Saturday, January 21, 2017

Movie Mail Bag

With some Christmas $s, I decided to fix a few holes in my Western collection. Some of them I specifically plan to review (Johnny Guitar, The Shooting, High Plains Drifter - a list that should make it pretty obvious I'm partial to the odder films). Others, I'm not sure about. I known I'll review at least one of the Jimmy Stewart/Anthony Mann movies, but which one I'm not sure of yet. If memory serves me right, they're all pretty good - maybe as good as the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher collaborations. 



The five Stewart/Mann pictures were Winchester '73, The Man from Laramie, The Naked Spur (which I already have), The Far Country, and Bend of the River. Now I'll have 'em all. Oh, and Night Passage was supposed to be directed by Mann as well, but he dropped out because he didn't like the casting of Audie Murphy.



Keith West reminded me of Clint Eastwood's fairly psychotic, nearly Gothic, supernatural revenge Western (enough adjectives for you?), High Plains Drifter. Clint has never had trouble playing an ambiguous "hero," and his gunslinger in this one might be the most so. There are scenes of psychological and moral degradation that might make the most jaded viewer's skin crawl.

And the set includes Stewart's early pairing with Marlene Dietrich, Destry Rides Again



Finally, low-budget genius Monte Hellman's two Westerns. Both feature young, yet-unmannered Jack Nicholson, and Millie Perkins. Ride in the Whirlwind also has Harry Dean Stanton. The Shooting is one of Warren Oates' best performances. The latter film was described thus:
Imagine a Spaghetti Western written by Rod Serling, adapted from a Samuel Beckett play. Throw in the following: the great Warren Oates, an evil Jack Nicholson, a bitchy Millie Perkins, some hellish desert locales, and a truly bizarre ending -- a definite must-see.


Monday, January 16, 2017

Westerns - It's All About the Cowboys



Spurred on by Raphael Ordoñez's film noir reviews, I thought I might try my hand with some similar, but with Western movies. Unlike noir, which is bound together by an attitude and style, the only things a Western needs to qualify as such is to be set during a time of open frontiers (or while in the process of closing). Most Western films take place after the US Civil War, before the Great War, and west of the Mississippi River (and still with plenty of room for variants by locale and even time period). After that, all bets are off.

By which I mean, Westerns aren't bound by anything else. It really just comes down to cowboys (and Indians, lots of times). Roy Roger's singing cowboy flicks count just as much as Monte Hellman's low-budget revisionist ones. That's a little glib, but seriously, for me, boiled down to basics, Westerns are all about the cowboys.


*************************************************

From the earliest days of film making to today, there have been Westerns. Wikipedia says the first one is Edwin Porter's 12-minute long The Great Train Robbery. While not the industry behemoth they were in the forties and fifties, after a dearth of them in the eighties, they've made a substantial comeback.

There was a spate of Louis L'Amour tv-movies featuring Tom Selleck among others, and I can't speak for them, never having seen any, but that was pretty much it for that decade. Okay, so there was Silverado too, but I never liked that one, so I try my best to forget it.

Brad Pitt as the late Jesse James
Over the past few years there've been a fair number of good or at lest significant Westerns. While often described as revisionist, Andrew Domink's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Forward is a very good, almost reverent, invocation of many classic Westerns.  Quentin Tarantino's last two movies, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, were both Westerns, more revisionist than classic by all accounts, but still seemingly respectful (I haven't seen either one yet, but folks seem to like them). Those other genre-dabblers, the Cohen Brothers, were bold enough to revisit the Charles Portis novel, True Grit. S. Craig Zahler's 2015 Bone Tomahawk, one of the most unsettling horror movies I've ever watched, proves how far a movie can range from one of John Ford's epics and still without any doubt be called a Western. For genre fans, it's been a pretty grand time.



*************************************************

So, it's not just cowboys that make a Western a Western. There are a few other things to note that cut across much of the genre.  

The frontier setting, allows these films to strip away the complications of civilization, and let a man face off against high odds, be it other men or the elements. Even many of the lighter ones are about some lone hero facing off against a dastardly gang of rustlers or a criminally minded rancher looking to take over the whole county. The same itch for bravery and adventure scratched by swords & sorcery is satisfied by Westerns.

Many stories examine that point when civilization reaches the frontier. Sometimes it's an elegiac look at a lost time of freedom, others, a time when violence is supplanted by law and justice.

from Fort Apache (1948)
More than any other genre, Westerns are movies of the natural world. Sometimes it's just there, making even mundane scenes look beautiful. Whatever else you remember about John Ford's movies, you will never forget the shots of Monument Valley. Other times  it's integral to the film's atmosphere. Whether it's the Grand Tetons rising up in nearly every outdoor shot in Shane undescoring the precariousness of the farmers situation, or the barren Andalusian countryside in the Man With No Name trilogy depicting a landscape that seems to have been poisoned by corruption and cynicism.

from Shane (1953)
But the cowboy thing is important. To the casual watcher, it's the one consistent thing, linking John Wayne to Gene Autry to Clint Eastwood. There's the whole panoply of the cowboy: six-guns, Stetsons, horses, jingling stirrups, all those things.  The cowboy (or gunslinger), is one of the most iconic looks in the world. Some folks use it as an description of American over aggressiveness in foreign affairs, but most people see the cowboy as a model of independence and boldness.

I don't know when I saw my first Western. I was definitely very young and probably saw it with my dad, a bigger fan than even I am. All I know, is from an early age, my friends and I always had Colt pistol and holster sets. One year, I even got a rawhide vest, chaps, and cowboy hat for Christmas. I just thought the look was cool and I still do.



*************************************************

I love Westerns, whether traditional John Ford ones or bonkers Sergio Corbucci ones. I particularly love that all sorts of stories can qualify as a Western. It's the sort of genre that encompasses all sorts of genres. They can be epic like The Big Country (1958), romantic like Shane, or even horror like Bone Tomahawk. They're big enough for heroes, rogues, and villains to star as the protagonists - just look at The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Without having to be twisted out of shape, they can be transported to other frontiers and lawless zones - Quigley Down Under (1990) and Nick Cave's grimy The Proposition (2005) move the genre to Australia effortlessly.

Jack freakin' Elam
and James Garner in
Support Your Local Gunfighter
I've tried to think of my ten favorite Westerns and it turned out to be a fool's errand. I've seen and loved too many to have only ten.  Besides, it varies from day to day. I might be Peckinpah mood one month and a Leone or Ford another. Maybe I'm itching for more comic movies like Burt Kennedy's James Garner-starring Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971).

Jones and Duvall in
Lonesome Dove
I've been watching a lot of Westerns, so I figured I might as well write 'em up as well. It gives me an excuse to finally put on a couple of low budget Spaghetti Westerns I've picked up over the years, but never watched, and dig out Lonesome Dove (1989) (the greatest Western ever made).

Saddle up and ride along with me. I suspect a fair number of regulars hereabout have watched more than a few of the films I'll write about. Heck, I'm hoping there're some I've missed you can hip me to along the way.

I'll start out this coming week with Howard Hawks' Red River (1948), starring John Wayne in old man makeup and Montgomery Clift in one of his earliest roles. It's a searing journey into the heart of father-(adopted) son hatred marred by a sappy ending and blessed with this "What in the Wide, Wide, World of Sports?" moments, a weirdly homoerotic scene about guns.




Friday, January 13, 2017

Germanpalooza! Tveir: the Vikings


Having just finished Michael Crichton's ibn Fadlan/Beowulf mashup (with cannibal troglodytes!), Eaters of the Dead, followed with a rewatch its filmic adaptation, The 13th Warrior (perhaps the best heroic adventure movie), I'm in a Vikingy sort of mood.

The roots of the Germanic peoples were in southern Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). A Bronze Age culture grew up in Denmark and southern Norway and Sweden. It's proposed that climatic changes started the migration of tribes out of the region out along the eastern coast of Germany and to the Vistual River. Over the next few centuries they began expanding southward and then westward, eventually running up against the might of Rome.

The Vikings were the descendants of those original Germanic tribes who remained in Scandinavia. Eventually they spread north into the rest of contemporary Scandinavia. Later, during the their ascendancy, roughly the late 8th through 11th centuries AD, they established kingdoms and trade networks up and down the rivers of Russia, the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and even, for a short while, North America.

Growing up with a Norwegian/Danish grandfather who grew up in Sweden, and a Swede-Finn grandmother who spent her teen years in Finland, I heard a lot about the Vikings. There wasn't a lot of detail in their stories and my gradma's stories tended to be more fairytales than history (she claimed she saw tomtegubbes on her farm), but they manage to fill me with pride in my tough, adventurous ancestors.

At some point, maybe when I saw The Vikings (a 1958 Technicolor extravangaza starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas - and Ernest Borgnine), I realized my ancestors were sorta bastards. Like the ancient Greeks, they were as apt to act the pirate as merchant when encountering foreign ships. Worse, they raped and pillaged the British Isles, France, and anywhere else they could get their ships. Icelanders are 20-40% Celtic because of the large slave population held by the Vikings over the years. 

And still I'm fascinated by the people. They were brave and daring, sailors probably only exceeded in skill by the Polynesians. Their myths, the Northern Thing, are still my favorite 

Over the course of centuries, the Vikings were outclassed as thieves and conquerors by a host of other nations and peoples. The kingdoms they founded were all either destroyed, or their peoples subsumed into the larger populations they had conquered. Today, the Scandinavians are the most peaceful folks out there. 

Like in the last Germanpalooza! post, I've snagged some illustrations from various Osprey books.

 The Vendel culture in Sweden flourished between the period of migrations and the rise of the Vikings in the 8th century.


Generic Vikings killing and looting, 9th-10th cent. AD


Generic Vikings on a raid, 9th-10th cent. AD


 Generic Vikings on the beach, 9th-10th cent. AD


King Olaf Trygvason's last stand at the Battle of Svolder, Sept. 999 or 1000
 Generic Viking raid with dead monks and capture civilians
Eastern Vikings 10th-11th cent. AD - this is what the Northmen in The 13th Warrior should have looked like

Rus and Varangian Guards, 11th Cent. AD

Aside from the scarcity of game, the Norse settlers in Newfoundland did not get on well with the locals.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Russians Are Coming


   With all this talk about Russia the past few days, I'm thinking of stirring myself up and returning to James Billington's The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretative History of Russian Culture. I've been interested in Russian history and culture since taking a course in pre-Soviet and another in Soviet history with Prof. Cynthia Whittaker at Baruch back in the eighties (just as perestroika was announced).
   Kiev, followed by Novogorod, then Moscow, carved a nation out of wilderness that despite all the setbacks of the past twenty years, remains the largest country in the world. In the face of a daunting climate, devastation and subjugation by the Mongols, religious schisms, civil wars, and autocracy, the Russians have perservered, and even thrived. They also have a nice, dark sense of humor about their trials and tribulations.
   In more recent years, Russian Orthodoxy and its icons, saints, and hermits have intrigued me. Raised in a very Protestant tradition, and which I still hold to, there's something about the deep unworldliness of Russian Orthodox, at least in the abstract, that is striking and I'd like to get a better understanding of.
   So, to "celebrate", here's a host of cool Russian art depicting heroes, cities, and legends.

Rurik, Varangian founder of Kievan Rus - Statue commemorating his arrival in Novgorod




Kiev's great hero, Ilya Muromets
Image result for ilya muromets:


Heroes Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, and Alyosha Popovich

Image result for ilya muromets hero:

Novgorod Market by Apollinari Vasnetsov


Ancient Moscow by Apollinari Vasnetsov
Image result for ancient russia:


Ivan the Terrible Under the Walls of Kazan (1552) by Pyotr Korovin


Defense of the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra against the Poles in 1610 by Sergey Miloradovich

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Dune: A Reread

It's been called the greatest science fiction novel of all time. Maybe, maybe not, but it's one of the best I've ever read. Published all the way back in 1965, it's the best selling science fiction novel of all time. 

The first half of Dune appeared as "Dune World" in the December 1963 Analog. The second half, "The Prophet of Dune" made its debut in the January 1965 issue. 

I think I read it for the first time in 1980 at the age of 14. From the very first pages I was hooked. Like Paul Atreides, I was wondering, what the heck is a gom jabbar? What were the Bene Gesserit? What was melange? I was housesitting for my grandfather, which meant the only thing I had to do was let the dog out and feed her and myself. And that meant I barely put the book down for hours. My dad's paperback, at 544 pages, was one of the longest books I ever read in a single day (to date the only longer one I've read it Terry Brook's The Sword of Shannara).

I'm not sure what triggered it, but something called out from the depths telling me it was time to reread Dune. The last time I read it was nearly 20 years ago. A friend wanted to get into science fiction, so a few of us started rereading the classics and tossing them his way. Among the books I revisited were Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and The Gods Themselves, Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama, Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky, and Herbert's Dune

Of all those, Dune's the only one I would recommend without hesitation. Foundation is terribly rusted with age, flat prose, and limited characterization. The latter two problems apply to Gods and Rama as well. Orphans is good and pulpy, but ultimately nothing special.

Dune on the other hand is a book that remains exciting and feels fresh fifty years after its debut and, for me, after numerous readings. 

*****************************************************************

Sunrise Over Arrakeen
I'm about well into Dune and the overthrow of House Atreides has just taken place. In the lead up to that, numerous plots have been set in motion: create a genetic messiah, win the Fremen as allies, thwart the Emperor's plans, and of course, destroy the House of Atreides. 

Two things have struck me so far. The first is how much of the book I actually remember. From lines like "Tell me about the waters of your homeworld," to whole scenes, like the revelation of Baron Harkonnen's plans, the book feels far more familiar to me than I expected it to. While I have read it three or four times before, that was a long time ago, and I'm really surprised.

The second thing, is how obvious the narrative gears are. This is the first time I'm coming at Dune with a critic's eye. Every one of the chapters I've read is an info dump. The Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, during her interview with Paul, manages to give some of the history of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Thufir Hawat, and Gurney Halleck both tell us about the plots within plots ensnaring the Atreides as well as an understanding of the political and economic systems of the Dune universe.

Flight thru the Shield Wall
Dune is a complex and complicated book and Herbert tries to give you all the tools to understand things once the plot really gets moving. So he throws a load of information at you right away.The trick he pulls off so well is how he weaves it into the expanding story. 

Between each paragraph of plot and characterization there're one or two of exposition. While the Reverend Mother tests for Paul's humanity with the pain box, she also talks about the Butlerian Jihad and the Kwisatz Haderach. Baron Harkonnen's chapter introduces the spice trade and the emperor's killer elite, the Sardaukar, and at the same time clues us into how the Atreides will be betrayed and destroyed. Each of the early chapters does the same thing, and it stands to Herbert's talent that it feels natural even when it's so obvious.

I am absolutely loving Dune at this point. There's thrilling intrigue and lots of space empire stuff. As much as the ecological and cultural aspects the novel has, is it resolutely a space opera with all the trappings. The guild Heighliners are as titanic as starcraft in the Lensmen series, the sand worms are straight out of the pulpiest space opera, and the characters and plots are more costume drama than pure sci-fi. He even figured a way to have his fights with swords and knives that makes some logical, sci-fi sense.

the Sardaukar
The deeper elements, the eco business, colonial exploitation, and systems of belief, are well done, and never at the expense of the story. Herbert clearly had points he wanted to make about those subjects, but he knew how to keep them from making the story a slog (supposedly, something he failed at in the later books). 

Arrakis, even at this early point in my reading, before Paul and Jessica are out in the wilderness, rumbles with life. With descriptions of the planet's titanic storms, birds that thrive on blood, and the mysterious sand worms and the spice, in this sand planet, Herbert created one of the greatest sci-fi archetypes (ripped off by George Lucas for Tatooine). 

With constantly shifting viewpoints and interior monologues, Herbert cracks open the characters' heads for the reader. From major characters Paul and Baron Harkonnen to the Shadout Mapes, the Fremen housekeeper, while still bound to the plot and genre, come to life. I'm can't remember any book so replete with interior dialogue. Nearly every named character gets to reflect on what's happening. It's an interesting approach, that like everything else, I'm loving.

Defeat of the Sardaukar
I've been a little slow reading Dune, for which I'm grateful. Instead of barreling through it, taking my time lets me catch all the little bits and pieces I might have missed otherwise. 

Packed between all those parts I remember are conversations and descriptions that are proving incredibly important bringing things to life. Some of them, and Jessica and Paul contemplating everyone's actions during the dinner party leaps to the mind, are far more important than many of the bigger events in illuminating Herbert's world. 

I won't say more. As much of the plot I've described so far, I haven't really given away anything that isn't in the first ten pages and I' rather not spoil it. If you haven't read Dune, you should. Fifty years old, it steel feels up-to-date and big. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

A Final Seasonal Post: My Favorite HPL Mythos Covers

WARNING: DONE ON TABLET IN BAR WATCHING LUMINOUS MRS. V'S BAND, SO IT'S TOTALLY UNEDITED

One of the main themes here this year has been the awfulness of contemporary book covers versus the awesomeness of old covers. That hasn't really been a thing with HPL Mythos covers. While, I love the old Arkham House covers, they're not the only good ones. So, here goes. Happy Halloween!

These are the Arkham House covers I grew up with. My local library (where I worked during all four years of high school), was blessed with two amazing librarians who always got the best books. Finding these, in the back left corner if I remember correctly, was mind-blowing. 

The first three are by Lee Brown Coye. An artist left adrift by the advent of abstract impressionism, he sees to have found his true muse when he started illustrating for August Derleth.

The fourth one is by one of my favorite cartoonists (and a terrific author to boot), Gahan Wilson. He did the now-banned HPL bust for the World Fantasy Award. If you don't know his stuff you should correct that.


These covers are by Murray Tinkelman. I'm not sure what especially attracts me to these. Perhaps, it's the delicate penciling, maybe it's just the monster. Probably the monsters. The thing tying these covers to the Brown ones and the following ones, is they are clearly the product of an artist's hand. As much as I hate photoshopped covers, I love these




Finally, this trio of UK covers by Tim White. Graphic, gory, and wild. I only had the middle one, which I only bought to have some HPL to read between classes one day. 


Friday, October 7, 2016

Scary Reference Libray

I'm a fan of lists and histories. Which means when it comes to genre fiction, I have a habit of grabbing reference and guide books when I can. I have an excellent selection of mystery, science fiction, and fantasy references. While not as large as any of those, the section dedicated to horror is reasonably adequate, if in need of some serious updating.

Danse Macabre by Stephen King
I only just picked this up after not reading it in years. It's a history of horror in popular culture and King's life from 1950 to 1980. It looks primarily at movies and books. 

I remember buying my first copy (my present one's at least my second, maybe my third) at the Barrett Book Trader and devouring several chapters while waiting for the bus and during the ride home. As eminently readable as the best of King's fiction, its a great, personal take on a field with which, as he describes it, "is mortally involved."


Horror: 100 Best Books (1988) by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman
Two British horror masters (Jones edits the absolutely amazing Best New Horror anthologies - half of of which, I just learned, are available as e-books) put together this list book. Two things make it valuable: first, the actual list and second, the essays by notable authors on each entry. Jones' website provides this handy page showing the books and the authors who wrote about them. Personally, I bought about twenty books based on the list. There is just no way I would have ever bought John Farris' Southern Gothic-voodoo All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By if I hadn't been snagged by what David Schow had to write about it, or what Craig Shaw Gardner wrote about J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World.





Horror: Another 100 Best Books  (2005) by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman

Jones and Newman returned nearly twenty years later with another list. It has fewer pre-20th century works (8 vs. 22). Again, Jones provides the list and essayist's names on his site. I've only bought two or three books based on this list (I already owned a bunch), but if you like criticism and reviews, the essays are plenty worth your time.






The Weird Tale by S. T. Joshi
Yeah, so this is packed with sweeping, assertive judgments common to Joshi's criticism, which is what makes it so much fun. You will learn and you will be ticked off. If you aren't ticked off, you are dead. 

I haven't read it cover to cover, though I did just read the chapter on Arthur Machen. Joshi carries himself as the arch-empiricist, without the slightest use for any sort of supernaturalism and bludgeons Machen repeatedly for his transgressions against those things. And still, Joshi provides some useful information and a coherent (if wrong) critique of Machen. Sometimes, I like criticism I disagree with even more than some I like. It forces me to think harder about why I actually like something. 

Joshi wrote a companion volume, The Modern Weird Tale (available as an e-book) that covers (according to the Amazon blurb) Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, Robert Aickman, T.E.D. Klein, and Thomas Ligotti all of whom he holds "as considerably superior" to the best-selling Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, and Anne Rice. Other writers such as William Peter Blatty, Thomas Tryon, Robert Bloch, and Thomas Harris are also discussed. I'll probably buy it.

Like I said, it's not a big selection, but it's useful. I should also add the forewords and introductions (mostly by Robert M. Price) in the Chaosium Mythos fiction collections. If you want a perspective on HPL that includes both fannish and academic takes, these are valuable. The same thing goes for David Hartwell's lengthy intros to The Dark Descent and Foundations of Fear.

I write a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, and I rarely make it up out of whole cloth. While offering my own take on books, etc., I want to be able to draw on what has gone on before me, written by people who've spent way more time and expended way more effort than I.

Do you have any horror reference books? Let me know.