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 an 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.