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 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.