Matt McHugh

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The Children of Film


October 8, 2009

My review of P.D. James book The Children of Men, as posted on Amazon:

In a reverse of the way I prefer to do such things, I happened to see Alfonso Cuarón's spectacular film "Children of Men" before reading P.D. James excellent novel "The Children of Men." Fortunately, other than 75% of the title and the basic premise, the two have very little in common.

I shall refrain from commenting on the film -- other than to repeat it is spectacular -- and focus on James' book. In a world dying from a quarter century of complete human infertility, Oxford history prof Theo Faron is a brooding, disconnected, sad-sack of a man haunted by personal tragedy and crippling emotional repression (even by British standards). The book follows Theo as slowly, grudgingly he starts to care about a world that no longer cares about itself. In ways both subtle and obvious, James links the erosion of hope to the absence of children with vivid plausibility. As an interesting flip side, she also ties the gradual implosion of society and the unopposed rise of despotism into the scenario with perfect logic. "We will protect you to the end, even if we have eradicate your every freedom." Thus the un-elected Warden of England -- Theo's childhood companion -- would say.

At first, Theo doesn't care; later, he does. How and why is the crux of the story and, in some ways, the least believable thread. Still, as Theo's humanity reawakens and James throttles the story up toward thriller range, the book is compulsively readable. Where the film (forgive the digression) climaxes with astounding action sequences, the book crowns the drama with profound personal transformation. The two approaches couldn't be more different, and both are perfectly suited to their media. P.D. James plies her craft beautifully here and "The Children of Men" stands out even under a cinematic shadow.

-- mm




October 20, 2009

So here's a thing I knew nothing about: Diwali. Diwali or Dipavali, is a significant festival in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, and an official holiday in India and Nepal. Adherents of these religions celebrate Diwali as the Festival of Lights. Thus sayeth Wikipedia.

An Indian colleague e-mailed me Diwali wishes, so I took the opportunity to ask a bit about it. It seems there's a whole slew of religious underpinnings, particularly with various Hindu gods, but the crux of the observance centers around the power of light over darkness -- and all that might symbolize in a spiritual/moral/personal context. The festival is a five-day event, with sequential lighting of candles or lamps, social gatherings, decorations, fireworks, new clothes, family meals, and small gifts of sweets. In other words, all the typical trappings of a holiday celebration in virtually any culture.

It always fascinates me how religion and secularism mix, particularly in popular holidays. This certainly seems true in what little I know of Diwali now. Closer to home, consider Christmas and Easter in the Christian world. Both have very specific religious associations (Jesus' birth and death/resurrection). Both are timed to match older pagan/agricultural festivals (the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox). Both have ample secular traditions that people can enjoy regardless of beliefs (decorated trees and gift exchanges, new clothes and chocolate eggs). We have these universal human needs to form communities and elevate some days as special that inevitably blend with a personal search for spiritual meaning. Every culture does it in their own way, but the core similarities are striking, if you ask me.

Obama even celebrated Diwali in the White House, inviting Hindu leaders as well Indian members of his administration. Given the number of Indians (from India) living in the U.S. (10-15 million, I'd guess?) it seems a decent gesture. Americans tend to be so willfully oblivious to traditions from elsewhere in the world (nearly all of which are dramatically older than any American tradition), that it's nice to see the President pause to note something outside the usual mainstream. Perhaps he may earn that Peace Prize yet!

Anyway, now I'm a tiny bit enlightened about Diwali. Hope you are, too.

-- mm


Apocalypse Trois


October 23, 2009

Just read an interesting trio of books linked, so it seemed to me, by different takes on end-of-the-world scenarios.

The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
More a collection of connected stories -- a few of which I vaguely recall reading years ago -- than a novel, the book nonetheless moves continuously toward an anti-climactic end of the human race, with an inept, abortive colonization of Mars along the way. Definitely an interesting book, though much more an allegorical than purist sci-fi work. Humans, with their aggressive, despoiling ways, hurtle toward their own demise as fast as their technology can carry them. Doesn't matter what planet we're on, we'll wreck it. Told with such imagination and panache it doesn't seem quite the downer its literal arc implies.

The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
Found a little old paperback at a book exchange and picked it up. Knowing the basic story -- Time Traveler! Eloi! Morlocks! -- from umpteen movie versions (some wretched), it seemed right and proper to acquaint myself with the original. Dated but still deftly written, the granddaddy of time-travel stories sadly suffers from a hundred years of spawn; everything it does has been done dozens of different ways by now. But, it was the pioneer and in that context, still pretty mind warping. The idea that humans might not continue to advance but devolve and atrophy into primitive, childish shadows of their nobler selves is still shocking. And the way he portrays the earth of a billion-odd years hence stewing in a deathbed of primordial soup is both plausible and disturbing. The "action" sequences seem clumsy and dull, but Wells didn't have the benefit of the mountains of pulp recent generations were weaned on, so I'll cut him some slack there. All in all, well worth the read.

The Children of Men, P.D. James
I wrote a review of this earlier, so in this context all I'll add are a few thoughts about its end-of-the-world vision. James makes the notion of a childless society slowly sinking into despair and madness seem more believable with each page. Like The Time Machine, there's an undercurrent here that once you've gotten a good look at the end of things -- no matter how far off -- all feelings of hope will inevitably wither. The flipside of that is that once the main character finds a reason to hope, even if it's a bit misguided and foolhardy, he goes for it full tilt. Whether or not the world is saved, the book leaves unanswered -- but the main character's redemption is total.

Interesting trio to read back-to-back-to-back, and because of that proximity, I may be finding dubious connections. Still, each book orbits the same black hole of oblivion and describes the view. I appreciated the different perspectives.

-- mm


Three Books on Film


October 24, 2009

Oh, another interesting common thread for the three: for each one, I'd seen a film version at some point before reading the book. Some thoughts:

The Time Machine
The one that sticks in my mind is that fantastic 1950's movie starring Rod Taylor, which I probably first saw at 10 or 11. In many ways, I find it superior to the book -- though the curse that you prefer what you first encounter may well be at work here. I also recall a terrible made-for-TV version in the 70's, and there was new movie made three or four years ago -- I have the notion that Wells' great-grandson or the like directed or co-wrote it or something? -- that was mediocre at best. Interesting that the actual book had so much less plot action than any of the movies. Different eras, I suppose.

The Martian Chronicles
Again, there was a made-for-TV movie in the 70's I kind of recall. I remember that some of the imagery -- particularly the Martians' penchant for wearing masks for different occasions -- was handled interestingly, but much of it suffered from 70's TV production values. Beyond that, little of the story details stuck in my mind. A few snippets came back to me as I read it, but mostly it felt pretty fresh.

Children of Men
I've talked about this one already, but I'll just reiterate I liked both and find them generally difficult to compare. I'd have to say the movie really impressed me; the book, I found interesting, but not indelible.

-- mm


Naked Starship Captain Dream


October 27, 2009

Here's an odd, very interesting dream I had recently. All I can recall is a brief snippet -- I don't know if it was part of something larger or not -- but the bit I remember is fascinating.

I was being "beamed"--teleported à la Star Trek--onto a starship. Due to some miscalculation, I materialized in a shower stall of a locker room, fully naked, shower in progress. I finished showering and stepped out to dry off, and found myself being berated by an officer and surrounded by a dozen crewmen. Apparently, on this huge battle/starship, there were multiple decks where different types of military personnel headquartered. The Army, Marines, Air Force, etc. I'd shown up in the locker room reserved for fighter pilots and was getting chewed out for being out-of-bounds.

So, I'm standing there -- wet, naked, only a towel wrapped around me -- saying, "Yes, sir... sorry, sir... it will never happen again, sir." Here's the kicker: unbeknownst to those around me, I was the newly assigned captain of the ship. I even had my captain's hat with me and, had I simply put it on, the group would have recognized who I was in an instant. However, I just continued to apologize like a chastened underling and simply left, knowing all the while I'd have the last laugh on the obnoxious officer.

And, sure enough, I did: I assigned him -- an officer, a fighter pilot -- to bathroom cleaning duty. In the dream, I was now the officer moping up the tile floor of a shower room. I'm sloping around in ankle-deep water, complaining that I never would have said anything if I'd known he (the original dream-me) was the captain. I remember there were old Band-Aids stuck to the floor I had to scrape up.

Setting aside my usual wish to avoid analysis, I have to say I love this dream-snippet because it's an inversion of the the classic, naked-in-public anxiety dream scenario. There I was in a position where I might have felt extremely vulnerable and humiliated, yet I was calm and supremely confident. I was able to suffer the indigity of the situation with ease because I knew, despite appearances, I had the upper hand... I held all the power in the situation. And I even got the satisfaction of experiencing the officer's punishment and dismay first hand.

I suppose you could flip it around and say that, in the dream, I always inhabited the role of the victim, never the victor -- but it didn't feel that way. The complete lack of any sense of intimidation left me feeling downright powerful. It's rare, in my experience, to have a dream that leaves a lingering sense of confidence like that.

-- mm

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