Wednesday, 5 February 2020

The Musical, Aesthetic, and Mythic Roots of Disney's Fantasia

For whatever my opinion is worth, I think Fantasia could qualify not only as Disney's greatest film, and not only as the greatest animated film ever made, and not only as the greatest motion picture ever made, but even as the greatest single work of art of the 20th century. It is a bold claim, perhaps ridiculous on the face of it, but if we first accept that film was the artform of the 20th century - the artform that, despite being invented at the end of the 19th century, was refined in the 20th and which became its most popular and accessible type - then animation would be the artform of cinema. It is one thing to point a camera in the direction of a play and film it. It is another to understand and manipulate the very fabric of the medium itself. The first animators had the presence of mind to realize that each frame was a tiny picture that could be altered to produce the illusion of life. The film that could best exemplify animation would earn the title of the greatest artistic work of the 20th century, and I firmly believe that Fantasia fits that accolade.

Fantasia, released in 1940 as Disney's third animated feature, demonstrates everything an animated film can be. Across its seven distinct pieces, it proves that animation can be abstract (as in its Toccata and Fugue in D Minor segment) or narrative (as in The Sorcerer's Apprentice), mythological (Pastoral Symphony) or visualizations of scientific theories (Rite of Spring), comedy (Dance of the Hours) or horror (Night on Bald Mountain), anthropomorphism (Nutcracker Suite) or symbolism (Ave Maria). Married to the great compositions of classical music, it could also aspire to be high art. It is an incredibly rich, nuanced, and rewarding work, deeply rooted in the traditional fine arts... Far more than many would expect from a Disney film.

The physical storytelling in Fantasia is so accomplished that words were entirely unnecessary. No narrator was required to tell us that The Nutcracker Suite transitions through the seasons, and Mickey Mouse has no need to crack wise. What could Chernabog possibly say to make him more frightening? What could a David Attenborough add to Rite of Spring that we could not see for ourselves in all its violence and terror and power? Wisely, music scholar and radio personality Deems Taylor reserved his live-action annotations for between the animated sequences. His sonorous voice (now lost behind a dubbing over by Corey Burton) only gives us a few notes in the way of introduction to add to our enjoyment of the piece, like one may find in the program of an evening at the local philharmonic. Fantasia is a tour de force of pantomime, a lasting tribute to the skill of the animator who must draw every glance and gesture.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Disney's Mark Twain Riverboat and the Rivers of America

The Mississippi River is one of the great rivers of the world. Counting in its entire drainage basin, the Mississippi and its tributaries drain 31 states and the southernmost part of two Canadian provinces. It straddles the Rocky Mountains to the West and Appalachian Mountains to the East. It is the fourth longest and ninth largest river in the world. The Mississippi is the central artery of American industry, controlling it meant victory for the Union and defeat for the Confederates, it demarcates Country music from Western music, and the settlements along its ever advancing delta gave birth to Jazz. Sooner rather than later, the living river might bypass New Orleans and Baton Rouge altogether, rerouting its primary outflow to the Atchafalaya River. It already would be, if not for the engineering marvels placed by the US government attempting to bend nature to its will. Great industrial barges ply the urbanized riverscape today, but in Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and wherever Imagineers have transplanted the American frontier, the romance of the river's old steamboat days are perpetually rekindled.

A tributary of the Mississippi or Disneyland?

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Mark Twain's From the 'London Times' of 1904

Mark Twain was fascinated by technology and industry, but rarely delved into the genre of Scientific Romance. I suspect there is a correlation between those two facts. After all, Twain was a satirist driven by his intolerance of what he deemed foolishness and hypocrisy. Being fascinated by technology, it would have been beyond him to really give it a good go the way he did to the institutions of society.

In Tom Sawyer Abroad, Twain takes the starch out of genius inventors, though one feels he's really poking at the genre of Scientific Romance itself and the airship created by the inventor serves mainly as a plot device. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the American author has a go at Mediaeval romances by allowing his protagonist to introduce modernity at Camelot. Even in the industrial carnage of its conclusion, one never quite feels that Twain is turning on industrialization. Throughout his travelogues like Innocents Abroad, he has sometimes shockingly cruel things to say about non-industrialized cultures. For his part, Twain had several patents to his name, including the elastic bra strap. Even the financial failure of his Paige typesetting machine seemed not to dull his overall enthusiasm for technology.

This love affair comes out in his 1898 short story From the 'London Times' of 1904. Its scant 4000 words are divided into three chapters, of which the first two concern themselves with a device called the "telelectroscope." It is this part that interests modern readers the most, because it essentially predicted the Internet. Twain plays it remarkably straight in doing so, with hardly a joke to speak of. His satirist mind comes to play in the third chapter, which savages one of his favourite targets - the French - over the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. One of the greatest miscarriages of justice in modern legal history, the Dreyfus Affair violently divided French society at the turn of the century and could not escape Twain's notice either.

The concept of the telelectroscope first entered public consciousness in 1878, hot on the heels of Alexander Graham Bell's 1876 patent for the telephone. French writer Louis Figuier was taken in by an anonymous hoax article in the New York Sun describing a telephone-like invention by an unnamed "eminent scientist" that amounted to a videophone or, in modern parlance, a webcam. Figuier ascribed this invention to Bell, and while Bell was working on an optics-related project, it was not a telelectroscope. The actual invention was the photophone, which used optical cable to transmit communication via modulated light beams... Essentially, the precursor to fibre-optics.    

Nevertheless, the telelectroscope was a fascinating idea and savants took to it. Most notably, Jan Szczepanik and Ludwig Kleiberg filed a British patent for such a device in 1898, though there has been considerable debate over whether the device ever actually existed. It was from here that Mark Twain took notice and wrote his fictional story about Szczepanik and the invention.

Before continuing, it is worth reading Twain's own story, as originally published in the November 1898 edition of The Century Magazine. Click on each page for a larger version...

Twain was forced to declare bankruptcy after the failure of the Paige typesetter, necessitating a world speaking tour to pay off his debts. He had been in Paris in 1894 when the Dreyfus Affair broke out, and was living in Vienna in 1898 when he wrote From the 'London Times' of 1904. This gave him a ringside seat for a bizarre, often unfathomable, intersection of race, politics, nationalism, and injustice at the fin de siècle

The Dreyfus Affair is complex (and warrants its own lengthy Wikipedia article) but revolved around Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jewish captain in the French military who was accused, tried, and found guilty of treason with the Prussians by a military tribunal. While serving out his sentence on Devil's Island in French Guiana, new evidence came to light that Dreyfus was innocent. To protect its reputation, the military tribunal acquitted the guilty party, removed the officers who began uncovering the conspiracy, and levied new charges against Dreyfus using falsified documents. By the time of Dreyfus' second trial in 1899, a civil trial, France was deeply divided between the pro-justice Dreyfusards and the pro-nationalistic Anti-Dreyfusards. Émile Zola came out in support of Dreyfus, and even did jail time for his scathing critique J'accuse! (trans: I Accuse!) which pointed the finger at not only the military and political authorities in general, but specifically named names. Jules Verne began as an Anti-Dreyfusard, but in the process of writing his novel The Kip Brothers (1902) touching on the themes of the case, converted to a Dreyfusard. Georges Méliès was a Dreyfusard as well, and broke out as a filmmaker with his 1899 series of vignettes on the case.

Mark Twain already held a fairly dim view of the French. "France has neither winter nor summer nor morals," he wrote in his Notebook, "--apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country." Also "In certain public indecencies the difference between a dog & a Frenchman is not perceptible." He was quoted as saying "There is nothing lower than the human race except the French." And those were just some of the lighter remarks. The Dreyfus Affair did nothing to endear him to the nation.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Christmas with Georges Méliès

Over the hundreds of subjects that Georges Méliès covered in his hundreds of films, Christmas was bound to come up a few times. The following are a pair of those Yuletide shorts. Merry Christmas to all!

The Christmas Dream (1900)

The Christmas Angel (1904)

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem by Sutton E. Griggs

Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem, written in 1899 by Rev. Sutton E. Griggs, is a fascinating, prescient novella. In it, two men vie for control of a shadowy organization of African-American militants. One is the privileged mulatto Bernard Belgrave who advocates for full-out race war with European-Americans. The other is the self-made, full-blooded Belton Piedmont, who advocates for racial integration. The premise of a shadowy, militant African-American "empire within an empire" might seem like an ethnic peril novel except that Griggs was himself an African-American minister and social activist reflecting on the political forces in tension within African-American communities in the thirty years since the American Civil War. In that it is fascinating. It is prescient in how these forces are still at play in African-American communities today.

Despite being the greatest moral accomplishment in American history, and the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin becoming the best-selling novel of the 19th century, the abolition of slavery did not immediately translate to full material equality for African-Americans. Poverty was the main inhibitor to equality, with up to 80% of African-American farmers eking out a living as sharecroppers. Violence was also an effective tool.

The Ku Klux Klan, White League, Red Shirts, and independent actors emerged as domestic terrorists using violence and intimidation to suppress African-American voters. Between 1890 and 1910, Democrat legislators throughout the 11 former Confederate states passed Jim Crow Laws mandating poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements that effectively disenfranchised the majority of African-Americans, most of whom still lived in the South. Many counties, and some whole states, lacked a single registered African-American voter. Being ineligible for the vote eliminated these African-Americans from serving in public office. They became, for all intents and purposes, politically invisible. This in turn made them vulnerable to regionally-instituted segregationist laws and continued white supremacist violence.

The response to this violence and disenfranchisement among African-Americans and their allies was varied. The Exodus of 1879 lead 40,000 people to simply up and leave the South for Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado to forge a new life. It was also common for African-Americans to band together for protection into "Union Leagues" organized by the Republican Party. Contrary to its reputation today, the Republican Party was the party of Abraham Lincoln and spearheads of the abolitionist and integrationist movement through the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. In fact, the Republicans became increasingly under the control of African-American factions, with its white supremacists defecting to the segregationist Democratic Party. The modern Republican party was a product of the 1960's "Southern Strategy," when the Republican Party sought to win over white Democrat voters in the South, and the 1980's "Moral Majority." 

An 1879 Harper's Weekly illustration of
"Exodusters" on their way to Kansas. 
Illustration of the 1876 "Colored National Convention" held in Nashville.

Education was a key component in African-American emancipation. The creation of secondary and post-secondary schools became a priority of Northern churches and the federal government. Whereas only 22 African-Americans had graduated college prior to the Civil War, the number doubled to 44 in the 1860's, and rose again to 313 in the 1870's, 738 in the 1880's, and 1126 in the 1890's. Whereas the average US worker made $200-$400 annually in 1910, college-educated African-Americans were making approximately $15,000, using their wealth and education to improve their communities.

These realities are all expressed through Imperium in Imperio, as a pair of educated African-Americans struggle for the heart and future of their people through a conspiracy shaped by violence and political disenfranchisement.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Sultana's Dream, a Muslim feminist utopia

It is not without truth, or reason, that Science Fiction has traditionally been a Western-dominated and male-dominated genre. Scientific Romances grew out of the intersection between scientific investigation, technological invention, and colonial exploitation, as the most educated classes in Western society attempted to grapple with the challenges and opportunities of the Industrial Revolution. Voices of the colonized and those with less opportunity tended to be more marginal.

Many of these cultures were not experiencing the full brunt of the Industrial Revolution as such. For example, Canada does not have an especially strong tradition of Scientific Romances because it was, for most of the country through most of the 19th century, a wilderness colonial hinterland sparsely populated with farmers, trappers, and indigenous peoples. The colonized were also less likely to be writing, especially in English, especially in a genre that required a reasonable amount of technological, scientific, and cultural knowledge. An average indigenous person in a colonized nation would be unlikely, through no fault of their own, to have the same resources and opportunities available to them as a Jules Verne would, who could access information about the entire world through the library in Amiens.      

But some people are not average. The short story Sultana's Dream has a unique place in the canon of the genre, as a Scientific Romance written by a Bengali Muslim woman. Published in 1905, feminist and social reformer Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain used the medium of Scientific Romance to postulate a reversal of fortune for women in her society, turning the tables on the men and hypothesizing a female-run utopia.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

The Victorian Science Fiction-Lover's Guide to Disney+

On November 12th, the Walt Disney Company launched it new streaming service Disney+. Though limited in scope right now, the service has the potential to offer an incredible assortment of films and TV shows through the company's various brands: Disney, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Marvel, National Geographic, and 20th Century Fox. And in the mix are some classics of Retro-Victorian Scientific Romances, including some unexpected hidden gems.

The following is a guide to what Disney+ has available, with the apologies that I'm subscribed through the Canadian version of the service. It has already been made apparent that Disney+ is unable to break the geo-locked curse of Netflix.

Without further ado:
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Of course, any Disney+ viewing list should be topped with this, one of the most important films in the company's history. When looking to produce their first epic, feature-length, live-action film at Disney's Burbank studio (a quartet of live-action films had been produced before this in England, using money tied up there during the Second World War), Walt looked no further than a classic adventure story of his youth, Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Distilled into a lively picture with action, music, and perhaps surprising drama, it became an instant hit whose echo still rings down in Disney's parks to this day. One hopes that with it now available on Disney+, new audiences will rediscover this classic.  

  • Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). One of the many Jules Verne adaptations to come out in the wake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this adaptation now enters the Disney fold through the company's acquisition of 20th Century Fox. It is fitting, not only because it so-closely hews to the style laid out by Disney, but Disney has already made a Journey to the Center of the Earth theme park attraction in Tokyo DisneySea. Unfortunately the Disney film In Search of the Castaways and Fox film Five Weeks in a Balloon (both 1962) have yet to appear on Disney+, but these four films are significant examples of the Atomic Age revival of interest in Jules Verne and Victorian Sci-Fi. 

  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Atlantis: Milo's Return (2003). Disney revisited the theme of submarines in their turn-of-the-century phase of Retro-Victorian Sci-Fi. Atlantis got something of a cult following for its faithful translation of the Lovecraftian, Pulp-styled work of comic artist and writer Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy. The direct-to-video sequel was a compilation of three episodes for a failed Atlantis TV series. If one never bothered to get that DVD (and one would be blameless), Disney+ is a good opportunity to finally see it.
  • Treasure Planet (2002). Inexplicably maligned, Treasure Planet was certainly no worse than any other Disney animated film from the time period, and considerably better than most. It begins with the bones of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, which is already good source material. Then it transplants that timeless story into a gorgeous post-Hubble outer space with a 70/30 mix of 18th century seafaring and futuristic Sci-Fi technologies. Hopefully Disney+ will lead to its reappraisal.

  • John Carter (2012). Speaking of reappraisals... Disney's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, directed by Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo and Wall-E fame, with script by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, was actually quite good. Unfortunately it was lost in Disney's shuffle and the company threw it under the bus when it was barely out of the gate, depriving it of its best chance to gain a cultural foothold and its sequels Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars
  • Tarzan (1999), Tarzan and Jane (2002), and Tarzan II (2005). And now speaking of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Disney`s adaptation was probably the best since the original Johnny Weissmuller films of the 1930's. The original film - a straightforward action film with incidental soundtrack by Phil Collins, at the time a departure from the Broadway musical-style of the 1990's Disney animation renaissance - is excellent. It first sequel, Tarzan and Jane, was a compilation of three unaired episodes of the Legend of Tarzan TV series which has yet to appear on Disney+. The series itself, though suffering from terrible animation, made excellent use of Burroughs' concepts including Opar and Pellucidar. Tarzan II was another direct-to-video sequel exploring Tarzan's boyhood years.  
  • Swiss Family Robinson (1940 and 1960). One of the biggest surprises hidden away in Disney+ was the original 1940 version of Swiss Family Robinson. When making their celebrated 1960 version, Disney bought up the rights to the previous 1940 RKO Pictures version. The last time it surfaced was in excerpts on the 2-disc "Vault Disney" edition of the 1960 version. Now both versions appear, in full, on the streaming service, both very very different and very compelling takes on the story in their own ways. One also hopes that the 1940 version is only the first in a rich back-catalogue of films from Hollywood's Golden Age that Disney acquired through 20th Century Fox.

  • The Great Mouse Detective (1986). Join Basil of Baker Street and Dawson as they attempt to foil the vile Ratigan's attempt to replace the Mouse Queen of 19th century London with a tinkerer's automaton in this charming homage to Sherlock Holmes. The Great Mouse Detective was actually the second Disney film I remember seeing in theatres, after a re-release of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and before a re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), after which I felt I got too old for Disney films right as the Disney Renaissance happened. 
  • The Jungle Book (1967 and 2016). Both the original animated version and the recent live-action/CGI version are on Disney+ (as well as the 2003 animated sequel Jungle Book 2). The 1967 version is the final animated feature that Walt Disney was involved with, but is widely regarded to have suffered for the lack of his guiding hand in its homestretch. The 2016 version goes back to the source material by Rudyard Kipling to produce a driven, emotionally satisfying film with an actual story. 
  • The Sign of Zorro (1960). Disney's iconic Zorro series (1957-59) is not on the streaming service yet, but one can find the 1960 feature film abridging the original 13-episode story arc. Though not Science Fiction, the masked avenger righting wrongs in Spanish California is a distinctly American take on the Scarlet Pimpernel-style of superhero and direct inspiration for Batman. Disney's version is also the unequivocally best version of him. 

  • The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967). A comedy of the California Gold Rush, Bullwhip Griffin was one of the last remaining films that Walt Disney had worked on prior to his death in 1966. It is a slapstick comedy in the silent movie vein, with wonderful title cards by animator Ward Kimball reinforcing the film's dime novel, Vaudville aesthetic. It also ends with a charming, retro-futuristic vision of modern San Francisco.
  • Mickey Mouse: Wonders of the Deep (2015). This third season episode of the modern Mickey Mouse cartoons invokes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in both its film and theme park forms. The entire Mickey Mouse series is hilarious in its own right, with its copious Disney Easter eggs and return to Mickey's ribald roots during his black-and-white days (such as his first official cartoon, 1928's Steamboat Willie, which is also available on Disney+).
  • Around the World in 80 Days (2004). Despite departing significantly from the novel, the Walden Media produced (and Disney distributed) version of Around the World in 80 Days starring Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan still has much to recommend it. It's not as epic or classic as the 1956 version, but its still highly enjoyable and makes good use of Phileas Fogg's recasting as a mad inventor.

  • The Black Hole (1979). Disney's entry into the bleak field of languid 1970's Sci-Fi suffers for its time period and is otherwise a straightforward futuristic film. Yet the style of its ship is unmistakably Gothic in ways comparable to Treasure Planet or Event Horizon (1997).   
  • Tall Tale (1995). A league of extraordinary characters from American fakelore - Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry - must unite to save Paradise Valley from a developer with a pretty awesome-looking steam engine. A largely forgotten film, it's worth another look if you've already got Disney+. 
  • Return to Oz (1985) and Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013). These Disney-made sequels and prequels to the 1939 MGM Wizard of Oz are controversial, red-headed step-children. Oz, The Great and Powerful was a vain attempt to dig up a revisionist fairy tale in the wake of the Broadway smash hit Wicked, and it shows. Return to Oz is a more feverish, even nightmarish, film that still haunts me some 35 years later. But it is also very inventive in its imagery, and stands up very well as an adaptation of the Oz stories in its own rights, if one can divorce it from comparison to the 1939 musical.  
  • La Luna (2012). Not Science Fiction per se, this Pixar short has all the romance and charm of a Georges Méliès film. A young boy must find his own way in the family business, which happens to be sweeping the Moon of fallen stars. 

Disney+ has much more to offer than Retro-Victorian Scientific Romances, of course. Nearly every Disney animated classic is on there, many of the True-Life Adventures nature documentaries (my favourite being The Vanishing Prairie), Disney Afternoon cartoons, and much vintage content (the US version has the first five episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club, for example). My only complaint is that it needs more vintage content from the Disney vaults, especially those original episodes of the Walt Disney's Disneyland/Wonderful World of Color/Wonderful World of Disney TV series, and that they need to break the geo-lock so everything on the US version is available in Canada. The service also features several National Geographic documentaries (including two on two of my most favourite places in the world, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks). The future will undoubtedly bring more films in the genre, such as In Search of the Castaways and Island at the Top of the World (1974). For now though, that's a pretty good list to keep one going.

P.S.: No, Disney didn't pay me for this, though I certainly wouldn't have turned it down. 

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Percy Stow's Rescued in Mid-Air

Strange doings, what? A roadway collision sends a woman spiraling through the air until her umbrella opens and the wind carries her off, Mary Poppins-like. She comes to rest on a church spire, with no recourse but to wait for rescue by a local inventor and his flying machine. Released in 1906 by director Percy Stow, Rescued in Mid-Air is a fun little trick film hailing from one of the United Kingdom's Méliès imitators. A lower-resolution can be watched below, or you can hold out for a higher-resolution copy on the BFI online player. 

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Announcing "Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age: An Anthology"

Just in time for the Christmas season, I'm happy to announce my very first anthology of Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances, Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age!

Extraordinary voyages, fantastic inventions, and challenging questions about technology, race, gender, the future, and the meaning of the United States of America. The period between the Civil War and the Great War – dubbed the “Gilded Age” by Mark Twain – was the crucible of modern America and few genres were as suited to grapple with its troubles and opportunities as speculative fiction. This volume features rarely reprinted stories by such authors as Mark Twain and fellow humorist Ellis Parker Butler, pioneering feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, African American activist Sutton E. Griggs, science writer Garrett P. Serviss (the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day), Jack London, dime novelist Edward S. Ellis, and John Jacob Astor IV, the richest man to die aboard the Titanic. Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age also includes a new introduction by me, as the much more pretentious and professional-sounding C.W. Gross.

To order Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age, clicking here or on the link below will take you through my Amazon Associates store, through which your purchases will further support Voyages Extraordinaires.  If you can also share this post or the Amazon Associates link on your social networks, leave a review on Amazon, and rate Science Fiction of America's Gilded Age, that would go a long way to helping spread the word!

Thank you very much for you support of this blog for all these years and for your purchase of my new anthology. And yes, I'm already gathering stories for a companion anthology of Antebellum American Scientific Romances! 

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Written in 1820 before Halloween as we know it even existed, the best known and loved of Washington Irving's stories has become a Halloween classic... Perhaps even the Halloween classic. This status is no doubt due as much to Walt Disney's classic animated version appearing on televisions throughout the United States and Canada as to the qualities of Irving's writing itself. Nevertheless, in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving taps into a primal vein. Published alongside his other most famous story Rip Van Winkle in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving adapts an archetypal European myth into the colonial milieu, itself a period of primal myth-making for American culture. Against the backdrop of autumn in New York and the American Revolution comes this potent story of ghostly pursuit. You have George Washington, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross... and the Headless Horseman.

Many North American tall tales have their roots in European legends and ghost stories. A particularly horrific one is known as the "Wild Hunt": those dark, moonlit nights when a phantasmagorical troupe of spectral huntsmen charge through forest roads astride their night-mares, cursing, killing or carrying off any mortal in their path. A popular modern American version of it is the song "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend," written by Stan Jones while he worked for the US National Parks Service in Death Valley. The better-known American take on the Wild Hunt is, of course, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The Headless Horseman pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, 1858.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

William Hope Hodgson's The Voice in the Night

There are a few things that we, the ordinary creatures of the world, share our planet with that seem like they should be from another. Echinoderms are one such group: unlike most animals, which have bilateral symmetry (an even number of appendages and orifices, such that each half is a mirror image of the other), the group composed of starfish, brittlestars, sand dollars, sea lilies, and sea urchins have radial symmetry... A bizarrely alien odd-numbered arrangement of limbs. Another is fungus. 

Though superficially similar to plants, they lack the common decency to be plants. Instead, they occupy their own niche, mainly revolving around the consumption of decaying matter. While many types are a food source, their instrumental role in the cycle of decomposition gives them a disquieting association with rot and corruption. For many people, they are an allergen, and some varieties are outright toxic. Altogether they are revolting organisms. 

Those attributes make fungus a prime candidate for stories of horror. Bram Stoker describes the boxes Dracula brings with him aboard the doomed ship Demeter not so much being filled with earth as with mould. H.P. Lovecraft said of his Dunwich that "it is hard to prevent the impression of a faint, malign odour about the village street, as of the massed mould and decay of centuries." Some storytellers have taken it a step further, from fungus being a symbol of corruption and decay to being the active agents of it. William Hope Hodgson accomplished this in his disquieting story The Voice in the Night, originally published in Blue Book Magazine in November 1907. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Ferdinand Zecca's À la conquête de l'air

In one short but majestic minute, French special effect pioneer Ferdinand Zecca introduced the world to the first ever film to depict aviation. 

Born in Paris in 1864, Zecca's career in theatre segued into film, first through Gaumont and then to Pathé. As a favour to Charles Pathé, Zecca set-up the company's exhibit at the 1900 Exposition Universelle and soon became indispensable as Pathé's right hand man. When the company looked to evolve beyond "actualities", short shots of everyday events, Zecca was given free reign to experiment with Scientific Romances, fairy tales, and religious films. His own realization of La Belle au bois dormant was released in 1902, Les Aventures de Don Quichotte in 1903, and La Passion de Notre-Seigneur Jésus Christ (La Vie et la Passion de Jésus Christ) in 1905, among many, many other films. 

À la conquête de l'air is one of his earlier films, released in 1901. Though only a minute in length, it is an extremely complicated subject. The short depicts Zecca himself piloting a kind of aerial bicycle over the neighbourhood of Belleville, Paris. His method for achieving the effect - which allows the towers of the city to be seen through the spokes of his bicycle - isn't entirely obvious and demonstrates an accomplished understanding of trick photography. His aerial bicycle is the very image of Scientific Romance, taking him on a flight of fancy two years before the Wright Brothers' accomplishment at Kittyhawk.     

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Impossible to Conceive: Grand Canyon National Park

I have come here to see the Grand Canyon of Arizona, because in that canyon Arizona has a natural wonder, which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I shall not attempt to describe it, because I cannot.  I could not choose words that would convey or that could convey to any outsider what that canyon is. I want you to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country--to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is.
Theodore Roosevelt, the greatest American president, spoke these words on his first visit to the Grand Canyon in 1903, five years before he would exercise executive power to preserve it as a National Monument. He was not alone in his sentiments. Even the lyrical John Muir, spiritual father of the US National Parks, wrote in 1902 that "it is impossible to conceive what the canyon is, or what impression it makes, from descriptions or pictures, however good."

Click on images for a larger version.
All photos by Cory Gross unless otherwise noted.

The most accurate description of the Grand Canyon is to admit that it simply cannot be described. Nothing does it justice. No words can capture its subliminity. No photograph prepares you for its vastness. The four edges of a screen constrain the pure power of being surrounded by its sheer walls of living rock. Listing off its dimensions is of little help: 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and 1.25 miles deep. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon sits at approximately 7,000 ft elevation - as high as some alpine passes in the Canadian Rocky Mountains - and the North Rim towers another 1,000 ft higher than that. During summer, the relentless Colorado River that continues to carve out the Grand Canyon flows at a rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second. For all but the most geographically astute, those are mere numbers.

The Grand Canyon from a viewpoint called "The Abyss".

The most able descriptor of the Grand Canyon's sheer power was Ferde Grofé. While working as an arranger for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Grofé took on a role as the chanticleer of the American experience. He composed the Mississippi Suite in 1925 and Metropolis: a Fantasy in Blue in 1928. In 1931 he completed his magnum opus and most well-known work: the Grand Canyon Suite. In five movements lasting just over a half hour, Grofé captured in Jazz orchestral form the mystery, terror, and grandeur of the world's most magnificent geologic specimen. Its stirring refrains (and the clip-clop rhythm of hoofbeats) are some of the greatest in American popular music.

Yet Grofé does stray from the Grand Canyon itself: the second of its movements is "The Painted Desert". The story of the Grand Canyon is not limited to what is contained between its two rims. Its existence is owed to the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, spanning significant portions of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Complications in the roiling mantle of the Earth underlying the plateau began to push it upwards 20 million years ago. Drainage off the plateau in turn carved out and turned up an incredible array of geologic features. The Colorado Plateau has the highest concentration of US National Parks units in the country, with 9 National Parks and 18 National Monuments. The Grand Canyon's story is truly a regional story.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Pining for the Fjords with Hans Dahl

Born in 1849 in Granvin, Norway, on Hardanger Fjord, Hans Dahl served in the military before becoming one of the most renowned Norwegian romantic landscape painters. Throughout his career he lived in Düsseldorf and Berlin, but maintained a summer home on Sogn Fjord, Norway's largest and deepest fjord. After 1919, Dahl moved to Sogn Fjord full time and he passed away in 1937.  

Dahl largely resisted the transition from Romanticism to Modernism in art from the 1890's onward. He was also largely criticized for this among the artistic elites, as is wont to happen, but his depictions of Norwegian girls in folk dress engaged in rustic activities still spoke to the general public. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II became one of Dahl's patrons and conferred a professorship on him in 1910. 

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Gruß aus Salzburg im Jahre 2000 sendet

Following on the theme of Germany in the year 2000, the following lithograph purports to show the city of Salzburg 100 years after its date of publication. Once more we see the preoccupation with air travel especially, and the colonization of the future with the aesthetics of the present. Click on the picture for a larger version. 

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Deutschland im Jahre 2000

In January 1900, the German chocolate company Hildebrands placed these depictions of the Fatherland in the year 2000 in packages of cocoa and chocolates. Like En L'An 2000 and Moscow in the XXIII Century, these cards depict the usual turn of the century ambitions: airships, submarines, covered cities, television, and improved security. The overriding theme is bringing the hitherto unobtainable into the everyday. Aerial travel becomes everyday, and can even be used to venture to impenetrable locales like the Arctic. The oceans become accessible, and what isn't directly accessible is observable through mass media. So, in many ways, we are living in the golden age of Victorian futurism... I just wish it looked as good as these cards.   

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Der Nibelungen auf Bühne und Bildschirm

Every culture has its own great, foundational myths. For Japan, one is the story of the Chūshingura, the 47 Ronin. Among the Nitsitapii (Blackfoot) Indigenous peoples of North America it is the stories of Napi and Morningstar. In England it is King Arthur and Robin Hood. The United States is in a unique position of rising in historical times and therefore mythologizing its own history... They are great mythmakers of the American Revolution and the Alamo. For German-speaking peoples, that story is ostensibly the legend of Siegfried and the Nibelungen.

Such a durable myth stands interpretation and reinterpretation and adaptation over the centuries. Its original forms are lost in antiquity but its earliest complete form is found in the Nibelungenlied. Written around 1200 CE, its first half outlines the rise and fall of the hero Siegfried, a nobleman and wandering warrior who conquered the northern kingdom of the Nibelung. His voyages bring him to the Burgundian kingdom on the Rhine, where he desires to woo the Burgundian princess Kriemhild. Unfortunately, her brother King Gunther seizes the opportunity to employ Siegfried's prodigious strength (and cloak of invisibility) to help him subdue Brünhilde, the warrior-queen of Iceland. They succeed, but in so doing lay down the groundwork of their own destruction. A spat between Brünhilde and Kriemhild results in the latter exposing her husband's role in Brünhilde's humiliation. This leads to a conspiracy among the Burgundians to murder Siegfried. The second half picks up after the hero's death, when Kriemhild's second marriage to King Etzel of Hungary gives her the opportunity to exact a revenge on her family that ferociously swallows up the Burgundians, the Nibelung, Hungary, and herself.

Kriemhild meets Siegfried.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911).

Altogether, the Nibelungenlied is a fairly straightforward Mediaeval epic with few fantastic elements. During his wanderings, Siegfried is said to have killed a dragon and bathed in his blood, making him invulnerable save for one spot covered by a leaf. That and his cloak of invisibility are about all that transgress historical credulity. Otherwise, the Nibelung legend is rooted in actual history. The Burgundian kingdom on the Rhine was destroyed in 437 CE under the rule of King Gundaharius, through it was destroyed at the hands of a Roman general. King Etzel is a reference to Attila the Hun (d.453 CE) and a Mediaeval belief that Hungary was connected with the Huns. About 80 years after the fact, a story developed that Attila was killed by his Germanic wife Hildico.

Nor was Kriemhild's blood revenge purely drawn from imagination. Consider Olga of Kiev, whose husband King Igor was killed by the neighbouring Drevlian kingdom in 945 CE. When Drevlian emissaries arrived by boat to announce that Igor had been killed and offered for Olga to marry their own Prince Mal, she had the people of Kiev carry the boat with its passengers to a trench where the Drevlians were buried alive. She then summoned Drevlian dignitaries (who did not know about what happened to the first party) to come and escort her to their kingdom. Those she locked in a bath house and burned alive. She then went to the Drevlians asking to hold a funeral feast at the grave of her husband. They obliged, and while they were drunk on mead, she had her people slaughter them. Only then did she gather her army together to wage outright war on the Drevlians. City after city fell until they reached modern Korosten, where Igor had been killed. They refused to surrender, mainly out of fear that she was still out for revenge. Olga replied that the prior slaughters had satiated her need for revenge, and that all she would take for tribute was three pigeons and three sparrows from each house in the city. The gift was granted... Sulphur-infused cloth was tied to each bird, they were lit on fire, and freed to return home. The entire city ignited and the citizens were killed as they fled the inferno. Olga's story is not the only one of vengeful and powerful Mediaeval women.

This is all in contrast to Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid, another Mediaeval ballad that emphasizes Siegfried as a dragon-killer (dispatching multiple beasts including one that has kidnapped Kriemhild) and winner of the treasure of the Nibelung dwarves. The aftermath is found in the poem Kriemhild's Wedding.

Siegfried slays Fafner the Dragon.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911)

The poem was well-received upon its completion in the Middle Ages, though audiences of the time were more interested in the historical and courtly aspects of Kriemhild's revenge than upon the heroic deeds of Siegfried. The compelling questions were on the guilt of both Kriemhild and Siegfried's murderer Hagen, and knightly deportment under such horrific circumstances. Sadly, the Nibelungenlied was largely forgotten as Europe declined into the Enlightenment. Into the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, a new movement of Romanticism took hold hand-in-hand with the creation of the modern Nation-State. Romantic Nationalism sought to unite peoples of shared language and culture into collective political bodies where previously they had identified with diverse kingdoms, fiefdoms, clans, and city-states. The Nibelungenlied was rediscovered as a uniting foundational myth of the Germanic peoples.

It was into this environment that composer Richard Wagner developed Der Ring des Nibelungen. Over the course of the 20 years, from the late 1840's through its premiere in 1870, he drafted an epic four-part opera whose completion coincided with the creation of the German Empire in 1871. His initial impetus may have been furnished by a series of articles in Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a German music magazine explicitly prompting composers to develop a "national opera" inspired by the Nibelungenlied. Felix Mendelssohn was known to be working on a Nibelung opera at the same time. But it was Wagner's magnificent opera that succeeded to become a classic and furnished one of the world's most recognizable pieces of music.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time

Really good dinosaur books are few and far between. Despite the best efforts of pretty well every Science Fiction author at one time or another, one could likely count the most memorable attempts on one hand. Jurassic Park would enter most people's minds these days, though more by reputation of the film series than from having read Michael Crichton's novel for themselves. The unparalleled classic is, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, published in 1912. His copious literary talent and careful attention to detail made this relatively late entry into the field of Scientific Romances a genre archetype of its own: the "lost world" story. More recently than The Lost World is another lost world story of a type, taking place in the Victorian Era and standing towards the head of the list of great dinosaur stories. This is Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time by James Gurney, published in 1992.

Image: James Gurney.

The irony behind Dinotopia's success is that Gurney is no Science Fiction author. Asked in interview about how deep an influence Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir H. Rider Haggard exerted on his series, he said that they didn't really. His main influences were the journals of actual explorers and scientists like Darwin, Wallace, and Burton. It's not altogether uncommon that truly excellent examples of modern Scientific Romances come from people completely outside of any "scene" or "fandom" dedicated to it. Its success no doubt owes as much or more to the dinosaur fever of the early Nineties - Jurassic Park would be released to theatres the following year, in 1993 - as its Victorian Scientific Romance setting.   

Rather than a Science Fiction author, Gurney is a painter. The origins of Dinotopia find themselves in a collection of unique paintings by Gurney, showing dinosaurs and humans living alongside each other. Unlike countless scenes of antagonism between dinosaurs and cavemen, these paintings depicted idyllic scenes of parades processing past Greco-Roman columns. The idea of elevating these paintings to a narrative, to tell the story behind them and the kind of world they take place in, came to Gurney and the result is a work capturing the very essence of Scientific Romances.

Image: James Gurney.

Or, if we are to believe the prologue, Gurney was merely the recipient of a sketchbook once belonging to Arthur Denison, a naturalist who set sail on an exploratory voyage in 1862. His ship encountered a ferocious storm and was destroyed, pitching himself and his son Will on the shores of an uncharted island teeming with living dinosaurs. More astonishing than this, as though it could get more astonishing, is that these dinosaurs are highly intelligent, rational and wise beings who have taught generations of humans to live in harmony with them and with one another.

Image: James Gurney.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Æpyornis Island by H.G. Wells

One of H.G. Wells' earliest short stories, Æpyornis Island is atypically lighthearted for the cynical English leftist. Not long after its publication in 1894, Wells would content himself far more with destroying humanity, vivisecting animals, and outlining his models for oppressive, totalitarian, utopian regimes. Originally published in the Pall Mall Budget and later included in the 1895 anthology The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents, Æpyornis Island draws influence from Daniel Defoe by way of Jules Verne in a mostly comic tale.

The story is a reminiscence of a fossil collector named Butcher, who is familiar to the nameless narrator by having sued his former employer for four years wages. It seems he was trapped on a deserted island during those four years while carrying out an expedition on behalf of his employer. Due to the hardships and peculiar incidents of his abandonment, he naturally felt he was owed his wages. After all, he never would have been in so unique a situation if not for his employer. If only the employer realized what treasure Butcher had in his possession, the four years of accrued wages would have been a small price to pay. 

That treasure, unique in all the world, were the earthly remains of the world's last Æpyornis, the Elephant Bird of Madagascar, recently deceased.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Muséum national d'histoire naturelle

When most people think of the great museums of Paris, the list is always topped with the Louvre. Understandably so, as it contains some of the most famous paintings in the world, as well as extensive collections of Egyptian, Roman, and Mediaeval European antiquities. They might also think of the Musée d'Orsay, housed in a former train station on the Left Bank of the Seine and exhibiting the works of the great Impressionists. Or the very modern Centre Georges Pompidou with its Musée National d'Art Moderne. Or the Musée national du Moyen Âge, also known as the Musée de Cluny, dedicated to the Middle Ages. Or the scientific and technological collections of the Musée des Arts et Métiers.

Oddly left off most lists is the sprawling Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in the Jardin des Plantes. Off the beaten path, the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle is a gorgeous complex of museums, gardens, and a menagerie covering 28 hectares. Like the more famous Louvre, appreciating its breadth of collections requires a full day, at minimum, and could easily benefit from more days than one.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck welcomes you to the
 Muséum national d'histoire naturelle.
All photos by Cory Gross.