Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Passings: Eartha Kitt--Chanteuse, Actress

You were completely and totally into me, and I into you. I know that now. And that thought, that fleeting instant of magical chemistry, consoles me as I think of your voice being silenced forever.

We met a decade ago, but the night reverberates in me with the heady urgency of the last breath that just escaped my lips. I waited for you jadedly, with no more expectation than mere entertainment--just the amiable passage of an hour or two passively listening to you. But you elegantly strode out and bewitched me and everyone else in that dimly-lit little class-A joint. Cheekbones so haughtily elegant and defined that they could cut diamonds; gams too perfect to have any right gracing the body of a 35-year old, never mind that of a septuagenarian; hourglass figure poured into a gold lamé dress by God in one of his most continental moods...That utterly unique and enchanting package alone was enough to have the whole lot of us eating out of your hand that night.

Then you opened your mouth and sealed the deal, tossing bon mots at us all with a subtly-erotic synthesis of purr and growl. With an arch of that slender back and a fluid twirl of your arm you crooned out everything from Edith Piaf to Brecht/Weill to "I Will Survive," rewriting even the most familiar throwaway tune in your own image--an organic sculpture at once magnificently sophisticated, wryly humorous, soulfully powerful, and exquisitely feminine. Once or twice you looked my way as you sang, and once or twice the vibrato in your divine voice hit me to the very core...And I knew, with all my heart, that you were looking at me; that you were singing only to me.

The spotlight dimmed, and the house lights came up. Divorced of the cabaret accoutrements, I fretted that you'd be somehow diminished, but no. Even the assembly-line cattle-directing luminescence seemed to be bowing in your homage. Those dark feline eyes still sparkled. Prisms of light refracted from the gold lamé draped over you like twelve-thousand compact suns. Then you stepped down from the stage and walked towards me.

Do you remember? I can almost hear your kittenish chuckle, for I know I'm just one of a mountain of enchanted broken hearts that you've left in your wake. But that night, you made me feel like the most blessed man on the planet. You walked straight in my direction. I stood, just one of a crowd of admirers, but you parted that sea of humanity like a sleek blade until no one stood between the two of us.

All of my surroundings lapsed into a diffuse, fuzzy haze: All I could see was your captivating eyes and playful smile as you grasped my right hand, shook it in the most firm-yet-ladylike manner, and purred, "Thank you for coming." Every internal organ in my body turned to jelly, but somehow I stayed on my feet.

Then you continued to glide past me and into the hallway. A crowd gathered between us; all as smitten as I, all eager to bask in your effervescence. You were gracious, and ever the lady, as you signed autographs and accepted the barage of compliments. But when I humbly strolled forward, your eyes widened playfully. You remembered me, from all those many minutes previous.

My memories of what I said to you have faded like old newsprint in the sun, but your response never will: "Thank you, Darling."

Darling, you called me, in that same velvet purr that you wrapped around Kurt Weill's melodies. You signed your name in sophisticate's cursive for me, glancing up with that feral twinkle in your eyes. It was like an anointment from Venus.

Farewell, Eartha Kitt. Your exit aches immeasurably within me. But we'll always have Jazz Alley.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Japan, Part 4: Wide-Eyed (and Blue-Haired) in Kyoto

This morning is Halloween, October 31, Japan time.

Crisp mountain air and hazy skies greet us as we arise. Buddhist mass begins bright and early at Shojoshin-in, and we attend the ceremony along with a small group of fellow gaijin.

The chapel/worship room (formal terminology escapes me) contrasts sharply with traditional Western worship halls: The compact space includes ceilings no higher than those in your average room in a typical private home. A single shade of deep flaming red lines the walls, and golden statues--Buddhist iconography, dragons, and other ornate statuary--occupy nearly every foot of floor space. The size and the striking two-toned hue of the room and its contents lend a surreal air to the space as the monks enter.

The two youngest of the monks sit opposite one another, chanting in a low, two-layered hum. The third, older but similarly shorn of hair and robed, sits further to the left and adds another layer to the lulling thrum of the prayers being chanted. Then an older woman attired in what looks like a grey business dress sits at the far right. She too begins chanting.

The pathway of sound they generate utterly hypnotizes: Repetitive, low, lulling, and oddly beautiful, their chants can't help but immerse an onlooker. My eyes involuntarily close--not from the boredom or drowsiness that frequently scuttled me during catholic masses as a kid, but from what's best described as a state of otherworldly zen. The rest of the world disappears in an infinity of beautifully thrumming Buddhist prayer and a blur of gold and red. Amazingly, none of the visitors break the spell by snapping photos or chattering during the service.

Before we realize it, an hour has gone by. Reluctantly, we leave this magical pocket universe for the central dining area, where we're treated to another phenomenal vegetarian meal.

After breakfast, Rita and I pack up our belongings and leave our bags in the checkout room as we take one final turn back through the Okunoin graveyards. This time we traverse much of the same area from the exterior of the park, walking just outside the graveyard's walls and fences until we cut back in about 2/3 of the way through. Much loveliness still greets us. Moths cling, nigh-invisible, to the stones that comprise the borders of the graveyard, and an exceptionally lanky spider dances across the rocks with deliberate and surprising grace. The dark body shored up by its long legs looks like a smooth and shiny polished black stone.

The shaded tranquility of the first two thirds of the Koyasan graveyards gives way to a more open and bright area of the park. A haiku shrine and several modern graves and memorials populate the park's extreme end. The trees and foliage display their most ravishing autumn colors, and brightly-colored gateways and structures accompany them. It's an appropriate coda to our exploration.

During the afternoon Rita and I make our way back to the hanare, passing through downtown Koyasan (its modest, tourist-friendly, picturesque layout feels a lot like the faux-Swiss-Alps ambience of Leavenworth, Washington) en route. Then we grab our bags, bid a most reluctant farewell to Shojoshin-in, and hop the bus back to the cablecar.

Our final destination for today will be a repeat, extended stop in Kyoto. Rita's booked a room in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese bed-and-breakfast) for three days, and we'll be touring several Buddhist temples throughout Kyoto proper. The superlative Japan Rail System whisks us from Koyasan to Osaka, then back to Kyoto. At Kyoto Station we hop a cab for our ryokan.

Our taxi traverses the streets and alleyways of downtown Kyoto, in a labyrinthian path to the ryokan. Soon we're taking nothing but alleys, and the stark atmosphere makes me feel like we're minor characters in a sixties-vintage yakuza flick.

The Oyado Ishicho ryokan sits inconspicuously in a clean but spare alley, hidden from the main drag just two blocks away. Right away, Rita's arrival is trumpeted with the fanfare of a foreign dignitary, as a huge personalized sign posted at the front glass door greets her.

A tiny Japanese woman--pepper dominating her short salt-and-pepper hair and sandalled and stocking'ed feet scurrying demurely under her kimono--rushes over to scoop up our luggage. Again, we've packed light, but our bags in toto must weigh at least half this woman's body weight. I reflexively reach down to try to wrest the heaviest pack from her, but this smiling warhorse of a lady will have none of it. She totes all three bags to the elevator unassisted, and leads us to our room.

A small, laminated booklet in English on ryokan etiquette in our small but comfortable room proves useful (even though we'd already done some homework back in the states). In addition to the required removal of shoes in the main portion of our lodgings, having our bedding (a futon) made nightly requires leaving your key at the front desk and specifying a specific time for bed-making. The booklet's humorous illustrations, replete with loutish westerners acting out the do's and don't's of things like public baths and when to tip (which is basically never) have Rita and I in stitches.

Once we settle in, Rita and I hit Kawaramachi-Dori (Kawaramachi Avenue), one of downtown Kyoto's main drags, on foot. The city proper displays the glorious schizophrenia inherent in many a Japanese metropolis--shiny modern shops and buildings co-exist amiably with rattletrap alleyways, down which everything from mom-and-pop restaurants to pachinko parlors to seedy nightclubs reside. Even the most ostensibly mundane sites--convenience stores, pharmacies--prove fascinating, thanks to the exotic filter of Japanese culture. The embryonic stages of a headcold have Rita a little logy, so we turn back around and head back into the ryokan.

My tired wife turns in for some shut-eye, and once she's settled and comfortable I head back out, solo. Both cameras stay back at the ryokan (a wise move in the long run--more on that later), so it's just me and my, um, photographic memory.

Music nerd that I am, I make my first stop at Jet-Set Records, a small vinyl purveyor on the fourth floor of an office building. It's a tiny but impeccably-stocked and cool little store. The bare white walls and shelves brim with vintage jazz, reggae, and disco records, and Cannonball Adderly blows fluidly in the background. Two guys--one a DJ type sporting a wool cap, the other an obvious jazzbo with a perfectly-tousled mop of black hair--man the counter and graciously help me search their shelves and database for choice Japanese rock. Most of their vintage vinyl is way out of my price range ($26 to $30 US), but I score a CD by Japanese pop/noise duet Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her for a cool 790 Yen (a little over $7 US).

Back along the main drag, several Halloween revellers weave amongst the locals, partying tourists, and commuters along Kawaramachi-Dori. Halloween has yet to be the cultural event in Japan that it is in the West, but I see quite a few teens in masks, and one or two in costume. All of these youths are blindingly beautiful (if Rita were here, we'd be playing 'J-Pop' until our arms bled), and so stylish that they look like they've stepped straight out of a manga. Willowy girls with slashes of red/brown hair and omnipresent wool caps, and their chiselled and immaculately-coiffed beaus, stroll the sidewalks like they've got personal stock in the asphalt. A point pondered: Do all Japanese emerge from childhood straight into fully-formed and gorgeous adulthood, without a single pubescent speedbump? Some of them stare at me like onlookers peering at a strange animal in a zoo. I chock up their gawking to my hirsute caucasian appearance and walk on.

The roar of several motorcycles emerges just behind me as I cross the intersection of Kawaramachi-Dori and Aneyakoji-Dori. I look up just in time to see eight hogs, each done up as some Japanese pop-culture/anime icon. The sinewy rider at the front sports an absurdly-festive helmet topped with a Doraemon cap, as he straddles his blue-and-white-striped cycle; a real-life Kamen Rider follows, insect-headed and riding a green-and-black bike; yet another wears the silver-and-red fighting colors of Ultraman, with a tricked-out bike to match; and so on. After drinking the surrealism of the scene in fully, I glance around to gauge reactions from the rest of the people on the street--they're all totally nonplussed.

It's around 9pm as I reach my personal Kawaramachi-Dori holy grail--the Kyoto Tower Records. Since Tower's dissolution, it's been re-christened Noise, but most of Tower's yellow-and-red signage stays in place. It's on the eighth floor of yet another tall office building, and I wind my way off the sidewalk and through its glass doors. The swarms of people on the pavement shrink as the glass elevator whisks me upward. Just as I exit the lift and reach the front door of the store, a smiling sylph of a counter-girl runs to me and blurts out, "Sorry! Closed! Come back tomorrow." She's as smilingly stubborn as our baggage carrier from earlier, so I turn and leave dejectedly.

Near the store entrance sits a pile of free in-store magazines. At least I won't leave empty-handed, I think as I sulkily pull one from the top of the heap. It takes me several seconds to realize that my right hand is completely covered in blue, apparently the byproduct of some wiseacre's crafty placement of some ink or dye amongst the periodical pile.

Suddenly I remember a large video arcade across the street that clattered and blipped its presence earlier. It's one of the few places open after 9 on Kawaramachi-Dori, and--thank God--it's got a public restroom. I run into the men's room and stake out space in front of the sink, scrubbing feverishly at my blue mitt like Macbeth gone Nerd.

At one point I reach into my jeans pocket, and pull my exploded blue pen...from within. Also wedged in said pocket: My comb--the comb I'd used in my hair earlier--and a couple-dozen Japanese coins--now also a sticky blue--of various denominations. I look up in horror at the bathroom mirror and note the sizeable blue streaks in my hair that charmingly match my cobalt-saturated right palm. No wonder I garnered so many stares from the locals--shambling, blue-haired, unshaven caucasians in ink-spattered hoodies don't exactly run a dime-a-dozen in Kyoto.

There's too much clean-up required for me to stick around in this public place scrubbing like a lunatic, so I exit the arcade and begin heading back to the ryokan. En route, thirst overcomes me and I duck into a 7-Eleven for a cold bottle of green tea. The counter-person's love of American tourists is surely cemented as I hand him a two sticky blue 100-yen coins to pay for the beverage.

My first night in Kyoto winds down with me hunched over the bathroom sink, scrubbing gobs of blue ink out of my hair, off of the two-or-three-dozen Japanese coins in my pocket, off of my right hand, and out of my jeans pocket. Midway through my Macbeth routine Rita awakens and chortles sympathetically at the spectacle of me in my underwear massaging blue coins in our ryokan sink at midnight.

Fortunately, she takes no pictures with which to blackmail my doofy blue tourist ass.

(The Kyoto at dusk photo can be found in this excellent Flickr photo book; the Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her CD cover and Doraemon pics are copyright their respective sources. All other photos by Rita Bellanca and Tony Kay, taken October 31, 2008.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Not-Snow Day! Snow Day!

Every year, our local news media turn into a bunch of yabbering ninnies the instant the temperature drops anywhere near freezing. "STORMWATCH 2008!" they were screaming on Monday, when the temperature was in the low 30's, the weather was clear, and the downtown roads perfectly navigable.

I happened to have a camera, so I snapped a few pictures during my lunch break. Love's Forever Changes danced in my ears (there's your obligatory pop-culture reference, however obscure, friends) as I walked and snapped photos.

The area around my work has been transforming at an insane rate, but amidst all of the toney shops and shinily anonymous buildings sits the frequent highlight of my semi-daily, sanity-preserving walks--St. Spiridon's Greek Orthodox Church. It's an austere and beautiful building, and a bastion of the organic and the spiritual in an area rapidly losing its human face. I'm not religious, but the presence of this church (which, incidentally, I've never entered) consoles me that 'progress' and 'urban upgrade' haven't entirely anesthetized the 'hood's soul.

But the weather can change on a dime here in Seattle. And today Mother Nature gave the local news jabberjaws plenty to clack on about. All of Washington state is under a blanket of snow today. The daily routine of this entire state has ground to a halt, and I could care less. It's breathtaking.

So this morning, I went out with my beat-up Pentax Optio and snapped some shots of our house and environs, in the embryonic stages of Winter Wonderland status.

It's an honest-to-God blizzard now. Really. Another trek out, camera in tow, may be in order later.

If you like seeing all this, you should definitely take a look at Rita's Blog, Atomic War Bride. She's a much more adroit shutterbug than yours truly, and has taken some terrific pictures of the snow, and of the world's greatest dog (that'd be, um, our dog, Disco). The first picture of our noble beast on this entry is probably the most beautiful that anyone's ever snapped of her. Kudos, Wife.

And keep warm, all.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Passings: Beverly Garland, Bettie Page, Van Johnson

For anyone of a certain age, or anyone far-sighted enough to appreciate film or pop culture of an era other than this one, the last couple of weeks have been especially heart-breaking.

Bettie Page, who died at age 85 on Thursday, left an indelible impact on the country's--nay, the world's--collective sexuality that can't be overstated. Oh, and any man who does not harbor a hemisphere-sized crush on her is a fool.

In a world so celebrity and pop-culture saturated that the word 'icon' gets tossed around like used Kleenex, Page was the real deal. Like most pioneers, she received little recognition (even outright derision) during her pin-up model prime, but her striking signature look--jet-black hair and bangs, crystalline eyes eternally generating playful sensuality in those Irving Klaw photos--generated a major aesthetic and erotic ripple effect.

And now that she's gone, it's awfully easy to see Bettie Page as a martyr for the Sexual Revolution. Aside from her brief heyday as a Klaw Cutie, she led a pretty harrowing life--abuse from family and spouses, chemical dependency, mental instability, trouble with the law--while this ass-backwards world caught up with the sexual frankness she represented, and she went utterly unrewarded for it until her last few years on Earth.

Careerist parasites like Madonna and Britney Spears pretty effectively walked on Page's back (metaphorically speaking) to achieve their cynical brand of financial and sexual freedom, but they never clued into what made (and continues to make) Irving Klaw's most enduring cheesecake/fetish model immortal. One look at her in photos or on film brings home the point in full, saturated color. That smile, those beckoning-yet-strangely innocent sparkling eyes, and most importantly (really!) the strategic concealment of The Full Monty by lace/cotton/ostrich feathers in most of her photos--the cumulative elements manage to capture the mystery, the allure, the fun, and the magickal joy of sex more vividly than a warehouse full of Jenna Jameson videos ever will. Thank you, Bettie Page: You were a revolutionary and a liberator...And you looked way better in fishnets and g-strings than Che Guevara ever woulda.

Unlike Bettie Page, Beverly Garland never seemed like a mythic archetype, or a martyr. In fact, a significant part of Garland's legacy (she passed away on December 5 at the age of 82) has always been her utter lack of pretense. In her work, she was every inch a real woman, whether she faced zipper-backed monsters in B-horror flicks, crooks as TV's first lady cop in the syndicated TV series Decoy, or a small phalanx of cute sitcom kids as adopted mom to My Three Sons.

Garland already received hefty career appraisal in these electronic pages during last year's Horrorpalooza, so feel free to go here for a more detailed overview and film recommendations. Today, all you'll get is a celebration of what a terrific lady Beverly Garland was to me personally.

We met in the early nineties in Seattle. I was finishing a shift at a thankless telemarketing job in the University District, when I got a call from Rita that Beverly Garland was appearing at the Northgate Mall (just three blocks from our apartment at the time). I rushed to the mall as fast as Metro Transit could carry me.

Garland made the trek from her Hollywood stomping grounds as part of the mall's Senior Health Fair, and she made one great living testament to good senior living. She looked terrific--healthy, downright youthful despite being in her late sixties at the time, and elegantly dressed in an incredibly chic black-and-white pantsuit that any twenty-something model would've killed to wear so well. It was in the spring at one of the mall's lowest sales ebbs, so there were probably six people in attendance besides Rita and I, but Garland greeted us with the same genuine delight she'd have given an audience of two thousand.

After an articulate and engaging talk about her life, health and exercise regimen, she opened up the floor to questions. And being far too much of a nerd to pass up the opportunity, I barraged her with them. Garland let fly with candid, vivid, and frequently hysterical stories about working in low-budget cinema, and the many great talents she'd shared screen time with, for about an hour. This was a few years before she'd committed her storehouse of wonderful stories to Scarlet Street and Filmfax magazines in detailed print interviews, so Rita and I felt immeasurably privileged.

Afterwards Garland stayed on to sign autographs. She was (thank God) tickled pink at the questions I'd fielded her, leaning close to me as she signed my copy of The Movie World of Roger Corman with a wink as she stated proudly, "That's me--a B-Movie Baby!" Then she thanked us sincerely and earnestly for coming out to hear her speak, and gave Rita and I a big hug. It was probably the most wonderful talk with a professional actor that I've ever had in my life.

Years later, I sent Beverly Garland an autograph request, including a postcard with an image from her 1957 opus Not of this Earth. She sent it back signed, along with an 8 x 10 repro of the poster, also signed, and in a larger envelope that she provided and paid for the extra postage on. She was that kind of dame.

Class acts like that are rare birds nowadays, but such good-egg-ness seemed to come naturally to movie actors who came of age artistically in the forties and fifties. Van Johnson, who passed away December 12 at the ripe old age of 92, epitomized that graciousness. He was, by all accounts, as genial and nice off-screen as the characters he frequently played.

His career spanned six decades, and he worked alongside some of the greatest legends in Hollywood, but with his freckled, boyish good looks and amiable manner it was easy for audiences to take him for granted. He represented--with a refreshing absence of pretense, irony, or condescension--the archetypical all-American Nice Guy.

But Johnson could--and frequently did--turn in performances that easily rivaled those of his more mythologized co-stars: A double-feature of 1949's war movie Battleground, and the 1954 classic The Caine Mutiny handily proves it.

The former details a US army batallion's harrowing tour of duty in Bastogne during The Battle of the Bulge. It's a straightforward action drama (deftly directed by William Wellman) that turns a surprisingly unflinching look at the alternately tedious and terrifying ritual of World War II active duty. Johnson nets star billing here, but his Sgt. Holley feels solidly and effortlessly like one of the guys (always a generous actor, he's totally at ease as one member of an ensemble that includes Ricardo Montalban, James Whitmore, John Hodiak, and a lot of other dynamite character actors at the top of their games). And when fate forces him into command, Johnson lets the viewer see the transformation of this carefree guy into a hardened leader with downright contemporary brushstrokes.

Of course, The Caine Mutiny stands as an unparalleled classic, but even if you've seen it a million times, pop it in again once more and pay extra attention to Johnson's work. God knows it's easy to get lost in the celebrated fireworks of Humphrey Bogart's Captain Queeg, and (to a lesser extent) Jose Ferrer's power in the film's final courtroom scenes. But Van Johnson does the movie's heaviest dramatic lifting, almost without you noticing.

His Lieutenant Steve Maryk, a stand-up Naval officer put on the spot when he decides to overrule his insane captain's edicts, undergoes the movie's most complex character arc as his faith in Captain Queeg (and by extent, the U.S. Navy) gets shaken to its roots. The moment that sells the tautly-edited and starkly-lit mutiny scene comes precisely when director Edward Dmytryk hones in tight on Maryk's face, and the executive officer makes the decision to wrest control of the Caine from Queeg's grasp. Every fiber of doubt, conflict, fear, and resolve that plays inside of Maryk courses over Johnson's face in the space of a few seconds: It's a phenomenal moment of film acting, and again as Johnson was want to do, he brings it off with such unforced naturalness you almost don't notice it.

Rita, incidentally, had a mammoth crush on Johnson as a kid, so his loss registered extra-strongly for her (see her brief but eloquent tribute here). That loss was amplified by the great kindness Van Johnson showed her through the mail.

Rita sent Johnson a heartfelt fan letter about ten years ago. He replied with an autographed 8 x 10, and a handwritten note on the envelope. "Nice letter! Why aren't they all as easy as you?" he wrote, punctuating the note with a smiley face.

Good question. Especially in the context of a guy as nice as Van Johnson.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Passings: Forrest J. Ackerman--Magazine Editor, Pioneer of Fandom, Favorite Uncle

As I write this, DVDs of many of my favorite horror and sci-fi films sit on a shelf next to me--a library of fear at my fingertips. Exhaustive information about even the most obscure little genre films is just a mouse click away, and horror and sci-fi geekdom is a megalithic, multi-billion dollar industry. Thing is, literally none of it would exist without Dr. Ackula, Forrest J. Ackerman.

Ackerman, who died on December 4 at the age of 92, wasn't a household name to most folks, but he left a massive thumbprint on the horror and science fiction genres. He essentially created fandom, purchasing his first science fiction pulp magazine (Amazing Stories) in 1926, creating the first Science Fiction Fan Club in 1930, and popularizing the term 'sci-fi.' He spread the gospel of the fantastic to the world as a literary agent, editor, sometime author, and was a close friend to everyone from author Ray Bradbury to horror movie icons like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price.

But to me and two generations of horror-hungry kids, he was and will always be Uncle Forry.

Ackerman founded Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, the first periodical to exclusively cover fantastic films, in 1958. From its inception, the monthly mag was never a showcase for incisive cinematic analysis or cogent critical dissection, and Forrest Ackerman never pretended it was. No, FM was Uncle Forry sitting all of his surrogate nieces and nephews on his knee and sharing his wide-eyed awe and joy at fantastic film, in printed form.

Forry's personality imbued every page of the magazine. Many of the photos that covered its pages came from his vast personal collection, and he wrote a lot of his periodical's articles in a genial kid-friendly spirit peppered with loads of deliciously lousy puns ("You AXED for it!"). And he never failed to make fans feel part of the magazine, publishing photos of them on the Letters page and encouraging them to guess horror movie titles from Mystery Photos. One of the highlights of my eleventh year on the planet (1978) was opening FM #143 to see my name proudly printed alongside the couple-dozen other kids who'd correctly guessed the movie from whence the previous month's Mystery Photo arose (incidentally, the Mystery Photo was from Beyond the Door, and of course I still own my dog-eared copy of that issue).

It's hard to convey just how important this magazine was to me, and to so many other nerdy kids back in the day. I first discovered it as a horror-hungry first-grader circa 1973: There was no internet to spoon-feed reams of information to fans; no DVRs, DVDs, no VCRs. If you wanted to drink deep from the flagon of fantastic film, you either hit the first-run theaters, or you checked your TV Guide and made damn sure you were in front of the TV when Night of the Blood Beast aired, once, on one of the six channels sharing space on the analog airwaves. And if, God forbid, you actually wanted to read about (and see pictures from) horror or fantasy movies, there was literally one--and only one--source: Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Every month, I dragged my parents to the Book King bookstore in the Parkland Fred Meyer strip mall for the latest copy of FM, and then the rest of the day would be spent poring over the new issue with the intensity of a papal acolyte scrutinizing biblical passages. Still images from six decades of fantastic cinema--vampires, werewolves, alien invaders, zombies, giant bugs, and all manner of strange and scary things--stared back at me from those pages, ensnaring my imagination. FM irreparably turned me into an obsessive horror archaeologist, shrouded under a makeshift tent of a blanket so as to conceal the cathode glow of the TV as I watched Frankenstein's Bloody Terror into the wee hours of Saturday morning. Yep, I am the freak that I am today thanks to Dr. Ackula and his magazine.

As unassuming as it was, FM's largely non-judgmental style clearly conveyed the wonderfully non-snobby notion that all of horror cinema was a glorious continuum; features about outright (if entertaining) garbage like The Incredible Melting Man and The Giant Spider Invasion sat right beside coverage on silent masterworks like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That open-hearted outlook still colors, in the best possible way, my view of the cinema of the fantastic. And I wasn't the only one: Famous Monsters of Filmland amassed a small but devoted fanbase that included Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Peter Jackson, and Tim Burton (to name a few).

Changing times and decreasing sales induced Forry to quietly fold Famous Monsters of Filmland in 1983, but he continued to keep himself plugged into all things horror and sci-fi--editing short story collections, putting out autobiographical books of his own, and making periodic and welcome cameo appearances in genre films like The Howling and Innocent Blood.

Rita and I had the pleasure of meeting Forry in person twice. The first time was in 1993, at the 35th Anniversary Famous Monsters World Con. We and about ten other lucky fans had breakfast with Forry, and he readily shared stories about Bela Lugosi, Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, and Ed Wood with robust enthusiasm. He wore Lugosi's original Dracula ring on his finger, and in a gesture worthy of anyone's favorite uncle, he pulled the ring off and let each of us at the table hold it and/or try it on (imagine the paranoid OCD packrats who comprise today's collectors being so trusting).

A palpable melancholy tinctured our second meeting in 2004. Rita and I were on a two-week sojourn to LA and Hollywood, and we'd specifically carved out time to visit Uncle Forry at home. He'd just had a stroke a few months previous, and in 2003 he'd been forced to sell most of his priceless collection of fantasy film memorabilia in a yard sale: An odious toad who attempted to steal Ackerman's intelllectual copyrights in the mid-nineties lost the legal battle, but took Forry's finances down in the process.

The tall, hale, and hearty bon vivant that regaled and charmed us eleven years prior now stood shakily before us, physically enfeebled (per his request Rita helped Forry button up his shirt when he greeted us) but still sharp as a tack mentally. Uncle Forry answered our questions about his old friends Peter Lorre and Vincent Price with joyous enthusiasm (despite the fact that I'm sure he'd fielded such inquiries dozens if not hundreds of times), and let us take in his truncated-but-still-impressive collection of memorabilia. That he let two dorky fans stand within an inch of Lon Chaney's original prop fangs and top hat from 1927's London After Midnight just conveyed how generous he was with his collection, and with his love of the fantastic. Rita and I both hugged him before we left, and I for one embraced him so hard that I'm surprised I didn't crack his ribs. It couldn't be helped: The guy just inspired that kind of emotion in me.

Uncle Forry, I love you and will miss you more than I can possibly say. And fangs for the memories.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Tom Jones, 24 Hours: The God of Pump returneth

Japan will have to wait for a spell. The Petri Dish, you see, is black and white and Tom Jones all over. Not that it hasn't already been, once or twice. But a couple of especially great reasons for it have popped up recently.

Firstly, the leather-lunged Welsh Wonder's album 24 Hours just dropped. And it's nothing short of phenomenal, a glorious crystallization of everything that is life-affirming and great about The Man and his voice.

On the face of it, this new release follows the basic template of most of Jones's discs since the mid-nineties--original tunes gilded by a few well-chosen covers, all garnished by those world-class pipes--but 24 Hours presents the formula to perfection. Much as I adore The Man's body of work, it's often necessary to do some wheat-from-chaff separation on his records. Here, every track just knocks it outta the park.

The new tunes (quite a few co-written by Sir Tom hisself) are a revelation. Many of them capture the escapist fairy-dust of his best sixties output--the swath of warm horns punctuating "If He Should Ever Leave You" and the loping Stax-Volt groove of "Give a Little Love" add vintage texture, even as the sharp modern Future Cut production keeps those elements from feeling transparently retro. The masterful title track, meanwhile, presents a stark and empathetic elegy to a fallen soldier, delivered by Jones with quiet drama and subtlety.

The Man can still belt it out, of course (he works Tommy James and the Shondells' "I'm Alive" into fighting Memphis Soul trim), but he's learned how to temper that force-of-nature voice brilliantly when the song calls for it. On Bruce Springsteen's wrenching boxer's-eye-view story-song "The Hitter," the burnished roughness of those distinctive pipes builds the story of the bloodied-but-unbowed title character with cinematic texture, and Jones delivers the lilting bossa-nova shuffle of "We Got Love" with the most gentle of touches.

All that, AND Tom Jones still packs 24 Hours with enough testosterone to fertilize half the eastern seaboard. He earns his God of Pump mantle in spades on the awesome U2-co-written "Sugar Daddy," a funky strut that lays out The Man's libidinous mission statement with bad-assed confidence. "You don't send a boy to do a man's job," he growls. Damn straight.

The second big item of import on the Jones front comes this Saturday. You see, I'll be interviewing Tom Jones...Sort of.

Sir Tom will be on NPR Radio's Saturday Weekend Edition, answering questions from fans about his life and career. One of those lucky fans will be me, so you'll actually get to hear yours truly chat up The God of Pump for a scant minute or two. Exact air time of the segment is still TBD: Stay tuned for more details. Oh, and run--no, sprint like Bicentennial-era Bruce Jenner--to your nearest retailer for a copy of 24 Hours. Yer a blasted fool if you don't.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

In Japan, Part 3

October 30, 2008:

To Koyasan.

In the morning, we're escorted to the proper ticket purchase point in Osaka Station by not one but two helpful Swissotel staff members. After picking up our admissions we head over to the terminal for our train to Koyasan.

The Station holds a similar feel to London Station, with its open spaces and daylight filtering in over the metal framework that spider-webs the train gates. A lone, dilapidated pigeon lopes near us. One corner of his beak looks crusted with calcification, and in place of his right foot is an equally-calcified stub. He's charming as hell in his scruffy way, and soon he's lured several scraps of pastry from Rita and I.

The train arrives, and we're off to Koyasan. The journey offers the same humble-but-palpable pleasures as the Tokyo-to-Kyoto ride: More birds'-eye views of some of Japan's non-touristy quadrants flit by, but this time the sardine-packed suburbs gradually give way to much more rural and placid areas.

All of the surrounding terrain grows more lush, green, and panoramic with the speed of a time-lapse sequence from a wildlife documentary as we get nearer to Mt. Koya and Koyasan. At various points in the train's ascent it slows to a near-halt, brakes squealing as it traverses corners that open up spectacular vistas of verdant trees and plant life. The area bears some resemblance to the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest (give or take appearances by bamboo and other exotic flora/fauna).

Once the train reaches the end of the line we take a cablecar up to Koyasan proper, ascending past carpets of bamboo, conifers, and ferns. We're just two of a pretty large mob of tourists (mostly Japanese) at the top, and Rita and I maneuver our way into the bus that's to take us to our lodgings. Between the absurdly-tight seats and our bloated carry-along luggage, we're so crammed into the coach that laughing at the absurdity of the situation imperils our ability to breathe.

Koyasan is one of Japan's most religiously significant locales. It's a center of Shingon Buddhism, a sect of the religion introduced circa 805 AD by reformist monk Kobo Daishi. Over a hundred monasteries dot the Koyasan area. One of them is Shojoshin-in, the monastery that will house us overnight.

We arrive at Shojoshin-in early in the afternoon. It's along a quieter stretch of the main road that remains tranquil despite the tour groups that occasionally pop in to flood the well-stocked gift shop across the street. We visit the aforementioned tourist trap ourselves to admire the rows of knick-knacks, postcards, and toys. My favorite portion turns out to be the food wares--I gleefully sample the many exotic gelatinous snacks stuffed with fruit and bean paste proffered by the clerks, while Rita picks up my slack and souvenir-shops for friends and family.

The monastery itself sits with quiet modesty, its simple wooden exterior surrounded by immaculately-kept grounds and gardens. Most of the lodgings for tourists are communal housing, with shared houses and baths. Rita and I presume this to be our arrangement, but we luck out and our request for the hanare (the one private guest residence just outside the main monastery) is successful. It's a beautiful traditional-style Japanese home, all sliding paper screens exquisitely filligreed with traditional mythological and Buddhist imagery. It's sparely but tastefully furnished, with a single table for eating/tea and a futon for slumber. The hanare includes western toilets (a profound relief to Rita, who was rightfully shuddering at the notion of a traditional squat toilet) but has no central heating (space heaters fill in fairly well).

The monks who tend to our needs feed all of us an all-vegetarian dinner that evening in the main dining room. The meal is, unequivocally, the most delicious food we are to have for the entire trip. As Rita eloquently states, if all veggie cuisine is this good, meat-eaters'd never go back to carnivorous dining.
The gardens surrounding our hanare are gorgeous, and best of all, we're just a few hundred feet from the Koyasan graveyards. The Graveyards house some 200,000 graves, and in striking contrast to the often-dour and sad final resting places of the west, these graveyards envelop one in a contented serenity. Perhaps it's because Buddhism's centered awareness of nature compliments Japan's other principal religion (the nature-worship faith of Shinto) with grace and acceptance. Huge trees shade a seeming infinity of tombstones, stone gates, Buddhist effigies, and statuary. For some 1,200 years nature has been crafting abstract masterworks over the surfaces of these markers in the vivid greens, oranges, and browns of the moss and the ambient plant life. The groundskeepers of these massive cemeteries keep the surrounding pathways immaculate, but rather than scrape away or clean up the statuary and markers, the plants, mosses, and lichens are allowed to become one with the man-made--to often mystical effect. We spend over two-and-a-half hours leisurely wandering through the graveyard, all without reaching the end.

The Graveyards are one of the most 'idiot-proof' tourist attractions imaginable, meaning that I could probably send my mom in blindfolded with a disposable camera and she'd come out with amazing photographs. This place is that kind of magical. The photographs (which, incidentally, are copyrighted by us and should not be used without permission, Friends and Neighbors!) should bear that out. Pictures are worth a thousand words, so I hope the next several are worth a few million, at least.

Postscript: The evening is relaxing, beautiful, and chilly. We take a turn in the graveyard after dark--Rita dilligently films while I tell an improvised ghost story. We return to the hanare, and before turning in for the night I decide to wander out to the graveyards alone, journal in hand:

"I am in the graveyard, alone...It is alternately tranquil and unnerving. I am at a fully-lit crossroads: There is darkness--infinite darkness--just beyond the well-groomed, well-lit pathway. The figures, markers, and stones that were so placid during the day are now shaded by the strange magic that the presence and the chill of the night induce. No cars are driving along the nearby road. All is silent: Indeed, the scrawling and scratching of my pen against paper sounds deafening amidst the silence. Tiny flies swarm 'round the lamp silently. I think I shall venture forward, just a bit more..."

I do indeed walk further down, to a darker point on the path, largely to face my own fear. How often, after all, does one get such a chance to immerse ones' self in something so atmospheric and magical? Leaning against a lightpost in the dark, I gaze up into the multiple tiers of graves and memorials as they dissolve into the surrounding blackness. After a few minutes of steeping in the atmosphere I rush back to the hanare, and I join Rita for several hours of restful slumber.

Tomorrow morning, we will be granted a special window into a ceremony oft-repeated here over the last thousand years...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Travels in Japan, Part 2

October 29, 2008:

Morning in Tokyo is lovely and clement (probably mid-sixties), but there's little time to enjoy it. Today's trajectory will take us via Japan Rail to Kyoto. Then later tonight we journey to Osaka to stay the night. The following morning, we travel from Osaka to Koya, and to the remote hamlet of Koyasan: The latter will be (we hope) one of the trip's highlights.

The train trip from Tokyo to Kyoto takes about two hours. It encapsulates one of the things I love most about traveling--namely, getting a glimpse (however fleeting) of the routine daily life in a foreign country. Beyond the cosmopolitan shimmer of Tokyo, Japanese suburbs zip by. Tight clusters of apartments and factories break up patches of lush green trees and rice paddies: Surprisingly, in such a densely-populated land there are still some wide-open spaces.

Our first big salvo of sensory overload hits us not in Tokyo but in Kyoto. Kyoto Station is a massive modern bivouac, honeycombed with multiple shops and restaurants as well as masses of boarding gates and Bullet Trains. Just when the shiny and futuristic architecture starts to resemble a typical western metropolitan train station too strongly, some distinctively Japanese quirk surfaces—Mighty Atom (better known to stateside nerds as Astro Boy) greets us at the entrance of the Station, and several signs brim with the wonderfully skewed English that’s part and parcel of so much Japanese advertising. When we arrive, the Station's stuffed to capacity with swarms of commuters, shoppers, and tourists. Our first destination--the Kyoto Tourist Office--allegedly resides on the ninth floor of Isetan, a department store in the middle of the station. Before hitting the Station interior, we explore the surrounding area a bit. Firefighters run through drills at the Kyoto Fire Station, and they're surrounded by yet more memorable signage.

An adorable little cartoon girl in an oversized hat, meantime, adorns the mail box at the Kyoto Post Office. She's lots more fun than that fuddy-duddy old US eagle. Finding the Tourist Office proves to be an adventure by itself. Rita and I have packed light (not for naught has the missus earned the nickname of Consolidata), but the shoebox-sized elevators (and the Ben-Hur-length waiting times for them) induce us to lug all of our bags awkwardly through the various levels of the store in search of this mythic location. We stick out among the flawless-looking upscale shoppers like scraggly sore toes. After a Spinal Tap-style series of meandering twists through boutique showrooms, escalators, and isolated corridors we find the Tourist Information Office and obtain the information we need (directions to the Hotel New Myako, where we'll join an evening tour group).Our search for a coin locker large enough for our bags extends the Stranger-in-a-Strange-Land thrills. Both of us are dressed like schlubby tourists in jeans and t-shirts when we hit Kyoto Station, and we deem it necessary to change into something a bit more respectable for tonight's festivities (ditching the backpacks and bags for a few hours'll be nice, too). Rita and I find the last super-sized locker in Kyoto Station and guard it like pitbulls, each of us taking shifts as the other runs into the nearby bathrooms to change. Our fevered possessiveness does nothing to save us when we end up accidentally re-locking the locker twice, wasting about 1200 yen (12 bucks American) and cementing our Dumb American Tourist credentials but good.

Things look up when we converge at the Hotel New Myako for what promises to be an exciting evening. At a local restaurant, a maiko (geisha-in-training) will perform traditional dances for us, and then we'll eat a nine-course Japanese meal. A taxi takes us from the New Myako to the restaurant, which is scenically located opposite an impressive Buddhist temple. While waiting for the presentation to begin we explore the area around the (now-closed for the evening) temple.
The commercial and traditional rub against one another readily. Tommy Lee Jones' craggy character-actor mug pimps coffee drinks from a vending machine, and a cartoon statue of a geisha pertly sings the praises of some exotic Japanese snack or other. Amidst all of this pop-culture strangeness, monks nonchalantly traverse the sidewalks, and the ancient wooden structure of the temple looms over the street beatifically.
Several organizations in Japan offer maiko or geiko (geisha) experiences, and it can be expensive to get a glimpse at this ceremony. The one we view is less taxing to our pocketbook than a full-on geiko experience (our maiko is accompanied by a CD instead of live musicians), but neither of us feels short-changed in any way. Our maiko's the real deal--a 19-year old carrying on the centuries-old tradition--and she's graceful and beautiful. Only when she pauses between dances for a Q-and-A does her unearthly veneer reveal the refreshing universality of a typical smart-alecky teen (grown-ups and their goofy questions...).

Next, we dine. Our meal consists of nine courses, all traditional Nihongo fare. I dive into the meal despite my strong aversion to seafood in general, and the food's phenomenal. The cornucopia of flavors--savory miso soup, a tender and flaky mackeral derivation, the vinegared tang of pickled cucumbers, the breaded tempura shrimp and vegetables, the melange of sauces, the volcanic scorch of wasabi--are as carefully orchestrated as the meal's visual presentation. Rita and I are hungry as hell, so we clean our plates with the efficiency of a Whirlpool dishwasher. It all washes down headily with some green tea and warm sake.

The tour company springs for a cab ride back to Kyoto Station. We retrieve our bags and hop the JR to Osaka at about 9pm. A half-hour later, we're in Osaka Station, which is, amazingly, even bigger and more packed than Kyoto. The Swissotel Osaka connects directly to Osaka Station, so once we arrive it's just a quick jog to our lodgings. Then again, with four nicely-stuffed bags slung over our weary shoulders, that quick jog stretches like taffy.

It's a bit of a bummer that we're only staying until the morning. Osaka looks like quite the funhouse: The skyline outside our hotel room window offers more futuristic architecture, cotton candy neon, and strange structures that imply amusement-park fun. Almost directly below our window is a building whose rooftop is dotted with graveyard-shift factory workers--It's like a scene out of Metropolis, only with neon-etched cartoon characters smiling down on the proles.
Once we check in, I run down to the lobby to shoot a quick progress email to our stateside friends while Rita relaxes. Just a few feet away from the Internet Station is a lounge: A dapper forty-something Japanese singer in a pinstripe suit plunks away at the house piano and croons Barry Manilow and Celine Dion hits in magnificently fractured English. The neon and electric light from the Osaka cityscape illuminate the singer from behind. Cigarette smoke does Indian rope trick climbs to the ceiling around him, and the glasses of the half-dozen or so lounge patrons clink away as rounds are tossed down. Sadly, he finishes, the bar closes, and the surreal scene evaporates before I have the chance to go back up to our room and get the camera.

Tomorrow morning we'll pick up and hit the train again, this time for a destination much closer to nature.