Thursday, April 10, 2014

I SUPPOSE I SHOULD JUST--GOD HELP ME--LET IT GO

So the Frozen soundtrack is once again atop the charts, the Blu-ray and DVD release is poised to sell a bajillion copies, even as the movie itself is still in theaters, and still racking up record ticket sales.

And that's fine, really.  It's a good movie.  Honest.  It's easily one of the best animated movies of the last few years, which, okay, granted, isn't exactly wild praise.  (It's better than Turbo and Rio combined!)  It tells a good story, it tells it well, the characterizations are vivid, it's funny and even occasionally moving.

I just don't know why it's animated.

This is the problem I have with at least 90% of recent CGI movies: They're so busy trying to recreate reality, with meticulously rendered hair and fabrics, that they beg the question of why they weren't shot in live action anyway.

Consider this, the big moment from Frozen, the most character-defining moment.  In particular note the action starting at about 2:56.




Yes, she's literally letting her hair down, but the moment is a total throwaway, because absolutely nothing is done to emphasize it.  There is literally nothing in this entire sequence that gains from being animated.  Or, more accurately, there's nothing here that takes advantage of what animation can do.  The settings and movements are depicted with thudding literalism. 

This is the recurring problem with computer animated features.  All the software is written to depict a sort of reality.  The settings are meticulously rendered, and furnished with equally realistic lighting.  The Dreamworks feature How To Train Your Dragon went so far as to hire the great cinematographer Roger Deakins as a visual consultant.  It didn't seem to occur to anyone that maybe, for an animated movie, they should employ painters or graphic artists instead.  That's the advantage settings in an animated film have over live action: They can turn abstract, or deploy colors purely for visual emotional effect.  Here's a sequence from Pocahontas, a lesser film in the Disney canon, one of their last big successes in cel animation before Pixar started the CGI revolution with Toy Story.


Even before the visuals turn vaguely abstract, the colors are varied, the shades of blue alone turn according to the emotion of the scene.  Quite a contrast with Frozen, where the color and lighting remains the same from shot to shot.

But the movement is even more mundane that the setting.  Again, consider the shot of her letting down her hair.  She just kind of reaches up, removes the tiara and her hair...just falls.  The moment isn't emphasized, or, more to the point, the movement isn't emphasized.  Animation is all about exaggeration, a caricature of reality, but that isn't what happens here.  It's what you'd see if this was being performed on a stage, but shouldn't the power of animation be used to emphasize the significance of the moment?  She's becoming a whole new person, but this is depicted almost entirely through the song and through Idina Menzel's powerhouse vocals.  True, she's making a palace over in her own new image, but even that is depicted rather prosaically--that is, the character is literally doing this, and we see it, but it doesn't have the impact it would have with more vivid staging.

 I admit, I prefer hand-drawn animation to CGI, but every form of art has its strengths and limitations.  Brad Bird made fine use of stylized movement and realistic settings in The Incredibles, Pete Docter beatifully gave cartoonishly-designed characters a sense of reality in Up and, though the movie itself isn't much, Genndy Tartakovsky proved computer animated characters could stretch and squash with the best of old school cartoons in Hotel Transylvania.  My problem isn't really with computer animation, it's with how it's deployed.  And with the massive success of Frozen, it seems less likely than ever that anyone will try to do anything new.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

I HEAR YOU ARE SINGING A SONG OF THE PAST

There's an old issue of Weird War Tales about a soldier who receives a talisman from some wizened gypsy that reveals the moth and year of his death.  It's the middle of World War II, but this talisman says he won't die until sometime in the seventies.  Which means...well, as far as this war goes, he's bullet-proof.  He begins taking crazy chances, because he knows he won't die.  Except the talisman only promises he'll still be alive by that date.  It doesn't say his body will be in one piece...

Cheap irony, with a big twist you can see coming from a mile away, but it made a huge impression on eight-year-old me, and I find myself thinking about it a lot lately because...Well, partly because my brain pan is crowded and random memories float to the surface and refuse to leave.  But mostly because reading that story provided the first time I'd ever considered mortality.  There's no magic talisman, and you can't know the precise date and time, but there will come a day when you will die.

It's OK, really.  I'm fine.  As far as I know.  That's the thing, though: As far as I know.  But I turn forty-nine in a couple of months.  My mom and dad both had colon cancer.  Family history being what it is, I have a preview of what's going to happen.  Sure, a safe could fall on me or my heart could explode, but barring that, I will get cancer and die.  It's a certainty, an inevitability, like Charlie Sheen getting fired from another TV show.

(Incidentally, and because I love pointless parenthetical asides, I would observe here that almost twenty years ago--Lordy, I'm old--when I used to write for a kinda-sorta-alt weekly in Des Moines, I was known to use Charlie Sheen as a metaphor for terrible things happening so often that one of the editors rejected a column with a hand-written note: "Charlie Sheen AGAIN?")

Obviously, like most people, I'll ignore the warning signs, signs that will be in flashing neon because, again, I know they're coming, and soon it will be too late and...Why yes, funny you should ask, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this.  And I wish I could say I've been using all that time in a valuable way, taking stock of my life, making plans for the great inevitable, or maybe for crying out loud actually getting around to doing some work on that one idea I had for a novel that one time that really, swear to God, would have been great, I had a killer opening paragraph and everything but man it just kind of sat there and I was so terrified by the notion that it wouldn't be interesting for more than twenty, thirty pages max that I just kind of let it die.

But, uh, I've done none of those things.  Things get in the way.  Good things, mostly, and bad ones, too.  I mean, my life is good, relatively speaking.  I try to live in the here-and-now, but the reality of now changes as you go through life.  You acquire knowledge along the way, and you can rage against it, or try to ignore it, or even accept it, but that knowledge rules your existence.

So sometimes I escape into the past: I'm sprawled out on the couch in the living room, all excited because when Mom came home from town today, she brought me the latest issue of Weird War Tales, always one of my favorites.  I open the cover with anticipation, not knowing that will be the last moment of my life untouched by a feeling of creeping dread.


Monday, December 16, 2013

DAMN YOUR PACIFISM!

It's unpleasant, to say nothing of unseemly, to turn this space into an ongoing obit section for my cultural heroes.  I don't write much anymore, and when I do, it seems like it's yet another memorial piece.  And I don't enjoy that, and that's why there hasn't been anything here remembering Nelson Mandela or Doris Lessing or, most recently, Peter O'Toole.

Then Billy Jack dies, and dammit, that shit's personal.



If you were the right age in the 1970s, the half-breed ex-Green Beret ass-kicking pacifist Billy Jack was as big a deal as Bigfoot or Evel Knievel.  The creation of writer/director/producer/star/messiah Tom Laughlin, our Billy first appeared in 1967's The Born Losers, a routine biker picture (albeit one with an unconscionable 113 minute running time, because Laughlin's ego was already in place), but it was 1971's Billy Jack that briefly made the character and the actor household names.

A weird mix of standard drive-in fodder with typical early 70s hippy-dippy mysticism, Billy Jack is less noted as a movie as for how it was sold: A flop in its initial release, Laughlin famously sued Warner Bros. and reacquired the rights to the picture and sold it himself, renting out neighborhood theaters one at a time and keeping all the profits himself.  Both the four-walling of theaters and the accompanying heavy duty TV ad campaign were highly influential--the notoriously awfulindie outfit Sunn Classic Pictures used Laughlin's technique to sell their fake documentaries like The Mysterious Monsters and In Search of Noah's Ark.

And it worked--Billy Jack became a smash hit, and Warner Bros. rereleased it again using a variation of Laughlin's technique ("See it again...for the first time!"), and it was a smash all over again.  It was basically a liberal-populist version of the conservative-populist Walking Tall, and it played small towns and drive-ins forever.

At the box office, if not artistically, Laughlin had even grander visions.  The 1974 sequel, The Trial Of Billy Jack, was again produced in conjunction with Warner Bros., but Laughlin mapped out the ad campaign himself.  It was the first movie to open really wide--over a thousand theaters at once, quite a feat in those pre-multiplex days--accompanied by a massive advertising blitz.  (I remember the full-page color ad in the comics section of The Des Moines Sunday Register!)  It worked--the movie made a then-astonishing $11,000,000 in one weekend.  Those numbers are amazing--that's at the level of Jaws or Star Wars.

Except the movie sucked, and after the first weekend, it tanked.

And thus ended Laughlin's career, basically.  He made a horrible semi-mystical Western, The Master Gunfighter (a "Billy Jack Enterprises Production") and the barely released Billy Jack Goes To Washington...and then he just kind of went away.

Laughlin had been a journeyman actor for over a decade before his big success, with guest shots on TV and bit parts in the likes of Tea And Sympathy and South Pacific.  But Billy Jack--the character and the movie--seemed to change him.  The Trial Of Billy Jack is a terrible, terrible movie, and sitting through it is like spending three hours with your nutjob conspiracy-theory cousin, the kind of guy you assume is a hardcore lefty until you notice his Ron Paul For President bumper sticker, and even if you agree with its politics, you'll cringe at the presentation.

But Laughlin clearly believed.  He meant every half-baked they're-all-out-to-get-us assertion, and to him it wasn't a movie, it was a manifesto.  Clearly, going back to mere acting wasn't in the cards for Laughlin, so his celluloid legacy pretty much begins and ends with the original Billy Jack, the only halfway decent movie he ever made.

And it's weird, because it was such a big deal at the time, how little impact it ultimately made.  Laughlin was a marketing genius, and it's easy to imagine how he could have had a nice career as an action star, a philosophically aware Clint Eastwood, but that's not what he wanted.  He had to tell the truth, man.

As the seventies ended, Laughlin tried his hand (unsuccessfully) at politics, and wrote vanity-press books on psychology and alternative medicine.  And he kept making plans for more Billy Jack movies, including one with the wonderful title Billy Jack's Crusade To End The War In Iraq And Restore America To Its Moral Purpose, which suggests that his ego certainly never diminished.

Laughlin died this month at the age of 82, having failed to bring an end to racism or war or poverty or any of the things his character stood for.  But you know what?  In 1975, my brother Keith dragged ten-year-old me to a re-release of Billy Jack pretty much for the sole purpose of making fun of it.  We counted the number of times the boom mike was visible, we yelled out our own responses to some of the dumber dialogue, we laughed at the action scenes.  But we had a great time watching it, and I've seen it countless times since then, and enjoyed it every time.

So no, Billy Jack didn't change the world.  But he taught me how to watch movies critically, and I'll always love him for that.




Sunday, November 24, 2013

IT'S JUST A SHOW

Things had deteriorated, obviously.  With her cancer, Mom's doctor had already given her less than six months to live.  Plus, there'd been a mix-up on her meds which had caused to to hallucinate wildly, she'd fallen a couple days before and...well, time was running out.

But I didn't want to believe that.  So when I got home from work that day and discovered several messages from my sister telling me Mom was in the hospital, I refused to believe it was anything but a bump along the way.  After all, she still had a few months left; a doctor said so.

When I got to the hospital, I was shocked by how small she looked, how fragile and lost.  The bump on her head from her fall had gotten worse, now resembling some Cronenberg mutation.  And there was her voice, faint and far away but oddly cheerful: "Hi, Honey.  Did you have to work late?"

Yeah, I said.  Sorry, I didn't know until now.

"That's OK.  Have you eaten?"

No, I explained, I came over here as soon as I got the message.

"Oh.  Well, you should eat.  I'll be OK.  It's almost time for Lost, and after that, I'll get some sleep.  What are you going to do tonight?"

I don't know.  I'm kind of worried...

"I'll be OK.  Really.  Go have some pizza and watch MST.  That always makes you feel better."

So I did.  Mom was right--Mystery Science Theater 3000 always made me feel better, could always be counted on to give me a laugh when I needed one.  So I picked an episode at random, Joel and the Bots going to town on the Roger Corman Western Gunslinger.

An odd choice, as it happened.  The movie itself is oddly obsessed with death, and that carries over to the rest of the show, which features this sketch:


Kind of weird, but nothing creepy about it.  Sure, Mom was in the hospital, but she'd be alright.  Wouldn't she?  Wouldn't she?

You can guess what happened next: An early morning phone call, a long, agonizing vigil, bad hospital food, then...well, then she died.

And the bottom dropped out of my world.  Mom was always there, the one person above all others that I could always count on to be there for me, to point me in the right direction, to tell me what I needed to hear.  Without her, how could I go on?

Something else was there for me, though.  In the blur of days following, the visitation and funeral and dread of returning to work and everything else, I wondered if I could ever regain what had been lost.  In the depths of sorrow, could I ever be happy again?  There was one sure way to find out:


Another random episode: I Accuse My Parents.  The intro made me happy, and the episode made me laugh.  A lot.  And when it was over, I knew Mom was right: It would be OK.

I'm writing all this right now because Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered twenty-five years ago today.  It was hugely influential to the comedy landscape of the late twentieth century, and its lasting impact continues to be felt well into this century.

And more than that, it's the show that kind of saved my life.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

A TREMOR IN THE FORCE

Again, I have been accused--just yesterday--of being a Star Wars geek.  Again, I plead not guilty.

The main evidence seems to be that I know Admiral Ackbar's home planet (Mon Calamari--yes, I do know this), a fact which isn't revealed in Return Of The Jedi, and thus something I could only have learned through reading of spin-off novels, comic books or, at the very least, repeated trips to Wookiepedia.

But I've done none of these things!  (Okay, I visited Wookiepedia one time--just once, I swear!--and oddly enough it was to look up the proper spelling of "wookie" because there was some dispute about that in the very early days of Star Wars fandom and look, never mind how I know about that.)  But Star Wars is Star Wars, a vast cultural thing that everybody knows something about, even if they've never seen the damned thing.

Let me put it this way: I've never watched porn.  (Unless Caligula counts, which technically, it probably does.  Oh, and that one Laura Gemser Emanuelle movie where the girl jerks off the horse and there are a few penetration shots, but they were obviously just inserted (tee-hee, inserted) after the movie was shot, so that really shouldn't count.)  More specifically, I've never seen Behind The Green Door, but I've read two different books on its directors, Jim and Artie Mitchell.  (They invented the lap dance!)  I've also read Sinema and The Other Hollywood and could tell you more about The Opening Of Misty Beethoven than you could ever want to know.

On the other hand, I've never seen any of the awful live-action movies Disney cranked out in the seventies, but if you shouted out their titles, I could probably tell you who directed them without even looking it up.  (No Deposit, No Return? Norman Tokar!  The Shaggy D.A.?  Robert Stevenson!)  Hey, as a bonus, I can tell you that Frank Phillips was the cinematographer and Cotton Warburton edited most of those things, because Disney used pretty much the exact same crew in all their movies back then and WHY DO I KNOW THIS?

But does all this make me a porn and/or Disney geek?  I can tell you who produced both The Genius Of Ray Charles and Pink's Raise Your Glass, even though I don't imagine many people who revere the former have even heard of the latter.  I can quote whole passages of James Joyce's The Dead verbatim.  I couldn't tell you my sibling's birthdays, but if you ever want to know who shot Ilsa, Harem-Keeper Of The Oil Sheiks, I'm your guy.  I can't remember the precise layout of the house where I grew up, but I can remember exactly the details of the mighty River Hills/Riviera theater, where I first saw 2001, Fantasia and, okay, Star Wars, which, granted, yes, I saw five times in the summer of '77, but hey, so did everyone else.  It played theatrically for almost a year.

And it's not like everyone who saw it became a geek.  We liked it, then we moved on with our lives.  If, by "moved on" you mean "continued to fill our heads with ever-widening but essentially useless pop culture knowledge that unfortunately we used as a prism through which to view real life, and found reality wanting".  And if by "we" you mean "me". 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

SO GLAD YOU MADE IT

It's OK.  I'm still here, theoretical reader who probably doesn't even exist anymore.  Well, not here, at this site, actually writing things.  But I'm still, you know, here in the world.  Things get in the way, life goes on, what have you.

But hey!  Here's a little something we haven't done in awhile: Lynda Carter singing!  It's from a 1984 variety special, and if you had told me people were still turning out this kind of crap as late as '84, I'd have said you were nuts.  But here's the eye-gouging, ear-punishing evidence.  Enjoy, or whatever.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

FROM THE LAND BEYOND BEYOND

I can tell you every single detail of that Monday night: the trip form the farm into Perry in Mom's Ford Galaxie, the stop at Fareway for supplies for the evening's entertainment (Shasta cola and an industrial-sized bag of M&Ms), the whir of cicadas sounding from the shrubs on west side of the drive-in, the pink and purple clouds as the soon slowly descended, part of the endless wait for the movie to begin; the flashes of lightning far off to the north, somewhere far away, as the movie finally began.

The movie was The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad.  It had been heavily advertised on local TV, the commercials promising monsters and visual wonders aplenty.  I didn't know then that the movie was nearly twenty years old; I didn't know the name of Ray Harryhausen, though I noted his name in the credits as "Creator Of Visual Effects", and I knew what it meant: He was the man who made the mosters.

Mostly, I didn't--couldn't--know the profound effect those monsters would have on me.  How Harryhausen's cloven-hooved cyclops, with his splayed legs and delicately-curving back, formed an interest in the mechanics of the human body, an appreciation for choreography and dance, or how the slow, painful death of a dragon would haunt my dreams, its stumbling final movements echoed in the sad exits of my own beloved pets.

By the time a skeleton dropped down from the ceiling, grabbing a shield and sword and engaging our hero in a duel to the death (or redeath), my mind was completely blown.  I had never seen anything like this before.  My mom was an adult, she knew things, so I asked her how this sequence was done.  "I have no idea," she answered.

Which convinced me more than anything of the reality my eyes told me: It was real!  There was magic in the world!

And there was, once.  But no more.  Ray Harryhausen, creator of more wondrous sights than any other human ever imagined, died today at the fine age of 92.  The world is a sad place for his passing, but an infinitely better place because he lived.