Friday, August 26, 2011

A Schoolboy Comic Fantasy: On F. Anstey’s Vice Versa

F. Anstey, Vice Versa or A Lesson to Fathers (London: John Murray, 1962)

   ‘Boys hate long words as much as even a Saturday Reviewer.’

   Thomas Anstey Guthrie, who wrote under the pseudonym F. Anstey, rose to acclaim with his first novel, Vice Versa or A Lesson to Fathers, which first came out in 1882. The novel, a popular comic fantasy with a slight moralistic bent, was destined neither to glory in the adulations of future generations of academic critics nor to sustain the interest of the fickle public. But it still had an unexpectedly good run. When my copy of the novel was printed in 1962 for the twenty-seventh time (and by the smell of it, it has been sitting in a box since then), it had managed to stay in print for eighty years—though I doubt many more printings were forthcoming. The novel also managed to appear in film six times. That total does not count Mary Rodgers’s derivative Freaky Friday and the films that book inspired. By any standards, Vice Versa was an extraordinary successful piece of Victorian light humour, but what is now more surprising, is that it can still entertain.

   The novel is set in the late Victorian period, contemporaneous with its publication. When it begins, we meet the middle class business man Paul Bultitude, father, and Dick Bultitude, son. The pair comes into possession of the Garuda stone, a magical talisman retrieved from India by an unsavoury uncle. The first effect of the stone is to transform Mr. Bultitude into his son in the midst of an argument over Dick’s return to boarding school. Dick then quickly uses the stone to turn into his father. Since the talisman gives each person only a single wish, the two are stuck in their reversed positions. The humour is light, sometimes unsophisticated, but never vulgar or bombastic. The novel can still offer a pleasant reading, however, both as a comic fantasy and a morality tale.

   The morality tale is driven by Mr. Bultitude’s transformation into an understanding and caring father. Of him we learn, ‘He was one of those nervous fidgety who cannot understand their own children, looking on them as objectionable monsters whose next movements are uncertain—much as Frankenstein must have felt towards his monster. He hated to have a boy about the house [...]’. This alone could describe a host of adult characters from children’s fiction, or fiction about children. The offish, sometimes nasty, adult who is eventually won over by first abrasive and then endearing children. But here, the ogre-like Mr. Bultitude is not to be won over by a rag-tag band of imaginative and affectionate youths, rather he must do the winning over, trapped as he is in a child’s body.  Mr. Bultitude own hostility towards his son also, somewhat justly, deprives Dick of any sympathy with his father when their bodies are switched. Dick becomes the unsympathetic adult, acting ironically like a spoiled child with his father’s wealth and status.

   Most of the story focuses on Mr. Bultitude, rather than his son. Mr. Bultitude’s reluctant arrival at his son’s boarding-school, Crichton House, and subsequent attempts to escape drive the plot. Most of the situational comedy derives from Mr. Bulstrode’s interactions, with other schoolboys, teachers, the authoritarian headmaster and aptly named Mr. Grimstone and Grimstone’s daughter, who is in love with Dick. Many of Mr. Bulstrode’s travails are ironically presented as the consequence of his own stinginess and harshness towards his own son; his refusal to provide his son an adequate allowance, for example, leaves him in a host of difficulties which a mere few shillings could alleviate. As Mr. Bulstrode experiences humiliations, torment and a host of beatings, a sense of humour is permitted through the sense of justice, in that he is himself unsympathetic towards other characters, especially his son Dick, and that he largely creates his own difficulties by himself through his contempt for the other schoolboys. But the cruelty is never slapstick or exaggerated, rather it maintains a sense of realism, conveying the sort of travails and suffering that a schoolboy could experience at a Victorian boarding school. This of course creates a tension and works to expose potentially hostile nature of the child’s world. This in turn works against the idealised view of childhood as a golden age of bliss and freedom. At the end of the tale, Mr. Bulstrode’s learns to sympathise with his son. The reader is left with the lesson, still apt, is that although childhood has its perks; it can be wrought with a sense of powerlessness, bullying and other trials.

   The realism of Anstey’s portrait of life at a late Victorian boarding school, however, now elicits another means of enjoyment in that provides the reader with a spark of life from the 1880s. We can laugh that Mr. Bulstrode ‘found himself expected, as a matter of course, to have a certain familiarity with Greek paradigms and German conversation scraps, propositions in Euclid and Latin gerunds, of all of which, having strict commercial education in his young days, he had not so much as heard before his metamorphosis.’; but some might lament the loss of a world where the mastery of several languages was not an extraordinary accomplishment for a lad. Perhaps other things, like marrow oil pomade and canings, are better abandoned.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Gigantic Melancholies and Gigantic Mirth - Conan in the '80s

I wrote two articles for Tor on the Conan movies from the 1980s - here are some teasers, along with the links, seeing as I won't be able to comment on the new Conan movie for a week or so, as I have an out-of-town (I mean, in the woods!) speaking engagement this next week.

Gigantic Melancholies: Conan the Barbarian

I saw Conan the Barbarian late in its theatrical run, despite being only eleven years old, thanks to my father’s willingness to smuggle me in to a drive-in showing beneath a sleeping bag in the king-cab of his truck. Dutiful father he was, he made me close my eyes for the nudity, and murmur something like, “Don’t tell your mother about that,” for all the gore.

I remember being rather taken with the spectacle of the film, but unable to articulate why it didn’t bear the same ad nauseum repeat viewings that the far inferior, but more fun Sword and the Sorcerer did. If you’d given me the choice between watching Albert Pyun’s splatterfest of schlock and sorcery  and Milius’s brooding barbarian bent on vendetta, I’d have chosen the triple-bladed-sword every time. Repeat viewings of both, along with the eventual dog-earing of my Ace Conan paperbacks lead me to the conclusion that I’d be hoping to see Conan on the screen when I went to see Schwarzenegger. What I got was a somber Cimmerian, and so was disappointed. I had no expectations of Pyun’s hyperbolized hero, Talon (played by Lee Horsley of Matt Houston fame), but got a character who, while lacking the mighty thews we’d come to expect of Conan (thanks largely Frank Frazetta’s cover paintings, and then John Buscema and Ernie Chan, who put Conan on a regimen of steroids), had the sharp mind of the thief, the propensity for violence of the reaver and slayer, and a combination of melancholy and mirth that Conan exhibited throughout Howard’s writing. In short, I realized that Milius’ Conan wasn’t necessarily Howard’s Conan, despite the film’s narrative nods to Howard’s stories, from the crucifixion scene (“A Witch Shall Be Born”) to Valeria’s promise to return from the grave (“Queen of the Black Coast”).

This isn’t a bad thing: by the time Conan the Barbarian hit theaters, Howard’s character was half a century old, and had taken on a life of his own beyond his creator’s writing. First we had the pastiches, edits, and new tales of L. Sprague De Camp, Bjorn Nyberg, Lin Carter, and later a host of other fantasy writers, including SF heavyweight Poul Anderson. Then came the Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic series and its adult contemporary, Savage Sword of Conan, which adapted both the original REH stories as well as the pastiches, in addition to adding its own new stories and characters to the Conan mythology. So despite protestations by REH purists, by the time Oliver Stone and John Milius wrote the script for Conan the Barbarian, there was no uniform character anymore, but rather a toolbox to draw from: within the comic books alone there were multiple Conans to choose from: the lean, wiry youth of Barry-Windsor Smith, or the hulking bearskin-clad brute of John Buscema?

Read the rest of the article here, at Tor. com

Gigantic Mirth: Conan the Destroyer

Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired [badly wigged], sullen-eyed, looking mostly confused, sword in hand, [with] a thief, a reaver [former NBA star], and slayer Grace Jones, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet [and amazing jockstrap].

If you watch Conan the Destroyer back-to-back with Conan the Barbarian, it should take you less than five minutes to divine know how bad this movie is going to be. In the thirty years since I last saw it, I’d forgotten just how terrible it is. The Carmina-Burana-like “Anvil of Crom” theme that started the original has been replaced by a more upbeat adventure theme; the forging of a sword is now footage of horsemen wearing armor that looks suspiciously like armor from the first film; and we’ve been informed that Wilt Chamberlain is playing a role, and may be speaking lines. Things go rapidly downhill from there, and never recover.

Conan has lost his leather trousers, and is now clad in just his underwear, or what is quite possibly the jockstrap David Bowie wore in Labyrinth. Despite being nearly nude, he’s adopted a form of Hyborean Puritanism, pining away for his lost love Valeria, and having nothing to do with any other women (although this wasn’t the case in the original cut — just the PG version that we ended up with). He’s just a big sweaty tease.
This whole movie is an exercise in what happens when you take an R-rated character like Conan and try to make him PG. There are some moments that scream for Tom Servo to make commentary, like when Sarah Douglas, as Queen Taramis, rushes to her teenage neice’s bedroom to find her screaming, clad in a slinky little number. Wilt Chamberlain, the man who boasted of having had sex with 20,000 women, is already there. Creeeepy.

Read the rest of the article here, at Tor. com

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Twin Peaks: White Knight in a Dark Wood

While 90s groundbreaking television series Twin Peaks doesn’t exactly fit the normal conception of Noir cinema, it certainly has a number of noir elements, despite the northwest small town setting: we might call it noir-west small town, given how little time is spent in the series establishing that no matter how dark the woods are at the edges of the town of Twin Peaks, it’s no match for the hearts of the people who live there. For the neophyte, Twin Peaks chronicles the investigation into the murder of Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen, whose dead body is found at the edge of a lake, naked and wrapped in plastic. The show was one part soap opera, one part crime story, and one part writer-Mark-Frost-mysticism plus director-David-Lynch-weird. Take The X-Files, Lost, and Desperate Housewives, mix well, and wrap in an enigma, and you’re getting close to the town limits of Twin Peaks.

Most people think “hardboiled” when they think Noir cinema. Yet French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified five elements of noir cinema in their work, A Panorama of Film Noir. Among those elements were oneiric (dream-like) and strange. And Twin Peaks was certainly strange and dreamlike, not leastwise due to the prophetic dream-visions of Agent Dale Cooper, the FBI agent sent to investigate Laura Palmer’s murder: dreams that included dialogue spoken backwards, a dancing-dwarf, and a giant hiding in the body of frail old bellhop.

Read the whole article at!