Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Princess and the Hedge Pig by E. Nesbit (1912).

The trouble with books is that they fall through the cracks.  Sometimes this is because either the writing, the story itself, or both are of such a low quality that it doesn't have much choice except to sink like a stone right out of the starting gate.  Those kinds of volumes are the ones that are forgotten with good reason.  What about the ones that don't deserve such as fate, however.  What about all well written stories by any fair number of competent to flat out good tellers of tales?  I wish I knew how many of us don't just read books, but also take the time to remember the actual contents of the volume we've just poured through.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the hypothetical number can be whittled down to something like 10 out of 90 percent of the populace at any given time in history.  I'm not real sure this is an age that encourages reading, much less critical thought.  And so reading has become an accidental specialist hobby.  Something that's always at the mercy of an unreliable pop culture memory.  We're no longer talking about bad books that deserve to be forgotten now.  Instead, it's more a question of good works never getting their fair dues, even if they have their moment in the spotlight.  As a result, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise if there's a lot of book titles and authors out there that slip through the cracks of memory.

A name like Chris Van Allsburg, for example, might have just the faintest hint of familiarity, yet odds are even most of us can never recall why.  We might pick up on some kind of vibe that tells us, "I know that person from somewhere, don't I?  He did..."? and that's about as far as it goes.  Not necessarily because that's outcome we're looking for.  It's just the best you can do once it hits us that we sometimes don't pay as much attention to good writing as we should.  As a result, names like Stephen King and R.L. Stine amount to household words, while writers like Allsburg or Richard Matheson are stuck as brief flashpoints of half-remembered familiarity.  There at the edge of our recollection for an instant, then gone without a trace.  It therefore falls to the more die-hard bookworms out there to remind everyone else that a writer like Allsburg was the man responsible for given us The Polar Express.  On a related (and ironic) note, however, how many people know Stephen King is responsible for the film Stand By Me?  Come to think of it, who wrote Jumanji?  This is what I mean when I say books are at the mercy of memory.  It's what happens when even good stories aren't given a chance to shine.


A talented scribbler like Allsburg is just one example of this phenomenon.  He's the case of a Name that's in danger of slipping into obscurity.  His achievements remain popular, while the creator himself seems perched on the tip edge of that precipice oblivion where pop-culture memory begins to lose its grip.  When that happens, it is possible to have a career resurrection.  However, that can take time and effort, though it is still not impossible.  All that's required is one of two things.  It's either the help of a site like this, which dedicates itself to re-excavating the forgotten great names of the past.  Or else the neglected writer can create their own comeback with a stellar literary performance that puts their name back on the top shelf.  Since I'm no storyteller myself, I'll have to just go with the first option.  Chris Van Allsburg is one of those names who might have to earn an article for himself on this site sooner or later down the line.  Right now, I'd like to focus the spotlight on another name that doesn't deserve to be forgotten.  If Allsburg remains on the tip of the tongue, then Edith Nesbit seems to be the kind of name where the average audience member has no choice except to ask me who or what on Earth am I even talking about?  I'm thinking, right now, of a children's author who should be rediscovered.

Perhaps the best way to describe her is that she stands as the literary great grandmother of guys like Allsburg.  She's the one who wound up creating all the templates and story devices that made works like Jumanji and The Polar Express possible.  It's a mistake to claim she did it all in a vacuum.  Coming of age in the same era that gave us the likes of Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and Rudyard Kipling, I think it's fair to say that Edith had a bit of help in pioneering the children's story as we now have it to this day.  However, she seems to have been the great synthesizer the sub-genre was looking for.  She was the author who came along at the right place and time and began to help put the finishing touches on the mold that the Mowgli and Alice books would both belong and fit into.  In other words, she's the writer who helped define the nature of the modern children's story as we know it.  Perhaps the best testament to her half-forgotten status is the sketchy, patchwork quality to what little critical commentary there is on her efforts.  Which is quite the way to treat the co-founder of a literary tradition.  Every useful scrap of information about Edith and her art is fitful and incomplete.

A scholar like Marcus Crouch, however, is able to grab hold of at least one handful of truth when he explains that, "No writer for children today is free of debt to this remarkable woman...(Being) content in the main to make good stories out of the recourses of her experience and her imagination, she managed to create the prototypes of many of the basic patterns in modern children's fiction.  The three books about the Treasure Seekers are the form foundations of all our family comedies.  In her 'Five Children' stories she initiated the comedy of magic applied to the commonplaces of daily life, and in The Enchanted Castle she showed how poetic and comic fantasy might be blended.  Her Arden books are, with Kipling's, the pioneers of the 'time' element theme in historical reconstruction; and even The Railway Children...has...fostered a host of other tales of family fortunes and misfortunes (16)".


Perhaps a better way to illustrate Crouch's main idea might to highlight all the ways that Nesbit has managed to leave a series of invisible fingerprints all throughout some of the best regarded entertainment we still enjoy today.  How about if we turn to a list of beloved films from the 80s?  You know that stuff with films like Stand By Me, The Karate Kid, Ferris Bueller, and The Breakfast Club?  All of them can trace their DNA back to books like The Treasure Seekers.  What about that inexplicable yet somehow iconic run of Fantasy/Sci-Fi Adventure movies we had back then?  The kind that were often geared toward children, and yet wound up being fun for audiences of all ages, when they weren't (or maybe even because they in fact were) grade-A nightmare fuel, remember?  

It was stuff like Secret of Nimh, The Land Before Time, Labyrinth, An American Tail, and especially stuff like Gremlins and The Goonies in particular.  Not to mention cinematic adventure yarns like the aforementioned Jumanji?  Or how about a lot of the clever kids oriented Science Fiction flicks we had back then?  What about Flight of the Navigator, Explorers and Back to the Future?  What's interesting is that you can take the vast majority of elements that go to make up those films (even down to details such as character, theme, or plotting) and trace all of them back to works like The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet.  The commonality of all these books is their author, E. Nesbit.

I suppose a more simplified way of saying it is to claim that there is a very real sense in which Edith is E.T.'s long forgotten great grandmother.  The one element that all those 80s films just listed have in common is that, like Nesbit's stories, the plots tend to focus on a child or group of young adult protagonists going off and having adventures on their own.  Often times these adventures would center around encounters with the fantastic and the supernatural in the form of encounters with otherworldly beings and creatures.  At other times, they could involve trips through different historical periods, which could sometimes lead to an expansion of the main character's outlook on the world and their own place and context within a grander scheme of existence.  And when all else fails, you could get a series of good, slice-of-life stories about children slowly coming of age through the various inevitable adversities that most of us meet along the road of life.  These include moving to a new neighborhood, dealing with the regular passage of time, making and losing friends, dealing with bullies, or even just those one chance encounters that can still go on to shape your future in ways you couldn't even imagine at first.


While all of the scenarios I've just described applies to just about every 80s movie ever made, they can also be found in Nesbit books like The Wouldbegoods, The House of Arden, and The Magic City.  All of which is to say that when Marcus Crouch called Edith a trendsetter, anyone who bothers to pick up any of her Children's Fantasy oriented works and read them will soon begin to see that he's being dead serious.  All of the 80s movie tropes that we've come to love today got their initial start within the pages of Victorian children's novels, and E. Nesbit was the author who wound up planting all of the now identifiable flags and story markers that we have in turn inherited from her, and kept alive throughout the centuries.  In all of this respect, perhaps another good way to describe her is as a kind of gender-flipped version of Steven Spielberg, except she works in the book trade.  While such a basic introduction might give readers a beginner's idea of who Edith was, it still doesn't answer the most important question.  Is her work any good?  What do the stories of an old Edwardian kid's writer have to offer 21st century audiences?  I think a look at one of Edith's own short stories can helps us here.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Invisible Essence: The Little Prince (2018).

I was an 80s kid to start with.  There's no doubt about that.  I was born in the middle of the year that George Orwell made famous.  In that sense, I guess you could say I lucked out.  As I got here just in time to enjoy what for now remains the last great artistic Renaissance.  I'm talking of course about all of the classic books, films, and TV shows that were released during that decade.  So to repeat, first of all, it was the 80s.  If you were a relative new born during that time period, say anywhere from about five to going on seven years of age, it was kind of like living in a playground.  At least that's how all that the best times of the 80s seems to me now.  I don't know, there was just something about the entertainment of that era.  Our Minds and Imaginations seem to have been more expansive way back when.  Like I've also said, for a kid, this was like being given an all-access key to some kind of pop-culture candy store.  It's there that I made the acquaintance childhood friends like Tom, Jerry, the residents of Sesame Street, Larry, Daffy, Moe, Bugs, Curly, Garfield, The Ninja Turtles.  It's amazing how times makes small things have epic proportions.  This is just a list of the most well known aspects of 80s kid life.  In addition to the now popular standbys, there were a host of other, lesser known entertainment that isn't talked about.

I can remember this one TV show, in particular.  It's not what I'm here to talk about today, in the strictest sense.  However, in retrospect, this little forgotten kid's series I'm thinking about is sort of where this whole story beings.  At least this is how it has worked out for me.  So here's the scenario.  I'm just this seven going on eight year old guy.  It's the 80s.  I'm bopping along to Glenn Frey's The Heat Is On, like everyone else, and I've begun to grow enamored of a TV station with the curious yet memorable name of Nickelodeon.  It likes to bill itself as "The First Network For Kids".  Now I'm a fresh young mind, so the dubious veracity of claims like that aren't going to make much or seem all that important.  All that mattered to me back then (and even today, if I'm being honest) is a question I didn't have the vocabulary for back then, yet I do now.  Can you tell an entertaining story?  In the case of Nickelodeon, my experience watching that channel during its glory years taught me that, on the whole, yeah, they were pretty good for the most part.  Some of their stuff I was always going to like better than others.  Though what else is new about that?  The point is that the channel could deliver the goods.

My own experience watching the 80s and early 90s incarnation of Nick is a combination hazy and crystal clear images.  I'm sure that's true for a lot of us, so now I'm curious to see how many of my own memory snapshots match the experiences I'm about to describe.  Some of the images I remember most from that time include: an orange tabby cat who wasn't Garfield, prowling around an anime style neighborhood; a live action show about a mannequin in a department store that would come to life when a magic hat was placed on his head; a show about that guy from Get Smart, except now he's an animated, cartoon cyborg; a comedy show whose opening looks a lot like Monty Python; also, there's Green Slime; a cartoon about a talking, vampire duck (yes, really); a show about a somehow scarily competent dog; a simple, yet somehow epic shot of a group kids in a souped up flying ship that looked kind of like this giant condor thing.  There was also this one image in particular.  It's the picture of a young boy.  He has to be no older than nine or ten years of age, standing all by himself on the surface of an alien world that is no bigger than a house.  The next memory snapshot I have of this same young boy flying through space, hanging on in the wake of a passing comet.  The child has somehow managed to cast a net over this comet, and is using it to propel him through the infinite gulfs of outer space. 

It's one those interesting images, I guess you'd call it.  Perhaps a better phrase for it is "somehow arresting".  In some ways, it's nothing more than the kind of thing you might expect to find in any sensibly well made children's story.  At the same time, there are a lot interesting reasons for why this image in particular can make you want to scratch your head.  It's easy to get the sense that this is also the kind of picture that grows out of some kind of ill-defined stoner fantasy.  This impression is sort of helped by the fact that trying to find any footage from the show itself can sometimes result in the type of visuals that can come off as slightly mind-bending.  The good news is this description is meant in the best way possible.  The show itself is called The Adventures of the Little Prince, and it's one of those notable examples of the particular imaginative capabilities that could only have come out of the 80s.  It's the sort of cartoon that is willing to resort to all kinds of interesting leaps in imaginative logic while still managing to keep the proceedings going within a grounded(ish) narrative.  It was the sort of TV show that you catch snippets of in between waiting for your personal favorites to come on the air.

In other words, that show belonged to the rare and elusive class of media that still manages to leave a strange, lingering impact on the mind, years later down the road.  This happens either despite, or perhaps because your initial contact with it was so fleeting at an otherwise impressionable young age.  It's the kind of thing you can't recall with perfect clarity.  What you do remember, however, seems just enough to spark your curiosity.  Maybe it can even get you to wonder if any of it was real, or just something out of a dream?  It planted enough questions in my mind to the point where I decided to see if it was possible to track down those old snippets of childhood memory, and try to get the whole story out of them.  In a way I've succeeded in this, and a good TV promo for the show can be found here.  However, it's one of those accomplishments that wound up being just the tip of the iceberg.  Far from being the end of the story, digging up information about a half-forgotten kids show wound up being one of those adventures where you think all you'll do is to recover a bit of your childhood.  While instead, what happens is you wind up unearthing a whole treasure of literary history you didn't know was there.


So, as I said, I'm not here to take a look at the TV series itself.  If you want someone to walk you through all of that, the best review/retrospective I've been able to find online is here.  Instead, this article is going to cover the history of the show's source material.  Not only is it a lot more interesting than its syndicated spinoff.  It also reveals a story of the ideals that can sometimes lie behind even a simple children's book, and how it was all represented in the life of its creator.  All of which is to say that this review will be a close look at a documentary known as Invisible Essence: The Little Prince.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

The Peter Pan Mythos 2: The Disney Live-Action Remake and the Original Stage Play.

There are certain stories whose history is so convoluted that its easy to get lost in the forest for the trees.  Perhaps a better analogy is that it's a bit like taking what seems like a straight-forward path on the outside, and it isn't until you've turned the umpteenth corner into yet another dead end that you realize you're lost in a maze.  That's what it's been like for me when it comes to untangling both the history and the nature of Peter Pan.  Yes, I know, it's not the kind of statement the average person can ever take seriously.  Why on Earth get a headache over some dumb children's book?  That's the basic commonsense line of thinking on matter like this.  Well, the unfortunate news is that the joke is on anyone who thinks like that, at least when it comes to the jumbled history of Neverland.  Not only is there no such thing as an exact straight through line to be had in this corner of the library, the conclusion at the end of the labyrinth (if you can even manage to reach it) is so damned unexpected that it's like you can't decide whether to be relieved or stunned and confused out of your mind.  This, however, just begs the question of why go to all that trouble over any story if it gives you that much of a headache?  My only justification for pressing on has been twofold.  In the fist place, it was the idea of genuinely good story wanting to be told that acted as a guiding thread thread through all of this.  The second reason is that this story has a happy ending.

It's true that trying to understand the history of the Lost Boys and their Flighty Leader can be a challenge at the best of times.  Perhaps trying to understand this story is the sort of job that should only be tackled by the experts.  The kick in the teeth there, however, is that in everything I've read on this matter by the professional literary critics, not one of them has ever been able to see the whole truth, even when it was staring back at them from the page, stage, or screen.  So the task of setting the record straight falls to just some random guy out of nowhere who won't shut up about his favorite hobby.  As a result, I'm here today to discuss two facets of the Pan Mythos.  The first is fairly recent, the Live Action Disney remake version.  The second part I intend to examine is J.M. Barrie's original stage play, as that's where this whole darn thing got started.  Peter and his adventures all began as stage characters before they ever landed within the pages of a book, or on the silver screen.  So today, we're going to look at each version one at a time, and what it will reveal is a history of literary ironies.


What it all boils down to is this.  Of all the works of literature that I've studied on this blog, Peter Pan is the one narrative archetype that has consistently struggled the most in order to get it's story told with as much completion, and in the best way possible.  I know that's not a sentence that makes all that much sense, yet I'll swear its the truth.  I've never run across a cast of characters whose story has been more at the mercy of uncaring hands than Peter, Wendy, and their friends, or even their enemies, for that matter.  This is all part of an account of the Little Story that Could.  The Neverland Saga has turned out to be one of those stories that wound up managing to tell itself against a ridiculous number of insurmountable odds.  Perhaps the purest irony of this story is that it's greatest obstacle remained its original creator.  It's a history that's worth telling if you can do it well.  It's a tale of ideas with creative potential being squandered first by its initial author, and then later once more, by an industry on what appears to be its last gasps.  It's also a narrative of the eventual triumph of artistic creativity. 

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Stephen King's Fairy Tale (2022).

We all have our strengths and weaknesses.  This is one of those natural facts that life is willing to teach us as time goes on.  Stephen King, for instance, seems to be at the peak of his game whenever he's conjuring up tales of things that go bump in the night.  It's the method and mode in which he first made a name for himself, and the passage of time seems to have proven just how tried and true this remains as the Horror genre continues to be his best creative outlet.  This isn't the same as saying that the author hasn't tried to break out of his own mold and try other things.  Nor is it true to say that King has found no success outside of the strict confines of the Gothic genre.  One of his best known works, for instance, is a simple novella known as "The Body".  Despite its title, there's little to nothing of any of the writer's usual trademarks to be found within those pages.  Rather than a work of Horror, readers are treated to nothing less than a straightforward, small town drama detailing the coming of age of a pair of friend in the flagship town of Castle Rock, in Maine.  These days, the story is most often seen as atypical of King, and yet it has gone on to be one of his most popular works to date.  This was solidified by the later success of the novella's adaptation, as Rob Reiner's Stand By Me.

Nor is that the only time that King was able to successfully step out of his comfort zone.  Hearts in Atlantis, for instance, is an experimental, interconnected anthology novel tackling pretty much the same themes and ideas as Stand By Me, except this time the canvas has been widened to include a cast of multiple characters spanning an entire generational shift.  Much like with the earlier Reiner story, Hearts is one of those novels that will forever deserve more credit than it is ever libel to get for its efforts.  With that novel, King achieved a kind of unremarked tour-de-force, and it remains one of the best examples of the author not just writing outside of his generic comfort zone.  It's also one of the best go-to examples that you can point as a book-length demonstration of King's creative expression as a true, literary artist.  It's the kind of book that will always telegraph that here we're dealing with a type of craftsmen who deserves a place on the shelf alongside Henry James, William Faulkner, and John Updike.  The fact that it remains overlooked testifies to the way readers prefer to confine even their favorite artists into neat little pigeon holes, even when they prove they can be more than this.


While stories like Hearts in Atlantis seem destined to remain as unheralded masterpieces displaying the full range of the writer's talent outside the fields of Terror, there is still one other genre that Stephen King has tried his hand at during various points in the life of his career.  This time, however, the results have, for the most part, been of a pretty mixed variety.  King's career serves as a kind of testimony of one man's artistic talent.  And what it tells us is three things.  That he's a natural at the Gothic tale.  He's also underrated as a genuine artist in the non-supernatural slice-of-life story.  He might also be prone to one specific weakness.  Whenever King decides to turn his attention to one of his typical plot ideas, involving ordinary people caught up in extraordinary, horrific events, the writer's narrative voice can often approach a level of quality that might best be described as Tolkienesque.  This is just something King has proven himself capable of in a natural and unforced way.  The few times when this skill has failed him.  When that valuable narrative voice has faltered, is (in the most ironic sense possible) those handful of times when he's ever tried to deliberately write in the vein of the creator of Middle Earth.

In other words, give King a Horror story, or a straightforward drama to write, and odds are even that the final result will be pretty darn great to decent enough, at worst.  If he tries to take on the realm of straightforward Fantasy?  Not so much.  For whatever reason, that's the one genre that King never seems to have been able to crack.  This hasn't been for a lack of trying, either.  He's made at least three, maybe even as much as four attempts at writing a story in this particular field, depending on how you choose to look at it.  Those efforts of his that fit this criteria include The Talisman (a 1984 collaboration made with his friend and professional colleague, Peter Straub), The Eyes of the Dragon (one of the author's most straight-forward attempts at a creating a true Tolkien or Brothers Grimm styled fantastic world), and then there's The Dark Tower.  I'm not real sure if a book like The Stand fits into this criteria or not.  That one is most often described as a post-apocalyptic Horror novel, and it's a description I'm willing to let stand, even if it does contain a shared villain whose arc encompasses most of the other efforts mentioned above.  The point is each of these books mark all the times King has attempted to break into the proper Fantasy genre, and all of them are best seen as a series of trials as errors.


It seems as if trying to write in the Fantasy mode is the one undertaking that is good for just one, ironic thing.  It never fails to reveal the limits of King's strengths as a writer.  All the genre of Once Upon a Time can do is to mark out the dividing line where the writer's otherwise considerable talents first begin to ebb, and at last peter out in what amounts to several fits of wasted effort.  Apologies for how harsh that must sound.  Yet I'll swear it's the truth.  None of the novels described above, not even the Dark Tower series can be described in the last resort as good books.  Instead, all they are is displays of creative desire on the part of an artist who doesn't have the necessary skill set to conquer this particular imaginary terrain.  It's got to be one of the worst dilemmas for someone who is a clear cut fan of epic quests into other worlds.  It's like a situation once described with bitter eloquence by author Peter S. Beagle as being "A Bad Poet with Dreams".  In King's case, a more accurate description is that he's great poet with impressive vision, and somehow none of his talent allows him to make headway in that one particular creative field that remains just forever out of reach.  It remains one of the few, notable, continuous failures in an otherwise stellar career.  The irony goes back to what I said at the beginning.

For whatever reason, King is the kind of author whose literary talents seems to run in just two, inter-locking directions, the realistic American Pastoral, or else the Gothic Romantic.  He has it in him to deal with the building blocks of Fantasy.  However, they only work so long as he's writing a Horror story, and not the other way around.  It just seems to be the natural outline and creative expression of the artist's Imagination.  King can write like Tolkien so long as he never tries to be him.  Don't know if that makes any sense, yet I'll swear it's the truth.  That's why it was kind of puzzling to learn that one of his latest releases was going to bear the simple title of Fairy Tale.  I know was excited when the book was first announced.  A basic summary of the plot sounded intriguing.  It suggested to me that we might have the opportunity to get the best of both worlds; a Horror story written by Stephen King situated part of the way in a realm straight out of the Grimm Brothers.  What was there not to like?


The funny thing is how, even as I played the waiting game like everyone else, it never occurred to me for some reason (at least not much) to recall that King's track record with this kind of story just never amounted to all that much.  Whenever he gets in his mind to tackle that sort of material, he always winds up straining his skills on account of the well running dry.  His imagination just won't stretch that far into such environs, and the result (even with The Stand and the Tower mythos) amount to examples of what King himself often refers to as him "trying too hard", and each result is an example of literary overkill.  I must have been running on the adrenaline of pure expectation that whole time, though.  Because if any of these reservations ever did occur in my mind, they were so muted that I'm not even sure I heard them.  So instead, the big day arrived, and I was lucky enough to be gifted a copy from my own Dad.  I picked up Stephen King's Fairy Tale, and began to read.  Here, then, are the results.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Pennywise: The Story of It (2021).

This is what happened.  According to Bev Vincent,"While (Stephen King, sic) was working on The Stand, he had another experience that was the seed for another long novel many years later.  In Boulder, the family vehicle was an AMC Matador, "an admirable car right up until the day when its transmission just fell out onto Pearl Street."  Two days after the car was towed to a dealership on the east end of the city, King received word that it was ready to be be picked up.  Rather than call a cab, King decided he needed the exercise and walked the three miles to the dealership, eventually ending up on a narrow unlit road at twilight.  He recalls the moment vividly: "I was aware of how alone I was.  About a quarter of a mile along this road was a wooden bridge, humped and oddly quaint, spanning a stream.  I walked across it.  I was wearing cowboy boots with rundown heels, and I was very aware of the sound they made on the boards; they sounded like a hollow clock.  I suppose I should have thought of Randall Flagg, since I was all wrapped up in his life just then, but instead I thought of the story of Billy Goats Gruff, the troll who says, "Who's that trip-trapping on my bridge?' and the whole story just bounced into my mind on  Pogo-stick.  Not the characters, but the split time-frame, the accelerated (narrative plot line) that would end up with a complete breakdown, which might result in a feeling of 'no time', all the monsters that were one monster...(and) the troll under the bridge, of course (80)".

Early on, near the start of this documentary, King is shown elaborating on this brief moment of fairy tale inspiration.  According to the author, after having the image of the Troll from the Brother's Grimm, story flash into his mind: "I thought, "Wouldn't it be a scream if something just reached up now and grabbed me; and pulled me down there, and that was the last anyone heard of old, Stephen King".  To me, it sounds a lot like the rough sketch for a scene that was actually filmed half a century later on as part of a film called Troll Hunter.  The filmmakers there utilize the old folktale idea for the purposes of mere parodic satire, however.  That work (while fine in its own right), nevertheless is unable to display the same level of creative inspiration comparable to the idea that King had that night way back in 1979.  The whole creative idea may have been kicked off by recalling the Troll Under the Bridge, in an old wives' tale.  However, this was just the initial spark point.  The initial flare sent up from the workshop of the artist's Imagination.  Another way to state the whole truth of that ancient situation is to claim that even the Bridge Troll proved to be just another masque for the true entity at the heart of the story.


In fact, it's very much as King comments on that initial moment of artistic inspiration in the documentary.  "The incident stayed in my mind.  And over a period of five years I would come back to that, and come back to that.  And little by little, I began to evolve a story.  Until now it's developed into a novel".  Vincent continues: "The book that developed from these notions is It, which King thought of at the time as his magnum opus and the end of a phase - the last book he intended to write about supernatural monsters and kids in jeopardy.  "The book is the summation of everything I have done and learned in my whole life to this point," he said.  Every monster that ever lived is in this book.  This is the final exam (ibid)".  It was first released onto bookshelves everywhere on Sept. 15th, 1986.  I would have been about one or two years old at the time.  So I would and yet wouldn't have been around to enjoy the initial impact that book created.  Like a lot of 80s kids who arrived too late on the scene to enjoy the ride, I instead wound up having to play a makeshift game of catch-up with that novel.

From what I can now tell, it didn't take long for the book to cement itself as part of a very specific item
of pop-cultural history.  It wasn't just that this story of monsters and children was a best-selling success story.  It was also in the way it quickly seemed to go on to help frame the nature of 80s entertainment in general.  Part of the reason a lot of us 80s kids look back on the decade of our formative years with such fondness is not just because of nostalgia.  It is just possible to make a legitimate case for the level of artistic quality that was churned out during the years when Michael Jackson was the reigning King of Pop.  A lot of it comes down to one crucial factor.  The 1980s seems to have been the last great rebirth of literary Romanticism since the days of Coleridge, Dickens, and Mark Twain.  It was kind of the natural enough result of the birth of the Counterculture, and then that same culture taking the reigns of artistic production for one brief moment of time.  This is the best explanation I've been find for why there was such a growing number of films, books, and even TV series formatted towards the fantastic genres.  Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy all seem to be the go-to genres for a Renaissance.

Hence, you've got your Star Wars, of course, along with films like Back to the Future, and Bill and Ted.  In addition, though, you also find this fundamentally Romantic strain working its way into the corridors of the straightforward dramas and comedies of that era.  Nowhere is this more on display than in the films of John Hughes, who pretty much single-handedly helped codify the notion of what an ideal life in the 1980s was or could be with films like Pretty in Pink, or The Breakfast Club.  This was the collective zeitgeist that King first stepped into, then was taken up by as he first began his career in the 1970s.  By 1986, he'd graduated from the role of a journeyman novelist to pretty much being among the Big Names who helped to create our notion of what an 80s childhood was like, at least in terms of the entertainment we all consumed back then.  Much like Steven Spielberg did first with movies like E.T., and then afterwards with Poltergeist, and The Goonies, King became, or has become one of the authors you turn to in order to get a sense of what life was like back then.  Let's put it another way.  If Spielberg if the poet of suburban dreams, then King was the teller of American nightmares during that decade.

Both King and Spielberg have since gone on to become kind of like the standard bearers for both the light and dark contrasts of that time period, and all the terror and wonder that could sometimes go with it.  Looked at from this perspective, it really does seem as if the publication of It might have been one of the keystone texts that helped set the tone for what the 80s would become first as a lived experience, and later a part of history.  I also think the timing might have been ideal in another way.  Just the year before, Rob Reiner had sent his film Stand By Me (an adaptation of yet another King novella) out into theaters.  And it was already on the way toward becoming another key 80s text, in a matter of speaking.  It was one of those films, in other words, that was fast becoming an entree in the Pantheon, for lack of a better word.  So when King released a novel that contains many of the same themes and ideas in a more fantastic mode of expression, it was very much like all the stars aligning at more or less the right time.


The growing juggernaut of King's success during this period did not go unnoticed in Hollywood, either.  By now, King was also becoming something of a mainstay on both the big and small screens.  So once the studios got a good look at what It was reaping in terms of sales figures, it all became the standard story of how "money talks", and everyone saw dollar signs in the potential of turning the author's monumental novel of fear and childhood into some kind of a film adaptation.  The result and fallout of these creative efforts is the story being told in the documentary Pennywise: The Story of It.  Both the book and the miniseries are among my favorite works, so now is a good time to look back on it all.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Neil Gaiman's Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch (1998).

Neil Gaiman still doesn't need much of in the way of an introduction, at least as of this writing.  Experience has taught me that's the sort of thing that can always change, and sometimes faster than any of us fans might like.  The reputation of even the best stories, and their writers, has always been a precarious thing.  And it wouldn't surprise me to learn that it has always been a fragile minority of readers and viewers who have kept the reputations of even seeming titans like Shakespeare alive in a world that might otherwise consign him and every other artist to the dust bin of history.  For the moment, though, it does seem as if both Gaiman and Shakespeare can count on the continued goodwill of a sufficient enough minority of audience members to know who they are, and tell others that they were or are still here. 

For the vast majority of readers and viewers, Gaiman's reputation seems as if it can be boiled down to just two touchstone points in what is and remains an otherwise sprawling literary career.  The two works of his that everybody seems to remember is either his graphic novel series, Sandman.  Or else a smaller yet vocally substantial number will point to what looks like a simple children's novel on the surface, when in reality, it's a dark Gothic fantasy by the name of Coraline.  These are the twin poles around which Gaiman's current reputation continues to oscillate.  With either party eager to claim their preferred text as the superior product from the pen of the author.  While I'll admit I fall into the latter camp that favor's the adventures of Coraline Jones over the exploits of the Dream Kingdom and its Dominions, I'd also like to think I'm smart enough to realize both texts are also not the whole story.  In addition to one warped kids book, and a series of very influential graphic novels, Gaiman has had an otherwise vibrant and artistic career as a fantasy novelist.  It's an example, or specimen of this other career, the one that doesn't get as much exposure, or recognition that I'd like to shine a spotlight on.


Aside from giving the neglected side of Gaiman's career a day in the Sun, focusing on an otherwise unremarked upon short story such as "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" is helpful in serving another purpose.  One of the goals of this article is to help answer the question, "What's the next best place to start for introducing new or still novice readers to the literary magic of Gaiman's work outside of either the Dreaming or the Button House"?  I think that's where an underrated, easy to digest story like this one can come in handy.  So let's take our tickets and see how wild the ride gets.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Black Phone (2021).

What's the best way to tell a Horror story?  It's a question I haven't asked before, thought it's probably something that a lot of hard core enthusiasts of the genre might wonder about.  I think I should clarify here that when I bring this up this idea, I'm not asking what is the best work of fiction ever written within the Horror genre.  Nor am I trying to set down anything like a definitive "method" by which all such works must be composed.  That kind of notion is easily disproven by common, everyday creative practice.  Instead, I guess what I'm really concerned with is trying to figure out at what point does the Tale of Terror stop being effective, and risk the danger of drifting into the realms of, maybe not the unbearable or purely tasteless.  Gothic fiction, after all, is the kind genre that sort of relies on a sense of bad taste in order to get its effect across.  As Stephen King points out in his near text-book quality study, Danse Macabre: "The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.

"Such a work dances through these rooms which we have fitted out one piece at a time, each piece expressing - we hope - our socially acceptable and pleasantly enlightened character.  It is in search of another place, a room which may sometimes resemble the secret den of a Victorian gentlemen, sometimes the torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition...but perhaps most frequently and most successfully, the simple and brutally plain hole of a Stone Age cave dweller (4)".  King then asks a very important question.  "Is horror art?  On this second level, the work of horror can be nothing else; it achieves the level of art simply because it is looking for something beyond art, something that predates art: it is looking for what I would call phobic pressure points.  The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed one but you knew of - as both Albert Camus and Billy Joel have pointed out.  The Stranger makes us nervous...but we love to try on his face in secret (ibid)".  It helps to notice where King is going with this particular notion of his.


As I've said above, he's not about to dictate what the writer of modern Gothic fiction can or should write.  However, I think it is possible to claim that what he does with Danse Macabre as a whole is to plant a flag, of sorts.  The whole study text serves as an illustration of what the Horror story is like at its best.  This is what King seems to mean by saying that the genre can achieve a level of artfulness that is often denied by the mainstream critics, even to this very day, after all the years since Macabre was published.  A lot of it is down to pure snobbery.  Even at it's best, the Terror Tale is always going to be the black sheep of genre fiction.  Another reason for it, however, might be down to a sense of unnecessary overindulgence.  Here's what I mean.  For the longest time now, I've been convinced that the worst thing to ever happen to the Horror genre was also its greatest moment of triumph.  The genre experienced a kind of mixed blessing renaissance during the 1980s.  It was something that happened in the wake of a string of blockbuster performances at the box office during the 60s and 70s.  It started with Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960, and John Carpenter's Halloween is what took it all mainstream.

The success of Michael Myer's big screen debut seems to have been the film that let the genie out of the bottle.  It was the key that opened the doorway for the genre boom of the 80s.  In retrospect, it's success at the box-office was enough to prove to movie studios (mainly the independents, thought some of the major also took a kind of sideline interest) that Horror was a bankable commodity.  Hence you've got the genre explosion that has since become one of the defining features of the Brat Pack era.  I've called it a mixed blessing, however.  A lot of the reason for that is because while it's true, in a sense, that Horror had arrived in a big way.  The catch was that this arrival probably always came with a price tag that no one ever paid perhaps as much attention to as they should have.  In their eagerness to carve out a name for themselves in this newly opened playing field, the majority of Horror film creators sort of wound up tripping themselves up on the banner of creative excess.  This is where the problem sets in.

When most people think of 80s Horror, the two names that come to mind are always the same: Freddy and Jason.  For better or worse, they've become the twin poster boys for that decade, and my concern is that this is what most audiences think of whenever they even hear the word Horror.  If that's the case, then I'm afraid the vast majority of filmmakers did the genre a disservice in that decade.  By letting Fred and Jay become the de facto "faces" of the genre, they've saddled the Weird Tale with a reputation which it probably doesn't deserve.  It should also go without saying that each of them doesn't even begin to exhaust the creative potential the what good Tale of Terror can do.  Not by a long shot.


The trouble is that if a lot of the makers of the Cinema of Frights during the "Morning in America" years indulged in all kinds of excesses (by which I mean drowning the screen in as much fake blood and rubber and/or plastic guts as the budget will allow) and so the trouble begins to set in when this is all that the filmmaker can focus on in terms of any larger point to the story.  My own experience has been that the more the director keeps training the camera on the grue and viscera, the more obvious it becomes that their efforts at going for excess is pretty much telegraphing their own poverty of invention.  If you go too far in that direction, what you risk happening is audiences walking out on you.  The irony here lies in the reasons for why you'd start to loose customers.  It's not for the reason you might think.  They're not walking out thinking, "This is too much, I just can't take so much gross out, etc".  Instead, the real thinking behind the dwindling box-office return is more along the lines of, "Give me a break!  This is so damned ridiculous.  How can anyone ever think this is scary?  It's the most laughable thing I've ever seen".  This, then, is the complete irony at the heart of most 80s Horror films.

By letting excess become sort of like the unofficial, guiding principle of the day, it seems to have created a license for creative laziness.  This in turn lead to the mistaken notion that the buckets of stage blood will be enough to carry the day.  If things look like they're lagging, just toss a bit of gross out at the screen.  It doesn't matter how much.  People just tend to eat this stuff up, anyway, right?  The trouble is such a mindset totally underestimates the audience, it seems.  Horror in general appears to remain the most difficult of genres to get into, even at the best of times.  It always requires greater leaps of imaginative sympathy than what is required of other storytelling formats.  Even with this fact in mind, the one thing most audiences tend to agree on is that gore never seems to work all that much unless there is a good point to it, and even then, it only seems to work without the principle of excess.  This is how come, while I can't write off all the examples of 80s Horror, a lot of it is just overrated.

Don't get me wrong, there were and are plenty of examples from that decade of the Gothic genre firing on all cylendars up on the screen.  The trick here is that there's what has to be described as a shared reason for why the best examples work so well, even as most of them diverge in terms of plot, pacing, and overall dramatic approach.  What separates a work like Joe Dante's Gremlins from a myriad of Friday the 13th clones is that Dante is the kind of artist who takes greater care of how he handles the titular horrors at the core of his story.  He knows not just when to bring the proper note of Terror on-stage.  The director is also careful not to overplay his hand.  Dante seems to realize that less is always more, even when the subject matter is a Jim Henson Muppet from hell being roasted alive in a microwave.  While I don't think it's possible to point to Dante's efforts and claim it as any kind of gold standard.  It does seem reasonable to cite it as a good workman's sample of the difference between excess and one of many best possible examples of the right display of the art of fear.  Whereas someone like Wes Craven is content with relying on showing his villain walking around in a bloody ambulance bag, Dante first gives his horrors a legit build-up so that we know the moment of shock is coming.

Then, when it comes time to give his creature the proper introduction, Dante has set things up to the point that the big reveal has a greater sense of dramatic impact.  Seeing the mother in Gremlins come upon the first major specimen of the film's title works on not just an artistic but also something of a genuine thematic level.  To borrow King's own terminology, Dante has managed to hit several targets, or phobic pressure points at once.  First, the family home twisted from a place of warmth and comfort into a de facto hunting ground for dangerous animals.  Second, is the more elemental level of threat.  Will the monster be bested, or will it feed?  The third level is what gives the Terror of the scene its necessary sense of thematic weight.  The only reason the gremlin is there at all is because the Horror of the story was invited in.  Sheer human fallibility is what has turned a human place into a den for inhuman monsters.  While offering up some of the most famous moments of fright in the history of cinema, it's that final level of thematic depth that elevates the Terror into the realm of literary art.

This is what King was talking about when he discussed the best possible artistic levels of the Gothic genre.  It's a lesson the writer appears to have learned over the course of a long apprenticeship of trial and error.  The best place to look into how King made himself into a writer is to pick up a copy of his still essential autobiographical, how-to manual, On Writing.  The question lingering over all of this background context is what does any of this have to do with a recent Horror film that was released just two years and a half ago (at leas as of this writing)?  The answer is I brought up all this context because I'm hoping to show the reader just how a film like The Black Phone works as an example of Horror done right.  One of the best surprises about it is how it almost fits in well with the best examples of Gothic fiction that 80s cinema had to offer.  The trick here is that in order to demonstrate this idea, the audience will have to learn to look beyond the Freddy-Jason splatter-fest style of storytelling, and see if it is at all possible to arrive at an appreciation for a more artistic style of Gothic storytelling.


In order to see if this is possible, I've chosen to take a look at the kind of Horror film that might have been made under the Spielbergian lens of 80s supernatural fantasy.  It has a bit in common with films like Gremlins, while at the same time telling it's own narrative.  Perhaps its also somewhat fitting that it was initially written by King's own biological son, Gothic writer Joe Hill.  So why not join in and let's unpack what has to be one of the best sleeper hits of recent years, by answering The Black Phone?

Sunday, August 27, 2023

A Tribute to the UPA Cartoons (1943-1970)

This article is really best thought of as a sequel, of sorts.  For a while now, I've been on something of a self-reflective kick here on The Club.  It's not anything like a mid-life crisis sort of deal.  Instead, it's more a case of a critic being reminded of a lot of the reasons for why this blog ever got started in the first place.  I've been reviewing a lot of films and books on this site for a while now.  What I'm not so sure I've done quite as good a job at, however, is laying out, or getting readers to see the vantage point from which all of this stuff is critiqued.  In other words, whenever I've looked at a book or movie on this informal digital diary, everything I write, and all the judgment calls I make (whether it be a major blockbuster like Ready Player One, or an out of the way episode of an obscure radio show, or forgotten short story), all of it is based on an aesthetic philosophy, or at least a rough idea of what Art or storytelling is, and what it can accomplish.  To be fair, though, none of this is anything that any of the best critics out there have to work with.  Even Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert tend to give away hints of their ideas about movies and films over the course of their careers.  Kind of like an open secret.

What I'd like to do now is not just toss off the occasional hint in the midst of talking about something else.  That's something every critic winds up doing over the course of any review.  However, my focus today is going to be just a little bit different from all of that  Instead, I'd like to take some time to actually share one of the tenets that underlies the work done on this blog.  And the interesting thing is I know just the subject that will help me share all of this with you. It all has to do with a cartoon studio.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Rated K For Kids (1986-88).

This next entry in The Scriblerus Club is somewhat unique, and calls for a special kind of introduction.  I'll have to backtrack just a bit in order for any of what I say next to make sense.  A good way to start out is by stating the simple facts.  This article is written in something of a reflective mood.  No need to worry, however.  There's not going to be any grand, Wordsworthain rhapsodies here.  I may be a sentimentalist, yet I'm also smart enough to know when to reign it in.  Instead, it's more that the last review I did contained a lot of food for thought.  It was enough to get me thinking on my role as a blogger, and what that means in terms of wanting to be the kind of critic who reviews books and films for a living.  I have Martin Scorsese to thank for this (believe it or not as you will, I'm telling nothing less than the truth here).  His work on The King of Comedy, with its cautionary fable about the wages of fame and notoriety made me aware of how much of an ethical responsibility is needed on the part of not just the artist.  It's a moral imperative which appears to also be demanded of both the audience in general, and of any actual, legitimate critics there might be somewhere in the aisles.

I'm not sure I can even pretend to fit the role of a legitimate critic by any stretch of the imagination just yet.  It's the job description I want to have someday.  Until that moment arrives I'm just a journeyman, at best.  However, what Scorsese's film made me realize is that even a trainee isn't exempt for seeing if they can do a proper job well, even if it's just at the beginner's level.  Scorsese seems to be arguing that there's a lot of responsibilities that comes with being a critic, just as much as there is with being a storyteller.  And it is with this brief moment of insight that the last film I reviewed set off a spark in my mind.  Because a lot of the themes he and De Niro tackled in their little comedy project goes right to the heart of what a blog like this is all about.  The Scriblerus Club is a digital space concerned with a number of interlocking topics.  The first is relatively straightforward.  This is just a place where I can satisfy my own myriad fascinations about the making and telling of stories.  This includes what they are, where they come from, and what they mean to both writer and reader.  The other part of this blog concerns the latter half of the equation mentioned in the previous sentence.  In addition to an incurable wondering about stories, I've grown increasingly aware over the years of the role of the audience.


This was a topic whose importance I first began to realize maybe as soon as 2015 or 14.  The irony is it was an exposure to online troll culture that brought this to my attention more than anything else.  It was through stumbling across the work of "internet personalities" like Doug Walker and a host of copycat imitators that first made me aware of the various kinds of roles and outlooks that the audience can adopt or embrace in their dosing or intake of art.  It also brought me to a slow growing realization of just how much of a problem this kind of toxicity is for any possible discussion of the arts.  The good news is that it does at least seem as if the vast majority of the audience is aware of the issue as well, and really does wish for a healthier social space in which to discuss our enthusiasms for the art of stories.  So that's been one aspect of my concerns as a reviewer.  The other one has sort of taken me by surprise.  I also don't seem to be the only face in the crowd whose noticed a kind of collective fumbling when it comes to something like telling a mere story on the silver screen.  I can't even begin to give you explanation for why Hollywood in general seems to be going through its own moment of  existential crisis.

As of this writing, there is a mass walkout strike in all of the major motion picture studios, and television companies.  There seems to be talk and rumors on the street and in various chat forums that the American film industry is headed for a collapse of some kind.  At the very least, it won't surprise me if the entertainment complex undergoes some kind of shake-up transformation as a result of all of these events.  What the fallout of the Hollywood strikes will be, whether it will reshape American filmmaking, and what new form (if any) this next phase of cinematic storytelling may take, I couldn't really say.  If I had to go out on a limb, then I do wonder if one possible result could be a new democratization of making movies.  In other words, one potential outcome could be the either reduction or rebirth of motion pictures on a worldwide independent basis.  In other words, we could see all movies in the future as the product of a worldwide indie filmmaking model.  One with no real studio system to speak of anymore, and instead its all just various artists, actors, and crew coming together to create what they can on an open, crowdfunded environment.  At least this is one possibility out there.


This article, however, can't hope to begin to address all of these matters; or at least not all at once.  Instead, for this entry, I've decided to tackle another issue, and set my sights more on the way audiences take in the art and stories that they enjoy.  Part of the reason for a blog like this is a growing curiosity about what people are thinking when they either enjoy or dislike an offered story, and what this information might be able to tell on a broader level.  I'm wondering if maybe a review of the audience can help us figure out what kind of stories we like to tell ourselves, and see if this, in turn, can tell us something about the state of the arts.  Now, in order to do that, I've chosen the help of an old TV show.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

The King of Comedy (1982)

There are some artists who are difficult to talk about.  This is not for any of the usual reasons.  There's little in the way scandal or gossip to go around here.  Nor has the artist ever done or said anything controversial or incorrect.  In fact, he's gone on the record of making a number of worthy comments, and donating to generous causes.  Instead, the real challenge comes from having to deal with a filmmaker who has built up such an artistic reputation for himself, that any attempt to so much as tackle even the least of his films is intimidating to the critic.  This goes double for when you're trying to talk about the cinematic career of Martin Scorsese.  It's reached a point where just saying his name can sometimes make even the boldest of cinemaphiles speak in hushed whispers, as if some long honored potentate had entered the room.  Bear in mind, this is the response that he manages to get out of all of the major headline critics out there (however little of them remain).  Now can you imagine what kind of an impression he's bound to leave on someone who is literally just a face in the aisles?  The prospect of knowing where to begin with a director like him is discouraging, to say the least.  This stems from the fact that it seems in order to talk about Scorsese, or his films, one would have to talk a little bit about everything else there is in life, or whatever it is you choose to call an experience like this, such as it is..

Or at least this is crippling sense of obligation that his reputation is bound to leave the average critic saddled with.  The reaction is a purely psychological one, and it probably has even less basis in actual fact.  Odds are even the man who helped create Travis Bickle is a smart, mostly even tempered and mild, magnanimous sort of person if you ever met him.  It also doesn't help to keep a maxim of Stephen King's in mind, even when talking about the guy who made Goodfellas.  King said he has to put his pants on one leg at a time, every morning.  No doubt this inescapable fact applies to Scorsese as well.  It still leaves the critic with a formidable challenge.  Where do you begin to discuss the art of someone who is held to be the American Filmmaker?  Right now, the best place I can think of is with a brief history of the development of the artist's mind.  For Martin Charles Scorsese, the entire process of thought began on the day of November 17th, 1942.  His city of birth, the main setting of his life which would go on to become something of a recurring major character in all of his work, was New York City.


To claim that the Big Apple has left an impact on the kind of artist Scorsese has become is a bit like saying that Charles Dickens knew how to write about street life in London.  Both statements are true, and therefore don't even begin to take into account the ways in which an early exposure to the often perilous street life of a gritty urban center went on to shape the aesthetic approach of each of these creators.  In both cases, what the reader or viewer is confronted with is a pen or camera that can't seem to help showing off the Best and Worst of Times.  Whenever Dickens or his New York counterpart focus the lens in on a particular incident, it doesn't take long for either of them to start recounting all the important narrative details with an immediate, visceral quality that either makes the characters jump off of the page, and directly into your mind for all time.  Or else the imagery and the incidents depicted will grab you by the jugular, and then not let go for the entire runtime.  In Scorsese's case, his camera always winds up lingering on matters of transgression, guilt, and the held out possibility of redemption.

These appear to be the three intertwined themes that have haunted the stage of his particular brand of cinema, from the very first.  In every movie he's ever made, he returns to these three hands in the tarot card deck, and then will always proceed to play a constant stream of variations on these ideas with a passion that borders on the obsessive.  What's important to realize is that it was New York itself which seems to have taught him his first important lessons in exploring these related ideas.  It's a cinch to say he grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood.  For whatever reason, his parents, Charles and Catherine, moved into the Little Italy district of Manhattan.  Both of them deserve a bit of credit here, before we continue to look at the way NYC molded the artist's imagination, because in a very real sense, it started with the both of them in a way I never would have expected.  Both of his folks worked in New York's Garment District, yet each of them also moonlighted as (very small) part time actors.  Now this was something I wasn't aware of until I started doing research for this article.  It's one of those minor details that tend to jump out at you from left field.  It's the puzzle piece that helps to complete the picture.

Knowing that Scorsese's parents were actor paints his childhood in a light that I'm not sure how well known this was.  Although it's possible this crucial snippet of information probably is known among his most ardent fans.  Whatever the case, one key fact remains.  It is now possible to assume that the director was the product of an artistic household.  If this is the case, then we have an important answer in terms of figuring out where Scorsese originally got his artistic temperament from.  It was nurtured in him almost from the start, by the very people who helped create him together.  His parents were able to pass along their shared enthusiasm for the arts along to their son.  He, in turn, appears to have gone on to put some very good use to it.  The city itself, meanwhile, has gone a long way to conditioning the type of art that Scorsese utilizes in his stories.  Most of the director's films contain a heightened sense of gritty urban realism.  The major focus always tends to revolve around life on the street in various capacities.  It almost makes sense to describe the director as one of the major poet's of the City.


The way this aspect of his career got started appears to stem from a bout of childhood illness.  Scorsese was the victim of asthma as a boy, and this meant that he often was unable to participate in sports, or a lot of the other extracurricular outdoor activities that children were allowed to get up to in a more permissive age.  This meant the director was often confined to his room, or else the stoop of his apartment complex; the closest thing he had to a family household.  It was from both of these enforced vantage points that the young Martin was turned from a participant, into a viewer.  It might have even turned him into an accidental sort of voyeur, though never in the usual sense of the term.

Instead, his asthma had the effect of turning him into an often unwilling observer of New York street life.  Here's the part that's difficult to write about because of the relative lack of information.  This is one of the few topics that has resulted in a certain reticence on the part of the filmmaker.  It's clear that the time spent staring out the window of his own childhood room has left one of the final decisive impacts on Scorsese's cinema.  It appears to be the first vantage point that gave him an unwanted insight that the world could sometimes be a violent place.  One is reminded of a few early scenes in Goodfellas where the young Henry Hill sometimes catches sight of the brutal and violent crimes that are committed on the street, whether in broad daylight, or the darkest side of night.  While that film is based on the autobiography of another person, it has been implied, here and there, that the event of a young mind witnessing acts of violence on the "mean streets" is something that both Scorsese and the real life Hill share in common.  This also accounts for the director's seemingly natural indirectness, whenever he's seen fit to mention (he's never truly discussed) the criminal acts that crossed his path.

Unlike Hill (both on screen and in real life), Scorsese was never allured by gang land life as it played out in front of him.  Instead, much like Stephen King, it drove into his impressionable young mind that he should always watch out for the bad men, while also giving him the nagging curiosity of wanting to understand how seemingly normal people can be driven to such heinous acts.  If there is any influence that one should point to as perhaps the final determining factor in the kind of artist Scorsese has since become, then any future scholar on his life would do well to focus in on that childhood window.  For strange as it may sound, it was this location that might be cited as one of the crucial inflection points for the development of the street poet's mind.  It is just possible to look at that whole real life scene, and realize that one is looking at a reality which is also a kind of symbol, perhaps even a parable.  The image of the young child at the window conjures up the curious notion of the young man almost as the accidental spectator of an ongoing pageant play.  For a brief moment, it's almost as if Shakespeare's notion has taken on an ironic life of its own.  All the world has become a stage for the child, and all the men and women in it merely players with their entrances and exists, some of which are violent.


More than this it's impossible to say or comment on.  Scorsese's exposure to New York gang life appears to stem from the time when a bad chest turned him into a spectator of the mean streets.  It's clear enough that it left a mark on the young artist, and that a lot of his art stems from what he saw from his bedroom window as a boy.  In this, Scorsese's experience bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Robert Louis Stevenson, of all people.  The Scottish writer was another artist for whom the bedroom window became a kind of natural proscenium looking out onto a real world stage.  The difference is Stevenson's experience resulted in giving him a lifetime of inspiration for Romantic adventure.  While it's a mistake (even a gross simplification) to call Scorsese the Mr. Hyde to Stevenson's Jekyll, what can be said is that with the director of Taxi Driver, it's almost as if the childhood theater window has been flipped on its head, or else the "entertainment program" consisted of a far gritter kind of drama.

From his experiences at the window, the artist soon learned not just the reality of both personal and gang land related violence, but also the stirrings of wondering why and how such things occur in the first place.  What is it that could drive a human being to go so far out on a limb as to be in danger of losing himself?  It's a question that serves as the driving engine for just about every one of the director's films.  And while he seems to have arrived at his own answers to this obsessive question, there seems little doubt that it all got started by both the window and the street.  The final ingredient in the artist's development is the most straightforward.  Once again, it was the product of asthma, more than anything else.  Since young Marty couldn't just go outside and play like the other boys, his parents took pity on him, and escorted him through the streets to the location of their own favorite pastime, the local movie house.  It's the last piece of the puzzle that is Scorsese's mental storehouse, and it could almost speak for itself, if everyone in the audience had a greater knowledge of the history of the movies (web).

The fact is Scorsese is one of those people who are best described as a walking encyclopedia of film.  He's seen and is knowledgeable about more films that most of our parents have forgotten by the time they got out of college.  Scorsese is the one with an actual devotion to the medium and its history.  Something tells me that if you want to know the contents of the director's min,d you should either ask him to show the world both his library of books and films.  If a list or catalogue was ever made of those items, it would go a long way toward giving us the literal inside of the director's mind.  When it comes to catching a glimpse of the other directors and artists who have shaped Scorsese's mind, and hence his art, then a basic roll call would give you the following names: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Samuel Fuller, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Roberto Rossellini, Akira Kurosawa, Elia Kazan, Alexander Korda, David Selznick, Roger Corman, Orson Welles, and John Ford.  Now there are two ways of reacting to a casting call like that.  One of them is optional, the other isn't.  


The optional one is open to anybody in the aisles who winds up taking more than just a passing interest in the narratives that unfold up on the screen.  These are the people who don't just treat films, or storytelling in general, as a passing moment's diversion.  Those who believe the Arts to have an objective life value of its own will often wind up studying the narratives they love.  Their reasons for doing this all come down to one motivation.  They found something they enjoyed.  This enjoyment has reached a level in them that it doesn't for the rest of the audience.  Sometimes an exposure to the right story at just the right time can be enough to help the cinemaphile set their own course in Film Studies, and from there, they go on to learn all they can about the directors listed above.  They'll study their careers, which means acquainting themselves with all the films they made.  They'll grow a familiarity with the history of the movies beyond the current, late stage blockbuster era, which seems to be all that the rest of us know.  They'll learn about all the different types of stories you can tell, and of all the possibilities for artistic creativity this can lead to.  This is the kind of thing that guys like Scorsese, and later his friends such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did when they were growing up.

They've since been labeled as The Movie Brats, and that's how they were as kids.  These were the geeks tucked away in the corner of the classroom who often took the brunt of bullying in school, weren't all that popular with the girls, and always they tended to be considered kind of "out of it".  There was pretty much no way in hell someone like young Marty was going to be Mr. Popular growing up.  He, Steve, or George might have their own circle of friends, yet if you'd been around back then, you could have told from just one glance that they were the original Geek Squad, and their reputation back then wasn't as improved as it is now.  Basically they were all just a bunch of lonely outcasts who often went to the movies as a means of escaping from the hassles most of their classmates put them through.  The ironic outcome is that in looking for a place to escape to, all three of them found a shared way of plugging into reality.  It was the movies that gave them a sense of purpose, and above all, a future.

That's what separated them from the rest of the faces staring back up at the screen.  If you mention names like Sam Fuller or Kurosawa to the average person on the street, odds are even that person won't have much choice in the matter.  All he or she will be able to do is give you a puzzled look and maybe ask you why you're wasting their time?  Or if they're the Good Samaritan types, then they'll say maybe I can help you look for them.  Is your friend lost?  In either case, the result is the same.  Both examples are good enough snapshots of what became of Scorsese's classmates after they all left high school and college.  They all became Mr. and Mrs. Next Door, and have gone on to have lives that devotes little time to people like Melvin Van Peebles, or Frederico Fellini.  It really does seem to need a proper artistic temperament, like the one Scorsese has, in order to give those names a real appreciation.


And so, that is a pretty good beginner's summation of the career of a guy who is still regarded (in most pop culture circles, anyway) as the premiere filmmaker in America to this day.  Also, here I'm still left with the question I opened this article with.  Where do you even begin to talk about a director who has gone on to cast as big a shadow as that of Martin Scorsese?  As with every monumental task, the greatest advice on hand to offer seems to be that it's best to start out small, and then work your way up as you go.  That's why I've decided to begin my discussion of  Mr. Goodfellas by talking about one of the more obscure pictures he's made over the course of his career.  It's also something of an oddity in the director's filmography in that it's one of the few comedies he's ever tried to tackle.  The only other films of his that fit this description are After Hours (1985), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).  The one I'm here to talk about counts as the first time Scorsese ever tried to make the audience laugh.  It was a minor release that happened way back in 1982, starring Robert De Niro, called, The King of Comedy.