Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Good Wine is Pleasant, the Best Wine is Pleasence

Looking at him, you wouldn't peg Columbo as a wine person. More like beer, maybe whiskey. But then there's "Any Old Port in a Storm", a 1973 episode of Columbo featuring Donald Pleasence in the role of a celebrity wine connoisseur who murders his brother. He turns out to be one of the series' most impressively demented and oddly sympathetic villains.

We meet Adrian (Pleasence) hosting a meeting in the offices of his family's California vineyard. He goes back alone to his private office briefly and finds his brother waiting there with news: he's decided to get married and sell the winery--all along, he's owned the place, despite it being Adrian's lifelong passion.

Of course, Adrian kills his brother. Pleasence clearly seems to have put a lot of thought into what his emotional state would be like in the moment and it's amazing watching the debonair gentleman devolve into sputters and shouts before knocking his brother over the head. Throughout the rest of the episode you can see him making an effort to keep a lid on his mania. He breaks out in small moments, like when he laughs hysterically after Columbo (Peter Falk) correctly guesses the kind of wine he's been served.

At first, Columbo knows nothing about wine but then he takes some rudimentary lessons from another local connoisseur. He learns he ropes well enough to devise a trap for Adrian, one dependent on the sensitivity of his palate. But Columbo's new appreciation for wine seems to make him more sympathetic to Adrian than most of the other murderers he catches, leading to an oddly sweet moment at the end.

Twitter Sonnet #1399

With scratchy lines and shrinking dogs it came.
The future fell asleep across the floor.
A drunken draft the final film became.
An easy effort slips from throat to door.
The extra pencils fell from leaden skies.
Impressions drew the inky rain with paint.
The words could never find the proper eyes.
The mind could never make the heart a saint.
Preemptive tea awaits completed meals.
The reason shuffled changed the science cook.
The data showed a set of extra deals.
A group of caps would crowd the heavy book.
The scarlet bev'rage aged beside the cup.
The time was ever late arrived to sup.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Dogs Fall Apart

Disney went back to the dogs in 1961 with One Hundred and One Dalmatians, a lighter, significantly cheaper production than its immediate predecessor and a far greater success at the box office. Based on a 1956 novel by Dodie Smith first published in serialised form in Women's Day, its story involving marriage, motherhood, and fashion certainly feels as though it would be at home in the pages of a women's magazine and, although Disney's adaptation makes big changes to the story, its contemporary vibe stands in striking contrast to earlier Disney animated films, even Lady and the Tramp. The warmth and casual sense of awkward humanity in the film make it amiable and accessible though it also ends up feeling a bit smaller. Lacking the sense of majesty of previous Disney films, it feels more like a tasty snack than a full course meal. When added to this is the return to a 4:3 aspect ratio after the widescreen visuals of Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty, it feels more like television than cinema. But the film's success guaranteed many aspects of its production would be a model for animated films moving forward and one has the distinct feeling, when watching it, of one era ending and another, for better or, many would argue, very much for worse, beginning.

Rod Taylor of The Birds and Dark of the Sun stars as Pongo whose name, we're told in the novel, was a traditional Romani name for dalmatians. Two dogs in the book are condensed into one (voiced by Cate Bauer) to make Perdita, a name taken from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Perdita in Winter's Tale is a princess raised in exile by commoners. In Dodie Smith's novel, this made sense because its Perdita is not the mate of Pongo, instead a starving, abandoned dog who serves as wet nurse for the fifteen puppies born to Missis, Pongo's mate in the book. Smith writes Missis as a Paragon of the supposedly desirable, dim-witted '50s housewife who runs on emotions. She lacks the intelligence to tell left from right. When Pongo and another dog try to explain left and right to her again and again, Smith describes when they finally give up and laughing, "in a very masculine way." Somehow I don't find it surprising to see this kind of characterisation in a women's magazine. It makes sense that women in the 50s would fantasise about being inferior to men the way many men fantasise about being inferior to women to-day. I'm glad Disney decided to leave this stuff out, even if it does mean they had to remove the interesting character of the book's Perdita.

In other ways, even in the original novel, One Hundred and One Dalmatians may be seen as the progressive answer to the conservative Lady and the Tramp. The refusal of the adult dogs and humans to sell or allow to be killed even one of the overabundant quantity of puppies suggests a belief in innate equality but both the film and the book present the belief that exceptional individuals should be rewarded with exceptional privilege. The human male, Roger Radcliffe (Ben Wright)--Dearly in the book--is a man distinguished by great accomplishment. In the book, he's an accounting genius, exempt from paying taxes because he single-handedly solved the government's debt. In the film, he has the more cinematic talent for songwriting and is responsible for the film's devilishly catchy number, "Cruella De Vil".

It's impressive Disney followed up Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty with another of the greatest villains in film history. In this case, the source material could be credited with much of what made Cruella (Betty Lou Gerson). Smith's version is even more Satanic and the inside of her home is described as different rooms of all red, black, or white marble, which made me think of The Masque of the Red Death. But the animators and character designers at Disney certainly brought a lot to the table with her jutting bones and heavy, swirling, fur coat.

The humans are much more prominent characters in the film and one of the more charming moments is Roger's teasing performance of the song he's written, The jazzy number, along with the tendency for colours to spill outside the lines in the backgrounds, further contribute to the sense of the contemporary in the film. This is the first truly postmodern Disney film.

The late '50s and early '60s are when postmodernism really started to exert itself and Disney movies are far from the only ones that showed an old studio trying to incorporate the shift in avant garde, and increasingly in popular, media. Postmodern art is art that references its nature as artwork to achieve its statement or convey its ideas. So, really, you can find examples predating the time considered to be its birth--Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) or Tristram Shandy (1767) are both examples and Disney's own short, "All the Cats Join In", from Make Mine Music (1946), in which an animated brush rendered moving characters before the viewer's eyes, could be seen as examples. With the French New Wave films like Breathless and Vivre sa vie taking postmodernism to new levels in film on a fraction of a Hollywood budget while cinema was also losing ground to television, it was to postmodernism Hollywood was turning more and more with varying degrees of success in films like Tom Jones or Paris When it Sizzles.

What made One Hundred and One Dalmatians different from "All the Cats Join In" was that its elements of postmodernism were necessitated by budget and trend. After Sleeping Beauty failed to make money, the time for intricate, detailed, grandiose fairy tales was over. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a story of comparatively ordinary characters and its animation was produced via a substantially cheaper process using Xerox to eliminate the need to ink the animators' pencil drawings. A side effect of this method is that many of the rough guiding lines showed through in the finished film.

The technique also didn't hold up well when zoomed in on, resulting in some dogs, particularly shaggier ones, having dark, clumpy contours.

Backgrounds were also done in the same process for unity of style. Though that wouldn't explain why some backgrounds look as unfinished as they do.

But it was all okay because of postmodernism, because now the seams were supposed to show. I used not to like postmodernism, except in comedy. Usually I thought it was tediously redundant. I thought movies like Jules and Jim and Pierrot le Fou endured in spite of, rather than because of, their postmodernism. I still think those films succeed more for their emotional cores than for their New Wave gimmicks but in recent years I've come to realise there are widespread deficiencies in the capacity for critical thought among people who graduated from college in the past ten years or so. Now I think many young people would probably benefit from exposure to scenes like the one in Vivre sa vie when Godard randomly cut out the score, or the fourth wall breaking in Une femme est une femme. Things like that elegantly demonstrate to the viewer just how a work of cinema is operating on their senses and when people become aware of these things they have more control over what media can manipulate them and how.

Animation is a medium that is certainly too often taken for granted, especially since most of us are first exposed to it as children. Most kids never imagine the years of slow, painstaking work that goes into a feature length animated film and many people carry this lack of awareness into adulthood. So leaving artifacts of the work process in the finished product creates a parallel story about artists carefully building something. Walt Disney, though, wasn't happy with how the film looked and expressed regrets, leading to a rift between him and the film's art director, Ken Anderson. It's not hard to imagine why he disliked it--as someone who fought against his striking workforce in the '40s under the belief that harder working, more talented individuals deserved greater privileges, certainly the idea of someone being rewarded for leaving a job unfinished would seem contemptible. But the current market seemed to be against him. Suddenly, sloppiness was profitable, or at least, that's how many people approvingly saw the state of things.

What it really is is an appeal to pity. Much as Foucault's influential writings at the time were convincing people to regard mental illness as a virtue; the appeal behind showing the rough edges is a bit like turning the adult artist into the child who takes their crude crayon drawing home to their mother to receive praise not for how impressive their work is but for how adorably flawed is the product of their great effort. When it's not actually your child, the pleasure tends to be temporary, especially since, after a while, all works in progress tend to be the same story--a work in progress.

So the film works in spite of rather than because of its postmodernism. There is a charm in the animation, particularly in the puppies, and its ability to elicit character has nothing to do with the fact that it looks unfinished. There's a sweetness in the idea of the nationwide network of dogs ready to help Pongo and Perdita. For all its endearing qualities, though, it's no surprise that Sleeping Beauty has ultimately come to be regarded as the better film. And it's little wonder One Hundred and One Dalmatians is seen as the start of a Disney Dark Ages that would last until 1989 and the release of The Little Mermaid.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Candy is Everywhere

Japan is, fortunately, doing nothing to cure me of my love of Halloween candy. Behold, Apple Pie Kit Kats, which I understand are available in the U.S. They were a novelty for me and so good. I'd swear they taste warm.

For something more difficult to acquire in the U.S., try this Kimetsu no Yaiba candy bar:

I took this photo while getting on a train in Osaka. Nezuko, the demon girl, wears a bamboo bit to prevent her from biting people--or is it a bamboo bit? The concept behind this candy bar seems to be to suggest that it's secretly chocolate with green tea frosting. It was pretty good.

Kimetsu no Yaiba is massively popular around here. Everywhere I go there are cards, stationary, stickers, candy, cookies--anything that can have an Kimetsu no Yaiba image stuck on it. Being a series about demons it seems to fit nicely among the Halloween candy.

Here are a couple more recent photos:

A couple local birds:

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Traffic Jam of the Doctor

Good satire can be tough to pull off and a hybrid of satire and drama can be even harder. So I can't be too hard on Russell T. Davies for "Gridlock", a 2007 episode of Doctor Who. There are some really great ideas in the episode, including the basic premise of an entire society permanently stuck in bad traffic. But it never quite works with the level of verisimilitude required by Doctor Who; there are too many natural questions the Doctor and Martha don't ask, chief among them being, "Why don't you get out and walk?"

The third episode of the Tenth Doctor's (David Tennant) second season, he's still adjusting to life travelling with Martha (Freema Agyeman) and still getting over the loss of Rose, his previous companion. He brings Martha to New Earth, a location he'd visited with Rose in the previous season, something Martha points out makes her feel like the "rebound". Russell T. Davies' tendency not to avoid talking about the Doctor and his companion as lovers is still refreshing, both for how it differed from the classic series and how it differs from the past few seasons. I particularly like a line Martha has where she says she doesn't know if he wants her or if he just "needs someone with him." It's one of the many moments in the Davies era that seem to work as a comment on the whole of the classic series.

After materialising in an alley where mood altering drugs are being sold in patch form, Martha is quickly kidnapped at gunpoint by Lenora Crichlow, the ghost from the original Being Human, and her boyfriend (Travis Oliver). They need her to be the third passenger in their car allowing them to go to "the fast lane", what we'd call the "carpool lane" in the U.S. In the fast lane, it will take them a mere six years to travel ten miles to their destination. The Doctor, chasing after them, winds up in another car that's been travelling for years and neither he nor Martha ask, "Why don't you walk?"

It is a funny idea. We see the occupants of a few other cars throughout the episode and I like the different personalities quickly established for all of them. I especially like the elderly couple, who've been stuck since "the beginning", 23 years ago. But where did they get all their furniture? Was it delivered? If so, how did the delivery people reach them so quickly?

Both the Doctor and Martha waste no time being judgemental about the recreational drug use on display, the implication being that the drugs have made people complacent. That doesn't quite take care of all the questions, though, like how people have managed to stay fed and clothed. Crichlow is wearing an "honesty" patch that forces her to tell the truth and Martha doesn't even think to ask why she's wearing it. Breezing past these things might work in a cartoon satire that's all about the punchline, but this is also a story with serious moments and moments that are meant to be touching, like when the drivers all join in singing a hymn. When Martha teared up at the sight, I thought, "Oh, that's how the audience is supposed to feel" but didn't, or at least I didn't.

Satire can work on Doctor Who--good examples being The Pirate Planet or The Happiness Patrol. But it doesn't quite hold up in "Gridlock".

Twitter Sonnet #1398

Delays have kept the habit floating up.
The secret shoe was clear as masks could be.
A pleasant wine avoids the bitter cup.
The loudest whale was big around the sea.
The lovely day presents a sky of grey.
A random corner shows the happy house.
Remaining shoes would dance along the way.
The ground was firm beneath the largest mouse.
In darkness bugs were singing songs of drink.
The paper wraps around computer chairs.
We gather dishes, thinking 'bout the sink.
On plastic disks we burn remaining cares.
The giant crab returned from missing reels.
A tiny pie completes the tiny meals.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Sometimes Nuns Go Crazy for Satan

To the venerable genre of nunsploitation, 1981 added The Other Hell (L'altro inferno), a horror film that's more silly than scary. It has some nice stylistic choices and an oddly groovy score by Goblin but its free-wheeling, nonsensical plot, among other things, bring more laughs than scares.

Carlo De Mejo as the protagonist, Father Valerio, a priest detective who's called in to investigate the horrific goings-on at a convent, has the most distractingly hilarious reactions. At one point the groundskeeper cuts the head off a chicken in front of him--the filmmakers actually show a chicken's head getting cut off--and Valerio's reaction might be best described as slow burning bafflement.

What is it about nuns that makes us want to see them murdering people and having sex? There's much more of the former in this one, the latter precluded by one nun who likes to carve out the sexual organs of her dead sisters.

What this has to do with the mysterious masked nun (Francesca Carmeno) carrying a cat isn't clear. We do learn who she is, though.

Let's just say it involves a daughter of Satan and telekinetic powers. This doesn't explain why the groundskeeper kidnaps her and kills her cat. But it certainly wasn't a smart move for him.

There is one scene that's genuinely creepy when the masked nun talks to Valerio in the confessional. Confessional scenes are almost always gold, there's just too much innate drama in having someone deeply pious confessing sinful thoughts on the other side of a wooden grating. Add a butcher knife and you have perfection.

The Other Hell is available on Amazon Prime.

Computers on the Outside, Brains on the Inside

When new sentient life emerges, how do we recognise it and respond to it? A variety of complications will inevitably arise as we can see from "The Quality of Life", a sixth season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation written by Naren Shankar. A tool created by an engineer developing a "particle fountain" starts to exhibit signs of intelligence, prompting Commander Data to step in as an advocate for their rights. It's a thoughtful episode that uses Star Trek technology in interesting ways.

The Exocomps are cute little pods with feet--I don't know how intentional that cuteness was*--who are suited to handle a variety of repairs because of a replicator mounted on their front. A piece of technology that can create almost any form of inert matter from energy, the relicator, introduced in season one of TNG, is a device with an almost too abundant storytelling potential. In this case, Shankar had the nice idea of letting the Exocomp use replicators to make new circuit pathways to adapt itself for different situations, the fact that it starts to work like a brain manifesting as an unintended consequence.

When it occurs to Data (Brent Spiner) that these things might be artificial lifeforms not unlike himself he demands that his fellow officers and the research engineer, Farallon (Ellen Bry), stop exploiting them for labour. The episode nicely sets up motives for the others to make this a hard thing to do. Farallon is fiercely ambitious and reluctant to allow this unexpected development to stand in her way. She has her own backstory of thwarted endeavours she shares with La Forge (Levar Burton).

The actress gives a strikingly odd, slightly stilted performance. The bumps on her forehead mark her as one of the many TNG budget makeup aliens, maybe she decided to play up that alienness in her performance.

The stakes are raised when Picard (Patrick Stewart) and La Forge are trapped on the research station and it looks like only a suicide mission for the Exocomps can save them. The ethical problem in which the crew then find themselves is creatively handled.

The central problem of the episode's drama is explicitly revealed in a conversation between Data and Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) in which he asks her to define life. It's difficult for her to do as definitions that involve adaptability and self replication could apply to other things--Data uses the example of fire. When the definition itself is hard to nail down, it becomes an even greater challenge to recognise the Exocomps as lifeforms when the interests of the currently recognised sentient beings conflict with their survival. But one of the nice, unique, things about Star Trek is that it portrays a futuristic human organisation with members educated and trained to handle matters with intelligence and sensitivity. It'd be shame if anyone lost sight of that . . .

*The wiki says they were based on something from Dirty Pair. It's been too long since I watched that delightful anime.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Not So Eternal Youth Versus the Enterprise

Whoever heard of a virus that kills the old but spares the young? Anyone who remembers "Miri", a first season episode of Star Trek, aired in October, 1966, in which the crew beam down to an Earth-like planet inhabited only by children. I've always liked how this episode condensed and recontextualised the psychological differences between young and old and the resulting conflicts between them. Now, of course, the story takes on some new resonance.

Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) find empty, ravaged streets on the Earth-like world before they're attacked by a deranged young man who promptly dies in front of them.

Finding a laboratory, Spock and McCoy uncover the history of the place and how, long ago, its inhabitants tried to genetically engineer a way to extend their lifespans. They succeeded in making something that causes the body to age much more slowly--about a month's worth of aging for every century--but once puberty is reached the pathogen reacts by tearing its host apart, physically and psychologically.

The mental deterioration starts to affect the Enterprise crew and they become increasingly irrational (except for Spock) even as they struggle to develop a vaccine. It also makes it difficult for them to work with the children who inhabit the ruined streets.

They look like kids but they're really hundreds of years old. But they also behave like children, turning life into an endless series of games and supporting their mutual belief that what's happening to the old can never affect them. In a way, they're like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan, but crueller and pettier. They haven't spent their time building anything beautiful or useful; they play hide-and-seek and "bang bang", wasting time away with idle pleasures.

But inevitably they do grow up and are affected by the frailties and hazards of age as much as any adult. Miri (Kim Darby) is now a young woman and of course she starts to fall in love with Kirk. But when the disease starts to affect them, she has the horrifying realisation that he and the others are truly "grups", the kids' word for grown-ups. This word shows that, like racists, they're avoiding distressing sympathy by seeing the sufferers as an inferior species. So tightly do they cling to this that Kirk has trouble convincing Miri of the truth even though she's seen with her own eyes some of her playmates age and die.

I like how gentle Kirk is with Miri, and with Rand, whose anxiety is to do with the loss of her beauty. As the disease disfigures her leg, the advantage of the short skirted uniform for the women of Starfleet becomes a curse. She says she always tried to get Kirk to notice her legs, now they draw notice for the wrong reason. It's an interesting moment that reveals how the uniform facilitates the dating culture in Starfleet and how cruelly the virus thus prematurely deprives someone of a sign of attractive, youthful vitality.

But of course, this isn't the end for the crew of the Enterprise who finally manage to convince the kids to help them. For this we have to credit Kirk's diplomacy and not his fists, despite what's been said of the relative strengths of Kirk and Picard. He goes among the children and reasons with them respectfully despite their childish insults. Obviously, that is the mature and only path to cooperation.

Twitter Sonnet #1397

Observant air remains beyond the wall.
Selected hairs complete the thinning skull.
Reversing leaves includes a leafy fall.
A tapping told of cups beyond the hull.
The bigger shirt becomes the bigger man.
Alerted horses cook the special brew.
A bouncing cat redeems the static plan.
The richer green was closer yet to blue.
The absent voice acquires help in space.
With metal shoes, the egg ascends to law.
The good and true assort the station face.
The claws retire 'neath the fluffy paw.
The science built a smaller kind of kid.
The lines were spliced with timely aid of fid.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Selling Cattle and Guns

Money doesn't make just any job worth doing, no matter how badly you need it, though where one draws the line between an unpleasant job and an ethically bad one can sometimes be ambiguous. Blood on the Moon, a 1948 Western directed by Robert Wise, stars Robert Mitchum as a melancholy drifter from Texas, finding himself mixed up in a complicated dispute between a cattle owner and some homesteaders. His decisions about who he works for, and why and how, form the centre of this ambiguous story.

The characteristically cool Mitchum is tested by one inhospitable reception after another. Travelling in the mountains, he runs afoul first of stampeding cattle, then their distrustful owner, Lufton (Tom Tully), who seems ready to shoot him on the spot. But eventually Lufton asks Jim (Mitchum) to deliver a letter to his daughters and along the way Jim meets one of them, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, who immediately starts shooting at him. When he finally gets into town he's attacked by the people he's come to work for all because he simply asked them where their boss was.

Few actors are so charismatic at being put upon as Robert Mitchum.

When everything finally gets sorted out, the boss, Riling (Robert Preston), is glad to see him--he's an old friend of Jim's--and explains his complicated scheme, using local homesteaders as allies, to force Lufton to sell his cattle cheap. What does he want Jim for? At first, Riling says he wants Jim for muscle.

Such is Riling's esteem for Jim that he offers him a 10,000 dollar cut, well above the amount he's paying two other hired guns. Jim reluctantly says of all the jobs he's ever had he's never been hired for his gun before. When Riling asks if he can afford to turn the job down he admits he can't.

What, besides money, could compel him to choose sides between Lufton and Riling? Like most great Western heroes, Jim has a personal code, one that doesn't sit well with working with ruthless thugs of the kind the other two gunmen turn out to be. But he can't turn the job down outright. There is a subtle, internal conflict behind his coolness and Barbara Bel Geddes susses it out.

As meet-cutes go, theirs must certainly be among the most violent but it's no less the cute for it. After the chilly reception from Luften, he rides off and stops by a river when he suddenly finds himself being shot at. They're all warning shots and at first all he does is complain. Finally he backs off and sneaks around another way, getting the drop on Amy (Bel Geddes). He shoots the heel off her boot.

She turns out to be Lufton's daughter and she doesn't like Jim one bit at first but, gradually, she starts to respect him, partly for his behaviour on their first encounter--not taking her shooting at him so personally as to return worse than he got. She guesses his internal conflict is because he let himself down before and now he's not sure what kind of man he is. From not liking him at all at first, she gains a higher opinion of him than he has of himself.

We learn Riling has a reason for wanting so much money, he has a fiancee he hopes to be able to support. Is he doing what a man's gotta do in this world or has he simply sold his soul?

The film is lovely to look at with expressionistic cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca. Walter Brennan and Charles McGraw both have nice supporting roles. There's a fantastic, really messy, bar fight between Jim and Riling.

Blood on the Moon is available on The Criterion Channel until September 30.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Travels on Red Soil

Beneath the shadow of a dull, red mountain was a forest, grey and dark. Yellow worms the size of alligators slowly coiled between the trees. Finding her away among the dry, fallen branches was a pale woman wearing the remains of a voluminous gown. Where was she going? She didn't know, she knew only that she must continue forward. As the day grew later and shadows lengthened, long, shiny red tongues of tape slowly unspooled from the trees, swaying in the light breeze. There was a smell like fresh bread and the air was warm and oppressive. Slowly the veil of the trees and red tongues was parting around a white bust. Carved with apparently the skill of classical masters, the angry face was only around five feet tall. It was a face with a hard edged, long nose with a wide bridge. Blind white eyes starred mutely at the woman whose name was Sara.

The warmth of the air and the moisture came with the strange impression of the forest as being inside a very large body. Sara wiped the sweat from her brow, finding she longed for something cool and fresh. She remembered the last thing she ate, a bowl of terrible soup from a dirty shop on the roadside. What was that flavour? Blood? Soot? Both? The inside of her mouth filled her with disgust.

Suddenly, she stumbled, stubbing her toe on a root. Her silk slipper had split open and the sole bent under her foot. She sighed at the little pain and suddenly felt even more tired. She staggered over and fell heavily against a tree, feeling the slime of the tree's moss soaking her tattered gown.

White seeds were now drifting down from the evening sky, floating across her vision, some of them sticking to the red tongues. The sunset caught on the shimmering tongues, dazzling her. What was her name? Sara. She liked to remind herself sometimes though she wasn't sure if she forgot her name or if the compulsion to remind herself just made her feel as though she occasionally forgot it. At about this time she became aware of one of the worms, almost fifteen feet into the woods before her, staring at her. It was completely still, its eyeless head lifted off the ground and pointed at her. She stared back for a second then looked away, at some dry brown leaves trembling slightly in the breeze on the ochre soil. She could still feel the worm staring at her. The day was much darker now, the night coming on like a vast wing, passing over the sky.

Feeling uncomfortable at the worm's stare, she looked up again to see it was gone now. All the worms were gone now. It was still warm, though. She stood up. What was her name? Sara.

She had to get to the next town before dark. She felt sure of that. She didn't remember why she was there or how she got there but she knew it would be terrible not to be in an inn, sitting by the hearth after the sun set.

The broken slipper flopped on the ground with every step. She took it off and stuffed it in her belt though she supposed it wasn't worth repairing.

The dim orange light was turning faintly blue. Along wit the seeds, the air was thickening with a faint white haze.

She'd reached the edge of the wood and began ascending the hill without breaking her stride. The moist red soil turned to dry and rough ground, cracked here and there and coated with a film of dust she could feel between her toes. But it was smooth ground and she could trudge up unafraid of stone or pebble.

The hill rising ahead of her was turning black against the glowing sky growing dim. It had become a deep indigo with no stars when she reached the top, over the edge. Ahead, sharp points of yellow light popped into view. An inn.

Leaves crunched under her feet now and a stone bit painfully into her bare foot. She resisted the urge to hurry. The wooden frame of the half timbered structure seemed alive and old. All was quiet but she could hear the faint sounds of crickets. The old door was dry and felt brittle. It opened on a little fire-lit room, flickering orange light showing rough plaster walls and shelves bearing copper and pewter plates. An old man with his sleeves rolled up leaned against a little bar, the firelight turning the copious white hair on his arms into a sort of aura. He was breathing heavily and his eyes rolled under heavy lids in her direction but he made no other sign of acknowledgment.

She stepped closer to the fire and tried to feel relaxed when she slumped down into a threadbare armchair. But an instant later she'd plunged into sleep.


She pulled herself awake as the feeling grew swiftly over her that she shouldn't fall asleep here and now. But time had passed. She didn't know how long she'd slept but the light had changed from firelight orange to the pale green haze of midday. Sitting across from her was an old man--a different old man than last night--in another armchair. His bald head bowed, his pinched eyes focused on the floor, he seemed awake but content to stare at dusty green air.

Her limbs were stiff and sore. She sat up slowly, looking surreptitiously down her chest, finding only the disorder she remembered. Her old ragged gown with one of the sleeves missing had not been disturbed in her slumber, as far as she could tell. The broken slipper was still in her belt and her right foot was bare.

She couldn't see much of the room, being in a chair close to and facing the hearth. She leaned forward and peered around the chair to her right, behind her.

The room was now filled with elderly peasants, men and women, occupying every available seat, some sitting on overturned buckets. All of them seemed exhausted, all were staring dully at the hearth. Some of them were breathing heavily as the first old man, from the night before, had been.

Not wanting to deprive someone of a seat who needed it she stood, her unsteady legs tingling. Stepping past an old woman with a red linen kerchief, she went to the little bar. The innkeep was absent. No-one reacted to her movement. She found a small bun on the bar and started eating it, finding it moist and warm. She had no money but somehow it didn't occur to her that anyone would ask her to pay.

Outside the inn she found a number of old baskets on the ground that hadn't been there the night before. Some were overturned, all of them were empty, but there were a few stalks of barely scattered on the ground.

She started walking through the village, munching on the bread as she went. There were a few rows of half timber houses on each side of the street. In the square there were a few market stalls, some of which were occupied. A sweaty, round faced man called to her from one, "Good morning, stranger. It's another hot day ahead of us."

"Yes," she said, stopping at the stall and looking back at him. He had skin the colour of chestnuts, big cheeks, and merry little eyes. "I sold bananas yesterday and they all turned to black mush!" he said, laughing. "But to-day I have blackcurrants. They taste like they've been in a bear's armpit but I got 'em. Where you headed?"

"Mesorhelm," she heard herself saying, "Or, I mean, a small town east of Mesorhelm." She was sure this was true and yet it felt like a convenient lie.

He wiped sweat from his brow with a greasy rag. "Ah! You're going to Mesorhelm! I got a brother who does travelling shows, he goes back to Mesorhelm every year." He said it with a slightly challenging tone of voice, as though daring her to reply in the wrong way.

She pictured people in simple costumes on a ramshackle stage, the stock characters in bright masks bickering and wooing in the same way they had for as far back as anyone could remember. She found herself surprised at her indifference, as though she would have normally found the concept offensive, she even thought she could remember feelings of disgust at the idea of travelling shows. Now she just felt like accomplishing a casual conversation with this weird man. "That's very nice," she said.

He nodded suspiciously, "You're from the south, over the Etolb woods?"

"Yes, I'm from Epahat." It was true, she remembered now. Her ugly little apartment, flat walls stained with vertical triangles of scorch marks. Her dirty cookware she never had time to clean. She lived on the eighteenth floor, her apartment number was 1803.

"We all gotta walk the walk," he said.

"That's true," she said, nodding. "Nice meeting you." He waved as she walked away. He'd never tried to sell her anything.

As she left the village, tin, tall grey sycamores took over from the buildings on her right while on her left there was a valley far below and distant, russet hills dotted with black trees.

"My name is . . ." She thought. "Sara."


The road turned east around the hill and gradually took her down into a valley. The trees became much taller and in between some of them she saw more statues, standing pale against the ruddy soil and the shadows of the trees.

A path branched off from the road into the woods marked by an old wooden sign that read, "Beam's Old Town." She knew she had to continue north on the road but didn't see the harm in stopping to see the old town. In fact, she felt strangely like she ought to.

With tall trees on both sides of her now the morning grew dark and she continued to descend. But gradually the trees parted and old, cube shaped buildings appeared. White light had been gathering and now she saw it was emitted from glowing spheres, floating in the air just below the flat rooftops. The white light was harsh, pushing the green haze into darkness at the edges of the buildings.

All the buildings looked similar. The plaster was rotting in many places and chalky grey brick showed through like bad meat. The bright lights made everything outside their radius seem darker, their reflections off the dusty windows almost as blinding as the lights themselves. In contrast, the thin alleys between the tightly packed buildings were pitch black, the sky behind them a dim afterimage.

Her bare foot trod on slick cobblestone and she took care not to step in any of the many broken places. She realised there must be a hole worn through her other slipper because she could feel the stone on her left foot now. Still, she didn't want to take the shoe off. There was something about this place that made her reluctant to change anything about how she came into it. The more she walked through the streets the more she found herself deliberately thinking how innocuous it all must certainly be. The sky above the hard edges of the roofs became gauzy, an indistinct haze of light. The building to her left now must have been a general store. Instead of the wooden planks over the window now she tried to picture shelves of canned goods, sacks of flour, and a dozen other normal, friendly knickknacks. She tried to picture the normal residents, stopping by after work, chatting with the proprietor, with whom everyone was on a first name basis. But it seemed suddenly this image she had herself conjured had been forced on her by something . . . And she couldn't dispel it, like a song stuck in her head. The strange feeling was that the town was placing it into her view, as though to prove something. As though to show a crime had been committed against it but she didn't know what crime that might have been.

My name is Sara, she reminded herself and of course she hadn't forgotten.

The utter lifelessness of the streets seemed to buzz like electricity. The floating lights made no noise. So oppressive was the feeling that she began to reason that the place couldn't possibly be deserted. There must be someone here. And then she began to fear turning a corner and perhaps finding a group of angry, drunken men, smashing bottles, waiting to do her harm. She didn't know why but she knew they would have to be angry. They would blame her for something, she didn't know what. It would be their eternal secret, like the very history of this place.

She stubbed her toe and forced herself to walk slower. She'd taken many random turns and didn't think she could find her way back. She started taking streets that led uphill, hoping she could get her bearings from a better vantage point. Some of the streets were quite steep and it was difficult not to hurt her feet as she walked.

Broken windows glittered above her with darkness behind them. One or two buildings must have vagrants and squatters. Maybe bitter, old residents. There must have been someone.

She reached the top of a hill that came up against a break in the steep cliffsides that bordered that side of the town. She could see the tops of the grey trees and there were three strange, very thin black towers, at least forty storeys high, looming above the dead sycamores. She saw no sign of the village where she'd slept the night before so she mustn't have been looking south. Yet she felt strongly that she was.

Instead of the view making her feel better she felt even worse, more confined, more hopelessly deep within the hateful town. That was it--it hated her. The simple little structures, lined up neatly, up and down the hilly streets, despised her. For what? For seeing them? Because all its people were gone? Each explanation felt wrong. That wasn't it. It was a resentment beyond words and, so, implacable.

The day was humid, muggy. She stepped down the other side of the street. She felt like time was running out. She turned a corner and saw one of the stone statues, broken in the street, its stern, handsome head on its side, caked with dark mould in a pattern like cobwebs. Just beyond, the street was choked with thorny tumbleweeds and the lights were absent. It was profoundly dark down that way.

She took another street and started to sob, her cries making a muffled echo that sounded so hideous she stopped herself. Tears gathered in her eyes as she hurried, not minding the pain in her feet.

She was on another path up and abruptly trees replaced buildings. The trees were thick and coated with dark green moss she hadn't seen before. She slowed down and started to breathe easier.

The trees started to thin and the haze became cool and almost blue.

To celebrate, she repeated her name, "Rachel. My name is Rachel." And the world made perfect sense again.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

We Live Once Upon a Dream

How do you make a good movie about someone who sleeps all the time? Well, Disney sure did. 1959's Sleeping Beauty remains one of their greatest films. It's kind of miraculous, being such a strange confluence of influences and vision. The marked elegance of Eyvind Earle's modernist backgrounds is oddly contrasted with the buffoonery of the three good fairies; often the film gives the impression of children playing in an abandoned cathedral. The contrast of hot and cold works out marvellously, though, each extreme emphasising the beauty of the other. In terms of writing, Sleeping Beauty offers the most distant of the Disney Princesses--she only has two scenes of dialogue--and many of the radical changes wrought from Charles Perrault's 17th century version leave dangling threads of thematic suggestion that make little sense in a story that's ultimately about parenthood. But it mostly works and it's capped off, surprisingly, by one of the great action sequences in cinema history.

The standard complaint about Disney Princesses is that they marry guys they barely know--it's such an old criticism that by the time Frozen included a whole subplot lampooning the tradition the criticism itself already felt well aged. Yet in the 17th century story, the prince does not wake the princess by kissing her. He kneels beside her and then they talk for four hours before he goes home. No mention of him even touching her. Time passes and they develop a relationship and have kids.

One of the most brilliant features of Disney's film is its use of music from Tchaikovsky's 1889 ballet. The prince awakens the princess by kissing her in that version but, in a ballet, with no dialogue, where the actions of the performers may be taken as symbolic of different kinds of chemistry and relationships, a kiss doesn't seem like such a strange first move. Perhaps it was in thinking it strange that Disney accidentally made things stranger. In the film version, the princess, called Aurora (Mary Costa), meets the prince in the forest hours before she falls under her cursed sleep. The reasons for this seem obvious--the stakes would be higher and more personal if the prince actually knows and loves the princess already when he goes to rescue her. But instead of making it a more conventional relationship it becomes something a bit weirder.

Aurora doesn't get much time to establish her character but the animators, drawing from reference model Helene Stanley, do a pretty good job in a small space bringing life and warmth to her physical mannerisms. The scene begins with light comedy as she fantasies about meeting the man of her dreams with her forest animal friends. The Disney Princesses are almost always friends with forest animals--it thematically ties them to nature and also allows them to role play as mothers. Then, she actually meets the man of her dreams.

And I love it. Your mileage may vary but the magic really works for me. The strange, cube shaped foliage in the background and the hard edged cliffs from Eyvind Earle emphasise the weirdness and dreamlike quality of the space while the naturalism of the animation helps bring warmth to it. And why shouldn't something that starts as a joke turn beautiful and sweet?

But the filmmakers are well aware of how unwise it is for teenagers to rush into a relationship, even though their own changes to the source material brought it about. Prince Phillip (Bill Shirley), who also doesn't get a lot of dialogue, goes home to his father and tells him about the love of his life he met that afternoon. His father, King Hubert (Bill Thompson) is aghast. Shortly beforehand, King Stefan (Taylor Holmes), had gently suggested it might be a shock to Aurora that she might have to marry a guy shortly after meeting him. There's a recurrent theme in this movie about deliberately bringing about a reality based on a vision--Aurora creates a romance based on her dream, the Kings dream of a united kingdom through the marriage of their children, and story's main events are set in motion by the fairies making prophecies of Aurora's life. Turns out there's a lot of wiggle room for spontaneous action, though.

Older people having dreams for the younger people is one of the things that makes this movie about parenting. The real protagonists of the film are Flora (Verna Felton), Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen), and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy). They're the ones who hatch the plan to raise Aurora in secret and we watch them carry it out. They have that great comedy sequence where they try to cook and make a dress without magic, then they steer events at the castle after Maleficent (Eleanor Audley) succeeds in getting Aurora to prick her finger. They rescue Phillip and give him a sword and shield and even when Phillip deals the decisive blow Flora adds an additional enchantment. They have the most screen time and the most dialogue. Friendly, silly, and maternal, naturally they would be the characters children would feel the most comfortable with.

It's another striking difference from the Perrault story which seems to sympathise with the young in a conflict against the old. The fairy that curses the princess is described as old while the one who changes the curse from death to sleep is described as young. Merryweather might be younger than Flora and Fauna but it's difficult to tell whether she or Maleficent is the elder. In Perrault's version, the prince has to conceal his romance with the princess from his mother who turns out to be an ogre, a really fascinating detail. There's a suggestion that the mother has an internal struggle over whether to be more like a human or an ogre but the ogre half wins after she learns about her son's secret marriage. A famous aspect of the story is the princess' hundred year sleep. It also appears that the prince's parents rule over the same kingdom and although the princess is young she also represents an earlier era before ogre blood got into the family. Considering European views on royal bloodlines in the 17th century, this could've been a pretty obvious political allegory.

There's a sweetness in the idea that the rebellious dreams of youth end up being essentially the same as the wishes of their elders, that the man Aurora meets in the woods also happens to be the man she's betrothed to. I like the idea of the parents being outraged when they fail to recognise their own dream in another form in their children. And I love the symbolism of Merryweather and Flora fighting over the colour of Aurora's dress so that, even as the film ends, her dress is still magically changing from pink to blue and back again. So conflicting wishes of two parents for a child can and often do remain in play throughout the child's entire life so that the child becomes adept at being able to switch from the appearance of one to the other--the magical thing being not that either dream takes hold but that she has a dress that constantly changes colour.

There's also the bad parent, Maleficent, the one whose design for the child is completely motivated by her desire to take revenge on the other parents and on the world. Of course, there are indeed parents like this. And what a great villain she is--combining the best of what came before--a bit of Snow White's evil queen, a bit of the "Night on Bald Mountain" demon, even a little bit of the Headless Horseman. The final sequence in terms of music, editing, and composition is full of excitement and exquisite nightmare imagery.

I love how she hurls herself from one castle to another in what looks like a flying sparkler before her transformation into a dragon is effected through minutely animated smoke curls. Actress Eleanor Audley deserves a lot of credit, too, she squeezes every last drop of sinister from every line and hits that climactic challenge, "Now shall you deal with me, oh Prince, and all the powers of Hell!" like the very Devil. She's also brilliant delivering a prophecy to Phillip when he's in her dungeon that's just deliciously sadistic, sarcastically describing him riding forth, straight and tall, while showing him bent and old.

I always find it curious that Maleficent is able to knock away the "Shield of Virtue" before Phillip kills her with the "Sword of Truth". Was this intentional symbolism? That truth will inevitably prevail while prescribed virtue is but a temporary defense, a "mere scutcheon", as Falstaff would say? I don't know. But I love this movie in any case.

Twitter Sonnet #1396

Consistent thoughts denied the human space.
A warping floor delivers drops of mad.
By cars, the hobby horses kept apace.
With metal feet we land upon the pad.
A challenge spoke in flattened pixel sparks.
Exported tops encounter bottom hulls.
A single goose commands a fleet of arks.
A dozen horns deform a pair of bulls.
Another try produced a jacket moth.
We really thought the twisty tie would hold.
The gummy clouds were broke and sort of goth.
A name is like a shiny hat but old.
A cable carried lunch to tiny towns.
The creamy coffee's sweet in varied browns.