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Books & Family life & Movies 19 Dec 2014 09:49 am

Anti Claus

I guess I’m playing Santa this year.

Some people say this whenever they hand out gifts, but I mean it literally. My mom has invested in a suit and beard and wants me to play the jolly old elf for my 2-year-old niece. That’s the upper age limit of anybody who will be fooled by my imitation, to be sure.

Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been preparing for the role all year. Over the past 12 months, I’ve packed on about 20 pounds. While I have a way to go before I’m truly in Santa’s weight class, I still should require fewer pillows to create Claus’ trademark plumpness.

In terms of Santa’s characterization, I’d like to say I’m from the Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis school of method acting. Those two gentlemen get into character and stay in character — past tense in the case of Brando, who died in 2004 — whether the cameras are rolling or not.

If I followed their lead between now and Christmas Eve, I’d be Santa full time, booming out a baritone “Ho! Ho! Ho!” to students on exam day, yelling encouragement to Rudolph when accelerating my Neon down the street and giving out candy canes to stray passers-by.

However, with only one suit, I’m afraid I might start to smell a little ripe before Christmas, like a fruitcake gone horribly bad. And playing Santa without a suit is like playing Tiny Tim without the crutch or Little Ralphie without a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with the compass in the stock. It can’t be done.

Instead, I’m steeping myself in the classics in hopes that the characterizations will rub off. Last weekend, I watched Tim Allen in “The Santa Clause,” a movie about a down-on-his-luck schlep who magically transforms into Santa after his marriage goes sour and he loses custody of his kid. A real upbeat holiday film, that.

Then there is “Miracle on 34th Street,” about a department store Santa who thinks he is the real thing. He ends up in court, trying to prove he’s not insane. Another heartwarming hit.

Maybe I’d have better luck sticking to Santa stories in print. L. Frank Baum, the creator of “The Wizard of Oz,” wrote a novel called “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus,” but I’ve never been able to get past the first couple of chapters. Imagine Santa as delineated by J.R.R. Tolkien after a night of heavy drinking and you’ll get the general drift.

Then there’s Dr. Seuss’ classic “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” about another crazed character who gets his Santa fix by dressing up as Anti Claus and stealing an entire town’s Christmas. Yeah, sure, he gives it all back and the Whos even invite him to carve the roast beast, but I’m sure that on Dec. 26 they arrest him for multiple B&E’s and throw the book at him. Because they’re white and he’s green, he probably gets choked out for “resisting arrest” or spends the rest of his life as Charles Manson’s cell mate.

Hey, what is it with all these Santa stories and delusional, tragic characters? Is my mother trying to tell me something?

Maybe I should stick with Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” It’s probably the most quoted poem in the English language, which doesn’t say too much for America’s taste in verse. But at least the Santa it presents is of the non-postmodernist, non-ironic, Victorian variety: He’s really St. Nick, and nobody carts him off to the asylum halfway through or threatens legal action when he slips down their chimneys and eats their cookies.

He’s also mostly silent, other than a few shouts to his reindeer. In many ways, this is good news. I don’t have to disguise my voice, learn any lines or, worst of all, offer any extemporaneous comments, like railing against crass consumerism (which Santa represents) or criticizing the military-industrial complex. When I go off script is when I get myself in trouble. Santa as the strong and silent type. That’s the ticket.

As long as I don’t get him confused with Brando and start screaming, “Hey, STELLA!,” halfway through handing out presents, I think I’ll get through this without permanently scarring any children.

Here’s hoping.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Dec. 18, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Media & Movies & Television 04 Dec 2014 10:09 pm

Et tu, Cosby?

A friend asked on Facebook recently if it’s still OK to enjoy Bill Cosby’s albums.

It’s a fair question. While no charges have been filed against the comedian, the accusations by a steadily growing number of women are hard to put aside when watching or listening to his work.

One of Cosby’s bits, “Spanish Fly,” from 1969, is eerily prescient in light of the current scandal. In the routine, from the album “It’s True! It’s True!,” the future Jell-O pitchman and all-American paternal icon relates his experiences trying to secure doses of the legendary aphrodisiac. After all, every neighborhood has its Crazy Mary, a woman who will do just about anything once her drink has been spiked.

Cosby imagines seeing five girls standing alone at a party. “Boy, if I had a whole jug of Spanish fly I’d light that corner up over there,” he muses to shrieks of laughter from his live audience.

What was a fairly innocuous routine by 1960s standards, albeit one reflecting society’s callous disregard for and objectification of women, takes on a more sinister meaning in 2014, when some 15 women have basically accused Cosby of doing exactly what he joked about decades earlier.

Some venues have canceled Cosby’s live shows, NBC and Netflix have dropped deals with him, and the chances that he’ll ever spell “J-E-L-L-O” for money again is about as likely as Republicans embracing President Obama’s immigration reforms.

I pondered this relationship between an artist’s personal life and work a few weeks back while watching “Chinatown” (1974), almost universally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Its director, Roman Polanski, fled overseas after he was arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Since then, he has continued to helm highly acclaimed films and won an Oscar for best director, without ever paying his debt to society. Can audiences still appreciate his movies?

Then there is Phil Spector, famed music producer responsible for a bevy of Top 40 hits and a distinctive Wall of Sound style that reverberated across pop music. Yet he’s also serving a sentence in California State Prison for the second-degree murder of his wife. Does this mean that we can never again enjoy “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes or “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers?

Polanski and Spector are different from Cosby in that they work behind the scenes. Putting out of mind the director, producer or writer of a piece is easier than forgetting its star. This is what makes it harder for some people to watch, say, Mel Gibson, whose anti-semitic vitriol — horrendous as it is — is less egregious than rape or murder but nonetheless has poisoned his career. With an effort of will, I can forget Gibson’s rants while I watch him in “Braveheart” or “Signs,” but only after an initial jolt of remembrance.

Still, this isn’t quite the same as Cosby. Gibson plays characters who obviously aren’t him, speaking lines written by others. Cosby, even when he is playing Dr. Cliff Huxtable, is really playing an extension of himself — or of his stand-up persona. In a situation where the artist truly is his work, it can be harder to reconcile this friendly, outgoing guy with the kind of person who could repeatedly — and allegedly, remember — take advantage of his reputation and position to rape women.

Absent any definitive proof that would stand up in court, fans will always have to deal with doubt when it comes to Cosby. Laughing through such uncertainty is a personal decision, neither right or wrong.

One thing’s for sure, however: The “Spanish Fly” piece isn’t funny any longer. We might question why it ever was.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Dec. 4, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Movies 31 Oct 2014 11:21 pm

Ebola entertainments

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It wouldn’t surprise me to see a few more hazmat suits and protective-gear costumes among trick-or-treaters this year, and that’s a positive sign.

Some people find it crass to parley the Ebola virus into Halloween dress-ups, but I’m not one of them. It’s uniquely American to spit in the eye of death, so a little gallows humor in reaction to wall-to-wall Ebola coverage is not only natural, but healthy. Truth be told, your odds of being struck by a bus — or even a comet — are better than your chances of contracting Ebola, which isn’t airborne (not yet, some pundits proclaim) and is barely even in the United States, so the only thing holding Americans back from an orgy of Ebola-themed costuming is that the fear isn’t real enough.

Meanwhile, Americans should also be checking out the post-apocrypha landscape in stories and cinema. Here’s my pick of the best disease-driven entertainment for your Halloween pleasure.

“The Stand” (1978) — Some readers may find the scariest part of this novel is its size. A brick at more than 1,100 pages, Stephen King goes all Book of Revelation in the second half as survivors of a worldwide plague must decide to join the forces of good or evil. But the first half is all about Captain Trips, a flu-like disease that wipes out most of the world’s population after woebegone military and health care officials fail to contain it.

“Contagion” (2011) — A great ensemble film by Steven Soderbergh looks at another end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (but I don’t feel fine) scenario involving a pandemic. Unlike King, Soderberg keeps the Devil at bay, but society’s flubs are scary enough. I watched this for the first time with my wife, who was nursing a wicked cold and sneezing constantly. It made the movie all the more unnerving.

“The Hot Zone” (1994) — Richard Preston made a name for himself with this nonfiction account of Ebola and several other deadly viruses. I read it on vacation in a copy that I’d bought secondhand; Preston’s description of how various virulences spread made me no longer want to touch the book or any public doorknobs, toilet seats, or restaurant tables. Creepy.

“I Am Legend” (1954) — Skip the so-so movie with Will Smith from a few years back and go straight to the source, Richard Matheson’s novella of the same name. Granted, the plague that’s being spread is vampirism, which isn’t exactly Ebola, but the results are the same: the crumbling of civilization. If you must see a filmed version, 1964’s “Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price is a winner, while 1971’s “Omega Man” adaptation is a hippie-dippie look at a funky future.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) — Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers” is the basis for this McCarthy-era tale of paranoia. Whom can you trust when aliens that look just like your family and friends come a-knockin’? Answer: Nobody. These aliens are as invisible as Ebola and 10 times as deadly.

“Fever Dream” (1959) — This short story by Ray Bradbury is the quintessential infectious-disease tale. A sick little boy feels that his body is being calcified from the inside out, but the doctor finds nothing wrong except a slight fever. First his legs, then his arms, then his head are subsumed, leaving behind something that only looks human. I often read this aloud to my students on Halloween because it’s so effective and affecting.

I’m sure I’ve left out some good stories about bad viruses, including tons of zombie books, movies and TV shows, so send suggestions via one of the methods below. In the meantime, wash your hands frequently, keep them away from your eyes and nose, stay home if you’re feverish, and happy Halloween.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschilllig on Twitter

Comic books & Movies 11 Apr 2014 08:38 pm

Shake it like a Paramount picture

I saw the new Captain America movie last weekend.

It’s big and loud and everything you’d want in a summer popcorn movie subtitled “The Winter Soldier” that comes out after winter and more than two months before summer. It’s subtle and thoughtful in places, but you’re always just a few minutes away from an explosion, if that sort of thing is important to you.

Twenty years ago, “Captain America” would have been the kind of movie that Marvel Comics fans could only dream of. Back then, DC had successful Superman and Batman franchises to crow about, but the best that Marvel fans could do was remember the ’70s “Incredible Hulk” TV show where Lou Ferrigno’s green body paint dripped whenever it came into contact with water and some old Spider-Man cartoons that used the same animation over and over.

So I feel like a curmudgeon for mentioning even one little flaw in the new Captain America film, especially because it’s a shortcoming in many other films as well: shaky-camera syndrome.

If you’ve been to the movies at any time since “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999, you’ve likely come into contact with shaky-cam. Cinephiles know the technique as “subjective camera,” meant to replicate queasy, stomach-churning motion, all the better to invest a movie or sequence with a sense of reality.

“Blair Witch” uses it to good effect, although the media was filled with stories about people who claimed to become violently ill from watching jiggling footage of kids running around in the woods. Other memorable shaky-cam productions include “Cloverfield” (about a giant monster) and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (a modern-day spy flick with Matt Damon).

The latter is what made me question shaky-cam. When a filmmaker uses the technique in something like “Blair Witch” or “Cloverfield,” where one or more characters carry handheld cameras and the audience is supposed to be watching “found” footage, it works, albeit nauseatingly. It’s similar to the epistolary technique in literature, where an entire book is made up of one character’s letters or journal entries; or to the stream-of-consciousness technique in some modernist novels that purport to get deep inside a character’s head, usually at the expense of plot.

But when shaky-cam started to invade big-budget movies, I cried foul. Why wouldn’t audiences want to see clearly the meticulous action sequences and stunts in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or the expensive sets and costuming in the first “Hunger Games” film?

Instead of pulling me deeper into movies, shaky-cam now takes me right out. And the more that follow-the-bouncing-frame is overused — in sci-fi and horror and westerns and all over TV, especially in action and adventure shows — the more egregious it becomes.

Used (very) sparingly, shaky-cam still can be effective, but it’s seldom used sparingly. Instead, fans are subjected to entire sequences and sometimes whole films that look as though the camera operator had been attacked by a swarm of killer bees when the director yelled “Action!” and was intent on killing each and every one by swatting them with his lens.

In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” I had hoped to spot some Cleveland backgrounds here and there. Forget that. I was too busy figuring out who was hitting whom in one-second microclips and avoiding motion sickness.

Maybe movie tickets these days should come with complimentary Dramamine. Either that or directions on how to empty your popcorn on the floor and use the empty tub as a barf bag.

And with Spider-Man, the X-Men, Godzilla and many others waiting in the wings, we might need fewer reminders to silence our cellphones and more signs that say, “Fasten your seat belts.” It’s going to be a long, turbulent summer.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published April 10, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Music & Television & education & technology 13 Feb 2014 08:38 am

Stomping out all signs of fun

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If you’re a kid who’s ever been told that texting will rot your brain or pop music is immoral or video games are turning you into a zombie, you need to read “Bad for You.”

If you’re a parent, teacher, minister or some other well-meaning adult who’s ever told kids that texting will rot their brains or pop music is immoral or video games are turning them into zombies, you need to read “Bad for You.”

Subtitled “Exposing the War on Fun,” the book, by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham, looks at popular fads and new technologies throughout history and exposes some depressing similarities in the way some people respond.

For instance, the book quotes one sarcastic critic as saying that, as a result of a popular new form of entertainment, “There is now very little danger that Americans will resort to the vice of thinking.” Is he referring to heavy metal music? Xbox One? The Flappy Bird app? None of the above. Writing in the 1920s, he was expressing concerns over radio and, separately, “incredibly frightful” jazz music.

One by one, Pyle and Cunningham examine hiccups in the social psyche down through the centuries, including printing presses (a pundit in 1494 noted that paper was less permanent than parchment), telephones (which allow children talk to undesirables against their parents’ wishes), Elvis Presley (derided as “deplorable” by that paragon of virtue, Frank Sinatra), Dungeons and Dragons (believed to cause an increased risk of suicide), and Harry Potter books (feared by some to promote witchcraft).

Text-messaging is examined in depth. As a teacher who believed that goofy abbreviations and jargon used in “text speak” would somehow worm their way into students’ more formal writing, I was abashed to learn how wrong I was. According to some researchers, kids who use “textisms” often have a better understanding of spelling and grammar — and larger vocabularies, to boot.

Rather than being corrupted by “IMHO” and “ICYMI” (google ‘em), kids can easily “code switch” between different registers of language — in this case, between informal text messages and more formal school essays.

To which I can only say: OMG.

But it’s not until the end of the book that Pyle and Cunningham really win me over. In a chapter called “Bad for You: Thinking,” they examine American schools. The section covers the history of education in the U.S. and how schools were influenced by the efficiency movement or “factory model” popular during the Industrial Revolution.

One result of this model is the discovery that workers are more productive with periodic breaks, which led to the idea of recess in public schools. Today, however, recess is under fire as a waste of time, eliminated or reduced in 40 percent of American schools to allow children more time to prepare for standardized tests.

Also cut in favor of standardized-test prep is access to the arts, history, and music.

Standardized testing, which measures convergent thinking (the ability to select one correct answer), is practically a relic in today’s high-tech world. What is needed, experts argue, is more emphasis on divergent thinking (the ability to find more than one answer or solution to a problem), something that can be aided by the very activities being trimmed from the school day — including recess.

“Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun” is written for kids but can be just as rewarding for adults. A word of warning: It’s laid out like a comic book, another form of fun that has come under fire in the past. In the first chapter, the authors look at the hysteria over comic books in the 1940s and ’50s, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee was convened to study their insidious effects and comics were burned by concerned parents.

As a comics-obsessed kid in grade school, I can remember teachers who wrinkled their noses at my preferred choice of literature, immune to my belief, even then, that comics were teaching me more vocabulary and reading skills than anything in their classrooms.

I don’t remember if my teachers ever told me that comics were rotting my brain, immoral, or turning me into a zombie. If they did, I wish that Pyle and Cunningham’s “Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun!” had been around to set them straight.

Chris Schillig, who is still a self-diagnosed comic-book addict, can be reached at

chris.schillig@yahoo or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Feb. 13, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Television 24 Jan 2014 09:36 am

Forgotten figures of pop

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Did you know there was once a fourth Rice Krispies elf?

His name was Pow! (exclamation point mandatory) and he joined Snap! Crackle! and Pop! for two television commercials in the 1950s. In a recent article for Smithsonian.com, a Kellogg’s spokesman explains to writer K. Annabelle Smith that Pow! was never intended to be an ongoing character, but rather a guest-elf of sorts.

This minor deity in the animated pitchmen pantheon got me thinking about other erased or marginal characters in long-running concerns, whether they were TV shows or comic books or commercials.

Does anybody remember:

Castor Oyl — brother to Olive, the string-beaned girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor. When most of us think of Popeye, we imagine the classic cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s. But Popeye made his first appearance in the “Thimble Theatre” comic strip in 1929, after the strip had been in existence for 10 years with Castor as the main character.

These days, Castor is a pop-culture relic, although he did have a role in the “Popeye” movie starring Robin Williams and, more recently, appeared in new Popeye comic book adventures. Yet I doubt most people could identify him today. (Visit my blog, http://blogs.dixcdn.com/leftofcybercenter/ for a visual.)

John Doggett and Monica Reyes — These two characters replaced FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on seasons eight and nine of “The X-Files,” also known as “X-Files: The Seasons Nobody Talks About.” Played by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish, respectively, Doggett and Reyes faded into obscurity when Duchovny and Anderson returned for the series’ swan song and two successful films. Patrick’s biggest claim to cinematic fame remains his portrayal of the T-1000 Terminator that bedeviled Ah-nold in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

Mycroft Holmes — the older, smarter, fatter and lazier brother of Sherlock Holmes. Writer Arthur Conan Doyle used or mentioned him only a handful of times in four novels and 56 short stories about the famous detective. He is said to exert great influence over decisions of state, but otherwise just sits around the Diogenes Club, smoking and eating. There are worse ways to live, I suppose.

Chuck Cunningham — Ritchie’s older brother on “Happy Days.” At some point in the second season, he was written out of the series, never to return, and the Cunninghams went from having three kids to only two. His disappearance has even inspired a term, “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome,” used for any characters unceremoniously erased from continuity.

Uncle O’Grimacey — In the world of McDonald’s advertising, O’Grimacey is the uncle of Grimace, the purple, milkshake-loving companion of Ronald. Unlike his nephew, O’Grimacey is green, befitting his role as head huckster for Shamrock Shakes. He last appeared in the mid-1980s and has presumably retired to a small cottage in Ireland.

An Internet search for “McDonald’s characters” will reveal dozens of oddities, such as the Griddler, Iam Hungry and CosMc, an alien who spoke in surfer lingo. I believe all the McDonald’s characters, with the exception of the head clown, have been quietly phased out, relics of a more innocent time when it was acceptable to use cartoon characters to coax children to eat fattening, processed foods.

Word has it the McDonaldland gang rode off into the sunset on the back of Joe Camel, guided by the Budweiser frogs.

Let’s hope they all say hello to Pop!, Chuck, Castor and all the other retirees in the Forgotten Hallows Retirement Center out in Obscuria, Oregon.

Send any other obscure

pop-culture characters to

chris.schillig@yahoo.com or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Jan. 23, 2014, in The Alliance Review.


Books & Commentary & Movies 08 Nov 2013 01:31 pm

Disturbing fiction, disturbing fact

In every regard, “Ender’s Game,” which was number one at the box office last week, looks like a movie I would enjoy.

It’s based on a novel I admire, in a genre I like, with an actor, Harrison Ford, whose pop-culture credentials (Han Solo and Indiana Jones) are impeccable. Yet I doubt I will ever see it.

“Ender’s Game” tells the story about a future Earth, imperiled by a warlike, alien species. The government selects children to train for an anticipated attack by the enemy. One of humanity’s best and brightest is young Ender Wiggins, a gifted strategist who plays a key role in the coming battle. The book has smart things to say about giftedness in children and the atrocities of war.

When I first read the novel about 20 years ago, I liked it well enough to seek out a collection of Orson Scott Card’s short fiction, which includes the stories “Lost Boys,” with a great surprise ending, and “Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory,” one of the most disturbing pieces I’ve ever read. (That’s a compliment.)

But since that time, equally disturbing information about Card has come to light. He is a homophobe in the worst sense of the word, one who loudly and proudly promotes an agenda rooted in a deeply conservative Mormonism.

Salon.com, which has made a hobby of sorts writing about the author, notes some of his more egregious comments, including a belief that homosexuality is rooted in childhood molestation, that sodomy laws should remain on the books to punish gays for their crimes, and that it would be morally defensible for the public to rise up and overthrow a government that redefines marriage in any way other than between a man and a woman.

“Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down,” Card wrote in 2008.

It’s been somewhat amusing to watch the studio, director and actors put space between their work on the film and Card’s conservative views. They talk about how great the book is, and how a work shouldn’t be judged by a writer’s political statements.

Card himself has somewhat modified his stance, especially after the tide of public and political opinion turned against him; in July, he asked marriage-equality supporters to show him tolerance and not to boycott the film.

I’m not boycotting “Ender’s Game” or asking anybody else to do that either. Film is a collaborative medium, where hundreds of talented people in front of and behind the cameras labor to create a finished product. To tar all those folks with Card’s intolerant brush is foolish.

Nor am I naive enough to believe that my $9 (or whatever a ticket goes for these days) is going to make or break Card, who is not receiving a share in the box office gross, or anybody else associated with the movie.

No, I’m not going to the movie because I know that I wouldn’t enjoy the experience, that in the back of my mind I would be thinking of Card’s comments and how venomous I find them to be.

People sometimes ask why a straight male is so passionate about the issue of gay rights, sometimes insinuating that maybe I’m not so straight.

My answer is simple and a little corny: I believe people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This means all people, regardless of race, religious affiliation (or lack thereof) and sexual orientation.

Gay rights is the civil rights issue of our era, I’m convinced. Decades from now, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will ask us where we were and what we believed during these tempestuous times. I’m comfortable with the answer I’ll provide.

But I also believe we have the right to speak our minds, out loud and on paper, and I defend Card’s right to do exactly that. He has the courage of his convictions.

When a person is an entertainer, it can be a liability to share opinions. Readers sometimes say that my humorous writing is not so humorous now that they know my leftist politics.

I understand that, because it would be challenging for me to read or re-read another Orson Scott Card book knowing his beliefs as I do now. More than any other art form, a novel is like climbing inside the head of the author and spending an extended amount of time in his company.

I don’t want to be in Card’s company anymore, and likely will never be able to square his brilliantly imagined fiction with his intolerance. Maybe that’s a failure of my imagination.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published in The Alliance Review on Nov. 7, 2013

Books & Commentary & Family life & Movies 31 Oct 2013 07:02 am

Shaky traditions of Halloween

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Halloween is one holiday where my traditions aren’t firmly established.

For previous Beggars’ Nights, I’ve decorated the house with pumpkins and with abandon, but not this year. The spirits are willing, but the flesh is weak. Or lazy, to be more exact.

Nor will I be hiding beneath a pile of leaves in the front yard, waiting to scare the bejesus out of passing princesses or cowboys. The last time I seriously contemplated this was the same year I herniated a disc in my neck, putting a literal crimp in my plans.

Since then, I’ve erred on the side of caution and left the scares to younger folks, like a family in the neighborhood who erected a mock graveyard, complete with a seated figure of Death that gave me a good jolt one dark morning when I saw it from the corner of my eye.

On Halloweens past, I’ve run marathons of classic Universal Studios horror movies (”Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Bride of Frankenstein” and their ilk). Sadly, the monsters have to stay in cold storage this season, brought low by my poor time management.

The best I’ve done this year is a collection of “scary snippets,” excerpts from classic fright films that I show to my Advanced Placement class. They then analyze, in writing, the elements that make each clip effective. (Yeah, I know, an English teacher can drain fun from an assignment quicker than a vampire drains blood.)

Most years, my wife and I hand out candy on Halloween. But sometimes, like this year, our schedules won’t permit it.

When that’s happened in the past, I’ve put a bowl of candy on the front porch under the watchful gaze of a life-sized Creature from the Black Lagoon cardboard cutout, along with a sign that reads, “Honor System: Take One Piece.”

Like Montresor, the mad narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” I know enough about human nature to realize that a handful of hungry ghouls gets the biggest portion of the Schillig loot.

Montresor needs an empty house to commit murder, so he orders his servants not to leave the premises while he’s gone on business. It is an edict sufficient, he knows, “to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as (his) back was turned.”

My motives haven’t been as sinister, but the results are likely similar: People doing the exact opposite of what they’re asked.

This year, though, my wife is absconding with the candy for a kids’ party elsewhere, so the Creature will stay in the attic and no porch light will blaze. I guess I’ve become the Halloween grinch.

One tradition, however, is immutable: my annual reading of “The Hallo-Wiener” by Dav — no “e” — Pilkey, creator of the Captain Underpants series.

The story of Oscar, a wiener dog whose mom dresses him as a frankfurter for Halloween, eliciting howls of laughter from his canine pals, was a perpetual hit with my daughter when she was younger, so much so that we kept reading it together long after we’d both memorized all the words and long after most dads stop reading to their kids.

A few years ago, I recorded myself narrating it and mailed a CD and a copy of the book to her at college. Now that she’s in grad school and just as busy as her old man — cue “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin — we often enjoy the book asynchronously. This is a fancy word thrown around online education circles that means “not at the same time.”

This year, though, maybe I’ll surprise her by phone, and we can enjoy Oscar’s travails simultaneously, through the magic of Ma Bell. Or Ma iPhone.

Because any book that features lines like “Farewell, my little Vienna sausage!” and “Help! We’re being attacked by a giant frankfurter!” is too good to be left on the shelf.

Happy Halloween. May all your frights be pleasant ones.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

Originally published Oct. 31, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Family life & Movies 12 Sep 2013 11:38 pm

Marital movie bliss

What is the secret of a successful marriage?

If you said whiskey and a bullet to bite down on, go to the back of the line. You’ll soon be joined by weepy-eyed men who answered “man cave,” “separate houses” and “dead mothers-in-law.”

Stephen King had a character in one of his books say that silence is the secret. The idea of talking about problems — advocated by folks like Dr. Phil, who deals with dueling partners in one-hour increments before sending them back home with a copy of his latest self-help book with which to strike each other over the head — usually leads to one or both parties saying the wrong thing, which risks further aggravation and estrangement. “Estrangement,” as defined by Merriam-Webster’s, is “the state or condition of sleeping on the couch or in garage for two or more nights simultaneously.”

If you keep quiet, you’ll never say the wrong thing, except in those situations where silence is exactly the wrong thing to say. (If you don’t understand that last line, you’ve never been married.)

I’ve found that compromise — defined by some cynics as a situation where both parties lose — is the best state of affairs for matrimonial bliss. My wife agrees, as long as she always wins the compromise.

We compromise a lot, especially when it comes to movie selection. In the past, we’ve had an agreement where she picks movies on any day of the week that ends with “y.” This is because on our second date — back in the time before surround sound and stadium seating, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth — I took her to see “Texas Chainsaw Massacre III,” which I find as life-affirming and beautiful as some people find “The Sound of Music.” She’s never let me forget it.

Because of this decades-old lapse in taste, I usually must wait until the movies I want to see come out on home video, where she sleeps or texts through them on the couch.

Lately, however, in a rare admission of compromise on her part, we’ve been taking turns, which is how I saw “Man of Steel,” “Pacific Rim” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness” in theaters over the summer.

Her recent choices include “The Heat,” “We’re the Millers” and “The Internship,” all of which were fairly good, except for “The Internship,” which was so bad I barely remember seeing it. This rare admission of enjoyment is how these things go in our marriage. If I say I liked one of her choices, it suddenly becomes one of my choices, meaning she gets to pick the next one. I apply the same reasoning to the few selections of mine that she admits are bearable, which aren’t many.

(For a brief time, I refused to see any of her selections after she tricked me into watching “Magic Mike,” a movie about male strippers. I detailed that little imbroglio in a column last year. Email me if you’d like a refresher copy — of the column, not “Magic Mike.”)

Oddly enough, just as some longtime couples start to resemble one another, our tastes in movies are starting to merge. How else to explain that “Mud,” a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, one of my wife’s favorite actors (especially when he appears without a shirt, which seems to be a contractual requirement), was my choice, while “White House Down,” a big, dumb action flick starring Channing Tatum about terrorists blowing up the White House and the Capitol building, was hers. (And yes, both McConaughey and Tatum were in “Magic Mike,” which is just rank coincidence.)

Could we be heading toward a time when she selects titles like “Nightmare on Elm Street Part XXVII” and I’m agitating for “Matilda” or “Confessions of a Shopaholic”?

Doubtful. She drew a line in the sand and said no to “The Lone Ranger” this summer, and she’s already said that I’ll be watching “Thor: The Dark World” by my lonesome. The only compromise in these cases will be whether going to the movies solo counts as my “turn,” meaning she gets to pick the next one.

I think I know the answer, and while I’d like to argue the case, in this situation, again, Stephen King is right and Dr. Phil is wrong.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

twitter.com/cschillig

Originally published Sept.12, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Media & Movies 22 Aug 2013 06:12 pm

Big and tall, short and small

godzilla1954c

Size matters in pop culture. Or maybe it just matters to me.

Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by stories that hinge on size differentials. People who shrink, monsters who dwarf skyscrapers, bugs the size of Cadillacs — give me any or all of the above and the odds that I will like the book, movie, poem, radio drama or synchronized swimming event where they appear, especially if the big things are juxtaposed against smaller ones.

Most kids like monsters, I think, but I always preferred the really tall ones. The Frankenstein monster is more appealing than Dracula because Boris Karloff, who plays the monster, is taller than Bela Lugosi, who plays the vampire. (Plus, Lugosi has that really thick accent and walks like he’s stuck in jelly. “I vaaaant to succck your bluuuud,” he says, inching along at the speed of your average tortoise, while toddlers crawl past and old men in wheelchairs lap him. Not much fear factor there.)

We all root for the underdog, which is why we all cheer for David and his slingshot against Goliath, and why “Rocky” kept spawning sequels until the sight of Sylvester Stallone without his shirt became too grotesque for even the most stalwart of moviegoers.

I just take the term “underdog” more literally than most, wanting to see the conflict reflected in extra inches, feet and yards. After all, who could be more underdog-like than people fighting giants, or characters shrinking to the size of dandelions and trying to avoid a size 10 shoe?

As a last hurrah to the carefree days of summer, when long afternoons afford time to ponder such trifles as the greatest stories about things that are bigger or smaller than normal, here are a few of my favorites:

Jack and the Beanstalk — The story that started it all for me. Little boy, magic beans, giant vegetation, big guys who live in the clouds, even — if memory serves — a singing harp. And you can’t top the suspense of Jack chopping down the beanstalk as the giant descends, screaming “Fee Fie Fo Fum!”

King Kong — Maybe my favorite movie — and movie monster — of all time. Big ape, big dinosaurs, little people running and screaming in terror. What’s not to like?

Godzilla — Everything from King Kong applies, but with the addition of nuclear weapons and radioactive breath. Plus, Godzilla has been better translated into other mediums than Kong. The 1970s Marvel Comics version is still my favorite comic-book series of all time. ‘Nuff said.

The Shrinking Man — Filmed as “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” this novel by the late, great Richard Matheson has the main character exposed to a mysterious mist that slowly reduces him in size, until he is living in his daughter’s dollhouse and fighting off a domesticated cat that is, proportionally, the size of a double-decker bus. If you’ve ever fantasized about shrinking to thimble size and dueling spiders in the basement (and who hasn’t?) this is the book/movie for you.

Jurassic Park — Again, you’ve got dinosaurs, plus the theme of humankind’s na├»ve belief that it can trump the natural order and Jeff Goldblum (in the movie) nattering on about chaos theory while an angry T. rex uses his colleagues as toothpicks. The sequels aren’t worth a tinker’s damn — or a tinker’s dam, depending on which etymological story you believe — but they do have big dinosaurs vs. little people, so they can’t be all bad.

(I really wanted to like Michael Crichton’s “Micro,” by the way, because he’s the author of “Jurassic Park” and it’s about shrinking people to microscopic size, but I couldn’t get into it. Too much pseudoscience, not enough screaming people. It’s no good if people don’t run around and scream.)

I could rattle off a whole slew of pop-culture references that fit the bill. Here are a few: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gorgo, Reptilicus, Ant-Man, the Atom, Tarantula! (a movie so exciting that the exclamation point is part of the title), Tom Thumb, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Johnny Socko, Ultraman, munchkins, Yoda, Tom and Jerry, and Fantastic Voyage.

Pacific Rim — the best movie almost nobody saw this summer. Giant creatures crawling from a hole ripped in the space-time continuum in the Pacific Ocean? Check. Global chaos as said monsters attack? Check. Humans piloting giant robots in a last-ditch effort to save the world? Check. One of the coolest sci-fi/fantasy films since the original Star Wars? Check and mate.

So there you have it — incontrovertible evidence that the bigger they are, they harder we fall for them. Or that I do, anyway.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

twitter.com/cschillig

Originally published Aug. 22, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

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