Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The City of Lost Children (1995)

The City of Lost Children begins with a young boy intently watching a chimney from the warmth and safety of his crib. A rope drops down, followed by Santa Claus. The pleasant smile on the boy's face drops when more and more Santas begin to clamber down the ceiling and through the windows. Reality appears to distort around the horrifying scene until the boy wakes up, screaming, amidst a nightmarish laboratory. The bald-headed scientist connected through tubes and wires to apparatus around the boy starts to scream as well. Five identical, imbecilic, child-like clone assistants begin to scream with him as a dwarven woman and a brain in a gilded box watch on. This is only the start of the freaks and wonders provided by this cult masterpiece of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro.

The bald scientist is Krank, played by Daniel Emilfork, the last and greatest experiment of a missing geneticist. He has but one flaw: an inability to dream, causing premature aging. Under the guidance of the aforementioned brain-in-a-box, Uncle Irvin, and with the assistance of the diminutive Mademoiselle Bismuth, he employs the five clones - all performed by Dominique Pinon - and an apocalyptic cult to kidnap children so he can steal their dreams to regain his youth. The cult, whose members have traded in their "human" sight for an artificial, sonar-detecting brass "cyclops" eye, make the mistake of kidnapping the adorable and troublesome Denree. His big brother One, played by Ron Perlman, a simple-minded circus strongman, pledges to hunt them down with the help of Dickensian child-thief Miette.

Though many reviewers have thought to draw a relation between City of Lost Children's insane technologies and the stories of Jules Verne, the connection is strained. It probably has more to do with their shared nationality, the film being a primarily French production by a pair of French writer-directors. City's setting is by no means Victorian; what we are shown is an Industrial-Age Urban Fantasy. Unlike the tiresome repetition of this genre-aesthetic in recent years, this decade-ahead-of-its-time film infuses it with a fanciful, fairy tale sensibility that surely marks its greater influence. Rather than Jules Verne, Junet and Caro are acting as heirs to Terry Gilliam.

Only buzzwords developed much later can be reasonably stringed together to describe it, and indeed the whole body of Junet's work (minus Alien: Resurrection). One can call it "magical realism" or "heightened reality", either way Junet has the capacity of focusing on the smallest things to tease out the extraordinary in what we mistakenly overlook as ordinary. This attribute unifies such diverse films as Delicatessen (1991) and Amélie (2001), ranging from Fallout-esque 1950's post-apocalyptic to contemporary Parisian romance. A glance or a twitch can make a normal person seem psychotic, a concentrated look at their lives can make a psychotic person seem beautiful, or a laughably contingent set of absurdities can fill us with wonder that those sorts of miracles are going on all the time.

A remarkable scene in City of Lost Children relies on this. Due to the machinations of Miette's criminal overlords, One has come under the influence of a chemical that has turned him homicidally against his friend. As he chokes her, a single tear flies from her cheek, landing on a spiderweb. This causes a twinkle that wakes a parrot which wakes a dog and sets in motion a ridiculously beautiful chain of events that saves them both. Several times throughout, we are given a flea's eye view of the city, notable because the fleas deliver the murderous toxin at the bequest of a former circus owner. He has been reduced to opiated servitude to his former charges, a pair of Siamese Twins who are now the very same criminal overlords.

Sideshow oddities, imbecilic clones, brains-in-boxes, armies of Santa Clauses... Distortion is the running theme of The City of Lost Children. The characters are all distorted in one way or another, and those who aren't cannot bear the cruelty of their world and so pluck out their own eyes. Even worse than his physical deformities, Krank is distorted by his own lack of a soul. His hunt to regain his youth by stealing the dreams of children is fruitless because within himself is the stuff of nightmares. As the characters are distorted so must the film follow suit. City remains the most extensive use of special effects in French cinematic history.

Sometimes this distortion can make City of Lost Children difficult to watch, in much the same way that Tod Browning's Freaks can be difficult. The ugly urban noir of the world can be a discomfort. Like the works of Terry Gilliam, however, this film balances this darkness with a charm within the horror that wins the viewer.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

VEx November Giveaway - The Society of Steam

This month, our giveaway is a double-book offer. Thanks to our friends at
Pyr, we have copies of The Society of Steam volumes one and two by Andrew P. Mayer for one lucky reader. To enter, just leave a comment on this post, remembering to make sure that your contact information is available. THe draw will be held at midnight on Sunday, Nov. 27th.

Thank you everyone for your continued support of Voyages Extraordinaires!

And the winner is... kirockk! Check your inbox for a message, and to all of you, thank you for your continued support of Voyages Extraordinaires and have a happy holiday season!

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Arctic Maruader (1974)

On the heels of the successful English-language release of Jacques Tardi's The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Fantagraphics bumped up the translation of another of his Scientific Romances, The Arctic Marauder. Originally published in 1974 and set in 1889, this bande dessinée of mad science draws from Jules Verne and Gustave Doré to add dimension to the world of his more famous heroine.

Our protagonist is Jérôme Plumier, passenger aboard a ship traversing Arctic waters. a row on deck awakens the young doctor to an astonishing sight: a ship locked high atop an iceberg pillar, hundreds of feet above the ocean surface. As he and certain members of the crew investigate the mysterious ship, their own explodes in the distance, victim of an unknown accident. Thankfully a steamer happens by the pick them up and they are ferried to Europe. There, Jérôme calls upon his uncle Louis-Ferdinand Chapoutier, only to discover that he has passed away in obscurity. An investigation of his manor house reveals a laboratory of strange and hideous experiments. What follows are murder plots, tearful reunions and devious devices of evil genius.

Some have criticized the plot and characterization as thin, and it certainly lacks the complexities of the Adèle Blanc-Sec series. Indeed, our protagonist makes a 180 degree turn part-way through that is utterly unforeseen. However the strengths of the work far outweigh its faults. Foremost amongst these are Tardi's skills as a narrator and as an artist.

This bande dessinée was originally published in episodic format and conducts itself with the overblown melodrama of a true penny dreadful. Tardi's method of involving the reader by asking rhetorical questions of him or her and making strange moral observations is amusing enough in its own right. When Plumier returns aboard the good ship J. Vernez to the same spot as the phantom clipper was found and his previous ship lost, the narrator commences: "At that very moment a terrible explosion rends the ship. Has it just been impaled by an iceberg? No! There are none surrounding it... And yet it is sinking! A sad Christmas at sea!"

The art is a spectacle. Tardi, reared on Jules Verne novels illustrated by woodcut and engraving, has attempted to imitate the look through a laborious method. Laying down blocks of black ink, he proceeded to scratch away with various tools, eventually arriving at an engraved appearance he vowed never to try again. Truly he has not, but the effect is laudatory. Beyond Édouard Riou he has invoked the great Gustave Doré and his engravings for Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Ending on an invitation to later chapters, the characters of The Arctic Marauder rear up again in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Voyage Into the Deep: The Saga of Jules Verne and Captain Nemo (2004)

Purporting to offer a "cryptic" take on Jules Verne's creative process, Voyage Into the Deep: The Saga of Jules Verne and Captain Nemo is a bit of a narrative mess. Author Francois Riviere has an obvious love of the Voyages Extraordinaires and infuses his bande dessinée with a number of "easter eggs" spanning Verne's body of work. Artist Serge Micheli excels in his original depictions of the Nautilus and his moody, stylized characters. Is it enough to save the story?

Riviere takes the approach that a number of other stories, comics and television programs have, which is that Verne's stories were records of actual events he participated in. Invariably these result in Verne having a more interesting fictional life than he had in fact, and occasionally these result in offenses to his character. In Voyage Into the Deep, Verne becomes a tortured artist experimenting with drugs and sex, with visions of a submersible and a mad captain that may or may not be real. Touching him off is a strange green fluid and a gorgeous Indian princess that could be either a reference to Mysterious Island or Around the World in Eighty Days, or both.

The reference implicit in the luminescent green fluid turns up nothing in a cursory reading of Verne's most famous books. Thus it becomes symbolic of the narrative's failures. It is replete with references to nothing and threads that go nowhere. One review decried it as "a haphazard postmodern deconstructivst mess" and I am hard-pressed to disagree. It seems to want there to be something portentous in its observations on Verne, and ends up with a go-nowhere non-tale that is merely pretentious.

An accurate answer to the question of whether the story can be saved is "what story?" Voyage Into the Deep: The Saga of Jules Verne and Captain Nemo is probably only to be recommended for the most intense fans of Verne and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea who are looking more for a visual feast than for a meaningful commentary on their beloved author.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Dionysos: La Mécanique du Coeur (2007)

La Mécanique du Cœur is a wonderfully conceived concept album by the French band Dionysos, joined by a novel of the same name by band leader Mathias Malzieu, which trails the story of young Jack who has a clock for a heart. According to the band:
Edinburgh, 1874. Jack was born on the coldest day in history and his heart has been frozen ever since. Half-witch, half-shaman, the midwife who brought him to the world manages to save the newborn by replacing his defective heart with a clock. This prosthesis works and Jack will continue to survive on condition that he winds up his heart every morning and avoids any emotional overdrive: so anger is off the cards and as for being in love- absolutely out of the question.

However the sultry gaze of a petite street musician will put the midwife’s advice to the test, not to mention our hero’s heart. Prepared to do anything to find her again, Jack embarks on a road trip that will take him from Scottish lochs to the arcades of Grenada, and introduce him to the pleasures of love as well as the torments of jealousy.

The outcome is a beautiful, Gothic clockwork fairy tale rendered in Indie-style Rock and Burtonesque imagery. The aesthetic of this fairy tale is seen most clearly in the video for the single Tais Toi Mon Cœur, which recalls the stop-motion work of Tim Burton, as well as airs of Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro, equally dark and Gothic but whimsical and fairylike, even as it is so tragic.

The album opens with the epic Le Jour le Plus Froid du Monde, ringing in the album with the tik-tok chirping of a cuckoo-clock leading into a funkish beat. Here we are introduced to Jack, born on the coldest night of the year, and his midwife-witchdoctor Madeline who replaces his frozen heart with clockworks. The introduction continues into the broken English of La Berçeuse Hip Hop du Doctor Madeline, in which the witch explains to Jack how he must never fall in love. Like some of the following songs in English, the emotional impact is somewhat diminished by the comical attempt to sing in a language that is obviously not native to the singers. However, this is offset by guest singer Emily Loizeau's sensual delivery of admonitions to the innocent-sounding Jack, who wonders if he can even dream of love and sex.

Despite the comforts of Jack's friend Arthur singing a gruff When the Saints Come Marchin' In, the crisis comes to Jack when he meets Miss Acacia in Flamme à Lunettes; a charmingly soaring and sweet-sounding duet with Malzieu's real-life partner Olivia Ruiz against the recurring backdrop of ticking clockworks. But Jack's panic at falling in love and the threat this poses to his delicate little heart comes fast and heavy in Symphonie pour Horloge Cassée, where he describes his new fascination as a "fire girl". This leads into the racy, burlesque song about a pet hamster called Cunnilingus Mon Amour, sung in tandem with Jack's prostitute friends.

Conflict enters Jack's world with Joe, a competitor for the affections of Miss Acacia. In Thème de Joe, the ne'erdowell explains his contempt for this strange new boy and his intention to rid himself and Acacia of the problem. Things don't go according to plan as they fight in L'école de Joe and Jack gouges out Joe's eye on his clockworks. Fleeing the scene of the crime, Jack falls in with Georges Méliès in Paris, who accompanies him to Andalusia, where Miss Acacia has fled. Their journey is recounted in L'Homme Sans Trucage, and his reunion with Acacia in La Panique Mécanique. As the second single, L'Homme Sans Trucage gained its own video, which traded in the Burtonesque animation style for a moving collage of clockwork imagery. Part of the effect is no doubt in echo of Méliès, the role played here by French actor Jean Rochefort, and Terry Gilliam, in whose ill-fated film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote Rochefort was to star.

Jack takes up a job at the same carnival as Acacia in King of the Ghost Train, and safe in each other's arms, consummate their love in the ridiculously endearing and poppy music box tune Mademoiselle Clé. The romantic revelry continues into the the English language, Spanish guitar erotic dance of Candy Lady. Thankfully Jack's heart doesn't break like Madeline told him it would. However, all is not well as Joe makes his return in Le Retour de Joe, a monologue leading to Jack's final jealous confrontation with Acacia in Death Song.

After convalescing from ripping out his own clockworks, a much-changed Jack returns to visit Miss Acacia, who no longer recognizes the person before her in the album's best song and first single, Tais Toi Mon Cœur. Despite his pleading, she bids him adieu, and he pines out a love lament in the previous rock single of Dionysos, Whatever the Weather, incorporated into this story's narrative.

Finally, mournfully, sadly, tragically, Jack moves on to a lonely life as Giant Jack, a character from Dionysos' previous album Monsters in Love, as described in Epilogue. The album closes with the wistful, romantic Hamac of the Clouds (How Romantic it Would Be).
Malzieu has noted that he did not wish La Mécanique du Cœur to be a tight concept album, hoping that the music and concept would be accessible. Unfortunately he missed the mark in a few cases: there are several tracks on the album that are almost pure exposition, even down to the character talking his way through to a musical accompaniment. For example, Théme de Joe, L'école de Joe, Le Retour de Joe and the Epilogue are this exposition, outlining the external conflict of the story.

Many of the songs, once the lyrics are translated, only make sense in terms of the story. The main example is the single, Tais Toi Mon Cœur. A wonderful song mixing in danceable rhythms with a flamenco guitar, (actually a very common trend in French pop music, as I discovered courtesy of hotel televisions) it works quite well on its own as a nice tune. For most of us in the Anglosphere, that's all it can be, since the lyrics are in French. But translated, the song does not tell its own story... It is the climax of the story's narrative, and it helps to know that when Jack is imploring Miss Acacia and she is rebuffing him, it is hot on the heels of the Jack's self-mutilating last encounter with Acacia.

Some of the weakest tracks on the album are those that don't stand up on their own as songs but make no sense without the context of the written novel, The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. There is a sequence in the middle of the album where Jack goes travelling in pursuit of Miss Acacia and in employed by a ghost train. Why this sequence exists or how it plays into the story is ambiguous from the album on its own, but the songs in this part - L'homme sans Trucage, La Panique Mécanique and King of the Ghost Train - aren't exactly the strongest. There are tracks that are fine on their own, but need the novel to discern how they fit into the story, such as the Tom Jones by way of Tom Waits-style rendition of When the Saints Come Marchin' In.

These merely articulate how La Mécanique du Cœur is an ambitious multimedia work, drawing lines between the novel and its illustrations, the album, music video and upcoming live concert performances. As an added bonus, the CD includes OpenDisk features which allow one to access an exclusive website with videos, remixes and desktops. For more, be sure to visit the album's MySpace.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (2007)

Published in its native French as La Mécanique du Cœur, The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is half of a multi-media narrative concept penned by Mathias Malzieu of the band Dionysos. The other half is the contemporaneous album La Mécanique du Cœur, which reflects the story of the novella. Both draw from the world created by Malzieu in Dionysos' previous album Monsters in Love and together they have been optioned by Luc Besson for an animated film in the Tim Burtonesque style of the album's headline single Tais Toi Mon Cœur.

Malzieu's writing (and as a consequence, the music and videos of Dionysos) betray their affection for Burton, mirroring not only his aesthetic, but also the tone of writings like Nightmare Before Christmas and The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy. Some comments have also picked up on a debt owed to Roald Dahl. Yet the author writes an additional influence straight into The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, that being the person of Georges Méliès. It is no wonder that the character of Méliès should find so comfortable a home within the novella's pages, as it's extravagant personalities and Matryoshka of illusion and delusion echo the works of cinema's great illusionist.

The story begins in Edinburgh in 1874, on the coldest night of the year. At the top of an imposing hill lives Dr. Madeline, a wizened old midwife robbed of the ability to bear children who compensates by ushering into life the infants of prostitutes and the destitute. Within Madeline's shack is a mere girl giving birth to freezing little boy. When his heart flutters close to death, Madeline launches into action, grafting into his chest a cuckoo-clock whose rhythm steadies the boy's heart. The girl flees the site of her shame, leaving poor little Jack in the hands of the midwife-engineer.

Part-clockwork, Jack joins the menagerie that Madeline has accumulated around herself. There is Arthur, the old man with a rusty metal spine who calms Jack with grizzled refrains of When the Saints Go Marching In. There are also Anna and Luna, prostitutes with various prosthetics who enjoy teaching the innocent child dirty words. Their great victory is convincing Jack to name his hamster after the great Roman hero Cunnilingus. His is a small world because of the cost that his mechanical heart has left him. Madeline's instructions are very clear: first he must never touch his gears, second he must control his anger, and finally he must never, ever fall in love. Love's powerful emotions would strain the gears enough, but the pain of love lost would literally break his tiny heart.

Queue Miss Acacia, a little Spanish singer who sets fire to Jack's passion. On his tenth birthday he is brought to town for the first time and sings a duet with the captivating gypsy busker. Despite Dr. Madeline's best efforts, Jack is lost to her. He only wants Miss Acacia and has decided to go to any length to find her again, including the dread horror of enrolment in school. There he runs afoul of Joe, the schoolyard bully who carries his own torch for the singer. For three years Jack endures humiliations and tortures at Joe's hand until he finally snaps, goring one of Joe's eyes on the dials of his clock.

Jack flees Edinburgh that very night with one destination in mind. "Andalusia" is the only clue he ever received as to the possible whereabouts of his infatuation. From carriage to train, and from train to ship, and across the channel he goes, interrupted briefly by an encounter with Jack the Rippper. The killer who can only fall in love with corpses gives him a terrible bit of philosophical advice: "You'll soon learn to survive by frightening others."

En route to Andalusia he stops over in Paris to meet Méliès. He is a devilish counterpoint to Dr. Madeline. She was the practical engineer imparting prohibitions on Jack. Méliès is the provocateur, a failed womanizer who lives for his dreams and his belles, capable only of bringing them a paper moon. But he also good with clocks and joins Jack on his Romantic quest to Spain. He advises his new ward,
If you're frightened of damaging yourself, you increase the risk of doing just that. Consider the tightrope walker. Do you think he spares any thought for falling while he's walking the rope? No, he accepts the risk, and enjoys the thrill of braving the danger. If you spend your whole life being careful not to break anything, you'll get terribly bored, you know.

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a charming, yet frank, though somewhat transparent, meditation on love. The English title is not even a proper translation of La mécanique du cœur, which would be more accurately rendered as "the mechanics of the heart." It is not merely a study in a sideshow oddity with a clockwork heart. At one point, Jack observes that it seems more and more like everyone else's hearts are more damaged and fragile than his own. It is a study of love itself, in the progress of love from infatuation to failure, how it rides on dreams and fears, and how it transforms us.

Malzieu's observations are perhaps nothing new. Their strength is in their resonance. He has a novel way of turning phrases and making wry quotables, as evidenced by the paragraph put into the mouth of Méliès above. His ability to describe the physical and emotional effects of love, and the honest ease with which he flips between picturesque descriptions of soaring romance and a captivating derriere, are his strongest suit as a writer. This is no doubt due to his muse, the French-Spanish singer Olivia Ruiz. Herself an accomplished musician, she is also Malzieu's partner and the voice of Miss Acacia on the album.
We love each other like two matches in the dark. We don't talk, we just catch fire instead. Our kisses are an inferno as an earthquake registers across my entire body, all one metre sixty-six and a half centimetres of it. My heart escapes its prison. It flies away through the arteries, settling in my head. My heart is in every muscle, all the way to my fingertips. A savage sun, everywhere. Its a romantic disease with reddish glints...

By itself, The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is not much. Taken together with the album and videos, it comprises a total franchise that is a charming, heartfelt, Burtonesque addition to the genre.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Happy 100th Birthday, Roy Rogers!

Due to some unfathomable oversight, I let the 100th birthday of the King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers, pass by on November 5th without any sort of recognition. I'm not the only one though: RFD-TV is saving their big celebratory float for the 2012 Tournament of Roses Parade. Thankfully the latest issue of the magazine Cowboys & Indians was more on top of things.

Why does Roy Rogers matter? Last year I reviewed a plethora of his over 100 films and Roy as a cultural phenomenon, conveying a bit of my affection for the man whose namesake drink nursed me through many a teetotalling night at the bar. For the fan of Hollywood's Golden Age, Roy Rogers is inescapable. There were other cowboys and even other singers - from Gene Autry to early John Wayne - but none of them were the King of the Cowboys. Nobody was as popular as Roy, no name was as recognizable, no one else transmitted their success at B-movie Westerns into comic books, toys, and television as readily as he did.

Perhaps I am a bit biased. Though one could not tell it to look at me today, limping out of card-carrying Gothhood on the plus-side of thirty, but I grew-up off and on the ranch. My father immigrated to Canada from Germany in the Fifties on inspiration from a film about the Calgary Stampede, that great annual celebration of our Western heritage. He succeeded in his goal of becoming a real life cowboy, with the ancillary result that cattle and horses were ubiquitous during my childhood. I wasn't up to following in my dad's footsteps and now lead a fairly urban lifestyle in which I only talk about ranching as a museum interpreter and take the odd Rocky Mountain trail ride when I can. Being a cowboy is a lot of work, too much for me, but I feel enough sentimental nostalgia for it that I can't help but get cozy with some good ol' Roy Rogers movies.

This affection is more than just nostalgia for the Golden Age of Hollywood's b-movies or memories of horses ridden in my youth. The gospel truth is that a movie starring Roy Rogers was just a damn good movie. None of them aspired to high art, but in the course of an hour they busted at the seams with high melodrama, spirited action, quick wit, quaint romance, and awfully good music. Of course, the music... Roy would have been just another cleanshaven dime-store dude if not for that incredible voice. Backed up by the incomparable original line-up of the Sons of the Pioneers, the harmonies produced the best Western music ever made. A fantastic introduction to their world is this audio-version of Disney's Pecos Bill.

Happy 100th birthday Roy!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Volume 1 (1976)

Occasioned by the feature film adaptation by Luc Besson, Fantagraphics' 2010 volume of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec reprints the first stories of the classic French bande dessinée heroine. These two stories - Pterror over Paris and The Eiffel Tower Demon - were first published in 1976, issuing from the hand of Jacques Tardi, and Adèle has enjoyed consistent publication through her most recent adventure in 2007.

Contrary to the cinematic version, these stories are more of an urban mystery than an action adventure. It does begin with a pterodactyl breaking free of its egg at the museum of natural history, but quickly wraps itself in layers upon layers of betrayals, triple-crosses, shadowy onlookers, last-minute rescues, bank heists and irrational murders, and intricate relationships between a plethora of seemingly unconnected characters. What begins with a rejuvenated fossil creature and a mechanical doppelganger winds its way to a secret Orientalist cult and the possible resurrection of the Babylonian god Pazuzu. Diagramming the story's players might be a worthwhile activity.

Also unlike the film, Tardi's Adèle does not appear to be the clean-nosed, noble adventurer. Her involvement in the plot comes very much on the heels of her involvement in Paris' criminal underworld. As she explains through the course of the story, she is a writer of fiction whose desire for accuracy brought her in touch with the underworld element, and from familiarity she became a moving agent. The deeper she goes, the worse things she discovers.

The tone of the comic matches many other bande dessinée that have floated to the English-speaking world. Imagine a less wholesome, female Tin-Tin. Their more subversive nature with intricate criminal plots, mad cults and a hard-living lady protagonist, on the other hand, makes it something of a satire as well. Either way, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec are notable for the rich Belle Époque setting. Tardi took obvious care in rendering 1911 Paris with great accuracy.

Fantagraphics has expressed a commitment to republish all of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, and I look forward to every one. Future volumes promise mad scientists, revivified mummies, secret Arctic lairs, and more oddities. They can easily be considered amongst the premiere Scientific Romances of modern French media.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010)

French trailer for The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec.

A living pterodactyl, a beautiful girl immobilized by a hatpin stuck through her brain, a mysterious black-clad archaeologist, a pompous big-game hunter, a resuscitated mummy in a bowler hat, a love-struck young scientist, a master of occultic rituals, and a lady adventurer named Adèle Blanc-Sec. Set in 1912 Paris, the film named for our lady adventurer presents itself in trailers and advertisements as an action film in the vein of Indiana Jones or the recent Mummy films. It is, however, a comedy through and through. Famed director Luc Besson does craft a number of exciting, two-fisted scenes, but there is no mistaking the absurd cast of characters and spot-on comic timing.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is based on the long running series of bande dessinée by Jacques Tardi. In particular it is based on the first and fourth volumes - Adèle and the Beast (or Pterror over Paris) and Mummies on Parade - and is faithful insofar as possible in combining multiple divergent stories. Some of the scenes from Tardi's comic are rendered perfectly in celluloid, such as the hatching of the prehistoric beast pterrorizing the City of Lights.

Louise Bourgeon stars as Adèle, to whom we are introduced as she hunts down the mummy of Rameses the Great's chief physician. Through the acquaintance of her occultist friend, she hopes to resurrect the mummy in the hopes the he may be able to heal her sister... The beautiful girl with the unfortunate hatpin problem. This occultist successfully practiced his craft on a 135 million year old pterosaur egg, but whenever his concentration flags, the beast goes on its primordial rampages. Hilarity ensues, and it does.

There is absolutely nothing to be disappointed by in regards to The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec's being a comedy. The action titillates and the laughs are plentiful. It is definitely a departure from the films of Luc Besson with which most people may be familiar, such as The Professional, Nikita, The Messenger, The Transporter 1, 2 and 3, and The Fifth Element. One can certainly see some of the shared eccentricities between the latter and this film, however.

Helping Besson considerably is the beauty of the French setting. Very little apparent computer imagery had to be used to achieve the effect of Paris in La Belle Époque. Here and there an antique skyline or an Exposition building had to be reconstructed, but more often, the richness of architecture and a bevy of well-placed horseless carriages and well-dressed extras provides a glimpse of the decadent era.

Adèle Blanc-Sec is a highly entertaining, very odd, and quite fetching film and one hopes that it will receive international DVD distribution.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Three Musketeers (2011)

Paul W.S. Anderson's The Three Musketeers - aka: Air-Pirates of the Caribbean, aka: Assassin's Creed the Movie - is the latest adaptation of the classic tale by Alexandre Dumas. It has been nearly a decade since the last version of any note, being Disney's adaptation starring Kiefer Sutherland, Tim Curry and a pre-win Charlie Sheen, and it has been long overdue. This new version is a practically perfect good-bad movie.

Much like Tarzan or Dracula, Dumas' trinity of French swashbucklers is irresistible to filmmakers, time and again becoming a skeleton upon which to hang the adventuresome aspirations of each generation. Several versions date to the silent era, but the definitive is the 1921 vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks' stuntwork. That version's sequel, The Iron Mask, was a touching 1929 eulogy for the silent cinema. Several more versions were made through Hollywood's Golden Age. Disney's 1993 version was hot on the heels of 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Anderson's is a rough accumulation of action movie tropes from across the 2000-noughts.

The ubiquitous Mila Jonovich - Anderson's wife and frequent star - is present as Milady de Winter, who has gone from double-agent to outright ninja. Orlando Bloom sports an amazing pompadour and steals the show as the delightfully slimy Lord Buckingham. Our Musketeers take their queues from Ezio Auditore da Firenze, which is very handy for the opening sequence in Venice where they raid Leonardo da Vinci's vault to steal the plans for an airship. Oh yes, there are airships as well, and a fantastic climax above Notre Dame de Paris that is frankly more exciting than anything Jack Sparrow or Anakin Skywalker have been up to lately. Whatever could have been done in CGI was and it is in 3D, of course.

Curiously enough, this rehash of Anderson's other films, like the Resident Evil series and Mortal Kombat, actually stays remarkably close to the story originally penned by Dumas. Just why settle for fencing and swinging from chandeliers when de Winter can rappel down the sides of palaces in her lingerie or 50-foot streams of fire can be shot from flying galleons? Even something as simple as Hong Kong wire work is old news. The spectacle is the thing. A local review complained that only Christoph Waltz delivered a believable performance as the Cardinal, in a case of flagrantly missing the point.

The Three Musketeers is not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. It most probably deserves the criticisms heaped upon it. But like a Wild Wild West, Underworld or the other action movies from which it evolves, it is meant to be taken with a grain of salt. It is not humanly possible for anyone working on it to have taken it seriously, and there is no reason to look any deeper into it than some big, dumb, brash, very pretty 3D fun.

Besides, airships!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Of Religion and Romanticism

Towering high above the centre of the northern French city of Amiens is the cathedral of Notre-Dame. So large is this rendition of a chapel devoted to Mary the Mother of God that it could fit the famous Notre-Dame de Paris inside it. And from the moment he took residence in this home town of his wife, Jules Verne could be seen in its pews most Sundays. Though rebellious as a youth and enamoured with the Bohemian lifestyle (and women) of the national capital, the Catholic Encyclopedia is proud to proclaim the little-known fact that Verne lived and died a Catholic.

This fact is so poorly known because it does not manifest in any particularly obvious ways in the course of the writer's Voyages Extraordinaires. God is rarely mentioned in anything other than passing, the Church almost never. For more obvious is his paean to science and technological progress. It is not an absolute and unwavering affection, for even Verne was a critic who sometimes descended to cynicism. Nevertheless, the enduring appeal of his work has been its sense of wonder about the natural world, whether around the surface of it, in the centre of it, under the seas of it, or even beyond it.

Some, perhaps many, easily divorce this sense of wonder of the natural world from any kind of a religious sensibility. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once asked why we cannot look upon the beauty and majesty of a garden without imagining fairies at the bottom of it. In the only instance where Richard Dawkins deigned to appear on stage with William Lane Craig, he spoke eloquently of the implicit beauty of nature that stirs the breast of all people regardless of denomination.

It is true, to an extent. Atheists can experience wonder at the world without being grounded in any sort of theistic belief. To deny this would deny the revelatory self-disclosure of atheists themselves. The argument that scientific materialism leads to a universe of "meres" and "justs" is a direct appeal to this common sense of wonder and beauty. What these critics are pointing out is a fundamental inconsistency in the argument put forth by atheists like Dawkins. This inconsistency is that, despite arguing so vehemently for a worldview shaped by reason and empiricism, Dawkins and fellow devotees of Scientism eventually resort to such highly irrational, romantic terms. The theist will be excused a wry grin when he begins to wax poetic about the sublimity and beauty of the universe because in that poetry are the recognizable features of that old religious sensibility.

The late Mr. Adams asked why we cannot appreciate the beauty of a garden without imagining garden fairies. The problem is not whether we should countenance such an extraordinary thing as fairies. The problem is whether we should countenance such an extraordinary thing as beauty. Compared to the question of whether and why beauty exists, the question of how many fairies can dance on a blade of grass is academic. Whether wonder is acceptable at all is a much more profound question than whether there can be wonder in science. I can readily admit to both the beauty of a garden and the wonder of science because, as a Christian, I already accept the validity of emotions, aesthetics, revelation, intuition, imagination, spirituality, and other forms of irrationality as ways of understanding the full breadth of reality. To me, the question of God's existence is a much smaller and easier one once we have been permitted the means by which one may know of God.

The sublime astonishment of God and the Grand Canyon can be gasped in the same breath because they are the same irrational sublimation of all reason. The all-empowering and -overpowering love of my Saviour and my partner are alike products of intimate, vulnerable and trusting self-disclosure. Perhaps they differ in scale, the proportion between the Creator and the Creation, but they are not differences of a kind. I can keenly sense the beauty of a garden; I only ask why I am not also allowed to keenly sense that same beauty about the fairies that dwell in it. Why must my sense of beauty and wonder go only so far and no further? Why must a heart that cries out to be thankful for life silence itself because someone else does not know Who to thank? On whose authority must this be so?

Jules Verne's gift as a religious writer was not in drafting transparent sermons promoting a particular doctrine of Catholicism. Rather, it was in his willingness to be an unapologetic romantic. His peculiar doctrine was to holistically marry new discoveries in science, exploration and technology to a Romantic worldview, without eschewing beauty, wonder and the sublime. God need not be mentioned by name when before us unfolds a Creation so worthy of praise. The act of praising it is, in itself, a hymn and a prayer to its Creator.

The marriage brokered by Verne was not an obvious one given the pedigree of Romanticism at that time. The movement, which was already of global scope by the time Verne put pen to paper, was largely a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment and its revolutions industrial and political. The moral, economic, social and spiritual destitution caused by technological progress, scientific colonialism, and failed revolutions left the Romantics palpably disappointed. Verne lived to see the factory slums of Paris, the stunning defeat of France by Prussia's modern army, and the collapse of the Second French Republic and rise of Emperor Napoleon III. It should be no surprise that Verne was a Catholic: the aristocrats and the rebels of the Enlightenment lost their reason along with their heads. Romanticism looked to the European Middle Ages as a spiritual, intellectual, nationalistic, and aesthetic model, and nothing spoke so powerfully of it as the Church. He was friends with Victor Hugo, who only barely managed to save Notre-Dame de Paris from the wrecking ball, and of Alexander Dumas with his red-blooded adventures of France's past. He also counted himself as a fan of the Gothic American author Edgar Allan Poe.

All evidence pointed to Verne's trajectory as a Romantic in the best tradition of Longfellow, Cooper, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron or Shelly. His first novel, the unpublished Paris in the Twentieth Century, exposes a mind made cynical by advancements without progress, intimately critical of urban, commercial modernism. Between that and Five Weeks in a Balloon, Verne rediscovered something that would be the salvation of his career if not his soul. He realized that the solitary creative genius of Romanticism could be a man of science, and that technology could be the vehicle to a transcendental appreciation of nature. Reason need not be the enemy: it could be a tool to reach that which is beyond it. As George Bernard Shaw said, "The man who listens to Reason is lost: Reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her." In the words of Verne,
My object has been to depict the earth, and not the earth alone, but the universe, for I have sometimes taken my readers away from earth, in the novel. And I have tried at the same time to realize a very high ideal of beauty of style. It is said that there can’t be any style in a novel of adventure, but it isn’t true...

Thus was born Scientific Romanticism, and that which distinguishes the work of Verne and his ken from the Science Fiction and Scientism that would follow. His is Scientific Romanticism, not Scientific Rationalism. Verne is the very model of the religious person with a passionate love of science: that strange specimen which the demagogues on either extreme say cannot exist. Verne, like any religious person, is able to admit and to love the exact degree of reason and empiricism required of methodological naturalism in understanding the laws that govern the tangible. He is not, however, limited to it. A dogma of philosophical naturalism could not permit his Romantic beauty of style, and so philosophical naturalism must go.

Go it must, because truth demands it. As observed by G.K. Chesterton, the truth of Romanticism is a much deeper and more abiding thing than the flippancy of Realism:
All who are adherents of romanticism (as I am) have it for their first and fixed and central principle that romance is more serious than realism. We say that romance is the grave and authoritative and responsible thing; the permanent religion of mankind. We say that studies from life and human documents are more frivolous and fugitive than great and enduring decorative art. Realism, we say, is life seen as somebody sees it. Romance is life felt as somebody feels it.

Verne's heroes and anti-heroes are not routinely dull men and women. They may be driven by single ideas but they are usually individuals of some culture. The Nautilus is not some sterile spaceship unfit for human habitation: it is stocked keel to periscope with priceless works of art, great works of literature, and bursting folios of sheet music for play on the pipe organ that is ultimately the ship's most important feature. Our author dutifully recalls volumes of facts about what is known in the course of bringing us along with his protagonists dreams of the possible and impossible. Verne saw science as a Romantic venture, capable of keeping pace with all other Romantic ventures.

What necessarily makes it a religious sensibility, though? To return to Adams' garden, why can we not have beauty and wonder without gods and fairies? To explain I turn to Christopher Dawson's essay Religion and the Romantic Movement. He says that "the religious element in Romanticism, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, goes much deeper than the superficial aesthetic appeal." Continuing:
It has its roots in the fundamental principles of the movement, which differed not merely aesthetically but also metaphysically and psychologically from those of both seventeenth-century Classicism and eighteenth-century Rationalism.

Behind the change in literary taste and aesthetic appreciation there lies a profound change of spiritual attitudes: an attempt to enlarge the kingdom of the human mind by transcending the limits of ordinary consciousness. Human consciousness is a little circle of light amidst the surrounding darkness. The classicist and the rationalist keep as close to the centre of the circle as possible and order their life and their art as though this little sphere of light was the universe. But the romantic was not content with this narrow sphere.

He sought to penetrate the secret of the great reality that is hidden behind the veil of darkness and preferred the twilight regions that fringe the verge of consciousness to the lighted house of reason. Thus the most profound expression of the romantic spirit is to be found, not in the Byronic cult of personality or the aesthetic gospel of Keats' Ode to a Grecian Urn, but in Novalis' Hymns to the Night with their mystical exaltation of death. There is in fact a definite connection between romanticism and mysticism, for religious mysticism tends to express itself in the form of romantic poetry, as in the poems of St John of the Cross, while literary romanticism at its highest aspires to the ideal of religious mysticism, as in the case of Novalis and Blake.

The common axiom that religion narrows the mind with certainty about its mysteries while reason and empiricism broaden with ceaseless questioning is a gross inversion of actuality. The Rationalist hugs close to the light of the intellect, trying to shed its rays as far as they can and proclaiming that there must not be anything beyond that light since they cannot see it. The Romantic is willing to go into that outer darkness, on faith, without a lamp.

In Verne it is not difficult to see the Herculean effort of upraising science to that vehicle of exploration beyond the fringes. His characters are constantly pushing at the liminal spaces, the blank places on the map. In Verne's early years it sufficed to be literal acts of exploration into material spaces that, in turn, transformed their explorers. His other renowned hero is Phileas Fogg, whose timely exterior journey was ultimately not so significant as his interior one. Verne's later years were frequently occupied with thought experiments on deserted islands, exploring the terra incognita of human potential. Very shortly before his death, Georges Méliès emerged as his cinematic heir with A Trip to the Moon. Though Méliès might appear more fanciful and less devoted to technical precision than Verne, they are true coreligionists in a Gallic, Mediaevalist spirit of Romance.

Scientific Romances are the Science Fiction of human beings, retaining for ourselves all the art and beauty and love of history and religion that Science Fiction may transpose onto alien races if it does not eliminate it through the cold hard logic of machines. In them science occupies a place that is both elevated and subordinate. They are Verne's argument that science also has value in a worldview where the value of emotions, imagination, intuition, art, music, literature, and religion is already taken for granted. Science, if not the Scientific Method, can be a religious sensibility presenting the natural world as a thing of aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual experience... Indeed, the ordered natural world as an expression of the mind and creative will of God. That little man sitting in a pew in a Gothic cathedral in a little French town has the faith that reason may be enslaved to humanity instead of humanity to reason, and that the methods of empiricism might be able to adhere to the far more rigorous demands of romance.