Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where ARE the Wild Things?

Where the Wild Things Are, the classic picture book by Maurice Sendak is now a full-length film, complete with a Max (Records) playing the rambunctious little boy Max, and glorious, enormous, costumed wild things.

If you haven't read this book, please do. It is a masterful example of how profound themes and strong emotions can be conveyed in a few pages of enthralling art and a very few poetic phrases. Seldom has so little conveyed so much, so beautifully.

As Sendak is one of the producers of this film, and the New York Times gave it a glowing review, we went to watch it with keen anticipation.

The costumes are indeed impressive. They are furry, massive, 3D reproductions of Sendak's wild things, complete with claws, toes or horns in all the right places. They waddle endearingly, and withstand being bounced down sand dunes or whacked with massive dirt clods. Each wild thing has a distinct personality, and an evocative voice from actors like Forest Whitaker.

Some of the cinematography is beautiful, and the trailer will lead you to think that the entire film is filled with similarly stunning shots of mildly melancholy scenery. Although mildly overdone, the soundtrack is quite pretty and haunting.

To our dismay, however, the film takes a long time to get to the wild things. It opens with promising scenes of Max, dressed in his wolf costume, creating a ruckus at home by chasing the family dog. But that was followed by a bewildering and unnecessarily long series of scenes depicting Max's plight in suburban America-- presumably in a misguided attempt to make the story more accessible to American audiences? We were forced to share his dislike of his pill of an adolescent sister, a struggling single mother, and, to add insult upon injury, his mother's attempt to have a peaceful family dinner with one of her suitors. A simple book scene in which Max is called a "wild thing" by his mother and sent upstairs sans supper, is transformed into a shouting match in which poor Mum tells Max he is "out of control", followed by a frantic chase through suburbia before Max finally sets sail for the wild things. Unlike the book, a forest doesn't grow magically in Max's room, instead, it materialises in the middle of his suburban neighbourhood. This struck us as an unnecessary and unfortunate departure from a magical scene brimming with movie promise.

When the movie Max eventually reaches the wild things, and becomes their king, the film improves, but is too full of complicated interpersonal relationships to evoke the gay abandon of letting the "wild rumpus start". Max is very melancholy, and so are most of the wild things. This isn't a film for young children.

Party time

The film left us both feeling as though we'd eaten something deeply unpleasant, so we had to repair to the bookshop for a good dose of children's books (starting with
Where the Wild Things Are) to remove the ghastly taste of a disappointing evening at the cinema. There's nothing returning to where the wild things really are.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

In which we discover different Pooh audiobooks

To my delight and surprise, an awful lot of talent has decided to render the classic tales of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (NOT Disney!) audible. I couldn't quite find all the audiobooks, but here is a list, in rough order of preference, with brief comments on those I managed to listen to. There are links to the ones with audio samples online.

The best:
Jim Broadbent, produced by HarperChildrensAudio, 2003
Broadbent has an especially lovely, plumy Pooh voice, and his narrator's voice is just what one would expect for bedtime stories. All the other animals have enjoyably suitable voices without being distractingly different. That said, owl is perfectly pompous, rabbit always sounds bossy, and piglet's voice has just the right combination of insecurity and high-pitched eagerness. This is also the only audiobook that doesn't attempt a silly soundtrack, and where Poohs hums aren't drowned in music.

Bernard Cribbins, Published by the BBC, Cover to Cover Cassettes Ltd
Cribbins is almost as good as Broadbent, but his voice a little too high to sound as cosy. Excellent
character voices.

Random House
Read by Stephen Fry, Judi Dench, Michael Williams and Various
The best thing in this version is Geoffrey Palmer, who is perfectly, gloomily Eeyorish, dripping with sarcasm and self-pity. Judi Dench's cosy voice enunciating "stoutness exercises" is charming, but as all the readers take turns narrating every few sentences, in addition to each having their own characters, this audiobook can get quite distracting. Stephen Fry has a very enjoyable reading-aloud voice, but he sounds more like Fry than Pooh. Tigger, Piglet and Roo have ghastly voices. Bad enough to make one avoid all the stories they appear in. This audiobook is also riddled with silly, tinkly music, sound effects and full-blown musical accompaniments and introductions to everything Pooh composes.

Peter Dennis, Pooh Audio Books & Radio Production
This is apparently the version that the Pooh Properties Trustees approved, which worries me, as they also approved a sequel to the two A.A. Milne books. Dennis has a good, ringing narrator's voice, but his Eeyore is irritatingly feeble and querulous, Rabbit far too grating, and piglet punctuates every sentence with distracting grunts.

This isn't the worst, I just wish I could get my hands on it:
Alan Bennett, BBC Radio Collection 1998

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Brick Ark?

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes starts with a side-splittingly funny, clever retelling of the Noah's Ark story (by one of the stowaway species) that is well worth reading if you have any sense of humour at all. The remainder of this book comprises a series of much darker, rather depressing Ark-themed short stories, such as the tale of a hijacked cruise ship. However, I highly recommend this book, simply for its first short story, which is a gem.

"This Brick Ark: Celebrating the Museum of Comparative Zoology's First 150 Years and the Beginning of the Next 150", is a lecture I attended, by Dr. James Hanken, Director of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. His talk title made me wonder what the "Ark" can mean to different people. Harvard's massive collection of valuable zoological specimens is obviously worth saving, and arguably, it has always been under threat because of financial and spatial constraints. The museum is also a brick building. Ironically, a quick Google search revealed that "The Brick Ark" is also a Bed and Breakfast run by earnest Christians in Indiana. I suppose what these two uses of "Brick Ark" have in common, is the notion of providing a "safe haven".

Most of this post will be about the talk, which I found enjoyably, and somewhat surprisingly historical. Hanken is a biologist by profession, and it was heartening to see how much time he devoted to the fascinating people responsible for establishing the MCZ. In particular, the talk focused on Louis and Alexander Agassiz, father and son, and the first two directors of the MCZ. Some of the more interesting titbits included Louis Agassiz's insatiable ambition to make the MCZ an unbeatable institution. This was illustrated by some amusing quotes, including the dilemma over what to name the museum. The Museum of "Natural History" seemed too fuddy- duddy. Agassiz's personal favourite (because it encapsulated all his interests), "Comparative Zoology, Embryology and Palaeontology" was, he admitted, "too long". So the museum was, and still is, of "Comparative Zoology", a name that emphasises Agassiz's vision of the broad, synthetic research in the institution he founded.

Agassiz founded the MCZ in 1859, the very year that Darwin's Origin was published. Ironically, Agassiz also believed staunchly in the fact that every species was "a though of God", and vehemently opposed any notions of transmutation (now known as evolution). He stuck to these views till the end of his life, and expressed his ideas most vehemently in his 1851 Essay on Classification. Although these two eminent scientists maintained a gentlemanly correspondence, Darwin did privately confide in his bulldog, Thomas H. Huxley, "I entirely agree with your remarks on Agassiz's Essay on Classification: it is all utterly impracticable rubbish". And when the Origin was published, Darwin politely sent Agassiz a first edition, which Agassiz didn't think much of.

In a somewhat uphill and ultimately doomed attempt to persuade his fellow biologists, and researches in his own MCZ of the impossibility of transmutation, Louis Agassiz launched many expeditions to collect specimens that would disprove Darwin. His last, the Thayer Expedition to Brazil, 1865- 1866, brought back heaps of new species, which, ironically, provided evidence supporting the notion of descent with modification from a common ancestor. Incidentally, the Thayer Expedition also included the young William James, arguably the founder of modern psychology, who appears to be the only person who didn't have a ball in Brazil.

Louis Agassiz's great contribution, in addition to founding the MCZ and finding funding for it, was to organise the public displays of stuffed animals by their geographic distribution -- something which no other museum had done. To Agassiz, the fact that one found sloths in South America and not elsewhere, was evidence that each species had been created separately according to a divine plan. Darwin and his followers also shared this interest in where different forms are found, because to proponents of transmutation, it was striking that species classified in the same group tended to be found in the same place -- as though they had all been modified from a shared ancestor. As Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection enthused upon visiting the MCZ, "It is surely an anomaly that the naturalist who was most opposed to the theory of evolution should be the first to arrange his museum in such a way as best to illustrate that theory, while in the land of Darwin no step has been taken to escape from the monotonous routine of one great systematic series of crowded specimens arranged in lofty halls and palatial galleries, which may excite wonder but which are calculated to teach no definite lesson."

Louis Agassiz's tremendous contributions in founding the MCZ have earned him a place along former Harvard presidents in the room where Harvard's faculty meetings are held. In fact, he is one of a handful honoured with two likenesses in that room -- a portrait and a bust. Also a great geologist, Agassiz is known for being the first to present a scientific case for an ice age. This reputation for geology and anti-Darwinian notions led to quite a few jokes about Agassiz sticking his head into the ground when the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 came along, and Agassiz was the only one of four great biologists to topple from his pedestal on the Stanford Zoology building.

Agassiz statue, Stanford campus, 1906 by trialsanderrors.
Picture by W.C. Mendenhall. Taken from the U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library.

In keeping with his father's rather unfortunate attempts to disprove Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, the second director of the MCZ, also spent much of his life attacking a Darwinian theory-- that of how coral atolls are formed. To this end, Alexander also launched a great many expensive expeditions, and he even had massive metal replicas of coral reefs on display in the MCZ. Although Alexander died believing that he had succeeded, Darwin's atoll formation scenario still stands today.

The MCZ's subsequent directors were also colourful men. All of them struggled to fit an ever-increasing collection into limited space, with limited funds. One of the most influential, Thomas Barbour, was disturbingly fond of discarding bits of the collection in order to make space. Hanken's main message, was that in spite of changing political, economic and intellectual times, the MCZ has remained true to its founder's vision in persisting as a relatively small institution with a disproportionately large impact on the synthetic study of zoology.

Looking at the newly refurbished hall of mammals, I felt unusually grateful for the current financial crisis, which scuppered plans to move the MCZ's public displays across the river to a fancy new museum in a fancy new science park. There is something delightfully evocative about seeing musty old stuffed animals in the very brick building where they were first displayed. One can almost smell and see Agassiz's vision of a museum that would show people just how marvellous the earth's collection of living things is. Unlike previous museum events, this evening's reception was restrained and vegetarian-- a very small, and rather fitting price to pay for keeping the animals of the MCZ in this Brick Ark.

Links of possible interest:
Future Harvard Natural History Museum events:

Wallace's exquisitely expressed essay on the MCZ:

Darwin Correspondence Project:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Imelda is a poodle. Here she is, admiring her beautiful long legs.

Imelda gets rather self-conscious sometimes. Here she is feeling contrite, because she is so vain.

But in spite of herself, Imelda is terribly glad when she has a chance to pose for portraits. That's why she's licking my fingers in gratitude.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head

Wish I'd thought up a title as whimsical as this one, but it's actually a lovely children's book that my friend and I discovered in one of our favourite neighbourhood restaurants. Who wouldn't be charmed by the notion of a vegetarian dragon?

Bill Peet's animals are endearingly expressive, and judging from Droofus, his stories are charming. I was surprised to discover that Peet also illustrated many Disney films, such as 101 Dalmatians, because his books are miles better, and not in the least twee.

I can't wait to read about "Chester the Worldly Pig",
or the whimsical Whingdingdilly,

and Scamp, a dog inspired by Peet's own dog.


Here are sketches for a story about an abandoned ostrich chick.
Every chick radiates personality.


It's a good thing Peet is prolific.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Darwinian drama

This year, Darwin would have been 200, and his "Origin of Species", a 150 years old. Hurrah. There have been a plethora or conferences, books, paraphernalia and, most recently, films celebrating (and cashing in) on these glorious anniversaries.

With the mountains of scholarship devoted to documenting Darwin's eventful life, and his own copious written records, from meticulously catalogued notes on earthworms to moving letters about his favourite child's last days alive, one would think that it would be easy to find something both accurate and engaging to dramatise. What one does not expect, is an unfortunate hybrid of Hollywood and hallucination-- both on the parts of Darwin and the creators of "Creation", one of the most recent Darwin films.

"The Creation" opens with a sentence claiming to present how the Origin came to be written. However, it barely mentions the dramatic events surrounding the arrival of Wallace's letter, which, by independently presenting Darwin's theory of natural selection, precipitated a joint reading of their ideas at the Linnean Society, and, soon afterwards, the Origin. Nor does it even mention Charles Lyell, author of books that contributed greatly to Darwin's formulating natural selection, and one of Darwin's closest friends, who advises him to publish before he is scooped.

Instead, "Creation" explores Darwin's reaction to the death of his favourite daughter, and his crisis of faith, which threatens a happy marriage with his first cousin, Emma. These are interesting themes to explore, especially as the current polarised debates pitting religion against evolution tend to obscure the fact that many people find different and nuanced ways to reconcile the two, and that Darwin was by no means an evil and evangelical atheist. Unfortunately, one is plunged into a one-sided and melodramatic demonstration of Darwin's mental agonies over the cruelty of nature, his loss of faith and the death of his favourite child, Annie, at the age of 10. By sheer force of repetition, these horrors become surprisingly saccharine and soporific. I rapidly found myself drowned in such a torrent of flashbacks and flash-forwards that it was tricky to know when and where anything was happening -- in Darwin's mind or in his life? Before Annie's death or after? Staged scenes of "nature red in tooth and claw", such as a fox killing a rabbit about 3 feet from Darwin and his whispering brood were so improbable they were funny rather than moving, while shots of Emma staring, pained, at her raving husband for the umpteenth time got positively tiresome. It would help if some of the acting was, at least, convincing, but it isn't. As a result of all this agonising improbability and confusion, "Creation" isn't just historically inaccurate, it is dramatically hopeless.

My friends and I emerged from "Creation" stunned and wondering if it were, perhaps, a creationist spoof. To our surprise, there are actually reports that American creationists fought to repress its release in their country. They don't know what they are missing. To paraphrase Darwin badly, there is an irony in this view of (Darwin's) life, with its several creations, having been originally breathed into a few fancies or into one; and that, whilst society has gone cycling on according to the fluid laws of humankind, from so interesting a beginning endless forms most silly and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

In contrast, "Darwin's Darkest Hour" by NOVA is less original, but makes good use of some of the more dramatic moments in the history of how the Origin came to be written, and presents quite a few important historical and scientific points clearly and accurately. For instance, we learn that Darwin did not have a eureka moment when he set foot on the Galapagos, but that back in London, an ornithologist named John Gould presented Darwin with his own specimens reclassified, so that birds Darwin had labelled warblers and blackbirds were actually 13 closely related species of what we now know of as Darwin's finches. This information, combined with Gould's news that Darwin's three mockingbird varieties, each collected from a separate island, were distinct species, made Darwin question the immutability and separate creation of species. If all the finches were formed via special creation, why would such closely related forms so close together in space look so different? And why would a Creator bother to make slightly different mockingbirds for three similar little islands in the same archipelago?

"Darwin's Darkest Hour" also shows evidence of careful research and an attempt to be accurate and balanced. A lot of the props are clearly designed to reflect the Darwin home, from Darwin's copious letter-writing, to his frequent games of backgammon with his wife, and his plant experiments in both greenhouse and drawing room. Both films present Darwin the experimenter, but whereas Darwin in "Creation" is generally retching over dead pigeons, the NOVA Darwin also has blessed (and historically documented) moments of good health, during which he conducts experiments on seed dispersal or bee instinct with his children. One gets a real sense that Darwin was a rather fun father to have, who inspired and deserved the devotion and admiration of all his children. "The Creation" attempts to portray Darwin as Dad, but gets so caught up trying to emphasise his love for the dead Annie, one gets the false impression that he barely noticed his other children.

The only real truck I have with NOVA's dramatisation is the relationship between Emma and Charles. It might as well be taking place in New York today. The couple were close, true, but Emma is unlikely to have masterminded the entire scheme to rescue Darwin's scientific priority after Wallace's letter appears in 1858. Anyone watching "Darwin's Darkest Hour" would be left imagining that Emma was so dynamic, supportive and positively bossy, that she reminded Darwin of his 1844 essay on natural selection and urges him to write to his good friends Lyell and Hooker, asking them to publish this together with Wallace's letter. Although Darwin did indeed write to these friends, and they did indeed excerpt his essay to be read to the Linnean Society together with Wallace's letter, it is unlikely that Emma would have orchestrated the entire effort. That said, perhaps one could allow for a little dramatic licence if an unrealistically young, svelte, feminist Emma makes the whole film more palatable to modern audiences. Charles is also surprisingly glamorous, but
Henry Ian Cusick does an excellent job of conveying Darwin's many conflicting emotions without making him a complete nut.

In short, I would recommend that anyone who isn't familiar with the Darwin story watch the NOVA film, and that anyone who is not a creationist trying to poke fun at Darwin or the possessor of a very strong stomach should avoid "Creation".

Darwin's Darkest Hour: