Sunday, 31 July 2011

VEx July Contest - The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

Returning from a Canada postal service strike-induced hiatus, this month's giveaway contest is the for the second of Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne series, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.
It is 1862, though not the 1862 it should be...

Time has been altered, and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the king's agent, is one of the few people who know that the world is now careening along a very different course from that which Destiny intended.

When a clockwork-powered man of brass is found abandoned in Trafalgar Square, Burton and his assistant, the wayward poet Algernon Swinburne, find themselves on the trail of the stolen Garnier Collection—black diamonds rumored to be fragments of the Lemurian Eye of Naga, a meteorite that fell to Earth in prehistoric times.

His investigation leads to involvement with the media sensation of the age: the Tichborne Claimant, a man who insists that he's the long lost heir to the cursed Tichborne estate. Monstrous, bloated, and monosyllabic, he's not the aristocratic Sir Roger Tichborne known to everyone, yet the working classes come out in force to support him. They are soon rioting through the streets of London, as mysterious steam wraiths incite all-out class warfare.

From a haunted mansion to the Bedlam madhouse, from South America to Australia, from seances to a secret labyrinth, Burton struggles with shadowy opponents and his own inner demons, meeting along the way the philosopher Herbert Spencer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Florence Nightingale, and Charles Doyle (father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

Can the king's agent expose a plot that threatens to rip the British Empire apart, leading to an international conflict the like of which the world has never seen? And what part does the clockwork man have to play?

To enter, leave a comment on this post and ensure that your e-mail is available through your profile or some other means. A winner will drawn out of the top hat at midnight, Sunday July 31st.

Thank you again, one and all, for continuing to support Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age!

And the winner is... Giada M! Giada, check your inbox! To everyone else, thank you once again for supporting Voyages Extraordinaires and look forward to another contest next month!

Saturday, 30 July 2011

VEx at Animethon

More than one update today! In one week I am going to speaking at Animethon 18 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It's a suite of three talks, one of which is on behalf of the museum I work at and the other two being An Introduction to Kenji Miyazawa and the newly semi-revamped Beyond Steampunk Anime: Scientific Romances in the Land of the Rising Sun. The former will be a focus on my favorite Japanese author, whose short life brought us Night on the Galactic Railroad and many other beautiful stories and poems.

If you happen to be in Alberta's scenic provincial capital from August 5-7, do stop by and say hello! Click on the banner above for more information.

Network Awesome: The King, the Mockingbird, the Big Dipper and Paul Grimault

Once again I wrote an article for Network Awesome this past week, featuring the work of pioneer French animator Paul Grimault.
Paul Grimault's Le Roi et l'Oiseau took nearly 30 years to complete, a labour of love and story of artistic passion that typifies the work of France's most renowned animator. After seeing the film on its release in 1980, and known in English as The King and the Mockingbird, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata were inspired by everything that animation could be. Studying it assiduously, the lessons learned fueled the creation of their own studio, Ghibli. He is the direct ancestor to celebrated animators like Sylvain Chomet, his work an antipode to his contemporaries in the United States. Le Roi et l'Oiseau, and Grimault's body of shorts, demonstrate a keen, European sensibility and experimental approach that still astonishes today.

Click to read The King, the Mockingbird, the Big Dipper and Paul Grimault

Also, don't forget our upcoming, tandem series on early Japanese animation!

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

If any film of the past decade has come closest to matching the tone and atmosphere of the classic adventure films of Hollywood's Golden Age, it would have to be the direct homage presented by first-time director Kerry Conran in his 2004 film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

The story features a reporter (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) embroiled in a plot by a mad German scientist (played retroactively by the late Sir Lawrence Olivier), who has sent his killer robots on a reign of terror across an alternate 1939 earth. Into this comes Sky Captain (Jude law), a mercenary fighter pilot who shares a past with the reporter, Polly Perkins, and a drive to stop the mad scientist's doomsday plot.

Along the way, they encounter just about every trope that splashed across adventure films and pulp fiction from the 1920's to the 1940's. The first 20 minutes of the film (also the strongest and most memorable sequence) is heavily inspired by the original Superman cartoons produced by the Fleischer Brothers, and in particular, the episode Mechanical Monsters. In the Fleischer cartoon, the Last Son of Krypton smashes down an army of stylized robots against the Art Deco background of Metropolis... In Sky Captain, the title character dogfights almost identical robots that have been fully rendered in computer graphics against the backdrop of a Fritz Lang-style New York.

The tropes, and the direct allusions, continue throughout. Sky Captain's hunt for a posthumous Lawrence Olivier takes him to Tibet and Shangri-La, Atlantis, and an uncharted jungle island with dinosaur-like genetic experiments. In the initial fight in New York, the astute viewer can see Kong ascending the Empire State Building, or they can see the S.S. Venture sunken among the wrecks of Atlantis. The audience that really knows their genre will also recognize homages, visuals, soundclips and lines of dialogue from Godzilla, War of the Worlds (both film and Orson Welles' iconic radio broadcast), The Iron Giant, Dr. Strangelove, the Star Wars films and even a cameo by the good ship Titanic. The title "the World of Tomorrow" was borrowed from the 1939 New York World's Fair (though it takes on far more ominous tones for the film).

While critically lauded, the film failed at the box office, no doubt as a consequence of appealing to a very particular audience. For modern viewers, films from Hollywood's Golden Age are an acquired taste. An homage is troubling enough, so full of unknown references, without being so perfect a one as Sky Captain.

Those critics, both professional and profane, who complained about the acting or the preposterousness of the concept generally missed the point: Sky Captain is a perfectly conceived and executed homage to 1930's pulp films, warts and all. If the acting is a little wooden, it is perfectly in keeping with the style of acting found in actual movies made in 1939. This is exactly the kind of movie they would have made back then if they had the technology of today.

Some consider the use of technology to be hit and miss. Sky Captain was released in 2004, in the midst of George Lucas taking CGI green screens to their most ridiculous extremes. Plunking an actor in front of nothing, surrounded by nothing, and then asking them to act is asking quite a lot. Yet there was only one scene, to my reckoning, that the effect did not work in Sky Captain, when a fleeing Paltrow's feet were not visible. Otherwise, it was practically flawless and any slight deviations were certainly no worse than the really conspicuous rear-projection effects of era films.

Still, the film's critical reception was good, gaining top numbers of stars and thumbs up. That didn't translate into actual dollars, again because of the niche appeal of the content. It did what it did extremely, extremely well, a fact only apparent to a relatively small handful of theatregoers. In interviews, Kerry Conran wondered if the film shouldn't go down as a footnote in history, and it did. Now it is only mentioned in passing whenever another Science Fiction or superhero movie is set in the 1930's and 40's. Nevertheless Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow stands as a supreme example of love's labour by someone who "gets" cinema's most magnificent era.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

When Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds premiered in theatres, genre critics were confounded. What could have been an otherwise straightforward World War II film by the auteur behind Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill threw in a last-minute curve that titillated commenters. Did such a turn make this some kind of alternate history movie? A speculative fiction of a sort? Where does this film fit in the carefully orchestrated web of genre labels that we need to know if we should like something or not?

I believe this is a case of overthinking the matter. Anyone familiar with Tarantino's work knows that it only fits in the loosest definitions anyways. Ignoring Inglourious Basterds for the moment, what sort of film is Pulp Fiction? One supposes, only by ticking off the checklist of necessary and sufficient characteristics, that it is a crime drama comedy. But is that in itself a necessary and sufficient description of what is going on in Pulp Fiction? Tarantino's films do rest on the framework of an intricately-derived plot, but it would not be accurate to describe them in terms of the plot.

Lately, goaded on by Red Letter Media's reviews of the Star Wars prequels and Confused Matthew's reviews of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel, I've become more analytical about what exactly makes for a good movie. On the one hand, Confused Matthew argues that 2001 fails for lack of story content. At least a full hour could be cut from 2001 and not cause the loss of one minute of necessary development of the plot or of the film's only character, HAL. 2001 is almost entirely style without substance.

On the other hand, Red Letter Media devotes large amounts of review time to demonstrating the director's laze that ruins the Star Wars prequels. The action sequences are certainly very full of action, but the dialogue is tedium delivered tediously. The most basic of shots are staged in the most basic of ways, with characters either sitting on a couch or walking along or sitting on a couch and then getting up to walk. At this other end of the spectrum, there is almost no style at all.

Tarantino very nearly runs right up the middle. If he diverges anywhere, it is towards style if only because his stories tend not to really be about anything. I cannot easily recall any kind of deeper derivations from Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. Things happen in them. These things are very intricately scripted, mind you, but the most typical scenes of the latter are the infamous ear-cutting and the introductory conversation over breakfast. One tends not to remember Tarantino's stories so much as the iconic, interesting and entertaining vignettes.

This quality differentiates them from the boredom found at either end of the spectrum. Tarantino specializes in rich characters whose perfectly staged, Seinfeldesque conversations about nothing can be engrossing, tense, nervewracking, hilarious, romantic, delightful or horrifying. Just for these scenes of cinematic art alone is a Tarantino film a sheer pleasure to watch. Much the same could be said for Seinfeld or filmmakers like Kevin Smith, who admittedly does "the least cinematic movies in history" in exchange for beautiful dialogue and characterization.

Unlike them, Tarantino has an eye for action. And unlike a George Lucas, he has an eye for appropriate degrees of action. A single accidental gunshot to the head in the back of a car can be more memorable than a stadium full of lazer-sword wielding Jedi. Tarantino can absolutely, and probably proudly, be accused of an excess of blood and gore. Yet he cannot be accused of a masturbatory excess of things all flashing on the screen at once, nor can he be accused of making inaction films in the vein of Kubrick. If anything, he squeezes more intensity from an unflinching minimalism that will either concentrate on or surprise us with a sudden, single disgusting act of brutality.

This quality of unflinching brutality holds the key to understanding what exactly Inglourious Basterds is. As I said, trying to ascribe it to alternate history or something similar is a nonsense attempt to fit it into some comfortable genre category. The film opens with a key part of the puzzle: the words "Once upon a time... in Nazi occupied France." It is one part a fairy tale retelling of World War II. The conclusion renders the other key. It is not merely a fairy tale retelling, but a brutal revenge fantasy. Brad Pitt and his legion of angry Jews are not employed by Tarantino to fight Nazis. They are employed to torture them, scalp them, beat them to death with baseball bats, carve up their flesh with knives, gun them down en masse and blow apart their faces with a rain of hot lead.

If I could narrow down any definition of Inglourious Basterds, it would be Quentin Tarantino utilizing his considerable talents to articulate a cathartic collective desire to personally beat the unholy living Hell out of Adolf Hitler.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Merkabah Rider: The Mensch With No Name (2010)

Edward M. Erdelac's Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter was a spot-on joy of a Weird Western novel. Written in episodic format like an old dime novel, it introduced us to The Rider, a gunslinging Hasidic mystic who fought the forces of the Adversary both in our world and the veil between this one and the next.

In my review of that book, I lauded Erdelac for mostly eschewing some of the usual tropes of Weird Westerns - like zombies and Great Old Ones - to explore the rich opportunities presented by putting old, old old school Biblical ass-kicking in a Wild West setting. The Rider fought the demon Molech and his cadre of Jewish heretics, a Voodoo man in unwitting service to the lustful fallen angels who mated with human women before the Flood, the Legion of demons who found a new host, and Lilith's succubi spawn making a nice home for themselves in a mining town's brothel. Moreso than those foils, he also deftly and sensitively articulated key spiritual concepts about Judeo-Christian beliefs in how intimately tied The Rider's power was to the holiness of his condition.

Our next four episodes in The Mensch With No Name very nearly tosses that completely out the window.

The climax of Tales of a High Planes Drifter have left The Rider effectively powerless against the demonic children of Lilith. No longer visible to The Rider's enchanted spectacles, invisible demons harass him day and night, robbing him of food and sleep. Meanwhile more deadly physical offspring of the Pit are chasing him across the West, leaving a trail of grotesque murder behind that eventually gets pinned on The Rider himself. As a consequence, "The Killer Jew" is not only hunted by Hell's minions, but by bounty hunters and lawmen across the territories. If all that was not enough, it is now at his most powerless that he becomes involved in The Great Insurrection, when Shub-Niggurath, Yig and all the Outer Gods and Great Old Ones are poised to rend Creation asunder.

It's a move that is daring in its conventionality. In past interviews, Erdelac explained the chain that led to the creation of Merkabah Rider, saying that he had these images and ideas in place but he needed a certain catch to make his Eastwood-like lone cowboy interesting. That catch was turning him into a Jewish mystic and everything that came along with it. Mensch With No Name dispenses with all of that, reducing him back to that ambivalent character archetype. For a goodly sum of the book, the protagonist need not even be The Rider.

In the first episode he is forced to deal with the direct consequences of the last book's climax as half-demon hunters confront The Rider who is only discovering his powerlessness. At least he enjoys the temporary help of a Samson-like Nazirite in one of the book's last overtly Jewish references. In the following episodes comprising the bulk of the novel, The Rider is in terra incognita as he learns about Great Old Ones and Elder Signs, monsters neither demon nor man and insane cultists who might once have been human. The spiritual concepts and themes of temptation in Tales of a High Planes Drifter are hereby replaced with a sense of cosmic dread as The Rider dwells upon the ramifications of the Great Old Ones' existence.

His angst is understandable as the terrors of Judeo-Christian metaphysical horror are not particularly compatible with the nihilistic cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. Following Lovecraft's death, the Cthulhu Mythos as a marketing category was invented by his associate August Derleth, who went on to make his own contributions to this somewhat fabricated fictional continuity. His actions were controversial amongst Lovecraft fans, and still are, because of Derleth's own Christian worldview and how he attempted to conform Lovecraft's concepts to it. The essence of Lovecraft's stories were the unflinching insanity of a meaningless universe that was malevolently indifferent and casually hostile to human life. This Derleth reorganized into a mythology of Good versus Evil and elemental spirits. It was Derleth who invented the pentacle Elder Sign wielded like a crucifix against Cthulhu's shambling servants. Overall it's not a very comfortable fit that tends to water down either approach.

Erdelac's method of dealing with it is to let The Rider meditate upon the fact. The man has suffered a double-dose of existential doubt by losing his mystical powers on the one hand and being exposed to entities from entirely outside of any order of Creation and of everything he was taught about the ways and things of God. He is sent into the sort of paroxysms of doubt that a good monotheist might have were they to encounter Yog-Sothoth or Azathoth. How can such things exist in a cosmos ordered by a loving God? What is the point in continuing to exist in such a universe as consumed by these beings? If temptation was the theme of Tales of a High Planes Drifter, then doubt is the theme of The Mensch With No Name.

This novel is also the middle of a trilogy, the centre act in which the hero faces his greatest adversity and falls to his deepest depths. In this case, all the way to Hell, when The Rider goes to Lucifer himself to get some answers. It ends off on a grand cliffhanger that sets us up for the promised, full novel-length final act in the saga of the Merkabah Rider.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Wolfenstein 3D (1992)

Wolfenstein 3D is regarded as one of the early popularizers of the first-person shooter game. Dropping shortly before Doom, 3D was originally offered as shareware, lending itself to global spread. Its intriguining premise did nothing but help, as one plays American agent B.J. Blazkowicz in an attempt to escape Castle Wolfenstein, foul Nazi plans to raise an undead army, and ultimately battle a mechanized Adolf Hitler.

Because of its open-source nature, the game is easily available to for play online. For example, Hype Games has one version. For those too impatient to play all the way through, here is the final boss...

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Wolfenstein (2009)

Heir to one of the grand franchises of video gaming, 2009's Wolfenstein epitomizes the fruitful tropes of Nazi super-science and occultic-obsession. The series began in 1981 with the game Castle Wolfenstein, a stealth-type game for the Apple II, DOS, Atari 400 and 800 and Commodore 64. It garnered one sequel in 1984, and both hewed fairly close to credible World War II plots to track down mission plans and assassinate Hitler.

This changed with the 1992 remake of Castle Wolfenstein, entitled Wolfenstein 3D. The latter was one of the first and most enduring of the first-person shooter games, pitting Agent B.J. Blazkowicz against the occupants of various Nazi strongholds, leading inexorably towards a battle with a power-armoured Adolf Hitler himself. 3D was extended to more gaming systems than one can list and spawned a sequel/reboot of its own, Return to Castle Wolfenstein. This 2001 release built on the Nazi super-science themes of 3D, blending them with the enduring urban legends around Heinrich Himmler's interests in the occult to pit Blazkowicz against surgically-altered Übersoldaten and the resurrected Saxon king Heinrich I with his undead armies.

This doesn't look good.

Wolfenstein follows after Return to Castle Wolfenstein, with Blazkowicz in dogged pursuit of the SS Paranormal Division. The opening cinematic has the American agent infiltrating a Nazi warship only to be rescued from certain death by a powerful medallion that strips the flesh off the German troops. Unpacking the significance of this medallion leads him to the town of Isenstadt where weird Nazi activities are afoot.

The medallion came from an ancient race called the Thule, being a reference to the Nazi-associated Thule Society that promoted the idea of a lost hyperborean civilization of Nordic ubermensch commanding the mystical powers of the cosmos. With the assistance of the Golden Dawn secret society and a crawl through a Thule temple beneath the city, Blazkowicz learns to command the power of the medallion himself.

Amongst these powers are the user-friendly abilities to slow time and deflect bullets. It also shifts Blazkowicz into The Veil: the space between this universe and the Black Sun, occupied by Lovecraftian monstrosities. The Veil opens up the secrets of this reality, signalling secret passages, special items and revealling the monsterous true identity of various Nazi officers. These are infinitely helpful in the attempt to derail the SS plot to access Thule technology and the Black Sun universe to power devastating new Wunderwaffen.

That which lives inside the Veil

Gameplay for Wolfenstein is no better and no worse than any other modern first-person shooter game. One essentially runs and shoots their way from cinematic scene to cinematic scene, through massive underground bunkers and alien temples that would harrow Indiana Jones. Interest in this game is maintained almost entirely by the allure of its premise and designs, from how those bunkers and temples are realized to the otherworldly effects of Veil technologies and the domain's inhabitants.

I bet this guy isn't much fun.

Wolfenstein's official website can be found here.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Network Awesome Updates

This past week I returned to writing articles for Network Awesome with a vengeance. There are two pieces running currently, with an additional piece of French animator Paul Grimault and a week-long series on early Japanese animation still to come!

Click to read Alice's Adventures Through the Camera Lens and The Wonderful Dreams of Winsor McCay.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Batman (1943)

Excerpt from Batman (1943).

In my previous (and popular) review of Max Fleischer's Superman cartoons I observed that the two greatest superheroes ever created are fundamentally Pulp heroes and work best in a setting that reflects this. Superman, first published in 1938, is most ideal against his Fritz Lang, World's Fair setting. Batman, created a year later, is also better against a Noir background, attested too by the recreation of such a setting for The Batman Adventures animated series in the 1990's.

1939 is a notable date for another reason: the onset of World War II. The second batch of Superman cartoons had the Man of Steel fight on the Pacific front, and the first translation of Batman into film had him fight domestic terrorism. And boy is it ever a propaganda piece! One cannot reasonably expect nuanced portrayals of Germans and Japanese people in films of this vintage (they remain a rarity then and now, be it 49th Parallel or Letters from Iwo-Jima), but Batman outdoes itself.

In the first of the serial's 15 episodes, we are shown the vista of an empty "Little Tokyo", Gotham City's Japanese quarter. The narrator explains the dereliction as the product of how "a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs..." The camera pans to the only operating business: a "cave of horrors" ghost train in which mannequins recreate the war crimes of Japanese soldiers. Within this lair lurks J. Carrol Naish, a white actor in heavy make-up playing the Japanese scientific genius Dr. Daka.

Daka's plan is to bring together technological experts, enlisting them in his conspiracy against the United States government. Those who fail to voluntarily help him obtain the components of his massive radium gun submit unwillingly to his electric zombification process, which saps their wills and renders them mindless slaves. Only Batman and Robin - now government secret agents - can foil his scheme. Lewis Wilson enjoys the rare distinction of playing a picture perfect Bruce Wayne, with Douglas Croft as the Boy Wonder, but suffers as Batman. The costume isn't all it could be, which is forgivable insofar as its very difficult to compensate for the inability of comic book spandex costumes to look good on a real person. He's not quite as acrobatic as one might hope for in a Caped Crusader either.

Every popular rendition of Batman leaves its mark on the source material. For example, after her fame in The Batman Adventures, Joker's accomplice Harley Quinn was added to the comic book's line-up. Thanks to Batman Returns, the Penguin became a deformed beast-man instead of merely a chubby gangster with good fashion sense. The Batman serial was no different, bequeathing to posterity the Bat Cave and the tall, thin, mustachioed Alfred Pennyworth. Originally the character was Penguinesque in stature, but this serial turned him into a more proper British servant. Thankfully the American jingoism and all that comes with it did not translate to the comic.

The serial does improve in this regard, with decreasingly overt racism, over the course of the 15 episodes. It still isn't in the same class as other movie serials of the era or the Superman cartoon. For the most part it is notable only for its place in history.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Invisible Agent (1942)

Universal Monster movie scholar David J. Skal has suggested that a large part of the appeal for the first run of the franchise from 1925's Phantom of the Opera to 1936's Dracula's Daughter was their veiled capacity to deal with the costs of World War I. Thousands of men went off to war, with thousands more innocents caught between them. Worse than those who did not come back were those whose return was only partial. Broken bodies, psyches shattered and faces distorted by chemicals and explosives were constant reminders of the war to those who stayed behind. To those carrying them, the mirror became an unending source of horror.

The revival of the Universal Monster franchise in 1939 coincided with the onset of World War II, but any attempt to grapple with the causes and outcomes of that war was even more abstracted. That is with the exception of The Invisible Agent, when one of the classic monsters was turned directly on the Axis menace. In this second sequel to 1933's The Invisible Man (minus the unrelated aside The Invisible Woman in 1940), Jon Hall plays Frank Griffen, grandson of the original Dr. Griffen, who uses the invisibility serum to spy behind enemy lines.

The original Invisible Man charted much the same course as the H.G. Wells novel, expounding on the madness that comes from unaccountable power. The 1940 sequel The Invisible Man Returns features Vincent Price's disembodied voice in a race against time. Framed for a crime he did not commit, Price is given the invisibility serum by Dr. Griffen's brother and must track down the real murderer before the same madness that destroyed Griffen takes over his own psyche. Price would reprise the role, very briefly, at the very end of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In The Invisible Agent, Frank Griffen has gone into hiding under an assumed name to ensure that his grandfather's serum cannot be rediscovered. That does not stop Axis agents Sir Cedric Hardwicke as a Gestapo commander and Peter Lorre as a Japanese baron(?!) from finding him. Griffen eludes them and the bombing of Pearl Harbour compels him to use the formula on himself to become a secret agent in contact with Allied spy Ilona Massey.

A propaganda piece from beginning to end, The Invisible Agent misses what would have been the only fundamentally interesting and consistent approach to the subject matter. While the serum's insanity-inducing powers are mentioned fleetingly, we never see them and therein lies the greatest disappointment. The original Invisible Man merely plotted a rise to absolute power: the Invisible Agent would have the capacity to overthrow Hitler and install himself as the head of the Nazi war machine. There isn't even a latent threat of madness or malevolence. Frank is a red-blooded, irreproachable American soldier boosting morale on the homefront. Questioning the actions of a United States and its military drunk on power was a theme of Vietnam, not WWII.

At the very least the Axis aren't presented as total buffoons. There is an expected amount of comic relief befitting a film that is derogatory to Nazis and featuring an invisible prankster, but the head agents are quite intelligent. They figure out early on that the Americans have utilized the invisibility formula they themselves tried to obtain, and they adjust their plans accordingly. Where the Germans only just fail to capture him, the Japanese succeed. Naturally that plan goes awry thanks to the lack of honour amongst thieves. I will say that it was unnecessary and distracting to have Peter Lorre, of all people, playing someone who is supposed to be Japanese and I am reasonably sure that your quarry escaping because of the bungling Teutonic barbarians is not a valid reason to commit seppuku.

The Invisible Agent was, in the end, the only kind of film it could have been in the context. Only in retrospect can we say that it should have explored more logical territory implied by the first chapters of the franchise.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter (2009)

Edward M. Erdelac's Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter is without reservation one of the best Weird Westerns to roll into town in the last decade, if not the best. As unsolicited review copies go, it's the most impressive book I've read since Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne series, which is to say the only impressive book I've read since Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne series. An originality of concept with an excellence in execution launch Erdelac into the same stratosphere as his prime influence, Robert Howard, making for a equally pleasing and disturbing old fashioned Pulp adventure.

Though citing H.P. Lovecraft as an influence and idol, Erdelac manages to steer clear of too heavy a reliance on the Cthulhu Mythos that often seems to be the go-to for genre writers. That is when they're not falling back on zombies and vampires, which Erdelac also mostly avoids. While the Great Old Ones do pose a looming threat through the four novella-sized episodes of Merkabah Rider, he instead finds the most fertile material in the mythology and demonology of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

A quick mental survey turns up practically nothing that does utilize such a rich tradition. One might be tempted to assign blame to the Abrahamic traditions being passe even amongst those who follow them. Often it seems that the only people who want to touch it are Evangelical apocalyptics with their gibbering, ahistorical end-of-the-world revenge fantasies, or Hollywood producers with no evident comprehension of Church tradition and the Biblical canon (or art history, or genetics for that matter). That works sufficiently, unfortunately, given the general lack of interest in the subject. I can't forget the person who tried to stir up a debate by saying that the scenario in Dan Brown's novels were more credible than what was actually in the Bible but who, when probed on the matter, admitted to not even having read the Bible. Most are more cognizant of more seemingly attractive cosmologies, like the Cthulhu Mythos or religions that were already long dead before Christ was born.

Erdelac rediscovers how wild and horrifying all that Old Testament stuff can be when played straight and not diminished as some kind of mere metaphor. The conflict between the followers of YHWH and Molech isn't some ancient geo-political struggle between opposing theocratic regimes: it's a Hasidic gunslinger blowing holes in an honest-to-gosh demon named Molech invoked by a cult of child-sacrificing Jewish heretics. Zombies do turn up in Merkabah Rider, but they are good, old-fashioned Voodoo zombies folded into a Judeo-Christian cosmology relating back to the slovenly, lustful fallen angels who begat the Nephilim. The Legion of demons cast out by Jesus find a new home in a psychologically shattered man and his herd of hogs. And Lillith appears with her daughter succubi not as a feminist icon of vilified feminine autonomy, but as the mother of demons who parlays with our Jewish mystic/demon-slayer while monstrous creatures continuously flop out of the swelled bellies of her children.

His capacity for folding this mythology culled from Scripture, Talmud and folklore into the wild and weird West is highly skilled. Where else are succubi going to go to get the seed of men than a whorehouse in a male-dominated mining camp? Erdelac takes us across the border into Mexico to fight a demon in a sandstorm, and into the realities of an ethnic minority enclave on the fringes of a suspicious and trigger-happy Protestant frontier town. Having spoken of angels, they are not plump cherubim or winged waifs: Merkabah Rider's angels are weapon-wielding, blood-and-guts Biblical warriors duded up as unkillable Pinkertons ready to take out the trash if the Rider can't get the job done himself. A few figures from real Western history make surprise appearances as well.

Most admirable about Merkabah Rider is its sensitivity to the subject matter. In many works of occultic drama, perhaps by virtue of the source material, the goings on are treated fairly superficially. Magic is a tool wielded by those merely skilled enough to use it, the Great Old Ones merely ultra-powerful creatures to be slain. Erdelac draws the necessary correlation between the spiritual state of the mystic and the efficacy of their actions. Ordinarily the doctrine of "as above so below" is used to justify a vision of the afterlife or the next life as a self-justification for one's behaviour now. For the Rider, "as below so above" becomes a critical truism when being divested of his assortment of talismans or neglecting to say his proper evening prayers leaves him open to attack in the Yenne Velt, or space between worlds.

Erdelac's sensitivity goes deeper than such direct physical correlations however. At one point the Rider grapples with the loneliness imposed upon him by Hasidic sexual laws. Desire for the total physical, intellectual and spiritual companionship of another person is a powerful drive prone to manifest itself in pathological ways when it gets the better of a person's reason, exemplified when the Rider goes on a conscience-conflicted cruise of the red-light district. These laws exist, however, to protect human dignity from human beings. The Rider meditates on how he not allowed to touch a woman he does not intend to marry because a touch is the sacred beginning of greater and deeper intimacy. When we succumb to the temptation to use others as means of physical gratification, then we open ourselves up to being used by demonic impulses (which in metaphorical terms means pathological states of the psyche or, in Merkabah Rider, a slobbering, pustule-laden creature of Hell). As C.S. Lewis' Screwtape suggests, the demonic interpretation of "love" is to consume. To forget this law or the kosher dietary laws or his daily prayers cost the Rider his spiritual and psychological health, which in turn could cost his life in the middle of a battle with a demonic being who would exploit it.

Temptation is the primary theme of Merkabah Rider. It is the primary weapon used by the hordes of Hell, the primary failing of the human cast. The Rider is himself a wandering Jewish mystic from an order slaughtered by his own teacher, Adon. This teacher was a gifted mystic with a fatal narrowness that saw God as a metaphor for enlightenment and personal power. Adon gave into this temptation and destroyed his fellow mystics in the Sons of the Essenes. The Rider - who follows the rule of names being powerful by utilizing an alias - is tracking him across the West to atone for so great a sin. He was a good pupil who was able to ascend nearly to the Throne of God Himself but was turned away for an unspecified sin... Was it corruption by Adon's teachings? Or his service in the American Civil War? He does not know, but hopes that destroying Adon will somehow atone for it. Along the way he meets many a person who gave into fear and self-preservation, from Jewish carpenters who built a golden bull for the Molech worshippers to Pentecostal ministers who barred up the church doors during an otherworldly massacre to good Jewish girls who only take money for handjobs. In this harsh Biblical West, those who meet temptation head-on usually get killed. It is abundantly clear, however, that death is not the end.

All of these themes are conveyed with an incredible quality of writing that one must simply relish. Erdelac is masterful with good pulpy turns of a phrase that never come across as corny. One of my favorites was a women whose voice sounded like whiskey poured into a cracked china cup. I have no idea what that is even supposed to sound like, but it well conjures the image of coarseness and delicacy. Merkabah Rider is a joy to read for anyone who savours the art of language.

The story of the Merkabah Rider does not end with Tales of a High Planes Drifter. The structure is episodic in deliberate echo of the pulp novellas of yore, and continues in Merkabah Rider: The Mensch with No Name.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

49th Parallel (1941)

49th Parallel is sometimes regarded as one of the greatest - if not the greatest - propaganda films ever made. At the request of the British Ministry of Information, producer-director Michael Powell was charged with creating a compelling tale of errant Nazis struggling to make it beneath the titular degree of latitude, all against the stunning backdrop of scenery from across the breadth of Canada.

When production began in 1940, the United States had yet to enter World War II. The Allies were desperate to change this, and so Rodney Ackland and Emeric Pressburger used the USA's neutral status as a key plot point. After the film's opening montage of aerial wilderness photography, a Nazi U-boat surfaces off the Atlantic coast. Inching into Hudson's Bay, a landing party touches down... The first in an army of Teutonic hordes to set foot on North America. However, the Royal Canadian Air Force bombs the u-boat to Davy Jones, stranding the Ubermenschen in a British Dominion. Quickly, out of desperate necessity, they hatch a plan to cross the nation and find refuge in the neutral United States.

In order to help the cause, the big name stars pulled into the production agreed the halve their usual fees. Laurence Olivier chewed up the small Hudson's Bay Company outpost set as French-Canadian trapper Johnny, leaving no stereotype unturned. Leslie Howard stood in for the effete British intellectual in his Rocky Mountain scenes. And Raymond Massey played an AWOL Canadian serviceman in the understated climax over Niagra Falls. None of these scenes were actually filmed on location, however. With real U-boats prowling the Atlantic, they felt it was easier to bring the lesser-name stars to England than to bring the greats to Canada.

Some things didn't help the production. In building their fake U-boat in Nova Scotia and towing it up to Newfoundland, the company forgot that the latter was not a part of Canada by that time. The Crown Colony didn't join Confederation until 1949. The result was that Newfoundland was demanding appropriate import tax. An appeal to the Governor of Newfoundland had the duty waived.

Atypical for a propaganda film of the time, the representation of the characters is surprisingly nuanced. First, the protagonists are the Nazis. Not merely slavering buggo, drooling, frothing charicatures of Nazis, but actually real characters. Perhaps the most touching of the acts is when the Nazis hide out amongst a German Hutterite community in Manitoba. Impassioned speeches from the Nazi commander about the Fatherland are replied to by the Hutterite chief with equally impassioned speeches about peace and freedom, which in turn appeals to the soldier who was conscripted into the war and would like nothing more than to join the Hutterites' simple life.

Excerpts from 49th Parallel.

Second, Canada's ethnic diversity is on proud display. This element does not pass without criticism, considering the English Olivier's protrayal of a French Canadian fur trapper. But to enshrine a Roman Catholic Frenchman as a hero in an English production is a feat. Likewise the unquestioningly positive presence of pacifist Hutterites who were not, strictly speaking, supporting the war effort. On the steps of the mighty Banff Spring Hotel, it is the keen eye of Stoney First Nations elders that pick out one of the Nazis. The implicit message is to cast a clear contrast against the racially homogeneous doctrines of Hitler.

Those First Nations elders in full regalia demonstrate another of the great appeals of 49th Parallel: the amazing, historical footage of Canada. Sometimes it can descend into a joke if you know anything about Canadian geography. The remaining Nazis travel a thousand kilometres across the prairies, on foot, in a few quick fades. Nevertheless, we are treated to scenes from the high Arctic, the farmlands of Saskatchewan and the incomparable Canadian Rockies. Our vile protagonists arrive in Banff just in time for the now-defunct Indian Days festival, and real-life Banff pioneer Norman Luxton even makes a brief cameo.

The only thing that could do justice to the scenic footage is the score by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Soaring, powerful, divine... those are only a few of the adjectives that describe his compositions for this picture. In the opinion of this reviewer, the theme is perhaps the most beautiful of any from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Theme from 49th Parallel performed at the BBC Proms (0:01-2:20).

Fitting its cinematic value, 49th Parallel has been given the regal treatment in a 2-disk Criterion Collection release.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Things to Come (1936)

The complete Things to Come.

Based on H.G. Wells' 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, 1936's Things to Come is in equal parts a benchmark of cinematic design and one of the more disturbing utopian fantasies to be put to celluloid.

Much like Wells' novel, the film begins with an obvious portend of the future. It is Christmas in Everytown - a generic London - in 1940, and scenes of Yuletide cheer are cut with the looming threat of war. Ensconsed before the hearth, John Cabal and his associates debate the relative merits of combat. His friend Passworthy is skeptical that the sabre-rattling will even go so far, and if it does, well nothing is so stimulating for man or economy like a good war. Harding, the medical researcher, is worried that the war will interrupt his work. Cabal, played by Raymond Massey, is already tired enough and fed up enough with the state of humanity that he is reduced to uttering nothing but cynical, pacifistic platitudes.

Then war is declared, some 16 months after it was in historical fact. Cabal joins the air service and disappears after downing an enemy pilot and rescuing a little girl from chemical gas. The war is not so neatly finished as it was in actuality. Wells' war is a protracted conflict spanning 30 years, ending only when the combatants are so exhausted and economically ruined that civilization simply collapses. In the vacumn of infrastructure, a new plague takes hold and wipes out most of the war's survivors.

In such a world, only the strong survive, and Everytown has been taken over by The Chief. To consolidate his own power, The Chief has been conducting a new war with "the people of the hills". One instrumental tool is the chemical gas he has been trying to force out of Harding. Another is a fleet of leftover biplanes whose reconstruction is in the frustrated hands of Richard Gordon. Neither is able to accomplish their task without the necessary resources, nor is either particularly willing. Gordon opines that the age of flight... the age of anything... is over.

Suddenly from the sky emerges a flying craft, a new design of plane piloted by none other than a greyed John Cabal. He brings an ominous message: behind him is Wings Over the World, a militant society dedicated to science, reason and progress that is sweeping across the globe, outlawing independent nations and creating a one-world government. Centred symbolically in Iraq, they intend to force the barbarous world back into civilization. After Cabal is taken captive and forced to rebuild The Chief's airplanes, Harding and Gordon are able to escape and get word to Wings Over the World. They return with a full compliment that sweeps over Everytown and abolishes the old order.

Wings Over the World builds, and builds, excavating huge underground caverns in which to erect their glorious retro-futuristic cities. By 2036, the whole world has become a utopia of the test tube, healthy and hale and strong. Yet there are always discontents. Theotocopulos, a sculptor played by Cedric Hardwicke, is tired of progress, machine efficiency and a life devoted to constantly pushing towards the future. Where is now? When may man finally rest? His target is the giant space gun, by which the government of Oswald Cabal plans to send another failed moon mission.

As a film, the only substantive flaw in Things to Come is that it does not spend nearly long enough exploring the futuristic society of 2036 and the dissent of Theotocopulos. Perhaps this was included in the original UK running time of 108 minutes, which was reduced to the existing 93 minutes by hook and crook. The result is a weakened presentation of the legitimate concerns to rise from a technocratic government. Or, more to the point, a theocracy of science. In Wells' original novel this government is extremely aggressive, outlawing nationhood, ethnicity and religion. All falls under the weight of the efficient society.

Relative to the barbarism of war and feudal post-apocalyptic chiefdoms, the super-scientific world of Cabal seems beautiful. It is a scientific age, after all, an age of progress. Things to Come actually prefigures Walt Disney's own plans for a utopian, technological society governed by efficiency and dedicated to constant progress. That vision proved unsustainable and the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was reduced to EPCOT the theme park, and for good reason. A democratic nation cannot indulge privately-governed technocracies within its borders.

I have quoted French philosopher Jacques Ellul on this weblog before, and he is once more relevant here. Once more, what is described is perfected technique, "the totality of methods rationally arrived at, and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity." Things to Come outlines, without much reflection, a world where "Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity."

To its credit it does not shy away from Ellul's great criticism of our own prophets of technique, which is how they propose to impose their golden age of technology. In raising the questions of how, Ellul states,
there is one and only one means to their solution, a world-wide totalitarian dictatorship which will allow technique its full scope and at the same time resolve the concomitant difficulties. It is not difficult to understand why the scientists and worshippers of technology prefer not to dwell on this solution, but rather to leap nimbly across the dull and uninteresting intermediary period and land squarely in the golden age... If we take a hard, unromantic look at the golden age itself, we are struck with the incredible naivete of these scientists. They say, for example, that they will be able to shape and reshape at will human emotions, desires, and thoughts and arrive scientifically at certain efficient, pre-established collective decisions. They claim they will be in a position to develop certain collective desires, to constitute certain homogeneous social units out of aggregates of individuals, to forbid men to raise their children, and even to persuade them to renounce having any. At the same time, they speak of assuring the triumph of freedom and the necessity of avoiding dictatorship at any price. They seem incapable of grasping the contradiction involved, of understanding that what they are proposing... is in fact the harshest of dictatorships. In comparison, Hitler's was a trifling affair. That is is to be a dictatorship of test tubes rather than of hobnailed boots will not make it any less a dictatorship.

Things to Come, and the author behind it, would look at this squarely and say "you're right, and it is necessary."

That makes Wells' dictatorship all the more horrifying. C.S. Lewis observed that the worst kind of dictatorship is the moral one, because a cruel dictator may eventually be satiated. The moral dictator will never tire because they believe they are oppressing others for their own good. Cabal, in his closing lines, offers humanity only the choice between a nasty, brustish and short life in a state of nature or the ceaseless efficiency of a life submissive to the cause of science. His government has exchanged freedom for peace, but not true peace. They have perfected the absense of war but have not left the individual alone to be at peace.

Therein lies the question that Things to Come does not really explore. Has Cabal only provided us with a false dilemma? Is there a way to have a world of both peace and freedom, where we can do away with both types of dictatorship?

Thanks to the magic of the public domain, Thing to Come is available for viewing at the Internet Archive.