Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Wolves in the Walls (2003)

'These are the days of miracle and wonders
This is the long-distance call.
The way camera follows us in slow-mo,
The way we look to us all - Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble.

Where do fairy tales come from?  It a question that takes a certain frame of mind to even bother asking.  By and large, most of us never bother with such a thought.  One doesn't have to be at or near the years of the cradle in order to have such curiosity, yet it does take a certain frame of mind.  The fairy tale itself is, without doubt, perhaps the closest we will ever get to defining the oldest possible form of storytelling.  The question of defining the term is never easy.  It's made all the more difficult by the fact that the fairy tale itself has existed under several different names, and has been able to encompass more than one genre form in its history.  At the beginning of things (or at least as close as anyone has been able to get) they were often described as myths.  It's a phrase whose usage can be attested to even in the writings of ancient philosophers like Plato or Aristotle.  Later, when there began to be enough odd souls left around for an actual analytical curiosity to develop about the subject, all the myths were slowly compiled together over the ages.  When enough tall tales of gods, immortals, heroes, and otherworldly creatures had been gathered together from several cultures, these curious readers made several interesting discoveries.

The first was that all the differing cultures of the world had their myths.  The second was the unaccountable fact that so many myths, told by differing storytellers who never had the opportunity to meet one another, somehow managed to craft different fables with a surprising amount of narrative similarities.  Why this should be is a puzzle that no one bothers about very much, except for a similar small handful, to this very day.  The upshot, however, is that once all the tales had been compiled, the term folklore was used to designate them.  This stems from the fact that there was a time when storytelling was a common thing done by an actual majority of the folk of any given culture.  It was the mythology they used to explain who they were, what they were, and the meaning of their own lives.  The fact that the average person on the street would be surprised such things were even possible once upon a time says a lot about how much things have changed.

The best answer to the question of where do fairy tales come from is also the simplest.  The imagination put them there.  It's accurate so far as it goes, yet it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the topic.  It takes more than just a single article on a blog to answer that question.  All I can do is to take the problem one story at a time.  I do know that one, if not the only reason fairy tales came into existence was as an explanation for or a way of coping with a sense of threat.  Many of the first folktales originated in primitive hunter-gathering cultures in a time when everyone lived in the forest, and we lived almost nowhere else, because in a sense, there was no other place to go.  It was you, the world around you, and the  animals and fellow inhabitants you had to share it all with.  There wasn't even such a thing as Broadband, difficult as it is to conceive now.  Living with animals is really just another way of saying living with predators.  Part of the reason so many tales originated around a campfire is because it was one of the easiest ways of our ancestors to guarantee at least a small amount of safety for themselves in the watches of the night, when the eyes began to peer out of trees and thickets.

The animals of the woods would be drawn to the fire just like moths.  The  fireflies were the only ones daring enough to come right up to the flames, however.  The rest had an instinctive realization of fire, and the kind of damage it could do, and so kept a wary distance.  It didn't make the hunger, and therefore the threat, go away though.  Perhaps that's one of the reasons the more industrious of those ages soon began to contemplate an idea that eventually became indoor housing.  It might have solved a few concerns and safety issues.  However it was still a long time before the wolves no longer lingered at the door, clawing, scratching, and waiting for a chance, or a weak spot to get in.  I mention all this because in some ways it is those same primitive concerns that form at least one aspect of the title under discussion here today.

Neil Gaiman is still no stranger to the world of pop-culture as of this writing.  At the time the current book was written, he had already made a name for himself with such titles as The Sandman, Neverwhere, and American Gods.  At some point during all of that, he manged to become the father of a family.  He'd married into an American household, and his wife Mary still had relations she was very fond of and close to.  That meant sooner or later, Gaiman would have to knuckle under and move out to the States in order for her to be close to the people she loved.  The place Gaiman settled his family down was way out in the the near-wilderness of Minnesota.  It was this move to a new home that first brought the Wolves to Gaiman's attention.  He talked about it at some length to Hayley Campbell in her book about the author.

"We were living in a house that definitely had things in the walls.  I live in that house now, but lots of rebuilding has happened and the inside and the outside are a little more discrete, but back then there were bats in the walls, possibly rats in the walls, definitely mice in the walls.  And you would hear them.  They would scritch and they would scratch (250)".  There's a minor yet puzzling gap in the recollection here.  The good news is it can be filled in with the help of Hank Wagner's and Christopher Golden's brief account of the storybook's creation in their multi-part study, Prince of Stories.  According to Wagner and Golden, the whole thing got started by "Neil and Mary Gaiman's younger daughter Maddy, whose nightmares about hearing...scratching...within their home's walls inspired this book (355)".  It's from here that Gaiman is able to fill in the rest of the narrative.

"I went upstairs and heard crying coming from the bedroom.  And at that time (Maddy) was still sharing a bedroom with me and Mary.  She had her own little bed down in the corner of it, but she was asleep in my bed.  And she woke up.  She was crying.  I said "What's wrong?"  She said, "The wolves came out of the walls, they took over the house!  I had to run away from them!"  I said, "It's okay, it was just a dream."  She said, "It wasn't a dream.  I can prove it."  And I said, "How will prove it?"  She said, "I can show you the place in the wallpaper they came out from."  So she showed me the place in the wallpaper they came out from.

"Over the next few days she was still deeply worried about the wolves in the walls.  And I would tell her little stories in which she and I would take on the wolves in the walls, and we would win once they came out of the house.  They were definitely wolf-battling stories.  After a while she stopped worrying that the wolves were going to come out of the walls and I thought, "This is such a story.  This is so awesome (250)".  Gaiman had already published a previous illustrated book for young readers with longtime collaborator Dave Mckean when his daughter gave him the inspiration for a follow-up.

Campbell continues: "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish had come out the previous year, so Gaiman was now a writer of children's books, and he sat down to write what would become The Wolves in the Walls.  Afterward, he looked at his two thousand words and decided they were "really lifeless and really dull" and contained none of the vibrancy of the thing in his (or Maddy's) head.  "So I went away and thought about it a bit.  And one day I was walking home and I suddenly thought, 'When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over'.  And I knew the rhythm of that.  And knowing that, I thought, Okay, I know what the rest of this sounds like.  I think I have a tone of voice (250-1)".  That just leaves three questions to be answered.  What does the tone of voice have to say.  Is there anything the voice has worth saying?  The most important question is what does the voice mean?

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Animaniacs (1995-99): A Retrospective

It all happened a long time ago.  The way it started was more like something out the corner of the eye.  All I knew at first is that I was watching TV.  The channel must have been tuned to one of those old children's television networks such as Nickelodeon, or something like it.  I know that was the station I watched most often back during the year 1994.  I can't remember what show I was watching, however, which probably says something about its quality (or lack thereof), unless it doesn't.  At one point during a commercial break, this very odd cartoon promo pops up.  I remember it was the Warner Bros. logo, and that there something off about it.  It's colors were muted and somewhat distorted.  There was this trio of strange, grinning, black and white animal characters that poked their heads out of the logo.  From there the commercials was a blur of almost surreal looking images.  I saw a series of shots of the characters as they capered around the screen.  I can't recall exactly what those actions were now, except to call them the standard basic tropes you'd associate with a cartoon character.  What I remember most of all is the strange shades of dark reds and blues that the characters and the whole background scenery were drawn in.

I hadn't a clue what I was looking at.  All I was told is that it was a TV spot for a new theatrical short.  It had the simple title of I'm Mad.  I think I also remember the commercial telling me it was produced by Steven Spielberg, or something like that.  Anyway, it came and went.  I was left puzzled for a few brief moments, and that was it.  I never saw it in theaters and it's possible the whole thing would have slipped my memory, except as one of those vague and ill-defined images of some lost event that either may have happened to you, or else you just imagined it.  It occurs to me now that the second run in I had with the figures in that commercial happened perhaps less than a year later.  Enough time had gone by so that it was no longer on my mind.  However, the event was still fresh enough so that when the second encounter happened, there was just enough memory left over to give things an air of familiarity.  It was a sense of, "Oh yeah, I've seen you before.  Who are you again"?

I encountered the figures from I'm Mad for the second time as illustrations decorating a Happy Meal box.  There were the same three figures, still looking as if they'd strolled right out of a 1930s Max Fleischer cartoon.  The difference was that now I slowly began to learn their names.  They were about what could expect from characters drawn the way they were.  In addition to this, I was also shown a number of other characters I hadn't seen before.  There were a duo of mice who claimed they were bent on world domination.  Also I recall a trio of pigeons known as the "Goodfeathers".  The complete and total irony of that discovery means that I knew the parody of a Martin Scorsese film long before I even knew it existed.  Hell, I didn't even know who Scorsese was at this point in my then very young life.  It is just possible I learned about one of the best filmmakers of the modern age from that Happy Meal box.

They say that third time's the charm, and I guess that must have happened in my case.  Because the third encounter I had with these figures was the one that reeled me in.  The theatrical short was the hook, and the Happy Meal was the line.  The sinker came in the form of channel surfing out of pure boredom and running into the same three figures again.  This time they were busy giving the Queen of England a headache as she tried to re-build Windsor Castle.  It sounds like something out of an old Looney Tunes feature and that's pretty much what it was.  These three characters (who I then learned were siblings), all displayed actions that hearkened back to an entire era of filmmaking.  From there, I started to track down where I could watch more of the show they were in.  I got lucky in finding out which channel carried them, and the rest is more or less what I'm here to talk about.