Saturday, June 24, 2006

Not a Girl, Maybe Never a Woman

I've been thinking a bit about that Dateline interview with Britney Spears, and what I said yesterday about how, if she wasn't famous, she wouldn't even make shift manager at Burger Barn. And I wondered: why is it that I feel so much sympathy for Britney Spears? And I've finally realized why it is. This is going to take a minute, so let me explain it all.

I had been out of high school for five years when "Baby One More Time" hit the radio. Music had gotten so bad in the mid-to-late nineties that I stopped listening to the radio and stopped watching MTV, so any musical development from 1993 to 1999 I wasn't really aware of. I just knew that boy bands were popular. And then came Britney. "Baby One More Time" was the first new pop song I had liked in some time; whatever you think of Britney or bubblegum pop or whatever, it's a perfectly-constructed piece of pop music. It's ephemeral, it's catchy, it's unforgettable even though it isn't great music. In other words, it's exactly what good pop music aspires to. It's a perfect prefabricated pop hit.

And then I saw the video. Oh, man. Britney and her schoolgirl uniform came along at a time when I had noticed I (at age 23) was suddenly aware of an attraction to high school girls that had never been so strong. I kept wondering if there was something abnormal about me for still being into clearly underage girls. Why wasn't I growing up? Why wasn't I maturing and taking my interests elsewhere? And the easy answer to that is: it's hard to grow up in today's world, where everything in the media is so youth-oriented that you almost feel out-of-place if your interests aren't as shallow and pointless as the media tells you it should be. And now, five years after The Professional and, later, Beautiful Girls and a remake of Lolita had reawakened the fires of little girl lust in American pop culture, here was someone that young who was being marketed on her sexuality. Not on her voice, not on her personality; here was seventeen year-old Britney Spears, late of The Mickey Mouse Club, being sold on how inappropriately sexy she was.

And that's when pedophilia became America's national pastime.

I still maintain that Britney Spears became famous for two reasons. First, little girls like to see other little girls sing and become famous, because they all dream about that. And second, every guy in his forties secretly wants to fuck a teenage girl. All those guys in the suburbs, the guys like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, they drive the babysitter home and see their daughter's cheerleader friends and they think about how great it was being a teenager. They see you girls. And they saw Britney, begging us to hit her one more time. And Christina, taunting us to rub her the right way. And the Spice Girls, telling us to slam our bodies down and wind them all around. Never before in my life had I seen the desire of older men to invade the bodies of young women so openly flaunted and so nakedly played to. And that's how Britney Spears, a singer I honestly thought wouldn't last, became one of the biggest celebrities on the planet.

Give me another reason. Her music is just okay; it's competently produced. I'll give her "Baby One More Time" and it's thin rewrite, "Oops! I Did It Again." I'll give her "Stronger" and I'll even give her "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman." "Toxic," certainly, and also "Early Mornin'," and of course "Everytime," which is her only truly beautiful vocal. She can't really sing very well, if we're being honest. She's not got much of a voice. Her fame is all down to how she bounces around in a tight outfit in time to a beat. What else does she do? She's got no personality at all; look at an interview with her, and you just get bored. She doesn't know anything about the world. She can't talk about anything outside of herself and how the world reacts to her. There's no substance to her at all. And she really has no talent. Anyone could sing the songs she sings. And she can't act, either. So what's the point of her outside of a marketing tool and a sexual fantasy? She's a blank template that has had fame and fortune grafted to it.

And that, ultimately, is why I feel sorry for Britney Spears. She's not really a person. She's a celebrity robot. She's trashy and tacky and lacks any real depth or character. She's a vehicle that has been driven by other people who used her to make money for them. She's been used and shaped and tortured and deprived into being a source of revenue. And don't tell me it's her fault because she wanted to be famous. She was too young to know better.

And here's Britney now at 25. She's lost her looks. She's not had a single out in a couple of years, and now that she's pregnant a second time, it's going to be even longer. She hasn't grown into a real person, like most people do in their early twenties. She's married to a loser who will never be able to support her financially, which puts even more of the burden on her. Britney can't lose her looks, she can't lose her fans or her marketability, because it puts her closer and closer to the inevitable reality of living in a trailer park, drunk and divorced, with two children she doesn't know how to take care of. Because the public is trying her constantly. With no projects in the public eye, the only thing people have is the constant criticism of her parental skills (or lack thereof) and how well she's taking care of her body. Even her publicists seem to be abandoning her, aware that they've drained her of all the life and cash that they can.

Quick aside: it's a horrible cycle these publicists have. Leslie Sloane-Zelnick is like Erzebet Bathori, the so-called Countess Dracula who bathed in the blood ogf virgins to steal their youth. She did it to Britney, she's done it to Lindsay Lohan. Who's next?

I see in Britney Spears an ordinary girl who wanted to be a singer, and who was given everything, and is now realizing she has nothing. Even Madonna doesn't want to be her friend anymore. At 25, Britney is still an emotional child. There's a theory to fame which says that the age at which a person becomes famous is the age they stay emotionally for the rest of their life. And it's because, when you're a cash cow, your handlers remove any obstacles you have. But it's overcoming obstacles that makes you a stronger adult and gives you character. Britney's never had to overcome anything on her own. I see a girl who is trying to figure out how to be an adult, how to be a mother, how to have faith in things. I see a girl who is a prisoner in her own life, who is constantly hounded by those who make a living documenting her every move. I see a girl, one just a year younger than my oldest sister, who has been turned into a celebrity, as though it were some cruel experiment, and now wants her life back. And I think her publicists and managers and agents and record company executives and the media and the paparazzi and our celebrity-obssessed culture and dismissive society have done the cruelest thing one can do to another human being. We have taken away her humanity.

I feel very, very sorry for Britney Spears.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Occurrences at Northern Illinois University

Thanks to the shitty parking situation, my hatred of the bus drivers, and my unfortunate scheduling of classes, I am trapped on campus today from 7am to nearly 6pm. This has afforded me no small amount of opportunities to experience my most hated of life experiences: interaction with other people. Here are three from today.

1. It rained heavily this morning, meaning I had to walk the mile distance between Faraday West and the incoveniently designed and placed front door of the Founders Memorial Library in the middle of a thunderstorm. Then, taking the elevator ride up to the computer lab, some idiot gets in next to me and says: "Wet enough for ya?" God, I hate these people who think they're witty. I feigned pain and answered: "Tell me about it; between the cold of the rain and the air conditioning in here, my nipples are on fire!" That one threw him off, and he tried to ignore me. So, naturally, I stood there and made little anguished sounds, throwing in an occasional "Oh, Jesus." His elevator ride was very uncomfortable. Hey, that's what he gets for trying to have a superficial conversation with me. I know it's wet, jagoff, I'm dripping on the carpet.

2. I ran into my English 374 profesor today; she asked me if I'd read the stories for today: "Rip Van Winkle," "Young Goodman Brown," and "Bartleby the Scrivener." I said yes; I actually didn't read them, but I've read them all before in other classes. "What did you think?" she asked. And without thinking, I replied: "Well, they're the kinds of stories teachers always start short story classes with, aren't they? Because they think it's clever to ask students what they think of three obtuse, boring, pointless stories." She didn't seem to appreciate the comment. Not sure I'm looking forward to class.

3. And lastly, there's the computer lab in Reavis Hall. There's a professor in the English Department who changes his look every year, and this summer he's trying out high-waisted tight jeans, hair styled so that it looks effortlessly casual, buttoned shirts with the sleeves rolled up and tee shirts underneath, and two large gold hoop earrings, one in each ear. I don't know how this guy doesn't trip trying to keep up with his affectations. Last time I saw him, he was doing the bomber jacket and khakis with the goatee, but whatever. Anyway, he casually walks into the lab and tells the lab monitor in a loud, affected voice that he's going to bring his class of eight students in and give them a demonstration about something or other. "You don't have to kick anyone out," he says high-handedly. Then he looks at me, sitting closest to the bewildered monitor, and asks: "It's not going to bother you, is it?" I take one look at his earrings, which make him look like a gay pirate trying to look hetero (except it's impossible for pirates not to look gay, because, come on, they're pirates), and say: "No, I'm planning on ignoring you the way God obviously intended."

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Well, it's better than any of the movies Hilary Duff has made so far. It's a silly story about a mermaid who comes on land and needs to fall in love within three days or she has to marry something or other. Like Roger Ebert says, it's one of those kiddie movies about something extraordinary that happens and is treated like an everyday occurrence. Still, it's competently made and looks very good, and the three leads have an interesting effect. It stars Sara Paxton, whom I've seen referred to more than once as "the next Hilary Duff." Mostly this is because she, too, is a young blonde who sings and acts and has a throng of underage fans; this is also because she's on an Animal Planet series, Darcy's Wild Life, which is from the same producers as Duff's introduction to the world, Lizzie McGuire. I've seen Darcy, and it's awful, but Paxton has much better timing and a much better range of reactions than Duff (who plays the same little coward over and over and over again), and she's charming here. The other two leads, JoJo (here called Joanna Levesque, which is an awesome because it sounds like she should either be a porn star from the seventies or a trashy romance novelist from the seventies) and Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric and apparently the star of the Nickelodeon series Unfabulous), are also very good. In fact, they're all a little too good for what really amounts to a Disney Channel movie with a decent special effects budget. They're good enough that it keeps hammering home just how silly and ephemeral the script really is; they should all be in a better movie. JoJo I especially like, mostly because she did so much work flattening her Massachussetts accent, and it sounds cute when she forgets about it. Plus, despite her other life as a singer, she's the only one of the trio who doesn't have a song in the movie, which shows incredible restraint, especially in today's world of teenage actress-singers. I'm going to give it *** stars for the likeable talent involved, rather than the movie itself which, though not punishing, is forgettable. Wow, that's a lot of space to devote to that movie...

I'm a sucker for Disney movies, which means I end up watching Disney Channel movies. This one isn't bad, even though the plot is basically Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Chinese mythology thrown in. Brenda Song is tremendously likeable, which helps. *** stars, which puts it in the top tier of Disney Channel Original Movies. For whatever that's worth.

THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T (1953)
Imagine Dr. Seuss, Chuck Jones, Salvador Dali, Terry Gilliam, Roald Dahl, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Robert Wiene all put together in a mixer and you get the idea. This is a remarkable film about a kid who dreams that he's trapped at an institute by his horrible piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, who has plans to dominate all the little boys in the world with his special piano made for 500 players. Dr. Seuss wrote the story, so you get the idea. He also wrote the lyrics to some very fanciful songs. Where the movie goes exactly right is in its conveyance of surrealism and its portrayal of a Seussian world that Hollywood today can't seem to get remotely right. There's a creepiness under it that is never there anymore; surrealism needs to scare. It's also not a busy film, with shit happening all over the place according to the George Lucas never-a-center-action-in-a-single-frame-to-draw-your-eye-to-it school. Instead, director Roy Rowland and his art directors get the look of surrealism right, with the necessary starkness and unsettling nightmare qualities. Remember the cages hanging from the ceiling in total blackness in Time Bandits? That's what the Terwillkier Institute looks like. You watch two guys joined at the beard rollerskate around a dark set and... man, this is an awesome movie. As Dr. Terwilliker, Hans Conried outdoes himself. I've always liked him as an actor; he must've appeared on every TV series that aired in the sixties, but he's always good. He's especially well-known for his voice work, which included a lot of Disney (he's the voice of Captain Hook in Peter Pan), some Walter Lantz (he was the original voice of Wally Walrus), the Wicked Wazir in the Mr. Magoo version of 1001 Arabian Nights, the narrator of the animated Dr. Seuss on the Loose and Chuck Jones's Horton Hears a Who! (as well as the voice of the Mathemigician in Jones's The Phantom Tollbooth), the Faerie King and the Shadow in the little-seen film Faeries (based on the Brian Froud book), Thorin Oakenshield in Rankin-Bass's magnificent The Hobbit, and most famously, the voice of Snidely Whiplash. His performance is the best reason to see this movie. But the rest of it doesn't disappoint, either. For something coming out of Hollywood in the 1950s, this is an excellent fantasy film. **** stars.

Diane Lane plays an American teenager who runs away with a French boy so she can kiss him under the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. They are accompanied by Sir Laurence Olivier, playing a whimsical, aging dandy with surprising abandon. It's a romance for kids, but it's a very sincere movie with an old-fashioned outlook, existing in that wonderful movie world where American visitors are intelligent and meet cultured poor people in Europe, where Paris is really as magical as it looks, and everyone is polite and interesting, and Italy looks like a postcard. Yes, it's fantasist bullshit, but it's charming and wonderful, too. **** stars.

Random Bitching

1. You've probably seen these commercials for Raisin Bran Crunch, the ones where this Johnson guy does nothing but chomp on his cereal at his cubicle. His underboss hates him, and wants him fired, but because Johnson can't hear him (the crunch of the cereal is too loud), Johnson never leaves. It's because of logic like this that commercials never work on me; dude, if you want him fired, just fill out the paperwork and stop paying him, he'll figure it out. And as the commercials go on, Johnson gets promoted, an upper boss thinks he's a genius, etc. The guy playing his underboss keeps trying to do this horrible impression of Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks. For some reason, they've taken one of the early commercials and ramped up the amount of times they show it in a day, and for some reason, this dope sitting at his desk and eating cereal really, really bothers me. Like, if I saw it at work, I'd be grossed out. I don't know why, but ew. Fuck, I just looked at the TV and it's on right fucking now!

2. Another commercial that doesn't work on me: that car commercial where the car is so fucking extreme that the guy who drives it has to live on top of a mesa and, wearing a business suit, parachute down to the red earth below just to get to his car. The first time Becca saw it, she asked: "How does he get back up again?" Another good question: is his wife a prisoner, or does she get to leave the home?

3. What is all of this MySpace garbage? It's the worst fucking thing I've ever seen on the internet. It's impossible to read, the layout and design of the pages are just ugly, and the whole thing is unpleasant. No one ever blogs on it, so what's the point? Other than looking up people you knew in high school because you're a loser, or trying desperately to get your Green Day soundalike "indie band" signed, or looking for children to molest because you're sick, what is the point of MySpace? The only people trolling it are trendoids with no friends, cops looking for parties to bust, stupid high school kids chronicling their exciting adventures in the library, and potential employers who want to see if you're a sick fuck before hiring you. In the exact same way that the internet has taken away the need for friends, MySpace has become a stand-in for any societal interaction...and it's just as unfulfilling and pointless as the real one.

4. My local Borders has changed its hours for summer. Instead of being open from 9am to 11pm, they are now open 10am to 11pm. Now, this isn't just because it means my girlfriend has to work later hours, but isn't this stupid? I mean, the local Barnes & Noble (across the street, natch) is open from 10am to 10pm. If Borders wants to compete, they should open an hour earlier, not stay open an hour later. The logic is simple: those assholes that barge in right as the doors are opening begging for cafe coffee to wake their insignificant asses up now have to wait an extra hour for their coffee. Do you know anyone that does that? Me, neither. I know people who see Borders is closed, and decide they're going to go to Dunkin' Donuts or the gas station instead. And those unwashed poetry losers and wannabe vampires who hang out in the cafe all night and never buy anything aren't going to walk across the street to hang out for another hour at a different store. And you don't want them to; they're loud, whiny, and obnoxious, and they never buy anything except that one bottle of juice that they all nurse for three hours. Jesus, is the business model that hard to come up with?

5. Summer classes started on Monday. I'm taking Math 101 in Faraday West, a building I've never been in before. Holy shit! I should have been a science major! The room is incredible; a lecture hall that still feels intimate, walls that are acoustic enough to allow the teacher to be heard and understood (despite his British accent and stutter), blackboards that go all the way to the ceiling so you have to pull those panels down and the lecture doesn't stop, comfortable seats with desktop attachments, perfect air conditioning, lighting that isn't too harsh but still keeps you awake... oh, man, it's like a real university! It's exactly what you imagine your college lecture hall is going to look like when you think about going. Not like Reavis Hall and DuSable Hall and their desk/chair attachments, shitty sweatbox rooms, lack of carpeting, and terrible acoustics that bounce sound everywhere with no volume. It's like going to school in the 1950s. Fucking NIU.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

This Summer Is Going to Kill My Interest in "Lost"

I guess I started to get nervous about it long before the 19 May issue of Entertainment Weekly, but that date's as good as any for marking the beginning of my belief that Lost is going to end up being a frustrating, ultimately unrewarding experience.

I know a lot of people who are getting tired of a show that, less than a year ago, looked like the next great television series. I know people who would drop children in the middle of the street just so they could race home quickly to watch a new episode of Lost; those same people didn't care whether they missed an episode or not by the end of the second season. As the show lollygagged its way to a conclusion that promised answers but gave none, ratings began to fall. Quoth Merna: "I don't hate Lost yet, but I think someday I will."

Where does this hatred come from? Well, it just wouldn't be me if I didn't blame the network. ABC's insistence on a "traditional" 35-week season means that you're going to see 13 weeks of reruns. ABC tended to program these reruns last season with all of the grace of a retarded baboon with ADHD on a sugar high, throwing reruns at us willy-nilly (including those godawful recap episodes, as if we hadn't been paying any attention to the goddamn show the whole time it was on). But I think we also need to put some of the blame (an equal amount, if not more) on the show's producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. They're the real culprits here (and before you start, fuck J.J. Abrams--he helped create the show and worked on the first seven episodes before rushing off to direct Mission: Impossible III and, maybe, a Star Trek movie). It's Lindelof and Cuse who really don't seem to understand what kind of show they're working on, and what the audience is watching for.

Which brings me back to the 19 May issue of Entertainment Weekly. A cover article about Lost revealed what Lindelof and Cuse think the purpose of the series is. Ask most viewers, and they'll talk about a mysterious island, a monster of black smoke, some kind of insane sociological experiment, a hatch, and a plane crash. They'll talk about how strange it is, and how mysterious, and they'll talk about the characters trapped in this nightmare. Ask Cuse, and he says: "Lost is about meaning--and the search for meaning." Which is nice, sure; any drama, even a drama with so much mystery and science fiction (notice how much of the science fiction element has been toned down in the second season), is driven by interesting characters. But the show managed to alienate something like 200,000 viewers in 2006. That can't be just American Idol's needlessly one-hour results show. EW says: "Some viewers may simply have reached ambiguity overload." I think that's only part of the problem.

The other part is that Lindelof and Cuse obviously have no idea where this is going. Have you ever listened to somebody lie to your face when they're explaining why they were late, or why they didn't show up somewhere? They tell you about some kind of road accident, or something. And the story just builds and builds, and it takes forever to tell, and you suddenly realize: they're making this story up as they go along, and they have no idea how to connect the dots to make it sound plausible, because they don't know how to end it. Well, Lost is the same way. It's long, slow, deliberately paced. Because the producers decided it wasn't important to come up with some sort of outline or master plan so that everything hangs together in a way that makes sense, they're just pulling it out of their asses and hoping desperately that it holds someone's interest. And it isn't. Because viewers are starting to feel that sense of desperation. And no one wants to sit back for a ride that doesn't go anywhere.

According to EW, "Cuse believes the show can survive on character-driven redemption tales for years." Matthew Fox has talked about how Lost could easily go on for eight or more seasons. This is a problem with network TV, isn't it? It's never about telling a story that makes sense and has an ending. It's just about keeping something on the air for as long as you can to sell more junk. I've talked to a number of Lost viewers who are offended by Cuse's belief that show can go on the way it has been. I always get some variation on "it's nice that Rose doesn't have cancer anymore, but can someone just tell me what the fuck is going on?" Viewers are getting to the point where they're no longer intrigued by the mystery; they're confused. And a confused audience tends to move on to something else. Hell, who was watching The X-Files anymore by the last couple of seasons?

Still, I was willing to go on with this show, even if I just end up watching the episodes on DVD at the end of the season (no wait, no interruption, the way television should be). But then more stupid crap kept pissing me off. First, there were the Hanso Foundation commercials advertising the website, which is mainly a way to force you into watching ads for Jeep and Sprite. There was the Bad Twin tie-in novel, and a reference to the show. And then some actor goes on Jimmy Kimmel Live pretending to be a spokesman for the Hanso Foundation, accusing Lost of misrepresenting the company. Yes, ABC and the producers of the show have decided it would be fun to present advertising tie-ins as clues to the backstory of the series. Media outlets such as, say, Entertainment Weekly, are thrilled that this is going on between seasons to keep people interested in/obsessed with the show, and are encouraging people to get hooked on it.

My own opinion is two-fold. First, this is just a way to force you to look at advertising, and to keep the ad revenue for the series and for ABC flowing through the summer reruns. And second, why do I feel like none of this shit really had anything to do with the series and the way anything will play out on it? The last thing this series needs is more head games, and there are at least 200,000 people that aren't interested in an Easter Egg hunt for more meaningless clues with no real answers. 200,000 people who are sick of the manipulation and the purposelessness of what once seemed like a very directed show. And I may be numbering myself among them.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Evaluating Disney: 1939

Most of the books about Disney don’t register much activity for the short cartoons in 1939. Most historical space is devoted to the films he had in production: six in total. One of them, Pinocchio, proved to be more problematic than Walt had hoped, but the film would be finished by the end of the year and in theaters by February 1940. Another, The Concert Feature, grew out of financial necessity; the double-reel cartoon The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was being lavished with costly attention, bringing the ultimate price tag to around $160,000--more than three times the expense even Walt, who budgeted cartoons much higher than any other studio, usually spent on shorts. To return any of the investment, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice would have to be joined with other films, and turned into an artistic feature still being called The Concert Feature, but which would of course become Fantasia...though not without causing huge financial problems of its own. The other four films presented problems. One of them, Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, would never be made. Bambi was delayed by Walt’s obsessive quest for realism. Alice in Wonderland was proving problematic; song after song was being written, but Walt was having a hard time working up any enthusiasm for it. Peter Pan, like Alice, wouldn’t see screens until the 1950s.

Walt was driven by a new desire: the wish to be taken seriously as both a businessman in the motion picture industry, and as a serious artist. He was pleased that his cartoon characters were such a hit with audiences around the world; but he also wanted films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to be considered lasting, important works of art. At the 1939 Academy Awards, Shirley Temple presented Walt with a special Oscar, accompanied by seven miniature ones. The film itself had returned $8.5 million to Walt Disney Studios, a remarkable sum when the following two factors are considered: first, this was the Great Depression, and second, much of the revenue came from the low price of children’s tickets. But this new drive for art would take its toll on the shorts. A new fastidiousness had taken root in them; many of the directors and animators, taking a cue from Walt’s own attitude, began favoring artistry over entertainment, often at the expense of a fast-paced story.

With Walt overseeing the recording of The Concert Feature and the development of Pinocchio, it fell to Dave Hand, supervising director of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and one of Disney’s most talented animation directors, to oversee the shorts. Hand started a development program featuring staff lectures with the intention of turning the animators into artists; the program carried an air of self-importance, and the results were decidedly pretentious. The new insistence on perfection pervaded the studio, making the entire process slow and expensive. It is worth noting that Hand had always been considered someone who would sacrifice anything to keep the story tight and as entertaining as possible. Now things were reversed.

The shorts continued on, however, though with a slightly different focus. Mickey Mouse’s popularity seemed to be waning; though Walt wanted to raise Mickey up to the level of art with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, audience appetites veered much more towards Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. Mickey would only appear in two of his cartoons this year, both of which served as de facto Pluto cartoons; Minnie wouldn’t appear at all. Also at its end was the Silly Symphonies series. More than ever, the series had become a training ground for techniques Walt wanted to use in Snow White and Fantasia. Now, with two films in animation, Walt needed the artists and closed out the series. To fill the gap, Goofy was given his own series.

1/13: Donald’s Lucky Day
Donald Duck. On Friday the 13th, Donald the bike messenger tries hard to avoid bad luck while delivering a suspiciously ticking package. There’s some good stuff, especially with a black cat that keeps getting in the way. With the story people running out of ideas for Mickey Mouse, the Donald Duck cartoons would be the most consistently enjoyable for some time, especially with the team of Jack King, Jack Hannah, and Carl Barks behind them.

2/3: Society Dog Show
Mickey Mouse. The quality of the animation here is astonishing; nearly every Disney film from this year, without exception, is lavished with the sort of art one would expect to find in a feature. Unfortunately, the story is typical Disney--an outsider (in this case Pluto, the real star of the cartoon) becomes accepted when he saves someone’s life (in this case Fifi, a ratty little Pekingese I always find quite irritating). There’s nothing original or very interesting here, but it looks very good.

2/24: The Practical Pig
Three Little Pigs. The fourth outing of the Three Little Pigs (and the only one identified not as a Silly Symphony but as a Three Little Pigs) and the Big Bad Wolf is deranged and highly disturbing. First, as I think I’ve said before, this is the most gender-confused wolf of all time; this time he lures Fiddler and Fifer Pig disguised as a mermaid. And Practical Pig can call it a lie detector machine all he wants, but it’s really a spanking machine. It always comes down to the buttocks, doesn’t it?

3/17: Goofy and Wilbur
Goofy. Goofy’s first cartoon (and his only in 1939) stands as one of his best outings. Dick Huemer’s direction is artfully fast-paced. The story concerns Goofy on a fishing trip with a cricket named Wilbur, who lures the fish into Goofy’s net. But Wilbur lives a little too dangerously, and gets eaten by a frog, which gets eaten by a stork, which Goofy tries to take down. The animation is so lavish; look at the folds on Goofy’s ill-fitting gloves. That kind of detail wouldn’t last.

4/7: The Ugly Duckling
Silly Symphonies. This is a remake of Disney’s 1931 The Ugly Duckling, and watching the two together shows the leaps in artistry the animators have made in just eight years. Whereas the earlier version was action-oriented and full of gags, this artistic short is dramatic and full of pathos. Jack Cutting directs with a careful eye, too; the film could easily have descended into pretentious self-pity, but the dialogue-free story is actually quite touching. Actually, there is some honking when the ducks see the ugly duckling born, where the drake quite obviously questions his mate’s fidelity. But after that anthropomorphic gag, most of the story is natural, with exaggerated emotions. It’s touching; when the ugly duckling finds a wooden decoy it thinks is its mother... tears. A lovely note to go out on; this is the last of the Silly Symphonies, my favorite cartoon series of all time.

4/28: The Hockey Champ
Donald Duck. This is the first really great cartoon with Donald’s nephews. And one of the few times Donald’s ever been really, really good at something, showing off his hockey trophy. This time, he’s undone by his own arrogance, rather than the maliciousness of Messrs. Huey, Dewey, and Louie. That’s what he gets for showing off, I guess. There’s a lot of energy and a lot of laughs in what amounts to one of the best cartoons of the year.

5/19: Donald’s Cousin Gus
Donald Duck. Okay, so Donald’s entire family hates him. First his sister Dumbella inflicts the nephews upon him, and now Aunt Fanny sends Gus Goose to stay for awhile, promising that “he doesn’t eat much.” The opposite turns out to be the case, however, and most of the short consists of Gus eating in creative ways. It’s a testament to the King–Hannah–Barks team that this short works on the strength of gags and the excellent characterization of Donald despite what it has against it: namely, Gus. The short is funny, but Gus is not much of a character; he’s an amalgamation of the mannerisms of other comics. He might as well be called Harpo Chaplin-Hardy. No wonder he never came back.

6/9: Beach Picnic
Donald Duck. Donald and Pluto go to the beach, where their picnic gets ruined. It’s not PC, but the depiction of ants as Indians was pretty funny. Otherwise, Clyde Geronimi’s short is not very much fun. Yet another scene of Pluto getting stuck on fly paper?

6/30: Sea Scouts
Donald Duck. I love the hilarious energy of this Dick Lundy short. Donald and his nephews go sailing, but Donald finds himself harassed, injured, and chased by a hungry shark. There are some good gags here (my favorite is the “flying turtle”), and a whole lot of fun. The Donald Duck series is the most enjoyable of Disney’s output.

7/21: The Pointer
Mickey Mouse. Essentially, this is a Pluto cartoon. He and Mickey go hunting, and Pluto tries to stand perfectly still while stalking a family of (incredibly cute) quail, while Mickey has a nasty run-in with a bear. Good to see Mickey is still so quick to anger and short with Pluto, I guess. It’s actually pretty fun, and the animation is exceptional, especially on the backgrounds. The colors are stunning. There is so much attention to detail in every single frame; the animals look like they walked right out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Clyde Geronimi directed this, the second of only two Mickey Mouse cartoons released in 1939. Fred Moore’s redesigned Mickey Mouse makes his debut here; gone forever is the black and white Mickey. Now he has pupils and a flesh colored face. He still has his tail, though.

8/11: Donald’s Penguin
Donald Duck. The Disney theory continues to hold true: little things are bastards. Someone mails Donald a penguin called Tootsie, and the penguin is adorable, but he’s also a little jerk who eats Donald’s fish and glares at him creepily. Donald is in excellent form in this Jack King short; as soon as Tootsie becomes too much of a handful, Donald is ready with the double barrel shotgun, saying menacingly: “This is the end for you!” But, of course, he comes around, and the penguin is just too darn cute to destroy. This is a fun cartoon.

9/1: The Autograph Hound
Donald Duck. Donald actually gets to win for once. The duck keeps running from an Irish cop on his quest to fill up his autograph book. This is one of the ever-popular caricature cartoons, as Donald finds himself face to face with Mickey Rooney, Greta Garbo, Sonja Heine, Shirley Temple, and the Ritz Brothers (whose annoying qualities are captured exactly). In the end, Donald is an even bigger star than everyone else, and they all want his autograph. A classic, even though it’s essentially a remake of Mickey’s Gala Premiere.

10/10: Officer Duck
Donald Duck. An extremely funny cartoon. Donald disguises himself as a baby to arrest Tiny Tom (Pegleg Pete), a notorious gangster. There’s not much more plot than that, but the gags are priceless and come one on top of the other. A real classic.

The Standard Parade
A cartoon made for Standard Oil starring Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. I haven’t seen it.

Mickey’s Surprise Party
A rather cheaply-made commercial for Nabisco. A cute historical curio, but not much of a cartoon. This played at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Somehow, Walt had managed to take the unprecedented success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and put himself back in debt. Snow White had pulled in $8.5 million, all of which he spent immediately on Pinocchio, The Concert Feature, and (at a final total of $3.8 million) a new studio. By the end of 1939, the money was gone. Walt’s bankers had finally been willing to work with him on credit; now he owed them $4.5 million. To make matters worse, Mickey Mouse was finding himself with new enemies all over the world. In 1933, he had been banned in Nazi Germany. More bans followed in a now unfriendly Europe–the USSR in 1936, Yugoslavia in 1937, and Italy in 1938. With the open outbreak of World War II, Disney found all the markets of Europe closed, cutting off a whopping 45% of the studio’s revenue. The Concert Feature was hemorrhaging cash. There were rumblings of labor unrest. And Walt was intent on ignoring it all so that he could make art.