Saturday, 24 September 2016

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (6): Sounds like Yiddish to me

 
 
Learning another language usually involves moments when you encounter other people speaking that language.  I live and work in an environment where I hear multiple languages every day (one of my two university departments has upwards of 75 nationalities in its undergraduate community), but I’m yet to overhear a Yiddish conversation on the bus to campus or in the coffee queue.  Part of this is geographical context – I’m reliably informed that in certain areas of Montreal you can overhear Hassidic kids talking about their radio controlled cars in Yiddish, but in the Midlands that’s less than likely.  In fact, the only time I’ve heard Yiddish spoken in the street is when I’m already involved in the conversation.  The upside of this situation is that I get to indulge my linguistic path-finding fantasies by using Yiddish in locations where it might never have been heard before.  I’m not sure if it’s cultural pride or just straight up contrariness that means I’ve learnt Yiddish grammar on a beach in Suffolk, shouted Yiddish threats on the East Sussex marshes and written Yiddish greetings in the sand of North Norfolk, but it’s great fun either way.
 
What this lack of casually overheard Yiddish means is that I’m hyper-alert to those moments when it turns up in films and on television.  As previously discussed, the internet means that I can go online and find the most wonderful examples of spoken Yiddish, but it’s these chance encounters that I really love.  Even before I started learning Yiddish properly, every time a Yiddish word showed up on screen it made me happy.  Historically, the huge majority of these random snippets were jokes and insults, which I usually understood but which expanded my vocabulary nonetheless.  A special shout-out here to The Goonies (both Yiddish and Hebrew there, thanks to the inimitable Chunk) and The Simpsons, which has done more for the cause of sharing Yiddish than any other show I know.
 
 
Now that my Yiddish has improved I can recognize it even in the most unexpected places, like, for example, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, when an overly appreciative Marvin Acme tells Jessica Rabbit that she “farshmaysned” (slaughtered) her adoring audience.  This example gets extra points for the wonderfully cavalier mash-up of a Yiddish verb (farshmaysn) with English verb ending (-ed); Yiddish is great for this kind of multi-lingual grammatical construction.  After all, what’s the point of a diasporic language if you can’t combine a Hebrew word with a Slavic prefix and then pluralize it according to Germanic grammar?  But my absolute favourite unexpected Yiddish moment comes in Robert Hamer’s beautifully bleak post-war noir The Long Memory (1953), when John Slater calls Fred Johnson ”You shiker old shnorer” (that is, “You drunken old beggar”).  What’s most amusing about this example is that the subtitles on the DVD don’t even try to work out the Yiddish, instead rather imaginatively transforming Slater’s line into “You old slurry”.  That does have a certain estuarine suitability, what with the scene taking place on a Thames riverboat, but someone, somewhere, really dropped the ball on that one.
 
Of course, the problem with these examples is that they’re nowhere near conversational Yiddish, which is completely understandable but still disappointing for an obsessive like myself.  There are some contemporary Yiddish treasures out there, but you do need to look for them.  The opening scene of the Cohen brothers’ A Serious Man is a very good effort, introducing me as it did to the concept of a דיבוק (dybbuk) courtesy of the legendary and much lamented Fyvush Finkel.  If all dybbuks were this adorable, who’d be scared of them?
 
 
And yet despite its atmospheric heft, this scene doesn’t really represent conversational Yiddish, at least, not as my family would have spoken it.  There’s nothing wrong with the grammar or anything technical like that, it’s more that the language feels a little stagey, as though the characters are talking in proverbs.  In fact, once this scene is over there’s no other Yiddish in the film, so it tends to perpetuate the misconception that Yiddish is simply part of that lost other world of European Jewry.  That’s not the Yiddish I know, which is resolutely here and now rather than still languishing in some freezing shtetl, but it has been surprisingly difficult to find modern, conversational Yiddish represented in popular culture.
 
This is why we should all be thankful for the existence of Yidlife Crisis AKA Jamie Elman and Eli Batalion, two absolute reprobates and unrepentant gannets who have managed to capture Yiddish in all its filthy, food-centric glory.  Discovering their web series was cause for much rejoicing, not least because at last I could hear Yiddish being spoken like any other living language, full of word-play and silliness as well as some Grade-A swearing.
 
 
These guys learnt Yiddish at High School in Montreal (there’s a pattern developing here) so have something of a linguistic head-start, but listening to them rip on each other and the world at large in the language I love most is an emesdike mekhaye (true delight).  The only problem is, whenever I watch an episode I end up ravenously hungry.  Damn, those guys can eat.  But in the absence of Yiddish that I can overhear in the street, this is enough to remind me that the mame-loshn is alive and well, if a little overly obsessed with poutine.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Rashomon 'Reviews' (1): Kubo and the Two Strings

[NB: Just a brief introductory note on the premise underpinning these ‘reviews’ (a rather too rigid term for the fluid responses we’ve produced, but it will have to suffice for now): Rashomon (1950), for those who've seen it, is an Akira Kurosawa film about a brutal incident that takes place in the woods, the chief narrative innovation of which revolves around the fact that the film takes the form of characters' differing interpretations of events, which communicate at cross purposes with one another, and will often flat-out contradict what the audience has already seen and ‘interpreted’ themselves.  Our Rashomon ‘review’ series, inaugurated with these responses to Kubo and the Two Strings (quite an appropriate choice, as it happens, given that Kubo…’s plot revolves around the narrative possibilities of memory, and is steeped in samurai-era Japanese history and folklore), applies the same premise of competing ‘eye-witness accounts’ to the field of reviewing, with hopefully valuable, or at the very least enjoyable results.]    
 
 
1: Flo's Response 
 
I was convinced, throughout the film, that the cockroach was voiced by George Clooney. 

I spent every moment of his time on screen trying to see elements of Clooney’s face in the cockroach’s features. I thought about Antz and how they made Weaver look so much like Sylvester Stallone, and Z so much like Woody Allen, and how that marked my expectation for animation to match reality by creating a visual tie between the person providing the voice and the character appearing to speak with that voice. When the credits came up and I saw it was Matthew McConaughey, I briefly felt annoyed with myself in a very nerdy way. Come to think of it, the cockroach looked a lot more like McConaughey than I first realised. 

*

In the row behind me, there was a kid sitting between his parents, asking questions throughout the entire film: who is this, what is that, why is she crying, how did he get there, was that a chicken?  It felt like watching the entire thing with the director’s commentary turned on, except it was that small voice inside the director that isn’t grown up, isn’t in charge, and isn’t entirely sure what it is contributing its energy towards.  That same voice inside me started the film obsessed with the title: two strings?  Why two strings?  What do they refer to? The shamisen has three strings, so why two?  What is happening?  There was no mummy or daddy for me to ask these questions, and George (not Clooney) gets confused when I talk during films, so I sat there stewing, like the impatient child behind me, watching but really waiting for answers. 

*

When the action, the music, and the visual beauty picked up, I got swept into the story, and I suppose that’s the point. When I emerged, I realised I had been watching strings upon strings, a writhing heap of strings. 

*

Another thing I hadn’t realised going into the film (I don’t pay attention to film posters or reviews, clearly) was that the whole thing was rendered mostly in stop-motion animation, which, after so many CGI animated films, wasn’t something I’d expected.  It explains my strong reaction to the film’s textures, the minutes I spent marvelling over the slightly translucent appearance of the skin around the monkey’s mouth and eyes, the ropey texture of the character’s hair, which, according to this article is real human hair coated in silicone and held in place with tiny wires. 

*

Kubo’s magic, too, is held together by strings and wires.  In fact, so much of the film contains the strings of its title.  Playing the shamisen brings to life the sheets of origami paper Kubo carries in his backpack; they fly around his head and take on shapes that allow him to turn the story of his family into puppet-theatre for people in the marketplace to enjoy.  Kubo plucks the strings and the paper folds itself into his father the warrior, into the pieces of armour his father must find, and into the Moon King, whom his father must defeat.  And then it folds itself into a belligerent chicken, for laughs.  Laughs are an important part of storytelling, an old lady tells Kubo; in fact, the whole film can be read as a class in storytelling, and in the value of translating life’s events, especially the big, otherwise inexplicable and cruel ones such as the death of parents and heartless actions of relatives, into stories. 

*

What struck me most was the message of forgiveness at the end.  The idea that reincarnation and memories are linked, and that they make forgiveness possible because they imply transformation rather than things being stuck in a single shape forever: death is not the end of all things because things continue to exist and transform through stories, through memories, and they live alongside us.  The forgiveness Kubo offers his grandfather is touching because it involves the entire community, who all offer the old man new memories, new parts of his identity to replaces the ones he has lost.  He is no longer the Moon King, but he can now continue his existence as Kubo’s grandfather.  The strings are ties between people, ties made visible by stories and memories, by the way we related to one another.  

*

The story Kubo tells is the story as told to him by his mother, when she isn’t lost in an amnesiac state of sadness.  At the beginning of the story, the very beginning, when Kubo’s mother hits her head against a rock, we don’t yet know the role memories will play in this story, and yet this is the moment she loses control over hers.  When she dies, she returns to Kubo briefly in the form of a monkey, and she ties the strand of hair he ripped from her head around his wrist.  To protect him, she says.  When the Moon King threatens to take his other eye in the final confrontation, Kubo ties the hair to his instrument and uses it as a string.   The memory of the mother held by the hair is brought to life on the shamisen, in the same way that the monkey-shaped trinket can hold the mother’s personality and come to life as a companion on Kubo’s quest, to help him survive.  Kubo wears his father’s robes in hopes of ‘growing into them’, and before she dies his mother puts a spell on them so that they may fly him away when he needs them to.  Much in this universe is designed to help Kubo, to protect and support him, pull him forward or help him land in a safety net, provided he does the hard work.  In a way, this is a nice analogy for what we would all hope our parents would do for us: let us walk our own path, but be there when we get into trouble. 


https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/asset/two-samurai/ygF57KYVyf2KBQ?hl=en
 
2: Rochelle's Response
 
Having spent a fair amount of time in the last couple of weeks watching, obsessing over and writing about Coraline, our trip to see Kubo and the Two Strings felt remarkably well-timed.  If you’d asked me beforehand what I thought I’d find most exciting about the film, I’d have said something about the craft of its construction (who doesn’t love stop motion puppets of talking monkeys?), or its visual impact.  In fact, what struck me most was the gap between the comparative safety of the world of Coraline and the very real (and indeed fulfilled) sense of threat in Kubo.  There’s nothing cosy or evasive about Kubo’s take on mortality and loss, which is precisely why the film works so well.
 
I grew up on a steady intake of Disney films replete with exploding pit ponies and maimed dogs, to say nothing of the shooting of Bambi’s mum, but those stories incorporated death as a tonal counterpoint to the wholesome optimism of the rest of the narrative.  Just for the record, if it had been the winsome child protagonists of Escape from the Dark who had been blown up in that mine I wouldn’t have given a toss, but that pony dying absolutely destroyed me.  However, I knew that Kubo… was of a different order of magnitude right from the opening sequence, when the audience is introduced to baby Kubo, already one-eyed thanks to his Moon King grandfather’s zealously enforced views about not mixing in with the mortals.  In Coraline, the protagonist is threatened with having her eyes replaced with buttons, but it’s a pretty empty threat.  Coraline belongs to that tradition of fairytales where the resourceful child defies, battles and defeats the powerful monster.  Her lost parents are returned unharmed and completely unaware that they were ever in any danger at all.
 
Kubo…, on the other hand, doesn’t screw around.  Kubo’s mother, Sariatu, is killed not once but twice (once as herself and once as Monkey, Kubo’s guardian), both times at the hands of her own sisters, two psychotic masked assassins whose weapons of choice are what look like silver porpoise harpoons.  Kubo’s father, Hanzo, previously presumed dead, has no sooner been revealed in his new identity as Beetle than he too is unceremoniously dispatched by one of the Sisters.  The fact the Sisters are after Kubo’s remaining eye is, by this stage in proceedings, rather light relief.  By the end Kubo has been orphaned twice over, and has to fight his lunatic grandfather singlehanded, with nary an origami samurai for support.  Even Bambi got to keep his dad, for Christ’s sake.  Give the kid a break.
 
I think that it was around about the time of Hanzo getting nailed that I realised that this film is managing to achieve something quite remarkable, namely, a frank and open discussion of death that isn’t likely to scar child audiences for life.  Written as a list of tragic casualties, Kubo might be in danger of sounding rather brutal, but the deaths of Kubo’s parents contribute to a much broader awareness and acceptance of mortality within the film.  To start with, two pivotal scenes take place within a cemetery, which is not seen as a place of fear or horror but of collective remembrance.  The Obon ceremony that opens and closes the main narrative doesn’t represent bereavement as something to be challenged or denied, but rather as a burden than can be lightened by being publically acknowledged and shared.  Kubo even challenges the notion that the only fulfilling response to loss is vengeance, breaking another long-cherished narrative axiom.
 
This would all be extraordinary enough, but the film sites this unexpectedly balanced discussion of death within a visual landscape that itself reflects the inevitability of decay and dissolution.  Kubo first encounters Beetle in a snowy version of Shelley’s Ozymandias, where enormous fallen idols litter a barren tundra.  It’s left to the audience to imagine the fate of whatever civilization was represented by these ruins, but the later scenes in what was once Hanzo’s ancestral home replicate that destruction on a domestic and far more affecting scale.  The film acknowledges not only the merciless swiftness with which loss can occur, but also lets the audience imagine how happy Kubo’s life could have been had that loss been preventable.  Magic powers or not, the lad is really put through the wringer.
 
Ultimately, Kubo… admits that mortality is a universal force that generates both horror and beauty.  On one side there’s the skeleton guardian of the Sword Unbreakable, a lurching, slack-jawed horror that reconstitutes itself from a scattered array of bones and griblets in order to attack our heroes.  However, on the other, there is the gorgeously ethereal ship composed of fallen autumn leaves, which Kubo creates in order to sail across the Long Lake.  Any film that offers children (and adults) such an honest and complex discussion of loss and death, beautifully crafted or otherwise, is a powerful piece of magic.
 
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hokusai_1760-1849_Ocean_waves.jpg
 
3: George's Response
 
I’ve been marking a trend in recent(ish) films with child-protagonists, which show children not just as vacant, happy ciphers, but as thinking, feeling beings [1].  Films like Inside Out and Where the Wild Things Are, spaced apart, might not add up to a clear picture, but there’s a pattern with a particular interest in seeing how children deal with depressed parents and similarly ‘mature’ emotional challenges.
 
Kubo and the Two Strings fits into this category.  It reminded me of someone I once taught whose child had been diagnosed with ADHD and similar ‘disorders’ by the school system.  Eventually the parent took the child to a child psychologist, who diagnosed stress caused by a threatening teacher.  The child changed schools and the behaviours associated with stress – not some kind of fucked up mental disorder, which frankly, is power’s way of labelling behaviours and points of view they don’t deign to work with – dissipated. (You might actually think of the various mental states in Where the Wild Things Are as nothing more complicated as potential behavioural responses to the stress of relocation.)
 
The opening sequence to Kubo… set me thinking in terms of how cycles of parenting and patriarchy (the film’s specific power hierarchy traces back to the grandfather, the Moon King) ground behavioural patterns and neuroses in children.  The film’s premise and the various brief synopses I read about it, pitch the film as examining how a child becomes a carer to a depressed (single) parent and then sets about having a life of his own.  Which, once the film begins and the initial backstory is done with, establishes Kubo firmly in the realm of fantasy.
 
Kubo is a hardy little tyke, forced from a young age into the role of carer for his depressed mother.  He earns money by using his magic, and a broken guitar-like instrument, a samisen, to tell stories with origami paper in the nearby village’s marketplace.  He seems indestructible: he’s the servant to the parental drama playing out, in some ways, a godlike device able to triumph over all.  His one-eyed vision has absolutely no bearing on the film’s perspective, or his ability to operate in the world – he’s a dead shot with a bow and arrow, despite the lack of depth perception.  Frankly, the only reason he has one eye is for plot purposes: it gives his grandfather something to do.
 
The presentation of the mother’s depression is relatively simplistic (reminiscent of the father in Submarine).  She’s an enervated sop prone to trailing off mid-sentence and staring for long stretches at nothing. Yet a key addition to her depressive state is a short-lived manic phase that takes her in the evening, when she continues the story Kubo broke off from telling in the marketplace, earlier the same day.
 
This moment is perhaps my favourite.  The narrative structure is technically wonderful, extending the story we (and the marketplace audience) were disappointed by for its lack of ending.  And again the story-within-a-story doesn’t finish (sacrilege!): the mother’s manic phase soon dwindles and the delight we, and Kubo, briefly shared at her animation – an emotional joy for its contrast with her depression; for the sense that she’s finally ‘performing as a mother should toward her child’; and the magical way she tells the story – all end so suddenly, it’s as if we’ve been given a slender vision of the beautiful life Kubo might be living, and then it’s snatched away.
 
It’s heartbreaking, tender, perfectly pitched.  And at the same time, it weaves together the story we thought Kubo has been making up, and his real life.  The storyteller becomes the story with all the panache and pathos of a double pluck on your heartstrings.  And it’s the way stories are told that really moves: the magical samisen animates paper and leaves and sets them folding and spinning into visual metaphors for the stories he tells.  The plucky, samisen-inspired soundtrack underwriting each story is simultaneously minimalistic in its melodies and rhythms and also full of space to draw you in, as an audience member, to create the characters yourself.  Of course, that’s a deception – the film itself provides orchestration, depth, colour, visuals – our imaginations are fully saturated in many ways by the animation’s lush stop-motion-meets-CGI – but I couldn’t help feeling it was using a kind of deliberate crudeness, keeping the focus simple, the narratives very much those of a boy with a head full of adventures, so as to allow the emotion to bubble up.
 
Once the epic quest begins, there’s not much to it at first: Kubo picks up companions, magical or weird, or otherwise, and then plods off for some frivolous ‘find these three items and battle the boss’ quest episodes.  And then, and then, the bits you suspected, but weren’t quite sure the film was clever enough to grasp, really do come to the fore: the companions take on increasing emotional significance and the underlying problem of power structures become psychological drivers of Kubo’s own life story.
 
I found myself thinking in loose (and, yes, sure, crudely informed) psychoanalytic terms for what then plays out.  But that’s the film’s strength: it doesn’t let the superficial quest take over from the heart of it, which is an interrogation of the psychology of a grieving child-turned-carer.
 
[Spoiler season!]
 
And yet, and yet: I didn’t like the ending!  Seriously, after all that panache and style and pathos, Kubo’s final conclusion about the nature of storytelling, for all its tugging at the heartstrings, didn’t speak to me.  I think that it was too easily earned and too one-sided.  That’s it, really: it simplifies the role of stories, which is especially heinous for me given how the stories he tells throughout the film are so wonderfully rich.  They are escapist, yet morally they cycle back to the moment; they’re ways of imagining future possibilities, so they’re a critique of the past and present; and yes, in a small way they serve memory, but not solely in terms of the film’s own conclusion – stories are containers for the memories of those we loved – but also that they’re ways to make sense of the emotional trauma caused to us by the world, by the people we loved.
 
Underlying Kubo…’s main narrative thrust are hints of a deeper, possibly even sadder tale: that of how the grandfather turned into such a right royal bastard. The final good vs evil conclusion, the dissipation of the worm-pop-moon-king in a wave of orange light, reneges on the commitment to psychological depth and grieving I felt the film made early on, and which sustained me throughout.
 
Yes, OK, you have to end somewhere. But the hasty retreat from the implications of Kubo’s development are too much a conservative, or conforming,  swerve for my tastes.  The wonder of the storytelling throughout really means so much more than that: storytelling is a vital tool for helping Kubo makes sense of loss, depression and the threats in the adult world.  And that’s more than just a container, it’s vitality itself.
 
===
 
[1] Not that they’re not fun, but it took a few sequels for one of the adopted kids in the Despicable Me franchise to develop some depth.  As much as I enjoyed the one-sidedness of the humour of a joyous child who hugs monsters and overcomes adult social boundaries, really, it wears off quickly, whereas the emotional depth of Inside Out, which is the film’s focus, held my attention throughout and still stays with me. And that, even as I acknowledge the faults in the metaphors/patterns used to make sense of theinternal/external worlds.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%27Courtesan_Playing_the_Samisen%27_by_Isoda_Koryusai,_c._1785.jpg
 
4: Simon's Response (after Brainard, après Perec)
 
I remember, a few days before seeing the film, a conversation with friends during which I worried at length that recent children’s films seemed petrified of honestly scaring their audiences, favouring instead the kind of after-school lessons about tolerance and friendship that always ruined Inspector Gadget and Masters of the Universe when I was a kid; and how happy I was that Kubo… pulled no punches in the terror department.  (If I had had access to a cushion, I would most likely have hidden behind it.)
 
I remember a scene on the shore of a vast lake in which leaves tumbled end over end in an increasing breeze past the camera, disappearing at the right hand edge of the frame, the gale blowing them rising in intensity as the scene progressed, then suddenly dissipating, then the camera pulling back to reveal a gorgeous multi-coloured skiff entirely composed of fallen leaves: a vessel of autumn, waiting on the placid waters.
 
I remember an animated origami chicken that breathed fire and shot out eggs like cannonballs during one of Kubo’s storytelling sessions in the village square, and finding myself a trifle disappointed that the audience wasn’t provided with a full-sized equivalent later in the movie.  Something to consider for a sequel?
 
I remember being mightily impressed by Matthew McConaughey’s pitch-perfect George Clooney impression throughout, and thinking “This is nearly on a par with Tony Curtis’ take on Cary Grant’s impossible mid-Atlantic tones in Some Like It Hot.  Nearly, but not quite.”
 
I remember being surprised at the viciousness of the onscreen violence – the battle between Monkey and the aunts on the autumnal leaf-boat was particularly visceral, for example – and thinking that there’s arguably something inherent in stop-motion animation that lends these actions a physical heft (and a concomitant level of threat) they might be denied if rendered in CGI.
 
I remember liking the fact that Monkey is somehow simultaneously comforting and mildly frightening, and thinking that a great deal of that is due to Charlize Theron’s vocal authority.
 
I remember enjoying the pedantic joke about Paper Samurai not being  the product of ‘real’ origami (real origami involves folding only, apparently; ‘cheating’ origami involves cutting in addition), and wondering whether this might be a sly nudge in the ribs of stop-motion purists who would otherwise be tempted to critique Kubo… for its (modest) deployment of CGI.  
 
I remember being thrilled at the post-credits sequence, where the animators pull the curtain, so to speak, to one side, and let us witness in time-lapse the filming of the skeleton battle; thrilled because at no point had I assumed the skeleton was to scale in relation to the characters, but had to be the product of some kind of trickery, but here it was, real as daylight, and quite intimidatingly large, even provided with the knowledge that it’s only a puppet. 
 
 I remember finding Kubo’s villainous aunts just a smidgen alluring, and wondering the film-makers had planned this, or whether this was just my own personal kink.
 
I remember thinking that eyes are given an almost fetishistic role to play in the narrative of Kubo… – for example, the Moon King wants to steal Kubo’s remaining (right) eye, having already divested him of his left [2]; there’s a forest of eyes beneath the ocean which can see into our innermost beings – and what that might mean in the context of a movie who’s protagonist is repeatedly telling us, and our onscreen analogues, not to blink.  
 
I remember the tactile crunch and whisper of snow beneath the characters’ feet as they trudged through the ice-bound ruins of some lost civilisation.
 
I remember thinking Jason and the Argonauts during the battle with the twelve-storey high skeleton with swords puncturing its skull, like a foil-covered baked potato pierced with sausage-wielding cocktail sticks at a Guy Fawkes party in the mid- to late-1980s. 
 
I remember thinking “The witch and the tornado are one.”
 
I remember exhilaration.
 
I remember laughter.
 
I remember terror.
 
I remember wonder.
 
I remember, in retrospect, giving some thought to why so many of my favourite films place their own making at the foreground of their narratives – make a narrative of narrative – and thinking it might have something to do with a division in myself: that I want immersion at all costs, on the one hand; but conversely, I am happiest when that immersion does not come at the cost of audience awareness and autonomy, as though I were telling the film-makers, “Trick me, by all means, trick me with all of your strength, but don’t let me for an instant forget it’s a trick!”
 
I remember crying, just a little, when the lamps lit up.    
 
===
 
[2] I remember thinking, too, that a storyline involving a monstrous family member who wants to mutilate the main character’s eyes seemed an odd choice for a family-friendly animated movie, but then I got distracted by Matthew McConaughey’s Beetle character falling on his back and being unable to get back up, and didn’t give the matter a second thought until now.  

 
 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Simon Turner - The Daughters of Earth




Samuel Johnson - Joshua Reynolds, 1775
i
The nominative singular of the first person pronoun, the object of self-consciousness, the ego, denies that it has ceased to hear, see, or understand, or is in any way unable to find its way among the characteristics or possibilities of the composition & compilation of dictionaries to any great extent,
 
certainly not to the extent that it has failed to remember or think upon the fact that the units of spoken language, or the written signs representing said utterances, are the female descendents deriving or proceeding from the matter upon the surface of the globe (soil, that is, a mixture of disintegrated rock & organic material in which roots are planted),

nor, in addition, that that which exists or can be thought upon, including, though not restricted to, inanimate objects, are the male children or offspring of the vault of sky overhanging the earth, the upper regions of the air, the mythical dwelling place of God (or the gods) & of the blessed.



ii
Yours truly, your humble narrator, repudiates the claim that I am in any way so monomaniacally absorbed in onomatology & its related disciplines as to have no remembrance or recollection of the fact that lexemes are the heiresses of terra firma, & that material artefacts are chips off the old block of the empyrean.  

א

Can you, the other, confirm the unverified rumours that you have become so dissipated & distracted in your pursuit of the painterly arts as to have furnished yourself with a prodigious memory regarding the degree to which watercolours are not the mothers of the ether, & nor are the phantoms of our imagination the fountainheads of the Inferno?

 

iii
I am not so legitimate in lilageni as to forget that yams are the decibels of the ectoblast, & that thuribles are the soup of hendiadys.

I am not so lesser in ligers as to forget that yachts are the decease of econometrics, & that thuds are the sou of Hemerocullis.

I am not so limbic in lieder as to forget that Xhosas are the decal of an eclipse, & that thrombi are the sorrel of hellions.

I am not so literal in lichgates as to forget that wushu is the debt of echinoderms, & that threnodies are a sorbus of helicopters.

I am not so littoral in libido as to forget that wrens are the death of ecclesiastics, & that thorps are the sophomores of hegemony.

I am not so lonely in libations as to forget that worth is the Davy Jones of the eaves, & that Thomism is the sonnet of hectors.
 
I am not so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, & that things are the sons of heaven. 

 

Monday, 19 September 2016

Signs and their Portents #2: "Necrophage"




necrophage, n.

[...] Chiefly Zool.

An organism, esp. an insect, that feeds on dead bodies or tissue. Also in extended use.

1940 Q. Rev. Biol. 15 48/2  Animals dependent on primary foods (green plants) are primary animals... Fungivores, necrophages, and coprophages are low secondaries.

1965 B. E. Freeman tr. A. Vandel Biospeleol. xix. 328  It is generally impossible to classify a cavernicole as a humiphage, xylophage, mycophage, coprophage, or necrophage.

1982 Science 10 Sept. 1059/1  No other protein sources are used by T[rigona] hypogea, and pollen transporting structures have been lost, making this species an obligate necrophage.

1994 P. J. Gullan & P. S. Cranston Insects viii. 207/2  The typical sequence of corpse necrophages, saprophages and their parasites is often referred to as following ‘waves’ of colonization.

1995 Times 20 Jan. 35/2  Hunger can make necrophages of us all.

(Source: OED)




Saturday, 17 September 2016

Masterpieces of Cinema (1): "It's All Made Up" - Simon and Rochelle Discuss Coraline (Dir: Henry Selick, 2009)

The first in an occasional series looking at a radically subjective list of our favourite movies, presented to you in no discernible order whatsoever
 
ST: Two things struck me when I was rewatching Coraline recently (it felt like a perfect accompaniment to the massive storm we had a few days back, to provide some context as to why): (1), I cannot think of any means by which it could possibly be improved, unless there was some way to shoehorn some more They Might Be Giants songs onto the soundtrack; and (2), for an ostensibly family-centric animation, it does an incredible job of instilling terror.  It’s fairly obvious that Selick’s going to be a dab hand at this from the opening credits alone, which represent – to my eyes, anyway – a pretty overt nod to the opening credits to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, wherein the audience gets a chance to see Freddy Krueger putting the finishing touches to his modified gardening glove / potential death trap.  Do you see this too, or am I reading far too much into it?


RS: No, I think you’re right. It’s unusual to see that type of malignant stage-setting in the first frames of a kids’ film, but then Coraline doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to visceral unpleasantness.  One aspect of it that I’ve always loved is the idea of crafting your evil plan, that the Other Mother actually sews the mini-Coraline doll herself. It’s partly the foreshadowing of the later grimness about replacing your eyes with buttons (just no), but it’s also echoing some pretty old traditions of folk horror to do with replicas and the constructing of evil objects.  Admittedly, the mini-Coraline doll is far more appealing than a skanky old witch’s apple, but it plays a similar role in somehow inveigling threat into what should be a safe and homely environment.

ST: Although of course we know that the ‘safe and homely environment’ of children’s stories – whether in print or on screen – is never really safe or homely, particularly in relation to the fantastical tradition that Selick’s working within.  Fairy tales pretty uniformly involve children going out into the world and encountering the monstrous, the unknowable, the uncanny, and Coraline’s no different: it is, in fact, almost a distillation of those fairy-tale and fantastical traditions.  The film’s packed to the gunnels with references – Wes Craven’s masterpiece aside – to the classics of children’s storytelling, Alice In Wonderland proving the most visibly insistent narrative reference point (Coraline discovers the world where her Other Mother lives through a tiny door that leads to a rabbit-hole like portal; whilst the mangy, and possibly magical, moggy who aids her in her struggles has a habit of appearing and disappearing at unexpected moments in homage to Carrol’s grinning Cheshire Cat).

Coraline is then, at some level, about the unconscious, about the ‘other world’ that’s hidden alongside this, and which gets unleashed through the usual channel of a child’s unfocused, and wonderfully over-active imagination.  Hence the coexistence within the film’s world of wonder and terror: they’re ultimately the product of the same source, and any writer or artist who really knows a child’s imagination – as both Selick and Neil Gaiman, whose novella of the same name provided the source for Coraline, undoubtedly do – understands this instinctively.  I’d like to draw your attention to this article, wherein Mark Kermode reminisces about how the scariest thing Ramsey Campbell, the horror writer, had ever seen was “an illustration from an old Rupert The Bear annual in which our furry friend is pursued by a tree walking upon spindly roots”, which should really come as no surprise.  Childhood terrors stay with us, and have deeper resonances, than anything – even the very worst things (disease, aging, frailty, loss) – that adulthood has to offer.  (Kermode also quotes Stephen King on the relationship between fantasy and horror, in that both “[make] you, for a little while, a child again”, which makes a hell of a lot of sense to me: when either genre’s working to its greatest strengths, the audience or readership is utterly helpless and involved in the narrative, transported, half willingly, half not, straight back to the communal fireplace, or tucked up, ‘safe’ in bed, as your parents read you selections from those perennial blood-soaked favourites from Perrault or Grimm.)      

RS:  I know what you mean, there is something unpredictable about what you find frightening when you’re a small child.  I remember being absolutely terrified of a picture of a school teacher owl wearing a mortarboard in one of my Tufty Rabbit books, although I resolved this fear by eating the page in question.  A slightly left-field approach, but it worked – I have never since been afraid of owls or mortarboards.  With Coraline, though, it feels as though that sense of threat is apparent mainly due to the depth of audience immersion that the film manages to achieve.  What has always struck me most about it is the sensory detail of the Coraline world.  It helps that this is some of the most beautifully intricate stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen, so every element on the screen (with the odd exception of fog) has an inescapable physicality that helps the adult viewer engage with what is essentially a fairytale.  Oddly, the little documentaries on the DVD about how the puppets were made only add to that sense of immersion rather than detracting from it, because then you know that Coraline’s clothes are all tiny hand-sewn garments, and that someone actually knitted her minute stripy orange gloves.  The details you would feel with your fingertips are just as clearly evoked as those you would see, and with that heightened sense of the fabric of this world comes a more intense reaction to the peril experienced by the protagonist.  It’s a film that can completely immerse you because, at some level, you can tell that this is a world you could reach out and touch, rather than one that is constructed on a purely digital level.

ST: Yes, and I concur with the seeming paradox that knowing more about the construction of the film somehow adds to our sense of enjoyment and immersion, which has never been the case with, to my mind at least, behind the scenes looks at CGI.  Tactility’s important; craft is important: it’s possible, in fact, that the mystery resides in the craft.  (This might mean that the closer cinema adheres to the physical world, even if the physical world in question resides entirely in the imagination, the better it is.  Discuss.)  It’s telling that Coraline is a film that almost signals its own processes from the outset: the opening scene shows us the Other Mother building a Coraline poppet using exactly the methods we see revealed to us in the making-of documentary; whilst when the limitations of the fantasy world are revealed to us later in the narrative (the Other Mother has specifically only made enough of her world to trick children into staying), we’re thrown back into the world of cinema projection: this is a kingdom of illusion, projected onto a limitless white space, an abyssal screen, the borders of which are not limitless, but stop where the maker wants them to stop.  But none of this metatextual play destroys the joy of the film; rather, it enhances it.  This may be a peculiarity of my own, but behind the scenes glimpses of films involving puppets – whether animatronic or stop motion – is one of the great pleasures of film-geekery.  A case in point: I would suggest people check out the making-of documentary for Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, as the level of labour – and craft, naturally – that went into that movie is / are astonishing.  Certainly, it explains visual effects that I had never been able to get my head around before, but it manages to explain them in a way that only makes them more astonishing.  If I ever get into a discussion with some post-Romantic spiritualist blowhard who thinks that an increase in knowledge comes at the expense of wonderment, I’d point them in the direction of that making-of as my first piece of evidence to the contrary.  But as I said, it might be my own eccentric reading methods projecting themselves (ha!) onto the medium of film: the Oulipian in me is always as interested in process as in product, and I like nothing better than reading author’s biographies and finding out the minute technical details of their craft: how much they were writing per day, who they were reading, what dictionaries they favoured, etc., etc.  I know the common wisdom is that that’s the least interesting element in a writer’s life – at least for the general public – but I’d be happy reading biographies that were composed only of those technical details, to be honest with you. 

RS:  Nothing about that surprises me.  But I think that this obsession with the technical processes of creative craft isn’t uncommon; there is something bewitching about watching someone build an object that you yourself couldn’t make.  Thus:
 
   
With Coraline it seems to be more than simply that love of craftsmanship though, and I think you might be on to something with the whole physicality of a film’s world/level of audience immersion idea.  Is it that films such as this one make us relive that childish pleasure of building one thing from another thing (the cardboard box that becomes a den or a car or a rocket, with the judicious application of scissors and felt-tip pens)?  Or is it more about the creation of imaginary spaces within reality, where different rules and identities apply?  Coraline is playing around with those ideas, and the fact that Coraline herself isn’t some tiny tot but (I’m guessing from her attitude) a young teenager means that there is another discussion about the role of imagination in childhood and in adulthood.  At what point does this world of illusion stop being a harmless game and start being something more threatening?  The film seems to be drawing a line between an infantile expectation that things will be as you wish them to be, and a much more generous and outward looking use of the imagination. The fact that the other, adult inhabitants of the Pink Palace Apartments are so creatively eccentric is presented positively, since Mr Bobinski and the Misses Spink and Forcible actively help Coraline in her quest to defeat the Other Mother.  However, Coraline’s parents are a much more pragmatic and sensible foil to all the fantastical playfulness, so which version of adulthood is Coraline expected to embrace?

ST: I’d say the film presents some kind of amalgam of play and pragmatism as the ideal goal.  Equilibrium’s the key.  Yes, the more eccentric inhabitants of the apartments are narratively vital to Coraline’s quest, but they’re also in many ways deluded themselves: Mr B’s dancing mice only really have any valency in the alternative world; whilst Spink and Forcible are living in nostalgic fantasy constructions of their own, menagerie-shelves of stuffed dogs and all.  Equally, Coraline’s parents are trapped within in their own work, and although there’s a negative aspect to their absorption, anyone who’s ever turned their hand to writing will sympathise with the manner in which the outer world tends to drop away when you’re properly in the zone.  However pragmatic and mundane their motivations, though, this voluntary self-removal from immediate surroundings still represents a kind of fantasy world, at one remove from the real that’s evoked with such immersive tactility throughout.  The garden scene that closes the movie seems to be, then, the equilibrium between the mundane and the fantastic that the narrative’s been moving towards.  It’s practical work, requiring knowledge and patience and effort, but the result is beautiful and, moreover, wonderfully gratuitous, quite at odds with the garden created by the Other Mother, the only function of which was to more effectively ensnare Coraline.  Which all suggests that this is the real narrative resolution at some level, this rapprochement between the mundane and the other, this marriage of patient, rational craft and boundless, anarchic imagination: this art.  This is one of the reasons that Coraline as a fantasy film feels so much more radical than, say, the Harry Potter series, as it’s positing the idea that the mundane (what Charles Tomlinson derided in his critique of the Movement as “the suburban mental ratio”) is not something to be escaped or rejected outright by the protagonist; but rather something to be acknowledged and accommodated, along with the life of fantasy that runs parallel to or just beneath it.

RS: OK, that’s fair enough.  Perhaps it is craft itself that allows for that balance between imagination and reality, since there is that acknowledgment of the time taken to create something from scratch.  I love the idea of the garden being a representation of this, but with Mr. Bobinski surreptitiously planting beetroots amongst the tulip bulbs, but there isn’t the sense of resolution that you might expect from a film aimed at children.  Even in the final scene with the garden, it’s clear that there are competing ideas about what the garden should be and how it should function (ie., flowers or vegetables), acknowledging that there are different interpretations of craft and creativity in terms of its practical and/or aesthetic purpose.  Not that this is a bad thing, far from it; it’s rather heartening to see that there’s no standardized view of what childhood or adulthood should be.  There’s a wholehearted acceptance of difference, rather than an insistence on some homogenized realm of normality.  And if wholesome, constructive play involves hunting for giant slugs, then I’m definitely on board.