Rightwing Film Geek

Wabbit season!!!

At Matt Zoller Seitz’s group site, Wagstaff has a great essay on showing the classic cartoon shorts by Warner Brothers and Disney to his toddler son. It’s long but RTWT.

The first critical opinion I recall holding as a wee lad was that there was something about Bugs Bunny that made his cartoons special. And which turned me away from the Disney shorts. Most of the commenters in the field also seem to have the same preference for Warners over Disney. I remember annoying my parents for days on end once by singing “kill de wabbit, kill de wabbit” after seeing “What’s Opera, Doc.” Not until years later, when I began watching them again as an adult cinephile, could I put my finger on why I found “Bugs and Pals” funnier. It was Bugs’ character.

It would be overanalyzing it to call Bugs my ego-ideal (that would have been Muhammad Ali). But his sang-froid, his insouciance, his irreverence, his wit, his grace under pressure, his smart-aleckness — I admired and liked everything about Bugs. The Disney shorts struck me as made “for kids,” too much like education and parental uplift. To this day, the quickest way to anger me is to talk down to me, and my parents and aunts and uncles knew that I didn’t like being obviously treated as a little boy, even as a little boy. Mickey Mouse, in particular, I thought was a goody-two-shoes. Goofy and Pluto were too bizarre. Only Donald really hit my strike zone, and he suffered in comparison with Warner Brothers’ Daffy Duck (because again, the adult-wiseacre and irony factors that suffused Warners product was so absent from Disney). Suffice to say that I have never felt any need as an adult to revisit my 30-year-old memories of the Disney shorts. In epigrammatic form: Disney was about funny characters, and Warners was about characters doing something funny. Or to use Wagstaff’s typology (but dead-on observation) — Disney was about “humor”; Warners about “wit.”

Some commenters in the thread tried to type Warners and Disney according to a Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd template. The comments aren’t wrong, but strike me as unimportant. In fact, Chaplin himself said it best about his start at the all-knockabout-and-chase Sennett studio of 1914: “Little as I knew about movies, I knew that nothing transcended personality.” At the annual Slapsticons (in DC in a fortnight) I’ve found the same thing about my taste in cartoons (“I like Bugs”) also applies to silent shorts. If there is a central character whom I find likeable, I’m almost always on board; when not, usually not. I find the early Mack Sennett, Jimmy Adams, Billy Dooley, the Boyfriends, Clark & McCullough, most of Fatty Arbuckle quite resistable. I prefer the Hal Roach series to the Fox Sunshine Comedies. I like “Harold” and “Buster” in the sense that I’d want to spend an afternoon with them (not so much The Tramp, though obviously Chaplin’s silent genius is indisputable). It’s obvious too, how much Bugs owes to the great silent clowns, Chaplin most of all. His shorts “A Woman” “The Masquerader” (he shoulda sued “Tootsie” for plagiarism on that one) and “The Floorwalker,” for example, show Chaplin using drag flirtations and a sudden kiss on the mouth to get under the skin of his antagonists, exactly as Bugs would do with Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil. There are also specific gags and gestures taken for Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. But prior to Chaplin, and back into the 19th-century stage, it was rare for the “clown” to also be the “hero.” Bugs simply WAS the clown-as-hero (and in his later shorts, invincible hero — the kind who, as in “Bully for Bugs” can turn to the audience in mid-flight and say “of course, you realize THIS means war”), and I think that’s what I found so appealing as a boy.

The other main reason for my preference for Warners is that its sense of humor is drier, more ironic. I prefer, to refer back to Wagstaff “wit” to “humor.” To this day, I generally don’t find obvious efforts at “funny” or “wacky” like broad physical comedy divorced from context to be very amusing — to the great annoyance of the person who sits opposite me at work, who has the precise opposite disposition. He can’t tell a joke without laughing at it, and prefers ANIMAL HOUSE, THE JERK and BLAZING SADDLES to THE PRODUCERS and DR. STRANGELOVE. Ernst Lubitsch famously said that “if you give the audience two and two, they don’t have to be told it’s four,” and the Warners cartoons understood that better.

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I just laughed myself silly just thinking of the way in “High Diving Hare,” the “camera” holds on the middle of the ladder while all we see is an already-ten-times-defeated Sam alternatively climbing up on the right edge of the frame and falling down on the left. Warner’s has as many great-but-out-of-context-banal walkoff lines as Lubitsch disciple Billy Wilder — Porky’s “b-b-b-b-b-b-big deal” and “ain’t I a stinker.” There’s also nothing inherently amusing about the line “how now, brown cow.” What makes it hilarious in the context of “Roman Legion-Hare” is the way Bugs says it and how it’s a pure taunt against Yosemite Sam. The very fact that the line means absolutely nothing besides being a hackneyed elocution lesson is what purifies the line into gesture. Even though there is something there is something inherently ridiculous about the phrase “Illudium Pu-36 Explosive Space Modulator,” the joke is still primarily about Marvin Martian’s hyper-fussy, pedantic way of saying it — the contrast between his enormous power (“I’m about to blow up the earth”) and wimpy person. Pedantry (or perhaps more precisely self-regard) is also mocked, in a different way, in the line “Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius,” a phrase that’s now entered the language as an insult ready to apply in many a case (it’s ironic that I love anti-pedantry jokes, huh?) There’s also more uninflected “side jokes” in Warners and side references that not all will get (but never dominate the action). First to come to mind — in “Rabbit Punch,” Bugs’ fight with the Champ lasts 110 rounds; this is the exact number, so it’s probably not a coincidence, of the longest gloved boxing match on record (the 1893 fight between Andy Bowen and Jack Burke).

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But my favorite Warners short is “The Rabbit of Seville,” because it has everything I love both about Bugs and Rossini. Indeed the Barber overture is my single all-time favorite piece of music, and most of the adjectives I’d apply to it — breezy, witty, lilting, graceful, charming, shaded, compulsively listenable, melodic fun — I’d apply to Bugs too. The animation, the gestures, and the parodic lyrics themselves both stay in perfect step to the Rossini music (even though Bugs has to grow an extra finger to do it). It’s like a seven-minute high-wire act that never looks down. In retrospect, it was the perfect piece of music for scoring a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In fact, frankly I don’t know how to separate my love for both “Rabbit of Seville” and the Rossini overture — which is chicken and which is egg. I know I saw the cartoon first, and that I was resitant to opera as a boy. But what “Rabbit” did later was make me unafraid to laugh at “Barber.” But you know what … you’re *supposed* to laugh at “Barber”; it’s a romantic comedy and Figaro is a puckish mixer, not completely unrelated to Bugs. We Anglophones so cover opera with the mantle of “classic” and “high culture” that we forget that so much of even the most conservative opera canon is silly romantic comedy — comedia dell’arte with songs. Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” and “The Marriage of Figaro” probably round out, with “Barber,” my three favorites. And loving “Barber” made me realize how much of Warner’s animation resembles nothing more than a contemporary form of opera buffa (centering on movement rather than notes), how much it owes to the traditions of the past, and how we can connect one to the other and make the past come alive and give depth to the present.

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July 8, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

The Other-cott Movie

OVER THE HEDGE (Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick, USA, 9)

I’ve been annoyed by previous Dreamworks’ animated films (like A SHARK’S TALE here; I make reference to SHREK) — with their “decadent po-mo flaunting of in-jokes only adults will get” and “seem[ing] to be more interested in replicating the consumer culture and its pop-culture baubles … with [creatures that] get personified, homogenized and flattened into the same pop-culture stereotypes as everything else.” But with OVER THE HEDGE, Dreamworks produces its best animated movie precisely by making these tendencies the subject matter of the film.

HEDGE stars animals who, during the course of the film, are threatened by human development and their own love for it. They wake up from hibernation to find their forest mostly turned into a uniformly faceless subdivision (named Camelot, amusingly). But then a shyster raccoon with his own agenda (voiced by Bruce Willis) and tells them “why don’t you get food food from the humans?” and sells suburbia to the animals in an incredible montage sequence that both follows and parodies those “buy your dream” PowerPoint presentations, culminating in the unveiling of nature’s most-perfect food — the nacho-cheese chip. And his description to the other animals of the SUV is priceless and perfectly delivered up to the brilliant punchline (“one”). But here’s the deal — rather than being threatened, the animals take to it like a fish to water, especially the kids. They fill their food stock in a couple of days, leaving them nothing to do for the remaining 270 before their next hibernation. Abundance enervates. We get into quarrels over Monopoly tokens, comparison of life to video games (“this is just like Auto Homicide 3”) and John Tesh DVDs. In other words, this is basically the ultimate Crunchy Con movie (Rod; if you’re reading this, see OVER THE HEDGE. And take Matthew and Lucas.) The animals become more “humanized” and acclimated to human ways, degrading them, taking them away from (their) nature, alienating them into forgetfulness of Being (“dat ist called Seinsvergessenheit” … “shut up, Heidegger”).

Part of the charm and the reason for the film’s success is the voice casting — which isn’t show-offy or has celebrities obviously “playing themselves.” It’s like Tim Allen and Tom Hanks in the TOY STORY movies — who never echo Home Improvement or Forrest Gump (or Ellen DeGeneres in FINDING NEMO). Wanda Sykes was the only voice in OVER THE HEDGE I instantly “spotted,” but she has a really distinctive voice (and she, thus appropriately, also has The Character Role). But Garry Shandling as a nervous-but-sensible turtle — that’s just perfect, without being eccentric. As is Steve Carell as a hyperactive squirrel. Willis basically plays his “Moonlighting” role, but without specifically reminding you of David Addison until you look back at the cast list. Even William Shatner, you have to strain your ears to figure out … it’s *him.* Shatner. Really. I mean — *really* Shatner. Really.

The movie and pop-culture in-jokes are hit-and-miss but somehow I found them less annoying than I did in SHREK and SHARK’S TALE. The CLOSE ENCOUNTERS joke was really funny (and well-hidden); the CITIZEN KANE reference less so (I saw it coming). And while I also saw coming the reversal of the Pepe LePew scenario — dressing up a skunk as a cat to seduce a real cat — I admired the film followed it to the end, and made it consistent with Sykes’ persona and voice. But can we please have a moratorium on characters named “Stella” until screenwriters have learned to resist parodying Marlon Brando? But since even the pop-culture jokes are intrinsic to what the movie is about — the spread of contemporary suburban culture and its threats to a “natural” life — even when they miss, I didn’t resent them. You don’t have to be Naomi Klein to think that life is not about what you own and what brands you use (the fact that the film is a satire of consumerist suburbia means there is no actual product-placement that I recall). The drawing is elemental, spare, with bright colors and not-too-many eccentric angles and “look what I can do with depth of field” showing off). The human characters are flamboyantly bad, even the Type-A psycho-bitch who had the best line, one worthy of STRANGELOVE — “I can’t be arrested. I’m president of a homeowners’ association.” And finally, any movie that has a joke based on the Theory of General Relativity must be awesome.

Personal point, not related to the movie per se. I deliberately saw OVER THE HEDGE as part of the Other-cott of THE DA VINCI [sic] CRAP. I went with a bunch of Church friends on the Saturday afternoon of opening weekend, one of whom was this guy. David’s been in a very bad place of late, after Holy Week brought him the death of his father and a car-wreck hospitalization. I happened to sit next to him and he was yukking it up like I’ve never seen him. I tease David a lot about economics-related issues (he once called me “Boss Tweed” and a robber baron), and so based on the trailer, I suspected that he would take to OVER THE HEDGE like catnip. I felt glad that, for atwo hours at least, he forgot about it all and just had an uproarious good time.

June 1, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

A spoiled masterpiece

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LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (Joe Dante, USA, 2003, 7)

That “7” is misleading. This film should have been one of the year’s best. It only stars two of the greatest comic performers of all time, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, at the top of their game. Isn’t it a barometer of how thoroughly the Looney Tunes characters, and the great short subjects they made *before I was born,* are so embedded in my mind that I talk about Bugs and Daffy as performers rather than as drawings? But how can a great movie result from a screenplay that reportedly went through at least 27 revisions and was the subject of constant quarreling between writer, director, animators and front-office suits.

LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION is very much less than what it should have been and sometimes even is — it’s brilliant around the edges and vacuous at the center. A casualty of pomo self-consciousness. And the part that really hacks me off is that it seems to be deliberately made that way. To cite Pauline Kael, this is the kind of film that results when a director contents himself with “express[ing] himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots.” It’s a masterpiece in every insignificant, irrelevant detail.

The main plot is just some silly spy intrigue rejected from the Austin Powers assembly line. The result is bland and watered down at the center, but so brilliant, saucy and anarchic at the edges that you’d really rather look at it on DVD, so you can rewind and use the slo-mo to see what you only half-saw in the theater. I can still bring himself to helpless giggles by remembering — the Jerry Lewis posters decorating Paris, Sylvester getting skinned, “that’s not boxing; bite his ear,” “that would send the wrong message to children,” the snatch from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” and the race through the paintings in the Louvre, Daffy’s facial expressions in the reprise of the “Duck! Rabbit! Duck!” exchanges, and all the hundred various asides and uninflected jokes at the edge.

wilemartin.jpgUnfortunately, the pomo filmmakers feel the need to “air out” the Looney Tunes characters by putting them in a live-action world to show off the greater technical prowess of animation today, as though animation in that sense was what the Looney Tunes were noted for. As for the human actors … frankly who cares? Joan Cusack and Steve Martin give wonderfully fruity cartoon performances (though I wonder whether Martin is finally a wee bit *much*). But Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman? Who cares? They’re like Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Who would rather watch them than Bugs and Daffy, or maybe more of the other Warner Brothers characters, like Foghorn Leghorn or Sylvester and Tweety?

Now, its not any postmodern premise or the style itself to which I object. Nor were the Warner Brothers cartoons above such techniques as spoof (“Thugs with Dirty Mugs,” “Bugs Bunny Rides Again,” the celebrity caricatures in “What’s Up, Doc”), in-joke references (Daffy as “Robin Hood”; the way the ritual line “What’s Up, Doc” spawned jokes riffing off that expectation), self-consciousness (the way Bugs’ antagonists became increasingly bizarre — from Elmer to Daffy to Yosemite Sam to the Tasmanian Devil — and his line to the audience “of course, you realize, *this* means war.”) or even outright deconstructions of textuality (“Duck Amuck”).

So it’s not as though postmodernism isn’t a fertile source of humor. But the pomo comic techniques in the Looney Tunes originals didn’t go “all the way down” and didn’t assume a thoroughly pomo audience. In other words, “Duck Amuck” shows how a cartoon produces meaning, but shows the animator at the end, preserving the illusion of the author-god, so to speak. And Bugs’ “this means war” aside is to an audience that didn’t expect asides every time and accepted the illusionist conceit that the war Bugs was promising existed for its own sake (they knew it was fake, of course. But as pro wrestling shows, there’s a fundamental difference between knowing something is fake and being told by the fakers that it’s fake).

Here, the innocent surface is absent. The filmmakers don’t seem to have the confidence to make a straight cartoon movie, to try to tell a coherent first-level story appropriate to the characters. Instead, textuality gets thrown in right away as Bugs and Daffy “play their characters” as Warner Brothers stars negotiating their contracts, rather than just “be their characters.” There’s even a moment when Fraser “plays himself” in split-screen with his character in the movie, and it’s just showing off and winking at the audience. The result is the decadent selling of the jokes the audience expects.

Now, the original Looney Tunes animators used this sort of “playing themselves” premise freely themselves (remember Daffy pitching “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” or the two competing in “Show Biz Bugs”). And Bugs and Daffy can still “play themselves” brilliantly — isn’t it a barometer of how thoroughly the Looney Tunes characters, and the great short subjects they made *before I was born,* are so embedded in my mind that I talk about Bugs and Daffy as performers rather than as drawings?

daffyanger.jpgIn this particular movie, the “pitch” premise produces a great early scene in which Daffy’s sputtering outrage is being deliberately tweaked by the WB suits’ estimate of his worth. But what tarnishes even some of the great stuff going on around the edges is that its hollowness is sometimes underlined or the lines merely references rather than used. For example, Bugs, Daffy, Elfman and Fraser are walking in the desert and we get an offhand reference to “a left turn at Albuquerque.” Except they’re not underground, they don’t wind up anywhere as a result of the mistake or anything else. Or the singing lunchpail frog appears at the table in the background as a deal is being brokered (but unless you’ve seen the original, there’s no joke). They’re just referents to name-drop, an assurance that the filmmakers have seen the originals too, the equivalent of Eric Idle’s “I’m trying, really” nudge in the ribs.

Though this is an infinitely better film than SPACE JAM, the tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way. Take a look at “The Simpsons,” which has *both* good stories and lots of jokes at the edge of the frame. Or take a look at “South Park,” self-conscously pomo decadent though the show is, but which uses its characters as themselves in pomo ways, rather than as “playing themselves” fodder for another bit of metacinematic fiddle-faddle.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

TIFF Day Six, first part (with grades from Days 9 and 10)

No time to write more than a couple of capsules right now, but first my grades for the final two days at Toronto (with one film from Day 6 I had forgotten about):

FREE RADICALS (Barbara Albert, Austria, 2003) — 3
CLOUDS OF MAY (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2000) — 5
THE MERRY WIDOW (Erich Von Stroheim, USA, 1925) — 7
THE TULSE LUPER SUITCASES: PART 1 (Peter Greenaway, Britain, 2003) — 0
DALLAS 362 (Scott Caan, USA, 2003) — 9*
CONFESSION (Zeki Demirkubuz, Turkey, 2001) — 2
ZATOICHI (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 2003) — 7

*Best American film of the festival and does not (as of yesterday morning) have a distributor. This film could be an Indiewood smash if handled well. (What is it with the children of people involved with THE GODFATHER?)

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THE COMPANY (Robert Altman, USA, 2003, 6)

Fellow TIFF Geek (and roommate) Charles Odell said this film, about a season of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet Company, was Altman’s best since SHORT CUTS — an assessment with which I agree, but which means rather less coming from me than from him. Though his two masterpieces (NASHVILLE, THE PLAYER) mean I will never be wholly uninterested in him, Altman is just not one of my favorite directors. Still, this is obviously The Man doing what he does well, and that will be enough praise for some folks, and even semi-skeptics about Altman should try to check it out.

The ready comparison film is READY-TO-WEAR, Altman’s portrayal of the fashion industry, and the difference in tone is immediate and obvious. Yes, some of the hyperstylized ballet costumes look silly, but there’s a complete absence of the contempt and misanthropy that made the earlier film just so unpleasant to share a room with. With the director’s greatest weakness somewhat reined in (we still get some of those Lettermanesque end-the-shot punch lines), the movie is free to rock. Altman can do his characteristic overlapping, sound-mix-dependent dialog in his sleep, but the backstage setting and all the chaos that surrounds putting on a show of any kind means that here it feels fresh and appropriate.

Still, as always, he uses the ballet subject matter as a side-angle approach to his real concern — the relationships between the “ins” and the “outs” and the efforts of the latter group to become the former. There’s not much plot, and he handles the little there is in a rather perfunctory manner. Two or three threads threaten to take over the movie — the rehearsals, a backstage love affair — but never for long and as usual an Altman is weak in the narrative, but strong in a sense of place, and there are other compensating virtues — Malcolm McDowell performance as the company’s director is pure ham, but in the service of playing a ham.

For the second time this year, my lack of ballet knowledge gets in the way of judging one aspect of a movie with any confidence, but to my layman’s eye, star Neve Campbell did just fine (she certainly didn’t wreck the film by appearing untrained in a field of pro dancers) I won’t say there are definitely none, but I can say (sitting, jogging my memory a few days later) that I don’t recall a single cheap “ballet dancers are homos” joke. Which is good.

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LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE (Sylvain Chomet, France/Canada, 2003, 7)

A nice refreshing dousing with Perrier in the midst of a pretty sombre day. I had trepidations about this feature-length cartoon going into the festival, because of reputed America-bashing a la frog. There’s a little of that (the city of Belleville has some resemblance to New York and has a statue in the harbor that looks like the Statue of Liberty, only it’s fat and holding up a hamburger. But how insulting could such a joke be from the country that actually produced the Statue in the first place? More seriously, it’s just about three or four moments, and frankly they’re more than outweighed by the film’s jokes about All Things French (and how they’re crap). I mean, what’s not to love about a movie that features the French Mafia (demonstrating those famed Surrender Monkey martial virtues) missing every gunshot while using a fleet of 2-cylinder 1960s Citroens to chase a two-horse-drawn vehicle with no wheels … and losing.

TRIPLETTES begins with a TV show of a WW2-era trio of singers and their hit “Belleville Rendezvous,” the original title of the film. It then centers on three viewers, a boy who wants to be a cyclist, his implacable trainer-mother and their dog. During the Tour de France, some stuff happens and mom and dog have to rescue the now-adult boy from bondage in Belleville. It’s perfectly airy and silly, and is really just an excuse for a series of carefully set-up comic gags (there’s one that doesn’t pay off until after the closing credits).

TRIPLETTES also showcases a style of animation I’ve never quite seen before — a kind of retro-grunge Tex Avery. I’ve seen some French animation/comics in the past (BABAR, TINTIN, MADELINE, and the style of those pre-1960 movie posters), and TRIPLETTES seems to have some family resemblance (the flat 2-dimensionality of the animation e.g.) while also finding a new style (probably inspired by the Jeunet/Caro films like AMELIE and DELICATESSEN and the explicitly-acknowledged Jacques Tati films). This style, though it also owes something to Avery’s work at Looney Tunes, tends toward grotesquery, outsized caricature, elaborate gags, and outrageous and impossible physical movement.

I’m not sure how broad this movie’s appeal will be. Fun though it us, it clearly can’t appeal too broadly to American children, because, not only is its subject matter so alien, there’s almost no dialogue but a few lines of garble. It may be more intelligible in snatches to Francophones, but clearly there was nothing essential or requiring subtitling.

September 14, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment