Saturday, April 24, 2021

Space Jam (1996).

Could someone please explain to me why this is such a big deal?  I don't get it, at least not quite.  Like, you do realize this is just a movie, right?  It's not anything like a cure for the common cold.  When it comes to assessing the importance of any given, potential work of fiction, there's always a trick involved.  I'm quite willing to go out of my way and stand up to declare certain books and films as genuine works of art.  That's the easy part.  What about the rest of the story?  I'm no longer talking about the Shakespeares, the Welles, or Harper Lees of the creative world.  While it's a mistake to describe that type of artist as an open and shut case, there is at least a certain amount of truth in saying that the critic's task is a lot less complex with a writer like Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, or Thomas Woolf.  Part of it is the way their writings make it easy for fans and critics to latch onto.  There is so much to talk about even in a simple short story such as "The Lady and the Tiger" to the point where they are sort of like a critic's dream come true.  The sharp-eyed reader can tell they are witnessing the kind of artwork that offers a great deal of hidden riches that are worth uncovering.  That still leaves us with a lot of other material out there, most of which goes unnoticed.

The type of writing I'm thinking of now belongs to that special category that might once have been known as mid-list fiction.  I'm talking about the books and films that might have been popular when they were first released, and that audience favor is probably still hanging around.  It's just that, for whatever reason, none of the books or movies I'm thinking of now have ever really gone as far in the fame and acclaim department as others of their kind.  Perhaps the best example of what I'm talking about can be seen if we take the example of two writers who sort of work not just with similar material, but also the more or less near identical style.  If I mention the number 42 out loud, some of you will wonder why I even bother to bring it up.  It just sounds too random to have any point in the argument.  Others, however, might just have a series of slow-spreading smiles on their faces as they try and re-contemplate the meaning of Life, the Universe, and the curious phenomenon of digital watches.  That's because the number 42 has to be one of the greatest punchlines to an entire book-length joke, as written and delivered by Douglas Adams.   

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
is one of those favorite texts that starts out as a cult following, and then over time gets lucky enough to find its status as a recognized classic.  There seems to have been just enough talent and inspiration involved to make the joke worth re-telling time and again.  Because of this, Adams's text has become something of a recognized icon.  Is the same true of the efforts of Terry Pratchett, however?  You might recall something about the guy, don't you?  He used to write that old Discworld series.  They were an extended collection of novels which, when taken together, amounted to a lifetime satire and parody of all the cliches, tropes and plot elements that make up what is still termed the Fantasy genre.  What Pratchett was doing for Sword and Sorcery, Adams was accomplishing for Science Fiction.  Both men adopted an absurdist style of British Satire, one whose identity seems to have been first solidified by the efforts of Monty Python, and applied to the written word.  They then used this style to tell and construct their respective novel length jokes.

The point I'm trying to make here has less to do with the books themselves, and more about how the efforts of each author has been received by the public.  I think the way Adams and Pratchett have been treated by audiences can tell us a bit about what distinguishes great writing from the merely good.  I don't know whether Adams counts as a one-book-wonder, with Hitchhiker's being this great spurt of inspiration which the author could never live down or re-capture.  I know it's the sort of phenomenon that has happened in the past.  Ken Kesey might have experience the same thing with Cuckoo's Nest.  Either way, what I'm getting at here is that Adams's first book has gone on to be recognized as containing elements that make his story a genuine classic.  I'm not so sure that the same has ever been said of Pratchett's efforts.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm not calling him a bad writer.  Nor am I about to deny that he's got whole legions of fans out there who admire his work.  I don't deny a single bit of that.  It's also a mistake to claim that he doesn't have a great deal of popularity, enough so that Pratchett's secondary world has often been lumped alongside places like Middle Earth and Earthsea.

It's just that I don't think I've ever seen him gain the same level of fame as Adams, or even Monty Python for that matter, have been able garner over the years.  This can be seen in the kind of notoriety attached to his name. People might have heard of the Discworld, but how many can point to any one story in the series that stand out from the rest?  That's where the trick and the irony lies.  Pratchett seems to have been skilled enough to be a genuinely good writer.  He also appears to have stopped at being just that.  He can create good writing, I'm not sure I've ever saw him produce a Great Book.  If he did, then the closest objective candidate I've got is that one time when he co-authored a book with Neil Gaiman, a name who probably has more than at least one Big Text to his resume.  The result is that while it's true to say that Pratchett's books are enjoyable, maybe even memorable, they do not hit quite the same note in the minds of the audience with the same precision as works like Hitchhiker's or Sandman and Coraline.  Hence, we're able to note a difference, and make a distinction between first and second tier types of fiction.

It's not a distinction that many people bother about, nor am I all that sure that it's as important as I've made it sound.  The reason for that is because while I rate a story like Hitchhiker's somewhat better than Discworld, and a film like The Godfather is able to pretty much clobber the both of them put together, I still insist that it's a mistake to make too big a deal about it.  The simple reason for that is because its too easy to allow various types of snobbery to creep and crawl its way into the conversation.  If you let that kind of thing go on for too long, pretty soon all sort of arbitrary and artificial exclusions will be made, where none can logically be said to exist.  I don't see the point, really, in trying to set all the texts of the world on exclusionary shelves.  I think it's more than possible to just set them all side by each other without discrimination.  With that in mind, there still remains the matter of one film in particular.

If I had to take a guess, I'd have to say that Space Jam is the type of story that fits in well as a good example of mid-list fiction cinema.  It came out a long time ago.  In many ways, it really is the product of another world altogether.  I must have just been starting high-school when I first heard about it.  It was 96, so that must have been during my first early freshman years.  This would have been during that strange limbo state between the last desperate grasping at genuine childhood, and the start of the teen years.  By and large, my major concerns at the time were learning how to fit in, and the first glimmering awareness of an author known as Steve King.  I think I had yet to take up reading in quite the serious way I do now.  The spark of interest was being ignited, however.  In the meantime, there was still classes, TV, and the movies to consider, as well as the other growing awareness that girls existed.  Somewhere in between all that, I managed to catch sight of Warner Bros. mid-decade tribute to basketball and anarchic, Golden Age animation.  I can remember some of my initial reactions.

I think a sense of familiarity must have played some part in it.  I'd caught Who Framed Roger Rabbit once during a very important and impressionable viewing session at a neighbors house.  So I knew about the combination of live action and animation.  However, it was a very niche sub-genre, and one I hadn't really been back to for a long while after that first viewing.  Part of it had to do with getting caught up in the daily grind of living, another, more important factor, had to do with Christopher Loyd in a performance that still remains the stuff of nightmares.  I didn't even work up the courage to go back and watch the earlier film for myself until sometime long after the Warner film had come and gone.  Some of you may be wondering why don't I get to the film itself already?  I think some of the reason for this delay is that it at least helps give a sense of just the kind of minuscule impact it must have left on my psyche at the time.  For me, the whole thing seems to have amounted to the following statement.  I came, I saw, I shrugged, it was okay, I guess.  It didn't set the world on fire, or anything, it was just a last bit of my childhood, and that seemed like enough for me.

That's why it's something of a genuine shock to discover how that just really sells the case too damn short for a great deal of the audience out there.  I'll confess, this is the last kind of film I would have expected to pick up the sort of following it enjoys now.  I can't say I know just where all this momentum came from.  It's status as a piece of mid-list fiction should have meant that it would have stayed at that level.  It turns that doesn't appear to be the case.  For whatever reason, Space Jam has become its own kind of phenomenon for a lot of 80s and 90s kids.  Like it's this something that everybody not only has memories of, they also turn out to be of the type that one reserves for favorites like Back to the Future or The Dark Crystal.  And here, believe it or not, is the part where it all gets interesting, complicated, and sometimes even downright contentious for some reason.  Maybe it's best to begin with the film that set this whole strange phenomenon into motion.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

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

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

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

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