So I’m trolling around on Netflix, and what do I find? Yes, my all-time favorite TV show when I was seven-years-old (and still a perennial favorite), Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Starring Darren McGavin (who I liked because I shared a name with, and has ever since been one of my favorite character actors) as the intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak, who has more than a casual acquaintance with the occult and weird. Basically a “Monster of the Week” show, it was heightened by witty fast-paced scripts and McGavin’s laconic humor. And yes, seeing it again was inspirational (but that’s just the pencil sketch, more forthcoming!).
I blame Professor Tolkien. Ever since reading his books (particularly Return of the King, with its enticing appendices), I have been fascinated with the construction of languages, and the way in which they truly create the backbone of a culture. After all, nothing’s worth anything if it can’t be communicated, right? My D&D campaign world of Eurychra (which I’ll be getting into soon — I know, I keep saying that) has a few faux naming languages, which borrow heavily from the likes of Greek, Hebrew, Gaelic and Welsh, but nothing close to Professor T.’s magnificent work. I am no philologist, but nonetheless have the bug. I’m the guy that sits and shuffles phonemes around, sounding them out to himself to see if the combinations are cool or not. Nerd much? Yes I do, thanks.
Anyways, I was mystified a few years back when I first read about the Voynich (so-named after Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased the script near Rome in 1912) Manuscript. Carbon-dated to have existed since the 15th century, the throughly illustrated codex appears to concern itself with subjects such as herbs, astronomy, biology, cosmology, and some alchemical and pharmaceutical elements. The only problem is that the writings that make up the bulk of the manuscript is of a hitherto unknown writing system. From its appearance, the script appears to be made up of nearly 30 “glyphs” or written phonemes (or basically, word-sounds — such as the word baker is made up of b/ay/k/ur, the combination of which forms bake + er, or ”one who bakes”), but their precise nature and meaning have alluded many cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from World Wars I and II.
That is, possibly, until now. Enter one Dr. Stephen Bax, Professor of Applied Linguistics for CRELLA (Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment) at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK. His linguistic background is in the Arabic, Spanish and Hebrew languages, along with Akkadian, the early language of Iraq. Using a process similar to Champollion and Young — who managed to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs — Bax proposes to follow their approach with finding and isolating the construction of proper names (individuals or specific objects), and in breaking down these (as I sort of did with baker, above) to create a scheme of definitive sounds for the written symbols, recombining them in other orders to define more glyphs and their sounds, and provide further meaning.
Bax’s cursory passes with the Voynich Manuscript have involved identifying certain planet genera and the most plausible words used to name them, as well as identifying the Taurus constellation, and using these discoveries as a groundwork in defining what sounds the glyphs represent. Bax has made a video which outlines this process and his discoveries, which I present below:
I’m aware that to most people this will sound like so much drudgery, but to anyone as fascinated with the form and function of language as I am, it’s a thrilling expedition into an ancient tome of mystery. I cheer on Dr. Bax wholeheartedly, and hope to hear of more discoveries associated with the Voynich Manuscript soon.
My first memories of Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining are of that creepy-as-hell music that was attached to both the trailer/commercial and the beginning of the film, by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. I was twelve years old, and was visiting my grandmother in Griffin, Georgia (where both my mother and sister were born). Beyond the music, I don’t remember much — but the music was enough. Carlos’ and Elkind’s take on Hector Berlioz’s take on “Dies Irae” — with bonus freaky ghost voices — scared the shit out of me every time I heard it. While I had known who Stephen King was, and had even read a few of his books (Night Shift, Cujo and my all-time fave, Danse Macabre), The Shining had yet to be read when the movie first came out. Most of the information I had on the film was from the magazines I devoured at that age, such as Fangoria and Cinefantasique. Through them I learned about this Kubrick character, who apparently was known to be sonofabitch genius filmmaker. It was a while after that that I became acquainted with the films of Stanley Kubrick.
2001: A Space Odyssey was the first, and it literally astounded me (as it does to this day). At the time, I could not conceive how a film that premiered the year I was born could look as good (if not better) than my hallowed Star Wars movies. That technical brilliance was my first insight to Kubrick’s legacy. The film also stupified me, as in it was a mostly visual process, with little to no dialogue. A parallel experience I had at the time was with the work of Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius and his Arzach series. The feat of showing a story instead of telling one has ever since been a hallmark of a true craftsman to me.
It wasn’t until after A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket that I finally got around to The Shining — nearly a decade after its release — and to be honest, I thought it was more a black comedy than horror film. This may be due to my being a longtime fan of the horror genre, and somewhat jaded in regard to the subject matter, but to this day I don’t find the film particularly effective as a tale of terror. Granted, all the tropes are still there — glinting knives, savage axes (a certain masked character some may find familiar) and even a ballroom full of cobwebbed skeletons — but outside of that damned theme music, I never found anything about it scary. Jack Nicholson especially had me tickled in nearly every scene — from telling “Wendy Darling” that he intends to bash her brains in, to the infamous “Here’s Johnny!” — and I took him as seriously as Snidley Whiplash twirling his moustache. Mind you, the technical skill and visual cues were also there in full effect, but the story simply fell flat for me. While I still love the film, it’s not for the reasons most people consider it great.
Fast forward some twenty or so years later, when the trailer for Room 237 appeared on the interwebs. At first it seemed to be some sort of documentary about the “real” story behind The Shining, which had me intrigued. The film had always been something of an enigma to me, seeing as how I figured that if anyone could create a seriously scary film, it would be Stanley Kubrick; but The Shining, his only entry into the genre, was so curiously ineffective. Possibly because of this (and the theories thrown around about his last film, Eyes Wide Shut), I felt that I may have subconsciously been harboring my own thoughts that there was more to The Shining than was apparent on the surface. After viewing Room 237 that opinion has changed significantly, but an interesting perspective has been gained.
From the aspect of being a documentary — which typically injects some thesis about a subject, and then illustrates (or documents) the points of said thesis – Room 237 initially fails. I say “initially” because the film does succeed ultimately, but on a level that isn’t immediately apparent. I know I’m being amazingly vague here, so let’s dig into the details. The film uses footage from The Shining as well as other Kubrick’s other films and several behind-the-scenes clips and photos to help illustrate the myriad of points it has to offer. The ideas range from The Shining “really” being about American imperialism (based on the appearance of Calumet Baking Powder cans — with its Native American logo, and the similar motif in the fictional Overlook Hotel’s decoration), that Kubrick actually photographed the Apollo 11 moon landing (as Danny Torrence wears an Apollo 11 sweater in the film while playing on the hotel’s carpet, the pattern of which resembles the NASA project’s launch pad) and even analyzes the film by running it simultaneously forward and backward, superimposed. There are also suggestions about the Holocaust, and Jack Torrence’s being Kubrick’s take on the classical Greek myth of the minotaur. The theories fly fast and furious throughout Room 237‘s 102 minute running time, and none of them seem to stick. The Apollo conspiracy appears to be the most thought-out of them, but even it is strained — at best — at several points.
But the validity of the theories isn’t the point to Room 237, the fact that so many of them exist is. The Shining, whether effective as a horror film or not, is a meticulously crafted, beautifully and skillfully shot motion picture which has become a classic of modern cinema (like Kubrick’s other films). Films like it can be viewed and reviewed again, with more insight (whether intended by the creators or not) brought to the viewer each time. Kubrick in particular was known for being a perfectionist, often shooting innumerable takes for certain scenes, and known for being intimately involved at all levels of production. These elements make a film ripe for the picking, so to speak. The likes of Kubrick, with his love of extraneous detail and control, could be up to anything within the context of his films. Therein lies the appeal of Room 237 — it’s essentially a game of “what was he thinking?”, not unlike one of those puzzles where two seemingly identical photographs are shown, leaving the viewer to spot the differences (with the instance of a missing chair in one scene of The Shining, this is actually the case). The players of the game may not be very good at it, but the fact that they are allowed to play makes for an interesting commentary about film and its cultural impact. This is the “hidden message” of Room 237. Cue the creepy-as-hell music.
People often talk about “generation gaps” and “culture clashes”, and when it is brought up most often is when they decide to dissect what is funny. The older folks talk about how guys like Sid Caesar (who also recently passed at the spectacular age of 91, God bless him and his immaculate insanity) and Milton Berle (who, honestly, I always saw as something of a hack) revolutionized comedy in the early days of television, those after them point to the likes of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor as the vanguards of comedy (and very rightly so), and still others mention the likes of Steve Martin, Robin Williams and of course Eddie Murphy. Nowadays the “greats” are the late Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks — without a doubt brilliant men — while guys like Chris Rock, (the unfortunately also late) Mitch Hedberg, Louis CK, Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart dominate most people’s lists currently. And no, I’m not forgetting the women who were (and still are) just as prominent, like Imogene Coca, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett (my personal all-time fave), Gilda Radner and Tina Fey.
But for me the “Golden Age” of comedy for began in the early 1970′s, with the advent to two major channels: Saturday Night (before and somewhat after it was Live), and the National Lampoon (the magazine and eventual films). Honestly, most of what I found (and continue to find) to be funny came from those avenues. From the first ever sketch with John Belushi and Michael O’Donoghue “feeding their feengertips to the wolvereens” to Murphy’s “Buckwheat Sings”, SNL was a weird and hilarious late-night underground, populated with short-tempered samurai, aliens from “France” and of course, Mr. Bill. The Lampoon had illustrious beginnings, being an offshoot from the Harvard Lampoon which first published in 1876 (whao). Founded by Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman in 1969, the National Lampoon created a strong font of absurdist humor and pointed political and social satire, my fave pieces including “Our White Heritage”, which states that Jesus Christ was “technically” a white person — but was still on the fence about Jews in general; “Beat the Meatles”, an imagined celebrity interview with the Beatles and Yoko Ono, and my all-time favorite, the “1980 United States Census”. No, really.
I’m sure at this point you may be wondering if I’ve forgotten the subject of this entry — let me assure you, Patient Reader, that I’ve only been building up to his significance. Harold Ramis was born in Chicago, Illinois, his early heroes being Groucho and Harpo Marx: “Groucho using his wit as a weapon against the upper classes, and of Harpo’s antic charm and the fact that he was oddly sexy — he grabs women, pulls their skirts off, and gets away with it”. He later famously worked for a mental institution in St. Louis, which “prepared me well for when I went out to Hollywood to work with actors. People laugh when I say that, but it was actually very good training. And not just with actors; it was good training for just living in the world. It’s knowing how to deal with people who might be reacting in a way that’s connected to anxiety or grief or fear or rage. As a director, you’re dealing with that constantly with actors. But if I were a businessman, I’d probably be applying those same principles to that line of work.”
He later studied and performed with the Second City comedy troupe, which included Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Joe Flaherty. With future SNL alums Belushi and Murray, Ramis worked on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which was created by the aforementioned Michael O’Donoghue (a mainstay of the Lampoon magazine and the initial seasons of SNL). Along with Candy and Flaherty he performed and was head writer of SCTV (Second City Television; my fave Ramis portrayals were of Officer Friendly and Leonard Nimoy), a Canadian counterpart to SNL. He was later offered a slot as a writer at SNL, but declined.
Ramis’ first film project was with Lampoon co-founder Kenney and “Beat the Meatles” author Chris Miller, that being the comedic milestone National Lampoon’s Animal House, which starred Belushi as the manic-depressive Bluto and Kenney as “The Stork”. For the unwashed, the film broke box office records after its release in 1978, and basically set the tone for the many (and mostly inferior) comedies that have issued since. Ramis then turned to his friend (and most frequent collaborator) Bill Murray with the classic Meatballs, which cemented Murray as a box office draw and Ramis as an established writer. Next up was his second collaboration with Kenney — and his first directorial stint – Caddyshack (which famously starred Murray and his estranged SNL co-star Chevy Chase). He and Murray would also star in the film Stripes, along with fellow SCTV alum John Candy. Beginning in 1984, Ramis collaborated with Aykroyd on the script for Ghostbusters, which would star them both and Murray (and Ernie Hudson, who deserves his own blog entry here. Don’t get me started on Leviathan). It’s all starting to make sense now, isn’t it?
Ghostbusters and its sequel would catapult Ramis to superstardom, which he would further ascend with his masterpiece, Groundhog Day – a film so wedged in the cultural consciousness that the title has since become a reference to any uncomfortable situation that seems to endlessly repeat itself. My personal fave of his directorial work is The Ice Harvest, a wonderfully funny film noir starring John “Hoops” Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.
Ramis was — without a doubt, and certainly in my mind — one of the founders of modern comedy. He brought a good-natured, yet sharply defined poke in the ribs to American culture. Noone else could ever be so simultaneously smug-yet-sincere, so warm-yet-satirical. In a statement after his passing, Bill Murray said of Ramis: “He earned his keep on this planet.” If only the rest of us could do so well.