National Poetry Month Day 1 – Wild Swans

April 1, 2014

So, April is National Poetry Month. Rather than write a new poem each day, or analyze a poem written by another each day (both of which I’ve done before), I’m going to draw something as a response to poems. I’m no professional artist by any stretch of poetic license, but I think it’d be interesting to experiment with creating visual representations of poems. Some images might be quick doodles, others might be more carefully rendered. This first one is based on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans.”

 

wild swans

Wild Swans

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

 

 

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Apocalypse Health Pt. 1 (Andrew)

February 26, 2014

Tonight, I got feedback for my paper on Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) from Ayendy Bonaficio, Matthew Connolly, and Joshua Leavitt. I look at how Porter’s use of monstrosity andbook cover of Pale Horse, Pale Rider apocalypse ties in with the tradition of American Gothic fiction. I’m interested in how Porter challenges notions of normative health and nationalism by showing that, as mutually reinforcing forces that control, shape, and contain bodies, medicine and patriotic fervor actually fuel war, plague, and alienation.

Porter’s subtly unsettling work is set during the 1918 influenza pandemic and the final days of World War I. The fusion of Gothic and modernist elements diagnose the widespread flu deaths and unquestioning devotion to a demonized German enemy as symptoms of a deeper American sickness of hatefulness, greed, and conformity. The bizarre dream sequences, stark descriptions of suffering from disease, and the cynical yet tortured protagonist, Miranda (who features in a number of Porter’s other works), has made this one of my favorite works of American modernism.

We discussed the introductory section of my paper, with some good discussion not only of tweaks to my paper, but approaches to constructing introductions in general. While I’ve been led to think that introductions need to lay out your project and claims as quickly as possible, we discussed a number of ways to set up your paper with more interesting build-up, such as introducing a brief close reading, or laying out some historical context.

I’m preparing a proposal for this paper for an edited collection on Women Writing World War I.

Katherine Anne Porter, circa 1928

Katherine Anne Porter in 1928. Rights and Reproduction: © Estate of George Platt Lynes


November 13, 2013 (Andrew)

December 16, 2013

For my second round with the Krew, we again discussed my paper exploring the intersections of race and disability. This time, we looked at the section analyzing Francis Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892). The novel follows the Leroy family from a generation before the Civil War, up through the War itself, and the years immediately following. Marie Leroy is a slave who marries her white master, and has two children by him, Iola and Harry. The children are light-skinned enough that they are raised to believe they are white. When circumstances reveal the truth, they get involved in the Civil War and racial activism during Reconstruction. “Disability” appears in the novel as a metaphor of race prejudice, as the “disabilities of color,” and as a permanent condition that limits function, as when Harry is injured in the war. But disability, as a stigmatization of bodily difference, also appears implicitly in two characters: Tom, an escaped slave with unspecified “defects,” and Dr. Gresham, a white doctor with the Union Army, who is missing an arm. Their disabilities function differently depending on their race, but both contrast with the essential able-bodiedness and beauty of the Leroys.


October 23, 2013 (First Meeting!)

December 15, 2013

At the first meeting of the Kerouac Krew, I (Andrew Sydlik) met with colleagues Matt Connolly and Ayendy Bonifacio to discuss a paper I’m working on for my portfolio project at The Ohio State University. The paper explores the intersections of disability, race, and gender in two nineteenth-century African American texts: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s novel Iola Leroy (1892) and Katherine Davis Chapman Tillman’s novella Beryl Weston’s Ambition. I seek to bring together literary Disability Studies and Black/African American Studies because not much work has connected theorizations of disability and race, especially in regards to texts by nineteenth-century African American authors. Developed from a seminar paper done for Adeleke Adeeko’s 6757 African American Literature: 1746-1900 course in fall 2012, my investigation looks at how each text’s version of the “racial uplift” narrative reflects African American attitudes toward disability, scientific racism, gender stereotypes, and white middle class norms at the end of the nineteenth century. As this is a 34-page paper, we were only able to discuss the intro section, the first 10-12 pages, which describes the need to bring together Disability Studies and Black Studies, and some possibilities for doing so in a literary context.


Day 28: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

October 29, 2012

Director: Dan O’Bannon

Starring: Don Calfa, Clu Gulager, James Karen, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph

Runtime: 91 minutes

I’m surprised at how much comedy has creeped into the movies I’m discussing. I realized that another of my favorites is a horror-comedy: Return of the Living Dead, a re-imagining of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It actually refers to Romero’s movie as based on real incidents, and says that things happened differently, but that the basic idea of the dead returning to life was in fact real. This film not only changes the story behind the appearance of zombies, making it the result of a government experiment gone awry, but also pictures zombies as fast-moving, unkillable killing machines (destroying the brain won’t work).

SPOILERS FOLLOW

It starts with three men working at a medical supply warehouse. Frank (James Karen) is training new employee Freddy (Thom Mathews), while their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager) leaves early to start the 4th of July weekend. Frank makes the mistake of showing Freddy some U.S. military canisters that mistakenly got shipped there—canisters that contain the chemicals that originally brought corpses back to life, as well as one of those corpses. Of course, the canisters rupture, spilling the chemicals all over the warehouse, and reviving the corpse.

ROTLD punk crew

The teenage 80s crew of stereotypes that faces off against the zombies in ROTLD.

Chaos ensues as they call back Burt to try to cover up what happened, and destroy the zombies (besides the one from the canister, a body stored in the warehouse for shipping to a medical school has also revived, along with split dogs, and a wall of preserved butterflies). They go to Burt’s friend, Ernie (Don Calfa), who works at a mortuary and has a crematorium. Burning the bodies would seem a sure-fire way to get rid of all the evidence—except that the ashes come down on a graveyard, and aided by some on-cue rain, revive all of the graveyard’s inhabitants.

While this plays on a lot of zombie movie tropes—a group of people trapped inside a building, with fruitless attempts to escape, and living people who are slowly turning into the living dead (Frank and Freddy breathed in the chemical), there’s also much departure. As already mentioned, the fast-moving zombies are different than the usual lumbering kind, and these zombies won’t die: even if you cut them into pieces, the pieces will still come after you. The comedy also offsets the usual solemn bleakness of these kinds of films. The cast is diverse—three older men and an eclectic group of 80s stereotypes looking to join their friend, Freddy. No single character is of central importance—it’s more of an ensemble piece—and everyone adds their own layer of charm and fun. The ending, while fairly nihilistic, ends things with a detached, morbidly tongue-in-cheek final image of a zombie emerging as one of the songs from the movie’s deathrock/punk soundtrack blares into life. The soundtrack is one of the most fun things about the movie, as it changes the whole feel of seeing a horde of zombies descending on their victims.

Some of the effects are pretty gruesome, but there’s so much off-beat humor that nothing is really unsettling. The greatest scenes are where we see the zombies attacking in hordes, overpowering anyone who tries to help the isolated characters (ambulances, police), and we see them spreading out to attack surrounding areas, suggesting they could quickly spread through the world if not unchecked. There were a number of sequels, but none of them manage to quite capture the quirky spark of this horror-comedy classic.

Ernie & zombie woman

Ernie talks to the torso zombie woman about what it’s like to be dead, and why she wants to eat brains.

 


Day 27: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

October 28, 2012

Director: Wes Craven

Starring: Ronee Blakley, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund, Jsu Garcia, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Amanda Wyss

Runtime: 91 minutes

So despite my statement in the Scream post that I wouldn’t be doing another Wes Craven movie, I decided to do A Nightmare on Elm Street. After re-evaluating its classic status, I decided there’d be so many profound….OK, really, we’re doing this movie for a film class, and I decided it would be just easier to re-watch this and write about it.

This re-watch didn’t improve my opinion of the film much. I still think it’s more silly than scary, and much of the acting is just downright bad. It’s obviously borrowing elements from Halloween: the small mid-western town, a human-turned-bogeyman killer stalking teenagers, ineffectual adults (although there’s more of a parental presence here), and even a scene in English class where the discussion relates to the killer. Halloween is an already a copy of Psycho, so now you have a copy of a copy, which was one of the problems with these slasher films.

Of course, Nightmare diverges in significant ways from Halloween and other slasher films. For one thing, Freddy kills in your dreams, which allows for some creepy dream sequences. And the blurring between dream and reality adds a somewhat disturbing element. The adults have larger roles than usual—the focus in slashers usually on teenagers—and they, in fact, are responsible for a crime that has brought Freddy down on their children, whereas it is usually teens who responsible for the past crime that sets the killer in motion (like the neglectful teenagers in Friday the 13th who unleash both Mrs. Vorhees and Jason on generations of teens to come).

Freddy & Nancy

Freddy (Robert Englund) menaces Nancy (Heather Lagenkamp).

POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOLLOW

After starting with Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) nightmare, we get a another couple of brief scenes that set character, and some humor, thanks to Glen (Johnny Depp in his film debut), but then we get a gruesome scene of Freddy mutilating Tina. This is perhaps the most effective and unsettling scene of the movie—the way Tina thrashes makes the murder look like a rape, the way her body rises in the air and is pulled to the ceiling (we can’t see Freddy since he is attacking in her dreams) adds a surreal quality, and her macho boyfriend Rod (Nick Corri) can only watch helplessly.

From there, Tina’s friend, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) tries to figure out who the killer is, and why her and her friends are having nightmares of the same guy with a burned face, red and green sweater, and knives for fingers. Although Nancy, like Laurie in Halloween, is the innocent, virginal girl, Krueger’s pursuit of her has a pointedly sexual dimension, with his clawed hand coming up between her legs in the bathtub. The deaths of the male characters, meanwhile, has no such element, and they don’t involve the same intensity of violence. (This would change in the sequel, in which the killings have a homoerotic, sadomasochistic dimension.) We don’t even see Glen’s death, just see him sucked into his bed, followed by a ridiculous amount of gushing blood that sprays all over the room. I found myself laughing heartily at that geyser of blood, and really wonder why anyone would think it was scary. It’s not like the river of blood sequence in The Shining which, although I think is a bit dated now, is more unsettling and well-crafted than this.

I’m sorry but I don’t the teen actors to be that convincing. I don’t like Johnny Depp now, and his performance here is tolerable at best. Heather Langenkamp is also tolerable, but a bit melodramatic, and doesn’t have the same nuance of character that I feel Jamie Lee Curtis captured in Halloween. Robert Englund does a great job as Freddy, mixing the right amount of camp and creep, even when he has to deliver some really awful lines. (“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!”) His taunts and witticisms set him apart from the silent, detached killers of other slashers, and he just does bizarre things that are supposed to freak you out (like cut off his own fingers).

Ultimately, I still get more laughs than chills from this movie, and the sequels only up this factor. If it weren’t for Englund’s performance, I think Freddy could have become more of a low-budget joke than a horror icon, and he certainly deserves his place among Michael, Jason, and Leatherface as a modern horror icon. I have to admit against fan and critical opinion that I actually like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which takes the blurring of dream and reality to a whole new level, as Freddy actually comes to life to menace the cast and crew of the original Nightmare, with Langenkamp, Craven, Englund, and Saxon playing themselves. I also thought that Freddy vs. Jason was more fun than I had expected.

Nightmare

No running in the halls, Nancy!


Day 26: Re-Animator (1985)

October 27, 2012

Director: Stuart Gordon

Starring: Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, David Gale

Runtime: 95 minutes/86 minutes (unrated cut)

Although H. P. Lovecraft’s stories don’t adapt well to film, the best attempts at adaptation use the materially very liberally. (Although a straightforward adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness would be pretty awesome, I think, if done well. Director Guillermo del Toro has been trying to make a film version for years, and apparently James Cameron was interested in being producer at some point, but the project unfortunately seems to be stuck in Hollywood limbo.) The basic premise of Lovecraft’s novella Herbert West—Reanimator, originally serialized in 1922, is retained: a brilliant but mad scientist named Herbert West reanimates several corpses that run amok. But there are major differences, and this is one of the few cases, especially for Lovecraft, in which the film version is better than the original.

For one thing, it eliminates the racism that taints the original story, in which part of the horror is supposed to be evoked by an ungainly African American zombie. It also puts a more humorous spin on the story. Lovecraft himself thought poorly of the work because of the demands serialization placed on him (ending with a cliffhanger, starting with a recap of the last episode). However, it is notable as being one of the first depictions of zombies as animalistic killing machines, reanimated by science rather than magic.

One of the strengths of this film is Jeffrey Combs, who plays West, a character whose monomaniacal and ruthless pursuits leave us few reasons to sympathize with, yet Combs somehow makes the character endearing, perhaps in his nerdy brashness, and striking the right balance between pathos and camp. (Combs would go on to play similar roles: West in two sequels, another scientist in a Lovecraft adaptation, Brian Yunza-directed From Beyond; he would play Lovecraft himself in the horror anthology Necronomicon; and had several Star Trek roles.) The other actors do a tolerable job; his friend Dan (Bruce Abbott), who helps with West’s experiments, is the unnamed narrator from the Lovecraft story. At least he gets to have a girlfriend in the film, Megan (Barbara Crampton), although she is put through hell in the movie.

Jeffrey Combs

Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) reveals that his reanimation agent is made of the stuff that’s in glow sticks. (Seriously, that’s what they used.)

SPOILERS FOLLOW

But the only other presence rivaling Combs is David Gale, playing a professor and West’s enemy. He is perhaps even more ruthless, certainly more malign, than West, and when he becomes a reanimated headless corpse, things only get worse. (In the sequel, his role gets crazier, batty even.) He recruits a zombie army to lead against West, similar to the character in Lovecraft’s story, but instead of an army major bent on revenge (in the story), he is in the film a megalomaniac who perhaps helps us to root for the obsessive West.

Producer Brian Yunza produced this and directed the sequels, and has served as director, producer, and writer for a number of campy low-budget horror and sci-fi films. Although fairly low-budget effects, and done with a campy feel, they are nonetheless entertaining. John Naulin, who did the makeup effects, studied actual photographs of cadavers, and said they used the ridiculous amount of 24 gallons of fake blood. The sequels, Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator only amp up the absurdist gore-inflected horror comedy.

Headless Corpse

Dr. Hill’s (David Gale) headless corpse menaces West.