Small towns and travelling shows: Something Wicked This Way…..

Glenn Beck, Arnold Friberg, Lady Gaga, The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), The Valley of the Gwangi (1969), The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Incubus (1982)

Part One

I might be annoyed that Glenn Beck, and forget his politics, has kidnapped a fine work of modern American illustration, Arnold Friberg’s Prayer At Valley Forge, for this travelling Man in the Moon tour, but on the other hand, I have to say, if the circus came to my town, I’d go take a look.

som 1

I have always liked small, somewhat amateurish or personal museums, they have about them an eccentricity and idiosyncracy that I have always liked, and, that, by the way, is a recurring theme in fantasy and horror. In old Anglo fiction, from the pre-1950 period, the small circus that sets up a museum like display in its tents was seen as the outside force bringing either enlightenment, awakening or dangerous ideas to the stuck in its ways small town America. That is not a problem anymore, nobody needs for Beck to bring the circus of his ideas to town, because everybody is on the internet or watching cable, its all right there. But there was a time.

One of the first movies that I liked (it’s very dated now, though it is still fun to see Barbara Eden, the future I Dream of Jeannie get all sweatily sexually aroused by the satyr in a tent), was the Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, with Tony Randall rather incorrectly playing a classic Chinese wiseman in the old west. Of course, by today’s standards (the novel from 1935, the movie from the 1960s), this is painfully stereotyped, but still, it was classic circus comes to town, wake people up, inspire a young boy to be a writer stuff, and I loved it (not so much, anymore). In any case, the circus was an odd house of wonders, a strange freakshow with a kind of medieval morality attached in which people with particular problems brought those problems to a particular tent for Dr. Lao in disguise, or through another, to address and hopefully open one up about that problem. So, for example, one of those classic small town Anglo country women, we called them battleaxes back in the day, huffs into the tent of the Medusa, not believing in all this poppycock, and then she gets a look,

som 2

And turns to stone,

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Now, I’m a ten year old boy watching this, I’m thinking, the West is already easternized by Dr. Lao, then its got Greek myths too, that was exciting. Then of course as I mentioned Barbara Eden goes into a tent and it’s a satyr in the form of a man she’s interested in, but won’t say so

som 5

And he spins round and round her, playing that pipe, and gets her all hot and bothered

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(it’s also worth noting that in the old Anglo moral literature, a degree of liberality in erotic matters was sometimes thought to be beneficial in opening up one’s senses, one’s mindfulness and mind, to be more aware of one’s feelings; generally, from this tradtion, the “public nude,” as I call it, nude figures all over public space, were also meant to open up minds and help people live in a bit more fluid, sensual world; not a problem anymore, most of the time). And then Arthur O’Connell, who was a standard actor back then, usually playing the clutzy naïve defensive old sheriff type (he was most memorable for me in The Great Race, with Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood),

som 7

He becomes an auguring snake

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(it is of some interest that this motif, the human head on an animal, in a kind of circus context, shows up in Lady Gaga’s latest video, Applause, but she is a black swan (no, she’s not)

som 9

Made more complicated by being in a mirror, and a well, of sorts, but there is red curtain. And then in another shot, Gaga emerges from the same, framed by graphic novel hands

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Interesting enough, this idea has also been explored, in the 2002 horror movie, Long Time Dead, in which, when Marsha Tomason looks up what a djinn is, she comes up with this picture

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the coincidence serves to underscore that Gaga
herself has in recent years on tour altered her response to her monsters,
formerly their sacrificial victim, the one, by who fame they would be saved, a
kind of female jesus for the losers of the world, she morphed gradually back up
onto stage as a stage presence that was more like a preacher or a proselytizer
for the you can live your dreams American dream message, which is a trope of
what I call pre-pop popular culture, premised on the unquestionable normalcy of
whiteness, albeit conceding that at times it can curdle into eccentric
characters, stiff necks, battleaxces, and such, and will need a loosening up
now and then, making all things nonwhite exotic, and, indeed, orientalistically
requiring an injection of sensuality and wisdom from the exotic. I grew up at
the very time in which this culture was being superceded by a generally global
Pop Culture, with capital Cs, in which the old norm was undone from within by
extensive expansion of mind and consciousness. So there is, by this hint, and
the mermaid get up would also reinforce, something almost obsolete in Gaga’s
current formulation of her persona, and certainly nothing that is Artpop in
anyway. But to return. There is a wonderful moment when all the faces become a

som 13

Presumably, if I remember, after some thieves knock over a bowl holding a fish which Lao said not to let get air as it would blow up into a monster, and, then, in a rainstorm, to the sound, rather lovely, of bagpipes, to score its stretching, it does, linking this movie to the Harryhausen universe, and to monsters, and dinosaurs, right out in the West

som 14

(I suppose, for that, I associated it with Valley of the Gwangi)

And, of course, all of this for a boy, who wants to see the world, and lives in and loves a world of fantasy, which is greater than the small boring world he lives in. (this “train to anywhere” get away from small town America theme has survived, but at a decidedly lower down to social scale level).

som 15

Just the sort of insufferably All American Tom Sawyer freckle faced boy that parents at the time wanted of their children, and I can hardly watch now, but, then, I was a paperboy, and I inscribed my interest in this movie in my first notebooks when I was in college, 20, seeing it as a declaration on behalf of the power of pure fantasy to overcome the limitations of reality, an early variant of Gaga’s baroque inheritance anyone-can-be-a-superstar theme (my line was I could be the Leonardo Da Vinci of my own life).

A still more fantastical version of the same theme, small town Anglo America overcoming its smallness and limitations by giving way to fantasy, comes in Disney’s Something This WayWicked Comes, though, written by Ray Bradbury in the 1960s, and made into a movie in 1983, with many of the same actors and actresses who might have played character actor supporting roles in all of the small town movies of the 50s and 60s making one last spin of the notion, this is very late in the day, and basically obsolete by then. Something Wicked though works with the theme of  the circus that comes to town, but with a twist. It appears to be an evil circus.

som 16

It will grant all the fantastists of the town,
their wish, but, somehow, I am not particularly concerned with the plot,
getting their wish turns out to be bad for them. In any case, so we start off
with a typical Our Town litany of who’s who, the kind of thing that has been
going on in I-know-everybody (because they are all White and Protestant and
English) small town America at least since Hamlin Garland and Edgar Lee Masters
Spoon River Anthology (I do not want to knock this tradition per se, for a
culture, however it is formed, to come to know itself fully and completely,
leads always to a peak production of great work, and I happen to think this
American literature and culture peaked in the years just before World  War I, and I think that Spoon River is a masterful in fact masterpiece of American literature). (But it is also in that nominal, name the types mode, started by Walt Whitman, a tradition I have moved
away from; sure, you can be everyone, transcendentally, if you assume that you
are the model for all). Anyways, so, we get a folksy our town view of a
merchant setting out his wooden Indian (and I do love wooden Indians, this is a
very good specimen),

som 17

And then, who knew, when he gets inside the know-yourself tents of the evil circus, turns out he fantasizes every day about being that Indian for real

som 18

In this old town culture, the train was the symbol of the outside world coming in, that’s when you heard the news, or got caught up with the latest fashions. By this point, it’s a fantasy train, its smoke trail seen at night over the rooftops, not unlike a railroad Santa Claus (and, in fact, Van Allburg’s Polar Express is a very late manifestation of this old mythology)

som 19

This is a world where discipline meant being sent to one’s home, in which case you moped about, dreaming of other places. When that happens here

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The room then busts up, with spiders and all sorts of poltergeistings, and the boy breaks out (most runaways also occurred in the old world by climbing out of windows down trees etc.

som 21

Jason Robards is in it, playing the kindly but troubled father, nursing his quiet desperation agony, seems he doesn’t like being or getting old, and thinks he may be too old to be a good father to his son, whom he had with a younger wife, he got this notion looking in a shop window one night, so often the locale of sparking dreams, and seeing a display turn into a coffin,

som 22

Then its resolved, and he’s ok with that,

som 23

That means he can get going, to solve the deeper problem of why people are going out to the circus, and not coming back, getting killed (and there is some rather gruesome if fantastical killing, in the library he finds a book about evil circuses, and figures it out

som 24

That is, the circus is run by the autumn people, who are able to attack people this way because their heart is old, and they have become brittle by refusing their dreams and fantasies, etc etc., This knowledge leads to the climax, in terms of self knowledge, in this homespun Freudian abreaction, because it seems that Robards thinks that he is too old for his son because when at another time he was too weak to save his son from drowning. In order to face up to this complex, for that is what it is, he goes out to the circus. I just want to mention two details, first, the fact that Bradbury knows about the hour of the soul, the soul’s midnight, when we tell ourselves the truth, a dangerous hour, indeed (though, for me, closer to four thirty a. m. is about right). (actually, most older people die of heart attacks in early morning hours, eight to ten

som 25

And second that the instrumentation by which most transformative destruction is done is through a tornado, borrowed from the Wizard of Oz, and a storm, (actually I think the tornado destroys the preexisting good circus, boring

som 26

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But then makes use of a good amount of 80s electricity or zapping mechanisms

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In a way that Tobe Hooper was also at that time exploring, a kind of baroque after-frankensteinian psychology.

But then it’s a house of mirrors, not a circus, its all about him

som 29

All of this, referring to other cases in the story, to the mirror as a truth telling, introspective device, in the tradition of the looking glass, with roots in English fiction

som 31

Then, as the fog rises, it becomes his mind, his self-torturings

som 32

And then there is, in the glass, a vision, of water, hands, the incident, the incident that has marked his life,

som 33

And when he has a freeing moment, Bradbury slipping in a rather eccentric image, apropos Lady Gaga,

som 34

All is resolved. It happens, every generation
has its mythology. For those born between 1900 and 1920, this was theirs,
America as small town, getting narrow, liberation comes with fantasy, and from
the outside, but, then, it does have its dangers. But everyone in town is a
white English American, and all the types are types divvied up by consideration
of a whole that is wholly and entirely White English Prostestant America, in
the Wild WESP of old Anglo America. A final note on this syndrome, in the
movie, there is one bizarre but somehow very charming, transforming moment,
when someone envisions the circus parade of Dr Dark and it includes all the
locals done up in their fantasy outfits, including, strangely, the
crossdresssing barber

som 35

Again, the assumption was, then, that everyday reality was limiting and one never had an opportunity to express yourself fully. Nowadays, not only can you express yourself fully every day, but you can in fact live in your fantasy reality, every night after work if you wish. So, this is all old fashioned stuff. But generations live out their fantasy construction of the world to the end, so the final words were being said even as late as the early 1980s, when everyone involved in the creativity of this world was past 65.

Mention was made of Valley of the Gwangi: it too has a local-exotic cast (TBC).


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