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.