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Stephen King Taught Me To Think

The books of Stephen King have influenced pulled at me over many years and many visits to the stack of books by the toilet.

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From the tender ages of twelve to eighteen, I swam through enough Stephen King to significantly alter the shape of my mind. There was little common ground between myself and the rest of my family growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but the bulk of it existed in the teetering stacks of Stephen King books that stood stationed next to our first-floor toilet. My big brothers were bad kids, and I was the arty little weirdo in their wake, content to keep my head down until it was time to get out, though quietly convinced that they were as cool-as-cool-could-be even while enduring their abuse (and snatching their discarded books). King united us as more than the drowning children of a shattering divorce; we were all Constant Readers. The words he wrote made me feel part of something in ways that extended beyond the borders of our crumbling suburban walls.

Among my kin, books were a crucible, a bridge to cross into young adulthood before getting down with rock music, drugs, and other illicit behaviors. First came the elves, then came the horror. King was filed just below the less murky rivers of Tolkien’s mines and mythril, both authors left around and therefore tacitly handed down by our father, who mostly worked, but sometimes still read. Everything he finished got stationed next to the can for us to swallow and digest amongst ourselves.

I first tested the dark waters of King on my own, a bit too young for the fast and dirty turbulence of an early short story collection called Night Shift, which left me with a well-stirred mix of sleeplessness and excitement. I back-paddled to some lighter fair with Eyes of the Dragon, its Arthurian overtones feeling less like an alien shore after spending so much time in Middle Earth. I could sense a deeper truth in Mr. King’s voice, something dark and forbidden and real down his well of words. I dove into my first thousand-page-plus verifiable King tome: IT. I was twelve.

IT was a revelation. “What can be done when you’re eleven can often never be done again,” King writes. Here was a book not only starring a bunch of kids, but a bunch of weird kids who swore and were all messed up, not unlike a certain brood of young people I shared a lavatory with — and King treated them with respect. Sure the horror was there, but at its core, between inhaler puffs and an evil shape-shifting clown/blood-sink, there was a look at kids as real people. These kids were scared and screwed up, and they had to face the consequences of what had happened to them when they became scared and screwed up adults. The effect was like someone had thrown back the filthy curtain on the sitcom of adulthood. The strange nightmare that is life and living it is everyone’s. I thirsted for more.

I crawled through the sewers of IT and dove into the sprawl of The Stand, and my elder brothers nodded in approval as I walked towards the apocalypse — and further away from them. The Stand is a story that just doesn’t let you go, an epic on another scale, as if someone took Middle Earth and churned it into Middle America (while murdering nearly everyone there). Every character and turn of the sprawling story held me, the detail and scope unlike anything I’d ever imagined; I couldn’t turn its pages fast enough. I can still see the rag-tag bunch of heroes roll up to the big bad Flagg in Vegas, I can still hear Geddy Lee on my stereo wailing prophecies by their side. Like a dusty forgotten snow-globe, King had taken the old story of good versus evil, shaken it up, and thrown it out the window — but it landed intact, renewed, and in the form of a big beautiful book unlike anything I’d ever swallowed. I made it through the End of Days and felt cleansed, as if still more of human nature was laid bare before my impressionable eyes and mind. “Who gets to be best-liked in any community? Who is the most trusted? Why, the man who does the dirty job, of course, and does it with a smile. The man who does the job you couldn’t bring yourself to do,” King writes. Good would always fight evil, but everyone in the fight is filthy too. I’d crossed another bridge, jumped off, and emerged covered in grit and ready to walk down my own long road.

So I sprinted. I took in all that I could with varying swaths of consistency and quality, from evil zombie cats of Pet Cemetery to the bizarre bazaar of Needful Things. I drank up everything I could get my hands on between 1990 and 1996, always guided by King’s unwavering compass, which always sought truth between the freakish dark cracks and crevices beneath us.

Then I found Roland, ‘The Gunslinger.’ Stephen King’s self-proclaimed Magnum Opus, it sets forth as another tale of good versus evil, and distant echoes of Middle Earth reside here too. The Gunslinger chases a man in black towards a Dark Tower in a muddy reflection our own world. Another strange kid comes into the mix, a kid who is written to be real and honest and true, a kid from our world who stands in the face of danger and falls, and the Gunslinger pulls him along kicking, just like King pulled me, some tenderness beneath all that brutality (but certainly no mind paid to the fact that neither of us was old enough to drive). Then the whole thing goes beautifully bonkers with some mystical doors on a beach in The Drawing of the Three. As King delved deeper into the Dark Tower mythology, I plunged with him and came gasping to the surface to glimpse all of his stories turning on one point, one Tower. The scope of his ambition extended beyond genre and plot and into the wave of the power of story itself to transform and transcend. He showed me that there were so many other worlds than this one, and that they all mattered. I wanted to go shape my own.

And then he stopped. So I stopped, too. The Wastelands, the third of his tremendous Dark Tower series would be his last in the tale of Roland for six years. When you’re eighteen or so, that’s quite a few years. By the time I read it, The Wastelands already had a few years on it, and it looked like there was no end to Roland’s journey in sight (and that strange tale ends on a real train-ride of a cliff-hanger, let me tell you). All of which coincided with my exit from my childhood home, hometown, and life. By the time I went to college in the Big City, I’d managed to convince myself that I floated above the pulp and foolishness of certain childhood stories and pastimes. A lot less energy was spent listening to Rush, playing video games, and reading Stephen King. “Go, then. There are other worlds than these,” said Jake, the child-friend of The Gunslinger. I would come back around to King’s world, just like I would come back to Rush and video games. I just needed to swim around on my own for a bit.

Years rolled by, and my Very Adult Perspective washed away as the days and nights churned forward. I became an artist, and loved every minute of it, but somehow so much of my work was wordy and covered with the echoes of stories. Each little piece of art I forged began to whisper weird words in my ear. My mind had been shaped for something more than just pictures and their sprawling implications. And then Stephen King got hit by a car.

He was okay enough, or as okay as you can be when you get whacked by a giant hunk of metal, but by all accounts, it woke him up a bit. Not that he hadn’t been writing in the meantime, but he knew he needed to finish Roland’s tale, and while he was at it, he’d finish up another little book about the craft itself, On Writing.

I found him again shortly thereafter, and he splashed me awake, too. On Writing was its own revelation. “Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe,” he writes. All my young life of reading King, one of my favorite parts of his books were his warm introductions — his wandering set-ups for where he was at and where he was headed while he made this particular book or that particular set of stories. While I relished each strange tale, I also treasured these unadorned and easy-going asides. Here was a book all in Uncle Stevie’s unvarnished voice, all about the craft that he’d mastered. In it, he told me a lot, but more than anything else, he told me what I already knew — that I had to do one thing in order to tell the stories I wanted to. “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work,” Steve says. I had to actually write, dammit.

So I do.

My siblings and I have all grown up now, and thankfully survived our own long crucibles, bridges, and countless pulp novels more or less intact. While our worlds and journeys are quite different, we still connect over stories, and most of all, the stories of Stephen King. I was late to the pool party coming back around to King’s magic words, but now it’s a joy to return, like seeing an old friend who you thought you’d sailed away from. He was there in the water all along.

So I do what Steve said. I put words on the page, one at a time (and I mind the adverbs, by the by). Stephen King molded my mind when I was young enough not to realize it, and then he convinced me to give it a try myself, and no amount of words I put down will ever be thanks enough.

It turns out that throughout all of it, I learned, at least a bit. King’s twisted claws sculpted my mind to believe that any idea I could have, if I could see it, if I could dig it up and dust it off properly, I could bring it to the surface. And now I write my own weird tales, I put word after word to page after page to set sail into my own stories. One of these days I might even make one that’s worthy of a spot next to someone else’s toilet.

Marty has a new book, Retro Games! Forty of the world's mightiest old school games from the NES through The Playstation. Marty is an artist, writer, teacher, and maker living in Brooklyn, NY, best known for making sock puppets and taking their pictures. He's written four other books, made lots of art, and made even more sandwiches. He loves writing about video games and pop culture almost as much as he loves digesting them. Yum!

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Carston

    September 10, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    I’ve never connected with an article on books and writing more than I have with this one, bravo sir.

    • Marty Allen

      September 10, 2017 at 9:45 pm

      Thanks so much, Carston!

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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