Saturday, 6 February 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

One of the early surprises of married life was Ashley's discovery that I had neither read nor seen Pride and Prejudice. After my perfectly rational objection that it did not have airships or steam-powered robots in it, I did my husbandly duty. Various versions of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Austenland later, I can say that while I still keenly feel the absence of so much as a single dinosaur, I can understand why people like them so much. Colin Firth is terribly dreamy. So far I still have no intention of actually reading Jane Austen, because I read at a glacial pace and have too much on my e-reader queue as is (thus this weblog's undue emphasis on moving pictures). Nor have I taken the opportunity to read Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.



A film adaptation of the latter was right up my alley, however, and we were fifth and sixth in the theatre on the first showing on Thursday night. 108 minutes later we left feeling entertained but confused. My spoiler-free review is that the film's best parts are those which build on the original story, playing it completely straight or doing a comedic juxtaposition. Psychological and rhetorical battles of will and wit by Austen's hand become full-on kung-fu matches by Grahame-Smith's. Meanwhile, some scenes (like Collins' abandonment after his failed proposal) were shot in such a way that it would have fit perfectly into a straightforward adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Yet this film insists on being a hard-edged zombie action movie as well as a riff on Jane Austen, leading to significant tonal dissonance. The world is given a decent, elaborate backstory to explain what didn't really need to be explained. Ashley remarked that it was like watching two different movies at once, instead of a cohesive horror-comedy satirizing Jane Austen. If you liked Grahame-Smith's previous film Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and are familiar with Pride and Prejudice but not married to it, you will probably enjoy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies enough.

Now for more detail, with some minor spoilers...

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Hudson's Bay (1941)


Today's special post is part of the second annual O Canada Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy, celebrating the films and filmmakers of the Great White North! Click on the banner above to see the line up for this week-long blogathon. Thanks for letting us take part, eh!



One of the oldest American film genres is the Western, dating back to 1903's The Great Train Robbery. Being one of the oldest, it has also been the most prone to falling in and out of favour. Worse yet, it can often become a victim of its own popularity. In the heydays when Westerns were everywhere, filmmakers looked for every opportunity to set the next serial, B-movie, or A-lister apart. That sometimes led to inspired insanity of Weird Westerns like Gene Autry's Phantom Empire, but one of the most enduring has been the "Northern." Still steeped in American attitudes and traditions, the action is transplanted to the mighty "Northwoods." Mounted Police take the place of sheriffs and rangers (despite having very different approaches to law enforcement), French Canadians and Metis take the place of Mexicans and swarthy "half-breeds", the Sierra Nevada mountains replaced Griffith Park (few productions ever actually made it up to the Canadian Rockies), but the movie "Indians" remained more or less the same. And snow. Always snow.

The Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-97 became a potent setting, though it was always imagined by Hollywood's writers and directors to be a wild and lawless place more like Nevada, filled with gunfights and swaggering riverboat gamblers. The reality was that the Mounted Police under the command of Sam Steele kept everything very orderly in the Queen's Dominion, much to the surprise of unruly American Stampeders. Sometimes the setting was the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway across the country in the early 1880's, though again, with considerably more bloodshed than happened in fact. Treaties had been signed between the Crown and the First Nations years before the railway was built. Most often, the setting for a Northern was just the far-flung regions of a generic mountainous, forested landscape. The most archetypal of these films is Rose Marie, the 1936 musical starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald. Ostensibly taking place in Northern Quebec maybe, it was filmed in the Lake Tahoe region of California and features a song and dance number under a massive faux-Pacific Northwest totem pole.

But before the Mounties, before the treaties, and before the Canadian Pacific Railway, the vast regions of the Northwoods were the monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company.


Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia



When playing video games, it is recommended that one takes a break every hour or so. Yet the world of Bioshock Infinite is so engaging that it can be difficult to pull oneself away from it. Thankfully, Plaid Hat Games has provided a means to carry on the story and setting in analog format with Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia.

This board game, designed by Isaac Vega, pits the troops of the Founders under Father Comstock against the revolutionaries of the Vox Populi under Daisy Fitzroy for absolute control over the flying city of Columbia. But like the video game, the best laid plans of either side can go awry when Booker Dewitt and Elizabeth enter the field. The best way The Siege of Columbia can be described is as an extraordinarily complicated version of Risk. The essential mechanic is the same: mass armies and take over adjacent regions of the city. The game throws a bunch of extra steps in there that take some getting used to and may be a little complex for casual board game players.


As one can see from the playing space set-up above, there are a lot of extra parts. One of the first changes from Risk is that there are only a finite amount of troops available on each side. Pulling a Genghis Khan by simply accumulating a vast number of troops on a border and then steamrolling over the opposition will not work here. Different troops have different combat values, and these may be augmented by automated turrets in adjacent regions, by different bonuses given to the region combat is taking place in, and by action cards that players use. These cards have different abilities that may be unlocked and upgraded throughout the game by meeting goals or spending accumulated Silver Eagle coins. Each round begins with a "world event" that can change the balance of power for the round, and with the movements of Booker and Elizabeth who can upset an entire game. The ultimate goal is to acquire 10 "victory points" by conquering regions and completing tasks before Booker and Elizabeth manage to destroy the city and/or time-space altogether.


Tactically, all these different factors in play make the game more sophisticated than mere Risk. A further complication is the layout of the board itself. Each territory has adjacent areas that can be easily moved into and conquered in combat. But movement from one territory to another in a flying city requires the use of Skylines. Using these requires a die roll that can be a bit of a crap-shoot. Conceivably and inevitably, one could loose their entire invasion force before a single one sets foot in the region to be conquered. Luckily different troops and cards can offset this. For example, the Vox Populi employ a a Skyline Rider whose unlockable special ability is to safely convey troops across the skyline. These are cards worth saving.


Of course, in any board game, the mechanics are what they are and could as easily be played with generic pegs as anything else. What sets this apart is the Bioshock Infinite setting. The art by Paul Guzenko and John Ariosa renders the city and its denizens with a wonderful painterly quality that echoes and caricatures the video game without simply using those same assets. I love to play the video game and sometimes just linger around a spot, looking at the gorgeous scenery. The renderings by Guzenko and Ariosa are the kinds of things I would almost want on my wall.

Because the development of a board game takes some time, The Siege of Columbia bears some evidence of concepts that never made it into the finished video game. The "leader" card for Jeremiah Fink, for instance, looks more like the creepy, weasely character from the concept art than the more stately industrialist he eventually became. Staltonstall, from the Bioshock Infinite promotional reel, makes an appearance with what looks like one of the non-lethal weapon versions of the Skyhook depicted in concept art. On the Vox side, an unknown character named Meyer Herzog serves as one of the leaders, raising the question of what role he might have had in the video game.

Overall, The Siege of Columbia is a good game, but definitely not one to pull out amongst casual friends and family. It does make me wonder how a proper Bioshock Infinite edition of Risk might have gone. Nevertheless what we have is a lot of fun and a good addition to one's collection of Bioshock Infinite things.


Saturday, 16 January 2016

Canadian Pacific: Creating a Brand, Building a Nation

Our friends at Callisto Publishers - one of the world's premiere publishing houses for books on the arts, architecture, and graphic design - have sent us a copy of their latest tome Canadian Pacific: Creating a Brand, Building a Nation. Written by University of Quebec's School of Design professor emeritus Marc Choko, Canadian Pacific charts the graphic design of Canada's dominant railway company and how that design influenced the image of Canada at home and abroad.


For students of Canadian Pacific Railway history, Choko's new book offers little that cannot be found in previous publications. E.J. Hart's The Selling of Canada: The CPR and the Beginnings of Canadian Tourism (1983) covers much of the same academic content, former CPR archivist David Laurence Jones' trio of more informal books - Tales of the CPR (2002), Famous Name Trains: Travelling in Style with the CPR (2006), See This World Before the Next: Cruising with CPR Steamships in the Twenties and Thirties (2004) - tells much of the same story in a more breezy fashion, and Choko and Jones' tandem book Posters of the Canadian Pacific (2004) has most of the same posters. In fact, the written content is so slight in Canadian Pacific that those familiar with CPR history are probably already going to know what he says off by heart.


Where Choko does add to the discussion is in his treatment of the CPR's various ancillary businesses: realty, lumber, mining and smelting, etc. And his accounting of what has happened to those businesses, the CPR's ill-fated airline, and the CPR's chain of stately hotels in more recent years. Most books on the CPR's history focus on the company's early years, up to the introduction of diesel, then skip to the nationalization of passenger rail services in Canada under VIA Rail, and close the book. I have been guilty of the same with my own past articles on the railway, though in my defense this is primarily a blog on Victoriana! I surprised to learn, through Choko's book, that the CPR built a series of modernist skyscraper hotels throughout Canada in the 1960's, including the Chateau Lacombe in Edmonton where I have stayed whenever I could not afford the more prestigious, Edwardian Gothic Hotel Macdonald down the street (originally built by the CPR's competitor, Grand Trunk Pacific Railways/Canadian National Railways). Canadian Pacific covers up to the CPR's rebranding as CP Rail with their "multimark" logo, dropping the subject before the controversial logo that combined the Canadian and American flags, which the CPR ultimately tossed in favour of a return to a more consciously regal and nostalgic name and logo. One of the book's appendices features a run down of the company's different logos.    

CPR logo of the 40's and 50's.
Probably their best logo.
The new "multimark" of the 60's, 70's, and 80's.
Meh.

Oh Hell no. The 90's.
Current logo.
Muuuuuch better.
In an art book, what really counts is the art. As I said, many of these same posters found their way into Choko's previous book Posters of the Canadian Pacific. However, they appear here in a much larger and clearer format than before. The layout is in such a manner that, intentional or not, it lends itself well to having the posters stripped from the book and framed. Whereas Posters of the Canadian Pacific included page numbers and descriptions on the same pages as the full-page poster reprints, and put other posters on the other side of the page, Canadian Pacific does neither. Granted, one might not want to strip down and $80CAN, $70US book for the posters, but this would be the one to do it with. Hold on to Posters of the Canadian Pacific for the content and use this one to decorate your home.



Where Canadian Pacific really excels is in reprints of the brochures, timetables, and other graphic materials produced by the company. Books will often reprint the covers of brochures and timetables, but rarely their contents. Choko will give us almost the entire contents reprinted across several pages. Luggage tags, magazine ads, and other such things are given their time of day as well. These rare inclusions make it a book worth keeping. So, maybe, one copy for the bookshelf and the other for decoration?


For those who are not as interested in Canadian Pacific Railway history specifically, Canadian Pacific still offers a good enough overview of the subject as it relates to graphic design and national branding. In his concluding essay, Choko deftly observes that,
During the period between the 1880's and the First World War, Canadian Pacific made more effort than any other company or institution to promote Canada abroad, through tourist promotions and immigration campaigns... In the late nineteenth century, foreigners perceived Canada as a wild, somewhat inhospitable country of uncouth trappers and lumberjacks. Canadian Pacific advertising emphasized the European-style savoir vivre and luxury offered on its trains and in its hotels. It turned the mountains and lakes of Canada into iconic images - first, as romantic natural attractions and then as venues for athletic activities. Very quickly, foreigners and Canadians were identifying the stunningly beautiful landscapes, the wilderness of virgin mountains, and the richness of nature both with Canadian Pacific, whose name was unflaggingly repeated on all publicity pieces, and with Canada. 
Adding the words of an American senator that the Canadian Pacific Railway was "the Dominion of Canada on wheels." Canada did not begin with any lofty nationalistic ideals like our southern neighbours. Instead, it largely began as an economic venture, a larder of natural resources for the British Empire. Therefore our image and identity has largely been shaped by a suite of corporations, from the Hudson's Bay Company and Canadian Pacific Railway to the National Hockey League. The intersection between corporate branding and romantic nationalism is the subject of Choko's book, which makes for an interesting study.  

Canadian Pacific: Creating a Brand, Building a Nation is published by Callisto and costs $80CAN for the standard edition and $720CAN for the expanded premium edition in a wood collector case. Callisto's official website can be found here.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Midnight in Paris (2011)


Today's special post is part of the France on Film Blogathon hosted by Serendipitous Anachronisms. The theme of this two-day blogathon is to look at both French cinema and cinema about France. Yesterday we took a look at the French animated film Un Monstre à Paris. Today we're examining at a movie about France, Woody Allen's Midnight in ParisTo see the complete line-up for the blogathon, click on the banner above!



Nostalgia for idealized visions of the past is pretty much the motivating ethos of this blog, devoted to Scientific Romances, adventure stories, history, and aesthetics of the Victorian and Edwardian Periods. In what is widely considered one of his best films in years (if not decades), Woody Allen gives his own take on nostalgia in Midnight in Paris. With Owen Wilson in the lead role that once would have been his own, Allen explores both the motivations and the complications of too readily losing oneself in the past with sensitivity and gentle humour. In a film that seems like it is directed almost exactly at me, I don't come out feeling hectored or made fun of. Instead, it is a film that I can watch again and again.

Trailer for Midnight in Paris.

Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter unfulfilled with the drivel he is forced to write for modern audiences. He longs to be a real author of authentic literature, like his idols of the "Lost Generation." The so-called Lost Generation were those youth who came of age during the First World War. Some were young enough to have served, others narrowly escaped that horror, but all shared the challenge of having to find themselves and their life's meaning in a world where the notion of inevitable upward progress had died in the trenches. Paris was a hotbed of activity for artists of the Lost Generation, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, William Faulker, T.S. Eliot, and Pablo Picasso, many under the watchful eye of Gertrude Stein. Assuming that Gil is the same age or younger than Owen Wilson, that would place him in Generation X, another "lost generation" between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials currently engaged in mutual recriminations. Perhaps that is part of why the Lost Generation resonates so well with Gil. Pursuing his nostalgic ambitions, Gil finds himself in Paris on a vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her conservative parents who disdain the French (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy).

Where Gil's vision of Paris is the sultry music of 1920's cabarets and walking in the rain, Inez's mostly has to do with shopping. Inured to her fiancee's wistful dreams, she is very forthright in how he should give up the silly dream of being a poor author in Paris and accept his role as an affluent Hollywood screenwriter. Her dream is to live a lavish but shallow existence in Malibu. While in Paris, the pair meet up with one of her former professors (Michael Sheen) and his wife (Nina Arianda)... A pretentious couple whose presumptive authority on the arts is only matched by their inability to really appreciate it on a visceral, emotional, human level. Art, for them, is not something to be felt or experienced. It is something to be "discoursed" for social status among fellow pseudo-intellectuals. He reaches peak pedantry when attempting to debate a tourguide at the Rodin museum on the particulars of Rodin's life. Gil, naturally, finds all this insufferable, being more deeply engaged in with a Cole Porter 45 found at a flea market stall than in a professor's rambling monologue of questionable accuracy.

After Inez decides to go off and the spend the evening with the professor and his wife, a drunk Gil stumbles around Paris' back streets. At the stroke of midnight, a vintage 1920's Peugeot automobile pulls up beside him. Its Flapper passengers beckon him in, and Gil is transported away to the Twilight Zone.

Midnight in Paris itself offers a nostalgic, idealized look back at the Lost Generation as archetypes rather than well-fleshed out characters in their own right. Gil becomes a spectator to the broken relationship between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, played admirably by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill. Corey Stoll plays Ernest Hemingway with intensity (and most of the best lines in the film). Adrian Brody has a memorable cameo as Salvador Dali, in a comic scene where he, Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) are totally unfazed by Gil's explanation of his situation because they are Surrealists. As icons more than characters, each delivers a wonderful performance.

The situation Gil finds himself in, which needs explanation, is that through successive visitations into the past - at the expense of nurturing his unfulfilling present-day relationships - he falls in love with the charming Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the (fictional) muse of the Lost Generation who was painted by Picasso and went off to Africa with Hemingway. She is also a woman out of time, in her own way. Like Gil she also longs for another time... Not the vacuity of the 1920's, but the vibrancy of Paris in the Belle Époque. Maxim's and the Moulin Rouge are where she really wants to be, rubbing elbows with Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, and Degas.

Allen doesn't vilify or mock nostalgia. That is left to the pedantic pseudo-intellectual. Nor does he really offer any rule or prescription for life's uncertainties, except to embrace them through courage and the pursuit of our passions. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the beautiful things of the past so long as they inform rather than replace the present, making our lives better in the here and now rather than make the here and now even more unsatisfying. As Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) says in the film: "We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist's job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence."

Eventually, in the course of their time-twisting shenanigans, a horse-drawn carriage swings by at the stroke of midnight to convey Gil and Adriana to the 1890's. After meeting Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin and Degas pop in and discuss their conversation on what time they  think was the "golden age." After some thought, they agree that it was the Renaissance. Woody Allen gives his characters everything anyone who has held out a torch of nostalgia could want: not only the ability to go into the past, but to do so under the social and economic conditions that are most amenable, with nobody wondering at your strange clothes or manners or lack of money, and everyone speaking modern English. After all, nobody would want to go back to the Victorian Era to live in a slum. Gil gets to go back to the Twenties and actually meet his idols, Adriana gets to go back to the Fin de siècle and meet hers.  But they are also confronted with the irony that every age is nostalgic for another. In every time, there is an envy for an imagined golden age of the past. So will Adriana stay in her golden age? Will Gil give up his golden age to be with her, or will he choose to remain in the Twenties? Or will he yet return to his own time to live his own life there? Could she be content in the Twenties with him? Or can she take a truly brave step into an unknown future?

Paris is a supremely appropriate setting for a film raising the question of our relationship with the past, because Paris is a city where the past carries an almost palpable weight. This may be the mere whimsy of a Canadian whose home town is barely over 100 years old (for a Parisian it might just be "Saturday"), but the sense of history in Paris is as heavy as the stones which built the great city. The steps of Notre-Dame de Paris are worn away with centuries. You can touch by hand the statues carved by great masters. Standing in Place de la Concorde, one can almost hear the guillotine and see the blood seep into the ground. More than anywhere, Paris lives and breathes its past.    

This fact benefited the production of Midnight in Paris as easily as it did the narrative. 
It doesn't take much to restore a Paris streetscape or a restaurant to its 1920's appearance when it was already half a century old by the 1920's. In some rare cases, Paris' overabundance of museums helped to recreate what had been lost. Another memorable scene at a carnival was shot at the  Musée des Arts Forains in the old winemakers district of Bercy. Gil is having the time of his life dancing up to the hottest Twenties tunes when he meets up with Adriana, who explicates on the beauty of a pedal-powered carousel from the 19th century.





Like so many films set in Paris, Midnight in Paris cannot but be an ode to the city itself. In addition to overt monologues in worship of Paris ("You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can't. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists..." "That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me." "This is unbelievable! Look at this! There's no city like this in the world. There never was.") Allen takes care to showcase the best of the city in loving montages and scenic shots. It resonates with anyone who has been there and fallen in love with the city, or anyone who loves to hear people talk about the passions that enflame them.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Un Monstre à Paris (2011)



Today's special post is part of the France on Film Blogathon hosted by Serendipitous Anachronisms. The theme of this two-day blogathon is to look at both French cinema and cinema about France. Today we are participating in the French cinema portion with a look at the animated film Un Monstre à Paris. Join us again tomorrow for a look at a movie about France, Woody Allen's Midnight in ParisTo see the complete line-up for the blogathon, click on the banner above!




In January of 1910, flooding struck the city of Paris. Water saturated the earth and flooded through storm drains, pipes, catacombs, and the Metro, inundating the city for several weeks. Citizens of Paris were forced to travel by boat or build wooden walkways too and fro, while hundreds struck out for refugee camps on the hills like Montmartre, where the famed Basilique du Sacré Cœur was nearing completion. And, in the cinematic world created by Bibo Bergeron, a monsterous man-sized flea won the hearts of Parisians through song.

French trailer for Un Monstre à Paris.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

France on Film Blogathon



Our regularly scheduled post for today has been preempted because this weekend we will be participating in the two-day France on Film Blogathon!

On Friday, January 8th, cinemaphiles across the blogosphere will be looking at films produced by French artists. For our part, we will be participating with a look at at the animated film Un Monstre à Paris. The next day, the blogathon will feature films about France. Our contribution will be a review of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.

To see the complete line-up for this great blogathon, click on the banner above. Then join us again on Friday and Saturday for a celebration of France on Film!

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

A Christmas Carol on the Silent Screen

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol helped define the values of modern, secular holidays, and became an instant classic. It's concept of Christmas as a time of charity, goodwill, and warmth was not opposed to Christian tradition but not explicitly reliant upon it either. When moving pictures were invented 50 years after Dickens put pen to paper, the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge's redemption was immediately turned to for inspiration.

The first filmmaker to approach A Christmas Carol was Walter R. Booth. An English director of trick films, Booth would later go on to film a trilogy of future war films beginning in 1909 with The Airship Destroyer (aka: Battle in the Clouds). Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost came out in 1901, abridges the lengthy novel into a mere 6 minutes, of which 4 remain today. In this version, Marley himself ushers Scrooge on his journey through Christmases past, present, and future.


Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost (1901)

A now-lost version was produced in 1908, but the next extant version came from J. Searle Dawley working under Thomas Edison. Marc McDermott starred as Scrooge and Charles Ogle portrayed Bob Cratchitt. Just a few months prior, Ogle played the Monster in Edison's version of Frankenstein. This is a much kindlier role for him. Still abbreviated, both of these versions rely on the viewer's prior knowledge of the story.


A Christmas Carol (1910)

Seymour Hicks played the role of Scrooge on the theatrical stage regularly since 1901, and was invited to translate that performance onto film in 1913 for a British production of Scrooge. He would actually go on to reprise the role in 1935 for a sound remake.

Excerpt from Scrooge (1913)

AS the art of filmmaking developed, it began to stray further from the strictures of theatrical performance. Perhaps the most technically accomplished of the early version of A Christmas Carol came in 1914, starring Charles Rock as Scrooge. The cinematography and the effects are much better than previous versions. The full version can be watched in Britain (or by remote proxy) at the British Film Institute website.

Excerpts from A Christmas Carol (1914)

Another three versions were produced during the later half of the silent era, with another every few years during the early sound period, all leading up to my own personal favourite, the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Le Cadeau du Temps (2007)

This short film by Cory Godbey was originally created for the collaborative Zune Arts and features shadowpuppetry distinguished by interesting designs and a lovely theme. Godbey explains his own creative process in this blog post and in another. The full short is presented here below...

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Musée des Arts et Métiers

Established in 1794, the Musée des Arts et Métiers is France's national museum devoted to the arts and crafts in relation to scientific discovery and technological innovation. Housed in the former priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, the museum displays approximately 2500 of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers' 80,000 objects and 15,000 drawings. It is a relatively small sampling, but still a nearly overwhelming display of everything from scientific instruments to architectural models to early automata to different types of transportation.

Speaking of transportation, the museum is perhaps as well known (if not better known) for its Metro station as for its collections. On the 200th anniversary of the Conservatoire in 1994, Belgian comics artist François Schuiten was commissioned to redesign the station into a Vernian fantasy. Particularly interested in architecture, Schuiten rose to fame with a series of bande dessinée called Les Cités obscures, examining the effects of architecture and civic design on society. In 1994 he was also asked to render a cover for the publication of Jules Verne's lost novel Paris in the Twentieth Century



Within each porthole is a model of some scientific instrument
dating from the Renaissance to the Space Age.
In the museum, one is not struck merely by the volume of technological apparatus, but also by the beauty of them. Certainly there are the pieces of clunking machinery where function prevails. However, far beyond their function, many of these instruments are works of art in their own right. 




Some early experiments with bi- and tri-cycles.



An early toy steam engine.

Being a museum of art and craft, it displays not only the machinery of industry but the products of it. The irony of certain begoggled people opining about the rugged, individualistic, hand-made virtues of the Victorian Era is that the Victorian Era was the beginning of the age of industrial mass production. Unprecedented in history, the mass production of beautiful goods lowered their price and made them obtainable for what was truly the greatest invention of the Victorian Era: the middle class. 



Recalling that technology is always changing and progressing, even the things of a decade ago may be considered museum pieces now. Still, it can be off-putting to see the things you remember from your own childhood under glass. 




For a North American like myself, one of the most potent (and sometimes discomforting) things about France is how steeped it is in the Western historical narrative. At home one may read of Cuvier's work in anatomy in a textbook. In Paris, one can see the anatomical collections gathered by Cuvier at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle. It is one thing to read about the Reign of Terror, it is another to stand in the Place de la Concorde where the guillotine was erected that severed the heads of King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and pioneering biologist and chemist Antoine Lavoisier. Speaking of Lavoisier, one can find his instruments at the Musée des Arts et Métiers. His most lasting contribution to science was the discovery and naming of oxygen, determining that water was not an element in itself but a combination of oxygen and hydrogen, helping debunk phlogiston theory, demonstrating the oxygen theory of combustion, demonstrating the law of conservation of mass (which is called "Lavoisier's Law" in France), and helping to establish the modern system of chemical nomenclature.  


Other historically important objects are in the collection of the Musée des Arts et Métiers as well, not merely as examples of a type but in themselves significant. One of those is the Avion III. Designed and constructed between 1892 and 1897 by Clément Ader, this bat-winged, steam-powered craft took its first attempted flight on October 14th, 1897. According to reports, it crashed without leaving the ground. Unimpressed, the military pulled funding on the project. Being suspended in the stairwell of the museum is the closest the Avion III has ever gotten to the sky.  


Before the construction of the main body of the modern museum, the collection was primarily housed in the chapel of the priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs. The site originally housed a chapel first mentioned in texts in 710 CE. Shortly thereafter a group of monks founded a monastery adjacent to it. After being sacked by the Normans in the 900's, the complex was rebuilt. The church - which is the only extant structure - was completed in 1135. Time and the French Revolution took their toll. The priory was abolished in 1790 under the revolutionary government, who turned the facility into a prison. Shortly thereafter the monastic buildings were torn down, and in 1802 the chapel was turned into the Musée des Arts et Métiers. 

Once more the inescapable the weight of history in the French capital makes for an ambiguous experience. Here is almost a palpable sense of revolutionary attempts to persecute and destroy the Church, only to replace it with ideas of scientific and technological progress as the new religion. At one end, directly over where the altar would be, is Foucault's pendulum. At the other end is Bartholdi's model of the pagan deity he called the Statue of Liberty. Throughout the rest of the chapel are the larger vehicles in the collection. Blessedly, the Revolution could not destroy the Church, and the Musée des Arts et Métiers engaged in an extensive restoration project for the chapel.




Though the museum can be a tiring experience of countless devices and objects d'arte in endless cabinets (faithful readers perhaps noticed the paucity of photographs in this travelogue, a consequence of the museum being mostly display cases crammed with objects), attendance is still essential for those with an interest in engineering and industrial development. The Musée des Arts et Métiers preserves virtually every mad idea concocted by inventors, including some that worked.