Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Concert Feature: Notes on Fantasia

Leopold Stokowski was the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and a key figure in the popularization of art music in America. He was just retiring after 25 years when he met Walt Disney, either at a restaurant or a Hollywood party (reports vary), in 1937. Collaboration between the two seemed natural. Walt had just acquired the rights to Paul Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and had planned to use it for a two-reel Silly Symphonies cartoon starring Mickey Mouse. Stokowski offered to conduct the music. Walt, ever conscious of ways to make his cartoons more artistic, enthusiastically agreed.

Perce Pearce worked out the story in November. James Algar was chosen to direct because he had a background in music; the animator had never directed before, and was overly cautious about preparations. In January 1938, Stokowski recorded the score. Live action film for rotoscoping, which had been used tentatively on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but which would be used heavily on Pinocchio, was filmed for Mickey Mouse. The attitude had shifted; Disney now considered rotoscoping to be a tool used for perfecting animation. Fred Moore redesigned Mickey Mouse for the film, giving him the flesh colored face, making him more sophisticated in design and less like a mouse than ever; he also animated Mickey. Bill Tytla animated Yinsed, the sorcerer who looks suspiciously like Walt himself (spell “Yinsed” backwards), before being assigned to do Stromboli on Pinocchio. The whole production was very elaborate. The money spent on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice soon reached $160,000; high, even for what Walt was willing to spend on a short cartoon (which was about a third less).

Walt was pleased with the results, and instead of releasing The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the Silly Symphonies line, he hoped to make it the first of a new series of cartoons featuring art music. He intended to follow it with a cartoon featuring Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” Some preliminary work was done on that cartoon as well. But the costs of such a series would be prohibitive. Stokowski suggested that a feature be made instead, a film of several such cartoons. Walt loved the idea; he wanted the critics to take his art seriously, and he hoped associating cartoons with highbrow music would bring him the prestige he really desired. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice would have elaborate effects, but with Mickey Mouse in it, there would be no serious challenges like the dwarfs or what Pinocchio should look like. This would be true Animated Art.

Disney and his animators began combing through music for ideas. Guided by Stokowski, they came up with a tentative program on 14 September 1938:

1. Overture (possibly original music)
2. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas) (already finished)
3. The Nutcracker Suite (Tchaikovsky)
4. some kind of ballet (possibly insects or machines, music to be determined)
5. Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky)
6. Ave Marie (Schubert)
7. Cydalise and the Fauns (Pierne)
8. Fugue and Relief (no specific fugue chosen yet)
9. Ride of the Valkyries (Wagner)
10. Clair de Lune (Debussy)
11. animal ballet (music to be determined)
12. The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky)

This is only a tiny bit of the music considered at one point or another for inclusion in The Concert Feature in 1938. But this is what Walt and the animators planned to go with. Walt soon began to tinker with ideas to make The Concert Feature a synesthetic experience. Not only were his sound men creating a speaker system that would be greater than anything before; Walt also liked the idea of touching the sense of smell. The scent of candles during “Ave Maria,” or gunpowder during “The Rite of Spring,” for example, might stimulate the audience. This idea was mooted quickly, as the scents could not be cleared from the air quickly enough and might all run together. Still, Walt was fascinated by experimentation with the film, and put forth ideas that were occasionally talked about in the film industry but which were untried in America, such as 3-D, widescreen, or 180 degree projected images. Walt also made it clear that he wanted no narration of any kind in the film. This was not to be a mere collection of short films, but a flowing experience that really melded sound and image together. He pushed his story men and animators hard to bring in real humor, not just gags; to find real beauty, not just pretty imagery. The project consumed him as he encouraged everyone to push the boundaries of the medium itself.

Joe Grant and Dick Huemer fashioned a sort of playful romp of Greek mythological creatures for “Cydalise and the Little Fauns,” but Disney dropped the piece of music and replaced it with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (Pastoral). He still wanted to use Grant and Huemer’s story, something Stokowski originally objected to, saying it was not Beethoven’s intent. Walt didn’t care much about Beethoven’s intent; he was trying to experiment with something that meant a great deal to him. In 1939, Walt had German abstract animator Oskar Fischinger working on abstract designs for Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor." In August 1939 production began on “The Nutcracker Suite” and Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.”

But for all the work being done, many still have misgivings about Fantasia. Beethoven’s music proved hard to get; when confronted by Stokowski about Beethoven’s intent, Disney stupidly said “I think this thing will make Beethoven.” And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with Disney’s approach to the film. His ignorance of art music was as great as his ignorance of art; Disney knew what he liked and what he could use, but he didn’t know why it worked. Many felt (and still feel) that Walt simply had no respect for the music. At some point, he started to give primacy to the imagery over the music; for example, he rerecorded Stravinsky’s breathtaking “The Rite of Spring” out of sequence, because the new sequence better fit the story derived for the film, a (for the time period) startlingly accurate scientific depiction of the development of life on Earth, beginning with the planet’s formation and ending with the extinction of the dinosaurs. The Pastoral Symphony also suffered deletions and textual editing, while the individual movements of “The Nutcracker Suite” were re-ordered. Fischinger didn’t last long at the studio, either, because Walt hated his designs and, in general, distrusted truly abstract art.

Still, Walt threw everything he could into work on the film (and keep in mind that Walt had several other projects going at the same time, including animation of Pinocchio and Bambi, as well as the production of the shorts). Most of “Dance of the Hours” was shot in live action first, and dancers still had to visualize the entire thing for the story department. Bill Tytla was assigned to animate the Slavic demon-god Tchernabog for “A Night on Bald Mountain.” Live action footage of Bela Lugosi acting out the role and amazing storyboards by Dutch illustrator Kay Nielsen were thrown aside by the animator, who, as he had done with Stromboli, elected to act the entire thing in front of a mirror. Disney had been trying to make a Silly Symphony for years with flowers acting out a real ballet; this idea was transferred to “The Nutcracker Suite.” Art Babbitt was assigned to animate the Chinese Dance, one of the film’s most popular segments, with that little baby mushroom trying to keep up. Babbitt also animated the Russian Dance.Now, it is important to note that Walt Disney had already conceived of The Concert Feature, now called Fantasia, as a changing experience. The road show performances of the film, not the smaller theatrical runs, were what would really make the film memorable. The program, for example, would always be changing; some sequences would be taken out and replaced by new ones, but the old ones might always make a reappearance if they proved popular. Many sequences were developed, even recorded. Perhaps Walt was jumping the gun in assuming, long before the release of the film, that Fantasia would be a hit. These sequences include:

“Brynhilde’s Song.” Walt really wanted to use this piece, along with (or instead of) “The Ride of the Valkyries,” and the piece was recorded with vocals by Kirsten Flagstad. Excellent drawings were rendered by Kay Nielsen, but this and all Wagner pieces under consideration were dropped because of their identification in America with Adolf Hitler, Wagner’s biggest fan.

“The Hobbit.” One of Disney’s story men suggested the then-new Tolkien novel as a feature or a short film; before deciding not to pursue the rights, it was briefly considered as a Fantasia segment set to a combination of two Wagner pieces from Siegfried, “Forging Scene” and “Forest Murmurs.” The film scene was going to feature Bilbo Baggins rescuing a human princess he was in love with, so we’re not really missing an interpretation of Tolkien, here.

“The Swan of Tuonella.” This beautiful Sibelius tone poem would see a Finnish legend depicted, of an otherworldly swan protecting a Viking ship carrying a body to Valhalla. Debussy’s La Mer was also considered for use with this concept.

“The Insect Ballet.” Disney still really wanted to include an insect ballet sequence, even though he couldn’t fit one into Fantasia. Music considered for this sequence included Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” Grieg’s “Butterflies,” Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” and White’s “Five Miniatures for Piano.”

“Baby Ballet.” This would have been set to Chopin’s “Berceuse.” Mary Blair did some wonderful concept art for this piece, some of which can be seen in the excellent book The Disney That Never Was.
“Adventures in a Perambulator.” This was the only piece of modern music considered for Fantasia. The piece by John Aldon Carpenter would be used to depict the world as seen through the eyes of babies in their prams.
"The Flower Ballet.” Walt was still in love with this idea. Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo” was chosen for this piece, but it was abandoned.

“Clair de Lune.” This Debussy tone poem would depict the flight of herons on the bayou at evening.

“Peter Pegasus.” Peter Pegasus was the trouble-making Pegasus used in the “Pastoral Symphony” segment of Fantasia; he would make a return by himself, getting in trouble with a bee to either Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance” or Tchaikovsky’s “Humoresque.” At one point, story men were trying to figure out a way to work in the dancing mushrooms.

With the possibility of a second version of Fantasia in the air, some of these pieces were recorded, many were conceptualized by artists, and one, “Clair de Lune,” was completely animated and finished. Other pieces considered and not used are legion, including: Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote” and “Till Eulenspiegel;” Stravinsky’s “Reynard,” “Petrouchka,” and “The Firebird;” Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Pomegranates” and “Peter and the Wolf;” Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture;” Weinberger’s “Schwanda the Bagpiper;” Mozart’s “The Magic Flute;” Holst’s “The Planets;” Saint-Saen’s “Danse Macabre;” Kodaly’s “Hary Janos;” and even a set of variations on “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

Fantasia opened at the Broadway Theatre in New York on 13 November 1940 as a road show. Walt’s sound designers, using RCA equipment, developed a process called “Fantasound,” which involved installing 90 speakers. The music had been recorded on nine tracks instead of the standard four, creating a wider decibel range. In other words, stereophonic sound, for the first time in theaters. The final program looked like this:

1. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Bach)
2. The Nutcracker Suite (Tchaikovsky)
3. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas)
4. The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky)
5. Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) (Beethoven)
6. Dance of the Hours (Ponchielli)
7. Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky)/Ave Maria (Schubert)

In-between each segment were sequences with radio personality Deems Taylor, offering a little music history and an explanation of how sound works in film.

Fantasia was a box office disaster. The very critics that Walt hoped to charm were bored and/or underwhelmed. Many thought the film far too pretentious for its own good, and seemed particularly offended by the idea that art music needed Walt Disney to put it into terms a lowbrow audience could understand. The road show engagement yielded a mere $325,183.91 in a year. Fantasia’s final cost sat at about $2.3 million. Most people never saw it with the Fantasound speakers; the cost involved in installing them in theaters was prohibitive, and RCA was unable to produce them quickly because top priority was given to equipment orders from the US War Department. Nationwide distribution became almost impossible; the war made showing the film in Europe definitely impossible. The sheer length of the film--135 minutes--and the pretentious gassiness of the Deems Taylor lecture sequences kept much of the audience away; they wanted Mickey Mouse cartoons, not a dull lecture in the importance of classical music. Parts of the film would not play in the South; especially “The Rite of Spring,” which dealt with evolution in no uncertain scientific terms.

Why was Fantasia such an out and out failure? In Hollywood Cartoons, Michael Barrier points to the very thing Disney wanted: a lack of narrative. Without contained stories or characters the audience can relate to, the film amounts to little more than “a gigantic catalogue of effects animation.” New characters are introduced constantly, and none of them seem important. Also, with only two sound effects left in the film, and no dialogue in the sequences themselves, the film is not a melding of music and image, but “a silent film, with orchestral accompaniment.”

In The Disney Version, Richard Schickel is highly critical of Fantasia, pointing out that it contains (in “The Pastoral”) the absolute depth/height of Disney’s “adoration of the anus,” and going on to theorize that Americans could never like a film that tried so hard to reconcile the great struggle of all American art: the love of pop culture and the simultaneous attraction to and fear of high culture. He also heavily criticizes the populist attempts of Leopold Stokowski and Deems Taylor to pass off their own preoccupations with accessibility as the genuine article, lamenting that Walt mistook what they had to say as important and definitive.

Time magazine said the same thing: “Though Walt learned a lesson from Fantasia, he learned the wrong one. Mistaking culture for what Stokowski and Taylor offered him, he decided that culture was not for him.”

There are certain universal criticisms to the individual sequences, of course. Many blast Walt for being too afraid of disapproval to genuinely shake up his audience. The “Toccata and Fugue,” which Walt would always refer to as an abstract, was nothing of the sort. Walt detested abstraction, and instead he came up with a logical sequence of changing shapes, always with a horizon visible so that the audience would stay firmly grounded. “The Pastoral” is criticized for being too Americanized; its female centaurs, for example, look like typical American teenagers, something many found too distasteful. This sort of bestial connection between Classical mythology and the girl next door was creepy to many. A black female centaur servant (who had a line of offensively Pidgin dialogue) was cut from later releases; it is still so controversial that the 2000 DVD release of the film, which purported to be restored and uncut, continues that tradition. Walt’s animators hated “Dance of the Hours,” music which was over-familiar even then (20-odd years before Allan Sherman used it for “Hello, Muddah! Hello, Fadduh!”), and set it as a clumsy ballet for elephants, hippos, crocodiles, and ostriches as a sort of satire on the pretentiousness of the high culture world. Those being satirized were greatly offended. “A Night on Bald Mountain” was, in the words of many critics, “ruined” by Disney’s need to reassure his audience that all would be well, neutering Tchernabog in the end by the introduction of “Ave Maria” and the final shot of a sunrise. Many felt that Walt Disney simply had no respect for the integrity of the music. The film was labeled, at best, a failed experiment. At worst, it was considered a disturbing jumble for the senses.

“The Rite of Spring,” with its out-of-order music, is still the subject of particular ire. Igor Stravinsky was the only composer who is represented in the film who was still alive at the time. “The Rite of Spring” was, in some sense, a celebration of early mankind, and the music is deliberately blunt, sexual, barbaric, and discordant. When it premiered in Paris on 29 May 1913, a riot broke out in the theater. Stravinsky was a composer who had direct experience with the power art music could wield over an audience. To this day, the Walt Disney Company continues to put forth a fiction that Stravinsky loved the way Walt treated his music so much that he offered to write original music for the studio. In fact, Stravinsky was treated in a way that says much about Walt’s regard for the music. He was told in no uncertain terms that he had better give his permission and accept $5000 for the rights to use his music; otherwise, he was told, Disney would simply use the piece--which had been copyrighted in Russia and not in the US--without his permission. Stravinsky agreed to take the money. When Stravinsky saw the completed segment at the Disney studio (alongside George Balanchine), he was both shocked and amused to find out that his score had been altered. In a 1961 interview, although he did offer that some of the instrumentation had been improved, and even seemed to admire the audacity with which his ballet had been altered, he added “this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable. I will say nothing about the visual compliment, as I do not wish to criticize an unresisting imbecility.” He also said the narrative “involved a dangerous misunderstanding.”

In Mouse Under Glass, author David Koenig sums up the failure of Fantasia thusly: “As soon as you grow attached to one character, he’s out of the movie. There’s no continuous story to carry audiences anywhere and, as a result, no momentum. The movies stops and starts again every ten minutes.” He also asks that you watch the movie some time and count the number of yawns. In a 135-minute movie with no narrative and no intermission, the sequences are “one character after another waking up and going back to sleep again.” And he’s right; almost every sequence starts in the morning and ends with someone going to sleep. As he says, the film seems "scientifically engineered to produce sleep."

The failure of Fantasia was a crushing blow to the entire studio, especially to Walt’s desire to be an impresario of animation. He was planning at this point to produce two to four animated features a year. Now, Walt had two artistic failures to contend with. First Pinocchio, now Fantasia. The failure of both films would prove disastrous to Walt’s ambitions, and would be instrumental in creating not only the health problems which would later kill him, but in creating a gradual lack of interest in animation itself.

Animation Credits:
Supervising Producer: Ben Sharpsteen

"Toccata and Fugue in D minor" (JS Bach)
Director: Samuel Armstrong
Animators: Cy Young, Art Palmer, Daniel MacManus, George Rowley, Edwin Aardal, Joshua Meador, Corrett Wood

"The Nutcracker Suite" (P Tchaikovsky)
Director: Samuel Armstrong
Supervising Animators: Fred Moore, Bill Tytla
Animators: Les Clark, Riley Thompson, Marvin Woodward, Preston Blair, Edward Love, Ugo D'Orsi, George Rowley, Corrett Wood

"The Rite of Spring" (I Stravinsky)
Directors: Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield
Supervising Animators: Wolfgang Reitherman, Joshua Meador
Animators: Philip Duncan, John McManus, Paul Busch, Art Palmer, Don Tobin, Edwin Aardal, Paul B. Korsoff

"Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)" (LV Beethoven)
Directors: Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe
Supervising Ainmators: Fred Moore, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, Art Babbitt, Ollie Johnston, Don Towsley
Animators: Berny Wolf, Jack Campbell, John Bradbury, James Moore, Milt Neil, Bill Justice, John Elliotte, Walt Kelly, Don Lusk, Lyman Karp, Murray McLennan, Robert W. Youngquist, Harry Hamsel

"Dance of the Hours" (A Ponchielli)
Directors: T. Hee, Norm Ferguson
Supervising Animator: Norm Ferguson
Animators: John Lounsbery, Howard Swift, Preston Blair, Hugh Fraser, Harvey Toombs, Norman Tate, Hicks Lokey, Art Elliott, Grant Simmons, Ray Patterson, Franklin Grandsen

"Night on Bald Mountain" (M Mussorgsky)/"Ave Maria" (F Schubert)
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Supervising Animator: Bill Tytla
Animators: John McManus, William N. Schull, Robert W. Carlson Jr, Lester Novros, Don Patterson

Friday, September 01, 2006

Throwdown 9/1

15 random thoughts, questions, and observations for the week.

1. Mark Wahlberg has banned his kids from seeing his films. America, can you do any less to protect the minds of your children? Oh, I know, don’t let Sharon Stone adopt any more of them. She just adopted a third. How many additions to her tribe is it going to take until this woman feels fulfilled?

2. Critics have been saying that Scarlett Johansson’s sex scene in The Black Dahlia is unnecessary and distracting. How could a Scarlett Johansson sex scene ever be considered unnecessary?

3. Paris Hilton’s crappy album sold 75,000 copies in its first week, and is generally considered a total failure. Well, at least people won’t always pay for garbage, no matter how great the All Music Guide, Entertainment Weekly, and Blender think the album is. On the other hand…who the hell are you 75,000 people and what the fuck is wrong with you? Also in Paris news: she’s going to make up with Nicole. On Letterman. During sweeps week. Ooh, isn’t she brave?

4. Oh, funny story: Elijah Blue Allman went on Howard Stern’s show and said he fucked Paris Hilton before she was famous. And even then, he says, he was so worried he’d catch something from her that he went downstairs afterwards and washed his genitals with Tilex. Hilarious! Elijah, I almost forgive you for trashing my Heather Graham on Stern a few years ago; but is this the only way you can get attention? By trying to be the ur-Wilmer Valderrama? In other sexual Paris news, she claimed in an interview that sucking a boy off is some kind of special gift, and that her videotaped giving of that gift to Rick Salomon was the first time she’d ever done it (she’s only done it to three people, she claims). Uh huh. Did you know that Nick Lachey dated her before she became a high school dropout? He was her first famous boyfriend. Man, I’d love to hear what he has to say about what she used to be like. Or is there a non-sexual reason why a guy in his mid-twenties would date a girl in her teens? Wilmer? Would you mind telling us why you hang around the high school parking lot during lunch?

5. Gwen Stefani is a whiny little bitch, isn’t she? Apparently, she boycotted last night’s MTV Video Music Awards because she didn’t win anything last year. She apparently felt like she was being set up by losing to Kelly Clarkson in every category. Man, whatever happened to “it’s an honor just to be nominated”? You still had one of the five most popular albums that year, you jealous ingrate. This isn’t the first time Gwen’s whined about what she thinks the public owes her either. What a bitch.

6. So, Snortin' Harry Morton is the worthless, aimless son of the guy who owns the Hard Rock CafĂ©. He’s a fucking dick, and all he does is date heiresses and rich bitches, until his father decides he has to at least pretend to earn his own money. So daddy buys the kid a restaurant, and now I have to see the word “restaurateur” applied to this lazy fuck’s meaningless name. And, just to be cute, he calls the restaurant Pink Taco. You know, maybe he deserves to possibly be engaged to Lindsay Lohan. And yet, I kind of feel bad for Lohan. It’s probably because, in every picture I see the guy in, he’s always looking at the paparazzi like he’s bragging that he gets to take her apart in bed every night. I’m so glad I never had a daughter. The way Americans hate and use women terrifies me most of the time.

7. This Fergie shit really has to stop. Why are you people taking her seriously? I just read a story about how she’s supposedly turning down offers to do a reality show with her boyfriend. Dude, who cares? I’m sick of her “I’m-a-delicate-lady” shtick. Seriously, just looking at her I feel like I have to steam-clean my eyes so that I don’t catch nine or ten STDs. The Duchess? The only Duchess I’ve ever seen piss herself on stage. Don’t we have enough nasty sluts in the public eye already?

8. Okay, for the last time, it isn’t news that a celebrity is going to pose nude if it’s not in Playboy magazine. If it’s for an “artistic” layout in a newsstand magazine, if it’s in Maxim, if it’s for a PETA ad, if it’s for the cover of a sports or vanity rag, then it is not posing nude! Eva Mendes (and yes, I understand I’m using the word “celebrity” in a loose sense), yet another actress who wears her resistance to pose for Playboy as a badge of honor, is crowing about how brave she was to pose nude for Flaunt. Except, of course, that she doesn’t expose anything. So, how is it brave and how is it nude? Can we please get the difference straight? Oh, and here, rent Training Day:Now they’re old news.

9. So, Jessica Simpson and John Mayer are dating. You know what might make it more romantic? If representatives for Jessica didn’t go around telling us that they have yet to consummate their relationship. Yeah, nothing punctures the romance bubble like the girl’s father making sure everyone knows that they haven’t fucked yet. Thanks again, Joe. There is no moment in your daughter’s life that you cannot make truly creepy. Anyway, I have to be a little girl for a moment and say I think it’s incredibly cute that Jessica and John both have laryngitis. It’s like when a couple of high school kids both suddenly have mono. Oh, quick story: I just read that Jessica and John Mayer met at a Grammy party in February 2005. Apparently, Nick ditched Jessica at that party. Dude, ditch your wife, Jessica Simpson, one of the sexiest women on the planet, at a Hollywood party? You were lucky she was still married to you when she made it back home. Seriously, if I ditched my wife at a party, I would expect her to roll back in around six in the morning with her hair loose and her makeup smeared, holding her shoes and her bra in one hand, smelling of beer and cigarettes and illicit love, her panties out on a beach somewhere, with hickeys down to her waist. And you know what? I would totally deserve it. Ah, Nick, what is left of you? It’s certainly not your manhood.

10. Mindy Kaling accidentally exposed her nipple at the Emmys. I wasn’t watching (TV awards? please), but thanks to sharp-eyed bloggers, I found some pictures. She is so damn cute on The Office, and I have a particular fetish for Indian girls, so…thank you, Mindy Kaling. Thank you so very, very much.

11. I love this one: apparently, there’s a thriving black market in Star Trek DVDs. Yes, people are stealing the overpriced complete season boxed sets and underselling them to geeks for drug money. You know, back when I got paid to review DVDs for SCIFI Now, I predicted something like this. Paramount chose to put episodes on disc two at a time back in 2000, and now that all the Trekkies have bought them, they’ve put Star Trek back out in overpriced season sets with extras and crap, forcing the Trekkies to buy them again if they want the extra stuff. What’s a geek to do? That’s right, find alternate means of procurement. And the companies wonder why we steal shit from them. It’s because we’re not made of money, assholes!

12. God damn it, I hate commercials. Why can’t those creepy freeloaders on the Ovaltine commercials just buy their own Ovaltine? It tastes like powdered chalk, baby bones and opium in milk, just go to the store and pay for it! God, and those women who read the description off the K-Y Jelly bottle so their buttsex-starved husbands will drop everything and become their slaves? Sickening! Or that awful Kleenex commercial where they make fun of that poor Buddhist for “murdering” his own germs? And which do you find creepier, the people dancing in the Pepto-Bismol commercials who point to their body parts as they sing about all the things Pepto cures (as if you had no idea how diarrhea leaves your body) or the ass-wiping Charmin bears? Despite my discomfort over the Pepto dancers’ inappropriate familiarity with every aspect of the human body, I have to go with the ass-wiping bears. First off, I want my asshole bright and clean after a trip to the bathroom, so don’t try and come down on me for how much toilet paper I may or may not use. And second…eeeeeeeeewwwwwww!!! Come back, Mr. Whipple, all is forgiven!

13. I like to think that even Jebus Q. Kazoo himself would have a problem with this. There is not a creepier fetish on this planet than babies who act like adults. Muppet Babies was cute, but it has to stop now. I always make the mistake of assuming that A Pup Named Scooby Doo, Disney Babies, Baby Looney Tunes, Flintstone Kids and Little Rosie are aberrations, they start selling this shit again. You know what’s coming? Bozo’s Clown Babies (which raises the question of what exactly Bozo was doing when the train went from town to town--"Would you three farmer's daughters like to play my Grand Prize Game, heh heh?). Sesame Street Beginnings (yes, apparently Elmo wasn’t always as sophisticated and articulate as he is now). The Baby Stooges (because grown men sadistically beating one another with saws and mallets could be funnier in baby form). Bratz Babyz (because it’s never too early for your daughter to look like a whore). And the absolute worst of them all: Marvel Babies. Yes, the adventures of toddler versions of the Marvel superheroes. What the fuck is wrong with people? Who does this appeal to, other than infants too young to watch TV and the kinds of people who convince themselves that they murdered JonBenet Ramsey?

14. Yeah, what a surprise, John Mark Karr isn’t the guy who murdered JonBenet Ramsey. Didn’t call that one right off. What the hell was that all about, anyway? It’s not like JonBenet was Shirley Temple, and people were obsessed with her. She’s only famous for being tragically murdered. God, those baby beauty pageants creep me the fuck out. Or is it still supposed to be a surprise that people who dress up their tiny children like grown women with whorish makeup and parade them through objectification festivals have sexual problems?

15. You know what really burns me, though? It’s this: on 5 August, an 11 year-old girl was accidentally killed during a drive-by shooting in North Chicago, just about 80 or 90 minutes from where I now sit. She was playing video games in the basement with some of her friends, and a stray bullet hit her. In the head. She died at the hospital. Her name was Darien Shellie. This happened just less than a month ago, and the local media has already forgotten about it. If I were as uncharitable as you all know that I am, I’d say it might have something to do with the fact that Darien Shellie is black. Black girl killed in a drive-by shooting. The world shrugs its shoulders and moves on. White girl gets strangled by a pervert, and America can’t get over it a decade later. White girl falls in a well, America stops running. White girl becomes the seven billionth person to mysteriously vanish in Aruba, and fuck coverage of the war, this is Real News! Sorry for being cynical, but am I the only one who thinks the death of Darien Shellie was a tragedy too?

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Jessica and John

Well, it had to happen, right? As much as I clicked my heels together and wished over and over that Jessica and I would end up together (I didn't really do that, by the way...much), I knew she was going to have to end up in another relationship eventually. And I just want her to be happy, I really do. Surprisingly, I'm happy for my girl.

And it could be much, much worse. It could be Steve-O or Bam Margera, for Christ's sake. It could be that Maroon 5 guy or Brett Ratner or fucking Dane fucking Cook. Instead, it's a guy who has yet to piss me off for being a misogynist, an ape, or a dumbfuck. In fact, my only problem with John Mayer is that the guy's actually synaesthetic, and he's wasting it on that shitty music of his. Dude had one good song, "Daughters," and that was mostly because it sounded like a steal from the Cat Stevens School of Sensitive Songwriting.

On the other hand, he's one of those soul cats, and maybe he'll be a good influence on her. And as a big, goofy-looking guy, Jessica going out with him gives me hope that what the beautiful girls really want is a soulful big goofy-lloking guy. I know it's true, because I have my own beautiful girl.

Thank you for not choosing a skeez, Jess. And I'm glad you're happy again. There were way too many pictures out there of you looking sad. Posted by Picasa


I thought the "church" of scientology was supposed to clear up that sort of thing... Posted by Picasa

Winnie the Pooh Reloaded

Something hilarious is happening in the Hundred Acre Wood. Since Disney is now firmly in the grip of the CG fad, they’ve been trying hard to reposition their output to recapture the young girl audience they increasingly play to. In 2004, Disney purists were outraged when their beloved characters--Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, the nephews, and Uncle Scrooge McDuck--were animated via computer for the DVD special Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas. Earlier this year Disney Channel began running Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, a CG-animated series. The uproar was virtually non-existent. It seems that the Disney fans have come to accept the computerization of the Disney stable.

But now the uproar is back over My Friends Tigger & Pooh, a series set to hit the Disney Channel in the spring. And frankly, the uproar is making me laugh so hard that I can’t breathe.

My Friends Tigger & Pooh, it seems, is a series that is set to regain some of the Spongebob-addled prepubescent vidiot audience. Somewhat disappointingly, they seem to have shoved aside Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit, Gopher, Christopher Robin, that new Heffalump thing and Kanga and little Roo, and have decided the show is going to focus on Tigger and Pooh. Or, more accurately, on their friendship with a little girl named Darby, who is friends with Tigger and Pooh, and who loves to solve mysteries and have adventures with her stuffed little friends.But that’s not the part that makes me laugh. That sounds kind of sweet and cute, actually, which are the only two aspects of Winnie the Pooh that Disney pushes, anyway. No, the part that makes me laugh is the apparent outrage among Pooh fans who think that Disney is taking too many liberties with the world of their beloved silly old bear. And why does that make me laugh? Carl knows why, I’m sure. Because Disney has already taken so many liberties with the A.A. Milne stories that most people don’t even recognize the originals. The overwhelming majority only knows those characters through Disney’s saccharine, Americanized, sentimental treatment. Disney has been fighting a court battle for years now to remove all traces of ownership from the Milne family, as though they’re trying to erase those original stories from history.

And the Pooh merchandise! If I had to guess, I’d say Winnie the Pooh, not Mickey Mouse, is the most merchandised Disney character. And this new show, My Friends Tigger & Pooh, is just the latest in a long series of merchandising. Now Pooh has a six-year-old girl to be friends with and to put on thermoses and pillows and books for children to buy. I’m sorry if that sounds cynical, but so does whining that Disney is changing a character who is already a knock-off of a literary property “too much.” This is what Disney does know: they remix things to catch the kids of today who actually buy their shit and grow up with it.Pooh fans…don’t tell me you’re just noticing this now? Posted by Picasa

The Tale of a Puppet: Notes on Pinocchio

After the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney began to conceive of ever-more-grandiose plans. As Pinocchio was going into production, The Concert Feature (soon to be Fantasia) was already being worked on, as was Bambi. Besides those three active productions, Disney had various other movies in differing stages of development, including Alice in Wonderland (Aldous Huxley was working on the script), Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Peter Pan, Reynard the Fox, Chanticleer, Penguin Island, The Legend of Happy Valley (conceived of as a vehicle for Mickey, Donald, and Goofy), and Don Quixote. And, of course, the short cartoons kept coming.

In the midst of all this work came Pinocchio. Disney had bought the rights to Carlo Lorenzini’s 1883 serial novel The Adventures of Pinocchio: Tales of a Puppet (written under the name C. Collodi). But one is forced to wonder if he had even read the book beforehand. Pinocchio is a supremely unlikable character, a creepy wooden puppet who seems to delight in causing pain and even destruction. But the book does teach a valuable moral lesson: Pinocchio gains character and becomes a real boy by subduing his weakness and his baser instincts. Disney put the movie into active production when story and animation problems began to plague Bambi, the film that was intended to be the follow-up to Snow White. Disney’s dream at the time was to be a Samuel Goldwyn or David O. Selznick of animation, producing two or more feature films a year plus the shorts. At the outset, Pinocchio seemed to present fewer problems than Bambi.

This turned out to be optimistic. Animation began in January 1938. As they had on Snow White, the animators turned to rotoscoping live action film. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston animated test footage of Pinocchio himself; when Walt saw it, he stopped the production. It was apparent that Pinocchio was too creepy and strange, too alien to relate to. Thomas wanted the puppet to have stiff, jerky movements, but Disney responded to Milt Kahl’s designs, which softened Pinocchio and made him more boyish. Disney felt he would be more sympathetic for the audience. Wilfred Jackson later said that Disney had made a mistake throwing out Frank and Ollie’s design; that it weakened the heart of the story: since Pinocchio was already so much like a boy, his change into a real one at the end of the film has no real impact. But when animation resumed in September, Pinocchio had been completely changed. He was now innocent, a victim of chance and betrayal, not his own worst impulses. Jiminy Cricket was a character added into the mix to provide an entry point for the audience. A cricket does appear in the novel; he scolds Pinocchio, so Pinocchio crushes him. But Lorenzini must have realized the value of a moral compass in his story, because the cricket returns as a ghost, and then shows up later with no explanation. The cricket was also hard to design, and each concept became less and less insect-like, until Ward Kimball designed the final version, which is more like a little man with a round head than anything else; Jiminy was robbed of all insect characteristics. In fact, Jiminy was based somewhat on Mickey Rooney; Hamilton Luske, who directed the live action film used for rotoscoping, cast a similar actor, wanting someone who could ingratiate himself with an audience. Jiminy was to be accessible above all else. Jiminy’s voice was provided by Cliff Edwards, a vaudeville performer known popularly as Ukulele Ike. When all is said and done, despite Pinocchio’s European setting, Jiminy is a Midwestern American insectoid stand-in for Mickey Mouse. This was the start of a trend: the Disney sidekick used to lighten the mood.The rest of the story went through softening, as well. The book can be downright cruel and nasty; Disney’s film would still provide some genuine moments of terror, but not in a pointed, directed manner. The villains were reduced and condensed, though this provides some of them with slightly fuller personalities. Gepetto was made less stern, more kindly. Despite his central role as character designer on Snow White, Fred Moore only animated Chester J. Lampwick (the scene where Lampwick transforms into a donkey is still the stuff of my own childhood nightmares; when he screams for his mother, I’m a frightened 5 year-old again). Moore’s influence can still be felt on what Michael Barrier calls the “cuteness” of Joe Grant’s character model sheets. That said, it's hard to deny that this stands as the darkest of Disney's movies; even Jiminy Cricket doesn't provide any comic relief, because his part in the story (as Pinocchio's conscience) is so functional.

Just take one look at the scene where Chester J. Lampwick (himself a sort of caricature of Fred Moore) turns into a donkey, doubling over in pain and crying out for his mother. It is the stuff of the darkest nightmares. William K. Everson called it "surely one of the screen's supreme moments of terror," to which Leonard Maltin replied in his book The Disney Films, "that it is." And boy are they correct.

The rotoscoping was heavier here than on Snow White. In that earlier film, only Snow White, the Prince, the Wicked Queen, the Crone, and the Huntsman had been shot in live action. Here, almost every character was: Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, Gepetto, Stromboli, J. Worthington Foulfellow and Gideon; Marjorie Belcher, who had modeled Snow White, acted the role of the Blue Fairy. Art Babbit animated Gepetto; he directed more live action footage than he had even planned to use. Bill Tytla was assigned the animation of Stromboli. Tytla, a large and eccentric Eastern European man, acted out the role himself, making big, flamboyant movements.
The entire enterprise was much more lavish (and expensive) than Snow White had been. The special effects staff for the film numbered 52; their job was to create a much more realistic look than on the previous film. The multi-plane camera was used far more often; the opening shot alone cost $25,000. The final price tag would reach $2.6 million, almost twice as much as had been spent on Snow White; the film, much more elaborate than its predecessor, had much more of a narrative drive and focus, and bigger showcase sequences. The effects animation, though it seems to take precedence over the story, is truly impressive: the effects of heat distortion, of blurry underwater scenes, the amazing use of perspective, the flashes of lightning. They are not lifelike; they revel in the fantasies we have as children and in the transformative power of cinematic devices.But all the work had little impact on the problems with the story. The ending is contrived and manipulative; Pinocchio can walk under water, and he suddenly drowns? The story is weak, despite the high production values. There is an inconsistency to the rotoscoping; some characters are too exaggerated (even W.C. Fields felt that Stromboli moved his arms too much), some are too literally rotoscoped, and the reliance on live action footage robs the characters of the personalities of the animators. The emotional focus is off; sometimes characters in the same scene don’t seem like they’re interacting with each other. The characterization is crude and broad. Disney relies too often on cartoon conventions, not characters; for instance, Mel Blanc recorded the voice of Gideon, but his vocal track was scrapped to make Gideon’s pantomimes funnier. Jiminy Cricket, for all the attention on him, does not mesh well with the narrative; he only interacts with the Blue Fairy and (barely) with Pinocchio. He’s acting in his own separate movie, but one which does hold sway over the plot.

The film was not received well; the same critics who loved Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were unenthusiastic. Many felt this film was too pretentious and unapproachable. Disney would acknowledge later that Pinocchio was less emotionally appealing than Snow White, but that it was technically and artistically superior. The irony, as Michael Barrier points out in Hollywood Cartoons, is that Disney had made drastic departures from the Collodi story to make it more emotionally appealing. Added to that, war had officially broken out in Europe, cutting off a sizable chunk of Disney’s market; the film disappointed at the box office. The film was released in February 1940; Disney’s bankers, who had been enthused by the success of Snow White, now imposed a $2.25 million cap on the studio’s credit…and ordered salary cuts. In April, Disney went public, bringing in $3.6 million in operating cash. But by September, the new Walt Disney Corporation had charged a million dollar loss to Pinocchio.

But something more insidious was unearthed by the failure of Pinocchio. Michael Barrier points it out this way: it showed that animated films were, like Westerns and horror films, a genre. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been a novelty; its success had been a fluke. Perhaps Pinocchio was more accurate in its reflection of the public’s taste.

Disney once said that he would rather have an artistic flop than a smash hit. But now that he had one, he was depressed. And an even more expensive film, Fantasia, was waiting around the corner.

Animation Credits:
Supervising Directors: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske
Sequence Directors: Bill Roberts, Norm Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson, T. Hee
Animation Directors: Fred Moore, Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, Bill Tytla, Ward Kimball, Art Babbitt, Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman
Animators: Jack Campbell, Berny Wolf, Don Towsley, Ollie Johnston, Don Lusk, John Lounsbery, Norman Tate, John Bradbury, Lynn Karp, Charles Nichols, Art Palmer, Joshua Meador, Don Tobin, Robert Martsch, George Rowley, John McManus, Don Patterson, Preston Blair, Les Clark, Marvin Woodward, Hugh Fraser, John Elliotte