Tuesday, March 2, 2010

TZ Profile: Arlen Schumer (Part 1 of 2)

The subject of today’s spotlight needs no introduction, especially not to Twilight Zone fans operating at an obsessive fan level approximating mine. But since this blog is available to the entire world via this marvelous thing called the internet, I’ll pretend that those reading have never heard of the guy.

I first became aware of Arlen Schumer in 1991. Lisa, my first wife, who was well aware of my preoccupation with all things Twilight Zone (having purchased the first two Varese Sarabande soundtracks on cassette for me the previous Christmas), held up a book that she’d spotted as we browsed the shelves at Powell’s Books in downtown Portland.

I eagerly snatched it out of her hands and gazed lovingly at it. It wasn’t a work of fiction, like the Original Stories collection I’d purchased back in 1985. It wasn’t a work of nonfiction, like Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion (which I’d beaten the hell out of since I’d first bought it in 1983). No, this was something else entirely. The title said it all: Visions from The Twilight Zone, by Arlen Schumer. And visions they were. We generally refer to this type of publication as a "coffee table" book. This was so much more. This was art. This was my favorite television series, in all its visual splendor, distilled and compressed into a 10" x 9" x .75" package. I had to have it, but at the time I was dead broke. Lisa, in her infinite generosity, bought it for me. No wonder I married her.

I took it home and devoured it with my eyes, my trembling fingers turning each page as I read the words aloud, snatches of dialogue married to stark, compelling images The words frequently didn’t match the specific episode shown, but the themes rhymed. This was poetry. No, it was something beyond poetry. There was something post-modern in Schumer’s approach, something akin to sampling, a practice that had only recently began to take over popular music, in which short musical riffs or drum loops were taken from one song and looped into another. The words and images from The Twilight Zone had been extracted, remixed, re-purposed, and presented as something wholly different, wholly original, yet still in keeping with the series’ recurring themes and ideas. This guy Schumer, whoever the hell he was, was an absolute genius.

...a sample page. Image from "Shadow Play" overlaid with text from "Escape Clause."

The images in the book stem from actual photographs of a black and white television screen, the resolution of which was a scant 250 scan lines. The result is a convincing approximation of what viewers of the show back in the early 60’s must have seen, and it adds to the visual mystique of the book immensely. All the text in the book is set in Bernard Modern, which just happens to be the very same font used in the series’ opening and closing credits. If that’s not attention to detail, I don’t know what is. The book also includes the classic episode “The Eye of the Beholder” in its entirety (in words and images), as well as insightful essays by J. Hoberman, Carol Serling (Rod's widow), and Schumer himself. Icing on the proverbial cake comes in the form of a piece culled from the private notes of series producer Buck Houghton, bestowed upon Schumer by Houghton himself.

…Our man Schumer, 20 years ago, rocking the bow tie.

The bio on Schumer in the book is pretty skimpy… graphic designer, graduated from the Rhode Island school of design, comic book artist, student of popular culture. The intervening 20 years have added some new credentials… but we’ll get to that, in Part 2.

The book, as books often do, went out of print several years ago. I remember spotting a hardcover copy at some point at a Barnes & Noble, clearance-priced at $5.00, and passing it up (d’oh!). If you don’t have this book, FIND IT. There are copies on eBay. There are second-hand copies on Amazon. Seek it out. Of all the Twilight Zone books in my collection, this is by far the most beautiful, the most exciting, the most moving. I had the rare joy of buying a copy for my friend Bill Huelbig, who resides on the other side of the country in New Jersey, this past Christmas. He’s just as big a Twilight Zone fan as I am, so I’m not sure how this particular work of art has eluded him all these years. I was happy to rectify the situation, and I’m prepared to do it again, should some other deserving TZ fan come forward, empty hands desperately outstretched. This book needs to be experienced. Hell, it needs to be BACK IN PRINT. Chronicle Books, are you listening? Do you even still exist?

Fast forward twenty years, give or take. Mr. Schumer presents The Twilight Zone Forever, a “multimedia visualecture” at The Times Center in New York City on 10/02/09, the show’s 50th anniversary. My aforementioned friend Bill buys a ticket and attends, much to his delight (and my internal dismay, since there’s no way in hell I can afford to make the trip). Bill reports back with a positive review (which will appear in Part 2 of this spotlight). A few weeks later, I take a chance and email Mr. Schumer, having only recently discovered his website, wondering if perhaps the presentation was videotaped. Turns out it was. And Mr. Schumer, out of an immeasurable kindness, sends me a DVD of the presentation. But we’ll get to that, in Part 2.

It doesn’t stop there. The magnanimous Mr. Schumer proceeds to send me an assortment of TZ-related gifts, one of which I’ll address right now, since it’s germane to the topic at hand.

Sight, Sound & Mind: A Montage of The Twilight Zone’s Words, Images & Music is a 12-minute DVD that mirrors Schumer’s Visions book, page by page (one dissolves into the next, with that 250-lines of resolution look gloriously intact), augmented by musical cues from various episodes, with all of the text read by the author himself. This alone makes the disc essential (honestly, can you imagine anybody but Anthony Bourdain reading Kitchen Confidential out loud? I like to think that if my novel Diminished Returns ever gets published, I’ll get to do the audio version). The Visions book is Schumer’s baby, and his voice brings it to vibrant, shimmering life.

I can’t stress enough what a treat this DVD is to behold. As I’ve already stated, the book needs to be back in print or, better yet, back in print with a copy of the DVD included. Until that happens, however, something of a guerrilla approach will be necessary for interested parties to attain the full experience. Get the book, then contact Mr. Schumer directly at arlen@arlenschumer.com to inquire about the DVD. Or inquire about the DVD first, then get the book. Either way, they’re two great tastes that taste great together.

My marriage to Lisa lasted nine years. The Twilight Zone, on the other hand, is forever. Arlen Schumer agrees, as you’ll see in Part 2 of our profile. Stay tuned, won’t you?


Teresa said...

What a fabulous review! It makes me want to run out and get my own copy of this book, even though we already have one... :)

Craig Beam said...

...we'll soon have two, actually. I'm getting a signed hardcover copy from the man himself!