Sunday, November 21, 2021

Don’t You Dare Go Gentle

He’s so unhip that when you say ‘Dylan’, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was. The man ain’t got no culture.
Simon and Garfunkel
“A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” 


While “Rhymin’ Simon” was likely referencing British poet Dylan Thomas with a tongue-in-cheek approach, the snarky aside nevertheless addressed a cultural divide between the Sixties counterculture and their literary forbearers in the previous era.

Thomas, born in Swansea, Wales in 1914, became an early admirer of the work of Yeats and Poe and soon ascended to national attention himself while still in his youth. He would eventually garner world acclaim as one of the premiere poets of the English-speaking world, broadcasting for the BBC as a means of supporting himself and later recording his own works for a series of record albums in the U.S.

In 1934 he published his first book 18 Poems during which time his work took on its characteristic style highlighting romantic imagery and aesthetic rhythmic style. The “images” he created, particularly ripe with conflict and contradiction, were evident in his best known work including “And death shall have no dominion” and “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

After working on a number of screenplays and several tours of America, Thomas passed away in 1953. His hard-drinking ‘Dionysian’ image which fell him has since influenced everyone from Charles Bukowski to Jim Morrison of the Doors.

Like many of my own generation, my primary reference point regarding Thomas would (regrettably) be the recitation of his most renowned work by Rodney Dangerfield in the hit movie, Back to School where the comedy legend learns the poem to get through a mandatory exam. That should be satisfactory enough for most, however, considering the Minnesota folk-rocker who adopted Thomas’s name and rode it to stardom himself apparently didn’t even know how it was pronounced at first.

That all goes to show that the cyclical nature of art and communication for that matter can be irrelevant in its details. The proliferation of what we experience through words, images, juxtapositions and patterns are what we pass on and remember— when all is said and done.



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Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire (image)
Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Supersonic Youth

In 1977, the Filmation team spearheaded by Scheimer, Prescott and Sutherland launched Space Sentinels which aired on NBC for thirteen episodes, a brief tenure which would ultimately become typical of the live-action and animated Saturday morning entertainment studio.

A trio of teenagers; Hercules, Mercury and Astrea are endowed with intergalactic strengths and capabilities and stationed inside a starship within a volcano. From this base they are allocated exigent missions by their operational superiors which they carry out on Earth and beyond. Adopting Greek and Roman mythological personas, the Space Sentinels use their individual skills and combined powers to fight enemy forces and uphold law and order in the galaxy.


One of the earliest forerunners to the programs discussed in this blog series, Space Sentinels was set in the then-futuristic 1985, nine years before Earth became irrevocably and catastrophically altered, if one is to trust the historical accounts of Filmation’s Thundarr the Barbarian, arriving a few years later in 1980. If that doesn’t confuse matters enough, 1985 also happened to see the cancellation of He-Man in addition to She-Ra’s debut!

All the beloved tropes are evident in the short-lived sci-fi superhero series including the obligatory Star Wars aping and accompanying moral lessons. The multi-racial aspect of the main characters is also noteworthy in an otherwise ethnically uniform era of cartoons.

Perhaps other trends had been established for Filmation with Space Sentinels, the ‘single season’ tradition certainly being the most obvious. Youth, strength, power and teamwork for the good of the universe would become key themes throughout many of the company’s subsequent creations. With those qualities, couldn’t one hero easily be as good as the next?



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Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire (image)
Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire 

Sunday, November 7, 2021

None But the Brave

By 1987, the conservationists of the animated television world, Filmation and Mattel were teaming up for their next recycled product in their line of manly interplanetary heroes with friendly wizards and special swords to save strange universes. Bravestarr was created by (again) Lou Scheimer and ran for (again) a meager 65 episodes, each 25 minutes in length.

In a distant galaxy known as ‘New Texas’, natives called ‘Prairie People’ live among predatory beings such as Solacows, Apecats, Coyotoids, Broncosaurs, Krangs, Reptillianoids and Sand Walruses! Keeping law and order in this cosmic Wild West is Bravestarr, an American Indian ‘Matt Dillon’ of sorts who can telepathically summon animal friends in his quests. The most loyal of these benevolent beasts is an “equestroid” deputy called Thirty/Thirty who can walk on two legs like Quick Draw McGraw when not galloping to the rescue with the mounted Bravestarr.

The noble star packers’ rivals include the ‘Carrion Bunch’, a gang of outlaws led by ‘Tex-Hex’, a former prospector of New Texas’s coveted red mineral and fuel source, Kerium.


Tex-Hex reports directly to an obligatory mean skeleton dude named Stampede, a Broncosaur who calls on the egregious forces of the planet’s wasteland to wage battle against Bravestarr and ‘Shaman’, his fatherly and mystical ally who wields considerable extra-sensory powers often used to contact the hero during periods of danger (See: ‘The Sorceress’ from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and ‘Light Hope’ from She-Ra: Princess of Power).

Ultimately, while this flash-in the-pan from Mr. Scheimer would prove to be Filmation’s swan song, it embodied their recurring themes that thrilled and educated its young fans every week. Space was certainly the final frontier but Bravestarr showed us that the limits of the imagination would, by contrast, remain forever infinite.



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Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire (image)
Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire 

Sunday, October 31, 2021

October Surprise!


A séance has been held. That was the only way I could begin to describe the events of a recent trip to Atlantic City where I just may have participated in one of the greatest of all paranormal happenings.
A festive
Jack-O-Lantern

Strolling by the boardwalk vendors, my friends, Tim, Vinnie, Vinnie’s wife, Bonnie and myself were somehow prophetically drawn to a neon sign-GREATEST PSYCHIC IN WORLD-MADAME OUSPENSKAYA $10 PER PERSON. My cynicism was firmly in check but Tim and Bonnie thought it was an experience we had to share before leaving the following morning. So, reluctantly I went along with it and the four of us entered the small shop adorned with peeling wallpaper and ubiquitous incense.

Atlantic City
An elderly woman in black garb with a simple string of beads greeted us in a seemingly Russian accent, collecting forty dollars from us with instructions to follow her to a small round table with three lit candles near a wall where she was apparently brewing some potent tea. We all sat down as we took a quick glance at our surroundings.

“Please to put away your cigarette. Then we begin.” She directed Vinnie.

“Come on, you’d do it for Ravi Shankar.” I quipped, realizing I probably should keep quiet.

He put his cigarette out in a nearby saucer and Madame Ouspenskaya seemed content to continue. My friends exchanged some glances and then waited to see what was next. No one spoke for almost a minute until Madame Ouspenskaya closed her eyes and asked that we join hands. As we did so she quietly uttered some words that we took to be invocations for the beginning of the ceremony.

“What are we here to do today?” No one answered. Our eyes were closed but we knew none of us had properly figured out any purpose for what we had come for, if this was, in fact, a séance. So, to avoid embarrassing our medium or my cohorts, I spoke up. I didn’t want to insult this nice woman but at the same time, I was trying not to say or do anything to get us tossed out. We should get something for forty dollars, right? I didn’t know what to say but began talking (I do that from time to time). On this occasion, it proved beneficial to my curiosities regarding the unexplained. I opened my mouth, from which the words came.

“Can we talk to someone’s spirit?” An uncomfortable moment passed as I thought we would all be shown the door amidst a string of Russian profanities. She quietly responded.

“Madame Ouspenskaya will try. That is what she does.” I wondered if that meant that she does it, or tries to do it. “Whose spirit?” she asked. More silence.

“I guess…” What does one say? Where do you go with something like this? My friends must have been rolling their eyes at each other. I had to get this going so we could finish up and get out.

“I guess I want to talk to someone that I could write about. I write sometimes for… well, it’s an online publication called Western Magazine Digest.” She interrupted me right there, her voice now more pronounced as though she had received something.

“I think… that someone wants to talk to you.” Really? Wow! I thought I’d have to tell her a name of someone I was thinking of. Maybe she had her own ideas.

“He rides a horse, yes?” Hey, Is she talking about who I’m thinking? “Near… a red… river?”

Woah! It seemed Madame Ouspenskaya knew who it was, or better yet, had him ready to talk with us, right there. Could it be?

“Yeah.” I responded, trying not to show obvious signs of excitement about this.

“He has grit… he has true grit, yes?” Do you believe this? She’s doing it. She’s contacting the man himself, I thought.

“Yes, Madame Ouspenskaya. Yes, indeed!” By now I couldn’t hide my exuberance.

“And he rides… tall in the saddle, yes?”

“Yeah. He does! He does!” I replied.

"His initials, they are J-W?” she asked.

“Yes, that’s right!" I exclaimed. 

She paused and proceeded with the portentous revelation. “He has something to say to everyone… all over the land.” We were in awe. What was he going to tell us?

She continued. “He says we need to remember … that even when so much is happening, that this land, America, it is strong. It is a beacon of hope and aspiration for all. Must remember our laws are good and they prevent tyranny. Also, dissent and free speech, they are good things because we make our decisions in elections. And… that we will always have freedom of religions and choices and it is a just land and those are things to be proud of and defend. We also must honor the people who defended them.”

Jackpot! We hit the jackpot… and we never even went into the casinos!

“What else? What else?”

“Nothing else.” She whispered. “But yes, he says one more thing.”

“What?”

“He says when the road looks rough ahead, remember the ‘Man upstairs’ and the word ‘hope’. Hang on to both and tough it out, pilgrim.”

Incredible!

JW's Horse

“Thank you, JW! Thank you for everything! Thank you, also, Madame Ouspenskaya. You really are the greatest in the world!” She simply blew out the candles and gestured us all to the exit. What was thrilling for us must have been emotionally draining for her.

We walked out onto the boardwalk, speechless. We were still partly in shock from what had occurred in that place as our vacation resumed. Who would have guessed that I did the unimaginable? Did what others have tried in vain to do for so many years, actually communicate with the spirit of the one, the only… JACK WEBB! What he was doing on that horse, though, I’ll never know.

Jack Webb


Happy Halloween!





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Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire (image)
Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Power Sword for the Overlord

A notable predecessor to He-Man and the Masters of the
Universe, Blackstar, was produced by Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott for Filmation and aired on CBS for a perfunctory 13 episodes. The short-lived animated fantasy can be viewed as an intermediary link between Thundarr the Barbarian and the aforementioned He-Man.

In Blackstar, the titular hero is an astronaut who is stranded on planet Sagar and must continually battle formidable evil forces with the aid of his new alien friends and an assortment of kooky and bizarre interplanetary inhabitants like Trobbits, mermanites, Wood Sprites, Desert Sprites, Amazons and Flame People.

Blackstar’s obligatory tropes are as reminiscent of Star Wars and Thundarr as they were influential to He-Man. The massive trusty steed this time around is a ‘dragon-horse’ named Warlock. Similarly, his mystical ‘good witch’ friend, a magical wizardess named Mara assists periodically in Blackstar’s struggles. Additionally the planet’s token evil purple dude and Sagar’s overlord is known appropriately as— Overlord!

The supernatural sword of choice for Blackstar is his ‘Power Sword’ which can store outside energy and reflect it back at will. It is this sword that Overlord likewise wishes to acquire as a missing piece to his similar one in gaining supreme power and energy. Like those wielded by counterparts Thundarr and He-Man and not unlike Batman’s utility belt or Doctor Who’s ‘Sonic Screwdriver’, the Power Sword was as much a valuable tool for its owner as it was for the show’s writers who often relied on the weapon as a handy script device.

Once again, an interesting and imaginative premise wasn’t enough to appease network execs who may have had their eyes on a hotter property. As such, fans are left with another brief glimpse into a strange fantastic world where good confronts evil through might, confidence, determination and teamwork (and perhaps a few superior magical weapons).




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Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire (image)
Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Sun Sets on a Solid Site

Some of the material on my weblog is linked to another one called Western Magazine Digest which I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to for a couple of years. WMD, as we call it, is an informative and entertaining online publication covering Western history, fiction, biographies, cinema and trivia— though it unfortunately will no longer be actively published.

The western weblog has been run by publisher Allan Colombo since 2018 and as Al is perpetually working on a dizzying number of projects, he decided it was time to unhitch his wagon and water his horses.

Over the years, Al and an impressive team of contributors have posted articles on just about every kind of western subject and story, fictional or true, under the sun. I myself enjoyed sharpening my writing skills and sharing knowledge learned about that most quintessential of American topics, the Wild West.

One of my favorite projects was a piece where I had the honor of interviewing James Drury of TV’s The Virginian. It became quite popular and incidentally turned out to be one of the actor’s final interviews. Below is a short video in which I discussed that experience.


Fortunately, Al will keep WMD online so we can continue to enjoy it and learn from its countless articles and stories. A matrix on the site helps visitors find topics alphabetically and access those corresponding articles easily. Links to some of my early pieces, such as the Virginian interview, can likewise be found on the ‘articles’ page of my own weblog’s menu.


I may even occasionally continue to post new reviews on the WMD weblog under my WMD Movie Reviews page, much like a prospector checks into an old ghost town now and again.

So be sure to keep visiting Western Magazine Digest and continue to post any comments you may have. You never know what you might come across or may have missed the first time around.

I can attest to WMD’s high quality and well-researched content and I think it capably served its role in helping to inform and remind us of those old cowboys and gunslingers and the crucial values that go along with their wild western mystique. Thanks for ridin’ along, folks. Happy trails.

Western Magazine Digest (image)
Click for the 'Western Magazine Digest'





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Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Hoo-Ra for Girl Power!

As Filmation wound down its He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series, a ‘back door’ had magically opened up for the hulky hero’s long-lost twin. Now the torch could be ably carried on with She-Ra: Princess of Power and by 1985, sisters were doin’ it for themselves.

Not a completely sloppy imitation, She-Ra had a style and appeal that was all herself, rather than a Xerox copy of her famous brother wearing a pink bow. She lived in another universe on a unique planet of her own, albeit one decidedly more pink and lavender!

Created by Larry DiTillio and J. Michael Straczynski, the spin-off followed the previous winning formula and introduced new characters and premises clearly modeled on the first series. Mattel Inc. similarly went to work on expanding and marketing this new world aimed at a juvenile female demographic.

On an Oz-like planet called Etheria, Princess Adora wields her ‘Sword of Protection’ to defend her people from a ruler named Hordak; a male villain, interestingly. She transforms as needed into the invincible She-Ra while leading a ‘Great Rebellion’ against evil forces known collectively as the ‘Evil Horde.’

Lasting only two modest seasons, She-Ra perhaps relied too heavily on its parent series, only partially reaching its intended target in the end. Its overall scenarios and characterizations seemed to center between powerful and mystical statuesque women with muscular thighs and absurdly infantile cartoon creatures such as ‘Twiggets’, ‘Bee People’ and even a walking, speaking broomstick with a ridiculous face on it called (wait for it...) “Broom.”


So perhaps originality wasn’t She-Ra’s most prominent asset. The short-lived He-Man companion piece served its purpose nonetheless, filling a missing piece in the Filmation world’s puzzle while simultaneously proving that cartoons could balance out any inherent gender disparities with considerable style. In our own world we often dream of a day when pigs fly and talking rainbow-striped unicorns roam the land. For She-Ra and her princesses of power, that was just a typical walk in the park. Powerful, indeed.



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Christopher Robinson, Writer Extraordinaire 


Sunday, October 3, 2021

He Da Man!

Hot on the heels of Thundarr the Barbarian, He-Man emerged
in the early 1980s as a comic series and line of action figures from Mattel, Inc. Eventually burgeoning into a long-running franchise including various films, series, books and video games, it is nonetheless remembered chiefly by those between the ages of 40 and 60 by the Filmation series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, running from ‘83-‘85.

On a colorful and amorphous Star Trek-like planet named Eternia which uncannily resembles Earth from space, a struggle for power continually rages between Castle Grayskull, a benevolent kingdom of noble warriors and the dark and ominous inhabitants of Snake Mountain ruled by its ever-evil emperor Skeletor and an obsequious slew of grotesque and unique monsters consistently at his employ.

Skeletor’s formidable forces would easily overtake Grayskull were it not for a highly secret weapon in the form of the royal couples’ son Prince Adam. A seemingly lazy and mild-mannered ‘Clark Kent’ type, Prince Adam owns a ‘secret sword’ much like Thundarr and, with it, transforms as needed into He-Man, the strongest man in Eternia. With a magical lightning-like force, he then acquires his supernatural strength in addition to fur briefs, a bronze tan and a darker shade of blonde hair!

The prince’s timid pet tiger gets a makeover as well, morphing from “Cringer” to the mighty “Battle Cat.” Despite the explosive public scene that is created each time he becomes He-Man, Prince Adam’s secret is held only by the Heroic Master of Weapons- Man-At-Arms or “Duncan” to the King, the Sorceress, a ‘good witch’ much like Thundarr’s Princess Ariel and Orko, a ‘friendly ghost’ of indecipherable species who floats around attempting magic tricks and providing unnecessary comic relief.

Backing up both teams of this juvenile Armageddon are a roster of two-dimensional characters with names like Ram-Man, Beast Man, Mer-Man and Trap Jaw. Perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy, the series that was born out of a lucrative toy line was clearly introducing characters for the sole purpose of selling new action figures.

At each 30-minute episode’s conclusion, He-Man could be expected to restore order to the universe and keep the meanies away long enough to begin the absurd process all over again the following week. To cap it all off, a postscript was presented by one of “our friends” who would summarize the story and explain its ‘lesson.’ These lessons ranged anywhere from setting good examples and learning from mistakes to remembering to brush your teeth!

Though, as a kid, I had collected countless figures of the original two Star Wars films, I considered myself too old for those of the muscle-bound homoerotic He-Man line. That didn’t stop friends and I from enjoying the show, however, as it presented us with amusing characters, entertaining stories, a rocking theme song and even some unintended humor.

“The lost diamond of disappearance! He found it!”

Now co-existing as an obligatory CGI reboot for contemporary audiences and a nostalgic memory for many others, He-Man epitomized a classic trope, however fantastically campy it may have come across, then or now. The clashes of good and evil are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1983. Only, where is our He-Man? If true change comes from within, then perhaps we can all raise our swords of power and someday say:

“By the power of Grayskull... I... HAVE... THE POWER!!!"
 


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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Bad Kids Aplenty

Hear ye! All horror enthusiasts and movie aficionados should immediately seek out a new book called Evil Seeds: The Ultimate Movie Guide to Villainous Children. An exhaustingly comprehensive movie reference guide on horror films featuring evil kids, it features reviews from over 40 international writers of which I was very honored to be included.

Agglomerating this extraordinary collection of invaluable essays is author Vanessa Morgan who also contributed many such reviews to the book herself. Vanessa is the author of the books- Avalon, Drowned Sorrow, The Strangers Outside, A Good Man and Clowders. In addition, she is a screenwriter and blogger as well as host and programmer for several European film festivals.

Recently, Vanessa answered some questions for me that should help shed light on her unique and enlightening new publication.

What is it about evil kids that frightens us so much?

I believe it has a lot to do with children being just like us, yet being different enough to stand apart, especially when there is something "off" about them (like the blonde wigs they used on the dark-haired children of Village of the Damned). The same goes for elderly people. Give them subtle macabre makeup or make them move strangely, and they can be absolutely frightening (the old-lady scene from It Follows springs to mind here). And when we are menaced by those over whom we thought to have absolute control – those who are smaller, weaker, and intellectually less developed – then is there anything left besides feeling utterly powerless?

Is this one of the first reference books on this particular topic to ever be published?

I have found one academic book in English, focusing on only a handful of classics (The Bad Seed, Village of the Damned), and one in French, equally serious in tone and aimed at literature. However, Evil Seeds is the only reference book that covers nearly all of the evil-child movies ever made (nearly 250 feature films from 40 different countries, and even more minor evil-child appearances in other movies). I wanted to create a book that not only gives readers insight into the stories they love, but also gives them plenty of new ones to discover.

How is Evil Seeds different from your previous reference guides?

When Animals Attack and Strange Blood very much started with the contributors and their unique vision on, and experience with the film. They were odes to love to particular films within the subgenres of animal-attack movies and offbeat vampire movies. Evil Seeds, on the other hand, is encyclopedic in nature as it covers nearly all the titles that exist within this particular subgenre.

Vanessa Morgan, author
What is your favorite ‘evil kid’ flick and why?

I'm completely in love with The Children of Ravensback (1980). I realize it's not the most intelligent or classy evil-kid movie out there – on the contrary – but it contains all of the elements that make a movie like this fun: creepy children, lots of murder scenes, subtle humor, and a great atmosphere. At the beginning of September, I screened and introduced this film at the BUT Film Festival in Breda, the Netherlands, to people who had never even heard of The Children before, and they were all in stitches. And what a delight to see my favorite on the big screen.


Do you have a particular recollection of seeing any of these films for the first time? How did it affect you as a young writer?

The first evil children that come to mind that scared me were the Grady twins from The Shining and the brothers from Salem's Lot. I watched Children of the Corn countless times on television when I was in my teens, but I don't think it holds up that well. I remember showing Bloody Birthday to my younger siblings, who weren't into horror at all but thought the film was amazing (especially the nudity) and wanted to watch it over and over again. I was also lucky enough to see The Good Son (1993) in cinemas as well. All these films started a passion that resulted in this book.

Do you find that there are characteristics of this sub genre that are unique to the different countries that produced them?

I love this question because I think this is the more interesting aspect of a book like this one. As with other film genres, these tropes often mirror the culture in which they are produced. In India, horror movies about evil children often involve the fear of black magic, whereas Ireland loves tackling fairytales about elves and changelings. In the Philippines, the evil baby Tiyanak is part of the cultural heritage. As the country grew its religious belief systems, the Tiyanak's characteristics evolved accordingly. Once the Spanish colonized the Philippines, the inhabitants were Christianized. The population copied the Christian values that abortion and non-baptizing are sins, so the myth transformed into Tiyanaks being souls of babies who died before baptism and later evolved into vengeful spirits from aborted fetuses.

On the other hand, the appeal of movies such as The Exorcist and The Omen was so huge internationally, that their cinematic influence was felt in countries where Christianity and the Devil weren't part of the main religious belief system (such as Egypt, India, Turkey, Japan, or Hong Kong), and this resulted in unofficial remakes and copycats.

What can your readers expect from you next?

I have MANY ideas for upcoming movie reference guides, and I probably won't wait too long to start a new one because I love the process of creating a book like this and introducing readers to obscure movies. But I have other projects I need to finish first – organizing the Offscreen Film Festival in Brussels, renovating my new apartment, writing the screenplay and short story that I already said yes to, and in between all that, promoting this book and cuddling my cat Romero.


Evil Seeds: The Ultimate Movie Guide to Villainous Children is now available from Amazon (click to buy). Check it out!


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