Thursday, April 20, 2017

Advanced Review: Joe Lansdale & Sam Glanzman’s Red Range.

This post originally appeared on FreakSugar.com

Red Range is a wild, weird, woolly, and imperfect ride, but definitely one that’s worth taking, blending genres in a way that is dizzying and delightful.

Cover of Red Range from It’s Alive Press. Art by Sam Glanzman.

Red Range by Joe R. Lansdale and Sam Glanzman was originally published in 1999 as a black and white comic and received little real fanfare or critical appreciation despite Lansdale’s position as one of the leading splatterpunk horror writers of the day and Glanzman’s devoted comics fan base. The book has languished in relative obscurity ever since, until Eisner award nominated comics editor Drew Ford chose it to launch his new publishing line It’s Alive Press. Dedicated to reprinting and preserving out of print and historically notable comics like Red Range, It’s Alive has an impressive line-up of forthcoming titles, including Trina Robbin’s adaptation of Dope by Sax Rohmer, Sam Glanzman’s Voyage to the Deep, and Family Man by Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton.

It’s Alive’s edition of Red Range adds color by Jorge Blanco & JOK to the original work, a short western horror piece by Glanzman called “I Could Eat a Horse,” as well as an introduction by Richard Klaw (Mojo Press), an afterward by Stephen Bissette (Swamp Thing, Taboo), and historical commentary by Bissette, in a hardcover edition that, if Ford follows his usual habit, will be high quality and really well bound. The front-, middle-, and back-matter is particularly interesting for pop-culture history geeks like me who get a little too excited about the story of small publishing houses, or the history of cowboys and dinosaurs. The title story itself is… odd. The opening panels depict one of the most brutal, gory, and realistically violent lynchings that I have ever seen in a comic. This is interrupted by the African American vigilante Red Mask who proceeds to splatter the blood and brains of the white Klansmen widely with the help of a Sharp’s rifle and a double-barreled shotgun. Red Range, particularly the opening pages, has often been called hyper-violent, but I found the depictions to be realistic, and not nearly as graphic as that found in, say, many of Avatar Press’ regular titles. Still, the opening panels are a kick in the gut, particularly when you realize that what they depict is far from being among the worst historical atrocities perpetrated against African American families in the US, particularly in the late 19th century.

Red Range. Art by Sam Glanzman.

So Red Mask rescues the only survivor of the small family, a ‘tween boy, and takes him to his hide out with the head of the Klan – a typically pointy-headed, sweaty, fat man named Batiste – vowing revenge. What follows is a Wild West hunt that goes terribly wrong for the hunters. Ultimately, good triumphs and evil gets its just desserts, but along the way things are just really weird, with everyone being transported by a flash flood into a lost, underground world ruled by black men in Spanish conquistador armor, and otherwise populated by dinosaurs – including an inevitable t-rex. There is also strange strain of humor throughout the book, from basic slapstick to ruminations on the many uses of the humble chicken. In truth, a lot of the story, despite tremendous artwork from Glanzman, just doesn’t work. Even the virulent racism of Batiste is revealed to spring from a specific, horrific, and very painful assault he suffered as a child at the hands of several black kids. This scene (which is my personal favorite piece of Glanzman’s art in the book) tends to undercut the story’s effort to expose the realities of American racism by providing a reason for something that is ultimately entirely unreasonable and unreasoning. It also serves to equate Batiste with Red Mask, whose vigilante career began with the death of his wife and son at Batiste’s hands. So the tale is less about racism than revenge – on both sides. Red Range does better in its handling of racial tensions within the black community, as Red Mask and his companion find themselves condemned by the black rulers of the lost world because they are too black. This is a good lick, pointing up the damned-on-all-sides reality that some African Americans face, but taken with the problematic wellsprings of Batiste’s rage can also be read as something of a “blacks can be racists too” apologia.

Red Range. script by Joe Lansdale, art by Sam Glanzman.

Where Red Range really shines is Glanzman’s art. Bold, dynamic, and strong, this book showcases the artist at the height of his powers. His horses stamp and blow, his people start and move, his bullets violently end lives. Yet Glanzman also shows his chops quietly, beautifully, with close ups of weathered faces that tell tales all their own of grief and hate and love and pain, each an individual entity, with single panels showing the reader a life lived in a hard land for good or ill. This is truly amazing stuff, and worth the $29.99 cover price all by itself. The book is also a testament to the western genre’s seemingly endless flexibility. A mix of horror, social commentary, comedy, and lost world fantasy, all built upon a traditional western structure, Red Range blends genres in a manner that is almost dizzying, and – despite its flaws – delightful.

In the end, Red Range’s narrative stumbles are overcome by Glanzman’s art, including the “silent” short story included in the volume, and by the contextual history provided by Bissette and Klaw. This one goes onto my shelf because it’s a wild, weird, woolly, and imperfect ride, but definitely one that’s worth taking.

Red Range will hit the shelves in June of this year, and is available for preorder on Amazon or from your local comics shop.

 

The post Advanced Review: Joe Lansdale & Sam Glanzman’s Red Range. appeared first on Freaksugar.



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Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Ten Percent – American Gods

This post originally appeared on BiffBamPop.com

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

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Greetings and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks (well, roughly), Ensley F. Guffey and I use this space to take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was, sadly, right – the vast majority of movies, television, writing, art, and so on really is crud – but there has always been that slim slice of sublime. The Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – I think our previous columns have proven that point – and that’s because these rare gems are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

I have, on occasion, discussed an entry that makes the cut on The Ten Percent in more than one category, such as a book and the movie made from the book. It’s hard enough to create ONE fantastic thing; to create a Ten-Percent-worthy work in more than a single medium is truly catching lightning in a bottle.

Which brings me to Neil Gaiman, an author I’ve been a fan for 25 years. Seriously – the first time I met him, he was kind enough to sign my Tori Amos Little Earthquakes CD, which now sports “Hi by the way” in gold Sharpie. If you don’t get that, well, click here.

An avid reader from early childhood, Gaiman was influenced by writers such as Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, Rudyard Kipling, and Michael Moorcock. Gaiman honed his skills first as a journalist and, like most everyone trying to make his bones, there are a few early works that were simply done to pay the rent. But it was a serendipitous encounter with an issue of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing that first put Gaiman’s feet on the path of seeing that comics could be sharply and smartly written. He eventually began working for DC Comics and, after reading his work on Black Orchid in 1987, Gaiman was offered a chance to re-create an old DC character with his own unique spin.

Thus began both the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics and Gaiman’s astonishing run on The Sandman. Far from the B-grade title it had once been, Gaiman’s Sandman quickly earned legendary status for its rich storytelling, incredible art, and unforgettable characters. Much could be written just about Gaiman’s work during this period, but I’ll just mention one item. In 1991, Gaiman was awarded the World Fantasy Award in the short story category for issue #19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Comics were never intended to be eligible for that category and the organization, which issues on of the top prizes for fantasy fiction, has seen to it that no comic has been nominated in that category since Gaiman’s win. Nevertheless, Gaiman is one of the rare authors who has won all three of the trifecta – the World Fantasy Award, multiple Hugo Awards for best science fiction/fantasy writing in a given year, and multiple Nebula Awards for best science fiction/fantasy published in the United States.

While Neverwhere has and always will have a soft spot in my heart, with American Gods (first published in 2001 and the recipient of both the Hugo and the Nebula – the man’s no slouch!) Gaiman went in an entirely new direction. This novel is huge, sprawling, and jaw-droppingly good. Like almost all great books, this one can hook you with just a couple of “what if?” questions – First, What if, when immigrants came to America to settle, they brought their gods with them? And second, What happens when new gods rise and want their own piece of the Divinity pie?

Gaiman is English by birth and he brings an outsider’s point of view to this examination of the boisterous crazy-quilt of a country that is America. In Sandman, Gaiman created the Endless – a family of seven siblings who embody particular universal functions. They operate much like gods in that they bicker among themselves, are rarely comfortable outside of their own sphere of influence, but reign supreme within their own territory. With American Gods, Gaiman stepped up his already-impressive game to show readers a relatively-young country crammed with gods. Old gods, whose names are now nearly forgotten, were brought over by the first settlers of America, but as the country changed, they were left behind and they are quite unhappy about being pushed aside – especially being pushed aside by these new, brash gods created by modern American society, who have no respect for the old ways and plan to rewrite reality to best suit themselves. Ritual and worship take many forms in American Gods and the old ways have not been totally forgotten. Quite frankly, I doubt anyone else could have written this lush tale and I’m feverishly glad that Gaiman did.

Honestly, that would have been enough for me. But unlike some of Gaiman’s other work (still waiting for a Death movie), American Gods has been adapted and will be available as a TV series on the Starz network beginning on April 30. In connection with the series, a 27-issue comic series adapting the novel is being released by Dark Horse. This series will be comprised of three arcs and the first issue was released in mid-March. If you’re a Gaiman fan, run, don’t walk, to your comic retailer and get this on your pull list. It’s faithful to the source novel and the artwork is enough to make you swoon.

As to the Starz series – I’ve only seen the two trailers and they had me punching the air in anticipation and delight. Ricky Whittle as Shadow seems to hit just the right balance between wariness and curiosity and Ian McShane is spot-on perfect as Mister Wednesday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (September 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

 


Filed under: books, K. Dale Koontz, television, The Ten Percent Tagged: Alan Moore, American Gods, Dark Horse Comics, DC Comics, ensley f. guffey, Ian McShane, neil gaiman, ricky whittle, Sandman, starz, The Ten Percent, tori amos

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

C’est la Guerre: Barefoot Gen

This post originally appeared on FreakSugar.com

Barefoot Gen is the howl of the grass under the elephants’ feet, and a heartbreakingly eloquent plea for peace and life in a world consumed by fire.

Cover of Last Gasp’s Barefoot Gen, vol. 1, art by Keiji Nakazawa.

 

Keiji Nakazawa was six years old when his home city of Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atomic bomb ever used against a populated target. At the moment “Little Boy” – as the weapon was nick-named – detonated, Nakazawa happened to be standing behind a concrete wall at the back of his grammar school a little over a kilometer away from ground zero. The wall shielded him from both the blinding light and the heat flash that followed, which quite literally melted the skin of tens of thousands of city residents while vaporizing thousands more.

Nakazawa was only lucky to a point, however. His younger brother, older sister, and father were trapped in the family home when it collapsed, and his mother, eight months pregnant, was unable to free any of them before the raging fires that were consuming the city in the bomb’s wake reached their home. She heard her youngest son and husband screaming as the fire reached them, her daughter had, mercifully, been killed when the house fell. As a result of the strain of the day, Nakazawa’s mother gave premature birth to her baby, a girl, but the child died only four months later, whether from radiation sickness or malnutrition, they never knew.

Art and script by Keiji Nakazawa.

Nakazawa survived the A-bomb and the years of hunger, deprivation, and sickness that followed, and became a successful manga artist, and in 1972, he told the story of his family, the A-bomb, and the aftermath in a ten-volume work called Hadashi no Gen, or Barefoot Gen. It remains one of the most powerful depictions of the suffering of the people of Hiroshima ever created, and offers a fascinating look into the complex feelings that poorer Japanese had about the war, their leaders, the Americans, and the bomb. In honor of the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in 2015, Last Gasp launched a Kickstarter campaign to print 4000 hardback copies of Barefoot Gen and to distribute them to as many schools and libraries as possible. As it turns out, my local public library was able to get on their list early and recently received their copies, which I promptly checked out.

Presented in western style (i.e. to be read from left to right) Barefoot Gen is remarkable on several levels. The art is well into the cartoonish end of the symbolic comics’ language, and often has a simplistic, even primitive style. Juxtaposed with the horrific events the books are recounting, the effects can be very… unsettling. The books also read as middle-school level material, and that seems to be the target audience, but again, Nakazawa doesn’t shy away from the brutal realities of his subject matter, so parental guidance and pre-reading is really recommended for those who might have tween readers. Beyond the immediate effects of the bomb, and the radiation sickness that struck down people in the days, months, and even years following, postwar Hiroshima was rife with malnutrition, violent crime, rape, prostitution, and human suffering on a massive scale. In fact, the simplicity of the artwork provides just enough distance to the reader from the visceral reality of the time to make continuing with the story bearable.

Art and script by Keiji Nakazawa.

Barefoot Gen is a must have for any war comics collector, historian, or person interceded in the realities of nuclear warfare. It is not an easy read, but it is ultimately a hopeful one, although you should not expect a Hollywood ending – quite the opposite, in fact. The debate about the necessity and ethics of using the atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki is ongoing, and unfortunately is far too often still fueled by racism, jingoism, and nationalism, but Barefoot Gen’s raw cry for peace in the presence of one of the ultimate horrors of war comes from a place beneath all of that. Nakazawa’s work is the voice from below, shouting the realities of everyday people everywhere around the world who just want to live and raise families and have enough food to eat and maybe dandle a grandkid or two before passing on to whatever comes next. Barefoot Gen is the howl of the grass under the elephants’ feet.

Art and script by Keiji Nakazawa.

The edition is beautifully and very sturdily bound, meaning that libraries should be able to get years of good use out of them, with good thick paper, heavily sewn spines, and easily cleaned covers. Copies are also available on Amazon for about $25.00 each, a very reasonable price for this kind of quality binding. Rarely has sequential art taken on a historical subject better than Barefoot Gen does, making the series a classic in every sense of the word.

The post C’est la Guerre: Barefoot Gen appeared first on Freaksugar.



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Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Ten Percent: Come and See (1985)

This post originally appeared on BiffBamPop.com

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. So many films premiere each year, but only a very few are remembered and revered years later. That’s not a matter of genre – the Ten Percent is a big tent, with plenty of room for comedy, drama, horror, animation, musical, science fiction and many more. But admission into the tent is not easy to come by. Films in this category last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

Elim Klimov’s Come and See (1985) takes its place in an unusual corner of the Ten Percent. A place for works of art that are so powerful, so honest, and so terrible that they absolutely must be seen, but which are also so psychologically and emotionally intense that they are revisited only rarely. The late Roger Ebert wrote that Come and See “is one of the most devastating films ever about anything, and in it, the survivors must envy the dead,” while Mark Cousins called Come and See “the greatest war film ever made.” Both are correct.

The film follows a young, teenage boy named Florya (Alexi Kravchenko) who joins an anti-German partisan group in Belarus in 1943. He meets a beautiful girl, Glasha (Olga Mironova), just two or three years older than he, and the two become separated from Florya’s unit as it is attacked by German dive bombers. Come and See then follows the two teens as they journey into an unrelenting hell. Historians believe that Belarus (at that time called the Byelorussian SSR) was the hardest hit of the Soviet Republics in World War Two, with the Germans destroying 209 of the regions 290 cities, 85% of its industry, and killing between 2 and 3 million people (a quarter to one-third of the total population) between 1941 and 1944. 90% of Belarus’s Jewish population was murdered in the Holocaust. As the Red Army inexorably began to push the Germans back through Belarus, the Wehrmacht and various SS units, including the notorious 36th Waffen SS Grenadier Division, the “Dirlewanger Brigade,” engaged in a scorched earth policy that eradicated farms, villages, cities, crops, animals, and humans by the tens of thousands.

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Glasha (Olga Mironova) and Florya (Alexi Kravchenko) in Come and See.

This is where Florya and Glasha, still innocents despite the world around them, walk. Step by step, everything that is good, beautiful, pure, and innocent in the world is ruthlessly brutalized and then slaughtered by the war, including Florya and Glasha, although both physically survive their experiences. Come and See is horror at its most sublime, and is likely the closest any film has yet come to capturing the realities of war, particularly as it was fought in the Eastern European Theater.

The film’s title is taken from the Book of Revelation 6: 7-8:

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, “Come and See.” And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

And this is exactly what the film invites the viewer to see – an utter apocalypse that devours everyone and everything in its path. By the time the end credits roll, Florya and Glasha have learned that things like love and morality and goodness are just tissue-paper in a firestorm, consumed without even being noticed, while ideals of meaning or God are laughable illusions in the naked face of war. There are no other films like Come and See, and the number which can even come close to its unflinching gaze into reality can be counted on one hand with digits to spare. It is a work of art that is almost too painful to endure. It is required viewing – even if only once, for it lies in the darkest part of the Ten Percent.

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Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming A Dream Given Form: The Unofficial Guide to the Babylon 5 Universe. You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.


Filed under: Ensley F. Guffey, Film, The Ten Percent Tagged: alexi kravchenko, come and see, elim klimov, mark cousins, olga mironova, Roger Ebert, The Ten Percent, world war ii

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

C’est la Guerre Review: REDLINE #1

This post originally appeared on FreakSugar.com

Redline (Oni Press) presents a darkly hilarious future that looks way too much like our present military quagmires, and is one of the best new comics of 2017.

Redline #1, cover A, art by Clayton McCormack.

So as a comics nerd, I spend an hour or two every month going through Previews Magazine in depth, both to find interesting looking titles from the smaller independents, and to give the owner of my local comic shop a heads up, since Diamond’s distribution system pretty much demands he (and pretty much every other dealer) order stuff three months in advance in order to (mostly) guarantee shipment. So what I’m saying is that I usually do my due diligence and manage to keep pretty well caught up on much of what is coming down the pike.

Recently, however, I missed one. Oni Press’ Redline, written by Neal Holman (Archer), with art by Clayton McCormack (CafĂ© Racer, Godzilla: Rage Across Time), and colors by Kelly Fitzpatrick (The Black Hood, Peter Panzerfaust) showed up on the rack at my local shop as a complete and delightful surprise. Billed as a black SF comedy, the first issue also shows a big potential for a not-so-subtle satirical look at America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Set on a dusty, arid Mars after a victorious war with the indigenous species, the human security and military forces find themselves in the middle of an insurgency by the supposedly defeated aliens. 

Redline #1, p. 3.script by Neal Holman, art by Clayton McCormack.

After one such supposed attack, Superintendent Denton Coyle of the AFOSI (A-something F-something Office of Special Investigations?), an, experienced, cynical, and gastrically distressed investigator suspects that the natives may not be responsible after all. The art and future military tech design are tight, and best of all Redline provides some of the best, and wittiest, dialogue that I’ve read in quite some time. The writing definitely has an Archer-esque edge, but it works perfectly in Redline‘s setting of sudden violence, corporate interests, fading distinctions between private and state military forces, and the men and women who have to try and exist in the middle of all of that. 

So I’m going to put Redline on my pull list and hope that my local shop has ordered a least a few of the upcoming issues, because Holman & Co.’s future that looks way too much like our present military quagmires is one of the best new comics of 2017 so far.

The post C’est la Guerre Review: REDLINE #1 appeared first on Freaksugar.



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Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Ten Percent: The Great Escape (1963)

This post originally appeared on BiffBamPop.com

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Original poster for The Great Escape, 1963.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. So many films premiere each year, but only a very few are remembered and revered years later. That’s not a matter of genre – the Ten Percent is a big tent, with plenty of room for comedy, drama, horror, animation, musical, science fiction and many more. But admission into the tent is not easy to come by. Films in this category last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

Before I talk about why 1963’s The Great Escape belongs in the Ten Percent, it’s worth taking the time to point out the film’s flaws. First, neither bicycles nor motorcycles were used in the 1943 escape from Stalag Luft III. Second, the “Great Escape” of 76 Allied POWs took place in unseasonably cold weather during one of the worst winters seen in Eastern Poland in 30 years. Third, there were no Americans among the escapees who were mostly British and Canadian. Finally, there was never any regulation which stated that Allied prisoners were duty-bound to attempt to escape. In fact, many, perhaps most, American and British POWs were generally leery of escape attempts.

Yet despite the heaping helping of historical inaccuracies, The Great Escape is a fantastic film, and a prime example of the star-studded, blockbuster World War II movies that were produced in the 1960s. Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, David McCallum, and Donald Pleasence to name a few, The Great Escape is a Who’s Who of male action heroes. Above all, the movie is cool (difficult not to be when both McQueen and Garner are involved).

The film’s pace is always fast, even manic at times, and is off and running from the get-go as truckloads of POWs arrive at a newly constructed high-security camp and immediately begin attempting to escape. In a great, and pleasantly brief, bit of exposition, the viewer learns that the new inmates are the worst of the worst, each having attempted to escape several times before and many having had to be recaptured once they broke out of other camps. So the Luftwaffe (all of the POWs are fliers) has decided to put them all in one basket, and to watch that basket carefully (seriously, that’s pretty close to a direct quote form the camp commandant, played by Hannes Messemer).

Of course, that doesn’t stop anything, particularly McQueen who’s lanky, sly-smiled, aw-shucks-who-me? attitude carries him through about five different escape attempts in the course of the movie while the British, led by Attenborough as the master strategist, concentrate on digging a 300+ yard tunnel for a mass break-out. The tunnel excavation and inevitable last-minute problems provide an increasing tension for most of the film, and the means by which Garner, McQueen and Coburn escape are the stuff from which action-movie dreams are made (and just about as realistic). The film is a romp, and keeps the viewer hooked from the beginning, and there really is not much in American film that is as cool as Steve McQueen jumping a stolen Nazi motorcycle over a barbed wire fence in an attempt to get to Switzerland. All in glorious Technicolor.

The movie is also notable in that the escape is unsuccessful for all but a handful of men – not the expected ending to this kind of film. Indeed, in this The Great Escape actually lines up with history, including the 50 unarmed, recaptured POWs who were executed by the Gestapo under direct orders from Adolf Hitler, a war crime for which 18 men were convicted at the Nuremberg Trials, and for which 13 of them were hanged in 1948. Even so, the ending is oddly triumphant, and the viewer is left with the clear impression that Steve McQueen, James Garner, and the other prisoners who were returned alive to the camp are far from done trying to escape, and the feeling that, eventually, they will succeed.

All in all The Great Escape is lifted to the Ten Percent by great pacing, an ensemble that is so implausibly cool, collected, and competent that you are completely sucked in, and just enough of an amazing true story at its core to provide a bit of verisimilitude. Plus, Steve McQueen doing his own motorcycle stunts as he attempts to jump a barbed wire fence into Switzerland. It really just doesn’t get much better.

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the (finally!) forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe. You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.


Filed under: Ensley F. Guffey, Film, The Ten Percent Tagged: charles bronson, david mccallum, donald pleasence, hannes messemer, history, james coburn, james garner, k. dale koontz, richard attenborough, steve mcqueen, The Great Escape, The Ten Percent, theodore sturgeon, world war ii

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Ten Percent – Beasts, Beauty, and Wonder

This post originally appeared on BiffBamPop.com

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Happy 2017 and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column – well, last year it was more of a semi-regular column, but we’re resolved to change that, now that one gigantic project is wrapping up. Ahem. Let’s start again . . .

. . . “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. So many films premiere each year, but only a very few are remembered and revered years later. That’s not a matter of genre – the Ten Percent is a big tent, with plenty of room for comedy, drama, horror, animation, musical, science fiction and many more. But admission into the tent is not easy to come by. Films in this category last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

Equally at home writing poetry and novels, painting, sculpting and making films, Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963) was one of France’s leading intellectual lights, particularly in the time between the two World Wars. His version of Beauty and the Beast (1946) is an absolute must-see for the film buff.

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While certain elements (a heroine named “Belle,” some very strange wall sconces in the Beast’s castle, and several aspects of the design of the Beast) are echoed in the 1991 Disney version, Cocteau’s version is dreamy, surreal, and altogether unique. Here, Belle is a daughter in a family of four children. She is dedicated to tending to her father and is modest and self-sacrificing while her brother is a wastrel lay-about and her sisters are vain and superficial. When someone has to go be the sacrifice to the Beast, it is Belle who sneaks into the stable to ride the Beast’s magical horse back to the castle.

The Beast is – well, beastly. He hunts and rips his prey to bits. He drinks from a forest pool by lapping at the water like a cat. And yet, his first words to Belle are, “You are in no danger.”

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What truly sets Cocteau’s film apart is the fact that it is a true fairy tale in that it is suitable for children to watch, yet is not intended for them. Fairy tales are cautionary tales with life lessons embedded in the narrative. From Little Red Riding Hood, we learn the perils of leaving the path. From Rumpelstiltskin, we learn the power of names. And from Beauty and the Beast, we learn what can turn a man into a beast and what can turn him back.

Cocteau claimed that one lesson of his film was that anyone who had an unhappy childhood could become a beast – truly a horrifying lesson in post-WW2 Europe, which was overrun with children whose childhoods had been snatched away from them. But the hope lies in the fact that spells can be cast, yes, but they can also be broken and that true love is a mighty tonic indeed.

The film is astonishingly gorgeous. Remembering that this is decades before CGI, Cocteau’s accomplishments become even more noteworthy. He felt he lacked the technical expertise to carry off the trick photography he wanted to use in order to create the rich fantasy world of the Beast’s castle, so he brought aboard acclaimed director Rene Clement as his technical adviser, along with cameraman Henri Alekan to bring the trick shots to fruition. The elaborate Gustave Dore-inspired costumes were created by theatrical designer Christian Berard and were intended to be “as much as the actors could stand up in.”

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All of this comes together so beautifully. Just watch as the Beast gently carries Belle into the castle and her clothes transform in the space of a doorway from the sturdy working clothes of a peasant girl to the bejeweled confections of a queen. The world of the Beast is a dream world and is a world where true love actually can grow, develop, and change the hearts of the lovers.

When the real world of Beauty’s family collides with the dream world, we see the terrible results. Yet, as in all the very best of fairy tales, virtue is rewarded and Beauty finds happiness with her prince in the end.

beauty-3Beauty and the Beast is worth seeing for the sheer gorgeousness of the film. Cocteau was an artist and his source material was rich for overlaying with Freudian symbolism and off-putting magic. His actors – notably Josette Day as Belle and Cocteau’s lover Jean Marais in the triple role of Avenant/Beast/Prince Ardent – play the roles absolutely straight, which brings a heightened sense of magic to the film. The smallest details – glitter in the horse’s mane, magic mirrors, the shadows cast by the magic glove the Beast gives to Beauty – are crafted with care.

I have seen a number of extraordinary films and I have seen a number of beautiful films, but seldom are the two matched to such perfection as they are in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Truly, this vision is part of the Ten Percent.

 

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the (finally!) forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe. You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.


Filed under: Film, K. Dale Koontz, The Ten Percent Tagged: Beauty and the Beast, christian berard, disney, fairy tale, henri alekan, jean cocteau, jean marais, josette day, rene clement, The Ten Percent, theodore sturgeon

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