Posted in Judaism, Religion

Writing about Birkat HaChamah

Birkat HaChamah by the Kotel (Western Wall), 8 April 2009, Copyright Lipaphotography

Birkat HaChamah, the Blessing of the Sun, is a special mitzvah that only happens once every 28 years. It’s happened twice in my lifetime so far, 1981 and 2009. The average person might get to perform it 3-4 times in a lifetime.

The next time it’ll happen is 2037, and then 2065, 2093, and 2121. If I’m blessed enough to live to 2093, I’ll be 113. I’d like to make it to 2100, if only to say I lived in three centuries.

Birkat HaChamah falls out when the Sun completes its cycle, always on a Tuesday at sundown. However, it’s postponed till Wednesday morning, when the Sun is visible.

According to traditional Jewish theology, this is when the Sun returns to the position it was in on the non-literal fourth day of creation. Many scholars and rabbis, Orthodox as well as progressive, have interpreted the Torah’s concept of creation days as lasting more than 24 hours.

Sunrise over Yerushalayim on Birkat HaChamah 2009, Copyright Bcohn

One looks at the Sun on the horizon while reciting the blessing ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם עושה מעשה בראשית, “Blessèd are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Maker of the works of Creation.”

Some people modify the Hebrew to use female language (e.g., Malka [Queen] vs. Melech [King]). Hashem has both male and female attributes, invoked at different times. When I say the famous Avinu Malkeynu (Our Father, Our King) prayer on the High Holy Days, I alternate the first lines as “Our Father, Our King” and “Our Mother, Our Queen.”

It’s a very brief service, with the first six lines of Psalm 148 before the Sun blessing, followed by Psalms 19, 121, and 150, a Talmud passage about Birkat HaChamah, Psalm 167, the Aleynu prayer, and Mourner’s Kaddish.

Preparing for Birkat HaChamah in 2009 in Yerushalayim, Copyright Chadica

Since this is such a rare mitzvah, everyone is urged to participate in it, even small children. This isn’t something like missing Shabbos or holiday services, where there’s another chance next week or year.

If the Sun is completely blocked, minority opinions allow the blessing to be recited regardless. We should always encourage people to do a mitzvah, esp. considering this one only comes once every 28 years, and tomorrow is never guaranteed.

I wrote a short story called “Birkat HaChamah,” set 7.5 billion years in the future, in the days leading up to the final Birkat HaChamah ever. It ends as the subgiant, red giant, maximum radius Sun swallows the Moon and Earth, shortly after a super-elder, at least 10,000 years old, pronounces the blessing from the final rocket to evacuate.

Red giant Sun and carbonized Earth, Copyright Fsgregs

Posted in Writing

IWSG—June odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroup
The Insecure Writer’s Support Group virtually meets the first Wednesday of each month, and lets us share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

 Of all the genres you read and write, which is your favorite to write in and why?

I’ve lived and breathed all things historical since childhood. History was always my favorite subject, and I never understood why so many people complain about it being boring and irrelevant. I loved learning about how people lived in other eras—clothes, food, toys, jobs, houses, pastimes, books, cars, world events.

My secondary love is soft sci-fi. It’s the opposite side of the coin from hist-fic, in that it images worlds in future eras. Both genres also require research. If your story is set in the far future, you have to know about all the predicted developments.

I know this is cliché, but I got interested in sci-fi when I discovered Isaac Asimov at age eleven. He had several stories in a book of sci-fi/futuristic stories we read in my fifth grade English class, including the first one. I was so enraptured by these imagined future worlds, I began reading all I could find about predicted future life (houses, foods, space colonies, undersea towns, leisure space travel, holographic movies, etc.).

I’m doing JuNoWriMo again, and got off to a very slow start due to my main focus being checking the updated file of my alternative history. I fully take the blame for not getting back to it at least several months earlier. Knowing I had to finish it by July was exactly what I needed for one final, major push to finish it already, but I didn’t allot enough time for stepping away to lose familiarity and develop fresh eyes.

Thus, even though I did read it through a few times, I found a LOT of little errors that slipped through. Nothing major, but just typos, misplaced words, missing words, things like that. That’s so unlike me. With all my other published books, I went through them so many times I got sick of looking at them, and only found a few tiny things here and there after the fact.

This was a very important lesson learnt, to always step aside for at least a few months before going back in to edit. Even if a book only needs fairly light editing, that can’t be accomplished properly if you’re flying through it under the gun and immediately went from typing the final word to editing. You’re still blind to your own errors.

I also began doing research for my story for the current IWSG Anthology contest. I’ve never written fantasy before, but there’s a first time for everything. Without giving too much away, my story will be set in 737 Japan, during the Nara period (the penultimate era of classical Japanese history). I’m excited to finally write an entire story in Japan, and to go much deeper back into history than I’ve ever gone before.

King Cerdic of Wessex, my 48-greats-grandpap and earliest verified ancestor, 4??–534

I recently discovered I’m a direct descendant of the Medieval Scottish and Anglo–Saxon kings, and would love to write a historical about my awesome 36-greats-grandpap King Alfred the Great. He was a fellow person of letters and scholar.

In spite of my royal lineage, I’m proudest to discover President Washington is one of my cousins. It’s an unbelievable honor to share blood with the father of my country.

Have you ever belatedly discovered a book wasn’t edited as well as it should’ve been? Would you write about one of your ancestors?

Posted in 1900s, Movies, Sci-fi, Silent film

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.

Posted in 1900s, Movies, Sci-fi, Silent film

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.

Posted in 1900s, Movies, Sci-fi, Silent film

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.