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.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Assault on Precint 13 (1976).

I don't think he needs that much of an introduction.  At least, I hope not.  From where I'm standing at the moment, it looks like the reputation of John Carpenter seems to be in pretty good shape.  He's still got that level of name recognition where, if you mention one of his films, even if its just one of his lesser known works, then most audiences and genre fans will have at least some idea of who you're talking about.  Isn't he the guy who made that Michael Myers film?  That's true enough, so far as it goes.  Over the years, Carpenter has managed to carve out a name for himself in the black sheep genre of American cinema, the Horror film.  Even to this day, people still tend to hold films like Halloween and The Thing in pretty high regard.  The former is often placed alongside the work of Alfred Hitchcock as an example of masterclass filmmaking.  I guess you could call it a pretty good exercise in suspense, although that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of a movie like that.  Nonetheless, this is a good enough summary of the rough idea that most viewers have of the director.  However a rough idea isn't quite the same thing as the full picture.

When it comes to gaining a better idea of who Carpenter was as an artist, the best go-to source I've got is the book-length study by John Kenneth Muir.  The future director first arrived on the scene in 1948, Carthage, NY.  He was born into the household of a Mr. Howard Carpenter, a professional music teacher, as well as something of an accomplished musician in his own right.  "Howard Carpenter later played in sessions with celebrity musicians Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison and Brenda Lee.  Often, young John Carpenter would ride with his father to Nashville, Tennessee, to watch his dad perform with these icons, and so Carpenter Junior was exposed not only to a universe of creativity, but the world of celebrity as well (60)".  

I think a bit of trivia like this is notable for a number of reasons.  The main one is because of what it tells us about how this one artist, in particular, got his start.  The biggest the requirement, the one that seems to come before everything else, is the presence of an active imagination, combined with the almost natural ability to tap into it on a creative level.  That's the first hurdle.  The second is the luck of the draw in finding the right kind of environment that will help to foster this seedling form of talent.  Now, to be fair, the great majority of the writers out there have managed to make it by their own efforts, despite coming from backgrounds that were less that auspicious.  Carpenter seems to have been in luck with his upbringing.  The imagination seems to have been in place, along with the kind of atmosphere to act as a spur to such latent, creative abilities.  All that remains is to figure out what is the natural creative expression for the individual talent.  Muir is able to provide us with that information as well.  

"John Carpenter's early cinematic influences  included not just westerns such as the Howard Hawks classic Rio Bravo (1959), but also science fiction productions focusing on the possibility of life on other worlds.  Among his favorites were Ray Bradbury and Jack Arnold's It Came from Outer Space (1953)...Roger Corman's low budget It Conquered the World (1956), Nigel Kneale's Quatermass adventure Enemy from Space (1957), and the grandaddy of all monster movies, King Kong (1933).

"By age eight, John Carpenter was inspired to realize his fantasies and produce his own films.  Equipped with an 8mm camera and ingenuity to spare, Carpenter began directing his schoolyard buddies through intense cinematic paces in the...family back yard.  Through age 14, John continued producing and directing 40-minute genre shorts like Revenge of the Colossal Beasts, Terror from Space, Gorgo vs. Godzilla, and even Gorgon the Space Monster.  All the while, the young director experimented with his craft by employing stop-motion photography (a'la Willis O'Brien or Ray Harryhausen), rear projection, forced perspective, and other special effects uncommonly seen in home-made movies.  At the same time, Carpenter indulged his desire to dramatize entertaining and often frightening adventures (6)". 


All that phenomena described above might come off puzzling to most folks reading this.  In reality, it's all part of a much broader movement.  Carpenter's love of movie Westerns, Sci Fi, and Horror, are all tell-tale signs if you know what you're looking at.  The best definition I've been able to find for it is to describe the young director as a Monster Kid.  Nor was he alone in fitting that particular description.  Like I say, he was part of a whole unofficial, suburban backyard movement of like minded genre fans.  These were kids who were born in the aftermath of the Second World War, the so-called Baby Boomers.  The Monster Kids went together to make up a subsection of this then new generation.  

They were the guys (and also a lot of gals) who found their way towards literary awareness through a shared liking for the all the Fantastic genres, with a marked emphasis on the Gothic, and all its trappings.  This meant you had a lot of local kids running around the neighborhood who kept posters of Lon Chaney's old, Phantom of the Opera film on their walls.  Or maybe it would be a picture of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Either that or you'd find old, thumbed copies of Forry Ackerman's monster fanzines lying around the place, tucked away in the closet where mom and dad couldn't reach.  These then were the children of a burgeoning second wave of Horror fiction in America. Their first artistic loves tended to be the original Universal Monster movies, or else the new American International schlock pictures they were showing down at the Drive-In.  For whatever reason, it just happened that a lot of the young kids of the 1950s found themselves gravitating to the cinema of the macabre, and it left the kind of impact that people still like to talk about to this day.  

The reason it was all so important, as documentarian Robert Tinnell likes to point out, is because these Monster Kids were really the pioneers who gave us all the genre flicks most of us still like to re-watch and gush about to this day.  Guys like Carpenter, Rick Baker, and some nebbish Arizona kid named Spielberg, they all pretty much gave us our childhoods.  The important thing to remember, however, is that it has been described as a movement.  In other words, I'm willing to make the claim that the shared enthusiasms of a bunch of neighborhood kids for all things monster and Horror related was enough to become the first stirrings of a collective, artistic enterprise that was able to find its way onto both the page and and big or small screen later on down the line.  Nor where the Monster Kids alone in their endeavors.  At a professional level, you also had the literary group known as the California Sorcerers breaking new ground within the confines of an old genre.


Perhaps it helps to note here that there is nothing in the least out of the ordinary in the idea of their being two or more sets of artistic collectives operating at the same time, each of them under the umbrella of a shared love for certain types of creative fiction.  It really does seem to be one of the most fundamental impulses in human history.  As a result, you can have the Sorcerer's out in California, trying to realize that enthusiasm at a professional level (not without a very influential amount of success), while out in the American suburbs you have the Monster Kids taking their inspiration from the same group of grown-up enchanters.   It also probably didn't hurt that each of those adult writers worked closely with Uncle Forry, who was sort of the resident guru for all of those aforementioned pre-teen Horror fans.  This was the world of which John Carpenter formed an integral part.  

"As he grew, John Carpenter continued to find inspiration not only in motion pictures, but on the printed page as well.  He was an avid reader of science fiction and horror stories, and he was exposed to the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft through a book entitled Tales of Terror and the Supernatural.  A teenage Carpenter also fueled his imagination on a regular diet of '50s pulps, from Weird Science and Weird Fantasy to the behind-the-scenes magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland.  As he matured, John Carpenter also made a stab at producing his own genre fanzines, devoted to King Kong and the universe of "fantastic" films.  These endeavors established that John Carpenter's talent extended beyond the realms of music and film: He was a skilled artist, and his aptitude for drawing would later serve him well in the story-boarding process of his earliest films, Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, and in part, Halloween (ibid)".


Dark Star
was really Carpenter's first initial foray onto the big screen.  It was his first effort, though it also wasn't really anything like a breakout performance for him.  All that would come later.  In the meantime, all he'd managed to do was make a quirky sci-fi comedy that never really made its own budget back.  However, it did showcase his skill at getting a project off the ground, under a relatively low price tag.  As a result, his name started getting passed around in the industry.  "An investor from Philadelphia, the C.K.K. Corporation, took a gamble on Carpenter and put up the money for a new exploitation picture he was planning.  More importantly to John Carpenter, his backers offered him free rein to make any kind of picture he desired (10)".  The result was Assault on Precinct 13, the very picture we're here to place under the microscope. 

Sunday, August 29, 2021

King Kong (2005).

I'm being honest when I say I have no clue.  Don't get me wrong, this is not a question of vitriol or resentment.  In fact, if I'm being even more honest, I sort of can't tell just what other people think of Peter Jackson at the moment.  The fault seems to be entirely my own, by the way.  After a certain point, I appear to have just stopped paying attention.  He's an artist I've sort of let slip from my mind.  Nor does this seem to have been a conscious decision on my part.  From what I can recall, a whole lot of other stuff just kept coming along, and it was easy to get caught up in it all.  Somewhere along the way, I'm afraid it was all too easy for Jackson and his work to get lost in the shuffle.  I've caught snippets of what he's been up to since then.  However, I'm afraid I don't know any real details.  It probably doesn't help that I have no real interest in trying to play catch-up, either.  All this might count as a strike against me.  For his die-hard fans, or those who just like keeping tabs on artists like him, my lackadaisical approach to Jackson's work might come off as unprofessional.  As I've said, I have neither a clue, nor much of a concern about that.  Besides, I've always been convinced that professional criticism always amounted to more than just the hottest media gossip of the week.

The real reason for being here today is because of one of those passing flukes of the mind.  I was there when hype was first building for Jackson's remake of King Kong, you see.  For quite a while, it seemed like the big project that everyone was talking about.  There was a great deal of hype surrounding the film, and what it might turn out to be.  This was helped in no small part by the relentless marketing machine that the picture had supporting it.  A lot of that also seems to have been down to the skills of the director himself.  I'm not sure how many out there have stopped to think about this, yet in addition to whatever other accolades he might accumulate, there is one other talent to the director of Middle Earth that probably never gets as much consideration as it deserves.  Jackson seems to have a natural talent for generating hype in whatever project he's got going at the moment.  It's a skill he was able to play like a harp all the way back to the first rumblings of The Fellowship of the Ring.  When the prospects of that earlier film became serious, Jackson was there right out of the starting gate, helping to spread the word, and generate interest with a number of successful on and offline media blitz strategies.  It all seems to have paid off, at least if we're talking about long-term success.

When it came to working on Kong, Jackson took very much of a similar approach.  If I had to point to any real difference in the marketing deployment for the Great Ape picture, as opposed to the Rings film, then perhaps the major distinction came from the sense that this time Jackson was a lot more in the driver's seat on this one, whereas earlier you could tell he was working in cooperation with others.  I also think it's possible to tell the reason why that should be the case.  Lord of the Rings was Jackson's big breakout directorial effort, at least as far as the worldwide audience was concerned.  He'd made a name for himself in the industry already, yet before then it was mainly as a director a cheap, low-budget, exploitative Horror genre affairs (the one that stands out the most in my memory right now is the somehow wonderfully titled Bad Taste, which went on to have the distinction of being mocked by none other than Ray Bradbury, of all things, a feat which probably deserves a medal all its own).  This, however, was what help the director gain a name for himself.  It established him as a potential major figure on the world of big budget fantasy filmmaking.  It was a reputation he seemed eager to capitalize on the follow-up on his first success by tackling a different type of fantasy in a similar way.

It is just possible to point to another reason why the Kong hype was so much of everywhere at the time.  In addition to being a skilled marketer, Jackson had his own reasons for tackling a remake as his next movie.  While there's no mistake that he's at least some kind of Tolkien fan, the Skull Island film seems to have been the one that Jackson lept into with what I can only describe as a greater amount of enthusiasm.  Middle Earth was the work of a fan, yet it was Kong that seems to have been his passion project, the one he was willing to bank all on, even if it meant having to fund everything out of his own pocket.  Perhaps that's the final explanation for the marketing strategy of this film.  The main way Jackson promoted the flick was by keeping up a meticulous filmmaker's diary of just about every major day he spent on the set of the movie.  They would be released on either a daily or weekly basis from what I can recall, and it seems to have been what kept the media, critics, and film buffs talking.  If this was indeed the strategy all along, then I suppose Jackson deserves applause just for knowing how to keep the crowds riveted, and hanging on his every word and gesture.  It's a skill some would envy.


At the end of the day, though, I think that matters very little.  The only thing that counts in a business like his can be boiled down to just one, singular question.  Is the story any good?  It may sound simplistic to some reading this.  If so, then I have no apologies on offer.  I've never been one to mind if a special effect comes off well.  That said, I've noticed when the special effect takes precedence over good writing.  When that happens, its usually a clue to me that I'm watching a probably bad film.  In that sense, everything in any given flick lives or dies on the strength of its underlying narrative.  When Jackson's remake was first released, I can recall that I liked it very much, to be honest.  I have vivid memories of the constant sense of excitement that I felt as I watched the drama unfold.  I was even hyped about the movie enough to start trying to compare it to the works of other, actual literary book writers.  Then, as I said, time passed, and other things wound up occupying my mind and imagination.  I only thought of going back to take a look at it just recently.  So what do I think about it after all these years?  Well, I guess you could label my response as revealing.  Maybe I should just try and explain.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Murder on the Orient Express (2017).

I'm sort of lat to the party on this one.  I first got to learn the particular joys that come from reading detective fiction sometime around my elementary schools years.  It was around then that I first made the acquaintance of the inhabitant of 221B Baker Street.  It was one of those gateway experiences that is able to both introduce the novice to the mystery genre as a whole, as well as grant them access to a host of similar authors, and their respective fictional shamuses.  From the fog swept lanes and alleyways of Conan Doyle's London, I soon found myself migrating to the gritty mean streets investigated by Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.  From there, as best I recall, it's sort of been all points in between since.  I haven't made anything like an authoritative, all-encompassing exploration of the Noir or Mystery genre as a whole.  I think it's like I've gotten close to reading and listening to enough stories in this particular neck of the woods in order to start forming my first, nascent ideas about what this type of story is, and what it's up to.  I think a lot of what's helped me in this regard is just how closely related Noir fiction is to another favorite childhood standby, the Horror genre.  It seems to me that both types of writing share the same Gothic sensibility at their core, which perhaps explains the sometimes casual ease of overlap between of these respective, yet related stories.

Looking back on all this now, I'm sort of surprised at just how much info I've been able to put away on this subject.  In addition of Doyle and Chandler, it's curious how a lot of other great yet forgotten fictional names keeps coming back to me now.  Off the top of my head, the list would include: Leslie Charteris's Simon Templer, a.k.a The Saint; a superhero precursor known as The Shadow, who was portrayed by Orson Welles, of all people; then there was Richard Diamond, Private Detective; Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade; Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons; Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe; and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Then of course, there was the gradual acquaintance of giants in the Suspense field such as Robert Bloch, James M. Cain, and John D. MacDonald.   The point is I seemed to have stumbled my way through or towards a very casual kind of literacy in the Detective genre.  There seems to have been nothing intentional on my part.  The only thing that seems to have guided the whole thing was a Gothic fan following what seemed at first like vague trace elements of the terror tales I loved growing up as a boy.  If there was even the slightest hint of the horrific in what I was listening to or reading, then I made an unreserved beeline for it.

At first it was this basic thread of Horror that kept drawing me further into the world of the private eye.  In time, however, my tastes began to develop into a genuine liking for the Mystery genre on its own merits.  I don't recall that there was ever anything conscious about this, it was more like just following my own bloodhound instincts, if that makes any sense.  Even if it doesn't, there's just not much I can do there, I'm afraid.  It's merely what happened, you see, and it's an artistic experience I've sort of been grateful for ever since.  At some point my mind wandered off down other avenues, and for the longest time I sort of lost track of this particular branch office.  I've just had time to make my way back towards it very recently, like visiting one of those old neighborhood sandlots that you used to play around in as a kid.  When I first got back here, it was sort of gratifying.  It was like discovering that everything was still in its place, and exactly as you left it.  It's as if I'd done no more than step out to run an errand, and everything was still waiting for me when I got back.  I don't know the exact word for that kind of experience, yet I'm glad it's what happened to me.


There is one name out of all that list that I never seem to have gotten around to, at least until just recently.  For the longest time, Agatha Christie has been one of those names that crops up in passing here and there while I was on my way to other business.  Without going into too many details, let's just say it took a long time before anything like a genuine interest was kindled in her work.  In a way, that's sort of the explanation for choosing this film as the topic for discussion.  When it comes to Christie, I guess you could say I've chosen the easiest point of entry.  Whether this can or should be held against me is something others can decide for themselves, and then leave me out of it.  I have no time to worry about the right way of approaching an author like this.  All I know is that Kenneth Branagh's 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express seemed like as good a place as any in helping me to continuing to get reacquainted with old childhood haunts.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Movie Brats (1979).

Not so long ago I had a chance to watch a multi-part series on Francis Ford Coppola.  What the whole amounted to was more or less a career retrospective.  This wasn't one of those professional, well put together productions like the kind you're likely to find on TV by chance if you're flipping through the air waves.  This was an independent opinion piece assembled by one of by now countless vloggers out there on the Net.  I think I have to give the guy in charge of the whole thing at least this much credit.  He knew how to make it all look professional.  His camera work, lighting, editing, sense of pacing, and overall choice of of clips from the back catalogue of footage that has accumulated around Coppola over years demonstrates a decent enough hand when it comes to technical matters.  I think that's also where the praise has to end, at least with me, I'm afraid.  The reasons for that seem to be twofold in nature.

First, there's the simple matter of individual critical perspectives.  It shouldn't have to go without saying, however the evidence that more than two separate human minds can exist on the same globe should stand as a testament the seemingly eternal fact of individuality.  What I mean by this is that the very fact that other people exist seems like its own guarantee that different life outlooks are pretty much a fait acompli.  That's a maxim that seems to apply to the world of the arts, as much as to anything else.  This in itself does not appear to be outside the norm of things.  I think it's just that I find it ironic for the perspectives it winds up leading me to take.  I have no idea if Patrick H. Willems' viewpoint on Coppola, or film in general, is the de facto paradigm for cinematic or general artistic criticism.  All I know is the more I watched his documentary series, the more he continued to talk about the director, the history or question of Coppola's development as an artist, and how it all fit in with the history of the medium of filmmaking, a funny thing happened.  It would be easy to say I came away disagreeing with Willems' take on things.  It's also selling my own conclusions a bit too short.

What happened, instead, was that I kept paying careful attention.  As the documentary series unfolded, Willems would keep bringing up this or that topic in relation to Coppola's life and work.  As he did so, this in turn would keep triggering a developing line of thought in my own mind.  The vlogger would bring up the topic of, say, the classic style of Hollywood filmmaking, and I would be there watching all this and thinking, "Yes, but have you ever stopped to notice this or that element"?  Or Willems would try to provide summaries of his ideas on what this means about cinema as a whole.  As a result, my mind would perk up and think, "Aren't you forgetting or overlooking something?  What about this author's influence on the medium?  Or what about the context of the contributions of auteurs like Orson Welles?  Why leave all that out"?  Yeah, as some of you can probably tell by now, what happened is that a silent debate got started between a pair of lame wad film nerds.  It's the kind of thing that will never be all that important to the majority of people out there.  That's still the only way I can put it, or the terms I  can discuss it in  The best way to say it is that Willems has acted as a very unintentional springboard for my own thoughts on the subject.


The way he did it was simply by bringing up a lot of topics that were important enough to me, at least, to the point where I felt there just had to be more to the subject he was discussing than the vlogger was even aware of.  A lot of it came from what I can't help but regard as a dichotomy between the way Willems discussed and presented Coppola, and the actual facts he seems to have uncovered, while remaining blissfully unaware of them the whole time.  In that sense, watching the retrospective on the director has been something of an eye opener for me, as has helped to clarify a lot of my previous thinking on many artistic subjects.  The perfection of irony in all this is that it really can be accused of all trending in an exact opposite sort of direction from the one Willems was trying to maintain.  He liked to present Coppola as a "bad boy" who "needed to break the rules".  I think it's a sentiment that jumps out a me for the way the rest of the events he depict subtly undermine that premise without his being aware of it.  Instead, his presentation of the director's life and art sort of help burst a lot of the bubble reputations that have gathered around guys like the director of The Godfather.

It doesn't lesson the quality of that film nor a handful of others.  Films like The Conversation and Apocalypse Now will forever have to remain as milestones in the history of cinema.  It's just that Willems has unwittingly helped me to gain a better sense of perspective on them, one that qualifies and tempers some of the more radical sounding superlatives that have traditionally gathered around them over the years.  Willems did this by showing me more or less "the rest of the story", the one that happened after we stopped paying attention.  I'm not gonna lie, it ain't pretty.  Willems tries to present what happened in the wake of Apocalypse Now as a continued example of the "bad boy" finding ways to stick it to the man.  The reality seems to be a lot more of a tragic case of the author either losing his muse, or else it could be something a lot more ironic than that.  It could just be that the career of Francis Ford Coppola is an object lesson of the filmmaker's ambitions running up against his own limitations as an artist.  After the 70s ended, it just seems as if the director had played himself out.  No other film or topic he turned his hand to after that was ever able to recapture whatever it was he had with films like the Corleone Family Saga.  Instead, he wound up as a guest on Saturday Night Live, or working on a children's TV show, and his boss was Shelley Duvall. 

To be fair, it is possible to defend at least some of this later work.  I like what he did with Duvall on her TV series, and even Michael Jackson's Captain EO has its own 80s form form schlock charm.  The rest, however, is too much of a mixed bag to be of any big consideration.  Willems tried his damnedest to paint the director as being in a much better place than any of his other contemporaries.  However, words from Coppola himself tell a far different story.  "In 2015, Coppola stated "...That's why I ended my career: I decided I didn't want to make what you could call 'factory movies' anymore. I would rather just experiment with the form, and see what I could do, and [make things] that came out of my own. And little by little, the commercial film industry went into the superhero business, and everything was on such a scale. The budgets were so big, because they wanted to make the big series of films where they could make two or three parts. I felt I was no longer interested enough to put in the extraordinary effort a film takes [nowadays] (web)".  As a result, I have Patrick Willems to thank for arriving at a very paradoxical conclusion.  With the case of Francis Coppola, perhaps the real truth has always been that we were witnessing the meteoric rise and fall of a proclaimed giant, while the artist himself was always less than he seemed, or was trumpeted to be.  His greatest triumphs being more the product of the Imagination proper, and far less to do with the personality of the artist as a human being or auteur.

It's a very ironic (some might even say heretical) vantage point to wind up at.  If that's the case, it's an irony I then compounded by asking myself how did this apply to the rest of the filmmakers of Coppola's generation?  What about the other directors?  Were they luckier than him, or did they all wind up in the same boat?  Which of them were able to swim on, and which sank like weighted stones?  It turned out to be one of those ideas that, once they enter certain minds, they just can't be left alone.  So, like a diligent enough(?) bookworm, the answer was relatively simple.  All one should have to do is go to the back catalogues, and filmography records, and see what it reveals.  Well, I went looking for answers, alright.  Boy did I ever get it.  The final results have been just more of the same, old irony, if that makes any sense.  What I discovered seems to be a continuation and carry-over from the results of Willems' efforts.  I can no longer just leave it at Coppola.  Instead, what I've looked at has forced me to construct a wholesale reconsideration of the cinematic generation of the 1970s, what it was versus what the critics versus the audience thought it was, and what it all means for the state of the art today.


That's where a book like Lynda Myles' The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation took over Hollywood comes in real handy.  It offesr me a further springboard from which to share what I've learned, while comparing and contrasting it with the initial critical claims, praises, and appraisals that greeted this informal collective of movie buff friends as they first started to make names for themselves.  It's a story that's interesting for the final way it all ends up at this current moment.  It's a tale of hindsight versus whatever aspirations might have been in play at the time.  What the final results have turned out to be may come as a shock to some.  However, perhaps its best if we take our time here.  Let's start with the basic premise of Myles' book.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Skeleton Crew: Here There Be Tigers (1968).

A while back I read and reviewed a children's short story by Phillipa Pearce.  It was called The Lion at School, and I gave it a positive enough review, as I recall.  It's one of those neat little literary staples of childhood, the kind you grab and read through on your way onward and upward.  Then if you're lucky, or curious enough, it turns into one of those dug up relics from your past that you decide to indulge in during an idle mood.  You probably dredge it up out of the mothballs expecting just some light fluff, one of those pieces of doggerel that seemed epic in youth, and just wind up sounding trite to adult ears.  It's the kind of expectation that helps make the surprise all the more pleasant.  What you might discover is that Pearce's story is one of those titles that manages to carry enough thematic weight to allow even the world of grown-ups a few moments of genuine enjoyment.  In my case, it was sort of like mining around for random spare traces of gold, and hitting a small, yet decent enough vein.  At least it seemed good enough to give it a vote of confidence, anyway.  All that happened is I discovered, I read, I thought it was pretty good.  So, I just thought it worth writing down my two cents on the matter.  No more, or less.

In nine out of ten cases, that's usually all there is to it, at least as far as I'm concerned.  For some reason, I'm the type of critic that likes to be as encyclopedic as possible about the stories I like.  Even if I wind up with a bad final product, I tend to prefer to be as thorough and constructive in figuring out why the whole thing didn't work.  What this means, though, is that while I'm sure I will never succeed at it, I always try to discuss as much of the subject as possible.  That's a pretty tall order for any critic, and I'm sure I've not even come close to it once.  There's always bound to be something overlooked, some detail or plot element I forgot to mention or place under the microscope for further inspection.  There are also those exceptions where sometimes a topic seems too big to try and encompass in just one article.  These are the stories and writers that get the lucky break of multiple posts.  It doesn't happen often, yet they're not blue moon occurrences, either.  It's all just part of the gig, really.  Then there are those interesting hybrid moments where sometimes all it takes is for one simple story to spark an idea or association off in my mind, and then I find myself with unforeseen results on my hands.  That's sort of what happened when I got done reviewing Pearce's story.

What I got thinking about was one or two other stories of a similar nature.  Another good way of stating the facts is that Pearce's writing kinda-sorta sparked a simple question: Haven't I read all this somewhere before?  The answer, it turns out, might surprise you.  It's one of those weird cases where I have to say more or less no and yes at the same time.  I think it's a mistake to claim I've read the same story told by different authors.  Each of the other stories I'm thinking of now were written in such a way as to give them their own distinct identities, ones where even a novice would able to tell the differences between all three of them.  It's just that even thought each of these other two stories were like their own beasts, there was also this remarkable level of similarity in terms of both setup, and even characters, to a certain extent.  It's not enough to erase the boundaries that separate each tale.  However, I do wonder if the resemblances might be enough to act as a kind of thematic unity.  I'm not talking about plagiarism at all here, in other words.  What I mean instead is that I'm wondering if three individual authors, each at divergent points on the historical timeline, might nonetheless have had their imaginations sparked by the same archetype, or imaginative moment of inspiration?  

Granted, that is all just one big question, not a statement of fact.  There's also a lot of speculation going on there as well.  The real kick in the teeth is that there's not really anything like a solid account from any of the writers involved on just how they each came to conceive of, and then set down their respective creative efforts.  That leaves the critic with the unenviable task of having to theorize into the void.  I'm not saying it can't be done.  If that were the case, would arts criticism in general even be able to exist?  I just feel obligated to point out that this kind of approach is precarious at best.  It's the literary-critical equivalent of building up your own soapbox flying machine, and then taking off without some kind of established safety net to fall back on.  It's also probably the norm for the great majority of this particular business.  If that's the case, then at least I'm flying no more blind than everybody else in this rarefied air.  For the time being, therefore, let's just stick with this idea of a shared archetype inspiring three otherwise unrelated writers.


I've already mentioned Philippa Pearce.  The first story that wound up sharing an uncanny level of resemblance with her own efforts were Tiger in the Snow, by Daniel Lynn Barber.  We now turn to the final, and last installment in the informal series examining the strange connective threads between stories.  The final offering for tonight was a story that first saw the light of day a long time ago, in a strange place known as the 1960s.  It was a very early effort, and it's author was just some small town kid, really.  I recall correctly, I think his name went something like, Stephen Edwin King.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Nightfall: Welcome to Homerville (1980).

This is something of a cheat.  Those who've been keeping score lately might just feel like they've been robbed of a promise.  Didn't I just say in the last article that I was planning on a reviewing a Stephen King story?  Yeah, guilty as charged, folks.  So what the hell am I doing here?  My reasons for this unexpected little detour has at least one favor in its own defense.  It sort of goes right to the heart of the kind of storytelling tropes we've been examining so far.  Lately I've been preoccupied with a series of independently written stories with a surprising amount of similarities to them.  They each center around the idea of ordinary main characters that somehow find themselves confronted with animals that display behavioral traits that are distinct enough to label them as being pretty much out of the ordinary.  The title figures in Philippa Pearce's Lion at School and Daniel Barber's Tiger in the Snow both somehow manage to come off as something more than just your ordinary Big Cat.  They behave in ways that just don't seem to gibe with your real life specimens.  In fact, if forced to choose, I guess I'd have to say that in both cases, the reader is perhaps dealing with more than just a number of random animal encounters.  Each lead actor in the two literary dramas mentioned above seems to one of those lucky (or otherwise) few who find themselves in encounters with figures whose very nature seems to border on the miraculous, or otherworldly.  I'm not sure of any better words to describe it.

Even if that's the case, there's still the question of how all that can lead me to want to talk about on old radio play?  I think the the main reason is because it just seems to encapsulate the very idea of the basic narrative situation that I've been dealing with for a while now.  In order to demonstrate how that might be the case, however, I think it's best if we take things one step at a time.  As always, the best place to start is with some context.  In his genre study text, Danse Macabre, Stephen King shared his opinion that he didn't see the world of dramatic radio plays as having much of a future.  This is an argument he lays out in his chapter entitled Radio and the Set of Reality.  While the great majority of that section of the books is fascinating, and to this day still remains well worth a read, and containing a great deal of valuable insight.  The inescapable fact is that King's view for the prospects of the audio drama have been proven summarily wrong by the very march of time itself.  Rather than falling into obscurity as he predicted, what has happened is that instead of falling into obscurity (and hence being rendered a sort of curio, or historical artifact) the art of the radio play has been undergoing a constant form of resurgence with the passing years.

If I had to pinpoint any particular reasons for this, then it might hinge around three important factors.  The first factor is also kind of the most obvious.  It shouldn't be at all surprising that when technical innovation reaches a certain level of sophistication, then one of its inevitable fallouts is that it creates a space in which the audio drama can survive and thrive thanks to the availability and affordability of the new technology.  The second factor should really be listed more as a result of the way 21st century tech has also had of creating a greater sense of inter-connectivity, even across borders and oceans.  This has been especially true in the case of America's relation with places such as Great Britain.  What King, and perhaps the majority of Americans didn't realize for a long time is just how much of a powerful juggernaut the popular dramatic radio format has been across the pond.  Not only has the audio drama remained a steady feature of British life.  Unlike here in America, there never seems to have been a time when it ever went out of style.  Instead, the medium seems to have cemented itself as an integral part of the cultural landscape.  And right now it very much looks as if it is this factor to which America is just now starting to catch-up with, meaning the renascence of U.S. dramatic radio might still (with any luck) just be in its infancy.  The third factor seems to come down to a simple question of enthusiasm.  The format had enough fans, and inherent artistic quality, to be able to outfox King's dire prognostications for it, and I think its the Brits who've helped the most in this regard.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that this is the kind of influence that extends to other parts of the world as well.

This might be at least part of the case with the Canadian Broadcasting Company's radio division.  It's also here that we begin to approach our main subject for today.  The medium of radio has never been what you'd call a stranger to the idea of the Horror anthology show.  In fact, if you want to get technical about it, the truth turns out to be the reverse of what a modern audience might think.  Before there was ever anything like TV or streaming, it was radio that remained the biggest form of mass communication for a good stretch of the 20th century.  It's also the same place that saw the birth of the type of schlocker programming we now associate with shows like Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Black Mirror.  It's another of those dramatic conceits that are really a lot older than the look, and have enough staying power in them to make the various leaps of transition over the years.  In fact, just as King was starting to set down his gloomy diagnosis for the chances of Horror on the radio, someone further up in the Great White North was sort of unintentionally busy in proving him wrong.  

From what I've been able to find out, Nightfall appears to have been the brainchild of a CBC radio producer named Bill Howell.  From what I can gather, he was a regular producer for the audio wing of Canadian Broadcasting, in particular his greatest claim to fame before then was on the CBC Playhouse, and a cult Sci-Fi serial with the perhaps appropriately pulpish name of Johnny Chase: Agent of Space.  It was sometime around or maybe just before 1980 that he came up with the idea of Nightfall.  He was tasked with giving the CBC's dramatic audio division a shot in the arm, and given a budget necessary for this particular mandate.  I guess he must have thought that the Horror genre was just the ticket needed for making listeners want to come back and tune in once more to the wireless.  Whatever the case, the results of the paper trail shows that by the next time we meet Howell, he seems to have had the basic idea and concept all down on the page.  It was just a matter of getting it on the airwaves. 

The rest of the story seems to have been told best by the good folks over at The Nightfall Project website.  "At the very beginning of the 1980s, the CBC hired Susan Douglas Rubes, veteran actress and founder of Toronto's Young People's Theatre, to re-invent and re-invigorate the Radio Drama department. Almost immediately after her installation as Head of Radio Drama, she was approached by Toronto producer Bill Howell (best known at the time for his work on CBC Playhouse and the popular sci-fi adventure series Johnny Chase: Secret Agent of Space) with an idea for a new supernatural/horror anthology series that would push the boundaries of what had been heard on CBC Radio before. Though not a fan of the horror genre, Rubes recognized a hit when she saw one and gave Howell the green light for what was to become CBC Radio's most successful — and most controversial — drama series.


Nightfall
began production in March of 1980 and the first episode, Love and the Lonely One by Montreal writer John Graham, aired on Friday, July 4th at 7:30 PM. It was followed by stories like The Monkey's Paw and The Tell-Tale Heart by Len Peterson, the ACTRA Award-nominated Welcome to Homerville by Allan Guttman and Don Dickinson, and the controversial plays The Repossession by Arthur Samuels and The Blood Countess by Ray Canale. Over the course of its three-year run, the series featured episodes in a variety of genres beyond its staple of supernatural and horror stories. Science-fiction, mystery, fantasy, and human drama all found their place as part of the series' life. One episode was even adapted from the folk song Harris and the Mare by Stan Rogers.

But what made such a popular series at the time, and what makes it so popular among radio drama enthusiasts today, was Howell's vision of a show that pushed boundaries. Some episodes were so terrifying that the CBC registered hundreds of complaints and some affiliate stations — ones that carried certain CBC programs to outlying areas in the Provinces, but were not CBC stations in themselves — were forced to drop the series. Episodes like the previously-mentioned Repossession (which featured the sounds of a man tearing out his own heart), The Blood Countess (which aurally portrayed some of the hideous acts carried out by the Countess Elizabeth Bathory during her reign in the 17th Century) and The Porch Light (a tense psychological thriller about a couple trapped in a secluded house and haunted by the spectre of a pajama-clad man standing under their porch light in the midst of a raging blizzard) contributed to the collective nightmares of the listening Canadian public. Despite the controversy, however, Nightfall’s popularity grew and the series went on to run 100 episodes (web)".

In essence, what you've got then is very much an old idea enjoying a new surge of popularity, and it all seems to have been a question of good timing.  Bill Howell had his light bulb moment at the very beginnings of a wave of fresh blood popularity for the Horror genre as a whole.  Books like Carrie and Salem's Lot, and films The Exorcist and Halloween had made a big enough impact so that Horror was now the cool and hip thing to be aware of.  So of course publishers and Hollywood studios jumped on the bandwagon as fast as they all could.  The result was that for a surprisingly long time, lasting perhaps until up around 1994, the genre found itself as a constant billboard presence on the pop cultural landscape.  I suppose this also means the fallout was inevitable.  Looking back on the Horror boom of the 80s, its easy to see where the major mistakes lay.  The first was that publishers and studio execs valued quantity over quality.  Making a good work of Horror is as much a genuine Art, as it is a craft.  It seems you can't just throw a daub of stage blood on a wall and expect people to be frightened of it.  There's a lot more than that involved, a greater level of sophistication is required, more often than not.  This requirement seems to have gotten lost in the scramble for any available box-office dollars.  

The second problem was the mistaken belief that Horror is the kind of storytelling that you can just franchise, and then everything will take care of itself.  The trouble is that we're talking about a genre that works best when everything is a kind of delicate balancing act.  Even if things have to go axe-happy sooner or later, the risk is that if you apply the splatter punk technique, then the whole thing is libel to have audiences rolling with laughter, rather than screaming in the aisles.  It's the sort of creative decision that helps cheapen the genre, and the kind of effect and thematic resonances it is trying to accomplish.  It's also the one decision that the big studios kept crawling toward and falling back on.  A lot of it seems to have stemmed from the conviction that it was the safest way to go about things.  All it did for the genre, though, was one big, prolonged disservice.  Thanks to ideas like that, whenever people think of Horror nowadays, one of the first things they still think of is guys like Freddy, Jason, or Chucky.  Meanwhile, the real Art of Terror got lost in the shuffle.  We seem to be just now in the process of rediscovering the genuine literary qualities of the genre as a whole.


The good news is that this is a pit-trap that Howell's brainchild seems to have avoided.  Nightfall itself seems to follow less in the tradition of 80s gore fests, and gears itself a lot toward the more classical approaches of Rod Serling and Richard Matheson.  That's not to say that blood and guts are absent from the proceedings, far from it.  It's just that you can tell the folks in the writer's chair for each episode know something about the genre and what makes it tick.  This leaves us with an anthology that gives you reasons to care about the fictional characters, even when they're being stalked by an extra in a rubber monster suit.  One of the most interesting ways it is able to pull this off is through the series innate sense of the off-kilter.  Much like The Twilight Zone, Nightfall is not afraid to steer things into the realm of surreal and unexplained.  Even when the audience can see the terrors coming, the writing will often have just the right oblique angle to give the horror a twist we didn't anticipate.  It's a technique the show was able to put to good use.  Nowhere is that more obvious than in tonight's episode.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Tiger in the Snow (1984).

In my last article I made a deliberate effort to draw the reader's attention to the way author Philippa Pearce used the image of a lion, or generalized Big Cat, as a symbol for the fantastic in her story.  The tale is told in such a way that the appearance of this Cat right out of the blue, on a normal city street, is meant to appear enigmatic, and out of the ordinary.  This is easily demonstrated by the way the story handles its titular character.  The human like attributes of Pearce's second main lead mark him out as something other than just a normal lion.  There is always an undercurrent of the odd about this strange talking cat, and it's perhaps to Pearce's credit that she was aware of this in composing her work.  As an artist, she appears to have been able to recognize just how unusual a note her talking cat is able to strike in the reader, along with the other fictional characters surrounding him.  It's a character note the author recognizes, and is smart enough to realize that this is the note she needs to latch onto if her story is to have any chance of success.  That element of the unexplained is precisely where the engine that's driving this peculiar narrative is located.  It's what gives even the most unbelievable elements in her story their gripping power.  As a result, the reader keeps turning the pages, and even when the book has been closed up and placed back on the shelf, it's very oddness manages to stay with you.  There's always this lingering sense of the uncanny emanating from the story, and it still hangs in the air well after the final line.

It almost has to be one of the more unique experiences I've had from going into a story cold and unprepared, yet more or less ready for anything.  Part of my reasons for not calling it the most unusual story I've ever read is because, in the strictest sense, I'm not all that sure that Pearce's story exists in a vacuum.  If a fable such as The Lion at School were a genuine one-off, then it might have amounted to something like a true literary anomaly, the printed-page equivalent of one of those old impressionist landscape paintings featuring a lion crawling up to an unsuspected sleeper in the dunes.  Instead, it turns out I can point out at least two other examples where different writers sort of wound up using the same or similar conceit at the center of their respective, individual works.  The first title is the one up for discussion today, Daniel Wynn Barber's Tiger in the Snow.  The second is an old short story by Stephen King.  By turning the focus onto separate and yet somewhat thematically united works from both authors, the atmosphere begins to take a slight turn.  Philippa Pearce recognized an element of the uncanny in her story, and yet her narrative as a whole is kept light and humorous, for the most part.  When we turn to the efforts Barber and King, however, the uncanny begins to take a firm grip on the genre proper.  Even if there's the possibility that we are still dealing with children's stories, we've nonetheless wandered onto the shady side of the street.  By taking up first Barber, and then King, we've more or less entered the precincts of what Ray Bradbury liked to call the October Country.

This in itself doesn't strike me as all that big a leap of imagination.  If Pearce was able to locate an element of the uncanny in her own story, then all it takes for guys like King and Barber is to take that slightly off-kilter note, and then tip it over into full-on Gothic territory.  This includes bringing the image's potential for all out horror right to the front of center stage.  The contrast may seem jarring to some, though any careful examination of literary history and practice will be enough to show that this sort of thing happens all the time.  What it can't show quite as well is just who the author of today's story is, or where he came from, nor have I been able to learn about anything that he might have done, or written since.  In that sense, Daniel Barber is one of the most interesting types of case for the critic to have to confront.  If writer's like Philippa Pearce are capable of providing just enough material to allow us to reconstruct a working, fact-based biography about them, then Barber is very much of the other kind.  All we have of him is a name on the author's byline space, followed by a blank nothing where all the useful background material should be.  

Instead, the closest I've been able to come in terms of a reliable chronological record is this story's publication history, as laid out by the helpful folks at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.  There you'll be able to find out all about the surprisingly long-lasting staying power of Barber's story.  It seems as if his simple efforts have turned out to be the little short story that could.  Tiger in the Snow is not a household tale like Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan, yet ever since its first appearance way back in 1984, that one effort has managed to stay in print, all the way up to the present day, in fact.  If nothing else, it's a textbook example of the reliability of good writing.  I'm just sorry that I can't find out anything else about the guy who wrote it.  The only other title Barber has to his name seems to be a 1985 effort known as Wings of the Hunter.  Nothing else is forthcoming.  In a way, while that does make the job of contextualization a lot more difficult, it doesn't render the task impossible.  A lot of the reason for that is because even here, Barber sort of conforms to a specific type.  He's one of several anonymous toilers in the trenches who have been able to leave some kind of mark behind, right before they vanish into the literary aether forever, never to be seen or heard from again.  


Barber isn't alone in this type of fate.  The most famous and similar example of this kind of author belongs to that of H.F. Arnold.  He is most known today (if at all) for a short subject known as The Night Wire.  In essence, the tale itself amounts to what has to be one of the first modern examples of apocalyptic horror ever printed.  It comes complete with an otherworldly fog, and what might be the first examples of flesh eating zombies in Horror fiction.  We also don't have a clue as to the life of the man who wrote it.  Dan Barber seems to amount to pretty much the same thing.  He' a name on a page, and his entire mystique stems from the fact that we know positively jack about him.  It's got to be the most anonymous way of gaining fame that exists out there.  You've got to admit, it's a genuine accomplishment of sorts, even if it is a headache for completionists.  The good news is that even if the author has slipped past the microscope lens, there is still plenty in the story itself worth talking about.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Lion at School by Phillipa Pearce.

One of the interesting perks of being a devoted bookworm is having the opportunity of exploring a new talent.  That opening statement is not dishonest exactly, though perhaps it doesn't tell enough of the whole truth.  The writer up for discussion today is no longer qualified as an unknown quantity when I decided to make this my first article on her.  I'd had the luck to discover the talent of a writer like Phillipa Pearce by the time I came to today's topic.  One of these days I really will have to get around to her most famous book.  There's a lot to talk about there, and I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it.  That's sort of the explanation for choosing this title to talk about.  Sometimes I find it helps to start out slow and small, then gradually climb to the top of the mountain when the reader is ready and willing for a clear view of the whole panorama.  What I've read from the author so far has left me curious to learn more about her and her type of storytelling.  The curious part is how she's left so little to go on.  It can be frustrating as hell for any critic who wants to present a good snapshot of the author for the reader.  At the same time, I can't deny that there's anything irregular about such circumstances.  The sad truth is sometimes things like this just happen.  It shouldn't comes as any kind of surprise to discover that a lot of genuine talent has an unfortunate habit of slipping through the cracks of awareness and memory.

Philippa Pearce is one of those writers who seem destined to present a challenge to anyone who would like to examine her life in relation to her art.  Some authors, like Dickens, are able to become famous enough for their lives to be presented as more or less open books.  Sometimes, however, you're lucky enough to stumble across what might be called the also rans.  These are the names that wind up as accidental flash-in-the-pans without really deserving such a fate.  Richard Matheson or George Clayton Johnson are two good examples of the kind of writer I'm talking about.  Both are pioneers in the fields of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.  Now can anyone tell me who they are?  If the answer turns out to be an impossibility, the sorta good news is you can't entirely be held responsible for something you don't know about.  It's more the fault of a show business model that seems fundamentally designed not to be able to keep track of the very names that helped build it up.  As a result, the Horror genre is dominated by names like Stephen King, yet it never pays attention whenever the very same author makes an open acknowledgement of the debt he owes to the two writers just mentioned above.


The net result is that writers like Pearce, along with Johnson and Matheson wind up as regrettable footnotes when they should probably be at least something approaching solid and respectable brand names, if not outright household titles.  The trouble is that a lot of elements that should be in place for such a preservation process just aren't when the artist needs them, more often than not.  That leaves a certain amount of avid readers out there having to scramble just to uncover anything as basic as a simple author biography.  In the case of Phillipa Pearce, one of the crucial factors that seems key in getting any proper read on her biography has to do with what might be called the importance of place.  Perhaps it should be stressed here that questions of nationality don't enter into it.  Looked at from that perspective, place doesn't stand any sort of chance.  Instead, the phenomenon I'm describing has a lot to do with the psychology of first impressions, the way any well made landscape can impact itself on the artistic imagination in a way that produces creativity, as opposed to ideology.  I can even think of several good examples of what I'm talking about.

J.R.R. Tolkien always liked to say that the first time he ever became aware of his surroundings was in the idyllic countryside of the late Edwardian period.  This was a time when industrialization still hadn't quite chipped away at the local ecology.  It was still possible to enjoy a few green fields of earth, and to any mind with the capacity or talent for artistic creativity, the impressions such a landscape can leave behind might, under the right circumstances, be able to find their way into the ranks of aesthetic immortality.  This is the case with Tolkien, as the fields and pastures of his childhood in Sarehole Birmingham later wound up becoming not just the Shire, yet also a great deal of the secondary world we now know as Middle Earth.  

Stephen King is another writer who seems to have discovered the artistic importance of place.  He's never talked about it as much as Tolkien, and yet if anyone picks up some of his books, one of the elements in them that strikes the perceptive reader is just how good the author is at making certain landscapes come alive and jump off the page, giving that novel's action a sense of immediacy that helps to draw the reader in.  It makes sense to me, for this reason, to think of King as one of the last great, almost pastoral-regional writers in the history of American letters.  There's just something about the old, Gothic, New England landscape that always manages to bring out the best in King's descriptive abilities.  The same process at work in both these authors appears to be in play with the writer under discussion here today.

In the case of Philippa Pearce, one of the first things to note is the place in which she was born and raised.  In her case, that meant the Mill House, down by the River Cam.  It's the kind of setting that manages to have a reputation, and not be well known outside of its own setting, or region.  The reason for that is pretty simple when you realize most Americans, for instance, have no curriculum incentive to learn about other places than their own home.  A place Cambridge, England, however, does at least carry a vague, general sense of familiarity about it.  Don't they have like some sort of famous university going on up there?  Well, as of this writing, that's still the case, yes.  It's also the setting for the location of both the River Cam, and the Mill House, where Philippa grew up.  She wound up as the daughter of Ernest Alexander and Gertrude Ramsden Pearce.  Her father was a miller and/or local flour and corn merchant.  It sort of explains why the whole family was even living at the Mill House in the first place.  Like many residents of certain New England factory towns, the House provided a useful, cheap, and efficient means of housing the local working population (web).  I can't tell for certain, yet this seems to be one of the few cases where the working men and women's accommodations weren't really bad, or degrading for the local morale.  On the contrary, there seems to have been little complaint about a housing complex that appears to have been more upscale and comfortable than the usual fair the working classes had (and in many cases still have) to put up with.


The Mill House of Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, was the first home Philippa ever knew.  Because of its more upscale living conditions, her childhood seems to have been able to be one of decent enough comfort and stability.  She seems to have been able  to enjoy the best of both worlds, as she came of age in a setting that combined elements of the metropolitan with the green and cozy enchantment of the Cambridge countryside.  It's almost as if she was given an interesting sense of options.  A turn in one direction would take you into a normal, thriving, civic population.  Just a few more turns of the corner, however, and you could find yourself in the midst of Geoffrey Chaucer country, with the rolling hills, and the steady quiet noise of the rivers and waterways.  It's easy enough to see how this strangely harmonious, and organic mixture of the urban and the English countryside could find a way to form a positive shape in the mind of a young future artist.  Tolkien, in that sense, was perhaps a bit less lucky than Philippa.  In addition to an equanimity of setting, she seems to have benefited from her specific sense of place in another way.  Philippa Pearce's educational history is sketchy, at least to start with.  Her schooling didn't really begin until she was eight years old.  The reason for that appears to have stemmed from a temporary on and off again childhood illness.


Nonetheless, I sort of have the impression that she suffered very little from what could have been a real setback in any other location.  It is just possible that the young Philippa entered her first day of school with a lot (if not all) of the academic ammunition she needed in order to get by tucked under her arm as she walked into class for the first time.  My reason for thinking this is because while normal class hours might have been denied to her for longer than usual, the same can't be said for any available reading material within reach.  As is the case with family settings like those of Tolkien or J.B. Priestley, Philippa seems to have been encouraged to take an interest in whatever it is that draws a reader to the words and worlds found within the pages of a book.  There are two reasons why they did this, one practical, the other less obvious.  The first is just plain common sense.  If you're a parent, and you know that school is on the horizon for your young pitcher, then I suppose it can at least make a kind of sense to encourage them to start taking to literature in the hopes of doing well in class later on.  That seems to have been part of the logic at play in Philippa's parents allowing her easy access to the world of books.  The second reason is a bit more interesting, as it has to do once more with the occasional importance that place can have on a developing mind.  

It's been established that the author's hometown was located in Cambridgeshire.  Since not everyone lives there, it probably takes more than just a few mental beats to realize that means Philippa was born, grew up, and spent a great deal of her early life never too far from the same University that has long since helped put Cambridge on the map.  The was a place that was long established before her time, way back in 1209 as it turns out.  That means it's had more than seven centuries to it; more than enough to time for the University to help set its stamp on the land surrounding it.  What few seem to realize (perhaps because this is a facet so fundamental as to be almost primal in its general lack of awareness) is just how much of a difference an academic setting can make to any society that is able to grow up around it.  It helps set a tenor, or specific character note to not just the landscape, but also the kind of people who are born, raised, or find themselves drawn to such places.  

Perhaps its a mistake to call such settings a Republic of Letters, however, on the whole, there does tend to be a certain sense of deference to learning and the Liberal Arts in places like Cambridge or Oxford than you tend to find elsewhere, even in most big cities.  This can sometimes result in households where the written word and the people who make it are held in a greater sense of regard than, say, places like Las Vegas.  This seems to have been the case with Ernest and Gertrude Pearce, as they gave their daughter ample opportunity to soak up the truths buried under various imaginary lives.  It takes perhaps a beat or two more before the full truth of the matter starts to sink in.  The reality seems to be that Philippa Pearce owed her skill with books to the fact that she was the ultimate product of a University setting.  She was, in effect, a College Town girl.  It doesn't seem to have hurt her chances, in any case.  Beginner's, Elementary, and eventually even College doesn't seem to have presented her with much of a challenge.  On the contrary, the final results tell of someone who thrived in an academic setting.  Again, luck of the draw, at least in terms of birthplace, seems to have been a good determining factor here.  


From there her professional career is best described as an admirable mixture of the remarkable and the pedestrian.  She seems to have had not much in the way of any personal drama, which might make her a boring subject for the contemporary biographer, yet is probably more of an accomplishment because of that.  Instead, she found herself a steady employment, first as a civil servant, then as a writer and producer of BBC radio programs for school kids.  In addition, she seems to have managed the job of children's editor for the Oxford University Press on the side.  Not a bad record, all things considered.  There's still the question of the stories, and where they might have come from.  I can't even begin to hope to find that kind of an answer in just a simple review article.  Still, it is sort of the ultimate question you have to ask if you want to get at the very heart of literary criticism.  What I think works best is to start out small, and then just keep building on from there as best one can.  That's why I decided to start out with a relatively light piece from her collection of works.