Guillermo, monsters and me

Tucked away at the bottom of a tall display case in the ‘At Home With Monsters’ exhibit at the AGO is a small collection of seven old, well-thumbed books, all by the 19th century French naturalist and entomologist, Jean-Henri Fabre. At the very bottom of the pile, its title almost hidden in the shadows, is The Life of the Spider, first translated into English in 1913, but not translated again until 1971.

The books subtly reflect the importance director and artist Guillermo del Toro places on insects in his works. He calls them “living metaphors” and adds, “They are so alien and so remote and so perfect, but they also are emotionless. They don’t have any human or mammalian instincts.”

I felt a certain thrill at seeing Fabre’s works, especially The Life of the Spider. That very same edition was the first adult book I ever read. I was nine or ten years old, maybe younger, stuck at home with some now-forgotten childhood illness, unable to go to school or out to play. I’m not sure where I got the book. Likely I had taken it out from the local library – probably for some science project or homework – and it was all I had to read that week in bed.

I read it cover to cover, absorbed in the minute details of the behaviour of Fabre’s spiders. It created in me a lifelong appreciation of these arthropods. I must have returned the book after that, because I never saw it again. But it was not forgotten. I was the only one in the gallery bent down, kneeling on the floor to read the book titles. 

I had not expected to see this book in the exhibition – which features the monsters and the fantastic visions of writers, artists and filmmakers that appeal to Guillermo del Toro (including several from his own works) – but the sight gave me an immediate sense of familiarity, and of connection with del Toro. No one else I have known has ever read that book, or even knows of its existence. But del Toro does.
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Legends of Horror

Some of my B-movie collectionsLegends of Horror is the title of one multi-DVD collections of films I own. Fifty films in this package. They’re B-films for the most part (and a few of lesser quality), dating from 1927 (silent) to 1980, mostly in B&W, but those dating from the mid-1960s on are usually colour. The collection title is misleading: it’s really a mix of early horror, mystery and suspense.

It’s one of several similar sets and single DVDs that make up my personal collection of B films (a very few, but far from all, shown in the photo on the right). Most of which are early scifi or monster films (including the entire set of Universal Monster Classics with the original Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, Mummy, Creature From the Black Lagoon and Invisible Man, plus the original sequels, but they are from a different publisher, not shown here), along with numerous detective/suspense and noir films from similar eras.

Several of these films appear in other collections – the companies that compile them have a tendency to reuse titles in collections of different names. This actually has gives some obscure films more circulation that they would have on their own, which isn’t a bad thing.

But as a recent article in Newsweek noted, classic film – B or otherwise – is disappearing online:

…in the vast world of Netflix streaming, 1960 doesn’t exist. There’s one movie from 1961 available to watch (the original Parent Trap) and one selection from 1959 (Compulsion), but not a single film from 1960. It’s like it never happened. There aren’t any movies from 1963 either. Or 1968, 1955 or 1948. There are no Hitchcock films on Netflix. No classics from Sergio Leone or François Truffaut. When Debbie Reynolds died last Christmas week, grieving fans had to turn to Amazon Video for Singin’ in the Rain and Susan Slept Here. You could fill a large film studies textbook with what’s not available on Netflix.

This is just one reason I collect: otherwise I’d have no access to watch them. And even if Netflix brings in the A list of classics, I doubt it will offer much if any of the B list:

Netflix’s selection of classic cinema is abominable—and it seems to shrink more every year or so. As of this month, the streaming platform offers just 43 movies made before 1970, and fewer than 25 from the pre-1950 era (several of which are World War II documentaries). It’s the sort of classics selection you’d expect to find in a decrepit video store in 1993, not on a leading entertainment platform that serves some 100 million global subscribers.

Netflix is doing to classic movies what the internet did to print newspapers, what Walmart did to downtown retail and what Amazon did to bookstores. And there are precious few DVD stores around for me to buy from (none, in fact, in my home town; the closest is 60 km away).

What worries me about the streaming trend most is its impermanence. You can’t share it, hold it, carry it, and if it falls from popularity and gets removed from the cloud, you may never be able to watch it again. Or ever. Who knows if it will even exist in real form in the near future? Even B movies deserve better than a digital death. What if you choose to watch, say, The Thin Man series and they’ve been deleted from publication because no one is buying DVDs any more? What if you discover it’s not on streaming services (these movies – wonderful, all of them – are not, currently). What then? Will these films vanish, the delightful repartee between William Powell and Myrna Loy just become a dry footnote in some database?

I collect my movies to save us all from this frightening future (in the same vein, I collect and scan sheet music from the 1920s-50s so that the music doesn’t get forgotten and lost forever).
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The strange life of Bobby Fischer

Bobby FischerForty five years ago this month, a momentous event took place in Iceland that shook the world. After 21 games spread over almost two months, the eccentric American chess master, Bobby Fischer, ended 24 years of Soviet dominance in chess after beating Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. It shook the world at the apex of the Cold War. I watched it unfold, a memory I will always  carry.

Many years later, former Russian grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, commented,

…in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. That’s why the Spassky defeat […] was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War.

Back in those days, I played chess with more enthusiasm, skill and grace than I can muster today. Bobby Fischer was one of my early chess idols whose games I followed (I still have books of his games on my shelves). I remember very clearly that year when he was playing Boris Spassky in Iceland. 

I was working in a bookstore in Toronto back then, in that summer of 1972. Every day after a game had been played, I would go out at lunch and get a newspaper. With my chess-playing co-workers, we would go over the match move by move. Try variants, explore alternatives, discuss the results. And look in awe at what masterpieces he wrought on the chessboard.

It wasn’t just the game or the skill of the moves that fascinated me (not all of those games are great, I admit). It was the sudden appearance of chess in the forefront of Cold War geopolitics and the larger implications of the match on the world stage. If you didn’t live through the era, it’s hard to explain how the Cold War affected international and domestic politics, or how a chess match could be the fulcrum of boisterous nationalism on both sides of the divide.

But in the summer of 1972, chess was newsworthy, gaining front page status, and time on the evening TV broadcasts. Chess was cool, chess was sexy, chess was in – not just for me, but for all of pop culture. Chess sets sold faster than they could be stocked. And 29-year-old Bobby Fischer was its golden boy. 

Last week, I started reading Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady. It is the most comprehensive biography of Fischer yet and reminds me somewhat of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs: both subjects were troubled, difficult but brilliant men. Both ran off the rails, but Jobs always managed to get back. Fischer never did. It’s a heart-rending, troubling, but fascinating story.

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As Elvis leaves the building, so do we all

Day of the Dead ElvisNo one gets out of here alive. We all die. And with us go into the dustbin the dreams, the values, the ideals, the culture we grew up with, we shared, we ensconced in our daily existence. And the clutter we accumulated during our lives.

Elvis has left the building and, sooner or later, so shall we all. And as we do, the value of our own material legacy will diminish with each day.

A recent story in The Guardian tells of how once-treasured Elvis memorabilia is falling in value, as collectors age and die off, leaving a younger generation to sell it off at bargain rates. A younger generation not imbued with the Elvis worship of their parents or grandparents, not prone to spending income on his waning memorabilia. They want none of this: taking on Elvis is cultural appropriation.

I imagine a grey-haired, Beatles-besotted relative chortling with some internal “I told you so” glee as he or she puts the late collector’s Elvis collection onto eBay. But their time will come, too.

It’s a very Buddhist lesson on why we should not become attached to material things. Despite our passion for them, despite our sense of connection between them and the stages in our lives, as in the George Harrison song, all things must pass. Even Elvis is transient.

The Beatles’ generation, coming so quickly on his heels, scoffed at Elvis, much the same way The Clash generation scoffed at the Beatles, the same way the Beyoncé generation scoffs at The Clash. Pick a pop movement, a fashion, a theme, a style, a fan base: from its lofty temporal perch someone looked down on someone else’s movement. It was ever thus; even Shakespeare fell from grace after he died. Tastes change, new generations come to maturity and power, new technology and new politics come into play, changing the conversation. Today’s pop culture fades into tomorrow’s nostalgia, takes on a patina of kitsch even while we fondly recall it.

I remember a set of plastic figurines of the Fab Foursome made for sticking into a birthday cake beside the candles. They originally sold for a dollar. Then as the Foursome’s star rose, they sold for dozens of dollars. When they ascended into musical mythology and eBay arrived, it was hundreds. Yet they too will join Elvis memorabilia in yard sales, as those of us who lived then pass away. Already children ask, “Paul who? John who?”

Who will pay more than pocket change for a souvenir of Al Bowlly these days? Who has collectible nostalgia for Rudy Vallee? Ruth Etting? Paul Whiteman? Guy Lombardo? Bing who?
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Book collecting: snobbery or reading passion?

The Bibliophiles, 1879, by Luis Jimenez y Aranda, Private Collection. Photo by Christie's/Bridgeman Images
The book has always been a sign of status and refinement; a declaration of self-worth – even for those who hate to read. That’s the lead into a recent piece on Aeon Magazine about book collecting and collectors. It’s also about reading and the snobbery of readers. Fascinating piece.

For me, anyway. Pretty much everything about books and reading fascinates me, from the art to the industry to the neuroscience. I am and always have been a book buyer, proudly taking my place among those “Bookish Fools” referenced in the article’s title. But perhaps from a different part of the podium.

I spent an hour with a painter this week discussing getting a portion of our house repainted. Part of that work involves us moving a lot of books into other rooms. A lot. Many hundreds. Maybe even thousands. Plus the bookshelves. Six large and two small bookcases in the upper hallway alone. And where to put them? One upstairs room is already lined with bookcases and the other rooms have their own, too.

It served to reinforce just how many books we have to think of the time required to unshelve then re-shelve them (in some sort of reasonable order). Many days.

I got two books in the mail yesterday and this morning I ordered another online. Others are somewhere in between, on their way via the post office. I get larger shipments – boxes – from booksellers once or twice a month, plus individual titles. I haunt the local used book stores for more. I still have battered paperbacks I picked up in the 1960s, but most of my personal library is far more recent. That’s because I am mostly a reader. Compulsively, even obsessively, perhaps. But not a fetishist collector as the article describes.

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