Saturday, June 24, 2017

Two Deicides and a Church

My latest painting, El Santuario de Chimayó, a 5" x 4" watercolor, depicts a church located in the western foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe. It's a curious site with possible links to Precolumbian religion; I wrote about it last year.


Amusingly, I happened to listen to H. P. Lovecraft's "The Haunter of the Dark" as I finished it. It'll appear in my exhibition on the university campus in Alpine during August and September. I'm trying to do a number of small, fairly spontaneous pieces to round out the show. The scan is not terribly faithful, unfortunately; I think I need a new scanner.

I've also continued to attempt pen-and-ink illustration. Here we have an illustration to Clark Ashton Smith's "The Coming of the White Worm," which forms part of his Hyperborea cycle:


Of course this depicts the moment Evagh the warlock plunges his bronze sword into the unclean worm, releasing "a sudden torrent of black liquescent matter" which ends his life and melts the iceberg wherein the worm resides. Note the heaps of eyeballs, which drip from the worm's empty sockets to form "two masses like stalagmites, purple and dark as frozen gore," upon the ice-floor.

Finally, an image from what may be my very favorite Klarkash-Ton tale: "The Demon of the Flower."


Here Lunithi the priest-king attempts to end the Voorqual's tyranny with a poisoned blood-offering. I've been working on a digitally-colored version, and will post it here if I ever have the patience to finish.

You know, it hadn't occurred to me before now, but the two illustrations have a common theme, don't they? Both depict attempted assassinations of weird Klarkash-Tonian gods.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Vulcan's Glory and Other Relics

When I was nine or ten, the local UHF station showed Star Trek every night at 6:00. I never missed it. Willingly, that is, as dinner often interfered.

My two best friends and I sometimes assumed Star Trek roles while playing together. Our parts were permanently assigned: they were Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy, respectively, and I was Mr. Spock. We had a cloaked starship in a corner of the schoolyard, a la Star Trek IV, and amused ourselves by telling incredulous fellow students about it.

When we exchanged gifts at the great Christmas sleepover of 1989, one of my friends gave me several Star Trek novels, which in those days could be acquired via the rotating rack in our small-town grocery store. Stop a moment and reflect on that. In 1989, you could walk into a tiny Super S Foods in rural South Texas and buy a stack of novels based on the series canceled in 1969. Hard to imagine, isn't it?

But I digress. The Christmas gift included Vulcan's Glory by D. C. Fontana, one of the best writers of the original series. I still have it in my possession, a bit tattered from riding around in my backpack for weeks, perhaps, but intact nonetheless.

I reread Vulcan's Glory this week, having gotten it out to show my kids. That's a scan of my copy above. We had just watched "Amok Time" and "Journey to Babel," two of my favorite episodes; Vulcan's Glory is in some ways a prequel to both.

The book isn't what you'd call high literature or original science fiction, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable. It takes place during Christopher Pike's tenure as captain of the Enterprise and fills in some of Spock's backstory. Fontana is credited as the writer for "Journey to Babel" and numerous other episodes, and contributed to many more; she seems responsible for much of the subtlety of character and cultural depth in the original series, especially in Mr. Spock, for whom she appears to have harbored considerable affection.

I've always been drawn to Spock. He's supremely logical but also deeply contemplative, and his character makes clear how naturally the two qualities go together. He's straightforward to the point of awkwardness, sternly self-disciplined, reserved but full of deep feeling, capable of love and self-sacrifice, and, despite his Vulcan gravity, possessed of a dry sense of humor. He's a person of mixed race species, accepted neither on Vulcan nor among humans, at home only in Starfleet. Though acutely conscious of propriety and tradition, he rebelled against his father by joining Starfleet, yet deliberately pushes himself to be more Vulcan than full-blooded Vulcans. In a way, Spock is Star Trek. And we owe him largely to Dorothy Christine Fontana.

The trouble with reading a Star Trek novel is that the narrative liberties and cost-saving shortcuts taken by a fifty-minute show become glaringly obvious in a long written work. It's a little odd, for instance, to encounter a carefully written, meditative novel premised on the ludicrous notion that persons of different species, from different planets, could have a child together. They don't even have the same anatomy, for crying out loud! And then there's teleportation. The plot hinges on a lost Vulcan relic which is discovered on a desert planet and taken aboard the Enterprise. Maybe this is just the Catholic in me talking, but I suspect that a real Vulcan would find the the notion of "beaming up" a relic deeply repugnant. It would disrupt the object's physical continuity, which is what makes a relic a relic in the first place. And that only makes me start thinking uncomfortable thoughts about the philosophical implications of teleporting persons.

Fortunately I read the book in about three sittings, so these misgivings didn't have time to lessen my joy.

*

Part of what sparked our renewed interest in things Star Trek was our visit several weeks ago to the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, where we whiled away the afternoon after White Sands got too hot. They had a lot of model rockets and whatnot, and that was all great, I guess, but what really delighted us was their collection of Star Trek memorabilia.

Here, for example, we have the spears used in "The Galileo Seven":


And here's the original letter from producer Robert H. Justman regarding the donation:


Next we have what appears to be Donald Trump's hairpiece:


But guess again! It's a tribble!!!


They also had the model of the Enterprise used in "Catspaw":


Not something I'd go out of my way for, I think, but it was fun to see some (unbeamed) relics in such an unexpected place. I'm also happy to report that my horde of brainwashed Trekkies whom I shall one day release upon the unsuspecting world beloved children recognized most of the episodes on display.

*

Among my old books I also found The Three-Minute Universe, another Christmas gift. It was my very favorite thing to read for a while, as you can tell from the tattered quality of my copy to the right. I used to have more original series books bought with my own money, but I suppose I just kept these two for sentimental value and discarded the rest long ago.

My buddy also gave me a Next Generation novel, but I naturally got rid of that thing long ago. Ugh! I just never did hold with that upstart series. My other buddy now speaks highly of Deep Space 9. Back when it came out I found it profoundly boring, but maybe I'd enjoy it now.

Anyway, I'll probably try reading The Three-Minute Universe again sometime soon. I look forward to the pleasurable mix of guilt and enjoyment.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Noir Reviews: The Lost Weekend, November 1945

Billy Wilder, the director responsible for three of the best noirs (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole), claimed that he made The Lost Weekend in order to explain Raymond Chandler to himself. Portraying the anatomy of an alcoholic's binge in excruciating psychological detail, it's regarded as one of the best depictions of addiction in film.

Ray Milland plays a washed-up writer named Don Birnam who, despite the best efforts of his long-suffering brother and girlfriend, remains a hopeless, self-loathing drunk. The film follows him over the course of the titular weekend, from the ebullience of his first drinks down through an inferno of desperation and humiliation to the uttermost nadir, the horror of delerium tremens. His backstory is told in flashbacks, portraying him, not as a promising writer who fell prey to alcohol, but as a precocious hack who turned to booze as a crutch for his inadequacies. He's painfully honest with himself about who he is, roasting perpetually in shame and self-hatred.
Don't wipe it away, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning.
Playing the faithful girlfriend Helen St. James, is Jane Wyman, who went on to become Ronald Reagan's first wife. (Did you remember that he was divorced?) Don treats her like dirt, of course, and her almost maniacally bright and hopeful face as she forcefully cares for him and forgives him again and again almost gives me the creeps. Am I just a cynic, or is this intentional? You almost want to take her by the shoulders and shout, "What are you thinking? Get out while you still can!"

More to my warped taste is Gloria, a barfly/escort who has a liking for Don. She's a relatively minor character, but I like the way she's drawn. The half-fascinated, half-disgusted bartender Nat is another nice touch. The two actors (Doris Dowling and Howard Da Silva) also appeared in The Blue Dahlia.

The film ends [spoiler alert!] on a hopeful note that I find a bit jarring. Don's binge is portrayed as just the latest in a series, but it resolves itself with the promise of a new beginning. In fact, Don appears to have been "cured" by Helen (who never finds out about his dalliance with Gloria, fortunately). He plans triumphantly to tell his inspirational story in print and thus become a true writer at last. The thing is, I don't think it's ever as easy as that.

Maybe Wilder intends us to imagine this happy ending as just another false hope, the final act in a drama that repeats itself endlessly, and will replay in about two weeks, when Don is once again mischievously hiding bottles from his brother while promising that he's still on the wagon. That would certainly make The Lost Weekend the perfect noir. And yet I don't get the feeling that this is what Wilder intends. Which, alas, forces me to view The Lost Weekend as lying somewhere on the periphery of film noir.

* * *

I give The Lost Weekend a grade of B for bueno on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
Remember, I'm rating films as films noir, not as films. A great film may be a lousy noir. Despite being a gritty, realistic, psychologically grueling depiction of addiction, and an excellent movie in its own right, The Lost Weekend ends in a way that keeps it out of the dark, guilt-sodden heart of true film noir.

High points in The Lost Weekend include the dancing coats and horrid bat-attack. Takeaway quote:

"Delirium is a disease of the night. Good night."

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street The Blue Dahlia ***