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Friday, March 30, 2012

Actors, Heroes, and Ambition

Disney’s “John Carter” delighted me by reuniting Julius Caesar with Mark Antony.  Or at least it reunited Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy, who played the two great historical figures in the HBO series “Rome.”  While I typically identify more with the screenwriters or the directors, sometimes an actor seems to really rise above his material and become the character he plays.  Previous to watching the show, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony had been little more than names from the history books: my initial attraction to the series came from the gladiatorial action and world-building of Ridley Scott in his movie “Gladiator.”  But these two actors portrayed their characters so vividly that I wanted to know more about these long-dead heroes that Hinds and Purefoy resurrected on my TV screen.  I especially fell under the allure of Julius Caesar.  As mentioned earlier, I read more about his life, and Rome in general, educating myself about the man who used any and all means at his disposal until he turned Roman society and tradition on its head, with him resting comfortably atop the transformed government.

Screenwriters often compress stories, bringing certain characters to the forefront while eliminating others.  In Disney’s new film “John Carter,” Ciaran Hinds plays Tardos Mors, the Jeddak or ruler of Helium, and the father of Dejah Thoris.  (In Edgar Rice Burrough’s novel, A Princess of Mars, Tardos Mors is her grandfather).  While his role is important, we only meet him at the end of the novel, after John Carter and his forces have destroyed the forces of Zodanga.  In the movie, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) rises to the forefront as a major character, and in a relationship eerily similar to Rome, is ably assisted by his right-hand man, Kantos Kan (James Purefoy), a Padwar (or Lieutenant) in Helium’s Navy.  In the novel, Kantos Kan plays a much larger role.  When John Carter is captured by a rival group of Tharks, he meets Kantos Kan in prison, and the two become friends.  They fight together in the arena, and after a long day of battle in which they kill off all their attackers, the two concoct a subterfuge so that one is released, while the other feigns death, and escapes the Tharks during the night.  Later, John meets Kantos Kan in Zodanga, where the Padwar has talked his way an important position in order to find and free Dejah Thoris, who has been captured by the city’s leader.  Without Kantos Kan’s help, John Carter would never have rescued Dejah Thoris, united all the rival Thark clans, and freed Helium from Zodangan forces.

Since watching “Rome,” I’ve enjoyed watching Ciaran’s acting in films like “Road to Perdition,” “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” “Miami Vice,” and the last two Harry Potter films.  James Purefoy’s work I’ve seen less of: his most memorable role for me came when he played opposite the incomparable Jeremy Brett in the Sherlock Holmes episode “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”  (In a Wikipedia article, it’s suggested that he might have played James Bond in “Goldeneye,” had Pierce Brosnan not won the role).  In the second series of “Rome,” Mark Antony takes on more of the limelight after the murder of Julius Caesar.  While a great man, it soon becomes obvious that he lacks whatever it was that made Caesar so spectacular.  He gradually falls in power and stature as Octavian (later Augustus) rises.  I felt at the time that Caesar’s absence left a gap that could not be filled, and consequently didn’t enjoy Season Two as much as the first.  But part of what made Caesar so special to me was the fierce loyalty he inspired in his men.  Without Mark Antony’s unswerving devotion, would I have fallen so heavily under the spell of Julius Caesar?

My favorite story about Julius Caesar comes not from the TV show, but from the historian Plutarch.  Caesar had already accomplished remarkable deeds, had risen to positions of power in Rome, and won the love of the common people.  While working in Spain, Caesar was reading a history of Alexander the Great when he broke into tears.  His friends asked him what was wrong.  “Do you not think it cause for grief that Alexander at my age was already king of so many nations, and I as yet have accomplished nothing remarkable?”  

Dwarfed by other's achievements
in London's V&A Museum

This is often the way I feel: my accomplishments, what few I can call my own, feel as nothing compared with those of my heroes.  Yet perhaps part of the reason for my current lack-of-success is due to how highly I regard authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Gregory Benford, Robert Silverberg, and Kevin J. Anderson.  I look at what they’ve achieved, and I say, “I could never do all that.  If I could only accomplish half of what they’ve done, or even a quarter, I’d be satisfied.”  What’s becoming clear to me is that, like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, my literary heroes have never been satisfied.  They work until they drop, always reach for the next rung of the ladder, and always strive to top their previous achievements.  

Perhaps, in order to achieve the success I desire, I must adopt such an attitude.  Part of me argues that if I do so, I’ll have to give up any sense of satisfaction with what I eventually achieve.  I don’t know how to respond to that argument.  All I know is that I’m not satisfied with where I’m at now.  For too long I’ve aimed to be lesser.  Perhaps it’s time to strive to become something infinitely greater.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original novel may be titled A Princess of Mars, but the author does not center his story upon heroine Dejah Thoris.  Nor does he spend significant time giving the backstory of everyone the protagonist meets on his adventures.  Instead, the major character in the book is indisputably John Carter.  He reaches Mars, where he is captured by the Tharks (not little green men, but six-limbed, fifteen-foot-tall green men).  When the Tharks capture an airship from the city of Helium (populated by normal-sized, red-skinned humans), John falls instantly in love with Dejah.  Everything he does thereafter is geared to win her love, free her from captivity, and return her to Helium.  Instead of yearning to return to Earth, John Carter embraces his changed circumstances for what they are, not what he would like them to be.  In doing so, he reminds me of Number One in “The Cage,” such a strong female character that she repelled women who previewed the original “Star Trek” pilot in the 1960s.  

An omnibus edition from the
Science Fiction Book Club

A Wikipedia article suggests that an animated feature film adaptation was planned in the 1930s, but ultimately rejected by MGM.  Mention is made of the highly successful live-action Flash Gordon serials produced by Universal during the same decade.  Having revisited two of the serials this year (the thirteen-episode “Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers” and the fifteen-episode “Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars”), I imagine that a “John Carter” adaptation, given a similar treatment for people of that era, would have stayed closer to Burroughs’ original plot structure than the new movie.

Another cherished SFBC omnibus
of adventures on Mars, 

also known as

Alas, I cannot judge what might have been, but only what is.  While I enjoyed rereading a novel I haven’t read in three decades, I cannot say that I found the book difficult to put down.  It took me roughly two weeks to read the one hundred-and-eighty page novel, as opposed to a week for the three hundred page Heat Rises, the third novel by the eponymous Richard Castle.  Does this mean that A Princess of Mars is less compelling that a modern mystery written by a fictional novelist?  More than likely, my relationship with the original material has less to do with its merits than where I am in my life.  My interests have expanded and evolved since I was a teen.  In my High School days, my discovery of Edgar Rice Burroughs proved monumental.  A Princess of Mars prompted me to read more of the Mars series, the Venus series, and his Tarzan novels, along with numerous other works.  His fiction inspired me to write, and my first, fumbling efforts occurred during that period.  His ability to spin stories of adventure, featuring strong, intelligent heroes and beautiful heroines, as well as his prolific storytelling abilities, made me want to model my life and talents upon him.  Even now, thirty years later, I find that I cannot be dispassionate or objective about Edgar Rice Burroughs.  For he played his part in molding me into the man I am today.

These SFBC editions are made extra-special
by cover art and interior illustrations
 from the incomparable
Frank Frazetta

While Disney’s new “John Carter” movie may not rival the success of such franchises as “James Bond, “Star Wars,” or “Flash Gordon,” it’s a fun, enjoyable movie that I’ll no doubt watch again in the future.  I just hope that children who see the movie enjoy it enough that they search out Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original work in bookstores and libraries.  For, while his novels may have aged, they’re still worth reading.  

Some might even find his stories inspiring.

Of course, after reading this,
I had to buy a paperback of
 Tarzan novel #13,
Tarzan at the Earth's Core!

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Friday, March 23, 2012

The Second Coming of John Carter

Sometimes recreating an existing story can actually improve it.  Take the Bond movies, for example.  The Broccoli family’s recreations often shared little more with Ian Fleming’s original story than the title.  Rather than cleaving to the original plot and setting, each movie is set in the present day, and portrays how current (or potential) technology might be used by those who police our world, as well as those who would use such tools to the detriment of others.  Yet despite making wholesale changes to plot, character, setting, and style, nearly each of the company’s twenty-two films excited and entertained cinema-goers, and created new generations of fans who eagerly awaited future installments.  Many claim that the Broccoli-produced James Bond movies constitute the greatest film franchise of all time.  

It goes without saying that any potential reworking of a popular story must be carefully and thoughtfully constructed.  Even a novelist rewriting his own story must steer his pen with great precision to avoid smashing his improved version against the rocks.  Not only does any recreation risk offending fans of the original material, but any changes, no matter how minor, plunk into a pond like a thrown stone.  Each change ripples through the work, disturbing all the previously settled interrelationships.   While the reconstruction may look enhanced, beautiful, and more logically constructed to the writer, fans of the original may feel like their cherished Mona Lisa has been transformed into The Bride of Frankenstein

Cards for Disney's new movie "John Carter"

I must admit, I’m conflicted with regard to the new Disney movie, “John Carter.”  Or at least I am after returning to my bookshelf to read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original novel, A Princess of Mars.  While I sat in the movie theater, I could follow the story well enough.  I didn’t really pick up everyone’s name, or understand how many of the characters related to each other, but the story in Andrew Stanton’s recreation seemed to make a certain amount of sense.  I certainly found it more entertaining than the recent adaptation of the Janet Evanovich novel One for the Money, the first in another franchise of twenty-two installments, this one concerning the exploits of bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.  But unlike the James Bond movies, John Carter doesn’t seem like the central character in the film named after him.  In bringing the war between Zodanga and Helium to the forefront, the scriptwriters shine more light upon characters that appear infrequently (perhaps only once or twice) in the episodic novel.  By recasting John Carter as a widower who refuses to accept his present, and refuses to join any worthwhile cause, the character becomes more of an antihero.  Likewise, the motivations of Dejah Thoris grow murky.  While she spends much of the film leading him on a quest so he can discover how to return to Earth, he will still have to return to her city of Helium to escape Mars (also known as Barsoom).

The novel that started a series,
and an author's career

Regardless of the film’s correlation to the original novel, Disney has an interesting way of advertising its recent creation: “Please see the new movie that’s going to lose us $200 million in the next fiscal quarter.”  To further signal their desperation, they sent a representative to Condor this year; he gave away T-shirts, posters, and other movie paraphernalia.  For a convention that boasts a couple hundred attendees each year, that’s an unprecedented move for a major studio.  The uninspired artwork, and the billboard-style T-shirts, didn’t exactly make them leap off the fan table.  Neither have I seen affordably priced “John Carter” toys, either in the stores or in kids’ meals at any of the fast-food chains.  For a movie Disney is reportedly spending $100 million promoting, I find the situation perplexing.  When children can purchase action figures from R-rated movies such as “Alien” and “Predator”, shouldn’t they be able to play with characters from a more kid-friendly adventure?  At least Disney has a website fans can check out.  I particularly enjoyed the previews of the prequel comic books they’ve issued.  

As I mentioned at the beginning, I enjoyed the movie while I was in the movie theater.  It was only afterward, when I returned home, and started reading A Princess of Mars, that I began to question some of the scriptwriters’ choices.  If “John Carter” had been an original production, it might have reaped greater critical and popular acceptance.  While it may not excite a new generation of cinema-goers, or launch another long-running franchise, it’s only in comparison with Burroughs’ original story that it really suffers.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Those Immortal Catalogs

A few years ago, I knew a man with a curious hobby.  Let’s call him Roger.  Everyday Roger would log onto eBay and bid for old department store catalogs.  The pictures he most wanted depicted women and little girls modeling underwear.  Roger would scan in these images and post them on his website.  Viewers paid a subscription fee to access these images.  

Creepy, you say?  Roger insisted he never displayed any nudes or sensual poses.  He claimed his viewers were less interested in his models than their underwear.  Some sent him money to buy locally available men’s or women’s underwear and mail it to them.  While income from his site never paid him enough to earn a living, Roger used it to pay for his catalogs, digital cameras, computers, and associated expenses.  Additionally, he donated a portion of his income to a local charity.  It still sounds creepy, you say?  While it’s not my place to judge, um, uh, well…let’s just say I would choose other interests to center my life around.

The Internet has evolved remarkably since then, and it’s not unusual to hear about individuals earning their livelihoods through operating their own websites.  Often they make a physical product and sell it via their site.  Perhaps they design computer software, and give people a free trial period before they purchase it.  Maybe they operate a service, such as carpet cleaning, and use the site to market their services.  I’m sure I’m woefully ignorant as to the various ways people utilize this comparatively new medium.  So imagine my surprise when I attended a presentation at Condor, my local science fiction convention, and heard about a man who buys old store catalogs, scans in the images that catch his eye, manipulates these images (or sections of these images) into cartoons which he posts on his website, allows people to access these comics for free…and earns sufficient income to provide for his family’s needs.  His name is David Malki ! (Yes, he uses the exclamation mark), and his website is called Wondermark.

Caution: Artist At Work!

Watching an artist at work can prove equal parts fascination and boredom.  David’s presentation took place on the final day of the weekend, so everyone was a little tired.  It started first thing in the morning, so few people attended.  The lighting in the room was poor, which made it difficult to stare at the screen for extended periods.  At first I was dismissive of his efforts, as his design taste seems geared toward the Steampunk devotees, a fad that, in my opinion, is more often based upon style than substance.  When he took pieces of this image, or a section of that Victorian invention, and placed it in his cartoon, I viewed it as recreation without reason.  Yet when the weekend had passed, something in his presentation drew me to his website.  What I found surprised and impressed me.

His newly posted comic for that week perfectly satirized one aspect of the convention I hadn’t given much thought to.  Paging through his archive, I noticed how thought provoking and humorous his fiction was.  What I had taken as silly and pointless I now realized was due to the fact that he was merely demonstrating his creative process, and didn’t have a clear thought driving the practice strip.  But his method was sound, and his published efforts sublime.

A warning.  If you’re thinking of creating your own website, or currently operate one, you may find Wondermark intimidating.  Not only does David post a comic several times each week, but he posts a blog (more often than I do), and creates other items such as posters, T-shirts, calendars, and bumper stickers.  You can purchase a print of a particular strip, or even a book.  He’s written a three-part novel, the first of which you can preview for free.  The more I peruse his site, the more my own blog pales in comparison.  But then I remind myself that I must not compare his efforts with my own.  Each of us has a unique vision, and a different plan for how we believe we can best pursue our goals.  His business is entirely Internet-based; mine will not be.  Still, I’ve bookmarked Wondermark in my browser, and intend to follow it for a while.  Who knows?  Maybe some of his business method and style will rub off on me.  At the very least, I’m interested in reading more of his comic strips.  Plus, he’s got a great name (even without the exclamation mark).

Isn’t it amazing how an artist like David Malki ! can utilize seemingly out-of-date items such as old store catalogs to create something new, fresh, and valuable?  Perhaps nothing we create ever loses its value.  

The Creative Process on Display

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Friday, March 16, 2012

“As Time Goes By” in Holland Park: Part 3

The busier our lives become, and the more artificial the environments we inhabit, the more we crave a return to nature.  Gardens delight the eyes, enliven the senses, and inspire us.  Provided they don’t disturb the sinuses, a lunchtime garden-visit can relax one better than a nap in an upholstered office chair.  London, a hive of activity, doesn’t skimp on green spaces.  From numerous gardens and parks along the Victoria Embankment, to its many parks, residents and workers find ample opportunity to ease the stress of modern life via a return to nature.  Whether Holland Park can do this better than other London parks is not mine to decide.  But we found our visit to Holland Park memorable, meaningful, and rejuvenating.  For, in addition to providing all the benefits listed above, we ate lunch in the garden where Jean and Lionel resumed their relationship in Episode Two of the British sitcom “As Time Goes By.”  And we did so in a very “Jean and Lionel” way.  We picnicked.

In the series, Jean, her adult daughter Judith, and her secretary Sandy often lunch on packaged sandwiches.  Once Lionel shows up at Jean’s office, Type For You, intent upon buying her lunch.  Jean produces packaged sandwiches.  Lionel says “I was going to take you out for a proper lunch.”  Jean, who built up her secretarial agency from nothing, sees such grab-and-go fare as a proper lunch.  Indeed, until Jean retires in Season Six, it’s not unusual for her and Lionel to lunch on sandwiches in one of London’s many parks.  

As we enjoyed our picnic lunch, it struck me how different this was from my experience.  Back home, whenever I didn’t bring my lunch to the office, I often visited a fast food restaurant.  Inside, after waiting in line, I sat in a crowded, indoor dining area eating my hamburger and fries, enjoying the air conditioning and listening to the piped-in music.  In London, fast food chains are less common than in U. S. cities I’ve visited.  Restaurants charge more for food consumed on the premises, and most places that fit the fast food demographic burgeoned with people, which raised the noise level and made the air hot and humid.  So we, like so many, had opted for the three-dollar (Oops!  I meant pound) special at the convenience store, and chosen from a wide selection of packaged sandwiches, bags of chips (sorry: crisps), and cans of soda.  Here, in Holland Park, we could enjoy our food in quiet reflection.  We could talk without effort, and hear each other’s words.  The air was refreshing and easy to breathe.  We could watch the insects busily pollinating the flowers.  On the opposite side of the garden, a man stretched out on a bench to nap in the shade.  Mothers and nannies parked their strollers, sat down, and soaked in the sun.  People slowly wandered between the beds, enjoying gardener Ian Fleming’s arrangements. 

Yet one thing nagged me.  As with Hercule Poirot’s house, something looked different.  Then it struck me: when Lionel found Jean here in Episode Two, her bench was situated opposite ours.  Had the production crew moved the bench and reversed its orientation for better lighting?  Had they wanted to film Jean and Lionel’s conversation with the garden behind them, rather than a tree-lined brick wall?  Only after reviewing the episode did I realize they did it for those reasons and another: to expand the time and space in which the scene unfolds.  

While walking past other formal gardens on the way here, one fountain had looked familiar, but I hadn't known why.  Now I do. By moving and reversing the bench, Jean and Lionel seem to sit amid a much larger garden.  As they recall their initial meeting here thirty-eight years ago, Jean points out a young couple to Lionel.  The two look ahead, and through a brick wall that does not exist for the camera.  Just as they met here before Lionel shipped off to Korea, a young army officer and a nurse walk arm-in-arm around a fountain.  Thus history becomes present, and the Dutch Garden is magically expanded.  As Jean and Lionel recall what they said to each other on that occasion, hope blossoms inside our hearts.  Despite all their past heartaches, we want them to recapture the emotions, attraction, and yearning of that first meeting. 

Picture the bench resting at the top of the steps.
Sitting with their backs to the garden, 

Jean and Lionel ignore me as I eat my lunch.
They use their X-ray vision to see through the brick wall,
and thus observe a young couple circling a fountain.

Our heels dragged as we left Holland Park.  From the dedications on the benches, the inscriptions on the walls, the planning that gardener Ian Fleming put into his arrangements, and the recently added statue, I understand why the production crew chose to film this pivotal scene here.  So much love has been (and continues to be) lavished upon the Dutch Garden. Thus, it serves as the perfect place for Jean and Lionel to resume their former relationship.  I feel honored to have visited a place that brings such joy to so many lives.  By picnicking here, I’ve gained more insight into the practicalities of life in London.  When next I return to this bustling metropolis, I’d like to visit other gardens, and explore such pockets of serenity cherished by those working and living nearby.  But I’d also love to return to Holland Park.  If I do, one thing is certain.  As I carry my sandwich, bag of chips (sorry: crisps), and can of soda through the area of formal gardens, I’ll not only return to the Dutch Garden.  I’ll also be looking for a familiar-looking fountain.  

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

“As Time Goes By” in Holland Park: Part 2

Birds of a feather frolic together in Holland Park

At twenty-two hectares, or fifty-plus acres, Holland Park dwarfs most of the parks of my experience.  Each area caters to a different age group or activity.  Feel like a morning jog or an afternoon ramble?  Numerous walks lead you along enormous lawns, several ponds, an arboretum, and an oak enclosure.  Some areas hum with activity, while others seem natural and untended, as if within the heart of London, one could still wander through an uncharted forest.  Local residents bring their dogs to romp in the dog exercise area, supervise their children on the sports fields, or enjoy a lunchtime game in the tennis courts.  Mothers push strollers, or pick up their children from the preschool.  Those without sack lunches line up for a table in at the café.  Yet none of these places were for us.  

We searched for the garden where Jean and Lionel met in the second episode of the British TV sitcom “As Time Goes By,” written by Bob Larbey.

Jean runs a secretarial agency in London.  Lionel, back in England after operating a coffee bean plantation in Kenya for over three decades, has secured a publication contract.  The only problem?  He’s not a naturally gifted writer.  By chance, he seeks help from Jean’s firm.  When the secretary she sends him proves unsuitable, he eventually meets Jean.  The two recognize each other, and we learn that thirty-eight years ago, the two were deeply in love.  She was a nurse, he an army officer, and when he went off to fight in Korea, the letter he wrote never reached her.  While she assumed he never wrote, he assumed that she had decided her romance with him was just a lark.  Both were too proud to take further action.  Jean went on to marry another and is now a widow.  Lionel married one of the few English-speaking women in Kenya, but as he embraced the relationship to avert loneliness, it soon crumbled apart.  Jean’s grown-up daughter, Judith, believes her mother and Lionel can pick up where they left off.  Jean and Lionel, meanwhile, are intimidated by such a prospect.  Life has taught both of them how cruel it can be; each has learned to live with heartache and disappointment.  The next morning, when a replacement secretary returns to the office to report that Lionel has checked out of the hotel, Jean is not surprised.

Fate draws them together again.  Forced by his publisher to meet his deadline, Lionel checks back into his hotel, and goes on bended knee to Jean’s office.  But she is not there: she has gone to the park.  He journeys after her, and eventually finds her sitting on a bench in Holland Park, surrounded by a dazzling array of flowers in lovingly tended beds.  He goes to her, tries to bluff his way out of explaining, but finally admits that he was intimidated by her daughter’s belief that they could resume their relationship.  Jean admits that her daughter is a romantic.  Lionel says, “That’s absurd, she’s been married twice!”  Jean replies coolly, “You have to be a romantic to marry twice.”  Both agree that too much time has passed; neither resembles the person the other fell in love with in their youth.  With a handshake, they depart.  Jean promises to send a secretary tomorrow, and Lionel promises he will be in the hotel.  They depart, if not as lovers, then at least as like-minded friends.  

In the next scene, Jean is walking down a quiet residential street when she realizes that Lionel is chasing her.  Before the episode is through, the two end up at a party together.  Despite all that separated them, we felt a quiet contentment as Jean and Lionel left the party.  We begin to hope that a resumption of their romance was possible. 

Although they met first in the hotel lobby, there they faced each other as combatants.  Protected within their emotional walls of justification, their exchange consisted of information hurled against each other’s defenses, covering what each had done during the intervening decades.  Understandably, this first encounter, waged in the lobby of Lionel’s hotel, left each uncomfortable about seeing the other again.  But in a garden in Holland Park, in such a pastoral setting, each let their guard down a little.  This second time, each was willing to be a little more honest about where they stood emotionally.  As a result, this second meeting prompted them toward a third union, this time at a party held by Lionel’s publisher.  This garden encounter, during the second episode, was where Jean and Lionel restart their relationship.

A list of plants, selected for your approval, by the gardener.
His name?  Fleming.  A Mr. Ian Fleming.

In searching for this particular garden, one representative of the formality English gardens are regarded for, we consulted a map, and noticed an area of the Park subdivided into a number of gardens.  We walked past an Orangery.  We didn’t stop to sample the aromatic and colorful delights of the Rose Garden.  We saw a familiar-looking fountain, but soldiered on.  Unless Jean and Lionel’s garden had been torn apart and redeveloped, we would find it. 

Fifteen minutes after we entered Holland Park, we arrived in Jean and Lionel’s garden.  A sign identified it as the Dutch Garden.  People sat on the benches, ate their lunches, and gazed in quiet contentment at the carefully tended beds bursting with color.  Immediately, we felt at home here.  We had reached a place that will forever reside in our hearts.  We sat on an unoccupied bench, set out our simple lunch, and feasted on the familiar surroundings we had previously inhabited in our imaginations.

"At last, we've arrived!"

This entry will conclude with “As Time Goes By” Holland Park: Part 3.

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Friday, March 9, 2012

"As Time Goes By" in Holland Park: Part 1

A pub where Lionel might pop out for a "quick half."

All stories need characters.  We view the world through their eyes, and as we follow their attempts to overcome their dilemmas, we invest our hopes in them: we yearn for them to succeed.  Those characters who demonstrate the ability to break free of their single-story existence, who somehow seem more vital after following a few episodes in their lives, we invest more of ourselves in: our emotions, our own struggles, and sometimes even our dreams.

After visiting Hercule Poirot’s house, and touring the Museum of London, we headed off to our next destination.  Holland Park is a residential district in London, as well as the name of a large park.  As we had poured over our maps the previous evening, we realized that while London boasted numerous parks of great beauty and historical importance, only two held personal significance for us.  While entry into the park opposite Poirot’s Whitehaven Mansions had been denied us, we hoped for better fortunes with our second choice.

The entry to an old, stone church.
Like Poirot’s house, Holland Park dwells not just in London, but also within our hearts.  Two decades ago, we fell in love with Jean and Lionel, two characters created by Bob Larbey for his British TV sitcom “As Time Goes By.”  Had the series merely lasted one or two seasons of six episodes each, this might not have proved the case.  But Jean and Lionel’s fictional lives, as well as their struggles to overcome the dilemmas they faced, proved compelling to viewers worldwide.  Each successive series offered a few more precious episodes, until finally in 2002, after nine seasons, the stars, Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer, decided it was time for them, as actors, to move on.  

Still, viewers refused to give them up, and thankfully, two reunion episodes were made in 2005.  Perhaps Dench and Palmer were right to end the series when they did.  By this time, Jean and Lionel had overcome the major obstacles that life and fate had thrown in their way.  Still, it’s always painful when an ongoing story, involving characters you love, comes to an end.  (I can only imagine how it affected Bob Larbey, who shared his consciousness with Jean and Lionel for so long, to realize that he would no longer get to write down more of their life journey and see Dench and Palmer bring them to life).  At least, with the DVDs, we could relive those portions of their lives that we had shared with them.  But today, on our final day in London, we had the opportunity (Who can say?  Perhaps our only one?) to visit the place where they first met: Holland Park.

Others eat their lunch in Holland Park
After leaving the Underground station, we walked along a busy street.  Then we decided: if we wished to see Holland Park, we might as well walk past some of the beautiful Victorian row houses depicted in the series.  We might not pass the one where Jean and Lionel supposedly lived*, but we could catch a glimpse of what life might be like for those who lived in this district.  Unlike the street our characters lived on, these houses were not all white, but painted a variety of colors.  We passed a pub that Lionel might pop out to for a “quick half.”  We passed an old, immaculately maintained, stone church.  Then the street ended, and we were forced to backtrack until we reached the busy street once more.  But that was okay, as we could imagine Jean’s secretarial agency, Type For You, might operate out of one of the small businesses, or she and Lionel might opt for a “cheap and cheerful” (inexpensive) dinner of fish-and-chips or Indian curry at one of the little restaurants we passed.  We picked up lunch in a local market, and journeyed onward.

Our journey will continue in “As Time Goes By” in Holland Park: Part 2.

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For images of Jean & Lionel's house in "As Time Goes By," check out my January 30, 2014 entry
Jean & Lionel's House in "As Time Goes By" 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Men in Black: Inspiring a Franchise

Imagine you’re driving along the highway with your friend, when he gives you an idea for a comic book series that will later become a multi-million dollar film franchise.  Well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but it was the start.  

Lowell Cunningham was driving through Tennessee with his friend.  When a large, black car passed, his friend quipped: that car could belong to the Men in Black.  “The Men in Black?” he asked.  “What are they?”

His friend went on to tell him stories about the Men in Black, people who investigate strange, “unearthly” occurrences.  They show up after a UFO sighting or a paranormal event, and after questioning the witnesses, make sure that “the truth” of what occurred never reaches the outside world.  As agent K would later tell his would-be protégé J in the first film, “A person is smart, but people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.  Fifteen hundred years ago, mankind saw Earth as the center of the universe.  Five hundred years ago, the human race believed that the Earth was flat.  Five minutes ago, you believed that we are alone on this planet.  Imagine, if you join us, what you might know tomorrow.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Back in the 1980s, Lowell Cunningham was an unpublished writer.  He couldn’t know that movies based upon his work would be made, or that they would prove extremely popular.  But he was inspired by his friend’s tales, and thought they might make a nice weekly TV show.  The only problem?  How could he, a man in Knoxville, Tennessee without a single writing credit, get the Hollywood studios to look at his work?  So he asked himself what might be more achievable, and eventually hit upon the idea of a comic book series.  He had never penned a comic book either, but he believed he could.  

Lowell Cunningham: Comic Book Hero

He not only believed in his capabilities and in his ideas: he did something about them.  He submitted proposals to all the comic book companies.  Although they aroused varying levels of interest, all were eventually rejected.  Then he happened to talk with someone who had worked for Aircel Comics out in California, and his friend suggested, “If they’ll print my work, why not yours?”  So he sent them his proposal, and found that they not only liked his idea, but were willing to commission him to write a three-issue miniseries.  His comics proved so successful that he was asked to write another, and the following year Aircel, now Malibu Comics, published another three issues.  

As we all know, change can be both good and bad.  The bad news was that Malibu Comics made a business decision to concentrate their efforts more on the superhero market.  Lowell’s series, while popular, simply didn’t fit in with the company’s new direction.  Still, they liked him, and hired him to write for several more of their comics, including a series related to the “Alien Nation” franchise and some superhero work.  But his brainchild, “The Men in Black,” was seemingly forgotten.  Until, that is, Malibu’s publisher, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, looked through what he had published and created several proposals of his own.  He sent them out to the Hollywood studios, and in 1992, Columbia Pictures purchased an option to make a Men in Black movie.

As the movie took shape, great names like Tommy Lee Jones, Wil Smith, Barry Sonnenfeld, and Steven Spielberg signed on to the project.  (In the case of Tommy Lee Jones, he committed to playing Agent K before any of the above, or even a script existed: he read the comics, and fell in love with the series).  Often star power isn’t enough, and the most promising projects falter before production can begin.  In this case, “Men in Black” was not only made, but proved so successful that it spawned a TV series and a sequel.  A third movie will arrive in theaters later this year.  And all because Lowell Cunningham believed in his idea, and persisted in submitting his proposals until someone finally agreed to publish his work.

Lowell Cunningham makes a little money in comparison to the above-mentioned Hollywood personalities.  He still lives in Tennessee.  He’s still a relatively unknown artist. “The Men in Black” miniseries never became a long-running, monthly comic.  But his brainchild has been used and shaped by others to bring pleasure to millions.  He has created something greater than himself.  His agents J and K have become cultural icons.  The “Men in Black” movies will surely influence future generations.  

Stories such as his inspire me to carry on with my own great work of writing fiction.  Whatever your interests, may his example lend you strength to keep pursuing your goals.

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