Saturday, July 21, 2012

Lightning Flew From the Pages: Deceased Artiste Ray Bradbury

Beloved celebs have been dropping like flies, and I simply haven’t had time until now to pay tribute to them. I always note on the Funhouse TV show that we’ll be loving the work done by these folks for many years to come, so I’m not as time-bound in my salutes to them. Thus I begin a series of DA entries with a tribute to the fantasy writer par excellence (he disliked his work being called “science fiction”), Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury was an essential building block in the formation of great 20th century genre fiction. One of the best things about his writing, though, was its unrepentantly poetic quality. Whether it was beautifully poetic, as in his best novels and short stories, or slightly purple around the edges, as in some of his later creations, it was always evident that Bradbury had not just steeped himself in fantasy fiction — he often boasted that he “was graduated from libraries,” which he loved to haunt (bookstores too). Thus, his influences ranged from the obvious (Verne, Wells, E.R. Burroughs) to the elegant and the wordsmiths (Shakespeare, Huxley, Katharine Anne Porter, Steinbeck).

The impact that Bradbury’s work has on a young reader is hard to measure — it becomes harder as the years go by and different (diluted and derivative) forms of fantasy literature become teen favorites. I will readily admit that I have only read a handful of Bradbury’s books cover to cover, but they made a profound impression on me, mostly because I could see traces of his influence everywhere in the best sci-fi and horror writing done in the Fifties, Sixties, and onward for radio, TV, and film.

There were countless adaptations of Bradbury’s stories (including the Eighties TV series The Ray Bradbury Theater, which he hosted for its six-season run from 1985 to ’92). My favorites were the ones by the short-form masters at EC Comics, since they directly quoted his narration in the panels and were masters at conveying surprise conclusions. They also adapted several of his horror stories, which aren’t as well known as his fantasy tales.

Bradbury’s concentration on characters and emotion, as well as his penchant for creating speculative allegories for social situations, also makes him the forefather of the Twilight Zone style of storytelling, in which characters often get what I like to call the “cosmic screw” for no clear reason other than the fact that they exist and fate is unpredictable. Bradbury wrote one episode of the series, “I Sing the Body Electric,” which predated Blade Runner in exploring how a synthetic creature can be just as human (or be perceived as such) as us humans.

I used the word “allegory” above, but that is not a phrase that Bradbury was fond of. He referred to his stories, as you’ll see in the interviews embedded below, as “myths” or “fairy tales.” One of the most succinct quotes I found was his statement that “If you write in metaphors, people can remember them.... I think that's why I'm [taught] in the schools." This very same idea was posited by Rod Serling when he lamented in the paperback version of the Patterns script (yeah, I’ve got it somewhere) that to get an important political point across on television he realized he would have to conceal it in the guise of fantasy.

My other favorite quote by Ray was “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it.” The emotions in his work, especially the personal tales of youth like Something Wicked This Way Comes, will hopefully be a part of readers’ lives forever, but one of his best “legacy” novels, Fahrenheit 451, is one of those novels that will always have something to say to the public.

Before I send you flying into the best interview and profile videos available in plain sight on the Net, I should mention obvious biographical details (born in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1920; first story published in Super Science Stories in 1941). But what I’d really like to spotlight is his very first writing gig that paid: as a teen, Ray submitted jokes to George Burns and Gracie Allen's radio show and was paid a few bucks in return.

The period in which his writing was “white hot,” so to speak, was the mid-Forties through the early Sixties, but the era I’m most interested in is the late 1930s when he met the friends he would keep for the rest of his life, his sci-fi fanboy buddies. Bradbury joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society in 1936 and attended the first World Science Fiction Convention shortly thereafter.

“Uncle Forry” (aka “Dr. Acula,” aka “4E,” aka Forrest J. Ackerman) and Ray Harryhausen formed a sort of “Three Musketeers” of fandom with Bradbury, the gentlemen remaining friends through the rest of their lives (RH is the only one still with us). Other people who became Ray’s LASFS buddies included future DC editor emeritus (and early sci-fi author agent) Julius Schwartz and the incredibly talented authors Frederick Brown and Leigh Brackett.

Here is Uncle Forry talking with me about the World Science Fiction con:

The best way to encounter Bradbury will always be sampling some of his 600 or so short stories or one of his 27 novels, but in the meantime I want to link to some of the best interviews with the gent I could find, plus one or two great tributes.

The first good shorter items I’d point you to are this live appearance by Bradbury and Hugh Hefner. Ray is in bad shape but still very vibrant mentally. He and Hef talk about the origins of Fahrenheit 451 as well as the twin topics of literacy and censorship. Also discussed is the very underrated Charles Beaumont, a protégé of Bradbury who wrote haunting short stories but is best known for his Twilight Zone and Corman/Poe scripts.

Bradbury frequently spoke about his early years, his inspirations, his love of reading, and (most importantly) his deep devotion to writing. The 1963 TV documentary “Story of a Writer” is a gorgeous tribute to him. You get the chance to see his pack rat side in his office — you can also hear the word “hell” get bleeped, see an adaptation of one of his creepier thriller stories (“Dial Double Zero”), and watch him lecture aspring writers on how writing should be everything for them. Stirring thoughts from a deeply passionate guy:

There are several great clips in which Bradbury speaks about writing. A good 1968 interview clip from the CBC is here, and here is a segment from a documentary narrated by the one and only Illustrated Man himself, Rod Steiger:

In 1974 Bradbury appeared on the PBS interview show Day at Night. The topics include his preference for the term “fantasy” for his writing, his feeling that science and religion are compatible, as well as his belief that you need both the “high” and the “low” (praise be) in your literary diet: “you can’t appreciate Shakespeare until you’ve read Edgar Rice Burroughs… you need both of them in your life. There’s room in your head for all of this.”

As the years went by Bradbury’s publicly stated opinions became more and more conservative (in this clip from the San Diego Comic Con he states with certainty that “we freed Russia”). He was always open-minded, though, about religion’s place in the cosmos.

That didn’t stop a massive asshole on YouTube, a self-proclaimed “street preacher,” from condemning Ray to Hell. The video is here. This gentleman “James” makes a habit of harassing Mormons, Catholics, and gays (the last-mentioned obviously being a major problem for him). He also despises most women, because they can’t park their cars well (it would be hard to even make this stuff up).

The gentleman puts up videos on YT with admittedly great crazy-ass titles. The ones that I keep coming across in my searches are the ones in which he condemns certain celebs to hell (so far, a LOT of people in show biz and the arts are going there — party!).

In the one I link to above, he condemns Bradbury to hell for having written horror stories and not having publicly proclaimed Christ as his personal savior. Other, more lenient, Xtians have written in the comments field that James is taking on the role of God, which is equally blasphemous, but this guy’s a fundamentalist, whaddya want, a brain or something?

HERE, for the record is what Bradbury thought of god. On the night of the moonlanding, Mike Wallace (yes, the moral arbiter I wrote about at length here), asked Ray his impression of the event, and he stated that he was thoroughly inspired by it, that it proves that “we are god himself coming awake at the universe.” What a nicer view of the Infinite than the street preacher has….

Now, in the area of sentiment, here’s a very touching tribute by Bradbury when he spoke at an L.A. bookstore, talking about his friend Forry and fellow fanaddicts Schwartz and Harryhausen:

Still in a sentimental mode, I switch to a fan tribute. Now of course there is the wonderful “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” video (hey, any overwrought tribute to an author of adult fiction rather than “teen paranormal romance,” as they call it now at B&N, is welcome!). But I turn to Neil Gaiman for a truly beautiful tribute to Bradbury. He wrote it for Ray’s 90th and performs it here in Nov of 2011. It is terrific that some crafty cam-wielding soul captured it:

And because I couldn’t possibly leave these out, I spotlight Ray in the company of two great comic minds. First, Groucho, when he guested on You Bet Your Life (watch him slam those movie-trivia questions down):

And later on, a commercial for prunes starring Ray, conceived by Stan Freberg:

In interviews Bradbury often talked about his childhood encounter with a magician who came to his town who called himself Mr. Electrico (you can see him discussing it in the Day at Night interview above). He said that Mr. Electrico “pointed at me, touched me with his electric sword — my hair stood on end — and said, 'Live forever!' ”


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