Dark Reflections by Samuel R. Delany: A Poet’s Fate

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Samuel R. Delany has written innovative science fiction, literary analysis and autobiography. I discovered him in the seventies, and became a fan of his SF. In the 80’s he published a series of books about sex, slavery,and homosexuality in a fantasy/sword and sorcery world. I did not read all of the books in the Neryona series, and although I bought the books of his interviews, the subjects he talked about did not much interest me. Many writers, if they’re writing above the level of junk, go through phases of interest, and one risk is that members of their existing audience may not come along for these new explorations. This was the case with me.

So DARK REFLECTIONS was a huge surprise. It wasn’t the massive mind-bender of DHALGREN, or the dense, sex-crammed THE MAD MAN, but the story of a poet barely scraping out an existence. He doesn’t hit the jackpot, or meet the love of his life. His great achievement is that he survives, though he is haunted by the reality that his work may not survive him.

DARK REFLECTIONS strikes me as a blend of how Delany has described his actual life and how his life might have been had he been a poet instead of a science fiction writer and then a ‘gay writer’ in contemporary America. There are many amusing, odd, and painful details I won’t ruin for you. Delany has spoken at length about how important are the economic conditions of characters in fiction, and he describes the half-empty-hand-to-mouth existence of his writer, how the smallest expenses can throw the aging character into turmoil when budgeting is spoiled.

All of that is background to the story of a writer who is closer to the end than the beginning and is clenched with worry and regret over his lack of success and recognition. It is a book of moments, from the look at the shelf of slim publications to the forwardness of a girl telling the writer he should go into a public men’s room for the sex he desires. Delany doesn’t tell a traditionally-structured story, so be warned if you are looking for something about a down-and-out writer who finds the spark of life through meeting a charming misfit.

I haven’t done a good job of communicating anything more than my own enthusiasm. I think many readers are reluctant to spoil the unique moments of special books. If you are at all interested in something cerebral and truer to life than most popular fiction, and aren’t put off by the book’s odd structure, give DARK REFLECTIONS a look. Delany is a valuable writer, and his books should be read, savored, and re-read over and over before they are placed on your own shelf of Delany masterpieces.

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All The Zombie History You Need, Plus Bush-Bashing

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Yes, film writers, we get it: You’re all raging libs looking to be thought of as deep thinkers, even if you’re writing about zombies.
BOOK OF THE DEAD is Jamie Russell’s interesting and exhaustive (if not complete) survey of a trend that really needs to move on, but manages to cough up an interesting new take now and then (THE DEAD, set in Africa) when it’s not just more expensive Hollywood bilge (WORLD WAR Z, which Russell loves for reasons I find unconvincing).
The focus is on British and American zombie cinema, but Russell’s take on the Spanish REC, for one non-Anglo example, is on-target and interesting. But here I found the examination of the political elements overdone, the first sign of the Movie Writer Who Wants To Be Taken As A Social Commentator disease. In his REC review, Russell belabors the political elements; I suspect very few fans of REC love the found-footage zombie flick because it bashes the Catholic church, but Russell goes on and on about it, like he’s been looking for an excuse to do so and here it is, so he’s running with it. Similarly, his obvious hatred of George W. Bush starts to get ridiculous (he sneers that Bush’s “scriptwriters” provided an answer to a rhetorical question, as if no other president giving a State of the Union speech ever used a script). Every real-world evil happening under a Republican president is that president’s fault, while Democratic presidents are just kind of there when bad things happen on their watch.

If the above paragraph had you rolling your eyes, you got my point. I’d feel the same were the target Clinton or Obama. There’s nothing wrong with political material in a film book when trying to link real-world events to cinematic responses, but it seems so forced here. I think this dates back to DAWN OF THE DEAD, which was heralded as some kind of incredibly insightful satire on American consumerism. I liked the movie, but after maybe ten minutes of zombies in the mall I was thinking, “OK, Americans in malls are like dead people, I get it, George!” The survivors fighting over consumer goods isn’t exactly Swiftian, but zombie movie lovers go nuts over this sort of thing, as if they’re ashamed to just enjoy their horror movie AS a horror movie. It’s a little hypocritical, as genre fans are always defending entertainment against snob critics, and then the first chance they get, they proclaim their zombie movie is actually High Art, as if that’s what they’re REALLY into. I actually like the DAWN remake better. So when Russell starts going on…and on…about the political commentary in movies starring gray-painted kabuki dropouts, I get that eyes-skyward expression myself.
This isn’t a complicated complaint: He just goes on long after the point has been made. Like I just did.

This is the only major criticism I’ve got.

My favorite feature of the book is the filmography. It is over 130 pages long and includes brief summaries and comments on hundreds of zombie films. Unlike in the main sections, here Russell’s critiques are short, sharp and to the point, showing why he picked this film for inclusion (historical value to the development of the genre, excellence on a low budget, etc.), and the average zombie movie fan (as opposed to the obsessive) will find dozens of titles to hunt down in the night.

A fun, absorbing read that could have been better, but so what? If you agree with Russell’s political views you’ll probably enjoy yet more print spent bashing the right and praising the left as the only possible viewpoint for an intelligent person, so have at it. For anyone else, the political stuff can be skimmed, which was my solution after the ninth reiteration of how evil George W. Bush is.

Peter Gunn

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I’d heard about the show for decades, but have only just begun to watch it.  It’s going to take awhile to get into the show because it’s not what I expected.  Where JOHNNY STACCATO is a nocturnal, restless piece of New York-flavored noir candy, this earlier show is much more leisurely.

Craig Stevens is a stiff as an actor but he’s well-cast; his rigidity comes off as coolness under pressure.  Henry Mancini’s score is terrific, of course, but to me the most impressive thing is the concept itself:  Gunn is a P.I. who is usually found at a jazz club, and when he goes to work it’s like the only people who live in this nighttime world are the characters we’ve met.  What kind of tax base does this place have?  As was the case with THE OUTER LIMITS, the cinematographers on Gunn take advantage of “dead” space, the deep black areas where no lighting is used, which is particularly appropriate to crime stories.

From the titles to the attitude to the music, PETER GUNN was not only an outgrowth of trends in popular culture, it helped shape them, too.  Where STACCATO had a more overt Bohemian/jazz sensibility, GUNN helped feed the “cocktail jazz” vibe we get in the early seasons of MAD MEN and any other subsequent movie or show set in the era.  It’s a charge to see the original source for that, which has been sharpened and buffed up in subsequent years until it became a cliche.  I’ll make mention of any notable episodes as I go through the first season.

Noir You Should Know: Act Of Violence

One of the pleasant surprises of the Noir box series, this early Fred Zinnemann flick makes the teevee screen seem to sweat.  Van Heflin is at his nervous best as a war hero being pursued by Robert Ryan.  Heflin is a pillar of the community, he’s honored by his neighbors, he’s married to Janet Leigh. Ryan is a cranky, gun-toting loner with a limp who terrifies Leigh.

So of course Ryan’s the bad guy who deserves to be shot up by the end titles.  Right?

With an amazing scene of Heflin running through an empty city late at night, ending in one of the sleaziest ratholes of a bar in noir history, where he meets Mary Astor as a broken-down hooker, this is an under-appreciated noir gem.

act 1 Act 2 Act 3 Act 4 act of violence

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041088/

What Alien Means To Me: 2

RipleyA NEW KIND OF SF HERO

What makes the character of Ripley such an important part of genre film history is not just her gender, but being a working woman in a SF/horror movie who is, in the end, the main character.

Women had prominent parts in studio SF movies for years.  Jane Fonda in BARBARELLA, Rosalind Cash in OMEGA MAN, Charlotte Rampling in ZARDOZ and Julie Christie in DEMON SEED may not be every feminist’s ideal, but each was depicted as a strong character.  But these movies were not about the woman’s story.

In ALIEN, the white men all die first–when it’s down to three survivors, it’s two women and a black man.  The bulk of the movie from the chestburster scene to the moment when Ripley sees that Lambert and Parker are dead is one long progression to the one-on-one battle between humanity and the alien, and the human race is represented by a woman.  Not only was this a new development in movies, but it is done without an ounce of fanfare–no character saying, “A WOMAN?!”  Even Yaphet Kotto’s Parker’s arguing with Ripley is about her choices as acting captain, not because she’s a woman telling a man what to do.

Significantly, once Ripley sees she’s the last one left, she doesn’t become a stand-in for a cliche of a masculine hero–the movie isn’t complimenting her on having traditionally masculine qualities.  She’s a person who’s as scared as anyone would be in that situation.  When she takes off down the hallway after seeing the bodies of the last of her crewmates, she sounds like she’s about to lose it, and she is visibly shaken as she sets the ship to detonate.  She’s alone, with zero chance of anyone coming to her rescue.  But she gets on with the job.

If Ripley became a macho woman, suddenly transformed into Dirty Harry’s sister, the movie would have collapsed.  The audience would see we’re now in wish-fulfillment territory.  I’m not a fan of the current trend in female fantasy heroes, aka supermodels playing boy’s fighting games.  Ripley neither conforms to male fantasies of how a woman should be nor becomes a feminist dream.  She continues to be a member of a work crew forced into a position she has no preparation for–just like the men who fell earlier in the movie.

I think Ripley is more significant as an example of a blue-collar worker stepping up than as a female picking up a big gun.  Ripley is no Barbarella or James Bondian pinup or fantasy film goddess.  She’s a single mom, we later find out, or a space-age Rosie the Riveter.  In a film that is about gender or genital horrors, she’s a woman who survives because she uses her smarts, not because she follows some stereotype of toughness.  She survives because she keeps her cool, and keeps thinking.

I’m pretty sure no one finished a viewing of this movie and thought, “She did pretty good for a girl.”  Ripley is a new kind of hero because she is a competent working woman, an average woman, not a glamorous hottie, but, like most American women,a person who wakes up in the morning and gets to work.  It just so happens that THIS day at work was particularly tough.

What Alien Means To Me: 1

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A GREAT THEATER EXPERIENCE  I saw ALIEN the first week it was out in 1979.  A young couple who were on my newspaper route (I was 13) who were interested in SF took me to the Sack Charles in Boston.  Waiting in the long line, I was entering the world of R-rated movies, which I knew were the coolest, scariest, most forbidden things, ever!  How could a kid NOT be disappointed after such build-up from TV ads, Starlog articles, and the breaking of the R barrier?

Well, I wasn’t disappointed.  I think the moment I completely fell into the experience was when the trio of astronauts first see the H.R. Giger-designed alien ship.  Giger was, of course, made famous for his alien design, but at this point in the movie, around the half-hour mark, we haven’t seen any of his work except for the planet landscape.  Then there’s this alien ship, which truly looks like something cooked up by a non-human intelligence.  Ridley Scott’s stroke of genius here was by cutting from the clean first view of the (impressive) model to video footage, putting us in the position of Ian Holm’s Ash–we’re seeing the ship second-hand (just as theater audiences actually did), trying to make it out on the static-clogged video monitor.  Then we hear Veronica Cartwright (the voice of the audience) say, “Let’s get out of here.”

“We must go on!” John Hurt says.  “We have to go on!”

The final piece is Jerry Goldsmith’s tense music for this moment.  The strings play up the stress, and the Echoplex-treated percussion represents the unworldly evil awaiting in that ship.

To this day, I’ve never sensed the AUDIENCE around me so caught up in a blend of fascination and fear, while at the same time I was completely fixed on the movie.  I’m not sure I can explain that part.