Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Light at the Edge of the World (1971)

In 1954, Walt Disney set about proving the mettle of his studio and Science Fiction by producing one of the first great genre epics of the post-war era, turning to Jules Verne to supply him with the setting and outline of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That, in turn, inspired a lengthy series of Victorian Scientific Romances rebranded as Atomic Age parables that stretched until the end of the Sixties, running parallel to the more modern Science Fiction of the time. However, after the Summer of Love, the global protests of 1968, the Stonewall riots, the Tet Offensive, and the moon landing, the heady days of ray gun adventures of cautionary atomic optimism were passed. In their place came a strange affectation for deromanticized films which gave the impression of depth by being light on acting, dialogue, and story but heavy on running time. Ponderous length and turgid performances somehow gave the impression of possessing profound meaning, no better exemplified than in the first truly large-scale, full-colour, obscenely-budgeted Science Fiction epic since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

An instructive comparison can be made between the two. Above all else, 2001 is a film about the emergence of consciousness. First, we see the emergence of primate consciousness in the "Dawn of Man" sequence and the connection between consciousness, technology and the violent struggle of survival. In the middle section, which contains the only part of 2001 that may be considered a story, we see the emergence of technological consciousness as HAL 9000 gains sentience and repeats the violent struggle for survival. Finally, in "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" we see the emergence of stellar consciousness as a state of being that cannot be described, only show in slit-screen effects over footage of Monument Valley. Yet all of Kubrick's brilliant cinematography is a disingenuous construct, meant to disguise the fact that the entire movie is conceptual. It is a 161 minute depiction of a theme without any meaningful ideas, and certainly very little that approaches anything like a story or characters. Kubrick asks us to be in awe of the technical spectacle of 2001, accepting that the spectacle in-itself comprises something kind of like a philosophical idea.

By contrast, 20,000 Leagues possesses not only a theme (atomic power), but an idea (how atomic power should be used responsibly) conveyed through an impassioned human drama. Whereas Kubrick may be the greater artiste, Disney is by far the greater showman. He no doubt recognized that you can't carry a 121 minute movie on theme alone. A concept is what gets you started, a foundation upon which you build a movie and not the movie itself. Therefore the theme of atomic power's responsible use underlies an actual story about a trio of men who are taken captive aboard Captain Nemo's submarine ship... A story overflowing with human drama, tragedy, action, and charismatic personalities. It is a heartily Romantic, passionate film. Even the settings are richly Romantic, from the beauty of the ocean to the wealth of Nemo's salon. 2001, on the other hand, shows the vast expanses of the cosmos but somehow depicts them as listlessly dull. All the ballet music in the world cannot bandage the gaping wound in which space, space ships and even whole planets are stripped bare of anything interesting. With newly expansive stellar consciousness pushing beyond the infinite, all Dave Bowman sees are infinite dead worlds not unlike the dessicated desert that was Earth at the Dawn of Man. Though trying to communicate space as a place of infinite growth and possibility, Kubrick somehow only succeeds in making space looking really boring. It is no wonder, after 2001 and its offspring like The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien, that the original Star Wars should have been such a huge hit. Its return to a Romantic vision of space begat a string of genuinely well-loved Science Fiction films through the Eighties and Nineties, like Back to the Future, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, E.T., Aliens, Jurassic Park and even, God forbid, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

The purpose of this exegesis on 2001 is to set the background for understanding The Light at the Edge of the World, which is the Kubrick paradigm applied to Jules Verne. Based on a posthumously published 1905 adventure novel, this 1971 vehicle for aging stars Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner divests story for theme. In the original Lighthouse at the End of the World, Verne takes his readers to the faraway archipelago of Tierra del Fuego (an area to which he would return in Magellania, from which one also sees echoes in Light at the End of the World). Three men tend the lighthouse that guards the straits through which all traffic circumnavigating the Americas must pass, until two are killed by a marauding band of pirates led by the villainous Kongre. Vasquez, the survivor, lasts as well as he can in hiding until he is joined by the sole survivor of a ship that the pirates dash upon the shoreline after commandeering the lighthouse. The two engage in a guerilla campaign designed to detain the scallywags until help can arrive.

From that, one could see the outline of a film very much like 20,000 Leagues in tone, especially when Kirk Douglas plays the Americanized survivor of the lighthouse. On the one hand you have the theme of the rugged, far-flung lands that test the civility of man, and on the other you have an adventuresome story full of charismatic personalities and swashbuckling heroics. Instead what we get is a landscape of physical, emotional and moral bleakness, with only Brynner's Kongre to get within spitting distance of a character. The pirates have a certain flamboyance about them, but they hardly even speak, opting instead for animalistic howls and cackling. Douglas plays Denton, a veteran of the California Gold Rush who is on flight from a broken heart and a criminal record, wearing his bleakness on his weathered face and surprising us with such an inappropriately robust voice uttering from it for his five or six lines. Eventually two shipwrecked passengers join them, a man rescued by Denton and a woman held hostage by Kongre. They are there. They exist in the movie. That is all.

The Light at the Edge of the World is poorly titled, as we spend its 120 minutes watching that light slowly become extinguished in the contest of wills between Denton and Kongre. Don't make the mistake of thinking that it's an exciting contest of wills, mind you, as the one between Nemo and Ned Land or Nemo and Arronax or Arronax and Ned Land might have been. It's mostly Kongre's cool calculations against Denton's stumbling around the Spanish coastline where it was filmed. In Verne's book, Vasquez is holding on as a force of civilization, order and decency at the furthest tip of the continent. He not only seeks to protect the lighthouse but is himself the lighthouse. In this film, Denton does not start out well, and only declines from there. The pirates are nihilistically perverse and violent, which imparts the same characteristic on the film itself (there is a pretty sizable body count, as well as a gang rape, and the graphic flayings of both a man and a pet monkey). In the end, not even the lighthouse is preserved, and Denton's rescue has the same feel as when the adults finally arrive in Lord of the Flies... The Light at the Edge of the World is "Jules Verne's Apocalypse Now."

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Coming Conflict of Nations; or, the Japanese-American War: A Narrative (1909)

Representative of a number of Invasion Literature by-way-of Future History novels, Ernest Hugh Fitzpatrick's The Coming Conflict of Nations; or, the Japanese-American War: A Narrative is a sometimes painfully anti-literary book. To his credit, Fitzpatrick at least warns us of this fact. Tucked away in the pages of chapter three, he says:
It is not the purpose of this narrative to enter into biographical sketches of those individuals who played the leading roles in this great and world-wide tragedy, for only in a few selected instances will names be mentioned, but this narrative will dwell upon the study of those mighty events as a whole, leaving to others the biographical sketches of those who carried out the production of this great and absorbing drama of which the whole world was the stage.

Perhaps he overestimates how great and absorbing the drama is, most likely because he dispenses with any drama whatsoever. If by "drama" we mean a story of engaging characters, there is none. Fitzpatrick's passion is clearly for politics on a global scale and, for a good chunk of the final chapters, military tactics. His work is provocative for the slightly skewed manner in which he got certain things right.

The most obvious one of these is the thing to which the title refers. The Coming Conflict of Nations is just one of several anticipations of armed conflict between East and West written in the years succeeding the First Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War. Whether to Ernest Hugh Fitzpatrick or Milo Hastings or Jack London or Shunro Oshikawa or Ichiu Miyazaki, it seemed that a clash between the preeminent powers flanking the Pacific was inevitable.

Fitzpatrick also successfully prognosticated an ocean war between England and Germany, and a land war in Europe with Germany and Austria-Hungary united against everyone else. Furthermore, he considered this backdrop of global conflict to be a key ingredient in the movement for Indian independence. Concerns over the liberty of the subcontinent are, more than a war between Japan and America, the immediate political concern of his novel.

Though grasping the broad strokes of events two World Wars down the road, its the errors in the details that prove most illuminating for the author's character. The war between Japan and America is launched by Japan, but not by a sneak attack on a naval base in the middle of the ocean. Instead, it comes when, en masse, the Japanese immigrants to California and the Pacific coast rise up and become a standing army for the Empire. They storm the seaboard, the only check on their expansion being the Rocky Mountains. There is nothing subtle about this "Yellow Peril."

England might have been able to offer support for its Anglophone daughter but for a non-aggression pact signed with Japan and a brewing contest for naval supremacy with Germany. The ingenious tactics of the Royal Navy defeat the Germans, who revenge themselves as an incontestable land army. With Germany out of their hair, the British are able to return attention to the problem of freedom fighters in India. Not that Fitzpatrick would deign to address them as such. In his own words, culled from the first chapter:
The British in India had long been standing over a volcano.

None were more conscious of this than that great body of self-sacrificing Englishmen, who constituted the Indian civil service, men of unimpeachable integrity, and untiring in their devotion to the wellbeing of the teeming millions of Hindoostan, exiled for the most part into distant and unattractive provinces; proconsuls, as it were, of the great British Raj, the King of Great Britain and Ireland, Emperor of India and Sovereign of the British Provinces beyond the seas.

Great Britain had unified India by the outpouring of her best blood. The purblind disturbers of India's peace now sought to accomplish the disintegration of the Indian Empire by attempting to throw the Empire into a state of anarchy. These insensate and wicked agitators, tutored for the most part in the universities of the large cities of Europe and the United States of North America, had been indebted to the benevolent and fostering care of the British Raj for their primary and fundamental education, leaving the shores of India for the further pursuance of their studies in Europe and America, they seemed to have imbibed a relentless hatred to the British government of their native country. Strange as it may appear to relate, it was in England, the center and hub around which the affairs of the almost limitless British Empire revolved, they received most sympathy and support.

There has always existed and will always exist weak-headed sentimentalists who, with unabashed self-complaisancy, eagerly look forward to that golden era when silly sentimentalism is run riot. From the sentimentalists these students received much encouragement.

These malcontent students, on returning to their native land, spent their lives, which otherwise would have been useful, in the furtherance of their revolutionary dreams and to the spread of their anarchistic propaganda. They had sown to the wind, but were destined to reap the whirlwind.

Ah yes, the ungrateful savages who have no appreciation for the selfless sacrifices that the British have made to spread civilization in their direction. Fitzpatrick's movement to Indian independence is, of course, treacherously violent, with the retrospective irony that he almost accurately describes Mohandas Gandhi. At the time of The Coming Conflict of Nations' publication, the London-educated Gandhi was active in South Africa advocating for the rights of Indians and refining his tactics of non-violent civil disobedience. It's even plausible that Fitzpatrick had Gandhi in mind when he wrote, and is betraying his own suspicions.

Once the British subdue the movement to independence, to the surprise gratitude of Indians themselves who suddenly see the revolutionaries for thugs, sufficient resources are cleared up for England to renege on its treaty and join the side of the United States. Furthermore, the war in Europe is halted as it becomes apparent to everyone that Japan's actions are an affront to the whole of white civilization. A new alliance is founded and it is primarily the British who distress Japan on the seas while a coalition fights a land war through the mountain passes of Wyoming and Montana into Japanese-held territory.

What happens next is the most bizarre, from the perspective of a century after the fact. The great war fought, Japan's government accepts unconditional surrender and its people unconditionally accept the American and British occupiers as heroes. A global alliance of Anglophone nations is formed, primarily reuniting England and the United States. A global parliament is also formed to peacefully resolve conflicts and formulate the post-war treaties. The borders are agreed upon in Europe and Africa is neatly divided up between the imperial powers. Russia, Fitzpatrick writes, was originally displeased with having to give up Asian territories to Japan until it was calmly explained to them that Japan's natural expansion was in Asia. In The Coming Conflict of Nations we see a colonialist's utopia; a naive faith in the virtue of the colonizers and the simple amicability of the colonized, with no thought given to the idea that maybe there is no such thing as a "natural right" for one group to invade and dominate another. I suppose that is why he is Ernest Hugh Fitzpatrick, however, and not Gandhi.

Were this not enough, the last few pages communicate the true agenda at work. The global war as the means to the International Congress, which was itself a means to Fitzpatrick's true end: the establishment of global free trade!
At one bold stroke the International Congress struck down that great barrier and detriment to human progress and to the development of a high national character... There is nothing in all the recent history of the human race that has done more to demoralize the consciences of men, pervert their ideals and cause inequalities in the distribution of wealth and the products of toil than that pernicious system by which one country elects to erect commercial barriers against the free access into its markets of the products and commodities of other nations.

Railing on for several more pages about the evils of protectionism and liberating virtues of globalization, it would be easy enough to dismiss Fitzpatrick as an antique - as we have been doing so far - if his views weren't so de rigueur even today. Whether we're talking about the power brokers of Washington or the social justice capitalists of San Francisco, they share Fitzpatrick's cry of peace through commerce.

Eternal peace, for God even gets in on the act in the last paragraph: "By this enactment, the greatest in the history of the human race... were all united in this one great purpose. True Freedom for man to gain, and thus to make fitting this earth of ours for Christ's transcendent Second Reign." We might call it precognitive on the part of Fitzpatrick, or simply the perniciousness of his viewpoint, but perhaps the most accurate thing that The Coming Conflict of Nations reflect of American culture, left-wing or right-wing, is a zealous idolatry in the spread of Anglophone culture and free market capitalism as a religious imperative.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Jules Verne at Niagara Falls

Though Jules Verne did enjoy the lure of travel, and of sailing specifically, the majority of his excursions were flights of imagination conducted second-hand via reports. His one and only time in North America was an eight-day excursion to New York with a brief outing to Niagara Falls in 1867. It was during that outing that the author of The Fur Country, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, Family Without a Name and Volcano of Gold set foot upon Canadian soil for the only time.

A young couple at Niagra Falls, 1858.

According to Canadian Verne collector and scholar Andrew Nash:
Jules and [his brother] Paul travelled together from France arriving in Liverpool on March 18, 1867, expecting to sail on the Great Eastern on March 23. But the voyage was to be delayed, because workers were feverishly working to get the ship ready because this was its first voyage, after being converted back from a cable laying ship by a French syndicate, “Société des Affréteurs du Great Eastern”.

On March 26, they finally embarked on the Great Eastern in Liverpool for what should have been a 10 day crossing to New York. The ship had been fitted out to carry 3000 passengers but there were only 123 on this voyage. The voyage finally got underway but instead of taking 10 days, because of storms and bad weather the voyage lasted 14 days, and they finally docked in New York City on April 9th, 1867.


On the morning of April 12th, Jules and a Doctor friend, and I presume Paul, set out from the village of Niagara Falls for the site of Niagara Falls itself. They visited Goat Island, an island of approx. 70 acres (at the time of Verne’s visit) situated in the Niagara River above the Falls. The island separates the American Falls from the Canadian Falls, which are also know as the “Horseshoe Falls”. They also visited nearby Terrapin Tower for a closer look at the Falls. The tower was constructed on a rock outcropping in the river near Goat Island and was connected to it by a narrow footbridge, It was built in 1833 by Augustus and Peter Porter and was right at the brink of the Horseshoe Falls. During the rest of the day they wander along the banks of the river and then returned to the village of Niagara Falls for dinner. After a quick dinner they once again returned to Goat Island and Terrapin Tower for a view of the Falls at sunset. On the morning of the 13th of April, they walked to Canada to view the Falls from the Canadian side. They crossed the river via the iron suspension bridge. This iron suspension bridge had 2 levels. The upper level was for railway trains, and the 2nd level was for pedestrians and carriages.

Niagra Falls, 1908.

This trip inched its way into Verne's work, as in Master of the World when Robur takes his captive on a flight aboard The Terror:
I have said that the Niagara River flows between New York and Canada. Its width, of about three quarters of a mile, narrows as it approaches the falls. Its length, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, is about fifteen leagues. It flows in a northerly direction, until it empties the waters of Lake Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie into Ontario, the last lake of this mighty chain. The celebrated falls, which occur in the midst of this great river have a height of over a hundred and fifty feet. They are called sometimes the Horse-shoe Falls, because they curve inward like the iron shoe. The Indians have given them the name of "Thunder of Waters," and in truth a mighty thunder roars from them without cessation, and with a tumult which is heard for several miles away.

Between Lake Erie, and the little city of Niagara Falls, two islands divide the current of the river, Navy Island, a league above the cataract, and Goat Island, which separates the American and the Canadian Falls. Indeed, on the lower point of this latter isle stood once that "Terrapin Tower" so daringly built in the midst of the plunging waters on the very edge of the abyss. It has been destroyed; for the constant wearing away of the stone beneath the cataract makes the ledge move with the ages slowly up the river, and the tower has been drawn into the gulf.

The town of Fort Erie stands on the Canadian shore at the entrance of the river. Two other towns are set along the banks above the falls, Schlosser on the right bank, and Chippewa on the left, located on either side of Navy Island. It is at this point that the current, bound within a narrower channel, begins to move at tremendous speed, to become two miles further on, the celebrated cataract.

The "Terror" had already passed Fort Erie. The sun in the west touched the edge of the Canadian horizon, and the moon, faintly seen, rose above the mists of the south. Darkness would not envelop us for another hour.

So much did the magnificent world wonder impress itself upon him that he set the climax to Family Without a Name upon it. As described in that novel, revolutionaries mustered on Navy Island, above the falls, and employed a fleet of American ships to ferry people and supplies. On December 29, 1837, one of these ships - the S.S. Caroline - was captured, towed into the current and set ablaze. It drifted towards the falls until it was hung upon some rocks, broke up, and finally went over. In reality only one man was killed, but the media quickly blew it up into a heartless massacre by the British that nearly caused an international crisis and the renewal of hostilities between the Crown and the White House. Naturally, Verne prefers the more dramatic version of events.

The Caroline, as depicted in Family Without a Name.

This brief visitation certainly did not hinder Verne's regard in French Canada. The province of Quebec boasts three streets named for him: one in Quebec City, another in Montreal and a third in Sainte-Foy. More than that, his passing was mourned around the world, including the following poem published in the Evening Telegram newspaper of St. John's, Newfoundland:
Magician of our boyhood's days who've led
Us where mysterious isles with treasure teems;
Who in the depths of ocean's sunless bed
Has found a charm to fetter youthful dreams.
With you we've trod the banks of sacred streams,
In ancient temples bowed the reverent head.
Alas! to-day we learn that you are dead--
Youth loved hero -- whom the world esteems.
Science advanced thro' light thy fancy's flame
Across the genius of Invention threw
The youth of many peoples know thy fame,
And while the fancy of the boy is true
To wanderings far, adventures weird and stern,
He'll seek with joy the tales of Jules Verne.
March 25th, 1905

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Family Without a Name (1889)

As mentioned in my previous review of The Fur Country, Jules Verne did write a handful of stories set in the wild frontiers of Canada. Captain Hatteras skirted its Arctic borders in search of the North Pole and Robur the Conqueror flew over Niagra Falls, which was the only part of Canada visited by Verne in his lifetime. The Baltimore Gun Club bought up the North Pole in Verne's prescient The Purchase of the Pole and one of his posthumously published novels, The Golden Volcano, was set during the Klondike Gold Rush. The Fur Country featured an intrepid troupe of traders from the Hudson's Bay Company launched upon a polar mystery when a sudden earthquake seems to displace the stars in the heavens.

All these novels possess an element of the fantastic for which Verne was so well known. Yet his remaining Canadian novel, Family Without a Name, is devoid of this. Instead, it is a fairly straightforward historical drama about the 1837 political uprising in Quebec against the British government. This no doubt contributes to its obscure status; it was by sheer dumb luck that I happened across Edward Baxter's 1982 English translation, and according to the fine print, even this translation was supported by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council.

The lack of fantastic aspects of Scientific Romance does not mean that Family Without a Name lacks for echoes from Verne's oeuvre. The hero of this story is a young patriote, an enigmatic rebel leader going by the alias of "Jean Sans Nom". Literally "Jean No-Name"... Nemo, another of Verne's mysterious Romantic outcasts. The reason for Jean's anonymity is a secret shame borne by him, his priestly brother and their mother, and tied inexorably with the fate of the French nation in Lower Canada, as the province of Quebec was then called.

One of the foundational tensions of Canadian society has been the relationship between English Canada and French Canada. Originally competitors for land and beaver fur, Quebec was ceded to the British Empire after the Seven Year's War, with ebbs and flows of patriotic sentiment ever since. Inspired by the American Revolution of 1776 and provoked by heavy-handed domineering by the corrupt local authorities, would-be revolutionaries in both the English Upper Canada and French Lower Canada launched a would-be revolution in 1837. The rebellions were not especially large, and the Upper Canada Rebellion was essentially quelled in its first skirmish. The Lower Canada Rebellion lasted for a year, ending in military defeat, its leaders hanged or sent to the penal colony of Australia, and a shift in political favour towards more moderate reformers who ultimately brought about many of the desired changes through more peaceful negotiation.

What should make this relatively obscure conflict an object of interest for the illustrious Jules Verne? On the one hand we must remember that he is a Romantic, albeit one that predominately expressed himself through the genre he effectively created, the Scientific Romance. His fondness for the stories of tormented men of intense charisma and strength is de rigeur. The Nemo type is his Heathcliff. And like the great Romantic poets and men of letters, Verne is smitten with the folkways of the picturesque rural lands. Large portions of Family Without a Name are devoted to describing the agrarian utopia of early 19th century French-Canadian family life. One tenant farmer has enough children and grandchildren that the farm on which they live qualifies as a village unto itself. A marriage into the family also brings out the local Huron tribe to celebrate. Amidst all the pastoral bliss it is no wonder that Jean Sans Nom could hide in plain sight as an adopted addition to the farmer's multitude of children.

On the other hand, we must recall the context in which Verne is writing. The Franco-Prussian War drew to a close in 1871, with the fall of the Second Empire and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. Much French self-esteem was lost along with the territories, and hardest hit were those living within them. In response, Verne expressed the trauma through a novel about the plight of French colonists under British rule three decades before. He goes so far as to state the purpose of this inspirational tale directly: "The efforts of the French Canadians to recover their autonomy are an example which the French population of Alsace and Lorraine must never forget."

Some scholars have suggested that Verne was not particularly proud of his heritage, considering the regularity with which Americans and Britons are his protagonists, but this is not an accurate assessment. Verne is French, through and through, though he does not parade it until he needs to. Nor does he parade it with crude allegories of invasion, though that could certainly have added to his library of Scientific Romances. When needing to take the matter quite seriously, he makes his appeal to the serious facts of history.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

For All Time (2000)

Based on the classic Twilight Zone episode A Stop at Willoughby, the made-for-television movie For All Time stars Mark Harmon as a man who is vaguely unsatisfied with his life in the modern age and learns that he might as well be better off living in a small town 100 years ago.

The original 22-minute script penned by Rod Serling was pushed by brevity to drive home the suffering that its protagonist experienced as a man who could not keep pace with the alienation of modern life. Gart Williams did not simply have an unsatisfying job: it was literally killing him with ulcers and anxiety, brought on by the incessant drone of  his boss... "Push push push, push push push, this is a push push push business Williams, push push push..." The only thing trapping him in this job is the Lady Macbeth he married, whose appetites for large houses in good neighbourhoods requires lots of money. She keeps the spigot open by her emasculating cruelty. When Williams' evening commute makes a brief stop at a quaint, Old Timey town called Willoughby, it is a clear escape from the wretchedness of his life.

Bloated to an hour and 26 minutes, For All Time loses a great deal of the effect. Charles Lattimer is a successful, easy-going illustrator at an ad company whose personable partner is also his closest friend. He comes home in mid-afternoon to a nice, well-decorated house with his own comfortable rumpus room in the basement, which houses his model trains and antique collection. His wife has her own successful career, but they still care for each other, have good conversations together over dinner, and do things that married couples do. Even the city he lives in appears nice, clean and spacious... In fact, I can vouch that it is. It was filmed in Calgary, Canada, where I live. I've commuted on the same train he does in the film, only it's been much, much more crowded when I've done it. Nor did it ever drop me off right inside Heritage Park - our local historical village - like his did. That would have been really handy back when I worked there, in the very same newspaper office where they filmed.

Oh, but he wants to do an ad campaign with a Gibson Girl-looking figure and they won't let him, so that kinda' sucks. Luckily he buys an enchanted pocket watch from an antique store across the street from one of my favourite coffee shops that transports him to 100 years in the past. There he meets the spitting image of the very woman he drew for the ad campaign and discovers that he's kind of vaguely more satisfied living in the past than today, even though his wife and friend and co-workers and everyone are getting worried sick by his frequent disappearances. Too bad for them, because this is where he feels he belongs, even though he starts injecting modern ideas into the community as soon as he arrives. Eventually he is forced to make his decision between living in today or (literally) living in the past. And he does, and everyone lives happily ever after in the direct antithesis of Twilight Zone's fashion.

I'm not always so presumptuous as to tell a movie what it should have done. Nevertheless, a few things certainly could have helped it along. I would have made the city more crowded, more noisy, more pushy, more obnoxious, more anxious. His job would have been an equally pushy, intense, competitive environment where his heritage branding ideas aren't in fashion right now and its costing him clients. I also would have made his home life more alienating, like he and his wife occupy the same space but are miles and centuries apart. The Gibson Girl would not merely be a figure he drew once, but a recurring dream that suddenly becomes manifest, raising the question of whether he is only dreaming all of this or whether it is real. Somerville, the town, would have been all sunshine, marching bands and smiles, like Main Street USA. That would be my prescription for at least setting it up in a more appropriate way.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Don't Change the Cover: Artistic Freedom and the New Moralists

This past week, a new controversy occupied geek culture and spread out into the mainstream for a few brief opinion pieces. In the coming months, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker, DC Comics intended to publish each of their titles with an overpriced variant cover featuring the Clown Prince of Crime himself. The planned cover for the current Batgirl series would have featured The Joker with his armed draped around Batgirl, holding a pistol and painting a smile on her terrified face… A clear homage by artist Rafael Abuquerque to Alan Moore’s definitive Joker story The Killing Joke, which is widely considered one of the greatest superhero comics ever published and formed the backbone of the film The Dark Knight.

Unfortunately the decision to offer this stunning, grotesque, extremely effective piece was apparently made over the head of Batgirl’s co-writer Cameron Stewart, who took to Twitter to begin an astroturf campaign called #changethecover, trying to publicly shame his employers into pulling the cover. Between the points when the astroturfing was picked up by so-called social progressives and when the hashtag was completely taken over and locked down by GamerGate, Abuquerque himself made the request to withdraw the cover. Of course, that was not before he and DC Comics were accused of the usual battery of charges: misogyny, rape culture, and other assorted thoughtcrimes against women. Though there has been recent speculation that DC actually groomed this controversy to increase Batgirl's profile among the "Social Justice Warrior" market, apparently unaware that SJWs have been losing every controversy they've been insinuating themselves into while foregoing concern for any real world problems.  

There is much that is silly, contradictory, and nonsensical about the accusations that it is misogynistic for DC to put a strong female character like Batgirl in such an extremely disempowered position, which they would presumably never do to its male heroes. One is the fact that actually, yes, they do. People pushing back against the #changethecover campaign have been posting scans of other covers with the Joker disempowering heroes (like Joker holding Robin hostage at gunpoint, or putting his own surgically-removed face onto a tied up Batman, or engaged in a non-consensual dance with a drugged-looking Wonder Woman) or male heroes being disempowered (like Batman getting sexually assaulted by Harley Quinn, or Superman being dead) that have gone without any comparable controversy. Some people have chosen to attack The Killing Joke itself, calling it a disgusting example of the "woman in the refrigerator" trope, in which Batgirl is shot in the spine, stripped, and had photos taken of her assault as nothing more than an accessory to the larger plot to drive Commissioner Gordon insane (who was himself stripped naked and tortured by the Joker, physically and psychologically, which usually goes unmentioned). Besides the fact that The Killing Joke actually subverts the "woman in the refrigerator" trope, others have been pointing out the time that Talia al Ghul raped Batman and conceived a child without his consent, or when The Joker outright beat Robin to death with a crowbar. There appears to be a double-standard where physical and sexual violence against male characters is not only acceptable, but normative, while the same against female characters is not.

One could certainly get bogged down in discussions of sexual violence, male disposability, whether violence against men is evidence against patriarchy theory or evidence that the patriarchy is as injurious to men as to women, and so on, but that is all besides the issue I want to discuss here. My topic of this article is the disturbing attack on artistic freedom, and even art itself, by the new moralists of the political Left.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Twilight Zone: A Stop at Willoughby

The full episode of A Stop at Willoughby

A recurring thread in The Twilight Zone is the existential angst of the modern male. The canon of episodes is replete with middle-age guys who just can't catch a break, who just can't keep up with the pace of life in the jet age. The most famous is Henry Bemis, played by Burgess Meredith in the classic Time Enough at Last, a henpecked bookworm who just wants to curl up with a good story. A well-timed outbreak of nuclear war does a fine job of taking care of distractions, but as you know, there is always a catch in... The Twilight Zone.

A Stop at Willoughby is another such tale. An ulcerated ad executive can't deal with the "push push push" business he's in, nor his coldly materialistic wife at home. His only reprieve is on the long commute aboard a sleek, modern train. Whenever he falls asleep, though, he catches glimpses of an idyllic village in 1880. This little town is the perfect picture of Gay Nineties nostalgia: horse-drawn carts, boys with fishin' poles, ladies in bustle skirts on promenade with their top-hatted beaus. It's exactly the kind of life he wants, the kind of life where "a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure." After finally cracking under the pressure, he decides that next time he's going to get off at Willoughby.

Sometimes Rod Serling's protagonists get a second chance and sometimes they don't. Whether or not they do almost always depends on their ability to reconcile themselves to the modern age and, in doing so, find renewed life and purpose. Those who cannot or will not suffer cruel fates. A film with similar themes to A Stop at Willoughby is Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. The angst-ridden modern male, played by Owen Wilson, dreams of the bygone age of the Twenties in Paris during the Lost Generation. He dreams of escape, and lo, he gets it. Midnight in Paris could very well be an episode of The Twilight Zone, only this time the protagonist survives thanks to the realization he has about his desire to escape.

A Stop at Willoughby aired in 1960, at the height of Gay Nineties nostalgia and was undoubtedly Serling's commentary on that particular mode of escapism. Through the series, his affection for the time period does show (one of his most loving is an episode starring Buster Keaton). However, he seems entirely unsympathetic to this retreat into nostalgia. Do not lose yourself in it, he warns, for indeed you will be lost.

In 2000, the episode was fleshed out for a full-length made-for-TV movie called For All Time, starring Mark Harmon and filmed in my own backyard of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. That's a little weird, considering that the episode feels almost like it's directed personally at me.  

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Explorigator (1908)

When he began the amazing story of The Explorigator on Sunday, May 3rd, 1908, Harry Grant Dart was already well on his way to becoming an established and respected illustrator. After serving as a sketch artist in Cuba for the New York World paper, he assumed responsibility as its art director. It was for them that he developed the idea of The Explorigator as a response to Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, running in the rival New York Herald.  

Whereas McCay's Little Nemo found himself in all manner of fanciful places through his dreams, Dart's crew had a more pragmatic approach: the titular flying machine. Via this contraption, the crew was prepared to answer untold mysteries that haunted the minds of humanity. According to the blurb introducing the first strip:
Do we know that the Moon is inhabited or that it is made of green cheese? Do we know that Mars is inhabited or whether it is cracked? Do we know anything about Santa Claus Land or where Fourth of Julys are made? No! Decidedly no!
Realizing our terrible ignorance and remembering how long it has been since Alice visited Wonderland, the FUNNY SIDE decided that something must be done. The ablest minds in the country were consulted and exhausted. As a result behold "The Explorigator."
Neither brains nor money were spared in fitting out this wonderful airship. It has hot and cold water, dumbwaiters and a southern exposure. The crew has been carefully selected.
THE EXPLORIGATOR sails from this page to-day. It will go directly to the Moon, where the first series of explorations will be conducted.
That crew is a colourful cross-section of character archetypes (and racial stereotypes) common to this golden age of newspaper comic strips. There is the plucky reporter Teddy Typewriter and Chinese cook Ah Fergetit, the British guard Grenadier Shift and the sleuth Detective Rubbersole, navigator Maurice Mizzentop, Captain Nicholas Nohooks, and Admiral Fudge himself, rocking a fine pre-Nazi swastika charm on his hat.

Their first and only stop was the Moon. Like other stories of the type, the lunar sphere investigated by the Explorigator is a canvas for fanastic architecture and terrible puns, with incidents practically out of Lewis Carroll. After the Grenadier is caught trying to steal a product of the Moonbeam Factory, his hat (who was the real culprit, since the pilfered moonbeam was hiding beneath it) was confiscated and rehatched, whereupon it sprouts wings and a beak. The chase for the hat lands them in the palace of the Lady in the Moon, whose ladies in waiting are captivated by the Chinese cook, which causes the jealous Admiral to fire him. They then end up in a cave of giant cats and are pursued by giant frogs up to the strip's abrupt ending.

It's too bad that The Explorigator never continued. It is a classic newspaper strip from the golden age of newspaper strips, with some nice offbeat humour and a delightful premise. As it stands, the strip can be read in black and white at Barnacle Press, but if you'd like the full colour edition, you might have to shell out the $125 for Forgotten Fantasy: Sunday Comics 1900-1915 from Sunday Press Books. 

Saturday, 28 February 2015

On GamerGate, Toxic Marxism, and the Death of Online Liberalism

It is the six month semiversary of GamerGate and the more things change the more they stay the same. The media has maintained its narrative that a group composed primarily of liberal women is a misogynist hate mob because they stand up to the people who keep poking at them, supported by so-called progressives who engage in an endless variety of gendered and racial slurs. But real progress has been made with games media. Some of the major sites have seen their ad revenue drop by seven figures, other have inaugurated new ethics and disclosure policies, and still others have turned over their staff to provide greater diversity of voices. In the mean time, AAA games developers have been getting more vocal in standing up to the media and pretty much just wanting the whole thing to end

For me, one of the weirder and more cathartic things to come out of it is seeing how much this conflict echoed my experience with the Steampunk scene, which is probably why I've been riveted to it despite not identifying as a gamer. Though written respective to Hacker culture (and subtextually to GamerGate), Meredith Patterson's When Nerds Collide itemizes a lot of what happened when the "nerds" of Maker culture, cosplay culture, post-Goth culture, and SJW's discovered this thing called Steampunk (i.e.: "Many geeks can tell you stories of how they and a few like-minded companions formed a small community that achieved something great, only to have it taken over by popular loudmouths who considered that greatness theirs by right of social station and kicked the geeks out by enforcing weirdo-hostile social norms... [it] is by now a signaling characteristic of weirdohood."). With that act of appropriation came the entitlement and judgmentalism intrinsic to those kinds of cultural in-crowd movements. This anonymous article on NoteHub articulates the similar drive in SJW culture respective to GamerGate. A simple word-substitution of "SJW" for "Maker" suffices to explain much of how Steampunk culture operates (e.g.: "Maker culture operates on a hierarchical hub-and-spoke communications model. In this model, your right to speak is determined by your status. Your status is determined - among other things - by your displayed enthusiastic agreement with cultural precepts established by high-status individuals").    

It's probably not possible to do a better six month-recap than the one delivered by shoe0nhead, or this article by T. James, However, since the media narrative hasn't changed by much, the article I wrote back in November still seems to apply. So here it is, once more...    

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Océadia (2004)

The following short computer animation is a brief tribute to Jules Verne by David Uystpruyst and Sylvain Potel, featuring Harper Goff's famous design of the Nautilus. Enjoy!

The official website can be found here.