Thursday, September 22, 2005

Interesting Fucking Lecture

In my Linguistics class on Tuesday, we were studying affixes in morphology.

TEACHER (a kindly, older woman from Munich): An affix at the start of a word is called a prefix, and at the end of a word is called a suffix. There is also the possibility of an infix, which breaks up a word and changes the meaning, but we don't have them in English. Actually, there is one. Do you know what this is?

STUDENT (a shy, bookish girl in glasses and pigtails): Fucking?

TEACHER: Can you use that in a word?

STUDENT: Un-fucking-believable?

TEACHER: Yes, that's exactly right. Fucking. I am not swearing, I'm teaching you.

ANOTHER STUDENT (jock): But, that word means, like, 80 different things.

TEACHER: Yes, well, it is a wonderfully innovative word.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Evaluating Disney: 1936

For 1936, work at Walt Disney Studios was essentially business-as-usual. Of course, that business was putting out a high quality of animation, while continuing work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This year built on the innovations of the last, and the animators began to build up Mickey's supporting characters into major players in their own right.

1/14: Mickey's Polo Team
You can feel Dave Hand's excellent pacing all over this short. Mickey and his polo team--Donald (on a burro, of course), Goofy (referred to on the board as "The Goof," and the Big Bad Wolf (one senses the desperate need for a fourth, though Horace Horsecollar would have been very welcome)--face down a team of celebrities--Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin, and Harpo Marx (on an ostrich). Not only are there a lot of other Hollywood players in the stands for the match (including Greta Garbo, W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, and Eddie Cantor), but there are a LOT of Disney characters in the stands, including the Three Little Pigs, Ambrose and Dirty Bill, King Midas, the Flying Mouse, Jenny Wren, and two of the Peculiar Penguins. Clarabelle Cow hits on Clark Gable, Max Hare hits on Edna May Oliver, and Shirley Temple sits with the Pigs looking like Goldilocks (and at one point, Shirley Temple was supposed to voice Goldilocks in a Silly Symphony version--sketches were drawn, but it was never animated). There are some truly hilarious gags in this one, and poor Donald gets the worst of it when he accidentally swallows the ball and everyone tears off after him with clubs. The best of the Hollywood characters here is Oliver Hardy; the animators get his mannerisms just right. This cartoon was inspired by Walt's real life love of polo; he used to play against other Hollywood studios. Unfortunately, he was involved in a polo accident that crushed four of his cervical vertebrae and cut short his polo pastime. This short was also delayed when the animators had to take out the late Will Rogers, who died while this cartoon was in production--he was originally meant to be on the polo team. Mickey himself has little to do, though, and Donald Duck steals the entire short. The animators, I think, needed a break from the Mouse.

2/15: Orphan's Picnic
Oh, those fucking orphans, once again torturing everyone in their quest for a good time. Here, they're on a picnic, and once again, Mickey has virtually nothing to do. The whole show is stolen by Donald Duck, who has taken on the more familiar form that he'll more or less keep throughout his career. As in 1934's Orphan's Benefit (as in Mickey's Nightmare) these kids annoy and frustrate much more than they amuse and entertain. Ben Sharpsteen directed.

3/7: Mickey's Grand Opera
Mickey presides over an operatic showing by Clara Cluck and Donald Duck which is actually pretty funny. Mickey gets all pissed at Pluto again, too; this time, the dog keeps chasing a magician's hat full of doves and bunnies--the best scene in this short occurs when Pluto chases the hat into a tuba and a shower of doves and bunnies flies out all over the place. There's a little frog, too, who looks a lot like an Ub Iwerks frog. Once again, Mickey has little to do, and it's pretty obvious that the animators are having more fun doing Donald and Pluto. The Mouse had just grown into too nice of a guy to be that interesting dramatically.

3/28: Elmer Elephant
The first Silly Symphony of the year tells the story of Elmer Elephant, who is invited to Tilly Tiger's birthday party, but is chased away when her friends ridicule his trunk. Of course, the trunk saves them when a fire breaks out, and Elmer wins a kiss from his little friend. The animation style (Wilfred Jackson directed) is very well done, and it doesn't really look like any other Disney cartoon from this time (great shading and shadow work). Part of that is because of the use of jungle animals, rather than the typical mice and ducks and dogs. The characterization is good, too--Joey Hippo is a fucking prick, but Joe Giraffe is kindly and sweet, and the chimp fire department is hilarious (I like their high, sped-up voices). Maybe it's a little bit too cute, but there very easily could have been an Elmer Elephant series of cartoons and it might have been highly enjoyable. This is yet another Silly Symphony that doesn't really use music.

4/18: Three Little Wolves
Dave Hand brings the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs back for their third film; this time, the Practical Pig is angry because he's trying to plan a "Wolf Pacifier" machine and his brothers keep blowing the alarm. When they are finally captured by the Wolf and his nephews, the Practical Pig doesn't believe the alarm is real. Hand throws in a little Tex Avery, too (though Tex had yet to make his "Wolf & Red" shorts), when the Wolf dresses up like Bo Peep and lures Fifer and Fiddler Pig into his lair--before he reveals his identity, the pigs blush as if Bo Peep is coming on to them! Weirdly, the Wolf lectures his nephews on which parts of the pig are edible in German. The sequels to Three Little Pigs often get a bad rap, but they're actually quite fun and inventive. Of course, we get another reprise of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"

5/30: Thru the Mirror
After reading Alice in Wonderland, Mickey dreams he's in the mirror world, where everything is anthropomorphic and dances around (the radio looks a little Fleischer-y). The animation is brilliant, especially the tap dance sequence, anything with the marching cards, and Mickey's duel with the King of Hearts (the Queen looks a little like Garbo, and the King looks like Charles Laughton). One of the best of the Mickey Mouse shorts, directed by the great Dave Hand.

6/30: Mickey's Rival
This short grew from an in-joke; when Walt first created the Mouse, he wanted to name his character Mortimer. His wife, Lillian, suggested the name Mickey instead. Well, in this cartoon, Mickey and Minnie are out on a date, when she runs into her old beau, Mortimer--a flashy jokester whose every word only infuriates Mickey. In the end, Mortimer runs like a coward and Mickey has to rescue Minnie from a charging bull. There's some great animation (Wilfred Jackson directed) on the anthropomorphic cars; Mortimer's shiny roadster cops an attitude with Mickey's beat-up jalopy. I liked the car; I think he was a better, less-irritable pal for the Mouse than Pluto, frankly.

6/30: Moving Day
Mickey and Donald are evicted by their landlord, Pete, and with Goofy's help, they try to move out before Pete can come in and sell their furniture. Goofy, by the way, shows up singing "The World Owes Me a Living," the popular song Pinto Colvig sang in The Grasshopper and the Ants (he also sang it in On Ice). There's some good, surprising gags--I see what they were going for with the piano gags--but, for some reason, the gags run a little too long and irritate me more than they make me laugh. Funny ending, though.

7/25: Alpine Climbers
Mickey, Donald, and Pluto climb the Alps and get in all manner of trouble. Donald gets into a fight with a goat (the goat started it, trust me), while Mickey fights an eagle over some eggs and Pluto gets drunk with a Saint Bernard rescue dog. It's more breezy pacing from Dave Hand, and this time the action is equally divided between all three.

8/1: Mickey's Circus
And then the focus was almost completely on Donald Duck, who spends the bulk of this cartoon trying to get his seals (including a mischevious little one who's very cute) to perform. Unfortunately, they're performing for the Orphans, so all they do is taunt and torment Donald. Mickey's role is lesser in this one, but there's some good high-wire jokes that seem like an homage to Chaplin's 1928 film The Circus. Ben Sharpsteen directed; this is another cartoon, like last year's Mickey's Fire Brigade, that's very good at suggesting space and height.

8/22: Toby Tortoise Returns
For some reason, Toby Tortoise and Max Hare are back, as their rivalry manifests in a boxing match. It's not very inventive or interesting, and Disney's already done better boxing cartoons (like Mickey's Mechanical Man). There are a lot of Silly Symphonies characters hanging around, though, including Jenny Wren, Elmer Elephant, the Three Little Pigs, and Dirty Bill. If you look at the backgrounds, it looks like Goofy and Donald are there, too. This doesn't feel like a Silly Symphony at all, but much more like a Mickey Mouse short, with the focus on characters and gags. It doesn't feel very "Disney," either; it's a lot more like a Tex Avery cartoon. Personally, I think Wilfred Jackson wasted his time on this one.

9/12: Donald and Pluto
Although this is a Mickey Mouse cartoon, he doesn't even appear in it. The animators had spent so much of the last year pushing Mickey into the background in favor of Donald and Pluto, so it only makes sense to put them in their own show reel (both characters would soon get their own series). Ben Sharpsteen manages to get a lot of mileage out of Pluto swallowing a magnet, but it gets old fast. Not one of the best; not even one of the fairest.

9/26: Three Blind Mouseketeers
One of Dave Hand's least interesting Silly Symphonies, this one featuring the Three Blind Mice in their fight against the foul Captain Katt. Cute, but rather slapdash and cobbled-together. Meh.

10/10: Mickey's Elephant
Seriously, what's with all the elephants this year? Mickey has a pet elephant, Bobo, and builds a house for the guy. Meanwhile, Pluto's worried he's going to be replaced, and at the behest of a little green devil, torments the poor thing. This is the kind of cartoon that makes Pluto such a tiresome character--his only motivation is to be first in Mickey's affections, and he does a lot of cruel things to make sure it stays that way. I thought Bobo was cute, though--along with the car from Mickey's Rival, and even the parrot from way back in Mickey's Parrot, Bobo would make a great replacement for Pluto. Otherwise, even the artistry of Dave Hand can't help this one raise itself up from a mere mild amusement.

10/31: The Country Cousin
Based on Aesop's fable of The Country Mouse and the Town Mouse, this one basically features two mice dining on a kitchen table. It feels to me as though the entire design of the house and the whole cat-chasing-mice game inspired the look and feel of the Tom and Jerry cartoons (nearly down to the color scheme). Otherwise, it has surprisingly little to say about town values vs. country values, and is kinda dull.

11/14: Mother Pluto
Interestingly, this is one of the Silly Symphonies, even though it's a solo Pluto cartoon that has nothing to do with music. It's very cute and fun, though; a mother hen lays her eggs in Pluto's dog house, and when the chicks hatch, they think Pluto is their mother. Of course, Pluto hates the little things at first, but soon comes to love them and is so protective that he fights a rooster over them. Wilfred Jackson directed one of the few cartoons up to this time to really give Pluto emotions and make him sympathetic. Delightful.

12/19: More Kittens
Oh, those fucking kittens. This boring short is the sequel to last year's boring Three Orphan Kittens. I like this one even less.

There were no obvious innovations for Disney in 1936, but the direction of the cartoons continues last year's trends. First, the Silly Symphonies are pretty much breaking away from their original intention of exploring music with experimental animation, and many cartoons feature returning characters (the Three Little Pigs, Toby Tortoise, even Pluto). The animators seem bored, or out of ideas. Secondly, the Mickey Mouse shorts are featuring a lot less of Mickey and a lot more of Donald Duck and Pluto, even though Pluto's potential as a character never seemed very full or intriguing to me. And finally, the uniformity of everything is overwhelming. You have to consider that most of the story talent is geared towards Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (a year away from making its debut), and that the ideas are light for the regular shorts. Every cartoon this year was directed by Dave Hand, Ben Sharpsteen, or Wilfred Jackson, and they seem to be trying (and in some cases, failing) not to repeat themselves. But the spark was gone for much of 1936, and the Walt Disney Studio seems at more of a crossroads than ever--it was time to either pick a new direction, or re-commit to the one they have.

Evaluating Disney: 1935

Walt Disney continued to innovate in 1935, perfecting his techniques while putting as many resources as he could into the ongoing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs project. Unlike the animation world of today, the animators were the highest-paid talents at the studio, many averaging $150 to $200 a week (and this during the Great Depression). This is the year when Disney cartoons began to take on a new shape, becoming subtly different than they were before. Mickey's design was tweaked slightly, and Donald Duck's began to grow away from the early, angular form, and towards a more pleasant roundness. Pluto's character took on a bit of a new personality, and Goofy was finally finding his own. The old barnyard characters were more or less gone, and Mickey began to be a little more cosmopolitan--he also took on some color. The last black & white Mickey Mouse cartoons were released in 1935, and he finally made the permanent shift to color. No more black & white cartoons would be released by Walt Disney in the future.

1/5: The Tortoise and the Hare
This oft-told Aesop fable becomes a Silly Symphony about the race between Max Hare (who seems to presage Bugs Bunny as a rabbit with a massive ego--in fact, Bugs and Max were designed by the same man, Chuck Thorsen) and the slow Toby Tortoise. Well, we all know how it ends, and despite being directed by Wilfred Jackson, this Oscar-winning (!) cartoon is a little bit of a bore.

1/19: Mickey's Man Friday
Wow, this one... well, in a take on Robinson Crusoe (this was released to the home market under the title Robinson Crusoe Mickey), Mickey's trading ship washes up on shore to find an island full of cannibals--I swear, Mickey shipwrecks and washes up on islands more than Odysseus did! Anyway, the cannibals (chimp-like "black man" caricatures) are trying to roast someone alive; Mickey saves him and calls him Friday, just like Crusoe. I'll admit, this is heavily stereotyped--Friday uses his feet to hold things and climb, while Mickey tells him: "You Friday, saavy?" like any arrogant white trader. But this is also a lively cartoon, with at least one great tracking shot of Mickey cutting down trees, and the scenes where Friday and Mickey defend themselves from the cannibals are exciting and funny. Dave Hand directed this cartoon, and brings his trademark pacing and humor to it. Yes, it's a racist, stereotyped cartoon, but it's very funny and the last short that feels like the original Mickey Mouse.

2/23: The Band Concert
Mickey's first color cartoon (not counting the special Parade of the Oscar Nominees in 1932) and my personal favorite of his series. The story is very simple: Mickey tries to conduct a concert in the park, and Donald Duck keeps disrupting it. Donald, a vendor, interrupts with his fife; while the band tries to play the Overture to William Tell, Donald keeps trying to play "Turkey in the Straw" and confusing the orchestra. It's a nice bridge between color Mickey and black & white Mickey, too--some of the barnyard characters are here; even Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar play in the orchestra. The final sequence, with Mickey conducting and the band playing even as a tornado spins them around, is a true classic. This is one of the most popular cartoons of all time, and it's easy to see why: this is one of the very, very few that reaches true perfection, and on such a simple premise and with almost no dialogue--it's pure cartooning. Excellent. Wilfred Jackson directed. As a historical side note, some say that this was the cartoon that gave Leopold Stokowski the idea to blend Mickey and classical music, which led to Fantasia.

3/16: Mickey's Service Station
A return to black & white as Mickey, Donald, and Goofy try and get the squeak out of Pegleg Pete's car, only to tear the whole thing apart in the process. I always loved the cartoons with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, just trying so hard and completely failing at some kind of menial job. Ben Sharpsteen brings a lot of humor to this cartoon as each character finds a way to destroy the car a little bit more. Fun stuff.

3/22: The Golden Touch
This Silly Symphony takes Aesop's fable and makes it about a Medieval king (Harryhausen did, too--man, just once I'd like to see it set in Ancient Greece). And let me tell you, this Midas is a real greedhead; he gets the golden touch, and the first thing he can think of to do is turn his cat into an 18 karat statue! Good music, though the short itself is pretty depressing and a little mean. Walt Disney directed this short himself, trying to keep his hand in the actual execution, but this film was poorly received and Walt retired from directing ever again. Supposedly, in later years when he would express displeasure with another animator's work, all one had to do to humble him was bring up The Golden Touch! Walt was very touchy about it, and would get quite angry over it--especially since he was highly critical of his directors and thought he was going to show them all up with this one. Pretty heavily despised, but it's not bad at all. The end is typical Walt humor, where Midas trades everything for a hamburger: "with onions!"

4/13: Mickey's Kangaroo
This is Mickey's last black & white cartoon, and it's too bad it's so...well, bad. Dave Hand worked at the bottom of his form here, as Mickey receives a boxing kangaroo (and his son) in the mail. The kangaroos are terribly drawn, all bulky but with little heads that look like Mickey's (they kind of presage the Kanga and Roo designs from Disney's Winnie the Pooh cartoons). Especially creepy and annoying is the device where Pluto, angry with the new animals, looks at the camera and sneers, while we hear his sinister thoughts of revenge. What the hell happened to Pluto? He used to be a generally happy dog, hamming it up a little and wrecking things with his ignorance and incessant need to chase animals; from this point on he's an overly sensitive, irritable attention hog who snaps at things and makes everyone miserable. I'm not really sure it's his fault, either; Mickey used to fuck with his head pretty bad, and for someone so amiable he sure yells at and scolds his dog an awful lot. And did you ever notice how much little animals like to annoy him? They're always biting him, kicking him, punching him in the nose. Man, it's amazing Pluto doesn't just snap and kill everyone. Either way, this is really not an enjoyable cartoon! When Mickey and the kangaroo box, all I can think of is how much neater the robot/gorilla dust-up was in Mickey's Mechanical Man.

4/20: The Robber Kitten
Dave Hand redeems himself with this cute, fun Silly Symphony about a cat named Ambrose who wants to be a highwayman. Running off to prove himself, he runs into another thief named Dirty Bill (whose voice is more or less exactly the same as Pete's) and receives a harsh lesson in the realities of the criminal life. It manages to have a moral without moralizing, and the character of Dirty Bill has a neat design (and a fun theme song). Slight, but very good and briskly paced.

5/11: Water Babies
Inspired by the Charles Kingsley poem, naked babies wake up in the morning, emerge from their water lillies, and parade and stumble and caper and, yes, even gambol about. Their reverie is ruined when a bullfrog goes crazy and stampedes, and then the babies have to go to bed. Okay, I know this Wilfred Jackson short is staggeringly popular, and toddlers seem to love it, but I find it a disturbing apotheosis of some kind of anal fixation. Seriously, this cartoon freaks me out. And like a lot of the "parade" Silly Symphonies, nothing much happens; it just sort of exists for seven or eight minutes, and then it's gone. Meh.

5/25: The Cookie Carnival
Easily as saccharine--or perhaps more so--as Funny Little Bunnies and Water Babies, this follows a parade of cookie people who try and decide who the "Cookie Queen" will be. This cookie beauty contest feels a lot more like an Ub Iwerks cartoon than a Disney (Ben Sharpsteen directed). Pinto Colvig does the voice of the hobo cookie who turns a sad girl into the Cookie Queen with just a little costume magic. Some racial stereotyping (and, I think, a little gay stereotyping), and just a little too sweet for me. No pun intended. Excellent, vibrant colors, though.

6/29: Who Killed Cock Robin?
Dave Hand strikes again in another well-paced Silly Symphony that, even if it isn't all it could be, is a lot of fun. I'm getting a little tired of the celebrity caricatures, but Jenny Wren--a Mae West caricature--is very well done and would have been welcome in her own cartoon. More racial and gay stereotyping is evident here, but it doesn't detract overly much. The parrot lawyer is well-animated. The courtroom cartoon is a device that feels a little played-out here, but the violence is kind of funny. Mixed, but certainly not bad. Nice try at a Gilbert & Sullivan type of feel, but the humor isn't absurdist or parodic enough.

7/13: Mickey's Garden
Mickey makes the final switch to color with this fun Wilfred Jackson short. Mickey is out spraying for insects in his garden, when--thanks, typically, to an idiot move on Pluto's part--he gets sprayed in the face and has a drug-induced fantasy where everything (the garden, the insects) gets a lot bigger. Mickey and Pluto spend the cartoon running for their lives and trying not to be eaten by some very cleverly-designed bugs and worms. Great colors, and some great scenes of the bugs tearing up the garden. Some of the humor is truly bizarre, like the insects drinking the poison and getting drunk. This surreal cartoon is a lot more like a Silly Symphony than a typical Mickey Mouse cartoon, as though the switch to color has made the animators more experimental with Mickey's adventures.

8/3: Mickey's Fire Brigade
Grim Natwick animated on this Ben Sharpsteen-directed short, and I wonder if that's why this cartoon has a bit of a Fleischer feel to it. This is a remake of the 1930 short The Fire Fighters, but since all of the barnyard animals are gone (Mickey's cast has gotten big on stars and short on supporters with personality), the only fire fighters here are Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, who try to save Clarabelle Cow from a house on fire. The animation is great; the Disney artists always give fire a personality and the colors are compelling, and spatial relations are better defined here than in most cartoons--when Mickey ends up at the top of the ladder high above the house, he looks like he's up in the clouds and the scene actually makes my palms sweat. Clarabelle Cow is hilarious; she's in the bath, and when Goofy tries to rescue her, she thinks he's some kind of masher and pounds him. Great fun.

8/31: Pluto's Judgment Day
After being admonished once again by Mickey for chasing a cat, Pluto dreams of his own descent into hell, where he is put on trial by the ghosts of his past feline victims and sentenced to burn in flames. Dave Hand directed this great cartoon, and the use of shadows and music makes this short something special and moody (this is another Mickey Mouse cartoon that actually feels more like a Silly Symphony, especially with its focus on music). Some good gags, too: when the cats go to string up Pluto, one of them is holding a sign that reads "Sic Semper Tyrannis," a sight gag that always makes me laugh. Probably Pluto's finest cartoon.

9/28: On Ice
Mickey and the gang go ice skating. Mickey's really become a good guy, much less of a brat, even if he shows off a little when he's trying to teach Minnie how to skate. Donald Duck has completely taken over the role of mischevious bastard--at one point, he puts ice skates on a sleeping Pluto--and steals every scene he is in. Goofy makes more of a showing here, too, ice fishing with tobacco and a club. Good-natured fun, though it's more nice than it is hilarious.

10/5: Music Land
Another bizarre Silly Symphony, this one telling the story of star-crossed love between the violin princess of the Land of Symphony, and the saxophone prince of the Isle of Jazz. It's highly imaginative and surreal, and Wilfred Jackson's direction brings a lot of humanity and character to the strange, anthropomorphic instruments. There's no dialogue, either, just intrument sounds that sometimes mimic patterns of speech. Very interesting and kind of nice, though the ending's double wedding is a bit of a stretch.

10/26: Three Orphan Kittens
When Dave Hand wanted to get cute, he could get a little to sugary. In this Silly Symphony, we have three kittens who basically just scamper about and knock things over. Not much too it, but good backgrounds. Inexplicably, in a year which produced The Band Concert, Pluto's Judgment Day, and Music Land, this cartoon won an Oscar. Lame.

11/30: Cock o' the Walk
A Silly Symphony featuring a genuine cockfight; when a champion boxing rooster returns home, the other chickens celebrate with vast musical sequences. But when the rooster tries to pick up on a sexy young chicken, her boyfriend comes to the rescue. Nothing special, but the character designs are hella neat.

12/14: Broken Toys
This Ben Sharpsteen Silly Symphony features discarded toys in a junkyard who find inventive ways to repair themselves. In the end, they march off to an orphanage to surprise the residents in time for Christmas. Okay, it's sentimental, but the sentimentality is reigned in and it ends on a nice note. I like it better than The Cookie Carnival, Water Babies, or Three Orphan Kittens, at any rate.

Have you noticed how the year always seems to end for Disney with overly-sentimental Christmas cartoons? They're never as interesting as some of the others. In the end, 1935 seems like a transitional year for Disney. The Mickey Mouse series left the old black & white adventures--and with them, the barnyard (and cast) and the simpler routines of, say, Mickey trying to fix the plumbing--behind. The shift to color had awakened new ideas, new methods, and a renewed sense of surreality that sometimes reached genius, and was almost always fun to watch. At this point, too, the Silly Symphonies are reaching a nadir, with less of a focus on music and experimentalism, and more of a desire to find characters and make cartoons much similar to the Mickey Mouse series. Each one was becoming more like the other.

What this seems to represent is perhaps Disney's major flaw: the uniform style. Walt either forced or happened to teach his animators that there was only one way to draw, and all the cartoons look alike (though, of course, they are distinguished by their levels of artfulness, by their levels of fun, and by the fact that they're just the best cartoons of their time). While there is (and always was) a sense of risk and experimentation on the more bizarre qualities of each cartoon and on just what was funny, the animation style (cartooning, really) is always the same. Though Walt was still only breaking even on his cartoons (and more often than that, losing money on his incredible investment and commitment to quality), one wishes he'd had the artistic courage to try out a different look every now and then to distinguish himself.

Either way, Disney was still on top. And they still deserved to be.