Blue Collar Noir


Kitchen Sink Gothic is a short story anthology published in the United Kingdom that includes a story written by my friend, Walter Gascoigne. The title refers to a genre of gothic stories featuring working class characters, stories that range from, to quote the introduction, “darkly humorous to the weirdly strange and occasionally horrific.” Walter’s story is all of the above and much more.

I just received my Kindle copy last night, and I immediately flipped to Walter’s story, “The Sanitation Solution.”  I haven’t taken the time yet to read any of the other stories, but I was so taken by “The Sanitation Solution” that I wanted to recommend it immediately.  Knowing Walter like I do, I can tell you that the story is, like Walter himself, a unique experience.

Only Walter could preface a story by quoting Charles Manson and close by quoting Shakespeare. I’m not going to spoil anything by describing what happens in between, except to tell you that you’ll experience laughter and disgust and irony – not bad for a short story.  He writing is lean and efficient and straight forward, reminding me a little bit of Richard Matheson at his best.

Walter begins the story with these two sentences:  “From my vantage point on top of this mountain of trash and maggots, I could see the rats were the size of small dogs. Just last week I saw one tearing apart what was left of a tiny infant.”  Perfect.  There’s no way anyone can read that and not be compelled to keep reading.

And it only gets better as Walter draws you into his weird world and its twisted logic and strange characters.  It’s a testament to Walter’s skill in that only a few pages you are taken away to a world of his imagining.

Walter’s story is only one of many in this collection, and if it were the only one, it’d be worth the price of purchasing the book.  I’m hoping that as I read the rest of the book, I’ll find more stories that disgust and amuse me and make me think, even though I know there is only one Walter.

The Scavengers by Michael Perry


 

Scavengers cover 2

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that time was wasted.” –  Kurt Vonnegut, advice to writers

I’ve been a fan of Michael Perry’s writing for a few years now.  In books like Population 485 and Visiting Tom, he established himself as a master of the narrative personal memoir, chronicling life in the rural Midwest, telling personal stories of a vanishing people and the countryside they inhabit. His non-fiction works so well because he writes from the inside out; as a long time resident of the isolated small towns and farms that is his setting, he puts himself in the center of the narrative, and we see the world through his eyes. His books are a slow cooked stew of humor, nostalgia, tragedy and triumph all blended together and seasoned with his love of the northwestern Wisconsin landscape and his eccentric but decent neighbors, and served with prose that balances the humor and longing with the cadence and imagery of poetry.

When I first heard that Perry was dabbling in fiction, I was intrigued. The stories he tells in his memoirs may be non-fiction, but they are stories none the less.  Population 485 and Visiting Tom work so well because Perry has such a gift for keeping the narrative moving and breathing life into the characters, two elements crucial to writing good fiction.  Fact or fiction, stories are stories, and story tellers are story tellers.

For me, writing fiction has always felt like a more personal endeavor than memoirs.  In memoir, one is always constrained by facts, by things that actually happened.  In fiction, the only constraints are the limitations of your own imagination. By writing fiction, the writer creates new worlds, worlds that have to come from somewhere inside. It takes nerve to write a novel, to assume that you’re able to imagine and describe a setting and characters and a narrative that will justify the reader’s investment of the time it takes to read it.

When I heard that Perry’s new book was not only fiction but a dystopian mid grade adventure, I thought, what could be further from the grounded reality and the reverence for the past that is Perry’s usual work? It’s as if he wanted to stretch beyond his comfort zone, to challenge himself, and he’s swinging for the fences on the first pitch.

The Scavengers contains such highly imaginative elements as solar bears, “grey devils”, bubble cities, “scary pruners,” and huge crops of genetically modified corn.  It describes a population divided by the dwellers of cities encased in giant bubbles and those who choose to live by their wits in the lawless wilderness outside the bubbles. These things aside, you don’t have to dig too deep to be reminded that this is still a Michael Perry book.

First of all, the landscape, despite being charred and modified by climate change, remains unmistakably northwestern Wisconsin.  Readers of Population 485 will recognize the town of  Nobbern  as the real life town of New Auburn. Setting is always vitally important to Perry.  The Scavengers is set in the same latitude and longitude as Perry’s non-fiction, and while climate change has introduced new plants and animals and set the weather out of whack, Perry’s descriptive passages reveal the same love of nature.  You can feel the night breeze, you can see and smell the green rolling hills, and you can understand and appreciate why the narrator, Maggie, a.k.a. “Ford Falcon,” loves living out bubble so much.

The Scavengers may be set in the future, but that doesn’t prevent Perry from further exploration of one of the primary on-going themes of his non-fiction work:  the relationship of the past to the present.  The people who have chosen to live outside of the bubble are quite literally off the grid, and they have to rely upon their own creativity and what they can learn from whatever’s available, including an ancient and sexist but none the less helpful boy scouting manual written in 1880.  Cell phones and computers and Face Book are nowhere to be found out bubble. Instead, Maggie learns to communicate with her neighbor Toad via semaphore lamps and other coded methods. Maggie and Toad make their living by scavenging junk yards for abandoned relics and trading them for food and clothing. They are quite literally living off of the past.

Maggie, the twelve year old narrator and protagonist, is a remarkable and memorable creation. Strong, smart, independent, resourceful, and passionate, she is exceptional and unique, a true heroine.  The story is told from her point of view, and we follow her, she is “on screen,” for every moment of the book.  We learn about her relationships with her parents – her mother, who Maggie loves more than anything, as they bond via the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Earl Grey tea, and her father, who her feelings for are  a bit more complex and ambiguous.  He’s emotional, sentimental even, but is also strangely aloof and distant, easily driven to distraction. We eventually learn that he has a secret that Maggie has to draw out of him in a most unexpected way. Without revealing too much, it turns out that he played a key role in the events that led up to the creation of the in bubbles and out bubbles, and he’s a wanted man by government officials  who are secretly combing the countryside for him.

Maggie also has a little brother, Dookie, who appears to be developmentally disabled in some unidentified manner.  Dookie represents one of the few missed opportunities in the book, as I never felt he was adequately explained or played an important enough role in the story (perhaps in the sequel Perry says is coming in 2015 he’ll play a larger part).

A Michael Perry book wouldn’t be a Michael Perry book without humor, and there’s plenty here.  There’s a psychotic rooster named Hatchet who is the bane of Maggie’s existence, attacking her at the most unexpected and inopportune times.  There’s the character of the blacksmith in the town of Nobbern who loves to talk but hates to work; his long suffering wife does the work for the two of them and more but has nearly given up on getting a spoken word in.

As in Perry’s memoir writing, The Scavengers celebrates the importance of neighbors. Maggie’s closest friends are an elderly couple who live a hill away, Toad and Arlinda Hooper, who at least slightly resemble Tom and Arlene, the elderly neighbors Perry wrote about in Visiting Tom.  In one of the book’s constant ongoing sources of amusement, Toad loves wordplay and communicates almost exclusively in pig Latin and spoonerisms (like the wagon they travel to Nobbern to trade goods and battle “Grey devils” from is called the “Scary Pruner“, based upon the Prairie Schooners of the frontier days).

Perry’s love of language is another thing to like about the book – the vocabulary and the refusal to dumb down the story to a younger audience. Perry has never shied away from the big words in his memoirs, and while the language in The Scavengers is less sophisticated, it’s only slightly so.  I found myself having fun deciphering Toad’s coded messages, and I’m sure that bright children will get the same pleasure. I suspect that the book may even ignite a love of language in some of the readers.

I haven’t read much mid grade fiction, so I assume that some of the things that seemed a bit off kilter to me are because of the intended audience. For example, at the start of the book, I had trouble understanding why such a close and loving family would let the children run free so much of the time.  It’s one thing to let the kids run and play in the fields and woods during the day, but at night, Maggie sleeps in an old abandoned Ford Falcon at the bottom of the hill, separated from the rest of the family, in a landscape populated by carnivorous solar bears and the zombie-meth head–like creatures known as grey devils.  Mom and Dad also sit at home while Maggie/Ford Falcon goes with Toad via the Scary Pruner on dangerous trading runs to Nobbern, where they have to fight off hordes of grey devils. Of course, Maggie is an exceptionally capable and tough little girl who knows how to take care of herself, and while I may take issue with some of her folks’ parenting decisions, I’m sure that the ten to twelve year old kids who read the book won’t think twice about it.

The Scavengers should appeal to readers of all ages.  Parents of middle grade age children can take comfort in that there are no swear words or profanity in the book.  There are some suspenseful fights with the grey devils, but they are all pretty benign, with no gratuitous or graphic violence. There is plenty of adventure and action to keep kids engaged, and at the same time, the book is written at a level that will challenge them to think about things they maybe haven’t thought about before, like how they relate to their neighbors, to the environment, to nature, to their families.

The Scavengers may have been written for children, but not at children. Perry treats his younger audience with the same respect he shows for the readers of his memoirs.

John Updike once said, “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, have them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf.”   With The Scavengers, Perry has written a book that will speak to boys and girls of all ages for generations.

“The Scavengers” is scheduled to be released on September 2nd by Harper Collins.  Hard cover copies are available for pre-orders on the product page for “The Scavengers” on Mr. Perry’s website:  http://sneezingcow.com/product/scavengers/ 

More about Michael Perry:

Mike is scheduled to be our guest on the September episode of the Kenosha Writers Guild radio show, “Speaking of Our Words” – look for us on FaceBook or YouTube

Mike’s website:  

http://sneezingcow.com/

I had the opportunity to interview Mike in 20013  for the web page 2nd First Look: http://www.2ndfirstlook.com/2013/05/michael-perry.html

 

*Copy reviewed provided by publisher. All opinions are my own and I was not compensated in any way.

Life and Death and Decay and Our Town


I’m aging.  I’m damaged goods.  I’ve hit the mid fifties, and while we may not admit it very often, we’re all damaged goods by this point.  With me, the chief vandals have been time and Parkinson’s disease. I try not to think about it all that much, but every morning the difficulty I have getting out of bed serves as a daily reminder that I don’t function as well as I used to, that I’m not who I used to be.

I don’t dwell on these facts, and I try my best not to let them get me down.  They are simply things that are part of my life now.   Like the Deep Brain Stimulator, or the neuro transmitter installed in my chest that sends signals to the electrodes implanted in my brain. It helps much of my Parkinson’s experience, but there are side effects, including my speech.   My movement disorders specialist has given me a device with a range of settings that I can use to control the signals sent to my brain so I can adjust them to minimize the side effects if, for example, I am going to be speaking in public.   Today, for example, I videotaped two recordings of me reading the first paragraph of Chapter 15 of my novel “Ojibway Valley” with minor tweaks to my settings.  My intent was to upload them to this post and share them, but I quickly learned that I’d have to pay for a Word Press update, which I’m not ready to do just yet.

So it is that these things just become a part of my life now, and things I used to take for granted I can’t anymore.  But that’s not a big deal, it happens to everyone – it’s just that mine are a little more dramatic and unusual than most people’s changes.

We all change, every day, more significantly and quickly than we might care to admit.  We lose a little hair, we add an inch or two to our midsection.  Here is a quick photo tour of certain points of my evolution (or devolution?):

4th birthday

On my 4th birthday

jenny & i number one

My sister and I ready for battle

At age 18 - maybe the first sign of abnormal brain was a canoe paddle sticking out of my head.

At age 18 – maybe the first sign of an abnormal brain condition was a canoe paddle sticking out of my head.

On the radio show "Speaking of our Words", with Chris Deguire and Lisa Adamowicz Kless

On the radio show “Speaking of our Words”, with Chris Deguire and Lisa Adamowicz Kless of the Kenosha Writer’s Guild

Recent selfy, practicing my stink-eye

Recent selfy, practicing my stink-eye.  The canoe paddle may have been removed but defects and malfunctions are still apparent

I’ve been thinking about these things because recently I re-read the great American play, “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder.   “Our Town” takes a look at life and death in a small New England town called Grover’s Corners shortly after the beginning of the 20th century.  The first act is about everyday life, act two is about love and marriage, and act three is about death and dying.  The third act is incredibly powerful.  It is only when considered against death that life becomes meaningful, that we are granted the perspective to view it with.

My familiarity with the play goes back about forty years now, beginning with a production by my high school drama club in the mid seventies.  I’ve seen a few performances of it now on television, the most memorable being a made for television production from the late seventies with Hal Holbrook playing the pivotal role of the Stage Manager, our guide into the world Wilder created.    It’s a unique character in that Wilder uses him to break down the wall between the players and the audience, and he weaves in and out of the action of the play, interacting equally with the characters and the audience.   The play is written to be performed with minimal set design, the actors miming most of their actions.  These devices work extraordinarily well and, by using the audience’s imagination, highlight the timeless universality of Wilder’s words.  We all form our own image of Grover’s Corners, because we all have experience with the moments he chooses to linger on.

In Act three, the main character, Emily, has died while giving birth to her second child.  She was 26 years old and joins the dead in the cemetery on the hill overlooking Grover’s Corners.  She learns that she is free to go back and live her life again, although the others of the dead strongly advise against it, telling here it won’t be like she thinks.  She settles on reliving her 12th birthday, and the pain becomes overwhelming:

Emily:  I can’t bear it. They’re so young and beautiful. Why did they ever  have to get old? Mama, I’m here. I’m grown up. I love you all, everything. I can’t look at everything hard enough. Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead.  You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally’s dead, too.  Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it-don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy.  Let’s look at one another.

It soon becomes too much, and she asks to be taken back to the cemetery:

EMILY:   (In a loud voice to the stage manager.)

I can’t. I can’t go on.  It goes so fast!  We don’t have time to look
look at one another!  (She breaks down sobbing.  The lights dim on the left half of the stage.)  I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back -up the hill -to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.  Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners … Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking … and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths … and sleeping and waking up.  Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

 She looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly, through her tears:

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?

The stage manager answers “No,” then, after a short pause, adds “The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”

Shortly after, we get the stage manager’s closing soliloquy:

Most everybody’s asleep in Grover’s Corners. There are a few lights on: Shorty Hawkins, down at the depot, has just watched the Albany train go by. And at the livery stable somebody’s setting up late and talking. Yes, it’s clearing up. There are the stars doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk … or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies  down and gets a rest.

The strain is so bad that rest isn’t enough.  It’s art, it’s story telling, it’s shared experience, it’s beauty and language and music, and love, that occasionally relieve the burden of our straining long enough for us to get a brief glimpse of truth.  These are the things that replenish and nourish the soul as it trudges on through its long and incomprehensible journey.  They are sustenance, they are our defense against the slow and steady and unfeeling advance of time and decay.

List-O-Mania: Films of the 1980s


The 1980s were anything but boring.  It seemed like everything was, for better or worse, constantly changing.

The 1980s was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the acceleration of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and Iran hostages and Nicaraguan freedom fighters and arms for hostages.  It was Margaret Thatcher and the Falkland Islands.  It was Atari and Nintendo.   It was the AIDS epidemic.  It was the middle class beginning to erode, it was a “service economy” and supply side economics, it was two income households, it was millionaires and homeless people.  It was the decade of mass culture merging with big business.  It was Michael Jordan and Nike.    It was yuppies and nerds.  It was MTV and music video bands and techno pop and non conformity, it was Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls and Cyndi Lauper, it was Michael Jackson and Prince and Madonna, it was Bruce Springsteen and U2, it was REM and The Smiths, it was Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Pixies, it was Run DMC and the Beastie Boys.   It was “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and apocalyptic be-bop.  It was “Thriller” and “Born in the USA” and “Graceland.”   It was “Mash” and “Cheers,” it was “Dallas” and “Dynasty”,  it was “The Day After”,  it was “Hill Street Blues” and “Saint Elsewhere.”

Personally, it was the decade I went back to school, met and married my wife, started my career in I.T., bought a house, fathered two sons, and lost my hair.  I began the decade a 21 year old single man in peak physical condition with a full head of lush and thick brown hair; I ended it a 31 year old bald married man with a mortgage and a pot belly and a cheesy moustache.   And  it all went by too fast.

In film, the trend of big special effects blockbusters that began in the 70s with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind continued, with the studios getting more and more conservative on how they spent their money.   If a movie was a box office success, not only was a sequel likely, so too were imitations likely to be made.   An example was Steven Spielberg’s  Raiders of the Lost Ark, which not only spun off several sequels, but other attempts to cash in on the formula like Romancing the Stone and its sequel Jewel of the Nile, and the inept King Solomon’s Mines as well as others.

The result of all of this is that fewer movies were being made, and more and more, those that were made were becoming increasingly formulaic.  The personal and independent movies that were so prevalent in the late 60s and early 70s were becoming rarer and rarer.

Advances in technology and special effects were having a major impact in how movies were made.  The visual wizardry of Spielberg and George Lucas bred a whole new generation of filmmakers (like Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis and Lawrence Kasdan) for whom visual style and gimmicks were paramount, often times at the expense of character development and depth of story telling.   The result was often visually stunning but ultimately inane blockbusters like Top Gun.

Teen movies, previously most popular in the 50s, experienced a revival in the 80s, primarily in the films of director-producer John Hughes.  Films like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink found huge audiences; these films tended to be formulaic and light, but they seemed to resonate with their audiences.

The 1980s were a terrible decade for westerns.   There was Lawrence Kasdan’s sad attempt to revive the genre, the terrible Silverado, and the Young Guns films, which became a mediocre franchise for many of the “brat pack” stars of the Hughes films.  Probably the best western of the decade was Walter Hill’s homage to Sam Peckinpah, 1980’s The Long Riders.

It was a big decade for blockbuster comedies, with talented casts dumbing down their skills for the masses in films like Ghostbusters and Caddyshack.   The puns and sight gags of Airplane and the one-joke (Dustin Hoffman in drag) comedy Tootsie were also enormously popular.

As bad as most of this was, there were still a number of great directors making fascinating movies, and the emergence of some new and unique talents.  The 1980s saw Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese and Spielberg at the peak of their powers, while David Lynch and Tim Burton and David Cronenberg made fascinating movies that looked and behaved like nothing that had preceded them.

Here’s my list of favorite movies from the 80s:

22.  The Fly (1986), directed by David Cronenberg

21.  E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Steven Spielberg

20.  Zelig (1983), Woody Allen

19.  Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Tim Burton

18.  Do the Right Thing (1989), Spike Lee

17.  The Emerald Forest (1985), John Boorman

16.  Atlantic City (1980), Louis Malle

15.  Raging Bull (1981), Martin Scorsese

14. King of Comedy (1983), Scorsese

13.  Out of Africa (1986), Sydney Pollack

12.  Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Spielberg

11.  Radio Days (1986), Allen

10.  Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Allen

9.    Hannah and her Sisters (1986), Allen

8.    Platoon (1987), Oliver Stone

7.    The Elephant Man (1980), David Lynch

6.    Edward Scissorhands (1988), Burton

5.   Something Wild (1986), Jonathan Demme

4.   Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Spielberg

3.   The Purple Rose of Cairo (1984), Allen

2.   Hope and Glory (1987), Boorman

1.  Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch

Forgotten Carnival


I post on this site, from time to time, some of my experiments with short fiction.  I recognize that they aren’t very good, certainly not good enough for publication (I have written a couple of pieces I haven’t posted to this site yet that I hope are worthy of publication and submitted them to various literary journals, so far, to no avail).  I do find some value in them, however, as exercises in trying to learn the craft of short fiction writing.  I am vain enough to aspire to writing something memorable, and humble enough to know that I still have much to learn.

As a neophyte, and as a devoted fan of the art form, I am sensitive to when I am making use of tired clichés and a lack of originality.   Two of the short stories I’ve posted on this site (“Highway Q”, of which I’m quite embarrassed, and “Night Watchman”, which is if nothing else better than “Highway Q”) rely upon that tired old plot device of the main character not knowing he is dead.   When I wrote these stories, I thought I was ripping off things like Ambrose Bierce’s great short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (which, in “Highway Q”, I was) and movies like “The Sixth Sense” or “The Others.”  In all honesty, this wasn’t my intent when writing either story, and I remained somewhat mystified at why this was an attractive plot device to me.   Last night, something triggered a memory for me, and I think now I know where my fascination with this cliché came from.

I was 12 or 13 years old, and it was the last day of school, the best day of the year.  School being out meant summer and baseball and sleeping in and, best of all, it meant staying up late at night.  That year, on the first night of summer vacation, a Friday night, I vowed to stay awake for Nightmare Theatre, with Dr. Cadavarino, on channel six, sometime after midnight.   I didn’t quite make it, falling asleep on the couch, but I woke up in time to see black and white footage of a strange woman wandering through a deserted carnival.  I had missed the beginning and the name of the movie, but I saw enough to realize, by the end, that the woman was dead and didn’t know it, and I saw enough to be genuinely creeped out.

I never saw the movie again until last night, when I stumbled upon a title and read the synopsis.  Intrigued, I found that the movie in its entirety is on You Tube, and I watched it, and I am pleased to announce that the movie remains as creepy to me now as it did then.  The movie is the original, 1962 Carnival of Souls, a low budget ($33,000) horror film directed by someone named Herk Harvey.

Carnival of Souls begins (the part I was asleep for all those years ago) with a drag race between a car full of young men against a car full of young women.  The cars end up on a rickety old bridge over a river, and the car with the women goes off and crashes into the water below.  While authorities dredge the river to no avail, a little ways downriver one of the women emerges, shocked and soaked.  She has no memory of how she survived the crash.

In a great plot device, we learn that the woman’s occupation is a church organist, and she’s been hired by a church in Utah to play their enormous, creepy pipe organ.  She leaves her hometown, vowing to never come back, only a couple of days after the accident.  Driving at night on her way to Utah, strange things begin to happen.    First, her car radio starts to play strange organ music.  She tries to change the channel and shut the radio off, but the same music continues to play.   Then she has her first encounter with a strange ghoulish-faced man, this time replacing her reflection in the passenger window and staring at her.    She passes by an abandoned amusement park and is strangely attracted to it.

She gets to town and rents an upstairs room in a small boarding house.  Just as she hopes to settle in and start a new life, things start unraveling, and she appears to be going mad.  Aside from additional visits from the ghoulish man, she experiences periods where she is seemingly shut off from the world, where there is no sound and nobody can see or hear her.   She ends up at the deserted amusement park, and sees dead people dancing to the organ music in a dance hall.  She tries to flee from them, but they chase her, and she collapses on a beach with them closing in on her.  Then the movie cuts back to the river, the dredgers have found the car, and her dead body is in the front seat.

Prior to the 1970s, before advances in visual effects, before The Exorcist, horror movies had to rely primarily upon atmosphere to frighten audiences.   The notable exception to this was Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho, which included graphic violence (the famous shower scene, which is brutal despite the fact that the camera never shows the knife touching Janet Leigh’s body) and explicit shock (the shot of Mother’s rotted corpse at the end).  But these exceptions were rare, and even bigger budget horror movies of the time (like Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents” and Robert Wise’s “The Haunting”) were rich in mood and atmosphere.  The only advantage these big budget films had over the low budget films was that they could pay for better writers and directors and actors.   The result is that occasionally, low budget horror films were able to compete with and often times surpass their big budget rivals.

And there were certainly enough horror films being made in the 1960s.  There were the famous William Castle and Roger Corman B-movie products, as well as the Hammer studio films starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  Possibly the greatest horror film of the time, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, was a low budget, independent film made in Pittsburgh.  Romero’s genius was in that he let the lack of a budget work in his favor, the grainy black and white footage and the straight forward story telling approach and the use of amateur actors all resulted in a  heightened realism, making the attack of flesh eating zombies more urgent and realistic.

Carnival of Souls is similar in that the low budget cinematography, the amateurish acting (although the actress playing the lead, a Candace Hilligoss, is actually quite good, and brings a surprising range to her performance) and the simple but tight script and direction work and result in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.   Harvey’s direction is top notch, as he uses the camera efficiently but creatively to convey the woman’s psychological state and maintain a consistent eerie atmosphere.   He brings a level of storytelling and sophistication that is unexpected in a low budget production.

The thing I find interesting in all this is that I had seen this movie once, about 40 years ago, and never knew the title, and never thought that much about it, until last night.  Yet it stayed with me, buried in my subconscious,  influencing what I’ve been writing.   It makes me wonder what else is buried in there.

List-O-Mania: Films of the 1970s


The 1970s was a traumatic decade in the U.S. A.   The first half of the decade was dominated by historic failure – 1974 saw our president resign in disgrace, and 1975 saw the fall of Saigon, the official end of more than a decade of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.   Post 1975 was dominated by economic issues, as we started to lose our grip as the leading economic super power.  We were throttled by runaway inflation and gas shortages and rising interest rates.  There was the emergence of serious automotive competition from Japan, and the start of the decline of our textile and steel industries.    

Culturally, the 70s is remembered as an age of hedonism, of sexual freedom and casual drug use.    The writer Tom Wolfe summed it up best when he referred to it as “the Me decade.”     The culture of self absorption was summed up in popular music, with the early 70s dominated by the laid-back, California sounds of the Eagles and singer songwriters like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, and the late 70s dominated by the pulsating beat of the disco explosion.  Punk rock came around in the mid 70s as a form of rebellion against both of these forms.

As mediocre as much of the music output was, film was going through a renaissance, with the emergence of some of the greatest American filmmakers ever.   The 70s saw young directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Terrence Malick and John Boorman  making some of their most innovative and personal films, stretching  boundaries and bringing the influences of rock and roll and the French New Wave movement of the 1950s to mainstream Hollywood.   Woody Allen transformed from brilliant comic to serious and talented filmmaker.  Giants like Stanley Kubrick and John Huston continued making great films.  Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson established their places with the greatest film actors ever, and Faye Dunaway and Jane Fonda were not only brilliant actresses but also pioneers, breaking down barriers, challenging stereotypes, and changing perceptions of women in film.

 For me, film in the 70s can be divided between the personal and introspective films of Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) , Coppola (The Godfather, The Conversation) and Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville) and the emergence of the big budget, special effects, sensory orgies of Lucas (Star Wars) and Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Mind).  In fact, one film strived to combine these two genres with exhilaratingly mixed results, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

The fact that the Lucas and Spielberg extravaganzas were huge box office successes would have a profound effect on how films would be made, marketed and distributed in the decades that follow.  Unfortunately, the personal and introspective films that Hollywood liberally produced in the early 70s would become few and far between, with sequels to big moneymakers taking their place.

My favorite film of the 70s is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, which is more than a homage to the great 1940s detective films, it takes its place alongside The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep as the best the genre has to offer.   Although it takes place in the 40s, the film is really about the 70s – its story, centering on the manipulation of the Los Angeles water supply, suggests the government scandals of Watergate, and the self absorbed and murky morality in Robert Towne’s screenplay neatly echoes the confused chaos of the time.  Throw Polanski’s atmospheric direction, and great performances by Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway into the mix, the result is pretty damn close to perfection.

Here’s my list of favorite films of the 70s:

20.  Jaws (1975), Directed by Steven Spielberg

19.  Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen

18.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977, Spielberg

17.  Network (1976), Sydney Lumet

16.  Deliverance (1972), John Boorman

15.  The Godfather (1971), Francis Ford Coppola

14.  Dog Day Afternoon (1973), Lumet

13.  Wise Blood (1979), John Huston

12.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Milos Foreman

11.  Days of Heaven (1978), Terrence Malick

10.  The Conversation (1973), Coppola

  9.  Nashville (1975), Robert Altman

  8.  Mean Streets (1973), Martin Scorsese

  7.  Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese

  6.  Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola

  5.  The Godfather Part 2 (1974), Coppola

  4.  The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Huston

  3.  Annie Hall (1977), Allen

  2.  A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick

  1.  Chinatown (1975), Roman Polanski

List-O-Mania: Films of the 1960s


It’s almost cliché to say it now, but it’s true, the 1960s were a decade of tremendous change, turmoil and upheaval.   The civil rights movement and the anti-war protests brought about significant but painful changes, with many of our country’s cities exploding into flames.  There were the Kennedy and the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X assassinations, there was the violence and tragedy of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the 1970 shootings at Kent State.  We were fighting a bloody and confusing and divisive war in Vietnam.

It was a decade dominated by young people, as the first of the baby boomers born after World War II went off to college, and a “generation gap” emerged between them and their parents, who had defeated Hitler and enabled the country to emerge as the dominant world power.  Many of these people viewed the younger generation as disrespectful and unpatriotic.  In actuality, I think the baby boomers were working to realize the dream that their parents had fought for in enduring the great depression and winning World War Two, a dream of social and economic justice and freedom for all.  They may have been idealistic, but the whole concept of the United States is based upon idealism – in this sense, by pushing for civil rights and a fair and sensible role in the world, they were not just idealistic but patriotic.

There were seismic changes in virtually all aspects of our culture.   The common theme was the breaking down of barriers.  Rock and roll evolved and expanded and grew more substantive, lead by the Beatles, while Bob Dylan fused folk and rock and songwriting and poetry and literature into a new art form.  Andy Warhol blurred the line between pop culture and fine art.  In literature, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five conveyed themes of disillusionment and absurdity and questioning of authority that resonated with the times.

Film, which in the 1950s seemed to be lagging behind the other art forms, rebounded strongly in the 60s.  There were more films that accurately represented and portrayed what was going on.  Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night confronted institutional racism with depth and complexity.  Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove comically captured the frightening surrealism of the atomic age and the cold war.   Films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde pushed the envelope of artistic and graphic depictions of violence and horror.   Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita captured the existential emptiness of life in the atomic age, while Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate captured the romantic essence of being young at such tumultuous and exciting times.

Here is the list of my favorite movies from the 1960s:

18.  In the Heat of the Night, 1967, directed by Norman Jewison

17.  Long Day’s Journey into Night, 1962, Sidney Lumet

16.  Hud, 1963, Martin Ritt

15.  The Sundowners, 1960, Fred Zineeman

14.  To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962, Robert Mulligan

13.  The Innocents, 1961, Jack Clayton

12.  Séance on a Wet Afternoon, 1964, Bryan Forbes

11.  La Dolce Vita, 1963, Federico Fellini

10.  Ride the High Country, 1964, Sam Peckinpah

9.   Lolita, 1962, Stanley Kubrick

8.   The Graduate, 1967, Mike Nichols

7.  Jules and Jim, 1962, Francois Truffaut

6.  Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968, Sergio Leone

5.  Bonnie and Clyde, 1968, Arthur Penn

4.  Doctor Strangelove, 1964, Stanley Kubrick

3.  The Apartment, 1960, Billy Wilder

2.  Psycho, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock

1.  Shoot the Piano Player, 1960, Francois Truffaut

 

Bring On Your Wrecking Ball


                                                                  And I will provide for you  
                                                                 And I’ll stand by your side
                                                                You’ll need a good companion
                                                                For this part of the ride
                                                                                                Bruce Springsteen
                                                                                              From “Land of Hope and Dreams”

It’s no secret that I’ve been a huge Bruce Springsteen fan for over 30 years now.  To me, he is the greatest songwriter (Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen may be superior lyricists, but aren’t as good of songwriters, in my humble opinion) and live performer in rock and roll history.

Despite the consistent high quality of his output and the unadulterated articulation of his themes, he remains one of the most misunderstood and polarizing voices in serious rock criticism.   This is hard to understand, because he has never been the enigmatic contrarian that, for example, Dylan or Neil Young have been.

There are some critics who look down on Springsteen because he identifies with and writes about the common man, the working class.  It is a form of elitism, critics who see these people as unsophisticated and simple, and assume that any artist of any integrity would keep them and their culture at arms’ length.  Springsteen has embraced and celebrated their values, even when criticizing some of the ugly specifics.  The result has been tremendous success and frequent misinterpretation.  The biggest example is the song, “Born in the USA”, misinterpreted by many on the right as a jingoistic anthem supporting blind faith patriotism, and by many on the left as a sell-out of his artistic morals to the fist pumping and empty headed masses who fill stadiums and arenas.

Rock and roll, from the beginning, has always belonged to the poor and working class.  This is where one of if its two dominant themes, rebellion (the other one being sex) comes from.   In the 50s and 60s, when the music was being formed, the genre’s biggest stars, from Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came from this class.  The problem always was that, as these stars became successful and wealthy, they lost touch with the class they came from, resulting in the quick artistic burn out and ultimate self-parody of Presley and Berry (who despite longer careers stopped producing original music of any quality after their first 10 years or so).   The Beatles broke up in 1970, and most of their solo work was uninteresting, and the Stones, who started out paying tribute to the black rhythm and blues musicians who inspired them, by the late 60s were struggling to maintain an edge while becoming a part of the jet-set heroin culture (still producing great music from time to time, like Beggar’s Banquet and Exile on Main Street, which found the commonality of the gutter in their R & B roots and the high class drug culture). By the late 70s, even the Stones had become caricatures of themselves.

Springsteen was born into a middle to lower class existence, but he was also born with gifts of intelligence and musical ability.  From the beginning, his songwriting was always very introspective.  He always had an acute sense of who he was and where he came from.  This is why, as time passed on and his craft became stronger, he openly embraced being a spokesman for the working class¸ and has been able to maintain a connection to those roots even after becoming wildly successful.  The ability to maintain this connection and to explore the depths and complexity of these roots, is, I think, Springsteen’s unique gift

With most of rock’s superstars, as they become successful, a distance from their roots always emerges in their work.  Take John Lennon, for example, who came from the slums of Liverpool, and his song, “Working Class Hero”:

                               they keep you doped with religion and sex and T.V.
                              and you think you’re so happy, and classless and free
                              but you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
                              A working class hero is something to be
 

 Compare this to the 1980 Springsteen song, “The River”

                                I got a job working construction
                                For the Johnstown Company
                                But lately there ain’t been much work
                                On account of the economy
                                Now all those things that seemed so important
                                Mister, they’ve just vanished right into the air
                                Now I just act like I don’t remember
                                Mary acts like she don’t care

Both songs are about the exploitation of the working class.  Where Lennon’s song is filled with hurt and rage, it comes from the perspective of one who has gotten out, and that’s how we view it.  Springsteen, however, gets into the character’s heart and mind.  This is Springsteen’s genius and what I think sets him apart from everyone else:  his ability to get inside of a song and make it intimate and immediate and vital.  In doing so, he makes us care about what he cares about

Next Monday (March 6), Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, will be released, and he again takes on the role of spokesperson for the working class.  At 61 years old, and 28 years after Born in the USA, it would seem unlikely that he has anything new to say, particularly about the working class, since it’s been so long since he’s been a member.   But Wrecking Ball may well be the most ambitious and audacious effort of his long and storied career.  In the end,  I don’t think it cracks his top five best albums list, but he still pulls off most of it, and the album is incredibly relevant to what is going on today.  So relevant that I predict it will be one of the most praised and criticized albums of this election year.

The album opens with the anthem, “We Take Care of Our Own”, which has already been compared to “Badlands” but to me, musically at least, conjures up Patty Smith’s “People Have the Power”.  The lyrics are, unlike the rest of the album, unusually ambiguous.  He references Katrina and New Orleans and says “There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home”, instances where we obviously didn’t take care of our own.  In the end, the song stands as a cry to return to the shared principles of looking out for one another, as a reaction to the divisive politics of extremism that have recently dominated the national discourse.

Wrecking Ball is, if nothing else, the angriest album Springsteen has ever put out.  In “Easy Money” and “Shackled and Drawn” , he turns to the Irish roots sound of  The Seeger Sessions and spells out who he is angry at: 

Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills
It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill
Up on bankers hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn

This is followed by one of Springsteen’s best and most poignant ballads ever, the real centerpiece of the album, “Jack of all Trades”.  In “Jack of all Trades,” his ability to inhabit and articulate the soul of one of his characters is at its strongest since “The River.”  It opens with:

I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain
I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain
I’ll take the work that God provides
I’m a Jack of all trades, honey, we’ll be alright

Note the element of the spiritual, of work as a God given gift.  One of his consistent themes over the years is the dignity that work provides.  This dignity has repeatedly been the target of exploitation:

The banker man grows fatter, the working man grows thin
It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again, they’ll bet your life
I’m a Jack of all trades and, darling, we’ll be alright

“Jack of All Trades” is a slow and beautiful, with simple, repetitive piano scales and strings, and horns and a lovely guitar solo at the end.

This is followed by the angriest and best of the Irish flavored stomps, “Death to my Hometown”, in which the assault from Wall Street on the working class is as invisible as it is insidious:

Oh, no cannonballs did fly, no rifles cut us down
No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground
No powder flash blinded the eye, no deathly thunder sound
But just as sure as the hand of God, they brought death to my hometown
They brought death to my hometown, boys

The song concludes with a cry for action, for some form of economic justice:

So listen up, my sonny boy, be ready for when they come
For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun
Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done
Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Who walk the streets as free men now

This is followed by another beautiful ballad, the emotional and powerful “This Depression”, in which the deceptively simple lyrics play beautifully on the double meaning of the word “depression:”

Baby, I’ve been down, but never this down
I’ve been lost, but never this lost
This is my confession, I need your heart
In this depression, I need your heart

This song is another illustration of Springsteen’s gift to show what is really at stake.  By getting inside the heart and mind he gets past the statistics of unemployment statistics and empty rhetoric and reminds us that there are real people impacted, and that their suffering is real

And I’ve always been strong, but I’ve never felt so weak
And all my prayers have gone for nothing
I’ve been without love, but never forsaken
Now the morning sun, the morning sun is breaking

The next song, “Wrecking Ball”, was written for the concert he gave on the eve of the destruction of the New Jersey sports arena, the Meadowlands, but also stands as an aging man’s defiant stance to the onslaught of age and death:

So if you got the guts mister, yeah if you’ve got the balls
If you think it’s your time, then step to the line, and bring on your wrecking ball

The song concludes with the mixture of resignation and defiance that can only come with age, with the recognition of the cyclical nature of good times and hard times:

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided and you’re burning the clock down
And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires are scattered through the wind
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
Yeah just to come again

 The album then takes a more hopeful and gospel inspired tone with “Rocky Ground”,  and “Land of Hope and Dreams” before closing with the inspirational “We Are Alive”, which celebrates the long history of Americans who have died fighting for their rights:

A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand
Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham
Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert
My children left behind in San Pablo
Well they left our bodies here to rot
Oh please let them know
We are alive
Oh, and though we lie alone here in the dark
Our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

 As dark and angry as he might get, in the end there is always hope:

 Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend
It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end

I awoke last night in a dark and dreamy deep
From my head to my feet, my body had gone stone cold
There were worms crawling all around me
Fingers scratching at an earth black and six foot low
And alone in the blackness of my grave
Alone I’d been left to die
Then I heard voices calling all around me
The earth rose above me, my eyes filled with sky
We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our souls and spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
We are alive

Wrecking Ball serves as notice that there is still a place for serious rock and roll.  And as Springsteen and his listeners head for the old folks home, one thing remains true as it has always been for the past nearly 40 years – we’re lucky to have as good a companion as Bruce Springsteen with us for this part of the ride

List O Mania: Movies of the 1950s


The 1950s were a conflicted and confused time in our history.  Having vanquished evil at its most powerful in World War II, the United States emerged as the world’s greatest military and economic super power.    While most of the world was rebuilding, we were flourishing, producing goods for the world and fueling the long awaited post depression prosperity that for the better part of 20 years had been longed for.  Great value was placed on the “modern” material conveniences that we couldn’t afford in the depression and war years.

We may have been experiencing peace and prosperity, but underneath it all was the uneasiness of the cold war and living in the atomic age.   Mass culture at the time emphasized conformity and blandness, and was supported by the paranoia evidenced by the McCarthy hearings and the term, “un-American.” (which , if you really think about it, is in itself just about the most “un-American” term).  The threats of communism and the cold war resonated with the public, who had grown up in times of sacrifice and belt tightening, and naturally felt uneasy with the new found prosperity.  The result was a mass culture that comforted and reassured people, with music by the likes of Perry Como and Mitch Miller being popular.

The emphasis on blandness and conformity, of course, lead to rebellion in nearly all of the arts.  It’s no accident that rock and roll, which has always had at its core themes of rebellion and sex, became immensely popular.  In literature, Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg and William Burroughs were leading the “beat generation” to places American literature hadn’t gone before, while novelists like Norman Mailer and James Jones were churning out gritty and authentic accounts of their experiences in World War Two and its aftermath.  In theatre, playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were producing their greatest works, and the Lee Strasberg Actor’s Studio revolutionized the art of stage and film acting.

Hollywood, still under strict control of the production code, was especially impacted by McCarthyism, with Joe McCarthy’s famous list of supposed communist sympathizers leading to the House Un American Activities Commission subpoenas and black-listings.   As a result, the output from Hollywood was more cautious and conservative than ever before, and more bland and boring.   Hollywood instead focused on technological advances such as Cinema Scope and VistaVIsion and advances in Technicolor as reasons to put people in the seats.  Big budget Bible pictures (The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, The Robe) with their casts of thousands and wide panoramas were presented as showcases for these new technologies, and they were politically safe.  The western remained the most popular genre.

New fears  about the atomic bomb and threats from the cold war lead to an abundance of bad, low-budget science fiction films – these films were cheaply and quickly made and prayed upon the public’s fears of radiation, with mutant monsters like The Blob and The Thing and The Creature of the Black Lagoon becoming immensely popular.   A few of them, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, tapped into the underlying paranoia of the times.

Rock and roll fueled teenage rebellion, which fueled fears of gangs of teenagers run amok, which fueled a new teenage rebellion sub-genre, with films like The Wild One (with a great Marlon Brando performance)and The Blackboard Jungle scaring the snot out of parents everywhere.  There were also attempts to sympathetically portray the teenage rebel as a misunderstood victim of the stagnating culture, such as Nicholas Ray’s expressionistic Rebel Without  a Cause, with the great James Dean, in which the adults were portrayed as so physically and morally weak that they were worthy only of contempt.

As the 50s went on, it seemed that popular culture was about to pass Hollywood by.   Things were moving fast in music and literature, and Hollywood, bogged down by the production code, its investments in technology, the studio system and its inherent conservatism, seemed unable to keep up with the times and often times came across as anachronistic.  Where rock and roll, for example, was dealing directly and bluntly with sexuality, Hollywood was forced to use the same euphemistic language it had been using for the past thirty years.  Even the greatest of Hollywood’s directors had to play these games – for example, Orson Welles could only get the brilliant Touch of Evil made by agreeing to cast Charlton Heston (!) in the lead role of a Hispanic detective.  John Ford’s western masterpiece The Searchers attempts to deal with serious issues of racism and frontier justice, yet he is only able to imply and insinuate many of the specifics.  Alfred Hitchcock made some of his most personal films dealing with his own confused sexuality (Rear Window and Vertigo), but had to rely upon heavy handed symbols to represent his own obsessions.

It’s no accident then that some of the best movies of the decade were made overseas.  While Hollywood was struggling to keep up, European cinema was experiencing a renaissance, with Bergman and Fellini at the peak of their powers, and the French new wave auteur movement introducing such giants as Godard and Truffaut.

Here then is my list of favorite films of the 1950s:

14.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), directed by Don Siegel

13.   Bad Day at Black Rock (1955),  J. Sturges

12.  Shane (1953), Stevens

11.  Night of the Hunter (1955), Laughton

10.  Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder

9.  Touch of Evil (1958), Welles

8.  Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock

7.   An Outcast of the Islands (1952), Reed

6.  The Quiet Man (1951), Ford

5.  The 400 Blows (1959), Truffaut

4.  The Searchers (1956), Ford

3.  A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Kazan

2.  The Seventh Seal  (1957), Bergman

1.  La Strada (1954), Fellini

List O Mania: Movies (Part Two)


In my last list of favorite movies, I claimed to be quite the film buff, and that I’ve made a whole bunch of lists related to movies.  In case you didn’t believe me, here is further evidence of my movie geekiness.   I have, for some strange reason, made lists of my favorite films by decade. Today I present my lists for the 1930s and 1940s.  The number of movies listed is arbitrary – there are 13 in the 1930s for example because these are movies I love and that seem important enough to mention.

So here goes:

My Favorite Movies – 1930s

13.  The Wizard of Oz (1939), directed by Victor Fleming   

12.  Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Whale

11.  King Kong (1933), Cooper

10.  Wuthering Heights (1938), Wyler

9.  Freaks (1933), Browning

8.  Stagecoach (1936), Ford

7.  A Night at the Opera (1936), Wood

6.  Bringing Up Baby (1936), Hawks

5.  All Quiet on the Western Front (1931), Milestone

4.  Modern Times (1936), Chaplin

3.  M (1931), Lang

2.  The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Ford

1.  Duck Soup (1933), McCarey

Before there was the rating system (G, PG, R, X, etc), there was the Production Code.  Established in 1930, it began to be enforced in 1934, and imposed a strict set of rules and morality that Hollywood had to obey.  These rules had a profound impact on films for the next 30 years, forcing directors and screenwriters to address sexuality and violence in largely symbolic terms.   It wasn’t just sex, it was general morality – the language that was allowed to be spoken, and images that suggested crime did pay or cast the government in a bad light were censored.  This plus the fact that the country was in the throes of the great depression lead to an abundance of escapist films, with an abundance of extravagant musicals (which I could never get into) and “screwball” comedies (which I grew to love) – fast paced and silly movies (examples – Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday) often involving upper crust members of high society being silly and stupid.   Crowds also escaped the hard times through great fantasy films like The Wizard of Oz and King Kong  It was also a popular time for horror movies, with the introduction of Dracula and Frankenstein and The Wolfman.  Romance was also big, with Wuthering Heights and the biggest film of the decade Gone With the Wind.

It wasn’t all escapism – many films dealt directly with issues of the time.  Frank Capra made a series of films that dealt directly (and sentimentally) with the depression and the plight of the American everyman (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).  With fascism on the rise, the German director Fritz Lang made the classic exploration of mob rule and vigilantism, M, while John Ford’s beautiful adaptation of Steinbeck’s great American novel The Grapes of Wrath told the story of disenfranchised and exploited migrant workers.  Finally, my favorite film of the decade, the Marx Brothers triumph Duck Soup, captures the surrealistic insanity of a world gone mad.   A broad comedy that is funny from first frame to end, to me it is comparable to Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove in its ability to make us laugh at the impending apocalyse.

 

My Favorite Movies – 1940s

19.  The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by George Cukor

18.  The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Wyler

17.  Sullivan’s Travels (1941), P. Sturges

16.  The Shop around the Corner (1940), Lubitsch

15.  The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), P. Sturges

14.  Dead of Night (1945), Cavalcanti and Chricton

13.  Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchock

12.  Black Narcissus (1947), Powell and Pressburger

11.  The Ox Bow Incident (1948), Wyler

10.  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1949), Huston

9.   Odd Man Out (1947), Reed

8.   My Darling Clementine (1946), Ford

7.   The Magnificent Ambersons (1946), Welles

6.   Citizen Kane (1941), Welles

5.   Casablanca (1943), Curtiz

4.   The Third Man (1949), Reed

3.   The Maltese Falcon (1941), Huston

2.   Bicycle Thieves (1948), De Sica

1.   How Green Was My Valley (1941), Ford

A decade of profound pain and change and ultimately triumph, the 1940s saw cinema become a vital part of the global modern culture.  What emerges from the decade are many of the greatest films ever made.

Many of the greatest directors (including Ford, Hawks and Huston) were recruited by the government to make documentaries supporting the war effort.   When not churning out propagand, with films like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Live and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, Hollywood tried to address serious cultural issues – despite the heavy handedness of the approach; they were often effective, especially in the heart wrenching performances of Dana Andrews and Harold Russell as vets returning home in The Best Years of Our Lives.

The 40s are the decade in which a number of the true masters of the art form (Ford, Welles, Huston, Reed, De Sica) were at the peak of their abilities, using the studio system to produce a number of intensely personal films.   In Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Joel McRae plays a Hollywood director of popular comedies (not unlike Sturges himself) determined to make a “serious” film that speaks to the painful real lives being lived by his audiences.   Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons were stylistically unlike anything to come before them, Reed’s Odd Man Out and The Third Man gave us unsentimental and very real glimpses into dangerous worlds (from James Mason’s IRA agent in Odd Man Out to the post war ruins and black markets of Vienna in The Third Man) that are typically neglected by Hollywood .  Huston turned introspective with his examinations of human greed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon, while William Wyler examined mob rule in The Ox Bow Incident.  Meanwhile, John Ford made his two most personal and poetic films, My Darling Clementine and How Green Was My Valley.

Next time:  Hollywood struggles to overcome the blandness of the 50s, and films that are core to the cultural revolution of the 60s.