Monday, September 28, 2015

Treasure Planet

I didn’t originally want to see this Disney movie when it came out in 2002. Don’t get me wrong, I already liked pirates, and enjoyed the particular genre of steam-engine space tech called steam punk. But I firmly believed it was a flawed concept. Space movies should be space movies, and not hijack the immortal work of Robert Lewis Stevenson.

Nope Nope Nope Nope.

Man, was I wrong.

A friend dragged me to the movie, and I fell in love immediately. The basic tale – boy meets pirate, boy has father/son relationship with pirate, pirate reveals his true nature, boy overcomes pirate, pirate escapes with a pocket full of treasure, is known to practically everyone. But Disney cartoons have a well-known habit of “cleaning things up” I hadn’t wanted a sanitized version. I’d also felt that the “space” part of the space adventure would be just tacked on.

Instead, I found a lot “right”. The brown-and-gold color scheme of the movie works with the steam punk theme. The wide variety of aliens gives the piece an exotic feel, while letting Disney do anthropomorphic animals, something that Disney does well.

One of the things that advertising for the movie touted was the blending of computer-generated art with the more traditional hand-drawn style. This, too works amazingly well in the piece. The enormous sweep and movement of the ship (whose name has been changed from the Hispaniola to the R.L.S. Legacy – Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Legacy) is only enhanced by the abilities of CG. And the mechanics of Long John Silver’s cyborg arm (for in this, he’s not just a one-legged man, he’s a cyborg) is wonderful.

And the story, while it’s been changed a little (movie version tend to do this) is both true to the spirit of the original and relevant to modern audiences.

We open with Jim Hawkins as a child, reading a pirate story. This “pirate book” shows holograms of the action, so we get a quick mini-movie of Captain Flint zooming in to attack a merchant/passenger ship, before disappearing off into empty space. This sets up the mystery of the treasure right off, and shows off the terrifying visage of Flint.  As a pirate-historian, I also note that the proportions between the pirate vessel and the merchant are correct. Flint’s ship is much smaller.

Next the movie cuts to Jim as a fifteen-year-old, riding a cross between a skateboard and a para-sail. While he’s joyriding, his mom and Dr. Doppler (who replaces Dr. Livesey and is an obvious descendant of Goofy) chat about how Jim’s father ran out on the family, Jim’s mother is overwhelmed trying to run the Benbow Inn by herself. Clearly the family is reaching a crisis, exacerbated by Jim’s run-in with the law over his midair stunts.

Next comes a fast-paced sequence. Billy Bones crash-lands near the Inn and is rescued by Jim. The treasure map is discovered. Bones dies of his injuries. The pirates arrive hard on the heels of Bones. They tear the Inn apart, looking for the map, and end by setting it on fire. What takes six months in the book blows past in an hour, about 5 minutes screen time.

Now we’re in the heart of the story. Jim figures out how to open the projector for the map’s holographic images (great effect) and Dr. Doppler agrees to finance the mission to find the treasure. In no time, we’re at the spaceport, seeing the RLS Legacy and meeting Captain Amelia and her first mate, Mr. Arrow. Captain Amelia, a cat-like alien, is an Disney addition. Stevenson’s captain was male, of course, but a hyper-efficient female captain works very well, while giving the little girls a fine role-model. Amelia also provides inspiration for Doppler to find his inner hero, at which times she becomes a romantic figure.

The depiction of Long John Silver in the movie is, of course, what “makes” it. You can’t have any version of Treasure Island without a really good Silver. Brian Murray does the job as well as anyone ever has – His Silver is funny, smart, almost overwhelmingly full of personality, and, when the moment calls for it, terrifying.

Silver’s first job is to take Jim in hand. His actions – teaching the boy about how to pick his fights, demanding hard work from him in Jim’s work as cabin boy, telling tall tales and speaking to Jim about what makes a man a man, put him squarely in the “father figure” role. In the book this doesn’t come out nearly as strongly. And in many live-action versions Silver is responsible for the death of Mr. Arrow.

In this version, however, Silver is softened by giving this job to Scroop, the insectiod bad guy of the piece. Stevenson wrote a more realistic story by making the pirates their own worst enemies. They get drunk and disagree and fight among themselves. Disney doesn’t have time for that. He does the dirty work of killing Arrow, but Silver surprises and horrifies us by telling Scroop that the timing (not the murder itself) was wrong.

In this version, Silver starts his mutiny on the ship, beginning a frightening gunfight and gives the pirates a chance to hoist the Jolly Roger. At this point, when Jim escapes Silver’s clutches by stabbing him in his cybernetic leg, and the blaster-fire is thick, we truly see Silver as a pirate, greedy, self-serving and ready for violence.

On Treasure Planet, we meet the robot navigator B.E.N. (in place of the maroonee Ben Gunn) and Dr Doppler begins to lose realize that, while he may need to dither about the unimportant things, when life and death are on the line he’s a man of action. Captain Amelia is no less the hero, however.

In Treasure island, Stevenson shows us Silver standing up to the other pirates to save Jim. In this movie, he literally gives up his treasure for the boy, and in return, Jim uses his skateboard/sailing skills to save the entire party from an exploding planet. In this version the treasure (loot of a thousand worlds) is so vast that it MUST be disposed of, since anyone with so much wealth must necessarily be stuck with a whole slew of new problems.

At the end, Jim catches Silver sneaking away, and does not alert the others, even though he now knows what Silver is. And the pirate gives Jim just enough treasure (pulled from the copious pockets of the pirate coat) to re-build the destroyed Benbow Inn. Captain Amelia sends Jim to the Space Academy, she and Doppler marry, and the robot B.E.N. moves into the Inn to help Jim’s mom with the work. All is well, and Jim feels the presence of Silver watching him. We are safe, knowing that the pirate still roams free.

Disney built a very believable world/universe for Treasure Planet, with a steam punk design of 70 percent “old” (antique clothing, beamed ceilings, furniture, tools) and 30 percent “new”(solar sails, ray guns, cybernetics)  They tried out the esthetics for Long John Silver’s prosthetic arm and leg by first attaching it to another hand-drawn pirate – Hook.  

They also left in a lot of the scary bits. Arrow’s death – falling into a Black Hole – is more graphic than his ending in the book, when he simply disappears between night and morning, presumably pushed into the sea by Silver. Disney also kept In a terrifying one-on-one fight to the death between Jim and Scroop (standing in for the pirate Israel Hands). Disney couldn’t keep all f the fight, of course. In the book, Jim has a flintlock pistol, and threatens to shoot his pursuer in the face. In Treasure Planet, Scroop’s’ fate – flying off into space when the gravity fails – mimics the death he gave to Mr. Arrow.

Things I especially like about the show?
Jim’s tortured, bad-boy character, barely masking a lonely child.
The entire relationship between Jim and Silver. The older man is hard n Jim, and we see what Jim needed that his mother couldn’t give him.  But we also see genuine affection. Silver even hints at some of his own back-story, admitting that he gave up a lot to search for Flint’s treasure as he rubs at his mechanical leg.
The depictions of Flint are also excellent. The character of Flint has no first name in Stevenson’s book, and the choice her o of “Nathaniel” works for me. The pirate captain’s six-eyed face is terrifying, and lets us identify his skull at a crucial moment.

Things I hate?
Just the robot B.E.N., whom I think Is just there to be cute. I hate cute.

All it all, it’s really one of Disney’s better efforts. But the movie didn’t do well in theaters. A lot of people probably shared my confusion about Treasure Island in space. But Netflix has given it a second life, and it has also taken on a cult status with the Steampunk crowd.

Disney had originally planned a sequel, in which Jim, while in the Space Academy, gets involved with the theft (by pirates) of a  prototype super-ship designed by Dr. Doppler and armed with a mega-weapon. Silver gets called in from his smuggling business to help out, and Jim finds romance with the Admiral’s daughter.

It would have been a grand romp. And now… Who can tell? The popularity of Treasure Planet is growing, not shrinking. We may see that sequel yet.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Crossing the Equator

Crossing the equator has long been an act filled with ritual significance. Recently, the degree of hazing used in the US Navy has come under scrutiny for being physically and psychologically damaging to the participants. Defense for the custom states that these rituals go back hundreds of years.

They do, in fact. Some were in place during our time period, the early 1700’s. We’re going to take a look at some of these early rituals, and perhaps touch on how they developed over the years.

It’s a popular misconception that, before Columbus “discovered” the New World, Europeans believed that the world was flat. This is not true at all. The ancient Greeks had done the math to prove the world was round, and were within a few miles of being accurate in its size.

Furthermore, sailors, who regularly watched land drop away behind them, and who estimated the range of distant ships by seeing how much of the vessel was below or above the horizon, knew perfectly well that they weren’t going to fall off the edge of the world.

The equator, however, was s different matter.

What is the equator, anyway? The modern definition is that it is an imaginary line surrounding the middle of the earth, at an equal distance from the North Pole and the South Pole. It divides the world into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

This does not seem significant in today’s world, but it matters more than you might think. And the sailors of days gone by, it was of absolutely grave importance. You see, as s ship moves around the globe, the bulk of the earth blocks out certain constellations. And at the line of the equator, the most important object in the northern sky disappears.

The North Star – Polaris.

The Northern Hemisphere is lucky to have what appears to be a “fixed” star in its sky. Polaris sits almost directly over the North Pole. As long as the star can be seen, the direction “north” can be determined. For a ship out-of-sight of land, this information is crucial.

But to a person approaching the equator, Polaris appears to be lower and lower in the sky. At the equator, the star sits exactly on the horizon. Past the equator, it disappears. The marking used to designate latitude indicate the apparent height of Polaris in the sky. And at the equator, the number is ominous – Zero.

So what’s on the other side of zero?

South America. Sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia. Unknown lands. Also, an unfamiliar navigation system, using not a fixed star, but the constellation of the Southern Cross. Instead of a fixed star, the Southern Hemisphere depends on locating the center of a group of four stars to determine north. Trickier going.

So, approaching this mystical place seemed to require some sort of ceremony.

The French are credited with the earliest “Crossing the Line” ceremonies. Experienced sailors liked to tell younger ones that traveling below the equator was what caused a person’s skin to become black. On the day of the fateful crossing, crew members covered themselves with substances such as the soot from lamps and burned cork. When they were suitably blackened, they burst out upon the recruits, “captured” them, terrified them, and then blackened their faces in a similar way.

Having gone through the ceremony, these young men were now in on the joke, and would become the next generation to perpetrate the hoax.

But it was the English who created the most elaborate “Crossing the Line” ceremonies. Over time, the English developed a tradition of spending and entire day under the rule of “King Neptune” or “Neptunus Rex”. A crew member would dress up in an elaborate costume as the King of the Sea. He would be surrounded by a “royal court” and would hold control over the ship for a period of time. Very often pirates were part of the King entourage. I think this may have been a symbol of chaos. 

 Men who had not crossed the equator before were judged, punished, re-baptized, and given over to King Neptune. After the ceremony, they were considered to have fundamentally changed. In a time when the Christian God was seen to have constant, active agency in every action and outcome on earth, tearing oneself away from Him, and being given to Neptune, must have been a profound experience.

As time went by, the ritual grew. The recruits were called Pollywogs, or Wogs; the experience men were Shellbacks. According to ritual, the Wogs were slimy, unreliable, effeminate creatures, unworthy to be called true sailors. (It should be noted that this was part of the ritual. Before approaching the equator, sailors who had not experienced the crossing were treated as shipmates in the usual way.)  Shellbacks were true men, honest, masculine, reliable and trustworthy.

 The hazing part of the ceremony took on more and more epic proportions. Initiates had always received some sort of beating as part of the ceremony – in the 1700’s sailors were beaten on a regular basis, so a few blows were not regarded as a big deal. The beating part of the ritual probably just confirmed what these men already knew, that they had chosen a rough profession. In the 18th century having whip scars was part of the proof that one was a sailor.

But  in more recent times , being beaten with was a more serious deviation from the norm.

In the early days, it was a common part of the ceremony to douse recruits in animal blood. On ships that kept live animals as a food source this was easy to come by, and it symbolized the blood of rebirth. The later washing of the recruits, in turn, symbolized baptism, as the recruit was symbolically given to the sea.

Later ceremonies, not having access to fresh blood, substituted garbage. And when the garbage was not enough, sewage was added. Recruits were stripped, covered with lard (and later Crisco), and doused in human waste. Elaborate cross-dressing rituals were added to the fun. It’s possible that they had been there for a long time. Ritual cross-dressing has been part of pre-Christian ceremonies back to the dawn of time, and part of the point of the crossing ceremony seems to have been ‘paganizing’ the recruit. But modern ceremonies included “beauty pageants” and mock strip-shows.  Even mock sex acts were common.

Modern sailors rebelled, and went to court, demanding changes, and the excess of the Crossing ceremony have been toned down considerably. Did the ceremonies begin to go too far? Probably. But the rituals still exist. King Neptune still owns the souls of those who go to sea. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

How to Talk like a Pirate - and Make Facebook Talk Like a Pirate, Too

For most of the year, I’m con concerned about historical accuracy. For most of the year, I’d tell you that pirates spoke with many accents – their  voices came from Africa, England, Ireland, France, Holland, and even from the native tribes of the Americas.  But that would be most of the year. This Saturday is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and on that day, there is only one way to Talk Like a Pirate.

The “Pirate Accent” comes from what is called the West Country of England, a land of sailors, smugglers, and, yes, pirates. This accent was created by actor Robert Newton for his role in Treasure Island, and pirating has never been the same since.

So, here’s how you do it:

In the first place, a pirate’s voice should sound like it’s been rum-soaked, tobacco-wreathed, and shouted over gale-force winds for decades. Reach down into yourself and channel your inner pirate. Sound rough, sound deep, and sound loud.

The words “Is” and “Am” and “are” are replaced by the word “be” – So “I am a pirate” becomes “I be a pirate” – “I be a pirate” “You be a pirate” They all be pirates”.

“My” becomes “me”. “I’m a pirate, and so are my friends” becomes “I be a pirates, and so be all me friends”.Of course, you could pirate it up even more and change “my friends” to “me hearties”

In the past tense, “Was” becomes “were”.  “I was a pirate last year, too.” “I were a pirate last year, too!”

In order to add a little flavor, be sure to throw in some piratical words.

“Ahoy maties!” is a great way to greet your friends.

 “Avast” is a less friendly greeting, more like “what are YOU up to?”  It pairs well with a casual insult – you scurvy dog, you old bilge rat.

"Aye!" means "yes".

"Aye Aye!" means "Yes, sir, I'll get right on that!"

“Belay that” means to stop it.

"Lily livered" means cowardly. (Even your internal organs are afraid.)

"Lubber" is pirate speak for a big clumsy galoot. A "land lubber" is even worse.

"Scuttle" means to poke a hole in something. Scuttling a ship renders it useless.

:"Scurvy" is a horrible disease. To call someone a "scurvy" whatever is a fantastic insult. Try it out - "scurvy dog" "scurvy rat" "scurvy villain"  or "scurvy lawyer."

So "Hey there. Quit trying to mess with my friends! I'll stop you if you try any more of this!
"Avast there, ye lily livered bilge rat! Belay messing with me hearties, or I'll scuttle you!"

Or, if you want to spread the cheer a little more easily, try just changing your Facebook language to "English -Pirate".

It's quite simple. Find the column to the right of your news feed, and go down to the bottom where it says "English". Click on the word "English" and it will offer you a list of other languages to choose from. Pick "English - Pirate" from the list, and you are all set to celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day in style, stress free!

And if you'd like another way to celebrate, check out my fiction series The Pirate Empire. Join pirate captain Scarlet MacGrath as she fights, robs and lovers her way through the Caribbean during piracy's Golden Age.

And, for a limited time (September 18-21) you can get the first book - Gentlemen and Fortune - ABSOLUTELY FREE! Just click the link and download your free Kindle copy - or buy the paperback at a special reduced price!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Study of the Species - Ren Faire Pirate

The Genus Piraticus comes in several species and sub-species, most notably Piraticus Historius (historic-reenactor pirates) , Piraticus Festivus (Pirate Festival pirates), and today’s species of study, Piraticus Faireus­ – that species of pirates common to Renaissance Faires.  

At first glance, it would seem that Renaissance pirates would be easy to spot. They would reenact with a slant toward the Buccaneering era of pirates, and favor slashed doublets,  muffin caps and bollocks daggers- a great look for a pirate.

However, in practice this is not the case at all. When observing pirates at most Ren Faires, even the casual observer will notice at once that these pirates are not rooted in any particular time. They are most especially not related to the swashbuckling pirates of the English Renaissance. Instead, the largest group of these pirates come to us from the realm of pure fantasy.

These pirates are most noted for their extensive use of the color black. Although black has not been associated with any working class occupation (and even the most dashing of historical pirates were definitely blue-collar) the pirates who attend renaissance fests are often covered in black from head to toe. This is especially notably because the color is so impractical. Summer events, especially in Midwestern America (my home grounds) often sport temperatures in the mid 90’s (Fahrenheit – perhaps 33 degrees Celsius).

Males of this species are a fairly homogeneous lot.   The look is black pants – very tight black pants, often even tights – and sometimes even skin-tight black leather pants. The shirt – usually baggy in the “poet” style – is usually black as well, although other historically inaccurate colors such as red, burgundy and dark brown are also frequently seen.  A black leather vest is also often in evidence.

Footgear for these pirates is often very distinctive. Although historic pirates wore buckled shoes almost exclusively, or went barefoot while on ship, our Renaissance pirates show nary a shoe. The foot covering of choice is a high boot. “Bucket boots” of the type favored by Jack Sparrow in the POTC movies are very common.  Loosely based on a type of riding boot favored by the nobility of approximately 100 years before the Golden Age of Piracy, these boots have a wide top that can be worn folded over for walking, or pulled up over the thigh for riding through rough county.

The Ren Faire version has lost this ability. The “buckets” or turned-down upper part of the boot is far too narrow to be pulled up as any sort of protection. Instead, they remain as a fashion statement.

Another popular style of footwear can only be described as a “Ren Faire boot”. This design was invented by Ren Fair craftsmen, who used modern materials and a smattering of historical research to create a boot that “could have existed” during the renaissance, but didn’t.

Comfortable and durable, these boots often cost many hundreds of dollars. They usually lace up the front or sides, often with an incorporated button design. For a more piratical look, buckles are often substituted for the buttons. These boots look like nothing out of history, and their knee-high tight leather construction makes them hot, but they remain popular.

Piratical hats are also of a strange variety.  Although in many venues the tricorne, a historically accurate hat, marks one as a pirate, the Ren Fair crowd is not to be satisfied with a common tricorne. Instead, these hats are extravagantly decorated with feathers and jeweled clips.  Faire vendors stock plenty of hat pins featuring a skull-and-crossbones, crossed swords, or an octopus (a symbol favored by Faire pirates since Davey Jones in POTC 2 – Dead Man’s Chest).

In order to support yet more feathers, some pirates favor hats of the Cavalier style. These fanciful constructions can carry trailing feathers that rival a peacock’s tale – and must be equally difficult to carry around.

The female of the species Piraticus Faireus­ come in two distinct species – the Bawdy Wench and the Hard-as-Nails Hellion. Either or both may display a huge amount of bosom.  The Wench, however, usually wears skirts, often hiked to above the knees with leather skirt-lifters.  She is usually not as well-armed as the Hellion. Many Wenches are young and frolicsome, and are often wearing little beside a corset (usually from the Victorian era) a skirt, boots and a pirate hat. Often the Wench’s hat becomes an extravagant affair. I have seen women at Ren Fairs wearing hats with entire Spanish Galleons on them, in addition to yards of lace and pounds of jewels.

Often the Wench has kept company with a belly-dancer, or a belly-dancer has decided to become a wench.  Yards of silk scarves are in evidence on these costumes, as well as Middle-Eastern tribal jewelry, the occasional turban, and a bare midriff. Since belly-dancers frequently carry scimitars, it may be difficult to tell where one occupation takes up and another leaves off… But by my estimation, if the woman is wearing flintlock pistols, she probably identifies as a pirate.

In contrast, the Hellion is often older, and is often firmly attached to a male of the species. Her display of bosom is often deeper but narrower, and her clothing may perfectly echo the male. The younger examples of the Hellion often wear spike-heeled boots of extravagant proportions.  Older women favor tall, flat heeled boots.  Often these women carry lots of steel… Sword, several daggers, stilettos (besides the ones on their shoes) and often a whip.  This is the perfect costume for a woman with a take-no-nonsense attitude.

Faire pirates carry a lot of weapons in general. They usually resemble a boarding party, rather than a night on the town.  Often the weapons of choice are broadswords or fencer’s rapiers. Many pistols are in evidence. Some pirates are carrying so much weaponry that it’s hard to tell how they move.  And if weapons don’t take over, other accouterments may.  The pirate may carry compasses, tankards, keys, extra scarves, manacles, and just about every other cool-looking vaguely piratical object that the Faire may wish to sell.

So what do I think of the Ren Faire pirate? As a species they are fun. Certainly, in my opinion, any pirate costume is better than no costume at all. And the amount of time and money invested in these costumes shows a certain dedication to the persona. But they are a species and a culture unto themselves – not much related to history at all.

That’s a shame, because the history of pirates – and their radical stroke for equality and generosity is worth knowing about . I guess I’ll take my pirates where I can get them however. As long as they’re a jolly crew.