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Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Red Dead Redemption's Weird Western World

The original Red Dead Redemption, released in 2010 by Rockstar Games for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, is considered by many to be a high-water mark in video gaming. Following the "open world" format of Rockstar's infamous Grand Theft Auto series, the mean streets of major modern metropoli were replaced with the Wild West of Italian cinema. Furthermore, the chain of events was given the compelling story of John Marston, a former outlaw who is forced to hunt down his old gang members across Mexico and the fictional State of New Austin after the government takes his family hostage. The game became a perfect example of the growing propensity for video games to transcend film as the art form of the 21st century. Beautifully rendered environments coupled with engaging storytelling and characters that literally involve the player for hours upon hours of entertainment. 

Red Dead Redemption release trailer.


Advances in technology have meant that no video game is truly complete. Indeed, the "day one update" phenomena has shown that most games aren't even fully debugged and ready to run when they are sold. But where there is extra money to make, downloadable content (DLC) is soon to follow. Picking up before Red Dead Redemption's epilogue, the Undead Nightmare DLC (2010) throws a supernatural curve into Marston's settled life. Just when he thought his family was safe, both his wife and son succumb to a zombie plague breaking out across the frontier. Naturally, it is up to the former outlaw to solve a mystery going back to ancient Aztec worship of the Sun. 

Along the way, Marston encounters even more strangeness. As the world is ripped asunder by a zombie apocalypse, the Four Horsemen's steeds roam the Earth. Marston has the option of taming War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, each with their own unique effects on the brain-eating hordes. Somewhere out there in the wilds is also a unicorn that trails a rainbow behind it as you ride. Joining him are jackalope and chupacabra, and a pathos-inspiring episode with Sasquatch. A new mythology for the zombies does not exactly utilize the creature's largely forgotten origins in Voodoo shamanism, but does draw the modern metaphor of cosmic nihilism and urban distress further back in that direction.  

Undead Nightmare trailer.


Undead Nightmare was criticized from some quarters upon its release, as a number of fans of the original game felt that it undermined Red Dead Redemption's realism to jump on the zombie bandwagon. On the one hand, this realism is overstated: the West was not nearly as wild and bloodthirsty as cinema has made it out to be. Red Dead is an interactive Western movie, pulling tropes and archetypes from Hollywood's gunslingers. A truly realistic Western game would involve an unrelenting tedium of plowing land, driving cattle, and months-long bounty hunts. Violent and gritty does not equate to realistic, and it's surprising to learn that anyone has thought that way since the 1990's. Rockstar already sacrificed realism for an entertaining product.

Apparently those critics were a minor voice, because the more recently released prequel Red Dead Redemption II (2018) for Xbox One and Playstation 4 goes much further in integrating elements of the Weird Western into their otherwise more realistic game. In this installment set in 1899, 13 years before Red Dead Redemption, you play Arthur Morgan, the enforcer of John Martson's old gang. After a robbery gone wrong, the gang is on the lam and trekking across the American landscape to avoid Pinkertons and bounty hunters. We see the gang both at the height of its power and through its fall into madness, despair, and death. 

Red Dead Redemption II release trailer.


The game pushes beyond the tropes of the Spaghetti Western to be a much more realistic take on true Western life. Opportunities for fastpaced, bloodthirsty gunplay are further between and resource management becomes a much more significant part of the game. You have to watch out for the well-being of the camp, your horse, and your character, meaning there is more hunting, crafting, bathing, feeding, and brushing going on. The world of Red Dead Redemption II is much more fully and beautifully realized as well. Its sprawling map is a microcosom of the United States, with regions identifiable to actual parts of the country. The city of Saint Denis is a stand-in for New Orleans, surrounded by bayous and neighbouring the red earth of the post-Civil War American South. North is "Roanoke", replicating the Appalachians and Hudson Valley. To the West are ranges of mountains reflecting the Sierra Nevadas and Canadian Rocky Mountains. Tucked in the midst of the mountains is a small tribute to the geyser basins of Yellowstone. In the middle of the map is the eerily accurate "Heartlands" that look exactly like what one would see driving through the grasslands and badlands of the prairies. New Austin returns as the equivalent of Texas.

Throughout this immense world are a plethora of sights and strangers that get weirder and weirder as the game progresses. The original game had its share of odd characters, eccentrics mostly. The only clearly supernatural figure in Red Dead Redemption was the mysterious Stranger, an unkillable, top-hatted gentleman who appears to know everything about John Marston's past... and future. It was a statement by him that provided the seed for Red Dead Redemption II's precipitating incident. Yet he is poorly defined and there is much speculation as to whether he is God, or Satan, or something else entirely. Much like the stranger in the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter (1973), there are hints as to who this Stranger could be, but overall he is an encounter with the Unknown beyond human ken.

Compilation of scenes with the Stranger.


By contrast,  Red Dead Redemption II goes balls to the wall nuts at times. Extraterrestrial visitors appear at least three times in the sky, first above the ruined shack of a Heaven's Gate-style suicide cult. A ghost in the swamps outside Saint Denis eternally relives her tragic tale of lost love and suicide. Speaking of Saint Denis, what would a proxy of New Orleans be without a vampire? Sasquatch bones can be sighted in a mountain cave, a horrific Moreauesque experiment can be found in a deserted house, high in the hills is a witch's hovel with a cauldron brewing, and human sacrifices by pagan cults dot the landscape, as do ancient fossils, Viking burials, pirate wrecks, and crashed flying machines. A side mission has you searching for mysterious rock carvings of Zeppelins and atomic bomb explosions for a man who looks and talks like he is from the 1920's. Another mission has you performing tasks for a Tesla-like genius, culminating in the discovery of an automaton that looks like a cross between Boilerplate and Bender. 

The following videos by LegacyKillaHD showcase some the various Easter eggs and where to find them, though (more) spoilers ahead for those waiting to find them for themselves...


Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Vincent Price, Roger Corman, and Edgar Allan Poe

By the early 1950's, Universal Studios had largely given up on its tradition of Gothic horror films. Arguably the last of the line was 1948's Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, the greatest of the horror-comedies but nevertheless a farce on the petrified iconography of their classic monsters. Universal's immediate future belonged to Atomic Age Sci-Fi, including the last great monster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. The following year, Universal went to colour with This Island Earth, but by 1960 these sorts of "genre" offerings were naught but schlocky drive-in movie fare.

Yet at just that same time, hideous things were brewing in England. Hammer Films began production of their own line of horror films that were widely seen as inheriting Universal's mantle. Produced in colour and staring legendary actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Mummy (1959), and The Brides of Dracula (1960) proved that there was still interest in well-made, well-acted, well-scripted Gothic horror films. At the time, American International Pictures was a low-grade B-movie house that was known for giving minuscule shooting schedules and shoestring budgets to films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Teenage Cave Man (1958), High School Hellcats (1958), and Reform School Girl (1957). However, when one of their most prolific and reliable directors, Roger Corman, approached them to make their own series of Hammer-style horror films, they gave him the green light. Not only that, but they upped his budget and gave him a whole 15 days to shoot his first, on the gamble that this was just the sort of thing that would raise AIP's standing, not to mention their profit margins.

As source material, Corman deviated from the tradition of European writers to go with an American original: Edgar Allan Poe. Richard Matheson, one of the greatest horror writers that ever lived, supplied the script based on Poe's 1839 story The Fall of the House of Usher. Then came the inspired choice to cast Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. To this point, Price was already an established actor with 20 years experience and over 80 roles in his filmography. He originally entered the craft as a dramatic character actor who took on a number of historical dramas, then transitioning into Noir thrillers for a while. In the Fifties he really began his career in horror, in such films as House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958) and Return of the Fly (1959), The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both 1959). Over the course of his career, less than a third of Price's films were horror, but they were the ones with the most enduring popularity. By the 1980's, he was guest-starring on The Muppet Show and doing voice-overs for Michael Jackson's Thriller as an all-time horror icon. This was due in no small part to AIP's "Poe Cycle." Together, they created House of Usher (1960) and charted a new course in American horror film.


Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Fall of the House of Usher: the 1928 Silent Films

Amidst his bibliography of classic tales, The Fall of the House of Usher is one of Edgar Allan Poe's best known and most frequently adapted. First published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in September of 1839, it is a masterful Gothic short story about a sinister house and its woe-begotten inhabitants. Poe's narrator introduces us to Roderick and Madeline Usher, last in the long line of the Usher family.... A venerable clan beset with the maladies of aristocracy: physical, mental, and moral degeneracies. Madeline is seen but once before her apparent death by cataleptic seizure. It is Roderick who must live with the constant deterioration of his body and spirit within the confines of the oppressive manor that imprisons him. The titular house is a bleak one, crumbling from centuries of mold and decay in an unrelentingly melancholy swamp. Such visually and psychologically arresting subject matter begs for cinematic adaptation. The Fall of the House of Usher has been brought to film over a dozen times, not counting crypto-adaptations like Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (2015). Perhaps the best known of these is the 1960 version directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, which kicked off an entire series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The earliest were two films released in the same year of the silent era, one in France and the other in the United States. 


Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Great Moon Hoax

Of all the giants of scientific endeavour, perhaps none are as significant to history as Sir John Herschel. Already an accomplished astronomer and natural philosopher - having written A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy in 1831, which in turn inspired many scientists including a young Charles Darwin - Herschel departed for South Africa in 1833 in order to chart the courses of the southern stars. It was there that he developed his greatest invention and made the greatest discovery in the history of the human race.

The report delivered by the New York Sun on Tuesday, August 25th, 1835. Its announcement read:
In this unusual addition to our Journal, we have the happiness of making known to the British publick, and thence to the whole civilized world, recent discoveries in Astronomy which will build an imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon the present generation of the human race a proud distinction through all future time. It has been poetically said, that the stars of heaven are the hereditary regalia of man, as the intellectual sovereign of the animal creation. He may now fold the Zodiack around him with a loftier conscientiousness of his mental supremacy.

It is impossible to contemplate any great Astronomical discovery without feelings closely allied to a sensation of awe, and nearly akin to those with which a departed spirit may be supposed to discover the realities of a future state. Bound by the irrevocable laws of nature to the globe on which we live, creatures "close shut up in infinite expanse," it seems like acquiring a fearful supernatural power when any remote mysterious works of the Creator yield tribute to our curiosity. It seems almost a presumptious assumption of powers denied to us by divine will, when man, in the pride and confidence of his skill, steps forth, far beyond the apparently natural boundary of his privileges, and demands the secrets and familiar fellowship of other worlds.

We are assured that when the immortal philosopher to whom mankind is indebted for the thrilling wonders now first made known, had at length adjusted his new and stupendous apparatus with the certainty of success, he solemnly paused several hours before he commenced his observations, that he might prepare his own mind for discoveries which he knew would fill the minds of myriads of his fellow-men with astonishment, and secure his name a bright, if not transcendent conjunction with that of his venerable father to all posterity.

And well he might pause! From the hour the first human pair opened their eyes to the glories of the blue firmament above them, there has been no accession to human knowledge at all comparable in sublime interest to that which he has been the honored agent in supplying; and we are taught to believe that, when a work, already preparing for the press, in which his discoveries are embodied in detail, shall be laid before the public, they will be found of incomparable importance to some of the grandest operations of civilized life.

Well might he pause! He was about the become the sole depository of wondrous secrets which had been hid from the eyes of all men that had lived since the birth of time. He was about to crown himself with a diadem of knowledge which would give him a conscientious pre-eminence above every individual of his species who then lives, or who had lived in the generations that are passed away. He paused ere he broke the seal of the casket which contained it.

To render our enthusiasm intelligible, we will state at once, that by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and entirely new principle, the younger Herschel, at his observatory in the Southern Hemisphere, has already made the most extraordinary discoveries in every planet of our solar system; has discovered planets in other solar systems; has obtained a distinct view of objects in the moon, fully equal to that which the naked eye commands of terrestrial objects at the distance of a hundred yards; has affirmatively settled the question whether this satellite be inhabited, and by what order of things; has firmly established a new theory of cometary phenomena; and has solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.

This understandably florid prose led to the news of the greatest discovery by the accomplished Herschel: life on the moon!

An illustration of Herschel's discoveries.

These fantastic revelations by advanced telescope technology were, of course, a hoax. The perpetrator seems to have been reporter Richard Adams Locke, in a publicity stunt for the Sun. By the sixth and final installment on August 31, 1835, the public was inflamed, Edgar Allan Poe was incensed, Jules Verne was inspired, and the Sun's readership was permanently inflated. Herschel was said to have been amused by the whole thing. The Great Moon Hoax was to the 19th century what Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast was to the 20th, and what the entire "fake news" dilemma is to the 21st.


Wednesday, 19 September 2018

New York Sky Harbor in 1950

The following vision of New York's "Sky Harbor" in 1950 by Arthur T. Merrick appeared in the November 1907 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine. Click on the image for a larger version.


Saturday, 15 September 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires on Twitter

Being aficionados of outdated and dying technologies, Voyages Extraordinaires now has a Twitter account. Please do follow it @VoyagesEx for the latest updates!

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

John Carter of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs' reputation often precedes the actual reading of his work. Many are familiar with Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, through its various cinematic incarnations, from Johnny Weissmuller's live-action films during Hollywood's Golden Age to Disney's animated version in the late 1990's. Fewer are as familiar with John Carter than with his impact on the genre of Science Fiction. Franchises like Star Wars and Avatar owe direct debts to Burroughs' Planetary Romance, which came back to bite Disney when they released their own failed film adaptation of the first John Carter novel in 2012. Undaunted, Disney simply bought Star Wars and Avatar. 

When one does sit down to finally read Burroughs' work, be it Tarzan of the Apes (1912) or The Land That Time Forgot (1918) or At the Earth's Core (1914) or A Princess of Mars (1912), what they find is a very breezy, readable style of pulpy adventure. Time has rendered its judgement on how enjoyable Burroughs' writing and characters are, though it is not without its flaws. 
   
The exploits of John Carter, much like those of Tarzan, begin with an initial trilogy that set-up a lengthy series of novels. A Princess of Mars was the first, delivering our hero to Mars, continued in The Gods of Mars and concluding with The Warlord of Mars, both published in 1913. Burroughs' Barsoom series (so-named for the invented name that Martians give their planet) continue for another ten books, picking up from the heroic John Carter and following the exploits of his son. Read in rapid succession, the Carter trilogy puts the exclamation on Edgar Rice Burroughs' attributes as a manufacturer of pure escapism devolving frequently into outright wish fulfillment.


Wednesday, 22 August 2018

A Message from Mars

The story of A Message from Mars is a familiar one. A cruel and stingy man, ungenerous and ungrateful, mean-spirited and selfish, finds himself pressed upon a celestial visitor to change his ways and live charitably within the brotherhood of man. It could be from A Christmas Carol, but is in this case an example of how early Scientific Romances on film often took their inspiration from stories of the supernatural and coated them with a superficial veneer of science. 

Released in 1913, A Message from Mars is notable as the first feature length British Science Fiction film and Britain's first to feature Martians as a subject matter. These Martians, however, could just as easily be the choirs of Heaven. The story opens on Mars, looking more or less Greco-Egyptian in character, with great columns and Martians adorned with gigantic ankh necklaces. Ramiel, a very angelic-sounding name, has been called before the Martian ruler, dubbed "The God of Mars", for some undisclosed infraction. His punishment is to be stripped of his raiment and cast down to Earth, where he must work to turn the heart of the aforementioned cruel and stingy man to good. He is instantly transported to Earth and exhibits the surprise Martian ability to pass through walls. From above he is watched by the Martians, who gaze upon the Earth with a literal crystal ball.

The film, based on a then-30 year old stage play, is a Scientific Romance in only the loosest possible sense of the term. It is merely the rhetorical replacement of angels with Martians that fixes it thus, and that is a superficial change to anything that the story is about. It doesn't matter that Ramiel is from Mars. The effect on the story - a basic morality tale of redemption - is nonexistent. as for the morality tale, if we accept that the film is only an hour long and a silent film, then it is good enough. It does strain credulity, however, when the man reforms his ways after spending a whole three minutes in the guise of a homeless beggar. Afterwards, though, he does rush into a burning building to rescue a family and then take them into his own home, so I guess it did stick. 

Though the first British feature Science Fiction film, the 1913 version of A Message from Mars was not the first version or the last during the silent era. The first was a now-lost 1903 version from New Zealand. MGM released an American remake in 1921. The original play was written by Richard Ganthoney in 1899, and though quite popular at the time has been largely (even completely) forgotten.  

A Message from Mars can be watched in its entirety from British ISPs on the BFI Player website.     



Wednesday, 8 August 2018

A Signal from Mars

The following march and two-step by Raymond Taylor and E.T. Paull was released in 1901, as part of the ongoing popular fascination with space and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Of course, by 1901 the idea of a signal from Mars might have more ominous tones: H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds was published in 1897.



Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Jules Verne's Facing the Flag

Facing the Flag (Face au drapeau) is one of Jules Verne's lesser known works yet one of those in the late stages of his career that are more prescient for their insights into human behaviour than for their technological speculation. It is a slight work, only 180 pages soaking wet, and had the pleasure of being adapted into an equally obscure film by Czech auteur Karel Zeman that was translated into English as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (which is the greatest non-Hollywood adaptation of Verne, if not the the greatest adaptation period). Nevertheless, published in 1896, it contains seeds of ideas that are becoming frighteningly relevant now: unaccountable madmen wielding weapons of mass destruction.

The mad scientist and his small, but powerful, invention.
Image: Léon Benett.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

The Fabulous World of Karel Zeman

If anyone can truly be said to have captured the spirit of Georges Méliès, it is Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. It is one thing to use the methods pioneered by Méliès, which in a sense makes all subsequent filmmakers his children. When Méliès purchased his first camera, the art was so new that in developing his screen fantasies, he created many of the techniques that would become standard practice in the medium for a century. It is quite another to be heir to the spirit of wide-eyed wonder and fantasy that infuses Méliès' films themselves.

Most filmmakers don't even make the attempt, which is their right, since not all creative visions need be the same. A few try, but none have come so close as Karel Zeman. Heralded as one of the fathers of Czech animation, his films are celluloid adventures in wonder and whimsy carefully crafted from nearly every form of special effect known before the invention of computers. He is what a modern Méliès might have grew into, his films a Jules Verne illustration come to life.


Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Jules Verne: A Literary Pilgrimage

Few Disney live-action films have enjoyed the enduring legacy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Just as Jules Verne's works entered the public domain, Walt Disney took a gamble on fashioning that novel into his studio's first big-budget, Hollywood-made, live-action film. It was a gamble that paid off beyond anyone's wildest expectations. Walt, director Richard Fleischer, and screenwriter Earl Felton used the backdrop of Verne's original story to meditate on the anxieties of the Atomic Age. They captured the fears and hopes of a generation, and did so on a grand scale, with Cinemascope-sized screen, larger-than-life charismatic actors, beautiful underwater photography, and sheer spectacle. In so doing, Walt Disney helped create a new image of Jules Verne… Verne the icon of optimistic futurism.

Walt and Verne, the two optimists. Photo: Disney.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea spawned a whole genre of movies based on Verne's work, including Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), Ray Harryhausen’s Mysterious Island (1961), and Disney's own In Search of the Castaways (1962). His adventures also translated well into three dimensions. Disneyland opened in 1955 with an exhibit of props from the film, which had originally been slated for the Opera House on Main Street U.S.A., the "opening act" of the park designed to draw guests into a sense of childlike nostalgia. That location would have reinforced 20,000 Leagues presentation of atomic anxiety as an artifact of history. Instead it ended up in Tomorrowland (mostly because of that area's pressing need for cheap attractions) where it still implicitly reinforced the idea of Verne as ultimately belonging to a happy, healthy, hopeful future. Further attractions opened with each new theme park built by the Disney company, most recently as a Tiki bar in Walt Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort. 

We come most poignantly in touch with Verne the icon at Disneyland Paris. When designing the park, Imagineers were careful to highlight the connections between French culture and Disney product, no doubt in part to appease France's cultural gatekeepers who were wary of such American "lowbrow" entertainments. The effect conveys an intriguing sense that this is not simply a Disneyland in another language, but that Disney is, in many respects, "coming home" to Europe. Fantasyland has a statue of Cinderella dedicated to Charles Perrault, the Phantom of the Phantom Manor recalls the Phantom of the Opera, and Discoveryland is a version of Tomorrowland based in the Retro-Futurism of Jules Verne. Until 2004, guests could join Verne on a time-travelling adventure in Le Visionarium, soar to the moon in Space Mountain: De la terre à la lune, and investigate the Mysteries of the Nautilus. Discoveryland recreated the colourful atmosphere of an Exposition Universelle like those hosted by Paris in 1889 and 1900, directed by Jules Verne's visionary technological prophecies. Unfortunately Le Visionarium closed in 2004 and Space Mountain was (needlessly) renovated to purge Vernian imagery from its interior in 2005. The Nautilus remains, as does a touching monument to Verne that quotes his famous line: "Tout ce qui est dans la limite du possible doit être et sera accompli"... "All that is within the limits of the possible should be and will be done."

“Tout ce qui est dans la limite du possible doit être et sera accompli”




Disney's adaptations of Verne's stories in theme park and celluloid appealed to, and helped create, the author as a symbol of Nineteenth century optimism and futurism. Nevertheless, the Nautilus of the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a unique creation of Harper Goff's and the Columbiad in Disneyland Paris is far more picturesque than the purely functional cannon described in literature. This visualization is stunningly beautiful, as is the park it is situated in, and it is enjoyable and entertaining in its own right, though one must inevitably be aware that it is a myth constructed over time. Le Visionarium was not based on any one Verne book, but instead the conceit of taking Verne on a trip through time to show how he prophesied the fantastic inventions of the present day. Disneyland Paris distills for us the image of Verne the icon. This Verne is, ultimately, the precursor of Walt Disney's own optimistic futurism exemplified in his original vision for Tomorrowland.

Not far from Disneyland Paris, however, we meet Jules Verne the author, Verne the husband and father and civil servant, and Verne the very mortal man with an immortal imagination and Divine hope. An hour on one of France’s high-speed trains takes you from Paris to the charming city of Amiens, in the Picardie region, a short distance from the shores of the English Channel, where one still finds La Maison de Jules Verne.

Jules Verne's mansion against the background of modern Amiens.
Photo © Laurent Rousselin – Amiens Métropole

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Celestial Visions of the Reutlinger Photography Studio

Of the photography studios of Paris during  La Belle Époque, perhaps none were more famous than Reutlinger. Started in 1850 by Charles Reutlinger, the studio quickly rose to prominence as photographer to the stars of the theatrical stage. The business passed to Charles' brother Emile in 1880, and from him to his son Léopold in 1890. Under Léopold's initiative, the studio branched out to a brisk and creatively fruitful trade in fanciful postcards blending true photography with interesting backdrops, frames, and effects. Among the most provocative of his subjects were renditions of women among the celestial bodies. The following is a selection of Reutlinger postcards... 



Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid

Since it was written in 1837, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid has baffled and frustrated analysts. On first glance, it seems considerably more violent and pessimistic than the popular 1989 film that rebirthed Disney animation. For example, the little mermaid loses her voice by having her tongue cut out. The sea witch in the story is just a disgusting old crone, not the emblem of voluptuous female sexuality that is Ursula (ironically based on drag performer Divine).

Though having sanitized the original story, as they are wont to do, Disney's film still has unique qualities of its own. Unlike most of Disney's Princesses, Ariel is a flawed character. She is a teenager, rebelling against her upbringing and existential nature to forge her own identity, generally making bad decisions all along the way. It is only the love she has been able to inspire in others that redeems her choices and grants a happy outcome. As with Cinderella, there is a tendency for adult critics to look down on Disney Princesses who are not already full-formed, virtuous adult characters. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that she is also somewhat controversial.

This is not the theme of the original story, however. The little mermaid does become obsessed with the surface world - she had five sisters visit it and come back with marvelous stories about it for half a decade before she was finally able to see it for herself - and there is a prince that becomes the object of her obsessions. What really troubles her, though, is the fact that mermaids lack an immortal soul. It is this puzzle that mermaids should live for 300 years and then dissolve into sea foam while humans should only live for 70 years on Earth but inherit Heaven that draws her to make the choices she does. The Little Mermaid is a deeply religious story that makes little sense without Andersen's own devoutly religious outlook.

The Little Mermaid meets the prince. Illustration by Bertall.


Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Sakura Taisen: the Blooming Spirit of Scientific Romance in the Taisho Period


Beginning with an innovative Sega Saturn video game in 1996, the Sakura Taisen franchise grew rapidly to become a Japanese mega-hit and a flawless study in how to make a creatively and commercially successful modern Scientific Romance. Unfortunately, the very things that made it such a creative and commercial success in Japan rendered it virtually incomprehensible abroad. The franchise floated across the Pacific in piecemeal fashion, tantalizing those lucky enough to discover it. 

My relationship with Sakura Taisen (also known as Sakura Wars) began in 1998, at the very first edition of my city's annual anime festival. It was the same year that I launched the very first incarnation of this blog, as a website on the long gone GeoCities server. I had recently discovered and fell in love with the genre of Scientific Romances, primarily as an interesting fusion of my love for Science Fiction with Gothic Romanticism. The Nineties and early-Noughts were an explosive time for modern Scientific Romances, with feature films like Wild Wild West (1999), Back to the Future Part III (1990), The City of Lost Children (1995) and Disney's Tarzan (1999), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), and Treasure Planet (2002), comics like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), novels like The Difference Engine (1990), picture books like Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time (1992) and its sequel Dinotopia: The World Beneath (1995), theme parks like Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland and Tokyo Disneysea's Mysterious Island, and television shows like The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne (2000) and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993). It was an embarrassment of riches that has never been matched since. At this anime festival, I was piqued by a new anime series entitled Sakura Wars, which ended abruptly with the fourth episode.

This anime series featured a group of girls in an alternate 1920's Tokyo where steam-power produced far more advanced technology than in our own world. This alternate Japan was recovering from a devastating "Demon War" that happened roughly around the same time as World War One in our history, and it seemed that the infernal hordes were massing once again. Keen to see the rest, I learned to my chagrin that this series was merely a four-episode Original Video Animation (OVA) prequel to the Sega Saturn video game Sakura Taisen released in 1996 in Japan and never imported to North America. Shortly thereafter a second Sakura Taisen OVA was imported, as the sequel to the second Sakura Taisen video game, released in Japan for the Sega Saturn in 1998. This was followed in succeeding years by the OVA prequel to Sakura Taisen 3 (2001, Sega Dreamcast) and a feature film taking place between Sakura Taisen 3 and 4 (2002, Sega Dreamcast), leaving me with plenty of prequels and sequels but no idea of what the actual story was! Eventually a Sakura Taisen television series was imported, ostensibly adapting the first video game, but which altered the story so significantly that even Japanese fans of the franchise found it revolting. Then an official manga adaptation of the first game was imported by Tokyo Pop, which published half of the series before the company went into bankruptcy. By now a decade had passed and I was so desperate that when I went to Japan in 2009, I broke down, found a used video game store, and bought a Japanese Sega Saturn and every possible Sakura Taisen game, fan disk, spin-off puzzle game, and branded piece of hardware available. When I finished the first game and finally saw the hero and heroine kiss, it was like a religious experience! 

What could encourage a torch to be held out for so long? What makes Sakura Taisen the epitome of everything that can and should be done with a modern Scientific Romance?

Boldly, it is not the steam-powered technology in itself that makes the franchise so appealing. Virtually any movie, TV show, comic book, or video game can have attractive Retro-Futuristic technology so long as it has a decently creative designer (though that is harder than it sounds, since there has certainly been no shortage of unattractive designs since 2006). Rather, its appeal lies in the same unapologetic Japaneseness that so easily dissuaded Sega from importing it to North America. Sakura Taisen is an intensive survey of the history, aesthetics, pop-culture, mythology, and geography of Japan... So much so that it is itself a crash course in Japanese culture. To review it is mainly to write an essay on Japan at the turn of the previous century, as I am about to do.



Wednesday, 2 May 2018

René Clair's Paris Qui Dort

A lone worker at the top of the Eiffel Tower awakens one morning to find that everyone else has not. By some strange machination, the world seems frozen. Thefts are paused mid-chase, romances are paused mid-kiss, the unsleeping city of Paris is dead asleep. Soon, a plane full of passengers lands and these survivors of some mysterious experiment make the best of their situation, making free use of everything the City of Lights has to offer.

Paris Qui Dort (Paris Asleep or The Crazy Ray in English releases) was one of the first films of French cinema pioneer René Clair. Typically focused on comedy, Clair was also renowned as an innovator and auteur. His first film - Entr'acte - was created as part of a Dadaist ballet in 1924 and began a long career of manipulating and playing with the dynamics and effects of film. Paris Qui Dort, released the same year, does the same with its premise of an absent-minded scientist shutting the world off and on with mysterious rays.


Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Narrative Paintings of Thomas Cole

In the decades prior to the creation of film, the unveiling of large-scale paintings took the place of mass entertainment media events. Landscape subjects were the most popular, so when someone like Frederic Edwin Church premiered a new painting of South America, it was with the requisite fanfare in salons fully bedecked in potted palms, velvet drapes, complimentary artifacts, live musical performances and special effects lighting, all to provide a sense of a window into a world far away from that of attendees. Church was a member of the Hudson River School of painters and only student of school founder Thomas Cole. Born in England, Cole moved to the United States and was further moved by the beauty of the Hudson River. In response he formed an artistic collective based in representational naturalism, Romanticism and luminism, or the manipulation of lighting effects.

The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church (1859)

Cole did revel in landscape work, but he also sought to combine these epic paintings with narrative and metaphorical themes. The foremost of these is a five-painting series entitled The Course of Empire. Created between 1833 and 1836, these masterworks chart the course of a classical civilization from it's birth to its decay, reflecting the philosophical ideals of the Hudson River School, Romanticism, and the still-young American nation.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Thomas Edison's A Trip to Mars


Today's special post appears as part of the Outer Space On Film Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. Click on the banner above to see more adventures in the great beyond!




Over a century ago, Thomas Edison's studio produced what is regarded by many scholars as the first American Science Fiction movie and certainly the first film about Mars. It wasn't the famed American inventor's first visit to the Red Planet, but A Trip to Mars was a seminal journey in the history of cinema.  

Edison's first trip to Mars was an act of retribution for the infamous Martian invasion of 1898. Copyright law being ambivalent at the turn of the century, an unlicensed, unauthorized version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds appeared in American newspapers as Fighters from Mars, or the War of the Worlds In and Near Boston. Names and locations were changed to reflect the war's progress on the New England front. As soon as it ended, Garrett P. Serviss was commissioned to write Edison's Conquest of Mars: a sequel in which an army of Earth's best scientists, lead by Thomas Edison, take the fight back to the Martians. Serviss was already well-known as a popularizer of astronomy - the Carl Sagan or Neil Degrasse Tyson of the Gay Nineties - and Edison's Conquest of Mars was the first in a string of Scientific Romances of fair to middling quality. Reading the two books back-to-back is a fascinating exercise in contrasting the skepticism of tired imperial hubris with the can-do attitude of an economically, politically, and culturally ascendant nation. 

Copyright law was no kinder to Georges Méliès. Despite being a Steve Jobs-like figure in his time, Edison did not become as successful as he did through generousity of spirit. When the French filmmaker had a smash hit on his hands with Le Voyage dans la Lune in 1902, Edison's agents smuggled prints to the United States. The film became hugely popular in the US without a single dime going to Méliès, frustrating his efforts at overseas distribution. 

A Trip to Mars, released in 1910, is a short trick film very much in the Méliès mold, though not nearly as creative. H.G. Wells pops up again, this time to supply the motivating force that compels the protagonist to the angry planet. Drawing from The First Men in the Moon (1900), a scientist develops a chemical powder that reverses the force of gravity. Sprinkling some on himself, he shoots out the window and lands forthwith on Mars. He encounters some strange Martian flora and has a chilly run-in with a giant who eventually sends him falling back to Earth.       

Directed by Ashley Miller, A Trip to Mars was intended for the Kinetoscope market and existing versions may be reconstructions from paper prints. The vagaries of copyright law negatively impacted Edison as well... Though his full Kinetoscope films could not be copyrighted, individual photos could. Therefore, the most logical thing was to copyright each individual frame of the film as a separate photo. Thankfully for everyone from Edison to modern restorers, the short is only five minutes long and not overly sophisticated. It's mainly just a fun little jaunt that was never really meant to pass the test of time. 


Edison's A Trip to Mars (1910)

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Capt. H.G. Bishop's Congealing the Ice Trust

The romance of the Gay Nineties has its automatic signifiers. Ladies with bustles and feathered hats, men in dapper suits and handlebar moustaches, barbershop quartets, penny-farthing bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, gingerbread architecture, gaslight, and other such "Main Street USA" accoutrements immediately identify a setting in the last decades of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th. Another ubiquitous image is the iceman, hocking blocks of ice from the back of his wagon, destined for the iceboxes of home and restaurant.

The ice man visits Washington D.C.'s first public school for
African American children, c. 1899. Photo: Library of Congress.

Iceboxes were, for all intents and purposes, like modern refrigerators without the machinery. In place of the freezer unit at the top of refrigerator would be a box for holding a block of ice. Those blocks of ice were harvested from lakes and ponds and stored in insulated ice houses through the year. The iceman would then collect blocks of ice into his cart and truck around town. It's all very quaint and nostalgic... But how would this industry be transformed in a world where inventors are regularly firing themselves into outer space, disintegrating and shrinking each other, and voyaging across the planet by airship and submarine?

Captain H.G. Bishop's 1907 short story Congealing the Ice Trust attempts to address this question.


Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Walter R. Booth's Motorist Comedies

Much like Georges Méliès, the conjurer-turned-filmmaker from across the Chanel, Walter R. Booth began his cinema career on the theatrical stage performing magic tricks. While employed at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, he made the acquaintance of early English film pioneer Robert W. Paul. Booth began working for Paul after 1896, employed to come up with fanciful screen effects. The culmination of their partnership came in 1906 with The '?' Motorist.

This short film humorously exploits the ongoing controversies over the use of the horseless carriage. Automobiles only entered mass production around the turn of the century, to mixed reviews. Western painter Charlie Russell nicknamed them "skunkwagons" and rendered numerous portraits of innocent cowboys and wagon trains being driven off the road by them. George Foss of Quebec drove around a vehicle of his own design, despite threats of arrest. Benz, Ford, Renault, Olds, and others were making names for themselves. Their pace of technological innovation was so fast that a year-old car was practically useless (if it hadn't broken down already). Ford's Model T would enter production in 1908, the same year as an historic New York to Paris auto race via San Francisco, Yokohama, Irkutsk, and Moscow. Sir William Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan, endorsed the idea of allowing pedestrians to carry a shotgun and be given free reign to take potshots at "all motorists who may appear to them to be driving to the common danger," citing automobiles as "the enemies of mankind."

In this The '?' Motorist, Booth plays directly into that, by allowing his motorist to create havoc on Earth and beyond.


A few years later, Booth revisited the same basic premise with The Automatic Motorist. A common thread in trick photography of the time was to treat science as a form of magic. What might once have been a haunted house comedy became a mechanical house comedy. What might have once been a sorcerer making himself objectionable became a mad scientist. In The Automatic Motorist, the automobile goes on a haywire journey through space thanks to a mechanical chauffeur. Several gags from The '?' Motorist are reused, with the increased skill that the intervening five years between 1906 and 1911 could provide.