“Future Events Such as These Will Affect You in the Future,” or A Review of NIGHTMARE OF ECSTASY: THE LIFE AND ART OF EDWARD D. WOOD, JR. by Rudolph Grey

NOTE: Much of this review was inspired by a post on one of my favorite blogs, BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS.  Check it out!  http://breakfastintheruins.blogspot.com/2011/03/some-thoughts-on-troll-2-1990-and-best.html

Certain interests will always confuse most people.  When my artistic tastes began to develop, my mother was able to understand, although not share, my joy in horror and science fiction.  However, she was never able to make anything out of my fascination with the infamous director Ed Wood.  Her position (and it’s a tough one to dispute) was that Wood made lousy movies.  Why would anyone really care?  Initially, I thought my interest was limited to Wood’s place in Hollywood horror and sci-fi history.  In reality, it’s much deeper and Rudolph Grey holds the key.

In his beautifully written introduction, Grey recounts how he first became aware of Ed Wood and his films.  The background was the first release of classic horror films to television in the 1950s and the rise of genre magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland.  The first time I read all this, I was entranced and I didn’t know why.  After several re-reads, and examinations of the extensive Wood bibliography and filmography at the end of the book, I think I’ve figured it out.  Grey manages to conjure up a strange, amusing and, above all, mysterious world.  It is a world where, walking into a side street movie theater or a back alley bookstore, or flipping on the TV late at night, or pulling something with a lurid cover off a small magazine kiosk, you really didn’t know what you were getting.  There might be ghosts.  There might be aliens.  It would probably be pretty cheap.  Frequently, it was poorly done.  At times, it was quite funny.  Infrequently, but not quite rarely, it was sublime.  Boredom and satiety, on the other hand, WERE pretty rare.  What Grey puts his finger on is the reason why I’ll watch direct to DVD horror movies, why I’m excited when I hear something didn’t cost a lot of money, why I miss the randomness that used to be seen on late night TV scheduling and why my heart leaps when I see dollar store DVD sections, and used bookstores, and bargain bins, and remainder tables.  Wood’s life and work defines this world.  He had faith that all he needed was his imagination to make us believe steel factories had something to do with cross-dressing or that cardboard cut-outs were gravestones.  Ed Wood was the living embodiment of this curious world.  Now, he is its patron saint.  Saints, however, go through intense suffering for what they believe in.  Also, much of their glory only comes after death.  Grey shows that Ed Wood was no different.

It should be understood that this book is not a biography in the traditional sense.  Grey terms it “an oral history” and embraces the fact that people who knew Wood have conflicting, sometimes totally contradictory, memories.  The majority of the book is made up of direct quotations from the interviews Grey conducted with Wood’s family, friends and associates.  The chapter order loosely follows Wood’s life.  There are sections on his early life, the making of his major films, his late career turn to pornography and his tragic final years.  Some chapters digress to look at aspects of his personality and work habits and one focuses on some of the more colorful members of his entourage.

Through all this, Grey stays silent.  We only hear the author’s voice in the introduction and in the bibliography and filmography of Wood’s work.  For the most part, we are left with the people who knew Wood.  This can be dizzying at times, since the speakers are only thoroughly identified in a section near the end.  Also, some interviewees are a WHOLE lot more pleasant to spend time with than others.  Finally, it is hard to know for sure what is true and what isn’t.  Readers should probably reserve judgement at times.  For the most part however, Grey’s passive approach lends an appropriately documentary film feeling to his look at a man who, everyone agrees, adored movies.

We learn much about Ed Wood’s life and passions and the movie industry he worked in.  There is also a lot about the people he knew.  Fans of the legendary Bela Lugosi will not be disappointed.  On a less pleasant note, there is a very disturbing (assuming it is true) revelation about B movie favorite, wrestler turned actor Tor Johnson.  An incredibly moving passage comes from none other than Dudley Manlove, one of the hilariously awful actors (“Your stupid minds!  Stupid!!  Stupid!!!”) from Wood’s magnum opus,  Plan 9 From Outer Space.  By the end of his life, Ed Wood was a bitter and mean alcoholic, living in poverty.  Manlove’s desperately futile attempt to help him is so sad that I can’t even laugh at his dreadful acting anymore.

In the end, no one could save Ed Wood.  There seems to be a parable of warning in Grey’s book.  The world Wood believed in is not real.  Life will always conquer it.  Wood never seemed to learn this.  While other men and women who take part in the whimsical dreams and magic of Wood’s world know it is as fleeting as the joys of Halloween night and build other lives, Wood put his whole self into his fantasy.  He wouldn’t accept that Halloween ends and you’d better have something else under your cool mask.

In the end, who really cares?  If ever a book defined “niche interest,” this is it.  If readers are not interested in any of this stuff, it’s hard to imagine them changing their minds, nor should they.  But for anyone who is even slightly charmed by the magic Ed Wood was tantalized by, this book will become precious.  It is a hymn to that world and its magic.  That magic is real, I believe, and it still exists.  It does seem a bit harder to find these days, however.  This book is a marvelous place to start the search.

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ANTHEM by Ayn Rand

There’s no denying Ayn Rand’s staying power. About twelve years ago, I decided I ought to read some of her work since I was hearing so much about it. Today, there doesn’t seem to have been any decline in her popularity. My theory, based on this book, is that her success is primarily about the appeal of her philosophy. It certainly doesn’t have much to do with literary merit. I have rarely read such a sloppy, unappealing and ridiculously simplistic work of fiction. There is no style. There is no plot worth talking about. After reading about a page, I knew everything that was going to happen. The “characters” are nothing but ideological stick-figures. They do nothing, say nothing, think nothing that is not calculated to prove Rand’s theories. I have seen half-hour episodes of sitcoms that show more insight and nuance. Quite a few actually. All this novella really has is an idea. If you think (like me) it’s an interesting one, read Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” I’m not even a Vonnegut devotee but there are galaxies between his writing ability and Rand’s.  Anthem only exists to promote Rand’s beliefs.
Of course, one might reasonably ask what’s wrong with that. Obviously, I can only explain what I believe. For me, part of the essence of literature is ambiguity. It’s not that an author can’t have passionate beliefs. However, crafting literature involves a degree of understanding of and sympathy for human beings. No matter how strongly we believe something, only a fanatic wouldn’t admit that sometimes beliefs and theories don’t explain everything in the complicated, messy world of people. In my opinion, some reflection of this melancholy knowledge is necessary before a piece of writing can become true literature. Nowhere in Anthem does Ayn Rand show even a hint of that knowledge. This book is really a religious document. Its purpose is merely to expound upon settled doctrine for the pleasure of the faithful and the conversion of the unbeliever. On these terms, I suppose Anthem succeeds but that doesn’t make me like it.   

THE RAPE OF LUCRECE by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare is my favorite author. I also believe he is one of the world’s greatest literary geniuses. However, I get ticked off when people act like he was some divine figure who could do no wrong. For one thing, it turns lots of people, especially young people, off to a great writer they might well embrace otherwise. Also, it’s simply not true. This poem is ample proof of that. It is astonishing to me that THIS was one of only two works Shakespeare carefully oversaw the publication of. The other was the charming but very slight Venus and AdonisThe Rape of Lucrece is dreary, dull and reeks of the author looking over his shoulder for the approval of “literary” types. The Roman legend it is based on certainly has potential as a story but Shakespeare handles it with utter banality. It’s hard to imagine that such a horrific theme like rape could be written about in such a flat manner but that’s what happens here. The poem is so blase that even the fine editor of the 1960 Arden edition, F. T. Prince, indulges in a drily sarcastic footnote or two. One gets the strong impression that, on some level, Shakespeare was just not that interested. There are a few eloquent lines and some definite historical interest but this is tough to slog through. I read it because I was determined to read all of Shakespeare’s works. The Rape of Lucrece took a LONG time. Not planning to read it again. Thankfully, Shakespeare didn’t spend too much time with this stuff and, at least, we got a lesson that ANY writer can bomb. 

THE FOUR GEORGES by William Makepeace Thackeray

“A wandering minstrel I
A thing of shreds and patches,
Of ballads, songs and snatches,
And dreamy lullaby!
My catalogue is long,
Through every passion ranging,
And to your humors changing
I tune my supple song!”
When I was in high school and first seriously interested in literature, I heard these lyrics from Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado.  They speak, to me at least, of a concept of art I’ve always found deeply appealing. An art that, while potentially serious, has something slightly informal and occasional about it. For some reason, I’ve always yearned after that minstrel, who could make us laugh one day and then, on request, spin a grand, heroic tragedy. The next day, everyone would gather for a fairy tale. It’s not that the minstrel wouldn’t care about the song but he or she would recognize it as potentially somewhat fleeting.
Almost immediately, I connected that imaginary minstrel to Thackeray. While he was an author with a major reputation, there definitely seemed to be something of those shreds and patches about him. I formed this impression primarily from reading ABOUT Thackeray. I tried some of his work but, at that point in my development, his prose was too much for me.
My ideas about literature are broader and maturer these days but that minstrel still enchants me sometimes. I recently decided to try Thackeray again. I picked The Four Georges because I have read quotes from it for years in books on the history of the British monarchy. Those passages were always charming and humorous and I’d long wondered about the whole piece. It was a wonderful read but it does demonstrate some of the issues that, I think, held Thackeray back as a writer.
To begin with, any potential reader should know that this is not a straight work of biography or history. Thackeray writes about what he wants to and ignores what he doesn’t like. He also digresses constantly to comment on various aspects of life in the reigns of the Georges. Anyone seeking more serious and accurate information about any of these kings and their eras should look elsewhere. Thackeray also assumes the audience knows a lot about British and European history and culture. As an Anglophile and a history buff, this was no problem for me. However, other readers might well find it frustrating.
The scattered nature of Thackeray’s narrative can be distracting but it gives The Four Georges a deliciously individual taste. It also aids Thackeray in achieving his stated goal of giving us a kind of panorama of activity during the lives and reigns of Kings George I-IV. That panorama is vivid and never less than convincing although, as I mentioned earlier, readers should consult more scholarly works to get a balanced look at these periods.
In terms of his reputation as a humorist, Thackeray more than measures up here. There are several laugh out loud moments. The chapter on George III, probably the strongest part of the book overall, contains some of the best chuckles. Thackeray is a gentle comedian. He can be sharp but never comes across as nasty, even when calling someone dreary and stupid! Naturally, this isn’t easy. Part of the explanation is that Thackeray frequently tempers his satire with a very Victorian brand of sentimentality. Surprisingly, this works quite well, especially in the sections about George II’s wife Caroline of Ansbach and George III’s descent into madness. When mixing humor and sentiment, Thackeray showed great aesthetic discipline, never tipping too far one way or the other. The overall effect is quite beguiling.
While I loved this book, it certainly is not without its flaws. Thackeray’s ambiguous reaction (assuming I read it correctly) to George I’s despicable and vile treatment of his wife is rather disturbing. There are also unpleasant moments of antisemitism and, especially, anti-Catholicism. Thackeray does however attack cruelty and fanaticism. In a passage condemning religious persecution, he includes actions against Jews and Catholics on his list of moral outrages.
Another problem with The Four Georges is Thackeray’s apparent confusion about what he felt and thought. There were moments when I wasn’t TOTALLY sure whether or not Thackeray was kidding or being serious. Some of that may have been me missing the point but I don’t think all of it was. Thackeray was a confirmed Victorian, valuing honor and morality above all. However, he was also a man captivated by the perceived carelessness and fun of a very un-Victorian past. Nowhere is this clearer than in the chapter on George IV. Thackeray’s tone is very confusing. For several pages, he can’t seem to decide if his fascination with George IV outweighs his contempt for that rake of a monarch. I applaud Thackeray’s treasuring of simple humility and virtue. There is not nearly enough of that now, in my opinion. Aesthetically however, it seems to me that Thackeray felt he needed to translate that reverence for virtue into serious, monumental writing. This is simply not where his talent lay.  The Four Georges is great when it is just funny. It’s still great when it’s funny and poignant. When Thackeray drops the humor altogether, the book becomes cloying and irksome. Luckily, this doesn’t happen that often but it reveals the problem with Thackeray’s art. I think he WAS that wandering minstrel. Ironically, if he’d just embraced the nature of his gifts and had fun, he would probably be much better remembered. Thackeray might have argued that he was bound to promote virtue. I honor and respect his wishes. Still, I just don’t think he was cut out to promote virtue in any brow-furrowing way. The sad thing is, his skill with gentle laughter and quiet tears might well have promoted virtue better than any serious and “important” writing he felt he had to do. 

TALK by Carl Hancock Rux

I had the great luck to see this play when it was performed in New York City in 2002. It was one of the most memorable theatrical experiences of my life. However, I wondered for quite some time about the actual text. The production was out of this world great. Would the play itself, divorced from the skilled director and top-notch cast, endure as a work of literature? Certainly, the dramatist was part of the play’s aesthetic success. But was he the most vital part? In my opinion, if a dramatist is not the central aspect of a play, the play will simply not last. Am I a conservative? It’s an accusation I’m familiar with. I do believe that for a great play to last, it must have a great text and/or author behind it. Without that, it can be a great production but not a great play. That’s my view and I’m not ashamed of it.

Anyway, a few years after seeing that production, I finally got a chance to read this play in book form. Within a few pages, I knew there had been no accident.  Talk was not just a great production. It is a great play. One of the wonderful things about Talk is Rux’s ability to create a drama of ideas but make it entertaining. This is a very experimental and almost surreal work where nothing actually happens, at least not in the traditional plot sense. And yet, while watching and reading, I was on the edge of my seat. Rux is uncompromising but he does not forget the value of theatricality. He knows how the theater works and makes it work for him so he can go to some incredibly troubling places. The dramatist who most comes to mind in his ability to merge rigorous intellectual engagement with bold, theatrical bravado is Samuel Beckett. At its heart,  Talk is a mystery. The protagonist functions as a detective. However, the hunt turns into a hunt for ultimate truth with a solution that will shatter the souls of those seeking to discover it. In this regard, it reminds me of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

The characters in this play are mostly hidden behind names from Greek philosophy. The protagonist is identified only as “The Moderator.” Despite this, they are all fully human, powerful figures. They stand for certain types, yes, but manage to also exist as individuals. At the start, some of them seem like caricatures, positive and negative. By the end, no one is a caricature. Everyone has become horribly vulnerable. The contemptible have spoken the truth and the admirable have gibbered like fools. Everyone has fallen.

There is quite a bit of artistic name-dropping in Talk.  Yet somehow it never feels like any of the works it is influenced by. It feels only like itself. This play is excellent proof that a work can be about literature but not snowed under by literary forerunners.

Talk is a tragedy. However, it is an ultimately constructive work. At the end, the audience might feel despair but it will be purged of preconceptions and ready to look at the issues the play raises in a new way. This was, broadly speaking, the goal of ancient tragedy. To me, there is still no higher praise for a play.

Mr. Rux has written works of poetry and fiction. I understand he has composed a libretto for an opera. I would like to know these works and I admire any author who can manage different types of writing. Still, I hope he will write more plays. His power in the dramatic form is mesmerizing. The theater these days rarely seems to produce works of this level. Much serious theater today is only of the moment. Other plays are excellent but don’t want to engage in grand, philosophical issues. Not all plays need to do this but there should be more. I think Talk will come to be seen as a great play of its time. If Rux writes more this good, he may well be recognized in the future as one of the great American dramatists of his lifetime. 

THE WILD BOYS: A BOOK OF THE DEAD by William S. Burroughs

Burroughs was really on here. I might be setting myself up for some contempt but I vastly prefer The Wild Boys to the more famous Naked Lunch.  That novel is just far too chaotic and uneven.  The Wild Boys is just as radical. There is very little in the way of plot, just a vague idea and a kind of hovering mood. Burroughs also again gives us plenty of graphic sex and violence. However, in this novel Burroughs feels (almost) totally in control. While a few sections fall flat, the book is mostly written with a tenderness that clashes beautifully with the often horrific subject matter and, at times, reduced me to tears. “The Dead Child” is probably the most memorable chapter. I still need to read more Burroughs but, out of this book, Naked LunchJunky, Exterminator!, and Queer, The Wild Boys is my favorite. Call me a heretic if you must! 

MOLTO AGITATO: THE MAYHEM BEHIND THE MUSIC AT THE METROPOLITAN OPERA by Johanna Fiedler

This is the perfect book for opera lovers or anyone who wants to know more about the greatest opera house in the United States. Fiedler writes clear, no-nonsense prose occasionally tinged with dry humor. This style is perfectly suited to her rich, bigger than life material. While the book is not primarily concerned with music, Fiedler knows and loves opera well and her knowledge helps keep the book grounded. At times, I wish she had spent more time on a particular period of the Met’s history. The book sometimes covers decades in a couple of chapters. Still, Fiedler had a lot to deal with and, even when she goes quickly, everything is always handled well. Aside from all the fun gossip, (and there is plenty of it) this book is invaluable for its insights into the difficulties of running an opera house, or any arts institution, in this country. There are also numerous portraits of interesting people associated with the Met over the years. Two of the best are of former General Manager Anthony Bliss and British director John Dexter. Both were absolutely fascinating individuals I would probably never have heard of were it not for this book.  Molto Agitato is an essential addition to any opera bookshelf. 

WILL IN THE WORLD: HOW SHAKESPEARE BECAME SHAKESPEARE by Stephen Greenblatt

It is difficult to imagine this being topped. Unless new information about Shakespeare comes to light, this will probably remain the definitive biography. Considering all the nonsense that comes up when Shakespeare is discussed, it is so refreshing to read a true scholar of the era calmly explain the nature of the world Shakespeare inhabited. The sections on the theater of Shakespeare’s time and on the group of contemporary writers (such as Christopher Marlowe, George Peele and Robert Greene) Shakespeare associated with are off the charts. He is also good at explaining the tortuous political, religious and economic events that Shakespeare would have experienced. Greenblatt is also a fine writer, clear and lively but also detailed and scholarly. Non-specialist readers will have no trouble following him while those experienced with Shakespeare and his age will never feel talked down to. Many have castigated Greenblatt for being too speculative. It’s true, he does indulge in quite a bit of conjecture. To me, this seems unavoidable considering the gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and times. For the most part, Greenblatt’s conjectures are brief and eminently plausible. In one instance, when writing on Shakespeare’s possible relationship to Roman Catholic rebels against the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, he seems to me to go over the top. However, Greenblatt is always totally honest about his speculation and provides alternative possibilities. He seemed to structure his book so the reader could practically ignore his conjectures without missing out on the heart of what he is trying to say. This is a masterpiece of scholarship that is also a vivid, wonderfully written biography. By the way, anyone who reads this book and STILL buys any of that anti-Stratfordian dreck is truly blind! 

NAKED LUNCH by William S. Burroughs

I have sentimental feelings towards this book since it was the work that introduced me to the Beat movement. It is also the novel that pretty much ended literary censorship in the United States. It’s certainly had plenty of literary influence and does have passages of great beauty and power. Sadly, I just don’t feel it is very much of a novel. I have no problem with disjointed or surreal works but Burroughs here does not seem to be in control. Naked Lunch is just pure literary chaos. When it comes together at times, the impact is great but there are LOTS of parts where the book is just garbled or, even worse, dull. Burroughs strikes me as the least disciplined of the major Beat writers. Despite the stereotypes, some of which they helped to spread with their attitudes, Kerouac and Ginsberg took their craft very seriously. Burroughs actually seemed to be the talented but all over the place figure everyone thought the whole movement was. This being said, he was quite talented. I’ve read some short pieces of his that are just incredible. In two other novels I’ve read, Queer and The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead, Burroughs manages to successfully maintain reasonably long narratives. Both of these books are moving and, especially in the case of the latter, gorgeously written. Unfortunately Burroughs is best known for Naked Lunch.  Read it, by all means, but check out some more Burroughs if you’re underwhelmed. 

RICHARD III by William Shakespeare

One thing that REALLY needs to be understood better is that this is the last play in a series. Three rather long plays, Henry VI, parts 1-3 precede it. While Richard III can be enjoyed on its own (and I feel it is the best of the series) it will be easier to grasp if the audience member or reader at least knows the play’s original context.
There is plenty to dislike in Richard III. Still relatively early in his career, Shakespeare’s dramatic structure is often quite crude. The set piece speeches feel exactly like set piece speeches and some scenes just declare their ideological purpose outright. Sometimes that “show, don’t tell” rule can become a meaningless cliche but it has a good point and you wish some of it had been followed here at times. Speaking of ideology, it’s all over the place in Richard III.  Leaving aside the matter of whether Richard is himself unfairly maligned (my bet is he was no saint, just like nearly all monarchs of the time) there is the matter of his nemesis, the Earl of Richmond/King Henry VII. He is portrayed as some kind of cross between Jesus Christ and Superman. Even if you know nothing about Henry VII, the depiction of him in this play is apt to come off as pretty risible. If you DO know something about that ruthless, Machiavellian king, it is downright ridiculous. Of course, with Henry’s granddaughter ruling England at the time, Shakespeare was unlikely to have said anything critical. In later years, however, Shakespeare would figure out subtler ways to please monarchs without damaging his art.
That’s a lot of negatives, I know but this is still a masterpiece. A rough one, to be sure, but also a powerful and perceptive one. The key comes from a line Richard says shortly after taking the throne: “But shall we wear these glories for a day or shall they live and we rejoice in them?” Utter brutality and tyranny might win power. In fact, they probably will quite often. However, can they keep power? “Win it and wear it” was a popular proverb in Shakespeare’s day. Richard wins but, ultimately, he cannot wear. We see this so much in current events and throughout history. It’s not always true and it rarely goes as quickly as events do in this play. All the same, the bloodier tyrants don’t often die comfortably in their beds. Even when they do, the system they created rarely outlasts them. There is usually some thaw. Richard III is a striking distillation of the risks inherent when anyone decides to use cruelty to claw their way to the top. The goddess Fortuna isn’t very attractive by the end of this play. She does have that wheel after all…