Discovering narrativium

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Published: Jan 31 2016, 01:01:am

Sunday, January 31, 2016


     Yes, I watch Downton Abbey. This came as something of a surprise to one old friend who was aware of the way I choose which television shows to follow — detailed in my July 25 editorial New TV (Check) List —  a method more likely to favour iZombie.

    Tonight, though, I'll be joining the PBS crowd for episode 5, intensely interested in whether Lady Mary's epiphanic moment during her meeting with the former housemaid Gwen in Episode 4 will have lasting consequences for the season's second half. I'm quite fond of the classy British soap, and not just because of its incomparable raised-eyebrow comedy.

    At its core, Downton Abbey is a father-daughter story (or daughters, as Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham, had three). As the father of a daughter myself, I'm a pushover when it comes to such stories.

    It goes back to the early 1990s, the point where I noticed that father-daughter relationships were becoming increasingly prominent in the movies. I started keeping a list, with a view to someday shaping my notes on the subject into a book. (Every old newspaperman has an unfinished book or three in his desk drawer.)

    It quickly became an in-house joke. During a family movie night at the local double-feature house, I'd whisper to our daughter "Oh, look, it's . . .", and she'd whisper back, ". . . yeah, yeah, a father-daughter movie!"

    Recently, she asked me if I'd ever seen a movie called The Hogfather. Made for British TV, the 183-minute feature was based on a Terry Pratchett novel about a Christmas-like season in a fantasy realm called Discworld.

     More to the point, the 2007 movie was the first starring role for 24-year-old Michelle Dockery, the actress who began playing Lady Mary Crawley four years later.

    No, I had not seen it. She loaned me her DVD. And now I have, taking delight in discovering a variation on my favourite theme, a grandfather-granddaughter movie.

    And, one more delight: author Terry Pratchett (featured in a DVD bonus feature interview) and the idea of "narrativium." In the world of The Hogfather, narrativium is an essential element. Not only does it ensure that everything runs properly as a story, it defines what it is to be human. A wonderfully useful idea, it suggests that the power to tell stories is the single quality truly unique to Homo sapiens.

    I watched The Hogfather expecting yet another variation on the standard Christmas movie. What British director Vadim Jean served up was a surprisingly challenging seminar on the necessity of belief, a concept that is at the heart of Pratchett's wonderfully witty seasonal adventure.

    The story begins with an organization called the Assassin's Guild accepting a contract on the Hogfather, who is the Discworld's version of Santa Claus. When Hogfather goes missing, a much concerned Death (Ian Richardson) takes on the mythic entity's Hogswatchnight duties, while the grim reaper's granddaughter Susan (Michelle Dockery) attempts to locate him.

    Somewhere along the way, Death explains to Susan that "humans need fantasies to be human, to be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape." What happened next truly astonished me.

    Within what seems to be a children's movie, this philosophical discussion follows through to its logical, adult conclusion. Death endorses belief in tooth fairies and Hogfathers because "you have to start out learning to believe the little lies."

    Susan picks up his emphasis on the word "little," and says "so we can believe the big ones?"

    "Yes," he answers, " . . .  Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing." So, we are the result of the lies that we agree to believe? Pratchett gives us something serious to think about here. As Marty McFly would say, "this is heavy, doc."
     I think I need to finally read some Terry Pratchett. In the meantime, my Reeling Back project continues. The  archive's ten most recent additions are:

LOGAN'S RUN — The top-grossing science-fiction film of 1976, director Michael Anderson's feature resonated with young adults. Michael York and Jenny Agutter starred as a rebellious couple in a world that insists their lives end at 30. (Posted January 30)    

OUR FEATURE FILM FEST: 18 — In Part 18 of a 20-part series, Reeling Back continues The Greater Vancouver Book Feature Film Festival with restored notes on the 11 foreign-language features shot in Vancouver, but spoken In Other Words. (Posted January 28)

THE ADVENTURES OF BARRY McKENZIE — Among the first features to emerge from the Antipodean film boom of the 1970s was this satirical comedy, adapted from a linguistically inventive comic strip. The directorial debut of Bruce Beresford, it dropped Britain's worst nightmare of an Aussie into the swinging London of 1972. (Posted January 26)
BEHIND THE OSCAR (book review) — The boycott threat facing the 2016 edition of Hollywood's longest-running awards ritual have prompted some to ask what the Oscars really honour. Author Anthony Holden provides historic fuel for the debate in his cheeky 1993 book, subtitled The Secret History of the Academy Awards. (Posted January 24)

RECOMMENDATION FOR MERCY — Inspired by a 1959 miscarriage of justice, in which a 14-year-old boy was sentenced to death by an Ontario Court, Murray Markowitz co-wrote and directed this fictionalized examination of the case. The film was released in 1975, 15 years after the real-life Steven Truscott's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and 32 years before an appeals court aquitted him of all charges. (Posted January 22)    

CANADIAN FILM FIRSTS Quiz — In what may be the most difficult film quiz ever devised, Reeling Back challenges site visitors' knowledge of eight seminal moments in the history of our Great White Northern Cinema. (Posted January 21)

THE WANNSEE CONFERENCE — Based on historic records, this 1984 docudrama recreates the 1942 meeting at which the German Reich's key administrators discussed the infamous "final solution." Director Heinz Schirk's low-key feature perfectly captures what political theorist Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil". (Posted January 20)
BULL DURHAM — Writer-director Ron Shelton combined the great American pastime (baseball) with the all-American obsession (sex) in this 1988 sports comedy. Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins play the three bases involved in the film's romantic triangle. (Posted January 18)   

DRAGONSLAYER — A fantasy classic, director Matthew Robbins's 1981 feature cast the young Peter MacNicol as a sorcerer's apprentice who takes on the task of saving a kingdom from a marauding monster. The result was both dramatically successful and a landmark in special-effects technology. (Posted January 16)    

FOOD OF THE GODS — H.G. Wells's visionary science-fiction novel was much altered by director Bert I. Gordon for his 1976 creature feature. A B-movie release, it starred Marjoe Gortner as a pro football player who encounters a nest of giant rats on B.C.'s Bowen Island. (Posted January 14)