Sunday, April 7, 2024

The Death of Cicero by Charles Brockden Brown.

Here at the Scriblerus Club, it's part of what might be termed the "company policy" to hunt around for obscure and forgotten names or titles, in order see if it's possible give them a second chance in the spotlight.  My reasons for doing this every now and then are pretty simple.  I don't see why the value of literary art has to be this kind of time bound phenomena.  If a story is good, there's no reason why its shelf life should have to come with a built-in sell-by date warranty, where it's no longer of use.  If that were the case, if all writing was doomed to remain forever beyond the reach of audience tastes, then someone's going to have to explain to me why folks like Beowulf and Grendel, or Alice, the White Rabbit, and the Cheshire Cat are still household names.  Also, remember, two of them came from a time long before the advent of modern Britain.  We still don't even know who wrote the damn thing, and yet generations of readers have never let that stand in the way of enjoying a good narrative.  There's a kind of unspoken sentiment, or agreement in operation with cases like this.  The unsaid idea seems to be that good stories, the kind that authors like Peter S. Beagle would describe as having "True Magic" in them, are able to last for a whole myriad of good reasons.  There's a quality to the plot or narrative that is able to overcome even the longest and strongest barrier of time and place, and it's an idea that I'm more than willing to give a heartfelt applause.

Maybe I'm just one of those helpless Romantics.  However, the really weird fact is I just can't shake the idea that all potential narratives can amount to something of importance.  From what I can tell, that also seems to have been the idea held by the forgotten name under discussion for today.  In the strictest sense, Charles Brockden Brown doesn't seem to count as a household name on the tip of anyone's tongue.  He appears to be a living example of yet another, related maxim.  Just as all stories can be of potential value, so time and tide can be even a good author's greatest enemy.  A tale is mute without an audience to receive it, and sometimes they just don't stick around long enough for the artist to leave as big of a mark as they perhaps deserve.  That seems to have been the case with Charlie Brown.  He was something of a groundbreaker in his day, and yet the passage of time has all but erased his name, works, and accomplishments from the annals of popular memory.  If ol' Chuck has any viable shelf space left out there, then it's within the confines of the very niche category of die hard nerds and historians of the Gothic genre.  It's a legacy that I'm starting to think might deserve a rescue from the scrap heap.

So, with this in mind, I thought I'd take things slow, and one at a time.  Part of the reason for this is because while it's true that Brown's name and work have no choice except to remain unfamiliar to the vast majority of contemporary readers, the good news is that in his case, that's not the same as saying there's not a lot to talk about, or much in the way of a historical breadcrumb trail to go on.  On the contrary, despite the relative obscurity of his popular reputation, it turns out Brown was kind enough to be one of those writers who was able to leave enough historical details behind to begin to fashion a whole biography out of.  If the good news is that its possible to arrive at a more or less complete picture of the author, it's still not the same thing as saying that you can just take any of his writings, place it in the spotlight, and expect anyone to just "get it" automatically.  Whether or not that's how people expect taking any potential work of art is supposed to go, experience has taught me time and again that sometimes you just can't rush either an artist or his artwork on an audience that hasn't been well trained before showtime.  Often, the case is you have to prepare the reader for the type of story they're about to receive.  It means you've got to awaken their imaginative sympathies for older forms of storytelling.

I'm not saying this is an impossible task, by any means.  The fact that most of us are still familiar with the traditional Bardic Meter of the Beowulf Poet, or the Elizabethan Blank Verse of Shakespeare says that we still have some familiarity with how older stories used to be told.  Nor is it the case that Brockden Brown presents the reader with any great challenges in terms of reading comprehension.  It's just that sometimes obscure authors need to have the ground prepared for them ahead of time.  It's less a matter of being too obscure to understand, and more a case of everything old is new again.  I wasn't lying when I called Brown a trendsetter, for instance, and while that is an important, defining part of his legacy, the obscure quality of his name and efforts (all inevitable football related jokes aside) means that I think it's best to work our way up the ladder of his artistic achievements.  So we'll start out slow, just taking our time, and looking at something he's written in an effort to see what makes any of it valuable.  Later on, there may be plenty of time to go into the nature of Brown's accomplishments as a premiere American Gothic artist.  For the moment, we'll settle into the nature of his work with a simple, out-of-the-way short story.  It's an interesting piece is historical fiction called "The Death of Cicero".

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice told Tales (1851): David Swan.

First introductions are always the most important.  It's the first impression a person leaves on you that can sometimes wind up counting the most.  That's shallow as hell, I know.  Yet it also doesn't stop such results from being an on-going fact of human nature.  It also doesn't get rid of the truth that sometimes bad first impressions exist for a whole lot of very good reasons.  Some of us carry a palpable sense of threat around with us, like the dangerous warning sign it is.  Whenever that happens. first impressions can be a matter of life or death.  At the same time, this need to make a good introduction is always in need of balance.  Sooner or later, most of us have to learn to look beyond the surface appearances of the people we meet in order to get to know them.  This is another inescapable fact of life.  So you you've got these two social demands vying for attention and always competing and/or cooperating with one another.  When it comes to introducing the reader to a new author, the task of making a good first impression counts for a hell of a lot more than normal.  The trouble with artists is they come with this built-in expectation that a proper sense of entertainment has to always be a part of the package.  They are always supposed to be "on-stage", with the lights up, and the audience waiting for the show to begin, in other words.  So when it comes to a writer like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the modern reader needs just the right introduction to get interested.

If I had to find the right words to describe the writer under discussion here today, then the good news is I don't have to do this job on my own.  Turns out the words of author Rosemary Mahoney can do a better job of giving readers the best first impression of Hawthorne than I ever could.  That's why I want to let her words take over for a minute or two.  I'll just set the stage for Rosemary by letting the reader know that it all started one day while she was at the check-out like in a now defunct bookstore chain, and she got into one of those brief moments of animated discussion with the cashier.  It's the kind of conversation you can expect to find in even the most commercial of bookseller retails.  The kind of informal discussion that can only mean anything to someone with a genuine love for books, in other words.  Mahoney was just handing over her purchases to the clerk behind the counter, when the guy noticed it was a collection of short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne called Twice Told Tales.

"Remember 'Young Goodman Brown'?" I said. Nick stretched a startled finger at me.  "Oh, my God.  Freaky!  That's actually what I was thinkin' of!  And 'The Minister's Black Veil.'  Beneath the bland fluorescent gloss of Borders lights Nick seemed to bask in the pure spooky pleasure of Hawthorne's stories, like a child delighting in a fleeting fright..."And how 'bout..." he raised a knowing brow, "...'Wakefield'?...That one creeped me totally."  "Me too," I said, which was true: totally and memorably, the story "Wakefield" had creeped me.  I asked Nick what else he liked to read.  Vonnegut, Stephen King, Harry Potter.  As I prepared to leave, he passed my book over the counter and said with almost wistful affection, "I hope you enjoy them!"

"When I first read them - in, of course, high school - I had not really enjoyed Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories.  With it's required reading lists and its parochial and obsessive emphasis on symbolism, structure, metaphor, and all the rest of it, high school had a way of tainting the classics; it turned books into tests and clumsily clawed apart their art.  It was difficult to relax into any book with the exacting eye of a teacher watching and waiting for the usually elusive "right" answer to pop out of my mouth; when, now and then, answers did pop, they popped in anxious fists not dissimilar in style to the process of reverse peristalsis.

"Under the circumstances, I read Nathaniel Hawthorne with one eye on the clock and failed to recognize the beauty of him until I was thirty-four years old, free of the scholastic tax, and living in a solitary lighthouse on a tiny island in Maine with no electricity, no telephone, no human company, and nothing to read but a motley collection of books marooned on a rickety shelf beside the fireplace in the lighthouse parlor.  The fire was long unlit, and the shelves, softened by the ocean damp, bowed like hammocks under their burden.  In their midst was a collection of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, a musty hardcover mildewed with fog; it had tissue-thin pages and tiny type and the portentous density of the Bible.  It smelled of bedsheets, brine, damp dust, and mice, and sadly of school.

"One night, driven by boredom and depression, I sat at the kitchen table and by the yellowish light of a kerosene lamp began, skeptically, to read these stories.  "Wakefield," "The Minister's black Veil," "The Hollow of the Three Hills."  I read for an hour or so, hunched and squinting over that cinderblock of a book, and at some imperceptible moment during the hour my mood shifted from boredom to fearsome unease.  Something made me look up from the book.  I had the powerful sense that a pair of glittering eyes just outside the house was watching me with sinister interest.  I could feel them fixed upon my figure.  The sensation was so strong that I got up, locked the door, and slid the curtain across the black, rain-spattered windows.  I turned up the flame in the lamp, pushed the book under a pile of dishtowels, and although I tried to think of pleasant things, the rainwater that funneled down the drainpipe in gusts and knocked on a trim board at the base of the house kept sounding like heavily booted footsteps.  

"The waves crashing against the rocks just below the house kept sounding like desperate sighs.  Wide-eyed and mute and stiff with dread I sat on a wooden chair and stilled my own breathing now and then, the better to listen for more human noises.  The Twice-Told Tales had tipped me so thoroughly into Hawthorne's occult universe that finally, hot with apprehension and unable to support my own anxiety, I had to go upstairs to bed so that no one (who was not there) could see me.  I lay in bed waiting for the malevolent thud of Wakefield's footsteps on the lighthouse stairs.  I was, to put it mildly, totally creeped.  The next day, though, the book lying in its bed of dishtowels on the kitchen table was just a book, a block of paper bound in faded cloth, and the stories within it were just a series of shapely ink spots.  Daylight had soothed my imagination and dissolved my fear.

"Last night, in reading Hawthorne's own apologetic preface to these stories - a preface written in 1851 (long after the stories were composed and compiled) in a mood of retrospective correction and fatherly forbearance for his younger, supposedly less talented self - I was surprised and pleased to read this sentence: "The book, if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages."  Hawthorne well knew what he had created: a series of sketches - for more than a few of the stories are snapshot short, miniscule in their scope...that depend somewhat on the mood and suggestibility of the reader; fabular inventions calculated to stimulate that part of the mind that thrives on, even craves mystery and wonder and terror (xiv)".  It's for these reasons that I thought it worth while to take a look at the writings of Nate Hawthorne.  He's one of those Big Names whose reputation is a combination of critical darling and mainstream obscurity.  He's a great writer who everybody hates, except for the rest of us who don't know why, or even who this guy is.

For the longest time, he was just a some byline on a handful of books that I've known more through reputation rather than any legit first-hand knowledge.  Strange as it may sound, I've never really read a single thing by Hawthorne until just recently.  I guess that makes me something of an anomaly.  I've managed to escape the curse that makes writers like him the scourge and bane of all high school and college student's existence.  I never learned a thing about this guy in either of the two main academic settings where his name is most likely to crop up.  The result is this kind of weird, blue moon style situation.  I'm allowed a privilege that I think few of Hawthorne's readers are given.  I'm in a situation where I have no other choice except to go into this guy's work with a more or less blank slate frame of mind.  I can just pick up any of his works that I might like, and then reach my own conclusions on what kind of stories the writer from Salem might be telling, and what he's trying to say in and with them.  With all this in mind, I thought I'd start out small.  I knew the first Hawthorne story I tackled on this blog would have to be both graspable and yet representative of the type of story he specialized in.  It had to be a simple narrative that also stood for the overall outlook and effect of all of his fiction, in other words.  I may have found the right specimen in the course of the curious story of "David Swan". 

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Lost King (2022).

It opens with a familiar line of text.  "Based on a true story".  Right away, you know it's going to be one of those films.  The history of cinema doesn't want for lack of any biographical pictures.  It's a veritable cottage industry unto itself.  It's a select sub-genre whose origins seem to reach as far back as the beginning of the medium itself.  The first major (if not initial) biopic was Carl Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, way back in 1928.  It was a silent film, which means its an acquired taste these days.  It also went on to become one of cinema's first great blockbusters, a low-key version of Cecil B. DeMille before he was even a name.  Dreyer's film was also a first in another way.  It is just possible that this film marks the beginning of the long, infamous tradition of the clash between filmmakers and scholars over the accuracy of historical persons and events in an artistic medium.  There might be one or two elements of the subject the Dreyer film got wrong, for instance.  More than a few viewers were happy to point this out, and things have carried on in such a vein ever since.  Which means the same issue of being "True to Life" is bound to plague Stephen Frears' production of The Lost King.  It's story does center on a Maid, of sorts, but not of Orleans.  After being given proper warning from the "True Story" tag, we're given an extra bit of information from the opening credits.

The film, we're told, is not just based on a true story.  It's also "Her Story".  So long as we're playing the game of Art vs History, it might help to point out that even this initial statement counts as an example of "true so far as it goes".  Or rather "true" for a given amount of true.  In the strictest sense, what we're dealing with here is the story of a Maiden and a King, and the way the two somehow found each other.  That is still not quite the whole truth, however.  For you see, there is a third player in the make-believe dramatization of history that's about to unfold.  He's always hanging about in the wings of the film's narrative, always waiting, perhaps, for his own say on things.  He even gets name dropped more than once or twice, here and there.  However, in order to get the full picture, we have to take things in their proper order.  That means knowing when to start at the proper beginning of the whole affair.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Three Types of Modern Prose and Their Readers.

In some ways, I owe a debt of gratitude to Roger Ebert for this one.  Even if what I'm about to write ends up on a different critical outlook from that of the beloved film critic for the Chicago Times, credit has to go where it's due.  It was Roger who got the gears in my mind turning.  This whole article is therefore best thought of as something like his accidental brainchild.  It also owes its existence to the work of one other famous artistic personality.  This would be the once noted Horror writer, Peter Straub.  In fact, it was an observation made by the critic about the author that got this whole thing started.  During the course of his review of a film adaptation of Straub's 1979 novel, Ghost Story, Ebert mentions how he once tried to get into the literary source material.  His own reaction to the book was that, in his words, "I plugged away at it for what must have been hundreds of pages before his unspeakable prose finally got to me. At least, he knows how to make a good story, if not how to tell it, and that is one way in which the book and the movie of “Ghost Story” differ (web)".  Ebert then goes on to qualify his judgment call in the following terms.

"The movie is told with style. It goes without saying that style is the most important single element in every ghost story, since without it even the most ominous events disintegrate into silliness. And “Ghost Story,” perhaps aware that if characters talk too much they disperse the tension, adopts a very economical story-telling approach. Dialogue comes in short, straightforward sentences.  Background is provided without being allowed to distract from the main event. The characters are established with quick, subtle strokes".  Then, he closes it all off with the simple judgment call of: "This is a good movie (ibid)".  Well, for what it's worth, I took his advice, or recommendation, and gave the film a watch.  Even after trying to keep as open a mind as possible, I'm afraid I'll still have to side with another critic, Bill Sheehan, who in his critical study, At the Foot of the Story Tree, described the movie version of Ghost Story, as "a marvel of missed opportunities (80)".  Nor does the divergence of critical opinion end there.  My own experience of reading the original novel was and remains a complete opposite.

I almost want to claim that Ebert and I must have been reading dissimilar novels by entirely different authors.  So here I was faced with a challenge.  How do I account for the differences of opinion between Sheehan and myself, versus those of one half of Siskel and Ebert?  
It was the kind of remark that didn't just get my attention, it sort of forced me to take what Ebert was saying with a certain degree of seriousness.  The trouble is that doing so kind of forced me to confront a series of interrelated question.  For instance, what counts as "good prose"?  How does this maxim translate into "good writing"?  In other words, what kind of prose makes for a "good story"?  More to the point, can there ever be anything such as a perfect, indelible, and unassailable prose style when it comes to judging the quality of any given artistic work, whether a movie, or a book?  I'm sure many of you reading this have already arrived at what seems to be the obvious conclusion.  If you are one of these readers, then you can go ahead and skip all of what I'm about to say next.  This article is not directed at any of you.

Instead, I think this is a topic that needs to be addressed to the novices in the audience.  I think it's worth devoting some time and space here to an examination of the different types of writing styles to be found in works of prose fiction.  I think it's worth making such an effort in an attempt to meet the kind of challenge that Ebert's words set before any attentive student of literature (which is what I at least hope I am).  It's also a subject worth trying to tackle because of the light it might be able to help us shine on the different ways there are of reading as well as the art and craft of writing.  In essence, what you've got here is the kind of work that appeals most to a former high school going on college level English Major.  The sort of work that "Book People" will get excited about, in other words.  Articles like this always tend to run the risk of vanishing into the hazy mists of academic thought, and leaving the casual reader lost in the forest, unable to tell the different between the woods and the trees.

My promise (or at the very least, my hope?) is to avoid making this a boring slog by avoiding both too much technical detail, and (again, trying, anyway) to provide what I regard as various snippets and examples of what I consider to be Good Prose in the most genuine sense of the term.  That being passages of narrative action and description that not only demonstrate what good writing is like, but also does something else.  I tend to think the ultimate value of any good work of fiction lies in its ability to entertain its audience.  This is the ultimate goal to aim for, before any other.  Even if you're someone like Jon Swift or Mark Twain, and you want to bear your heart and soul in an effort to awaken your readers to the danger of racial injustice, all the good intentions in the world will turn to dust in an arena like this if you can't make a compelling narrative that grabs your audience by the throat and won't let go until the last line has been written and read.  It is the story, and its ability to entertain, which is the deciding factor here.  Applying it to an article like this means I'm going to have to make sure each passage from a book I might choose for demonstration is good enough to help keep the reader engaged.

It also means above all that I shouldn't get lost in the woods, and that I make sure the same applies to anyone kind enough to give me their valuable time of day.  The good news here is that we don't have far to go.  A careful look around at the contemporary writing scene has let me know that there are just a handful of choices left open to any would-be word-slinger.  All current ink-stained wretches have the limited options of just three styles of prose manners or voices to choose from.  Each of them are easy to distinguish and arrange into their respective categories, and there are enough good representatives of the "best and brightest" of each class of style to make this an interesting enough romp for those who either care about this sort of thing, or else are just hanging around looking for useful recommendation of any book out there whose contents at least sounds good enough to see if cracking their spines open is worth the effort.  So, with that in mind, let's take a look at what we mean by the term: Good Prose.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose (2023).

I can't recall how I wound up learning about this movie.  All I can say for sure is that it was one of those "By Accident" situations that happen more or less all the time.  I might have stumbled across this by accident in the course of reading an otherwise unrelated article on a Media Entertainment website, somewhere.  Or else I stumbled upon it as a banner advertisement on IMDB, or a similar place like that.  In fact, now that I stop and think it over, the way it happened was this.  I was on YouTube and looking for some other video, and a trailer for this film either popped up as an add by pure chance, or else I saw the title of the film with it's main star, Simon Pegg in the thumbnail, and that was enough to catch my interest.  I think the reason for wanting to give this film a chance comes down to two factors.  The first was that Christopher Lloyd was featured in a supporting role.  In other words, the film was advertised as some kind of supernatural, paranormal mystery thriller, and Doc Brown was going to be a part of it.  I suppose it makes me look kind of stupid, considering that my immediate reaction was more or less, "Sign me up"!  My only defense for this reaction is the second factor that got my attention.  Neil Gaiman was touted as playing a key role as a mischievous prankster spirit.  I had to see what the final results were like.  And so, that was how I wound up learning about this peculiar anomaly of a film.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Lady on a Train (1945).

The Noir story is a particular sub-genre of fiction that I don't think we've ever discussed in that much detail here at the Scriblerus Club.  We might have tackled stories that work as examples of this type of narrative, here and there.  Though always the focus was on the story as story.  I don't think we've ever paused here before to take stock of the nature of the genre as a whole.  Perhaps it's high time we did just that.  It can't hurt to broaden the media literacy of an age, and besides, it can help us to situate the nature of the movie that's on offer for today.  As per usual, though, here is where the trouble tends to start.  For the record, I'd argue that it's not impossible to get a good reading of precisely what a Noir story is.  In order to arrive at the proper definition, however, you do have to go through a number of baby steps, in order for a full understanding of the nature of the sub-genre to take effect.  In a PBS documentary on this subject, for instance, Richard Widmark (a frequent marquee headliner in films of this sort) describes the Noir narrative in the following terms:  "It was the 40s, right after the War.  Going to the movies was like going to a candy store.  Something for everybody.  Popular films were Melodramas, Romances, (and) Musicals.  The Big Song and Dance.  But that's not my kind of of movie.

"You could always find me in the theater round the corner.  People like me liked our pictures dark and mysterious.  Most were B movies made on the cheap.  Others were classy models with A talent, but they all had one thing in common.  They lived on the edge.  (They) told stories about life on the streets: shady characters; crooked cops; twisted love and bad luck.  The French invented a name for these pictures: Film Noir.  'Black Film', that's what they called them; about a darker side of human nature; about the world as it really was".  That description is a bit hyperbolic, yet it does convey perhaps a good sense of the atmosphere that these types of stories tend to evoke.  Another ingredient in the fiction of Noir is the way a lot of its most famous creative expressions seem to have been generated by the emotional fallout of the Second World War.  Edward Muller details this in his book Dark City.

"Film noirs were distress flares launched onto American movie screens by artists working the night shift at the Dream Factory.  Some shell-shocked craftsman discharged mortars, blasting their message with an urgency aimed at shaking up the status quo.  Others were firecrackers - startling but playful diversions.  Either way, the whiff of cordite carried the same warning: we're corrupt.  The nation's sigh of relief on V-J Day ought to have inspired a flood of "happily ever after" films.  But some victors didn't feel good about their spoils.  They'd seen too much.  Too much warfare, too much poverty, too much greed, all in the service of rapacious progress.  Unfinished business lingered from the Depression - nagging doubts about ingrained venality, ruthless human nature, unchecked urban growth throwing society dangerously out of whack.  Artists responded by delivering bitter dramas that slapped romantic illusion in the face and put the boot to the throat of the smug bourgeoisie.  Still, plenty of us took it - and liked it (ix)".  Once more, we are in the realm of grandiloquent hyperbole.  Muller's style is often prone to the same sense of the theatrical that infuses Widmark's own two cents on the matter.

It is still possible to give both commentators credit where it's due, though.  Widmark does a fair enough job of suggesting the specific type of emotional response that stories or films of this caliber were and are meant to suggest to the reader, or audience in the aisles.  Muller takes Widmark's comments on the proper atmosphere and does manage to expand the scope of things, at least by a bit.  His words bring the place of the trauma suffered by American soldiers during WWII to the forefront.  This is an important aspect of the Noir genre to keep in mind, as it is just possible to claim that one of (if perhaps not the) major driving factor that caused Noir stories to spike in the aftermath of that conflict was the sense of unrelieved tension that a lot of GI's brought back with them from the European Theater.  In fact, such a setup does serve as an unspoken background element in a 50s adaptation of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly, where Mike Hammer, the film's anti-hero private detective has items and mementos lining the walls or boxes of his house that hint at the past of a bright faced, maybe even sophisticated college kid who's entire nature was re-framed by the incidents sparked by Pearl Harbor.

So it is possible to see this as an ingredient in the makeup of the modern form of Noir.  The problem with leaving it at this, however, is that it still doesn't bring us to the core of the sub-genre.  Neither Widmark nor Muller are able to lead us to the beating heart of the contemporary Mystery Thriller, and show us the engine that has kept powering this type of narrative throughout the years.  In order to do that, we have to go beyond and before the War years, out of the realm of cinema, and way back into the field of literature.  We have to go right back, in fact, to that same strand of literary Romanticism that Widmark and Muller claim to repudiate.  A closer look at the genre's origins, however, reveals that such clear-cut separations are less easy to make, and that perhaps the true allure of the Noir story is that it in fact does have a Romantic strain all its own.  It may count as something of a riff on a more familiar generic type of fictional narrative, yet the Romance of it all still remains, even when painted in darker shades.  The best excavation of the nature of this type of storytelling comes from the pages of Paul Meehan's Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet.  His basic premise, that the fiction of gangsters, detectives, psychos, femme fatales, and the type of alienated, lonely protagonists who stalk the world of Martin Scorsese's films all have their origin in the Horror genre is the most convincing.

It gives a greater sense of scope, perspective, and literary weight to the sub-genre, and helps us to gain a better sense of its overall artistic nature.  As Meehan helpfully informs the reader, "When it first emerged as a genre during the 1940s, film noir derived its distinctive visual style from the horror film.  Like horror, film noir exists inside a shadow realm of fear, darkness, fate and death.  Both forms exhibit a propensity toward nightmarish dream imagery and surrealism.  While it's more difficult to discern commonalities between the realms of science fiction and film noir, the connection with the horror genre is much more obvious.  The modern horror and mystery literary genres both had their origin in 18th and 19th-century gothic fiction, where the workings of human perversity were played out amid the trappings of the supernatural.  The works of authors Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle defined the emerging mystery genre in these early years, and the grotesqueries of gothic fiction were later reflected in the works of proto-noir American writers like Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain (1)".  I think Meehan's insight of Noir's relation to Gothic fiction is the key one.

It provides the final puzzle piece that completes the picture, and allows a greater sense of coherent order to the more impressionistic thoughts of Widmark and Muller.  In making a sustainable claim for Noir as an offshoot of Horror fiction, it also expands our understanding of a very particular mid-20th century expression of the American Gothic, and allows us the opportunity of viewing Noir as a sub-genre of Horror with a shared storytelling vocabulary, allowing for a greater sense of thematic overlap.  It also gives a better sense of generic definition.  Looked at from this angle, a Noir is little else except the setup and format of the classic 19th century Gothic novel of manners updated to a modern urban setting and environment.  The feasibility of this definition can be found by appealing to an undisputed master of the sub-genre.  Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca is based off of a 1938 novel written by Daphne Du Maurier.  With the exception of the book's then contemporary setting, the plot itself is nothing less than the kind of 1800s style bodice ripper complete with star crossed lovers, a Byronic hero with a troubled past, and a creepy housekeeper who knows where all the skeletons are in the closets.

Rounding it all off is the setting of the main action in a spooky, old dark house straight out of Poe or Mary Shelley.  The entire plot amounts to a kind of B grade melodrama, however Hitch's direction manages to give it an A list budget.  In both its story and atmosphere, Rebecca is the kind of tale that validates Meehan's thesis that Noir is, in the last resort, an off-shoot of Horror.  This is not to say that either genre has to be taken in a one-hundred percent serious tone.  Sometimes even the genre of crime and corruption can surprise you with its sense of humor.  That's the case with today's film.  Produced in 1945, and directed by a forgotten filmmaker known as Charles David, this is Lady on a Train.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Catch Me If You Can (2002).

There's an old saying that goes "Truth is Stranger than Fiction".  In a way, I guess time has told on that adage.  You here phrases bandied about such as "Post Truth", or "Alternative Facts" when it comes to attempts at delineating the kind of society we all live in.  For my own part, I prefer to use a much older model or lens through which to view these contemporary conundrums.  So far as I can see, it really takes no more than a few good read throughs of Classical Philosophy to realize that what's happening in the world at large now is no more than an old challenge showing up once again.  This time it comes in a suitable, modern appearance which fits the time and age of its recurrence.  All we're dealing with today is nothing less than the same challenges that Plato outlined in his Allegory of the Cave.  For the longest time, it seems, we thought we had a pretty good grasp on the nature of reality.  Then advances in science and technology have come along and more or less proven to us all that this conviction was perhaps always little more than a convenient, but ultimately unworkable mask, and that the column of reality always had more than a few holes in it.  The result seems to have left us all in an unenviable position.  We've seem to have reached a point where its now become part of our daily routine to separate truth from falsehoods.

Rather than becoming a vehicle of spreading truth and democracy, it seems as if the advent of the Internet, and its attendant "digital village" has instead served to effectively dismantle the public square.  The net result of this successful attack is that it becomes possible to claim that any legitimate forum for public debate has, in effect, become co-opted.  Free speech, in other words, has been successfully infringed.  And the real kick in the teeth is how to do you regulate such infringements when the reach of the entire problem seems international in scope?  The sad part is I really can't offer you any solutions to these problems.  All this is just the simple train of thought kicked off by an encounter with Steven Spielberg's 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can.  I almost described it as an adaptation in that last sentence, for the simple reason that this is what it is.  The movie is based off of a book by the same name.  It was published way back just as the director of Jaws and Indiana Jones was getting his start.  It was also written by an otherwise unknown face in the crowd by the name of Frank Abagnale.  For reference and convenience I always pronounce that particular moniker as follows: "ABA-nail".  Hope that helps.

So who is this name from nowhere in particular, or Anywhere, USA?  What was it about this guy that caught the attention of the creator of E.T. ?  What particular story does he have to tell, and is it worth a hearing?  More important than all of this, what can something such as the nefarious life, times, and exploits of a simple, unassuming con artist tell us about the struggle to get at the truth in an era where such ventures can sometimes be a necessity of survival?  Some of that is a tall order to ask for.  So I won't even to pretend to go and look for all the answers with the help of a simple early 20s rom-com-drama.  It's a lot more the case of a critic wondering if the story of someone like Abagnale can help ease us into the task of learning to tell false fronts from reality by presenting us with a useful, and thankfully less vitriolic case study, both on and off the screen.  So with that in mind, let's a game of play catch-up.