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"What's New" Archives: August 2008

August 19, 2008:

On the Road Again


August 18, 2008:

Hugh and Rudy at 105

Bytes and Pieces


August 12, 2008:

Author! Author?


August 8, 2008:

"Information Snacking"


August 19, 2008:

On the Road Again

I'll be away from home for the next few weeks, and the site will be quiet as a result. I'll post again sometime in the last half of September.

August 18, 2008:

Harman and Ising caricatures

Hugh and Rudy at 105

One of my fond memories from the days when I was doing research for Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age is of sitting down with Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising at the breakfast table in Rudy's home on Benedict Canyon Drive and talking about their work together for Walt Disney, five decades before. It was the weekend of Halloween in 1976; I'd already interviewed both Hugh and Rudy—Rudy twice, in 1971 and 1973, and Hugh in 1973—and we all got together on two days that weekend, with Bob Clampett and Milt Gray also in attendance, to go over what they had told me and try to iron out inconsistencies. I remember thinking at the time that it was just a little like sitting down with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1826 to talk about what really happened at Philadelphia (I did say, "just a little").

Rudy and Hugh were in their early seventies then. They're both gone now, as is Rudy's house (Cher bought the property and demolished the house to build one of her own). If they were still alive—Hugh died in 1982, Rudy in 1992—they would both be turning 105 this month. They were born in August 1903, Rudy on the 7th, Hugh on the 31st. Their centennial passed all but unnoticed five years ago, even though they have so many claims on our attention: they were two of Walt Disney's earliest and most important collaborators, they made the first Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, and they not only made the first MGM cartoons but in some respects set the pattern for that studio's cartoons for more than twenty years.

Even though they were close friends and business partners for many years, they were very different people. Hugh could never let go of his dreams of Hollywood glory (or, sadly, his resentment that such glory had been denied him); Rudy was far more down-to-earth. The caricatures of them above, by Rudy's great layout artist Bob Allen, capture their personalities, as I knew them, with amazing precision. I liked both Hugh and Rudy, and I'm very grateful for the time I got to spend with them.

And as for what Hugh and Rudy really looked like, here's a photo of them taken soon after they had reluctantly given up their own studio to become producers at MGM, in 1938. They're welcoming a group of some kind to the MGM cartoon department in Culver City, whose building was then only about a year old. Rudy is at the far right; Hugh is next to him, and at Hugh's right is Fred Quimby, the cartoon department's business head and Hugh and Rudy's frequent adversary.

Harman, Ising, and Quimby

Bytes and Pieces

CGI Feedback: I've added some more interesting reader comments, with my responses, to my Feedback page on WALL•E, Kung Fu Panda, and computer-animated features in general. You can go straight to the latest comments by clicking on this link.

Links: As always, the bloggers most deeply interested in Disney history have posted some of the most nourishing material on the Web. You're probably already aware of these sites, and you probably visit them daily, as I do, but just in case, don't overlook these recent gems:

Michael Sporn's showcasing of preliminary artwork for Disney's Sleeping Beauty.

Jeff Pepper's wonderful posting on Mickey's Gala Premiere (1933), packed with good information about the Hollywood personalities, many of them now obscure, that are caricatured in that film.

Mark Mayerson's continuing breakdown, in "mosaics" and analysis, of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. What Mark is doing is a great example of the Web at its best.

Which is, actually, what I could also say about Hans Perk's series of postings on the multiplane camera.

There's a lot more on view at all of these sites—they've put me to shame recently in the frequency and substance of their postings, although with most of my seriously overdue "housekeeping" behind me, I expect to start putting up a lot more photos, especially, after I return next month from a long road trip.

Connections: I've been getting a surprisingly large number of requests lately to sign up with one or another networking site; the requests usually come from friends, and so I accept them, albeit with some reluctance. But today a request that seemed to come from a good friend turned out to be from a site that had somehow hijacked his address book, and now I'm afraid my own address book may have been hijacked, too. So, if you get an invitation to be my "friend," please delete it—and if you send me a legitimate invitation to be your "friend," please don't be offended when I send it straight to my trash can.

August 12, 2008:

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Author! Author?

I've written favorably about Michael Sporn's short film The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, and a visitor who prefers to remain anonymous has taken me to task for the way I did that:

Have you seen the book by Mordicai Gerstein upon which it is based? The film is a completely faithful adaptation of the book, in both words and images. When I compare the book and film, I'm hard pressed to see much of anything that Sporn added or contributed to the proceedings, other than some pretty stiff animation. Nice narration and music, and I suppose he had some input there. Ultimately, the film certainly works, but it works in the same way and for the same reasons as the book. I don't find anything particularly artful about the way the book was adapted. Do you?

I'm not setting out here to rag on Sporn, who's certainly done some lovely work, but to regard the film as "Sporn's" without acknowledging Gerstein at all is an injustice.

I've read the book, and I agree that it's only fair to applaud Gerstein when applauding the film. I forwarded the foregoing comments to Michael Sporn, and he concurred in that part of what my visitor said:

He's right, you should acknowledge Mordy Gerstein's book if you're talking about this film. But the film is mine. The pacing is very different than the book's—more time is spent on the high wire than on the prep for it. At least three-fourths of the book was spent setting it up for the triple-page spreads (which obviously couldn't be done in the film.) The multiplane effects, the musical sensibility as well as the rhythm of his movements, were the contributions of me and my two additional animators. Mordi Gerstein painted about twenty images for the book. We added about fifteen thousand—in his style. The film's animation of Philippe Petit on the high wire is anything but "stiff." It's quite alive. (I can tell you about several screenings where theater audiences actually gasped when the character first steps out onto the wire. Matt Clinton did a magnificent job of animating the scene.) I didn't Disney-fy the film, but I did try to stay absolutely faithful to the book and Philippe Petit's comments to me.

As you know, all of my budgets are incredibly low. I remember finishing Whitewash at about the same time that The Lion King came out. I estimated that that half-hour film had the budget of half a frame of Disney's film. Obviously, the budget hinders one at times (in slickness, in choice of full animation, in scheduling) but it's always worth it to do the films. I don't promote the budget of the films since I think the films should and usually do stand up on their own.

I don't feel the need to defend my work on the film; if your anonymous critic doesn't like it, I don't care. If he is unable to understand that there's a great divide between a book and a ten-minute film, he's obviously uninformed. When one does a lot of adaptations, the work is always questioned. It's a problem that George Cukor faced all his life. I see my sensibilities coming through in all my choices in the film—and there were a lot of them (including the less than expressive Jake Gyllenhal's quiet but fine reading)—and, as a matter of fact, in all of my films, so that I am pleased with what I do.

For my own part, I think of Michael Sporn's adaptations as being very different from, say, a Disney adaptation of a book like Dodie Smith's The Hundred and One Dalmatians or T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone, where it's a given that the film version will depart widely from the original. If the Sporn version of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers feels like a straightforward translation of the book into a film, that's what it's supposed to feel like; but, as Michael says, achieving that result is not nearly as simple as his anonymous critic suggests.

The word that comes to mind, when I think about how Michael adapts his literary sources, is "tact." He respects the books, and he respects the young audiences who welcome enhancements to the books they love, but don't want them changed drastically. (Sometimes he may show too much respect; I find his film version of Abel's Island a little draggy, but then, so was as much as I could bring myself to read of William Steig's book.) Michael is particularly sensitive to the tone of the originals, so that, for example, The Marzipan Pig never descends into preciosity. Likewise, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is never maudlin; but I felt a catch in my throat at the end of the Sporn film, as I did not when I read the Gerstein book. Not everyone will be affected that way, but what I felt was a filmmaker at work, a filmmaker doing far more than simply adding a few twitches to a handful of excellent drawings.

August 8, 2008:

"Information Snacking"

I first saw that term in a Wall Street Journal piece quoting Jeff Bezos, CEO of amazon.com, who was talking about how our growing reliance on portable electronic devices—laptops, Blackberries, cell phones—has "shifted us more toward information snacking, and I would argue toward shorter attention spans." I think the phrase applies with special force to the fragmented nature of blogs, with their many short items and even more numerous links.

Recently this site has suffered from a lack of not just such "information snacks" but also the longer items I most enjoy writing, like interviews and essays. My attention has been absorbed by what I can only call intensive housekeeping. I've been catching up on a lot of urgent chores, almost all related to my books and this site, that have piled up during the five years since I moved to my current home.

This long-postponed work is paying off, in many ways; for instance, I just uncovered some photos that I'd been trying to find for a year or more, and some of them will be published here before too long. I really have no choice but to get this housekeeping done before I get much deeper into work on my next book, on comic books, because otherwise I'll wind up wasting a lot of time. I don't flatter myself that vast throngs are suffering disappointment because I let days go by without posting anything, but in case you've wondered what's been going on, that's it.

In the meantime, a few snacks:

Wertham's Vault: Thanks to Jeet Heer, I now have a better idea why the Fredric Wertham papers at the Library of Congress have been placed off limits to researchers until 2010, as I mentioned on July 13, but I'll wait to say more about that until after I've communicated with some of the principals involved. I've been immersing myself in the literature of the comic book —that is, in books about the comics, and about Wertham and the anti-comics uproar of the early 1950s in particular. Eventually I'll write about some of the recent books, like David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague and Mark Evanier's Kirby, in a review that will undoubtedly serve as a first draft for part of my next book. In the meantime, if you're hungry for intelligent discussion of the questions involved, let me recommend Jeet Heer's piece on Wertham for Slate.

Abel's Island DVDSporn DVDs: I noted on May 27 that one of Michael Sporn's best cartoons, The Marzipan Pig, was coming to DVD on July 22, coupled with A Jazztime Tale, and it appeared on schedule. What I failed to note—because a search on amazon.com didn't bring it up until just before the release date—was that another Sporn DVD was coming out on the same day. That DVD includes two films, Abel's Island and The Dancing Frog.

I would class The Marzipan Pig and The Dancing Frog as two of the very best Sporn films, along with The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, which is also available on DVD. Michael himself likes Abel's Island a lot, and who I am to quarrel with him, but if you were to buy any one Sporn DVD, it should probably be The Marzipan Pig.

Six DVDs of Michael's films, including the two new DVDs, will be available in November as a boxed set, a terrific bargain at amazon.com's pre-order price, but I should warn you that The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is unfortunately not part of it. Which reminds me: Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Petit's 1974 walk on a high wire between the World Trade Center towers—the subject of Michael Sporn's animated short—has just been released. Has any exhibitor or distributor had the wit to pair the Sporn cartoon with the feature?

CGI: I've added a couple of visitors' comments and my reply to the Feedback page on computer-animated films. You can go directly to the most recent posting by clicking here. Mark Mayerson has been posting more on this subject, too, using a quotation from my review of WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda to kick things off. As always, Mark's observations are well worth reading, and his intelligence brings out the best in the people who respond with comments on his blog. I still want to answer Mark's postings with the extended and thoughtful response I think they deserve, and with luck I'll get that done next week. With luck, I said.

Tom Wilck: Didier Ghez has, thanks to Jim Korkis, taken note on his Disney History blog of the death at age 75 of C. Thomas Wilck, a public relations consultant to Walt Disney himself in the 1960s. Tom was the husband of Tommie Wilck, who was Walt's secretary for eight years and his principal secretary for the last couple of years of his life; Walt gave the bride away at the Wilcks' wedding in 1962.

I never met Tom Wilck, but we spoke at length last year by phone, when I was preparing a piece on the oft-repeated—and, as it turned out, accurate—story that Walt wore a Barry Goldwater campaign button when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in September 1964. Tom was at that ceremony, and I was grateful, as we talked and exchanged emails, for his modesty and his care to not say more than he actually knew. I regret that I never got to meet him. You can click here to read that piece about the Goldwater button.

And speaking of comic books...

Vlad the Impaler...as I've done several times on this page recently, if you're interested in them you may want to seek out a hilarious front-page story in today's Wall Street Journal that explains how book publishers, trying to hook boys on reading, are turning to gore and grossness as lures. The story apparently isn't available online except to subscribers, but here are the opening paragraphs:

The book's main character slaughtered his victims by running them through with sharp stakes. He once left hundreds dying slowly on a hillside while the soil grew "muddy with blood" and "blackbirds flocked around the corpses, fighting for a meal."

Although it has the contours of a horror story—with splotches of red ink on its pages depicting blood—it's actually a children's book. Vlad the Impaler: The Real Count Dracula is widely available in libraries and is making its way into middle-school social-studies classes.

Children's publisher Scholastic Corp. features the 128-page tale of the 15th-century Romanian sociopath in its new "Wicked History" series, also starring Leopold II: Butcher of the Congo and Mary Tudor: Courageous Queen or Bloody Mary?

Publishers are hawking more gory and gross books to appeal to an elusive market: boys—many of whom would rather go to the dentist than crack open Little House on the Prairie. Booksellers are also catering to teachers and parents desperate to make young males more literate.

"There has been a real revolution" in books that "have more kid appeal," especially when it comes to boys, says Ellie Berger, who oversees Scholastic's trade division. "It's a shift away from the drier books we all grew up with."

There's no mention of comic books in the article, but it all sounds vaguely familiar, doesn't it? I doubt that Dr. Wertham would approve what the book publishers are doing, but somewhere Bill Gaines is smiling.