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alice-clock

 

I just saw Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to the Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Both star Johnny Depp and Mia Wasikowska, with Helena Bonhan Carter and Anne Hathaway but the sequel (directed by James Bobin) is crazier than the Mad Hatter.

 

I am a fan of all the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, and I enjoyed Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

I also enjoyed the Disney animated Alice in Wonderland when I was a kid. Back then, I liked the Cheshire Cat. In the mid-1960s, it was the hookah-smoking Caterpillar that got all the attention. “One pill makes you larger. One pill makes you small,” sang the Jefferson Airplane in “White Rabbit.” We knew that Lewis Carroll had to be tripping on something.

I was ready for a Burton sequel. I was okay when they announced another director because the original casting was intact. It’s been six years since the first film was released.

Here’s the problem. They took Lewis Carroll’s title and the characters, but they chucked the plot. That is always a bad sign.

Actually, I thought I might even be okay with the new plot because they slipped in one of my favorite things – time travel.

In this version, Alice still enters the magical looking glass and goes back to Wonderland. She discovers that the Mad Hatter is acting madder than usual. He needs closure about what happened with his lost family. To do that, Alice has to travel through time.

She finds and hijacks a Chronosphere and zips through time to deal with her friends and their enemies at different points of their lives.

Alice Through The Looking Glass  flopped at the box office. I doubt that the reason was that there are too many Carroll purists out there.

I watched it and I was entertained. It wasn’t great filmmaking, but the effects were well done. the outrageous performances were, well, outrageous, as i suppose they must be in Wonderland.

The film sent me back to the books. I was delighted that as an Amazon Prime person, I could get all four Alice books free on my Kindle. Most people don’t know there is more to Alice than just the first Wonderland book. The tetralogy includes Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Alice-related fantasy verse The Hunting of the Snark, and Alice’s Adventures Underground. That last one is the shorter, original Alice in Wonderland manuscript which Carroll wrote for his friends and family. They encouraged the mathematician to expand the book and send it to a publisher.

Martin Gardner wrote in the introduction to his The Annotated Alice  “that life, viewed rationally and without illusion, appears to be a nonsense tale told by an idiot mathematician.”

Lewis Carroll, an imaginative mathematician, believed that nonsense was the hidden art of language.

In the first chapter, Alice is playing with her kittens in the house and she starts to wonder what the world is like on the other side of a mirror’s reflection. Isn’t that a kind of mathematical thought too?

She climbs up on the fireplace mantel and pokes at the big wall mirror behind the fireplace and discovers that she can step through it. On the other side is a reflected version of her own house. She finds a book of poetry with “Jabberwocky” in it. It has reversed printing but she can read it by holding it up to the mirror. She can see that the chess pieces from her house have come to life, though they remain small enough for her to pick up.

The second section of the book actually has a lot of changes in time and spatial directions as plot devices, so maybe that inspired the new film. There are lots of plays on mirror themes – things are opposite, time goes backwards.

Alice says that she thinks time is a thief.  She gets no argument from me on that.

lydia

Lydia consults the Handbook for the Recently Deceased in the film Beetlejuice

“I must go in. The fog is rising.” – last words of Emily Dickinson

I have a fascination with death. One reason may be that I was an English major. Poet Billy Collins has said that majoring in English is like majoring in death. Yes, it does seem to be a favorite theme in literature. But how can you not be somewhat fascinated with Death? It’s a much bigger and more important topic than birth.

One of my interests has been in the last words of people. Not everyone, famous or not, has a chance to say something just before they die, and not everyone has the wit to say something clever enough to be memorable.

Lots of people have a similar interest in dying words. The author John Green made that part of a character in his novel Looking for Alaska, and Green dropped them throughout the book and geeked out over a big book  of Last Words of Notable People that was published in 2012.

As I said, not everyone gets a chance at this last bit of fame. George Orwell’s last written words were, “At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves.” He died at age 46.

Nostradamus said, “Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here” and correctly predicted his death.

I love Herman Melville. I was very surprised to learn that he died saying, “God bless Captain Vere!” Vere is a character in his then-unpublished novel Billy Budd, which was found on his desk after he died. One last act of self-promotion.

I stumbled upon The Oxford Book of Death in a bookstore, which sounds like a real downer that you should only assign as reading to some English majors in an honors seminar.

I paged through it and read things that caught my eye. It’s not all melancholy. The authors range from long-dead Plato to living (at least at the time) poets, playwrights and authors.

Some people are funny, sarcastic or witty right to the end.

Drummer Buddy Rich died after having surgery, but when he was being prepped, a nurse asked him, “Is there anything you can’t take?” and Buddy replied, “Yeah, country music.”

Sir Winston Churchill’s last words were, “I’m bored with it all.”

Actor, tough guy, drinker and smoker Humphrey Bogart ended with “I should never have switched from Scotch to martinis.”

George Appel, executed by electric chair in 1928, said before the pulled the switch, “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.” I bet that wasn’t an ad-lib.

Poets are not always poetic at the end. “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record,” said the heavy drinking Dylan Thomas before he died of pneumonia.  And “Now I shall go to sleep. Goodnight, ” were the closing lines from Lord Byron. Not even a rhyming couplet.

Johnny Ace, a 1950s rhythm and blues singer, was playing Russian roulette with his revolver on a backstage at a concert on Christmas Day 1954. He said “It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded… see?” and when he pulled the trigger with the gun pointed at his face, there was a bullet, and it killed him instantly.

Socialite Lady Nancy Astor, was very ill and awoke on her deathbed to see her family all around her. She said, “Am I dying, or is this my birthday?”

Sir Walter Raleigh, English writer, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, and explorer said to his executioner just before the axe came down on his neck, “Strike, man, strike!”

The very practical inventor Thomas A. Edison went out with the hopeful line “It’s very beautiful over there.”

Edison’s closing line is the kind of thought you want to believe is what we see as we cross over from this life – that is, if you believe there is a place to cross over to. We haven’t had any reliable reports from the other side.

That’s why I like the movie Beetlejuice. In its darkly comic way, we get to follow a couple who have just died and are definitely not ready to move on. One of the things they get on the other side is a copy of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased. I actually found that they sell it on Amazon.com but you may be disappointed to find this reproduction of the movie prop book is a blank book. Perhaps, it is intended for you to take notes after death. Perhaps, the information only appears to the recently dead. I use it to catalog last words and good quotes about death. I figure those will come in handy in the afterlife.

But in Tim Burton’s excellent 1988 film (with Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder) there is actual advice. There are important things for the recently deceased to know, such as that living people generally ignore the strange and unusual. The rules for ghost and the dead aren’t fixed and vary from manifestation to manifestation. Deaths are personal. Ghosts vary based on how a person lived and died. The book suggests that in case of an emergency, draw a door and knock three times. It also lets you know how to do a séance and how to haunt the living.

The recently deceased consult the Handbook

The recently deceased Adam and Barbara consult the Handbook

This laughing about death is healthy. It doesn’t make me feel very good about the whole process to know that the short story writer O. Henry (who loved surprise endings) said at his end ‘Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.”  I don’t want to go over in the dark either. I hoping for that warm, inviting light and the smell of baking bread that I keep hearing about.

movie poster

World’s first film poster (1895) for L’Arroseur arrosé – Image by Marcellin Auzolle (1862-1942) – Source: moah.org, PD-US, Wikipedia

Auguste Lumière was born in 1862 in Besançon, France. Along with his brother, they played an important role in the early history of motion pictures. Their father had been a painter who moved to photography in its early days.

Auguste and his brother Louis had studied science in Lyon and had a business producing photographic plates.

In 1894, they read about Thomas Edison’s new Kinetoscope. That device was not a “movie” but a “peephole” machine that used illuminated strips of film to create the illusion of movement. The two brothers wanted to build a device to project film images to more than one person simultaneously.

In 1895, they patented what they called the cinématographe. It was pretty amazing. The machine was a camera, developer, and projector all in one device.

They filmed workers leaving their factory in Lyon and had a public screening in December. That screening had 10 films of about one minute each.

These were not fictional “story” films but, as with Edison’s earliest films, documentary clips of everyday life. The one that has received the most attention over the years is one that showed a train pulling into a station head-on. The story is that the audience screamed and that some jumped from their seats with the illusion that the train would come out the screen into the theater.

It is strange that both Thomas Edison and Auguste Lumière didn’t think that their motion picture developments could be moneymakers. Lumière said, “My invention can be exploited … as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that it has no commercial value whatsoever.” Great inventors. Not the greatest businessmen.

The Lumière brothers wouldn’t sell their camera to other filmmakers, such as countryman Georges Méliès. Méliès would go on to produce many highly creative and innovative films on his own. The novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and the 2011 film Hugo based on it directed and co-produced by Martin Scorsese, are tributes to the later life of Méliès.

The Lumière brothers cut off their role in motion pictures and moved on to experimentation with color photography. The Lumière company was a major producer of photographic products in Europe during the early 20th century  but the Lumière faded after they merged with Ilford.

blogbookblueIt’s a dream/fantasy of many bloggers: that their blog can become a book – or maybe even a movie.

When I started blogging in early 2006, blogging was already becoming pretty common. I started blogging as something to use both in my teaching at NJIT and as a way to get my ideas out there. I had been doing workshops and presentations on the still-new blogs, wikis and podcasts for a while and I was trying to get faculty at the university to incorporate them into their courses.

Then I was asked to do a presentation for business people on those topics. Though I was doing podcasts and had created a few wikis, I was not a blogger. One of my colleagues at NJIT, Tim Kellers,  was my tech guru and he created a blogging platform for us to use in our presentation using software called Serendipity. Thus, Serendipity35, my blog about learning and technology, was born. And it’s still going.

In 2004, the New Yorker had said that books by bloggers would become a cultural phenomenon, but I never gave that a thought in those days. Since that first blog, I have added 8 other blogs to my weekly writing. As a few friends like to remind me, “if you only channeled all that writing, you would have a few books by now.”

Then came stories like that of Julie Powell and her blog about trying to cook the entire Julia Child cookbook in her new York apartment.

PostSecret and Stuff White People Like are other blogs that became multiple incarnations of books, but Julie was the star student.  Her original blog on Salon.com is gone, but is archived on the great Web.Archive.org site.

The blog began in 2002 as she cooked her way through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” In 2005, it became a book, Julie and Julia:365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.

In 2007, a film version was announced – the first major motion picture that started off as a blog.

Say what you will about the writing of Powell, she had an established readership and that is why a publisher knew that readership could mean book sales. This is not new to publishing, TV or film – choose things (comic books, hit plays etc.) that have a built-in following and are a surer bet.

The film adaptation, directed by Nora Ephron, also titled Julie & Julia, was released in 2009. The film was actually based on both Powell’s book and Julia Child’s autobiography My Life in France.

This was not a small, independent film. Amy Adams starred as Powell and Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Julia’s husband Paul was played by Stanley Tucci.

But that is one blogger who got great deals out of many millions of bloggers. It is tough to find a number for how many blogs exist (active and archived) but just Tumblr.com’s cumulative total blogs in July 2016 surpassed 305.9 million blog accounts. That makes the odds about the same as winning the Power ball lottery.

Yes, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody got a book deal out of her blog (not the one that led to her best known screenplay for Juno though).

Another success story is Tim Ferriss.  His blog, the Four Hour Work Week, was listed at number one on the top 150 Management and Leadership Blogs.

In 2010, photographer Brandon Stanton started a project to create a photographic census of New York City and his blog version (and Facebook page) of Humans of New York became the book Humans of New York: Stories and was a bestseller.

That is why you can find lots of blog posts about turning your blog into a book. (For example, look at thebookdesigner.com/2015/06/making-the-leap-from-blogger-to-book-author/ and authorunlimited.com/turn-your-blog-into-a-book-effectively

blogging this

I still haven’t moved any of my blogs to the print (or film!) world. I could see my poetry project at Writing the Day as a poetry collection. I’d like to think that Weekends in Paradelle and One-Page Schoolhouse have enough posts to produce a collection of essays. The same might be true of the several thousands post on Serendipity35, but I realize that many of my posts are “dated” in the time they were written. Editing would be a major part of turning a blog into a book.

I believe that, despite tales of the death of print, an actual book still holds a special, higher place in our culture than a website. Publishers: contact me.

eternal-sunshine2

I was intrigued by the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which is a film about a couple who, after a bad breakup, have literally erased each other from their memories. (It was written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Michel Gondry and stars Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Tom Wilkinson.)

The film is a mix of science fiction and romantic comedy and explores memory through romantic love. The premise is that a company called Lacuna has developed a way to find and erase specific memories in the brain. You can have that terrible memory removed. It was science fiction, but last year, MIT researchers have shown, for the first time ever, that memories are stored in specific brain cells. That means that if you removed those cells, you would remove the memory.

They could trigger a small cluster of neurons and force the subject to recall a specific memory, and then by removing these neurons, the subject would lose that memory.

Don’t go looking for a way to contact Lacuna just yet. The researchers had to do some fancy genetic manipulation of cells so that they’re sensitive to light, and trigger them using lasers by drilling a hole through the subject’s skull.

MIT’s subjects were mice.

But it is believed that the human brain functions in the same way. Breeding humans with optogenetic brains is not part of their immediate plans though.

eternal-sunshine1

Following up on that research, the findings get weirder. It seems that our “memory neurons” (nerve cells of the hippocampus) play a crucial role in storing and retrieving memories.

I can’t explain the molecular basis for memory formation — an enzyme from the topoisomerase family responds to new stimuli by breaking DNA, which seems to activate genes are inhibited by a system of enzymes and…

And we still don’t have all the answers. Researchers at Stanford have a theory about mobile memories. They believe that the hippocampus does store the specifics of new memories, but those memories move to elsewhere in the brain after a time. The team found that if they disrupted the hippocampus within a month or so of a new memory, the memory disappeared forever. If they disrupted it after a longer period of time, the memory seemed undisturbed — as though it no longer physically resides in those same cells.

braindriveFor now, you will have to just try your best to block those bad memories and hope that aging will prune them away (and let you keep the good memories).

I still like the idea that everything you have ever experienced and remembered is stored in that beautiful hard drive of a brain. We get a lot of “file not found” error messages, but the files are all there. Some of those memory files get corrupted over time, but one day there will be a really good defragging programs – even better than sleep and a vacation – that will fix all those bad sectors and restore all the memories and connections.

our town

A high school production of Our Town

Our Town is a 1938 three-act play by American playwright Thornton Wilder. It tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corners between 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its citizens.

As far as I can recall, it was the first play I saw on a professional stage. At some point during my junior high or high school years, we took a class trip to see it performed at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. Serendipitously, that is also where it was first staged in 1938.

It went on to Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It remains popular today and revivals of it are frequent, especially with student productions.

One reason for its performance popularity is the deliberate minimalism of the staging and sets. Wilder sets the play in the theater where it is being performed. It is often staged with only a few tables, chairs, benches and ladders on the stage. The audience is asked to see someone on a ladder as being at a second floor window, for example.

A main character is the stage manager who directly addresses the audience. My recollection of my first impression in seeing the play (totally unprepared by my teacher) is that I was disappointed. What a lousy set! It looks like a rehearsal. Not even as nice as some of our school productions.

And the stage manager seemed like a narrator (We had those in school plays.) but he would bring in guest lecturers, answer questions from the audience (Were those real audience members or shills?) and even filled in playing some other roles. (Couldn’t they hire a few more actors?).

Most of the time the actors didn’t have props and would mime actions. (They couldn’t afford some ordinary household items?)

I did like that there were some characters our age. George Gibbs meets his neighbor Emily Webb outside the gate of her house after school. Some romance brewing. Emily confers with her mom. Then the Stage Manager thanks them and dismisses Emily and her mom.

The Stage Manager tells us that a time capsule will be placed in the foundation of a new bank building in town. He wants to put a copy of Our Town into the time capsule.

By Act II, it is three years later and George and Emily are getting married.

Act III is what I remembered best. I went back to the play to fill in the blank spaces. It is only nine years later, but we are in a cemetery outside town. Emily has died in childbirth. This is a burial.

The dead who inhabit the cemetery were sitting in chairs at the front of the stage and they speak. Death has made them pretty much indifferent to the living. Emily isn’t ready to join them. She misses life and wants to go back.

The Stage Manager can do whatever and he allows Emily to go back and relive her twelfth birthday.

As both 12 year old Emily and dead Emily walks through that day, she sees it differently. She appreciates the beauty and preciousness of the everyday and realizes that her parents and the other living characters do not appreciate it at all.

She goes back to the cemetery where George is at her tomb. She is sad because she knows that the living do not understand life. She asks the Stage Manager if anyone understands the value of life while they live it. “No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some, ” he tells her.

Emily returns to her grave.  The Stage Manager concludes the play, wishes the audience a good night, and the play ends.

There is a 1940 film version of Our Town.  It stars William Holden and Martha Scott. It was free to watch on Amazon if you have a Prime membership. Although it follows most of the play, it takes some big liberties. One big change is that it has a happy Hollywood ending.

Thornton Wilder was unhappy with that 1940 film (and also a 1957 musical versions of the play). Before his death, in 1975, Wilder worked to have a definitive version of his play. That version was broadcast on NBC in 1977, with Holbrook, Ned Beatty, Sada Thompson, John Houseman, Glynnis O’Connor and Robby Benson. The Wilder estate was so satisfied that they decided there was no need to permit another television version of the play, but they did make an exception for a PBS production in 1989.

We just don’t understand. Prove the Stage Manager wrong.

 

 

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What genius did this pruning? Your tax dollars at work. Encountered a cow on my walk.  Moo to you too. I need my blocks to really get a good start.  #excuses Sunset bench.  #veronapark Tracks inevitably lead to water. When you lose sight of the trail, follow the tracks of those who came before you.
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