Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Coney Island's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The very first attraction ostensibly based on Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was not found in the quarters of Walt Disney's theme park, but in the hallowed streets of Coney Island. One of the 1903 headline rides for Luna Park was this unique and astonishingly extensive cyclorama submarine voyage to the North Pole.



Walking down the main thoroughfare, revellers were herded into 20,000 Leagues by a barker clad in Eskimo furs. Like later attractions, visitors descended into the bowels of the submersible craft where, outside the portholes, a bizarrely familiar array of wonders revealled themselves. Amongst the scenes cycling by in this trip from the Indian to the Arctic Ocean were fish, coral reefs, sunken ships, whisps of seaweed, tentacled octopi, and even a mermaid.

How was this possible? A cyclorama, or panorama, was a popular merging of public entertainment and the arts in the late 19th century. These were cylindrical paintings that were meant to imitate a full panoramic field of vision. Sometimes, in order to heighten the effect, foreground items were added that turned the cyclorama into a full diorama in the round. BibliOdyssey has examples of the handbills that went along with these precurssors to the movies. The exact manner in which this was translated into 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a mystery, because it wasn't a matter of simply entering a submarine-shaped cyclorama.

After this panorama of ocean life, the submarine surfaced in the frigid wastes of the Arctic... This is, into a refrigerated warehouse where real icebergs floated about the expansive pool, providing rest of a menagerie of living polar bears and seals. It was also home to a tribe of Inuit, complete with igloos and dogsleds. An Aurora Borealis effect was projected on the sky-like ceiling.

The cost this magnificent attraction in 1903 was $180,000 (or about $4.1 million in today's dollar). Rides were 25 cents apiece. Unfortunately, it was replaced a mere two years later by the Dragon's Gorge. Even if it had remained, it would likely have been destroyed by the 1944 fire that consumed the Dragon's Gorge and shuttered Luna Park forever.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Mysterious Island (1929)


An excerpt from Mysterious Island (1929).

Though it served as the primary story inspiration for 1916's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea silent film, The Mysterious Island was itself made into a proper movie in 1929 as an early sound experiment starring Lionel Barrymore and The Lost World's Lloyd Hughes. Ironically, however, 20,000 Leagues was a far truer adaptation than this venture.

In this 1929 rendition, Count Drakkar (Barrymore) has created a fleet of two submersible craft to explore the depths of the ocean, where he is sure there exists a form of aquatic man. His volcanic island is a worker's paradise where there exists no class distinctions... So much so that Drakkar's sister, Countess Sonia, and the engineer Nicolai (Hughes) carry on a love affair. None of this sits well with the duplicitous Baron Falon, who wants the submarines as weapons of war and the Countess - who deserves better than a classless engineer - as his bride. What ensues is a submersible chase to the bottom of the sea and back again, where they encounter sunken wrecks, giant octopi, and strange man-creatures that occupy the dark and the cold of 20,000 fathoms. Finally, Drakkar must make the choice to destroy his own creation rather than let it fall into the hands of world's warmongers, who have no desire to create the utopia he has made on his Mysterious Island.

All in all, the film is serviceable. It isn't bad as an silent-era b-grade film, but it by no means stands out as a classic in the genre. What it is notable for, however, is that just as the 1916 20,000 Leagues was an early experiment in underwater photography, Mysterious Island is an early experiment in sound film making.

There are two sound sequences in the movie. The first is right at the beginning, when Drakkar is explaining his submarines and theories about an undersea race to his then-friend Falon. Here, the sequence is quite satisfactory and well-used, since this setting would involve many title screens. After this the film reverts back to silence for much of the duration. Originally filmed as a silent picture, the sound sequences were added in after the fact to bolster it against the burgeoning application of sound and provide some novelty in a merely serviceable film. The second sequence comes when the characters radio from the submarine to the island, providing a double-astonishment. The communication system is pushed within the film as a wonder of technology, and the theme is driven home by playing the scene out in a wonder of real-life film making technology.

Where The Mysterious Island is also notable is that it is sometimes cited as the beginning of the modern age of Scientific Romances in film. Though Victorian and Edwardian adventure stories were often appealed to by the fledgling cinema industry, many of these either were timed just right to be included in that era - like Georges Méliès' Trip to the Moon and the aforementioned 20,000 Leagues - or were placed conspicuously in the date of release, like 1925's The Lost World. The Mysterious Island was the first to deliberately set itself in that era, though directly on the cusp of sound. Rod Bennett in his survey Voyages Extraordinaires on Film says of it,
Verne’s novels had been speculative when they first appeared, and many of them remained so for nearly a century. They were adventure stories, yes—but built almost entirely around elaborate prophecies of future technology. When those prophecies were fulfilled (as they were in the case of books like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days) Verne’s novels didn’t seem futuristic anymore, or even quaint as they do to us today, but simply dated… hopelessly dated, and about as dated as any book could ever hope to be. Some of them languished in this condition for over 40 years—just old-fashioned Victorian curios, brick-a-brack on the shelves of literature’s antique store. But by the mid-1920s these books were passing into a new phase, a state of being wherein the very datedness itself had acquired a fascination. And this was the genius of the stroke: I think we can say with confidence that the producers of The Mysterious Island were the first filmmakers in history who’d ever dared, with a breathtaking flash of invention, NOT to update a hopelessly out-of-date book. They took Jules Verne’s daring predictions about the day-after-tomorrow and turned them into something else entirely—into a huge, elaborate alternate universe story. They created a 19th century of the imagination, where British Imperialists reached the Moon 75 years before Neil Armstrong, and electric submarines prowled the deep while Buffalo Bill was still prowling the West.

The Mysterious Island, while far removed from Jules Verne and from classic film making, is worth seeing more as a unique window in the development of motion picture arts and sciences.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)


While the most renowned of the adaptations of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disney's 1954 film starring James Mason and Kirk Douglas is not the first time the Nautilus sailed onto the silver screen. On the contrary, the first major adaptation of Jules Verne's classic Scientific Romance premiered at Chicago's Studebaker Theatre on October 9th, 1916. The greatest novelty the film had to offer audiences of the time, however, was as "the first submarine photoplay ever filmed."

The process of underwater photography was still a recent invention by Ernest and George Williamson, who created the "Williamson Tube" device and personally supervised the filming of 20,000 Leagues. Being a new technology, the underwater sequences were the standard experimental fare... Rather than pushing themselves to thrill audiences, just being able to see the sea floor was thrill enough and the major underwater sequence is more of a travelogue. From the viewing portal on the Nautilus, the characters watch in amazement as Captain Nemo points out sponges, sharks and barracuda.

While it is easy to be facetious about it now that underwater photography is only a Discovery Channel away, there was a timeless flaw with the filming in 20,000 Leagues: the sequences were filmed in the lagoons of the Bahamas, which, with the technology at hand, didn't look particularly appealing. No doubt many a person watching the film for the first time thought that the ocean bottom was decidedly unattractive. However, recognizing the innovation made and allowing oneself to get caught up in the antiquity more than makes up for it.

The story itself is a combination of Verne's Nemo cycle: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. In fact, it is really more an adaptation of latter than of the former. The main body of the plot is lifted from The Mysterious Island and it is in the context of that where most of the action occurs. This version also explores the origins of Captain Nemo more deeply than later versions, and retains his ambiguously East Indian ethnicity.

Unfortunately though, sacrifices have to be made. There is no giant squid battle in this version, and many of the characters are rendered superfluous... Ned Land and Professor Arronax serve no useful purpose except to introduce us to Nemo. The balloonists of The Mysterious Island serve a bit more of a purpose, but overall there is the sense that everyone on ship and on land are as much spectators of the central drama of Nemo as the people watching the film in nickelodeons.

It is also worth noting that the credibility of this and other early submarine films were helped along by the Great War waging in Europe and on the high seas. Submarine warfare was making headlines almost daily, so the prognostications of Verne were especially relevant at this time, even if 20,000 Leagues discreetly chose not to fully explore the lineage between the Nautilus and the U-Boat.

Nevertheless, 1916's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is still a worthy first entry into adaptations of this classic tale. All adaptations since 1954 have languished in the long shadow cast by that Nautilus, but this early piece of silent film history has emerged to provide an alternative glimpse on the life and times of Captain Nemo.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Sarah Brightman: Dive (1993)


The 1993 album Dive marks musical diva Sarah Brightman's major entry into the arena of Adult Contemporary soft pop. As the first of her thematic albums - followed by La Luna and Harem - Dive is focused on the briny depths of the ocean deep.

In the soundscape she crafts, however, these depths are less in the way of briny than they are a haunting earthbound celestial sphere. The album opens with whalesong set against the narrative theme: that when this blue planet is viewed from space, it appears to be the territory of whales rather than humanity. It then goes on, in musical fashion, to explore humanity's romance with this liquid space.

The first single is a cover of Krister Linder's Captain Nemo, originally performed by his project Dive. It is difficult to say if the tribute is as complete as it seems, but there may be little reason to doubt it. Nevertheless, the song is not an explicit narrative about Verne's mariner, and thankfully so. Sometimes such songs can come off terribly contrived. Nevertheless, there are certainly the occassional Harper Goff references in the course of the music video.


Captain Nemo is followed by such pop-heavy tracks as Second Element, Ship of Fools, Once in a Lifetime and a cover of Procol Harum's Salty Dog. The odd sample is thrown into the mix, such as Cape Horn's use of a clip from Mutiny on the Bounty describing humanity's tempestuous relationship with the sea. If there is any major fault with Dive, it is that it is dominated by such soft pop rather than enjoying the refined mix of styles in Brightman's later albums. On this account it isn't as strong or as varied as La Luna, which may very well be her best album.

Yet it still conveys its atmosphere and theme quite well within those confines. Following Salty Dog, it picks up again with the whalesong Siren leading into the gentle and operatic Seven Seas, which is certainly one of the better tracks on the whole album, if not the best (with apologies to Captain Nemo). Whalesong nuances introduce another movement of pop songs starting with Sandra cover Johnny Wanna Live, By Now, Island, When it Rains in America and La Mer, concluded by an acoustic reprise of The Second Element.


As noted, Dive is not Sarah Brightman's strongest work. That would be reserved for more refined later albums like La Luna and Harem. If one is a Brightman fan, however, this is certainly a worthwhile addition to her trilogy of thematic albums.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The Lost Land of Lyonesse

On the subject of lands lost beneath the waves of the sea, Great Britain is not to go without hers. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote of the territory of Lyonesse, where King Arthur and his errant son Mordred were fated to have their horrible final battle. Once claimed by the sea, Lyonesse would rise again in time to consume the Knights of the Round:
Then rose the King and moved his host by night
And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse--
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.

It was also cited as the birthplace of Sir Tristan by French authors who may have invented Lyonesse from a corruption of the Scotish territory of Lothian. However, a sunken land lying between the Isles of Scilly and Land's End, at the tip of Cornwall, occupies the legends of the Cornish people. Similar legends exist for the nearby Bretons and the Welsh, including the legend of a single hero escaping the inundation. For the Breton city of Ys it was King Gradlon, for Lyonesse it was the founder of the Trevelyan clan.

Unlike aimless legends like Atlantis, the sinking of Lyonesse has a very solid date affixed to it: November 1099AD. However, other pieces of evidence are certainly open to interpretation. The Seven Stones, a geological feature between Land's End and Scilly, is taken to be a feature of the land's great city. A prehistoric petrified forest lying just offshore is taken for the remains of Lyonesse's woodlands. Fishermen have reported dredging up artifacts from the city, though none have been provided for study. And on dark and stormy nights, the eerie ringing of sunken churchbells can be heard on shore. However, at low tide some of the Isles of Scilly become linked and one can walk between them on foot. At a lower sea-level - only 1-2 metres - they could be linked on a permanent basis, and Land's End would extend out further into the sea. The Romans and Maximus mapped out Scilly as a single island. Despite the 1099 date, the stories of Lyonesse may be a preserved relic of Neolithic changes in sea-level.

The Lyonesse of legend may have been a stronghold of King Arthur, to which the Knights of the Round Table fled after Arthur's death at the hands of his own son. Making it to the furthest reach of the peninsula, the ghost of Merlin came and sent waves crashing over the land, drowning Mordred's army. The Knights suddenly found themselves stranded on the newly-formed Isles of Scilly, building a church in thanks. Prior to its flooding, Lyonesse was said to be a fairyland with some 140 churches. It is the bells of these churches that can sometimes be heard, their spires sometimes seen.

Volume Two of the 1922 tome Legend Land: Being a collection of some of the Old Tales told in those Western Parts of Britain served by the Great Western Railway, now retold by Lyonesse tells of "The Lost Land of Lyonesse":
There is a lot of truth mingled with the old legends that tell of the lost land of Lyonesse, a fertile and prosperous country that once extended west from Cornwall as far as the Scillies. According to those old traditions a vast number of villages and 140 churches were overwhelmed on that day, over eight hundred years ago, when the angry sea broke in and drowned fertile Lyonesse, and now, as an old rhyme has it:

"Beneath Land's End and Scilly rocks
Sunk lies a town that Ocean mocks."

On that fatal day, November 11, 1099, a mighty storm raged all about our coasts, but the gale was of unparalleled severity in the West. Those who have seen a winter gale blowing across the sea that now flows above the Lost Land will know that it is very easy to believe that those giant angry waves could break down any poor construction of man's hand intended to keep the wild waters in check.

For Lyonesse, they say, was stolen by the sea gradually. Here a bit and there a bit would be submerged after some winter storm, until came this grim November night, when the sea made a clean sweep of the country and rushed, with stupendous speed, across the flat wooded lands until it was brought to a halt by the massive cliffs of what is now the Land's End peninsula.

There was a Trevilian, an ancestor of the old Cornish family of that name, who only just escaped with his life from this deluge. He had foreseen what was coming and had removed his farm stock and his family from his Lyonesse estate, and was making one further journey to his threatened home when the sea broke in upon it. Trevilian, mounted on his fleetest horse, just beat the waves, and there is a cave near Perranuthnoe which, they say, was the place of refuge to which the sturdy horse managed to drag his master through the angry waters.

There used to be another memorial of this great inundation at Sennen Cove, near the Land's End, where for centuries stood an ancient chapel which it was said a Lord of Goonhilly erected as a thanksgiving for his escape from the flood that drowned Lyonesse.

To-day all that is left of the lost land are the beautiful Scilly Islands and the cluster of rocks between the Scillies and Land's End, known as the Seven Stones. These rocks are probably the last genuine bit of old Lyonesse, for their Cornish name is Lethowsow, which was what the old Cornish called Lyonesse. Even now the local fishermen refer to the Seven Stones as "The City," for tradition tells that there was situated the principal town of the drowned land, and stories are told of how on calm days ruined buildings may be discerned beneath the waters near Lethowsow, and that in times past fishing-nets have brought up old weathered domestic utensils from the sea bottom near at hand.

A lightship now marks the Seven Stones, and at low water on a rough day the sight of the huge breakers dashing themselves into foam upon the rocks is an awe-inspiring one.

The Scillies lie twenty-seven miles west of Land's End and are reached by a regular service of steamers from Penzance. The journey across is fascinating, and magnificent views of the rugged coast are to be obtained.

And the Islands themselves provide a perfect place for a lazy holiday. A winter climate they seldom know; flowers bloom right through the year, and sea fishing and boating there are ideal. The Scillies consist of a group of about forty granite islands, only a few of which are inhabited. Many of the islets are joined together by bars of sand at low tide.

Though in the Scillies you may feel very far away from the great world, quaint, fascinating Penzance, from which you start, is very near—in time—from London. It is only six and a-half hours from Paddington, although over 300 miles have to be traversed in the rail journey.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Are You D23? Should You?

This past week, the Walt Disney Company unveiled their latest promotion: D23, a "fan-community" for Disneyphiles. After months of mysterious, semi-viral advertising, the curtain was lifted on the official website, which explains all the perks.



Well, the perks such as they are. In the age of Web 2.0, Facebook, Youtube, Blogger, and Yahoo! Groups, the "community" model of D23 is antiquated to say the least. For $75US per annum, one receives four issues of the Disney Twenty-Three magazine - a glossy, 64-page advertising-free publicity publication - an additional e-newsletter, access to exclusive areas on the website and discounts on merchandise and the annual D23 convention. There really isn't community to speak of: D23 appears to operate according to a top-down monologue rather than an across-the-board dialogue.

There are plenty of examples of Disney community already in existence. Disfriends takes on the social networking model, for instance. Fans have done a great deal to develop their own gatherings, such as Mousefest and the Disney Podcast Network Westfest. Even the links between the Disney blogosphere (which we are happy to be considered a red-headed stepchild of) constitute more of a community than is available through a magazine subscription. Disney themselves have managed to provide more in the way of a community model, between the customizable aspects of Disney.com, Pixie Hollow, and even the late, great Virtual Magic Kingdom. That they should take a step backwards to calling an official fan club a "fan community" is odd and speaks more of buzzwords than content.

That, however, is a critique of form. They call it a "fan community" when in fact it is no such thing. But if we accept that it is an official fan club like those in the days of yore, how does it stack up for content? For non-members, there are still some worthwhile things to get out of it. Daily, the D23 website updates with Mickey Mouse newspaper cartoons from the classic era. The D23 Expo is also open to non-members, though at the full price of $20US extra for the 4-day pass. One could also buy the magazine at the Disney Store or Barnes & Noble for approximately $64US per year. Besides the discounts on merchandise, there does not appear to be much accessible to members that is not to others.

Given all of these critiques, we at VEx are hesitant about joining up. The truth is, we're the most interested in the convention, as part of our ongoing urge to go to some official Disneyland event at some time for some reason. Every scrap of footage we've seen from ride anniversaries and special screenings makes them look like they could be a great deal of fun, and one could certainly do worse than being able to see Sleeping Beauty on something bigger than a television. The temptation is certainly there, depending on how the budgeting for our November adventure to Japan works out.

The thing we are least interested in is the magazine. Besides the fan base being better at building community, they're also so informative as to put official publications to shame. One should head down to the Disney Store and pick up a copy to see before judging, but one wonders how much better it could get. As it stands, the idle speculation about going to the D23 Expo would be more realistic if we didn't get a membership or a magazine subscription, putting the funds towards the four-fold menace of the convention pass, park pass, motel and airfare.

Not that we wouldn't be pleased to accept a gift membership, if anyone out there wants to buy one on our behalf...

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The City in the Sea (1845)

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters he.
No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently-
Gleams up the pinnacles far and free-
Up domes- up spires- up kingly halls-
Up fanes- up Babylon-like walls-
Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers-
Up many and many a marvellous shrine
Whose wreathed friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.

There open fanes and gaping graves
Yawn level with the luminous waves;
But not the riches there that lie
In each idol's diamond eye-
Not the gaily-jewelled dead
Tempt the waters from their bed;
For no ripples curl, alas!
Along that wilderness of glass-
No swellings tell that winds may be
Upon some far-off happier sea-
No heavings hint that winds have been
On seas less hideously serene.

But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave- there is a movement there!
As if the towers had thrust aside,
In slightly sinking, the dull tide-
As if their tops had feebly given
A void within the filmy Heaven.
The waves have now a redder glow-
The hours are breathing faint and low-
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.

The City in the Sea by Edgar Allan Poe

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

War-Gods of the Deep (1965)



Through the 1950s and 1960s, one of the hottest names in Hollywood was American International Pictures. An upstart company formed in 1956, AIP rose to prominence by their concentration on easily palatable and marketable films on controversial subjects oriented towards the younger demographics in less typical theatrical venues. In other words, they made popcorn b-movies for the drive-in crowd, and plenty of them. AIP pioneered biker and dragster films, imported many of the Japanese giant monster films including Godzilla himself, made Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello stars through a series of "beach party" films and even classic blaxploitation films like Blacula.

What really put AIP on the map, though, was a series of horror films ostensibly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, produced and directed by Roger Corman, and starring a baker's dozen of classic horror stars like Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. The starring role in these films, however, was given to a relatively new leading man in horror... A statuesque man with a frightening cackle who has been forever enshrined as one of the epitomes of cinematic horror: Vincent Price.

For as much success and notoriety as films like The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of Red Death, Tales of Terror and The House of Usher, they did tend to stray from the source material. They could not help it, for the source material from Poe was usually little more than a poem, or a mood piece with little real story or exposition. But Poe was free from licensing, had a solid reputation to draw from, and was a strong American contrast to the contemporaneous films being made by Hammer Films in England.

One such Poe film that is quite liberal with an unfruitful source is War-Gods of the Deep. Starring, of course, Vincent Price, the film ostensibly finds its inspiration in the Poe poem The City in the Sea, by way of the legends of sunken Lyonesse. From these proto-Lovecraftian beginnings, AIP's War-Gods of the Deep blends the more typical Gothic setting common to their horror films, Poe or otherwise, with a good dose of Jules Verne.

Not a company to miss a beat, AIP had already capitalized on the Atomic Age resurgence in Scientific Romances by producing Jules Verne's Master of the World with Vincent Price in 1961, and followed up 1965's War-Gods with 1967's comedic Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon. The combination, which waxes and wanes, alchemically creates a Gothic Scientific Romance that has its moments, both good and bad.

The story begins on a murky English coast on a stormy night in 1903, where the ringing of an otherworldly bell announces a body that has mysteriously washed up at the base of the crags beneath a foreboding old inn. The recovered corpse turns out to be the lawyer of the American woman staying at the inn, and so she, an American geologist, and a British artist with a pet hen named "Herbert" (in a direct lineage from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea's Esmeralda the Seal and Journey to the Center of the Earth's Gertrude the Duck... The only thing missing is James Mason) are embroiled in the plot. Scouring the inn by candlelight, the girl is suddenly abducted through the secret passages behind the bookcase. The only clue to her kidnappers are small piles of seaweed which lead the stalwart and eccentric men, respectively, to the caverns beneath the inn and a whirlpool that drags them into the sea.

At the end of the high Gothic plot set-up, War-Gods takes a left turn into quasi-Nemoic, semi-Atlantean territory. The heroes are taken to Lyonesse, the City in the Sea... An ancient, labyrinthine edifice built eons ago by a mysterious race of gill-men who fed it air and power through the advanced technology of thermal vents connected to a nearby volcano. Since then, these gill-men have devolved into pure brutes at the command of Vincent Price and his crew of smugglers who discovered the city and the longevity its gases provide in 1803. Price himself has designs on the girl, and the gill-men demand blood sacrifices in the stone halls of their Babylonian gods... The only escape for the interlopers from the surface is the open ocean beyond the metal gates and the Vernian diving suits that will protect them in it.

All in all, the whole thing sounds rather delightful, and frequently delivers insofar as 1960's B-movies can. The set, miniature and matte work is sublime, and save for a few unfortunate conceptualizations of an underwater volcano, is extremely well done and capable at evoking the feeling of an ancient, submerged city. Vincent Price himself is, as always, magisterial and giving his all to a performance that legend says he didn't even have the script for until days before shooting.

The main problem is just that what he's given is a little slight. As the AIP Poe mysteries go, this one mostly regurgitates the basic tropes, and one can almost glimpse a few instances of Price sleepwalking through it. It's also weakened by obvious attempts to regurgitate tropes of Atomic Age Scientific Romances, such as the chicken and her eccentric owner, played by David Tomlinson (Mary Poppins). Worst of all, however, are the degraded gill-men... Apparently a significant component of their cultural and evolutionary decline was a change into absolutely wretched costumes. These poor sots got the worst part of the Creature from the Black Lagoon's gene pool.

War-Gods of the Deep is a success despite those flaws. It's simply that the bar of success for it was substantially lowered. As it stands, it satisfies exactly what it was supposed to be. All chickens aside, it is a good solid b-movie for fans of AIP Poe stories and Vernian fantasies alike.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882)

Though certainly the product of a crank mind by our standards, and no doubt by some standards of the time, Congressman Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis: The Antediluvian World is a classic of Atlantean pseudoarchaeology and the Victorian zeitgeist. Still today, many will invoke it in their ill-fated search for the lost continent that never was. By clicking on the map of the ancient Atlantean Empire below, you can peruse a copy of it...

Monday, 2 March 2009

Atlantis

It was very appropriate, and most likely unknowingly so, that Disney set their latest addition to undersea lore, 2001's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, in the Edwardian era. Indeed, it could not truly have been otherwise: the middle Victorian era saw the beginning of an explosion of interest in the lost continent that would not subside beneath the waves again until the 1960's. In the decade spanning 1895 to 1905, there were no less than 16 fiction novels, standing alongside countless obstenibly non-fiction pseudoscientific and spiritualist explorations, which solidified the Atlantis we know today not as a holdover of ancient myth, but as an artifact of Victorian cultural anxieties.

Prior to the Victorian era, the legend of Atlantis had been essentially relegated to the dustbin of history as the invention of Plato. First written about in the Platonic dialogues Timaeus and Critias, Atlantis served as the foil for an equally mythic ancient Athens, acting as a thought experiment in the workings of Plato's ideal republic. Athens, a weak but patriotic city-state with high moral fibre, was set upon by the powerful but decadent Atlantis and through Platonic virtues emerged victorious. Shortly thereafter, both Atlantis and Athens were conveniently destroyed in the famous cataclysm. Essentially forgotten because of its static symbolic structure, Atlantis would not surface again until the Age of Exploration. Even Aristotle, Plato's most highly regarded student, said of the kingdom "He who invented it also destroyed it."

New life was breathed into Atlantis with the discovery of the New World, and even began to appear on oceanic maps in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds. The view of Atlantis in this age was tied intimately, as it would be in the Victorian, to the aspirations and identity of the age. In this particular case, Atlantis was seen as an El Dorado, a great mystery promising wealth and colonial expansion. As we shall see again later, the discovery of new antiquities lent credence to a search for the greatest lost antiquity of all.

To understand the ferociousness of the Victorians' interest in Atlantis, one first has to look at two antecedent cultural and aesthetic preoccupations: ruins and aquariums. Both of these signified the tribulations of an era in transition, and both would come together into the single package of Atlantis, satisfying Victorian anxieties by its promise and by that promise's elusiveness.

The 19th century interest in ruins and aquariums came about as a consequence of modernity and industrialization. The pace and way of life changed for so many people - speeding it up to meet the demands of commercial production, operating by the cycles of the clock rather than the sun and seasons, and moving people from the rural areas to the factory cities - there came to be an increasing sense of disconnection from the past and from nature. The world was becoming more and more mechanized, and the demands of economic growth kept everyone facing forward, living in a present that was perpetually dedicated to the future.

The ruin stood both as a connection to the past and as a symbol of its loss. They reminded people of the traditions and the way of life that was quickly disappearing, both as a representative of that era by being a cultural relic and as evidence of its passing by its dilapidated condition. These monuments also stood as an indictment of modernity, standing defiantly for a seeming eternity and speaking volumes of transcendence, thus condemning the novelty and transience of industrialism's constant movement.

The aquarium fad of the mid-1800's, which was hot on the heels of a fern fad, came as a direct consequence of this modern disconnection from nature. They were an effort in regaining what was being lost in our relationship with the organic world by recreating it in the parlor. Unfortunately, the manner in which this was done only served to further reinforce the value systems of the day: the aquarium began as an attempt to bring nature into the home, but soon transformed into a projection of human consciousness onto nature. The obsession with natural history classification and organization was the first step, imposing a human hierarchy and conceptualization where it doesn't really exist (as modern biological science is slowly beginning to figure out), and this was followed by the development of these glass-enclosed cases as a private wonderland filled with artificial ruins. Ruins became commodified, and in the process of creating the commodity of aquariums, the ocean itself became a commodity.

As the final frontier of the Victorian era, the ocean depths were a particularly fertile ground for imaginings which inevitably put a human face on the blue-black depths. The world beneath the waves became a fantasy garden filled with every sort of creature one could conceive. In 1860, telegraph cables pulled up from the sea floor were found to be encrusted with marine life, adding a dimension of colour to what was previously thought to be, by all authorities, a lifeless desert. Knowing this, anything was possible, including the early 20th century cinematic visions of Georges Melies.

This is the world that Jules Verne's Captain Nemo (himself a fascinating picture of Victorian anxieties and contradictions) came into when he introduced Atlantis to Victorian audiences in 1870's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:
There indeed under my eyes, ruined, destroyed, lay a town, its roofs open to the sky, its temples fallen, its arches dislocated, its columns lying on the ground, from which one could still recognize the massive character of Tuscan architecture. Further on, some remains of a gigantic aqueduct; here the high base of an acropolis, with the floating outline of a Parthenon; there, traces of a quay, as if an ancient port had formerly abutted on the borders of the ocean, and disappeared with its merchant vessels and its war galleys. Further on again, long lines of sunken walls and broad, deserted streets - a perfect Pompeii escaped beneath the waters.

The appeal of an honest to life underwater city lying in ruins, a connection to a grand past and a portend of modern society's eventual destruction, was simply too good to pass up.

Though often blamed for the persistence of Atlantis mythology, Minnesota Congressman Ignatius Donnelly's 1882 book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World was truthfully more of a response to Victorian fixation on Atlantis. An extremely popular book, it would set the tenor and provide most of the arguments for all later Atlantean pseudoarchaeology. It would also serve the purpose of doing to Atlantis what had happened to the ruin and to the ocean: catalogue, categorize, label and otherwise "prove" Atlantis. Though the interest in Atlantis was intuitive, the Victorians only knew of one way to express this interest, being commodification. It was also during this time that Atlantis was first hypothesized as going beyond dead ruins on a sea floor and being instead a thriving (or semi-thriving) undersea civilization encased - like a reverse aquarium, a curiosity cabinet, snowglobe or fern case - in a dome of glass, further accenting commodity and scientific examination.

As the 20th century would drag on, Atlantis' mystique of loss would slowly wane and come to be replaced by a new cultural anxiety. The greatest thing that happened to the Victorians in this whole affair is that they didn't find Atlantis. Though the pseudoscientific arguments and discoveries of other ancient civilizations like Pompeii in 1748, Troy in 1870, the Maya in the 1840's, and Minoan Crete in 1900 lent credence to Atlantis' tangible existence, the lost continent would remain ever elusive and therefore ever powerful. It would stand for as long as their culture stood as the powerful, uncommodifed memory of loss they needed it to be.

In the 20th century, Atlantis would move from a memory of loss to a utopian model society. Not heeding Plato's original intent, spiritualism would make great claims to the knowledge and power of Atlantis, promising it to our society, whether it be the relics of an extinct society predicted by 1940's would-be psychic Edgar Cayce or the limitless energies of a living society such as that in Disney's Atlantis. Its decadence and leisure would become the focal point of the Bahamas' Atlantis resort, being an Atlantis preserved before its loss, or the playground of mermaids and friendly sea serpents in Disneyland's Submarine Voyage and Walt Disney World's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride (bringing everything full circle).

The theme of the 1900's version of Atlantis was not one of loss, but of redemption. Either Atlantis would redeem us or, as so many plots follow including Disney's film, we would redeem Atlantis, restoring its former glory or raising ourself up to its glory. What this says about our culture, positive or negative, depends on one's perspective. The Victorian anxiety recognized the disconnection from nature and tradition that modernity brought it, and through Atlantis sought to regain what it had lost. Our present anxiety is over the loss of modernity itself, and through the redemption of Atlantis we seek to reempower ourselves.