2017 in Review (Books read)

Some of the books I read in 2017 were:

I highly recommend this book by a fellow Pittsburgher. It tells the amazing story of how, of all the 27 known hominin species who’ve walked Planet Earth, Homo sapiens sapiens emerged as the only one left standing. (Hominin is the more scientifically up-to-date term, and refers to both anatomically modern humans and our ancestors. Hominids are modern and extinct great apes, and include non-human primates such as orangutans, chimps, and gorillas.)

So many seemingly little things, like neoteny (having a childlike appearance into adulthood), a shortened gestational period, and the development of a sense of right and wrong, led to major evolutionary advantages contributing to our survival and emergence as the world’s most dominant species.

The book also examines the other hominins who’ve walked the Earth, some of whom have only recently been discovered. A number of these hominins inhabited the Earth at the same time, contrary to the formerly-held beliefs casting human evolution as a simple, direct line of descent.

Our 26 cousins may be long gone, but at least two of them, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, live on in the DNA of those of us with European and/or Asian ancestry.

By hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence), the authors (a married couple) had just had twins when their proposal for this book was accepted in 2007, and decided to take some time off to focus on their babies. Had they gone ahead and written this book by the September 2008 deadline, it would’ve immediately become obsolete. So many amazing new discoveries have come to light in the years since.

This book can feel a bit academic at times (esp. the sections on stone tool-making), but I really enjoyed it. There’s also a section on Neanderthal tourism, listing museums and archaeological sites linked to our awesome, unfairly maligned cousins.

The authors are committed to accurately portraying Neanderthals and trying to undo the damage from over a century of slander and misinformation. Like them, I can’t stand when someone with no knowledge of paleoanthropology uses the word Neanderthal as a synonym for stupid, brutish, unenlightened, behind the times, grotesque, etc.

The Neanderthals were good people, the closest cousins we ever had. Many Homo sapiens sapiens aren’t as kind, helpful, and loyal as Neanderthals were.

This book introduced me to the modern development of spelling Neanderthal without an H. It’s because the modern spelling of the German word thal (valley) is tal. I’ve long pronounced the name without an H (since that is the authentic pronunciation), but it’s a little harder to adapt to the new spelling as well.

This book examines the paleoanthropological and cognitive science evidence to show how Neanderthals may have thought about many things (family, love, hunting, security, etc.). They also speculate on what Neanderthals may have dreamt about, and how they used symbolism and language.

This book presents a cultural history of Chanukah in the U.S., going from the Colonial era to the modern day. Chanukah didn’t become a prominent public holiday, or associated with gift-giving, until about the mid-20th century, for reasons we can probably all figure out.

The book also examines the history of Judaism in America in general over the last few centuries, and how hard it was to maintain a religious lifestyle as a minority. Many Christians in the 18th, 19th, and even early 20th centuries matter-of-factly pressured their Jewish friends and neighbors to convert.

As late as the 1940s, it was perfectly legal to have numerus clausus (anti-Semitic education quotas), employment restrictions, limitations on where one could reside, bans on staying by hotels, and many other barriers to the Jewish community’s full, equal participation in American life.

Women were one of the primary forces in shaping Chanukah into an American holiday, since that was one of the relative few religious rituals they could perform in that era. This wasn’t a time when most Jewish women could expect to have a full religious education or role in public life.

The embrace of Chanukah as a major holiday also perfectly illustrated its lessons of staying true to one’s identity and resisting conversion attempts. Chanukah falls at a time of year when we’re most keenly aware of our minority status.

I enjoyed this memoir, one of several books I’ve read about Easy Company since watching the Band of Brothers mini-series. I love how Sgt. Malarkey noticed the exact same thing about the Stephen Ambrose book as I and many other readers did, how he focused WAY too much on bit player David Kenyon Webster!

The WWII generation is dying out, and Sgt. Malarkey himself passed away this September. We’re so lucky so many of them have left behind memoirs and recorded testimonies.

This was a cute collection of Dr. Seuss’s early cartoons and stories, many from college newspapers and humor magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote and drew many of these under the name Dr. Theophrastus Seuss. A particularly strange story is about his purported sex ed lessons to his nephew, where he says a whole lot of nothing.

I really enjoyed this book about the women of Paris during WWII and the early postwar years. It covers women from all walks of life, who did all sorts of things during the war. There are sheroes as well as victims and women with complicated actions. Some of them never had normal lives again, even the survivors or the ones who were rehabilitated after suffering national degradation.

Real history is often much more complicated than declaring such and such a person or action 100% good or 100% evil. There are so many shades of grey.


A triple dose of antique horror

Welcome back to my yearly October series on classic horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries! This year, I’m starting off with three Georges Méliès films from 1897, and will also be fêting The Unknown (1927), The Mummy (1932), Häxan (1922), The Lodger (1927), Freaks (1932), The Cat and the Canary (1927), Phantom (1922), Vampyr (1932), Hilde Warren und der Tod (1917), the lost Lon Chaney, Sr., films London After Midnight (1927) and A Blind Bargain (1922), and Nosferatu (1922).

Let’s get started!

Le Château Hanté was released as The Devil’s Castle in the U.S., and The Haunted Castle in the U.K. In spite of its British title, it’s not one and the same as the world’s first horror film, the 1896 Méliès film I featured last year.

Two men enter a castle, one dressed in red and the other in brown. The man in brown offers his friend a seat which moves away. When the man in red goes to fetch the chair, it turns into a ghost, a skeleton, and a knight in armor. When it disappears, the man is confronted by Satan, and his escape route is blocked by a ghost.

This film was Méliès’s first collaboration with Elisabeth Thuillier, who ran an all-women’s film coloring lab in Paris. They worked together till 1912, when he left filmmaking. This is also the second Méliès film featuring Satan.

The Bewitched Inn (L’Auberge Ensorcelée) features Méliès as a traveller who can’t get any rest in his hotel room, as he’s beset by obstacle after obstacle in his quest to change into pyjamas and crawl into bed. His clothes and the furniture all vanish, fly up to the ceiling, or move around the room. His candle also explodes. He finally gives up and leaves.

This is the first known Méliès film to feature inanimate objects coming to life, something he did many times in his films. The theme is very similar to 1896’s A Terrible Night (which I discussed last year), and would be used again (with considerable expansion) in 1903’s The Inn Where No Man Rests.

The special effects were achieved through substitution splice, wherein the camera would stop as something was added, changed, or removed. Méliès used this technique many times. The inanimate objects were animated with wires, and the exploding candle used pyrotechnics.

Sadly, Le Cabinet de Méphistophélès (alternately titled The Devil’s Laboratory, The Cabinet of Mephistopheles, and Laboratory of Mephistopheles) is lost. Only about 200 of his 520 films are known to survive.

Out of anger and frustration at his financial ruin and fall into obscurity, Méliès burnt many of his negatives. In 1917, the French Army occupied his office and melted down many others for celluloid (boot heels) and silver (ammo). The rest were lost due to the all-too-familiar deterioration of nitrate.

As suggested by the title, the story was inspired by Faust, and is believed to be the very first film adaptation of this timeless story. It’s also believed to be Méliès’s very first literary adaptation.

The synopsis says Mephistopheles cavorts about in various disguises before revealing his true self. Along the way, he does magic tricks, presumably objects appearing, disappearing, and moving around. I’d also assume Méliès plays Mephistopheles.

Le Voyage dans la Lune at 115, Part III (Reception and legacy)

Georges Méliès began filming Le Voyage in May 1902, and began selling prints to distributors after finishing in August. The hand-coloured print from Elisabeth Thuillier’s studio ran from September–December by Méliès’s Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris.

Jules-Eugène Legris, a co-worker and fellow magician, who appears in the final scene as the parade leader, screened the film after Thursday and Saturday matinées.

Black and white prints sold for 560 francs, and colour prints went for 1,000. Sadly, due to rampant piracy, Méliès never got most of the profits from this runaway blockbuster.

Not only was Méliès a victim of piracy and cheated of most of his rightful profits, he also wasn’t credited onscreen or in advertisements either. The only U.S. exhibitor who credited him during the first six months of the theatrical run was Thomas Lincoln Tally, of L.A.’s Electrical Theatre.

To try to nip this situation in the bud, Méliès opened a U.S. branch of his Star Film Company in New York in 1903, run by his brother Gaston. This studio sold his films directly and registered them with U.S. copyrights.

The catalogue introduced this English-language studio thus: “In opening a factory and office in New York we are prepared and determined energetically to pursue all counterfeiters and pirates. We will not speak twice, we will act!”

Méliès also made trade arrangements with companies including American Mutoscope and Biograph, Gaumont, the Charles Urban Trading Company, the Warwick Trading Company, and Robert W. Paul’s company. Fifteen cents per foot of film became the standard price.

In 1908, new price standardizations from the Motion Picture Patents Company made Méliès’s films outrageously expensive. Coupled with the fact that his films’ fantasy and magical themes fell out of fashion, this set the stage for his financial ruin and fall into obscurity.

Because of the film’s high price, Méliès at first was unsuccessful at selling prints to fairground exhibitors. However, when he gave one exhibitor a free print, it was a wild success from the very first showing. Fairgoers packed into the theatre until midnight, and the exhibitor immediately bought the film.

When Méliès reminded him of his initial reluctance to pony up the money, he offered 200 francs to make up for this insult and inconvenience.

The film ran continuously by L’Olympia in Paris for several months. Due to the abovediscussed piracy, the film also was a runaway success in the U.S. It ran in cities including New York, New Orleans, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Detroit, L.A., and Cleveland.

Through 1904, it was a featured headline attraction in countries including Canada, Italy, and Germany. Truly, this was one of the most popular films in the early 20th century, across all markets.

Because of Méliès’s later financial woes and tanked reputation, many of the copies of his prints were lost. In 1917, the military occupied his office and melted down many of his films for silver and celluloid. The silver was used for ammo; the celluloid, boot heels.

When the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was razed to the ground in 1923, the prints stored there were sold to a second-hand film vendor by weight. Later that same year, Méliès burnt all remaining negatives in his garden in Montreuil, in a fit of anger.

In 1925, be became a toy and candy vendor by a stand in the Gare Montparnasse railway terminal in Paris, and his impressive body of film work seemed as though it had slipped into the foggy mists of time.

Thankfully, due to early film history devotees, Méliès was rediscovered in the late 1920s, and his reputation and popularity were restored. Two copies of Le Voyage were found, though both were incomplete. In 1997, a complete print was finally reconstructed.

In 1993, a hand-coloured print surfaced, believed to be from a Spanish distributor on account of the flag in the launching scene being coloured like the flag of Spain. From 2002–05, this print was restored against all odds, and in 2010, a complete restoration became publicly available. In 2011, the finishing touches were put on this restoration.

Le Voyage has had a most enormous impact on filmmakers and popular culture over the past 115 years. It made people realize films could be purely for entertainment, and that sci-fi films were not only possible, but could be popular as well.

The iconic image of the Moon with the spaceship in its eye has been referenced countless times in films, artwork, and other creative visual media.

Though Méliès didn’t think this was his greatest work, he acknowledged it was his most popular. This milestone film has more than earned its rightful place in cinematic history.


Le Voyage dans la Lune at 115, Part II (Behind the scenes)

In loving memory of Dante Alighieri, who departed this world 696 years ago today.

Georges Méliès’s sci-fi classic was inspired by the Jules Verne novels De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon) (1865) and Autour de la Lune (Around the Moon) (1870). Another prominent influence, albeit not personally cited by Méliès, seems to have been H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (French translation published 1902).

Still other influences suspected by film scholars include Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Le Voyage dans la Lune (produced 1875–76) and the 1901 Pan–American Exposition’s A Trip to the Moon ride in Buffalo. The latter cost fifty cents, and was one of the first space-themed rides. It was also the very first dark ride (think Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean).

Though film actors weren’t credited in 1902 (due in large part to how it was considered low-brow entertainment, inferior to theatre), we know Méliès played Prof. Barbenfouillis. He did everything in his films—acting, directing, writing, editing, producing, designing, special effects, publicity, technical details. As such, he was one of cinema’s very first auteurs.

All told, Méliès starred in at least 300 of his 520 films. He was a cinematic star without knowing it, before such a concept existed.

Other players were Bleuette Bernon as Phoebe (a very early character actor); magician Jules-Eugène Legris as parade leader; Henri Delannoy as rocket captain; salaried employee François Lallement as the Marines’ officer; Théâtre du Châtelet ballerinas as stars and cannon attendants; Folies Bergère acrobats as Selenites; and Théâtre de Cluny actor Victor André and music hall singers Delpierre, Farjaux, Kelm, and Brunnet as the other five astronomers.

Le Voyage was Méliès’s longest film to date, at 17 minutes (by Méliès’s preferred projection speed, 12–14 frames per second). Most DVD prints run closer to 13 minutes. It took three months to film, and had the extravagant budget of 10,000 francs ($1,296.95 in 2017 U.S. currency, if I calculated the inflation and conversion correctly).

Most of the money went towards the Selenites’ costumes and the mechanically-operated scenery. The backdrop of the glass-roofed workshop in which the spaceship is built was painted to resemble Méliès’s real glass-roofed studio.

Méliès’s cameramen were Théophile Michault and Lucien Tanguay, salaried employees of his Star Film Company, who also performed tasks such as setting up scenery and developing film.

His actors were hired on a film-by-film basis and paid one Louis d’or a day, which was much better pay than that offered by competitors. Another perk was taking a free meal with Méliès at noon every day.

In an era well before CGI, Méliès achieved many of his special effects via substitution splice. Filming stopped for something to be removed, changed, or added. The footage was then spliced together. Other methods included transitional dissolves, multiple exposures, pyrotechnics, and stage machinery.

Méliès was a magician prior to becoming a filmmaker, and most marvellously used all the tricks of his former trade to wonderful effect.

Some prints were hand-coloured by Elisabeth Thuillier, who began working with film in 1897. Her studio was an all-female business, and used four basic dyes—magenta, orange, bright yellow, and blue-green. The dyes were often mixed to create other colours, and changed tone depending upon the shade of grey underneath.

Mme. Thuillier hand-coloured all of Méliès’s films from 1897–1912.

Like many of Méliès’s other films, Le Voyage too was meant to be accompanied by a bonimenteur (narrator) explicating the action onscreen. While the general stories in his films can be followed without intertitles, there are crucial details missing without spoken narration.

Méliès advertised the film as a pièce à grand spectacle, a type of stage extravaganza popularised by Jules Verne and Adolphe d’Ennery. Some film historians also classify it as part of the féerie genre (fantasy with mechanical stage effects, awesome visuals, and lavish scenery).

The film also contains strong satirical and anti-imperialism themes, with its bumbling explorers, obvious violations of the laws of physics, the violent treatment of the Selenites, and the parading of a Selenite captive in the concluding victory parade.


Le Voyage dans la Lune at 115, Part I (General overview)

Released 1 September 1902 in France and 4 October in the U.S., Le Voyage dans la Lune is without a doubt the most famous film of the great Georges Méliès, and one of the most important films of cinematic history. That image of the Moon with the spaceship in its eye is iconic.

Méliès stars as Prof. Barbenfouillis, president of the Astronomic Club. One member of the club quite vociferously disagrees with his proposal for a voyage to the Moon, but Barbenfouillis shuts him up by throwing a book and papers at his head.

Ultimately, the mission is unanimously approved, and five other astronomers are chosen to come along—Nostradamus, Alcofrisbas, Omega, Micromegas, and Parafaragaramus. A most splendid spaceship is constructed for them, whose construction they get to witness.

When the big day arrives, the astronomers are seen off with great fanfare. On a signal, the cannon loaded with the spaceship launches our heroes.

After arrival on the Moon, the astronomers are delighted to see Earth rising. They’re also delighted by the craters. Unfortunately, just as they’re about to start exploring, an explosion sends them sprawling. They then stretch out to sleep, feeling very fatigued by their journey.

Seven gigantic stars (i.e., the Big Dipper) appear, and, slowly, women’s faces come out of the stars. They seem annoyed by the intrusion of the explorers. The stars are then replaced by a lovely vision of Phoebus on the crescent, Saturn in his globe, and two charming young girls holding up a star.

By order of Phoebus, the exolorers are punished by a downpour of freezing snow, which wakes everyone up. While the snowstorm is still raging, they escape into a giant crater, and find a landscape of enormous mushrooms in a grotto.

Barbenfouillis plants his umbrella in the ground to compare its size against the mushrooms, but the umbrella suddenly takes root and transforms into a mushroom which begins growing to giant proportions.

Selenites, inhabitants of the Moon, emerge from underneath the mushrooms and attack the explorers. Barbenfouillis attacks one with his umbrella, which makes him burst into a thousand pieces. However, the Selenites keep coming, and the explorers are overpowered.

When the explorers are brought, bound, to the king’s palace, Barbenfouillis breaks free of his restraints, dashes for the King, grabs him, and throws him on the ground. The King breaks into a thousand pieces, and the explorers escape.

With the Selenite Army hot on their heels, the explorers run as fast as they can. They manage to disintegrate enough of their pursuers to escape into the spaceship. Only Barbenfouillis is left behind.

Not to be deterred, Barbenfouillis grabs onto the rope attached to the ship. His weight causes it to fall off the Moon, with the remainder of the Selenite Army unable to catch them. The shell falls with sickening rapidity, and lands in the ocean.

Due to the way the ship is constructed, it easily rises back to the surface, and is towed to port by a ship. The explorers are given a heroes’ welcome.