Friday, May 8, 2015

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, Illustrated by Jim Kay

"Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary.  And your mind will punish you for believing both."

The Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is not the only children’s novel we have read recently; this week we have also finished A Monster Calls, a magnificent novel by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay.

A Monster Calls is a perfect example of a children’s novel that is also a work of art – through written for young people, it can be savored by adults with relish.  More important, A Monster Calls is a profoundly moving book, which left Your Correspondent in tears upon its conclusion.

The novel concerns the trials of Conor O’Malley, a young boy struggling to find peace as his mother slowly dies of cancer.  He is shuttled off to a seemingly uncaring grandmother, alternately pitied or bullied at school, and virtually ignored by a father who remarried and started a new family in the United States.

At the height of these crises, he is visited at night by a monster, who looks like a wild and gigantic willow tree.  The monster alternately menaces and amuses Conor, telling him a series of stories.

Before the reader shrugs this off as so much Scheherazade-In-A-Fright-Wig for children, it’s important to note that the stories the monster tells are not simple morality tales.  Rather, they are fairly grim and gritty stories that illustrated human duplicity and self-delusion, as well as an examination of the deep wells of anger and sadness that come with adulthood.  One tale leaves Conor dazed in the ruins of his grandmother’s home after he trashes it in a fit, and another lead to his assaulting the school bully.  In every respect, A Monster Calls is a profoundly adult novel.

A Monster Calls was originally started by author Siobhan Dowd (1960-2007) who could not write the novel because of her own, eventually fatal bout with cancer.  The book was picked up (and extensively revised) by Ness (born 1971), who made the story his own.  It is written with greatly humanity and insight, as well as subtlety of line.

And speaking of subtly of line, the book is graced with magnificent illustrations by Jim Kay.  These dramatic, surreal and often nightmarish imaginings are an essential component of the book, and it would be difficult to gauge the ultimate efficacy of the novel without them.  After finishing the novel, I returned to it several times in the succeeding days, simply to look at the illustrations.  It’s not that they are beautiful – though they certainly have a wild grandeur – but they are powerful and provocative.  It is important to note that both Ness and Kay won the Carnegie Medal and the Greenaway Medal in 2012 for A Monster Calls, the only books whose author and illustrator, whether two persons or won, have won both medals.

A Monster Calls will not be to all tastes, simply because it does not take any easy outs, and maintains a tragic note throughout.  But this is a particularly human monster, one that underscores the sad fact that pain is a constant part of life, and that not all stories end happily.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, by David Benedictus with Decorations by Mark Burgess

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know of our deep and abiding respect for that extremely difficult art form, children’s literature.  Those who neither understand nor respect this exacting art form do not appreciate just how difficult a task it is.  However, when children’s lit is touched with something like genius, then the result is something that can be savored by children and adults alike.

Critics cite the Winnie-the-Pooh books by A. A. Milne (1882-1956) as the last great contribution to the first wave of children’s classics; a period ranging roughly from the Victorian era through the early 1920s.  Milne approaches something close to the sublime in his stories – they are delightful nonsense that, upon reflection, actually make a great deal of sense.

Milne’s genius was to take the stuffed animals owned by his son, Christopher Robin, and create a whole imaginary world in which they could live.  The animals, Pooh, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, and Kanga and Roo, all have well-defined personalities and (sometimes obsessive) character traits.  There is a distinctly … English flavor to the Pooh books, almost as if Milne brought a child’s-eye view to one long, summer tea party.  In the hands of any other less-gifted author, Pooh would be too sweet and indigestible by half; but Milne creates a world of remarkable charm, gentle kindness and great humanity.  In the simplicity of Pooh and those around him, we often see the best (and most ridiculous) parts of ourselves.

Milne was blessed in his illustrator, E. H. Shepard (1879-1976), who created a series of delicate and subtle drawings to enliven the corpus.  Those who know Pooh only through the sometimes garish Disney interpretation are missing the subtlety and quiet of the originals.  Shepard also drew the definitive illustrations for Wind in the Willows, so he was instrumental in the success of two great classics of the genre.  (Sadly, later in life, Shepard thought Pooh overshadowed his more serious work…)

Milne ended the Pooh books with a beautiful coda of Christopher Robin growing up, and putting aside childish things while promising to always have a special place in both his heart and his memory for the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood.  It was a masterful way to preserve the integrity of his creation, while assuring that it would also always be alive to anyone who could open themselves to childish wonder. 

So, it is with a bit of surprise that the Trustees of the Pooh Property Trust would think that a sequel, some 80 years after the fact, was either necessary or desirable.  But in 2011 the Trust entrusted the property to author David Benedictus (born 1938), and the illustrations to Mark Burgess (born 1957), who sought to emulate Shepard’s style.  The results were, at best, mixed.

Pastiche is a ticklish thing to pull off.  (Your Correspondent has been guilty of literary pastiche himself.)  While it is possible to imitate a voice, it is nearly impossible to imitate genius.  As a result, the new writer seeks to introduce something new and original to separate the new work from the original; but then … when individuality is introduced, there is no longer any point to the pastiche.

Benedictus is tasked with having Christopher Robin return from boarding school (fortunately, there’s no mention of the 80 year lag; Robin must be the most abominable student!), and beguiling a summer idyll with his old friends at the Hundred Acre Wood.  Now older, he involves his friends in a spelling bee, cricket, and playing school.  This is all right in-and-of-itself, but where Benedictus fails is that his work is Milne and water: sometimes he gets the tone just right, but when he doesn’t the whole enterprise comes crashing down. 

Not that there aren’t moments to savor.  I had a smile for most of the reading, and found much of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood charming.  However, Benedictus bows to contemporary tastes a little too often, and the note is jarring. 

For example, he introduces a new character, Lottie the Otter, clearly as a sop to political correctness, seeing that the only other female in the tales is the motherly Kanga.  Lottie never works for a moment; she is too contemporary a creation to blend seamlessly with Pooh and company, and the character is fairly obnoxious, to boot.

So, despite many inspired moments (Benedictus seems to understand both Owl and Rabbit very well), we often feel that someone is trying to breathe life into a creation not their own.  And while the drawings by Burgess are certainly serviceable, but no one would mistake them for Shepard.

Pooh buffs should stick with the originals; but for the casual reader, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is undemanding fun.

Here is an except from the opening:

Who started it? Nobody knew. One moment there was the usual Forest babble: the wind in the trees, the crow of a cock, the cheerful water in the streams. Then came the Rumour: Christopher Robin is back!

Owl said he heard it from Rabbit, and Rabbit said he heard it from Piglet, and Piglet said he just sort of heard it, and Kanga said why not ask Winnie-the-Pooh? And since that seemed like a Very Encouraging Idea on such a sunny morning, off Piglet trotted, arriving in time to find Pooh anxiously counting his pots of honey.

“Isn’t it odd?” said Pooh.

“Isn’t what odd?”

Pooh rubbed his nose with his paw. “I wish they would sit still. They shuffle around when they think I’m not looking. A moment ago there were eleven and now there are only ten. It is odd, isn’t it, Piglet?”

“It’s even,” said Piglet, “if it’s ten, that is. And if it isn’t, it isn’t.” Hearing himself saying this, Piglet thought that it didn’t sound quite right, but Pooh was still counting, moving the pots from one corner of the table to the other and back again.

“Bother,” said Pooh. “Christopher Robin would know if he was here. He was good at counting. He always made things come out the same way twice and that’s what good counting is.”

“But Pooh . . .” Piglet began, the tip of his nose growing pink with excitement

“On the other hand it’s not easy to count things when they won’t stay still. Like snowflakes and stars.”

“But Pooh . . .” And if Piglet’s nose was pink before, it was scarlet now.

“I’ve made up a hum about it. Would you like to hear it, Piglet?”

Piglet was about to say that hums were splendid things, and Pooh’s hums were the best there were, but Rumours come first; then he thought what a nice feeling it was to have a Big Piece of News and to be about to Pass It On; then he remembered the hum which Pooh had made up about him, Piglet, and how it had had seven verses, which was more verses than a hum had ever had since time began, and that they were all about him, and so he said: “Ooh, yes, Pooh, please,” and Pooh glowed a little because a hum is all very well as far as it goes, and very well indeed when it goes for seven verses, but it isn’t a Real Hum until it’s been tried out on somebody, and while honey is always welcome, it’s welcomest of all directly after a hum.

This is the hum which Pooh hummed to Piglet on the day which started like any other day and became a very special day indeed.

If you want to count your honey,
You must put it in a row,
In the sun if it is sunny,
If it’s snowy in the snow.

And you’ll know when you have counted
How much honey you have got.
Yes, you’ll know what the amount is
And so therefore what it’s not.

“And I think it’s eleven,” added Pooh, “which is an excellent number of pots for a Thursday, though twelve would be even better.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Encores! Presents Zorba!

Life’s what you do while you’re waiting to die.

That’s the opening line of Zorba!, and Your Correspondent felt the same way through the length of the show.

We here at The Jade Sphinx are consistently delighted with Encores!, which is dedicated to recreating vintage musicals that have not seen the light of day for decades.  The team, led by Jack Viertel, seeks out the original book, orchestrations and choreography of vintage musicals, and the result is often nothing less than magical.
So it is a dour climax that they close the season with a revival of Zorba!, with a book by Joseph Stein (1912-2010), lyrics by Fred Ebb (1928-2004) and music by John Kander (born 1927). Zorba! was adapted from the 1952 novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, and 1964 film it inspired.  Zorba is about the friendship between Zorba and Nikos, a young American who has inherited an abandoned mine on Crete, and their romantic relationships with a French woman and a local widow.

The original production premiered in 1968, and was directed by Hal Prince (born 1928), garnering a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical (and losing to 1776).  It ran for 305 performances, and the 1983 revival with Anthony Quinn (1915-2001) ran for 362 performances. 

Well … where to begin?  It is perhaps essential to confess upfront that Zorba! is filled with so many of the things that Your Correspondent finds objectionable:  ethnic shtick, unpleasant peasants, religious hoo-haw, preening machismo and cheap schmaltz.  Like Fiddler on the Roof and other such happy-peasant, God-it’s-great-to-be-stupid confections, I found it completely indigestible.

The conceit of Zorba is that an American waif Nikos (Santino Fontana) inherits a mine in Greece.  There is he befriended by ‘man’s man’ Zorba, who teaches him the joys of living for the moment.  Yes, it’s Mame on a testosterone high; but where Mame manages to be sweet, engaging, funny and emotionally involving, Zobra is merely a slog.  More importantly (if we continue with Mame for a moment), unlike everyone’s favorite Auntie, no one in Zorba grows, changes, or has any significant insight by the time the curtain mercifully descends.

It is not helped that the cast – with two notable exceptions – cannot breathe life into this torpid stew.  Zorba is supposed to be a manifestation of the life force, and should be played with energy, brio, panache and a touch of arrogance.  Sadly John Tuturro barely registers as a presence.  Add to the fact that he can neither sing in pitch or in tune, and one wonders what he is doing there.  When explosives are needed, Tuturro provides only firecrackers.

Because this is a ‘Greek show,’ there has to be a ‘Greek chorus,’ that narrates the proceedings.  Marin Mazzie fills that role with all the vengeful energy of one of the Greek furies; one gets the feeling that perhaps she has seen Elektra one time too many.  She is a powerful presence, but after a while one feels that she is simply waiting to spit at us.

Fortunately, two cast members stand out above rest.  A benediction upon Zoë Wanamaker, as Hortense, an aging seductress.  Her number, No Boom Boom, is the absolute highlight of the show; and her death song, Happy Birthday, is equally energetic and delightful.  At this point looking rather like Mother Riley from the old British comedies, Wanamaker is a delight to behold.  She has more energy, fire and comedic zest than anyone else in the show.

A close second is Santino Fontana, as the shy intellectual Nikos.  Fontana is one of the most appealing leading men currently on Broadway, with a high octane smile, a winning personality and a beautiful singing voice.  Who put him in a show where he does not have a solo number?

The rest of the cast sinks rapidly from memory.  Zorba! was choreographed by Josh Rhodes and directed by Walter Bobbie; these are extremely talented men, but one suspects that it would take a minor miracle to make a purse out of this sow’s ear. 

Usually we leave Encores! enchanted, enriched and delighted.  After seeing our ingénue murdered, our leading man bereft, the one comedic character part die only to have rapacious peasants ransack her house, let alone see workers stealing lunch from a disabled man, I went home and kicked my dog.

Oh, well.  Kicking the dog is what you do while you’re waiting to die.  Or something.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part IV: The Cinema of James Bond

Moore, Being Puckish

How fitting to end (for now) our mediations on the consolations of junk art with one of the most successful manifestations of junk in cinematic history – the James Bond movies.

No one in their right mind would, for a moment, argue that James Bond films are, well, in a word … good.  They are not real in the sense that things happened to the protagonist that change him internally or externally, and certainly not real in the sense that it is possible to make any emotional investment in them.  The vast majority of Bond films are laughably terrible, pandering to our cravings for sex, sadism and snobbery – three preoccupations of his creator, Ian Fleming.

The reasons for the sheer awfulness of the Bond corpus are many.  The short list would include: Bond is never really a character, but merely a good suit and a set of attitudes; the plotting and scripting of the films often disregard any sense of narrative cohesion, probability or good taste; aside from many of the villains, the acting is uniformly bad; and, finally, since they are all commentary upon current issues or obsessions of the time in which they were made, have aged very poorly indeed.

They are irresistible.

While I enjoy most of the Bond films, Your Correspondent must confess a preference for the Roger Moore films.  “Real” Bond fans are already throwing up their hands in exasperation, as the Moore performance is the most deprecated, despised and dismissed of all the big-screen Bonds.  “Real” Bond fans are wrong (more on that later), and, in fact, Moore is the only actor who really understood the role.

Bond is not the nicest of men, and most of the Bonds – Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnon, Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig, especially – have captured that facet of his limited personality fairly well.  But real killer instinct is missing from Moore’s Bond, mainly because Moore, a limited if effective actor, has too much generosity of spirit and genuine goodwill to pull off Bond’s hard edges.  Most important – Moore gets the joke.  The inherent absurdity of the whole idea is best expressed by the phrase world-famous secret agent.  (A neat trick, that.)  The notion of an indestructible lady-killer in a dinner jacket is catnip for a man with Moore’s sense of the absurd.

An excellent and skilled light comedian, Moore made the Bond films something closer to the imaginings of author Ian Fleming, who once admitted to never reading his own Bond books, least he give up on them because of their preposterous nature.  In Fleming’s mind, Bond’s world was part spoof from the get-go.

That is one of the many reasons I’m always amused by adult-adolescents who want a “serious” Bond film (an absurdity equal to the ponderous “adult” Batman films); there is nothing adult about the Bond canon to begin with.  Fleming himself saw them as a means simply to make ready cash, and anyone who doubts that should remember that he tried to cast both David Niven (as Bond) and Noel Coward (as the title character) in the film adaptation of Dr. No – because they were his friends.  (This is no less risible than Fleming’s earlier attempts to cast Susan Hayward … as Jane Bond.  Fleming thought it would be good box office.)

As Fleming himself wrote: I don’t regard James Bond precisely as a hero, but at least he does get on and do his duty, in an extremely corny way … My books have no social significance, except a deleterious one.

Enter Moore, who, with is infectious insouciance, sends up the already absurd.  He is, to date, the only Bond who smiled readily, and actually enjoyed his line readings.  For those who want to revisit the Moore Bond, I recommend the DVDs with his voice-over commentaries, which are infinitely more entertaining than the movies.

When do the Bond films work?  Or, to rephrase it, when are they good?  The Bond films, like the 1960s from which they sprang, are best appreciated when the politics, aesthetics and morals are never seriously considered, and when we can consume their empty calories guiltlessly.  When we think that amoral characters like Bond (and the political structure he supports) would actually work for the common good, and we think global peace hinges on the correct tailor and the right cocktail.  They work best, in short, in the undemanding tatters of our tired imaginations.

I find great consolation in the lightest of Bond films, because here are great resources harnessed for a fully tongue-in-cheek enterprise.  I am also tickled at Moore, once one of the world’s biggest box office attractions, carrying the weight of a multi-million dollar film franchise as if he were carrying the mail.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part III: Phantom Lagoon, a Doc Savage Adventure

All right, we have already written about Doc Savage in these pages.  Dr. Clark “Doc” Savage, Jr., the Man of Bronze, made his debut in pulp magazines in March, 1933 (around the same time that King Kong made his first appearance).  Doc Savage Magazine was published by Street & Smith, and Doc was created by publisher Henry W. Ralston and editor John L. Nanovic, but most of the 181 novels were written by wordsmith Lester Dent (1904-1959).

Doc Savage was a surgeon, explorer, scientist, researcher, criminologist and all-around physical marvel.  He did two hours of intense exercise every day, giving him a fabulous physique.  His body had been tanned a deep bronze during his world travels, and newspapers have dubbed him The Man of Bronze.  His adventures spanned the globe: often starting in his laboratory offices on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, and usually ending up anywhere from the Gobi Desert to the Sargasso Sea.  He was accompanied by five fellow-adventurers, the Fabulous Five – the finest minds ever assembled in one group.  Sometimes, his beautiful cousin Pat Savage would tag along, creating no-end of problems for Doc.

The end of the pulp magazine industry might have meant the end of Doc (his magazine stopped in 1949), but the Nostalgia Boom of the 1960s saw his adventures reprinted in paperback editions, and he found a whole new legion of fans.  The entire Doc corpus was reprinted, reawakening interest and bringing the character to comic books and a series of new novels, written by novelist Will Murray. 

I recently picked up one of Murray’s new Doc Savage adventures, Phantom Lagoon, and it’s a pip.  Set in 1939, and based on notes by Dent himself, Phantom Lagoon concerns Hornetta Hale, aviatrix and world explorer who comes to Doc’s 86th floor HQ looking to hire him, or at least rent his submarine.  Doc and two of his aides, Monk and Ham, send her away as a glory-hound.

Next thing you know, Doc’s HQ is demolished, his hidden hanger of aircraft, boats and submersibles is burned to the ground, and Doc and the boys are on another harrowing adventure – this time, concerning a possible race of underwater men, a sword-cane carrying Nazi, FDR and a volcanic crater.  If you can resist a mix like that, you’re a better man than I, Gunga-Din.

It was actually Phantom Lagoon that started me thinking on the consolations of junk art, and the columns for this week.  Initially, I was going to quote passages from the book here, but, honestly, there is no prose anywhere in the novel worth quoting.  Yes – it’s filled with snappy banter and delicious period phrases, but seekers of beautiful prose must go elsewhere.

Nor did I learn anything about Doc (or Monk or Ham), New York in the 1930s, the then-state of world exploration, or even the Nazi menace while reading Phantom Lagoon.  And, odds are, in just a few scant weeks, the vast majority of the novel will have been sponged from the wet-and-wooly lump of gray matter I call my brain.

But why, then, is Phantom Lagoon art, even if art of a low type?  Because … reading the book rejuvenated my sense of fun and playfulness at a moment that I needed that boost.  Spending a couple of hours with Doc gave me the feeling that the world was still a wide, rich and romantic place, and that there were adventures to be had by the adventurous.  That life, if played correctly, is still a game and that it is possible to be young at heart forever.

It is a book told with zest and esprit, a sense of fun and light-heartedness.  For a few hours, at least, I was on a volcanic Caribbean isle with Doc, fighting Nazis and plunging the mystery of undersea men.  I was, in short … happy.

Look – there is nothing of high mark in this at all.  The characterization is flat or by rote, the writing merely serviceable, the adventure predictable.  But it did the job – and more so.  And that is my point, entirely.  At a moment when I was a little tired and perhaps a little blue, Doc (once again!) came to the rescue. 

It may not be art, but it may just be a benediction.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part II: The Incredible Hulk Television Series

"Mr. McGee, don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry." – Dr. David Banner.

We continue this glimpse at the deep and satisfying consolations of junk art with a look at one of Your Correspondent’s favorite television shows as a boy, The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982).  And yes, I was once a child.

If the criteria for good junk art is that it provides some of the comforts and consolations found in high art, then, believe it or not, The Incredible Hulk fills the bill.  I had not seen it since its initial run, and seldom thought of it since.  However, when I spied a boxed set of the entire series for next-to-no money, the nostalgic impulse was too great and I succumbed.

Let me insert here my feelings, in general, on films and television shows adapted from comic books:  Your Correspondent could happily go to his grave without seeing another one.  Superhero films seem to support the entire film industry right now, crowding out films for adults, films of taste and subtlety and films that are, at least, different.  An orgy of CGI-generated destruction is not an orgy I wish to attend, thank you very much.

However, The Incredible Hulk television show dates back to a time that did not have the crutch of special effects to lean upon, and depended instead on story and character.  I opened the boxed set with a bit of trepidation: very often I have returned to boyhood favorites only to find that the memory was better than the actuality.

Oddly enough, with The Hulk, both were true.  The series is both cheesier than I remembered, and, in ways, more profound than I could have hoped.

For those of you unfamiliar with Hulk-dom, let’s recap the opening narration of the series:  Dr. David Banner: physician; scientist. Searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have. Then an accidental overdose of gamma radiation alters his body chemistry. And now when David Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs. The creature is driven by rage and pursued by an investigative reporter.  The creature is wanted for a murder he didn't commit. David Banner is believed to be dead, and he must let the world think that he is dead, until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him.

So, what we have is Les Misérables told as an episodic science fiction television show.  There is no reason in the world for this thing to work, but it does against all expectations.

Let’s look for a moment at the junk component.  The Hulk was not only a creation of its time, but a mirror of the obsessions of the 1970s.  There were episodes set in discos, amongst truckers and CB radio enthusiasts, in kung-fu schools and there were even digressions in ghetto-chick; tropes included bio feedback, ESP and mind-reading, pop psychology and past-life regression.  But even moving away from the preoccupations of a fairly tacky decade, the writing on The Hulk was too often doughy and simplistic even by network television standards, the problems too rote and elementary, and the resolutions too pat and easy.

And yet.  And yet…

There is something real and … emotionally moving going on in The Incredible Hulk.  Let’s start with the protagonist, Dr. David Banner (played with real sympathy and sweetness by Bill Bixby).  Banner experiments with gamma radiation after losing his lover in a car accident.  His researches lead him to the conclusion that some people in moments of extreme stress or anger find remarkable physical strength … and that those energies start at a cellular level.  Racked by guilt – why did he not have these resources of strength when he needed it? – he tried to duplicate the cellular variations on himself through exposure to gamma radiation.  The tests backfire, and now, in moments of stress, he mutates into a gigantic, green monster (Lou Ferrigno). 

In short, Banner is not a hero in the conventional sense, but someone haunted by the physical manifestations of his own shortcomings; he is tormented because he looked deep inside of himself and found himself wanting.

Every episode, Banner comes into the worlds of new people in new cities and new states, always seeking that elusive cure for his condition.  Because of his inherent decency and humanity, he is often with the underclass or downtrodden, using his considerable medical and scientific gifts to improve the lives of those around him.  And, with clockwork regularity, he leaves these new-found friends once his secret is out and his opportunity for a cure evaporates.  But the real tragedy of Banner is that he is a man running away from himself; the one thing no man can ever successfully do.

McGee (played with conviction by Jack Colvin), his nemesis, is not cardboard cutout, either.  Working for a cheap, tabloid newspaper (think the National Enquirer), McGee sees the Hulk as an opportunity out of the minor leagues and into the bigtime.  But, as the series progresses, the Hulk becomes both an obsession and a beacon.  An obsession because McGee will not let-go, even when in jeopardy of ruining his already shaky career, and a beacon because the Hulk comes to represent to McGee all that is marvelous and unexplained in the world.

Every episode ends with poor Banner once more hitchhiking to the strains of the “Lonely Man” theme by Joseph Harnell, a piano lament in a minor key.  But next week will be exactly the same, no matter how many people Banner meets, or how close he comes to finding a cure.  He will never unburden himself of his own weaknesses, his own fears, or of the monster he carries inside of himself.  It is a perfect existential tragedy.

The Incredible Hulk is junk but it is glorious junk because of the weight it bears – sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully.  It is not a comic book show, but a tragedy told in comic book tropes.  It is impossible to take in the whole series and not feel a sense of sadness, of sympathy or of empathy for the benighted Banner.

Yes, I will lose the respect of many of my readers, but The Incredible Hulk is not junk … and it may even be art.   Of a type.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part I: Star Trek

“Was it not Gautier who used to write about la consolation des arts? I remember picking up a little vellum-covered book in your studio one day and chancing on that delightful phrase. Well, I am not like that young man you told me of when we were down at Marlow together, the young man who used to say that yellow satin could console one for all the miseries of life. I love beautiful things that one can touch and handle. Old brocades, green bronzes, lacquer-work, carved ivories, exquisite surroundings, luxury, pomp—there is much to be got from all these.” --- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

"To the man who loves art for its own sake," remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, "it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.”  -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Cooper Beeches (1892)

Two very different concepts on the curative power of art, written only one year apart.  However, recent events have led me to believe that it may be Sir Arthur and not Mr. Wilde who was closer to the mark.

Your Correspondent has recently been thinking of the pleasures of pop art versus those found in the Fine Arts, the proper subject of this blog.  Dealing with multiple responsibilities, I relaxed within the warm confines of some delightful junk art.  It has gotten me thinking that often, when tired, that it was not towards the highest, but, rather, towards the lowest that I went for succor and comfort.  Why, I wonder, would that be?

The reasons are multiple and, as is usual when considering art of any type, complex.  It would be too easy by half to say that junk art provides only expected sensations, and, consequently, comfort, pleasure and even a kind of solace.  Nor do I think that good junk art was created solely for the groundlings, who are unworthy (or unwilling) to interact with the higher branches of the fine arts.  No … I would argue that good junk art stimulates essential pleasure centers of the brain, pleasure centers that were meant to be stimulated, and that need that stimulus in order to remain healthy.

So, we have to agree when Sherlock Holmes says that art’s keenest pleasures are often to be derived in its least important and lowliest manifestations.  (It is important to remember here, too, that the Sherlock Holmes stories are junk art of the very highest pedigree.)

I have been enjoying a great deal of junk art over the past couple of weeks, and wanted to share both the delights and pitfalls to be found in them.  And how better than to start with that global phenomena, Star Trek.

For those readers who have not been living in a cave for nearly the last 50 years or so, Star Trek started as a science fiction thriller on network television in the 1960s.  It fairly limped along for three seasons until the network pulled the plug in search of something that would generate better ratings.

Normally, the result would’ve been that the vast majority of American viewers simply opened another beer and moved onto to some other program.  But Star Trek would not die.  It was saved once during its initial run by a letter campaign that ensured the final two seasons, and once it was off for good, it was kept alive in syndication, comic books, novels, fan fiction and on the convention circuit.

A decade after the last television episode saw the first, big-budget film adaptation, and the franchise has not stopped for breath since.  There have been 12 movie adaptations, and five later television series.  It does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

As with any huge entertainment franchise, there is much that is good and much that is bad in Star Trek.  Your correspondent has a soft spot for the original series, starring William Shatner and the late Leonard Nimoy, and likes Star Trek: The Next Generation a great deal.  But … it’s all still junk.

Though there will be calls for my head on a pike, the ugly truth is that when Star Trek is good, it’s pedigree junk, and when it’s bad, it’s nearly unwatchable.

What’s the good?  Well, Star Trek will often confront questions on the nature of the human condition … but only in the most surface and reassuring way.  Vindications of our simple humanity and calls for universal tolerance and progress are all good things.  And when these homilies are delivered by an actor with real gravitas (such as Patrick Stewart, who played the Shakespeare-quoting Captain Picard), they can sound wonderfully profound.  However, their profundity is of the Reader’s Digest sampler kind; propositions no one is really going take issue with, and never to be examined in any depth.

This often makes terrific television and compelling movies, but it is not art of a high order.  In short, Star Trek is an imitation classic – it is Shakespeare for those too tired, or uninterested, in the real thing.  But, unlike Shakespeare, any real profundity is brought to it by the viewer, and is not really inherent in the text.  But its deficiencies are not the point … Star Trek, in terms of high-minded themes translated into compelling drama still manages to get the job done.

What’s the bad?  Well … like many offerings that generate obsessive fan-bases, Star Trek is often its own worst enemy.  Too often plot, character development or even the underlying philosophy of the concept are driven by demands of an entrenched fan-base.  That kind of outward direction has killed greater modes of artistic expression, and for a franchise it can be the kiss of death.  (For an example of this, look at the disaster that is Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country.  Designed as the farewell film of the original cast, it is little more than a litany of shtick, none of which seems to make sense in context of the story.)

Another problem is that, with an enterprise like Star Trek (sorry), it is impossible not to come to the well too many times.  Though it is often reinvented with tweaks that give the appearance of freshness, the franchise is filled with tired blood and should be put out of its misery.

Wait … I hear you saying, isn’t the whole point of this the consolation of the arts?  Indeed it is.  Your correspondent admits that when he is tired, there are few things more comforting that an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Just listening to Stewart mouth the platitudes and homilies that Star Trek provides in great profusion can be a tremendous solace.  It is also a delight to know that someone, somewhere, believes that the race will continue to exist hundreds of years from now, and will even move out into the stars.  Finally, while Star Trek would never argue in favor of the perfectibility of the human race, it continues to underscore what is worthy, heroic and noble in our natures.

And that’s not junk.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Encores! Presents: Lady Be Good

What a joy it is to live in near the good people at Encores!  As readers of this column know, Encores! is dedicated to recreating vintage musicals that have not seen the light of day for decades.  The team, led by Jack Viertel, resurrect book, orchestrations and choreography of these lost treasures, and the result is often nothing less than magical.

That alchemy was in evidence this week when the team recreated Lady, Be Good, with score and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, and a book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson.  The original Broadway production opened in 1924 – a 90 year old musical! – and starred the team of Fred and Adele Astaire.

The story is gossamer thin – brother and sister Dick and Susie Trevor are evicted, leaving them on their bed in the street.  In order to eat (and find a rich wife for Dick), they crash the garden party of socialite Jo Vanderwater; however, Dick really loves Shirley Vernon and wonders if he can sell his affections for money.

Meanwhile, Susie meets a charismatic hobo back from Mexico, who may (or may not) be heir to a fortune.  Add to that a scheming lawyer, mistaken identity and comic hijinks both high and low, and you have the makings for one of the first Broadway musical comedies.

Where to begin?  The cast that Encores! has managed to gather is marvelous.  Danny Gardner and Patti Murin star in the roles originated by the Astaires, and they consistently hit just the right note of light screwball musicality.  They open the show with the delightful Hang On To Me, a song that has fallen into some undeserved obscurity, but is quite special in its lilting beauty.  Also terrific is their syncopated number, Swiss Miss, which guys everything Swiss, from chocolates to cheese.  (Good thing the Swiss are not currently protected by the P.C. police…)

Jeff Hiller and Kirsten Wyatt shine incandescently in the supporting comedy roles, and sell We’re Here Because in a manner to bring down the house.  Watch for both Hiller and Wyatt in the future … they are meant for great things.

Douglas Sills has the plum role of shyster lawyer J. Watterson Watkins.  Sills – his slick 1930s handsomeness working to good effect – has a wonderful voice and superb comic timing.  The Encores! performances are really staged readings, and Sills manages to milk the necessity of holding bound copies of the play’s book for maximum laughs.  He nearly walks away with the show tucked neatly in his jacket pocket, along with his showy pocket square.

Colin Donnell shines as Jack Robinson (yes, that’s the name), the hobo who may also be an heir.  A sweet-voiced juvenile, he shows to great effect both musically and comically.  His duet with Patti Murin, So Am I, is a charmer.

Special mention must be made of Broadway legend Tommy Tune, in a special cameo as the Professor.  In a medley of rich, primary colored costumes, the leggy Mr. Tune comes onstage whenever the plot needs a lift – age has not withered Tune, and his smiling interruptions are great fun.  Even today, Tune radiates good cheer.

Rob Fisher is the guest conductor of this edition of Encores! and Lady, Be Good was directed with a deft and light touch by Mark Brokaw.

As always with Encores!, the show is open only a brief time.  The last performance of Lady, Be Good is February 8.  Buy, steal or beg a ticket – it’s not to be missed.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Party (1968)

I had so much fun reading American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller, that I decided to briefly write about some of my favorite comedies.  So it was a double bit of serendipity to learn that the 1968 cult hit The Party recently made its way to Blu-Ray and DVD.  If you have not seen this film – and it’s unlikely that you have – get yourself a copy.  You will not be disappointed.

The Party is the only collaboration between Peter Sellers (1925-1980) and director Blake Edwards (1922-2010) that was not a Pink Panther film.  In fact, after shooting the second Panther film, the hilarious A Shot in the Dark (1964), both men vowed never to work with one-another again.

Edwards then conceived a film that would be a tribute to the great silent clowns of his boyhood.  According to Edwards, his childhood was largely an unhappy one, save for the moments of transcendence afforded by such clowns as Buster Keaton (1895-1966) and Harold Lloyd (1893-1971).  He often allowed this silent-screen era slapstick sensibility to creep into his work (look, for instance, at the epic pie fight in The Great Race), but a strictly silent film was a challenge he wanted to set for himself.

Always contemptuous of the Hollywood scene, Edwards conceived of a silent film about an incompetent and accident-prone actor, blackballed by Hollywood but inadvertently invited to a swanky soiree where he wreaks havoc.  The initial screenplay was little more than 60 pages long, and was mostly the set-up for gags that would be improvised on the set.

But who would star in it?

After much internal debate, Edwards decided to bring the project to Sellers, who instantly fell in love with it.  Edwards encouraged Sellers to create a character – a fish out of water who was basically decent, but inherently accident-prone.  Out of whole cloth, Sellers fashioned Hrundi V. Bakshi, the world’s worst actor.  The Party opens with Sellers as Bakshi starring in desert opus Son of Gunga Din, ruining take-after-take and unexpectedly demolishing the key standing set. 

However, his ends up on a party list rather than a kill-list, and from that simple premise, Edwards and his cast improvised the movie, shooting in sequence to ensure that the story flowed properly.

The Party is a remarkable film for its time, and for ours, as well.  The story is so lose and improvisatory, and the narrative arc, such as it is, so fluid that one could easily mistake it for a French comedy of the era.  That Edwards was able to get away with such a high-cost gamble is quite an achievement, and it seems unlikely that something similar would happen again today (unless it involved ray guns or superheroes). 

In addition, it is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film.  Though there is dialog, very little of it moves the story forward, and most of it would take up some three single-spaced pages of text.  It’s not surprising that so many people have been either confounded or disappointed in The Party; it’s the world’s only all-talking silent movie. 

The root of its genius is that both Edwards and Sellers understood on a deep and profound level physical comedy.  They were able to mine gold from simple set-ups.  Here is perhaps my favorite sequence in the film:  Bakshi desperately needs to relieve himself, and finally finding a lavatory, struggles with his environment:

The film resided in limbo for a while, never really finding its audience.  I was lucky enough to see it on late-night television in my boyhood before it seemed to vanish completely.  Since its release, it has acquired something of a cult following, with many ardents of both Sellers and Edwards championing it as their best film.  We wouldn’t go quite that far, but it is something very special, off-the-beaten-track, and splendidly funny.

Happily, Sellers is surrounded by a talented supporting cast.  Special kudos must go to Steve Franken (1932 – 2012) as the drunken waiter – who nearly steals the film with hardly a word spoken.  Franken was a familiar face in both movies and television, and this film will make you wonder why he was never a bigger star.  His comedic timing is flawless, and one wishes a follow-up movie would be built around his character.  Former screen Tarzan Denny Miller (1934 –2014) is especially fetching as cowboy-western star “Wyoming Bill” Kelso, and J. Edward McKinley (1917 – 2004) as the host deadpans superbly.

Fans of period cinema would find much to savor, as well.  Few films scream a 1960s sensibility more than The Party.  Its Henry Mancini (1924-1994) score will either charm or repel you; in addition, the romantic lead is Claudine Longet (born 1942), who is one of the great mysteries of the 1960s.  Quite popular as a singer and actress, she has evaporated into well-deserved obscurity.  Why was she so popular?

Though not to all tastes, The Party comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller

We started the year dipping into a delightful surprise – American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller.  Arranged alphabetically, Miller enumerates the countless tropes so frequent in American comedy circa 1900-1966, and why they were funny and what they tell us about Americans of old.

Miller creates an artificial cutoff of 1966, citing anecdotally that the upheavals of the 1960s resulted in a seismic change in what America meant and, consequently, what it meant to be an American.  One would think that this is an invitation for Miller – a professor at Bennington College in Vermont and the author of Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects – to take potshots at the Great American Century.  However, such is not the case at all, as Miller rightly sees the downside of our social “progress.”  More often than not, it would seem to Miller that the America of the 1920s, 30s and 40s was a funnier, and perhaps, better place than the country we know today.  (A sentiment with which we here at the Jade Sphinx are in full agreement.)

The book has entries on a wide array of laugh-getters, including falling safes and anvils, pratfalls, milquetoasts, flappers, hash, hobos, outhouses, rolling pins, castor oil, dishwashing husbands, nosey neighbors and noise – and that is just scratching the surface.  Miller also talks about many of the formerly great venues for this humor, including full-page comic strips, radio comedy, silent movies, and of course, joke books. 

Coming in at 544 pages, one would think that American Cornball more than overstays its welcome; however, one wishes the book was longer and some of the entries more detailed.

Miller’s particular genius is not just in enumerating instances of a comedic trope, but wondering why they were (or are) funny in the first place.  Miller has keen insight into the human condition, and finds many of his observations in the arena of the ridiculous.  Though not a philosopher like G. K. Chesterton (quoted, incidentally, in this volume), Miller’s worldview is that of an expansive humanist with a predisposition to the comic rather than the tragic. 

The encyclopedia format keeps the observations loose and light, and this also proves to be one of the few flaws in the book: when Miller really has something to say (which is often), he is hamstrung by his format.  One hopes that he will follow-up American Cornball with a collection of essays of greater depth and fewer topics, as there is much more for him to say.

But what he does say here is terrific and to be savored.  I read through the volume with a goofy smile plastered on my face – and how could anyone resist a book that cites the Three Stooges, W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers a source material?

Here is an example of Miller at his best, rifting on the subject of pain:  There is, as far as I know, not one scene in all of Henry James where a character of either sex sits on a thumbtack.  I haven’t read everything by Henry James, but I’ve read enough to know what the rest must be like, and nowhere do I see a thumbtack penetrating an unsuspecting buttock.  Stubbed toes are also few and far between, if they occur at all.  And unlike all those hapless dads on America’s Funniest Home Videos, the males in James’s arcadia never get it in the balls.

Good stuff, that, but better still, here he is midway on his discussion of morons:  In our culture, “That’s not funny” really means “It’s wrong to laugh at that,” which is why we sometimes say it even while laughing.  “That’s not funny” is only secondarily a report on the speaker’s true reactions, though it can be an effort to train those reactions.  If you strongly disapprove of something and therefore insist it isn’t funny, that isn’t quite as dishonest as insisting that O.J. Simpson was never a great running back because you hate the psychopathic asshole he later became.  No, it’s more like refusing to find an actress beautiful because you hate her personality.  Given the determination, you really can suppress your sense of humor, like your sense of beauty.  But if you say, “There’s nothing funny about mental retardation, and for the life of me I’ve never understood why anything thinks there is,” you must be either a hypocrite or a saint.  Either way, you’ve clearly forgotten the jokes of your childhood…..

Then there is this, on farting:  Before it became permissible to discuss farts openly, our forebears relied on all kinds of substitutes— from ducks to tubas, from foghorns to balloons. It may be that the fully lifelike simulation of farts became possible only with later improvements in sheet rubber, but in the pre-whoopee epoch it wasn’t necessary or even desirable for a noisemaker to sound exactly like the real thing; it just had to sound like something sometimes used to symbolize the real thing. Novelty makers are always boasting about how “realistic” their products are, but in this case, realism wasn’t wanted.  Instead, aspiring practical jokers were offered a range of metonymies and metaphors.  Even in our unembarrassed age, the whoopee cushion itself still claims to imitate a “Bronx cheer” or raspberry—not a fart but the imitation of one made by buzzing the lips in what linguists call a bilabial trill. (The reason that sound is called a “raspberry” is that it is or was cockney rhyming slang for “fart,” via “raspberry tart.”) The sound is the best simulation of a fart we can produce with our normal speech apparatus.  In the early 1930s, when whoopee cushions took the world by storm, raspberries too were in fashion, at least on the funny pages—both Dagwood and Popeye had recourse to them now and then.  A little later, Al Capp gave us Joe Btfsplk, the world’s biggest jinx, easily recognized by the small black cloud—a personal fart cloud? —hanging over him at all times. When asked how to pronounce Joe’s surname, Capp would respond with a raspberry, adding, “How else would you pronounce it?”

I loved American Cornball, and spent much of the past few weeks reading it aloud to all and sundry.  This is a treasure for anyone interested in humor – and a perfect gift for those without a sense of one.  Highly recommended – and Mr. Miller, more, please.