Archive for April, 2007
In continuation of my recent nineteenth-century magician trend (see The Illusionist and The Prestige), I finally committed myself to reading all 846 pages of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell—something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, as friends far and near have been ecstatically recommending it to me for months.
JS & Mr. N takes place a good 80-90 years prior to the two recent magician movies, however, covering a period between 1806 and 1817. This period seems to have growing appeal for fantasy/adventure writers (see His Majesty’s Dragon), because it allows writers to appeal to stereotypically female readers with Austen-esque social satire and to stereotypically male readers with Napoleonic battles on land and sea. Setting a book in this period also allows for occasional appearances by Lord Byron, which is always a plus.
(One of the most amusing parts of JS & Mr. N occurs while the titular young magician, Jonathan Strange, is visiting the European continent and discovers that, wherever he goes in Switzerland and Italy, Byron has been there just before him. Strange writes home to a friend, “I am, as far as I can tell, about a month behind Lord Byron. In every town we stop at we discover innkeepers, postillions, officials, burghers, potboys and all kinds and sorts of ladies whose brains still seem somewhat deranged from their brief exposure to his lordship. And though my companions are careful to tell people that I am a dreadful being, an English magician, I am clearly nothing in comparison to an English poet and everywhere I go I enjoy the reputation—quite new to me, I assure you—of the quiet, good Englishman, who makes no noise and is no trouble to any one . . .”
This should give you an idea of the kind of humor that peppers the novel. It often made me chuckle out loud. It’s written in the style of a nineteenth-century British novel, complete with “historical” footnotes, and the narrator consistently speaks as if she is addressing readers in the novel’s world. The world of JS & Mr. N is indeed England, and an England in which not only Byron but also Lord Wellington, William Pitt, and the mad King George III are also prominent. (As far as I recall, William Wilberforce doesn’t receive any mention, though, in spite of the fact that one of the main characters is a freed slave.) But this England also has many historical figures that our England does not, most of them magicians. This England has, above any other country, a grand history of magic, a history that reached its apex during the reign of the Raven King, a human who had close dealings with the fairies.
Since those medieval years, English magic has been declining until, by the early nineteenth century, there is only one “practical” magician in the nation, Mr. Norrell (the rest are mere “theoretical” magicians, content to study books about magic rather than books of magic). Norrell, once discovered, quite enjoys his status as England’s only practical magician and hoards the country’s largest collection of magical books, zealously guarding them against potential colleagues. He therefore has mixed feelings when Strange, with a natural magical genius largely unaided by books, appears on the scene, and much of the book deals with the ebb and flow of their relationship—though this relationship also intersects with the Battle of Waterloo, Londoners held captive by fairy enchantments, and the Return of English Magic.
Perhaps only because JS & Mr. N had been so highly recommended to me, I was a tiny bit disappointed. Only a tiny bit, because I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to everyone who enjoys Jane Austen or George MacDonald or Jonathan Stroud (and I don’t just mention the latter because his name is similar to Jonathan Strange’s). I was fascinated by the Raven King, as he seemed to embody much of the book’s sense of Myth. However, I guess I expected to experience more Sehnsucht (C.S. Lewis uses this German word to describe something so beautiful that it hurts, a sense of longing for you-know-not-what, something beyond—ultimately for God, though even those not yet conscious of God can experience Sehnsucht.) For me, Sehnsucht is the greatest thing fantasy literature can achieve, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell didn’t quite do it for me. It came close, but not quite. But it’s still an extremely entertaining and worthwhile read.
My favorite character in the book is one John Childermass, a tall, ill-favored Yorkshire man who is sort of like Heathcliff-gone-right. In fact, some of my slight disappointment may have to do with the fact that I was expecting a role of greater importance for him. Oh well. He can have one in my imagination.
April 14th, 2007
The Washington Post has a fascinating article on a recent experiment in which virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, disguised in a baseball cap and posing as a street musician, played for an hour in a D.C. metro station. Would people recognize the quality of his artistry? Would they even notice him at all? Most importantly, how much money would they toss into his violin case?
Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, predicted a take of $150. His estimate was generous. After 43 minutes of playing, Bell made a haul of $32.17, and only that much because one woman had recognized him and tossed in a twenty-dollar bill. (Since she was the only passerby who actually recognized Bell, the Post team didn’t have to resort to trickier measures to keep Bell’s identity under wraps.)
When I first read the premise of the experiment, my first thought was “iPods.” Indeed, the article does mention some passersby with the ubiquitous little white plugs in their ears. Of course they ignored Bell, but so too did many people without any good excuse–except that they might have been late for work.
I wonder how different the reaction would have been if the same experiment had been conducted in the summer, in one of D.C.’s more touristy areas. Surely more vacationers would have stopped to listen.
I first encountered street musicians as a fifteen-year-old on my first visit to London. I fell in love with them. I kept a list of the pieces (from Vivaldi to the Beatles to their own compositions) that I heard them play. I still remember the unique sound of an acoustic guitar echoing through the tunnels of the London Underground. I had to wire my parents for more money, partly because I kept dropping pounds and pence into instrument cases.
But, again, I wasn’t on my way to work. I was there to study, but when I was in the city, I was there for leisure. And I was fifteen and apt to swoon at any music I found appealing. If I actually lived and worked in London (or D.C. or any other city with street musicians), would I ever stop and listen?
April 9th, 2007
(to be whined in a Veruca Salt-esque voice)
We just recently watched the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, now available on DVD. I’d seen a trailer for the film when I saw An Inconvenient Truth in the theater, and the pairing certainly makes sense, as the main impetus behind the short-lived electric car was environmental.
Never having lived in California, I knew little about the ebbs and flows of that state’s emissions laws. Basically, the film argues, car companies created cars such as GM’s EV1 to comply with the state’s new mid-1990s laws, while at the same time these companies were also working behind the scenes to get the laws repealed. Thus, they had little incentive to aggressively promote their new electric cars.
The film also lays partial blame at the feet of consumers, oil corporations, and politicians. But the car companies seem to have acted the most sneakily, so their sins seem the more egregious. Because GM only ever leased (rather than sold) their EV1s to customers, when they wanted to shift attention to repealing California’s emissions laws, they began going around and collecting the EV1s back from the people who had been happily driving them. The EV1s were then sent off to junkyards to be crushed.
The documentary does a good job of making you feel emotional about these poor little cars and indignant about their waste. True, it may have been a little over the top when EV1 supporters staged a funeral for the murdered electric car, but you start to understand their feelings of betrayal.
Celebrity former EV1 leasers include Tom Hanks. And Mel Gibson, which would probably make a lot of people want to avoid the EV1 if it were around today. He hadn’t yet descended to the lows of last summer when the film was made, but he was already in his bearded madman stage, which does not inspire confidence.
Nevertheless, I now want an electric car. They require very little maintenance, and, according to a mechanic who used to service EV1s, they don’t get your hands dirty. I admit that may be the main appeal for me. Aside from my ever-present environmental guilt, anyway.
Unfortunately, the only electric cars around now are very expensive, because development efforts have largely been diverted to the hydrogen fuel cell, which, according to Who Killed the Electric Car?, is years away from being a remotely practical technology. There is a new little roadster put out by a company called Tesla Motors. (Yup, Tesla, like Nikola Tesla in The Prestige—and in real life. By the way, I just discovered that David Bowie played Tesla in The Prestige. I would never have recognized him! Of course, the last thing I saw him in was Labyrinth, in which he had spiky hair and lots of eyeliner and danced around with Muppets. Anyway.)
But the Tesla electric car is $200,000 or something equally ridiculous. Ah well. One day I hope they make affordable ones for us common people.
April 6th, 2007
In the duel between the two nineteenth-century magician films of the summer, The Illusionist and The Prestige, I grant the victory to The Illusionist (see my previous post). Unfortunately, because both movies rely so heavily on intrigue, I can’t completely explain my reasons without resorting to spoilers. So I’ll make some general comments, safe for everyone’s reading, and then proceed to spoil away.
The Prestige is very cleverly crafted—I’ll give it that—but I still don’t buy it. Themes and images and motifs connect very nicely throughout the movie, themes such as “What are you willing to sacrifice for magic?” (though really the question the two main characters seem to be asking is “What are you willing to sacrifice for revenge?”). I liked the narrative device of having both magicians, the slick performer Angier (Hugh Jackman, with an American accent) and the driven, lower-class Borden (Christian Bale, with a Cockney accent), learn the other’s story by reading his diary. The narrative arc jumped here, there, and everywhere in time, but it didn’t bother me because it was skillfully handled.
But what is all this skill for? We know almost nothing about Borden and Angier except their hatred for each other, and it’s hard to identify with them on that alone. The only character I sympathized with was a little boy who was inconsolable when he figured out that birds were actually being killed in magic tricks. Of course, sympathy for characters isn’t the only component of a great movie, but, as Steven Greydanus of Christianity Today writes in his review of The Prestige, “If only the story had something decent at its center, rather than being a tightly wound Möbius strip with a dark side that just keeps going and has no other side.”
Aside from its lack of a heart, the other main problem I had with the movie was its implausibility after a certain point, namely after the introduction of Nikola Tesla, the real historical pioneer of electricity. Sure, the possible interchangeability of science and magic was a fun philosophical concept, but it seemed to be more of a concept than a well-integrated part of the story. It’s a shame, because, just having re-read Henry Adams’s “The Virgin and the Dynamo” chapter from The Education of Henry Adams (in which, at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, he reflects back wistfully on the great art inspired in the past by veneration of the Virgin Mary and wonders what the dynamo—sort of like an internal combustion engine—can possibly inspire in the century to come), I’d love a more thorough exploration of the anxieties of the age.
Okay, here we go with the spoilers.
The machine that Tesla builds for Angier has the ability to simultaneously replicate and transport matter (whether hats, cats, or Hugh Jackmans). Once Angier has this machine, he uses it to one-up Borden’s “Transported Man” act. However, apparently he can’t have multiples of himself running around, and so every night he kills the extra Angier. (Why couldn’t he have sent them all off to a farm or something? A machine that can produce lots of Hugh Jackmans? Now that would be a blessing to the women of the world.)
This is very intentionally paralleled with the revelation that Borden is indeed identical twins: in other words, he is by nature what Angier tried to become by science/magic. This is meant to explain all sorts of previous oddities in the movie, but, once again, though thematically resonant, it’s implausible.
One of the Bordens is executed in prison for the supposed murder of Angier, while the other Borden actually kills Angier (it’s really less confusing than it sounds). Then the remaining Borden gets to go home to his little daughter (and apparently no one will notice that he, who was presumably hanged, is still alive???). Why does he get to survive and not Angier? He’s equally despicable—the only reason seems to be that he has a kid. It definitely leaves you unsatisfied.
Of course, I may just be grumpy because at least two birds get squished in the movie. As you know, animal death causes a movie to lose major points with this Otter.
April 1st, 2007