Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Toronto's First Moving Picture Show

I recently went up to Toronto for something called a "development incubator," which is less biological than it sounds. This was a movie development incubator, we weren't splicing genes or creating life or anything. It was exciting to see one of my screenplays in development, even if the odds of a screenplay actually emerging as a fully formed film are still as infinitesimal as hatching an Indominus Rex.

On the very first day of this incubator thing, I totally by accident walked by an extremely exciting and informative historic plaque:

Toronto's First Moving Picture Show

I'd been wanting to do a little more research on this fascinating new discovery, but kept putting it off. But seeing as how today is Canada Day and all, I reckoned there's no time like today to figure out what exactly this is all about.

Let's start with the basics. The plaque says:

On August 31st, 1896, a series of films running less than a minute each was projected from a "Vitascope"invented by Thomas Edison at Robinson's Musee Theatre on this site. On the next day, the Toronto World reported that "... the machine projects apparently living figures and scenes on a canvas screen... It baffles analysis and delights immense audiences." Known as a Dime Museum (admission was ten cents), Robinson's Musee has opened in December 1890 and featured jugglers, magicians, and aerialists; a curio shop and waxworks on the second floor and an animal menagerie on the roof. The building changed hands several times, eventually becoming, in 1899, the first location of Shea's Theatre (later situated on Bay Street). It was destroyed by fire in 1905.

The site in question, it bears mentioning, is the southeast corner of Yonge and Adelaide Streets. (You can find the exact coordinates here.)

Now I freaked out a little bit when I saw this plaque because it manages to combine so many of my favorite things in one slab of granite: old time moving pictures, Dime Museums, the nascent years of the film industry, and yes, Canada. Without Canada, we'd have no Mary Pickford or Marie Dressler, and at least one of my screenplays would never have been written (it's a high concept comedy that has them solving murder mysteries, it's great... and yet-to-be-optioned, FYI!). Incidentally, the website Toronto Plaques is amazing; it'll also lead you straight to a Mary Pickford plaque if you want to make a day of it.

A little more research yielded this little bit of insight about the Vitagraph's earliest uses in Canada, from the website Kinema, a superb resource from the University of Waterloo:

"The sole right for exhibiting the Vitascope in Canada was secured by the Holland brothers of Ottawa, as agents for Raff and Gammon, the American Vitascope promoters. The scheme devised for marketing called for the selling of franchises of Thomas Armat's Vitascope (not Edison's, since Armat had allowed Raff and Gammon to use the Edison label strictly for commercial expediency). For an initial advance payment, an agent could purchase the exclusive rights to the Vitascope for a state or group of states giving the person [or persons] the right to lease projectors (for US $25 to $50 monthly per machine) and buy, of course, Edison films. The manner and location of the exhibitions were left entirely to the franchise holder. Agents could exploit the Vitascope themselves, or, as Raff and Gammon repeatedly pointed out in their correspondence, the territories could be further divided or sub-franchised."

I like the way this site gives credit to Thomas Armat for the Vitascope. (I guess it's too much for one historical plaque to get into!)

Robinson's had high aspirations to be a museum of the first water, with "nothing cheap except the prices:"

Something new in the line of amusements will be opened to the Toronto public on Wednesday next. The buildings at 91 and 93 Yonge street have been fitted up for Robinson's Musee Theatre. The entrance leads to the second floor, on which is a large hall containing wax works and tableaux, on the third floor is the art gallery, stereopticon views and curio halls, and on the fourth or top floor is the menagerie of living wild animals, aquarium and aviary. From the top floor the public will pass downstairs in the rear of the building to the theatre on the ground floor. The hall is being fitted handsomely and will have seating capacity for several hundred people... The theatrical attractions will be of high order and will be kept free from anything of objectionable character.

(The source Kinema credits for this quote is the Globe, Dec. 1, 1890, p. 8.)

The Toronto Daily Mail, December 2, 1890

 According to Kinema, the introduction of the Vitascope was all part of Robinson's plan to make the "Musee" seem fancy: the Vitascope, of course, was at the forefront of science and technology, educational, and edifying. I mean, come on, it "baffled analysis!"

Kinema has only teeny, tiny picture of what Robinson's Musee looked like:

Robinson's Musee at 91-93 Yonge Street

No word on the critical reaction of Torontonians to these initial short films, but I can only deduce from what the city has become that the moving pictures grew on them. (Admittedly, I am running out toe enjoy that other great Canadian pastime of drinking a few cold ones, so I don't have any more time for this post. But if you have any info, I'm all ears.)

So there you have it. My little bit of Canadiana on this fine July 1st!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Return of Spinster Aunt

Well, well! Just like old times!

It's been a while. In fact, it's been over a year since I updated this old girl. I've enjoyed just now going back and reading some out-of-date reader comments ("Your blog post on this topic is stunningly stupid").

Lately I've been blogging more over at Boroughs of the Dead, where I mostly write about macabre NYC history. Still, there are a host of other brilliant thoughts burning in my brain that I've got to share just for fun, and now that ALL OF Murder She Wrote is on Netflix, well! You can imagine I've been thinking up some pretty exciting blog post ideas (J.B. Fletcher-inspired fashion shoot, that's the first one).

And then there's Maude.

No really. I'm also watching Maude! (Note to self: possible blog post title = Their Eyes Were Watching Maude.)

It's been a busy year for me. Besides ramping up business over at BotD HQ, I've also been slogging my way through my first adult-length novel, a ghost story. (Writing, not reading. I have read a whole novel written for grown ups before, I promise.)

I was unsure as to whether I should continue to blog here at all, what with being busy and grown up and all. But you never know when I'll want to unleash some stunning stupidity on the world. Also, would you want to live in a world without my remarks on Dale Carnegie, the Hams and Jams catalog, and whatever this is?

Reading through my old posts -- which are hilarious, by the way, I don't care if you're not supposed to praise yourself, fuck it, they're error-riddled and bizarre and terrible but also insane and entertaining and funny -- it occurs to me how long it's been since I wrote anything for FUN. Remember fun? It's a thing I used to do when I had regular employment, before I became an "entrepreneuse" and suddenly every hour that I wasn't working was an hour I wasn't making money. (Money, it turns out, is a thing you need to survive.) Writing for me now has become sort of joyless -- I just used the word SLOG for god's sake -- and it took rifling through blog posts from 2009 to see how emotionally downtrodden I've become.

It's like Harold Diddlebock says: "Maybe they were right to fire me. I've gone soft. Your mind gets dull after twenty years working the same job, taking the same train every day, sitting at the same desk doing the same work, taking the same route home again."

So fuck it. Prepare for an onslaught of my nonsense, misuse of commas and the word "frankly," cryptic remarks apparently ungrounded in reality, and a host of other idiocies. Also be prepared that this blog might veer toward the personal, with less carefully curated quirkiness (oh, I'm on to you, Circa-2009 Spinster Aunt!) and "information" (though I will continue to assiduously post monkey-related news items... and gorilla-related news items). I just want to regain the joy in writing that I lost somewhere along the way. Before I started thinking of writing as a thing that had to be done, as an assignment. Something to sell. Something to be reviewed. A thing to be bought. One endless to-do list.

Professional writers sit down at their computer every day and write, they say! Yes, but.... that can't be all there is to it, can there? All I know is I used to enjoy this more.

Now all this isn't to say that I am not capable of writing any more. If anything, I've gotten better at my craft, more skilled, more polished, gone to more profound levels in my work. This is all true. (Especially if you're reading this and you're an agent or an editor. Then it's doubly true, I'm amazing.) But I sort of lost the.... nonsense of it. And that was the thing I really used to love. The sense of wonder, of "being puzzled at what we do not know.”

I need to get back to this. I need to bring some genuine wackiness back to my creative life. I need to have more foot-care-and-Maude nights with my funniest friend. (The health of your feet is so important, I can't stress that enough.) I need to remember the thing that I forgot.



Thursday, March 20, 2014

YA Favorites

There are more Nancy Drews hidden behind this one!

I've been answering lots of interview questions lately, doing promo for my YA novel Glamour, and one that pops up a lot is, of course, "What are your favorite books?" A recent Twitter discussion about The Witch of Blackbird Pond made me realize I have this whole shelf of my YA favorites in my bedroom, so I reckoned I'd share a snap with my tens of readers.

Since I am a terrible photographer (why do my pictures always come out so blurry? Is it because I have shaky hands? I'm dying, I think, that's why I shake, probably) you can hardly see anything here, so I'll just point out the highlights:

Of course, in addition to the aforementioned Blackbird Pond, we have:

My beloved Hitchcock anthologies
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More by Roald Dahl (actually, Matilda is my favorite but I left behind a lot of books when I moved to NYC)
The Booky Trilogy by Berenice Thurman Hunter (If you have not read these books, do it now! This series opens with a ten-year-old in Depression-era Toronto begging her parents not to give away her new baby brother.... because they can't afford to keep him, see? But it's never maudlin! It's delightful! How is this even possible?)
Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck
A bunch of Nancy Drews
Some Anne and Emily books by L.M. Montgomery
Three Gordon Kormans (one obviously stolen from the school library)
Grimm's Fairy Tales
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
A Swiftly Tilting Planet, my favorite of Madeleine L'Engle's series
And finally, the piece de resistance, the novelization of the 1980 cinema classic Little Darlings

(Notable omissions: The Westing Game, The Long Secret. I think I left my copies of these back home in Canada ten years ago.)

On a side note, my cover of A Little Princess has an illustration from a 1909 edition of the book illustrated by Ethel Franklin Betts, with whom I am now obsessed.

Ethel Franklin Betts 1909 illustration
So that's a window into my soul. How about you all? Which YA classics have a shelf of honor in your house?

Which Witch Are You?

Witches abound in the pages of GLAMOUR! With so many different varieties, skills, and styles, you might be wondering which witch you are!


Take this fun quiz I made up to see Which Witch you are! Are you Christina? Raven? Nadia? Just be forewarned: this quiz is eerily accurate, so it will show you your true self... Can you handle it?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

GLAMOUR release day!

My Young Adult novel GLAMOUR is on sale as of right.... now!

Buy the book, read it, then do this fun quiz I made up to see Which Witch you are! Do it!

Monday, March 10, 2014

GLAMOUR Goodreads Givewaway

I'm super excited to announce the publication of my first Young Adult novel, GLAMOUR, forthcoming from World Weaver Press on March 18th! We're giving away two free copies to the winners of our Goodreads giveaway! Enter now to win your free copy, and stay tuned for more info and updates!



Goodreads Book Giveaway

Glamour by Andrea Janes

Glamour

by Andrea Janes

Giveaway ends March 18, 2014.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Cool Girl's Grown Up Counterpart: The POW (Perfect Older Woman)


This weekend, a lot of us were reading this Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls article, part of the great J-Law backlash (because a girl who likes herself and basically doesn't give a shit what you think MUST BE DESTROYED!). In a nutshell, the defining quality of the Cool Girl is that she gets permission to do whatever the fuck she wants because she's also hot -- effortlessly hot. That's important. Step a half-degree away from hotness, or put any effort into looking good, or have a single moment of insecurity, and you're fucked.

It seems, after watching last night's Oscars, that the real kick to the tits about this whole Cool Girl bullshit is that it NEVER ENDS. The same double bind that makes the Cool Girl an impossible equation seems to hold true for older women as well. Kim Novak and Goldie Hawn were both trash talked for appearing to have aged less than naturally; yet at the same time, Hollywood offers no love to older women who let themselves look like real human women.

Blogger Self-Styled Siren sums it up perfectly:

I have been simmering for years now over the hateful mockery of actresses and how they cope with aging. If they got naturally old and abandon diets, like June Squibb, they're "letting themselves go." If they work too hard at staying beautiful, like Goldie Hawn and Kim Novak, they're silly cows who can't perceive how ridiculous they look. ENOUGH.

You can, and should, read the rest of her piece here.

So I've decided it's time to coin a new term: the POW (Perfect Older Woman). Even though she's over fifty, her face is unlined. Her hair is perfectly coiffed, not gray (but it can be perfect silver), and her teeth are white and straight. She has no liver spots, and is fit as a fiddle. But she doesn't try. Oh no. She's just naturally perfect, all the time. Why, aren't you?

So remember, ladies: when you're young, be the Cool Girl and eat all you want and never put any effort into your personal appearance, but still be skinny and gorgeous. When you're older, be the Perfect Older Woman and look fantastic but never have surgery. Okay, those are the rules. Go!

In the words of Ron Burgundy, what a load of HORSE PISS.

There is no such thing as a Perfect Older Woman, nor should there be. I feel very lucky to have grown up in the era of The Golden Girls and Murder She Wrote, when I could turn on the TV and see kickass older women living, working, and looking exactly as they chose. I definitely internalized these influences, and have always seen older women as role models. In fact, the Girls (Dorothy, Blanche, Ma, Rose) and J.B. Fletcher are the patron saints of Spinster Aunt, and always have been. When I started this blog, I chose the name to reflect my admiration of women who were utterly independent and absolutely their own mistresses. In reality, this has nothing to do with actual age or marital status, or even gender. Spinsterism is a state of mind. My point is this:

Watching these shows, I always thought that whether you chose to doll yourself up to go flirt with sailors at the Rusty Anchor, or wear comfy sweaters for reminiscing about St. Olaf, or rock your rattan handbag every day, or swathe yourself in flowing garments and slouchy boots for your Jeopardy! appearance, or even don a sensible raincoat and boots for stalking killers in Cabot Cove, what you wore and how you looked should be up to you. That there was no ideal or "Perfect Older Woman" and that there is no right way to age. Even with all these awesome positive influences, I am still hella terrified and anxious about aging, and I am still helplessly furious at the rampant sexist idiocy that creates monsters like the mythical P.O.W. But whenever I get too upset, I return to my 80s TV heroines and it makes it a little better.

I certainly hope young girls nowadays will invest in a couple box sets of these shows so that in twenty or thirty years when some hack shits on Cate Blanchett or Sandra Bullock for looking too young or not young enough, they will be able to call bullshit and get back to doing something more important than worrying about how they or anyone else looks (they should also watch Vertigo and Private Benjamin posthaste if they haven't done so already, and give Goldie and Kim the respect they deserve). Of course, in twenty or thirty years, Cate and Sandy B. will run Hollywood and this won't even be a thing anymore, right?

Monday, February 10, 2014

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? The Haunting of Hill House

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming That can sing both high and low; Trip no further, pretty sweeting, Journeys end in lovers’ meeting— Every wise man’s son doth know. - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20239#sthash.NjbWYqvM.dpuf

 O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? 
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming 
That can sing both high and low; 
Trip no further, pretty sweeting, 
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting— 
Every wise man’s son doth know
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20239#sthash.NjbWYqvM.dpuf
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming That can sing both high and low; Trip no further, pretty sweeting, Journeys end in lovers’ meeting— Every wise man’s son doth know. - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20239#sthash.NjbWYqvM.dpuf
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming That can sing both high and low; Trip no further, pretty sweeting, Journeys end in lovers’ meeting— Every wise man’s son doth know. - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20239#sthash.NjbWYqvM.dpuf

The Haunting of Hill House might be the only horror novel ever written that maintains the subtle cadence of a Shakespearean sonnet* for 182 pages. There is a lyrical push and pull quality to the prose that lulls you in like a wave, quietly rocking you almost gently to sleep and then eventually pulling you under. Half the time I was reading this book, I felt as though I were dreaming, as sentences like this washed over me:

Eleanor and Theodora reflected for a minute that it was imprudent for them to walk far from Hill House after dark. Each was so bent upon her own despair that escape into darkness was vital, and, containing themselves in that tight, vulnerable, impossible cloak which is fury, they stamped along together, each achingly aware of the other, each determined to be the last to speak. 

At times, the interiority of it all becomes a bit too much to bear. There are moments when Eleanor's mousy insanity gets a bit tiresome. When I first read the book, in high school, I thought Theodora very cruel toward Eleanor, but this time around I understood her impulse to want to slap some confidence into Nell every so often. All that emotional fragility is so exhausting. (Perhaps the ultimate horror here isn't the super scary dream house -- maybe it's that the paranoid feeling you have that no one likes you and you're an irredeemably irritating person might be because... no one likes you and you're an irredeemably irritating person. At first Eleanor can play the game, she can socialize and banter with the rest of them, but then her essential separateness, her essential insanity, breaks to the surface and everyone realizes she's a complete bummer and they really just want her to go home. Think on that next time you're mingling at a cocktail party.)

Obviously, Hill House utilizes incredibly psychological horror, and every once in a while you wish Jackson would use her astonishing abilities to make something happen. There's so much sitting around drinking brandy. But it's all about relationships, isn't it? On my first reading of the book, it was the relationship between Eleanor and Theodora that stuck with me. The subtle and terrifying entanglements of the female dynamic certainly resonated with me in high school, where every day brought fresh complexities and betrayals. Naturally, I understood Eleanor's compulsive attraction to the house; it is the one rule of Hill House that everyone understands when almost nothing else about the house is comprehensible or in any way assured. The original Times review even suggests the possibility that Eleanor is not at the house at all: "A disquieting doubt is sown in the reader's mind. Is Eleanor at Hill House or not? If there, how is she there?" All of which is to say, there is a lot of dancing around the interpersonal dynamics of the house, much interior monologuing inside Eleanor's fragile, tortured mind, and plenty of ambiguous exploration of the house and grounds, but mostly there is a lot of waiting around. (Also: Theo is a lesbian, right? Another thing I missed on the first reading. If not, why the genderless live-in "friend"? Discuss.)

In a sense, Hill House is the complete antithesis of Rosemary's Baby, which I read last week, where action takes precedence over language. In Hill House the writing is almost the only thing that matters, because very little happens. To be clear, the waiting around is exquisitely wrought, but it is just a hair short sometimes of being too subtle, too restrained. Luckily, this is Shirley fucking Jackson we're dealing with here, so she pulls it off. Yet oddly I feel Hill House is a lesser book than Jackson's other classic, We Have Always Lived In The Castle, which managed somehow to do more, to deliver more intensity.

Still. Those moments where Jackson does indulge us in a little ghostly action are absolutely masterful. As a writer, the reason I re-read this book was to try to unlock the secret to writing a masterful horror novel (easy, right?). And I realized the answer isn't in parsing the structure of the book -- it's about reading every single word. It reminds me of an old joke I heard once about how to write a winning screenplay: it should be 90 to 110 pages, have three holes punched in the side, secured with two brads, and also it should be written really, really, really well. So, for those also hoping to learn how to do it, here's how:

Sitting up in the two beds beside each other, Eleanor and Theodora reached out between and held hands tight; the room was brutally cold and thickly dark. From the room next door... came the steady low sound of a voice babbling, too low for words to be understood, too steady for disbelief. Then, without warning, there was a little laugh, the small, gurgling laugh that broke through the babbling, and rose as it laughed, on up and up the scale, and then broke off suddenly in a little painful gasp and the voice went on.

Jackson goes on to describe the sobbing, babbling, laughing voice, which tortures Eleanor until she screams, "STOP IT!" and then --

The lights were on the way they had left them and Theodora was sitting up in bed, startled and disheveled.
"What?" Theodora was saying. "What, Nell? What?"
"God God," Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner. "God God -- whose hand was I holding?"

So yeah, that's how you make a reader feel terrified and insane. Like I said, easy.

Perhaps significantly, when it comes to the moments of ghostly action, Jackson seems to take her cues from the incidents at Borley Rectory -- most obviously the writing on the walls -- which were later discredited. I wonder if they were still widely believed true in 1959 when Jackson wrote Hill House; if not, that's just one more layer of subtle trickery.

One final note: on this reading, I also found myself unexpectedly amused by the blast of air that was Mrs. Montague, a paranormal blowhard who rushes into the house with all the grace of a tornado (and ends up befriending the dour and impossible Mrs. Dudley!). I loved the shift in tone and perspective she brought with her, setting everything as askew as Hill House itself, which, by the way, we are told is all askew and yet upright and solid at varying points in the book. (Nothing is what it seems!) Jackson has enough humor and self awareness to allow moments like Mrs. Montague's into her narrative.

Only Shirley Jackson could take an old dark house tale and do this with it. Even if the book, like Eleanor, does have its (very) occasional wearying moments, ultimately there are moments of absolute horror, which Jackson sprinkles throughout the book in vast enough quantities to keep us from sensing that there is no action at all. The doctor, after one of the first real incidents at the house, notes, "When Luke and I are called outside, and you two are kept imprisoned inside, doesn't it begin to seem" -- and his voice was very quiet -- "doesn't it begin to seem that the intention is, somehow, to separate us?" For this, and for bestowing on the world the vague and shadowy character of Eleanor Vance, Jackson will forever be the master. No reader, once having read her, will ever forget Eleanor.

Eleanor who roams forever, mistress of Hill House, her only beloved.

*Are these lines actually a sonnet? I'm not sure.