Guillermo, monsters and me

Tucked away at the bottom of a tall display case in the ‘At Home With Monsters’ exhibit at the AGO is a small collection of seven old, well-thumbed books, all by the 19th century French naturalist and entomologist, Jean-Henri Fabre. At the very bottom of the pile, its title almost hidden in the shadows, is The Life of the Spider, first translated into English in 1913, but not translated again until 1971.

The books subtly reflect the importance director and artist Guillermo del Toro places on insects in his works. He calls them “living metaphors” and adds, “They are so alien and so remote and so perfect, but they also are emotionless. They don’t have any human or mammalian instincts.”

I felt a certain thrill at seeing Fabre’s works, especially The Life of the Spider. That very same edition was the first adult book I ever read. I was nine or ten years old, maybe younger, stuck at home with some now-forgotten childhood illness, unable to go to school or out to play. I’m not sure where I got the book. Likely I had taken it out from the local library – probably for some science project or homework – and it was all I had to read that week in bed.

I read it cover to cover, absorbed in the minute details of the behaviour of Fabre’s spiders. It created in me a lifelong appreciation of these arthropods. I must have returned the book after that, because I never saw it again. But it was not forgotten. I was the only one in the gallery bent down, kneeling on the floor to read the book titles. 

I had not expected to see this book in the exhibition – which features the monsters and the fantastic visions of writers, artists and filmmakers that appeal to Guillermo del Toro (including several from his own works) – but the sight gave me an immediate sense of familiarity, and of connection with del Toro. No one else I have known has ever read that book, or even knows of its existence. But del Toro does.
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Kong and his films

Kong: Skull IslandKong: Skull Island is the 19th movie in my collection about apes.* Or at least ape-ish creatures (not including those about cave people or yetis). We watched the recently-released Kong: Skull Island this past weekend, even devouring all of the special features on the second disc.

I give Kong: Skull Island second place in the great ape/Kong pantheon because it’s well done, fun, action-packed, and not nearly as bloated as Peter Jackson’s 2005 epic. Despite some lukewarm or critical reviews, it’s worth watching and collecting if your taste are in any way similar to mine. Films of this ilk are meant to be entertainment, not art. And this one succeeds well in being that. Plus it has some of the best natural scenery in any film I’ve ever seen (Vietnam, in particular).

The main list of my ape films includes the original, 1933 King Kong; still my favourite of the genre, despite some uncomfortably racist bits. And I will admit that the original movie doesn’t always make sense and isn’t always consistent. But it’s fun and was the first big, commercial stop-frame animation film. If you’ve never watched it, you really should. Try to find a copy with the cut scenes restored. And certainly see it before you watch the latest Kong film, so you have the proper context. (For me, it’s also nostalgia: I first saw the film on TV in the 1950s).

A few of the rest of the oldies in my collection are remakes or semi-sequels (not necessarily following in story sequence from the original; sometimes with its own story arc). Some are clumsy mixes of the Tarzan motif and King Kong. Some were “inspired” by (or simply rip-offs of) the original King Kong but not necessarily related in story or mythos. Many rode on its coattails and on the popular (and commercially profitable) fascination with apes and monsters that rose from Kong, Tarzan and all the monster films that were released in the 1930s and later.
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The strange life of Bobby Fischer

Bobby FischerForty five years ago this month, a momentous event took place in Iceland that shook the world. After 21 games spread over almost two months, the eccentric American chess master, Bobby Fischer, ended 24 years of Soviet dominance in chess after beating Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. It shook the world at the apex of the Cold War. I watched it unfold, a memory I will always  carry.

Many years later, former Russian grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, commented,

…in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. That’s why the Spassky defeat […] was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War.

Back in those days, I played chess with more enthusiasm, skill and grace than I can muster today. Bobby Fischer was one of my early chess idols whose games I followed (I still have books of his games on my shelves). I remember very clearly that year when he was playing Boris Spassky in Iceland. 

I was working in a bookstore in Toronto back then, in that summer of 1972. Every day after a game had been played, I would go out at lunch and get a newspaper. With my chess-playing co-workers, we would go over the match move by move. Try variants, explore alternatives, discuss the results. And look in awe at what masterpieces he wrought on the chessboard.

It wasn’t just the game or the skill of the moves that fascinated me (not all of those games are great, I admit). It was the sudden appearance of chess in the forefront of Cold War geopolitics and the larger implications of the match on the world stage. If you didn’t live through the era, it’s hard to explain how the Cold War affected international and domestic politics, or how a chess match could be the fulcrum of boisterous nationalism on both sides of the divide.

But in the summer of 1972, chess was newsworthy, gaining front page status, and time on the evening TV broadcasts. Chess was cool, chess was sexy, chess was in – not just for me, but for all of pop culture. Chess sets sold faster than they could be stocked. And 29-year-old Bobby Fischer was its golden boy. 

Last week, I started reading Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady. It is the most comprehensive biography of Fischer yet and reminds me somewhat of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs: both subjects were troubled, difficult but brilliant men. Both ran off the rails, but Jobs always managed to get back. Fischer never did. It’s a heart-rending, troubling, but fascinating story.

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As Elvis leaves the building, so do we all

Day of the Dead ElvisNo one gets out of here alive. We all die. And with us go into the dustbin the dreams, the values, the ideals, the culture we grew up with, we shared, we ensconced in our daily existence. And the clutter we accumulated during our lives.

Elvis has left the building and, sooner or later, so shall we all. And as we do, the value of our own material legacy will diminish with each day.

A recent story in The Guardian tells of how once-treasured Elvis memorabilia is falling in value, as collectors age and die off, leaving a younger generation to sell it off at bargain rates. A younger generation not imbued with the Elvis worship of their parents or grandparents, not prone to spending income on his waning memorabilia. They want none of this: taking on Elvis is cultural appropriation.

I imagine a grey-haired, Beatles-besotted relative chortling with some internal “I told you so” glee as he or she puts the late collector’s Elvis collection onto eBay. But their time will come, too.

It’s a very Buddhist lesson on why we should not become attached to material things. Despite our passion for them, despite our sense of connection between them and the stages in our lives, as in the George Harrison song, all things must pass. Even Elvis is transient.

The Beatles’ generation, coming so quickly on his heels, scoffed at Elvis, much the same way The Clash generation scoffed at the Beatles, the same way the Beyoncé generation scoffs at The Clash. Pick a pop movement, a fashion, a theme, a style, a fan base: from its lofty temporal perch someone looked down on someone else’s movement. It was ever thus; even Shakespeare fell from grace after he died. Tastes change, new generations come to maturity and power, new technology and new politics come into play, changing the conversation. Today’s pop culture fades into tomorrow’s nostalgia, takes on a patina of kitsch even while we fondly recall it.

I remember a set of plastic figurines of the Fab Foursome made for sticking into a birthday cake beside the candles. They originally sold for a dollar. Then as the Foursome’s star rose, they sold for dozens of dollars. When they ascended into musical mythology and eBay arrived, it was hundreds. Yet they too will join Elvis memorabilia in yard sales, as those of us who lived then pass away. Already children ask, “Paul who? John who?”

Who will pay more than pocket change for a souvenir of Al Bowlly these days? Who has collectible nostalgia for Rudy Vallee? Ruth Etting? Paul Whiteman? Guy Lombardo? Bing who?
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The Bard’s Best? Nope…

Shakespeare bracket
To help celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death (April 23) and 452nd of his birth (also April 23), the website Mashable has put together a “battle” for the “Best Shakespeare Play Ever.” It’s done up as a sort of sports playoff grid (a tournament bracket), broken into four categories.

Four? That’s right. Even though the First Folio was only divided into three categories, Mashable added their own:

The plays are organized into four quadrants based on the four genres of plays Shakespeare commonly wrote: comedies, histories, tragedies and weird magic stuff. (Okay, we may have made up that last category in order to get to four, but you know the type: the plays with ghosts, witches, gods, etc.)

So right off, you know this is more game than academia. And, you protest, there are 36 plays in the First Folio, plus a couple of others added since. This game only has 32. What about the rest?

Where are the The Two Gentlemen of Verona? It’s consider the Bard’s very first play.  Or The Merry Wives of Windsor – arguably one of the Bard’s most popular plays, possibly commissioned by Queen Elizabeth herself. It has Falstaff in it! How can any play with Falstaff be left out?

And the chart mentions Henry IV, but doesn’t specify which part (1 or 2 – part 2 is more Falstaff than part 1). Both are self-contained. Same with Henry VI: it has three parts, each a separate play, but which one is not specified. Part 1 is not well considered, and may be Shakespeare’s weakest effort.

The chart mentions Pericles – which was not included in the First Folio (FF). But it ignores The Two Noble Kinsmen, which was also not in the FF, but has since been accepted as a Shakespeare work (with Fletcher).

Then there’s the pairing of plays: odd at best, it strikes me as cobbled together by someone who hasn’t actually read the plays he or she has coupled, someone who doesn’t appreciate the differences and distinctions between the styles, categories and stories.

For example, Romeo and Juliet play off against Timon of Athens. Both were grouped in the FF as tragedies, but aside from that, any similarity ends. R&J was written around 1595, ToA was written a decade later, a collaboration with Middleton. R&J is a story about a young couple and the feud between their Italian families. ToA is about a rich,Greek misanthrope who discovers the infidelity of his friends, with no love interest in the play. They are completely mismatched.

Henry V is paired with King John. H5 is one of the Bard’s great plays, rich with stirring speeches, action, tension and drama. KJ is written entirely in verse (the only other such play is Richard II) and is mostly about court intrigues. H5 has been performed many times and Kenneth Branagh made a stirring movie of it in 1989 and it was included in the 2012 Hollow Crown series (great news! Hollow Crown 2 is coming soon…).
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Who By Fire

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQTRX23EMNk

I’ve been reading a biography of Leonard Cohen, recently: the 2012 I’m Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons. It’s an interesting journey through the life and thoughts of an exquisite artist who is, by nature, somewhat reclusive and stays out of the spotlight, but is deeply dedicated to his art.

I don’t normally read “star” bios or autobiographies – frankly they often seem contrived and the lives portrayed, no matter how gussied up in prose, merely shallow. Most of them I categorize as “who cares?” books.

Even those musicians I respect and admire have little to keep me turning pages. I struggled with Keith Richards’ autobio and never finished it. In Eric Clapton’s bio I got through a mere chapter. I read the two-volume bio of Elvis, but it took months to complete. I have read a few Beatles’ bios, mostly because they were such a huge influence on me when I was young. Most of these books, however, bore me with their similarities and unbridled adulation.

But not this one. I was glued to it (as much as I can be glued to any one book when I’m always reading a dozen at a time).

Cohen interests me for many reasons. First, he’s Canadian and that colours his work and his life for me in ways an American or British artist cannot. Not many Canadian writers or musicians garner the praise and awards he has.

Second, he was first a poet and novelist before a songwriter, and I have an appreciation – bordering on worship – of both talents in others. I read his poems and books when I was a sales rep for McClelland and Stewart, in the mid-70s, and even met him once at a party thrown for M&S authors. I still have several of his books in my library.

Third, he eschewed the glamour and glitter that permeates most stars’ lives and lived plainly, simply and austerely. I respect people who do not feel the need to wear their money on their sleeve. He makes himself known by his literary and musical achievements, not by his bling.

Fourth, he studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, and was even ordained a Buddhist monk – a dedication and effort I can only admire from afar; my dabblings in Buddhism seem like a splash through a rain puddle in comparison. Yet the grandson of a respected rabbi also retained his Jewish faith and culture.

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