Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo

Recently, I checked my files and realized that a book review of mine had not seen print as I meant it to. I should add that this sort of occurrence happens all the time in the arena of freelance journalism.

And for those of in the freelance business, your best option is then to follow up with your publisher. The publisher then will either run the piece, if it is still timely, or will offer you a kill fee. A kill fee is exactly half the amount the publisher would have paid you had they run the piece.

So, I indeed followed up. Luckily for me, I have a longstanding and rather healthy rapport with the publisher in question. While the article did not see print, they sent me a kill fee promptly. I should also add that the review was for a book released in 2011 and I myself made clear the article was long in the tooth, although I would have preferred publishing it.

So, without further ado, below is the book review that never saw print. It is a review of a biography that I rather appreciated - Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo. I like to think that the review can be appreciated by readers as well.

Humanized Vito Russo Small in Person, Giant in Stature

Book Review
Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo
By Michael Schiavi
The University of Wisconsin Press, 2011

Biographer Michael Schiavi has pulled a deft trick with Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo. In epic scope, Schiavi portrays Russo as likeable, and utterly human. Employing classical biographical details, Schiavi explains how this brave and openly gay, non-monogamous man was moved to write The Celluloid Closet and fight for gay rights.
 
The descriptions of Russo’s mischievous youth in native Manhattan and Lodi, New Jersey reveal a very self-aware young man sleeping with men early, despite his parents’ admonishments that “these people” were cursed by God. Fascinated with Hollywood, Russo sought rare portrayals of gay heroes among early 1960s films that often depicted gay protagonists meeting tragic, pulpy endings.
 
Schiavi delivers payback after typical background — 283 pages of articulate biography. He cites The Celluloid Closet and lifelong gay activism as Russo’s greatest achievements. After witnessing the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn, Russo became convinced that gay men and women needed equal rights in order to stop being abused by the establishment. His activist fire sparked, Russo marched in the Gay Activists Alliance first gay pride parade in New York City on June 28, 1970.
 
Schiavi depicts this frenetic time breathlessly. Russo fought city, state and federal laws discriminating against LGBT people, joining the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), Russo co-founding the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).
 
Russo loved mixing politics and film. Using his cinematic finds from his job at the Museum of Modern Art, Russo enlivened early GAA meetings, turning his golden discoveries into talks on the college and gay-rights organization circuit. Over eight painstaking years, Russo transformed his speeches about Hollywood portraying gay and lesbian characters from the silent film era up to the 1970s as misfits and deviants into The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. The 1981 book became a mellower Lily-Tomlin-narrated 1995 documentary, a veritable Shangri-Lai of movie clips and interviews.
 
Russo espoused a sexually free lifestyle, yet was a difficult lover to stay with. When not writing, giving talks or launching into AIDS activism after being diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985, many observers describe him as manically floating through career crisis. One can see Russo pacing his apartment restlessly between bouts of Uno and Monopoly with his brothers-in-arms and eventually enduring a plethora of drug treatments and decline.
 
Yet those who loved Russo loved him dearly, a fact attested to by director/producer Rob Epstein ensuring Closet became a documentary as per Russo’s dying wish. When Russo watched New York City Gay Pride March in 1990 from Larry Kramer’s balcony, hundreds of marchers declared their love for him. Russo, taking drugs through his IV, quipped “When I was getting the good drugs, nobody would give me one of these things to be able to hook up instantly!” With his gallows’ humour and the indelible imprint this giant made on the gay-rights movement, readers will find it hard not to like him at least a little, and admire him a lot.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Worst of Horror Films in 2013: Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem

Lords of Salem, written and directed by Rob Zombie
2013

While Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects had interesting things to say about families comprised of serial killers and their hapless victims, his latest effort, Lords of Salem, fails on nearly all fronts. Salem features Sheri Moon Zombie as Heidi Hawthorne, talk-radio DJ whose work, along with her co-workers’, consists mainly of deriding guests on their show. Thus, the first clue for viewers that all is not well is a protagonist with whom they cannot sympathize.  Then the off-kilter music starts—literally.

An anonymous party leaves a mysterious record at her radio station Curious, Heidi gives it a listen, absorbing the weird drumbeat and chanting. The appearance of this weird, satanic music is a nod to the emergence of heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath and the theme of the music of the devil. Nonetheless, Heidi digs the music, so much so that she trances out each time she hears the tune.
This creepy theme of transfixing music aside, Salem is not scary at heart. However, it tries hard. At times, Zombie stuffs many a shot with unsettling tableaus such as a revolting, grisly old, nude witch hovering in the background or a figure hovering in the corner of the room. For good measure, he redundantly throws in flashback scenes starring the same witches, back in their witch trial heyday. The only problem is that these present-day intruders feel like mere wax figures—they never do anything. Instead, they lurk menacingly in the background. The acting in the foreground, though, is passable. 
Sheri Moon Zombie in Lords of Salem.
The heroine is portrayed by Rob Zombie’s wife, who also appeared in Corpses, Rejects and Rob Zombie’s remakes of Halloween I and Halloween II.  Sheri Moon Zombie was good in those as a victim or sociopath, depending on your fancy. In Salem, Moon comes across as convincingly as a lonely radio personality with a modicum of local fame and a sketchy past. In short, she is believable and, at times, pitiable. However, Moon is skinny to the point of emaciation. She is less sultry than in her previous outings. Perhaps her gaunt physical presence is meant to supplement her characterization.  While this may be an objectionable objectifying comment, her boney frame still drives the viewers to distraction. She looks like she needs someone to get her a sandwich, to paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones in Captain America.  As well, her co-star, oddly enough, resembles Rob Zombie himself.
Herman, as portrayed by Jeff Daniel Phillips, in purely physical terms, seems a geekier, more awkward version of Rob Zombie, replete with unkempt beard and piercing, haunted eyes. Just as Bradley Cooper in Midnight Meat Train resembles a young Clive Barker (the author of the short story Midnight Meat Train) so does Philips resemble Rob Zombie.  The director has inadvertently (or perhaps, intentionally) inserted a weirdly fictionalized version of himself into a film with negligible plot.
While light plot is fine—there are fine plot-less horror films out there— Salem‘s conclusion seems inevitable. Several cameos of famous or infamous horror film actors such as scream queen Barbara Crampton (who appeared in such films as Re-Animator and From Beyond) fail to elevate this effort. These appearances merely add self-referential novelty. Horror film buffs can proudly pick out these cameos.  After a scare-less depiction of leafy Salem environs and somewhat self-absorbed characters, including one who falls off the wagon, the ending arrives in all its incoherently edited glory.
The climax, a series of slap-dash contrast of religious iconography and horror and disarming masturbation and bodily horror is presumably meant to shock viewers. While this visual aspect of the ending is unexpected, the montage imagery is not particularly frightening. Moreover, the march toward a conclusion seems predictable. The character of Heidi acts as a mere stick figure carrying out her prescribed duties of a doomed heroine.
Perhaps Zombie, knowing scares were scarce, went for the gross-out instead. His approach reminded this reviewer of Stephen King who famously advised such a course of action in Danse Macabre, a collection of his essays on the craft of horror writing. King wrote “. . . and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud. ” In this respect, Zombie does get some gross-out factor, but by then viewers might not care one way or another. Instead of experiencing frights, viewers get to meditate on masturbating religious figures, physically contorted witches, and bodily violation. Call it art school meets Polanski meets horror. And after all the curtain falls, of all times to finish strongly, Zombie does precisely that.
For this reviewer, the scariest part of Lords of Salem was the closing credit sequence. With spooky mood music playing, Zombie depicts black-and-white shots of eerie Salem neighbourhoods—panelled houses, glowing streets, lampposts and leaf-cluttered avenues, all cast in dusk light under a foreboding, bleak sky. These residential scenes are probably not far from the witchy tourist industry that is the economic reality of Salem. Zombie gets a win for accomplishing an eerie close. If only the director could have tapped into that unease for the rest of the production, and tapped into some heroic heroes or, at least, sympathetic heroes.
Editor’s Note: This film review also appeared in a different form on the Postscripts to Darkness website.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Best (Read) in 2013: Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Non-Fiction)

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe
Harper, 2012

I'll start this postmodern review with a disclaimer. This is a hyper-specialized review. Back away now if you have not plumbed comic-book depths, particularly Marvel Comics. To say that this is a niche assessment would be an understatement.

This review is for all those awkward kids who grew up buying comic books, poring over dusty back-issue bins with that particular smell of plastic, cardboard, and dust. This snap shot is for those readers, awkward and introverted or intellectually internalizing for whatever reasons, who grew up reading DC Comics and Marvel Comics, watching worlds unfold, unfettered. This short critique is for the young teens who were bullied or scared and found refuge in fantastic primary-colour representations of the id - the super-hero.

Were you, fair reader, one these kids. Are you one now?

And you liked your escapism forty-proof, with vivid colour and life and character and adept writing. Visualize Spider-Man swinging from rooftop to rooftop, only to arrive home to his ailing Aunt May who needs money to pay the bills. Think the Hulk wandering, literally wandering, the face of the earth, for years, lumbering from Canada to the U.S. to even Easter Island, a Don Quixote with emerald skin. Imagine Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer who can do acrobatic hand-to-hand fighting, but whose life crumbles around him when his ex-girlfriend sells his secret identity for a fix. These characters are symbols of being capable; yet they are under siege by their own insecurities and worries. Their problems, Parker's girl and money troubles and social isolation, the Hulk's child-like temperament and maturity, and Murdock's attempt to simply keep his life together, made them icons. Mass-marketed pajamas or lunchboxes or action figures did not, at least initially. 

Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man), in particular, was emblematic of angst-ridden youth, from his earlier days in the 1960's right up until the late 1980's, when he got married. He struggled with a similar singular loneliness, a crushing void, a struggle with the opposite (or same sex) at an early age,  and didn't feel at ease in greater numbers, but contrarily felt a longing, at times, when away from the madding crowd.

If you, fair reader, read Peter David's Incredible Hulk run, or adored Herb Trimpe's or Sal Buscema's Hulk tenure, or horded Roger Stern and John Romita Jr.'s The Amazing Spider-Man, or savored Jim Shooter's seismic The Secret Wars, or awed at Frank Miller's Daredevil, or dug John Byrne's and Chris Claremont's The Uncanny X-Men, or later, John Byrne's Superman, then read this book. Howe describes  the scaffolding and the battles and the human element that brought these creations together.

Writer and artists adopted books, left books, fought over their books with the higher-ups. The drama that unfolded in the mythical merry Marvel Bullpen rivalled that of the colourful pages of its monthly publications. Marvel Comics' characters had powers, like DC's, but they were inherently flawed, insecure, uneasy, complex. In other words, they were more human. Sean Howe digs into Marvel's history to show how the high rollers, the gifted artists and talent writers were equally conflicted and flawed.

Howe covers all the above history and far, far more in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. He fleshes out the stories that readers may have grown up hearing, and assembles them in one place for the first time in the medium's history. If you ever wondered how to distinguish the rumours, heresy, speculation and chatter from each other, Howe lays it out. His encyclopedic references to Marvel history are best in short bursts because the reader needs time to absorb them.

The Entertainment Weekly editor draws on Marvel's early history when it began as Timely Publications in 1939. Stanley Martin Lieber entered comics as a young Jewish man with dreams of penning the great American novel.  Several years later, he found himself in charge of the comic book company that would become Marvel. He adopted the pen name Stan Lee so as not attach his real name to the funny books. Anti-Semitism, too, was a factor in his Americanizing of the name. For young, talented, Jewish kids who could not enter other lines of business, comic books represented a living and, possibly a career. Stanley, though, at fortysomething, tired of the disrespected comic business, wanted out. His wife, however, convinced Stan to do one comic book his own way before going. So began the Fantastic Four and many, many other Marvel icons, such as Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and so on.

But I digress; this is only the beginning of Marvel's story as recorded in Untold Story.

If you ever wanted to know if the writers of the transgressive pop-culture soup of the 1960's Doctor Strange were doing LSD, then look no further. In fact, if you have a plethora of true-believer questions, then pick up this book. Why did the Secret Wars come about, that seminal 1983 assembly of heroes and villains that ran 12 issues, and which both Marvel and DC have attempted to replicate since, both in success and novelty? Just how did star writer Chris Claremont and star artist John Byrne, the twin powers behind the unprecedented success of The Uncanny X-Men, really get on? What elements made Uncanny gel just perfectly during the early 1980's? Why did Claremont decide to kill Jean Grey (aka Phoenix), and how did his bold move had a ripple effect on the industry? How did Jim Steranko muscle his way into Marvel, showing up unannounced, a handsome young escape artist who took over the book Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Why did artist Steve Ditko leave the hugely successful Amazing Spider-Man title after only 39 issues and two annuals? And how much did Stan Lee owe to Jack Kirby for driving many of Marvel's phenomenal characters, with Kirby remaining un-credited for decades? How did the Comics Code Authority affect Marvel and DC and all comics until the 1970's until Stan Lee concocted a storyline about LSD in Spider-Man and dared to print the issue without the sacrosanct Code? Finding the answers to these questions (and still more) left me rather breathless.

I was knocked back and impressed and envious simultaneously, reading the background of my younger self's fanciful playthings. The book works because no one has ever done it, and because Howe took the time and has the guts and the heart required to lean into the project. The result is a coherent and highly readable chronology and human drama. He somehow manages to hold together the entire history of Marvel, from its infancy to its more recent reboot-and-film-adaptation years. However, the author always returns to Stan Lee's mantra of "the illusion of change" driving the medium. That is, the idea that readers don't truly want their complex, angst-ridden characters to change, but to undergo change, time and time again.

A fan himself, Howe writes an older perspective but immerses himself in the details. He
fairly represents the one true never-ending battle - the one between artists, mainly freelancers, who wanted to craft something beautiful but in a timely manner- and the business people who wanted to keep the venture profitable.

The Untold Story is brilliant, and so is Howe. There are few non-fiction books that I want to reread; Untold Story now numbers among them. Michael Chabon, the genius author behind the equally ingenious The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, should pick this up. Untold is that rewarding and that good. Former and current true believers, of super heroic iconography and myths barely contained in panelled drawings, owe it to themselves to revisit these stories through the lens with a longer view.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Best (Read) in 2013: Elizabeth Bear's short story, "Inelastic Collisions"

Fiction (Short Story)
"Inelastic Collisions" by Elizabeth Bear
- featured in Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural
edited by Ellen Datlow.
TOR Books, 2007.

Bear outshines, in my humble opinion, many of the other collected horror stories here. There are, shockingly or perhaps, sadly, not so shockingly, few women contributors represented in this collection - they account for a mere four of the 20 contributors. Nonetheless, amongst this mixed bag of horror and weird tales, with the usual suspects, Bear's story, "Inelastic Collisions" still shines both in terms of originality and quality. Her story features two monstrous protagonists trawling the bar seeking bodies to prey upon. "Collisions" features stylistic leaps, such as telepathic conversations indicated by italics instead of quotation marks. The ending is not predictable (I am adhering to my "no spoilers" rule, here.). There is also  a heroic and capable character with a disability (he is wheelchair-bound) to boot! A good story for these and many other reasons. Bear burns up prose in Datlow's Inferno.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Best (Read) in 2013: Peter Atkins' Rumours of the Marvellous


My Best Reads in 2013
Fiction

Peter Atkins
Rumours of the Marvellous
Alchemy Press, 2011

At last, I found a copy of Rumours of the Marvellous online, and am happy to report that the aptly titled short story collection does not disappoint. Peter does indeed pull off some marvellous pieces–whether he's talking about souls transforming into computer-generated programs, urban warlocks, or demi-gods and gods both menacing and alluring. But it's his narrative voice that drives, lifts and guides these stories. Particularly, Kitty Donnelly, who appears in three stories, is a recurring queer detective heroine who would rival Vertigo Comics’ Renee Montoya in both wits and prowess. In Rumours, expect her keen and sassy observations, as well as punchy dialogue, razor-sharp descriptions, and street smart protagonists across the board. Atkins moves between science fiction, horror and fantasy with aplomb, although this should be no revelation, since the Liverpudlian penned the breathtaking 1992 novel, Morningstar. I say breathtaking because he mixed literary, fantastic and horrific elements to concoct this impressive witch's brew of a first novel. My only qualm with Rumours, though, was the story "Intricate Green Figurines", about an ex-girlfriend trying to pawn off her ex-boyfriend's titular figurines. This narrative seemed a little short and abrupt for my tastes. It should be noted, however, that Atkins' stories are never too long, reflecting the author's mastery of the short story form. In the end, I’m afraid I  have to agree with Neil Gaiman’s backhanded compliment/blurb on the book jacket. Atkins’ work, while smart, imaginative, and rewarding, has only one flaw-he needs to get more stories out there. Perhaps I should get on the horn and tell ol' Algie to read my snappy review and produce more crafted copy.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy 2014, Halloween story in print

And what a Happy New Year it is. After some general revelry (which, ironically, did not quite include a Captain Morgan), I was informed that a package from FedEx was sitting on my desk, delivered yesterday afternoon while I was out.

I quickly opened the package in my addled morning state.

Inside were ten copies of Icarus: The Magazine of Gay Speculative Fiction. Why, you ask? Icarus published my Halloween story, "Drawing Out", in issue 18. "Drawing Out" is a horror short story featuring a nine-year-old boy with a penchant for drawing, a Jehovah's Witness enduring bachelorhood, and a mysterious woman who needs help. All these characters meet on Hallowe'en night.

This is the first Halloween short story that I have published. I owe a huge thank you to the owner and publisher of Lethe Press, Steve Berman. He has included me alongside the talents of Molly Tanzer, J. Daniel Stone and Ray Cluley. One can purchase this issue of Icarus at the Lethe Press website.

Hello, 2014. And thank you for this last-minute delivery.