April 27, 2018:
April 4, 2018:
April 27, 2018:
When I was a kid, I occasionally set up tabletop versions of favorite comics or cartoons, using cardboard and modeling clay to create my miniature worlds. I can't recall particular subjects now (although I think Pogo's swamp was one); it was the general idea of building those little worlds that appealed most to me. I have to believe that Wes Anderson's films, and particularly his stop-motion features, most recently Isle of Dogs, have grown out of a similar impulse. Probably that's why I always want to see new Anderson films, even though I never like them very much. The b.s. content is just too high.
Isle of Dogs is the perfect example. This is a conventional story of a comic-bookish kind, with strong echoes of sources as diverse and familiar as Lady and the Tramp and The Prisoner of Zenda. What gives the film a distinctive flavor is the Japanese setting and especially the prevalence of (largely untranslated) Japanese dialogue. When the chief villain is on the screen, ranting full blast, it's like watching Toshiro Mifune in a Kurosawa epic, without subtitles. But why is Isle of Dogs set in a sort-of Japan, where English is the first language only of one American girl and the oppressed canines? The best answer may be that this is a setup that is made to order for film critics of a ruminative kind, the ones most likely to relish a film that seems to be saying perceptive things about language and culture. Sure enough, The New Yorker took the bait: it has published not just a warm review but also a followup piece dealing specifically (and admiringly) with Isle of Dogs' use of the Japanese language.
The American voices for the dogs are mostly well cast, especially Bryan Cranston as the Tramp-ish Chief; Anderson has a knack for attracting top-flight actors. Top-flight stop-motion animators, too; the animation is consistently excellent, so much so that I had to remind myself repeatedly that I was watching puppets, and not CGI. But... if Isle of Dogs could have been made in CGI, with essentially the same result on the screen, why wasn't it, especially considering that CGI skills are now so widespread, and costs presumably so much lower than they once were? Perhaps for the same reason the story is set in Japan rather than in some generic American or European place. It's a way of making special what is at bottom very ordinary.
From Paul Penna: Your mention of building miniature worlds, one with Pogo as the subject, naturally jumped off the page at me. Around 1962 I used the figures from our Pogo Mobile to create this little non-vivant tableau vivant in our basement. You’ll note my use of an old set of Christmas tree lights (although I used some other source for that major illumination for the photo). Almost visible in the background is a papier-mâché mountain range that I built for another, unrealized small world, an outdoor western street.
The Pogo display turned out to be a prototype for a much more elaborate set of dioramas in the same spot, atop a cabinet with about five or so feet of working surface. This project I modeled on the Disney Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty, partly inspired for the latter by the Castle Walk-Thru in Disneyland. I told a high school friend about it and he, also a model freak, threw himself into the project, at the same time starting our life-long friendship. It was built with cardboard boxes, construction paper and again, Christmas tree lights. Peek-through windows gave views of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, in the long hall with the Doorknob and in the wood talking with the Cheshire Cat, who appeared and disappeared by means of a blinking light behind a translucent drawing. The Castle had a moonlit courtyard, bonfire of spinning wheels and a chapel with stained-glass window, flying buttresses and a pipe organ via a small speaker inside.
I also was in love with the miniature buildings and landscapes in Disneyland’s Story Book Land, and set about creating my own, again with the help of my friend. I landscaped it with miniature trees and Irish moss to mimic grass. I had a Seven Dwarf’s house, a small Toad Hall and Moley’s home; but our masterpiece was undoubtedly the Alice church, although that would have taken second place if we’d ever completed the water wheel mill.
MB replies: The Pogo Mobile is hanging in my home-office suite, as is the Disney Mobile released around the same time. I'm very fond of both, although there's something about the Davy Crockett figure on the Disney Mobile (he's astride a b'ar) that is particularly enjoyable.
[Posted May 1, 2018]
From B. Baker: I respect and even admire your, uh, blunt dismissal of most of Wes Anderson's work. The guy is talented, but sometimes I feel that everything I respond to in his films is cancelled (or drowned) out by numerous other intrusive and cacophonous elements. [Or simply by Bill Murray's usual overbearing, inexpressive presence.] I'm not a fan at all of FANTASTIC MR. FOX, an animated movie that lacks almost any of the visual or creative touches (or imagination) that a genuinely talented animation director might have brought to it. DOGS is no better; I had no tolerance for it. There's an outmoded expression, "twee," that fits pictures like DARJEELING EXPRESS and MOONRISE KINGDOM like a glove. Gene Hackman gives one of his best performances in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, but I disliked almost every other aspect of the film.
However, for all of that, I felt THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was some sort of masterpiece; it's the only Anderson film in which concept, design, performance and narrative complexity all come together in a pleasing, entertaining affecting whole. Perhaps it was the centering influence of the Stefan Zweig material (and the excellent, energetic lead performance of Ralph Fiennes) that helped bring this about, but this was certainly an exception in his canon.
I greatly admired the work of the late Ken Russell. While I would easily (and immediately) concede that his best pictures came relatively early in his career with his brilliant BBC artist biography films and the almost incandescent WOMEN IN LOVE, I also find much of interest in more problematic movies like THE MUSIC LOVERS, MAHLER and SAVAGE MESSIAH; I can find something to look at or consider in the least of his films. There's something going on in these movies, some kind of rich, expressive sensibility, even when the narratives or concepts are ridiculous or appalling... or regrettable.
By contrast, I have little patience with most of Anderson's work; he seems more like an affected poseur. But he did get it right in GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.
[Posted May 2, 2018]
Peter Schjeldahl, in a review of the Grant Wood retrospective now at the Whitney Museum in New York, remarks, in a labored paragraph about Wood's presumed if never confirmed homosexuality, that "no special sleuthing is needed to winkle out his desires from enraptured depictions of hunky men versus his stony ones of women, and the recurrent suggestions of male anatomy in his bizarre Iowa landscapes—spatially impossible topographies, compounding descriptive and decorative techniques without the slightest feel for nature, which can appear impatient for the arrival of a Warner Bros. cartoon character or two."
I'm always alert for references to the Warner cartoons that go beyond the rote invocations of "wackiness" and the like, and so my eyeballs perked up when I saw this one, even though, on reflection, I'm not at all sure what Schjeldahl is referring to. Maurice Noble's designs for Chuck Jones's cartoons, most likely, but I don't think the comparison works very well, since Noble's backgrounds are "modern" in a way that Wood's are not, for all that, as Schjeldahl suggests, there's kinship between Wood's work and Salvador Dali's. I don't think Schjeldahl had in mind the backgrounds Paul Julian painted for Friz Freleng's cartoons of the late 1940s, but the fine-art connection may be stronger there than anywhere else in the Warner canon.
I wrote of Julian in Hollywood Cartoons that "his backgrounds had a cartoon brightness and simplicity, but they also seemed solid and real." I talked with Paul about his influences, and he surprised me with this name: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Flemish master of the sixteenth century. When I thought about that comparison, it made sense. Bruegel's paintings often depict robust comic action that takes place in real settings, in a real atmosphere. Just as in a good Freleng cartoon.
April 4, 2018:
My PC crashed and burned early in March, and I am only now approaching the restoration of a normal state of affairs. If there is such a thing where computers are concerned, that is. The last few times I've moved from one PC to another, the process went, if not smoothly, at least smoothly enough that I wound up eventually almost where I'd started, with most of my files intact but in a different machine. Not this time. My Quicken personal finance software is the biggest casualty; all of my transactions for the last eight years are, if not destroyed, very much in hiding. I backed up all my files on Windows as I'd done before, starting with the original CDs, but now, it seems, Quicken expects you to back up according to a new protocol. Whether doing so would have saved my missing data, I have no idea, but I'm inclined to doubt it, if only because Quicken's online helpers are so totally clueless. And then there's my wireless all-in-one Epson printer, which now won't let me scan unless I hook up a USB connection, a problem that many other people are having and that Epson adamantly refuses to solve. And then there's the loss of Windows Live Mail and my heavily used storage folders. There's more, but I won't bore you with it. At least my Dreamweaver software and this website are functioning normally, for the moment. Knock on wood.
The multitudinous sexual-harassment scandals have been variously disgusting (Matt Lauer), ridiculous (Garrison Keillor), or disappointing (James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera), but one of the saddest little scandals, for my money, is the one involving John Kricfalusi and reported first in Buzzfeed and then in Cartoon Brew. Why "sad," I'm not entirely sure. It's not because I think John's disgrace will rob us of any great cartoons. He hasn't done anything worth watching in recent years, and even his earlier and more celebrated work is, to my mind, fading rapidly in interest. (His Ren and Stimpy cartoons were intriguing not because they were funny—for the most part they weren't, and aren't—but because they seemed so different from standard-issue TV cartoons. Now the differences have narrowed.) Where John was outstanding, I think, was as a sort of pedagogue, an analyst and critic, especially when he was writing about Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones many years ago. There was point and discipline to his writing, but it leaked away long before the current embarrassment. It was fun to argue with John back then, as in the email exchange that I posted here in 2004, in the early days of this site. John seems to have passed beyond such exchanges, in favor of Trumpian bluster, just as his personal life has descended into Trumpian squalor. What a pity.
From Kelcrum: Haven't thrown in my two cents in a while, but your recent post on Kricfalusi (Wow! Spellcheck doesn't like that name!) was interesting. Here goes.
The current John K. sex scandal has a lot of bloggers insisting that the guy was completely over-rated, a total no-talent who rode on Bob Camp's coat-tails, never funny in the first place and so on. Maybe they're sincere, but I'm not good at lying to myself. I know a real artist when I see one.
John K stood out among TV cartoonists for his sheer passion to bring back the true spirit of animation as a visual art. I found his best work very funny because his bizarre characters were sincere and he got inside them. In "Stimpy's Invention" we not only see a touch of brilliance under Stimpy's doofus demeanor, but Ren's insanity makes sense as the happy helmet forces bliss that he clearly can't adjust to. Kricfalusi identifies most with Ren and boy, is that an artist's cry for help!
As despised as the Adult Party Cartoon was, I'm still fascinated by "Ren Seeks Help". Not for the faint of heart, John K doesn't worry about making his characters lovable. He wants to explore the darkest side of human nature and where it all comes from. It's a true horror story made watchable by John's style of heightened absurdity. Ren goes through quite a series of emotions, from his genuine remorse at the beginning, to his appalling treatment of the frog, to his sigh of relief at the end of his confessions, to his casual lighting of a cigarette afterward as if confessing to horrible behavior somehow makes it better.
It all reminds me of what somebody said about Ambrose Bierce, "We may hate his stories, but we don't forget them."
I'm not excusing the man's behavior, but it makes me think of how, thanks to social media and the "Me Too" movement, we're living in an age when it's easier to dig up the ugly side of many popular entertainers. I'm starting to wonder what we didn't know about Rembrandt, Mozart, Shakespeare, et al. I'm not sure how much art we're now willing to throw away. but the practice of separating the art from the artist is really being put to the test these days.
[Posted April 14, 2018]