Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Golden Compass - The Film

Why exactly were Christians suggesting boycotting the film "The Golden Compass"? I recently saw the film and cannot see any reason for it. So I must assume it has something to do with the book it was based on, which I haven't read yet.

I did start it though, so I guess I'll know more when I'm done. I can say that in the first fifty pages the young heroine, Lyra, is depicted drinking liquor and smoking cigarettes, which is not surprsingly missing from the film. But if that is the type of thing leading to boycotts, almost every religious person I've ever known needs to be boycotted - but that's a subject for another time.

I can only look at the film I actually saw and offer a few thoughts. It was a spectacular looking film, for the most part. The animal daemons (or souls - hmm, maybe that's the issue) were extraordinary, brilliantly animated and a major piece of the movie's charm. As well, the directing, acting and production were at a high level. The young actress playing Lyra, the main character, was brilliant.

I can't discuss how the book was translated to screen yet, but I can say that in the screenwriting there were some problems.

When a book is made into a movie, which in Hollywood seems to be a large majority of the releases, there is an outcry over what is lost, missing, changed and, as the criticism usually implies, destroyed in the translation. One need only search out Tolkien scholars' discussions of Peter Jackson's trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. But I will say this - as movies, Jackson's work held up on their own and were seamless. Confusion was held to a minimum. Whether they adapted Tolkien's work correctly is irrelevant to this discussion - they were straightforward and spectacular Hollywood films, if you like that sort of thing. And they made sense.

Which is not to say that "The Golden Compass" does not make sense. It just seemed to miss opportunities to give us more information. It rolls along and we must accept what we are told and roll with it. But we sense a deeper backstory of which we know nothing. Perhaps when I finish the book, this feeling will go away.

But a book and a movie are completely different entities. You should never have to experience both to understand either. I hold to an old adage that the book is always better than the movie, but cinema is such a huge canvas that it is increasingly the only way people come to know the written works of the world. So they need to get it right.

A land of giant polar bears, a bunch of witches and a prophecy about Lyra that everyone seems to know, but that we are never told, are all elements that made me wonder what world we were actually on. World-building is a very important topic in fantasy criticism. The examination of how a world is constructed and whether all the elements fit together to unify the created world as a place we can accept is essential to belief in the story. In The Golden Compass, I never could figure out exactly how the world so spectacularly shown on-screen was held together. When the witch shows up for the first time, I actually had a "huh?" in my mind. Witches? And when the witch army is shown in silhouette on their brooms in the air, I first thought, "Ah, that's cool," but then, "Huh?" again. We did not know enough about this world for all these elements to add up.

I believe the book will do a better job, as in the first fifty pages Lyra has a run in with some ghosts due to some of her constant trouble making. A detail like this may have made the witches seem less out of place. The story still made enough sense that unaddressed questions did not take away from the visual splendor. Ultimately, as a Hollywood movie, it was an enjoyable ride. When your second most important character is a giant polar bear, and it works, you are definitely having some fun at the theater.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Brigadoon - The Movie

Brigadoon is a musical from 1954, directed by Vincente Minelli, starring Gene Kelly, Van Johnson and Cyd Charisse. I was led to it by a line from another Waterboys' song (more about that later) and intrigued to find out the story.

Basically, Brigadoon is a small village in the Scottish highlands. To prevent the village from changing due to outside influences, the village preacher makes an arrangement with God to have the village appear only once every hundred years for one day. To the inhabitants of Brigadoon, the century will seem to be only one night: they go to sleep, a hundred years pass, and they wake up the next morning. The only thing they cannot do is leave the village. If they do, the compact is broken and the town will fade.

An odd story, but an interesting idea and worth seeing how it plays out. The film is staged in an interesting manner. On large soundstages, elaborate Scottish highland sets were built and elaborately painted backdrops were used. When something is clearly not real, I believe we are more easily drawn into believing it on the level of the fantastic (an aside: for me, this is why Ray Harryhausen's clay creatures work so well - they do not look real, so can be believed as real, being mythical creatures anyway). Strict reality is discarded, yet all other film conventions are used. We easily slip into the landscape of Brigadoon.

This is never more clear than toward the end, when the characters played by Kelly and Johnson decide they must leave Brigadoon. Minelli brilliantly cuts from the village fading into the mists to a panoramic shot of New York City, showing Manhattan's urban lights and skyscrapers in all their glory. The cut is so effective because up till then, we have been in Scotland, on a soundstage. NYC is majestic too, but we are soon in a nightclub with swarming urbanites talking over each other and demonstrating the kinetic energy that one either thrives on or despises. With maybe ten minutes left in the film, the change in place and scale is epic. This being a Hollywood musical, we know our characters will want to go back to Brigadoon, but as the audience, we get the opportunity to consider the differences and how we would want to choose.

The only movie I had seen by Minelli previously was "Meet Me in Saint Louis", whose scale was much smaller. I was not prepared for the wide shots and open landscapes of "Brigadoon" based on that film. Perhaps the songbook is not so memorable, but the Scottish touches are charming and Minelli gets good performances from the actors. Even more, "Brigadoon" is well worth seeing for the cinematography, production design and lighting. And really, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse are pretty classy stars from Hollywood's past. That glittering Hollywood world is a pretty fantastic place all on its own, but in this case, is just a lot of fun.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Brigadoon - The Idea

"I saw the lone empty valley
you saw Brigadoon"
(Lyrics from The Waterboys, appearing on: New York January 1985 / London Feb 1985 On "This Is The Sea", "Best Of", "Live Adventures" and "The Whole Of The Moon".)

The lyrics above are from The Waterboys song "The Whole of the Moon" and led me to the movie "Brigadoon" (see previous post).

The film has its charms, but more interesting to me is the meaning of the lyrics above: how the same place (or person or thing) can be seen by any two people and register different thoughts and feelings in both. In the film, this is not so clear, as both of the New Yorkers who stumble upon Brigadoon eventually are ensnared by the simple village life and want to stay. But early on, some of the best moments come from Van Johnson as the cynical urbanite finding the singing Scots to be way too much. Van doesn't see a lone empty valley, but he is certainly not immediately charmed by Brigadoon. Gene Kelly of course sees a beautiful valley and is hooked from the start.

But the lyrics say more than the movie shows, because they have implications for hopes, attitudes and the personal views we all bring to everything we experience. When we only see one side, and cling to it without acknowledging the other side's meaning to, and appropriateness for, someone else, we do ourselves and others a great unjustice. A "lone empty valley" or "Brigadoon"? Is there any way to say which is correct? Allowing others their views, as long as they allow yours, is for me the basis of living with other people. Hopefully everyone is diligent in having reasons for the individual views they espouse and not just repeating what someone else said.

Even more hopefully, in the great expanses, when we look and see the dull and the lack of, perhaps we can look a little closer and a little longer. We may see Brigadoon eventually after all. Remember, it only comes around every hundred years.

But I think it would be worth it to get that very rare experience.

Monday, November 26, 2007

"What are the chances of the world changing?"

Is a question we ask more and more as we begin the Christmas season, looking forward to the peace and beauty of our Winter Solstice celebrations in a world that is changing rapidly. It is also a question asked by a film that explores the world as it is by showing us what it could be - and still may be in some places.

The Chances of the World Changing tells the story of Richard Ogust, a writer from New York City who began to care for endangered Asian turtles when he saw, and purchased, one from a Chinese restaurant. These endangered Asian turtles are considered a delicacy, leading to a massive import of these animals. The majority of them are bound for China.

The film shows how Ogust began an assurance colony, basically a collection of an endangered species that is meant to simply keep the species alive, hopefully until it is possible to safely return them to a natural habitat. The growth of his colony led this work to take over his life, and the film focuses on his attempts to create a safe and permanent haven for his huge collection of endangered Asian turtles.

Why does this echo the holiday season for me? In this way: at this time of year, we transform our reality with decoration - lights explode in the darkness and nature is brought indoors. On long dark nights, these lights are magical, as is bringing nature into our homes at a time when people are not traditionally outside unless necessary.

With our global weather patterns changing, all of this changes. It may get very cold, but there seem to be more fluctuations. Outdoor activity goes on - very few people stay home at the hearth to last out the winter. We have affected change on our planet, some for the good, much for the bad. Eric Daniel Metzgar's film holds out a promise: any harm being done to the world by people can be offset by good things being done by people. Or can it?

The beginning shots of The Chances of the World Changing emphasize the differences between the natural world and the urban world we have created. We enter on a close up of green leaves. What we are looking at is unclear, until the camera dollies back and focuses to give us the correct perspective for our vision. We see bright, green and amazing nature. When we next see a forest with New York City in the background, the explicit theme is set with the simple visual juxtaposition - the relationship between man and the rest of the world. The beauty of the opening shot, so close to the greenery of the world, is then paralleled by similar shots within the city: close ups of items not so pleasing to look at - discarded coffee cups and papers flitting through the urban streets. The details of the two worlds are completely different, as are the worlds themselves - one man created, one he simply evolved from.

The story told shows how utterly exasperating it can be to develop a vision of the world that runs counter to the mainstream. The roadblocks of the government in halting the work of this man are stunningly foolish. They make decisions that seem so simply, and maddeningly, unnecessary and foolish that we are stunned. Though we may see a certain single-mindedness from Richard Ogust, and wish he could find more resources and support, we understand that his work prevented him from having time to seek out more assistance. What is driving him is simple: he can contribute to saving turtles by caring for them. It is that simple for him, which is the typical double-edged sword, because the world we have created does not allow something that simple to exist. His life is ruined in so many ways by his attempts to create a world of safety for the turtles.

Criticisms of the film that I have seen mention over-abundant close up's and a slow pace, but I feel that the strategy used by Metzgar works in similar ways to the long, calm takes of the work of Carl Dreyer. We see the reality of a situation, which allows us to initiate and ponder the possibility of solutions that are not currently real. The thoughts we have as we watch this amazing story unfold are the true rewards the filmmaker allows us to experience.

Unfortunately for Richard Ogust, his solutions seem impossible for the authorities he is working against to understand, even as they seem obvious to the viewer. "What are the chances of the world changing?", indeed. In this specific case, nil. But in every moment of our lives, we must believe it is possible for it to actually happen.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Bridge That Hanuman Built

From a story by Laurie Goering of the Chicago Tribune, Hindu nationalists in India are trying to prevent the dredging of a deep shipping canal that would destroy submerged sand and coral islands between India and Sri Lanka. The Indian government wants to improve shipping speed by clearing the waterway of any obstructions.

However, the Hindu nationalists believe the islands to be the stones that Hanuman, the monkey hero, enlisted the monkey army to throw into the water to create a bridge, thus allowing the hero, Rama, to get to Sri Lanka, the demon island, where Sita, Rama's wife, was being held captive.

According to the story, the Hindu nationalists called for violence against the politicians responsible, then rescinded that directive. But virulent protests continued, leading the government to reconsider the idea.

I cannot speak for either side, but this is certainly an intersection of the religious and the political, perhaps not quite "beyond" the veil, but certainly on the dividing line. Any religion's fundamentalists calling for violence, and the mindset that their beliefs are the only true beliefs, are actions that have absolutely no place in this world. However, is the economic betterment for some - probably the already wealthy - worth the cultural destruction of a mythological, and in this case, religious, landmark?

A thought from Joseph Campbell comes to mind. He felt it was a mistake when the Roman Catholic church eliminated Latin as the language of their mass because it took away the mystery and the awe of the rite being celebrated.

The myth, the story, the rite, the belief - it is only powerful if it still invokes a sense of wonder. Is there no other way to increase production of the ship lines that want to go through the bridge that Hanuman built? If there is no other way, is it truly necessary?

I cannot condone the call for violence to stop this action, but I sympathize with the need to better alleviate the differences between an economic and a mythological world. The bridge of Hanuman is a cultural treasure for its' Hindu believers. Since I read the Ramayana recently, I would never have guessed there was some sort of real bridge. Submerged though it is, just knowing it is there brings a new level of mystery and awe to the reading of a classic, and already enjoyable, work.

Here's hoping they work this out to both sides benefit.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Star to Every Wandering Barque

“The Star to Every Wandering Barque” by James Stoddard is a story featured in the October/November 2007 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s a brave story for Stoddard to write and for F&SF to publish, as it is not at all cynical, as many of us are these days. Some of us might think it na├»ve, but I urge you to read it.

The title comes from Shakespeare, I believe, and the star is referring to love. We must work to get attitudes like those expressed in the story to be the prevailing attitudes of our global society. It always seems to me that those who should be our leaders are the people who would least want to have to deal with the historical trappings that come with being those leaders. The jobs seem too dirty for those among us who could actually bring a sense of responsibility to them. Beyond our veil of cynicism and ego, perhaps there is a place like Stoddard describes. Not the kind of writing you see very often.

If you want to read quality writing on a regular basis, you can’t go wrong with F&SF. Try it. If you like it, subscribe.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

How Green Was My Valley

The Ramayana was supposed to be my next topic - I've got three or four planned out.

But I'm learning blogging doesn't really work that way. You can't plan a topic and then just produce a few paragraphs on it. For one, it may not do the topic justice. The Ramayana is so sweeping and amazing, that I really need to come up with an angle.

So - I ended up pulling out a movie today that came with a set I bought for a class. An old classic (?!) - "How Green Was My Valley". Surprisingly enough, one of the major themes is absolutely relevant to what I want to explore here.

Basically - the industrial revolution and the growth of coal mining, along with associated labor problems, led to the deterioration of a small Welsh town. Now I'm no Luddite - technology is good.

But I feel technological growth at the expense of our ecological environment has a saturation point at which the scales begin to tip. When the pressures of labor and economy also begin degrading the social structure, then it is time to evaluate how to use all of our amazing technology to scale back our effect on the environment. The key is to do it while still allowing all living humans around the globe to live in a decent manner.

With global wealth distribution the way it is in our world right now, we have a long way to go.

Interesting that the solution for Huw in "How Green" eventually was to leave. At that time, there were places to go where you could escape black air, dust and the death of most of your family. In our world, those places are few and far between. And you best be one of the wealthy to enjoy them for any length of time.

I could probably go into the interesting religious themes expressed in the movie - one that goes by the heart and not the rules - but that's for another post.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is a modern western, and for me, is, oddly enough, equal parts David Lynch and Todd Solondz. But with it’s unflinching look at attitudes toward immigration and the humanism we may all have within us somewhere, the mythic West is used to explore politics and oppressions that we are concerned about today. The brutal realism with which the characters are portrayed does not make for fun or casual viewing. If you have not seen this film, and chances are good that if you only see films at the theater you missed this one, be warned of mild spoilers ahead.

The idea of “Jimenez”, the small and beautiful town that Melquiades says he is from, is an interesting concept to explore. Pete discovers that Jimenez is a ruin of crumbled stone walls in the middle of a small glen of trees. The name is made up. Also made up is Melquiades’ relationship with the woman and children whose picture he shows to Pete. He claims them as his family, yet they have never heard of Melquiades Estrada.

Living a quiet life in America, where Estrada stays low-key and must deal with the pressure of being found and forced back to Mexico, he has created a mythical life, an oasis in his mind that makes him happy. His life in Mexico must have been as solitary as his apparent exile in America. We begin to wonder exactly what Melquiades did in the ruins he named Jimenez and how he came to be there. We can believe that the solitude and natural beauty of the place created a safe haven for him, perhaps the only one he has ever known.

Or is Jimenez a symbol of lost dreams? A dead and crumbled town standing in for happiness could point to a life of hardship that never had a moment of real happiness. His choice of lies may indicate that even his inner life has been beaten into submission.

Every character in “The Three Burials” creates a fantasy world. But none ever achieve any permanent connection to it. Beauty remains fantasy just as reality remains harsh.

The creation of a comforting place, where one can relax and allow our troubles to dissipate, is what many of us aim for. Hopefully that place can be real and not just a fantasy. If it doesn’t exist around us, perhaps we need to create it for ourselves. But even then, its existence may be fleeting.