Saturday, July 17, 2010

Magazines: Your editorially-mandated vigor for all thing horror appalls me.

In Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, there's a scene in which the the reader is subjected to the rodomontades of a city booster organization that exists nominally to promote the attractions of the booming town of Zenith; but, in reality, their utter indifference and contempt for all things not Zenith, means that they function as an echo chamber hallelujah chorus, a fevered roundtable of self-aggrandizement at which every discussion topic, every idea, bends back to the simple conclusion that Zenith is paradise on Earth and its noble citizens the chosen people of the one true God. Underneath all the civic good feeling, of course, is a simmering undercurrent of commerce: Be a good town, bring in more people, make more money. The brilliance of the civic booster organization is that it merges pride and joy with the promotion of naked commercial interest.

One feels the same relentless drive to praise at the core the newly revived Famous Monsters of Filmland. With issue 251, the magazine once again slouches towards magazine racks everywhere. FM isn't a magazine that covers horror-themed events so much as it is tireless advocate for the genre. This isn't journalism or scholarship, it's horror boosterism. And, of course, under it all is the same drive for commercial promotion. One wonders why people buy commercials in Famous. Most of the stories are ads. Take the not one, but two stories about the Predator franchise. Despite the fact that the overall story arc for this particular Hollywood property is that it has been one-hit wonder that people apparently can't stop diluting with lesser follow-ups - a couple of which are spectacularly embarrassing - Famous dutifully retraces the well-tread ground of the original (though this might be the first review of said film that uses the term "gravitas" in earnest while discussing the classic sci-fi/actioner) and breathlessly asserts how the horror community waits, aquiver with anticipation, to see the new one ("Horror-fans went mad with the news . . ."). Not only is this one more story than the franchise rates, but it is impossible to tell which story is less needed. Were the editors concerned that readers were unfamiliar with the original Predator? Or did they think there was a burning desire out there to see the past six or seven months of Internet-based PR hackery collected into a single place, in dead tree format?

Perhaps most notably, by my count, there are only two mentions of the three middling to horrible sequels. The first comes in the piece about the new flick. There's a brief mention that the new monster makers felt Predator designs after the first film bulked up too much. Though, honestly, that was the least of the problems that plagued those flicks. The second is a short reference to the fact that the actor who played the first Predator, Kevin Peter Hall, reprised the role for the sequel. No reference to the fact that the franchise has been slowly rotting ever since the first. No reference to the prevailing feeling amongst fans that Robert Rodriguez's mission was essentially a sort of code blue, last ditch effort to revive a franchise that hadn't delivered the goods in more than 20 years. Nothing to suggest what reviewers are now confirming: Caution is the better part of fanboy exuberance.

I pick on these two Predator articles because they reveal the deadening aspect of Famous's relentlessly promotional style. Despite allegedly having two different authors, there's a sort of monotonous official cheerfulness, blended with a toadying care not to step on the toes of the corporate money, that makes Famous as close to a pop culture Tass as one can get in a free, capitalist society.

Even where the question of slavishly bending the knee before the dollar men is irrelevant, such as the issue opening think piece on "The Importance of Horror" and the profile of Karl Freund, this boosterish quality leads to Mojo-ism. Once, in my impressionable youth, I read a Brit music mag that actually put on its cover the blurb "Nevermind the Beatles, Here's the Shadows." The inner article told the story of how the now relatively obscure Shadows actually made a slight dent in the American market before the Beatles. Though, that wasn't the way the story told it. Drunk on it's own iconoclastic discovery, the article lost all sense of scale and suggested a proto-Brit invasion had been staged by the Shadows all by their onesies. This is, of course, rubbish. The Beatles don't get to be the basis of the term "Beatlemania" because they put a dent in the American pop charts. Anywho, I was suckered and bought this huge old box set of Shadows stuff, waiting to hear music that would make me "nevermind the Beatles." For those unfamiliar with them, the Shadows are a Brit surf band (which is a choice paradox in itself) and take my word for it when I tell you that you don't need to listen to several hours of their music to realize the Beatles' place in rock history is secure. Ever since that incident, magazine overhype, driven by the need to promote an endless stream of new heroes and lost gems, has been know among my people as Mojo-ing. Fall for it, and you've been Mojo-ed.

Famous is Mojo-ing porn.

My favorite example of Mojo-ing comes in the profile of Karl Freund. Now I'll admit that Freund is a sadly overlooked figure in horror cinema history. But writer David Alex Nahmod Mojos the crap out of Freund's career. In this obsessively worshipful piece, we learn that Fruend's camera work on The Golem is what makes it superior to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. On the basis of his camerawork, Freund is compared obscurely, but favorably to director D. W. Griffith: "Lillian Gish said that D. W. Griffith gave film its grammar. But it was Freund that freed film from its constraints." (This is a particularly fine example of Mojo-ing as it is utterly meaningless, but uses a recognizably cliched bit of praise to keep us from unpacking it. What does that sentence even mean? He freed film from Griffith's grammar? From the constraints of stage conventions? Freed film from the constraints of film? What would that even mean?) He knocks Tod Browning down a peg or two. Freund, we're told, is the single person most responsible for the look of classic horror. In his discussion of Metropolis, the writer blames the slow parts of the flick on that hack Fritz Lang and gives all credit for anything that works in the flick to Freund. Freund also built the first commercially viable electric car (Big Oil suppressed his invention), cured cancer (Big Cancer suppressed that), solved the mystery of traveling through time (suppressed by calendar publishers), and definitively located the elusive g-spot (this wasn't suppressed; dudes just ignored it).

This blogger-ish tendency to get its world rocked by every minor connection it finds become clownish after just a few pages. Furthermore, it leads to a level of discourse you can currently get for free on in the horror blog-twitter pro-am. Lazy scholarship defending half-baked theories? You're soaking in it!

Taking the long view, one can recognize the historical roots of this problem. The relaunch issue is bookended by Ackerman: the front features a letter to the fans from the Acker-monster. In the back, there's a collection of testimonials - more like a final fan letter collection than an oral history - informing us what a hell of guy Ackerman was. That the rest of the magazine is basically trapped in the space between monuments to Ackerman is as apt a metaphor for everything that's wrong with Famous as you're going to get. From '93 to '07, the editorship of Famous was, depending on your point of view, assumed or highjacked by a cat named Ray Ferry. The legality of Ferry's assumption that FM's copyright had not been maintained, Ferry's real crime in the eye's of FM-ites is that he didn't worship at the altar of Ackerman. He treated the Acker-monster like the hired help (which, according to Ferry's view of the situation, was exactly what Ackerman was). This toxic business deal turned into a nearly decade long battle between Ackerman and Ferry for control of the rag. In 2000, the courts sided with Ackerman, but - somewhat inexplicably - nobody moved on the bankrupted Ferry and he was able to crank out issues into 2007. The FM War ended in late '07 with another regime change: a private equity investor named Philip Kim bought the distinctive logo and title and negotiated with Ackerman to gain control of attached rights in exchange for guarantees that the mag's look and feel would be maintained.

The result, the decision to save Famous Monsters of Filmland came with a rider that stipulated that the had to stay a museum piece.

FM one-long-huzzah approach to "journalism" was, in Ackerman's day, a somewhat reasonable approach to the imagi-movies (Ackerman's term for the mix of genre's he loved: horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and so on). Not because the quality of films was, in Ackerman's time, any better than our own, but rather because the genre was then a sort of intellectual and cultural reservation for ideas and tropes the mainstream considered infantile, repulsive, foolish, and whatnot. Horror, sci-fi, and fantasy needed cheerleaders to establish their legitimacy. But that battle's over. Genre is the new mainstream. Ackerman won.

Today, the sort of undifferentiated vigor of the rag seems out of step with our times. It seems quaint and bloodless, two traits we don't need in modern horror.


Adam said...

Fantastic piece.

I haven't picked up the new FM, and I don't believe I will. The majority of print horror journalism falls into the categories you define here. Whether it be Mojo-ing or Boostering, there is no real criticism or ideas to be found in their pages.

With the notable exception of Paracinema (which is more of a journal than anything else, as it forgoes the "news and reviews" format entirely) there's not a whole lot of good out there. Rue Morgue is the only "traditional" mag worth the price of admission, and even they have their problems sometimes.

Anthony Hogg said...

I haven't read it in a while, but have you checked out Shivers?

CRwM said...

Adam and Anthony,

I'm unfamiliar with Paracinema or Shivers. I'll have to seek them out.

Adam said...

Paracinema's a must. The articles run the gamut from personal reflections and interviews to academic articles.

Not to toot my own horn, but in the next issue I contribute an essay on "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and Russ Meyer's statements about mass media.

jzipperer said...

Somewhere between the excellent Babbit reference and "Mojo-ing porn," you won me over as a new reader of your blog. Excellent points.

I have written my own thoughts on FM 251 on my blog, but I mostly focused on the design (terrible) and the bad tone and article selection of the issue. You, however, went in with a scalpel and did the real work. Thanks!