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Archive for the ‘author Sam Juliano’ Category

by Sam Juliano

I would not be just a muffin’,
My head all full of stuffin’,
My heart all full of pain           -E.Y. Harburg, Harold Arlen, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The inveterate bird-scarer known as the scarecrow has been a boon to farmers around the world dating back over 2,500 years to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece.  In feudal Japan they were front line protection for the rice fields, affording security for both newly-planted seeds and the maturing crop.  Inevitably over the years the scarecrow has been the prime protagonist in horror films, where its frightful visage has induced writers to re-imagine this rural symbol as a purveyor of supernatural terror.  Yes children today and those from past generations have a far more benign perception, one based exclusively on the beloved character played by Ray Bolger in the 1939 American film classic The Wizard of Oz.  Based on the first in a children’s series by L. Frank Baum the scarecrow is a good-hearted and intelligent character who wishes he had a brain in a plot where his quick-thinking is vital to the success of the trip to the city where the titular character rules over. In Baum’s book, the famed film version and practically all personifications the scarecrow is initially perceived as one of the loneliest of guardians.  Like Trent in the original Outer Limits’ most celebrated episode “Demon with a Glass Hand” where the robotic creation of mankind must stand watch over the earth’s population who are stored on a glass hand as electrical impulses, he is seemingly doomed to seclusion.  In the poetic new picture book masterwork The Scarecrow by Beth Ferry this all-weather mannequin constructed with straw and work clothes is virtually programmed with one purpose, unencumbered by dual-tasking and unchallenged by anyone or anything looking to complicate his sole mode of existence. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Just a little over three years ago an entry in the 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series featured a resplendent picture book biography on Ana Lovelace titled Ada’s Ideas who was dubbed the world’s first computer programmer.  The work’s author-illustrator Fiona Robinson, a Brooklyn based author-artist, has this past year again explored a prominent female living in a male-dominated age who is widely credited for being the very first person to publish a book of photography.  Robinson’s wholly sublime release The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs bears a number of similarities to the earlier book contextually and in a thematic sense (Anna like Ada was basically reared by a single parent, both of whom ignored the ways of the time by encouraging her education) but Robinson has upped the ante, instilling a profound sensory air to the world’s most popular color.  To achieve the authenticity she sought, Robinson walked through actual English meadows where she took photographs for their initial stage in her amazing illustrative process.  While she developed into a master botanist her claim to fame is the cyanotype,  photographic printing process that produces prints in a distinctive dark greenish-blue. The word “cyan” comes from the Greek, meaning “dark blue substance.” The process was invented by Sir John Herschel, a brilliant astronomer and scientist, in 1842 but Anna expanded to become the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images in addition to, according to some, the first woman to create a photograph.  In the latter half of The Bluest of Blues and in some exceedingly useful end notes Robinson painstakingly defines the process, with stunning end paper shell and seaweed replications that bleed over onto the frontispiece. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

On Star Trek it is referred to as “the final frontier” but humankind has barely scratched the surface in regard to space exploration, and only rarely has an American set foot on our lunar neighbor, the closest celestial sphere to our planet.  Still, it is not at all remotely difficult to envision a time in the not so distant future when Gene Roddenberry’s fantastical vision is no longer inconceivable, even if we are still a very long way from the context of the classic cartoon Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century.  In a captivating wordless picture book titled Field Trip to the Moon by newcomer John Hare a class embarks on a routine venture that is no more startling in concept and execution than a trip to the Stature of Liberty or a science museum.  While destination and mode of transportation are incredulous the time spent on the moon suggest that the native inhabitants bear far more similarities to earthlings than our typical hostile stereotypes would pose.  At its most basic the wholly chimerical Field Trip to the Moon is a story of friendship in one of the last locations one would think it could surface.

The front dust jacket cover, one replicated on the inside hardcover, depicts a smaller-sized class leaving a space station to board a shuttle craft for their day trip to the moon.  One student, later identified as a girl lags behind seemingly mired in deep thought.  First time illustrator Hare negotiates acrylic paints to craft a rich outer space tapestry, with the yellow shuttle at the forefront of the black space, punctuated by the stars.  A “Slow- school zone” marker serves as an amusing retro to the time when such an expedition was unthinkable.  The cover is one of the most striking of any 2019 picture book.  After a dedication/copyright canvas denoting the shuttle approaching its lunar destination the class and its single chaperon gather in a  line to explore as the space craft anchors itself.  The teacher and the eleven students pass through a rocky hamlet, with the extra-inquisitive girl lagging somewhat behind to look at the surrounding more closely. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Russian Ark, a 2002 historical drama film directed by Alexander Sokurov presents at the outset an unnamed narrator who drifts through the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.  He explains that he is a ghost drifting through the rooms, where he encounters various real and fictional people from periods in the city’s 300-year history.  A similar dramatic device was employed by Thornton Wilder in his classic work of Americana, Our Town, where a first-person narrative is sustained by an on stage narrator.  In Robert Burleigh’s biographical picture book Hi, I’m Norman: The Story of American Illustrator Norman Rockwell  the author negotiates a comparable expedient  by having the iconic artist escort the reader on a tour of his art studio, which segues into a breezy autobiographical account concluding with the artist -still alive and well- informing the reader he must step back to attend to his latest creation.

Americana and picture book master Wendell Minor are synonymous.  The veteran illustrator has imparted his ravishing tapestries in works written by astronauts, historians and environmentalists.  His focus is exclusive to nature, the world around us and iconic figures from our past who have impacted our culture.  He has collaborated with Burleigh several times, perhaps most memorably on Edward Hopper Paints His World (2014), their prior exploration of a seminal artist and purveyor of realism through oils and watercolor of modern American life.  The critical success of a book on a subject they mutually revered no doubt led the pair to move forward on another venerated figure, one equally as resonant in the national consciousness. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The perspective of Simon, a receptionist at a LGBT crisis hotline is that callers aren’t anywhere close to their own demise but rather are venting on the sustained discrimination they face at the workplace and in social circles because of their sexual orientation.  Because he’s convinced he’s holding down the fort to placate gays looking to find support in improving their pedigree, he is totally unprepared when he is regaled with the real thing after a co-worker retires one evening leaving him solo to engage with a deeply troubled young man.  Danny (Christian Gabriel) immediately announces that he will off himself after all is said and done, but commences to leave no stone unturned in documenting  how and why he has gotten to this point of no return.  Mark Schwab, the director of Crisis Hotline employs a progressively riveting flashback structure that serves as a re-enactment of how an initially blissful relationship becomes compromised by dread and suppression.  When Danny is shown falling for a young man named Kyle, Simon isn’t yet convinced he has anything beyond a final coda of unrequited love, though of course people have done themselves in for less.

Schwab depicts an idyllic relationship (a real nice touch is the director’s series of vignettes showcasing a relationship progression from “a coffee date,” to “a scary movie date” to “a hiking date” and then to the consummation of “a dinner date”) suffused with the exuberance of sex and mutual affection, seemingly so strong as to mitigate any dark secrets threatening the state of euphoria.  In Brian O’Donnell and Sasha King’s 2015 Akron, a gay romance temporarily derailed by the revelation of a tragedy that linked their families, Benny and Christopher are forced to re-evaluate their relationship until they are able to sort out sibling animosities that are first thought to be irreconcilable.  But where Akron’s lovers could not be held responsible for the sins of their fathers so to speak, there is an ugly act of betrayal lurking in Schawab’s film, one projecting the same kind of permanence after Gene Forrester shook the tree branch in a wooden enclave on the grounds of Phillips Exeter Academy in John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace, crippling his friend Finny, who later died as a result of his injury and operation.  In Crisis Hotline like the Knowles novel a character can’t control what the other is thinking, hence fate and circumstance trump noble thoughts or intentions. (more…)

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Dearest Allan:

In pondering my submission for the third annual online film festival at Wonders in the Dark, my mind drifted back to some of our classic four-way e mail correspondences.  Jamie Uhler of Chicago and Maurizio Roca of Brooklyn always helped to make said communications lively, opinionated and sometimes rowdy.  Roughly about two years before you departed this earthly realm to accept your current position as celestial authority of all things cinematic you were hot to trot to discuss DVD-blu ray labels and how in your view a then up and coming Region 2 UK company named Arrow had practically eclipsed longtime poll position occupants Criterion as the most exciting label out there with the most passionate and discerning film aficionados.  I’m sure you will fondly recall how we lined up on this matter and how we presented our cases for our champion.  In proclaiming Arrow as the top dog for collectors circa 2014 you cited some persuasive facts that at the time I was hard-pressed to dispute, regardless of where I stood when posting my numerical list.  After all, Arrow gave us sparkling new blu ray transfers of the Roger Corman Poe series, the Mario Bava collection, the lion’s share of Italian giallos, killer box sets on Walerian Borowcyck, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Rainer Warner Fassbinder, and your all-time hero Yoshida not to mention some world classics like The Bicycle Thief, Ashes and Diamonds, The Night of the Hunter, Sweet Smell of Success, The Apartment, The Human  Condition and The Naked City among others in countering Criterion with even more extensive Region 2 incarnations of these masterpieces.  While we can safely assert that Arrow began as a niche label specializing in horror -and their more recent 4K transfer of John Carpenter’s The Thing, City of the Dead, and Horror Express have sustained that commitment.  Their catalog horror like the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left, The Hellraiser Trilogy, Carrie, The Hills Have Eyes, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Theater of Blood and The Crazies to name just a few continue to sell and remain in print.  Arrow have released superlative editions of Network, Donnie Darko, Children of Men and Gosford Park as you know well matching and surpassing their Region 1 counterparts on whatever label.  Allan, you always evaluated the complete package, and rightly pointed to the fabulous Arrow booklets which continue to surpass Criterion who have now downgraded to leaflets, the art (Jamie as I recall had mixed feelings on that front) and a bevy of desirable extras on nearly every release.  Since you moved on to better places where new students sit before you daily waiting to be enlightened, Arrow has maintained their strong reputation and impressive release schedule, but I suspect we’d be in accord that their product hasn’t been quite as captivating.  Heck, how could it be?  The blu ray business in general isn’t now what it used to be, though few are thinking it is on  an irreversible downswing.  Collectors like you and I are there and in a niche market, buyers like the passionate herds of book lovers who still haven’t warmed to kindle or e book alternatives and repeatedly contend a 500 year old technology still reigns supreme there are die-hards will never trade allegiance.  If Arrow has held the stage among blu ray aficionados, it has now been topped albeit marginally by another Region 2 company who have gone above and beyond in catering to a collectors market who want the best possible quality but also all those extras that fans are hoping for but do not always receive due to financial constraints. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Jillian Tamaki and her cousin Mariko Tamaki were awarded a surprise Caldecott Honor a few year back for their 2015 graphic novel, This One Summer,  The win was the first in the history of the awards for that form and for many represented one of the boldest steps forward for the committee, who risked controversy by bestowing the prestigious prize on a book squarely aimed at the uppermost end of the Caldecott audience, the earliest teenagers.  The book featured mature themes and very strong language, yet few could deny it’s brilliance both from a writing and artistic perspective.   Of course, bringing attention to the graphic novel from a  group almost exclusively attuned to the conventional picture book (understandably) was a major inroad towards pictorial diversity and it has opened the door to other possibilities on that front.  But those impressed with that work and other books by these exceedingly talented Japanese-Americans could never have envisioned the masterpiece that appeared in picture book land in early 2018.  To be sure They Say Blue is a solo effort by Jillian, who illustrated This One Summer.  The book has earned spectacular raves, is poised as one of the front runners for the one of the Caldecotts to be announced on the morning of Monday, January 28th, 2019 (a short time from the publication of this review) and hand landed on the end of the year Best-Of lists posted by children’s book critics and sites as well as a major picture book award last year from the Boston Horn Book, whose rules have some time overlap.  At least one major luminary, who has served on previous committees, Travis Jonker, has predicted the book would be in the winner’s circle when the announcements are made in a post at the School Library Journal.  Few books released this past year are as beautiful on every turn of the page, nor are as fully attuned and immersed in the theme which is maintained from title page to the final glorious spread.  The method to produce this frame-worthy art are says Tamaki, on the dedication page at the end is a combination of acrylic paint on watercolor paper and photoshop.  This intricate method has produced breathtaking illustrations which are diverse, multicolored and textured to a fault. (more…)

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