Saturday, January 26, 2008

Barack Obama Is Black; Get Over It

This isn't going to win me any points with anyone, but look, is it really such a big deal that Obama is black?

I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher this afternoon, and I've been listening to Obama and Clinton bicker about Martin Luther King and who does more for black people, and I really can't hear this anymore. Barack Obama is black; get over it.

I don't care that he's black. I really don't. But I don't think anyone else should care, either. And I don't mean that people shouldn't care in the way the media pretends not to care. I mean it just doesn't matter to me. It shouldn't matter to you. Either in a positive or negative way.

Here's what finally got to me on Real Time: everyone on the panel, as well as Bill, were talking about Obama's race and how because his mother is white and his father's an immigrant, he represents diversity. How he's the candidate who represents warmth and humanity because of his background. How electing a black man shows that things have changed in America, and how it sends a message to the world that America is not a bunch of white imperialists. How he's the best choice for America because he's so nice and so well-spoken and is so damn good at giving speeches.

Everything had to do with the color of his skin. His parentage. His birthplace.

Does anyone actually know what he stands for? I never hear anyone talking about Barack Obama being a great candidate because of his stance on the issues, or the policies he wants to institute, or what he intends to do when he's president. I only hear that he'll be a great president because he's nice and he's young and he's well-spoken and he's proof that our country isn't so racist anymore. And somehow, all of that is more important than anything he has to say about the actual issues of the campaign. It's all about Obama being black. And I'm sick of listening to it.

Because when it comes down to it, there are a lot of people--especially white liberals--who are so afraid of being called racists that they will overcompensate by being overly compassionate. And the white guilt cancels out reason. They will support a black man regardless of whether he's the best candidate or not so as not to appear racist. Just as there are also a lot of women supporting Hillary Clinton because she's a woman, whether she's the best candidate or not.

What I'm getting at is this: where are the people who support Obama because they share his views? And why can't they explain what his views are? All of the talk from the media is that Barack Obama is a nice guy and he's the symbolic culmination of everything America's been working towards since Emancipation. He's turned into this symbol for something that I don't think he really represents. To me he's just another senator running for president, and what's important to me is where he stands on the issues. I don't see him as a black politician; I see him as a politican. And I see the people around him using his color to generate sympathy and create a message of diversity that I don't hear in his words or see in his actions.

Yeah, Barack Obama seems like a nice guy. And he's black. But are those facts alone enough of a reason to vote for him?

The Most Overrated Director of All Time (and a Film Buff Rant)

Let's cut to the outcome: it's Steven Spielberg.

And now for the back story.

I listen to a podcast called Filmspotting. It's two guys, Adam and Matty, doing an hour or so of film reviews and other film-related stuff, and on every show they do a Top 5 of something or other which, as a guy who used to do Top 5 lists all the time with the guys I worked at Barnes & Noble with, I enjoy. Plus, who doesn't like rankings? Nothing pisses us off, yet gets us more involved, than a list we don't agree with. At least, for us film geeks, that seems to be true.

So a month or two back, their list is Top 5 Overrated Directors, with the caveat that the director had to still be working. I was interested to see who they'd pick, since there are so many overrated film directors out there these days. Adam's list went, in ascending order: Sofia Coppola, Ivan Reitman, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and Brian De Palma. I don't agree in some places, but I get why any of those directors would be considered overrated. Matty's list: Richard Linklater, Brian De Palma, Robert Rodriguez, M. Night Shyamalan, and Peter Jackson. Again, some disagreement, but that's what makes film discussion so interesting: no matter how strongly you feel about something, it's all subjective.

What disappointed me, naturally, was that Steven Spielberg made neither list. Adam made the argument that since Spielberg had made some masterpieces in his career, he couldn't be considered overrated. And that's where I disagree; I think making a masterpiece (and in Spielberg's case, "masterpiece" has to be taken with a grain of salt, as he's really only made one film I'd still consider giving that label to) makes a director overrated if they can't live up to that.

The perfect example: Francis Ford Coppola. Yes, he made The Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now, but what else? A lot of people liked The Conversation, which I didn't (despite some fitfully good moments). I have to consider the guy who made The Cotton Club and Jack a genius? Why? Because he hasn't made a good film in 29 years. If Steven Spielberg had never made a movie and you asked me who the most overrated director alive was, Coppola would be my quick answer.

But Spielberg did make movies. Having been born the year after Jaws was released, I grew up watching his movies. They made a big impression on me as a child. And between the releases of Hook and Jurassic Park, I wrote a big paper on him for English class. I read a lot of critical writing about him, and here's the thing about Spielberg before Schindler's List: most film critics didn't take him seriously. The critical establishment, if you will, thought he was good at making infantile adventure movies and evoking the kinds of movies that he liked as a kid, but that his attempts at making adult movies were embarrassing. They derided him as a populist, but not an artist. And, having taken a look at his movies as an adult, I understand exactly what they meant; his movies are a little embarrassing, especially his inability (still, at his age) to wrest away his severe daddy issues, his misogyny, and his fear of adult complexities. He's a reductionist who is much more comfortable turning a movie about what it means to be human (A.I.) into a ham-fisted remake of Pinocchio. And as he gets older, his films dealing with children have started to get that umcomfortable whiff of the pedophilic (A.I. could double as NAMBLA propaganda) that happens when people who are uncomfortable with adult feelings spend too much of their life deifying the magical innocence of childhood. Your parents got divorced--get over it.

What made me think about this today especially is that I just tried (and failed) to watch M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water, which is a bad movie even for Shyamalan, a bad filmmaker. He should be embarrassed to have made this pretentious ode to himself and his own greatness. Shyamalan is a very similar filmmaker to Spielberg--he's infantile, he doesn't know how to handle adult complexities, he's more comfortable with visuals than characters, and he uses gimmickry to substitute for storytelling. And there's something uncomfortably pedophilic in the character Bryce Dallas Howard plays; the kind of woman these filmmakers tend to be interested in (although not Spielberg, who just fears them and likes little boys) are the woman who is young, ethereal, asexual, wise but not saavy, who need help and protection but aren't interested in the messiness and intimacy that adults get into. (Look at any Luc Besson film for further examples of this archetype.) Like most Spielberg films, Shyamalan's movies are really just about how clever Shyamalan thinks Shyamalan is.

And Lady in the Water is exactly the kind of movie that shows why Steven Spielberg is the most overrated director of all time. Not only because his films, especially those made post-1984, are mostly terrible. But because somehow, after 1993, the critical establishment embraced him and annointed him the greatest filmmaker of all time. Because Spielberg is now taken so seriously that people aren't embarrassed to put him on the same level as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa when they refer to the great directors. My generation has grown up embracing his movies and the movies of like-minded directors, and now we have to hear about how The Matrix and Blade Runner and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars are the greatest movies ever made. We have to take this seriously because Spielberg, through his films and the films he produces and the tremendous influence he's had over a couple of generations of filmgoers, has made the magically unreal and the childishly simple the preferred mode of popular culture in America. Of course, there are many others who did this before Spielberg (Disney leaps to mind). But it seems Spielberg's influence, the influence of a man who has remained a child and spent a life making homages to movies he saw as a child, has ruined a generation of filmmakers who would rather make $300 million B-movies, and an audience who would rather see them and pretend they're about complex ideas. (And apologize for them, even--most of the people I've talked to who saw Transformers knew the movie stank, but they couldn't understand why they wouldn't like something so over-hyped that they were obviously supposed to, so they apologized for it by maintaining the fiction that it was "lots of fun" and that it was somehow supposed to be lowest common denominator crap, as though that was a style choice.) And now M. Night Shyamalan can make Lady in the Water, a film that even a first year film student would think was too precious and cliched to present to his teacher, and pretend it's a serious meditation on magic realism and the place of fiction in all our lives. When actually it's garbage about how we should all appreciate him because he knows how to push words together, no matter how little sense they make.

And yeah, it's Spielberg's fault.

And while I'm on this tear, I just want to mention something that's bothered me for years. I've especially been thinking about this ever since J.D. posed this question: "Can someone please for the love of God explain to me why Blade Runner has ten trillion, three hundred and forty-seven billion, nine hundred and twenty-seven million, eleven thousand, two hundred and eighty-three versions? Or which one I should actually freaking see???" That got me thinking about the difference between our generations (he's half my age). When I was his age, I had, like he does, an insatiable hunger to see as many movies as I possibly could. I still have it. But the difference between our quests is this: I didn't have the internet back then. In the early nineties, a lot of people didn't. So I had to go to the library and read about the directors who really mattered. I had to peruse The Creature Feature Guide to find out about all of the weird horror movies I'd never heard of but knew I'd be fascinated by. I had to get the Facets Film Guide or follow the After Hours Film Society or talk to older buffs to find out about movies. And I wanted to see everything I could. I still do. But you had to meet the right people to find out about these things; everyone wasn't a film buff then. You had to connect. Film buffs were a certain kind of geek that was rare in the suburbs.

Now today, everyone's a film buff. And this is nothing against anybody, because I read a lot of blogs done by people who are heavily into film, and I enjoy reading them. But around the mid-nineties, we had another generation (like Spielberg's Movie Brats) who had grown up watching a lot of movies and incorporating what they'd seen into their view of reality. The difference here was that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater had grown up seeing movies on video. They were from the mass consumer generation of movie audience. And they were cool about it; so cool that suddenly being one of those guys like me who spent far too much time holed up in a room watching videos was acceptable. We were cool. But we weren't interesting. It didn't matter that we knew who Truffaut and Bergman were, or that we knew Orson Welles wasn't just a guy who did wine commercials, or that we'd gone to nine video stores just so we could rent a Kurosawa movie that wasn't Rashomon or Seven Samurai, or that we knew how much Sanjuro and The Searchers influenced Star Wars. We were cool because we'd seen The Goonies a hundred times.

Unfortunately, most of the cool film buffs I run across today don't know much about movies that were made before Reservoir Dogs (unless it's Blade Runner, apparently). And a lot of their conception about what makes movies great comes from movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and similar movies that, while good movies, are movies that aren't influenced by life as much as they're influenced by having seen a lot of movies. Which is why so many filmmakers from that generation don't make movies about relationships and adult complexities, but about things that look and sound cool. To quote Chuck Klostermann, this is the Cool Generation, because coolness is all we think is important and all we aspire to (and maybe all we're capable of). There are a whole bunch of people out there who went to see Cloverfield who think it's perfectly acceptable and even important because it's a take on the very real horrors of 9/11. Films can help put reality into perspective; now reality just adds an edge to a cheap monster movie that, without a national tragedy and an army of slavish net nerds charting its marketing, would be seen for what it is.

By my count (I've been keeping a list since junior high), I've seen around 6500 movies. And I feel like I've barely seen anything. Hell, I think I've only seen four or five Truffaut movies, and about as many Bergman films. I haven't seen a lot of the movies considered the classics at all. I think my own experience as a film buff is still limited. So when I see people today who don't have much of a frame of reference pre-Dogs, it just doesn't make sense to me. You can't be a film buff and not know who Ward Bond is, or who Lee Marvin is, or not have seen a Samuel Fuller movie. Hell, if you haven't seen Sam Fuller movies, you won't know where Spielberg is ripping off half of his movies from (or Kenneth Anger, for that matter). I just don't see how else it works. To be a film buff you have to know films, not the films of the past generation. But that's just my opinion.

Anyway, I blame Spielberg for that, too. Because he rips off constantly. He just rips off movies he thinks fewer people have seen, so that his remakes of Battleground and The Steel Helmet will be praised as original. And some people think they are.

I'm glad I didn't have the internet when I was a kid. It's bad enough I had Steven Spielberg.

In Repose

Thanks to Becca for making this!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Compromisin', Enterprisin', Anything But Tranquilizin'

Thanks to Chris and the Warholizer and wonderful boredom.

Throwdown 1/25

Random thoughts, questions, and observations for the week.

1. Who is it that’s “leaking” all of these pictures of Miley Cyrus? Seriously, is it even remotely believable that photos “leak” anymore? Or is it just her and her father trying to shed the Disney image before she hits adulthood and can’t escape it? Jeez, I just hope no one “leaks” the photos she sends me from her cell phone!

2. Yes, yes, Britney’s still banned. And I don’t want to talk about her weird antics because if she really has bipolar disorder or something, it’s just horrible, and if she’s really manipulating the media, she’s a bigger asshole than I’ve been giving her credit for. But I did read something that kind of shocked me a little. She’s worth $125 million, and makes $700,000 a month just in interest from her personal accounts! She makes $8.4 million a year?! Oh, honey, do us all a favor and just go live on an island with the interest you make. You can’t live on $8.4 million a year? Damn. It’s just that she needs the attention to validate her non-existence. Too bad. Hey, who do we call about trading Britney for Heath Ledger? Christians, this is your area, right?

3. With weird and creepy asshole Tom Cruise’s weird and creepy videos getting out last week, Hollywood stars like Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, and Jim Carrey have leaped forward to defend him. Which is not a surprise, considering they’re all weird and creepy assholes. Please, God, don't ever let those people be the ones defending me!

4. Man, everyone online lost their shit this week over the non-trailer for Star Trek (about the only thing J.J. Abrams does well is create hype), but the Diary of the Dead trailer’s out there, too, and that’s far more exciting to me.

5. In a nakedly desperate bid for attention and further relevance, John Travolta told Woman’s Day that he and Heath Ledger were close friends and that Ledger said “I was an idol of his.” If Travolta’s praise of Heath (constantly calling him “beautiful”) wasn’t so flowery and dripping and obviously homoerotic in its intent, I’d say that the “church” of scientology had decided they needed a different celebrity (other than the overexposed weird and creepy asshole Tom Cruise) to claim the “church” and their “science” could have saved Heath if he’d only attended the alien ghost fan club. Either way, that’s just low using someone’s tragic, untimely death for attention.

6. Hey, look! A duck!

7. God, I fucking hate Morgan Spurlock. Apparently in his latest character piece masquerading as a documentary, he makes a revelation even more stunning than how eating McDonald’s every day will kill you: apparently, no one can find Osama bin Laden. Imagine! Did you know that?! No one! No one can find bin Laden?! I had no idea! Yes, in Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, Spurlock makes the not-at-all self-aggrandizing journey to the Middle East to try and hunt down bin Laden in order to make the world a safer place for his unborn child. And then gives up quickly. But apparently he’s important, so it’s an important movie. And this ass was going around trying to hint that he’d found bin Laden when, according to people who’ve seen the movie, he gives up pretty easily because, you know, self-important white boys don’t want to actually put themselves in danger when making a point. I hate him so fucking much. Asshole! Why does anyone pay attention to this guy again? And why do they think he’s some kind of authority on McDonald’s and society? I’ve eaten more McDonald’s than he ever has or ever will; doesn’t make me a scientist.

8. The MPAA has admitted that its 2005 study, which claimed that college campuses were responsible for 44% of all movie piracy, was wrong. They say now that “human error” inflated the number, and that it’s more like 15%. Meanwhile, a company called Educase says that, taking into account how many students live off campus, the campus networks are probably only responsible for 3% of piracy. The MPAA really needs to get its facts straight and stop blaming its own consumers for not buying the shit they serve up.

9. Bill Clinton says that Hillary Clinton helped institute Wal-Mart’s “Buy America” campaign, and further says she spent her time on the Wal-Mart board of directors attempting to build the company’s environmental profile. While it’s disappointing to see Bill trying to characterize Wal-Mart as benign and benevolent, it’s hardly surprising from Hillary. She's Bush lite, deal with it. She loves corporations. Hey, keep voting for her, ladies and gentlemen.

10. Al Gore on gay marriage: “Gay men and women ought to have the same rights as heterosexual men and women: to make contracts, to have hospital visiting rights, to join together in marriage. Shouldn’t we be promoting the kind of faithfulness and loyalty to one's partner regardless of sexual orientation?” Wow, a principled stance on a divisive issue. Now I know he’s not running for president.

11. The government shills are out telling us that the latest disastrous tax cut is going to help stimulate the economy and keep us out of a recession. I guess they think we haven’t noticed that we’re already in a recession. If they finally admit it’s a recession, it’ll be a depression. America just keeps getting more and more awesome! This is how much they really care about you; they want you to have just enough to buy their shit and make them more rich, but not enough to take your sick kids to a doctor.

12. Paul Wolfowitz has made his triumphant return to the government after getting kicked out of the World Bank for arranging an overly-generous compensation package for his girlfriend. Now Mister “The Iraq War Will Pay for Itself” has been placed in charge of a high level advisory panel on arms and disarmament. Love that Bush administration! They keep getting all of the smart people to do their work!

13. Fred Thompson dropped out of the race and stopped campaigning. How did anyone notice?

14. Speaking to a crowd of Hispanic voters in New Jersey, Hillary Clinton told them to bring their brooms and vacuum cleaners to help her clean up the White House. Because all Hispanics are domestic workers, I guess? It takes a village, I guess. Hey, keep voting for her, hombres and mujeres.

15. Well, on Tuesday a 500 mile long asteroid will pass within 334,000 miles of the Earth, which is just over the length from the Earth to the Moon. An object of similar size hits the planet once every 37,000 years, but scientists are assuring us that it only has a one in 10,000 chance of colliding with us. Of course, they were originally saying 1 in 25. I guess we’ll see. Hope to see you all on Wednesday! But still, you know, just in case… have a really good weekend. Be seeing you.


How freaking cool is that poster? Apparently this is a left over Grindhouse promotional item, and you can buy it at *shudder* Hot Topic. But I must have it, because it's the freaking coolest movie poster I've seen since the eighties. And it's got Danny motherfucking Trejo on it! It must be mine!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

My Dinner with Terry

I got tagged by Allen a couple of days ago on this meme that's been going around. Now I'll finally sit down and do it. Here's what it entails:

1. Pick a single person past or present who works in the film industry you would like to have dinner with. And tell us why you chose this person.

2. Set the table for your dinner. What would you eat? Would it be in a home or at a restaurant? And what would you wear? Feel free to elaborate on the details.

3. List five thoughtful questions you would ask this person during dinner.

4. When all is said and done, select six bloggers to pass this Meme along to.

5. Link back to Lazy Eye Theatre, so people know the mastermind behind this Meme.

My first instinct was to pick Samuel Fuller, a director I love that gets ripped off a lot by modern filmmakers. But then I also wanted to pick Ralph Bakshi, another director who is always getting ripped off. But if there's one filmmaker that I could have dinner with and a nice chat, it's the king of getting ripped off: Terry Gilliam.

Terry Gilliam has been my favorite director for a decade or so now. I think I've honestly seen The Adventures of Baron Munchausen more times than I can count (and I can count very high). To say I appreciate his work is almost an understatement. His films just speak to me in a way that many others do not. Something in them speaks to the dreamer in me, the outsider in me, and even the pragmatist in me who wants to find a way to live with people who are so different from me.

I would be keen to invite him over for something home-cooked, because Terry doesn't seem like a guy who digs McDonald's toadburgers or Burger King's sweat-soaked Whoppers a whole hell of a lot. I don't want to ply him with a heavy Italian meal, either, so maybe some grilling would be involved. We could sit on the porch and have a little steak and a drink, maybe.

As for my questions:

1. So, why did you turn down Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I only ask because a Gilliam-Richard Williams pairing would have been astonishing. Still, if you turned it down because it meant working for Steven Spielberg, I can understand why you'd say no.

2. You spent a lot of time pondering a Watchmen adaptation before ultimately deciding it would be madness to do so. Now the guy who directed the unneccesary Dawn of the Dead remake and 300 is going to do it in a "realistic" style. How badly do you think this movie is going to suck? The usual amount of a Hollywood movie, or even more?

3. Okay, okay, I'll stop talking about Uma Thurman as Venus in Munchausen and what that did for me. You want a little more sauce with that steak?

4. How does it feel to have influenced the look of many modern films and barely gotten any credit for it (if any at all)? Off the top of my head, I could see your visual style heavily, um, influenced Dark City, Fight Club, almost every Tim Burton film of the past decade, South Park, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Hook, those Addams Family movies, the Harry Potter movies, those shitty Planet of the Apes and Time Machine remakes, Reign of Fire, that League of Extraordinary Gentlemen abortion, Peter Pan, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (although that also heavily rips off Cocteau), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Batman Begins, Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, V for Vendetta, all of that Pirates of the Caribbean nonsense, and Stardust. Doesn't this just burn your ass some days that they won't give you the reins to something with a budget, yet they rip you off at every turn?

5. Don't you think you maybe should have made that Tideland introduction a little less angry? That seemed to piss a lot of people off. Just asking.

Hey, not much of a conversation, but I'm sure we'd be talking influences and other films and literature and Dore illustrations as well as what the hell is going to happen to The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus with Heath Ledger's sudden death (no direspect, but Terry just can not catch a fucking break!).

I'm supposed to tag six people, but I've seen a lot of people do this already and I don't know who wasn't tagged. So if you want to do it, I invite you all.

Oh, and this started at Lazy Eye Theatre, which is a great blog everyone should already be reading.

Atheist Aside

I read yet another long blog post this morning (I won't give the author the benefit of linking it) that once again said an atheist world would bring America to ruin and that atheists are are hypocrites who would burn all Christians at the stake.

Always good to see that there are Christians who still don't undersand that being tolerant and being permissive are not the same things.

And it's always good to see that there are Christians who think that atheists are violent about their non-beliefs. Trust me, Christ fans, just because your first response to people who think differently has been to burn them alive doesn't mean everyone else thinks the same thing. Is that really the reason why you're afraid of tolerating atheists and gays and everything else you hate? The fear that we'll force you to give up your fantasies?

There's a wide difference between tolerating something and accepting it. We're not asking you to accept atheism; we're asking you to stop being assholes and thinking that the reason we're not all so gay for God is because we haven't heard enough about him.

And yes, I know that there are good Christians out there too, but this isn't directed at them, so I don't need to hear about it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Evaluating Disney: 1950

1950 was the year when everything changed for the better. With the completion of Cinderella and Treasure Island, the studio was once again on a schedule of creative output that, for a change, was bringing in money and keeping the studio alive. No longer was Walt looking for some way, any way to put a feature length animated film in production; he'd just do it at a pace that allowed him to take more time to get things right. Animation would no longer be the backbone of the studio; now it would be live action, with a live action family film every year and the series of True Life Adventures taking over some of the duties of the short animated films. Within the next three years, the Pluto and Mickey Mouse series would see their ends; Goofy would survive a while longer, and Donald Duck would make it through most of the decade, but animation would become, by the 1960s, fewer and further between.

Walt's diversification plan also called for an active role in television, a new medium that Walt immediately saw the promise of. It helped that he already had two decades worth of back catalogue, including many shorts and films that had yet to turn a profit. Walt had always been ready to take on television; the reason he'd signed with RKO in 1937 had been his refusal to submit to United Artists when they told him he had to sign over all of the future television rights to his films. In the 1950s, television would be Disney's medium of choice, a vehicle he could use to promote his projects, and even finance them. And with Mickey Mouse Park looming in the future, the money from television would prove to be instrumental.

1950 was what Walt, Roy, and the publicity department called "the Cinderella year." But there were also a full slate of shorts, a True-Life Adventure, and Treasure Island in that year.

1/6: Pluto's Heart Throb
Pluto. Pluto falls in love with Dinah the Dachshund (again) and has to fight with Butch for her attention. Nothing at all new, and a frustrating start to the year. When will Pluto finally end already? Charles Nichols was not a bad director, but he and his team are out of ideas.

1/20: Lion Around
Donald Duck. Since most of the shorts have moved into the woods and the mountains by now, it's not a surprise to see Donald living in an isolated cabin. Huey, Dewey, and Louie are running around in a mountain lion costume to chase Uncle Donald so they can steal a pie fresh from the oven; he discovers it, but then Louie the Mountain Lion shows up and, of course, Donald thinks it's really his nephews and gets in trouble trying to teach them a lesson. It's a fast-paced cartoon, and I always like the nephews, but it's essentially a remake of Donald Duck and the Gorilla with Louie in place of Ajax. They even do the same gag with the lion (or gorilla) eating his way up a table to get to the Duck. So, it's not bad, but it's pretty unoriginal. I attribute some of the energy to the direction of Jack Kinney.

2/10: Pluto and the Gopher
Pluto. Pluto destroys the garden while trying to catch a mischevious gopher. Some very good backgrounds, but we've seen it all before. Dull and, thanks to an appearance by Minnie Mouse, shrill.

As Walt Disney's biggest hit since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 13 years earlier, this was the film that revitalized the company and its reputation with the moviegoing audience. The modern take of most animation scholars is that Cinderella is a transitional film that doesn't quite deserve its reputation as a masterpiece; that the clashing animation styles and the slight storyline make for a movie that is not great, but merely competent. But after watching seven years' worth of unfulfilled promise and even mediocrity in the features, plus the decline in the quality of the shorts, I have to disagree. Cinderella is, at its core, a great film with a simple, well-told story and excellent animation enhanced by Mary Blair's stunning color sequences, Ub Iwerks's effects processing, and memorable songs. It's the bright point at the end of a long tunnel. And more than its quality, it's also a movie that's easy to like. That's because of its heart and sincerity; after six package features of experimentation and and showing off and desperately trying to stay alive, even with some wonderfully bright moments (like Johnny Appleseed or The Three Caballeros or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Bumble Boogie), Cinderella is truly involving. It's a much better film than I remember.

My post about the making of Cinderella is here.

3/3: The Brave Engineer
Special cartoon. This short almost feels like a leftover from something like Melody Time. Make Mine Music featured a short directed by Jack Kinney of Casey at the Bat, with the famous poem read by Jerry Colonna. This short is pretty much a successor to that one, with Jerry Colonna performing the Wallace Saunders song about the legend of Casey Jones with the King's Men. And, once again, Jack Kinney directed. The problem with this short is that, like a lot of the segments from the package features, it's hard to connect with. It's well-animated indeed, with an interesting stylized look and a great color scheme, but there's not much to recommend it.

3/24: Crazy Over Daisy
Donald Duck. Let's just be honest: I hate this short. It's really terrible, and it's the first appearance by Chip an' Dale that's disappointed me. This is very similar to a Mickey Mouse short that I didn't like at all, The Nifty Nineties which, like this short, is basically just an attempt at saying "Wasn't the past nice?" Donald just rides his penny farthing bike to Daisy's, gets frustrated when Chip an' Dale make fun of him, and then a fight ensues. It's not staged in a funny manner, though, and if that weren't enough it ends with another shrill and annoying appearance by Daisy Duck.

4/7: Wonder Dog
Pluto. This is one of the better late period Pluto cartoons. To impress Dinah, who is in love with a circus dog, Pluto tries to become an acrobat. He runs afoul of Butch, but during the fight/chase that follows, Pluto accidentally ends up looking like an aerial daredevil. There's some nice animated stuntwork that made this cartoon funnier than some of the other Pluto cartoons this year.

4/28: Trailer Horn
Donald Duck. Donald's camping trip is ruined when Chip an' Dale decide to play with his car horn. This is a much better return to form for the chipmunks after Crazy Over Daisy, although I wish Donald had gotten the upper hand. What they do to his car in the end is just too cruel. But it's a funny cartoon.

5/19: Primitive Pluto
Pluto. Primo, Pluto's primitive instinct self, pushes Pluto to hunt for himself like a "real" dog. And, of course, he can't do it. That's about it, really.

6/9: Puss Cafe
Pluto. Pluto tries to keep two dimwitted cats, Milton and Richard, from drinking the milk from the bottles on the front porch. The cats look an awful lot like Gideon in Pinocchio. It's not any great shakes, but there is some nice character work on the slow-witted Milton and Richard; they have a nice interplay that's pretty comfortable considering this is their first appearance. Perhaps someone could have done something interesting with them. They didn't here, but there is almost, almost a spark of possibility.

6/30: Motor Mania
Goofy. There are some changes to Goofy with this classic cartoon; in addition to the jazzy take on the theme music, we really see Goofy taking on a different persona (including a different voice). After many shorts (mostly the sports cartoons) with a world where everyone is a Goof, we now have the first appearance of George Geef, a character Goofy will play in a number of shorts in the next couple of years. But this short is about Mr. Walker, a mild-mannered milquetoast who, behind the wheel of a car, becomes the temperamental roadhog Mr. Wheeler, a dangerous individual who speeds everywhere and is inconsiderate of other drivers. It's a very funny short, and it only gets funnier as you get older and drivers across the country continue to be exactly the kind of selfish jackasses portrayed in this short. I remember watching this cartoon (and the later Freewayphobia) in my Driver's Ed class. This short is one of the great Goofy cartoons, of which there are a generous number.

7/19: Beaver Valley
True-Life Adventures. This two-reel short was once again photographed by Alfred and Elma Milotte under the direction of James Algar. In Richard Schickel's book The Disney Version, Alfred Milotte is quoted as saying "Contrary to popular notion, beavers are not always busy. Most of the time they just horse around." It's perhaps for this reason that the film spends more time with the variety of wildlife in the Rocky Mountain valley than strictly with beavers. But there's still a lot here to recommend it, including some stunning footage of salmon swimming back up to the stream of their birth, playful bits with otters messing around and sliding down snow-covered hills, and a little interlude with frogs and crickets providing the music of the night. It's just as good as Seal Island. In The Disney Version, Milotte gets to the heart of just how frustrating these films were to make when relating the story of waiting for weeks to get a close-up of a beaver gnawing a tree, only to finally have the perfect opportunity missed because of an unloaded camera. Milotta apparently blew his top, stepped out of his blind, crossed over to a stunned beaver and took the sapling and jammed it back into the ground. "Do that again, you punk," he ordered, and sure enough, he got the shot. A great-looking film. Like Seal Island before it, Beaver Valley won an Oscar for Best Documentary, Short Subject.

At last, Walt Disney made the leap into producing full length live action films. Walt wanted to take a fairly hands-off approach to live action, choosing competent filmmakers to make appealing stories with warm actors who were not box office draws or egotistical stars. This allowed for a tight budget (although the $1.8 million budget was fairly lavish for a film with no stars in it), well-paced structure, and simple development. He wanted his films to be both involving and comfortable, and Treasure Island certainly fits that bill.

Once considered for a combination film like Song of the South, Walt instead chose Treasure Island as his first live action feature because it was familiar and not overly-complicated. He cast Bobby Driscoll as Jim Hawkins to add some of the typically Disney-esque American flavor to a British story (in The Disney Films, Leonard Maltin quotes a British headline which refers to the film as "Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Coke"), but I don't think it's intrusive. At any rate, the film is really stolen by Robert Newton's excellent, funny performance as Long John Silver. He was singled out by some reviewers as hammy, but he was so memorable that he spent the rest of his career playing Long John Silver and other pirates. Over-the-top though it may be, Newton's performance and the way he conveys Long John's genuine respect and comradeship with Jim Hawkins anchors the film.

The making of the film was smooth and without setbacks. A real ship was chartered for the film, and the British locations were turned into the Caribbean with the use of matte shots that, watching them in 2008, are nearly invisible. The effects were done by Ub Iwerks and Peter Ellenshaw, who became a Disney mainstay. Byron Haskin, a cinematographer and special effects photographer on some classic swashbucklers (including The Sea Hawk), was chosen to direct the film. He would go on to direct The War of the Worlds, From the Earth to the Moon, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars. His work was not flashy, didn't call attention to itself, and placed the story and the characters at the center of the action, making an economic but very enjoyable movie. The film was shot by Freddie Young, who would go on to shoot a number of classic films like Ivanhoe and Lust for Life before winning three Oscars for David Lean films (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Ryan's Daughter). The screenwriter, Lawrence E. Watkin, so pleased Walt with his adaptation (which included a new ending to substitute for the rather undramatic ending of the novel; something every writer of Treasure Island is forced to deal with) that he was commissioned to write the next three live action Disney movies, and wrote for Disney for the rest of his career.

The film was a modest success, bringing in about $4.8 million. For what it's worth, I think it's a magnificent film. Its aims are modest, so it doesn't try too hard. It merely seeks to entertain, and it does just that. I may be biased because Treasure Island is one of my very favorite novels, but Disney could certainly be proud of his film and the way he had forged a new path in filmmaking.

7/21: Pests of the West
Pluto. Bent-Tail and Bent-Tail Jr. return to plague Pluto, this time trying to eat the hens in the henhouse he's guarding. Some cute moments, and I think Bent-Tail and son are the best things going for Pluto foils, but still not an exciting short.

8/11: Food for Feudin'
Pluto. I'm not thrilled about seeing Chip an' Dale with Pluto again, but there are some very funny bits in this cartoon. The best occurs when the two chipmunks hide themselves in gloves, and the gloves twiddle their thumbs. Pluto can be such an idiot. The three are fighting over a tree they want to hide food in. It's a bit slighter than some of the classic pairings with Donald Duck, but it's very funny.

9/1: Hook, Lion and Sinker
Donald Duck. Louie the Mountain Lion returns, this time with a son. Donald has more of a cameo role in this short, as Louie and son attempt to steal his freshly caught fish from his cabin. There are some great bits, and Louie has developed a real personality very quickly; the personality is very similar to Bent-Tail the Coyote, but he's somehow funnier.

9/22: Camp Dog
Pluto. So far, this is the best short with Bent-Tail and Bent-Tail Jr. The two try to get at the food in a campsite guarded (badly) by Pluto. Bent-Tail Jr. is absolutely hilarious in this short, always trying to take a bite out of Pluto and include him as part of the spoils of victory. It's his little quirks and schemes that make this short one of Pluto's funniest adventures.

10/13: Bee at the Beach
Donald Duck. Donald fights with Spike the Bee over space at the beach. This one is just a little bit cruel, with Spike sending Donald and his inner tube out into shark-infested waters. Kind of fun animation on the sharks, but I'm getting a little tired of Spike and this one feels too hurried.

11/3: Hold That Pose
Goofy. Another "how to" short, with Goofy trying to photograph nature with his complicated camera set-up. The equipment all seems a little bit outdated, but the gags are hilarious, especially as Goofy wanders into a zoo to try and photograph a grizzly bear. The bear is a source of some minor contention; most references list this as the first appearance of Humphrey Bear, but the bear is not the same character, merely the same model that would later be used for Humphrey in his own adventures (and with Donald Duck). But the short is hilarious, one of the funniest of the year. It does have some similarity with an older Warner Bros. short, Elmer's Candid Camera. Also, it kind of feels like Pinto Colvig's Goofy voice is just added in from earlier recordings; Goofy's mouth doesn't even move most of the time he's supposed to be talking. I wonder why the add-on?

11/24: Morris, the Midget Moose
Special cartoon. In this short, the Bootle Beetle teaches some youngsters that two heads are better than one by relating the story of Morris, a little moose with big antlers, and Balsam, a big moose with tiny antlers. Together they act as one and defeat the old chief moose, Thunderclap. It's actually a charming, simple cartoon story. Not flashy or loud, but very pleasant.

12/15: Out on a Limb
Donald Duck. Park Ranger Donald is pruning Chip an' Dale's tree and decides to screw with them, terrorizing them with a clipper until it backfires on him. It's a nice way to end the year, because it's a wildly funny short with, by this point, Disney's funniest characters: Donald and the chipmunks. There are some great gags and the energy is very, very high.

12/25: One Hour in Wonderland
Walt Disney's first television special was both a promotional special for the next animated feature, Alice in Wonderland, and an opportunity for Walt to experiment with the format before committing to more. The structure of the special (sponsored by Coca-Cola, with three commercials at the beginning, middle, and end--programs that did more, Walt felt, lacked showmanship) is a tea party at the Disney studio hosted by Walt for some friends and family. The special opens with Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, and Mortimer Snerd heading to the party, which is hosted by Walt and Kathryn Beaumont, the actress who provided the voice of Alice (and also Wendy Darling in Peter Pan). Kathryn is dressed in Alice's costume, too. Walt (who gets to proudly show off his train set, which would appear in several episodes of Disneyland) is a natural on camera, even more at ease here than he was in The Reluctant Dragon. It's easy to see why America let him into their homes on his own show; he's genial, friendly, warm, and somehow comforting. He just seems like a nice, sincere guy--not unlike Mickey Mouse, really. He unveils the magic mirror from Snow White, shown in live action (with more Iwerks special effects) with actor Hans Conreid playing the slave in the mirror. Conreid was a wonderful, stately actor, and at the time was providing the voice of Captain Hook in Peter Pan. The mirror shows several animated segments in their TV debut: the "Silly Song" segment from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Mickey/Donald/Goofy short Clock Cleaners (though it it cut down), the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" and first Br'er Rabbit sequence from Song of the South, and (also cut down) the Pluto short Bone Trouble.

Also present at the party are Walt's daughters, Sharon and Diane, as well as Bobby Driscoll. The poor guy is really making the transition to an earnest adolescence, and I felt bad when he said "For as long as I live I'll always remember the Br'er Rabbit stories," and I could only think, "Jeez, his life is already almost half over." He died at the age of 31.

The neatest segment of One Hour in Wonderland is the appearance of the Firehouse Five Plus Two, a Dixieland band made up of Disney animators (Danny Alguire, cornet; Harper Goff, banjo; Ward Kimball, trombone; Clarke Mallery, clarinet; Monte Mountjoy, drums; Ed Penner, tuba and Frank Thomas, piano). They play some holiday music in a staged segment that nevertheless shows some wild joy. I found the clip on YouTube, so enjoy it while you can.

The final animated segment shown is the mad tea party sequence from Alice in Wonderland, a movie which would be released in July of 1951. And though Walt had vowed to slow down his work on animated features, Peter Pan was (still) in production and preliminary work was already being done on Sleeping Beauty.

By the end of 1950, Walt and his studio were finally approaching a semblance of their earlier success, only this time, there were profits coming with it. Walt was now ready to play the role of a real Hollywood producer, as well as a real TV host. But this time, Walt wouldn't let the success go to his head. He now knew all too well how quickly the accolades could stop. He had the same plans, of course, but he had to lay them down methodically and ensure their successful outcome. He wouldn't rush into producing more than he could handle, and with that in mind, things should prove to turn out well.

Finally, the worst was over.

A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: Notes on Cinderella

The financial situation at Walt Disney Productions had never been exactly stable. Most of the films we consider masterpieces today were not immediately embraced by audiences. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been a runaway smash, and Dumbo had been a hit, but Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi had been rejected by audiences (although, in the case of an expensive production like Fantasia, it may have been impossible to make much money off of it). Most of the Snow White profits had been spent on an expensive new studio on Hyperion Avenue. With the loss of the foreign markets and the commandeering of the Disney studio as a base, the studio had turned to industrial films, commercial films, and government contracts as a way to stay afloat while the audience continued to shrink. The forties saw the studio struggling with package features to various degrees of success (and critical savaging). By the late forties, after a bout with indecision and some serious consideration on the subject of getting out of the business altogether, Walt finally decided the future lay in diversification: live action, documentary, and less animated content. But he also decided to get back into the business of producing full length animated features. It was time for another Snow White.

In a sense, the production of Cinderella was an even bigger risk than Snow White had been. When Walt and his animators and directors began work on Snow White, an animated feature hadn’t been attempted in America. Progress was slow because they were finding the process, but that process became organic and a wonderful film was turned out. A genuine masterpiece. But Disney was critically successful at the time, and the Mickey Mouse shorts were at the peak of their popularity, so there’s every chance he could have bounced back. If Cinderella were to fail, Walt knew, he’d have to close up shop on the animation studio. Everything was riding on the film.

Why did Walt choose Cinderella as the first animated feature since Bambi? Many feel he may have identified with the story, having gone from rags to riches himself. He first made Cinderella in 1922 as one of his Laugh-O-Grams cartoons, but always wanted to improve on it. The story was outlined and sketched as a Silly Symphony in 1933, but the story became too complex for a seven-minute short, so the idea was temporarily shelved. Some film treatments came and went in the thirties, but the story never progressed past some storyboarding. In 1942, as Bambi was hitting theaters, Walt put Dick Huemer and Joe Grant (the Dumbo team) in charge of story for Cinderella, but it wasn’t until a treatment by Ted Sears, Homer Brightman, and Harry Reeves in 1947 came along that he began to see the film taking shape. He knew the story was similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and he didn’t shy away from it, but he didn’t want to just make the same movie over again; he wanted to make a different movie for a different audience.

Cinderella was made in a very different way than Snow White had been. Animators were assigned to characters more often than they were assigned to sequences this time around (although the stairway sequence with the mice and the key was animated by Wolfgang Reitherman). The voices of the actors were all cast and the songs written before the film was animated, but the musical score was not developed alongside the story; the film was post-scored, like a live action film, which was unusual for Disney at the time. Walt cast Ilene Woods as Cinderella after hearing her voice on a song demo. Also in the film was Verna Felton as the Fairy Godmother (doing the exact opposite of her harsh, busybody elephant in Dumbo—Felton, incidentally, died on 15 December 1966, the same day as Walt Disney). Mike Douglas did the singing voice of the Prince.

The film was also shot in live action before the animation even began. On Snow White and other Disney films, some of the realistic human action was achieved by rotoscoping, with animators either animating over live action film, or using the films as a guide. But the long animation process of that film had been very expensive and very loose, with lots of room for the animators to add character gags and flourishes. But in this case, Walt didn’t have the money to spend on that extra time, and to rein in the animation and keep it controlled every aspect of the film was tested with live action story reels, from the character interplay and staging to the continuity and timing of the edits. Actors acted to the pre-recorded performances, and rough sketches were used to convey the animal characters until Walt approved of the story and tenor of the film. Some of the animators, particularly Frank Thomas, felt hampered by this method and hated messing with stacks of Photostats to draw from for his animation of Lady Tremaine, the wicked stepmother. But he was also gratified by the vocal performance of Eleanor Audley in the role, which vitalized his work and led to some of his best animation. I should add that, personally, I don’t feel like the rotoscoping was done slavishly; it may enhance some of the animation, but the animators have still given the characters their own touches and their own personalities through their artistry. Even if you recognize rotoscoping when you see it, I don’t think it detracts here.

About the only real flights of cartooning fancy in the movie are a sequence with floating bubbles while Cinderella sings “Sing Sweet Nightingale” (with effects animation by Ub Iwerks), and the wild sequences with the animals. Ward Kimball, in charge of animating the cat Lucifer and the mice Jaq and Gus, as well as the other animal friends, didn’t have to mess with the Photostats at all and was free to do whatever he wanted (within the timing, of course). His work in the film is of a typically great quality, and shows a real joy in animation. Though Walt was often critical of the animation work as Cinderella progressed, he was always enthusiastic about Kimball’s great cartoon work. However, as a result of this work, many modern critics (and critics at the time, to be fair) feel that the two styles don’t sit well together. On the one hand, there is Cinderella with her stepmother and stepsisters in a somewhat serious plot with realistic animation and rotoscoping, and on the other are cartoon sequences with no attempt made at realism, as though someone has suddenly dropped in pieces of a Silly Symphony that doesn’t relate to the other story (Wilfred Jackson consciously directed the dressmaking sequence as though it were a Silly Symphony). Bill Peet had to work hard to keep the sequences connected in the script (he’s one of about 16 story people who worked on the film), though the story is slight enough to work around. Perhaps the great success of Snow White and Cinderella is that the original stories are thin and malleable, and don’t have too much information to convey. There is room for the fun of cats and mice in a chase or forest animals washing dishes and other bits of whimsy.

Once again, Walt tried to fit in a scene of Cinderella and the Prince dancing in the clouds and stars, the same scene he’d tried to fit in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And again it was dropped, deemed too slow and lavish and replaced by the simpler reflection of “So This Is Love.” The backgrounds were not as lush and detailed as they were on earlier films, but the animators made the sparse look and negative space, much of it with a color sequence designed by Mary Blair, work for the film. It doesn’t look like a cost-cutting measure at all; merely a change in style. Walt kept the story as tight as he could, once again showing he knew when and were to cut to keep things moving while still telling a sympathetic and engaging story; he often dropped gags to opt for a sincere approach. Once the story was hashed out, the animation itself proceeded quickly, and the film was finished within six months. Walt himself was not in the studio for much of the animation; he spent the summer of 1949 overseeing the making of Treasure Island, his first completely live action production. Walt’s production of Cinderella was essentially done through the mail.

When it was released on Valentine’s Day, 1950, Cinderella became the most successful Disney release since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and in fact made more money than Snow White in its first run. The film cost $2.2 million to make, and brought in $7.8 million; it cost as much to make as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and Melody Time combined, and made more money than the two put together. Perhaps those who saw Snow White 13 years prior now wanted to give their kids a similar experience. Perhaps the story just appealed to those, like Walt, who had grown up believing that transformation was always possible. The scene where the Fairy Godmother changes Cinderella’s rags to a beautiful ball gown was said to be Walt’s favorite piece of animation the studio had ever put out. The film was also the first with songs and a score to be published by Walt’s new music company, which allowed Disney to rake in more profits from the release of the soundtrack, which featured instant classics like “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.” The profits from record sales, music publishing, books, merchandise, and the film itself once again made Walt Disney Productions flush with profit.

Now, armed with a fresh infusion of cash and, at last, a new approval from the audience, Walt was finally once again in a position to make the dreams he had wished come true.

Animation Credits:
Production supervisor: Ben Sharpsteen
Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi
Directing animators:
Eric Larson, Ward Kimball, Norm Ferguson, Marc Davis, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas
Animators: Marvin Woodward, Hal Ambro, George Nicholas, Hal King, Judge Whitaker, Fred Moore, Hugh Fraser, Phil Duncan, Cliff Nordberg, Ken O’Brien, Harvey Toombs, Don Lusk