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.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Day of The Don

On the day that The Don assumed occupancy of the Oval Office, there was a distinct and heavy vibe in the air. What it was I will not hazard to guess; but I have felt nothing like it since September 11, 2001: when we all felt palpable change, not for the better, sweeping by overhead. Understand that it wasn’t a sense of personal depression or sadness. I have had many days of those things in the intervening years, and this was not a feeling that came from inside my own experience. The George Lucas fans out there would best understand it as “a profound disturbance in The Force.”

It arrives just as we hit the two-thirds mark in what for me has been a remarkably oppressive winter; by which I mean an ordinarily cold and snowy winter that has been made harder to bear by All The Other Crap that’s been coming down.

Most especially, the illness of my all-time favorite pussyquat, my beloved Hunny, who contracted an Ear Infection that arrived with all the symptoms of a stroke, and every indication that I might actually be losing her. I spent nearly two weeks sleeping on the downstairs couch, usually fully dressed, just so I could keep an eye on her during the long winter nights. She was too sick to stray very far from her quat bed in front of the gas fire, getting up only to eat — which in itself was more than distressing to me, as she could not even sit up without falling over on her side… usually accompanied by a little cry. 

The vets were convinced that it was nothing more serious than an Ear Infection long before I was. Right now in my life the worst thing that could possibly happen to me would be to lose my little Hunny: and I could not dismiss the possibility that this is what was happening. For seven days I drowned myself in vodka, until I saw real evidence that she was not moving away from me, but slowly turning around and coming back.

It really was “just” an ear infection, and quite gradually, over the better part of December and all of January, she has recovered to her old cheery self, and is sleeping with me again every night, curled up against my face just like a Teddy Bear. 

And so I’ve bounced back as well — but in the Dark Days of Mid December the DuckHaus felt less like a Sanctum and more like a tomb. 

Then The Don happened. This was more like a wet blanket being thrown over the whole planet. Facebook became a dark and bitter place, and even when I left the house the people I encountered were sullen and mute. The air was thick with bitter gloom. My business, never exactly thriving, came to a screeching halt. 

I’m not even convinced that The Don’s supporters were entirely happy. In interviews with people on the mall, those who had come to watch the inauguration, not to protest it, seemed more defensive than exuberant. I compare that overwhelming heaviness in the air to the face of the man who caused it: on Inauguration Day, the national feeling was heavy, puffy, dim-eyed and frowning under its umbrellas.

Around the same time, my Hunny was having a relapse. She had come so far, only to take several steps backward to start shaking her head, tripping and stumbling over her own feet again. When I called the vet, she said that it was normal for quats to have a Bad Day while recovering from an infection like this.

And sure enough, the next day Hunny bounced back, better than ever. 

So here is what I am telling myself: the nation, no matter what side of the political fence you sit on, has picked up a serious infection. It’s not something that can be healed overnight. The cure is long and will require patience. Trite as it seems, I’m going for “we’ve hit a bump in the road and we’ll get past it.” That seems to be the only attitude to take at this stage.

That tangibly real bad vibe that’s in the air? It’s temporary. Tough to deal with in the moment, but temporary. I’d say that we can’t let one egomaniacal blowhard knock the wind out of our sails, but that’s a cliche, too. I keep on pressing ahead with my new projects because it’s a sign of hope, and because it’s the only thing to do, the only way I know how to get through a day without breaking down in despair. When the air is this thick, you cling to whatever you’ve got, and just try to breathe normally until it begins to clear up.


In BORDERLANDS 2, an insanely addictive computer game set in a beautifully realized open science-fictional world, there is an annoying and easily defeated little character called “King Wee Wee.” Especially given recent news insights, this seems to me a more than perfect name for our temporary Butthead-In-Chief. So from now on, I’m calling The Don “King Wee Wee.” Just so you know.

— Thorn.
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