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Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars)

Though unmentioned, the spectre of the Great War looms large over the 1918 Danish film Himmelskibet. Called A Trip to Mars in its English release, it begins as any self-respecting Scientific Romance ought: a daring adventurer sets out on a celestial expedition to Mars, facing down derision and disaster in his quest for scientific truth. When he and his crew arrive, they encounter a pacifist utopia custom-made to counteract the horrors of the conflict ravaging Europe at the time.

The hero of the story is Captain Avanti Planetaros, late of the marine corps who has taken up aviation as a hobby. His sister, Corona, is romantically entwined with Avanti's friend, the scientist Dr. Krafft. Their father is Professor Planetaros, an astronomer who gazes longingly at the Red Planet through his attic observatory. Their nemesis is Professor Dubius, friend of their father and inveterate cynic. While flying one day, Avanti is seized with the idea of creating a flying machine that can take him and stalwart crew to Mars. Other than Dubius living up to his name, nothing stands in their way and they are soon off on an expedition.

Six months out, while those left behind on Earth wonder if they have survived at all, the space madness infects the crew. Some have turned to drink and there is talk of mutiny to take control of the ship - named Excelsior - and turn it back around to home. Before they can affect their plan, a ray from Mars captures the ship and it is sped to the surface of the planet. There, the crew encounters a veritable paradise and its highly enlightened citizens.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Darius Green and his Flying-Machine


Originally published circa 1867, Darius Green and his Flying-Machine by John Townsend Trowbridge, was a simple verse mocking the aspiration towards human-powered flight, the genre of Scientific Romances, and the boy geniuses who populated such stories in the dime novels of the day. For example, The Huge Hunter; or, The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward S. Ellis would be published in 1868, featuring a comparable boy genius though with somewhat more success than the country bumpkin of Trowbridge's poem.


Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Disney's Island at the Top of the World and Discovery Bay

The Disney company was faced with challenging times throughout the late 1960's and 1970's. Walt Disney passed away in December of 1966, leaving the company rudderless. It never truly recovered from a loss in the fiscal year of 1959/60, after which it resorted ever more to inexpensively produced, live-action films with equally diminishing returns. The list of truly classic Disney films from the Sixties is short: Mary Poppins (1964), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Pollyanna (1960), The Parent Trap (1961), and The Love Bug (1968). The Seventies were even more barren. The world changed around Disney, and by the discontented years of Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Sexual Revolution, Uncle Walt's 1950's utopian promises and quaint family movies were painfully square. Up to 70% of the company's revenue came from its two theme parks - Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida - and a growing majority of its films were theatrical re-releases of past glories.

Something daring was necessary, and it was in this spirit that Disney turned to a distinctive little adventure book written by Ian Cameron in 1961. Titled The Lost Ones, it featured an expedition to the Canadian Arctic that uncovered a mysterious society descended from the Vikings who migrated across the Atlantic a thousand years before. Though set in the modern day, producer Winston Hibler, director Robert Stevenson, and script writer John Whedon saw in it the seeds of a grand Victorian-Edwardian adventure in the tradition of Jules Verne. After all, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea proved to be a landmark film for the company in 1954, so perhaps a similar sort of story could propel them into success once again. An aspiring Imagineer by the name of Tony Baxter seized the opportunity to propose an entirely new addition to Disneyland centred on both this film and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Yet studio executives got cold feet, scaled back the budget, and when The Island at the Top of the World was released in 1974, it was not the hoped-for commercial success. The film, a planned sequel, and Baxter's ideas were quietly shelved.



Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The Victorian Invention of Halloween

The common story goes that Halloween originated in the misty days of pre-Roman Ireland, with the year-ending festival of Samhain. That final day of the Celtic calendar was a "thin time" when spirits walked the Earth and costumed junior Druids traveled from home to home with lighted turnips, begging for food. The festival was appropriated by the Catholic Church as All Hallow's Eve as a fair or foul attempt to convert the Pagans, and evolved over time into the holiday we know today.

If only there was any historical evidence for this story!

Very little is actually known about Druids, their festivals, and their practices, on account of their being a pre-literate culture. Most of what we do know comes from the Romans, an imperial force who cannot be relied upon to have a full, nuanced appreciation for the cultures they attempted to conquer. It was the Romans who gave the impression that mass human sacrifice in Wicker Men was a common Druidic practice. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, Celts took to Christianity and took to it hard. So it can safely be said that there was a festival surrounding Samhain, a term which literally means "summer's end" but was not necessarily the end of the Celtic year. It may have had something to do with honouring the dead, but we don't know for sure, and that practice may have been Christianized as All Saints Day, a lesser festival honouring all the saints and martyrs who did not have their own designated feast days (the preceding evening being All Hallows Eve), and followed by All Souls Day remembering all the Christian dead. Yet the original practice of All Saints Day varied from country to country - November 1 in England and Germany, April 20 in Ireland, May 13 in most of the Christian world - and the November 1 date was only fixed in the 12th century, well after the Christianization of the Celts. Scholars can't actually say what transpired during Samhain festivals, on account of there being no record whatsoever. It seems that processions for the faithful dead were actually a Christian invention, as well as the door-to-door begging for food. All Saints was only one such opportunity for such activity: processions and door-to-door hunger appeals also surfaced on the feast days of St. Andrew, St. Nicholas, St. Thomas, and even later on Guy Fawkes Day. Like other holy days, it became an opportunity for ribald fools festivals, danse macabre, and pranking. In Europe and the British Isles, Halloween is only a minor practice, oftentimes unwelcome, and one that has mostly been imported from the United States.

That being the case, where did the idea that Halloween was an ancient, pre-Christian Druidic practice come from? The most likely answer is that it came from the same people who invented the modern holiday of Halloween itself: the Victorians!



Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Will Rogers' The Headless Horseman

Long before Johnny Depp or Bing Crosby's voice, the inept schoolmaster of Washington Irving's classic American novel The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was first played by cowboy funnyman Will Rogers in 1922. Rogers was still relatively new to film at the time, but not to entertainment. He was already the toast of Vaudeville for his trick roping and incisive political wit. In 1918 he was signed by Samuel Goldwyn and moved from New York to Hollywood. It was there that he starred in The Headless Horseman.

The Headless Horseman stays remarkably true to the book for a feature film. A civilized but superstitious Yankee teacher named Ichabod Crane comes to the little dutch hamlet of Sleepy Hollow. Soon, poor ungainly Crane wishes he was nowhere near this insane town which rests under the dark shadow of a departed Hessian solider who rides on every full moon to claim a head to replace the one he lost lo so many years ago. Suspicious and weary, the townsfolk mistrust Ichabod, and even try him for witchcraft! There is but one respite: the delightful young belle Katrina VanTassel, daughter of the richest man in the county. Unfortunately, being a frivolous girl, she is merely using him to give her true beau, Brom Bones, a bit of competition. Constantly upped by the high-class city-slicker, things come to a head (so to speak) one dark and foreboding Halloween night. Destiny meets up with Ichabod Crane in the form of the Headless Horseman.

Aside from being the first screen adaptation of the Irving story, The Headless Horseman may also perhaps be the silver screen's first horror-comedy. Unfortunately, Will Rogers' comedy was based in the powers of speech, which is a detriment when it comes to silent films. A humble, "aw shucks" demeanour gives it a go with the limited silent-era slapstick, but this trick roper's hands are tied in this medium.

However, one doesn't watch a flick like The Headless Horseman for laughs. The story is, like the novel, primarily about the love triangle between Ichabod Crane, Katrina VanTassel, and Brom Bones. But when the title character rears his decapitated shoulders, the limitations of silent film become tried and true assets. A simple double-exposure was all that was needed to create a scene more bone-chilling than anything Tim Burton's computers could muster. 

Nevertheless, any film adaptation of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow must compare with Disney's near-monopoly on it, even if it was made before Bing crooned the audience. Disney's version still benefits from it's short length, providing a tighter story that doesn't waste time getting to the part everyone wants to see. It has another advantage over the 1922 film: part of the fun is the ambiguity over what the Horseman is... Is is a ghost? Or was it Brom Bones? Was Ichabod spirited away, or was he alive and well in New York? Disney never tells. However, this version of the film does, losing some of the mystique in the process.

There is a way to regain some of it though. Save The Headless Horseman for just the right moment... A dreary autumn afternoon in October, dried leaves rustling in the wind, the ever so faint laughter of children being carried on the wind, the hooting of owls and cawing of crows, the smell of decay, the dwindling sunlight, the harvest, the feeling of Halloween... Just the kind of dusk described by Coleridge...
Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.



Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Fitz James O'Brien's The Diamond Lens

H.P. Lovecraft touted it as one of his favourite stories... An early example of murder, occultism, madness, and the vertigo of the infinite in a scant few pages that has remained the best-known tale by one of America's early pioneers in Scientific Romance. Fitz James O'Brien's 1858 short story The Diamond Lens would, in many ways, act as a precursor to Lovecraft's own terrifying tales of cosmic nihilism. 



Saturday, 9 September 2017

Georges Méliès' A la Conquête du Pôle


Today's special post is part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner and Silent Screenings. Click on the link to visit many fantastic blogs celebrating the Good, the Mad, and the Lonely in cinematic science!



The world has not been in an uproar like this since Phileas Fogg took his abbreviated trip around the globe! The redoubtable Professor Maboul has created a frenzy with his plan to visit the North Pole in one of Georges Méliès final films.

As a result of the American movie factory and new innovations in filmmaking by directors from Hollywood and the German schools, Méliès began winding down production in the early 1910's, just as his art was to reach its peak. Méliès took the staged, tableau style - where entire scenes unfold in static set pieces before the viewer sitting back in the objective view of a live theatre patron - about as far is it could go artistically. This easily shows in the ambitious A la Conquête du Pôle (English: Conquest of the Pole), one of only three films Méliès produced in 1912.

Like Méliès' last major Scientific Romance, Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (English: The Impossible Voyage), the scope and scale of Conquest of the Pole is tremendous. However, unlike that 1904 film, the pace is quickened up. Conquest of the Pole runs for approximately the same duration, but moves along much more rapidly, recalling mastery and magic of his greatest film from a decade prior, Le Voyage dans la Lune (English: A Trip to the Moon).


Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Georges Méliès' Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible

George  Méliès' Journey Through the Impossible  
(Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible)  with original soundtrack by La Pêche.

Georges Méliès' Le Voyage dans la Lune (English: A Trip to the Moon) was the smash hit of 1902. In fact, it was so popular that it was causing no end of trouble for Méliès, who became one of the first victims of media bootlegging when illegal copies of the film were made and distributed all over the United States. The popularity of the film cried out for a return to Scientific Romances, to which Méliès responded by pulling out all of the stops in Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (English: The Impossible Voyage or Journey Through the Impossible) in 1904.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

En L'an 2000



En L'An 2000 (English: In the Year 2000) were a series of cigarette cards produced in France at the turn of 1900. The initial series was released between 1899 and 1901, in conjunction with the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, when excitement about the advancements of the coming century were accelerating. A second series was produced in 1910.

For the most part, the series is a fanciful impression of retro-futurism. I don't think many of us have fought off octopi in the last 20 years. There were some astute premeditations of modern technologies that we do take for granted, however, and it is interesting to pick out where the people of the fin de siècle actually did get it right. It's just too bad that we couldn't have kept the elegant fashion they predicted as well!

At least 87 cards were known from the series, produced by a variety of different French artists. Just over half are actually preserved and available for online viewing. Those 55 cards are presented here for your own perusal.


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Ugokie-Ko-Ri-No-Tatehiki

Anime always was weird, even in 1933. I suppose it is worth clarifying that almost all cartoons were weird in the Twenties and Thirties, whether it's Mickey Mouse playing a tune on a cat or Betty Boop fleeing in terror from Cab Calloway rendered as a ghost walrus. By contrast, I suppose Ugokie-Ko-Ri-No-Tatehiki is not that weird. In it, a magical fox disguised as a samurai has a wizard's duel with a family of tanuki - the Japanese "racoon dog" gifted with shape-shifting powers - involving a bevy of traditional Japanese monsters. 

The title roughly translates to "Fox and Racoon-Dog Playing Pranks on Each Other" and features two mythologized versions of Japanese wildlife. After a wandering peasant crawls fretfully through a midnight scene worthy of Disney's Skeleton Dance, we are introduced to Kitsune, the Japanese fox. Foxes are indigenous to Japan and have taken on a unique set of folkloric characteristics there. White foxes are considered to be the messengers of Inari, the "kami" (god-like spiritual being) of fertility and harvests. Kyoto's Fushimi-Inari Shrine with its thousands of tori gates lined up in rows – made world famous by Memoirs of a Geisha – is adorned with white foxes. The more tails a fox has, up to nine, the more powerful it is. Amongst its powers are shape-shifting, and foxes are often thought to turn into humans for various purposes good and ill.

In Ugokie-Ko-Ri-No-Tatehiki, the fox turns into a wandering samurai and makes his way to a dilapidated temple. We know something is awry, however, when we see the will-o-wisp Hinotama light up, signifying supernatural activity. Inside the temple, our Kitsune draws the attention of a young Tanuki. Also known as "Racoon-Dogs" in English, Tanuki are a species of wild canine with racoon-like markings found throughout Japan. They are also ascribed special characteristics, foremost of which is shape-shifting and a jovial, playful attitude. You may have seen a statue of one standing in your local sushi restaurant, holding a flask of sake, wearing a straw hat, and flashing his engorged testicles.

Once the Kitsune sits down to enjoy some sake, this curious Tanuki adopts the form of Ichigen-issoku. This one-eyed, one-legged Yokai (monster or supernatural entity) is the ghost of the high priest Jinin of the Mount Hiei Temple in Kyoto, circumnavigating the mountain on midnight strolls. Seeing the ruse, the Kitsune entraps the Tanuki with its love of songs. Bested, the little one calls in the reinforcements. Upon his arrival, the elder Tanuki sneaks up on the Kitsune, in reference to a well-known urban legend. According to an August 1873 illustrated newspaper (Shinbun nishiki-e), a man was woken by the screams of his child, over whom loomed the form of a three-eyed monk. This monk grew larger and larger until it reached the very ceiling of his house. Wise to the trick himself, the father grabbed the monk's sleeve and pulled him down, whereupon the monk transformed back into a Tanuki. What follows is a knock-down, drag-out magic fight between the two shape-shifting pranksters.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Scientific Romances in the Land of the Rising Sun

Japan has a long history of Science Fiction, going far beyond the dystopian epics of Cyberpunk anime. It even goes back further than the immediate post-war period that gave rise to such things as the Kaiju monster movies and Osamu Tezuka's Mighty Atom. It goes all the way back to the worldwide scope of Scientific Romances and stands uniquely in the canon of the genre.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Nintendō no Meiji monogatari

Up to recently, the most antiquated piece of Nintendo technology in our home was the original Nintendo Entertainment System Deluxe Set that I've owned since 1986, with a more or less intact R.O.B. After that might be either my original Game Boy with its pea-green screen or a collection of Nintendo Power magazine going back to issue 6 (back when video games journalism was helpful things like maps and tips).

I'm currently working on miniaturizing my collection.
My original NES and R.O.B. meets the NES Classic Edition and R.O.B. amiibo.

Not that long ago, I added to my collection of Nintendo ephemera with the purchase of a lovely deck of Super Mario Bros. hanafuda cards. Though clearly of recent vintage - chock-a-block with references to Luigi's Mansion, Yoshi's Island, Super Mario 3D World, Super Mario Galaxy, and the Donkey Kong games as well as all the beloved characters - this edition of the classic Japanese card game hearkens back to the origins of the company in the misty but exciting days of the Meiji Era.


Friday, 7 July 2017

The Bioshock Infinite that Could Have Been

As readers of this weblog may have been able to glean by now, I have a bit of an obsession with Bioshock Infinite. Without reservation I can say that it is one of the finest video games I have ever played, transcending simple enjoyment of gaming itself to engage with a compelling story and setting. It ranks easily within my Top-10 of the whole genre of Retro-Victorian Scientific Romances, maybe even within my Top-5, for how it blends the human drama of guilt and redemption with a neat Sci-Fi premise with social commentary on conservatism and radicalism with an extremely well-researched and well-executed Victorian-Edwardian setting both aesthetically and historically rich.

For as fantastic as it is, Infinite is not flawless. Matt Lees of VideoGamerTV raised a very salient critique about how underused the premise of multiple realities truly is: "Why is it that the only thing Elizabeth ever really pulls in from another universe are gun turrets, and cover, and hooks? In an infinite universe of infinite possibilities, most people just end up building loads of freight hooks." The complexities of translating blue sky ideas into a functioning game can excuse Ken Levine and his team for a great deal. Concept art and early game demos provide us with a glimpse of what, in a parallel universe, could have been an even more ambitious game.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Bioshock Infinite and American Exceptionalism

In Bioshock Infinite, the visitor to Columbia would first take note of its religiousity. The Welcome Center is essentially a tremendous baptismal font by which one may wash away the sins of Earth before ascending to the New Eden of this flying city. When the player character Booker DeWitt is nearly drowned in his unwilling full immersion, he regains consciousness in a pleasant garden loomed over by three statues representing the particular religious fervor of Columbia: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin rendered as holy saints. If only this extravagant fusion of patriotism with religion was invented in the minds of a team of game designers! It is, on the contrary, a logical extension of belief in American Exceptionalism.

Bioshock Infinite mural art.

The notion that the United States of America is somehow uniquely blessed in the history of humanity dates at least as far back as the American Revolution, with precedents in Puritan minister John Winthrop encouraging the settlers to build a "City on a Hill" as an example to the world in 1630. Thomas Jefferson defined the Revolution not merely as a conflict over taxation and governmental representation, but as a battle for the "Empire of Liberty" against British imperialism:
...we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends.
He went on to suggest to James Madison, when he took over the Presidency from Jefferson, that the invasion and assimilation of Canada was necessary to the extension of his ideological empire:
...we should then have only to include the North in our confederacy... and we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: and I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self government.
From the outset, the United States of America was viewed as much as a belief system as a country, its cause not merely one of territorial gain but of evangelistic zeal.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Bioshock Infinite, New Religious Movements and Utopian Communities

It is sometimes joked that the United States has never met a heresy that it didn't like. Constitutional barriers to the establishment of religion and the frontier mentality of American settlement fermented a petri dish of new religious movements throughout the Nineteenth century, many of which translated into would-be utopian communities. These communities were not strictly religious either, with many established on secular political, economic and philosophical ideals. All of them failed in one way or another, whether they fractured from within or could not sustain themselves in conflict with the laws of the nation. Both of these trends are reflected in Bioshock Infinite's flying utopian city of Columbia and its cult-like leader Zachary Hale Comstock.

Father Comstock sees a vision of a floating city, a new Eden.

When the Nineteenth century began, Christianity in the United States was in the early stages of what would be called the "Second Great Awakening." This movement was expressly evangelistic, restorationist and personalistic, eschewing the established denominations for forms of religion that emphasized personal conversion, charismatic leaders, heightened emotionalism, and counter-culture radicalism, while dispensing with what they perceived as accumulated traditions, and expressed through ad hoc associations like "cults," camp meetings and tent revivals. Their success can be attributed in many respects to what was later described in Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis": an ethos of individualism and self-reliance that was responsive to the demands of frontier settlement, with a mistrust of the established, systemic authority of governments, aristocracies, the arts, churches and academics (including scientists and formal theologians). The more spread out Americans got, the more they looked for solutions that fit their particular contexts and values. Some might argue that we still see echoes of these tendencies in the American zeitgeist.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Bioshock Infinite's Columbia and the City Beautiful Movement

At the turn of the previous century, the United States of America was undergoing a veritable cultural crisis at least as serious - if not as violent - as the Civil War. The 1890 census declared that the Western frontier had closed to new settlement, limiting the amount of available farmland and driving ever greater numbers of people into the bursting cities. By 1910, 46% of Americans lived in cities, which challenged the agrarian base that had previous defined America's economic activities. Those Americans, some 42 million people, needed to work, and found that work in factories. Factories, in turn, needed people to buy the goods they produced, creating a new culture of consumerism. However, an economic depression hit in 1893, which itself came after and during a long string of labour strikes starting with the Chicago Haymaker Riot of 1886. Advances in mass transportation allowed the better-off to retreat to the suburbs, leaving the inner cities to struggling, impoverished, working classes stuffed together in dank, diseased tenements. This decay of the city centres just as they were required to meet the needs of ever greater numbers of people created a very real problem in need of creative solutions.

In the game Bishock Infinite, Zachary Comstock suggests simply taking a whole city aloft and letting the Earth sort out its own problems. The design of Columbia, however, falls very much within one of the civic planning solutions proposed at the time in which the game is set: the City Beautiful Movement.


The guiding principle of the City Beautiful Movement was a belief in aesthetics as a moral philosophy. Beautiful environments, they maintained, would inspire civic pride and moral uprightness as citizens strove to live up to the standards of the architecture and city planning surrounding them. Charles Mulford Robinson, a journalist and leader in the movement, outlined the view that "Modern civic art desires for the beauty of towns and cities not for beauty's sake, but for the greater happiness, heath and comfort of the citizens." The chosen style of the movement's advocates was Beaux-Arts, imported from Europe. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris emphasized the principles of compositional unity and symmetry, the relationship of the elements of a building within itself and to other buildings, and the continuity of history, manifesting most frequently in Greco-Roman Revivalism. Its use would suggest that America had reached a cultural parity with the Old Country, finding a new identity as a world power now that notions of the agrarian frontier were passed. As a Neo-Classical style, Beaux-Arts was also seen to embody characteristics of order, harmony and dignity... All things that they hoped would rub off on the city's airs. In the process, the movement established the de facto official architecture of the United States.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Bioshock Infinite



Bioshock Infinite, a 2013 first-person shooter style video game released by designer Irrational Games and publisher 2K, is both a stunning visual feast and a provocative reflection on both the Scientific Romances of the Victorian-Edwardian Era and the modern socio-political climate in the West. The first Bioshock game was heralded as an artistic masterpiece of modern gaming, marrying an astonishing setting with interesting philosophical concept. In the original game's case, it was a critique of Ayn Rand's economic theory in an Art Deco city under the ocean gone to rot... A survival horror set in a submarine Fountainhead, though ostensibly better written, which extended into a meta-reflection on the very nature of video gaming itself. Bioshock Infinite continues this legacy of using video games as a medium to dissect the nightmare of political and economic utopias by way of a Victorian floating city.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893

With a decade to go before the dawn of the 20th century and 400 years after Columbus set foot on American shores, the United States was at a crossroads. By 1890, the period of Westward expansion was over: the 1890 US census announced that the last lands of the frontier had been settled. Any farmers looking for new property were forced to head north into Canada, where homesteads were still available until 1914. For the majority of people, cities provided the only means for a living. American society began the shift from agrarianism to urbanization, with all the associated ills. Advances in mass transportation allowed the better off to retreat to the suburbs on the cusp of city borders, leaving the inner cities in squalor... A process reaching its apotheosis after the Second World War. At the same time, an economic depression struck in 1893 when railway companies shuttered due to over-servicing of the market, taking investment banks down with them and rippling throughout the economy. Nevertheless, immigrants continued to arrive in droves, to the tune of 13 million over the course of the decade.

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his landmark "Frontier Thesis," outlining the theory that the American collective psyche was shaped and identified with the concept of the Western frontier. Turner argued that the process of expansion into new territories with their own natural and societal challenges required nascent Americans to abandon non-functional European institutions, including its aristocracies, churches, forms of government and hereditary entitlements. The movement West encouraged an ethos of individualism, self-reliance, and republican democracy, with consequent mistrust of the systemic authority of government and science, as well as an antipathy towards art and a commitment to the use of violence to resolve conflict. Americans found greater utility in ad hoc measures suited to the immediate environment, from vigilance committees to new religious movements. Until the admission of Utah as a State in 1896, the US government had been waging a protracted political struggle with the Mormon church, which had effectively established theocratic rule in the territory. It's been said that the United States has never seen a heresy it didn't like, and the frontier environment was ripe for the formation of groups like the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, Southern Baptists and Pentecostals.

The closing of the frontier marked a major collective psychological crisis in America. One response was to retreat into a newly fashioned mythology about the settlement period: the invention of the "Wild West." Buffalo Bill Cody debuted his first "Wild West" show in 1883, the first cinematic Western - The Great Train Robbery - premiered in 1902, and in 1897, Charlie Russell moved off the ranch and into the artist's studio to chronicle the passing era. Another response was to engage in overseas expansion. 1893 also marked the year that American dissidents overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii and began the process to usher it into US governance in 1898. The end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 brought two new spheres of influence under the eagle's wing: the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico) and the Philippines (Guam, Philippine Islands). The latter lead to a war between American troops and Filipino freedom fighters that ended with the Philippines becoming an unincorporated American territory in 1902.

With a full-up nation and overseas aspirations, the United States came of age. No longer a frontier to be settled, many turned their attention to the question of what America was going to become and its readiness to ascend to the same echelon as the great European powers. That the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing should coincide with America's social and psychological upheaval was providential for the organizers of the 1893 World's Exposition in Chicago. The committee was eager to apply the medium of the world's fair to the assertion of America's emergence into national maturity (or adolescence), creating a gleaming white beacon of American optimism and exceptionalism on the shores of Lake Michigan.


Thomas Moran, Chicago World's Fair.



Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer Abroad

Undoubtedly the most famous of Mark Twain's works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These two novels show Twain at the peak of satirical and storytelling prowess, using an identical cast of characters to tell widely divergent stories.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, follows the life of the miscreant of the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, along the shores of the mighty Mississippi River. In this otherwise sleepy town, the eponymous character gets into mischief and becomes embroiled in a murder plot. In the process, he comes to represent everything about rural life in America... The bygone age when children were allowed to explore, get dirty, hurt themselves, and run free on the wild outskirts of the village, fettered only by their own imaginations. This life, lived as recently as 30 years ago, seems to have dissipated under the weight of electronic devices and helicopter parents. To call it a "simpler time" would be a misnomer. Sawyer and his ladyfriend Becky Thatcher do find themselves chased through caverns by a murderer after all. It was a more fearless time, and thus seems more simple. Getting scuffed up was part of childhood. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn followed in 1885. The Gilded Age romps of Sawyer, for as much murder and mayhem as they involved, were traded in for a sincere examination of life in the American South with all its harsh, squalid, unromantic realities. Quite early on, for instance, the reader is revolted by the horrible situation that the return of Huck's father puts him in. A barbaric man, he punishes the boy for "putting on airs" by being taught to read and proceeds to try and weasel Huck's trustfund (a legacy of the reward in the previous novel) as his "right" he is justly owed. No wonder Huck fakes his death and runs off with Jim, the escaped slave. As an unlearned, rural vagabond, Huck becomes Twain's "wild man" voice of satirical innocence.

Through the eyes of two social outsiders – Huck Finn and the escaped slave Jim – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores not only the Mississippi’s shoreline but the American zeitgeist in a manner that is still shockingly relevant today. Huck and Jim are left to navigate the eternally turbulent waters where morality, race, politics, religion, economics, slavery, and the lingering fallout of the Civil War intersect. In American literature and the American mind, geography and psychology blend together. Pursuit of the frontier drove Americans westward and skyward, hitching up Conestoga wagons and revving up Harley-Davidsons, and in doing so shaped who Americans are. The fundamental form of American literature is the road trip… The Grapes of Wrath, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… and the first truly American novel is a trip on one of America’s first natural roads. Twain’s Mississippi is a geographic artery reaching into America’s metaphorical heart. Where it flows is sometimes quite ugly, and needs airing out. 

A further ten years later, Twain took a true flight of fancy with Tom Sawyer Abroad. Rather than reflecting on the realities of life in America, he instead wrote up a parody of Vernian Scientific Romances and dime novel Edisonades. The author takes Tom, Huck and Jim and throws them in with a mad inventor who takes them aloft in his dirigible. One can tell from this short novella and its follow-up Tom Sawyer, Detective that the gas had gone out of Sawyer and Finn for their author. Nevertheless, it does provide him with a few good moments of good-natured fun to poke at the genre.



Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Wil Vinton's The Adventures of Mark Twain



Because of the media savvy of most citizens in the West, thanks to growing up, as we have, with a constant glut of cinematic cliches, it is often easy to accurately assume what a film is going to be like. If we are told, for example, that it is a children's film, then we will often rightly figure on something happy and trite and sugary in its sweetness, and just about as filling as candy. If we can see that it is done in a medium such as Claymation, we may jump to that assumption right away. Now and then, however, we may find our assumption to be altogether mistaken. Indeed, we may find what is ostensibly considered a children's movie that shocks us, not from any snide cynicism or brutality that has come to pass for kids' entertainment, but rather by its profound intelligence and sensitivity. Such is the case with the Claymation animated feature The Adventures of Mark Twain.