on paper.

Perhaps the nature of the slap in the face can be elucidated like this.  Not long ago, I came across a bitof a debate about the latest issue of a Wonder Woman comic.  The way it drew the greatest super-heroine of modern times raised quite a bit of uproar from the fans.  My own two cents on the issue is to be pedantic.  Correct me if I'm wrong, however I always thought the character herself was based off the original figure from Greco-Roman mythology.  This can be seen in her very name, Diana, the ruler of the moon, leader of the great hunt, and very much a warrior in her own right.  In short, Wonder Woman is (or at least she was more or less meant to be) something of a goddess.  The way she was drawn on the issue cover I saw probably doesn't do her character any favors.  I've heard it described as the hill DC Comics is ready to die on.  It's the latest in an ongoing series of complaints that have grown in volume recently.  For my part, I think I can remember the moment I mentally checked out.  It was when the company tried to take Moore's Dr. Manhattan and use him as a scapegoat or villain explanation for various creative missteps and bad decisions.  I'm afraid just don't read much comic books anymore.

Meanwhile, here is where Moore's thinking on the medium rests today.  “To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence...It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times (web)".  At the same time, most of the other talents the ex-graphic novelist mentioned above have instead "(drifted) into film or fine art or literature".  The medium that helped put their names on the map, meanwhile, seems to be nearing a state of collapse.  In retrospect, it's interesting to consider a time and place when this might not have been, like a road not taken, or something valuable that wound up misplaced.  That's where the real slap in the face comes in.


Books can also have teeth in a more positive sense, of course.  It all comes down to the quality to be found in the final product.  The old graphic novels I'm thinking about used to be pretty good at it.  This was back around the time when Moore was singing the praises of guys like Gaiman and Mckean.  It was before the industry moved on and began what turned out to be a slow, yet glaring decay.  With this in mind, the best I can do is turn attention to one of the efforts that started the whole last hurrah.  It's a neat, concise, and nasty little piece of work called Violent Cases.  Hank Wagner can give a pretty good overview of how this little old gem came about.  "In 1986, Gaiman and Mckean were working for a magazine called Borderline.  Gaiman was a young journalist; Mckean was still attending art college.  After they met and hit it off, Gaiman suggested they work together on what became Violent Cases, based on a short story he had written as part of the Milford Writer's Workshop.

"We were intoxicated by the potential of the medium, by the then-strange idea that comics weren't exclusively for kids anymore (if they ever had been); that the possibilities were endless," writes Gaiman, in his introduction to the U.S. edition from Tundra Publishing (155)".  It was a start, at least.  They pretty much had nowhere else to go at that point except up.  Another good word for their little joint venture is to call it a very risky gamble.  That's not a word that deserves to be tossed off lightly.  The fact of the matter is they were kind of taking their livelihoods in their hands with this idea.  The very fact that the graphic novel itself still exists to decorate the bookshelves is something of a minor marvel.  They both got pretty damn lucky in that sense.  Perhaps the situation for either of them wasn't quite as precarious as it would be if they tried this stuff today.  If they were still young turks trying to make names for themselves, I'm not sure we'd ever hear of them in today's climate.  


The initial comic brand that offered to publish their work wound up having to turn them down, and they still managed to get it out there by a combination of word-of-mouth and sheer, stubborn willpower.  It's probably a sign of just how different the market was back then.  In the 80s there was still a window of space left open for the maverick to try their hand at leaving their mark on the world.  These days the whole industry just tends to come off as some kind of weird, stacked deck.  Even if that's the case, then there's still a lot to be said in the stand-alone issue's own favor.  Perhaps its time to give this old first effort a dusting off, and then hold it up to the microscope once again, and see how it stands in comparison to all that came later.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Bones of the Moon (1987).

I've spoken more than once on this site about an informal collection of writers and artists.  They made their respective names during a rough span of time that went on, more or less, from the mid 1970s, all the way to the end of the 80s and start of the 90s.  You may be familiar with some of their names.  Guys like Stephen King still don't need much in the way of an introduction.  At least, not yet.  The same applies to fellas like Neil Gaiman, Dave Mckean, or Alan Moore.  They are all a specific brand name-style of artist.  All I've got to do is just say their names, and sooner or later someone's going to turn up with a list of their favorite moments from a book like Watchmen, From Hell, or The Dream Country.  The same phenomena pretty much applies if you bring up names like Carrie, Christine, or Cujo.  It's that vaunted and dubious level of public recognition that goes along with popular awareness.  

It's the type of success that works as its own kind of double-edged sword.  On the one hand, there's a lingering sense of recognition about your name.  The flip side is there's always the danger that it all amounts to just passing familiarity.  Perhaps there's a difference between how many times you get your name in the papers or the news, versus how many folks have actually read anything you've published.  Is Stephen King a writer, or a filmmaker, for instance?  I think it would be interesting to find out just how many in the audience believe that guy is the latter, rather than former.  It might just tell us a lot about how the audience perceives both the artist, as well as the artwork in their midst.  There's the troubling sense that a lot of the common perceptions of authors like King really amounts to just a kind of halfway knowledge.  It's nothing more the than basest of trivial facts.  The full story, meanwhile gets lost in the image generated by the popular perception.  In that sense, perhaps the best definition of pop culture is to describe it as a place for you to put things in so that you can forget about them.  I suppose I wouldn't mind if my own experience has taught me that such actions carry too great a risk to be carried out with no strings attached.  Forgetting the past can sometimes be a good way to get caught out by it.

In the case of the type of artists I'm thinking of, one of the results has been that while everyone thinks they know about guys like Gaiman, King, and Moore, who else besides a small handful knows about a name like Peter Straub?  What about Dean Koontz, for that matter?  How about Robert McCammon, or Dan Simmons?  Do those names ring any bells?  I think the best answer most of us are left with is: perhaps not.  That's kind of a shame, really, because they make up just as much of the story as the creators of Morpheus or Miracleman.  It's something I might have spoken about more than once before.  For some crazy reason it just helps out if I think about all of these writers as part of an unofficial artistic movement.  One of those minor waves that like to happen every now and then in the field of the arts.  It just seems like a natural enough recurring occurrence, a regular part of the gig, if that makes any sense (and let's face it, is it any more of a puzzle than life itself?  Doesn't mean there can't be perks to it, though).  I can even remember discovering there's an actual, pretty good name for all the stuff they got up to way back in the day.  The phrase I've heard used to describe them is New Wave Fabulism.  It can be found in an essay composed by the author of Ghost Story and The Talisman.  

That's the first place I can ever recall hearing either Pete Straub, or his fellow literary contemporaries referred to in such a neat catch-all term.  I've got to admit, if you need to have a title for all of those scribbling names, then it's a pretty good label, so far as it goes.  I think part of the reason it's so fitting, however, is because it might just be possible to pinpoint its origins.  I wonder if the title might derive from an old 1967 Sci-Fi anthology edited by Harlan Ellison.  It was called Dangerous Visions, and it was billed as a flagship collection.  The stories in it were supposed to be offered as samples of all the new directions the speculative genres were headed for the latter half of the 20th century.  It is just possible that Ellison was aware of the direction things were headed in the writer's field.  If so, he was definitely there to see it all happen.  The curious (maybe even somewhat ironic) part is how few of the names found in the book (the one Ellison meant to act as a kind of brave new standard bearer) ever seemed to go on to leave their mark in this movement.  Most of the famous names in Dangerous Visions belong to older writers like Frederick Pohl, Philip K. Dick, or R.A. Lafferty.  The one writer who could be said to have any future influence was that of J.G. Ballard.  The rest of the field seemed to wind up in the hands of King, Straub, and Moore.  It's one of those weird twists of fate, yet I'm not sure there's much to apologize for.


The single, most recognizable, and shared trait among all the New Wave Fabulists mainly comes down to the way they had of giving a new voice to a lot of older fantastic tropes and concepts.  They could stumble across a cob web infested idea such as a vampire looking for victims, and give it fresh blood (so to speak) by taking that archetype, and placing it in a modern suburban setting, complete with phones, fax machines, and Monday Night Football.  The result would often amount to an interesting clash and creative tension between the old and the new.  The idea of ancient figures of myth and dream sharing the same space with a bunch of ordinary working stiffs has proven to be a surprisingly durable and enduring artistic paradigm over the last few years.  The trope and its assorted imaginary figures could even be said to have carried on even to a point in which their original creators are now in their elder statesmen years.  Part of it is down to the way it makes the old seem original again.  It carries the same type of charm as Michelangelo doing a riff on the image of a bunch of dogs playing poker.  The very idea itself in incongruous, and yet its carried off with such skill that you can't help being impressed. 


There is one name in particular, that belongs very much in the New Wave wheelhouse, which I haven't mentioned yet.  I also don't believe I caught him among the list of authors Straub mentions in the course of his article cited above.  I'm not even sure what kind of reputation or name recognition he has nowadays.  His name is Jonathan Carroll, and it's kind of difficult to know where to start with this one.  It could be argued, for instance, that his way telling stories is an almost perfect summation of the kind of fantastical surreality that you can find in many of the other Fabulists.  The danger with that sort of approach is that it makes him sound like an untalented copycat, and I'm not at all certain that's the case.  Part of the difficulty is knowing just how to talk about the writer without spoiling a lot of what's to come.  He can sound like some of the authors mentioned above (Jonathan Lethem is one easy example that comes to mind), and yet it's a mistake to say that he has no style or method of approach that's unique enough to be called his very own.  I guess part of the problem is knowing how to describe that approach in a way that makes sense.  Perhaps the best way to get that done is to just talk about it.  The best way to do that is to bring up the third book to published in his career.  It's called Bones of the Moon, and there's not much else way to describes it except...You know what, let me explain.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths (1).

This entry is really the first one that has to stand on the shoulders of others.  In particular it was the work of the Truth Inside the Lie blog that brought the whole thing to my attention.  I once recall reading that the basic function of criticism was to stand as a mere sideshow for the main attraction of the story itself.  I'm willing to admit a lot of truth in that statement.  At the same time, even if literary criticism can never be the main event, there's grounds enough to call it a vital function, in and of itself.  When a review is written in such a way that it makes the reader decide to pick up their own copy, then I'm afraid the only logical conclusion is that a genuine service has been provided.  That deserves at least some kind of recognition, even if just for a job well done.  That just leaves the main event itself.  The book in question was an anthology collection entitled Xo Orhpeus, by Kate Bernheimer.

The review of that book from Truth Inside the Lie is perhaps best described as an all-purpose overview.  The potential buyer is given a neat and concise series of summaries regarding the anthology, and its contents.  Each item in the text is given its own brief description, along with a recommendation of whether each individual entry is good or bad.  The results for the  review itself are commendable.  The main reason for this is down to the way information is handled in the critique.  All the relevant information the reader needs to know about each story in the collection has been condensed with a skill that perhaps can be considered worthy of actual print journalism.  The critic appears to have an instinctive skill for what needs to be kept in, and what elements can be labeled as secondary enough that they can be left out.  The final product gives the reader enough information, delivered in the right way that is capable of rousing enough curiosity to enable to the reader to want to find a way to get their hands on a copy of their own.  Such then is the basic function of criticism when its done well.

I bring all this up just to highlight the fact that I'm afraid I've had to go at Bernheimer's book in a very different fashion.  For whatever reason, I've found it better to take the text one item at a time, rather than all at once.  This method of approach can have its own advantages.  For one thing, the fact that we are dealing with an anthology, and not a novel, allows the critic some leeway in how they want to handle the text.  The very nature of the material allows you a bit more freedom to pick and choose which is the best doorway into the content itself.  I think my real reason for not tackling the whole damn thing all at once is pretty simple.  For some reason, my mind is better at examining a story when it's limited to just one narrative at a time, rather than altogether.  I just have that turn of mind, the kind which likes to unpack as many details of a story and hold them up to the microscope for a while.  

The more I can limit my attention to just one item of text, all's well.  I seem to have more trouble turning all the trees into a forest.  If that's a weakness of some sort, I'm sure I don't know what to do about it.  I'm not saying its impossible for me to provide the kind of concise summary of the contents of a book.  If that were the case, this blog probably wouldn't even exist.  It's just that the task becomes a lot easier after I've digested a single text.  When it's a question of being asked to perform the same task on a book which is really a number of differing texts, then I can see it as a lot more of a challenge.  This issue just gets compounded by the question of whether or not an anthology can be said to be operating under any possible kind of guiding principle.  The presence of such a main theme can help to make things a lot easier, at least as far as I'm concerned. 

I've said that the short story collection offers a number of differing doorways into its subject matter.  The one I've chosen for my purposes is the front entrance.  I want to focus on Bernheimer's introduction to the whole anthology for a number of reasons.  A lot of it has to do with her main topic of discussion.  Bernheimer's entire book is concerned with the matter and nature of myth.  It is, in essence, an entire, complete short essay on the subject.  What she has to say about the topic colors her choice for the contents of the anthology as a whole.  It just makes sense that her views on the issue might be worth digging a bit into in their own right.  It might be interesting to find out what Bernheimer's views on myth can tell us not just about the topic itself, but maybe also the outlook of the editor.  I suppose the real question, however, is not just whether the anthologist or editor is able to verbalize or state her thesis.  In addition, I'd argue there are two other matters that are involved here.  The first is whether Bernheimer is able to live out her thesis.  The second is how well her main idea stacks up to the reality of everyday life.  There may be some interesting answers in regard to the last of these three questions.


As a result, this essay won't have much choice except to come off as a discussion between a pair of book nerds debating on a pet subject of theirs. This isn't the sort of deal that's going to bother me all that much.  I'm the kind of guy who actually likes to think about literary matters.  I'm also smart enough to know that places me in a distinct minority.  That means the real challenge is how do you make a discussion of myth at least sound entertaining?  If I'm being honest, all I can do is follow the writer's lead and share my own two cents on it.  The good news is Myth is another favorite subject of mine.  Whether the reader feels the same is a different matter.  I suppose the real trick is to learn what is it about myth that is able to hook and reel the audience in.  A lot of it is down to enthusiasm, and the proper ability to convey it.  This is something guys like Tolkien or Joseph Campbell were good at.  They knew how to talk about myths in a way that managed to engage a sizable cross-current of the world audience.  Whether Kate Bernheimer or I can do the same remains to be seen.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mank (2020).

 Amadeus is one of the first films I can recall watching.  That's no joke, by the way.  It's all true.  My parents introduced me to that flick, and its subject, when I must have been no older than 8.  It's in retrospect that it begins to sink just how rare and odd that kind of circumstance is.  Most family households would think of waiting a goodish number of years down the road until trying to get their kids into such high concept art.  I think the one excuse my folks will ever have is that they were still somewhat in the thrall of what I like to call a late 70s Woody Allen phase.  The upshot is that I grew up knowing at least something about Mozart and Classical Music before I even knew the musical genre existed as an actual concept.  Here's the real point, though.  Some of you reading this are probably thinking, "Yes, but how can you trust that you really know anything about the life of Mozart, or Salieri, for that matter?  How can you be sure the film is an accurate reflection of the life of either composer"?  If anyone out is entertaining thoughts anywhere close to what I've just written above, then I hear what you're saying.  I also can't pretend I'm all that surprised.

Milos Forman's 1984 film has long since entered into the realm of canonical masterpiece status.  That hasn't stopped fans and critics from arguing over its historical veracity.  On the contrary, it really does seem as if it's that very love and acclaim for the movie that keep these debates alive, and in turn guarantee it at least some kind of immortality.  It's probably earned all the praise and criticism in the best way possible.  A lot of that is down to sheer narrative skill.  Even the biggest skeptics are able to applaud Forman and Schaefer's imaginative capabilities, and talent for dramatic characterization.  To this day it still has to be one of the rare examples where a motion picture is recognized for its literary qualities.  Some other films aren't that lucky, however.  

Let's take the case of David Fincher's Mank, for example.The genesis of this project just strikes me as somewhat unique.  It's got to be the first movie I've ever seen that was generated out of a debate among cinema critics.  The starting place seems to have been a New Yorker essay written by the critic Pauline Kael.  It was titled "Raising Kane", and its main purpose was to try and debunk an idea called the Auteur Theory.  It was a concept popularized by critics and filmmakers during the French New Wave of the 50s and 60s.  It's basic thesis was that the director is the one ultimately responsible for the creative idea and final product behind any given film he or she is able to create.  It is just possible to see how this concept can be applied to other creative formats, such as writing or painting.  On the other hand, it could be possible to mount a converse argument.  There is nothing to keep the observer from making the inference that the Auteur theorists were just taking the concept of the writer as sole creator of the finished story, and applying that idea to the director of a film.

Andrew Sarris was one of the influential writers on movies that was a huge believer in, and proponent of, the New Wave theory.  He spent a lot of his time trying to introduce the concept into the conversation of the American mainstream.  He made it the paradigm, or lens through which he used to compose his article on various films that came under his inspection.  Sarris would judge every motion picture according to how well the director as Auteur was able to make the final product succeed.  In all of this, Kael appears to have more or less been Sarris's opposite number.  She seems to have held a distinct disbelief in the idea of the director as Auteur.  Her view seems to have been that film was too much of a collaborative effort for there to be any one single sole voice at the helm.  At least that's what appears to be the case she was trying to make.  My own reading of her essays reveals a very shaky and ill-defined criterion for what a film is, and what makes any given example work and fail.

Anyway, the upshot is that "Raising Kane" was written as a shot across the bow of the likes of Sarris and the Auteur enthusiasts.  One claim that made up part of the essay concerned the movie Citizen Kane.  Kael used her essay to make the claim that is was Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the screenwriters, who deserved the singular credit for penning screenplay of the finished film.  I'm not sure how much any of this is still on the radar of public awareness in this day and age.  If this is the first any modern reader has heard of the conflict, then I volunteer for the position of the last guy to be shocked about it.  Nevertheless, the upshot of Kael's article was that it got just enough attention back in the day to kickstart a minor sort of turf war in film critic circles during the 70s.  It didn't take long for Sarris and others to respond in kind.  The result has been a series of skirmishes that have erupted here and there throughout the decades.  The whole argument is divided into two camps.  On the one hand, you have those like Kael, who argue that Mankiewicz is the real genius behind the greatest film ever made.  Then there are others like Joseph McBride who believe that credit should go more to Orson Welles.


One person who subscribed to Kael's essay was Jack Fincher.  He was the father of a son who would one day go on to make a name for himself in the industry.  The elder Fincher seems to have been in such an agreement with "Raising Kane", that at some point in time, he decided to go all out and write an entire screenplay meant to substantiate Kael's claims.  The name of the script was Mank, and it was Jack's wish that someday it get its time in the spotlight.  The father never lived long enough to see that dream fulfilled.  It would be sometime before his son, David, would be able to compile all the necessary resources to realize that vision.  The few questions that remain are what does this idea of the late Jack Fincher's mean, anyway?  More to the point, is it any good?

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Luck of the Lynns (1952).

One of the perks of being a bookworm is that it can sometimes allow you to discover the unexplored corners of life.  I'm not talking about anything esoteric, so much as the avenues that got overlooked by time.  It doesn't happen often, however my own experience is that if you dig around the forgotten corners of the great library known as the world, you can come upon a text, or a name that can sometimes be so worth your time it's a wonder (and almost something of a crime) that there was never at least some kind of recognition.  That said, it's also possible enough to uncover a bunch of junk that probably should have stay in the trunk.  I'm not sure where the subject of today's post fits into this scheme.  I've talked about him once before.  From what I've been able to uncover about him, he never seems to have been one of the Big Names.  However, that didn't stop him from knowing at least some of them, and of making a few artistic contributions of his own.

Talking about someone like Roger Lancelyn Green can be a challenge.  It's one I've discussed before, here and there, on this blog.  One of the hazards of being an author is that even the the promise of publication can't guarantee any kind of Brand Name recognition or longevity in and of itself.  That's all up to how much the reading public decides whether it likes you or not.  Some of these scribbling types are able to garner a small handful of the audience.  This minor sort of fame might give off a brief sense of satisfaction.  At least there's someone out there who likes what you do.  The trouble with that type of circumstance is that there's no real assurance that even the best word of mouth reputation will grow from there.  Many of them never get beyond that initial step.  An author like H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, got lucky in that sense.  He started out as a sensation among a small circle of fans and friends, only to gain worldwide fame after his death.  A lot of the others who followed in his train are barely on the tip of the tongue anymore.  Who, for further instance, has ever heard of a moniker like Clark Ashton Smith?  That's got to be too fanciful to be real.  Right


Then of course, you have authors so obscure that part of the problem is being able to find any reliable background information on them.  The best example of this latter type is H.F. Arnold.  If the name sounds unfamiliar, that's no real surprise.  He's remembered today for publishing a short story called The Night Wire, and his reputation is kept alive mainly by fans of the Weird Circle of Cosmic Horror authors that center in and around the works of HPL.  The trick is a lot of folks know what Arnold wrote, and it's almost impossible to find any reliable info on his life.  The man himself remains a total enigma.  It's almost as if the story itself appeared out of thin air, complete with byline, and nothing else.  As a result, Arnold could be thought of as one of the most famous authors who wasn't there.

Roger Green seems to have escaped that level of literary fate.  It's possible to dig up some information on him, though what little there is remains patchy and scarce in places.  His date of birth can be traced to somewhere right around the end of the First World War, on Nov. 2nd, 1918.  This all happened in Norwich, to a couple listed as Helena Mary Phyllis and Maj. Gilbert Arthur Lancelyn Green.  The Green family itself is, or was part of the landed gentry of the English Upper Class.  It's lineage is reported to trace back all the way to the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First (web).  As is the typical case with most families of the nobility, there was a deeded and titled estate on which generations of the family grew up.  Roger appears to have been no exception.  His childhood was spent living in Poulton Hall.  It's was and remains one of those old English manor houses that can sometimes contain a storied history.  

It's nowhere near as vast or impressive as any of the old royal households, such as Hampton Court, and to be fair, that's kind of in its favor.  Unlike the grand, forbidding presences attached to an estate such as Beverston Castle, Poultan Hall's compact appearance tells of a more expansive and generous nature.  It's atmosphere is less that of the genuine Nobility, and more in the line of the Old County Squires.  It is just possible (once you've scaled the whole thing down to an appropriate size) to imagine a family of Hobbits emerging from its doors, maybe one of the Tooks or Brandybucks.  Perhaps that's why it seems fitting to discover that the old place has become the kind of setting that various artists like to arrange their projects in.  The house and grounds even served as a backdrop for a children's series known as The Owl Service.  This happened back in 1969, when its last owner was still alive.  It's somewhat telling about Green himself that he was willing to allow or open his own home to such a production.  It's also the dwelling that served as his first great window onto the world.  

Being the scion and heir of an old, established, military family was often viewed as being born into a fairly conservative milieu.  In England, that same framework still appears to be in operation today, at least among the ruing classes.  It is just possible to expect that Green would have experienced the same difficulties as those faced by a writer like E.A. Wyke-Smith.  The opening setting is almost so prototypical that it won't be too much of a surprise to learn that Roger grew up in the shadow of a strict, and authoritarian father figure.  Instead, the truth itself seems to amount to a more or less complete subversion of the trope.  Far from being a strict disciplinarian,  Arthur Green comes off as unconventional by the usual standards of the gentry.  His own son is able to provide the best possible snapshot of his upbringing in Poultan Hall through a brief snippet of memoir found in the opening pages of his later critical survey, Tellers of Tales.

"Being myself a rather bookish child, more often at home than at school owing to ill health, my reading played a very important part in my life.  It had always done so, as I was fortunate in having a father who delighted in reading aloud, began to do so long before I could read, and continued the custom, when occasion permitted, right up to the last year of his life when I was nearly thirty.  My own reading of children's book went on longer perhaps than is usual, and was succeeded by a delight in the story-tellers of the Nineties that I never lost; but it did not exclude other tastes, and I remember when I was fifteen or so reading Shakespeare plays and Tarzan stories alternately, and my reading lists of the time show an amazing variation between Stevenson or Haggard and Thackeray or Greek drama (8)".

If the interactions with his father were his first big influences, the second most important element in Green's introduction to Literature was the library housed on the estate.  This is one of the salient facts that marks Green's trajectory out as yet another type.  One of the commonalities to be found in the public statements of a lot of famous writers is how they all tend to go on, sometimes at a length which must seem absurd to casual reader, about the importance of libraries, or any kind of booksellers in their lives.  It seems to be one of the few, constant, real-life tropes that is able to unite an ongoing series of lives that are different in most every other respect.  Stephen King, for instance, noted that his education in books got started from at least two places.  One was the Stratford Library, in downtown Connecticut.  The other were the occasional bookmobiles that would drive through his hometown neighborhood of Durham, Maine.  For Ray Bradbury, meanwhile, it seems to have been the public library of Los Angeles that initiated him into the broader arena of world literature (Weller, 9).


Green's own experience of this same process appears to be a Victorian - Edwardian spin on the same process as that undergone by the other two mentioned above.  If his father wasn't there to read for him, the young Roger could often be found browsing through the volumes contained in the house.  From the sound of it, that library appears to have been an example of one of those old, private collections that some of the higher nobility could afford to compile for their own amusement, leisure, and in some cases, a genuine interest in literacy and learning.  The results could sometimes amount to several whole rooms given over to the shelving and stocking of various assorted tomes.  It is from this age old enterprise that we owe the by now still somewhat familiar image of the classical library; a vast and echoing hall lined with shelves of various leather-bound volumes of forgotten lore; most of which tend to alternate in color from red, to green, to brown, and always with the titles highlighted and bordered in gilt-edged gold.  Green seems to have been lucky enough to have inherited a variation of this image.  As first Bradbury, and then King would later do, once the young lad was let loose in that living image, he seems to have taken to it with the natural skill of a salmon running in its main stream.


It is from this experience both of parental bedtime reading, combined with the discovery of the library that shaped the contours of Roger's mental architecture.  This is where his story conforms to type, as it fits in with an established pattern that may have begun as far back as the Renaissance.  It would often be the custom for middle and upper class families in England, before the advent of public education, to pass on their learning to both heirs and descendants by introducing them to the contents of these private libraries.  The practice probably isn't as widespread now.  However, at least before the beginning of the 20th century, this household practice of educating through the library remained more or less the sole means of giving a future to one's children.  In addition to Green, other names like John Ruskin, William Morris, Prime-minister Arthur Balfour, and Oxford scholars like R.G. Collingwood were able to achieve as much as they did because of their exposure to this tradition.

Just like Morris and Ruskin, Green's introduction to the library (just as a type, or thing in itself) fostered a love of the written word.  The passion grew enough to the point where it determined his future career.  The rest of it is surprisingly available in the public record.  That said, the record itself is scant, almost constipated.  If that counts as a fault, then it's mainly down to the lack of curiosity shown to the writer's own output.  The fact that he's remembered enough at all is something of a small miracle.  The relevant data is here laid out in full, as it provides a decent enough beginner's summary of all the salient points of Green's life and his once and future career.  The following is taken verbatim from the back of the book promotional material of the Puffin Books edition of Myths of the Norsemen.

"Roger was a man who loved storytelling and was fascinated by traditional fairy tales, myths, and legends from around the world...Roger was often ill, though, and couldn't go to school - so he spent lots of time at the family's manor house in the country of Cheshire.  His family had been wealthy, and there was a huge library in their house.  He spent many hours reading the old books in there, and this is probably where his love of myths and legends started...

"...Roger loved reading adventure stories and fairy tales, and as he grew up he became fascinated by the myths of ancient Greece and Egypt, and the legends of the Norse countries of Scandinavia.  He went on to retell their ancient stories in his books Tales of Ancient Greece, The Tale of Troy, Tales from Ancient Egypt and Myths of the Norsemen - a continuous story gathered from the ancient Norse folktales, ballads and poems...He was well known for his retellings of traditional stories.  Including those mentioned above, he wrote The Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, all published as Puffin Classics.  He also wrote many books for adults, including a biography of...J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan (262-3)".

That is the extent to which the public knows him.  In all, Green was responsible for six of these compilations from world mythology.  They comprise the sole number of his books that remain in print to this very day.  The result is an author who exists as sort of like an anomaly.  Very few people seem to know he even existed at some point in time, and so his books are never taken off the shelves.  The result is that they continue to make a steady enough profit to keep restocking their places in the racks.  The whole thing sounds like a series of impossibilities that keep happening with a persistent regularity.  The whole or complete truth, meanwhile, remains in obscurity.  It's like what the Puffin blurb observes above.  Green's life as an author encompassed a lot more than just a series of folklore collections.  He wrote material of his very own, for a start.  The fact that all of it has vanished from memory is what accounts for the length of this opening.  When you're dealing with an unknown quantity, first introductions tend to take a bit more time.  That's what this entire article amounts to, in a way.  


If Roger Lancelyn Green is an unfamiliar name on the lists of published authors, then it just leaves one question.  Where do you start?  Perhaps the best way to begin is to take things slow, and not all at once.  It's with this in mind that I think the best place to start is by looking at one of the first entries in his career as a writer.  He'd published just one other book before this one.  The Luck of the Lynns appeared on the shelves two years later.  The tale goes as follows.