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Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time

Really good dinosaur books are few and far between. Despite the best efforts of pretty well every Science Fiction author at one time or another, one could likely count the most memorable attempts on one hand. Jurassic Park would enter most people's minds these days, though more by reputation of the film series than from having read Michael Crichton's novel for themselves. The unparalleled classic is, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, published in 1912. His copious literary talent and careful attention to detail made this relatively late entry into the field of Scientific Romances a genre archetype of its own: the "lost world" story. More recently than The Lost World is another lost world story of a type, taking place in the Victorian Era and standing towards the head of the list of great dinosaur stories. This is Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time by James Gurney, published in 1992.

Image: James Gurney.

The irony behind Dinotopia's success is that Gurney is no Science Fiction author. Asked in interview about how deep an influence Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir H. Rider Haggard exerted on his series, he said that they didn't really. His main influences were the journals of actual explorers and scientists like Darwin, Wallace, and Burton. It's not altogether uncommon that truly excellent examples of modern Scientific Romances come from people completely outside of any "scene" or "fandom" dedicated to it. Its success no doubt owes as much or more to the dinosaur fever of the early Nineties - Jurassic Park would be released to theatres the following year, in 1993 - as its Victorian Scientific Romance setting.   

Rather than a Science Fiction author, Gurney is a painter. The origins of Dinotopia find themselves in a collection of unique paintings by Gurney, showing dinosaurs and humans living alongside each other. Unlike countless scenes of antagonism between dinosaurs and cavemen, these paintings depicted idyllic scenes of parades processing past Greco-Roman columns. The idea of elevating these paintings to a narrative, to tell the story behind them and the kind of world they take place in, came to Gurney and the result is a work capturing the very essence of Scientific Romances.

Image: James Gurney.

Or, if we are to believe the prologue, Gurney was merely the recipient of a sketchbook once belonging to Arthur Denison, a naturalist who set sail on an exploratory voyage in 1862. His ship encountered a ferocious storm and was destroyed, pitching himself and his son Will on the shores of an uncharted island teeming with living dinosaurs. More astonishing than this, as though it could get more astonishing, is that these dinosaurs are highly intelligent, rational and wise beings who have taught generations of humans to live in harmony with them and with one another.

Image: James Gurney.


Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Æpyornis Island by H.G. Wells

One of H.G. Wells' earliest short stories, Æpyornis Island is atypically lighthearted for the cynical English leftist. Not long after its publication in 1894, Wells would content himself far more with destroying humanity, vivisecting animals, and outlining his models for oppressive, totalitarian, utopian regimes. Originally published in the Pall Mall Budget and later included in the 1895 anthology The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents, Æpyornis Island draws influence from Daniel Defoe by way of Jules Verne in a mostly comic tale.

The story is a reminiscence of a fossil collector named Butcher, who is familiar to the nameless narrator by having sued his former employer for four years wages. It seems he was trapped on a deserted island during those four years while carrying out an expedition on behalf of his employer. Due to the hardships and peculiar incidents of his abandonment, he naturally felt he was owed his wages. After all, he never would have been in so unique a situation if not for his employer. If only the employer realized what treasure Butcher had in his possession, the four years of accrued wages would have been a small price to pay. 

That treasure, unique in all the world, were the earthly remains of the world's last Æpyornis, the Elephant Bird of Madagascar, recently deceased.



Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Muséum national d'histoire naturelle

When most people think of the great museums of Paris, the list is always topped with the Louvre. Understandably so, as it contains some of the most famous paintings in the world, as well as extensive collections of Egyptian, Roman, and Mediaeval European antiquities. They might also think of the Musée d'Orsay, housed in a former train station on the Left Bank of the Seine and exhibiting the works of the great Impressionists. Or the very modern Centre Georges Pompidou with its Musée National d'Art Moderne. Or the Musée national du Moyen Âge, also known as the Musée de Cluny, dedicated to the Middle Ages. Or the scientific and technological collections of the Musée des Arts et Métiers.

Oddly left off most lists is the sprawling Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in the Jardin des Plantes. Off the beaten path, the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle is a gorgeous complex of museums, gardens, and a menagerie covering 28 hectares. Like the more famous Louvre, appreciating its breadth of collections requires a full day, at minimum, and could easily benefit from more days than one.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck welcomes you to the
 Muséum national d'histoire naturelle.
All photos by Cory Gross.



Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Chocolat Lombart en l'an 2012

Founded in 1760, Chocolat Lombart was, in its heyday, the oldest and largest company in France. By the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the company was considered a model of efficiency and employee welfare. Their modern factory employed 500 people and provided health insurance, housing, and offered workers a share in the annual profits. All this had to be paid for by chocolate. Like cigarettes, fanciful collectors cards were included in chocolate packages to bolster those sales. In 1912, Chocolat Lombard presented its vision of all the amazing ways that customers could buy Lombart chocolates a century in the future.  

Don't forget the Lombart chocolates!

Stopping off at the chocolaterie.

On the video-phone with their son in Asia.

Chocolate delivery by air.

Le voyages dans la Lune.

Unda' the sea.

Unfortunately, if this advertising worked and you want to enjoy Chocolat Lombart yourself, you're out of luck. The company was absorbed by Menier Chocolates in 1957.  

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

La Sortie de L'Opera en L'An 2000 by Albert Robida

The following 1902 lithograph comes from the pen of Albert Robida, the preeminent French visual futurist. This excursion to the opera in the year 2000 builds on the concepts of his famed trio of books: Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century, 1883), La Guerre au vingtième siècle (War in the Twentieth Century, 1887), and Le Vingtième siècle. La vie électrique (The Twentieth Century. The Age of Electricty, 1890). He would return to questions of the future many times in his career, with varying degrees of success. Simply by being a more conservative cynic, he could accurately predict many of the awful and stupid applications of technology that people would find. Unfortunately, his famously piscine flying cars never did come true. Click on the image below for a larger version.


Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Georges Méliès' Jeanne d'Arc

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the massive changes it brought to the communities and ways of life of Europe, there was a resurgence of interest in those traditions that were lost. It began with the Romantics of the 18th century and flowered with Gothic Revivalism in the 19th. Nor did this this movement escape the notice of France's pioneer of fantastic cinema, Georges Méliès. Indeed, he was fully and completely a part of it, articulating this ethos in the brand new medium of film.

Most famous for his films like Le Voyages dans la Lune (1902),  Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (1904), and A la Conquête du Pôle (1912), Méliès was never a pure purveyor of Science Fiction. He consistently blurred the lines between the astronomer and the astrologer, the chemist and the alchemist, the scientific and the fantastic. Far more of his films had magic and fairy tales as their subject than futuristic inventions and mad scientists. Even his mad scientists, beneath Gothic arches, have more the character of wizards and sorcerers. Méliès' are the cinematic embodiment of the Scientific Romance and all that evocative term entails. 

As a patriotic Frenchman of the fin de siècle, Méliès would have been tapped into the fascination with Joan of Arc. Since her life, conquests, and tragic death, Joan of Arc became an amorphous symbol of French identity, ready to be used by anyone for any reason who have a stake in French society. A sign of strength and Divine Providence, she was appropriated by Republicans for her humble origins and by Monarchists for her support of the Crown. Just as she was a rallying point for France during the Lancasterian phase of Hundred Years' War (1415-1453), so too was she in the wake of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Against growing Industrialization she was a symbol of the Mediaeval, and against growing secularization she was a symbol of Catholicism. Nine years after Méliès' 1900 release of Jeanne d'Arc (English: Joan of Arc), she was beatified on the steps of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. In 1920 the "Maid of Orleans" was officially canonized as Saint Joan of Arc, Patron Saint of France as well as martyrs, captives, people ridiculed for their piety, military personnel and the US Women's Army Corps. Even those with no particular ties to France venerate the saint, and many women look to her as an icon of feminine heroism.

The nature of Joan's story, replete with angelic visitations and heavenly voices, lends itself well to Méliès' heady trick photography and the air of a fairy tale. Méliès crafts sets of sumptuous Mediavealism in extreme forced perspective, from the exterior of assaulted castle to the interior of churches gleaming with golden hand tinting. Perhaps for this auteur, there was really no necessary distinction to be made between gilded fairy land and the forces of political history. That is much like Joan herself, who turned an otherwise obnoxious war between English and French monarchical heirs into a populist, nationalist uprising and herself into an enduring symbol.




Wednesday, 17 April 2019

A Tribute to Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris



It's well known that I have a connection in my heart to France, and to nowhere is that connection deeper than to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.

For more than 850 years it has stood at the centre of Paris and in the centre of French history. In fact, it marks kilometre 0 for all distance measurements in France. To paraphrase Bishop Robert Barron, to say that Notre-Dame stands at the centre of Paris is to say that it stands at the centre of France, which is to say it stands at the centre of Europe, which is to say that it stands at the centre of Western civilization. And at the centre of Notre-Dame stands the Cross.

Notre-Dame is an icon of the city and the supreme example of the Mediaeval genius for both faith and art. The appreciation of Beauty is the aspiration towards the enduring, the transcendent, and the sacred. Beauty is the splendor of Goodness and Truth, their radiance into the world in modes far deeper and more powerful and more moving than an ethical or scientific debate. That is why Beauty - true art, the autonomy of art, uncontrollable art unfettered by propaganda and politics, art of the human experience - is always the first thing to come under attack in zeitgeists that seek to extinguish Goodness and Truth. The quest for Beauty is the longing for meaning. Few, if any, man-made places are as beautiful to my eye as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris is centuries of devotion and sacrifice petrified into stone. Statuary adorns it in high places that no Earthly eye is able to see. It moves humankind exactly because it was the best of humankind poured into something built to the glory of God. It is sublime and ageless, having survived disaster, desecration, and dilapidation before being restored to its rightful place as a jewel in the crown of Christendom. The July Monarchy deliberated on whether or not to tear the venerable cathedral down, after it had suffered so cruelly by the French Revolution's hatred of all Goodness and Truth and Beauty. Yet a popular novel by Victor Hugo reignited passion for everything about the romance of mediaevalism, patriotism, and religiousity that the cathedral represented. Notre-Dame was not only a symbol for the Church or the nation of France, but for the growing dissatisfaction with the failed promises of modernity. That is also what it represents for me: a living, ancient, enduring emblem of the romance of history, majesty, and faith. 

Notre-Dame figured prominently in my two trips to Paris, once during a brief layover in 2008 when it was one of only three attractions I had time to visit (the others being the Eiffel Tower and Disneyland Paris) and again in 2013 when we passed it nearly every day for two weeks. I lost track of the number of times we stepped inside to offer devotion, but its awesome presence, the breath of the Spirit moving through it, the weight of its ages and the innumerable people who have passed there all seeped into my bones. In the words of Sinclair Lewis: "He who has seen one cathedral ten times has seen something; he who has seen ten cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent half an hour in each of a hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all."

If there was any one building that I would consider my spiritual home, even more than my local parish, it would be the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. It broke my heart beyond words to see the terrible images of its roof ablaze on April 15, 2019, and all I could do not to burst into tears at the good news that the stone structure was saved, along with the three rose windows and majority of the stained glass, and all of the art and relics. She still endures. Thanks be to God. 



Wednesday, 3 April 2019

America's Wonderland: Yellowstone National Park

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River... is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people...
With these words spoken on May 1, 1872, the United States Congress created what has been called America's best and only truly original idea: the world's first National Park.

Native American peoples have been using the rich resources of the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years. Obsidian from the caldera of this supervolcano provided the Apsáalooke (Crow) and Shoshone people with material for speartips, arrowheads, and trade with other tribes. Projectile points made from Yellowstone obsidian have been found as far away as the Mississippi. John Colter, a guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, was ostensibly the first white man to see Yellowstone. In mocking tones, an unbelieving public called it "Colter's Hell." As more and more mountain men ventured into the area and returned to verify Colter's story, public condescension turned into pubic curiousity. Three expeditions were launched between 1869 and 1871. The last of these - the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 - brought in a veritable army of geologists, botanists, zoologists, meteorologists, ornithologists, mineralogists, photographers, entomologists, statisticians, artists, hunters, and guides, along with an actual military escort. In 1872, the indisputable tract of land called Yellowstone was declared a National Park. Afterwards, Northern Pacific Railway attracted the well-heeled with promises of  a real-life "Wonderland."

Though the railway station has long since withered away, along with the decline in the railway as a means of mass public transportation across the continent, the town of Gardiner, Montana still serves as the northern gateway to Yellowstone. Carriages would line up along the station's boardwalk to receive the newly arrived tourists, ferrying them to distant points of scenic beauty and wilderness romance within the vast expanses of the park. In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the triumphal arch that the carriages would pass through, like Alice through the rabbit hole, demarcating this preternatural landscape from the ordinary. The Roosevelt Arch, inscribed with those words sacred to democracy - "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People" - still beckons travelers today.

The Roosevelt Arch.
All photos in this article by Cory Gross.

The United States in the mid-19th century had two conditions that were fertile for the development of the national parks idea. One was wilderness, and the other was an impending threat to the sanctity of that wilderness. Unlike the nations of Europe whose civilizations were measured in millennia, the United States was a new country born in the wilderness of North America. Whereas England, France, Spain, and Germany had monumental Gothic cathedrals, crumbling Roman ruins, and lands long-since carved up by feudal aristocrats, North America had pristine forests, expansive prairies, and towering mountains with the perception that they belonged to no man, Indigenous peoples notwithstanding. Americans like Ralph Waldo Emmerson and Henry David Thoreau began to recognize that just as democracy was essential to the political health of the individual, so was nature essential to their spiritual, emotional, and moral health. To quote Thoreau, from his 1854 memoir Walden:
We need the tonic of wildness... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
As the population of America grew and the line of frontier expansion was declared closed in 1890, the nation's collective attention turned from moving outwards to moving inwards and upwards: settlement, development, industrialization. It became apparent to another generation of conservationists and nature transcendentalists like John Muir that America was quickly in danger of losing its natural heritage to the rapacious exploitation of natural resources. The more threatened wilderness spaces became, the more industrialized and urbanized the nation became, the more apparent the need for nature became and the more desperate the need to take legal action to preserve it. Wrote Muir, in the introduction of his 1901 classic Our National Parks:
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease. Briskly venturing and roaming, some are washing off sins and cobweb cares of the devil's spinning in all-day storms on mountains; sauntering in rosiny pinewoods or in gentian meadows, brushing through chaparral, bending down and parting sweet, flowery sprays; tracing rivers to their sources, getting in touch with the nerves of Mother Earth; jumping from rock to rock, feeling the life of them, learning the songs of them, panting in whole-souled exercise, and rejoicing in deep, long-drawn breaths of pure wildness. This is fine and natural and full of promise. So also is the growing interest in the care and preservation of forests and wild places in general, and in the half wild parks and gardens of towns.   
Thus was born the National Park. A wilderness space preserved as inviolate as possible, as a common trust for the common good of the nation and, indeed, the world. Today there are over 3032 national parks spanning over 100 countries. In the United States alone there are 61. The first was Yellowstone National Park.


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

Familjelycka
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.