Thursday, July 31, 2014


I know this one's gonna get me in trouble. It's probably gonna get me unfriended on Facebook by a few folks. But what the hell, the point of this whole thing is to draw attention to myself, right? To get people to read this 'chere blog thing. To get people talking; to get my name on as many lips as possible. Welp, this oughta do it. I hope it doesn't make anybody hate me. I really do. But, to put it in wrestling parlance, "heat" is a good thing. The more of it a heel (more wrestling jargon) can draw, the better. Heat puts butts in seats. So let's see if I can kindle some heat, then.

I don't want anybody to think, though, I'm just milking this hot-topic issue for my own benefit. What I'm about to say really is my honest, truthful opinion. More than an opinion, it is my belief. And if talking about my belief can also serve to draw a little much needed publicity my way, that's cool.

This is not directed at any of my friends who already support gay marriage. This one is strictly for the ones who don't, and primarily oppose it on religious grounds. I want to try to explain to them why I believe they shouldn't.

Also, before we get down to it, I hope not to be viewed as "guilty by association." What I mean by that is, as I am talking in support of this volatile issue, that no one will assume I must be one o' them damn bleedin' heart liberal pinko commie types. I'm not. And I hope, as I am addressing this to a largely conservative audience, evangelical Christians for the most part, that nobody will assume I'm one of those good God-fearin', gun-totin', tea-sippin' republican types. I'm not. The truth of it is, I don't belong to either side in this fight. I don't trust either side and bend no knee to either ideology. Whether elephant or donkey, the major political parties in this country are controlled by people whose main interest is their own best interest--meaning, not YOURS and not MINE. To get elected to high office, it is necessary for a politician on either side of the divide to curry favor from special interest groups. SOMEbody has to put up the millions and millions of dollars needed to run for office, after all. The only real, basic difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is which special interest groups they sell out to. So I'm not coming from a political standpoint, here. Nor am I coming from a moral one. I don't even want to touch on the argument of whether or not homosexuality is or is not a sin. That's a whole separate debate. That's not what I'm interested in addressing here. I'm not a donkey and I'm not an elephant. And, even though I am a Christian and I am talking to Christians (at least the tile of this post is meant to attract the attention of Christians), I'm not too much gonna approach the subjects of sin and spirituality. First and foremost, I am speaking as an American, and one who values the freedom that comes from it.

Okay. End of preamble. Here is why I believe that every Christian should support gay marriage.

(Note to all: If at the end of this you disagree with me, fine, but please read it before you dismiss it. After you read it, then you can dismiss it. Or not. We'll see, I guess.)

Growing up in a tiny Baptist church, I sometimes heard, when I was actually paying attention, the term "separation of Church and State" spoken of as if it were a bad thing. It isn't. It's a wholly necessary thing. Has it been misused? Sure, just like everything else. That one guy who doesn't like praying before the football game and files a lawsuit to try to keep everybody else from praying, using separation of Church and State as his weapon of choice to try to impose HIS beliefs on the majority? That is a misuse of the statute. as much so as if they tried to force him to pray when he didn't want to. It's an admittedly prickly subject sometimes. The individual has the right not to pray. People who want to pray also must have that right. To keep one from infringing on the other, there's the rub. But separation of Church and State is a GOOD thing. It's why our Founding Fathers, many of whom were themselves practicing Christians, decided to include it in the Constitution. They understood the necessity. The Pilgrims came to America in the first place to escape having other people tell them how they should and should not worship. America was founded on the precept of religious freedom. And to maintain religious freedom, we MUST maintain separation of Church and State. Why? I'm glad you asked.

Having a Theocracy ( a government run by religion) might sound like a fine idea--so long as it is YOUR religion in the driver's seat, people who share your views and ideals who are making the laws. But think about this: what happens if some other group gets behind the wheel? let's say the Church of Christ gained control of government. All of a sudden, it becomes illegal to have music in church. But hold up, we LIKE music, you say. Too bad. Or what if the Seventh day Adventists got control. Suddenly everybody is required to go to church on Saturday, when the ballgames are happening down at the park. The Baptists get control, and all of a sudden everybody has to have full immersion baptisms. I myself am an Episcopalian. What if my team started calling the shots? We allow women minsters in our church. Don't believe in women ministers? Sorry. Now you're gonna have to have 'em, whether you want 'em or not. Are you seeing my point, here? I'm not picking on any of these denominations. I'm just using them to illustrate. Now you may rightly point out that all these examples are strictly religious in nature, but the law is the law is the law. Where it imposes limitations in one area, it touches upon all areas. Theocracies don't work. look at Iran. They have one. Anywhere a theocracy exists, the rights of SOMEBODY are going to get limited, if not outright ignored. Every time. That is why we cannot, we must not, allow the religious convictions of any one group to affect our laws. It is the doctrine of separation of Church and State that safeguards our rights, both to worship as we see fit and to live our lives as we see fit. And to have a true democracy, all the laws must be equal and impartial. What is illegal for one must be illegal for all--like murder. Illegal whether you're an atheist, a Catholic, or belong to the Holy Unified Church of Elvis; whether you are black, white, male or female. Murder is illegal for all. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conversely guaranteed to all. It must be so for our society to be a free one. The right to a trial by jury must be allotted to all, and it is, regardless of whether or not that person goes to church or doesn't, eats meat or doesn't, likes dogs better than cats, wears polyester, etc. and etc. Rights must be equal and pertain to all, if we are to have a truly free society. Freedom of speech. Freedom to wear your hair the way you want to. Freedom to worship in the manner you choose, or NOT to worship. All rights; no exceptions, And that includes the right to marry. If we are going to let heterosexual couples marry, we must allow gay couples that same right, else we do not have a 100% free society. Thus we are not guaranteeing EVERYBODY equal rights under the law. And when the rights of ANY group are limited, that should concern us. Because it could just as easily be YOUR rights and mine that get limited next.

For those denominations that believe homosexuality is a sin, should they then be required to conduct gay marriage ceremonies? Absolutely not. We are talking here about CIVIL unions. What the STATE says constitutes a marriage. Not what the CHURCH says. Or churcheS, in this case. Some will say that the only true marriage in the eyes of God is between a man and a woman. Okay. Fine. If that is true, then what difference does it make what the STATE says constitutes a marriage? The State must, to be equal, extend the right to marry to gay couples. Your church, ANY church, has the right not to recognize that marriage. Look at it like this: some denominations believe the consumption of alcohol is a sin. Yet they understand that it is legal for the state to sell alcohol. It is legal for people to drink it. From this vantage point, then, people must be afforded the right to sin if they choose. You don't have to believe in it, my brothers and sisters. You don't have to accept it. I'm just asking that you recognize, if we are to live in a free society wherein OUR rights are protected under law, we cannot exclude them of THEIR rights. There is no such thing as separate but equal. There's just equal. And either we are or we aren't. And to make sure YOUR rights are protected and guaranteed, we HAVE to be that. we just have to.

One objection I can anticipate. "Righteousness exalteth a nation," some will say. And how can any nation be righteous if it sanctions homosexual marriage, sanctions a SIN? So those will say who believe homosexuality IS a sin. To that I say, we can be perfectly righteous if we stand for equality under the law for all, be they sinner or saint. (And let's face it, there are a whole lot more of the former than the latter.) And even more so if, by extending the right to sinners to commit a sin, because we extend that same right to non-sinners--if by doing so we are protecting our OWN rights, and this including the right to worship God as we believe, then there is nary any unrighteousness afoot. (And then there is that whole "treat others as you would have them treat you" thing, and I know I would certainly want to have all the same rights under the law as the next guy. But I said I wasn't going to tread onto moral ground, and so I shan't. Bottom line to my argument, then: I believe every Christian should support the rights of gay people to marry, in order to safeguard OUR rights. 

How'd this all come about? A discussion I was having with a friend, who asked me why, as a Christian, I supported gay marriage. It occurred to me that this would make a good, juicy blog post. And the next time somebody asks me that question, instead or spending thirty minutes, getting all tongue-tied trying to explain it, I can just direct them here. I do welcome discussion. Respectful discussion. And I really hope nobody unfriends me over this. But if you must, no hard feelings

Pax out..

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

MY genocide

What do I mean by that title, up there? Certainly no sane person would want to lay claim to a genocide, would they? Why I call it "mine" is because it has affected me on a personal level the way no others have.

It's been twenty years now since the genocide in Rwanda. It began on April 7, 1994 and carried on through the summer of that year. About 100 days, total. And during those hundred days, somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million people were massacred. It's not the worst genocide in history (and by worst I mean biggest; one has to be academic about it, to measure such atrocities by the sheer number of human lives taken, I suppose), not by a long shot. Why then did it get to me like none of the others? Why did it go deep, to the marrow? I think of the Emily Dickinson poem "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass," and the final line, "and zero at the bone." Why does the Rwandan genocide drop my internal bone temperature to surprise-snake-encounterin' levels, when the other, bigger ones didn't get under my skin the same way?

For starters, it happened in Africa. I've had a lifelong fascination with the Dark Continent, mother of the human race. I've longed to go there and someday I will. Anything African is guaranteed to automatically pique my interest. That was the start of it.

1994. I was in my early 20s, just starting to become an adult. I still had the old TV I'd had for years, with its rabbit ear reception and screwy tint control. I'd never even heard the word "Internet." I was working some dead-end job I hated, with no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Still a wet-behind-both-ears kid with no life experience outside of the books I read and what I saw on the nightly news, on those rare occasions when I would watch it. One evening in April of 1994, I happened to tune in. Or more like the TV happened to be on while I was doing something else. I heard something mentioned about a tiny African country and turned my head to see what the news anchor was talking about. I don't remember now which anchorman it was or even if it was a man. I usually watched ABC, so it may have been Peter Jennings or Ted Koppel. I saw video of a row of large trucks, men hanging off the sides, rolling down a muddy dirt road. And on the sides of the road--"Wait? Are those BODIES?" I asked myself.  Yes, the newsman answered me. The stench from the thousands of dead bodies, he said, could be smelled for miles. Thousands at that point. The number would grow rapidly.

That one brief segment on the news was the only mention I ever heard in the US media about what was happening over there. It's been mentioned since, usually in regards to how the US and the civilized world at large had failed to step in, had turned a blind eye and passive shoulder to this travesty. The only other contemporary mention I ever heard of it was on the Friday night sitcom Boy Meets World, wherein one of the two young stars of the series saw parallels between what was happening in central Africa and his own family.

100 days. Up to 1 million people.

Far more people died in the Holocaust. I'd heard plenty about that. I'd heard about the Killing Fields of Cambodia. But I had a tendency in those days, not too far removed from my time as a high school student sitting in History class, learning about them, to view those awful events as just that, as HISTORY. Terrible, unthinkably so, but somehow far removed from my world, from the here and now. But what was happening in Rwanda, that was happening in the here and now, man, and it was happening in Africa, my dreamland, home of my fantasies. That's why it got to me more than the others. It wasn't "removed." It wasn't "history." It was immediate. "This is happening right NOW," I remember thinking.

(Around the same period in time, there was occurring another genocide, the so-called "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia. Why did that one not strike the same chord as Rwanda? I don't know. Maybe I still saw that part of eastern Europe as someplace "removed," even in current time. Or maybe because it wasn't happening in Africa. I think probably I could only handle one genocide at a time.) 

In the two decades since, I've read a lot about the genocide. There are numerous good books on the subject. (I recommend Machete Season most of all, in which a group of men who took part in the killing recount their stories, trying to make sense out of why they had done such a thing. Another good one is Shake Hands with the Devil, written by the man in charge of the UN "peacekeeping" force stationed in Rwanda, under orders not to interfere in the murders, essentially relegated to doing nothing but bearing witness.) There was an excellent but almost too painful to watch movie, Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle. There have been a couple of documentaries. And in my work, my writing, I have revisited the days of the machete again and again.

What prompted it? Years and years of hate. Back when Rwanda was under colonial rule, the powers that be (or were) showed favoritism to one of the two major tribes indigenous to Rwanda, the Tutsi, because the Tutsi "looked more white" than the other tribe, the Hutu. Did that sow the seeds of hatred? It sure didn't help, but the two tribes had been busy hating each other for some time before the Europeans stirred the pot. On April 7, when the airplane of Rwanda's president (a Hutu) was shot down, so-called "newsmen" took to the airwaves (of the radio, that is, as Rwanda had no television broadcasts to speak of) calling on all good Hutus to rise up and "cut the tall trees!" Every Hutu knew what those code words meant. It was time to clean house--by killing every last Tutsi. As very few people in the country had access to guns, the weapon of choice became the machete. Most of the people killed were hacked to death. 

This reminiscing puts me in mind of an episode of Star Trek. The original series. Do you remember the one where the two aliens hated each other because they were so "different?" Each of the two was half black and half white. That's literally half and half, as in if a line had been drawn straight down their centers, from the crown of their heads to their feet. Half of their bodies were chalk white. Not Caucasian, but white. The other half was 8-ball black. When one of the aliens is talking about the differences that make him hate his opponent, Captain Kirk is confused, as the two look identical to him. Indignant, the alien wants to know how it is that the crew of the Enterprise has failed to notice that the two are completely opposite--one is black on the side where the other is white and vice versa. The episode does a good job of pointing out the absurdity of hating another person over something so trivial. In Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi didn't even have the issue of skin pigmentation to divide them. Maybe THEY could tell the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi, but nobody outside of Rwanda would be able to see it. All the people there, both the murderers and the victims, had dark skin. 

Also, they practiced the same religion; the vast majority were Christians. Yet during the 100 days, priests and clergymen grabbed up their machetes and joined in without hesitation. 

The Hutus and the Tutsis were neighbors. They lived literally side by side. Many were friends beforehand. Once the blood started flowing though, all that was forgotten.

Psychologists write about how it is possible to "short circuit" the human conscience. The Hutu were not a tribe of sociopaths. They were regular people, people with consciences. How, then, could they do it? To get around that pesky thing called a conscience, all one has to do is convince oneself, consciously or subconsciously, that the other person isn't really a human being. They may look like humans but they're not. They're just enemies. The way the Hutu saw it, they were only doing what needed to be done.

It's been twenty years. The Rwandan genocide still fascinates me. It's an awful fascination, the driving-by-a-bad-traffic-accident-and-just-can't-help-looking kind of fascination. In all my studies, have I figured out the one basic question of how it could happen? Of course not. How could I? I'm just a lucky white guy from Alabama. (Lucky? Hmm. Let's see. I have a roof over my head; food to eat; clean, running water; access to modern health care--and, oh, yeah, nobody who's out to kill me for no other reason than because of the social group into which I was born, just for being who I am. Yeah, I'd say that qualifies me as lucky. In relation to the plight of the Tutsi people in 1994, there aren't many who wouldn't be counted as lucky.) How could I figure it out when the killers themselves don't even seem to know why? I will never know. I doubt they will either.

By the way, genocides are still happening. It's happening right now in Darfur/Sudan. How often do you hear it mentioned on the news? In this day and age, where we have the Internet to feed us information at the speed of light, right there at our fingertips, how often have you heard about what's happening over there? In Rwanda today, the Tutsi and the Hutu again live side by side, those fortunate enough to have escaped the genocide and those who took part in it. They are learning to coexist again. They are learning how to give and how to seek forgiveness. There are scars that will always be there, but they are trying, at least, to heal. Meanwhile, in other places, their history is being repeated by others. And the world stands by once again, only a little bit interested. 

Twenty years. Have we learned anything?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


"Starting in a hollowed log of wood, some thousand miles up a river, with an infinitesimal prospect of returning! I ask myself 'Why?' and the only echo is 'damned fool--the Devil drives!'"    
                                                                                        --Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton’s personal devil was curiosity. Go back to the original Greek definition of genius. The toga-wearin’ philosophers of classical civilization characterized genius as an individual thing, each man, or each brilliant man, each gifted man, had his own, and this gift of the gods or the fates was referred to as a “daemon.” There is a story of one of the great poets (I forget which one, and it may vary depending on the version of the story) encountering his own daemon, whereupon he discovers that it was the daemon, not the man himself, who had crafted the poet’s greatest works. That’s the kind of devil that dogged Burton, a genius of curiosity. He was possessed of an overwhelming hunger to, as they said in Star Trek, “boldly go where no man had gone before,” to know what no man had ever known, or to regain knowledge that had been lost to time. This devil drove the man, and it is for the betterment of the world that it did so.

Sir Richard Burton is likely the most important man to history that you’ve never heard of. I’d never heard of him, not until my late teens, when I chanced to watch a movie called Mountains of the Moon, which recounts one of (but only one of) Burton’s great adventures. I was instantly smitten. Richard Burton would become my greatest hero, my role model. I stop short of saying an object of worship—we don’t want no idolatry, here—but certainly an object of hero worship. Why, you ask, do I love the guy so much? To answer that question, it is necessary to educate those of you ignorant of this great man’s biography.

(Note: I don’t blame any of you who haven’t heard of Burton before now. I blame the holes, like a sieve, in our modern-day educational process. It’s not your fault if your high school History teacher or college Western Civ professor neglected to make mention of him. It may not even be their fault. But it’s somebody’s fault. Maybe it’s John Speke’s fault. But more on that in a moment.)   

You may have never heard of Burton. But it’s a guarantee you’ve heard of his work. Ever hear of The Arabian Knights? (Or, to be more precise, The Thousand Nights and a Night, which is the original title.) This anthology is where we get the stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Sinbad, among numerous others. Sure you’ve heard of it. It was Burton who discovered the Nights, translated it and introduced it to western society. How about the Kama Sutra?  Yeah, everybody’s heard of that one. Same deal. It was Burton who brought it to us.  

(By the way, if you ever buy a copy of either of these texts, whether for your own reading pleasure or because some teacher required you to—or, in the case of the Kama Sutra, just to satisfy your puerile curiosity or to look at the dirty pictures—make sure you get the original translations by Burton, not one of the later, inferior ones. There have been some since, but none are equal to Burton’s. Burton’s skills as a linguist are unmatched. They were in his day and remain so in the years since. The man spoke 29 languages fluently. TWENTY-FREAKIN’-NINE!!!) 

Ever use the word “safari?” It was Burton who invented that word.

It was also Burton who discovered the source of the Nile River. Since the days of the ancients, the great civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome had wondered at the origin of this most vital of rivers. Legend said they had their birth somewhere in the deep interior of Africa, in the fabled “Mountains of the Moon.” Many men had gone off in search of them. If any man ever discovered the secret, that man had never returned. Burton discovered Lake Tanganyika (and by extension, Lake Victoria, which is the true headwaters of the Nile), but while he lay convalescing in Africa from a fever, his expedition partner and one-time friend, John Hanning Speke, rushed back to England and claimed all the glory for himself—the bastard. Today, if you were to look up in a book (or google it) to see who discovered the headwaters of the Nile, that source will say it was Speke. More charitable ones will say that Speke swiped the credit. Those latter will at least mention Burton, if not give him the credit he deserves. But had it not been for Sir Richard, that discovery would not have happened, period.

Let’s see, what else? Oh, yeah. Burton probably inspired the character of Count Dracula. The physical appearance, that is. (Dracula, like Burton, was, as I’m sure you all know, a real person.) Burton and Bram Stoker were friends, and Stoker was known to have written about how impressed he was with Burton’s dark good looks and piercing eyes, his almost menacing face, and his curiously pointed canine teeth. Some literary historians maintain that Stoker based his iconic character on his friend, the actor Henry Irving. But if you look at Irving, then look at pictures of Burton, then read Stoker’s description of the vampire Count, you tell me which one resembles it more closely.

Soldier; ethnographer; cartographer; linguist; poet; swordsman; writer; translator; secret agent for the British Crown; military tactician; master of disguise; philosopher; philanderer (later turned devoted husband); mystic; archaeologist; “amateur barbarian” (he called himself); “blackguard” (enemies called him); explorer; knight—Burton was all of these. Take Indiana Jones, if he lived in our world, J.R.R. Tolkien and Lawrence of Arabia. Throw in a dash of Sir Galahad. Put them all in a giant blender and puree. The result would be—actually, the result, literally speaking, would be a big mess. But metaphorically speaking, the result would be Richard Burton. 

Burton was as much a man of action as a man of intellect. (And what an intellect he must have possessed. He could learn a new language in a matter of weeks; days, sometimes. He wrote dozens of books—several at the same time!) In a skirmish with natives on one of his earlier expeditions to the Dark Continent, one of the attacking tribesmen threw a spear that completely transfixed Burton’s face, going in one cheek and coming out the other. Burton pulled the spear loose and kept fighting. (The encounter also left him with a matching set of really cool, manly scars.) Burton could have stepped right out of a larger-than-life Victorian novel, but he refused to be confined by, and delighted in scandalizing, rigid Victorian society (much to the occasional embarrassment of his loved ones). Expelled from Oxford as a young man for bad behavior (organizing a gambling ring and then telling the authorities there to go someplace hotter than Australia when he got caught), he spent much of his life as an alcoholic, drinking at times a pint of whiskey a day. On occasion he abused opiates. Yet these flaws only serve to further endear him to me. All great heroes must have their weaknesses to be truly heroic. And Burton gave new meaning to the term “functional alcoholic,” considering his ridiculously high level of accomplishments. The chemicals, alcohol, opium and tobacco, may have shortened his life, but he still lived to almost 70 years of age, which was quite elderly for the times. And he kept right on working, writing and translating, until his last breath.

Burton also possessed skills for disguising himself that would rival those of Lon Chaney, Hollywood’s legendary “Man of a Thousand Faces.” How good was he? He assumed the identity of an Arab traveler and undertook the Hajj, or ceremonial pilgrimage, to the two forbidden cities, al-Medina and Mecca, where he examined the legendary Black Stone, the object most sacred to Muslims worldwide, an offense that meant death to any outsider—and he didn’t get caught. Burton was no vandal, though; it was his all-consuming thirst for knowledge that led him there. Of course he wrote a book about his exploits. Two, in fact. Burton again went undercover to become a Dervish (You’ve all heard of the Swirling Dervishes, right? Wild mystics known to spin around and around, dancing with razor-sharp scimitars in hand.) because he thought he might gain a little “gnosis”—secret knowledge—from them. All spiritual belief systems had pieces of the puzzle, Burton theorized, some bit of knowledge worth the knowing. Burton would visit the Mormons in Utah and attempt to infiltrate their number for the same reasons. He didn’t go to Utah undercover, though, and Burton’s reputation kept the Latter Day Saints from accepting him into their congregation. (Brigham Young was said to be quite fond of Burton, however.) And, naturally, Burton wrote a book about his trip to the southwest, too.

Sir Richard lived the kind of life I have only dreamed about. Saw the kinds of places I dream of seeing. He may never have achieved pervasive fame or great wealth, but he was successful, and he earned respect. No, make that commanded respect. Even from those who hated him. Explorer of ruins and of jungles, a man as proficient with a rapier as with a quill, a prodigious mind in the body of a swashbuckler straight out of escapist fiction. That’s Richard Burton. One of a kind? Without question. For all that, though, history is filled with the exploits of great men. Why Burton, then? Why did I latch onto him and not others? Why is he so special to me? Who knows. The devil drives.

In closing, it irritates the hell out of me that, unless we are speaking of a scholar, one with an interest in specified History, or someone lucky enough to have seen the obscure Mountains movie, if anyone today has heard the name Richard Burton, it is of the actor they think. The guy, one of the score, who married Elizabeth Taylor. Whenever I mention Burton in conversation, with one or two exceptions when I’m speaking with one of my friends who shares my passion for History, I have to specify: “The explorer, not the actor.” That bugs the pee out of me. Don’t get me wrong, now. Burton the latter was indeed a fine actor. Top notch. But he isn’t worthy to polish the boots of the Captain.  

Everything I do, then, is in some scaled down way an attempt to emulate Captain Sir Richard. I write fiction instead of academic works, fantasy instead of autobiography, prose instead of poetry; I can’t speak even a second language (although I do know a few words in Latin and Elvish). But every time I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I think of his enormous output of letters. When I stuff my brain with every fact I can get hold of, it is because of his example. As for those grand adventures he lived through, I try to make the most of my little ones, in that same spirit of courageous audacity he displayed. And some day, some day, I will have my big one.

To conclude, Sir Richard is THE MAN. I’ve only scratched the surface with the feats I’ve recounted here, the things he did. I encourage each of you to read more. There are several excellent biographies out there. (The best is by Edward Rice, in my opinion.) And check out Mountains of the Moon. Patrick Bergin (so slimy and evil as Julia Roberts’ abusive husband in Sleeping with the Enemy) is excellent in his portrayal of Burton, and the movie is gorgeously filmed. It just might make you a mark for Sir Richard the way it did me. I hope so. He deserves the recognition.

Guess I’ve done my part, then. I’ll sign off now and get back to work. After all, if I want to be like Sir Richard, I have a lot of catching up to do. A whole lot.

Drive on, devil. Drive on.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Archetypes

As we are still in the early stages, the feeling-each-other-out stages, the getting to know one another stages, I thought I’d share a little more about myself. Not some boring biography—that’d be boring even for me, so I can only assume it would prove even moreso for you all—rather, I decided to tell you more about myself by telling you about others—namely, my major influences, my heroes, as it were. My inspirations. There are more than a few, as you might imagine, but only a handful that I would term major inspirations. Call them the archetypes, the figures I want to embody and emulate. That I can pay tribute to them while providing a service for myself (i. e. letting you fine folks get to know me better) is the proverbial icing on the cake. Shall I introduce you, then, to my cadre of heroes?

First up is the most recent of the lot: Edward D. Wood, Jr.
Eddie, to me. I bet most of you have heard of him, from the Tim Burton movie Ed Wood if from nowhere else (in which Johnny Depp starred as Eddie, imbuing him with that characteristic Depp quirkiness that wasn’t entirely accurate; “Eddie was no kook,” as those who knew him have said). Ed is credited as “The Worst Director of All Time,” and the director of “The Worst Movie of All Time”—Plan 9 From Outer Space (which Eddie also wrote). It is because of this assignation that Eddie has become a posthumous celebrity, so I wouldn’t want to take it away from him; likewise, Plan 9 would have likely been forgotten by now if somebody hadn’t decided it was “the worst of all time!” so I wouldn’t want to change that. But, again, these “honors” are inaccurate.

I could name at least a dozen movies off the top of my head that are worse, way worse, than Plan 9.  Besides, as other fans have said, if you have a movie that is so much fun to watch, can you really, accurately call that a bad movie? Truly bad movies are insufferable, if not outright dull. Plan 9 is an absolute hoot from beginning to end. The worst director of all time? Eddie was not even the worst director of his day. There were plenty of guys cranking out contemporary low budget, boring-as-hell films. They were a dime a dozen. But there is one, only one, Plan 9. And it wasn’t alone. Eddie also gave us such classics as Bride of the Monster and Glen of Glenda?, just to name a couple.

Sure, I love schlocky old Horror and Sci-fi movies. Even bad ones. Maybe especially bad ones. But why do I love Eddie so much? For that reason alone? No. I love Eddie because I identify so much with him. I see so much of myself in him. Eddie was, like myself, a misfit. (His transvestism is common knowledge. I don't personally like to wear women's clothing; I am a misfit in other ways--although I AM in search of a pink faux Angora sweater, Ed's favorite,  to wear on special occasions in honor of him.) Also, Eddie had a coterie of weird and wonderful people he worked with again and again, almost his own theatrical troupe or repertory company: among the most colorful were the faux-psychic Criswell, the giant wrestler turned actor Tor Johnson, and late night B-movie hostess cum actress Vampira. I, like Eddie, am a writer-slash-director, preferring to script my own projects, and I, also like Eddie, have surrounded myself with a quirky clique or performers who are my personal friends as well as my co-conspirators. Furthermore, Eddie and I have the same tastes. His type of work is exactly my cup of tea.

There’s a better reason why I love the guy, though: his indomitable spirit. Eddie wanted to make movies, and he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way. Not a lack of money (boy can I identify with that), not a lack of name recognition on his part (“Who is this bozo, anyway?” more than a few studio heads would have asked). Not even his own lack, possibly his own lack, of abilities. He was determined to follow his dream and he did. And he gave the world some wonderful pictures. That they are wonderful in a way other than what he might have initially intended doesn’t in any way diminish the fact.

Eddie has been characterized as a poor man’s Orson Wells. I say, Orson is a poor man’s Ed Wood.  True, Citizen Kane may represent a masterpiece of the filmmaking craft. But it’s nowhere near as enjoyable to watch as Plan 9. And I’ll tell you something else. Some far-future socio-anthropologist, in looking back at the cinema of our present day to dissect it for meaning as to our culture, our mores and taboos, our circumstances of shared humanity, will find as much to note in Plan 9 as in C.K. Probably more. Kane is a character study. It is the story of one man. Plan 9 is about all of us. The ridiculous dialogue, chintzy special effects, total lack of production values, stilted acting and absurd plot do not in any way detract from or obscure the social commentary.

(In fact the basic subtext is the same as in the recognized classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. The original, not the remake starring Keanu Reeves—speaking of which, remember I said I could name at least twelve lousier movies than Plan 9? Make that thirteen. Actually, you can put most movies starring Keanu Reeves on that list. The guy makes Tor Johnson look downright Shakespearean.)

In summation, then: I contend that Eddie outdid Wells at capturing the zeitgeist and ortgeist of mid 20th Century human existence. Eat your heart out, Orson.

Eddie never hit it big. He ended up having to settle for directing soft-core pornos (although even these have the recognizable Ed Wood creative flair) that today would likely be Cinemax productions. His failure to achieve the level of success he deserved drove him deeper into depression, which in turn fed the alcoholism that would eventually kill him (when he was only in his fifties). This, and the fact that the fame he so desired would come to him only after he was gone, breaks my heart. But I love that he never gave up on his dream. Even at his lowest, there at the end, he was still talking about “that one big picture” that would establish his reputation as the creative genius he in truth was. Had he lived, I like to think he would have achieved it. He certainly would have kept trying. And that, most of all, is why I love him. The guy just didn’t know how to quit. I am not a moviemaker, of course (at least not yet), but as a struggling creator, a storyteller desperate to make a living doing the one thing I truly love to do, I need some of Ed’s determination. I need his example. Worst Director of All Time? I can only dream that someday they’ll say something half as cool about me.

My second archetype is also a director. Not a writer himself, still he embodied that wild creativity I so admire in others and those certain telltale traits I recognize in myself. William Castle was, like me, a born showman.

(Yes, I am a born showman. It took me a while to realize this about myself. I was always a storyteller, literally born to be a writer. The show-biz jones didn’t come along until later. But looking back on it, looking at myself as a kid, pretending to conduct a circus or managing my own cardboard box movie theater, I can see that the trait for showmanship was also always there, if not so overt.)

There was a lot of P.T. Barnum in Bill Castle, just like there is in me. I could claim Barnum as an inspiration, too, with one exception. Barnum tended to look at his patrons as marks to be milked of their money (you see what I did there, with the alliteration? Smooth, huh?) “There’s a sucker born every minute.” That’s Barnum’s most famous quote; you’ve all heard it. But I, like Bill Castle, see myself not as one out to shill my audience by trickery. No, I see my potential “customers,” my readers, those who attend one of my stage productions, as friends, and kindred spirits. I seek to create something for people like me, people who would enjoy the same things I enjoy. I make fun geek art for people who like fun geek art. And that’s what Bill Castle did.

Known as the “king of the gimmicks,” it was Castle’s marketing genius that conceptualized offering a life insurance policy to movie-goers, payable on death, because his movie was so scary that it just might scare you into a fatal coronary. Audiences responded by coming out in droves. For his movie Mr. Sardonicus, he set up the film so it stopped right before the finale, letting the audience vote on the fate that should befall the villain. Thumbs up or thumbs down, Castle offered the audience the choice. If they chose “thumbs down,” then Mr. Sardonicus got his, but good. Supposedly there were two different endings filmed, and depending on which way the audience voted, the projectionist would put in one of the two reels. In reality, Castle knew the audience would always vote thumbs down, and no alternate ending was ever filmed.

For The House on Haunted Hill, starring a young Vincent Price, Castle arranged for a ghostly skeleton to come out of the walls of the theaters  (theaters around the country were sent kits to set this up) and hover over the audience during the film’s critical scene. For Thirteen Ghosts, patrons were provided with special glasses. If they put the glasses on, they could see the ghosts onscreen. Without the glasses, the ghosts were invisible. That way, if the viewer got too scared, he or she could simply remove the glasses to make the specters disappear. And with The Tingler (my personal favorite), the movie actually stopped during one segment, allowing the movie’s little titular monster to break loose in the very theater where you were sitting! And to make sure the Tingler “got” a few of the viewers, Castle had theaters install joy buzzers in some of the seats. Really, can you imagine being there, in one of those audiences? How much fun would that have been?

If Ed Wood was seen as a second rate Orson Wells, then Bill Castle was regarded as an ersatz Alfred Hitchcock. Now don’t get me wrong, folks. I loved Psycho and The Birds. They are truly excellent movies. Hitchcock was a genius. But so was Bill Castle. And of the two, I prefer Castle.

Like Bill, I get jazzed on scaring an audience, or making them laugh, and the two are often one and the same. A giggle almost always follows a scream. But I’m not out to bilk anybody. I want audiences to enjoy what I am presenting. When we do something that shocks and thrills and makes somebody jump half out of their seat, I’m hoping they feel the same way I do when watching a scary movie. Or when I go to the County fair and seek out the sideshows. (Sadly, there are precious few of these left in our bland politically correct times.) The “pickled punks” (rubber babies in a jar, for those who don’t know their Carnie jargon), the six-legged pig, the headless woman, the giant man-eating rat—I don’t pay to see these because I’ve been tricked into believing what I’m seeing is real. I pay to see them because I love that stuff. I eat it up like ice cream.

Do I want to make money with my shows or my writing? Yes, of course I do. Ultimately I have to, if I am going to continue doing it. But I never, will never, let my desire to make a buck become more important than the quality of the product I’m offering the public, whether it’s a book, short story, play, a visit to one of my yearly “haunted house” attractions, or what have you. Like Bill Castle, I want to make my audience happy. Making an audience happy makes me happy.

Together with these two purveyors of creepy-cool entertainment, I do recognize one modern-day, still-with-us kindred spirit: Larry Blamire.
Like myself, Larry is first and foremost a theatre person. (That’s theatre with an R-E at the end, which means stage, remember? E-R at the end means a movie theater.) But he also has several movies under his belt: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra; The Lost Skeleton Returns Again; The Trail of the Screaming Forehead; Dark and Stormy Night; et al. I call Larry a kindred soul because we share the same sense of humor, the same love, obviously, for cheesy old B&W Sci-fi and Horror movies. But where Ed Wood created hilarity without really meaning to, Larry Blamire recognizes this stamp of movies as a comedic gold mine; the humor runs like a vein through them and Larry Blamire mines it mercilessly.

(Also he understands that the joke doesn’t work if the writer/director/actor acts like they are in on the joke. You can’t let people peek behind the curtain. You have to keep a straight face. The more ridiculous it is, when you play it straight, the funnier it is. That’s why I never find movies that are deliberately stupid, and wave that fact around like a flag, films like Meet the Spartans or Scary Movie, to be particularly humorous. That, and the fact that they’re usually so vulgar and juvenile.) 

With Lost Skeleton and its kith, you’d never know, if you didn’t know (does that make any sense?), that you weren’t watching a movie from the 1950s. Goofy (brilliantly goofy) dialogue, low-tech and low-dollar special effects (you can clearly see the strings animating the Lost Skeleton when it moves) and delightfully over-the-top acting. (Note: Any lousy actor can mange to be mediocre. But it takes a very good actor to be so deliberately bad.) The art form perfected, if not created, by the likes of Ed Wood is in very good hands with guys like Larry Blamire. Personally, I look up to the guy because, while his films are a collaborative effort put forth by a multitude of creative and talented people, he is the primary driving force behind them. His mind conceived them and without him they never would have come into being. He writes, directs, produces. He creates. And viva la creators, I say!

This, then, is my aspiration. To be able to list my name alongside those of Wood and Castle, in company with present-day creative genius madmen like Blamire. I’m working on it. I’ll get there. Sooner or later. I share Eddie’s dauntless inability to concede defeat, and I’ll use Bill’s cagey theatricality to achieve it. And Larry proves to me that yes, it can be done.

These, then, are my archetypes. In some later post I’ll talk about my literary as opposed to cinematic inspirations. And I’ll devote an entire post to my one, overriding case of hero worship, the guy who kind of transcends all the boundaries.

Next time, I’ll introduce you to THE CAPTAIN.