The woman behind the monster: ‘Lady From The Black Lagoon’

344445_poster_lI’ve written often before about my undying love for Creature From The Black Lagoon. It’s one of the best Universal monster movies of all time, a fantastic creepy love story with a fairy tale’s elegance and one of the most unforgettable monsters of all time. As a fanboy, I thought I knew almost all there was to know about it. 

Mallory O’Meara’s fascinating new biography “The Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick” dredges the swamps of the past, unearthing the story of a forgotten pioneer for women in film in a witty, bittersweet and fierce look at Hollywood’s golden age. 

Milicent Patrick (1915-1998) was never quite a Hollywood superstar. She was a talented artist and designer, a model and a minor actress in a slew of b-movies. But she had a keen creative eye and before her career was derailed by depressingly familiar sexism, she worked for Walt Disney as one of very few women in animation (including on the classic “Fantasia”) and later on, she designed creatures for movies like “This Island Earth.” 

a15d5c39bb5d653cb6b184f45682ccbeBut her biggest claim to glory today is that she designed the epic look of the Creature From The Black Lagoon. The Creature is, I’d argue, the second-best monster design of all time (sorry, but Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster has to take the top crown). It’s alien, yet human; terrifying, yet captivating. 

Unfortunately, the elegant, humble Patrick rarely got the credit she deserved for the work – a nasty piece of work named Bud Westmore who ran makeup for Universal Studios took all the credit, and later fired her entirely when Patrick actually started to get some acclaim for her designs (and ample publicity for what, at the time, was a novelty of an attractive young woman working in horror movies). That same sad story of a poor excuse for a man destroying a talented woman’s livelihood can be found a thousand times in Hollywood history. 

“Lagoon” is an often angry book – O’Meara’s conversational, amiably digressive style makes it very clear how personally she takes the tale of Patrick’s rise and fall. Women are often treated worst of all in traditionally male-dominated industries. You don’t have to look further than outraged fanboy reactions to “Captain Marvel” or “The Last Jedi” to see how cancerous the worst of fossilised blokes can be. Patrick went on to have a pretty decent life post-Hollywood, but you still wonder what could’ve been. I love the classic Hollywood films, but you just can’t ignore that they were a very male-dominated, non-diverse world, and think about how many Milicent Patricks were out there.  

01chapmanMonster.popIn “Lagoon,” O’Meara also shows the hard work that goes into the biography of a somewhat obscure person, hunting down leads and tracing dusty steps in the past. The story is as much about her and her experiences as a young woman in Hollywood as it is about Milicent Patrick. Some of the anecdotes O’Meara tells of her own treatment are truly dismaying, especially because they are all too common. The real monsters are still out there in Hollywood, hiding in broad daylight.

“Lady From the Black Lagoon” is well worth reading for any fan of classic film, and O’Meara deserves applause for shining a spotlight on the many unremembered women who played a part – and deserved to play a bigger one – in crafting the films and creatures that haunt our dreams. 

Give me animation: The Disney remakes nobody ever really asked for

fullwidth.21a338c9So the first autumn cold of the season hit the household, and I spent most of a day prone on the couch undertaking a surefire cure for the blues: Cartoons. 

I mainlined a bunch of old Disney classics I hadn’t seen in years in between sips of lemon tea, like “Pinocchio” and “Dumbo” and “Beauty and the Beast.” And for the first time in ages I saw them through childlike (and decongestant-addled) eyes, as the remarkable works of art they are. Thousands and thousands of hours of labour went into their creation. Watching the lush colours and textures of “Pinocchio” unfold, it’s hard to imagine that this was only a decade removed from the black-and-white doodles of “Steamboat Willie.”

Disney is this kind of insanely massive corporate monolith these days, and that sometimes obscures the creative legacy of the company. Sure, they patented Corporate Cuteness (TM) and there is often a bland, monocultural sameness to much of their work. Yet at their best, the classics mainline the universal themes of the fairy tales they’re often based on to hit some primal notes. 

c03a6b0aa4c0296c0e21828cb06b7326I’d forgotten how bloody DARK “Dumbo” and “Pinocchio” are. There’s runaway children sold into slavery, a mother placed in chains, cruelty from the cartooniest of funny animals. (And we won’t even talk about “Bambi.”) 

The monolith Disney of 2019 is bashing out product on many fronts, some great (Marvel hasn’t put a foot wrong), some less. The frenetic urge to remake their animated classics with technically gorgeous, ultimately heartless CGI “live action” versions is pretty depressing. 

As pop culture continues to eat itself, Disney is avidly mining everything from “Beauty and the Beast” to “The Lion King” and “Mulan” for slick retellings that for all their pizazz never really live up to the simpler hand-drawn lines and colours of their inspirations. I’ve watched a few of these “remakes” and they vanish in the mind like mist, yet images from the original cartoons are un-eraseable. 

aladdin-genieI watched the upcoming “Lion King” trailer and I just felt bored. I don’t hate these remakes, but they seem pointless, just more grist for Scrooge McDuck’s vaults. They’re stretched out (1941 “Dumbo” 64 minutes; 2019 “Dumbo” 112) and excessive elaborations of the gorgeous simple lines of the originals. What’s cute becomes creepy rendered in vivid CGI — blue Will Smith in the also upcoming “Aladdin” remake is something I never really needed to see, and it’s kind of freaking me out. 

The real creativity was seen in the labouring of men and women working in the ‘30s and ‘40s on perfecting an amazing new art form of animation. Their work hasn’t dated in nearly 80 years. 

hqdefaultThere’s nothing I’ve seen yet in a CGI cartoon remake that approaches the stunning surrealism of the original “Pink Elephants on parade” sequence of “Dumbo” or the explosion of colour and passion of “Fantasia.” There have been lots of great original CGI cartoons from Pixar and the like of course, but Disney’s flood of redundant remakes is like a gift nobody really asked for.

Give me an original cartoon every time; it’s the cure for what ails me. 

The play that never ends: ‘Hamlet’

IMG_5196Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. — Polonious

I’ve been living in Hamlet-land for the past 8 weeks or so, a strange foggy kingdom full of ghosts and daggers and soliloquies that haunt the brain. 

As mentioned before, I’ve been volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe replica of Shakespeare’s famed theatre here in Auckland again this summer, for the third season in a row. The centrepiece of this season for me was what’s pretty much the most famous play in history, “Hamlet.”

There’s nothing like watching a play seven, eight, nine times or more to have it seep into your pores, and the Pop-Up Globe put on a marvellous version of Hamlet led by an excellent energetic Adrian Hooke in the title role (and Summer Millett as an outstanding, vivid Ophelia). Watching the show from all around the theatre, with crowds of uniform-clad school kids and groups of Shakspeare fans of all ages from 8 to 80, you can see how this enigmatic, blazing fire of a play has lasted more than 400 years. 

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. — Hamlet

IMG_5200As I’ve said before, I find Shakespeare bottomless – an infinity of meanings can be found in his works, and new twists reveal themselves in every new look. Hamlet is perhaps his crowning jewel as an artist, a play about a young man who asks the question every single one of us asks at some point in our lives: To be? Or not to be?

To sleep, perchance to dream: — ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? — Hamlet

During my month or so of Hamlet, I read books about the play – Harold Bloom’s erudite “Hamlet: Poem Unlimited” and Dominic Dromgoole’s very entertaining travelogue of the London Globe’s worldwide tour of the play and the meanings wrung out of it, “Hamlet: Globe By Globe.” I watched Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, based on his play which takes two minor characters and spins an entire side story out of them. On the bedside table awaiting a re-read is John Updike’s “Gertrude and Claudius,” a prequel. Hell, I even watched the unforgettable trailer for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hamlet (from The Last Action Hero, it’s a movie that never really was, but geez how weirdly cool would that be?). Hamlet is impossible to avoid in life. 

We defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. — Hamlet

I’d play a mental game of just how many turns of phrase, famous titles and sayings sprang from Hamlet. It’s long enough to span its own comprehensive Wikipedia page. Hamlet is everywhere. It’s in the crazy goofy McKenzie brothers comedy “Strange Brew” I watched 117 times in the mid-1980s. The Lion King. David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest.” The popular NZ TV series Outrageous Fortune. Philip K. Dick’s “Time Out of Joint.” Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind” song. Hell, even a “Star Trek” movie (Part 6: The Undiscovered Country, of course). 

IMG_5582What does it all mean? After hours and hours of Hamlet this season, I’m still not quite sure.

It’s about a young man facing up to his future. It’s about revenge. It’s about lost love and death and the impossibility of a human being ever truly knowing what’s out there beyond the veil. It’s about some terrible decision-making and some mighty low-down bloody actions. In short it’s a bottomless voyage into the human experience and somehow a guy from Stratford-Upon-Avon hit upon universal themes and truths that we’re all still grappling with centuries later. It’s Hamlet, and we never finish it, not really. 

We know what we are, but know not what we may be. — Ophelia

It’s the end of the world and I like it: The Doom Patrol

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I didn’t have high hopes for a Doom Patrol TV series. We’re living in an age where comics as obscure as bloody Cloak And Dagger are getting a show, and I was afraid I’d see one of my favourite comic books of all time churned up and turned into mediocre, forgettable content for the masses.

I’m glad I gave it a shot, because so far Doom Patrol is living up to the surreal, crazed and humane comics it’s inspired by. It’s superheroes for those who are actually getting a little sick of superheroes. 

dp94Doom Patrol have always been weird, a team of misfits and outcasts kind of like the X-Men, but more so. Their original 1960s comic adventures are a bizarro Silver Age blast, but “my” Doom Patrol really burst into being with Grant Morrison’s seminal late 1980s reinvention of the concept. Morrison’s twin masterpieces of Doom Patrol and Animal Man back in the day blew my teenage mind. 

Drawing on dadaism, obscure German fairy tales, psychology, philosophy and mythology, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol was unlike any other comic book. Hermaphrodite superhero? Check. Sentient transvestite street? Check. Paintings that come to life and eat people? Check. Gorillas and disembodied human brains falling in love? Check!

The Doom Patrol are broken people – “Robotman” Cliff Steele (terrifically voiced by Brendan Fraser) is a human brain in a robot’s body, “Negative Man” Larry Trainor is a crash victim inhabited by a bizarre ‘negative spirit,’ “Elastic Girl” Rita Farr is a Hollywood star left trying to cover up her disfigured plastic flesh, “Crazy” Jane is an abuse victim split into multiple personalities, each with its own superpower. Even more than the X-Men, they’re freaks of nature. The “X-Men” movies long ago lost their primary theme of outcasts and prejudice in a muddle of tangled continuity and Magneto blowing shit up. 

The TV show doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and pathos of their conditions, and makes them the perfect foils for a world of escalating weirdness and threats. The TV show also adds the character Cyborg, last seen played with incredible dullness in the muddled “Justice League” movie a year or two back. Cyborg is far better here, a voice of relative normality, albeit still damaged, with Joivan Wade giving an excellent performance. 

53811008_402606643871269_5458107167754158080_nOne of the newer of the approximately 419 streaming services out there, DC Universe premiered last year with Titans, which was a mixed success for me – I dug seeing the “Teen Titans” come to life and there were some great parts, but the show had very scattered storytelling and a self-consciously adult tone that felt forced (Unless you really thought we needed to have a blood-soaked Robin muttering “F—- Batman” to make the character work better). Doom Patrol is more adult by nature, so the swearing and mature themes work better (I’ll never get tired of hearing Cliff Steele aka Robotman saying, “What the F—-!?!?” in response to Doom Patrol’s never-ending parade of weirdness). 

Doom Patrol stands out among a sea of super heroism because it embraces the comics’ fundamental strangeness rather than rejecting it with a veneer of gritty ‘realism’. No other big-budget superhero show this year will feature a donkey that doubles as a dimensional portal, unless Avengers: Endgame is hiding some major secrets.

Doom Patrol reminds us of how gloriously wacky comics can be, and how the most damaged and deformed of us can still find a way to save the world sometimes. 

Scott Walker and the art of mutation

VARIOUSThe artists I admire the most are the chameleons, the mutators and innovators, the ones who never stand still. That’s why the Beatles will always trump the Rolling Stones, David Bowie will always beat Elton John to me.

And the king of chameleons was the late Scott Walker, who flew so far ahead of the farthest stars in his strange career. 

Walker died this week at 76, and it’s been heartening to see this cult artist’s cult artist applauded and recognised from so many corners. The twists of his career outstripped almost every other pop star. “Imagine Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen,” wrote a Guardian writer a while back, and that sums it up nicely. 

Born in Ohio, Walker began as a swinging ‘60s teen pop icon with the Walker Brothers (who weren’t actually brothers), belting out classics like “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”, Scott’s uniquely evocative baritone frequently rising above the banality of their early material. 

But it’s with Walker’s solo career that he really began to find his own voice, moving to the UK and creating increasingly baroque, lonesome pop anthems in a run of four amazing albums from Scott to Scott 4. Then after a few disappointing albums, he sort of vanished. He resurfaced briefly in the late 1970s with Bowie-esque, broody gems like “The Electrician” and then vanished again, releasing only two proper albums between 1978 and 2006. Each time he came back, it was as a different being. 

Scott-Walker-4AD-press-shot-web-optimised-1000-CREDIT-Jamie-HawkesworthBy 2006’s The Drift, Walker had exploded into full-on experimental surrealism, with terrifying drones and waves of sound and a voice that now sounded like the heavens shaking themselves awake. There were no pop anthems here. Legendarily, he hunted for just the right percussion sound on “The Drift” by punching hunks of raw meat. It wasn’t for everyone – indeed, you’ve really got to be in the proper frame of mind for late Scott Walker – but it was a gloriously creative twilight zone he was exploring in. His lyrics became twisted and strange Joycean rambles, his songs willfully avoiding traditional structures.

Imagine William S. Burroughs if he’d been a composer to fully get the clattering, obscure and layered effect of works like The Drift or 2012’s Bish Bosch. Yet there was always a hint of the yearning heartbroken pop singer of his earliest work there in the shadows too, the through line of a career so wilfully independent that a novice would be hard pressed to recognise the work of 1967 Scott Walker and 2016 Scott Walker as being by the same creative, haunting voice. 

Here are four songs to remember him by, each showing a different facet of his yearning sound: (1. The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, orchestral pop given a strange, epic sheen by his young yet ancient voice:

(2. His debauched and ecstatic cover of Jacques Brel’s Jacky, as subversive as all get out. Glam rock starts here. 

(3. Nite Flights, sinuous Bowie-esque glamour incarnate from the 1978 Walker Brothers reunion:

(4. Finally, Epizootics!, to give you a taste of just how out-there late-period Walker circa 2012’s Bish Bosch had gotten – stick with it, it’s got a groove that hypnotizes you and this video is like David Lynch’s nightmares unfolding. It’ll either grab you right in the spleen or repulse you deep in places you might not even know you had. How could these four songs be by the same man? It’s a fitting coda to Walker’s career for me – taking you places nobody else could. 

Christchurch: How we mourn

It’s been 12 days since New Zealand’s worst terrorist attack, and some things are slowly getting back to normal. The shock has worn off and we’re surrounded by an increasing flow of hot takes; vigils that some say turned too political and all the usual suspect columnists back on their pet peeves. Hard questions are going to be asked about how it happened, and what we could’ve done. Life, despite everything, goes on.

But the signs of an outpouring of national grief, of 50 deaths on a scale that feels a lot like our tiny island nation’s own 9/11, are still all around. We’re still having national memorials – Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam is playing at one this week.

Even in my little corner of Auckland, you see signs and tributes. Piles of flowers at mosques, chalked messages on the sidewalks, signs at the roundabouts. Even on a windswept beach about as far from our bustling downtown as you can get without going for a swim, a lovely handmade memorial of colourful flags fluttering in the black sand, seashells carefully shaped into the one symbol all the bloody terrorists in the world can’t wipe out – a human heart.

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The greatest comic books of all time. Seriously.

The comic book medium has had lots of highs in its nearly 100-year history. We’ve had Maus, Watchmen, Love and Rockets, Sandman, and much, much more. 

But if I had to choose one comic book to send to Mars as the true pinnacle of the comic art form, I’d pick the adventures of Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. 

Superman was so darned popular in the 1950s and 1960s that even second-bananas got their spin-off titles. Hence we have Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, which both managed respectable 100+ issue runs up into the 1970s.

For me, these comics are the pure crack cocaine all other comics aspire to. They’re the pop-art manic energy of Jack Kirby wrapped in suburban clothing, they’re everything Grant Morrison has homaged throughout his career. 

The insanely goofy adventures of Lois and Jimmy typically follow one pattern – hapless Jimmy and Lois get into far-out trouble, and their pal Superman has to rescue them. But in this simple pattern a world of utter insanity is kept. Jimmy Olsen becomes a werewolf, a giant Turtle-Man, a human flamethrower, a Bizarro version of himself. Lois Lane becomes a witch, a mermaid, even a black woman in a misguided attempt at relevance in the early 1970s. 


I’d argue these lowly spin-off comics in some ways serve Superman even better than his own solo adventures did – there’s rarely a fistfight or a cosmic clash, and instead the world’s most powerful superhero is often pictured as a kind of benign goofball god constantly at the beck and call of his irritating friends. 

There’s something very primal about these adventures, which all take place in a Daily Planet newspaper that seems to have about five staff, where human bodies are twisted like putty and genies, aliens and magic potions are around every corner, but everything will be back to normal by the end of the story. 

These comics are a product of their time – Lois is too often portrayed as a scheming meddler with marriage to a man (usually Superman) the only thing on her mind; but by the same token Jimmy Olsen is a gibbering goon who’s constantly getting himself into trouble as well. Yet I’d take a single Jimmy Olsen comic with their endless invention and amiable good cheer over a dozen of comic books’ latest attempts to strip-mine their past and reinvent the wheel. 

You’ll never, ever see a Jimmy Olsen movie that captures a tenth of the insanity and colour of these comics. And that’s why they’re quite possibly the peak of the comic book form.