Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Star Wars Will Return!

Last week the internet exploded with the news that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm.  Subsequently, Disney announced that they are developing a new trilogy of Star Wars films for 2015.  As a lifelong Star Wars fan, I must confess the prospect of seeing the continuing adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia is exciting and bewildering.   On the bright side, in a week that saw Hurricane Sandy pulverize the east coast and the bitter rancor preceding the 2012 election, it was satisfying to learn of George Lucas's change of heart on his creation. Ever since the release of Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith in 2005, Lucas remained adamant that he was finished with the franchise.  Now that Disney owns Lucasfilm, a whole new generation of writers and filmmakers will get a chance to refashion Star Wars in their own image, albeit with the rueful caveat that the past is past.

I recall a Lester Bangs article when he went around asking people on the street (this was in the 1970s) their suggestions on how to revive rock and roll and many longed for a Beatles reunion, to which Bangs replied,"it would be the biggest anti-climax in history."  Of course to this day, Beatles' fans can only imagine what a reunion would've sounded like.  John Lennon always dismissed such notions as foolish nostalgia and suggested fans should give it up and just enjoy the old albums: What more did they want from the Fab Four?  The lesson of the Beatles applies to Star Wars in the sense that our cultural obsessions and desire to relive the past are phantoms and exist best where they belong- in our imagination.

What must George Lucas think of his fans?  In 1999, people around the world finally got what they wanted: a new Star Wars film.  Expectations were high since George Lucas had written and directed The Phantom Menace!  But by the first week of its release, most critics and original fans panned it.  And the fans felt betrayed and drew up a litany of complaints: Lucas cannot write dialogue.  The acting was awful.  Darth Vader was now a kid from a cereal ad.  The new characters (Jar-Jar Binks) were bothersome and played upon cultural stereotypes; yes Lucas in one week went from being a cinematic visionary to a reactionary racist.  They were decreed unworthy follow ups to the great saga of their youth.  But children generally liked the prequels and the films were massive hits worldwide. I suppose Star Wars fan culture will never forgive Lucas (I like the Freudian overtones to this drama).  They were unable to accept that Lucas had ruined the story of their childhood.  Hmmm... or maybe they never grew up?

One point that's left out of the legacy of Star Wars was the boldness of Lucas's decision in the mid 1970s to make a science fiction film with young people as the primary audience (ages 9-13)  That was the Silver Age of American cinema; a time when filmmakers made tortured personal films about alienation. While exploring the dark soul of humanity with the likes of Travis Bickle or Alex the Droog has some aesthetic value, but is rather hard on the psyche.  Interestingly enough, Lucas began his career as an avant guard filmmaker who serious, artsy films as a student at UCLA.  His debut feature, THX-1138, is an obscure dystopian flick that failed with audiences.  He changed tactics with American Graffiti, a masterpiece of 1950s nostalgia (I know the film took place in 1962), that continued to explore humanity's relationship with technology.   A student of mythology and anthropology, Lucas imagined telling a coming of age story in space.  He drew upon a multitude of sources in world literature ranging from Frank Herbert's Dune to the Bible.  And it is important to note that science fiction films were considered a dead genre in 1977, with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey still considered the gold standard (and remains to this day).  Lucas's peers urged him not to pursue the project.  Peter Biskind reported in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Lucas invited other directors to his home to screen an early version of Star Wars and they thought it was awful (apparently Brian De Palma made insulting remarks throughout).  But to the surprise of all, Lucas had launched a cultural phenomenon.

The problem is that no one can go back and recreate the moment Star Wars came out in 1977.  For fans, that fact never quite computed: Lucas was taking the story in a new direction.  So, what does that mean for the new installments?  Times have changed, but there remains a great hunger for Star Wars.  No matter who writes or directs these new films some will not be happy with the final product. As long as they stay with the spirit of adventure, humor, and wonder that is part of all the films - they will be fine.  The web is replete with speculation on who will take the reins.  A popular name is J.J. Abrams who launched Lost and rebooted the Star Trek franchise. Steven Spielberg is another possibility for relaunching Star Wars films; perhaps a master filmmaker like Spielberg is the perfect choice for the for first film.

Lastly, there is speculation about the story lines for the new films.  Devoted fans will recall the Timothy Zahn trilogy that came out in the early 1990s that continued the saga after Return of the Jedi.  From what I remember those novels emphasized action,but lacking on character development.  A countless number of forgettable novels and comic books followed.  According to reports there are detailed treatments that Lucas wrote for episodes VII, VIII, and IX, which seems to contradict his statements of recent years. I commend Lucas for handing his creation over to a new generation and that a new one will get to experience the films in whichever direction they decide to take it.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Between X and Y Part II




Something strange happened after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  All the euphoria quickly faded.  The world suddenly seemed more confusing, complicated, and a little ominous.  We always want a happy ending; however, in history there is no such thing.  Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK drove a stake through the triumphalism of the early 1990s with its direct attack against an official narrative of American history (the Warren Commission) by mixing fact with fiction.  The three hour film followed New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, in his obsessive investigation of the Kennedy assassination which by the end left me wondering if social studies classes were full of shit.  But this led me to watch films that questioned authority such as All the President's Men, Dr. Strangelove, The French Connection, and several others that reveled in the corruption and ugliness of the modern world.  All institutions were untrustworthy.  Why believe in anything?

The 1990s was replete with Irony.  And distractions were everywhere.  And entertainment. And more consumption.  An obsession with pop culture started to wipe away everything in its path.  In addition to television and movies, there was the world wide web.  Technology loomed like an unstoppable force too attractive to ignore.  It made everyone a little meaner and insensitive.  

Musically, the decade mirrored the fragmentation across the American landscape.  Grunge gets the nod for moving rock into the new century.  The happy, good time party/all night music of 80s rock gave way to a more serious music full of anger and angst that owed much to punk and heavy metal.  Nirvana came on like a wrecking crew that blew everyone away and then left as just as they arrived.  Kurt Cobain may well have the last rock and roll star to move his generation, but also the most reluctant one.  When Nirvana released their LP Nevermind, they usurped Michael Jackson from the pop charts and their video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" received constant airplay on MTV.  Rock critics, who were desperate for someone to recapture the freethinking charisma of the SIxties icons like Lennon and Dylan, declared Cobain the savior of rock.  But the band eschewed their fame. During High School they were the outcasts and not even considered remotely cool. The chips on their shoulders were well earned.  When jocks and frat boys started rocking out to Nirvana songs the band reacted with disdain.  At their concerts Nirvana began to appear in drag and shame their fans (a growing number of fratboys) for their homophobia and mindless conformity.  Listening to their final haunting unplugged performance, made a few months before Cobain's death is sad.  In their sublime unplugged performance, I hear a new American sound emerging - moodier, darker, thought provoking.  Their rendition of David Bowie's, "The Man Who Sold the World," is so melodic and filled with imagery that it lets you envision the man who sold the world (your pick - LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II).  Nothing is more emotionally wrenching than than Cobain's last two songs "All Apologies," and Leadbelly's "Where did you sleep last night"?

Pulp Fiction is without a doubt the most influential film of the 1990s.  Quentin Tarantino's epic homage to gangster cinema restored the auteur to American film.  Tarantino, a movie buff who spent most of his 20s as a video store clerk, made waves with his debut film, Reservoir Dogs.  For a generation raised on the blockbusters of Spielberg and Lucas and all their disciples, Pulp Fiction brought a new type of storytelling: interweaving story lines, long dialogue sequences, and a unique fictional universe.  A shameless lover of cinema in all its forms, Tarantino had lots of fun with Pulp FIction.  He embraced pop culture nostalgia with his casting choices and soundtracks replete with obscure 1970s music.  From literary references ranging from Mark Twain to Elmore Leonard to Flannery O'Conner, Pulp Fiction is like the Ulysses of modern film (I'll stand by that reference).  Like James Joyce, Tarantino openly made allusions to all genres and left critics and fans much to think about.

Clerks also deserves mention.  It is like the Waiting for Godot of the 1990s.  Perhaps no film captures Gen X more that Kevin Smith's low budget comedy set in a bleak New Jersey convenience store.  It follows two underachieving clerks as they carry on philosophical discussions on Star Wars or the movie tastes of their customers.  I knew guys like this in a job I worked after High School.  They were smart enough to know their circumstances sucked, but showed little initiative in getting out.  Being stuck in a dead end job does awful things to the mind and soul, and no film illustrates this better than Clerks as we follow Dante and Randal in their descent into retail hell.  Smith proved an equal to Tarantino in writing sharp dialogue and went on to make on to make films that bravely took on controversial topics such as sexuality in Chasing Amy and religion in Dogma.

For myself the decade passed over like a like long, exhausting, endless summer.  Growing up in a small isolated town I was removed from most of culture.  I have little interest in revisiting the glum tedium of high school.  The future looked imposing as the new century drew closer- perhaps that's why America became a conspiracy theory nation.  Boredom.  You can talk about the JFK assassination  aliens at Roswell, New World Order, terrorists as elite puppets, inside jobs, NSA surveillance, crop circles.  The X-Files took us through all this.   Were there any alternatives offered in film or literature as proper ways to live in a world getting crazier by the second?


The Coen Brothers provided some relief.  In Fargo, the Coen brothers hero Sheriff played brilliantly by Frances McDormand used common old decency to combat the evil that threatens her North Dakota town.  Another way is out is the Dude.  Jeff Bridges brilliant performance in The Big Lebowski, as a stoner/hippie, who uses his indolent nature as the only sane reaction to a crazy world of scheming capitalists, criminals, nihilists, and posers.  Bowling is the glue holding the dude's world together, inspiring all who feel adrift as America approached 2000.
The "dude" abides


More to come on the 1990s and early 21st century.







Saturday, July 28, 2012

Between X and Y: Part I

A number of things led me to write this entry.  A few months ago Slate published an article entitled "The Catalano Generation" (a reference to the Claire Danes TV series My So Called Life) that looked specifically at the generation born during the Carter presidency (1977-1981), which includes myself.  Something about it hit home, since those of us born during that time seem to lack a distinct generational identity because we're sandwiched between angst-ridden Gen X and the super-confidant millennials (see Ben Stiller's rant in Greenberg). Recently, I've been staying with my sister's family and spending more time with my 18-month year old niece.  She is starting to become aware of television and responding to images coming across the screen.  Now I haven't watched children's cartoons in a long time, but it did get me thinking about the significant role media played in my formative years.


Let's start with Levar Burton.  Fans of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon will recall his hilarious psychedelic version of the Reading Rainbow theme song with him doing a pitch perfect imitation of Jim Morrison.  In the 80s and 90s, TV shows like Reading Rainbow championed reading for kids my age.  Levar made going to the library seem pretty cool!  The show's format usually began with Levar introducing a topic. Sometimes shows dealt with fascinating careers like working behind the scenes on on a movie or being a marine biologist. Others were about the fun of a museum visit or the simple amusement of staying home and making a pizza (just make sure it fits in the oven!).  Every episode featured a children's book narrated by a celebrity and book endorsements from kids.  Each show ended with Levar's joyful catchphrase, "We'll See You Next Time."


Today it's hard to comprehend all the media that's thrown upon children at such a young age.   Most households now have an excess of over 100 channels and that's not even going into the travails of the "information super-highway" (that's what people called the internet back in the day).  My niece enjoys cartoons on Nickelodeon and the old stand by Sesame Street on Public television, but now there is so much on at any given time of the day that is not suitable for kids. My parents didn't get cable until I was a teenager, so our household only had about 10 channels!  Good old network television.  I still remember being frightened by some of the programming like the mini-series V, about alien invaders disguised as reptiles that still gives me chills.  Even movies which I later loved like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi scared me when I first saw them.  But now, at almost anytime in the day, there are images on television that could really scare a child. 


But back to the in-between nature of my generation.  Star Wars is one example. I'm barely old enough to remember the release of Return of the Jedi, but later watched the films a countless number of times on VHS.  I could only imagine the day when more Star Wars films would come out.  When it finally happened in 1999 (I was out of High School at that point) the purists who saw the film in 1977 immediately trounced on George Lucas for allegedly destroying their beloved saga that carried them through their childhoods.  Meanwhile, the new generation that was unfamiliar with the original trilogy loved The Phantom Menace - even that insufferable Jar Jar Binks!   But for those in my age group, who discovered Star Wars on television and VHS, we were just damn glad to finally have some new Star Wars movies.  Ok, the prequels don't quite measure up to the originals, but that's a tired debate for another day and time.


Most of my childhood was spent in the 1980s and I admit to feeling some nostalgia for the decade.  Some icons from the time are longer with us and some are still around. Ronald Reagan was president and Johnny Carson still ruled late night television.  On some nights it was a treat to stay up really late and catch Late Night with David Letterman, who came on at 12:30. Dave always cracked me up with his silly shenanigans like dropping random things from buildings or impersonating a McDonald's employee.  Michael Jackson ruled music in a way no one has or perhaps ever will again.  MTV was the coolest thing going around and totally changed the music industry.  Every week the top ten video countdown featured Madonna, Prince, Cindy Lauper, Whitney Houston, Sting, Phil Collins, The Cars, Weird Al, to just name a few.  Yes, you had to actually wait to see your favorite video and not bring it up on youtube.


Video games from the era are primitive by today's standards like Atari and Intellivision.  Today if you ask anyone born before 1985 about Intellivision, they will likely give you a blank look, but it was a great system put out by Matell.  At the time, Intellivision was really popular with games like Burger Time and Pitfall to just name a few.Mattell also introduced the "voicer," which allowed certain games to talk back at you. Atari was pretty old school with its joysticks and some really cheesy games, for example one sponsored by the band Journey.  Even those games were great to pass the time with.


The nineties, however, were different.  Things got more complicated. The decade began with the Soviet Union vanishing and politicians talking about a "New World Order", whatever that meant. New music like "Grunge" was embraced by gen X and seemed to foreshadow darker times ahead.  By the mid 90s, the internet hit the scene and really changed everything.  I first discovered it in the latter part of High School.  I can't imagine what it's like for kids today with social networking and texting. The internet is another key dividing point because I tend to find it a little unsettling at how comfortable millenials feel with technology.  It has always been a part of their life, but not mine.  What does all this mean?  Further entries will continue with this question and continue to look backward and forward at the course of culture in the past 30 years.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: The Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974-1982 By Nicholas Rombes

 The 1970s is remembered mostly for its incoherence, best expressed through punk music. The 70s are a bridge between the Madmen/JFK/Counterculture of the 1960s and the happy Reagan era of the 1980s. Nicholas Rombes, English professor at Detroit Mercy University makes his case in his truly iconoclastic history book, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974-1982.  


How fast were times changing in late 20th century America? In 1968, youth all over the world were challenging the status quo and considering how to bring revolutionary change to their societies.  Of course these movements were divided on the proper means to facilitate such change, an ambivalence best illustrated with the Beatles 1968 release, "Revolution."




John Lennon's song is not a call for Revolution and actually seems a little . . .  uncertain. It expressed a sympathy with need for change in the world and yet is hesitant on how best to get there with lyrics like:

say you'll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead


In the final verse John specifically references the ultra-violent cultural revolution in China with "If you're carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You're not gonna make with anyone, anyhow."  The song is, if anything, a plea for non-violence and self-empowerment. The gritty guitar sound of the single version is also a precursor to punk.  "Revolution" signals that drift into an age of incoherence.  There's a real ambivalence in it about achieving the hopes of the counterculture.  But one can change their internal world.  To exemplify how punk built on this idea and took it further and darker, one should look no further than The Buzzcocks 1976 punk anthem, "Boredom."




 By 1976, with western economies in paralysis, the new generation turned against any hope of changing the system and took the angst of the 1960s to a more existential level with lyrics like "I've taken this extravagant journey so it seems to me/I just came from nowhere and I'm going straight back there."

It is no coincidence that punk music emerged out of cities  like Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, and New York where the future seemed rather bleak.  In the Cultural Dictionary, Rombes chronicles every facet of this transition in a non-linear way.


 One of the overarching narratives of punk is its hostility to the whole idea of the 1960s counterculture.  The "Punk" generation had to stand by and watch as all the icons from the previous decade (without naming names) lived comfortably and basked in all their past glory.  By 1976, post-Sixties generation asked a pertinent questions of just like - what sort of change did flower power produce anyway?  The cities were crumbling.  The political order had no leg to stand on.  Small towns were falling apart.  If there is one common link that connects punk in all its incarnations it is a strong feeling about reality being controlled by all sorts of nefarious forces - you name it (government, Madison avenue, the culture industry, television).  Paranoia was a part of the scene that spawned an entire genre of films like The Conversation and Marathon Man and also in literature, most notably, Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow.  Punk reveled in self-destruction and the creative need to destroy in order to create something new. But, what did it create?  The hardcore scene that arose in the early 1980s in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. was like a final outburst of anger that almost cried for a father figure to restore law and order. That is exactly what they got.  Rombes writes of Reagan as like a "mythic figure out of some Utopian or dystopian fantasy."  


Riches of cultural history appear in the Cultural Dictionary that span music, literature, film, and art. In the midst of all this are some original political and sociological insights of that time.  For example, Jimmy Carter's presidency (1977-1981) epitomizes the punk era.  For starters he was an outsider who spoke the plain truth (which ended up hurting him in the end).  And, at least at first, seemed the perfect antidote for post-Watergate America.  Carter's everyman image suited him up to a fault as a candidate, but he pleased few as a commander and chief.  And his own gloominess about contemporary America oddly tied him to the punks.  On July 15, 1979 President Carter delivered an extraordinary national address that is known as the "malaise speech" (Carter actually never used that word) which challenged Americans to unite and solve problems despite a future that prmoised more pollution, gross consumerism, and a growing loss of faith in all institutions.  What makes the speech so astounding is its mixture of nostalgia, despair, pop psych motivational rhetoric, and its brutal honesty.  Reagan's folksy humor proved far more successful with voters.


Punk music reflected the "crisis of confidence" and made some great art out of that existential angst.  For example on the Ramones song "I wanna be well" each verse with ends with "my future's bleak/ain't it neat" taps into that joy of watching everything fall apart.  Despair is turned into a euphoria.  That is punk.

Rombes's non-linear approach serves this history book well.  Anytime you read a dictionary with consecutive entries on Nirvana, Richard Nixon (who shared the punk's disdain for the hippies), and Henry Rollins's Hardcore outit No Policy - it feels like a kaleidoscopic look back at the past.  Rombes also makes the book interactive for the reader.  For instance, ever heard of the Electric Eels?  They are a mostly forgotten band from Cleveland that recorded some truly anarchic music that sounds unlike anything before or after.  While listening to "Jaguar Ride" it feels as if there is something amazing happening between the lines of the glorious display electronic noise.  Can you imagine if this was played on FM radio today?

Another fun aspect is the continuity that comes out of Rombes's non-linear approach.  Like a novel there are recurring characters; some well known, some not.  There were some amazing personalities like Patti Smith, The Clash, and rock critics/musicians Lester Bangs and Peter Laughner  Bangs is more well known, who was memorably portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe's film, Almost Famous.  His writings on the music scene from 1969-1982 were groundbreaking.  Bangs had a "beat" sensibility and an ironic touch.  Laughner is little remembered due to his untimely death at age 24.  He championed the rock scene in Cleveland as a critic and later recorded music on his own.  Although his style isn't punk per se, it is more in the tradition of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. But what remains is pretty good. His recording of "Amphetamine" is a truly epic rock song.






All good things must end.  Rombes argues that as economic prosperity returned under the Reagan/Thatcher regimes of the 1980s, punk quickly faded.  It was over.  Even those in the punk scene were aware of it limitations like Patti Smith and The Clash and allowed their music to evolve.  But during its high point it punk stands as a stirring example of how music was a response to its own time, influenced the course of its own time, and helps us understand our own.  Plus, the book is much more than I just tried to describe - besides writing about punk seems so unpunk anyway.





Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: Stephen King's Danse Macabre

Originally published in 1981, Stephen King's Danse Macabre was his first work of non-fiction. He takes his readers through his influences and offers his own insights into all aspects of the horror genre.  By book's end it feels like you just shared more than a few beers with the master of horror while discussing trends in American pop culture in the decades after 1945.

Dance Macabre's thesis is simple: horror serves as a filter for anxiety.  And boy there is sure enough to go around the past several decades! Therefore, as times get more frighting, horror tends to flourish.  Although King spends some time on the origins of the modern horror story, penning it down to three novels from the nineteenth century: Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula.  As anyone knows who's ever taken a course on Gothic Literature, Horace Walpole's ghastly novel The Castle of Otranto is credited for inventing the modern ghost story.  Gothic literature deals with the supernatural and the irrational side of humanity, largely in response to the French Revolution. And a prudent one at that after Europe witnessed an idealistic revolution descend into the chaos of the reign of terror (yet another age of anxiety)  Gothic literature paved the way for the Romantic movement.  King did his homework.

As a cold war kid, young Stephen seemed to consume all that pop culture had to offer in the 1950s and 1960s - horror comics, b-movies, and all the great popular writers of fantastic fiction - Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury to mention a few (remember this was a time when the government tried to ban comics).  Writers like them paved the way for the new generation that reached adulthood in the 1970s.  All this stuff makes for fun reading with extended analysis of films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf or episodes of The Outer Limits.  Pop culture studies are now taken seriously in academia so Danse Macabre is oddly enough a pioneering work in the field.

Sizable sections of the book provide a survey and analysis of the horror film and literature.  It is fun reading about films like Night of the Living Dead (the ultimate horror film), Rosemary's Baby, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and many others because they are still relevant.  While it is worthwhile to go into sociological critiques of horror films, as King does, he also argues that a good story is essential for any film or novel to work.

Despite the sometimes sloppy and repetitive prose, there are some great sections on storytelling and some insights into King's own creative process, including the origins of his epic work, The Stand.  One notable undercurrent in Danse Macabre is anti-intellectual strain running through it.  No opportunity is spared in taking jabs at literary critics.  I have no intention of getting into the whole question of whether popular fiction is literature, but King gets more respect these days. Although I have not read his latest foray into historical fiction 11/22/63, it has received a fair share of favorable reviews.  It appears King is getting the last laugh.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Album Review: Glass Houses

By 1980 Billy Joel's recording career had attained a respectable degree of commercial and some critical success (never popular with rock critics).  The release of Glass Houses still stands as one of his best LP's with its "New Wave" vibe.  A few tracks became longtime staples of FM radio like "You May be Right," "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me," and "Don't Ask Me Why."  They are balanced against some excellent deep tracks from Joel's catalogue like "All For Leyna" and "Through the Long Night."  Over the years, Joel has stated that Glass Houses was his attempt to make a perfectly constructed album.  While Glass Houses is not perfect it has its own unique kind of fun.

The opening track "You May Be Right" is Billy's attempt to sound like a wounded 1950s James Dean/Brando type sets the nostalgic tone. There's a joyful juvenile spirit to it and it became a monster hit.  This is countered by the more seriously wounded narrator in "All For Leyna" that gets to the dark side of romantic infatuation.  While in "Sometimes a Fantasy" Joel goes into a new wave rumination on solitude. And then, "I Don't Want to be Alone Anymore," -- you get the point.

Despite all this apparent sadness the album has a certain good time vibe to it.  It matches Billy's knack for writing quality pop songs with lyrics that do not take themselves too seriously.  For example, "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" was usually song I'd skip when it came on the radio, but in the context of this album it works.  If you take the lyrics seriously you will hate this song, if not you will have fun with it. In 1980 punk was morphing into New Wave, Disco was fading, Dylan was immersed in Christianity, MTV was a few years away, and the fragmentation of music was starting.  Glass Houses seems to mark that point in time with its pseudo-cool nostalgia.

Stephen King's The Shining

 The Shining, King's third published novel has an iconic status largely due to Stanley Kubrick's film. It is impossible to separate the novel from Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film - and the resulting acrimony about the adaptation. As a novel it marks a turning point in King's career who was perceived as a writer of, in the words of Pauline Kael, "unassuming potboilers" to one capable of writing a character study of a family facing some serious demons. The primary themes in the novel such as alcoholism, unfulfilled ambition, and past trauma engage the reader in a truly terrifying way. It is a haunted house story firmly within the Gothic tradition that has a modern twist with real characters with problems based on reality.

The plot is fairly simple and has a small number of characters.  Jack Torrence, an aspiring writer and teacher, agrees to act as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel Resort in the Colorado Rockies after losing a teaching job after an altercation with a student.  Although Jack has shown promise as a writer he also struggles with drinking.  His wife Wendy is generally supportive, but rightly concerned about living in isolation with their their son Danny, who has a "gift" his parents are unable to understand.  Danny has an ability that allows him to use the "shining" to read the minds of others.  The novel opens with Jack landing a job as the Overlook's caretaker from September to May.  On the surface it is the perfect time to regain his footing as a writer and heal his family.  Lurking behind this invitation to family bliss is the Overlook's dark history.

Over the years, King has stated that he wrote Jack as a sympathetic character and a version of himself.  At the time King, although a much more successful writer that his fictional creation, had his own drinking problem.  Jack dreams of becoming a major American writer and truly wants the best for his family.  Jack's own history with abuse is told in terrifying flashbacks as well as an alcohol driven incident with Danny. Early on it is clear the story will not have a cheery conclusion.

Like much of King's fiction the novel is overlong.  Jack's descent into madness is a slow buildup and downright tedious at times.  By the time Jack is pushed over the edge the novel has some of its energy.  Other characters are less drawn out, especially Wendy, who seems supportive yet suspicious of her husband.  The tone of The Shining is overtly serious and labors hard to compel the reader to emphasize with Jack in his struggle to rebuild his family.   But the hotel's supernatural power make the struggle seem predestined and anti-climatic.  Family conflict in a haunted house can make for deep tragedy or satire - the route that Kubrick took the material.

This is not to say that the book isn't frighting. It is in a way the film is not.  A good portion of the story is told from Danny's point of view and King has an almost Salingeresque ability to capture childhood.  What is more terrifying that observing evil spirits from child's perspective?  This formed a template King's later novel It.

It remains a mystery what attracted Stanley Kubrick to the novel.  Film scholars have latched upon the political and historical context in the film and see it as a metaphor of the cruelty of Western civilization.  Interestingly enough, in the novel Jack plans to write a history of the Overlook Hotel to "reveal the soul of post-war America."  It is like all the dirty laundry of recent American history is stored away at the Overlook and god help anyone than stumbles upon it!  There is an interesting connection that may explain Kubrick's decision to buy the rights.

The novel and film version of The Shining continue to capture the public's imagination.  The film is one of my favorites for its creepy look, outstanding performances, and strange interplay of satire and tragedy.  One of the ongoing points of interest is King's negative response to Kubrick's vision (King played no role in pre-production).  He has compared the film to a beautifully made custom made car with no engine.  Perhaps his dismay came from Kubrick decision to parody his own personal story. In 1997 King did write a forgettable TV version.  In 2011 King announced he was writing a sequel to The Shining, that follows Danny as an adult.  Too bad Kubrick is not available direct the sequel.




Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: A Moveable Feast


Ernest Hemingway's novel A Moveable Feast, published posthumously, is an account of his time in Paris following the First World War.  He shares anecdotes about his first wife Hadley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and other portraits of those who shaped the arts in the 20th century.  These expatriates found a home  in Paris in the years after the First World War.  Hemingway and Fitzgerald persist as personifications of their time: Fitzgerald remains the chronicler of the upper class and Hemingway symbolizes the old American frontier spirit for the modern age.

A Moveable Feast is fitting to read after watching Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.  Life there seemed fun, simple, and profound.  Ezra Pound acts as a father figure to young Hemingway, James Joyce is an enigmatic drinking buddy, Gertrude Stein is a sort of muse, his first wife Hadley is kindly and supportive, and Fitzgerald is a lazy neurotic.

At its center is Hemingway, a workmanlike writer who enjoys living life to the fullest: his self portrait combines all the right masculine attributes combined with a sublime artistic sensitivity.  But beneath this persona is a self-destructive nature.  By book's end all his relationships are finished.  He begins an affair with his wife's best friend and eventually leaves Hadley for her.  He recognizes Fitzgerald's genius, but at times the portrayal borders on character assassination or at least an attempt to humiliate his old friend and rival.  Among other things he portrays Fitzgerald as a helpless hypochondriac with an unhealthy attachment to his wife, Zelda. In the novel's longest chapter Hemingway describes a disastrous trip he took with Fitzgerald that turns into a farce -- and to top it off Hemingway uses the incident to explain why F. Scott failed to write anything that measured up to his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.

As one of his last complete works, Hemingway looks back at a time before he was a living legend.  Day to day life in Paris seemed pretty sweet.  A typical day consisted of writing, betting at the track, philosophizing with great artists, and drinking liters and liters of wine.  As a snapshot of literary history the book is greatly enjoyable, but also for its honesty.



Friday, January 6, 2012

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five

Over forty years after its publication, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five persists as a bitter satire of the American experience during the middle of the 20th Century.  It is the story of a rather unremarkable man, Billy Pilgrim who led a seemingly uneventful life except for two things: he witnessed the allied bombing of Dresden, Germany on February 13, 1945 as an American POW and later on was abducted by strange aliens who live in the fourth dimension.  As a result, Billy is "unstuck in time," drifting in and out of various points of his life in an apparent random process.  One moment he is at New Years Eve Party as a middle aged man, then suddenly shifts back to Dresden.  This leaves Billy and the reader in an disoriented state.

The story is told in fragments, making the entire novel seem like a disjointed series of seemingly unconnected events.  The style is cinematic, with little plot or character exposition.  In the self referencing introduction, Vonnegut wrote the novel is a failure "because it was written on a pillar of salt."  It is about looking back on a traumatic experience and not finding any answers at all. As a result, this is a rather cruel novel.  The idea that awful things often happen with little or no explanation is a tough message to take, but its there.  Vonnegut's universe is an indifferent one.

As an anti-war novel, it is in step with the Vietnam-era, but not so much with today.  The novel's subtitle, The Children's Crusade, is an irreverent response to the glorification of the military ethos.  Billy's 'comrades' in the American army are overgrown sadistic children that thrive in the moral fog of war.  The generals are no better.  In a flash forward to the future, Billy shares a hospital room with an Air Force historian who argues the Dresden bombings were completely necessary for the Allied victory in Europe. Billy's own experience on the ground belies the historian's detached and inhumane argument.  For myself, this is the most memorable part of the novel.  It is a fascinating, but mccarbe phenomenon, to watch the flurry of memoirs that come out after every administration that attempt to justify their actions to history, often with false humility. For therein lies the power of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Prior to its publication, many were unaware of the Dresden bombings.  But the Second World War was such a massive event, that its memory was lost in the fog of war (just as the bombings of Tokyo are hardly remembered because of the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Perhaps traditional narrative fiction fails to capture the meaninglessness of total war and only speculative fiction can give one at least a sense of the madness.