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2015/06/28

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

by John Bloner, Jr.


In Wisconsin, where I live, we have our legends: in Rhinelander, there's the green, lizard-like beast, the Hodag, covered in white horns. In Elkhorn, the werewolf known as Beast of Bray Road. The Menominees speak of the little people of the forest, the Mimakwiskwuk, who make carvings in rocks. And, of course, many know of the exploits of Paul Bunyan and Babe, The Blue Ox.

But we don't have our gods, like the Greeks and Romans have had for eons; that is, until English author Neil Gaiman came to America, got a taste of the upper Midwest, and penned his fourth novel, American Gods. The book is a road-movie, of sorts, in text instead of moving pictures, as it follows the main character, Shadow Moon, and the mysterious Mr. Wednesday--a flesh-and-blood incarnation of a Norse god--around the USA and into haunts you won't find on a map.

American Gods author, Neil Gaiman
As the novel begins, Shadow is released from prison and soon finds that the world he thought was waiting for him on the outside is gone. His wife has died in a car accident. His friend, who owned a gym where Shadow had hoped to reclaim his old job, was driving the automobile. The best and only good thing about prison, Shadow had thought, was that you could not fall down any further. You were already at the bottom. Over the course of the novel, Shadow learns what Dante finds in the Inferno.

There are a lot of levels in hell.


American Gods follows the construct of the Hero's Journey, in which a character is thrust out of his ordinary world--in Shadow's case, the familiarity of prison life--into a life that vividly contrasts with what he has known and believed. In the novel's first chapter, the reader learns that "Shadow was not superstitious. He did not believe in anything he could not see." Yet within this same chapter, Shadow is visited by something that "wore a buffalo's head, rank and furry with huge wet eyes. Its body was a man's body, oiled and slick."

Buffalo Man by Enoa79
The buffalo man provides clues for Shadow to chew on. He's not ready to digest them right away. "Changes are coming," he tells him. "If you are to survive, you must believe . . . Everything."

Shadow doesn't know what to believe. His beloved wife is gone. He has no real home to return to. Even when he tries to get there by plane, his flight is diverted by storms. He doesn't comprehend it yet, but he's running through an elaborate maze that contains portals to a fourth dimension.

The buffalo man prepares the way for Shadow to meet Mister Wednesday. Wednesday is an old god, but he's also a coyote trickster, a horny goat, and the White Rabbit of Lewis Carroll's tale, leading Shadow to adventure.

When Shadow settles into a connecting flight, this man in his pale suit is already in his seat beside Shadow. "You're late," he says. Then, the plane takes off and down the rabbit hole they go.

White Rabbit by Reaper Neko
If America hasn't had its gods like the Greeks or Romans, it has put something else in their place to worship: kitsch. As a young boy, my parents pulled me and my sisters around the country in their station wagon and Shasta travel trailer (with wings on both sides). I was about five years old when Burma-Shave signs disappeared from U.S. motorways, and with it the last dose of poetry the common man would encounter on the family vacation, but roadside placards still bore (and continue to bear) announcements for House on the Rock, a tourist attraction in Spring Green, built over decades by Alex Jordan, Jr., complete with a sea monster, coin-operated Victorian music, theater organs, the world's largest cannon, and a mammoth carousel.

Early in their travels, Mister Wednesday takes Shadow and two other men to House on the Rock, telling him, "This is a roadside attraction. One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power." They travel through the House's many rooms until they reach the merry-go-round in the cherub room. The carousel is a monstrously-sized amusement ride with over 260 animals and 20,000 lights. Another character in the novel describes it as "a prayer wheel going around and around. Accumulating power." All Shadow knows is that it makes him happy. He's filled with nostalgia, remembering a day from his childhood when he rode on another carousel in Golden Gate Park. All is bliss until the lights go out, and as Gaiman tells us, "Shadow saw the gods."

He's passed through a portal. Things are about to get weird(er).

Neil Gaiman rides the carousel at House on The Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin
Some of my favorite moments in American Gods, however, are the mundane ones and take place in the fictional Wisconsin small town of Lakeside (rather than its real-life counterpart). To put this town on a map, I relied on the research of blogger and librarian, Nathaniel Grey, who speculates that one likely location is in Oneida County, Wisconsin.

Shadow arrives by Greyhound bus in Lakeside at Christmastime and is befriended almost immediately by an old man, Hinzelmann, of seemingly good nature, who keeps him from freezing to death in the subzero temperatures of Northern Wisconsin and escorts him to his new apartment. Gaiman writes that this character has "the face of a man who has sipped life's vinegar and found it, by and large to be mostly whiskey, and good whiskey at that." Lakeside and its populace seems like an idyllic place--a Mayberry, of sorts--but appearances are deceiving in American Gods.

The pin marks the spot--or maybe not--of the location of the fictional town of Lakeside, Wisconsin
American Gods may be read as an urban fantasy. Author Joanna Penn says of the genre, "The way I conceptualize urban fantasy is magic and weird stuff creeping in at the edges of a world in which magic is not the norm."  When we're introduced to Shadow, we find a character who only believes in what is in front of him. Once he's released from jail, all he wants is to return home to his wife and take up his old job at the gym. Instead, "magic and weird stuff" creep into his life and into our imaginations.

Gaiman's story may also be read as a poem to a lost America. Leave it to a Brit to capture a country's essence as it existed long ago when baby boomers were still babies, kids and teens. American Gods takes its readers across the United States, including to the geographic center of the contiguous 48 states in Lebanon, Kansas.

Photo of Lebanon, Kansas by Michael6076
When I was less than 10 years old, stuck in the back of my parents' station wagon, sandwiched between two older sisters and headed south from Wisconsin to Florida each February during layoff time at my dad's factory job, we traversed not only the highways but also the back roads of areas where the interstate system had not yet been built. Along these roads of Kentucky and Tennessee, we witnessed many barn roofs that were painted with a call to "See Rock City." These advertisements were not just placed in the immediate vicinity of Chattanooga, Tennessee, home to the ancient rock formations and gardens of Rock City atop Lookout Mountain. No, these three simple words, "See Rock City," could be seen as far north as Michigan and south as Texas.

My parents' frugal ways prohibited us from actually seeing if Rock City itself could live up its claim to be the 8th wonder of the world. Even if we had spent some time there, I suspect it may have disappointed, given our anticipation.

Like House on the Rock in Wisconsin, Rock City in Tennessee serves as a critical point for Gaiman's story, a gathering of the gods, old and new, with a score to settle.

Photo: imgbuddy.com
Neither his audience or Gaiman himself can get enough of American Gods. A few years after the release of his novel, he released the novella, Monarch of the Glen, a sequel, albeit a short one. In 2011, his publisher released an expanded edition of the book. At that same time, he told Kelly Faircloth, in an i09 interview, "I'm starting to look right now at what I want to do and how I'm going to approach another volume of American Gods. I think it's time for that story, for me to think about continuing it." His most recent collection of stories, Trigger Warning, contains the tale "Black Dog," following Shadow through England. In addition, Starz cable network is preparing a television series based on American Gods, with a premiere date anticipated in late 2016.

While rereading the novel to write this article, I listened simultaneously to its audiobook, narrated by George Guidall, and enjoyed the leisure of listening to him bring alive the voices and places of the book. It's a slower route to take in a novel--Evelyn Wood would shake her head--but oftentimes the slow way turns out to be the best way.

Artwork by Erik Evensen

2015/06/21

The Ox Bow Incident

by Dave Gourdoux


Of all the genres one can divide films into, the genre most associated with America is the Western. The Western is uniquely American because of its setting: the vast and wild territory west of the Mississippi in the frontier days. An American mythology rose from the dime novels of Zane Grey and Max Brand and the white-hatted good guys and the black-hatted bad guys of early films and serials. These books and films were morally unambiguous and simplistic stories where good always triumphed over evil, and the hero always rode off into the sunset. These myths were personified by the likes of the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers.

The mythology that popular art created around the West defined the best and the core values of the American character and created a romantic vision that most Americans embrace to this day. This mythology was created to not only give us heroes to aspire to, it was also used to sublimate the truth of our history, that the actual conquest of the West was morally questionable, that it was dominated by the ugly exploitation of people and land, and that our "manifest destiny" to tame the region included brutal violence and genocide among its means.

From the era of silent films through the 1960s, the number of Westerns that came out of Hollywood was staggering. It was inevitable that out of all of these movies, some great art and artists would emerge. John Ford established himself as the master of the genre, making films that mostly celebrated the Western myths in an often poetic and lyrical manner. Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh made outstanding films that helped critics recognize the genre as a serious art form.

Eventually, filmmakers emerged that would create films that challenged and stretched the myths. Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1951) and George Stevens' Shane (1953) both presented protagonists based upon the white hat wearing hero of the myth, then deconstructed other parts of the myth and explored how the hero would react. Even John Ford, in the brilliant The Searchers (1956) and the inferior, condescending Cheyenne Autumn (1964) attempted to deconstruct many of the very myths he helped create.

In the '50s, led by the director Anthony Mann, a new sub genre emerged: the "Psychological Western." These films usually featured a flawed protagonist who had to overcome internal demons to deal with story lines that abandoned the simplistic black and white hats of the myths and replaced them with shades of grey. It also provided an opportunity to use the grand and mythic setting of the Western as a backdrop to explore more complex themes that actually had nothing to do with the West. High Noon, for example, used the mythic figure of Gary Cooper and the traditional town under siege by bad guys to explore the black listing and McCarthyism that was going on at the time.

The psychological Western is by its nature darker than the mythic Western, and is often made even darker by cross pollinating with the genre of film noir. Noir told dark and claustrophobic urban stories about the underbelly of society; the setting of the Western was the magnificent and sprawling American West. Where noir was often about characters who'd been discarded or left behind by society, the West was about characters who were leading the way to a new world. More often than not, the Western was optimistic, while noir was, at its core, cynical.

With films like Mann's Winchester '73 (1950), The Far Country (1953)The Naked Spur (1953), Arthur Penn's The Left Handed Gun (1958), all the way through to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) and Jim Jamusch's Dead Man (1995), the psychological Western has been one of the most pervasive and enduring genres.

I'd make the case that the genre of psychological Western was created in 1943, nearly a decade before Mann's films and High Noon and Shane, when William "Wild Bill" Wellman made the film The Ox Bow Incident. Not only was it the first of the genre, now, seventy years after it was made, it remains one of the best.

The Ox Bow Incident is dark, possibly the darkest Western ever made; certainly the darkest Western ever made in the Production Code era. It uses the Western as a vehicle to explore vigilantism, mob violence, and sadism. Wellman was such an efficient director that he was able to create one of film's enduring classics in only thirty days of shooting. The film is only 75 minutes long, yet covers more ground than say The Shawshank Redemption, which lumbers along for almost twice as long without having anything profound to say.

Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan
Henry Fonda plays the lead character and Harry Morgan (who is best remembered for playing Colonel Sherman Potter in the television series "M*A*S*H"), his dim witted partner. The two seem to drift in and out of the Nevada town that is the film's home base. There's a strange relationship between the pair and the town - they seem to know everyone and everyone knows them - but they remain outsiders, and they seem to be suspects in a recent wave of cattle rustling. This is the first element of noir - the protagonist as outsider, and the murky and complex relationship between the protagonist and society.

Fonda and Morgan are drinking in the town's saloon when news comes that a rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen. Despite the fact that the sheriff is out of town, a posse is formed, counting among its members Fonda and Morgan, who reluctantly join to fend off suspicions of them as cattle rustlers. Other members of the group include the judge (the familiar character actor Harry Davenport), and the blowhard "Major" Tetley (Frank Conroy), who joins dressed in his full confederate army uniform, and his misfit and nervous son Gerald (William Eythe). The conflict between the Major and Gerald is central to the film, as the Major views Gerald as weak and views the posse as a way to make a man out of his son.

The posse comes upon three men who are sleeping on the prairie and have the dead rancher's cattle. The men claim they purchased the cattle legally but are unable to produce a bill of sale as proof of the transaction. The posse acts as judge, jury and executioner, putting the three men through hell before executing their sentence. The three men are led by a young man with a wife and children back home (Dana Andrews, in a great performance), and include a fiery and angry young Mexican (a very young Anthony Quinn), and a senile old man (Francis Ford, real-life brother of John Ford).

The posse becomes increasingly sadistic and blood thirsty as the night goes on. A small number of the group, led by the judge and including Fonda and Morgan, try to talk reason into the pro-execution majority, led by the Major. But the blood lust of Tetley's group is too great. The only concession Tetley makes is to delay the hanging until dawn, in order to give the men time to write a farewell letter, eat a meal, and to pray.

Without revealing exactly what happens, suffice to say that the sadism of Major Tetley is exposed. In an attempt to "make a man" out of his son, Tetley insists that Gerald play a a major role in the proceedings. Once they are back in town, in a powerful scene, Gerald finds the courage to tell the Major what he really thinks of him. Eythe's performance as Gerald is filled with facial tics and sideways glances; it's one of the most memorable aspects of a film that's filled with moments that once seen, stay with you.

The movie ends with a somber scene with the posse at the saloon, where Fonda reads the letter that Andrews wrote. I'm always a little uneasy when this plot device is used, especially in older production code era films, because the letter always sounds like it was written by the screenwriter, and sums up the points the movie was trying to make for those who are too thick to get it. The Ox Bow Incident, like John Huston's great The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), which also has the reading of a dead man's letter, is too good to have to resort to this gimmick.

Wellman, a veteran director who started his career in silent films, was one of the best and most efficient directors of the time. A master of many genres, the list of his films includes Public Enemy, The Story of G.I. Joe, and Battleground. The Ox-Bow Incident is my favorite of all the Wellman films I've seen, and it deserves serious consideration on any all-time greatest films list.

The greatness of The Ox Bow Incident is amazing when one goes back to the fact that Wellman shot the movie in only thirty days. One of the flaws of the movie is that it was all shot in the studio, and while that contributes to the dark noir feel of the film, it's sometimes distracting, in that it's obviously taking place on a sound stage.

(Spoiler alert - watch the following clip at your own risk!)



The Ox Bow Incident was considered too dark and downbeat for World War II audiences, who the studios assumed needed optimistic and lighter fare, and its release was delayed for two years. In fact, Harry Morgan told the story how, while on the way out from a premiere viewing for industry insiders, he ran into Orson Welles, who said of the lukewarm response the audience gave the film, "They don't know what they just saw."

As usual, Orson was right.





2015/06/14

The Munsters

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

It’s so much fun when I introduce my son to something that I liked when I was a kid and then he actually winds up liking it too. Scooby Doo? I’m pretty sure he’s on the path to being a lifelong fan, like me. Willy Wonka? Despite my love of Johnny Depp, I still definitely prefer the 1971 film version, while my son swears the 2005 Burton remake is better; still, we both agree that the story itself is great. There are more examples of mom and son mutual fandom, but hitting the mark when I try to share something with him can be tricky at times. So when a friend of mine, who’s a big fan of the band Fall Out Boy, recently shared their video for the song "Uma Thurman," a wave of nostalgia hit me and gave me an idea for something “new” that I could introduce to my son. The band uses a sample of The Munsters theme song, a show I used to watch when I was a little girl. It originally aired a little before my time, so I watched the series when it was shown in reruns. From September 24, 1964 to May 12, 1966, people could tune in to the CBS network each week to watch the antics of the Munster family, in black and white, no less. Another “quirky” crew, The Addams Family, had a TV show running on the ABC network at almost exactly the same time: that series premiered about a week before The Munsters and ended a few weeks before that show's final episode. I won’t weigh in on which one was the best (I liked The Addams Family too), but for now, I’ll focus on The Munsters. In fact. when my son asked what the show was about, I wound up using The Addams Family as a point of reference, since he’s more familiar with those characters.



For anyone who might not know the show or its spin-off movies, The Munsters revolved around an unconventional family who lived in an equally unconventional, cobweb-covered household at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Lily and Herman Munster, played by Yvonne DeCarlo and Fred Gwynne, were a married couple whose household included her father, “Grandpa” Munster (Al Lewis); her niece, Marilyn (initially played by Beverly Owen, then Pat Priest); and Lily and Herman’s young son, Eddie (Butch Patrick). One of the running jokes in the series was when unsuspecting people would finally meet the family. While Marilyn looked “normal,” Herman looked like the Frankenstein monster (there are references to him being made by Dr. Frankenstein and jokes about how he's literally pieced together). Lily, Grandpa, and Eddie all resemble vampires, and the family pet, Spot--well…it’s definitely not a lap dog.

Grandpa, Marilyn, Eddie, Lily, and Herman
One of the things that I liked about the show when I was a kid was that it was a “safe” kind of scary. By that, I mean that even though Grandpa Munster’s laboratory looked spooky and was filled with creepy things, everyone in the family seemed kind and non-threatening. When you’re a little kid and you’re still working out how things work in the world, a lot of things can seem intimidating. With The Munsters though, I could watch it and be maybe just a tiny bit scared, but I wouldn’t be lying awake all night, afraid that there was something hiding under my bed. And, recently, when I asked my son what he likes about the show, his answer was along the same lines. “It’s funny, and you’d think that they’d be mean and terrorizing people, but instead, they’re nice and always trying to help out.”

Herman and Grandpa in Grandpa's lab
The show is filled with goofy puns and tame jokes; the US still had a fairly strict production code for films at that time, limiting “questionable” material, and television had certain censorship rules in place too, but some of the humor still makes me laugh. In an episode that my son and I watched the other day, the family has a guest show up at their door on a rainy day and they go out on the porch to talk to him. When things start to clear up, Lily quips, “Oh dear; it stopped raining. I’m afraid the weather is turning bad.”

Butch Patrick, who played Eddie and still makes public appearances, created a Munsters website that includes information about the cast members; you can find it at www.munsters.com. While I was trying to find out when the show aired I stumbled upon the site, and learned some things I never knew about the actors who played all of the beloved Munsters characters. I knew that Fred Gwynne (Herman) had been in Car 54, Where Are You?, another 1960s sitcom, and it had been fun to see him in a cameo in the 1992 movie My Cousin Vinny. I had no idea that Gwynne also wrote children’s books though, or that he’d also been a visual artist. Likewise, I was surprised to find out that his onscreen wife, Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily), had an extensive film, television, and even Broadway career. DeCarlo had quite a few roles in Westerns like Black Bart, Tomahawk, and Silver City, and she appeared in the pilot of the TV series Bonanza. She also played the role of Sephora in the epic 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments. And Al Lewis (Grandpa) definitely lived an interesting life. Not only did he work in burlesque and vaudeville theaters in the 1920s, but also as a circus clown, on Broadway, and taught school, wrote two children’s books, and even had his Ph.D. in child psychology! (Lewis had worked with Gwynne before too, as another cast member of Car 54, Where Are You?)

Almost fifty years after the show’s last episode aired, The Munsters still has legions of fans who have—or are making memories of laughing at, and along with, the lovable “monsters” on Mockingbird Lane. There were so many comedic masters in the cast and they played so well off of each other that I feel the silly comedy will always be the biggest draw. The more serious undertone of the show was that The Munsters were “oddballs” in a “normal” world, but they didn’t really try to conform or fit in. They were puzzled when people had negative reactions to them, but it didn't seem to phase them for long and they kept being themselves. Intentional or not, it’s a powerful message.


The first time my son and I sat down to watch the pilot episode, I snuck glances at him, watching his face to see if his eyes were glazing over from boredom or if I’d catch a smile. I was happy when it was the latter, and when he burst out with the type of laugh that I know means he really finds something funny. Score another one for mom, nostalgia, and The Munsters. Now, if I could get him to budge on which Willy Wonka movie is better…

Let us know, readers—is there an old television show that you loved as a kid that your children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, etc. are hooked on too?