The Mechanics of the Heart

A little over a week ago, my family gathered around to watch the movie Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. The trailer led me to believe we’d see a steampunk romance with something of a Tim Burton-influence. What we got was a rather surreal French film full of compelling visuals and an interesting soundtrack that reminded me of some of my favorite steampunk musical artists such as Abney Park, the Nathaniel Johnstone Band, Vernian Process, and Unwoman. In many ways, I fell in love with it, even though the film never quite achieved its full potential.

In addition to the music and the stunning visuals, I loved that the film’s mad scientist was a woman and that pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès appeared as a major character. Much of the film’s second half is set at a circus populated by loveable characters who would be at home in a Tim Burton film.

Although there’s a lot to like in this film, I was underwhelmed by the romantic plot. In it, boy falls in love with girl on first sight, girl disappears, boy meets rival for girl’s affections and endures years of abuse at said rival’s hand, boy finally learns where girl is and goes after her, boy can’t get courage to reveal to girl that he is the boy of her dreams. I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers. The ending is sufficiently unexpected to redeem this plot somewhat. Still, the women in the film generally exist as romantic interests or nurturing figures. To top it all off, the film has a somewhat rushed and flat-feeling English dub and the DVD we watched had no option to watch in French with subtitles. Since watching, I’ve looked and can’t seem to find the French version available on a Region 1 DVD at all, which is both something of a mystery and a shame. It’s not like many North American DVDs don’t include French-language tracks!

After watching the film, we watched the special features which teased us with information about a book and an album. It turns out the movie is based on a concept album called La Mécanique du Cœur by the band Dionysos which was turned into a book by the band’s lead singer, Mathias Malzieu. In something of a plot twist, I discovered that while I couldn’t find the English-language soundtrack album on iTunes, I could buy the French soundtrack and the original French album. The title translates as “The Mechanics of the Heart” and in many ways, that proves to be a much better title for the work.

Once I realized that Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart was basically intended to be a steampunk and Gothic-flavored rock operetta, it made much more sense to me. Overall, the piece is more a metaphor for the fragility and unpredictability of the human heart than a coming-of-age romantic tale. Also, I’d argue not all the scenes should be taken literally. For example there’s a scene where Jack the Ripper mysteriously appears. This confused me during my initial viewing, but after pouring over the lyrics, I realize that Jack the Protagonist is having a moment of fear that his obsession could turn him into Jack the Ripper. Indeed, not your usual light animated fare. Steampunks in particular will likely find the beautiful, imaginative artwork inspiring.

Parents of young children may want to preview the film to decide if it’s suitable for their family. Some moments, such as the aforementioned Jack the Ripper scene, may well be unsuitable for younger children. Also, parents should note, the original album does contain rather explicit lyrics in English, most of which were toned down considerably or removed for the movie.

Despite my reservations, it was exciting to see what French artists are doing in the steampunk realm. The images and music from this movie are still swirling around in my thoughts. The original album has already become part of my collection and I’ve decided I need to make the movie a part of my permanent collection. It’s solid musical poetry that could have achieved true greatness if the narrative elements were as solid as the imagery and the metaphors.

Update: 7/18/2017: My DVD copy of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart arrived and I’m pleased to report that it not only has the English dub, but it include the original French language track, along with optional English subtitles. I’m guessing the English-only copies are the ones for rental, but copies made for retail sale have both languages, even though they aren’t advertised as such.

Flash Gordon Zeitgeist

Earlier this year, at Wild Wild West Con, I had the opportunity to meet Sam J. Jones who played the title character in the campy 1980 film Flash Gordon. At the time, I bought a beautiful poster based on the movie illustrated by comic book legend Alex Ross. The poster was quite nice and made me curious what other Flash Gordon illustrations Alex Ross had done. That led me to discover the comic Flash Gordon Zeitgeist, which was published in 2013 by Dynamite Entertainment. Alex Ross served as art director and illustrated many of the covers. The series was written by Eric Trautmann and the interior art was by Daniel Indro.

This version of the Flash Gordon story endeavors to combine the best parts of the 1980 movie and the 1979 animated film Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All. This version is set in 1934 as World War II is getting off the ground. The Earth is being subjected to natural disasters and Dr. Zarkov believes he’s found the source. Yale-educated Polo player Flash Gordon is on a mission to find the good doctor. A plane accident strands him and cartographer Dale Arden on Zarkov’s doorstep. From there the story proceeds in a familiar direction. Zarkov, Gordon, and Arden climb aboard his rocket ship and blast off to the planet Mongo to face all manner of strange creatures along with Ming the Merciless.

In this version, as with the 1979 cartoon version, Ming is using Hitler as a puppet to aid his conquest of the Earth. A new element is that a faction from Mongo has traveled to Earth and is working to stop Hitler.

There are several elements I quite like in this version of Flash Gordon. I liked the historical setting and the whole connection to World War II. In this version, Mongo is in a different universe and Ming’s plans are being executed using beams that allow him to connect his universe to ours. There’s a nice sequence where Flash goes through some of his early gladiatorial contests on Mongo and reflects back on his athletic and academic career, seeing this as a next step in his life. Flash has never been a particularly deep character, but this little extra piece of character building was a nice touch. We get some good background on Dr. Zarkov. The machinations of General Klytus and Princess Aura were fun to watch as they worked to unseat Ming from the throne and gain it for themselves.

I did feel this version suffered from some uneven pacing. That said, I’ve always imagined that pacing comic books must be a real challenge because of the protracted release schedule. Even so, some plot lines seemed to resolve very quickly, while others were given time to breathe and develop. As happens too often in versions of Flash Gordon, Dale Arden doesn’t get much to do. Making her a cartographer was a great and interesting choice. She also has an awesome ending to her story arc in this version, but in between, she mostly serves as the eyes for Dr. Zarkov. Dale Arden deserved better, but at this point, I think the best written version of Dale is in the 1980 movie where she actually gets to do (a little) more than fawn over Flash.

Comparing all these different versions of Flash Gordon has actually been a rather interesting exercise. Alex Raymond’s original comic strip was arguably one of the earliest, popular space operas and studying what works and doesn’t work in different versions helps me think about my updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series which I hope to start working on later this year. That series was always intended to have a certain “retro-future” appeal, heroes who were larger than life, and both men and women with more than a little sex appeal.

If you want to check out Flash Gordon Zeitgeist while waiting for the updated Space Pirate’s Legacy series, a graphic novel edition is available in print. Ebook editions are available through Amazon and Comixology. Unfortunately, the 1979 animated Flash Gordon was never released on video, but I found it on YouTube, just search for “Flash Gordon Filmation” and you should find it.

Seven Samurai … In Space!

I’m a big fan of both Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai and John Sturges’s American remake with gunfighters instead of swordsmen, The Magnificent Seven. Here at the Web Journal, I’ve discussed both the anime series Samurai 7 and the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. However, I’ve never discussed the first version of Seven Samurai I remember seeing—Roger Corman’s 1980 film Battle Beyond the Stars. This cheezy, but fun film is arguably a classic of the “space cowboy” genre.

The movie stars Richard Thomas as Shad from the planet Akir. Thomas is most famous as John Boy from the the critically acclaimed TV series The Waltons. The planet’s name is a clear nod to Akira Kurosawa. The peaceful world has been threatened by the villainous Sador, played by John Saxon. Shad must go out and recruit fighters to help him. In this version, the seven are: Gelt, a mercenary played by Robert Vaughn who like his character in the original Magnificent Seven must always watch his back; Cowboy played by George Peppard, a literal space cowboy who is also a gun runner; Nanelia played by Darlanne Fluegel, a technician who provides the Akira with sensors; Cayman, a reptilian captain who has a vendetta against Sador played by Morgan Woodward, who I fondly remember as Captain Tracy of the Exeter in the original Star Trek; Nestor, five members of a race of clones—their leader is played by Earl Boen; St. Exmin, a Valkerie played by Sybil Danning; and Kelvin, a pair of beings who communicate through heat. The seven of Battle Beyond the Stars actually provide a nice preview of the diverse cast we would get in the 2016 Magnificent Seven. One thing that was especially gratifying in this version is that it’s the only one to date that includes women among the seven.

Of some note, Battle Beyond the Stars features one of the first film scores by James Horner. As it turns out, the 2016 Magnificent Seven would feature Horner’s final film score. That said, Horner’s score from Battle Beyond the Stars reminds me more of his score for Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan than his score for The Magnificent Seven.

If you’ve seen any version of The Magnificent Seven or Seven Samurai, there will be few plot surprises in Battle Beyond the Stars. Like most remakes, the fun is in the details. Even though the effects are clearly low budget, there are several interesting space ships including Shad’s ship, Nell, who is a sentient AI. Nell proves to be a great character in her own right—something of a smart-ass, but genuinely helpful. Befitting the low budget, this film doesn’t take itself as seriously as its more earnest cousins. The actors clearly deliver their lines with tongues fully in cheek.

Have I missed a remake of Seven Samurai? If there’s one you know of that I haven’t mentioned in this post, let me know in the comments!

As I said at the outset, I believe this would have been the first version of Seven Samurai I actually saw. I believe I first saw this in 1985 at college, about five years after the original release. It’s clearly one of the films that gave rise to my love of space cowboys—a theme Steve Howell and I explored on planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope in the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys. In the book, Steve even does his own space-based retelling of a western classic: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. If you’d like to check out our anthology of space cowboy stories, visit: http://www.davidleesummers/Keplers-Cowboys.html

Worlds of Words

Last weekend, I was at the Tucson Festival of Books, which brings together authors of every genre imaginable from around the world to talk with readers about their work. The entire University of Arizona mall is taken up with tents occupied by vendors selling books and exhibiting products, services, and information. There was also an area called Science City which focuses on STEM literacy.

I love walking through the festival and seeing the books for sale and meeting the authors exhibiting their wares. Bookmans Entertainment Exchange is a chain of used bookstores in Arizona and one of the sponsors of the festival. They had a large tent and it was especially fun to go in and discover they had a copy of my novel Owl Dance for sale. What’s more, it was sitting on top of a copy of Bridges of Longing by my friend Marsheila Rockwell. As it turns out, I’d just spent time visiting with Marcy and her husband Jeff Mariotte a few minutes before at a tent where they were selling their books.

Fun as it is to visit the vendors, my favorite part of the festival are the tremendous panel presentations. On Saturday morning of the festival I joined J.L. Doty for a panel on Scientists Writing Science Fiction. I discussed how science influences my writing and editing. For example, science brought me together with Steve Howell of NASA Ames Research Center to assemble Kepler’s Cowboys, a collection of stories about planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. I also noted that working in science doesn’t always influence my science fiction. The 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak is a big, spooky building, especially at night and it inspired me to write my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. We also discussed bringing the discipline we learned in science to our writing. In that context, Jim mentioned how he writes without an outline. On the other hand, I do use outlines. In both cases, we think carefully about what we’ve written and plan our next writing sessions so we do any required research ahead of time.

I also moderated a terrific panel on building fantasy worlds. The panel included my friend Gini Koch. I was also delighted to meet Samantha Shannon, Erika Lewis, and Brian McClellan. We discussed the process they go through when creating their alternate worlds and how they keep track of the places within those worlds so they’re believable to the readers. I thought it was especially interesting to hear that Samantha was a fan of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, because I saw some influences in The Mime Order. That said, she noted that she’d actually removed some of the more overt influences because she didn’t feel they were working in the context of her work. The photo above was taken after the panel was finished and we gathered to sign books.

By itself, a terrific weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books would have done a great job of recharging my batteries so I could continue work on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel Owl Riders. However, just a couple of days after the festival, I was delighted to find a new review of book two of the series, Lightning Wolves posted at Geek-o-Rama. Reviewer Katrina Roets wrote, “Do you want to know how you know that you’re really enjoying a book? It’s when the power goes out and you curl up on the couch with a flashlight so that you can keep reading. Seriously. This happened to me last night.” Knowing that I wrote fiction that kept a reviewer reading through a power outage gives me a great, warm fuzzy feeling and makes me ready to write even more.

Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis

In 1993, one of my co-workers at Kitt Peak National Observatory introduced me to the Vampire Chronicles of Anne Rice. At that point there were just four volumes in the series. I picked up a set and read straight through them. I loved the way her vampires were able to travel leisurely through history and see things in our modern world with wonder and passion. An example is the way 17th century French vampire Lestat de Lioncourt discovers rock and roll, makes it his own, and wakes the Queen of the Damned herself. This long view of history appealed to me both because of my inherent love of history and my love of science fiction. After all, that’s much of what science fiction is about, looking back at history, understanding how people and technologies change, and then projecting those changes into possible futures. Thanks in part to Anne Rice, I would try my own hand at vampire fiction, gave it a science fictional twist and Vampires of the Scarlet Order was born.

I’ve continued to follow the Vampire Chronicles over the years and it feels like a circle of sorts has been completed with her latest entry in the series. princelestatrealmsofatlantis As Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis opens, we learn that a vampire named Roland has captured a strange, human-looking creature. He can drink all the creature’s blood, which is more satisfying than even human blood, and the creature will appear to die. Despite this, the creature will awaken soon after, its blood regenerated. Roland shows this creature to the ancient and powerful Rhoshamandes, who has fallen out of favor with the vampire court led by Prince Lestat. Roland suggests the creature can be used as a tool for Rhoshamandes to regain power.

Meanwhile, in another part of the world, another creature hears a familiar name in the radio broadcasts of the vampires. When he attempts to confront vampire Benji Mamoud who hosts the broadcast, vampires confront him and corner him. The creature then dispatches the two vampires. While all this is going on, Prince Lestat, back at the vampire court, has started having dreams of a great city that fell into the sea. Lestat has become prince of the vampires by becoming the host of Amel, the spirit responsible for the existence of the vampires in the first place.

From the title, it should come as no surprise that Lestat ultimately discovers a connection between the strange creatures, the spirit Amel, and the lost city of Atlantis. Like the vampires, the new creatures, who call themselves Replimoids, have aspects that are both likeable and frightening. This story of the Replimoids and Atlantis is the reason I feel like I completed a circle. The series that led me to my science fictional take on vampires has now taken its own science fictional turn. There’s a simplicity and almost innocence to Rice’s visions of advanced civilizations and their constructs that reminds me of the science fiction from the 1950s and 60s. This might be a little surprising for people used to contemporary SF, or used to some of the dark historical realities presented in the earlier Vampire Chronicles, but it mostly works in the context of the story.

Like the previous entry in the Vampire Chronicles, Prince Lestat, Rice tells the story from multiple points of view and we get to spend time with several of the vampires she’s introduced over the course of the series. In one of my favorite chapters, Lestat meets his old friend Louis de Pointe du Lac in New Orleans. I had fun following their walk through familiar French Quarter landmarks such as Cafe du Monde, Jackson Square, and Pirates Alley. As a long-time fan, this was all great fun, but I could imagine the stream of characters being a little overwhelming for a new reader.

As a fan of the Vampire Chronicles, I enjoyed spending time with Lestat, Louis, Marius, Benji, Gabrielle and the others again. I found this an interesting turn in the story and would be delighted to follow the vampires into another adventure. For people new to the Chronicles, I would suggest they start with the early volumes such as Interview with the Vampire or The Vampire Lestat and read through at least Queen of the Damned before diving into this latest volume.

The Threepenny Opera

About a week ago, I introduced my youngest daughter to one of my favorite musicals: The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It tells the story of Mack the Knife, a thief in Victorian London who marries Polly, daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who controls the city’s beggars. Peachum goes to the police for help and discovers that Mack is protected by the Chief of Police. threepenny-opera-broadway Even so, the Chief of Police has a price and agrees to hunt Mack. Mack flees into the arms of his longtime lover, a prostitute named Jenny. This really only scratches the surface of the play’s story. A lot goes on in a very compact narrative.

The play was written in 1928 in Germany as Nazis and communists were vying for control of the Weimar Republic. Brecht was a communist and adapted an English play called The Beggar’s Opera into a critique of capitalism. Whenever a character in The Threepenny Opera has a choice, they will always take the one that will bring them the most money or the most personal pleasure, regardless of what it means for those around them. Being a little vague to avoid spoilers, the ending calls up a deliberate deus ex machina that encourages the audience to realize that real life would give no happy ending for characters that behave this way. It also challenges the audience to ask that if it related to the thieves, beggars, and the prostitutes of the story, they should be careful about treating them as sub-human worthy of no sympathy. I believe the lessons of the play are as valuable and relevant today in the United States as they were in 1928 Weimar Germany.

As it turns out, members of the German Communist Party were among Brecht’s harshest critics at the time the play was released. They wanted the play to include a depiction of the proletariat uprising against the bourgeoisie. I suspect it’s precisely because the play didn’t go this direction that it remains relevant today.

The play has been translated into English multiple times with varying degrees of success. The version represented by the poster at the top of the post was translated by Wallace Shawn, famous as Vizzini in The Princess Bride and starred Alan Cumming as Mack and Cyndi Lauper as Jenny. Unfortunately, Shawn’s translation hasn’t been published, nor was there a cast recording of the show. Fortunately, plenty of other recordings exist including the Mannheim and Willet translation of the 1970s, which features Raul Julia as Mack.

As far as I know, the musical has only been made into a movie three times. mack_the_knife_poster Probably the most famous and widely available is the 1931 version. Among the high points, Kurt Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya reprises her role as the original Jenny in this early version. Unfortunately, this version drops many songs and changes the play’s ending. I’ve never seen the 1960’s version, but haven’t been able to find a recommendation from a fan. My personal favorite is the 1989 film Mack the Knife starring Raul Julia as Mack, Richard Harris as Peachum, Julie Walters (best known as Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter films) as Mrs. Peachum, and Roger Daltry as the street singer. This version is still quite flawed. It also drops songs, is very dark and muddy looking, and has several unnecessary dance numbers. Despite all that, it seems to capture the essence of the play better than the 1931 version. Sadly, the movie was only released on VHS and no DVD version has appeared.

As it turns out, my novel The Pirates of Sufiro takes some inspiration from The Threepenny Opera. Captain Firebrandt’s portrayal as the stylish pirate captain, owes a lot to Mack the Knife, who is called Captain Macheath to his face. Also, Firebrandt’s lover Suki is named for Sukey Tawdry, one of Mack’s lovers in the play. The Pirates of Sufiro is available for free at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. My preferred edition of the ebook is available as a PDF directly from my publisher.

High Octane Racing

When I was a kid, cartoons about racing were a thing. Two cartoons of note were Speed Racer and Wacky Races. The former was the American translation of the anime Mach GoGoGo! which told the story of Go Mifune who entered races around the world in his car loaded up with gadgets, such as powerful pogo sticks that would propel the car over obstacles, rotary saws to just cut through obstacles, and special traction belts to allow the car to climb steep roads. Wacky Races was an American cartoon inspired by the 1965 film, The Great Race. It imagined a group of colorful characters racing around the world in equally colorful cars, often containing gadgets a bit like Go Mifune’s Mach 5. One of the racers, evil Dick Dastardly and his dog Muttley would routinely try to thwart the other racers who included the beautiful Penelope Pitstop and inventor Pat Pending.

This past summer, I discovered that DC comics started a comics line that featured ramped-up versions of classic Hanna-Barbara cartoons. I wrote about Wacky Raceland, based on Wacky Races and Scooby Apocalypse based on Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? redline-poster In Wacky Raceland, the racers drive their AI-enhanced cars through a post-apocalyptic wasteland under the watchful eye of a disembodied announcer who has promised some kind of reward. We still have Dick Dastardly and Penelope Pitstop. In this new version, Muttley is semi-intelligent because of his own AI enhancements. Professor Pat Pending seems to have a set of secrets connected to the apocalypse. I’ve been following and enjoying the comic and I gather it ends with issue six in about a week. When my daughter read the first issue, she said the story reminded her of a racing anime—no, not Mach GoGoGo!—but a newer one called Redline.

I finally had the chance to watch Redline this past week. It was actually a lot of fun. It’s about racers competing on different tracks around the galaxy. The hero is Sweet JP who races a vintage yellow Mustang with an enhanced engine that gets a burst of speed by dropping nitro pellets into the fuel tank. His rival and love interest is Sonashee, known as “Cherry Boy Hunter”. She has an amphibious car armed with missiles. The movie opens with a race known as the “Yellowline.” Sweet JP’s mechanic is in deep with the mob and just as it looks like Sweet JP is going to win the race, the mechanic sets off a bomb in Sweet JP’s car, causing him to crash. Sonashee zooms past him and wins.

The next race is the titular Redline which is scheduled to be held on a heavily militarized planet where the racers are not welcome. Because some of the racers who qualified don’t want to risk their necks, Sweet JP is offered a spot in the race. The anime features some neat cars, some interesting and rugged settings, and great aliens. More than once, I was reminded of the pod-racing scenes in Star Wars but the art and voice acting in the anime conveyed more thrills.

One thing that made the movie Redline interesting is that in this modern era of CGI animation, it’s all hand-drawn. The movie is really beautiful to watch. The art style reminded me more of the European comic art you might find in a magazine like Heavy Metal than most anime. To be honest, the story itself wasn’t much to talk about. It’s a simple love story tied to the story of a race. Sweet JP and Sonashee are attracted to each other but are rivals. Sweet JP’s friends are connected to the mob adding complications. It’s the kind of stuff you may have seen in lots of other stories about races and competitions.

Despite the familiarity, there are some interesting science fictional elements added late in the story. The militarized planet has some creepy bioweapons up its sleeve plus the holographic imagery of their control center is well realized. Many of the aliens in the movie are also interesting and use the freedom of animation to take us beyond humans in suits.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Wacky Raceland comic resolves, but I’m especially grateful that the comic gave me an excuse to go back to the racing cartoons of my youth and discover the movie Redline.