Sunday, 27 February 2011

VEx February Contest - "Dreadnought" by Cherie Priest

This month's giveaway is a copy of the novel Dreadnought by Cherie Priest:
Nurse Mercy Lynch is elbows deep in bloody laundry at a war hospital in Richmond, Virginia, when Clara Barton comes bearing bad news: Mercy’s husband has died in a POW camp. On top of that, a telegram from the west coast declares that her estranged father is gravely injured, and he wishes to see her. Mercy sets out toward the Mississippi River. Once there, she’ll catch a train over the Rockies and—if the telegram can be believed—be greeted in Washington Territory by the sheriff, who will take her to see her father in Seattle.

Reaching the Mississippi is a harrowing adventure by dirigible and rail through war-torn border states. When Mercy finally arrives in St. Louis, the only Tacoma-bound train is pulled by a terrifying Union-operated steam engine called the Dreadnought. Reluctantly, Mercy buys a ticket and climbs aboard.

What ought to be a quiet trip turns deadly when the train is beset by bushwhackers, then vigorously attacked by a band of Rebel soldiers. The train is moving away from battle lines into the vast, unincorporated west, so Mercy can’t imagine why they’re so interested. Perhaps the mysterious cargo secreted in the second and last train cars has something to do with it?

Mercy is just a frustrated nurse who wants to see her father before he dies. But she’ll have to survive both Union intrigue and Confederate opposition if she wants to make it off the Dreadnought alive.

To enter, just leave a reply in the comments section of this post. Make sure you can be reached via e-mail one way or another, or else your entry will be disqualified. The draw will take place at midnight on Sunday, Feb. 27!

And the winner is... Vicente! Be sure to check your e-mail inbox for a message, Vicente. Thank you everyone for your continued support of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age, and stay tuned for further giveaways!

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913)

To even attempt a complete viewing of the films by Georges Méliès was heretofore a monumental task. Relatively few have worked their way onto home video, and these usually the same set of his most famous films, like A Trip to the Moon and Joan of Arc. The vast majority of Méliès' copious output - at least that which has survived the ravages of time and poverty - have been sequestered away in archives the world over, inaccessible but for those with good scholarly credentials. That is, however, until now.

Flicker Alley, fine purveyors of rare and silent films, have put together the most comprehensive collection of Méliès' films currently available. Nearly all of the extant films are found in Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913), tallied at 173 of his total 555 films. An additional 26 films rediscovered since the first release of the DVD box-set can be found on a supplementary disk, Georges Méliès: Encore, also published by Flicker Alley.

An anthology of this sort truly speaks for itself: over 13 hours of Méliès films, most of which are rarely seen, with the 1953 biographical short Le Grand Méliès starring son André Méliès and an extensive booklet written by John Frazer and introduced by Norman McLaren. To endorse it, the first run of the set sold out and Flicker Alley has only recently pressed more. Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) belongs on the shelf of any self-respecting aficionado of Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances, right besides Méliès' contemporaries Verne, Wells and Twain.

Taking in such a compact dose of Méliès offers a chance to examine his corpus in interesting and ahistorical ways. Never were his films meant to be seen in several-hour long fêtes and doing so can sometimes be exhausting. One does not realize until seeing them clustered together how reliant Méliès was on the bread-and-butter of short trick films. Of the 13 hours, the bulk is composed of magician acts with interchangeable sets and costumes, infrequently lasting more than two or four minutes. This reliance carried through the length of his cinematic career.

It is astonishing to see how little Méliès changed over the years. He attempted one extant Lumiere-style "actuality" in 1898, Panorama From Top of a Moving Train (which is exactly as described), but stuck with his stage-performance style for the entirety. While he innovated with special effects, trick shots and set design, he could never unbolt the camera from the floor. Méliès did not attempt anything like a close-up until 1903 and it sticks out noticeably from his usual direction. It is easy to see, after 13 hours, how Méliès was artistically overtaken by DW Griffith and the Hollywood machine.

Still, while Méliès' merits as a cinematic director are situated in a certain nascent paradigm, his curriculum evinces an unmatched charm. Few filmmakers since Méliès have been able to match him as an auteur, despite all the tools available to modern filmmakers. Karel Zeman, Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Baz Luhrmann and Terry Gilliam spring to mind as successors to the Frenchman's spirit. Copious trick films give candy-like doses of Méliès' charm, but it is best exemplified in his long subjects.

His first experiment in long subject represented in this set is his multi-part epic on the Dreyfus Affair. Unfortunately the story does not come with explanatory notes, as it was an up-to-the-minute series of reenactments of a current and divisive public event. Alfred Dreyfus was an Alsatian Jewish officer of the French military convicted of giving secrets to the Germans in 1894. Two years after Dreyfus was sentenced to Devil's Island in French Guiana, new evidence rose implicating a French Army major. This evidence was supressed, however, and false evidence fabricated to maintain Dreyfus' conviction. The case became a touchstone in social and religious controversy in fin de siècle France, sharply dividing the country when the case was reopened in 1899... The same year that Méliès released his sympathetic cinematic recapitulation. Of any of his films, this most requires a scorecard.

Later, Méliès wrote a set of English narrations to explain the plot points of his longer films, like Joan of Arc, The Damnation of Faust, A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage. These narrations, reenacted in this collection, are welcome additions. Not only do they hearken back to lost forms of cinema's engagement with the audience (for example, it took a substantial amount of time for sound pictures to infiltrate Japan because of the revered practice of the Benshi, or live narrator), but explain certain obtuse parts of the action and cultural references implicit to the characters' names. For example, one of the adventuresome astronomers of A Trip to the Moon is Parafaragamus, who reappears in 1906's The Mysterious Retort, solidifying the thin veil between alchemist and scientist, astronomer and astrologer, in Méliès' work. Another astronomer is named for Voltaire's Micromegas, and a third most-likely referencing Camille Flammarion's novel Omega: The Last Days of the World.

Though most renowned for his Scientific Romances, Méliès visited that milieu relatively little. If sheer number of appearances is any indication, Satan is the auteur's favorite character and a Gothic setting is his favorite to put him in. The infernal one even interjects himself unceremoniously into Scientific Romances, such as the full-length version of The Merry Frolics of Satan presented in this set. Shortened versions viewable online focus on the haunted carriage ride through space, excising the framing sequence of a scientist's soul-selling deal with the Devil for knowledge beyond his ken. Another film restored to full length, including questionable satires on the suffragette movement, is A Conquest of the Pole, one of Méliès' last.

Méliès is in his own element in the Kingdom of the Fairies, the lands of knights and dragons, and so one of his best films is the otherwise little-known Kingdom of the Fairies, produced in 1903 during his peak. Even moreso than A Trip to the Moon or its effective remake The Impossible Voyage, Kingdom of the Fairies excels in design and action. So grand is this film that he hardly improves upon it, even as he transitions almost entirely to narrative long subjects by the end of his career.

Those later works do vividly show the strength of Méliès' narrative films at their most refined. By the 1910's he knows what he is doing however much he refuses to go beyond it. Baron Munchausen's Dream, the remake of Cinderella (a story he first shot in 1899 which he rendered again in 1912), Conquest of the Pole and The Knight of the Snow put Méliès's cinematic trickery to positive use, not as ends unto themselves but in the context and service of a plot.

From so perfect a collection there is almost nowhere to go but down. Cutting down the number of films and offering selected anthologies, that is. An option of definite interest to readers of this blog would no doubt be an anthology of his Scientific Romances, from A Trip to the Moon and Conquest of the Pole to lesser-known ones like Tunnelling the English Channel. An anthology of just the fairy tales would be a second, such as Kingdom of the Fairies, The Palace of Arabian Knights, Rip's Dream, and The Good Shepherdess and the Evil Princess. Another welcome possibility would be an anthology of just the long subjects regardless of genre.

This idle speculation not a slight to Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913). Rather, it is a recognition that with the exception of any further supplements of rediscovered material, there is nothing else left to do in regards to Méliès. This collection and its supplements are the last word on this pioneer filmmaker. Nothing else is necessary.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)

Of Czech auteur Karel Zeman's films, the one best known in the West is Journey to the Beginning of Time. Released in its original tongue in 1955, it was given an English-language working over in 1966 when brought to American shores. In its time, it became one of the best-loved of the 1960's dinosaur films by acting as a nearly perfect kiddie matinee married to palaeontological content strong enough to be cut up into short educational segments for use in schools.

The Americanized version begins with a quartet of school kids, whose faces we never see, taking a trip through Manhatten. They end up at the American Museum of Natural History, where "Doc" gives us a crash course in earth sciences. After relaxing for a spell in front of a statue of a Native shaman paddling a Pacific Northwest tribe canoe they decide to go canoeing in Central Park themselves. A dissolve fade through a cavern leads the boys down an ice-filled river. They soon realize that they're paddling upstream on the river of time, passing glaciers, Mammoth, Uniatherium, Styracosaurs, Pteranodons, Stegosaurs and Ceratosaurs, a Paleozoic swamp and the full breadth of geological time. In the original, the framing is simply Doc's reminiscence of the voyage, which explains why four children are better prepared for an extensive camping trip than warranted by a trip through downtown New York.

Unlike Zeman's magnum opus The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Journey to the Beginning of Time doesn't claim to be inspired by the French maestro of Scientific Romances. However, where Fabulous World is an amalgam of various Vernian tropes, Journey is a thematically perfect adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth. In many ways, it's an even purer adaptation than the several proper versions that have cropped up over the years.

For the most part, adaptations of Journey to the Centre of the Earth exchange the true theme of the story for an adventuresome romp through the underworld where there happen to be dinosaurs and giant mushrooms. That is quite enjoyable, of course, but it misses the point of Verne's novel. That novel is essentially a time travel story without need of a time machine, allowing the reader to go into deep time by going deep into the earth. Instead of the inner earth, Zeman substitutes a canoe ride down the river of time, but the effect is essentially the same. Journey to the Beginning of Time is a travelogue of prehistory.

The American version presents the great Dr. Edwin H. Colbert, then vertebrate palaeontology curator of the American Museum of Natural History, as its scientific director. Considering that it was filmed behind the Iron Curtain, that was unlikely. The biggest inspiration was undoubtedly the work of Czech paleo-artist Zdeněk Burian, one of the most influential painters of prehistoric subjects to have ever put brush to canvas. Burian already illustrated a centre-of-the-earth tale in Vladimir Obruchev's 1915 novel Plutonia, about a lost world of dinosaurs beneath Russian Siberia. When Zeman turned his attention to making a dinosaur movie, it was only natural to mirror the style of his fellow countryman.

This accuracy lends itself immeasurably to the concept. We're taken along with the boys' personal adventure, but for the most part we're in as much awe as them, watching the spectacles of ancient life passing by the canoe. At the outset, the world is familiar. Glaciers and icebergs give way to mountains and pine forests filled with stop-motion woolly mammoths. These forests pass into desert landscapes of palms and cycads in which Stegosaurs and Ceratosaurs square off to the death (a rare example of contemporaneous dinosaurs in battle). The boys are able to examine the fight's loser up close when their canoe is wrecked by an anonymous dinosaur. Building a raft, they sail on to the hazy, atmospheric tree-fern swamps of the Paleozoic Era, swarming with giant insects and amphibians. Finally they hike across the dry and lifeless Precambrian landscape before reaching the primordial sea, beyond which lies the volcanic fury of earth's creation and the void from which God drew it.

As a tour of prehistory, Journey to the Beginning of Time is a wonderful film and a fitting addition to the filmography of one of the most brilliant and creative minds in the history of the silver screen.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Baron Munchausen (1961)

The introduction to Baron Munchausen.

The infrequency with which the works of Czech auteur Karel Zeman make their way on to DVD and the difficulty of obtaining those DVDs is a crime against cinema. His 1961 film Baron Munchausen is a perfect example: its most recent release was a limited pressing of about 100 copies in Japan, which was sold out before it hit shelves.

What we end up missing because of it is an incredible love letter to Zeman's muses. as evidenced by the opening sequence above, Zeman's rendition of the life and times of history's most humble compulsive liar is not a simple narrative of the legends surrounding him. Rather, it begins with a time lapse of humanity's striving towards the moon, and when they arrive on the lunar surface, they are greeted by Cyrano de Bergerac and the characters of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon.

The modern astronaut Tony (and recall that the moon landing was another eight years in the future) is assumed, by his strange dress, to be a true Lunarian. The poets then take it upon themselves to show their new friend the wonders of their own home. For this duty they call upon the incomparable Baron Munchausen.

Their initial conveyance to Earth is a tall ship borne by flying horses. Munchausen assumes that this astonishes the moon man, but for all the wrong reasons. The whole time, the Baron observes, he speaks prosaically of science, engineering and mathematics. Nevertheless, Munchausen is pleased to show him the delicacy of human dreams by taking him to a lush Oriental Sultanate. After all, Tony is from the moon and the symbol of the Turk is the crescent moon.

The pair rescue a captive princess, over whom they will spend the remainder of the film competing. Bianca has but two loves, though. The first is Tony, and the second is the moon. All of Zeman's camera tricks are in prime form as he takes the lovers through countless landscapes inspired by the majesty of Gustave Doré's illustrations. From the opulence of near-Biblical Orientalist palaces to the midnight, moonlit ocean of Coleridge, Doré's engravings come to animated life much like Édouard Riou's did for The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

In the end, the trio surrealistically arrive back on the surface of the moon. All are bid farewell by a waving Bergerac, who proclaims that to now, the moon was the sole domain of the poet and dreamer. It is becoming the realm of the scientist and explorer. However, it is and will always most truly belong to the lovers. Baron Munchausen is Karel Zeman's great paean to that gleaming silver orb of night.

The difficulty in reviewing Zeman's works is that they are such a feast for the eyes that they leave the mouth parched for words. They really must be seen. But given the lamentable state of DVD releases, it is all too unlikely.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Alien Voices

A number of times, I have waxed nostalgic on the phase of popularity that Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances went through in the waning years of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. There was a cornucopia of media, from comics to feature films to role-playing games to television; names like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Dinotopia, Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Tarzan, Wild Wild West, Sakura Wars, City of Lost Children, the Steampunk comic, GURPS Steampunk and Castle Falkenstein, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, Forgotten Futures, Escaflowne... That list includes audio-dramas that had an incredible potential to expose modern fans of Sci-Fi to the classics, using the cachet of actors from one of the genre's greatest franchises.

In 1994, LA Theatreworks put on an audio recreation of the classic Orson Welles version of War of the Worlds with a certain novel kick: the entire cast was composed of Star Trek alumni. These included Leonard "Spock" Nimoy, John "Q" de Lancie, Dwight "Barclay" Schultz, Wil "Wesley Crusher" Wheaton, Gates "Dr. Crusher" McFadden, Brent "Data" Spiner and Armin "Quark" Shimerman, with de Lancie directing. Two years later, Nimoy and de Lancie joined with writer Nat Segaloff to form Alien Voices, an audio-drama company specializing in the Scientific Romances of a bygone age.

In an interview with Starlog magazine, de Lancie described their rationale:
Leonard, Nat and I have talked quite a bit about what we want to accomplish with Alien Voices, and much of our discussion is motivated by our feeling that modern SF has gotten away from the philosophy that attracted people to the genre in the first place. Most classic SF holds great hope for technology and humanity. Both Wells and Verne were visionaries. Verne, in particular, conceived a wide range of inventions he felt would help resolve the world's problems.

Whether or not de Lancie was expressing a certain rose-tinted view of Scientific Romances and Verne in particular, Alien Voices was well-poised for renewing interest in the genre. The strategy of employing the voices of Star Trek was brilliant, bridging the gap between the most popular and topical Science Fiction space opera of all time and the foundational works of the genre, drawing enthusiastic Trekkers along with them.

The first two releases were The Time Machine and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, followed by The Lost World, The Invisible Man and, finally, The First Men in the Moon. Along the way, they not only produced the audio-dramas, but were tapped by The Sci-Fi Channel to bring their audio performances to cable as a television event. The First Men in the Moon was recorded as one of these, and The Lost World was recorded live at the Grand Slam V Star Trek convention in 1997.

A scene from The First Men in the Moon.

The next strength that Alien Voices brought to the adaptation of Scientific Romances, after name recognition, was that of audio-dramatization. These were not adaptations in the strictest sense, like unabridged audio-books. These were full cast recordings, each clocking in a tight two-hour length. De Lancie again describes the process:
The original story is always the key factor. Do we like it? Does it have enough characters, does it have too many? Is it commercial-recognizable? And, most of all, do we want to "live" with it for the time it takes to produce? Nat then begins the arduous and time-consuming task of adapting the book into dramatic form, translating the work from silent prose into spoken dialogue. I don't get involved until he's finished with the first draft. We developed this relationship while working on our first play together and have found it successful. Nat is very fast, very prolific and has great stylistic appreciation of the material. I then add my director/actor's eyes and ears to make sure that the scenes have a playability. We might have two or three revisions toward that end. Leonard will then review the material and give his notes, all with the same eye toward making it dramatic and fun.

Dramatic and fun they are, even amidst the liberties. For example, The Lost World's Professor Summerlee receives a sex-change operation so that he can be played by Roxanne "Torres" Dawson, a liberated female making palatable my favorite but admittedly dated "boy's own adventure" (as well as providing a love interest for Malone as played by Dwight Schultz). Armin Shimmerman is spot on as Challenger and de Lancie joins the performance as Roxton.

To their credit, they retained the feature almost always expunged from adaptations of The Lost World: the genocidal war on the plateau's race of ape-men. Courageously, Alien Voices did not flinch from the controversial matter, nor sermonize it. They simply let it stand alongside the characters' reactions, as testament to their commitment to the integrity of the original works even as they tweaked and nudged various story elements.

The Time Machine, which is primarily narrated by Leonard Nimoy's Time Traveller to Shimmerman, de Lancie and Andrew "Garak" Robinson, follows the basic line of H.G. Wells' novel. Unlike cinematic editions, it very effectively conveys the the alienness of future Earth. De Lancie's own children excellently portray the creepy, childlike Eloi. Nimoy passionately channels the horror of our evolutionary destiny.

Journey to the Center of the Earth did not diverge from the text by much. All the classic elements are present and accounted for, and an epilogue narrated by de Lancie charted the career of Verne and Journey. He remarks on the shock many feel upon reading the novel when they discover that there is no duck named Gertrude. Adding animal actors to Scientific Romances was an invention of Walt Disney in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, saddling poor James Mason with them twice and David Tomlinson once.

There are no funny animals in Alien Voices recordings, but the tone is very much in keeping with that of the mid-century, Atomic Age Scientific Romance movies. Perhaps that is from whence de Lancie developed his sentimentality over the writings of Verne and Wells, as those films did tend to reflect (and some may argue, originate) that utopian technofetishist interpretation. It may be revealing that, of the five published Alien Voices dramas and the one planned, only The Invisible Man was not made into a film in the 1950's or 60's.

The last Scientific Romance released by Alien Voices was The First Men in the Moon, which recapitulated a film starring Ray Harryhausen's animation. Nimoy plays the bumbling Cavor with de Lancie as Bedford. The Grand Lunar, voice for the insect-like collective of Selenites, is portrayed in a typically over-the-top fashion by none other than William Shatner.

Alien Voices had immense potential and a nearly limitless library to exploit. In addition to Verne and Wells, there is also Edward Ellis, George Griffith, Garrett P. Serviss, Edward Hale, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain. Who would pass on The Steam Man of the Prairies, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court? I recall thinking that a sensitively rewritten version of King Solomon's Mines would have been perfect. Star Trek has had a long, proud history of African-American involvement and it would have been delightful to have had the roles of H. Rider Haggard's novel filled by Michael "Worf" Dorn, Nichelle "Uhura" Nicholls, Tim "Tuvok" Russ and Avery "Sisko" Brooks. De Lancie voiced his own ambitions for a dramatization of The Mysterious Island. Unfortunately these were not to be. Four years after it began, Alien Voices sputtered out with the altogether too obvious Star Trek: Spock vs. Q and its sequel.

"The problem with Alien Voices was we had four really terrific years," de Lancie said in a more recent interview,
And then it began to be about selling: Simon & Schuster wanted whatever, 40,000 units sold a year. And what we wanted to do was create really well-produced shows and have a library so that people in the future will simply know to come to an Alien Voices production that will always be good. And they didn't see it that way, and I thought, 'Oh my God, what am I doing? I'm going around peddling audio books! This is not what I want to do.' I loved writing them and directing them and doing them live, but I just didn't want to get involved any more.

Perhaps, if Misters de Lancie, Segaloff or Nimoy somehow happen to come across this weblog, I can place a bug in their ear about online distribution. The Internet would be a perfect medium for a project like Alien Voices, by which fans could subscribe to direct downloads or purchase via iTunes, bypassing these picky publishing houses. Already, The Time Machine and Journey to the Center of the Earth (sold without the Alien Voices branding) can be found in the iTunes store.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Electric Hotel (1905)

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So goes the adage that Westerners like to tell themselves, spoken by Science Fiction authors channelling the spirits of racial "scientists" of a century past who saw others only as ignorant savages. While those "savages" were well aware that the man holding the box that made images of them was simply the owner of a technology, the adage has gotten a fair bit of mileage in the Western world as a means for updating old tricks. What was once magic became alchemy became science!.

For Segundo de Chomón, science was useful in giving a gloss to his cinematic world of trick photography. Instead of a demon-infested inn, his hotel would be a supermodern marvel automated by electricity! How else to explain all the nifty stop-motion work throughout, except that sufficiently advanced technology can produce limitless marvels?

Thursday, 10 February 2011

A Voyage to Jupiter (1909)

Italian filmmaker Segundo de Chomón once more visits the realm of Georges Méliès in his 1909 film A Voyage to Jupiter. In this, Méliès' astronomer/astrologer invites his monarch up to the paper-Gothic observatory to spy the celestial spheres. Unlike Méliès, de Chomón makes use of some actual exterior sets and Gothic archways for part of the film, oddly shattering the illusion of a "once upon a time" fairy-tale space by introducing something of substance and reality. Nevertheless, the king, having seen his vision of the Moon, Saturn and Jupiter in their glorious raiment, retires to his forced-perspective bedchamber to sleep.

While asleep, the king dreams of that which he saw from the palace balcony. Ascending a ladder into the sky, he leaps into the great red spot of Jupiter through an interesting special effect. There, he is taken to an audience with the planet's namesake. No respecter of petty earthly rulers, mighty Jupiter plays a few magic tricks on him and otherwise abuses his near-omnipotence. Finally an irate king is thrown off of the planet and rolls down the sky, at which point he awakens, stark, raving and mad.

Consisting of his own content rather than remaking a film by the French master, de Chomón proves through A Voyage to Jupiter that he is the equal of Méliès' on these sorts of trick films. Save for the one exception I noted, this film is no worse (nor any better) than Eclipse or The Astronomer's Dream. It is another delightful entry into the paper moon fantasies of silent European cinema.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

An Excursion to the Moon (1908)

For as maligned as copyright law may be in a world connected by a series of tubes, they've taken a while to get that way. A century ago, the rules were much looser, which caused a lot of headaches for a lot of people. Georges Méliès was one of the ones who lost the most because of it.

Méliès' classic A Trip to the Moon was the blockbuster smash of 1902, provoking a number of copyright violations. Thomas Edison, unsurprisingly, had his men smuggle copies of the film out of France, distributing them on his own in the United States without a dime going to Méliès. The French maestro's plans for an American debut were foiled, leading as surely to his financial demise as the development of the matured Hollywood filmmaking system.

Not helping was Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón. A competent trick photographer in his own right, de Chomón entered film along with A Trip to the Moon, signing up with Pathe Laboratories. He created his own series of inspiring films in the style of Méliès, and six years after A Trip to the Moon, was asked to replicate it.

Like numerous remakes throughout cinema history, An Excursion to the Moon is serviceable. All the pieces are in the right place and, in many places, it is even more refined than the original. Knowing where all the pieces go and understanding why they go there are two different things, however. An Excursion to the Moon lacks the fanciful sensibilities of Méliès, the wry blurred line between the astronomer and the astrologer, the joviality of the etheric spheres.

Segundo de Chomón gives it the college try, but doesn't shine as brightly compared so directly to Méliès. It takes his own original works to show what he can really do.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Jeff de Boer: A Game of Cat and Mouse

Verne's Jewel, Jeff de Boer (2004).

Graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 1988, Canadian artist Jeff de Boer has achieved international recognition for his skilled and whimsical works of metal craftsmanship. A native of Calgary, Alberta, de Boer's often monumental sculptures crop up in shopping malls and streetcorners all over the city. One is hard-pressed to recognize them as being the work of the same artist... In one place it is a stainless steel ball with wavy lights standing outside a newly built highrise condo. In a local museum it is a lifesize horse welded together from barbed wire. In the city's international airport it is a massive, wind-up tin toy of airplanes.

Initially, however, de Boer's reputation was built from the minuscule. His first and most renowned works were sets of armour for cats and mice. These ranged from Mediaeval to samurai to ancient Roman, and eventually he affixed rockets to them and they took off for outer space. These space suits and rocket lamps like Verne's Jewel developed naturally out of his armour work, linking the chivalric romanticism of one nostalgia with that of another.
I began to explore some new ideas about what could be armour. I thought, what is a rocket? It is a metal form that is riveted together. Its function is to protect a heroic individual who uses it to get through a hostile environment to accomplish a special task, usually grabbing land. On top of this, I was beginning to look to 1930s design for inspiration. Putting it all together, I started to make some lamps that were sculptural rockets.

White Knight Cat, Jeff de Boer (2003).

Ro-Cat: The 1934 Twin Rocket Flying Suit, Jeff deBoer (1997).

De Boer admits that one of his most frequently asked questions is whether his suits of armour can actually fit a cat or mouse. Though he has tried with a cat, he states that this is not the point. "I think the fact that this question keeps being asked," he elaborates, "has more to do with a wish to fulfil the image in some way."

The Iron Horsefly, Jeff de Boer (2000).

My favorite of de Boer's works is The Iron Horsefly. This project is one of a half-dozen flying machines that circle above the food court of Calgary's Chinook Centre shopping mall, soaring alongside dragonfly-wing ornithopters, daVincian gliders and copper-brass zeppelins by other artists. A descriptive plaque makes the dubious claim that this fairly generic engine is based on the train at Calgary tourist attraction Heritage Park, but de Boer explained that the appeal of the contraption is that such a thing would be too heavy to work. Rejecting realism, it is supposed to look like it could not possibly fly.

The Iron Horsefly is a testament to the wildly impossible. Contrary to demands for functionality in artistic representations of fictional Victorian inventions, it truly soars on wings of whimsy and fancy. Even cat and mouse armour which could, in theory, be functional are ridiculous anyways. The very non-functionality of these works are what spark the imagination; they don't dumb themselves down to mere practicality.

Where functionality is insisted upon in the name of authenticity, the result is less frequently to make the mundane fantastic as it is to make the potentially fantastic into something dreadfully boring. To compensate, unnecessary ornament is piled on. To accuse superfluous brass gears, for example, of being non-functional is not even the right point. They do not even serve a necessary non-functional purpose. They are simply barnacle-like encrustations that substitute a certain cultural vocabulary for genuine imagination.

Jeff de Boer's work is a clinic in the opposing drive (even as he predates both, having been active since the late 1980's). Instead of condescending or adding superfluous ornament, they compel the connoisseur to uplift their minds to go where the work takes them. The suit of armour begs to be filled with jousting cats and The Iron Horsefly begs to have its strings evaporate so that it may fly across the open Canadian prairies. They are ridiculous and fantastic and that is the joy of them.

All images are copyright Jeff de Boer and used strictly for the purposes of review. To see his fuller body of work, which to his great credit is not limited to merely the few themes and types discussed here, please do visit his website.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A Gentlemen's Duel (2006)

Making a few waves a few years ago, Blur Studios' short film A Gentlemen's Duel didn't need to promise much but the best of all possible things, that great Holy Grail that makes any film, comic, role-playing game, novel or video game the greatest ever: giant steam-powered robots.

The final execution was certainly impressive when it comes to the various robots. As a British lord and French aristocrat vie for the affections of a buxom lady, their distinctly British and French war machines have at it in various amusing and creative ways. Unfortunately, the remainder relies a little to heavily on sex and toilet humour to be all that impressive. It's not like such a short was meant to be taken all that seriously anyways.

The full short is available for purchase on iTunes, via the Blur Studios website.