Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Itsy-Bitsy Spider Has a Name, pero Solo en la Hispanidad

One fun thing about living abroad and meeting expats from all over the world is seeing how bits of culture make their way from place to place and the often unpredictable changes they undergo in the process.  I was speaking with some grad students from Bolivia and China, the latter explaining how, due to the difficulty most westerners have with pronouncing the different tonalities in Chinese names, she uses a transliterated version of her real name pronounced in Spanish or English, depending on who she's talking to.  (N.B.  This is actually a trend I've noticed among Chinese students here in Madrid, although many I've met have chosen a typical American/Spanish name rather than a direct transliteration of their real name.)  Her name, in Spanish, is pronounced "Huizi" (woo-EET-zee), which the Bolivian pointed out was just like the name of the spider from the kid's song she grew up with.

Witsi Witsi Araña trepó a la canaleta,
vino la lluvia y se la llevó.
Luego salió el sol, y la lluvia evaporó,
y Witsi Witsi Araña de nuevo subió.

"Witsi Witsi" seems to be the most popular version of the name, but there are variations ranging from "Huitzi Huitzi" to "Gusi Gusi."  Otherswise, the lyrics are pretty much identical to the English version of "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider," as is the melody.  Any suspicion that this might have been a local variation or the creation of a particular teacher evaporated when one of the student's friends arrived and recognized the song.  The friend was from Ecuador. (For those without maps handy, Ecuador and Bolivia aren't exactly neighbors.)

I haven't drawn any special insights from this.  I just think it's an interesting example of cultural transmission.

Monday, January 23, 2017

#95 Mulengro by Charles de Lint

Mulengro (1985) is the fourth novel by Canadian author Charles de Lint (1951-    ).  De Lint is a frequent World Fantasy and BFA nominee, and won the former in 2000 for his collection Sweetgrass & City Streets.

Cover art by Fletcher Sibthorp

As the cover notes, this is "a Romany tale," which is to say that the novel is largely based on gypsy lore and culture (which the author admits to not being an expert on, and, my own expertise being less than his, I really don't know enough to evaluate for accuracy).  The main character is Janfri, a gypsy who lives among the gaje (i.e., non-gypsies) in Ottowa, whose house is burnt down by an unknown enemy.  Meanwhile, another gyspy from Janfri's kumpania is murdered in a bizarre fashion, and the death is investigated by two policemen, Briggs and Sandler who don't have time for any of this magic nonsense.  Neither of them actually say, "I'm getting to old for this shit," but I always felt that that would be the next line whenever they showed up.  Anyway, many of the gypsies believe that the killer is a dark magician, bent on purifying the gypsies, who he feels have been tainted by modern society. Janfri is sent to find Ola, a young gypsy woman with great power who's the key to stopping the killer.  And while Janfri is searching for Ola, the police and the killer are searching for him.

On the one hand, it's neat to see an urban crime mystery set in Canada, which we don't get much of.  While the forays into Romany culture were often interesting, I was underwhelmed.  As I said before, I don't know enough about gypsy culture to call anything out as wrong, but I couldn't help shake the feeling that the gypsy kumpania in Mulengro was very carefully crafted to be a template of gypsy social groups, kind of like the difference between a model house and a house people actually live in.  

In the end, Mulengro is an entertaining horror/urban fantasy/mystery novel, but I don't really see anything to set it apart from other books of the same type.

Just the stats:

Published: Oct 1985 (Ace Books paperback edition), Canada

Pages: 357


Placed 12th for 1986 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel
Nominated for the 1986 Prix Aurora Award for Prix Casper - English

Monday, January 16, 2017

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - David Cross #18

Or, Star-Crossed Lovers

Director: Michel Gondry
Runtime: 108 minutes     

I've seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind multiple times before.  This is Michel Gondry's second feature film, and second time working with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Human Nature (2001), both of whom won the Oscar for best original screenplay for this film.  Kate Winslet received a best actress nomination, losing out to Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby.  

The film begins with Joel Barish (Jim Carey) ditching work to go to the beach in Montauk in the middle of winter.  He's a tightly wound guy, not particularly communicative, and essentially the opposite of the talkative and artsy Clementine (Kate Winslet).

  They meet on the beach, and quickly fall for each other.  We then cut to the relationship having fallen apart, and a heartbroken Joel running to his friends Rob and Carrie (David Cross and Jane Adams) for advice.  Things get strange, his friends had received a letter from a medical clinic claiming that Clementine has had all memories of Joel erased.  Joel drives to the clinic, and demands the same procedure.  Most of the remaining movie either takes place in Joel's deteriorating memories or among the employees and technicians performing the memory wipe (played by Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, and Mark Ruffalo.  (And on a sidenote, does anyone else realize how much of a weirdo Elijah Wood's characters tend to be? Not only in this movie, but in Chain of Fools, where he plays a teenage hitman who just wants a friend, or Sin City, where he plays a cannibalistic serial killer.)

As I've mentioned before, I'm not a huge Jim Carey fan. He's fantastic at a style of humor that I don't particularly care for, which is really just a matter of taste, and probably why this is one of my top three Carey movies (along with The Truman Show and Man on the Moon).

Eternal Sunshine takes a drama about the collapse of a relationship, and uses creative narrative techniques to turn it into an emotionally powerful tale about loss and the unavoidability and necessity of pain in any personal growth.  It's a beautiful film.


The Cross Section:

David Cross plays Rob, a friend of Joel Barish.  His longest scene is by the beginning of the film, after Joel and Clementine's breakup.  We only get brief glimpses into his life and his presumably troubled relationship with his girlfriend (or wife? fiancee?  It's never made clear).  The character is a bit acerbic, but otherwise there's nothing that sticks out about him.  

Monday, December 12, 2016

Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi (2005)

Cover art: Donato Giancola

The bits I'd heard about Scalzi's Hugo nominated first novel suggested that it was your standard military scifi, with a twist:  In this society, it's the elderly who are sent to war, not the young.  This is a technically accurate description.

In Old Man's War, humans, represented by the Colonial Union, are just one of the numerous species seeking to colonize the far reaches of space.  Information from off-Earth is practically nil, and the CU isn't interested in sharing its technology, which is drastically superior to what's available on Earth.  The only way to travel the stars is to be a colonist (an option only open to refugees from the parts of the world that were nuked in a somewhat recent war) or to join the Colonial Defense Forces as a senior citizen.  Our protagonist, John Perry, does the latter.  If you're wondering how a military with a minimum age of seventy-five is able to function, the answer is simple.  Recruits' consciousnesses are quickly transferred to a souped-up clone of their younger selves (with a green chlorophyll tint and cat-like eyes, as well as enhanced strength, stamina, etc.).  So, a couple chapters in, and the old guys ain't old anymore.  They're still old on the inside, of course, though they could just as easily be forty or fifty as seventy-five.

The one thing Old Man's War manages to do exceptionally well is walk the line between escapist shoot 'em up fantasy and "war, what is it good for?"  The ethical considerations are present throughout, without themselves dominating the narrative.

Despite the novel premise, Old Man's War is a solid, but otherwise pretty run of the mill, military sf novel.  If you're a fan of that sub-genre, you'll probably like it.  If not, I'd recommend Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974) instead.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

"The Sum of His Many Squalid Parts"

The recent political situation got me thinking about Thompson's masterpiece, Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail '72, which led to remember my favorite bit of Thompson marginalia, the obituary he wrote for Rolling Stone on the occasion of Nixon's death.  For those who aren't fans of Thompson's work, it should be pointed out that Thompson hated Nixon.  I mean really hated the man, on an intensely personal and sincere level.  The last line of the obituary reads:

"By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream."

And "diseased cur" may be one of the nicest things Thompson calls him.  But besides the catharsis I find in this obituary, there's one moment that struck me as particularly relevant today.

"Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism -- which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place...You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful."

Of course, one of the main problems today isn't objective journalism, rather the surge of pseudo-journalists and pundits.  But the fact remains that the actual journalists, the ones that still put in the work and respect the responsibility that a free society demands of the press, dropped the ball, 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Vonnegut's Last (Published) Story

Since Vonnegut's death in 2007, four volumes of unpublished work have been released, three of which are primarily or exclusively comprised of short stories.  Fans of Vonnegut know that his last published short story appeared in 1972 in the second installment of Harlan Ellison's genre-defining Dangerous Visions anthology series.  In his introduction to "The Big Space Fuck," Ellison claimed that it might be the last piece of fiction anyone would ever get from Vonnegut.  At the time, Vonnegut was working on Breakfast of Champions, but claimed he was abandoning the project. Many reviewers and fans took Breakfast of Champions, published in 1973, as Vonnegut's declaration of retirement.  While fans of Vonnegut know that he published seven more novels, and plenty of non-fiction, they also know that he never published another short story during his lifetime.

Except for "Merlin."

It was published in 1996, and appeared exclusively on the label of a specialty beer in Denver.  (Making Chipotle's cups a couple decades late to the party.)  This wouldn't be worth remarking on if it weren't for the fact that this was the only short story Vonnegut published for the last thirty-five years of his life.  The best background on the beer (called Kurt's Mile High Malt) comes from sports columnist Woody Paige's obituary of Vonnegut for the Denver Post.  The recipe is Vonnegut's grandfather's from before prohibition.  And while it seems the beer is being brewed again, there's no indication that new bottles/cans include the story.

As with the few other blog posts I've found about "Merlin," I'll end by requesting that anyone out there with the text of the story please send me a copy (or tell me where to find it).

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Devil and Daniel Webster (From Page to Screen to Screen)

The Story:

Stephen Vincent Benét, best known for John Brown's Body, had "The Devil and Daniel Webster" published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1936.  The story is presented as an old New England folktale, about the time a down on his luck farmer, Jabez Stone, sold his soul to the devil for seven years good luck, only to regret his decision and ask Daniel Webster (the real life congressman and orator, often held to be one of, if not the, most eloquent and honest men to ever serve in the US government) to represent him and get him out of the contract.  The devil agrees to a trial, stocks the jury with cutthroats and traitors from American history, and sets an unrepentant judge from the Salem witch trials to justice.  Old Dan'l speaks all night and convinces the jury that a man's freedom is too valuable, and the sinners relent, giving Jabez Stone his life back.

The story's themes of perseverance through tough times, and the resilience of the American people (especially farmers), would strike a special chord with audiences in the middle of the great depression.  It's a wonderful story and you can read it here on Gutenburg Australia.

The Films:

Director: William Dieterle
Runtime: 107 minutes

The first film adaptation was released in 1941, with a screenplay co-written by Benét.  The plot is much the same as the story, with some additions, most notably a seductive demon (at least that's what we're led to assume) that supplants Jabez's wife.  There's more time devoted to the plight of poor farmers, and the corrupting influence of wealth is hammered down a bit more, in a way that may seem trite today.  There's a lot of folksy New England humor, like when Jabez's Ma points out that "hard luck - well, we made New England out of it.  That and codfish."

Jabez and Ma Stone

While the entire cast ranges from adequate to great, the standout star of the film is Walter Huston (father of John Huston, Academy Award winner for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), who plays the Devil, or Scratch, as he's often called in New England.

Unfortunately, the scene I wanted to embed wasn't on Youtube, but if you have six minutes, watch Webster's speech to the damned.

All That Money Can Buy (which was titled as such to avoid confusion with The Devil and Miss Jones) was a flop at the box office, despite receiving an Academy Award for its score (which is great) and a best leading actor nomination for Huston.  A restored version of the film was released in the 1990s, with the intended title, The Devil and Daniel Webster.  While certain aspects have aged poorly, it's nonetheless a great film.

Director: Alec Baldwin
Runtime: 106 minutes

The fact that Alec Baldwin used a pseudonym for his directorial credit should be a sign of how this 2003 film turned out.  Baldwin (who also produced the film) stars as Jabez Stone, a down-on-his-luck writer in Manhattan with a bit of talent but no success.  After a fantastically bad day in which he loses his job, is humiliated by a publisher (whose name is Daniel Webster, played by Anthony Hopkins), finds out a friend of his has sudden remarkable success (making him jealous), is mugged, and later kills an elderly woman by throwing a typewriter out a window, Stone is approached by the Devil, who is played by Jennifer Love Hewitt.  She offers to give him ten years of success (and unkills the old lady) in exchange for his soul.  Jabez agrees.  As opposed to the original story and the 1941 film, in which the deal is made official by a contract signed in blood, Stone and the devil seal the deal by, well, sealing the deal.

fig. 1.1 Contract Law

The first half hour or so of the movie works pretty well, but things quickly devolve from their.  This may be the most over-edited movie I've ever seen.  Nearly every other scene ends with either an iris in/out or with tonally inappropriate wipes, as well as an inexplicable frequent use of slow motion shots, which don't make things more dramatic, as the editor intended, but merely more baffling.

This film has a great supporting cast, including Anthony Hopkins, Dan Ackroyd, and Amy Poehler, although the latter two never get much chance to prove how funny they can be.  Like in the original story, Jabez ends up regretting his deal, and enlists the help of Daniel Webster.  The Webster in this case has no connection to the historical figure.  He's just a publisher named Daniel Webster who happens to have considerable experience in suing the devil.  The courtroom scene is a real mess, with Webster using at least a few different defenses, and no real emotional power like the 1941 version.  Hewitt's devil isn't sure whether to be menacing, erotic, or inscrutable, making the performance none of the above (although this isn't Hewitt's fault.  There's only so much she could have done with the script). One point that bugs me deals with the jury in this case.  Stone has become a massively successful author, though one that's critically panned.  The jury, rather than traitors and scoundrels, is composed of authors.  Only four are named, though many are identifiable by appearance (e.g. Woolf and Joyce).  The four named authors are Truman Capote, Jacqueline Susanne, Ernest Hemingway, and Mario Puzo.  Susann and Puzo are best known for writing books that were massively successful but critically panned, so putting them on the jury doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.  Anyway, Webster and Stone win the case, and time is reversed to before the deal is made.