Sunday, January 29, 2023

Delta Space Mission (1984).

Can we all just admit that the 1980s was the last great decade for art?  I know I've painted a target on my head for saying that.  Anyone who wants to can accuse me of bias in this regard.  However, I don't think that's something I have to worry about all that much.  From what I've been seeing and hearing lately, all I've done is spoken a near unanimous opinion.  The best about saying something like this that it isn't an idea confined to just the 80s kids like me who lived through it.  It's easy to got on the Net and find countless testimonials by Millennials and Zoomers who are willing to share in the sentiment.  I think the best tribute to the decade I've heard is from someone who said: "I didn't live it, but I do miss it (web)".  I guess that makes me kind of lucky, in a sense.  I got to enjoy as much of it as I could before the curtain was wrung down on that entire aesthetic period.  I was born in the year that Orwell made famous, which means I was sort of ideally situated in the middle of that decade.  So it meant I was just in time to enjoy all the best that era had to offer.  In that sense, there both isn't all that much to talk about, and yet there's a lot of everything worth talking about, if that even makes sense. 

My own experiences of the 80s matches up pretty well with those of others.  I saw a lot of the same shows and movies growing up back then.  Two of my first childhood memories involved being introduced to a music composer with the curious name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and then finding out a funny yet cool looking car known as a Delorean that could travel through time.  The ones that really stuck, however, was being introduced to a Galaxy Far, Far Away, and following along as a young immigrant mouse tried to relocate and reunite with his missing family.  Bare in mind, I must have been like four or five when I was allowed to watch all this, so I guess you could say I had some pretty cool parents in that regard.  I think all of those films, when taken together can serve as a useful barometer for what helps that decade stand out from all that's come after it, at least.  It really does seem that it represents one of the last great flowerings of creativity on a grand cultural scale, one with enough talent and inspiration to it that it makes sense to declare it as the last great period of Romanticism in the field of the Arts.  It's a mindset that I think we should try and recapture a lot more often when we can.

For me, one of the great things about having an 80s childhood is that in addition to the the usual standbys of that decade, there was also plenty of room for experimentation and risk taking in the arts that just doesn't exist in the current artistic climate, no matter what anyone else may try and tell you.  I'm talking now about artistic products that were and are well out of the mainstream, yet still somehow manage to carry this quirky sense of genuine, popular appeal.  This is the area of the 80s where you run into your cult classic offerings like Brazil, Time Bandits, and The Dark Crystal.  I've known, and have been able to get some kind of enjoyment out of all of these films.  However, I'm also sort of talking about stuff that's further on and sometimes more far out than the usual standbys.  I'm starting to think I may have been more lucky than most 80s kids.  Yes, it's true I got to experience stuff like Garfield and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  However, for whatever reason, I was also able to find entertainment in films and shows that were a lot more out of the mainstream, even to this very day.  I'm talking now about the types of films that remain obscure even by the standards of the 80s, and yet they remain just as defined by that whole period as any of its most famous products.  This was my childhood years.

Most everybody knows about Transformers or G.I. Joe.  How many out there are familiar with The Mysterious Cities of Gold?  Yes there were The Smurfs and Fraggle Rock.  Now who here has ever heard of shows like Count Duckula, Belle and Sebastian, or Spartacus and the Sun Beneath the Sea? Here's where I think I got a really lucky 80s childhood looking back on it all now.  I was given a chance to wade further out into obscure waters of entertainment that remain relatively uncharted to this very day.  I'm talking about shows and movies now that are so obscure they have no choice except to be labeled as under the radar type gems.  In other words, no matter how objectively good their quality may be, it's almost like they will always have the deck stacked against them because they never got enough attention from the pop-culture of their time.  We're talking the kind of material that no one in the mainstream will ever hear about in any great quantities.  We've entered the realm of obscure animated specials like Dot and the Kangaroo, Twice Upon a Time, or maybe even the film up for discussion.

I came across Delta Space Mission by pure accident.  It was just there one day on the 366 Weird Movies website.  Perhaps the fact that I was even there in the first place should be the real clue to some of the more "out there" aspects of my cinema going tastes.  I'm not as die-hard about it as the folks who run that website are.  I'm afraid I'm a bit too comfortable with the mainstream of entertainment.  However, that interest in the quirky and the off-beat is still there, and sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll stumble across something from your childhood, or else just the past in general, that satisfies the desire for both the artistic and the creatively tripped out.  Those kind of films, in other words, where everything seems to be going along as normal, and then it all takes a left-field turn into Surrealsville, or else it's just one of those efforts that manage to generate their own trippy yet endearing atmosphere.  What I read about this film at the 366 website made it sound like one of those movies.  The type of obscure piece of outsider animation with far out visuals and a crazy plot to match the film's deliberately weird style.  The review was able to accomplish what any work of that kind should do.  It got me interested in wanting to get a look at this overlooked example of surrealist Science Fiction for myself.  So, after saving up enough to buy a copy, I had a look for myself.  Here is what I'm able to tell you about the movie.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Hidden Figures (2016).

There's a line that's been floating around out there for a while now.  It's often attributed to Winston Churchill, and it goes something like this.  "History will be kind to me, for I shall write it".  Whether or not the former prime minister of Great Britain actually said those words, they do speak to an irony at the heart of all history.  The maxim itself is a play on yet an even older saying, this one totally anonymous.  "History is written by the winners".  There are plenty of cases in which this is true enough.  If George Washington hadn't been such a good combat strategist, would his face have ever wound up on the dollar bill?  If it comes to it, would this country even exist if he'd been a failure?  Since he was the winner in the American Revolution, however, he got a chance to help write the next chapter in the story.  That's a relatively straightforward case, however.  Has there ever been any time in history when things weren't so cut and dried?  Well, there's another irony layered on top of the one observed by Churchill.  The trick is that guys like him and Washington are almost special cases.  The only reason they were winners at all was because they were the ones who are remembered for finding workable solutions to extreme situations.

The catch there, however, is that none of them were facing what might be called everyday, normal circumstances.  Every child in America is taught about who Washington was in relation to the creation of a Country.  Very few of us are ever informed about what an average day for the Father of Our Nation was like, when his back wasn't against the wall.  That's because very little of it seems to matter as far as most of us are concerned.  If it were otherwise, whole college curriculums would be dedicated to every facet of his personality and life experiences.  As things exist, such aspects are relegated to specialist studies.  The final irony is this.  Winners are history's exception, not its norms.  And even here, the punchline is that while we glorify the names of those who go on to make great achievements, this can sometimes come at the cost of all the anonymous background faces that were there to help him along the way.  The figures that director Billy Wilder once referred to as "All the Little People out there in the dark".  People like Washington seem to have avoided this kind of irony, as he's always shown as part of a larger tapestry made up of all the American Founders.  I'm not so sure that Churchill, or even Martin Luther King, has it so well.  We know of King, for the most part, as the face of the Civil Rights Movement, or Churchill has the British face of World War 2.  To be fair, there's a lot of accuracy in both claims.  What it obscures, however, are the faces and voices of those who contributed to a good cause.

This is something that a lot of history's anonymous contributors did not so much in silence.  It's just that the microphone never really got turned in their direction.  As a result, it's fair to say there are a lot of major accomplishments out their that will probably never get quite as much recognition as they will ever deserve.  Sometimes a lucky few have their day in the spotlight, however.  That's what's turned out to be the case for the story of Kathy Johnson, and two of her friends, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.  If you've never heard of them, that's both a shame and understandable.  They aren't the sort of titles that jump out of history books at you.  Then again, when's the last time any of us picked up a history book the minute we left the hallowed halls of academe in our rear-view mirrors?  I rest my case.

The point here is that sometimes a handful of the forgotten history makers strike it lucky, and find some measure of remembrance for themselves.  That seems to be the case with a lot of famous events in history.  Even Churchill had Lord Montgomery and FDR by his side.  MLK, meanwhile, had the likes of Rosa Parks and John Lewis joining him in the fight for equality.  It's also true enough that workers like Johnson, Vaughan, and Parker belong to the Civil Rights Movement, too.  They went on living their lives under the radar for the longest time.  Then, one day, after the dust had cleared (and yet while the battle still rages on) they all found the microphone turned in their direction.  The result is that they each got to tell their shared story at last.  Hidden Figures is the dramatization of their struggle.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

The Lost City (2022)

Not long ago I ran across a surprising, and rather quirky film project.  It's name was Guns Akimbo, and the greatest eyebrow raiser was that it starred Harry Potter as this photo negative muggle version of himself getting forced to participate in a feature-length Hunger Games parody, complete with a nightmare version of Katniss Everdeen.  It's one of those screwball ideas that have at least the potential to be as great on screen as it sounds on paper, provided you do it right.  The unfortunate truth is that the film's director, Jason Lei Howden, was unable to deliver on a full and complete vision that could have been promised by the idea.  The reason that's the case is because of the ironic disconnect between the goal's the director set out for himself, and the final product he wound up with.  The story itself was meant as a satire of, perhaps even a flat out attack on the writings of J.K. Rowling, and their overarching meaning.  What keeps the finished product from working either as a satirical jab, or even just a plain movie, is because in trying to criticize Rowling, Howden makes one, crucial mistake.  If the director truly believes there is nothing admirable about Rowling and her stories, then he shouldn't have capitulated to the very narrative structure and themes that go to make up the story scaffolding that he claims to dislike.  Instead of coming up with a fitting denouement that works as a proper denunciation, he winds up throwing in the towel near the end.

It's kind of a mistake in terms of the movie's overall narrative strategy.  What it says to me is that the director couldn't come up with as complete of a critique as he might have wished.  Either that or he got cold feet at the last minute and pulled his punches.  The final result is a film that degenerates into a confused muddle, with a middling action packed ending that sees the character tread through the same type of narrative arc that can be found in the Potter books.  The difference here is that everything just comes off as hollow, and unmeaning, leaving the viewer with an unfulfilled sense of dissatisfaction.  One gets the sense that the filmmaker wasted all that effort over nothing.  The curious thing is that he even got Daniel Radcliffe to agree to be a part of it.  At the time, it came off as little more than an amusing anecdote.  The kind of thing that might become a punchline afterthought for a brief span of time, and then is quickly forgotten about.  For a while there, I even thought I was just looking at a one-off.  Just a case of an actor made famous by a book having a bit of a lark poking fun at himself, and there was an end of it.  Instead, here we are now, watching another movie with a similar premise. 

Once again, Radcliffe is taking part in a film that seems to be acting as a running commentary on the role, story, and above all, the author that made him famous.  I'll admit this is not something I was counting on to happen.  Then I realized it's perhaps the sort of thing I should have expected, when you think about it.  When you become a target, after all, you'd better learn how to suffer what Shakespeare referred to as "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".  It's no secret that J.K. Rowling is now one of the biggest targets in the public square.  I guess I just didn't expect Radcliffe, of all people, to take such a concerted effort in pursuing something like an actual, ongoing critique of the writer and the meanings in her stories.  That was another left field surprise, however for the sake of argument, I think I'll roll with it.  Let's assume, for the moment, that the film under discussion today is meant by Radcliffe as a further satire of Rowling and her books.  What does this say about a film like The Lost City?

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Walt Before Mickey (2015).

This one is sort of interesting in the sense that I knew about its source material, before I ever knew someone had turned it into a movie.  At least I think that's the way the deal went down.  What I know for sure is that the first time I ever heard of this film, it wasn't a movie.  Instead, it was just this unobtrusive, yet eye-catching book tucked away comfortably on a shelf, in among the biography section of a local Barnes and Noble.  That's how I first found out about Timothy S. Susanin's Walt Before Mickey: Disney's Early Years: 1919-1928.  I picked it up off the shelf in a brief moment of impulse curiosity, and began to page through the thing.  One point of potential interest that caught my eye about Susanin's text was that it featured a personal forward by Diane Disney Miller.  She was Walt's very own daughter, and here she was willing to sing the praises of a book about her dad.  It was enough to make the book stand out in my own mind, and yet, for whatever reason, I just put it back on the shelf and moved on.  Still, while I might not have bought the book, those few brief moments of reading were enough for the text to leave an impact on my mind.  It's the sort of reaction any author wants their work to have if they wish to make it in the writing gig, no matter whether you're penning fiction or, in this case, a clear-cut work of real life biography.

In this case, Susanin appears to have scored a quiet, slow-burn bull's eye.  The memory of that book stuck around long enough for me to one day give a bit of an inward shrug, then try and see if I could pull any information about the book up online.  That's how I found out about the movie adaptation of the book.  I'd no sooner typed in the basic title of the biography before the Net informed me that they'd gone and made a movie out of it.  I can remember thinking, "Well that was fast".  Or at least I thought it was.  Turns out the book had been around since 2011.  It took about four to five more years before anyone showed an interest in bringing this small, unassuming work to any kind of screen.  Still, it looks like Susanin's book has one the cinema lottery, for lack of any better terms.  The result is the film under discussion here today.  Right now I have this kind of working theory about why the film even exists.  What it boils down to is that something tells me it's all an outcome of Diane Miller wanting to get at least something like this off the ground, and into any general release that would take it.  In other words, I think there's something the viewer should probably keep in mind as they head into this flick.  The entire thing could very well have been a labor of love before it was ever anything else.  Perhaps it's just something to remember along the way to finding out if Walt Before Mickey is any good or not.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

In some ways, this is a bit of an easy job.  In others, however, it's a lot more complex.  Writing about the work of a guy like Steven Spielberg is one of those topics that offers a multitude of places to begin.  It's one of those ironic blessings, inasmuch as you don't quite know just where to start.  Another challenge in writing about perhaps the major director of American cinema in the last four decades is how to figure out you avoid running over the same old ground?  One pitfall to keep in mind when  talking about Spielberg is just how easy he can make the critic's job.  One of the perks of becoming a brand name, or public institution is that it means its now possible for most for most commentators to phone it it all in, and not have to bother at all with giving a single amount of serious thought to the filmmaker, or the actual artistic work that has long since turned him into a household name.  It's the sort of trap I'd like to avoid, if I'm being anywhere near honest.  There are two interlinked reasons for this.  The first part of it has to do with the conviction that Spielberg's works do count as the product of a genuine artistic talent.  The second is the growing conviction that, in many ways, an actual, critical understanding of the director has yet to make its full appearance in terms of his cinematic efforts.

A lot of the reason for that last point stems from a stigma that has haunted the filmmaker ever since his early days.  Even today, critics still like to bash him with the label of Escapism, or popcorn entertainment.  The good news is that as the years have gone on, this attack has lessened a great deal over the years.  It's helped in no small part by two other factors.  The first is that what might be called "the critical consensus" has shifted over time to the point where Big Steve is able to enjoy a more favorable reception.  This has happened in no small part by the way both audiences and critics have shifted around over the years.  As of this writing, an entire generation of 80s kids, the original target demographic that made Spielberg famous, has come of age, and is now more or less in the driver's chair of pop-culture.  Since they're the ones on whom the director has left the biggest impact, it shouldn't be that much of a surprise to learn that his popularity and acclaim would sky-rocket as a result.  

The cynic, of course, would point to all this as an example of the bad taste of theater-goers, yet I maintain that view is a mistake, as it continues to give Spielberg's actual talents the short-shrift.  My problem with such a mindset is that it's coming from a perspective that has no real interest at all in finding out why this particular artist was able to carve his name in stone for all time.  My own consistent discovery is that this continued lack of curiosity on the part of a lessening minority stems from a fundamental disregard.  The kind of folks who still like to bash Spielberg for what he does, even today, all share one thing in common.  They're too suspicious of words like enchantment, even when the term is used in its proper context.  That's why I find the second reason for the director's continued fame to be so reassuring on some level.  The discontent with Spielberg's work has always been relegated to a dwindling minority opinion.  The real kick in the teeth is that while this negative reception has been thankfully small in number, for the longest time, it has been frustratingly influential, at least among those critics and pundits who consider themselves "The Real Film People".  It's a minor headache that both the director and audiences in general have had to put up with for what was the longest of times.

The good news, like I say, is that this disenchanted view of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or E.T. has continued to shrink, and is growing less with the passage of years.  Right now, the growing consensus opinion is that the films of Spielberg constitute a genuine contribution to the realm of American arts, and the director himself appears to be recognized as a legitimate artist in his own right.  That's all well and good.  Though there's still a lot to be done.  As of now, the greater work of in-depth, critical examination still remains to get off the ground.  The time will most likely come when the director's entire filmography will get its full and proper treatment.  Right now, all I can do here is provide a bit of a nudge in that direction, by trying to find the proper starting point for discussing just what kind of filmmaker Steven Spielberg is, and what he is up to with the film's that he likes to make.  For  now, I think the best thing to do would be to provide a kind of capsule biography of the artist, and then take a brief- deep-dive look into one of the film's that helped solidify his popular reputation.

When dealing with a figure like Spielberg, the first issue is to get as good a reading as possible of the growth of the artist's mind.  In his case, there were a hell of a lot of factors to take stock of.  The most important ones seem to hinge on two interlocking elements.  The first was the way his parents seem to have nurtured the young boy's Imagination.  The second is how their later divorce appears to have determined his entire career, including the particular stories that same Imagination would go on to tell.  The truth about Steve is that he was just this average, suburban kid.  He was born, perhaps fittingly, in the month of December, 1947 to a middle class household.  His parents were named Arnold and Leah, and by his own accounts theirs was this outwardly ordinary, almost Leave It To Beaver style existence.  

This appears to have been Spielberg's first big impression.  The relative comforts of the suburban neighborhood.  The funny thing is how this same basic setup has managed to prove a breeding ground for some of the best artistic voices out there.  In this way, it makes sense to claim that an important element of Steve's childhood growing up is that he was part of this almost informal, collective growing experience for nascent young storytellers.  Along with Arnie and Leah's kid, you had youngsters like Joe Dante, Dennis Muren, and John Carpenter who instead of, or in addition to the regular kids routines of games, sports, and mowing the lawn, would also carve out time for themselves devoted to pouring through the pages of curious periodicals, with titles like Analog, Tales From they Crypt, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Galaxy Magazine, or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  

In addition to personal quirks like this, these same groups of kids from all across the Eisenhower Era nation would schedule their lives so that they never missed an episode of TV shows like Flash Gordon, Tales of Tomorrow, John Ford Westerns, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or The Twilight Zone.  They were just a bunch of die-hard geeks is all.  It was that simple.  The first example of a pop culture mindset.

It's the kind of thing that happens all the time, really.  And to this day it remains as natural as it is puzzling, and sometimes downright inscrutable.  Such is the irony and nature of artistic creativity.  Spielberg might have been something of a minor, special case.  Where in most households of the time, if you wanted to hold on to your copies of Sci-Fi and Horror comics, you had to be extra careful to stash them out of sight of any and all grown-ups, less they soon make their way into the back of a garbage truck.  Such was the unofficial law of the pop-culture landscape in those days.  By contrast, young Steve appears to have won some kind of existential lottery.  He didn't just have the luck to grow up in a household that encouraged an interest in the arts, he also had a Dad who regularly bought copies of Analog home to read, both for himself, and to anyone else who was interested in that kind of thing, and this in turn served as one of the key bonds that were established between father and son,  He still had to find a way to sneak into the Horror pictures if they were showing at the local theater, though.

It was this bond between Arnie and his only boy that got put to the greatest test over the course of several decades, at least once Leah fell in love with someone else, and rather than let Steve grow up hating his mother, Arnold Spielberg apparently decided the best course of action was to leave in order to salvage something for the sake of a family that it seems he never really stopped caring for.  It is one of the central ironies in the growth of Steven Spielberg's creative mind, and it remains one of the key mainsprings of inspiration for him to this very day.  The other is the way his shared artistic interests (both between his parents, as well as future peers and collaborators such as Robert Zemekis and George Lucas) planted his imaginative leanings firmly on what has to be described as the Romantic side of the artistic spectrum, for better or worse.  His own strengths are still used as a cudgel against him on occasion today.  Though the good news is it doesn't happen quite as much as often.  The better news is also that most of these gibes have taken on a rote quality.  With any luck, these slurs are on the way out.

There was one early moment of influence in particular that happened to him when he was still just a kid.  Even at the time it was happening, when he was maybe no more than five or six years old, it's as if Spielberg still managed to recognize that the event had at least some kind of base level influence on both his way of thinking, and in particular, his Imagination.  As a result, it was a lot more than just the kind of circumstance that turns out to be important in retrospect.  Even as a kid, the future director was smart to realize this was going to leave some kind of an impact.  One of the legacies of the moment I'm thinking of, is that it lead to the creation of films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Nemo: A Screenplay by Ray Bradbury (2012).

A while back I devoted a good bit of digitized ink to what I thought was going to be a biography of pioneer comics artist Winsor McCay.  For a moment, it almost looked like I would be able to give a glorified book report on the career and artistry of a crucial name in the field of the graphic novel.  The best part is that it all appeared set up to tell McCay's story in the very format which he himself helped to create and make famous.  For guys like him, you can't get much of a better tribute than to have your achievements told and illustrated in one of the most recognizable artistic formats of the age.  That's why it was kind of a shame to realize that's not the kind of book I was reading, and McCay is no closer to getting the kind of recognition he deserves.  Rather than unveiling the life story of one of the greatest contributors to the field of comics as a genuine form of art, all we got was a third-rate pulp adventure yarn with a real life illustrator tacked on to it for some damn reason I'll probably never be able to figure out.  If you ask me, the whole thing was not just a waste of valuable time and effort.  It also means that the world as a whole still doesn't know, and is in danger of forgetting about the efforts of a genuine ground breaker.

As of this writing, Google Trends reports that just about 30 to 40% of people in America know who Winsor McCay is, or why he should be regarded as anything like a famous person.  His prospects gets a bit better once you expand the picture to take in his global reputation as a whole.  That still leaves him as an obscure name in his own country.  If there's one thing a blog like this is dedicated towards, its unearthing the artistic names and glories of days past.  And right now it seems like old, Winsor McCay is just such a name in need of a critical revitalization.  Right now, the best place I can offer as a start would be to sort of repeat what I've already said about the artist in my earlier review.

"For every Henry James, or J.R.R. Tolkien, you have figures like McCay, whose life reads like a diary with several key pages either ripped or burned out.  Sometimes this can be a deliberate move on the part of the biographer's subject, the perceived need for some sort of ill-defined privacy being felt as paramount over all other considerations.  The irony being that such moves betray a lack of understanding of human nature, as that sort of behavior will always just tend to invite speculation about who the subject was behind closed doors.  In such cases, I'm afraid the historical personage has no one except themselves to blame.  They're always guilty of the old adage observed by P.T. Barnum years ago.  "There's a sucker born every minute".  Sometimes, however, the lack information comes less from deliberate obfuscation, and more through accidental neglect or circumstance.  The latter seems to be the case with Little Nemo's creator.  A lot of McCay's family and early history has had to be pieced together not because no one wanted any dirty laundry aired.  Instead, it's due to the simple fact that all the helpful public records which could help fill in the gaps have been poorly kept over the passage of years.

"This has meant that all of his biographers have had to resort to the worst case scenario of speculation, based on what little resources are available.  As a result, all that anyone can do is guess that maybe his family emigrated to the U.S. from Canada, where they soon managed to settle in the suburbs of Michigan, I think!  Winsor's father, Robert, might have been part of a Masonic lodge at one point.  Or at least that's one possibility.  I'm not real sure, and neither is anyone else.  There's so little to go on, that's the problem, you see.  I will admit that if this is the case, then it does at least offer the critic one place to begin in terms of trying to figure out where the artist's early imaginative influences came from.  If Rob McCay was a Mason, then he might have helped spur his son's imagination into life by regaling him with information about the meaning of Masonry, and the history and folklore behind all the symbols and imagery associated with this movement.  Of course, you could also go further and surmise that another reason we know so little about McCay's early life is because his dad helped instill his son with the same Masonic tendency for secrecy and silence regard personal matters, except for or to any possible fellow initiates, and other Masons.  However, that I know is little more than pure speculation on my part, and it doesn't really provide any answers, one way or the other.

"It's just as good an example of the kind of challenges you have to expect whenever tackling the life of Winsor McCay as a subject.  For instance, it is possible that Winsor never knew just how old he was, because he never knew his date of birth.  Nor have any reliable birth records ever been found that could help settle things.  As far as McCay was concerned, he might have been born in the 1860s, or as late as the 1880s.  He just never seems to have found out, and scholars theorize that part of the reason for this is because a series of fires that helped destroy a lot of public records over the years in Michigan might have help cut critics and biographers off forever from a lot of useful information.  As a result, a usable portrait of the artist as a young child is hard to come by.  His family is said to have settled in Edmore, Michigan, where he was born.  Beyond that the rest is a blank slate, the kind that nature abhors, and so the imagination of the critic tries to fill it in.  In my mind's eye, I just have this very stereotypical image of Winsor McCay as this young, tow-headed kid, all by himself in a field, drawing dust doodles in the dirt of the family farmyard.  The very picture itself is practically an archetype, one meant to suggest a general idea, rather than the facts of an individual real life.  The funny thing is I find myself wanting to stick with this Romantic image of the young McCay as living the life of this quasi-solitary, hayseed dreamer.  It might not be the whole truth, yet perhaps there's an element of the truth in it somewhere.

All this is just to give an idea of how many gaps there are in the record of an actual life, especially when it comes to the vital question of what sort of artistic influences might have helped inspire the inner landscape of McCay's mind.  It's frustrating as hell, yet I'd also be lying if I didn't admit the odd sense of fitness about the whole thing.  It grants both McCay and his most famous creation this lingering air of mystery, like they're both hieroglyphs from a long forgotten language that we've lost the key to deciphering.  It may be a hassle, yet it's also the kind you don't really mind, as that too has the ring of artistic appropriateness about it.  It can still be a headache, on occasion, though.  Let's take, for instance, the work that made him famous.  If Winsor McCay is known for anything nowadays, then it's for the creation of a long-running newspaper strip known simply as Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Now, for the record, I can't tell whether or not McCay was the first graphic artist to try his hand at a concept like this.  What I do know for certain is that he remains most well known for his efforts to translate the ideas of dreams in the comic strip format.  Indeed, a good way to describe a series like Slumberland is that it amounts to a kind of fictionalized version of what's now known as a dream diary.  The major difference is that it's hard to tell which of the dreams are based on real REM sleep experiences, and which are made up, and it's all told in what remain some of the most surreal, and creative visual landscapes that ever been set down on paper.  The character of Nemo, and his adventures in his own world of dreams seems to have been something like a natural outgrowth of a previous creation, Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend.  This was the strip in which McCay initially tried to see if it was possible to describe the contents of dreams and dreaming within a newspaper comics panel.

"The strip had no continuity or recurring characters, but a recurring theme: a character has a nightmare or other bizarre dream, usually after eating a Welsh rarebit—a cheese-on-toast dish. The character awakens in the closing panel and regrets having eaten the rarebit. The dreams often reveal unflattering sides of the dreamers' psyches—their phobias, hypocrisies, discomforts, and dark fantasies. This was in great contrast to the colorful fantasy dreams in McCay's signature strip Little Nemo, which he began in 1905. Whereas children were Nemo's target audience, McCay aimed Rarebit Fiend at adults (web)".  It makes sense, in other words, to see this now somewhat obscure predecessor as a test-run for the now more famous series.  The slow development of this idea was one of those cases of artistic serendipity.

In his book-length study on the history of animation, Wild Minds, critic and scholar Reid Mitenbuler devotes a few pages of his work to McCay, and makes sure to cite him as one of the main inspirations for the Golden Age of Animation.  A lot of it, as he notes, was down to his breakout success with the Nemo comic strip.  Mitenbuler writes: "The strip first appeared in 1905, six years after Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, which helped launch a popular obsession with the psychology of the (unconscious, sic).  Once people read the book, they couldn't stop talking about their dreams and the notion that ideas and feelings might exist in a realm somewhere between magic and reality.  McCay explored similar territory in his comic strip, playing with the familiar tropes of dreamscapes: falling through space, drowning, moving slowly while everything else around you moves quickly.  Each week, his characters floated around outer space on milkweed seeds, on beds that acted like flying carpets, or in ivory coaches pulled by cream colored rabbits.  These fantasies were always rudely interrupted by reality - falling off the flying bed and waking up in a real bed, or being jolted awake by a voice telling you it was all a dream.  Adults enjoyed Little Nemo in Slumberland because it helped them reconnect to their childhood minds; for youngsters, it was a bridge to their blossoming adult minds (6)".

The result of all this artistry was a brief span of time, in which McCay's creations were seen decorating the surfaces of lunch boxes, greeting cards, candies, and even several stage adaptations.  Perhaps the biggest moment in Nemo's career is when he and several of his Slumberland friends were brought to life in vivid color animation.  It was a pioneer moment in the history of film in general, and of animation in particular.  McCay wanted to make a quick demonstration to audiences that this new form of storytelling was quite capable of producing genuine works of art.  Not too long after, individuals like Walt Disney and Chuck Jones would go on to prove him right.  While animation has found its place in the Sun during the intervening years, the great irony is that one of the artists who helped give it shape has since been neglected by the very art form he helped shepherd into a creative reality.  Perhaps the real irony is that if Winsor McCay and his drawings have any reputation left, then its in the realm of animators and graphic novelists and illustrators.  The rest of the world hardly knows about him.

The punchline here is that it was the very same format of the animated film which might have helped play a role in helping his name slip further through the cracks of popular memory.  So far, there's been just one attempt at a film adaptation of Winsor's most notable creation.  That would have to be Tokyo Movie Shinsha's 1989 production of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.  The best way to describe that film these days is to think of it as one of the many old school releases that would appear seemingly out of nowhere, get touted as the next big thing, and then disappear down the memory hole after a year or two had gone by, except for perhaps a few snippets of film clips that manage to be ephemeral enough to make you wonder if it was real, or did you just imagine it?  This was the quasi-ironic fate of a lot of major studio films back in the day.  Looking back on them now, it's clear they were made with great expectations, and yet even those that did well on initial release have managed to leave not so much as a blip on popular culture.  The other films that fit this kind of flash-in-the-pan phenomenon that I can recall off the top of my head, would be stuff like Terms of Endearment, or Fried Green Tomatoes.

It seems like just a handful from that free-floating, early late period of Hollywood history have been able to leave much of any mark of impact (and here I am thinking of small yet stable efforts such as Field of Dreams and The Fugitive).  There were probably more, yet they all fade into the fog of early adulthood.  TMS's Nemo adaptation was one of the names on the half-forgotten list.  Unlike the Costner and Harrison Ford films, this one had the bad luck not to catch anyone's interest.  Where other animated fare from that period, such as Cats Don't Dance, are starting to build up a cult reputation, no one seems to remember or care much about the one single attempt at bringing McCay to the screen.

The funny thing is that one of few people who might have cared enough to take a stab at writing one of the many screenplays for this adaptation was a pulp novelist by the name of Ray Bradbury.  By that point in time, as is still the case today, Bradbury's star had continued rising to the point where the former pulp magazine scribbler had become a world-renowned author who had summarily eclipsed McCay, along with a host of others, in the public consciousness.  In a way, this may be the best possible explanation for why Ray decided to take a stab at adapting the Nemo comic for the big screen.  You see, like all artists, Bradbury was very much the product of his influences, and one of them just so happened to be Winsor McCay.  Like many kids growing up in the early 20th century, Ray would encounter Nemo and his imaginary friends in the newspapers that were either delivered to his family doorstep, or else found in the drugstore racks of his local neighborhood.  In fact, Bradbury has gone out of his way in numerous interviews over the years to point out just how important the Golden Age newspaper comics were in helping him to develop his own voice as an author, and McCay was a major part of it.

If Ray was ever as dedicated a reader as he claimed to be (and there seems no reason to doubt this) then it makes sense that he's the type of bookworm who takes an interest in the audience's awareness of the art they consume, and how much of an interest they may take in a lot of these more obscure yet influential creators who have shaped the modern landscape of entertainment, and then been forgotten about.  It just makes sense to me that it was a combination of feeling like a debt was owed to an artistic father figure, and a desire to see if he could revive McCay's reputation by adapting the Nemo strip, that Ray found himself signing on to try and pen a hopefully acceptable script that would help keep the memory of Slumberland alive.  What the actual content of that script is, how good are its final results, and its ultimate fate are what we're here to talk about today.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Pinocchio (2022).

This shouldn't take long.  At least I can't see that there's any reason to waste much time on a subject like this.  Part of the reason for thinking so is because we're dealing with a topic that has been explored (some would even say done to death) by a lot of others who have better patience in dealing with this than me.  By now, I'm sure most of us are familiar with whatever in hell the Disney Company thinks its doing with its seemingly endless series of live-action remakes of its entire animated film catalogue.  Like everyone else here, I haven't got a clue as to why they would feel the need to do any of this.  Also, like a lot of others, I do occasionally wonder just what this odd, downward streak says about the studio's ability to make good art in the coming years.  

Right now, it's like they seem committed to charting a course on the fastest downward slope they can manage to find.  It's puzzling, because that is the last thing to do if you want to be a success in showbiz.  I don't have any good explanation for this.  All I know is that the latest live-action offering is a remake of one of the studios trademarks films.  This is one that really helped put Walt and his animators on the map way back in the day.  It's gone on to be classic, which makes what the studio is doing to it now, after all these years, all the more of an annoying head-scratcher.  And so it goes.  If there's any upshot to a film like this, then maybe it's this.  What we're dealing with is a product that is very easily disposable.  If it's small comfort for change, at least no one has to lose any sleep over it.