Thursday, September 27, 2012

Design Homages?

Is it just me, or is there perhaps a bit of design homage in the grossly distended chin of the Goblin King of Peter Jackson's new Hobbit film, and those of the goblins in the Rankin/Bass production of The Hobbit?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Dr. Dee

Dr. John Dee, as he appeared in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), played by David Threlfall. Dee, an Elizabethan magus, was suspected in the times of Catholic Queen Mary and Protestant King James as a conjurer, utilized by Elizabeth as a court astrologer, despised in the Age of Reason as the superstitious dupe of Edward Kelly, idolized by occultists as a master, and finally rehabilitated as a mathematician, expert on navigation, and one of the most learned men of his time by Dame Frances Yates. His appearances abound in speculative fiction. His house at Mortlake contained one of the greatest collections of books in England, including many volumes saved from the sacking of the monasteries; sadly it was looted while he was visiting the continent.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Happy Birthday, Bilbo and Frodo! Hobbit Oddities

"Stick to the forest track, keep your peckers up, hope for the best, and with a tremendous slice of luck you will come out one day and see the Long Marshes lying below you--and beyond them faint and far the top of the Lonely Mountain in the East. There is a path too across the Marshes..." --Bladorthin (Gandalf) bidding farewell to Bilbo and the dwarves on the verge of Mirkwood, form the original draft of The Hobbit, in The History of The Hobbit Part One: Mr Baggins, edited by John D. Rateliff. (Peckers in this instance meaning noses; he is essentially saying 'Chin up.')

Friday, September 21, 2012

75th Anniversary of the Publication of "The Hobbit"

The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien, was published on this day in 1937, seventy-five years ago. It was only about forty years old when I first took it off the middle school library shelves and read it, to my own enchantment. It is hard sometimes to realize that there was a time before this timeless tale was written; it is difficult to calculate the cultural significance of the action (without The Hobbit, no The Lord of the Rings, without LOTR no defining and popularizing catalyst for fantasy fiction); it is impossible for me to imagine my life without it. There are few books written in the 1930's that are still the living, breathing, breeding presence that The Hobbit is; with the upcoming trilogy of movies based on the book we can expect an upsurge of interest and marketing surrounding their release. But whatever the hoopla that comes of it, the defining magic of Tolkien's work will always be in the reading, of stepping into the far-off land of Mr. Baggins and being swept off your feet into adventure. The Hobbit is where the journey begins.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"In A Magic Place": A Glance at "Here Comes The Grump"

Here Comes The Grump was a cartoon show that appeared in the 1969-70 NBC Saturday morning line-up; I was six years old at the time, and it really tickled my fancy. It followed the adventures of Princess Dawn, her magical pet Bip (which could flatten itself out, detach its nose and send it off to search on its own, and turn around simply by switching its head and tail straight through its body), and her friend Terry Dexter, a teen from the normal world. Here they are in a typical pose:

They were constantly on the run from an irascible little sorceror called the Grump (or Mr. Grump, or sometimes simply Grump) and Dingo, his jolly green dragon with a fire sneezing problem. The Grump had cast a spell of gloom over Dawn's father and his kingdom, and now only needed to capture the Princess to complete his victory.

Dawn, Terry and Bip were always on the move in their magical car (which usually flew like a blimp but could also travel the roads), trying to evade the Grump and find the Cave of the Whispering Orchids, where was hidden the Crystal Key to Happiness, which would break Grump's gloom and free Dawn's home.

As they travelled through the Land of a Thousand Caves they visited dozens of whimsical little countries. Some were inhabited by anthropomorphic objects (living doors, shoes, houses, clocks); others by giants, witches, or wizards; some were takes on famous tales like Mother Goose or Alice in Wonderland, and some seemed based on wacky animation tropes like a living paintbrush that creates the scenery or photographs that people can jump in and out of. Some countries were themed on toys like the Bloonywoonies or the Jack-in-Box people; in others the people were defined by their proclivities for things like jokes or cleanliness or block-headed behavior.

And they met fantastic characters and races, like the Toolie Birds, living tools who were great at fast building, the Shushers, who lived in fear of waking a terrible monster, and the Blabbermouth, who never stopped talking and could imitate any sound. There was a witch who turned nice when she said the word "nice," and nasty when she said "nasty." Pumpkin spectres, talking trees, living valentines, animate snowmen, ghost pirates all made appearances, and Dawn and Terry befriended them all, then hurried away as their new friends delayed the Grump and Dingo to give them a headstart. "But no matter how fast [they] go,/ Right on [their] heels and toes,/ Here comes the Grump!"

This riot of creativity was produced in one season by David Depatie, Friz Freleng, and their team, many of whom had worked in the Warner Brothers animation department. Depatie and Freleng had started their own company (the first thing they made was the Pink Panther cartoons), and with the enthusiastic consent of Larry White (vice-president of NBC children's programming, who loved the Oz-like vibe) turned from theatrical releases to TV animation. With narration by Marvin Miller (Robbie the Robot) and the voices of Rip Taylor as the Grump, Stefianna Christopherson (the original Daphne of Scooby Doo) as Princess Dawn, and Jay North (Dennis the Menace) as Terry, and with supporting voice talents of June Foray, Avery Schreiber, and Larry D. Mann, this show has the sound and echoes of my generation's childhood.

This one-season show has rerun several times in various areas and over seas (the last time apparently in the mid-90s on the Sci-Fi Channel), but never locally where I live, so finally getting the entire series on DVD has been a real blast from the Groovy Age for me. Though slightly marred by some stereotyped characterizations (mostly of native Americans), these characters are never villains, and the general message is of inclusion, kindness, and understanding. I would definitely recommend Here Comes The Grump for anyone with a taste for comedic, innocent, and whimsical fantasy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Uses of the Unicorn

"But then how can we trust ancient wisdom, whose traces you are always seeking, if it is handed down by lying books that have interpreted it with such license?"

"Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn't ask ourselves what it says but what it means, a precept that the commentators of the holy books had very clearly in mind. The unicorn, as these books speak of him, embodies a moral truth, or allegorical, or analogical, but one that remains true, as the idea that chastity is a noble virtue remains true. But as for the literal truth that sustains the other three truths, we have yet to see what original experiences gave birth to the latter. The literal object must be discussed, even if its higher meaning remains good..."

"Then higher truths can be expressed while the letter is lying," I said. "Still, it grieves me to think this unicorn doesn't exist, or never existed, or cannot exist one day."

"It is not licit to impose confines on divine omnipotence, and if God so willed, unicorns could still exist. But console yourself, they exist in these books, which, if they do not speak of real existence, speak of possible existence."

"So must we then read books without faith, which is a theological virtue?"

"There are two other theological virtues as well. The hope that the possible is. And charity, toward those who believed in good faith that the possible was."

--Adso of Melk and William of Baskerville, in Umberto Ecco's The Name of the Rose (1983).

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Oh, You Pretty Chitty Bang Bang

I have a bit of a quirk that I would like to confess. Most people buy a movie so they can watch it whenever they want, over and over again. I occassionally buy a movie so I never have to watch it on TV, ever again.

There are two reasons for this. Sometimes the movie is good, and rarely played on TV. I buy it to be relieved of the anxiety of catching the rare appearance (which is often late at night) and scanning the schedules to see if it will turn up. The second reason is a little more complicated, and it's why I now have a copy of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

Before I ran CCBB for my nieces and nephews, they asked me, "Is it good?" I replied, "It's good enough." And that is part of the complicated reason.

I like CCBB. But it is far from perfect. It logs in at two hours and twenty-four minutes, which is an appalling amount of time for a family movie, even with the intermission (!) halfway through. When shown on commercial TV this is stretched to an attention-span challenging marathon that tasks many adults, let alone children. The special effects were considered primitive even at the time. And the leisurely pace at which the plot unfolds (the magical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang doesn't even appear until after the one hour mark) seems to be punctuated every five minutes with a musical number, no matter its relevance to the plot.

That being said, I still like CCBB. I like the characters; I like the plot; I like the settings. It was part of my childhood milieu. Every now and then I feel the urge to revisit it, but having my own copy means I need not feel compelled to try to watch it every time it comes on TV. And that is the complicated reason.

Several observations on why I like the movie and find it interesting:

CCBB was made in the wake of the blockbuster success of Walt Disney's Mary Poppins (1964), and besides the quasi-Edwardian setting also employed Dick Van Dyke (without his extraordinary English accent this time) and the songwriting team of the brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, who supplied Disney with many of the songs for his movies. The screenplay was loosely based on the original book by Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, and written in part by Roald Dahl, who takes his first foray through a candy factory in the subplot featuring Lord Scrumptious.

I like the Rube Goldbergesque inventions of Van Dyke's character Caracatus Potts, especially the breakfast making machine (footage of which I remember seeing paired on the Captain Kangaroo Show with the song "I've Never Seen Anything Like It "--which was from another bloated family musical, Dr. Dolittle). I like the ornate, almost baroque style of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and love with a childlike delight the idea of a vehicle capable of travelling by land, sea, and air; although I am about the furthest from what anyone could call a car person, I coveted this vehicle, and envied whoever bought the "hero" version of Chitty Chitty when it came up for auction recently.

I like watching the English actors doing their various comic or eccentric turns here, some of them in the over-the-top cod Germanic characters of the Vulgarian nation, although Benny Hill gives an unusually straightforward performance as the Toymaker. By far my favorite performance was by Lionel Jeffries (most familiar to me as Cavor in the Ray Harryhausen movie First Men in the Moon, though he was in countless others), who was cast as Van Dyke's father, even though he was six months younger than he! Now famed for being nightmare fuel is Robert Helpmann as the Childcatcher, a Dickensian character with a net, hook, and a long nose for smelling out and caging children for an evil Baron and Baronness who hate them.

After I watched this movie again, I was reminded of something, and popped over to eBay to have a look around. There I found action figures from CCBB that had been produced a few years ago, and I bought a pack that included what I consider the more interesting secondary characters. These are: Grandpa Potts, with pipe and umbrella; Toymaker, with chisel and doll; Childcatcher, with hook and net; and Spy. The Spy is a bit of a rook, consisting as it does only of a couple of feet sticking out one of those big vents you see on old-fashioned ships: the Spies were disguised as these for about ten minutes in the movie. There is another set I hope to get one day, of Caracatus Potts, Truly Scrumptious, and Jeremy and Jemima; and of course there is the magical car itself, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

And so I have had my fill (probably for a few years to come) of CCBB. I can put the movie comfortably in my collection and not have to think about for a good long time, secure in my least until the format changes again.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Warm September brings the fruit;
Sportsmen then begin to shoot.


September blow soft
Till the fruit's in the loft.


Marry in September's shine,
Your living will be rich and fine.


September 29th (Michaelmas) is the day of the Feast of St. Michael. Like St. Swithin's Day, St. Michael's Day was said to give a clue to the weather to come: if Michaelmas brings many acorns, Christmas will bring snow; if Michaelmas was fair, the winter would have much sunshine but sharp and nipping wind; if Michaelmas was dark, Christmas would be light.


"Sorrow and scarlet leaf,
Sad thoughts and sunny weather.
Ah me, This glory and this grief
Agree not well together!"
--Thomas Parsons, A Song For September.


"By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer's best of weather
And autumn's best of cheer."
--Helen Hunt Jackson, September.


"Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers."
--Carl Sandburg, Under the Harvest Moon.


"The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel.
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze."
--John Updike, September.