Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fantasia Will Amazia!

I fell asleep during Fantasia. It was re-released in 1990 for a 50th anniversary, I was nine and the daughter of a classical music buff (my mom), and so we saw it. Most lasting memory of the film? This image:

Yes, practically the first image of the film, I know. But at nine years old Fantasia is a little tough to take in a movie theater setting: you can't stop the movie for a lunch break or to run around outside for a few hours, you just have to sit there in the darkened cavern and try not to fall asleep. That silhouetted image of Stokowski was pretty powerful though; it stayed with me and not just because it was the first scene of the movie. There's something elemental about that shot, something basic. Who is he conducting? Who is he? The silhouette, the glowing blue background, it's almost like he's a phantom, a shade, calling forth images from some netherworld. I don't think it's an accident that the film includes sequences like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, or the Rite of Spring in which the conductor seems to be bringing the very world into existence, from a blue nothingness to a world teeming with life and dinosaurs. Watching the movie today, I still get a little thrill from seeing the conductor raise his shadowed arms. This is one of the reasons I wanted to do a childhood movie series, to re-experience those thrills, to remember what it was like to watch movies as a child and to see if the movies might still work their same magic, even now, some ten or fifteen years later.

I've seen Fantasia since that day seventeen years ago. In fact, I remember getting the VHS tape out on many a lazy summer vacation day just to watch the Night On Bald Mountain sequence over and over again. And I do remember watching the Sorcerer's Apprentice section of the film in the theater, as well as the funny hippos and alligators do their Dance of the Hours ballet, and of course, A Night On Bald Mountain. I think the part that put me to sleep in the theater was the Rite of Spring section; Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is not exactly a kid-friendly piece of music (I think it's tough even for adults to get through). And I'm sure I slept straight on through the Pastoral Symphony and was only awakened by the peppiness of Ponchielli. At least, that's how I remember it. Funny, even as a kid, the most kid-friendly section -- The Sorcerer's Apprentice -- was probably my least favorite part. For some reason, it seemed so contained, so ordinary compared to the wild worlds of stuff like the nature ballet of the Nutcracker Suite or the phantasms of A Night On Bald Mountain. Mickey Mouse and inanimate objects coming to life? That seemed as ordinary to me as a Saturday morning cartoon.

Watching the movie again now, I can't say my opinion has changed about The Sorcerer's Apprentice -- still my least favorite section. Which is funny, since apparently, that section always seems to get the most praise from both critics and casual viewers alike. Though I do love this shot:

That's pretty frightening: an army of brooms, marching in lock-step, uncontrollable, single-minded in their mission of aquatic destruction. I feel like I'm watching a Leni Riefenstahl film by way of Fleischer Studios. Also somewhat scary? This guy:

According to the animators interviewed on the DVD re-release documentary, this cocked-eyebrow face was modeled after a face Walt Disney himself often made. I once dreamed of being a Disney animator, but I wouldn't have wanted to see that creepy eyebrow pop up whenever Uncle Walt was displeased with my work.

Even though the Sorcerer's Apprentice wasn't and isn't my favorite part of the movie, I did spend a lot of time copying Mickey's image from it. Like I said, I wanted to be to be a Disney animator when I was between the ages of seven and eleven. I spent hours copying this image:

I think I remember it so clearly because it was one of the first things I drew free-hand that people thought I had traced. Nope! All done free-hand, no tracing for me! At nine years old, I was so proud.

Watching the film again a few weeks ago, I was, frankly, kinda blown away by it. As a child, certain sections were powerful and made an indelible mark (see: Night On Bald Mountain), but the film as a whole wasn't something I remember wanting to watch, the way one would want to pop in Lady and the Tramp or Back to the Future or Goonies. Watching the film now, I'm struck by, yes, certain sections (see: Night On Bald Mountain), but also by the film as a complete film. Each section could be watched individually, each separate short film existing independently of the others. But I think the sum of the film is actually greater than the parts. Or, to put it another way, I think each individual part comments on and enhances the enjoyment and understanding of all the other parts. The film starts out with Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the "abstract" piece of music ("music for its own sake" as the film describes it) that is accompanied by meshes of color and squiggly lines and generally abstract animation, but notice this image towards the end of the piece:

In this piece, "pure" music with no story or dominant idea contained within the music itself, and the Disney animators happen to stick a sunrise/sunset into the thing. Later on the sun will show up as a destroyer of the dinosaurs in the Rite of Spring section:

After Zeus's thunderstorm in the Pastoral Symphony:

And then finally, the last shot of the film, after the nightmares and spectres of Bald Mountain have gone back to their shadows, the pilgrims make their journey through the forest with lighted lamps (metaphors for the sun?) as Schubert's Ave Maria weaves its way into the soundtrack, and they walk into a cathedral made of trees, which open up to reveal the rising sun in all its glory. The music builds, the light grows stronger, and at last, a sunrise, an eternal symbol of hope and the film ends:

And gosh, don't those hills look a little bit like those weird rolling hills from the first section, the Bach Toccata and Fugue?:

The sun imagery is just one repeating theme throughout the film, and I think nature imagery as a whole is the dominant visual theme of the movie. Nature as living thing, maybe even magical (Nutcracker Suite); nature as volatile force, creator and destroyer (Rite of Spring); nature as divine (Pastoral Symphony); nature as healer, giver of hope (Ave Maria). There is also the theme of creative forces, which I mentioned earlier, of creating new life, as represented in the Rite of Spring section and the Sorcerer's Apprentice section. Even in the Toccata and Fugue abstract section, there's a sense that the music itself is somehow willing these images into existence. And the section least thematically tied to the others -- the Dance of the Hours comedy -- still has in the background the changing times of the day: the brightness of midday, the pallor of dusk, the haunted dark of night (which, of course, happens right before the Night On Bald Mountain sequence -- again, each section builds on and comments on the others).

I watched the movie twice in two days when I rented it recently -- a response I was not expecting, frankly. And then I watched it in pieces again for a third time, and each time I watched it I noticed something new, or I caught a new connection, or a new theme. I even noticed things that I've seen echoed elsewhere in other films. This image, for instance:

looks almost identical to the last image of Peter Jackson's The Two Towers (minus the nazgul and fell beasts, of course), where the camera pans up and reveals a hellish shot of Mordor, looking like something out of Dante's Inferno (or now, as I see, out of Disney's Fantasia).

I mentioned the word "elemental" earlier, in reference to the silhouetted conductor's image, and I think that word sums up the experience pretty well. It's animation and cinema on that pure level, on the level of just moving images, as if one is seeing color and line and form all explode for the first time. The emotions and themes of the piece are basic as well:







I have to say, I was exhilarated after watching the film recently. I know Pauline Kael called it kitsch, but, if it is, it's the most dazzling, ambitious, and thrilling kitsch I've seen in a long time. There's a sense, after watching it, that one's just witnessed the birth of some new kind of life.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Whenever I Go Blog Rolling, I Always (BLANK) Victor Morton

Victor over at Rightwing Film Geek returns to blogging with a nice tribute to Charles Nelson Reilly and the awesomeness of Match Game:

Wikipedia claims that MATCH GAME "pushed the boundaries of 1970s television standards." That may be the case, but it misses the point that the boundaries remained and were, in fact, key to what made their bickering so funny and so enduring. Charles and Brett and Richard and Gene were brilliant comedians because they knew how to deliver a dirty joke in a clean way, in the classic double entendre, which has become a lost art as content standards have waned. But this pre-pubescent MATCH GAME fan remembers all the innuendo (which the adult fan well catches) going over his head. In fact, what is very much part of the fun (watching it now at 40) is appreciating the tension in how the MATCH GAME team were so deft as to get away with so much while keeping the surface G-rated. Sex and sexuality are legitimate subjects for humor, and I have no per se moral problem with locker-room jokes. But the double entendre is not only funny, but respects the innocence of some in the audience through its "double meaning" (in a slightly different context, Ernst Lubitsch noted that if you tell the audience "2 and 2," they don't need to be told "4"). But when comedians can say whatever they want, you don't need a Bocaccio to write in "The Decameron" of a randy groundskeeper at a convent that "he tended all their gardens."

I was a teenager when I experienced the genius of Match Game, watching reruns on the Game Show Network with my mom. At first I thought it was hilariously tacky in the way so much of mainstream 70s culture seems to those of us who had our childhoods in the now ironically hip 80s. But the more I've watched it, and the older I've gotten, the more I'm convinced that my grandparents' generation was a lot cooler, a lot funnier, and a lot smarter and more sophisticated than anything my generation could hope to achieve.

Michael Gerardi also gets back in the game with a review of The Freshman and reminds me I should go watch the DVD of that movie I recorded a few weeks ago.

I'm sure everyone's already seen this, but it's new to me: Classic movies and others get the Grindhouse treatment! Example:

That Little Round-Headed Boy discovers Howard Hawks's Scarface, David Bordwell and Co. discuss movie sequels and RightWingTrash celebrates the Addams Family's contribution toward winning the Cold War:

Of course, Lurch turns out to be the opposite of what Haan imagines as a “poor weak victim of exploitation.” The butler carries around a cigar-store Indian to see who cares for a smoke. This is the same Indian that Klarpe was examining closely before with much distaste. The Addams family would get a similar reaction if Sheryl Crow came by for a visit.

The Russians decide that Lurch is a robot. Harris tries to explain the truth, but can’t convince them. At least Haan and Klarpe can calm down enough to enjoy a nice lunch. They’re impressed to get caviar, but Morticia explains that they’re eating eye of tadpole. (Blue-eyed tadpole is better, Gomez adds, but it’s out of season.) Klarpe adds that American beef is fine, but not as good as in his country. Wrong again, since he’s dining on alligator.

Terry Teachout's Entries from an unkept diary:

Though the metaphor embodied in its nickname is long dead, everyone in the world understands that a "movie" consists of "moving pictures," and it is in the nature of a picture--a photograph--that we take for granted its unfaked reality. A century ago, our great-grandparents were scared out of their wits when one of the villains in The Great Train Robbery pointed his gun at the audience and fired it. Nowadays we're more sophisticated than that, but most of us still cling to the belief that a film is in some attenuated but still meaningful sense a record of something that actually happened, if only on a soundstage.

Will our children feel this way about film? I doubt it.

And Jon Hastings at The Forager Blog has started his movie club.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

I Wake Up Screaming!

A 1941 movie with murder, obsession, ambiguous characters with hidden motives, Elisha Cook Jr., a flashback narrative structure, and shots like these:

And it was made at practically the same time as The Maltese Falcon. Was this Betty Grable/Victor Mature vehicle from Fox more "noir" than the so-called "First Film Noir"??? Well, the happy love story stuck in the middle of the all the creepy dark stuff seems to say "no" (and who knew that "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" could get more play in this movie than in Wizard of Oz!). But wait for the end (sorry, no spoilers here) and tell me that doesn't seem as twisted as anything from the traditional Noir catalogue. Also, stylistically, it looks way more Noir than Falcon.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Fantasia Image of the Day


I have a couple of questions for you LOST: Why did Charlie lock the door and basically commit suicide? Couldn't he have gotten out of the room before the bomb went off? There seemed like a lot of time between the moment Patch Guy showed up with the grenade and the time it took Charlie to lock the door, look meaningfully at Desmond, and wait an eternity for the bomb to go off. Couldn't Charlie have just gotten out of the room and let the grenade go off without locking the door? It would've taken twelve years for that cavernous hatch to fill up with water and by that time Charlie and Des could've been half-way to the island. Charlie's death, meant to be so meaningful and self-sacrificing (which it was, only needlessly so), ended up making no sense. Charlie just basically committed suicide for no reason, and it could have been remedied so easily if the writers had just decided to have the door lock behind Charlie so that he couldn't escape. Instead, they went for the extra-special-self-sacrificing version, even though Charlie's sacrifice was already heroic without this added-on really, really "heroic" (lame) stuff. It just makes Charlie look like an idiot (also, when did Charlie convert to Eastern Orthodoxy? Nice backwards sign of the cross, Chuck).

It's funny because I've always liked the Charlie character but I was actually hoping they would kill him because it would be heroic and give the character a real, meaningful death. I was actually looking forward to Charlie's death scene, one because it would be a nice way for the character to go out, and two because I like Dom Monaghan and I want him to move on from this train wreck show. Oh well (which is so often my reaction to a missed opportunity by LOST).

The problem with this scene, and with so many other moments on the show, is that the characters don't act like real people. A real person, when faced with the cryptic bullshit of the Others, would get angry, demand answers, maybe even get a little violent (which Jack finally did, thank God). Usually, the Losties just shrug their shoulders and drop it, which is just not a normal reaction. Charlie has the opportunity to save everybody and still live, and instead he basically kills himself. For what? Because Desmond said he had to die? The implication was always that Charlie had to die to save the Losties because there was no other way. But in the finale, it turns out there was another way. Several, in fact.

I'll probably still watch next season, though. I'm weak. But good for Dom that he can move on to other things. He deserves better than playing sixth banana on a sloppily written TV show.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sometimes Cinematic Perfection is Boring: Pinocchio vs. Dumbo

Pinocchio: I remember nearly everything about the film -- as I was rewatching it for the first time in probably thirteen years, as each scene began, as each song started up, as each character arrived, it all came rushing back to me in an instant, and I remembered everything completely. It was like thirteen years had never happened, that's how clearly I remembered the film as I rewatched it. I'm convinced now that I must have watched Pinocchio A LOT as a child (though I don't remember watching it that much...) because the experience was so familiar. If nothing else, Pinocchio as a whole made a much stronger impression on me as a kid than Dumbo did. And yet, watching it now as an adult, I have to say, it's lost some of its impact. The Pleasure Island sequence in particular, a sequence that scared the pants off me as a child, doesn't seem to pack the same punch. I can certainly understand, watching the film as an adult, why and what it was about that sequence that so disturbed me as a child (I hated when people transformed into things), but now I find it doesn't even really give me a slight chill, not even in remembrance of past frights:

Dumbo, on the other hand, a film I remember finding immensely sad, almost unbearably sad, but not really remembering too much else about, is, upon rewatching, a kind of delightful discovery. I know Pinocchio was painstakingly crafted and Dumbo a slapdash product; I know Pinocchio has better songs, better animation, and a better narrative; I know Dumbo plays too easily and too readily on our heartstrings, while Pinocchio has sentimentality without being cloying. But, gosh darn it, I like Dumbo better. And this isn't a "when I was a child" reaction. I'm not sure which film I liked better as a child; in fact, I think I disliked both in a way, Pinocchio for being too scary, and Dumbo for being too sad (and also a little scary -- hello clowns and pink elephants -- for some reason, this image in particular used to scare me; I'm sure this is what prompted Dumbo's mind to invent the pink elephants):

But today, Pinocchio, though I still like it very much, comes off as a little too didactic and overly cute, while Dumbo seems almost experimental, like Merrie Melodies meets Expressionism meets Charlie Chaplin meets LSD. There's a part where Timothy the mouse tells Dumbo that there are plenty of famous guys with big ears, and he doesn't mention who, but it's obvious we're meant to think of Mickey. This kind of self-referential humor is something I'd expect more from a Warner Bros. cartoon than a Disney feature film. Coming after Snow White and Pinocchio, two features that practically define the detailed, pretty, and naturalistic style of Disney animation, Dumbo really feels like the animators were trying any new thing they could think of. Take a look at this shot:

Is this Disney or an impressionist?

And before that we got an anthropomorphic, cartoony train:

And the use of silhouette for shots of human characters, especially the clowns, somehow made them scarier and more menacing, at least when I was seven. It was also a nice device for separating the human world and the animal world, turning the human world into a strange, unwelcome, mysterious place, and giving the viewer a real sense of the animal point of view:

It's like the animators just stuck in a bunch of crazy art things that they wanted to experiment with. Nothing shows this clearer than the Pink Elephants sequence, which comes out of nowhere, means nothing to the overall story, and yet is totally unforgettable, and for some inexplicable reason, just totally right for this movie. This is some freaky stuff, yet perfectly suitable to a story about the circus, a relatively freaky place, especially for kids:

Fantasy turns back into reality but the line between them is blurred.

as a story, as a narrative film certainly doesn't stand up to Pinocchio, which has stronger themes and tells a more interesting story, but Dumbo is so freewheeling, and yet so basic and simple, that it has a freshness that Pinocchio, for all its true strengths as a film, can't seem to match. Pinocchio feels older, much older in fact, than Dumbo [though Dumbo is unfortunately very dated in its racist depiction of the minstrel show crows who help Dumbo learn to fly]. In that sense I'm drawn to Pinocchio because it's nostalgia in two respects: nostalgia for my own childhood, and nostalgia for a bygone era -- Pinocchio feels older than its 1940 date; it feels like something from the turn of the century was finally discovered in 1940:

And Pinocchio does have better songs.

Also, there's some scariness:

But Dumbo, for all its flaws is simply more interesting. I think my reaction to it has a lot to do with my affection for noble failures; I seem to fall in love with movies that have obvious flaws but also flashes of real brilliance. The whole is not as great as some of its parts, and yet those parts are so interesting, engaging, intriguing, whateveradjective, that I can't help but love the movie. Sometimes cinematic perfection is boring; sometimes a movie is so good that there's nothing to think about or muse over afterward. Dumbo is not like that; Dumbo is the kind of film that worms through my brain and I can't get it out. It's not so much the story or the songs but the images and essential emotions like fear, shame, sadness, and joy. Plus, who can resist this level of cuteness?

Who doesn't cry when they see this?

And who doesn't freak out over elephants in mind-bending Technicolor?

My reactions to these scenes are too strong to dismiss simply because the film is weak narratively. Pinnochio is Disney perfection, but Dumbo is Disney intoxication.

Fantasia Image of the Day

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When did I start loving you?

I'm here to defend Heroes as my favorite show of the year. Does Heroes even need defending? Aren't its fans legion, aren't they proclaiming it the shit and fucking awesome and other such superlatives? Well, I wasn't quite on the kool-aide train, at least as of a few months ago. I was still just watching the show and enjoying it but kinda waiting for the shoe to drop, for Lost-syndrome to set in or something. For the crazy, out-of-control plot and myriad characters to convolute just one too many times. Lost has burned me before; 24 is kinda burning me now. But after just watching the penultimate episode of Heroes, I know it's gonna go nuclear, only this time, thankfully, I won't get burned...

Maybe I'm not here to defend; it's too hard to defend when you're on a television high. I guess this post is more of a declaration. I suppose I should list the shows I actually watch regularly, to give some sense of what I like and where I'm coming from. Okay:

Battlestar Galactica
Rome (over now)
The Tudors (I'm trying to get over the loss of Rome -- it's not helping)
My Name is Earl
The Office
(N.B.: I used to watch Veronica Mars but I quit earlier this season [heh, it's like I'm talking about my smoking addiction or something; let's just say I don't generally stick with high school shows once they go to college]; I have also seen a couple eps of House, but it didn't really take)

So I'm not a huge television watcher; I'm only mildly obsessed with TV instead of full-blown fanatic (movies are my thing anyway). My "type" of show runs more along the supernatural/sci-fi/suspense/action line, and my comedies are of the "mainstream quirky" sort. I don't generally watch reality shows (though, somehow, without my consent really, I know all about who's on Idol every year and who wins Dancing with the Stars and all the other "cultural" stuff that I guess is unavoidable if you're on the internet at all these days).

And finally, at the start of the season this year I got hooked on two shows:
Dead Like Me and Heroes. Dead Like Me I caught in reruns and loved so much that I ended up netflixing and watching it all in like a week. Heroes I happened to see a commercial for and decided to give it a go. What's kinda weird, and I just noticed this as I'm writing, is that I watched the series finale of Dead Like Me on the same day that I watched the series premiere of Heroes, and both shows on a day of personal sadness for me. I can't pretend I didn't cry my eyes out at the end of Dead Like Me, but then when I watched Heroes I was somehow exhilarated, somehow, and oh my this is gonna sound cheesy, I felt uplifted, inspired. Yeesh. I'm a dork, I know.

But let's just say I really dug that first ep of Heroes. It hit my TV sweet spot; it gave me something I needed that day. And I kept watching it, even when it moved to the same time slot as 24 (Tivo helps). And I enjoyed it. But.... well... it was a good show, I was willing to vouch for it, I'd told all my friends and neighbors to watch, but, well, it just didn't consume me the way my super-favorites did. I'm obsessed with The Office, or, Jim Halpert more specifically, seeing as he's my TV boyfriend. I watched two and a half seasons of BSG in less than two weeks. I played online games for Lost (thankfully THAT phase is over; the bitterness has finally settled into a nice, steady cynicism and I can watch the show, enjoy, and still think it's a steaming pile of crap served up by the two biggest charlatans in television today).

Heroes was just that show I watched on Mondays and enjoyed and then forgot about for six days. I heard it described somewhere as "the best bad show ever" and I thought, yeah, that's about right. The dialogue, characters, acting -- it was all sub-par, and yet the plot was compelling enough, and the powers just cool enough in their X-Men knock-off ways, that the show was still fun and engaging.

And then suddenly, I don't know when, was it Fallout? Was it Company Man? Was it tonight with Landslide? Suddenly, I wasn't just digging the show, I was loving it. I am loving it. It is the real deal, the show that works, the serialized supernatural drama that actually knows what it's doing and knows how it's all going to end, and wants to tell its story and then be done with it, on to the next thing, the next mystery, the next crisis, we're done with you and we're not afraid to kill you, we showed you that rifle on the wall seven months ago and now it's ready to go off. And all that cheesy bad dialogue and cardboard characters and iffy acting -- it's all out the window, 'cause now I love it when it's cheesy bad 'cause it's so sincere, so heart-on-its-sleeve, so sure about heroism and duty and love and family.... Heroes, when did I start loving you?

We're living in May now and television is giving us all the goods it's got. Season finales are bursting out all over with that end-of-the-season flurry that makes it hard to take in all the shocking reveals, character deaths, long-awaited couplings, and generally expected season finale shake-ups. It's all a mid-May burst and then it's gone and summer comes like the numbing sound of nothing on, and suddenly we're expected to actually go outside and do something.

As the finales flurry hits in the next couple of weeks the one show I cannot wait to watch is Heroes. It's the one show that makes me hope I don't die before next Monday, just so I can see how it all ends. Am I crazy for loving this "good bad" show? All I know is that it's going to be a long, long summer that no amount of outside can cure. I guess the only TV that can save me after May 21 is if the Red Wings, Pistons, and Tigers all go nuclear too. Then I won't mind waiting all summer for my new favorite show to come back.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Quote of the Week

"Those incredible men that we worked for, that seemed to us so inartistic, and so lacking in knowledge of the art part of making a movie. But they had something. And they had something, you don't know what it was, it was a kind of a magic, gambling, intuitive thing. That has gone. We now have oil companies owning the studios; it's all business today. And those men [the old studio heads], they were exasperating, because there was no way of communicating with the way they thought. But they -- boy! -- they gave us our chances. They gambled... Gambling has gone."

Bette Davis on the Dick Cavett Show