Chris Matheson has written a bunch of comic movies including the new Bill & Ted Face the Music, and he’s converted religious texts into funnier books on three occasions, most recently with The Buddha’s Story. Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt talk with him about what unifies these projects: Why the big ideas of science fiction, fantasy, religion, and philosophy are begging in a similar way to be made fun of.
We get into the big questions: How does humor relate to fear? Would a society based on Bill and Ted (or Keanu Reeves) actually be desirable? How bad is the evident literal absurdity of many religious texts? Plus, the B & T joke that has not aged well, and much more!
A few articles that we found but didn’t really draw on included:
To bring back memories of your schooldays, there’s nothing quite like the sight of your old exercise books. This holds true whether you went to school in Ghana in the 2010s, Italy in the 90s, France in the 80s, China in the 70s, Japan in the 60s, or India in the 50s. All of these examples and many more have come available to view at the Exercise Book Archive, an “ever-growing, participatory archive of old exercise books that allows everyone to discover the history, education, and daily life of children and youth of the past.” All of the entries include the relevant book’s front cover — already a Proustian viewing experience for any who had them growing up — and some feature scans of the interior pages, student writing and all.
“One girl’s notebook describes the bombing of her small town in 1940s Switzerland,” writes Collectors Weekly‘s Hunter Oatman-Stanford. “Another boy’s journal chronicles daily life in rural Pennsylvania during the 1890s; the diary of a Chinese teenager recounts his experiences in prison during the 1980s.” The article quotes Thomas Pololi, co-founder of the organization behind the Exercise Book Archive, on the historical value of books containing “compositions about war, propaganda, or political events that we now recognize as terrible.
But in the narration of children, there is often enthusiasm about the swastika in Germany, or the Duce in Italy (dictator Benito Mussolini), or for Mao in China.” (Thanks to the work of volunteers, these and other exercise-book writings have been transcribed and translated into English.)
These young students “tended to see the positive side of traumatic things, perhaps because their main goal is to grow up, and they needed to do it the world they lived in.” Their exercise books thus offer reflections of their societies, in not just content but design as well: “In Spain or in China,” for example, “you see beautiful illustrations of propaganda themes. They are often aesthetically appealing because they were meant to persuade children to do or think something.” Educational trends also come through: “Before, there were mainly exercises of calligraphy with dictated sentences about how you have to behave in your life, with phrases like ‘Emulation seldom fails,'” which to Pololi’s mind “implies that if you are yourself, you risk failing. That’s the opposite of what we teach children nowadays.”
Somehow the most mundane of these student compositions can also be among the most interesting. Take the journal of a group of Finnish girl scouts from the early 1950s. “The train to Leppävaara arrived quickly,” writes the author of one entry from April 1950. “At the station it started to rain. We walked to the youth house, where we sang ‘Exalt the joy’ etc. Then we went to the sauna where we had to be. We sang and prayed. We then ate some sandwiches.” Could she have possibly imagined people all around the world reading of this girl-scout day trip with great interest seventy years later? And what would the young man doing his penmanship nearly a quarter-millennium ago in Shropshire think if he know how eager we were to look at his exercise book? Better us than his schoolmaster, no doubt. Enter the Exercise Book Archive here.
In Seoul, where I live, the success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite at this year’s Academy Awards — unprecedented for a non-American film, let alone a Korean one — did not go unnoticed. But even then, the celebration had already been underway at least since the movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Something of a homecoming for Bong after Snowpiercer and Okja, two projects made wholly or partially abroad, Parasite takes place entirely in Seoul, staging a socioeconomic grudge match between three families occupying starkly disparate places in the human hierarchy. The denouement is chaotic, but arrived at through the precision filmmaking with which Bong has made his name over the past two decades.
When Parasite‘s storyboards were published in graphic-novel form here a few months ago, I noticed ads in the subway promising a look into the mind of “Bongtail.” Though Bong has publicly declared his contempt for that nickname, it has nevertheless stuck as a reflection of his meticulous way of working.
The son of a graphic designer, he grew up not just watching movies but drawing comics, a practice that would later place him well to create his own storyboards. In so doing he assembles an entire film in his mind before shooting its first frame (a working process not dissimilar to that of Western filmmakers like the Coen brothers), which enables him and his collaborators to execute complex sequences such as what the Nerdwriter calls Parasite‘s “perfect montage.”
With the English translation of Parasite: A Graphic Novel in Storyboards now available, video essayists like Thomas Flight have made comparisons between Bong’s drawings and the film. Starting with that celebrated montage, Flight shows that, where the final product departs from its plan, it usually does so to simplify the hand-drawn action, making it more legible and elegant. In the short video just above, you can watch one minute of Parasite lined up with its corresponding storyboard panels, one of which incorporates a photograph of the real Seoul neighborhood in which Bong located the main characters’ home. This is rich storyboarding indeed, but in his introduction to the book, Bong explains that he doesn’t consider it essential to filmmaking, just essential to him: “I actually storyboard to quell my own anxiety.” Would that we could all draw worldwide acclaim from doing the same.
At one time paperback books were thought of as trash, a term that described their perceived artistic and cultural level, production value, and utter disposability. This changed in the mid-20th century, when certain paperback publishers (Doubleday Anchor, for example, who hired Edward Gorey to design their covers in the 1950s) made a push for respectability. It worked so well that the signature aesthetics they developed still, nearly a lifetime later, pique our interest more readily than those of any other era.
Even today, graphic designers put in the time and effort to master the art of the midcentury paperback cover and transpose it into other cultural realms, as Matt Stevens does in his “Good Movies as Old Books” series. In this “ongoing personal project,” Stevens writes, “I envision some of my favorite films as vintage books. Not a best of list, just movies I love.”
These movies, for the most part, date from more recent times than the mid-20th century. Some, like Jordan Peele’s Us, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, came out just last year. The oldest pictures among them, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, date from the early 1960s, when this type of graphic design had reached the peak of its popularity.
Suitably, Stevens also gives the retro treatment to a few already stylized period pieces like Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer, and Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca, a sci-fi vision of the future itself imbued with the aesthetics of the 1940s. Each and every one of Stevens’ beloved-movies-turned-old-books looks convincing as a work of graphic design from roughly the decade and a half after the Second World War, and some even include realistic creases and price tags. This makes us reflect on the connections certain of these films have to literature, most obviously those, like David Fincher’s Fight Club and Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity, adapted from novels in the first place.
More subtle are Rian Johnson’s recent Knives Out, a thoroughgoing tribute to (if not an adaptation of) the work of Agatha Christie; Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which hybridizes a Philip K. Dick novella with pulp detective noir; and Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, a statement of its director’s intent to revive the look and feel of the early 1960s (its books and otherwise) for his own cinematic purposes. Stevens has made these imagined covers available for purchase as prints, but some retro design-inclined, bibliophilic film fans may prefer to own them in 21st-century book form. See all of his adaptations in web format here.
The Knowledge Room was conceived of as a library where the world’s most famous convert to Jehovah’s Witnesses could delve into religious literature, reflect on the meaning of life, and study the Bible deep into the night.
Alcott’s covers harken to an earlier stage in Prince’s evolution—one the star eventually disavowed—as well as several bygone eras of book design.
Alcott’s 1950s pulp novel treatment, above, is similarly graphic. Those skintight purple curves are a promise that even purpler prose lays within, or would, were there any text couched behind that steamy cover.
“When Doves Cry” makes for a pretty purple cover, too. In this case, the inspiration is a 1950s self-help book, enriched with some Freudian taglines from Prince’s own pen. (“Maybe you’re just like my mother, she’s never satisfied.”)
Alcott remembers Prince being “an incredibly liberating figure” when he burst onto the scene:
There was his flamboyant, outrageous sexuality, but also his musical omnivorousness; he played funk, rock, pop, jazz, everything. Purple Rain was the Sergeant Pepper’s of its day, a wall-to-wall brilliant album that everyone could recognize as a remarkable achievement. I remember when I first saw Purple Rain, at the very beginning of the movie, before the movie has even begun, the Warner Bros logo came up and you heard the sound of an expectant crowd, and an announcer says “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Revolution,” and the first shot is of Prince, backlit, silhouetted in purple against a dense mist, and he says “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” And I was instantly, incontrovertibly, a fan for life. The confidence of that opening, the sheer audacity of it, adopting the tone of a priest at a wedding, in his Hendrix outfit and hairdo, the sheer gutsiness of that statement, alone, just blew me away. And then he proceeded to play “Let’s Go Crazy” which completely lived up to that opening. After that he could have run Buick ads for the rest of the movie and I’d still be a fan.
Decades later, I was sitting in a Subway restaurant at the end of a very, very long, tiring day, and was feeling completely exhausted and miserable, and out of nowhere, “When Doves Cry” came on the sound system. And I was reminded that the song, which was a huge hit in 1984, the song of the year, had no bass line. The arrangement of it made no sense. It was a song put together by force of will, with its metal guitar and its synth strings and its electronic drums. And in that moment, at the end of a long, tiring day, I was reminded that miracles are possible.
It takes a fearless filmmaker indeed to adapt Dune. Atop its rich linguistic, political, philosophical, religious, and ecological foundations, Frank Herbert’s saga-launching 1965 novel also happens to have a plot “convoluted to the point of pain.” So writes David Foster Wallace in his essay on David Lynch, who directed the first cinematic version of Dune in 1984. That the result is remembered as a “huge, pretentious, incoherent flop” (with an accompanying glossary handout) owes to a variety of factors, not least studio meddling and the unsurprising incompatibility of the man who made Eraserhead with large-scale Hollywood sci-fi. The question lingered: could Dune be successfully adapted at all?
Well before Lynch took his crack, El Topo and The Holy Mountain director Alejandro Jodorowsky put together his own Dune adaptation. If all had gone well it would have come out as a ten-hour film featuring the art of H.R. Giger and Moebius as well as the performances of Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Alain Delon, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dalí.
But all did not go well, and cinema was deprived of what would have been a singular spectacle no matter how it turned out. At least one element of Jodorowsky’s Dune has survived, however, in the latest attempt to bring Herbert’s complex bestseller to the screen: the music of Pink Floyd, heard in the just-released trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, starring Timothée Chalemet as the young hero Paul Atreides (as well as Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, and a host of other currently big names), scheduled for release in December.
If a credible Dune movie is possible, Villeneuve is the man to direct it. His previous two pictures, Blade Runner 2049 and the alien-visitation drama Arrival, demonstrate not just his capabilities with science fiction but his sense of the sublime. Beginning with its setting, the desert-wasteland planet of Arrakis, Dune demands to be envisioned with the kind of beauty that inspires something close to dread and fear. (The first director asked to adapt Dune was David Lean, perhaps due to his track record with majestic views of sand.) Villeneuve has also made the wise choice of refusing to compress the entire book into a single feature, presenting this as the first of a two-part adaptation. And as a lifelong Dune fan, he understands the attitude necessary to approaching this challenge: “Fear is the mind-killer,” as Paul famously puts it — so famously that the trailer couldn’t possibly exclude Chalamet’s delivery of the line.
Maintaining the balance of power among European states has always been a fraught affair, but it was especially so in the years when mercantilism made fragile alliances during the religious wars of the 17th century. This was a time when merchants made excellent diplomats, not only because they traveled extensively and learned foreign tongues and customs, but because they spoke the universal language of trade.
German merchant and diplomat Philipp Hainhofer from Augsburg was such a figure, traveling from court to court to meet with Europe’s renowned dignitaries. As he did so, he would ask them to sign his album amicorum, or “friendship book,” also called a stammbuch. Each signer would then “commission an artist to create a painting accompanying their signatures,” Alison Flood writes at The Guardian.
“There are around 100 drawings” in his autograph book, known as the Große Stammbuch, “which took more than 50 years to compile.” After Hainhofer’s death in 1647, his friend August the Younger—who helped collect the hundreds of thousand of books in the Herzog August Bibliothek—tried to acquire the book but failed. Now it has finally landed in the huge library, one of the world’s oldest, almost 400 years later, after a purchase at a private auction this week.
Friendship books were commonly used at the time to record the names of family and friends. Students used them as yearbooks, and Hainhofer began his collection of signatures as a college student. He gradually gained a select clientele as his career advanced. Signatories, the History Blog points out, “include Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, another HRE Matthias, Christian IV of Denmark and Norway, Cosimo II de’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany…” and many others.
Hainhofer’s Große Stammbuch is, as you can see, a beautiful work of art—or almost 100 collected works of art—in its own right. “The elaborateness of the illustrations directly corresponds to the signatory’s status and rank in society,” as Grace Ebert notes at Colossal. It is also a fascinating record of Early Modern European politics, trade, and diplomacy, a fine art all its own.
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