Friday Flotsam: Verne, History, and Broomsticks

1. Visiting relatives in Maine all this week

2. On the way up, listened to a biography of Jules Verne. It was certainly interesting to get a look into the life of such an important author, though the biographer is rather annoyingly intrusive; his thesis is that Verne is one of the great authors of all time, and that his society-changing masterpieces were mercilessly butchered by his publisher. While it seems certain that Verne’s works were subject to extensive editing, both with and without his consent, and that translators often made substantial changes to the English editions, the idea that he was on a level with, say, Dickens or Hugo seems quite a stretch. Verne is a brilliant and pioneering writer, but he’s best known for his ideas rather than his characters or plots for a reason.

The passages the biographer reads from his original manuscripts are frankly not very good, or at least not noticeably better in terms of storycraft than what ended up in the finished version, but the biographer absolutely gushes over them, mostly it seems because they better reflected Verne’s anarchical views and did more to stick a thumb in the eye of Victorian culture.

3. The biographer also waxes fulsome on his ideas of the politics and social changes of the time (e.g. comparing 1848 favorably with the 1960s), and especially harps on the fact that the Loire region where Verne was born was a hub of the French slave trade. This fact seems, from what I can tell, only tangentially associated with Verne himself (some of his relatives were involved with it), but the biographer brings it up again and again, with plenty of fulsome, purplely language. Because, of course, it is a matter of piety for a man of his evident age and views to say ‘slavery bad’ at every opportunity, just in case anyone’s forgotten the fact.

Yes, this fellow was the inspiration for yesterday’s post.

4. Watched Bedknobs and Broomsticks with the kids the other night: my first time seeing the extended version. It’s quite a good movie, though definitely uneven, and Walt’s steadying hand is noticeably missing, though his spirit can be felt throughout (they started developing the film before Mary Poppins, then switched to that one when the rights issues cleared up, so Uncle Walt was involved in the planning stages though the film didn’t come out until five years after his death). The staunchly pro-family, pro-marriage, and pro-civilization themes that he loved come through especially strongly. There is also one song – ‘The Age of Not Believing’ – which definitely feels like it’s talking about the studio and public’s feelings following Walt’s death (“Where did all the happy endings go? Where can all the good times be?”).

But the most impressive thing is definitely the climax, or at least the first part of it. I think they achieved something truly artistic here, where Miss Price, using the spell she had been hunting the whole film for, calls a whole museum to life, effectively summoning the entire military history of English civilization against the Nazi raiders. Knights in armor, cavaliers, redcoats, Scottish bagpipers, and Norsemen, all empty uniforms and suits of armor, rise under the moon and assemble on the hillside to face the raiding Nazis, while she flies overhead on a broom bedecked with the Union Jack and a sword in hand. It’s an amazing bit of storytelling, only slightly undercut by the fact that the film’s lighthearted nature won’t allow them to give anything but a slapstick pounding to the Germans.

5. As for the changes, some are good, some not so much. I like the extra background on the children, and Miss Price’s sad song reminding herself why she chose to remain unmarried. But the Portobello Road sequence now goes on way too long, feeling like it will never stop. I mean, I like the idea of a series of dances representing different regions of the British Empire (Sikhs, Jamaicans, etc.), but it simply never ends. There’s also a subplot of Roddy McDowall trying to woo Miss Price, but it only intrudes occasionally and doesn’t really go anywhere.

And, as I say, the movie itself was always a little uneven; not nearly as tight as Mary Poppins. The entire under the sea sequence doesn’t even pretend to be relevant to the plot and is pure filler, while the animated section as a whole (fun as it is) turns out to have no effect on the story. But when it’s good, it’s very good, anchored by marvelous lead performances by Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson (I especially like the psychological realism near the end where he panics upon realizing how close he’s becoming to the others and tries to flee back to his responsibility-free lifestyle).

6. By the way, on the subject of the ‘Portobello Road’ sequence, this is one of the really annoying things about the perpetual “oh, how awful!” lamentations we get from people like the Verne biographer: we never get to simply appreciate the cultures themselves, because we’re always being made to feel sorry for them and ashamed of ourselves. On the other hand, ‘Portobello Road’ shows off Indians, Jamaicans, Scots, and so on, letting each one be thoroughly and joyfully itself without attaching any kind of negative or shameful feelings to them (something similar was done in Song of the South with southern Black culture: presenting it in a thoroughly positive way as something unique and admirable in itself. Which is why that film is swept under the rug as intolerably racist today).

Ironically enough (or perhaps not so ironically), our demands for ‘sensitivity’ toward different cultures seem to me to serve largely to alienate them further. I mean, when you can’t think of something without a sense of shame or discomfort, are you really going to have a very positive view or genuine interest in it?

7. Also revisiting Hilaire Belloc’s Europe and the Faith. Modern works of history and biography almost always give me the sense that the authors view the past with contempt for not being the present: that they take the idea that everything that’s happened before is chiefly important in that it led up to now.

The refreshing thing about Belloc is that he doesn’t. His conclusions are often highly questionable (e.g. his reading of the First World War and ‘Prussianism’ in general), but he is at least mostly free from any form of ‘chronological snobbery’ (as Lewis put it) and presents the past as he understands it, not according to the fashionable views of his time (more or less; no one’s quite free from that sort of thing, and Belloc had major blind spots regarding the First World War and the French Revolution, chiefly, it seems, because he or his family were personally involved).

People like this are invaluable because even when their conclusions are faulty, they show you other places to look and other perspectives to take that mainstream historical narratives tend to ignore or dismiss.

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