Archive for August 28, 2012

“Apparitions inside the stories themselves:” Trajan’s Arch

Trajan’s Archa novel by Michael Williams, is one of those rare contemporary works that deliver a “literary” experience while still offering a large portion of unpretentious fun. It may not be a traditional ghost story, but it is a story of haunting. The central character, Gabriel Rackett, confronts memories of growing up in 1960/70s Louisville, and some of Gabriel’s recollections involve apparitions–heralds of innocence destroyed by maturity, death, or intolerance–that defy rational explanation. For reasons Gabriel never fully understands, his mind returns again and again to Trajan Bell, an unusual man who lived next door. Although I knew I was journeying through a magic-tinted version of the bildungsroman, I honestly didn’t know where Williams was taking me until I got there. At the end, I felt very happy with where I’d arrived.

Cover of Trajan's Arch

At one point, Trajan leads young Gabriel into the woods, where they spot a magnificent owl Trajan dubs “queen of the ghosts.” As Gabriel tries to describe her, Trajan stops him: “Not yet, Gabriel. Don’t let her rise into words just yet… Do not even name her parts, or call her what you think she is.” This resistance to words, especially notable because Trajan writes fiction and Gabriel soon will, becomes an important theme, suggesting that language, no matter how powerful, is still inadequate to encompass experience. Faced with such a theme, and feeling in my gut that a writer can approach truth but never really get there, I hesitate to reduce the experience of the novel to words on a page. But like Gabriel, I’m trying.

The novel has a deceptively encyclopedic scope. Since its narrative includes Trajan’s and Gabriel’s fictions, Gabriel’s letters to his ex-wife and son, a psychological case history, and other elements that add formal variety, it is able to reach far beyond a single lifetime. Fans of historical fantasy will find some of Western history’s most fascinating eras: the Elizabethan Age, fin-de-siecle London, the American Civil War, and even shades of the Ancient Rome that provides Trajan and the novel a name. Fantasy enthusiasts might also share Gabriel’s devotion to Tolkein, whose world-building tales have more than a little in common with the more recognizably “real” world that Williams constructs.

In Trajan’s Arch, coming of age depends on a relationship with history and literature, a relationship developed through Gabriel’s interactions with Trajan. Trajan’s Arch, like Trajan himself, is a symbolic gateway into a larger adult world of events and letters, and it figures the mix of opportunity and danger inherent to any mentoring relationship. I call the novel’s scope “deceptively” encyclopedic because for all its reach, it remains very intimate. It’s candid about the emotional and sexual confusion of growing up, and it shows how connections between adults and children can compound as well as alleviate the pressures of forming a personal identity. At times, Trajan stands in for Gabriel’s absent father, and as Gabriel struggles not to be absent from the life of his own son Dominic, the novel conveys difficult insights about fathers, sons, and masculinity.

Trajan, Gabriel, and Dominic are sensitive and vulnerable, and as they involve one another in a shared world of imagination, the results are both damaging and enlightening. They ask many questions and can’t always deal with the few answers they get. Some readers might not be happy with the book’s lack of answers–or the answers’ hesitation to rise into words–but the ambiguities of the characters’ lives and of the novel itself are, for me, Trajan’s Arch‘s most satisfying accomplishment.

NEWS FLASH: Joining the team at BlackWyrm Publishing

BlackWyrm Publishing–the company that released Michael Williams’s recent novels Trajan’s Arch (2010) and Vine (2012) as well as many other compelling works of fantasy, horror, and science fiction–has signed my novel Burning the Middle Ground and expects to bring it out late this year or early in 2013.

Burning the Middle Ground mixes horror and dark fantasy in a tale of a small Southern town torn apart by a supernatural conspiracy. Five years after tragic murders divide Kenning, Georgia along religious lines, Ronald Glassner, a web journalist from New York, arrives to write a book about the tragedy’s sole survivor, Brian McCullough. Homicidal house pets, enucleated corpses, and menacing apparitions soon help Ronald understand that there’s something much bigger going on in Kenning, something connected to the town’s First Church and the imposing Reverend Michael Cox. With Brian, Brian’s girlfriend Melanie Grayson, progressive preacher Jeanne Harper, and police officer Winston Beecher, Ronald embarks on an investigation that takes them all into a nightmarish plot that will change the entire country.

The novel is one of several works I’ve written (but not published) set in what my small circle of reader-friends has called the “Fincher universe,” or, in the mold of Joss Whedon, the Fincherverse. H.P. Lovecraft is more the inspiration here, with a fair helping of Stephen King, but I’ll gladly accept any favorable comparisons to the contemporary master behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Cabin in the Woods.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Dr. Allen Fincher, a Harvard professor whose work became increasingly arcane until his mysterious death, published a red-bound book called The Alchemy of Will. His last work, The Fate of Man’s Essence, was never (as far as anyone knows) completed, but the Alchemy revealed enough of Dr. Fincher’s occult knowledge to make him an intellectual outcast. Fincher’s  book also set a century-spanning series of events in motion, events that begin to culminate in Burning the Middle Ground. My novel stands on its own, but if all goes well, it’ll be the first of a series, presently titled The Last World War, dedicated to following the Fincher conspiracy to its potentially apocalyptic conclusion.

I’ll post more information about Burning the Middle Ground‘s publication as it becomes available. Gradually, I will expand this site to include a lot more about the novel and about Dr. Fincher’s dark legacy.

Dancing the “Ballet Mecanique”

response to class discussion of the French experimental film “Le Ballet Mecanique” (1924)

For the last couple of years, I’ve been inching toward acceptance of the so-called “experimental” tradition in film, movies that stretch the form in ways that challenge perception, often at the expense of accessibility. Although my liking has yet to go beyond acknowledged classics, teaching those classics has shown me that inaccessibility, despite the problems of elitism, can be extremely useful. Experimental film and teaching have a common starting aim: to make the familiar, in this case movies, strange again. Christian Metz argues that being a film critic requires alienation from the object of criticism, and while I’m not sure I agree, I do see the process of alienation and reconciliation, of making something strange in order to make it familiar again in a new way, as essential to higher learning. And I think (knock on wood) that yesterday, August 20, 2012, my semester-kickoff for Introduction to Film managed to use “Le Ballet Mecanique” to just such an end.

Just in case you don’t know the film and don’t want to see it on YouTube, I’ll quickly summarize it: a woman sits on a swing; cubist and surrealist images (including kaleidoscope-d pot lids, hard-to-identify machinery, and parts of a woman’s body) move rhythmically across the screen; the woman from the swing sniffs a flower. These difficult-to-connect elements appear against the backdrop of George Antheil’s musical composition “Ballet Mecanique” (long intended to go together, film and score weren’t unified until around 2000). The music includes dissonant banging on pianos and xylophones, sirens, and other cringe-inducing (but sometimes strangely lovely) sounds.

After I screened the 16-minute film in class, students’ facial expressions ranged from bored to annoyed to stunned. Part one–making cinema strange–had worked. Now came the work of introducing a new type of familiarity through insistent Socratic questioning. We started by thinking about the confusion and alienation most or all of us felt when watching: what meaning and value, if any, lie in befuddlement?


From left to right: A cubist Chaplin, fragments of a woman, and the birth of filmmaker Dudley Murphy from… something.

Natural hesitation to answer such a question didn’t last very long. We brainstormed a list of things we remembered seeing during the film, which was a surprisingly difficult task: smiling lips, detached legs, a random bird, a cubist clown in a hat (usually read as an homage to Charlie Chaplin), a man’s head rising from what might be a flower. Pretty soon, we were thinking that since the film begins and ends with the same woman, what happens inside this frame might represent the woman’s psychological experience. Almost immediately, a young woman with a background in gender studies suggested that the film might be about rape. I’ve been doing gender studies for years, so seeing sex, objectification, and violence in the film’s imagery isn’t all that difficult for me, but I expected such things to go unnoticed as students new to film studies tried to process the visual onslaught. While some students never shed their skepticism about sexual interpretations, others ran with them, ultimately arguing that the film not only reflects on women’s objectification through images of violation but that it imposes a rape-like experience on viewers who are violated by the rapid, disorienting sounds and images. De-emphasizing the violence, students also noted that the man’s head rising from the flower might be a birth resulting from the sexual penetration that film represents elsewhere. Since I’m fairly certain the head belongs to one of the two men behind the film, Dudley Murphy, I suggested that perhaps the film is reflecting on the birth of art (the film itself) and the artist from the random, confusing stimuli of modernity. Even the students who didn’t agree with this suggestion seemed to see where it came from.

When such conversations go well, the class comes up with different, sometimes contradictory interpretations, and I get to emphasize that the course encourages such contradiction as long as each claim has support from carefully analyzed evidence (e.g., discussion of details from sound and image). When such conversations go ever better, as this one did, I leave the class with new insight. This time, the insight came from a student’s comment about the film having a carpe diem sort of moral. The rapid, confusing imagery keeps us from seeing where the film is going or understanding where it’s been, so it forces us to experience the images and sounds entirely as events in the present. The film exists only now; it shows us how to live in the moment by making other kinds of living untenable during the film’s duration. I had thought similar thoughts, but none so clear and convincing. I responded by pointing out that a French film from 1924, the first world war a recent memory, has every reason to advocate for seizing the day.

I was thinking, however, that I had suddenly gained a new understanding of an experience I’ve had with favorite authors Virginia Woolf and Henry James as well as filmmakers like Stan Brakhage. I’ve always enjoyed modernist fiction, and as I’ve said, I’m coming around to experimental cinema, but a tendency not to be able to remember details has always haunted my experiences with such texts. The difficulty the class had brainstorming details from something they’d seen moments before suggested that I’m not alone in such memory failure, so maybe some of the relative inaccessibility of these works stems from a common narrative resistance to time becoming anything other than present. This is the sort of “maybe” that would probably require cognitive research to resolve (who knows, maybe someone has already done it). In any case, it’s the kind of maybe, a fresh, powerful perspective on an old idea about modernism and time, that makes teaching indissociable from learning. And if, for me, “Ballet Mecanique” crossed from strangeness into a new type of familiarity, I’m willing to bet it did for some of the students, too. I’d love to take all the credit, but mostly the outcome had to with the combination of student minds with the film. I came away from class loving both.

Camp Hands… of Fate

a response to RiffTrax’s presentation of the film Manos: The Hands of Fate

movie poster for Manos: The Hands of Fate

Figure 1: DVD image for Manos

At least in my own mind, for years I’ve been at war with Susan Sontag’s summative claim about camp: “it’s good because it’s awful.” It started when I was working on my undergraduate thesis, “Cultural Hierarchy: Reevaluating the High and the Low,” at Harvard, where I now realize I was responding to the school’s general high-cultural diminution of the more modest cultural milieux of my upbringing. Basically, I wanted to prove that things are good because they’re good: if you enjoy something, then there’s something good about it. I didn’t mean then and don’t mean now that Sontag was wrong. “So bad it’s good” is indeed the justification that many high-minded people use to explain why they’re slumming in the realm of genre films that have low production values. I just think the justification is inherently flawed. Take the prime example of films directed by Ed Wood. The bad props and costumes, sloppy cinematography and editing, and heroin-tinged acting all come together with precious earnestness, and the precious earnestness is what what makes the lack of other types of skill tolerable. In other words, I think movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space are good because their tone is as compelling as their conception is bizarre–the awful stuff, at least for me, is a symptom, not a cause, of this uncommon kind of goodness.

Even before I was transplanted from Atlanta suburbs to the realm of the Cambridge elite, I felt defensive about things commonly derided for being “low” culture, which is probably why I never really liked what I saw of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). I thought the “riffs,” or snide commentaries, on old genre films were inanely condescending. Last night–August 16, 2012–I decided to see whether my sensibilities have become more accommodating by attending a RiffTrax Live presentation of the film Manos: The Hands of Fate. The RiffTrax folks are some of the main talent behind MST3K carrying on the tradition via periodic special screenings around the U.S. Maybe I’ve been in universities too long, but I thought the riffs were pretty darned funny, and the movie was pretty darned bad.

image of RiffTrax people from their website

Figure 2: How the RiffTrax guys see themselves.

Why? Some aspects of the film had their own kind of goodness: wild hand-print costumes, scantily clad women wrestling in sand for reasons beyond my comprehension, and a few other things that would have made me laugh approvingly even in the absence of well-planned riffs. I noticed, though, that the riffs were funniest when the film wasn’t doing any of the things I regard as good. Shots framed so poorly that they draw attention to the crotch of a man’s uninteresting pants when we’re supposed to be looking at… something else, I don’t recall… combine with sequences of people staring or standing up that seem… to… go… on… forever. And in these moments, the riff-artists shone, pointing out the ineptitudes of production that had nothing to do with budgetary restrictions or genre-driven imagination. The riffs transformed these moments of cinematic badness into moments of pleasure.

Was the film, then, good because it was awful? I don’t think so. The riffs were good because the film was awful. The use of the film text was good, but that doesn’t mean that the film text itself got any better. I suppose that having the potential for riff-driven resuscitation is a kind of goodness attributable to Manos, but this potential isn’t enough to make me want to see the movie again, at least not without the riffs. By contrast, I’d much prefer to re-watch Ed Wood’s Plan 9 without someone’s planned commentary (although comments by friends would be welcome and encouraged… that’s different).

Camp is, as Sontag explains, both a quality of texts and a sensibility that informs texts’ reception. The sensibility that tags a movie as “so bad it’s good” is what I have a quarrel with, and that’s not the sensibility that informed the riffs I enjoyed. The riffing talent did seem a little snobby–mostly when dissing the Transformers movies, which to me are so visually dazzling that I can’t not like them–but ultimately their humor came from smart observations about the film production’s shortcomings combined with affection for the people involved who tried and failed. Such affection borders on camp sensibility, but at least from my perspective, it stays close enough to that line to make the RiffTrax experience one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. The movie, on the other hand (heh heh), is welcome to obscurity.

Webbish Tickles

The idea of a web presence troubles me, which is my official excuse for not having had much of one despite studying and teaching about webbish things for many years. Web presence of the sort I mean goes beyond passive mentions on the odd site connected to professional and personal endeavors, and it goes stale in far less time than has passed since I last maintained my own sites. This troublesome presence involves active participation in the communities and lives maintained both in connection to offline doings and in the absence of such connections, i.e., in pure virtuality, whatever that means.I don’t object to an existence that diverges from the physical while still implicating it. The trouble is one of intellectual real estate. Real presence, or immaterial presence that matters, seems to call for a partitioning of the brain, a dedication of space for which I seem to be at a loss. In other words, web presence is just one more thing to obsess over, and do I really need more obsessions? Probably.