Friday, 1 December 2006

Snow

For those of you here in the United States who have not seen the news and do not live in the Midwest, we had a massive snowstorm here overnight. I left work early last night with two co-workers and it took a half hour for us to make what is usually a ten minute drive. This morning I awakened to around 15 inches of snow. Keep in mind that here in Missouri we rarely have any significant snowfall before January and we have gone entire winters without any significant snows at all.

As for myself, I called work and told them I would not be coming in today. My best friend there did the same and I have no doubt many others did as well. All of the schools cancelled classes today and, for what is I believe only the third time in its history, the University of Missouri even cancelled classes. Many businesses simply did not open. In St. Louis the Gateway Arch was closed because of ice covering the ground around it. Flights were delayed at numerous airports because of the snow, including Lambert in St. Louis and O'Hare in Chicago. Power outages in both eastern Missouri and western Illinois left millions without power. I think it is safe to say this is one snowstorm that won't be soon forgotten.

With all of the problems associated with snowstorms such as this one, it probably seems odd to many that in Anglo-American pop culture there is a certain romance associated with snow. Indeed, there are even songs about the subject. The classic "Winter Wonderland" is often thought of as a Christmas song, but it makes no mention of the holiday whatsoever. Instead, it is about two lovers taking a leisurely walk through the snow. Like "Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow" is also thought of as a Christmas song, even though it makes no mention of the holiday. And "Let It Snow" is also about two lovers, although in this case it is two lovers who are snuggled up safe and sound inside. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" also makes no mention of Christmas, even though it is sometimes associated with the holiday as well. While "Winter Wonderland" describes two lovers taking a leisurely walk outside and "Let It Snow" describes two snuggled together inside, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is a plea from one lover to another not to leave because, well, it's cold outside... From these songs one would think that snowstorms are a time of romance when there is nothing better than snuggling up with one's beloved. I have to admit, I really can't argue with that logic...

Snow isn't just romanticised in music, however, as it is also somewhat romanticised in the movies as well. There is no better example of this than It's a Wonderful Life. As the movie moves towards its climax, in which George Bailey suffers through the biggest crisis of his life, it is snowing in Bedford Falls. In the dark, depressing, alternate reality in which George Bailey was never born, however, it seems significant that, while there is snow on the ground in Potterville, it is not snowing. Indeed, when George returns to his own reality, one of the first things he notices is that it is snowing again! Quite simply, in It's a Wonderful Life snow seems representative of George Bailey's symbolic death and rebirth.

Of course, snow usually doesn't appear in movies as a part of a symbolic death and rebirth. More often than not it is simply a setting for romance. I can think of a number of movies in which love has bloomed in wintry settings: The Man Who Came to Dinner, Serendipity, When Harry Met Sally, The Apartment (well, I can't recall any snow in that one, but it was cold nonetheless...), and so on. It seems that in the movies snow and wintry weather can make for romance.

As I said earlier, given the problems snowstorms can cause, it might seem curious that there is a certain romance associated with snow in Anglo-American pop culture. I think much of this may well be due to its association with the Yuletide. Indeed, many people, perhaps the majority of people, hope for snow on the holidays, feeling that it makes the season feel more like, well, the season. Since snow is associated with the holidays, it is then also associated with the feelings of home, hearth, and family that are also associated with the holidays.

On a deeper level, even in this industrialised age, people might unconsciously realise that good snows in the winter are necessary to a good growing season in the spring. Winter snows provide much of the moisture necessary for growing crops in the spring. I rather suspect that in ancient times, then, the largely rural populations associated good snows with the prosperity that comes with good harvests. Quite simply, although they might cause problems in the present, good snowfalls are actually a good thing when it comes to agriculture.

Of course, I guess I don't have to point out that heavy snow and cold weather provide the perfect excuse for snuggling up with one's significant other beside a nice, warm fire. It is little wonder that this has been the subject of so many songs, and that so many movies have portrayed winter as a time for romance. I must admit that I can think of nothing better than snuggling on a cold, winter day....

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Amled, prinsen af Jylland (AKA Royal Deceit)

Most people in the English speaking world are familiar with William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. What they may not know is that the tale of Hamlet did not originate with Shakespeare. It appears in the fourth book of the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, a history of Denmark published in the 13th century. Saxo's tale is in many ways similar to that of Hamlet, but differs in many ways as well. In Saxo's version the father of Amleth (Hamlet is the Anglicised version), King Horvendill, is murdered by his brother Feng. And just as in Shakespeare's version, Amleth feigns madness. But in Saxo's version, Amleth never contrives to reveal Feng's guilt through staging a play. Instead, he bides his time, all the while discreetly disposing of Feng's followers. In the meantime, Feng is suspicious of Amleth and puts him through various tests in order to prove he is not mad. Needles to say, Amleth passes all of these tests, thus insuring his charade of insanity is maintained. Of course, it is unlikely that Saxo's version of the tale is the original and the story of Amleth probably predates the Gesta Danorum. The tale may have been part of the lost Skjoldunga Saga (an earlier history of the Danish kings or "Skoldungs") and probably formed a part of the Danish oral tradition.

Over the years, Shakespeare's version of the tale has been filmed many times. Insofar as I know, Saxo's older version of the Amleth legend has only been filmed once. Esteemed director Gabriel Axel had long wanted to adapt Saxo's story of Amleth for the big screen. In 1994 his dream saw fruition as the movie Amled, prinsen of Jylland, known throughout much of Europe as Prince of Jutland and in America as Royal Deceit. Amled, prinsen of Jylland is a very loyal adaptation of Saxo's version of the tale, as Amled (played by a young Christian Bale) feigns madness in order to avenge his father's death at the hands of Fenge (Gabriel Byrne).

The movie's strong point is simply the performances of its cast. Christian Bale is believable as Amled, convincing even when he is feigning madness. And Gabriel Byrne is suitably duplicitous as Fenge, making him an all too realistic villain. As might expected, Helen Mirren gives her usual good performance in the role of Geruth, Amled's mother. For those who enjoy seeing now famous actors in their early roles, there is Kate Beckinsale in one of her earliest film roles and Andy Serkis (best known as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings movies) in his very first film role.

The screenplay by Gabriel Axel and Erik Kjersgaard (who was also the historical advisor on the film) is also quite good. Rather than rush the plot, Axel and Kjersgaard give the movie a very deliberate pace, allowing things to unfold in time. They also give the characters some very fine dialogue fitting a story of murder and vengeance. And the locations, all of them in Denmark, are beautiful.

This is not to say that Amled, prinsen of Jylland is a perfect film. It does have its flaws, nearly all of them due to the fact that it was shot on a very low budget. Even in the Dark Ages, the nobility would have dressed a bit more elaborately than Amled and his family do. Indeed, it seems as if there was only one Thor's hammer pendant shared among the cast members! The battle scenes feature armies of no more than 40 to 50 men at most. While the Battle of Hastings took place several hundred years later than Amleth lived (if he ever really existed), it is notable that the English fielded an army estimated at seven to eight thousand and the Normans had an army of approximately the same size. It is in these ways that the low budget ultimately undermines some of the film's realism. At the same time the low budget also undermines the film's story. We are never shown the murder of Amled's father and brother--we are merely told that they are killed in the narration.

Beyond the constraints that the budget created, in many ways Amled, prinsen of Jylland feels like a movie that was never quite completed. The editing is sometimes only adequate and at yet other times downright poor. And much of the plot is told in the narration (the perfect example being the fact that the murder of Amled's father and brother are never portrayed in the film--we are simply told that they were murdered by the narrator).

Despite these flaws, Amled, prinsen af Jylland is certainly worth viewing, although it is certainly not suited to all tastes. Those accustomed to slick, Hollywood productions with a fast pace might well be put off by the movie. That having been said, for those who do not mind movies with lower budgets and that are not quite as lavish as those put out by the major studios might well appreciate this film. I would particularly recommend it to anyone interested in Germanic mythology, Danish history, or the Dark Ages. It has some very good performances and a compelling story that is very different from that we know from Shakespeare's play.

Sunday, 26 November 2006

Three More Deaths

As if recently losing both Jack Palance and Robert Altman were not enough, there have been three more deaths of people were at least somewhat famous. Their names may not have been recognised by the general public, but these were individuals who had an impact on my life nonetheless.

The most famous of the three is probably Broadway lyrics and Hollywood screenwriter Betty Comden. She died 23 at the age of 89 from heart failure. Comden was part of a team with Adolph Green. Together they wrote the lyrics and often the books many Broadway shows. They were perhaps most famous for writing the screenplays to the classic movie musicals On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and It's Always Fair Weather.

Betty Comden was born in New York City on May 13, 1917. She was studying drama at New York City University when she met Adolph Green, who was struggling to become an actor. The two formed their own troupe, called the Revuers. Comden and Green were not the only members of the group who would one day be famous. There was a young musician who accompanied them on piano named Leonard Bernstein who was part of the troupe, as well as a comedian who would one day become well known as Judy Holiday. The Revuers met with enough success to receive movie offers and made their movie debut in a very small part of Greenwich Village from 1944.

Their first real success would not be in the movies, however, but on Broadway. With Bernstein they collaborated on the musical On the Town, which centred on three sailors on leave in New York City. It ran from December 1944 to February 1946. Comden and Green's next few Broadway shows were not very successful, although by this time they had also met with success in Hollywood. They had written the screenplays for Good News and The Barkleys of Broadway. What cemented their success in Hollywood, however, was an adaptation of the show that brought them their first success on Broadway. They wrote the screenplay for the classic movie musical On the Town, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as two of the sailors on leave in the Big Apple.

It would be the movies that would see Comden and Green reach the pinnacle of their artistic success. Singin' in the Rain starred Gene Kelly as silent star Donald Lockwood and Donald O'Connor as his sidekick in the last days of Hollywood's Silent Era. It is considered by many to be the greatest movie musical of all time, and it is definitely one of the most iconic. Even people who have never seen the film can recognise Kelly's dance with the umbrella to the title song.

Comden and Green followed up their success with Singin' in the Rain with screenplays for The Band Wagon and It's Always Fair Weather. Sadly, even after the success of Singin' in the Rain, Hollywood musicals were in decline. The bulk of Comden and Green's work would then be on the stage. Among their successes were Bells are Ringing, the revue A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Applause, and Wonderful Town.

The collaboration between Comden and Green produced some of the greatest theatrical musicals and movie musicals ever made. In fact, the success of their partnership led many to believe they were married. In response Comden and Green would always say they were...just not to each other. While they were never romantically involved, they shared a comic flair and a gift for dialogue unequalled on either Broadway or in Hollywood. I must admit, On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, and The Band Wagon number among my favourite movies.

Although not nearly as famous as Comden and Green, the creations of TV writer and producer Chris Hayward loom large in American pop culture. Hayward died November 20 at the age of 81 after a long illness. Hayward is perhaps most famous as the creator of Dudley Do-Right and one of the writers for Jay Ward's classic Rocky and Friends (later and better known as The Bullwinkle Show).

Hayward was born in Bayonne, New Jersey on June 19, 1925. His first work in television was on Jay Ward's Crusader Rabbit, the first cartoon created exclusively for television. He would come onto his own as a writer working on Ward's Rocky and Friends, for which he created the Dudley Do-Right segment. As a writer he would also write for such series as My Mother the Car, Get Smart, He and She, and Alice. He was a producer on Get Smart and Barney Miler. With Alan Burns he developed The Munsters and created the series My Mother the Car. He was nominated for Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series (for Barney Miller) and Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series (for the episode "The Hero," co-written with Danny Arnold) in 1976. He won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the episode "The Coming Out Party" of He and She, co-written with Alan Burns.

In addition to writing for television, Hayward was also a singer and songwriter. He had actually arranged music for dance orchestras and even sung on both the radio and on records.

Hayward was arguably one of the best television writers of the Sixties and Seventies. He possessed a dry wit and a gift for satire that would not be seen again until the debut of The Simpsons. He wrote some of the best episodes of the best shows of their time (Get Smart, He and She, and Barney Miller). And while there are many who believe that My Mother the Car is the worst show of all time, don't believe it for a minute. I have seen a few episodes of the notorious series, and at least two of them possessed the wry humour for which the team of Chris Hayward and Alan Burns were known.

The third important person who died was not nearly as famous as either Betty Comden or Chris Hayward, nor was he a creator of pop culture artefacts as they were. Instead, Dr. Jerry Bails was a student of pop cutlure--one of the first to take seriously the study of the medium of comic books. Jerry Bails died the night of November 23 at the age of 73 from a heart attack.

Jerry Bails was born on June 26, 1933. Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, he fell in love with comic books while still young. In particular, he became a devoted fan of the Justice Society of America (the JSA, for short), the first team of superheroes ever created. As a child he bought nearly every issue of All Star Comics, the magazine which featured the Justice Society. Even as he studied for his Bachelors degree in Physics at the University of Kansas City, even as he studied for a Masters degree in Math, he never forgot the Justice Society of America. When DC Comics revived their superhero line in 1956 with the creation of a new Flash (the original had been a member of JSA), Bails actively campaigned for the return of the original Justice Society of America to the pages of comic books, along with fellow Missourian and future comic book writer Roy Thomas.

It was in 1961 that Jerry Bails published the first issue of the fanzine Alter-Ego. Alter-Ego was pivotal in the history of comic book fandom in two ways. First, it focused not only on current comic book heroes, but the superheroes of the Golden Age. This would generate more interest in the Golden Age heroes and would eventually pave the way for their return. If the JSA has their own series now, it is largely because of Jerry Bails. Second, Alter Ego allowed comic book fans to network with each other. As a result, comic book fandom started to organise.

Bails was the author of The Who's Who of American Comic Books, The Collector's Guide to the First Heroic Age of Comics, and Technology and Human Values. With Howard Keltner he co-wrote The Authoritative Index to DC Comics.

Dr. Bails was a central figure in the history of comic book fandom. He was a powerful force in organising fandom. He was also pivotal in the revival of DC Comics' Golden Age characters in the Sixties. And I have little doubt that it was largely because of Dr. Bails' efforts that the serious study of comic books as a medium is now accepted today. While he may not have created pop culture artefacts himself, he was certainly important in recording their history and insuring their study.