Sunday, April 20, 2014

Out to Albion

Little has changed on the road to Albion. It felt awfully strange to be driving that way again, for the first time in more than three years, on a length of road that I used to drive nearly every day, that I drove thousands of times over the years.

I did not drive past the old house. It was bad enough being out there in the same area, just down the road and around the corner. I know that things have changed out there: all the trees and bushes enclosing the yard have been cut down. My father has told me this. I didn’t want to see it.

I listened to Spy music all the way out. Mostly James Bond theme songs, to stoke myself up for the battle. I hadn’t seen or spoken to my sister in three and a half years, and would not have been going out to her place even now except to honor the memory of her son, killed in February on a snowbound road.

It was encouraging to see a large number of cars in the yard. The turnout to remember my nephew was very respectable indeed. More than eighty of his frat brothers turned up; a large group of them were leaving as I walked in, piling four and five into their cars. 

Unsure of where I was supposed to go, I headed around the house in the direction that the frat boys had come from. Things had changed considerably there, as well. 

Three and a half years ago, they had just been put out of their house and my brother-in-law had started building a new structure for them to live in, on the very edge of the property. Three and a half years ago, it was a shack. In the time since I was out there last, T____ has done a huge amount of work, all by himself (and he’s not a young man anymore), and what they have now is almost like a compound. Interesting from the outside, but really nice on the inside, with a lot of character. Although we have never been close, my brother-in-law is a man of many talents.

There was still a respectable crowd, mostly young people that I did not know, filling “the little house” where my nephew lived with his girlfriend and spilling out into the yard. My niece spotted me right away, and welcomed me with a hug. She introduced me to her boyfriend, and took me around the affair.

It was nice. The entire outside wall of the little house had been covered over with pictures of my nephew. There was tons of food, although I had no appetite. There was a book to write memories in, and a pile of smooth stones to write tributes upon, to be set out around a tree they plan to plant in his memory. The whole affair, I learned later, had been planned and set up by my niece. Her mother, my sister, had nothing to do with any of it. Nor was there any sign of her in the yard.

The Postmaster for the town of China was there, to my surprise. I was able to talk with her for a little bit. Cost-cutting measures within the USPS have hit her office, and she is going to have to serve out her final months before retirement in an as-yet-undetermined branch office.

My niece steered me into the main house. I didn’t know what to expect. I shook my brother-in-law’s hand and told him what a great job I thought he’d done with the place.

He was clearly hurting. But my sister was her usual phony-ebullient self. She had not even dressed for the occasion: she was wearing a pair stretch pants and a crummy tee-shirt. From the moment that she saw me, she was all over me like fly-paper, which I was not comfortable with from the get-go. I tried to offer my condolences, but she would not let me get a word in edgewise. Instead, she started yammering at me about my book — oh, it was so good, oh she didn’t want it to end, oh she was going to send my comics to someone that she knew, yammer-yammer-yammer, just applying meaningless flattery with a trowel, and it made me absolutely furious because I WAS NOT THERE TO TALK ABOUT MY STUPID BOOK. 

I was there to pay my respects over the death of her son, and she could not be bothered with her son any more than she could be bothered with our mother four years ago. 

When our mother died she would not even help me plan a memorial service. I had to work out all the details myself, and I don’t know how to do these things. On the day of the event, she arrived late, left early, and told a completely bullshit, made-up story out of her imagination that never happened through a flood of the phoniest, fake crocodile tears.

All the while, she was breaking into my house and stealing things.

Yesterday she tried to apologize to me… but she did so in a manner that indicated she did not even know what she was apologizing for, and again the fake tears that I have seen so often from her that I know them by heart started to come. Started, and immediately swept away. It was the only emotion I saw from her the whole time I was there, and it was strictly a performance for effect.

She started dragging me around her house, showing me their whole set-up… and the whole time that she was showing me the place, she was apologizing for it. Again I was furious, this time for the sake of her husband, to hear her talk in such a demeaning way about all of his hard, good work and the wonderful house that he built for her.

At last two things happened. 

The large number of people in attendance had taken its toll on the bathroom, and a minor crisis came up that needed attending to. 

At the same time, my father and his wife, M__, arrived. M__ came inside right away,  and seemed in a very emotional state. I was able to hug her hello and then pass again out into the yard.

My father has already, as of last year, developed that “old-man walk” that his father had late in life. It has since been made worse by a fall that tore a ligament in his knee and required surgery and months of rehab. He now walks with a cane and seems even more fragile than when I saw him last. 

I found him writing in my nephew’s book. And he was so emotional that he was trembling all over and could barely write. I gave him a squeeze and stuck close to him the rest of the time that I was there. 

Then he took my nephew’s girlfriend aside. She was the only witness to T___’s death; she was in the car beside him during the accident. I knew that my father wanted to find out what had happened. He tried to guide her inside the house, but she did not seem to notice that he was wobbly and needed to sit down. Eventually he got the message through to her. At the same time, quite suddenly, people began to disappear out of the yard my niece and her cousin began to focus on shutting the affair down.

For the first time, and thankfully, nobody’s attention was focussed on me. I used the opportunity to make my escape.

Driving back into town, back to what is now more than ever my Home, I nearly missed the turn onto the “new” bridge. In the three years since I’ve been out that way, a significant amount of brush has transformed the spot. That, at least, is something that’s changed along the road to Albion.

-- Freder.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Coming this Fall: QUIRK Volume 3!

Stan Lee was such a big influence on me in my formative years that whenever I make an announcement like this the difficulty becomes not falling into a whole bunch of Stan Lee-isms. Item! Face Front, True Believers! Our Merry Misfits from Space are touching down again this fall in a Wild new...

Ehm, you get it.

Fact is, though, Quirk vol. 3 is coming this fall, and there are several reasons why this edition is special.

First, it contains the final year of continuity from the original Quirk webcomic.

Second, it contains a special story guest-written by Bruce Canwell -- Bruce is not just one of the geniuses behind IDW's Library of American Comics books, he's also written for both Marvel and DC, and some of you may recall a classic one-shot from the latter company called Batman Chronicles: The Gauntlet, in which Bruce and our mutual friend, artist Lee Weeks, told the never-before-revealed story of Dick Grayson's first adventure as Robin. Bruce is the Genuine Article, a real heavy hitter, and he writes my characters almost as well I do (though he's a nicer guy than I am, and so his story, "The Prunes of Ire," displays a level of good-heartedness that our normally crusty and cynical space-faring weiner-nose usually keeps well buried). 

Third, the volume will also include 19 pages of brand-new story material, created by me just for this book. And in 19 pages, somehow I've got to wrap up the whole "Earth-Lockhead" plot-line and set the boys up for the years ahead. I'll either succeed or I'll fail spectacularly, and either way it's sure to be worth checking out.

What, you haven't read Quirk before? Join the club! No, I mean join the legion of Fwoink Patrol members at Quirk's own website, found right here: There's lots to see, including details of the first two volumes of this series and the original B&W series that launched the character more than thirty years ago -- with more coming soon.

OK, I  think I got through that mostly without resorting to Stan Lee-isms. 'Nuff said!

-- Freder.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Like Electric Sheep

In the end, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner can be described easily as a movie about a man who comes to realize that Life is Sacred only after he’s killed Really Quite a Lot of People. 

I revisited the picture last night after more time away from it than I care to think about — more than a quarter of a century — because a copy of what they call “The Final Cut” turned up for three bucks at my local stupor-market. The words “Final Cut” in this case make me snicker: who really knows if Ridley Scott is done dicking around with this movie? I don’t think he knows. 

Scott was more or less vocal at the time about hating the release version of the picture: principally, its ending and the kind of Hammett-esque voice-over narration provided throughout by Harrison Ford. And true to that, really the main differences here between the release version and “The Final Cut” are centered on those two things. For the rest, Blade Runner is largely the same movie that it always was.

Thirty years of elapsed time may have clouded my memory here, but it seems to me that Ford has to chase Joanna Cassidy a while longer in “The Final Cut” before he successfully shoots her in the back, twice. It seems to me that the murder of Tyrell is somewhat grislier than it was in the release version; and it seems to me that there are some random insert shots of leather-clad dwarfs cavorting in the streets that were not in the release version. Except for the chase, these things have little or no impact on the movie and seem to have been tweaked with just so that Scott could say that he’d tweaked something. 

The removal of the narration, though, is a Major Thing, and I must say that I think Scott was right: the picture is better off without it. Turns out (surprise, surprise) that the studio thought audiences are dumber than we are… the extra explanation of the storyline was simply not needed. Taking the narration out both reduces and improves Ford’s profile in the film. 

The one change that I disagree with is the ending, and even there I don’t necessarily disagree… but the few little extra seconds at the end that the studio insisted on and that Scott removed as soon as he could do have significant impact on how the movie leaves us, its audience, feeling… 

The original studio ending gave us the brightest single image in the entire picture, and left us in a state of feeling hope, of feeling better times were ahead for Deckard and Rachel. Scott’s preferred version stops well short of hope, with a smash cut that leaves us in the full knowledge that the couple face more hardships and potentially more tragedy down the road. And I’m going to say right here that Scott’s preferred ending is the better one… but it has a significant impact, leaves us literally in the dark, and without much hope for the future. Without those few seconds of sunlight at the end, Blade Runner is a significantly bleaker and more powerfully depressing movie. 

Other thoughts not relating to the movie as a work skirt around in my head and add to the picture of sadness that I was left with last night. The movie is set in 2019… far in the future when it was released in 1977 and when I saw it, a year out of high school, but well within sight, just a short jaunt down the road a piece for us now. We still don’t have flying cars, but when it comes to the overall darkness of our current Popular Culture, Blade Runner was not just prescient but a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. If 2014 looks more like A Clockwork Orange than it does like Blade Runner, that in no way mitigates the horror that this decade fills me up with in so very many ways. 

People that I cared about are gone and I’m now considerably older than Harrison Ford was when he made the picture. Ridley Scott, once the most promising of directors who made movies like The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma and Louise, has since become the worst kind of Hollywood Hack, churning out exactly the same kind of crap that the younger Ridley Scott would have hated. The world is a darker place and a worse place than it was… and it was never a great place to begin with.

— Freder.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Goodbye, Stan and Ollie

In the past couple of years I have been busily crossing things off of my Bucket List — something that has both good and bad points. When you make one of those cross-outs, you get a good experience, if you’re lucky; but you also don’t have that experience to look forward to any longer. I suppose that if a person is being smart about it, they’re adding something new to their list every time they cross something off. A truly clean slate is a terrible thing to contemplate.

I’m remembering how sad I was when I realized, somewhere in my mid-forties, that I’d actually seen all the old Universal Monster Movies that had been unavailable to me for most of my life, that I didn’t have any more Monsters laying in wait for me up ahead. In the same way, it’s with mixed emotions that I report finally watching Laurel and Hardy in Way Out West for the first time. Long has it been on my radar. I probably first learned about it from William K. Everson’s terrific book about the team and their movies, of which I’ve owned a copy since my mid-teens. I can no longer tell you where I bought it or how it came into my hands, but I have returned to it many times over the years, and although it contains errors (Everson was writing about the films from memory, without the benefit of having VHS or DVD copies to refer to), it certainly helped to fuel my enthusiasm for the boy’s work, the way all good books on the cinema should. High anticipation can sometimes sabotage any given book or movie... thankfully, that didn't happen for me this time.

Way Out West a great picture of its type… but sadly it was the team’s de facto swan song. Stan Laurel was at this time producing the pictures himself, while Hal Roach’s role had been minimized to that of financier and producer, and this arrangement produced the best features that Laurel and Hardy ever made… but it was all about to come crashing down around their ears. The team had one more great picture ahead of them — 1938’s Blockheads — before Roach sold them downriver to MGM, where they became contract stars with no control over their material or how they were used. Both Stan and Ollie are beginning to show their age in Way Out West: it wasn’t long at all before Laurel and Hardy became more Sad than Funny. During their final pictures, illness and age reduced Stan to a visually painful state of fragility: you can’t laugh at someone who’s hurting that much. 

All the better, then, to have made Way Out West when they did. It is a Perfect Little Thing. As far as Laurel and Hardy goes, it amounts to a Statement of Principles. Its whisper-thin plot serves only as a clothes hanger to show off business, and the business has never been happier for the pair. Often excerpted as a clip, the sweet little softshoe that the boys perform early on is just the first of many highlights. Sharon Lynne’s attempt to get a deed off of Stanley’s person amount to the funniest and most joyful “bedroom scene” — and it is a bedroom scene — ever put on film. Jimmy Finlayson is on hand to do his antagonistic thing, and although conflicts between the him and the boys reached much more exaggeratedly violent heights in earlier movies (most notably in the short, Big Business), they’ve never been more satisfying.

Laurel and Hardy are at their best not when they are demonstrating how stupid people can be, but when they are trying their hardest to Do the Right Thing and be heroes, while everything they touch falls to pieces. Here in Way Out West, they’ve never tried harder to good and to be helpful to someone who deserves help… and they’ve never made a bigger mess out of it. 

Having seen Way Out West at long last, I’m so happy that it lives up to the hype as possibly their best movie. I know that I will watch it again, likely with increasing enjoyment on repeated viewings.

But like Dilsey in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, I’ve seen the first and the last. Only a couple of “new to me” Laurel and Hardy pictures remain, and none of them will measure up to this one. Another mountain climbed, another Great Thing done, finished… until now, I always knew that at least one great Laurel & Hardy was ahead of me down the road, something to look forward to. That time is over. The great age of these two giants has, at last, gone past me.

— Freder.
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