Saturday, March 26, 2005

Butt Out

This Terri Schiavo situation has got me so fucking pissed now, that I have to keep my eye on it. Her parents have had yet another appeal plea rejected by the Florida courts, so they plan to take it to the Supreme Court. The thing is, after surviving the last eight days without her feeding tube (Dr. Patricia Heaton said Terri wouldn't live as much as seven days), Terri has probably passed the point of no return. The Schindlers have been begging Governor Jeb Bush to get involved, but for a change he's decided not to step outside the bounds of his power; he can't intervene here. Which means that Terri probably won't make it through the weekend, according to real doctors, not Mel Gibson.

The thing is, Terri Schiavo really died 15 years ago, and keeping her alive at this point is needlessly cruel. And yet there are people who have been caught trying to break in and sneak her water. And this is what really, really pisses me off here. We all have our opinions, yes, but do people really need to get involved? This is a decision made by a husband, and contested in court by parents. No one else needs to make themselves a part of it. Mel Gibson, Patricia Heaton, and the eight people arrested Friday for trying to give Terri water, are only getting involved to make themselves look like good people, or to make themselves feel better. If Mel Gibson called me to lend his support, I'd tell him to go fuck himself, because he's not doing this to be helpful--he's co-opting a family's tragedy to show people how great he is. This is not about Mel, this is not about Patricia Heaton and her fucking stupidity, this is not about me or you or Sean Hannity or Jeb Bush. This is about a family and should stay with them.

I hope that Terri finally passes on this weekend. She's been dying for 15 years, and her parents are acting shamefully. Nothing any celebrity or terror-activist does can't change the sadness of the situation. And it shouldn't. Let the family deal with it themselves; they don't need us magnifying it.

Evaluating Disney: 1931

Walt Disney had no real reason to change his focus now with his animation studio back up at full strength. Though 1931 wasn’t as stagnant as half of the previous year was, things didn’t change very much in the way the Disney studio did things.

1/7: The Birthday Party
Mickey’s friends hold a surprise party for the mouse, and give him a piano. Which, of course, means much singing and dancing. Fun and energetic.

2/3: Birds of a Feather
A rather ordinary Silly Symphonies cartoon with a lot of dancing birds.

3/17: Traffic Troubles
Mickey Mouse drives a taxi around a crowded city, marking the first time that Mickey has been out of the rural and into a heavily urban area. Bert Gillett’s direction gets the hustle of the city just right, and there are a lot of fun gags (including, every time Mickey hits a bump, the meter riding higher and higher). The cab is fun, too, with its human face and characteristics. This short benefits pretty heavily from being so different from the previous cartoons, putting Mickey into a situation we had never seen him in.

4/6: The Castaway
Wilfred Jackson directed this wonderful, action-packed short. Mickey washes up on a jungle shore, finds a piano, and starts playing. While I love this short, the way Mickey improbably finds pianos everywhere is beginning to run like a Dudley Moore movie. "Nice doctor’s office, oh look, there’s a piano, time for some comedy." Still, the animals are neat, the drawings are clear and fun (though Mickey almost eats a spider by accident), and there’s a tiger cub that’s so incredibly cute I almost went into sugar shock. Some of the animation is recycled from 1929's lesser Jungle Rhythm.

4/16: Mother Goose Melodies
In this Silly Symphonies short, a very fat and jolly Old King Cole watches other fairy tale characters sing and dance. Nothing special, really.

5/3: The Moose Hunt
Mickey and Pluto (called by his name for the first time) go hunting. There’s some funny animation of Pluto’s fleas, and a classic gag (used by Disney many times over the years) where Mickey thinks he’s actually shot Pluto. As the dog winks at the audience, Mickey cries out "Pluto, talk to me!" Pluto stands up and says: "Kiss me!" It’s a classic cartoon gag. A lot of surrealism here, too.

5/22: The China Plate
Characters painted on a China plate come to life. It’s got a cute story, with a young fisher boy and a cute girl frolicking, chasing after a butterfly, and then running from a fat Mandarin (who gets swallowed up by a huge dragon). Put in Mickey, Minnie, and Pete, and this Silly Symphonies classic could be a Mickey Mouse cartoon. This is also Disney’s second foray into stylized human beings (this time directed by Wilfred Jackson). There is some mild stereotyping, but I don’t find it overly offensive.

6/13: The Delivery Boy
More barnyard music fun, as Mickey takes a break from delivering musical instruments to play piano with Minnie and dance around with the animals. There’s a great gag where Pluto starts chewing on a stick of dynamite, and his fleas jump off and run like hell.

6/30: The Busy Beavers
Busy little beavers chop down wood with the fervor of an assembly line in this Silly Symphonies short. The beavers are so cheerful and cute that even when they are flooded (excellent animation on the water), they don’t stop they’re little barking. Another winner by Wilfred Jackson.

7/7: Mickey Steps Out
Typical singing and dancing, except when Pluto chases a cat into Minnie’s house and wrecks everything. The second half is a visual treat. Pluto has managed to develop a real personality as a meddlesome, well-meaning nuisance. He’s never irritating, though; he’s somehow endearing.

7/28: The Cat’s Out
This Silly Symphony benefits from Wilfred Jackson's penchant for the grotesque. A cat, put out for the night, chases some birds around before having a horrible nightmare about giant crows and anthropomorphic trees It's actually a little scary and unsettling, one of the best and surprisingly forgotten.

8/18: Blue Rhythm
Another one of those cartoons where the animals get together under Mickey’s direction and play instruments. This one seems to have more personality than the last few of the same type. This is the only time Pluto is given a human characteristic, playing the trombone in the band. Otherwise, he’s only a dog.

8/27: Egyptian Melodies
Wilfred Jackson’s Silly Symphony is more like a Fleischer short, less "funny" than typical Disney. A spider (the same one from Midnite in a Toy Shop, given the look of him) goes into a pyramid and we’re treated to a gorgeous trip through an underground tunnel with ornate, intricate carved patterns. This technical show-off is what feels more Fleischer-esque. Mummies dance and the spider watches in terror as the hieroglyphs start cavorting.

9/25: Fishin’ Around
This is one of the funniest Mickey cartoons ever. Flouting the law in the name of a good time, Mickey and Pluto canoe up to a "NO FISHING" sign and start fishing. But the fish are devious little bastards, and completely torment the pair as they try in vain to catch some dinner. The fish are just so mean–and so thoroughly enjoy it–that this cartoon is infectiously hilarious. This is one of Bert Gillett’s high points.

9/28: The Clock Store
The animation in this Silly Symphony is outstanding. Wilfred Jackson outdid himself with this simple tale of the goings on in a clock store after hours. Everything comes to life, of course, but there are little sequences within the cartoon that grab the attention much more than the simple story of two battling clocks. The first is an old, bearded man lighting the street lamps, which is done with real care and simple beauty. The second is a dance between two porcelain figures which is absolutely stunning and realistic. I don't know if rotoscoping was used here or not, but the dance is simply wonderful.

10/10: The Barnyard Broadcast
Mickey and friends put on a radio show from the barn, but a cat and her kittens come in and start disrupting everything. Mickey practically destroys the studio trying to catch them. The best gag is when the kittens run up to the dials and start sucking them as though they were nipples, trying to get milk. Always room for a good nipple joke in a Disney cartoon.

10/20: The Fox Hunt
Silly Symphony depicting the plight of a fox during the hunt. Slight, but the fox is well-animated.

10/23: The Spider and the Fly
Wilfred Jackson’s Silly Symphonies direction can even make bugs fun. A house fly gambols around, but a sinister black spider (wearing gloves and laughing like the villain in Perils of Pauline) soon stumbles in. All of the insects create a cavalry of sorts (the centipede in infantry boots is fun), and repel the spider.

11/5: The Beach Party
Mickey, Minnie, Horace, Clarabelle, and Pluto enjoy a picnic at the beach, but are attacked by an octopus. This short never stops moving, and ends up being really funny, especially the battle with the octopus.

11/30: Mickey Cuts Up
Though funny, this short comes across like a remake of 1929's The Plow Boy. Only this time, Mickey is mowing the lawn with Pluto instead of plowing with a horse, while Minnie does some gardening. Mickey, of course, is much more interested in Minnie than his work. There’s some fun as Pluto, still trailing the lawn mower on a leash, chases a cat around and destroys everything.

12/9: Mickey’s Orphans
Mickey and Minnie are preparing for Christmas, when someone knocks at the door and leaves a basket behind. Minnie looks inside and pulls out a baby kitten. Pluto looks inside and a kitten punches him in the nose. And then the cover of the basket is moved and all hell breaks loose! 25 or 35 kittens run out, going wild as Mickey is overwhelmed by an army of cute! He tries to make Christmas fun, but for some reason he gives them hammers, saw, and axes as Christmas presents and they run amok, destroying absolutely everything. In the end, Mickey laughs them off. Horrifying, but well-done and very cute. It’s mainly horrifying because I hate children so much.

12/17: The Ugly Duckling
Not exactly the Hans Christian Andersen story, as this is about a duck born to chickens who is rejected, but saves his brother chicks from rapids after a tornado strike. It’s a cute Silly Symphony with Jackson at the helm.

As 1931 drew to a close, Walt was already making plans to innovate further. Though the cartoons had all been coming out just fine and making money, Walt knew that complacency would easily lead to stagnancy. Walt had his eyes set on doing what, amazingly, Ub Iwerks had managed to beat him to: make cartoons in color.

Evaluating Disney: 1930

In the previous year-and-a-half, Walt Disney had capitalized on the popularity of sound films to create arguably the most popular cartoon character of all time. With two series under his production belt–Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies–Walt could count on a successful future. But before 1929 was out, Carl Stalling would take his musical innovation elsewhere, robbing him of a valuable asset. And Ub Iwerks was getting burned out, and subsequently took a deal with MGM, where he created his own cartoon star, Flip the Frog. Walt would spend much of 1930 recovering from this creative and artistic loss.

1/16: Summer
The second in the series of "four seasons" Silly Symphonies cartoons. Not overly inspired, though two dung beetles playing with a ball of shit is odd and amusing. There's some cute stuff, but we've come to expect these.

2/15: Autumn
Same thing, only with beavers and stuff.

3/20: Cannibal Capers
This Bert Gillett Silly Symphonies cartoon isn’t available on DVD for pretty obvious reasons. A bunch of highly-caricatured African cannibals dance around, then get chased by a lion. I don’t think this is consciously racist, just goofy. The most interesting aspect here is that this is the first episode to feature, however stylized, "human" characters rather than Mickey or a bunch of animals.

4/5: The Barnyard Concert
By the time this cartoon appeared, there hadn’t been a new Mickey Mouse cartoon in four months. Walt took this time to make some subtle changes to Mickey’s appearance, mostly around the eyes. His gloves look more stylized, too. Disney directed this fun, wonderful short, where Mickey leads the barnyard in an orchestral performance. All of the characters are becoming recognizable now – the long dachshund, the fat pigs, the old goat, the cute little puppy dog (who looks a lot like Bimbo from the Betty Boop cartoons)–as characters. This is also the first time we can really recognize the characters of Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar. Though some of the gags are repeated from Steamboat Willie, this is a bright spot. For some reason, Mickey gets long, wild hair while conducting.

4/21: Just Mickey
Walt directed this, too, which is basically just Mickey playing violin. Boring. Also known as Fiddlin’ Around, a title suspiciously similar to the first Flip the Frog short, Fiddlesticks. Mickey has the wild hair of the previous short, acting like Franz Liszt in his mania.

4/25: Wild Waves
Mickey rescues Minnie from a wave, and then dances with animals. The cutest are the penguins, but this is repetitive.

4/28: Night
Walt directed this Silly Symphonies short, which features flowers and animals dancing in the moonlight. Walt provided the voice of the moon, which sounds a lot like Mickey. This short is more comical than the average SS cartoon, as the singing of the animals is hilariously bad.

5/15: The Cactus Kid
Basically an update of The Gallopin’ Gaucho, only Mickey rides Horace Horsecollar instead of an ostrich. Pete is back, and Mickey has to run him down to rescue Minnie, but Pete now bears his signature wooden leg (hence the name, Pegleg Pete).

6/21: Frolicking Fish
This Silly Symphonies cartoon marked a real turning point for the Walt Disney Studio. Norm Ferguson, one of the animators, developed a system of fluid motion that kept the animals moving nicely. Gone was the jerky stop/start movements of earlier; Walt loved the technique so much that he made the other animators learn it, lending a personality of line and style that would become a Disney trademark. Otherwise it’s more of the same, dancing and whatnot.

6/25: The Fire Fighters
This is one of the most fun Mickey adventures, with the mouse as a fire chief who rescues Minnie from a burning building. The legendary Dave Hand worked on this cartoon, and the gags have some real fun personality to them (my favorite is the ladder that puts on boots and then climbs down itself). Wonderful surrealism, and one of the best of the Mickey cartoons.

6/27: Arctic Antics
A tired Silly Symphonies, the last cartoon directed for Disney by Ub Iwerks, who had left the studio four months previous. More of the same, only with polar bears, one of whom looks exactly like an albino version of Mickey Mouse.

6/29: The Shindig
This is the first cartoon to feature Clarabelle Cow by name; she’s first seen naked, pulling on her skirt (which doesn’t go over her hips, but only over her udders–what was it with Disney’s fixation on udders?). She's a bit of a randy one, too; she's first seen secretly reading a copy of Elinor Glyn's Three Weeks, a novel banned for being sexually explicit. Mickey is still a bit of a sociopath: any object can be used to make music with, even if it means slapping someone, knocking them on the floor, or snapping Minnie’s underwear! The animation is great and the gags are pretty good, especially when Mickey gets accidentally crushed by Patricia Pig. Good stuff.

8/16: Midnite in a Toy Shop
A bug seeks a night of sleep in this Silly Symphonies short, but finds out that the toys in a toy shop have a life of their own in the dark. And so it begins: animation has a long history of living toys (even Harman & Ising may have done it before Disney). But this is the first Disney cartoon directed by Wilfred Jackson, and it’s infused with his trademark personality and sense of the ridiculous. A great cartoon.

9/5: The Chain Gang
Mickey in jail? Well, however it happened, he and his fellow inmates (including, for some reason, Clarabelle Cow) still have time to sing and dance while prison guard Pegleg Pete is fast asleep. This cartoon has a lot of fun gags as Mickey escapes the prison–including a moment when, after breaking his chain, Mickey puts the ball over his shoulder anyway and runs for it.

9/26: Monkey Melodies
How could a cartoon called Monkey Melodies not be one of the best Silly Symphonies ever? Rich backgrounds and an hilarious dance routine by two crocodiles enhance the fun.

10/10: The Gorilla Mystery
Here’s a great animation trope: the "killer" gorilla that escapes from the zoo and menaces a lonely girl. Following in the great tradition of animated apes from the 1930s, Mickey rescues Minnie after the simian ties her to a chair.

10/23: The Picnic
Mickey and Minnie go out on a picnic with her new dog, Rover–actually, Pluto, who would later become Mickey’s best pal. In this cartoon, however, he’s more of an annoyance for Mickey. But while Mickey’s singing and dancing with Minnie and Pluto’s chasing rabbits, squirrels and insects run off with all of the picnic food. There’s a lot of cute animation in this one, it’s really fun. Mickey’s adventures had slowed to a crawl, but ever since The Fire Fighters, there’s been more personality than ever. Finally, he’s stopped being only a novelty.

10/30: Winter
The final "four seasons" Silly Symphony, pretty much what you expect. There are some fun ice skating scenes. This one was directed by Bert Gillett.

12/5: Pioneer Days
Mickey and Minnie have a song and dance along the trail, but the wagons are attacked by Indians (played by what appear to be weasels). Another cartoon accused of being racially insensitive, but it seems more like a parody of Western movies than stereotyping to me (although, to be fair, Westerns stereotyped a lot–although in 1930 the memory of Indian attacks was still fairly recent, speaking generationally; the natives of this land had been fighting an on-again/off-again resistance war with Americans for hundreds of years before finally being conquered, and that kind of thing is hard to overcome in just 35 or so years). When Minnie is captured, she saves Mickey by putting hot coals down the scalper’s pants. My favorite gag comes when a pig, seeing another pioneer scalped, frantically takes off his toupee and hands it to the Indians, running off.

12/27: Playful Pan
It’s said to be one of the best Silly Symphonies ever, but it's more interesting because it prefigures so many other Disney cartoons. Scenes would be repeated to better effect in Flowers and Trees, The Pied Piper, even Bambi. It's a fun cartoon, directed by Bert Gillett, with some very inventive technique.

If the first half of 1930 seemed repetitive and dull, it was only Walt keeping his hand in while organizing things around the loss of his star animator and good friend. Thanks to Bert Gillett, Wilfred Jackson, Dave Hand, and Norm Ferguson, the Disney films made a major turnaround in June. They became vibrant, not sacrificing entertainment for technique. Witty verbal jokes were a long way off, but the singing was entertaining the crowd and the films were edging into the realm of real artwork. The future looked brighter than it ever had.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Dance, Monkey, Dance

The Terri Schiavo case lingers on and on. Today is Good Friday, which for you Christians out there signifies something or other about peace and such. Well, in the spirit of peace, isn't it about time that we all stopped commenting on the Schiavo case and just let her slip out into a peace of her own? Why is human life so fucking valuable that people want to force those in pain to linger on and on and on. Hey, if you want to get all Christ-y about it, why allow medical science to extend a person's pain when they so obviously aren't meant to live?

I know, dear God, I know that's it hard to let go of someone you love. In the last 10 years, I've lost both of my grandparents on my father's side. In just the last year, I've lost an aunt and an uncle (and my uncle was only 47, just three years younger than my father). And my little sister, who just turned 13 last week, is undergoing chemotherapy for osteosarcoma (bone cancer) and has only a 20% chance of recovery. So I know it's hard and no one can tell me different.

But life has to end. And sometimes it ends cruelly early, but it still has to end.

Now we come to the part that really pisses me off. Mel Gibson and Patricia Heaton have decided to spout off on the whole affair for reasons unbeknownst to me. Mel Gibson--who as an uber-Catholic around Easter is apparently feeling the need to exercise his innate sadism--is fuming over the whole thing, practically demanding that Michael Schiavo turn his own wife over to the care of her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler (a last name, until now, associated with love and protectiveness). Gibbo wants Terri to be "properly cared for" and saved "from a cruel starvation." I hope that when Mel's wife is sick and suffering, someone tries to take her care out of his hands and put it in the hands of someone who thinks they know better and doesn't want to respect her wishes. Then he'll know what the fuck he's talking about. Because this is none of his business. He's not Jesus, he just thinks he is.

Patricia Heaton has, as is her style in life, been acting even more pompously than I thought possible. Look, I'm not a fan of Everybody Loves Raymond, and it's mostly because of her. But as bad as she is an actress, she's even worse at being a human being. She's chosen to comport herself as the heir of Lucille Ball, a beloved public figure who feels that every person wants to know how she feels about every issue. I barely know who this bitch is, but she's always talking about things like she's an expert on all subject.

She's apparently fasting tonight to show "solidarity" with what Terri Schiavo is, in Heaton's mind, going through. This is pushing me further and further from any possibility of a reconciliation between me and Jesus. Heaton feels medically qualified enough to announce: "Terri Schiavo is not brain dead; she's alive, she's breathing, she's disabled." There is a big, big difference between being dead and being brain dead. Brain dead means that, though the body is alive, there is no brain activity. Terri's mind, everything that she was, her character, her experiences, her memories, her beliefs, her thoughts ARE ALL DEAD. The person Terri Schiavo was does not exist any more. They pulled the plug on my Uncle Ralph for the same reason, and I support that decision fully. Why would you want your loved one to have a living death in a body that has become not a temple, but a tomb?

Patricia Heaton, apparently, wants that dark fate for Terri Schiavo. She wants Michael Schiavo, who is in pain and who has wrestled with the tough decision to let his own wife die, to know that she disagrees with his actions. Well, fuck Patricia Heaton.

Why do celebrities insist that they're real people? We know they're real people, and that acting is just a job for them, like working in a bank only grossly overpaid for very little effort. But do you care what some banker thinks about Terri Schiavo? Hell, do you even care what I think about Terri Schiavo? Of course not, because, ultimately, it only matters what her family thinks. Patricia Heaton and Mel Gibson have no place disgustingly using their celebrity status to try and influence a situation that doesn't remotely affect their own lives. You're entertainers, not leaders. Show us your boobs and dance, monkey, dance--that's all anyone needs you for. This is not about either one of you. This is about a family that is going to have a horrible Easter, as one man has to face the death of his wife over a holiday that's supposed to be about resurrection.

For My Sister

If hope were all and love enough
To shake the world and hew it rough,
Then you would heal and I should die,
My heart spilt out upon the rye.

A pact with fate my words would make,
Though heaven quails and earth will quake,
That if I could but take your place,
I'll glad remove from planet's face.

I see you in the grip of death,
I pray for respite, pray for Lethe.
But you, my sister, I'll not forget,
Though you'll not hold me in your debt.

If wishing worked, if prayer did too,
I'd give myself to die for you.
I fear goodbye will come too soon,
And words shall never stop the moon.

--24 March 2005

Tales Told by Idiots

The way Shakespeare is taught in school on any level, it's amazing that any readers return to the Bard at all. I've read many Shakespeare plays in my academic career, but I can count all of the non-frustrating experiences on one hand. The stilted, labored deliveries of some of the most beautiful words laid down on paper makes me want to scream sometimes.

We've just finished Macbeth in one of my classes. As is the story of my life, yours truly did not get to read a part (though my Shakespeare reading is of such dramatic quality and lyrical beauty that it is often mistaken for Handel's Water Music, so mellifluous it is). Listening to it was agony. Only one person in the class (a girl who was also in an earlier class I took on Shakespeare) could actually act in any way; thankfully, she read Lady Macbeth. The girl who played King Duncan was competent, and the young lady who read the Witches approached poetic meter. Hm, all women. I wonder if that means anything.

Anyways, they guys who read Macbeth and Banquo were so bad that I thought I was on an episode of Punk'd or something. Macbeth was especially bad; he was one of those guys with a long, nasal, Midwestern voice. A lot of pauses, a lot of re-reading words. Then he spent 40 minutes arguing a wild inference that he had made from the text: that Macbeth had schemed for the throne even before the witches' prophecy. The problem is, we never see Macbeth before the prophecy is made, and there's no textual evidence to back that up at all! And he argued and argued, and the girl playing Duncan finally yelled at him! This was the same guy who, the same day, used the phrase "devil's advocate" to say that Lady Macbeth was evil. Apparently, he doesn't know that playing devil's advocate is a rhetorical exercise in reasoning.

Look, how does stilted line reading enrich our experience of Shakespeare? It's so maddening to have to listen to these kids murder the words. When did we lose our ability to read and recite poetry? Why can't they say "o'er" instead of "over," or "i'the" instead of "in the"? Those words are contracted for metrical reasons, and you must adhere to that when you read them! "Livest" is pronounced "live-EST," and "livs't" is pronounced just like it looks. You don't say "can-ET" instead of "can't," do you? When did the beauty and appreciation of poetic language disappear from society's shared knowledge? In the 40s with our resolve and politeness, I suppose.

Also, when you reach a line break, there's no pause unless there's some sort of punctuation at the end of the line. Otherwise, you keep reading. The meter is very easy; with some exceptional flourishes, iambic pentameter goes: da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA. "Oh LORD what FOOLS these MORtals BE." Or, in this case, "douBLE douBLE toil AND trouBLE." It's not a nursery rhyme, but it's pretty easy to figure out. Words are emphasized for a reason. The use of more than eight syllables can signify something dramatic.

But when you read Shakespeare in a class, you really discover the chilling number of functioning illiterates around you, don't you? Sure, it may seem like only 10 dumb people around you, but multiply that 10 by the number of English majors in a year and you're already in the hundreds. Now take that number and figure out the percentage in relation to the school's non-English majors, and it's astounding. And then think of the number of schools in your state, and it's horrifying. And then think of the number of schools in the country. And now look at who runs this goddamn nation of ours... Are you having a rectal prolapse yet?

All I ask is for people to appreciate Shakespeare at one point in their lives. Every profundity of human nature is found on his pages, moreso than in any religious text. Just once, before the functioning illiterates take over and the libraries turn to dust.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Loner Wears Black

By now, we're all aware of Minnesota's recent high school shooting, the worst one since Columbine. It's that time of year, folks, when the violence starts brimming over and spills out on society. The recent murder of a judge, for example, seemed to come out of nowhere. But the simple fact is this: we live in a violent society. I know that Americans are naive people, always blindly believing what Governor Bush says, charmingly surprised that it snows in the winter. We don't like to think that guns are made for the express purpose of killing humans. And we put blinders on to the problems of our fellows and simply ignore deviations from the so-called norm so we can get outraged over a black woman baring a breast (apparently an affront to a sport which celebrates violence).

It's Spring again, and this is when all the violence begins. Students feel that their long interment on campus is never going to end, and for someone who is teased and tormented, it becomes terminal. Thoughts of revenge begin to fester. The renewed warmth in the air has two effects on the people with violent thoughts: it gives them energy, and it pushes them too far. The reason more random acts of violence don't occur in the summer is because it's too hot. The spring affords the perfect length of day. The chill in the air is just motivating enough for people who think, "I should grab a gun and get a little respect" to do just that. It's a dangerous time out there, especially if you're "innocent."

So, another angry kid grabs a gun and dusts off some teachers and classmates. This time it was a sixteen year-old boy, Jeff Weise, who apparently lived on an Indian Reservation. The pathetic, insulting attempts at "rational explanations" have come out now, and they're always the same: he was interested in Nazi history and seemed to admire Hitler; he spoke German, and his screen name was Totesengel, or "Angel of Death;" he wrote stories about zombies. He dressed in black and was described as a "loner." This is idiot reasoning, and it is always the same. It implies that anyone who can think for themselves, who doesn't join the hive and wear a letter jacket, is a threat. That people who are sensitive are somehow "damaged," that people who write are potentially dangerous. The simple fact of the matter is that when you're in high school and you're smart and not dull like the football players, when you're creative and not blunt like the cheerleaders, when you're apart and not gathered in herds, not part of any cliques, then you're in for four years of hell.

I know what this is like, of course. I wanted to kill other people, too. I almost dropped out of high school in the middle of my senior year, because high school is that hellish and seems like it will go on forever. I nearly killed myself a couple of times because of the relentless bullying and teasing. A boy with a name similar to mine died of alcohol poisoning when I was a freshman, and when my death was accidentally reported instead, there were people who applauded. And I know that people think they were all teased in high school, but that's bullshit--at least two-thirds of you popular assholes are out there right now selling insurance and managing fast food outlets, and you have no idea that you ever hurt anyone because you motherfuckers all think everyone likes you, and everyone believes you're clever. Look at George W. Bush; these are the ones who cause these problems in the first place. He lied about drugs because he didn't want kids to try them based on his example. He just teaches them that it's okay to take what you want from people by force, or by lying.

None of this is to make Jeff Weise heroic, or to take the horror away from what he's done. It is always wrong and blunt and stupid and tragically fucked to kill people just because they're assholes. This kid--whose last name is German, so I guess that makes him evil, because it means "white" and that can only make him a neo-Nazi, right, you stupid fucking media outlets?--had a problem that, sadly, he could not face in a rational manner. It is wrong that he murdered people and wounded more. But it cannot be undone, either, and any platitude at this moment is hollow. It's easy to say you feel sorry for the victims--they're victims, and that will not be changed. But I also sympathize with Weise. At his age, we can't simply blame video games or write him off as evil. It's the high school environment. It kills people slowly, and sometimes it gets sped up.

Weise had lost both of his parents; his father to suicide, his mother to a mental institution. The most telling aspect of this is that his principal, one Chris Dunshee, said "I didn't really, I guess, feel that he was teased to the point where something like this would happen." Analyze that sentence real quick. He knew this was going on, he knew Weise was having his feelings hurt. But he didn't think it was enough of a problem to say anything, because Weise wasn't crying on his desk or making threats. That's bullshit, Dunshee--hurting others is wrong, no matter what, and in high school, it can be deadly. How're you sleeping these nights, Dunshee? My guess is really well, unaware that your words may have made a difference, unaware that your unwillingness to say anything may have prevented or postponed this violence. Sleep well. Only assholes and perverts become principals anyway.

High school is like a more intense version of society. As I write, at this very moment, there is a commercial for Colgate. Better whiten your teeth until they gleam like snow, because what other people think of you is incredibly important. Lose weight so you won't be fatter than anyone else, buy an SUV so no one knows your suburban dick is small, don't speak out because you draw attention to yourself. All the media tells you is BE LIKE EVERYONE ELSE! IT'S DANGEROUS TO BE DIFFERENT! SAMENESS IS ALL! SAFETY IN NUMBERS! It makes me so goddamn sick! We're surprised when a high school shooting happens? We should be surprised it doesn't happen more often! We should be surprised that the violence under the surface doesn't erupt into a full-out war and kill every last motherfucking one of us!

Well, nothing to do now but wait for the copycat shootings to start. There's usually three or four, and they can't really be stopped. You can put all the security around the schools you want, it'll still happen. There are two places in life where people are forced to interact with people they normally wouldn't want to associate with, and basically babysat while they work off their excess energy and unfocused rage. The other one is prison.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Masters of Animation 1911-1929

In addition to running the Evaluating Disney series (the second part of which should be up soon), I want to take the time, concurrently, to review some other important or interesting animation from the same time period. This is the first installment of many to come.

Animation travels back further than Plane Crazy's 1928 debut. But much of it isn't notable until we reach the man many regard as the Grandfather of Animation.

WINSOR McCAY (?-1934)
McCay's early years are obscure, but we know he dropped out of college around 1886 to draw caricature portraits at Sackett & Wiggins's Wonderland, a dime museum (pioneered by Barnum as a permanent sideshow attraction) in Ypsilanti, Michigan. There, McCay learned to draw very quickly, but with an exactness of detail. McCay worked mainly in newspapers, illustrating stories starting in 1896, and then moving on to the comic strips. Throughout his life, he would often have two or three strips running concurrently; he was just very, very fast. His strips include:

1. Tales of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle (1903, New York Evening Telegram)
2. Mr. Goodenough (1904, New York Evening Telegram)
3. Sister's Little Sister's Beau (1904, New York Evening Telegram)
4. Phurious Phinish of Phoolish Philipe's Phunny Phrolics (1904, New York Evening Telegram)
5. Little Sammy Sneeze (1904-1906, New York Evening Telegram)
6. Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-1911, New York Evening Telegram; 1911-1913, New York Post)
(This is McCay's first strip triumph, featuring a man who ate rabbit--'rarebit'--every evening too close to his bedtime, and dreamed strange and wonderful things.)
7. The Story of Hungry Henrietta (1905, New York Herald Tribune)
8. A Pilgrim's Progress by Mister Bunion (1905-1910, New York Evening Telegram)
9. Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1911, New York Herald Tribune)
(Undoubtedly McCay's triumph, and one of the most wonderful strips of all time, revolving around the adventures of a little boy who would dream fantastic adventures. Hearst liked the strip so much he bought it in 1911 for one of his papers, the New York American, and ran it from 1911-1914 under the name In the Land of Wonderful Dreams. In 1924, McCay started running it again in the Herald until 1927.)
10. Poor Jake (1909-1911, New York Herald Tribune)

McCay also loved vaudeville, and took it up as a hobby. Sometimes he would sit at a table and show off his speed-drawing skills. After seeing a demonstration of the flip-book, he got the idea to include animation as part of his show (which was increasingly popular), drawing the first important cartoon, Little Nemo (1911). The cartoon has no plot, it simply features his characters being stretched in different ways and running around. Still, looking at it today is like watching a preview of the next hundred years of cartoons. It's an important work, and at about four minutes, too short to get dull.

The animation proved popular, so McCay decided to do more. After the slow-moving but well-animated How a Mosquito Operates (1912), McCay created the most important cartoon of all time: Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). McCay proved very Barnum-esque in his endeavor; first, he drew a cartoon that consisted of thousands of new drawings. Today, cartoon backgrounds are painted, then cells of animation are placed over it. McCay drew everything by hand for his short cartoon. Then, he produced a short film on the making of the cartoon (the story claims McCay was attempting to win a bet). And then McCay's film, featuring a playful brontosaurus runs, with McCay himself talking to the screen and--thanks to timed intervals meticulously rehearsed--interacting with Gertie herself. I call it the most important cartoon of all time because it is the first to have a character in it. Gertie is warm, likeable, tempermental, and--beginning a long tradition of anthropomorphizing animals and objects--recognizably human. The animation was a sensation, and who knows what McCay might have accomplished if he had kept going. Unfortunately, Hearst demanded that McCay stop devoting so much time to what was supposed to be a hobby and focus only on the Nemo strip.

McCay did some other short works, unwilling to give up animation completely. The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) is a bold work of outrage, while Gertie returned in the endlessly dull Gertie on Tour (1919). His last great works were all produced in 1921. McCay did three shorts based on Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, all of them animated with intricate design. In The Pet, we are introduced to a dog that becomes so gigantic the military has to take him out. The Flying House sees the man putting an engine and wings on the home and flying to Saturn--it is simply transcendent. And Bug Vaudeville sees insects putting on a show at night in what might be a precursor to Disney's Silly Symphonies series.

McCay died of a sudden brain hemorrage in 1934. But his films still live, and his comic strips are still wondrous. You can watch Little Nemo below.

OTTO MESSMER (1892-1983)
Otto Messmer started animating in 1915 for Universal, and then worked on the largely forgotten Travelaughs series. But it was being hired by Australian-born producer Pat J. Sullivan in 1916 that launched his career in cartoons. Messmer worked on Sullivan's fun Charlie series, financed by Charles Chaplin and featuring animated adventures of the Little Tramp. The best of these was 20,000 Laughs Under the Sea (1916), which ran as a short accompanying Universal's classic silent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Messmer later felt that working on these cartoons taught him about comedic timing and body language.

After spending 1917 in the army (in Europe) while Sullivan spent 9 months in Sing Sing for statutory rape, the two teamed up again in 1918 to do piecework for other animators like Earl Hurd and Paul Terry. Next they produced the very funny Feline Follies (1919) for John King's Paramount Screen Machine, a collection of cartoons and news that played before shows in Paramount theaters. The feline star of the short was called Master Tom, but King renamed him Felix the Cat and contracted Sullivan to produce one cartoon a month for the next 2 years. When studio head Adolph Zukor discontinued the series in 1921, Sullivan later claimed to have urinated on Zukor's desk to get the rights to Felix back.

Sullivan shopped Felix around, but no one wanted him. Margaret J. Winkler saw the potential, however, and left Warner Bros. to become the first independent female producer and distributor in animation. She was instrumental in finding other animators to up the quality and ease the work load on Messmer (who, like McCay before him, drew every frame by hand). These animators included Bill Nolan (later of Krazy Kat and, until Ub Iwerks, the fastest animator of all time) and Raoul Barre. Winkler, meanwhile, also went on to producer the Flesicher Out of the Inkwell series (more in another column) and Walt Disney's Alice Comedies. Her gamble paid off--Felix was the most popular character of the 1920s. He became the New York Yankees mascot in 1922, and in 1927, Charles Lindbergh carried a Felix doll in his flight across the sea. Until Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat was the most marketed character of all time. Felix Chevrolet stands to this day.
Seen today, probably the best of the Felix cartoons are Felix Lends a Hand (1922), in which our hero flies a magic carpet to Egypt to rescue the sweetheart of an Arab salesman; Felix in the Bone Age (1922), in which a prehistoric Felix evades cavemen who want to use him for fur; Felix in Hollywood (1923), during which, in a little tribute, Felix steals some of Chaplin's shtick (until the Tramp catches him at it); Felix in Fairyland (1923), where the cat fights an ogre to find a home for the little old lady who lives in a shoe; and Felix Goes A-Hunting (1923), where feisty Felix goes on a bear hunt to get a fur for a friend's wife. One can easily see the reason Felix became so popular--Felix is a character who just wants to have fun. He can be a little bit of a brat, but he generally does the right thing. And Messmer' s animation invests real touches of character in the cat, such as pulling on his whiskers when he's in thought. He's a character, one the audience can relate to and cheer for.

So, why did such a popular character disappear from the screens? Because Pat Sullivan was a traditionalist, never one to push the envelope, and he thought sound was merely a fad that would disappear quickly. He refused to spend the extra money, and as a result, Felix the Cat became a relic of the silent past in the face of Mickey Mouse (who, it must be said, is pretty obviously inspired by Felix). The copyright became impossible to find eventually, and the character walked out of the public eye. Sullivan died in 1934. Otto Messmer faded into obscurity, never even credited with inventing Felix the Cat (Sullivan took all the credit) until Joe Oriolo began creating new Felix shorts for TV in 1958 and insisted that Messmer be credited. Before he died, Messmer felt the admiration of animation fans everywhere for his "lost" achievement.

Here's some of that old-time racial caricaturizing in the Messmer-directed Felix Saves the Day.

LOTTE REINIGER (1899-1911)
Charlotte Reiniger was born in Berlin, and grew up wanting to be a special effects creator for Paul Wegener (The Golem, 1915). He encouraged her to go into animation when he saw the silhouette effects she was so good at, and produced her first short film, The Ornament of the Lovestruck Heart (1919). In 1926, she released what we can safely call the first animated feature of all time, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The story, inspired by Arabian Nights, sees Prince Achmed flying on a horse to a magical land where he fights a sorcerer, befriends a witch, falls in love with a goddess, and rescues her from demons with the help of Aladdin and his lamp. It's a wonderfully preserved piece of exoticism from the Weimar Era, and still an exciting and gripping film. Jean Renoir and Rene Clair admired her work, and were supporters of her second film, Dr. Dolittle and His Animals (1928), which only exists today with a new score and a voice-over. The lack of sound in the film saw it fail on release, and what was to be her third feature, The Child and the Witcheries, was never completed because of copyright issues (the film was based on a Ravel opera with book by Collette).

All known prints of The Adventures of Prince Achmed were destroyed in the Allied bombing of Berlin in 1945, but the current restoration print was found in the 1960s. It has a new score, and runs faster than it should (in Reiniger's time, film moved at 18 frames a second, not 24, so the 90 minute film runs about 65 minutes now), but it's still dazzling to the eye and breathtaking in its grandeur. It's one of the most magical things you could ever see.

Reiniger herself continued to do animated shorts, often with subtle anti-Nazi messages. Renoir helped her leave Germany for long intervals to work on his films, and Reiniger finally emigrated to England in 1948, forming Primrose Productions and doing films for the BBC. She completed her final film, The Rose and the Ring, in 1979 at the age of 80. Today, her work is impossible to find.

Here's an example of her work.

Other Works of the Time
Much animation of the 1910s and 1920s is hard to find, and often, like Harry Palmer's relentlessly dull I'm Insured (1916) aren't worth the trouble. The wonderful Fleischer's will be handled in another column. I have yet to see any Krazy Kat cartoons, and Walt Disney's Laugh-O-Grams, Alice Comedies, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, will be discussed at some length another time. Until then!

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Great American Bitch Hunt

Lil' Kim (nee Kimberly Jones) was convicted this week of perjury and conspiracy to commit perjury in a 2001 shooting. But I know she was really convicted of three things: 1. being rich and single, 2. being a successful woman (and single), and of course let's not forget, 3. being black.

Honestly, am I that far from the truth? America hates to see a woman who is successful (Kim was one of the only female rappers with a viable career), rich (oh, you better believe she rollin' in it), and single. And besides that, she was so sexual--since her first album, Hard Core (1996), the image she's played to has been that of an oversexed, glamour girl who, if she needed a man, only needed him for a really long night. Otherwise, she had no use for him. And if there's one thing America's Puritan sensibilities can't handle, it's casual sex.

Well, casual sex or being black. In a nation with a violent history, it still surprises people that sometimes there's shooting in the streets. The "Wild West" life never really died, though, it just became less dominant. People still carry guns. People still use them. The Constitution, for some reason, gives them that right, and people believe in the Second Ammendment more forcefully than they do in the First Ammendment--people would rather have guns than freedom (I guess on the theory that, if they have a gun, they already have freedom). Today's gangsters are just as unbalanced as they were 150 years ago, there's just more people around these days to get caught in the crossfire. But these things happen in cities now, and America's knee jerk reaction is that it's all black people and rappers doing the shooting these days (though, to be fair, it's usually rich suburban white kids who suddenly snap and take out their schools).

Our president has ordered the deaths of hundreds of innocent people (we call it "collateral damage" these days, instead of its real term, "murder"). Lil' Kim lied about two or three of her friends. President Bush lies about his connection to the Saudi government, which has done their fair share of murder, too. Laura Bush is a "great First Lady" because she supports her husband no matter what dumb shit comes out of his mouth, but Hilary Clinton wanted to be a man because she was political and had a brain. Laura looks like a Stepford wife, only not so life-like.

Why did this happen? Is lying worse than committing murder? There are three levels of lying in government cases, and she was convicted of the worst: conspiracy. Does Lil' Kim really deserve 20 years in prison for this? Especially when Kenneth Lay is STILL WALKING AROUND A FREE MAN?!?! But Kenny Boy was a white man, so that makes it okay.

Martha Stewart is back at home, serving the second half of her sentence (5 months of house arrest). She, too, was a rich, successful single woman. I bet the IRS was just watching her every move, desperately hoping to take a woman who didn't bow to men down a few pegs. She lied, too, about a stock sale (something no one like Dick Cheney would ever do, right?), and she was convicted for it. But, since she didn't have the extra crimes of violence, extreme sexuality, and, you know, being an African-American, she got convicted on the lowest end of the lying spectrum: giving false statements. Still, it was only the first of what promises to be a wave of the government teaching rich, successful, single women a lesson in needing to do what a man tells them to do.

It all comes down to this: any time a man can't handle a woman, or she doesn't give him what he wants, or she gets something without his help, his gut reaction is to call her a bitch. And when those men get in power, the first thing they do (after buying a sports car) is punish every woman that reminds him of the bitches in his past. A white man with power is a dangerous thing. And bitches will be punished accordingly.

I want to puke right now. All I know is, Janet Jackson had best make sure she doesn't do anything wrong while Bush is still in the White House.