On the Obligations of the Reader

Adapted from some ramblings of mine on Twitter.

I recently came across the essay “Let Me Tell You,” by author Cecilia Tan. It’s a response to the old writing dictum “show, don’t tell,” and in the process of arguing against it (specifically in the SF/Fantasy genres), the essay also takes a shot at the myth of “universality” that underlies the dictums of writing “quality” (read: literary) fiction.

I highly recommend the essay to you. But in addition to what it says to writers/readers of SF/Fantasy, it crystallized some other thoughts of my own – a reader, not a writer, and not generally an SF/Fantasy reader either – about the obligations of the reader.

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Clumsy exposition (“as you know…”) is one of my pet peeves. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes prefer reading works from an X writer to those of an X-American or otherwise hyphenated writer (X-British, X-Canadian, etc.), and this is kinda why: X-Americans often feel an obligation to write to “Americans”. That is, they feel the need to explain bits of X culture or history to the mainstream “American” reader.  X writers write only to X-ians.

A Filipinx author can leave the fraught relationship/history between the Philippines and US unsaid, even when that relationship is central to their themes or to their characters, because readers in the Philippines know. But not all Americans do, so a Fil-American author might feel the need to somehow work a little history lesson into their narrative.

But is it always necessary?

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(Not) Friday Video: Ubasuteyama

In which I (sort of) revive my old Friday Video series…

I found this charming 1925 anime today; I was randomly websurfing while waiting for a long computation to return (it was either websurf or fold the laundry…): Ubasuteyama by Yamamoto Sanae.

A feudal lord considers old people a drain on society, so he has them forcibly shipped off and fed to a giant bird. A farmer, fearing his sixty year old mother will be taken away, takes matters into his own hands.

Ubasuteyama deals with ubasute/oyasute, the probably mythical practice of carrying ones elderly parents (or other relatives) to a remote place, and leaving them there to die. Sumerias Fain (aka Sumerian Otaku), who restored and posted the video that I’m sharing, translates ubasuteyama as:

uba: old woman
sute: get rid of
yama: mountain

So ubasuteyama means something like “abandoning the old woman on the mountain.” I said the farmer would take things into his own hands. But don’t worry, there’s a happy ending.

The film appears to have a bit of it missing: we learn that the feudal lord hates old people, and some sort of ghost appears in the lord’s room, then disappears. Then we jump straight to the farmer fretting about his mother. I feel as if there ought to be another scene between these two where the lord makes a law or issues an edict about shipping off the elderly. Nor is the ghost ever explained. But these are just nitpicks; it’s a wonderful animation and an entertaining story. Also, the film includes the cutest animated wolf. The horses are darling, too.

Length: 18 minutes, 10 seconds. Make sure that the subtitles are on.

After you’ve seen it, you might want to watch Sumerian Otaku’s commentary, which includes some history of the film and of Yamamoto Sanae (I’ve linked to the video about six-and-a-half minutes in; the first part is just summarizing the story).

Enjoy.

Creepy TV and other Thanksgiving Fun

Back from Thanksgiving weekend with my parents: four days of non-stop eating and family and wine (I blame my sister for that last part). It was the first time in a long time that we, my parents, my sister’s family and my closest first cousin’s family were all in the same place at the same time, to celebrate the birth of my youngest nephew (or whatever the proper term is for my first cousin’s child).

We happen to be a family with strong introvert tendencies, even the men who married into the family, and we are also very loud, in that stereotypical ethnic family sort of way. So periodically, certain people would disappear from the gathering, to be found hiding in another room with a device of some kind…

Which is a long-winded way of saying that my ten year old niece has started me down a wormhole of recreational reading and tv-watching time sinks, just in time for the holidays. Follow me down the path: Continue reading

Michael Jackson’s Ghosts

I’ve never been an “Ooooo Michael — the King forever!!! 😍💕” sort of Michael Jackson fan, but there’s no denying he was a performer to admire. Great singer, AMAZING dancer, good songwriter — and a decent actor, too. I just discovered his 1997 short film/long music video Ghosts from 1997, and it’s delightful.

The citizens of Normal Valley, led by their portly, middle-aged mayor (played by Michael Jackson — a pretty good feat of makeup and transformation of posture and voice) march up to the spooky mansion on the hill to drive out “The Maestro” (also Michael Jackson), the “weird freak” who’s been corrupting the youth of Normal Valley by telling them ghost stories (gasp!). But The Maestro won’t be budged so easily — and neither will his ghostly family.

The film was directed by Stan Winston, the special effects genius, famed for his work on the Terminator series, Aliens, Predator, and part of the Jurassic Park series, just to name a few. The story was co-written by Stephen King and Michael Jackson. At forty minutes, the Guinness Book of World Records calls it the world’s longest music video (three songs, from two different albums), but I prefer to think of it as a short musical.

It’s hard not to think about Jackson’s personal troubles while watching this. But I think many who were “the weird one,” or “the freak” while in grade school, or maybe even after that, can relate — the Maestro is there, to speak up for them.

Anyway. It’s winter tale time, and I’ve fallen behind on my yearly selection of winter tales for this blog. I have a few lined up, and I will post them when I can. In the meantime, enjoy Michael Jackson’s Ghosts.

Enjoy.

My Most Re-watchable Ghost Movies

Mid-October: fall is here, winter is coming, the holiday season is soon to begin. It’s a good time to curl up on chilly evenings, with a good book or a good movie, preferably one that’s a little dark….

It’s also the season of lists, so here’s mine. Ten (plus one) ghost movies that I love, and re-watch. Tastes are subjective, so your mileage may vary. I’m missing a lot of the classics, of course; there’s only room for so many, and while these probably aren’t everyone’s picks, they’re movies I love. And the advantage of this is that maybe I’ve suggested something you haven’t seen yet, or wouldn’t mind seeing again.

Note: I’m more a fan of ghost stories than horror. While the two are related, they aren’t identical. A few of the movies I’ve listed might be considered horror, but many of them clearly aren’t. Some may give you a chill or a sense of unease, and some of them are just interesting movies that happen to feature ghosts.

Here we go, in no particular order:

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Friday Video: Une Excursion Incohérente

I recently discovered the silent film director and special effects master Segundo de Chomón, who produced a number of outstanding short “trick films” in Barcelona and in Paris for Pathé Frères, mostly in the period from about 1903 to 1912. He’s been favorably compared to the more famous French special effects filmmaker Georges Méliès.

I had a hard time choosing which de Chomón film to feature first; they’re all wonderful, and more of them will surely end up on Friday Video. I finally decided on the 1909 Une Excursion Incohérente for its sheer absurdity, with a touch of surrealism.

The film shows off different aspects of de Chomón’s technical wizardry: animation, mirror (or possibly double exposure) illusions, pyrotechnics. It also features one of his favorite themes: the mischievous haunted house.

Length: 8 minutes, 15 seconds.

Enjoy.

Friday Video: Ombilda

Today, another selection from Late Night Work Club’s Ghost Stories film anthology. Ombilda is a gorgeous piece, done in deep velvety shades of gray, with a subtle and effective sound design, too. I love the fog and mists that permeate the entire film.

“Lovecraftian” isn’t the right word for this piece, but its theme of mysterious and terrible (and possibly alien) forces of nature does remind me of an early twentieth century weird tale. It’s a little surreal, too. Luigi Ugolini’s 1917 “Vegetable Man” is what came immediately to mind, though I’m sure there are other stories too, that I’m not recalling now.

Length: 4 minutes, 19 seconds

Enjoy.

Friday Video: Mountain Ash

It’s Friday the 13th! And a full moon. Friday the 13th is considered an unlucky day in popular superstition, so today I’m featuring a sweet, gruesomely humorous little ghost story about bad luck. And about the Circle of Life, too.

Mountain Ash, by Jake Armstrong and Erin Kilkenny, was made as part of the Late Night Work Club’s animated collaborative film Ghost Stories. It’s one of my favorite pieces from the anthology.

Length: 4 minutes, 47 seconds.

Enjoy.

Friday Video: Dream-laden Double Feature!

A couple of strange, dream-like videos today. Don’t try to make too much sense of them, just sit back and let the strangeness float over you….

First up: The Dream of Mrs. L.L. Nicholson from Oakland, California. Mrs. Nicholson was the winner of a 1924 contest run by the Oakland Tribune, asking its readers to write in with their most unusual dream. The winning entry was made into a short film, starring the dreamer (and family, in this case). It appears to have been shot on location at their home and other sites in Oakland, as well as near the Ferry Building in San Francisco. On her way to Marin, Mrs. Nicholson loses her baby, and adventure ensues! A delightful piece.

Length: 7 minutes, 24 seconds.

The version I’ve posted here has a soundtrack, added by Internet Archive user “kingwaylon”. Unfortunately, the soundtrack is uncredited.

The second video is what might have happened if Alejandro Jodorowsky had won the Oakland Trib’s contest, and Luis Buñuel had directed the resulting film. Or maybe vice-versa. Sombra Dolorosa (Sorrowful Shadow) was directed by Canadian writer, director, cinematographer and installation artist Guy Maddin. The piece features a widow who must wrestle El Muerto (Death), incarnated as a luchador (Mexican wrestler), to save the life of her daughter. An eclipse, papa’s ghost, a donkey and a mysterious rescuer are also involved. It’s a very odd piece, yet somehow I can’t stop watching it….

Length: 4 minutes, 3 seconds

Sombra Dolorosa was screened at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival. Thanks to my tweet-peep @jeepers34 for sharing this one with me.

Enjoy.

Friday Video: The Wailing Well

It’s the cusp of the long Memorial Day weekend here in the U.S.: the beginning of summer. For most parts of the country, it’s the beginning of cook-out and camping season, too (as Mark Twain noted, summer is the season of fog and mists here in San Francisco). A campfire horror tale seems suitable….

M. R. James wrote the “Wailing Well” for the Eton Boy Scouts in 1927. He read it to the boys around a campfire at their summer camp at Worbarrow Bay in Dorset — strongly implying that the events of the story happened nearby.

David Lilley and Stephen Gray have done a good, spooky adaptation of The Wailing Well (you may remember Stephen Gray’s The Door in the Wall, which I featured on a previous Friday video).

Length: 13 minutes, 6 seconds.

Produced and directed by David Lilley, written by David Lilley and Kevin Norcross. Visual direction by Stephen Gray.

The original story is full of black humor (I love the passage about the life-saving competition) and in-jokes — all the Masters and other adults referred to by name are real people, known to the boys who heard the story. Lilley and Gray’s version is more straight-ahead scares. The film gives more of an explanation of the creatures who haunt the well than the original story, which may or may not be an improvement, depending on your taste for unexplained horrors; I thought it was effective. It also changes the way too perfect, and in my opinion superfluous, character of Arthur Wilcox to the less perfect — and less irritating — but still “good boy” character of Arthur Goode. That was definitely an improvement.

Enjoy.