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.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published in The Alliance Review on Nov. 7, 2013
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.
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.
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 naïve 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.
Originally published Aug. 22, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
A ferocious dinosaur lays siege to a roller coaster on Coney Island. The fearsome kraken rises from the sea to claim its latest victim. A hapless sailor and his crew battle sword-wielding skeletons.
These movie moments captivated me as a child. Each time a Ray Harryhausen monster took center stage, I would move the rabbit-ear antenna on the old TV in the basement to improve the picture. Even through a haze of static and commercial interruptions, the illusion held sway. I believed.
Harryhausen, the special-effects maestro who died earlier this month at the age of 92, breathed life into all of the above and many more, a pantheon of monsters hatched from mythology and his own fervid imagination.
Without a doubt, Harryhausen’s special effects were the best part of many films with which he was involved. “Jason and the Argonauts,” for example, is a largely tepid affair, a paint-by-numbers, sword-and-sandal epic about the legendary titular explorer’s attempts to find the Golden Fleece and become king of Thessaly. The acting is wooden and the plot virtually nonexistent.
But every 20 minutes or so, the movie blazes to life when a Harryhausen creation saunters into frame: Talos, the bronze giant, voted the second greatest movie monster of all time (behind King Kong); the Hydra, fierce creature with the head of seven snakes; and, of course, a battalion of skeletons, bones clicking and clacking as they attack Jason and his men.
Harryhausen’s effects are cinematic magic at its finest. Using miniature models, he would shoot one frame of film, stop the camera, move the model infinitesimally, and then shoot the next frame, laboriously building the illusion of movement.
Considering that one second of film contains 24 frames, it would take days to yield only a few seconds of usable film, painstaking labor that would be combined later with live-action footage using reverse projection and other techniques. Working within constraints of time and money (there was never enough of either), the man created marvels.
Harryhausen’s biggest influence was the aforementioned “King Kong,” a movie that both he and fantasy author Ray Bradbury (who died last year) saw at impressionable ages. In the book “Kong Unbound,” Harryhausen dubbed it “the greatest fantasy film ever made.” He later would learn its secrets at the feet of stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien, the man who animated “Kong.” Harryhausen worked with O’Brien on the original “Mighty Joe Young,” another movie about a large ape whisked away to civilization.
Harryhausen went on to create special effects for many Hollywood productions, including “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “It Came from Beneath the Sea,” “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.” “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” which climaxes with the monster stomping Coney Island, was based on a story by Bradbury and pays homage to the two men’s love of giant monsters.
Harryhausen’s last hurrah was 1981’s “Clash of the Titans,” another romp through mythology. By then, the heyday of stop-motion animation had passed, replaced by a variation called “go motion” that relied on a computer to move the scale models.
“Go motion” itself would have a short shelf life, supplanted by full computer animation 10 years later in “Jurassic Park.” Today, stop-motion, when it is used at all, is done to invoke nostalgia.
Yet there is still much to recommend the earlier method. The herky-jerky look of stop-motion — with puppets manipulated by hand, inflating and deflating bladders hidden inside to simulate breathing — infuses a sense of personality in the finished effect that is sometimes lacking in more seamless computer animation.
Just as King Kong reflects the scrappy nature of O’Brien, the many creatures animated by Harryhausen reflect what I imagine to be his ferocious desire to overwhelm the audience, to make them gasp or smile or shriek.
And, above all, to make them believe.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published May 16, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
By the time you read this, Mount Union Theatre will almost certainly be history.
The digital reader board was the first to go, scooped out of the original marquee and relocated to West State Street, where it still provides news about speakers and events on campus. Next was the box office, removed to parts unknown. When I drove by last week, the front doors were gone and a dump truck had been backed inside the front lobby.
I almost parked and made an illegal sortie inside to take one more look at the building and try to catch a faint whiff of buttery popcorn or an echo of Clark Gable telling Vivien Leigh that frankly, my dear, he didn’t give a damn. Maybe tomorrow, I thought, but the next day a fence had been erected — probably because a lot of other drivers had the same attack of nostalgia — and that was that.
Like many people in Alliance, I have fond memories of Mount Union Theatre. I first saw “Star Wars” there back in the 1970s, igniting a passion that still burns to this day. It’s the theater where I watched my first R-rated film, “Dracula” starring Frank Langella, a concession by my parents because of my love of monster movies and vampires.
When the theater reopened in the early ’80s after a few years of dormancy, I was a freshman in high school, and my Friday- and Saturday-night dance card was filled with revivals of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Altered States,” “A Man for All Seasons,” one or more of the “Rocky” films, and many more.
In those days, at the cusp of the home video era, the theater was a buzzing, vibrant destination, an inexpensive way to enjoyably fill a few hours. Movies there were second-run, but still new enough that they hadn’t been released onto VHS, so demand was high.
Mount Union Theatre was the place where I almost took my first date, except I was too afraid to ask her and ended up going with a friend instead. It’s the place where my daughter saw her first movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” and where we would take her to see many more, including practically the entire Disney animated catalog. It’s the place where my wife and I both fell asleep during the first Harry Potter film, when we realized the franchise was not for us.
The venue itself, to be honest, was no great shakes. The seats were uncomfortable, the screen was small in comparison to modern movie houses, and the sound system left something to be desired. When I was a kid, I remember the Powers That Be announcing the closing of the snack bar in the second half of the movie, blaring out a last call for popcorn and sodas right overtop the film.
But there was something about Mount Union Theatre that transcended its flaws. Maybe it was the well-chosen Pink Panther and Bugs Bunny shorts before the main feature, or the text-heavy descriptions of each movie in the newspaper ads that gave it a more historic slant, or the fact that you could — and did — run into friends and neighbors willing to share a common experience for a few hours in the same dark room.
By the early 2000s, attendance on Friday and Saturday nights had slowed to a trickle — too many other entertainment options and a much smaller window between theatrical and home video release took a toll on ticket sales.
The last movie I saw there was, appropriately enough, “King Kong,” my all-time favorite, in July 2004. Only a few dozen people were in attendance. Two years later, college brass brought the curtain down on weekend movies, and since then the building has been used only occasionally. My last visit, although I didn’t know it at the time, was to hear One Book One Community author Chitra Divakaruni speak about her novel, “One Amazing Thing,” last year. The theater looked pretty shabby then, a poor cousin to the more opulent Palace in downtown Canton. If Mount Union had more aesthetic appeal than a saltine cracker box, maybe more people would have campaigned to keep it.
But let’s face it: Nostalgia, however enjoyable, isn’t a viable long-term financial strategy, for a university or for individuals. The college and the community will be better served by a new science facility than by another vacant building, no matter how beloved.
Meanwhile, the one part of the theater that will survive the wrecking ball (besides the digital marquee) are the memories of so many evenings spent in the dark, staring at the silver screen and willingly surrendering their troubles for a few hours.
Like Bogie told Bergman, we’ll always have Paris. And Alliance-area movie fans will always have memories of Mount Union Theatre, even after the building itself has faded to black.
@cschillig on Twitter
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Boss: Santa, could I see you in my office for a minute?
Santa: Certainly, but I hope not for too long. It’s Dec. 27 and I’m exhausted from flying around the world and leaving presents for all good boys and girls. I’m ready for a long winter’s nap … and football.
Boss: That’s what I’d like to talk to you about.
Santa: Football? Hey, I know gambling on the workshop floor is prohibited. That Steelers/Browns thing a few weeks back was just a friendly wager between me and Sparkles the Elf. Won’t happen again.
Boss: It’s not that. See, it’s about your position here.
Boss: Yes. The board and I have been looking at our cash flow over the past quarter and weighing it against some rather hefty capital expenditures …
Santa: I’d hardly call some carrots for the reindeer and decent housing for the elves “hefty capital expenditures.”
Boss: From your perspective, perhaps. From ours, we barely made 3 percent more profit than last year, and that gets the stockholders jumpy. And when the stockholders get jumpy, the board gets jumpy. So …
Santa: You’re letting me go?
Boss: Letting you go? Goodness, no. You and your image are huge assets to the company. Why, in merchandising alone, that red hat, white beard and “Ho! Ho! Ho!” make us billions. See, Nick … I can call you Nick, can’t I?
Santa: I suppose.
Boss: Nick, we just plain can’t afford to have you working only one day a year.
Santa: One day a year? But what about all the mall appearances? And a shopping season that starts in October? I’ve worked the last three months without a single day off and with no extra pay.
Boss: Well, have we required that from you, Nick?
Santa: No, not exactly. I mean … it comes with the territory, I guess.
Boss: Exactly. Now about these changes: Effective immediately, you will also double as Father Time on New Year’s Eve.
Santa: But that’s Bob’s job!
Boss: Bob has been … let go.
Santa: You fired him?
Boss: No, we … right-sized him. Now, he weighs less than you, but with a little squeezing, his 2012 sash should just about fit.
Santa: Hrrrmph. Why not put me in the Baby New Year role while you’re at it?
Boss: Some on the board wanted to do exactly that, but the diaper’s too small. And while we’re at it, you’ll also be playing the role of Uncle Sam on the Fourth of July. Weight is a definite issue there, and since we subcontracted this job through the U.S. Department of Defense, we’ll need you to shed, say, 200 pounds between now and June.
Santa: But, but …
Boss: I know, I know … your image as a jolly old elf will be irreparably harmed if you stay thin. The good news is that between July 5 and July 25 — Christmas in July, you know — you’ll be mandated to put the weight back on.
Santa: Now just you wait a minute! I have rights too, you know? What about my contract? Santa’s a team player and all, but this is going too far!
Boss: Oh, you think so? Well, pursuant to Santa Claus Clause 102.7 — the so-called Insanity Clause* — the corporation has the right to modify your contract at any time, with no advance notice, and no input from you!
Santa: But … but … how can this be? I’ve always been a good employee! I’ve let millions of little kids sit on my knee and rub their sticky fingers through my beard! I’ve stuffed myself down chimney after chimney and never complained when the walls were stuffed with asbestos.
I’ve ruined my health eating dozens of sugar cookies left beside glasses of milk! I’ve even smoked that ridiculous pipe in defiance of the surgeon general’s warnings! How can you do this to me?
Boss: It’s easy, Santa. See, the company has reorganized and moved its home offices to Michigan. Merry Christmas, at-will employee! Now, let’s talk about Mrs. Claus, shall we? She’s been quite the drain on our self-funded health care plan this year …
@cschillig on Twitter
* Thanks to the Marx Brothers for this.
It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
— Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein”
The ghastly patchwork monster who haunts so many dreams is the inspired creation of 18-year-old Mary Shelley, who first published “Frankenstein” anonymously almost 200 years ago.
Little did she know that she was setting into motion a literary phenomenon that would serve as catalyst for countless imitations, adaptations and parodies in mediums known and unknown in her lifetime: stage plays and comic strips, musicals and models, television comedies and toys.
And, of course, movies. Lots and lots of movies, two of which will be shown as part of the Turner Classic Movies Event Series on Wednesday at Cinemark Tinseltown.
“‘Frankenstein’ has remained in print since 1818 because it is both a Gothic novel, which has never gone out of style, and because it is a novel of ideas that have become ever more relevant,” said David Thiele, assistant professor of English at the University of Mount Union. “It has the Gothic thrill of violating taboos and the charisma of a Satanic antihero in Dr. Frankenstein. It also has anxieties about the Scientific Revolution at its heart, anxieties about altering the natural order.”
Hollywood picked up on these thrills and anxieties early.
By the time Universal Studios filmed “Frankenstein” in 1931, the novel had already been adapted for the screen by no less a luminary than Thomas Edison, whose studio produced a silent version 21 years earlier.
Universal’s interpretation, however, under the control of visionary and eccentric director James Whale, established the benchmark for all future comparisons.
The adaptation keeps the basic kernel of Shelley’s tale, but adds plenty of ghastly flourishes. Young scientist Henry Frankenstein (played by Colin Clive) sequesters himself away from his loving fiancée (Mae Clarke) and university mentor (Edward Van Sloan) to conduct experiments of a most unethical — not to mention ghoulish — variety.
Not present in the original but prominent in the film are the hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (Dwight Frye), and a mountaintop laboratory that is the site of Victor’s greatest triumph — and failure.
The centerpiece of Universal’s Frankenstein is, of course, the Monster itself. Played to perfection by English actor Boris Karloff, the creature never utters a line, yet still evokes both sympathy and horror as a creature stitched together from graveyard parts.
Nearly hidden beneath heavy makeup and prosthetics designed by Jack Pierce, Karloff lets his eyes do the emoting. By the film’s final reel, when villagers set a windmill ablaze in an attempt to kill the creature, audiences feel a mingled sense of relief that he is gone and outrage that his creator, who abandoned him, finds a happier ending than he deserves.
The original “Frankenstein” was such a success that Universal went back to the well for a second drink, a decision far less automatic in 1935 than in Hollywood’s later, sequel-happy years.
“The Bride of Frankenstein” reunites Whale and most of the original cast for a bigger-budgeted production. In the second edition of “Universal Horrors,” the definitive account of the studio’s horror years, authors Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas note that Karloff was saddled with 62 pounds of costume and makeup for his encore performance as the creature.
At least he gets several lines of dialogue, which would be parodied decades later in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”
Elsa Lanchester secures brief but pivotal roles in the sequel. She plays author Shelley in an opening prologue and, later, the titular Bride herself. Lanchester’s teased-up hair, herky-jerky movements and alley-cat hissing are highlights of a film that many critics believe outshines the first.
In the years that followed, the Frankenstein monster cheated death time and again to return in sequels that were never the equal of Universal’s first two films. Karloff would play the creature only once more, in 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein,” although he would appear as an evil scientist in “House of Frankenstein” (1944) and, years later, as the grandson of the original Frankenstein — the scientist, not the monster — in “Frankenstein 1970,” confusingly released in 1958.
Fans of classic horror who want to meet the great granddaddy of modern-day fright franchise stars such as Michael Myers (“Halloween”), Freddy Krueger (“Nightmare on Elm Street”) and Jason (“Friday the 13th”) have an opportunity to see both “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” on the big screen at Cinemark Tinseltown in North Canton in a unique double feature at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesday. Along with both films, the NCM/Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies and Universal-sponsored showings will feature a video introduction by TCM historian Robert Osborne.
For more information or to purchase tickets, see cinemark.com or fathomevents. com.
Originally published Oct. 17, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
Fewer than 24 hours after the tragic death of 12 people at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., the northeast Ohio theater where I watched the movie was still sold out, but the audience was subdued, reflective, cautious.
I almost stayed home out of respect for those who had died and — I’ll be honest — out of fear. I wasn’t so much worried about a repeat in violence, but rather that the very act of going to the movies would be changed irrevocably, the playful anticipation when the house lights dim forevermore replaced with a feeling of dread.
And the atmosphere was changed. Police officers patrolled the front lobby. Extra employees were on hand inside the theater. Before the movie began, people carried on whispered conversations, retreated into their phones, or just sat quietly. Nobody joked. Few smiled. The movie elicited only tiny ripples of applause, not the thunderous ovation one might have expected from the concluding chapter of one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises.
I found myself considering the height of the seats in front of me, wondering how everybody in the row could possibly take shelter behind them. At one point early in the film, a tall, thin man stood and made his way toward the exit. Was I the only person to find sinister intent in an innocent popcorn or restroom run?
These are thoughts I never had in a theater before. The “me” who just a week earlier sat in the same seat and watched another film without marking the location of the exits and pondering the mental well-being of the people around me seemed hopelessly naive.
It’s the same way people felt when flying or entering a public building for the first time after 9/11. Today, it’s impossible to envision a time when luggage and tickets were all that were needed to board a plane — an era before scanners, pat-downs and 3-ounce or smaller bottles in carry-on bags.
Diminished freedom is the price we all pay each time somebody does the unthinkable, like opening fire in a crowded theater. We hold meetings and conduct earnest conversations, draft new guidelines and hope it will keep us safe — or safer — until the next time.
Bodies were still in that auditorium-turned-abattoir in Aurora when at least one theater chain banned masks (AMC), at least one politician turned up the rhetoric about gun control (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg), and at least one reporter asked if the shooter was emulating the villain Bane from the film (NBC’s Matt Lauer).
Other theater chains likely will follow AMC’s lead and tighten guidelines about what can and cannot be worn and brought into a movie theater, if they haven’t already done so. Some may even end midnight showings altogether, but I hope not. Millions of people enjoy the innocent fun of seeing a movie “first,” and the vast majority are decent, law-abiding people.
Nothing in the shooter’s background prevented him from buying guns; over the last few months, he amassed quite a collection. Certainly, the nation would benefit from serious debate over the ease with which people can procure assault rifles, but to use this tragedy to keep guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens would be unfair. (And nobody is more anti-gun than yours truly.)
Finally, it’s hard to say what serves as a trigger for a diseased mind. It’s easy to look at, for instance, the Columbine High School massacre — just 13 miles from Aurora — and pronounce that the two young killers were hopelessly enthralled by violent video games. Yet cause-and-effect is notoriously difficult to establish, as evidenced by the thousands of people who play similar games with no ill effects.
“Batman” — the movies and the comic books — is about the need for good people to stand up against injustice. If the Aurora shooter was fixated instead on the villains in the series, he missed the point entirely, about that and a great many other things.
Society likes the assurance of pat answers, because it gives us something to fix. Tighter security at movies. No costumes. Tougher gun laws. More socially responsible entertainment.
But the ugly truth is that sometimes bad people do bad things with no advance warning, despite our best efforts at prevention and detection. If we close one avenue, they will only find another, and the best we can do is stick together and refuse to let them cow us into submission.
That’s why I went to the movies Friday night, and why I’ll keep going back. To do otherwise lets the bad guys win.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published July 26, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
A woman talked dirty to me the other night.
I woke out of a dead sleep and heard it: A sensuous female voice, saying things a true lady would never say, and saying them loudly. Passionately, even.
Then I realized that my wife had fallen asleep while listening to a book and that one of her earbuds had slipped out and landed on my pillow. The voice wasn’t talking to me, it was narrating a novel, one that sounded like a cross between “Deep Throat” (not the Watergate Deep Throat but the other one) and the restaurant scene in “When Harry Met Sally.”
The book is “Fifty Shades Darker,” the sequel to best-seller “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James, that’s about … that. By “that” I mean that, the indoor sport where most Americans earn a letter, the practice responsible for our very lives, the one used to sell us everything from soft drinks to sports cars, but the act we have trouble talking about with our kids and that we like to leave on the backburner of national dialogue unless it involves celebrities behaving badly.
It’s what Shakespeare calls the beast with two backs, and what “The Newlywed Game” calls making whoopie. Procreation.
I’ve not read “Fifty Shades of Grey” and I probably won’t, even though my spouse was so scarred by the first installment that she could hardly wait to start the second. I imagine if she’s sufficiently traumatized there, the only cure will be book three, “Fifty Leagues Under the Smutty Sea” or whatever it’s called.
I’m not staying away because I fear being scandalized. I’m a high school teacher, for heaven’s sake. After years of absorbing pieces of teenage gossip in the hallways, it takes the moral equivalent of an atomic bomb to shake my foundations.
No, I’m not reading because, based on what my wife tells me, the portion I heard summarizes the entire series so far, and I have better things to do than read the same scene over and over. There’s grass to watch grow, belly button lint to collect and too many other books to read.
I’m also not reading because I likely would spend the entire time pouting that somebody other than me capitalized on such a simple concept. James began her literary career as Snowqueens Icedragon, writing “Twilight” fan fiction online. At some point, she changed her lusty hero and heroine from vampires to regular, albeit kinky, folks and started marketing to the masses.
Now the author is like a McDonald’s sign: billions and billions served. What are the royalties on 18 bazillion copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey” anyway? Her annual income probably dwarfs that of some smaller European nations.
But ultimately I won’t be reading because I’d hate for anybody to see me with the books. This country’s Puritanical streak, which condones violence (an unnatural act) while suppressing sex (a natural act), is alive and well, and I’m as affected as anybody.
While the U.S. gives lip service to negative effects of violence, we aren’t that upset by it. Violent video games, movies and television are a fact of life. Stick a parental advisory label on it and we’re good to go.
Sexual content is another matter, however. Most of us have sex.
We’re surrounded by it in advertising and marketing. But the act itself is still frowned upon and considered dirty, more so for women than for men.
This split-personality is alive and well in politics, too. Consider those brave, conservative men in elected office who support the continuation of the military-industrial complex and then vote to restrict women’s reproductive rights. How else but by a double-standard do you explain Michigan lawmakers, who last month barred Rep. Lisa Brown from speaking during debate over an anti-abortion bill after she had the temerity to use a medically approved term for part of her own anatomy?
By comparison, maybe it’s not so bad that I don’t want to be seen with a silly book. It’s a hang-up that runs deep in my family, apparently.
To wit: Last week, the movie my parents, my wife and I wanted to see was sold out. After my father and I dropped the women off at the door and parked the car, they conspired to buy tickets for “Magic Mike,” a racy comedy about male strippers that leaves little to the imagination.
After the final credits rolled, Mom was alarmed that I had already posted my thoughts on Twitter. “Maybe you could not mention that I was with you?” she asked, sounding a lot like a person who might enjoy listening to “Fifty Shades of Grey” anonymously through headphones in the dead of night.
Don’t worry, Mom. Your secret’s safe with me.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published July 12, 2012, in The Alliance Review.