Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Not of sight or sound but of mind

Some things are best described as 'for the faithful'. Consider a simple chair:


When Maple Leaf Gardens was gutted, they sold off their seats. If you'd been attending hockey games for any amount of time, and you were the sort who'd like a flat, uncomfortable chair (albeit packed with happy memories) stuck somewhere in your house, apartment or reasonably priced Condo, voila. A jingle of coin and it was yours.

Does nothing for me, with no disrespect intended to hockey fans. I knew one guy who'd been given a similar chair from the Montreal Forum and it was a prized posession, so much so that one was not allowed not sit on it. I must not have been sufficently impressed by, for I was given the stare of the alien, something along the lines of 'Don't you know what this IS?!?' and when I stared back with the message 'Yeah, it's a CHAIR', the conversation was pretty much over and we moved onto other topics (before anyone asks, there is a website devoted to such acquisitions, at ballpark

Another friend at about the same time couldn't believe that not only was I presently NOT playing hockey, but that I ever gave up playing hockey (I played from 8 to around 12, I seem to recall that the advent of girls had something to do with my abrupt loss of interest). He told me solemnly, and with more than a little regret, that I simply didn't 'get' hockey.


Not true. It's a fine sport, I was a fast skater and played centre most times. I think I only scored once or twice but I always stayed close to wherever the puck was going to be. But I neither lived nor breathed it, and each to their own poison, right? My friend was one of the faithful at the time, and myself had only been, in his estimation, a dilletante on skates (and he was a goalie, where skating is at best, secondary).

My point? Sometimes you 'get' it, sometimes you don't.


Sports is one thing, art is a slippery other. I saw the musician Phillip Glass perform live one one occasion, his evening of solo piano. For those who don't know, Phillip Glass is a minimalist musician. Briefly summed up, this either means that he plays the same five notes over and over again, or that he plays five notes over and over again, but never in the same way twice. Dull as dishwater, or exquisite, depending on your state of mind(and it is occasionally both).

You could watch the audience and know who 'got' it and those who didn't by seeing who was watching the keys and listening to each note, and those who were looking at the ceiling, their nails, or the exit door, hoping. Some call it art. Some have no idea how this man ever got Sony Music to give him recording contracts. And the line between something sparce and something that sounds like he lost 99% of his music is thin. REAL thin.

I've always imagined Glass at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, working on 5 tone minimalist structure. It makes sense to him, at least.

Glass: (to classmate) Listen to this...(plays)

Classmate: It's five notes.

Glass: (enthusiastically) Yeah!

Classmate: Where's the rest?

Glass: There isn't any!

Classmate:'s just the same five notes over and over again...?

Glass: (enthusiastically) Yeah!

Professor: Ah! A tribute to the base quality of all music told in simple harmonics and a purposely repetitive structure!

Glass: (confused) Pardon?

Classmate: (exasperated) It's the SAME FIVE NOTES.

Glass: (enthusiastically) Yeah!

...and so on. Glass gets it (or at least gets something) and sometimes he even gets it across. His score for the film 'Mishima' is haunting and brilliant, and, well, more than just the same five notes (I think there are actually 6 or 7). But the solo piano stuff...50-50. It's either contemplative and minimal and zen, or it's (need I say it?), the same five notes over and over and over again. Glass' point- it can be music. True, sometimes, it can.

My point? Try to explain a fondness, or a pursuit, to the unitiated.


I used to collect comic books (and don't eat breakfast burritos), but I stopped loving it, and thus stopped collecting. They just became so many bound drawings. All blessings to those who indulge (and I admit to owning a few 'graphic novels' in those all important quotes), but I don't love it. Those who love it complain about print runs and the virtues of one inker over another, or how this series is THE series, the one it should have been.

I stopped being an actor for a number of reasons (general malcontentedness being one of them), but primarily because I could no longer see a bare stage with a table as anything but a dead space, rather than a setting where Chekhov or Mamet or Shepard or Shaw or any good play could be performed. To be a good actor, in theatre at least, there can be no fences facing.

And at risk of being melodramatic...all of this leads us into...the Twilight Zone.


Well, not quite. First it leads us into Eugene O'Neill and Jonathan Miller.


Miller first. Pick up Miller's production of Long Day's Journey into Night if you can find it, the DVD has a great commentary about the curators of great plays. Long Days Journey Into Night was produced years after O'Neill met his great reward (12 years or so, if memory serves), and Miller suggests that one of the reasons O'Neill's longest play is regarded as stodgy and Greek in motivation and Irish in temperment is because his CURATORS decided that it should lift from the masters. They made it 'art' rather than keeping it as theatre.

Miller didn't think this is what O'Neill wanted, it's what his legend demanded. So Miller took the play apart, changed the structure, let actors run over each other's lines, and people are still fighting over it. Miller didn't 'get' it, he reinvented it. Or that's the way he 'got' it.


You don’t have to understand the conventions to tell a good story, and in fact it improves the product sometimes. Dig up Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (which Steven King disliked but respected, or vice versa), and you’ll see a horror film made by a man who had no idea about how to make a horror film. But it still works, producing a strange product with a consistent, low level dread. For all its faults, it’s pretty damn horrific.


God knows what O'Neill wanted (most often, a drink). Miller makes a great point about how he was a fine dramatist - one of the best of the 20th century, up there with Ibsen and Chekhov, two more light comedic masters - but was a lousy poet, and would describe his characters in badly phrased poetic arcs- the mother in Long Days Journey with 'black diamonds coming from her eyes' does nothing for drama (and damn little for poetry).

But O'Neill 'got' something - his plays, long and wordy as they are, nail something that gets them dragged out, dusty and dated, from time to time. And also, from time to time, somebody beats the hell out of them and not only shows you what all the fuss was about then, but what kind of fuss is still warranted. It's the difference between an antique car spotted in a museum, or one tooling down a country road as you think 'Damn, this thing can run.'

And now, finally, that Twilight Zone visit.


The old episodes have been a holy grail for me since I old? 9? 10? Probably when were they shown on late afternoon television (not too often, so familiarity hasn't bred contempt), in high contrast black and white. Or from the age of 12 on, having read Stephen King's I-love-'em-I-hate-'em summation in 'Danse Macabre', his essays about horror fiction.

And before anyone jumps on it, let's agree that in dramatic terms (especially compared to the O'Neills or Mamets or Chekhovs), we're not talking about high art. The best episodes, however, are unique. The Twilight Zone has always felt like Lynch or Fellini to me, because it barely works on its own terms, if that makes any sense Think of somebody trying for a Fellini-esque film, or a Lynch sense of forboding and weirdness, and how they invariably ends up with a weak product since both Fellini and Lynch could barely get away with doing their own styles at the best of times.

But it is the best of times we remember, no? So I'll stop dropping names and defend Serling. Serling was regarded as sort of a spook-house Arthur Miller at the time, which isn't fair. He just called himself a storyteller. Those stories lifted a lot from O'Henry (again, not a great writer, good storyteller), Poe (better writer, but sort of single minded) and old radio dramas from the 40's. That said, dig up Serling's straight dramatic work, and it's surprisingly good ('Patterns' has dated far better than it should have, and 'Four Days In May' which is still a pretty well-plotted way to overthrow America).


But there's a lot of much-parodied awful back there as well: the original 'Planet of the Apes' screenplay, a few generic heist pictures, and at least 1/3rd of the aformentioned Twilight Zones. But one of the things I've liked about Serling is that he never claimed to be curing of the new Twilight Zone discs has a smart and self depricating interview where he talks about writing, how you can be sure you've written something magnificent, but once it shows up on screen you realize you've 'given the world an incredible turd' this isn't a man who took himself too seriously.


Fran Lebowitz once derided anybody who studied film as art, saying how can you take any art form seriously "in a place where you can buy Orange Crush and Ju-Jubes when you view it?" This goes twice as far with any kind of fantastic fiction, and let's label anything 'fantastic' as something that depicts events that are not going to happen in every day reality. To write any kind of fantastic fiction you have to realize that not everybody can suspend disbelief, and those who can suspend it do so with some effort on their part.

But for the devotees, who are more than willing to pump some helium into those things that strain credulity, sometimes the product is impressive. Consider some Lovecraft or the works in Alberto Manguel's 'Black Water' collections for a higher brow example. For Serling to take on anything out of the ordinary (especially in the mid to late 50's, which wasn't known for its daring), took some guts. Serling most often lifted from Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, all of whom wrote chestnuts familiar from...well...years of the Twilight Zone.

I'm not an expert on Beaumont, but Bradbury (up until the early 60's at least) had teeth behind his fantastic stories, and Matheson (while not a favorite) could always create a solid world and logic behind what he put together. Neither is going to be mistaken for Ibsen in a dark room, but that's sort of the fun. When you're in a dark room, you can get away with more in half-drawn shadows, and nobody knows what's coming next.


It's this dark room that fascinated me as a kid, and even though I've plotted out Serling's floorplans, there's still fun in not quite knowing what's going to happen, if still undering how it's going to happen, since storytelling conventions become evident after awhile, you wait for the beats, the twists, respecting the craft more than the product. It's close to a patronizing pat on the head and saying 'somebody worked very hard on this, yes they did...', but it's not quite there.

I've collected assorted Twilight Zone episodes to find those aformentioned shadows again, or at least to see where they once lied...the idea that behind all of the B & W cinematography, the creepy storylines, complied with the fact that I was a child barely had an idea of what lay beyond grade school, let alone those prime earning years and RRSPs and health plans...there was an awareness (or hope for) the fact that the good Mr. Serling was onto something, that there actually was a dimension not of sight and sound but of mind, and that he’d propped up a camera to take a peek.

Example sad is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise. I have the episodes. I can watch them frame-for-frame, if I want to see quickie lighting and cardboard sets. I can see the same set used over and over again during the first season, a foyer of a building that became a city hall, a fading starlet's balcony, a military hospital in occupied Japan, and so on. It's TV, at the end, and one can't watch and be 8 again. See above- respect the craft.

The latest box set gives a particularly good context for the way TV used to work, it includes the dippy 'bumpers' at the end for next week's episode, and a clip from whatever CBS series was popular at the time. Again, nobody's calling this high art. And that said...sometimes...shot for shot, or simply an idea...shines through. Shadows through, really, because the unknown leeches up through the product into some place in my consciousness that I didn't expect to have stretched.


One example: A woman stuck at a bus depot who goes to the ladies room and, upon her exit, sees herself sititng on the bench she'd just left. Bargain basement existentialism is still existentialism, and even though it's patently impossible, the wheels start turning for the do you face yourself, and not think you're crazy? Are you curious to see what the hell the writer/director is up to, or is it impossible for you to suspend disbelief? And on baser terms, when faced with one's self...what would you do?


When he came back with another series in the late 60's/early 70's ('Night Gallery') it was in colour and still featured the narration, but it just didn't hold together. It looked like a bad copy of The Twilight Zone. So did both remakes of the series (one in the mid 80's, one on cable in the states right now). Of the movie, the best that that can be said is that it nails both what worked and what was awful in the series, a characteristically weird mix of the corny, overly sentimental and occasionally effective. 'Damned with faint praise' kind of sums it up, but to be fair, after the Vic Morrow disaster there's not a lot of people who want to be in the same room with the film.

Serling himself died far too young, of respitory related ailments- those cigarette in the opening monologues were not only props. And maybe exhaustion. He wrote, pages at a time, prolific if not always profound, but always busy. Coffee, cigarettes, late nights, fighting with networks all for...pulp fiction. Most days, at least. He lies in a military graveyard somewhere in Seneca County USA, as a former paratrooper.

Often imitated, never duplicated. It could barely do itself, and it can't be done again. Still...defending one's fondness of The Twilight Zone is up there with defending one's choice of supermarket peanut butter. A matter of distinct preference that is really rather low on the grand scale of importance. Unless, of course, you 'get' it.


And Define 'it' at your convenience. For my case, it's an old habit, a wish to recreate the sense of difference. I watch them for the same reason that I dredge up 'Black Water' and Bradbury's 'S is for Space' and Poe's 'Tales of Mystery and Imagination' when I want to relax, or at least to sound out some depths of the imagination. Never lost my desire to to see through the shadows, or around them, or simply to gauge from where these shadows might next spring.

And of course...there might be the cultural draw. Serling had the truth-telling style in the opening/closing narration that comes something between a carny barker and a Baptist Sunday School teacher. I am overqualified to poke fun at the image of a Baptist Sunday School education, but there is a delivery, an approach, an effect that rings true. Even better when presented with the promise of something a bit different. A morality tale dressed up in thin, faux fantasy, which for its time verged on the subversive. So...could I end it all with a note of mystery, or camp, depending on your leanings? And in the Serling voice...

I leave you with a musical cue from an Irish musician who has said that he briefly inhabited a state of nowhere that he found to be a living, breathing and quite definable place. He called it a waiting area, a rest-stop in the path we all tread upon on our way to accomplish whatever fits our definition of life. The musician's name was Geldof, and he briefly fed a nation in a time of crisis.

For Mr. Serling, there was no such glory, no knighthood. He was only an entertainer, a writer perhaps inches above the level of hack. He gave no great gift to the world, except for one: A rough sketch of that state of mind where all things logical warp, all accepted ideas bend. It offered a glimpse into the realm of possibility, somewhere between the summit of man's knowledge, and the pit of superstition. Crudely formed, roughly bookended, and for some, still a viable spark to the imagination. It was a place we know the Twilight Zone.

A cheap shot maybe, but no disrespect intended.


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