Monday, October 16, 2017

The Story of a Strange Goodbye

Outside of work, Sandy P______ and I were not close. Certainly we got on all right, and worked well together, for two people who were polar opposites in so many many ways. She was a married older woman with two sons coming of age, a real salt-of-the-earth working class Republican from south of the Mason-Dixon line, where I am a Northern Liberal writer and graphic artist, both childless and single. But we liked each other and had a good, strong working relationship, nothing more. Which makes the thing that happened that much stranger.

In time I moved on to a different job for a different employer. As far as I know, Sandy stayed on at the bookstore until she became too sick to work.

I believe that she must have been in her mid-fifties when she was diagnosed with cancer. I had not seen her in several years, but I heard about her illness through the so-called grapevine: Waterville, Maine is a small town. 

She fought it hard. It went into remission — then it came back.

The last time I saw Sandy was in a local supermarket. I was heading to the checkout counter when I heard my name being called enthusiastically from the distance. I followed the sound into one of the aisles and there found Sandy in a wheelchair, being pushed by her loving husband, who had himself shed his normal appearance of vitality for that of the strained caregiver — a look I was myself to become too familiar with in later years. 

She was wearing a turban to hide her baldness, but was smiling and seemed as full of energy as ever, despite the chair. She had taken on that contradictory aspect that one sometimes sees in very sick people: drained, yet full of life. We exchanged a few pleasant words, said our goodbyes and each moved on. 

I did not see her or have any news of her for several months after that meeting. Life went on.

Then, early one morning, when I was in that middle-ground between sleeping and waking, she came to me in a dream. 

In that dream, I was literally coming back from some Deeper Place, from a deeper dream that I do not remember, when she and I met in passing in a public park. I was surprised to see her. She greeted me as enthusiastically as she had in the supermarket. There was no sign of the turban or wheelchair. She looked her old self. 

We sat down at a picnic table that sprang up out of nowhere to accommodate us. I remember being really glad to see her. I said, “How are you? You look great!”

And she did. She had her hair and her color and her vitality back, all at Full Strength.

She said, “I am great, I’m completely cured! They were ready to put me in a pine box, but I showed them!”

Which is just how she talked in real life. Emphatic. With just a hint of a southern accent. 

We sat for just a bit and talked a little more; but then the time came when I had to go. I got up and left her there at the table. Suddenly, she looked quite sad.

I woke, remembering everything and feeling so strange. I understood immediately what had happened, yet I shrugged it off and thought, Wouldn’t that be odd if…

No more had I gotten dressed and made my way down to the kitchen when the telephone rang. It was Ellen R________, our former boss at the bookstore. 

Sandy had died during the night.

I will not tell you that what I experienced was anything other than a dream. And yet I remember it vividly all these years later, and wonder why, of all the people in her life, she came to see me.

— Thorn

Monday, September 18, 2017

Blue Horror and Bonzo Dogs

Blue Horror: the thoughts that come to us in the middle of the night, serving no purpose other than to steal our sleep.

If the same thoughts come to us by day, we can always push them aside, pound them into submission, even laugh at them until exposure to the sun dwindles them to ash like the vampiric things that they are. But in the dead of night they leave us staring wide-eyed into our past or future (or both). Not even having the nicest pussyquat in the world to snuggle up to can help us cast these thoughts aside: for especially when we are in the grip of our Blue Horrors, we become aware of how very very temporary everything is.

Apologies up front. This is going to be a startlingly disorganized post, although it all sort of comes into focus at the end. Sort of.

I’m typing this from inside a gigantic fishbowl. The humidity has never been below 87 percent for the last three days, and just now it is up to 100 percent. It’s not raining — yet — but the skies are a desperate gray-green. I would not be surprised (although it would brighten my day considerably with wonder) if fishes were to fly past my windows, in the manner of the flying fishes in Yellow Submarine, which in turn evoke the kind of animations Terry Gilliam used to do for Monty Python.

It’s been the worst year for weather that I can remember; which I suppose is only fair since 2016 was a genuine weather wonder and delight, the kindest weather year I can remember since I was a young person and everything was new (See paragraph one above).

On the other hand, it’s been a great year for media. Modern technology has put all of film and television history at my fingertips, including bits of it that I presumed were lost forever, looking in most cases better than it ever did back in the day. Last night I sat in the dark of my library, tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched a collection of vintage TV commercials. It certainly wasn’t the commercials themselves that made me so sad, although some have taken on some sad and even horrifying aspects with time. As you’ve likely guessed, it was more about the Lost World that they took me back to, the people, places, pets and things that are gone forever.

Among other things, I have spent some considerable time in the past year almost obsessively tracking down and watching the TV shows that aired when I was a child too young to stay up and watch them. You know — the shows I was well aware of, but never had the chance to see what they were about. 

It’s been a lot of fun, but it does leave me (living alone with just my pussyquats, and in no sense feeling any degree of self-pity about that) identifying just a little bit with Doug and Tony, the two scientists lost in Time in Irwin Allen’s 1966 series The Time Tunnel.

It’s a way of making Old Things New, and in that department, this is the year that I finally made the connection between three or four of Britain’s great Comedy and Musical Super-Groups. Of course I could have gone to the Wikipedia pages and found it all out much sooner, but it’s more fun the way it happened to me.

My friend Dave [Naybor], who for more than a decade has been with some dedication turning out an epic comics adventure called Walking Christendom, introduced me to The Bonzo Dog Band back in the eighties when he brought a two-LP set called History of the Bonzos over to my house. That’s what friends do best, I think: introduce us to New Things we would never have discovered on our own. 

The Bonzos are a British art band whose style wanders delightfully all over the map, connected only by the kind of worldview that takes nothing seriously… my kind of worldview. I was never able to lay my hands on a copy of that album, but this year a three-CD set called Cornology dropped virtually into my lap. The cover art, done all in delightful Gilliamesque collage, makes it quite evident that the Bonzos rose out of the same vein of British Humor that gave us Monty Python. More on that in a moment. 

A few years earlier, I became a big fan of The Goodies during the five minutes that it aired on U.S. Public Television stations. Here was a comedic venture  way ahead of its time, which at its best delved deeply into the surreal and used “off the wall” as its starting point. Graham Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor played three inventively silly types whose motto was “We Will Do Anything, Anytime.” This credo usually resulted in things like runaway houses, or flying bicycles and mouse costumes being used to reduce a giant kitten down its proper size. After literally decades of wanting to see the show again, it finally came back to me this year: still not available in the U.S.A., nonetheless it’s out there to be torrented if you know where to look. I learned that The Goodies, much like The Three Stooges, represent a kind of humor that requires a genuinely child-like frame of mind in order to be appreciated. Grown-ups need to leave that whole adulting thing at the door.

Meanwhile, the gestation of Monty Python is vividly laid out in two DVD sets from Tango Entertainment, and here’s where it all gets tied up in a neat bow. At Last The 1948 Show was written by John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Marty Feldman, and starred Cleese, Chapman, Feldman, Tim-Brooke Taylor, Aimee MacDonald and sometimes Eric Idle. Watching it today, we see that it is very, very much the brain or sensibility of Monty Python — but something is missing, something dreadfully important. 

As we’ve seen, Tim Brooke-Taylor went on to become the third member of The Goodies. Marty Feldman had his own — very funny — show for a while, where it became evident that he worked best as a solo performer. He died much too young.

Produced by the same company as Cleese and Chapman’s 1948 Show, Do Not Adjust Your Set was a children’s show written by Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Michael Palin, and starring them plus David Jason, Denise Coffey … and The Bonzo Dog Band (in later years, when the Pythons went on tour, Neil Innes — a founding member of The Bonzos — became a de facto Python, touring with them and performing musical bits between sketches). Terry Gilliam did some minor animations for them in their second series. Again, the show possesses the charming, childlike heart of Monty Python… but it’s missing Python’s cutting edge. When the creators of the two shows finally got together — that was when the real magic happened.

So anyway. This was the year that I learned how Monty Python, The Goodies, The Bonzo Dog Band (and although I haven’t gotten into it, The Beatles) are all connected to each other in delightful ways. And again, yes, I could have found all this out much sooner if I’d just studied the Wikipedia pages on all those groups. But it was a heckova lot more fun seeing it happen first-hand, for myself.

— Thorn.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Give Me My Bow of Burning Gold

To paraphrase an old TV ad that was so ridiculous it became a long-lasting cultural joke, “I’m not a courageous, powerful, capable hero, but I play one in The Elder Scrolls Online.”

It’s helped me to realize an important truth about life: most of us really are just pretending to know what in the heck we’re doing.

When we’re children, our parents seem godlike creatures whose power and abilities stop just short of shaping the weather or determining the rising and setting of the sun. Even when we reach our teen years, they have a controlling say in our lives that sometimes causes resentment. That resentment can topple over into something more hurtful if we see our parents behaving in ways that we know they shouldn’t… and if we can see it, we ask ourselves, why can’t they?

Beings that powerful are supposed to be faultless. At the very least, they are supposed to know what they are doing. The realization that my parents were only human just seemed to deepen my anger, especially towards my father, who persisted in behaving in ways that brought damage and hurt to the family, and who seemed to be utterly indifferent to the impact that his actions had on my mother, and on the rest of us.

It wasn’t until I got considerably along into my fifties, and got there knowing that I was still inept, still awkward, still ignorant about such things as how to get along in my own life, that I was able to look back and think, Good God. Mom and Dad were a decade younger than I am now when they were blundering along cluelessly, focussing on their own problems to the detriment of their children’s lives, doing the things that slowly drove the family apart. Here I am, ten years older than they were at the time, and it’s all still a Mystery to me. I’m only (perhaps) just now beginning to grow up. A little. What must it have been like for them, when they were thirty years old with two kids and other stresses that I have never had to face? 

I think: thank goodness I never had kids. I’d have been even more inept at parenting than my own Mom and Dad. My kids would hate me; and like as not I would spend much of my time staring uncomprehendingly at them as if they were Space Aliens.

Somewhere in the realm of adulting, you start to realize that you’re not the only insensible cretin in the world, and that everyone, just like you, is making it up as  they go along. Some more successfully than others, ’tis true, but then all people are not made equal.

Playing games is to some extent a way of reassuring ourselves that we’re not Completely Incompetent under the facade, that we can handle a challenge when it’s thrown down at us. Life does teach us in a roundabout way to expect drama and mystery; but when Drama arrives in real life, it’s never in the way that we’ve been led to imagine. It arrives when we aren’t looking and strikes down the towering pillars of our lives that we always assumed would be immutable and immune. Dragons and Devils, we know how to fight those things. Give us a Quest and we know what to do with it. But what of the losses that leave us standing alone in the night, without a weapon, without a windmill?


Monday, July 3, 2017

The Box

I was recently put off by something I read or saw or heard — nothing new there.

Was it a blog post, a YouTube video? A webmag article? A link sent to me by a friend? It doesn’t matter. The gist of is that some young dunderhead, someone almost literally Born Yesterday, made the declaration, somewhere on the interwebs, that “The Golden Age of Television” is — get this — happening right now. 

Of course everyone living thinks that the Universe revolves around them, and the only time in history that matters is the present, because after all the present is where THEY live. These are the sort of people who go to Paris or London and take pictures of themselves.

So — the person who wrote the article likes the so-called “Television” that they are seeing in the Present Day, and that’s fine. But if you’re going to throw around phrases like “Golden Age,” you’d better have at least a moderate sense of history.

Television’s real Golden Age grew out of and overlapped the Golden Age of Radio. It began somewhere in the mid-fifties, when people like Walt Disney started treating TV as a First-Class medium, and began producing movie-quality programming specifically for television. If you want hard dates, I’ll give ‘em to you: The real “Golden Age of Television” began on December 15, 1954, the night Disney premiered the first episode of Davy Crockett — and it ended on February 26, 1983, with the airing of the final episode of M*A*S*H.

Of course there was good stuff before and after those dates. But to declare boundaries, you need a cultural phenomenon to hang the dates on, and those two series captured the attention of the nation as powerfully as anything ever has. They come as close as any to containing the complete history of TV’s first — and most “golden” — age.

However, I would argue that establishing television’s Golden Age has more to do with the medium than it does with the content, and that its ending has more to do with the death of Popular Culture than anything else. In the almost-thirty years between those dates, America had only three television networks (four, once PBS began gaining ground). 

It was the golden age of television because TV connected us. With just four networks to chose from, if we weren’t all watching the same thing, we at least knew what the neighbors were watching. As a culture, we were on the same page during the ‘60s and ’70s in a way that is no longer possible. 

First the growth of dozens of alternative cable networks, then the expanding number of ways that television could be received, and finally the advent of the internet all gradually pushed us apart. It’s not just that we’re not all watching the same four shows anymore; with hundreds of stations and dozens of delivery systems it’s not even possible for us to be on the same page. If you think that the nation is more politically polarized than ever before, you’re right: and the reason for that is that Popular Culture as we knew it is dead. 

Popular Culture once connected us. We live now in a word of personal culture, a culture not defined by reality or for that matter by anything outside of ourselves and our own preconceptions. We live in tiny personal bubbles of our own creation, bubbles that reflect and reinforce our own cultural preferences and prejudices. 

If you define television as a unifying and connective force, then by definition its golden age CANNOT extend into an era where there are about a million channels to chose from, and no one can agree on anything at any given moment. The three-network system is what created and bounded not just TV’s golden age, but all of popular culture itself. 

We absolutely have more viewing options than ever before (including the ability to re-visit classic TV in ways that were never possible at the time), and more systems to receive those options. I’m not even connected to broadcast TV anymore, because I don’t need it. I haven’t seen any current product of the old three-network system for going on three years, and I don’t miss it. I have plenty of other programming to watch. If you define a golden age by sheer volume and diversity, than I suppose the original writer who so pissed me off had a point. But that’s not how I define it. 

The medium that once drew us all together, now drives us apart. There’s nothing “golden” about that.

— Thorn.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Playing Ketchup

Today and for the next few days — possibly the next few weeks — I get to put my “designer” hat away and once again, after too long a time, pull my “writer” hat out of the closet, dust off the cobwebs, and so set  to work. The main task at hand is to generate enough Text Material to fill the companion book for my upcoming Trick Or Tarot Halloween-themed Tarot Deck; but I also mean to pull out a few blog posts, fill the next issue of my sort-of mystical rag The Sanctum, and perhaps, if I am lucky, plug away at the novel that has been my “main” writing project for considerably more than a decade.

Mind you, today I will not even approach any of those goals. Today I mean to start out easily, beginning here with a sort-of stream of consciousness recap of the various cultural stuffages that have passed before my eyeballs in recent months. Yes, this is the Self-Indulgent post. In fact, it’s so self-indulgent that it will likely get spread out across a number of installments. You have been warned.

“I knew it was you.”

In January, facing a winter that had not yet turned as hard as it ultimately would, I at last finished viewing my DVD set of Mulberry, a lovely English dramady about a fledgling Grim Reaper who is sent to do a job — and finds that he cannot bear to go through with it. It’s one of my favorite series ever, fine and funny and wistful and sad, with a delightful cast of both characters and actors. And yet, much like Mulberry himself, I found that I could not bear to watch it for the longest time. Only 12 episodes were made… and yet it took me considerably longer than seven years to get through this viewing. 

Grief will do this to you when the subject is death. And yet at the end of series 2, Mulberry’s intended “customer,” Miss Farnaby (the late, great Geraldine McEwan) is still very much alive. There was to have been a third series which the BBC never deigned to make; and now it is too late. Nearing at long last the end of the set, I wondered again just exactly how Mulberry would have ended, if the BBC had allowed it to have the planned ending. And so I hopped on the surfboard and did something that wouldn’t have been possible when the show originally aired: I found the answer on the interwebs, in the form an interview with one of the show’s late writers. It dissolved me into tears all over again. May it not have the same effect on you:

After all this time I’m glad to know the ending that the writers intended, but I guess I’m just as glad that it never got made. The story is complete on the etherial level, but in practical terms the folks in the big old Farnaby house still live on. And this way, I don’t have to say goodbye. I’ve said way too many goodbyes in recent years, and must face the prospect of more to come. Knowing that Mullberry and Miss Farnaby are still together, and can still be summoned up at will, is a minor consolation — but consolation all the same.

Since late last year I have been making a real effort, as implied above, to finally get through at least some of the mountainous accumulation of books, comics, movies and television that have piled up on my plate. Part of this effort involves getting a mechanic in place, a system that both allows me to make steady if slow progress, and insures that I will. I won’t bore you with the mechanics of my Reading Sandwich here, but one of the things that it’s helped me accomplish is an “At Long Last” reading of Hergé’s The Black Island.

If you thought seven-plus years was a long time to take watching twelve episodes of a half-hour TV series, go on ahead and try this on your piano: The Black Island is the first-ever Tintin adventure that I’ve read from beginning to end — and it took me more than forty years. 

The copyright page on my copy of the book tells the story: it’s the First American Edition, published in 1975, which is the year I bought it. The ISBN number had not even been invented yet! In the years since I bought it, the book floated at the edges of my attention; once in a while I would pick it up to goggle at the artwork, but I never sat down to read it until it got fed into my Reading Sandwich late last year.

And now I understand why that happened: because these were originally created for serial publication in newspapers, Hergé’s pacing is rigid to the point of being pedantic. Every single half-page ends on a pause, a gag, or a minor cliffhanger, while every full page ends on a full stop, a major plot point, or a major cliffhanger. The adventure moves methodically from point A to to point Z with each page moving us along to another letter. 

I know that Tintin is beloved all over the world… but for me It’s all very charming without ever fully engaging my heart (in the way that, for example, Mulberry absolutely does). Barring only Snowy, the characters are cyphers defined more by what we bring to them than by what Hergé imbued them with (this is a subject I really hope to explore in greater depth over the next few posts).

It’s not the story or the characters that engage us, but the antiseptic charm of the illustrations. Hergé draws like God Himself. Is there anyone else in the business who combines such an eye for detail with such a clean, assured line? It’s that assurance and the rich atmosphere of Herge’s world that carries us along from page to page. Far from being concerned about what might happen to Our Heroes Tintin and Snowy, I found myself constantly thinking, “Ohmigosh, look at that Island! It’s gorgeous! Look at that house! Look at that castle! Look at that airplane! Just freakin’ gorgeous!” The cover is a great example of how the style drives our attraction to the thing. I defy anyone to look at it and not think, “Wow, this looks really promising!” No wonder I bought the damn thing all those years ago! … and really, no wonder it’s taken me this long to read it — but I’m glad that I finally did.

There, you see? Over a thousand words of drivel and I’ve barely begun. Don’t you wish I’d never taken off my designer hat? 

Speaking of which, my Halloween Tarot mentioned above is currently funding at Kickstarter. Why not give it a gander and see if it’s something you’d like? Here’s the link:

— Thorn

Friday, June 30, 2017

TRICK OR TAROT Full Deck Now funding at Kickstarter!

The Kickstarter Campaign to fund publication of two editions of my TRICK OR TAROT Halloween-Themed Tarot Deck is now LIVE. Please check out the page, share the link far and wide, and consider pre-ordering your deck. No one will be charged until and unless the campaign succeeds. Thank you! Here’s the (rather long and ungainly) link:


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Time Passages

Now all of a sudden, it feels like it’s been a Long Time.

In just a few weeks, it will be seven years since my Mother died and in so doing set into motion the enormous Life Upheaval that I more or less chronicled my reactions to here on this blog. 

At the same time, my father — who will be ninety years old in July — has just announced to the family, via email of all things, that he has been diagnosed with  prostate cancer, that it has spread to the spine “and other parts of the body,” and that this all he knows right now. Tests, tests and more tests are scheduled out to July 11, the day after his birthday. 

He’s keeping his spirits up, perhaps for his wife’s sake and perhaps for mine. He doesn’t seem to be feeling sorry for himself; and speaking as a champion of self-pity, I don’t know that I would feel sorry for myself if I was in his shoes. My reaction has frankly been a selfish one. 

Because no matter what the months ahead bring, another road marker has been driven into my own life; and every time that happens to a person, past road markers are thrown into clearer perspective.

It’s been twelve years now since my mother’s right leg was amputated; this was the event that ended her life within five years, and made the time between into a Fallout Zone. At the two-year mark, now a decade ago, we were in the thick of it — then she was gone and my life turned into a salad-toss that lasted another four years. 

You don’t experience the passage of time when you’re In The Shit. From Twenty-Ten until just recently, until just now, the events of those years seemed like they happened Only Yesterday. 

— But now, overnight, it’s all become a Long Time Ago. In the last two days, the impact and effect of a decade has made itself known to me. Seven years: that’s enough time to grow a child. I remember being seven years old quite well. A year is an Eternity when you’re seven years old. 

I’ve just now realized that my mother’s death has gotten smaller in the rear view window, to the point where it may soon vanish over the Event Horizon. 

Understand that this does not affect Grief in the slightest. Grief never stops — in part because new Griefs, as you get older, keep getting added to the pile. In the years since my mom died, I’ve lost my good friend Howard, my favorite cousin Charlie, my nephew, my brother-in-law, and two of my most beloved, most-attached-to pussyquats who were my partners in war, my comrades in arms in that period after my mother’s death when my life turned into trench warfare.

As my friend BC pointed out, my Dad’s announcement was not a shock to the intellect: at his age, one lives within the awareness that he’s not going to be around forever. So it’s a little hard to explain why it feels like an emotional kick to the gut. We have succeeded in burying the past, and are on significantly better terms than, probably, ever; I’ve nothing to feel guilty about. In practical terms, nothing very much of reality is changed by his announcement: Death would be coming for him on an ever-narrowing field of time. 

But now the road marker has been thrown down. I cannot help but take note. I feel like I’m standing on the border. Behind me is the world that was, falling back into ever-greater distance. I don’t think about what’s ahead. In this moment, at this road marker, I pause to savor the arrival of Spring after an unusually hard winter. I have thrown open the windows of my house; fresh air and sun are rendering me listless in gratefulness and thanks. I close my eyes, breathe, hug my remaining pussyquats. Time may be remorseless, but in this moment it seems that life, like Mark Twain’s definition of a good story, has arrived somewhere and accomplished something; although for the life of me I cannot tell what it is.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Now Available: Wise Sayings II, and The Little Book of Wise Sayings

Click to enlarge.

The second set in our whimsical series of Wise Sayings card decks is available now. These little cards are perfect when used as a conversation starter, as a daily draw to begin each morning with something thought-provoking, or as a means of annoying people on public transportation. 

Choose from two decks, or save money with the two-deck multipackage. Also available in book form!



Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Doctor Stranger Yet

Fantasy fans are living through a kind of attenuated Golden Age when it comes to TV and the cinema. Until the late '80s and perhaps even beyond, Fantasy as a vehicle for Great Stories and Characters that could be taken to heart was a genre strictly confined to the printed page. Almost all cinematic fantasy works (and it's the exceptions that make the rule) fell into the category of cheaply made, silly, embarrassing nonsense.

It wasn't Star Wars that changed all that; it was, at first, Terry Gilliam and Jim Henson; and later on Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. 

The combination of computers with Hollywood's sudden realization that Fantasy can Make Money has allowed a situation to arise where Fantasy Fans, just like people who love books in all other genres, can have the regular privilege of having their favorite characters, novels, stories and series raped and fucked over by incompetent Hollywood morons. 

Doctor Strange is no exception. The film's production team paid a huge amount of lip service to Steve Ditko prior to the film's release, but now that it's headed to home video it will become obvious to a much wider audience that the film contains precious little of Ditko's genius, while placing the Good Doctor -- a distinctly non-violent hero in his own right -- into the context of a very typical fantasy martial arts slugfest.

Understand that I am coming from a place of having impossibly high hopes, as a fan of the character and the comics since the mid-70s. Prior to the film's release, I wrote and published a longish article for the first issue of my "bookazine," The Sanctum, a kind of melange of tarot and culture. The bookazine itself was named for Doctor Strange's Sanctum Santorum, and the article gave a basic history of the character and his creation by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, while expressing my hopes for the film.

When the first trailer was released, my hopes were dashed. Magic had been replaced with martial-arts mayhem and M.C. Escher-inspired kaleidoscope gimmickry that was frankly lifted from Christopher Nolan's Inception. The intense originality of the comic strip appeared to be completely squandered. Subsequent trailers and the release of the finished film itself bore my feelings out on this. I simply could not bear to pay Hollywood my hard-earned money to see my hopes spat upon.

With the Home Video release on the horizon, the film is already making it out there into the torrent-sphere, and having exhausted myself shoveling out after a succession of winter storms dumped a solid four feet on most of the state, not excluding my house, I sat down last night with Hollywood's iteration of Doctor Strange, expecting to hate it. 

I didn't hate it, much to my surprise. I'm actually happier with it than I thought or believed I could be — but that’s not to say that I’m happy with it. Understanding now that all the boring M. C. Escher / Inception-copying kaleidoscopic crapola takes place in a mirror universe makes it more palatable, but it’s still a failure of the imagination, especially when Doctor Strange comes with such a rich history of imagery built-in, any of which would have been more original and more impressive onscreen than what we actually got.

But here’s the main thing: MAGIC IS NOT A WAY TO MAKE MARTIAL ARTS FIGHT SCENES LOOK FLASHIER. Every single punch that is thrown in this movie, every single kick, is a direct insult to the character, to the audience, and to Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. In just eight words:


Except the movie is full of it. There is much more martial arts than magic on display while the world spins dizzyingly around the actors; and when magic is shown it's made to fit around the bare necessities of the plot. The ability to travel between dimensions is even tied to a device Wholly Created For This Movie, a thing called a "Sling Ring," which exists solely as a deus ex machina so that a character can be trapped if they lose it. That dopey god damn "Sling Ring" pissed me off almost more than anything else in the movie. Just Anyone can surf anywhere in the Multiverse as long as they have one. Give one to Jackie Chan, and you would be unable to tell the difference between a Jackie Chan movie and this one. 

Thank goodness for the actors, the actors do actually sell its somehow. Benny Cummerbund looks great in his costume, and the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One is a gamble that pays off. But I hope to heck we’ve seen the last of that generic Hollywood girlfriend, who is nothing more than a plot convenience. If I don’t see Clea in the next Doctor Strange movie, I’m going to be even more pissed off than I am now.

I was hoping for something that made the '70s Doctor Strange TV pilot obsolete. In the end, this Doctor Strange, barring only the casting and the scale, is no better than the 70s TV Pilot. It’s just flawed in different ways, and in ways that are reflective of the different times in which each version was made. In the end, we still have the books... and the books remain the place to go to meet the good Doctor and his twilight world in the light in which they were made to be seen. 

-- Thorn

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Toons and Tide

I had rather a wonderful evening spent in the company of old friends. 

This was not according to plan. Friday evenings during the winter months I typically watch a Science Fiction movie as a way of escaping the cold and snow, but after years of this I am pretty much scraping the dregs for new-to-me material. Science fiction cinema isn’t a bottomless well, after all, and before Star Wars remodeled the movie industry, the  classics of the genre could pretty much be counted on two hands.

And so this week George Pal's 1951 SF "classic" When Worlds Collide happened to me. I’d like to say it was a tough slag, but it wasn’t tough at all as I nodded off about five minutes in. 

It’s not that the frantic pace of modern films has spoiled me for the more leisurely style of movies from the past: I can fall asleep just as quickly on a modern movie as I did on this one. But I require that a film of any genre should at least pretend to make an effort to engage me with an interesting mood, character or situation. When Worlds Collide does none of these things. It’s 79 minutes of completely flat, cardboard cut-out characters doing utterly banal things while the world comes to an end. The picture begins with an airplane pilot, who obviously thinks he’s pretty clever, making smoochy-face with a dame on his lap when he should be paying attention to the controls. I did not find this charming. As I drifted in and out of consciousness over the next fifteen minutes, in which nothing at all actually happened onscreen, I noted that Wilbur's neighbor from Mister Ed had a big part. I always wondered what that guy did for work.

It was the better part of valour to fast-forward through the thing, pausing only for the interesting bits, which amounted to about five minutes of Natural Disasters, a one-minute rocket launch and the ultimate discovery, both fortuitous and ridiculously expeditious, of a habitable planet capable of ensuring the survival of the Grande Olde Human Race. Yeah, all right. 

This left me with an open hour on my schedule. I could have come back to the computer and done some work; instead I turned to YouTube, which is viewable on my television via Apple TV. 

Until recently I did not believe that YouTube was a good for much. That changed when I discovered that I could watch old Carson-era episodes of The Tonight Show and other talk shows from the ‘60s and ‘70s. If you want to know how much the culture has changed, watch talk shows. I’m now convinced the the old-style talk show died because there is no one left in the world who is as interesting or as good a conversationalist as was Orson Welles. 

Last night I decided to get more obscure, and went looking for cartoons. Not the stuff that everyone remembers well. Warner Brothers, Disney, Max Fleischer  and Hanna Barbera are all pretty well represented on DVD. What about that class of cartoon that was cheaply produced throughout the late ‘50s and ’60s and sold as packages for local stations to use as filler or to appease the after-school crowd? I thought: Felix the Cat. Linus the Lion-Hearted. Touché Turtle. King Leonardo. Heckle and Jeckle. Krazy Kat. Snuffy Smith. Mighty Hercules…. these were the meat and potatoes of cartoons that we watched every afternoon in the early ‘60s, and most of them I had not seen since they originally aired fifty years ago.

It turns out that all I had to do was search: there they were, all of them, and more. The hour that I had to fill turned into two hours as one by one, feeling very much the archeologist, I dug them up and marked them for later viewing.

As much as or more than the content of the cartoons themselves, which I must say was better and more entertaining than it had any right to be, given the way these things were produced, it was the intro sequences and theme songs that enchanted me once again. Seeing the old King Features cartoon logo pop out into a crown was an absolute joy. And it came as a shock that after fifty years, I still remembered the words to the theme songs. There’s the particular surrealism of Snuffy Smith’s theme:

“Uh-Uh-Oh Great Balls of Fire I’m bodacious!
Uh-Uh-Oh, Great Balls of Fire I’m a fright.
Uh-Uh-Oh Great Balls of Fire Goodness Gracious
I’m chop-chop-chop-chop-choppin with alla my might!

What does that even mean? Still, I knew it by heart, which proves that everything we experience really is stored away in our memory banks, just waiting for the right key or combination to unlock them. The theme song for Beetle Bailey is rather more sensible: 

He’s the military hero of the nation
Though he doesn’t always follow regulation. 
At the sound of reveille. 
He is here for you to see
 A certain Private by the Name of Beetle Bailey!
Beetle Bailey!!!

I wish that I could say that all of my years dropped away from me and for five minutes I was a child again — but that’s not what happened, or happens in situations like this. The years are a part of you, and cannot be shed. You do not revisit your childhood with a child’s eyes or experience.

And so I noticed things that had no meaning to me all those years ago: things like Seymour Kneitel’s name on many of the cartoons as director. This makes perfect sense, as Kneitel was one of the lead animators at the old Max Fleischer cartoon studio when it was swallowed up by Paramount. Almost a quarter-century later, Kneitel was still at Paramount, churning out these cartoons for TV featuring many of the King Features characters; and now having seen every Betty Boop and most every Popeye cartoon made by the Fleischers, I note that Kneitel’s fingerprints are visible all over these later cartoons, in the expressions on character faces, in their body movements, in certain ways that their eyes dart around. In another difference between then and now, I was able to look up Kneitel’s history on the interwebs; it always comes as a surprise to me, though there’s no reason why it should, when artists turn out to look just like Normal People, and not at all like their drawings.

I decided to widen the parameters of my archeological dig. Throughout the late ‘50s and ‘60s, almost every small-town station in the USA ran its own locally-produced Kid Show to frame these cartoons and fill out the time slot. Inevitably they were hosted by a local wag who played some kind of character, acted goofy, told stupid jokes, ran contests and introduced the cartoons. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, when I was growing up, there were two: WCCO’s Axel’s Treehouse, and channel 11’s Lunch With Casey. 

And sure enough. YouTube had a light dusting of representative episodes for both shows. It was the strangest thing to be sitting in my Library, here in the DuckHaus, wearing the fat and bones of fifty years, looking straight through a window into the past. 

Axel was TV at its most basic: the actor photographed from the chest up, standing before a crudely-painted backdrop, in the character of a cliche Norwegian type with an obnoxious clip-on moustache, playing direct to the audience, while another actor (in the part of Axel’s cat Loretta) stood just off camera, making snide falsetto comments and poking at Axel’s face with a fur-gloved hand. A few minutes of schtick, and then Axel looked into his telescope, and the cartoon began.

Lunch With Casey was more elaborate; it had a full set and featured an engineer character, Casey Jones, and his pal Roundhouse Reilly. The only things the two shows had in common were the cartoons, and the schtick. 

Nobody just “does schtick” any more, and yet I tell you a little bit of goofy schtick is more intelligent and more satisfying to the soul than what we feed kids today. In the world of now, everything in kid’s TV has to be “educational” in quotations, or “empowering” in quotations. Today we have far more sophisticated tools than were available to these small local Kid Shows of the ‘60s, tools that create the most dazzling fantasy worlds imaginable — but the content is self-important, trite and filled with generalized, secularized Magical Thinking of the most soft-headed sort.

The only “magic” in shows like Axel and Casey was simply this: a grown-up addressing the Kids At Home PERSONALLY… as an equal, not talking down to them, but speaking their language and just going where their minds took them, doing dumb comedy schtick that a kid could take to school with him the next day; comedy that did not reach an adult mind, but was hysterical to a five year old.

And what’s that on the horizon? I think it’s time for another cartoon.

— Thorn.
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