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Robin Williams (1951-2014).

Along with everyone else in the world, I was shocked to hear about Robin Williams’ death last night. Shocked, but not surprised. Williams had fought depression — which for many is a condition, not an illness — for the majority of his adult life. It is perhaps because of that condition that he also was one of the greatest comedic talents known, a man possessed who raged against fear and personal doubt with before unimagined heights of manic genius. Comedians who ranked as contemporaries, such as Steve Martin and John Belushi, were like the Jimmy Pages and Eric Claptons of comedy — but Williams was Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, wrenching every last note and primal sound out of his instrument before setting it aflame. He among a generation of voices fashioned a new age of comedic commentary, one that was daringly political, surreal and disturbingly intimate.

I won’t go into detail about his career, other than to say many of his roles onscreen showed what the man behind the mania was like — a sensitive, poetic soul with a chillingly dark edge. Like the greatest of actors, one had an understanding when seeing him take on certain aspects of character that he knew them all too well. Most others were simply frail containers set up to fall away and let him fly free, like some sort of berserker warrior who is set into the fray of battle.

Those moments showed what Williams did best — furiously improvise and embody the most abstract of concepts in a way that made them both immediately familiar and hilariously obvious. The greatest of comedians are those who manage to reveal the human condition for what it is — a series of blunders and happenstance punctuated with fleeting moments of genius and beauty. That exposed truth is what makes us laugh, even if we never realized it before. And Robin Williams, a Joycean whirling dervish of a man, did that more than most.

Gojirra (2014).

When I saw the teaser trailer for this one, I knew I needed it. I was thrown back to the 1970s, when WTCG (now known as TBS, the “Superstation”, or Sitcom Gehenna) ran the magnificent monster marathons known as the “Friday Night Frights”. These would include everything from the Universal classics, the drive-in fare of the 1950s — and later in the evening, the Hammer features from the 1960s (Ingrid Pitt, rawr). Also included were the Toho canon classics, most of which featured the King of the Monsters himself.

Yeah, I knew it was a guy in a suit (I mean durr, I grew up on Ultraman and The Space Giants, kids — again, thanks WTCG), but that wasn’t important. What was important was the genuine sense of dread that came in his wake. As a child, I understood it emotionally, but didn’t intellectually — Gojirra (not “Godzilla”, since I believe the impetus for his existence is lost in the Anglicized context) represented the collective conscience of a nation, one ravaged by honest-to-God nuclear holocaust. I surely don’t have to point this out, but outside of the travesty of the Nazis, Hiroshima and Nagasaki rank supreme on the “Man’s Inhumanity to Man” top ten list. He wasn’t a bad guy, but the wish fulfillment of a people who had to make some sort of justification for what had befallen them. Gojirra was outrage, he was justice, he was emotional inevitability.  He was why we have movies in the first place.

The 1998 film made me sick. It was basically an drawn-out episode of The Love Boat with a giant lizard in the background. The film was made by people who apparently had no clue what Gojirra represented or stood for. Either that or they simply ignored it out of some opportunistic bid for replicating the success of Independence Day (which, taken for what it is, is a awesome popcorn flick) — I am inclined to think the latter. In any case, that sad outtake on an otherwise spirited series of films (dancing or “talking” Gojirra politely accepted).

In 2010 Monsters was released, and it was a marvel. I relate it most to Half-Life 2, Valve’s amazing storyline of one man (the ever capable Gordon Freeman)’s trek through a world ravaged by extra-dimensional invaders. In the case of Monsters, they are extraterrestrial, and titularly restricted to Mexico in an “Infected Zone” (a more succinct version of District 9, in my opinion), which makes for a fascinating travail in a world uprooted into the fantastic and brutally believable. Gareth Edwards was its writer and director, and when I found out he would be behind the latest iteration of Gojirra I gave a great sigh of relief — and waited patiently.

Then came the aforementioned teaser. Ligeti’s Requiem (best known for its use in Kubrick’s 2001) wails in sonic lament as a brave few plunge from on high by blood-red flare light. Beneath them, beyond a maelstrom of blackened clouds, lies a ravaged cityscape and the source of its undoing — a massive silhouette amid the floating detritus — an old friend. I’ll be honest, I teared up. Gojirra was back.

Godzilla is the tale of one family (headed by the beloved Heisenberg himself, Bryan Cranston) that bares witness to a global catastrophe, and its ultimate champion. The film is wonderfully paced, cautiously informing the viewer of Gojirra’s dark heritage — if anything upping the ante towards the Western world considerably (and understandably) — and playfully teasing the audience towards what would surely come: a showdown among giants. The supporting cast, which includes Ken (Letters from Iwo Jima) Watanabe, Elizabeth (Martha Marcy May Marlene) Olsen and Aaron (Kick-Ass) Taylor-Johnson, is magnificent — but we all know who the stars are here. The enormous MUTOs (or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) are highly reminiscent of the beast from Cloverfield (another big stompy monster movie — along with del Toro’s brilliant Pacific Rim being the best of the genre in recent memory), and are a capable pair of foes for our scaled hero.

But the hero is indeed the setpiece of the film. The biggest Gojirra on film (scaling at 355 feet), the keloid scarred behemoth is a astounding sight. Yeah, he’s a little heavy, but when you’re so much a badass, you gotta back it up. And this Gojirra is one beautiful badass. Replete with killer finishing moves and nuclear (not fire, as represented elsewhere) breath, this King of the Monsters is one complete package. He shows up, takes care of business, then makes his leave (no spoilers here, just what is expected of the King of Kaiju).

This film represents an anomaly to its detractors in the way it is true to its singular sub-genre. Those expecting something like the aforementioned films may actually be left wanting. But this is a Gojirra movie through and through. The looming dread, the vast expanses of debris — and the nightmarish heritage behind all of it. Edwards has scored a major victory in my book, and I look very much forward to the two sequels he is set to create.

10/10

 

Hans “Reudi” Giger (1940 – 2014).

Keats wrote “Whatever the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth — whether it existed before or not.” The meaning of this quote mystifies many, but I have always understood it. The greatest artists seem to have some tenebrous connection to a plane of understanding that we somehow glance past, and have even managed to establish considerable real estate there. Some of these include artists I have blogged about before, including Jean “Moebius” Giraud. The very minute you look at their work, a recognition takes place. Back in the recesses of the brain, a sequence of firing neurons unlocks some obscure mystery that provides no immediate answer — but leaves the viewer convinced that “something” is going on, not unlike Spielberg’s Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind bewildered by his mashed potatoes. This is the truth of which Keats tell us. H. R. Giger’s art — while not immediately deemed “beautiful” by most — is the stuff of dreams or nightmares, and its own kind of truth.

Like David Cronenberg, who once looked upon the human body as a surrealist canvas with which to illustrate its inner turmoils (compare Max Renn’s bodily infused “cancer gun” in Cronenberg’s classic Videodrome to Giger’s “Birth Machine”), Giger’s art — or more specifically his concept of “biomechanics” — externalized the tropes of mankind by mutating his exterior in an industrialized fashion. He created a world that, while wholly alien, was altogether too familiar once closely inspected.

Speaking of Alien (nyuk nyuk), it was that film that first alerted me to Giger’s art. I vividly remember having a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland that featured a number of Giger’s Alien designs, which I frantically tried to reproduce with oil pastel. My left thumb and forefinger bore a grayish-green stain for several months. The detached intensity of his art, the coldly illuminated environments and their nightmarish denizens looked eerily familiar and simultaneously horrifying. Needless to say, I was in love with Giger’s work and have been ever since.

Giger set a window in the Lovecraftian Wall of Sleep and shone a light into the viscera of mankind’s primal workings. He was able to set that most lofty of goals, and do it in such a way that isolated his vision enough to realize its importance, its truth. Most see his work as “weird” or “surreal”, but I have always appreciated it as a complete aesthetic, with its own archetypes and language. I would imagine he and his fellow Swiss Carl Jung will have a lot to talk about.

 

David Trampier (1954 – 2014).

Having blogged before about my first impressions of role-play gaming, particularly that of Dungeons & Dragons, I won’t go into that here. That is, outside mentioning again one of D&D’s main attractions for me — the art of David Trampier.

In 1977, Trampier, along with David Sutherland and brother-in-law Tom Wham, were the first illustrators for the burgeoning Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game, the first published product of which was the Monster Manual.

Next came the Player’s Handbook, Trampier’s cover art for which has since become an iconic portrait of the fantasy role-playing experience.

In 1978, Trampier provided the cover and interior art for James Ward’s brilliant post-apocalyptic role-playing game Gamma World.

In 1979, Trampier supplied the art for the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Screen (which I proudly own a mint-condition copy of):

As well as the cover and interior art for Gary Gygax’s seminal work T1 – The Village of Hommlet.

Finally, beginning in the September 1977 issue of TSR’s Dragon magazine, Trampier turned the tables on the role-playing heroic types and made the bad guys the focus of his laconic wit with Wormy.

Sadly, Trampier bowed out of his illustration career in the late 1980′s leaving his publishers befuddled and fans (myself included) saddened by his loss. It wasn’t until 2002, due to a Southern Illinois University student newspaper article, that anyone knew of what had happened to David Trampier (he had been working as a cab driver in Carbondale, Illinois). Because of this, Trampier was again courted by many companies to either provide new art or allow publishing rights to his previous work, both of which he denied. In 2013, Trampier suffered a stroke, lost his job when his taxi company went out of business and found out he had cancer. Castle Perilous Games & Books, a local game store in Carbondale, wanted to negotiate his art for the Dungeon Master’s Screen, as well as republishing his Wormy comics via Troll Lord Games. He had been scheduled to make an appearance at the local Egypt Wars convention, where he would have been able to contact the Troll Lord Games representatives, but passed three weeks before the convention.

David Trampier’s art was concise, detailed and effortlessly stylized at many levels. His work brought a dimension of credibility to the games he visualized, beyond simple illustration. Upon seeing his art one got the idea that something deeper was at work, cultures and ecosystems were being represented.

His work was a considerable influence on me, and surely millions of D&D fans for over 30 years. If I had to gain any insight of the man through his work (which, honestly, I am left to do), he was both immensely intelligent and devoted to the worlds he helped create. Due to his position at the dawn of what would become to be a national obsession in the 1980s (and ever since), Trampier will forever be associated with the phenomenon that is Dungeons & Dragons — if not one of the many reasons it was and continues to be so successful.

 

Radio Free Albemuth — The Movie.

Everyone who knows me knows I love the Dick. That being Philip K. Dick, of course. The writer who inspired such amazing films as Blade RunnerTotal Recall and A Scanner Darkly was delineated as a “science fiction author”, but the real grist of his mill was that of social and political conflict and their effects on the identity of the individual. Like Vonnegut and Harry Harrison, he used his wit like a scalpel, carving sharp and precise metaphors that cut deeply into the world outside his imagined realms. They dug so deeply later in his career that he even inserted himself into their workings, with the posthumous works VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth, both based on supposed metaphysical events in the author’s life.

While I have been aware of the above cinematic adaptations of his works (and others, not as successful), apparently a film version of Radio Free Albemuth was shot back in 2007, starring Alanis Morrisette and The Walking Dead‘s Scott Wilson. No, I haven’t seen it — yet, but certainly plan on doing so. The trailer for the film is below:

While not particularly impressive on its own, I am still curious to see how faithful it is to the novel, which is one of my faves. It supposedly should be released via VOD soon.

The Return of the Magnificent Seven.

I  (the cackler third from the left, above) don’t know if it’s either because you change most during the years of junior high, middle or high school, or simply arrive to the destination of what “you” happens to be, but the friends you have at that time are usually the best ones. Maybe it has something to do with the commiseration of school drudgery through the week, or the expectation of the weekend and its promises of glory. Maybe it has something to do with innocence, its bliss revealing nothing but limitless potential and Good Times Forever. Whatever their cause, those relationships are the most enduring, if only in memory. People who, when simply mentioned, bring an immediate smile to your face, prompted by that time and that place. Do you remember when? Yeah, me too.

It’s not often that you get a chance to revisit those times. Life unfortunately becomes cluttered and complicated, filled with ornate processes and schedules. We become embedded in our own lives. But every once in a while, a hand comes out of the blue and manages to pull you out of that everyday schlump. In my case, that hand was attached to the arm of one Kenneth Dockery (third from the right). He, like every other man you see in the above picture,  is without a doubt one of those people I just mentioned. Always a fiercely energetic and genuinely generous guy, Kenny is one of those “go-to guys” who would drop anything he had going to help anyone out in any way he could. And when he asked me to come down to Georgia and spend the weekend with him, I immediately said yes.

Next thing I know, I’m sharing a van with none other than David Roger Hatfield Junior (far right). Yes, I’m going to spell every bit of that out, if even that could do justice to the man. The Sancho Panza to my chaotic Quixote (and often the reverse, depending on the situation), Dave is my best friend of all time. Noone else makes me laugh harder or feel better than the Brother Marquis (or Marquis My Brother, depending on who sees who first). We sojourn from the confines of Seymour to the gracious land of Maryville (pronounced MAR-vul, in the local dialect) Tennessee, and the abode of one Forrest Pittman (second from left). A gregarious and generous soul, Forrest is that guy you often find yourself in awe of — but never jealous of, due to his modest relatability. He’s one of those people whose life is full of stories, simply because he goes beyond the perimeters most of us set up during our lives. Needless to say, the five hour drive to Georgia was eventful with the three of us aboard. I shall say no more, to protect the innocent.

Upon our arrival to Warner Robins, GA and the domicile of Ken-Ye South (as Kenny had been dubbed for the occasion), we met up with two more of our party — Andy Thompson and Jonathan Moral. I first met Andy (center) through Dave and Forrest long ago, and have always admired him for his discipline (Andy is still an accomplished runner, as he was then) and personal drive. And he’s damned funny, too. Jon (far left) has been a constant source of wonder for me, since even from our youth he’s always been the most productive and “together” of us all. A professional photographer, he took the majority of the pics during Kenapalooza II — as the event has since become known — including the one above (with a timer, durr).

Our initial confab covered a myriad of topics, from the goings on of friends not present to the incurring mystery of Bahama Bob’s Mama. But instead of satisfying our collective curiosities and visiting the aforementioned trailer-turned-bar (and the patron’s mother, if possible), we decided it best to pursue another venue for that night’s entertainment. Thus the evening was spent with beers, pool cues and some local band that spent the entire length of a performance tuning up. But none of that was really important. It was like no time had passed for any of us.

The next morning we reassembled under the banner of Ken-Ye South, and followed his lead within the confines of Robins Air Force Base. This was particularly exciting for me, as I had never visited such a place before. While security was certainly maintained, the place seemed quiet and relaxed — it was a Saturday, after all. It wasn’t long before we reached our objective — the Cobra Helicopter Simulator. Imagine that one whole wall of your family den was replaced by a giant projector screen, which curves around your position, and that instead of a meager handheld controller, you’re seated inside of an actual helicopter cockpit, replete with all the controls, meters, panels — and simulated weaponry. Yeah, the whole “whao factor” is pretty much a given at this point. Needless to say, by the end of the afternoon, we had a new respect for the men and women who are able to pilot a real Cobra — not to mention a distinct envy of Ken, who actually gets paid to work with the simulators. But if anyone deserves it, that distinguished Gulf War veteran does.

It wasn’t long after that we were finally joined by that remaining member of the Magnificent Seven, one Jeff Gebhardt (second from left). If I had to describe Jeff in one word (not that I could begin to, or any of our fellow attendees for that matter), I would say earnest, which honestly isn’t something to be taken lightly. While the rest of us tend to blurt out whatever happens to be wriggling our cortices at the time, Jeff has always had a more thoughtful — and dare I say intelligent — mode of expression. Not that he hasn’t had his share of “inspired” moments, it’s just that his tend to stand out more because of their impact. And I’ll be damned if he doesn’t look the exact same as he did in high school. Keanu Reeves has nothing on The Gebhardt.

With our number complete, we returned to Robins for another turn with the Cobra simulator, then later descended upon yet another local bar (still keeping a respectful distance from Bahama Bob and his maternal parent), the description of which had me sold at “Guinness on tap”. After some among us (myself included) made a brief segue at a nearby steak and sushi place, we soon regrouped at Ken-Ye South Central before retiring for the night.

The next morning we gathered and parted ways yet again, but not without many hugs, handshakes and sheepish grins. The road back to Tennessee was calling, but not before giving many thanks to our host. One thing made obvious to me (and to the others, I’m sure) was that nebulous sense of enjoyment we had in each other’s company had been undiminished by the years, and if anything had been fed by the short time we had together. For a while, we were the same bunch of goofy guys we had always been, and to some degree will always be.

We were the Magnificent Seven. And we expect our number to grow in the future.

 

Kolchak.

KOLCHAK

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!).

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