Thursday, March 24, 2011

Houdini and the Irreverence of Imagination

There was a period during my childhood where when my imagination was ignited by the idea of magic, I wasn’t thinking about Narnia or Middle Earth, but Harry Houdini.  I don’t remember why.  Stage Magic and Escape Artists were and still are largely a thing of the past (other than the rare performer who is more about Pink Floydesque light shows than human scale misdirection and contortions). 

I read every biography of the man I could find at the library.  And I remember I owned a weighty tome, a bible sized book, not even a kids book, on the history of stage magic.  It had a bright red book jacket and the simple, monolithic and dignified title, Magic.  The typography on the cover was in majestic turn of the century ornate lettering. 

Perhaps it was a fascination with larger than life figures, and the enthralling mystery of the past with its rough wool coats and horse drawn carriages.  That probably is it, because at the same time Houdini was enchanting me, I was fascinated with Edison, The Wizard of Menlo Park, and Alexander Graham Bell who accomplished the feat of sending his voice through a wire to be heard in the distance.

I'm reminded of all this because this morning, during an internet ramble over groggy coffee, I saw that one of the top trending topics on Twitter was Harry Houdini.  Much as his name is still instantly recognizable and practically a synonym for escapology (yes, that is a word), being a Twitter meme just struck me as so randomly and absurdly improbable.  Turns out, it is the crafty dodger’s birthday today.  Ok, fine; but does that explain cresting a Twitter wave?  Is Houdini still that deep in the contemporary public’s imagination?  Is he still a cultural icon?  Do little boys dress up as him for Halloween?  Is there an action figure?

I put down my coffee, put on my Sherlock cap(when I was a kid, I didn’t need to rely on metaphor when I needed my Sherlock cap), and rolling up my sleeves set out to understand why, 85 years after his death, Houdini was topping the Twitter charts.  I scanned some biographical material, looked up various events and retrospectives going on around the world, but nothing really explained why suddenly the cybervoid was cascading with Houdini chatter.

I am a lazy and easily distracted investigator, and after 10 minutes or so of furious inquiry, it struck me that a Google image search of the man was just the instant gratification my frustration required.  Serendipity loves me, and I found that today, the sign hanging over the Google shop looked like this:

Mystery solved.  Sort of.

I’m not sure why Google, who often dresses up its logo for holidays, would actually cobble together a completely different logo for this particular historical figure.  Maybe whoever owns Google was also fascinated as a child.  Doesn’t really matter, I heartily approve of the colourful gesture.  I approve of a nod that makes millions of people stop for a moment and imagine the past; a nod that might spark a childhood memory of bright eyed wonder; a nod that reminds us of spectacles that didn’t require 200 million dollars worth of special effects.  It’s a delightful way to start the day.

I find myself, now, still casting back in memory to days of childhood enterprises when my pursuits required no order or reason.  I simply raced off after my obsessive nose in any direction that took me in the moment.  One week it might be steam engines, the week before that Charles M. Schulz.  Always, either the library or my household bookshelves had something to feed fierce curiosity.  Of course, trawling library stacks for answers was just as likely to result in abandoning a question when kismet intervened in the form of some completely unrelated book catching my eye.

It all gets me thinking about a series of articles in the British press over the last couple of days.  Some Minister was rallying for a reading challenge of 50 books a year for kids.  It was a goodwill publicity kind of thing, some easy sound bites— really, it’s not such a stretch to stand up and say you are generally in favor of literacy.  Only there was a backlash as the British government (and everywhere really) is closing libraries, slashing school budgets and social programs and in general making it more and more difficult for children to have books.  A number of prominent authors piped up to on the nature of reading, the motivations for reading.  They criticized the idea of quantifying reading, of making it seem a chore, a hurdle to overcome.  After all, a child who likes reading will plow through enormous numbers of books, many times the low bar 50 expectation.   

There was also much discussion on what children should read.  Recommendations of important novels poured in.  Serious people called out for the inclusion of non-fiction.  I appreciated Philip Pullman’s contribution that children need ready access to ample amounts of rubbish.  It echoes sentiments Michael Chabon has so often elaborated on concerning the value of pulp novels, genre fiction and comic books.  There aren’t many as literate as Chabon, so I am inclined to accept his wisdom on the matter.

Really what all the factions combined are getting at is children need access to a broad variety of books.  Rather than a curriculum, or seal of approval from educators, they need no one peeping over their shoulders or interrupting them as they follow their own spontaneous noses.

Of course, children also need to see adults reading, to know that it is a normal past time.  It also plants the seed to wonder what is in those books that they should so occupy the attention of adults.  I was fortunate to grow up in a home where making rounds of the library and book store was as regular as many people hit up Netflix.  Keep in mind, this wasn’t the parental chore of getting a kid to read.  The adults were just following their own noses and I was left to my own devices.  No one told me to read, or what to read.  If someone had, they wouldn’t have been recommending Houdini biographies or Peanuts strips.  And I probably would have resented being told what I ought to be interested in and for how long.

What does any of this have to do with Houdini’s birthday?  Nothing.  But it does have to do with spontaneous curiosity generated by a logo, by random objects and events in our paths that ignite something and beckon us to follow.  It does have to do with the real magic books have to transport and transform, and to fill the mind while always increasing its capacity.

So Happy Birthday Houdini.  Thanks for all the memories.  And thank you libraries for having been able to keep up with my rapacious appetite.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Raiders of Raiders of the Lost Ark

A good friend of mine cited timing as being everything.  He wrote eruditely of the boomers, in context of their timing with rock and roll.  I will take his lead to do the same.

While I loathe calling it so, Generation X commenced in 1964.  Its imagination grew in the the 70’s and early ‘80s.  It’s one of the reasons that Star Wars is such a big thing on the internet.  Culture and technology interacting.

Sleight of hand aside, that film is not my purpose, nor is Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I was just trying to attract your attention. 

That film, Raiders, was one of the first films I ventured out of my neighbourhood to see, unsupervised (so I am a full on gen x).  My friends and I went into a newfangled far away thing called a Cineplex, and used our g-rated tickets to get into Raiders.  We walked out afterward into the bright light in ecstasy.  Nothing had ever prepared us for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

 I was torn between how badly I wanted to be Dr. Jones, or have my father be Dr. Jones.

By the time of the second film several years later, I was already lost in arson, theft and other adolescent norms in a bad neighbourhood and such is the chasm of a few years: a far cry from dreaming of adventure.  I never saw the second film until much later.  When I did, I was angry, it seemed cheapened.  It did not remind me of that rich time of childhood when everything was possible.  The first time I encountered it, I think I turned it off.  It seemed to capitalize in a paltry way on the Indie magic in a way that only seems more common today.

If you were young from ’75-85, you are a warm loved child of Spielberg and Lucas.  Why would I have missed and then hated this film?  Jaws came out in ’75; Close Encounters in ’77; Star Wars also came out in ’77, and Empire in ’81.  By the time Temple Of Doom Came out, these crazy lovable films, originally dreamed up by renegades, were being made by wealthy icons beholden to industry.  I missed some of these in the theatre, but basked in them under the golden glow of late night television.Then along came The Thing, and then The Terminator.

I love my youth in film.  I really do.  I had the best of Henson, of Lucas, of Spielberg, of Carpenter, of Cameron.  Unfortunately all that gorgeous mythical beauty spawned the blockbuster.  They inspired big fast films that gripped our needs.  And I had great films later, but they all seemed to keep being watered down.  I do not believe in a golden age.  I think great films happened before my time, and continue to evolve after my time.  But the blockbuster has a monetary hold that it doesn’t deserve and that shapes it into a factory product often enough.  And it derives from my demographic going to the cinema.

I won’t do the math here, but you can look for yourself.  The big blockbusters that spawned our current producer spending habits all made 10-25 times their budget.  It’s no wonder that moguls took notice.  But now, we have big stupid action pieces with no mythos, nothing memorable and they earn 1.25 times their budgets and in the big dollars, that is just barely enough. 

I’m not a curmudgeon.  Some great movies come out of this popcorn film industry.  Little dramas like Monsters, and big extravaganzas like the way the new Batman movies have grabbed people. But the drama, and creative pictures by story tellers are vanishing.  Instead, we get silly blockbusters with truly cut-out characters and they don't enchant so much, hell we hardly pay attention to them even while watching them
I will admit that as a guy reaching middle age, who never met his dreams, I am more willing than ever to see films that distract me from that, and to forgive a cheap effort.

But I am trying to watch Temple Of Doom, and all I can see is the fate of so many films that have come out in the last 25 years.  I feel robbed, not just my child eyes, but my adult eyes too.

There are great movies that are not artistic.  This is where Harrison Ford comes in, because he was involved in some of the best.  Not every movie has to be great, they can’t all be great, but sometimes they are epic.  Sometimes because they were not planned by marketing agencies, or tested, they tap into a vein, someone's inner wonder of something remarkable.  Sometimes they find an unknown icon. 

But in recent times, the films that stand in for great are not actually great or epic.  They are simply tableaus elaborated by visionary music video directors, made into hopeful-iconic pictures.  They are forgettable fodder for our forgettable lives. There are more big set piece films a year than in my entire childhood nowadays, and yet they don't take up memory or cultural meaning like they once did.  I still vividly remember line ups around the block for Superman.  There's already been several big expensive sci-fi movies this year that captured no one's imagination--and it is still winter. 

One of the things I liked about Avatar, which is true whether one loved or hated it, is it was the only movie people talked about that winter, spring and summer.  And some people were as affected by thinking about a race like the Na'avi as people at the end of the seventies were by thinking about Yoda.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

It doesn't matter what colour your parachute is.

In the seventies the addictive boogie man was heroin.  In the early eighties, it was cocaine.  By the end of the eighties it was crack, or super economy cocaine, for the layman.  There was a six week period, when journalists, lacking a new drug, tried to manufacture a new epidemic.  They called it parachute.

No drug user or addict ever called it this.  It consisted of some mad scientist concoction that combined heroin and cocaine.  It was predicated on a tried and true combo that addicts sometimes used, called the “speedball”, when it was called anything at all.  For rough and ready end zone players, it provided the budda-bing of blow, cancelled the crash and instead provided the endless blue simmer of the nod afterward.  It was pretty awesome, but sometimes killed people; like cars, shellfish and football.

But I digress.  All these drugs are paltry compared to the overwhelming success of television.  Maybe The Shield was cocaine, and Six Feet Under was heroin.  Perhaps sitcoms best represent crack.   We deride, we equivocate, and we watch.  We get our fix.  Personal appetite or choice is unimportant, just tuning in.  These are unreported narcotic epidemics.

Recently, I am seeing a formula that must be the elusive parachute that journalists so wanted to be on the forward wave of.  I’m talking about the caustically funny yet dramatic soap opera.  Otherwise known as the jab-jab-deep hook to the solar plexus that really hooks viewers.  Almost everything in primetime now combines the mighty forces of humour and pathos.  It’s brilliant, in a Brave New World way.

There is a really evocative scene in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy.  Our anti-hero and anti-heroine are traipsed languidly across a hotel bed.  Perhaps it was a cigarette toss, I’m not sure, but the whole room lights up in flame.  Foul mouthed Nancy sleeps away, and slack jawed Sid idles his head to the side, takes note of the flames climbing the drapes, and then attempts to drag, unsuccessfully from a cigarette and finally subsides.  This scene may have been confusing to some.  I get it, and I have the skin grafts to prove it.  But more so, I really get a good analogy.

There are nearly one billion people who live the lap of luxury, largely based on colonialism and imperialism.  Today, they do not worry about it, because it is simply efficient neoliberal business.  The mantra is that it creates a rising tide that raises all ships.  Who cares if it is true?  Seinfeld is on.  Both a good show and a celebrity bonfire are passions that drown out anything else.

There is a domino thing beginning in North Africa and the Middle East right now.  It has more to do with food and security than a sudden fed-uppedness with ugly regimes.  And it doesn’t end in far away places.  Less bullety, the “western” world is witnessing every socially progressive thing that has happened in the last three hundred years collapse.  And, newsflash, it isn’t because the republicans are evil and the democrats are lazy stoned leftists.  It is because there are no new continents to exploit, no new ‘niggers’ to enslave, and no magic technologies to fix things.

Hindu farmers are committing suicide.  Union workers are fighting in the streets of Wisconsin.  Panhandlers are murdering in Toronto.  Terrified politicians are fortifying wealth in ways no one alive has ever seen.  Small minded people fear we will move back to a feudal system; they have no imagination about what is coming.

It’s kind of like the colossal fuckstorm that is an addict’s life.  They deny everything, and try and hold the edges together with lies and short term fixes.  Some even whistle innocence when everything goes down.  I hate to say it, but addiction is a perfect analogy to understand a citizen or civilization today.

There are two schools of thought on political power.  One is numbers—say like the Hindu and Chinese(like ants, they can overpower the “evil” elites), and the other is the monetary base. History suggests that the numbers create revolutions that end in crazyhorse regimes, and that a middling monetary base hashes out whatever improvements it feels it needs to, gradually,  and things improve.  I ask where the west is now.

And I come back to Parachute.  Not the cocaine-heroin parachute; keen as it was, it just doesn’t play well with the majority.  But man, tv, tv is gorgeous sexy tits orgasm when it comes to consuming people.  Will the will of a marginally powerful people force civilization to make sensible decisions about the future?  Not in a 500 channel universe.

I explicate the clumsy analogy of drugs because drugs are a billion dollar industry that disengages millions of people, most of them poor (and we all get that picture), while entertainment, with all it’s royalty is a hundreds billions dollar institution that nullifies the senses of an enormous chunk of those western people who are supposedly politically empowered.

There is a famous sound bite from Marx, “religion is the opiate of the people”.  Setting aside that that quote is way out of context, I would say that opium is the opiate of the people, not religion.  In other words, religion is a community institution that binds people together and often encourages them to ‘do good’ for communities far beyond their own back yards, while opium just puts us to sleep, alone in our armchairs.  TV is opium.  Doesn’t matter how clever it gets, how slick production values are, how wicked CGI is, it’s all about being on the nod.  This is far more opiumous than religion.  I’m not making this up, I went through a ‘church’ phase, and every one of them from sensible to wacky, to conservative to transcendental, they were all busy trying to make this supposed temporary earth better.  That is not the sedating activity of a batman movie, or a new forensics crime procedural on tv.

What we consider “the world” is going down right now.  It’s going down with a shortage of phosphorous, nitrogen and peat (if that doesn’t register, the other word is FOOD. and if you don't worry about fertilizer, compare the amount of articles that document a 5% increase in the price of oil versus the 300%-700% price increase in various fertilizer chemicals in the same period).  It’s going down with an end to drunken energy.  It’s going down with the rainforests that regulate oxygen.  It’s going down with ocean life that rules earth’s food chain. It’s going down with the kind of war you can expect after three quarters of a century of wealth built on distributing arms to people who are angry and hungry.  It’s going down to an atmosphere congested with pollutants that will not kill the earth, but will make it a piss poor home for life as we know it.

And on top of all that, now you have to worry about Two and a Half Men being canceled. And the Oscar awards again awarding the wrong nominees, or failing to nominate the right ones at all.  And House jumped the shark too far.  And Sidney Sheldon started writing a different kind of junk book.  And Lady Gaga is too mannish for your late Madonna fantasies.  And goddamn it, I can’t find DVDs of Thundarr.

The journalists who thought up ‘parachute’ were logical in their metaphor.  They were just inaccurate because they weren’t users.  We are all in our parachute addiction.  We are pushing heart failure and lung failure, pushing at every end, and we want every benefit minus every cost.  We want to burn white hot, and then be carried gently down.  I’ve been hooked on everything that has a hook, and I am very impressed with the hook entertainment has.  Imagine, it doesn’t just suppress revolution, but voting and even basic thought processes—and it doesn’t stop you from going to work in the morning--if you still have a job.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Kidnapping The Golden Age

Using metals as a designation for eras is a short hand for technological capability, i.e. Bronze Age, the Iron Age.  In the never ending deification of technology, the paradigm portrays a civilization’s progress through metalworking, amassing strength, power and momentum.  Somewhere along the way, the arts adopted a similar looking way of naming eras, except with the opposite implication, one of degradation: a weakening, a dilution and a loss of value.  We’re all familiar with the notion of the “golden age of cinema”, despite it having little meaning. 
Comic Books are categorized in a similar fashion: Golden Age – Silver Age – Bronze Age.  I really don’t care for era headings that suggest an inexorable decline in quality, an inevitable decay.  It’s pessimistic and inaccurate.  There’s almost a religious self-loathing in the notion of an ideal time followed by a continuous fall from grace leading to the very bottom in the present.  On a grand scale, time is most easily observed as the process of entropy, but that doesn’t translate culturally to the early days of an art form being wizardry, the Silver Age being vaudeville magic shows and the Bronze Age being an unshaven mug hustling card tricks on a street corner.

I suppose, part of the designation has literally to do with the antique collectible value of comic books and that has probably been the most destructive element for comics being part of the magic garden of childhood.

Something that really stands out about comics of yesteryear is a bold simplicity and earnest clarity of line and form; of character and story.  It is easy to perceive earlier incarnations of comics as wielding a kind of purity and innocence—a golden age by way of Dylan Thomas sensibility.  Those comics were definitely drawn for and priced for children, and yet, or maybe because of it, they are sort of timeless and ageless.

I hope children still read comic books, and read them with the intensity and immersion that I remember.  But comics have matured in ways I sometimes find marvelous, but also ways that make me feel sad for the children.  I sometimes feel like we loved our comics so much that we wanted to keep them for ourselves, making them more convoluted as we aged, bogging them down with an adult’s sense of continuity and complexity, not to mention an adult’s sense of interpersonal relationships. Along the way, we may have started to lose the idea that they were for children first.

If far darker and more sophisticated storytelling is not barrier enough to children, there is also the price.  Paper and printing cost more than they once did, and artists and writers are better paid than they once were, but there is an undeniable relationship between the price of comics and the audience.  Pricing of a commodity is always based on the very most the market will bear.  A ten year old cannot compete as a target market with a 45 year old middle manager whose life still revolves around the day of the week that the comics are shipped.  From a business standpoint, that adult market is several cohorts, all more numerous than the dwindling children market, at least two generations into shrinking family size.  Of course that neglects the great wisdom of churches and tobacco companies:  hook ‘em while they’re young.

When I was a kid, most stores had a comic book rack—corner stores, grocery stores, pharmacies.  A kid could independently go on his own quest for 4-colour magic and pay for it with allowance, couch scrounged change, or even by returning a few pop bottles pulled from the trash.  Getting lost in cosmic adventures and heroic glory could be part of a private autonomous universe.  In essence, children were pint sized hunters and gatherers.  Today, virtually the only place to buy a comic book is a comic book store, a specialty shop for collectors and the obsessed.

Today, rather than the subversive act making a pilgrimage on foot or bicycle to the comic rack—sometimes a literally transgressive act if the corner store was outside of a permitted radius from home—the kid has to petition a parent to bring them to the collector store.

There is more to it than just the loss of freedom.  When I was a kid, I had no conception of comics being collected, financially evaluated and sealed away in little plastic vaults.  It would never have occurred to me that an adult would read a comic book.  Sure, by adolescence, in my hunger to read comics from before my time, I had discovered comic book stores.  They were more of an oddity back then, seedier, kind of like the comic shop in the Simpsons.  Back then, it was still common to see kids in these shops. 

In fact, as I reflect on it, I am probably of the first generation that was transitioned into being collectors while still youth, into a world that rabidly followed something akin to the stock market.  I think if you were born ten years before me, the entire formative youth years could be enjoyed in a pristine state where comics were simply a pleasure and an escape.  If you carried on reading them as an adult, it might still simply be a love of the comics even if the layers of pleasure evolved.  The Overstreet Price Guide, a bible of the cape-and-tights financial market, dates back to my youngest years and no further.

Today, after a kid has convinced mom or dad to drive them to the place where comics are hoarded, and accessed a parental credit card--since the cover price on a single comic book ranges from $4-6 these days--there is still one more loss that subtracts from the riches of a child’s own space.  The kid walks into a brightly lit boutique of dense cross merchandising.  Expensive cross-merchandising.  Aimed at adults.  The kid knows it is aimed at adults, because there are no kids in the store.  There is a table in the back, and four men in their early thirties are arguing about Pokemon.  There are two men in expensive suits frantically looking for the newest issue of whatever.  There’s another man leaning on the counter placing an order for a recent anime box set that comes with a “for mature audiences” rating.  Three more guys in their late twenties are in the “toy” aisle drooling over comic hero figurines, which are the oversized, highly sculpted $60-and-up descendents of the $2 Star Wars action figures I grew up with.

The toys themselves shine a light on the intended market.  The action figures I played with as a child were cheaply made, and cheap to buy.  They didn’t have articulated joints, they were coloured poorly and tended to come from generic molds.  To be frank, they look like crap to an adult.  But that didn’t matter because no one was trying to sell them to adults.  You have to remember, to a kid, a blanket propped up on a broom can be a hidden fortress, a cardboard box can be the Batmobile, and a small copse of trees can be Middle Earth.  In comparison, action figures were pretty heady and intoxicating.  We used them to wage campaigns and tell stories.  We also used them to make rules and learn what rules were for.  We unwittingly used them to develop into proper human beings (I forget who said, ‘it is the work of children to play’).  Again, those toys were priced in a child’s budget, and available at any department store.

I stood in a comic store one day, with a friend, marveling at the artistry and detail of today’s toys, and we both got wistful thinking how amazing it must be to be a kid today.  It only took a moment to realize we were missing the point.  These toys were priced for adults, in a shop in the business district, and were meant to be left intact in the packaging and placed reverently on a shelf.  More pointedly, I saw a human interest piece on TV a while back, about a nerdy couple and their vast toy collection.  They gave the camera a loving tour of the climate controlled toy room and towards the end of the piece laughed that the only downside was their kid’s constant complaining that he wasn’t allowed to touch them.  I’ll repeat, the child is not allowed to play with the toys, and they were laughing about it.  It was ghoulish and frightening. These are the monsters of kid’s stories: the Grinches, Selfish Giants and the Hooded Fangs.  Except in those stories, this kind of characteristic is a defect rectified by the end of the story.  

It often seems the comics these toys are based on have gone the same way.  Adults, sequestering and hoarding childhood, simultaneously transforming it into something with no more child-like wonder and ironically, no longer intended for children.

I started off on this tangent thinking about a super hero television show called The Cape.  I’m surprised it hasn’t already been pulled from the air, considering the amount of vitriol, disdain and hate it’s getting.  It’s gloriously ham-fisted, bombastically over the top, and gleefully nonsensical.  It’s a bit stilted, a little bit purple and is filled with rogues on both sides of the good and evil equation.  It reminds me of everything wondrous about any comic book that comes from the golden age, or the early days of the silver age.  In this sense, it is very perfect and very precious.  Adults (who watch super hero shows) hate it.  I don’t mean it doesn’t take their fancy and so they watch something else; I mean they hate it and want it off the air.  These are the same people who want each and every comic book movie to be darker, grittier, edgier.  It doesn’t occur to them, that the hero--The Cape--fills an urgent need for the little boy character on the show.  The tales and the way the tales are depicted are for kids.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying childish things—have you ever watched adults in a Toys’R’Us store?  But there is something terribly tragic about clinging to childhood loves so desperately that they are warped out of any shape where they are still in fact for children.  The funny thing too, is that the broad strokes and simplistic stories and the private child spaces allowed a mythic-ness that is the very reason we retain an abiding love for the form.  It’s the reason those old comics can be read with innocent pleasure or with rich analysis.  Will today’s comic culture germinate an abiding love in today’s children?