Saturday, December 17, 2022

Walt Before Mickey (2015).

This one is sort of interesting in the sense that I knew about its source material, before I ever knew someone had turned it into a movie.  At least I think that's the way the deal went down.  What I know for sure is that the first time I ever heard of this film, it wasn't a movie.  Instead, it was just this unobtrusive, yet eye-catching book tucked away comfortably on a shelf, in among the biography section of a local Barnes and Noble.  That's how I first found out about Timothy S. Susanin's Walt Before Mickey: Disney's Early Years: 1919-1928.  I picked it up off the shelf in a brief moment of impulse curiosity, and began to page through the thing.  One point of potential interest that caught my eye about Susanin's text was that it featured a personal forward by Diane Disney Miller.  She was Walt's very own daughter, and here she was willing to sing the praises of a book about her dad.  It was enough to make the book stand out in my own mind, and yet, for whatever reason, I just put it back on the shelf and moved on.  Still, while I might not have bought the book, those few brief moments of reading were enough for the text to leave an impact on my mind.  It's the sort of reaction any author wants their work to have if they wish to make it in the writing gig, no matter whether you're penning fiction or, in this case, a clear-cut work of real life biography.

In this case, Susanin appears to have scored a quiet, slow-burn bull's eye.  The memory of that book stuck around long enough for me to one day give a bit of an inward shrug, then try and see if I could pull any information about the book up online.  That's how I found out about the movie adaptation of the book.  I'd no sooner typed in the basic title of the biography before the Net informed me that they'd gone and made a movie out of it.  I can remember thinking, "Well that was fast".  Or at least I thought it was.  Turns out the book had been around since 2011.  It took about four to five more years before anyone showed an interest in bringing this small, unassuming work to any kind of screen.  Still, it looks like Susanin's book has one the cinema lottery, for lack of any better terms.  The result is the film under discussion here today.  Right now I have this kind of working theory about why the film even exists.  What it boils down to is that something tells me it's all an outcome of Diane Miller wanting to get at least something like this off the ground, and into any general release that would take it.  In other words, I think there's something the viewer should probably keep in mind as they head into this flick.  The entire thing could very well have been a labor of love before it was ever anything else.  Perhaps it's just something to remember along the way to finding out if Walt Before Mickey is any good or not.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

In some ways, this is a bit of an easy job.  In others, however, it's a lot more complex.  Writing about the work of a guy like Steven Spielberg is one of those topics that offers a multitude of places to begin.  It's one of those ironic blessings, inasmuch as you don't quite know just where to start.  Another challenge in writing about perhaps the major director of American cinema in the last four decades is how to figure out you avoid running over the same old ground?  One pitfall to keep in mind when  talking about Spielberg is just how easy he can make the critic's job.  One of the perks of becoming a brand name, or public institution is that it means its now possible for most for most commentators to phone it it all in, and not have to bother at all with giving a single amount of serious thought to the filmmaker, or the actual artistic work that has long since turned him into a household name.  It's the sort of trap I'd like to avoid, if I'm being anywhere near honest.  There are two interlinked reasons for this.  The first part of it has to do with the conviction that Spielberg's works do count as the product of a genuine artistic talent.  The second is the growing conviction that, in many ways, an actual, critical understanding of the director has yet to make its full appearance in terms of his cinematic efforts.

A lot of the reason for that last point stems from a stigma that has haunted the filmmaker ever since his early days.  Even today, critics still like to bash him with the label of Escapism, or popcorn entertainment.  The good news is that as the years have gone on, this attack has lessened a great deal over the years.  It's helped in no small part by two other factors.  The first is that what might be called "the critical consensus" has shifted over time to the point where Big Steve is able to enjoy a more favorable reception.  This has happened in no small part by the way both audiences and critics have shifted around over the years.  As of this writing, an entire generation of 80s kids, the original target demographic that made Spielberg famous, has come of age, and is now more or less in the driver's chair of pop-culture.  Since they're the ones on whom the director has left the biggest impact, it shouldn't be that much of a surprise to learn that his popularity and acclaim would sky-rocket as a result.  

The cynic, of course, would point to all this as an example of the bad taste of theater-goers, yet I maintain that view is a mistake, as it continues to give Spielberg's actual talents the short-shrift.  My problem with such a mindset is that it's coming from a perspective that has no real interest at all in finding out why this particular artist was able to carve his name in stone for all time.  My own consistent discovery is that this continued lack of curiosity on the part of a lessening minority stems from a fundamental disregard.  The kind of folks who still like to bash Spielberg for what he does, even today, all share one thing in common.  They're too suspicious of words like enchantment, even when the term is used in its proper context.  That's why I find the second reason for the director's continued fame to be so reassuring on some level.  The discontent with Spielberg's work has always been relegated to a dwindling minority opinion.  The real kick in the teeth is that while this negative reception has been thankfully small in number, for the longest time, it has been frustratingly influential, at least among those critics and pundits who consider themselves "The Real Film People".  It's a minor headache that both the director and audiences in general have had to put up with for what was the longest of times.

The good news, like I say, is that this disenchanted view of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or E.T. has continued to shrink, and is growing less with the passage of years.  Right now, the growing consensus opinion is that the films of Spielberg constitute a genuine contribution to the realm of American arts, and the director himself appears to be recognized as a legitimate artist in his own right.  That's all well and good.  Though there's still a lot to be done.  As of now, the greater work of in-depth, critical examination still remains to get off the ground.  The time will most likely come when the director's entire filmography will get its full and proper treatment.  Right now, all I can do here is provide a bit of a nudge in that direction, by trying to find the proper starting point for discussing just what kind of filmmaker Steven Spielberg is, and what he is up to with the film's that he likes to make.  For  now, I think the best thing to do would be to provide a kind of capsule biography of the artist, and then take a brief- deep-dive look into one of the film's that helped solidify his popular reputation.

When dealing with a figure like Spielberg, the first issue is to get as good a reading as possible of the growth of the artist's mind.  In his case, there were a hell of a lot of factors to take stock of.  The most important ones seem to hinge on two interlocking elements.  The first was the way his parents seem to have nurtured the young boy's Imagination.  The second is how their later divorce appears to have determined his entire career, including the particular stories that same Imagination would go on to tell.  The truth about Steve is that he was just this average, suburban kid.  He was born, perhaps fittingly, in the month of December, 1947 to a middle class household.  His parents were named Arnold and Leah, and by his own accounts theirs was this outwardly ordinary, almost Leave It To Beaver style existence.  

This appears to have been Spielberg's first big impression.  The relative comforts of the suburban neighborhood.  The funny thing is how this same basic setup has managed to prove a breeding ground for some of the best artistic voices out there.  In this way, it makes sense to claim that an important element of Steve's childhood growing up is that he was part of this almost informal, collective growing experience for nascent young storytellers.  Along with Arnie and Leah's kid, you had youngsters like Joe Dante, Dennis Muren, and John Carpenter who instead of, or in addition to the regular kids routines of games, sports, and mowing the lawn, would also carve out time for themselves devoted to pouring through the pages of curious periodicals, with titles like Analog, Tales From they Crypt, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Galaxy Magazine, or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  

In addition to personal quirks like this, these same groups of kids from all across the Eisenhower Era nation would schedule their lives so that they never missed an episode of TV shows like Flash Gordon, Tales of Tomorrow, John Ford Westerns, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or The Twilight Zone.  They were just a bunch of die-hard geeks is all.  It was that simple.  The first example of a pop culture mindset.

It's the kind of thing that happens all the time, really.  And to this day it remains as natural as it is puzzling, and sometimes downright inscrutable.  Such is the irony and nature of artistic creativity.  Spielberg might have been something of a minor, special case.  Where in most households of the time, if you wanted to hold on to your copies of Sci-Fi and Horror comics, you had to be extra careful to stash them out of sight of any and all grown-ups, less they soon make their way into the back of a garbage truck.  Such was the unofficial law of the pop-culture landscape in those days.  By contrast, young Steve appears to have won some kind of existential lottery.  He didn't just have the luck to grow up in a household that encouraged an interest in the arts, he also had a Dad who regularly bought copies of Analog home to read, both for himself, and to anyone else who was interested in that kind of thing, and this in turn served as one of the key bonds that were established between father and son,  He still had to find a way to sneak into the Horror pictures if they were showing at the local theater, though.

It was this bond between Arnie and his only boy that got put to the greatest test over the course of several decades, at least once Leah fell in love with someone else, and rather than let Steve grow up hating his mother, Arnold Spielberg apparently decided the best course of action was to leave in order to salvage something for the sake of a family that it seems he never really stopped caring for.  It is one of the central ironies in the growth of Steven Spielberg's creative mind, and it remains one of the key mainsprings of inspiration for him to this very day.  The other is the way his shared artistic interests (both between his parents, as well as future peers and collaborators such as Robert Zemekis and George Lucas) planted his imaginative leanings firmly on what has to be described as the Romantic side of the artistic spectrum, for better or worse.  His own strengths are still used as a cudgel against him on occasion today.  Though the good news is it doesn't happen quite as much as often.  The better news is also that most of these gibes have taken on a rote quality.  With any luck, these slurs are on the way out.

There was one early moment of influence in particular that happened to him when he was still just a kid.  Even at the time it was happening, when he was maybe no more than five or six years old, it's as if Spielberg still managed to recognize that the event had at least some kind of base level influence on both his way of thinking, and in particular, his Imagination.  As a result, it was a lot more than just the kind of circumstance that turns out to be important in retrospect.  Even as a kid, the future director was smart to realize this was going to leave some kind of an impact.  One of the legacies of the moment I'm thinking of, is that it lead to the creation of films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Nemo: A Screenplay by Ray Bradbury (2012).

A while back I devoted a good bit of digitized ink to what I thought was going to be a biography of pioneer comics artist Winsor McCay.  For a moment, it almost looked like I would be able to give a glorified book report on the career and artistry of a crucial name in the field of the graphic novel.  The best part is that it all appeared set up to tell McCay's story in the very format which he himself helped to create and make famous.  For guys like him, you can't get much of a better tribute than to have your achievements told and illustrated in one of the most recognizable artistic formats of the age.  That's why it was kind of a shame to realize that's not the kind of book I was reading, and McCay is no closer to getting the kind of recognition he deserves.  Rather than unveiling the life story of one of the greatest contributors to the field of comics as a genuine form of art, all we got was a third-rate pulp adventure yarn with a real life illustrator tacked on to it for some damn reason I'll probably never be able to figure out.  If you ask me, the whole thing was not just a waste of valuable time and effort.  It also means that the world as a whole still doesn't know, and is in danger of forgetting about the efforts of a genuine ground breaker.

As of this writing, Google Trends reports that just about 30 to 40% of people in America know who Winsor McCay is, or why he should be regarded as anything like a famous person.  His prospects gets a bit better once you expand the picture to take in his global reputation as a whole.  That still leaves him as an obscure name in his own country.  If there's one thing a blog like this is dedicated towards, its unearthing the artistic names and glories of days past.  And right now it seems like old, Winsor McCay is just such a name in need of a critical revitalization.  Right now, the best place I can offer as a start would be to sort of repeat what I've already said about the artist in my earlier review.

"For every Henry James, or J.R.R. Tolkien, you have figures like McCay, whose life reads like a diary with several key pages either ripped or burned out.  Sometimes this can be a deliberate move on the part of the biographer's subject, the perceived need for some sort of ill-defined privacy being felt as paramount over all other considerations.  The irony being that such moves betray a lack of understanding of human nature, as that sort of behavior will always just tend to invite speculation about who the subject was behind closed doors.  In such cases, I'm afraid the historical personage has no one except themselves to blame.  They're always guilty of the old adage observed by P.T. Barnum years ago.  "There's a sucker born every minute".  Sometimes, however, the lack information comes less from deliberate obfuscation, and more through accidental neglect or circumstance.  The latter seems to be the case with Little Nemo's creator.  A lot of McCay's family and early history has had to be pieced together not because no one wanted any dirty laundry aired.  Instead, it's due to the simple fact that all the helpful public records which could help fill in the gaps have been poorly kept over the passage of years.

"This has meant that all of his biographers have had to resort to the worst case scenario of speculation, based on what little resources are available.  As a result, all that anyone can do is guess that maybe his family emigrated to the U.S. from Canada, where they soon managed to settle in the suburbs of Michigan, I think!  Winsor's father, Robert, might have been part of a Masonic lodge at one point.  Or at least that's one possibility.  I'm not real sure, and neither is anyone else.  There's so little to go on, that's the problem, you see.  I will admit that if this is the case, then it does at least offer the critic one place to begin in terms of trying to figure out where the artist's early imaginative influences came from.  If Rob McCay was a Mason, then he might have helped spur his son's imagination into life by regaling him with information about the meaning of Masonry, and the history and folklore behind all the symbols and imagery associated with this movement.  Of course, you could also go further and surmise that another reason we know so little about McCay's early life is because his dad helped instill his son with the same Masonic tendency for secrecy and silence regard personal matters, except for or to any possible fellow initiates, and other Masons.  However, that I know is little more than pure speculation on my part, and it doesn't really provide any answers, one way or the other.

"It's just as good an example of the kind of challenges you have to expect whenever tackling the life of Winsor McCay as a subject.  For instance, it is possible that Winsor never knew just how old he was, because he never knew his date of birth.  Nor have any reliable birth records ever been found that could help settle things.  As far as McCay was concerned, he might have been born in the 1860s, or as late as the 1880s.  He just never seems to have found out, and scholars theorize that part of the reason for this is because a series of fires that helped destroy a lot of public records over the years in Michigan might have help cut critics and biographers off forever from a lot of useful information.  As a result, a usable portrait of the artist as a young child is hard to come by.  His family is said to have settled in Edmore, Michigan, where he was born.  Beyond that the rest is a blank slate, the kind that nature abhors, and so the imagination of the critic tries to fill it in.  In my mind's eye, I just have this very stereotypical image of Winsor McCay as this young, tow-headed kid, all by himself in a field, drawing dust doodles in the dirt of the family farmyard.  The very picture itself is practically an archetype, one meant to suggest a general idea, rather than the facts of an individual real life.  The funny thing is I find myself wanting to stick with this Romantic image of the young McCay as living the life of this quasi-solitary, hayseed dreamer.  It might not be the whole truth, yet perhaps there's an element of the truth in it somewhere.

All this is just to give an idea of how many gaps there are in the record of an actual life, especially when it comes to the vital question of what sort of artistic influences might have helped inspire the inner landscape of McCay's mind.  It's frustrating as hell, yet I'd also be lying if I didn't admit the odd sense of fitness about the whole thing.  It grants both McCay and his most famous creation this lingering air of mystery, like they're both hieroglyphs from a long forgotten language that we've lost the key to deciphering.  It may be a hassle, yet it's also the kind you don't really mind, as that too has the ring of artistic appropriateness about it.  It can still be a headache, on occasion, though.  Let's take, for instance, the work that made him famous.  If Winsor McCay is known for anything nowadays, then it's for the creation of a long-running newspaper strip known simply as Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Now, for the record, I can't tell whether or not McCay was the first graphic artist to try his hand at a concept like this.  What I do know for certain is that he remains most well known for his efforts to translate the ideas of dreams in the comic strip format.  Indeed, a good way to describe a series like Slumberland is that it amounts to a kind of fictionalized version of what's now known as a dream diary.  The major difference is that it's hard to tell which of the dreams are based on real REM sleep experiences, and which are made up, and it's all told in what remain some of the most surreal, and creative visual landscapes that ever been set down on paper.  The character of Nemo, and his adventures in his own world of dreams seems to have been something like a natural outgrowth of a previous creation, Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend.  This was the strip in which McCay initially tried to see if it was possible to describe the contents of dreams and dreaming within a newspaper comics panel.

"The strip had no continuity or recurring characters, but a recurring theme: a character has a nightmare or other bizarre dream, usually after eating a Welsh rarebit—a cheese-on-toast dish. The character awakens in the closing panel and regrets having eaten the rarebit. The dreams often reveal unflattering sides of the dreamers' psyches—their phobias, hypocrisies, discomforts, and dark fantasies. This was in great contrast to the colorful fantasy dreams in McCay's signature strip Little Nemo, which he began in 1905. Whereas children were Nemo's target audience, McCay aimed Rarebit Fiend at adults (web)".  It makes sense, in other words, to see this now somewhat obscure predecessor as a test-run for the now more famous series.  The slow development of this idea was one of those cases of artistic serendipity.

In his book-length study on the history of animation, Wild Minds, critic and scholar Reid Mitenbuler devotes a few pages of his work to McCay, and makes sure to cite him as one of the main inspirations for the Golden Age of Animation.  A lot of it, as he notes, was down to his breakout success with the Nemo comic strip.  Mitenbuler writes: "The strip first appeared in 1905, six years after Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, which helped launch a popular obsession with the psychology of the (unconscious, sic).  Once people read the book, they couldn't stop talking about their dreams and the notion that ideas and feelings might exist in a realm somewhere between magic and reality.  McCay explored similar territory in his comic strip, playing with the familiar tropes of dreamscapes: falling through space, drowning, moving slowly while everything else around you moves quickly.  Each week, his characters floated around outer space on milkweed seeds, on beds that acted like flying carpets, or in ivory coaches pulled by cream colored rabbits.  These fantasies were always rudely interrupted by reality - falling off the flying bed and waking up in a real bed, or being jolted awake by a voice telling you it was all a dream.  Adults enjoyed Little Nemo in Slumberland because it helped them reconnect to their childhood minds; for youngsters, it was a bridge to their blossoming adult minds (6)".

The result of all this artistry was a brief span of time, in which McCay's creations were seen decorating the surfaces of lunch boxes, greeting cards, candies, and even several stage adaptations.  Perhaps the biggest moment in Nemo's career is when he and several of his Slumberland friends were brought to life in vivid color animation.  It was a pioneer moment in the history of film in general, and of animation in particular.  McCay wanted to make a quick demonstration to audiences that this new form of storytelling was quite capable of producing genuine works of art.  Not too long after, individuals like Walt Disney and Chuck Jones would go on to prove him right.  While animation has found its place in the Sun during the intervening years, the great irony is that one of the artists who helped give it shape has since been neglected by the very art form he helped shepherd into a creative reality.  Perhaps the real irony is that if Winsor McCay and his drawings have any reputation left, then its in the realm of animators and graphic novelists and illustrators.  The rest of the world hardly knows about him.

The punchline here is that it was the very same format of the animated film which might have helped play a role in helping his name slip further through the cracks of popular memory.  So far, there's been just one attempt at a film adaptation of Winsor's most notable creation.  That would have to be Tokyo Movie Shinsha's 1989 production of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.  The best way to describe that film these days is to think of it as one of the many old school releases that would appear seemingly out of nowhere, get touted as the next big thing, and then disappear down the memory hole after a year or two had gone by, except for perhaps a few snippets of film clips that manage to be ephemeral enough to make you wonder if it was real, or did you just imagine it?  This was the quasi-ironic fate of a lot of major studio films back in the day.  Looking back on them now, it's clear they were made with great expectations, and yet even those that did well on initial release have managed to leave not so much as a blip on popular culture.  The other films that fit this kind of flash-in-the-pan phenomenon that I can recall off the top of my head, would be stuff like Terms of Endearment, or Fried Green Tomatoes.

It seems like just a handful from that free-floating, early late period of Hollywood history have been able to leave much of any mark of impact (and here I am thinking of small yet stable efforts such as Field of Dreams and The Fugitive).  There were probably more, yet they all fade into the fog of early adulthood.  TMS's Nemo adaptation was one of the names on the half-forgotten list.  Unlike the Costner and Harrison Ford films, this one had the bad luck not to catch anyone's interest.  Where other animated fare from that period, such as Cats Don't Dance, are starting to build up a cult reputation, no one seems to remember or care much about the one single attempt at bringing McCay to the screen.

The funny thing is that one of few people who might have cared enough to take a stab at writing one of the many screenplays for this adaptation was a pulp novelist by the name of Ray Bradbury.  By that point in time, as is still the case today, Bradbury's star had continued rising to the point where the former pulp magazine scribbler had become a world-renowned author who had summarily eclipsed McCay, along with a host of others, in the public consciousness.  In a way, this may be the best possible explanation for why Ray decided to take a stab at adapting the Nemo comic for the big screen.  You see, like all artists, Bradbury was very much the product of his influences, and one of them just so happened to be Winsor McCay.  Like many kids growing up in the early 20th century, Ray would encounter Nemo and his imaginary friends in the newspapers that were either delivered to his family doorstep, or else found in the drugstore racks of his local neighborhood.  In fact, Bradbury has gone out of his way in numerous interviews over the years to point out just how important the Golden Age newspaper comics were in helping him to develop his own voice as an author, and McCay was a major part of it.

If Ray was ever as dedicated a reader as he claimed to be (and there seems no reason to doubt this) then it makes sense that he's the type of bookworm who takes an interest in the audience's awareness of the art they consume, and how much of an interest they may take in a lot of these more obscure yet influential creators who have shaped the modern landscape of entertainment, and then been forgotten about.  It just makes sense to me that it was a combination of feeling like a debt was owed to an artistic father figure, and a desire to see if he could revive McCay's reputation by adapting the Nemo strip, that Ray found himself signing on to try and pen a hopefully acceptable script that would help keep the memory of Slumberland alive.  What the actual content of that script is, how good are its final results, and its ultimate fate are what we're here to talk about today.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Pinocchio (2022).

This shouldn't take long.  At least I can't see that there's any reason to waste much time on a subject like this.  Part of the reason for thinking so is because we're dealing with a topic that has been explored (some would even say done to death) by a lot of others who have better patience in dealing with this than me.  By now, I'm sure most of us are familiar with whatever in hell the Disney Company thinks its doing with its seemingly endless series of live-action remakes of its entire animated film catalogue.  Like everyone else here, I haven't got a clue as to why they would feel the need to do any of this.  Also, like a lot of others, I do occasionally wonder just what this odd, downward streak says about the studio's ability to make good art in the coming years.  

Right now, it's like they seem committed to charting a course on the fastest downward slope they can manage to find.  It's puzzling, because that is the last thing to do if you want to be a success in showbiz.  I don't have any good explanation for this.  All I know is that the latest live-action offering is a remake of one of the studios trademarks films.  This is one that really helped put Walt and his animators on the map way back in the day.  It's gone on to be classic, which makes what the studio is doing to it now, after all these years, all the more of an annoying head-scratcher.  And so it goes.  If there's any upshot to a film like this, then maybe it's this.  What we're dealing with is a product that is very easily disposable.  If it's small comfort for change, at least no one has to lose any sleep over it.  

Sunday, October 23, 2022

C.S. Lewis's Forms of Things Unknown (1957-59)

Would you believe me if I said I'd found a Horror story written by C.S. Lewis?  Would you be even more incredulous if I told you it was set in outer space, of all places?  These are the type of questions that can sometimes be fascinating.  My reasons for enjoying these occasional, left field curve balls is because of what the responses to them can tell me about the mindset of the audience as a whole.  It might not sound like much, yet it can be sometimes be like hitting the jackpot for any professional critic dedicated to doing the job well.  A great majority of the audience might have no clue at all who or what I'm talking about.  The second response belongs to those who might have at least some passing familiarity with the author mentioned above.  Though they might be inclined to discount the idea that a guy like that would ever bother with something like outer space, or the Horror genre for that matter.  

Didn't he write something to do with a magical land behind some sort of locked door, or whatever?  There may be a few fuzzy childhood memories about reading, or having such a storybook told to you and your long-forgotten elementary school friends out loud when you were little, and that's about it as far as any grand awareness goes.  What I find so interesting about both sets of replies is what it can tell us about what might be termed the artistic awareness of the viewers and readers of stories

What it helps the critic to discover is the actual limits of pop-culture memory.  What I've found is that it's an often slippery slope, one in which even the greatest of artistic names can fall through the cracks of cultural awareness and literacy if you're not too careful.  Let's take one other example of what I mean, before moving on to the main subject.  Let's take the streak of Blockbuster Comedies that appeared during the 1980s.  Who do you associate most with those films?  My guess is that most people today would have trouble recalling the comedians who starred in those pictures, or what made them, for a time, a series of household names.  A few might be able to recall the likes of Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, or John Candy.  And yet sometimes its difficult to recall the exact details.  So here's the deal, if it's tough for most people at this time to remember even the basic plot of a film like Ghostbusters, what are the odds anyone's going to remember that time when an old children's author wrote a Cosmic Horror story?  I'd say odds are good no one would ever have a clue such a thing even existed.

This appears to be about as far as pop-culture is able to take anyone anywhere.  It's a rough gig, and  what's hip today may barely cast a glare in the rear-view mirror of tomorrow.  The funny thing is how a short attention span does little to erase the past.  It also can't stop a lot of old, obscure works of fiction from existing.  It's one of those cases where if you're enough of a bookworm, sooner or later you might kick over a metaphorical rock, and discover a rich load of undiscovered writings you never knew existed.  At least that's sort of the case with my finding out about the story under discussion today.  It's the kind of discovery I wasn't expecting to make when I fist picked up a simple book of short stories.  All that happened was I got hold of a collection with the unassuming title of 13 Uncanny Tales, Chosen and Edited by Roger Lancelyn Green.  He's another writer of forgotten children's books, and as I'd liked or enjoyed some of the stuff he's written before, this didn't seem like that much of an unnatural choice to make.  It also didn't hurt that this time Green was editing together a collection of Horror stories.

The truth is I've been a sucker for that type of writing since almost before I learned to read.  It was spotting a kid's Gothic novel by John Bellairs that made me want to pick up my first book.  I've been perusing through pages ever since.  So the idea of yet another anthology dedicated to the October Country genre was music to my ears, at least.  I picked up Green's book, leafed through the Table of Contents, and there it was.  Forms of Things Unknown, by C.S. Lewis.  I'd heard of the guy, of course.  The first time I recall ever hearing anything about him was once when I caught the preview of an old, animated TV special that was made from one of his books, on the Disney Channel.  A few years later, I had this same story read to me by one of my teachers way back in elementary school.  I suppose that's how a whole generation in the 80s and 90s grew up hearing about him.  It's like there was this brief span of time when Lewis was part of this informal group of writers that kids would either pick up on their own, or else they would come in contact with his work the way I did, by having adults read the stories out loud to us, either alone, or in a group.  That's how most us remember him, so far as we can.

As I've already said, though.  I wasn't expecting to run across him in a book of short stories dedicated to the Macabre.  Nor was I expecting this same guy to set his work in the great expanse of outer space.  In fact, I'm not sure I know of many people who would ever have expected him to do such a thing.  For most of us, he's just this half-remembered name on a list of a handful of literary babysitters we used to have when we were kids.  That list might have included the likes of Dr. Seuss and R.L. Stine, and not many others.  In that sense, it's kind of a wonder that at least 50% of the audience can still recall Lewis at all.  To discover that one of your old, nursery school teachers could have this other writing career, one you never even knew about, is interesting to say the least.  It's like discovering that one of your school teachers once tried a turn towards novel writing without telling anyone, thus creating this odd sense of confusion and intrigue.  That fact that one editor decided this work classified as Horror just went to sweeten the deal for me.  It's not what I expected, and yet it got my interest.  Enough of it, anyway, so that I wound up intrigued enough to want to know more about this left-field offering.

So far, the best bits of background information I've been able to dig up on this story boils down to just two sources.  The first and oldest is The Shorter Planetary Fiction of C.S. Lewis, by Bruce R. Johnson.  The second, and only other source I could find is Suzanne Bray's Close Encounters of the Mythical Kind.  It's in the latter essay that Bray comes closest to giving the average reader anything resembling an insight into where a story like this might have come from.  "When asked about how he wrote his fictional works, Lewis always asserted that these “began by seeing pictures in [his] head” (“It All Began” 79), sometimes pictures he had seen years before he started writing. For example, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published in 1950, began “with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood” (79), which had been in Lewis’s mind since he was about sixteen. In the same way, “Forms of Things Unknown” probably started with a frightening dream Lewis described in a letter to his father in March 1927...

"I dreamed I was walking among the valleys of the moon—a world of pure white rock, all deep chasms and spidery crags, with a perfectly black sky overhead. Of course there was nothing living there, not even a bit of moss: pure mineral solitude. Then I saw, very far off, coming to meet me down a narrow ravine, a straight, tall figure, draped in black, face and all covered. One knew it would be nicer not to meet that person: but one never has any choice in a dream, and for what seemed about an hour I went on till this stranger was right beside me . . . it was the sense of being on the moon you know, the complete desolateness, which gave the extraordinary effect. (Letters 1 678).

"However, both this dream, and the later short story, may have been influenced by his reading of H.G. Wells’s novel The First Men in the Moon (1901), which Lewis particularly admired and which has, in places, an atmosphere similar to the one found in “Forms of Things Unknown.” Describing the novel to the Cambridge University English Club, Lewis stated: 'The first glimpse of the unveiled airless sky, the lunar landscape, the lunar levity, the incomparable solitude, then the growing terror, finally the overwhelming approach of the lunar night—it is for these things that the story. . . exists. (“Science Fiction” 86).  Lewis also asked his listeners in Cambridge whether any man is “such a dull clod that he can look at the moon through a good telescope without asking himself what it would be like to walk among those mountains under that black, crowed, sky” (85), implying that he himself had certainly done so (web)".  This scrap of useful information leaves a number of interesting thoughts in the readers mind.  For me, what's most fascinating about all this comes down to just two things.  The first would have to be this almost shared sens of surprise among the majority of the audience.  I doubt there are a great many people who would have expected someone like C.S. Lewis to enjoy the Solar System.

The second has to do with Lewis's skill in describing that eerie "picture" he saw in one of his dreams.  That being the image of what, to me, sounds like a basic sort of death's head figure making its slow way toward the viewer as it glides, ghost-like, over the rocky, bleached-out terrain of the Lunar surface.  There's just this odd sense of creepy power to the idea in Lewis's dreams.  There's this quality to it that might be described as a terrifying glamour.  It puts the proper sense of artistic fear into the reader, while at the same time being able to draw their attention towards it, with the extra addition of this weird (or perhaps wyrd is the more proper term) "fascination" the creative idea has about it, for lack of a better word.  A part of the draw for this creative picture can be put down to Lewis's skill and the already evident ease that he has with the elements of description.  This dream, or nightmare, appears to date from an early time, perhaps before he even published his first, tentative works.  If that's the case, then Bray has more than one good reason to showcase it in her essay.  The composer of these words is the type that already sounds like he might have a lot going for him.  Even if you never knew who was speaking, any good reader could tell these were the words of someone who could be a talented writer.

What makes this all sorts of interesting, for me at least, is that, once more, these words don't come from an obvious source.  Th image that's being painted suggests a fear of mortality in relation to the vast and boundless oceans of the cosmos.  It's the sort of image you expect to find within the correspondence of someone like H.P. Lovecraft, or Clark Ashton Smith.  Instead, the fact it comes from the pen of someone like Lewis just adds to the sense of intrigue.  It's like learning he has maybe not a Lovecraftian, though perhaps something near to a Bradbury like streak in him, one that never got as much attention as his current reputation testifies.  The final source of power for this early dream correspondence can all be found in the image itself.  The ultimate reason I can find for the strength of Lewis's descriptions is very simple, though perhaps also complex.  The short of it is that he seems to have encountered an archetype in his sleep.  It's just a case of the Imagination putting in a good night's work, in other words.  It's the sort of thing that happens to everybody, yet creative types like Lewis tend to notice it, or place a greater deal of importance on it, than the rest us.  However puzzling that may be.

Either way, the facts are discernible enough in this case.  Lewis manages to capture a snapshot of this dream in his waking memory, and his latent artistic abilities as a wordsmith allowed him to make his readers see that veiled figure making its inexorable way toward the audience.  In my mind, it moves like a slow-motion time-lapse film.  First there's just the surface of the Moon.  Then the dark figure appears at the top of a horizon.  A brief fade-cut, and then the figure is walking down the hill.  Another time stamp jump and the hooded thing keeps making its way closer until...That's when you begin to realize how at least some folk would maybe begin to wonder if its possible to find a story tucked away in the folds of that image.  For instance, what if the first ever explorers to arrive at the Sea of Tranquility got out of the Lander, only to find that same gaunt, imposing, personage coming right towards them.  It's the stuff that both nightmares and potentially good campfire yarns are made of.  The real surprise remains that Lewis appears to have been of roughly the same type of mind.  He must have been if he was able to tell a whole Tale of Terror out of it.  This, then, is an idea of just how it all goes.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed (1983).

It's interesting the way some memories can stick in the mind.  That's not like any world shattering secret, or anything.  I know that's always the truth for everybody.  Some folks, including perhaps a surprising number of famous writers, have admitted to having a difficult time dredging up their own long ago experiences.  In his creative, how-to memoir, for instance, Stephen King admits to being "stunned by Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club.  Not just by its ferocity, its beauty, and by her delightful grasp of the vernacular, but by its totality - she is a woman who remembers everything about her early years.  I'm not that way.  I lived and odd, herky-jerky childhood...Mary Karr presents her childhood in an almost unbroken panorama.  Mine is a fogged-out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees...the kind that look as if they might like to grab and eat you (17)". 

To be fair, I don't think he's lying.  Instead, based on a lot of other non-fiction writings of his elsewhere, and even in the same autobiographical writing manual, it seems more as if all King has done is to perform a minor, yet helpful form of public service for those who wish to remember their own pasts, yet often have a surprising amount of difficulty in ever finding their way back to that fabled memory lane.

I bring this up not to criticize.  I think all it does is just help make my point about how interesting are the things of our youth.  Those fragments of lived experience that we can sometimes manage to recall at odd hours, when we least expect it.  This is often because of the quirky nature of some our best recollections.  They ususally tend to center on an event, person, or thing that just has this aura of fascination about them.  It's the kind of experience that manages to stamp a permanent imprint of magnetic allure on our minds, and makes sure that whatever else happens, the remembrance of that person, place, thing, or event somehow manages to never fade away with the rest of the photographs we keep floating around in our own mental attic chests.  I know of at least one instance in which that has has been very true for me.  Even King himself admits that one of the few memories he can recall, the one that still sticks out with so much clarity as to prove itself something of a formative influence on his profession, is that time he and his brother Dave found a collection of old, Horror pulp magazines hidden away up in an old, attic loft of a family residence.  It's something he could remember so well that he later felt it important enough to share with his reader in the pages of Danse Macabre (98-102).

My own experience of this same phenomenon is a lot less rich and full of hidden depths as it was for King, I'm afraid.  In fact, it can't even qualify as anything special.  Mine was no rich harvest of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, like the ones King and his brother turned up.  Instead it was just this one excerpt of narrative tucked away in the back of an old, battered copy of a simple high school English 101 text.  It was one of those ancient seeming 6th grade primers that somehow look as if they might have been around long enough to witness the building of the Alexandrian Library, or something like it, anyway.  It's one of those school texts where the pages seem heavy in your arms, and yet are so soft when have to rifle through to find your assignment, that it's kind of a wonder that it never falls apart in your hands.  The funny thing is how the dreaded moment of textual collapse never happened.  Or at least it never did with me.  Those battered, old elders proved to be tougher than the rest in my case.  I still have some of them tucked away on a few shelves in my home, even after all these years.

Guess I'm just a sentimentalist like that.  The irony is that the one textbook I've been unable to track down is the one that contains the story I want to talk about today.  In a way, though, I suppose its fitting that the single, solitary, school text I might harbor anything like a genuine reader's fondness for is also the one that continues to elude me.  There's a real life poetry in that kind of situation, one which I think only a handful will ever have the capacity to appreciate.  It's that somewhat mystic gray area, where we know the memory is real, yet some of the details have managed to reach the right and pleasing amount of brilliant haze, making what we can recall stand out with a more powerful clarity.  If I'm recalling things right, here, one of the other reasons this textbook stood out was because it contained a recreation of Rod Serling's The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.  It's not the story under discussion here, though it perhaps did work as a contributing factor to why I can recollect any of this in the first place.

The other story that makes that old, half-remembered school text stand out as clear as it does, all these years later, was a simple, almost childlike sounding title.  It was called Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed, and it was written by Virginia Hamilton.  Here's where I need to make a confession.  I ran across this author just the once, a long time ago, way back in high school.  As I moved up through the grades, I lost track of both Hamilton, and her story.  It was a time when it at least seemed like a lot of important stuff was happening.  It's all small potatoes, compared to where we are now, of course.  The point, however, is that it was one of those singular, fleeting encounters that manages to leave a certain type of impact that you're somehow lucky enough to remember all these years later.  The trick was that as far as I know, Virginia Hamilton is still very much a mystery to me.  That's not to say, however, that I haven't learned some things about her, or that her own life isn't a story worth telling.

That's far from the truth, as it turns out.  In fact, based just on what I've been able to dig up since that time, it is always possible that what I've accidentally stumbled over is a diamond in the rough.  Ginny Hamilton first saw the light of day on March 12th, 1934.  In her own words, she was born "on the outer edge of the Great Depression".  Which is a polite way of saying she and her folks got lucky, while a lot of others never were.  Her parents were part of a large, extended farming property which was brought together by the mutual agreement of each part of her extended family, on both her father and mother's sides.  The whole thing appears to have been a gamble that managed to pay off, somehow.  There's no way on any possible green Earth that Virginia, her parents, siblings, and the rest of her loved ones were ever able to be considered anything other than poor.  And yet, by the standards of the Stock Market Crash, along with the collapse of the Roaring 20s, and its attendant fallout, they were a hell of a lot better off than most folks at the time.  John Steinbeck's Joad clan, for instance, would have eyed Ginny's freehold setup with a very real envy, made up of equal parts desperation and hunger.

Ginny never seems to have had to suffer that kind of depredation, or at least not in that sense, anyway.  There's no way an African-American girl growing up during that period didn't have plenty opportunity to get well-acquainted with the peculiar institution known as racism.  It's not the kind of thing she, or any of her folks, ever asked for.  So there it was, even, or especially since they didn't want it.  In spite of this, going just off of the basic outline trajectory of her life, it seems as if Virginia wasn't the kind of girl who was ever interested in letting this kind of shit get in her way, or keep her down, and under the thumb.  Instead, consider these astonishing biographical facts.  In high school, Ginny graduated at the top of her class, and won a scholarship to Antioch College.  She was enough of a success there to transfer to Columbus's Ohio State University in 1956, where she majored in literature and creative writing.  In 1958, Ginny made her way to New York, getting by on a number of odd jobs trying to build up enough support for realizing her dream of being a writer.  Now imagine this scenario.  An Afro-American woman falls for a white guy.  Not unheard of, yet back in the transition from the Eisenhower to the Kennedy era, it was pretty much like taking a blow-torch to some ill-defined taboo line.  Either way, Ginny crossed it by falling for and marrying Arnold Adoff in 1960.  Turned out that choice was yet another lucky break.  The added income was enough for her to focus on her writing career.

In 1969, Hamilton and Adoff made their way back her the ground of her parents old farmstead.  By now, Ginny was an accomplished and published writer, with her then latest book The House of Dies Drear having won and Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery (web).  The pay off from both her and Arnold's writing was enough to allow Ginny to buy back her own, old childhood home.  It's the place where she spent the rest of her life, and wrote the remainder of all her books   On the whole, not too bad of a record for a girl whose decedents were refugees, and possibly even workers on the Underground Railroad (web).  In fact, if you stop to take the time and think it over, it soon hits you that its probably because Virginia Hamilton grew up hearing stories about her ancestors exploits with the Railroad that led to her growing up with this sense of never wanting to let herself be either defeated or used by the same forces that tried to dominate her own family.  In that very ironic sense, Ginny was able to grow up with a perfect number of role models right within her very own household.  It appears to have been this particular, and familiar drive, that lead her into becoming what can only be described as something of an early pioneer in the history of the African-American arts scene, and it shows in a lot of her work.

Dies Drear
does, in fact, stand out as one of the first big successes of a black voice making a popular impact in the venue of American Gothic letters.  She followed this up, not long after, with The Planet of Junior Brown, a slice-of-life narrative which nonetheless might be said to contain certain tell-tale elements which mark it out as perhaps one of the first tentative steps into the sub-genre now known as Afro-Futurism.  With all this accumulated information in hand, it really seems as if the correct phrase we're looking for here, is to describe Hamilton as a ground breaker.  That's why it's all the more interesting, because aside from that one time I ran across a story of hers in an old Junior High textbook, I've never really heard her spoken of, or talked about much over the years.  If I hadn't been curious about that old, faded memory to enough to decide to look it up, I probably would never have become aware of either Virginia, or her literary efforts.  It's the kind of mistake that perhaps ought to be remedied, sooner or later, and not just by me.  If the voice of a pioneer in both African American and Women's Literature has managed to get lost in the shuffle, then I think future generations probably do owe it to themselves to try and rediscover a forgotten voice.  The best I can do in that regard is try and give an honest review as possible of a childhood memory contained somewhere in the pages of a book. 

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Alien: The High School Play (2019).

 Please see the following video for all the relevant background material.

 Further elaboration and trivia, courtesy of Adam Savage, can be found in the video below:

And now, our feature presentation.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Firestarter (2022).

I can remember the first time I encountered Stephen King.  Guess I'm just one of those dummies with all the luck.  He was right there from the very beginning, in a sense.  My childhood must be out of the norm.  Because it consists of a series of well preserved memories that were easy to stick in the mind.  A lot of it is helped by the fact that these were movie images.  It also maybe doesn't hurt that these flickering pictures were drawn from what some would consider the cream of the cinematic crop.  I can recall Lawrence of Arabia wandering through an endless desert.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducting both orchestra and audience as if he held the universe in the palm of his hand.  For a time, at least, he might have come near to just that.  Then there's a wild-haired Christopher Loyd and Michael J. Fox conducting a wacky science experiment with time on the face of a giant clock tower.  One of the strongest images turns out to be a group of kids in jeans and t-shirts perched on the edge of a set of railway tracks, looking out into the wilderness, trying to get a good, long look at the terrain ahead, before deciding to plunge headlong into it.  That last snapshot of memory came from a film with the simple, yet somehow grand title of Stand By Me.  It's a good film, with an equally brilliant soundtrack.  The irony is it took a while to realize it had anything to do with the work and writing of Stephen King.

So in that sense, I knew something of King's fiction, before I ever knew anything about the writer himself.  In retrospect, I think that just might have been the best introduction to the man and his stories any potential fan could ask for.  Stand By Me is one of those films that you look at for the first time, all unknowing, and see it as one sort of a film.  The kind of thing you might expect to find tossed off the cuff by the likes of John Hughes, or something like it.  Then, when you learn about King, and and go back and watch the movie again, it becomes something else, while also still managing to keep all the other elements you remember from when you were a kid.  It turns the film into a movie of layers.  It becomes a story with a higher sense of sophistication that belies its deliberately rough hewn quality.  In fact, it's this quality that can sometimes fool the audience, and single it out as its own little masterclass in storytelling.  When I first saw the movie, for instance, I was thinking the setting couldn't be in the 1950s.  I was thinking this was all taking place not far from my own backyard.  That's how good it is.

Let it stand as a testament to the achievement of King's writing.  Like I say, though.  While it might have been my first introduction to King's work.  It was quite a while before I learned to associate the film as having anything to do with King himself.  That seems to be an amusing recurrence with films like this.  The same goes for The Shawshank Redemption.  It's a tell on the cloud of prejudice that artists like King or Steven Spielberg may continue to exist under for some time.  After all these years, critics continue to harbor the idea that anything the majority of the audience likes just isn't worth considering as valid.  In recent years, it's gotten worse when it comes to a recent spate of pop cultural controversies that shall remain unexplored here.  The funny thing is I never seemed to have any such problems with all those old, 80s popcorn flicks, or ancient popular novels.  To me, all that matters is whether the final product was entertaining, whether or not it qualifies as "pulp fiction".  In that sense, when I finally picked up my first copy of a King book, it didn't take much time before I realized we were going to get along splendidly.  The writing itself was on a level of sophistication that I believe is genuine.  It's just that "Book People" insist on giving him a hard wrap, and a bad reputation to go along with it.

None of this mattered to me growing up, as I was beginning to gain slow familiarity with King's writings.  Far as I was concerned, there was nothing to suggest there was anything illegitimate about getting to know the work of a "popular author".  For me, this was a slow, gradual process, amounting  to a sort of informal word of mouth.  I'd be watching TV, minding my own business, and then suddenly a commercial for one of his books (such as Gerald's Game, or Needful Things) would appear for an instant, and then be gone in a flash.  I've got to give each of those hoary old bits of self promotion credit.  They did their job well.  They didn't just deliver the message they had to sell.  Whoever made them was smart to know you had to do it with just the right amount of style fitting for the works they had to peddle.  The results are these amusing, a little corny, though sometime just a bit creepy snapshots of 80s to 90s era nostalgia.  They've become glimpses into a world long gone, and yet it's this same reality which King was able to make his own.  It was all enough to get the attention of one ten year old boy who was otherwise engrossed in the adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  It let you know that there was this dark, yet somehow interesting vista out there waiting to be explored.  Perhaps it also didn't hurt that long before I knew who King was, I'd developed a healthy interest in the Horror genre by then.

It was Saturday Morning Cartoons who taught me what ghosts and monsters were, including the likes of the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man.  The punchline is I even owe my interest in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe to a Steven Spielberg produced animated series.  So in other words, TV is one of the influences that taught me how to have fun being scared.  The important thing to note is that all of this happened before I ever had a chance to know just who Stephen King was.  The perfect irony being that he was kinda-sorta always there, as a looming background presence that began to come into clearer focus as those early, impressionable years went on.  From seeing him advertised on TV, I soon wound up noticing his titles lining the shelves of various bookstores I'd happen to frequent.  From there, I moved onto the reading the plot synopsis written down in the front flap covers surrounding each book.  The ones that I recall picking up and examining at this early stage of my developing fandom were Wizard and Glass (a Dark Tower novel), along with The Green Mile and Bag of Bones.  The first tentative baby steps into King's secondary world on paper came from purchasing a copy of a comic book adaptation of Creepshow.  It looked and read as both gnarly and undeniably cool at the same time.

The next big step was to pick up a copy of Cycle of the Werewolf.  I'd read interesting things about in a small booklet known as The Films of Stephen King, and so I decided to see if it was all as cracked up to be.  Turns out it all seemed true.  There were some parts that were still difficult for me to read at such an early age, yet I remember being fascinated by it at the same time.  In retrospect, that little novelette might very have been the gateway text, any all-important piece of writing that can help make the prospective reader a fan for life.  What I know for certain is that it left me wanting more.  And I began to cast about for any of his books that would allow my reading of this writer to go further up and further in.  The book that managed to make me a King reader for life is not something even his many fans would cite as an example of his best writing.  However, I think I'm just about out of apologies for this one.  While the case for the defense may stay a going concern, I can't find any reason to be ashamed that it was Dreamcatcher which catapulted me into the Gothic heights of King's fictionThat book remains what it is for me to this day.  I'm still willing to call one of his most underappreciated works.

It's also the text that made me realize I was dealing with a genuine talent.  It's the one that allowed me to go on and pour through works like Misery, Salem's Lot, and The Shining.  My experience with all of this has allowed me to come away with the conviction that what we're dealing here is a man who deserves to be regarded as perhaps the premiere writer of Gothic fiction.  This goes not just for American, yet also English or Western Literature in the modern age.  What I do know for sure is that somewhere down the line, you might just see future scholars make an attempt at annotated additions of his best work, similar to the attention that J.R.R. Tolkien and Bram Stoker have received lately.  While it's a generally accepted idea that King has now cemented himself a place up there with the likes of Shelley and Lovecraft, the work I have to focus in on today is a bit more ironic.  It's something that formed a building block in my growing King fandom, and yet my relationship to it today is somewhat distanced, and a bit more up in the air in terms of its overall quality.  I don't know if that sounds like a comedown after all this build-up.  All I know for sure is that I hope you'll join in with me now, as I take the time to examine an adaptation of Firestarter, and what kind of work it amounts to in King's canon.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

The Man in the Funny Suit (1960).

Rod Serling is still a lucky man, as of this writing.  He's still remembered as one of the most important artistic pioneers in more than just one field.  On the one hand, he's regarded as one of a handful of legendary creators and showrunners who managed to revolutionize, and even bring a decent level of sophistication to the content of the TV shows that were brought into the American living rooms of the 1950s and revolutionary 60s.  Before he became really famous, Serling made a name for himself by penning a lot of well done teleplays for a revolving series of television anthology programs.  These were sparse, taught productions whose level of quality sometimes matched that of a live theater performance.  There were numerous shows that specialized in various types of drama that would tackle all kinds of controversial subject matter, most of it having to do with the question of morality in general, or civil rights in particular.  Considering that Rod got his start at the beginning of the Eisenhower 50s, this was a very hot button topic to deal with.  It was also an issue that everybody in live television felt the need to discuss.  The script writers and show producers who were willing to take on this and other famous subject matter has now become a list of half familiar names, such as Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Arthur Miller, Fielder Cook, Norman Lear, and John Frankenheimer.

This was the milieu in which Serling made a name for himself.  If I had to find a few words that best describe his output in these early years, then a good way to put it might be to say that his breakout material has this cozy, streetwise familiarity to it.  Most first time viewers to this new-old material, if they are willing to give it a chance, will soon discover that Serling didn't just break new ground, he also might have acted as a harbinger for the kind of work done by another famous artist a decade or so down the timeline.  Put another way, if the Fifth Dimension had never come along, then Serling might still have had a decent career writing and producing the same type of artistic material that Martin Scorsese would later make famous.  Much like Uncle Marty's later known best work, Serling's live television plays often focused in on main characters who find themselves caught out in a moral dilemma, the kind of thing that takes a heavy toll on not just the protagonist's conscience, yet sometimes even their very sanity.  Maybe its a corporate executive learning just how low he's willing to sink, as in 1955's Patterns.

Often times, Serling's main characters would turn out to be soldiers who were either combat vets haunted by the mistakes they've made in the past, or else fresh-faced officers with too many chips on their shoulders.  You know, it's the sort of mental handicap you that's usually a big no-no in military circles.  Whatever else may happen on the field of battle, you never send a basket case out to the front, where he's libel to cause more damage to his own side than the enemy's.  Still, that sort of thing does happens, every now and then.  And it was a topic that Serling appears to have experienced first hand.  Hence, his writing of stories like Bomber's Moon, or Forbidden Area were he attempts to try and educate the public on the costs of war.  The same type of creative strategy as that found in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Though even this wasn't the end of Serling's early efforts in the field of live television.

There was this one script he did which contains a lot of the same storytelling elements that Scorsese would later put to his own iconic use.  In fact, I almost want to say that the Serling script I'm thinking of now could almost act as both a prequel and a coda to a film like Raging Bull.  It's called Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956), and like the later De Niro picture, it details the fallout of what happens the minute a former (or near) champion boxer has reached the end of his career, and what, if anything, comes after it.  Anyone who is familiar with the Scorsese picture will have a rough idea of what's going on in Serling's Heavyweight script from just a bare synopsis.  It's where this down on his luck schlub is told to his face that the next time he steps into a ring will kill him.  His physical condition has deteriorated to the point where boxing is not a viable option for him.  Only trouble is, he's never really known much of anything else his whole life, and he's not what you'd call a sophisticated sort, either.  So, very much like Jake LaMotta, there's a lot of bitterness and anger to go around, and get worked through.  In fact, it's kinda eerie how close Serling and Scorsese's works mirror each other here.

Whatever the case, that turned out to be one of Serling's great early successes. It's the kind of screenplay that gets a guy noticed in a lot of the important showbiz circles.  In fact, it might technically have been an ironic contributing factor that led to Rod being able to make his greatest achievement, and leave his biggest imprint on the pop cultural imagination behind.  It's no secret that The Twilight Zone is still a household name, or that it remains Serling's major landmark.  It's what allowed him to leave a footprint in all the major popular genres, such as Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.  As a result, he is placed up their alongside such genre ground breakers like Gene Roddenberry.  I think it's a title that's well earned, nor am I about to dispute it.  I just think we ought to take a brief detour here, and pay a brief article of acknowledgement to those live, hungry years, when Rod was still just a maverick in the business.  In particular, I think a special kind of attention is owed to the Heavyweight script.  Perhaps it will help us to gain a better sense of perspective.  Just as Walt Disney once admonished us to remember that it "all started with a mouse", so it could be said that the Zone owes its existence to that Requiem.

In fact, there's kind of a funny, behind-the-scenes story to be told about the making of that teleplay.  It's now looked back on as the script that made Rod Serling, and that's all very true.  So is the fact that it almost wasn't.  Believe it or not, there were a few moments during the making of Heavyweight, when it almost looked as if the script, and Serling's entire future along with it, were close to circling the drain.  The reason for this all hinged on the fact that one of the actors kept proving to be something of a nuisance.  The kind of problem that could very well get out of hand and bring the curtain down.  Not in a good way, either.  It's issues like these that need to get sorted out quick before the final showtime call rolls around.  It's an interesting element of added drama to what should have been an otherwise straight forward series of rehearsals before the big broadcast day.  In fact, the whole affair was so harrowing, amusing, frustrating, and fascinating, that the making of Requiem for a Heavyweight was later on turned into a screenplay of its own.  It became an episode of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse

It was titled The Man in the Funny Suit, and Rod Serling played himself for the recreation of an important, near awkward turning point in his whole career.  I managed to catch this episode not too long ago, and thought it worth talking about.  It makes for an interesting look into the way that art gets made, and the way that sometimes what happens off camera can determine what happens in front of it.  More important than all of this is the way it helps the viewer to make a series of new and familiar discoveries.