Saturday, June 27, 2009

Paul Lawrence Dunbar--"We Wear the Mask"

The following information is from the Wikipedia entry about Paul Lawrence Dunbar:

Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906) was a seminal American poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dunbar gained national recognition for his 1896 Lyrics of a Lowly Life, one poem in the collection _Ode to Ethiopia_. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Paul Laurence Dunbar on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.

Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio to parents who had escaped from slavery; his father was a veteran of the American Civil War, having served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment. His parents instilled in him a love of learning and history. He was a student at an all-white high school, Dayton Central High School, and he participated actively as a student. During high school, he was both the editor of the school newspaper and class president, as well as the president of the school literary society. Dunbar had also started the first African-American newsletter in Dayton.

He wrote his first poem at age 6 and gave his first public recital at age 9. Dunbar's first published work came in a newspaper put out by his high school friends Wilbur and Orville Wright, who owned a printing plant. The Wright Brothers later invested in the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper aimed at the black community, edited and published by Dunbar.

This is one of the most powerful poems I have ever read. It has stayed with me for several decades now.

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be otherwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
- Paul Laurence Dunbar -

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XI

This quatrain is probably the most often quoted, and also, the most often misquoted, quatrain in The Rubaiyat. FitzGerald, again, made some changes, but these apparently were for aesthetic reasons and not for thematic or philosophical issues.

This is the third quatrain of what I consider to be a unit of three quatrains that are closely tied together. In Quatrain IX, Khayyam tells us we should leave the philosophical musings that inevitably arise when one considers the now desolate glories of the past and, in Quatrain X, follow him to the borderland between the desert and the cultivated areas. Then in Quatrain XI, he tells us that there we will escape from the cares of everyday life in order to lose ourselves in the simple pleasures of life--wine and bread and verse and song.

First Edition: Quatrain XI

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Second Edition: Quatrain XII

Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XII

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

As you can see, the First and the Second Editions are very similar. In the first line of the first version, we are given "a Loaf of Bread," which becomes "a little Bread" in the second version. I prefer "a Loaf" because it seems stronger, more definite, and fits in with the others--"a Flask," a Book," and "Thou." "Little" seems out of place with a Flask and a Book, whereas a Loaf is a single definite item, as are the others.

The second change--from "And Wilderness were Paradise enow" to "Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"-- is one I like. The "and" makes it part of the stanza, something that flows naturally, while "Oh, Wilderness" changes it to a comment on the previous three lines. Old Khayyam looks back and exclaims that the Book, the Flask, and the bread creates "Paradise enow."

I'm still not clear as to the effect of the change from "is Paradise" in the first version to "were Paradise" in the second. Perhaps "were" fits in better with the idea that he's looking back and commenting on it since "were" is in the past tense.

The Fifth Edition version contains some interesting changes:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow.

FitzGerald rearranges the order of the first two lines and moves the Book to the first line and the Loaf to the second line. He also changes "a little Bread" back to "a Loaf of Bread" as it was in the first version. I think restoring the Loaf is a wise decision. And, "beneath" in the first and second versions now becomes "underneath," a minor change, probably for aesthetic reasons.

In addition, it is now a book of "Verses" (the plural form), rather than a book of "Verse" (either singular or plural) as it was in the first and second editions. Perhaps 'FitzGerald made the change because "Verse" sounds a bit choppy or abrupt in comparison to "Verses" which seems to lead more fluidly to the next word.

In the second line, the "Flask" now becomes a "Jug" which seems to substitute a short abrupt word for the longer sounding "Flask." Perhaps FitzGerald felt he needed a shorter sound here. One other possibility is that a flask suggests a small container suitable for carrying around on one's person, whereas a jug would be a much larger container with enough for several people, a size more logical for a picnic with bread, verse, and song.

FitzGerald keeps the third and fourth lines as they were in the second version.

My preference? I would choose either the first or the fifth versions, mainly because that "little" in the second version seems so wrong. Apparently FitzGerald did also since he changed it back to "Loaf." If forced to choose between the first and fifth, then I would go with the fifth. I like "a Jug of Wine" better than "a Flask of Wine." A jug sounds more informal than a flask, or so it seems to me, which would be more in harmony with a picnic on the edge of the Wilderness.

And your preference would be...?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jerzy Kosinski's _Being There_, novel and film

I had seen Being There many years ago and was intrigued by it. Recently I found a copy of the novel by Jerzy Kosinski, so I thought it would be interesting to see the film again and compare it with the novel. I decided to watch the film first and then read the novel, for I have found that reading the story first tends to prejudice me against the film version. So, that's the way it happened, and I found the experience very interesting and a bit confusing also.

First, I should point out that the good folks at the International Movie Database site ( assert that Jerzy Kosinski not only wrote the novel but that he is also the film's screenwriter. To the usual questions that always arise whenever a book is adapted for film, are added several others. Why did the novelist make these changes in his story? Were they just the usual changes that are made when transferring the story from print to film? Were some of these changes really ones he wished he had made in the novel in the first place? Were they ideas that he had initially rejected when writing the novel or perhaps ideas that came after he had published the novel? Only Kosinski, obviously, can tell us, and I've never read any comments by him about either the novel or the film.

Spoiler Warning: from this point on, I shall be discussing important plot elements and also revealing the endings of both the novel and the film.

The basic plot structure of the novel is retained in the film. Chance (played by Peter Sellers) is an orphan and is taken into a rich man's house. He becomes the gardener. Chance's benefactor dies, and he must leave the house that he hasn't left for some 40 years or more. He has met less than five people up to this point: his benefactor, two maids, and the gardener before him who stayed around only long enough to tell Chance what his duties were. After The Old Man died, Chance then met two more people from the law firm that his benefactor employed. They were the ones who told him he had to leave.

He leaves and is injured, painfully though not seriously, by a limousine owned by the wealthy and powerful Ben Rand. His wife (Shirley MacLaine) was in the vehicle and invited him to stay at their place until his injury, a bad bruise, is healed. Her husband is dying, and they have an extensive medical setup in the house. The doctor is also living there at this time.

Chance, now known as Chauncey Gardiner (she misunderstood his answer to her question regarding his name--Chance, the gardener), moves in and charms both Rands. He meets the US President and impresses him also. Since the President quoted him, Chance then became news and appears on a TV late night show and becomes an instant celebrity. He has two sexual encounters, one homosexual and one heterosexual with Mrs. Rand. His reaction to both is curiosity only, and both realize that he is uninterested in sex.

The power brokers behind the present President then decide that he is a liability and that if they wish to control the White House they must dump him and select someone else. They finally decide on Chauncey as their candidate for President.

That's the bare bones of the story, the novel and the film. What does Chance/Chauncey have that so impresses people? It is his seemingly childlike simplicity and, conversely, his presumed ability to discuss complex issues in a very basic way. He appears to be one who simply and naively says what he thinks at all times. When asked about the dire economic situation (sounds much like today), he responds with an analogy from gardening, the only thing he knows, besides TV. He compares the recession? depression? with the seasons. It is now autumn and time for many plants to die or at least go into a resting state. However, spring will come, and the garden will bloom once again. Some plants will need help while others will survive on their own. This is true also of the present economic situation.

What also is evident is that each person who hears him interprets Chance's statements. Chance is really a mirror in which all see their own faces and all hear what they want to hear. At a party, the Russian ambassador asks Chance if he knows the fables of Krylov. Being agreeable, Chance smiles. The ambassador says something in Russian and Chance laughs. The ambassador immediately assumes that Chance understands Russian and was laughing at what he said.

While the basic plot structure is the same, there are a number of curious changes that are incorporated in the film. I won't discuss those changes that I think are inevitable when going from print to film. A number of the changes, though, are curious.

One of the most important changes is in the depiction of Chance. In the film, he comes across as being almost retarded, socially retarded if not mentally anyway. He speaks as a young child with very simple sentences. "I am glad to meet you...Yes, I am hungry also." He seems to be all surface, and his behavior is always calm and somewhat flat. He also seems to be a reactive sort of person in that he seldom initiates a conversation and usually waits for the other person to begin. He then takes his cues from that person.

However, that's not quite the way he appears in the novel. For example, in the film, gardening and watching TV are the two most important activities in Chance's life. Nothing in the film, however, suggests that watching TV is any more significant for him than it is for any other TV addict. But, Chance has a very clear and distinct idea about his relationship with the TV set:

"By changing the channel he could change himself. he could go through phases, as garden plants went through phases, but he could change as rapidly as he wished by twisting the deal backward and forward. In some cases he could spread out into the screen without stopping, just as on TV people spread out into the screen. By turning the dial, Chance could bring others inside his eyelids. Thus he came to believe that is was he, Chance, and no one else who made himself be."

Chance in the novel is a somewhat more complex person than he is in the film. At several points in the novel, Chance finds himself in a novel situation. Not knowing what to do or say, he decides to act as he has seen others act on TV in similar situations. He is not acting naturally or spontaneously, as it appears on film or to the other characters, but he is putting on a facade that he thinks is appropriate for the situation. For example, during the first morning that Chance finds himself in the Rand mansion, he is still in bed when Mrs Rand (Eve in the film and EE), comes in and begins talking.

"Thinking that he ought to show a keen interest in what EE was saying, Chance resorted to repeating to her parts of her own sentences, a practice he had observed on TV. In this fashion he encourages her to continue and elaborate."

And again, when Chance meets the President--

"Remembering that during his TV press conferences, the President always looked straight at the viewers, Chance stared directly into the President's eyes."

However, TV's limitations are also Chance's limitations. At one point, when EE attempts to seduce him, Chance doesn't know what to do. He had watched many scenes on TV in which males and females kissed and hugged and even started to remove some articles of clothing, but then the scene changed or a commercial came on, so he never knew what came next.

It seems clear to me that throughout the novel, Chance is not just the simple soul he appears to be on the surface, but someone more complex; however just what that is, I don't know. The picture of Chance in the film is different for only near the end of the film does Chance act in a way that suggests something more than the wise sage that others take him to be.

In the film, the doctor (Richard Dyshart) plays a minor role, but a much greater one than he does in the novel. I think he appears several times in the novel, but only to act as a doctor. In the film, though, he is the only one who slowly begins to wonder about Chance, and he begins to do some investigating on his own. He at the end of the film is the only person who knows that Chauncey Gardiner is really Chance, the gardener. What is strange is Chance's comment to the doctor near the end of the film when Benjamin Rand dies. Shortly after Rand's death, Chance says to the Doctor, "You will be leaving now." It is uncertain whether this is a question or a statement. The doctor seems puzzled by it also.

The other curious incident is the ending of the film. Benjamin Rand is alive in the novel, although he has just had a serious relapse, whereas he dies in the film. Rand's associates in both the novel and the film decide to drop their support for the President (whom they feel won't win his reelection bid) and back Chance instead. As far as I can tell, Chance does not know of their decision.

At the ending of the novel, Chance is at a party, and he steps outside on a balcony: "A breeze fell upon the foliage and nestled under the cover of its moist leaves. Not a thought lifted itself from Chance's brain. Peace filled his chest."

In the film, Chance is at the cemetery where he is attending the funeral ceremonies for Ben Rand. At the end, he walks away from the gathered mourners, goes down a hill, and begins to walk across a pond. He appears to be walking on water. He stops in the center of the pond, looks around, and then sticks his umbrella into the water where it sinks in, thus suggesting that the water is at least several feet deep. Who is it that can walk on water? Again, this ending occurs in the film only.

However, even this is strangely ambiguous. Chance leans over and inserts the umbrella about two or three feet from where he is standing, so it is quite possible that he could be standing on a submerged dam or walkway. I wonder why it was chosen to do it this way, for Chance could have inserted the umbrella right by his own feet which would have unequivocally removed this doubt. Perhaps that was the what was wanted--a doubt. But, why?

Overall Impression: a strange novel and film. There are puzzling elements in both. I will read the book and watch the film again. Maybe time will help resolve some of the uncertainties.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Summer Solstice

Today is the Summer Solstice

Shortest summer night. . .

In early morning, lamps still

Burning on the bay

- Shiki -

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain X

According to A Book of Days for the Literary Year, "Poet and translator Edward FitzGerald (the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) dies at 74 in Merton, Norfolk" on this day in 1883.

Quatrain LXXV

And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one--turn down an empty Glass!
Tamam Shud

I thought it appropriate to quote the last stanza of the First Edition on this day.

Now for Quatrain X

First Edition: Quatrain X

With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne.

Second Edition: Quatrain XI

With me along the Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan is forgot--
And Peace to Mahmud on his Golden Throne?

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XI

With me along the strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan is forgot--
And Peace to Mahmud on his golden Throne!

This quatrain is closely tied to the previous one in which Old Khayyam openly in the First Edition and implicitly in the Second and Fifth invited us to come along with him. That quatrain spelled out what was to be left behind, but not where Khayyam was going. That is the role of this quatrain. We are to go with him to that spot where the desert ends and the cultivated areas begin. Just what we are to do there is left for the next quatrain.

FitzGerald again made some changes that doesn't affect the meaning so much as it modifies the tone to some extent.

The first line: one change
"Some" in the first version becomes "the" in the second and also in the last. The change eliminates the vagueness of the first and makes it appear now as Khayyam had some particular spot along the boundary between desert and cultivated area in mind, perhaps one that he has visited in the past.

The second line: no change from the first to the last edition.

The third line: one change

the first version--"Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known"
the second and last versions--"Where name of Slave and Sultan is forgot--"

I think the first implies that while some do recognize the distinctions between Slave and Sultan, it is for the most part unimportant. Class distinctions, for Slave and Sultan would constitute the bottom and the top of the social structure, don't exist here. The line in the second and fifth versions make a stronger statement--that the distinctions no longer exist or disappear once we have arrived here.

The fourth line: several interesting changes here.

First version And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne.
Second version And Peace to Mahmud on his Golden Throne?
Third version And Peace to Mahmud on his Golden Throne!

The first change is that "pity" is replaced by Peace" in the second and last version. We are no longer to pity Mahmud but to wish him peace. I think "pity" implies some sort of superiority on the part of the one doing the pitying, for we pity those who are somehow less than we are. It is a view from above looking down on someone. This is quite different than wishing someone "Peace" which can be seen as a more positive attitude toward the other. To wish someone "Peace" is to wish that person well.

The second change is the removal of the title of Sultan from the first version and replacing it with "Golden" as a modifier of "Throne," which would most likely indicate that this Mahmud is the Sultan, for who else would dare have a "Golden Throne."

The third change removes that inexplicable question mark at the end of the last line in the second version and replaces it with an exclamation point, which makes, to me anyway, much more sense.

This quatrain is closely related to the previous one as it answers the question of where we are to accompany Old Khayyam. It seems to be a simpler place, right on the border between civilization and the wilderness, where there are few, if any, of the distinctions that are important to the more complicated ways of civilization.

The next question then would be about what we are to do when we arrive at this border land. I guess we'll have to wait for the next quatrain to answer that one.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Basho's eight nameless little hills

Translations frequently pose problems for some readers of works that aren't written in the language of those involved, whether it be a literature class or a discussion group. In order to get the issue out in the open and demonstrate the possibilities, I made up a handout that consisted simply of a number of translations of a haiku by Basho. The point being that if a short poem of seventeen syllables could produce this variety, then a novel or short story could be expected to produce many more "versions."

So, I thought I would provide a number of the translations all based on one haiku by Basho.


It is spring,
Even nameless hills,
Are decorated
With thin films of morning mist.

Yes, spring has come;
This morning a nameless hill
Is shrouded in mist.

Because spring has come,
This small gray
Nameless mountain
Is honored by mist

This unimportant
small gray mountain is lifted
aloft in a mist.

Spring-- through
morning mist,
what mountain's there?

Spring morning marvel...
Lovely nameless little hill
On a sea of mist

Because of early spring, this nameless hill
Is knee-deep in the gauze of morning still.

a nameless hill
in the haze.

Quite a variety generated by only seventeen syllables. All generally have similar elements: a small hill, nameless or not important enough for a name, spring, morning mist or haze.

What differs is the focus of the poem: some on spring or the mist or the hill. Which one is "right"? I don't know, not being able to read Japanese and frankly I think those who could read Japanese probably couldn't agree either.

Which one is your favorite?

For some reason I seem to prefer the even numbered versions, especially 2 and 6.

1. Matsuo Basho: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Penguin Classics; trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa

2. R. H. Blythe, Haiku: Volume 2, Spring

3. Haiku Harvest, Peter Piper Press
trans. Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn

4. More Cricket Songs
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
trans. Harry Behn

5. Basho: On Love and Barley
Penguin Classics, trans. Lucien Stryk

6. A Little Treasury of Haiku
Avenel Books, trans. Peter Beilenson

7.Harold Stewart, A Net of Fireflies
Charles F. Tuttle Company

8. Unable to find the source. If anyone
recognizes the text, please let me know.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Philip K. Dick: A SCANNER DARKLY--novel and film

The SF/F book discussion group scheduled Philip K. Dick's (PKD) A Scanner Darkly as one of its selections. I had just learned of the film version, which came out in 2006, so I decided this was a good opportunity to do something I enjoy--reading the book and watching the film.

The novel itself posed problems for some members of the discussion group, for it, in some respects, is not a typical PKD work, although several of his basic themes were present. The novel was published in 1978 and set some years in the future (the film avoids "dating" by stating that it takes place seven years from now, whenever now is). However, the time is really the late 60s and early 70s, in the post Haight-Asbury years, when "the summer of love (1967)" turned nasty as organized crime moved into supplying drugs and government undercover agents were at everybody's elbow, or so the popular myth went.

The very loose plot detailed the efforts of Fred, an Orange County Sheriff's Dept undercover agent, to move his way up the drug chain. He had started out making occasional buys and then increased the size and scope of his purchases. He planned to gradually increase his purchases to the point that Donna Hawthorne, his supplier, could no longer provide him with what he wanted and would consequently introduce him to her supplier. At this point, he would no longer be a user but would move up to being a supplier himself. Eventually he hoped that this would allow him to meet and get evidence against the upper echelon of the drug supply chain, a necessity if one wanted to break up that chain of supply.

The plot, however, is quickly forgotten, as Fred, the undercover narc, gets new orders. A new player has entered the scene--Bob Arctor. He seems to be new in the area, and there's something not quite right about him--there's more to him than just someone trying to break in, and this makes the police curious. Fred is now ordered to concentrate on Bob Arctor. There's a new drug on the scene--Death--it's highly addictive and fatal to addicts in a short time, and so far, no one has been able to get any clue as to its distribution chain. Arctor may be part of that distribution chain, and Fred is supposed to find out. The ironic twist here, and also somewhat satiric on PKD's part, is that Bob Arctor is Fred's undercover identity. He, therefore, has been ordered to spy on himself. A government agent now is spying on his own cover identity.

This is less ludicrous than it sounds--but not much less I admit. The reason this is possible is the presence of what is really the only SF element in the story--the shadow suit. It's a jump suit with a head covering that broadcasts confusing images to others around the wearer. Others can't tell who is inside the suit, but what is known is that it is a member of some law enforcement agency, since they are the only ones who possess this technology, so far. The shadow suit is worn only when the agent is acting as a police officer, inside the police headquarters or perhaps when giving a lecture to some civic group, as Fred is doing when we first meet him. The result is that none of the lower-ranking members of that law enforcement agency know who the undercover agents are, not even the agent's immediate supervisor.

One of the strangest scenes that occurs is when Fred meets with Hank, his supervisor, and both are wearing shadow suits. Neither of them knows what the other looks like, or even their gender. The reason is that everybody knows the police agencies are riddled with corrupt cops, one of whose duties is to learn the identity of the undercover agents. At one point, Hank tells Fred that somewhere up the chain of command somebody knows their identity, but he doesn't know who it is.

This is why Fred can be ordered to spy on Bob Arctor, his alter ego. Hank doesn't know Fred's undercover identity. Arctor's activities are suspicious, but not for the reason Hank thinks. Arctor doesn't seem right because he's an undercover agent.

At this point, the plot disappears. One reason is that Fred/Bob is becoming addicted to Death, and it's slowly "eating his head." He finds it increasingly difficult to handle his two identities. When Fred is on the scene, the reader can see that Fred is finding it difficult to remember that he is also Bob, and he more and more often thinks about Bob as a separate person as the drug effects become stronger. At one point, Fred thinks, "Bob wouldn't be selling Death; he's a nice guy."

The plot seemingly goes nowhere at this point because this really isn't a plot-driven story. It's PKD's homage to the late 60s and the people he know back then. Dick really isn't in the story, although elements in the story come from his own life. Dick was married and had two daughters. His wife divorced him and took the girls, leaving him the house. Bob Arctor had been married, with two daughters, but his wife divorced him and left him the house. Eventually some friends and relatives moved in with Dick and over a period of time, his house became a crash pad for anyone seeking shelter. Many of these were heavy drug users, including, to some extent, Dick himself. The same happened to Arctor.

What we really get is a sense of the way of life for those in the drug culture. There was only one concern, getting drugs. Planning for the future consisted of getting a sufficient stash of drugs to tide one over during the lean times--loosing one's supplier for one reason or another. The story becomes a series of vignettes loosely connected by the characters and their major concerns: the search for drugs and their paranoia regarding the police. Long philosophical discussions that lead nowhere intersperse sporadic bursts of activity involving the search for drugs.

I had watched another film recently, one also dealing with undercover agents. In this film, though, the setting is not the drug scene but the Cold War. It was John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. One very striking parallel between the two was the old adage--I can protect myself from my enemies, but only God can save me from my friends. Both PKD's Fred/Bob and Le Carre's Alec Leamas are brought down by their friends. They are destroyed by the agencies that employ them, for Fred and Alec are deluded into thinking they know what's going on, but the reality is that they are being used to further the ends of the two agencies. Both are ultimately expendable.

What I have said of the novel is also true of the film version of A Scanner Darkly. The film is very true to the novel, and I doubt if any but the most exacting purist would argue with this. Some minor changes have been made, some incidents have been dropped, and the sequence of events has been modified to some extent. But, except for one inexplicable modification involving one of the characters, I would say the film is faithful to the novel, and the animation process, which distorts just enough to make it "unreal," captures the tone of the book and the characters quite nicely. The characters, including the police and the drug culture, live in a world of their own, which is quite removed from the general mundane world, where most get up in the morning, struggle through the day, with traffic and impossible supervisors and co-workers as major concerns, and then return home to get ready for the next day. Rotoscoping makes the world of the film just a bit off from what we would call realistic, familiar but somewhat distorted.

The film is animated by a process known as rotoscoping. The result is that the characters still resemble the actors to a considerable extent, but they clearly are animated. The cast, before I forget, includes Keanu Reeves as Fred/Bob Arctor, Winona Ryder as Donna Hawthorne, Robert Downey, Jr. as Barris, and Woody Harrelson as Luckman.

Another PKD theme found in the novel and the film is that of identity, or rather, loss thereof, for Dick's main characters don't really know their real identities. This confusion is frequently tied in with some sort of government activity. Classic examples of this that have been turned into films are Total Recall, Blade Runner, and this film, A Scanner Darkly.

In Total Recall, a film "inspired" by a PKD short story "We can remember it for you wholesale," Douglas Quaid/Hauser tries to get false memories about a vacation trip implanted but discovers that a whole set of false memories have already been installed, to a degree that only a government agency would have the equipment to do this. He is not whom he thinks he is. In Blade Runner, a film loosely based on PKD's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the question of Rick Deckhard's true identity--human or android-- is left unanswered at the end, although I have participated in "discussions" in which both interpretations have been strongly defended. If Deckhard is an android, then he also has had false memories implanted by a law enforcement agency so he will act as a bounty hunter who must track down and kill runaway androids. And in A Scanner Darkly, Fred finds it increasingly harder to perceive Bob Arctor as himself and as Bob Arctor, may not even remember much of the time that he is also Fred.

Overall rating: Read the book and see the film. Neither will fit most people's expectations, which makes them a valuable reading and viewing experience.

Link to Wikipedia article on the rotoscope technique.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the novel

Back in April, I posted some commentary on the film version of Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. At the end, I wondered if I would have given the film the maximum rating of Five Stars if I had read the book first. I've come to the conclusion that if I'm to rate a film fairly, as a film that is, I should probably see it before I read the novel. If I read the book first, in most cases I'm unhappy with the film, which I agree, is unfair to the film.

I have now finished Le Carre's novel, and while I don't know what I would have done if I had read it first, I will say that the Five Star rating for the movie still holds. Changes were made, as is necessary in many cases when going from the printed page to film, and in others, I had to wonder why; but overall I would rate the film as being very close to the book in all the important areas: plot, tone, characterizations.

The film's plot followed the novel quite closely with only a few changes and none that caught my attention sufficiently to make it very noticeable. The tone was the same: tense, bleak, and dark. Burton captured Le Carre's Alec Leamas perfectly: cynical, weary, resigned. Graham Greene's architect, Querry, in his A Burnt-Out Case would have found Leamas very compatible.

The only quibble I had, and it's one that I mentioned in the commentary on the film, was that of the characterization of George Smiley. Smiley's role, while minor in the book, was diminished somewhat, which really wasn't that much of a problem. What stood out most was the disparity between the way Smiley was played in the film and Le Carre's depiction of him in this book and also in the five "Smiley" novels, three of which were also transferred to film, with Alec Guinness in the role.

Both conveyed Le Carre's theme which parallels the following rather cynical cliche: "I can protect myself from my enemies, but only God can save me from my friends."

Overall rating: read the book and see the film. Both are great and well worth the time spent.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy: Design or Hap?

Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840, so I began thinking about him and his novels and poetry. One poem that emerged in my reverie was a favorite of mine, "Hap," in which he expresses his reactions to two possible universes, one that might be ruled by "Hap" or chance and one that might be ruled by a plan. This, then, brought up another favorite of mine, Robert Frost's "Design," in which he also brings up the same idea. What I find fascinating is that Hardy is dismayed by a universe in which chance rules while Frost is appalled by design.

HAP by Thomas Hardy

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: "Thou suffering thing
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
The thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!"
Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan...
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

Hardy begins by saying that he could bear his sufferings if they were caused by a vengeful god, similar, I suppose, to those frequently preached about on TV or in various pulpits. He could endure and even die more easily, strengthened by his anger over his unjust pains and miseries, especially if all was caused by something more powerful than he.

However, Hardy concludes otherwise--"But not so"--that there is no vengeful god behind it all, for what happens is the result of "Crass Casuality" and "dicing Time," that it all happens by chance. There is no grand design or a plan behind it all, for "These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown/Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain."

by Robert Frost

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.

Frost begins with a common ordinary little incident, one that anyone might come across in a garden or a park, or along a roadside or pathway- a spider with its latest meal. As usual, Frost's poem is rooted in the physical natural world, and it is this that has caused many to misread him as simply a poet of nature, and a regional one at that. What many have missed are the terrifying aspects of this seemingly benign nature that he brings out so calmly and matter-of-factly that they go unnoticed.

In this sonnet to death, Frost first sets the scene--a white spider, a white flower, and a white moth, whose wings are outstretched in death like the wings of a kite, a harmless children's toy. Frost focuses on the color white, which also happens to be suggested by his own name, the whiteness of frost. All three are white: the spider, the moth, and, surprisingly, the flower, which is known as a "heal-all" and which is normally blue. Moreover, one does not usually think of spiders as being white, the color of purity or innocence or joy, except for China and Japan where white is the color of mourning. And, Melville's Moby Dick, a terrifying and enigmatic engine of destruction, is also white.

The narrator asks whether this is by chance or by design:
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.

I don't think the narrator answers the question, but he does conclude that, if this was by design, he would be appalled to think that even such minor and inconsequential incidents are part of a plan. This has a Biblical air about it if one considers that Christ tells his Apostles in Matthew 10 that if a sparrow falls to the ground the Father is there and even the hairs on one's head are numbered. If the plan includes even the very small events, then there's little room for freedom of choice. That, I suspect, is what Frost may find so appalling.

It seems, therefore, that while Hardy would prefer a universe ruled by design, he must unhappily conclude that we live in a universe of chance events. Frost, on the other hand, seems to have left the question unanswered, as he does in many of his poems, but he does say at the end that he would be appalled if design were so complete that it would govern in things "so small."

I wonder if it was by design or hap: Thomas Hardy was 88 years old when he died, and Robert Frost was 89. Both lived many years, and both were productive until the end.

And you--do you live in a universe of chance or one by design?