Sunday, June 16, 2019

Hurston and Hoodoo, Mules and Men

Okay, so here’s the thing.  This post was supposed to be written in February.  The plan was to spend some time on African, African-American and Caribbean folklore for Black History Month.  I’ve done something like that before, but it turned out kind of sour because I failed to research ahead, so that while it was all black folklore, all the writers and folk tale collectors I drew from ended up being white folks (whoops).  However, as I started taking longer to read everything and productivity spiraled way down from a post a week to a post a month, this got pushed way back.

However, the show must go on!

Mules and Men is a 1935 autoethnographical folklore collection by African-American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.  The book covers two folklore collecting trips into the deep South.  One to Eatonville and Polk County in Florida and another to New Orleans.
It’s hard to describe Mules and Men, exactly.  At least, if you don’t already know what “autoethnographical” means.  The book doesn’t read like a traditional folk tale collection.  The book instead reads like the story of Hurston’s research trip punctuated with stories and songs as she heard them from the people she encountered.  It’s actually a rather smart thing to do, as it puts the stories, songs and traditions presented in the context of the social lives of African-American people of that specific region and time period.  The closest thing they had to that kind of context previously in written form was the fictional plantation context created by Joel Chandler Harris for the Uncle Remus books.  The lore itself is a bit varied.  There are some traditions, superstitions and songs.  There are also stories, which are often referred to as “lies”.  It’s interesting, isn’t it?  The people in this book essentially hang a big old lampshade on the untruths in their stories.  Yet, it doesn’t diminish those stories.  Anyway, there are some porquoi stories and stories that reference local events.  Possibly the standouts are stories about a slave named John, who is always getting the better of his master.
Zora Neale Hurston
Most of that was from the trips back to Hurston’s hometown and a lumber camp in Florida.  Hurston’s trip to New Orleans largely concerned voodoo and hoodoo (which may be the same thing, come to think of it).  A fair chunk of it featured Hurston studying under various practitioners and using the rituals to help paying customers.  Another fair chunk focused on stories about Marie Leveau, the legendary voodoo queen of New Orleans.
Marie Leveau, the so-called Voodoo Queen
You know, it’s been a while since I actually read the book and I feel like I’m not doing it justice.  I do know its strength is that it’s not just another folk tale collection.  It’s also like a series of cultural snapshots.  I will say that it’s definitely worth giving a read.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Aladdin (2019)

[rubs lamp]  I wish I had a movie review.

That’s right, Disney’s stroll down memory lane continues with another remake/sequel/reimagining.  This time, director Guy Ritchie joins actors Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and Will Smith for another take on its 1992 animated film Aladdin.

The story of “Aladdin; or The Wonderful Lamp” is a tale generally accepted to be part of the One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights).  However, its origins can be a little fuzzy.  The story doesn’t appear in the collection until the 19th Century in a translation by Antoine Galland.  For a while, many scholars believed that Galland invented the story himself and added it into the collection.  However, current information suggests that Galland first heard the tale from a Syrian storyteller named Youhenna Diyab when Diyab was visiting France.
The story follows the same basic plot as the 1992 movie.  A street urchin falls in love with a feisty princess.  He gets made to enter a magic treasure cave and retrieve a magic lamp by a crooked court official named Jafar.  The combination of magic and Aladdin’s low self-esteem cause him to lie to the princess.  Jafar gets hold of the lamp, everything goes to pot and Aladdin is forced to both tell the truth and save the day. 

There are a few changes.  Jasmine, who gets a new song as well, is more interested in ruling the country of Agrabah than simply evading an arranged marriage.  Jafar is still an ambitious snake-in-the-grass, but now his ambition isn’t just to rule Agrabah but to conquer the surrounding countries and create his own empire.  It’s also established that Jafar was once a street thief himself, making him something of a dark mirror to Aladdin.

The movie itself is entertaining.  Adapting the animated Aladdin to live action was always going to be a tricky task.  Largely because one of the intents of the 1992 movie, at least that I read, was to adapt an aesthetic and style that were like more broadly comedic cartoons like the Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry.  That’s why they opted to stunt cast two famous comedians in the roles of Genie and Iago.  It kind of makes sense in retrospect, doesn’t it?  So, they had the unenviable task of adapting to live action one of Disney’s cartooniest cartoons.  They do about as well as they can.  Certain things are toned down while others remain as broad as ever.  Jafar’s parrot sidekick, for example, is significantly toned down from Gilbert Gottfried’s constant kvetching and insults to basically Alan Tudyk trying to just sound like an unusually intelligent parrot.  However, the Genie is still as out-there as ever.  I had kind of hoped that without Robin Williams in the role, maybe Genie wouldn’t dominate every scene he was in.  I underestimated how much of a ham Will Smith could be.  Mena Massoud turns in a good acting performance, though I’m not sure his singing was quite up to snuff.  Massoud has good comedic chemistry with Smith.  He also has good chemistry with Naomi Scott as Jasmine.  Of all the characters, Jasmine is probably the one who stands out most, seeing as Scott is the best singer of all of them and because the story seems most interested in expanding her conflict beyond what it was in her original animated incarnation.  As I said before, Jasmine now not only wants to choose her own husband, she also wants to succeed her father as Sultan (Wait.  Wouldn’t she actually be a Sultana?  Oh, well).  One performance I liked that I think others may be split on is Marwan Kenzari as Jafar.  The thing about Jafar in the 1992 film, is that he’s just such a cartoony villain.  He’s foppish and cackling and theatrical.  He feels like a cartoon villain in a similar mold as Skeletor and Cobra Commander.  However, Kenzari tries his level best to turn a cackling cartoon into a believable live action villain.  Jafar’s ambition seems believable if not justifiable.  Adding the new wrinkle that he was a lowly thief who climbed to the level of grand vizier but whose ambition has never quite sated is a nice touch.  They could have almost played on that more, seeing as one of the things they touched on with Aladdin and Genie is Aladdin getting too comfortable in his role as fake prince and Genie warning that wealth and power gained from wishes will never satisfy someone.
There’s one thing that disappointed me but will pretty much only disappoint someone like me.  One of my favorite things to do with these movies is to see the places where they went back to the text for more material.  And Aladdin just doesn’t.  Granted, it might have been hard to fit Aladdin’s mother back into the story and it might have been a bit silly to have Jafar walking around in disguise offering “new lamps for old”, but I still wish there was something.  The closest thing might be the way the story starts off being told by Will Smith as a mariner and an action sequence in which Iago is expanded to the size of a roc, but that’s only due to Aladdin’s nature as a “kitchen sink” movie.  I should probably explain.  A “kitchen sink” movie is one of those Disney movies where it seemed like they thought they wouldn’t be revisiting that material again, so they tried to include everything including the kitchen sink.  Hercules, Alice in Wonderland, The Black Cauldron and Return to Oz are all kitchen sink films to some degree.  I suppose the Mary Poppins films are as well.  But, Aladdin is one in regards to the Arabian Nights.  For example, there is no magic carpet in the story of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”.  The magic carpet is from the story of “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Peri-Banu”.  At least the first part of it.  I’ve only reread the first part (hey, I’ve been busy!).  In Disney’s Aladdin, the carpet is basically slotted into the place the Djinni of the Ring is in the original tale.  So, including a maritime scene and transforming Iago into a giant monster bird could be seen as a nod to the story of “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad” (Note: the roc is a giant bird that Sinbad encounters on his voyages).  Though, it would still be a stretch.
To tell you the truth, the 2019 Aladdin is probably the one Disney remake that I can most call a pure remake.  Cinderella, The Jungle Book and even Beauty and the Beast can all be considered re-adaptations as well as remakes because they went back and got more material from the source story.  Yes, even Beauty and the Beast.  The fact that it added back one of the most iconic parts of the fairy tale gets it a pass.  Pete’s Dragon, Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo changed so much that they could be called re-imaginings.  And then Maleficent, Christopher Robin and Mary Poppins Returns are all different things entirely.  However, Aladdin is almost completely intent on telling the story from the 1992 animated feature again.  It changes things, but not enough to make all that much of a difference.

So, that’s about it.  It’s a fun movie.  Some of the actors have good chemistry.  It’s a fun time if you want to take your kids to it (or you could go see it with your aunt like I did).  But don’t expect it to tickle your folklore bone all that much.