Monday, November 26, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Why I Watched this Movie
            As always, I’m a few weeks late getting this up on the blog, but this was originally a Halloween movie.  A few of us got together on Halloween night to watch a horror film.  My friend the Cinephile  chose this movie as one of his favorites.

The Review
            I walked into this movie knowing nothing about it.  Which is the best way to see this movie.  So if you haven’t seen this movie yet, stop reading now. 

…If you’ll still reading this, I’m going to spoil things….

            Because I was unaware of all the various surprises and plot twists this film had, I walked in expecting a normal horror movie, and was pleasantly surprised by everything.

            My friend the cinephile commented, “It didn’t blow my mind, but it was very clever.”  And this would probably be my review as well.

            Of course, this isn’t the first self-aware horror film and after Scream series and the Scary Movie series, some of this did at times feel like retread ground.  (The joke about the characters all splitting up when they should be staying together, for example, has been done before.)
             But on the other hand, if done intelligently there’s no reason why another self-aware horror film can’t be enjoyable.  And I thought this was intelligent.
            The equivocation of the movie’s target audience with old gods demanding human suffering and sacrifice was a nice touch, and all the following jokes about pandering to that audience were cleverly done.

             A few of the plot twists, and fake-out endings, took me completely off guard (and I mean that in a good way.)  The movie teased out its central mystery very nicely. 
            I was thoroughly entertained while I was watching it.

            The ending was slightly unsatisfying, but it may have been the only ending possible.  (I’m not sure I could think of another way.)

Notes (Warning—More Spoilers)

*          The women at the end of the film says that the scenario is different in every culture, and that it’s changed over the years, but that it always needs youth and there must be at least 5 characters: the whore, the athlete, the fool, the scholar, and the virgin. 
            But these characters clearly weren’t present in the scenario they were running in Japan. 
            I’m not sure whether to count this as a plot hole or not.  The movie does seem to imply at different points that there are different scenarios being run in different countries, and yet the woman at the end seems to say it is always the same 5 characters.

*          On the subject of the 5 archetypes, what does everyone think of the term the whore used to refer to the sexual active female in the group?  Is this the old double sexuality standard?  Or is the movie making just making fun of the double sex standards usually used in horror movies?  If the latter, I think the wink could have been a bit more obvious.

*          My Cinephile friend is fond of talking about Alfred Hitchcock .  According to him, one of Hitchcock’s favorite techniques is to use suspense to play with the sympathy of the viewer.  For example in the movie Psycho, in certain scenes the viewer is supposed to feel worried that the killer might not get away with the murder. 
          My Cinephile friend claimed The Cabin in the Woods  used this same Hitchcock technique of playing with your sympathies.  Are you rooting for the teenagers in the cabin, or the men in the control room? 
            This tension is all throughout the movie, but in particular this applies to the scene in where the teenagers are trying to escape through the tunnel, and there is suddenly panic in the control room because they forgot to cave-in the tunnel.  The suspense of the scene is orchestrated in such a way that the viewer is supposed to feel worried that Oh no, the teenage victims might escape without getting murdered!
            It wouldn’t have occurred to me on my own, but once my friend pointed it out to me I thought he was right.  The film was totally messing with your sympathies throughout.

*          But, actually talking about that scene, this brings me to another question I had about this movie.
            Did I miss something, or was it never explained why the demolition department didn’t get the orders to blow up the tunnel?
            Also, remember this scene? 
            At the celebration, Gary (the character played by Richard Jenkins) is talking to the demolitions department.
            You knuckleheads,” he says, “you almost gave me a heart attack with that tunnel.”
            Demolition responds: “Like I said, it wasn’t our fault.  We didn’t get the order.”
            Gary: “I’m just giving you a hard time.  Come on. Give us a hug.”
            Another demolition guy: “No seriously. That wasn’t our fault.”
            The demolition girl: “There was a glitch. Power re-route from upstairs.”
            At this point, Gary starts to look worried and his tone becomes serious: “What do you mean upstairs?”
             Right here, he seems to realize something has gone wrong, but the conversation is interrupted by the red phone ringing.
            My friends and I watched this scene twice, and we still can’t figure out what happened.  Why was there a power re-route from upstairs, and how, from this brief conversation, does Gary know something has gone terribly wrong even before the red phone rings?
            Any help out there?

*          Another question—at the beginning of the movie, they make the comment that they haven’t had a failure since 1998.  But what happened in 1998?  Originally I thought that conversation was foreshadowing something that would be revealed later on in the movie.  But (again unless I missed something) there was no reveal.  Then I thought maybe it might be one of the movies meta jokes.  A reference to a horror movie that came out in 1998, perhaps?  But I’ve now searched the Internet, and I can’t find anything.
            Either that joke just went right over my head, or the writers of this movie got lazy and made a throw-away comment at the beginning of the movie that they should have followed up on but didn’t. 
            Again, can anyone out there help to clarify this?

*          I once saw a film critic on TV complaining about the switch in The Bride of Frankenstein.  This, you’ll recall, is the switch the monster pulls at the end to destroy the whole castle where Doctor Frankenstein and his rival have been working.  The film critic complained, “What is the deal with the switch?  Is this some sort of European housing device?”  Although the switch served a dramatic function at the end of the movie, it was difficult to see why someone would deliberately put a self destruct switch in the middle of their castle that anyone could just pull at any moment.
            The same critique could be made of that red button which releases all the monsters at once.  Why they even designed it is a mystery to me, but even assuming they needed it for some reason, you would think something like that would have been put under guard.  Or need a password.  Or something.
            Unless….could it be that this was meant as a tribute to Bride of Frankenstein?

* Other notes: My two other friends talked about the horror movie trope that the black character almost never lives to the end (George Romero being the notable exception) and debated with each other how this movie addresses that cliché.
            Me, I stayed out of that debate.  I think race was just outside of this film’s focus, and so it is useless to over-analyze it.
            My friends also compared the plot to the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.
            However I must admit (with shame) that I’ve never read any of H.P. Lovecraft, so for the moment I’ll also have to refrain from comment on that.  (Although perhaps in the near future I should work to remedy this deficiency in my literary education.)

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Gaza, Hamas, Iran, Race and more

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


(Movie Review)

            And yet another comic book superhero movie.

            Roger Ebert, in his review of the movie [LINK HERE] lists off a number of reasons why this is a terrible movie. 
            I agree with him on every point he makes.

            And yet I still enjoyed this movie, in spite of all its flaws.

            If you suspend your critical brain functions, and just go with the movie, it can be a fun ride.  Not a classic, certainly, but a fun enough diversion for 90 minutes.

            I think part of the reason I liked this movie was that it was different from all the other superhero movies we’ve had recently.   This goes to the nature of its hero, Thor, who, although he has been in comic books since the 1960s, he was originally stolen straight out of Norse mythology by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

            Captain America, The Incredible Hulk , Spider-Man  and Iron Man  all have origin stories that explain how they became superheroes. 
            The Norse god Thor doesn’t have an origin story as such.  The movie starts out with him already fully formed.  Instead, his first story shows how he came to be involved in the affairs of human beings.

            So the movie is divided.  Half of it takes place in the fantastical mythological world, half of it takes place on earth.  This gives the movie a different feel than most other superhero movies. There’s a whole set of characters on earth, but there’s also a whole set of characters in the mythical city of Asgard.
            The negative side of this is that neither setting gets enough screen time to be developed.  But the positive side is that you’re given just enough of a taste of both to keep you interested.  And although you don’t spend enough time in either setting to fully immerse yourself, you also don’t spend enough time in either setting to get bored.

            The actors are all quite good as well.  Thor’s 4 friends on Asgard, although they never get developed into anything more than one note characteristics, all seem to have a twinkle in their eye that make them seem like they might developed into interesting characters if given the chance.
            Same thing on earth.  Natalie Portman’s character never gets developed, but she’s still charming and appealing enough in her small role. 

            The movie never fleshes out any of its characters or settings, but it never let me get bored either.  So I rate this movie as very easily watchable, and just as easily forgettable.

            This movie picks up a lot of the strands from Iron Man 2.  (The post credit teaser of Iron Man 2 led directly into Thor, and Agent Phil Coulson plays a significant role in both movies.  Tony Stark is also mentioned by name.) 
            And many of the plot threads and characters from this movie are going directly into the Avengers movie.
            Although I know some people are cynical about big franchises like this, I think it’s kind of cool to try and transfer the inter-connected world of the comic books to the big screen.

            It does, however, make it hard to evaluate any of these movies on their own.
            Perhaps part of the reason I judged this movie so kindly was because it was part of a franchise I was enjoying, and the good will carried over?  Would I have hated it if it had been a stand alone movie?

            Some of the scenes on Asgard reminded me a little of some of the cheesy space operas from the 1980s (Flash Gordon, Dune, Krull, and the like)—movies that had really tested my patience back in the day.  But for whatever reason, I liked Thor.  Double standard?  Maybe.

Link of the Day

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

乾いた花 / Pale Flower

(Movie Review)

Why I Watched This Movie
            I watched this movie because a co-worker of mine was watching it.
            I have a co-worker who is a real film buff.  He was a film studies major in university, and is one of those people who is always seeking out obscure artsy foreign films to watch.
            Recently he told me he was planning to watch this movie over the weekend. He described it as a Japanese film noir from the 1960s.  The reason he wanted to watch it was because Roger Ebert had added this movie to his list of the greatest films of all time, and had given it a glowing review on his website [For Roger Ebert’s review of this film see here.]

            I told him, “If you watch it, give me a call.  I’ll bring the popcorn.”

           It’s good for me to watch a Japanese language movie every now and then.  Since leaving Japan 3 years ago, my Japanese ability has deteriorated rapidly, and watching the occasional Japanese film helps me from forgetting everything completely. 
            (Actually I really should be watching a lot more Japanese films  than I am.  However I often find Japanese cinema a struggle to sit through for one reason or another.  Whereas American cinema knows exactly how to cater to my short attention span.  So whenever I’m in the video store, unless I’m feeling particularly conscientious, I almost always find myself gravitating towards the movies that are easiest for me to understand.)
           But the fact that a friend was watching this movie anyway gave me the perfect excuse to watch it with him.  But there were a couple other factors that drew me in: classic - film - noir - is a genre that I have some interest in , plus I’ve always been interested in - 1960s - era - Japan.

The Review

            Three of us ended up watching the film together.  When it was over, my friend talked about how beautiful the cinematography was.
            “Yes, the cinematography was pretty impressive,” I said.  “But what about that storyThere was hardly any story, and what little story there was didn’t make a lot of sense, and the story got drawn out way more than it needed to be.  The film was only 90 minutes, but am I the only one who felt like it seemed to last way longer than that?”
            “Yes, but it’s film noir,” my friend replied.  “Film noir has always been about style over substance.”

            There are probably lots of cinephiles around the world who love films like this that put so much emphasis on style.  And if you’re one of those people, you’ll probably love this film.  But I’m not one of them.  Here I must confess myself a philistine, and probably someone unqualified to review this film.  Really, you should stop wasting your time reading my review, and just follow the above link to Roger Ebert’s review.  You’ll get much more out of it.

            However, since I am committed to putting down my two-cents on every movie I watch, here are my thoughts.

The Style
            If it is true that film noir is always about style over substance, then it must be admitted that this film does have style.  It’s a gangster film, and the gangsters do a good job of looking cool.  They wear nice looking suits, smoke cigarettes, and regard the world with cool disdain.
            The yakuza (Japanese mafia) in the 1960s, at least as far as their portrayal on film goes, look just like a Japanese business man—short hair, nice suit, carefully pressed pants.  The only thing that seems to distinguish their uniform is the dark sunglasses some of them wear, even at night.

            Almost the entire film takes place at night, and the film makes good use of the loneliness of night.  You have lots of shots of characters walking alone down empty alley streets.
            But there is also an intimacy about the night.  When the whole world is asleep, it seems like you and the person you are with are the only two people who seem alive at the moment.  The film makes good use of this as well.
            The film opens with a voice over complaining about how crowded Tokyo has become.  But then after several opening shots establishing the crowds in Tokyo, Tokyo is then portrayed as looking deserted for most of the rest of the film.  At night the characters have the streets of Tokyo entirely to themselves.

            And then there’s the excitement of the night.  When most decent people are in bed, it seems like there are no rules and anything can happen.
           At one point the heroine exclaims, “I would be okay if the morning never comes.  I live for these evil nights.”  As she says this, she presses down on the accelerator and, for no reason except mischief, engages in a race on the highway with the car in front of her.  At night they have the entire highway to themselves, and it ends eventually when the other driver stops, laughs with them as if they were good friends, and then just drives off again.

            Other stylistic points:
            * I suppose it’s cliché to say about any black and white film noir that they make good use of light and shadows.  But there is some good use of light and shadows here.  The character at points walks in and out of shadows while walking down the street.  And in one of the opening scenes, his embrace with his girlfriend is totally obscured by the shadows, leaving the audience to just guess what is happening.
            * Also the sound of footsteps are amplified a lot in this movie.  Whenever any character walks anywhere, you can hear very loudly the “click, click, click,” sound of their shoes on the streets. 
            Exactly why this is, I’m not sure.  It might again have to do with the emptiness of night, where in the absence of the usual daily noise, the small noise of footsteps seems louder.
            Or maybe, as my Roger Ebert seems to be hinting, the rhythmic sound of the footsteps on the pavement is meant to parallel the rhythmic clicking of the picture plaques being shuffled in the gambling scenes.
           Or my friend thought the footsteps represented the ticking of the clocks.  Which brings me to my next point.

            * There is definitely some clock symbolism here.  One of the characters works and lives in a clock store.  In one particularly obvious scene, her lover comes home from prison, and, amid the loud clicking of clocks she asks him, “When did you get out?  When? When? When?”
            Aside from just symbolism for the sake of symbolism, however, I’m not sure how this connects with the themes of the rest of the story.  But maybe someone a bit sharper than me can make the connection.

Okay, so much for the style.  Now onto the story.

The Story

            There’s really not much of a story here, and what little story there is gets drawn out over some very slow scenes.
            A gangster named Muraki gets released from prison, and immediately returns to his old life and his old hangouts. 
            At his usual gambling dens, however, he is surprised to find a young innocent rich girl gambling alongside the usual gangsters.  No one knows why she is here or what her story is.  He is intrigued by her, and then becomes in love with her, and she with him.
            But fate has them on different trajectories.  Because of his loyalties to his gang, he engages in a job that he knows will send him right back to jail, while she meanwhile is on a self-destructive path, chasing more and more dangerous ways to escape her boredom.

            (Actually, now that I’ve just written it up like that, it sounds a lot more exciting than it actually is.  But the film moves very slowly.  The action of the film maybe takes up only about 15 minutes, all told, and the rest of the film is people having quiet conversations with each other.  Because of this, the film felt very long to me, even though it was really only 90 minutes.)

            Why he falls so in love with this girl I never understood, and that hampered my getting involved with the story.
            She is cute, yes, I’ll give her that.  And she does looks up at him with a doe-y eyed look, and she talks very innocently and correctly, and obviously comes from a high class family, and there is a mystery about her.
            But cute girls are a dime-a-dozen, and she doesn’t seem to have any deeper personality than this.  Plus she gives several indications that she’s real trouble.  She already has a gambling addiction when he meets her, and then she is becoming fascinated by drugs.  With all the girls in the world, why would you fall in love with this one? 
            Especially for a middle aged man who should know better.  (I understand in our young years, men can be intrigued by girls like this.  But surely by the time we reach a certain age, we realize that they are more trouble than they’re worth, right?)

            To my mind, the movie gives absolutely no reason why he should fall in love with her.  It’s simply something we need to accept so that there can be some sort of story here.

            (My friend, by the way, disagrees with me on this.  He says it was obvious from the movie that they both have very similar personalities, and they both have trouble connecting to the real world, so the only person each could open up to was the other.  Perhaps.)

            At any rate, I certainly wasn’t in love with her by the end of the movie, and so it irritated me that he should be so in love with her.  I wasn’t able to sympathize with his feelings at all.

            And there were other things like this—other characters who made abrupt emotional turn arounds I did not understand. There was the young gangster (Jiro?) who hates our main character Muraki and tries to kill him at the beginning of the film.  For reasons I never understood, a few scenes later he has become his devoted follower and companion.
            I’m not saying an emotional transformation from hatred to love couldn’t have taken place, but the film certainly didn’t show me it or give me any reason to believe it.

Other Thoughts

            And in now particular order, here are a few more things that are rattling around my brain.

* I am reminded of the Showa News Reel clips I watched a few years back.  The news reels from the 1960s also made a big deal about how crowded Tokyo was becoming, indicating that overcrowding in Tokyo was becoming an issue very much on the public consciousness around this time.  (Tokyo is still very crowded now, but perhaps now it’s just accepted as a fact, and back then it was a new phenomenon.)
            Assuming I’m right about this, then the opening narration of the movie, which complains about the overcrowding in Tokyo, locates this movie perfectly in its time.

* And speaking of dating this movie to its time period—is it just me, or during the 1950s and 60s were there a lot of stories about bored upper-middle class young people trying to “get their kicks”, feel alive, find meaning in life, et cetera?  And if so, does that young-bored-and restless feeling still exist today, or have we become completely lulled into passivity by media saturation?

* Other observations from my friend, the cinephile:
            He said the film has a very claustrophobic feel, created by showing lots of characters crammed into small rooms, and by having lots of close-ups of characters faces.  (I never noticed this myself.)
            He said that it was very obvious the director Shinoda is a protégé of Ozu because they both make a habit of making sure the whole room, from the floor to the ceiling, is in the shot.  (I never noticed this myself either.)

* Roger Ebert’s review gives a bit of information both me and my friend found interesting.  Apparently the original screenplay did not include any of the elaborate gambling scenes in the movie, and instead the only screen directions were “they gambled.” 
            The fact that the director took these very simple screen directions and made very elaborate gambling scenes does add another layer of interest to the movie.  The fact that the screenwriter was not happy about this, but apparently became furious when he saw the film and saw how elaborate the gambling scenes had become, is more interesting yet.

* One of the key plot points in the movie is when someone runs in and informs the gang that Tamaki has been knifed down in the streets.  This caused me and my two friends to turn to each other and ask, “Who is Tamaki?”  We still haven’t figured it out.

* “Film noir has always been about style over substance,” says my friend.  Me— I’m not entirely sure that’s true.  Surely the classic film noirs in American cinema were just as famous for their dialogues as their cinematography?  Or does dialogue also count as style?

Link of the Day
U.S. GOP Presidential Candidates

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Obligatory Post Election Blog

Since 2004 I've been making a habit of commenting - on - the - election  on this blog.  So, for the sake of tradition if nothing else, I'll drop in my two cents here.

Even though I don't really have anything important to say.

I never really thought that Romney had much of a chance of winning.  Sure things got a little close the last couple weeks, but other than that he always seemed like a long shot.  I was one of those people who assumed from the first that Obama would be a two-term President, and the fact that the Republicans failed to field any serious candidates this year, that their primary was a long disaster, and that Romney's campaign was one long disaster all contributed to my not wasting too much time worrying about this election.

And now that we have Obama in office for another 4 years, we can presumably expect more of the same, for good or for bad.  So not too much to write about either way.

I didn't actually vote this election.  Once again absentee ballots looked to be too much trouble.
According to the US Embassy Website in Phnom Penh, the deadline for Michigan residents to request an overseas absentee ballot would have been February 28th [LINK HERE], a deadline I totally missed because I wasn't even thinking about the election back then.  Although anecdotally, I'm told by a number of my fellow Americans that the Embassy staff is much more helpful in person, and does their best to accommodate and get around all these laws.  (Someone even told me, again only anecdotally, that the Embassy staff were themselves very confused by all the different voting laws from all the different states that they just accept absentee ballots from anyone).  But by the time I heard this new information, the election was already happening.

I got a fair amount of grief for not voting from my Australian and British friends, who were all terrified at the prospect of a Romney victory, and were trying to badger every American they could into voting.

  I've written before on this blog how the expat community abroad is a lot different than back home.  Back in America, the nation may be divided 50-50 Republican Democrats, but in the expat circles overseas everyone is solidly Democrat.  It's true among the Americans, but it seems to be especially true among the Brits and Australians.

The election results came in Wednesday morning Cambodia time while we were at work.  (Which, by the way, is not near as much fun as staying up late in the night back in America.  I miss those late night election parties.)
As soon as it was announced Obama had won, many of the Australians and British would announce something like, "Oh, well thank goodness for that."
Then, they would realize I, an American, was standing right besides them, and they would apologize and say, "You didn't vote for the Republicans, did you?"  And I would assure them I also supported Obama, and that it was all good.

"I still can't believe Romney got close to 50% of the vote," one of my Australian colleagues complained.  "What is it with America?  Is there some law that says every election has to be close to 50%?  That you can be whatever kind of reactionary jerk you want to be, and you still get 50%?"

I responded that I thought most of the people voting for Romney weren't so much voting for Romney as they were voting against Obama.  I said that at any given time in America there were probably about 50% of the population who didn't like the president, and I thought that was healthy.

And about Obama?

There's no denying he's been a huge disappointment for progressives, especially given the gap between what he promised and what he actually delivered.  But, as always in American politics, you need to chose the lesser of two evils.
It's not really entirely rational to believe that his second term will be any better than his first.  But then, optimism by definition is not rational.  So, I chose to be cautiously optimistic that perhaps this term will actually see some improvement.  Time will tell the result.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on How Progressives Should Approach Election 2012

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Before I get into this book itself, I’m going to give

 A Quick Summary of My History with Jules Verne

            When I was around 7 and 8, I read many of Jules Verne’s stories in the Children’s Classic Editions  (classic books abridged and re-written for children).
            I also was a big fan of movies based on Jules Verne’s books.  (Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea  for example.)

            Around 5th grade or so, I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (the unabridged version) and really struggled with it.  I found it boring, confusing and just hard to get through.  My mind kept wandering as I tried to focus on the page.  In the end I forced myself to finish it.  (Partly because we were at family camp that week, and I didn’t have any other reading material with me.)  But it put me off Jules Verne for years.

            But that was back in 5th grade.  I’d like to think I have matured slightly as a reader since then.
            And so, I decided to give Jules Verne another try, and I picked up Around the World in Eighty Days.  (I have actually read a children’s version of this book once, but I don’t remember it at all, and so the story was more or less completely fresh to me.)

The Review

            Well, after avoiding Jules Verne for the past 20 years, the good news is that this little book was totally readable.  Charming, funny, easy to read, less than 200 pages, and I finished it off within a week.

            It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but that’s ok.  It would be a boring world if everything was exactly what you were expecting.

            I was expecting an “exotic-adventure-in-foreign-lands” type book, but this book is more of a comedy than an adventure story.  And even then, the comedy centers on the various eccentricities of the 3 main characters, and the different countries they travel to barely get a mention.  (One of the re-occurring jokes is how little interest Englishman Phileas Fogg has in any of the places he visits.  He simply wants to stay in his compartment on the train or boat and play cards at each place he travels through.)

            The premise of the book locates it very nicely within the time it was written.  In 1872, when it was published, it was a big deal that it could only take 80 days to travel around the world.

            The story is started by a report in the Daily Telegraph, which announces that with the completion of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, it is now theoretically possible to travel around the world in only 80 days.
           Phileas Fogg, who acts as the stereotype of the phlegmatic Englishman throughout the book, causes great irritation to his cards partners at the reform club by insisting stubbornly that it is possible in practice as well as in theory, and refusing to take seriously their objections.  This conversation, which starts out innocently enough, ends with Phileas Fogg announcing he will travel around the world in 80 days just to prove a point.
            The passage in which this conversation takes place is typical of the humor of the book.

            “Be so good as to play, Mr. Stuart,” said Phileas Fogg.
            But the incredulous Stuart was not convinced, and when the hand was finished said eagerly: “You have a strange way, Ralph, of proving that the world has grown small.  So, because you can go round it in three months--.”
            “In eighty days,” interrupted Phileas Fogg.
            “That is true, gentlemen,” added John Sullivan. “Only eighty days, now that the section between Rothal and Allahanbad, on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, has been opened.  Here is the estimate made by the Daily Telegraph:--
            “Yes, in eighty days!” exclaimed Stuart, who in his excitement made a false deal.  “But that doesn’t take into account bad weather, contrary winds, shipwrecks, railway accidents, and so on.”
            “All included,” returned Phileas Fogg, continuing to play despite the discussion.
            “But suppose the Hindoos or Indians pull up the rails,” replied Stuart; “suppose they stop the trains, pillage the luggage-vans, and scalp the passengers!”
            “All included,” calmly retorted Fogg; adding, as he threw down the cards, “Two trumps.”
            Stuart, whose turn it was to deal, gathered them up and went on. “You are right theoretically, Mr. Fogg, but practically –.”
            “Practically also, Mr. Stuart.”
            “I’d like to see you do it in eighty days.”
            “It depends on you.  Shall we go?”
            “Heaven preserve me! But I would wager four thousand pounds that such a journey, made under these circumstances, is impossible.”
            “Quite possible, on the contrary,” returned Mr. Fogg.
            “Well, make it then!”
            “The journey around the world in eighty days?”
            “I should like nothing better.”
            “At once.  Only I warn you that I shall do it at your expense.”
            “It’s absurd!” cried Stuart, who was beginning to be annoyed at the persistency of his friend. “Come, let’s go on with the game.”
            “Deal over again, then,” said Phileas Fogg.  “There’s a false deal.”
            Stuart took up the pack with a feverish hand; then suddenly put them down again.
            “Well, Mr. Fogg,” said he, “it shall be so: I will wager the four thousand on it.”
            “Calm yourself, my dear Stuart,” said Fallentin. “It’s only a joke.”
            “When I say I’ll wager,” returned Stuart, “I mean it.”
            “All right,” said Mr. Fogg; and, turning to the others, he continued, “I have a deposit of twenty thousand at Baring’s which I will willingly risk upon it.”
            “Twenty thousand pounds!” cried Sullivan. “Twenty thousand pounds, which you would lose by a single accidental delay!”
            “The unforeseen does not exist,” quietly replied Phileas Fogg.
            “But, Mr. Fogg, eighty days are only the estimate of the least possible time in which the journey can be made.”
            “A well-used minimum suffices for everything.”
            “But, in order not to exceed it, you must jump mathematically from the trains upon the steamers, and from the steamers upon the trains again.”
            “I will jump—mathematically.”
            “You are joking.”
            “A true Englishman doesn’t joke when he is talking about so serious a thing as a wager,” replied Phileas Fogg, solemnly. 
            (pages 12-14)

            As you can imagine from the terms of the bet, our hero can afford to take very little time for sight-seeing, and must simply hop from one train to the next.  But Phileas Fogg is described as someone who hates sightseeing anyway, and is just undertaking this journey to prove a point to his friends at the Reform Club.
            Phileas Fogg is accompanied by his French servant Passepartout. 
            They are also trailed by the English detective Fix, who is convinced that Mr. Fogg is a bankrobber trying to flee the authorities by travelling around the world.

            One or two small mishaps and adventures occur, and there are some brief descriptions of foreign lands, but on the whole the book is simply about catching the next train or boat, and the humor is mostly just based on the 3 eccentric main characters.

            So, although the characters travel through Egypt, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama, they interact very little with each of these places.  Some adventures occur in India, but the place where the characters have the most adventures is actually the United States.  (About a 4th of the book takes place within the boarders of the US).
            If you’re from America (as I am) you may not think of America as a particularly exotic place, but doubtless from the perspective of 19th Century Europe the American West probably seemed just as exotic and dangerous as India, and so it is interesting to see America as viewed through the eyes of these European travelers.  Mormonism is evidently one of the things that attracted Jules Verne’s interest, because the Mormon settlement in Salt Lake City is one of the few places where the book devotes some attention to the culture and history of its inhabitants.

            A lot of fun is also had making fun of national characteristics of the British, French, and Americans respectively. 
            Although Jules Verne is a Frenchman himself, he uses the character Passepartout to make fun of a lot of stereotypical French characteristics.
            Americans are repeatedly described as being rash and imprudent.  When the Frenchman Passepartout discovers that an English steamboat is going too slow because some steam is hissing out of the valves, he exclaims,  “The valves are not sufficiently charged! Oh, these English! If this was an American craft, we should blow up, perhaps, but we should at all events go faster!” (page 83).
            Later, when an American train comes to a stop because of a faulty bridge, the narrator comments,  He [the signal man] did not in any way exaggerate the condition of the bridge.  It may be taken for granted that, rash as the Americans usually are, when they are prudent there is good reason for it.” (Page 146).

            [Sidenote: I wonder, is this still the way the rest of the world views us, or in 2012 is the more common stereotype of the American as fat, lazy, and sedentary?]

Other Notes…

            I don’t like to make racism accusations frivolously, but it is worth noting that the non-white races in this novel are not always portrayed in the best of terms.

            The subcontinent Indians come off mixed.  Some of them are portrayed in very positive and noble terms, some of them are portrayed as savages.
            The American Indians are described simply as savages.
            The Papuans (of the Islands near the Bay of Bengal) get a brief one sentence remark: “the savage Papuans, who are in the lowest scale of humanity, but are not, as has been asserted, cannibals” (page 74).
            On the other hand, given how Jules Verne also makes fun of French, English and American national stereotypes, maybe we should just call him an equal opportunity offender and cut him some slack on this?
 I don’t know.

This Book as History

            It is interesting to read this book as a time piece. There were a few things that caught my eye.
            One of the main plot points of the book is that English detective Fix is trying to arrest English citizen Fogg, and must do so on British soil.  What’s interesting about this time period is just exactly how far British soil extends.  Fogg travels through India, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and is on British land the whole time.  Only once he finally sails from Hong Kong does Fix lose his opportunity to make an arrest on British soil.  Times have changed now of course.
            Also apparently at this time, neither bananas nor mangos were available in Europe.  Or at least so I’m guessing, because Jules Verne feels the need to explain to his reader exactly how what these fruits taste like when his characters eat bananas in India and mangos in Singapore.

            When traversing the American plains on a sledge…
            Sometimes flocks of wild birds rose, or bands of gaunt, famished, ferocious prairie-wolves ran howling after the sledge.  Passepartout, revolver in hand, held himself ready to fire on those which came too near. Had an accident then happened to the sledge, the travelers, attacked by these beasts, would have been in the most terrible danger (Page 166-167).

            In reality, there has never been a reported case of a healthy wolf attacking a human being in North America.  (I know this is a work of fiction, but after all these years of constantly bringing this fact up, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out it again here.)

Hot Air Balloons (or the lack thereof….)
            Another surprising thing—absolutely no hot air balloon journeys occur in this book.  For some reason I totally thought hot air balloons would be in this book.
            In fact the edition I read, Bantam Classic, re-issued in 2006, even has a hot air balloon on the cover.  Indicating perhaps that Bantam Classics is not even bothering to read the classic books they are re-printing.

            The whole point of the book is that the 80 day time estimate around the world is made using conventional scheduled public transportation—boats and trains.  So hot air balloons wouldn’t really fit the theme anyway. 
            Although, when this book was first in 1872, it was only one year after Paris made great use of hot air balloons to defy the Prussian siege during the Franco-Prussian War, (a story Alistair Horne tells very well in his book The Fall of Paris.)  So after having been in the public consciousness so much at the time, it is almost a bit surprising hot air balloons wouldn’t have been in Jules Verne’s mind.  But whatever, I’ll stop talking about hot air balloons now…..

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Obligatory Star Wars Response

            [In response to the unexpected news that Disney has bought the Star Wars franchise and will be releasing a new Star Wars film in 2015.]
            All judgment must be suspended until the film actually comes out in 2015.  Then we will see if this is a huge disaster, or if this is really really cool.
            There’s a danger that it will be a huge disaster (like the prequel movies were)  but I am of the opinion that the Star Wars franchise should not be treated like a sacred cow.  No matter what happens with the sequels, they won’t take away from the original movies, and on the small chance they might be good, it’s worth trying.

            And my nostalgia for Star Wars is such that they already have my price of admission, not matter how bad the new movies turn out to be.  (No doubt the massive built in audience for anything bearing the Star Wars logo is why Disney happily shelled out the $4 billion for the franchise.  It’s a no-brainer for them.)

            I do wonder, however, how many stories are left to be told in the Star Wars universe.
            The original trilogy was only structured to tell one story.  Now that the princess has been saved, the Empire defeated, and bad guy redeemed, and freedom obtained, there’s not really a lot left to tell. 
            Star Wars is not Star Trek.  It’s not designed to be a space exploration show, or a new alien of the week.  It’s a fantasy set in space and the fantasy story seems to have reached its logical conclusion with Return of the Jedi.

            It is always possible to send our heroes out on a new quest, but it’s going to be hard making up a new story that has the same stakes as the first one.  And (if Disney keeps releasing Star Wars films indefinitely, like they say they’re planning to do) at some point they’re going to run out of good ideas.

            That being said….let’s see what happens.  There’s always that faint glimmer of hope that this time it won’t suck, and we’ll all hang onto that for the next 3 years.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: "The Emerging World Order: its roots, our legacy"