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Ian McKellen in Mr Holmes

Ian McKellen as Mr. Holmes

I read A Slight Trick of the Mind, the seventh novel by Mitch Cullin  that is the basis for a new film out this summer, Mr. Holmes,  starring Ian McKellen and Laura Linney and directed by Bill Condon.

The book is a revisionist account of a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in retirement. I have always enjoyed Sherlock. I read all the books in my youth and have enjoyed most of the films. I saw the film adaptation of Cullin’s novel Tideland. It was directed by the extraordinary Terry Gilliam and stars Jeff Bridges, Janet McTeer, and Jennifer Tilly, but it didn’t do well at the box office. That might be because the story is so odd.  That book is about a girl who is taken away by her father to an isolated farmhouse where she finds herself in a bizarre fantasy world where only her dolls’ heads keep her company. Add into the mix a mentally damaged man and a ghost-like woman and the separation between imagination and reality disappears.

In A Slight Trick of the Mind, it is 1947 and the long-retired Holmes lives in a remote Sussex farmhouse. He is not the man we knew in the stories in which Dr. Watson embellished the man and the cases. He never wears a deerstalker cap (prefers a top hat) and doesn’t smoke a pipe (cigars). He has a housekeeper. She has a young son who idolizes Holmes. He likes to tend to his bees. He writes in his journal.

I can identify with this old Holmes, especially when he confronts his diminishing mental abilities.

People still come to him looking for answers. He decides to revisit a case and it helps him answer his own personal big remaining questions.

trick cvrLike most of us, he is confronting life, love, death and not only his weakening mind but something he never considered in his youth – the limits of the mind.

Maybe some hardcore Arthur Conan Doyle fans reject any updating of alternate versions of Sherlock. I am okay with them. Doyle allowed the detective to retire to Sussex but others have put him back to work.

I liked Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, which is somewhat similar to the Cullin Holmes framework. It has the old detective (at 89) living in Sussex with his bees too. The locals generally know he was once a famous detective, but he has little interest in solving mysteries. The game is afoot once more though when a young mute boy who has escaped from Nazi Germany comes to him. The boy’s companion is an African gray parrot that keeps repeating strings of German numbers. Are they a Nazi code or some Swiss bank account or something far worse?

Laurie R. King has many mysteries on her book list including several in the Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series. In this version of Holmes, he is married. In her book, Dreaming Spies (the only one of hers I have read), they travel to India and Japan by boat and solve a mystery along the way. Personally, I found that this was too far away from the Holmes who lives in my mind to be a comfortable read. (A friend who is a fan of the series has told me to try the first in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice: or, On the Segregation of the Queen.)

In Nicholas Meyer’s novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, the conceit is that Meyer has “rediscovered” a Sherlock Holmes adventure recorded by Watson. It tells about a collaboration of Holmes and Sigmund Freud in the solution of a conspiracy which will affect the lives of millions of people. The story involves Professor Moriarty and his brother Mycroft Holmes. It reveals (no spoiler) where Sherlock was during that period when we all believed him to be dead.

The title is a reference to Holmes’s addiction to cocaine which was in the original stories (see Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of Four”) because he describes the cocaine he uses as “a seven-per-cent solution.”

You can tell that Meyer loves the characters. In fact, I think he is more fond and respectful of Watson than Conan Doyle is in the last Holmes tales. He has also published a followup, The West End Horror: A Posthumous Memoir of John H. Watson, M.D. and then a third, The Canary Trainer.

Although some of these non-Doyle authors’ tales seem far away from the originals, most of them do use bits and loose ends from the originals. In Canary, we see Sherlock after he has left his therapy with Sigmund Freud and has taken up residence in Paris where he is a pit musician (violin, of course) at the Paris Opera. I rank the three books in quality in the order that they were published.

ian-mckellan-holmes
Back to Cullin.  There are three paths the story travels in A Slight Trick of the Mind.  The first takes place after Holmes’ return from a trip to Japan. He was searching there for a prickly ash bush that he believed gives longevity to add to his beloved royal jelly (the beekeeper in him) that he used in earlier stories.

There is also Holmes in 1947 Japan. He visits Hiroshima, post-atomic bomb which he compares to a hive that has lost its queen. That’s what he tells Roger, the 14 year-old son of his housekeeper who he is teaching beekeeping. This paternal Holmes is not one you expect based on the earlier stories.

The third story path comes from his writing about his infatuation with a married woman many years ago. It is an irrational infatuation that he knows is unlike him.

And it all comes together.

I found this the most interesting of the “new” Holmes books. This Sherlock is minus his Mycroft and John. (“You know, I never did call him Watson—he was John, simply John.”) Both dead.  He has his beekeeping, his writing (journal, articles, letters).

armonica-wikimediaHe is trying to finish his version of the case concerning that mysterious young woman. She played a glass armonica (AKA glass harmonica, bowl organ, or hydrocrystalophone). It’s an unusual musical instrument made of spinning glass disks on a common shaft (lower notes from the larger disks to the left descending in size and rising in tone.

The name comes from harmonia, the Greek word for harmony and the sound comes by means of friction. Is there symbolism there?

Holmes has staying power. I was hardly alone in enjoying the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock that brought him into our time. I haven’t gotten into watching the U.S. television series of a modern-day Holmes,  Elementary, but it has completed 3 seasons.

Have we figured out what it is about Mr. Holmes that appeals to us? Should we try to figure it out?

The tunnel that may lead to a royal tomb discovered underneath a pyramid in the ancient city of Teotihuacan
2014 National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) file picture.

The Mayan calendar and the Maya people were in the news a lot for a year or two before the December 21, 2012 event that wasn’t an event. But the Maya and the Aztecs were not the earliest civilizations in the area.

Teōtīhuacān was a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican city in a sub-valley of the Valley of Mexico,  30 miles (48 km) northeast of modern-day Mexico City. It is known today as the site of many of the most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids built in the pre-Columbian Americas. It is also anthropologically significant for its complex, multi-family residential compounds.

The name Teōtīhuacān was not its true name but is one given by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztec centuries after the fall of the city. It is usually translated as meaning “birthplace of the gods”and Nahua creation myths were based there. Teotihuacan is the most visited of Mexico’s archaeological sites and is impressive just for its scale. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world. The Calle de los Muertos (Street of the Dead) was originally 4 km long and flanked by temples, palaces and platforms. There are even some murals in the Palace of the Jaguars or the Palace of the Quetzal-butterfly that have survived, along with sculptures in the Temple of Quetzalcoatl.

Recently, I have been reading reports about a continuing search for a Teotihuacan king’s tomb. Mexican researcher Sergio Gómez’s announcement that he had discovered “large quantities” of liquid mercury in a chamber below the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent (the third largest pyramid of Teotihuacan) caused excitement in that research.

Gomez has been slowly working his way through a deep, dark tunnel beneath the pyramid and expects the elusive last resting place of a king to be at the end. The significance of that find would be as evidence about how power was wielded in Teotihuacan.

The ancient city was home to as many as 200,000 people and is thought to be the center of an empire that flourished between 100 and 700 A.D. (Teotihuacan is distinct from the Mayan civilization.)

Why is liquid mercury significant? It surprised the researchers who found it in the tunnel that has been sealed for nearly 1,800 years. They had found three chambers 60 feet below the temple containing many artifacts: jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with carved shells and rubber balls. Liquid mercury was and still is rare to find naturally occurring and it was thought by many ancient people to have powers. Its existence suggests a king’s tomb or a ritual chamber.

liquid mercury – quicksilver

Mercury has been found in Egyptian tombs that date from 1500 BC.

In China and Tibet, mercury use was thought to prolong life, heal fractures, and maintain generally good health, although it is now known that exposure to mercury or its vapor leads to serious adverse health effects.

The first emperor of China, Qín Shǐ Huáng Dì, was said to have been buried in a tomb that contained a model of the land he ruled with rivers made of mercury. Ironically, he died from a mercury and powdered jade mixture that his alchemists gave him for eternal life which ended up causing liver failure and brain death.

The ancient Greeks also used mercury in ointments. The ancient Egyptians and the Romans used it in cosmetics.

In Lamanai, once a major city of the Maya civilization, a pool of mercury was found under a marker in a Mesoamerican ballcourt.

Alchemists thought of mercury (AKA quicksilver) as the First Matter from which all metals were formed. They believed that different metals could be produced by varying the quality and quantity of sulfur contained within the mercury. The purest of these was gold. Mercury was used in experiments at the transmutation of base (or impure) metals into gold, which was the goal of many alchemists. It odd liquid-metal look and unusual physical characteristics intrigued the ancients.

Gómez has spent six years slowly excavating the tunnel, which was unsealed in 2003, and the mercury finding was unexpected. It may have been used to symbolize an underworld river or lake, or was there for it supernatural, alchemical or healing significance in rituals.

Spaniards dug at Teotihuacan in the 1670s searching for gold and treasure, but scientific excavation of the site did not begin until the 1950s.

The inhabitants left no written record. They abandoned the city long before the Aztecs came to power in the 14th century.

View from the Pyramid of the Sun

View from the Pyramid of the Sun

In that time, it was the largest and most populated center in the New World. It had what we would call multi-floor apartments compounds built to accommodate this large population. Was Teotihuacan was the center of an empire? We are not sure. Its influence throughout Mesoamerica is documented and Teotihuacano presence can be seen at numerous sites in Veracruz and the Maya region.  The discovery of a King’s tomb would settle the debate and mark the city as the center of power for the possibly multi-ethnic Teotihuacano people.

A British Library curator who specializes in medieval manuscripts just mentioned an odd drawing in an interview with The Guardian, but the image caught the interest of the Wacky Wide Web.

Why? Because the figure, who was created between 1300 and 1340, looks like looks a lot like Jedi Grand Master Yoda from the World Wide Star War Universe.

Medieval  Yoda is found in a 14th-century manuscript known as the Smithfield Decretals, Of course, the “scholars” say it is supposed to be an illustration for the biblical story of Samson.  (Decretals are collections of papal letters containing decrees on church doctrine.)

Was the illustration made by a medieval time traveler? Did Yoda live or visit Earth about 700 years ago?  Yoda was supposed to be around 900 years old, but that’s from the perspective of him living in a galaxy far, far away in a rather vague “long time ago.”

yoda

 

 

heart

As a fan of Moby Dick, I read Nathaniel Philbrick‘s books, Why Read Moby-Dick? and In the Heart of the Sea. with great interest.

There are many reasons that I have read and reread Moby Dick, but Philbrick gave me a few more. There are also a number of reasons I would not recommend Melville’s masterpiece to all readers. I especially would not require a high school student to read it for class, for example.

But In the Heart of the Sea, which is subtitled “The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” is the true story which served as one of the events which inspired Melville to write Moby Dick.  The whaleship Essex sank after being attacked by a sperm whale in 1820, which gave Melville the ending for his novel.

Philbrick’s book is about that event, and also what became of the survivors. Melville wrote a pretty dark tale in parts of his novel and the tale of the Essex has darker themes too. Think survival and cannibalism.

You’ll hear about the story at the end of this year as it is being made into a film directed by Ron Howard. Based on Philbrick’s award-winning 2000 book, it stars Chris Hemsworth stars as first-mate Owen Chase.

Chase was one of the survivors of the encounter with the “demon” sea monster, an 80 foot sperm whale, which  if leaves the survivors for 90 days at sea.

I like Ron Howard as a director. Lots of variety and genres, from Night Shift back in 1982 through Rush, Angels & Demons, Frost/Nixon,The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Apollo 13, Backdraft, Parenthood, Gung Ho, Cocoon and Splash. I grew up with him acting on The Andy Griffith Show and saw him take his role in George Lucas’ great American Graffiti and very successfully move back to television in Happy Days.

I think he will do the story justice and I am looking forward to the film. Maybe some people will read the Philbrick book and work their way back to Moby Dick too.

 

 

http://intheheartoftheseamovie.com

https://www.facebook.com%2FIntheHeartoftheSeaMovie

This is about two Sirius topics. Not so serious and not very well connected, except for the name.

Sirius is the brightest star in the nighttime sky tonight and most of the winter. (Venus and Jupiter outshine Sirius this month but I’m not considering planets.) And Sirius is easy to find in that sky full of stars.  Almost everyone can find Orion’s belt of three stars (if that is no longer true, please don’t tell me. It would depress me immensely.), and if you follow the imaginary line of that belt of medium-bright stars in Orion’s Belt, you will arrive at this bright white Sirius.

sirius black

That other Sirius is Sirius Black,  a pure-blood wizard in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. He is the older son of Orion (Aha! A star connection!) and Walburga Black (from Saint Walpurga and that Walpurgis Night of witches?) , and the brother of Regulus (also named for a bright star).

Sirius parted ways with the Black family and their belief in blood purity. He was sorted into Gryffindor instead of Slytherin at Hogwarts.  According to the harrypotter.wikia.com, he attended that school from 1971 to 1978, which coincides with my own college years.

I like Sirius. My favorite line of his is probably when he tells Harry “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”  I agree and I would certainly have joined the Order of the Phoenix with him, Harry’s father, James, and Lupin. (I would have had my doubts about letting Pettigrew join.) I would have been happy to be a Marauder against Voldemort.

Sirius is Harry’s godfather – a title some might find odd for families of wizards.

sirius whiteThere are brighter stars than Sirius in absolute magnitude, but they are much farther away. Sirius is in the constellation Canis Major (the Greater Dog) and appears very bright because it is only 8.6 light-years away. Right in that constellation, Aludra and Omicron 2 are probably brighter but are also about 3,000 light-years away.

Sirius Black is an Animagus – a wizard who has learned to morph into an animal at will. Sirius becomes a massive black dog, like his brother star in Canis (dog) Major.

BTTF2

I’m giving you 7 months to prepare for October 21, 2015. No, it is not another Maya prediction. On that day, we will finally be at the point in time to which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels in Back to the Future Part II. The future of that Robert Zemeckis‘ 1989 sequel is the now of 2015.

2015 also marks the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future. I don’t expect  the time-space continuum to collapse in October and find Marty, Doc, and Jennifer visiting us, but I would not be surprised to see them together on TV in some reunion fashion.

Watch the trailer for that film and refresh your memory. I have already seen and heard a few news reports on what the film got right and wrong about this future that is our present, and I’m sure more will be written about it as the date approaches.

It doesn’t seem to be too important that Marty’s self-tying shoes have a Nike real-life experimental version. And the filmmakers did miss on the Internet and mobile phones, but so did most futurists. We have been anxiously waiting flying cars for about a hundred years and people keep trying to make Marty’s hoverboard.

But they did guess/predict things like computerized fueling stations (though not robotic yet) and non-military drones. One of those is used by USA Today in the film to take a photo.

It’s tough doing this future-predicting. In many cases things predicted in sci-fi came true, but it took a lot longer than expected.

In Marty’s Hill Valley hometown, the theaters are showing in October 2015  Jaws 19, in 3D, directed by Max Spielberg. Thankfully, the Jaws franchise was killed by the actual 3D third film. Max Spielberg (Steven’s real-life son, born in 1985) has worked on a few films, but no directing. That gag seems a lot more like an insider director joke than a prediction. (After all, Steven Spielberg produced the film.) They are right – Hollywood is in love with sequels and franchises in 2015.

It’s probably okay with most of us that we don’t have remote-control litter bins, dog walkers and waiters, but all of those are in development.

We are actually scanning eyes and fingerprints for identification as they do in the film. It’s on your iPhone but not ubiquitous in our homes. I still have a boring doorknob instead of the McFly family’s scanner.

We have advanced more away from paper than the film shows. The USA Today is quite a thick stack of paper and the film likes using fax machine devices which probably are only used by government agencies these days. McFly gets terminated from his job in a video call that is confirmed by a printout that looks like it was done on a dot-matrix printer using Print Shop.

Some observers have pointed to Google Glass and Microsoft Hololens as versions of the different high-tech eye-wear  in the film with cameras, magnification, information and some bluetoothy way of connecting.

I don’t remember noticing in my initial viewing of the film that Marty’s father, George, was not reprised in the sequel by actor Crispin Glover (some kind of salary disagreement). Another actor with some very heavy-duty prosthetics made to look like Glover spends his short screen time in an inverter device because of a bad back.

The film’s 2015 is having a bit of a nostalgia love affair with the 1980s. That allows the set decorators to use their contemporary props, like a Macintosh computer and a dustbuster vacuum, as collectible items of the future. Marty visit a Cafe 80s where my circa 1970s jeans, NY Yankees t-shirt and Chuck Taylor sneakers would not have been an oddity in 1989 or 2015. Future fashions in films always seem to be metallic, unisex and either very odd or more like uniforms – but those fashions never seem to emerge.

I think you’re safer predicting that the future will look more like today than going over to the other extreme.  The filmmakers were wise to have Marty able to still use cash to buy things in 2015. Even with all our credits cards and merchants experimenting with alternate ways of paying, a $20 bill still works just fine.

Doc Brown says that he had some life-extension procedures – a full blood transfusion, hair repair and a new spleen and colon – and I have always suspected that rich people were doing those things already. Those procedures help Doc (Christopher Lloyd) look a bit younger in the 1990 Back to the Future Part III, which was already in the works when they shot Part II. For III, they took an easier path and went back in time again where we know what to expect. (Not that filmmakers don’t often get the past wrong too.)

The movie missed our 2015 penchant for watching video on small screens. It does provide plenty of big flat-screens on walls with multiple channels displayed, and as advertising and even on window blinds.

No Internet in the film but the McFly family does use a big screen AT&T-connected device for video calls that looks like our Facetime/Skype/Hangouts kind of video conversation. The screen also carries data about the caller (names of children, hobbies, food preferences) which have been part of the database facial recognition being built into devices these days.

 

 

In the original 1985 film, Back to the Future, they only had to portray 1985 and the past. That’s easy stuff for filmmakers.

When George Orwell wrote 1984, he flipped his own 1948 and probably wasn’t too worried about when his predictions would come true because he was hoping his cautionary tale might help prevent it from ever coming to be.

When Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sequels 2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey 3 and 3001: Odyssey Four, I think he was trying to be scientifically accurate in his predictions.  Later, director Stanley Kubrick would have to update 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s technology and interpret the visuals.

Since none of us will be around to post online about how well Clarke was at predicting 3001, he was free from criticism. 1000 years after Frank Poole was sent out into frozen space by the supercomputer HAL in 2001, he is brought back to life. That future is full of  human minds that are connected to computers, space elevators and genetically-engineered dinosaur-like servants. Good old David Bowman and HAL are now one consciousness and those damn monoliths are still causing problems.

When the first film version of Orwell’s novel was released in 1956, that horrible future probably still seemed quite possible. Thankfully, when the 1984 film version of 1984  was made, the Cold War had passed, but many of Orwell’s predictions seem to have come true (NSA, privacy etc.).

I think Clarke sets a good model for writers of the future: set the plot in a time after your own death, so no one can call you out for your predictions to your face.


Filmmaker Jason Aron made the trailer above for “Back in Time: A Back to the Future Documentary.” He has interviews with Michael J. Fox, Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, and many other actors, crew members, and fans of the trilogy. He is seeking funding via a second Kickstarter to complete the film which has expanded far beyond the original vision. Kick in a few bucks and be part of the project.

arrow 1

If you were to be hiking through the deserts of the American Southwest, you might still come across a large concrete arrow that was about seventy feet in length.

I’ll bet that anyone seeing them probably doesn’t know their origin and may have had another theory for their purpose. Maybe they are landing beacons for UFOs.

Not quite as mysterious, but rather interesting, they are the result of our US Postal Service starting to use cross-country air mail before it had a reliable way to communicate with their WWI Army surplus planes. This was only 60 years after the Pony Express had been shut down.

In 1924, they installed a series of concrete arrows with beacons across the country. They were set longitudinally from San Francisco to New York City spaced at about every ten miles. Each concrete arrow was next to a 50-foot tall tower with a rotating gas-powered light that was visible from 10 miles above for pilots to use in navigating.

By the time of World War II, radio communication and radar had improved and the beacons and arrows weren’t needed. The metal towers were taken down for the metal to be used in the war effort.

This Yellow Concrete Road could lead you from ocean to ocean, with possibly a few stops in Oz along the way.

The lights flashed a code to identify each beacon’s number, so perhaps some UFOs actually did see them and decoded our messages.

Transcontinental_Air_Mail_Route_Beacon_37A

Remnants of Transcontinental Air Mail Route Beacon 37A, atop a bluff in St. George, Utah, with concrete arrow indicating the direction to the next beacon

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