Myth-ing Persons : Heroes of Myth and Legend

January began as one of the last months of year, not the first.  The start of the Roman calendar (and the astrological one) was March. Back then there were only ten months to the year, totaling 304 days. Between was a miasmic 66 monthless days of “winter.” According to legend, Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome (after Romulus himself), added January and February to codify that winter term (along with a catch-up month every other year of 22 days).

Was Numa a real figure? History leans toward yes, born around 753 BC. Both Plutarch and Livy (major Roman writers) wrote about him. He codified Roman laws and religion, so we know he actually lived, but like many legends, there are stories about him that are most likely fable.

Every culture has their grandiose heroes of myth and legend. Some we know are fantasy (Beowulf), while others we know are fact (Jesse James). Let’s look at some famous heroes that history can’t make up its mind about.

Mulan

Disney’s Mulan is based on a Chinese poem called The Ballad of Mulan. She is believed to have lived somewhere between 386 CE and 620 CE (if you’re not up on your history, Common Era has replaced the Anno Domini). She takes her aging father’s place in the army, and serves for twelve years without her fellow soldiers realizing she’s a woman. Depending on the source, her name might be Hua Mulan, Zhu Mulan, or Wei Mulan. Although she’s first mentioned by the 500’s, historians can’t decide if she’s real or just an interesting story.

 

 

 

 

John Henry

The steel-driving African American of song fame who managed to hammer more rock than the new-fangled steam drill before collapsing and dying was likely a real man. In the 1920’s, sociologist Guy Johnson tracked down not only people who claimed to have worked with John Henry, but one man who claimed to have seen the showdown. The front runner for the actual location is during the cutting of the Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia, around 1870, but no one has definitive proof.

 

 

 

 

William Tell

A folk hero of Switzerland, Tell was an expert bowman. When Switzerland fell under control of the Habsburgs, a magistrate put his hat on a pole and demanded all citizens bow before it, or be imprisoned. While in town with his son, Tell refused to bow, was arrested and sentenced to death – though, since he was such a marksman, the Magistrate would let him go if he could shoot an apple off his son’s head. Tell did so, was arrested anyway, escaped, and the people rose up in rebellion, in an act considered the founding of the Swiss Confederacy, around 1307. Some historians believe Tell is merely a new twist on an old Danish fable.

Robin Hood

     The story of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Prince John, King Richard, and the Band of Merrymen has been told for almost a thousand years. We know King Richard and Prince John are real (Richard took the throne in 1189), but there is debate about Robin Hood. Most likely a yeoman, not a noble, the name Robin was about as common as fleas, and the word Hood (sometimes Wood; the Old English were creative spellers) simply meant a man who made or wore hoods – more common then than hats. History’s been singing about him since the 1300’s, but his true identity isn’t known. If you can, check out the BBC series Robin of Sherwood.

 

 

 

 

 

King Arthur

Oh, Arthur! How we want to believe! Of all legends, yours is perhaps the most influential of any! Your mage Merlin/Myrrdin is the direct ancestor of Gandalf, Dungeons and Dragons, Dumbledore, and more.  “Arthur” (depending on spelling) is believed to have actually been a military leader who fought battles against the Saxons around the end of the 5th century. The earliest possible references to him date to the 600’s, though some discuss a Battle of Badon but give no mention of a king named Arthur.  Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to give a romanticized version in the 1100’s, then Thomas Malory came along in the 1400’s and standardized the legend. T.H. White called him the Once and Future King, and Lerner and Loewe put it all to music so we could remember it easier. Arthur was probably real, but not quite as mystical as we’ve been made to believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January’s a harsh month, but 31 days is sure better than 66, so curl up with a legendary figure, real or possibly not, and decide for yourself.

 

“Welcome to Marwen” and the power of art therapy

Welcome to Marwen is a film due out on December 21 starring Steve Carell (though, honestly, Jeremy Renner would have been a dead ringer). At first glance it looks like a weird film about a man playing with dolls, but don’t be fooled by that. Marwen is so, so much more than live action mixed with fantasy. It’s a story of loss, recovery, and overcoming disability. And it’s a true story.

 

    A Life Lost

Mark Hogancamp was an artist and photographer, five years in the Navy, five years married, and an alcoholic. In April of 2000, he admitted to being a cross-dresser while drinking in a bar. When he left the bar, five men beat him so badly that he spent nine days in a coma, and forty days in the hospital relearning how to walk, talk, and behave. He had permanent memory loss of everything before the beating, and severe post-traumatic stress. His entire life before that night had been erased. Insurance cut off his therapy after a year, and he could not afford to continue on his own.

Healing Himself

    Instead, Hogancamp turned to fantasy art. Outside his home in New York State, he created Marwencol, a fantastically detailed Belgian town caught up in World War II, and populated it with excruciatingly detailed 1/6-scale figures (that’s Barbie-sized, if you don’t know. Before his injury, he’d painted miniature aircraft as a hobby, but now his hands shook too much) – including both himself and his attackers. In Marwencol, a safe place populated by women, grisly acts do occur (it’s WWII), but women are the heroes. Through the scenes he set up, Hogancamp worked out a lot of his rage and anger by “killing” his attackers over and over, his own form of therapy to deal with the loss of 38 years of memory and the disabilities he’d been left with. He can no longer draw, but he can use a camera, and his artistic photos of his figures caught the eye of the right people. They were published in an art journal, then on to a gallery show, and then a well-received documentary (Marwencol). In 2015, a book was released to critical acclaim (Welcome to Marwencol). Now, Robert Zemeckis has picked up the trail, and turned the story into a wider drama for the holiday season.

Life is Art; Art is Life

    Hogancamp’s photos are a child’s dream: proof that your dolls/action figures are having a rich life when you aren’t looking, a voyeuristic peek into a place where anyone can be the hero, the bad guys always lose, and Mom is there to save the day. His photos are eerie in their realism, down to pen-tip bullet holes and nail-polish blood, a dream gone creepy where department store mannequins have replaced people but you can’t always tell at first glance. Take a look at some of his works here, and if you like them, you can purchase some for yourself here.

    Severe head trauma is no laughing matter. Not everyone emerges from a coma, and fewer still survive them without some form of permanent disability. Trauma has been implicated in everything from brain cancers to seizures to murder, and the road to recovery is long, difficult, fractured, and rarely complete. We think of therapy as being Freudian, or using a walker down a hospital corridor, and dismiss art therapy as wasting time on a hobby, but to some, art therapy may be their very salvation. Hogancamp is still shy, plagued by anxiety and difficulties, his memories will never return, but he’s found his support, and that makes all the difference in the world.

    Check out the movie this Christmas, and read up on these other real-life survivors and their determination to pull themselves through the toughest of times. You might even be inspired to dabble in a little art therapy yourself.

Ghost Boy : The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body by Martin Pistorius

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Proof of Heaven : A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander

The Long Awakening : a Memoir  by Lindsey O’Connor

Overcoming Mild Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-concussion Symptoms by Nigel S. King

The Mindfulness Coloring Book : Anti-stress Art Therapy for Busy People by Emma Farrarons

 

 

 

Summers of Scandal

astonished faceIf you’re like me, you’re cringing every time you turn on the news, open a newspaper, or stare at the tabloids in the checkout line. No matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, this country’s politics are a mess. While we keep reminding ourselves this isn’t normal, scandal IS more normal to the office of the president than we think.

Remember Watergate?

Sure, if you didn’t suffer living through NixonAll the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and Watergate, you at least have heard the story (or seen the movies) of the break-in at the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, how cash was traced to the Committee to Re-elect the President (Nixon), and how President Nixon was caught lying about the fact he knew about it. A president lying under oath was grounds for impeachment, but Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, before he could be impeached, giving us the never-elected Gerald Ford. That’s the biggest official Presidential Scandal to date, but by far it’s not the only one.

SMarilyn Monroe with John F. Kennedyure, Clinton’s affair caused a major row, but flings among presidents are almost as common as presidents eating cheeseburgers. John F. Kennedy’s affairs were kept out of the press, but half the country was winking at his activities.  Harding, FDR, Eisenhower, Jefferson, and Lyndon B. Johnson were all known to have had affairs of heart while in office, and not one of them was ever brought up on charges. Cleveland, however, had not only one but two scandals that caused an uproar.

Yes, But Did You Hear About That Cad Cleveland?

The first was a secret surgery to remove a cancerous growth on the roof of his mouth.Grover Cleveland political cartoon America in 1893 was caught in a severe Panic – the pre-1930 name for a Depression. Cleveland felt that a president with a potentially life-threatening issue could further destabilize the people and the economy, so he chose to have the surgery in secret – on a boat traveling the shores of Long Island! Because it caused a bit of disfigurement, he attributed it to having two bad teeth removed (I saw a display on it at the Mutter Museum once). That wasn’t the worst though.

Cleveland was president during the Victorian era, whose straight-laced propriety and denial of anything related to sex, including body parts, haunts us in a weird duality to this day. And in that era of moral decorum, Cleveland was routed out as having had a love child in 1874, before he married his wife. Not only an illegitimate child, but he had the mother locked up in an insane asylum, and farmed the baby out to another couple! Even though it made a huge scandal at the time, he freely admitted it, and it didn’t stop him from being elected not just once, but twice, proving that moral flexibility is nothing new, either.

Abraham Lincoln quote: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."Men of power get to the top position by wielding their power, and the office of the president is no different (I suppose we could let Jimmy Carter off the hook. He’s an anomaly to the rule, and no doubt why he was a somewhat wishy-washy President and often considered not strong enough during the Hostage Crisis. People just wanted to get away from Watergate). It doesn’t matter what party platform you’re running on, mainstream or not, chances are somebody somewhere is going to dig up a scandal on someone, and if not, the elected just might create one of their own (such as Reagan and Iran-Contra). It’s nothing new, and it’s not likely to go away again in the future. So grab some popcorn, and school yourself on these hot-button scandals of the day (Check out the movies of All the President’s Men, Frost/Nixon,  Argo, and Mark Felt ) :

 

Winnie the Pooh and the Big Screen

Icons come and icons go. Coca Cola survives, but Woolworth’s, the standard of the early 20th century, is now history. What’s popular today may not make the cut to the next generation – few kids today play with Cabbage Patch Dolls, despite the frenzied battles people had over them in the 1980’s, and all those people who sank thousands of dollars into Beanie Babies as investments now have … boxes of worthless stuffed toys.

Winnie the Pooh Endures

Winnie the Pooh is one of those who made the grade. A.A. Milne (Alan Alexander) wrote first a book of children’s poems (When We Were Very Young), then a Christmas story, and finally, in 1926, a book of stories, Winnie the Pooh, based on his son Christopher Robin and his stuffed bear Edward. A sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, followed in 1928, as well as two books of poems. Filled with charming innocence after the bloodbath of World War I, bumbling, slow-witted but kind-hearted Pooh and his friends (Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, and Kanga and Roo) hit a needy spot in a dejected population. By 1931, Winnie the Pooh was a $50-million business, the dream-deal of every author (and that was in the middle of a depression!).

Although Milne died of a stroke in 1956, Pooh continued to expand when the film rights, among others, were sold to Disney in 1961, and the first animated cartoon released in 1966, with Sterling Holloway’s voice becoming the standard for Pooh. Today, the marketing of Winnie the Pooh is worth as much as $6 billion dollars a year, the third most valuable franchise in the world, after Star Wars and Disney Princesses (both, not surprisingly, also Disney franchises, a company with more than 92 billion dollars in assets).

Two New Films

Within the last year, another expansion on the franchise has brought out two marvelous films not necessarily aimed at children but adults who once were children: Goodbye Christopher Robin, and Christopher Robin.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a lovely, sweet story of Milne and his relationship to his son, and how the success of Winnie the Pooh destroyed the childhood of Christopher Robin himself. Pushed into the judgmental spotlight too young, Christopher Robin was beaten up in school because of his fame, and grew to resent his father, whom he described as very bad with children. Although eventually he reconciled with Winnie the Pooh, he never really reconciled with his parents; even on her death bed, his mother refused to see him. Goodbye Christopher Robin is a British production filled with beautiful settings and a superb performance by eight-year-old Will Tilston; it was released on DVD in January.

On August 3, Disney launched their Christopher Robin film (does someone leak news between studios? This type of inter-studio film wars has happened numerous times, most recently with Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman both released in 2012, and Disney’s 2016 Jungle Book with this October’s Warner Bros. coming release of Mowgli). In a plot fairly reminiscent of Hook (which was not a Disney creation), Christopher Robin is a grown-up who has lost his imagination, so enter CGI Pooh and friends to help him remember it. While the voices are so close to the cartoons you loved in the 60’s, somehow the CGI just doesn’t work as well. Kids will probably love it, grown-ups not so much, and not for lack of imagination.

Winnie the Pooh was voted an icon of England, but you can see the original Winnie and friends at their permanent home at the New York Public Library here in the United States (Roo was lost in an apple orchard in 1930).

As the real Pooh turns 100 in 2021, he’s showing no signs of losing his status as a bear loved around the world. Pooh has been translated into more than 46 languages, including Latin, Mongolian, and Esperanto. If you have no child to share Winnie the Pooh with, try these “adult” Pooh books:

Isle of Dogs

I’m aware Studio Ghibli is a big deal, with assets worth more than 15 billion dollars, five Oscar nominations and a win to their name (2003, Spirited Away), and my kids love them, but I don’t much care for Japanese Anime, or Japanese animation in general. Steeped in the beauty of classic Disney and Warner Bros., I hate the minimalist design style of Pokemon, Power Rangers,  Howl’s Moving Castle, and others of that genre. So, when I started seeing previews for Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion animation set in Japan, I was really confused as to why I wanted to see it.

A Multi-cultural Film

In truth, it’s hard to call Isle of Dogs a Japanese film, no matter what it seems like it should be, based on content and style. It’s written and directed by American Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel, Fantastic Mr. Fox), co-produced by Germany, takes place in Japan, and contains a fair amount of Japanese conversation and several Japanese actors (including Yoko Ono, who mercifully does not sing). If anything, it’s an homage to Japanese films. The story takes place in the fictional city of Megasaki, where a dog flu has taken hold and there is worry it could transfer to humans. The corrupt Mayor banishes all dogs to Trash Island – starting with the dog of his ward, 12 year old Atari Kobayashi, despite the assurance of a scientist that he has a cure. Atari sets out immediately to get his dog back, and the story begins.

Incredible Animation

The draw for me was that the film is dependent on stop-motion animation, not any style of art. This is dolls come to life – the dogs were filmed with animatronic heads, giving a life-like range of facial movements. Characters have a living translucence that is often achieved with wax over porcelain, but here was done with special resins and computer programs to coordinate freckle movement. Having grown up on Art Clokey’s Gumby, and Davey and Goliath, the dominating force in claymation from the 1950’s through 1989, and all those Rankin-Bass Christmas specials such as Rudolph, claymation and stop-motion animation have a very fond place in my heart. The animation in Isle of Dogs is superb, right down to blowing fur, and watch for it come Oscar season. If you doubt it, just watch the sushi-making scene.

That’s fine, but what about the story? Giving Dogs a PG-13 rating seems harsh (especially when the highly controversial Show Dogs was given a PG) – there’s no sex, no major swearing, some mildly upsetting scenes of experimented dogs and threatening robots, implied violence but not graphic, but I would consider it appropriate for ages 9 and up – some of the themes could be upsetting to younger children (such as euthanasia, and a dog that starved to death). Overall, Isle of Dogs is a sweet, caring story about a boy who loves his dog and will go to any lengths to get him back. It’s endearing, heartwarming, cheer-worthy, with several good laughs – well-worth a movie admission price.

Controversy

Of course, nothing, nothing today is without controversy and because this is not an actual Japanese film, there was an outcry of cultural appropriation and insensitivity, that the culture is seen through American eyes and is more caricature than accurate. However, when shown to native Japanese, the reactions were positive.

Isle of Dogs was released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 17, 2018. Although it’s a wonderful animated film about a boy and his dog, it is not a sensitive-child’s movie. If you love animation, if you love rebellion, if you love dogs, be sure to give it a try.