Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Dip In "The Fountain"

I didn’t mind tossing a few bucks into “The Fountain” last weekend. It’s become something of a gamble to go to the movies these days – you’ve pretty much got to take out a second mortgage on your house to pony-up for the admission and the concession stand fare (because no movie, no matter how bad, is complete without popcorn), all on the off chance that the magic shadows on the screen might be entertaining and (gasp) possibly thought-provoking (without being pretentious) rather than the usual steaming piles of mass-produced, unimaginative goo. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middleground when it comes to critics’ opinions of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain”. People either seem to love it or hate it.
Count me among the former.
It’s a quiet, smart little film (at times a bit of a tear-jerker) about the importance of accepting death as a part of life, and enjoying the life you’ve got, while you’ve got it.
The lives of Hugh Jackman’s characters (character?) also serve a warning: that trying to exceed the amount of life you’ve been allotted, that trying to grab an unnatural amount of life, comes with a terrible price – stagnation and isolation. The Conquistador’s foliage fate when he gluts himself on the sap ripped from the tree of life grants him immortality – of a sort, but one of vegetative sameness, with a lack of control and quite possibly consciousness. While becoming inextricably linked with the natural world, he’s also alone and unable to speak with any other human being who may enter the shrine. Tom’s journey through the stars, made possible by his measured, but nevertheless ages-long, feeding from the tree’s bark, is one of near-eternal sameness. His exercises, meditation, self-tattooing and harvesting his dose from the tree are all ultimately routine. We get the sense he’s been doing the same thing within the bubble for years at least, likely centuries or millennia. And, of course, there is no one else within his mobile terrarium (echoes of Bruce Dern’s “Silent Running”) except the memories of Izzi (Rachel Weisz) that haunt him periodically. It’s not far-fetched to suggest that the plague of memories is itself a regular part of Tom’s journey in an unchanging eternal life. It’s also interesting that stagnation results from the dependence on the use of a thing, like the tree, as an instrument to stimulate life in a man. In contrast, the people around Tom also stimulate his life – Izzi/Queen Isabel inflames his passions and prompts him to embark upon quests where he makes the fullest use of his vital energies in pursuing his goals and thus truly lives, and even his coworkers, be they soldiers he must kill to continue his mission or fellow researchers at the mercy of his moods, provoke reactions from Tom with their sympathy, enthusiasm or distress – but their stimulation always sends Tom in different directions that require thought, feeling and action – real living, as opposed to entropy.
The film is also interesting in the bounty of ways that it explores the metaphor of the fountain of life. The tree, of course, is the literal fountain of life, oozing sap or yielding chemicals or offering bark used by people to heal injuries and extend life. It gives life through inspiration, causing people, be they conquistadors, monks or researchers, to excel and make maximum use of their abilities and imaginations in the pursuit of the prize it offers.
The Conquistador becomes a fountain of foliage because of his greedy slurping. The protagonist (whether it’s Jackman as a questing conquistador, and obsessed researcher, or an interstellar wayfarer determined to reach a dying star) is a well of passion throughout the ages, living to the fullest as he goes to the ends of the world and beyond to try to save the woman he loves.
And the lady-love in question is herself a fountain. Izzi/Isabel gives life and purpose to Jackman’s men through her love. She is also a fountain of imagination through her writing and her recounting of the ancient myth of the world’s creation and the story of the man who became one with the world by having a tree planted over his grave. This imagination also gives new life to these old myths and stories that might otherwise have been forgotten. As the Queen she saves the life of the bishop conducting the Inquisition/insurrection by preventing the Conquistador from assassinating him. She tries to add to Tom’s life by attempting to give him comfort by telling him she isn’t afraid of dying and so he shouldn’t be afraid of losing her. Izzi creates life most profoundly by being a fountain of hope, envisioning (as the Queen) a future where the tree’s power can be used to free all people from pain and suffering, and later (as the memory/ghost of Izzi) offering the possibility of reunification with Tom when he reaches the star and ultimately when he finally dies. Ironically, Weisz’s character does not play into the metaphor of fountain of life in the obvious way that’s been used through the centuries – she is not a mother – she has not generated another life within her.
There are probably a multitude of other, smaller fountains of life in the film – maybe the monk with his faith, maybe Tom’s boss (played by Ellen Burstyn) constantly trying to offer comfort and support, maybe the other researchers with their enthusiasm for the new medical discoveries they’re making. What others am I missing?
The only thing I haven’t quite figured out about the story/stories is whether the three separate plot lines/time lines are directly related in terms of Tom literally being each of the three men: Tom being a reincarnation of the Conquistador and later Tom being the interstellar traveler because he somehow succeeded in perfecting a longevity treatment based on the tree and extended his own life far into the future. Or is the case that the “present day” Tom is the actual man while the Conquistador and space traveler are merely fictional characters in Izzi’s book. It should be noted that Izzi does tell Tom that her story begins with a Conquistador and ends “out there”, and that would seem to indicate those two sections of the movie are merely illustrations of this fiction within Tom’s imagination. You could then say that the space traveler’s memory of Izzi dying on the hospital bed and appearing as she does to “present day” Tom is just a plot device of Izzi the writer where she inserts herself into the story to make it that much more personal, especially to her most important audience – her husband. And you could back this up by pointing out that his Buddha moment at the end only involves a connection between the space traveler and the Conquistador, no the “present day” Tom. But I’m still not sure. It seems Tom is connected to the other two on a level so visceral (and to be fair, maybe it’s just his emotional instability amidst the death of his wife and a major scientific discovery) that they have to be real – more than just literary reflections of himself.
If you’ve seen the movie, what do you think?
At any rate, because it’s given me pause to consider in a way that many movies don’t, I have to say I’m glad I took a dip in “The Fountain”.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Aging Like A Fine Dandelion Wine

Old Man Winter’s been seriously crotchety in this neck of the woods lately, so it’s somewhat fitting that I’ve finished reading Ray Bradbury’s newest novel: “Farewell Summer”. I mentioned the book in passing a couple of postings ago, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. (good luck on that!)
The story is set in Bradbury’s fictional Green Town, Illinois, a construct that seems to go beyond mirroring the author’s childhood home of Waukeegan, painted so lovingly, as such an ideal of small town America that it is an offering on the alter of that belief by some ancient Greek philosophers that everything in this world is a mere shadow of its perfect form existing on some other plane of existence. And this isn’t our first trip to Green Town. Many label the book as the sequel to 1957’s “Dandelion Wine”, but Bradbury tells us “Farewell Summer” is more than that, it’s really an extension of “Dandelion Wine” that was amputated by editors due to length and needed decades to mature into its own complementary being. Some critics have gone to lengths to contrast the tones and characterizations in the two novels, but I feel that to be fair, given the long decades that this siamese twin half of the tale has been growing on its own, it must be evaluated on its own, as part the larger family of Bradbury’s Green Town work. For this isn’t the second time we’ve been to this little community. Whether or not the name is used explicitly, we can tell just by its description that the town has been a character in a number of other Bradburian yarns where child-gods romp in endless summers and just around the corner it pulls on a cloak of red and brown leaves and tattered carnival posters to become an October Country full of magic and ghosts lurking around quiet corners trying to live their un-lives as best they can. Here, bracketing the town, there is the ravine, full of mystery and adventure. At its far end, nursing its solitude but keeping close enough to town to lure the bold is the haunted house, home to old Moundshroud in “The Halloween Tree” and other members of The Family in “From the Dust Returned”. With each new short story or novel, Green Town has grown more real. In “Farewell Summer” it reaches an aching apex of solid nostalgia for a way of life that is becoming more and more like the spirits up the hill in the haunted house – existing but in such a tenuous way as to disappear into dust with the slightest whiff of the winds of modern life.
As the novel itself matured in Bradbury’s mind, on his pages, in his files over the decades, “Farewell Summer” is itself about maturity. It is about the journey of Doug Spaulding, who leaves childhood pretty much against his will and takes his first faltering steps toward manhood. Doug begins the tale as one of a pack of boys playing in their Neverland of a summer that’s stretched into October. Girls are hardly a blip on their radar as they charge about, blasting their cap guns. The structured learning environment of school is barely a factor either, mentioned only in passing. Doug is almost pre-literate: getting his knowledge from the words of his grandfather, who is nearly a god with his stock of lore and omniscience when it comes to the goings-on of the boys and the town. In fact, while the books of grandfather’s library are mentioned frequently, and Doug is often called upon to look up an assortment of facts in them, it is always grandfather who passes along knowledge and wisdom verbally. Grandfather knows what is and isn’t, what is and what should be.
Doug begins a war against the town’s old men in the opening pages of the novel by firing his capgun at one of the codgers and causing him to die of a heart attack. Even though the boy assumes the rank of General and leads his chums against the enemy throughout most of the novel, this status as leader is not the catalyst that starts Doug toward maturity. The boys’ raids of theft and vandalism against the elderly are based on childish theories that they can stop time, remain as they are forever and incapacitate their enemies. They entertain wild theories about their opponents, even going so far as to insist that the old fellows on the school board are in fact evil aliens. Where Doug makes his real moves toward maturity are his actions after these attacks, where he has to return the chessmen and repair the clock, and through this begin to give up childish self-centredness and begin to understand older people – to understand other people in general and why things are as they are. He begins to gain empathy and perspective.
Then there’s the climax event that seals the deal for Doug: his first kiss. As he advances on the haunted house, Doug is preoccupied with childhood terrors of what ghastly entities might lie within, and with the classic boyish concerns of “I dare ya” brinksmanship, wondering if the girls are as good as their word and if they’ve shown up too. But young Lisabell drags him into manhood (or at least the wannabe manhood of teenagerdom) by taking the initiative and planting a kiss on him. From that point on, there are no questions of whether he just heard a scream within the haunted house. No, instead it’s as though he has climaxed, after a fashion, sinking dazed to his knees. A brief taste of more important mysteries.
This experience is augmented by his revelation in the tent full of glass jars displaying human fetuses at different stages of development. Doug is propelled forward when he looks into the eyes of the stillborn baby suspended in formaldehyde and begins to get an inkling of understanding that to stay young forever is to be trapped and somehow freakish. He begins to learn one must constantly change and grow to be alive.
And in the end, part of this maturity is the ability to come to terms with his archrival, old Calvin C. Quartermain, leader of the old boys club, sit down for a drink and a quiet talk about life.
Maturity is a central theme in the actions of Quartermain too. True he has lived a long life and has worked hard to succeed in his financial endeavours, but old Calvin is trapped in the same timelessness as Doug in the beginning. To him, the greatest importance is always in looking back at the past. Quartermain makes frequent reference to the American Civil War (and does not understand that war’s implications on his own conflict with the boys for the seeming control of the town). To Quartermain, what is and what will be, what is young and energetic instead of old and steady must be crushed, or at least tightly controlled. He relishes his power as a member of the schoolboard, the ability to shorten holidays as a countermeasure to the long summer. He flies into a rage when his friend Braling dies in the wake of Doug’s capgun assassination and when he himself is knocked over by the boy’s bike, or machine as he calls it. The ensuing battle that takes place over the course of the novel illustrates that Quartermain too is very much a boy. He doesn’t take the adult road and try to understand the boys for what they are and deal with the situation maturely. No, he wants to meet them head-on. He shows that he has not matured at all over the course of his long life when he ignores his friend Bleak’s initial advice to pursue a course of moderation.
Like Doug, Quartermain requires the constant voice of a more mature person to start to bring him around. Bleak’s ability to state the wise course of action as obvious makes him the same kind of god-figure for Calvin that grandfather is for Doug – minus the reverence (until the end when Quartermain is shocked to realize how much Bleak understands that he doesn’t).
The old man also needs a series of actions, both his own and those of others to help him grow up. He intends the birthday party for Lisabell to be a trick to make the boys uncomfortable, but it turns into a platform for learning for himself when Doug demonstrates generosity and maturity by serving Quartermain cake. He is confronted with a boy who is thinking about the needs of someone other than himself. He is confronted with a boy who is willing to make a nice gesture to the enemy. Quartermain then has to figure out what that says about himself and his own actions and how he ought to respond. In hosting the party though, Quartermain is doing something nice for Doug (even if neither realizes it at the time), by pushing the boy into the orbit of a girl, a move that will create the opportunity for Doug to slingshot towards adulthood. And is there something weirdly intimate going on here on a metaphorical level between Quartermain and Doug too? The girl gives the boy an electrifying first kiss (later), changing his life; the boy gives the old man a piece of cake (which he could have kept for himself) shocking Quartermain with the generosity and creating an opportunity for each to see inside the other. Each act involves a gift of something that changes the other person. I’m not saying that there’s an implied May-December romance between Quartermain and Doug, that would be reading too much into it, rather that the parallels of the two incidents seem to be say that there needs to be some sort of personal gesture from another person to kickstart one’s development as a mature human being.
And by setting up the tent full of fetuses, Quartermain again creates a learning environment for Doug and himself begins to understand he may need to change. This later becomes (through yet another conversation with Bleak) an acceptance of the fact that death is a part of life and must be accepted as a part of one’s personal growth in order to have some degree of inner peace.
For Quartermain, his maturity is finally cemented when he gives consideration to Bleak’s suggestion to reach out to family instead of merely dismissing the subject, but most importantly by offering Doug a glass of lemonade on the porch – sharing a drink, the symbolic breaking of bread that binds the two and unites their experiences - uniting the old with the young and taking on the role of grandfather himself by talking about life and passing along what wisdom he has gained from it.
We also see the maturation of the characters reflected in their setting: as the old and young reconcile, the overly long summer (lasting well in October, we’re told) finally begins to give way to a quick autumn and the promise of winter, traditionally a time of reflection when action is necessarily subdued. And the town itself leaves its childhood behind: as Doug waits at the haunted house for Lisabell, he sees, just for a minute, filmy white figures fleeing out the front door – the ghosts have gone. The rite-of-passage of the first kiss has forced the terrifying mysteries of the dark parts of the physical world to yield to the new perils of the adult heart. In some ways, the ghosts, clinging to this world, yet forced to leave by a new power greater than themselves (growth), are like Quartermain’s friend Braling, afraid of death yet kicked into it by the sudden noise from unbridled life. And aside from their status as metaphors for a static life, just as ghosts in and of themselves, though only the briefest of moments is spent on this evacuation of these undead refugees, there’s something poignant about it – there are sacrifices with the loss of childhood, Doug will never see them again, and the ghosts themselves, being in a world that no longer needs them, are without a home and purpose.
In the end (literally), the only thing about “Farewell Summer” that I’m not entirely comfortable with is the passing-of-the-torch of manhood and life from Quartermain to Doug through their penis conversations. I understand what Bradbury’s trying to illustrate: that Quartermain’s loss of his nightly erection is the loss of the last bit of his vitality; that his best years are gone; that he too will shrivel into final impotence and nothingness and that for Doug this is his new ascension into power. None-the-less, it’s a little weird having an old man talk to his penis (I’m reminded of a line from the movie “Innerspace” where Martin Short’s character is having a conversation with the bionaught Dennis Quaid inside him while standing at a urinal. Another man [Rip Torn, I think], obviously not hearing Quaid, looks over in disgust and says: “Play with it, pal, but don’t talk to it!”). Moreso when a boy then strikes up a chat of his own seconds later. A critic could argue the passing of the erection from one to the other has some disturbing metaphorical intimacy implications. In fact, this possibility seems to be hinted at in Sci Fi Weekly’s review of the novel. On the other hand, some would say that’s reading too much into the scene. I tend to agree that it’s an unsettling image, but I don’t think it was Bradbury’s intent to create something creepy. Rather, I suspect that, as stated above, the scene is merely supposed to illustrate that the loss of vitality in extreme old age heralds the approach of death and it is up to the individual to come to terms with that, while the transition to adulthood entails the discovery of sex, vitality, and the new worlds they accompany and create.
Ultimately though, this new vintage, “Farewell Summer”, a counterpart/part of “Dandelion Wine”, is a loving exploration of life, of the need to mature in many ways in order to fully live, set amid a bygone world. Bradbury shows he is still full of vitality in the poetic spirits he conjures.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Modern Pop Culture Takes A Look Backward At SF

I saw a commercial tonight that made me, as a sci-fi fan, sit up and take notice. Don’t know how long it’s been airing, but tonight was the first time I’d seen the new Honda Civic commercial set in the computer world of “Tron”. The spot features a group of Civics being put through their paces on the Game Grid after the fashion of the Light Cycles. It wasn’t a blow-by-blow reproduction of the original sequence from the movie (there were some terrain additions to the ‘Grid and the cars were merely zooming around, not engaged in combat), but I was really impressed with how many of the scenery details and camera angles were faithful to the original. I have to wonder if the commercial producers built on top of original footage or just reproduced the CG from scratch themselves. In either case, brilliant job! I’m not saying the commercial was enough to make me buy one of the cars in question, but I am impressed someone at the ad agency’s creative department was enough of a fan and had enough guts to successfully pitch the idea to the big boys of using a 1982 sci-fi classic to sell a modern car. Couldn’t have been easy, especially given that a lot of Civic buyers tend to be younger people who wouldn’t have been old enough, or around at all, to have seen “Tron” back in the day (either in theatres or in subsequent video release) and likely wouldn’t bother digging it up now. Add to that the likelihood that the percentage of older viewers/consumers who would remember “Tron” is probably pretty small in and of itself, it must have been a challenge pitching what is ultimately an inside joke. I wonder if the back-up justification for the spot was that even for the majority who wouldn’t recognize the visual reference, the commercial just looks cool. In any case, I’m glad to see what is now a classic of sci-fi (and not just a classic because it’s 24 years old, but because it’s a hell of a good flick) get a loving minute in the fickle present-day spotlight.
Another relic that’s recently made an appearance, after a fashion, is that gigantic hunk of cheese from the late 70’s known as “Buck Rogers”. I was trolling through the SF Signal site a few weeks ago and noticed they’d highlighted a feature from YouTube on one of their daily summaries. Seems it was a bit from South Park doing a tongue-in-cheek homage to Buck Rogers. Cartman takes the place of Buck and winds up in the future in a pretty sweet take on the ‘Rogers opening credits. I didn’t catch this particular episode of South Park, so the riff was all new to me. I practically fell off my chair laughing. I’ll admit, as a kid back when Universal was inflicting “Buck Rogers” on audiences, I loved the show. (Except for an episode with a big gooey black blob monster thing that eventually turned into a man. – Scared the crap outta me back then.) Recently, I caught an episode being rerun on TV and regretted every minute of it. The whole thing sparked an ongoing conversation with my brother about the state of TV back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, where he pointed out that it’s possible for those old stinkers, bad as they were, to inspire genius. Case in point: “Battlestar Galactica”. The old show was so cheesy it was well into Limburger country. That being said, it did inspire the new series, which I’ve raved about before so there’s no need to indulge in its merits again. I guess sometimes it takes crap to fertilize the soil good things grow from. Back to Buck, though, as bad as the series was, it’s great to see it revived, even if briefly, by the tender ministrations of Parker and Stone.
With a “Tron” and a “Buck Rogers” reference making their appearances on the pop culture scene, I wonder if this is a trend (aside from the barrage of allusions in any Kevin Smith movie) that will continue, or will classic SF fade from the general public’s short attention span?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Year - And More Bradbury

It’s been a year. The night was buried under fog last year when I stepped onto the soapbox and started this speculative fiction blog. This year… no fog… but waiting. Heavy rain and wind earlier this evening as the Witch of November pounded the Wet Coast with her broom yet again, but it’s since paused… the clouds scudding across the sky and a few furtive stars peeking through as the temperature bottoms out amid rumours of snow. A different night to ponder SF.
But some things are the same: I’m in the middle of a Bradbury book. 63 pages into his newest: “Farewell Summer”. This time it’s a gang of boys/Peter Pan wannabe’s waging war against a small Midwestern town’s old men in an effort to keep summer alive. Last year it was the meanderings of a young writer through the fog of Venice, California to solve the mystery of dead men in nearby canals against the backdrop of a dying boardwalk in “Death Is A Lonely Business”. Neither is speculative fiction (although one could argue there is definitely magic in his poetic prose), but we can look the other way because each is chock-full of beautiful imagery capturing all the colliding flavours of life, and because Bradbury, being among the highest in the sci-fi pantheon, is always noteworthy, regardless of the settings or events of his stories. And the funny thing is, it’s purely coincidence that I’m reading Bradbury again on the anniversary of this blog’s launch. I’d picked up a copy of “Farewell Summer” when it hit the shelves not too long ago, but I had to force myself to wait to read it: Hallowe’en was fast approaching and I had to celebrate the season right by reading either “The Halloween Tree” or “From the Dust Returned”. In either case, it would have been folly to pick up “Farewell Summer” so close to reading one of those two, because I would have OD’d on Bradbury and couldn’t have given it a fair reading. A year’s gone by, but I still maintain that Bradbury is like butter. You’ve got to savour him in measured doses that aren’t too close together. So I forced myself to wait and have contented myself with other fare until last night when I finished reading Niven’s classic “Ringworld”. (Yes, I’ll admit it, it was my first time. I should be ashamed for having waited so long, but there’s always been so much good stuff – both old and new – to read, it was hard to make time for it. I know, excuses, excuses. At least I’ve finally made the time and enjoyed every minute of it.) This morning I woke up and thought it was finally time to crack open “Farewell Summer”, knowing that I’d been away from Bradbury long enough to only carry residual fond memories and to be ready for more.
And after a fun year of babbling about SF in books, TV and movies, I’d like to say thanks to all of you who’ve stopped by during your trips through the internet marketplace of ideas. Thanks to all of you for reading these rants. Thanks especially to those of you who have been kind enough to comment (I’d love to hear more comments, opinions, suggestions, and yes, even corrections, from everyone out there, ‘cause that’ll make this site far more interesting than if it’s just me yapping away). Thanks to all the authors, scriptwriters, directors, actors and producers out there who’ve created all of these worlds to make us feel and think, regardless of whether we actually like their creations or not. Thanks to my wife and friends who said, all right, you opinionated geek, it’s time to take your passion online and talk about sci-fi, fantasy and all points between with other people who care about it. Thank you one and all.
Okay, in the words of Mike Myers’ Linda Richman, I’m getting a little verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic: “The Caves of Steel” were neither caves nor steel. Discuss.
Now that the cheesy sentiment is over… Off we go into another year of SF discussions. Grab your spacesickness bags, folks. Based on some of the stuff I’ve written so far, I know even I’ll need ‘em.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Respect The Dead

I’ve borrowed the title from an Otis Taylor blues album for this note I meant to put up this past weekend (but couldn’t, due to illness). Saturday was November 11th. Whether you call it Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, Poppy Day, or Veterans Day, it marks the date that saw the end of the First World War and has since become a time for people to remember the sacrifices of those who fought in WWI, WWII and other wars and peacekeeping actions. If you didn’t attend a ceremony or you weren’t able to take the time to reflect this past weekend, I’m asking you to please take a minute or two now. Leave personal politics at the door. Just think about the freedoms you have which were paid for by these heroic efforts and terrible losses. And remember the living as well. If you know a veteran, take the time to thank them.
What does this have to do with speculative fiction? The number of alternate history, horror, fantasy and sci-fi stories that are set against the backdrop of the wars and peacekeeping actions are legion. Some of the tales that stick out in my mind are John Brunner’s short story “In the Season of the Dressing of the Wells”, Christopher Priest’s “The Seperation”, Harry Turtledove’s “Worldwar” series, and Dave Whittier’s short story “Coming Back to Kabul”.
But ultimately, I’ve gotta yield the ol’ soapbox here for a minute of silence to honour this time because it’s about being human. Showing respect is the right thing to do.

Lest we forget.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Prestigious Film

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Friday, November 03, 2006

A Happy Hallowe'en

Happy (belated) Hallowe’en, everyone! Whether you took your kids trick-or-treating, leafed through a favourite spooky tome, hunched in the flickering glow of your tv to watch a much-loved special, went to your local theatre for a scary session with the magic shadows on the big screen, sat around a crackling fire telling ghost stories, visited a loved one’s grave to pay your respects, or celebrated the finest season of them all in some other fashion, I hope you had a good time.
For me, Hallowe’en is the best time of the year. Always has been. Didn’t Ray Bradbury, that most famous lover of this dark season, say something to the effect of “Ah Hallowe’en, better than your birthday, better even than Christmas!” in his script for the animated television version of “The Halloween Tree”?
Maybe it’s because I’ve always felt a kind of quickening at the change of the season when autumn’s drawing to a close – some kind of extra little charge as instinct says to get in gear and prepare for the coming winter, all the while nature seems to be singing her lullaby on the wind. Maybe it’s that special tang in the air that you just don’t get at any other time of the year. Or the crackle of leaves underfoot. Maybe it’s that seductive witches’ perfume smell of late autumn: leaf bonfires on lawns, the first smoke of the year curling up from chimneys, apples falling from trees, and fresh-cut pumpkin shells cooked from within by jack o’lantern candles. Maybe it’s also the colours of the leaves on the trees: reds, oranges, yellows and browns – and if you’re lucky enough to live in eastern Canada (no province west of Ontario has anywhere near the kind of variety that Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes get), you see them all in combination: side by side from tree to tree, on the same tree – on the same leaf! How about a nice, broad maple leaf in deep red, slashed by orange and yellow, shot through with green veins and browning on the edges? How about a million million of these in a billion different colour combinations?
Bradbury puts the flavour of nature during this season best with his usual poetic simplicity in his novel “The Halloween Tree”: “Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve.”
But aside from nature’s contributions, it’s also the fun of the night itself: dressing up in costumes – the more outlandish the better (try to make it a different one every year so you don’t get stale!), the anticipation of seeing what your friends have come up with for their disguises, braving the night (oh to be old enough to do it without mum or dad in tow) and all the imaginary terrors you try to convince yourself it doesn’t hold, pumpkins carved crudely or with skill into a thousand different grimaces, growls or chortles, houses festooned with all manner of monstrous decor, and the candy! Bags and bags and bags filled to bursting with a zillion types of chocolates and chips and sweets to keep you buzzing on a sugar high for weeks! And then there’s coming home and pawing through your haul in front of your favourite seasonal TV specials or listening to a relative regale you with a chilling ghost story. And as you grow up, you move into the costume party set or take simple joy in watching your kids have fun.
And I think the experiences handed out year after year in the trick-or-treat bag of life have a lot to do with it too. Right from the start, Hallowe’ens for me were all good. The first I can remember was when the family lived in the suburbs of Cambridge, Ontario. Lots of friendly faces, a great candy haul, and I especially remember the house where the owner of the local A&W restaurant franchise lived – he had the Root Bear mascot on hand to entertain the kids and hand out candy while he passed along shots of something good and strong to the parents to help keep them warm. I remember those were also the days where Poprocks were among the most frequently handed-out candies. Yes, I can recall eating Poprocks and drinking Coke at the same time when I got home. No, I did not explode as a result.
Later in my childhood, the family moved to a small neighourhood of maybe 100 houses isolated outside of town in the middle of forests, wild fields and farmlands. Now those were great Hallowe’ens! The absolute best! Maybe it was because I was smaller at the time, but the snack-sized chocolate bars seemed bigger then. One lady always gave an extra chocolate bar to kids who collected for UNICEF. And those were the days too when it was safe to give out home-made goodies, so there were a few homes that didn’t bother with the store-bought stuff. Some gave out fresh-baked cookies, some had popcorn balls (either in caramel or bubble-gum), and then there was dear old Mrs. House, who lived near the bottom of the subdivision, who made her own candy apples from scratch! Now, you may think there aren’t that many ways to make a candy apple and so you may wonder why these were so good, but let me tell you, they were the best! Part of it, I think, was that they were home-made, with freshly boiled-down sugar and nice, crisp fall apples straight from the orchard, and beyond that these sorts of treats are always that much better when they’re made by someone taking the time out of the goodness of her heart to make kids happy. Even better, if the next day was a school day, when we walked down the hill past her home on our way to the bus stop in the morning, Mrs. House would always come out onto the porch and wave us up, and ask us to each take two or three more candy apples because she’d made too many. How great was that?! That left us with the choice of either keeping them for ourselves to enjoy over the next couple of days, or trading them at lunch for pretty much anything we wanted from the other kids. Let me tell you, nothing makes you the kingpin of the lunchroom in a small country schoolhouse like home-made candy apples. Although, admittedly, there was also one house that always gave out stale rice cakes. We never ate those. And beyond the treats, this isolated neighbourhood along the banks of the Grand River was tops for its tricks. Putting out jack o’lanterns was the bare minimum for holiday d├ęcor in this place – hay bales, straw on the walkways, candles and corn stalks, and that was just the average. There were a lot of families that took pride in the gimmicks they concocted to make us kids shriek in fear and fun. One house strung a clothesline from an open window, across the front walk, to a tree and mounted a ghost on it. As we walked up to the porch, the specter would come flying out of nowhere and brush over our faces on its way past. Another family would give us a treat at the door, then have the oldest son toss a skeleton on a noose from the roof of the porch to flop down in front of us. Another had a dad dressed up as a mummy in a coffin on the porch who would lie in perfect stillness until we rang the doorbell, when he’d then lurch to life and give us a shock. And there was the family that littered their front yard with dozens of dummies, dead in a gang fight, and lying hidden among the carnage, their son would wait by the walk until we went past, then give a roar and grab our ankles. More than a few of us cleared a foot off the ground when we jumped in terror. We’d be laughing within a minute and asking him how long it took to get the fake bloodstains on his clothes and the rubber knife mounted on the side of his head just right. That was Hallowe’en in the country, a night out with people who knew each other and knew how to have fun.
Later, in my teens and 20’s here in BC, there were parties with friends. And let’s not forget the birth of “The Simpsons” and their awesome Hallowe’en specials. I only regret that for the past few years Fox has waited until AFTER Hallowe’en to air the new versions of its seasonal special. Kinda takes away from the enjoyment when they’re airing a Hallowe’en episode nearly a week after the night itself has passed.
These days, my wife and I enjoy a quieter evening of carving pumpkins, handing out candy (full-sized chocolate bars, mind you, not the worthless little snack-size bites – we’re known as the cool house because of it) and enjoying watching the neighbourhood kids have fun, and watching a couple of favourite movies or TV specials (like “The Simpsons”) together. I can’t wait until we have kids of our own and I can take the little ones out trick-or-treating and experience it again from a different perspective. We also go to the cemetery around this time of the year for the Chinese Chung Yeung Festival – their autumn day of the dead festival (there’s another in the spring), where my wife pays her respects at her father’s grave. It’s interesting how around the world, events like Chung Yeung, or in Latin America El Dia de los Muertos or for the pagan cultures of Europe Samhain and our modern western Hallowe’en have all evolved at more or less the same time of year.
But I digress (as usual). In honour of Hallowe’en, that best time of the year, here’s my list of favourites for the season:

1) “The Halloween Tree” by Ray Bradbuy. The best ode to the wonders of the season. My choice for this year’s Hallowe’en reading.
2) “From the Dust Returned” by Ray Bradbury. If “The Halloween Tree” had a formal companion piece, an expanded universe follow-up, this would be it.
3) “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. Gotta go for the classics.
4) “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe. To me, this is one of the most unsettling of Poe’s stories, far more so than “The Raven”.
5) “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. ‘Nuff said.

1) Disney’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” This version of Washington Irving’s classic scared the crap outta me when I was a little kid, but has become my all-time favourite as an adult. It’s a pity this masterpiece doesn’t get aired much any more. I was really disappointed last year when we were in Disneyland on our honeymoon just before Hallowe’en and there was no sign of the Headless Horseman in any of their seasonal souvenirs. It’s great Disney’s developing new stuff, but it shouldn’t be turning its back on the successes of the past.
2) “The Halloween Tree” the Hanna-Barbara animated version of Bradbury’s novel of the same name, narrated by Bradbury himself with Leonard Nimoy as the voice of Moundshroud. The poetry of Hallowe’en brought to the TV screen. I just wish it was available on DVD.
3) Disney’s “Lonesome Ghosts” A very early Disney production (probably from the 40’s, maybe early 50’s at the latest) starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy as early ghostbusters (the “Ajax Ghost Exterminator Company”). Packaged on videotape during the 80’s with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, but I haven’t seen that tape in years, never mind a DVD version. This feature was a rarity to begin with, but I haven’t seen any sign of it on TV in 10-20 years. Another example of Disney turning its back on its heritage.
4) Disney’s “Trick or Treat”. Huey, Dooey and Louie team up with crafty old Witch Hazel to teach their cruel uncle, Donald Duck, a lesson in this hilarious gem from sometime in the late 50’s or early 60’s. I saw footage of a sequence with one of the songs in this feature aired briefly as part of a Hallowe’en montage in a Disneyland souvenir shop last year on our honeymoon, but I was saddened that the full-length version of the production wasn’t available on DVD at all. At the risk of repeating myself, Disney’s got to learn not to turn its back on its classics.
5) Wrapping up the list: “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” Despite the endless humiliations heaped upon Charlie Brown and Linus’ blind faith causing him to miss-out on trick-or-treating and the party (as well as earning the wrath of Charlie Brown’s little sister), I still love this old chestnut. Especially Snoopy’s dogfight against the Red Barron and his trek across the war-torn French countryside of his imagination. At least this classic still makes it to air every year.
6) Honourable mention to “Garfield’s Hallowe’en” which was a riot, but doesn’t get much air time anymore. And a nod to the “Fat Albert” Hallowe’en special, which, at least, is out on DVD now. And I can’t leave the annual “Simpsons Treehouse of Horror” episodes out either, though it doesn’t make it into the top 5 because of the Fox scheduling stupidity I bitched about before.

I’ve got a caveat for this one right off the bat: I don’t like slasher flicks (‘cause I do like some plot in a movie), so there are none on this list.

1) “Ghostbusters” It’s been years since Bill Murray deadpanned “He slimed me.” on the big screen, but it still kills me. After all this time and all the viewings, this is still a funny movie.
2) “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” A great twist on an oft-told tale. Lavish sets and costumes. Great performances by all, especially Anthony Hopkins who plays Van Helsing as utterly determined, smart and crafty, if at times a bit daft. The only weak link in the cast, not surprisingly, was Keanu Reeves. He tries, he really does, but I watch him and keep expecting him to lapse into his character of Ted from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (which he was ideally suited for) and mumble something like: “Dracula, dude! That was sooooo bogus!”
3) “The Sixth Sense” Creepy and smart.
4) “Sleepy Hollow” One of the few Tim Burton films that doesn’t annoy me. It’s a fun romp with some affectionate nods to the Disney version.
5) “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein” I saw this one on TV as a kid and loved every minute of it. I still get a chuckle when I see it once in a blue moon now as an adult.
6) Honorable mentions go to Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (which had me in stitches – no pun intended) and to “The Mummy” 1999 version (the scene where the newly-awakened mummy goes after the guy’s eyes and tongue in the tomb is still a bit frightening to watch, though the rest of the film is a fun cotton candy adventure).

Now it’s time to put Hallowe’en to bed (or back in the grave, if you prefer) for another year, to dream of more dark nights of fun, and to brace ourselves for a morning where the count-down to the December holiday season is on.

Friday, October 27, 2006

"The Baby Merchant" Delivers

I just finished reading Kit Reed's new novel "The Baby Merchant" a few days ago, and I’ve gotta say hats-off for another brilliant success!
The story revolves around a group of characters living in America of the not-too-distant future where birth rates have tanked (due to reasons speculated on only briefly), domestic adoptions have become more difficult than applying for a bank loan to build a paper mache donut shop in the middle of Tornado Alley, closed borders prevent trans-national adoption, and childless couples are becoming increasingly desperate to get children any way they can. Into this void steps Tom Starbird, a low-key black market operator who, for the right (and very high) price, snatches “unwanted” babies from their biological parents and puts them into the hands of his rich clients. Tom finds himself at the mercies of attack-dog journalist Jake Zorn who tosses ethics by the wayside in his crusade to get a baby for himself and his wife Maury. In the middle of the mess is Sasha Egan: pregnant with an unplanned child, escaped from the birth/adoption centre she’d chosen and on-the-run from the child’s father Gary, a one-night-stand hired by Sasha’s grasping grandmother to bring the baby back to the family compound.
I think what the book is really about, though, is imprisonment. How a person deals with it and most importantly, how they escape. And we’re not just talking about physical imprisonment here (although entrapment in institutions certainly is a factor for some characters at some points in the novel), but psychological and emotional imprisonment imposed upon one character by another or by society, and by one character upon him/her self.
Nearly every character in this book is imprisoned in some way at some point.
Sasha begins the tale imprisoned in the birthing/adoption agency. While she’s there by her own choice, once inside she’s confined and harassed like a prisoner by staff who seem to have taken their cue from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. She’s there because she’s fleeing from the likelihood of virtual imprisonment if she’s found by her grandmother. Sasha views her pregnancy as a sort of shackling as well: her body isn’t capable of doing what she wants it to in terms of escaping from Gary and her girth doesn’t allow her to disappear into the crowd once she’s left the institution. The confines of her motel room in Savannah quickly start to feel like a prison to her. When the baby’s born, Sasha initially feels hostage to its needs and schedules. And in the end, when her baby, Jimmy, is stolen, she certainly feels entrapped by the police who interrogate her like a suspect after she’s called them in to help her find the child.
And yet, despite these many manacles that seemingly weigh upon Sasha, she manages to overcome all obstacles and create a freedom for herself and her baby on her own terms. Sasha enters the birthing/adoption centre as a means of eluding capture by her grandmother. She escapes the centre to get away from Gary, but it feels also to reclaim control of her life and her baby’s destiny that’s denied to her by the staff. The prison of the motel room is transformed into a home of sorts once she begins adding personal touches. Sasha endures pregnancy and the early crises of caregiving and transforms herself and is transformed by those circumstances into a mother who bonds with her son and comes to the realization that he’s a part of her life that she can’t part with and which she doesn’t want to lose. This expands within her exponentially once the baby’s taken and she goes on the warpath, turning the tables on the cops who suspected her and forcing them to give her everything she wants to get her son back. Sasha ends the novel having recovered her baby and redefining her life on her own terms, answerable to no-one other than her son.
For his part, Tom Starbird is imprisoned right from the start by the events of his own childhood – by his need to ensure that the few babies left in the country are safely with parents who want them and who will love them and provide them with the very best. Despite coming from an unaffectionate home, Tom is also trapped by the love every child feels for its mother. What’s Brandon Lee’s line from “The Crow”? Something like “Mother is the name for God on the hearts of children everywhere”? Why do many abused children desperately crave the affection of the very parents who hurt them? Tom is one of these, who, even as an adult who is determined to make sure no child is raised by a mother who doesn’t want him, still is willing to allow Jake Zorn’s blackmail and violate his personal code of conduct in order to protect the mother who ditched him front of a mall. Tom’s also a prisoner to his frigid philosophy of refusing to allow any emotion in his business dealings. While this protects him from forming attachments that could interfere with his kidnapping and baby selling, it also serves to completely alienate him from all other human beings.
But Starbird also (and I think this is obviously why his last name is such an allusion to the phoenix) is reborn into some kind of freedom. First by re-defining his life along minimalist lines so that he can focus on looking into himself. But most importantly by his growing unease with his trade and final project, and his eventual breakthrough where he watches Sasha’s tirade on TV and realizes that what he does is wrong. This motivates Tom not only to arrange to have the baby returned to Sasha, but to put Zorn in his place. And more importantly still, it forces Starbird to reach out to Sasha, to contact her, and in the process knowingly expose himself to the law, to try to apologize. He is transformed into a human being through this. So, despite the fact that he will be imprisoned and possibly executed for his crimes, Tom is able to attain a freedom of spirit.
Then there’s Maury, the intelligent, attractive, confident lawyer who has it all – except a child. She’s trapped by her desire to be a mother. So much so that she’s willing to force down her unease, suspicions and legal training as her husband strings her along with his secret plan to get her a child. Maury’s shackled by her repeated, unsuccessful pregnancies in the past. By her past suicide attempt after yet another stillbirth that hospitalized her and now makes it impossible for her to get a child through a proper adoption agency. By society’s expectation that a woman isn’t a woman unless she’s a mother.
But Maury rises above it all in the end by using her intelligence and legal skill to adopt a child – legally - in need against all odds and without the interference of Jake.
Jake Zorn, the so-called “Conscience of Boston”, is a prisoner of his own ego. He must get everything he wants when he wants it, and he must show his targets that he is the utter master of the situation. Jake is a man who ultimately wants to be a god, to tell the public what he thinks they need to know, to hold the fate of her prey/interview subjects in the palm of his hand, to provide his wife with everything she wants to make her happy, to rear a son to be an everlasting symbol of Jake’s own greatness. What irks him the most is that he can’t get a baby for his wife. The system defies him. And he is denied again when he initially tries to go through Starbird. Which is why he decides to blackmail Tom into doing the job, all the while preparing to take Starbird down anyway. Jake is then literally imprisoned when Tom comes clean in the media and provides evidence of Zorn’s involvement.
Does Jake manage to escape total imprisonment though? I think so. The conclusion of the novel seems to indicate he’s not completely despicable. Despite Maury’s complicity in the attempt to illegally obtain a baby, Jake falls on his sword and makes sure the wrath of the law comes down on him and him alone. Sure, Maury’s lawfirm helps keep her clean, but what’s most important is that Jake does his best to protect her. You might, in a cynical moment, say this is another example of Zorn hogging the spotlight, but I think he takes the fall solo because he does actually care for Maury. Because of that, he is not entirely out of grace.
There are a whole host of secondary and minor characters in “The Baby Merchant” who also grapple with imprisonment.
Tom’s mother has been institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals twice. She’s been medicated to control her mood swings. She’s been in Jake Zorn’s sights. And she’s been shackled with the twin burdens of professional mediocrity and the duties of motherhood – a motherhood that initially was intentional, but came with a legion of unwanted responsibilities and no creative reward.
Sasha’s grandmother is trapped in her need for an heir to the family empire. She’s also denied access to little Jimmy by Sasha at the end.
Jimmy Egan was imprisoned in a box and a pet carrier when he was kidnapped by Tom. You might also say that his time in the womb was imprisonment of a sort, which required his birth and subsequent bonding with his mother to truly escape.
Gary, the one-night-stand who fathered Jimmy, is subject to his own greed, and is eventually killed as a result of it.
Marilyn, the owner of the motel is a prisoner to an unsatisfying life that offers no escape beyond her brief attempts to fool herself through an abuse of makeup or clothing or go-nowhere affairs.
Marilyn’s tubby son Delroy is a prisoner to his own greed and lack of morality, as well as bottomless appetite and his mother’s heavy hand.
Even the police are held captive by Sasha’s rage once the truth comes out that the baby has actually been abducted.
What’s also interesting, is that imprisonment seems to be a theme of one of Reed’s other books “Thinner than Thou”, where characters grapple with the confines of institutional confinement, mental illness, physical problems and social intolerance.
I must say, it is intellectually freeing to read Kit Reed’s takes on what it means to be imprisoned and what is necessary to escape.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Bountiful Harvest Season For Sci-Fi Nuts

It’s been a good harvest this year for speculative fiction fans as far as television is concerned.
For years sci-fi fans were starved for decent entertainment, our hope being kept alive by the occasional successful crop in the form of “Babylon 5”, “The X-Files”, “Firefly” or the odd good season in the hit-and-miss hodgepodge of Star Trek franchises (which have averaged-out to stagnation – especially since some channels insist on running them all back-to-back endlessly – I like Trek once in a while, but not that much!). Oh sure, there were bushels of new “Red Dwarf” series’ that came in from the Brits once in a while, and I’ll even give the nod to the “Stargate” and “Buffy” franchises on behalf of friends who got a big kick out of them (I only bothered to watch a handful of episodes of each myself, and while I wasn’t thrilled, I wasn’t disappointed either). I’ll even grudgingly and somewhat sheepishly admit I’m still on the fence as to whether “Hercules” and “Xena” had any value (again, some friends loved ‘em, others hated ‘em, and I saw the odd episode that inspired respect or derision once in a while). But for the most part, television’s contributions to sci-fi over the past decade or so have been loaded with campy, televised junkfood like “Relic Hunter” or rehashes of “Conan”, “Sinbad” or “The Beastmaster”. The formula: throw some leggy lady or pumped dude into leather, contrive a quest, and set them in the backwoods of New Zealand or Canada pitted against whatever bad guy has come up again on the extras roster. In fact, for a while there, these types of visual cholesterol were all but completely clogging the arteries of Canada’s Space Channel. I haven’t a clue as to whether it was this bad on other SF-dedicated channels across the globe. On one hand, I hope not – I wouldn’t wish that kind of waste of airtime on any other culture. On the other hand, I kinda hope it was bad all around, ‘cause then it wouldn’t mean that programming here in the Great White North was leading the world in lack of quality and imagination. For a few years there were stretches where you’d be lucky to get one worthwhile show per week. Maybe two if the stars were aligned. Yeah. The harvest was bad for a while.
But things have been on the upswing for the past two years or so. And this autumn, oh, this autumn has been a bounty for tasty produce indeed. Some series are returning, putting all their energy into raising the bar, while some new shows are hitting the air with plenty of promise. It’s not like there’s something on every night, but the average is now more along the lines of at least 2 good nights out of 7, sometimes more, depending on your local programming schedule.
Coming in at the number one position: “Battlestar Galactica” season 3. This is the best show on television. It has been since the debut of the initial mini-series. I will go out on a limb and say it is easily one of the best shows of any television genre. Ever. I could easily write a whole blog entry (and there are some fans who devote entire websites) to why this show is so great. In a nutshell: unparalleled story-telling delivered by some of the best actors around, backed by top-notch directing, production, special effects and musical score. Its leap from the inspiration of the original 1970’s Battlestar is equivalent of going from cavemen eating raw grain to modern people creating all manner of baked goods like French bread or cake or Chinese soup buns. Even my wife, who’s a loyal follower of the mainstream “Law & Order” and “CSI” franchises, has become an avid “Battlestar” fan. The stories and realistic characters in “Battlestar Galactica” are so compelling that you don’t even have to have been on board with the series from the beginning – you could just pick it up on any given episode and without the back-story (although you do get a rough set-up in the opening credits) still get drawn into the lives of the people on screen. The new “Battlestar Galactica” is a shining example of how television can rise above the trough of mediocre swill to provide the ultimate in fine dining for storytelling.
I’m also quite impressed with this fall’s new network series “Heroes”. The show chronicles the lives of a group of diverse people from around the world who begin to discover they have super powers. The story lines have been solid and interesting and the cast has held its own. While my jaw hasn’t hit the floor watching this show, “Heroes” certainly has not disappointed and I haven’t regretted making a point of tuning in every week to watch. I’m eager to see where they go with this concept.
Then there’s “Eureka” a creation of the Americans’ Sci-Fi Channel that’s essentially the bastard child of “Northern Exposure” and “Men in Black”. A cop becomes the sheriff of a small town that just happens to be a genius colony. Many zany inventions toted by quirky brainiacs. Normal-guy cop tries to keep his bearings as adventure and mystery ensue. I missed the pilot, but have watched a few episodes and have been reasonably entertained. Something that I’d watch if it was on, but not a show I’ll be actively pursuing. If this degree of quality becomes the bench-mark for “average” TV sci-fi fare, I’ll be satisfied.
And there’s the much-applauded “Jericho”. I have to admit, I haven’t seen more than a few minutes of this one. It’s not because I dislike the show, merely that I missed the pilot and since then, by chance, I haven’t had time to watch a full episode. That being said, I have friends who’s opinion I respect who are giving “Jericho” high marks, so I’ll keep my mind open and at some point I figure I’ll catch it in reruns and get up to speed.
Last on my boob-tube list is the new season/series of “Dr. Who”. Now, this is a show that’s got more than a little nostalgia value for me. I grew up with The Doctor running on TV Ontario. My favourite of the previous incarnations was the gangly Fourth Doctor with his long scarf. Fast-forward many years (no Tardis required) to last year when the new series hit the airwaves here in North America. For some reason, maybe it was the portrayal of the Doctor, maybe it was the story lines, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the revival. This year is a whole other story. I’ve managed to catch a couple of episodes with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and the show has been terrific. Maybe it’s the Doctor’s vacillation between serious scientist/explorer and his tendency to behave like a wacky 10-year-old on a romp with some cool toys. Maybe the story lines are a little more interesting. I’m not sure. I do know that what I’ve seen has given me plenty of incentive to start watching the new “Doctor Who” on a regular basis.
Of course, regardless of the show in question, the real test of the truly good ones is whether they can maintain their quality and better yet, exceed the benchmarks they’ve already set and offer us new flavours, or whether they’ll tire and sink back into blandness. I’ve got my fingers crossed for all of the shows listed above.
So what are you watching this season? Is there something the rest of us should be keeping an eye out for?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

More On VCon 31

Just came across two other favourable reviews for VCon31. Check out author Robert J. Sawyer’s blog entry from October 10th:
And another from Ahmed A. Khan that Sawyer recommends on his site:
I’ve gotta say, one of my regrets about not being able to take in Saturday & Sunday at the con was that I wasn’t able to meet Sawyer and congratulate him on an amazing body of work. My favourites among his novels are “Calculating God” and “Flash Forward”. Sawyer is a writer who excels at combining high concept plot points like being able to get a glimpse of the future with hard science to form the background of stories involving believable, three-dimensional characters. Admittedly, I’m not a ravening fan who grabs everything he publishes as soon as it’s out – I haven’t bothered to pick up the last couple of issues of Analog just to get my hands on the serialization of his newest creation “Rollback”, but you can bet that once the installments have been gathered and printed out in the form of a single novel, I’ll add it to my collection at some point. I haven’t come across a Sawyer novel yet that hasn’t been a good read.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Busy Weekend: Thanksgiving, Mid-Autumn Festival, Our Anniversary and Getting Conned - VCon 31

Happy belated Thanksgiving everyone! For those of you from other corners of the internet marketplace of ideas, Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving at the beginning of October, unlike our friends to the south who don’t tend to have fowl dreams until well into November. The advantage of scheduling the festivities at this time of the season is that after the initial feast at a dining room table groaning under the weight of a massive, juicy roast turkey with crisp, brown skin and rivers of thick, heady gravy flowing down mountains of garlic mashed potatoes across the plains of your plate to crash into cliffs of flakey butter buns, and then after the weeks of piling through leftovers in the form of re-plated bird, ‘taters, stuffing and the like, or turkey soup, or gravy bread, or turkey sandwiches, or turkey burritos, or…you get the idea, after we’ve slogged through all of that, we can turn our minds to the sweet gluttony of Hallowe’en and then have the better part of two months to let it mellow into a fond memory simmering just below the surface to prime us for eager anticipation of another turkey dinner come Christmas. The Americans, on the other hand, get a turkey double-tap with scarcely a month’s gap – so close it’s surprising they can even tolerate the thought of a second face-off with a gobbler mid-winter. At any rate, Thanksgiving was good this year. Although the holiday was technically on Monday, we celebrated on Sunday for convenience – easier to do prep on Saturday, cooking & feasting on Sunday, and contented recovery on Monday. Lots of good food and a bunch of good friends gathered around the table.
We also celebrated the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival this past weekend. Take your pick of the many legends behind this holiday, whether they have to do with goddesses in the moon or heroes shooting down burning suns with their bows. The season sees Chinese children staying up late to play with lanterns and candles under the moon while everyone munches on Moon Cakes. Salty or sweet, depending on your preference, and the more duck egg yolks buried in the Moon Cake’s centre, the more money you’ll be paying to buy them – never mind how much you’ll spend trying to get your cholesterol down later!
What do these holidays have to do with speculative fiction? You might argue not much. But, there is a certain magic to these celebrations… epic myths from ancient China, mighty Thanksgiving feasts in the West that harken back to harvest revels in days of yore where stories would be shared over a groaning mead-board piled with good food as everyone sought comfort before the coming winter. There is a magic to any time that brings people of many backgrounds together in friendship. Sentimental? Sure. But no less true. I think of the almost-four-year-old son of our friends who were over for the feast on Sunday night, playing with his golden lantern, still content from a Mid-Autumn festival celebration the night before, as he chomped on turkey dinner or a pumpkin-shaped cookie at the first Thanksgiving his family had taken part in, and I think there’s a certain magic in that too… where a boy can grow into the future enjoying the best of two different cultures. What fiction can equal that? Like I said, sentimental but true.
This past weekend also marked our first anniversary. My wife and I took some time Monday evening to talk about the past year and watch our wedding DVD for a few laughs.
And if that wasn’t enough, I took in day 1 of VCon 31 – the Vancouver Science Fiction, Fantasy and Gaming Convention on Friday, which I enjoyed immensely. I must confess, it’s only the second con I’ve attended. The first was ConAdian – the 52nd World Science Fiction Convention held in Winnipeg, Manitoba back in Sept. 1994.
It’s not that I haven’t wanted to attend other cons, it’s just that higher priority family events, work obligations or money or timing issues (or combinations of the four) have interfered. And even if none of the above had stood in the way, I’m not sure that I would have attended all the annual cons in whatever province I was living in, or some of the bigger national or international cons here in Canada or the US. I think that while I am, as a fan, a member of this community, I don’t feel the need to immerse myself in it all the time. I’m more of a passive observer who occasionally dips into the experience. I guess if the con scene was a city and the people who attend it were its citizens, I’d be someone content to live in the suburbs who makes the odd foray into town to keep in touch and see what’s happening.
That being said, I do enjoy these trips into Conville, and where time, money and personal and work scheduling permit, I may find myself making more excursions. This year was a no-brainer: Vcon 31 was held at a hotel in Richmond (just south of Vancouver) just a stone’s throw from the house – I could have walked there in 20 minutes, instead, pressed for time, I drove there in 5. And the stars were aligned for scheduling, because I was actually able to make some time to attend this year. So I went. To be sure, the seeming convenience of holding the con over the Thanksgiving long weekend was actually problematic – if you’ve got family, it’s difficult to be able to take in the entire event. In fact, the holiday might have prevented some from attending altogether who would otherwise have come. For my part, shopping and prep work nixed the chance of attending on Sat, and Sun was out because of the cooking during the daytime and feasting in the evening. So it was Friday, opening day, by default. And while there were a number of panels I would have loved to attend on Sat & Sun, what I was able to take in on Fri did the trick.
It was a small turnout on Fri (I expect, given the number of people I saw checking in at the end of the day, things were busier later during the weekend), but that didn’t detract from the appeal of the con. In fact, it’s actually nicer to have your choice of seats in the rooms holding the panel discussions, or to be able to take your time checking out the art displays or browsing in the dealers’ room.
Hats off especially to the organizers for assembling some great writers' panels with interesting, intelligent themes. In fact, I think that’s what impressed me the most: the commitment to intelligent discourse about speculative fiction, writing in general, about science and history. No crowded halls of drooling fans quizzing actors about pointless minutia of their shows. No authors expounding on their own greatness (something that really turned me off of one grand matron of the genre back in '94 - but that's a story for another time). These sessions encouraged the panelists, and for the most part, the fans, to debate moral and scientific issues, to investigate literary style.
I was fortunate enough to attend the following panels: How Stories End, Near-Future SF, Living on the Moon and Mars and Historical Fiction: Where Does History End and Fantasy Begin?
My favourites, without a doubt, were How Stories End and Near Future SF. Both featured lively debate among smart panelists with some interesting questions and comments from the audience.
How Stories End explored why authors write the endings they do - what literary logic is involved in steering the story’s course, how much does the author have a responsibility to the demands of the audience for a particular ending and how much should this be taken into consideration, the impact of focus groups on television and film and whether this “tool” of Hollywood would have corrupted the endings of pre-focus group movies of the past, along with many other issues. The session also featured a bit of tension between a couple of the panelists, but that served to add a little more energy to the debate and things did remain professional. Another panelist, during the "how would focus groups have affected the outcome of older movies" discussion, dropped a quick reference to my guilty pleasure: "Walt Disney's The Black Hole". It came during another panelist's pause for a breath, so I don't think too many other people caught it, but I'll grudgingly admit it gave me a surge of pure fanboy glee. That being said, it does raise the strange question (which would have made a great discussion if the panel had seized on it) of whether a focus group could actually save a movie from a bad ending. Would it have been possible for a randomly selected collection of yokels representing the "average" moviegoer to have moved the mighty Disney machine to change the ending of "The Black Hole" to make it, well, make sense? One can only wonder.
Near Future SF was not, as some might fear, a simple checklist of what author made what prediction and was it right or wrong. Rather, the panel examined the effects of technology, nature and changing human psychology and sociology on culture and humanity itself, and how authors have interpreted these factors and reflected them in their fiction.
I’d say the only real downer on the day came during the Living on the Moon and Mars panel. It was a display of utter crassness from some audience members that became the perfect example of where fandom can get a bad name. And, to be clear, I'm not talking about the stereotypes of how fans look. Personally, I don't care whether someone is dressed in non-descript clothing like I was, whether they look like the epitome of the computer geek with the coke-bottle glasses, whether they're in Renaissance period costume, whether they're muscled and sporting flowing tresses, or whether they're a 350 pound transvestite goth. All of those physical types and more were present at the con and these panels, and pretty much all of them had worth-while comments to share and behaved with caring and consideration towards each other, the panelists/guests and the organizers. No. I'm talking about the shitty attitude a very small minority of people (without reference to any physical type of mode of dress) carry around that makes them think that they, even though they've probably never been published or been publicly acknowledged or applauded by any member of the speculative fiction community or have any degree of scientific or cultural expertise, are intellectual giants who have the right to take cheap pot-shots at anyone who's from outside their own limited experience or who has the guts to address a crowd. I'm talking about the self-deluded few who's snideness has transformed them (likely without their knowing) into living charicatures of the worst aspects of fandom - the Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons". What's saddest of all is that society in general tends to hold the mistaken belief that this tiny percentage of fandom actually represents everyone who loves speculative fiction. These fuckers give us all a bad name and I'm sick of it.
Here's how the debacle went down: Sci-fi author and retired physics and astronomy prof James C. Glass and David Bigelow, who builds electrical control panels and is a sometime writer, were the panelists. Things took a turn for the pointless right from the start. During the introductions, Bigelow identified himself and made some mention of a particular career he is or was involved in (I can’t remember what) - a pursuit that was not related to astronomy. Without missing a beat, some complete jackass in the audience pounced on Bigelow, saying something to the effect of “Then I guess you don’t know anything about what’s involved in traveling to or colonizing the Moon and Mars!”
There’s no excuse for putting a guest speaker down, especially not before the discussion’s even begun. Clearly this idiot in the crowd is so high on himself that he’s incapable of considering that maybe, just maybe, the con organizers chose Bigelow to take part in the panel because even though he’s not a pro astronomer he may have put a hell of a lot of research into this kind of stuff on his own time and might just know what he’s talking about. Or maybe that his different field of expertise might be relevant in some way that this loser can’t conceive. Or maybe that he's read a ton of the stories in the field that concern colonization and can comment on its literary portrayal. More to the point, the know-it-all doesn’t understand or care that the rest of us in the audience who are aware of the concept of respect didn’t pay our con membership fees to listen to the likes of yappy little freaks like him. The fact is that while Glass, as the expert in the room, spoke in the most detail about the practicalities of colonization and deep space flight, Bigelow did have a number of worthwhile things to say. For his part, the idiot in the audience did not.
And that brings me to the other matter that bugged me about that session: a general problem at cons… outta control fanboys. Audience participation at panel discussions, when kept focused and carefully moderated by the panel, can be intelligent, entertaining and worth while. But some members of audiences should be actively ignored or better yet, shut down quickly by moderators, and never allowed to speak their minds (or their pathetic excuses for minds) either because they have nothing to say beyond “you know what’s cool…” or because they’re rude, or because they won't shut up - they believe in their heart of hearts they're members of the panel too, or because they're determined to steal the spotlight for themselves because they’re not actually interested in listening to the panel.
The Living on the Moon and Mars presentation was an example of where two losers in the audience took every opportunity they could to hijack the session and pontificate on their own views of what deep space exploration and colonization would be like, irrespective of the actual science involved that Glass and Bigelow were discussing. It bugs me that these two fools wasted probably 10 minutes with their blather, taking full advantage of the politeness of the panelists who allowed them to speak. I would rather that time had gone to the panelists to make their sound predictions, or even that we had been able to use that 10 minutes to leave the room early to stretch our legs before the next seminar, than to a pair of dweebs interested only in masturbating their own imaginations in front of the rest of us. You wanna share your half-baked notions? Write a story, produce a television pilot or movie, or launch a blog. If the rest of the human race is remotely interested, people will read, watch, or log-on, and maybe then you'll eventually earn your place at a panelist's table to share your views with an audience. Until then, on behalf of everyone else who's parents and/or life experience taught them basic respect for others: sit down, shut up, and quit wasting our time! We didn't come to the con to listen to you!
Of course, that begs the question, why didn't ol' bloginhood or someone else in the audience take the initiative and shut these jokers down? Simple: respect for the panelists. The two idiots had already hijacked enough time, and getting into an argument with them would have just wasted more. And getting into a scene in the hallway afterward (in addition to being waaaaay too highschool) would have also probably failed to achieve results, and would have interefered with getting to the next panel on time. No, I think in these cases, it's up to the panel moderator to stare the grandstander in the eye and say "Thanks for your comments, but you're off topic and we'd like to give the panelists a chance to speak." In the case of out-and-out rudeness such as the insult at the beginning of the panel in question, I think it's up to the moderator, on behalf of the con organizers, to either give the offending fanboy a warning or to ask him to leave.
But, I guess there’s no such thing as a perfect con and if there were only two losers in an entire day of panels at the event, then the con was batting a pretty good average. And that being said, what Glass and Bigelow had to say about underground colonies, supply issues, radiation dangers and other practicalities was quite interesting.
I was also quite happy with the dealers’ room. Granted, some of the tables were empty Fri afternoon (I got the impression the room would be full by Sat), but I was able to spend some time chatting with the friendly folks at the Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing table, where I picked up some very nice back-issues of anthologies that you just can’t find on bookstore shelves anymore. I was able to secure copies of the “Tesseracts” anthology – volumes 1, 3 and 4, “On Spec: The First Five Years” and “land/space: An Anthology of Prairie Speculative Fiction”. The bonus: they were all old warehouse stock, so I was able to get them for the original cover prices! He shoots, he scores!
All in all, a good weekend.

Friday, September 29, 2006

An Animated Discussion

It was the animals that started it. My wife and I had finished enjoying Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso” on DVD last night and were flicking through the TV channels when we came across an ad for Sony Animation’s new flick “Open Season”. It prompted my wife to remark that Japanese animators had more creativity because they stepped boldly into the weirdest realms of their imaginations, as opposed to North American animation story-tellers who tend to stick with comfortable repeats of animal stories.
I’m not so sure about that.
Now, it should be noted that the two of us come from different backgrounds with different animation influences as we grew up. She’s a Hong Kong Chinese who had a lot of Japan’s anime on the TV and movie screens of her childhood, seasoned liberally with Western animated fare brought in by that freeport’s English masters.
Myself, being a Canadian boy brought up in south-western Ontario, I had the expected hefty dose of Disney (the first movie my parents ever took me to see as a little tyke was “Pete’s Dragon”), Looney Toons, and the Walter Lantz fare (“Woody Woodpecker” and “Chilly Willy”). Credit too to various other North American sources like Hanna Barbara (“The Flintstones”, “Yogi Bear”) and Filmation (“Fat Albert”, “He-Man”, “Gilligan’s Planet”) and later on whoever produced “G.I. Joe” and “The Transformers”. And my TV hours were also spiced with a bit of anime in the form of “Starblazers” (the sanitized, Americanized import of “Space Cruiser Yamato”) and “Battle of the Planets” (“Gotchamon” to the Japanese, again, sanitized and Americanized) and later “Robotech” (“Macross”, yadda yadda). There was even some British flavouring here and there in the form of “Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings” (ever seen Mike Myers’ old skit from SNL? This was the inspiration,) or “Dr Snuggles” (the wacky adventures of an English inventor – voiced by Sir Peter Ustinov – and his animal friends). Sadly, with the exception of the excellent "The Secret Railroad", there wasn’t much in the way of homegrown animation. Most of the good Canadian stuff was live action (it took a long time for quality like “The Cat Came Back” to come along).
Since then, through our teens and as adults, we’ve both seen a lot of animation from different sources, and not all of them feature-length productions from major studios.
But I’m still not comfortable with the question of who’s more imaginative, Japanese animators or their North American counterparts. It smacks of apples and oranges. But beyond that, I think there are more similarities than differences, and that puts them all pretty much on a level field on the imagination landscape.
What differences there are in the manifestation of their creativity no doubt arises to some extent from the different realities of modern life and cultural backgrounds. The Japanese are a numerous people crammed into towering cities of glass and steel on a cluster of smallish islands. In the past 150 years they’ve transformed radically from a feudal, mostly agrarian society to a wanton embrace of high tech, and seen their imperialistic world view brought to heel at the hands of foreign powers. Landmarks like “Akira” clearly illustrate artists trying to deal with the crushing weight of urban life and technology run rampant. A culture that demands homogeny has given rise to multiple movies and TV series where a single, freaky-haired, plucky, young fella at the controls of a giant robot (take your pick of any of the giant robot or cool tank serials) can save his city or even the world and get the girl. “Princess Mononoke” is a longing for a pastoral, mythical past where Shintoist connections with the spirits in the land and everything on it were not only relevant, but immediate. Mankind is brought low by seemingly unstoppable alien invaders in “Macross” and has to adapt the aliens’ own technology in creative ways to survive, and in victory join forces with some of those same invaders – not unlike the Japanese loss in World War II and subsequent economic recovery and rise to manufacturing and financial global superpower. Not a lot of animals to make life interesting in the megacities? Just invent a horde of them with special powers – your basic “Pokemon” and its ilk.
North American animators are coming from post-colonial cultures, where the imagination fostered in modern times is rooted in practical concerns of our forefathers who wondered and dreamt and worried about what was lurking in the dark depths of the forest that started at the edge of their farms, and what strange lands unseen by Western man lay beyond. We live in lands that despite our ever-encroaching suburban sprawl, resource exploitation and pollution, still manage to have huge tracts of uninhabited land where it is still common for people to disappear without a trace. Encounters between man and various animals, and opportunities for man to observe the behaviours of the animals, were par for the course in our cultures’ infancies, and are still fairly common. And in the remaining wild animals we see a freedom of behaviour, an innocence, a care-free life that we like to delusionally imagine our ancestors may once have had. Despite the Judeo-Christian foundations of our cultures that dictate that man is far above the other residents of the animal kingdom, it’s still a fairly common instinct to anthropomorphize the animals around us. No wonder the bulk of major animated features are about the misadventures of bears and dogs and cats and other critters, either in the wild, or navigating the perilous world of man. Modern urban life for human beings is turned into the stuff of animated entertainment in the form of Bill Cosby’s “Fat Albert” or “Undergrads” or blurring into fantasy or science fiction (for a much older audience) with MTV’s “The Maxx” or Ralph Bakshi’s “Spicy City”.
Do these differences in culture and style show on the balance some sort of superiority of one over the other? No. Merely that they are different.
And we can see many instances where each culture’s creativity is amplified by interaction with the other. Take the “Animatrix”. Not a single feature, but a collection where animators from both sides of the Pacific came to play in a world created by a pair of American film makers who were clearly inspired by classic science fiction stories from authors around the world. What about features from the 80’s like “The Last Unicorn” (yes, I know, Peter S. Beagle is a Brit, not North American, but it’s still a good example of Japanese adaptation of a product of Western culture) or “Flight of Dragons” where Japanese animators breathed life into stories by Western authors? “Ghost in the Shell” may be a high-water mark in Japanese anime, it may involve a hefty dose of cyberpunk, but it owes its form to classic American film noire – Bogart could be slouching the streets next to those cyborg cops, trying to figure out what was going on as he lit up another cigarette. The new “Martin Mystery” is clearly an updated “Scooby Doo”.
We should also be aware that there are many similarities – instances of parallel evolution: “The Transformers”, while it starred alien robots, was really a superhero show, and a good one at that. On this side of the pond, so was the “Spider Man and his Amazing Friends and the Incredible Hulk Adventure Hour”. Japanese animators have long had a fascination with trains – we see that in “Galaxy Express 999” or “Midnight on Galactic Railway”, but when I was growing up I was extremely fond of the adventures of a boy names Simon and his sidekicks Mr. Passenger and Melanie the cat on “The Secret Railroad”.
Let’s also not forget that both traditions also have left behind great, steaming piles of imagination-and/or-quality-deprived shit on our TV and movie screens. The Japanese really do need to put aside their pride (and weird school girl fetishes) and apologize to the world for the “Sailor Moon” garbage that slammed into the rest of the world during the 90’s. For our part, North America must openly admit that Bakshi’s attempt at “The Lord of the Rings” is one of the greatest abominations in animation history.
And if you’re going to argue repetition, that many North American features are about animals (and let’s face it, it does tend to be a zoo at the cinema), remember that the Japanese also have a tendency to keep banging on the drum once they find a formula that seems to work – especially one with toy marketing potential. Case in point: “Pokemon” which was quickly followed by “Digimon” and a whole host of other ‘mons.
Ultimately, both the Japanese and North American animation traditions have soared to stellar heights in their presentation of this world or the worlds of imagination, in their ability to challenge our intellects and/or tug at our heartstrings, in their ability to tell a good story. And both have committed terrible sins against this art form. Examples of the successes and failures of each are legion, and if I were to be even more long-winded than usual and start detailing my all-time favourites (many of which are not mentioned here), we’d be here for a month. I will be brief in this pronouncement: both are equally creative and are to be applauded for their attempts to sow the seeds of dreams in succeeding generations.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Another Welcome To The World

Great news! My good friend and former pupil James has just become a father! The twin boys, Treton and Kaden, are a bit small (just under and just over 4 pounds, respectively), so they're in for a hospital stay for a while until they're a little more robust, but all things considered, they're doing really well. Their mother, Kat, is fine too - James was probably more nervous than she was during the delivery.
What does this have to do with a blog about speculative fiction? Nothing. Aside from the fact that it makes our peering into the future a little more concrete when we see two new little lives that will explore all that is and what is to come with fresh perspectives. In a way, you have to envy them for some year down the road when they'll get to read Shakespeare's "Mid Summer Night's Dream" or Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" for the first time, or their first viewing of "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" (let's hope dear old George has finally learned to stop tinkering with his masterpiece or ceased his annual re-issuing of its various incarnations by then). As much of a pleasure as it is to go back to these old favourites, there's nothing that compares to the wonder of the first time.
Okay, some of you may accuse me of getting sentimental and schmaltzy, but hey, I'm entitled once in a while. If nothing else it's a change from my usual litany of complaints about this, that, or the other.
So welcome to the world, Treton & Kaden! You're in for quite a ride.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Jumping On The Blue Man Bandwagon

Everyone else seems to be doing it, so, since I don’t disagree, I may as well too. Yep, I’m adding my voice to the chorus of praises for Nick DiChario’s “A Small and Remarkable Life”.

If you love intelligent storytelling – literature that examines what it means to be human, without being pretentious, then you should read what one reviewer on the SciFi Channel’s website called this “small and remarkable book”.

The fact that this story is science fiction makes it so much better. Not because one needs little blue aliens that just don’t stay dead to make a good story, but rather this book adds to the stack of stories proving that speculative fiction is, at its best, exquisitely literate and though unnoticed by the vast majority of mainstream reviewers, is a genre whose fare often leaves the more widely noticed regular fiction in the dust when it comes to quality.

The story is presented in two interweaving parts. The first begins with the funeral of Tink Puddah (the afore-mentioned little blue alien) in a mountain village in pre-Civil War America. The town preacher is desperately trying to reconcile how a “man” who rejected God could have been so loved by the townsfolk. This as he obsesses over his perceived inability to bond with his flock, his life under his father’s shadow, and the fact that despite his chosen profession, he has never felt a divine connection. From here, the preacher begins to spiral into insanity. While this half of the story deals with the deconstruction of a man, the other half of the novel concerns the development of a young alien. It is a bildungsroman (speaking of writing that gets pretentious, I apologize) – a novel of growth about Tink Puddah’s violent entry into our world and his quiet struggles to come to grips with his isolation in it and with who he is. He tries to figure out what it means to be human, even as he wades into what it means to be an alien from Wetspace.

In fact, I would say the only part of this book that isn’t worth reading is the “book club guide” at the back. Anyone who could read this tale and sit back and reflect on it doesn’t need to be led around by the nose by questions provided by the publisher. Anyone who needs those prefabricated thought-provokers probably doesn’t get the book to begin with, and likely won’t even benefit from a series of directed questions. It’s a pity these publishers with their eyes on the book club niche don’t give the denizens of those gatherings more credit for their intelligence. Let people reflect and discuss and dig deep internally and discover on their own, without some all-powerful, all-knowing outside guidance. It worked for Tink Puddah.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Summer's End & Guilty Pleasures

It came Friday night. An October wind. It blustered past a bright crescent moon and the cold, clear stars and through the leaves of the crabapple tree out back. This is it. The official signal. The end of summer. Oh sure, the days are still warm and sunny and the beaches are still packed, but once that precocious fall breeze comes skipping into town of an evening, it’s time to start looking to the harvest and warm jackets on cool nights and trees of a million colours and if you’re in the right part of the country a witch’s perfume of burning leaf piles laced with acorns caressing the air ahead of Hallowe’en. Autumn, the best time of year. Soon.
And so, as summer lumbers to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about that season’s biggest contribution to speculative fiction: the movies. In fact, lately I found myself in a discussion with a friend, not about this year’s box office offerings, but about our favourite movies – and specifically, the ones we usually won’t admit to owning.
You see, it’s not terribly interesting just to gush about all of our respective top ten lists of cinematic brilliance. That’s been done. No, it’s confessions that are truly worthwhile. I’m talking about guilty pleasures.
That’s right, the movies that everyone else hates – and probably for good reason (otherwise they wouldn’t be guilty pleasures), but that you have some secret love for that you tenaciously cling to over the years. Those are the ones that incur avalanches of derision from those around you, but where you feel yourself intellectually backed into a corner and thus come out fighting in defence of what entertains you with utmost ferocity. You’ll hear some of the most creative arguments ever made to justify not only watching, but repeatedly watching and maybe owning a piece of celluloid most people would just as soon forget ever existed.
Don’t be shy. Everyone’s got ‘em. Most especially those of us who love sci-fi and fantasy. This genre is built on the bones of the stinkers. And we keep disinterring them not just out of fascination with the grotesque, but for the love of bold or even wacky dreams that had the guts to try, and despite all their flaws, worked on some level for us. Heck, that was the bread and butter of Friday nights on independent local TV channels across North America for decades until the rise of the big cable TV networks at the end of the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s. Who among us remembers with fondness (if also a healthy dose of disgust once in a while) the height of tributes to SF movie cheese: “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”. Whether you can’t miss a rerun of “Battle Beyond the Stars” or a classic hunk of formage like “Tobor the Great” (let me just say right now, neither hold a special place in my heart, they’re merely examples, and no, I’m not “protesting too much” out of some uber-secret love), there’s something about that one film, whatever it is, that makes you watch it any time it hits late night TV (pretty rare these days) or covet it in a place of honour on your DVD/videotape shelf.
And I’ll come clean. I’ve got a guilty pleasure too. It’s “Walt Disney’s The Black Hole”. Laugh away folks. I know I am.
What was “The Black Hole”? Was it Disney’s attempt to cash-in on the post-Star Wars sci-fi craze? Was it a futuristic fusion of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, “Moby Dick” and “The Tempest”? Was it a Twilight Zone-esque take on the often-rehashed story about a gang of friends out for a joyride who take a wrong turn down a dark road, stop at a creepy house and run into trouble? All of these mashed together or none? It was still entertaining.
I’ll freely admit, the flaws in this flick are legion: the shots of the robots VINCent and BOB hovering along, complete with wires showing; the “meteorites” plowing through the Cygnus like glowing globs of cotton candy the size of apartment buildings; occasionally campy dialogue; heroes clambering around the outside of a ship (at close range to the crushing gravity field and merciless radiation of a black hole) and still managing to breathe; and, of course, that utterly bizarre on-the-other-side-of-death sequence involving Dr. Reinhardt at the end of the film. I’ve never heard of anyone who’s been able to figure out what the point of that bit is. Even Disney special effects wizard Harrison Ellenshaw, who’s been interviewed for a featurette on the Anniversary DVD, admits they didn’t have an ending when they were putting the film together. He says he can’t figure out this ending himself (granted, he does note the ending he suggested was shot but left on the cutting room floor).
So what.
“The Black Hole” is a beautiful relic of film-making of its time. You’ll never see matte paintings or physical special effects like that again. The paintings, the set design, the robots and costumes and special effects – you can tell the crew at the Disney factory cared about what they were crafting. And then there are the ships, from the sturdy little Palomino to the huge, gothic, gloomy prettiness of the Cygnus. I can watch the movie just for the exterior shots. From a set direction and special effects point of view, this is the height of what the old studio system of film making could do, as opposed to the modern era of farming-out just about every service possible.
And (hold your snorts of derision just a while longer, folks) the story isn’t bad either. At least up until the damage from the “meteorite” storm becomes so great that the heroes are exposed to the vacuum but still managing to breath just fine and dandy. The mystery is set early on and the tension is effectively ratcheted up as more and more oddities are observed until the final secret is revealed of the lengths Reinhardt would go to pursue his dream. It is, in fact, a story about people in search of dreams – explorers in search of alien life, the mad scientist in search of godhood, a lesser scientist’s search for his own glory in the shadow of another, monsters in search of power, a daughter’s search for her lost father, castaways in search of a way home.
There are also elements of “The Black Hole” that curiously foreshadow the fate of space exploration in recent decades. Reporter Harry Boothe (as played by Ernest Borgnine – who’s girth challenges the set crew with a wire flying sequence in the beginning) observes the construction of the Cygnus and its ultimately failed mission were “the costliest fiasco of all time”. We can see in the movie the portrayal of the Cygnus as an old style of space exploration where bigger was better, and vessels had to have all the bells and whistles (including artificial gravity), while newer vessels like the Palomino are built small and cheap. Could the writers and special effects designers have known that the era of space probes being built big with all manner of equipment, like the Viking probes, was about to end, and that the later decade of the 90’s would see the introduction of smaller, cheaper, more quickly-built space probes and satellites like the “humble” space telescope (at just a metre or two, tiny compared to the freight-car bulk of Hubble) as NASA’s budget was hacked into near-beggery.
And some of the acting is worthwhile. The robots on the side of the heroes are entertaining enough (Roddy Macdowell as the uncredited voice of VINCent). Maximillian Schell is convincing as a man who’s probably brilliant and charismatic but definitely a nut. And Robert Forrester is bang-on as a ship captain. Having interviewed more than a few military and police officers in my former role as a reporter, I can say Forrester has got the quiet, self-assured, observant reserve of a competent military man with nothing to prove down pat. It’s a similar performance (though nowhere near as good) to that of Edward James Olmos as Commander Adama in the new Battlestar Galactica.
Ultimately though, “The Black Hole” has also got a hefty dose of nostalgia value for me. I saw it as a kid, back in the era when Disney was thinking big and was eager to go toe-to-toe with any other studio on any type of movie it wanted, beyond its traditional inviolate animated kingdom, and its big vision made an impression on me. And now, years later, for all its flaws, the “The Black Hole” still has plenty of charm to carry it through its generous amount of cheese.
So fess up. What’s your guilty pleasure?