Saturday, December 30, 2023

An Adventure in Art (1958).

I'm trying to recall the first time I met Mickey Mouse.  One of two possible candidates, or images stand out in my memory.  The first involves a picture of three figures trapped in an out-of-control mobile home as it's careening down a cliff.  Mickey himself is there, hanging on for dear life, alongside two others.  One of them is a cantankerous duck named Donald.  The other is someone who I think is a kind of dog person?  Anyway, the other fella's name is Goofy.  No, I mean that's his actual name, for some reason.  Not a description of his character, sorta.  The point is that's the initial candidate for the first time I ever met the Mouse and his two famous friends.  On a hook-up live-in trailer that's come unlatched from its 1930s Model T car, and is now literally tumbling it's helpless occupants to their certain deaths.  I'm not sure how the travails of Clarke Griswold and his amusing brood hold a candle to the sort of classic slapstick I'm thinking of now.  The name of the cartoon where all this action took place is called Mickey's Trailer, and I first saw back when I must have been no more than anywhere between five or six years of age.  The second contender for the first time I ever saw these three was in a short titled On Ice.  It featured all three of these characters once again.  This time they were getting into trouble on a simple skating trip.

I know I saw each of these cartoons in turn when I was a child.  I just can't tell you what order they were in.  If I had to take a wild guess, then I'll have to go with Mickey's Trailer as the first time I ever made acquaintance with the work of Walter Disney.  I was just a kid visiting my grandparents one Saturday, and it was at their house that they surprised me with a tape recording they'd made of a series of both Mouse House and Warner Bros. cartoons.  This was a treat they made a habit of for me when I was in their care, growing up.  Thanks to their efforts, I got to meet not just the Don, the Mickster, and the Goof.  I also ran into a rascally rabbit named Bugs, and yet another duck named Daffy.  There was also a cat named Tom and yet another mouse, this one named Jerry.  Last yet not least, I can never forget the wit and wisdom passed down to me and other children of that era through the efforts of three wise, humanist sages by the names of Larry, Curly, and Moe.  And I sort of owe all of these acquaintances to my dad's folks.  My grandparents were kind of awesome like that for some reason.

Looking back on those times now, I suppose the most remarkable thing is that I still own most of those pre-recorded tapes that they used to plunk me down in front of their living room TV to watch as a kid.  To any 80s kids who care about that sort of thing, I guess I count as somewhat lucky.  One thing I notice, going back through a few of these old VHS heirlooms, however, is that some of the content on them are of an interesting quality.  Here's where I have to jump in ahead of the reader and either assure and/or let some of them down.  Don't worry or get your hopes up.  This is not the lead-in to some hackneyed internet Creepypasta.  I'm sticking to real life here, and the content I'm talking has no curses, no secret message, or otherwise displays the by now hoary old trope of the ghost in the machine.  What I find fascinating about these old tapes instead is that my grandparents sort of wound up doing me a bigger favor than they realized.  It's like they created an accidental time capsule of TV shows past.

Now I don't think I'm saying anything too original here.  All I've said is something that a lot of old VHS collectors know about at first hand.  The luckier among us get to collect whole libraries of forgotten celluloid lore, complete with nostalgic scratches and long vanished TV static.  It's a shared memory that's since turned into both its own aesthetic and musical genre.  My interest in all this rests with the few bits of recorded history tapes like mine can tell us about some of the entertainment we grew up watching in an era before the digital revolution swept it all away.  One item in particular that keeps cropping up across most of my grandparents old video cassettes is not such much the constant, lingering presence of Mickey and his kingdom.  Instead, it's more to do with the fact that most of the Mouse's material is confined to a very specific programming block.  Back then, as now, if you wanted to see anything related to the Happiest Place on Earth, you had to look to the Magic Kingdom's considerable PR arm.  What this meant in practice is that every time my grandparents were able to capture a bit of that very same Kingdom on tape, it always came from just one, single source the whole time.

This came in the form of a TV show which had a lot of names when it was around.  I'm not even sure it exists anymore, if I'm being honest.  The title that I came to know is the one that I'm going to use here and throughout the rest of this article.  Both because it's the shortest and most digestible descriptor I can think of, and also I guess just because it was my introduction to it all, if that makes any sense.  So for the sake of clarity and ease, the program was called Walt Disney Presents.  It had it's start way back in the year 1954, and was still hanging around when my dad's folks recorded reruns of it for me when I was born.  That's how I first made acquaintance with Uncle Walt and his enchanted realms.  It was on an obscure variety program that I think has turned into the analog equivalent of an endangered species with the advent of platforms like Disney Plus.  In a way that is a shame, as I think it robs the company of easier access for its fans.  It used to be you could catch all the magic you wanted on your TV virtually free of charge.  If, that was, Mommy and Daddy continued to pay the cable bills.  As a result, I'm one of a generational cohort that came to know of Disney through this one, charming program.

I've even talked about it a bit, once before on this very site, in fact.  Not too long ago I used a book called Disney TV to provide as good an overview of that show as I could at the time.  Whether I've gotten any better at this is something others will have to judge.  I guess now is as good a time as ever to come clean and admit that brief review of an obscure critical study was meant as a kind of appetizer.  Something that could maybe prepare the reader for more where that came from, and so the time has arrived.  What I've begun to realize for a while now is the extent to which this old, forgotten variety program has gone on to shape a lot of my own tastes.  I'm not sure if it's right to say they've shaped the lens I use to either read or watch stories.  However, this simple TV show does tend to act a lot as a cornerstone that I find myself wanting to return to now and again to gain a sense of bearings.  That's why I thought now might be the time to help unearth a rare, and unheralded gem by taking a look at one of its forgotten episodes.  This is something I've just been able to do for the very simple reason that I'm not alone.  Turns out there are a lot of Mouse House fans who grew up under the same circumstances.

Our folks managed to snag VHS copies of whole episodes of a TV show that Walt started back before the idea of recordable home media was just a pipe dream.  And so now I'm able to recapture moments of my past that I thought I'd lost forever.  Or else I can now watch episodes that I've never even seen before, and knew only from old broadcast listings.  To tell you the truth, I thought most of this stuff had vanished into the sands of time long ago.  Instead, I now have the opportunity to live up to the goals of this site, and rescue an overlooked work of Disney's from the ash heap of obscurity.  I think it fair to warn the reader that this is probably the kind of thing I'm going to make a habit of going forward, every now and then.  This first offering is best looked at as an opening salvo, of sorts, then.  I think we'll start out on an episode of Walt Disney Presents with a very apt title.  It's called An Adventure in Art.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

A Child's Christmas in Wales (1952).

 "When I was a boy, every thing was right" - The Beatles, She Said, She Said.

"And I was green, and carefree...Time let me play and be...", Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

In some ways, I guess I was always trying to find my way back to those first Christmases.  You must have some idea of what I mean.  For this is something almost everyone has stockpiled in the attic storehouse of the mind.  Christmas was something else when you're young.  This is not to say that it isn't special (to me, at least) now.  Far from it.  As of this writing, I can claim with a certain sense of relieved pride that it's still one of my favorite times of the year.  There may be a bit of competition between the Winter Holiday, and the Autumn Festival known as Halloween.  Yet on the whole, it's still the damn near perennial image of the Yule Tree that manages to win out time and again.  Pretending or else acknowledging that you're a ghost, or some other creature of the night will always have a certain element of fun and truth in it.  However, enchantment not only has its place, but will always have its day in the end.  I think the reason most of us tend to gravitate toward Christmas so much is because its kind of the one time in the year when we can permit ourselves to be reminded of the Romantic potential invested in the strange order of things.

When I was a boy, Christmas was different.  It's true enough as these things go.  Though I'll swear I may never know how to get others to believe it.  Rather, let's say belief isn't the issue.  There's tons of us out there who have had similar experiences.  Odds are even if you put us in a room together, and made us compare notes, what you'd get is this single story made up of separate voices.  Each of them combing together to create a collective collage tapestry of decked halls, lights strung upon fences, branches, and house tops.  Along with the requisite number of other familiar elements.  Aside from the necessary inclusion of shops filled with toys, decorations, and paraphernalia, you also had a complete childhood cabinet full of Holiday viewing fare, including all your old friends, such a Big Bird, Frosty, the Grinch, and Rudolph (whose story may have been a secret parable about the treatment and plight of Judaism during the Season, though this is something you only pick up on once you get older).  Then come the personal elements of the Holiday.  This is the realm of memory.  That moment when Christmas ceases to be a public institution, and instead becomes a part of whoever you are, because you were a child, once.  When you're a kid, life is Epic even before you know the full meaning of the word.

And the Season held you green and carefree under the mercy of its means.  It's the moment, in other words, where Christmas becomes something you were almost able to hold in your hands, once upon a time.  For me, the moment when it's time to bring a fresh cut tree into our house was always something special.  It was never just a matter a looking for the prime decoration to install in some out of the way place.  It was a lot more like going on a grand hunt.  The journey was to make your way through a sea of green, and it was never really a tree you were after.  Instead, then as now, what I look for is that same picture postcard, faded perhaps here and there, yet still vibrant in a way that time can't reach.  You must know something of what I'm talking about.  It's not the tree itself.  Or at any rate, it's never just the next specimen you happen to run across.  Instead, it's the Ur example.  The primordial product that catches your eye, and lets you know that you've found not just the last grand decoration of the season, but also something of an icon that symbolizes not just a Holiday, but anything that can be called right in life.

When I was a boy, bringing home the tree for the Holidays was almost like a solemn occasion.  The kind of moment filled with a world of import that only little kids can manage.  So no.  It wasn't a tree my parents and I brought.  It was this strange yet magnificent god of the earth, made of wood and pine.  And whenever you tried to gaze up and take it all in, you might have been lucky enough to recapture at least a sliver of the mindset that once made the ancient Vikings who dwelled the in the Northern Forests regard it as just a mere branch of Yggdrasil.  The great cosmic tree whose trunk and branches make up the very roots of the world itself, and on who all rely, in one way or another.  At least that's what some of our ancestors might have believed, or hoped was true anyway.  It's also close enough to what a Christmas Tree looks like when you're just a kid.  All of which is to say that as things stand, the childhood oriented nostalgia attached to the Holidays has become a kind of cottage industry all of its own.  In fact, I'm guilty of offering my own two cents to this growing field of memoir writing.

Though I suppose it does raise a question in the minds of the more curious among us.  Where did such a literary-artistic tradition come from in the first place?  Along with the stockings, Yule Logs, and gift giving, perhaps the most common and therefore unremarked aspects of the Season is the tradition of what might be termed the Holiday Memories genre of storytelling.  The examples of the kind of tale I'm thinking about now are thankfully still well remembered and loved to this day.  The best sample specimen of this seasonal tradition remains Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story.  These are the narratives in which the storyteller and the protagonist are one and the same.  And we follow along with the narrator as they try to recount what their own experience of that fabled Time of the Season was like when they were just kids.  The usual contents of this type of a autobiographical narrative are often expressed in a predominantly comic vein, or mode of expression.  It's almost become a formula at this point, in other words.  We follow the main character over the course of one Season, and observe how their experiences of that time may have helped them learn and grow.  Sometimes this can result in the familiar trope of nostalgia tinged with sadness and loss, though it's the comic that continues to be the ultimate defining trait of the sub-genre.  Sometimes being no more than recounting a funny incident.

So while the idea of the Christmas Memoir has been around for a while, and some efforts like Shepherd's have become world famous, that still leaves the question of origins unresolved.  Where did this particular Holiday sub-genre come from, and who helped give it its start?  I think it's useless to try and appeal here to the likes of Shepherd, Charles Schulze, or even Dr. Seuss.  These are the most famous literary icons of the Season.  However, only one of them has ever written down a proper a Christmas Memoir.  The other two don't really count.  Schulze is just so good at being a storyteller that he can sometimes make you think he's being autobiographical when in fact he's not.  All Seuss is doing, meanwhile, is telling no more than just a straight made-up fable about personal alienation in relation to the Holiday Festival itself.  The kind of narrative we're looking for (the one that guys like Shepherd have gone on to make famous, in other words) is a much more elusive beast.  It has its ultimate origins in the field of personal recollection.  And yet for that very reason, it's history and beginnings can be harder to pinpoint for those who are content to just rest easy in the winter festival itself.  

For those of us with a more bookish turn of mind, finding out where your favorite stories come from is all part of the fun.  In the case of Memoirs of the Holidays, it's kind of amazing just how sparse the bread crumb trail turns out to be.  As near I can tell, the writer who came closest to first breaking ground in this sub-genre might have to be Washington Irving.  Turns out the writer most famous for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow also penned an article about Christmas customs in England way back in the day.  It was a short non-fiction piece called Old Christmas, that Irving later incorporated into his volume of short works known as The Sketchbook (which also contain the first appearance of Ichabod Crane and his fatal Hallow's Eve Ride).  While a convincing case can be made that Irving deserves a place of honor as one of the key shapers or architects of the ways in which the Holiday is celebrated in America to this day, I'm still not sure whether he counts as the first person to create the Christmas autobiography as we now know it.  If he does, then the caveat is that he makes for a very rough prototype.  Unlike Shepherd, Irving is less interested in recounting his own Yuletide experiences, than in tracing down the history of Christmas itself, and the customs this has given birth to throughout history.  To be fair, Irving's own writings on the subject make for a fascinating topic in itself.

However, I'm not so sure this is what we're talking about when we think of the modern seasonal reminiscence as we know it today.  The perfect irony here is that the best possible candidate for this kind of writing doesn't even have its roots in the United States, but rather the Welsh seaside of England.  In a way, I suppose this is kind of fitting.  As it ties into Irving's own explorations of the history of Christmas Customs.  However, the irony is doubled in a further sense.  Because while the ultimate origins of this story lies in a childhood lived out among the Welsh Coast, it's actual literary start came about once upon a time, somewhere in the very middle of the Beat Era New York City.

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?