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.