Wednesday, November 4, 2020

219. Only when we are } hidden bodies.

Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland begins with a pan & tilt from a teenager’s messy bedroom floor to her bed, where she lies uncovered & asleep. (Not wholly unlike the static opening shot of a sleeping Scarlet Johansson in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation & not wholly unlike the dolly shot & pan of a sleeping Sheri Moon Zombie in Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem.) Her alarm clock radio blares Anvil’s “Wild Eyes” (“evil knows I fell / in your evil spell”). Her mother shouts “Maria, turn down that radio!” Maria, played by Kashina Kessler, replies, “Today’s the day I’m going to camp!” She has a book on her pink & yellow side table—I can’t read the title. She gets out of bed, walks to her bedroom window. Outside—judging by the light—it’s a bright morning; the window blind is red (a detail I find quite odd), the drapes are blue with a pattern of orange fish & shells & coral. She says, “Ma, did you hear me, I’m going to camp today.” He mother replies, “Yeah, I heard you, what do you want me to do about it?” At her dresser she peels off her t-shirt—she’s been on screen for under 30 seconds. She wants her mother to walk her to the bus “or anything”; her mother is not interested. It’s too early. A man’s voice interjects, “Hey, shut up.” Ma says, “You shut up.” Maria says, “You both shut up” while she looks at herself in a mirror. She adds, “I’m going to camp & I might never come back.” Above her left breast is tattooed the word “milk”; above her right breast “shake”—her chest fills the frame. Presumably this is meant to be funny.

Cut to a city street. Maria exits the Mitchell St. Hotel building—which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me—& is on her way to the bus that’s going to take her to Camp New Horizons. She’s promptly chased by a black & red garbage truck into an alley filled with garbage where she’s run over. By Pamela Springsteen, Bruce Springsteen’s sister.

Pamela—who plays Angela—puts Maria’s body into the truck’s compactor. Somehow after she does this she’s dressed in Maria’s blue “I [heart] NY” t-shirt & has Maria’s ID. She takes Maria’s place on the Camp New Horizons bus. When the bus pulls away it reveals the message, spray painted on a white brick wall in red, “Angela is back!”

Heavy metal! Nudity! Mayhem! All by minute 3:53. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but if Sleepaway Camp III maintained that level of lunacy, I’d be hailing it a classic.

It has its moments: Angela murders a local news journalist (who’s driving a red Ferrari) with a gram of Ajax (the journalist believes its cocaine), Angela fishes a hockey mask out of the lake, Michael J. Pollard seduces a camper by flashing a Playboy Bunny belt buckle at her, & Angela nonchalantly dispatches the camp’s director with a lawnmower. Otherwise, Sleepaway Camp III is boring.

Not to suggest I wouldn’t have watched it anyway, but the reason I watched Sleepaway Camp III was to see an actor who stood out to me in a less boring but also stupid movie, Night of the Demons.

There’s a video on YouTube posted by Jamaal Bradley that celebrates Rodger (portrayed by Alvin Alexis) as “One of the few brothers to survive a horror film.” What stood out to me about Night of the Demons is that it features an actor I assumed was Asian American (she’s Asian Canadian, in fact)— Jill Terashita. She doesn’t have much of a role, but I can’t think of a whole lot of 80s horror movies with Asian actors. In Night of the Demons, Terashita’s character is just part of the gang; in Sleepaway Camp III she’s a leather-jacket-wearing tough.

Terashita’s acting career was brief. She did the bulk of her work between 1985 & 1990. She was “part of the gang” in a War Games rip-off flick called Terminal Entry. I haven’t seen it. Otherwise her credits include “first bikini girl” & “hostess”—nothing notable.

In Night of the Demons her character’s name is “Frannie.” In Sleepaway Camp III her character’s name is “Arab.” I’m not sure what to make of that.

[ Images: scenes from Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (1989). Kashina Kessler chased by a dump truck, Jill Terashita reacting. ]

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

218. "...a horrible parody } of human speech."

During my first graduate workshop, in addition to the stories we wrote and workshopped, we were asked to bring copies of a published story for the workshop to discuss—the idea being (I presume) that a published story has accomplished what we in workshop hoped to accomplish.

This is a standard workshop practice that’s pedagogically useful for a number of reasons: published stories can be critiqued without wounding a student’s ego, it requires students to read what they’re trying to write, it challenges the assumption that all published writing is good, & it tests the instructor’s ability to discuss work the instructor didn’t select for the course. It’s also a practice abused by lazy instructors who don’t want to plan a course. OK—so long as the instructor is an able critic.

My instructor was not an able critic.

Admittedly, I selected a story I assumed would frustrate him, which is obnoxious of me. I chose “Dream of a Manikin” from Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer—multiple dreams w/in dreams, very little action to speak of, literary references (to Madame Bovary & the Zhuangzi), & Ligotti’s style are all elements anathema to my instructor, a devotee of 1970s/80s American realism. I was embarrassed for him when, after allowing a few students to comment on the story, he dismissed it out of hand by telling us he looked it up online and on one of the fan sites he found Nabokov’s name misspelled. I was flummoxed. What did a Ligotti fan site have to do with our analysis? Why was my instructor Googling the story for answers like a high school student assigned to write a book report?

I know why. He didn’t understand the story but was unwilling to admit he didn’t understand it.

But I didn’t bring the story into workshop only to reveal my instructor’s weaknesses; I sincerely hoped someone would be willing to unpack the story with me—I hoped for a discussion! I certainly didn’t understand “Dream of a Manikin.”

Since then, a Penguin Classics edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer (paired with Grimscribe, Ligotti’s second collection) was published. I wonder how that might have impacted my instructor’s opinion? Would he have responded to the legitimizing effect of such a “serious” treatment?

(How serious? Thus far I’ve found two typographical errors [p. 12, p. 208; the former does not appear in my Carol & Graff first edition; the latter does], there are no notes, & Jeff Vandermeer’s forward is slight. Gripes aside, I’m grateful for this affordable edition—too much good horror fiction is available only in expensive, limited-run editions. The Penguin makes it possible for me to teach Ligotti—as I’m doing this semester.)

If a parody of a Ligotti story was to be written, it would be “Dream of a Manikin.” Minus a high-peaked attic & masks, it’s got all the Ligottian elements! Psychiatry bordering on mysticism (AKA bad psychiatrists), dreams within dreams (within dreams), the aforementioned non-genre literary references, manikins (“dollings”/puppets), self-loathing gods (& self-loathing in general), the cosmos (“star-clustered blackness”), & un peu de fran├žais. I don’t suppose I would bring it to workshop now. Maybe instead “The Sect of the Idiot.”

Friday, September 11, 2020

217. William Wordsworth & } a number “n.”

Stumbled across this passage in the little book The Great Mathematicians (Herbert Western Turnbull):
… But the greatest figure of all was William Rowan Hamilton, who made two splendid discoveries, an early one in optics, on the Principle of Least Action, and later the Quaternions in algebra. He was born in 1805, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where at the age of twenty-one he became Professor of Astronomy, continuing to hold the office until 1865, the year of his death. He was a poet, and a friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and between these three passed a highly interesting correspondence, dealing with philosophy, science, and literature.
Ah-ha! Just months earlier I read the following lines in Wordsworth’s Prelude (1850):

‘Tis told by one whom stormy waters threw,
With fellow-sufferers by the shipwreck spared,
Upon a desert coast, that having brought
To land a single volume by chance,
A treatise on Geometry, he wont,
Although of food and clothing destitute,
And beyond common wretchedness depressed,
To part from company and take this book
(Then first a self-taught pupil in its truths)
To spots remote, and draw his diagrams
With a long staff upon the sand, and thus
Did oft beguile his sorrow…

Alas, according to a footnote in the Norton Critical Prelude, the shipwrecked mathematician is not Hamilton, but John Newton. & John is not either of the Newtons mentioned in The Great Mathematicians, nor was John Newton acquainted with Wordsworth or Coleridge; Dorothy Wordsworth read his book & shared Newton’s geometry anecdote with her brother.

Hamilton’s thesis, Account of a Theory of Systems of Rays has to do with how light travels. According to Turnbull, Hamilton’s thesis has the “hard-won distinction of triumphantly surviving the latter-day revolution caused by the theory of Relativity.”

My expectation was that Turnbull’s The Great Mathematicians would end with Albert Einstein, but no; it ends with Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose “greatest monument is a theorem that he discovered jointly with [Harold Godfrey] Hardy, dealing with the partitions of a number n.” As I understand it, Ramanujan worked his way through the history of mathematics by his own genius. Based on “the contents of his mystifying notebooks” he was invited to England where he became a Fellow of Trinity College and of the Royal Society. “Unhappily,” writes Turnbull, “[Ramanujan’s] residence in England destroyed his health, and the year after his return to India he died.”

[ Image: Ramanujan's geometric construction for approximately "squaring the circle" lifted from the blog post "Who Was Ramanujan?" by Stephen Wolfram. ]

Monday, August 31, 2020

216. “…fully armored warrior on } a barded horse….”

Two new fragments from my corpus:

“June first,” from Ovid’s Fasti, explains why we honor the goddess of the hinge w/ humble food. Written for the summer solstice issue of Eternal Haunted Summer, edited by Rebecca Buchanan. Rebecca paid me for my work, for which I am grateful.

Editors Wendy Chen & Anna Mebel took “*/texture”—a Nada poem, part of a growing MS. of work—for Figure 1 issue 4b. Figure 1 is beautiful—an image at first unintelligible to me, a piece of armor for a horse, each plate corresponds to an author (our names at the end of leading lines); our names/poems = the name of the specific armor plate. I am the bit of armor that protects a horse’s right ear. Chen & Mebel took great care to get the arrangement of my poem just right (& I was persnickety).

Do editors Chen & Mebel know that horse armor is barding? How ridiculously apt.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

215. Erin Johnson } “Lake (Skowhegan, ME)” 2020

Is it queer to float together in a lake?

18 artists (“a group of friends, peers, and lovers”), video-recorded by a drone, (mostly) float on their backs in Lake George, a lake in Skowhegan, Maine. Clustered & centered, the artists tend to float apart. (The artist who, at the video’s start, floats at the heart of the cluster, floats furthest from the group—gradually off-screen.) The artists wear bathing suits; most of the suits are black or black & white; half are one-piece. A turquoise one-piece, a yellow & pale blue two-piece, & black & neon-green swimsuits stand out—amongst the group & against the background—

the lake. The lake appears black. & gray where it ripples.

“Lake (Skowhegan, ME)” is currently part of Unnamed for Decades, an exhibition of Johnson’s work at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. “Lake”—a 4:30 min. video—is projected in a dark room on a single screen. Two other videos—“Tomatoes (Skowhegan, ME)” & “There are things in this world that have yet to be named”—accompany “Lake” in the exhibition. “Tomatoes” is a three-channel video w/ a rhythm of repeated moments; people eating & holding bright red tomatoes. “There are things…” shows Bucknell University’s Solanum plastisexum lab & the Australia section in Los Angeles’s Huntington Botanical Garden. Passages from love letters between Rachel Carson & Dorothy Freeman are read & the phrase “there are things in this world that have yet to be named” is chanted.

Accompanying the show is this explanatory text:

In an adjacent series of photographs and video installations, a group of friends, peers, and lovers engage in collective queer and desirous exchanges such as eating tomatoes in a field and floating together in a lake.
“Tomatoes” = “desirous exchanges” I suppose; “There are things…”—w/ gender-fluid plants & the text between two women in an indefinable relationship clearly is interested in queer exchanges. “Lake,” however? Read “In [a] video [installation], a group of friends, peers, and lovers engage in collective queer and desirous exchanges such as… floating together in a lake.”
Such as floating together in a lake?

“Lake” strikes me as transcendently free of desire; free from ideological labelling.

I read the term “queer” as welcoming & wide open, so by all means floating together in a lake can be queer, but it can also not be queer.

Erin Johnson’s videos are subtler & stranger than the explanatory texts that accompany them. Watch any of the three videos & you’ll see how frustratingly reductive the texts are. Possibly written by a curator, possibly written by Johnson herself (likely the case—a nearly word-for-word description accompanied the same exhibition—under a different name [Nightshade] at the Iris Project), I suggest viewing & not reading—it is, after all, a video & thus meant to be looked at. I find it both calming & mysterious.

“Lake” ought to be watched on a big screen in a dark gallery—alone. Unfortunately, we can’t do that now. But we can watch it on Johnson’s website where there is no artist or curator’s statement to undermine its power.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

214. Harold Redicliffe “Fourteen Paper Cups” } & Terry Bisson “Bears Discover Fire.”

Aunt Marie gave me Terry Bisson’s short story collection Bears Discover Fire; I must’ve read it soon after I saw Redicliffe’s “Fourteen Paper Cups” (1996) at the Pepper Gallery; on the back of the promotional postcard I wrote the titles of the stories I liked. I liked the collection’s titular story—it’s the only one I remember. The title is literal. Bears have discovered fire. “Fourteen Paper Cups” is a pretty literal title, too. Arranged on a red counter top (with aluminum trim) are fourteen paper cups. Six white, six teal, one blue, one red. Some of the cup are crumpled and on their side, some dented but upright. Behind the cups is a solid dark blue/gray; beneath the counter it’s white—a brighter white than the white cups. At the start of an interview of Redicliffe conducted by Larry Groff, Groff asks, “Can you speak about the difference between what you do and photorealism?” Redicliffe defines photorealism as painting from photographs, which he does not do. But Groff is onto something else. The objects in Redicliffe’s painting are near photoreal—you would not mistake the postcard reproduction of “Fourteen Paper Cups” for a photograph the way might mistake a postcard reproduction of Gerhard Richter’s “Betty” (1988) for a photograph. Redicliffe’s choice of a monochromatic background is a tip-off. The cups themselves—if the title wasn’t “Fourteen Paper Cups,” I’d’ve gone on thinking they were plastic.

The postcard reproduction is 2” x 3”—this reduction suits “Fourteen Paper Cups”—the show was called Small Paintings. On a visit to the gallery, I held “Fourteen Paper Cups.”

If bears discover fire, do they cook? Do they light their caves? We know what happens next.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

213. Susan Schwalb } “Vibration V” 1998.

“Vibration V” refers to an effect:
In my wood panels I began by carving thin lines into the surface after which I applied several layers of paint or gesso. Then, after lightly sanding the surface, enriched the surface with bronze tones and metalpoint drawing. The works seem to vibrate as the eye moves around the painting.
“Vibration V” (1998), acrylic and metalpoint on paper on wood, 30” x 30” x 2,” by Susan Schwalb, presumably “seem[s] to vibrate” as does “Toccata 1” (2010), silverpoint, acrylic on wood, 30” x 30”—
In Toccata… a large yellow surface with contrasting pink highlights is covered with carved lines and metalpoint drawing so that it seems to vibrate as the eye moves around the painting.
At the RISD Museum is Richard Anuszkiewicz’s “Primary Hue” (1964), a painting that also seems to vibrate. Vibration is an apparent effect even with a reproduction of “Primary Hue”; vibration is not apparent with a reproduction of “Vibration V”—or with any of Schwalb’s work. Neither are her works subtle tonal shifts: “Vibration V” becomes strata only.

Schwalb’s focus is her materials. Whenever she is interviewed, she teaches the materials. This is metalpoint, this is the ground. Although music flavors her work (thus, “Toccata 1”), music does not inform her work. Her idea is to make lines (mostly horizontal lines) within the constraints of metalpoint.

Twelve years of work from “Vibration V” to “Toccata 1,” horizontal lines etched with metal into a variety of grounds brushed onto 30” x 30” wood panels (in an interview promoting her 2013 show Spatial Polyphonies: New Metalpoint Drawings, she’s asked about the wood panels. “So, do you have these made or do you do them yourself?” Schwalb lowers her voice and replies, “No. I have them made. I have a wonderful person who does this for me.” The she doesn’t make the panels contrasts with her approach to prepping the surface she etches— “Most of the artists who work in metalpoint today use commercially prepared paper. Coating the paper takes a long time, but it is an important part of my creative process.” Making the panels or not; making the ground or not—choices about what’s important enough to take time).

Time! Decades spent etching horizontal lines with a wide metal band into sanded coats of gesso. “An even grid of narrow horizontal lines forms the basic structure of my drawings and paintings.” “…groups of horizontal bands are carefully (but intuitively) measured.” “…[A]lways searching for a finer and finer line.”

A.R. Ammon’s register tape fed into a typewriter but instead of verse, hyphens only.

Or, had Mark Rothko not committed suicide.

Friday, May 1, 2020

212. Nancy Friese } "Tama Skyline" 1993.

Postcard reproduction:

3.5” x 4.25”—

for real, “Tama Skyline” (1993) by Nancy Friese is 18” x 15”.

But I’ve got only the Pepper Gallery postcard from Friese’s 1994 show Far & Near. A tack-hole in the sky—what corkboard?

Off-center a cottonwood tree, its trunk lit with pink and orange (where the sun hits)—its trunk leans right, branches pull left; the tree’s leaves make a right triangle of sky, blue and blush. A tree with branches like the arms of an exploding firework in the low foreground.

Tama is a city in Iowa. Google search “Tama Skyline” images and most are of downtown Tama. The image that most resembles Friese’s “Tama Skyline” is a photograph of Eileen Crone’s home after the fire that “destroyed her home and all of her belongings on Christmas Day.” Where the cottonwood leans in Friese’s painting stands a brick chimney. Crone is stoic: “We have kids that are good carpenters and they’ll help us get something back up.”

In what book did I keep another Pepper Gallery postcard with a Friese tree on it? A tree painted at the hour before it’s night when the sky is dark blue and the leaves are black?

Friese says, “…and since I don’t go to isolated areas, I go to areas that are fringes of preserved spaces or easy access spaces I am out there [painting] in public. It’s public art. The result isn’t public art but that’s, that’s an interesting way of thinking about contemporary landscape painting.”

If I sit in my backyard and look up at the oak that grows in my neighbor’s yard I see only sky and tree. I’m still in a city. My view of the oak is a fringe. Friese’s trees grow not far from highways and power stations. A road runs nearly the whole length of Friese’s 12” x 96” oil on linen “Through the Groves and Fields” (2005). “Spring Arbor” (2017) is horizontally split by a high fence. Her landscapes are not national parks or golden valleys but are my landscapes: the green between east and westbound traffic on route 2, coastal marshes alongside route 95, the copse behind box stores, the chain-link fenced-in yard. The vernal pond and the junked car is ugly or beautiful.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

211. Of Denis Diderot’s } La Religieuse.

Sainte-Suzanne, the nun of Denis Diderot’s La Religieuse, while meditating in her cell “about the strangeness of women’s mentality” determines such strangeness is due to  “the effect of segregation” and concludes,
Man is born for life in society; separate him, isolate him, and his ideas will go to pieces, his character will go sour, and hundred ridiculous affections will spring up in his heart, extravagant notions will take root in his mind like tares in the wilderness. … It may well be that greater strength of character is needed for standing up to solitude than to poverty, for if poverty degrades us segregation depraves (136).
Additionally, she claims that “The urge to hurt and torment gradually wanes in the world outside; it never dies in the cloister” (59).

Am I insensitive to those who feel isolated now? I feel the loneliest when I am not with my daughters. And I am with my daughters.

This morning I did wish I could go to a coffee shop to write, but it’s not the company I want. I plan to go outside shortly, windy and cold as it is, and write there. That ought to do the trick.

Saint-Suzanne’s problem isn’t isolation (although when she’s thrown into solitary confinement—
…a little dark underground cell and threw me onto some matting half rotten with damp. There I found a piece of black bread and a pitcher of water, with a few other necessary vessels of the coarsest kind. For a pillow you had to roll up one end of the mat, and one a stone block was a skull with a wooden crucifix. My first instinct was to put an end to myself; I tried to throttle myself, I tore my clothes with my teeth, uttering fearful cries and howling like a wild animal. I banged my head against the wall until it was covered with blood. In fact, I went on trying to kill myself for three days; I thought it was going to be for the whole of my life (65).
—she doesn’t do very well). Sainte-Suzanne’s problem is who with she’s segregated. Specifically, two Mother Superiors who warp the environment around them to suit their own wants. Sister Sainte-Christine finds gratification through punishment; Madame *** (the second superior is unnamed) finds gratification through sex.

(Though certainly not Diderot’s intent, I read Saint-Suzanne’s narrative at the second cloister, where she is loved by Madame ***, as a caution against celibacy and a caution against the condemnation of homosexuality.)

Leonard Tancock, translator of La Religieuse, confuses me when he writes, “A recent French film of the novel… ended by showing Sainte-Suzanne, lured into the brothel, break way from a man’s lewd embrace….” I would not be confused if he wrote, “lured into a brothel”—then I would know the brothel scene was entirely the filmmaker’s invention. But the brothel—I’ve reread the ending several times and there is no brothel.

Tancock also writes, that, “After years of convent life she is unsuited for anything, a lost, helpless soul with no knowledge, no skill except for some music, no initiative, no future.” I’m not sure this is true, either. Sainte-Suzanne writes, in her application to be a maid,
In my father’s home I learned how to work, and in the convent to obey. … I can sew, spin, embroider and launder, and when I was still in the world I mended my own lace…. I am not clumsy at anything and nothing is beneath me. I have a voice and am musical, and I can play well enough to entertain any mother who would like me to, and I could even give lessons to her children, but I should be afraid of betraying my identity by these signs of a superior education. If I had to learn hair-dressing I would quite like that, and I would take some lessons and soon master this little skill (188).
That she is asking for a job shows she has initiative, and within that request she shows an interest in learning new skills—more initiative. Does she have no future? She has knowledge. Unless she has exaggerated throughout her narrative (that would be uncharacteristic of her), her singing voice is extraordinary; furthermore, she can play harpsichordmore than "some music."

Maybe she has no future. Diderot does not decide her fate. Her benefactor is dead, but she has a job. Does she have no future? We suspect that she does not.

[Quotes from Penguin Classics 1974 edition of The Nun, translated by Leonard Tancock. Above image from La Religieuse, directed by Jacques Rivette ,1971.]

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

210. February 22 - 23, 1969 } from 8pm – 5am.

Mark Lewishon writes “…a number of [Abbey Road’s] songs were well under way by that time. One was ‘I Want You,’ a fine John Lennon song…” A “fine” John Lennon song? And, “…begun now with 35 takes of the basic track and John’s guide vocal (one experimental take was sung by Paul McCartney)…” Is there a McCartney vocal bootleg somewhere? [from The Beatles Recording Sessions, Harmony Books, 1988.] Kevin Howlett writes, “…in a session produced by George Martin, ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ was recorded from eight o’clock on a Saturday evening through to five on Sunday morning at Trident Studios….” And, “During that night in Soho, there were 35 takes (many of them breakdowns) recorded on three reels of eight-track tape.” [from Abbey Road Anniversary Edition, Apple Corps Limited, 2019.]

Consider the nature of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”: lyrically simple / repetitive and musically repetitive (you might object to repetitive; the music changes quite a lot); what would it be like to work on 35 basic rhythm tracks?

When the session was over, did McCartney, the only Beatle still living in London, step out into the brisk air—it was in the mid-30s but with clear skies in London on February 23, 1969—and contemplate a walk back to Cavendish Avenue? It’d be a long walk—52 minutes. Too bad, he might’ve thought, we weren’t at Abbey Road, just a 10-minute walk from his place.

Coming out into the city so early on a Sunday morning, high from a productive session of artistic collaboration with friends—McCartney surely looked up at the sky, smelled the air, wondered if he ought to go straight to bed, or locate a bakery, or if he could find some way to ride the high a little longer—why not walk toward St. John’s Wood?

# # #

Posted to YouTube in 2011 by Astrid Shapiro is “Paul’s house” a 1:42 video that shows “my best friend” (in purple, with a slightly downcast expression) outside the gates at 7 Cavendish Avenue, where McCartney lived in ’69 (and he still owns the house). Their timing is good. The gate is opened for a messenger by someone who works for McCartney, and he’s very friendly. As they’re talking, the front door opens, and another employee steps out, and Astrid and her pal are simply beside themselves.

# # #

And, you can walk with “American drummer Marty Richards” from 7 Cavendish to Abbey Road Studios (posted to YouTube by ursulageorge in 2010). A familiar walk.

Monday, March 2, 2020

209. Mountain series } ATH 1 - 4

[ Mountains ATH 1 ]

[ Mountains ATH 2 ]

[ Mountains ATH 3 ]

[ Mountains ATH 4 ]

Saturday, January 11, 2020

208. Nightfall post } & addenda (pt. 2)

Like the radio show Inner Sanctum (1941 – 52), Nightfall featured memorable introductions and memorable hosts—Henry Ramer during the first two seasons and Bill Reiter during the last. Ramer possessed a deep, gravelly voice, and he opened each show with these lines (I’ve added commas where Ramer pauses): “In the dream, you are a falling, lost, in the listening distance, as dark locks in.” This was followed by a scream and then Ramer’s voice: “Nightfall!” For Reiter’s intro, the “In a dream you’re falling…” bit was gone; Reiter’s intro was individualized to fit each story. For example, “Private Collection” led with, “When your suspicions turn to terrible truths—it’s Nightfall”; “The Tie that Binds” led with, “For people who believe they have a grip on themselves—a strong grip—this is Nightfall.” Reiter also introduced himself: “Good evening, Frederick Hende here.” Reiter’s voice wasn’t like Ramer’s either: it was muted. Nigel Bruce’s Watson—without the bluster—comes to mind.

“Ringing the Changes,” was the eighteenth episode of the first season. The Nightfall series produced a good number of other exceptional plays based on short stories. “The Monkey’s Paw” is especially successful. So too are “The Stone Ship” (William Hope Hodgson), “They Bite” (Anthony Boucher), “The Screaming Skull” (F. Marion Crawford) and “The Signalman” (Charles Dickens). This is but a small selection of strong adaptations. The wide range of stories chosen for adaptation reflects the process by which they were chosen. Nightfall writers approached the producers with stories they wanted to adapt, rather than the other way around.

Ultimately, it’s the plays written especially for the Nightfall series that make Nightfall a success. Out of a hundred episodes, only a few are duds (“Mind Drift,” for instance, a tedious and predictable Manchurian Candidate story). Episodes I consider to be mediocre—the plays that rely wholly on gruesomeness and nastiness—are still highly entertaining: will he rip out his own heart? will the vengeful spirit cut off his legs? Seated by one’s radio, in the dark, these simple stories work the same way any good campfire tale works—with a bump in the night. Terrific heart-rending and leg-tearing sound-effects abound.

The best episodes are those that demand another listen. Some, I listen to again and again because the story remains mysterious from start to finish. Tim Wynne-Jones, a well-known Canadian author of young adult books, wrote a few such mysterious Nightfall episodes. “The Road Ends at the Sea” is set at a lighthouse by the Bay of Fundi, where the tides rise and fall twenty-five feet within an hour. The young couple who maintain the lighthouse are visited by an old friend—of sorts—a fellow writer who sold-out and now wants to steal the woman he felt he should have had in college, the woman who instead married the lighthouse keeper. The young couple are living at the lighthouse in pursuit of real isolation—at first under the guise of wanting peace and quiet for their writing, but now for a more profound and intangible reason. During the old friend’s visit, a great black ship appears in the bay. This ship is the lighthouse keepers’ ticket to isolation, so they believe; the old friend resists. And there isn’t much else to the story—a struggle and a little anti-climax with the police who come to check on the couple who live in the lighthouse. This episode is marred by maudlin incidental music, but otherwise it’s perfect, perfectly mysterious. “The Strange Odyssey of Lennis Freed,” also by Wynne-Jones, is similarly rich, though not so much because of the story—a fairly basic ghost story—but because of the atmosphere. A husband and wife are making an annual holiday trip—they follow the same route each year, stay in the same hotels and eat at the same restaurants, but this year there’s a terrific snowstorm, which—with the occasional accompaniment of the chronically coughing Lennis Freed—has totally transformed their trip. Janet Bonnellie’s “In the Name of the Father,” John Douglas’s “Lazarus Rising,” and Tony Bell’s “The Jogger” are other stories I admire for their strangeness.

The episode that still unnerves me, no matter how many times I hear it, is “The Porch Light,” by Randy Brown. Another basic ghost story carried off entirely by atmosphere: the light that won’t stay off, the new house, the snow, the figure seen from the bedroom window but not when the front door to the house is opened—and oh! what a mistake opening the front door is, and yet, a mistake you and I would make, in spite of all the ghost stories we’ve read. The acting, too—just two people in a studio—carries “The Porch Light” to its peak, to a moment when I almost can’t stand to listen anymore.

For years, Nightfall was still under copyright, so most of the episodes sold were bootlegs, and often the sound quality of these recordings is very poor—a few, in fact, are nearly impossible to listen to. (Some include unexpected pleasures: a weather report, a promo for an upcoming show, a little bit of local news.) Several Nightfall episodes were sold, on cassette and in stereo, by Durkin-Hayes Publishing and by CBC Enterprise. Those cassettes crop up in, at the CBC’s shop-online and elsewhere. There is also a CD, a volume one that never went beyond volume one, which includes four episodes—all very different episodes, all good (even my least favorite of the four, “Future Fear,” is good). Recently, the show (presumably) came into public domain, and all the episodes can be streamed here. The sound quality is generally good.

As I listened through my Nightfall collection again and again, I began to wonder about the biography of the show. I began to pay attention to the credits and to contemplate the research that would be involved in writing a long essay or even a short book about Nightfall. The Web, for all its gathering of the obscure, yielded very little information. Then, something new cropped up online: Neil Marsh’s I began to read Neil’s LiveJournal, and was delighted by what and by who Neil had located. Somewhat relieved that someone else was doing all the hard work, I contacted Neil and he’s proven to be a generous fellow. Only marginally interested in the horror genre, but fascinated by this particular show and by radio drama in general. I am currently surrounded by pages of research Neil kindly sent. Though isn’t yet complete (and may never be), there’s an enormous amount of material there. If you have any interest in the show, visit Neil’s site. It’s also worth noting that Neil produces his own audio dramas (to call the shows “radio drama” is anachronistic) with the Post Meridian Players. [Recently, Neil has surrendered his research materials “to a couple of fellow long-time fans.” He writes “there's a Facebook group for Nightfall (as Nightfall CBC)…. Not a lot of traffic, but there's usually something new once a week.”]

I asked Neil about a little bit of promo copy that is often included in blurbs about Nightfall that reads, “The show ignited complaints from many listeners that it was too frightening, prompting some stations to drop the series from their programming.” Neil has found no evidence that the show was ever dropped from a station’s line-up because of angry listeners, though he believes such calls were likely to have been made. True or no, Nightfall being too scary for radio is a nice legend.

Why the series was finally cancelled isn’t really clear. Susan Rubes said, “[the producers] simply felt they had done enough episodes for any future release or syndication….” That answer’s a little too neat. Perhaps the producers wanted to evolve—after Nightfall, there is CBC’s The Vanishing Point, a similar anthology series, featuring many of the same actors and writers (A favorite of mine is “The Testing of Stanley Teagarden, by none other than Tim Wynne-Jones). Some episodes of The Vanishing Point are horror stories, but most are just strange. Of course, I’d’ve kept Nightfall on the air. The series produced some of the best horror radio shows ever, as good as the best of Lights Out, The Hall of Fantasy, Inner Sanctum, etc.—as good as the greats.