October 3rd, 2010

Me 2 (B&W)

Caitlin R. Kiernan, here and now (Lovecraft Film Fest in words, Part I)

Even if you don’t know the name H.P. Lovecraft, you’ve seen his influence. His dark fantasy and horror stories from the 1920s and ’30s have influenced Conan creator Robert E. Howard (they were correspondents, in fact), Psycho creator Robert Bloch, Mike Mignola of Hellboy, Alien artist H.R. Giger, Stephen King (The Mist is just one example), Neil Gaiman, and more. Lovecraft’s work is the inspiration for the influential and well-loved horror movies Re-Animator, the Evil Dead series, and The Thing, and is finally -- finally -- likely to get a true, faithful, big-budget movie adaptation, as Guillermo del Toro plans to write and direct, with James Cameron producing, a film version of At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft’s influence even shows up in Ghostbusters: his huge, powerful, God-like alien entities are much like Gozer and its minions trying to break into our world. Yes, Ghostbusters is Lovecraft that’s funny.

The H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival celebrates that. So many filmmakers, veteran and budding, try making Lovecraft’s otherworldly creations visible -- a unique challenge as Lovecraft was brilliant at describing creatures that somehow don’t, feel, right, for this world. Angles may seem wrong, body symmetry may seem not to fit in this dimension, the entities’ actions may seem unexplainable, with the hint/threat that simply comprehending the true extent of these creatures and their power would drive humans to insanity.

This can be heady, inspiring stuff. And one artist inspired by it is author Caitlin R. Kiernan (greygirlbeast), who the film festival has tried hard to bring to Portland. This year the stars aligned -- come to think of it, “stars aligning” seems an appropriate analogy for the Lovecrsft-related -- and Kiernan is in Portland this weekend. I’ve known her online since 2003; yesterday we met in meat-space.

I saw her on two panels and later heard her read from Lovecraft Unbound, a story collection edited by fellow fest guest Ellen Datlow. Datlow, wanting something a little different from many collections of Lovecraft-influenced work, had asked for “Lovecraft without the tentacles.” The authors mostly obliged; Kiernan only, um, hinted at them (in an especially oblique way) in her 2007 story “Houses Under the Sea.”

Now to back up to early in the fest yesterday. After recognizing Kiernan in the upstairs lobby of the Hollywood Theater -- she A) is tall and B) was wearing a straw hat and sunglasses -- I made my way into the theater where two of her Saturday panels would take place. I introduced myself to her before the panel started, and told her I was glad she was able to fly this time. She said her “passport situation” had finally been sorted out and she was happy to have reached Portland, but that “airplanes are not a civilized way to travel.” We both hoped for a resurgence of dirigibles. I then turned around and spoke briefly with Kiernan’s partner, photographer/ sculptor/ dollmaker Kathryn Pollnac (a.k.a. Spooky, a.k.a. humglum), who was sitting in the audience. She’s been away from Portland, her former home, about as long as I’ve lived there myself. I hope the visit has been fulfilling and satisfying for her. Then the panel started.

“I’m Stephenie Fucking Meyer,” Kiernan said by way of introduction at “Riffing on Lovecraft,” where she, Datlow, and fellow authors Marc Laidlaw, Ed Morris, Robert M. Price and Michael Shea talked about being influenced by Lovecraft. Then she got more serious and on-topic, talking about the draw of Lovecraft and his sense of cosmic time, and the way many of the elements that scared Lovecraft enough to write about them -- the weight of time against which the whole of human history is basically a sliver of a microsecond, the power of the sea, even sexuality -- are elements she’s drawn to, attracted to. She and others spoke of Lovecraft’s writing style -- such as his opulent word choices (she and Datlow argued over how to pronounce “squamous,“ which Datlow said “SQUAW-mous” and Kiernan said “SQUAY-mous; I‘m a scientist“) -- and his power of description. The thing is, Lovecraft seemed to want to resist describing what his characters see but then really would describe these wrong-seeming creatures in quite a bit of detail. They talked about adapting his ideas to different topics: Price talked about tying Lovecraft to politics. Sexuality came up, too: Kiernan and others make sex and sexuality explicit in many of their Lovecraft-influenced works, like Kiernan‘s wonderful and harrowing 2009 novel The Red Tree. Also discussed: Lovecraft’s bigotry, which is evident and maddening, and only partly explained (and not excused) by the bigotry of his era. At the panel’s very end, an audience member pointed out, pointedly, that the bigotries of our era were likely to be clearer and inexcusable in the future, citing anti-Muslim prejudice. Unfortunately, he mentioned it with only seconds to discuss it, meaning it really wasn‘t discussed.

After a brief break was “The Cosmic Horror Movement,” again with Kiernan and Shea, plus Jason Brock, Cody Goodfellow, Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire and Don Webb. They discussed trying to find a more human face on the sort of horror Lovecraft described: a lot of Lovecraft’s human characters aren’t that interesting (and their dialogue is FAMOUSLY stilted and awful), and making the human protagonists of their Lovecraft-influenced works is one potential way to, I’d say, improve on what Lovecraft did. Pugmire, for instance, talked about bringing his point of view as a practicing Mormon (including missionary work in his youth) and being queer (his word choice) to his Lovecraft pastiches. The draw of Lovecraft’s work was so evident in this panel and the others I saw: they have fun with it, they’re challenged by it, they “think bigger” because of it. Made me more excited about their work, seeing them get excited and inspired.

Over all this, I avoided being “hover-y”; I knew they’d be visited by many people, and didn‘t want to be pushy and monopolizing. (I heard that other fans had done Kiernan and Pollnac a favor and brought bacon-maple Voodoo Doughnuts to Friday night’s opening festivities.) Soon after 9, right before I left -- tired, wobbly and happy -- I got the aforementioned picture with them. I left giggling.

The Burrowers (Lovecraft Film Fest in words, Part II)

The ability to see H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on Ghostbusters aside, I am as yet not well-versed in the films inspired by Lovecraft. I’ve seen almost none of them. I’m friends with many people who have seen plenty of them, but I’ve yet to seek them out. I’m aware of several of them, and I’ll get to more eventually, but my big draw to go to the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival was to see author Caitlin R. Kiernan. That said, I did want to see at least some of the films. Try something different for me.

I didn’t have to see one of the headline movies this year, The Whole Wide World, because I have seen it. Wished I’d liked it, but hey, Vincent D‘Onorio (who starred as Lovecraft‘s friend Robert E. Howard) can maybe do no wrong. I only poked my head into the main screening room for a couple of the shorts, because those conflicted with other festival events I wanted to attend.

By chance, the evening’s keynote speech -- delivered by guest of honor Caitlin R. Kiernan, as I didn’t mention before -- was followed by the 2008 film The Burrowers, and I went from almost leaving to deciding to stay to watch. (Here is the film‘s trailer.) In 1879, Western settlers are either dead or kidnapped at the hands of what trackers and the cavalry first think are Indians. If that were the reason, the film wouldn‘t have been programmed at this fest; the story adds a Weird Fiction element (which I won‘t spoil) to the wide, often lovely, often dangerous plains that 19th-century Americans and American immigrants were crossing and settling.

The film looks quite good, and is fine with being quiet, in the sound effects, the dialogue, and Joseph LoDuca’s music. Good cast, too, particularly Clancy Brown of Highlander and The Shawshank Redemption, his fellow Lost alum William Mapother, and Doug Hutchinson who played such a memorably awful prison guard in the film version of The Green Mile. The special effects are subtle, take advantage of the low budget, and are edited coherently. You see enough of the actual threat, without seeing so much that you see the seams or so little that you can’t process what you’re seeing, a frequent problem in effects films lately.

But I didn’t really connect with The Burrowers. Being tired was a factor; my long week, my long Friday and my only partial recovery on Saturday had caught up with me by then. And the humor, usually a kind of humor I can appreciate, subtle and appropriate for the era and the situation, just didn’t feel subtle and appropriate for the era and the situation. Intellectually I got it, but as I generally wasn’t laughing, it wasn’t working for me. Only getting intellectually why something is funny is never enough. (“Be, because of the echo,” Shane Black says in Predator. Did you laugh THEN? No.) Ultimately I got inpatient with the film but willing to stick it out for the rest of it.

This will disappoint theloriest, but I knew I wouldn’t be awake enough to stay for the later showing of Guillermo del Toro’s deeply dark fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth, plus getting home past 11 on a Saturday would be more complicated than getting home after 9. Buses and my legs, as they often do, were my ways home. Later and I would’ve sprung for a cab. I considered that even leaving at 9, but it was better to get home the ways I did. And I will see Pan’s Labyrinth some other time some other way.