Hugo: A Movie Review

I had wanted to see Hugo ever since it came out in November, but things kept coming up, as they will during the holidays.  Now the movie is at the end of its run, disappearing from theaters, but if you haven’t yet seen it, I urge you to look in the discount cinemas or catch it on DVD. Let me put it like this:  I have been working on a year end, “Best of / worst of” blog post and having trouble coming up with “best” things in 2011.  Hugo is one of them.  This movie is a first on several counts for Martin Scorcsese:  his first family film, his first fantasy, and his first venture into 3D.  It is his love song to movies as a theater of dreams.

In 1931 Paris, Hugo lives with his father, a master clockmaker.  The two are working to restore a broken automaton, a mechanical figure who writes with a pen.  Hugo’s father also takes him to see movies, and speaks of his love for pioneer filmmaker, Georges Melies.  When Hugo’s father dies in a fire, his drunken uncle takes him to live inside the walls of a railway station where he learns to maintain the clocks.  The uncle disappears, but Hugo keeps the clocks running, steals food in the station to live, and does his best to restore the automaton, which he believes hides a message from his father.

When a toymaker in the station catches Hugo trying to steal a mechanical mouse for its parts, he takes the notebook Hugo’s father left him, filled with drawings depicting the workings of the automaton.  Hugo follows the toymaker home, begging for the notebook, and meets the man’s goddaughter, Isabelle.  They become friends, and the mystery deepens when they discover that Isabelle has the heart-shaped key that can bring the automaton to life.  When they turn it on, the mechanical figure draws a famous scene from one of Melies’ movies – the one Hugo’s father always talked about.

Ben Kingsley (the toymaker) and Asa Butterfield (Hugo)

By then, we have plenty of story questions, several engaging subplots, and adversaries in the form of the toymaker and a station guard with a doberman, determined to  capture Hugo the thief.  But the magic in this movie is far greater than the sum of these parts.

Recently one of the bloggers I follow talked about one of his “all time favorite” books, and I started thinking of what makes a book or movie truly memorable.  It’s more than simply the elements of craft – structure, plot, character, tension, and so on.  These are necessary supports and can create a page turner, or a movie that has you gripping your seat without really touching your heart.  When I read The DaVinci Code, for example, I couldn’t put it down, but now I have to google to remember the professor’s name.  I don’t have to google to remember the name of the hobbit who carried the ring. What special elements make a book or movie unforgettable? It’s one of those things you can’t quite define but you know when you see it.

Chloe Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Asa Butterfied (Hugo), and director, Martin Scorcese

The books and movies I really love seem to have a few things in common:

Characters I want to hang out with are first on the list.   Regardless of what they are doing, they become more close and real than many people I interact with in the daylight world.  I didn’t read all the Harry Potter books to see what Voldemort was going do to next.  I wanted to spend time with Harry, Ron, and Hermione.  And Snape, Dumbledore, Luna, and all the rest.  Imaginary friends in the best sense of the word.

Compelling worlds are next on my list, worlds you want to visit even if dangers lurk in the shadows.  Since reading the Narnia books, I’ve never been able to open a wardrobe without a secret thrill.  An actual pilgrimage to 221B Baker Street caused only a slight adjustment to the 19th century inner London where I travel with Sherlock Holmes.

And finally, it almost goes without saying that these are books and movies I can and want to enjoy more than once.  If I bought them in paperback, my favorite books have scotch tape on their covers.  I have several old VHS tapes I need to replace with DVD’s.

Will Hugo find its place among my all time favorite movies?  I can’t really say with the experience this fresh.  The characters are compelling, their mysterious world shines with a golden light, and the movie is a celebration of the imagination in all of us – all in all, a pretty good bet to become a film I will remember, value, and probably enjoy again.

The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer: A Book Review, Part Two

If you haven’t already read it, please begin with Part 1 of this review:

We left the young king in a most unusual and disconcerting situation – carrying the corpse of a hanged man across a charnel ground.  The corpse was possessed by a spirit who asked the king a riddle and said that if he knew the answer but didn’t speak, his head would explode.

"The King and the Corpse," from a presentation at the Red Arrow Gallery, Joshua Tree, CA, Sept. 2011

The king answered the question and immediately, the body flew back to the tree and the king had to return and cut it down again.  Another walk, another story, another answer and the corpse again disappeared. The king, whose name meant, “Rich in Patience,” needed all he could muster, for the gruesome routine went on and on and on. If the ruler had been thoughtless as a youth, the corpse now gave him riddles worthy of Solomon.  He solved all of them except the 24th, which went like this:

“A chief and his son were hunting in the hills.  The king was a widower and the son unmarried, so they were intrigued to find the footsteps of two women, one older, one younger.  The feet were shapely and the gait suggested refinement.  “A queen and her daughter, I think,” said the father.  They set out in pursuit and agreed that if the women were willing, the father would marry the one with the larger feet – presumably the mother, and the son would marry the other.  The women were indeed a queen and her daughter, fleeing danger, but, the daughter’s feet were larger.  Holding to their vows, the king married the daughter, and the son married her mother.  When both women gave birth to sons, how were the babies related?”

When the king kept silent, the corpse said how pleased he was with the monarch’s courage and wisdom.  He warned him that the sorcerer was a necromancer who planned to use the corpse and the king’s blood – after killing him – in a black magic rite that would give him power over the spirits of the dead.  He told the king how to slay the sorcerer, and when he did, the ghost in the corpse revealed himself as the great god, Shiva, who honored the king, and asked him to name his reward.

The king asked that the 24 riddles should always be remembered and should be told all over the earth.  Shiva assented, and indeed, the story has travelled the world since 50 BC, the time of the Hindu king, Vikramaditya (“The Sun of Valor”), the hero of this and many other legends.  The great god promised that ghosts and demons would never have power wherever the tales were told, and “whoever recites, with sincere devotion, even one of the stories shall be free from sin.”  Shiva also promised the the king dominion during his life and gave him an invincible sword.  Far more important, he opened the monarch’s eyes of spiritual illumination, and so his earthly reign was a model of “virtue and glory.”

When the story opens, the king is young, handsome, rich, and rather heedless since he accepts the beggar’s fruits as if they are his due, without thinking very much about them.  According to the wisdom of the east, he is like a sleeping man whose house is on fire, since nothing – not fruit, nor youth, nor jewels, nor life itself will last.  Also, naiveté doesn’t work too well in this world,  It draws betrayal the way a magnet draws iron.  The “holy man” has been weaving the king’s undoing for ten long years.  Where is the king going to come up with that kind of cunning, and in a hurry?

He finds it as all the heroes and heroines of folklore do, in an unlikely place, from the voice of a being the “wise” would despise.  Stories tell us that is where our guiding spirits often hide at first, as if to test our ability to see beyond appearances.  In fairytales from around the world, it’s the ugly crone, the dwarf, the wild animal, or in this case, in the body of an executed criminal who serve as our spiritual guides  Stories remind us that when we are truly stuck, doing what we have always done will not help.

When life and happiness depend on spinning straw into gold, on finding the water of life, on “going I know not whither and bringing back I know not what,” we need the guidance of our better angels, our guardian spirits, our daemons, as the Greeks called them.  Or in the case of our king, in our tutelary deity, who hides in a corpse to test his student’s faith, courage, and willingness to trust his own experience.

The saving spirit is one of the key themes that Heinrich Zimmer ponders in the stories of  The King and the Corpse, for as Zimmer tells us, “the hidden magician who projects both the ego and its mirror world can do more than any exterior force to unravel by night the web that has been spun by day.”

I consider this an essential book in the library of anyone who wants to hear the voices of wisdom that hide in the old tales that people cannot stop telling.

What Is Your Innermost Request?

On Saturday, Zen teacher, Edward Espe Brown, gave his second all-day retreat of the year for the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group.  Zen is not exactly “my thing,” but like the SBMG as a whole, I’m ecumenical, ready to look for insight wherever I can find it, and I really enjoy Ed Brown.  Zen is actually so free of doctrine that Catholic priests have become advanced practitioners, and Edward Brown is un-doctrinaire even for Zen.  At the start of the retreat, after the hostess introduced him and  listed his “credentials,” Brown said, “Yep, I’m certifiable.”

Edward Espe Brown

Edward Espe Brown

“I’m not going to give you very many instructions,” he said.  “If I do, there’s the danger of wondering, ‘Am I doing it right?'”  This is one of Brown’s constant themes:  no one else can tell you the right way to do Zen or life.  One statement framed both of Brown’s visits this year, a quote from his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi:  “When you become you, Zen becomes Zen.”  Zen is about “becoming authentically you,” Brown said.

Brown is an accomplished chef and uses lots of cooking metaphors.  One time a group of his students was tasting a dish and one of them asked, “What am I supposed to be tasting?”  To Edward Brown, that a question all of us ask in one form or another:  “What am I supposed to be doing?”  “What am I supposed to be feeling – or experiencing – or thinking?”  “What am I supposed to be writing?”

Understanding the point takes a bit of subtlety; it does not deny that we have an “ordinary” self that must operate in “relative” reality and know how to balance a checkbook, check the oil, boil an egg, or get a job.  Brown was directing remarks to that “unmanifest self,” the “big mind” within us, our Buddha nature.  “It’s the sky not the weather,” he says.  It’s the larger “us,” that can only say, “I am,” not “I am this or I am that.”

Because this silent knowing is so often drowned out by day to day concerns, it often requires a strategy to hear it.  Meditation is one strategy.  Another is learning to ask the right kind of question.  Brown posed one such question:  “What is your inmost request?”  What do we want in our depths?

He did not mean our ordinary wants and needs, however pressing.  He gave an example, saying that for many years, his inmost request was, “I want it to be ok for me to be here.”  Questions like this do not come with fast or easy answers.  There is nothing fast or easy about becoming authentic, especially in a culture that fears real individuals.  If we’re looking for others to tell us what to do, they will be glad to oblige.

Yet failing to ask what we really are and what we truly long for carries a greater risk.  William Stafford, the poet, put it this way:  “a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”

Sacred Stones in Northern California

There are only two medieval structures in North America. Now a third is nearing the end of restoration in the small agricultural town of Vina, California, 100 miles north of Sacramento. It’s the 12th century Chapter House of Santa Maria de Oliva, a Spanish monastery that stood near Madrid. This building’s round the world journey makes an interesting tale.

The monks began their day in the Chapter House, where a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict, an ancient guide to monastic living, was read and interpreted. This went on through the centuries until 1835, when the Spanish government closed all small monasteries and seized their lands. Santa Maria de Oliva was sold to a wealthy family that used the Chapter House to store farm equipment.

In 1931, William Randolpf Hearst bought the Chapter House for $285,000, intending to use the stones in the interior of a house he planned near Mt. Shasta. All the stones were marked for reassembly, and sent to California on 11 separate ships. The depression and WWII delayed Hearst’s plan, and in the end he donated the stones to the City of San Francisco to erect a Medieval museum in Golden Gate Park. This never happened and the stones lay outdoors in the park. Many were damaged, lost, or used for other projects

Meanwhile, the Cistercian Abbey of New Clarvaux was founded in Vina in 1955, and the first abbot began to make inquiries. In 1994, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco gave the stones to New Clarvaux with the stipulation that reconstruction begin in 10 years and the completed Chapter House be open to the public.

I first went to New Clarivaux in 1998 to stay for a few days at their retreat facilities. It’s an amazing place to unwind, and I have been there a number of times, so I saw the foundation of the Chapter House laid in 2001.

Section of New Clairvaux guest rooms

I had not been there recently, however, so when I drove up this past weekend, I found the structure was almost done – almost meaning another 18 months in a 10 year effort. Only 40% of the original stones were usable. The rest had to be repaired or replaced by stonemasons the abbey employed (they’ve raised $6.3 million to date, largely through small donations from across the country).

Master stonemason, Frank Helmholz, left Vina in November, bound for Luxor, Egypt, where he will spend the winter restoring a 3,400 year old temple. He plans to return to Vina next May. In an interview for the abbey newsletter, Helmholz said:

“In this modern age when everything is done fast and often doesn’t last long and serves no higher purpose, carving stones is a bit of a refuge. To create something that takes patience, dedication, and is lasting is very rewarding. And serving the monks in their spiritual lives gives a greater sense of meaning that is rare nowadays…to be part of something that has a higher purpose than one’s own comfort is inspiring in whatever form it takes.”

The abbey newsletter points out another significant point in the life of the Chapter House. It was built by Cistercians in Spain. Now it stands in another Cistercian abbey in the land that once was called New Spain. The stones have finally come home.

I have only alluded to the retreat facilities at New Clairvaux. In addition to nut crops and a vineyard, it’s one of the ways the monks earn their living, and it’s a marvelous place to spend some time apart. I will post about it later, but meanwhile, you can follow the link below for a summary.

The Empire Mine

The visit of a friend over the holiday weekend was an excuse to drive out of the valley fog and into a stunning late fall day as we made our way to the Empire Mine State Park, a mile east of Grass Valley.  This is the site of California’s richest gold mine, in operation from the 1850’s through 1956.  We lucked out:  on Saturday they were holding a special open house.  Park personnel in historical costume were greeting visitors and explaining things in both the “cottage,” where the mine owner lived with his family, and at the diggings themselves.

The Empire Cottage

Gold was discovered in 1848, and by 1850, the rivers were panned out.  There was plenty of gold, but larger operations were needed to extract it.  The Empire Mine got off to a shaky start as it bought out numerous small claims, but faced serious difficulties in getting at veins of gold that laced the strata of quartz at deeper levels.  Starting in 1879, William Bourn Jr., who gained a controlling interest, and his cousin, George Starr, the mine superintendent, created a very successful enterprise, largely because of the technical know how and labor of a large number of miners from Cornwall, England, a region where hardrock mining for tin and copper was a thousand years old.  By 1890, Grass Valley was estimated to be 85% Cornish.

Cottage from the ornamental garden

Bourn ran the mine from 1879 until 1929 when poor health forced him to sell it to Newmont Mining. In today’s terminology, these miners, photographed in 1905, are the 99%. According to one of the living history guides, the least prestigious job was that of a “mucker.” After a blast, they would load the ore carts and push them up the tracks to one of the main shafts where the rock would be hauled to the surface. The muckers could fill six or seven carts an hour, and each held a ton of ore.  Muckers made $3 for a 10 hour shift.

Miners descending the main shaft (postcard)

In 1905, that wage beat the median income of twenty-two cents an hour.  In addition, the mine prospered during the 1930’s – The Great Depression didn’t happen in Grass Valley.  The safety record appears to be pretty clean too.  Not only are hard rock mines the safest, but after the San Francisco earthquake in 1905, when miles of steel rails were twisted beyond use by railroads, Bourn bought them up to reinforce the shafts.  In movies you see mines shored up with timber.  At Empire, the shafts were braced with steel.

Inside one of the shafts (state park photo)

Still, with more than a bit of claustrophobia, I would have sought work in one of the craft shops above ground.  Carpenters and metalworkers on site made and repaired almost everything used in the mining operations, including the ore carts and their wheels.

Empire Mine Carpentry Shop

The metal shop

The blacksmith shop (state park photo)

The mine was closed as a non-essential industry but the War Production Board at the start of WWII. It reopened in 1945 but the price of gold was fixed at its 1934 level of $35 an ounce. By 1956, each ounce cost $45 to produce, and the mine closed in January, 1957.

During its years of operation, the Empire mine produced 5.6 million ounces of gold – roughly five billion dollars at current prices. The state owns the surface structures and grounds, but Newmont mining retains mineral rights, and there’s still gold underground. If the price of rises high enough, mining operations could resume. The real value these days, however, is the historical interest and beauty of the place.

Swimming pool below the cottage

Rose gardens behind the cottage

The heritage roses behind the cottage had all been cut back, but small plaques identified the roses and their dates. Most came from the 19th and early 20th century, but a few were earlier than that. When they are in bloom, you can buy cuttings.

View from the formal gardens toward the mine

I had been to the Empire Mine once before, in the 80’s one January day when the trees were bare, the pool was dry, and no one was no one around. I’d been wanting to return for most of this year, but something always came up until this past Saturday. I had no idea how much I would enjoy the site, and I highly recommend it if you are ever in California’s central valley, with a yen to explore the foothills and the gold country.

Handmade books

Recently, I came across an estimate of the number of ebooks that will be published next year. I think it was 3 million, but I don’t really remember, and I cannot recall if that was in the US or worldwide. Funny that such a huge number of books was such a non-event for my brain – or maybe it isn’t funny.  Maybe it’s very natural.  Add to that, say, 780,000, the number I remember for traditionally published books last year, and you get, 3,780,000 / 365 = 10,356.16 books per day in 2012.  Even if I am high by an order of magnitude, that’s still more books  being published in one day than I will read in ten years.

Of that total number, I’m guessing a dozen or so will matter to me.  The others will be non-events.  These reflections led me to recall when I was in art school, and there was a large revival of handmade paper as art and craft.  One thing people did with handmade paper was make books by hand.

Books!  Do you remember the sense of wonder books can evoke?  Remember how mysterious they were as when you were just learning to read?  The books you carried everywhere, as a kid and as an adult?  The books that opened new worlds to you or opened new ways of looking at this one?  Have you ever prowled used bookstores, remember stories of people just like you who discover hidden books on magic or other forgotten lore?

It must be this kind of love and fasciation that inspires the artists I picked at random while searching for “handmade books.”  There is nothing comprehensive about these choices .  There are far too many wonderful people making books these days for that.  Hopefully these few pictures will give an idea of what’s possible.  Check the links for further information.

Wooden Book by Barbara Yates

Barbara Yates is an environmental artist who recycles dead trees into art for parks and retreat centers

History of Western Europe by Brian Dettmer

Brian Dettmer’s work reminds me of a dream I’ve had on several occasions, where I am reading a book but cannot decipher the key passages.  Here is the link for his work and Barbara Yates’s:


Handmade book by Geraldine Newfry

Check out the section on handmade books on Geraldine Newfry’s blog, The Creative Life Unfolds:


Handmade book by Lauren Evatt Finley

There are a number of step-by-step photos of the binding process in the handmade book archive section of Ms Finley’s blog, The Disarranged Studio:


A tintype journal

Website for this tintype journal:


Handmade book by Carol Roemer

Carol Roemer is an artist whose primary medium for the last ten years has been handmade books. This is her website:


This is the cover of a scrapbook “Garbonzobeenz1” made for Christmas photos of her first Christmas in a new house, with her first grandchild.

The website where I found this illustration,, is an extensive site devoted to scrapbooking, using traditional and digital tools. It should be of interest to anyone who won wants to explore this craft.


And finally, here is an electronic pop-up book made by Jie Qi, a grad student in the MIT lab’s Hi-Low Tech group:


It’s interesting that many people who recognize the magical and iconic nature of books are visual artists and craftspeople.  It wouldn’t be the first time “outsiders” bring a fresh perspective to a discipline.  I’m not suggesting a fuzzy nostalgia for the old days:  I no more want to trade WordPress for a Gutenberg press than I want to exchange my mac air for an eniac.

What I am suggesting is that the work of these artists leads me to a deeper appreciation of the wonder of what we book creators are doing.

Back When Vampires Were Vampires

Bella Lugosi's Dracula

When I was 15, my family lived in Europe.  My room, at the far end of the house, opened onto a patio through French doors that you could unlatch with a butter knife.  I decided it would be fun to read Dracula late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed.  Dumb – really dumb!  I know I’m not the only one to seek the thrill of a scary movie or book and get a whole lot more than they bargained for.  Let’s just say that for weeks after that, I took a clove of garlic to rub the French door frame every night before bed.

When I first went to college, we had a saying:  “Wherever two or more are gathered, they will start a film society.”  Friday nights on campus, I watched, Nosferatu, 1922, which made Bela Lugosi’s count seem tame.

Count Orlock in Nosferatu

Then there was Carl Dryer’s 1932, Vampyr, a movie whose plot I have never been able to decipher, but whose haunting imagery gives a truly creepy feeling of being in a coffin and seeing the face of the vampire who killed you peering through the glass in the lid.

The young protagonist of Vampyr. Is he really dead or only dreaming?

Once upon a time, vampires were not sensitive hunks and hunkettes.  Team Orlock?  I don’t think so!  And trust me, you don’t want a date with Dracula’s brides:

Dracula's better halves? Don't you believe it!

But alas, we are so besotted with undead who love poetry and walks on the beach that not even the current owners of Bran castle in Romania, the one that inspired Bram Stoker, are immune to draw of vampire fandom.

Sign on the way to Bran Castle, Romania

It turns out that the castle that overlooks the town of Bran is not even scary, although the real Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, is supposed to have passed through the valley in the 15th century. And NPR correspondent, Meghan Sullivan, says it’s a little disconcerting to see t-shirts on some of the pilgrims proclaiming that, “All Romanians are Vampires.”

Castle Bran, which inspired Bram Stoker

I guess it will just have to fall to the next generation to restore a fictional world where, to paraphrase Garrison Keeler, “All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, all the children are above average, and vampires are nobody’s sweetheart!”

Structure in Folktales

I found a great post on story and movie structure on one of the blogs I follow, Albert Berg’s Unsanity Files.

Despite Mr. Berg’s caution that discussions of structure has been known to cause some Californian’s heads to explode, I suffered no ill effects (well, maybe a facial tic or two, but I’m still perfectly normal…honest!).

Actually, I credit a Californian, Syd Field, a hugely influential teacher of screenwriting, with formalizing the three act structure as we know it in movies and novels.  You hear Field’s book, Screenplay, recommended at writer’s workshops and conferences.  It is one of the best references I know on plot and structure. For anyone interested in writing, the “Three Act Structure” is required learning.  Even to rebel against it, you need to know what it is. Here is a simple diagram:

This, of course, is a variation on Aristotle’s observation that every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  In modern usage, it has become more formal than that.  The length of the acts in movies and in books is not arbitrary:  it’s 25%, 50%, 25% by default.  These numbers are sometimes even spelled out in screenplay contracts, and they are quoted in numerous other books on writing.

In a similar way, the plot points are not just ordinary troubles:   they are sometimes called, “doorways of no return.”  Examples of Plot Point 1, the first doorway, are when Luke leaves with Obiwan, when Frodo agrees to carry the ring, and when Louise pulls the trigger.  After a character steps through the first doorway, plot point #1, their old lives are gone, no longer an option.  Plot point two is when the last battle is joined.  When Frodo and Sam gaze down into Mordor, they still have an option to cut and run.  That choice disappears once they continue.   Once they reach the valley, their only options are victory or death.

If you know the running time and have a watch, you can spot these plot points occurring right on time in recent movies.  One thing I like to do, because I love old films, is try to see when and if they occur in the classics on TCM.  I watched for this recently as I viewed Lost Horizon, and sure enough, this structure was there.  I’ve come to the realization before, that Syd Field was not creating something new, as much as clarifying and codifying something successful screenwriters had already been using because because it works.

Which finally brings me around to the point of this post:

I was paging through some Google search results on “three act structure” and saw one author claim it was “fundamental to storytelling.”  As someone who spent 20 years in the Sacramento Storyteller’s Guild, I thought, “Wait a minute.  If you want to get ‘fundamental’ you aren’t going to do it with written fiction.  Fundamental storytelling means our worldwide oral tradition.

You find it in collections of folklore, the older the better:  in epics and fireside tales and sacred stories from all cultures:  in recordings of storytellers from library archives or recent storytelling festivals.

It also means stories we can hear at this years Tellabration, a day of storytelling that will happen around the world this year on November, 19.

What I am going to do is informally browse and listen to some of my favorite folktales to see what relationship they may or may not have to the three act structure as it has evolved in our literary and cinematic arenas.

We know that every story has a beginning, middle, and end – if it doesn’t, it may be a vignette or a character portrait, but it is not a story. We also know that the progression of folklore and myth tends to be “simple” rather than “complex.” In other words, you aren’t going to find a lot of twists and reversals.

What else?  That is what I am going to explore for next time.