Sunday, December 19, 2021

From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture (2004).

This is how it begins.  "Woodstock; Summer 1969.  What follows is a modern urban legend that, if only apocryphal, remains true in spirit.  One longhair, passing, a toke to a companion, studiously observes the sex, drug, and rock 'n' roll around him.  Smiling wryly, he sarcastically comments: "Can you believe these kids were raised on Disney films?"  His friend, while attempting to inhale, chokes on his own laughter (ix)".  From here, scholar and academic Douglas Brode goes on to create what has to be one of the most succinct statements in the history of criticism.  "End of story; beginning of book (x)".  It may have all begun with a parable, however, I'm not quite sure how many people out there were expecting it to end where it does.  The main point itself is all laid out in the very subtitle of Brode's study.  And yet it's probably one that has no other choice except to come off as just so damned atypical to the casual observer. 

A lot of it is probably down to the collective image that most of us have had built up in our minds over the years.  When we think, or even hear of the name "Disney", our list of automatic associations and recall tends to be pretty much by the numbers.  We each have our own variation of the what the name means to us.  However, when the memories, and the emotions they help conjure up keep centering around the same, familiar set of imagery, even in differing minds, it's no wonder if a large amount of psychological overlap tends to take place.  We think of carpets that fly, a large rock in the middle of an African landscape.  We see a wicked witch offering a poisoned apple to a snow pale looking girl, with dark hair.  We tend to think of a stern, yet fresh-faced English nanny, riding the currents of the air on her umbrella.  Or of a puppet that comes to life.  These are just the most familiar handful of iconography that the House of Mouse has planted in our brains, like an unofficial catechism.

It may not be true for everywhere in the world, however odds are even that it would be difficult to uncover that many in several generations of children whose first impressions of the world didn't include the antics of a talking mouse.  Disney appears to be that rare phenomenon, a piece of entertainment whose notoriety has managed to achieve such a grand level of ubiquity, that it's almost like reading an open and shut book.  It's there right at the beginning, alongside Sesame Street, and Dr. Seuss.  And the funny thing is how there seems to be no getting away from it.  Not that many of us would care to, for that matter, at least when it comes to all the good stuff.  It's like our first, unofficial baby-sitter, or something like it.  I know that's sort of the way it was for me.  Like most 80s kids, I came of age learning about the nature of folklore thanks to Uncle Walt.  It's where I first met the entire heroes and rogues gallery of the Brothers Grimm.  After that initial round of introductions, it was places like the old Disney Channel that acted as a kind of gateway passage to my earliest artistic first impressions.

That was the place where I met the likes of James Mason, Bob Hoskins, Christopher Loyd, and Tom Hanks for the very first time.  For the record, the first time I ever saw the future Forrest Gump was in the Touchstone film, Big.  That's another thing that was pretty cool about the channel, in retrospect.  I managed to catch it at the height of its powers, back before it became a regular cable outlet.  Before 1995, or thereabouts, this was the channel where you could sometimes get lucky and catch a lot of interesting, out of the way programming.  I know how strange that must sound to anyone who is familiar with how the company is set up today.  However, all I can do is swear by the truth of that statement.  It really was the best broadcasting space for a kid to pick up a very memorable set of childhood memories.  I was able to catch previews for films with titles like The Secret of Nimh, Roger Rabbit, or Fantasia.  It wasn't just limited to the "in-house product", either, at least not back then.  

Besides this, it was also the best place to pick up on a whole plethora of these weird, quirky, or sometimes downright strange choices for a program slot.  Some of it was to be expected, such as the occasional rerun of the original, animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  However, then you would get more out of the way fair like The Big Friendly Giant, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Further on from this, and you get certified weird fare, such as Return to Oz, and The Adventures of Mark Twain.  I'll also swear, one of the most vivid memories I've ever managed to retain of the Channel is about this feature -length, TV special where this cartoon girl in a yellow dress has a very surreal encounter with none other than Herman Melville's Moby Dick.  Yes, that White Whale.  

The strangest part may be that they played the whole thing straight.  No slapstick, or laugh track in sight.  No fooling around, either.  Instead it was very much like they were trying to cram an existential encounter into a kids show.  I'm not sure I can ever convey how weird and cool something like that was for the developing mind of a seven year old boy.  It's one of those creative choices that walks a fine line between childhood nightmare fuel and a really far out trip, man.  Let's just say it's easy to hear Pink Floyd's Echoes or Marooned in the soundtrack of your mind if you watch that kind of stuff.

Beyond this, however, there was also stuff like The Rocketeer, The Rescuers, The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Witches, and The Goonies.  Many of the films just listed did poorly at the Box Office on first release.  It wasn't until they started getting repeated air play on the Channel during the 80s and 90s that they slowly began to gain their current status as a lot of criminally underrated cult classics.  Films like Starfighter and Goonies, meanwhile, pretty much cemented themselves as certified 80s Childhood gold, and their repeats on the Disney network at the time just helped solidify their reputation.  It was, in many ways, a whole other world.  I was there, I saw, I had my imagination shaped by the best and brightest of the time.  It was a formative experience that was not limited to just the usual suspects in the 80s Kid pantheon, either.

Way before the launch of Turner Classic Movies in 1994, it turns out the Disney Channel was just about the only place where you could catch re-airings of cinema from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  What that meant in practice was that a lot of the networks loyal roster of kid viewers would have made their first acquaintance with names like Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, and John Wayne.  You could catch them in films like Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Longest Day.  It's a fact of history that doesn't get reported on as much nowadays.  It's what happened to me once upon a time, though.  It was through the services of Uncle Walt that I got to know an actor known as Patrick McGoohan, who would one day go on to make a counterculture classic known as The Prisoner.  Before that, he was The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, however.  This is also something like just the tip of a larger, underwater glacier.  Would you believe me if I told you the Beatles used to be on the Disney Channel?

Now, I know what a lot of you out there are thinking as you read this.  "Well sure", you think, "I just caught Pete Jackson's documentary on Disney Plus.  It's awesome, etc"!  It's a sentiment that's probably true enough, to be fair.  It's also not at all what I'm talking about.  What I'm saying is that this is just the second time the Mouse Kingdom has played host to the Fab Four, not the first.  The initial time these two giant, pop culture entities got together to put on a show for a viewing audience at home was way back in and around 1989, as far as I can tell, anyway.  In fact, if you turn to one of the old issues of the Channel's magazine companion/official cable guide (because, this is Disney we're talking about; of course they're going to do something like this) you might be surprised to run across a promotional article for a long-forgotten documentary called The Making of Sgt. Pepper.  The piece itself makes its own case, in no equivocal terms.  "Through the years there has been much mystery surrounding the project, but with the Disney Channel premiere of The Making of Sgt. Pepper, Beatles fans have their first opportunity to discover some amazing secrets from behind the scenes (27, 30)".

Those words appeared just once in print, in the August/September issue of Disney's magazine, during the last days of Summer, 1992.  The band still had three members left, instead of just two, with the lingering threat that one day we'll have to wake up to find that count reduced to probably just one.  Heck, they even got George Martin, the titular Fifth Beatle, to host the program.  Nowadays, all Jackson has to work with is archival footage.  My reason for even bringing this bit of trivia past up at all is because of just how much of a clash it is for our expectations.  Let's be honest, here.  How many of you ever really expected to see the music group dubbed the Number 1 greatest entertainers of all time having one of their products sold by the Mouse Factory?  It is just possible to get a slight note of cognitive dissonance from the whole affair.  A lot of that might be down to the way history itself has pretty much forced us to place both entities in separate boxes all our lives.

I mean let's do the math here for a second.  On the one hand, you've got the Disney Company.  One of the pioneers of animation history, it's true.  So is the fact that most adults outside of the pop culture sphere still tend to view as just a go-to babysitter for the younger demographic, and not much of anything else.  It's at least certain that I've never seen or heard any indication that the studio has been able to break down any sort of "cartoon ghetto" barrier to a significant degree, not even with Let It Go wearing a permanent groove in the brain.  Then, on the other hand, you have four long-haired guys from Liverpool, and the music they made.  Right away, even a lot of Gen-Z types will be more than happy to halt you right in your tracks, just in case the picture's not so clear.  The Beatles, these folk will maintain, are a bit more than just a mere "rock group", and what they did can't be encompassed in a simple phrase like "music".  If I'm being honest, I kind of get where they're coming from.

I mean I'd make the comparison between apples and oranges, yet it really is more fundamental than that.  If they were just good at the writing and singing of songs, then it's doubtful there would be anything to talk about all that much.  What I've just realized, writing this, is how difficult the next part will be to explain to someone who either wasn't there at the time, or else doesn't have enough of the sense of history to understand why and how this simple British bar band from their parents' generation could still maintain a sense of relevance that shows every sign of outliving the members of the group itself.  It's a topic that deserves several articles just by itself.  To summarize a complex situation, it all seems to have been a combination luck of the draw, mixed in with being at just the right place and time, along with having the eerily pitch-perfect creative expression.  One that was good enough to capture the collective imagination of the 60s, and turn the group into this kind pivot point around which the social changes of their decade began to flower and erupt into being.

A lot of it is the stuff we've grown so familiar with that we seem in danger of losing sight of its importance, such as the various forms and types of Civil Rights.  In addition, there is the way the band helped to change the nature of music making in and of itself.  There is a solid enough case to be made that it was the Beatles who gave us the first chords to the sound of what we now know as modern rock.  It's a grave mistake to claim that they brought all this about by themselves.  That's just laughable, in addition to being a disservice to names like Martin Luther King, Mario Savio, Ken Kesey, and a lot of other important culture makers who helped the 60s become what they are and were.  It's more like the decade somehow found the ultimate catalyst for a lot of necessary social changes that needed to happen.  I think what ultimately made them the right candidates for the job was the way their music acted as a bridge for all the differing social groups of the period to come together and, as cliche as it may sound, make a lot of important moral and ethical stands in the name of a fair and just society.  Such, then, is the long, strange, tripped out history of the act known simply as, the Beatles.

Then over here, you've got guys like Walt Disney making cartoons on a little hillside in Burbank, California.  It was the home of Hippie movement, in many ways.  However, is that the same thing as saying that a little animation factory had anything in common with young kids growing their hair long, burning their draft cards, and linking white hands in solidarity with black ones?  What has Haight Ashbury to do with Disneyland?  From the viewpoint of the great majority, the answer would have to be something like, not much, really.  It may be fair to claim that both Walt, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, were both innovators in their respective fields.  That's also about as far as most casual audiences in the street are willing to take it.  One is the greatest musical act of all time, the other is the most notable maker of animation, and there it ends.  However, Douglas Brode holds a very different idea of the matter.  It's an idea that he felt important enough to turn into its own, book-length study.  If his theory is correct, then it could mean that Disney, the Beatles, and the 60s Counterculture could share a greater deal in common together than has been recognized in all the official history books.  I guess the real question that has to be asked here is simple.  Is there any merit in the idea?

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017).

This is a film that's interesting to talk about.  It's got enough to unpack, in and of itself, that's true.  However, there's a kind of bittersweet serendipity at work here as well.  At the start of this year, one of the great lights in the history of cinema finally went out.  Here and now, at the very tail end of the turning of the year, and the start of the seasons, we come to one of the final performances of Sir Christopher Plummer.  For whatever it's worth, at least I can say with an honest face that I never meant for this article to take on the air of a pseudo-memorial.  Nor, as long as we're keeping things honest, is it my intention to make this a gloomy affair.  In the first place, both the holiday, and one of the key figures at the heart of it (the very subject of this film, in fact) tend to mitigate against it.  There's a reason why the author of A Christmas Carol referred to it as "this festive season of the year".  It's a maxim I intend to live by.  In the second place, I can't seem to shake the idea that Plummer himself might have wanted us to enjoy the film for what it is, in the same spirit in which it was given.  That's another goal that I at least hope I can live up to, even if none of us have ever been sure what that entails.  

For me, it means focusing on the story itself, as well as the nature and quality of the writing that went into it.  Same as it ever was, in other words.  That's not to say I believe it's possible to just leave it at that without at least paying some kind of final respects to a great actor.  What I think I can promise is that when the time comes, I'll not mourn, so much a celebrate both a fine career, and a great film to go along with it.  With all this in mind, let's move on to the proper business of criticism, which I'm sure even an actor of Plummer's talent would have encouraged, not matter the final verdict.  And so, with all that said....

We don't tend to think much about where things come from.  Have you ever noticed that?  It's a strange form of free-floating incuriosity that the vast majority of people in the world seem willing to live with.  Either that or else I'm just stuck having to go by the criteria provided by own American surroundings.  Maybe it's different in other countries.  All I can highlight with any certainty is that most of us Yanks can't be bothered to even stop and consider the ideas, facts, and events that have shaped our behavior.  Take Christmas, for example.  Or maybe don't?  I'm told it's kind of a sensitive topic.  Charles Schulz was of the opinion that the three topics you were never supposed to bring up were politics, religion, and the Great Pumpkin.  For what it's worth, I'm not interested in any so-called war, for or against.  Instead, my interest lies a lot closer to home.  I'm interested in the later traditions that have accrued around the holiday.  I'm talking about wreaths placed on front doors, and bows of holly mixed with red ribbons and lights decorating fence posts, front porches, and trees.  The modern iconography of the season, in other words.  I guess you could say I'm sometimes curious about where it all comes from.

Now, to be fair, it's not like I have or can give anything like the full answer, here.  I'm just another passenger on the same train, like other folks.  However, as someone who tends to get a kick out of the whole Holiday vibe, it is nice to pick up what bits and pieces of info you can about it.  The best collective piece of information I've ever gotten on the great winter festival comes from the writings of two men.  One of them is more or less still famous, or at least reasonably well known.  The other was just one of the former guy's many biographers.  Way back in another time and world known as 2008, an author, critic, and historian known as Les Standiford released a work of nonfiction known simply as The Man Who Invented Christmas.  The nature and content of the whole book seems pretty well summarized by its subtitle: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.  

Turning to the dust jacket's inside-flap, the prospective reader is given a further bit of clarifying information: "As uplifting as the tale of Scrooge itself, this is the story of how one writer and one book revived the signal holiday of the Western world".  That, in essence, is the story that Standiford has to tell for his his readers.  In some ways, the final product itself can also stand as an act of revivification.  These days, if you say a phrase like Christmas Carol, or a name like Scrooge (even if it's just hurled out at random in the moment, as a form of insult) what tends to happen is almost capable of being charted on a graph.  The very words themselves tend to dredge up various, assorted old memories.  Most of these tend to cluster in and around the age of childhood, as that seems to be about the time that most of us tend to make our first acquaintances with Mr. Dickens, and his little holiday fairy tale.  The whole thing seems to have become an unofficial rite of passage.  We may see images of a "grasping, covetous, old sinner" dressed in black against the cold.  Or else we might see the same figure clad in just a night gown and a candle for company.  

This old sinner is far from alone, either.  In addition, we've got memories of a quartet of ghosts, some in chains, some in light, others dressed in holly leaves and robes.  Some still manage to creep the hell out of us all these years later, and one of them is best avoided altogether.  One or two of them might even be comforting, in their own strange way.  Beyond all this, there's the lingering sense of a very specific time and place.  Or maybe it's a central standard no-place-at-all.  Something that's just as much a product of Imagination as Middle Earth or Neverland.  In this case, however, I like to think there's at least some truth in the trope, or picture postcard image we've come to think of as the Dickensian cityscape or winter village.  They at least have a firm grounding in historical reality (though even Middle Earth might qualify for that same category, surprisingly enough).  This is about as far as most of us can go when it comes to Dickens and his Carol.  The whole thing has become so much a part of the general furniture of our minds that it's more of an item we like to dust off and admire for a moment or two, every now and then, before tucking it away back among the mothballs and old Monopoly board.

Very few of us seem to have much in the way of a reason to examine this story, or the Holiday that spawned it in any great detail.  The cool thing about Standiford's book is that it's written in such a way as to give even the casual fans a reason to keep turning the pages.  Standiford's prose is simple and engaging by turns, framing the actual history in narrative, novelistic terms.  It's what allows us to treat the creation of the Carol as an adventure we can sink our teeth into.  It's made all the more enticing by the way Standiford is able to show how Dickens was able to help solidify a lot of the modern traditions that we now have and associate with Christmas.  What Standiford is able to make clear, and what makes his study such a good read, is how much our current sense of the fun during the Holidays is owed to a former, Victorian newspaper sketch writer, who once signed his efforts with the pen-name of Boz.

From what I can tell, Standiford's efforts seem to have been given a pretty warm reception.  It was so well received, in fact, that a little later on, the book was optioned for a film development by Universal studios.  It seems to be one of those obtuse deals that can happen in Hollywood, ever so often.  Somebody somewhere will be doing a bit of navel-gazing, or caught up in a desperate search for material, and then they hit upon books like Standiford's in passing, so, viola, an idea that's better than starving to death in L.A., that's for darn sure, if nothing else is.  I guess the biggest surprise is that the book was able to get optioned at all.  It's not the sort of item you'd think would make a good film project.  I can recall raising a skeptical eye myself once I caught one of the first trailers online.  Still, the year came and went, and the movie adaptation appeared along with it.  Just in time for the Holiday season, and everything.  Which leaves just one question.  How does it stand on its own two legs?

Saturday, November 20, 2021

The Mixed Mine by E. Nesbit.

I'm not sure whether or not it's possible to ever arrive at an original artist.  I am certain at least that the search for perfect artistic originality has been a long one.  Nor does it ever show signs of stopping.  In artistic-critical circles, the desire for the new has long since passed into something like the local totem of the trade.  Any writer whose book smacks of the least bit of "originality", or a filmmaker who is held to have discovered a "new image" is often hailed as a wunderkind for the very simple excuse of a bad habit getting in the way.  I can't say I know where this human addiction for novelty in the arts comes from.  All I can be sure of is two things.  The first is that it is very much a separate topic from politics.  The other is that the habit is very old.  Or at least that's how it seems to me.  I'm not sure I'd go so far as to claim that it was around as far back as the Bronze Age, or anything like that.  There's just something far too modern about the whole thing to for it to ever be considered in any way ancient.  If I had to pinpoint where it all might have started, then I guess that would have to be sometime during or just after the middle of the 19th century, when the world of book publishing was established as an industry, and literacy was starting to achieve a mass level that has long since leveled off, and may never be reached quite ever again.

The desire for the novel and the unknown in storytelling seems to have been one of the unintended side-effects of a growing ability to read on behalf of the American public.  I also wouldn't be surprised to learn that an element of snobbery lay somewhere in back of the desire.  It's didn't take long for the birth of the literary critical establishment once the art of writing was able to become a Big Business of its own.  One of the perennial problems of arts criticism is that it didn't take long to find out that it also serves as a neat window into human nature.  This is a topic that comes in both good and bad varieties.  The biggest pitfall to be avoided is the kind of psychological arrogance that results in the phenomenon known as snobbery.  It's this particular mental malady that lead the charge for consigning books like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to the children's nursery back in the day (and that was an irony all its own), while also trying to establish various types of nonsense as a necessary, critical shibboleth.

One of these garbage ideas, seems to have hinged around a nebulous concept of newness.  The trouble with this kind of logic is that it's always difficult to maintain when actual literary practice keeps bursting your bubble.  Too often what happens is that the next written work of genius will reveal that the main reason it succeeds so well as a book is because the author wasn't concerned at all with making anything new.  He or she was just focused on trying to tell the story to the best of their abilities.  A book like Moby Dick sounds like it could be a revelation, until you learn that Melville was inspired to write his work based on reading material he'd manage to snag, telling about how an actual, real life whale was able to batter and sink an American harpooning ship not long ago, at the time.  It's the kind of situation that can serve as a blow to those dumb enough to place their egos up in the shooting gallery.

It's a bad habit that a lot of worthy names out there have had to fight tooth and nail against.  Edith Nesbit is one such author.  I've talked about her at least once before on this site.  Though this marks the first time I've ever taken a look at one of her own stories.  Before we get there, first, I think it helps to know what kind of a writer we're dealing with.  In her book-length study, Magic and the Magician, children's author and critic Noel Streatfeild makes this very interesting observation.  "The background and personality of a writer of adult fiction is not necessarily revealed in their books, but something of the background and personality of a good children's author is almost always discernible, for it is their ability to remember with all their senses their own childhood, and what it felt like to be a child, that makes their work outstanding.  E. Nesbit, because she has been read and loved by many generations of children, has established herself as one of the great, and today her books are ranked as classics (11)".  

Well, at least that how it probably still is in England.  I've never seen any proof that she ever made quite as big a splash here, across the pond.  Nesbit's reputation in America is the type that can be lumped in with the likes of P.L. Travers and Beatrix Potter.  These are the types of writers who are known more for their indirect impact on the culture and content of modern children's literature, rather than for their own efforts.  In other words, we might have heard of Mary Poppins.  So who on earth is this Pamela Travers when she's at home, then?  I mean, what's the big deal?  I'm also not certain whether telling anyone that a girl like Travers is the actual creator (or transcriber) of the world's most famous nanny will make that much of a difference.  It's one of those cases where the author is eclipsed by the impact she has left behind, while the work she wrote, the one that helped to set the type of narrative trends we are all familiar with now, has been relegated to an obscure corner of the nursery.

I'm afraid Edith has suffered a lot worse than Pamela, in this regard.  She's a trendsetter with barely any honor to her name as it is, at least here in the States.  This has resulted in a kind of schizoid form of creative irony.  We're able to enjoy the fruits of her labors, and yet we can't name the creator of a lot of the stories we now enjoy.  We've long grown used to the tropes of a lot of Young Adult and/or Fantasy fiction, and so most of us have no choice except to be clueless about where they came from, or who is responsible for a lot of it.  There's also a sort of double irony involved as well, once you realize just what kind of achievement Edith was able to pull off.  A huge part of the key to her success was the fact that in all that time, she never seems to have stopped to worry about the question of originality.  Rather than giving any sort of fig about creative novelty, Edith did the smart thing by first searching out for her creative strengths as a writer, and then putting them to good use once she'd found her natural pace.

This strength manifested itself less in the creation of new images.  Instead, it's more truthful to say that she made her way back to the nursery and saw a lot of the older images and legends just lying around, rusted and disused, like an entire island of lost toys, and then found the right way to put them to good use once more.  A lot of it seems to be down to what Streatfeild observed earlier.  Edith had a good knack for recalling all the golden times of her childhood, and a lot of it seems to have revolved around the fun she had in being regaled by stories of ancient myth and legend.  Whether it was the Brothers' Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, or the various retellings of Greco-Roman and Norse epics and sagas by anthologists such as Andrew Lang, Edith's experience as a writer bears at least this much similarity with someone like Tolkien.  Both of them had to start their careers as writers by first learning how to be good readers and listeners.  It's one of those vital skills that are so easy to overlook.  Most of it is probably because the task itself appears to be so simple enough, that it's kind of easy to lose sight of the obvious work involved, especially if you're busy caught up in the shuffle of things.  

Nesbit and Tolkien were both good learners, in that sense.  Each of them was able to first pinpoint the type of stories they liked to hear or read.  Next, they developed their own literary skills to a point that left them in a position to be able to tell more of the type of stories they liked as children once they were adults.  In both of their cases, this amounted less to any sense of novelty in their writings (there's noting all that original about Middle Earth, once you stop to take a closer look at the layout and nature of its contents and characters).  It's more do to with the matter of literary expression, if that makes any sense.  Each of them was able to find the right narrative voice that would help breath new life into old images.  What they discovered was that there was no need to reinvent the dragon.  All you needed to do was find the right type of story for it, told in a way that appealed to, or was able to draw in, the modern sensibilities.  Once Edith and Tolkien were able to do this, the rest has sort of become history.

It's an achievement for which she plays just as integral a part as that of the more familiar Bard of Hobbiton.  And yet she never seems to have gotten as much of the credit and recognition that I believe she rightly deserves.  That's why I'd like to take some time to examine one of her early efforts in this endeavor of making the old new again.  It's one her minor short pieces, and yet I don't that's any slight against her effort.  Sometimes it turns out that one of the early efforts in the career of a talented writer can hold the DNA for the later output that cement their names in the annals of creative history.  With this in mind, let's see if this is the case with The Mixed Mine.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (2015).

Let me make one thing clear.  I just can't set much store in things like horoscopes, and astrology.  Say sorry, yet there it is.  It's just not me.  For the longest time now, I've never been able to see the point of it all, really.  If I had to give anything like a reasoned argument for why I've never set any kind of stock in the idea, then I'd have to say its on account of how I kind of like keeping a free will and mind of my own.  It's just this weird sort of thing I discovered on my own.  It's called having a personality, not that it's saying much.  If it were, do you think I'd be hanging around here all the damn time?  Trust me, though.  It's a hell of a lot better than having to worry about what kind of shape you're in based on stuff like the position of the Earth's trajectory in relation to Saturn.  Or whether or not that dream you had last night about two doves humping each other means anything of significance.  I think once you've reached that sort of level, you've kind of placed yourself up the creak without so much as a prayer-wheel for a paddle.  So yeah, no offense, but no thanks either.  For some strange reason I just can't kick this crazy habit I've got.  It's called thinking.  Granted, I can't say even this has taken me all that far in my dubious exploits through life.  However, it's like Billy Joel says, "It's better than drinking alone".  

Anyway, the reason I even bring up the most overlooked section of the newspaper at all is because I've got another problem.  For whatever reason, I've been blessed or cursed with a sharp enough sense of irony.  You think that's bad?  It gets worse, trust me.  I also have a bad case of sarcasm.  Yeah, that's right.  Sarcasm!  The knowing angle, the ironic gaze, followed by the appropriate comment, the quip remark, the perfect put down.  I got it all!  The punchline is I'm not all that sure how I got into it in the first place.  All I know for sure is that somewhere around high school I learned about this hip, new-old thing called Satire.  It's the kind of topic that's even harder to explain than astrology, if I'm being honest.  At least with Satire, you're on firmer ground.  I think the best description I got for it is the artistic practice of nailing a chosen target to the wall for the purposes of some sort of moral or ethical endpoint or goal.  Most often this practice is utilized in the form of comedy, though it can also find or have its uses in straight-forward drama.  However, comedy seems to remain it's most natural metere.  It's sort of like the format's natural home base.  Not that it makes any sense.

Anyway, why am I even bring this whole mess of stuff up at all, anyway?  Well, apart from always needing a place to put your stuff, I'd have to say that I've got a few in mind, here.  The first, and most important, is because I want to talk about an old magazine that used to be one of the biggest cultural forces for satirical humor in this country.  It least it used to be for one bright and shining moment.  Either that or I'm letting the Sun get in my eyes too much.  Just a moment, let me shut the window here, and take care of that for ya.  Anyway, the second point is kind of nebulous, yet I find it interesting.  While I still don't believe in astrology, I am aware of a perfect irony that's involved, even in my circumstance.  Those who do believe in horoscopes would claim, for instance, that the reason for my interest in humor and satire is all on account that I was born a Gemini.  It's the kind if thing that sounds like it's off-topic, yet it's also kind of relevant, sort of, anyway.  It's all to do with what people used to believe back in the days before indoor plumbing was a thing.

In earlier ages, your birth date on a horoscope was determined by whichever planet in the solar system was ruling the month of the year in which you were born.  Traditionally, the Gemini, both as a constellation and as a zodiac sign were linked, both mythically and scientifically, with the orbit of Mercury.  Why is that important?  To tell you the truth, I'm not sure myself.  All I know is that over the course time, it was this one single planet, out in the cesspool end of the galaxy, that wound up getting tagged as the Great Trickster of Universe.  That means our ancestors used to look up to Mercury as a symbol for the source of all humor in the world.  They even used to go so far as to make it a kind of intergalactic patron of satirists, humorists, and clowns, such as those featured in the old Commedia Dell'arte.  As a result, we Geminis have often been saddled with a reputation for being jokers and pranksters, with an easy and natural sense of humor.  Why that should ultimately be the case is a long story, like I said.  Let's just call it one of the natural quirks of the Imagination for now, and leave it at that.

So why should I care, just because it puts me in a month ruled by the galaxy's great joker?  Why should that have any effect on my life?  What's all that supposed to mean, anyway?........(Sighs) The net result has been that I developed an early interest in Humor as an artistic medium....And then when I got older, and found out about things like Mad Magazine and Saturday Night Live, or stand-up comedy and its practitioners like Mark Twain, Jon Stewart, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Richard Pryor....(Sighs again) The whole thing was like picking up a really cool motorcycle and discovering you were a natural at it.  No need for any instruction manual, either.  It was like a duck taking to water.  I don't ever recall having to wade in, at all.  Once I got the first notion that humor could involve in the correct use of Seven Words that You Can't Say on TV, then it was like arriving at a home place that I never even knew I owned.  And by the way, no, this doesn't convince me of astrology.  Though it has made me curious as to how many of the great modern clowns out there were born under the same sign.  As it turns out, the most important case I'm thinking of, the one with the most relevance to this article, was in fact not born in the Month of Mercury, but on the 10th of December, 1946.  So there's that, at least.

What is sort of funny, however, is that even though he was never a Gemini, there is a sense in which I guess you could kind of say guys like Doug Kenney have devoted their whole lives to a planet like Mercury.  Or, you could also state it the other way, and claim that Mercury has been a loyal patron of Kenney's efforts, ever since the little snot-rag was taken under the wing.  Or maybe it was more like he was found on the underside of a rock, I'm not sure anymore.  You know what, I'm probably starting to ramble, and not making much sense.  I get that.  It happens.  Tell ya what, let's take things one at a time, before I start to get ahead of myself.  Perhaps it's best is I start out with some introductions.

Hey kids, Al's the name, Al Sleet.  Never heard of me, huh?  Yeah, I get that a lot.  I used to be a local weatherman for a time.  Then I had to give it up.  Actually, it's more like I was fired, if ya wanna get technical about it.  I made the mistake of telling the truth, live on air, you see.  I gave away the ultimate secret about the weather.  "The weather," I said, "will continue to change, on and off, for a long, long time (web)".  Yeah, to be fair, I might have been high as a kite at the time.  Which probably explains how things have been going so far, if you stop and think it over.  

Well, that was the end of the weather for me.  Ever since then I've been what I guess you might call a Gonzo Journalist, of sorts.  Lately, however, as time goes on, I've found it almost necessary to become a Gonzo Archivist, if that makes any sense.  Not that it does, really.  We'll all just play along for the moment, and pretend like I'm talking sense here.  My reason for wanting archive stuff is pretty simple, I think.  I occurred to me that there's a lot of good humor out there that was in danger of melting through the cracks of time, and disappearing forever.  I was there when a lot of it was made, so I count myself very lucky to have been allowed to witness a lot of it.  I suppose you could say I've led an accidental charmed life, in that regard.

Well, whatever the reason, it's led me to get all nostalgic of late.  I'd like to think back on all those heady days, for a moment or two of your time.  It's fun to reminisce on what it was like back then.  My main reason for saying that is on account of a feature-length look-back I managed to catch not too long ago.  It's called Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.  It's a documentary directed by Douglas Tirola, is all about Doug Kenney, his friends (or else they were more like his partners in crime; you might have heard of some of them) and the magazine that they all created together, and helped put out there for the world in all its glory.  Yeah, maybe you should keep a bucket nearby, just in case.  It probably wouldn't hurt, as it's going to be that kind of story.  Either way, they staked a name for themselves.  In fact, I think they all might have done a whole lot more.  The Lampoon used to be a pretty big deal for a time, there.  You might not believe it, but there were also live shows, radio plays, records albums.  Never did find out if they managed to make it all the way to the breakfast cereal and the flame-thrower, though.  Still, they left one hell of a legacy behind.  The way it all began, of course, was with just two college friends, and a shared sense of humor.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Mrs. God (1990).

Some authors can be a challenge.  This isn't always true across the board.  Nor is it meant as any kind of slight.  On the contrary, my own experience as a reader has taught me that sometimes its those who just write straight from the gut that tend to come off as the best tellers of tales.  That's not to say that complexity doesn't have its place, nor that simple can't be sophisticated.  If there's any kind of logic to all of this, then I guess it might lie in the idea that each story is like one big give and take process.  The general rule of creativity (for lack of any better word) seems to go more toward multiplicity, rather than uniformity.  It seems to be a major reason why even those books and films with similar sounding storylines just wind up veering off in their own, differing directions.  That may very well be a headache for some.  For anyone like a bookworm, however, it's something very close to the spice of life.  Perhaps that's why I've just never been able to mind it all that much when it's clear that I'm reading from a book who's author seems naturally drawn toward literary complexity.  Peter Straub seems like a good example of this trait.  He's the kind of author who's imaginative technique is best described as layered.

His books are the kind that often contain the themes, symbols, and sometimes even story elements from those of his Gothic progenitors.  The best example of what I'm talking about still remains a vignette from Ghost Story, which basically consists of the plot of Henry James's Turn of the Screw told in miniature.  The remarkable thing about it is not just that it works, but that it does so in a way which neatly ties into the remainder of that novel's main story.  It looks like invention, yet I'm willing to maintain that what we're dealing with in those moments is a sample of inspiration where the story is able to double upon itself, if that makes any sense.  We're not dealing with a mere Simpsons parody or allusion, in other words.  This is something else.  We seem to be in the hands of a creative process that is just that bit more sophisticated, if I'm being honest.  It's a simple story, told in a such a way that allows the plot to enrich itself through naturally piling on and playing off of earlier references in such a manner that the blending of all into one comes off as a single, seamless whole.  Like a well made birthday cake in which all the necessary ingredients have been packed in just so.

I think it takes a lot more than just "mere invention" to pull that off.  It takes a Romantic frame of mind that is willing to "let the muse speak", as it were, while also paying attention to what's going on as the words arrive on the page.  In any case, this a process that Straub has followed on every single book or short story he's ever written.  On the whole, it seems to have worked for him, more often than not.  Sometimes, in books like Koko or Mr. X, the results might be less than stellar.  When he's firing on all cylinders, however, you tell can things are going right just by reading a page.  Even if he's describing a relatively quiet scene, the way he writes it down makes the narrative instill in the reader a necessary desire to keep the pages turning in order to answer that all-important question.  "What happens next"?  It's what happened for me in my reading of the book that's under discussion here today.

I suppose the first step toward understanding a text with the curious title of Mrs. God would be to provide some much needed context.  For that, you'll have to turn to Bill Sheehan's At the Foot of the Story Tree.  He knows a lot more about it than I do.  It's in that study that Sheehan is able to situate both the genesis and first appearance of this overlooked piece in Straub's bibliography.  It came during a time when all of the author's concentration was laser-focused on what has now come to be known as The Blue Rose Trilogy.  It was a set of books (namely the aforementioned Koko, along with Mystery and The Throat) which featured intertwining themes and characters spanning across several decades and time periods.  It seems to have been the project that was able to capture the writer's heart, as its the one set of writings which Straub invested himself in the most.  A good way to the describe the triologu may be to refer to the whole project as his version of The Dark Tower, except this time a lot more down to earth.   This may also help explain the labored, uneven and uninvolved quality of these books as a whole.

I think what happened is that Straub's heart was always in the right place.  He just got so caught up in the explication of extra-literary themes that the idea of telling a story sort of got demoted to second place.  That's usually the kiss of death for any good chance at an enjoyable narrative.  Still, even if the ultimate truth about the Blue Rose saga is that of the clash between story and ambition, along with the inevitable downfall of the latter, then at least it is possible to say it wasn't a total loss.  While the Rose period might have been a less than stellar time for Straub, his real muse managed to speak up every now and then.  This would result in an occasional short story or novella, something that would be written off in a neat spurt of creativity and then tucked away for later.  Eventually, this process began to generate enough cast-off material to result in one of the author's few short-story collections.  This is where Sheehan's scholarship comes in handy.

"Before turning his attention to The Throat, Straub gathered together a number of shorter pieces and published them, in 1990, under the title Houses Without Doors.  A distinguished, ambitious collection that remains, justifiably, one of Straub's favorite books, Houses gathers together two novellas (both of which have deep connections to Straub's () series of Blue Rose novels), two short stories, and two short novels.  In addition, the book contains seven short, loosely connected vignettes whose themes, scenes, and subjects - childhood, Vietnam, resurrected memories - echo and amplify the central concerns of the stories that surround them, giving the collection an overall sense of cohesiveness and thematic unity that is both unusual and effective.  Together, these thirteen pieces create a composite portrait of a violent, claustrophobic universe whose essence is suggested by the Emily Dickinson epigraph that gives the book its title.  "Doom is the house without the door-'Tis entered from the sun-And then the ladder's thrown away-Because escape-Is done (211)"

Let me just note in passing, that ever since Sheehan penned those words back in June of the year 2000, Straub went on to write what at this date appears to be his final novel, just some few years later on down the road.  As a result, perhaps its fitting that Straub's A Dark Matter does well enough to act as neat a summation of his outlook on life, literature, and everything.  If this is the case, then the way that last big book ends leaves one with the sense that the author's own personal view of the universe is a lot more open-hearted than Sheehan is giving him credit for.  Let's just say that, as it stands, that latter novel might just help one figure out the definition and landscape of the Horror genre as mapped out by Straub and Stephen King for future generations.  All that is future fodder, however.  Back to Mrs. God.

Sheehan tells us that "Mrs. God was written in the aftermath of Koko, and much of Straub's psychological condition at this time found its way into the story.  Having invested so much time, effort, and emotion in Koko, Straub found himself literally bereft by its completion, a feeling complicated by the sense that he had just placed his baby, his 'Real Baby', into the keeping of strangers, and he "didn't know how they would care for it."  To combat this feeling, he needed to begin writing again, but was completely unprepared to begin working on a new novel.  Instead, he embarked on a longish story patterned, as he later realized, much too closely on The Turn of the Screw.  Not surprisingly, given Straub's emotional condition at the time, the story that eventually evolved from this initial notion had at its center the recurring image of a lost - in this case, aborted - child.

"At about the same time, Straub agreed to write an introduction to an omnibus edition of Robert Aickman called The Wine-Dark Sea.  Aickman (1914-1981) was one of the greatest and most original practitioners of the twentieth century tale of terror.  His stories - which he referred to, simply and precisely, as "strange stories" - are perverse, eccentric, often willfully obscure, and absolutely unlike anyone else's.  Writing in a British anthology called Dark Voices, about Aickman's 1957 story "Ringing the Changes," Straub noted that:

"(The) real oddness of most of Aickman's work is related to its psychological, even psychoanalytic, acuity.  Unconscious forces move the well as the characters, and what initially looks like a distressing randomness of detail and events is its opposite - everything is necessary, everything is logical, but not at all in a linear way.  To pull off this kind of dreamlike associativeness, to pack it with the menace that results from a narrative deconstruction of the nature of "ordinary reality," to demonstrate again and again...that our lives are literally shaped by what we do not understand about ourselves, requires a talent that yokes together an uncommon literary sensitivity with a lush, almost tropical inventiveness.   

"The process of reading a great many Aickman stories in a short period of time helped Straub solidify his notions about Aickman and his work.  It also helped him to solidify certain notions about narrative, and the ways in which narrative can be deepened and enhanced by subverting conventional expectations, and by denying readers the comforts of neat conclusions, sequential plot development, traditional climaxes and, above all, rational explanations (227-8)".  I feel the need to make an annoying critical pause here for a moment, if for no other reason than to head off a literal load of current assumptions that (as of of this writing) seems to be a constant presence of the creative scene at the moment.  The reason for this comes in Sheehan's use of the words "expectation" and "subversion".  The two terms, placed together, have become something of a loaded dice phrase of late, amounting to what could almost be the simplest, unexpected trigger warning phrase in existence.  Whatever meaning the current users of that phrase insist upon, one that thing that should be made clear is that its a usage which neither Sheehan nor Straub have ever meant or intended.  And yet I can't help thinking that's how some readers may view it.

If so, then I'm afraid a genuine misreading has been made of both author and critic.  The good news is the resulting morass is capable of helping us arrive at an understanding of where the trouble lies.  The whole crux of the problem seems to lie in a confusion between style and content, or literary method and matter.  The fact is that Sheehan is using his words in a way that allows a distinction between the style Straub uses to tell his story, and the actual contents of the plot itself.  If a reader goes in expecting to find the current, passing meaning of "expectation subversion", then I'm afraid they'll be in for a disappointment.  Indeed, there's nothing at all out of the ordinary in the tale Straub has to tell.  Instead, all he's doing is utilizing the methods, tactics, and stylistic flourishes of narrative dream logic and association (the kind you can still find in Alice in Wonderland) all in the service of a conventional narrative.  In that sense, I'm afraid Straub is among the least avant-garde artists out there, and it's a fact that Sheehan is well aware of.  In a sense, however, I'm afraid both of them are victims of the time.

What this means in practice, unfortunately, is the tedious yet essential need to help the reader gain a sense of the critic's terms and theirs uses for commentary as originally defined.  The good news is there doesn't seem to be any real reason why this should spoil the enjoyment of a story.  With all this boring preliminary out of the way, let's return to the podium back to Sheehan, who says: "The most enduring result of this extended encounter with Aickman and his work was Mrs. God.  And though there are a number of other influences discernible in the story - traces of Ramsey Campbell, himself an Aickman devotee, can surely be found here, along with traces of Stephen King (The Shining), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), and Carlos Fuentes (Aura) - Aickman is the major force behind this strange, extreme, "meditation on sex, violence, and the sacred".

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Polybius (2017).

There's a kind of trick involved here.  I'm not talking about the gimmick at the heart of tonight's entry (at least not yet).  The problem I've got to find some way of addressing right now is that of public awareness.  It's an issue that both artists and critics have to deal with.  This goes double for anytime that a writer or filmmaker decides to take the plunge and create an artwork that is new or original, and therefore has no built-in pre-awareness to it.  In the case of the critic, what this means is that if there's this neat, old, antique piece of literature or cinema that you're a fan of, and yet the odds are even that few to no one else has ever heard about it, what that usually amounts to, in practice, is that you have to go out of your way a lot more on explaining just what the forgotten artwork is, what it does and where it came from, in addition to what should be just a simple task of explaining why you either like or dislike it.  With a familiar franchise like Star Trek or James Bond, this issue doesn't exist as much, because they are pieces of entertainment that most audiences are still familiar with.  If you then turn around and mention someone like Algernon Blackwood, or Frank Belknap Long, then most people have no choice except to wonder who in the hell you're even talking about.  That's when the real trouble begins.   

I think something very much like this problem is in play right now.  It explains why perhaps a bit of context is in order.  There's also a bit of irony thrown into the mix as well.  That's because in one sense, the artist I have to talk about can at least be considered something of a known quantity.  He's got a popular following on his own, and he is a contemporary show business personality, at least of a sort.  Confession time.  I'm not real sure just how far the influence of YouTube personalities, or internet celebrity is able to extend, and what kind of effect it has at the cultural level of popular awareness.  Going just by my own experiences, the whole phenomenon of YouTube filmmakers is, at best, a curious combination of vague ubiquity, combined with a free-floating sense of anonymity.  When you decide to click on a video link by guys like MattPat, or Markiplier, the results always maintain this curious sense of the familiar and the unknown combined.

On the one hand, there's always the possibility that you might just wind up enjoying their work, and become something like a casual, regular viewer; at least here and there, on occasion.  At the same time, even if this happens, it remains very hard to tell what kind of impact they are having on the media and audience landscape at large.  It's like you know you might be looking at something of importance, yet it's hard to tell just how far that importance extends.  For instance, not long ago, one YouTuber named Patrick Willems did a retrospective on Francis Ford Coppola that helped me re-evaluate the entire cinematic generation of which he was a part.  That was a viewing experience with an ultimately positive sort of outcome.  I guess its as a good an example I can give of the best possible results this collective endeavor can have on the audience.  At the same time, I seem to have been an outlier.

The fact is I'm not real sure how much of an audience awareness or impact this kind of endeavor is able to generate.  It can be considered a shame in a few cases, as people like David Rose, or In Praise of Shadows have proven themselves capable of making legit documentary features exclusive to the internet.  There may be a sense in which such efforts point the way toward at least a hopefully vital aspect of the future.  However, I'm not sure we've arrived there yet, or even whether or not the majority well ever take notice.  The whole thing seems to amount to a collective problem and/or conundrum.  How do you leave an impact, and barely get noticed in the process?  The whole thing sounds like a demented, self-canceling zen koan.  It's also a challenge that every YouTuber will have to struggle with, even a nominal trendsetter like James Rolfe.

As of this writing, his popularity fluctuates between 50 and 75%.  What that means, in practical terms, is that a sizable half of the audience has a pretty good idea of who he is.  At the same time, there's an equal yet opposite majority who've never even heard of the guy.  He got his start a while back, yet not too long ago, incredible as that may sound.  His breakout performance debut was in 2004, by appearing in a series of YouTube comedy sketches, under the persona of the Angry Video Game nerd.  Since that time he's managed to build up something of a reputation for himself.  The nature of his act is interesting for the way in which it combines two elements which seem commonplace now, yet which probably looked revolutionary back in the early 2010s.  What Rolfe does is take the idea of critiquing a piece of artwork, in his case a video game, and then fitting it into the formatting and performance of sketch and/or stand-up comedy.  The result was and (at least as of this writing) remains: The Nerd.  

He's this hyperactive, hard drinking, profanity laden man-child of a figure.  Someone whose whole existence is predicated on not having much of a life outside of hiding in a way in a roomful of grade-Z video games, and then torturing himself by playing and reviewing them for our viewing pleasure and pop cultural schadenfreude.  At least I think that's the gist of it, anyway.  The premise itself seems to be very basic, and yet its what Rolfe has been able to do with the format that seems complex.  His early videos where very crude, bargain basement affairs.  Usually each video consisted of Rolfe in the Nerd persona filming both himself and recorded consul footage of the game he was reviewing.  He would riff off various aspects about it that happen to piss him off.  This can range from poor graphic design, faulty control functionality, all the way to various, weird, in-game creative choices that just don't amount to much in the way of common sense.  Granted, since most of the old consul games were geared more toward gameplay rather than anything like an actual story, I'm not sure how much its worth it to get upset over.  It wouldn't be until later that developers found ways of incorporating actual narrative into the gaming experience.

In addition to his profanity laden comedic riffs, Rolfe would often try to add variety to his endeavors by creating any number of comedy sketches, and wrapping these around the main riffing segments of his videos.  This sort of thing could range from toilet level crudery, to some material that could be actually pretty clever.  I think the one that's destined to stick with viewers the most is the constant creativity Rolfe is able to either draw upon, or in some cases just plain make up out of seeming thin air whenever he allows to Nerd to give any and all shitty games a good and thorough verbal abusing.  There's not any one example of what I'm talking about right now that would stand as the pinnacle of things.  It's all so much of a piece that Rolfe is even willing to include his curse word poetry in the main theme song to his show.  It's one of those things where either a positive or negative reaction goes a long way to determining whether you're willing and able to go along with the kind of idea Rolfe has got going here.  Based on the following he's been able generate from it all, I'd have to say that audiences have been quite willing to go along for the ride, for the most part, anyway.

There's probably a lot more to say about Rolfe's style of humor, and the particular YouTube culture and format that's grown-up around it.  For the moment, however, I think it's more important to note that one of the interesting things about Rolfe is that it turns out he doesn't seem to be just a one-trick pony.  One gratifying surprise is to discover that the guy is something of a Horror movie buff.  He's not the sort whose knowledge can't go any further than the year 1978, either.  This is the sort of Terror Geek that actually knows who Vincent Price and Boris Karloff were.  No offense, yet that kind of pop culture knowledge is the rarest commodity in an era that by and large can't seem to realize that any real history existed before Spielberg made a film like E.T., and even that film seems in danger of falling through the cracks.  Rolfe, however, isn't one to forget.  Even when its a film that he can't quite get behind (and there have been times when I have to disagree with him on certain cinematic texts), you can tell his love for the genre as whole is what allows him to be able to have at least some kind of appreciation.

Nor does Rolfe's fandom for the Horrific stop at just mere appreciation.  It seems to be enough of an inspiration for him to try his own hand at the genre.  It's a subject he's even willing to talk about at length at, the site for the company he and his friends and family have formed just for this purpose, and of which the AVGN is just part of a greater, indie filmmaking whole.  It's on that site where you will find Rolfe sharing a lot about his love for the Horror genre, and how it has impacted him as an artist and movie maker.  Once you start to listen to him as he goes on, sometimes at eager and enthusiastic length, about a subject in which its obvious he cares passionately about, then perhaps it begins to make sense why one of his initial efforts as a film school graduate was a spin of on the Horror Mockumentary sub-genre.  In fact, you might say it's this love of Horror that is responsible for the topic of discussion today.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

An Unmade Biography of Edgar Allan Poe.

When you here a name like Sylvester Stallone, what's the first thing that comes to mind?  For me its the night and daytime jogging scenes from Rocky, arguably the actor's best work even to this day.  Others may be able to recall the reputation of a certain knife.  I'll bet you anything the odds are even enough that most of us will find ourselves drawing from the well of the same film for our memories of the guy.  And why not?  Memories of actors tend to solidify around whatever they've done that leaves the greatest impact.  In Stallone's case, it still seems to remain the initial exploits of  the Italian Stallion.  Once all that is out of the way, of course, it is still possible to draw on other faded memories in the photograph album.  If it's not Rocky going the distance, then maybe it centers more around John Rambo.  There's also his work on The Expendables, of course, and for the most part, that really does seem to be as far as anyone can go in terms reputation and recognition. 

Sylvester Stallone?  Yeah, sure, I know him.  Not personally, of course.  It's just that everyone's got at least some kind of faint, working knowledge of who he is.  He's probably destined to go down in history as one of cinema's notable actions stars.  For better or worse, there's his legacy in a single sentence.  What else is there?  As far as I can tell, the answer is not much.  I can't claim to have any insight into his thought process.  All I know is that this is corner has has either found, or else just decided to wind up in.  It's the natural enough result of a mixture of both personal choice, combined with whatever acting gigs have been tossed in his direction over the years.  For what it's worth, I'd have to say that even in his worst offerings, you can sort of tell it's the type of role he's most suited to.  I'm not sure how well audiences today would buy him as the lead in, say, a Meg Ryan helmed Rom-Com, or a serious Christopher Nolan drama, without a single car chase or explosion in sight.  That kind of thing might have been possible during a brief spot in the 1970s.  However, as things have shaped up, Stallone has more or less made the bed he now finds himself in.  It's to his credit, however, that he seems to find the whole arrangement comfortable for his goals.  In that sense, he can't be called a failure.

It's because of the very strength of this popular reputation, however, that any deviation from it is going to have to come off sounding like an odd note.  When you've made a name for yourself as the closest rival Arnold Schwarzenegger ever had, the last thing people are going to expect of you is anything like a genuine pretension towards art and culture.  There's a whole wall of separation process involved in this kind of outlook that refuses to place a work like Rambo: First Blood Part II on the same shelf next to a film like Amadeus.  The first Rocky might just able to skirt by on artistic merit.  The rest of the series, and everything else Stallone has done since then?  Forget about it!  I'll admit it's an open question whether or not this separation between popular and literate is such a good thing in my mind.  I don't see a problem placing a film like The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad next to Citizen Kane, or The Graduate.  In fact, a close study of history inclines to the belief that sooner or later the reputation of the great and small all tend to wind up occupying the same, levelizing shelf.

It's just that a process like that always has to take its sweet time before such a balanced perspective can be gained.  Right now, I'm not so sure that Stallone's fame has reached that kind of level.  That's why most critics still limit themselves to Rocky 1 when it comes to a discussion of any legitimate sense of Art with a capital A in his work.  It's also why the commonly accepted wisdom is that no one with any sense would even bother trying to associate the man responsible for the creation of the modern action blockbuster with one of the premiere writers of American Gothic fiction.  You don't expect to encounter names like Sylvester Stallone and Edgar Allan Poe occupying the same spaces.  Perhaps the very idea itself carries a hint of blasphemy.  If that's the case, then I'm afraid Stallone seems more than happy to carry the issue forward into a charge of straight out heresy.  Because he seems to be the worlds biggest Poe fan.  At least that's the way he tells it.  Since it's not the most obvious connection to make, then it really seems like the only way to make any sense here is to start out with some much needed context.

I'm going back some time now, say, the late 60s, early 1970s.  The New Hollywood is starting to come into its own.  Guys like Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese are starting to get a leg up in the film industry.  The big studios are hanging on, yet their glory days are long gone.  In the midst of all this, you have Sly Stallone, a young kid from Hell's Kitchen.  Not much is happening on his street corner.  He'd like for something to happen.  He's the kind that gets starstruck the moment he catches his first big picture up on the silver screen.  When that happens, it's like a light just goes off inside your skull, and your imagination starts to misbehave.  Pretty soon, you begin to understand what Bob Dylan meant when he sang, "I got a head full of ideas, and its driving me insane".  That's sort of the good news.  The even better news is that once you've taken that all-important first step, you realize you might just have at least some kind of talent for screenwriting.  Even more, you find it is just possible to have knack for trodding the boards.  The bad news is, so far, no one out there is taking you seriously.  At least not yet.

The best you can say for yourself is this.  You don't have it in you to be a quitter.  That's probably not like any great personal declaration or anything.  Just the way your made, it seems.  It's no big deal, perhaps, yet it does help to keep you going during lean years.  And right now the pickings look to be pretty slim.  Then one day you're on your way home from a part-time job in Manhattan.  Your living wage isn't enough to qualify as cab fare, so you have to make your way back on foot.  So of course it starts to rain.  Right at that moment, all you're looking for is a decent place to hole up and wait things out.  So you look around and see your right next to the steps of the New York Public Library.  Bill Murray's nowhere in sight, so the place isn't going to be all that famous for a while.  Doesn't make it any less convenient, so you head inside.  Pretty soon, you find yourself surrounded by the written word.

From here, the details get kind of sketchy, yet the basic outline seems clear enough.  The way Stallone tells it, all he did was look around for something to read, and the first thing that caught his eye was a collection of Poe's short stories.  Now here's the part where my mind wants to speculate a bit.  My immediate question is to wonder if Stallone was ever a fan of those old EC Comics, the ones with titles like Tales from the Crypt.  The reason I ask is because it just makes sense that it's sort of like the one bit of reading material that a kid like him would just sort of naturally latch onto growing up.  If so, we at least have a partial explanation for why it was the work of a Horror writer that Sly zeroed in on.  Either way, the result remains the same.  What he read in those pages impressed the hell out of him enough to the point where he got interested in the actual life behind the author's byline.  That's sort of how Rocky Balboa made the acquaintance of Edgar Poe.

What seems to have drawn Stallone to this writer in particular was the sense that his life story presented an almost textbook perfect snapshot of the struggles of the young, talented artist in American life.  That, along with the sheer Gothic brilliance of the stories themselves, turned him into something of a devotee.  Or, vice-versa, that Stallone might just be the greatest, unsung Poe fan out there.  Which somehow manages to be cool and weird at the same time.  As a result, strange as it may sound, it's not that far out to claim that Poe is Stallone's favorite author.  On the whole, it's interesting for the way it puts things into perspective, or like the kind of angle it gives on Stallone's own work.  We usually see him as this brainless action guy, and yet here he is revealing a hidden Gothic sensibility.  I think it's this hidden liking for Things that Go Bump in the Night which stands out to me the most.  It's just such an apposite quirk for a guy like Stallone to have.  This goes double when you stop and realize it hasn't altered any of the personal traits he's long since become known for.  It's one of the most remarkable unbelievablities in history, even if it is true.

More than anything, this shines a very interesting and undisclosed light on the actor's interests.  If what he says is true, then it sort of raises a very interesting question in my mind.  Why did Stallone never once think of channeling his energies into the genre of the Horror film?  It's a great question that remains unasked, and a riddle that I still don't have the solution to.  You'd think a guy who counts himself as Poe's number one fan would naturally gravitate towards the cinema of the macabre.  It's even just possible to ask if this might not have granted Stallone the same level of legitimacy as that of William Friedkin or Robert Wise.  I haven't got a clue as to why Stallone chose the career path that he has now, when we could've had ourselves an interesting adaptation of The Black Cat, or ventured even further afield with attempts at Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan, or even better, The House of Leaves.  Granted, all this is just pure speculation.  I have no more of an idea of just how good Stallone would be at directing a work of Horror than anybody else out there.  And some have probably been recoiling at the very idea, even as I'm writing all this down.  To be fair, it is just possible to see where they're coming from.

Well, whatever the audience thinks, it doesn't seem to have been enough to stop the actor from going ahead and writing his own script telling the life of E.A. Poe.  Here's the part where the details begin to get sketchy.  I know all the basic facts, and enough of the particulars.  However, some of the finer points are difficult to pin down.  I know, for instance, that Stallone really has written a biopic script about Poe.  That part is true.  The trouble is it just occurs to me now that I'm not sure what that script's title is.  I think it might just be something generic, like Poe, and that's it, simple and curt.  I can't say I know the correct title either way.  I only know that I'm not talking out of whole cloth.  This isn't something I've just made up.  It was first brought to my attention a while back in a brief YouTube Documentary.


As you can see from all of the above, what this whole thing amounts to is an equal combination of something that is both impressive and kind of difficult to take in all at once.  All I can do is speak for myself now, and the one thing that sticks out to me the most is the way Stallone both sees and attempts to set out the portrait of a real-life, flesh and blood artist.  What really makes it stand out for me is just the way Stallone is trying to highlight certain facts, as if he's trying to set the record straight.  Here is where we see the director/screenwriter trying to fight against popular stereotypes and misconceptions, and all of it has to do with the public view of the writer at the heart of the screenplay.  For the longest time now, there's been a conception in the public mind of Poe as this melancholy, drunken wastrel.  Someone who was always falling into bouts of depressive insanity, and then taking it out both on others, as well as the printed page.  A good way of describing this caricature is to label it the Poe Myth.  At least I think that's how the topic is discussed (or used to be) in academic circles.

This is the popular portrait of Poe as the tortured genius who was able to transmute his own personal problems into works of Gothic brilliance.  What's interesting to find out is just how much of an effort has grown over time to push back against this stilted conception.  It's not to deny that Poe was capable of "good bad dreams", nor that he wasn't capable of capturing them on the page.  If that weren't the case, would anyone still remember him?  Instead, it's more that this wasn't the whole story.  There was a lot more to the man and his art than was originally given credit for.  It's an idea I'm willing to champion, for what it's worth, and Stallone seems to be of the same mindset.  He appears to be presenting Poe as this never-say-die underdog, someone with a lot of natural talent, and a great deal of opposition in his way.  The difference is that Stallone shows Poe never truly buckling under, even the face of personal tragedy.  He instead keeps plugging away in pursuit of both ideals and convictions. 

I think Stallone himself sums up his goals for the script well enough in the video above.  "They way I approach Poe is as a man who has an exuberance for life, which I believe all young artists do, whether they admit it or not.  And how being so overly creative in such a provincial time in America's literary development caused him to be shunned and branded an eccentric.  This, coupled with his own personal tragedies, demons, spun his life out of control".  In other words, he makes Poe out to be this constant striver, and not just after success.  It's more like he's trying to prove several interrelated things about life, just as much to himself as others.  The curious part is how none of this is painted in the usually gloomy portraits we've usually associated with Poe.  While it's never a mistake to say he was good at painting lurid word portraits of the darker side of life, the funny thing is how Stallone sees Poe as always insisting on some level that it never quite have the final word.  It has to be the most fascinating take on the writer I've seen yet.   

The whole thing sounds intriguing, even as a summary.  Does this mean there's potential there?  Well, for the longest time it sounded like it could make for a promising idea, and yet I seemed to remain a sideline observer of the whole thing.  Then it occurred to me that the way Stallone frames the basic outline of his plot means that it is the dysfunctional society that Poe finds himself surrounded by which acts as both a spur to his problems (both personal and professional), and well as fueling the fire of his imagination. 

It is this essentially closed-minded, puritanical America that Poe observes, and is then able to pinpoint the nature of a lot of these afflictions on an instinctive level, thus allowing him to capture these American nightmares on the page.  It's with this insight in mind that I'm willing to say that the dramatic potential in such a setup is obvious.  The one thing I would add is that this sense of threat cannot be allowed to remain entirely faceless.  It helps if the audience has an on-screen antagonistic presence to react to.  This where one of the obstacles of Poe's own life can come in handy.  It makes sense of to to let Rufus Griswold, a lifelong rival and enemy of Poe, to act as the face of all the barriers that Edgar is up against, and that  it should be the clashing dynamics of these two main leads that powers the main drama of the story.  For some reason, it's easy to see Tommy Lee Jones playing such a part.  The one pitfall to avoid, however, is making the mistake of letting audiences think that Griswold is the entire source of Poe's frustrations and writings, when this was never the case.  He should be treated more as like the front man of an entire, self-destructive society, and it is this particular aspect that Poe is able to first latch onto, and then set down on the page, thus capturing the dark side of his time forever.

All of which is to say that, yeah, after giving it some thought, I guess you could say it's possible to see at least some kind of dramatic potential in it.  That said, it's hard to tell what will come of it, if anything.  This seems to be one of those passion project type deals, the ones where the sheer volume of enthusiasm for the idea outmatches the practical likelihood of its ever seeing the light of day.  The history of cinema is littered with such famous examples, and Stallone's Poe seems to be just the latest addition to the list.  The one difficulty in all this is arriving at a final verdict, or rather not being able to.  In the strictest sense, it's hard to tell whether a script has a chance if you haven't read it all the way through.  So how's a face in the audience supposed to make a judgment call on that one?  What I can say in it's favor is that the history of this project has left me fascinated.  I don't know what we'll become of it, however I am willing to go out on a limb and say that any fan of the Raven author, or just the Horror genre, or Stallone in general, should probably take some time and sample the video displayed above, and learn about this intriguing, unwritten chapter on the life of Edgar Allan Poe.