28 February 2009

Pride and Prejudice (An No Zombies)

Pride and Prejudice (1813)
By Jane Austen

“Okay, Ryan,” you’re thinking, “what the hell is this?”

Why is a guy who loves giant monster movies, has read The Lord of the Rings fifteen times, adores outrageous pulp literature, and idolizes Westerns, deciding to write a review of a Regency social romance that has already gotten critically picked over for almost two hundred years, and which we all had to read in high school or college anyway?

Good question. Here is part of the answer.

The remainder of the answer: I come not before you now to review Pride and Prejudice so much as to review myself reading Pride and Prejudice. In particular, I have to confront the nature of “taste” and its connection to “opinion,” and how my view on both has changed over the years. I’m a more critical reader today than I was in high school, of course, and I might be a bit more mature as well, although I could debate that. When I first read Pride and Prejudice in high school, I hated it as a boring, pointless, obtuse load of nothing, and had no idea why anybody considered it a classic. I was a high school kid, and hadn’t yet developed more lateral thinking.

Now, having re-read the novel for the first time in twenty years, I appreciate Pride and Prejudice as a classic of literature. I understand why it has such acclaim, and why it means as much to some readers as The Lord of the Rings means to me. Jane Austen has an intense following of “Janeites,” and I think that’s great. I admire fannish devotion, having many fannish loves myself. Fans are awesome.

But do I actually like the book? In places. But on the whole, no, not much. I found it often too easy to drift off into other thoughts while reading it, losing track of who was staying at whose estate, and who was on the outs with who. Like much Regency literature, the novel’s scenes have a way of sliding into each other, and when the physical events of the novel are essentially dinner parties, balls, walks on lanes, and drawing room conversation, a reader like me—who has read most of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Dashiell Hammett—starts to tumble into a haze until a major moment leaps out. Austen gives a great psychological sense of place—this strange world as distant to us as an alien society in its rules of etiquette and decorum—but doesn’t provide the physical sense the way a modern writer would. I only just finished reading the book and couldn’t for the life of you explain what Meryton and Longbourn look like. Such writing does not fall into Austen’s character and dialogue-driven prose style.

25 February 2009

Book review: I Am a Barbarian

I Am a Barbarian
By Edgar Rice Burroughs (Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., 1967)
[I wrote this review a few years ago and it appeared on a website, but it seems to have vanished into the ether of time on the Internet. Considering my recent run on ERB material, and that I’m currently reading and preparing a review for the “companion” novel to this one, Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”, I felt I needed to revive this overview.]

Edgar Rice Burroughs, inventor of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars—and by extension the pulp magazines as we know them—wrote I Am a Barbarian in 1941, when his creative forces appeared spent. He had started his final series, the disappointing and creatively stagnant Venus/Amtor novels, in 1932. The Tarzan adventures limped along, and the once superb Martian series had sputtered out. He wrote only one more complete novel after this one, Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion.” The entry of the United States into World War II prompted Burroughs to take a job as a war correspondent, reducing the time he devoted to writing (or, more accurately, dictating) fiction. I Am a Barbarian did not see print until 1967, nineteen years after the author’s death, when the company he created, ERB Inc., released it in a limited edition of two hundred hardcover books. It soon appeared in a mass-market paperback edition with a gorgeous Boris Vallejo illustration adorning the front (seen here). But it remains one of Burroughs’s least-known works, and even with the recent publication of quality editions of his books, I Am a Barbarian still languishes out of print.

This is an unfortunate situation, because I Am a Barbarian rates as one of the author’s best-written works, and it differs substantially from the standard adventure fare that made him famous but eventually turned stale. Perhaps Burroughs’s had simply tired of the chase-and-escape formula that he had relied on with so many other novels and wanted try something different. The virile title immediately suggests Burroughs business-as-usual, but this isn’t a “barbarian” adventure like a Tarzan novel or The Eternal Savage. It’s a fictionalized historical biography, essentially Burroughs’s version of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. (Naming it I, Barbarian, would have been a touch too obvious, but I Am a Barbarian certainly comes close.)

Graves’s immensely popular historical novel, published seven years earlier to great acclaim, told the first-person account of the early Julio-Claudian Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Caius. I Am a Barbarian uses the identical concept and time period, while slanting it more toward its author’s talents. Instead of viewing ancient Rome through the eyes of a future emperor, Burroughs describes it through the view of a hardened Briton slave. He also narrows the focus to that of one emperor: Caius Caesar, the mad despot better known by his childhood nickname “Caligula” (“Little Boot”).

As he did in many of his works, Burroughs uses a preface to create the illusion of veracity. The Foreword claims that the book is a “free translation of the memoirs of Britannicus, for twenty-five years the slave of Caius Caesar Caligula, emperor of Rome from A.D. 37 to 41,” and lists real sources used to authentic the “facts.” Burroughs does a fine job of maintaining the illusion of Britannicus’s historic voice and presents a realistic look at ancient Rome. The dialogue sometimes slips into Americanized slang, like “nuts!” and “fat chance,” but otherwise Burroughs’s prose stays faithful to its narrator and period.

Most of the novel occurs during the rule of Tiberius Caesar (14–37 C.E.) and concludes with Caligula’s brief but gory reign (37–41 C.E.). The narrator is Britannicus, a slave from Briton whom the young Caligula demanded as his personal servant. Britannicus lives at the whim of this petulant Caesar and his hateful mother, Agrippina, granddaughter of the beloved first emperor, Caesar Augustus. Britannicus has an amicable relationship with Caligula—one of strangest male relationships in the Burroughs canon—but one immersed in tension. Because of the cruel murders of his parents after the Romans captured them, Britannicus swears that one day he will “kill a Caesar.” Readers should have no trouble deducing which Caesar he has in mind.

Black comic satire of the decadence of Rome—or more specifically the decadence of the Julio-Claudians—dominates the book, and Burroughs shows a knack for the brand of biting humor that he rarely got to practice in his other works. Britannicus spares no opportunity to criticize his masters: “From birth, apparently, all the male children in both lines had that idea impressed upon them—to grow up and become an emperor and be poisoned and stabbed in the back. It always seemed to me a ridiculous ambition.” He describes the hateful Agrippina:
Her pride in the Julian blood stemmed from the fact that the family was supposed to have descended directly from a goddess: Venus. But why that should have been anything to boast of, I do not know. Had I been descended from Venus, I should have kept the matter very quiet. She had been a notoriously loose woman, appallingly promiscuous.
Although Britannicus is a barbarian slave among the aristocracy of Rome, he has his own trace of snobbery. He takes pride in his heritage from Cingetorix, the King of Kent (mentioning it innumerable times), and disdains the plebs of Rome as much as he hates the tainted aristocracy. Like Robert E. Howard, Burroughs shows an appreciation of the moral clarity of the barbarian, but he also had a streak of elitism that percolates through his writing, and this book is no exception.

During the twenty-five years that I Am a Barbarian covers, the story switches between the political jockeying, murdering, and general vileness of the Julio-Claudians and the personal life of Britannicus. Britannicus forms important friendships and develops into an excellent charioteer, while the family that owns him tries to maneuver their children onto the Emperor’s throne when the aged Tiberius finally dies. The emphasis is on character and style instead of action, which might disappoint fans of Burroughs’s early fast-paced adventures. The action passages, which include a deadly chariot race, a battle in the Coliseum with a tiger, and a tense near-crucifixion, are very exciting. But the book’s effectiveness stems from Burroughs’s readable style and the fun he has with the sarcastic commentary on Roman decadence.

Burroughs still stumbles over some of his favorite overused devices. He hauls out a chestnut that originates back in his first novel, A Princess of Mars: the frustrated but idealized romantic pursuit. The love that Britannicus has for the slave girl Attica, who spurns him frequently just because she can, feels too similar to the frustrated romantic chases in Tarzan of the Apes, At the Earth’s Core, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, and many others. A love triangle between Brittannicus, Attica, and charioteer Numerius has no genuine tension because Britannicus and Numerius remain friendly with each other in their rivalry.

Burroughs sometimes relies too heavily on his sources, especially I, Claudius. He enumerates the terrors of the Caligula’s reign in a rote fashion, as if he simply had I, Claudius and Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars open in front of him and copied off the mad emperor’s “greatest hits.” All of Caligula’s famed sayings and atrocities—”Off comes this head whenever I give the word,” “Let them hate provided they are afraid,” random slayings of men with more hair than he, nominating his favorite horse to the Senate—get ticked off the list one-by-one. As interesting as Caligula’s madness is, in these passages the book gets too distanced from Britannicus and too imbedded in the blood-red splashes of history. Burroughs does finally weave the romance with Attica into Caligula’s story with a thrilling chariot race and the passionate, bloody conclusion.

Fans and admirers of Edgar Rice Burroughs who have yet to experience I Am a Barbarian should seek it out. Despite the novel’s flaws (and what Burroughs’s novel isn’t flawed?) it will remind readers that the man from Tarzana was a far more talented and varied writer than his critics—and some of his fans—ever imagined.

24 February 2009

Coraline 3D

Coraline 3D (2009)
Directed by Henry Selick. Featuring the Voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Keith David, Ian McShane.

When I was in second grade, I loved making dioramas out of discarded shoeboxes. I first did one as a school assignment, but I loved the art of crafting these scenes from clay, construction paper, and dollops of Elmer’s Glue so much that I started to make my own as a hobby—probably my first creative hobby ever. My favorite type of dioramas was the “peep-hole” style, where you had to look through a small hole cut in the width-end of the shoebox to see the scene, and light filtered in through a hole cut in the top of the box, covered over with cellophane or a piece of thin, colored paper to give the scene a hazy, shaded appearance. I loved how otherworldly my cityscapes cut from paper and lined up rank after rank would look: my first experience with the tricks of perspective and the artificial manipulation of depth—as well as the concept of mise-en-scene.

The new 3D stop-motion animated film Coraline feels exactly like those old dioramas. That makes it the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen in a feature film.

3D filmmaking was a fad in the 1950s, and then for a brief period in the early ‘80s, thanks to the success of an awful gimmick Italian Western called Comin’ at Ya! (I would love to review that movie for you, but in order to get the 3D effect, you have to buy the DVD, not just rent it through Netflix—no thanks.) But 3D, through the popular RealD process, has turned endemic in current filmmaking, with a consistent stream of movies released with those funky polarized glasses included. But Coraline is the first 3D film I’ve seen that uses the dimensional possibilities as part of its fabric, and not as a gag to throw objects at the camera. Planned from its inception as a 3D project, Coraline‘s effect rests on the way the 3D gives it the feeling of true puppetry, watching a dollhouse come to life as you peer through the ceiling. It’s the modern version of the Victorian “Toy Theater,” and it’s a marvel to behold.

And the story holds up as well, not something I could say about director Henry Selick’s previous two projects, James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone, where it seems his dramatic instincts failed him and left the movies floundering on the dirt. Selick got his initial fame from directing Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas, but that had Tim Burton’s stamp and guidance all over it—even in the title. Selick’s two failed films afterwards didn’t bode well for him as a solo-act, but with Coraline, I take back all my doubts. Selick has found his own dark-fantasy zeitgeist, or at least found the perfect material in Neil Gaiman’s wonderful fairy-story and horror tale about the worst chilhood nightmare you could imagine.

Gaiman’s story mixes the Roald Dahl “resourceful child in a dark world of careless and cruel adults” with the primal fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. And maybe a bit of Being John Malkovich; when Coraline discovers the tiny door hidden behind a cabinet, I immediately wondered if she had found the way into John Malkovich’s head.

Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) is an imaginative but prickly girl who hates her new life in a dreary gray Victorian mansion with her negligent parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), who are both more focused on a start-up gardening project—which looks as dreary an affair as the house—than their daughter. The mansion is subdivided into other apartments, containing a cracked circus-mouse trainer, Mr. Bobinksy (Ian McShane), and two flabby former cabaret actresses (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) who like to embalm their dead Scottish terriers and attach angel wings onto them. There’s a boy Coraline’s age who lives nearby, Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), but his grandmother won’t allow him into the house where her sister supposedly vanished; Coraline finds Wybie exasperating and “icky” anyway. Just like everything else around her. Wybie’s cat companion, however, seems to know more than a feline should.

Then Coraline finds the secret door, and enters an alternate universe to meet her “Other Mother and Father.” It’s a mirror of her real world that’s full of color and fun, and where Wybie can’t talk. And for some reason, everyone has buttons for eyes. It’s this creepy touch that tells viewers that everything in the Otherworld might be too good to be true. And it is. The cat, who finds his voice in the alternate world (and fortunately for him it’s the deep tones of Keith David), tries to warn Coraline about the dangers of the “Perfect World” before it turns Perfectly Ghastly.

And ghastly it does turn… Coraline isn’t for young children. It will give them nightmares for months. The theme of the loss of parents is potent enough; combine that with hallucinogenic images of everything a child might experience in a fever dream, and consider yourself sternly warned about taking anyone under eight years old to see this. The 3D imagery won’t calm them either. The more horrific the story turns, the more vividly and grotesquely alive the screen becomes. Children eight and over, however, should love the movie as well as the adults, and enjoy watching Coraline grow as she takes on the evil of the Otherworld to rescue her real parents—who no longer seem so bad.

Among the sequences that make optimum use of the RealD depth are a dance number with circus mice, a trapeze performance, the flowering of a remarkable garden (and its later demoltion by a robo-mantis), and the intensely freaky finale with spider-webs, flying wood shards, and the clinking needle-sharp mechanical hands of the monster at the core of the nightmare. But even so simple a shot as a paper tunnel stretching out in front of Coraline has magic dimensionality to it—all achieved with minimum “boo! hah!” trickery. (Okay, there’s a gag with a sewing needle… but it appeared in the trailer and I think it was designed solely to grab potential viewers.)

With such a rut of CGI animated movies today, and only Pixar turning out the quality, it’s refreshing to see stop-motion animation, where the hand of humans is more evident in the production. That the story fits the design so well is certainly a plus. The stop-motion technology (which does get some CGI aid) is the most flawless I’ve ever seen.

Final conclusion: We’ve got ourselves a new Halloween classic, and the film to beat in the 3D stakes.

The trailers with the film include two upcoming CGI animated films shot in RealD: Monsters vs. Aliens and Up. I must admit that Monsters vs. Aliens looks diverting—certainly more promising than the majority of computer-animated movies, and it is the first CGI 3D film shot specifically for the format, instead of converted to it afterwards. But Up is a Pixar film. ‘Nuff said.

23 February 2009

The Land That Time Forgot: The Movie

Two weeks ago, I regaled you with an extremely lengthy Black Gate post about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic novel, The Land That Time Forgot. But no discussion of this novel would suffice without a similar discussion of the 1975 movie version. And that, of course, requires another long post. (Hey, I gave you a break last week.)

So, after a depature from Burroughs last Tuesday, I’m back in Caspak with a look at The Land That Time Forgot, starring Doug McClure and a dubbed John McEnery. It was the first of three Burroughs adaptations from the British studio Amicus Productions (they of The House That Dripped Blood and other horror anthologies) and U.S. distributor American International Pictures (they of How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and I Was a Teenage Werewolf), and the best of the three. The other two are At the Earth’s Core and the direct sequel to this film, The People That Time Forgot. I promise to review both in upcoming Black Gate installments.

I have fond memories of watching The Land That Time Forgot as a child, and I still love the film today. And, as a bonus, it features a screenplay from Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn.

Read the review here.

Completely pointless Oscar thoughts

I need to say a few words about the Oscars. I didn’t actually watch the ceremony; I no longer have the same attraction to the awards that I once did, and this is perhaps because the films that most interest me usually don’t end up getting nominations—and there’s only so much red carpet pagaentry and bad jokes I can take in a three-hour time period. But I do keep up with the nominations and the winners, so here’s some useless nuggets from me about last night’s statuary distribution.

None of my three favorite movies of 2008, The Dark Knight, WALL·E, and Gran Torino, were in the Best Picture category, but the best of the five nominees, Slumdog Millionaire, won the award. Got no problem with that; it’s a great film, an unusual winner in a pretty bland year, and gives me hope for Danny Boyle’s career once more. I don’t think it deserved some of the other awards it picked up, but Best Picture winners often scoop up a few other bits and pieces in the processes of sweeping up. It didn’t derserve the score award—that should have gone to either Dark Knight or WALL·E, but this is a category that I know better than most Academy voters do.

WALL·E did win Best Animated Feature, but was there ever any doubt about this? It deserved to have a place in the Best Picture category.

Likewise, who doubted that the late Heath Ledger would follow in the footsteps of fellow Australian Peter Finch and collect a posthumous Oscar? I think Ledger would have won the award even if he had lived—what he did with the Joker completely re-imagined an iconic character, it will stand as one of the great villain performances of all time, and the actor fully disappears into the part—but his shocking death last January almost sealed the deal even before the film hit theaters. Whatever the reason, Ledger deserved it and he got it, and it’s sad he isn’t here to enjoy it.

Sean Penn as Best Actor—again. I know it’s a socially relevant movie and role… but I hoped for Mickey Rourke or Frank Langella. Just to be different. I know Langella had no chance, But I rooted for him because he’s been one of my favorite character actors for years. But Clint Eastwood got robbed. He should have had a nomination, and he should have won, dammit. We may never seen another performance from him again.

Kate Winslet won for The Reader. Nobody cares about The Reader. Not even Kate Winslet. I’m sure in her heart she considers it an award for Revolutionary Road.

No awards for Beverly Hills Chihuahua or The Hottie and the Nottie? The End Is Nigh!

See you next year on the red carpet. Maybe I’ll actually watch the show this time.

20 February 2009

The Spaniard in Winter

Finally! My sister updated her blog after an enormous gap. It’s a celebration of snow in Bavaria. I really love this photo of my sister with Diego in the stroller and her dog Cuba. It looks like some sort of ol’ hunting scene (my sister’s cap helps), except the hunting dog has a backpack on:
Here’s Diego in a snowsuit, just a bit too bundled up. He probably hated this. He’s not fond of being too warm:
In related news, doctors found out that Diego only has one kidney. This isn’t life-threatening, you can live a full, normal life with only one kidney. But still, not the news you like to hear.

19 February 2009

The Shadow in Six Men of Evil

Six Men of Evil (1933)
By Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

I haven’t reviewed a Shadow novel in a stretch. Time to rectify that.

Let me reorient everyone. Of all the pulp heroes, The Shadow remains my favorite, and it’s because he benefited from a brilliant plot craftsman who steered his adventures: Walter B. Gibson. Gibson had a natural hand with story-crafting, not only thinking up deviously bizarre crimes and schemes, but figuring out the perfect way to plot them out to ensnare the reader in mystery. The Shadow’s greatest asset is that he is inscrutable, can be everywhere and nowhere, and no one knows who he is. (Even when Gibson, in a 1937 novel, revealed the Shadow’s real identity, he still remained an utter enigma.)

Gibson constantly changed the way in which he plotted The Shadow’s adventures. Sometimes The Shadow takes the center stage, moving through an action-oriented plot. At other times, he remains deep in the darkness at the edge of the story while the reader watches the criminals and The Shadow’s many agents work against each other until the time comes that the dark-cloaked hero shows his manipulating hand. Gibson was also by profession a stage-magician, and The Shadow novels at their best are like grand magical tricks performed on the reader.

16 February 2009

Writing “On the Clock”

For once, I have a post at Black Gate that won’t require you spend half your day scrolling down through it. Today I decided to talk a bit about how I do revisions on novels. I’ve found that doing rewriting strictly “on the clock” means I get much more done. Go here to find out what I mean.

15 February 2009

Movie review: The International

The International (2009)
Directed by Tom Tykwer. Starring Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen, Brian F. O’Byrne, James Rebhorn.

Welcome to the International Bank of Business and Commerce. Please have your passbook ready; we are very strict about this.

My choice of new release to watch this weekend will tell you a bit about my movie-going tastes: I skipped the slasher film re-boot and the chik-flick from chik-lit—perhaps the two most opposed genres you could imagine—and went for the adult-themed espionage thriller. I love this icy genre that gives you a package deal of world tour, suspense, and conspiracy. Today’s thrillers never manage to reach the heights of classics like Three Days of the Condor or Marathon Man, but you still get occasional hard-rollers, like Ronin and the second two Jason Bourne movies. Casino Royale got a taste of it, and the follow-up, Quantum of Solace, tried for the full international-thriller style but loused it up in every way possible.

And what a coincidence: our leading man in The International is none other than Clive Owen, one of around a hundred actors Who Would Have Made a Better 007 Than the Guy We’re Currently Stuck With. Owen has the perfect demeanor and style for this sort of film, and he’s one of The International great strengths.

The other strength of the film is a killer gunfight. I paid six dollars to see The International, and I felt I got my money’s worth alone from this massive shoot-out, which puts to shame 90% of most action scenes from last year, and certainly the ones to come this year as well.

The title refers to an enormous bank, headquartered in Luxembourg, that “controls debt” (according to one of its eventual victims) through pipe-lining Chinese weaponry to various Third World war zones. The IBBC has power every where through these illegal arms deals that put it in control of vast amounts of wealth in developing countries. They’ll assassinate anyone who endangers their deals.

Owen plays Interpol agent Louis Salinger, who has dedicated his health and sanity to taking down this monster bank. However, Interpol doesn’t enforce the law (I’m so glad some filmmaker has finally figured out that Interpol collects information for law enforcement agencies; it doesn’t act as one of those agencies itself), and Salinger has to work with the U.S. Department of Justice and New York Assistant District Attorney Louise Whitman (Naomi Watts). A romance never develops between the two, going against standard films conventions, and I’m very glad for this break in tradition. Just because you have two good-looking leads doesn’t mean they have to go for each other.

The movie rapidly racks up Frequent Flier Miles as Salinger’s quest to nail the IBBC flings us from Berlin, to Milan, to Luxembourg, to New York, to Istanbul. One of the thrills of this sort of movie comes from the location shooting, and German director Tom Tykwer (most famous for Lola Rennt, a.k.a. Run, Lola, Run) doesn’t disappoint with the locales and a combination of street-espionage and the glistening corridors of ultra-modern design.

However, The International falls into the common trap of the genre by losing its focus through too many debriefings and off-the-record secret meetings where the audience lacks essential information to know what’s going on. Early scenes with IBBC employee Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and the heads of the bank are damned confusing, and I think the movie might have benefited more from keeping us in the total dark with Salinger as he tries to pick apart the string of assassinations that point to the IBBC.

The assassin (Brian F. O’Byrne) proves the lynchpin of the taking down the IBBC, and the hunt for him proves the strongest and most coherent section. It also leads to the astonishing gunfight, where pistols and submachine guns shred the Guggenheim Museum in New York into white swiss cheese with a side of shattered glass. The central rotunda of the museum,with its spiraling circular walkways, makes a perfect arena for a constantly moving blast-a-thon where you actually believe the various participants can avoid getting hurt while demolishing the entire place. The pristine white walls of the Guggenheim offer a canvas for bullet holes; director Tykwer uses ballistics as a paint-brush in this scene. The movie poster makes use of the architectural style of the museum, indication the the marketing team knew exactly what viewers would take away the film.

I wondered in the middle of this enormous mayhem, “The Guggenheim didn’t let them actually do this, did they?” No, of course not. According to my friend Brian, the production team built a replica in Germany and smashed that up. There’s no other way they could have pulled it off.

After the gun battle, The International slides off toward its finale. And the finale keeps seeming to step farther and farther away. The movie looks ready to end at any moment, but continues to lurch forward. It’s hard to live up to a smash-up action scene like the Guggenheim fight, but The International whimpers out to a disappointing close.

The film has intelligence, crisp direction, great locations, and some solid performances (I love listening to Armin Mueller-Stahl do his resigned and cool muttering that he does in every film in which he appears; the guy has found his niche), but The International ends up as only an average example of its genre—with one Killer App of an action scene.

Also, I would like to point out that it isn’t hard to bring down a bank. In today’s economic environment, all you have to do is wait.

13 February 2009

Why we blog

The recent Dardos Awards, which I now see spreading over many other blogs as we denizens of the blogosphere rush to recognize our favorite other Dwellers in Darkness, has caused me to ruminate a bit on the art of blogging itself, a form of publishing that has yet to reach its decade anniversary. Weblogs are akin to the amateur press associations that started to flourish in the 1920s, only with a potential worldwide audience.

I’ve come around to a basic question, one I could ask to all the blogosphere, but which I’m certain we would all answer the same way: Why do I blog?

Last month, a friend at work showed me an article in Wired called “Kill Your Blog.” The author advised that because the day of a blog breaking out into general readership and influence has passed—the mega-blogs like HuffPost are now more like online magazines than blogs, and they make it impossible for your clever little article to hit the top of the search engine lists—that people should not consider taking up an online journal. An individual blogger can no longer expect to make a name, a fortune, a career, etc. using the tools of the blog. The author’s argument boils down to “blogging is a waste of time; no one will notice you except hecklers.”

I agree with him… if the only purpose of blogging is to achieve some sort of major fame. In fact, reading the argument, it struck me that the author could conceive of no other purpose for a blog than a tool toward career advancement or making yourself into either a revenue-generating monster or a famous folksy-maven who possesses water cooler-talk notoriety. It comes down to the same argument that Samuel Johnson made: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Johnson was probably saying this facetiously, and to get quoted. The author of the Wired isn’t going for sly satire, however. And sorry, we bloggers don’t roll the way he thinks we roll. We who blog aren’t posting because we want to hit the top of the search engines and send the world to our doorsteps (which would result in far more insult comments anyway). We blog because we enjoy the experience.

It doesn’t matter to me how many people read my blog. If more than one person, i.e. me, reads something I’ve written, that’s success to me. I write a blog because I love to write. Writing is the core of who I am. The expression of ideas, whether fictional adventures or rambling opinions on seventy-year-old mouldering pulp magazine, is what I composes the carbon-based entity known as Ryan Dean Harvey. With fiction, I write it and try to sell it to magazines for publication (so maybe Johnson was partially right), but with nonfiction, which I love to write with equal passion, the best place to put it is on a blog. I can write reviews of movies and books all I want, but the thrill that the general public might come across these opinions and read them—regardless of how many people do so—gives me the impulse to write more and write better.

Blogging makes me a better writer. It makes me a more analytical person. And I think any blogger out there in the electrosphere will agree with me on this. Blogging encourages the sharing of opinion and the development of opinion beyond the level of, “Yeah, that was pretty good.” And it makes no difference if it will hit the top of the search engines. That the possibility exists for the world to read makes it worthwhile for us.

I do sometimes use my blog as a networking tool, even occupational tool, of course. It’s like my online calling card. But I don’t use it as some sort of corporate grappling hook. I pass my blog address to people online, or friends I’ve met, or maybe a magazine where I’m looking for freelance work. I expect to draw mostly a personal audience, people who either know me in real life or who have come to me through other bloggers. You know something? That’s enough for me. It’s all I need to want to write even more.

Blogging is expression, a public one. Maybe a small public, but the appeal of anyone else hearing your voice has immense power in our loud, noisy, info-packed world.

And that’s why I blog. And I’ll wager it’s why you blog as well.

And as for insult comments… that’s why I moderate them. Problem solved.

Woody Allen: “Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food. Frequently, there must be beverage.”

Ryan Harvey: “Why do people blog? They blog for expression. And not only expression. Frequently, there must be some dope writing ‘U R such a loser LOL’ in the comments.”

11 February 2009

The Dardos Award

The Dardos Awards, described as: An award given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. This is an intra-blogosphere award that bloggers give to each other as a way of personal tribute and to increase interaction between those of us who engage in this strange form of self-publishing.

I recently received a Dardos nomination from The Lightning Bug’s Lair, for which I’m very honored. Now I have two responsibilities:
  1. Accept the award by posting it on my blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog. (Done)

  2. Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgment, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award. (About to do.)
So here are the five blogs for which I will nominate a Dardos:

The Lightning Bug’s Lair: Perhaps you shouldn’t nominate a blog that already has a Dardos nomination, or in this case, the blog that nominated you in the first place, but I have to. Lightning Bug has the kind of blog that inspires me to be a better blogger. In fact, it was stumbling across the Lair through a Google Blog search for articles about Cornell Woolrich that inspired me to increase the amount of quality blogging reviews I do. So I owe a lot to LB. His blog contains a wonderful array of reviews about exploitation, horror, and cult cinema—the weird stuff you dig up when the average folks in your life aren’t looking. He packs an enormous amount of info into the site, which has a design that fits perfectly with the sorts of movies he reviews. And I’m certain I’ve gotten a lot of extra traffic from his site, so… big heaping piles of gore worth of thanks, LB. You seem like the kind of guy I would like to know in the real world.

BillWardWriter: I felt like nominating the entire Black Gate Blog, but since I’m one of the bloggers on it, I would feel compromised from a conflict-of-interest. So I’m giving a nod to my favorite co-blogger on the site, Bill Ward. I always look forward to his posts, and his own site filled with book reviews reminds me a lot of how I run my own blog.

Slacktivist: Fred Clark runs a progressive politics blog, but although I share his political leanings, that’s not the reason I’ve nominated him. Over the past few years, Fred has taken on a monumental task of literary criticism by doing a page-by-page analysis—or shredding—of those ghastly “Left Behind” novels penned by the Dynamic Duo of Rotten Writing & Reprehensible Morals, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Clark meticulously and studiously tears these books to pieces on every level: literary, religious, historical, political. The continuing series is at turns hilarious (you cannot believe how awful Jenkins’s prose-style is, and he apparently doesn’t believe in second drafts) and then poignant. Clark really does the blogosphere a service with his continuing look at what he aptly calls The Worst Books Ever Written. And there’s no end in sight.

Frankensteinia—The Frankenstein Blog: The name says it all. Any blogger can find enough to write about when it comes to vampires or werewolves. But taking on Frankenstein as the topic for an entire blog… gutsy. And it’s one of the best specific-topic blogs I’ve come across, addressing everything Frankenstein, from the original novel, to comics, cartoons, and music. Digging through the archives here is a blast, and whenever I want to write something about the famous Doctor and his Creation, I do a bit of research here first.

The Comics Curmudgeon: Here’s a blog that has an enormous audience, so Josh certainly doesn’t need my help promoting him. Back in the days of Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Peanuts, we used to turn to the comics section of the newspaper for a laugh. In these sad days, I turn to Josh’s site to get a laugh watching him dismantle and parody the horrors that pass for the “funnies” these days. Outright the most hilarious blog on the web (if you don’t count The Onion), and it does my Mystery Science Theater 3000-loving heart good to watch Josh tear into Family Circus.

I would have found room somewhere on here for my sister’s blog, but she never updates it! Colleen, you have a new baby boy: would you please put up photos so his uncle here in the U.S. can see what he looks like as he grows up?

Bela Lugosi Collection: Black Friday (1940)

Black Friday (1940)
Directed by Arthur Lubin. Starring Boris Karloff, Stanley Ridges, Anne Nagel, Anne Gwynne, Bela Lugosi, James Craig

This upcoming Friday is a Friday the Thirteenth, which means that many bloggers will get busy either reviewing the re-boot of Friday the 13th or older installments of the long-running slasher series. (Or they might go watch Confessions of a Shopaholic, which sounds far more terrifying than anything Jason Vorhees could whip up with his machete. Remember, I have it scientifically proven that I won’t like Confessions of a Shopaholic.) However, I shall dare to play different. I’ll celebrate this legendary date of superstitiousness with a review of another “Friday the Thirteenth” movie that came along four decades before the first set of slashings at Crystal Lake: Black Friday. Conveniently, it’s also the final film in my series of reviews of Universal’s DVD set The Bela Lugosi Collection.

Come to think of it, since “Black Friday” also means the dangerous shopping day after Thanksgiving—and last year, for at least one poor Mal-Mart worker in Long Island, it turned fatal—this might serve as my tie-in to Confessions of a Shopaholic as well.

If you approach Black Friday as another meeting of the horror movie mavens, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, you will likely loathe it and feel cheated on a deep fandom level. Karloff and Lugosi get top billing before the title, and the plot sounds fine-tailored for the actors: a mad scientist turns his friend into a monster when he tries to save his life with a brain transplant. So will Lugosi play the doctor and Karloff the twisted creature, sort of like The Raven? Or will Karloff settle more comfortably into his standard mad scientist part he has started to specialize in, and Lugosi would drag out Ygor monster-acting chops from Son of Frankenstein?

The answer is: neither. Karloff does play the scientist, but the tortured brain transplant victim is played by the legendary… Stanley Ridges! (Wait, who?) And Lugosi plays a second-tier gangster with less screen time than the three people billed under him.

10 February 2009

Jerry Goldsmith’s birthday

Today is the birthday of Jerry Goldsmith, my favorite film composer, and arguably my favorite composer and musician of any music, period. Jerry died in 2004, and with each passing year when we don’t have new film scores from him, I feel the loss more and more. He was a musical genius, a man with the most creative approach to film scoring this side of Bernard Herrmann, and a person with a dramatic sense that I’ve never experienced in anyone else in the wonderful art of movie music. I own recordings of over a hundred and fifty of his scores (plus some of his concert work, like his beautiful ode to his home city of Los Angeles, “Fireworks,” which I find deeply touching as a long-time Angeleno myself) and I still listen to them constantly. “Carol Anne’s Theme” from Poltergeist plays on my cell phone when I get a text message. The theme from Alien plays as my ringback. With every Halloween season, the complete Omen musical trilogy enters constant rotation on my iPod. I get teary-eyed listening to the music from Hoosiers (one of Jerry’s personal favorite scores). The Secret of NIMH’s score still has an important place in my childhood. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is uplifting and ethereal genius. Chinatown may be the greatest film score ever written. And there is nothing more romantic than the thundering Arabian melodies of The Wind and the Lion.

I had the privilege of meeting Jerry Goldsmith twice during the last years of his life. Film music will never have its same power in a post-Goldsmith world; he was that great an artist.

I miss you a lot, Jerry.

09 February 2009

Caspak Triumphant: The Land That Time Forgot

First Edition CoverThe Land That Time Forgot (1924)
By Edgar Rice Burroughs

“You have read the opening paragraph, and if you are an imaginative idiot like myself, you will want to read the rest of it; so I shall give it to you here. . . .”

I often refer to Edgar Rice Burroughs as an “excuse” author. It seems readers or critics can’t discuss him without qualifiers to excuse reading him. A typical statement: “Edgar Rice Burroughs wasn’t a good writer but he had a vast imagination.”

I respectfully object to the assessment that Burroughs was a poor writer. In his best works, he pulls me along and engrosses me far more than most bestselling “thriller” authors published today. I can pick apart objective deficiencies in his style, criticize his dips into awkward phrasing, but this ultimately doesn’t matter in his overall style, which reads fast, involving, and exciting. His prose style matches the types and tones of the stories he wants to tell, fits them so well that I can’t imagine another style that would work with them. That, in my reader’s eyes, makes Edgar Rice Burroughs a great writer.

03 February 2009

Jane Austen: Flesh-Eater

Update: Here’s the review.

Here’s an upcoming book that immediately shot to the top of my list of “must-reads” of 2009: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, available in April from Chronicle Press.

Yes, you read the byline correctly. For those of you who feared that there would never come a pairing of the author of Sense and Sensibility and the author of How to Survive a Horror Movie, your dreams have finally come true.

“Okay,” most of you are thinking, “just what the hell is this?”

This, ladies and gentlement, is re-contextualization, one of my favorite literary activities. Taking a well-known work and putting it in a completely different format to see what happens. Not necessarily to make fun of the original, or to satirize it, although that is often the re-contextualizer’s goal. My favorite cases of re-contextualization are simply an author asking “What if?” What happens to a classic story if turned on its head in weird circumstances?

For example, “What if Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice with a major co-plot about flesh-eating zombies?”

According to the press for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the novel uses Austen’s text, but adds new characters and situations that will put Elizabeth Barrett up against a zombie invasion while dealing with the distracting appearance of Mr. D’Arcy. A delightful comedy of manners with bone-crunching zombie action. I can’t wait. This will be the literary equivalent of Shaun of the Dead, where two well known genres—British rom-com and zombie apocalypse—get crammed together and still manage to keep their individual integrity.

This does, however, mean that I will need to re-read Pride and Prejudice, which I haven’t touched since high school. To really get the most from the new book, I need to have the basic text in mind so I can pay attention to the grafting from the new author.

I’m sure fans of Jane Austen will scream about this book getting written and published (Public Domain, you can’t stop it!), but I have this to say to anyone who’s worried about this posthumous collaboration: Pride and Prejudice will survive just fine on its own, thank you. It’s a literary classic, it will continue to sit on bookstore and library shelves in every part of the globe, and only a few folks like me, who are into literary experimentation and genre-oddness, are going to pay attention to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, let alone read it. Ms. Austen’s name will remain in good standing, I have no doubt.

I’ve started to wonder what other Public Domain English classics could stand some re-contextualization. Maybe David Copperfield… with Orcs!

02 February 2009

Confessions of a Speed-Reading Instructor

The post today at Black Gate comes as a continuation of two other posts from blogger Bill Ward that deal with speed-reading. A topic of which I know a few things. Because I once taught speed-reading myself. Yeah, no kidding.

If you want some basics on how at least one technique of reading at super-speed operates, you can wander on over to the blog and check it out for yourself. It’s only 1,500 words this time, I promise. (Which means that many people I’ve taught speed-reading could read it in about a minute. No brag, just fact.)

Rise and Shine Campers! It’s Groundhog Day!

I love quirky, bizarre holidays. Easter, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Independence Day . . . they just don’t get my mind a’ whirling. But a nutball celebration like Halloween, the quirkiest holiday to actually get major continent-wide recognition, is something else all together. It’s love wrapped up in a weird, gory, funny, spider-web encrusted package tied with black and orange ribbons.

But Halloween is a few months past, and even more months away. Today is another one of those wonderfully weird holidays. One with a great celebratory meaning to me.

Yes, rise and shine campers. It’s Groundhog Day!

A holiday descending from German immigrants who brought with them the fable of an animal predicting the coming of an early spring, Groundhog Day is damn wonderful because it presents the spectacle of a Marmota monax, essentially an enormous and sedentary rodent, getting hoisted by men in Victorian top hats and greatcoats before an early-morning crowd of people partying but half-freezing in the February cold, and then pretending that said enormous rodent has foreknowledge of weather conditions for the next six weeks.

Or, as famous weatherman Phil Connors summarizes: “This is one time when television truly fails to capture the excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”

How can you not love this? I love it, and I live in a place where six more weeks of winter translates to “it might rain once, and it will drop to 50ยบ at night.”

There are a number of Prognosticating Groundhog Day Groundhogs, but the two most famous are Punxsutawney Phil (pictured above from this morning) and Staten Island Chuck. No surprise, they disagree today about the future weather. Chuck says early spring. Phil says six more weeks of winter. However, I doubt the Punxsutawney, PA crowd felt bad. Their football team won the Superbowl yesterday. A gloomy Phil won’t get them down.

How do I, a simple Californian, celebrate Groundhog Day? My father and I make our ritual yearly viewing of the movie Groundhog Day, of course. It’s one of my dad’s favorite movies, and I think it’s one of the best comedies to come out of the 1990s, if not the best. This movie makes Groundhog Day something special for te entire country. So if you have the movie on DVD, make sure you watch it tonight and ask yourself, “Does Phil feel lucky?”

And here’s one for my brother, off in Georgia, who is another huge fan of this film:
“What would you do, if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

“That about sums it up for me.”

01 February 2009

Bo Diddley by Bo Diddley

I don’t usually write much about music on this blog, unless it has some connection to swing dancing, but music suffuses my life. I always have music playing in my apartment when reading or writing or doing anything at all that doesn’t involve watching a movie. The creation of soundtracks to go along with the novels I write is a crucial part of the writing experience for me (it helps me develop my tone for the book).

I love many types of music (and there are a few I can’t stand, but I’m not putting any negativity in this post), especially film scores and jazz. But, like many people, the first “mature” music I started listening to as a child after graduating from kids’ recordings like Free to Be You and Me (come on, fess up, you had a copy too) and “Puff the Magic Dragon” were “Oldies,” that sort of catch-all term for early rock through about the mid-‘60s. I still love “Oldies,” although now I tend to divide the broad genre up into different types of rock, such as “Roots” rock, rockabilly, surf music, early Motown, etc.

One thing hasn’t changed, however. My favorite ‘50s rock number is still “Bo Diddley” by, uhm, Bo Diddley. The late great Bo Diddley. The first time I heard this song, on a album of “Oldies but Goodies” that had no particular theme (“Dead Man’s Curve,” “Hang On Sloopy,” and “Where Did Our Love Go” also appeared on it; I think the producers grabbed whatever they had the rights to), something electric happened. The first few seconds of pounding and slamming just made my head explode. It wasn’t like any kind of “Oldies” rock I had heard before as a kid. My dad told me the song was a favorite of his because it had the most killer rhythm he had ever heard. I agreed with him. I only found out later that Bo had taken African rhythms and “hambone,” a kind of street singing where the singer slaps parts of his body while singing, to create the crazy, driving sound of the piece. Sure, the lyrics made no sense at all—you can barely make them out—but that’s true for about 80% of all rock songs anyway. The lyrics did have a cool catch to them, since I could tell right away that they came from the depressing nursery rhyme “Hush Little Baby.” And Bo made it mad wicked cool.

I still can’t get enough of this song. Every time I hear it, it’s like a massive jolt of energy. It could shake the roof off any house in the world.

Now, if that private eye can’t dig, he better not take the ring from me.