Friday, July 31, 2020

The Elusive Bear and the Vine to Clouds

Who remembers Bongo the Bear? Who remembers 1947's Fun and Fancy Free, Disney's ninth animated feature? Keeping it in my brain is kind of a struggle. It's a struggle to remember when it was first released on DVD in 2000 and I remember at the time a lot of people saying, "What is this thing?" No-one remembered it. Forgetting Bongo is understandable. More surprising is that most people don't remember the other half of the movie, Mickey and the Beanstalk, which stars Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. There are a few reasons this film slides through the cracks in one's brain. Though one of the 1940s' series of anthology films, its two parts were too long to be put in regular rotation like the shorts from Make Mine Music and Melody Time. And unlike The Three Caballeros and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, it's just plain dull. To say why exactly may be to examine the eternal mystery of storytelling but I think there are some clear explanations, too.

Bongo has a lot in common with Dumbo, being about a mistreated circus animal who doesn't speak, in fact there was some initial thought about making it a sequel or spin-off. But the similarities make it very easy to see why Bongo falls short of Dumbo's greatness; Bongo the Bear isn't as vulnerable as Dumbo, for one thing.

He looks like a cub but he behaves like an adult, having the wherewithal to abscond from the circus when he takes it into his head to go back to nature. His story also lacks characters to be his friends and foes in the circus--the only voice we hear throughout is Dinah Shore who narrates and occasionally voices the characters' thoughts, much like Bing Crosby in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow segment of Ichabod and Mr. Toad or Nelson Eddy in The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met. Those shorts show you can have a range of characters in this format, though they may not be as filled out as the supporting characters in Dumbo or Bambi. But it's perfectly adequate if it's the kind of story to support it but, despite Dinah Shore's talent, Bongo isn't that kind of story.

Bongo himself is just too ill-defined. Mickey and Donald can be childlike but we know, at the end of the day, they're adults. The ambiguity is a problem for Bongo as we try to get a grasp on just how ready he is for this adventure he sets out on. We worry about Snow White running frightened through the woods because we know she's a teenager being cast out of everything she knows. We know Bongo didn't like life in the circus but we have no concept of his social group, his family and his friends. Considering how important family is in Disney's normal features, this is a particularly surprising omission.

He meets a female bear and the two have an extended, surreal love sequence where they fly about in clouds and swim through floating waterfalls accompanied by bear cherubs. In terms of design it's fascinating to watch though I wonder if at this point Disney was starting to realise this kind of thing doesn't connect with children as well as it does adults. But Bongo's love interest is even less substantial than himself. When a rival is introduced and the idea of bears slapping each other to show affection, the tension brings the story some life but never quite enough to support the whole.

Another problem with Fun and Fancy Free is that its two framing devices collide and start to make the movie feel cluttered. Bongo is introduced by Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), amusingly fiddling with a record player and talking to a doll and teddy bear. But after Bongo, Jiminy hops over to the live action neighbour's house where Edgar Bergen is entertaining Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and a little girl (Luana Patten). Jiminy is relegated to an occasional sight gag as he tries to remain hidden while the four live action characters narrate Mickey and the Beanstalk.

Bergen's pretty funny and Charlie McCarthy in particular gets some good cracks in. Bergen's voice for Mortimer Snerd is distractingly similar to Goofy, voiced by Pinto Colvig. Both are based on the same vaudevillian stock character of the placid, dumb white southerner, but Goofy has a pretty small role in the film.

But the cluttered narration of four characters, three voiced by the same guy, almost dominate the story. Donald Duck (Clarence Nash) breaks through in a few spots, especially when he loses his cool at the dinner table, but the film fails well short of its intended goal of rejuvenating Mickey (voiced by Walt Disney) as a star. The animation is good and the trademark Disney fairy tale design is there but the only lasting impression is made by Willie the Giant (Billy Gilbert), who's much more familiar to audiences as the Ghost of Christmas Past in Mickey's Christmas Carol.

There's not much space for tension to build as Mickey, Donald, and Goofy rescue a magic singing harp (Anita Gordon) from the giant's clutches. There's more substance here than in Bongo but by the end you're still left with a feeling like you were served pizza without any toppings, including cheese and tomato sauce.

Fun and Fancy Free is available on Disney+.

Comic Con at Comic Con

Here's the recently deceased Congressman John Lewis when I saw him at Comic Con in 2016. As I recall, he was actually involved with a comic of some kind. I certainly wasn't expecting to see him, though I had by that point come to expect the unexpected at Comic Con.

The Comic Con at Home experiment ended last week and it's generally being seen as unsuccessful. Views on YouTube for most panels were under 20,000, far less than the number who actually attended the Con and well under the usual number of views generated by YouTube posts of the event. Nothing beats actually being there, or even vicariously being there. So to-day I thought I'd post a list of experiences I had at the Con that could never be simulated online.

Twin Peaks 2017 Panel

2017 was the year Twin Peaks came back and that will always be a high watermark in my life. And one of the highlights of that was watching the premiere of Season 3, Episode 11 with a room full of Twin Peaks fans and several castmembers. Of course, for other fandoms there, there were equivalently exciting events.

Randomly Meeting Talented Celebrites

Guillermo Del Toro gave me permission to take the photo when I randomly ran into him in a bookstore on the main floor. Too bad it came out so blurry. This was in 2015, right after I saw his panel for Crimson Peak, and it was a pleasure to be able to honestly tell him how fantastic I thought the movie looked.

The 2014 NASA Panel

Saying you watched Buzz Aldrin on YouTube is a lot different from saying you were in the same room with Buzz Aldrin. Anyway, a video gives you one perspective on an experience. When a thousand eyes and ears are transcribing the experience, each in their own way, some of them only privately, it's a very different thing.

Talking to Great Comic Artists

Thanks to Comic Con, I've met both Jaime and Gilbert (pictured) Hernandez, Gerald Brom, Gary Gianni, and many more. It's great to be able to show your appreciation (Brom told me how lonely an experience his work could be) and also get some insights into their work process.

The Cinema Makeup School Creatures

The main floor of Comic Con is filled with a diverse array of amazing talent and spectacle. One of my annual favourites was the Cinema Makeup School which unleashed a different astonishing creation on the crowd every year.

Comic Con Taking Over Downtown San Diego

The Con's been too big for the convention centre for a long time. Panels were held in the library and in hotels and businesses all over downtown held their own events and genre related promotions. For a few weeks every year, downtown San Diego became Comic Con.

The 2011 Twixt Panel

Few events are comparable to watching one of the greatest filmmakers alive, Francis Ford Coppola, experiment with a new style of filmmaking--one he obviously didn't end up pursuing, but still--and actually edit a short film in real time response to crowd reaction. It was a singular experience but also part of the atmosphere of experimentation and creative freedom to be found at the Con.

Seeing Original Frank Frazetta Paintings Up Close

Also in 2011, Robert Rodriguez announced he was going to remake Ralph Bakshi's Fire and Ice and, to promote the film, or really, to use the promotion as an excuse, he gave everyone in the Hall H crowd a ticket to view a selection of actual Frazetta paintings in a gallery across the street. Seeing the paintings up close I saw the colours as Frazetta meant them to be seen and I realised how muted they are in typical reprints.

Striking Up Conversations With Cool Weirdos in the Queue with You

How many lengthy conversations about art and music have I had with total strangers who felt like old friends who I also never saw again? It was part of the weird community feeling of Comic Con.

Meeting Talented Indie Artists

(Pictured art by Danni Shinya Luo) I've meet so many talented artists, writers, and creators in Artist Alley and areas for web comics and independent publishers. Especially now that many of the sites that made it easy to find new works from such creators are gone, actually wandering amongst them in person was always a pleasantly eye opening experience.

That's just a few of the experiences you can have in person and you'll notice I didn't even mention buying merchandise.

Twitter Sonnet #1379

A proper trade commenced before the bean.
Another vine produced the vital bulk.
The label foists the mind of something mean.
Without their shades the crew invade the hulk.
Prescription paste repaired the pointy teeth.
Amazing currents wash the drifting hull.
A splintered keel could scratch the sand beneath.
Description failed the circling, watching gull.
The final dressing drooped across the fork.
Prepared for salad days, the night intrudes.
As kings recall a former Duke of York.
A quiet swap of seats the slow excludes.
Converging rapid movements make the shape.
Rewound, we're falling back inside the tape.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Playing Right Into Sartana's Hands, One Last Time

Of all the official Sartana movies, the last one has the fewest gimmicks. 1970's Light the Fuse . . . Sartana is Coming (Una nuvola di polvere... un grido di morte... arriva Sartana "Cloud of dust... cry of death... Sartana is coming" finds the preternatural Spaghetti Western hero at his least preternatural. People even get the drop on him a few times. It does wonders for the level of tension in the film but, lest you worry the man in black and red has lost his touch, he still does plenty of satisfyingly impossible things.

He actually gets worked over in the beginning of the film by a bunch of guards after he's turned himself in for killing some deputies. Naturally, it's all part of the plan but it's still surprising to see. It has something like the effect of Sanjuro being worked over in Yojimbo, something previous Spaghetti Westerns took a lesson from to great effect. When you establish a guy as being such an impossibly skilled fighter, the perfectly credible circumstance of him being caught and having to pay for being such a smug bastard is truly shocking. Of course, it works better if you never actually say he's invincible. Superman getting hit by Kryptonite can be effective but somehow not as effective as Sanjuro or The Man With No Name or Navajo Joe getting the treatment, I guess because the movie has more subtly lulled you into not expecting something perfectly plausible.

But Sartana (Gianni Garko) is free again before twenty minutes have elapsed in the film's run time. He got himself caught so he could spring a guy named Granville (Piero Lulli). So unfolds a particularly complex plot of double crosses and violence as Granville tells Sartana a story about a casino owner who murders two thieves after he agrees to mediate for them when they decide to trade a load of counterfeit bills for a pile of gold.

Both caches of ill gotten goods are sought after by various parties including a cool as ice sheriff (Massimo Serato) and a beautiful widow named Belle (Nieves Navarro).

But my favourite is General Monk (Jose Jaspe), a big, wild eyed bandit leader who always wears a red and beige military coat with huge epaulettes over his bare chest.

It's a solid film. The plot hardly matters--it's really all about watching Garko strut around in his hat and cowl, showing off new moves and gadgets to win gunfights in improbable ways.

Light the Fuse . . . Sartana is Coming is available on Amazon Prime.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A Refuge from the Rainy World is a Land

I can only dream of the splendour contained within the walls of Hotel Land Land. I noticed this place when I walked to the mall last week. I glanced over and there it was, an art nouveau anachronism across an unassuming field of green.

According to the web site, under 18 aren't permitted to stay. I guess it's a Love Hotel. Only 6,000 to 10,000 yen, or around 60 to 100 dollars, a night. Not bad. The description from the website, translated by Google:

A dream world like a theme park is even more powerful! If you can see a volcano along the river, that is "HOTEL LAND LAND". The impact is even bigger when you enter the hall! There is a playful space full of curiosity. Five zones, such as princess, jungle, pirates, pharaoh, and cosmo, are a dream world like a theme park. The interiors that match each space were purchased by female owners both inside and outside Japan, and some were made to order.

Female owners, eh? That's progress!

I like the idea that any time you see a volcano along the river, then, magically, Hotel Land Land will appear.

I wish I had a good excuse to stay there. I wish it'd come up in my searches when my apartment wasn't ready yet back in March. But I guess Hotel Land Land chooses when it will be seen.

It's been hot and rainy lately. Here is a local bird doing his best to stay dry while hunting fish:

Monday, July 27, 2020

A Semblance of Creation

How do you weigh the value of freedom, the effectiveness of a leader, the spiritual enrichment of creativity? Andrei Takovsky's 1966 film, Andrei Rublev, about a real life mediaeval icon painter, shows how elusive answers can be when it comes to any of these topics. Tarkovsky's slow tracking shots, dispassionately revealing volatile dioramas, here dwell in a grim, grey, feudal landscape and in the shadows of an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. It's beautiful and eloquently invites the viewer to troubling contemplations.

A series of stories are presented in the same area over a period of 24 years. Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) generally seems to be a passive observer. Over the course of the three hour movie, he meets a jester (Rolan Bykov) who boldly mocks the ruling class--and is punished. He meets a group of naked pagans, a master icon painter, the young son of a bell maker, a young woman driven mad apparently by syphilis, and a Tatar invasion.

It's strange to see an action sequence in a Tarkovsky movie but it's an effective one. He switches between shots of masses in chaos to focused violence, employing creative compositions and sound, as when one young man is killed by the roadside and falls against a tree saw, the object making its peculiar song as the boy falls dying against it.

In one way or another, each story contemplates the value of human works and philosophy. The master icon painter, Theophanes (Nikolai Sergeyev) visits Andrei from beyond the grave after the Tatar invasion and, like Death in The Seventh Seal, can tell Andrei very little about the other side. But Theophanes does reiterate how beautiful are the icons Andrei painted.

The final episode follows Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), the son of the bellmaker, who joins a band of workers making a bell when he promises them his father has passed down the secrets of the art to only him. He's put in charge despite the incredulity of the workers when he asks them to find a certain kind of clay and then to avoid applying a second layer of it to a mould. It's not clear how much the boy is bullshitting but he's clearly bullshitting at least a little bit.

He's quite proud of himself for it, too, even ordering his friend to be whipped for defying him. But then it starts to torment him as the value of his actions seem to be either based on wild luck or something else. It's not hard to see what troubles him--if he can get away with this, what are other people getting away with?

Andrei Rublev is available on The Criterion Channel.

Twitter Sonnet #1378

At last returning guards relieve the field.
In glasses mashed against the nose we saw.
The tangled grass concedes a verdant yield.
With drops of gum we wrote another law.
A ventured question shows without a dot.
Discovered cakes commend the corner shop.
We whittled minds to think a single thought.
A stumble jump became a steady hop.
The tired cheese was lounging 'cross the bread.
Abundant noodles crammed beneath the teeth.
For pasta lips were painted cherry red.
The noodles make a weird and soggy wreath.
The boiled time reduced the steam about.
The longer day reduced the night to doubt.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Olivia de Havilland

What can I say about Olivia de Havilland, who passed away two days ago at the age of 104, that I haven't already said? On the occasion of her 100th birthday, in 2016, I wrote about her talent and accomplishments. Many articles about her talk about her landmark legal victory against Warner Brothers that set a precedent, changing the profession for all actors who followed her. She fought to get better roles and she got them and rose to the occasion.

Her fragile, layered performance in The Snake Pit is a strong portrait of madness. Her trajectory from guileless innocent to frightened recluse in The Heiress is extraordinary and heartbreaking. But her work in the 1930s, in Gone with the Wind and Captain Blood, are also fantastic. Her exceptional beauty was paired with warmth and sensitivity of spirit that any swashbuckler should be honoured to fight for.

She remains the definitive Maid Marian in the definitive Robin Hood. It may not have been the most demanding role of her career but few could've made it so memorable. Opposite her frequent costar Errol Flynn, she was part of a cast impeccably suited to their roles, also including Eugene Palette as Friar Tuck, Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Alan Hale as Little John, and Claude Rains as Prince John. These portrayals have shaped impressions of the characters ever since.

Obviously her death was inevitable but I'm sorry to see her go. Somehow knowing she was out there was a comforting reminder that a piece of old Hollywood was still alive. But we still have the movies.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

One Good Android Deserves Another

Whenever I watch The Androids of Tara, the 1978 Doctor Who serial, I wonder what would've happened if the king had been publicly revealed to be an android.

In the aesthetically mediaeval but technologically futuristic society, the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Mary Tamm) get mixed up in political intrigue partly because Romana happens to look exactly like a certain princess being held in a dungeon by the villainous Count Grendel (Peter Jeffrey).

And then there's another Romana lookalike, an android, who steps up to murder the king at the end of Part II, not knowing the "king" is in fact an android himself fixed up by the Doctor because Grendel has kidnapped the real one (Neville Jason). Life's complicated, isn't it? Everyone is shocked when the Doctor apparently bludgeons the princess with the king's sceptre and I admire the makers of the show for making this the cliffhanger of Part II. That means viewers had to wait a whole week to find out what really happened though I doubt anyone truly suspected the Doctor of murdering someone.

And then everyone in the courtroom is shocked by the idea that a royal could've been replaced by a counterfeit android--meaning the princess, of course--and the Doctor joins in in the general disgust at the idea of such a tactic being employed. But in doing the same, of course, he's only doing what he must because of Grendel's machinations. There are always reasons.

But just as obviously as the Doctor didn't murder someone, we know that the like methods being employed by both sides don't mean there can never be a real right side to be on. But you can certainly see how it would be tricky.

There's so much velvet in this serial. The Doctor's coat, the king's cherry red velvet coat at the end, and Romana's purple velvet attire. It's kind of a subtle joke that she puts it on in the beginning saying it's what everyone on Tara is wearing and we see absolutely no-one else wearing it. Well, except an android.

And I've written about it twice before already but it's worth saying again--what a great sword fight this serial has.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Of Wolves, Whales, and Fedoras

World War II continued to cut into Disney's budget so their eighth feature film in 1946 was another anthology film. Make Mine Music could also be seen as a jazz Fantasia, pairing imaginative and surreal animation with the music of Benny Goodman, Dinah Shore, The Andrews Sisters, Andy Russell, The Pied Pipers, and The Ken Darby Chorus. But also mixed in were classical numbers and shorts much more in line with Disney's comedy shorts. It certainly never reaches the ambitious heights of Fantasia or even the glorious hedonism of The Three Caballeros. But it's a nice collection of music videos.

It's also the first of Disney's animated feature films not to be included on Disney+. The reason isn't clear. It might be for the first segment, The Martins and the Coys, though this segment was edited out of an earlier DVD release so it's not clear why this couldn't have been done for Disney+. All of the segments in the film were later shone on television as standalone shorts and even in this format, even thoroughly tame shorts like Two Silhouettes, aren't available on Disney+.

Segments like Two Silhouettes, Blue Bayou, and Without You remind one of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger movies--in fact, Powell unsurprisingly was a great professed admirer of Disney. The gorgeous exercises in colour and design paired with music could've come right out of The Red Shoes or Tales of Hoffmann.

They do sit oddly beside other segments. Casey at the Bat, a parable about the folly of pride in the form of a conceited baseball player, is much like a Donald or Goofy cartoon, as is The Martins and the Coys.

Based loosely on the infamous 19th century Hatfields and McCoys feud, the short depicts two identical groups of bearded hillbillies (distinguishable by their shirt colours) massacring each other. This might indulge a bit in the stereotype of white American southerners as gun loving morons--interestingly, Song of the South was released the same year.

Once the dust settles, the last remaining Martin and last remaining Coy, a handsome young man and a beautiful young woman, fall in love. But fortunately, the short dodges a dull moral and shows the two resuming hostilities after marriage.

Most of the shorts have the simple colour palettes of 1950s Disney but The Martins and the Coys has some of the lush, painterly backgrounds of the likes of Bambi and Snow White.

All the Cats Join In, meanwhile, makes its unfinished look part of the story as animators' pencils desperately try to keep up with the horny bobbysoxers dancing to a lively Benny Goodman tune. The energy in this segment is terrific, though, and it's hard not to smile watching this kids rampaging.

The most disappointing segment is Peter and the Wolf. Based on Sergei Prokofiev's famous composition for children, its animated characters are amusing and filled with personality, particularly the bird, Sascha. But the tension in the story is dissipated at every turn. The wolf never feels like a genuine threat because every character's hilarious escape from his jaws is shown without hesitation.

The best two segments in the film, Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet and The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, succeed precisely where Peter and the Wolf fails.

With a serenade by The Andrews Sisters, we follow Johnny the anthropomorphised fedora as he seeks his mate, a feminine blue bonnet. Every problem that besets Johnny is credible and seemingly insurmountable. How can a hat impose enough control over his own existence to actually get where he wants to go? When he's blown by a gust of wind into the hands of a reckless drunkard and starts to become tattered, it's an effective source of anxiety. How can Johnny ever possibly recover himself, let alone Alice, now? That's real suspense and the story is very sweet.

And then there's the tragic whale voiced by Nelson Eddy--in all three uvulas. He's so big and weird and a little scary, particularly when he's playing Mephistopheles, which makes his simple hearted earnestness all the more effective. How can the impresario not see that the whale deserves the accolades? And yet his impression that there are in fact three opera singers trapped inside the whale does, on reflection, seem more credible. Alas for humanity unable to see the miracles before them.

Twitter Sonnet #1377

The lizard night collects the drops of heat.
Condensed in clouds the storm awaits a spark.
Its vapour coils round the mountain's seat.
In moments light defines the clean and stark.
The puzzle ponies lock from hoof to tail.
In seconds, rain concocts deluges neat.
We sat beside the cloud and filled the pail.
The absent drops yet tapped a steady beat.
The greens beyond your eyes beset your soul.
McDonalds' fries arrest the country mind.
A mushy burger melts and fills the bowl.
The story stars define the heaven's rind.
The cola query sent the Pepsi home.
The answers poured a "Coke" in bubble tome.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Good and Evil Battle in a Place That's Certainly Atlanta

A movie can't be saved by sheer quantity of movie stars. But 1979's insufferably dull The Visitor (Stridulum) has an extraordinary cast including John Huston, Shelley Winters, Glenn Ford, Mel Ferrer, Sam Peckinpah, Franco Nero, and Lance Henriksen. Despite their, if not best, certainly very good, efforts, this extraterrestrial Exorcist sinks under the inexperience of its director, Giullio Paradisi.

Prior to The Visitor, 46 year old Paradisi had directed two movies, one in 1970 and one in 1976, but he was well connected. He'd appeared as an actor in some of Fellini's best movies and seems to have endeared himself to a number of people in the international film community. Maybe it was his earnestness. It's kind of adorable how excited he clearly was to be shooting on location in Atlanta for The Visitor.

The film is crammed with establishing shots and especially tracking shots that turn from establishing shots to shots of one of the actors, confirming, yet again, yes, we really are in Atlanta. When Lance Henriksen makes love to his girlfriend, Barbara (Joanne Nail), in the chronically dashed hope of impregnating her with alien Satan, he does so with a POV shot showing Atlanta out the window.

It's reassuring how passive Henriksen and his secret society, headed by Mel Ferrer, are when it comes to getting a woman pregnant. Good thing these guys never saw Rosemary's Baby.

But Barbara already has one evil child, a pretty fair approximation of Linda Blair in the form of a young actress named Paige Conner.

She plays Katy, an obnoxious brat with a pet hawk. One reason this movie doesn't succeed like The Exorcist is that there's never a sense of normal life disrupted. Katy's already a jerk from the beginning, alternating between petulance and violence, including a birthday party where she shoots her mother with a pistol that somehow ends up among the presents.

How the pistol got there isn't terribly clear. It must have come from the Mel Ferrer consortium, I guess. Throughout the film, the cosmic forces presumably do battle mostly by strolling around looking smug, particularly John Huston.

He seems more or less to be God and is on hand through most of the film, at one point posing as Katy's babysitter. If he's God then Franco Nero is evidently Jesus, appearing in only two scenes, preaching to a classroom of bald children.

Who are are these kids? Angels? Who knows. It's difficult to care.

Glenn Ford is in the film too briefly as a detective who actually grounds the story somewhat as he tries to investigate the weirdness of Katy. But sadly for everyone he proves no match for Katy's little pet hawk.