Wednesday, 28 November 2012

200,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1907)

Jules Verne and Georges Méliès flirted once again in 1907 with a very loose rendition of the classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The 1870 novel wouldn't receive a proper adaptation until Universal Studios took the Williamson Tube down to Bermuda in 1916, where Captain Nemo splashed across screens for the first time. It was also the first major use of genuine underwater photography. Méliès' version, on the other hand, is more of a surrealist impression of life in the briny depths.

Nemo is absent from this film, ("Nemo" the formal name, not "nemo" the Latin phrase) as are any of the plot elements and dramatic conventions of Verne's actual story. There is a submarine, but in this voyage is it is the dream-vessel of the fisherman Yves. Working himself to a state of exhaustion, Yves come in off the dock and slumps into his chair, which begins a fantastic nocturnal adventure. The Spirit of the Oceans lead Yves off to the submarine, which takes beneath the waves to the unfolding spectacle of the seas. After a brief tour, the Naiads, Sirens and Queen of the Starfish emerge to perform an intricate underwater ballet. But after the glory comes the tragedy: the submarine is wrecked and Yves is left haplessly fending off the denizens of the deep. After fighting crabs and anemones in underwater caverns, the fish swoop in for revenge on the fisherman. An octopus wraps his arms around Yves while the Sea Gods put their fishing hook into him. Deliverance finally comes to our hero when a fight with a giant sponge transitions back into the waking world, where Yves is fighting off his own tangled nets.

Unfortunately, while Méliès' 200,000 Leagues still exists, it has never been released to home video. However, from the photos that have escaped the clutches of jealous archives, one can easily see that this film afforded Méliès to take his typical paper moon style of celestial motifs and apply them to the seven seas. This appears to be most prevalent in the ballet, with a Queen of the Starfish that is more star than fish. The French love their women, whether clothed in ethereal gauze or seaweed and fishtails.

The change in scene appeals to the fin de siècle fascination in the grotesque. Today we know the grotesque as meaning something hideous and ugly, but originally the term referred to a specific artistic movement based on the natural and aquatic motif of the grotto... The "grotto-esque." Developed out of the archaeological rediscovery of naturalistic Roman architecture and frescoes during the Enlightenment, these natural and often maritime forms combined with the dirt and dust of 1500 years to give the impression of the damp, dark, moist, subterranean and submarine environment of the underwater grotto.

These grottoes were the playground of an array of those ancient Greco-Roman marine supernatural beings - naiads, Neptune/Poseidon, mermen and maids, sirens, etc. - just as surely as they were the habitat of the ocean's wildlife. This melding of fact and fancy came together wonderfully in the 1900 Paris Exhibition aquarium. In defiance of more "dignified" aquariums elsewhere in Europe, which displayed aquaria in art gallery-like settings, the Paris Exhibition built their enclosures into an elaborate underground room resembling a rock grotto. The centrepiece was a mock sunken ship, and projected against the glass of the aquaria were images of sirens, looking as though these ghostly figures were swimming along with the fish.

Georges Méliès' 200,000 Leagues Under the Sea appears to be just this sort of exercise in the grotesque. There is an aesthetic Vernian influence, wherein many of the creatures inhabiting Méliès' cinematic grotto resemble those found in the original engravings published along with the text. It's not difficult to see where these illustrations themselves develop from and develop out aesthetic ideas of the grotesque, but overall, Méliès' film is an underwater fantasy mirroring the celestial spheres of A Trip to the Moon and Eclipse: The Courtship of the Sun and the Moon in the underwater grottoes of terrestrial oceans.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Cinématographe Lumière

The following string of films reconstructs the first ever public film screening, presented by the Lumière Brothers at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, France. The very first performance was a private affair on December 28th, 1895, with public performances following a few months later.

Auguste and Louis Lumière were acquainted with photography from a young age, being the children of an accomplished photographer in his own right. After their father passed away in 1892, the brothers were free to explore emerging technologies like those pioneered by animator Émile Reynaud. In 1895 they patented the cinématographe and ushered in the age of modern film.

The playlist for their quite profitable public performances featured, in order: La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon ("Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory", also the first film they made), La Voltige ("Horse Trick Riders"), La Pêche aux poissons rouges ("fishing for goldfish"), Le Débarquement du Congrès de Photographie à Lyon ("the disembarkment of the Congress of Photographers in Lyon"), Les Forgerons ("Blacksmiths"), Le Jardinier (l'Arroseur Arrosé) ("The Gardener," or "The Sprinkler Sprinkled"), Repas de bébé ("Baby's Breakfast"), Le Saut à la couverture ("Jumping Onto the Blanket"), La Place des Cordeliers à Lyon ("Cordeliers Square in Lyon"--a street scene), La Mer (Baignade en mer) ("the sea [bathing in the sea]").

I apologise for not being able to provide the rich surroundings of a fin de siècle salon in which to enjoy the following shorts, but a weblog can only do so much...

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Émile Reynaud's Théâtre Optique

The creation of cinema was not a straightforward process. It was full of fits and starts, variety and invention that only eventually culminated in the great invention of the Lumière Brothers. One of those early trailblazers was Émile Reynaud, who invented the optical toy known as the "praxinoscope" and one of the earliest forms of filmed mass entertainment.

Born in France in 1844, Reynaud was a member of an educated and scientifically-minded family, who encouraged in him a love of the arts and engineering. His apprenticeship and early career acquainted him with photography and the preparation of magic lantern slides, which equipped him with a working knowledge of projection and optical effects. Familiar with the array of optical toys available at the time, Reynaud sought to improve on the zoetrope and phenakistiscope.

Given that both devices manipulate the persistence of vision with slits cut in a disk or drum, they create a strobe effect that diminishes the quality of the image. Reynaud's solution was to affix mirrors to the interior of a zoetrope-like drum, rendering a a much clearer image. He dubbed this contraption the praxinoscope, which he patented in 1877.

Reynaud soon developed a home praxinoscope theatre that allowed the loops of animation projected on the mirrors to be filtered through interchangable backgrounds. A sufficient number of strips and backgrounds could comprise a whole extended narrative, twelve frames at a time. The following example from the Museu del Cinema in Girona, Italy demonstrates it for us.

The auteur was convinced that more could be done with this new medium. Curiously, it was "home video" that developed first in the form of optical toys like the praxinoscope. The challenge was to develop these toys into a form of mass entertainment (which has since looped back around, with the prevalence of home "optical toys" like Blu-Ray players and streaming video). Initial attempts included things like coin-opperated praxinoscopes married to music boxes as novelties for carnivals and penny arcades. Museu del Cinema provides an example...

Such inventions were still essentially private experiences. The next great development was a projector that could enlarge the praxinoscope onto a screen for a whole audience to enjoy. From Museu del Cinema...

The limitations to this projector were obvious, namely the repetition of a simple twelve-frame cycle. To accomplish something more, Reynaud developed a method of using strips of clear gelatin upon which to paint his images. These were fed into an aparatus that enlarged the resulting animation by a set of mirrors and projectors into a screen. Such animations could run for minutes at a time. Once again, the Museu del Cinema provides for us a reconstruction of the device in CGI (a fairly delightful congruence in its own right).

Autour d'une cabine was the film utilized in the reconstruction, the whole of which can be seen below.

This projection praxinoscope was named the Théâtre Optique and Reynaud signed an agreement with the Musée Grevin in Paris to exhibit it. The first of these “Pantomimes Lumineuses” premiered on October 28th, 1892, and it created a public sensation. This first showing was a 500-frame short entitled Pauvre Pierrot ("Peter Pauper").

The extended time necessary to produce the hand-drawn frames bogged down the novelty of the device. Reynaud experimented with photographic techniques and stereoscopic principles, but by 1910 could no longer complete with the rapid turnaround of the cinematograph. Audiences departed him and beat down the door of the Lumières and Méliès, leaving him destitute. In a sad pattern that repeated itself over and over again in the history of early film, Reynaud destroyed the Théâtre Optique and threw all but two of his strips into the Seine. These two - Pauvre Pierrot and Autour d'une cabine - form our entire knowledge of his work. Nevertheless, he is recognized today as a key figure in that pioneering time in the development of cinematic art.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese's 2011 film Hugo is as unexpected a film as it is beautiful. Far more famous for his tales of gritty American urban life - Raging Bull, Goodfellows and more recently Gangs of New York - Scorsese picked for his subject a more fanciful tale of vintage France that one might better expect from a Jean Pierre Jeunet. Based on a semi-graphic children's novel by Brian Selznick, Hugo cleaned up at the Oscars with the most nominations of any film at the 84th Academy Awards, including a nomination for Best Picture. It won five of them, including the highly coveted Best Sound Editing (I appear to jest, but a sampling of Best Sound Editing winners juxtaposed with Best Picture nominees proves that Sound Editing is the de facto Best Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror or War Picture category: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Aliens, Back to the Future, Robocop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Terminator 2, Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Matrix, The Incredibles, Jurassic Park... The Dark Knight took this award away despite being shut out of Best Picture, which went to the transparently Oscar-baiting Slumdog Millionaire).

Moreover, what appeared to be a heightened reality tale of clockwork Science Fiction was revealed to be a loving testament to one cinema's unsung legends, Georges Méliès. Best Picture that year went to The Artist, which demonstrates that it was at least the year for Hollywood to look back upon itself and the history of filmmaking. Besides that deliberately crafted silent film, Hugo offered another chance to see a silent classic on the silver screen. I must confess to welling up at the brief clip of A Trip to the Moon rendered large and in 3D.

Though named for the character of Hugo Cabret, a young boy living in the main train station of Paris, Hugo is truly a film about Méliès. After the untimely loss of his father, Hugo is forced to live with his drunken uncle, tending the clocks of Gare Montparnasse. After his uncle disappears, the boy is left to scrounge and thieve for the necessities of life, as well as for parts to repair an automaton found by his father in the attic of a museum. This clockwork man is capable of writing and looks for all intents and purposes to be functional, save for a key to turn him on.

The hunt for parts led Hugo into the clutches of an unassuming and sad-looking toy salesman with a stall in the station. For some reason he seems to be familiar with sketches of the automaton. More mysteriously yet, the toy salesman's goddaughter holds the key to the automaton. Upon activation, the mechanical man does more than write: it renders a full illustration of the moon being hit in the eye with a rocket capsule.

From here the detective story unfolds into a tale of the failure, bitterness and redemption that marked the last decades of Georges Méliès life. Unable to compete with copyright infringements and the progress of cinematic art in the United States, Méliès produced his last films in 1912, including Cinderella, The Knight of the Snows and Conquest of the North Pole. Despondent, Méliès destroyed nearly all of his sets and negatives, compounding his loss. Fading into obscurity, he eked out a living as a candy and toy salesman in Gare Montparnasse Station.

Hugo provides a fictionalized look at Méliès' rediscovery. In historical reality, it was the work of several journalists investigating the history of French cinema that tracked him down to his stall in the late Twenties. Recognition for his contributions slowly grew, culminating in a gala retrospective performance in 1929 and the Legion of Honour in 1931. Reassuming his place in the French film community, Méliès never made another film but did help to guide a new generation of filmmakers and became the first conservator of the Cinémathèque Francaise, France's film museum and archive. He eventually passed away from cancer in 1938.

A charming variation of Méliès' story, well-suited to the work of the maestro himself, Hugo perhaps shines best as a testament to him that may once more renew interest in his works. I can attest to several friends who subsequently asked me to elaborate on this pioneer of cinema and screen selections from his complete works DVDs currently offered by Flicker Alley. This is not to diminish Scorsese's accomplishment, but to acknowledge that like any biographical film, it works ideally when it leads you back to its source.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Fifth Anniversary of Voyages Extraordinaires

At last there was nothing to do but go; and go we did, into that wondrous land of far-off valleys where the great rivers of a Continent come leaping down in little brooks and arching waterfalls from the ice-tongues; where rise, beyond the old horizon, the castellated crags and snowy spires we had read and dreamed of... We were not pioneers ourselves, but we journeyed over old trails that were new to us, and with hearts open. Who shall distinguish?
These words were penned by James Monroe Thorington in his 1925 travelogue The Glittering Mountains of Canada, and I think he beautifully encapsulates the spirit of the true Romantic in our modern age. Around the same time as Thorington wrote, G.K. Chesterton devised a simple methodology for telling the true Romantic from the false one: the false Romantic loves castles just as well as they love cathedrals. The distinction may appear strange at first, but it subtly recognizes the distinction between loving the past because it is dead and loving the romance because it is alive. “If the poet or the lover admires the ruins of a feudal fortress as much as the ruins of a religious house, then what he admires is ruins; and he is a ruin himself," he writes. "He likes medievalism because it is now dead, not because it was once alive; and his pleasure in the poetic past is as frivolous as a fancy-dress ball. For castles only bear witness to ambitions, to ambitions that are dead... But the cathedrals bear witness not to ambitions but to ideals; and to ideals that are still alive.”

Thorington captures the essence of this when he observes that any path untrod by one's own feet are a terra incognita waiting to be discovered anew. Some four years ago, on the occasion of this weblog's first anniversary, I quoted a poor, lost soul bedecked in gears and leather who bemoaned the fact that there were no longer blank spaces on the map for one to explore. That is the very lament of the false Romantic, who values the lack of discovery more than the act of discovery... The dead eyes that prefer old empty maps as opposed to glimmering eyes drinking in the mountain majesty.

The Romantic spirit testified and exemplified by Thorington is the real thing. It is the inexorable pull to see the places read about and dreamt of, the irresistible magnetism of a landscape that is sublime and wonderful because it exists regardless of who and how many have seen it before. This true spirit of Romance has been the chief aim of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age since it's inception. In that same anniversary article I stated our ambition to “spend time winding our way through fictional stories of romantic past because they retune our minds to look at the present world in a new perspective.”

Our fifth anniversary is a due time to take stock of this mission and reaffirm the point. With a picture being worth a thousand words, especially considering that the very nature of the Sublime is to overpower the capacity for rude explanation, I propose to do it in the shape of my own travelogue of Canada's glittering mountains.

True summer is a brief respite in the True North Strong and Free, so as July wound to August and we could be assured of clear roads and clear trails, the lovely Miss Ashley and I took to the highline pathways of the Continental Divide. The Canadian Rockies are defined that that range of mountains flanking the Continental Divide that stretch from the Liard River of British Columbia in the north to the Marias Pass of Montana in the south. Geologically distinct from the American Rockies, the bulk of these ranges are composed of sedimentary limestones and shales, prompting the classic Canadian folk song Blue Canadian Rockies. These regions are well-known to us, being no more than an hour's drive due west of our home in Calgary, Alberta. Yet they are very large and we are very small, and so they could still furnish one with new vistas for a whole lifetime. It was our mission to open these scenic points for ourselves and have our souls uplifted by the very height of land.

First on the itinerary was the Plain of Six Glaciers in the area of Lake Louise. The lake is itself one of the most photographed, instantly recognizable natural attractions of Canada, if not the world, and the hike to the Plain of Six Glaciers is one of its most popular. Nevertheless, it was new to us and our hearts were open. Our journey began in the gardens of the Chateau Lake Louise, the historic Canadian Pacific Railway hotel dominating the eastern shoreline. Our destination was but a small pinprick at the distant foot of Mount Victoria.

The postcard view of Lake Louise, our beginning.

The Plain of Six Glaciers, our destination.

A frame of reference: the red dot marks our goal.

The golden poppies are bloomin' 'round the banks of Lake Louise...

Headwaters of the lake, looking back on the Chateau Lake Louise.

A golden mantled ground squirrel ready for it's close-up.

The Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, built in the Twenties by
a family of Swiss Guides brought by the Canadian Pacific
Railroad to assist mountaineering tourists.

A clearer view of Mount Victoria
and the plain for which this area is named.

Not far from Lake Louise is another of the classic lakes of the Continental Divide: Moraine Lake. An attempt to see the autumn larches in late September were foiled, so we must content ourselves with a future journey. Nevertheless, even the consolation prizes of the Rocky Mountains are spectacular unto themselves.

Moraine Lake.

A peak called "The Tower of Babel."

Limbered up and spirits hungering for more literal peak experiences, we departed a week later for Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, straddling the 49th parallel and comprised of Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and Glacier National Park in Montana. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park stands as a testament to both the longest unprotected political border in the world and the irrelevance of political borders. Though the range is known as the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park contains their southernmost expression, sharing the same geology and ecology as Waterton Lakes. Quartzite, lapping waves and grizzly bears have no need of passports.

Dubbed “The Crown of the Continent,” this is a stunning region of tremendous peaks and shimmering lakes. A few glaciers eke out their lingering years, feeding rivers that part and flow into the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Hudson's Bay. On the eastern side, dry winds billow down canyon walls, permanently gnarling trees and threatening to carry off tourists. The centre of Waterton Lakes National Park is the eponymous lake, the far end of which lies in American territory. On the bluff above it perches the quaint Prince of Wales Hotel, built by the Great Northern Railway in 1927 as the last of its chain of chalets dotting the two parks. Named for the dashing Edward VIII, it underlines it faux-colonialism with afternoon tea served with a spectacular view of the lake.

Where the mountains meet the prairies,
at the entrance to Waterton Lakes Nat'l Park.

The eponymous lake.

The Prince of Wales Hotel.

High tea.

South of Waterton Lakes, just past the border, a nondescript turn-off takes one to Swiftcurrent Lake in the area considered the very heart of Glacier National Park. Unfortunately time prohibited us from undertaking the many hikes originating from this area, including Grinnell Glacier, Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel, but we were able to enjoy a lunch in the newly-restored grand dining hall of the Many Glaciers Hotel. Also constructed by the Great Northern Railway, this 1915 edifice reposes along the shore of the lake, not daring to compete with the mighty Mount Grinnell on the opposite shore. Instead, the Many Glaciers Hotel saves its energy for its soaring interiors.

Chief Mountain, a major landmark on the
border between the USA and Canada.

Many Glaciers Hotel and Switcurrent Lake.

Swiftcurrent Lake and Grinnell Mountain.

Lobby of the Many Glaciers Hotel.

Many Glaciers' monumental fireplace.

And its recently restored dining hall.

Further south yet is St. Mary's Lake, gateway to Glacier and the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Finished in 1932, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is a masterpiece of National Parks Rustic engineering and aesthetic. Masonry walls span rushing gorges, its roadbed carved from the living rock. At Logan Pass some 6,600' above sea level, the road crosses over the Continental Divide and descends along the cliffs down to Lake McDonald on the park's western edge.

St. Mary's Lake.

Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, flanking the lake.

Jackson Glacier, the only one visible
from Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Lake McDonald, looking back east
towards the mountain peaks.

Our prime accomplishment was the Highline Trail, notable as one of Glacier's most popular hikes. Beginning at Logan Pass it hugs the western side of the Continental Divide for 11.7 kilometres. Though as popular as it is picturesque, it is not a trail to be taken frivilously. It is very high indeed and not always in the best condition. The Highline Trail is parallel to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and quite a few metres above it. As the road gradually descends to the valley bottom, the Highline Trail ascends to the very treeline, carrying the hiker into ever more perilous climes. Expressing the adage that no piece of film can truly capture the spirit of a place, the majority of videos and travel guides I found concerning this trail focused on the most scenic section, from Logan Pass to Haystack Butte, glossing over the remainder of the path between Haystack Butte and the vintage, rustic Granite Park Chalet. This gives a false impression of the trail's length: this section is only the first third of the trail. The second third just beyond Haystack Butte is also the worst, most ill-kept section of the trail for those of us with a perfectly rational fear of falling to our deaths. Hiking this route will take longer than you expect it to assuming you take any time to revel in your surroundings, and by the time we reached Granite Peak, we had approximately an hour and a half to make the 7km, 2,000' Loop Trail downhill to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, lest we miss the last free shuttle bus taking us back to our lodging in the town of West Glacier. Suffice it to say that we arrived just in time and lived to tell the tale, which is the true accomplishment. The larger part of the romance is the Sublime masterpiece of Creation's crown, and another is the mastering of oneself and one's own fears, even on well-trod paths.

Intrepid adventurers starting out...

And this is only the beginning!
Going-to-the-Sun Road can be seen below the trail.

Ashley provides the scale against which all else is measured...

Looking back to Logan Pass and where we've been.
The silver sliver along the cliff is the road.

View to a luncheon.
Where we stopped to dine.

Comforting giant rock falls.

The end in sight: Granite Park Chalet.

And here it is!

A creek along our rapid descent.

The Loop Trail passes through the site of a former forest fire.

A far less strenuous pleasure stroll was the boardwalk to Hidden Lake, nestled into a glacial cirque behind the Logan Pass Visitor Centre. Shimmering and jewel-like, no place has a right to be as beautiful as it is. Nevertheless there it lies, a true gift of Divine grace gratuitously offered by the Great Artist. John Muir promised of days spent in the region that “Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go uncounted…” George Bird Grinnell, considered the father of American conservationism and after whom so many mountains and glaciers are named, said “No words can describe the grandeur and majesty of these mountains, and even photographs seem hopelessly to dwarf and belittle the most impressive peaks.”

A hoary marmot greets the noonday sun.

Hidden Lake.

Another path untrod by us was the Trail of the Cedars on Glacier's western side. The last of the moist air blowing in from the Pacific traversed the Coast Mountains and the Selkirks, only to finally surrender at the Continental Divide. On the eastern side lie the desiccated prairies in the mountain rain-shadow, but on the western side in the vicinity of McDonald Creek and Lake McDonald are lush cedar-hemlock forests. The contrast suited us well: whereas I may imagine myself as a wanderer in the vein of Caspar David Friedrich, Ashley is very much the Pre-Raphaelite wood sprite.

Once again, Ashley provides some scale...

Wood sprite!

No lake of an appreciable size in this region is without its hotel, and Lake McDonald does have its own. Originally named the Lewis Glacier Hotel when it was completed in 1914, it was bought by Great Northern Railway in 1930 and renamed the Lake McDonald Lodge. In the same style as Many Glaciers, this lodge is of a much cozier scale. Ashley remarked that one might have their wedding at Many Glaciers but their honeymoon at Lake McDonald, which may or may not have been suggestive. Nevertheless, the great Western painter Charlie Russell had his summer cabin across the lake and spent his waning years regaling guests with stories of the Wild West. It is said that his own hand engraved some of the words and pictographs on the grand fireplace's mantel.

Lake McDonald.

Sunset on the mountains.

Lake McDonald Lodge.

The lobby.

I use antlers in all of my deeecoorrrraaating...

Another beloved institution in Glacier are the "Jammer" busses. Originally built by the White company in 1936, these touring busses served each of the American national parks, sporting their own unique colour patterns. The only ones still in service today are the yellow busses of Yellowstone and the red busses of Glacier. So-called "Jammers" because of the gear-jamming that drivers would have to manage to get them over the steep Going-to-the-Sun Road, the whole line was refurbished by Ford in the early 2000's. To see these crawling up the highway or parked out front of a rustic lodge is a picturesque throwback to that most romantic era of the parks.

Though to be found in any guidebook and online resource, and bearing the footprints of many preceding ourselves, there is nevertheless Romance to be found in these and many more places. The spirit of discovery – the true spirit unfettered by conventionalities like GPS – pulls ever more strongly at the heart in these environs as well. Each visit discloses yet more to be seen with one's own eyes, holding out a open invitation for many happy returns.

Every place we have not been ourselves is a terra incognita, emploring us to become our own Phileas Foggs and Professors Arronax. This is the highest purpose behind enculturating our souls with tales of Victorian adventure in pasts that never were. They encourage us to appreciate the past that was as a living tradition that carries on today. The paths may be old, but they are new to us, blazed by ancestors who wished for us to feel the same exhilaration that took their own breath and carried it to Heaven.