Saturday, December 31, 2011

Blogging: Comments

I enjoy receiving comments and emails, whether they are thankful, informative, chatty, critical or merely pointing out blunders. It's nice to think there's a community out there getting acquainted through one another's articles & posts. The sharing of knowledge and information, thoughts and ideas, is important, and the internet allows for quick and easy sharing. It's also nice to know you are being not only read, but that your writing is generating some form of thought.

Since I started this blog I've kept comment options open to all. I believe in freedom of speech as well as freedom and encouragement of response or rebuttle. Anyone should be able to respond to my articles regardless of their affiliation; no one should be a member of blogspot or google or any organization or institution. I'll deal with the spam (I've received only two spam posts, promptly deleted); I don't think I'll ever be popular enough for the efforts of spammers to pay off so I don't think my blog will ever be inundated, and what individual spammers wish to waste their time with is up to them.

Recently I received my first hate comment. I appreciated the time the author took to read my article (I assume he read one), and then to comment on it. The great effort he mustered up in order to articulate so effectively and so elaborately his feelings for my blogging. His words will remain with me for hours, even days to come. He wrote in that inimitable, poetic style, the brief yet effective words, "you suck." All in lower case. Such wisdom, such accuracy; he is likely a minimalist, and his brief comment carries between the lines (or I should say characters) such depth. Such passion. There is little mystery behind the note, though. It wasn't a comment on my article but a slur aimed directly at me. I monitor my blog visits and the activity during the days prior to his post points clearly to the author's identity. I'm certain the comment had nothing to do with the Tales from the Darkside post he tagged it to. I won't post my speculation, however, since I don't wish to embarrass him (most definitely a he), nor do I wish to embarrass myself in case I am wrong (a possibility, let's not kid ourselves).

Having read that missive I decided not to let just anyone post on my blog. I can't help it if some people choose to be rude and unintelligent, let alone uninspired in their expression to tell me what is really on their minds. I can however help to lessen, though minutely, rudeness and stupidity from spreading over the world wide web. Blocking anonymous commenting will likely lessen such uncreative and uninspiring responses. There is enough of it on the internet, and enough of it in the world, and I'd rather not be a catalyst in adding more.

But then I changed my mind. Thanks to allowing anonymous commenting I've received some good, productive comments, including two people pointing out errors I've made (one in a Darkside character's name, and the other concerning the death of Mr. Charles W. Runyon, whom I was pleased to learn is quite alive). Thanks to such astute observations, people are helping to improve on my articles by taking the time to correct me. I truly appreciate such devotion.

Besides, the great thing about hosting a blog is that I have the ability to delete whatever comment I wish to. In a year and a half I've deleted three: two spam and the slur that prompted this post. I will never delete a post that points out an error I have made; indeed I welcome these as they are appropriate and necessary for the sake of accuracy. I don't think I'm playing at Big Brother by choosing to eliminate some comments; I am not altering information nor am I doing it for the sake of self-interest, otherwise I'd keep only the praise and correct my errors without acknowledging the worthy correctors. I will, however, make a note when I do delete a comment, and hence leave a ghost of the unwanted, just to remind myself of the kind of society the internet is, and to keep hoping that the winds of change will make the world wide web a better, more respectful place. Some might say I am an idealist, but maybe it's just that I suck.

If the author of that statement wishes to post something of value, even anonymously, please go ahead. If that author is shy, then send me an email. Please feel free to contradict anything I have said, but have a point, make it clear, and I might end up even agreeing with you. Proper spelling is a plus.

Otherwise you'll get deleted.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Briefly: John Fowles, The Collector (1963)

Fowles, John, The Collector, London: Jonathan Cape, 1963. (pictured right)
_____, The Collector, London: Pan Books, 1972. (my edition, pictured below)

The Collector at Goodreads
Rating: 8/10

Despite being a great novel, I was slightly disappointed with John Fowles's The Collector. The novel tells the story of social outcast butterfly collector Frederick Clegg who, after having come into a considerable sum of money, kidnaps young art student Miranda Grey and keeps her captive in his basement. The first part of the book is told through Clegg's point of view, while the second is told through Miranda's, with a brief return to Clegg at the end.

The novel is great in its treatment of character and how it plays with the readers' sympathies. Clegg is an unusual kidnapper as he does nothing to hurt Miranda, but rather fawns over her, tolerates her every mood and does his best to please her, though with the exception of giving her her freedom. Despite being clearly disturbed and doing something terribly wrong, he is not "evil" the way in which we imagine kidnappers to be. During his narrative we grow to like Miranda, who is a spunky and intelligent twenty year-old. I was rooting for her to get the best of Clegg in their little game of outwitting each other, or rather of Miranda trying to outwit Clegg's obsessively careful game of warden. I found the first part fascinating because, though I was rooting for Miranda, it was all told through Clegg's point of view.

Jarring is the point of view shift half-way through, yet it is meant to be jarring (like this sentence). Now we are reading Miranda's journal, and our impression of her soon changes drastically. She is an unbelievably arrogant woman who thinks highly of herself and looks down without hesitation on others, including Clegg. Like Clegg she too is the collector of the title, as she collects and examines and catalogues the people around her. Of course there is no physical collecting on her part, though she has learned to keep herself captive amid her arrogant and narrow world view; there's no pinning of wings and keeping anything under glass, yet her sharp mind and sense of self allows her to pin people metaphorically, and examine them through the glass of her eyes. While I was still rooting for her to escape since Clegg's crime is greater and more accessible, she was no longer the spunky Miranda that we meet through Clegg's point of view.

My disappointment in the novel is fairly basic. I was so involved with Clegg's point of view that the switch to Miranda was not overly welcome. While I did get into Miranda's story, it lumbered on and became a little repetitive. Fowles makes his arguments clear and there was no need to have so many lengthy spiels in her diary, or so many scenes devoted to Miranda's playboy mentor G.P. Once I'd finished the novel, however, I found myself liking it more than when I was reading these sequences, at times wanting them to end quickly. With The Collector Fowles has given us a fascinating read incorporating two characters that are simultaneously likeable and despicable, and a finish which, though a little predictable for our time, is nonetheless quite disturbing.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Best of Tales from the Darkside

It's taken me some time to get to this article. After a few months of watching the four seasons of Tales from the Darkside in their entirety, I compiled a bunch of notes and a short list of what I felt are the strongest of the Darksides. Opinions for any anthology series differ vastly (as witnessed on IMDb posts), and rather than making a list of the ninety episodes from top to bottom (which won't help anyone, no matter how much the general public likes lists), I've grouped together the five or six "best ofs" in three straightforward categories, with a brief reasoning as to why they were included. I've reviewed each of these episodes individually and have included links to those reviews. The categories I've selected are for overall episode, actor and actress, with some honourable mentions and notes on directing and writing. I won't pretend to be an expert in areas such as cinematography and music, so rather than embarrass myself in attempting to filter those, I'm sticking to the basics.

The strongest seasons were without doubt the first and fourth. Not only did they sport many of the true Darkside classics, they consisted of mostly consistently above par episodes, not relying on the many poorly executed comedies that season three was notorious for. I don't know if the show's budget differed from season to season, but production values were fairly consistent throughout the series. There are exceptions, of course, with some episodes clearly more costly than others, whether for their cast or actual staging, while others are rushed-looking, sloppily produced over perhaps three days or so. When working on The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was given a budget for the entire season, and he meted out the cash depending on the strength of the script, so rather than giving each episode an even sum, the stronger scripts received more money in order to help produce some truly exceptional small films. For Serling and his show this worked out quite well, and I'd be curious to know how the producers and creators of Darkside handled their own budget. (It's in my research notes and if I learn anything I'll add it here).

Best Episodes

"Trick or Treat" (0.0) & "Circus" (3.1). The Pilot and the third season opener are both penned by series creator George Romero, and are quite similar in intent and delivery. Both are well scripted (by Romero), well directed (Bob Balaban for the pilot and Michael Gornick for "Circus") and well acted. For "Trick or Treat" it's Barnard Hughes in the lead with great support from I.M. Hobson and Max Wright, while for "Circus" William Hickey gives a great performance as the mysterious circus operator. The pilot is unfortunately bogged down by some silliness at the end, which is partly due to the low budget special effects, and partly to the seemingly indecisive point in making the witch an adult or a children's monster. However, the exceptional quasi Dickensian script, with Hughes doing a tremendous job at emphasising Gideon Hackles's position (even the name is Dickensian), takes "Trick or Treat"  to a level of delightedness. Moreover, the premise itself is original and the dark, moody atmosphere and the creative sets are a joy to watch. Both episodes carry simple, straightforward messages, yet "Circus" delivers its message somewhat better by simply being a darker, less forgiving piece. There is a dash of humour thrown into this one as well, but there's no confusion with its intentions and "Circus" is doubtless for an adult audience.

"Inside the Closet" (1.7) & "Family Reunion" (4.16). Like the Romero-written episodes above, these two, directed by long-time Romero collaborator Tom Savini, are also similar. Both feature a hidden monster in the family, a protective father and an outsider who helps to reveal that creature to the viewer, though not the public at large. For both it's the make-up and sets that help make the episodes so watchable and memorable, rather than the directing or writing. Savini focuses on his creature creations, using shadows to slowly reveal the make-up as each episode progresses. This is particularly effective with "Family Reunion," the overall weaker of the two, as the boy's physical transformation is superbly done. Both episodes are predictable, yet Savini does well in using the make-up as the reveal rather than the obvious plot twist.

"The Last Car" (2.19). As with many Darksides this one is quite predictable. However, it nonetheless manages to maintain a high level of suspense throughout. The quirkiness of the characters and brief sequencing are original and hypnotic, and the tunnel sequences are fantastic. The concept itself of the tunnel and the notion that these moments of terror will be perpetual make "The Last Car" among the more horrific of episodes.

"The Geezenstacks" (3.5). Everything about this little episode is well done, from an excellent script, cinematography and directing, to the wonderful set design, gorgeous dolls and a fine performance by Craig Wasson in the lead. What tops this piece beyond simple television fare is its high level of musical sophistry. The use of music throughout (which I discuss in my episode review) helps transform "The Geezenstacks" into a remarkable piece of short film. My personal favourite Darkside.

"If the Shoes Fit..." (1.18) & "Going Native" (4.17). These two much-maligned episodes are superb and among the most original half hours to appear on television in the 1980s. Both are satirical, and while "Going Native" plays out in a serious tone, "If the Shoes Fit..." does a little winking at the camera. Serious in theme, both episodes take a chance in presenting their points in unusual and highly original productions. Because of this they are not terribly accessible to the general public, and leave many a little baffled. The fact that reaction to these episodes is often some form of confusion is very telling in how generic and paint-by-numbers television in the 1980s had become.

Other excellent episodes include "Bigalow's Last Smoke" (1.21), "Ursa Minor" (2.10), the genuinely amusing "A New Lease on Life" (2.15), the strange but compelling "The Milkman Cometh" (3.13), the gorgeously noir "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17), the horrific "No Strings" (4.5), and Stephen King's originally scripted "Sorry, Right Number" (4.9).

A note on directing

There were some well directed episodes, such as the two by Savini mentioned above, Bill Travis's work on "The Geezenstacks" and Balaban on "Trick or Treat." Yet some episodes which could easily have been flops  were saved by decisions made behind the camera. Two that come to mind are "Mary, Mary" (4.2) by Katarina Wittich and "Hush" (4.18) by Allen Coulter. Neither are stellar episodes and both risk being tedious, yet their energy and the treatment of their individual stories make them better than they perhaps should have been. "Hush" could have been a lengthy and dull chase sequence, yet the ground floor house is not only well designed by well treated by the camera. We are dragged through the house and shown individual components that come into play, getting us involved in the action as we too are searching for ways of destroying the funny-looking noise eater. "Mary, Mary" on the other hand, being predictable and shmaltzy, is saved by a well used set and good camera play. Of course Margaret Whitton also has much to do with saving this episode.

As for series directors, the most consistently good were Bill Travis ("The Geezenstacks," "The Enormous Radio," "Distant Signals," "The Spirit Photographer"), Tom Savini ("Inside the Closet," "Family Reunion," "Halloween Candy") and John Strysik, who directed six in total: "The Last Car," "A New Lease on Life," "The Milkman Cometh," "Love Hungry" and "Black Widows," along with the weaker "I Can't Help Saying Goodbye."

A note on writing

Obvious excellent entries aside, there were a few truly well written episodes. John Harrison's adaptation of Robert Bloch's short story "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17) is well handled. A nice little noir paranoia which almost made it to my list of best episodes. "The Apprentice" (4.13) had some nice moments and the  differing ideals, time periods and so forth were well translated into the script by Ellen Sandhaus (who also penned the much weaker "The Social Climber" (3.19)). Stephen King's "Sorry, Right Number" (4.9) can easily be used in a script-writing 101 course, the material is so well handled and the little familial moments fit in well. Even the somewhat exaggerated writing in "The False Prophet" (1.24) by Jule Selbo from a story by Larry Fulton works well for the silly fun that it is. I'll also mention "The Swap" (3.20) which has an original script by Richard Benner that is interesting because it is at times playful. Attention to even the smallest of details can add layers to even the most average of stories.

Writing for Darkside was no easy task. Many episodes featured so few characters that monologues were plentiful, people talking on telephones or to themselves. It's difficult keeping these scenes interesting, and writer and actor/monologuer are the two components that must make it work. Which is a great segue to the acting portion of this article.

There were no stand-out series writers. Though he wrote two excellent episodes, George Romero wrote an okay piece with "The Devil's Advocate" (2.7) and a flop with "Baker's Dozen" (3.9) which tries a little too hard and is not terribly well handled by director John Harrison. Robert Block fared better with three good episodes, doing pretty well in adapting his excellent short story "Beetles" (4.1), and having two successful adaptations of his own short stories, James Houghton's adaptation of the fine little fantasy "A Case of the Stubborns" (1.9) and John Harrison's adaptation and direction for "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17).

Best Actor

I've singled our six solid performances, four from the first season, from a variety of episodes. Others deserving mention are William Hickey for "Circus" (3.1), Craig Wasson for "The Geezenstacks" (3.5) and Stephen McHattie as the father in "Family Reunion" (4.16), all three of which I discuss in the best episodes section. Honourable mention goes to Abe Vigoda who was well cast as mob leader Jake Corelli in "A Choice of Dreams" (2.20).

Barnard Hughes in "Trick or Treat" (0.0). I can't get enough of the devilishly grinning Hughes in the series pilot. He is so involved in character Gideon Hackles's perverse notions of financial equality that you almost agree with him just as the poor accountant who finds it fair that Hackles charges him three cents for a cup of coffee at a business meeting. The complexity of the character is that he is not totally wrong in his reasoning, it is only that his reasoning overshadows the basic principles of human compassion, and the shop owner of the small failing agricultural town ends up reasoning his way to owning the region similarly to Henry Potter's attempt to own Bedford Falls in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Unlike Potter, Hackles likes to play little Halloween games with the local boys and girls.

Keenan Wynn in "I'll Give You a Million" (1.2). While the episode falls short at the end, the versatile and energetic Wynn gives a great performance as greedy millionaire Duncan Williams. There is nothing complex about the characters in this one, and Wynn is helped out by a fine performance from co-star George Petrie, but these details aside, without Wynn the episode would likely have been a pure flop.

Fritz Weaver in "Inside the Closet" (1.7). Tom Savini's first Darkside is a good one, and is helped out by the performance of long-time character actor Fritz Weaver. Weaver does a good job by stiffening body and tone while at the same time allowing the nerves to poke through as a college professor and a father defending a little monstrosity locked up in the closet he rents out to students. Unfortunately Weaver re-appeared in Darkside in the terribly failed comedy "Comet Watch" (2.13)

Eddie Bracken in "A Case of the Stubborns" (1.9). A difficult story to adapt, it did have some faults such as sequences that were a little too long and the fact that it tried to carry itself on almost a single joke. A good episode nonetheless, it features a young Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) who does well as Reverend Peabody, and an even younger Christian Slater who does poorly as the boy. Bracken steals the show, however, as stubborn old Titus Tolliver who refuses to believe he has died. Bracken's body language and unique facial features are great for the role, as is his delivery of the character's unnatural stubbornness.

Dick Shawn in "If the Shoes Fit..." (1.18). The unique episode of a trailblazing gubernatorial candidate Bo Gumbs is certainly a rare feat, and without Dick Shawn's willingness and ability to be utterly silly while being completely serious, it could have fallen flat. As Gumbs, Shawn manages to get confused and to question the odd incidents that abound in his hotel, and meanwhile, wanting to please and impress everyone in his over-the-top bid for votes, plays along with the ridiculousness, revealing himself for what he truly is.

Jerry Orbach in "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17). The character actor best known (and often only known) for his many years on Law & Order, the recently belated Jerry Orbach is wonderful in the absurd story of a man who witnesses an old acquaintance fall desperately in love with a mannequin. What's more absurd is that he begins to get a little jealous. Orbach as Roberts is crusty and disillusioned, having lived his years in rough style as a salesman with little to show for it. The story uses the loneliness of middle-aged working-class men who, having worked hard seem to have gained little from life.

Best Actress

It's great that Darkside offered strong roles for women, and I've selected seven to highlight. Other memorable roles include Ronee Blakley as Cassie Pines in "The False Prophet" (1.24), Tanya Fenmore with her great facial work in "The Trouble with Mary Jane" (2.9), and Sharon Madden in the amusing "Love Hungry" (4.11).

Carmen Matthews in "In the Cards" (1.12). This surprisingly above average episode features a great performance by Carmen Matthews in two distinct roles: the friendly and pleasant first-time visitor to the conniving Tarot reader, and the dark and disillusioned veteran false clairvoyant Madame Marlena, recently turned believer. Matthews pleasantness in the early part of the episode is in sharp contrast to the darkly leering Marlena, and I didn't at first recognize her.

Jane Connell in "Grandma's Last Wish" (1.22). This somewhat weak episode features a great role for Jane Connell as the elderly grandmother whose family is trying to get her out of the house. The episode is at times amusing, at times not, yet Connell's presence helps elevate it considerably.

Susan Strasberg in "Effect and Cause" (2.11). A neat idea for this episode is helped greatly by Strasberg as a free-spirited woman living in an old house. Her attitude toward life seems to attract a kind of chaos, and she is forced to live in time out of joint, as consequences are occurring before the initial act. There is some gap in logic with Michael Kube-McDowell's script, but thanks to Strasberg and a somewhat disturbing finish  it turns out to be negligible.

Marie Windsor in "A New Lease on Life" (2.15). Veteran Windsor is Madame Angler, the landlady operating the comfortable yet economical big city St. George Apartments. It's a good episode with a good cast, but Windsor manages nonetheless to steal the show.

Margaret Whitton in "Mary, Mary" (4.2). This is an episode with a generally mixed response. It's a little silly and potentially disastrous, but with sympathetic direction and a wonderful performance by Whitton as the very average and lonely Mary Jones, who is using a mannequin to film her dating videos. Whitton is so good that her averageness becomes quite attractive, helped by her natural charm. Among the single character performances in Darkside, where a single actor or actress must carry the entire show, this one is truly among the best thanks to Whitton.

Eileen Eckhart in "Do Not Open This Box" (4.15). Another veteran actress, Eckhart is marvellous as crusty and unhappy Rose Pennywell. In fact, she is so good as the loathsome character that I found myself sympathising with her. The great, cluttered set and good direction by Jodie Foster help make a good episode, while Eckhart only makes it great.

Kim Greist in "Going Native" (4.17). As the cold, otherworld visitor, Kim Greist is icy yet attractive. And as the narrator of the episode her delivery is excellent. Add to this a great outburst at the end and Greist manages to do well in various levels of acting.

As a final note on acting, only two people from Darkside have received acting nominations, both in 1987 for season two, and both for Young Artists Award. Scooter Stevens received a nomination for his role as the boy in "The Last Car" (2.19), while Tanya Fenmore was recognized for her part as Mary Jane in "The Trouble with Mary Jane" (2.9). Stevens did well while Fenmore was really quite good in an otherwise weak episode.

Coming soon... or eventually... The Worst of Tales from the Darkside.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Jason Brannon, The Winds of Change (2006)

Brannon, Jason, The Winds of Change, Nocturnre Press, 2006.
Reprinted as an ebook, Permuted Press, 2011.

A neat premise and a few promising details are all that that this short novel has to offer. A group of people are trapped inside a hardware store while the people outside are mysteriously transforming into piles of salt. Characters speculate as to what is causing the strange apocalypse, with chemical agents of terrorism or God's judgement being the prime suspects. The main problems with the story are weak writing, poor characterization, inattention to detail, wholly absent atmosphere and wasted plot opportunities. (Pretty much everything other than its premise.)

I love stories of small groups of people trapped in a small space with unusual and deadly activities going on outside. The first work that came to mind when seeing the premise for The Winds of Change is Stephen King's well-written novella "The Mist" (1980, arguably his best work), but of course there are numerous others, such as David A. Riley's short story "Lock-In" (2006, reviewed here), and various films from Romero's zombie trilogy to John Carpenter's excellent films "Assault on Precinct 13" (1976) and "The Thing" (1982). While many of these stories share similar plot points and unavoidable details, such as issues facing food, what makes each story work is essentially their focus on character, a focus completely lacking in The Winds of Change.

We have a dozen people who spend most of their time bantering and hypothesizing between two points. The characters are bland, flat, and they all sound alike. The first thing Brannon should have considered is using a third person narrator. The first person narration does not work, as the character is an everyday faceless figure, a non-character really, who is completely unreliable as a leader (or leader wannabe). I don't care if the main character of such a story is heroic or a hard-case, but he needs to be something, and this guy is irritatingly not a thing. For one thing, he spends so much time wondering what has caused this phenomenon rather than trying to figure out what to do, and thereby leaving the reader to wonder for him or herself. That is called suspense. Bantering between points is called a headache. The narrator of such a story needs to act and not just observe; the readers are the observers, the ones incapable of changing the course of the story. Or of the winds, of you prefer.

The detail lacking is very simply in the location. Place an important aspect of such closed-in stories and the reader needs to be able to see the hardware store so clearly that it almost becomes the thirteenth character. Yet we see nothing, and I can't even tell if this is a massive hardware store you might find just off the highway, or a tiny place just around the corner where you head to when you're out of light bulbs or when you need a screw. (Not that kind.) Three employees makes me think it's a fairly small place, but there's a generator and a skylight and they sell blowtorches... I was expecting someone to fall into a swimming pool or say, "Hey, why don't we all climb into that chopper!" But I digress.

And then there's... I'm gonna stop here. Though those two sudden deaths near the end bothered me. It was though the author thought he couldn't leave so many characters alive, so why don't I casually knock off a couple right here as an aside and see if anyone notices.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Briefly: John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)

Buchan, John, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Blackwood's Magazine, August & September, 1915.
____, The Thirty-Nine Steps, London: William Blackwood & Sons, October 1915.

The Thiry-Nine Steps at Goodreads.

John Buchan's short novel, written while he was laid up, suffering from something called a duodenal ulcer, is an improbable spy thriller chase story. At times comical with the occasional moment of suspense, the spy thriller genre has advanced to all lengths of complexity that The Thirty-Nine Steps feels incredibly tame and occasionally silly. Thankfully it is short. What saves the novel from being more than a pulpy joke is the solid writing and the charming narrator. My favourite sequence is the opening, where our Scottish hero Richard Hannay (Buchan too was a Scot) is describing his incredible boredom. He sees a homeless man yawning and gives him some change in an act of pure empathy.

The amount of coincidence and luck that the story relies on is, by modern standards, not just unbelievable but, sadly, a little irritating. Hiding in the moorlands Hannay happens to meet someone he knows. He happens to stumble upon the hooded owl's lair, happens to find explosives when convenient, happens to walk into a Sir Walter's house in time to see one of the bad guys in disguise, and so on and so forth. Nearly every plot element relies heavily in such unlikely fortunes, that a modern reader will soon grow weary of the tale and wary of its author. Despite these shortcomings, and if you can manage to swallow the coincidences, as a quick, charming read, it manages to be good fun.
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