Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sim Sim Salabim – An Incantation from Jonny Quest of the 1960s Back to a Medieval Play


My mind wanders some strange and esoteric places:  I was thinking about a 60s cartoon of my youth, Jonny Quest and wondering if “sim sim salabim” actually meant anything or was just Hollywood gibberish.  This created a narrative line as absurd and bizarre as any Dan Brown book, so I began to unravel the Hadji Code: 

Classic Jonny Quest was designed by comic book artist and writer Doug Widley for Hanna-Barbera Productions, who originally wanted a TV animation cartoon based on the radio series, Jack Armstrong All AmericanBoy.  When Hanna-Barbera couldn’t get the license, they went ahead with the project and called it Jonny Quest, which was a much more evolved concept, taking place in the near future.  Freed of any license constraints, Widley reworked the concept and made it his own. 

Generally a plausible science fiction show of the near future, there were a few glaring errors.  One was the name of the character Hadji Singh, Jonny’s sidekick who was a Hindu and not a Muslim, yet he has an Islamic honorific as part of his name.  It may be a little petty on my point, but I always saw it as a glaring error.  But such are the ways of Hollywood and children’s television of the mid 1960s.  

You have got to love 60s spy drones
Be sure to go to some of the Jonny Quest links and especially the one on Doug Widley to get a real feel of the show and 60s animated TV shows.  For those of you who don’t recall, Jonny Quest was a mid 60s action adventure cartoon that was later criticized for its portrayed violence and representation of cultures in an insensitive way.   In later years, reruns of Jonny Quest had to conform to broadcast guidance on children’s shows and chop out the violence and it also came under attack for perceived stereotypes.  The show was in reruns for many years, but the content had been vastly reduced.  But I digress.

The Jonny Quest character, Hadji used “sim sim salabim” as his incantation while performing “magic” or at least some pretty good stagecraft.  The character Hadji Singh’s backstory is that he is the adopted son of Dr. Benton Quest and appears in a flashback in Episode 7, Calcutta Adventure (30 Oct 1964).  Hadji grew up on the streets of Calcutta, apparently becoming streetwise along with learning some mystic culture along with yoga, and saved Dr. Quest from an assassin.  Hadji was always more level headed of Dr Quest’s sons and a good problem solver.  His streetwise upbringing, practical commonsense, and multicultural background gave Hadji an excellent skill set over the more impulsive and reckless Jonny.   The less said about the dog, Bandit, the better.  This leads us to the next step in the Hadji Code.
Sim Salabim was magician Harry August Jansen’s (1883 to 1955) trademark tagline, while appearing as Dante the Magician.  He was a protégé of Howard Thurston, another famous stage magician himself.  Jansen needed a magic phrase for his act and he chose “sim salabim” as his mystic incantation.  Jansen was born in Denmark and he remembered a popular children’s song that had been the origin of his version of incantation.  So the children’s bit of gibberish in a song became the trademark of a 20th century well-known magician, but there is more to come. 

The song that Jansen’s “sim salabim” was taken from was the Danish song, Højt på en gren en krage, but interestingly enough that song took its “sim salabin” from a much, much earlier work.  It was perhaps from the medieval play called Robyn Hode:  A Mummers Play where a Turkish alchemist uses the incantation.  Now that’s pretty interesting that a bit of 20th century stagecraft is taken from a 19th century Danish children’s song, which in turn took it from a medieval play involving alchemy. 

Now the writer of Jonny Quest probably knew about Dante the Magician and his “sim salabim” and using the memory, transformed it as Hadji’s incantation of “sim sim salabim”, which was taken from a young Harry Jansen’s piece of stagecraft, which itself was taken from his childhood memory of a Danish children’s song.  Jansen emigrated to the US when he was six, mind you.  I remember watching Jonny Quest in the mid 60s when I was a kid, so that links me to this chain of youthful memory.  That’s a lot childhood memories linking up over the decades and it really goes to show you how important our childhood is in our formation. 

Jonny Quest’s influence is still out there in American popular culture.  The cartoon satire, The Venture Brothers takes a large amount of background from Jonny Quest.  Also Jonny Quest is referenced in the Blood Hound Gang song, Mope as well as in Less Than Jake’s song Jonny Quest Thinks We Are Sellouts.

Another Jonny used it -- Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, humorously performing the Carnac the Magnificent skit beginning in 1964.  The routine starts as sidekick Ed McMahon says “O seer, sage, all knowing all seeing Carnac the Magnificent!  Sim sala bim”.   Carson was an amateur magician himself by the way, and no doubt was familiar with Dante.  Hopefully some of this was entertaining or informative because I would not like to think that any photon may have died in vain.  


 ----
        Some Links of Interest
Jonny Quest sound bites:  http://www.classicjq.com/media/JQMedia.aspx

Three versions of Højt på en gren en krage - Dansk Børnesang  on YouTube:  


A translation of the Danish song can be found on this thread: http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/viewtopic.php?topic=312437&forum=134


 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Wind Rises for Miyazaki’s and Studio Ghibli’s Latest Work


I have been a fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s imaginative and evocative films for years.  This is a movie about aviation history, dreams, and perseverance.   This film won’t please most western viewers as the love story is subservient and underscoring to the love of aircraft.  It’s a message more about sacrifice for a dream and not about personal wishes or comfort.  Also the film does not hold your hand through Japanese history and explains little about the nuance of the times.  You the viewer are expected to have at least a modicum of background in Japanese history and culture or have some difficulty following the significance of events.  This film cuts the viewer no slack with helpful voiceovers or titles.

In a world of historical horror films like 300 and Pompeii, The Wind Rises is a fresh, although partly fictional look at the life of one of Japan’s top aircraft designers as seen through the lens of a short story.  The Wind Has Risen written by Tatsuo Hori (who wrote the original story in 1936-1937) about the Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, then it was re-imagined by Miyazaki by way of his manga, and finally in an animated film by Miyazaki as a Studio Ghibli animated film.  Interestingly this is the third film adaptation of the Tatsuo Hori story, but sadly I can find no information about the two earlier films.  I would appreciate a read to help me out with the names and information.  Hopefully they still exist.
Miyazaki tries to dispel some of the moral ambiguity or mute the rising ambivalence of the time, but truly it’s not his place to redeem or explain the past, just to tell the story at hand:  Japan’s attempt to push into the modern world from the tottering bridge of the Taisho pro-western period to the militant and expansive Showa.  In the film, Japan’s role in aggression and the rise of the fascist state with the secret police is only touched upon, but again it is about a few individuals and not the larger slate of happenings.  

I have not yet located an English translation of the original story, The Wind Has Risen, nor any information of the two previous film versions, so I can only look at this version as a stand-alone in the shadow of history.   I do remember seeing a silent film about early Japanese aviation and the bombing of Tsingtao, (now only remembered in the US as a place that beer is made)  but I saw it decades ago and I have not been able to find the name of that dimly remembered film.  Any help out there would be appreciated.

With that lengthy preamble over with, I’d like to address the film itself.  The Wind Rises shows a highly polished sensibility between photo-realism and 2d animation techniques so popular in Miyazaki’s works.  It has cinematography that is polarized between a cartoon style and photo-perfect, along with classic multi-plane effects, yet the two meld as a visual narration beyond words. 
Also let me say that the sound of this film is very important too.  The sound effects were crisp and the incidental sounds gave you a feeling of being there.  Interestingly most of the machine sounds (primarily aircraft) are made by human voices.  The attention to detail is amazing both in images and in sound and creates something that allows you to forget this is an animation.  Like traditional Japanese koto music, the silences speak quite eloquently and the almost unnoticed incidental sounds really give you a feeling of spontaneity and reality.  The sound track is classically based and somewhat surprising with the expected anime sound track or a traditional Japanese historical sound track.  

Being historically based there is foreboding, prefiguring, and sense of doom, but with the strength to go on despite all adversity.  The film has substantial dream segments, which literally get inside the protagonist’s head so you can see his influences, primary of which is Giovanni Battista Caproni, the Italian aircraft designer.    He also later meets Hugo Junkers when his team was sent to Germany to study aircraft design there.  Much of this film takes place in Jiro’s head and in an unconscious state of dreaming.

Keep in mind, despite his idealism, Jiro Horikoshi designed military aircraft for the Japanese, ultimately creating the famous A6M Zero of WWII fame.  After all, this is not a western film, but a Japanese film so the standard formula of Greek tragedy just doesn’t fit.  What we westerners might see as a character flaw of sacrificing everything to a dream, is an ideal at least in midcentury Japan.  Sacrifice is a big deal in this movie as well as self-denial.  Most of the action is internal and often within a dream. 
American attending this movie might have missed a lot of historical nuance such as the Great Earthquake of 1923, which scarred the Japanese psyche and eventually led to the drawing away from the West by Japan as well as the recession of 1926, both of which empowered the militarists and ultranationalists drive to power in Japan.  Darker forces are at work with the unnamed and feared (and unnamed) Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai and Miyazaki avoids the strong nationalist feelings that would be more typically found in a period work of the 1920s and 1930s. 
 
I wondered why this story was chosen by Miyazaki and a little digging yielded some interesting parallels between Miyazaki’s life experience and that of the protagonist.  Miyazaki’s mother died of tuberculosis and his father owned a aircraft subcontractor that eventually made rudder assemblies for the Zero.  Miyazaki’s works have always had a deep investment in flying, freedom, and idealism and this new work has it all.  This film was highly personal, traumatic, and rather insular for the average American viewer, but I am glad Miyazaki shared it with us.
A few interesting facts about early Japanese aviation: 
 Caproni lived to 1950 and Horikoshi lived to 1982 and HugoJunkers died back in 1935, never seeing the effects of WWII.  All three were pioneers of flight, but only Horikoshi was actually born IN the age of flight, but only just barely, because Horikoshi was born on 22 June 1903 and on the Wright Brothers’ first controlled powered flight was on 14 December 1903.  Note I used the term “controlled” because previously other folks managed to achieve a number of previous powered crashes, but little in the way of actual flight.  The Wright Brothers were the first to fully consider controllability over worries about a big enough engine to get a plane off the ground and actually use scientific method and experimentation in addressing sustained controllable flight in heavier-than-air flight.  Imagine living in a time when people ran out of doors when a plane flew by or flocked to an open field because a plane set down there!

Japanese aviation history begins in December 1910, just seven years after Kittyhawk, with the first flight of an aircraft in Japan by army Capt Yoshitoshi Tokugawa in a Henri Farman biplane http://www.j-hangarspace.jp/japanese-aviation-history

Japan, as an ally of the UK in WWI  against Germany, gained a number of important Pacific islands owned by Germany as well as a foothold in China.  They also had a carrier and aircraft.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japan_during_World_War_I

Despite the late start Japan did have some aviation firsts: During the siege of Tsingtao, Japan had an aircraft that successfully attack land as sea targets as well a night-time bombing from the seaplane carrier Wakamiya.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_seaplane_carrier_Wakamiya

Other information of interest:  

Jiro Horikoshi co-wrote a couple of  books about the A6M Zero:
    Zero! The Air War in the Pacific in World War II, from the Japanese Viewpoint by Masatake      
               Okurniva and Jiro Horikoshi 1979
   Zero! by Martin Caidin, Masatake Okumiya and Jiro Horikoshi, 1956

Epilogue:   I’m sorry I never got to meet Jiro Horikoshi nor Saburo Saki although it would have been possible.  We are losing historical persons every day, not just WWII vets.  You might be surprised to find who is still alive and living near you.  Make an effort to talk to living history some time, they need not have been mentioned in the history books and they may even believe they are forgotten.  Make their day.

 

 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Voynich Manuscript – Centuries old secrets on the verge of being revealed in a real life piece of scholarship.


Going through the blogs I follow, I found that Paleobabble had a link to some new information about the Voynich Manuscript.  For those of you who are interested in esoteric texts or making props for movies or RPGs, this manuscript should be an inspiration.  I know the unraveling of a centuries old mystery certainly piques my interest.

The Voynich Manuscript has been known to the public for only a century although it appears much older.   This book contains fantastic drawings of people and animals and more tantalizing, a text in an unknown language and/or a secret code.  The Voynich Manuscript has been labeled as an outright modern fraud, a secret book of magic, a scholarly or artistic hoax and many other things in the popular press, the most specious link the Voynich Manuscript to Atlantis or space aliens.

Lately some scholars and amateurs have been taking a fresh look at the Voynich Manuscript by attempting to identify the fabulous plants illustrated.  Previously, experts insisted they did not resemble any plant seen by man on this planet.  The new investigators were not so sure.  They threw out all previous presumptions and returned to investigative bedrock, having botanists look at the drawings of the plants, often in historical artistic context of the 1500s.
What they found was that some of the plants could in fact be identified and were not alien species or fantasy items.  They were plants found in Central America about the time of the Conquistadors.  This new approach is exciting because it breaks new ground in attempting to decipher the Voynich Manuscript.  Once you had identified some of the plants, it was logical that the accompanying text would be a reference to the plant itself, thus linking a known object to a work group. 

This is not a new technique because by using comparison and association, linguists managed to translate languages that were previously unreadable to modern people.  .  The same thing happened when Coptic was used to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics.  The plants function as a visual Rosetta stone.  If you identify the plant pictured in the Voynich Manuscript, match it up to an Amerind language, then you have a lever to open up the text.   Previously the Mayan glyph written language could be read by using similar techniques.

This is not a full decipherment by any means and the tentative identification of plant/word associations in the Voynich Manuscript, while exciting will have to be followed up by years of scholarship and peer validation.  See the following articles:  http://m.prnewswire.com/news-releases/american-botanical-council-publishes-revolutionary-analysis-unlocking-mysteries-of-500-year-old-manuscript-241140041.html  and  http://www.digitaljournal.com/pr/1689897#ixzz2sH68WeEh 
Botanist Arthur Tucker and information technologist Rexford Talbert have managed to identify 37 plants depicted as plants from the America’s, notably Mexico. They similarly identified 6 animals and one mineral. They also have identified several plant names in the text as being written in Nahuatl, a Native-American language from modern day Mexico. The calligraphy of the manuscript bears resemblance to the calligraphy of another 16th century Mexican Codex, the Codex Cruz-Badianus from 1552.

The original article in The Herbal Gram is Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript  by Dr Arthur Tucker and Rex Talbert  which is about their findings in their botanical attack on unlocking the secrets of the Voynich Manuscript.  The original article can be found in full here:  http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue100/hg100-feat-voynich.html
The Voynich Manuscript is now safely housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.  You can view images of the Voynich Manuscript here:  http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/ciencia/esp_ciencia_manuscrito07a.htm

I've always loved unusual and old manuscripts and seeing The Voynich Manuscript beginning to give up its secrets is exciting.  I hope you will follow some of the links and explore the articles.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Maltese Falcon: Fakes, Facts, and Metafiction – A Fabled and Fabulous Prop Sold


Da Black Boid itself sold at Bonham’s Auction in New York on 25 November 2013 for $4,085,000, including the buyer's premium of $585,000.   This recent sale has placed the Maltese Falcon prop as one of the most expensive piece of movie memorabilia every sold.  Other high placers are a couple of cars:  the original 1960s Batmobile which sold for $4.6 million and the Goldfinger Aston Martin which sold for $4.1 million.  An other well known prop went over $576,000 for the original model of the Enterprise from Star Trek and one pair of  ruby slippers from The Wizard of OZ, which went for $2 million.   Kasper Gutman didn’t lie when he said that the black bird was worth a fortune and obviously there is a brisk trade in used cars and old shoes as well.

Interestingly the “real” Maltese Falcon wasn’t real, it also wasn’t Maltese, and it wasn’t a falcon but it’s still worth a fortune to prop collectors – “the things that dreams are made of.”  It’s a fake of an item that never existed at all, which makes it a perfect metafiction prop.  H. P. Lovecraft summed it up pretty well in “Notes On Writing Weird Fiction          
 
“… present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately—with a careful emotional 'build-up' —else it will seem flat and unconvincing.”
The establishing open crawl sequence of the 1941 movie sets the stage with the claim that the Knights Templar created the falcon in 1539 as a golden tribute.  The only problem is that the Knights Templar were violently dissolved in 1312.  Clearly poor research led to confusion with the Knights of Malta, which still exists today.  But never let history or facts get in the way of a cracking good yarn, as Commander McBragg might say.   

To quote Kasper Gutman in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon,
These are facts, historical facts, not schoolbook history, not Mr. Wells’s history, but history nevertheless”.


Now there actually was a tribute paid (see Tribute of the Maltese Falcon), although the modeled bird would probably be a peregrine falcon, which is commonly found around the Mediterranean.  I have shown a few historical birds as well as one modern golden copy of the 1941 The Maltese Falcon.

Modern golden copy
For the movie prop a rather chunky and very art deco avian sculpture was chosen to represent the golden bejewled bird.  Two lead birds were made and an unknown number of plaster Maltese Falcons.  To date only the recently auctioned bird can be authenticated as screen used, due to some damage when it was dropped.  The other lead bird, carved upon and scarred in the final scene by Gutman, has long since disappeared.  As for the mold for the bird – nobody has any idea what happened to that.  Keep in mind there are differences between the 1940 movie and the book as well as the two previous Maltese Falcon treatments, The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady (1936).

The Falcon was a major “MacGuffin” in the film.   A little more backstory has Kaspar Gutman seeking the falcon for 17 years (he says).  Since Dasheill Hammett’s book was published 1930 that means that  Gutman has been pursuing it since just before WWI, about 1913.  Just after that time, Constantinople was the capital of the Ottoman Empire and was closed to French, Italians, English and later Americans in WWI.  The ensuing Turkish civil war and Greco-Turkish War after WWI made Turkey a dangerous place to travel outside of Constantinople (later Istanbul).  For fans of history, see the Turkish War of Independence and the Greco-Turkish War 

Although they fought over a grimy package, paid for in blood and mayhem, in the end it is revealed as a fake.  Ultimately, it is a copy that “proves” the validity of the original in the sense that one cannot make a copy of something that doesn’t exist.  It’s a kind of physical prop metafiction. 

That all being said, there are in fact a number of golden bejeweled birds littered throughout history and I have peppered this article with some images of fabulous birds.  Clearly, if there had been a medieval Maltese Falcon, it wouldn’t be a classic Art Deco bird, but such is license in film.  Real or not, the Maltese Falcon is truly, “The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”



Previous blog entries about prop sales:

Links of interest to the Maltese Falcon story:


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Wishing You A Happy New Year 2013 - 2014


This is New Year’s Eve if you follow the Gregorian calendar or even the Julian calendar.  Nonetheless, New Years is a way of sloughing off the old and welcoming the new with a sense of renewal and expectation.  Below are some obverted New Years that are not based on the Gregorian/Julian calendar.  I’d like to wish each and every person out there a Happy New Year, even if this is not the date you observe New Year.  I’m sure I have missed more than a few different calendars, but to everybody Happy New Year.

Since this is a SF & F blog, I thought some New Years greetings from about 100 years ago showing new inventions with some science fantasy elements.  This is appropriate since the first Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration began in 1904 and the first ball drop was in 1907.  These are real greetings cards showing the optimism from the beginning of the 20th century, in the days before the end of the Modernist Era.  I’d like to think we are wiser for the years and expect brighter days ahead.  My interest in history and cultures also compels me to add some other new years, which you will see below.


For the more esoteric minded person interested in New Years:
Punjabi/Sikh Vaisakhi 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Talbot Mundy -- Fascinating Tales of Adventure


“Silence is the only safe answer to Silence,” is a quote from Talbot Mundy’s Om. the Secret of Ahbor Valley but sometimes you just can’t be safe with silence.  A couple of years ago I posted about a writer not often read these days, Peter Saxon and I had intended to follow up with a post about Talbot Mundy, another influential writer of the 20s and 30s.  Well good intentions pave the road to Blogger Hell and although the notes were made for the post, it was not finished until now:  Peter Saxon:  Guardian, Author,and Figment   (9 Aug 2011).

Talbot Mundy is one of those writers that seemed to encompass the old British Empire, but interestingly lacking in the Jingoism and Orientalism of writers of that period that irritates the post-colonial, postmodern lit-crit crowd, who tend to condemn out of hand such works.  In fact, Mundy had a great sensitivity and sympathy about the cultures he wrote.  Some of his works are on par with Robert E. Howard’s works such as the Conan the Barbarian series with his Tros of Samothrace series, almost in the vein of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines/She series.  His influence extended to such writers as Fritz Leiber, Andre Norton, Daniel Easterman, Leigh Brackett, and James Hilton’s Lost Horizon was inspired by Mundy’s works.  So you can see how influential his stories were and continue to be on writers past and present.


Mundy’s biography deserves a close look and his life would almost appear as a plot from one of his own books.  He was born William Lancaster Gribbon in 1879 in London and ran away at 16, travelling to Africa, India and the near east.  He eventually moved to America and was a kind of petty thief and confidence man.  A near death encounter while on one of his sub-rosa expeditions turned his life around and he walked the straight and narrow ever afterward.  The experiences give his work a realistic feeling.  There are no supermen in his books, but extraordinary people who are in exotic settings, amazing circumstances, and great danger.  An excellent bio on Talbot Mundy is located at http://theosophy.katinkahesselink.net/talbut-mundy/mundybio.html


His interest in the esoteric religions of the east was tempered with a genuine regard and a bit of understanding.  He generally didn’t use magic, but telepathy, psychic powers and powerful personalities play a subtle role.  Like a stage magician, Mundy never quite lets you know what is going on behind the scenes, and he doesn’t treat esoteric practices and religions as humbuggery either.    There is lot of interest in his works on the net and I was gratified to find some excellent blogs.    A great article about Talbot Mundy is available at  http://talbotmundy.blogspot.com/2012/03/talbot-mundy-first-anti-imperial-writer.html



The Jimgrim/Ramsden stories are particularly interesting.  This short bibliography below just touches the surface and just for clarity I won’t go into the variant titles used in different countries and at different times, nor the serializations.  I have undoubtedly made errors, omissions and multiple listings while trying to graft together a rudimentary listing for the beginning Talbot Mundy reader.  I am gratified to find there is still strong interest in Talbot Mundy’s works.  See also http://www.talbotmundy.com/  and http://talbotmundy.blogspot.com/2012/03/bibliography-of-talbot-mundy.html .   For a great hard copy, bibliography see also Winds from the East, a Talbot Mundy Reader by Donald L. Hassler (2007).

More links of interest to the Talbot Mundy reader.  
Wikipedia bibliography of Talbot Mundy works which covers his Jimgrim/Ramsden, Tros of Samothrace, and other stories  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talbot_Mundy
Article about Mundy's Tros of Samothrace: 

Four biographies with bibliography:   
Talbot Mundy, Messenger of Destiny  by Donald M. Grant, 1983


The Last Adventurer:The Life of Talbot Mundy, 1879-1940 by Peter Ellis, 1984
Talbot Mundy, Philosopher of Adventure by Brian Taves,McFarland, 2006
Winds from the East, a Talbot Mundy Reader by Donald L. Hassler, 2007.