Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Magic Shadows

I thought I’d borrow the title of the classic TV Ontario series for this installment, since Hollywood seems to be serving up a spate of SF during the fall/winter months at ye olde multiplexe that are worth looking at. While many people probably cringe with guilt when asked who is the first the TV movie host they remember, and they have to admit it’s Elvira (let’s hear it for hooker hair and goth underwear!), my own early cinematic education, courtesy of my folks’ antenna tower out in the country, came in weekly installments in the grandfatherly form of Elwe Yost. While good old Elwe was more inclined to screen Bogart-esque gangster films noire than days when the Earth stood still, once in a while he’d give us a treat. It was “Magic Shadows” that blew me away one evening with the 1930’s classic “King Kong” - and yes, months later, even the rather obscure sequel “Son of Kong”. (betcha didn’t see that one coming!)

He darted across the screen with twitches and jerks, rolling his eyes (Kong, that is, not Yost) as he put the boots to dinosaurs and swatted biplanes away from the zeppelin docks of the Empire State Building, all the while holding Alberta’s own Fay Wray close the way a 20-year-old frat boy at a bar on spring break clutches his beer at last call when he realizes all the women have left, and in so doing, that greatest of apes plunged into my imagination. It was one thing for directors to make cookie-cutter gangster flicks, but this! Harrihausen and the other geniuses behind that prince of the primeval jungle knew how to dream big! King Kong was one the movies I saw in my formative years that helped put the SF monkey on my back.

I’m hoping Peter Jackson’s remake will do justice to the original. Certainly Jackson’s proven with Lord Of The Rings that he can wrangle special effects without impinging on the story, so Kong will be no problem in the CG department, judging by the previews. Granted, the product of the special effects is central to this story, and Kong is nowhere near as weighty as the drama of LOTR, but I’m still a bit nervous. Hollywood’s track record isn’t great: colossal blunders with the big ape that come to mind are the 1970’s flop starring Jeff Bridges (which should in no way be taken as a strike against Bridges, who was great in “Tron” and “Starman”), and let’s not forget (try as we might) the lame duck of the 80’s: “King Kong Lives” starring Linda Hamilton (again, no insult to the lady, who punched her weight in “The Terminator” though she served as little more than wallpaper in “Mr. Destiny”) which was so bad it should have been prominently featured on the late, great Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 – right next to “Hercules Battles The Moon Men”. In fact, Hollywood has only redeemed itself on the ape front inadvertently with the Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode entitled “King Homer” (“Hey, Karl, do you know where we’re going?” “Ape Island.” “What’s there?” “Big Apes. I wish we were going to Candy Apple Island.” “Candy Apple Island? What’s there?” “Apes. But they’re not so big.”). Don’t let us down, Pete.

Also looking forward to “The Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe”. Yet another trip down memory lane to the library of childhood. Again, based on the preview, the special effects look mighty sweet. Now let’s see if the director can walk the razor’s edge of keeping C.S. Lewis’ good story intact, while at the same time sparing us from the professor’s unrelenting Bible-thumping.

And, of course, if we’re going to talk magic and kid-oriented movies, we’ve gotta give the newest Harry Potter installment its due. Saw it this past weekend in IMAX – very nice. I think Newell did a superb job of stripping down Rowling’s 636 page tome to a 2-and-a-half hour movie while keeping the plot intact, and, more importantly, keeping the characters interesting and actually showing some development in them. And what an eye for detail! From the grit under Snape’s nails to the cereal boxes in the background during the breakfast scenes actually having names like “Pixie Puffs” that would be consistent within the world he’s creating, rather than just leaving the boxes blank or selling out and slipping in some corporate sponsorship from the likes of Kellogs. There’s also the debris in the great hall after the dance – the place actually looks like kids have been in there for hours partying it up (as opposed to most teen movies where the school gym looks surprisingly neat for a dance night). Granted, some of the credit for that has got to go to the costume and set designers, but Newell’s also got an eye for social details that enhance the reality. Look at the stairs in the background as Hermione takes Ron and Harry to task after the dance – there’s a trio of girls behind them with one sniffling away while the other two play mother hen. That’s bang-on. It’s a fundamental law of the universe that at any given teenage party there will be at least one girl who brings her emotional baggage (either due to a legitimate problem or in a well-calculated attempt to get attention) to the shin-dig and dumps it out onto the floor for all to see and for the other girls to pick up. Do we hear what particular problem they’re trying to solve in this scene? No. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the mere glimpse of them back there that provides that extra little bit of life that adds authenticity to the whole collage of “the dance” that Newell’s pasting together for us. Something we can all identify with, and something that underscores Hermione’s Breakfast Club-esque diatribe against the boys. Did the three problem girls have to be in the back of the shot for Hermione’s harangue to work? No, but it added another level of reality, and I think it shows Newell’s knowledge of, and respect of his audience (young and old).

Let’s also give credit to Brendan Gleeson for bringing Mad-Eye Moody to life as though Irish geneticists had managed to create a hybrid of Anthony Hopkins’ Abraham Van Helsing and Kurt Russell’s Snake Plisskin and raise it in Dublin under the tutelage of Merlin. Don’t know if that’s how J.K. Rowling intended him, but that’s how I’d imagined Moody when I read “The Goblet of Fire”.

Lastly, we’ll turn the way-back machine a notch or two and give a tip of the hat to the end-of-summer/early fall “Serenity”. Truly a “leaf upon the wind”. Good old Joss gave us a nice, straight-forward sci-fi story and western at the same time, and that’s no small feat. He even had the balls to kill off not one, but two main characters – and likeable ones at that, risking the wrath of the die-hard series fans. Looking forward to the DVD release and the hopeful inclusion of a fat package of extras.

You save the seats and I’ll grab the popcorn. See ya next time.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Welcome to the soapbox, and why Bradbury is like butter

For what very little it’s worth, I’ve decided to climb the soapbox in the internet marketplace and become another voice vainly screaming “listen to me!” amidst the roar of the crowd. The question now becomes, what to say, and is it worth while? There are lots of blogs out there covering every subject under the sun – some with people squeezing all of their thoughts on everything under the afore-mentioned sun into a single blog. But, being a former journalist, I tend to believe you’ve got to have a focus – keeps you coherent (hopefully), and makes it easier to keep an audience interested (hoping against all hope that one’s interesting enough to even attract an audience). Let’s face it, that’s the purpose of these things, isn’t it? If you’re creating an on-line forum, you need other participants, and if it’s merely a journal for a journey to the center of Narcissus, part of the self-indulgence is to make it a performance of sorts by posting it in front of the world for all to snicker derisively at (if not attaining the desired gasps of awe).

To that end, I think this’ll be a corner to talk about science fiction and fantasy and most sub-genres in between (or “speculative fiction” as some literati are trying to redefine it up here in the great white north – and I’m not sayin’ they’re wrong in doing so) in books, TV and film, though there’s no guarantee we won’t digress from time to time, ‘cause conversation’s just a series of asides – I’ve never had a worthwhile chat with anyone that hasn’t crumbled into a blizzard of “oh, you know, this is completely off topic, but…” or “just as an aside…” or “…but I digress.” And having just digressed, I’ll try to get back on track. You may wonder why the ‘net needs yet another platform for sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction/whatever fans to jabber at one another, but hey, that’s where the self-indulgent aspect comes into play. Thing is, you don’t have to be a drooling freak living in your parents’ basement watching the classic Trek box set every day to get a kick out of this stuff – I’m not interested in rehashing the classic geek battle of “which would win in a battle between the Enterprise and a Star Destroyer?” – I just want to discuss some of the great literature and broadcast/filmed stories out there – old and new – and I don’t think you have to be a slave to this genre and this genre only to say something worth while. (Not that I’m guaranteeing there’ll be anything worth while here, just wishful thinking.)

Why “bloginhood” you ask? Well, as tempting as it would be to feed you a line like “because I will lead you like that famous band of merry poachers through the forests of literature/tv/film to feast upon opinions plundered from the hoards of imagination we track down while bullseyeing The Meaning with our arrows of perception” or something equally pretentious, the bottom line is I was just trying to come up with a corny handle, and this seemed as good as any.

At any rate, welcome to the soapbox, I hope you hear something interesting before passing on to another stall here in the internet opinion marketplace.

On to the point: winter’s setting in, slathering BC’s Lower Mainland in fog for the next 6 months (and I’m talking about the real concrete-thick stuff, like the set-fog Carpenter had billowing through the restaurant doors at the end of “Big Trouble In Little China” when Kurt Russell’s John Wayne-wannabe Jack Burton goes moseying out into the night), so I find it a strangely-fitting coincidence that I just happening to be reading about the mist-shrouded streets of 1949 Venice, California in Ray Bradbury’s “Death is a Lonely Business” (I was lucky enough to pick up an old hardcover copy at Powell’s down in Portland, Oregon this summer). Granted, this gem from ’85 isn’t one of his truly speculative fiction pieces of work – no Martian canals here, no mummies whispering in the attic, no Laurel & Hardy revived to entertain Alpha Centauri and no Hallowe’en Trees flashing their flickering golden fruit in the Illinois night (I’m only 167 pages in at this point, so if something sci-fi-ish or magically realistic does pop up at the end, don’t come down on me for not knowing yet, and whatever you do, don’t tell me what happens next!). But it is a good example to use to springboard into a talk about Bradbury’s prose.

Let me just say right off the bat, I love Bradbury’s writing style. It’s a smorgasbord of images and metaphors with old Ray darting back and forth across the table like a jovial chef, heaping chunky descriptions of characters onto your plate before randomly lurching over to another part of the buffet to daub an arcane pop-culture reference from his childhood on top of your first helping. His stories flow fast and wild leaving a reader breathless by the end, as well as either smiling or sometimes looking over your shoulder just a little unnerved. Each new serving, like his recent “The Cat’s Pajamas” or classics like “The Martian Chronicles”, or the afore-mentioned “Death is a Lonely Business” are delicious samplings in the culinary academy of speculative fiction that I look forward to gobbling for the first time or savoring again.

But ultimately, Bradbury’s like butter. I can’t have too much of him at once, or I’ll get sick of him.

“Sacrilege!” some of you may howl, especially since Mr. B. is, without a doubt, one of the elder gods in the S-F pantheon and has earned the right to be free of criticism from twerps like me.

Here’s the thing though, with some writers, moderation is the key. Admittedly, there are some authors where I could devour nearly all their books of in one sitting: Dan Simmons is one – give me “Hyperion” through “The Rise of Endymion” all in one shot, with “Illium” and “Olympos” for dessert (certainly not Simmons’ entire portfolio, but you get the point). But with dear old Ray, I can’t pig out.

Why butter though? Well, when I was giving this some thought, the first example, staying with the food metaphor, belched from the depths of my mind was a family story about butter (maybe it’s the B’s, Bradbury and butter, and the rolling round sounds of both words). When my dad was young, he, like most of us, liked butter. But one day this greedy little kid decided he’d indulge in a LOT of butter – he grabbed a whole stick and took a huge bite. From that point on, he’s hated the stuff. Admit it, pretty much all of us have made ourselves sick overdoing it on some food or other and have ended up relegating it to our personal “I don’t go looking for it, but I’ll eat it if I absolutely have to” lists, if not outright avoiding it at all costs forever after. Now, I like butter on my toast, and I like Bradbury to come off my bookshelf and onto the bedside reading table from time to time, but they both carry the same risk.

Bradbury’s child-like perspective in many of his stories, and “Death is a Lonely Business” is a great example, gives readers that signature sense of wonder of his and it helps give his tales their often breakneck pacing. But too much of the wide-eyed innocence of the plucky young fella narrating them can be nauseating. I found that out after making the mistake of reading “From the Dust Returned” and “A Graveyard for Lunatics” back to back on a whim a few years ago, and came perilously close by the end of Graveyard to wanting to toss it in the recycling bin. Don’t get me wrong, I dearly enjoy both books, but heavy doses of Bradbury stories where a secondary character makes a crusty, if affectionate remark like “you child!” to a protagonist who’s a grown man in the middle of some bizarre misadventure can get a little grating.

Then there’s the ubiquitous self-referencing: main characters who are writers who are considered nuts because they’ve written stories about Mars or men who are afraid of their own skeletons. Yeah, Ray, I know, you’ve written a few tall tales in your time. I have most of them on my shelf. No need to constantly remind me of their presence. Do you really need to keep telling us you’ve written them? Again, this is not something that in any way bugs me if it’s been a while since I’ve picked up one of his books. But too many, too close together, and I teeter on the brink of leveling the accusation of narcissism when I see his various works mentioned within another, or thinking perhaps he’s just padding things out, going into cruise control and filling some page space with easy words while waiting for a new idea to come bustling out of his brain’s kitchen.

Luckily, instead of swallowing the butter of my annoyance from the Dust/Graveyard experience, I realized Bradbury’s to be taken in measured doses. Let the metaphors stay sweet and delicious by realizing they can keep on the shelf for a while, and don’t need to be sucked down in a single sitting. So, after finishing this extremely satisfying meal of “Death is a Lonely Business”, I’ll do the right thing: amble out into the fog and find a table at another author’s restaurant.