Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Farewell for the present

Tomorrow I will be boarding an airplane and travelling to Europe on my own wonderful, magical adventure.

Due to my absence, there won't be posting here for about three weeks, but hopefully I will return with many new insights from the lands that hosted some of the most famous versions of the most well-loved fairy tales.

Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland Paris

The nature of my trip is rather unusual. I direct musical groups for adults with developmental disabilities at my church. We will be performing in several venues in France-showing what adults with disabilities are capable of, and helping local churches to start their own disability ministries.

I love the people I work with. Isn't it interesting that often the heroes of fairy tales are the lowest in society? The youngest child, the servant girl, the one who is thought to be the Fool? And yet they are the ones who overcome all judgement and prove themselves to be the most worthy at the end of the tales. And while my students don't have the highest IQs, they surpass most people I know in the qualities that really count, like love and compassion, and they certainly excel in humor! I hope that through our trip we are able to help overcome prejudice and fear of people with disabilities. For, as we learn in many fairy tales (especially Beauty and the Beast), appearances can be deceiving...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jean Cocteau's Belle et la Bete

Jean Cocteau's 1946 "Belle et la Bete" is a giant not only in the world of Beauty and the Beast versions, but is well respected in the history of film itself.
Like any old movie, it can seem strange to the modern viewer. I'll admit, the first time I saw this, several years ago, I thought it was really weird. But after reading so many positive things about it and all the beautiful symbolism and imagery in it, and giving it a more open-minded rewatch, I changed my mind.

The movie does put a lot of emphasis on a very common theme in batb retellings-inner vs. outer nature. The mirror from the Beast's palace shows the sisters to be what they truly are (an old hag and a decorated monkey), yet Belle sees herself. The Beast struggles with the animal aspects of his nature (killing animals for food, being unable to meet Belle's eyes) verses his human aspects (his love for Belle, he walks like a human and wears human clothes).
Betsey Hearne goes into more detail on the richness of symbolism in this film in her book, "Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale." In her words, "Cocteau is obsessed with levels of reality, labyrinths, mirrors, dreams, surrealistic images, all of which blend naturally with and extend easily beyond the traditional story of "Beauty and the Beast." Time and space take unexpected turns in the film; light and dark, surfaces and depths play on one another. Yet throughout, Cocteau emphasizes the importance of the ordinary to the sphere of the extraordinary."

Clearly, there's a lot packed into this film which might seem simple at first. But can I just say that I find it VERY bothersome that Belle confesses to having loved Avenant (the Gaston-like figure) as well as the Beast? I wouldn't necessarily be too upset that they trade forms in the end-it rather makes sense, that Avenant, who is truly beastly in nature, should turn into the Beast when he is killed, and that the Beast turns into a handsome prince. But you can't love two people at the same time. Maybe, Belle was attracted to Avenant, but because she realized he wasn't trustworthy (he was the cause of Belle's father's loss of fortune, and at the end he breaks into the Beast's secret chamber to steal the riches and intends to kill the Beast, which ironically is fulfilled when he is transformed into the Beast). This could explain why she refused his marriage proposals-but still, attraction and love are different things, which is kind of the point of this movie.
Hearne explains it this way: "Representing man's bestial nature in contrast to the Beast's natural bestiality, the human Avenant extends the duality of Beast and prince to a trinity. The prince, of course, supersedes both the other characters but is played by the same actor, clarifying the roles as three aspects of one personality."
I feel like you shouldn't be able to blend two opposite characters together, but maybe that's the point as well. Belle herself confesses to be the monster when she doesn't return in time, revealing that we all have moments of monstrosity, even the purest in heart, like Belle. Still, I don't like the juxtaposition of the Beast and Avenant-I would prefer for them to be direct contrasts.
The movie plot is very true to the Beaumont, with the Avenant character as the main addition-as well as a few other added symbols, such as the glove, and the key which is entrusted to Belle yet she is forbidden to use it (hello, Bluebeard! This has been on my mind especially lately because of all the wonderful posts on Surlalune this month).

Interesting trivia from wikipedia: this movie drew not only from the classic (Beamont) batb story, but from another fairy tale, La Chatte Blanche, by Madame D'Aulnoy-noteably in the "servants, previously magically reduced to their arms and hands, with these still performing all servants' chores."
This movie has really had a huge impact on the evolution of the tale in modern culture, in what meanings and themes we draw from the plot-not to mention its immense emotional impact. It has influenced many later versions, from movies and books to music...more on that in a later post.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Walt Disney and traditions

Oh, Walt Disney. Either you love him or love to hate him, or maybe a little of both.

This passage is discussing Disneyland, in particular Disney's motivation for creating Mainstreet, USA, but it could also shed light as well on his traditional movie plots. And this is from a Disney-sanctioned article (this excerpt is from the book "Disneyland Through the Decades"), so keep that in mind while reading; the first sentence makes me wonder if the author is trying to defend Disney from critics without actually acknowledging that there was any controversy. This was written by Christopher Finch in 1978, and I just thought it was interesting to consider, so here it is:

"Walt Disney had a hard childhood and knew as well as anyone else that "the good old days" were not all good, but he also understood that they take on a new significance as they slip into the past. Memory tends to strip the past of its quotidian hardships while abstracting the positive values that transcend the shifts of circumstance. Disney made every effort to sharpen our picture of the past by focusing on those details which seem significant in retrospect. Disneyland's Main Street and the adjacent Town Square area...are designed to evoke old values, a sense of neighborhood, and the compactness of society in a simpler age.
"Walt Disney was a conservative man in that he believed that such old values retain their usefulness, if only as a reminder of what was once viable. I think it is fair to say that, for him, Main Street was a metaphor for a way of life governed by what can only be called common sense, and his belief in the validity of common sense permeated everything he did. Of course, the paradox of Disney is that his common sense approach was always allied with a highly developed instinct for the creation of fantasy. It is the fantasy that lends an aura of enchantment to the Magic Kingdom-what other Main Street leads to a castle from the once-upon-a-time world of the Brothers Grimm?-but the fact that it is rooted in easily understood values makes the fabulous all the more accessible to the millions of visitors who enjoy it annually."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Arabian Nights Ear Candy

If you mention "Scheherezade" to a musician, they will probably assume you're talking about the Rimsky-Korsakov piece:

Such a great piece.
Ravel also has a version of Sheherezade, for soprano and orchestra:

There are different ballet versions, which use Rimsky Korsakov's music:

I posted this a long time ago, when no one read my blog, so here it is again-a completely different musical genre, the Nightwish song "Sahara" is inspired by Arabian Nights as well. The chorus:
"One thousand one nights unseen
The philosopher and the Queen"

Saturday, May 7, 2011

How can they tell the same story over and over?

The other day some friends of mine wanted to watch Disney's Beauty and the Beast. It's common knowledge that I'm a fan and at one point one friend asked, "I assume you've read the book?"
Me: Which one?
Friend: I assume this was based on a book.
Me: Well, it was based on a fairy tale. There are tons of different book versions.
Friend: Wait, what do you mean? How can they tell the same story over and over?

I wasn't-and still am-not quite sure what she meant by this question; whether she was talking about copyrights or thinking in terms of it getting boring after multiple retellings. At first it was so far away from anything I would have asked I had no idea how to answer it. I tried to explain that the stories were familiar themes to borrow from, and that different authors each bring their own interpretation to the tales to keep them fresh, but I don't think I did a good job because the friend seemed just as confused afterwards as she did before.

It baffled my mind that anyone was so unaware of the nature of fairy tales and the fact that there are many versions, and seemingly couldn't see the purpose of revisiting these tales. Sometimes I get so immersed in the fairy tale world I don't realize the presuppositions and misperceptions most people have about the tales.

Do you have experiences with friends/aquaintances who cannot understand your interest in fairy tales, or the basic nature of fairy tales?

My take on Black Swan

I realize I'm about the last person on the planet to have seen this movie, which is surprising given that I'm a total sucker for dance movies (especially ballet) and fairy tale movies (especially weird and dark versions). But, I also think seeing movies in theaters is expensive and time consuming so I wait for them to come out on video.

SO. When other people would see the movie, the only comment I really heard was, "It's really dark," which is kind of obvious from the trailer. But there are different kinds of dark.

Overall, I would have to say I was disappointed in the movie. It was confusing to the point of being frustrating, instead of thought provoking. You never knew what was real and what wasn't, except that Nina goes crazy. And there was no discernable message, at least that I found, though there were potential themes to be developed-the pressures on a professional dancer, creepy unhealthy mother/daughter relationships, growing from innocence to maturity-only nothing was quite realistic enough to have depth. That last theme, the innocent white swan verses seductive black swan, was almost beat over our heads, much like in the SNL parody of this movie (in general I don't find SNL that funny, but i've watched this sketch multiple times...). Nina=innocent=wears only white all the time. Lily=seductive=wears only black all the time. Nina went from complete extreme to extreme-being treated like/acting like a five year old, to being a crazy psychotic murderer-if she did indeed murder Lily. Still confused about that part.

There's a lot of graphic sexual content, and while it's not exactly violent there are a lot of wince moments as she pulls strips of skin off her finger or weird feather-like things out of her back or slams the door on her mom's fingers (totally saw that one coming). I personally would have preferred more dancing and less orgy, and more connections to the story itself, but that's personal preference. There is supposedly a connection to the plot of the ballet, but the white swan doesn't actually turn into the black swan, she is simply danced by the same dancer to make the enchantment convinving. Nina says in the movie that the white swan kills herself because her man fell for the wrong girl, which isn't exactly true. Seigfried honestly thought Odile was Odette, and afterwards, I've always understood that they decide to die together rather than stay under Rothbart's power. So I would hardly call one dancer's journey into Crazy Town a parallel to Swan Lake.

When I heard about Natalie Portman training for years for this movie I was excited to witness, potentially, a movie with good dancing and good acting at the same time, which would be a rarity. There was certainly dancing, and what you could see was good, but a lot of it was a closeup of her face and focused on more of the acting aspects of dancing. I'd be interested to hear what real dancers thought of the movie. I feel like choreographers really are way more interested in technique than sexual appeal.

A lot of movie critics and reviewers disagree with me (I avoid reviews until after writing my own so as not to have biases.) Many people see this as a work of genious and they are very possibly correct. What did you think of the movie, those of you who saw it? It's definitely not for the faint of heart. Maybe my expectations were too high. If you want in depth explorations of the plot of Swan Lake, I recommend Mercedes Lackey's Black Swan (totally unrelated to the movie), or even Tanith Lee's short story found in Red as Blood (both versions also dark and sexual, but have a little more meaning, I think) . If you want a gritty, creepy, sexed up Natalie Portman, watch this movie. (It should be noted that she did an excellent job.)

And how appropriate that I draft this on Tchaikovsky's birthday?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Origins of Firebird Ballet

I had mentioned, a while ago, that the plot for the Firebird ballet was a combination of Russian fairy tales, but what are the fairy tales the ballet drew from?

The ballet basically took two common characters found in Russian folklore, Koshchey the Deathless and the Firebird.

The villain of the ballet is Koshchey, who holds ten young princesses captive. The Russian tale "Koshchey the Deathless" tells of the hero, Ivan, who goes in search of the Princess he knew of from the lullabies his nurses sang to him. The compassion he has on a man being flogged (Bulat the Brave) results in Bulat accompanying him on a series of quests, basically doing everything for him, including freeing the Princess Vasilisa from Koshchey and finding his death, to kill it. The death itself is in an egg in a duck in a hare in a coffer under an oak on an island in the sea. In the ballet they simplified it to just being an egg he has to smash.

Koshchey is also found in the tale "Maria Morevna." Feminists would love this tale-Ivan only allows suitors to marry his sisters if his sisters consent (the suitors are all birds...?...but it's okay because they can all turn into men...), and then marries Maria Morevna, who is beautiful and powerful, can slay whole armies by herself, and has imprisoned Koshchey. In fact, it's sort of a role-reversed Bluebeard, because Ivan is forbidden to look into a certain closet; he does and ends up freeing Koshchey and has to go search for Maria Morevna. After many trials (including dying...thank goodness for the water of life) Ivan defeats Koshchey by smashing his head. Ironic how Koshchey the Deathless always ends up dead...

The Firebird is in different Russian tales-"The Firebird and Princess Vasilisa" is less related to the ballet plot. In this one, a hunter finds a feather of the Firebird, and is warned by his horse not to take it. He, of course, does, which again results in many impossible quests, in which he is aided-this time by the horse, whose loyalty wins his master a Princess in the end.

"Prince Ivan, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf" (which is available to read on Surlalune) has the beginning sequence of the ballet plot-the Firebird is stealing apples from the King's orchard. Ivan's brothers try to keep watch but fall asleep. Ivan stays awake when it is his turn, and manages to grab the Firebird's tail, and is left with a feather, which he presents to his father. Once again, series of impossible tasks which the hero wins with the aid of a helper-this time a gray wolf who felt badly after tearing Ivan's horse to pieces. One of the tasks is to bring back the whole Firebird, and the wolf warns him to bring the bird but not touch the cage. I bet you can guess what happened next...other than that the Firebird doesn't really factor in the plot.

In "The Maiden Tsar" (interesting tale-the villain is an incestuous stepmother) the Firebird has a little more power, like she does in the ballet-she rescues Ivan from a Baba Yaga. Later on, the egg in the duck in the hare in the coffer in the oak in the ocean is seen again-this time the egg contains the Maiden Tsar's love, not Koshchey's death.

I don't know of any tales in which 10 maidens are all kept prisoner-I'm pretty sure that was thrown in there to give the corps de ballet something to do.

Images from here and by Ivan Bilibin