Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Successful Conquest

Ever since the seventh grade, when the photograph above met my eyes in a hardcover volume on the history of cinema, I have wanted to see George Méliès’ Conquest of the North Pole. You might say that it’s been on my Bucket List before I had a Bucket List, before the term was ever invented.

What was I doing in the Thomas Memorial Library in the seventh grade looking at a volume of film history? I might have ended up there on my own hook, being the kind of kid that I was, but the truth is that my seventh grade history teacher gave us the assignment to write a paper on “something historical,” and we were to choose the subject ourselves. At that time in my life, “history” was nothing more than a somewhat uninteresting abstract to me... I don’t think any subject was as poorly taught in those days, and with the tools at our fingertips I don’t think that any subject has the potential to be taught better today.

On the other hand, the movies did interest me, even then. Nothing interested me so much. So I suggested the history of movies and somewhat reluctantly my teacher agreed.

Certainly not in grade school (and maybe not at any other time), did I ever pour myself into a research project with such enthusiasm. There were several really good books out at the time, including the classic on Disney animation, and I spent hours at the library learning about Mary Pickford and William S. Hart and D. W. Griffith and Lon Chaney, and the pictures, O my brothers and sisters, the pictures absolutely had the power to transport me into that other world, that other place and time.

I probably would have wrinkled my nose at the word “romantic” in those days, but that’s what it was, I was absolutely being Romanced by the  unsurpassed power of silent cinema over the mind.

Well, I wrote my paper and from my point of view it was a smashing success. I learned a lot. The grown-ups didn’t quite see it that way. When my parents read the piece, they seemed dismayed that it focussed on pure cinema history and “suggested” (we all know what that means, right?) that I add material relating to the impact of movies on culture as a whole.

I couldn’t have cared less, but I faked a half-hearted page or so along that line and tacked it on at the end. Of course that was the part that my history teacher liked the best, though he thought it was under-developed.

Me, I still could care less. It’s not about Aunt Edna doing up her hair to match Hedy Lamarr’s. It’s about the movies.

And ever since I saw that picture up there of the Snow Giant looming over the ice and menacing those polar explorers, Conquest of the North Pole has been one of those Holy Grails of movie-watching for me.

It has proved a danged tough quest to fulfill. The movie is simply never screened, and rarely, if ever, included in compilations. Compilers of silent collections fall all over themselves to include Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, and to be fair, that probably is his most representative work, but come ON, guys... we’ve seen that one and seen it and seen it... Until now, the two or three DVD collections devoted to Méliès’ work have been dowdy affairs, utilizing rank, public-domain prints, and rarely including any significant material that we haven’t seen before.

But here’s why it really is (sometimes) good to be alive: from time to time, Good Things Do Happen, and when Good Things Happen, it really does radiate outward into the Universe and cause Other Good Things to Happen. In this case, with Scorsese’s Hugo in production, what did the good folks at Flicker Alley decide to do but release a major, and I mean major, definitive, gorgeous five-disk boxed DVD set of the man’s work, George Méliès’, First Wizard of Cinema. Look upon this set, y’all, and sigh heavily. The prints are the best I’ve ever seen. Some are pristine. Many are from hand-colored originals. Did I say it was five disks? Most of these films have not been seen in a hundred years!

Conquest of the North Pole, being one of Méliès’ last works, was waiting for me, nestled there on disk five. I was a good boy. I waited for it, going slowly through the first three disks, enjoying everything, savoring the build-up. Patience is a virtue. And I was very, very patient.

Then I couldn’t stand it anymore and threw the thing in the player.

One of the things that the boxed set makes clear, perhaps disappointingly so, is that Méliès’ didn’t have a terribly broad range. With very few exceptions, his films can be divided up into about four different genres, and he repeated these genres over and over again. One of these genres could be called “The Amazing Voyage.”

And the films in this category are all of a piece. Conquest is no exception. A group of luminaries get together and decide to travel to a Fantastic Destination. A marvelous means of locomotion is devised. It is built through spectacular and clever means. The voyage is undertaken; magical things occur along the way. The destination is reached! In a fantastical landscape, the valiant explorers are set upon by the whimsical and terrifying denizens of this distant world. Through a series of improbable events, the adventurers are swiftly returned home. All is well.

If you’ve seen A Trip to the Moon, you’ve seen all of Méliès’; and yet you’ve seen none of him. Conquest follows the blueprint exactly, but at half an hour it may be his longest film; it certainly is one of his most spectacular, combining all his techniques and themes to an extremely pleasing effect. I did not feel let down by Conquest, not even a little bit; and I watched it again a few days later.

Buffalo Bill is one of the luminaries who goes a’flying in the metal bird this time. In the extended voyage sequence, hundreds and hundreds of airships vie spectacularly for the skies. The airship does not just reach the stars, it visits the Zodiac -- Méliès’ was an incomparable romantic, which perhaps helps to explain the depth of his fall shortly after this film was made. 

But of course the triumph, the main setpiece of the film, is that wonderful Snow Giant. The photograph does not nearly do him justice. By equal parts menacing, impressive and charming, he captured my imagination all those years ago, and does not disappoint “in person,” so to speak. Rising out of the ice, fuming pipe in mouth, gesticulating wildly, gathering the explorers in his arms and chowing down on one of them, he is the Noble Father of all screen monsters, the first of the silver screen’s Great Giant Beasts. With his rolling eyes and wiggling ears, he may strike a modern audience as something belonging on a Macy’s Parade float; but think of when this was made, and think that this is the vision of one man, working well before monsters of this scale had ever been attempted by anyone else on screen. This is El Monstro Numero Uno, and I think he sets the bar at a good high place.

I am so happy to meet him at last. And happy also, that Méliès’, whose story is one of flourishing, being forgotten, being rediscovered, and being forgotten again, has the opportunity to come into our homes and introduce us to himself and to his work. One thing is quite evident from his films, repetitious though they may be: the man was extremely vital in his youth, filled with enthusiasm and joie de vivre. No one else ever had such stars in their eyes.

-- Freder.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Coming Attractions

Click on the image to enlarge
Now, with nothing but time on my hands, what am I doing with myself?

Preparing my second novel for publication.

This means a complete edit of the entire text: not just touch-ups to sharpen the writing or eliminate youthful excesses (although I’m doing a fair amount of that), but significant additions and alterations. The first act, which I completed last night, has been lightly expanded and refined. The midsection is ahead of me, and that’s the most daunting part of the job: there are three swaths of material here that make me cringe today, and these will have to be dealt with: either replaced with new work, or extensively revised. 

Even some of the character names have been changed. It’s not a Saturday-afternoon project.

When I’m done, I doubt that there will be a single page that doesn’t show some revision, however small. Put the two versions side by side and I hope that they will look like siblings: the one eager and flush with some raw quality (after all, parts of it were good enough to see print in The North American Review and Kinesis, among other magazines), the other basically the same, sharing the stars in its eyes, but older and wiser and more sensible. 

The graphic above is connected to the project. It’s a desktop picture I made all those years ago. The art, of course, is by Magritte. Don’t know why I didn’t attribute the quote, but I’m sure it’s written down somewhere; it’s an epigraph for the novel. 

So -- procrastinating, yes I am... but slowly whipping this old lover into shape, that I am, too.

-- Freder.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

One More Round

My father and his wife are coming to dinner here at the Duckhaus on Tuesday night. I dread this with a dread that runs thick and black and gums up the gears of my clockworks so badly that even the finest butter cannot make them tick. But there were things Sam Spade had to do because Archer was his partner, and there are things I have to do because he’s still my dad, and I won’t have him forever.

Ever since my mother died I think we’ve both been trying extra hard to put old grievances behind us and make the relationship work. But for my part, I’m getting tired. Yes, relationships take work. But they shouldn’t take this much work, and the work shouldn’t be so bloody unpleasant.

Late in my days in the outpatient program, I realized that we really don’t have a relationship at all. What we have is a baseball game where the two teams are facing in opposite directions, wondering why no one ever scores a run.

If we had a real relationship I would not dread the idea of dinner with him and the Piece of Work he calls his wife. If we had a relationship I would not groan inwardly every time an envelope turns up in my mailbox with his handwriting on it, or an email turns up in my e-mailbox bearing his name. 

I have these reactions because after all these years, I know what’s inside. And I know that it’s just going to make me angry. My father lives in the Land of the Blind Egoists and does not hesitate to stomp blindly through its thorny undergrowth no matter whose feelings he scrunches and squishes. In fact, he has always had a way of making others feel like the Guilty Party for Being Squished.

I’ve seen the way that real families interact when they get together for dinner. There’s a nice buzz in the atmosphere, everyone’s milling about, there might be one grumpy uncle in the corner but the rest are all making the scene in one way or another; maybe the television’s on, two or more people are working on the dinner, another is setting the table, the atmosphere is congenial, the topics of conversation are light and may include anything from the kid’s soccer game to the noisy neighbors to the movie they watched last night.

Family gatherings have never been that way when my father was involved, and now that it’s just my father, his wife and me, they are about as enjoyable as the Salem Witch Trials.

Instead of a cheery buzz, the atmosphere is might be similar to that of the Law Offices of Mordant, Shiver, and Rigor Mortis, L.L.C. on a day when an insignificant lower level member of their staff (me) has performed in a particularly disappointing manner and must be taught a Life Lesson, usually by means of an extensive narrative from the illustrious career of the senior member. 

Never mind having the television on, Dad can’t stand that, because it gets in the way of his talking.

I’ve written about my father’s habit of monopolizing every conversation before, several times, on the blog, so won’t belabor it here. Let’s just say that when he does allow me to speak, it’s usually quite suddenly in the middle of a speech that I may not have been paying the fullest attention to, and then he’s usually attempted to limit my topics by asking a question, often one that has no connection to my reality. Instead of a lifebouy, he tosses me a black hole.

When I am given the free opportunity to speak, suddenly the entire world falls silent and shifts its focus. My father crosses his legs, turns his piercing blue eyes on me and looks at me as intently as if I was a culture on a slide and he was looking down the length of a microscope. This is not the way to have a friendly, nice, enjoyable, relaxing conversation. This is the way to make me clam right up.

The last time we had lunch together I was hung over and so I had the alcoholic’s nerve to stand up to him, in the alcoholic’s inappropriate way. I actually shouted at him, right in the middle of the restaurant, “Why are you staring at me? Stop it! You’re making me nervous!”

It didn’t do any good. It never does any good. He’s been to my house one time since then, and he talked and talked, and said his piece, then opened the floor for my response. I do not play by those rules, and so passed. Then he left.

I sometimes think it’s time to give up on it completely, because it is hopeless, “Rilly it is,” as Katherine Hepburn would say. He’s never going to change, and it’s never going to hurt any less.

But then I think of how suddenly and unexpectedly Mom died. And that still reduces me to tears, even just now. It’s been two years and all the evidence aside it still feels like something that happened to someone else. I still wish that I could talk to her every day.

Dad’s a year older than she was. I won’t have him forever. He annoys the living crap out of me. Even the good moments that we have are Strictly Formal and Distant. And yet I know that he loves me. Maybe that’s why I feel so guilty.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Into the Blue Unknown

Well, now it begins. Ever since pouring gasoline onto my Status Quo and throwing a lighted match in its general direction, I’ve been kept more or less occupied with this, that and the other thing. For a while, these occupations could be as simple as “Discovering What Happens to Yrs Trly When He Is Taken Off of Anti-Depressant Medications.” Regretfully, a number of my friends got caught up in that particular occupation, while it lasted. Looking back on it, I think that mortifying episode plays like something out of the diaries of Anais Nin.

(What I learned, among other things, is that anti-depressant medication is not simply a whim or an indulgence for me: it is a matter of life and death. No, I’m not trying to be Dramatic. This is strictly Jack Webb “Pass Me The Facts Ma’am and Leave the Color to Charlie Kurault” stuff. Prozac, Wellbutrin, I really don’t care what you put me on, but if you take it away from me I’ll be drinking within days and dead with a month or two, and that’s a promise, not a threat. When two members of the group I’m going to talk about in a moment noted that they were going off of Wellbutrin, I joked that they would have to pry my Wellbutrin out of my cold dead heads -- except that, like most of my jokes, this one was only intended to be Half Funny).

For just over the past month, my weekday “job” has been attending the mental health outpatient program that I was referred into following my last stay in 4 East. That job came to an end yesterday. I was given my certificate and my rock and sent packing.

(Yes, like Charlie Brown, I got a rock. We all do.)

It was time and then some. But now the days loom ahead of me without any kind of structure imposed from the outside . . . oh, and with no driver’s license to allow any escape from the house! 

I can’t say that I was a terribly vocal or active participant in the group, but it gave me a reason to get up in the morning and a place to go every day at a time when I badly needed those things. It put me in the company of people who were at least as depressed as I was. More important than any of that, it kept me in front of some professionals who could casually check my thermometer, so to speak, and when my mood started heading dangerously, suicidally into the red they were quick to act and adjust the medication.

... which is working so well now that I find myself hopeful, even, dare I type it, “chipper” (ugh, what a word!!).

Now, with the IOP behind me and nothing but time on my hands, I have no excuses to hide behind. It’s time to start putting some personal projects back into motion. Not that progress in these areas will be visible to the outside world for some time to come. That’s the trouble with so-called “creative” work, although I hate, really hate that classification: from the outside, it doesn’t look like you’re doing anything. 

D____, the administrator of the IOP, saw me diligently doodling away in my notebook every day, and told me that I was “getting ready,” unconsciously, to do some real work. By Hela’s Hoary Hordes, I hope that she is right. The test begins as soon as I finish this post. 

Any time now.

Right away.

Yup. Gonna git ‘er done. 


... I really do need to refresh this cup of coffee ...

-- Freder.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Snakes and Bonzos: a Gift for You

Click on the game board to enlarge and print.

The Game of Life aside, there’s no board game that teaches the verities of life quite like Snakes and Ladders, or Chutes and Ladders for the reptile-squeamish. As rocker Dave Edmunds sang it in a song of the same name, “You’re in the game. you‘ve got no choice / You can’t complain, you’ve got no voice . . . Take a turn, roll the dice / Sometimes nasty, sometimes nice...”

And you never know, do you, when one of those chutes is going to open up underneath you (or when one of those snakes is going to some slithering along...) I do find that the climb is always arduous and the fall always precipitous. And when we played as children, it never helped that my sister always got the ladders and I always got the chutes, or that she always gave out a mean laugh as she grabbed my playing piece and moved it herself down the chute to the lower part of the board.

Of the many, many variations of Snakes and Ladders published by dozens of game publishers over the years, The Bozo Chase Game is my favorite. Bonzo the Pup was created by British cartoonist Geo. Studdy, and appeared on picture postcards, in magazines, comic strips advertising and in many other places. I have an original Bonzo comic art page by Studdy that I inherited from my mother; I could not bear to part with it. Bonzo even lent his name to a very fine and funny Rock Band. I hope you enjoy his game.

-- Freder.


“Hallo' kiddies, I do love sausages, don't you? Whenever I get a few, somebody interferes and I have never eaten one in comfort yet. Have you ever tried to climb on to a pile of plates? -- if not -- see what happens in square 57. I love policemen because they can run faster than I can, but I hate boys who throw stones at innocent puppies, see square 13 -- I'm sure it's an unlucky number! -- If you get into square 39, you really must go up to square 98 and give my love to the wet policeman. From square 45 you will have a lovely ladder to climb, but don't fall down again as I did from square 121. Then do try and dodge square 127 because if not you'll probably lose the game and never be able to end up with me on square 130 all bright and smiling. --With love from ‘Bonzo’ "

Rules of the Game:

  1. Up to six players can compete. Draw a number to ascertain the order of starting.
  2. Each player in turn throws the die or spins an indicator and travels the number of spaces shown on die or indicator starting of course from No. 1 in left-hand corner.
  3. The first to reach or pass 130 is the winner.
  4. Should a player land on any square with a colored arrow on it, he must follow the picture starting from that space until he reaches a square with a star of the same colour; for instance, a player arriving on 39 will go up to 98 or -- 121 goes back to 68.

Originally published by Spear's Games and designed by Geo. Studdy.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Yappety Yap

Ye Gods and Pickled Catfish, somebody tear me away from the App Store! If you think that apps themselves can be a waste of time, can you imagine a more insidious drain on one’s life force than the addiction to browsing for them?

The thing is, you know going in that it’s going to be a time-waster! Once you get past the tried-and-true essential apps -- the Evernotes and the iBook readers and the like -- and into the badlands of more than half a million unfiltered apps all craving your attention, it’s pretty much obvious from a casual skim-through that most all of them are unnecessary, or knock-offs of better apps, or hack jobs, or all of the above. 

Of course, no sooner do you realize this and prepare to tear yourself away from the App Jungle when something catches your eye: that one-in-five-hundred application that either does something just really extraordinarily cool, or else adds a completely new layer of functionality to your phone or tablet and thereby opens up whole new vistas of possibilities for you.

In the latter category, for me, are Paper, LetterMPress (literally a complete letterpress printing outfit living in my iPad), and AnimationDesk, all of which are so good that they had me glued to the App Store for hours to see if I could find anything else as flat-out fantastic, anything else that would open similar doors in my mind. I didn’t. 

Failing at substance, I found style aplenty, too much aplenty. Don’t even get me started about the inventive and gorgeous games that go for as little as ninety-nine cents a whack -- in nothing flat you can fit yourself out with an arcade that would have made your nine-year old self go into a sugar coma.

My iPhone is now so tricked-out and pimped up with gimmickry that I want to grab people on the street and force them to look at it. There’s the clever little innocent-looking  steampunk calculator that’s actually a working Secret Recording Device. There’s the complete, fully-functioning set of carpenter’s tools (not that I do any building, but it is awfully cool). There’s the complete three-dimensional vintage penny arcade. And that’s just for starters.

I have apps to tell my fortune and apps to track ghosts. I have apps to draw and paint in and apps to journal in. I have a toy theater, a telegraph that will post Twitters in morse code, and a fully-functioning darkroom.  I can tell if it’s raining in Kookamonga, shoot a round of mini-golf and even tell you where the cheapest gas in town is. I can calculate that I have been sober for 43 days.

I have spent so much time diligently gathering all the tools that I could possibly need to do the work that I need and want to do, to reclaim the creative person that I used to be. I’ve got the biggest damn sandbox right here in front of me, with every color of sand you can imagine, and more tools to mold it than I know what to do with.

Instead, I keep going back to the blasted App Store. I keep hoping that the Magic Key is there, the Magic App that will unlock whatever it is that’s holding me back, that’s making an Avoider out of me. In fact, they even have apps that help me examine why and what I am Avoiding and do their best to help me stop -- well, step number one would be to stop using self-help apps, I guess...

They have these apps that work absolute magic, some of them; really, with the best of them it does seem almost like magic. If they have apps that can do all of those things, there must be one that can make me into the person that I want to be.

Or, to put it in the terms of a very old joke: five hundred thousand apps piled up in the Mac App Store alone. With that much manure, there’s just got to be a pony in there somewhere.

-- Freder. 

PS: Have you noticed? This blog is not using generic or “borrowed” graphics anymore. Everything you see here is authored by me, even the pitchers.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Pages You Can Turn

As a last hurrah before my driver’s license went “poof” at the stroke of midnight on Thursday morning, I drove out to Unity College and lunched with M____, the director of the Library. It was a tonic to go back and visit everyone and see the place again after I don’t know how long, but oh my word, they have been busy making changes!

The basement, which was formerly an appropriately dank, unfinished vault-like space housing an arcane but rather delightful backlist of old magazines, has been remodeled completely and now is the bright new home of the fiction and biography sections. Upstairs, what was the fiction and biography section has become an extended computer access area -- and if you’re into that sort of thing, you should see the new hardware they are in the process of installing. It’s more than enough to give anyone Computer Envy, and guess what? I madly, deeply, truly got a kick out of little Unity College blowing pompous old goliath Colby right out of the water in this regard -- and not even close. Colby’s student access computers now look like tinkertoys compared to what’s available to the students and the community patrons of Unity College. 

Of course all this means that everything has to be moved, so right now the library is in a state of kerfuffle. With manpower in short supply, they’re relying on movers to shelve the books -- come the fall, I foresee student workers busily shelfreading as they attempt to correct the inevitable mistakes.

Unfortunately, M____ is having to weed more books from the collection. A few years back, I would have kicked against this a lot more than I do today. The sad truth is that needs are changing at college libraries and with limited space and resources something has to give. Some of the books in the collection have not been checked out or looked at in decades. Every year it gets harder and harder for people like me to argue in favor of keeping them.

And aside from that, every time they weed I make out like a bandit. I didn’t know when I went out there that I’d be coming home with a HUGE box and a shopping bag both stuffed to overflowing with books, but you won’t hear me complaining one teensy weensy little bit. L___ was only going to charge me three dollars for the lot. I handed her a fiver and told her to keep the change. It’s the best five dollars I’ve spent in yonks.

There’s still a lot of books left if you find yourself in the area -- and they’re not done weeding yet.

Although I am finding myself easing on down the road into the technological paperless future, I am not so far along it that I have forgotten the pleasure of sorting through a big pile of newly acquired books! D’you want to know what I scored? After all, nothing is so revealing about a person as the music they listen to, the art they love and the books they read.

Well -- first of all, I brought home the Short Story Index for 1995, because I’m in it.  This was published annually by the H. W. Wilson Company, and it lists every short story published in this country during that year. In 1995 there were 4,619 stories published in 230 collections and 65 periodicals, and there I am right on page 200, second column, about an inch and a half down. It’s one of my very few claims to fame. I just now proudly added it to my very small corner shelf of publications.

In the category of “miscellany,” here’s something to make my friend BC jealous: a compilation of scripts from the Bob (Elliot) and Ray (Goulding) Show. I’m not sure how well Bob & Ray will translate to cold hard print, but I’m glad to have a record of their very funny work between two covers. Somewhat dryer but (perhaps) no less interesting is a thick volume called The Comic Imagination in American Literature. Will it suck all the humor out of humor? Only reading will tell. And how could I pass on a hardcover edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll? I ask you. 

In the “A Little Light Reading” department, I came away with a 1919 edition of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vincente Blasco Ibanez. I never knew it was a book. A novel. Pretty high-handed title for a novel. And for those days when I just don’t know what to do with myself, I picked up the entire 15 volume set of The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1967 edition. As I dip into it, here and there, I find that it’s surprisingly accessible and interesting. Well, I say that now -- but after about three volumes I’ll bet that I feel otherwise...

When I’m done feeling all high-falutin’, I can relax with some SF. On a lark I picked out three volumes by Poul Anderson, two by Isaac Asimov, and a collection of short stories by the Master, the recently lats and lamented Ray Bradbury, the latter in one of those terrific Bantam paperback editions that I remember so fondly, with a sketched portrait of Ray juxtaposed against a painting of weird and imaginative landscapes.

Depressing European Dramatists did not go unscathed in this round of weeding, and I selected some Ibsen, Strindberg, Thomas Mann, and an Anthology of (no doubt deeply angst-ridden) German short stories and novels. Why not? I do enjoy Ibsen in a good translation. 

Among the other writers represented in my stack are Conrad Aiken (Joan’s father. You don’t know Joan Aiken?  The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Nightbirds on Nantucket -- good strong gothic adventures for young people), Sherwood Anderson, James Baldwin and John Cheever. I scored five of Willa Cather’s lesser-known books, a Penguin anthology of stories set in the old west, and Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. What the hack, I mean heck.

Forgotten Novels are a fascination of mine. They keep me humble. I brought home three of them that all looked worth the reading: Greenmantle by John Buchan (didn’t he also write The Thirty-Nine Steps?), The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen, and Drums by James Boyd. Presumably, these books used to be popular; presumably, people used to talk about them; they may have been The Help or the Caleb’s Crossing of their day, now unremembered by anyone living -- as most of the bestsellers of today will be in twenty or thirty years’ time, perhaps less. We write the books, the publishers shovel them out into the maw of the readership where they are digested (or not) and pass through the system into oblivion like everything else.

Into oblivion some may go, but a few linger on in the hearts of a handful of ardent followers. I was able to find obscure and out-of-print books by two of my favorite writers at the Unity book sale, and you can bet I snatched them up greedily.

First was Anthony Burgess, he of A Clockwork Orange and Earthly Powers, the latter of which is a genuinely great novel. I found copies of Nothing Like the Sun (an early novel about Shakespeare), the ENTIRE Enderby cycle (four novels in three covers) and a first edition (!) of Napoleon Symphony.

But the real prize came out of the downstairs storage room of the library. I know where the volumes came from because I’ve been coveting them since I worked there all those years ago.

Joyce Cary is one of my top five favorite writers, right up there with Faulkner and Robertson Davies, but try and find his work. It’s very difficult. The last time I looked, even A House of Children had dropped out of print; only his great first trilogy that has The Horse’s Mouth as its focal point is still widely available.

I’ve written about Cary elsewhere. I didn’t discover him for myself; a kindly High School English teacher saw that I was miles ahead of the class reading level (well, it wasn’t hard; she had us reading Brian’s Song  for flaming sakes. Green Eggs and Ham has more literary value) and pushed The Horse’s Mouth into my hands.

I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I was kind of a stuck-up, straight-arrow kid, and Gully Jimson is so very not a straight arrow. I was being confronted with a first-person narrator who was the polar opposite of everything I’d been brought up to believe was How You Should Behave. I didn’t know what to make of it.

I’ve changed a lot since then.

And I’ve glommed everything by Joyce Cary that I could get my hot little hands on. Which is not a lot.

So you can imagine how I bit my lip when TEN hardcover volumes bearing his name surfaced in the mountain of books for sale. Yes! Mine! Ten!  Coming home with me! 

I already had paperback copies of his second trilogy -- that’s OK, I get to upgrade and pass along my paperbacks to some deserving soul. That still left SEVEN completely new-to-me and long out-of-print Cary novels coming along into my pipeline of books to read. An American Visitor! The African Witch! Mister Johnson! A Fearful Joy! To Be a Pilgrim (part of the Jimson trilogy I’d never managed to lay my hands upon)! Castle Corner! The Captive and the Free!

All in all, a good day’s work, I’d say... and with my license now officially turned into a pumpkin drawn by three white mice, it looks like I may actually have some time to devote to reading real, printed-on-paper books again...

-- Freder.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

New Things for Old Friends

With Thicker Than Water, Laurel and Hardy reach the end of their short subject career and embark upon a features-only policy from which they never look back.

Although they had several feature-length pictures under their belts and the masterful Sons of the Desert  proved that they could handle the format as well as anyone, the boys -- and their support team -- must have felt apprehensive at this leap outside of their comfort zone: neither Thicker Than Water nor Bonnie Scotland, their last short subject and first feature under the new policy, represent them at the top of their game. On the other hand, both see the team trying New Things and playing with film: in  Thicker Than Water, scene changes happen when Stanley runs to stage left, grabs the edge of the film and drags it across the frame; in Bonnie Scotland, when the boys make their entrance, a blacksmith hammers out their signature tune “The Cuckoos” on an anvil!   

It's not until the final minutes of Thicker Than Water that the meaning of the title suddenly snaps into focus. And it’s fitting that the last thing that Stan and Ollie do in their last short subject is to transfuse each other so that Stan becomes Ollie and Ollie becomes Stan.

Blood brothers Laurel and Hardy are indeed, and as I work my way through the new box set that finally brings all their sound films back into print I’m aware that this is a sad milestone. There’s still some wonderfulness ahead, of course, but for me the short subjects are bread and butter for Laurel and Hardy, their Home Sweet Home. Better writers than I am -- notably William K. Everson -- have published whole books on the subject of what they did and how they did it. Pick your metaphor: in structure it was either symphonic or sexual, often involving excruciating buildup and explosive release. Stan and Ollie were proof of the pharmaceutical notion of laughter as the best medicine: if you think your life is difficult, by all means immerse yourself in Laurel and Hardy. Their shorts are examples of almost Biblical trials piled upon the shoulders of a pair least equipped to deal with them.

Above all, I think more than any of the other comedic teams, you like Laurel and Hardy. You root for them. There’s nothing mean-spirited about them.

Looking back over the run of their sound two-reelers, the ones that stand out as favorites for me are Brats, Hog Wild, Laughing Gravy, Any Old Port , of course The Music Box, Their First Mistake and The Live Ghost. Note that I don’t list some of their very best films -- Tit for Tat et al -- as being personal favorites. Personal is what it is.

I don’t think, for example, that Any Old Port is widely considered to be one of their best -- but I’ve seen it a million times and could watch it a million more. My father bought a copy of this on 16mm film way back in the day, and we screened it at home many, many times. That alone would make it special. But we get to see the boys in an unusual role as Actual Heroes, stepping in to rescue Jacqueline Wells from the loutish affections of inkeeper Walter Long, and when they succeed their troubles are just beginning. Even in the second half, when an easy solution seems to have presented itself (well, okay, perhaps it’s not such an easy solution so far as Mr. Laurel is concerned) -- thats when the chickens really come home to roost. It’s part melodrama and part comedy, and the twenty minute runtime is just perfect. I screened it at one of my movie nights here at home just recently, and C___, who is avowedly not a Laurel and Hardy fan (women rarely are, and there’s a reason for that), laughed as long and as hard as the rest of us.

Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy often found themselves standing before a judge, usually for no specified reason; “vagrancy” was as specific as it got.  Just as often they wound up behind bars, on the lam, or in a situation designed to protect them from the law -- the French Foreign Legion being a very typical example. I take comfort in this. When my turn comes to stand in a courtroom, I will imagine Stan and Ollie, and Buster Keaton, all standing beside me, with their hands on my shoulders, offering me support. 

Is this not, in the end, what comedy is for? 

-- Freder.

If you agree that Phillip Marlowe should be allowed to rest in peace...

Anyone out there who is not just a "book lover" but who really cares about writing as a vanishing art form (which it is, I am sad to say -- despite the evidence to the contrary, those megatons of world wide webinet verbiage that get dumped on us every day, and yes I do count my own contributions to the cultural pollution as nothing more than shovelware) . . .

-- ahem, as I was saying --

If you care about writing as an art form, follow this link and read it through to the end. It's quite well done, and it's exactly what I've been yammering about all along, and I'm glad someone else is finally standing up. Banville is a writer that I respected, until now. Until now, I would have thought he was a writer who was intelligent enough to know better.

-- Freder.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Gothic Herbal Ephemera, or, Deadly Dull vs. Plain Deadly

On the whole I did well selecting New Music last month. I pat myself on the back. Buying music sight unheard so to speak can be a real hazard, and to be as happy as I am with as much of it as I am is kind of remarkable to my way of thinking.

But you can’t win them all, and there was indeed one weak link in the chain: The Deadly Nightshade Botanical Society, a band with a name so good that it powered me right through the sample tracks and practically forced me to press the BUY button.

Alas, the name is the best part. No, they aren’t bad, by any means, but they aren’t good enough to give me any particular reason to recommend them. I’ve tried listening to their album, Brand New Antiques, several times, but only takes about three songs before I’m  ripping it out of the player thinking to myself, Okay that’s about enough of that...

They sound a little bit like 10,000 Maniacs without a pulse. I can definitely see them playing in some dreary little coffee shop where all the patrons wear smoked glasses, and pasty-faced gentlemen in overcoats sit waiting expectantly for someone who never shows up. 

(which reminds me of a cartoon book that I read a long while ago, called How to Be a Non-Conformist. It was specifically about the Beat generation, but it could apply just as well to the Goth and Steampunk crowd or at least certain elements of that crowd, the point being: if you are busily following rules that someone else sets out for you about what to wear and how to dress and act, even if those rules run contrary to those of so-called “mainsteam” society, then you’re not a non-conformist at all -- you’re just another kind of conformist following a different set of rules and regulations made up for you by other people)

Anyway. The DNBS. To my ear, their music excites neither the intellect nor the emotions. It’s not even good walking music, too distant and lifeless. The girl singer has a nice clear voice and the band has a nice clear sound to match it, but after one song it all sounds pretty much the same. With a name like that you’b better deliver the goods, and of course you may feel completely differently about it than I do, but all they delivered for me was a Ho and a Hum.


Speaking of Deadly Nightshade, I was hugely disappointed this week when the berries on the nightshade plant in my back garden finally began to ripen -- and instead of a lovely blood-black, voluptuous blue-purple, they filled out in a bright tomatoey red.

I knew that this was bad news, and some more research confirmed it: this means that my plant isn’t Deadly Nightshade after all, as my lawyer told me last year, but Deadly’s much less toxic cousin Woody Nightshade. Woody is still poisonous, he’ll make you sick and put you in hospital for three days, but he won’t kill you. 

This is a real kick in the teeth on a couple of levels.

For one thing, Deadly Nightshade means something. There’s a cachet to it. I could tell people that I had a Deadly Nightshade plant with a certain amount of pride. Deadly Nightshade is very Charles Addams. I could imagine Morticia Addams complimenting me on how well my Deadly Nightshade was coming in this year, while Wednesday snapped off a sprig or two and gave it to her brother to gnaw on. 

But “Woody Nightshade” -- heck, that’s nothing. No Coolness factor whatsoever.

Gah! It even sounds wimpy. It sounds like something out of freakin’ Toy Story fer crine out loud.

And to put the decidedly non-toxic frosting on the cake, there goes my Escape Plan. I had it all figured out. I’d done all the research. I was ready to harvest my plant, grind it up with a mortar and pestle, bottle the results and set it aside for a rainy day, just as soon as enough of the berries ripened. When the time came, it would have been swift and certain.

Now? Now I have to figure out something else, and there just aren’t any other Final Exits I know of that are as elegant as this one would have been.

-- Freder.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

"The World Has Changed"

Fritzi Cohen died the day before yesterday. From the time when my family moved to Maine back in the mid- ‘60s all the way into the early ‘80s, Cohen was the theater critic for the NBC affiliate in Portland, Maine.

Think about that for a minute.

In those days, we had half-hour local news broadcasts, not the mammoth two-hour marathons that glom so much of the modern local programming schedule. It was no-nonsense News, Weather, Sports -- the anchors didn’t shilly-shally around with each other, thank each other, try to get cute with the viewing audience. There wasn’t time for that frippery. 

And yet somehow WCSH found time for a weekly local theater critic, something that’s unheard of on our bloated modern newscasts. They did this even though Portland was a smaller town back then with fewer public performance options. They did this because somebody at the station thought it was important.

The local “news” programs of today, bleeding their time away by recapping the same stories over and over again, make TV stars out of High School athletes (something that no one would ever have dreamed of in my day), but to watch their broadcasts you wouldn’t know that Maine even has an arts community. 

So Cohen, with all her flighty mannerisms and her very big personalty, was more significant than we knew back in the day. She was doing something that isn’t being done at all any more, and probably wasn’t being done very much back then. She was the first of her kind, certainly in the area, and quite possibly also the last.

She was an actress herself, and it’s with some dismay that I note her obituaries all remarking that she is “best remembered for her role in Jaws.” 

Say what? She had one line, if that, and her big moment consisted of turning towards the camera just before the boy on the surfboard disappears in a huge gout of blood. Of course it was a big deal at the time that “our” local gal got an appearance in a Major Hollywood Movie, but I’d be willing to bet that she had other entries on her acting resume that she would have preferred to have been remembered for -- and her own colleagues at WCSH could not even be bothered to go and dig them up. There’s respect for you.

I remember her because she was One of Those People. You know what I’m talking about. The young-uns among you won’t appreciate this just yet, but you will, someday. She was one of the people who shaped the world that I grew up in, and those people -- they are a Vanishing Breed. 

It’s a question of slow degrees, of course. There were the people who shaped the world that my parents grew up in, the world that I was born into, the status quo that existed up until about the end of World War II. They’re all gone. It’s the wave of people who drove the big changes that washed over the world in the fifties, sixties and seventies that I’m specifically referring to; the ones who made the movies and the music  and the technologies that shaped the way I saw the world, the ones on the front lines who brought the world into my home. The ones who danced the dances, painted the pictures, and caused the heroes to streak across the sky. At first it was just a trickle of leaves; then a gust of wind started taking clouds of them, now they are dropping away pretty regularly, soon it will start to thin out, if it hasn’t already, until there are only a handful left on the bare branches, and then they too will fall.

Great Galloping Googly-Moogly, even the youngest of the Young Turks, the ones who survived Drugs and Hard Living that is, are now in their late sixties, and look like they were run over by a Monster Truck. Which then backed over them. And popped a wheelie on them for good measure.

My generation? I don’t think we carried the standard too well. I think we stood on the shoulders of our betters. But I see signs of promise in certain young people that I know.

So -- Good-bye Fritzi Cohen. We thought you were just another Flamboyant Theater Person back in the day. But you were a Pioneer. I wish that we had people following in your footsteps today.

I’d raise a glass in your honor, but I’m afraid those days are gone, too. These things happen.

-- Freder

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What a Difference a Voice Makes

Another item in my blast of New Music was this: the latest album from a German group called Xandria. Wikipedia labels them “symphonic rock;” I’d call it a pretty typical blend of gothic metal, more pretentious than some. I’d listened to samples of their earlier work and was not moved enough to give it a spin. OK, it’s metal, it’s gothic; been there, done that. There was a little bit of an Indian influence; that’s been done, too -- Dead Can Dance practically ran it into the ground for my taste. 

So I got it, I just didn’t want to get it.

Then I played the samples for their brand-new album, Neverworld’s End, not expecting anything different. And all of a sudden, there was this ... voice.

This operatic voice. Not at all the kind of thing you commonly hear in a gothic metal band, and yet immediately when you do hear it, the lightbulb goes on over your head -- why in hell didn’t anyone think of this before?

Manuella Kraller is her name and on doing a little research I find that she is what they call a “spinto soprano.” I’m not sure what that means in technical music language, but in practical terms it means that she can bellow like a gale force wind, soar up to nail those high notes, and draw back almost to a whisper. The other members of Xandria, especially Marco Heubaum, the band’s founder, had best get down on their knees and thank the powers that be that they found her. When the material is good, she makes it sound fantastic. When the material is merely OK, she holds it together and keeps you listening. Don’t believe me? There’s a trailer for the album, with its highs and lows and everything-inbetweens all represented, online at youtube. You can check it out it here. 

Did Heubaum’s songwriting get better when Kraller joined the group? Did he realize that he had more to work with? I can’t say; I haven’t heard enough of the band’s earlier efforts, and I doubt that I’ll go there. But especially after hearing Kraller, the earlier albums sound tepid.

Even with Kraller doing her Valkyrie thing and shaking the rafters with the guitars wailing all around her, Xandria doesn’t displace The Birthday Massacre as my favorite new band; there is that element of pretension I mentioned above -- Heubaum really seems to be trying for Profound with some of his lyrics, and y’know what? He succeeds in being about as profound as a Blue Mountain Arts greeting card. Also, some of the songs are burdened with a kind of jerking riff, like a car that’s stalling, stalling, stalling before it finally starts to purr. Still and all, when everything clicks, which it does several times during the course of the album, it’s quite lovely in a metallic sort of way, and with Kraller in the bow of the boat, spearheading it so to speak, it does achieve a kind of symphonic grandeur. 

I definitely hope that they can hang together long enough to produce another album. In the meantime, are you a bass player? They need you!

-- Freder.
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