Thursday, July 20, 2017
There are few living comic performers whose latest project one would always be curious to see. Ricky Gervais is high on my list. At 55, he has strutted across various platforms, from television shows to podcasts, from the stand up comedy stage to children's books and animation, with varying degrees of success. He never gives the impression that he's out to conquer the world, but rather, he's an inspired dabbler, as interested in form as content. David Brent: Life On The Road, currently on Netflix, is in some respects an exploration of everything he's learned along the way, and a showcase for his best and worst instincts.
Brent, of course, is the character Gervais created and played on The Office years ago on the BBC - a character so ridiculous that he became a cult figure and inspired the American show of the same name, making Gervais incredibly wealthy - and Brent hasn't changed much since then. He was an obnoxious office manager who imagined himself an entertainer. When his branch merged with another, he was so jealous of the new people that he experienced a meltdown and lost his job, or, in British lingo, was made "redundant." Steve Carrell's version of the character for American television was not nearly as stupid. In fact, Carrell's Michael Scott was strangely competent, a goof with good ol' American work ethic. Gervais kept Brent a buffoon throughout, and Life On The Road picks up the narrative many years later, with Brent now working as a salesman at a chemical company, but convinced he can be a rock 'n roll singer. By the end of the U.S. version of The Office, Carrell's character was married with kids and, we imagine, maturing. As if appalled by such a notion, Gervais sends his great comic creation into the maw of England's night life, letting him groove in all of his outdated glory. Brent, ever the optimist, thinks he can score a recording contract by dressing like David Essex and singing about Native Americans. ("Soar like an eagle, squat like a pelican.")
Though Gervais has succeeded in many areas - sometimes I think there's nothing he wouldn't try - he's still struggling with directing a movie. He's not a natural at it. He tends to think in bits (here's Brent making a fool of himself at work, here's Brent getting a tattoo, here's Brent watching in horror as a piggish woman devours the contents of his hotel mini-bar), but the arc of the story and its ultimate payoff isn't much different than what we've seen in various Gervais projects, as if Brent lives in the world of television programs, and can only grow a tiny bit each time out, only to quickly return to his old mannerisms. The big difference between the Brent of 2016 and the one we used to see on The Office is that Gervais mines this current version for more pathos. As if the embarrassing schmaltz from Derek somehow dripped into this movie, Gervais is relentless in depicting Brent as a friendless misfit. When Brent, gambling his savings on a band, a tour bus, and a camera crew, toddles out of his office to go on a self-booked tour, the melancholy old theme of The Office - "Handbags and Glad Rags" - plays him out in a manner that is self consciously Chaplinesque. Worse, a few of Brent's more sensitive co-workers step up to say things like, "Gee, he's not such a bad guy. Sometimes I feel a bit sorry for him." Did Gervais feel the morons at home needed a Greek chorus to remind them that Brent is a pitiable figure? Gervais is a good enough actor to have made that point on his own.
Much of the movie involves Brent at odds with his band. In short, they treat him with an offhand cruelty, making no room for him on the bus, and not joining him for a drink unless they're paid for their time. Again, anything to make Brent seem pathetic.
The band, Foregone Conclusion, is made up of guys much younger than Brent, and they're mostly there to complain about the quality of his songs. Strange, though, the tunes are catchy, and Gervais isn't a bad singer. He's on key, anyway. If we're supposed to laugh at Brent's lack of talent, it doesn't quite work. There are worse singers and bands playing in clubs all over the world every night. In fact, when Brent prowls the stage with his maracas, he actually has a bit of rock star flair. Is it Gervais' vanity that keeps him from playing Brent as entirely without talent? The band as a whole is an indistinct lot, making one wonder if Gervais missed something by not collaborating with his longtime writing partner Stephen Merchant. On The Office, where Merchant was co-writer and co-director, the entire cast was given individual quirks and personalities. Here, it's Brent and only Brent, and though that makes some sense in that he's a selfish character, it weakens the movie. (Conversely, Merchant's solo project, Hello Ladies, lacked Gervais' silliness.) Had Merchant been involved here, one guesses, the band would've been more interesting, more developed. It's not hard to imagine Merchant and Gervais tackling this story from the point of view of a band on the road, exploring the grind of traveling and playing in clubs, while Brent looned about at the center. It might've worked better.
Brent is funniest when he's clueless, such as when he spews his offensive jokes without knowing the effect he has on people. He's less funny when Gervais relies on cheap bits, like a recurring gag about constipation, or a photo shoot where Brent models to the tune of Bowie's "Fashion." There's a moment near the end where Brent, with a bittersweet flourish typical of Gervais, laments coming back to his job after being on the road. He may be a failure, he says, but at least he tried. Besides, there's a woman at this office who seems to like him, and he has a buddy there who laughs at his jokes. If Gervais never allows Brent a victory, here's hoping Gervais gives the guy a nice place to land.
Saturday, July 15, 2017
Boxing Brings Out The Best And Worst In Writers
The late Jonathan Rendall almost got it right
by Don Stradley
The 1990s may go down as a golden era for the hard-hitting boxing memoir. Many of these books came from England, and they almost always followed the same template - novice writer befriends a fighter, gets to know him as a human being, and then watches helplessly as the guy gets smashed into a bloody stupor by his next opponent - which may stem from W.C. Heinz' '50s classic, The Professional, a book that came dressed as a novel but was allegedly based on real incidents. I don't blame anyone for aping Heinz' plot. It's a good one, stacked with pathos, and if you show some of the real horrors of boxing along the way (dementia, busted up hands, bleeding brains, empty bank accounts, senile fighters sleeping next to piles of human feces) you're bound to set the critics buzzing. This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own did exactly that 20 years ago, making Jonathan Rendall, for a brief time, England's boxing writer du jour. A reviewer from the Financial Times was so fired up by Rendall's memoir that he used "elegiac" and "fin de siecle" in one sentence.
Early on Rendall is told by a fighter, "you can talk about boxing all you like, but at the end of the day it's a fight. That's all it is." This idea echoes throughout the story, as Rendall goes from writing about boxing to actually serving as an advisor for Colin McMillan, a talented fighter who briefly owned a version of the featherweight title. McMillan's problem was keeping his right arm attached to the shoulder. It kept popping out during fights like a limb on a cheaply made action figure. Rendall's style is dry wit, with a fondness for obscure British ringside characters like Ernie the Whip and Harry the Growler, fringe types who couldn't figure out why they never got rich. It's the era of Herol "Bomber" Graham, Michael Nunn, and Donald Curry; Frank Warren getting shot outside an arena; the young Lennox Lewis showing promise before being crushed by Oliver McCall; and the retired Ali making an appearance at Planet Hollywood, struggling to eat a bowl of soup. Everything Rendall sees reminds him that the most important thing about boxing is to get out in time.
Rendall liked to depict himself as a loser - he's constantly being insulted, ripped off, and bullied. The last straw is when he's roughed up in a hotel lobby by Frank Bruno. Rendall supplies no details; his method is to allude to things without dwelling on them. That is, unless it's to show us the downside of boxing. When he visits Kid Chocolate in Havana, he spares no detail about the Kid's squalid life, and his adventures with Jack Kid Berg (though amusing) are mostly about how Berg's memory has disintegrated. In a way, it's a young man's book, with Rendall seeing the future in the eyes of broken down pugs and fearing what he sees.
Not surprisingly, Rendall became a sort of boxing muckraker, writing investigative pieces. Like the ex-smoker, he was determined to make things miserable for those who still enjoyed a puff. He'd eventually forsake boxing and its "tuxedoed junketeers" for other subjects, including a well-received book about the search for his biological parents. In recent years he was best known for his 'Last Chance Saloon' column in The Observer. He developed a cultish following among British readers, amusing them with tales of drinking and gambling.
The trick Rendall accomplished with This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own, aside from a title that sounds like a Charles Bukowski poem, is that he convinced critics that he wasn't covering the usual boxing clichés. In truth, he was hitting each tired old bit as if he'd consulted a manual. How he fooled them was with his delivery - he wasn't, as many of his admirers claimed, "Runyonesque" (I imagine the people who called him that had never actually read Damon Runyon), but rather, was carrying on the tradition of the acerbic monologist, the stranger in a strange land. The lightness of his style - Rendall's chapters are like those neatly organized plates at exclusive restaurants, where the cilantro is placed carefully on the side of the dish, and everyone is accorded exactly 11 green beans - keeps one from realizing that he's simply tilling the usual ground about boxing's brutality.
Of course, the people in the business are well ahead ahead of Rendall. "Being the champ is no great shakes," Nunn tells him at one point, interviewed during his prime. "In another four years there'll be another young guy." "Boxing is always the same," says Detroit promoter Don Gutz. "It's only the fucking names that change." The fatalistic attitudes of his boxing pals leave Rendall puzzled. It takes several years before he realizes the hard work in the gym is really nothing to do with the superstructure above boxing, which includes promoters and television and general myth making. When Kid Akeem Anifowoshe, a feisty flyweight from Nigeria, comes to a tragic end, Rendall starts working in waltz time. "Boxing had been leading me to a truth after all," he writes, "but only to the truth about boxing. And the truth was just the story itself, the first addictive dance under the chandelier, and then the doomed roller coaster ride on thousands of blue curves."
Like I said, it's a young man's book.
When a boxing writer loses his love for the sport, he's a bit like a toddler who had always held his parents' hands, but now has to walk on his own. Most accept the business for what it is, the good and bad. Some, in fact, become better writers because they're no longer looking for heroes. Another type of writer, though, behaves like a jilted lover. He'll treat boxing like a bad woman who did him wrong. He'll expose all of her flaws for the world to see. But the joke is on the writer, because everyone else already knew she was a no good slut. Rendall died young - 48 - just a few years ago. He was a troubled guy, and by more than one account he was an irresponsible sort who couldn't meet a deadline. By the end of his life he was struggling to find writing gigs. He'd spent his final months failing to interest publishers in a proposed book about Mike Tyson. Funny, when he was out of options he'd gone back to the dark mistress: boxing. Unfortunately for Rendall, his Tyson book was not published during his lifetime. The old sweet science had dumped him on his ass again.
Monday, July 10, 2017
Pat Healy must love the idea of taking punishment. In Cheap Thrills (2013) he was subjected to all sorts of sickening violence, and in Take Me, (now on Netflix), which he directed, we watch him get stabbed, punched, locked in the trunk of a car, shot in the stomach with a pellet gun, and hit in the head with enough blunt instruments to fill your grandad's toolbox. At one point he's talking to some cops while a shard of glass sticks out of his back, blood leaking out of him and pooling under his feet. It's an odd scene, and we half expect him to collapse from blood loss. What makes Healy so interesting as an object for pummeling is that he seems to feel everything. Granted, as a young actor he earned his bones at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, an institution known for rough and tumble productions, but few actors can match Healy's realness when it comes to projecting pain. Fewer still seem to specialize in roles where they become human piñatas. I like Healy's movies because I like to wince along with him.
In Take Me he plays Ray Moody, a down on his luck entrepreneur whose company, Kidnapping Solutions, is struggling. Clients hire Ray to create abduction scenarios - we see him early on grabbing a chubby guy who keeps straying from his diet, holding him hostage and teaching him a lesson by shoving burgers into his mouth - and though some would scoff at the usefulness of such an enterprise, Ray genuinely thinks he's helping people. Unfortunately, he's not making enough money. He also suffers the wrath of a ball-busting sister who can't stand the route his life has taken. When a mysterious woman hires Ray for a complex scenario that will involve a lot of slapping (her request), he thinks his ship has come in. When he finally nabs the woman (Taylor Schilling), she turns out to be a nightmare. Not only does she have the survival instinct of Chuck Norris, but we're not even sure if Ray has the right person.
The screenplay by Mike Morowski has the grim humor and twists of an old Donald Westlake novel, and Nathan Miller's cinematography is sharp. I also liked the score by Heather McIntosh, who incorporates a lot of ricky-tick piano to give an ironical touch to the violence and danger. Healy's a solid director - he was behind the camera for a couple of smaller projects in the past, but this is his first feature film - and though he and Schilling do most of the heavy lifting, he gets a lot out of the movie's minor characters. (By the way, TV buffs with good eyes will notice actors from Seinfeld, The Office, and Parks and Recreation here. Send me a 3X5 card with the names of the performers and the characters they played on those shows. If you answer correctly, I'll be your huckleberry.)
Schilling is top billed, but it's Healy's movie from the get go. In fact, his best acting comes early when he's applying for a loan to help his failing business. Almost unrecognizable in a cheap brown wig, he unloads on a bank employee a line of salesman bluster that is as once smarmy and endearing. Maybe Healy has a future in a revival of Glengarry Glenn Ross. I loved this scene because it gives us a break before the mayhem, and allows us to see Ray Moody as nothing less than an all-American dreamer, someone who wants to help people, someone who thinks he's doing some good, someone who believes his own pitch. Seriously, Kevin Spacey or James Woods at their most unctuous couldn't have improved on what Healy does in the opening scene. At the end, when Ray is a gruesome mess, he spots an old client who appears to have benefited from Ray's work. Their eyes meet; Ray smiles meekly. It reminded me of Charlie Chaplin smiling at the blind girl at the end of City Lights, or Woody Allen smiling at the close of Manhattan. It's the look of someone who knows the world is hard but still dares to hope. Healy may take a beating in his movies, but in this one he's smiling through the blood.
For another great Pat Healy movie, read about Cheap Thrills: http://donstradley.blogspot.com/2014/02/cheap-thrills.html
Friday, July 7, 2017
There was a time when the most pressing issue on anyone's mind was Hollywood's depiction of violence against women. It seemed a movie couldn't be made without watchdog groups complaining about the way some female character was beaten up or killed by a drill. Those days seem to be gone - the fashionable new worries are all about fat shaming and making sure transvestites have a place to pee - but I wonder what the old anti-violence crusaders would think about Catfight, a movie where Anne Heche and Sandra Oh lay into each other with the passion of freightcar hobos fighting over a chicken bone. They don't just pull hair and wrestle around like in those seedy VHS tapes my buddy Owen used to order special from a company in New York. No, Heche and Oh are savage, with director Onur Tukel wallowing in every broken nose and split lip. Anyone tuning in because of the sleazy title in hopes of seeing some semi-erotic Jell-O wrestling would probably be disappointed. Or horrified. If they stick with it, though, Catfight is a strangely watchable movie.
Heche and Oh play two former college friends now in middle age. Oh has married a wealthy man and settled into the role of rich bitch wife and mother. She drinks too much, though, and seems like a hostile, miserable sort. Heche plays a failed artist down to working as a caterer with her girlfriend, played by Alicia Silverstone. One grim evening Heche is hired to cater a party for Oh's husband. The two former friends meet, engage in some testy conversation, and are soon fighting like Mickey Rourke and Frank Stallone in Barfly. Oh gets the worst of it and ends up in a coma for two years. When she comes out of it she learns, among other things, her money is gone. The tone is darkly comic, satirizing America in the time of war, the sort of loopy comedy Christopher Durang might've written in the '80s. It's not quite laugh-out-loud funny, but watching Oh struggle in her new life is intriguing.
Meanwhile, Heche goes on to become a famous artist, her screwy paintings earning big bucks. Heche and Silverstone want a baby - Silverstone, by the way, is a treat here, playing a desperate mother wannabe, carrying around a doll so she can get used to carrying an infant - but Heche isn't mommy material anymore. She's become a neurotic, success crazed celebrity artist who subjects her young assistant, a hapless young woman who contents herself by drawing bunnies, to horrible verbal abuse. Oh, whose only living relative is a wacky aunt who sleeps all day while waiting for the end of the world, gets a job as a hotel maid. While making beds, she happens upon an art magazine with Heche on the cover. The two rivals will meet again, and fight again. There will be more shattered mouths, more comas. Stunt coordinator Balint Pinczehelyi deserves kudos for creating fights that exist in that murky borderland of movie-style brawling and realistic blood spilling. No cheesy martial arts crap here.
Heche and Oh throw themselves into this movie, and though the ending is anticlimactic - I'd hoped the two would end up like McTigue and his rival in Von Stroheim's Greed, handcuffed together in the scalding desert - there's a lot here to like. Heche has always been one of the more peculiar performers in the movie business, something like Veronica Lake crossed with a ferret. She's elevated a lot of movies that were beneath her, and it's nice to see her in something that is actually worth her presence. As good as Heche is here, Oh may be even better, if only because she has a longer way to go, starting as an icy, unlikable Manhattan witch and evolving into a person we actually care about, one who has more in common with her rival than is readily apparent. The better fighter? It's a tough call. Oh throws a mean right hand, and she can take punishment all day, while Heche has surprising energy, fighting from a source powered entirely by hate. Tukel underscores the fight scenes with bits of classical music and patriotic marching tunes, but his attempt to lighten the mood is obliterated by the burning rage of the two actresses. Hell, I don't think Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine could've done any better.
Wednesday, July 5, 2017
I didn't follow the Amanda Knox case. From what I gleaned from the Yahoo news pages, she was some American brat who went to Perugia, Italy and hosted a drug-fueled orgy that resulted in the murder of her roommate, a young British woman named Meredith Kercher. It was all horrendous enough, but when you've rotted your brain with as much true crime junk as I have, not to mention watching 100 or so movies per week, plus trying to fulfill my dream of becoming a world class gaucho, it'll take more than Amanda Knox to get my attention. In other parts of the world, however, she was big news, and I mean O.J. Simpson big. She was "Foxy Knoxy," the seductress with a taste for kinky mayhem. After viewing Amanda Knox, a reasonably good documentary produced for Netflix, I'm hardly an expert on the story. Still, I think I know why the citizens of Perugia hated this perky 20-year-old. It's not her fault, but to them she probably looked like a typical privileged American tourist who thinks her shit doesn't stink. Sometimes it's that simple.
In a moment that is supposed to be filed with portent, Knox tells us early on, "Either I'm a psychopath in sheep's clothing, or I am you." More likely, she was every Italian mother's nightmare, luring one of their unsuspecting but horny sons into the scandal of the decade, which is probably why her accusers wanted to lynch her from the opening bell. (Later she says, "I think people love monsters...fear makes people crazy.") The filmmakers follow the Errol Morris template like obedient doggies, with the blaring headlines creating the fun, followed by various talking heads, dressed formally, seated in front of a charcoal grey backdrop, giving their thoughts. I especially liked an Italian lawyer who lambasted the American media for suggesting the Italian courts weren't up to handling the case. He assured us that Italy was practicing law when Americans were "still drawing buffaloes on cave walls."
To this documentary's credit, Knox isn't sugarcoated. She may not have been the sex crazed she-devil of the tabloids, but she was a strange duck. When her roommate was discovered with her throat cut, Knox was spotted cuddling with her boyfriend, which didn't endear her to those watching on Italian TV. She drew more suspicion by constantly changing her story and blaming other people. When asked about it now, Knox says she was merely a scared kid and that the Italian cops intimidated her. The merciless British tabloids, out to milk the death of Kercher, couldn't get enough of this odd American girl. It was, says Brit reporter Nick Pisa, "A fantastic buzz" to get your Amanda story on the front page, while pipe smoking investigators who looked like they'd just stumbled out of a Jules Maigret novel describe Knox as an "anarchist." She and her boyfriend were convicted, and then acquitted, more than once. Though DNA evidence linked Kercher's murder to a local creep with a history of burglaries, some still believe Knox was involved.
Knox now lives in Seattle, her days of villainy behind her. She notes with some frustration that people still recognize her when she goes to the supermarket, but appearing in this documentary guarantees at least another few years of recognition - maybe she thinks Netflix subscribers are too busy watching Family Guy reruns. The filmmakers work hard to make Knox look all alone in the world. We see a lot of staged footage designed to make her appear isolated - there she is chopping an onion, walking alone in the street, riding alone on a ferry boat - but nothing to make her seem, well, likable. I think part of the problem in Perugia was that she honestly didn't know how to react to the case. She'd known Kercher for only a few weeks, so there was no real bond there. That doesn't mean she's guilty of anything. I think she was an emotionally stunted young woman thrown into a big mess. Like the husband in Gone Girl, who felt nothing when he was accused of killing his wife and only made himself look bad by trying to show false emotions, Knox seemed unsure of how to act. She'd cry because she thought she was supposed to cry. Even now, in Amanda Knox, her tears seem like a performance. She's like a country club wife with the eyes of a Manson girl.
Monday, June 26, 2017
GLOW was one of those oddball television phenoms out of the late 1980s - a visual snack that really hit the spot, a la Morton Downey Jr., Married with Children, Mike Tyson on HBO, Night Flight on the USA network, Pee Wee's Playhouse, videos on MTV - and I'd be lying if I said I'd never watched it. I remember it was on Saturday nights on my local FOX affiliate, in between late infomercials for Santo Gold, some Mexican wrestler who sold costume jewelry and was eventually busted for mail fraud. GLOW - The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, was a smart move by a bunch of hustler types trying to cash in on the WWF's blossoming popularity. In a way, GLOW was to the WWF what The Monkees were to The Beatles. A new show on Netflix titled GLOW is a highly fictional account of the program, with Marc Maron as the seedy director-producer, and a collection of young actresses portraying variations of the old GLOW girls. Good intentions aside, it has no snap. The old show was fun and goofy, vaudeville in spandex; the new thing takes itself way too seriously.
In the first episode we meet Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), an unemployed young actress who finds her way to an audition for a wrestling program. Before you know it, this drama class wimp is trying to make it in pro wrestling. The show's creators - Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch - have a lengthy history of revered cable dramas known for capable, quirky female leads (Nurse Jackie, Weeds, Orange is the New Black). Here, they're relying on the old fish out of water scenario, with Ruth trying to find her inner cavewoman so she can hang and bang with the bigger, meaner girls. It's not great comedy, nor is it especially dramatic. It's as farfetched as prim Diane Chambers from Cheers trying to be a wrestler. We're supposed to believe that Ruth, after being fired on her first day, simply goes home and watches Hulk Hogan on TV and takes notes, showing up at the gym the next day wearing a cape and talking trash, sprinkling her ring promos with bits from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Though I watched only four episodes, I know exactly how the rest will play out. Ruth will get tough, she'll befriend the other ladies, there's be all sorts of female camaraderie, and since it's set in the 1980s, we're sure to get a scene where the women trash a hotel room while Cyndi Lauper sings "Girls Just Want to have Fun." Maron, who looks like he's mailing his performance in until something else comes along, will eventually prove to be a goodhearted slob underneath his cynicism. There's also a lame subplot about a soap actress (Betty Gilpin) whose husband had an affair with Ruth, and now she's going to be a wrestler, too. There was a good scene where Maron imagined the two women in full wrestling garb, battling before a big arena crowd, and for a moment we could feel his urge to make something of this wrestling racket. Then it was back to hokey dramatic fare, ie miscarriages, divorces, etc.
The original GLOW was loaded with larger than life characters with names like "Matilda the Hun." My favorite, "The Housewife," entered the ring with an arsenal of kitchen appliances, including an egg beater, to torture her opponents. Some reviewers have described the '80s GLOW as a melting pot of shameful racial stereotypes, and the Netflix show has some fun with that as the women try on their ring personas. Ironically, the new show has its own stereotypes, which include a smart-talking black chick who has seen it all, an Indian woman with a background in medicine, an Asian woman who complains about being stereotyped (which is a stereotype in itself), and enough young bitchy coke-snorting white women to remake Valley of the Dolls. Whether these are stereotypes or simply hack writing, I suggest you forego this Netflix show and seek out Brett Whitcomb's touching documentary, Glow: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (2012). Whitcomb portrays the women as hard workers, many of them now struggling with physical problems. They were all smart enough to know that wrestling in skimpy outfits for an audience of frat boys and dirty old men was less about sisterhood and more about making a buck. Flahive and Mensch have bent the real story of GLOW to create a Bad News Bears type of fable about female bonding. That's their prerogative, but they shouldn't have called it GLOW.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
"The enigmatic presence of the human mind winks back from the dark..."
Communion Turns Thirty
by Don Stradley
In February 1987, Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story hit bookstores with the subtlety of a metal sliver working its way under the skin. This peculiar item belongs on the roster of controversial confessionals – Gong Show host Chuck Barris writing in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind that he was a CIA assassin, for example. It also stands alongside the more memorable UFO and alien literature, such as Major Donald Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucers Are Real (1950) - which slipped onto newsstands as a cheapo Gold Medal paperback, but seriously explored the growing phenomenon of discs flying across our skies – or Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (1968), the launch of an ongoing fascination with “ancient astronauts.” Strieber's book sparked the usual derision, but it’s a small marvel. Most who write on this subject are enthusiastic clods, while Strieber used his background as a novelist to create a narrative that was both chilling and poetic.
Part of what made Strieber’s account of being visited by strange beings was his reluctance to use terms like “UFO,” or “aliens.” He never comes out and says men took him aboard a spaceship from another planet. He maintains throughout the story that he doesn’t really know what happened. Through hypnosis, he belches forth a handful of murky memories, and eventually feels that some sort of recurring “strange event” has been going on since his childhood, and may have also involved members of his family. The biggest immediate difference between Communion and other books like it is Strieber’s suggestion, rather ahead of its time for 1987, that there may be many factors at work, everything from inter-dimensional time travel to folklore. We may know Communion as the book that kicked off the 1990s interest in UFOs, The X-Files, and government conspiracies - Strieber doing for alien abduction what Elvis Presley did for sideburns - and we may scoff, but even a skeptic should agree that it’s a dazzling piece of work, heavy concepts floated across like notes from Chinese woodwinds.
To some degree, it’s understandable that Strieber came under such scrutiny. Communion centers on a pair of “visitations” Strieber experienced in his rural New York home in 1985, encounters that introduced him to several small, runty beings, and one large bug-like creature who seemed, to Strieber, to be the female head of a medical team. They were, he writes, “fierce little figures with eyes that seem to stare right into the core of being.” The female presence at the front takes on a special resonance for Strieber, in that he senses she’s trying to make him feel at ease. This was no easy feat as the visitors yanked him out of bed, probed him, and stuck things into his brain. Yet, this female presence becomes the star of the story by default; she’s the one who haunts Strieber, appearing in his mind’s eye during his waking hours, and seeming to communicate with him. She’s an intriguing character, with only minimal tinkering from Strieber.
Writers generally till the same ground throughout their careers, and Strieber had already written a series of horror novels involving ancient visitors, ancient vampires, and even a race of intelligent beings descended from wolves. There appear to be hints in his early work of themes that he’d touch on in Communion, as if his earlier writing had been informed by encounters that had taken place in his childhood and were buried, or replaced by “screen memories.” He writes that much of his adult life involved moving restlessly from place to place, which he discovers is common among people who have had experiences similar to his. The female presence is also common, as Strieber finds out. For Strieber, she’s as elusive as a woman you see at a party who gives you a secretive smile, only to disappear into the opaque night. Of course, he describes her as looking something like a preying mantis, but there’s a feeling of benevolence to her, friendliness; she's playful the way a rancher is when he gives a playful pat on the rump to a steer he’s just branded. If it’s not exactly love, it counts for something.
In Communion, she is the object of affection. Strieber doesn’t say as much, but he writes in a way to make her mysterious, vulnerable, mischievous, her company almost desirable. Though only appearing in a few sections of the book, she is the story’s biggest presence. I imagine she was the model for Ted Jacob’s beautiful cover portrait, which tantalized us from bookshop windows 30 years ago and was probably responsible for at least some of the book’s sales. That and, of course, Strieber’s writing. For instance: “…something very real had emerged from our own unconscious mind, taking actual, physical form and coming forth to haunt us. Maybe belief creates its own reality. It could be that the gods of the past were strong because the belief of their followers actually did give them life, and maybe that was happening again. We were creating drab, postindustrial gods in place of the glorious beings of the past. Instead of Apollo riding his fiery chariot across the sky, or the goddess of night spreading her cloak of stars, we had created little steel-grey gods with the souls of pirates and craft no more beautiful inside than the bilges of battleships.”
Though the final section of the book deals with Strieber’s philosophical outlook and the transcription of his meeting with others claiming to have been visited – which takes on the tone of a self-help encounter group meeting, and was probably more useful to the participants than the reader (though in ’87 I’m sure it was cutting edge stuff, with victims coming forward and all) - it’s in the first half where Strieber is like a jockey, pushing his horse to the limit, relying on his skills as a writer of horror novels to whip up the reader. The first line: “This is the story of one man’s attempt to deal with a shattering assault from the unknown.” He may as well be Edgar Allan Poe setting the tone for “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The first chapter begins with a lengthy hunk from Dante’s Inferno, and Strieber titles chapter three, “The Color of the Dark,” reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space. This doesn’t infer that the author of The Wolfen perpetuated a fraud, but he knew which sauces to dip in.
The alien abduction phenomenon has become part of our culture’s fabric, and as such, is near the point of saturation. Like film noir, rockabilly, the Grateful Dead, fantasy baseball, and professional wrestling, it went from being an interesting niche market to a bloated, moneymaking, theme parkish gimmick. It's been overwhelmed by a frighteningly large group of people compelled to attend conventions dressed as saucer men. Strieber, meanwhile, has dedicated much of his life to the subject, and has written more books about it. His later work hasn’t matched Communion - not in impact, not in flair - but it would be impossible to recapture what he did in ’87. Now, he presides over a weekly podcast, and where he was once a lone voice in the wilderness, he's now one of many. But imagine him 30 years ago. Let’s say, for the sake of this article, his experiences were real. It's hard to imagine the loneliness Strieber felt as he set out to describe these figures that smelled of moldy cardboard, violated him in ways he never quite describes, and left him uncertain if it was all “a message from the stars, or the booming labyrinth of the mind…”