Why My Best Stories Will Never Be Told On The Moth Radio Hour

…or at the National Storytelling Festival … or at the local library … or at family reunions.

Traditional storytelling is an art, and the best of the traditional tellers present the oldest and most familiar stories in their own distinctive voice, adding rich texture to tales that survive because they have meaning beyond the particular time  or setting in which they were conceived.  Some tellers translate old stories, dressing them in contemporary language and manners, using the dissonance between old tropes and modern sensibility to highlight enduring values.

Many contemporary tellers also tell “personal” stories, some true memoir and some invented histories.  Generally, these stories are told in the first person, evoking a particular legacy of family or region.  The structure of the personal story often includes the broad strokes establishing the genre, an account of the dramatic elements put in play by the individual or family, ensuing crisis/confusing, and resolution.  The most successful stories have a pleasing symmetry, bringing the audience to the end of the story with an appreciation of the  design with which various strands have been woven together, providing a moving or provocative resolution.

Every family has stories, of course, such as those cherished in our family: the time someone invited the entire third grade to a birthday party without telling his parents, or the time someone fell from the top of a swing set, caught his nose on one of the hooks holding the swing’s chains, and dangled by the nose until the flesh parted.  Those sorts of family favorites arrive with any gathering and are the touchstones of personality; no matter what contributions that unnamed person might make to society, he/she/they will forever be the kid who prepared for a school dance by using Vick’s VapoRub as hair tonic (Hey!  It kept every hair in place and smelled great!).

The stories that won’t get told are distinctively personal and take place in my early adolescence, but they have not come up in family chats since the dark months at the end of eighth grade.  I’m not ducking embarrassment or humiliation, although both would likely arrive with the first few sentences necessary to setting the context in which the stories would have to be told.  A good story needs no explanation, and mine need so much more than mere explanation.  The titles alone reveal more about my odd misapprehension of human behavior than I might like to have widely known:

My First Collection – The Book of Sweat Marks

My First Business – The Dissected Frog Stand

I’ve tried to pull these stories into shape; I even recorded a version of The Book of Sweat Marks as an audition audio for the Moth Radio Hour, only to realize that the account sounded like the raving of a terminally confused fanboy, a proto-papparazzo stalker, a career path I have avoided.  In the same fashion, the entrepreneurial impulse to set up a roadside stand is one thing; without considerable explication, however, the decision to sell dissected frogs rather than lemonade or cookies can leave an indelible and unfortunate impression.

No, the problem is that the stories are odd, slightly off-putting, but not meaningful. There is no symmetry, no journey and return.  Odd is just odd, not even amusing. Just odd. I find no “Ah Hah!” moment, nothing in the stories that carry a character to understanding and reconciliation.

With regard to my uncommon collection, I could make the observation that collecting autographs, ostensibly a  “normal” thing  to do, is actually quite curious as behaviors go.

What exactly is taken and curated?

Isn’t the collector essentially capturing the celebrity’s handwritten name in order to capture the celebrity’s spirit ?  His/Her/Their animus/a?

I feel a little better putting it that way, because my collection was perhaps a bit more primal but the same sort of thing.  Sort of.

I’ve mentioned my childhood interest in professional wrestling and monsters.  From some points of view each separate element, the wrestling or the monster, are almost certainly operating in the same space.  Some wrestlers were not monsters, but they faced monsters.  Virtually every monster wrestles, if not with an adversary, with some existential angst about having been born/raised/created as a monster.

I’m whistling in the wind here, but I need to add what I like to call an appreciation of a misunderstood performance art as practiced in tawdry arenas by stylized beefy actors, in the kabuki of wrestling.

High drama.  Super strength and reckless abandon.  Heroes facing insurmountable odds.  The smell of the crowd , the roar of blue-haired grandmothers shaking fists at egregious violation of the rules (?) of wrestling.  Shock theater.  Grand Guignol.  Blood, tears, and lots of sweat.  Really, quite a lot of sweat.

Autographs, programs, trading cards – these are ephemera; these will fade, be misplaced, become forgotten.  If little remains of the moment, why not celebrate the inevitable, I thought. As an artist without a medium, I chose to accelerate the ephemeral, leaving my folding chair to approach the ring, extending a large pad of newsprint, a gesture the exhausted wrestler surely took as a request for an autograph.

I was in every instance alone; no fan joined me in approaching the panting victor. Have I mentioned the sweat?

Pleased I should think by my overture, the wrestler would extend a hand, expecting to be given a pen or marker.  As the remarkable physical specimen leaned toward me, I would press the newsprint against his arm, capturing a moist impression of a small section of the limb, then trotting back to my seat, I could take out my marker, identify the wrestler, the date, the location, turn the page, and wait for the next match to begin.

By the end of the seventh grade, I had filled two large pads of newsprint.  Nothing remained on each page but my scribbled accounting of the name, date, and location; sweat is the most ephemeral of ephemera.

What then was this collection?  Uncommon as this impulse might have been, and I’m reasonably sure few of my readers will have curated such a collection, I think of it all now as a kind of performance art, reminding me of the fleeting moment we spend in the present.

So, an odd story, and one I’ll keep to these pages, but as I write, I see an awkward and powerless seventh grade boy doing what he could to find a place in a world filled with monsters, much as he had in his imagined battles with dinosaurs or sharks; they could not be tamed, but perhaps tagged and released to do what wild things must do.

No pleasing symmetry here, no message of comfort brought back from the hero’s journey.  Not much of a journey and not much of a hero, but some stories have a kind of open-ended invitation to tellers to see where our stories have gone.



Really? What Were They Thinking?

Really?  What Were They Thinking?

My wife and I are watching The Crown, Netflix’s ambitious and lavishly budgeted original series chronicling the reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.  It’s visually striking and often provocative, providing a rich backdrop to the history of a family and a nation in transition.  As compared to the violence and scandal we have come to expect in the big-ticket mini-series, not much happens in the first few episodes, which is fine by us in that we have so much to look at, from the pomp and ceremony of monarchical routine to startling reminders of the lingering colonial possessions in Britain’s post-war empire.

All of that said, and with much appreciation for many other excellent performances, the lingering presence of John Lithgow as a declining Winston Churchill provides a nagging distraction; the scenes with Lithgow remind me that I am watching a performance, watching an actor doing Churchill.  Lithgow does replicate the late-stage portly shambling of Churchill in his last years as Prime Minister, and he does resemble a bulldog as Churchill did, but his delivery of Churchillian dialogue is a painful reminder that while Brits do an American accent relatively convincingly (think Hugh Laurie in House), American actors have a tin ear.

Part of the problem is that I have had  a long-standing admiration of Churchill and of his oratory in particular; after all, he won the Nobel Prize for literature in recognition of the body of his work, including his early journalistic accounts of conflict in Cuba, the Sudan, and South Africa, his engaging autobiographical works, My African Journey and My Early Life, his six volume history of Europe from 1911 to 1931, his six volumes on the Second World War, including the much admired first volumes, The Gathering Storm and Their Finest Hours, and, of course, in recognition of some of the most inspirational and widely quoted speeches of the Twentieth Century

Look, compared to some of the terrible casting gaffes I am about to describe, casting Lithgow is a triumph.  He is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard, he won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and played Malvolio in a Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Twelfth Night.

He just doesn’t sound like Churchill.

More regrettable casting?  Unfortunately, the mistakes are many and egregious, including a subset of bizarre and racially insulting roles given to Hollywood stars.  Without much reflection, any thinking person would have nixed casting John Wayne as Genghis Kahn in The Conqueror, , Marlon Brando as a wily Japanese interpreter in Teahouse of the August Moon, Mickey Rooney as a bucktoothed short-sighted Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Johnny Depp as the Lone Ranger’s American Indian sidekick, Tonto, or Emma Stone as a bi-racial Asian in Aloha.  Toss in Natalie Wood as Puerto Rican Maria in West Side Story and Charlton Heston’s man-tanned Mexican in Orson Welles’ masterpiece A Touch of Evil, and we’ll be ready for Christian Bale as Moses in upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings.

During the decades in which the major studios turned out movies at a clip of about one a week, actors under contract were shoved from role to role, based more on availability than on appropriateness of role.  It is in the years following the breakup of the studio’s monopoly that producers made decisions that left their audiences puzzled.

Keanu Reeves has played virtually every variety of character from teen street hustler in My Own Private Idaho to action hero in Point Break and John Wick.  He’s banked some other solid triumphs including Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Speed, The Matrix, The Replacements,  and Point Break.  On the other hand, he’s been nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor for six unfortunate efforts.  He’s a serial killer in The Watcher, the surviving husband in a weepie with Charlize Theron, Sweet November, and the romantic lead in The Lake House, a film that defies description but one that almost surmounted an extremely odd script as Reeves and Sandra Bullock met on-screen for the first time since Speed.

Generally dismissed by critics and audiences alike, the film was tangled and confounding, and yet, one respected critic, Roger Ebert, labored to bring an audience to the film.

In “The Lake House,” it works like this. A woman (Sandra Bullock) lives in a glass house built on stilts over a lake north of Chicago. She is moving out and leaves a note for the next tenant (Keanu Reeves). He reads the note and sends a strange response to the address she supplies: He thinks she has the wrong house, because “no one has lived in this house for years.” She writes back to disagree. It develops that he thinks it is 2004 and she thinks it is 2006, and perhaps she moved in after he left, instead of moving out before he arrived, although that wouldn’t fit with — but never mind.

This correspondence continues. They both leave their letters in the mailbox beside the sidewalk that leads to the bridge that leads to the glass house. The mailbox eventually gets into the act by raising and lowering its own little red flag. The two people come to love each other, and this process involves the movie’s second impossibility. We hear them having voice-over conversations that are ostensibly based on the words in their letters, but unless these letters are one sentence long and are exchanged instantaneously (which would mean crossing time travel crossed with chat rooms), they could not possibly be conversational.

Never mind. They also have the same dog. Never mind, I tell you, never mind! I think, actually, that I have the answer to how the same dog could belong to two people separated by two years, but if I told you, I would have to shoot the dog. The key element in “The Lake House” that gives it more than a rueful sense of loss is that although Alex’s letters originate in 2004 and Kate’s in 2006, he is after all still alive in 2006, and what is more, she after all was alive in 2004.

Confused?  In defending the film, Ebert points to the quality that has distinguished these two actors throughout their careers – their likeability, an odd word, but one that communicate a kind of connection that is quite different from charisma or presence.

Reeves has been an actor audiences like to like from the start, which makes one wonder at Bernardo Bertolucci’s decision to cast him as Prince Siddhartha, the son of privilege and wealth who, in a story within the primary narrative, becomes an ascetic, a contemplative pilgrim, and finally, the enlightened Buddha.  Little Buddha is an odd film and eminently forgettable were it not for the Reeves’appearance as a pampered Indian prince, a starving, bearded ascetic, or the enlightened light of the world.  Well, the film would be among the most easily fotgotten were it not for the eye liner Reeves wears as a prince and for his weighty pronouncements, delivered in the most mannered and oddly intoned Indian version of Keanu speech.  I’ve never been able to shake this moment, as the young prince, having  discovered that suffering exists, sets out to meet the world beyond the palace walls.  He bids farewell to his father saying,

Even my love
for Yasodhara…
and my son…
cannot remove
the pain I feel.
For I know that they too
will have to suffer,
grow old…
and die.
Like you, like me,
like us all.
We must all die…
and be reborn…
and die again,
and be reborn and die,
and be reborn and die again.
No man can ever
escape that curse.
Then that…
is my task.
will lift that curse.

And so it goes.

Leaving Keanu Reeves alone in the pit of miscast actors is unkind, and, without belaboring the obvious, I ought to at least identify a few other notable puzzling choices.

Let’s leave the miserable adaptations of comic characters aside.  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luther?  On the other hand, kudos to Joel Schumacher in the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger  as Mr. Freeze!

No group of actresses has been more objectified and poorly used than “The Bond Girls”, but the decision to present Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones, a nuclear physicist was a considerable stretch.  In the real world, she did have the presence of mind to not remain married to Charlie Sheen; on the other hand, Kelly Preston had broken off her engagement to Sheen some years earlier after Sheen had shot her in the arm.  It doesn’t take a nuclear scientist…

Love Star Wars?  Hate Hayden Christensen, described as a “sentient fencepost”as the young Jedi who would become Darth Vader?  Join a very large club who feel his presence alone pulled the prequels into a galactic vortex.  Christensen won two Golden Raspberry nominations in almost destroying the franchise.

Finally, somebody thought it would be a grand idea to pair Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as the Brothers Grimm.  Enough said?

Your observations and nominations are, as always, entirely welcome.



Better Not Pout

Better Not Pout

I was thwarted again yesterday.

I don’t remember the details, but I’m pretty sure that a moment arrived in which I did not get what I wanted when I wanted it, delivered in the fashion I expected, and presented with the proper appreciation of the person that I am.

In this season of good cheer and wide-spread tolerance of others, however, I am prepared to take a look at my own failings, if only to rise to the demands of holiday folderol.

It isn’t much fun to ramble through the catalog of my faults.  Where to begin? When does it end?  It’s a necessary corrective, however, because I seem to forget the lessons life has been trying to teach me with considerable insistence day-after day.

For example, despite the evidence that withdrawing in injured silence in order to punish those who have wronged me annoys the heck out of anyone in range, and rarely (never) has the desired effect of changing my tormentor’s behavior or attitude, despite the lonely pain in pulling away when thwarted, I pout.

Pouting is not pretty, and my version is particularly unattractive in that it includes rustling, mumbling, the “accidental” slamming of doors and thumping of objects on counters, and physical contortion necessary to leaving the scene while remaining emphatically visible.

I suspect I am not alone in demanding attention and reparation without having the gumption to actually put my injury into words.  I seem to remember that The Iliad is essentially an epic generated by a sulking hero, Achilles, whose hurt feelings keep him pouting alone while a generation of his compatriots spend a decade waiting for him to get over himself. It takes considerable sacrifice to get Achilles back on the team, and I’d rather not spend a decade sulking in my tent, so it’s worth some effort to try to bring my hurt feelings into focus.

Apparently I occasionally take myself a bit too seriously, never actually saying, “Don’t you know who I am? ” but holding those captive who don’t.  Equally unhelpful is my insistence that the universe follow the unarticulated rules which I consider obvious.  I assume friends and family understand that there is a right way to park the car when shopping and a wrong way, a right way to tell a joke and a wrong way, a right way to order a meal … and so on.

It goes without saying that all of this goes without saying.  “Why should I have to ask you to turn down the volume when the sound annoys me? Don’t you know … ” and so on.

OK.  I get it.  Anyone making up a list of who’s naughty and nice is likely to leave a lump of coal in my stocking, and I have to admit pouting is not the most fun I will have in the course of a day.  There’s snow on the mountains and it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  If Ebenezer Scrooge could  figure things out in one long night, I ought to be able to put myself aside for a bit and spread some seasonally appropriate good cheer while I can.



So Much More Than Meets The Eye

So Much More Than Meets The Eye

Ah!  The life of the mind!

I’d like to present myself as having spent my youth reading important works of literature, pondering deeply the most significant of thoughts, but the truth is that I had the attention span of a moth and lost countless hours wallowing in easily digested fluff and frivol.  From the age of ten or so until I headed off to my second boarding school, I read “The Saturday Evening Post”, “Boy’s Life”, “MAD Magazine”, “Sports Illustrated”, “Sport Magazine”, and a variety of comic books.  During my secondary school years, I dropped “Boy’s Life”, “The Saturday Evening Post” disappeared, I added “Time Magazine”, but stuck with “SI”, comics and “MAD”.

Oh, and during the entire period of time, I maintained my subscription to “Famous Monsters of Filmland”.

I missed the first two volumes published in 1958, but eagerly sank my teeth (heh) into Volume 3., featuring the alluring article, “For The First Time See Frankenstein From Space” and boasting an elegantly presented cover portrait of Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera.  .The fourth described “Christopher Lee – The Handsome Horror”, but the true enticement was a feature on late-night shockmeister, Zacherly, with whom I had an unhealthy fascination as is described in an earlier post of mine on horror films and Halloween.  The fifth begged producers to bring back The Fly; the sixth offered the secrets of The Time Machine, and so on until the late 1960’s.

Contempt before investigation is to be expected, and the garish cover art certainty evoked the least reputable sort of cinematic fandom, but with great good cheer, the magazine celebrated the actors and artists who brought the fantastic to the screen.   I suspect only a few die-hard Famous Monster fans have seen the 2007 documentary Famous Monster:  Forrest J. Ackerman.  The film about Ackerman, the  editor of the magazine from the start, chronicles the history of the publication and places Ackerman within the mainstream of science fiction publication from the early 1950’s, as well as honoring his contribution to the revival of interest in horror films.  Forrest Ackerman was a prolific writer, an avid collector of genre memorabilia, literary agent for Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard among others, and a relentless advocate of the work of Lon Chaney, Sr. and Ray Harryhausen.  Chaney, known as “The man with a thousand faces” was a master of disguise, willing to go to any length to create physically grotesque characters that revealed the humanity beneath the horror.  Less renowned, Harryhausen was the genius who perfected the use of stop motion animation in fantastic adventures, pioneering the use of stop motion animation in live action fantasy and horror films.

I’m thinking of Harryhausen these days because a series of unexpected events allowed me to watch Harryhausen’s work in Mighty Joe Young for what must have been the fifteenth time again after a hiatus of about fifty years.  The film, made in 1947,  was intended to capture on the popularity of King Kong, made fourteen years earlier and employed the same method of stop motion animation and was Harryhausen’s first major production.  The models of the great ape were sculpted by the Michael Delgado who had fashioned Kong, and, as was the case in King Kong, the size of the ape varied from sequence to sequence.  Nevertheless, Joe was a better looking creature and a far more completely developed character than Kong, in part due to the contribution of the emerging stop motion animator, Ray Harryhausen.

My appreciation for Harryhausen’s skill grows even more profound year-by-year as I encounter the mind-stretching (and frequently mind-numbing) effects now available through computer-generated imagery (CGI) as exhibited in virtually every film made in the last decade, certainly in films of fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings, the various Terminators, the contemporary iterations of The Mummy, The Matrix, Inception, and the recently released Dr. Strange, each of which has earned a place of distinction in the catalog of films featuring impressive effects, but which also may be films in which the effects become the tail that wags the dog.

Endless waves of battling armies, buildings melting with Escher-like inversion, characters trapped as human batteries, shape-shifting predators pretty impressive, but although  I lack the language to adequately describe the curious dissonance for the viewer (ok, for this viewer), visually slick computer generated effects appear completely real even as we are aware that they are not; the sense of wonder is lost as we are bludgeoned by powerful visual gymnastics. I find myself impressed and disappointed in the same moment; I’m both impressed by the wizard and seeing behind the curtain.

Harryhausen’s Mighty Joe Young had personality; he spit at his pursuers from the back of a careening truck and knocked back a bottle of Scotch before busting out of his cage.  Yes, his size relative to live actors was inconsistent, and yes, he was obviously an animated model ape, but he never pretended to be more than he was – a wonderfully crafted pretense.  There are stirring moments in the film, such as Joe’s carrying orphans from a burning building despite his profound fear of fire, but even without knowing how many hours Harryhausen must have spent in moving the model with exquisite precision so that his brow was raised in disbelief, his fangs emerged with outraged anger, we know we are seeing an animated character and asked to join in the fun of the fantasy.

In a later Harryhausen films such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, live actors faced a cyclops, a dragon, and a terrifying snake-lady that still disturbs my dreaming.  He carried Sinbad to other adventures in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger bringing giant wasps, a saber-toothed tiger, a minoton, and dueling skeletons to the screen.  An all-star cast (Sir Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Burgess Meredith) joined some of Harryhausen’s finest creations in The Clash of the Titans, a free-wheeling adaptation of the adventures of Perseus, including a writhing Medusa and the enormous sea creature known as the Kraken, giving birth to the cherished line, “Release the Kraken!”, now generally applied to any moment in which all bets are off.  The Kraken itself, by the way, was mostly obscured by bubbles, leaving the enormity of its power entirely to the imagination.

Critics panned Clash of the Titans, and Harryhausen left the tedious work of moving objects frame-by-frame to others.

I’m fond of a number of contemporary fantastists, such as Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, but even in their best work, I rarely find myself rocketed back into the willing suspension of disbelief which characterized my entirely uncritical and completely joyful absorption in reading as a child all of the Oz books, Peter Pan, novels by E. Nesbit,  H.G. Wells, Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Liber, or in watching a succession of goofy films that were unself-consciously fantastic, such as the Harryhausen epics.

From the first pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to the last pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, however,  my inner child was allowed to romp at will.  Fortunately, my younger kids were as absorbed in J.K. Rowling’s world as I was, so we shared the giddy anticipation of the next in the series of books, happily standing in line at midnight to grab a copy of the next book as it was released in the U.S.  We read Deathly Hallows,the last in the series, wept, and prepared to live in an ordinary world again, abandoned by magic and adventure … until the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,  exactly what I needed in a year that has been more than fantastic but hardly uplifting.  The film deserves thoughtful description, and I hope I can grab enough distance at some point to write without gushing, but, having bashed computer generated imagery in recognizing Ray Harryhausen’s contributions to film fantasy, a large part of my appreciation of this Rowling enterprise is in admiring the many  generated special effects that serve the magic in the film without drawing attention to themselves.  The fantastic creatures have their moments, of course, and are made to move as their character demands, but the greater fun is in the “ordinary” magic, apparition in particular.

I am indebted to the writers and artists who labored to create adventure I have experienced without risking life and limb.  The famous monsters helped me get through my own ungainly transformations, and the creators of fantastic worlds have allowed me to leave the world around me just long enough to restore my sense of wonder.