Friday, February 28, 2014

Los Angeles report

Note: I wrote a whole post on my time in LA, but apparently it didn't get saved correctly, so here's a recreation/summary:

I just got back from 10 days in Los Angeles. Well, I'm in LAX [not any more!] and of those 10 days, two were devoted to travel. That's my commitment to truth right there.

I came to LA partly as a vacation--a chance to do all the things that I don't get to do in my day-to-day life in San Angelo. So I went to some museums and planned to go see some limited-release films and ate lots of vegan Thai food. [I never actually went to see the films I wanted to see; also, I failed to ever go see improv.]

And partly I went there as a recon trip, to see if I found LA to be a livable place: after two year in San Angelo, would the crowds and the freeways overwhelm me? Would the people be nice? Would the weather be too pleasant?

But first, here's some highlights:

Sunday: After high school friend Christine picked me up at the airport, I bought tickets for the Nerdist Writers Panel and we raced over to that. We popped into a nearby cafe beforehand and they were doing standup in this tiny space for just a few people. [Thanks, Marc Maron--now everyone thinks they can do stand-up.] The Nerdist Writers Panel was a lot of fun and I wish I had the energy to stop afterwards to introduce myself. (Lesson: don't leave immediately after things, say hello.)

Monday: I went to LACMA, the LA County Museum of Art, which was having a free day from Target and a kid-full day thanks to Presidents Week. Also, for the first few days, I was car-less and taking mass transit and it worked out OK. I mean, I'm used to Chicago-style mass transit--cars and buses and some uncomfortable waits. At least in LA, you're not walking through freezing puddles and waiting in killer wind for the bus/train.

[Here's where my saved post ends; begin the summary:]

LACMA was fun, though all that walking took a toll on my feet. But that didn't stop me from walking to the "Farmers Market" (which is more like an outdoor mall) and the Trader Joe's (a recurring theme of my trip) and even walking around Amoeba Records.

Tuesday: A busy, social day: I met a screenwriter for lunch and had a really nice time; then I saw high school (and Hebrew school) friend Jason for coffee; then I went to a talk with the Molyneux sisters, who write on Bob's Burgers. (Though by that time, I was feeling a little antsy: listening to people talk is fine, but I had my own stuff to do.)

Wednesday: A neighborhood-focused day: I hiked up to the Griffith Park Observatory (great, hot), then walked around the Los Feliz area. Later, I rushed downtown to the Standard Hotel to see if they had this particular type of soap that Sarah likes (they didn't) and then went out for a night of bar trivia.

Thursday: Today I picked up my rental car, got all my stuff from Christine's place and got ready to drive to college-era friend Brendan's place. But first: The Getty! It's a fine museum in terms of exhibits and objects. (I have a weakness for ridiculously ornate and mechanical chairs/tables; I have less a weakness for all the Biblical scenes; and I nearly shouted with joy when I saw James Ensor's Christ's Entry into Brussels.) It does have an amazing guide system involving an iPod touch. And, more amazing than anything, the location gives a great view of the city (a sprawl) and the mountains.

Then, that night, due to another friend suddenly being in town, we had a dinner party at Brendan's, which was a lot of fun.

Friday: I had lunch on the Dreamworks lot, which was pretty amazing, but the rest of the day was a pretty low-key, recon-centered day: could I see myself doing work at these coffee shops and libraries? Answer: sure, why not.

Saturday: Drove to Santa Monica, saw an old friend of my brother's, which was pretty neat. Had a nice time at Brendan's birthday party.

Sunday: The Museum of Jurassic Technology is weird and wonderful and creepy. (They have this one exhibit on Athanasius Kircher, which is kept in a dark room with a cacaphony/euphony of bells. "Is this where I will be axe-murdered?" I wondered.) Then I saw that Lovecraft play (previously reviewed). Then had dinner with Jason and his girlfriend.

Monday: Switched from one Airbnb to another. Had fine experiences in both, though, honestly, by this time, I was getting a little lonely. Drove east to Pasadena, had coffee with an online friend, but spent the night at home getting stuff done.

Tuesday: Emergency! Got an email that there was an issue with my passport application, so I ran around (library, post office, CVS, post office) getting that worked out. Then, went to go see a taping of @midnight, which was interesting and funny. Though it mostly involved a lot of waiting around--and I only got in because someone with a priority ticket had an extra ticket and she noticed I was all alone on the regular ticket line.

Wednesday: All day travel! It was fine until I was stuck in DFW because our late plane had a problem. So instead of getting home at 10ish, I got home at 1ish.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A review of Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite

This is a little late, as I'm still in Los Angeles, running around. But here's a review of a play I saw.

Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite; adapted and directed by Dan Spurgeon; performed by the Visceral Company at the Lex Theatre

Lovecraft may not be the obvious choice for theatrical adaptation, with his SAT-prepped narrators and the indescribable weirdness they face (or run gibbering from before being subsiding into restful oblivion). How can you represent cyclopean buildings and squamous horrors on the stage?

The answer, of course, is: with puppets or shadow projections. If it's weird, keep it weird. And rather than run from those wordy, occasionally logorrheic narrators, you could--as Dan Spurgeon does--highlight them by having them tell us the stories directly. As the playbill essay notes, though Lovecraft's narrators generally seem to be men, some of these adaptations are narrated by women; and I generally agree that this change does bring some interesting depth or at least a new slant to these stories.

Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite features several such full stories, with some interstitial pieces that either help the transitions or merely give the actors time to change costumes, depending on your tastes. It doesn't help that these interstitials are too quick to let their weirdness build into something dreadful; and that the recitation seems somewhat garbled.

In order, the scenes are

1) "Prologue: Dreams": A dapper, self-assured fellow frames the scenes to come with some scattered Lovecraft quotes--a little "Supernatural Horror in Literature" (mankind's oldest emotion is fear), a little "From Beyond" (we'll see what dogs and cats are always going on about), a little "Nietzcheism and Realism" (it would be better not to exist at all). Good mood setting, and probably better if you're not playing "catch the Lovecraft quote."

2) "The Statement of Randolph Carter": Nervous Randolph Carter tells the jury--us--what really happened the night that Harley Warren disappeared. At some point, Harley shows up on the stage and the recital turns into a reenactment. It's fairly faithful to the story, as near as I remember it: they go to a graveyard in a swamp, uncover stairs down, Harley uses a telephone on a long wire, and then tells Randolph to run. As the first full story, "Randolph Carter" nicely shows us the general format--a little narration, a little dramatization--and the nonchalant appearance of Harley is suitably creepy: already looking half-dead, he walks on stage while Randolph is telling the story and just stands there until the reenactment starts, when he pulls two shovels off one wall of the stage. That was an especially nice touch, I thought, since that wall featured a bunch of evocative tools--axe (I think), shovels, saws. And after this, I could never be sure what was just decoration and what would play a part in the scenes.

3) Interstitial: a short poem about a cat, with a puppet cat walking across the stage. Walking, gliding, whatever.

4) "The Cats of Ulthar": Although (3) wasn't very engaging, it did serve pretty well as a transition into this piece, which was all done with puppets and costumes. The people of Ulthar are all waist-high puppets with slightly grotesque papier-mache faces. The "acting" of the puppets may be a little broad, like a pantomime show, but was pretty effective all the same; extra points for giving the gory-silly story some humor through these puppets. The narration was all done from the side, where the actress sat in a sort of pseudo-Egyptian glory. (Did she actually have her face painted with the Eye of Horus or was that just my imagination?) That design, I could take or leave, though the narration did add to the pantomime quality. And when the grand caravan of strange people came, it was authentically odd to see full-sized, masked figures among the tiny, grotesque Ultharites. The back wall of the stage, which was the projection screen, first showed the town--with the cat-killing couple's house off to the side; and then, during the rite, showed a projection of a house surrounded by cats turning around it.

5) Interstitial: a puppet head pops out of a box on the side of the stage and tells us about a tower, which is projected on the back wall.

6) "The Outsider": was cancelled due to actor injury.

7) Interstitial: with a blacklight on, various glowing bits came together to form a house. Was it a witch house? I couldn't say for sure.

8) "The Picture in the House": A bicycling genealogist takes shelter from a storm in a seemingly-abandoned house, only to discover that the ancient and isolated inhabitant obsesses over a book featuring cannibals. I honestly can't remember this story; and the idea of a cannibal hick in a cabin in the woods may not surprise anyone today. But the execution was well done. The authentic frontier gibberish of the Yankee hick was very off-putting, though largely because he kept going on about how that picture of cannibalism gave him queer thoughts. The lighting for this story was very dark, except when the lightning effect played or the book's cannibal-shop image played on the back wall. As with many other full pieces, the narrator here addressed us directly, while the other character didn't, which added an extra tension here: "Stop telling us about your bicycle," I wanted to yell, "there's a guy with an axe behind you!"

9) Interstitial: something about Fungi from Yuggoth, with green, plant-like, pincer-tipped arms reaching in from off-stage to menace a guy.

10) "Cool Air": One of the pieces where the narrator's gender gets flipped, but otherwise keeping close to the story (as I remember it). A woman takes a room at a boarding house, befriends the doctor above her, who keeps his room surprisingly cool, and who mentions something about a terrible brush with death that he had. Surprise! He already died years ago and when his cooling apparatus fails, he deliquesces. Like many earlier pieces, the narrator addresses the audience directly; but what really set this piece apart was that the doctor never appears directly on the stage. Instead, he appears only as a shadow projected on the back wall and never talks out loud, with his dialogue explained in brief through the narrator. Not only does this help to speed up the story by summarizing, it keeps the literally shadowy doctor at one remove from us and from the other people in the scene (narrator, landlady, workmen). I've never found this story particularly scary, or even really creepy, and instead, this version seemed more sad than anything else.

11?) Interstitial: There was something about inner Egypt. My question mark here comes from the fact that this might really have been part of the next scene.

12) "Nyartlathotep": Seemingly based on the original prose poem, this piece starts with a narrator going with a crowd to see a magic show presented by the titular character. Here, Nyartlathotep, the Egyptian-looking sorcerer-god, is a pretty stiff shadow puppet projected on the back wall, and his magic is just a few lights on a dark stage. But when the narrator objects and Nyartlathotep drives the crowd (the rest of the cast) into the street, the scene becomes more interesting: each character has a flashlight and soon they are all in unison jumping at strange sounds and turning their flashlights first left, now right. Then they fall under a magical compulsion that sees them marching out into alien landscapes, until our narrator is left alone again, in a suddenly and totally black stage.

13) "Epilogue: The Thing in the Moonlight": The dapper man from the prologue returns, only this time he introduces himself as Howard Phillips and is almost comically nervous. And he has a lot to be nervous about since he's stuck in an endless nightmare that he can't wake up from, haunted by various shapes. This piece seems to owe as much to Lovecraft's letter (where he recounts a dream) as to the later story written by J. Chapman Miske, which seems like an odd choice. But it does give the actors a second chance to appear as their most interesting characters of the night--the cannibal hick, the Egyptian-style narrator of "Cats," the nervous narrator of "Cool Air," etc. all appear as the shapes that haunt the narrator.

Overall, Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite isn't completely successful and makes some odd choices that lead it into unforced errors--mostly around those interstitial pieces; but the longer stories are generally strong, featuring direct acting and a touch of weirdness and dread through the simple special effects of light and shadow.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 215: William WellsBrown, Madison Washington (#215)

William Wells Brown, "Madison Washington(1862) from William Wells Brown: Clotel & Other Writings:

William Wells Brown was an escaped slave who, after learning to read and write, embarked on a pretty successful (and ground-breaking) writing career: first African-American novel (about Jefferson's black children, so I guess that was never really a secret), first African-American travelogue, first African-American play.

And along the way he wrote a collection of short African-American biographies, including one about the escaped slave and revolt mastermind Madison Washington. (Which is the kind of name that seems to push one into greatness.)

Brown retells Washington's story with a mix of efficiency and feeling. We don't dwell on anything too long; we get told pretty quickly about Washington's escape from slavery, his return to rescue his wife, his plan to take over a ship full of slaves being shipped down south. And at the same time, Brown slows down the story enough to add his two-cents, most of which are appropriately melodramatic: Washington is a paragon of African beauty, his wife is the height of interracial beauty, his rescue of his wife shows his devotion, his rescue of the white slavers from the revenge of the escaped slaves raises him to Christ-like status, etc.

It's done well, and you can see how this book, published in the midst of the Civil War, might have resonated at a time when black soldiers were a topic of debate; and the humanity and equality of black people was also a topic of discussion.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Los Angeles

I was really planning on giving you an update about Los Angeles while I was here, but I've been too busy. Last night I watched The Room for the first time and it really is as awful and funny as everyone said it was.

More later.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Yes, but what went right in Wild Wild West?

Wild Wild West (1999) holds a 38 rating on Metacritic, where the positive reviews say things like
Lots of laughs, lots of fisticuffs, lots of cool toys, lots of stuff getting blown up: Who could ask for anything more from a summer movie? (Peter Brunette)
which seems like damning with faint praise; and
A movie that's dazzling as you watch it and immediately unsatisfying afterward. (Stephanie Zacharek)
I'd go farther than that and say that this is a film that's rarely satisfying while it's being watched. And you might wonder at that since it has so much going for it: Will Smith and Kevin Kline are always charismatic; Barry Sonnenfeld does a lot of quality entertainment; and there's clearly a lot of money behind what the producers hoped would be a crowd-pleasing action-sci-fi-comedy.

Now I'm not really sure I could enumerate what went wrong with this film. I mean, I could point to a few things, but that would probably only scratch the surface--and this is a rich film, with something special that won't work for everyone.

Maybe you're annoyed that Salma Hayek as the good girl isn't given much to do or that the other women--mostly dressed in bustiers and working for the evil Loveless--are given little-to-no agency. Maybe you don't like the racial humor and the sight of Will Smith playing at a Sambo accent doesn't work for you. (I think it actually does work as a race joke, since Smith's character West is using that accent to disarm some Southerners. That is, the jokes on the racists. But it doesn't work since it's out of character.) Maybe the ridiculous puns and "witticisms" don't work for you, especially when the joke has to do with a reference to our time. (After building an airplane, Artemus Gordon decides to name it "Air Gordon"--a joke that only makes sense in the 90s, when Air Jordan was a recognizable name.)

(Special ughs for when Will Smith beats up a guy with knives for hands and then says, "No more Mr. Knife Guy.")

And then there's all the action and sci-fi sequences: the giant mechanical tarantula, the fight in the engine room, the death machine chase, etc. These might work by themselves, but the whole framework of the movie fails to give them much weight, and mostly just uses them for cheap jokes. (When Gordon (Kline) and West (Smith) get giant magnets on their neck, how long will we have to wait for the inevitable drawn-to-your-belt-buckle-fellatio joke? Not long.)

So... what went right here?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 214: Lois Bryan Adams, Meeting “Father Abraham” (#214)

Lois Bryan Adams, "Meeting 'Father Abraham'" (1864) from The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Lois Bryan Adams was a Michigander journalist who went to D.C. to work as a clerk during the Civil War and who wrote dispatches (signed "L.") back home to tell about D.C. life. Today's reading is two letters from her, both involving cameos by President Lincoln.

In the first, Adams leads the reader like a tour guide through the crowds--
Look a moment; does it seem possible that we can ever work our way through that thronging, crowding mass, pouring down the broad pavement in one incessant stream?
--till she reaches the president, since he's holding an open reception day. Adams is firmly pro-union, anti-slavery, and pro-Lincoln--so much so that she ends up tongue-tied when she greets him. Which is where the tour guide frame sort of breaks down, though she resumes it later, saying that we'll make better use of the next open reception.

The next piece is about a fair being held at the Patent Office building, and it's radically different from a lot of the other Civil War reportage I've read in this series. There's no mention of the war (or of Adams's service in soldiers' relief organizations). Only a description of the opening speeches, including a cameo of Lincoln being dragooned into making a speech, which he pulls off admirably by talking about how unprepared he is.

Adams also discusses the decorations and displays at the fair, including a diorama of U.S. Grant's camp (the closest we get to the war) and a display of authentic New England pioneer life. My favorite part of this is when Adams notes that the "authentic" New England accent keeps turning into black dialect.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Alien Raiders and A Film With Me In It: Good scripts and cheap sets

What are these movies?

Alien Raiders is a terribly-named movie, though I can kind of see what they're going for: a bunch of criminals takes over a supermarket and holds the people there hostage--because (twist!) they are trying to protect all of us from alien invasion. So the raiders are both the aliens doing the invading and the humans trying to raid the aliens. Cue waa-waa horn.

A Film With Me In It is a super-dark Irish comedy about two affable schlubs--a failed actor whose brother is locked-in, whose girlfriend is growing apart, whose landlord is mean, whose apartment is falling apart; and a drunk screenwriter who never writes--who then have to deal with an escalating farce of death. The deaths are ridiculous, but the real comedy here is in how these two guys try to deal with everything, which is so god-damn hard for them. (At every single moment: so when Dylan Moran--the drunk screenwriter--introduces himself at an AA meeting, he does so in the most awkward way possible.)

The good, the bad, the replicable
Alien Raiders has many characters--the raiders, the hostages, the cops--which kind of splits the attention and drains our identification with most of the characters. So, say, when something terrible happens to character X, it's easy to say, "oh well, what's character Y up to?" At the same time, many of those characters are given some interesting thing to work with.

It's also so perfectly self-contained--just in and around this one supermarket. Not only does that heighten some of the danger and suspense, it also probably does wonders in cutting down cost. Which they could then spend on bloody special effects and squibs, since the film sort of boils down to regular joes vs. aliens.

A Film With Me In It has a similarly constricted location/scope, mostly taking place in and around this one house. And, similarly, most of the special effects budget probably went into fake blood. But the characters are so well-defined through just one or two scenes--the actor failing to make an impression at an audition, the drunk writer making the wrong impression at an AA meeting--that we don't need to see much of their lives outside of this house to understand who they are. And once we have their characters outlined, almost every thing they do is hilarious since they keep being put into tense situations.

The only negative thing I have to say about A Film With Me In It is a warning about the dog in the film, who does die. For some reason, people dying in Looney Toons fashion is amusing, but when it happens to a dog, it seems less so.

Monday, February 10, 2014

If you need help, ask the internet

The other day, while walking the dog, I heard my name--from my iPod. If you've ever had that experience, you know it can be a little odd, especially if what's playing is a podcast that often deals with occult and supernatural issues: Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff. In this case, I asked for Ken and Robin to tell us about some hidden gems in the film world. (They often talk about films they saw at film festivals, which doesn't help much, especially since I don't get very odd films in the single theater here.) So, Ken and Robin gave a list of films that are already out in some form that could get more play. Here's the list:

Robin's list:
Muk Gong (Battle of Wits / Battle of the Warriors)
Beyond the Black Rainbow (streaming on Netflix)
A Film With Me in It

Ken's list:
Absentia (streaming on Netflix)
Alien Raiders
Tomorrow at Dawn

Forbidden Quest (note: not the 2006 Korean film)

I've already watched and loved A Film With Me in It, a black comedy from Ireland about a pair of friends who are stuck in their lives--an actor who can't book a film, whose relationship with his girlfriend is falling apart, whose brother is paraplegic (or locked in or brain dead--it's unclear), and whose landlord is quite hostile and uninterested in fixing the decaying apartment; and a drunk screenwriter-wanna-be who also has a gambling problem. The film starts off small and depressingly realistic (or realistically depressing)--and then people start dying in hilarious and unusual ways. (Warning: a cute dog also dies.) And now these two inept people have to decide how to deal with all the deaths, leading to more black comedy.

But the lesson here is clear: with Twitter and email, it's easy to ask people for their thoughts or opinions on things.

The flip-side to that is, why not pitch a hand in if you can? So, I recently wrote a review for the website SF Signal (where I often read reviews and notes) and wrote a list/essay for Pornokitsch (where I always read the other posts).

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 213: Seymour Krim, Making It! (#213)

Seymour Krim, "Making It!" (1961) from The Cool School: Writing from America’s Hip Underground:

I'm on record as disliking the Beats. Not so much the poetry or the style, but the political stance of detached purity that really ignores the reality of oppression that others  might experience. Like Thoreau buggering off to Walden Pond--knowing that his women relatives would take care of him--there's a certain blindness to Kerouac's On The Road, to his adventures with the poor and the minorities while still failing to see how those adventures were impossible for them.

And Seymour Krim shows very nicely one more lack the Beats have, which is an awareness of women as people. See, Krim's piece is a dialogue/rant between someone who has accepted the bourgeois measure of success--money, a job, status, women--and someone who holds on, tenuously, to the artistic and spiritual goals. Notice that "women" are one of the objects/goals of life, not subjects of their own lives.

That said, the LoA headnote makes much to-do out of Krim's marginal status: he started off as an establishment book reviewer, so his attempts to slip into Beat think-pieces never quite got the attention that (some people think) they deserved. Krim certainly seems to have the style down: at times, this piece feels like it would be better read aloud as slam poetry at a coffee shop.
Columbia professor, poet, painter, ex-Trotskyite, Partisan Review editor, G. E. engineer, Schenley salesman—they all live in the same world for a change and that world says, go!
That sort of breathless rant works best over a short piece and at eight pages, I definitely felt myself start to slip away. Krim's piece certainly speaks to an important issue about how we define success, both socio-culturally and personally, and how those definitions of success may not jibe. 

And while I'm sensitive to the idea that monetary success may be an endless trap of getting and spending, I'd love to see Krim make this case to some of the working poor who didn't have jobs as book reviewers.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Furies vs. Silvertip: Westerns and Ambiguity

I recently finished Max Brand's 1933/1941 Silvertip, a pulp Western book, and Anthony Mann's 1950 The Furies, a non-pulp Western movie; and I'm trying to close that circle. How are these both Westerns when they feel so different?

What it is: Silvertip:
Silvertip tells the story of a larger-than-life, badass, oath-bound rambler; after mistakenly gunning down a young Mexican man, Silvertip promises to replace him; this leads him to a land-war between an evil white clan, the Drummons, and the vengeance-obsessed Mexican family, the Montereys. He fights, he wins, he continues to ramble.

It's very straight forward and the only bit of ambiguity is when Silvertip seems to recognize that the Monterey quest for vengeance is soul-eroding and family-destroying. E.g., Papa Monterey is devastated to lose his son--because he trained his son to enact his vengeance. Then, when Silvertip starts fulfilling those quests, Monterey doesn't seem too bothered by losing his original son. But even with that drop of ambiguity, Silvertip goes on, does the violence thing, and moves on.

What it is: The Furies:
The Furies... is a little more confusing: old rancher T.C. Jeffords is a king on his land (The Furies), so powerful that he issues his own money. He's obsessed with his late wife, uninterested in his son, and very VERY close to his daughter Vance. (She's the only one who matters--T.C.'s son is barely in the story, almost as if he's only here to give us exposition.)

Vance is very friendly but not romantic with Mexican squatter Juan Herrera; Vance even helps to protect the Herreras when the other squatters are being evicted. Vance isn't interested in Juan because she's interested in oily gambler Rip Darrow, who thinks he has a claim to the Darrow Strip, a strip of land belonging to Jeffords/The Furies. But when T.C. offers Rip money to leave his daughter alone, Rip takes the money, leaving Vance to become virgin queen of the Furies.

Into this stable situation, T.C. brings a beautiful older woman, Flo Burnett, who makes it clear to Vance that she's a gold-digger who wants to get rid of Vance (by sending her to Europe). Vance throws scissors at Burnett and runs away to the Herreras. T.C. hunts her down and burns out the Herreras, even hanging Juan for stealing a horse. Vance vows vengeance on her father and goes out to buy up all of the money he issued at pennies on the dollar.

T.C. desperately needs money, even going to his now-scarred wife Flo to ask for the money he gave her. She explains that she can't give him the money, because then he'll leave her, a rejection that T.C. takes in stride, expressing affection and respect for this scarred gold-digger. Even T.C.'s accountant reveals that he's been stealing money from T.C., but is willing to give it back to help out; T.C. refuses the offer, laughing at the betrayal.

Then T.C. gets an offer to buy his cattle, and he rides out, to prove that he's still king of his land. His men sing songs about how great he is.

Then Vance reveals her double-cross to her dad, buying his cattle with his own (worthless) money. T.C takes even this in stride, saying that he was always happiest when building an empire, not holding it. Rip and Vance plan to marry. Then Juan's mom kills T.C.

So... yeah. Silvertip is easy to summarize because it hews close to standard Western tropes--land-war, wandering gun-slinger, the beloved daughter as romantic object--and it keeps pretty far from ambiguity or other genre tropes.

By contrast The Furies has a Western setting, with some traditional Western tropes--cattle baron, the round-up, dealing with a (crooked-ish) bank, squatters/land-war. It also has a noir-ish touch, with its ambiguities, especially around love and loyalty. (Director Mann started in noir, so you can make that connection.) You can even see a certain Shakespearean family drama--King Lear, if you like this essay. Maybe there's even a bit of the women's weepy genre with the daughter caught between two-three men (Juan, Rip, T.C.).

And, of course, let's nod towards the mythological aspect of The Furies: the punishers who are especially vicious towards those who betray their family.

It is, in other words, a perfect film to write a paper about. (Sample: Freudian: Vance uses her mother's GIANT scissors to castrate her father's sexual interest in the other woman by scarring her.)

I repeat: So?
Well, The Furies is a bit of a mess at the end: T.C.'s vicious hanging of Juan is all but forgotten except as pretext for tragic murder; asshole Rip Darrow gets sentimentalized as soon-to-be proper husband; even Vance gets a little tamed, accepting her father as a third member in the family/ownership of the Furies.

So to make a happy ending, so many of the ambiguities get washed away in a way that feels artificial, which isn't really a problem for Silvertip: he starts out as a larger-than-life, cardboardy figure, he exits as same.

I can't help but feel like there's a warning here about tonal shifts: in its own way, Silvertip is more successful, while being less ambitious. At the same time, a little mix of genre gives The Furies a lot more interest in its characters and plot.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Writing Against... Bradbury

In many cases, I lean towards the anti-censor-ship view that bad speech shouldn't be silenced, but combatted with good speech. That's not a universal principle and most self-satisfied anti-censor-ship people tend to be rather dense on the dangers of speech: do you let people in crowded theaters yell "fire" and just hope that someone else in the theater makes a compelling case that there is not, in fact, a fire?

But I'm especially think that we need good speech to combat bad speech when the bad speech isn't totally bad. When Edgar Rice Burroughs writes Tarzan, with all of its ante-diluvian attitudes towards Africans and women, we can't just drop it down a well and hope no one reads it. It's an entertaining book and the Wild Man is one of the most important/common archetypes to come out of the 20th-century pulp tradition.

Or take Bradbury: "The Veldt" is an interesting view of a holo-deck style entertainment room and generational conflict--that relegates the wife/mother to shrill alarmist. (She happens to be right, but the story never really validates her and she's not good enough to actually profit from her alarm.) Or in "Usher II," where we get an impassioned defense of imagination and fantasy--along with a murderous hatred of science.

So there's a lot to like about Bradbury and a lot to dislike. (Depending on the ratio, you'll either like him or, like me, wish he wasn't as deft with a sentence considering how reactionary his attitudes are towards the world.) So how do we write against Bradbury?

For a comparable case, we could look at Pullman writing against Lewis: God is the central fact of life for Lewis's cross-planar fantasies, but in Pullman's cross-planar fantasies, God is dead and only present as a figurehead for an oppressive institution. In that way, Pullman is writing in dialogue with--and against--Lewis.

So let's say you want to write against Bradbury's sexism, his vision of the 1950s suburbs as a natural order in "The Veldt" (and elsewhere).

We could make that subtext into text: a man uses his virtual reality room to recreate his dream of the 1950s. (Sure, while the kids aren't using that room for Africa, dad could be using it for his recreation--and knock before entering, gosh-darn-it!) Here the man is totally in charge, just as he wishes he was out in the real world.

We could write the parallel and hidden reality to the original story: all the work mom has to do to prop up dad in the 1950s.

We could write the reversal: mom is in charge here.

Or the update: instead of being happy with her 1950s-style role, the mom here reads feminist material and takes up the call of liberation. (Like the parallel/hidden reality version, this is basically about adding history back to the story.)

Any other ways to write back against something you don't like in an author?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 212: Kate Chopin, The Story of an Hour (#212)

Kate Chopin, "The Story of an Hour" (1894) from Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories:

Interesting backstory here: (a) the story of a train accident-caused widowhood was Kate's mom's story; (b) the story was rejected by Vogue at first; and (c) was only accepted after the success of her collection Bayou Folk.

Which means that, yes, Vogue existed in the 1890s.

I'm not that surprised that the story was rejected by many places: it's a tiny story that focuses on a woman's feelings--and does so in rather stark terms. That is, the protagonist of this story has learned that her husband has died and feels a crushing sadness for one page; then, on the second page, she feels... free. Sure, she loved her husband, but whether he had good or bad intentions, his very existence limited her.

Then, on the third page, he shows up alive, which is such a shock to the ex-widow with a heart condition (established on page one) that she dies.

So we have a nicely constructed story with a shocking twist; and a view of a woman's interest in being free of men (which must have been disturbing to people who were busy constructing the ideal of the Angel in the House for women to stick to). An interesting story whether you're interested in structure or history.