Underworld: Awakening and the great gender swap

I finally caught up with Underworld: Awakening, a movie I'd put off seeing because I liked the first two Underworld films so much. Although technically the fourth in the series, chronologically it follows the second (the third was a totally unnecessary prequel), and picks up the story of Kate Beckinsale's Selene after the events of Underworld: Evolutions. Why, if I'm Read more

Blade Runner: crocodile tears in rain?

I'll say up front: this is totally fanboy rambling.  Take it as such. In Ridley Scott's classic film Blade Runner, evil corporate head Elton Tyrell explains to hero Rick Deckard how the Nexus 6 replicants, the closest the company's come to true human beings, have emotional issues since they're born fully adult and live only four years. Tyrell: We began to Read more

High Hopes: is talent finite?

This weekend, I finally listened to High Hopes, the most recent Bruce Springsteen album. Yes, it came out on January 14, and I bought it then, but I hadn't listened to it. There  were many times when I listened to a new Springsteen album multiple times on its release day, and almost exclusively for days after that. But something's happened to Read more

Some thoughts on a Star Trek rewatch

  My oldest son and I just finished watching the first season of the original Star Trek series. We watched the episodes in "production order," meaning the order in which they were filmed. That way, we could see the growth of the show, the way the actors find their characters, and how the Enterprise itself is more and more developed. Read more

Writing on demand for MY BLOODY VALENTINE

Every writer has at least one weakness, something they don't do as well as they'd like. They know it, and their readers know it. Raymond Chandler knew he didn't do plots well, which is why the structures of his novels a) don't bear up to scrutiny, and b) are often cribbed from his previous short stories. Of course, what Read more

Witchcraft Through the Ages (of TV and Movies, that is)

Posted on by Alex in Alice Hoffman, Catholic Church, filmmaking, Firefly Witch, movies, Pagan, pop culture, Seventies, short stories, tv, witchcraft | 1 Comment

Elizabeth Montgomery in an early episode of “Bewitched.”

Witchcraft has an iffy history in film and television. When I first started doing my Firefly Witch stories, one thing I reacted against was the standard image of the pop-culture witch. Leaving aside the blatant “wicked witch” portrayals, it’s still hard to find anything remotely accurate, let alone sympathetic. It’s not impossible, though.

One of the earliest films about witchcraft, which unfortunately took the devil-worship position, is the unique Swedish/Danish film Haxan. Retitled Witchcraft Through the Agesin English, this one-of-a-kind 1922 silent film depicts witchcraft the way history describes it, then explains how witches were tortured by the Inquisition. It’s impossible not to be horrified by the treatment of the unfortunate women, and to feel sympathy for them. It’s not really a narrative film, yet it’s not a documentary, either. An indication of its strangeness is that the best-known version in English was narrated by William S. Burroughs.

In 1942, Veronica Lake played the witch Jennifer in the romantic comedy I Married a Witch. In the 1958 movie Bell, Book and Candle, Kim Novack plays Gillian, desperately in love with James Stewart. On TV in the 60s, Samantha Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery) dominated Bewitched(okay, Agnes Moorehead dominated it, but still…). All these characters, though, labored under the kind of strictures common at the time: Gillian and Jennifer lost their magical powers when they fell in love, and Samantha had promised not to use hers to help her husband’s career.* At the time, witches had to be de-powered to allow the “natural order” to assert itself.

Kim Novak in “Bell, Book and Candle”

These comedies also embraced the common trope that one is “born” a witch; that somehow, the special powers are inherited rather than learned or earned. It’s even possible to read it as saying witches are not actually human, but a different species. But the idea of “innate powers” is a thread that runs through most witchcraft movies, with a couple of notable exception.

In the 70s, one of the most accurate depictions of genuine witchcraft appeared in the seldom-seen George Romero film, “Jack’s Wife (1972). Also released under the more exploitative titles Season of the Witch and Hungry Wives, it’s about a woman who’s drawn into witchcraft as a remedy for the ennui of her suburban life. It’s a blatantly feminist film, and treats the main character’s involvement with magic as empowering. It’s also very much of its time, which means it gets a little arty-for-art’s sake at times.

Jan White in “Jack’s Wife,” enmeshed in the symbolism.

The other notable exception, the character of Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, brought the idea that witchcraft was a learned skill into the popular imagination. Unfortunately, it’s also depicted as something addictive, and an entire story arc was devoted to its detrimental effects on Willow.

The rise of feminism and the idea that women were, I don’t know, actual people capable of doing something other than supporting men changed depictions of witchcraft. The Witches of Eastwick (1987), a pretty dire film from a critical standpoint, did at least show that women supporting each other could defeat even the Devil Himself. The Craft(1997) starts with the idea that outcasts working together can be strong, but then degenerates into standard horror.

My favorite positive depiction of witchcraft is 1998′s Practical Magic. Based (extremely loosely) on Alice Hoffman’s novel, it shows two sets of sisters, younger (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) and older (Dianne Weist and Stockard Channing), using their powers to protect their family.  I confess that I have a total crush on Sandra Bullock’s character (not, I hasten to add, on Ms. Bullock herself).

Sandra Bullock in “Practical Magic.”

Together, these movies and TV shows present a very distorted view of witchcraft filtered through society’s concerns. That’s fine as far as it goes–witchcraft can be used as a metaphor, just as anything else can be–but to me, it never captured the true (okay, wait for it…) magic of Wicca/Paganism/the Craft. It was never shown as joyous, rarely as empowering, and certainly never as the religion it truly is. When I began writing my Firefly Witch stories, I wanted to put as much of that back as I could and still tell interesting, dramatic horror/fantasy stories.

If you’d like to check them out and decide for yourself how well I did it, go here. And if I’ve missed an important example, please tell me in the comments.

*I reference this show in my short story “The Darren Stevens Club,” in the first Firefly Witch collection.

For Halloween, a tribute to real witches

Posted on by Alex in Catholic Church, cats, Firefly Witch, Halloween, Pagan, politics, pop culture, short stories, witchcraft | 5 Comments

In October, people think about witches.

Sure, some people think about witches all year round. But in October, the folks who don’t the rest of the year suddenly do. They see pointy hats, pointy noses, pointy chins everywhere. Cauldrons and black cats and flying broomsticks abound.

Standard-issue, Church-sanctioned witches. From an Australian production of “Macbeth.”

Except, those aren’t really witches.

Those are bits of folklore, handed down from a time when anyone who disagreed with the status quo (i.e., the Catholic Church’s view of the world) was labeled evil. That applied especially to women who disagreed with their roles in society. Whether they’re burned at the stake or shot in the head (like the brave Pakistani girl in the news), women have suffered at the hands of repressive religion and rigid society for (if you’ll forgive the pun) a hell of a long time.

Real witches doing what they do.

Witches are individualists: there’s no central text, like the Bible or the Koran, that lays out the religion for its believers. Each witch decides what he or she* believes, and how best to express that belief. There are common denominators, of course: a belief in a god and goddess, a reverence for nature, a sense of personal responsibility and an open attitude toward sexuality. You can imagine how even these simple things send fundamentalists into apoplexy.  And it’s these beliefs that, to me, make a modern witch such an interesting and courageous character, and why I write my Firefly Witch stories.

Most importantly, from a common-perception perspective, witches do not worship the Christian devil. Since both God and the Devil are Christian beliefs, you have to be a Christian first to do that. When Christians say that witches worship the devil, it’s a bit like calling a football penalty in a baseball game: it’s applying a standard that just doesn’t work in context.

So when you see a witch depicted with a pointy hat, a wart on her nose, a black cat underfoot and a bubbling cauldron before her, keep in mind: this is propaganda. It’s no different than any group demonized by the majority.  A real witch can be found planting a garden, reading a book, supporting women’s rights or buying groceries. You might know a witch already, and not be aware of it. Because that’s the most powerful thing about them, and the one thing the fundamentalists drive themselves into a frenzy trying to obscure: witches are just like everyone else.

Want to know more about real witches?  Try here.  And here.  And here.

Shameless self-promotion: want to read fiction about a real witch?  Try here.

*The term is gender neutral. Warlock is not a male witch, it’s something else entirely.

Ain’t No Cure: vampirism as disease

Posted on by Alex in Blood Groove, Dracula, Girls with Games of Blood, True Blood, vampires, writers, writing | 1 Comment

(October, the month of Halloween, conjures one name in our household: Dracula! This is the third of a series of posts on various aspects of Dracula and vampires in general. I’ll be giving away a two-pack of my own vampire novels Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood to one lucky commenter per post, so comment early, comment often!)

Richard Matheson, among many other cool things in his career, popularized the idea of a scientific explanation for vampirism in his novel I am Legend. His vampires are the result of a pandemic whose symptoms mirror the classic vampire tropes. That paved the way for this entire subgenre, including comics (Marvel’s Blade, as well as Morbius, the Living Vampire), movies (Korea’s Thirst), and even recent fiction (The Passage and The Strain).

Originally, the idea of blood hunger as a disease had its simplest parallel with diabetes, with blood standing in for insulin. As long as the sufferer “took his medicine,” so to speak, he was safe. For the most part, diabetes is invisible as well, so that the vampire suffering from a “disease” didn’t look any different, either: fangs were minimized, and vampires changed from being aristocrats and noblemen to everyday characters. This removed any sort of moral level and made him just another unfortunate. Eventually stories appeared in which vampires made do with animal blood or blood substitutes (as in True Blood), making the parallel complete.

With the onset of AIDS, a blood-borne disease that came with the social stigma diabetes lacked, vampire stories adapted as well. Suddenly the idea that the very thing that allowed their existence could also cause their demise became the trope of the moment. Even Stephen King worked a twist on it, as his Dark Tower vampires were AIDS carriers. Further, the very real experiences of sufferers were co-opted into vampire fiction, so that vampires became victims not just of biology, but of society as well. Just as AIDS sufferers were shunned and accused of “asking for it,” vampires were depicted as victims who often deliberately sought their condition. And the fear of AIDS dovetailed nicely with the fear of vampires: both could hide in plain sight, and lured you with the possibility of sex. (I’m deliberately not talking about sexuality and AIDS victims in terms of vampire fiction, because that’s a whole other issue.)

And now, with the possibility of biological weapons (what used to be called “germ warfare,” back when Matheson wrote I am Legend), we get tales of mutated viruses that spread like wildfire and create vampire-like symptoms and behaviors.

So where does that leave the vampire?

The classic vampires–Dracula, Carmilla, Lord Ruthven–were unapologetic monsters. They needed no origins, no sympathy, because they embraced their natures. They did not contract a disease, they willingly gave up their souls for the vampiric existence. Only later, when the idea of sympathetic vampire arose with Dark Shadows and Anne Rice, did it become really necessary to find a way to have vampirism not be the vampire’s fault. And what better way than to make it the result of simple biology, rather than a pact with eternal evil?

The problem with this, as with all “explanations” for vampires, is that as soon as they’re explained, they become small and simple. In a way, the idea of a biological explanation for vampires is horror fiction’s parallel to midichlorians: it explains something that needs no explanation, and in the process, utterly destroys its grandeur.

Did Orson Welles make Dracula romantic?

Posted on by Alex in Dracula, pop culture, trivia, vampires, Van Helsing | 4 Comments

(October, the month of Halloween, conjures one name in our household: Dracula! This is the second of a series of posts on various aspects of Dracula and vampires in general. I’ll be giving away a two-pack of my own vampire novels Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood to one lucky commenter per post, so comment early, comment often!)

For a while–we’re talking decades–I’d believed the romantic take on vampires began with Anne Rice. Before “Interview with the Vampire, these creatures were villainous, if occasionally attractive, creatures of the night. After her, they became tortured heroes, as much a victim of their bloodlust as the people they killed.

Yet I’ve had to re-evaluate this after hearing a radio broadcast of Dracula produced and directed by Orson Welles, who played both the Count and Dr. Seward.

In Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula is not a ladies’ man. He is old, thin, has hairy palms and bad breath. The idea of the “sexy” vampire originated with the theatrical adaptations that played in theaters before movies were common, and became codified with Bela Lugosi (this is covered in great detail in David J. Skal’s excellent book Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen). Christopher Lee enhanced this in the Hammer films, but in all of these incarnations, Dracula’s attractiveness was just a lure; women might swoon for him, but he could care less.

Welles was a master of the radio medium, as his famous 1938 Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds demonstrated. He also did many other radio dramas, several of them based on classic works of fiction. But in his production of “Dracula,” done in the summer of 1938, he may have been the first to suggest–okay, to flat-out say–that Dracula’s relationship with Mina Harker was something more than predator/prey.

In the radio drama, which follows the broad outlines of the novel pretty closely, the good guys finally corner Dracula in Transylvania; they have mere moments before the sun sets and he is able to command his vampiric powers. In the script, Dracula’s voice speaks his thoughts aloud, summoning help:

There is one very dear to me who has not answered! My love … Mina. There is less than a minute between me and the night. You must speak for me, you must speak with my heart.

Then, moments later:

Flesh of my flesh, come to me, my love. Come into the night and the darkness, you have served me well, my love, my bride … 

Clearly, Dracula feels something greater than mere bloodlust for Mina: he calls her “my bride.” There’s no indication that this feeling is mutual: she responds to him only under his psychic influence. But it’s not a big step to have his love reciprocated, as is now a common trope in vampire fiction. Indeed, the love between vampire and victim has now almost wholly replaced the previous trope of horror and fear.

And did it all begin with Orson Welles?

You can listen to the production starting here.

The loss of the epic vampire

Posted on by Alex in Bram Stoker, Catholic Church, Christopher Lee, Dracula, Elizabeth Miller, fantasy literature, Hammer Studios, Horror Films, Lestat, movies, True Blood, Twilight, vampires, writing, Zginski | 10 Comments

(October, the month of Halloween, conjures one name in our household: Dracula! This is the first of a series of posts on various aspects of Dracula and vampires in general. I’ll be giving away a two-pack of my own vampire novels Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood to one lucky commenter per post, so comment early, comment often!)

Recently I came across an article by Elizabeth Russell Miller, an internationally-known expert on all things Bram Stoker, entitled, “The Church Welcomes Dracula.”

The story of this Dublin church honoring Dracula is fun on its surface, but it got me thinking about vampires and religion, a relationship that has lost almost all its potency in the last forty years. When I was a kid, vampires were terrified of all things religious, specifically Catholic icons. There were occasional riffs on that, most famously the Jewish bloodsucker in The Fearless Vampire Killers. But for the most part it was accepted, and accepted seriously: the athiest hero of the Hammer classic Dracula Has Risen from the Grave must become a believer to defeat Dracula.

But as religion faded from its importance in everyday life, it also faded from vampire lore. Anne Rice’s vampires are indifferent to religious iconography, as are those of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The pantsless vamps of True Blood have no issue with it. And so on. But what has replaced religion in vampire mythology?

Apparently, it’s love.

Love destroys vampires as surely as sunrise, wooden stakes or fire. Where once stood an immortal symbol of the power of the devil, the literal anti-Christ (the vampire’s nightly resurrection mocks Christ’s, for example), we now have tortured, sympathetic heroes. And not even anti-heroes like the magnificently nihilistic Lestat, but actual heroes who try to do good, defeat the bad guys (often more “traditional” vampires) and win the damsel (often without actually biting her). This has culminated in the Twilight, saga, which is all about not doing…well, anything. Once the active hand of the devil on earth, vampires are now horror’s answer to the Amish.

When only the Church (capital “C”) stood between humanity and the vampire, it was understood as a battle for immortal things like souls.  It was an epic battle. Powers as old as the universe contended for the soul of a man or woman, a prize so valuable both God and the Devil wanted it. Now…well, the prize is Bella Swan’s virginity. And losing it doesn’t damn her to hell for all eternity; rather, it elevates her into the nouveau beaute’ pantheon.

Now, I’m not a religious person, but as a writer, I understand the maxim that heroes are judged by the power of their villains. Imagine Batman without the Joker, Superman without Lex Luther, or Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty; their stature would be seriously diminished. Similarly, the classic vampire is scary and significant because, within that mythology, even God himself takes notice and stands against him. That’s a powerful trope, and one that’s proven very hard to replace.

When I wrote my two “vampsloitation” novels, Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood, I deliberately left out religion, intending to use it as an element in the climactic third book. Alas, the first two did not exactly fly off shelves or into e-book readers,* so it may be some time before that final novel, Blood Will Rise Again, sees the light of day. But when it does, I hope to recapture some of that classic epic feel, of the idea that what’s at stake (heh) when a vampire meets a human is more than just hemoglobin and an undead booty call.  I hope to make it…well, cosmic. That’s the playing field vampires should occupy.

*I must say, though, that the fans of these novels are some of my most passionate; for those that “get it,” they really get it, and I appreciate hearing from them.

Writer’s Day #3

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, writers, writing | 2 Comments

This is the third of a series of videos showing how a typical writer (i.e., me) works through the day.  This one is about revision, and how some writers get nervous talking about fonts on camera.

Interview: Signe Pike, author of Faery Tale

Posted on by Alex in faeries, interview, writers, writing | 2 Comments

Signe Pike’s 2010 memoir Faery Tale is subtitled, One Woman’s Search for Enchantment in a Modern World.  It tells of her journey to the countries steeped in a history of fairy belief, in search of something that would convince her, a cynical New Yorker, of their reality.  Through her discoveries and experiences, she not only learns about fairies, but also comes to terms with some deep-seated grief.  Kirkus Reviews named it a “Best of 2010.”

I didn’t read it before I wrote The Hum and the Shiver, but we were both working from a similar perspective: I was trying to find a way to present the fae in the modern world, and she was searching for traces of their existence in the same place.  I found what I was after with the creation of my mythical Tufa; Signe found her answers in the signs, symbols and coincidences encountered on her journey.

Me: Since you wrote your book, have you second-guessed or reinterpreted any of the experiences you describe in it?

Signe: Surprisingly, no, I haven’t second-guessed any of my experiences. On my journey one of the most important things I learned was to trust my intuition, that inner sense of knowing that we all have and yet too often choose to ignore. And the strange occurrences I experienced when researching Faery Tale were all unquestioningly accompanied by that powerful sense of knowing. I learned to trust that. Once you’ve felt it, you can understand how different knowing is from imagining or thinking. It was what my interview subjects had been telling me all along, they’d say, for example, “I just know what I saw wasn’t fireflies,” with a powerful sense of conviction. They didn’t seem crazy, or delusional, they just seemed absolutely certain. It took experiencing the feeling of knowing that seems to accompany brushes with the unseen world myself to understand what it was they’d been trying to say. The tricky thing about this sense of knowing becomes, How do I describe this experience to readers in a way that makes sense to someone who isn’t experiencing it first hand? Taking it further, how could I describe what I experienced to readers in way that wouldn’t leave them feeling isolated and unable to relate to my experience given that they weren’t there to see or feel what had taken place for themselves? The answer was to approach the experiences from as much of a journalistic perspective as possible. I wanted my readers to be able to be able to make up their own minds and interpret what might have taken place for themselves, not try to shove something down their throats. It disturbed me that there didn’t seem to be a “Middle Way” out there for people interested in esoteric subjects. So many of the books on faeries written in recent years were completely inaccessible to the majority of the population. I decided I wanted to create a Middle Way, an exploration for myself and others who weren’t sure what we thought, but were willing to take a risk, be open and see what secrets existence might have in store.

I have, however, come to realize that putting spiritual experiences or encounters into any sort of box is a rather silly thing to do. Wol, one of my favorite people I met on my journey, said to me one night that what I was undertaking was nearly impossible. “You can’t possibly hope to come out of this with concrete answers. What you’re exploring, it could take years. Decades. You can’t put this sort of thing on a deadline.” He was right. Wol wasn’t a believer in faeries, necessarily, but he respected my journey and supported me in my seeking. Matters of existence like “Are there unseen beings around us?” are explorations that deserve the respect of a lifetime. As such, just because the last page of the book has been turned
doesn’t mean my journey has ended. I do continue to find new ways to interpret the “signs and signals” that I encountered while writing the book. I continue to grow, learn, and expand. I put a fair amount of that on the page. I was lucky to be able to share that with readers and I remain glad that I did. But now I rather enjoy being able to keep my experiences and interpretations just for me. They retain their power more for me that way.

What do you feel is the link, if any, between a person’s ability to sense the world of faery, and creativity?

I believe that creativity and the faerie world are linked in that they are both directly connected to this world of “other”—divine source, God, the spirit world, whatever you believe—our creativity burns within us until it presses us to create something, to birth it, bring it out of the ether. We are, in other words, inspired. We feel that if we cannot just write, paint, sing, cook, plant, plan, whatever your creative outpouring must be, we will surely burst. Our egos tell us “I made this.” But really, I believe that yes, while our fingers might have painted the image, and we used our skills to move the brush just so, we received the inspiration to complete the work from some place outside of ourselves, a place rife with enchantment. The more we learn how to be open to that source, the more we acknowledge and are thankful for the inspirations that come our way, and the more we pay attention to the world around us, that I believe is trying to communicate with us at every moment in time, the more easily we’ll be able to experience that world and everything which calls it home, faeries included.

Do you think the faeries understand, or care, about how they’re depicted in art and literature?

I’d have to say it depends on the faery! They are spirit beings, and as such are unique and individualized, and from our very human perspective. I imagine there are some who don’t want to have much to do with humans at all. There are some who think it’s funny. There are some, as Mr. Brian Froud, artist extraordinaire might tell you, that are quite keen to be painted, heard, felt, or otherwise brought into our consciousness. Then there are some who have a strong desire to communicate their existence to people for bigger ends: so that we will extract our heads from our behinds and start taking better care of the planet and living the best lives we can in harmony with the rest of the natural world. No small mission.

Before the book came out, I was nervous that I might not have done the question of faeries justice. I had been gifted some amazing other-worldly experiences—even some that I’d managed to capture on tape and on camera—and I worried that if the book didn’t perform, if it didn’t reach people, I would be letting this unseen world down. A very wise friend of mine said, “These faeries you believe in. You say they’re pretty ancient, right? They’ve been around for quite a while. Older than mankind itself? And they’re very wise, some of them, right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“And do you think you’re the first person to have written about them in the history of human kind?”

“No…” I was beginning to see how ridiculous my line of thinking had been. The whole world of faeries depends on me! Come on. And I couldn’t help but start to laugh.

“Yeah,” he said, “I really don’t think so much depends on you.”

The point is that they reach out and inspire lots of people (as you know first hand, I’m sure, Mr. Bledsoe!) and there is no wrong inspiration. They just want it to resonate with people and hopefully inspire them to change, grow, love more, be more awake, and make a difference. I’m sure the darker side of faerie reaches out too—and there are authors out there who regularly tune into it. I choose not to. It doesn’t help anything. It doesn’t elevate people, it doesn’t inspire them or help them grow. It just makes people weirder.

What’s the most interesting thing a reader’s told you after reading your book?

Oh, wow. One of the things that lights me up most are the letters I receive. The fact that people are willing to share their own deeply personal experiences or unexplainable encounters they’ve had with me is incredibly moving. I’ve heard of magical events that have happened to people everywhere from Ireland to Appalachia, Australia to Brazil, from believers and doubters alike. I get wonderful suggestions about other places around the world to visit where readers believe I might experience faerie activity. Sometimes I get letters from people who take the idea of faeries quite literally – there was a person convinced that a garden gnome was trapped in their backyard shed and they were in quite a panic, wondering what they should do. But the most touching letters are from those who share their stories of loss and a new faith in the enchantment the world has to offer that rose out of their seeking and their sorrow. Or, even more humbling, the people who say my book helped them heal. I don’t think there’s any higher praise, and it’s letters like that that make me so glad I took a chance and shared my story.

Thanks to Signe Pike for talking with me. Faery Tale: One Woman’s Search for Enchantment in a Modern World is available through all the usual outlets, in all the usual formats. You can visit her website here.

Writer’s Day #2

Posted on by Alex in Hum and the Shiver, writers, writing | Leave a comment

This is the second of a series of videos showing how a typical writer (i.e., me) works through the day.  Ever wonder how those signed copies get from an author to a contest winner?  Now you can see.  And it involves military jets.

The Indy Challenge: Melissa Olson on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Posted on by Alex in guest blog, movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, reviews, Uncategorized, writers | 2 Comments

Today the four Indiana Jones films are released on blu-ray, along with a host of special features (including the awesome TV special, The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I’ve had on VHS for decades).  To commemorate this, author Melissa Olson (Dead Spots) and I have agreed to swap blog posts defending the most maligned entries in the series. At her blog I’ll be making the case for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and here she sings the praises of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. 


Greetings, my fellow Alex Bledsoe fans. I’m glad you could join me for this half of the Indiana Jones challenge. Some would say that I’m getting the short end of the stick by having to defend the series’ fourth movie, but I beg to differ. Now, I have no intention of using this blog to argue that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a Great Film. It isn’t, certainly not the way Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade are undeniably Great Films, which I believe Alex and I would agree on. But the thing about Crystal Skull is, it also shouldn’t be what it has become: an easily dismissed joke of a movie. Because when Spielberg and Lucas set out to make Crystal Skull, they tried something fascinating. And while it didn’t really work, not the way they wanted it to, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not just another tacky piece-of-crap sequel that came out way too late and was thrown together way too shoddily (I’m looking at you, Wall Street 2 and Basic Instinct 2). There’s a line of reasoning here, a story behind Crystal Skull that you might not know about. It’s interesting. Here’s why.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to bear with me for a bit of history first, because in order to really understand Crystal Skull, you have to go back to what influenced the entire series in the first place. In the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, the US was experiencing a sudden pull towards nostalgia: the 70’s had been such a complex period, politically and socially, that there was a certain anxiety and fear in the air, a general longing for simpler, more fun times. Filmmaker George Lucas managed to have absolutely flawless timing with the release of Star Wars, which gave the people exactly what they wanted. Star Wars combined elements of beloved 1930’s serials with bits and pieces of other traditional genres: samurai stories, war epics, westerns. Star Wars is a really good movie, but it’s stupendous success owes a lot to the perfect timing of supply and demand, a match of cutting-edge technology and nostalgia for simpler stories from simpler times.

A few years later, Lucas and his pal Spielberg were kicking around some ideas for how to do it again: make a nostalgic adventure film that was deeply influenced by the style of the 1930’s serials, but still had the best technology and grandeur that 1981 had to offer. They set it in 1936 to embody the spirit of those serials, and decided to involve the world’s biggest villain at that time: Hitler. They stumbled on the historical fact that Hitler was interested in the occult, pulled in Lucas’ interest in archeology, and ran with it. Raiders of the Lost Ark twists in themes of spiritual exploration, the potential danger in a search for knowledge, the power of faith and trust, and so on. And it featured the same sort of cartoonish stunts and exaggerated facial expressions that made those serials so popular in the 30’s: an enormous pit of deadly snakes, spirits that whip around and melt the faces off the Nazis, a gigantic boulder that almost rolls over Indy, and so on.

Fast forward twenty-some years. Let’s take a moment, people, to pause and pretend that we are the mighty triumvirate of Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford. Collectively and individually, we have more money than Marie Antoinette could spend in twelve lifetimes. In addition to our individual successes, we’ve already made a beloved, timeless trilogy together that (with the possible exception of Temple of Doom, which, in addition to pretty much lacking a plot, is so saturated with obscene female and Asian stereotypes that you can breathe them in and die of bigotry) actually holds up thirty years later. The three of us miss working together, and we miss the characters and themes we built for Indiana Jones. But…we are also older, and to do a fourth film now, when Indy himself would be so obviously changed, doesn’t make any sense. There’s just no way to follow the formula of the first three films with Dr. Jones as an older guy.

But wait. Suddenly, there’s a spark. An idea, if you will. Because after 9/11, and all the political and social turmoil that followed it, wouldn’t audiences enjoy getting back to nostalgia again?  What if we could have it both ways? What if we could return to the spirit of Indiana Jones, but update it for a different age?

There was no way to get around the age problem, of course. Dr. Jones had to be aged about 20 years after Raiders, which put the story in 1957. So Spielberg and Lucas did the exact same thing they did with Raiders: they cast the real-life villain from that time period, which in this case was the Soviet Union – Communists. With that basic premise, Spielberg and Lucas put their thinking caps on. How to update Indy while keeping the same themes of spiritual exploration, the potential danger in a search for knowledge, the power of faith and trust, and so on? How could they revive the series but still bring in something new?

So they did what they did with Raiders: they focused on the pop culture of the period. Only instead of the serials from the 1930’s, they were looking at adding elements from the 1950’s favorite theme: Communists as aliens, aliens as Communists. The public’s biggest fear in the fifties was that the Commies would invade the US and turn good, hardworking American citizens into pod people, drones that were incapable of independent thought or action. And it was reflected in the American fiction of that time: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Thing From Another World (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), and so on.

You see where I’m going with this, right? Lucas and Spielberg didn’t “jump the shark” by making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. What they tried to do was the exact same thing they did with Raiders: they wanted to bring in the global villain and the global fear of that time, but still stir in Indiana Jones’s traditional search for truth, faith, knowledge, and especially, spirituality. In each of the first three films, Indiana Jones explores a spiritual outlook: Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity. And in the end, Indy always becomes a reluctant religious savior, a convert, however briefly. His fourth onscreen adventure does its best to continue that tradition, but this time, the religion being explored is knowledge. Stylistically, Crystal Skull does keep the original trilogy’s deference to the serials of the 30’s – the death-defying stunts, the exaggerated expressions, the derring-do – but adds in the themes from films of the 1950’s.  And that, folks, is a pretty damned interesting prospect.

But it backfired, and frankly, that had a lot more to do with us than with them. Go back, for a second, to the outlandish success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, back in 1981. I doubt very much that movie theater audiences in ‘81 shouted and griped at the screen because the boulder trap or the convoy chase sequences were unrealistic and hokey. Or the river raft drop, or the monkey brain dinner, both in Temple of Doom. They didn’t complain because in 1981, the audiences wanted to believe in Indy. They wanted that nostalgia; they’d sought it out. And Spielberg and Lucas delivered. Wild success. Champagne and increased budgets all around.

In 2008 – and today – however, audiences don’t actually want to believe in Indy anymore. We might think that we do, but really, what we want to believe is that we are smart. We are not whores for the man, in this case represented by three rich middle-aged men trying to sell us an Indiana Jones movie about aliens, for crying out loud. We will not be taken in by that bullshit, thank you very much.

But think about it. Setting your personal beliefs in God or aliens aside for a moment, is the fridge-nuclear bomb scene really any less believable than spirits flying out of the Ark and melting Nazi faces? Is a crystal skull (and there is a fascinating, real-life history of those, by the way, go Wikipedia it) any less likely to have supernatural powers than an old chest, some magical rocks, or an ancient drinking glass? Nope. The difference isn’t in the material, it’s in us.

And that is where Spielberg and Lucas made their greatest mistake; it’s how Crystal Skull got put on the geek shit list for all eternity. They misjudged what we wanted. They thought these tumultuous times meant we’d be ready for another return to nostalgia, but what we really wanted was confirmation that even though 9/11, an economic crisis, and the destruction of the planet happened on our watch, we are redeemable because those things have made us smart, shrewd, and skeptical. (Oh, and we’ve also seen an additional twenty-odd-years worth of the best movie effects money can buy, so good luck impressing us, Indy team.)

So. Back to my mission statement: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a great movie. But it isn’t a mess, or an epic disaster, or an unholy blight on the face of a much-beloved piece of American popular culture. It’s not even the result of three rich guys getting lazy and trying to squeeze some more money out of something cool they did a long time ago. It’s just a bad call. It’s three smart guys trying to revive something they knew we loved in a way they thought was fresh. That they happened to be wrong doesn’t make it any less interesting. Maybe it even makes it more so. Because if the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to society, then you can’t call Crystal Skull a failure. It did show us who we are. It just maybe wasn’t who we wanted to be.


Henry Jaglom and His Theatrical Families

Posted on by Alex in Henry Jaglom, movies, reviews, Tanna Frederick | 1 Comment

Henry Jaglom’s newest film, Just 45 Minutes from Broadway,is an adaptation of his play about two generations of a Jewish theatrical family, and the secrets that come to light when one daughter brings home her “civilian” boyfriend.

For those unfamiliar with Jaglom’s work, he uses an improvisational style that blurs the edge between actor and character so that, to a degree no other filmmaker manages, it often feels as if you’re eavesdropping on real people. His films tend to involve ad hoc groups in restrictive settings (usually comfortable upper-scale homes), and his concerns around feminist issues (his series of “woman’s issue” films, for example, from Eating, to Going Shopping, to Babyfever). His work isn’t for everyone, and he has some vocal critics, but I treasure the sense of reality he presents.

Just 45 Minutes from Broadway is also an interesting bookend with another Jaglom film, 1995′s Last Summer in the Hamptons. That was the first Jaglom film I saw, and since then I’ve seen almost all his others. Interestingly, both these “theatrical” stories are fairly atypical of Jaglom’s usual concerns, but they share a family resemblance to each other. I have no real experience with the theatrical life, but both films show how seductive, and destructive, it can be.

In both films, an “outsider” figure comes into the well-established family, acting as the viewer surrogate. In Hamptons it’s Oona Hart (Victoria Foyt), a movie actress who’s recently starred in a smash superhero movie and now wants to get some real acting cred. In Broadway it’s James (Judd Nelson*), a real estate lawyer and fiance of one of the sisters. But while they’re similar figures, they’re actually opposites: Oona wants something from the Axelrods, and ultimately refuses to change, while James is there to meet his future in-laws, and ends up changing fundamentally.

The families, too, are similar. The Axelrods are preparing for the final performance of their annual theatrical review, while the Isaacs are facing the very real effects of the current economic downturn. In both films, the potential loss of a house represents the loss of the family unity. The Axelrods don’t really have a patriarch, but when your matriarch is the formidable Viveca Lindfors, you may not need one. The Isaacs are presided over by George and Vivian, theatrical veterans with family ties to the Yiddish theater. Sibling rivalry is also part of both, although Jack and Trish Axelrod are a bit more disturbed than the fairly upfront rivalry between Pandora and Betsy Isaacs.

Jaglom’s improvisational approach is a much bigger presence in Hamptons. Broadway feels more scripted (and that’s not a criticism), although the Seder dinner has the freewheeling, on-edge feel of a real social event. But it also means that Broadway stays more traditionally focused, and doesn’t meander (again, not a criticism) to the degree Hamptons does.

Both films are also showcases for Jaglom’s then-current muses. Foyt is terrific as a movie actress tempted by the “reality” of the theatrical life, but who ultimately can’t commit (her “baby seal” scene is great). And Frederick (as always showing everything her character feels at every moment) is luminous as the actress daughter worried that she can no longer exist either onstage or in the real world.

Jaglom (l) and Foyt

But the films have crucially different climaxes. Hamptons ends with the end: the final Axelrod showcase, after which the family home will be sold and the clan will likely no longer gather. Broadway ends with new beginnings, a more “traditional” romantic comedy ending but one that feels earned because of the affection generated for the characters.

Frederick (l) and Jaglom

As I said, I don’t have any real experience with theater, or theatrical families. But both the Axelrods and the Isaacs are people I’d love to visit for a weekend. I recommend both films for fans of ensemble acting, independent film and unique points of view.

*Never been a fan of Judd Nelson, but he’s absolutely great here. So I guess now I am a fan.