Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place

Mapping the Invisible Landscape by Kent C. RydenFirst published in 1993 by the University of Iowa Press, the importance of Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place by Kent C. Ryden cannot be understated. Alongside The Last Laugh by Raymond Moody, it is one of the few books that has fundamentally changed my perception of the study of folklore and ghost stories. Over the years, I’ve had a number of scattered thoughts on the subject that this book suddenly arranged into a clear picture. Just like that, a light bulb turned on and put everything into perspective. The idea that folklore is fundamental to how we understand and experience the places in which we live is simple, but often overlooked. The author, Kent Ryden, holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University. He was awarded the American Studies Association’s Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize in 1991 for an earlier version of the book.

Mapping the Invisible Landscape is divided into five essays. The first, “Of Maps and Minds: The Invisible Landscape,” the second, “Folklore and the Sense of Place,” and the fifth, “The Essay of Place: Themes in the Cartography of the Invisible Landscape,” are the three most important. The remaining two essays are just detailed examples of the theories developed elsewhere in the book using history, geography, and literature. If Mapping the Invisible Landscape has a flaw, it’s that it tends to get bogged down in rich, detailed descriptions that start to meander away from the central theme. Though interesting, the third and fourth essays can be skipped in their entirety without taking anything away from the book.

Ryden’s fundamental insight is that places hold meaning for us, and that folklore is an important vehicle for expressing that meaning. Maps only convey a limited amount of information about a place. Physical geography is limited to a stark, black and white description of the landscape and says nothing about the wealth of human experience there. Ryden calls this collection of stories, recollections, feelings, and history the “Invisible Landscape.” It is the meaning we impose on the physical world, a meaning that is exclusive to human experience.

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Power and Force in ‘Crash’

On the surface, the Academy Award-winning film Crash (2004) purports to be an emotional portrayal of race and prejudice in America. Through a series of interwoven vignettes, the filmmakers portray characters of several different races and ethnic backgrounds as they interact over the course of two or three days on the streets of Los Angeles. At every point in the film, the main characters express prejudice in one form or another. Some are seemingly redeemed after dramatic moments, and others never change.

The message of Crash is, perhaps, that everyone harbors some form of prejudice. However, social critics like Bell Hooks have maintained that Crash utterly fails in its attempts to discuss race or class, and instead actually confirms and reinforces typical Hollywood stereotypes.

If Crash was solely a film about race or class, Bell Hooks may have a point. When viewed through the lens of race, Crash is, of course, a cynical portrayal of race relations in which all Americans are trapped in a never-ending cycle of hatred, remorse, and self-loathing (aside from a few moments of catharsis). But Crash falls flat in its attempts to discuss those issues, partially because those issues are not what the film is really about. Looking a little deeper past issues of race or class, Crash is a film about power and force (the raw exercise of power).

For instance, in the second scene, a Persian man and his daughter walk into a gun store to buy a pistol and they begin to chat in Farsi. The store clerk, whose persona is reminiscent of Archie Bunker, mistakes the pair for Arabs, insults the man, and they argue. The store clerk instructs his security guard (who apparently has been standing off camera) to remove him. At this point, the store clerk has exercised force to remove a perceived threat. He could have thrown the man’s daughter out as well, but chose not to. He then bombards her with sexual innuendos as she attempts to complete the purchase.

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Goatman: A Refreshing Look at a Strange Legend

Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? by J. Nathan Couch
Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? by J. Nathan Couch

What do we make of the hundreds of legends and sightings of alleged half-man, half-goat creatures across America? This is the question J. Nathan Couch attempts to answer in his new book Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? Published by the author in 2014, Goatman is 152 pages and is available in both print and digital formats. Its cover, a dark, haunting image of a cloven hoofed creature with thick horns and an eerily human face, was illustrated by Amber Michelle Russell.

Before reading this book, I was only peripherally aware of the goatman legend. I vaguely recalled that I had heard something about a goatman once, but never took the idea seriously. One of the many redeeming qualities of Goatman is the author’s awareness that yes, most people find the notion of a half-man, half-goat to be absurd. Yet he demonstrates that this creature has been a persistent (albeit obscure) part of American folklore since at least the 1960s. Always straddling the line between skepticism and belief, Couch examines every possibility, from the mundane to the magical.

Couch begins his exploration in his own backyard, Washington County in southeastern Wisconsin. Washington County is home to several locations believed to be visited by a creature known as “Goatman.” Fascinated by the tale, Couch soon discovered other goatman legends in Missouri, Maryland, Texas, California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Indiana. The tales varied. In some, the goatman stalked lover’s lanes in search of amorous teenagers to kill. In others, the goatman was the result of a cruel genetic experiment gone wrong. In still others, he was a wild recluse or an escapee from a carnival freak show.

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Snowden: A Masterfully-Crafted Fairytale

Last night, a handful of people and I watched the premier of Oliver Stone’s latest film, Snowden, a biopic about NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden. Oliver Stone, who turned 70 today, has written and directed over two dozen films, many of which are considered masterpieces. Alexander, Natural Born Killers, JFK, and Platoon are among my personal favorites. A live interview with Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who played Snowden), Shailene Woodley (who played Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills), and Edward Snowden himself followed the premier.

Oliver Stone is known for his politically-charged movies, and he doesn’t try to hide his biases. Snowden is an effective piece of propaganda. It’s nearly flawless as a film in terms of acting, editing, pacing, and dialog, but lacks the depth usually given to such a controversial subject.

First, here’s what Snowden gets right. Every actor and actress in this movie is on point. Every character feels genuine. Nicolas Cage, in top form, even makes a cameo as Hank Forrester, a (fictional) disillusioned CIA instructor. Shailene Woodley is perfect as Lindsay Mills, a free spirited, liberal photographer Snowden falls in love with.

One of the advantages of portraying a living person is you are able to study their mannerisms, tone, and expressions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt studied his subject well. Levitt, as Snowden, narrates throughout the entire film, as he is telling his story to a group of journalists, but the dialog is tight and the narration never gets bogged down in needless exposition.

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Carbondale After Dark: An Underground History of SIU

The following is not a fable — it all really happened and it has no morals.”

Carbondale After Dark by HB Koplowitz
Carbondale After Dark by HB Koplowitz

I first became aware of H.B. Koplowitz’s Carbondale After Dark and Other Stories while I was doing research on Southern Illinois University for a book on the legends and lore of Illinois colleges. Carbondale After Dark was first published by the author in 1982. A 25th anniversary limited edition was released in 2007. The new edition contains a foreword by actor Dennis Franz, a Backword by humorist P.S. Mueller, and of course a new acknowledgements by the author himself. At 132 pages, Carbondale After Dark can almost be read in one sitting, but you will want to pick it apart piece by piece. The book contains standalone articles (as opposed to one linear narrative) so there is no need to read it from cover to cover.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, SIU-C went from a small rural teacher’s college to a major university in just a few short years. That shift permanently altered the landscape of Carbondale, Illinois, creating what became known as “the Strip.” Since then, the Strip has been the scene of mass parties, riots, and a lot of fond memories. H.B. Koplowitz was right in the middle, writing for alternative publications and documenting these changes as they happened.

Carbondale After Dark is divided into three sections: The Strip, Pontifications, and A Koplowitz Now. The highlight of the book is the section devoted to Carbondale’s Strip, which also takes up the most amount of pages. What particularly stands out is a year-by-year history of the strip, from its inception to the early 1980s. Student parties and protests are mentioned, but the author also documents the origin of SIU’s massive annual Halloween party, which was a fixture of campus life until a particularly devastating riot in 2000.

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Labyrinth’s 30th Anniversary

This afternoon I watched a special 30th Anniversary theatrical showing of Jim Henson’s final film, Labyrinth. I loved Labyrinth as a kid. It was the only VHS tape my grandma owned, and I  watched it every time we visited. Seeing it in the theater was definitely an experience worth having. I was surprised to learn Labyrinth did not do well at the box office. I suppose seen for the first time through the eyes of an adult, it would seem like a silly movie. But to a child, it’s magical.

Henson’s puppets are finely crafted and the sets and characters are unique and entertaining. The music by David Bowie and Trevor Jones is outstanding. It’s a testament to the quality of the film that rather than be forgotten, 30 years later it’s being replayed in theaters around the nation.

Released in June 1986, Labyrinth is the story of a teenage girl, Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly), who must journey to the center of a complex labyrinth to rescue her infant brother, Toby, who has been kidnapped by Jareth (played by David Bowie), the Goblin King. Along the way, she makes friends with colorful characters like Hoggle, a dwarf; Ludo, a large hairy beast; and Sir Didymus, a tenacious Fox Terrier. The film was a commercial disappointment, losing $12 million. Depressed by the failure, Jim Henson never made another feature film. He died four years later, in 1990.

The 30th Anniversary theatrical showing included interviews with Jennifer Connelly (who was 14 years old in 1986) and Jim Henson’s son, Brian, as well as a look at the Henson collection at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia. It showed the care and detail that went into making the puppets. In Labyrinth, two brass door knockers seem to come to life. The door knockers are not CGI: they were actually made of foam painted to look metal. The illusion holds up even on the big screen.

I’ve always thought that CGI hasn’t come close to the puppets, miniatures, and practical effects of the 1980s in terms of realism. There’s something too clean, too perfect and precise about CGI. Labyrinth does use some effects like matte paintings and green screen that look terrible, but overall the effects quality is solid. Interestingly, Labyrinth contains one of the first uses of a CGI animal in a film–the owl in the opening credits.

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Morgan

Released in early September, Morgan (2016) was billed as a promising new sci-fi horror/mystery movie, but quickly falls flat.  It stars Kate Mara as Lee Weathers, a “corporate consultant,” Anya Taylor-Joy as Morgan, and Rose Leslie as a behavior specialist. Paul Giamatti makes a notable appearance as the only character with emotional depth.

Going into the film, I thought it was going to explore the ethical issue of genetic manipulation and cybernetic enhancement. I thought it would pose an interesting dilemma to the audience about whether research of this nature should be pursued, like Ex Machina (2015) did for artificial intelligence. Boy, was I disappointed.

First, the film was deceptively marketed. It’s not a mystery and it barely passes for horror. Its IMDB summery is, “A corporate risk-management consultant must decide whether or not to terminate an artificially created humanoid being,” but that’s not actually the plot.

Spoiler alert: the end of the film reveals that the corporate consultant was actually a genetically-enhanced assassin, and the whole exercise was an excuse to see whether her version could defeat the newer version, Morgan. So, in the end, there’s never a question about whether Morgan should be terminated, and the protagonist never solves a mystery–she knew what Morgan was the whole time. The result was a boilerplate chase/assassin thriller.

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