Sunday, June 30, 2013

That's "Z" as in "Ezzzcellent!"

The initials of the most thrilling film of the summer are W, W and Z.
It’s an SF monster-action film with touchstones of humanity throughout, oddly and satisfyingly. It's intelligent and breathtaking, like a British “cozy catastrophe” novel by John Wyndham on steroids. “Easily the most thrilling movie I've seen this summer. I’ve never heard Dan Hagen invoke the name of our Lord Jesus so many times.” — Matt Mattingly
“If you can fight, fight. And help each other.” — Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt)
Even the New Yorker liked it. And they hate everything.

Fantômas: An Insolent and Surrealistic Source of the Superhero

Book cover painting by Mikael Eriksson
By Dan Hagen
If you’re tracking the origin of the American superhero genre, you’ll find one path winds inevitably back to Paris.
Much of American popular culture seems to have been anticipated in France decades before, and that includes the costumed supermen who engage in titanic struggles of good versus evil and always narrowly escape the endless fiendish traps that are set for them.
The superhero emerged in the U.S. in the 1930s’ pulp magazines and comic books, a fantasy antidote to the powerlessness and despair experienced by millions during the Great Depression.
But such characters had already captivated the attention of the French public at the turn of the century, although they were often presented not as heroes but as ruthless criminals. The assumption seemed to be that a person who had abilities far above those of the common herd of humanity would use those abilities to exploit that herd. Probably a safe assumption, at that.
It’s useful to remember how very weird the end of the 19th century must have seemed to the people who experienced it, the press of technological change on society even exceeding what we undergo at the beginning of the 21st century.
The most famous image of Fantomas
Look at Paris in La Belle Époque, particularly from the 1890s on — the newly electrified City of Lights a beacon to the world; the new telephone breaking the old rules of time and space as effectively as telepathy; a new subway system and the new automobiles permitting fluid movement, shifting identities and new opportunities for criminality. Even flying machines were visible on the horizon.
This juxtaposition of the commonplace and the seemingly fantastic would inform the 1920s artistic movement known as surrealism, the aim of which was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.” And it’s in that hypnagogic space where we will find the secret lair of the superhero.
“At the founding of their movement, the surrealists drew inspiration from currents of psychological anxiety and social rebellion that ran through certain expressions of mass culture, such as fantastic popular fiction and sensationalist journalism,” wrote Robin Walz in “Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth Century Paris.”
Before World War I, a ruthless, faceless superman called Fantômas schemed, feinted and glided through adventures in 32 serialized novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain and in five Gaumont silent films by the brilliant director Louis Feuillade.
Fantômas particularly caught the fancy of the surrealists, cutting-edge artists like Belgian painter Rene Magritte who created a 1943 homage called “The Backfire” or “Le Retour de Flamme.”
This translates as “The Flame Returns,” essayist David Kalat noted. “Some destructive, primal force has returned. It threatens our end.”
“The picture depicts a masked villain bestride a helpless city: a rather on-the-nose metaphor for the dark times of the day, and the globe-spanning influence of supercriminals like Adolph Hitler.” Magritte knew his fascism-besieged audience would instantly recognize the reference to Fantômas.
Fantômas had predecessors, notably Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail’s 19th century criminal adventurer-turned-hero Rocambole, who appeared in novels from 1857 to 1869. Another inspiration was Léon Sazie’s Zigomar, a murderous master criminal who bowed Dec. 7, 1909, in a feuilleton or serial in the Paris daily newspaper Le Matin. His symbol of a flaming red “Z” may have inspired Johnston McCulley’s Zorro a decade later.
Fantômas also had arguably even weirder contemporaries like the Nyctalope, a superhero with an artificial heart who could see in the dark. He appeared in novels by Jean de La Hire published between 1911 and 1944 (meaning that the Nyctalope holds the dubious distinction of being the only superhero to finish up collaborating with the Nazis in occupied France).
But it was Fantômas who captured the attention of the public and the avant garde, a shadowy figure who somehow anticipated the sinister, exciting zeitgeist of the new century.
“The narrative trappings of Fantômas were arcane, melodramatic, Belle Epoque schlock — the ‘family circle’ of principal players, the Manichean opposition of good versus evil, the sublimity of overstated rhetoric and the spectator’s total pleasure in riding along for the performance,” Walz wrote.
The pleasures of the novels were not literary. Like the science fiction novels of A.E. Van Vogt and the Arabian Nights tales, the books offered hypnagogic escapism, a sense of wandering through the infra-logical, identity-fluid, symbolic demimonde that we touch between wakefulness and sleep.
Fantômas was a figure set against, not a literary landscape, but a literary dreamscape, or perhaps nightmarescape. He left an enemy suspended in giant bells, raining blood and gems. He killed another by having her long hair caught in that fiendish new contraption, a washing machine. He left the fingerprints of others by using gloves of human skin. He secreted razor blades inside the shoes for sale in a department store, and replaced the bottles of perfume with bottles of acid. He destroyed everyone on board an ocean liner by releasing plague-infested rats onto the ship. He placed enemies face up on a guillotine, so they could see what was coming.
And yet the dreams and nightmares were somehow those of an era, an age.
“Fantômas exceeded the boundaries of its melodramatic trappings,” Walz said. “Moral restitution was fundamentally denied through the motif of the escape of Fantômas at the end of each episode. All the reader was left with was an endless, yet predictable string of murders, thefts, disguises, pursuits, traps, confrontations, arrests and escape — and not a bit of it plausible.”
My favorite example of that comes from the first of the groundbreaking Fantômas films, in which the supercriminal escapes by leaving his captors holding not the bag but his arms, which turn out to be fake and detachable. Boy, that’s planning ahead.
Yet as laughable as the adventures are at times, they are almost equally unsettling because of the casual way they are peppered with vicious mass murders.
“While the classic British whodunit affirms rational order through the intervention of saintly detectives like Inspector French and Miss Marple, Fantômas tends to undermine any notion of stability or ultimate purpose,” observed Geoffrey O'Brien in the Village Voice. “To sustain the series' open-ended structure, crime must always triumph, and Fantômas is no Robin Hood.
Ernest Moerman's 1937 "Monsieur Fantomas," an homage to the 1913 serial
“With his blend of technical elegance and cruelty … he infects a whole ocean liner with plague — he foreshadows a peculiarly modern type of gratuitous killer. The novels that chart his mythos are themselves amoral: there is no pretense of edification, but rather a frankly perverse fascination with terror and death-dealing. Any possible ethical concerns are further distorted by ambiguity. Both Fantômas and his nemesis, Inspector Juve, spend most of their time in disguise, so that it’s hard to tell who anyone is. The only certainty is that fairly soon another body will fall.”
Walz wrote, “As the series continues, Fantômas’s number of aliases diminishes and increasingly he assumes his role en cagoule, in black tights, cape and cowl.” An evil Batman, in other words.
“Think Batman, and then think what would happen if Batman had no Bruce Wayne,” Kalat wrote. “Fantômas is a fictional identity, a mask, a brand name for crime. But Allain and Souvestre never allow Fantômas to remove that mask, to reveal the man beneath. We get snippets of his back story: we meet his lover, his daughter and his son, we visit his hometown, and we even learn his real name, but none of these fragments adds up to anything substantial.”
All this anticipates the American super hero sagas of much later in the 20th century — the breathless melodrama, the astounding abilities, the never-ending seesawing battle of criminal and crimefighter, the elaborate death traps, the bizarre gadgets and, especially, the fluidity of the secret identity.
I’ve explored this particular curious convention before, in the essay “The Mystery of the Menacing Mirror Men” and in “The Secret Identity of Don Draper.” I don’t fully know what it means. It’s as mysterious as Fantômas himself. I just know that it means something, it’s uncannily dreamlike and it’s unmistakably there.
Both Fantômas and his archenemy easily assume the identities of others, while the secret of Fantômas’ own “real” identity, if any, is never pierced.
“The characters in Fantômas are not merely ‘disguised’ as someone else,” Walz observed. “For the practical purposes of the novel, they actually have to be someone else.”
Right and wrong, good and evil, order and chaos, forever changing position in an endless, dizzying waltz. Underlining the symbolism, Fantômas and Juve also disguise themselves flawlessly as each other.
That has to raise a psychological and aesthetic question — are we really dealing with two people in opposition here, or with the opposing elements within one person?
“In Jungian psychology, the shadow or ‘shadow aspect’ may refer to (1) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious, or (2) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not recognize in itself,” Wikipedia notes. “Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative. There are, however, positive aspects which may also remain hidden in one’s shadow (especially in people with low self-esteem).
“Contrary to a Freudian conceptualization of shadow, therefore, the Jungian shadow often refers to all that lies outside the light of consciousness, and may be positive or negative. ‘Everyone carries a shadow,’ Jung wrote, ‘and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.’ It may be (in part) one's link to more primitive animal instincts, which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.’”
This Shadow archetype, Jung thought, is the source of the mechanism of psychological projection — of seeing one’s own unperceived faults in others as a way of escaping full realization of them and confrontation with them.
“These projections insulate and cripple individuals by forming an ever thicker fog of illusion between the ego and the real world,” Wikipedia said.  “Jung also believed that ‘in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness — or perhaps because of this — the shadow is the seat of creativity’ so that for some, it may be, ‘the dark side of his being, his sinister shadow ... represents the true spirit of life as against the arid scholar.’”
Are these mirroring masks the popular culture shadow of Jung’s Shadow, lengthening itself across cultures, nations and centuries — evidence, therefore, that within human nature of all of us, of each us, lurk secret identities, doubles, dark and light?
I don’t know. But I do know this, that the creators of the contemporary iterations of superheroes, in a quest to make the material seemingly more “adult,” increasingly give up the concept of the “secret identity,” and do so at their peril. They may be cutting off one of the deepest wellsprings of dreamlike psychological power that is available to them.
Superheroes, after all, do not derive their vast power from the real, but from the surreal.

Sources: "Crime After Crime", by Geoffrey O'Brien. From the Village Voice, August 18, 1986: review of Fantômas, by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, New York: William Morrow, 1986
“Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early 20th Century Paris” by Robin Walz
“Shadowmen: Heroes and Villains of French Pulp Fiction” by Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier
“The Long Arm of Fantômas” by David Kalat, an essay in “Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives”
"Fantomas" became a comic-strip serialized the weekly Gavroche during World War II
Whether super hero or a super criminal, it's important that you know how to make a properly bombastic entrance

Unclear on the Concept

I wonder how many people have been killed by "survivalism" so far?

With Great Failure Comes Great Possibility

Stan Lee at proto-Marvel Comics in the 1950s
Lee was even, sometimes, the Black Rider

In 1957, Stan Lee was an editor in a literally despised industry. A gun salesman he met while vacationing in the Catskills had called him “absolutely criminal” for writing comic books.
His publisher Martin Goodman, having made a disastrous decision about distribution, left Stan to fire virtually everybody on staff except Stan’s best friend, an artist who in 1958 fell between the cars of a commuter train. Lee called the mass firing “the most horrible thing I ever had to do,” and it moved him from a thriving Manhattan office to a cubicle.
Yet within a decade, Stan and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had built the smartest and most popular brand in comics, transforming the industry, and Lee had moved from his 1950s cubicle to lunching with Fellini and lecturing at college campuses around the country.
The point? That the last thing you should surrender is the last thing that flew out of Pandora’s box.
In other words, I finally picked up Sean Howe’s “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” which begins just before World War II, when hardscrabble Jewish immigrants’ sons scrambled to sell new, lurid four-color fantasies with sunshine smiles and sharp practices on shoestring budgets. It ends with today’s billion-dollar empire. In between, in the 1970s, the first wave of fans-turned-pro plunged in, including my friends David Anthony Kraft, Jim Salicrup and Roger Slifer. Perhaps the best book of its type I have read. It’s going to a permanently handy place on the prestigious biography shelf.
Source: "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" by Sean Howe

From Here to Theremin

Where would science fiction films be without the theremin, and the great composer Bernard Herrmann? Here's a 1951 recording session. And here's the full, glorious effect.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Freedom Beyond Choice

Choice may be a necessary condition of freedom, but it’s not a sufficient one. Many people who have thousands of choices have never been much freer than a greyhound chasing a mechanical lure.
The thing that will make us happy — now caught, now boring — barely gets a nod as we charge off after the thing that will make us really happy.
“We think that freedom lies in making choices based on our desires,” Steve Hagen wrote. “But when we see our circumstances, we see much more than our desires. We see how the current situation has come to be.”
“Our only choice of consequence lies in whether or not we’re awake.”

Under Dark Green Arms

Watercolor pencil art by David Street

Getting older, he liked living in an older neighborhood. When he walked for exercise, he passed the leveled calm of lawns. Cars passed him occasionally, with the muted hiss of residential speeds. The trees had seen many Midwestern years and they swayed and arched high over him like dark green arms, more comforting than any gates.

The Terrorist Under the Bed

Look out! Terrorist! Terrorist!! Terrorist!!
"Terrorist" is just the contemporary way of saying "boogeyman." It's a vague, ever-elusive word that justifies all — the summary assassination of U.S. citizens, the theft of our freedoms, the picking of our pockets, the silencing of truth-tellers, the spying on our every move, even the groping of our genitalia. Welcome to America, land of the prisons and the home of the panicked.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

I'm a Comrade Doodle Dandy

Have you noticed that the citizens of the American "republic" are beginning to think and talk like the cowering, whispering, furtive-glancing "comrades" in the old USSR? Right down to the phony show trials they are required to nervously applaud?
They demand not to be told what their government is doing in their name. They sit still for the dismantling of the right to vote. Wars? They're always ready to back another one, on any flimsy excuse. 
Do they fear the SWAT team kicking in their door at dawn and handcuffing them for the terrorist crime of their wife having an unpaid student loan? The armed drone strikes? The swaggering state-sponsored executions of the innocent, the dark, the mentally challenged?
We now seem to live in a nation in which torture is legal, but telling the truth is a crime.

Citizen Lindbergh

Charles Lindbergh once turned down a fortune merely in order to make a quiet stand for journalism ethics.
Young, handsome, brave, self-possessed and remarkably unassuming, Lindbergh in 1927 was the first superstar, more popular than anyone in the world today. Shortly after his return from his spectacular New York to Paris flight, Lindbergh was offered a movie contract by media mogul William Randolph Hearst.
In return for appearing in a film about aviation opposite Heart’s mistress Marion Davies, Lindbergh would be paid $500,000 plus 10 percent of the gross receipts — a percentage that would at least equal his salary and leave Lindbergh financially independent for life.
They met at Hearst’s Riverside Drive apartment in New York, where Hearst handed Lindbergh the contract and Lindbergh politely tried to hand it back.
“I wish I could do it if it would please you, but I cannot, because I said I would not go into pictures,” Lindbergh told Hearst.
In his memoirs years later, Lindbergh revealed the other reason for his flat refusal. With an aviation pioneer’s occupational distaste for inexactitude, Lindbergh didn’t like what Hearst stood for.
Hearst “controlled a chain of newspapers from New York to California that represented values far apart from mine,” Lindbergh said. “They seemed to be overly sensational, inexcusably inaccurate and excessively occupied with the troubles and vices of mankind. I disliked most of the men I had met who represented him, and I did not want to become associated with the organization he had built.”
Hearst argued with Lindbergh, refusing to accept the returned contract and telling Lindbergh he’d have to tear it up. Hearst having insisted, Lindbergh ripped the document in half and threw the pieces in the fireplace while Hearst watched with what Lindbergh described as “amused astonishment.”
It wouldn’t be their last disagreement.
Source: ‘Lindbergh’ by A. Scott Berg

Monday, June 24, 2013

Your Secrets Are Theirs, and Theirs Are None of Your Business

When we reach the point where all the citizens' secrets are the government's, while all the government's activities are secret, the republic is done, rights are done, freedom is done. But most people need not worry. They will still have the freedom to conform, which is all most Americans ever exercise.

The View from the Cave

News for Yahoos, Indeed

Yahoo "News" off-handedly "reports" that President Obama was born in Kenya. 
Oh, well, who needs accuracy in news stories, anyway? Just hire some dropout hack and pay him minimum wage to report on national affairs.

Our Deficit Is in Brains, Not Money

Roughly the same percentage who don't know that the deficit and the national debt are two completely different things.

Hollywood: The Magical Land of Assassins and Prostitutes

By Dan Hagen
Today’s Hollywood movies, even the good ones, are breathless, formulaic to a fare-thee-well and as physically impossible as a Road Runner cartoon at least once every 20 minutes.
Hollywood morality is, of course, no better than its physics. Children who grow up on a diet of contemporary Hollywood fare could be forgiven for believing that the two most common professions are “assassin” and “prostitute.”
Or even “assassin prostitute,” my friend Philip Martin suggested. “Assassitute?”
The first rule of assassitute training is "Sex, then murder." The other way around is icky. And corpses are notoriously slow to pay.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Dawn of Superman

The first man to don the Superman costume at the New York World's Fair in 1940. His identity? A secret, of course.
That's the world's first Superman, an uncredited actor, at the New York World's Fair on July 3,1940, a mere two years after Superman debuted in Action Comics No. 1. It was also the first day the admission price was reduced to a dime — the same price as a comic book.

What's amazing is that a color home movie survives of the event, and also features Superman's co-creator Jerry Siegel. You can view it here. The guy on the elephant is DC publisher Harry Donenfeld.
Superman greets other crime fighters on the World's Fair grounds

Swimming and Falling

Gerald Richter's 2005 oil painting "September"

Fresh from her pool, Claire gets a telephone call to inform her that the World Trade Center towers have fallen, and that her husband was in one of them.
“’Mommy, you smell like the pool,’ William sniffled a day — or was it two? — later. She had not thought to shower since the news. She would think often about having been submerged in water while her husband was consumed by fire. What did this say? It was like a myth, a dark poem whose meaning just eluded her.”
That’s from Amy Waldman’s “The Submission,” the novel the Eastern Illinois University campus is reading right now, and that’s what I call good writing.

Why They Spy On You

Why spy on American citizens? Well, the excuses — communism, terrorism, pornography, blasphemy, what have you — are interchangeable, easily discarded and don’t mean very much.
The real and unstated reason is power.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

My Kind of Guy

Courage is the necessary precondition of all other virtues.

Seeing Things

Want riches? Then see what's before you with fresh eyes open wide, as if you're seeing it for the last time, or the first.
I had this experience at one remove by driving my beagle, George, to the PetSmart in another town to pick up Eukanuba Adult Weight Control dog food.
George loves car rides, and drags me to the car door when I mention them. But he's never had such a long one. I partially rolled down his window and locked it, and he panted excitedly and "dog-smiled" the whole 10-mile trip, his eyes bright, taking in all the wonders.
On days when we may feel we can no longer see wonders, it helps to be with those who can still thrill to them. The happy frisson is a contagion.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Talent, Courage and a Pair of Alec Baldwins

Actor Johnny Pruitt
By Dan Hagen
At 19, not long out of Sullivan High School, Johnny Pruitt figured if he could make it there, he’d make it anywhere.
“There” being New York, New York, a brass ring of a place to make it as an actor.
Dropping out of Webster Conservatory of Theatre Arts in St. Louis, the young man went east in January 2001.
"Leaving school early was, at the time, the easiest decision I remember ever making,” he recalled. “I was enjoying my time at school, but opportunities came up in New York that really anyone in my position would have jumped on. An agent and a place to live at 19 was a no-brainer.
“Thinking about doing something like now at 30 — terrifying. At 19, not a care in the world, sounded fun,” he said. “And I've tried to do my best to live up to that decision which drives me.”
Pruitt’s boyish looks and assured acting style won him in roles in films like “Kinsey,” “Confess,” “Whirlygirl” and ”Once Upon a Time Never Comes Again” and in TV shows like “Boardwalk Empire,” “30 Rock,” “Mercy,” “Ed,” “Chappelle’s Show,” “Law & Order” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Now he wants to be a producer — well, a co-producer and a co-star, with Percy Rodriguez, in “Death and McCootie,” an original comedy-fantasy play to be performed at the prestigious New York International Fringe Festival this summer. Written by Clayton Smith and Rodriguez and directed by Michelle Boss, it’s “a film noir-style farce that goes a little haywire when Edgar P. McCootie, P.I., matches (a lack of) wits with the Grim Reaper in a desperate bid to escape his own death.”
“We're asking for donations to get the show produced,” Pruitt said. “We have perks set up for every level of donation and our gratitude will never go away. No amount is too small (or large, ha)."
You can check the show out, and/or donate, at
"This show represents a lot for my partners and me,” Pruitt said. “This is the first time that I'm really doing my own producing so the stakes are high. Usually I just show up and do the job and leave. This is a lot more gratifying and personal. I use skills that I’ve learned from everyone I've ever worked with. Especially those from Little Theatre.”
The son of John Pruitt and Jean Wood of Sullivan and the brother of SES teacher Melissa Haegan, Pruitt grew up with and IN the Little Theatre, landing starring roles there in shows like “The Jungle Book” while in his mid-teens. 
Unlike young people from towns without a professional theatre, Pruitt was able to learn that a viable acting career was not merely possible for him, but plausible.
“It was something that was available to me,” he said. “I still had to work at it and learn, but it certainly made it seem like something that was attainable. And when you’re young and fearless, it was a great combo for me, ha!
“From the first show I did at LTOTS, which was the 40th anniversary season, I knew that this is what I was going to do. Some of the people that I met working there are my best friends and most trusted contacts today. Which makes any successes really special because I share it with all of those people.
“My family have been always supportive and enthusiastic as well. But there’s something about show biz type folk who really understand each other. And I learned that at a pretty young age at the Little Theatre. It would be hard to say that anything had a bigger influence on life and career.”
Springboarding from the Little Theatre, Pruitt appeared in productions with some familiar names, including Liam Nesson, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O’Donnell, Laura Linney, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Steve Buscemi and a favorite of Pruitt’s, Tina Fey.
Tina Fey
“I shot ‘30 Rock’ with Tina Fey who was super great and incredibly inviting,” Pruitt said. “I had actually had dinner with her and her husband years before that shoot. Some friends of theirs who I was friends with invited me when she was still on SNL and hadn’t told the show that she was pregnant yet. She said we were the first people she told.”
“She remembered me from that dinner when I asked her about it on the ‘30 Rock’ set.”
And while a fair number of actors can claim to have worked with Alec Baldwin, how many can say they have appeared with TWO Alec Baldwins?
“I didn’t have the nerve to tell Baldwin that I had worked on ‘30 Rock’ prior to shooting the Capitol One commercial with him. Just never got the opportunity, only being with him one day.”
Pruitt played a man buying a wedding ring with the advice of the two Baldwins, one of whom was busy flirting with his fiancé.
"Alec Baldwin was cool and easy,” Pruitt said. “A little intimidating at first as he’s known to have a bit of a short fuse. But I shot with him on the last day of a four-day shoot so by then, they were all at the end and he was in a good mood. He had one moment of ‘I’m here and ready why aren’t we shooting?’ but if you've ever shot anything, no matter who you are, you've said that 100 times. It’s tedious but he was a pro and dropped what was probably about $30,000 on jewelry for his girlfriend. All in all, nice guy.”
And Pruitt had another reason to be happy about that shoot. “Anytime you do a commercial with a celebrity, you know it’s going to have a healthy run on TV.”