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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007


He’s the most popular author of genre fiction ever. His sales have staggered a publishing industry used to thousands, not millions of units moved. His name is synonymous with fright and fear, a moniker mentioned alongside the classical macabre names. Yet when it comes to motion picture translations of his titles, Stephen King can’t catch a break. Granted, it’s an old story, one that’s been going on for nearly three decades now. But when Brian DePalma took the novice novelist’s first successful tome – the telekinetic teenager tale Carrie – and made it into box office gold, it opened the door for dozens of like minded auteurs to attack King’s canon. To say that the results have been scattershot at best would be some manner of historical heresy. With rare exceptions, he’s the King all right – the king of cinematic crap.


From a purely technical standpoint, there are well over 100 adaptations of the author’s work available for consideration. The split is about 60/40 between short stories and actual full length works. The vast majority of these movies were made between 1976 and 1996, and more than a couple represent the franchising or serialization of pieces (Children of the Corn, The Lawnmower Man) that lacked the necessary narrative heft to sustain multiple takes. In completely subjective terms, King’s craft has resulted in around 15 well regarded films. There are another half dozen or so that could be called successful without necessarily arguing for their overall artistry. That still leaves nearly 80% of the output in the average to awful category, and for anyone who has waded through that celluloid swamp, the garbage far outweighs the merely mediocre.


All of which leads to the question of why – why can’t King’s brainchildren catch a motion picture break? It seems like, for every Stand By Me, there’s a pair of unnecessary ‘Salem’s Lot sequels, for each Shawshank Redemption, there’s a similar big budget failure like Dreamcatcher or Hearts in Atlantis. Of course, some may argue that the man’s outstanding oeuvre, containing more text than a century of filmmaking could possibly handle, begs for such a hit or miss maxim. But the fact remains that some of the author’s best books – Pet Sematary, The Dark Half – have ended up delivering incredibly average entertainments. Even the seemingly successful interpretations – The Stand, IT – have issues among the faithful, from casting to editorial cuts.


It’s important to note why King is so heralded in the first place. Among his kind – writers specializing in horror – he’s one helluva storyteller. In fact, he’s so good, so adept at getting into your subconscious and laying down the ground rules, that it’s almost impossible for a film to step in and match your imagination. It’s the reason Stanley Kubrick rewrote The Shining as more of a psychological character study vs. a harrowing haunted hotel saga. Without the effects to accurately recreate King’s kinetic set pieces (the killer topiary animals, the shape-shifting interior design) the famed director had to rely on atmosphere, and acting, to carry his vision.


Or consider Christine, for a moment. John Carpenter is a horror maestro, a man responsible for a bevy of brilliant terror treats. When it was announced that he would helm an adaptation of King’s killer car novel, aficionados of both the writer and the director were psyched. To have two legitimate legends of their craft collaborating seemed like a dizzying dream come true. Of course, such a fantasy flew squarely into the reality of what Carpenter had taken on. As a book, Christine is almost all internal monologue, the character of Arnie Cunningham’s best friend Dennis Guilder explaining how his buddy slowly went insane under the influence of the evil automobile. There are also additional plot points that the movie completely avoids.


Now, this is nothing new for a book to film transfer. You can’t take the text verbatim and expect it to become a meaningful motion picture. But when you mess with a beloved work of fiction, you invite two kinds of criticism. The first comes from fans upset at the changes made. The second arrives from individuals who can’t quite figure out why this title deserved the big screen treatment in the first place. Both may have a point and still be completely wrong. Novels are not perfect, and sometimes, what seemed good on the page can appear paltry blown up 70 feet high. In fact, it’s clear that a lot of King’s works play better in the theater of the mind than the local Cineplex.


But that still doesn’t address the issue of his slipshod status. Perhaps a compare and contrast could help. In 1983, venereal horror icon David Cronenberg became attached to direct one of King’s more commercial works – the psychic thriller The Dead Zone. The basic premise found Johnny Smith, an average man, awaken from a coma after five years. Involved in a horrible auto accident, he barely escaped with his life. During rehabilitation, he discovers he has a gift of second sight. By touching a person, he can look into their past as well as their future. He even has the ability to influence and change events yet to come. All of this leads to a confrontation with a Presidential candidate who is out to start World War III. As the wheel of fate would have it, Smith must play assassin to stop the political favorite.


Again, Cronenberg tweaked the tale, removing backstory and emphasizing other aspects of King’s book. With the West still battling a frigid Cold War with the East, the importance on nuclear annihilation was illustrated, and thanks to a wonderful performance by Christopher Walken, Johnny’s dilemma was given depth and gravitas. So while some of the book’s more important twists were avoided or amplified, Cronenberg stuck to the basics. He believed in King’s ability to tell a tale, and did very little to vary from his prophetic prose. It remains one of the main reasons that The Dead Zone is a brilliant film, as well as a powerful page turner.


In sharp distinction, something like Pet Sematary pales in comparison. While it has its defenders, many find this film a shadow of King’s horrifying, hellacious original. Dealing with a topic that automatically hooks many prospective parents – the death of a child – and using reincarnation as a means for a far more terrifying prospect, the novel was originally scrapped by the author. He felt that, in a creative realm where he pushed the envelope of the gruesome and grotesque, a killer kid was just too much to fathom. Luckily, King’s better half (his wife Tabitha) convinced him otherwise, and yet another bestseller was born. Yet when it finally came around to making the movie, a series of bad decisions resulted in a less than successful product.


Up front, director Mary Lambert was a moviemaking novice. She only had one feature under her belt (the little seen Siesta) and may have helmed some successful music videos (for Madonna, among others), but that’s hardly the resume for taking on such a tricky piece. To make matters worse, she cast mostly unknowns. Among the leads, only Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster himself) had any real name or fame value. The final nail in the creative coffin was the direct participation of King. By this time (1989), he had grown tired of how his books were treated by screenplay writers, and he took a stab at the script. Yet even the man who originated the story failed to stay true to it. There were changes in both situations and tone that bothered longtime fans.


All the missteps did eventually add up. While slightly effective, Pet Sematary the movie is nowhere near as powerful as the book. Part of the problem is the actors. Aside from Gwynne, everyone else has a tepid, TV movie like quality to their presence. Even worse, the subject matter seems severely toned down so as not to totally derail already angst ridden Mommys and Daddys. Such audience friendly fiddling seems to go hand in hand with a King adaptation. This is especially true of broadcast standards and practices. Many of the author’s tales have been translated into small screen mini-series, the better to deal with their scope. But such a strategy limits content, undercutting the epic evil of IT, or the end of the world wonder of The Stand.


And yet some artists manage to turn the tentative into the terrific – and they seem to follow the Cronenberg method of manipulation (which can actually be traced back to DePalma and Carrie). Take The Shawshank Redemption. Frank Darabont took the original prison story and kept the core conceits. Changing very little, but streamlining some of the subplots, he managed what many consider to be one of the greatest films of all time. Rob Reiner reinvented both “The Body” (which became the nostalgic classic Stand By Me) and Misery by playing to King’s strengths (story) while deemphasizing his weaknesses (his lack of visualized action). Recently, Swedish director Mikael Håfström took 1408 and created a wonderfully moody minor classic – and he did so by remaining faithful while still striking out on his own.


Clearly, staying true to King is not an instant guarantee for achievement. Such efforts as Needful Things, Secret Window, and Apt Pupil all managed minor liberties with their source, and still they appeared underwhelming and incomplete. On the other hand, open interpretations often end up equally unexceptional. Graveyard Shift abandoned most of what the short story had to offer, and yet the giant rat retread was dull and dopey. Similarly, The Mangler made the mechanical horror of the original into something far stupider and unbelievable. Apparently, for every insightful interpretation (Dolores Claiborne) there’s a failure to figure things out properly (The Night Flyer, anyone?).


Perhaps the key is talent. While not a given (Dreamcatcher came from Lawrence Kasdan, after all), it is obvious that when individuals of great artistic insight take on King’s work, something worthwhile usually results. Darabont did it again with The Green Mile, which makes his upcoming work on fan favorite The Mist all the more exciting. Mick Garris usually makes the most of the author’s words, having guided several entertaining TV efforts. George Romero gave the sensational schlock of Creepshow the proper EC comic coating (though his Dark Half was merely a marginal triumph) and even the man of letters himself argued for his frequently misplaced participation when he directed the disastrous Maximum Overdrive.


So maybe it is just a statistical anomaly. A man with so many adaptations of his work is bound to have more than his fair share of failures. And when you consider that he’s working in horror, an already tricky cinematic type, that anything with his name attached actually gels should be cause for celebration. Yet King has written very few clunkers in his four decades behind the typewriter, and the subpar productions (Firestarter, Thinner) keep cramping his reputation. In fact, the hack nature of his many movie flops has definitely impacted his literary worth. Though he’s frequently referred to himself as the medium equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, the vast majority of his writing is not junk food. Sadly, most of the movies made from his ideas are barely digestible. 


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007


That’s right! It’s Terror Time! Time for Short Ends and Leader to get its ghoul on as part of our annual celebration of all things scary. For the entire month of October, the blog will be focusing on different horror heavyweights, from known names like Troma to unheralded upstarts like Wicked Pixel. In between, we’ll address the new movie macabre classics, unearth a few forgotten gems, talk about old fashioned monsters, and countdown the best and worst in specific genres (zombie films, the greatest moments in splatter). First up is that master of literary evil, Stephen King. With 1408 hitting DVD this week, we’ll look back at the cinematic career of the greatest living writer of fear ever. Good thing he has all those literary accolades. As our Monday feature explains, his big screen reputation is rather shaky.


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007

Monks in Burma, Maira Kalman, Portfolio magazine, and more Stephen King.

The Clippings File


What the Monks told the Military Powers in Burma


The BBC has news footage of UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari in Burma, who was allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi but has not yet met with senior members of the Burmese military. Agence Presse France said that “Ibrahim Gambari met with Aung San Suu Kyi for more than an hour, the UN said in a statement. The rare encounter, seen as a sign of intense pressure on the regime, took place at a government guest house in the main city of Yangon.”


The Nation has printed a letter from U Thangara Linkhara, the abbot of a monastery in Yangon, to the leader of the military, Tan Shwe. “We monks [see that] Burma’s difficulties have gone on for over 60 years. As delicate political issues have not been solved in a delicate way, now after 60 years they have been needlessly prolonged, like an unfinished painting,” he wrote. “The root cause is power. Those individuals who temporarily held the people’s power on behalf of the people have prolonged [their hold on power] for their own purposes for over 60 years. The original owners of power, the people, have been made innocent victims: more and more repressed and poor and impoverished. In fact, the people’s power should be in the people’s hands, so that people can live comfortably and free from difficulty.” His letter is written with metta (loving kindness) and he makes suggestions for peacefully returning power to the hands of the people. 


In an editorial in The Guardian, Pankaj Mishra explains the moral authority of Buddhist monks in violently oppressed societies.


Buddhist monks, living not in forests but in retreats close to populated settlements, are traditionally bound to laymen by an ethic of social responsibility. Not surprisingly, in Tibet and Burma, where a modern, militarised state tyrannises a largely pre-modern and unorganised population, monasteries have been exalted as alternative centres of moral and political authority, and monks and nuns have come to spearhead resistance to unrighteous regimes.


Certainly, Buddhists are not immune to ideological delusions. In early 20th-century Japan, and in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and 90s, many Buddhist monks succumbed to the lure of nationalism and militarism. Nevertheless, with its absence of dogma and emphasis on intellectual and spiritual vigilance, Buddhism has proved to be less vulnerable to fanatical zeal than not only other major religions, but also such modern ideologies as nationalism and secularism. As Nhat Hanh exhorts, echoing a major theme of the Buddha: “Do not be idolatrous about, or bound to, any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.”


It helps, too, that Buddhist political methods aim, relatively modestly, at dialogue and moral conversion rather than total revolution. Writing to Martin Luther King in 1965, after another Buddhist self-immolation in Vietnam, Nhat Hanh explained that “the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors, but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man.”


Pankaj Mishra. “The Burmese monks’ spiritual strength proves religion has a role in politics: Buddhism and its values have inspired a tradition of non-violent protest more powerful than secularists understand”  The Guardian. October 1, 2007


The Nation has linked to a You Tube video of the military beginning to use force to beak up the monks’ protests from burmadigest, which is continually posting footage of what’s happening on the streets in Burma.


Behold Maira Kalman


Maira Kalman from The Principles of Uncertainty

Maira Kalman from The Principles of Uncertainty


With the closing of its Times Select subscription service the New York Times has opened a treasure chest of guest columns to the general reader, although, like a pirate pursuing treasure, you need to dig to find them.


One of the most popular, and unusual, was Maira Kalman’s year- long illustrated essay “The Principles of Uncertainty” which ended in April. The columns have been gathered together in a book that’s just been released. In “Principles of Uncertainty” she addressed the great questions of life and death and happiness and grief in a way that connected with her readers and attracted hundreds of comments each month. Readers began posting their reactions the moment the column went online.


“Principles of Uncertainty” has many of the whimsical existential qualities of her children’s books, which included a series of books about a beagle-like dog Max, a poet, who lived in New York but dreamed of going to live and write in Paris. Max saw poetry everywhere, in the lives of the people around him, and literally written on the trees, sidewalks and cars of the city. Max fulfilled his dream and in Paris married a shapely poodle, a showgirl/dog. He moved to Los Angeles and in Max in Hollywood, Baby saw his poems turned into a screwball comedy movie. Max began to think deeply about illusion and reality, and as he was about to become a father took a—perhaps dreamed—trip to India, and pondered the nature of reality, marvelling at the way that a deeply metaphysical spirituality is threaded through daily life in India.


Maira Kalman has frequently illustrated covers for the New Yorker Magazine: my personal favourite is a portrait of her dog Pete (who is also the star of two books) at a desk, reading. She told Steven Heller, of the graphic design magazine, Eye, that walks with Pete are her primary inspiration. “I was out walking the dear dog (who is a sweet meal ticket – two books about him, one New Yorker cover and a back page) and I saw 500 things that made me want to make art. I ran into a father taking two kids to school. The girls were wearing green skirts and orange rain boots and one of them had a ponytail and was carrying a pink book and was pigeon-toed. Then I saw a man wearing a bowler hat with a feather and he was wearing an eye mask like Zorro made out of a twenty-dollar bill and I thought, ‘There is a God. Thank you, whoever is showing me this.”


Portfolio, turned inside out.


Before the first issue of Conde Nast’s quarterly business magazine, Portfolio, was released earlier this year I was sceptical about its editorial stance of applying Vanity Fair’s glossy approach to the world of business. The physical magazine is yet to appear on Australian newsstands, but the constantly updated online version of Portfolio has made me eat my words. Instead of reducing business to shallow celebrity cover, Portfolio has applied the business writer’s examination of the money and financial power-broking to culture. While there are fawning profiles of business and finance figures, and features on luxury products there is also a unique examination of the financial practices that underpin culture. Examinations of hedge funds investing in art, and how auction houses set estimates for works of art to be sold.


A new online story looks at the business of sampling.


Modern-day sampling started in the South Bronx, where party DJs in the 1970s would find a favorite chunk of music and blend two duplicate records to play that section over and over. It has always been the de facto beat-creation process for hip-hop producers, but as the music has exploded in popularity, copyright laws have been enforced more regularly and the stakes—and money—involved in the sampling business have risen accordingly. For example, as rapper Kanye West celebrates selling nearly 1 million copies of his new album, Graduation, last week, royalty checks aren’t just being readied for him, but also for Elton John, ’70s duo Steely Dan, and the abstract German band Can. West borrowed from a motley crew of musicians to create his hit album’s sound collage, which means he’ll be dividing his several million dollars with the original artists. Jay-Z, Nas, and even West’s competitor 50 Cent built their catalogs on sample-based albums, their tens of millions in royalties split among hundreds of artists, some of whom haven’t released a new song in decades.


Damon Brown. Portfolio. Sep 24 2007


.


What Happens to Storytelling when Readers Disappear.


Stephen King has edited the “Best American Short Stories 2007” compendium, and writes in the New York Times about going to a book store and having to get down on his knees and rustle about on the bottom shelves to find short story magazines.


...writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.


Last year, I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf. It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. If the stories felt airless, why not? When circulation falters, the air in the room gets stale.


 


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007

Why does he do the things he does?
Why does he do these things?
Why does he march
Through that dream that he’s in,
Covered with glory and rusty old tin?
Why does he live in a world that can’t be . . .


What Do You Want of Me, The Man of La Mancha


This is the song that has been going through my head of late, since I end up listening to it every time I ferry my daughter to and from school, ballet class, voice lessons, her SAT tutor. Wherever. We listen to it (well, she sings along, so I listen to it) since she’s thinking of auditioning for that part in the up-coming school play. She’s rehearsed it so often, though, that it is now lodged in my mid(-to-middling)-term memory. Which probably accounts for why the words came on thick, accompanied by full orchestration, last night when I went to my son’s ninth grade parental mixer.

Because—what a bunch of bluster that was! Twenty-five bucks a plate, endless wine refills and hot hors d’oeuvres from roving people-in-waiting, main course of roast beef—medium—and blackened rosemary chicken, two kinds of salads, four kinds of dessert, and plenty of adult puffery, all at a former Nobel Prize-winning physicist’s ex-abode. A stone’s throw from CalTech and light year’s away from my income bracket. Enough to get my pipes working on that other La Mancha tune: “The Impossible Dream.


 


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007

What was so surprising and maybe refreshing about Robert Plant’s announcement recently wasn’t that a Led Zep tour wasn’t going to happen along with their upcoming UK reunion show, it was this quote:


“When I do come back from touring I’m shocked to find a lot of my mates tend to be going to bed far too early and that means I should probably be doing the same. Maybe I should stop having a good time and get old.”


Plant’s been as conscious about age as Neil Young from his salad days in the 70’s: he often referred to himself as “Old Robert” even back then.  But to hear him talk now goes against the grain of most other long-time stadium-fillers.  It wasn’t just the obvious lyrics to “My Generation” or the loss of their rhythm section that made the Who’s future shaky- Daltrey’s throat problems along sidelined them.  Ditto the Stones not just when Richards tumbled out of a tree recently but also when Jagger had similar problems with his voice.  At this point, both bands seemed like the types to tour ‘til they literally dropped but age kicks your ass no matter what your income bracket is. 


Plant realizes it and not only says it but also lives it.  Age is catching up with his peers whether they like it or not and one day, they’ll have to admit it too.  But that doesn’t mean that they all should just pack it because they’ve hit a certain age.  Obviously, everyone ages differently (my grandma is 90 and she’s able to still live on her own).  Or look at the many jazz, country or blues musicians who live out their golden years on stages.  The fact that rock icons were able to do this also took the stigma away for being over 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 and still doing concerts in that genre.  Nothing wrong with that and in some cases, it’s commendable, especially when some of them still make good albums.  But even the Godfather of Soul couldn’t do leg splits in his later years and classic rockers who reach the AARP threshold will have to make compromises too, whether they or their fans like it or not.


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