Sunday, 28 June 2015

Scientific Romances in the Atomic Age

Today's special post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Movies SilentlySilver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen, and sponsored by Flicker Alley. Click on the banner above to see the line up for today's line-up of classic film posts from across the blogosphere. Thanks for letting us be a part of this great event!

The resolution to the War in the Pacific in 1945 threw a wholly new anxiety onto the shoulders of the world: the heretofore impossible spectre of actual global annihilation. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki culminated a trend begun with The Great War. In that first conflict, the "Christian Century" of infinite moral progress was crushed beneath the violence of technological warfare predicted by the likes of H.G. Wells, George Tomkyns Chesney, and the other writers of doomsday invasion stories. Often they predicted an apocalyptic outcome to the oncoming war, but humanity's execution was blessedly stayed in 1919. Even with advances in tank, aeroplane and explosive technologies, truly obliterating humanity was beyond humanity's power.

Then along came The Bomb.

To make the situation that much more dire, the end of the War in Europe also furnished a new and powerful opponent. No sooner were Germany and Japan brought to heel than the Soviet Union filled the vacuum, being a more expansive and more horrific regime than the two villains of World War II combined. Furthermore, Stalin also possessed The Bomb and, under Khrushchev, the animosity between the USSR and the USA nearly led to Armageddon. While both sides built up their capacity for mutually assured destruction, proxy wars were held in Southeast Asia and in the ideological realm of outer space.

Our ability to smash atoms and potential to harness them for a new technological age, as well as the Space Race and its naive utopian promises, formed the perfect backdrop for what would later be recognized as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in film. The Great War that closed out the Victorian-Edwardian Era also closed out the genre of Scientific Romances; stories of adventure in far-flung places that shared the thrill of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and colonial exploration to a pre-film society, written by the likes of Jules Verne, Garrett P. Serviss, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Camille Flammarion, Edward Everett Hale, and Edward Ellis. Between the wars, the only books of Verne's that were adapted to film were his spy adventures like Michael Strogoff, with a solitary exception in 1929's The Mysterious Island that had more in common with its own time period than Verne's original novel. Science Fiction, properly speaking, took over during the interwar period, in everything from serious meditations on how science and technology may affect society in such works as Metropolis (1927) and Things to Come (1936) down to the Pulpy action-adventure of Flash Gordon (1936) and The Phantom Empire (1935). This nascent realm of Art Deco and radium transformed into the world of Googie and the atom after the Second World War.

Nevertheless, people old enough to beget the Baby Boom were themselves old enough to remember those years before the First World War, or remember the stories told by their own parents. The Gay Nineties resurged as a reassuring nostalgia in film and places like Disneyland. One user of the Tiki Central forum referred to Tiki lounge culture as the "emotional bomb shelters of the Atomic Age," and the same could be said of retreat into bygone days of bustled ladies in feathered hats and suffragette sashes, men in seersucker and handlebar moustaches, horseless carriages, pennyfarthing bicycles, Queen Anne revival architecture, barbershop quartets, and marching bands playing in town square. The authors of the Victorian-Edwardian Era came along with it. In particular, those writers of Scientific Romances became suitable for reinterpretation as modern Science Fiction.

The first film of the time period to retread the Scientific Romances of the Victorian Era was The War of the Worlds in 1953. It did, however, make a fundamental break with its source material. This alien invasion from the planet Mars took place in the present day of the early Fifties. The powers of the invaders were suitably enhanced, the flying machines described only briefly by Wells became their chief technology in Technicolor. It was notable for having demonstrated that there was still life to breathe into those tales from half a century before.

Trailer for War of the Worlds.

The biggest gamble was taken by Walt Disney in creating The Mightiest Motion Picture of Them All. Disney's studios had been trying for some time to film a wholly live-action feature after reaching Hollywood's heights with animation. So Dear to My Heart, a conceptual sequel to Song of the South, was intended to be live-action, but the security blanket of animation was grasped at the last second. On the other side of the Atlantic, Disney used up funds frozen in England during the war to film its first live-action features in British studios. Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue were sufficiently successful that they prompted Disney to finally take the plunge and build a soundstage for a Hollywood production.

A suitable subject was hunted down. Through the mists of Walt's boyhood, a single name was lit upon: Jules Verne. Disney took the zeitgeist of atomic anxiety and the potential of adapting Scientific Romances to bring 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to theatres. A new soundstage was built on the Disney lot to accommodate the full-size deck of the ship designed by Harper Goff. Unlike War of the Worlds, the conscious decision was made to retain the mid-Nineteenth Century setting of the novel. Though Verne's literary Nautilus was a sleek, hydrodynamic vessel, Goff's was cast-iron and rivets to put the exclamation point on this being a Victorian submarine. This choice to set it 100 years in the past helped to provide a safe ideological distance from which to discuss the pressing concern of atomic power, which forms the philosophical underpinning of the film. The original style might also have been a little too close to the design of the USS Nautilus: the world's first nuclear submarine, launched in 1954. Still, Disney couldn't have bought publicity that good.

Trailer for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Disney trusted his instincts as a filmmaker, altering the novel substantially. It's worth keeping in mind that Verne has suffered from notoriously poor English translations, and the translation that Disney was working off of would have itself been missing about 20% of the original material. The film slimmed it down even more, though it did retain that key sense of wonder that is ultimately what the novel is about. Many scenes were excised that would have made for a phenomenal film in their own right, such as a trip to Atlantis that was, ironically, used for both Walt Disney World's and Tokyo Disneysea's 20,000 Leagues attractions. Robust characters portrayed by charismatic actors James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas carried a fairly standard "jail break" plot against a high-stakes philosophical backdrop about how ultimate power should be used. It also had a song and a funny animal, and it was a major hit. Disney has gotten mileage out of 20,000 Leagues for decades, from cinematic re-releases to comic books to children's records to theme park attractions in Disneyland and Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneysea. It has surfaced again most recently as a drink at the new Trader Sam's Grog Grotto bar in Walt Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort (pulling together two "emotional bomb shelters" in one). It also inaugurated the rehabilitation of Jules Verne and Scientific Romances.

It no doubt helped that Verne's work officially entered the public domain in the early Fifties. Here was an author that Disney proved was bankable, and his works were available at no cost! The next to exploit this fact was Michael Todd, whose 1956 adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture for that year, beating out the likes of The Ten Commandments and The King and I. Not an Atomic Age Sci-Fi film, Todd's Around the World in 80 Days still interpreted Verne's globe-trotting adventure in epic form. To wrangle over 40 listed Hollywood stars for cameo appearances and to film on location everywhere from the bull rings of Spain to the the Great Buddha of Kamakura was a major feat in itself. Around the World in 80 Days was a huge Hollywood event and Todd treated it as such, from the film's introduction by Edward R. Murrow to a first anniversary party in Madison Square Garden. Despite, or even because, it is not a Sci-Fi film, Around the World in 80 Days is one of the best films from a Hollywood studio at the time to capture the true essence of Verne's books. What differentiated Scientific Romances from Science Fiction, and Jules Verne's books in particular from what would come later, was their romantic, pedagogical quality that captured the imagination with both a stirring adventure plot and an educational foray into the wilderness and cultures of far-flung, exotic places. In the words of his publisher, Jules Hetzel, Verne's purpose was "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe."

Trailer for Around the World in 80 Days.

The decade rounded out with two more Verne adaptations: From the Earth to the Moon in 1958 and Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1959. The former ponderously belaboured the theme and threat of atomic power, without any notable attempt at levity and only a slight romance. The latter hewed more closely to Disney and Todd, including a funny animal, a song by teen idol Pat Boone and hiring James Mason for his second dance with Verne. Journey is one of the more entertaining of the period and has a wonderfully idealistic moral about the progress of science and the adventure of discovery. Fans of the genre often joke that there is a difference between Science Fiction and Anti-Science Fiction, and Journey to the Center of the Earth has a nuanced, positive view towards what science is and how it is performed, amidst trick photography of pet iguanas in rubber frills.

Trailer for Journey to the Center of the Earth.

H.G. Wells did not rear up again until 1960 with an adaptation of The Time Machine. As Wells was not in public domain at the time (and his novels considerably more pessimistic in general), he was not as fertile a source for films. His heyday was between the wars, with The Invisible Man (1933), Island of Lost Souls (1932), and Things to Come. The only other adaptation of his work from this time - First Men in the Moon - came out in 1964. Between them was a golden year in 1961. Growing legions of children infatuated with Verne were treated to Master of the World starring Vincent Price, Ray Harryhausen's The Mysterious Island, Valley of the Dragons (adapting Off on a Comet), Flight of the Lost Balloon (adapting Five Weeks in a Balloon) and the American import of Czech auteur Karel Zeman's astonishing 1958 artistic masterpiece The Fabulous World of Jules Verneas well as George Pal's comparable historical fantasy Atlantis, The Lost Continent. A properly-titled adaptation of Five Weeks in a Balloon came out the following year, along with Disney's In Search of the Castaways. Never since has Verne's name meant so much. It was so substantive that when the 1954 Japanese Atomic horror film Gojira was brought to America in 1956 as Godzilla, the trailer declared it to be "more fantastic than any [tale] written by Jules Verne!"

Trailer for The Time Machine.

By 1961/62, the formula of Disney's 20,000 Leagues was tested, approved and casting its long shadow. Master of the World, written by Richard Matheson, regurgitated the same plot of unwilling captives on the craft of a genius waging war against war but did so more convincingly than Disney despite the much poorer budget. Whereas Disney's Nemo was driven by conventional revenge, Matheson's aeronaut Robur was a true political visionary ultimately at war within himself. Harryhausen basically replicated Goff's Nautilus for Mysterious Island, which served as an unofficial sequel to Disney's film. This Nemo, played by Herbert Lom, has decided to attack the causes of war rather than the machinery of it, by genetically engineering gigantic crops and livestock to satisfy humankind's hunger for resources. Irwin Allen's Five Weeks in a Balloon had the inventor, a funny animal, a teen idol, a song, several love interests, Peter Lorre, and stock footage of Africa. In Search of the Castaways dispensed with the seriousness in favour of outlandish family musical adventure with Haley Mills and Maurice Chevalier. It was as much a film in keeping with Verne's popularity as it was an heir to Disney's Swiss Family Robinson and Pollyanna (both 1960) and preamble to Mary Poppins (1964).

Such an incredible span of only a few years ultimately served as a climax. Harryhausen supplied the second Wells adventure in 1964 and Vincent Price returned in War-Gods of the Deep in 1965. Diverging and deferring to Verne's idol, Edgar Allen Poe, War-Gods was part of the chain of horror films vehicles for Price that were produced by American International Pictures. The studio enjoyed a great deal of success with the collaboration between Price, Poe and Roger Corman, including House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). War-Gods of the Deep allowed them to parley the cachet of Verne-type films into their Poe cycle, melding the wonder of the Scientific Romance with the rich atmosphere of Gothic Horror (despite it's visibly low budget). A similar film to AIP's Poe series, and starring Vincent Price, was United Artists' Twice-Told Tales (1963). This time based on the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, two of its three anthologized segments feature science gone awry.

Trailer for War-Gods of the Deep.

More notable in 1965 were a pair of "caper" comedies, stemming from the same tradition as 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Blake Edwards, recently enjoying acclaim for Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and The Pink Panther (1963), directed The Great Race starring Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Jack Lemmon. The Great Race, based on an actual auto-rally in 1908, was a studious homage to silent films but is dated far more for its awkward gender-based humour. It was also, unintentionally, the most expensive comedy made to that point, tallying up a cool $12 million (approximately $90 million today). Worse yet, it was a critical and commercial flop at its time. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, directed by Ken Annakin and based very loosely on a 1910 air race from London to Paris (using real working aeroplanes), fared much better with a larger share of the box office and more positive acclaim. An additional British farce was released in 1967, titled Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon. Diverging greatly from the eponymous Verne novel in its plot but not its satirical tone, Rocket to the Moon centres on P.T. Barnum (played by Burl Ives) and his attempt to dodge creditors by commissioning a rocket expedition around the moon. Lionel Jefferies (First Men in the Moon) and Terry-Thomas (Those Magnificent Men) were cast as the bumbling villains, and Gert Fröbe (also of Those Magnificent Men) played the also-bumbling explosives expert whose genius would make the launch possible. Jefferies and Fröbe would go on to star in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang alongside Dick Van Dyke, a conceptual follow-up to Mary Poppins released in 1968. Set in the Edwardian Era, based on a book by Ian "James Bond" Fleming, with a script co-written by Roald Dahl and music by the Sherman Brothers, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang somehow never quite caught the same fire as its Disney predecessor (no doubt because Walt Disney was not at its helm).

Trailer for Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.

While audiences of 1965 had to go to theatres to see spectacles like Those Magnificent Men, they could see another variation on the Scientific Romance right at home. In that year, The Wild Wild West television series debuted on CBS. Satirizing and paying homage to Western TV shows and the "Spy-Fi" genre, Robert Conrad played the American Secret Service agent Jim West who worked with the inventor Artemis Gordon to protect the Union from dastardly, moustache-twirling villains in the years following the Civil War. Unfortunately it was cancelled after four seasons, not for any notable lapse in quality or ratings, but as a concession to concerns over television violence in the wake of the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. James Bond had already come to define the Spy-Fi genre by the mid-Sixties (and The Wild Wild West was sold as "James Bond on horseback"), but perhaps the most Spy-Fi show was England's The Avengers. Beginning in 1961, series lead John Steed - played by the recently deceased Patrick Macnee - evolved into the archetypal Saville Row, bowler-hatted, Neo-Edwardian English gentleman that re-emerged after World War II. One of the arguably best TV shows ever produced - The Twilight Zone - also dipped into the Victorian setting periodically, in such episodes as the Buster Keaton time-travel comedy Once Upon a Time and the examination of modern angst and nostalgia escapism titled A Stop at Willoughby.

The first episode of The Wild Wild West.  

On the dark side of the Iron Curtain, the mantle of Vernian film was picked up by Karel Zeman, whose first film in the series was his aforementioned Fabulous World of Jules Verne, released in Czechoslovakia in 1958 as The Deadly Invention. Prior to this, he filmed Journey to Prehistory in 1955 (released in the West as Journey to the Beginning of Time in 1966) which was based loosely on the little-known 1915 Russian "lost world" novel Plutonia and the prehistory paintings of Czech artist Zdeněk Burian. Fabulous World was an adaptation of Verne's Facing the Flag but drew its biggest inspiration from Édouard Riou's engraved illustrations for Verne's novels. Zeman employed every style of animation and special effect known at the time to achieve this look, to dazzling result. He resumed the style in 1961's Baron Munchausen, which took the German character and mixed him in with Cyrano de Bergerac and Jules Verne. For Baron Munchausen, Zeman took to the style of Riou's teacher, Gustave Doré, who did illustrate a volume of Rudolf Erich Raspe's Baron Munchausen. His final two Verne adaptations came in 1967 with an ode to children's imagination in The Stolen Airship and 1970 with On the Comet.

Trailer for The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

The last American film that could be said to fall within this time frame is Ray Harryahusen's 1969 Weird Western The Valley of Gwangi. The concept originally came from Willis O'Brien, as one of his many ill-fated potential follow-ups to King Kong. As realized by Harryhausen, it features cowboys down in Mexico attempting to rope stop-motion dinosaurs for a travelling circus. It was also Harryahusen's final film involving prehistoric life. The era was finally closed out by the 1969 British film Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (released in the US in 1970). Though miscast and a decade late, this production did have some good ideas and an underlying question of whether Captain Nemo's utopian dreams ever could translate into a functional society.

Trailer for Captain Nemo and the Underwater City.

After Gwangi, The Underwater City and the Summer of Love, atomic anxiety began to mellow out. The world came close to annihilation in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis and thereafter proxy wars became the preferred field of combat. Lydon B. Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War was reaching its bloody climax and the Space Race effectively ended with the moon landing in 1969. At home, new social movements and a broadening idea of justice began to emerge, including the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, American Indian Movement and Native American rights, Second Wave feminism, the Sexual Revolution, Stonewall, the anti-war movement, and the wake of Vatican II. Cinema moved on to the very serious, de-romanticized space of spectacles like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Once more Jules Verne - or what had been made of him and his kin during the Atomic Age of Sci-Fi - had become outdated.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (2014)

When the album La Mécanique du cœur was released by the French rock group Dionysos in 2007, its stunning music videos begged for a feature film rendition. After the financial hiccups of the company producing it, Jack et la mécanique du cœur was finally projected on the silver screen in late 2013. Only recently has the DVD made its way to international shores.

I've previously reviewed both the concept album and the book written concurrently by Dionysos' frontman Mathias Malzieu. The adaptation for feature films hews closely to the source material, as Malzieu wrote both. We pick up the story in 1874, in Edinburgh, on the coldest night of the year, when the baby Jack is born with a heart that is frozen stiff. Thinking quickly, the midwife replaces it with a cuckoo-clock that both blesses him with life and curses him with being unable to withstand emotional stress, lest its delicate gears and strings burst. Unfortunately, he eventually meets a pretty little dancer who challenges the cardinal rule never to fall in love, which is the greatest stress of all.

The main alteration happens at the end: whereas La Mécanique du cœur told the background of one of the characters from Dionysos' previous album Monsters in Love,  Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is obligated to stand on its own as a self-contained story. Allusions to "Giant Jack" are absent, replaced with a more suitably tragic ending. This alteration to the ending, bizarrely enough, forced out the song whose video inspired the movie. Tais Toi Mon Coeur, the standout single with a very Tim Burton-style pseudo-stop motion video, was the emotional climax of the book and album in its original ending. By changing that conclusion, the song no longer had a place.

Most of the other songs are present in the film, however, in one way or another. In some cases they form leitmotifs, while in others they become full musical set-numbers and music videos. Flamme À Lunettes, L'Homme Sans Trucage, La Panique Mécanique, and King Of The Ghost Train retain their key parts in the story, and the song Whatever the Weather becomes the new climax. If one felt the need to fit Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart into a convenient genre, it would be an animated rock musical.

The style of animation does not retain the pseudo-stop-motion employed in the Tais Toi Mon Coeur video, which really is too bad. If you have seen other French computer generated films, like A Monster in Paris, then you will be familiar with the style of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. Both were, in fact, produced by Luc Besson, the genre favourite who also wrote and directed The Extraordinairy Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, The Fifth Element, The Messenger, The Transporter, Léon: The Professional, and most recently, Lucy. Despite lacking an especially appealing aesthetic, it still played delightfully with abstracted visuals. The comparison to music videos is sound: quite often these scenes break out from the film into arresting, nearly self-contained vignettes. There is also much nice visualization of the characters' emotional states, as when Jack's paramour - Miss Acacia - is enwrapped with thorns whenever she is cold towards him. That in itself is one of the charming (and sometimes raucous) double-entendres that come up frequently for fluent French speakers.

As a film in its own right, Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is tragic and delightful. It does not, I think, reach its fullest depth unless one is also familiar with the album and book on which it is based. The three interplay, giving familiarity and flicking on lightbulbs as each progress, recollecting things from the other versions.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Next Week: Classic Movie History Project Blogathon!

Next Sunday, Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age will be participating in the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon! This great event will feature blogs from across the Internet sharing informative and thought-provoking posts on the history of film from the Silent Era through the Seventies. To see the full line-up, click here. And join us back here on Sunday, June 28 for our contribution!

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World: Man's Genesis and Brute Force

Over on our companion weblog today, we're taking a look at one of the first dinosaur movies (in an oblique reference to one of the most recent, which debuted this weekend). Check it out: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World: Man's Genesis and Brute Force.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Cirque du Soleil's Kurios - Cabinet of Curiousities

An aged inventor, surrounded by his cabinet of curiousities, is convinced that another world lies somewhere beyond our own. Unfettered imagination reigns there, which he hears in short bursts of sound and static from his alpha wave transceivers. What is this world? Can he ever find it? A flick of a switch and suddenly a trio of characters descend from the portal. Who are they, and can they take him back to where they are from?

This is the story of Cirque du Soleil's show Kurios - Cabinet of Curiousities, currently touring North America. Cirque du Soleil is the famous circus arts troupe that began in Quebec, Canada, in 1984 out of a roving group of French Canadian street performers and silt-walkers. After their initial performance for the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier's voyage of discovery up the St. Lawrence Seaway, the newly formed company kept moving forward and today employs 4000 people from 50 nationalities across 100 different artistic and technical disciplines in its 18 different shows around the world. These range from big top shows like Kurios, Koozå and Ova, to resident shows like the seven performed in Las Vegas including Mystère and O, and La Nouba at Walt Disney World.

Always seeking out new inspiration, Cirque du Soleil and writer/producer Michel Laprise turned to a Steampunk aesthetic for Kurios. Of the grand set, themed on the interior of the curiousity cabinet of a kindly but mad inventor, Set Designer Stéphane Roy said "It's like Jules Verne meets Thomas Edison in an alternate reality, out of time." This was the aspect that most piqued and provoked my curiousity when the show came to Calgary in April. Astonishingly I had never seen a Cirque du Soleil show before, and Kurios seemed both the most logical and most offensive place to start. Longtime readers of this weblog are well aware of the extent to which I find Steampunk revolting, in a laundry list of complaints ranging from most Steampunks I've met being not very nice people to Steampunk itself being a cliché-riddled counterfeit of the actual Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances, history, and aesthetics that I actually am interested in. So on the one hand, Kurios is about a 19th century world of invention and fantasy. On the other hand, Steampunk.

Photo © Martin Girard

Steampunk aesthetics aren't wholly irredeemable, in small doses and given an appropriate context. The benefit of Cirque du Soleil is that it is so quintessentially French that my mind easily shifted from the feelings one might have at having stepped in something to the delight in the sorts of worlds found in films like City of Lost Children and Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. The sheer spectacle of a Cirque du Soleil performance carries the viewer away to whatever world they want to take you, regardless of your own philosophical misgivings. And as I've said aeons ago, the best Steampunk is generally done by people who aren't Steampunk, because they're not weighed down with the need to socially conform to the clichés.

Photo © Martin Girard

Kurios begins with a train rolling through the audience, a puppet hoisted by the resident band fusing Folk and Electro-Swing composed by Raphaël Beau and the duo of Bob &  Bill. On stage, the train disgorges Chaos Synchro 1900, a flurry of activity, juggling and acrobatics that astonish The Seeker, the mad scientist who dreams of another world. Turning on his machine, three strange beings float from the portal to that other world: Mr. Microcosmos, Nico the Accordian Man, and Klara the Telegraph of the Invisible. Unleashing their powers, objects in The Seeker's curiousity cabinet spring to life in a series of beautiful circus acts of athleticism and acrobatics.  

Nico, Mr. Microcosmos, and Klara.
Photo © Martin Girard
Photo © Martin Girard

Eventually The Seeker builds a contraption to take him to that other world of the subconscious run free. He sees the three characters in their true forms as they wheel about the sky. Mr. Microcosmos, for example, doffs his self-contained metallic casement and flies freely with a group of fish-like beings loosely inspired by the Martians of Georges Méliès' films. The fish-like acrobats and contortionists give a nice splash of colour to an otherwise sepia-toned palate. I'll leave the question of how The Seeker grows from this experience, or if it all even happened, for you to find out if you're lucky enough to see the show.

Photo © Martin Girard

The circus acts are remarkable in their own right, and there in no sense in which I would want to downplay them. Performers with Cirque du Soleil are the best in the world at what they do. What truly makes the show, however, is the artistry around the performers... The story, the characters, the sets and props, the music. My favourite of the three main characters, and their leader, is Mr. Microcosmos. He is the archetype of the 19th century, the self-contained man in his iron shell. Within his pot belly is not a fire in the traditional sense though, but rather, a diminutive woman who acts as his subconscious, poetic, intuitive inner self. Mini Lili is her name, and she is played by the one metre tall, 18Kg Antanina Satsura from Belarus. One of the things I greatly appreciated about Kurios was the tastefulness with which they brought Satsura into the performance without an impression of sideshow exploitation. Mr. Microcosmos, played by Karl L'Écuye, looks serious but is actually a rather jovial fellow. His name recalls Voltaire's Micromégas and some of the overt naming of Georges Méliès' characters.

Mr. Microcosmos and Mini Lili.
Photo © Martin Girard
If you would like to let your imagination soar along with The Seeker, Kurios is currently en route to Denver, Colorado for performances through June and July, then to Chicago for August and September, and finally Costa Mesa and Los Angeles, California through the remainder of 2015. The official website, with ticket sales, can be found here. Pre-sales and special content can be obtained by joining the Cirque Club.

Photo © Martin Girard 

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Tinker Dice Kickstarter Campaign

Do you game? Voyages Extraordinaires reader Tesh of Project Khopesh got in touch to let us know about the set of "Tinker Dice" that they're trying to get support for on Kickstarter, effective for everyone from tabletop RPG players to those who just like to get all the railroads in Monopoly. They've reached their initial goal but are in the final push to reach their stretch goals.

If you're interested, their Kickstarter page can be found here.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge Centennial: 1915-2015

This past week, our friends at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge invited us to the media launch for their centennial celebrations. Situated in Canada's Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is unique in the chain of Canada's grand railway hotels. Since its inception as a tent camp on the shores of Lac Beauvert in 1915, the lodge has continued to evolve over time, including the most recent slate of renovations to be completed in time for Canada's 150th anniversary in 2017.

Jasper Park Lodge. Photo: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
I've written previously on the connection between national parks and the railways in Canada and the United States, and the even more unique relationship between Canadian national identity and the railways in general. As I outlined in those previous articles, the story of Canada and the railways has largely been dominated by Canadian Pacific Railway and the luxurious hotels they built in the "Railway Gothic" style. The CPR completed the transcontinental route across the country in 1885, and enjoyed a monopoly on rail transit in the West until 1914. Objections to the CPR monopoly led the Canadian government to lend Grand Trunk Railway the money necessary to build a second national rail line along a route originally planned for the CPR. That route would have taken the CPR north through what would become Jasper National Park and the Yellowhead Pass, but the CPR opted for a more dangerous but profitable southerly route through modern-day Banff and Yoho National Parks.

Jasper National Park was rooted into an old fur trade post along the Athabasca River. Originally called "Fitzhugh," it was informally renamed for North West Company fur trader Jasper Hawse. The pass was a key player in one of the most interesting dramas in Canadian history, when fur trader and explorer David Thompson was looking to cross the Rocky Mountains and follow the Columbia River to sea. Stationed at the post of Rocky Mountain House, he had intended to cross Howse Pass but was blocked by the Blackfoot First Nations. Traditional enemies with the Kootenay First Nations on the other side of the Rockies, they threatened Thompson with death rather than allow him to trade them guns and European goods. Thankfully for him, the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the United States had an altercation with the Blackfoot in 1806 that pulled them away from their blockade of Rocky Mountain House. Thompson took the opportunity, but rather than flee through Howse Pass, he opted for the Athabasca.

In 1907, the area was designated Jasper Forest Park and a few years later, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway passed through. Unfortunately 1914 was a bad time to start a railway. With a less populous route, lack of a solid marketing strategy like that developed by the CPR, and the onset of The Great War, GTPR simply could not make money. A final indignity was having sections of track appropriated by the government and sent to France to assist in the war effort. GTPR defaulted on its loans in 1919 and in 1920, the whole operation was nationalized under the Crown corporation Canadian National Railway, which still operates to this day as a freight company.

To encourage rail traffic, Grand Trunk built a series of grand hotels like those erected by Canadian Pacific. They built the Château Laurier in Ottawa in 1912, Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg in 1913, and the Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton in 1915. The Château Laurier and Hotel Macdonald are now part of the Fairmont chain along with the lion's share of Canada's grand railway hotels. Also in 1915, GTPR sought to capitalize on Rocky Mountain wilderness by establishing a tent camp in Jasper. When Grand Truck's assets were turned over to Canadian National, the tent camp came with it. In 1921, CN built a group of log bungalows to provide greater comfort and two years later supplemented that with a main building reputed to be the largest single-level log structure in the world. This was a marked departure from the monumental Railway Gothic style that dominated railway resorts to this time and mirrored the growing trend of bungalow camps for automobile travellers being built throughout the American National Parks. Unfortunately that original log lodge was destroyed by fire in 1952 and replaced by the current building. In 1988, the Jasper Park Lodge and other CN hotels were acquired by Canadian Pacific's hotel chain, which was in turn folded into the Fairmont brand in 1999.

The historic main gate. Photo: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
The original lobby. Photo: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is in the midst of a series of centennial renovations to its main lodge, grounds, and 446 rooms spread throughout 84 cabins. The Fairmont chain has taken it upon itself to renovate many of its properties across Canada, including a $75 million suite of changes to the Fairmont Château Frontenac in Quebec City, which seem to trend towards privileging modern ideas of luxury over commitment to historical preservation, restoration, and character. This is interesting when contrasted against the amount of money that the US National Parks Service is pouring into the historical restoration of their parks lodges like the Many Glaciers Hotel in Glacier National Park and Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone. As an historically-minded person, I've always felt that the inability of their generically hotelish rooms to reinforce the historical character of the hotels they are in has been the weakest point of Fairmont properties. But then one isn't staying at a place like the Jasper Park Lodge to stare at the pillows, are they?

Renovated Jr. Suite. Photo: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
One of the activities that can take guests out of their cabins is the famed golf course. Designed by Stanley Thompson, this challenging 18-hole course has been one of the jewels of the resort since 1925. Canoe rentals and other outdoor activities are available in summer, and the lake converts to an ice skating rink in winter. Reflections Spa is there to pamper guests after a long day of golf or hiking in the wilderness. The new restaurant Orso Trattoria under Executive Chef Christopher Chafe brings a fusion of Northern Italian cuisine with local and sustainably-sourced ingredients. They didn't provide any samples of it at the media launch, but I am very interested in their wild boar obtained from Mayerthorpe, Alberta and the honey from bees kept on the resort rooftops.

Heritage golfing. Photo: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. 
The 16th hole today. Photo: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
The original boathouse on Lac Beauvert. Photo: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
Modern canoeists. Photo: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
If you have stayed at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge before, they are interested to hear your memories. On social media, photos and stories tagged with #JPL100 will be eligible for a chance to stay for the same price that a tent cost in 1915: 25 cents. Offerings throughout the summer include a concert series, heritage tours, lakeside dining opportunities, and the ubiquitous high tea. If you find yourself around Jasper National Park, be sure to pay a visit to one of Canada's most distinctive railway lodges in its centennial year.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Light at the Edge of the World (1971)

In 1954, Walt Disney set about proving the mettle of his studio and Science Fiction by producing one of the first great genre epics of the post-war era, turning to Jules Verne to supply him with the setting and outline of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That, in turn, inspired a lengthy series of Victorian Scientific Romances rebranded as Atomic Age parables that stretched until the end of the Sixties, running parallel to the more modern Science Fiction of the time. However, after the Summer of Love, the global protests of 1968, the Stonewall riots, the Tet Offensive, and the moon landing, the heady days of ray gun adventures of cautionary atomic optimism were passed. In their place came a strange affectation for deromanticized films which gave the impression of depth by being light on acting, dialogue, and story but heavy on running time. Ponderous length and turgid performances somehow gave the impression of possessing profound meaning, no better exemplified than in the first truly large-scale, full-colour, obscenely-budgeted Science Fiction epic since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

An instructive comparison can be made between the two. Above all else, 2001 is a film about the emergence of consciousness. First, we see the emergence of primate consciousness in the "Dawn of Man" sequence and the connection between consciousness, technology and the violent struggle of survival. In the middle section, which contains the only part of 2001 that may be considered a story, we see the emergence of technological consciousness as HAL 9000 gains sentience and repeats the violent struggle for survival. Finally, in "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" we see the emergence of stellar consciousness as a state of being that cannot be described, only show in slit-screen effects over footage of Monument Valley. Yet all of Kubrick's brilliant cinematography is a disingenuous construct, meant to disguise the fact that the entire movie is conceptual. It is a 161 minute depiction of a theme without any meaningful ideas, and certainly very little that approaches anything like a story or characters. Kubrick asks us to be in awe of the technical spectacle of 2001, accepting that the spectacle in-itself comprises something kind of like a philosophical idea.

By contrast, 20,000 Leagues possesses not only a theme (atomic power), but an idea (how atomic power should be used responsibly) conveyed through an impassioned human drama. Whereas Kubrick may be the greater artiste, Disney is by far the greater showman. He no doubt recognized that you can't carry a 121 minute movie on theme alone. A concept is what gets you started, a foundation upon which you build a movie and not the movie itself. Therefore the theme of atomic power's responsible use underlies an actual story about a trio of men who are taken captive aboard Captain Nemo's submarine ship... A story overflowing with human drama, tragedy, action, and charismatic personalities. It is a heartily Romantic, passionate film. Even the settings are richly Romantic, from the beauty of the ocean to the wealth of Nemo's salon. 2001, on the other hand, shows the vast expanses of the cosmos but somehow depicts them as listlessly dull. All the ballet music in the world cannot bandage the gaping wound in which space, space ships and even whole planets are stripped bare of anything interesting. With newly expansive stellar consciousness pushing beyond the infinite, all Dave Bowman sees are infinite dead worlds not unlike the dessicated desert that was Earth at the Dawn of Man. Though trying to communicate space as a place of infinite growth and possibility, Kubrick somehow only succeeds in making space looking really boring. It is no wonder, after 2001 and its offspring like The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien, that the original Star Wars should have been such a huge hit. Its return to a Romantic vision of space begat a string of genuinely well-loved Science Fiction films through the Eighties and Nineties, like Back to the Future, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, E.T., Aliens, Jurassic Park and even, God forbid, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

The purpose of this exegesis on 2001 is to set the background for understanding The Light at the Edge of the World, which is the Kubrick paradigm applied to Jules Verne. Based on a posthumously published 1905 adventure novel, this 1971 vehicle for aging stars Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner divests story for theme. In the original Lighthouse at the End of the World, Verne takes his readers to the faraway archipelago of Tierra del Fuego (an area to which he would return in Magellania, from which one also sees echoes in Light at the End of the World). Three men tend the lighthouse that guards the straits through which all traffic circumnavigating the Americas must pass, until two are killed by a marauding band of pirates led by the villainous Kongre. Vasquez, the survivor, lasts as well as he can in hiding until he is joined by the sole survivor of a ship that the pirates dash upon the shoreline after commandeering the lighthouse. The two engage in a guerilla campaign designed to detain the scallywags until help can arrive.

From that, one could see the outline of a film very much like 20,000 Leagues in tone, especially when Kirk Douglas plays the Americanized survivor of the lighthouse. On the one hand you have the theme of the rugged, far-flung lands that test the civility of man, and on the other you have an adventuresome story full of charismatic personalities and swashbuckling heroics. Instead what we get is a landscape of physical, emotional and moral bleakness, with only Brynner's Kongre to get within spitting distance of a character. The pirates have a certain flamboyance about them, but they hardly even speak, opting instead for animalistic howls and cackling. Douglas plays Denton, a veteran of the California Gold Rush who is on flight from a broken heart and a criminal record, wearing his bleakness on his weathered face and surprising us with such an inappropriately robust voice uttering from it for his five or six lines. Eventually two shipwrecked passengers join them, a man rescued by Denton and a woman held hostage by Kongre. They are there. They exist in the movie. That is all.

The Light at the Edge of the World is poorly titled, as we spend its 120 minutes watching that light slowly become extinguished in the contest of wills between Denton and Kongre. Don't make the mistake of thinking that it's an exciting contest of wills, mind you, as the one between Nemo and Ned Land or Nemo and Arronax or Arronax and Ned Land might have been. It's mostly Kongre's cool calculations against Denton's stumbling around the Spanish coastline where it was filmed. In Verne's book, Vasquez is holding on as a force of civilization, order and decency at the furthest tip of the continent. He not only seeks to protect the lighthouse but is himself the lighthouse. In this film, Denton does not start out well, and only declines from there. The pirates are nihilistically perverse and violent, which imparts the same characteristic on the film itself (there is a pretty sizable body count, as well as a gang rape, and the graphic flayings of both a man and a pet monkey). In the end, not even the lighthouse is preserved, and Denton's rescue has the same feel as when the adults finally arrive in Lord of the Flies... The Light at the Edge of the World is "Jules Verne's Apocalypse Now."

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Coming Conflict of Nations; or, the Japanese-American War: A Narrative (1909)

Representative of a number of Invasion Literature by-way-of Future History novels, Ernest Hugh Fitzpatrick's The Coming Conflict of Nations; or, the Japanese-American War: A Narrative is a sometimes painfully anti-literary book. To his credit, Fitzpatrick at least warns us of this fact. Tucked away in the pages of chapter three, he says:
It is not the purpose of this narrative to enter into biographical sketches of those individuals who played the leading roles in this great and world-wide tragedy, for only in a few selected instances will names be mentioned, but this narrative will dwell upon the study of those mighty events as a whole, leaving to others the biographical sketches of those who carried out the production of this great and absorbing drama of which the whole world was the stage.

Perhaps he overestimates how great and absorbing the drama is, most likely because he dispenses with any drama whatsoever. If by "drama" we mean a story of engaging characters, there is none. Fitzpatrick's passion is clearly for politics on a global scale and, for a good chunk of the final chapters, military tactics. His work is provocative for the slightly skewed manner in which he got certain things right.

The most obvious one of these is the thing to which the title refers. The Coming Conflict of Nations is just one of several anticipations of armed conflict between East and West written in the years succeeding the First Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War. Whether to Ernest Hugh Fitzpatrick or Milo Hastings or Jack London or Shunro Oshikawa or Ichiu Miyazaki, it seemed that a clash between the preeminent powers flanking the Pacific was inevitable.

Fitzpatrick also successfully prognosticated an ocean war between England and Germany, and a land war in Europe with Germany and Austria-Hungary united against everyone else. Furthermore, he considered this backdrop of global conflict to be a key ingredient in the movement for Indian independence. Concerns over the liberty of the subcontinent are, more than a war between Japan and America, the immediate political concern of his novel.

Though grasping the broad strokes of events two World Wars down the road, its the errors in the details that prove most illuminating for the author's character. The war between Japan and America is launched by Japan, but not by a sneak attack on a naval base in the middle of the ocean. Instead, it comes when, en masse, the Japanese immigrants to California and the Pacific coast rise up and become a standing army for the Empire. They storm the seaboard, the only check on their expansion being the Rocky Mountains. There is nothing subtle about this "Yellow Peril."

England might have been able to offer support for its Anglophone daughter but for a non-aggression pact signed with Japan and a brewing contest for naval supremacy with Germany. The ingenious tactics of the Royal Navy defeat the Germans, who revenge themselves as an incontestable land army. With Germany out of their hair, the British are able to return attention to the problem of freedom fighters in India. Not that Fitzpatrick would deign to address them as such. In his own words, culled from the first chapter:
The British in India had long been standing over a volcano.

None were more conscious of this than that great body of self-sacrificing Englishmen, who constituted the Indian civil service, men of unimpeachable integrity, and untiring in their devotion to the wellbeing of the teeming millions of Hindoostan, exiled for the most part into distant and unattractive provinces; proconsuls, as it were, of the great British Raj, the King of Great Britain and Ireland, Emperor of India and Sovereign of the British Provinces beyond the seas.

Great Britain had unified India by the outpouring of her best blood. The purblind disturbers of India's peace now sought to accomplish the disintegration of the Indian Empire by attempting to throw the Empire into a state of anarchy. These insensate and wicked agitators, tutored for the most part in the universities of the large cities of Europe and the United States of North America, had been indebted to the benevolent and fostering care of the British Raj for their primary and fundamental education, leaving the shores of India for the further pursuance of their studies in Europe and America, they seemed to have imbibed a relentless hatred to the British government of their native country. Strange as it may appear to relate, it was in England, the center and hub around which the affairs of the almost limitless British Empire revolved, they received most sympathy and support.

There has always existed and will always exist weak-headed sentimentalists who, with unabashed self-complaisancy, eagerly look forward to that golden era when silly sentimentalism is run riot. From the sentimentalists these students received much encouragement.

These malcontent students, on returning to their native land, spent their lives, which otherwise would have been useful, in the furtherance of their revolutionary dreams and to the spread of their anarchistic propaganda. They had sown to the wind, but were destined to reap the whirlwind.

Ah yes, the ungrateful savages who have no appreciation for the selfless sacrifices that the British have made to spread civilization in their direction. Fitzpatrick's movement to Indian independence is, of course, treacherously violent, with the retrospective irony that he almost accurately describes Mohandas Gandhi. At the time of The Coming Conflict of Nations' publication, the London-educated Gandhi was active in South Africa advocating for the rights of Indians and refining his tactics of non-violent civil disobedience. It's even plausible that Fitzpatrick had Gandhi in mind when he wrote, and is betraying his own suspicions.

Once the British subdue the movement to independence, to the surprise gratitude of Indians themselves who suddenly see the revolutionaries for thugs, sufficient resources are cleared up for England to renege on its treaty and join the side of the United States. Furthermore, the war in Europe is halted as it becomes apparent to everyone that Japan's actions are an affront to the whole of white civilization. A new alliance is founded and it is primarily the British who distress Japan on the seas while a coalition fights a land war through the mountain passes of Wyoming and Montana into Japanese-held territory.

What happens next is the most bizarre, from the perspective of a century after the fact. The great war fought, Japan's government accepts unconditional surrender and its people unconditionally accept the American and British occupiers as heroes. A global alliance of Anglophone nations is formed, primarily reuniting England and the United States. A global parliament is also formed to peacefully resolve conflicts and formulate the post-war treaties. The borders are agreed upon in Europe and Africa is neatly divided up between the imperial powers. Russia, Fitzpatrick writes, was originally displeased with having to give up Asian territories to Japan until it was calmly explained to them that Japan's natural expansion was in Asia. In The Coming Conflict of Nations we see a colonialist's utopia; a naive faith in the virtue of the colonizers and the simple amicability of the colonized, with no thought given to the idea that maybe there is no such thing as a "natural right" for one group to invade and dominate another. I suppose that is why he is Ernest Hugh Fitzpatrick, however, and not Gandhi.

Were this not enough, the last few pages communicate the true agenda at work. The global war as the means to the International Congress, which was itself a means to Fitzpatrick's true end: the establishment of global free trade!
At one bold stroke the International Congress struck down that great barrier and detriment to human progress and to the development of a high national character... There is nothing in all the recent history of the human race that has done more to demoralize the consciences of men, pervert their ideals and cause inequalities in the distribution of wealth and the products of toil than that pernicious system by which one country elects to erect commercial barriers against the free access into its markets of the products and commodities of other nations.

Railing on for several more pages about the evils of protectionism and liberating virtues of globalization, it would be easy enough to dismiss Fitzpatrick as an antique - as we have been doing so far - if his views weren't so de rigueur even today. Whether we're talking about the power brokers of Washington or the social justice capitalists of San Francisco, they share Fitzpatrick's cry of peace through commerce.

Eternal peace, for God even gets in on the act in the last paragraph: "By this enactment, the greatest in the history of the human race... were all united in this one great purpose. True Freedom for man to gain, and thus to make fitting this earth of ours for Christ's transcendent Second Reign." We might call it precognitive on the part of Fitzpatrick, or simply the perniciousness of his viewpoint, but perhaps the most accurate thing that The Coming Conflict of Nations reflect of American culture, left-wing or right-wing, is a zealous idolatry in the spread of Anglophone culture and free market capitalism as a religious imperative.