Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mama (2013) Mini-review

In the midst of January's cinematic dumping-ground comes a solid and well-crafted ghost story, marred only by a few strange aesthetic choices: Mama (2013). Exec produced by Guillermo del Toro, the film was based on Barbara Muschietti 's 2008 Spanish language horror film of the same name in a bit of a dream-come-true scenario ("Hey, del Toro likes your short and wants to finance a feature. Sound cool to you?"). It's a satisfying film overall but with a few flaws that marred the final product.

The set up is fundamentally brilliant: two little girls, aged three and one, are abandoned by their psychotic father in a cabin in the woods. Their daddy's gone crazy and killed their mother, and he's about to shoot the oldest girl when a mysterious, ghostly entity snatches him up, takes him away, and saves the children. The two girls grow up feral and alone, watched over only by the ghostly presence who they call "Mama." When their uncle finally finds them five years later, the older girl is willing to become part of the society of the living, but the younger daughter, who never really learned to speak and is far more savage than her sister, remains attached to her death-mommy. If you happen to be a Freudian, you'll find their ages quite significant. But even if you're not, the dark fairy-tale evocations of the cabin in the woods, mixed in with some of horror's most effective, if well-worn, tropes (the uncanny child, gruesome motherhood) combine to create one unsettling experience.

While the story, lead performances and characterization, are all great, the ghost itself was a bit problematic for me. The apparition was just so badly rendered, the worst of the worst CGI. In the course of the film, certain photographs are used to illustrate Mama's origin story; these look a bit like Victorian spirit photos or death portraits, and are far scarier than the final CGI specter. Visually, a little less-is-more might've saved that ghost. 

Otherwise, Mama was a solid film, with a surprisingly -- and refreshingly -- bleak ending. It was certainly effective enough to give me nightmares: I awoke at 3am with a vague sense of terror over the idea of two little children lost in the woods, but not alone.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Poe Tour This Weekend

Join me this Saturday January 19th to celebrate Edgar Allan Poe’s 204th “birthday” with a walking tour of Greenwich Village. I’m running two tours, one at 2:30pm and one at 7:30pm. Tours are 90 minutes long, and you can buy tickets here.

Poe belongs to New York. He was a literatus, not a loner, and New York has long been the home of the literati. Greenwich Village was his hometown. In this walk, we will take the opportunity to explore biographical, literary, and supernatural details of his life, how Greenwich Village influenced him, and how he saw Greenwich Village.

Meeting Point: 85 West Third Street, one block south of Washington Square Park between Thompson and Sullivan Streets, in Manhattan. Subway trains A B C D E F M stop at the West 4th Street Station.

Tour covers approximately one mile. Please wear comfortable shoes and dress warmly!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Poe in New York City, 1837 - 1838 (Pt. 2)

​This is the second half of a guest post written by Lisa Lideks, who runs the blog The World of Edgar Allan Poe. An authority on Poe who is devoted to separating truth and fiction, Ms. Lideks gives us the lowdown on some of his lesser-known years in Gotham. Last we heard, he was living with his wife and mother-in-law/aunt in Greenwich Village and struggling to make ends meet as a writer. Did he succeed? Find out, below!
Maria Clemm

Virginia Poe

For eight months, the Poe family shared their lodgings with William Gowans, an eccentric, though kindly, bookseller.  In 1870, Gowans published a brief, charming reminiscence of the Poe household that gives the fullest information we have of this period in the poet’s life.  Gowans spent a good deal of his account extolling Virginia Poe’s “matchless beauty and loveliness,” as well as her “temper and disposition of surpassing sweetness.”  (In a revealing comment about the Poe marriage, he added that she was as devoted to her husband “as a young mother is to her first born.”)

As for Poe himself, Gowans never saw the poet intoxicated, or guilty of any other vice, and that he “was one of the most courteous, gentlemanly, and intelligent companions I have met.”  Gowans noted that “The characters drawn of Poe by his various biographers and critics may with safety be pronounced an excess of exaggeration, but this is not to be much wondered at, when it is taken into consideration that these men were rivals either as poets or prose writers, and it is well that such are generally as jealous of each other as are the ladies who are handsome, or those who desire to be considered possessed of the coveted quality.”

Gowans commented that during this period Poe was completing “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.”  This would prove to be the most significant achievement of Poe’s early New York stay.  Harper & Brothers took out a copyright on the novel in June of 1837, but it was not published until a year later.  (This unexplained delay was probably related to the bleak financial times.)

Another short glimpse of Poe in 1830s New York comes from his attendance at the Booksellers Dinner held at the City Hotel in March 1837, an event which drew many of the major literary figures of the time. The newspapers of the time record him as offering a brief toast:  “The Monthlies of Gotham—Their distinguished Editors, and their vigorous Collaborateurs.”

Sometime in the early spring of 1837, the Poe household moved to 113 ½ Carmine Street.  St. John’s graveyard was nearby, and it is said that Poe and his wife enjoyed walks through the tree-lined quiet of the cemetery.  During this period, Poe published a review of John L. Stephens’ “Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land” in the October “New York Review.”  “American Monthly Magazine” carried “Von Jung, the Mystic” in their June issue. “Siope—a Fable” appeared in the “Baltimore Book” for 1838.

There is no record of Poe publishing anything else during this time, although it is possible he did some sort of literary hack work that appeared anonymously.  It is a mystery how he and his family survived.  There are practically no letters to or from him during this period, and mentions of him in the contemporary correspondence of others are equally lacking.  As far as history records, during Poe’s first New York stay he may as well have been on the dark side of the moon.

There is a very curious footnote to his year in the city.  In June 1846, Thomas Dunn English, with whom Poe was carrying on the noisiest of public feuds, published a column where he made an offhand reference that “the ‘Tombs,’ of New York, has probably a dim remembrance of [Poe’s] person.”

English did not elaborate on this startling charge, and Poe made no known response to this allegation that he did a stint in a New York prison.  It has been equally ignored by his biographers.  English generally had a strained relationship with the truth, particularly where Poe was concerned, so it is quite possible that he simply engaged in a bit of libelous exaggeration.  Is it possible, however, that during Poe’s first stay in New York City, he was briefly imprisoned—perhaps for debt?  Could that help explain the lack of information during that part of his history?  No one knows.

In any case, it is sadly certain that Poe’s early attempt to make his fortune in Gotham was a harrowing experience.  Sometime in the early part of 1838, he gave up on the Big Apple and moved his little family to Philadelphia.  In July of that year, he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy asking for some sort of government work.  It is a letter of pure despair:  “Could I obtain the most unimportant Clerkship in your gift—any thing, by sea or land—to relieve me from the miserable life of literary drudgery to which I now, with a breaking heart, submit…I would never again repine at any dispensation of God.”

Unfortunately, whether he lived in New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, or Baltimore, Poe was always given many reasons for repining.

Loved this post? Can't get enough of Poe in New York City? Why, it just so happens I'm leading a walking tour of Greenwich Village on January 19th to honor that very thing! If you're in NYC and interested in taking tour, please email me for tickets and info. 

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Poe In New York City, 1837 - 1838 (Pt. 1)

​The following is the first half of a guest post written by Lisa Lideks, who runs the blog The World of Edgar Allan Poe. An authority on Poe who is devoted to separating truth and fiction, Ms. Lideks gives us the lowdown on some of his lesser-known years in Gotham. Check back tomorrow for the second half of this post. 

Poe spent the last five years of his life living in the New York City area, and this period is the most important and well-known of his life.  “The Raven” was published.  He acquired (and lost) the “Broadway Journal,” which proved to be his one opportunity to run his own literary magazine.  He became embroiled in social and professional scandals that haunt his reputation to this day.  His wife Virginia died.  He wrote his magnum opus, “Eureka.”  Finally, in October of 1849, a New York paper, Horace Greeley’s “Daily Tribune,” commissioned Rufus W. Griswold to write what would prove to be one of history’s most infamous obituaries.

In contrast, his earlier sojourn in New York City, from 1837-38, is the most poorly-documented year of his adult life, and goes largely ignored.  “The Poe Log,” that painstaking documentary record, took over 350 pages to cover his years in New York from 1844-49.  By contrast, this same book summarized his first residence in that city in just four pages.  Still, that period is not without its own significance, if only as grim tribute to the peculiarly star-crossed nature of Poe’s career.

In January 1837, Poe officially “retired” as editor of the “Southern Literary Messenger,” a monthly based in Richmond, Virginia.  The magazine’s proprietor Thomas W. White fired Poe ostensibly for his occasional lapses in sobriety, but the dismissal largely came about through the fractious professional relations between the two men.  White resented Poe’s attempts to gain editorial control over the magazine, not to mention his increasingly obvious disdain for his employer.  Late in December 1836, White grumbled to his confidante Beverley Tucker:  “I am cramped by [Poe] in the exercise of my own judgment, as to what articles I shall or shall not admit into my work. It is true that I neither have his sagacity, nor his learning--but I do believe I know a handspike from a saw. Be that as it may, however,--and let me even be a jackass, as I dare say I am in his estimation, I will again throw myself on my own resources…”

A man may be as sober as ten thousand angels, but if his boss catches on that this employee thinks of him as a jackass, it’s safe to say said employee’s days on the job are numbered.

Poe was equally ready to leave a job he had come to see as confining, particularly as he had far more congenial employment in view.  Early in 1837, Francis Lister Hawks, who was about to launch the “New York Review,” asked Poe to join his journal:  “I wish you to fall in with your broad-axe amidst this miserable literary trash which surrounds us.  I believe you have the will, and I know well you have the ability.”

Poe most certainly had both.  By early February, he, his fourteen year old bride of less than a year, and his aunt/mother-in-law Maria Clemm arrived in New York City to start what they undoubtedly assumed was a prosperous new life.  They settled in at a residence at Sixth Avenue and Waverley Place.  Unfortunately, as was generally the case with Poe, “unmerciful Disaster followed fast and followed faster.”  His move to New York coincided neatly with the “Panic of 1837,” which launched one of the biggest financial depressions in American history.  The “New York Review,” along with many other publications, struggled only to soon sink without a trace.  The entire literary industry was crippled by the nationwide economic collapse.  It was the worst possible time for a young writer, however gifted, to build a career...

​What will happen to young Edgar? Will he triumph? Or will his dreams be shattered? Find out tomorrow!