Scarefest: The Visitor

“Maybe this just isn’t the right time to bring children into this bad, mixed-up world. Some of them are confused: they think that the forces of evil are stronger than the forces of good.” –Jane Phillips (Shelley Winters), in The Visitor

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This article was written as a contribution to Scarefest, a series of pieces by commenters on film website The Dissolve, organized by commenter Miller. The week before it ran, I alerted Miller that I was changing my Scarefest entry to The Visitor, and another commenter asked, “Are you writing about how scary it is that it’s so bugnuts insane?” I assume he was kidding, but my short answer is yes. Yes, I am.

The 1979 film The Visitor, directed by Giulio Paradisi (as “Michael J. Paradise”), has long had a reputation as a hard-to-find cult oddity; after a restoration and rerelease by Drafthouse Films in 2013, it became more widely available on disc and VOD. TCM ran the restored version as part of its “TCM Underground” series last summer, and that’s where I saw it. I didn’t know a lot about it, other than having seen the bizarre trailer Drafthouse put together for it, and knowing that the film was considered extremely weird even among cult horror aficionados. I was prepared to have my mind blown, but I wasn’t prepared for The Visitor to actually be, you know, scary.

The plot isn’t easy to summarize except in broad outlines: businessman Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen) has made a deal with a shadowy organization dedicated to perpetuating the bloodline of an evil alien being referred to as Sateen. His girlfriend Barbara (Joanne Nail) has one child, Katy (Paige Conner), now eight, but Barbara is afraid of Katy and reluctant to have another child. Because of this, the organization pressures Raymond behind the scenes—their plans for world domination require that Katy have a brother—and Katy, in whom Sateen’s influence is already strong, alternately wheedles and punishes her mother for her obstinance. In the mean time, Jerzy (John Huston), the “visitor” of the English title, stalks Katy on behalf of Franco Nero’s character, a Christ-like figure who lives somewhere (in outer space? or is it Heaven?) with a congregation of bald children and who is opposed to Sateen. Is the visitor’s mission to kill Katy or save her? A lot of other stuff happens in the margins, but that’s basically it: a blend of New Age contactee mysticism and 1970s devil-child horror. So far, so good.

I: The Sleep of Reason

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So why did this movie, much of which is absurd on its surface, freak me out? For one thing, the film’s late-‘70s style took me back to my childhood, and not in a good way. I’m just over 40, so my memory of the 1970s is filtered through the subjective haze of being a young child then. The ‘70s were pretty strange to begin with, and even more so when you have no reference for much of the adult world. Much of what was considered “grown-up” moviemaking (and a lot that was aimed at kids) back then was characterized by, to use President Carter’s infamous term, the “malaise” of the time, and for me that resulted in a lot of free-floating unease, even when watching things that were ostensibly light. You just never knew when things were going to take a dark turn. The gauzy, soft-focus cinematography, cheesy cop show music, and swinging suburban styles of The Visitor were all intimately familiar to me, to the point that I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t seen this movie as a kid (I’m still not sure).

My reaction is a subjective one, but is there anything more subjective than fear? Like laughter or arousal, the fear reaction is fundamentally irrational; it can be controlled on the viewer’s part, and there are techniques filmmakers can use to evoke it, but at a base level it touches something that cannot be reasoned with. In my case, that reaction has always been close to the surface: I could hardly watch scary movies or TV shows as a kid, even tame fare like The Twilight Zone, because being afraid or tense wasn’t a pleasant sensation for me like it is for many kids. I was drawn to fantasy, but even something that wasn’t scary at first could come to haunt me, taking on a life of its own as I lay in bed, waiting for sleep, which in many phases of my childhood had its own terrors in the form of realistic nightmares. The Visitor falls flat as a vehicle for ideas or even as a story: too many things happen without explanation, there are abrupt tonal shifts and weird distortions of sound and image, and it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. But is that not an accurate description of a dream?

In dreams, anything can happen, and ordinary events and objects can be invested with emotional power greater than they have while awake. The very first scene, a (possibly allegorical) confrontation between Katy and Jerzy in a gold-lit field, is overtly surreal, and typical of the over-the-top visual flourishes in the movie’s more fantastic sections. As Katy approaches, thick snowflakes swirl around and stick to her face; eventually, only her eyes are visible. It’s spooky, like something from Altered States or Ridley Scott’s Legend (Scott also came to mind later in the film when the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta are seen through a smoky haze, like the future Los Angeles of Blade Runner).

But the first scene that really threw me is relatively mundane: at her birthday party, Katy eagerly opens a box which was supposed to contain a mechanical bird purchased by her aunt in an earlier scene. Through Sateen’s power (or something), the box contains a gun, which Katy excitedly waves around and then tosses onto the couch, where it goes off and hits Barbara in the back. Katy shrugs, like, “oops?” Barbara spends the rest of the movie in a wheelchair, paralyzed by a bullet to the spine. It’s a crazy scene, but part of its nightmare power is how casually it occurs, and the mismatch of typical “suspense” build-up with gleefully committed violence that literally comes out of nowhere.

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Later, after Barbara has recovered and started getting back to a normal life, she is stranded with Katy while driving at night. A semi truck, of which we can only see the lights, pulls up on the side of the road in front of their car. Barbara is worried, and Katy openly mocks her fear. Barbara is right to be afraid: the truck is a mobile operating room, and after she is rendered unconscious agents of the conspiracy artificially inseminate her to speed up their plan. The imagery is straight out of an alien abduction report: stranded motorists, lost time, the dim memory of an operation (I suspect that it is this sequence, and a few scenes of glowing lights in the sky, that led to criticism of The Visitor as a knock-off of Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and a surprise pregnancy.

Upon discovering her condition, Barbara goes to her ex-husband (played by Sam Peckinpah!) and pleads with him to help her get an abortion. When she returns home from that operation (still in her wheelchair), Katy savagely attacks her. No pretenses now! And again, the sudden eruption of violence, while motivated by character and plot, is surprising in its intensity. Even Damien usually cloaked his actions in the plausible deniability of a “freak accident.”

II. The Sound of Nightmare

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The Visitor’s Italian title, Stridulum, is appropriate: Latin for “whizzing or hissing,” and surviving in English in the word “stridulation,” for the buzzing sound insects make by scraping their legs together, it’s a clue to how important sound is in The Visitor. Both Sateen and his enemy (a spaceship-flying “Commander Yahweh”—shades of Chariots of the Gods!), have birds as an important part of their back story; Katy keeps a hawk called Squeaky who obviously represents her diabolical heritage and with whom she communicates, and the visitor summons a flock of birds during the climax of the film to scourge Katy of Sateen’s influence (I think). I suspect that birds are so important to The Visitor because they’re a convenient artsy symbol for the soul, and also because, post-Hitchcock, birds are creepy. Either way, the soundtrack is full of echoing, distorted screeches and bird calls (in addition to analog synthesizer sounds—another skin-crawling part of my childhood—and the aforementioned funky cop show music). Whenever Katy is about to use her psychic powers (as at the birthday party), we hear the eagle cry, or see a glimpse of Squeaky, or both.

Then there’s the mechanical bird that was supposed to be in the box: it’s a gold and blue knick-knack that says “I’m a pretty bird” in a synthesized drone, followed by a whine of feedback, on a constant loop. Even in the first scene, when Katy’s aunt buys it, I’m not sure how anyone could hear that and think of the bird as anything other than a prop in a horror movie. Later, when a detective (Glenn Ford!) is trying to figure out where the gun at the party came from, he finds the bird and takes it with him in his car. It’s still talking as he drives his car down the freeway with it on the passenger seat. “I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo * I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo * I’m a pretty bird * wee-ooo,” et cetera, until Squeaky attacks the detective and he drives the car off the road, where it bursts into flame before he can escape. Squeaky strikes again!

Sound also plays a role in the scariest scene in the film, the scene that I actually had to turn off for a few minutes to get myself together before I could finish watching it: early in the film, Katy is shown playing Pong on a big-screen TV, hidden by the chair in which she is sitting. The electronic blip of the game is the counterpoint to the conversation she has with her mother. Much later in the film, after Katy has been institutionalized for her violent behavior, Barbara returns home to her empty house and hears: blip . . . blip . . . blip. The game is turned on, Katy is in her chair. After Katy’s brutal attacks, just her presence in the house again is scary, but the whole sequence following is . . . well, it scared the hell out of me, but it is also much stranger than anything I’ve described yet, so I won’t spoil it.

III. All in the Family

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Paige Conner doesn’t look like she’s eight years old in this movie: maybe ten. It could be that she’s big for her age or I could just chalk it up to the precocity of child actors. In any case, her Katy Collins is a miniature tyrant, controlling and profane. Her poor mother is constantly put-upon, and her would-be stepfather mostly stays out of her way. Even when Katy’s words are pleading, her tone is commanding or threatening. Only Jerzy and a suspicious housekeeper (Shelley Winters) really see her for what she is, but take opposite approaches to dealing with her.

By coincidence, I had an older sister who would have been about Katy’s age in 1979, and while she wasn’t the holy terror that Katy is in the movie, I’m sure it affected my reception of this movie. The trappings of a late ‘70s girlhood cheek-by-jowl with the freaky events of the movie was unsettlingly close to my childhood nightmares and brought to the surface more anxiety than I realized I still carried with me.

Domestic abuse was an issue that got a lot of attention in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, as if the lid had finally come off a closely-held secret and now everyone was free to sort it out in public. I’m fortunate that I didn’t grow up with firsthand experience of family violence, but it was something I became aware of thanks to the new openness about it. Nowadays, when I hear about Mommie Dearest at all, it’s as a camp classic: “No more wire hangers, ever!” et cetera. It wasn’t funny to me as a kid, however: Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford terrified me. I might have chosen that movie for Scarefest, except I haven’t gone back to watch it since then.

The Visitor pushes some of the same buttons for me. I’m not kept up at night by its cosmic battle of good and evil, or the slow-motion mayhem, or even the bird attacks: those are par for the course with science fiction and horror movies. I enjoy that stuff. What really shocked and disturbed me was the sudden eruption of violence in otherwise very mundane settings, worst of all between family members. For such an unreal movie, it feels an awful lot like someone’s issues being laid bare.

Now that I’m an adult, I see my childhood anxieties from the other side: my daughter is eight years old. I love her. She’s a good kid. But even in the best of relationships there are moments: children can be shockingly amoral and single-minded about getting what they want. As a parent, it’s natural to wonder about and be frustrated by those moments, and fearful not of our children but for them. I’m also not proud to admit that there are moments I feel like Shelley Winters’ Jane, just wanting to slap some respect into the “bad” kids. Is that what this genre of horror boils down to? Is that the root of The Bad Seed and The Good Son and “It’s a Good Life” and The Omen and all the rest? Is it simply the recognition that children can be brats, taken to the nth degree?

Possibly. But I think it’s more general than that: even the people closest to us have sides to them that are unknown to us. They share our lives and homes, but their thoughts are no more visible to us than those of strangers halfway around the world. The Visitor taps into the fear that we don’t really know the people around us: the “Visitor” could be a stranger, or someone we’ve known our whole lives.

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Stop! In the Name of Motion

Speaking of stop motion animation, my son, who is three and a half years old, has recently discovered the stop motion masterpieces of the late Ray Harryhausen: Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans. I had purchased a tribute issue of Famous Monsters with some of Harryhausen’s iconic creations on the cover, and my son started asking about them.  I explained the technique of stop motion animation—taking hundreds, sometimes thousands of successive pictures of slightly adjusted models, creating the illusion of motion when projected in sequence—always being clear that they were models, like toys, not real.  As fascinated as he is by monsters—he’s a boy, after all, and before Harryhausen he was curious about the Godzilla movies I had lying around, and of course we have lots of discussions about dinosaurs—I wanted to make sure he could draw a distinction between creatures of fantasy like the Kraken and real but extinct animals like Tyrannosaurus rex.  Overprotective?  Perhaps, but I remember being kept awake at night by fears of the giant ants from Them!, and at an older age than my son is now.  If I give him nightmares, I’ll hear about it from his mother.

Famous Monsters cover by Terry Wolfinger

Famous Monsters cover by Terry Wolfinger

From my explanation it was a short leap to hunting for clips on YouTube and the excellent documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan on Netflix, which explained Harryhausen’s methods better than I could and held my son’s attention for a good twenty to thirty minutes at a stretch (the documentary is feature-length: we watched it in installments).  For a few weeks after, my son would ask about the “model movies” and we would watch a scene or two from Clash of the Titans, the only Harryhausen movie I have on disc.

Harryhausen is nostalgic to me for a few reasons.  I remember seeing Clash of the Titans when it was new in 1981, at the downtown movie palace that would close a few years later, replaced by the four-screen “multiplex” at the mall.  The mythological references went over my head, but I’ll never forget the terrifying and fascinating Medusa and its gruesome death scene. Even more than that memory, I associate Harryhausen with holidays: most of his movies I saw on television during Thanksgiving or Christmas breaks, probably counterprogrammed against football games in those days when cable TV meant having a few dozen channels instead of hundreds.

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I’ve previously indicated my obsession with animation and effects as a kid.  Any time there was a behind-the-scenes show about movie special effects, I was there.  The best parts of these shows were often clips of other projects the filmmakers had a hand in, the kind of thing that was unlikely to show up on TV by itself.  For example, I knew who Phil Tippett was because of his involvement with Star Wars and the big special effects movies that followed in the 1980s, but I was never able to get more than a glimpse of personal projects like Prehistoric Beast, from 1984. Unless they were part of a film festival showing or I was lucky enough to catch them on Night Flight or MTV, there wasn’t much I could do to track them down in those days.

A number of speakers in the Special Effects Titan documentary comment on stop motion’s “dreamlike” quality.  That’s a polite way of saying it doesn’t look real, but realism wasn’t exactly the point.  To my knowledge, Harryhausen never proposed replacing human actors with stop motion likenesses in the same way computer graphics have been put forward as a “fix” for aging actors or a replacement for the long-dead.  There is something mysterious about the sometimes-jerky movements of stop motion; even when done by a master like Harryhausen, it has a certain distinctive “look.” Along with other film tricks like rear projection and altered film speed, the ratcheted movements of stop motion are burned into my mind as a filmic style that isn’t “real” but is aesthetically gripping.  As a less obvious example, Dragonslayer’s composite landscapes, with their fast-rushing clouds, heightened lighting, and blend of full-size and miniature models, are just as artificial as the computer-assembled Middle Earth of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, but I still cherish them.  Perhaps it’s simply the density of elements that are brought together that grabs me.

I don’t hold that traditional stop motion is superior to computer graphic animation because of its difficult and time-consuming nature: that line of thinking is to my mind a moral rather than an aesthetic argument.  The goal of either technique should be involvement in the story rather than calling attention to itself.   If we accept the premise that film—all film, from The Great Train Robbery forward—contains shifts of viewpoint that were once associated with either dreams or godlike omniscience—the ability to jump from one point in space to another, to cut between views—then CG’s ability to create images purely from light and numbers represents the culmination of cinema’s potential: it is of a piece with all effects work that has come before.  If cinema would continue to be vital, why cut off any avenue of development?

Of course CG is understandably used to save time and money, and sometimes by filmmakers who have more of both than they have imagination.  If anything it’s the low barrier to entry that has given CG such a bad rap; nevertheless, a bad film is a bad film.  I will say I prefer practical effects for their sense of heft and reality in space, and I appreciate the level of craftsmanship and dedication that handmade filmmaking shows off, but I wouldn’t deny that those can be qualities of CG. Perhaps the joy of practical effects work is in the ingenuity with which filmmakers solved problems; it could be the “personal touch,” sensing the involvement of an animator handling a model (like the marks left in King Kong’s fur by Willis O’Brien) or dragging a brush across a cel.

Ultimately the effectiveness of special effects lies not only in their execution but in how they are used—how effects shots are framed, how they are built up to and cut away from through editing, and their function within the story.  Jurassic Park, still a landmark of CG effects after more than twenty years, looks better than many CG films made last year simply because of the care with which Steven Spielberg and his crew combined CG with models and other practical effects, edited seamlessly together to create an illusion of reality.  Conversely, a carelessly executed effect will look crummy and take the viewer out of the film whether it’s CG or practical.

One reason traditional stop motion looks eerie compare to actual moving objects on film is the uncanny clarity of each frame: when live motion is filmed, there’s a slight blur as the actor or object is caught in motion while the shutter is open.  Animators have ways of getting around that (even in hand-drawn animation), introducing more naturalistic blur after the effect (or even in-camera, through a process dubbed “go motion”).  Nowadays, CG can be used to smooth out the inconsistencies and simulate the blur of motion even when models are still animated by hand (such films as Coraline and Paranorman are examples of this hybrid style).

As it happens, The Lego Movie, which I wrote about enthusiastically last time, is animated almost completely in CG rather than stop motion, but the constraints of animating a world made (almost) completely out of Lego bricks lead to some interesting results.  In an interview with fxguide, CG Supervisor Aidan Sarsfield of Animal Logic (the studio that animated The Lego Movie) spoke of the filmmakers’ desire to “stay true to the medium” of Lego, treating it very much as if it were a stop motion film on a real Lego set (albeit one of huge scale and complexity).  The CG bricks were treated as rigid: there was no stretching or distortion, and the only movement was at points of articulation.  Even effects that are generally ephemeral or subject to fading (such as flames, laser beams, smoke, explosions, and moving water) were virtually “built” out of bricks or other Lego pieces, which were “binary”—either there or not there.  Sarsfield describes the process by which colors or brick sizes could be cycled through to give the impression of fading clouds of smoke or moving waves; the effect is unlike anything I’ve seen, and more to the point most of it could by recreated in actual bricks and animated by hand (even though it would probably take forever).

Sarsfield also noted that very little motion blur was used, giving most of the action a staccato feel similar to old-school animation. For extreme fast motion, however, the animators devised a technique for what they called “brick blur:”

Brick blur was created by a little strip of bricks. The colors of the character matched the string of bricks but the silhouette was defined as if someone has structured the motion blur with bricks.

I previously mentioned how much I enjoy the abstraction of animation, especially stop motion.  In this case, the squared-off forms of Lego bricks and minifigures are matched perfectly by the jumpy, ratcheted motion of the animation style. (It’s worth noting that the Lego characters’ faces are smoothly animated—there are limits to abstraction, after all.) Subtleties like “brick blur” and the audacity of (for example) an entire surging sea made of constantly shifting Lego bricks are great examples of filmmakers exploiting the unique aspects of their medium to create something truly novel; and the end result shows how computers can be used without losing the handmade qualities that made the project appealing in the first place.  Aidan Sarsfield mentions that the animators knew they had been successful when the first trailers appeared and audiences couldn’t tell whether stop motion or CG had been used; I wouldn’t be surprised if The Lego Movie inspires another generation of animators and model makers.

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Lego House on the Prairie

I saw The Lego Movie this weekend, and I loved it.  This isn’t a review, and I won’t spoil anything, although I will direct you to Charlie Jane Anders’ review at io9 and its (accurate, in my view) contention that a successful genre spoof must authentically partake of the genre it sends up (in this case, the summer blockbuster and the hackneyed “chosen one” motif).

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Like all the recent movies based on beloved toys, The Lego Movie is at least partly pitched toward the nostalgia center of viewers’ brains.  Sure, I played with Lego bricks as a child, and still enjoy them now that I have my own children to provide cover. If that were all there were to it, however, I doubt I would have reacted so strongly to the film; the other Lego spin-off video games and cartoons I’ve seen are entertaining, but not profound.  No, what I feel compelled to explore is how successful the film is at building an elaborate world out of familiar components, and its connection to the student films and music videos that did the same thing with toys when I was a kid.

The idea of toys (or other inanimate objects) coming to life is hardly new, of course: before the Toy Story movies there was Corduroy and The Velveteen Rabbit and Raggedy Ann, back to the fantasies of E. T. A. Hoffmann and beyond.  In all likelihood we could trace it all the way back to the idea of “household gods” and the pervasive spirits of pantheistic animism, or perhaps the unity of self and environment in earliest infancy.  In any case, that’s not really my point; what connects my memory of playing with Lego bricks to the new movie (and makes it successful at driving its themes home) is the constructive nature of Lego: all imaginative play gives back only what you put into it, but Lego is explicitly open-ended.  Since the first bricks were produced in 1949, every piece is part of a compatible system and can be connected together in some way.  That’s the first prong of the movie: the pleasure of digging up and recombining the different “worlds” Lego has produced over the years (including some “deep cuts” like Fabuland).

The second prong of the movie’s appeal is how this world is set in motion cinematically.  As a kid, I was obsessed with stop motion animation: my first exposure was probably on shows like Sesame Street, which, among its many other virtues, was often a showcase for inventive (and sometimes downright experimental) film.  The Carmen-singing orange was one I remember (although I had forgotten the rubbery ‘70s-era synth soundtrack, another element that connects it to many childhood memories):

Obviously, there’s a lot more where that came from.

What remains captivating about many of these little films is their handmade quality, and their use of everyday objects: toys, food, utensils.  As with furnishing dollhouses, creating dioramas, or assembling Rube Goldberg-like marble slides (think of the game Mousetrap!), there is an obvious pleasure in the handicraft involved in the creation of a tiny world, playing God on a child’s scale.  When given the illusion of movement, it made it easy to imagine the ordinary objects I saw all the time having a secret life when I wasn’t around, both tapping into and feeding that sense of domestic enchantment alluded to above.

It also made it look easy to get into the game: I recently discovered this short Super 8 film, made in 1980, and starring 12-year old Stefano Paganini’s Lego collection:

It’s rough—I know I wouldn’t have been able to do any better at that age—but it has the same sense of play that the makers of The Lego Movie explore on a grand scale.

It’s the limitations of Lego—where they can fit together, the articulation points of the minifigures—that give it character and provide something for the filmmakers—for whom there are practically no limits anymore with the use of computers—to bump against.  As Brian Eno wrote in 1995 (published in A Year with Swollen Appendices),

Whatever you find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature.  CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.

Eno was mostly speaking of audio formats, but his prescient words have also proven true for visual styles.

The aesthetic qualities of Lego—abstracting familiar shapes into a grid, designed as “bricks” but able to approximate all kinds of shapes—are something that every child encounters one way or another.  Although Lego has introduced many angled and curved pieces to its arsenal, it’s the jagged sawtooth of the square pieces arranged in stair-step fashion that is still an essential part of Lego’s “look.”

Eno mentions 8-bit sound; I think the abstraction Lego encouraged was a reason I was similarly fascinated with the blocky graphics of the the video games that emerged in the late 1970s; just as with the stop motion videos that appeared to bring Lego bricks or candy to life, Space Invaders and Pong gave movement—controlled by the player!—to simple, even primal, geometric shapes.  I was so fascinated by this level of abstraction that I would practice breaking down pictures into their component pixels using graph paper.  I even briefly took up cross-stitching because it looked to me like video game graphics; the only tangible proof of that brief flirtation that I left behind was a sample sheet with a few segments of the Centipede from the game of the same name, rendered in cross-stitch.

I’m reminded of Norman Brosterman’s book Inventing Kindergarten and its thesis that the first generation of twentieth-century modernists were shaped in early childhood by the highly abstracted geometric play that was a core component of nineteenth-century kindergarten. As developed by founder Friedrich Froebel in the 1830s and ‘40s, the geometric elements of kindergarten were centered around the series of about twenty “gifts,” playthings that were meant to introduce primary forms—the sphere, the cube, the cone, for example—and encourage young children to model aspects of the real world in a progression of graduated complexity.  Architect Frank Lloyd Wright would later credit Froebel’s system for developing his spatial faculties, but he was far from the only one.  According to Brosterman,

During the system’s heyday—roughly the half century before World War I—Frank Lloyd Wright was merely one of millions of people, including most of the so-called “form-givers” of the modern era who were indoctrinated, in effect, programmed, by the spiritual geometry of the early kindergarten.

Brosterman’s book is full of pictures juxtaposing nineteenth-century kindergarten projects made by small children with artwork made by adults of the same generation years later. The comparisons are suggestive, to say the very least.

From Norman Brosterman's Inventing Kindergarten

From Norman Brosterman’s Inventing Kindergarten

In addition to the Froebel gifts, there were also “occupations,” which consisted of paper, string, and clay, media that could be used to create finished projects.  Brosterman quotes American kindergarten leader W. N. Hailmann as describing the distinction between gifts and occupations:

The gift gives the child a new cosmos, the occupation fixes the impressions made by the gift.  The gift invites only arranging activities; the occupation invites also controlling, modifying, transforming, creating activities.  The gift leads to discovery; the occupation, to invention.  The gift gives insight; the occupation, power.

Without wishing to overstate the case, Lego bricks descend from the same progressive concept of early childhood development as a process of discovery and mastery, and lend themselves to a similar kind of abstraction of the real world.

Duplo.house

Interestingly, the debt Wright and other modernists owe to Froebel’s kindergarten, as described by Brosterman, has not been lost on modern educators and toy makers (in this context “toy” may sound dismissive, but it’s relevant: Milton Bradley, for example, was an important U. S. maker of Froebel gifts).  Froebel USA now makes a “Prairie House Block Set” of abstract building blocks, both a tribute to the credit Wright gave to the Froebel system and, in all likelihood, an appeal to parents who might hope for a similar start for their own children.

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And while Lego has expanded its original system of interlocking blocks to include very young children with its Duplo blocks, it’s also moved in the other direction with its “Architecture” line aimed at teenage and adult model-builders.  Detailed Lego versions of real-life architectural masterpieces, including some by Frank Lloyd Wright, are available as kits.  (Here’s a more detailed description of the Prairie-style Robie House model shown below.)  With the Architecture line, the emphasis is on faithful recreation, but the pieces are just as compatible with the Lego system as any other.  That’s the beauty of it: whether following the instructions or building freely, it’s all up to you.  That’s a core component of Lego that The Lego Movie gets.

LEGO-Architecture-21010-Robie-House

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Four

You can read Parts One, Two and Three here, here and here.

In the foreword to the trade paperback edition of her late husband’s magnum opus Squadron Supreme, Catherine Gruenwald writes,

Mark always liked when I read his work, and he waited until the exact right time to unleash this particular story upon me.  In 1993, I was conveniently laid up for a week recovering from a minor surgical procedure, and he quietly decided this was the perfect time.  It did make the most of my captive-audience status, but it also made the recuperating process more pleasant as I breezed through each issue, especially without the usual wait between installments experienced by readers who caught it the first time out.  I thought about all those kids who read through stacks of comic books as they suffered through weeks of broken-leg mending and measles bouts.  Mark saw to it that I came into fandom the way others of our generation had!

My version of that experience came when I was in seventh grade and contracted Legionnaire’s disease.  I was hospitalized for two weeks and was significantly weakened by the illness.  I couldn’t talk or laugh too much without suffering coughing fits, and even getting up to walk around left me winded.  In the hospital I was in an oxygen tent and took treatments by inhalation at regular intervals, even during the night. (Incidentally, whatever the phrase “night nurse” might suggest to you, my experience didn’t live up to it.)  Although I wouldn’t recommend that method of immersion, I have one fond memory of that period thanks to a timely gift from my grandparents: The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, edited by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams, which I devoured between treatments and brief visits from friends.

Smithsonian.newspaper

My mother’s parents had enabled my comics addiction quite a bit over the years: A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics had been a birthday gift the previous year (they lived in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., so I received a lot of Smithsonian-themed gifts), and they always saved the color Sunday comics sections from the Washington Post for my sister and me to read when we visited.  The Post carried more and newer comic strips than my hometown paper, so I had the inside track on stuff like The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, and would try to describe these creative, mind-blowing works of art to my sometimes skeptical friends.  When those comics were picked up by the Pittsburg (Kansas) Morning Sun, their first daily installments invariably underwhelmed my friends.  The first Far Side to run in my hometown was, I think, the “Thor’s hammer, screwdriver, and crescent wrench” panel that even Gary Larson couldn’t explain.  Others, like Bloom County, were never carried in my hometown paper at all.

Gary Larson's plot to destroy my credibility, Exhibit A

Gary Larson’s plot to destroy my credibility, Exhibit A

The boundaries between newspaper comics and comic books were quite porous, both historically and in my experience.  I started off reading the newspaper strips from a young age, the kid-oriented ones like Winnie the Pooh at first, gradually expanding my range until I was even reading the soap-opera strips, grown-up adventures, and even the political cartoons on the editorial page.  I enjoyed the adventures of time-traveling caveman Alley Oop, and the globetrotting fisticuffs of Captain Easy, another legacy from the comic strips’ Depression-era golden age. Paperback collections of favorites like Peanuts, The Family Circus, and Garfield were among the first books I owned.  By seventh grade, I was serious about reading and collecting comic books, but I still read the newspaper strips and I was starting to think of myself as a student of the medium.  According to my parents, I even asked for the daily paper while I was in the hospital, so I could keep up (I don’t remember that, but I admit it sounds like me).

The best stories in the Smithsonian collection, adventures like the “Plunder Island” saga in Thimble Theatre (the home of Popeye), delivered the same combination of thrills, humor and pathos that I associated with movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  In hindsight it’s obvious why: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were Baby Boomers, born in the mid-‘40s, rather than children of the Depression, but they obviously shared a love for movie serials and pulp novels and channeled the same sense of wonder and excitement into their original creations.  And they fit into a larger pattern: the years in which I grew up, the 1970s and ‘80s, were the crest of a wave of interest in the popular culture of the 1930s and ‘40s.  In addition to homages like Indiana Jones that hearkened back to the pulp era, the original characters from magazines, comic books and strips, radio shows, and serials were being repackaged for modern audiences or brought back to life in new formats: during my childhood there were big screen or TV adaptations of Conan the Barbarian, Popeye, Flash Gordon, Little Orphan Annie, and Buck Rogers, not to mention the ever-present superheroes whose roots went back to the same time period.  There was even a Doc Savage movie, although I’ll admit I haven’t seen it.

Whether I enjoyed the strips because I had been prepared by the resurgence of Depression-era culture or would have enjoyed them for their own sake without being primed is beside the point.  It was, I felt, material I needed to read, and that I encountered at the right time: it was the real stuff.  The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics fit my adolescent concept of reading as mastery perfectly: I was old enough to take the book seriously, reading it cover to cover, including the informative but not too academic prose accompanying the strips, but I was young and unoccupied enough to lose myself completely in the detailed artwork and the lengthy excerpts from Thimble Theatre, Mickey Mouse, and Dick Tracy.

Perhaps that’s the best explanation for the obsessions that grip us in the early teen years: what else did I have going on? Like those bedridden kids Catherine Gruenwald alludes to, I was in an ideal environment to be completely absorbed by my reading.  All my needs were taken care of.  Everything was new to me, so I had a greater tolerance for the lulls that beset any collection than I do now: back then, even the boring parts contributed to the overall design, set the baseline against which I judged the really superior stuff.  Now I have children of my own, and even when I have the time to read deeply it’s harder to access the state of complete absorption that I experienced then.  There are just too many other things occupying my mind; that’s the condition of adulthood.

thimbletheatre

The New Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Stories, edited by Bob Callahan, was published a few years ago, a follow-up to Barrier and Williams’ volume.  I eventually purchased it, but I haven’t read the whole thing.  In part it’s because I’m already more familiar with the territory it covers, from the 1960s to the present, and I’ve read more of the stories that it reprints.  It could be the mixed-up pages, an off-putting production error that makes the book less authoritative than was obviously hoped.  Perhaps the sheer variety of comics that have been created since the 1960s make it more difficult for any one book to be comprehensive.  But it’s also because of that difficulty of finding time and recapturing youthful engagement that I’ve alluded to.  I’ll pick it up, read a few pages, and put it back on the shelf.  Even if I read every page, it won’t be with the kind of rapt attention I gave the two previous Smithsonian books.  And that’s okay: one of the chief pleasures of the anthology, and one I haven’t put nearly enough focus on, is the freedom to browse, to pick and choose, to be selective.  It isn’t a novel or a textbook that needs to be read in sequence, even though I, like many youthful readers, would treat it that way.

I recall my mother sitting in the hospital room with me, keeping watch, and the realization of what my illness must have been like for my parents hits home in a way that didn’t even occur to me before I had kids (according to my parents, the scariest part was not having a diagnosis for the first week of my hospitalization).  My mother would read too, usually a mystery novel, along with crossword puzzles and cross-stitching: there wasn’t much else to do.  My father would come during visiting hours, but he confirmed that he, also, would read during his down time, sitting in our empty house.  It sounds lonely, and maybe a little scary, but it was actually comforting: that’s kind of the way it was at home when we were together anyway, separated by our different reading but joined by a common activity.  The books that comforted me weren’t the same as my parents’ books; I’ve encouraged my children to read, and to read comics, but I won’t insist that they read the same books I treasured.  I hope they will, but it’s more important that, like me, they find the books they need, when they need them.

(Continue to Part Five)