Saturday, December 10, 2005

Richard Pryor: 1940-2005

One of the greatest, funniest, most pointed comedians who ever lived. A real influence on my being such a smartass, at any rate. Rest in peace. Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 09, 2005

Never Laugh at a Man's Muppet Obsession

I have a friend I haven't seen in years. She's my cousin, kind of, but we don't think of each other that way. She's actually the daughter of my aunt's common-law husband, and she and I don't look at each other as being related. But we have been friends for a long, long time. Sort of.

See, she and I had a real thing for each other when I was 16 and she was 14. And it was really intense, too, like it always is when you're 16 and she's 14. But there was one snag: I lived in the far west suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, and she lived in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa. But we kept in touch occasionally on the phone, even when we decided we couldn't pursue our relationship. When she was about 19 or so we started talking a lot more, having phone sex with one another while she was at college. Then she got married and we didn't ever talk, mostly because her husband kept never telling her that I called.

Well, cut to just a year ago, and she gets in touch with me out of the clear blue. She has a seven year-old son, but she's been divorced for the same seven years. And we start talking about stuff (all kinds of stuff) once a week or so. Yeah, one time she drunk dials me and masturbates while I listen, but I don't take it real seriously. Becca was fascinated, but she also kept making "jokes" about how I was going to leave her for this girl who now lives in North Carolina. But the truth is, intellectually, emotionally, and in terms of mutual interests, I still have more in common with Becca than with any other girl. We're both geeks stuck in arrested development who like the same thing, and even though Becca says David Boreanaz is her perfect man physically (thanks, cheers, yes), I am still very, very much in love with her.

But the clincher is this. This girl is also a little bit of a geek, and we talk about our stuff. I was complaining about how I collect a series of action figures, and I had ordered the last one I needed from an online retailer and they had sent me the wrong one. When she inquired as to which series it was, I simply answered: The Muppet Show. To which she laughed her ass off. Loud, piercing, mean laughter. And this is from a woman who is such a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that she became one of the many cliches to write her college thesis on "Gender Expectations and Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as though it were an original topic (swing a dead cat in a univeristy and try not to hit a person who hasn't written that same paper). And I'm meant to accept that her laughter wasn't actually incredibly hurtful? She's an Anne Rice fan, for fuck's sake, so she doesn't exactly win in the grown-up department.

Anyway, if there's one thing I can say, it's never make fun of a man's Muppet obsession. And Becca doesn't have to worry that I'm ever going to leave her for a woman who laughs at and mocks my Muppet collection. In fact, up until last week, I hadn't even spoken to the girl in about four months. Not because I'm being vindictive (though I was offended), but because I just completely lost interest in anything she had to say. That laughter was a fucking off-switch.

I thank God that Becca and I have been together for eleven years. I'm too old and too geeky to figure out new relationships...

Monday, December 05, 2005

Evaluating Disney: 1937

We come to it at last: this is the year that Walt Disney changed the face of animation by releasing the first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Feeling that the short cartoons were basically filler that could be shuffled around on any bill, Disney took the next step and diversified his business by changing the playing field: he ended up proving that people will sit and watch nearly 90 minutes of animation (something once unthinkable). Of course, the releasing of the shorts did continue, and they continued to bring in money. By this point, Walt had managed to work out a lucrative production deal with RKO Radio Pictures that was the best the company had ever seen. RKO not only paid for the shorts, but once it recouped its initial investment, they only took 30% of the gross as a distribution fee (United Artists had taken more). RKO also allowed Disney to keep the control of the television rights, which was remarkably prescient for 1937 (other studios were happily signing those rights away for cash, thinking they would come to nothing).

For their own part, the animators seemed happy to work around the clock as they raced to finish production on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in time for its December release. Disney was very hands on, and no one's ever seemed to feel resentful about it; indeed, the story seems to be that they liked his presence and he held the entire production together with an excellent sense of story (not just on Snow White, but on everything). The artists were also attending art classes and lectures about design from such luminaries as Alexander Woolcott and Frank Lloyd Wright. Disney hired filmmakers to shoot film of animals in the wild so that his men could study movement and natural behavior. And Ub Iwerks had returned to the fold, and would help to create an important new engineering marvel: the multi-plane camera. This device (which Ub had created out of car engine parts while working at his own studio), once perfected, would allow for greater depth in animation than ever before. Backgrounds, characters, and effects could be placed on multiple planes, then shot at once with the camera for amazing spatial effects. Many credit this machine with the success of Snow White; audiences literally felt as though they had entered a fantasy kingdom.

But first, several other cartoons had to be released.

1/2: The Worm Turns
Mickey Mouse invents a formula that gives things courage and superior strength, then tests it out on a fly, a mouse, a cat, Pluto, and a fire hydrant. Mickey once again delights in his own bastardy, but the cartoon could easily stand to be a lot more fun. The energy and the chase scenes are yet another Disney cartoon that seem to have influenced Tom and Jerry (as last year's The Country Cousin and Three Blind Mouseketeers). The cartoon is mostly an excuse to experiment with the effects animation that will be used during the Queen's transformation sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

1/9: Don Donald
The first cartoon in the Donald Duck series, making Donald (who had become very popular very quickly) the star of Disney's third cartoon series. Donald plays a Don Juan type (this cartoon is very similar to the second Mickey Mouse cartoon, The Gallopin' Gaucho) and tries to woo Dona Duck, marking this as the first appearance of Daisy. In this first outing, Clarence Nash does both voices, so that Donald and Dona sound exactly alike, which gets a tiny bit irritating. You have to feel sorry for Donald's burro--Donald trades him for a flashy car! A nice cartoon in which the animators get to explore the romantic side of the duck.

2/6: Magician Mickey
Dave Hand directed this enjoyable short with Mickey in his classic bratty mode. While performing a magic show (it must be said that the animators skimp on the background detail here), Mickey has to endure the heckling of Donald, and gets his revenge through a variety of magic means. Goofy appears (and is electrocuted backstage), and it seems as though "The World Owes Me a Living" has become his official theme song. Mickey had gotten bland around mid-1935, but here he's a right prick again, fucking with Donald just because he can (dousing him with water and making him spit out playing cards). Donald, as always, gets his comeuppance over and over again. At this point, by the way, Mickey's character design is starting to get to me; his eyes look creepy when they move...

2/20: Moose Hunters
My favorite Mickey Mouse cartoons tend to be the ones where Mickey, Donald, and Goofy get together and attempt to work some endeavor, only to screw the whole thing up in an amusing and exciting fashion. This one, directed by Ben Sharpsteen, is one of my least favorite examples, but it's stil cute. They spend too much time with Goofy and Donald dressed as a female moose, a gag that grows less funny the more it goes on. Mickey barely appears, too.

2/13: Woodland Cafe
A Silly Symphonies short that shows a distinctly Fleischeresque flavor. Nothing really happens--just a bunch of insects hanging out at a jazz club in a tree. It kind of falls between some kind of homage/remake of the Winsor McCay 1920 cartoon Bug Vaudeville (one of the three in the series based on his comic strip Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend) and a weird prefiguring of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (a little man with no insect features and a pointy, round head) and the Fleischer insects in the 1941 film Hoppity Goes to Town. I thought the black caricatured jazz band was well-animated, but the cartoon ends too quickly after they arrive on the scene. Overall, pretty dull.

4/17: Mickey's Amateurs
A mess, but not for lack of trying; in fact, the animators kind of throw everything at the screen in this one. Mickey hosts an amateur hour (presaging The Gong Show by forty or so years), and many characters try to sing, etc. Donald Duck tries to recite "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," but can't make his way through it (he tries several times). Clara Cluck and Clarabelle Cow perform an aria together; suddenly, Clarabelle has a disconcertingly enormous rack, while Clara Cluck's chest keeps rising and falling with her singing. Then Goofy and his 15-piece band machine try to make it through "We'll Have a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," but the machine goes haywire. Finally, since they won't listen to him, Donald actually takes out a Tommy gun and starts blasting away at the audience! Weird, but still tedious.

5/15: Little Hiawatha
Dave Hand directed this wonderful Silly Symphony, one of the best short cartoons Disney put out this year. Loosely based on the Longfellow poem, a young Indian brave heads out to hunt, but is constantly surprised by how large all of his quarry is. Hiawatha is pictured as a small child, and there are occasions where the cartoon does get annoying precious (the kid's leggings keep falling down, exposing his butt to the audience in yet another display of Walt's anal fixation), but overall, it creates a nice effect and mood and keeps it going. Walt had toyed with the idea of making Hiawatha a feature-length movie, but it never gelled for him, so he approved it as a short instead. And it is one of the nicer ones.

5/29: Modern Inventions
Donald Duck visits a modern museum and gets harrassed by a robot hitchhiker, an automatic baby cradle, and a barber machine that parts his fanny and shines his face (again, the anal thing). The cartoon is remarkably funny, with some great visual gags. This is the last time Donald uses that great gag of pulling things out of thin air (a la the recorders up his sleeve in The Band Concert). This time, after the robot butler (a hilariously designed character) take his hat, he pulls out a new one and puts it on. This happens over and over again with several different styles of hat, and it's the funniest gag in the picture. Three animation greats closely tied to the duck are present here: it was directed by Jack King, animated by Jack Hannah, and written by the great Carl Barks, who would take over the Donald Duck comics and create several memorable characters who I can't imagine Donald's world without (such as the Baker Boys; Huey, Dewey, and Louie; Gyro Gearloose; the city of Duckburg; and of course, Uncle Scrooge McDuck). Barks suggested the sequence with the barber machine, and was immediately promoted to head scriptwriter for the series. This is a great cartoon.

7: A Trip Through the Walt Disney Studios
This was the first live action footage produced by the studio. Not intended for commercial release (though a later, edited version was), this 12 minute film was shot by Bill Garity to show off the animation process for RKO Radio Pictures, who were trying to come up with a way to sell Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to theaters and audiences. This is the earliest glimpse anyone had of the Disney process, and many luminaries appear on camera, including Norm Ferguson, Dave Hand, Wilfred Jackson, and Disney himself. Walt wears a very nice suit; though he says on camera that the film was "hurriedly thrown together," he has obviously made every effort to "pretty up" the place, looking as professional and business-like as possible. It's also some of the only film available of the old Hyperion studios, which Disney would move out of in 1940 for a specially-built facility. It's a nice piece of history, especially for Disney fans, but even for those who are simply interested in the process. It's available on Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes, where Leonard Maltin aptly refers to it as a blueprint for the later Disneyland TV series.

9/24: Hawaiian Holiday
I don't know, I still miss Horace Horsecollar; he was just so amiable. This is the first time that Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto have ever gotten together and gone on vacation as a group; none of the other characters appear at all. It's light and amusing, at times even a little slow, but nice overall. Once again, all of nature seems to exist to give Pluto a hard time; the sequence where a crab gets the best of him is the funniest part of the cartoon.

10/15: Clock Cleaners
One of the best of the Mickey/Donald/Goofy shorts, with the trio trying their best to clean an enormous clock at the top of a tower. Great use of perspective here, great details inside the tower. Goofy gets banged in the head, while Mickey tries to deal with a lazy stork and Donald breaks and tries to fix the mainspring with typically frustrating results. Ben Sharpsteen directed this short, which makes the most out of the somewhat minimal surroundings and the fearsome heights.

11/5: The Old Mill
Disney unveiled his multi-plane camera with this Wilfred Jackson-directed Silly Symphonies cartoon. There is no plot to speak of, really, but the music and the excitement carry this one. Disney's animators try to achieve a naturalism and realism of movement and nature that mostly works (the frogs are still pretty cartoonishly stylized, and every animal seems emotionally aware in a human sort of way). The multi-plane effect allows for several layers of background and foreground, and the effects animation is top notch. All that happens is this: animals live in an old mill, a storm comes and nearly destroys it, and a nesting bird is terrorized by the moving gears as she tries to protect her eggs. But the animation, the editing; everything's wonderful. This cartoon also won a special Academy Award for technical achievement. Most of the techniques seen here (especially the multi-plane and the lightning effects) would be of major importance to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as to Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Bambi. I absolutely love this film.

11/26: Pluto's Quin-Puplets
Pluto and Fifi (Minnie's annoyingly mean Pekingese) apparently have five little puppies now (never to appear again), and they get in all sorts of trouble. It's cute and the dogs are amazingly adorable, but the energy wanes too early. Despite the fact that it really is very well-animated and technically brilliant, the story is more noticeable because it's the first cartoon in the Pluto series. Not only was Disney now at four separate series, he was also getting into features; it's amazing he had any money at all. And, really, he didn't...

12/10: Donald's Ostrich
Messrs. King, Hannah, and Barks bring us a short that has potential, but gets old pretty quickly. Donald is a baggage handler at a train station, and finds a crate with an ostrich in it. The ostrich swallows a radio and a bunch of other stuff. Remember how boring those Looney Tunes were where Sylvester thought the boxing kangaroo was a giant rat? It's not quite that bad, but it's pretty boring.

Disney’s first feature film is a triumph. The wonder is all in the details; the long sequences that play like Silly Symphonies of their own within the film, such as the house-cleaning and the dwarfs sleeping, are wonderful because they never bore. This may be the only feature that feels like the animators were truly enjoying themselves, experimenting with the boundaries of the medium just for the sheer fun of it. The effects animation and the multi-plane camera (created during production) superbly create a fully engrossing experience, realizing another world before our eyes that exists so believably that it is never once questioned by the mind. The use of cross-cutting, the depth of the camera, the simple emotional impact of the story…the emotions are on a deeper level. There are no scares; there is terror. There is no sadness, but sorrow. There is no happiness, but joy. All in all, it's a marvelous achievement, and one which continues to be delightful and engrossing. The simple beauty of Snow White, the hilarity of the dwarfs, the warmth of the songs, the evil of the Queen, the final chase scenes, and the triumph of true love. What else do you need? A towering masterpiece.

(For more on the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, see separate entry here.)

12/24: Lonesome Ghosts
Mickey, Donald, and Goofy run a ghost-catching agency, and three lonely spooks call them over to have the fun of chasing them around. One of the best of the Mickey/Donald/Goofy shorts, and a perennial Halloween favorite. A special kind of ink had to be invented in order to make the ghosts look transparent; I always felt like the design of the ghosts (especially the cigar-smoking one) influences the other ghosts in the Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons. Goofy is the first person of film to utter the line "I ain't a-scared of no ghosts." Coincidence, or homage? Either way, this is a funny cartoon.

The end of 1937 saw Walt Disney triumph over those who had criticized his aims for the last couple of years, and established him as a major Hollywood producer. With the money from Snow White, Walt could have made more features and more cartoons and done extremely well with just that. But Walt always sought to aim higher, and he immeditely put another feature, Bambi, into production. Besides that, he and Leopold Stokowski had been talking about a Silly Symphony or some kind of cartoon that would star Mickey Mouse. And Walt wanted to build a newer, state-of-the-art studio. The money wouldn't last long, but with the high quality of the artistry available to him, his ambitions were boundless.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Fucking Sony

Does anyone have any information they want to share about the Sony XCP copy protection program that they placed on a TON of their commercial compact discs? Because I think it's slowly ruining my computer. My D: and E: drives are shot right now; the hardware is still there, and the computer itself is reading the existence of both drives, but Windows isn't. I've called tech support about this before (it happened last week but was easily fixed by removing the corrupted files and rebooting the computer). I think the damage is worse because the same method didn't work this time, and my tech support is now telling me that most likely I'll have to replace my operating system entirely. Which I'd really like not to do, because I have a lot of stuff on this computer.

Earlier this year, Sony placed a copy protection program on a lot of CDs so that, when you put it in your computer, it launched its own player. I'm not clear on what the problem is, but it's fucking up the PCs of a lot of people. Worse yet, the sneaky bastards masked the program, so no one can find it to uninstall the damn thing. Because Sony considers pirating CDs worse than murder, rape, and terrorism, there are people putting up with the constant attempts of their anti-spyware programs to block a program it can't even find. Sony is apparently working on a program to uninstall the device and just recalled a ton of CDs, and if this uninstall doesn't work, I have to take as much off of my computer as I can and start from scratch.

So, thanks, Sony, for destroying years of my work. Because you couldn't bear to think that someone might copy on of your CDs.

Which, of course, means that I'm no longer buying Sony products, because I no longer trust them. When I have a CD-RW drive that I can actually use again, if Sony puts out any CDs I want, it'll be iTunes that gets my business. I have a Pioneer DVD player, a Samsung VCR, a Panasonic TV, and a Sharp stereo. Anything made by Sony is leaving this house.

I hope there are other people that are as pissed off and angry as I am. And I hope Sony thinks it was worth it to stop people from taking a song and putting it on an iPod.

Fucking Sony...