Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

The World

The fable of the boy in the jungle in three parts

“And this is the last of the Mowgli stories.”

So wrote Rudyard Kipling at the end of “The Spring Running,” one of the stories in The Second Jungle Book. Perhaps he thought so, but his stories about the bare boy raised by wolves in the jungle struck a chord with readers in the final months of the 19th century. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the stories still resonate ­— but perhaps not so much through words but through images.

Modern audiences might not be so likely to have read much of the original words. The Jungle Book was published in 1894, The Second Jungle Book in 1895, a time when India, the setting for the Mowgli stories, was a colonial empire of Great Britain. All of the stories, whether about Mowgli or not, are fables, geared toward giving moral lessons, largely through the use of anthropomorphic animals, most of which would more likely eat a fat human baby instead of raising him and teaching him the Laws of the Jungle. So let’s just set aside what we “know” about the true nature of jungles and animals therein and go with the flow here.

And, as fables, everyone, including Mowgli, speaks like they’re in a session of Parliament:

“I say ye do,” said Mowgli, shooting out his forefinger angrily. “Ye do run away, and I who am the Master of the Jungle, must needs walk alone. How was it last season, when I would gather sugar-cane from the fields of the Man-Pack? I sent a runner — I sent thee! — to Hathi, bidding him to come upon such a night and pluck the sweet grass for me with his trunk.”

Those words, like the opening quote, appear in “The Spring Running” when Mowgli is almost 17 years old, according to Kipling. But even in the first story in the first Jungle Book, “Mowgli’s Brothers,” he was quite the orator:

“Listen, you!” he cried. “There is no need for this dog’s jabber. Ye have told me so often to-night that I am a man (and indeed I would have been a wolf with you to my life’s end), that I feel your words are true. So I do not call ye my brothers any more, but sag [dogs], as a man should. What ye will do, and what ye will not do is not yours to say. That matter is with me …”

That’s from a 10- or 11-year old boy (Kipling isn’t exact on that).

Kipling uses Mowgli, a human among the wild animals of the jungle, to show what he feels is our place in the universe; None of those animals, even Bagheera the Panther, can meet his gaze, even though he be a mere boy. When he finally defeats Shere Khan the tiger, he is the unquestioned Master of the Jungle, even though, again, he’s just a man-cub, a hairless human. And that duality plays out in the three Mowgli stories in The Jungle Book and five in The Second Jungle Book. (Both books contain stories not related to Mowgli, some well-known in their own right: Her Majesty’s Servants, The White Seal, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Toomai of the Elephants, The Miracle of Purun Bhagat, The Undertakers and Quiquern.)

Both books are in the public domain, allowing others to adapt them as they see fit. The most famous probably is the 1967 Walt Disney animated film because, well, it’s Disney and we all have special memories of the bright and musical Disney cartoons, right?

What Disney did, of course, was to strip out any context, themes and morals of the Kipling books.

Granted, those themes and morals are of a colonial, racist society, but Disney’s scrubbings eliminated the story of anything meaningful. Disney reportedly asked the staff working on the project if anyone had read the book; none had. “Good, then don’t. Here’s the story I want.” (As reported in a 2007 documentary, The Bare Necessities: The Making of the Jungle Book). It also would be the last film Disney was personally involved with; he died before it was released.

Mowgli is reduced to a whiny, petulant boy out to just have a good time in the jungle. Baloo the bear is a lazy slob, looking for things to eat, a tree to scratch his back, and a good spot for a nap. Bagheera comes off a little better, except he’s mostly a nagging nanny.

Baloo, even though he’s described as a “sleepy brown bear” in the books, is the one who speaks for Mowgli, urging the wolves accept him as one of their own, saying “there is no harm in a man’s cub.” But Baloo also has a larger responsibility:

Baloo, the Teacher of the law, taught him the Wood and Water Laws: how to tell a rotten branch from a sound one or how to speak politely to the wild bees when he came upon a hive of them fifty feet above ground; … Then, too, Mowgli was taught the Strangers’ Hunting Call, which must be repeated aloud till it is answered … It means, translated. “Give me leave to hunt here because I am hungry”; and the answer is: “Hunt then for food, but not for pleasure.”

And Baloo is one tough teacher:

“Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed? No. That is why I teach him these things, and that is why I hit him, very softly, when he forgets.”

“Softly! What does thou know of softness, old Iron-feet?” Bagheera grunted. “His face is bruised to-day by thy — softness. Ugh.”

“Better he should be bruised from head to foot by those who love him than he should come to harm through ignorance. … Is that not worth a little beating?”

In the books, Bagheera is the second to speak for Mowgli at the wolf council, but he also buys the boy’s acceptance with a fresh-killed bull “according to the Law.” He becomes a friend to Mowgli, often accompanying him on hunting trips and doing his part to explain the boy’s place in the jungle (which has the curious property of having only one panther, one bear, and one tiger). Despite being a panther, Bagheera seems to be more of a softy than Baloo:

“But think of how small he is,” said the Black Panther, who would have spoiled Mowgli if he had had his own way. “How can his little head carry all that long talk?”

Disney dispenses of the wolves early; we get a short scene with them at the beginning and that’s it. They don’t even get names. In the books, the wolves are Mowgli’s family, with Raksha, the Wolf Mother, ready to fight to the death to protect the man-cub. Some of the wolves become Mowgli’s friend, but others question his acceptance into the pack, a theme that lasts through all the stories.

Shere Khan the tiger may be the villain of the stories, but he has a point about men: they always bring trouble to the jungle. That’s the source of his hate for Mowgli; man-cubs of any sort have no place there. Disney, though, just makes him into an effete snob who hardly exerts himself to complete his quest.

In the books, what could be called the other villains, the Bandar-log, the monkeys, live in anarchy; there are no rulers, no government, no laws. This, in the eyes of Bagheera and Baloo, makes them contemptible:

“The Jungle-People put them out of their mouths and out of their minds,” Baloo tells Mowgli. “They are very many, evil, dirty, shameless, and they desire, if they have any fixed desire, to be noticed by the Jungle-People.”

These monkeys capture Mowgli and boast of their feat. Mowgli sees no value to a life just swinging from vines, but he’s stuck there until his friends mount a rescue. Even with their strength and claws, though, neither Baloo nor Bagheera can prevail against the sheer numbers of monkeys. Only Kaa can put a stop to all that nonsense. Yes, Kaa, the python, made into a third villain by Disney. Most of us might react to Kaa the way Indiana Jones does — “I hate snakes!” — but in the books, Kaa is a friend to Mowgli. He uses his hypnotizing eyes and silky voice to get Mowgli free of the Bandar-log, but then Kaa suggests the boy, bear and panther might want to leave because what comes next isn’t so pleasant, for Kaa is hungry and a monkey or two will make a nice lunch. (And for allowing himself to be captured by the Bandar-log, Baloo beats the crap out of Mowgli, something Disney did not bother to include.)

In the story “Red Dog” from The Second Jungle Book, Kaa has a big role in Mowgli’s plan to stop the invasion of the dholes, the savage dogs swarming into the jungle, killing everything, including wolves. Kaa carries Mowgli on his back down the river, slipping under the surface as the “little people” — bees — attack the massed dogs, blunting their main thrust as the wolves and other beasts attack their flank and eventually win the war. The description of this fight is the best action sequence of the stories, and it’s odd that the movies have essentially ignored it. But that would make Kaa a good guy, and who wants to make a snake a good guy?

And then there’s King Louie, the singing orangutan, who is a total fabrication. Orangutans don’t live in India, but Disney needed an excuse for another musical number, so we get Louis Prima singing “I wanna be like you” to Mowgli

Those musical numbers are what the ’67 film is essentially all about. The film wasn’t made to tell a story, it was made to showcase clever animation and snazzy songs. Everybody’s fond memories of the cartoon are pretty much wrapped around Phil Harris as Baloo singing The Bare Necessities, Prima’s I Wanna Be Like You and Sterling Holloway as Kaa trying to hypnotize Mowgli with Trust in Me. It’s all catchy, lively and colorful — all the things the Disney animators were great at doing. But does your pleasant memories of the cartoon also include the singing vultures in the form of the Beatles? It was a crass attempt by the Disney people to show how groovy and hip they were by aiming the number at ’60s teenagers. Disney wanted the actual Beatles to voice the characters, but John Lennon reportedly wanted nothing to do with an animated movie. (Yellow Submarine came out a year later, so what the hell, John?)

King Louie, for all his friendliness, really wants the human secret, the “red rose” — fire. It becomes Mowgli’s main weapon against Shere Khan, but the ’67 cartoon just kind of tosses it off when Mowgli ties a burning branch to the tiger’s tail, sending him running off in a panic.

In the book, it’s a lot more complicated. Mowgli, who has been to the man-village to get the fire, brings it to the wolf council where the fate of Akela, one of the wolves who raised Mowgli, is to be decided. The boy is angry because Shere Khan had turned many of the wolves of the pack against him. He calls them dogs, then sets fire to the grass to show how he was master of it and how they fear it. “The Jungle is shut to me,” Mowgli says, but before he goes, he grabs Shere Khan, threatens him with a torch, calls him a coward and proceeds to beat him over the head with the burning branch “and the tiger whimpered and whined in an agony of fear.” Mowgli lets him go, warning “when I next come to the Council Rock, as a man should come, it will be with Shere Khan’s hide on my head.”

Mowgli takes work in the man-village as a buffalo herder. Eventually Shere Khan arrives in the neighborhood, but Mowgli, with the help of his remaining wolf friends, panics the herd and tramples the tiger to death. He then skins the tiger — not an easy task, according to Kipling — and keeps his promise when he returns to Council Rock. None of that appears in the Disney cartoon.

Mowgli might go back to the man-village, but Kipling has a dim view of the local citizenry and their “civilization.” Mowgli even meets a woman who might be his mother, but the people are afraid of him, accusing him of being a wolf-boy. They throw rocks at him, splitting his lip, and imprison the couple who might be his parents. In revenge, Mowgli gets the elephants to rampage through the village, destroying it (after sending the couple to safety).

That didn’t make Disney’s version, either.

Alas, 1967 is so 20th century, right? So in the 21st century, now that the movie-making tools have improved, Disney — the company; Walt’s still dead — has begun a quest to make nearly every animated film it ever made into live-action movies. The Jungle Book presents special problems; if you’re going to put a real boy in the jungle, then the jungle and all who live there must match that reality to be convincing. Making anatomically correct animals look like they’re mouthing English words is pretty hard. Few animals have the musculature or jaw structure for human speech; various attempts over the years have looked pretty silly.

Enter Jon Favreau and his team of computer experts. The 2016 remake of The Jungle Book looks as realistic as can be expected, and sometimes even beyond, even though the jungle, as it says at the end of the credits, exists only in downtown Los Angeles. We are immersed in the jungle, full of old, twisted trees, clinging vines, waterfalls and rivers, grasslands and cliffs. All this is a long way from the days of Pixar’s Tin Toy with its baby from hell.

So, with the technical details taken care of, that leaves the story. In the ’67 Jungle Book, the story was hardly there. In Favreau’s Jungle Book, the menace — the tiger wanting to kill the boy — is brought forward and the narrative in reaction to that theme — the boy realizing he’s a danger to his jungle friends — gives him a reason to leave the jungle.

Favreau dips more into the themes of Kipling than the ’67 movie did, but he still leaves out the colonial and racial issues. In Kipling, Mowgli can stare down any animal simply because he’s human, but Favreau’s Mowgli’s humanity flows from his ability to see, learn and react. He’s occasionally as petulant and stubborn as his ’67 self, but it’s not allowed to define him, nor does it prevent him from maturing.

Kipling has the tiger drift in and out of the stories, and the confrontation and resolution is a bit of the let-down. Favreau makes it the center of the story. Shere Khan is no snob, but a living, breathing force of nature. His reasons for hating Mowgli are clear, his determination to rid the world of the boy is the driving force of the story. All of the other animals defer to him — he is a predator, after all — and when he kills Akela — something even Kipling didn’t do — we know that merely tying a flaming branch to his tail isn’t going to cut it.

Unlike the ’67 Mowgli (and Kipling’s, too), Favreau’s Mowgli rejects confronting Shere Khan with fire. He steals a torch from the man-village, then does an Olympic torch run (while spilling fuel and igniting the jungle). Shere Khan accuses him of bringing destruction upon his friends, so Mowgli tosses the torch aside, leaving him only one weapon to save himself from the tiger’s rage: his cleverness as a tool-using human. (Granted, he gets help from the fire he accidentally started).

Favreau’s Mowgli is an active, thinking human kid, doing what comes naturally for humans in using tools. Bagheera, in trying to keep him a part of the wolf pack, had forbidden such. Baloo, though, recognizes these abilities by challenging Mowgli to get the honey from the beehives attached to high cliffs. The first attempt results in many stings, but he learns from his mistakes and engineers a clever solution, to the horror of Bagheera.

Favreau, in tune with the times, makes his Jungle Book a bit darker. Kaa is a huge, slithering menace, enticing the boy into her — Favreau does a gender switch here — coils by showing him how Shere Khan killed his father. The moment she opens her jaws to swallow the boy whole might be the scariest part of the movie.

Favreau also takes a page from Kipling and restores the elephants’ mystical status as the spirits of the jungle. Disney in ’67 made them bumbling fools, parodying the British upper class. But Favreau’s Mowgli, as part of his rebellion against Bagheera’s restrictions, bravely steps forward and uses his tool-making knowledge to help rescue a baby elephant. The elephants later return the favor by helping Mowgli rectify his mistake with the fire.

The ’67 Jungle Book is one of those back-to-nature wish-fulfillment stories, but the wilderness isn’t so genteel, as Kipling makes clear. His Laws of the Jungle include the protocols for the hunt — and the killing that follows. Several times Kipling mentions Mowgli making a kill, then presumably eating it raw. Neither Disney nor Favreau mention this aspect; indeed, we don’t see animals eating other animals despite the predator-prey relationship. Consumption is limited to bananas, berries, nuts and honey.

And what does Favreau do with King Louie? Instead of bringing in a species that doesn’t live in India, he brings in a species that did live there once but is now extinct. His King Louie is a Gigantopithecus, the last one of the hulking, massive species, a living metaphor for the true nature of the jungle and all that lives there, wild and unpredictable. The boy is small and meek before him — for a while. It takes all the courage and shrewdness he has to escape. Also physical agility against the surprisingly athletic ape.

These scenes, in stories and movies alike, take place in the Cold Lairs, the ruins of an ancient human civilization. For Disney and Favreau, they’re just places where the monkeys and apes gather; but Kipling takes a long paragraph to describe the fabulous treasure piled in heaps around the ruins. It’s guarded by a character not in any of the films, the Father of Cobras, a white snake with a long memory. And who takes Mowgli to this place? Kaa. Here the boy learns about human greed, but he doesn’t understand the concept until he takes an ankus made of gold, ivory and turquoise. He doesn’t even know what it is until Bagheera explains it to him, and in horror, he tosses it away. Eventually men do find the ankus, and before long six of them are dead after fighting over it. Mowgli returns it to the Cold Lairs, telling the white cobra to get help in making sure none of those objects ever leave the ruins again. Yeah, Kipling sometimes can be pretty heavy-handed in telling his fables.

Faverau handles Shere Khan the best of anyone, Kipling included, and the showdown is the best of the lot. The ugly anger of the tiger is shown face-on several times, and when he’s not on-screen, his menace still drifts through like a malevolent fog. Because of this, Favreau gives the boy himself the best story arc — Mowgli grows, finds his own bravery, stands on his own two feet in a direct one-on-one challenge to the tiger. Isn’t that what we ask of all our heroes?

Kipling, once Mowgli skins Shere Kahn, has the boy take the tiger’s hide back to Council Rock to show all the other animals and declare he is lord of the jungle, something neither Disney nor Favreau picks up on. But someone who did was Edgar Rice Burroughs. His hero was raised in the jungle, too, by apes instead of wolves, after his parents die. When he kills the domineering ape, he declares himself lord of the jungle. Burroughs’s hero, Tarzan, also is white, the Lord Greystroke of Britain. Kipling’s Mowgli might be a stand-in for the human race, but at least he’s a native. (Neel Sethi, the lone human in Favreau’s version, is Indian-American; the voice actor on the ’67 cartoon was white). Kipling’s Mowgli is closest to being the feral boy raised in the jungle (aside from the stiff and formal jungle speech), allowing him to dispense with civilization’s benchmarks from manners to jobs. Also clothes, as Kipling makes clear several times:

Akela … gave one piteous look at Mowgli as the boy stood all naked, his long black hair tossing over his shoulders in the light of the blazing branch that made the shadows jump and quiver.

The animals, of course, don’t wear anything either, but they have fur covering almost everything, so they aren’t particularly bothered by nudity. Mowgli isn’t either except when he dons a loincloth when he goes to the man-village. Some artists for the various book versions handle this with coy poses, strategically placed branches and dark shading to preserve dignity. Others adopt the Disney-Favreau device of having Mowgli wear a loincloth, thus saving us from embarrassment. No explanation as to why or where it came from, but Favreau’s Mowgli does have scratches and scars on the his skin, illustrating the vulnerability of unprotected flesh in the jungle.

One way to understand the differences in the three versions is to look at the audiences they were meant for. Kipling was writing for the sons and daughters of a worldwide empire who knew they had the mandate from God to improve the lot of the “primitive” races. We see the language as stilted and awkward, but this was the way the 19th century reader saw the world — formal, serious and fairly humorless. Children of the upper classes were being prepared to make sure the sun did not set anywhere on the British Empire and Kipling was doing his part to educate them (even though he wrote the books in Vermont).

In 1967, Disney’s main audience was the Baby Boomers, the sons and daughters of the people who had been through the Great Depression and World War II. Those parents wanted their children to have what they never could and to live in a world without fear or hatred. Disney and others responded with happy, tuneful, colorful and bright stories, although they did have their dark moments — evil queens, Bambi’s mother being shot, puppies destined to be skinned and made into coats. At the end of the movie, though, evil was banished and everyone started living happily ever after.

Favreau’s audience is more accepting of darkness; look at all the post-apocalyptic stories out there. They’re also less forgiving of ignoring those darker aspects of life. Favreau’s Mowgli faces an enemy out to kill him, but Shere Khan isn’t the only danger. There are stampedes, mudslides, giant snakes, floods, drought and fire itself that could do harm. Mowgli does have friends who help, but in the end, he has to face the dark alone and survive or not on his own abilities.

What’s really interesting here is how none of these guys know how to end Mowgli’s story. The basic plot is that Mowgli is human, and as such, he must return to that world.

Kipling might have said there were no more Mowgli stories, but he did write one in which the adult Mowgli helps a white colonial biologist with his studies. He even gets a pension, even though he still wears little and still lives in the jungle. This is all explained in In the Rukh, a story that does not appear in the Jungle Book collections. Indeed, it was written in 1893, before the Jungle Book stories appeared, so Kipling might have been indulging in a little retconning to explain his hero. Or he just liked the name “Mowgli.” Even if we set that story aside, Kipling does age his boy hero and moves him back and forth between jungle and civilization, but there’s no mention of a wife or significant other.

In the ’67 Disney version, Mowgli slowly moves toward the man-village with pressure from Baloo and Bagheera. He fights this right up until he sees a cute girl from the village singing with the voice of an adult. Nothing’s stronger than instant love, says Disney, so the last we see of him, he’s dazedly following the girl into the village. Baloo and Bagheera congratulate themselves and dance back into the jungle, best friends forever now, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The last scene in Favreau’s version is the same as the first scene, Mowgli racing with the wolves. He lost the first time, but he wins the second, as if barely surviving an encounter with a tiger makes one fleet-footed. He’s also a little taller (one of the downsides of child actors: they grow up), perhaps a little more mature. But he’s still in the jungle; talk of going to the man village has stopped. Mowgli, Bagheera and Baloo share a tree as the final scene ends.

Where does Mowgli belong? We’re saddened by Kipling’s version; Mowgli’s still in the jungle but needs a pension to survive. Disney’s is too pat; what father is going to let a half-naked wild wolf-boy within 20 feet of his daughter? And Favreau just ends on a Disney happy note (sans any girls).

The answer is probably within us. We don’t want Mowgli to “become human,” at least not completely. We want him to stay among his real family, we don’t want to question whether he can really be happy without a human family. Just continue to swing through the trees and swim in the rivers, Mowgli.

Oh, and don’t grow up. Forever free, forever young.

Advertisements

2014 gives up the ghost

The end was near.

Fourteen could see it coming. floating on its own platform. It wasn’t visible until after midnight of the last day, a far-off speck in the flat gray void. As the day progressed, though, it came nearer and nearer, until Fourteen could see the plump-baby form, the sash, the top hat (Why do they still give us those?) and wearing the sartorial minimum. The baby first took notice of him in the late afternoon, but generally paid him no  mind, the same thing Fourteen did upon his own arrival. But jeez, was he really ever that fat?

Finally, in the early evening, they were close enough to hear each other.

“Greetings, Fourteen,” the young one said.

“Fifteen, how are ya?” Fourteen leaned on his scythe. “Ready to take over?”

“I have a choice? Maybe if I run away, this whole boondoggle would come to an end.”

“Thirteen claimed he tried that, but just got shocked for his efforts. He was out for days.”

“Yeah, I heard about that. Something must’ve really scared the poor bugger.” He took off his hat, ran a hand over his bald head. He started to put it back on, then stopped, stared at Fourteen. “Where’s your hat?”

“It crumbled away before the end of the first quarter. Yours will, too.”

“Aw, man.” Fifteen turned the hat over, looked inside, then at the top. “I really like this. It gives me class.” He set it carefully on his head.

“‘Class’ is not something associated with our ilk.”

“I’ll say, given the look of those ratty old rags hanging on that skinny, wrinkled, ancient carcass of yours.”

“It’s a toga–”

The baby snorted. “A word stolen from some old Greek dudes who sat around scratching themselves in their ‘togas’ arguing about the nature of nature. And getting it all wrong, of course.”

“Pretty bold talk for someone still wearing diapers.”

The toddler’s whole body flushed red. “They made me wear this, I swear I’d never—” He pulled the waistband out, looked down. “Besides, I have nothing to put in them.”

“You don’t eat, you don’t need to–”

“Yeah, yeah, I got the lowdown from Administration. I tell you what, this form is pretty grody. I had hoped for the Translucent gig. Now there’s a beautiful and sublime form.”

“And their years are three months and six days shorter.”

“A short, bright life and then out in a blaze of glory. That’s the way to do it!”

Fourteen kept quiet, because he’d had the exact same wish a year ago.

“Been nice if you’d shaved occasionally.”

Fourteen shook his head so his long, white hair and long, white beard whipped around him. “Best beard you’ll ever see. Beats that scrawny fuzz on Thirteen’s chin. Don’t worry, ’round about March you’ll start to see some hair where there wasn’t any before.”

Fifteen made a show of taking his hat off, brushing non-existent dust off, putting it back on. “Shoulda used that blade t’do a little trimmin’ is what y’should’ve done, geezer.”

“You mean like this?” He swing the scythe backward. The platforms were close enough that it knocked the toddler’s top hat off. It rolled over and stopped right at the edge.

“Hey! Are you freakin’ crazy?” He waddled over, picked it up, again turned it slowly over as he inspected it for damage. “You’ve gotten senile-nuts in your old age.”

“Happens to all of us.”

“Yeah, well, time for some of us is gettin’ real short, and here comes someone who’ll make sure it happens.”

A black form was approaching, dark robes flapping and flowing around an emaciated central figure of bones, A skeletal foot touched down on Fourteen’s platform, but the rest of the figure halted. A skull leered out of the dark, winked. “Hello, boys,” it said in a raspy voice. “How’s it going?”

“Hello, Death,” Fifteen said. “You know, just hangin’ around, killin’ some time.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So, Death, how’s life treatin’ ya?” Fourteen said.

“Why’s everyone a comedian when I show up? Well, not everyone. Thirteen was a drudge, no sense of humor at all. Wasn’t too displeased to see him go.”

“Well, you can do the universe a favor by ridding it of him,” Fifteen said, pointing at Fourteen.

“All in good time, all in good time.”

“See, now who’s the comedian?” Fifteen said.

“Got to look at the bright side, don’t we, lest we become maudlin and depressed.”

“Yeah, nothing worse than a gloomy Death,” Fourteen said.

Death burst into loud and deep laughter as he glided away. “Like I haven’t heard that one before.”

Conversation died for a while as time passed and the platforms drew nearer. Fifteen looked askance at Fourteen, who waggled his beard at him. Fifteen hmpffed and fiddled with his sash, smoothing it out and adjusting it across his roly-poly chest.

“By March it’ll lose its brightness, by June the first rips will show and by September it’ll start hanging on you like it was torn from an old curtain.”

“That will not happen this year. I will see that it doesn’t.”

Fourteen let out a solid laugh, then their attention was caught by another figure moving toward them. This one was tall, thin and gaunt in face, though his bald head looked too large for the frame. A white robe covered him neck to boots. He walked steadily, almost plodding, toward them though nothing supporting him was visible. His beard, long and thin, hung to his knees and an hourglass hung from a handle he held in his right hand. The red sand in the top glass was almost gone. Fourteen knew the sand was his time, and he felt a little touch of cold fear inside. Was that Death laughing somewhere? Or was it Fifteen? Neither, he realized; it was his own heart.

Despite the hourglass, the figure pulled out an immense watch, popped a cover open. “Earth, Terra,” a voice rumbled deeply from the figure’s chest. “Another turn around its life-giving Sun.”

“Good day, Father Time,” Fourteen and Fifteen said together.

“Good day, gentlemen. Another turn, another year.” He set the hourglass down on Fourteen’s platform. “Not too much damage, more of the usual chronological processes. Not so much grand killing by the dominant species, not like in some years.” He shook his head. “Some years — wow.”

“Wow” from Father Time was equivalent to “Holy freakin’ apocalyptic hell!” from everyone else. Fourteen was glad one of those years wasn’t his.

“The place is getting warmer, and not so naturally,” Fourteen said.

Father Time shrugged. “The processes will happen as they will, and we will adjust as they do.”

“Another year of the same ol’, same ol’, then,”  Fifteen said.

“Perhaps not, at least for us,” Father Time said. “The Administration has decided that, in light of shifting cultural values on the planet we serve, Sixteen’s skin could very well be a different shade. Or it’ll be female. Or both.”

“Bah,” Fifteen mumbled. “Change for the sake of change.”

“May I borrow that?”

Fourteen, surprised, handed him the scythe. Father Time stepped across the narrow gap, lifted Fifteen’s hat, rapped him hard on his head with the scythe handle. “Ow!” Fifteen shouted as Father Time replaced the hat, then stepped back across, handed the scythe back. “I am very old and very tired of this crap. What is it with Earth’s years, anyway? Only here do I get this constant guff. Maybe a female year is what we need. Damn it!”

Fifteen lifted his hat, rubbed the spot and gave Father Time an angry stare. Fourteen stayed silent. He had given Father Time guff, too, but at least he didn’t get rapped for it.

Father Time paid no heed, instead pulling out and looking at the watch again. “The last time zone is reaching zero. Fourteen, are you ready?”

“No. But what good does that do?”

“None at all, none at all.” He looked across the slim gap. “Fifteen! Ready!”

Fifteen stepped forward quickly. “Yessir!” He pulled up his diaper, adjusted his sash, adjusted his hat. “Ready.”

The platforms touched, the sand ran out. Fourteen lifted the scythe in both hands, then stretched his arms toward Fifteen, who stepped forward. Fourteen let go, but Fifteen stumbled, letting the scythe slip. In scrambling to hold on to it, he stepped back, tripped and fell, the scythe handle landing hard on his soft middle. He let out an “oof!” and a curse.

Father Time smirked. “Another successful handover.”

Fourteen laughed. The exact same thing happened a year ago.

“Fifteen.”

“Sir?” He stopped trying to stand, looked up.

Father Time picked up the hourglass, turned it over. A stream of red sand slipped through the neck and began piling up on the now-bottom.

Fifteen swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

“Fourteen.” Father Time nodded, began his plodding steps that took him off in a different direction.

The platforms were separating rapidly now. Fourteen stood alone, watching as the other receded. Fifteen wasn’t looking in his direction. He was still trying to stand up with the scythe. He finally managed, leaning the scythe against one shoulder and planting his feet. He stood staring off into the void. At this distance, Fourteen couldn’t see Fifteen’s face, but he knew which expression was on it. It was the expression someone wore when asking, to borrow a phrase from the humans, WTF?

Yeah, exactly, Fifteen, Fourteen thought, WTF?

 


Decay is the subject and it has a musical soundtrack

I just saw a film about decay, and decaying film was the medium.

Decasia: The State of Decay is an hour and seven minutes of old film clips that have been deteriorating. They’re shown as they are, no attempts made to clean them up. (The Wikipedia article says some computer imagery was used to “create  more meaningful abstract imagery.” That’s the only place I’ve seen that claim, so believe what you will.) The filmmakers also make it clear that they didn’t do anything to speed up the process, either.

The film came out in 2004 (OK, so I’m a little late, so what?) and was directed by Bill Morrison. The films in the film are mostly silent films, some documentary, some travel, some scripted dramas, some perhaps home movies. The opening image is a Sufi whirling dervish, an image the film comes back to again. It’s also the least damaged.

Sometimes the damage is severe and all we see for a few seconds are warped, pock-marked, moldy and bubbled emulsion, a crazy abstract pattern that flashes constantly across the screen. During one of the worst of such segments, a single, small lonely face appears in maelstrom, like a drowning man giving up his last gasp. I saw a film long time ago made when someone scattered salt on the negative, exposed it to light, then projecting the result.  It doesn’t come close to the random frenetic visuals in here.

Often, though, the original image will shine through like the sun emerging from behind thick clouds. It’s easy to tell the scripted pieces; the silent-film acting tropes just don’t look realistic. Still, the pieces cut from the whole do make us wonder what the film was like. (A couple of the films have been identified, including one based on a book by L. Frank Baum. No, not Oz.)

As interesting as those bits are, it’s the documentary type films that are the most compelling; art just cannot imitate all facets of reality. Rescuers bringing out unconscious or dead miners after disaster; miners trying to escape some sort of emergency. A burning house collapsing. A Japanese woman walking through a house. A man walking in a garden. A birth, perhaps risqué for the time. A boxer apparently working out on a punching bag. (Only apparently because half the image is buried under mold. If he is sparring with someone, his partner must be a bloody mess.) Scenes of a big city, with another man cranking his camera on a ledge to the left. True, many of these would be boring without the decay images making the look spooky and other-worldly, but in this context, all have their share of poignancy.

And then there are the ones that make you ask “what the foofraw is going on here?” Without context, we can only guess, and with much of the image buried under decay, that context is even more distant. For instance, we see a group of children  and adults standing around a 1920s era vehicle, all waving their arms in a circle, and then they all start jumping up and down. The scene is made more surreal by the damage that distorts the shape of the vehicle. (This happens quite a lot in the film.) A doctor and a nurse giving TLC to a mannequin. A man scraping a tree with some kind of tool. A scene on what looks like a 1950s-era school bus shows us individual shots of a few of the children, who are looking away at first, but then turn toward the camera, faces frowning with … anger?

One image the film returns to several times was apparently shot at a Catholic school or orphanage. The children are paraded through a courtyard and into a building. The girls are wearing sailor-style outfits with white tops and dark skirts, the boys white shirts and dungarees (probably). In every scene, though, there are two nuns nearby, sometimes with backs to camera. They hardly move, resembling two Grim Reapers examining their latest harvest.

Other films leave us hanging. One seems to be answering the question “What happens when you poke an anthill with a stick?” The obvious answer: a bunch of angry ants. But wait—was that a bone they just uncovered? Alas, the film cuts away, we’ll never know. A scene of what look like World War I-era biplanes (it’s hard to tell) flying in formation is marginally interesting because the damage cuts out any reference points. Then something drops from one; we suddenly realize someone is parachuting from the plane. Then there are others. They take forever to reach ground, but when they do, it looks like they’re landing on top of a factory. Are those two over there going to land on a smokestack—aw, dang, once again the cut ends.

And then there’s Michael Gordon’s music. Dissonant, edgy, repetitive, it complements the image perfectly. In their original state, the films would not show well with this music; but in their deteriorated state, this is the only music that serves. Do I detect influences of Philip Glass here? Well, in the long list of thanks for support in the credits, there’s a group called “Qatsi Productions” with glass and Godfrey Reggio listed therein.

Gordon’s music reminds me of Glass’s score to Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio’s 1982 film contrasting the modern world against the natural world. I’m not saying Gordon copied the score wholesale, but there are passages that evoke Glass. Gordon’s score stands on its own in creativity and musical themes, but if you’re going to be influenced by someone, you could do worse than Glass.

Indeed, Decasia as a whole reminds me of Koyaanisqatsi. The whirling dervish theme reminds me of the rocket launch opening and the rocket exploding and spinning back to Earth at the end. The only sound is the music as the images flash by in both films. I don’t know if Morrison had Koyaanisqatsi in mind when he put this thing together, and this form of film certainly wasn’t invented by Reggio, but having seen both, the parallels just stick in my brain.

Decasia isn’t for everyone. The splotches, distortions, holes and scratches flash by like those 1960s strobe lights . The constant changing shapes and light intensities can be distracting. And the score is, like I said, dissonant with odd sometimes irritating high-pitched sounds. But if you can stand all that, the movie is a compelling watch.

And what’s the point? Decay, my friend. When these films were shot, no one gave much thought to preserving them. They are records of the times, but decay carves holes in our history. Being confronted by this decay, seeing these people from another era seemingly desperately going about their business even as decay overwhelms them, reminds us that we, too, are of limited existence.


A message for the workers who assembled my iPad

To the anonymous workers at Foxconn in China who assembled the iPad I wrote this on: Thanks.
I’ll never know who you are, of course. Your names, your faces, anything about you except for generalities such as that you’re human, likely Chinese by birth and probably overworked. That’s the word here in America, at any rate: overworked and prone to suicide.
I hope those are exaggerations, especially that last. Otherwise, the cost of this thing would be pretty high.
We hear you have to work long hours with little time off so Americans can have their nifty toys devices. Yes, the iPad is worth having, let’s make that clear. They do connect us to each other – except to the people who assembled them – and do other cool stuff.
I just wish you could enjoy the fruits of your labor. That, too, is a story we’ve heard here, that you don’t know what the devices that you make do. Henry Ford realized he could sell a lot more vehicles if he made them affordable to his own workers. Maybe one day someone will do the same for you.
Not that I’m all that wealthy. I could afford this only because Wal-mart –  another giant American company Chinese workers no doubt are familiar with – started a holiday layaway program that included iPads. That’s how I eventually got to clutch one in my hot little hand.
I’ve seen photos of the long lines of white-clad Foxconn workers in the factories. I sometimes wonder about you, the people who actually touched the parts of my iPad. How many of you assembled mine? Which of you were male, which were female? How old were you? How long had you been working when this particular iPad came along? Where were you from, a rural area or a big city? How many brothers and sisters do you have? Do you have dreams, aspirations beyond the factory? You see, I don’t know a thing you who assembled my iPad.
Would I be pondering these things if I hadn’t seen the articles in American media about the supposed problems at the factory? After all, I’ve never really pondered who built my car. Americans, likely, it’s an American car. I can relate a bit to them because we have some values in common. The stories about Chinese tech workers, though, describe an experience few American workers have dealt in at least a generation or more.
Stories about how workers were woken in the middle of the night to re-do iPhone faces because Steve Jobs wanted glass, not plastic. Stories that workers have jumped off buildings (so the factory managers installed nets). Stories that workers can hardly make a living on their wages (though recent stories say everyone got a pay raise). Stories about consumer pressure that forced Apple to join a fair-labor organization to inspect the factories (though the reports are mixed on whether what the inspectors saw was real or whether they were being flimflammed).
So all of a sudden I’m a worker-right champion? If I were truly that, I wouldn’t have bought the thing. I did go into this purchase fully aware of these controversies because I felt it was necessary to understand costs other than money. Yes, I had to have it, but I see it as a tool. The automobile is a tool; eventually conditions improved for those workers. I hope that eventually conditions will improve the same way for the Chinese workers.

In a perfect world, Americans would be assembling the products designed by an American corporation. In a perfect world, workers everywhere would be paid a decent wage without making the cost of the products prohibitive. Perhaps one day this will happen, possibly when corporations run out of low-wage countries to move their factories to.
That’s a long way off, though. In the real world, Apple is about to unveil the iPad3. The workers who assembled my iPad, if they’re still at the factory, likely have been working hard to produce those new toys devices for a salivating American public. I hope the stories about pay raises are true. I hope public pressure has forced at least a little improvement in conditions.
So, thanks again Foxconn workers, for your labor. I will try to remember where my iPad came from each time I use it.

It’s the least I can do.