Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Village In Her Head

Something about the Winter Solstice awakens the human spirit, regardless of one’s particular faith. It’s a time of whimsical magic, and it transports us to a realm where our sense of wonder is the only compass we need to guide us. It truly is “the most magical time of the year,” despite all the humbugs with which contemporary life attempts to burden it. Sadly, the calendar changes far too soon, and we ring in the New Year with a toast to the past and a vague hope for the future before succumbing to all those humbugs that tailgate our existences through the rest of any given year. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and all the other Winter Solstice celebrations, all about renewal in one way or another, fall sway to economic uncertainty, unnamed wars, collapsed 401Ks and any number of conditions that keep us up at the most inopportune times.

At least, that’s how it works for most of the population.

There are people on this planet, however, who find magic in the most mundane quarters. Elke E is one such person. As a child of eight or so, living in Germany, she had the grand idea of making a doll house from an old shoebox that she found in the attic of her parent’s house .She cut and glued and painted and drew until she had a perfect little home of her very own, replete with table, chairs, bed and probably other things that are important to an eight year old girl. Not content with her cardboard furniture, she took it a step further and upholstered them with bits of fabric.

Fast forward some forty years later. The eight year old girl is married now, and living in America, happy, but not on the soundest financial footing as Christmas approaches. She also has a three year old niece, and minimal funds with which to buy her presents. But she still remembers her dollhouse, and she still has her sense of wonder. Rescuing a storage box from work, she sets about to resurrect that piece of her childhood and bequeath it to her niece Shelby. Using bits and pieces of things she already had, or were otherwise going to the trash heap, she constructs, by mid- December, a lavishly furnished home for Shelby’s dolls, and adds other hand-made characters and pets to keep them company. It’s an instant hit, not only with Shelby, but with Shelby’s circle of friends, and eclipses in popularity the store-bought toys they had all received.

Perhaps more importantly, the project reawakens Elke’s own inner child and inspires her to make impromptu gifts for her friends, who, in turn, show them off to their friends, who urge her to take her crafts to the next level, and sell them commercially. She initially shrugs off such suggestions, though, considering it too time-consuming and labor-intensive to be a viable undertaking. Besides, she reasons, nobody would pay money for sculptures made from recycled cardboard packaging. For her, it’s a labor of love, and a way to share her magical memories of childhood holidays spent in Stein am Rhein, Switzerland.



As enchanting as these miniatures are, what’s even more amazing is the care that goes into each handmade piece. Elke’s blueprints for her works are in her head. She starts with a vision of how the finished product will look, and works backwards to make the vision a reality. This entails an enormous amount of resourcefulness, creativity and preservation, since she works, with the exception of her environmentally friendly paints and glue, only with cardboard packaging that would otherwise end up in a landfill somewhere. Thus, otherwise discarded frozen dinner packaging, empty cigarette packs and various and sundry throwaways become the foundation for her creations. . Once she’s completed the basic construction, she spends days painstakingly detailing each piece by hand, even adding frosted windows that reveal lighted interiors. In the end, each miniature stands on its own, but is easily integrated into a larger village.

With the Holiday Season of 2008 winding down and the uncertainty of 2009 looming before us, it’s heartening to know that some element of magic remains to remind us that it wasn’t such a bad year after all. Elke E’s villages serve as a reminder that every year holds its own magic. They’ve proven so popular, in fact, that she’s decided to expand her crafts to include other holidays and everyday events. As well as introducing a site that showcases her work and includes her thoughts on a variety of subjects. It’s currently under construction, but, once live (in early 2009), should be entertaining and informative. In any case, Elke E is set to launch her childhood dreams into a vibrant reality.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Watching the Watchmen
When Watchmen was first published in 1986 by DC Comics as a 12-part miniseries, the term “graphic novel” was barely known in the United States. The Europeans and the Japanese had been taking the comics medium seriously for years, though, with the French referring to their publications as “albums” and the Japanese unabashedly gearing their work to adult audiences. In the States, where the medium was invented, they were still comic books, largely relegated to a literary and graphic ghetto. A revolution had been quietly festering for years, however. Jim Steranko’s work on Marvel’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. built on Jack Kirby’s action style, and redefined what could be told in the confines of a 7”X10” vertical layout. Neal Adams and Denny O’ Neil laid the groundwork for resurrecting Batman from campy cartoon to grim avenger. Mostly, only the comics diehards took note at the time. That all changed in 1986, when writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, along with colorist John Higgins, teamed to produce a 12 part series for DC called Watchmen.

Watchmen wasn’t a superhero story so much as it was a tale of youthful excesses and midlife crisis set against a backdrop of murder, conspiracy and global turmoil in an alternative 1980’s. That it continues to reflect the uncertainty of Western Society As We Know It may explain why those 12 issues evolved into a single edition that’s never been out of print since first published, It also explains why a movie version, once thought impossible, is scheduled for release in March 2009. And it definitely explains why Time named it one of the 100 most important novels of the last 75 years.


Twenty some-odd years later, comes Watching the Watchmen, artist Dave Gibbons’ recollections on how the masterpiece came to be. At 256 pages bundled in a 12”X9.5” hardcover edition, there’s no denying that this is a book that any fan of Watchmen would consider an essential companion piece to the series that became a graphic novel. Given Watchmen’s cult status, that’s not surprising.

But Watching the Watchmen is much more than a coffee table book. Sure, there’s a wealth of art (early sketches evolving into finished illustrations), and that would be enough from a historical perspective. Dave Gibbons’ detailed memories of how it all came to be paint a landscape of the world before computers and FedEX, where everything was actually done by hand, and delivered via cab to the participants in the project. Consequently, the book works as a time capsule that seems somewhat quaint today, even though it all came about scarcely twenty years ago.

It’s hardly necessary to be a fan of Watchmen to appreciate Watching the Watchmen. What Gibbons achieves here is more than a memoir of the creative process that goes into any collaborative effort. It’s a personal recounting told from the illustrator’s point of view—writer Alan Moore’s perspective is absent here, due to his ongoing disputes with DC. That’s all the better in this case. Because of his writing prowess, Moore tends to eclipse his collaborators. To see in detail the creation of this seminal work from the artist’s perspective is is resultantly quite refreshing. As much as Moore’s story deconstructed the superhero mythos, they would have been shallow without the almost detached approach Gibbons’ nine panel grids imbued the characters with a sense of ennui in the face of global devastation.

At its core, Watching the Watchmen is more art book than scholarly history. The design of the book, by Chip Kidd and Mike Essl, both of whom are noted for their design work on various adaptations of Batman in film and graphic novels, ensure that Gibbons’ sometimes scattered sketches and remembrances remain cohesive. As a result, the artwork, from marker layouts to pencil sketches to the rare finished art is a joy to behold.
With The Dark Knight a serious Oscar contender and Frank Miller’s The Spirit opening Christmas Day and the film adaptation of The Watchmen coming out in March, superheroes are the new canon of 21st century literature. “Who watches the Watchmen?” is no longer merely a clever catchphrase—it may be a clear indicator of movie trends in 2009. That in mind, Watching the Watchmen may be the perfect gift for anybody interested in pop culture, film evolution, contemporary art or graphic novels in general. It’s a book I’d strongly recommend as a gift this year.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What Jack Bauer Did on His Summer Vacation
When last we saw Jack Bauer at the end of Day Six, some eighteen months ago, he was psychologically battered and bruised, sitting at ocean’s edge, contemplating his next move. Saving the world from certain annihilation, one day at a time, is a thankless job, and by the end of Day Six, Bauer was getting no respect. He was, however, in deep ka-ka because some of his more (ahem) aggressive methods in making the world safe for truth, justice and apple pie. Faced with the possibility of Federal indictment, not to mention the insurmountable forces of the Writer’s Strike, Bauer did what any action hero would do: he cut his losses, got the hell out of LA and toured the world.

We catch up with Bauer in 24: Redemption, finding him doing missionary work in the fictional African country of Sangala., which is a sort of Uganda, Somalia and a number of other hot spots rolled into one. Oddly enough, the man who runs the school for troubled boys is an old cohort of Bauer, Carl Benton (Robert Carlyle, Trainspotting, The Last Enemy, The Full Monty), a redeemed man with a never fully disclosed past.

This is 24, however abbreviated as it may be—the events take place between 3 PM and 5PM (Is that Sangala time or Washington DC time?) and events quickly go south. Jack is served with a subpoena to testify before Congress about the more unsavory operations of CTU and his direct involvement in torture of suspects. Before he can bail to parts unknown, however, a local warlord attacks the school where Bauer is working, in an attempt to “recruit” new child soldiers in his rebellion against the government there.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, newly-elected president Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) is about to be sworn into office, amidst all orts of nefarious shady doings, most of which appear to be instigated by Day Seven’s high villain, Jonas Hodges (Jon Voight), a corporate slimeball who apparently has some dealings with the rebels in Sangala.

24: Redemption borrows heavily from other sources, particularly the film Blood Diamond, and it doesn’t stray far from the 24 formula. Bauer is called into action, however reluctantly, and by my count, kills 14 rebels in the first shootout, which lasts about 90 seconds. Surprisingly, the story holds together, more because of Carlyle’s character than Sutherland’s.

What really makes this 2-disc edition worth owning are the special features. Besides the obligatory audio commentary that accompanies the extended edition of the feature, this set includes featurettes not usually seen in what is essentially a promo for an upcoming season. Of course, there’s fluff in the featurettes. “24: Season Six in Four Minutes” succinctly highlights the story points of that flailing season without getting into all the plot holes that make us wonder why we sat through that semi-season. “The Exclusive First Look at Season 7,” consisting of the first 17 minutes of the premiere episode airing in January opens up a whole new can of intrigue and assorted worms that remind us why we watch week after week, ignoring all 24’s time warp improbabilities.

“The Making of 24: Redemption” is a nice little piece, and illustrates the differences between filming in Los Angeles and South Africa. Even lighting presents a new set of challenges because of the country’s proximity to the South Pole. It’s interesting to note, too, how the South African crews imparted time-saving techniques to the American crews. It’s rare to see these kind of tidbits in a TV feature DVD, and it leaves even the most casual viewer with an appreciation of how film comes to be.

By far, the best of the special features is the mini-documentary “Blood Never Dry.” The child soldiers portrayed in 24: Redemption are a reflection of very real presence in our world, and this documentary tells the tragic story of the “child soldiers.” These are children, often as young as eight or ten, snatched from their homes, often seeing their families killed before their eyes, indoctrinated to be killers through brainwashing and forced drug addiction. It’s an insidious, and overlooked, disaster confronting the world. More information can be found at unicef.org and child-soldiers.org.

The DVD also offers the broadcast version of the movie (87 minutes) and the extended version (102 minutes), although those but the most dedicated 24 fans will notice any difference in the two versions.

24: Redemption
is by no means a work of art. Many times, it seems like a lukewarm, made for TV version of Blood Diamond. And you can’t escape the feeling that it’s a promo made to revive interest in as series that was running the bases in Day Six. That being said, 24: Redemption is a nice segue between Day Six and the upcoming Day Seven. Considering that Kiefer Sutherland’s contract runs out in 2009, and considering that this is, after all, Day Seven, it might be time to retire Jack Bauer with dignity.