Friday, September 15, 2017

RIP Basil Gogos (1929-2017)

I swear to you, one of my first thoughts upon awakening yesterday morning was of the first time I met Basil Gogos. It was October 1994 and I was at the Chiller Theater convention in Secaucus, NJ, helping Barbara Steele with her table when I heard that Basil Gogos was down the hall, setting up his own table. I hightailed it right over there, found him setting things out on his table and speaking with an attractive younger woman seated behind it (I later learned this was his partner, artist Linda Touby); I grabbed him by the hand and told him that I had to rush over and tell him how very much his work had enriched my life. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Linda smile and look down; I still don't know if she was smiling because she was pleased to see him so appreciated or amused because she heard this from everyone meeting him for the first time.

And now I've just heard that Basil has passed away the day before yesterday, September 13, at age 88 (though some Internet sources list him some 20 years younger), in time for him to have sent me that waking thought. No cause has been reported.

Though he was not the first artist to paint a cover for FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, Basil (then a veteran illustrator for men's adventure magazines) literally blazed the trail for horror and monster portraiture, single-handedly defining the glory of the painted monster magazine cover, turning images coined for exploitation into the finest of fine art - feral poses and bestial, skeletal faces splashed with all the colors of fright and passion. He began with the image of Vincent Price's Roderick Usher on the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #9, and - incredibly - though his artwork (sometimes recycled) appeared on fewer than 45 covers in the magazine's 25-year, 191-issue run, his work arguably defined the flavor and the potential of the magazine in ways its photo-heavy, juvenile interior could only hint at. He also provided covers for other Warren Publications, including SCREEN THRILLS ILLUSTRATED and SPACEMEN, but Warren seemed to tap him to launch new ventures rather than to sustain them.  Remarkably, he had provided only 15 covers for FAMOUS MONSTERS before there was an unexplained parting of the ways that led to his being replaced by the likes of Ron Cobb, Vic Prezio, Ken Kelly and various photo covers, and even some reprises of his covers (Claude Rains' PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, GORGO) on later issues. (Discovering how rarely his work actually appeared on FM's covers, in contrast to the seismic cultural impact they had, is like realizing that Christopher Lee appears for only eight minutes in HORROR OF DRACULA.)

Upon the death of Boris Karloff in February 1969, Warren Publications wisely arranged for Gogos' return, and his elegiac portrait of Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster for the cover of FM's Karloff Memorial issue (# 56) proved an instant classic. Looking back, in some ways, this cover and issue were my introduction to the mourning process and something in me, now, wants to relight its beautifully rendered candle for Basil.

The return of Gogos to the covers of FAMOUS MONSTERS was the beginning of a second and even longer streak of classic cover paintings: Jonathan Frid as DARK SHADOWS' Barnabas Collins; Fredric March as Mr. Hyde; Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray; Vincent Price in HOUSE OF WAX. But within the year, the magazine resorted to another recycling, this time of Lon Chaney's razor-toothed vampire from LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, FM's cover for #20 reformatted for #69. As fans, we patiently awaited the next Gogos cover. His last for the magazine came with an extraordinary portrait of Prudence Hyman as Hammer's THE GORGON for the cover of FM 179, in 1981. In a terrible lapse of judgement, a photograph of Arnold Schwarzeneggar from CONAN THE BARBARIAN was allowed to intrude upon and share the composition.

At the time I met Basil, he was doing covers for Steven Smith's fine new magazine MONSTERSCENE. I presented him with some copies of VIDEO WATCHDOG, and though he was later very complimentary about the content, we both had a chuckle when the first words out of his mouth were a disappointed "Oh, you do photo covers..." I have no idea what he was paid for his cover art, but - till the very last issue of VW - I always found the hardest job to be working out adequate compensation for our cover artists, because Gogos had instilled in me so much respect for that work. He was a soft-spoken, cheerful, and humble man and I wasn't prepared to insult him by making him an offer I considered to be far beneath him. His brushes had conjured so many of the contours of my young imagination; he articulated with greater skill than my young self could muster a real passion for the monsters I loved, and therefore taught me something of love and passion. His mastery of color prepared me to love Mario Bava. My favorite of all his works is his portrait of Ingrid Pitt, done for the cover of MONSTERSCENE; Ingrid was at that Chiller show too, and I know that she was deeply pleased and flattered by it. (How could she have felt otherwise, beholding the difference between a performance and a piece of iconography?) I was fortunate enough to have been standing there as she voiced her appreciation and he returned it by saying it was his great honor to work with such a beautiful subject.

Since his passing was announced on Facebook last night, I have seen countless postings on my news feed by artists who have said, in their own ways, much the same thing - and I realized from this outpouring of gratitude that Basil Gogos was not just a seminal cultural figure but a germinal one; he presented to us largely untapped territory that was there for everyone's future mining. And the most wonderful thing about this influence of Gogos is that everyone he inspired paints differently; no one really paints like him. Basil remains unique. What his students derive from his example is permission to paint monsters with love and empathy and joy and absolute freedom. 

Valé to the great Gogos, who taught so many of us how to see in the dark.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 04, 2017

One For the Grandkids: TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN

"I should follow YOU?"
- Miles Davis, to a fan expressing his wish that he go back to playing ballads

At the end of Episode 16 of Showtime's TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, we saw Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) briefly rescued from mid-life marriage to a man who was something less than the man to whom she once aspired by an invitation to dance. She then returned to her husband's side and a reality-shattering crash through that illusion into what appeared to be a confrontational collision with her own makeup mirror. I spent the past week wondering where this scene would take us. In a way, it took us nowhere, because we don't see Audrey again in the miniseries' last two episodes; then again, this scene tells us exactly where we are headed.

The last two episodes, or hours (if we accept - as I think we should - David Lynch's description of this latest collaboration with Mark Frost as "an eighteen-hour film" rather than a miniseries) of this story suggest to me a one-hour or 90-minute story with a 15-16 hour prologue and a one-hour epilogue. It does not accommodate traditional narrative structure, and therefore is doomed to disappoint most audience expectations geared to that experience. Many times as the weekly chapters rolled out, I found myself responding to them not as narrative, not even as cinema, but as digital painting - making use of live actors selected much like emotional colors. As some others have observed, the quality of the digital effects suggested an unusual transparency that might look bad or cheap to those whose standard of measure was reality; but I always felt the point was never to suggest reality but different graphic ideas put into motion. A noble attempt to reclaim the viewer's right to suspend disbelief with their own senses, rather than have the technology rob them of that privilege. As the entire arc of the program is revealed, this level of artifice has a point to make.

As with the original series finale, the general response I've been seeing has been disappointment, even anger, sometimes followed by a slowly blooming acceptance and enthusiasm. The disappointment, I believe, comes from a thwarted authorial impulse: it didn't go where we wanted it to go. But as characters in the story have been saying, "The past dictates the future." Therefore, any attempt to return to the past is a sentimental urge, a romanticism doomed to failure or, if indeed such contact is made, we run the risk of monkeying with our present vantage point in the future. Which is exactly the trajectory of the final chapter. In the last moments, when Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) asks "What year is this?" I don't think he's asking which year he's inhabiting. Rather, he's questioning our expectations of the narrative, our demands for clarity and a happy ending - even a satisfying reunion. Why did we want to go back to a murder scene? What did we want to undo? Or do? Were these characters not supposed to change - though we, their creator and television itself has?

And finally, Cooper is also asking the wrong question, which points to a suggestion of his condemnation to another long detour through mystic circles - his penance for his ego in assuming superhuman responsibilities and a god-like role in setting everything right. When Cooper and Diane (Laura Dern) risk "changing everything" by riding the electrical coordinates to new identities, they soon lose each other and Dale finds himself alone in the American west, in the city of Odessa. It's not only the name of a Ukrainian city, but the feminine form of Odysseus or Ulysses, the hero of Homer's THE ODYSSEY, and finally a Greek word meaning "full of wrath." (The ODYSSEY connection to Cooper is quite interesting, particularly if we consider the interpretation that it took Odysseus so many years of wandering to return home because he didn't want to go home.) The Cooper whom we see cruising the streets of this melting pot American city is neither the all-good Cooper of the original series, nor the Bad Cooper, whose negative energies have been conquered by this point, or at least redistributed. As earlier events have shown us, Cooper's efforts came very close to saving Laura retroactively - indeed, he does seem to prevent her murder, at least on one plane of existence - but in doing so, he interfered with her own karmic destiny and sent that compulsory drama elsewhere to find its fulfillment.

But he has not yet learned this lesson, and when he sees the fateful name Judy on a restaurant sign in Odessa, he follows the sign to a breakfast interrupted by the modern-day equivalent of an Old West shootout, as he butts in to save a stranger's honor. The melting pot signs (Odessa, Maersk, etc), the open carry laws, people living in accordance with romantic ideas of freedom in a conspicuously unfree word...  Lynch's purpose here is plain - this is the America we now I habit, viewed through a pair of THEY LIVE eyeglasses, as it were. Cooper continues to take lawful responsibility for Laura Palmer's metaphysical fate by tracing Judy to her lookalike counterpart - an apparent kook and murderess whose name is not Judy but rather Carrie Page (Sheryl Lee) - and hoping to discharge the evil energies riding her existence by introducing her to her mother (Grace Zabriskie), who is dealing with devils of her own. But it's no longer her house... for the rather obvious reason that "You can't go home anymore." What Cooper may suddenly be inhabiting outside the Palmer house is not a different year, but a different tense - namely, reality. (This reading of the ending would appear to be supported by the casting of Mary Reber, the real-life owner of the Palmer House property, as its present owner Alice Tremond.)

In short, David Lynch and Mark Frost have addressed themselves to the fact that art is a thing of process and progress that does not move in reverse; only the longing of the human heart does that. In so doing, it may well motivate the creation of art, but such art is usually wrenching in its torment, bringing us to terms with more innocent times that were never really so innocent, the nostalgic songs that closer scrutiny reveal to come from places of real pain, the high school sweetheart who got away and fired a bullet through the brain of the fellow lucky enough to catch her. Because what such investigations usually signify is that the present, our present, is in some way unsatisfactory - but if we dare to move back, we risk changing or losing connection with where we were. 

The original TWIN PEAKS series still exists, and that experience can be repeated to the heart's content, leaving THE RETURN to warn us of the myriad dangers awaiting anyone careless enough to rifle backwards through the spent pages of life. 

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.