Friday, January 18, 2013

Dead Presidents

The election is over thank God, but fascination with the presidency goes on. The “big three”: Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, are back with a vengeance on the big and little screens.
First:  George Washington. The latest edition of Assassin’s Creed takes place during the American Revolution and GW is a major character. Unfortunatly, I suck at video games so I haven’t actually perused it
Next: is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Filmmakers have been trying to portray the Great Emancipator since at least Birth of a Nation a century ago, and with the possible exception of Raymond Massy most have failed. I guess the reason is that he’s too iconic. There’s something about being a national hero, THE national hero that makes a portrayal as a regular human.  Spielberg doesn’t do a full biography, but just concentrates on one incident, the passing of the 13th amendment to the Constitution, the first in over half a century.
The film is for the most part a celebration of the art of lobbying. Secretary of State Seward(David Strathairn), hires three  unsavory lobbyists(James Spader et al)  to bribe Democrats (who were the bad guys in those days) by offering retiring  and defeated congressmen patronage jobs.
 While Daniel Day Lewis is utterly brilliant as Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones steals the show playing Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania Congressman who led the antislavery movement well before there even was a Republican party. He channels Don Rickels and is a hoot. This is one of his best performances ever, and the whole thing is reminiscent of “The West Wing” in 19th century drag.
Finally, there’s Hyde Park on the Hudson, which has been going ‘round the film festival circuit and opens soon. If this doesn’t get Bill Murray an Oscar®, he’ll never get one. The film’s got everything a Masterpiece Theater fan or political junkie would want.  After all, there’s nothing the British are better at than a good costume drama, and the visit of King George VI(Samuel West) and his queen(Olivia Colman) to the US in 1939 is the perfect vehicle for expanding the American market.
With the Great Depression finally ending and World War II looming on the horizon, someone in the administration had decided that President Roosevelt(Murray) needed a playmate, and found one in his sixth cousin Daisy Suckley(Laura Linney), who is taking care of a very aged aunt. 
The film has a feel of Downton Abbey meets the West Wing to it, as Daisy and FDR fall in like with each other and what happens when she discovers he’s shagging his secretary Missy Lehand(Elizabeth Marvel), while their majesties are making a royal visit to deliver Neville Chamberlin’s request for help now that he realized he’d made a huge mistake trying to buy Hitler off.
It’s a fun film. All in all it’s really nice to see history done right for a change. I remember how Spielberg really botched Martin Van Buren in Amistad, a decade ago, and more recently, Oliver Stone’s horrible history series on Showtime            , but with the election over, and politics thankfully on the back burner for a year and a half, I don’t think we will see anything like these films for quite a while.            

Literary Classics

Why don’t they make more movies out of literary classics?
One reason is because the vast majority of them are vastly overrated.
One good example is Anna Karenina, based on Tolstoy’s classic soap opera. Anna is married to a saintly (as she says so over and over again) national cabinet minister, with whom she’s in love with. So, it’s obvious, Tolstoy, who was a bit of a misogynist, will move to destroy this domestic bliss. So she falls in love with a beautiful moron with the title of Baron, and…you get the idea.
Tolstoy is famously wordy. This appears to be based on the Cliff Notes® version, and that is mostly a mean little story (or two, but they appear to have little to do with each other), so how to make it watchable? Staging?
The film takes place in a theater. Since this is a movie, the entire theater, from the rafters to the seats, are used.  At first, this is a good idea; the camera angles and the stylized costuming distract us from the mostly boring story. The contrast between the lush costumes and scenery and the spartan, stylized space, and things like model trains going from St. Petersburg to Moscow, but then sometime in the middle, one of the characters walks out into a field, and the illusion falls apart. The illusion that we’re watching a play is shattered, and it turns into a regular movie, and then we discover that the only reason this is considered a classic is that it was written by Tolstoy, not on it’s own merits.
The problem with a film like this is that people come for the story and not the visuals. This isn’t always the case, Avatar was a huge hit and had one of the worst scripts of the decade. But in this case, it’s literary film all about the writing, and if the writing fails, then the whole ting falls apart.
The fact that it’s having a very limited release won’t be any help either, as this sort of thing is going to be decided by word of mouth of the literati. It’s going to be a massive flop.
Another literary adaptation that isn’t doing all that well is Life of Pi, which is a much, much better film.
They said Life of Pi was unfilmable. Clearly it is. . The reason is CGI animation. Many of the backgrounds and all the animals are computer generated, creating a wonder-filled sea and a carnivorous island. The magically realist story is brought completely to life by Ang Lee and his team of animators. The technology is now fully capable, and the visuals add greatly to the storytelling.
The acting is professional. No one gives a poor, or even mediocre performance and before the it turns into a literal cartoon, it more than holds one’s attention, but then the ship sinks and the Pi() begins to  play second fiddle to the CGI characters. It’s one guy in front of a green screen all by his little self. Armed only with Tom Stoppard’s script and Ang Lee’s direction. The whole thing works, so why isn’t it doing better? 007 and Vampires, as Parents were all at the stores buying gifts, as their kids go off to the movies so they don’t act as a drag on mom and dad.
This may be one of those years that the Oscars will go to film s that few before their nominated, and Classic books and recent best sellers will get the short shrift.  

the world is coming to an end

The world is coming to an end. Again. On December the 21st, 2012, long count of the Mayan calendar, which allegedly started back around 3200 BC, for reasons that no one actually knows. So lots of people think that when the long count ends, the whole world will go blooy. I’m going down to Copan in Honduras, which is the easternmost edge of the “Mundo Maya.” There’s going to be parties everywhere, so why not?

The end of the world is something that is predicted and re-predicted about two or three times a year. Sometimes, these predictions are right on. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said it would happen in August of 1914, and some Jewish mystic said it would on Rosh Hashanah 5700 (September 1939), and lo and behold; there were two world wars. So who knows?
All the brouhaha has to do with the fact that the Maya are famously mysterious. This is because they liked to throw away their cities every now and then, and melt back into the forest. They lost all but two of their books to Spanish censors back in the 1550s, and so their alphabet (actually a syllabary like the Japanese) was long forgotten and illegible. That was until the 1990s, but before then, they were considered a mysterious and peaceful bunch of astronomers who had a perfect civilization before they vanished entirely, and left their land to a bunch of savages who took the name, and oh yeah, they had this really funky calendar which ends in 2012. 
They still say that on some History Channel specials. 

But in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the “glyphs” were deciphered and everything changed, the Maya were learned to be ruled by a warlike bunch who liked to fight with each other until the commoners got fed up and left for the jungles, leaving their glimmering cities to collapse.
It is these cities, which were never really lost, that have become the center of the tourist industry of Western Central America, from Chiapas to the west to Somewhere in El Salvador to the east. The most famous of these is Chechen Izta near the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula, Iconic as is possible to be, it’s located in a theme park of sorts, just the place for an “end of the world “ celebration.
Most of the major public Mayan cities are gearing up for a tourist bonanza, New Agers from everywhere are going to do their thing to celebrate what they think are the ancient rites of the pre-decipherment mythology. With any luck, there’s going to be lots of semi-legal intoxicants to enhance the experience.

It’s kind of late to do anything about getting there, but in case you can, most of the festivities are near the beach. Cancun, for example is a genuine Mayan temple in the  Hotel Zone (it was the only thing there before the city was planned.), The dozen theme parks along the “Riviera Maya” are all having big events, and Belize is having a major push to double it’s usual tourism revenue.
The Mystery of the Maya is vanishing, Archeologist have managed to discover most of the reasons why the so-called “Classic” civilization collapsed  (El NiƱo, and a long drought) and even so, the ruins are impressive pretty much anywhere. The best are Chechen Itza, which is easy go get to and Palenque, which is not, Both in Mexico, Tikal and Copan, which are in Central America and are to some extent even better, but are quite difficult to get to.  There are lots of minor sites which can be fascinating.

Remember if you want to find out more, stay away from anything New Agey. The New Age movement has rejected most of the knowledge acquired by archeologists in the past few decades and tries to cling to stuff which was proffered by Eric Thompson, who was bamboozled by Mayan friends of his who proffered a totally fraudulent picture of the civilization and tried to enforce his view on the academic world for much of the 20th century.

Those who think the castles and pyramids were built under the supervision of Space Aliens are still around and are going to be down in the Riviera Maya in force. It’s going to be fun to watch them make fools of themselves up close.

The REAL thing is always more interesting than the fantasy. Hopefully the  end of the world will make this idea more popular.