Monday, May 13, 2013

Navel Proceedings

Watched the Disney John Carter again with the Boy last night.

My online pal and commenter mike luuuurves this film, and I have to admit that mostly because of that I really wanted to love it, too. Instead I liked it well enough but not with the same fervor.

I found a lot of the same problems that many of the reviewers had; a fair amount of draggy exposition mixed in with the slam-bang action sequences, and an overall sameness to the general feel of it. Lots of it is fun, there's some gorgeous spectacle, but it's hard to avoid the feeling that you've seen it done elsewhere before.

As this Globe and Mail review pointed out, that isn't really a John Carter problem, it's a Burroughs problem. The stuff that seemed so awesome in 1917; flying machines, ray guns, dying empires on lost 2013 they've been done to death. We've been there and done that so often that the liveliness just kind of leaches out.

It's not a bad film, though, not at all. It's a good popcorn actioner and both the Boy and I enjoyed it.

The Boy liked the fighting, we both love the Tharks, but I think one of the reasons I enjoy it is Lynn Collins' Dejah Thoris.

And let's face it, why not? Dejah is a fanboy's wet dream. A nubile and gorgeous alien babe dressed in a couple of bits of jewelry and...well, a couple of bits of jewelry
(Here's how ERB describes her costume: "She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure."

Here's cartoonist Frank Cho's version per the ERB description:

Good luck with your PG rating with THAT one, Disney. Sheesh.)
This is pure Slave-Leia-dom; the slavering fanboy inventing his perfect naked dreamgirl.

I'm shocked, shocked.

Getting away from Dejah for a moment her creator ERB was kind of a piece of work, a 20th Century writer with deep roots in the 19th Century, a wanna-be soldier and a vicarious adventurer. After I watched John Carter the first time through I went out and picked up Princess of Mars from our fine Multnomah County Library and tried to read the original story.

I gave up about halfway through.

A big part of the reason is ERB's prose style. It's hopelessly 19th Century, full of the sorts of romantic and heroic conventions that 20th Century wars knocked the stuffing out of. At the time it was written the notion of the hero wearing a "fighting smile" while dueling furiously probably seemed rakish and admirable; with a better understanding of how frightening and stressful fighting for your life really is it seems ludicrous, almost parodic. All the description is florid to a Baroque degree and the way the people interact just seems ridiculous; you can't imagine people, any people, even imaginary people in an invented world, acting like that.

The other is that ERB's values were straight out of his times, and those times are so gone that they might as well be the Paleolithic. His good men are all parfit gentile knights and his good women all chaste and gentile ladies - who are kidnapped again and again and threatened again and again with rape - including our gal Dejah. Not that anybody actually gets raped; it's all good fun and our hero always wins. So the whole notion of making the rape of your heroine a plot device kind of slides by, and that kind of squicks me out; I got the feeling that ERB kinda liked the idea of rape.

He also has a rock-solid certainty that Race is Destiny, and there's no confusing who the White Men are. Even the backstory of the protagonist as a Confederate veteran of the Lost Cause seems kind of skeevy in retrospect; ERB obviously intended it to help establish John Carter as a cavalier, a kind of American aristocrat but the effect is, instead, to loop back to the nasty racism that saturated his timeperiod. You can almost hear the happy darkies crooning spirituals down in the slave shacks in the background.


So the original book is kind of a wash.

But Collin's movie Dejah isn't; she's fiery and smart and tough. And funny. And, of course, a total babe; this isn't real life, fergawrshsakes.

Her costume, while more voluminous than a Burroughs original, is skimpy enough that a genuine fighting princess of Helium would have spent most of her time worrying that one of her opponents was liable to snip off a dangly bit or two.

But, here's the thing I kept thinking about watching the film again.

The film stays fairly close to the ERB canon, from the radium pistols to the Thark jezails to the nefarious Therns and so on and so on. So the assumption is that the other aspects of the original story are in there. We see the Thark egg-incubator in the opening Barsoom sequence; the Tharks hatch from eggs, K? That's important.

Because on Burrough's Mars everyone and everything hatches from eggs.

Martian women, regardless of species, are oviparous.

So why the hell does Dejah have one of these;

Nothing that hatches from eggs has a navel.
(Update 5/15: In the comments section Jack Saint raises a good point; some of the non-mammals of Jasoom DO have navels, specifically, some birds have a sort of small scar from the chorio allantoic duct that connects the yolk sac to the embryo. This at least gives our gal Dejah a shot at having a navel, though (as I discuss in the comments as well) the chance of her sporting anything like Lynn Collins' cute little innie is fairly low. Still - at least the possibility's there. Proof, if we needed it, of the awesomesauce of Nature in all Its Works...)
But regardless of the biology of navels, there you have it; the fanboy in me comes out not drooling over naked space babes but niggling over ridiculous petty plot details like who has or hasn't got a bellybutton.

But, damn, hard would it have been - how tiny an amount would it have cost amid the ginormous CGI budget - to spackle over Lynn's bellybutton? Nobody but us fanboys would have even noticed it but we'd have nodded knowingly and appreciated the gesture.

Silly? Sure, but then so's making a multimillion dollar picture of a sort of ragtime-era sci-fi version of the Prisoner of Zenda.

Call me nitpicky. But there you go; I can't be other than I am. I'm the sort of person who looks at a gorgeous woman playing an alien princess in a sci-fi action movie and notices Dejah Thoris' navel


Leon said...

I tried reading Dumas' Three Musketeers and couldn't finish the book. Had a similar sensation - nobody talks like they do. I just couldn't enjoy it.

I'll stick to the Iliad and Tolkien.

FDChief said...

Leon: Yep. Same problem. The 19th Century conventions just don't work, not anymore, not for me. I still enjoy a good pulp fiction adventure story, I just like my heroines and heros a little less pompous and a little more cynical.

Funny thing with JRRT: when I'm reading him I can see the flaws; let's face it, the guy was basically a professor of linguistics writing stories to support his invention of an Elvish language. I can hear all the woodenness of the "yea, verily" language. But the guy had the Spark; his stories just grab you by the collar, imperfections and all, and drag you in. He "gets" that adventure and war aren't "fun"; his characters fear, bleed, and occasionally die. There's a fundamental realism to his fantasy.

I wonder if it has something to do with his service in WW1?

ERB, on the other hand, never fought anything anywhere. He's the 19th Century with its illusions and conventions and prejudices and pomposity intact; he never had the blinders ripped off. He had some great IDEAS; let's face it, Tarzan and John Carter and Dejah would never have lasted as long as they have unless they were great characters. And for his time he WAS an innovator and a visionary.

But what I find interesting is that other writers and other artists have done more and better with them since then. I like a lot of the latter-day Tarzan and Barsoom stories than I do the originals in the way I like a lot of what other creators have done in the Star Wars "Universe" better than what its original creator has done with it.

So in a sense I see Burroughs much the way I do George Lucas; guys who had great ideas that either the time and its conventions (for Burroughs) or their permanent 12-year-old worldview (Lucas) limit in some crucial way.

Syrbal/Labrys said...

LOL...I did read all the Burrough's Martian novels in my late teens, my Grandfather owned them. I thought the egg hatching thing was the most awesome idea EVER!!

Other than that, most of it creeped me OUT. But yes, it did make me giggle at the belly button shots in the film.

FDChief said...

I read several of the Barsoom books as a younger guy and remember feeling faintly aroused at the nekked wimmen and then faintly squicked out at the kinda-rapey way ERB sets them up. I wasn't old enough or smart enough to get all the implications but even then I sensed that something wasn't quite "right" there.

But I never really thought about the whole egg thing other than wondering how the hell you passed an egg big enough to hold even a tiny baby. The whole issue of reproductive tract morphology and interspecies fertility never occurred to me. I did have this bizarre mental image of the beautiful naked Martian princess squatting over the egg to keep it warm like the world's most impossible suppository. Which kind of goes to show how far-out ol' ERB really was...

basilbeast said...


And I thought you were infantry!

For the rest of the world, bb is the Mike here.


basilbeast said...


I'll have more to say here, but right now, am off to see IM3.


FDChief said...

bb: The less said about the umbelicae of the average infantryman, the better. Trust me; canonically inaccurate as it may be Lynn's bellybutton is waaaayyyy more photogenic and worth discussing. IS canonically wrong and as such is something that I find impossible to overlook. I'm not saying I like being this way. But I yam what I yam.

Jack Saint said...

I was doing a little research today and found that birds are born with navels. There is a kind of umbilical cord from the fetus to the yoke and leaves a small belly-button like scar that mostly fades by adult hood. Maybe on Barsoom, the humans retain their scar better than Earth birds.

FDChief said...

Jack: Howboutthat! Cool; I had no idea. Kind of makes sense, in that the yolk sac has to be connected in some way.

Mind you; I looked around a little, too, and it seems that the bird-navel/reptile-navel issue isn't cut and dried. It appears to depend a lot on embryonic development. At least some bird and reptile embryos envelop the yolk-sac fairly early on in their development (domestic chickens are one that does) so even as chicks there is no navel scar. But at least some birds do.

Here's what the Cornell ornithologist had to say about that: "In the egg there is a cord that attaches the developing embryo to the yolk sac. When the bird hatches, there is a residual scar where the cord used to be. While the bird is a nestling, you can still see what would be the avian equivalent of a belly button. However, as the bird develops, that area becomes more compact and in an adult bird there is virtually nothing to be seen of what once was the scar. So technically baby birds have belly buttons, but unlike the belly buttons of humans, these go away as they grow up."

So...Dejah's navel would have to depend on a bunch of hypotheticals; first, that red Martian babies don't absorb their yolk sac early on. And, second, that the chorio allantoic duct (the "umbilical cord" in oviparous species) on Barsoom is relatively large compare to the reptiles and birds of Jasoom.

(Though given the differential between the largest possible egg that a human-sized Martian woman would conceivably produce and an adult human-sized Martian you'd expect that that navel WOULD be pretty tiny even if it remained.) least the possibility is there, which I didn't even consider.

Nature in its complexity is pretty amazing. Thanks for the lead!