Sunday, June 19, 2022

Pitch Black (2000).

For the longest time, I thought this was a Dan O'Bannon film.  I'm pretty sure of where I got the idea.  Over at the Moria Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy Film Review site, there is a neat set of retrospectives taking a look at movies such as Dark Star, Alien, Heavy Metal, and Total Recall.  The one thing each of these films have in common boils down to just a name: O'Bannon.  He's become something of a known-unknown quantity for today's filmgoers.  He's a name that sounds familiar, like a memory on the very tip of the tongue.  It's just that no one can think of a good reason why that should be the case.  These days almost everybody can recall the impact left on them by Ridely Scott's haunted house film in space.  They might have a bit of trouble recalling every last scrap of that film's opening credits, however.  

No matter how iconic the damn thing is.  If any names stick out among that film's cast and crew, then it's a pretty short list, mainly consisting of the usual suspects.  There's the First Lady of Cinema Badasses herself, of course: Sigourney Weaver.  Then there's our favorite Chest Burster victim, the legendary John Hurt.  Beyond that, the memory palace is sometimes able to reserve reservations for the rest of the film's cast who lent their talents on-screen.  Names such as Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, and Veronica Cartwright.  A few may even recall the name of H.R. Giger, the man responsible for bringing the Xenomorph to life.  Beyond this, the rest is a blank, including who wrote the damn thing.

Such is the ironic fate of Dan O'Bannon, the man who wrote the original screenplay for Alien.  The fact that he has to dredged up from the clouded swamps of the attic storage files means that not only has the man (if not his legacy) been half-forgotten, it's also sometimes easy to confuse his own work with that of others.  This is what happened to me in the case of David Twohy's Pitch Black.  What happened is Richard Schieb, the owner and operator of Moria.com, posted the following question at the start of a review:

"One of the great mysteries of the 1990s and 00s was “What ever happened to Dan O’Bannon?” As scriptwriter, Dan O’Bannon made two grandslams in the 1970s with the scripts for Dark Star (1974) and Alien (1979). O’Bannon then went on to deliver some fine hard-edged scripts, including the likes of Dead & Buried (1981), Heavy Metal (1981), Blue Thunder (1983), Lifeforce (1985) and Invaders from Mars (1986), before making an excellent directorial debut with Return of the Living Dead (1985), which inverted George Romero’s Dead trilogy with a cheerful punk cynicism. However, in the 1990s, Dan O’Bannon almost entirely dropped from the cinematic radar. There were a number of scripts with his name attached – Total Recall (1990), Screamers (1995) and Hemoglobin/Bleeders (1997) – but all of these were old scripts that had been reworked by other writers (web)".


In just a single paragraph, Schieb has given the reader what has to be one of the most succinct summaries of the ups and down's of one of the most distinguished, yet unjustly neglected careers in the history of movies.  For the purposes of this review, however, what it did was get cross-wired somewhere in the old memory banks.  The result is that I labored until just recently under the assumption that O'Bannon was the one responsible for helping to bringing Vin Diesel to a wider audience awareness after his first big break with Spielberg the year earlier.  Turns out I was dead wrong, while also being kind of right.  It's true that O'Bannon never had a thing to do with Pitch Black, however, I'm not the first one to see a link between him and the Diesel film.  Perhaps I'd better explain.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Cage of Light (1984).

Not long ago, I made first introductions to an obscure piece of media.  It was a long forgotten radio program, known simply as Nightfall.  One of those fly-by-night creative experiments of the early to mid-1980s.  Looking back now, I almost want to call it the last Golden Age of artistic achievement.  It was a time when there always seemed to be enough loose change lying around, with enough imagination left over to spare.  The result was this brief, yet vibrant span of time for the entertainment industry worldwide.  It was a window of opportunity where the basic rule of thumb was, if you can dream it, try and see if you can make it real.  As a result, part of the charm of the 80s was that it was something close to the last time anyone thought of trying to take a chance on the now rare, anthology show format.  That's the kind of show where there's no single cast of characters, or plot, and instead each episode of the show is dedicated to a simple, stand-alone story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.  It's became a near endangered species in an age devoted to franchise tent-poles of higher budgets and lessening returns.

While the format is practically a collector's antique these days, it still remains one of my favorite types of programming.  I think part of the charm of the anthology format is that it's the one media style that comes closest to the experience of reading a story in its purest form.  By that I mean simply that the best thing about an anthology series is that it comes closest to the experience of picking up one book, living within its pages for a span of time, and then being lucky enough to find another story, just as good as the one that came before, just for different reasons.  There must have been some sort of mutual wavelength going on back then.  As the 1980s appears to have been something close to the last final bow for the genre anthology.  I think part of what explains this is that a lot of the people who grew up as young kinds watching shows like The Twilight Zone, or Alfred Hitchcock Presents came away inspired by what they saw, and now that they were established names in the industry, they wanted to revive the particular creative thrill each of them got out of  the efforts of format pioneers like Rod Serling.


It helped in no small part that the original Big Three TV networks who were responsible for giving us shows like The Outer Limits, and One Step Beyond, were now eager to try and see if each of these old war horses still had some life in them.  Could the old, gray mare still run with the input of some new blood, in other words?  By and large, the answer to that question seems to have been, pretty much, yes.  That's how we wound up with a slate of new and improved anthology shows, such as the first (and so far, the most successful) reboot of the Zone, along with new offerings such as Tales from the Darkside, or Steve Spielberg's Amazing Stories.  Even good ol' Uncle Freddy Krueger got his own Tales from the Crypt style series for a brief span of time.  In fact, however crazy that sounds, let it at least stand as a good example of just how the networks were willing to take risks on real, actual creative challenges.

This spurt of creativity didn't apply solely to the Idiot Box, however.  The format of dramatic radio, what some have referred to as the Theater of the Mind, was also able to get in on the act.  In addition to shows like The Ray Bradbury Theater, the full cast audio performance began to find the start of a new footing for itself, after a long span of dormancy, which started sometime in the early 60s.  By the time the 80s rolled around, the OTR format was beginning to show signs of stirring back to life.  It was a revival composed of many parents.  For the purposes of the article, the creator we have to focus in on is known as William Lane.  If the name has any familiarity to a few of you reading this, then it's because we've already covered his efforts once before.  Lane was the primary wunderkind behind the Nightfall radio dramas.  A good way to sum up his achievements there is to claim that Bill Lane might have been the man responsible for bringing the legitimate Gothic story of Horror and the Supernatural back to the airwaves.  It's the sort of achievement that no one ever talks about, and barely anyone remembers, all the while going on to leave ripple effects across the genre and various mediums for ages to come.

I suppose it's safe to claim that Nightfall remains Lane's chief claim to fame.  It was his baby, and he found the right way of raising and treating it that catapulted them both into a minor, yet genuine, form of the stratosphere.  Even if that's the case, it's still a mistake to treat him as the radio equivalent of a one-book-wonder.  In addition to Nightfall, Lane seems to have had one other long lasting endeavor to his name.  Much as he'd done for the Horror genre in his first big breakout series, he then went on to pay the same compliment to the related, literary strain known as Science Fiction.  The title for this new, spaced out anthology was The Vanishing Point. In many ways, this seems to have been a natural outgrowth of Lane's earlier efforts.  The Nightfall series ran from 1980 to 83.  By that time, Sci-Fi and Horror where reaching a height that they've never been able to achieve since.  Lane picked up on all this, and his successful effort in audio Tales of Terror must have left him eager for more of the similar.

It's been difficult, if not impossible, to find a sufficient amount of background material to this anthology.  In that sense, Vanishing Point is very much in the same boat as its earlier, sister show.  Each of them is an unjustly neglected, under-documented aspect of real life history, and so we've let each of them slip way back in the corridors of memory.  This makes the critical historian's task a bit more difficult, though not always insurmountable.  The most reliable facts available are that "Vanishing Point was the CBC’s follow-up to Nightfall, which had instilled new life into its many regional drama centers.  Like that series, Vanishing Point drew from the CBC's entire coast to coast network, gathering together the CBC's finest production, engineering, writing, and acting talent to mount one of the better radio dramas in CBC history.  

"While primarily a science fiction series, the anthology presented a wide range of genres, including thriller, horror, detective, psychological drama, comedy and even the occasional musical.  A number of episodes were adaptations of short stories from famous authors like Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl or Evelyn Waugh, but many were original plays from Canada's top talent.  Bill Lane workshopped plays from the winners of various Canadian literary competitions as a way of "reaching the audience by developing the talents of new playwrights (web)". And that, believe it or not, is all the background information I can find on the whole thing.  The only other interesting piece of trivia I've been able to find was something dredged up by accident.  It was a brief promotional line for the show.  It's tagline was promoted as: "The point between reality and fantasy (web)".  One critic goes on to describe it in the following terms: "Don’t expect to make sense of -these- as you would any other show. These stories are taken from the dream state that you slide into at night, just out of grasp of your senses, completely surreal, but in the dream, it makes every bit of sense… The shows are designed to confuse and twist; they have small meanings that resonate only with the dreamer’s subconscious (ibid)".


What's interesting about this circumstance is the way it can have of creating a proper sense of mystery surrounding the whole production.  It's one of those neat little unsung endeavors that fly under the radar during its moment in history.  Then it re-emerges as a relic of time at some later date, leaving an interesting enigma for people to wonder about.  That seems to have been the legacy of Vanishing Point.  In order to get better acquainted with it, maybe the best way of making first introductions is by taking a look at one of the show's sample offerings.  It's a first contact yarn, known simply as, Cage of Light.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Death on the Nile (2022).

There's a dirty secret that few know about.  I've never been impressed by how movies look.  I guess that's supposed to be this major shock in a lot circles.  I'm just not sure I've run into any one of them.  All I know for certain is that as far back as I can recall, what made me like or dislike any work of art, whether on the page or on the big or small screen wasn't its production quality, or its "star" value.  Nor am I at all certain that this is something that the majority of the audience cares about all that much.  If audiences really had a care about the performers, then actors like Katherine Hepburn, Clarke Gable, or Donna Reed would still be familiar names in the back of the minds of viewers almost everywhere.  

The fact this isn't the case tells me it's more of mistake to rely on the so-called "quality" of any given film production than is normally assumed to be valid in most movie-going quarters.  For what it's worth, I've also heard talk that the importance of movie "stars" is something that's on the way out as far as modern fandoms are concerned.  This could either good or bad.  The only constant I've been able to find, the one that has proven the most reliable over the years, all boils down to a single question.  Is the writing good?  If the answer can manage to be yes, then I don't care how poverty row the "production" side of things gets.  You could strip it right down to no real props or background, just a bunch of unfamiliar faces saying the lines on an undressed sound-stage, like Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and all I'd still care to know, even then, is whether or not the narrative itself is able to hold up to close scrutiny.

I say all this as prelude to a simple observation.  I want you to know that I can't be bothered to give much of a rip about how well Kenneth Branagh does either in front of or behind the camera.  I don't know how that makes me sound, and I'll swear I don't care.  All I know is he's got one of those MST3K type reputations in the industry, and among audiences.  He's accused of being over-the-top, with an incurable hankering for "Ham 'n Cheese", no matter what film he makes, or is in.  It's the kind of thing that acts as a distraction for most people.  The minute he starts doing his thing, whatever that is, he gets folks laughing at him, like this unintentional Ringling Bros. clown.  The main claim in all this is that he makes himself impossible to take seriously as an actor, for some reason.  To which, all I can say goes as follows: "Good for him, where's the story"?  If we're going to go the whole Hot Topic route on this, drop me a postcard, cause I fundamentally count myself out of all such considerations.  To me, the gossip columnist approach to works of fiction is the gutter where all legitimate criticism of art goes to die.  And I have too much respect for the medium of storytelling to even think of writing like that.

So that means when it comes to talking about Branagh's next film, if you want to know anything about plotting, characterization, or themes, all that boring good stuff, then you've come to the right place.  If it's a Soap Opera you're looking for, then aren't there still 24 hour cable TV channels for that sort of thing?  I don't know, I've never bothered to look any of that up.  I just took a wild guess, here.  Either way, the answer remains the same, no.  I'm here to concentrate on the importance of story, as story, nothing more, and never less.  With that in mind, let's talk Agatha Christie.  I said a moment ago that names like Kate Hepburn tend to get lost in the sands of time.  I don't know whether that's a basic rule of thumb, yet it does seem to be a cruel fate for a lot of once great talents that perhaps shouldn't be forgotten.  I guess that's what makes Christie's ability to hang on for so long all that more remarkable.  She's an exception that proves the rule, and yet she is also one of the most common of phenomenons to any longtime bookworm.  She's a reliable dime store rack novelist, and she's still hanging around, while other great practitioners in this trade (and here I'm thinking of names like David Goodis or John D. MacDonald) have long since faded from memory.  I'm not saying this makes her bad, by the way.


Far from that being the case, I think I'd have to go so far as to call her one of the undisputed geniuses of the Mystery Noir genre of writing.  What would be interesting to me is to figure out just what it is about her work that makes her linger in the memory after such a great passage of time.  John Fowl's The Collector used to be a Very Big Deal to audiences everywhere, until one day he wasn't, and now everyone wonders who the hell I'm talking about?  Christie still doesn't seem to need that much in the way of an introduction just yet, and its something like a modern marvel in a short term memory loss culture like ours.  Whatever the case, stories like Death on the Nile are still regarded fondly, whereas I'm not sure anyone has a idea who Mickey Spillane is.  To this day its held up as one of the best examples of the genre, and it has proven famous enough to have gained at least two prior adaptations to the Cinema and TV screen, first with Peter Ustinov, and second as part of the classic David Suchet series.  Branagh's efforts make it a trifecta, which brings us to the important point, the story itself.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

McCay (2018).

When we think of the Comics Industry at all these days, it's usually less for the the actual art and format, in and of themselves.  And that's kind of a shame, really.  As it tells you a lot about the shape things are in, when you find any behind the scenes drama a lot more memorable than any of the stories contained in the pages of DC or Marvel.  For my part, I just know what it's like to be able to grow up in a time when this wasn't the case.  I got here in 1984, and if you do the math, it means that while I was sort of too early and young for the party, I arrived just in time for what in retrospect is the last great burst of artistic creativity in the world of comic books.  When I was still learning to walk and say or read my own name, guys like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave McKeon, and Neil Gaiman were all finding ways to bring all the various comics they grew up with as kids into a more sophisticated format, written and designed in a way that even the most snobbish of adults could respect.  Looking back on it now, it's that over-arching desire for respect that stands out the most about it, at least to me.  Comic books had fully entered into what is now known as the Bronze Age, with all the major superheroes and their brands having gone into a major slump.

Moore, Gaiman, and the others, all held a shared conviction that the comics art form was capable of much more than it was putting out at the time.  It's what led them to conceptualize stories, layouts, and designs that would go on to be hailed as a revolution that revitalized the Comics Industry, and gave it a new lease on shelf life.  What I find ironic about such statements isn't the effect it had.  It's more to do with the familiar adage that everything old is new again.  A lot of the main reason for why Morrison and McKeon succeeded as well as they did in their endeavors is because aside from being real talented at the drawing and drafting board, each of them was highly literate as an artist.  What they did was to take the techniques, practices, and above all the themes from some of the best works of Great Literature, and apply them to the world of sequential storytelling art.  The result could sometimes be stories with influences drawn from the interconnected worlds of classical film, painting, and literature.

We have Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum, for instance, of which he had this to say.  "The story's themes were inspired by Lewis Carroll, quantum physics, Jung, and Crowley; its visual style by surrealism, Eastern European creepiness, Cocteau, Artaud, Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay, etc".  Also, "We were also referencing sacred geometry, and the plan of the Arkham House was based on the Glastonbury Abbey and Chartres Cathedral (web)".  In this, all Morrison was doing is taking the lead from Alan Moore, who often worked the symbols or archetypes from ancient myth and ritual practices into the plotting and structural schemes of work like Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Promethea.  Moore was even able to take this further by writing prose poems, or poetic essays such as Snakes and Ladders, and then have them transcribed into comic format with the help of illustrators like Eddie Campbell.  In a similar vein, Neil Gaiman seems to have found the knack for taking the ideas and plot beats from some of the best writers in literature, and giving them a home for people who've never even heard of H.P. Lovecraft, or James Branch Cabell.  It is just possible that some readers picked up a liking for Shakespeare from the pages of Sandman.

Is it right to call all this a golden age?  At the very least, it was something a hell of a lot close to a Renaissance of sorts.  What makes it kind of sad, thinking back on things as they are now, is that it is possible to debate whether it has ever gotten as good as it was back then.  My guess is that most fans, even the most casual of comics readers, would be willing to go with the idea that it isn't.  Maybe what's happening is that we're all busy waiting for that next creative spark to ignite things once more, and usher in a further renascence of the medium.  It's something that should probably be looked forward to.  In the meantime, all we can do is wait, and hope for the time when that next creative spark manifests itself.  In the meanwhile, part of what can help to pass the time is to recall some of the influences that helped inspire the creators of the format now known as the graphic novel.  There is at least one name that gets banded around a bit, here and there.  It's the work of one particular artist who keeps cropping up at random, whether it be in interviews, or in the panels of some of their most famous works.

Gaiman even dedicated one of his shot story collections to this very graphic artist, featuring a panel from his work as part of the collections frontpiece, just opposite the table of contents.  It's the picture of what looks to be a seven year old boy in pajamas climbing up the side of an otherwise ordinary city building.  The surreal touch comes in when you realize the scale of the windows the little boy is climbing past makes him two or three times the size of the average office floor.  It's like we're looking at a minuscule, human version of King Kong, making his way up the Empire State Building.  The interesting thing is I'm pretty sure this image was created quite some time before even the idea of Kong was ever conjured up out of the topsoil of the imagination.  In the drawing, the little boy is looking down onto the unseen streets, miles below.  As he does so, he muses aloud to himself.  "These people ought to know who we are, and tell that we are here".  It's a curious, strange, and somehow beguiling observation.  The sort of thing you never expect to hear anywhere except within the realm of dreams.  

That's because the artist responsible for this otherworldly picture is doing his best to conjure up an idea of what the inside of a dream might look like.  The man responsible for this image, and the observation is known today simply as Winsor McCay.  I've never found out if the boy in his drawing ever had a proper last name.  He's always young, like Peter Pan, yet slightly more timid, yet just as possible of courage and equal acts of mischief and bravery as the circumstances call for it.  So far as I can tell, he's always just been known as Little Nemo, and he is McCay's greatest creation.  In his short story collection, Fragile Things, Gaiman at least hinted at the kind of influence that a graphic artist like McCay had on his own efforts as a writer.  He originally wanted to name his anthology after the word balloon caption in the image described above.  With this tacit admission in mind, it's not too difficult to see just where and how Gaiman would take a great deal of his inspiration for the concepts, ideas, and sometimes even the visual elements of a graphic novel like Sandman.  He's not the only one, either.

McCay's Nemo comics have so managed to cement their way into the submerged pop cultural consciousness that he keeps cropping up every now and then, like a half-remembered dream recalled at the very tip edges of memory, which is essentially what Nemo and his stories are now.  Aside from Gaiman, here's a partial list of the artists that have taken inspiration from McCay's original land of dreams.  Alan Moore patterned the plot of the fourth issue of Miracleman after McCay's secondary world of Slumberland.  The rock band Genesis released a track known as Scenes from a Night's Dream, in their post lineup album,...And Then There Were Three.  Which gives listener's a summary outline of the basic setup of the Nemo comics.  French Surrealist Jean "Moebius" Giraud tried to write a sequel or two to McCay's work in the early to mid-90s.  Maurice Sendak's style owes a great deal to the original Dream newspaper strips.  Finally, one of McCay's biggest fans, an entrepreneur named Walter Elias Disney, once took the famous illustrator's son into his office, and showed him a blueprint for the park that would one day bear his name.  Then he admitted to Robert McCay that all this really should have belonged to his father.  That's the kind of imapct and legacy that Winsor McCay has left behind.

In other words, what we're talking about with Little Nemo in Slumberland, and its creator, is one of those pop-cultural touchstones that keep finding ways of influencing one generation after another.  As of this writing, awareness of McCay's most famous creation still manages to hover around the 50% mark.  That means half of the world still carries on and keeps the memory alive.  That's got a be a gosh damn record for a globe that's lucky if it still recalls an event like the signing of the Magna Carta.  I've seen enough of this guy and his work, off and on, over the years to grow a certain amount of curiosity about him.  I've leafed through enough of the comics to know I'm dealing with an actual talent.  He's good at what he does.  Very good, to be honest.  In fact, based on what I've seen, I'm afraid there's just no way to avoid calling him an artist.  That is also the sum of what I know about this guy.  Aside from his comic creation, the rest of his life comes off as something of a complete and total mystery.


I suppose that's what made me snatch up a copy of Thierry Smolderen's graphic novel.  The funny thing is I can't at all claim that it was something I was deliberately searching for.  I was busy looking up what I thought was a completely unrelated topic at the time, and there it was, as part of the options brought up as a part of my search engine results.  I'll have to admit I wasn't expecting McCay to put in an appearance, sort of .  What was I looking for that could have brought Smolderen's graphic novel up in the first place?  And what does all this have to do with the creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland?  Yeah, when you put it like that, I guess it all does call for a bit of a damn good explanation.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

House Taken Over (1946).

It's kind of amazing to realize just how many things we use without a proper understanding of them.  Take the case of Magical Realism, for example.  What on earth am I even talking about when I use that phrase in a sentence?  The plain fact is I'm not sure how many of us have even so much as a first clue.  It's got to be a genre of some kind, that much is clear.  If it weren't, then odds are even no one would even bother to use the term at all.  Some of the more adventurous sorts might venture as how they heard it came from somewhere in Latin America, wherever that is.  Whether or not such a statement is at all "fair", what can't be denied is the sentiment is bound to come from someone being no more than as honest as they know how.  Come to think of it, though, isn't it supposed to be like just some form of fantasy writing?  And didn't Disney try their hand at it with movies like Encanto?  The best reply I can think of for all of the hypothetical questions given above is that they each represent a given amount the truth, while still not ever managing to get as clear an outline of a vaster, more expansive countryside.

If you can bear to hang on for an annoying, abbreviated history lesson, the whole thing started as an out growth of several influences converging into something old that was new again (accent on the "was").  Magical Realism is best described as what happens when works of European Surrealism in general, and German Romanticism in particular is able make its way into the environs of Mexico and South America.  Where it was able to leave a considerable impact on a goodish number of impressionable, young, Latino minds.  Fellows like Jorge Luis Borges were able to find a moment to pick up translations of writers like Edgar Alan Poe and E.T.A. Hoffman in their spare time, and as they made their way through pages of the accumulated phantasmagoria of Europe and America, the gears of their imaginations just began to turn is all.  It's the same kind of phenomenon that happens in musical genres, such as Metal and Grunge, except this time there's no music to speak of, just words.  That and maybe a bit of painting here and there.  It's no lie to claim that Surrealism helped play a part in jump-starting the Latin American fantasist craze.  Painters like Dali and Magritte, in particular, were able to find a very receptive audience waiting for them in the hills of Columbia and the city streets of Brazil.  

What happened next is a process that has continued to play itself out across all cultures and nationalities.  It's more or less the exact same process that appears to happen every time an accumulative number of readers out there are to able pick up any quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, and find themselves converted into book nerds for life.  The specific details of how this plays out in real life is pretty simple.  You open the text in front of you, and then start to read.  If you're lucky, the text you've chosen to parse through is one of those genuine winners.  Something from the likes of Bradbury, Conan-Doyle, or Richard Matheson.  Any story that is told so well, in other words, that it is able to "set up shop" in your mind, and then you're hooked on storytelling for life.  It's one of those cases of a perfectly normal enough phenomena that is still nonetheless looked at somewhat askance.  It also never really stops such fandoms from gathering together over time, and that's what happened in city, suburban, and even country households all across South America.  The net result was a young population that grew up influenced by the best that European Romanticism had to offer.  Some of these fans, in turn, would grow up to be writers themselves one day, their imaginations have been kindled and nurtured by the collective legacy of popular Fantastic fiction and painting.

It's what allowed these later writers to give birth to what is now known as the Latin American Boom.  There seem to be at least five big names associated with this movement in Latino Letters.  We've already brought up Borges in this regard.  Others who followed in his wake include Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and then of course, there's Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Put them all together and we've got an assembled list of all the guys who used to scare the crap out of you during English 101 from high school to college.  All of which is to say that, yeah, maybe the Magical Realists are the type of author best encountered outside of the classroom.  That way there's no intimidation factor involved.  There's no greater kiss of death for a school of writing than having your class teacher spout off and on about how important Magical Realism is.  Instead, experience has taught me that the best way to get acquainted with all of this stuff is to have heard next to little of anything about it, and then just stumble across a good specimen of the genre while going about your normal routine.


The best sort of way to get acquainted with the work of the Magic Realists that I'm aware of is to be working your way through any half-way decent anthology of Fantastic fiction, and then stumble upon a story with curious, enticing titles, such "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings".  If just the marquee description is enough to get you interested, then trust me when I say the story that follows will be enough to set off a bomb in your mind, in the best way possible, of course.  Part of what makes this approach such a good icebreaker for the sub-genre is that it goes a lot farther towards helping the reader get a sense of just what type of story they're dealing with here.  A lot of the assistance comes down to the good instincts of helpful editors who somehow manage to have a knack for giving these stories their proper context.  It makes sense that you would place a story such as "The Library of Babel" somewhere within in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, because such an editorial choice just seems to show a proper awareness of what type of writing Magical Realism amounts to.

Another reason for championing such an approach is because that's kind of the way it happened for me.  It's been a while now, however.  So that means I can't recall with entire clarity just where I learned how to appreciate the work of Julio Cortazar.  I want to say it was a chance encounter on a website somewhere.  I think what happened is I was reading through a review of Antonioni's Blow-Up and the reviewer happened to mention that it was based off of an actual written short story.  So that was what got my interest, and how I found out about Cortazar.  If I had to detail what that was like, then the all I can say for the moment is that it was akin to stumbling upon a rich, yet overlooked country.  Like a cul-de-sac of vibrant wilderness hidden away by an otherwise blank mass of rock and mountainous terrain.  In other words, as some of you are no doubt thinking, it means I must have stumbled upon the literary equivalent of the Madrigal Stronghold.  To which I say, close, yet no dice.  Try going someplace weirder and far out there.  Let me put it you this way.  It was an interesting discovery, yet also no real surprise to find out Stephen King included Cortazar's Blow-Up: And Other Stories (the volume which incidentally contains the story we're about to examine here today) on his list of influential novels or anthology collections that have made a substantial contribution to the field of the Horror genre.  

It's a rather strong claim to make, and from a pretty heady source, when you stop and think about it.  King's endorsement almost manages to cast Cortazar in a whole, other, Latin American Gothic light.  The more you explore the work of this writer in particular, the easier it becomes to understand why King would find himself making such a judgement call.  At the same time, there is enough diversity in his output to make me think he's best described as a Magical Realist proper.  One who is capable of making a side contribution here and there to the Horror genre, in an occasional, off-handed, not really trying but succeeding anyhow sort of way.  It might be that there's this kind of borderland status to his work that makes it accessible to both kinds of writing at once.  In order to explain what I'm talking about, however, perhaps its best if we stop wasting time, and get to the main attraction.  The way to do that is to take a sample from Cortazar's work.  A short story known simply as, "House Taken Over".

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Operation Avalanche (2016).

The first thing I did after the credits was to head for one of my bookshelves.  I was looking for a poem.  I knew I had to look it up, because that's what the movie planted in my mind.  The idea was that if I found and re-read it, it would help put the finishing touch on everything I'd just watched.  It provides the last piece of context that completes the puzzle.  Before we get to all that, however, it's best to start at the right place.  In the beginning, there was a filmmaker, and a genre.  It all started with a break-in at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  The whole thing was sort of a joke, really.  If only it were something interesting, like international spies trying to steal valuable secrets for nefarious purposes.  It might be just the stuff of pulp fiction, however at least its more interesting than the truth.  The actual facts of the case is that it was just this group of random punks off the street.  They weren't even affiliated with any dark organization at all.  These were just a bunch of indie filmmakers, who somehow managed to talk their way past the front gates, and enter NASA under false pretenses.

The leader of this band of erstwhile merry pranksters is a fellow by the name of Matthew Johnson.  From the looks of him, and the way he lists himself in the film credits, he seems like the kind of guy who tells you to just call him Matt right on first acquaintance.  He's a Toronto native who seems to have grown up with an early interest in the art of film.  He enrolled at York University, and from there began to establish himself on the Independent Cinema circuit.  Johnson is still a relatively new kid in town as of this writing.  So it poses the question of how much there is to discuss at such an early juncture.  One of the key bits of information I was able to pick up about him was that Johnson cited films like Zelig, and Forrest Gump as two major influences on his current style of filmmaking (web).  It's an admission that does the critic a favor in at least figuring out why Johnson would find himself drawn to the particular format he seems comfortable using for the moment.  Let's put it this way.  I'm surprised that Matt didn't think to add the likes of The Blair Witch Project to his list of influences.  All of which is to say that it's time to to talk once more about everyone's "favorite" form of black sheep filmmaking.

I'm talking of course about the Found Footage Genre.  Whether you love or hate it, the inescapable fact is that it seems like the format that's here to stay, even if its just the new type of poverty row cinema.  My own approach to the whole thing remains pragmatic, whether you think it's a fault, or not.  What's important to note is the two films that got Johnson interested in using this particular style.  One of the things that I think  lot of audiences and critics are slow to understand is just how old the Found Footage trope really is.  Something like Forrest Gump can be cited as an example of a straight-forward narrative film.  However, a movie like Zelig is one of, if not the earliest examples of what's now come to be known as a Mockumentary feature.  Just as Robert Zemeckis would go on to do a few years later, Woody Allen was one of the the first to beat the idea to the finish line by a good chunk of a decade.  Another example would have to be Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.  Allen's technique was much the same as in the Tom Hanks film, except that the decade and subject matter were different.

He would shoot modern day footage of himself using old film stock and cameras dating from, at. or around the 1920s or 30s.  This gave the overall appearance of his movie the look of an antique from another time.  He then used roughly the same effects compositions as Zemeckis to help splice him into footage from the late dawn of the 20th century.  As a result, we're able to see moving images of Allen lounging around the New York Yankees baseball field circa the Jazz Age, or mingling with the likes of Eugene O'Neil, or Ada "Bricktop" Smith.  Allen's little experiment amounts to an example of movie magic at its finest, yet most understated.  It was this, combined with Zemeckis' achievement a few years later than appears to have acted as just the right spark on Johnson's imagination.  The director was born in 1985, so if we take that as our starting point, do a bit of math, and extrapolate from that.  Then it sounds as if Johnson's later exposure to the growing Found Footage format, combined with what he learned earlier from Allen and Zemeckis is what led him to choose the sub-genre as his own format.

One of the first uses that resulted from Johnson's enthusiasm turned about to be 2013's The Dirties.  An effective, troubling slow burn meditation on the phenomenon of occurrences like Columbine, or Sandy Hook, and all told from the perspective of a pair of high school students who decide to bring a camera to class one day, and film themselves in their slow descent into insanity.  In real life, Johnson and his frequent collaborators Owen Williams and Evan Morgan are much more of the affable slacker types.  Think Clerks except with none of the whiny angst and emotional baggage.  These guys know where they're supposed to be today, and they all seem perfectly happy with it.  Part of the appeal for these guys might stem from the fact that they take the concept of guerilla filmmaking seriously.  


In order to ensure a sense of "authenticity" for their first feature, Johnson and Williams went the extra mile of actually enrolling in a local public high school in order to not let themselves stick out like a sore thumb.  The filmmakers and their efforts received a generous amount of help and support from none other that the administration of the very school they were filming in, and they spent their time pretending to be individuals that they never were in real life.  The fact that they were never hassled, or that no one ever seems to have bothered to call them out must be some kind of testament to the skill involved in the filmmaker's efforts.  It may also be say something of the director's abilities for making this kind of movie.  He was so good at it that Johnson and his friends tried the same trick again with NASA.

The director explained the whole situation over the course of an interview with The Take.  The initial idea for his next film came together "when we were flying home from Slamdance in 2013, when we’d just premiered our first feature The Dirties (2013). We were trying to figure out how we could make a movie in the same style except about something slightly bigger, and we were looking at historical moments that we could make a fake documentary about. And the moon landing just seemed so catchy and interesting that as soon as we started talking about it we had, like, 200 ideas, basically, on how to make the movie that you saw".  Miller explains: "It was of those ideas that we were shocked nobody had done it like this before".

Johnson continues: "All those things we’d developed in our first movie, so those are holdovers from [The Dirties]. So it was a given that I was going to play myself, and there were going to be lots of tricks and lots of lies and things like that, and because we were already comfortable working in that style, we applied all those things instantly. In fact we never even really talked about them from a creative point of view. It was more like, Oh, it’ll be so cool that those things are going to come up. But it’s not like we were making those discoveries because we had already discovered those things".  Miller adds, "But we didn’t quite know, for instance, that the movie was going to be about Matt pretending to be a filmmaker sneaking into NASA as his cover and us basically doing the same thing in order to pull it off from a production standpoint. Those are some things that, as we were figuring out how we were going to make the movie, we stumbled onto that were very cool".  

When it comes to the major feat of sneaking into the the center of the central hub of the nation's actual freakin' Space Program(!), Johnson proved incredibly casual and off-the-cuff about it.  "It’s mostly what you see in the movie. In both cases, in fact, what we show the audience is more or less what we did. With NASA, we went in posing as a documentary film crew saying that we were from a film school in Toronto, which we both were at the time. And we said we were making a documentary about the Apollo program, in the exact same way the characters say they’re making a documentary about the Apollo program.  And then at Shepperton we did more or less what the characters do there as well, which is we just showed up. That was different because it was a private studio, but nobody kicked us out right away, and so we just went in and shot as much as we could before they did throw us out. They were filming The Avengers 2 [Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)] at that studio at the time. And when they did finally catch us they thought we were paparazzi trying to film Chris Evans or something (web)".

Based on just a simple reading of the director's comments, it's hard not to get the sense that there's a lot more bluster to his words than he lets on.  I don't doubt that he managed to sneak into NASA, believe it or not.  The film itself is his own backup on that score.  The finished product bears out everything Johnson says, and its a testament to his tenacity as an artist.  I just can't help thinking his words are a textbook example in studied nonchalance.  Something tells me that while he's learned how to put up a brave face on the aftermath of things, at the time it was all happening, he could have supplied an entire brick making factory.  I don't see how you can just waltz into a place like NASA and act like you have the right to be there without authorization.  Say sorry, yet it just can't be done.  It may be possible to bluff your way through there.  Johnson's exploits are proof enough of that.  Yet its sheer hubris to claim you don't have a care in the world while your trying to pull the bullshit off.  If he'd been caught, that was the kind of thing that could have landed him jail time, and maybe even the ruination of his career. 


You'd be better off trying that same stunt in a place like Disneyland, rather than an actual government facility.  What Johnson was able to pull off will have to go down as a textbook example of sheerest dumb luck.  The only thing weirder than the stunt Johnson got away with, are the results that wound up making the final cut.  Believe it or not, here's where the hole in reality begins to grow and widen.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Free Guy (2021).

It's not often that I get a chance to use words like Appearance and Reality around here.  I mean, it's not like I haven't used them in a sentence before on this blog.  If I had to take a bet on it, then my guess is odds are even that I've done just that, sometimes more than once.  However, using those words in the course of an article is not the same as turning to something like a discussion of the topics or ideas contained in each of them.  That's because in some ways a movie like Free Guy can surprise you.  I'll admit, when I saw the first trailers for the film, my initial reaction was to ask myself if I was just looking at maybe another Ready Player One clone.  I've long since made my opinions on that whole debacle known before.  I think that whole movie was such a dispiriting experience, that it at least helps explain the almost immediate skepticism I had to the first preview release of this one.  Instead, I have to ask whether its possible I've been given an opportunity to ponder a few questions related to the perennial struggle between the topics of truth and illusion.  If that sounds like a tall order, or if things seem to be getting "out there" a bit too soon, then perhaps its best to start things out at ground level, and go a bit into the background of today's film.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the basic concept for the movie began way back in 2016, as an idea in the mind of screenwriter Matt Lieberman.  Here's how the writer described the beginning of things in his own words.  "I’d been a professional screenwriter for a while. I’d sold Christmas Chronicles. I’d worked in the Disney writer’s program for a couple of years, which was great. I’d gotten open writing assignments like Short Circuit and Scoob! Even Addams Family by then. I was definitely feeling a little stuck in a place. It is more an autobiography than I’d be willing to admit. I felt stuck and I had this idea, I’d been kicking it around for a while and I knew it was a good idea. Five years ago this month, I sat down and knocked it out, really quickly".  If there's anything to be frustrated about this information, it's that we're given just the scarcest details as to how the story idea came about.

The good news is the reader doesn't have to go away empty-handed.  Lieberman's admission to an element of autobiography in the story can help give an idea of where it came from.  His comments about feeling "stuck in place" help situate the initial creative idea as stemming from, or growing out of a slight mid-life crisis situation.  It's the sort of thing that can happen if a person starts living life at the rote, just-going-through-the-motions level.  It's a pitfall that anyone can trip into if they're not careful.  This sense of "stuckness" appears to have been the catalyst, allowing the artist's imagination to cough up a story concept which acts as a neat reflection of the writer's circumstance.  Lieberman continues: 

"I wrote the first draft in less than three weeks.  A lot of that stuff is very much still in the movie. It’s crazy.  I’d been kicking around the idea for a while.  I knew what it was.  There were pieces of talent that were interested in talking about it as an idea, as a pitch maybe. I had a good sense of what it needed to be when I started out...I started the idea as, “What if you have the cheat codes to life? What if you could walk around and see power-ups? Oh, then you would be in Grand Theft Auto.” I backed into it that way. Once I had that, it all started falling together really quickly. I relate to NPCs in a lot of ways. Like a lot of writers are, I’m a habitual guy. I’m very much in my lane. My wife says I’m a cartoon character. I wear the same three sets of clothes all the time. The Blue Shirt Guy was me for a while.


"I was thinking a lot about Truman Show and Cabin in the Woods. I’m a high-concept guy. I love great, high-concept movies. I don’t know what they are called in [Cabin in the Woods] — the executive guys. I set it up the same way. Who are these guys? Are the two worlds related? I wanted them to have a scene or two of that where you weren’t even sure if these were part of the same world or not. It just naturally evolved from there (web)".  It's the mention of The Truman Show that gets my attention.  By bringing that film up, Lieberman seems to have provided us with our first clue to the kind of movie he had in mind, even during the course of those first round of drafts.  It's also maybe now that my earlier comment about Appearance and Reality begins to make perhaps the slightest bit of sense.  It's an issue that the Carrey movie is more or less obsessed with from the first reel to the last.  It's also possible that this obsession is part of the reason for why it has stuck around for so long.  There's just something about the conflict or the quest for the reality behind the appearances that is appealing to the human spirit on some fundamental level.  Or at least there's one explanation for it.  Whatever the case, I'd say that's as good a place as any in which to get started on a story born out of one man's mid-life crisis.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020).

I guess the best place to start is with a little history.  I born the year George Orwell made famous.  If you stop and do the math here, for a bit, you'll soon discover that means I was more or less just in time for the fallout of the big video game crash of 1983.  It was the start of a pretty lean season for the industry.  The problem, so far as I can tell, was a mixture of market over-saturation, combined with an actual drop in public interest with the digital gaming format.  What it meant in practice was a drop in stock value, and lot of important cash drying up in some otherwise hefty pocket books.  The one blessing visited upon the industry was the 1985 release of a home console cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  It was an otherwise unassuming piece of work known as Super Mario Bros.  The rest was pretty much history by the time I was old enough to even be aware of any of this.  That game is the one which more or less helped in a slow re-building of enthusiasm for the video game format as a whole.  It became such a juggernaut, that by the time my folks bought me and my sister our first SNES console, it was pretty much a matter of ancient history already.  By the time I came onstage, things had changed for the better.

It was near the end of 1991 that our folks treated us to our own slice of early gamer history when we we're both given our own copy of Super Mario World as a little Christmas bonus to go along with the then new console.  It was the first time I'd ever had any of that stuff in my own living room, and my initial reaction is probably worth being ashamed of now, in the eyes of many who are reading this.  The truth of the matter is my first thought was I didn't even know what the hell I was supposed to do with the darned thing.  The scant amount of exposure I can even remember having to video games up to that point comes in the form of an old episode of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, of all things.  I guess that's worth a laugh too, as these things go.  No matter how ridiculous it really is, there's nothing that can stop it from being the honest truth.  Kindly, old Fred was paying a visit to a local soda fountain shop, and there, in the corner of the room was this little kid futzing around with this huge box with garish looking colors painted all over the side.  It even had pictures on it, as I recall.  They were of a man, a woman, and an ape, for some reason.  The boy told Fred and the kids at home that the game was called Donkey Kong.  And that was literally all she wrote for me till then on the subject of video games.

Aside from the retrospective recognition that 80s Horror icon Keith David also played a role in that segment, there's very little I can add to a discussion of either the format, or it's history.  Like, seriously, I cannot recall a single minute of my life, from that moment until the winter of 91 when I even so much as heard a single thing about video games.  I'm pretty sure I would have remembered at least something of that, as well, because of the narrower window of information at the public's finger tips.  This was way back before the internet began to pick up any real sense of steam, remember.  We're talking now about the last vestiges of a vanishing Analog Age.  It was a style of living that was already in decline by the time that console was plopped right into the center of the family living room.  However, because the web wouldn't go world wide until a good number of years down the road, that meant there was just one way I could have ever learned of video games, and that was through whatever I managed to catch on the cable TV of that decade.  I was a young strip of a lad, back then, however, and as most hyper-active 80s kids, if it wasn't a cartoon I happened to like, then odds are I tuned it out, more often than not.

I never I even really discovered the 80s music video until some time in the early 2000s.  I would catch some of them at odd moments, and yet the inherent, self-indulgent oddity of the format just worked as a turn-off for me.  These days I'm able to get an ironic sort of enjoyment from a lot of them.  Back then, however, it just wasn't worth my time, or so I thought, anyway.  The point is, if I tuned out one, then I sure as hell probably never paid any attention to a single video game commercial if they were ever advertised on television.  And, like I said, my life up to that point hadn't given me any real disposition to the format.  In fact, I remember I was quite reluctant to even bother with it once it was fully set up.  It came off as noisy, and I wanted to focus on whatever else it was I got in my stockings that year.  I know that must sound like blasphemy to a sizable segment of the readers right now.  You'll just have to take my word that I was a novice at the time, and still remain one to this day, in many ways.


Believe it or not, it was the constant nagging of my parents that finally made me sit down next to my sister on the living room rug, and pick up a console control for the first time.  I think they were operating on the knowledge that they'd forked over a pretty penny for this whole system, and damn it they were not about to let all that lost, hard-earned cash go to waste.  Perhaps the second greatest surprise waiting for me that day was not just that I had a video game in my house, but that after a while, I kinda wound up getting into it a bit.  I found myself in control of everyone's favorite, red and blue wearing plumber, and to be fair, that was the start of a brief yet eventful phase of getting hooked on gaming.  The key word here is that it was just a phase only, and I mean every word of that.  The last video games I ever played were somewhere at or about 2002, just before I was set to graduate high school.  The most interesting thing about my entire experience with gaming is just this.  It was a fun bit of a ride, yet it always seems to have been just a diversion for me.  It never made me into a gamer.

Instead, it seems as if books and films have become the overarching hobbies of my life.  These days, the best I can ever manage in terms of gaming is a peak into the occasional Let's Play video on YouTube, here or there.  Beyond this, I think I never had much to say about video games in general.  That's not the same as saying I don't have a clue as to the impact they've had over the years.  Like, even back when I was still a youngster, I was able to get the sense that big things were happening with the medium.  A lot of this awareness came from starting to notice how a lot of the steam the format was building up made itself felt with a noticeable increase in advertising space.  I almost want to say that Mario World was the game that shifted the paradigm by a lot, because after that, it was like every other commercial on the idiot box was about the latest games.  It wasn't just limited to Nintendo back then, either.  Here's the part where my memory gets sketchy.  I can't tell whether I just heard about the Sega Genesis on TV at some point, and egged my parents to get it, or if that was another Christmas gift.

Come to think of it, did I get Mario World in 91 or 92?  I must have miscalculated.  My first ever copy of a Sega game was Sonic 2, and that wasn't released until 1992, so it must have been the Christmas after that when I got both consoles as gifts.  That's because another piece of memory just occurred, and it insists we got both the SNES and the Genesis together at once.  We made a bigger fuss over the Nintendo, as I recall.  Yet I also just remembered the Genesis was there as well.  I think the fact it didn't occur to me all at once is testament to just which system was prioritized at the time.  As I recollect, it wasn't forgotten, just shunted into second place by everyone that day.  I think I was the one who noticed it left lying around, like an unintentional afterthought.  I'm certain for a fact that it came with the Sonic 2 cartridge, because I still have the image of the eyeless looking Robotnik glaring down at our two heroes.  Anyway, I brought it to my mom's attention, and she helped set it up.  Then I put the cartridge in and started the game up.  That's how I first made acquaintance with the Blue Blur.


Like I said, none of it was ever enough to make me into a full-time gamer.  Though I suppose I spent enough time with either a SNES or Genesis controller in my hand to be able to allow all that stuff to carve out a room full of memories in my brain.  It's by no means the most used, or even well kept room in the place.  It's just something that will probably always be there, in some way.  I know I played Sonic just long enough to get a rough idea of the characters and their personalities.  The main character is the snarky trickster, Tails is the ever-present sidekick, Knuckles is sort of the muscle of the group, and Robotnik (or Eggman, depending on how you choose to call him) is the designated baddie.  Beyond that, I'm not sure how much help I can be.  I just point all this out to give you a heads up.  When it comes to looking at a film adaptation like Sonic the Hedgehog, you might have to accustom yourselves to a very rough outsiders perspective, even if it's the best that I can do, under the circumstances.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

The Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick: Roog (1951).

It's one of those images that stays with you.  There's this field, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, USA.  There's not enough detail to tell just where all this takes place, however from the look of the faded, Autumnal orange of the trampled or wild fields of grain or grass that surrounds the main setup on all sides, it looks very much as if we're situated somewhere in or at a cornfield, located somewhere in Nebraska.  It's nighttime outside, and while there aren't that many stars out, one or two can definitely be seen shining above in the night sky.  The field has a plowed up look to it.  It's not the appearance you might associate with the look of scorched earth.  This one is a lot more natural.  You're able to get a sense of tranquility from it.  It takes a while before you mind registers that it's the same type of cultivation that is sometimes used for bits of pasture that have been converted into a baseball field.  There's no Major League quality to be seen anywhere.  This is the sort of ballpark designed so that maybe the neighborhood kids will have someplace to go, or maybe even a dream to shoot for, if the mood is ever right.  There's even some equipment to be seen in the picture, though it's not the stuff you can play a good game with.

Instead, it's a motley assortment of items.  One might even call them somewhat eyebrow raising.  The easiest pieces to discern, the ones closest to the viewer, are one of those old, Red Ryder style firearms, the ones you literally could have just sent for in the mail.  Beside it to the viewer's right is what looks like an oversized Jack-in-the-Box, designed to look something like a pre-schooler's alphabet block.  If the sight of the latched lid of the Box wasn't visible for all to see, we might be wondering what we're looking at.  Located just a foot or two away from the Red Ryder gun is an old library book, one of those, old, faded shelf dwellers with the paper well on its way to becoming parchment with the passing of years.  I can't tell if there's anything on the cover, and that's sort of a shame.  You never know, it could have been a good story.  Located just to the left of the book is a combination football, complete with helmet.  What's notable about it is the headgear looks like the kind they used to have for the game way back before the 1950s or something.  It served its purpose well, and its still so out of date that it almost looks like the sort of thing a space pilot would where in one of those old, cheesy matinee serials.  A few feet further away is what looks like either a bicycle, or some kind of engine device.

All of this is dwarfed, however, by the final prop.  It's the one image that helps define the picture, and let's us know just what it all amounts to.  Situated a few good yards away from all this pop-cultural detritus is the looming figure of a rocket ship.  It's not the viable, scientific, space-worthy type we know from NASA.  This is one of those sleek, dynamic models, the kind you can still find on the covers of old pulp magazines, the type of design you'd find in the work Norman Saunders or Frank R. Paul.  This is the image that adorns the cover of an old, 1995 anthology edited Kim Mohan.  It was called Amazing Stories, as I recall.  This is a picture I ran across some time ago, and it's always managed to stick with me, for some reason.  I guess a lot of it has to do with the way it acts as a neat summation, of sorts.

To me, that picture (illustrated by an artist named Susan Hood, as I later found out) just managed to sum up the nature of Science Fiction to me.  Come to think of it, it probably still does.  What I like about it is that the picture was done by someone who knows there's nothing simple about the genre, not as it stands after the passage of so much history.  That's because of the way history keeps catching up with Sci-Fi.  There is a sense in which it is always out of date, because it deals more in myths, rather than any single scientific fact.  I'm guilty for the sin of trying to pin a label on things, here.  Of trying to to give the category a frame which might take the wind out of its sails.  This is the kind of dirty little secret that's guaranteed to tick off anyone who still hopes for the paradigm where the genre is always trying to stay one step ahead of the technological curve.  This was the ideal that the initial premise of the genre seems to have been based on, and popularized by the likes of John W. Campbell.  For the longest time, you had editors of old pulp magazines proclaiming that what they were publishing amounted to stories about "the World of Tomorrow", in bright, bold letters of glowing neon.

The trouble is that sooner or later the future is always going to catch up with such proclamations, and, yeah, let's just say what's interesting about the way the future was is not so much how it all seems quaint in its plethora of outdated qualities, but rather this lingering sense of naivete about the capabilities of technology, which not even the most persistent of human efforts will likely ever be able to achieve.  In that sense, any remaining zeal for such concepts is probably more of a dinosaur than the old magazine issues in which they originally appeared.  The funny thing is how none of this really seems to bother the silent, yet ever growing number of fans who are willing to flock to these old fancies, now captured forever on yellowing leafs of cheap paper that have still miraculously outlasted all the artists who helped bring it together.  There is a possible sense of glory somewhere in all that.

It's the sort of achievement which I'm willing to bet may even outlast all the various comings and goings of technology as a whole.  For better or worse, this is the Sci-Fi I grew up with.  In a lot of ways, it was sort of right there for me, in at the beginning.  I have a very vivid set of early memories about this.  Part of the reason they are so easy to recall is because they consist, in essence, of a number of well known films.  In chronological order, these are Lawrence of Arabia, Return of the Jedi, Amadeus, and Back to the Future.  These made up my first impressions of the world, the somewhat natural enough result being an outlook that combines a quirky taste for popular entertainment, that is somehow able to exist right alongside a somewhat literate sense of artistic sophistication.  It's weird, in other words, and perhaps not all that common, yet it can still happen, just here and there, is all.  One of the other results of this very young introduction to Science Fiction (from two of its flagship representatives, no less) was the also somewhat natural enough desire to seek out more where that came from.  Here's where I think the limitations of time and place have played a decisive factor in my exposure to the tradition.

My first impressions of Sci-Fi came at a pretty interesting time for the genre.  These days we like to say that Star Wars revitalized things, or broke new ground.  The funny thing is how I was sort of there when this was all happening, and so it's possible for me to tell another story about it.  One that is far different and removed from the standard pop culture narrative, which in itself is probably more of a recent invention, more than it is an established, historical fact.  The truth is that this sense of 80s Sci-Fi and Fantasy as this game-changing juggernaut is a late-come phenomena, at best.  The inevitable result of my generation reaching its brief period of cultural influence, resulting in the still current wave of retro 80s nostalgia on all the major media fronts, with the likes of Stranger Things, and Synthwave music.

What I find interesting about this is how it amounts to a desire for that past, and yet with few exceptions, there's this strange halting quality to the whole thing.  It creates an unintentional sense of irony, when you stop and think about how a natural enough ache for nostalgia has created some less than stellar consequences.  We 80s kids have been given however brief a window of time to demonstrate to the world how much of a Golden Age our pop culture was, or used to be, and yet we seem to have trouble realizing it on various screens, or printed media, for the most part.  This can be seen in the fortunes of the aforementioned Stranger Things, or the recent attempts to revive the Star Wars and Trek franchises.  Sooner or later they reveal that a vital quality has been left out of consideration, and it isn't surprising if the final products have no other choice except to suffer on the crucial artistic level, the one where it counts the most.  If this were just a one thing, then I could always write it off.  The fact that it keeps happening time and again all points to a continuing trend.  What that tells me, in turn, is that there's a sense of imaginative possibilities that's been lost, somehow.


I'm afraid I can't say why this should be the case.  Nor is there any good reason for why these results should be in any way inevitable, except that we choose to let it happen this way.  As I've said already, however, this is all just recent events.  A look back at the way the actual cultural impact of history played out tells a different story.  I should know, because as I said, I was there to see it happen, and it determined the only ways I seemed able to hunt down any more Science Fiction media, if I wanted it.  The truth, as far as I could tell, is that franchises like Star Wars always left a very muted impact once you reached street level.  Stuff like that was left to flicker across the movie or TV screen as far as the adult world was concerned.  Back then, if you wanted more where that came from, you were pretty much on your own.  See, we didn't have anything like a global network of fan communities when I was growing up.  Each Sci-Fi geek, or genre nerd was a collective series of lone voices in the desert.  

The reason for that is pretty simple if you just take a moment to try and remember that there was a time before the internet as we now know it.  In that respect, I'm something of a living artifact.  I have to be one of last remaining fossils of a time gone by.  If you had to give a name for the type of phenomena I represent, then I guess that makes me an Analog Man, or at least a vestige of it.  What it means in practice is that I might have liked Star Wars, and was interested in finding more where that came from, and so I had almost no resources.  There was no real demand for that kind of thing like there is now, and I knew I was just one voice with no real say in the matter.  Instead of the benefits of a time when whole centuries of lost media can be unearthed at the almost literal click of a button, I had to make do with whatever there was on brick and mortar bookstore racks, and anything I might find hanging around an old junk shop.  That's the way the 80s truly was for any devoted pop culture geek.

I grew up in the detritus of a number of eras.  The personal home computer was a relatively new invention that consisted of a black screen with green letters.  Meanwhile, my paternal grandfather was the type who was always on the lookout for a bargain, which means if he had charge of me for a day, then it meant being carted along to old used car lots, or scrap metal dealerships in search of whatever was affordable under Reaganomics.  The result is that my memory is now a collage of assorted bric-a-brac from various, interweaving timelines, the future and the past mingling together for one brief moment of transition before being swept under the rug of history.  In that sense, it was almost like living in a Sci-Fi story.  It was also mainly through this junk shop route that I was able to advance my knowledge of the genre.  What this meant in practice is that before I could ever learn about the future of space fiction, I was more or less stuck having to dig up its past.  This resulted in my making acquaintance with a list of names that I'm pretty mean next to nothing now, and yet the genre wouldn't exist without them.  Some of the names are still relatively well known, such as Arthur C. Clarke.

However, what about someone like Murray Leinster?  Ever heard of him?  How about Clifford Simak, or Hugo Gernsback?  Or what about scientific fantasists like A.E. Van Vogt, Diana Wynn Jones,  C.M. Kornbulth, Margaret St. Clair, James Blish, Eric Frank Russell, Catherine L. Moore, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Leigh Bracket, or L. Sprague de Camp?  These are the voyagers who made Sci-Fi what it is.  I got to know them all, and they do not deserve to be forgotten.  

Of course its always possible to demand otherwise, this is an observable fact.  Even if Marjorie Nicolson was one of the few women scholars of the 1940s who was not just a writer, but a recognized scholar who did her best to champion the genre to an academic audience way before it was popular.  You do you, however.  The way I got to know the majority of these overlooked names was through the auspices of an antiquated device known as Old Time Radio.  Peter Falk once observed that back before our age, TV was known as books.  It was also sometimes known as the Theater of the Mind, on occasion.  It was what households turned to whenever there was no stack of paper to hand.  For a good chunk of the early 20th century, Dramatic Radio was the closest thing to a national, mass communication.  It's also the other medium, besides books, where I learned about Sci-Fi.

The way it happened for me was through what " has been described as one of the finest offerings of American radio drama and one of the best science fiction series in any medium (web)".  It was a program called X Minus One, and in many ways, I'd still have to call it something of an ideal beginner's course for any young kid who has a burgeoning interest in the Sci-Fi genre.  What makes it such a good starting point is given by the Old Time Radio Plot Spot blog.  It notes that the program was a "direct tie-in with Galaxy magazine, a popular Sci-Fi digest of the period. Most of the stories were culled directly from the pages of Galaxy, or remakes of stories produced for Dimension X (of which X Minus One was originally a revival series). Many of Sci-Fi's most popular authors got mass exposure through this series, and even today X Minus One is still generally considered a cornerstone of radio drama (web)".  The upshot is something of an all-purpose nexus for days of the future past.

At least that's how I got my genre literacy, anyway.  All of this is kind of like stage setting, however.  I've gone into all this history because I felt what was needed more than anything for this post is a sense of the proper context that allows us the best possible doorway into our main subject.  This happens to be another author I discovered through the help of X Minus One.  It was an adaptation of a short story by an author known simply as Philip Kindred Dick.  I'm not here to talk about that radio adaptation.  Though it thought it is good jumping off point to talk about the first story he ever wrote.  Part of the reason for doing this was already explained, in a sense.  Here's the one hard truth I've learned from being a pop-culture junkie all my life.  The dirty little secret is it can only take you so far.  Once you've gone past the point of various trivial facts about the books and movies you enjoy, it's kind of like entering a blank slate space, if that makes any sense.  It's the sort of thing that tends to leave everyone with an empty-handed lack of knowledge that I for one, find downright aggravating.


What it does is leave both artist and audience in the lurch, when I'll swear on a stack of Bibles that there's always more to be uncovered, and that genuine talents shouldn't or can't summarized in the space of a phone tweet.  PKD is one of those Big Names who's suffered from the same flattening effect.  For instance, here's what I mean.  The next paragraph you read will be taken from the Dec. 1st, 2003 issue of a Wired retrospective of the author in question.  "Philip K. Dick liked nothing better than to toy with the fundamentals of human existence, reality chief among them, so what better for the movie than a bullet that may or may not be tearing through the main character's flesh? Like other Dick protagonists – Tom Cruise in Minority Report, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, Harrison Ford in Blade Runner– Affleck finds himself struggling for equilibrium in a world where even the most elemental questions are almost impossible to answer. Can the senses be trusted? Are memories real? Is anything real?

"Dick died shortly before Blade Runner's release in 1982, and, despite a cult readership, he spent most of his life in poverty. Yet now, more than two decades later, the future he saw has made him one of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood. Paycheck, based on a 1953 short story Dick sold to a pulp magazine for less than $200, will bring close to $2 million to his estate. And movies based on more than a half-dozen other stories and novels are in the works – among them "The King of the Elves" at Disney, "The Short, Happy Life of the Brown Oxford" at Miramax, and A Scanner Darkly at Warner Bros.

"Dick's anxious surrealism all but defines contemporary Hollywood science fiction and spills over into other kinds of movies as well. His influence is pervasive in The Matrix and its sequels, which present the world we know as nothing more than an information grid; Dick articulated the concept in a 1977 speech in which he posited the existence of multiple realities overlapping the "matrix world" that most of us experience. Vanilla Sky, with its dizzying shifts between fantasy and fact, likewise ventures into a Dickian warp zone, as does Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. Memento reprises Dick's memory obsession by focusing on a man whose attempts to avenge his wife's murder are complicated by his inability to remember anything. In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey discovers the life he's living is an illusion, an idea Dick developed in his 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. Next year, Carrey and Kate Winslet will play a couple who have their memories of each other erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Memory, paranoia, alternate realities: Dick's themes are everywhere (web)".


This is the reputation that PK has managed to hold onto to this very day.  We'll have a chance to come back to that Wired article.  For right now, all that should be noticed is that while it's far from wrong, like all things associated with pop culture, it can only go so far before losing sight of the rest of the story.  I want to know if there's more to the author than just the troubled paranoiac of popular conception.  The best way I can figure how to do that right now is to start at the beginning, and see what, if anything, it has to tell us about one of the creative minds whose efforts can be said to have gone a long way towards helping to define the possibilities of Science Fiction.  In my mind, at least, that means the best candidate for examination ought to be a simple short story with a very unassuming title.  It's a quick piece known as "Roog", and it first saw light in the 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  As for where the weird sounding title came from, well, you better let me explain.