Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Movie: Up (2009)

At the same time grown up and young. That is the strength of Up. Animation is hardly ever so bittersweet as this movie. Amination is mostly upbeat, fast and shows the sunny side of life only, but Up starts at a downcast note in its masterly montage of poor Mr Fredricksen’s life. It is one of the highlights of the movie and is very mature and serious, but that doesn’t make this movie less suited for children, it makes it memorable. In this, Up is a movie very much in the style of Miyazaki’s Ghibli studio.

Up is a different film compared to other Pixar stories as Finding Nemo. It feels simpler and more straightforward. It is more focused on telling one story, whereas Finding Nemo, Wall-E (and also the Miyazaki stories) are more like strings of connected adventures. Up has less sidescenes and inventive stuff going on in the background, but it is by no means shallow. Up rests on a few very strong ideas and images, like the floating house and the waterfall, which become icons for the movie and so it doesn’t need to rely on other inventions to keep things interesting.

And all the while, Pixar’s mastery in animation shines through. You can watch it in 2D and 3D but I would prefer 2D to really appreciate the art that has gone into this movie. Up has a subtle range of colours, expecially for the interiors of Mr. Fredricksen’s house and the zeppelin later in the movie. Pixar dares to push the conventional boundaries of animated storytelling and I hope they will continue to make movies like this for a long time.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book: Cordwainer Smith - The Rediscovery of Man (1999)

In 1950, an unknown author under the pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith published a short story in an obscure magazine that was hardly read. The magazine disappeared, but the story remained and slowly gained prestige and admiration in the word of science fiction. But nobody knew who Cordwainer Smith actually was. Over de next few decades, the mysterious Smith published another two score short stories of remarkable genius and readers discovered that all these stories were somehow linked and formed an immense arc of future history. But who was this Cordwainer Smith? It turned out to be a man named Paul Linebarger, an expert in psychological warfare and godson of Chinese prime minister Sun Yat-Sen. His best stories are now bundled as The Rediscovery of Man.

The “rediscovery of man” has a double meaning for me. The starfarers in Smith’s tales are tragic, human figures (even if they are not always, technically, human) and are given a mythical feel in later stories that refer back to earlier ones. Smith asks himself what it means to be human, and what it means to love and feel, in strange future times. He does so far more profoundly than most writers, whose idealized characters are too often found on space ships. So, while Smith’s universe is one of the most unique, strange and beautiful, it is also one of the most real, because he combines it with real people. He rediscovered man in science fiction.

After reading a few of his stories, I got the impression that Smith was narrating them to me from a distant future as legends of the past. I am reading singular moments in history, only it just happens that this history is my future. The eternal stories of the Lady Who Sailed The Soul and the Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal should have been in my history books and I should have seen countless adaptations in film, but I live in the wrong age. This is not the age of the Instrumentality of Mankind. Reading Cordwainer Smith feels like gaining a cultural background in the shape of striking stories from a genius imagination. See what science fiction is capable of.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book: Alexandre Dumas, père - The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)

Ever since 1844, Edmond Dantès has become a figure of almost mythlike proportions. He is the archetype avenger. Everyone who ever felt the need to take revenge, be it a child who felt an injustice or a victim of serious wrongdoing, everyone has become, momentarily, Edmond Dantès. The Count invariably gets hinted at in every modern avenger tale, such as the extraordinary Korean movie Oldboy, because Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is the ultimate, the blueprint tale.

Perhaps only one iconic image measures itself with Dantès: Captain Ahab and his mad search for Moby Dick, but whereas Ahab dissolves into madness and perishes, Dantès plans with care, takes his revenge over course of years, and even saves himself. For madness is the danger of vengeance. But the best part of the book is not the ending, but meticulous planning of revenge that Dantès savors and we with him.

The Count of Monte Cristo is an “epic” tale of adventure, action and drama, and it has remained so popular over the years that it has become iconic. It is quite old, yes, from 1844, but Dumas knew how to write a story. Every part of the story, the downfall of happy Edmond, his mysterious resurrection and entry into society, and the slow vengeance with countless sidestories and characters, is perfect and exciting. It is a book to lose yourself in.

Book: Oliver Sacks - The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1985)

Neurologist Oliver Sacks presents 24 extraordinary stories about his patients. He tells their stories, how they deal with afflictions from Tourette to autism and beyond.

Most of us hold on to the idea that our body and our spirit are separated from eachother, and that our identity is an indivisible whole, but neurological diseases seriously question that assumption, and it makes neurology unnerving and fascinating at the same time. To read about people who have to fight to maintain their identity, their soul, against the most bizarre symptoms of a damaged brain; to read about those that do not even realize that something has gone wrong, strikes a deep chord.

Every case of neurological disease is a very personal one, because the very identity, the spirit, of the sick is at stake. In the 19th century it was common practise to present such a case as a life story, until the advent of the more cathegorical, distant neurology of the 20th century. Oliver Sacks means to bring the personal story back, to show how patients with neurological problems battle for their identity as heroes in a tale, and find their own ways of dealing with it.

Sacks as an observer is very thorough, human and sympathetic. His insights bring light in the worlds of his patients that are so difficult to understand. His stories are heartfelt, exciting and arresting for anyone who values his own mind, and for anyone who ever suspected that sanity is relative and self-identity can be a fleeting thing, easily lost.