Monday, November 19, 2012

A Beary Twisted Tale

In A Beary TwistedTale:  Goldilocks and the Three Bears, we once again hear Glenn A. Hascall’s penchant for irreverent, metafictional interaction between storyteller and characters.  I am discovering this is a familiar aspect of his audio writing, and though it becomes a bit less remarkable with repeated exposure, I still admire it exceedingly.  In his rewrite of this familiar fairy tale, he often explains away the more puzzling tenets of the fiction by having the characters question their own motivations—sometimes quite literally.  Goldilocks (Katie Dehnart) is subjected to two bowls of extremely disgusting gruel, wondering what has possessed her to try them other than the machinations of the puppet-master narrator, before she drinks Teen Bear’s liquidized hamburger and strawberry milkshake.  She avoids chairs and beds before Mama, Papa, and Teen Bear interrogate why Teen Bear does not have his own room.

In an extended epilogue, we find out that Goldilocks makes millions after filming her experiences with sentient speaking bears and selling the footage to network TV.  She shares her fortunes with the Bear Family, enabling them to take up hobbies, for Teen Bear to buy a pancake chain and make it  his own, and for herself to go on to a fully fledged media career.  

I am very fond of Misfits Audio and the wide range of things they produce and always look forward to a Glenn A. Hascall-authored piece.


FlashPulp is an experiment in presenting noir and crime thrillers of yesterday in a modern format with more imaginative twists to the tales.  I heard Coffin:  Infrastructure, a three-part story by J.R.D. Skinner read by Opopanax.  The haunting book end music is a version of “Gloomy Sunday” and sets the tone for oddly riveting stories.  This particular one was a bit tautological and murky, especially the first two parts, involving Will Coffin, “urban shaman” and his alcoholic (and foul-mouthed) sidekick Bunny, who always has a bottle of wine or whiskey in her hand.  Her candid responses to all manner of weird stuff are refreshing and the primary aspect that makes FlashPulp modern rather than a mere homage.  I’m not a huge fan of stories read on audio; I prefer full dramas with multiple actors, music, and sound effects, but Opopanax is a sympathetic and skilled reader, so I felt quite lulled into submission by her reading. 

A Frozen Stream Called Wounded Knee

A 1992 BBC play called A Frozen Stream Called Wounded Knee really took me by surprise.  I don’t normally review my BBC plays here because I keep a separate log with very short reviews due to the volume of plays I listen to.  However, I felt this one deserved special attention.

Written by John Pilkington, I felt this play’s unusual subject matter, as well as the way in which it was treated, was highly unusual for BBC Radio and one of the most moving and emotional plays I have ever heard (and calculating that, roughly, I have listened to between 300 and 400 audio/radio plays in the past 6 years, that is a statement with some weight behind it).  

The title refers to the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota (which I suggest you look up if you don’t know about it already).  Rather than a straight retelling of this heartbreaking story (which is what I expected when I saw the title in a Radio Times listing for 1992), Pilkington much more masterfully has woven in a great deal more, giving it a perspective, richness, and depth seldom encountered even in the best of BBC radio drama.  

What makes A Frozen Stream Called Wounded Knee really relevant is that it embodies the spirit of the modern Indian by exposing the almost impossible necessity of living with split identities, as does Luta, aka William (Kerry Shale), a middle-aged Lakota schoolteacher living on the reservation.  He may not be the bad-ass that Dash Bad Horse is in Vertigo Comics’ superb title Scalped, but they share many of the same character traits and face many of the same challenges.  As white nurse Amy says in A Frozen Stream, the modern day battle on reservations is between the traditionalists and the progressives—“the reservation needs a few more tribal festivals, bingo parlors . . . the same old story.”  I won’t spoil too much of Scalped though I do recommend you read it immediately, but it, too, is set in South Dakota and though the setting is contemporary (2007), a large strand of the plot is concerned with events during the early 1970s in the middle of the American Indian Movement.

A Frozen Stream is also set in near-contemporary South Dakota (1990) but also hearkens back to the AIM, which is explained and described when Cutter (William Hope), a young University graduate filmmaker (and Mohawk from St Regis) visits Luta to try to get his take on the events of 1973 that got him arrested—framed for killing a cop.  He’s in search of “an authentic political voice.”  A Frozen Stream doesn’t talk down to its listeners but it gives them access to Luta’s inner monologue, which is quite a privilege given his taciturn sarcasm and detachment.  “I’m an Indian—a Native American.  I’m a Lakota.  Sioux—everyone’s heard of the Sioux.  But nobody realizes that, in old times, calling some a Sioux was like calling him a nigger or a wop.  It’s Chippewa for ‘snake.’ . . . I’m Luta, it means Red.  My skin is luta.  Red was a dirty word long before there was communism.”  I’m normally not a big fan of narration in radio drama, but I think Luta’s narration is necessary on two counts, partly because it grounds listeners who may not have a background like mine in the American West, and partly because we do get to know Luta that much better.

I think generally British people of a certain age remember Westerns fondly—I still hear people use the term “Red Indian” which to me is a bit insulting—but they are not fashionable because they’re embarrassing and people aren’t keen to examine reservation life—examined critically in everything from Tony Hillerman to Sherman Alexie—which is highlighted memorably in A Frozen Stream, where “unemployment is at 70%.”  Not only that, the verbal and physical abuse Luta suffers walking to the reservation at night along a deserted road makes a listener physically sick—the intervention of the state highway patrol is patronizing at best.  I’ve been told before that fiction is a great way to inspire people to social change, and I’d like to think that’s what works of art like A Frozen Stream do.  I’d also like to think things have changed for the better since 1990, but the evidence presented in Scalped suggests otherwise.  

If A Frozen Stream is giving us a glimpse of life for Luta in 1990 and 1973, it’s also got a mysterious thread running through it linking him to his ancestor Winona at Wounded Knee in 1890.  Luta has a photograph from the 1880s showing his ancestor.  Luta has a sort of vision while passed out from his beating, and this is to see the Ghost Dance, the cult that arose in defiance of the last days of the Indian wars, in which the medicine men endowed shirts to withstand bullets.  Later he can imagine the last few days of the Lakota before the massacre at Wounded Knee.  The combination of his narration and the sound effects makes for a combination that pulls the listener irresistibly along.  

Luta has a problematic relationship with Amy, the white nurse on the reservation.  It also becomes clear that there is a clear generational gap with his father, Joseph Thunder (Harry Towb), which is not just due to the fact Joseph is a devout Christian.  “I was the bright one, went to college.   . . . After I got divorced, I lived as a Washishu [white] for awhile.  . . . My father likes to talk to the old-time warriors, he’s a World War II veteran.  It was one way of getting off the reservation.”  As Luta’s conflict with his father comes to a head, as Amy announces she’s leaving the reservation for a job in Denver, as Luta keeps brushing off Cutter, and as the narrative builds up for the massacre happening, also, real-time on December 28th, 1890, Luta passes an old man (Lee Montague) walking up a mountain in a blizzard.  Even though I’ve never been to South Dakota, there is a certain mountain road up Sandia Peak and this is the one I pictured for the old man to be climbing.  “One genuine Lakota holy man going out in the wilderness to die.”

Cutter has a bit of an episode in which he rants about all the injustices done to the natives of America for 400 years.  It could be a tirade that burns itself out, but the actor really gives it his all.  It’s also a whistle-stop tour of many of the lowlights of the 400-year interaction.  In the end, Cutter and Luta go back up the mountain to try to rescue the holy man from certain death.  At the same time, Luta has a vision of the massacre in 1890 itself.  This horrible event is a perfect one for radio adaptation, the same way Journey was during Life and Fate:  as Tom Meltzer wrote in regards to that play, “The sound effects are unpleasantly perfect, from the claustrophobia of the carriage—all coughs and shallow breathing—to the horror of the gas chambers evoked with unspecified crunches and cracks.”  Cutter and Luta find the old man (alive) and are reconciled to each other.  I thought the play would end there.

Instead, Luta has to resolve his conflict with his father, which comes to a head because the holy man is living with them and aggravating Joseph’s religious faith.  “Washishu god has always seemed strange to me.  They only talk to him on Sunday, where is he the rest of the week?”  Also, Luta has to resolve his issues of identity in an impossible situation.  “I’m afraid, I don’t know how to act truly.  . . . Maybe I should write about it.”  Can writing really change the world?  A cynic would say not, but I think the more people who know about all of the issues contained in A Frozen Stream Called Wounded Knee, the more there is the possibility for change in the world.      

Favorite Story- Wuthering Heights

Favorite Story was KFI Los Angeles’ answer between 1946 and 1949 to the BBC’s Classic Serial: a shorter, more cuddly version, it’s true, but enjoyable nonetheless.  I decided to kick off with an episode from 1948, their version of Wuthering Heights.  I was curious to see how they would distil this quite rambling Victorian dark romance into half an hour.  Certainly it seems clear that they had the 1939 film version in mind (naturally enough, but that one gets my goat because it only tells half the story).  I was curious to hear this version for the reason of pure enjoyment, since I have had a soft spot for Wuthering Heights since I was 14, and because I wanted to see how Americans of 1948 depicted a British classic. 

Interestingly, William Conrad as Heathcliff sounds a lot more like a tough cowpoke than a Liverpudlian ruffian or a RADA graduate.  Nevertheless, I found him a convincing Heathcliff, despite his sounding at odds with my favorite Heathcliffs (Ralph Fiennes and Tom Hardy, amongst them).  Catherine was also quite believable, given that the acting style of radio during the Golden Age was quite given to spoiled, bossy, stuck-up female roles (though both Catherine and Heathcliff maintain a pretty neutral mid-Atlantic accent).  Edgar Linton, as can be imagined, though, has a pretty poncy English accent at that.

As I said, it’s quite a challenge to dissolve hundreds of pages of overlapping layers of narrative into half an hour, but Favorite Story have succeeded by bringing to life key scenes:  Cathy on the moors with Heathcliff, Nelly scolding Cathy, Cathy and Heathcliff watching the Lintons’ party from outside and Cathy being bitten by a dog, Cathy returning to the Heights and embarrassing Heathcliff, Heathcliff hearing her say it would degrade her to marry him, his departure and return, his seduction of Isabella, the fight between Edgar and Heathcliff, and Cathy’s dying speech before Heathcliff, at her burial, cries, “I pray one prayer—I repeat it until my tongue stiffens.  Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living . . .!”

The adaptation makes an interesting summary by having the first scene Cathy telling Nelly that she’s had a dream in which she is dead and lying under the shadow of Gimmerton Kirk.  The scene on the moors is notable for what liberties it takes with Heathcliff’s background and his volubility over telling Cathy that he loves her.  “Tell me you love me with your lips,” says Cathy.  “Tell me with your lips, but not with your words.” Steamy stuff for radio!  

The most dated aspect is the music, which hits all the dramatic highlights with the subtly of a hammer, and the lack of discernible sound effects, which don’t give much verisimilitude.  Overall, though, I found it quite enjoyable and would happily listen to others in the series.

You Are There- The Surrender of Sitting Bull

You Are There is a wonderful CBS radio drama that ran between 1947 and 1950 and therefore within the last decade or so of radio drama’s ascendancy in the US.  The premise itself is hardly revolutionary now, and even at the time I think it’s fair to say it was pre-empted by the work of Georges Colin in France, who in 1928 recreated crowd scenes on radio to give the listener the illusion that he or she was “there” at Charlotte Corday’s and Danton’s trials during Revolutionary France.  (Tribute to History on France Inter in the 1950s followed You Are There’s journalistic format a bit more closely.)  The format is also not dissimilar from The March of Time, another CBS program running variously between 1931 and 1945.  

However, in a prevailing attitude (even postwar) in which the voices of radio journalists such as Edward R. Murrow stood for truth and had a certain cachet of standing for something, You Are There’s foundation and production really take the genre to the absolute peak of its form.  Even on TV I don’t think you could achieve something along the lines of what You Are There did in the 1948 episode I heard, The Surrender of Sitting Bull.  Now, in case it isn’t evident, You Are There supposes that a CBS radio journalism team has gone back in time to key events in history (American “canonical” history is favored, but other times and places are occasionally highlighted).  In John Dunning’s words, “Real-life newsmen with established reputations handled ‘remote’ broadcasts while anchorman Don Hollenbeck organized field reports and summarized the unfolding drama.”  There, is of course, a mindset into which you have to put yourself, but as I love a) radio that blurs the lines between fiction and fact; b) stories of observing history, it’s not difficult for me to achieve this.  

Anyone who has seen Horrible Histories in the UK will be somewhat familiar with the kind of “historical journalism” involved here, though imagining it through radio makes it much more immediate than I think could ever be achieved on TV.  As well, even though following battles on radio drama is sometimes confusing and problematic, this actually enhances the journalistic flavor of You Are There and results in something so exciting—at least the in the episode I heard—that I was literally on the edge of my seat.   Think Blair Witch Project but for radio, and in a more mediated environment.  

There were some superb choices in The Surrender of Sitting Bull, which saw the You Are There team in 1881 Dakota Territory.  Anyone with only the most basic understanding of the “Indian Wars” of the 19th century would be able to follow the summarized situation as described by John Daly.  Some five years after Gen. Custer’s ignominious (to him, anyway) defeat at Little Big Horn, the Lakota Sioux Chief known as Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟaŋka Iyotȟaŋka) and his people have returned from a Canadian sojourn, perhaps amassing Lakota Sioux for another stand against the white settlers/US governmental troops.  The atmosphere is tense.  I was very much struck by the people “chosen” to be interviewed on location.  The US army representatives, such as Major Brotherton, caught as they are presumably milling about camp, are fully committed to the cause of manifest destiny:  they want the Indians to become farmers, Christians, be educated in white schools, all for their own good.  

Sitting Bull himself is not interviewed, which at first I thought was a bit strange—however, in some senses it actually is quite shrewd—after all, as is pointed out, he did not speak English, whereas one of the CBS correspondents, translates the Lakota (whether this is a complete fabrication for the purposes of the narrative doesn’t really bother me; it’s impressive that the American public listening to this in 1948 would have presumably no problem believing that a white radio correspondent could translate Lakota with such rapidity as demonstrated here).  Even if Sitting Bull isn’t interviewed directly, Ken Roberts does speak to Jean-Louis LeGars, a French-Canadian who has transported Sitting Bull and his family from Canada, and whose views are decidedly at odds with those of the U.S. government.  Even if it takes a Frenchman (with a terrible accent, it’s true) to speak for the native Sioux, it’s significant that LeGars is incredibly articulate and ties Major Brotherton’s army rhetoric into knots.  

You Are There’s “team” must, I’m sure, hold itself to their own standards of journalistic impartiality and fairness, and as such they interview, as well, Major McLaughlin, the Indian agent, though his obvious recalcitrance and xenophobia are highlighted in an extremely sarcastic manner by Hollenbeck.  This also gives the opportunity for Chief Gall, a “brave” to “speak” his own story—in the form of a song “translated” by Hollenbeck.  (I was impressed at the end to hear that this song is a documentary recording by Sitting Bull’s grandson Chief Crazy Bull who was historical adviser to the production.)  

Although not interviewed, Sitting Bull does “speak” in You Are There, translated and filtered through the CBS correspondents.  At the beginning of the story, Daly did say it was “one of the most shameful episodes in American history,” and the play goes a long way in expressing an observer’s shock when Brotherton basically deceives, betrays, and lies in order to disband, humiliate, and round up Sitting Bull and his people, who have acted honorably and transparently.  Hollenbeck gives us a glimpse of Sitting Bull’s “ironic smile” before You Are There crashes to a halt.  The abrupt ending probably says as much about how shameful this event really was perceived than any amount of opinion or moralizing.  It’s often said that fiction is a good way of presenting facts and trying to change events by doing so; You Are There nicely bridges this gap and achieves this goal.   

At half an hour long, without commercial interruption, You Are There is just about the right length.  Robert Louis Shayon is the writer and producer of You Are There, and I very much look forward to hearing more of his unique and entertaining series, surely a radio landmark of form.