Sunday, September 25, 2016

'Pilgrim's Progress' (1978) and 'Christiana' (1979)

Ken Anderson made two interesting film versions of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream (1678), parts one and two.  He streamlines and slightly alters the story lines and projects the "enemy of your soul" as a semi-comical but still-menacing Devil, aided by three imps in Christiana -- in the simple style of a Medieval morality play. 

Pilgrim's Progress has the whimsical production values of an episode of Captain Kangaroo, with significant improvements however in Christiana

What others might find laughable in technical shortcomings, I find endearing. 

Both movies were filmed in Northern Ireland. Liam Neeson's in his first big celluloid roles is fabulous, providing a calm, assuring presence while mellifluously delivering his lines.

Anderson adopts the use of one actor to play several characters -- the Devil in many guises, and the Good impulse in different people. 

Mr. Great-heart (Neeson) is akin to a bodhisattva (in Buddhism) -- he stays in the world to help people become more enlightened and reach their final goal on pilgrimage.  

Neeson also plays The Evangelist, Help, Mr. Good Will, Mr. Interpreter, Faithful, and even, as in a vision, Jesus Christ crucified. 

I also like Jenny Cunningham as Christiana -- a calm, sympathetic portrayal. Anderson uses her friend Mercy as a representative of the more typical person as she wobbles back and forth between good (moving toward self-actualization) impulses and bad ones (self-sabotage).
The use of one actor to play different characters is sometimes used as a device in soap operas and movies (including The Wizard of Oz), but in these two films Anderson goes full tilt, as if to say that many people are of the same archetype or disposition, avatars of forces "in the world but not of the world."  

What think ye of this strange device? 

Overall, these film "visualizations" are wonderful jaunts that can be seen through several filters ranging from psychology, theology, philosophy, folk tale and mythology. However, beware the creepy use of repetitive voiceover whisperings from time to time.  

Finally, to compare again with The Wizard of Oz, there is a difference in outlook.

Wizard of Oz: there's no place like home.
Pilgrim's Progress: there's no place like heaven.
Wizard of Oz: trek from tornadic whirlwind to the Emerald City.
Pilgrim's Progress: pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. 

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy awakens to herself as if from a dream, at home, with better self-understanding. 

In Christiana, Christiana says good-bye to friends and family and crosses the River of Death to reach the Celestial City, never to return.  

Today's Rune: The Warrior. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

John Bunyan's 'Christiana: The Pilgrim's Progress,' Part the Second (1678)

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. (Wordsworth's Classics of World Literature). Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1996 edition; originally published in 1678.  

In which we focus on Christiana, the sequel to the first part. In this case, the sequel is better than the original. It builds on the first, but adds everything but the kitchen sink, with plenty of excitement along the way. Here, the main protagonist is Christiana as she leads her crew on pilgrimage from the City of Destruction toward the Celestial City. 

Early on, Bunyan prepares us for his style of writing (page 138):

But some there be that say, He laughs too loud;
And some do say, His head is in a cloud.
Some say, His words and stories are so dark,
They know not how, by them, to find his mark.
In Christiana, we are introduced to many strong or bizarro characters, which will remind at least some readers of The Wizard of Oz. They range from Mr. Fearing to Mr. Great-heart, from Mercy to Mr. Despondency, from Giant Despair to Bloody-man, from Maul to Slay-good, from the Shining Ones to Madam Bubble. Many of these or characters much like them still walk among us in the 21st century. Why just the other day I saw Professor Weirdbeard and Mr. Bun. 

I continue to be fascinated by bits and ideas from The Pilgrim's Progress that continue to float around 338 years down the road -- though we may rarely now wonder of from whence they come -- things like Vanity Fair and House Beautiful, expressions like "naughty ones," "[for] the time being," "sweet heart" (now "sweetheart"), "God speed" (now "Godspeed") and "three leaps for joy" (now "leap for joy.")* 

As for generous treats of wine, food, jewelry and other surprising delights allowed by Bunyon in Christiana, there's plenty more for a future post.

Today's Rune: Fertility.   

*(For these in context, see pages 156, 160, 168, 170, 173, 254).  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

'Michael Collins' (1996)

Neil Jordan's Michael Collins gives a good basic overview of events swirling around Michael Collins from the Easter Rising of 1916 through the creation of the Irish Free State and Irish Civil War that ended in 1923. Liam Neeson has the lead role and is well-suited for it. A little less compelling are Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan and Aidan Quinn as Harry Boland, while Alan Rickman has to play (thanks to the otherwise serviceable script) Éamon de Valera as a devious weasel. Still, it works, and anyone watching Michael Collins will consider the Republic of Ireland in a fresh way. 
This year is the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Here, street art in Cork commemorates "The Birth of Our Nation." The artist is on the right, in the front corner. 

In the USA, the word more likely to be used for "centenary" is "centennial." Why the difference?  I have no idea, but definitely I like the term "Roadworks" employed in Ireland better than "construction" in the USA, because its meaning is more specific, maybe even more upbeat. 
Books on the 1916-2016 centenary are ubiquitous in Ireland this year. Note image of Michael Collins in the upper right corner of this picture, taken in June.
Documents and an image (to the right) of what looks like the 1916 Dublin GPO (General Post Office) in flames, on display in Cork, June 2016. 

We were there during the Brexit vote, of which the Republic of Ireland had no part. Indeed, Ireland proper is pro-European Union. Brexit may cause new headaches for Northern Ireland, though. We shall see. 

Today's Rune: Defense. 

Monday, September 05, 2016

Every Jot and Tittle: John Bunyan's 'The Pilgrim's Progress,' Part the First (1678)

John Bunyan: The Pilgrim's Progress in the Similitude of a Dream (i.e. Part the First, 1678). 

Fun book, sort of like a Protestant Christian version of Dante's Divine Comedy, particularly The Purgatorio and Paradiso (1320). 

Even though the stakes are high (The Lady or the Tiger? Heaven or Hell?), we're so accustomed to apocalyptic stories (super heroes, politics, conspiracy theories, zombies), the plot is less interesting than it must have been in 1678. There are some cool touches such as a river that must be crossed in faith, or you will drown; and, outside the gates to the City Upon the Hill (The Celestial City), a trap-door that could drop you straight to Hell just when you think you're about to enter Paradise. However, what makes this particularly enduring and fun is the language. 

From my notes, some examples that impressed me, via The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. (Wordsworth's Classics of World Literature). Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1996 edition. 

Let's start with "the apology," (page 2):

And some said, Let them live; some, Let them die;
Some said, John, print it; others said, Not so;
Some said, it might do good; others said, No.

Anther little ditty (page 38):

Difficulty is behind, Fear is before,
Though he's got on the hill, the lions roar;
A Christian man is never long at ease,
When one fright's gone, another doth him seize.

"Then said Hopeful, Where are we now?"(page 91) ~ a very existential question, often worth asking regardless of station or circumstance. 

Ditto: "Then I thought that it is easier going out of the way, when we are in, than going in when we are out." (pages 91-92).

"Now, Giant Despair had a wife, and her name was Diffidence." (page 92).

Memorable discussion of suicide (see Albert Camus): "My soul chooseth strangling rather than life, and the grave is more easy for me than the dungeon." (page 93). The peregrines opt against suicide, however: "The time may come that may give us a happy release; but let us not be our own murderers." (page 94).
Christian with the Shield of Faith -- William Blake, 1820s
"Is the way safe or dangerous?"
"Safe for those for whom it is to be safe; but the transgressors shall fall within." (page 97).

"And did you think yourself well then?"
"Yes, for a while; but at the last, my trouble came tumbling upon me again, and that over the neck of all my reformations." (page 112). Applicable to an endless number of things -- human nature.

"Concerning that book, that every jot and tittle thereof stood firmer than heaven and earth." (page 114).

And that, my friends, is every jot and tittle of what I have to say for this post. Adieu, and ciao for now.

Today's Rune: Breakthrough.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Werner Herzog: 'Encounters at the End of the World' (2007)

Another stellar documentary by Werner Herzog: Encounters at the End of the World (2007). In it, we are led to meet various workers and other denizens of Antarctica. 

After seeing this, when I think of Antarctica, I dream these and similar images, many of them haunting -- a very strange and compelling impact: why I dig Herzog.
Memorable footage includes people, equipment, research stations, stunning under-the-ice sweeps, seals, bizarre below surface seal communications, penguins, a volcano, and ice-caves created by volcanic fumaroles. 
Herzog always seems to find the strange wherever he goes. Here, Antarctic neophytes awkwardly train for whiteout conditions by wearing plastic boxes over their heads. 
And here, a lone penguin heads into exile. By free choice or through some kind of madness? Herzog wonders.  

Encounters at the End of the World delivers on the promise of its title. It's dedicated to film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013). 

Today's Rune: The Self. 

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Werner Herzog: 'Grizzly Man' (2005)

It took me ten years to see Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005) for the first time; by now I've seen it twice. Didn't like the idea of the main guy and his last girlfriend being eaten by a bear. But it's an excellent documentary, with Herzog shaping Timothy (Dexter) Treadwell's field footage, expanding on it with new material, and providing narration. 

Treadwell, after surviving near death by alcohol ingestion and heroin intake, found a new path in life by camping part of each of his last thirteen years among grizzly bears and foxes in Katmai National Park and Preserve, a massive expanse located at the base of the Alaska Peninsula, which points at the Aleutians. This is a volcanic region, worth noting since Into the Inferno (2016), one of Herzog's upcoming films, focuses on volcanoes. 

Treadwell's thirteenth year, culminating in a last-minute late season stint inside the Grizzly Maze, was not a charm.
A nod to Grizzly Man appears on the promotional postcard for "An Evening with Werner Herzog, August 31, Winspear Opera House / AT&T Performing Arts Center," Dallas, Texas, USA, where I was so happy to hear Herzog speak. On the card, it appears as if a grizzly is sneaking up on him, as in a dream.  

Today's Rune: Defense. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Akira Kurosawa: 'The Hidden Fortress' (1958)

Akira Kurosawa's 隠し砦の三悪人 / The Hidden Fortress (1958), set in the 1500s during the ferocious clan wars of Japan, combines history and mythic, primal storytelling with strong characters, setup and high stakes. 
Extra fun is seeing the "ur" version of a Sergio Leone film, set in black and white. Take Leone's Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo / The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), for instance, and the central role of gold. Make two of the characters more hapless, and one more ferocious. Add three strong women -- more along the lines of Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Make music an important element, and strong visuals. Pepper with playful, dark humor mixed with grim situations, such as becoming prisoner to nasty enemies. Make sure environment is a key element, and a partially obscured endgame. (Or, compare with Star Wars, which was directly inspired by The Hidden Fortress -- but let's not even go there at this juncture.)
Instead, consider the character of Makabe Rokurōta (played by Toshiro Mifune). This fierce dude may be the toughest badass you'll ever see on film. Or Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), some of the time playing a mute, who must have inspired the Shirley MacLaine role in Don Siegel's Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970).  

The difference between The Hidden Fortress and all of the later films is in intensity -- 16th century Japan must have been a terrifying place in which to live -- an island with no exit. The two idiots (a word well-employed in this film as well as by Sergio Leone in his own films) introduced at the beginning of the movie provide a sort of comic relief, but they also underscore the harsh demeanor and derring-do of the other characters.
The Fire Song (sung twice -- once at the Fire Festival, and once by Yuki)

The life of a man
Burn it with the fire.
The life of a bug
Throw it in the fire.
Ponder and you'll see
The world is dark
And this floating world is a dream.
Burn with abandon!

Today's Rune: Journey.