North Adams Transcript
Explainers by Jules Feiffer (Fantagraphics)
Contrary to popular legend, an intelligent, literary, liberal newspaper comic strip did exist before "Doonesbury" -- Jules Feiffer’s "Sick, Sick, Sick."
Feiffer would never receive the same kind of popular culture accolades as Gary Trudeau -- largely because his strip did not build on continuity through its characters -- but also because its place as a weekly fixture in The Village Voice did not lend itself to mass fame. The strip ran for 44 years and is currently being collected in "Explainers," a veritable Bible of middle class American dysfunction. This first volume covers 1956 to 1966.
Feiffer began his career as an apprentice for legendary cartoonist Will Eisner -- he actually wrote some later stories for "The Spirit" -- and moved on to other freelance work before blundering into The Village Voice offices and securing his longest running gig. Feiffer went onto become a renowned screenwriter, novelist and children’s book author -- seriously, the guy is a national treasure -- but the comic strips contained in "Explainers" reveal the roots of his particular form of intellectual artistry.
The set-up for the cartoons is fairly simple -- usually it is a monologue from one person explaining something about his life, or sometimes a dialogue between two people, often at cross purposes. Feiffer reveals the depths of his subject not only through the dialogues -- which are filled with psychological, social and politic depths that few cartoonists have ever plumbed -- but also through an amazing skill to capture the body language so crucial to human communication.
His talent for dialogue is so sharp that, too often, it seems less that Feiffer is creating these monologues and conversations and more as if he is transcribing them. As the strip continues on, situations become less black and white; types become less good and bad. The problems of the world seem to be the result not of any particular groups or groups but the result of varying co-dependencies. It takes two to tango, and that particular dance is making the world intolerable.
Thanks to the daily documentation by Feiffer, it’s easy to see that the psychological threads through modern American social history -- self-obsession and self-deception -- remain a constant even still.
Five decades later, the two continue to twine around each other like twin serpents, and it’s always a mystery which one is going to strike at you. Sometimes they team up to create something far weirder than you expect -- Feiffer captures the root of that modern dichotomy of emotional fraud.
In his world, relationships are created from two one-sided conversations running concurrently. Intelligent discourse is born from obsessing about the latest fads in intellectualism, and qualifying yourself and the world around you is a product of over-thinking rather than disciplined analysis. People justify themselves rather than investigate and change.
Feiffer’s world isn’t too much different from our own -- it tends to be less depressing than ours, actually -- and "Explainers," as 500 pages of startling truth captured in sequential squiggles on paper, is a real masterpiece worth delving into.
Experiments in Terror 3 (Microcinema International)
Film anthology "Experiments in Terror 3" takes viewers to the stylistic and psychological core of horror by offering images and scenarios that aren’t standard or cliched -- many of these are investigations of the genre more than part of it.
No amount of gore involving real humans could match the disturbing quality of Carey Burtt’s 1999 film "The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase," which recounts the case of the so-called "Vampire of Sacramento" through the use of Barbie and Ken dolls splattered with red liquid, fake little human organs, primitive drawings of people and slowed-down audio telling the details of the story. Somehow, through such disparate and wholly low-tech realization, Burtt’s movie is profoundly creepy -- it’s the way he addresses pure psychotic violence through the medium of child’s play, and it’s the kind of experimental horror that many would never consider.
In J.X. Williams’ 1975 short opus "Satan Claus," the experimental filmmaker re-edits footage from some obscure old movie, along with some primitive visual manipulations. He tosses in some otherworldly sound effects and a bit of Iggy and the Stooges and creates a nightmarish vision of one little boy’s Christmas Eve. Williams, a legendary director of avant garde sleaze, offers up an explanation for the film as one of revenge against an employer while he worked as a projectionist -- he showed it during a kiddie matinee before storming out. It sounds like a tall tale to me, but it adds to the presentation.
The collaboration between Marie Losier and Guy Maddin, "Manuelle Labor," engages in typical Maddin territory, pulling its look and technique from silent films, as it relates the tale of a medical emergency that results in surreal procreation. It’s a slight work, to be sure, but a fun one, with buoyant comedy visuals augmenting the strangeness and a nice little soundtrack culled from 78 rpm records.
Treading the same territory but more reminiscent of Richard Elfman’s "Forbidden Zone," Clifton Childree’s "It Gets Worse" mixes toilet humor with experimental filmmaking and a surreal story about a fake plague on a fishing boat, the attendant in the cremation room onboard and a Jekyll/Hyde finale.
With "Terror!" the collection finds its tour de force. The film is a collage work of pre-existing horror footage that reproduces the rhythm of a horror film by creating an existential scenario in which terror is almost always just around the corner but never right there.
Voyeuristic at a certain point, the film depicts what draws us to these movies beyond the horror depicted -- the feeling is that we are peering into the lives of others. It’s amazing how many mundanities compile a horror film -- wandering around, turning lights on and off, talking to yourself, showering, making yourself some tea, answering a phone -- normal activities with something horrible lurking underneath.
It’s as if slasher films are about people getting punished for being a bit dull.
The waiting, the watching -- scenes in which the silence hangs like a foreboding presence and which slowly builds up to actual terror -- gives the impression that we’ve been conditioned to feel creeped out by the movies we watch. In many ways, the carnage at the end can’t begin to live up to the mood that has come before it. The gore functions as comic relief for something that really disturbs or something so grotesque that it shocks you away from what gets under your skin.
This collection is not for everyone, but if you’re looking for some challenging experimental film work or just something far from the mainstream of horror, then "Experiments in Terror 3" will open up nightmares you never imagined.