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.