Tuesday, April 27, 2010

History of the World Through Film

Spartacus statue by Denis Foyatier from WikipediaThe other day I was watching the new Spartacus series on cable and that got me to read the article about Spartacus on Wikipedia, which in turn got me reading the article about the Third Servile War. After learning how closely this followed into the realm of Julius Caesar, I immediately thought of the HBO series Rome. The two shows fit together so well historically that I began to wonder. Could I construct a history of the world using feature films and television shows? Sure it's going to be silly and ahistoric, and given the constraint that the movies had to be in the library collection, made it even more of a challenge. So here's my go at it. I'll give you the timeline, the movie title, a brief description and a link to the item in the collection. Enjoy!

  • 10,000 B.C. - 10,000 B.C.E. - a silly account of cave people
  • 300 - 480 B.C.E. - Battle of Thermopylae
  • Hero - 221 B.C.E. - The unification of China under the Qin Dynasty
  • Spartacus - 73 B.C.E. - Spartacus leads the third servile war (and obviously this is too soon to be in the collection)
  • Rome - 44 B.C.E. - Julius Caesar and the rise of Augustus
  • Cleopatra - 30 B.C.E. - Romances and tragedy of Cleopatra
  • Jesus Christ Superstar - 33 C.E. - Teachings and Passion of Jesus of Nazareth in a catchy Andrew Lloyd Weber musical way.
  • I, Claudius - 54 C.E. - The Julio-Claudian Empire of Rome
  • Beowulf - ca. 450 C.E. - The mythic adventure of Beowulf vs. the monster Grendel
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail - ca. 516 C.E. - The end of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, again, quite silly.
  • The Lion in Winter - 1183 C.E. - Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the wittiest argument you will ever see
  • Mongol - 1186 C.E. - The life and times of Ghengis Khan
  • Brother Sun, Sister Moon - ca. 1209 C.E. - The life of Francis of Assisi and the founding of the Franciscan monastic order with a soundtrack by Donovan.
  • Braveheart - 1297- 1305 C.E. - The life of William Wallace and the First Scottish War of Independence against Edward I of England.
  • The Tudors - 1520-1540 C.E. - Henry VIII and his many wives in glorious and gory detail. Seasons 1-3 cover wives from Katherine of Aragon through Anne of Cleves.
  • Elizabeth - 1558-1572 C.E. - The beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I and the declaration of the Golden Age of England.
  • Shakespeare in Love - ca. 1590 C.E. - William Shakespeare finds inspiration for his plays through his love affair with Viola de Lesseps.
  • Pocahontas - 1607 C.E. - The Disney-fied version of Pocahontas and John Smith complete with singing animals.
  • Girl With a Pearl Earring - 1665 C.E. - Johannes Vermeer through the eyes of a servant girl.
  • The Libertine - ca. 1670 C.E.- The downfall of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, hard drinking, bawdy playwright and poet.
  • The Crucible - 1692 C.E. - Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder in Arthur Miller's scathing portrayal of the Salem Witch Trials.
  • Roots - 1750-1870 C.E. - The story of Alex Haley's family from the enslavement of Kunta Kinte in Gambia, West Africa through to the family's move to Tennessee after the American Civil War.
  • 1776 - 1776 C.E. - The founding fathers sing their way to Revolution.
  • John Adams - 1770-1826 C.E. - John Adams's life from the Boston Massacre through his presidency to his death in 1826.
  • Amadeus - 1783-1825 C.E. - Herr Salieri, Court Composer to Joseph II of Austria recounts his rivalry with Mozart.
  • Jefferson in Paris - 1784-1789 C.E. - Thomas Jefferson's tenure as the Ambassador to France prior to the revolution and his relationships with Maria Cosway and Sally Hemings.
  • The Civil War - 1861-1865 C.E. - Ken Burns's exhaustive documentary of the American Civil War told through the photographs of the era and the voices from journals and letters of the time period.
  • Glory - 1863 C.E. - The 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first military troop in the United States to openly enlist African-American soldiers, led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw.
  • Lawrence of Arabia - ca. 1916-1935 C.E. - T.E. Lawrence leads rebellion against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
  • Gandhi - 1915-1948 C.E. - Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi leads the non-violent revolution against British colonial rule.
  • Schindler's List - 1939-1945 C.E. - German soldier Oskar Schindler creates a list of "skilled" inmates who are saved from extermination in the Auschwitz concentration camps.
  • From Here to Eternity - 1941 C.E. - The attack on Pearl Harbor by way of a love triangle.
  • Au Revoir, Les Enfants - 1943-1944 C.E. - The effects of World War II on a French boarding school, and the death of Jewish school children in Auschwitz and their teacher's emprisonment in Mauthausen.
  • The Great Escape - 1944 C.E. - 50 Allied prisoners of war escape from a German POW camp, and there's Steve McQueen on a motorcycle.
  • Seven Years in Tibet - 1944-1950 C.E. - A former Nazi soldier encounters the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, and the experience changes both their lives.
  • Evita - 1936-1952 C.E. - Madonna belts out the famous "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" while pretending to be Eva Peron.
  • M*A*S*H - 1950-1953 C.E. - The kooky surgeons of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital get up to pranks to make it through the trauma of the Korean War.
  • The Motorcycle Diaries - 1952 C.E. - Based on the diaries of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and his encounters with the desperate poverty in South America that led to his Marxist rebellion in Argentina.
  • Battle of Algiers - 1954-1960 C.E. - Recounts events surrounding the war for Algerian independence from the French.
  • Capote - 1959-1966 C.E. - Truman Capote becomes obsessed with the murder of the Kansas Clutter family and pens his magnum opus "In Cold Blood."
  • Mad Men - 1961-1963 C.E. - Madison Avenue advertising executives with hard drinking habits relive the peak moments of the era from the inauguration of JFK through the assasination of Lee Harvey Oswald.
  • Malcolm X - 1965 C.E. - Denzel Washington's magnificent portrayal of African-American activist Malcolm X.
  • A Beautiful Mind - 1950-1994 C.E. - The life of John Forbes Nash, Jr., game theorist and mathematician who suffered from paranoid schizophrenic episodes.
  • Frost/Nixon - 1977 C.E. - British talk show host David Frost interviews former president Richard Nixon about the Watergate scandal and the abuses of his presidency.
  • And the Band Played On - 1981 C.E. - Epidemiologists discover a strange virus spreading rampantly through gay men in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, what would come to be known as HIV/AIDS.
  • Good bye Lenin! - 1989 C.E. - The fall of the Berlin Wall, the arrival of capitalism to East Germany, and the reunification of Germany.
  • Hotel Rwanda - 1994 C.E. - Hotelier Paul Rusesabagina saves the lives of his family and over 1,000 refugees at the Hotel des Mille Collines during the Rwandan genocide.
  • Blood Diamond - 1996 C.E. - Takes place during the Sierra Leone Civil War and the people forced into slave labor in diamond mines, and terrible cost of the diamond trade.
  • Black Hawk Down - 1996 C.E. - Americn Black Hawk helicopter loaded with Delta Force soldiers is shot down over Mogadishu, Somalia.
  • Breach - 2001 C.E. - Robert Philip Hanssen former American FBI agent and spy for Russian and Soviet intelligence gets busted for being a double agent.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Have You Been Living Underground?

I love getting the NPR updates on my Facebook, because I'll find fabulous gems like this article about the new underground bunker company Vivos. Make sure to watch the video as well.

Seeing these luxury disaster shelters immediately made me think about Philip K. Dick's underground world in The Penultimate Truth. In this novel people dwell in an series of connected pods miles below the surface of the earth. Their purpose in these pods is to produce robot soldiers to go to the surface and continue fighting the war that destroyed everything that lives and irradiated most everything else. Each day these pod societies churn out more robots, only to receive orders to build more robots. All the while, on the surface military fiefdoms have cropped up and the folks who orchestrated the war in the first place have carved out vast empty cities to belong solely to them, while the robot soldiers do nothing more than defend their territory from the encroachments of similar military lords. These Ozymandias-like princes jaunt around the country for pointless meetings in private helicopters and jets, and continue to think up ways to perpetuate this mythic war to the billions of humans dwelling underground. Needless to say a few brave souls in the pods are starting to question their conditions, and that's when things begin to really change. This was a quick read and absolutely fascinating.

In a more wacky fantasy vein there is also Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Simon is a digger in an underground village. His family died as the result of a cave-in back when he was younger and he was raised by his best friend Kamina. The lives of the people in Simon's village are turned upside-down when one day a giant robot crashes through the dome ceiling, revealing that there is both life on the surface and that it's unbelievably dangerous. Simon and Kamina team up with a surface girl named Yoko to defeat the giant robot and save their village, but that's only the beginning of a story that spans the most outrageously epic story you will ever read.

If you're more in the mood for a classic you may want to look at Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth made into a film starring Brendan Frazier. In this novel a professor travels down into different layers of geologic history, and along the way encounters the flora and fauna of the ancient earth. Yes, wooly mammoths and dinosaurs! How can you go wrong? On the other end of speculative time is H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, where in the far future the peaceful, childlike Eloi people dwell in the decaying surface buildings while the pale ape-like Morlocks live in the dark underground.

Any of these works would make good reading while living in your own beatiful underground dwelling.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Nature of Satire and Enjoyment of Gulliver's Travels

People encounter satire in various forms; in the mocking political commentary of the Capitol Steps, the gentle ridicule of the American family in "The Simpson's" and in the laughter-raising political commentary of the satiric newspaper "The Onion." Nevertheless, people may enjoy these art forms and not fully grasp the nature and purpose of satire as a form of literature. The enjoyment of satire requires a greater familiarity with the characteristics of the genre than other forms of literature. A new edition of Gulliver's Travels has come out that keeps some of the flavor of the original keeping some of the original capitalization and printing of the eighteenth century edition.

By nature satire is a less straightforward type of literature than many. It implies, suggests, and exaggerates. As many have pointed out, the appreciation of the genre of satire requires knowledge of the use of many literary techniques including: irony, distancing and the use of a persona for the speaker to highlight the author’s view point. Satire usually has corrupt customs or practices as its target and a familiarity with that target is also necessary to fully enjoy satire. So a review of a few principles of satire may help people enjoy works in this mode. According to the Merriam Webster’s dictionary satire is the “use of irony, sarcasm in verse or prose in which human folly is held up to scorn or derision.” There are two main types of satire: Horatian and Juvenalian. Horatian satire a mild form of satire that is a playful exposure of folly or vice using mockery and exaggeration. The best example of this kind of satire is the TV cartoon show, "The Simpson's." The habits, attitudes, and preoccupations of Homer Simpson and his family are ridiculed in a gentle way that shows some affection for the objects of mockery. The second type of satire is Juvenalian. This kind of satire is contemptuous, and abrasive. This kind of satire seeks to "address some evil in society" through the use of "scorn, outrage and savage ridicule." The characteristics of this form of satire are "irony, sarcasm and moral indignation." It is often serious in tone rather than playful. Satire often has a political component and is used to attack some political regimes.
The literary work "Guilliver’s Travels" by Jonathan Swift is a good example of a combination of both kinds of satire: Horatian and Juvenalian satire. Swift used both methods as the first journalistic satirist and his sharp observations of the workings of politics in the different kingdoms in "Gulliver’s travels" reveal the effectiveness of the method of close journalistic observation of the institutions of society. His focus in satire was on revealing the foibles of society as a whole rather than those of individuals. One of the main techniques of satire applied by Swift in " Gulliver's Travels " to ridicule social faults by diminution. Diminution is often accomplished through use of critical terms and exaggeration. But Swift has the genius to literally make the kingdom he is satirizing small in size.

In "Gulliver’s Travels" Swift uses the method of diminution as a physical reality for his character and to great effect. The people Gulliver encounters on his first Island where he is stranded are very small in height. They are of course the Lilliputians. Their extremely small stature allows Swift to magnify the folly of their foibles and strange customs by the humorous way they strike us. The customs and institutions of the court can then be made to seem even more ridiculous when one sees them from the perspective of a giant. The most significant moment for this satire is the scene where the courtiers of the king compete for political office. Here Swift examines their method of competition that involves jumping on a taut rope to see who can jump the highest. Political office is given to the one who jumps the highest. This ridiculous competition is made even more absurd because the courtiers are only a few inches high. The custom of jumping to obtain a political office is demeaning to the person of the courtiers but again the fact that they are so small increases the sense we have of how they are morally demeaned by those customs.
Always with Swift and all satire there is an implied standard of human dignity and worth in play where the one senses the distance between the ideal and the real. The court life of Lilliput is far from ideal. It is ridiculous, small minded and maddening in its triviality. Many commentators have mentioned that Swift is criticizing the court life under George 1st and Queen Anne along with the corruption of Parliament under the Prime Minister Walpole. But knowledge of the details of history doesn't matter so much as having a general sense for what court life involves and dangers of favoritism. We also don't need much knowledge of the details of the politics of Congress to recognize the attitudes of pride and arrogance the Capitol Steps is ridiculing.
In addition, Swift uses another technique of satire: the mask or persona, in this case the persona of the unreliable narrator, Gulliver, who seeks to instruct us about what he sees in different lands. Gulliver as naive observer who shows an unthinking admiration for the ways of this diminutive court that only increases our uneasiness with what we are viewing. Here again Swift is using the satiric technique of inverting praise and blame that is another method of satire. Gulliver's admiration of the ways of the court only increases our disapproval of them and him. The persona of Gulliver is that of a complaisant naive English traveler who is only able to play the one note of amazement and approval. He cannot recognize moral degradation when he sees it. The consistent wrongness of the judgements of the narrator increases the effect of humor and our offense at what he is praising so that we come to object to what he approves. The best contemporary example might be a reference to the family activities that Homer Simpson approves.
Looking at the methods of satire used to depict of the life of the court of Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels, we can enjoy them more if we have a sense of the parameters of satire in general. That knowledge can help us to appreciate the humor of this classic work. Satire is a method of literary exposition that encourages critical thinking about our world and helps us to evaluate the customs of our own society by seeing them in relation to an ideal of humanity that everyone shares to some extent. Once we catch on to the often used methods of distancing, diminution, exaggeration and the inversion of praise and blame, we can enjoy the work more and finally get the joke as well as enjoy a good laugh at humanity. It is hopefully a laugh that is not harsh but informed by insight into the follies of humankind.

Post-Apoc Pop

Post-Apocalypse novels are a dime a dozen these days. That is not to say they are all the same, or that all the themes have been overplayed. However, there are a couple things about this genre that stick in my craw.

The setup for these novels involves some kind of holocaust. This is not a normal catastrophe--we are talking about a full-scale nuclear war, a global pandemic, a high tech attack by extra-terrestrials, a comet-Earth collision or [insert favorite holocaust here] that is barely survivable. Despite the scale of these annihilations, we picture ourselves as the lucky ones who end up survive.

We picture an exciting adventure-filled future with close calls and savage road warlords, but we survive. We see ourselves sneaking through ghost towns searching for food, exploring desolated forests with rifles slung over our backs, eking out a living in near-unlivable conditions. Ultimately, and egotistically, we imagine ourselves surviving. Miraculously we are the few who live to witness the New Age--either a Utopian do-over or an exciting dystopian struggle. The Handmaid's Tale, The Postman, Earth Abides, I Am Legend, 1984 and even films from Mad Max to The Book of Eli. Then you stumble upon The Road.

Everybody's friend and their friend's friend is reading this book. I put a copy of the audiobook (DCPL has the Playaway) on hold and finally got around to "reading" it (Does this count as reading? I think so). The first fifty pages are slow going. Wading through ash in the dim afternoon, getting ready for the next awful existential crisis. I don't want to give anything away, but luckily that's pretty much impossible with The Road. You know from the book jacket that it takes place in the wake of some God-awful event that rendered most of America a nasty, dangerous wasteland.

You are forced to repeatedly ask yourself, Is this worth it? Would I go through this? Albert Camus said the only question is whether or not to kill yourself. I'd rather not go down this philosophical cul de sac, but don't be mistaken: The Road is not for the faint of heart. The clinically depressed might also want to consult their doctor before reading. All joking aside, this book is worth reading for the power of McCarthy's lyrical prose alone. A writer will learn a thing or two about minimalism. A philosophy student will bask in the author's powerful short sentences, his linguistic economy and contemplations. With this book, I'd venture to say that the plot is not nearly as important as the language with which it is described. The way McCarthy lays out the journey is so bittersweet and poetic I think I'll have to read it again. Maybe on the beach this summer instead of the dead of winter.