Monthly Archives: March 2016

Creature Double Feature on Channel 56

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Creature Double Feature on Channel 56

Monsters.

So when my dad died I was five years old, and had precious little context to work with. I remember feeling numb, confused, unable to process the real implication of what it meant to lose a parent whom I’d barely gotten to really know. He’d been been sitting in his recliner one moment, and was gone the next, never to return. I stared out the window a lot, and watched the vultures congregate along the treeline ringing our house in Wauwinet (Nantucket, Massachusetts). I liked the vultures. They were the first birds I met. Carrion birds.

This memory stuck with me, however–my dad had told me something interesting about the image of King Kong breaking through his huge gate on Skull Island, where the natives scatter and Fay Wray, the intended sacrifice, writhes enchained, terrified by the “monster” raging in front of her. I identified with Kong immediately, because of what my dad had said: “He’s more afraid of them than they are of him.” And but hey let’s circle back to Ms. Wray a second here. The mere sight of this beauty enchants the beast, comforts him, allays his fear but does not compromise his strength (as we  see later in the jungles). This may have been the origins on my identification as female, but also the root of my blonde envy (I’m brunette). Here I took away a little something from both parties–identification with the beast, raging and powerful, and with beauty–passive, nurturing, forward-thinking, and yet somehow fateful, or even malignant. I think this is what one would call a paradox.

The recent passing of Keith Emerson (1944-2016) evoked memories of my initial gateway into a world of wonder when I needed it the most. Creature Double Feature [on Channel 56, for Boston] used the Emerson Lake & Palmer track “Toccata” [1973] as the ongoing theme song, and their creative edit of that percussive, diving synth tone made you think you were not only hearing a warning of a impending danger, but also an alien siren call, enticing you to the sticky web.

This show was the first exposure to speculative fiction for many of my generation, and I can only speak for myself when I tell you–finally it was so okay to be left alone.

Monsters became my escapism, actually a new sort of family. Monsters are outcasts but they’re also powerful as fuck, especially on a geopolitical level.

CDF tended to alternate their programming between a classic 1950s/1960s monster movie or a kaiju, a GIANT monster such as Godzilla or King Ghidorah. I was more captivated by kaiju than the “classic” monsters, perhaps because of their parallel with Kong. I must admit, many of these kaiju films don’t hold up very well anymore (often it takes forever to get the story rolling), but at least they made an impression on my young, impressionable brain.

The monsters are worth waiting for.

Best of all: combat between monsters. Sure, we’ll see the same city get squashed, but when monsters with unique, mutant characteristics and deadly biological weaponry do battle, it’s really fun to watch.

My CDF nostalgia runs deep–I’ll take the rubber suit and visible tethers over digital effects any day.

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Top Five Comedies, 2016 edition

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Top Five Comedies, 2016 edition

Well hey check it out. See? I’m not all doom and gloom.

I’ve been chewing on this post for a bit, and although the first films I saw when I was a kid were dark fantasy (The Wizard of Oz, King Kong), comedies also had a huge impact on me. Sometimes laughter is indeed the best medicine. Maybe this was because I spent so much time alone, and just being allowed to laugh at stupid shit can have a huge positive impact. Some films, like 9 to 5 (1980), went out on a limb but also had very important things to say about misogyny and women’s rights in the twentieth century, others like Galaxina (also 1980) were just plain cynical and bad, but also held a certain charm (this brunette caught blonde-envy from both films).

I like to limit these to just five, out of politeness, but also hopefully some of you may not have otherwise known about one or two.

1.) Airplane! (1980)
Surely, this pick seems obvious […]
A raging and unhinged spoof of 1970s disaster porn (the Airport film series, in particular), a proliferation of bad puns, an inspiration for a new school of Samuel Beckett-level absurdity, this film not only bludgeoned audiences with a rubber-chicken non-stop, it set an entirely new standard for comedy writing. Part of what made it work was the quality of acting (the poor shemps had to keep a straight face while delivering those lines), and the fact that so many of the jokes just fell short — and as you groaned with incredulity, a new joke, visual or verbal, would be next up on the conveyor belt. The joke would be just as bad if not worse than its predecessor, but it also had the 50/50 chance of throwing you into utter hysterics.

The film has classic staying power. Compounded with the fact that this came out (pun intended) at the dawn of the Reagan 1980s, the absurdity seemed all the more poignant in light of the catastrophes and atrocities that followed.

The lasting success of this oddball farce blazed the trail for Police Squad!, The Naked Gun, and even the “Scary Movie” franchise (with more limited results). To make comedy work, you need to exaggerate, and context is everything, it seems. A catchy tune doesn’t hurt, either.

2.) Quick Change (1990)
The bank robbery was easy. Getting out of New York was a nightmare.

Bill Murray’s career had taken a downturn with treacle like “Ghostbusters II” and “Scrooged,” but “Quick Change” definitely leveled-him-up and his repertoire recovered noticeably. In this film, every character flaw becomes a virtue as we embark on a “what-could-possibly-go-wrong” coaster ride of urban apathy, accidental fortunes, physical injuries, failed disguises, miscommunication, and best of all, some of the most sardonic wise-cracks available east of the Hudson River. As with Wayne Wang’s brilliant “Blue in the Face” (1995) New Yorkers should be able to see themselves reflected in at least one character. It’s a wild ride.

3.) Blazing Saddles (1974)
I don’t think this film could be made today, but it has a close and recently released progeny: Tangerine (2015).

I’m not qualified to speak about racism. It is obviously pervasive in 2016 but I was raised with certain tenets = there’s right and wrong, and judging people you’ve never met and/or conversed with just by their ethnicity and/or the color of their skin is just plain f-ed up. And yet why do I feel constantly trapped by the quagmire of racial inequality? I think my bewilderment is an intentional design of certain parties–historic, current, and future. I speak for no one but myself.

The socioeconomic complications of race in this great but bizarre nation are only somewhat unique and discouraging. The vulgarity and humanity of “Blazing Saddles” assuages some of that pain, if only temporarily.

Mel Brooks (and significantly, Richard Pryor) held up a mirror to America’s flaccid Wild West origins, its obsession with gun culture, and cultural appropriations. This was born to be a timeless classic.

4.) Zoolander (2001)
Moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty.

Ugh where do we start with this celebration of vapid impotence? Another amazing New York film. Zoolander hit the theaters very close to the 9/11 attacks, and as NYC struggled to find places to breathe (many movie theaters opened their doors free of charge). For me, Zoolander portrayed the triumph of vacuous ineptitude more effectively than Idiocracy (2006). In a world where nothing is more important than being really, really ridiculously good looking **duckface,** Zoolander amps up the bizarro tradition with spy film. There’s even a hilarious appearance by David Duchovny as a legendary hand-model doubling as “Deep Throat,” attempting to clue the main characters into how the modeling industry ties into an international assassination conspiracy. He becomes understandably exasperated in the process.  The celebrty-culture satire in Zoolander stuck with me, and I keep going back to a world that will always shut me out, no matter how long I wait in line. And even then, I know I’m not missing so very much, anyway.

5.) How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)
Speaking of epic rants, this one really goes for the Olympic Gold. A searing indictment of the preceding Reagan/Thatcher-ite excess, HtGAiA accomplishes what “American Psycho” (2000) could only dream of. Granted, we are speaking of British acid-sprays here, but the tenets are not so far removed here.

Denis Dimbleby Bagley (played brilliantly by Richard E. Grant) is a top advertising executive. Everyone seeks his opinion on how to be the “voice that sells.” Quite suddenly, he becomes blocked on how to sell a generic, topical pimple cream. Then, just as his jaded nature seeks redemption and renewal for the sake of his marriage and his sanity, the darker side of his nature begins to take shape on his very body—first as a boil on his neck, and then as — well, something else entirely. It’s an exhilarating and frightening storyline, and one of the most noble progenitors of bizarro.

First impressions are best. Director Bruce Robinson and Grant had previously made their mark with the cult British classic “Withnail and I” (1987), but this odd and cynical screed against the avarice of the coming tech era hits closer to home for me.

A Close Call, Boskone, Samhain, and The VVitch

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A Close Call, Boskone, Samhain, and The VVitch

My day job as an academic librarian provides plenty of access to resources in the humanities and sciences. I come from more of an arts and literature background than a scientific one, which I often lament because so many of the speculative fiction writers I admire (H.G. Wells, Caitlín R. Kiernan) apply their knowledge of the sciences to their work, and to great effect.

I see the sciences as a form of alchemy, an application of precepts and formulae that can, if used properly and carefully (no accidental explosions), enrich imaginative literature. I apply my background in library science towards cataloging, preservation, and providing public access. There are templates to work from, and I like having such standards to help guide me on my way.

I also often write a librarian into my stories at least as a secondary character. For example, Meredith Magnuson, the former child slave-turned general in Terror Lizard, holds eons of the world’s archives through a device grafted into her right hand.

There is, of course, no formula for success in writing and publishing. Full disclosure = I’ve been writing for decades but have only begun submitting work fairly recently. I value my days and nights playing in punk and metal bands throughout the 1990s and 2000s–sure, I was doing what I wanted to do creatively at the time. However, I also feel wistful for some of the lost time that might have been spent working, crafting, honing, improving. Recently I heard a reasonable estimate: it takes a million words of bad writing before we one can even get close to proficiency. Blogging doesn’t count towards that.

And part of this process is in dealing with rejection.

I need to admit something: I almost hung it all up a few weeks ago. I totally decided to give up writing. We work, we send, we watch, we fall short of expectations.

Submitting out invariably means the rejections pile in with just as much frequency, and there’s a reason for this—the writer’s skin thickens, the technical points of why a piece may have been rejected become less opaque, and it galvanizes you to roll out the next duck for the soup. I keep calling these rejections ‘fun coupons’** because each one might redeem towards a better grasp on the process, and hopefully we break through to the other side, covered in sweat, blood, and chalk. Persistence matters, as does learning from mistakes (with a degree of wariness–one person’s mistake is another person’s breakthrough).

But yeah, when it happens, rejection just sucks the life out you. You spent hours, days, weeks, years on that story–but you did it all wrong. Luckily, my defeat-fugue state only lasted a day or so until—

My first Boskone! Since I retired from playing the metal (as far as live sets go, anyway) I’ve been to Anthocon, Readercon, Necon (all of which are amazing, and RIP Anthocon 2016). Writing is a solitary activity, but these gatherings are a tactile experience for us to connect with people who love the process, the literature, the films, the art as much as we do on our own. You never know whom you will meet by chance. My friends list in social media increased by at least a third over the past year, just by putting myself out there and networking. Anyone who knows me can see that I’m a total introvert, but there’s a good trick to meeting people: just smile, for crissakes! Mind your body language, as well, and respect space.

Boskone was so awesome, I was surprised I hadn’t known of it before. Here was a chance to reconnect with friends and make new ones. I shouldn’t go into a super amount of detail (because I can only convey so much awesome) but suffice it say that the experience infused me with a new sense of belonging and purpose. I decided to not give up just yet.

I will tell one quick story, though. On the last day, I participated in my first Rapid-Fire-Reading (RFR) with Broad Universe, an organization I belong to that helps promote and advance women writers of speculative fiction. I had rehearsed my excerpt at home to try and make sure I ran under the requisite four-minute limit (that’s why they’re rapid, and you can have about ten readers). I got up there, and after a wonderful introduction by L.J. Cohen I took my glasses off (I’m nearsighted, so with glasses on I cannot see text close to my head) and began reading an excerpt from the tail end of The Night Faith.

So people were filtering in and out, as is normal at any con with multiple tracks. This excerpt of mine in particular has some potty language. It’s urban-horror-noir. When I reached the end of the excerpt I put my glasses back on and was horrified to find a young child had entered the room! I don’t know how many F-bombs this kid heard me speak unwarily in front of her, but I was also surprised by my reaction–I am a Gen-Xer, child of the 1970s/1980s. Now as I reach middle age, am I becoming so proper and prim? I’d written the F-bombs and horror content to begin with. But as I get older, am I becoming old-fashioned? I’ll answer my question with another question–is it so wrong?

I think it’s pretty funny, because sometimes I’ll just blurt out “FUCKIN’ SLAYER!!!” for no good reason.

At any rate, I apologized to her mother, who told me that her daughter had heard worse from her, and no harm no foul.

So yes, Boskone invigorated me when I most needed it. In retrospect, I think it’s rather funny that I’d wanted to give up. I think perhaps the main frustration for the day worker/early-morning-and-late-night writer is that we are spending so much time creating, planning, agonizing over craft, but when our efforts fall short after weeks of steady toil, the primal human response (for some) is to curl up and doubt. On a side note, Boskone held a “Dealing with rejection” panel that really helped me understand what others can go through. A little perspective goes a long way.

There is a wonderfully simple solution to this: find the writer’s group that is right for you.

The Friday following, I read the surprising report that Samhain Publishing would be shutting down. I had a hunch something may have been amiss when they canned their horror editor Don D’Auria. [For the record, Samhain had started in 2005 as a romance line]. Brian Keene can give a much better overview, but I was still surprised to hear of such a thing happening within a few months. And when the shock wore off, I understood one of the prime causes a little better: Amazon.

~~[although I must say I’m a bit mystified about why Samhain front-burnered social media marketing to such an extent–that seemed to backfire, and I almost never saw them in my feed, anyway]~~

We love the biz! To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson – Buy the ticket, take the ride AND FASTER FASTER until the thrill of speed overcomes the Fear of Death!!!

The story affects me, because it impacts some cool people I’ve met during the course of the year. It also goes to show how tentative the publishing world can be, not so unlike politics. This is the wild west, indeed. Come on into the saloon—we have really awesome dresses, weapons, tons of booze.

Okay, and on to the TEN TON MEAT.

Go see The VVITCH (2015). I’ve not been as affected by a movie since “There Will Be Blood” (2007) or the reboot (by its own director) of “Funny Games” (also 2007). I’ve already blathered on for way too long but I hope to continue to speak about this very important film. And like “The Exorcist” (1973), the film has garnered very mixed reactions. Actually opinion seems evenly divided: plenty of horror fans say it did absolutely nothing for them, others thought it was the most effective work of horror they’ve seen in years. But only you can decide for yourself.

I need to see it again to understand a little better, but the film traces the downfall of exiled family trying to eke out an existence in the cold, stark wilderness of 1630s New England. They have only their faith, their livestock, their crops, and really their familial bond. All hell begins to break loose when their youngest goes missing and we witness a terrifying descent into doubt, religious paranoia, and spiritual possession. There are themes and rich characterizations (warts and all, especially the partriach) that, as Brian Keene again indicates, are likely to be completely lost on the majority of mainstream movie audiences who have been conditioned to torture porn, shaky cam, and jump scares by a tone-deaf film industry.

About a fortnight previous to the screening we saw, there had been a free showing at The Brattle Theater with the director Robert Eggers. I didn’t think that the average moviegoing public would be at all interested in the film, despite the growing buzz. I gave myself about an hour buffer zone. I didn’t get in, because that line snaked all. around. the. block. It would have been nice to hear Eggers’s insights but I really also wonder how this young, relatively hipster audience reacted to the film. Maybe there is hope? My guess is that they may be a reliable sampling of the VVITCH audience: at least half of them likely hated or didn’t get it, and the other half may have thought they’d just had an experience that made “The Exorcist” seem like “Mary Poppins” by comparison.

The VVITCH is also big on atmosphere, and its final beat was so harrowing (and exhilarating) to witness. When the credits rolled, I totally stood up and gave it the fuckin’ APPLAUSE IT DESERVES.

**fun coupon is a term I appropriated from the only truly enjoyable scene, other than the foot scene of course, in Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film “The Wolf of Wall Street.” This is the clip. You’ll have to look elsewhere for the foot scene.

Postscript: Whenever I feel like hanging it up for good, I open to any random page of the green bible, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch. After a minute or two of reading I bounce right back from the edge. Thankfully I keep two copies: one at home, one at work. It’s been that helpful for me.