Wednesday, 20 March 2019

An Experiment in Gyro-Hats

Though employed full-time as a banker and sadly shadowed in posterity, Ellis Parker Butler was one of the most prolific and popular American humourists of the early 20th century. His most famous story, Pigs is Pigs, was even adapted into a Disney animated short in 1954. 

An Experiment in Gyro-Hats was originally published in the June 1910 edition of Hampton's Magazine, illustrated by Albert Leavering. In it, an inventive hat-maker takes very seriously his profession's sacred calling to improve the conditions of men and the world at large. Specifically, creating a hat designed to steady the tipsy and staggering. 

As in most cases of  humourist writing, like Darius Green and his Flying Machine before it, there is less point in talking about how funny it is than in letting it speak for itself. The complete text of An Experiment in Gyro-Hats follows.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

The Domestic World of Knut Ekwall

Born in Säby, Sweden in 1843, Knut Ekwall eventually came to study at the prestigious Academy of Arts in Stockholm from 1860 to 1866. His speciality was drawing and woodcut printing blocks, and through his career it was such magazine illustration work that largely kept him going. But during his tenure in Germany - Berlin, Munich, and Leipzig - during the late 1860's to early 1880's, and again in Sweden until his death in 1912, he also attained a reputation as a painter. His favourite subject matter seems to have been domestic life of the upper classes, and especially the stages and complications of romance. One could almost piece together his paintings to form a complete story from courtship and proposal to eventual widowhood, all against the opulent, tchotchke-laden background of wealthy homes.    

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan

The character of Peter Pan was first developed by J.M. Barrie in his 1902 adult novel The Little White Bird. In this semi-autobiographical tale, the narrator tells his young ward David about a week-old infant named Peter who overhears his parents discussing their future hopes for his adult life. This all sounds rather dreadful to him, so Peter absconds to Kensington Gardens where he encounters the various fairy folk who make this London park their home. These few chapters in The Little White Bird inspired Barrie to write a full theatrical play entitled Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904. The chapters in Little White Bird were slightly rewritten and published as the book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1906. 

Though published to capitalize on the success of the play, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is not a prequel to Peter Pan. Rather, it is a first draft of sorts. Barrie would revisit many of the themes and situations in that short story, not the least of which being the flying boy who refuses to grow up. Kensington Gardens would become Neverland, though Peter does allude to having spent some time in the Gardens when he first decided not to age. Maimie, the girl who develops an affection for Peter, becomes Wendy. Finally, in 1911, Barrie rewrote his play as a novel. Peter and Wendy became the definitive literary version of the story that has inspired countless adaptations on stage and screen since.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The Magic of Disneyland's Background Music

The creation of background music for a theme park is a fine art unto itself. Most visitors to one of Disney's worldwide theme parks tend to fixate firstly, and most enduringly, on the rides themselves. This may be followed most closely by the visual dynamics of the parks, placing the most emphasis on the work of Imagineers and set designers. Yet Disney's parks famously (or infamously) strive to affect all the senses. It is a poorly kept secret that scents are pumped through vents throughout Disneyland to accent the areas guests pass through. The enticing aromas of candy-making, for example, do not derive from within the candy shoppes on Main Street USA, but from hidden vents across the storefronts.

Concept art for Main St. USA. Image: Disney.

Music is another important aspect of themed design. Of course, Disney's relationship with music is longstanding: it was the innovation of synchronized sound with the animated cartoon that propelled Mickey Mouse and his creators into stardom, and it would be impossible to imagine a Disney film without its Academy Award winning songs. The same holds true of the rides in the world's various Disney parks, and not just the rides. Streetscapes and area music requires just the right playlist to immerse guests into the places and times they are meant to represent. Theme parks are not designed to merely replicate reality, but to craft an environment of heightened reality. Main Street USA does not mimic an actual turn of the century American community, but the romantic ideal of the Gay Nineties owing most to cinematic representations. Like cinema, Main Street USA needs a soundtrack.

The following are some choice background music loops from Disneyland and other Disney parks that are invaluable for aficionados of Victorian and Edwardian music. Each is carefully compiled, often by legends like Jack Wagner, to evoke the romantic ideal of the time period. Sometimes that means straying from actual period pieces to choice excerpts from Hollywood and Broadway, not to mention medleys of Disney's own tunes. Nevertheless, they are perfect background music for Scientific Romances in a bygone age. These links carry you to YouTube, which is an invaluable resources for Disney park music. The Google-savvy individual should have no problem finding means of making mp3 copies, if they are so inclined.
  • The Disneyland Emporium - Piano renditions of era staples from in and around Main St. USA's main shoppe, the Disneyland Emporium. 
  • Disneyland Paris' Emporium - Another variation on the Emporium music loop, more reliant on strings.
  • Plaza Inn - One of Disneyland's best eateries is the Plaza Inn, off the hub at the end of Main Street USA, with more elegant music to match its somewhat more elegant decor.
  • Main Street Station - This track records the functioning Nelson-Wiggen Orchestrion that once graced the halls of the Disneyland Railroad's Main St. Station.  
  • New Orleans Square - Ragtime standards are jazzed up for Disneyland's homage to the Crescent City. 
  • Port Orleans - French Quarter - Jazzier yet is the music for Walt Disney World's Port Orleans -French Quarter Resort (where my wife and I stayed on our honeymoon, in fact!). 
  • Frontierland - For something a little more down home, the Frontierland background loops offers banjo, harmonica, and the fiddle.
  • Splash Mountain - Even further down home and down south is the queue loop for Splash Mountain, which includes selections from the film Song of the South.
  • Aunt Polly's Refreshments Area - Tom Sawyer's Island at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World accented its theme with a one-time counter service restaurant set to Aunt Polly's house. The counter service is now gone, but the house and its bluegrass music remain.
  • The Disneyland Gallery - For Disney lovers, elegant stringed versions of classic Disney film soundtracks.
  • Paradise Pier - This final music loop from Disney's California Adventure park (before the area was converted to "Pixar Pier") is meant to capture the jaunty feeling of a Victorian seaside amusement park. 
  • Paradise Park - Across the water from Paradise Pier is Paradise Park, a more genteel space with a more genteel soundtrack (that borrows liberally from Main Street USA's).
  • Hall of Presidents - For those Americans feeling somewhat more patriotic, the lobby background music for this celebration of America's presidents might fit the bill.
  • Disneyland Paris' Main Street USA Morning and Evening - Disney park music changes throughout the day to capture different moods, in this case along Main Street in Disneyland Paris. 
  • Liberty and Discovery Arcade Loop - Due to the fact that it can snow in France in winter, Disneyland Paris' Main Street is flanked by two enclosed walkways, one themed to technological invention and the other to France's gift of the Statue of Liberty. 
Another two tracks have appeared on Soundcloud: the 1976-1991 morning and evening background music for Walt Disney World's Main Street USA.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Disney's Song of the South and its Sources

It would be an understatement to say that Disney's Song of the South is a controversial film. How controversial is, however, largely proportional to the number of people who have not actually seen it. Upon its release in 1946, the film became a Disney staple and its animated cast - Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear - became company icons. That lasted until 1986, when Song of the South had its last theatrical re-release. It became a touchstone for protest over the conditions and representation of African-Americans, and despite one of Disney's best loved theme park attractions being based on it, Song of the South was pulled from distribution in the United States. For 20 years interested parties have had to be motivated to seek out bootlegged European releases, but its wide availability in the age of the Internet has done nothing to diminish its reputation as either one of the best or one of the worst Disney films, depending on who you talk to.

Song of the South was based was based, in spots, on the "Uncle Remus" stories transcribed by Joel Chandler Harris through the 1880's and 90's. Three animated segments in the film adapt stories pulled from Harris' anthology of African-American folk tales, linked by a live-action narrative penned by Dalton S. Raymond, Morton Grant, and Maurice Rapf. Some unspecified problem has beset the family of little Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll, Disney's first contract child actor and voice of Peter Pan), causing a rift between his mother and father. The implication is that the problems stem from anti-segregationist editorials penned by Johnny's father for the family newspaper. He and mother (Ruth Warrick) are left in the care of grandmother (Lucile Watson) on the old plantation. Problems with his family and with local bullies leads Johnny to Uncle Remus (James Baskett), the elder storyteller and kindly father figure of the plantation's African-American ex-slave community. Remus guides Johnny through his troubles by way of stories about wily Brer Rabbit. It is these live-action segments that fuel most of the controversy, for portraying the complicated era of the Reconstruction with all the pleasantry and frivolity of a Disney movie.

The biggest fault of Song of the South is being a consummate Disney movie. It has real heart, and compelling characters, and good music, and fun animated sequences. Even in a culture that has not legally been able to watch it for 30 years, its essence still endures in Splash Mountain, one of the most popular Disney theme park attractions of all time. The animated sequences are as good as the best cartoons from Disney's wartime era. The controversial live-action sequences don't quite have the same scope as a comparable classic like Gone With the Wind (1939) but it still carries that same sense of Southern charm, quaintness, and moments of grandeur. Ruth Warrick is resplendent in her gorgeous period dress, doing a slightly softer Vivien Leigh. Hattie McDaniel reprises basically the same character from Gone With the Wind, and like always it is fun to watch. It is a pity that James Baskett's wonderful performance as Uncle Remus is locked away in the Disney vault though. In 1948, Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award for his kindly, paternal, sympathetic portrayal of Uncle Remus defined by his own quiet strength of character, becoming the first African-American male to receive an Oscar (the first African-American was Hattie McDaniel, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1939 for Gone With the Wind). It was especially ironic given that Baskett could not even attend Song of the South's premiere in racially segregated Georgia.

Though the African-American characters portrayed by Baskett, McDaniel, and Glenn Leedy are friendly, positive, and full of song - acting as the well-adjusted foils to the broken family of the white plantation owners - Disney nevertheless “Disneyfies” a difficult time in American history, in the immediate wake of the American Civil War, when African-Americans were technically free but had nowhere to go, dealing with the intergenerational trauma of slavery while racism was still rampant. It is offensive exactly because it is so inoffensive. The NAACP even said as much... In a press release following the film's debut, NAACP executive secretary Walter Francis White admitted (emphasis mine):
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in 'Song of the South' remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, 'Song of the South' unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts. 
It was this same time period that Joel Chandler Harris came into when he set about to transcribe and preserve the folk tales of African-American former slaves. Born in 1845 in Georgia to an unwed Irish immigrant mother and a father who fled immediately after his birth, 16-year old Harris took up work in a print shop on the Turnwold Plantation. During his time on the plantation, he became immersed in the lives of African-American slaves, feeling less self-conscious around them on account of his Irish heritage (including a shock of red hair) and illegitimate birth. The Uncle Remus character he later invented was a composite of several storytellers he knew, and Uncle Remus’ stories were those he heard around the evening fire. After the American Civil War, Harris moved from newspaper to newspaper, becoming a valued humourist and political commentator while promoting the vision of racial reconciliation in the “New South.” Eventually he set upon the task of transcribing the folktales he heard at Turnwold as a document of past times.

Like the movie based on them, Harris' writings are controversial. Some see his transcriptions as preserving an important part of America's cultural history, while others see him as having appropriated African-American culture. Some see his simulated slave dialect as a significant linguistic artifact, while others see it as demeaning. Some see the Uncle Remus character as a crude stereotype, others point out that according to slave narratives such personalities did exist. Harris was, on the one hand, a progressive advocate of racial reconciliation and African-American rights, and on the other he was paternalistic with a ingrained sense of nostalgia about the Antebellum South. He had even interpreted Uncle Tom's Cabin, an avowed abolitionist novel, as "a wonderful defense of slavery." In short, it may just be that in a country still dealing with the intergenerational trauma of slavery 150 years later, it is simply impossible to write about it without courting controversy.

So, let's write about it...

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Uncle Tom's Cabin and it's Cultural History

It is a comfort to hope, as so many of the world's sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.
These words, penned by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the preface to the first edition of her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, expressed a hope that became a prophecy. The best-selling novel of the 19th century and second best-selling book of the century after the Bible itself, Stowe's fictionalized exposé of slavery in the United States was an epoch-making tome that accomplished its lofty ambition. Apocryphal accounts have Abraham Lincoln crediting Uncle Tom's Cabin with sparking the American Civil War. Whether or not that was true, it has taken a strange cultural arc: a radically progressive anti-slavery tract in the 19th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin eventually came to be seen itself as an outdated reinforcement of racist caricatures in the 20th. In the 21st century, it has furnished one of the only remaining acceptable forms of racism, which is for white progressives (in Chinese: 白左 or báizuǒ) to label any person of colour who disagrees with them an "Uncle Tom"... An acceptable form of racism because it is perpetrated by conspicuously self-described "anti-racists." 

What could account for such a major shift in its reputation? Undoubtedly, one reason is that, like Disney's Song of the South after it, Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of those things that are controversial in direct proportion to how many people have not seen it. James Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award for his positive, sympathetic, paternal portrayal of Uncle Remus in the 1946 film, becoming the first African-American man to receive an Oscar... And today, that award-winning performance is locked away in the "Disney vault", because of its reputation as a racist film among people who have never had the chance or taken the initiative to watch it. While the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin is widely available, it is less frequently on any primary or secondary academic curricula and has not had a Hollywood adaptation since the end of the silent era.

That may itself be symptomatic of the truism that the progressives of one era become the conservatives of the next. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a Victorian novel, published in 1852, and employs a vocabulary of imagery and archetypes that today seem like crude caricatures. The sort of "mammy" character made famous by Aunt Jemima and Hattie McDaniel (who was the first African-American to win an Academy Award, for best supporting actress, for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind) was popularized in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Likewise, the character Topsy is a "pickaninny" stereotype. Yet while seeming racist today, they were representatives of real sorts of people during the time period and would have been readily identifiable from actual experience. There were African-American maids like Mammy and storytellers like Uncle Remus. Furthermore, the same fictionalized shorthands were employed for the white American cast. It is the monstrous Simon Legree who bequeathed the image of the moustache-twirling villain satirized by The Great Race's Dr. Fate, Dudley Do-Right's Snidely Whiplash, and professional wrestler "The Villain" Marty Scurll. 

Film and Vaudeville did few favours for Uncle Tom's Cabin here either. Copyright law was virtually nonexistent when the novel was first published, allowing drama troupes free reign to interpret and reinterpret the text as they saw fit. Because the novel was controversial among those who supported the institution of slavery, pro-slavery "Tom Shows" were performed throughout the South, which valourized the white slavers and demeaned the African-American cast. These pro-slavery Tom Shows and even straightforward anti-slavery ones alike utilized actors in blackface, quickly merging with minstrel shows. Early film followed these traditions. Edwin S. Porter's 1903 adaptation for Thomas Edison is essentially a cinematic transcription of the Vaudeville shows, blackface and all. Disney also preserved this in the 1933 short Mickey's Mellerdrammer, in which Mickey and Minnie (in blackface) put on a Tom Show. It is a "vaulted" cartoon rarely released by Disney, but valuable in capturing an impression - amidst the cavorting characters for whom everything is going comically wrong - of how Tom Shows were produced, performed, and received by their audiences.

Edwin S. Porter's 1903 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Digging beneath its popular reputation, what do we find when actually reading Uncle Tom's Cabin? We find a poignant, surprisingly nuanced, and powerful book affirming the dignity of the human person that is still relevant wherever and however that dignity is erased by those who would exploit others as mere instruments of gain.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Christmas a Hundred Years From Now

The following sample of prophecy appeared in the Summit Country Journal of Breckenridge, Colorado, USA, on December 18, 1909. Now 119 years later, and ten whole years after the predicted date, we can enjoy looking back and seeing how accurate these imaginings were (like its prediction that automobiles will go extinct as humankind takes solely to the air for transportation). Click on the image to see an enlarged version.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Ethel Watts Mumford's When Time Turned

One of the quotes most often misattributed to Albert Einstein is "time is what keeps everything from happening at once." The line actually derives from the novelist Ray Cummings, in his 1921 short story The Time Professor in the magazine Argosy. One can see why it might be so frequently assigned to the actual professor of time though, as it captures something essential about his work. Namely, that time (and space) as we experience it is relative. Time is not simply a linear progression of instances, but warps according to location. Who knows what gravities could affect it? What if, through some inscrutable power, a person could end up experiencing time in reverse?  

The most well-known story to ask this question is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button published the following year, 1922, in  Collier's. Even that story has been overshadowed by its 2008 Brad Pitt, David Fincher film adaptation. Yet the first story to about this subject was in 1901, in the less well-known magazine The Black Cat. Dedicated to stories of the unusual, and named after the Edgar Allan Poe story, it published the Scientific Romance, Horror, and Weird Fiction of many a young and aspiring author including Jack London. The January 1901 issue featured a strange tale by Ethel Watts Mumford titled When Time Turned, about a man reliving his life in reverse.

As happens from time to time, a story is short enough that there is less point in talking about it than in simply posting the story itself. Here following is When Time Turned, that month's $125 prize winning story, as it appeared in The Black Cat.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The March of Intellect

It is the current year, and the current year seems embroiled in a heavy debate over issues of freedom of speech and access to information. One of the great selling points of the Internet in the 1990's was that it would finally democratize speech and information, allowing the common person to produce and access content unmediated by corporate media. Then it happened, and the powers that be hated it. 

Gatekeeping provides an illusion of consensus and easy manipulation of the hoi polloi. The rise of comment sections and social media proved how illusory this control was, reaching its apotheosis with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Not only bypassing the corporate media mainstream, the freedom of social media allowed him to attack it directly and ride it all the way to the White House. Now, deplatforming and Silicon Valley unpersoning are among the attempts to get the genie back in the bottle, under the pretense of public "safety." Freedom is risky, and unpopular with those who prefer controlling opinion to engaging in healthy argument in the marketplace of ideas. Whether the odd collusion of leftist authoritarians and corporate media can assert control is for the future to decide, but the historical record doesn't look good.  

None of this is new. The Industrial Revolution brought, of course, many huge changes to the fabric of European and global societies. Not the least of these was a newfound premium on the natural and applied sciences, education, and the increasingly widespread and efficiently affordable production of educational literature. Learning was no longer the privilege of the wealthy upper classes. Now the burgeoning middle class and even the lower classes were becoming wealthier on average, better educated, more literate, and looking forward to advances in technology that would make their own lives easier. Dear God, what hath we wrought?

William Heath satirized this debate at the turn of the 19th century in his series titled The March of Intellect. Born in 1794, Heath was a popular war and military portrait artist who eventually turned to satirical cartoons. The March of Intellect, drafted over 1825 to 1829, provide a vision of futurism from the age of Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe, and the social concerns surrounding it. What would these changes mean for class conscious England? For warfare? For the Church? For, gasp, politics?

The following is a sample of Heath's March of Intellect series. Click on the image for larger versions. 

Robert Seymour joined the fray with his own satirical cartoons, though his is a much cruder (and less jam-packed) apocalyptic vision of new ways sweeping away the past. 

The satirical figure of Charles Golightly was a part of this critique as well, as he took his "Flight of Intellect" aboard his steam-powered rocket.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Happy 90th Birthday Mickey! The Early Years of the World's Most Famous Mouse

He is one of the most instantly recognizable characters in the world, if not the most recognizable. Today, on his 90th birthday, November 18, 2018, he is largely seen as an innocuous, even banal, corporate icon whose famous visage adorns theme parks and consumer goods the world over. But there was a time when he was just an up-and-coming young Hollywood hopeful. His rise to fame is, in fact, a microcosm of Hollywood's own ascendancy. I'm talking, of course, about Mickey Mouse.

I've long been a fan of vintage Mickey Mouse and his milieu. The turnaround point from seeing him as merely a banal corporate icon to becoming a genuine fan was the first time I saw the very first episode of the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series. Originally airing in 1954, the first half of the episode was devoted to setting up Disneyland as a mixed multi-media franchise. Walt, assuming a new role as weekly host and corporate icon himself, showed off the plans for his concept of a new kind of amusement park of multiple "lands" and attractions themed to different films, places in the world, and periods of American history (including the future). He introduced places like "Frontierland" and "Tomorrowland" as conceptual, imaginative spaces to be fleshed out and reinforced throughout the series, in episodes like the Davy Crockett trilogy and Man in Space. The second half of the episode was devoted to the story of Mickey Mouse. It is from this segment that Walt first uttered the famous quote "it all started with a mouse." What endeared me to Mickey was Walt's treatment of him as a genuine personality: a diminutive actor he first met when he was a shoeless farm mouse, but with whom he found success and made it big in Hollywood. It also helped that I'm a fan in general of silent and early sound films, of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and of early animation. To consider the era of Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin but not include Mickey Mouse (who began essentially as an amalgam of the two) is to leave a very important piece out.

The official origin story of Mickey is that Walt Disney was on the train back from New York to Los Angeles after he was informed that he was losing the rights to his character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and most of his studio along with. Then a flash of inspiration came, which shaped itself into Mortimer Mouse. On the recommendation of his wife Lillian, Mortimer was changed to Mickey, and the rest is history. Of course, the real story is somewhat more complicated.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Red Dead Redemption's Weird Western World

The original Red Dead Redemption, released in 2010 by Rockstar Games for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, is considered by many to be a high-water mark in video gaming. Following the "open world" format of Rockstar's infamous Grand Theft Auto series, the mean streets of major modern metropoli were replaced with the Wild West of Italian cinema. Furthermore, the chain of events was given the compelling story of John Marston, a former outlaw who is forced to hunt down his old gang members across Mexico and the fictional State of New Austin after the government takes his family hostage. The game became a perfect example of the growing propensity for video games to transcend film as the art form of the 21st century. Beautifully rendered environments coupled with engaging storytelling and characters that literally involve the player for hours upon hours of entertainment. 

Red Dead Redemption release trailer.

Advances in technology have meant that no video game is truly complete. Indeed, the "day one update" phenomena has shown that most games aren't even fully debugged and ready to run when they are sold. But where there is extra money to make, downloadable content (DLC) is soon to follow. Picking up before Red Dead Redemption's epilogue, the Undead Nightmare DLC (2010) throws a supernatural curve into Marston's settled life. Just when he thought his family was safe, both his wife and son succumb to a zombie plague breaking out across the frontier. Naturally, it is up to the former outlaw to solve a mystery going back to ancient Aztec worship of the Sun. 

Along the way, Marston encounters even more strangeness. As the world is ripped asunder by a zombie apocalypse, the Four Horsemen's steeds roam the Earth. Marston has the option of taming War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, each with their own unique effects on the brain-eating hordes. Somewhere out there in the wilds is also a unicorn that trails a rainbow behind it as you ride. Joining him are jackalope and chupacabra, and a pathos-inspiring episode with Sasquatch. A new mythology for the zombies does not exactly utilize the creature's largely forgotten origins in Voodoo shamanism, but does draw the modern metaphor of cosmic nihilism and urban distress further back in that direction.  

Undead Nightmare trailer.

Undead Nightmare was criticized from some quarters upon its release, as a number of fans of the original game felt that it undermined Red Dead Redemption's realism to jump on the zombie bandwagon. On the one hand, this realism is overstated: the West was not nearly as wild and bloodthirsty as cinema has made it out to be. Red Dead is an interactive Western movie, pulling tropes and archetypes from Hollywood's gunslingers. A truly realistic Western game would involve an unrelenting tedium of plowing land, driving cattle, and months-long bounty hunts. Violent and gritty does not equate to realistic, and it's surprising to learn that anyone has thought that way since the 1990's. Rockstar already sacrificed realism for an entertaining product.

Apparently those critics were a minor voice, because the more recently released prequel Red Dead Redemption II (2018) for Xbox One and Playstation 4 goes much further in integrating elements of the Weird Western into their otherwise more realistic game. In this installment set in 1899, 13 years before Red Dead Redemption, you play Arthur Morgan, the enforcer of John Martson's old gang. After a robbery gone wrong, the gang is on the lam and trekking across the American landscape to avoid Pinkertons and bounty hunters. We see the gang both at the height of its power and through its fall into madness, despair, and death. 

Red Dead Redemption II release trailer.

The game pushes beyond the tropes of the Spaghetti Western to be a much more realistic take on true Western life. Opportunities for fastpaced, bloodthirsty gunplay are further between and resource management becomes a much more significant part of the game. You have to watch out for the well-being of the camp, your horse, and your character, meaning there is more hunting, crafting, bathing, feeding, and brushing going on. The world of Red Dead Redemption II is much more fully and beautifully realized as well. Its sprawling map is a microcosom of the United States, with regions identifiable to actual parts of the country. The city of Saint Denis is a stand-in for New Orleans, surrounded by bayous and neighbouring the red earth of the post-Civil War American South. North is "Roanoke", replicating the Appalachians and Hudson Valley. To the West are ranges of mountains reflecting the Sierra Nevadas and Canadian Rocky Mountains. Tucked in the midst of the mountains is a small tribute to the geyser basins of Yellowstone. In the middle of the map is the eerily accurate "Heartlands" that look exactly like what one would see driving through the grasslands and badlands of the prairies. New Austin returns as the equivalent of Texas.

Throughout this immense world are a plethora of sights and strangers that get weirder and weirder as the game progresses. The original game had its share of odd characters, eccentrics mostly. The only clearly supernatural figure in Red Dead Redemption was the mysterious Stranger, an unkillable, top-hatted gentleman who appears to know everything about John Marston's past... and future. It was a statement by him that provided the seed for Red Dead Redemption II's precipitating incident. Yet he is poorly defined and there is much speculation as to whether he is God, or Satan, or something else entirely. Much like the stranger in the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter (1973), there are hints as to who this Stranger could be, but overall he is an encounter with the Unknown beyond human ken.

Compilation of scenes with the Stranger.

By contrast,  Red Dead Redemption II goes balls to the wall nuts at times. Extraterrestrial visitors appear at least three times in the sky, first above the ruined shack of a Heaven's Gate-style suicide cult. A ghost in the swamps outside Saint Denis eternally relives her tragic tale of lost love and suicide. Speaking of Saint Denis, what would a proxy of New Orleans be without a vampire? Sasquatch bones can be sighted in a mountain cave, a horrific Moreauesque experiment can be found in a deserted house, high in the hills is a witch's hovel with a cauldron brewing, and human sacrifices by pagan cults dot the landscape, as do ancient fossils, Viking burials, pirate wrecks, and crashed flying machines. A side mission has you searching for mysterious rock carvings of Zeppelins and atomic bomb explosions for a man who looks and talks like he is from the 1920's. Another mission has you performing tasks for a Tesla-like genius, culminating in the discovery of an automaton that looks like a cross between Boilerplate and Bender. 

The following videos by LegacyKillaHD showcase some the various Easter eggs and where to find them, though (more) spoilers ahead for those waiting to find them for themselves...

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Vincent Price, Roger Corman, and Edgar Allan Poe

By the early 1950's, Universal Studios had largely given up on its tradition of Gothic horror films. Arguably the last of the line was 1948's Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, the greatest of the horror-comedies but nevertheless a farce on the petrified iconography of their classic monsters. Universal's immediate future belonged to Atomic Age Sci-Fi, including the last great monster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. The following year, Universal went to colour with This Island Earth, but by 1960 these sorts of "genre" offerings were naught but schlocky drive-in movie fare.

Yet at just that same time, hideous things were brewing in England. Hammer Films began production of their own line of horror films that were widely seen as inheriting Universal's mantle. Produced in colour and staring legendary actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Mummy (1959), and The Brides of Dracula (1960) proved that there was still interest in well-made, well-acted, well-scripted Gothic horror films. At the time, American International Pictures was a low-grade B-movie house that was known for giving minuscule shooting schedules and shoestring budgets to films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Teenage Cave Man (1958), High School Hellcats (1958), and Reform School Girl (1957). However, when one of their most prolific and reliable directors, Roger Corman, approached them to make their own series of Hammer-style horror films, they gave him the green light. Not only that, but they upped his budget and gave him a whole 15 days to shoot his first, on the gamble that this was just the sort of thing that would raise AIP's standing, not to mention their profit margins.

As source material, Corman deviated from the tradition of European writers to go with an American original: Edgar Allan Poe. Richard Matheson, one of the greatest horror writers that ever lived, supplied the script based on Poe's 1839 story The Fall of the House of Usher. Then came the inspired choice to cast Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. To this point, Price was already an established actor with 20 years experience and over 80 roles in his filmography. He originally entered the craft as a dramatic character actor who took on a number of historical dramas, then transitioning into Noir thrillers for a while. In the Fifties he really began his career in horror, in such films as House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958) and Return of the Fly (1959), The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both 1959). Over the course of his career, less than a third of Price's films were horror, but they were the ones with the most enduring popularity. By the 1980's, he was guest-starring on The Muppet Show and doing voice-overs for Michael Jackson's Thriller as an all-time horror icon. This was due in no small part to AIP's "Poe Cycle." Together, they created House of Usher (1960) and charted a new course in American horror film.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Fall of the House of Usher: the 1928 Silent Films

Amidst his bibliography of classic tales, The Fall of the House of Usher is one of Edgar Allan Poe's best known and most frequently adapted. First published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in September of 1839, it is a masterful Gothic short story about a sinister house and its woe-begotten inhabitants. Poe's narrator introduces us to Roderick and Madeline Usher, last in the long line of the Usher family.... A venerable clan beset with the maladies of aristocracy: physical, mental, and moral degeneracies. Madeline is seen but once before her apparent death by cataleptic seizure. It is Roderick who must live with the constant deterioration of his body and spirit within the confines of the oppressive manor that imprisons him. The titular house is a bleak one, crumbling from centuries of mold and decay in an unrelentingly melancholy swamp. Such visually and psychologically arresting subject matter begs for cinematic adaptation. The Fall of the House of Usher has been brought to film over a dozen times, not counting crypto-adaptations like Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (2015). Perhaps the best known of these is the 1960 version directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, which kicked off an entire series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The earliest were two films released in the same year of the silent era, one in France and the other in the United States. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Great Moon Hoax

Of all the giants of scientific endeavour, perhaps none are as significant to history as Sir John Herschel. Already an accomplished astronomer and natural philosopher - having written A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy in 1831, which in turn inspired many scientists including a young Charles Darwin - Herschel departed for South Africa in 1833 in order to chart the courses of the southern stars. It was there that he developed his greatest invention and made the greatest discovery in the history of the human race.

The report delivered by the New York Sun on Tuesday, August 25th, 1835. Its announcement read:
In this unusual addition to our Journal, we have the happiness of making known to the British publick, and thence to the whole civilized world, recent discoveries in Astronomy which will build an imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon the present generation of the human race a proud distinction through all future time. It has been poetically said, that the stars of heaven are the hereditary regalia of man, as the intellectual sovereign of the animal creation. He may now fold the Zodiack around him with a loftier conscientiousness of his mental supremacy.

It is impossible to contemplate any great Astronomical discovery without feelings closely allied to a sensation of awe, and nearly akin to those with which a departed spirit may be supposed to discover the realities of a future state. Bound by the irrevocable laws of nature to the globe on which we live, creatures "close shut up in infinite expanse," it seems like acquiring a fearful supernatural power when any remote mysterious works of the Creator yield tribute to our curiosity. It seems almost a presumptious assumption of powers denied to us by divine will, when man, in the pride and confidence of his skill, steps forth, far beyond the apparently natural boundary of his privileges, and demands the secrets and familiar fellowship of other worlds.

We are assured that when the immortal philosopher to whom mankind is indebted for the thrilling wonders now first made known, had at length adjusted his new and stupendous apparatus with the certainty of success, he solemnly paused several hours before he commenced his observations, that he might prepare his own mind for discoveries which he knew would fill the minds of myriads of his fellow-men with astonishment, and secure his name a bright, if not transcendent conjunction with that of his venerable father to all posterity.

And well he might pause! From the hour the first human pair opened their eyes to the glories of the blue firmament above them, there has been no accession to human knowledge at all comparable in sublime interest to that which he has been the honored agent in supplying; and we are taught to believe that, when a work, already preparing for the press, in which his discoveries are embodied in detail, shall be laid before the public, they will be found of incomparable importance to some of the grandest operations of civilized life.

Well might he pause! He was about the become the sole depository of wondrous secrets which had been hid from the eyes of all men that had lived since the birth of time. He was about to crown himself with a diadem of knowledge which would give him a conscientious pre-eminence above every individual of his species who then lives, or who had lived in the generations that are passed away. He paused ere he broke the seal of the casket which contained it.

To render our enthusiasm intelligible, we will state at once, that by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and entirely new principle, the younger Herschel, at his observatory in the Southern Hemisphere, has already made the most extraordinary discoveries in every planet of our solar system; has discovered planets in other solar systems; has obtained a distinct view of objects in the moon, fully equal to that which the naked eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of a hundred yards; has affirmatively settled the question whether this satellite be inhabited, and by what order of things; has firmly established a new theory of cometary phenomena; and has solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.

This understandably florid prose led to the news of the greatest discovery by the accomplished Herschel: life on the moon!

An illustration of Herschel's discoveries.

These fantastic revelations by advanced telescope technology were, of course, a hoax. The perpetrator seems to have been reporter Richard Adams Locke, in a publicity stunt for the Sun. By the sixth and final installment on August 31, 1835, the public was inflamed, Edgar Allan Poe was incensed, Jules Verne was inspired, and the Sun's readership was permanently inflated. Herschel was said to have been amused by the whole thing. The Great Moon Hoax was to the 19th century what Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast was to the 20th, and what the entire "fake news" dilemma is to the 21st.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

New York Sky Harbor in 1950

The following vision of New York's "Sky Harbor" in 1950 by Arthur T. Merrick appeared in the November 1907 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine. Click on the image for a larger version.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

John Carter of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs' reputation often precedes the actual reading of his work. Many are familiar with Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, through its various cinematic incarnations, from Johnny Weissmuller's live-action films during Hollywood's Golden Age to Disney's animated version in the late 1990's. Fewer are as familiar with John Carter than with his impact on the genre of Science Fiction. Franchises like Star Wars and Avatar owe direct debts to Burroughs' Planetary Romance, which came back to bite Disney when they released their own failed film adaptation of the first John Carter novel in 2012. Undaunted, Disney simply bought Star Wars and Avatar. 

When one does sit down to finally read Burroughs' work, be it Tarzan of the Apes (1912) or The Land That Time Forgot (1918) or At the Earth's Core (1914) or A Princess of Mars (1912), what they find is a very breezy, readable style of pulpy adventure. Time has rendered its judgement on how enjoyable Burroughs' writing and characters are, though it is not without its flaws. 
The exploits of John Carter, much like those of Tarzan, begin with an initial trilogy that set-up a lengthy series of novels. A Princess of Mars was the first, delivering our hero to Mars, continued in The Gods of Mars and concluding with The Warlord of Mars, both published in 1913. Burroughs' Barsoom series (so-named for the invented name that Martians give their planet) continue for another ten books, picking up from the heroic John Carter and following the exploits of his son. Read in rapid succession, the Carter trilogy puts the exclamation on Edgar Rice Burroughs' attributes as a manufacturer of pure escapism devolving frequently into outright wish fulfillment.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

A Message from Mars

The story of A Message from Mars is a familiar one. A cruel and stingy man, ungenerous and ungrateful, mean-spirited and selfish, finds himself pressed upon a celestial visitor to change his ways and live charitably within the brotherhood of man. It could be from A Christmas Carol, but is in this case an example of how early Scientific Romances on film often took their inspiration from stories of the supernatural and coated them with a superficial veneer of science. 

Released in 1913, A Message from Mars is notable as the first feature length British Science Fiction film and Britain's first to feature Martians as a subject matter. These Martians, however, could just as easily be the choirs of Heaven. The story opens on Mars, looking more or less Greco-Egyptian in character, with great columns and Martians adorned with gigantic ankh necklaces. Ramiel, a very angelic-sounding name, has been called before the Martian ruler, dubbed "The God of Mars", for some undisclosed infraction. His punishment is to be stripped of his raiment and cast down to Earth, where he must work to turn the heart of the aforementioned cruel and stingy man to good. He is instantly transported to Earth and exhibits the surprise Martian ability to pass through walls. From above he is watched by the Martians, who gaze upon the Earth with a literal crystal ball.

The film, based on a then-30 year old stage play, is a Scientific Romance in only the loosest possible sense of the term. It is merely the rhetorical replacement of angels with Martians that fixes it thus, and that is a superficial change to anything that the story is about. It doesn't matter that Ramiel is from Mars. The effect on the story - a basic morality tale of redemption - is nonexistent. as for the morality tale, if we accept that the film is only an hour long and a silent film, then it is good enough. It does strain credulity, however, when the man reforms his ways after spending a whole three minutes in the guise of a homeless beggar. Afterwards, though, he does rush into a burning building to rescue a family and then take them into his own home, so I guess it did stick. 

Though the first British feature Science Fiction film, the 1913 version of A Message from Mars was not the first version or the last during the silent era. The first was a now-lost 1903 version from New Zealand. MGM released an American remake in 1921. The original play was written by Richard Ganthoney in 1899, and though quite popular at the time has been largely (even completely) forgotten.  

A Message from Mars can be watched in its entirety from British ISPs on the BFI Player website.     

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

A Signal from Mars

The following march and two-step by Raymond Taylor and E.T. Paull was released in 1901, as part of the ongoing popular fascination with space and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Of course, by 1901 the idea of a signal from Mars might have more ominous tones: H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds was published in 1897.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Jules Verne's Facing the Flag

Facing the Flag (Face au drapeau) is one of Jules Verne's lesser known works yet one of those in the late stages of his career that are more prescient for their insights into human behaviour than for their technological speculation. It is a slight work, only 180 pages soaking wet, and had the pleasure of being adapted into an equally obscure film by Czech auteur Karel Zeman that was translated into English as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (which is the greatest non-Hollywood adaptation of Verne, if not the the greatest adaptation period). Nevertheless, published in 1896, it contains seeds of ideas that are becoming frighteningly relevant now: unaccountable madmen wielding weapons of mass destruction.

The mad scientist and his small, but powerful, invention.
Image: Léon Benett.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

The Fabulous World of Karel Zeman

If anyone can truly be said to have captured the spirit of Georges Méliès, it is Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. It is one thing to use the methods pioneered by Méliès, which in a sense makes all subsequent filmmakers his children. When Méliès purchased his first camera, the art was so new that in developing his screen fantasies, he created many of the techniques that would become standard practice in the medium for a century. It is quite another to be heir to the spirit of wide-eyed wonder and fantasy that infuses Méliès' films themselves.

Most filmmakers don't even make the attempt, which is their right, since not all creative visions need be the same. A few try, but none have come so close as Karel Zeman. Heralded as one of the fathers of Czech animation, his films are celluloid adventures in wonder and whimsy carefully crafted from nearly every form of special effect known before the invention of computers. He is what a modern Méliès might have grew into, his films a Jules Verne illustration come to life.