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The Man Behind the Masks

What do Saturday Night Live’s Land Shark, a seven-foot-tall lobster and the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade all have in common? Their creator: virtuoso theater producer and director Ralph Lee. A mask maker and puppeteer, Lee staged his downtown neighborhood’s first All Hallows’ Eve parade, in 1974, partly as a moving exhibition of his work, enlisting about 200 friends and neighbors (many from the Theater for the New City) to tramp through the streets wearing, wielding and pulling 100 of his creations. These included that NBA player–size lobster (which Lee had constructed for the Patti Smith–Sam Shepard play Cowboy Mouth), a leathery two-headed pig-beast, a 40-foot serpent, a giant wheeled lion and assorted towering masked dandies and floozies. In a 1978 article titled “Confessions of a Grown-Up Trick-or-Treater,” the Greenwich Village–based New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin extolled the free-spirited, participatory nature of the celebration in its early years, when it was still what Lee called “people-sized.” The procession was, Trillin wrote, accompanied by the “sort of music I associate with Brecht plays or a production of Marat/Sade.” Adults and children of the neighborhood spontaneously joined in. “Nobody was overtly in charge,” Trillin noted approvingly, “it simply seemed to happen.” Lee’s costume and staging work for dance and theater companies since the 1960s is highly lauded (he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003), and it made perfect sense for SNL to contract him in the late 1970s to create Chevy Chase’s costume for the utterly ridiculous Land Shark. After all, a costumed individual ringing a doorbell and shouting “Candygram!” is the ultimate trick-or-treater. Since 1976, Lee has also served as artistic director of the Mettawee River Theatre Company, based in Salem, New York, which stages improbably entertaining, bare-bones productions with puppets and masked and unmasked humans in outdoor settings, most exploring origin stories, but occasionally delving into other sources, such as Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. Meanwhile, Lee’s artily goofy homegrown parade became a beloved tradition. The Village Voice characterized the 1977 production as, a “huge and good and happy gathering of all of us, grown-ups and children, men and women, straights and gays, blacks and whites, all the dualities out there, holding off the darkness and the ghosts, and saying Goodbye, Sun, see you next year.” The word was out, and by 1985 an estimated quarter million people descended on the downtown streets, along with police officers and crowd barricades. Spectators far outnumbered participants, and the parade had clearly and vastly outgrown its origins as a performance staged by locals for locals. After 1985’s spectacle, Lee passed the reins for what he deemed the annual “celebration of the individual imagination in all its infinite variety” to Jeanne Fleming, who has run it ever since. Superior Concept Monsters now provides the spectacular large-scale puppets and floats, such as the incandescent luna moths from 1998 and the grand phoenix that rose from the ashes just after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Lee’s crowning achievement may be the annual Procession of the Ghouls, a decidedly pagan ritual set inside the spookily gothic Saint John the Divine since 1990. After a screening of a silent horror movie (The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Nosferatu), during which the cathedral’s organist plays accompaniment, the smoky, dimly lit nave suddenly fills with throbbing cello music—played by a skeleton in the pulpit. One by one, weird, funny and scary creatures step through a screen in front of the altar and creep into the audience. The ghouls prance and wriggle among the patrons (some of whom are costumed); giant spiders climb up and down the columns; a huge skeleton sways down the nave. It’s joyful and intimate—probably something like the good old days of the parade—and like all of Lee’s works, it engages and involves the audience as much as the participants. One of New York’s most jubilant and welcoming Halloween events, it promises to be even more spectacular in 2014, set beneath Xu Bing’s fantastical Phoenix installation. Photo courtesy of zombieite/Flickr CONNECTS_NY-Village-Halloween-Parade

by Amy K. Hughes

Oct 30, 2014

Stephen and James—True Love Always

Leave it to Stephen King to have a bromance with a dead man. The master of horror can’t seem to resist an opportunity to praise James M. Cain, author of such classic crime novels as Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. In an open letter to his fans last year, King quoted Cain to defend the changes CBS had made to his novel Under the Dome when adapting it for television. Apparently, a reporter had bemoaned the changes made to some of Cain’s books when they were adapted into (now iconic) films noir. Pointing to the shelf behind him, Cain replied, “The movies didn’t change them a bit…. Every word is the same as when I wrote them.” And citing the first sentence of Cain’s Postman as exemplary, King once told The Atlantic that the great line “plunges you into a specific time and place.” King’s latest best-seller, Mr. Mercedes, released in June, is as hard-boiled as any Cain tale. King dedicates the novel to him (“Thinking of James M. Cain”) and includes the brilliant opening sentence from Postman: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” King isn’t alone in his praise. “No one has ever stopped reading in the middle of one of Jim Cain’s books,” The Saturday Review of Literature once noted. Literary critic Edmund Wilson touted Cain as the finest of the “poets of the tabloid murder,” and Cain’s current champion, King, has also opined, “Everyone should study him in writing class, instead of the marsh gas they put out for us to admire.” Ironically, what Cain really wanted to do was sing; writing was his “consolation prize” after his mother, a professional opera singer, told him his voice wasn’t good enough. As a young reporter, Cain worked for The New Yorker and H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury, but after deciding he wanted to be a novelist, he realized he couldn’t find his voice in New York. “I couldn’t manage the New York idiom,” he told The Paris Review near the end of his life. “If you can’t write like New York, you have no business living in New York.” In 1931 Cain moved to California, where he mastered the local lingo and, he said, “everything broke for me.” The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain’s breakthrough first novel, was published in 1934. It was a runaway best-seller—and the subject of an obscenity trial in Boston. According to Cain, Postman is the story of “a couple of jerks who discover that murder, though dreadful enough morally, can be a love story, too.” The idea that any person, under the right circumstances, can commit murder is the major theme of Cain’s works. His plots are pretty simple: An easygoing lunkhead falls for a pair of legs and a tight sweater and commits a crime to please this hot number, who eventually betrays him. As Gary Giddens wrote in The Nation, “The real measure of Cain’s kinkiness is not to be found in his standard kill-the-husband plot or the orgasmic glee that accompanies the killings, but in the born-again conviction with which his outlaws stride into hell.” Thirty-five years after his 1977 death, a lost Cain novel, The Cocktail Waitress, was published. The cover featured a quote from Cain’s biggest fan, Stephen King: “A true rarity: a reader’s novel that’s also a literary event.” Mr. Mercedes is King’s 50th novel and his first full-length crime fiction. There is nothing supernatural about Mr. Mercedes, which concerns a retired detective in a race against time to prevent a serial killer from perpetrating another mass murder. It is a taut (for King, anyway) 448-page thriller as tough and brutal as anything from Cain. It’s such an exciting departure that I hope King’s infatuation with the noir style continues. And perhaps the book’s dedication to Cain will bring new readers to his novels. Dialogue like this, from the start of a love scene in Postman, certainly deserves to be read: “I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lip so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.” Photo courtesy of Emilio Flores/Everett SHOP_Mr-Mercedes

by Colin J. Warnock

Oct 29, 2014

Time for Sharxploitation

Are you afraid of sharks? Take a moment to think about it. Sure, the threat posed to landlubbers by a shark attack is nil, and most of the qualities that make sharks apex predators don’t trigger any of our leftover defense mechanisms. But that’s exactly the kind of flippant attitude that would get a secondary character killed in a shark movie. Shark movies, by necessity, fall on the genre spectrum somewhere between animal horror and disaster flick, because without some element of environmental disruption, shark problems are solved easily by, you know, staying out of the water. Sharks don’t generally attack humans unless they’re exhibiting some kind of rogue behavior—you’re more likely to die in a pajama fire incident than from a shark bite. But ever since Jaws, sharks have been popular antagonists. These days, it doesn’t take much for them to devolve from abstract threat to B-movie punch line; the second a dorsal fin pokes out of the water, the camp factor surfaces, too. The wealth of shark movies is somewhat startling. Most feature an orange, grizzled surfer dude and some bikini-clad scream queens. A few choice examples: 2-Headed Shark Attack is a Girls Gone Wild–type summer vacation movie starring Carmen Electra; Shark Night is about a crew of college friends who vacation on a freshwater lake which is SOMEHOW FILLED WITH SHARKS; and Swamp Shark is—can you guess? In this southern-fried film, bikini bottoms are swapped out for daisy dukes, and a drawling sheriff gets chomped by one of those Hollywood sharks that can soar out of the water like an airplane-sized flying fish. Other shark movies attempt (unsuccessfully) to explore more cerebral territory: Deep Blue Sea features a young Samuel L. Jackson as a scientist whose underwater cancer research requires the engineering of super-intelligent sharks [spoiler alert, they rise up]; Bait is an apocalypse scenario in which tsunami survivors are trapped near the ceiling of a flooded, shark-filled supermarket and must escape using only their wits; and Ghost Shark is about a man who is haunted by the shark who killed his fiancée. Literally haunted—the shark is a ghost and can manifest anywhere there’s water. Like, you know, bathtubs or classrooms in which the sprinkler system goes off, making for a shark that is way too abstract to be scary. Oh, and there’s a Ghost Shark 2. And speaking of sequels, in Sharknado 2 they actually jump the shark; not sure what that leaves for the third installment, due out next July. Seriously, who’s green-lighting these things? Are shark movies really this profitable or are sharks just easier to make than other movie monsters? Is it disappointing that sharks are really just doofy sea creatures? The truth is, people want to be afraid of sharks. For them, there is Open Water, a legitimately terrifying shark movie. But for anyone looking for plain old shark schlock this Halloween season, there are quite a few fish in the sharxploitation sea. Photo courtesy of miusam/Flickr CONNECTS_sharks

by Emilie Ruscoe

Oct 28, 2014

Twisting and Turning at the Movies

Not too long after we took a look at films with twist endings in “I Love a Twist!” director David Fincher (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) brought out his dark vision of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel Gone Girl. The popularity of this mystery about a dissatisfied wife’s disappearance and the suspicion cast on her husband goes to show that we never tire of a story that turns upside down, often with a bit of gore thrown in. Gone Girl can be razor-sharp—no pun or spoiler intended—and, at its best, wonderfully, cynically droll. Yet it’s hard to believe that Nick (Ben Affleck, whose handsomely blank expression makes him a perfect cipher) or Amy (serenely beautiful Rosamund Pike) would do the terrible things they do, or are suspected of doing. And that disbelief holds right up until one of the most unsatisfying endings ever tacked onto a meandering story. No such problem with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). It’s easy to see why Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) would be tempted to kill his mom. Just listen to her—actually, him, channeling her—screeching, “I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper!” Who wouldn’t want to get rid of that annoying battle-ax? The twist of this classic thriller, of course, is that the old frump we’ve seen in the window is the corpse of the filially murdered Mrs. Bates—and that she lives on as part of Norman’s split personality. Sure, we all leap out of our skins when Marion’s sister goes down the cellar steps, turns the chair around and discovers that Mrs. Bates is really just a gray wig on a skeleton. We’ve been on edge since that bloody shower scene! But should we really be so surprised? Mama’s boy Norman has given us plenty of clues that he’s up to something weird. Besides, classically speaking, parricide is old hat. The most famous familial murderer of all, of course, is Oedipus. Talk about a twist! The old king discovers he’s unwittingly killed his dad and bedded his mother. So, here’s another question: Without their twists, would we like these stories as much? Of course not. Suppose, for instance, that Marion checks into the Bates Motel and inquires after that quaint old woman in the window. “Oh, that’s Mom,” Norman says. “She’s been dead for years but I keep her around.” To which Marion responds, “Ooh, that’s really creepy. I think I’ll look for a room somewhere down the road. Bye!” In other words, there’d be no movie. Or, how about if tormented little Cole goes to his mom in the opening scene of The Sixth Sense (1999) and says, “I see dead people,” and she says, “Not to worry, honey. I know of a child therapist who’s dead himself but he’s supposed to be great with kids like you.” On the other hand, a really thoughtful film minus the shockers, along the lines of Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), could be made about Marion taking Norman under her wing and healing his psychic wounds. But let’s face it, we moviegoers like our twists with a chill and a thrill. I’d give my real-shocker kudos to the sultry Diabolique (1955) and stylishly intriguing Usual Suspects (1995). To my mind, Gone Girl is too ponderous and self-important to be particularly memorable as a thriller. A slow-burning look at a marriage gone awry, minus the bloodletting, would have been more engaging. Even so, just as we can’t step into a motel shower without thinking of that scene from Psycho, it’s unlikely that anyone who sees Gone Girl will want to get too close to a pal with a box cutter. Photo courtesy of Everett CULTUREMAP_I-Love-A-Twist

by Stephen Brewer

Oct 27, 2014