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darktower_1After more than five years, with more interruptions than I care to mention, I have finally followed Roland Deschaine of Gilead into the room at the top of the Dark Tower.  I have to admit that I was surprised at how moved I was when he paused at the entrance and recited the names of all of his friends and ka-mates.  It’s odd.  Stephen King was never a favorite author of mine.   Of all the many books he’s written, the only other one I’ve ever read was 11-22-63, his romance about the man who went back in time to stop the assassination of President Kennedy.  I didn’t care for it.  The only other book of his I want to read is The Stand.   People who have read a lot of Mr. King’s books say it is his best, but after slogging through 4250 pages in eight volumes (I read Wind Through The Keyhole chronologically, between Wizard And Glass and Wolves Of The Calla), I am a bit reluctant to give Mr. King another 1100 pages of my attention.  Interestingly, the reviewer who listed The Stand as King’s best book rated the seven canonical Dark Tower volumes roughly as I would have ranked them, so I have reason to trust his judgement.

Roland’s story is a compelling one.  Like The Lord Of The Rings, which is just about the only other work I have read to which I can compare it, The Dark Tower series is both interminable and strangely, over far too soon.   Both of these works create a desire to explore more fully the world the author has created; to know more about its inhabitants, its history, and its geography.   Mr. King includes no maps.  There are no sprawling appendices such as Prof. Tolkien included in The Lord Of The Rings to give you the backstory of Mid-World.  Another characteristic that Mid-World shares with Middle-Earth is that it seems strangely depopulated.  Either that, or the protagonists of both works spent the majority of their time in the parts of their imaginary worlds where the people didn’t live.   This seems to be a common flaw with fantasy.  Narnia was claustrophobic as well, having only three “countries” that really counted.   Earthsea was a collection of islands with, I assume, nothing much larger than fishing villages to house its inhabitants.

The Dark Tower series took Stephen King almost 35 years to write, and it shows.   The biggest divide is between Wizard And Glass, which was published in 1997, and The Wolves Of The Calla, which was published in 2003.  In the intervening years, Stephen King was almost killed in a near-fatal auto accident, and it shows up in the writing.  King himself seems to have felt some pressure to complete the series after his accident.  The last three books, despite their more than 2000 pages, have a rushed feeling that is missing from the parts of the series that he wrote prior to the accident.  By the time he published his Mid-World “inter-quel”, Mr. King had found his rhythm again.  Certainly, even though there are weak parts in the first four books and excellent parts in the last three, I found I preferred the first four to the latter three.

My favorite five scenes from the Dark Tower series were;

1)   Roland and his companions in Meijis – I haven’t read enough King to know how much material he recycled from other his other books in order to tell the tragic tale of young Roland Deschaine and the tragic Susan Delgado, but I suspect it was a lot.  I detected some of The Children Of The Corn, at least.  Nevertheless, as far as raw storytelling is measured, King never approached this level again for the whole 4,000-plus pages of the series.  Even the characters seemed fully-fleshed, and I warmed to Alain Johns and Cuthbert Allgood in a way that I never did to wisecracking Eddie Dean.  The bad guys Eldred Jonas and Roy Depape are more richly drawn than either the Crimson King or Mordred, and even minor characters like Cordelia Delgado and Hart Thorin are alive with life.  Rhea of the Cöos is beyond creepy, and one of the better villains I’ve encountered in any fiction.  Other reviewers gush about the love affair between Susan Delgado and Roland Deschaine, but I found it kind of off-putting.  I know Roland is supposed to be knowing beyond his years, but a 14 year old boy in love with a 16 year old girl does not act the way Roland acts here.

2.  The Drawing Of Eddie Dean – I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I kinda liked Eddie better as a junkie than as the wise-cracking comic-relief he became by the end of the series.  The story of how Roland ended up behind his eyes and managed to extricate him from his tangled web of obligation and addiction in 1980s New York was absorbing.  It was a shame that Eddie very seldom was allowed to rise to the nobility of character he displayed during the gunfight in Balazar’s gin joint.   His “trail marriage” to Susannah was often distracting as well, but in his coming and going, I have to admit that I came to love Eddie Dean.

3. The Massacre At Tull – It has been a long time since I read The Gunslinger, the first volume of the Dark Tower series,   Roland’s methodical massacre of all the inhabitants of Tull, including the idiot child Soobie and his paramour Allie, opened my eyes to just how hard-bitten the series could get at a moment’s notice.   It also presaged just who Roland would sacrifice in order to attain the Tower.   There was a high body count in the Dark Tower series , but this action set the stage for all of the rest.

4. The Manni In the Cave Of The Winds – I enjoyed Wolves Of The Calla far more than I thought I would.  After having Roland and the gang meander around blank open country for more than four volumes, actually, since River Crossing, or maybe even Tull, it was good to get back to settled lands and farmsteads.  Pere Callahan’s negligent Catholic mission made a good counterpoint to the Manni, who i thought were one of King’s better inventions in the series.   It seems kind of a shame that he used them basically as a key to open the door between worlds.  They would have benefited from greater exposition.  

5. Jake and Pere Callahan in the Dixie Pig – I really warmed to Pere Callahan and was sorry to see him depart so early in the seventh book, but boy! did he go out with a flair.  I hadn’t read Salem’s Lot, so I only knew as much of the Pere’s backstory as King revealed in Wolves Of the Calla and Susannah’s Song.  There were a lot of nice touches in the Dixie Pig segment; the Mid-World kitchen boy serving under the taheen cook,  Jake switching bodies with Oy to get past the guardians in the passage to Fedic.  There were also some typical King gross-outs as well, but hey, I could almost smell the meat roasting on the spit behind the curtain.  I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, though.

My five least favorite parts were 1) the lobstrosities – i was so glad when the story moved passed them.  2) the Emerald City sequence with Martin Broadcloak/Randall Flagg. 3) the demon sex that brought Jake into Mid-World, although the bifurcation of Jake and Roland was handled very well.  4) Susannah/Mia “dining” in the swamp.  I nearly lost lunch.  5) basically everything that took place from the Castle of the Crimson King until Roland reached the Tower.  The Dandelo/Patrick Danville episode was pretty anticlimactic after the chiaroscuro of Algul Siento, and the removal of the Crimson King was very cheesy.  I suspect King just wanted to finish by this time.

Something has to be said about how American the Dark Tower series is.  Any American mythopoesis is going to have a lot of the Western in it, because the Western, with the free man remaking himself on the Frontier, is our great myth.  Stephen King took it and ran it out farther than I would have thought possible.  Maybe this isn;t, yet, the Great American Novel,  but it is without any doubt the Great American Fantasy series.  I’m glad I went on this journey.  Thou hast spoken well, may it do ya, gunslinger.  Long days and pleasant nights to you.

Thankee sai, Mr. King

Essa moça sabe desenhar sim senhor.

steampunk_siblingsShe’s Brazilian, and her blog is in Portuguese, but that shouldn’t deter you from a visit.   Google Translate is kind to her site, but the real pleasure is in her drawings.   By turns whimsical, fantastic, and sensual, Cynthia França wields a pencil like Logen Ninefingers can wield a sword, and it cuts just as deeply.  I wasn’t able to determine if Miss França has ever published any of her drawings professionally, or if anyone had ever tapped her to illustrate a book.  There were several drawings on her site that seemed to come from a fictional source; Soccertown kids, all appropriately named,  a set of drawings entitled Les Reines D’Autobus, but I was frustrated by my total ignorance of Brazilian popular culture.

Since reading L. Sprague De Camp’s planetary romances of the Viagens Interplanetárias in my earliest adolescence, Brazil has always seemed like a mythical country in its own right.  I don’t mean to disparage the tremendous challenges faced by the average Brazilian in navigating the real world, but when I visited there, I felt more like I was living inside a legend than I have anywhere else.  There has to be some compensation for living in a country where there is so much poverty and injustice, and oddly, there is.  Nature is exuberant there, beyond anything we know in North America away from the redwood groves on the West Coast.  Taking the bus from Santos on the coast to São Paulo was like dreaming with my eyes open.   Music, better music than you can pay to hear in most venues, wafts out of the windows and down to the street.

Because of this I’m surprised Brazil hasn’t produced more fantasy literature.  Some of the tales of the bandeirantes, with which Brazilian schoolchildren are as familiarrachel_leah as American children used to be with the stories of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, definitely had a mythopoetic flavor to them.  Miss França has a fantastic side to her as well.  In her online portfolio there are drawings of Conan, Dejah Thoris, and Desire of the Endless, as well as numerous sketches from what Miss França refers to as her “pocket mythology”.  I learned that the phrase Portuguese would use for the Endless is os Perpétuos.  From one Gaiman fan to another Gaiman fan, I salute you.

Miss França also has produced an occasional series of sketches of Biblical women.  You should really go see these, because they are not likely to see the light of day between the pages of your Zondervan Purpose Oriented Planner Bible.  Mary and Martha are here, as are Herodias and a slightly older Salomé, three of David’s wives, Jezebel and her daughter Athalia.  Even though Miss França appears to have a soft spot for the bad girls, there are plenty of good girls; Ruth and Orpah are here, as are the three daughters of Job.  My favorite, however, is the sketch of Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob.  Miss França takes the liberty of depicting Leah not as strictly plain, but just frank and transparent as opposed to Rachel’s smoldering and mysterious glamour.

Now, I know I have maybe thirty two nanoWarhols of artistic critical influence, but I would dearly love to see Miss França exercise her considerable talents somewhere where she could be more widely appreciated.

1. City Of Ember

This movie came out in 2008, and to the present, I and my family are the only ones I know who have seen it.  I didn’t save this flick for last because it is the best movie among the ten.  It isn’t.   That distinction would have to go to either The Travelling Circus of Dr. Lao or The Iron Giant.  I think I saved it for last because it is the most obscure.  It has some strong performances, especially by Tim Robbins and a very young Saoirse Ronan before she became a hot property in Redemption.

City of EmberEmber is a city that was built underground to preserve a portion of the human race from some unmentioned apocalypse.  Everything about the environment is artificial.  The night sky, with which you are greeted at the opening of the film, is nothing more than a collection of electric lights suspended oer the city and one of which burns out and falls with a great racket to the streets far below.  It is a warning that things are beginning to run down in Ember.  As the story progresses, we learn that the sojourn underground has lasted nearly twice as long as the city’s founders intended, and all of the life support systems on which the Emberites depend are more than a little threadbare.

As far as the spectrum between parable and myth goes, City Of Ember falls leadenly into the parable category.  Here is a world where everything is running out.  You can go to any warehouse and request canned goods, but anything except turnip greens and refried beans are in short supply.  There are frequent blackouts due to the testiness of the aging dynamo at the city’s core, and the residents seem not to notice.  They are lulled to sleep by official pronouncements of how good it is they have it in Ember, and pull the comfort blanket of Singing Day [a very thinly veiled swipe at religion] around them when things get difficult.

Of course, two Plucky Youngsters™ discover The Truth, and most of the dramatic tension in the movie results from their desperate attempt to escape the doomed city and from the obstacles placed in their way by others who know the truth but hav a vested interested in maintaining the status quo, even though it means extinction for everyone.  Of course the Plucky Youngsters™ succeed intheir Quest, and are amply rewarded by the Grandmother of All Light Shows.  I’ll leave it at that.

Recently I saw another very good Korean Sci-Fi flick, The Doomsday Book, in which a Buddhist robot attains enlightenment.  It’s on Netflix streaming.  Seek it out as well.

In case you were curious, the other films in this series are:

2. The Circus Of Dr. Lao
3. The Last Starfighter
4. Hearts In Atlantis
5. Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji
6. Brendan And The Secret Of Kells
7. Fantastic Planet
8. The Iron Giant
9. Enemy Mine
10. Wizards

Mary Fahl’s voice is the very first thing you notice about October Project.   As colorful as the changing trees, as distinctive as the smell of burning leaves, as thick and rich as a venison ragout, and with a bite as bracing as the first frost, the voice grabs you and pulls you into the music.  October Project produced two albums in the mid 1990s, and were often compared to other groups emerging at the same time as Indigo Girls, Dido, or Loreena McKennitt.  As I see them, though, Mary Fahl and OP were kind of an East Coast yin to the Texas-based Sixpence None The Richer’s yang, but Sixpence road some sort of wave out of the Evangelical youth rally subculture into national prominence.  Somehow, they were able to transform their adolescent whimsy into a lot of radio play.  I have never heard October Project on commercial radio, and would never have know about them except for the Internet.  The similarities between October Project and Sixpence None the Richer end with the jangly ‘nineties guitars and the standout female vocals.  October Project explores a more adult emotional landscape than Sixpence, which makes sense seeing that the members of Sixpence were just barely in their twenties when they cut their first self-titled album, whereas the members of October Project were fifteen to twenty years older.

The songs of October Project are, like those of Sixpence None The Richer and nearly every other pop ensemble on the planet, about love, that most troubling and  disturbing of emotions.  But October Project’s songs are about love in need of grace; love that withdraws from its object because of fear and prior pain, love that is more in need of forgiveness than passion.  Because of this, October Project gained something of a reputation as a “gothic” group.  I know little about ‘goth’ subculture apart from what my children tell me, but I am surprised at its resilience.  Supposedly ‘goth’ subculture reflects on the ‘darker’ elements of our experience; weakness, death, loss, longing, even debauchery, decadence, and terror.  I suppose everything can be mined and marketed in our culture, and the ‘goth’ subculture is no exception.  October Project’s music didn’t seem to be very amenable to commercialization.   Maybe because it was contemplative rather than gloomy.    Gloomy sells well in these apocalyptic times, but contemplation, reflection, and reticence, uh, not so much.

And contemplation, thy name is October.  If you live in the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere, there seems to be a biological imperative to celebrate something at this time of year.   The days are growing longer, the bright feast of summer is past.  There is a nip in the air.  The Green Man sheds his mantle as the light fades and photosynthesis, the life support system of our planet, shuts down for the year.  Old pagan-y Hallowe’en beckons with its witches, goblins, and ghosts.  The older customs; the bonfires, the candle divination, the planting of apple seeds have mostly withdrawn into a fleshy bath of candy and carnality, neither of which is either appealing nor particularly seasonal.  Since converting to Orthodoxy, I don’t even have the excuse of All Saints Day the following morning, since the translation of Western All Saints Day from its traditional date on the Sunday following Whitsunday to November the 1st  appears to have been the politically motivated action of a ninth century Pope who wanted to celebrate the erection of a basilica dedicated to all the saints.  So, the traditional ban on Hallowe’en in our household which was instituted  when my wife and I were Evangelicals, still stands, but I believe my children are the poorer for it, and I do somewhat regret it.

Nevertheless, I cannot shake the idea that Hallowe’en is itself something of a fraud and a humbug.  If it were as ancient a feast as pagan apologists hold it out to be, or as demonic as the Christian alarmists make it out to be, it should be celebrated sometime around St. Martins Day (November 11), according to the old calendar.  I cannot believe that pagans, if any existed at the time, would have paid any attention to Pope Gregory in the sixteenth century when he tacked ten days onto the standing calendar, nor would they have cared when King George II added eleven days when the British Empire adopted the Pope’s calendar in 1752.  I have found a lot of survivals of “Old Christmas” (Christmas celebrated on the Julian Calendar – January 6) but I have found nothing about “Old Hallowe’en”.  It looks like the spooks and spirits of Samhain made the jump without a hitch.  Nevertheless I am thinking seriously about resurrecting some old Martinmas customs in my household; lighting a lantern on the lawn, bringing a beggar to a dinner of pork haunch (probably ham), and lifting a glass of red wine in honor of Saint Martin and my Celtic forebears.

It is depressing how quickly writers, even very good ones, can be forgotten once the public eye moves off of them.  I am now in my seventh decade, and I remember reading very good, very engaging books in my adolescence by authors who are seldom mentioned these days.  Equally amazing to me are the authors who endure, and whose popularity continues.  For example, I read JD Salinger’s Frannie And Zooey early in my high school days, but I thought the works of his near-contemporaries John Hershey (Too Far To Walk) and William Goldman (Boys And Girls Together) superior as studies of alienation.  I haven’t met anyone under 55 who has even heard of those two writers.

Thomas Pynchon will be with us forever, as will  Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.  Other writers who seem to have legs are Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike, but Peter De Vries, Mary McCarthy, Louis Auchincloss, and even Ray Bradbury are disappearing from the catalogue.  Gore Vidal preens himself and offers frequent fussy comment on the social scene, but who remembers Alfred Chester?  It is though there is only one niche in the literary ecology for a particular kind of author, and Vidal grabbed it to Chester’s despite, as did Updike to De Vries, Vonnegut to Bradbury, and Walker Percy to Richard Yates.

Moving from canonical, mainstream literature to imaginative literature, no one can call Jack Vance a forgotten writer.  For one thing, he is still alive, and for another, he is enjoying something of a boomlet in popularity due to his being lionized by popular genre authors like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King.  I was fortunate to find his Lyonesse trilogy on audio book.  Having already been introduced to Jack Vance in my extreme boyhood through The Languages of Pao and The Dragon Masters, the Arthurian-tinged trilogy, composed of Suldrun’s Garden, published in 1983, The Green Pearl, in 1987, and Madouc , in 1991, was a delight to stumble upon.

It won’t change your life, but as entertainment and as an exercise in that kind of fantasy set in our own world, it is highly recommended.  The central conceit is somewhat similar to Robert E Howard’s, but set in late antiquity, about the time of the waning of the Western Empire and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of Rome.  Nevertheless, the martial technology is late Middle Ages, with trebuchets and plate armor.  Vance follows in hallowed footsteps here.  All the Arthurian writers followed the same convention, until recently when Mary Stewart and Stephen Lawhead created more chronistically appropriate Arthur stories.

The Arthurian connection is tenuous.  Vance imagines a large Ireland-sized island in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, Hybras, with a cluster of smaller islands around it.  The idea is that these islands have since disappeared, Atlantis-like, under the waves, leaving behind only a smattering of irreconcilable legends and a few place names; Hy-Brasil, Avallone, Lyonesse, and Ys.   There are petty kings; beautiful, sad princesses; wizards benign and malicious; knights noble and dastardly.  There is also a lot of Realpolitik and spycraft, which fortunately seldom gets in the way of the rollicking adventures.

The Lyonesse trilogy is kind of sad.  As another reader/reviewer points out, all of the adventures and intrigues of the characters are pointless, since the Elder Isles are doomed to disappear eventually under the waves.  For some reason, I thought it would add a touch of poignancy to the narrative, but it didn’t.  For all of the playfulness and light-heartedness of Vance’s prose, something just didn’t quite click.  The magic (and there are a number of wizards fair and fell in this series, not to mention fairies, ogres and boggarts), struck me as being very prosaic.  Vance is, alas, a modernist in a postmodern world.

All in all all, it read like a copy of a greater original.  It wasn’t at all like Tales Of The Dying Earth, by the same writer.

As I said, no one can accuse Jack Vance of being a forgotten writer, but just under the surface of his prose lurks one of the most unfairly forgotten writers of the 20th century. Working from a stray comment about the Lyonesse books on GoodReads, I was able to uncover the original of which they  were the copy.   The writer was James Branch Cabell, an American writer of fantastic literature from Richmond Virginia, who enjoyed a period of great popularity in the immediate postwar period.  To my surprise, I was able to find a copy of his complete works at a nearby college library.   They certainly appeared to be the works of a prominent and   successful writer; gilt-spined and lavishly illustrated.

I took one book down and opened it, Jurgen; A Comedy Of Justice, reputed to be Cabell’s masterpiece.  Three hours later I shut it, enthralled with where Cabell was able to transport me.

Cabell will never be one of my favorite writers.  He is snarky, something I deeply dislike.   Cabell shares this trait with other writers such as Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Thomas Pynchon, all whom are good writers (Pynchon is great, like Sopohocles-great) but just not personally my cup of tea.  Alan Dean Foster, who wrote The Last Starfighter and most of the original Star Wars trilogy as well, wrote a forgettable but very sexy little romance called Glory Lane, that gets snark just about right.

Cabell, in what I read of Jurgen, takes snark to realms of high art.  The protagonist, a middle-aged pawnbroker, has his youth restored and, of course, sets out to do what any right-thinking man in his postion would do; seduce all the beautiful young women he can.  On the way, he encounters a number of creatures magical, infernal, celestial, or any combination thereof.  Since Jurgen, the protagonist, is irreverent and quite superficial, there is a lot of snark, but somehow, Cabell uses it to break your heart.  It looks as though Jurgen is going be schooled by his second youth in the lasting virtues.  I will have to finish this book, at least.

Reading what I have of Cabell’s writing career, I am surprised that he is almost completely unheard of by the legions of Tolkien, Rowling, and Gaiman  fans.  He continued writing in the same vein until his death in the 1950’s, in increasing obscurity.  Serendipitously and coincidentally, the critical examination of Cabell’s work which I also found in the same section in the university library, was written by another once-popular writer;  Hugh Walpole, who is also almost entirely forgotten today.

It is submerged now, and as irrecoverable as Lyonesse” – Evelyn Waugh referring to Oxford in Brideshead Revisited

Lent is beginning to creep up upon us again.  In the Orthodox Church we are in the middle of what is called the Triodion, a period of preparation for Lent which is, in itself, a preparation for Pascha.  There are, aptly, three Sundays in the Triodion, all of which bring repentance front and center; last week was Zacchaeus Sunday,  tomorrow is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee followed by a week free of fasting.  Next Sunday is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, and the Triodion will be complete.  After that is Meatfare Sunday and Cheesefare week, where dairy is allowed but meat prescribed. This  completes the gradual descent into the full rigors of an Orthodox Lent.

Last year, I asked for suggestions about movies that might be appropriate viewing for the Lenten season.  I got a lot of recommendations.  Some were  classics;  Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, The Gospel According to St. Matthew.    Some were wonderful surprises; The Island, Godspell, In Bruges, Italian For Beginners, Tokyo Godfathers

There were some which were recommended for which I couldn’t discern any connection to the season; Au Hasard Baltasar, Ordet, Seventh Seal.    There were some that even interfered with my celebration of the season, although they are excellent films otherwise;  Gran Torino, Facing The Giants, The Blind Side.    I found Fireproof unwatchable.

Of all the films I watched during Lent last year, there are three in particular I want to take with me into Lent this year as being particularly reflective of three major virtues I am going to try to cultivate; Repentance, Simplicity, Gratitude.

Repentance:   Flywheel (2003).

Before culture-war Christianity there was just plain Christianity.  This comes out clearly in this first film by Sherwood Productions, a production company which has since gone on to release lucrative releases for the Evangelical market such as Fireproof and Courageous.  Flywheel was their first attempt, and it shgows, especially in the acting and in the production values.  The spiritual value of the film, however, is head and shoulders above its successors.

The protagonist is the church-going owner of a used car lot.  He takes pride in being able to milk more profit out of each transactions than any of his other salespeople.  His marriage is falling apart, but that doesn’t particularly concern him.  I don’t remember offhand what the crisis was that led to his repentance, but at one point he came face to face with the teachings of Christ.   He had to make a decision to cease his dishonest dealings and make costly restitution.  The struggles he faces while attempting to reorder his business in a way that would not be unfaithful to his faith are believable   This modern-day Zacchaeus re-emerges as a business leader in a way that is neither hokey or predictable.

Simplicity  Amal (2007) 

Truth be told, we Orthodox are proudly semi-Pelagian.   Inasmuch the whole nature vs grace distinction that so preoccupied the Blessed Augustine  makes any sense in our context at all, we are not so uncomfortable with nature as are many other Christian traditions  (Forgive me if appear as though I am speaking for the whole Orthodox Church here.    I am a layman, and not a very good one at that).  Natural human goodness was God’s original plan.  There is more of it than we have a right to expect, and wherever it is encountered, it should be encouraged.

This film is the story of Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin on the crowded streets of New Delhi.  Amal is a rickshaw driver, who never complains when others abuse him, never charges more than his due, and who is honest to a fault.    Indeed, like Mishkin, he is thought to be a little  bit simple.  However, one day he gives a rich man a ride who is in the throes of an existential crisis.  Amal so impresses the rich man that the rich man determines to leave his entire fortune to the rickshaw driver to the despite of his dissolute and violent children.  Amal’s character illuminates the flaws of the other, more self-centered characters in the film, and many of them come to, if not repentance, at least a greater self-knowledge a lessening of their egoism.

Gratitude  Babette’s Feast (1987)

Two sisters, spinster daughters of the founder of an austere Protestant sect, take in as a cook/servant a worldly Parisian woman who is in some political trouble.   Despite the hard-scrabble lifestyle of the sisters and the  barrenness of their physical surroundings, the Frenchwoman does not complain and earns the respect and even the love of the two sisters over the years.

The Frenchwoman wins a sum of money in a lottery, and everyone expects her to return to Paris and resume her life.  Instead, she spends the bulk of her winnings on a single night’s dinner for the sisters and  surviving members of their sect.  Indeed, the major part of the film is food porn at its most lascivious – the Frenchwoman is a master chef and she lavishes all her considerable skill on this single meal.

When the food and drink finally arrives at the table, it works an almost Eucharistic spell; old wrongs are forgiven, lapsed friendships are renewed, paths not taken are reopened and cherished for what might have ensued.   Briefly, earthly food and drink becomes the transmitter of grace, and the barrier between the sensuous and the spiritual dissolves.

2. The 7 Faces 0f Dr. Lao – 1964   This curiosity movie is as close to sui generis as anything I have ever seen, including Last Year At Marienbad, and showcases what has to be the finest performance ever in a fantasy movie.  Tony Randall plays not only the enigmatic, if stereotypical, title character, but also six other phantasmagorical entities; The Abominable Snowman,  the Magician Merlin, Medusa, Pan the “god of joy”, The Great Serpent, and Apollonius of Tyana, a blind soothsayer who has been cursed by the gods to speak only the truth.

Dr. Lao, a bald, opium pipe-puffing (I don’t think anybody thought there was anything but tobacco in Dr. Lao’s pipe in 1964, but times have changed), “me-no-speekee” Chinaman rides into the Western town of Abalone to set up his tent of wonders.  The townspeople are busy having their community stolen out from underneath them by an unscrupulous real estate speculator, but they pause in their headlong rush towards chaos and dissolution to pay heed to the dusty and weatherworn marvels on display at Dr. Lao’s “circus”.    Alternately astonished, cynical, unbelieving, and shocked, the inhabitants of Abalone are one by one coaxed out of their fantasies of individual power and significance to confront themselves as they actually are;  ridiculous but necessary and beloved threads of the greater tapestry that is the community of Abalone.

Not all of them pass the test.  One of the most uncomfortable moments in the film is when the blind soothsayer confronts a silly not-really-a-widow who is desperately clinging to an outdated self-image of herself as a young coquette.    Apollonius tells her that she will never be rich, she will never marry again, and that her days will blur together into a dreary parade of sameness until she dies and is forgotten.  For good or for evil, he tells her, she will have had as much effect as if she had never existed at all.  As self-awareness breaks over her character, the talented actress playing this role displays for a brief moment the horror of the damnable truth Apollonius has just told her, but then her face relaxes again as she pulls her comfortable lies back around her.

This is a deeply Taoist film, whether by design or happy circumstance.  I have always wished Christianity was more like Taoism.  I wouldn’t want Christianity to be  Taoism, exactly, because the Tao of the Old Boy is impersonal and, frankly, a bit scary.  Nevertheless, when I look at the face of the personal Christ in the New Testament, I see a lot more that reminds me of the Tao than of the joyless moralist we have made Him into.  Dr. Lao, who has to be based on the founder of Taoism Lao-Tzu (he disappears from the town of Abalone mounted not on a bullock, but on a donkey, the foal of an ass), strikes me as a Holy figure.

I have always wanted to study the idea of Holiness apart from the idea of Morality,  with the idea of Morality being a declension from holiness, an oblique case of Holiness, as it were.  Dr. Lao, despite his seeming amorality, is good place to start.  Without striving, and without putting himself forward in any way, he gently diverts each of townspeople who are amenable to his guidance away from the stampede towards non-being they are pursuing back towards a position of Coinherence in the Web of Exchange that is the town of Abalone.

Interestingly, the author of the book that this film was based on, Charles G. Finney, was not only an influential writer of fantastic fiction in the thirties and forties, but he was also the great-grandson of the evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, who introduced so many fantastic elements into the American strand of Christianity.

Look To The Skies!!

The Last Starfighter – 1984      It was 1984.  The original Star Wars trilogy had just completed, with Return Of The Jedi having left an awful taste in everybody’s mouth after the gee-whiz fireworks of A New Hope,  followed by the masterful chiaroscuro of  The Empire Strikes Back.   Indeed, I think a good case can be made for TESB as the best science fiction film ever made, and for ROTJ as one of the worst.  Maybe it was the unsatisfactory resolution of the Star Wars trilogy that predisposed me to appreciate this goofy, well-meaning film that came out the next year.

There isn’t much to The Last Starfighter, but what there is is great fun.  If you can praise Breaking Away as the best film ever shot in Indiana (it is leagues better than the histrionic Hoosiers), you can similarly praise The Last Starfighter as the best film whose protagonist lives in a dead-end trailer park.  But what a trailer park!  there is community, romance, challenge, and galaxy-saving, all within the [terrestial] confines of a few scant country acres.

Alex Rogan lives in said dead-end trailer park.  All of his friends are going off to college, but he missed his chance at a scholarship and is stuck serving as a handyman for the Starlight Starbright Trailer Park.  His widowed mother and porn-addled little brother are no help at all.   The only bright spots in his dismal existence are his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart, my favorite among the Starlets Referred To By All Three Names), and the  Starfighter, a stand-up arcade game at the park’s office where the player defends “the Frontier” from “Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada”. Eventually he becomes the highest scoring player of the game. Thereafter he is visited by the game’s inventor Centauri (Robert Preston, basically reprising his role as Harold Hill from The Music Man).  Centauri whisks him away to Rylos, an embattled planet, where Alex learns that Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada are real, and a real threat.

The Rylosians attempt to recruit him as a Starfighter, an elite corps of fighters who maintain the Frontier against the a rogue Rylosian noble and his Ko-Dan handlers.  Alex begs off, and Centauri returns him to Earth, but when the Ko-Dan threaten people dear to him;  his mother, Maggie, and other people in the Starlight Starbright Trailer Park,  Alex mans up and saves the Universe.

Yeah, it’s a coming-of-age story, one of the oldest ever.  But The Last Starfighter accomplishes for Alex Rogan in one film what the Star Wars trilogy fails to deliver for Luke Skywalker in three.

When I was about ten or eleven years old, I stumbled onto a copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.  The illustrations, though, were not the famous ones by John Tenniel.  They were, somehow, disturbing.   Alice was  not the prim Victorian poppet of the Tenniel illustations, or even of the Disney film.  This Alice looked like the kind of girl in my school or on the playground who was already making me think the wrong thoughts.  It wasn’t until nearly five decades later that I discovered that the illustrator of my singular Alice was also the writer of the Gormenghast trilogy, and that 2011 was the centennial of his birth.  Happy 100th birthday, Mervyn Peake.

Without any doubt, his illustrations of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books that I devoured during my boyhood were the creepiest.  I knew nothing about him except his name;  Mahlon Blaine, and I ferreted out every book by ERB that he illustrated.  Towards the end of his long  and productive life (1892-1969), he was commissioned by the small publisher Canaveral Press to illustrate several Burroughs’ works; in particular the Pellucidar series.  The pictures were dense, and sometimes macabre, and I know they disturbed my mother and other guardians of my juvenile sensibilities.  It is a good thing that I never investigated him more thoroughly.  He was a very productive artist, active from the 20s until just before his death.  Somewhat like an American Aubrey Beardsley, his art  reveled in the decadent, the erotic, and the occult.  He was a strange choice as an illustrator for what is basically boys’ literature, but I’m glad someone had the courage to ask Mahlon Blaine to illustrate these books.

In the early eighties, I found a copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a used book store for $75.  I tried to ascertain why the book had such a high price tag, and I was told by the girl who was accompanying me at the time that the reason for the price was for the illustrations, which were by Arthur Rackham.  She begged me to buy the book for her, but between the two of us, we had probably $15.  The illustrations were captivating.  I since discovered that Rackham was a very prolific illustrator, having illustrated Charles Dickens, John Bunyan, and Edgar Allen Poe, among others.

His fairies were so unworldly that I often wondered if, like Lovecraft’s Pickman, he didn’t paint them  from life.

Vaughn Bodé was a hippie’s hippie.  It seems like I was just getting to know him through his work in National Lampoon when he was snatched from us by his untimely death in 1975.  In a way, I guess he really couldn’t be called a fantasy illustrator.  He illustrated one paperback by R.A. Lafferty, a strange but compatible pairing.   Lafferty, for all his playful and ironic prose, was a devout Caholic, and as I said, Bodé was a hippie’s hippie.  Bodé also illustrated some science fiction magazine covers, but overall, he was more of an underground cartoonist.  His big-eyed, small-mouthed, pneumatic women preceded Japanese manga, and his style is seen everywhere on urban walls and underpasses.

4. Hearts In Atlantis (2001)   For a “fantastic” film, this adaptation of the Stephen King novella  “Low Men in Yellow Coats”, is unusually quotidian.  It is like Stand By Me without the body or like Children On Their Birthdays with a psychic neighbor.   Bobby Garfield lives with his widowed (?) mother and times are tight, even in the prosperous, confident early 60s.  His mother takes in a boarder, Ted Brautigan, played by Anthony Hopkins as yet another instantiation of the  Elder Gentleman With Impeccable Manners And A Secret (The Mask Of Zorro, Shadowlands, The Wolfman).

Bobby and Ted form a bond.  It turns out that Ted can see the future, read people’s minds, and move objects  around with his will.  These abilities rub off on Bobby, allowing him to impress a neighborhood girl.  Unfortunately, Ted is being pursued by the government (?), and Bobby’s mother betrays him.  When Bobby  has to choose between protecting Ted or the girl, he chooses the girl.  Ted is apprehended, Bobby regrets it,  and the movie ends.

There isn’t much more to the movie than that.  No beasties, no locusts coming out of a man’s mouth, no bloodbaths.  What there is is sentiment, not something often associated with Stephen King, but I maintain that Mr. King is one of the few writers writing today who has what CS Lewis would call a functioning chest.  There is  clear good and clear evil in the movie, and the line is drawn where an American of King’s (and my) generation should draw it; for the particular against the general, for the individual against the collective, for honesty and genuine affection against ambition and realpolitik.

Although the movie didn’t contain the references to King’s  Dark Tower myth that the novella did,  perceptive viewers would see how well it fits.  If you want to see Sir Anthony out of character, watch The World’s Fastest Indian.