Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Danse Macabre (The Dance of the Dead)

Climax of Igmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal.

The Danse Macabre was a religious allegory of the late Middle Ages calculated to turn men's thoughts to a Christian preparation for death. It was a reaction to the horrors of the 14th century's recurring famines, the Hundred Year War in France, and the scourge of the Black Death (plague). Millions of Europeans persished during this period. Estimates run as high as 50 million people or 60% of the population.

Produced by the church fathers as a "memento mori" to remind people that all human life is fragile and life's petty pleasures are fleeting, the Danse Macabre summons people from all stages and walks of life whether pope or layman, young or old, male or female, rich or poor. The universality of death is the great leveler that unites all.

Dutch Flagellants scourging themselves as penance.

The spectre of sudden death during this period of history increased the religious practice of saying penance and/or self-flagellation (whipping) by the faithful, but it also created a secular desire for amusement and diversion while people could still enjoy life's creature comforts. This expression of the struggle between the sacred and the profane played itself out in medieval society.

Outside of St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Lithuania.
Many paintings, book illustrations, and sculptures were commissioned by the Catholic Church to act as penitential lessons that even the illiterate majority could understand. Cathedrals often portrayed danse macabre images in sculptures adorning their exterior architecture.

The medieval morality play called The Summoning of Everyman was first performed in 1510 in front of church entrances to draw in the crowd. In the play, Everyman uses every argument he can to avoid his impending death before he gives up and seeks out the sacrament of the Last Rites. Only his good deeds go with him to the grave--a sober reminder to the faithful that worldly goods count for nothing in the next world.

The Pedlar from Hans Holbein's "Figure de la Morte." The pedlar seems to say, "I'm busy. Gotta run!" Death replies, "Not this day!"

Hans Holbein, the Younger created a series of forty-one woodcuts between 1523-1526 depicting the danse macabre morality tale. His work broadened the concept from its Catholic and Protestant origins into a more secular interpretation which eventually became the inspiration for Halloween.

On All Hallow's Eve (shortened to Halloween), the medieval Catholic church promoted the idea that the veil between the material world and the afterlife lifted. Annual harvest celebrations and village pageants drew revellers wearing masks and costumes dressed as corpses representing all strata of society. After a night of feasting and celebrating, a procession was led by priests to the church graveyard at midnight to lay flowers, leave votive candles, and pray for the souls of the dearly departed in preparation for fasting on All Saint's Day.

In Edgar Allen Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death written in 1842, medieval Prince Prospero and his wealthy and influential friends attempt to outsmart Death during the plague by hiding out in the prince's abbey. The results are predictable and serve as a cautionary tale for our own time as we struggle with the corona virus and the predictability of human behavior.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Terror In Ypsilanti Pilot in the Works

Available in softcover, ebook, and audio.
I received some good news in June that a Canadian media company I signed with in 2019 recently hired two women writers to develop a screenplay for Terror In Ypsilanti. They are working on a pilot as part of a package to promote a possible six-part miniseries to producers. This recent development is by no means a done deal, but it did raise my spirits when the doldrums of this pandemic were beginning to wear on me, so I thought I would share the news.

Longtime residents of Ypsilanti, Michigan may remember when a film crew from New York City rolled into town early in 1977 with Hollywood producer, director, and writer William Martin to film a movie about the Washtenaw County murders of 1967-1969.

Eastern Michigan University (EMU) freshman Karen Sue Beineman went missing on July 23, 1969 when she was last seen riding on the back of a motorcycle with a young, white male wearing a green and yellow striped soccer jersey and shorts. EMU senior John Norman Collins was arrested a week later. It was generally believed by authorities that Collins was the same person who had murdered six other young women in the area. It would be a year before the Beineman case went to trial in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

Actor Robert Purvey on motorcycle and William Martin directing local actor Kathy Pierce.
William Martin's movie about the murders was named after the children's bedtime prayer Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. The production ran into trouble from the start. The first strike against it was Martin's script; he didn't have one. He filmed short segments without the cast on set or any predetermined locations. Martin was filming the establishing, exterior shots before the Hollywood studio work, he said.

The second strike was that William Martin was an alias for Teamster organizer Martin Bacow, who reincarnated himself in Hollywood when he was the Teamster's man in Tinsel Town. His only other film credit was something called Jacktown about the 1952 Jackson Prison riot, which was so bad it was never released.

The third strike against the project was when Martin/Bacow was subpoenaed to testify in Detroit Federal Court as a material witness regarding Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance. That's the last time the film crew saw or heard from William Martin. They packed up their rented equipment and returned to New York. This movie was never produced, nor does a single bit of film footage exist. The enterprise amounted to a scam to defraud investors. More on that story is in the link at the end of this post. 

My initial glee upon hearing about a possible Terror In Ypsilanti movie project is tempered by the seriousness of the subject matter. One of the standard provisions in my contract was signing away creative control. But the CEO of the media company asked if I'd be interested being a script consultant. Well, of course I would.

Original mugshot--August 2, 1969.

One concern I have about the project is how John Norman Collins will be portrayed. He drives the plot, but I feel he should remain a murky, anonymous figure throughout most of the series until he is unmasked towards the end. Rather than tell the story through his eyes, the screenplay writers are motivated to tell this story through the point of view of the victims, with a feminine sensibility rare in the true crime genre. 

The Ann Arbor and Detroit media sensationalized this tragedy and intimated that the victims were somehow responsibile for their own demise. Perhaps this attitude relected the media's need to make a morality tale out of this tragedy, but collateral harm was done to their friends and families. Times have changed in fifty years, so it is my belief that these portrayals will be more respectful.

Another concern I have is how Ypsilanti will be portrayed. The city was deeply affected by this tragedy and that story needs to be told with sensitivity too. I hope some of the exteriors for the movie will be filmed in Ypsilanti to give the project an authentic look and feel.

Undoubtedly, some people will find the project repugnant and won't be happy whatever the outcome of the film. I already know one person in Marquette Branch Prison who won't be pleased. I expect this project to take several years before it is ready for prime time, but I'm optimistic it will come to pass, unlike the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep fiasco. Hope I live long enough to see it.

Whatever happened to Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep?