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"What's New" Archives: April 2010

April 23, 2010:

The Juvenile vs. the Adolescent

 

April 19, 2010:

How to Train Your Dragon

 

April 12, 2010:

Dear Mr. Barks, Tell Me How...

 

April 6, 2010:

Fantasia and the Fundamentalists

 

April 1, 2010:

Catching Up

 

April 23, 2010:

How to Train Your Dragon

The Juvenile vs. the Adolescent

My review of How to Train Your Dragon says that the film, which I liked overall, "becomes much more ordinary its last 45 minutes or so, when it descends into the sort of overwrought spectacle that seems to be required now for any CGI feature... I have no idea if what I've described as Dragon's unfortunate second half is the way it is because Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois wanted it that way, or because Jeffrey Katzenberg or some other powerful person at DreamWorks decided it had to be that way. Perhaps Sanders and DeBlois merely anticipated what they were sure was already coming."
 
Andrew Osmond has called my attention to an interview with DeBlois, the film's co-director, at this link, that essentially answers my questions. DeBlois says in that interview:

[DreamWorks] had acquired the book mostly on the promise of the premises which was Vikings and dragons in far off northern destination and all of the adventure that might yield. But the story itself is very whimsically written but it’s [also] a little bit small. It’s a small story that has small stakes and it’s all about the relationship between Hiccup and his little runt dragon, in the book the dragon is about the size of an iguana. So the runt dragon is adopted by the runt Viking and together by simply being kind [Hiccup] gets it to do tricks that the other kids’ dragons can’t do. Then, at the end of the [earlier scripts], a big dragon ends up on their shores and it’s a problem they have to take care of.

Every version of that yielded a very young feeling film, and one thing Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks are allergic to is anything that feels juvenile... What [was] thrown upon us was that we had this world largely constructed, these characters already designed and this title we had to keep but otherwise [our] objective was to expand upon this. How do you make a fantasy-adventure that has heightened stakes that feels bold and exciting and has epic elements to it, capitalizing on that world? So we jumped in without any real restrictions and the real freedom to veer away from the book.

Sanders and DeBlois made the film under an unusually tight deadline—"there was just over a year to re-conceive the story, storyboard it, edit that together, animate it and get it done in time for it all to be lit, score put in place and prints made"—which meant that DreamWorks had no choice but to give them greater leeway than the directors of its other features have had. As DeBlois says:

We definitely benefited from our situation because this has probably been the most hands-off production DreamWorks has ever generated. There was no time left for second-guessing decisions. We were just given a lot of trust and pushed forward to make the best movie we could make within our personal sensibilities. That said, there has been a lot of reaction within the studio about how there have been some unspoken rules that were broken. We don’t have a lot of pop culture references because that’s just not our brand of comedy, we like the comedy to come out of the situations. As such it isn’t a big knee-slapper of a movie. There is some comedy in it but it’s not a back-to-back comedy, it’s much more adventure driven. But that was the tone we were given. When we came on Jeffrey said he wanted this to be more Harry Potter than Madagascar. He wanted us to go for the promise of that world.

The punishing schedule forced DreamWorks to leave Sanders and DeBlois pretty much alone, but it also encouraged, if that's not too mild a word, the co-directors to save time by resorting to what have become CGI-feature conventions. DeBlois puts the best face on what may have been inevitable:

In talking about How to Train Your Dragon we [asked], “What is this story about?” When we stripped it all away it’s really a story about a father and a son. Even though there is this kid and there is his dragon the ultimate story that yields it all is a father and son story. So we stripped it down and asked what [were] the basic beats and found that it was the external tensions as created by the conflicts between a father and a son. The son wants to live up to his father’s expectations but he’s ill-equipped to do so. He ends up creating a bond with the enemy—dragons—and thereby discovers a key to resolving the initial conflict except his deed is uncovered which destroys [the new] father-son bond and he’s rejected. Then, in spite of his father’s rejection, he returns to not only save the day but to also put his father in a place of humility where he can apologize.

To me, though, the father-son conflict is just a flimsy pretext (Chicken Little, anyone?). It's what was closest to hand when something was needed to set into motion all the mandatory crashing and banging at the end of the movie. I found it impossible to believe that Stoick, who has been presented as a loving if disappointed father, would become the grim fanatic of the closing scenes.

I was most intrigued by what DeBlois says about DreamWorks' abhorrence of the "juvenile." I've always thought of the DreamWorks features as jejune, but they're not so much juvenile as adolescent. There is a much greater gulf between the juvenile and the adolescent than there is between the juvenile and the adult. Good children's films and books deal with serious subjects as seriously as good adult films and books, but from a different perspective (particularly where relations between the sexes are concerned). Films that pander to the adolescent sensibility, like most of the DreamWorks features and all too many of today's other movies, can't afford to take anything seriously, except the panic that's always threatening to erupt in the adolescent mind and that the movies treat with the soothing balm of a pervasive flipness. Carl Barks said that he thought of his readers as being around twelve years old—on the cusp of adolescence, but still children. Once children enter adolescence, with its anxieties and insecurities and consuming self-consciousness, they pass beyond the reach of artists like Barks; they're incapable of hearing what those artists are saying until the glandular din subsides and they become adults.

The sad thing, of course, is that our culture insists on pushing the threshold of adolescence to an ever lower age. Today's twelve-year-olds are like the fourteen- or fifteen-year-olds of the past, and children under ten are as sexualized and knowing (they think) as the teenagers of a few decades ago. Given those circumstances, it's probably best to be grateful for what is real and honestly felt in How to Train Your Dragon, and to accept the phony bluster at the end as the price that must be paid for the remarkable few minutes when Hiccup and Toothless bridge the gap between their species.

Comments

From Will Hamblet: I take exception to your following comment:

Once children enter adolescence, with its anxieties and insecurities and consuming self-consciousness, they pass beyond the reach of artists like Barks; they're incapable of hearing what those artists are saying until the glandular din subsides and they become adults.

When I was in high-school, I actually had a subscription to Walt Disney's Comics & Stories.  I had NO interest in any other "funny-animal" series or in super-heroes any more.  The only other comic book I liked was Mad.  Well, that's not exactly true.  When I visited my friend's home I eagerly devoured his sister's copies of Little Lulu. Now, this was over a half century ago, so I had no inkling who it was writing these series, BUT it was pretty easy to tell that both books were far superior to anything else that was being published (except Mad, of course).

Since I had plenty of  anxieties and insecurities and consuming self-consciousness, of course I never discussed these hidden pleasures of mine with friends.  BUT, I can't believe I was the only adolescent that had these secret passions!

MB replies: Well, certainly, any generalization like mine has to allow for exceptions. But "secret" is really the operative word here, isn't it? When I was ten years old and I had a subscription to Walt Disney's Comics and I automatically bought almost every other Barks comic on the newsstands (at a time when I was strictly limited to the purchase of one comic book a week), I felt no need or inclination to be secret about my passion. It was a different story a few years later, when I was buying a stack of new Dell comics every week but almost everyone I knew had stopped buying comic books altogether. I finally did what I felt I should do, when I stopped buying almost all comics and gave at least 90 percent of my collection to the local children's hospital. I saved my Barks, Little Lulu, and Walt Kelly comic books, but precious little otherwise. It took a few more years, and a gradual waning of what I've called "anxieties and insecurities and consuming self-consciousness" before I could acknowledge fully to myself how much I cared about the comic books I'd loved, and how much I still valued their company.

The magazine Mad (which I read avidly in those days) was a special case. It was, in the Feldstein era, really the Shrek of its day, flip and clever but lacking the genuinely satirical edge it often had when Harvey Kurtzman was the editor. To be known as a Mad reader then was very different from being known as a comic-book reader, just as today's teenagers know they can go to a DreamWorks feature without being confused with the kids who go—or used to go—to new Disney hand-drawn features.

[Posted April 24, 2010]

From Tom Carr: This is a really old controversy, going all the way back to the one disagreement that Buster Keaton reportedly had with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Fatty insisted that films should be made for an audience with a mental age of twelve, while Buster said that, no, both the films and the audiences were growing up. Fatty seems to have agreed with Buster eventually, since the later Arbuckle/Keaton/Al St. John two-reelers consist of mainly Keaton gags. The entire opening railroad train sequence in Fatty's Out West is pure Keaton. Who else ever made such extensive use of trains, and all the physical gags that they can provide?

Then there's Carl Barks, who used a "kiddie" medium—the comic book—to craft some very complex and intriguing stories. Just try to read one of them and not wonder what might happen next!

To my mind, the trouble with all this "lovely" and expensive digital animation is exactly the reverse: what Barks or Milt Gross or Harvey Kurtzman could do in a 25-cent comic book, these pixel-jockeys can't, even with budgets that would support several small countries.

[Posted April 26, 2010]

April 19, 2010:

How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon

I saw it over the weekend, in Imax 3-D, and I enjoyed it. You can read my thoughts about it by clicking on this link. I've been pleased to see that Dragon reclaimed the top box-office position this week, benefiting from good word of mouth (didn't happen with Bolt or The Princess and the Frog, did it?).

Comments

From Marshall Turner: Well! I'm surprised on two counts: 1) you actually (somewhat) enjoyed this film, and 2) you enjoyed it for the opposite reason I thought it was destined to be a complete failure. To be honest, when I saw Chris Sanders's name attached to this, I was full of grief: how could he be associated with something with a title like that? It's nice to hear that, in spite of obvious commercial considerations, Sanders and co-director Dean DeBlois managed to add some genuine greatness to such a standard-sounding premise. Plus, there's fantastic 3-D and it's free of the usual DreamWorks trademarks? Now I might just go out to see this!

From Roberto González Fernández: I read your comment about How To Train Your Dragon, and I totally agree with it. Like you, I really liked everything about the movie until the very end. I believe the ending came a little too suddenly, forcing the conflict between the father and his son. I know the father's supossed to be stubborn, but so stubborn that he's blind? Yes, there's a battle between Viking and dragons, but when he sees that his kid has trained one of them, I don't think the natural reaction is thinking he has joined "their side." It would be more natural to think "maybe these creatures are not as bad as we thought." Unless the guy didn't have any faith or confidence in his son at all, he should concede him the benefit of the doubt. We see that he's not exactly proud of him, but he doesn't hate him either. So when it comes to this point he should try to talk to him and all the other Vikings should show their curiosity about the dragons and learn how to be friends with them in a more gradual way, like you said. In this kind of story the other kids' characters would have had their opportunity to shine, cause even though they established the personality of each one of them, they didn't give them a lot of things to do.

I would have also liked to see more character and less spectacle, but I would give them credit for the design of the big creature at the end, the size and the aspect of it, it was more imposing and scary than anything in Avatar.

I found Lilo and Stitch more well rounded in that it kept a low-key tone, but at the same time managed to include some action scenes. The thing I most liked about the end of Lilo and Stitch was that it wasn't a good vs. evil storyline, and at the end we understand the perspective of every character and they solve their differences dialoguing at the beach and not fighting with each other.

Also I'd like to add that one of the things I liked about Up is that was mostly about character and low key for the most part. I'm sure you'll disagree with this, since you didn't like Up. From your comments I guess you think the emotional aspects of the movie are artificial and the personalities are constructed and not natural but still you'll have to agree that most of the movie consists in dialogues—sometimes comic, sometimes dramatic- between the four main characters: Carl, Russell, Kevin, and Dug. It's a pretty low-key movie until the end, when they fight Muntz and all that, scenes that I really enjoyed anyway, cause it was classic adventure style, not big explosions, just the characters in danger and trying to help each other. I'm actually surprised that a film like this one, based in small conversations between a group of quirky characters managed to become such a hit in the box office. So maybe audiences still like films based on character after all.

MB replies: What I most dislike about Up, I've realized as I've thought about that movie, is that much of what's most annoying about it could have been remedied so easily. The whole notion of a balloon-powered house, for example, could have been made more plausible by simply tweaking a few details. That they weren't speaks volumes to me about the contempt for the audience that I think lies beneath the surface of the most recent Pixar films. The Pixar people seem to believe they can manipulate their audience into accepting—no, embracing—almost anything, and so far, alas, they've been proven correct.

From Andrew Osmond: Glad you enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon. I agree the flight scenes were terrific; I thought they owed more than a little to the giant eagle sequence in Disney's Rescuers Down Under, but that's a good thing, IMO. ( The eagle scene is here.)

[Posted April 22, 2010]

From Tom Carr: I have to admit that I just can't warm up to digital animation, no matter how much the techniques have improved in the past five years or so. The Princess And The Frog and Lilo And Stitch aren't perfect, or even near-perfect Disney animated features, but I'd much rather take a child to see either of those films than to any of these glorified, over-budgeted video games. If there's really any magic in animation, it's found where the mind of the director and the writers and the animators come into direct contact with the physical medium.

That said, I'll readily admit that I'm still only (?!) in my 40's, but that I'm a curmudgeon— my cur is often mudgeoned. Obviously, I was born in the wrong era, like R. Crumb... who would love Pilsner's Picks, even though he seemed less than fond of me personally the one time we met. Anyway, my nephews and my niece (all pre-adolescents) got copies of Snow White and Volumes One and Two of the Fleischer Popeyes from me last Christmas. When they get a little older, it'll be Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and Looney Tunes and Fantasia. But no digital crapola— they don't need any help from me to find it.

[Posted April 23, 2010]

April 12, 2010:

Dear Mr. Barks, Tell Me How...

I learned Carl Barks's name in the spring of 1965, at a used-book store in Chicago, when the proprietor casually showed me the fifth issue of Don and Maggie Thompson's legendary mimeographed fanzine, Comic Art, where Carl was mentioned in passing. The Thompsons gave me his address, but it took me a full nine months to work up the nerve to write him. When I finally did, I sent him several copies of the hectographed comic book I'd self-published as a teen, a Dell-funny-animal imitation generally similar to what the Crumb brothers were doing around the same time. To my astonishment, Carl replied favorably about my adolescent effort: "I like your humor style in your 'Arkansas Magazine and Comics', except for the tendency to use puns, it reads very much like professional. I think you should work at writing. You're 3/4 of the way to being good at it. ... Your drawing style is clear and crisp, but don't compel yourself to be a cartoonist. Cartoonists are as thick as locusts in Hollywood, but writers are as rare as virgins."

Carl suggested I get in touch with Del Connell at Western Publishing's Los Angeles office, and I did. I also sent some story ideas to Carl for his appraisal (he even paid me a few dollars for a one-line idea that became a script called "Pawns of the Loup Garou"). In the midst of all this activity, Carl sent me a nine-inch by twelve-inch sheet, cut from one corner of his company-provided drawing paper, that he described this way: "About drawing finished art, I'll enclose a sample of the paper we use and pen sizes, etc.)" Below you'll see a scan of most of that sheet, which may be Barks's most complete statement of the practicalities of producing one of his comic-book pages. Unfortunately, neither my budget nor my work space can accommodate a large stand-alone scanner, and I had more difficulty than I expected in finding a commercial shop that could do the job. So here's the best I can do with my home scanner; what's cut off on the right is Carl's lettering showing the height of a panel.

Barks sheet

I'd given up my dream of being a working cartoonist by the time I went to college, having concluded by then that I lacked the native ability ever to be outstanding in the field. My old dreams had struggled back to life while I suffered through law school, and so Carl's letters were tremendously encouraging. I submitted a trial script to Del Connell, and I wrote and drew a twenty-page story called "Captain Egg" for Bill Spicer's Fantasy Illustrated. It was not, however, the best time to aspire to funny-animal greatness. Comic books of the Disney sort had been on a downhill slide since the mid-'50s, in both circulation and content, and despite Del Connell's kind words, I couldn't convince myself that I would find much in the way of satisfaction (or money) by writing for Western Publishing. "Captain Egg" was in some ways a respectable effort—reading it now, I'm not at all embarrassed by the writing or the staging—but there was no denying that my drawing and especially my inking were still well below professional standards. I penciled one more story, a few John Stanleyish pages with a character called Terry Tiger, but I shelved it when I couldn't find someone to ink it. After that, I drew a few pages with a character called Fearless Fang for Funnyworld, but if you're to be any good at all at cartooning, you have to draw a lot, and it became clear after a few issues that I was backsliding rapidly. I draw very seldom now, and never for public consumption.

I did go back to writing for comic books, though, if only briefly. Many years later, I turned one of the ideas I'd sent to Carl Barks and Del Connell into a Donald Duck script for Egmont, the Danish Disney licensee, and it was eventually published in Europe and the U.S. The money was good, but the editing was irritating, I had to wait a year for my check, and I didn't like the way the story was drawn. There was nothing in that experience to make me regret I'd not pursued a career as a comic-book writer. That's just as well, obviously, since it's bit late in life for me to be changing my mind.

Comments

From Thad Komorowski: Fascinating Barks piece on your site. "[D]on't compel yourself to be a cartoonist. Cartoonists are as thick as locusts in Hollywood, but writers are as rare as virgins." Excellent! At last some vindication for abandoning the animation field two years ago. I think what we're witnessing now is a resurgence of the 1980s, probably the absolute artistic wasteland of the 20th century. The people have grown up and are now indoctrinating their own nostalgia on their own children. ("Watch this, listen to this, I loved this when I was your age.") I really can't wait for the '90s to return and kick the shit out of the '80s again.

From Donald Benson: I find myself intrigued by forms that have either died or evolved beyond all recognition. Comic books—along with thick general-interest magazines—used to be cheap and everywhere. Then, under pressure from TV and other competing amusements, they retreated into comic shops for a niche audience of fans and collectors, sneaking back into bookstores mainly as trade paperbacks. And despite all efforts to pull younger audiences (reboots to provide an easier "entry point"; redesigns to match a current TV or movie spinoff), they still seem to be aiming mainly at their older, slightly nostalgic base.

Animation seems to have gone through a similar transformation. Cartoon shorts have essentially vanished from movie screens; now students and artists create them for an audience as select as the comic book faithful. Too much television animation is creatively identical to live action; on many shows animation seems mainly a production choice (cheaper sight gags and more backgrounds than a taped sitcom) and maybe a chance for striking design work. Nearly all features are chained to a quasi-Disney model by nervous money.

And don't get me started on comic strips and serials. None of this is news to anybody, but I just needed to articulate it.

[Posted April 14, 2010]

From Tom Carr: My great-aunt was some sort of executive secretary (or something) in the New York office of Western Publishing, so once in a while she'd bring me a stack of comic books. I didn't know that the Barks Duck Stories were all old reprints by then, but I enjoyed them immensely. Also, I thought that every one of them was drawn by Walt Disney, personally. That must have bothered Mr. Barks— at least a bit— that his name was never seen on his own work.

If I finished my piano lesson without any mistakes, I'd get a a comic book or two from Auntie.

One time her boss came to the house, so I showed him some of my attempts to draw the ducks. I was much better at drawing the Beagle Boys, since I could never get the hang of how to draw those duck beaks, or much of anything else.

The old executive was honest with me: "Son, you can't draw worth a lick. I've seen a lot of talent in my time, and I don't think you have any. Probably never will. Why don't you try writing stories, instead?"

Good advice, but I wasn't any better at that. Oh, well...

From Joakim Gunnarsson: Have been following your blog since you started it and just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy it! And what a nice piece of Barks history you got on that sheet you posted. The whole process boiled down to the essentials. Myself, I try to post something Barks related every Wednesday on my blog. Mostly odd, rare and previously unseen stuff.

MB replies: Joakim's blog, called Sekvenskonst (Swedish for "sequential art"), does indeed include some fascinating and rare Barks material, much of which I'm sure will be new even to fans who thought they'd seen just about everything. In recent years, Barks's Scandinavian admirers have been doing more to preserve his legacy than fans anywhere else (the U.S. most emphatically included), and I'm grateful for that.

[Posted April 15, 2010]

From Dana Gabbard: "In recent years, Barks's Scandinavian admirers have been doing more to preserve his legacy than fans anywhere else (the U.S. most emphatically included), and I'm grateful for that."
 
Ouch! Well, these things ebb and flow. And Barksdom domestically is in a quiet period. John Stanley is now getting a fresh reappraisal (deservedly so). Barks time will come again. I have a few projects I hope some year will go forward that hopefully meet the criteria of preserving the legacy, including the mighty bibliography of writings I have been preparing on and off since the '80s. Plus Geoff Blum has been making fresh discoveries for the new Barks Library, albeit it is for a foreign publication that may not appear in English for a long time. My hats off to our friends in Scandinavia for all they are doing.

[Posted April 22, 2010]

April 6, 2010:

The Rite of Spring

Fantasia and the Fundamentalists

Bill Benzon has written more about Fantasia at The Valve, this time on The Rite of Spring. The title of his post is "Disney Does Darwin," and it is, like the Benzon essays I mentioned on April 1, a thoughtful piece that is well worth your time. Bill's focus is on how tightly and subtly music and image are interwined in this sequence. He doesn't make the point, but one effect of his analysis was to make me more accepting of the film's reworking of Stravinsky's music: Walt had his reasons.

Reading the Benzon piece, I wondered again how Disney's Rite of Spring, and Fantasia as a whole, managed to escape the condemnation of the religious fundamentalists who believe, against all the evidence, that the world was created a few thousand years ago. Disney's Rite unquestionably embraces the theory of evolution, but Bill Benzon suggests that it has eluded the fundamentalists' ire because it doesn't show human beings as the products of evolution.

There's no question but that Walt and his colleagues originally intended to depict humans as part of prehistoric life. Walt heard Stravinsky's music for the first time in a meeting on September 13, 1938. He said then: "This is marvelous! It would be perfect for prehistoric animals, cave-men, etc. The possibilities are unlimited. We could parallel modern situations, with the cave-men having these prehistoric monsters for pets. ... We could base our picture on fact, but we don't have to be too accurate with it. It could be dramatic, but with comic moments. We could get comedy from the young of these animals."

Thoughts of comedy vanished quickly. By September 29, thinking about the segment had jelled into something close to the evolutionary pageant that wound up on the screen. That day, recordings of all the compositions then envisioned for Fantasia were played for a studio audience. The notes describing each composition said, in regard to Rite of Spring: "The music, which has no story of its own, thunders with the feel of primordial forces and in it Walt hears the Story of Evolution." As the notes described that story, it would have extended through man's conquest of fire.

The next day, September 30, in one of the first story meetings on Rite of Spring,Walt spoke of showing primitive man "trying to survive against heavy odds," specifically a saber-toothed tiger. But it's obvious from the transcription of the meeting that everyone was having trouble figuring out how to present this struggle, and especially how to relate it to Stravinsky's music. Such difficulties very quickly led Walt to drop primitive man from the plan. In a meeting just three days later, on October 3, 1938, he said, "We have taken man clear out"—he had decided not to carry the action through the age of mammals, but to end it with the dinosaurs.

The Rite of SpringSo there you have it, evolutionary serendipity: Walt decides not to put primitive man into The Rite of Spring, for his own reasons, and as a happy byproduct the fundamentalist loonies don't have an excuse to picket and boycott his film. But Bill Benzon says something else was going on: "Disney had originally intended to present evolution from the beginning to the dawn of humankind, but pressure from Christian fundamentalists led him to abandon that idea."

Presumably Bill relied on Neal Gabler, who says on page 312 of his Disney biography that "one associate said [Walt] didn't want to antagonize Christian fundamentalists." Gabler cites his source in an endnote: "John Hubley quoted in [John] Culhane, [Walt] Disney's Fantasia, p. 126." But, as is so often the case—see my page devoted to errors and distortions in his book—Gabler is misleading when he is not simply wrong. Culhane doesn't "quote" Hubley, offering only this woolly paraphrase: "But the fundamentalists, according to John Hubley, threatened to make trouble for Fantasia if Walt connected evolution with human beings."

Really? I never came across a hint of such threats in the weeks I spent going through Fantasia-related documents at the Walt Disney Archives; and, as I've already said, Walt decided very quickly not to show human beings in The Rite, for reasons unconnected with any fundamentalist objections. By the time most fundamentalists could have heard anything about The Rite, humans would have long since been excised from the story.

Beyond that, how would John Hubley have known what Walt was thinking? He was a layout man (or, if you prefer, art director) on Fantasia, not one of its movers and shakers, not a story man, not yet involved with the film when critical story decisions about The Rite of Spring were being made in the fall of 1938. His name doesn't turn up in the notes from the story meetings. What Culhane says would be a little more persuasive if we had a real quotation from Hubley, something like, "Walt told me..." or "I heard Walt say..." but there is none such. I suspect that what Hubley actually said to Culhane was more general and speculative, but—who knows.

There is, I'm afraid, no end in sight to careless junk writing about Walt Disney and his films. It's a pity when a Bill Benzon gets victimized by some of it.

Comments

From Bill Benzon: I didn't get that bit of information from Gabler, I got it from Culhane; the Gabler book hadn't been published when I first started work on Fantasia (my two latest pieces are based on a presentation I gave in 2006). However, I've just moved and my library is in disarray, which meant I couldn't track Culhane's statement to a particular page. So I didn't bother with a citation. But I appreciate your sleuthing on the matter.

The interesting thing is, it was Culhane's assertion on that point that prompted me to start looking very closely at, not only that episode, but the whole film. When I read Culhane's assertion a little light went on, "But wait a minute, they've got evolution in there, and that's all that matters." That's when I started going through it scene by scene and frame-by-frame where necessary. I wanted to see just how they did that sequence. Thus I discovered two or three cross-dissolves in the fish-sequence. They didn't just morph the form cleanly from frame to frame; they used cross-dissolves. That's clever.

Given that Disney's work, especially the early stuff, is a world treasure, we really need serious scholarship on it. Judging from the troubles you've had with the company, it seems that it stands in the way of such scholarship.

MB replies: Actually, it occurred to me that Culhane might be the culprit, but it's hard for me to pass up an opportunity to point out yet another example of Gabler's shoddy work.

On Culhane's citation of John Hubley as his source, it may be worth noting that there's a September 28, 1938, memo sent to all the Disney personnel Walt wanted to be present the next day to listen to the music chosen for what the memo's author, Stuart Buchanan, called the "Musical Feature." The memo says:

"The sound track of the entire program of the Musical Feature will be run Thursday night at 8:00 P.M. [sic!] on Sound Stage 1. This will include the tentative line-up of Music as well as the preliminary narrative by Deems Taylor.

"We would like you to be present and we would appreciate your comments after you have heard this program. For obvious reasons, it is requested that only those whose names appear on this list be present."

The list of 61 names starts with Walt, Stokowski, and Taylor and includes story men, directors, and musicians. John Hubley's name isn't on the list.

[Posted April 6, 2010]

From Donald Benson: Not that it relates directly to the controversy at hand, but I seem to remember seeing Rite of Spring in school during the '60s.  Don't remember if it was the whole sequence or clips within a Disney educational film. Might be worth seeing if Rite of Spring was ever released to schools, and whether there was any added narration or footage that would annoy or soothe creationists.

Disney did offer dinosaurs and cavemen—but not in the same tableaus, I think—at the 1964 World's Fair. And in one of the "Adventures in Music" shorts, the teacher owl cranks a chart backwards past various stages of early man, but overshoots and ends up with a picture of a monkey. He quickly cranks forward one to reach a caveman. Both were some years later, when evolution seemed a bit safer.

MB replies: According to Dave Smith's Disney A to Z, The Rite of Spring segment from Fantasia was released on 16mm, for showing in schools, in July 1955, under the title A World Is Born. I think I saw it myself around the time it was released, but I recall nothing about any added narration. Substantial chunks of that segment also turned up on Disneyland and its successor network TV shows, but, again, I have no recollection of any tinkering.

From Tom Carr: Being no theologian, I'll stay away from the religious aspects of this subject, but the musical ones are interesting enough, so I'll stick with those.

Of course it's impossible to know what Walt was thinking, or what John Hubley was thinking, but it's really easy to find out what Igor Stravinsky was thinking when he was shown the Rite Of Spring film sequence, because he wrote it down. I quote:

"I saw the film with George Balanchine at Christmas time of 1939 in a Hollywood studio. and when someone offered me [a copy of] the score. I said I had my own, and that someone said, "But is is all changed!" Indeed it was."

Stravinsky then goes on to complain about his original orchestration being, as he sarcastically puts it, "improved" by "stunts" like having the trombones play an octave higher than they did as he wrote the parts in his premeire 1913 edition. I'd quote more from this book, but it's so old that it's practically falling apart in my hands. Anyway, I did remember that passage, and I had to do some digging around (not on the web) to find it... rather, in some old boxes full of yellowed books.

I should note that Stravinsky severely disliked Leopold Stokowski, and later, Leonard Bernstein— along with any other conductors who he thought were too "showy" on the podium. A Stravinsky-Stokowski collaboration was pretty much doomed from the start, although Leopold had made the first 12-inch Victor electrical recording of a Stravinsky work, The Firebird Suite, in 1928, which was a major event in introducing Stravinsky's music to American and British listeners. The record sold very well for one in the high-priced Red Seal catalog.

Among the few conductors that Stravinsky liked were Fritz Reiner, Otto Klemperer, Sir Thomas Beecham, Ernest Ansermet, and of course Pierre Monteux, who conducted the original performance of the Rite, the one at which an outraged Parisian audience rioted at the "rude" sounds coming from the orchestra.

If Walt Disney deserves his share of credit for the Fantasia version (and he does), it might be just for holding the whole thing together. It seems fairly clear from the (incomplete) records that none of the collaborators were exactly in love with one another. It's hard to imagine three more brilliant and willful men than Igor, Walt, and Leopold getting together and finishing even one project without getting into a loud argument... if not a fistfight!

MB replies: What Stravinsky really thought of the animated version of Rite when he saw it in rough form at the Disney studio late in 1939, and in finished form in October 1940, has long been open to question. When the composer wrote dismissively of the film version in Saturday Review in December 1959 (Tom Carr's quotation appears in that article as well as in one of Stravinsky's books) Walt protested that Stravinsky had raised no objections at the time and in fact seemed pleased with what he saw.

They even disagreed about how much Stravinsky had been paid for the use of his music: five thousand dollars, according to Stravinsky, and ten thousand, according to Walt. (The actual figure, according to Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents, by Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft, was six thousand.)

By the time the Saturday Review article appeared, Stravinsky had criticized Fantasia publicly at least once before, in a March 3, 1949, interview with the Champaign-Urbana Courier during a visit to the University of Illinois. The newspaper said: "He termed Walt Disney's treatment of his music in Fantasia as 'terrible, I saw part of it in the studio and walked out. How could they do that? Oh, it was awful.'" That recollection is certainly at odds with the photos of a smiling Stravinsky taken during his visit to the studio.

My own guess is that if Fantasia had been a huge success, and particularly if it had led the way to more filmed Stravinsky, and more money for the composer, Stravinsky himself would have had nothing but good things to say about the filmed Rite. As it was, Stravinsky was not so distressed by the Disney version of Rite of Spring that it prevented him from selling an option to Disney for the use of three more of his works, Renard, Fireworks, and The Firebird, in October 1940, shortly before Fantasia's premiere.

[Posted April 8, 2010]

From Tom Carr: The relationship between Igor Stravinsky and Leopold Stokowski (such as it was) began long before Fantasia. At a time when the young Walt Disney was just getting started making films, they were both veterans of the classical music world (and exact contemporaries, which may mean something... or maybe not).

Respective dates of birth:

Walt Disney: 1901

Igor Stravinsky: 1882

Leopold Stokowski: 1882

I'll take up the narrative here with Stravinsky's opinion of Stokowski, quoted from Themes And Conclusions, the collection of essays and letters by Stravinsky which was published posthumously in paperback (1982), edited by Robert Craft, and long out of print, unless it's been reissued. Every clarifying notation in brackets [ ] is mine, and I'm not very good at transcribing the printed page, so I hope they help... If they don't, at least I tried. All other punctuation is as-is, from the book.

Stravinsky:

"Leopold Stokowski came to see me in Biarritz in 1922 to make a cash deposit for [the] first American performance rights to my future works. He was as sleek as a Russian wolfhound then, and in fact it was not until his career as a film star playing opposite Mickey Mouse that he became ungroomed and had to dishevel his hair in exactly the right way. He must have had second thoughts about the business agreement, however, because I did not hear from him again until the time of Persephone [composed 1933] which he also wished to introduce in America. I attended a Stokowski concert in Carnegie Hall in 1935 or 1937 and greeted the maestro backstage at intermission. Then in 1942 he came to see me in Hollywood before attempting to conduct my Symphony In C [composed 1938-1940] with the NBC Orchestra."

[At the time, Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini were the two co-conductors of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which broadcast from New York City's RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. They would alternate conducting the weekly programs, but I'm not sure how the schedule might have worked. Stokowski was also the longtime conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, famed for its lush, string-based "Stokowski sound." As every fan of the film knows, it's the Philadelphia Orchestra that's heard on the Fantasia soundtrack.]

Stravinsky:

"Few conductors have done as much as Stokowski to gain a hearing for new music, and now, in his eighties [this would be around 1964-1965] he has crowned his achievements by his painstaking preparation and peformance of the Ives Fourth Symphony." [Recorded by Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra for Columbia Records in 1965, and still available as a CD].

"Nor has any conductor been a better orchestra-builder, all the way from from basic sticks and stones to chromium plate. Some of the tricks he taught still survive, too, as in the way [the] cello sections stagger their bowing in the Tristan Prelude for a smooth and consistent crescendo. But I suppose that he is largely to blame for the popular image of conducting as a kind of ledgerdemain."

This is grudging praise, at best. Actually insulting in a high-handed Russian intellectual way: "attempting to conduct" is a very nasty remark directed at an acknowledged great conductor, especially since the Symphony In C is one of Stravinsky's shorter and more accessible works. Another insult is the use of the word "tricks," and there's only an offhanded mention here of Fantasia. Stravinsky omits the entire period of his relations with Stokowski between 1937 and 1942! He seems to have wanted to forget the whole experience, except for throwing in that one-liner about Stokowski and Mickey Mouse.

Make of it what you will; I'll only add that Igor Stravinsky was a notoriously difficult man who was hardly ever satisfied with anyone's performances of his music— not even his own. Mike is absolutely correct in saying that he liked the dollar (especially since the Russian revolution of 1917 had deprived him of the performance and recording royalties to his earliest and most popular works), but then, so did Walt and "L-L-Leopold!"

In that way, at least, the three geniuses (genii?) were more alike than different. And if you've really "got it," what's wrong with demanding adequate compensation for what you produce? Nothing.

Renard (in a good English translation) would have worked very well as a Disney short feature, along the lines of "Mickey And The Beanstalk" or "Mr. Toad." It's about eighteen minutes long, just right for two reels, and the Disney animators were certainly used to working with animal characters in a barnyard setting.

Another possibility for a film like that would have been L'Histoire Du Soldat, which requires only a small orchestra and cast. A few years ago I was lucky enough to see Patrick Stewart play all the speaking parts himself, with Michael Tilson Thomas and members of the San Francisco Symphony. That must have been physically exhausting for a not-so-young man, but Mr. Stewart was clearly having a fine time, and the audience loved his virtuoso performance.

Too bad that the Disney-Stravinsky collaboration fizzled out before there were any more... fireworks.

[Posted April 9, 2010]

April 1, 2010:

Catching Up

Milt Gross bookI've been dealing for the last few days with a variety of distractions (including a computer monitor that died suddenly), and so I have some unfinished business.

That's Gross! Thanks to Craig Yoe, I now own a copy of The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story (Yoe Books/IDW Publishing). I haven't done much more so far than page through this book, but I'm impressed by everything about it.

Milt Gross is, of course, a great cartoonist everyone who cares about cartooning has heard of, but he isn't as well known, or as often read, as any number of lesser talents. For one thing, his name isn't associated with a long-running strip or comic book, or with a famous character. He's a distinctly "ethnic" cartoonist, too, his comedy even more firmly rooted in the Jewish New York of a century ago than the comedy of his contemporaries the Marx Brothers. I have two of his books on my shelves, Nize Baby and He Done Her Wrong, and I have scattered samples of his work in other books, but I've never sought out his work in the way I've known I should have. I'm sure I've had lots of company.

Now Craig Yoe has rescued me and the rest of us from our sloth by collecting all of Gross' comic-book stories, more than 300 pages of them, in a spectacular volume, beautifully designed and printed, that also includes a richly illustrated 35-page biographical introduction. I'll have more to say about this book, probably a good bit more, as soon as I've given it the attentive reading that I know it deserves. In the meantime, buy the book yourself. From the little time I've spent with it so far, I feel completely safe in saying that you'll be very glad that you did, especially at amazon.com's deeply discounted price.

Disney and Tolkien, Cont'd: As I noted in a February 25 item, there was never any serious possibility that Walt Disney would make an animated version of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. But as Gunnar Andreassen has noticed, the idea of a Disney-studio film based on Tolkien's stories was alive in the early seventies, a few years after Walt's death. Some drawings and documents exploring the possibilities in the characters and the story of The Hobbit were recently sold through Howard Lowery's auction site. The auction has closed, but as of today that page is still up, with reproductions of some of the items; it's at this link. I doubt that Tolkien—who was consistently hostile to the Disney films over the years—would have been swayed, by the drawings in particular.

The Hyperion Studio in Technicolor, 1934: Also from Gunnar Andreassen, a link to this YouTube video:

 

Gunnar explains: "This is a MGM short about Los Angeles, released in 1935, March 16. The footage of the visit at the Disney Studio has been shown (or most of it) in the bonus material for the Snow White Blue-ray disk and possibly on a couple of others. I earlier guessed that the Studio shot this footage themselves, but this was not the case. The producer of this shortand hundreds of others—was James A. Fitzpatrick. He is probably the one meeting and shaking hands with Walt. There are quite a few well-known artists seen among the employees walking out of the Studio: Al Taliaferro, Dave Hand, Jack Kinney, Albert Hurter, Roy and Dick Williams, and possibly Emil Flohri. I believe I have also identified Ted Thwaites (a rather old man) and Fred Spencer (the last one going out, on our left, before Walt takes over). I'd guess that this is the only documentary in color from the Hyperion Studio.  I hoped to hear Walt speaking, but at least it’s fun to watch his facial expressions. It was probably shot in 1934this is what I estimated from the size of the palm tree outside Walts office."

The Disney footage is only a small part of this short, which is fascinating for its glimpses of the Los Angeles in which Walt and so many other famous animators lived more than 75 years ago.

Benzon on Fantasia: Bill Benzon has contributed pieces to this site on Dumbo and Fantasia, and he recently posted another Fantasia entry, examining The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer's Apprentice, on The Valve. Bill's pieces are always stimulating reading—they differ completely from the usual superficial fan stuff. Bill has also been posting on The Valve some of Nina Paley's "Mimi and Eunice," minimalist (and copyright-free) comic strips, a complete run of which you can read at this link.

Comments

From Tom Carr: Having been born and raised in Manhattan, I love any and all Yidlach comedy. Milt Gross, The Marx Brothers, Fanny Brice, the Fleischers, Mickey Katz, Benny Bell... Even Krazy Kat speaks in a kind of quasi-Yiddish dialect, despite the fact that George Herriman was of a different extraction (either Greek or African-American, according to different sources).

The Three Stooges didn't emphasize their Jewish heritage very much in most of their films, but Larry speaks Yiddish in some of the Stooges shorts. In one, he says "Hoch mir nicht a chynick!" Which means, "Get off my back!" Or, "Leave me alone!"

Much later, there was the immortal Harvey Kurtzman, not only a great comedy writer but one of the most talented pen-and-ink draftsmen of all time. Definitely influenced by Milt Gross; at his best, Kurtzman was technically the equal of Gross or George Herriman or even Honoré Daumier... in the "loose" style of drawing that looks casual, but isn't. No question about it. I should also mention George Lichty (Grin And Bear It), perhaps the "loosest" cartoonist of them all.

Sophie Tucker, a great Jewish-American entertainer who had a career that extended from Edison cylinder recordings to 1960s appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show (!) is featured in this month's Pilsner's Picks. As far as I can determine, Sophie made her first recordings in 1911 or 1912. Later on, she became known as "The Last Of The Red-Hot Mamas," a sobriquet that she retained until the end of her life.

I'll hold my tongue about the current state of newspaper comics... I know plenty of Yiddish curse words, but I'm too polite to use them.

[Posted April 5, 2010]

From Peter Hale: I cannot believe that Disney would be employing anyone who drew that badly—even in 1972! It must have been either an unsolicited submission or some kind of test exercise, surely (assuming that it is not a fraudulant hoax!). Not that Disney would not have considered The Hobbit—it would have been an interesting project—but those are not "character studies" in any sense of the word—they do not present anything interesting or original in costume, personality, or design. They are just a rather poor amateur's attempts at drawing cartoons. (And I speak with some authority in that area!)

MB replies: Of course, there's always the possibility that someone in authority at Disney got excited about The Hobbit and assigned it to people who were less than excited about the book, perhaps because they knew it had already been examined and found wanting as a Disney project. So, the people stuck with the assignment turn out some uninspired drawings and uninspired prose, and the person in authority says, well, gee, maybe this isn't such a great property after all, you guys go back to making Robin Hood, which we all know is gonna be a fantastic masterpiece. Having worked for years in offices that bore an uncanny resemblance to Dilbert, I know such things can happen. Hell, sometimes I made them happen myself.

[Posted April 8, 2010]

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