Sunday, April 5, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Librarians and the Fables of Doom.


Okay, so this COVID-19 quarantine/self-isolation thing seems like it just keeps going.  I think we could use a little distraction.  Luckily, I’ve been keeping a fairy tale related show in my back pocket just in case we needed something a bit lighter as a distraction.

So, let’s take a little trip back in time to 2015.  For a while, the cable network TNT had been airing TV movies under the heading of The Librarian.  The series starred actor Noah Wyle as Flynn Carson, a rather overeducated man who is inducted into the role of “The Librarian” at the Metropolitan Library.  It turns out though that his real job is to be an adventurer who’s supposed to secure certain supernatural artifacts so they can be stored safely in a secret part of the library.  (So, not so much a librarian as a pulp adventure hero.  But hey, Indiana Jones isn’t much of an archaeologist either).  After a while, TNT decided to stop doing TV movies and just launched a Librarians TV show in late 2014.  This time, the show focused on a trio of rookie Librarians under the guiding hand of the “Guardian” Col. Eve Baird played by Rebecca Romijn.  The trio consists of: Jacob Stone (Christian Kane), a polyglot and all-around expert on art, architecture and world cultures.  Or rather, six experts because he would publish papers under six different pseudonyms in order to hide his genius from his peers and family in rural Oklahoma.  Cassandra Killian (Lindy Booth) a science and mathematics genius who can solve problems by using the synesthetic hallucinations inflicted on her by a small brain tumor.  And Ezekiel Jones (John Kim), a cocky master thief who’s the team's expert at electronics and security systems.  They’re also helped by John Larroquette as Jenkins, the caretaker of the Library Annex they work out of.  Jenkins is a rather venerable if occasionally cranky fellow with extensive knowledge of the past.  He’s also pretty much stated to be Sir Galahad from Camelot granted immortality by the end of season one.
 This brings us to the Season One episode from 2015 The Librarians and the Fables of Doom.
Our four heroes arrive in the small town of Bremen, Washington to investigate an incident in which a truck went off a bridge.  Some investigation leads to the conclusion that it’s a troll.  However, the fact that the events resemble the story of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” and some other incidents (including an “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation with the town mayor) leads them to the rather unusual conclusion that someone is weaponizing fairy tales.  Throughout the episode, there are references to fairy tales.  A girl gets cut out of an unusually large wolf at one point.  There’s a wall of thorns at another point.  A lot of them are references to local incidents in the town like food poisoning at an apple orchard or a local woman getting stuck in her pizza oven.  Ultimately, the problem stems from a magical storybook that feeds on the life force of who it’s being read to, the Libris Fabulum.

So, what’s the big deal, right?  This is pretty standard stuff for the “fairy tale episode” of an urban fantasy show.  In fact, this episode has some superficial similarities to an episode of Supernatural that uses a similar gimmick.  But here’s what makes this episode more fun and memorable than the fairy tale episodes of shows like Supernatural or Charmed.  As our quartet of heroes go through the episode, they also get drawn into the story that’s taking place and start to embody different fairy tale hero archetypes.  Or rather, they start to embody our modern, pop culture fueled interpretations of fairy tale heroes.  Eve Baird becomes the archetypal fairy tale princess.  Jacob Stone becomes the rugged Woodsman (or possibly Huntsman.  Those two often get conflated).  Cassandra Killian becomes Prince Charming.  And Ezekiel Jones (who was pretty much this character already) becomes the lucky rogue Jack.  It happens gradually through most of the episode too, with little changes happening from scene to scene.  A slight change in wardrobe here or an altered behavior there.  Now, like I said, the performances are based on common modern interpretations of these archetypes.  So, I get if there’s some trepidation.  But the original archetypes are kind of bare bones anyway, and the modern interpretations are usually ripe for parody.  So, we have Baird’s hair growing longer into flowing locks throughout the episode, as well as instances of her losing her shoe, humming/singing for no reason and an admittedly kind of awkward attempt at doing a princess’s “tinkling laughter”.  Stone, meanwhile, shows skill at throwing an ax, cutting a girl out of the belly of an oversized wolf and can apparently smell storms coming.  Probably my favorite is Cassandra as the Prince.  They lampoon the idea of Prince Charming as the romantic ideal by having pretty much every woman in the town infatuated with her.  It becomes even more interesting as Cassandra becomes more dynamic and commanding as the episode wears on.  Lindy Booth even seems to affect a deeper speaking voice when she’s being the Prince.  The only character that doesn’t seem to change much is Ezekiel as Jack, but that’s by design.  Ezekiel already embodied the lucky rogue, so he just got luckier.  The solution to the episode pretty much hinges on Ezekiel as Jack.  Basically, the unique fact that Jack usually comes through most of his adventures relatively unscathed compared to the princes and princesses who may end up blinded by thorns or stuck in a one hundred year coma.  Though this show is five years old and could likely be spoiled with impunity, I’m still not going to give away more than that.
 Is it perfect?  No.  As is often the case, I wish they hadn’t mixed up fairy tales with nursery rhymes and children’s fantasy at one point.  I would have liked to see some emphasis put on the fact that Jack can be both a rogue and a fool (which, actually does fit Ezekiel to a T now that I think about it).  Also, just being who I am and liking the fairy tale archetypes that I do, I would have maybe preferred seeing the Wandering Soldier (think “Twelve Dancing Princesses”, “How Six Men Got on in the World”, “Bearskin”, etc) over the Huntsman.  But I understand that archetype doesn’t quite have the optics that the others do.

As an example of a one shot “fairy tale episode” of a fantasy show, it may not be anything groundbreaking but it can show how a small change can add some spice and variety to a concept.  So, check it out if you are so inclined.  The whole series is on DVD and you can just buy the episode ala carte on Amazon Instant Video.  I mean, why not?  For the next couple weeks at least, you’ve probably got the time.

See ya next time.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Madam White Snake.


Aggh! 

It’s early March 2020 and everywhere I look I see something about the coronavirus.  And since the virus started in China, incidents of racist actions and attacks against Asian and Asian-American people seem to be on the rise.

You know what?  At least right here, right now, let’s turn things around.  Let’s focus on something positive and creative from China.

We’re going to talk about one of China’s “Four Great Folk Tales”.  For those who don’t know, China’s Four Great Folk Tales are “The Butterfly Lovers”, “Lady Meng Jiang Wailed Over the Great Wall”, “The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl” and “Madam White Snake”.  That last one is the one we’re going to focus on.
The story of “Madam White Snake” is also often called “The White Snake”.  I’m using the former name here because there’s also a Grimm story with the same title and I don’t want to confuse the two.  There are a couple of different versions.  Here’s a condensed version that has many of the most common elements:

One day, Lu Dongbin of the Eight Immortals disguises himself as a tangyuan vendor at a certain bridge.  There he meets a boy named Xu Xian who buys some tangyuan from him.  Now, it turns out that the tangyuan are actually immortality pills.  After eating them, Xu Xian discovers he doesn’t get hungry for the next three days.  Wanting to know why, Xu Xian goes back to the vendor.  Lu Dongbin laughs, carries him back to the bridge and holds him upside down and forces him to vomit the immortality pills into the lake.  Now, in the lake is a white snake who has been practicing Taoist magical arts.  Upon eating the spewed-up pills, she gains 500 years worth of magic power.  One day, the white snake sees a beggar who has caught a green snake and wants to kill it and cut out its gall to sell (snake gall can be used as a sort of medicine in Chinese medicine).  The White Snake transforms herself into a woman and buys the green snake, saving her life.  The green snake is grateful and begins to regard the white snake as a sort of elder sister.  Years later, the white snake and green snake take on the forms of two women named Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing respectively.  There, they meet Xu Xian again who has grown into a man and become a physician to boot.  In time, Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian fall in love.  They marry and open a medicine shop.  Now, in this area there is a monk named Fahai who has somehow realized that there is something supernatural about Bai Suzhen.  One day during the Duanwu Festival, Fahai convinces Xu Xian that he should give Bai Suzhen some realgar wine (a wine that humans can drink but does not agree with demons).  Bai Suzhen drinks the wine and, feeling ill, unconsciously turns back into the form of a large white snake.  Seeing her true form, Xu Xian dies from shock.  Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing then travel to a distant mountain to retrieve a magical herb that can heal any wound and even revive the dead.  Thus revived, Xu Xian realizes his wife’s devotion and love despite her supernatural nature and embraces her, vowing to continue loving and cherishing his amazing wife.
This isn’t the end of the story, though.  This story is practically a saga unto itself.  Fahai keeps coming back to try and split up the two lovers.  The tale even carries over to another generation, Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen’s son Xu Mengjiao.  There are different versions of the story too.  Some say that Fahai was just a monk who thought it was unholy for humans and spirits (spirits, demons, etc.  There are a lot of English substitution words for what Bai Suzhen actually was) to comingle like they did.  Others say that Fahai was a terrapin or tortoise that was practicing magic like the White Snake had and was jealous that she had 500 years of magical power given to her by seeming chance.
When I pick these stories for Folk Tale Secret Stash, I usually hedge my bets toward something that I feel will be easy for Western audiences to get into.  This one is almost the opposite of that.  With mentions of certain obscure forms of food and wine, real locations and specific references to Chinese medicine and Taoist magical practices, this story can seem VERY Chinese.  So, why did I pick this specific story?  Well, one thing is exposure.  But I’ll get back to that later.  The other is that there comes a point where we can’t be afraid of those kinds of details anymore.  If my aim is to expand the fairy tale canon beyond the standard European tales, which it is, we’ll need to get to the point where we can see the epic love story beyond all the details and cultural references.
As for the exposure thing, well, it’s one of the most popular folk tales in all of China.  How big is this tale?  Really big.  Big enough that the media stemming off of it has spilled over into the U.S.  Seriously, stuff based on this tale is around.  A loose animated prequel to the story was brought over by GKIDS in a limited theatrical run and has just been released on blu-ray.  A serialized drama based on the tale, The Legend of White Snake, is currently available on Netflix.  A far looser adaptation, The Destiny of White Snake, is viewable on Amazon Prime Video.  There’s even a Jet Li movie titled The Sorcerer and the White Snake  which I’m pretty sure got an American release if only on home video.  So, it’s been around in some form, but if you’re not the type to peruse Asian media you might not have seen it.

So, that’s the story of “Madam White Snake”.  Personally, I like it.  I think it has a unique heroine and I like the grand scale love story that plays out.  And it’s at least a nice break from the panic surrounding the recent virus outbreak.  Will it become part of the new Cosmopolitan fairy tale canon I hope takes root in the Western world?  Maybe not.  This one might still be playing too much on hard mode for most Americans at least (I can’t speak for Europe).  But I always have hope.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Tall Tale.


Hey folks, guess what?  I signed up for Disney+!

How is it?  Well, I haven’t watched that Mandalorian show that everyone’s raving about yet, so I don’t have a lot to say about that in particular.  So, let’s see.  There’s a lot of cartoons from the ‘80s and ‘90s.  There are a lot of movies with teenage Kurt Russell.  Oh, and a lot of dog movies!

Okay, to be honest, once you get past Disney’s hype and their predatory business practices, they’re not particularly impressive to an adult consumer.  Nostalgia laid bare just looks like . . . “stuff”.  This especially seems to be the case with Disney as it concerns the contrast between their Disney Animation Studios animated movies and their Walt Disney Pictures/Walt Disney Studios live action fare.  It’s amazing to see, really.  On the first hand, you have animated movies that are almost routinely treated like instant classics, whether deservedly or undeservedly.  On the second hand, you have a studio that usually pumps out whatever is needed of them at the particular moment.  It might be literary adaptations like Swiss Family Robinson, family comedies like Freaky Friday or sports movies like The Mighty Ducks.  And along the way, yes, lots of dog movies and Kurt Russell.  Lately, it seems to be reimaginings of their animated films, which I find interesting but lots of other people see as the death of creativity (hey, at least people are talking about them).

But occasionally there’s a live action Disney movie that sticks with you.  One that sticks in the back of your mind and you can’t lose it.  I’ve seen it among other people who’ve signed up for the service.  For some, it was a TV movie called Mr. Boogedy.  For others, it was the treasure hunt mystery Candleshoe.  Not for me, though.

For me, it was a movie called Tall Tale.
 Sometimes called Tall Tale: The Unbvelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill or Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventure, this movie is a Walt Disney Pictures production released to theaters in 1995.  The movie draws on American folklore and legendary heroes like Calamity Jane, Paul Bunyan, John Henry and the one and only Pecos Bill.

[Knock, Knock, Knock]

FTG: “Who the hell could that be?  I guess I’ll have to switch over to script mode to handle this.”
[Answers the door.  Finds a very prim and proper woman carrying a briefcase and holding out a piece of paper in the other hand]

Lawyer: “Hello, sir.  I’m an attorney representing The Society for the Promotion of Truth and Accuracy in the Dissemination of American Folklore.  I’ve been sent here to extend you a cease and desist order regarding the spread of misinformation vis-à-vis the character of Pecos Bill.”

[FTG takes paper]

FTG: “You’ve got to be kidding me!  This really shouldn’t be a big deal.  The character has, despite a complicated origin, officially entered the pantheon of American folk heroes.  And for the purpose of a simple movie review . . . “

Lawyer: “Cease.  And.  Desist.  Otherwise, we will see you in court.  Good evening, sir.”

[Lawyer exits]

FTG: “Well, back to prose mode.  And now I have to deal with this.”

[Slams door]
 Anyway, where was I?

Oh, yeah!  Pecos Bill!  I guess we have to deal with Pecos Bill as that lawyer said.  And while we’re at it, deal with American folk heroes and the legacy of the American frontier in general.

Okay, so here’s the thing about American folk heroes.  Some of them were real people whose exploits were exaggerated.  Others were fictional characters that arose out of campfire stories and folk tradition.  Still others were just invented whole cloth by writers and treated as if they were folk characters the whole time as an attempt to invent folklore.  It’s something that folklorists and other scholars will refer to as “fakelore”.  And that’s what Pecos Bill is.  Pecos Bill was invented by writer and former soldier-of-fortune Edward S. O’Reilly.  O’Reilly thought the state of Texas needed its own hero like other places had, so he made one up.  And a whole bunch of us bought it.  Before O’Reilly wrote those stories, there probably wasn’t a single cattleman in Texas who had even heard the name Pecos Bill.  Folklore in general is a tricky mistress, though.  I know a whole bunch of fairy tales that were written by women in French salons, yet somehow managed to pop up in different forms in folk tale collections.  You have to wonder if after all these years and all his fame, ol’ Pecos may have actually earned some of his folk rep.
We should probably also talk about how attitudes toward the American frontier and its heroes has changed over time.  There was a time when the exploits of those who settled the American West were regarded as heroes.  Over time though, folks have taken a harder look at our mythologized past.  For one thing, acknowledging that Western towns weren’t necessarily the lawless places the movies claimed they were (some even required you to check your firearms before even entering the town).  But also acknowledging that the USA’s western expansion wasn’t really a good thing for the native people and the environement.  The funny thing is that when this movie was made, that was already starting to change and it’s echoed in the movie itself.

The movie is about a 12-year old boy named Daniel Hackett (Nick Stahl) who lives on a farm in an area called Paradise Valley during the early days of the 20th Century.  Daniel doesn’t care for life on a Paradise Valley farm.  He wants to move elsewhere.  Specifically, an elsewhere with modern wonders like motor cars and electric lights.  This causes him to clash with his father, who’s been known to tell Daniel stories about tall tale heroes as well as instruct him to hold to the “Code of the West” (“Respect the land.  Defend the defenseless.  And don’t ever spit in front of women or children”.  No, that’s seriously the code according to Mr. Hackett).  Daniel’s Father, Elias Hackett, doesn’t like that Daniel doesn’t respect the land or the work he put into it in order to give Daniel a home and life.  This conflict changes into something else when a crooked businessman named J.P. Stiles shows up to try and buy all the land in Paradise Valley for a mining project.  Elias comes into conflict with Stiles and is gravely injured in the process.  It’s then that we travel into mythologized West of the tall tales.
You see, Daniel goes to sleep in a rowboat on a nearby lake and wakes up in the middle of the desert where he is accosted by two crooks who want to rob him.  He’s then rescued by Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze) who rides in on a tornado and shoots the trigger fingers off the robbers.  Then, after some cajoling, Pecos takes Daniel on a journey across the whole country to recruit Paul Bunyan (Oliver Platt) and John Henry (Roger Aaron Brown) so they can return to Paradise Valley so that Daniel can stand up to Stiles and save his father’s land.

When I say this is a trip into the mythologized Amercan West, I’m being pretty serious.  There’s kind of a dreamlike quality underlying a lot of it.  Like I said before, Pecos arrives via tornado.  Pecos and Daniel manage to travel to locations thousands of miles apart in three days via horseback.  They randomly run into other characters like John Henry and Calamity Jane (a cameo of sorts by Catherine O’Hara) by luck.  It’s much the same way you’d imagine the old West when filtered through a storybook of American legends.
Yet, these folk heroes aren’t quite the same as you might remember them.  Most American folk heroes are exemplars of the work they do.  These include but are not limited to cattleman (Pecos Bill), lumberjack (Paul Bunyan), steel driver (John Henry), sailor (Old Stormalong), train engineer (Casey Jones) and keelboatman (Mike Fink) among others.  Their tales are frequently about how amazing they are at their job and how their feats c hanged either their profession or the landscape around them.  So they’re not really heroes in the modern sense.  Tall Tale seeks to change that.  Instead, our three main legends are depicted as righters of wrongs.  This is exemplified by how they stick to and even drink to The Code of the West (which according to Bunyan is also “The Code of the North” and to Henry is “The Code of the South”).  The last item about spitting aside, they stick to the far more noteworthy parts about respecting the land and defending the defenseless.  This is a frontier hero movie that was aware that it was being released in 1995 and that the kids watching weren’t going to fall for the same loving respect for the Western that their parents did.  It may not be super historically accurate but it acknowledges things that in the past it might not have.  In a discussion about their respective fathers, John Henry mentions that he could never reconcile with his father because he had been sold down river and then very directly clarifies to a confused Daniel that he and his family were slaves.  Pecos Bill is shown to have a greater respect for nature in a couple of scenes, notably one with a flock of butterflies.  Probably the most changed though is Paul Bunyan.  To start with Paul Bunyan isn’t a giant in this version.  Though, that might be more for budget and practical reasons.  What’s important with Paul Bunyan is that he’s become something of a bitter recluse who’s been driven out of the logging industry by changes and innovations to the industry.  Instead, he lives a hermit-like existence in the Redwood Forest, living in a house carved into a fallen tree and dressed in a buckskin outfit with a vaguely Native American motif.  Paul isn’t just upset aboutlosing his job, though.  Instead he laments that the new way of logging cuts down everything both weak and strong, the sapling and full grown tree.  Bunyan even suggests that if they don’t stop nothing will grow there again.  This is different.  A Paul Bunyan who cares not just about logging but about the forest where he logs.  It seems like a far cry from the towering giant who could cut down an entire forest with just a swing of his ax.  But after all, he’s keeping to the Code.  What was that first part?  “Respect the land.”
So, all that aside, what is the final word on this movie?  Is it good?  Well, it’s pretty good but it falls short of being great.  Some of the little bits are great, like the nods to the original tales or how Pecos and company treat Daniel’s stories of then-modern inventions as if he’s telling them his own tall tales.  The main thrust of the story is Daniel and his development as he overcomes his own shortcomings.  He learns to stand his ground against injustice from Pecos Bill.  He learns to try his hardest from even when things look impossible from John Henry.  And he learns to overcome his bitterness and frustration by seeing that same whininess reflected back at him by Paul Bunyan.  And Daniel does eventually stand up to Stiles.  However, the movie does this thing where it fails to commit in the last act.  At first, it seems that his meeting with Pecos and the others is a dream, but then they all show up to help anyway.  And then when the folk heroes leave they just sort of fade away.  So, what was all that?

But still, even if it’s not perfect, I do find it to be a lot of fun.  It’s especially fun if you grew up reading about these folk heroes like I did.  Fun enough to justify a subscription to Disney+?  Well, that’s up to you.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Fantastical Feasts: Hansel & Gretel's German Pancake with Apple Compote.


 [Fairy Tale Geek walks in to kitchen to see Snow White and Goldilocks sitting at the table.  Goldilocks is eating a bowl of porridge]

FTG: “Well, this is something I didn’t expect to see when walking into my own kitchen.  A princess and . . . a girl who apparently learned nothing from her own fairy tale.”

Goldi: “What do you mean?”

FTG: “The oatmeal.  That’s clearly some of the steel cut oats I put in the fridge.  You entered my condo without permission and started eating my food.”

Goldi: “It needs some honey.”

FTG:  “[Sigh] So, why are you two ladies here?”

Snow: “Well, we know you write that blog about fairy tales and movies and stuff.  And Hansel and Gretel just got a new movie.  So, we thought maybe you were working on something related to that.”

FTG: “Nope.  With a few exceptions, horror movies aren’t really my thing.”

Goldi: “Nothing?  Really?  Not even one of those food posts you’ve been doing recently?  Maybe some kind of iconic food from that fairy tale?  I think you owe it to your adoring public to do something.”

FTG: “My adoring public, eh?  You know what, Goldi?  You’re right!  I should make something for Hansel and Gretel.”

Goldi: “Really?”

FTG: “So, I’m going to make . . . PANCAKES!”

Snow: “Pancakes?”

FTG: “Yeah, like in the fairy tale. It’s what the witch serves them when they get to her house.  I have it right here [points to book] Then she served them a good meal: milk and pancakes with sugar, apples, and nuts.

Goldi: “Are you sure that’s what you want to make?”

FTG: “No, you’re right.  I’m going to make a German Pancake because it’s a German fairy tale!”

German Pancake

Ingredients
-          ¼ cup butter
-          1 cup all-purpose butter
-          1 cup milk
-          6 eggs, lightly beaten
-          1.8 teaspoon salt

1)      Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).  Melt butter in medium baking dish.
2)      In a medium bowl, mix flour, milk, eggs and salt.  Pour mixture into prepared baking dish.
3)      Bake on center rack for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden brown.

FTG: “There you go, a nice custardy German pancake.  Best served with powdered sugar and a little maple syrup.”

Snow: “That’s it?  You’re sure that’s what you want to make for a Hansel and Gretel post?”

FTG: “You’re right!  Not good enough!  The fairy tale said they ate pancakes with apples.  So, let’s make some apple compote to put over the German pancake!  This recipe comes from the Food Network chef Sunny Anderson.”

Apple Compote

Ingredients
-2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped.
- ½ cup orange juice.
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice.
- ¼ cup dark brown sugar.
-dash of nutmeg
- salt

In a saucepan on medium-high heat, add apples, orange juice, lemon juice, brown sugar and nutmeg.  Simmer over medium heat until the apples are tender and the juice has thickened to a thin syrup.  10 to 12 minutes.  Season with a pinch of salt.

FTG: “Now that’s a good breakfast.  German pancake with apple compote.”

Goldi: “Okay, I’m just going to go ahead and ask it: Why aren’t you making a gingerbread house for this post?”

FTG: “Gingerbread house?  OH!  Well, I didn’t think of it for one.  But I wouldn’t have made one anyway.”

Snow: “Why?  It’s one of the most iconic parts of that fairy tale!”

FTG: “Well, I really just don’t like them that much.  They’re more of a decoration or arts and crafts project than a food.  There are much better uses for gingerbread.  Like, just eating it.”

Goldi: “Hmm.  Well, I doubt anyone will see this dish as an iconic part of any fairy tale.”

[A knock is heard on the sliding glass door.  FTG opens the blinds to see Hansel and Gretel standing right up to the glass]

H&G: [in unison] “We smelled German pancake!  Can we come in and have some?”

FTG: “Maybe not.  But it seems to be okay for them.”