Some writers are known for their ideas. They reputation is built on being imaginative and putting said originality into words. Others are famed for how prolific they are, churning out tome after tome without ever stopping to settle down. And then there is Colin Wilson, a British scribe whose specializes in both. Over the course of some five decades, he has penned nearly 150 volumes, many dealing with such esoteric subjects as existentialism, the occult, true crime, serial killers, the supernatural, and all other manner of the macabre and mysticism. Since the publication of his first work, The Outsider, in 1956, he has maintained a rollercoaster career of highs (the non-fiction effort was widely praised) and lows (his follow-up, Religion and the Rebel, was panned). Now in his late '70s, he sits down with the cameras of Reality Films for a 90 minute Q&A on his beliefs and opinions. Not really a documentary per se, there is still a lot to be learned from this otherwise innocuous film. Indeed, while Wilson has lived a varied and novel life, it's his core concepts and philosophies that still intrigue people today.
As he tours his grounds and garden sheds with Phillip Gardiner and Dennis Price, Colin Wilson explains the basic elements of his varied worldview. After dismissing a career in science proper, he discovers a love for writing that translates into his famed first book - The Outsider. An overview of various philosophers, thinkers, and authors and how they play the role of social outcast, it created quite a stir upon publication and led Wilson into a steady stream of critical (and sometimes, crackpot) thinking. Over the course of his 50 plus years as a scribe, he's become enamored of life after death, peak experiences of happiness, the notion of predicting the future, and finding the various "truths" within such areas as ghosts, demonology, and other supernatural/paranormal states. He talks about meeting celebrities, about working in fiction vs. reality, and maintaining personal communication with infamous UK criminals. While avoiding a more thoughtful overview of his amazing career, Strange is Normal finds a balance between backstory and contemporary import that illustrates Wilson's significance to the world of critical thought.
In the past, this critic has had the opportunity to look at some of what Reality Films calls their in-depth documentaries on astonishing subjects such as aliens and time machines. Presented in a low rent, '80s computer graphics framing, these so-called movies were maddening for several reasons - first and foremost being their total lack of direction and detail. Luckily, Strange is Normal manages to overcome some rocky production elements to thoroughly intrigue the viewer, if not always for the right reasons. Wilson is a thoughtful, engaging subject, a man not beyond spinning his past into a polished collection of appropriate anecdotes, minor insights, and humble acceptance of his envisioned role in the medium. There is no doubting his prolific nature or love of books. He has a collection of over 150,000 books, more than thousand times his own actual output. While 150 separate works may seem like a lot, the near 80 year old Wilson argues that it's only three volumes a year since he started. If one can write about 1000 words a day, he figures, one need only work 300 days a year.
Wilson is like that, a man of easy ideas that is never pressed to get into real concrete specificity. As interviewed by fawning fellow writer Price, Strange is Normal is a decidedly low ball experience. We get the basics and the beginner's guide. Wilson is seen as a smart kid, struggling to find his place. The Outsider arrives and, suddenly, he's a star. As he wanders through his life of letters, he creates the first Encyclopedia of Crime, tries to solve the Jack the Ripper case, establishes a kind of "new" existentialism, and finds his way in (and out) of Hollywood. While the film glances over his various controversies and accomplishments, we do get a real feel for what Wilson really believes. He argues over his initial dismissal of life after death, how he came to embrace the idea, and how Abraham Maslow's discussion of happiness formed a foundational element of his idealism. Sure, he can sometime sound a bit daft, but in general, Wilson is thoughtful, eloquent, and intriguing.
Of course, some elements are missing or treated with only minimal interest. His hatred of the film adaptation of his book The Space Vampires (otherwise known as Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce) is barely broached, while a long correspondence with an infamous British child killer is almost anti-climactic in its insights. Similarly, Wilson argues that he is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and yet Strange is Normal never provides another voice to support such a claim. Price also allows telling moments to go by without much dissection. Wilson is no fan of Arthur C. Clarke, but after a brief bit of slagging off, the noted science fiction father is relegated to the back burner. Also, Wilson reckons that his Spider World series is comparable to Tolkein's Lord of the Rings in terms of merit, but we never really learn what the books are about. Indeed, the biggest flaw in this otherwise fine profile is that lack of solid support. It's easy to sit back and say something about yourself and your works. It's another to have others agree. For what it is, Strange is Normal is a decidedly one man show - for both good, and bad.
As per this critic's policy, Screener copies of DVDs are not awarded points for video or audio. If Reality Films does send a final product version of Strange is Normal to the site, this paragraph will be updated accordingly. Currently, the screener offers a 1.78:1 anamorphic image that is soft and lacking in detail.
As per this critic's policy, Screener copies of DVDs are not awarded points for video or audio. If Reality Films does send a final product version of Strange is Normal to the site, this paragraph will be updated accordingly. Currently, the screener offers a Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix that is discernible, but far from definitive.
This Screener copy of Strange is Normal contains the nearly 100 minute interview with Wilson. It also houses a brief discussion with his wife, Joy. Buffering both sides are ads for other Reality Films titles, many dealing with subjects like ancient Egypt, aliens, and astral projection. They pad the Screener out to almost two hours, though what will be on the final product is anyone's guess.
Colin Wilson is a genuinely intriguing man. He has more than a couple of lifetimes worth of work to discuss and dissect. He's not egotistical, though he clearly believes in what he is saying, and never once overstates or undervalues his literary importance. Still, Strange is Normal is missing something, an element of inclusion and detail that would really bring the prolific author into perspective. Without it, all we have is a genial conversation between two blokes. Still, there's enough here to warrant a Recommended rating, especially if you are a fan of the man. While there's not a lot here to inspire a new generation of devotees, Reality Films does a fine job of celebrating an important part of 20th century letters.
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