Monthly Archives: September 2008

September 22, 2008

Ravel: Concerto in D major for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra

(Joseph) Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Concerto pour la main gauche, en ré majeur
composed: 1929-30 (ages 54-55)
first performance: Vienna, January 5, 1932 (Paul Wittgenstein, Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Robert Heger)

Not sure of the year here – might be 1928. Anyway, it’s around the right time. And just look at him! How could I pass up this photo?


There are those who criticize Ravel for his fastidiousness, who accuse him of being cold and artificial because of his craftsmanship – surely the same people who feel that the Coen Brothers’ movies are too attentive to craft to be heartfelt.

But we must give the dapper, sexless collector of automata his due.

Those who submit the criticism that hyper-rigorous craftsmanship is incompatible with sincere sentiment are those who listen for craft. A child is incapable of thinking this thing, about Ravel. A naive listener hears only what music conveys, not how it conveys it. Watching a movie while thinking about moviemaking opens you to pitfalls that do not lie in wait for the viewer who watches only for the story.

I am, at this stage of my life, capable of both modes of observation. But we must remind ourselves that it is not the artist’s fault if we are thinking about his workmanship. It should be a matter of principle that exquisiteness of craftsmanship is never a fault, no matter how gleaming to the eye that seeks it out. That eye must retrain itself not to be such an aficionado, and to be a mere enthusiast for a change.

I wrote a essay in metaphor on this theme, once, before the broomlet days, but I don’t know where it is now. The gist was that appreciating art analytically, with attention to the workings, is like the mechanical nightingale. One is tempted into replacing the real live nightingale of just enjoying things directly with the intricacies of the mechanical one, but, like the emperor, one eventually comes to need the original, which is both more commonplace and more mysterious.

I wobble back and forth over this line when I listen to Ravel. Sometimes I can picture the man smoothly bringing a cigarette to his mouth, sitting in his immaculate study with his pant legs crisply creased; but sometimes I can picture flowers in bloom, waterfalls, and so forth. My favorite subjects to picture while listening to Ravel are fish in aquariums, or trains traveling through fields, or snow seen through windows; i.e. the beauty of the natural world observed from within the comforts of civilization. The quintessential European worldview, yes? Mr. Ravel seems to have had equal affection for both the fish and the aquarium, in his music. I can relate to that and don’t see any reason to act superior to it. You should be so lucky as to have so fine an aquarium.

Someone who sits around all day perfecting his handwriting, but has nothing to write, is a nerd. Ravel was manifestly not a nerd. He happened to have excellent penmanship. Because his music is so thoroughly good, it provides us an opportunity to relish fine penmanship. And I relish it!

I don’t know what story we’re supposed to hear in this concerto – something about war? man’s struggle? is the pathos of Paul Wittgenstein’s one-handedness a subtext to the music? Thought: perhaps Prokofiev’s utter disregard for the pathetic-heroic implications of a one-handed concerto was what turned Wittgenstein off to his piece, which is actually quite excellent on its own terms. But as I say: I don’t know what story we’re supposed to hear in the Ravel, but I hear something bigger and better than just the spirit of man rising above war (or amputation).

The beginning to me is like some primordial wash, the same birth-out-of-the-misty-void that you get at the beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth or Das Rheingold or whatever else; the theme that grows out of it is imposing and impersonal. Most of the pianist’s material is a related spirit – he doesn’t sound to me like a protagonist, just a different mirror on the same impersonality. For the majority of the piece, we sit back and watch as grand and mysterious things happen; we are looking out the window at grandeur, at canyons and cliffs and nature booming – and in the middle section, at the dance of things in all its kooky ominous strangeness. The only real contrast in perspective comes with the timid, fragile second theme in the sad-fairy-tale mode. We are still observers but now we seem to have turned inward, to something private; the child within. The theme is almost too delicate to sustain itself in the face of the other material when it first appears. In the cadenza at the very end, the climax and heart of the piece arrives when the childlike theme is finally given the space to breathe and show itself… but then it must fall gracefully back below the waves for good, because nature is undeniable; the canyons and cliffs rise up again, and for the first time reach a triumphant chord affirming that, yes, the impersonal world out the window is the way things really are. We go out on chords that I can’t hear as anything other than crashing waves; the camera has been thrust through the window, out of the intimate human space forever.


Yes, I really do hear that, but having put it into words, it seems awfully purple. But that’s the joy of music, isn’t it, that it allows us to experience feelings inwardly that are unacceptably gauche in the outer world.* The internet being a queasy medium between those.

If Ravel’s worldview is the world seen from a cozy train – which is absolutely what I hear in the other, two-hand piano concerto – this piece, to me, is about accepting that eventually, one way or another, we have to get off the train. I can’t right now think of another work of his that so baldly announces what seems to frighten him, though I’m not thinking very hard. La Valse is also about luxury and nostalgia coming to a bitter end, but it’s more of a sardonic puppet show; Maurice is not implicating himself. But here in this piece I feel like he’s taken the little Maurice from L’Enfant et les sortilèges and, instead of returning him to his mother’s sweet embrace at the end, tells him that his childhood is now over and life is short, and leaves him looking out at the endless sea.

If someone shows me a letter now in which Ravel writes, “the left-hand concerto depicts the absurdity of war and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity,” I’ll say, “oh.” Even so, I like my way a lot better.

Probably it depicts nothing. But the philosophical shape suggested above is what moves me, even as I drum my fingers along to the catchy part.

Though I said it sideways earlier, I’ll just say it here explicitly: Ravel’s craftsmanship is second to none. There’s not a bar of this piece that you can’t savor in its deliciousness.

Picks from the book:
Cortot, Paris Conservatory Orchestra, Munch: Pearl PEA 9491
Paik, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Bertini: Orfeo 013821
Fleisher, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ozawa: Sony Classical SK 47188

Didn’t get those. My favorite recording of this piece is still Krystian Zimerman with The Cleveland Orchestra / Pierre Boulez, 1996. I’ve had it since it first came out, listened to it many times, and can’t help but miss its restraint and polish when I listen to any other recording. I did find plenty of moments to enjoy in each of the others I heard, though: Robert Casadesus, Philadelphia Orchestra / Eugene Ormandy, 1947; Leon Fleisher, Baltimore Symphony / Sergiu Comissiona, 1982; Michel Béroff, London Symphony Orchestra / Claudio Abbado, 1987; Samson François, Orchestre de la Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire / André Cluytens, 1959. And a live performance by Fleisher on youtube.

The sheet music site finally came back to life after a long hiatus of self-pity, and both a two-piano reduction and the full score are available here, or at least will be when they get around to it. Legal for download… as long as you don’t live in the USA.

* Get it? Gauche? Unintentional but I noticed it on my read-through. Yes, I do read these. Usually.

September 16, 2008

3. The Lady Vanishes (1938)

directed by Alfred Hitchcock
screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder
after the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White (1936)


This was Criterion #3. Again, this is only a series if it wants to be.

This was perfectly enjoyable. I don’t think there’s much more here than meets the eye. The Criterion Collection is always sort of implying that there’s more to their movies than meets the eye, but it’s a hard case to make with this particular piece. The commentary here bears that out: the guy (Bruce Eder) fills the time by telling us about the history of trains, the prior and subsequent careers of every member of the cast, etc. etc. And for all that, his few real points – about the brilliance of Hitchcock’s work, naturally – seem merely like clumsy overstatements of the obvious. The commentary plays like a grudging, insincere essay assignment about Johnny Tremain.

That’s insulting, so I feel compelled to say: doing commentary for a film that you are not actually associated with is a losing proposition. Always. You may be a professional film writer or scholar or whatever, but in my living room – or on my iPod as the case may be – you’re just another voice, so you’d better be saying something genuinely interesting, and that’s setting the bar much higher than in most magazines or lecture halls. Without the power to grade or quiz us, and without the dignity and mystery of being laid out on a page of print, standard-issue arts commentary reveals itself as pretty thin stuff. Hitchcock handles the clues like a magician handles cards? Buddy, when I talk about movies with my friends, we say more interesting stuff than that.

Readers of the “Disney canon” entries on this site may disagree.

Anyway, my point is that it’s really no reflection on Bruce Eder that his commentary wasn’t worth my time.

More about commentary tracks: watching a movie while you hear someone talk only makes sense if the person is truly talking about what’s on screen. Otherwise the movie is just a distraction from the lecture, or worse, an arbitrary predetermined length for the lecture, almost always too long for anyone’s good. If you are talking about what’s on screen, you need to be truly adding to it rather than just riding along with it, and to do that, you have to have access to external information corresponding to every moment in the film. The only people who have such information are people involved with the making of the film. Exceptionally well-prepared researchers might be able to pull it off if they have volumes and volumes of material. But even directors usually can’t stay interesting through the entire duration of a movie. So beware.

Criterion’s got it tough since they’re committed to bringing out important films from decades ago and also to having commentary. So far we’ve had three movies by “classic” dead directors. I imagine that Criterion manages to wrangle higher-quality commentary when the creative team is still alive. We’ll see. OR WILL WE?

Do I really have to talk about the movie? In this movie a Lady Vanishes and then eventually [spoiler warning] she Reappears. I’m not telling where she is. You’ll know right away. It takes a remarkably long time to get going – the commentary informs me that this is, in fact, a brilliant stroke – and Hitchcock still doesn’t totally have his comedy and thriller pockets sorted out yet – as in, “now where did I put that next sequence?” [pat pat] – but it’s all good-natured and lively and cozy, and I have no real complaints. Whatever power it may once have had to grab you by the collar or make you laugh out loud has faded or been superceded, but I don’t think a movie like this will ever stop being pleasant company. I’m not sure that can be said of Flightplan, the trailer for which gave away the best detail in The Lady Vanishes. Thanks a lot, Flightplan.

I recognize now that The Last Express – it’s a computer game, okay? – was quite directly inspired by this movie. I guess so too was Madame Tutli-Putli, which I saw earlier this year but didn’t write about. I’m just letting things leap to mind – obviously, there are hundreds of “intrigue on a train” pieces that could all be tied in just as easily. Though, hm, I just checked and Murder on the Orient Express was written four years before this came out, so it’s not fair to say that every train mystery necessarily stems from here. I guess I’d have to read Orient Express to see whether the “feel” of this movie has influenced every other such movie, or whether that “feel” just goes with the territory. Or both?

This time, soundtrack club, I’m giving you the complete score – well, all the non-diegetic music anyway. The credits imply that the music is by Louis Levy (1894-1957), but don’t be fooled! It’s really by Charles Williams (1893-1978).

It’s your classic bookend score: Brief main title in the requisite pompous style, immediately followed by a curtain-raiser cue that sets the scene. Then, at the end of the movie, a “finale” flourish, immediately followed by a variant on the opening for the end credits. The whole movie in 3 minutes!

Not to give it away… but in this movie, the main title music is the MacGuffin. I think this may be the only movie ever made where that’s the case. Yes?

Enough already – here’s the track.

As you can see above, I am once again watching the old Criterion version from the library, despite the existence of a newer, snazzier reissue. Better picture and sound would have been appreciated, honestly. Glad to know they’re out there now.

I didn’t talk about the actors or the script or anything. Oh well.

September 12, 2008

Thought about this, the internet

I was considering writing here about text games, which I’ve been thinking about recently, and in particular about the past 15 years of non-commercial games with quasi-literary aspirations. But if I write at any length about these games and their authors, it becomes very likely that the authors will, sooner or later, find my site and read what I have written. Because I have a sense of these people, of what type of people they are, and it seems very likely that they are googlers.

Their showing up here and reading my words is an odd prospect, because for at least 10 years I’ve been aware of these “prominent” interactive-fiction authors, have known their names and had opinions about them, much in the same way that I’m aware of, say, Ted Danson, or giraffes, or the sun. But posting my opinions about those things will not summon them to me. I am still only among friends when I talk about giraffes. Writing about these interactive fiction authors would be like shouting out their names in a crowded room – crowded, but not that crowded. Eventually they will hear. That is a strange kind of power to be burdened with.

Particularly strange because of the fact that I know them as little as I know Ted Danson and yet I’ve done something much more intimate with them – I’ve watched these people’s conversations in newsgroups. Or rather, I’ve read their conversations after they’ve had them. Sometimes long after, sometimes soon after, but always after.

Reading through bulletin boards or newsgroups after the fact is like walking through a cocktail party in the classic frozen-time fantasy. All these people are caught in lifelike postures, talking to one another. Yet all are silent and totally immobile; I can get as close as I want, but it has all already happened, and none of them can possibly be aware of me as I slink among them, observing as though at a museum. Another metaphor would be that it’s like walking among preserved figures at Pompeii. Something happened here that turned this place into ruins. Once humans lived here, but now they’ve moved on. Or have they? If you provoke any of the figures, it may notice your presence. Then again the spirit may be too far away to ever realize you are prodding its former self, futilely asking it newbie questions.

So there is something distinctly more awkward about my non-relationship to these people than my non-relationship to actual celebrities like Mr. Danson, because to them I am voyeur rather than audience. Even outside the pseudo-private world of the newsgroups. I know these people only from the droppings they leave on the internet; by the time I get there to pick up their work or read their words, they themselves have already fled. In this respect, the internet is itself a lot like a text game, or like “Myst” – most of your knowledge of other people comes from reading the journals they leave behind in abandoned rooms, nosing around their eerie, silent islands.

It doesn’t matter how intentional or willing we are about being so relentlessly public online; it still feels like The Fermata to a visitor. Which, no, I haven’t actually read. Yes, I know, it’s all about how he wanders around and masturbates on the frozen people. Well, there’s a fair amount of that on the internet too. Rather prescient of Nicholson Baker, actually.

So, anyway, summoning these authors here by talking about them – and thus hosting my own personal petrified party – would be worse than just catching Ted Danson’s ear; it would be like Raymond Burr suddenly staring straight into my binoculars.

I said that this posting was a “thought” about the internet but I imagine you’d be hard pressed to say what the thought was. Nonetheless, there’s no question who thought it.


September 10, 2008

Disney Canon #10: Melody Time (1948)


BETH That was the best of the “package” films.

BROOM I agree. I think that was significantly superior to the last two.

ADAM Well, it wasn’t better than The Three Caballeros.

BROOM The last two: it was better than Make Mine Music or Fun and Fancy Free.

ADAM That is true. It was slicker and more orderly than The Three Caballeros, but Three Caballeros had an anarchic glee that I enjoy.

BROOM The Three Caballeros is probably more fun overall, but I thought this was an encouraging improvement on both the story and technical fronts.

BETH Mostly technical.

ADAM Yes, the stories were still pretty indifferent.

BROOM They were dippy but there was better timing. There was just a real dead dumbness to Bongo that was depressing, and we’re moving in the right direction from there. I’m not saying that this was great.

ADAM We should say, before we move on, that Beth had been dreading this screening.

BROOM She dreads them all. She’s been dreading all of the 40s movies.

BETH Yes, I have. I want to get to something good.

BROOM I really enjoyed this one, especially because I had no expectations for it. I found myself feeling really pleased that it had some verve and panache. In places.

ADAM In places.

BETH I really expected it to be terrible, so it was nice to see some pretty backgrounds and fun animation.

ADAM But let’s be clear: it wasn’t actually good.

BETH No, it wasn’t good.

BROOM But it was superior to Make Mine Music, which it was essentially a continuation of. Short for short, almost all of them were better than the average of Make Mine Music. Maybe. Let’s talk about them and see if that’s true.

BETH It’s true.


ADAM If you’re curious where I had seen that before…

BROOM Oh, very curious.

ADAM … one of the things we had taped off of the Disney Channel freebie hour was a Valentine’s Day special.

BETH It does seem very Valentine’s-y.

BROOM It was like a greeting card.

ADAM I don’t know if I saw them spiral onto the ice, but I definitely saw the part where the bunnies make the interlocked hearts with their butts.

BROOM A lot of the action was dumb and was rehashing either Bambi or the short On Ice. The thing with ice breaking and going over a waterfall was played out, even by then. It wasn’t very creative on that front. But visually I thought it was very impressive.

ADAM The backgrounds had a stylish two-dimensionality to them, which was attractive.

BETH And the colors used were very unusual and effective.

BROOM Since this subject is probably the richest source of discussion for the movie, I’m just going to go into it a little bit deeper. Part of the depressing quality of the last two movies, and overall of the 40s movies, comes from the fact that the lush storybook quality of the first few movies was no longer suited to the period, but they hadn’t yet really found anything new to do. Mickey and the Beanstalk, design-wise, didn’t have any new place to go, but it didn’t believe in what they used to do. It was between styles and so had no style. It was like they were going through the motions of doing an earlier style that they clearly felt was dated, because they didn’t have any new way of doing things. I think in this movie we saw them finding something new.

ADAM It has a late-Matisse feel, like early pop art.

BETH Yes, it’s the beginning of that great flat style of animation.

BROOM The Mary Blair look. I think that Mary Blair had a hand in some of those background designs, especially in “Once upon a Wintertime.”

ADAM Of course we did see this sort of thing in “Pink Elephants on Parade.”

BROOM That’s slightly different. There’s phantasmagoria and then there’s this stylized surrealist design.

ADAM Well, they’re still thinking of it in keeping with the phantasmagoric style, if you will. That was what “Bumble Boogie” was. They have this tradition of abstract craziness…

BROOM Yes, that’s a mode they have and I’m happy they’re keeping it around, but I think that what we saw in the backgrounds of “Wintertime” was something new, a new sense of design.

ADAM Yes, it was a marriage of the flatness with more-or-less realism.

BROOM I felt like the only precursor to that kind of design was in Bambi, when things occasionally became stylized and angular and they would make very strong color choices.

ADAM But you talked at one point about a scene with a black backdrop with pink and yellow on it, do you remember that? In one of the earlier movies.

BROOM You’re right, the best thing we’ve seen in that style so far was that train scene in The Three Caballeros, which was also by Mary Blair.

BETH Yes, that was great, that black background with bright colors.

BROOM They were really embracing that here. In Make Mine Music, I suppose that one that you guys really hated, that lonely window one, sort of touched on it, but they didn’t seem to know what to do with it. This movie really seized it. And I think by Alice in Wonderland we’ll see them knowing what to do in the foreground to make the most of it.

BETH Here they seemed more excited about the background than they did about the foreground.

BROOM But I think even the animation, and not just the design, also had more kick to it in this movie.

BETH The character designs I didn’t like.

BROOM I guess if we’re just talking about the first segment, I agree.

ADAM It was sort of strange to have those contemporary-looking backdrops with the old-timey people figure-skating.

BROOM But I think that kind of juxtaposition is something they explored quite a bit; I think of that as a particular Disney feeling. I’m not sure but I think we may see a more refined version of that in the next movie, in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

BETH I feel like we talked enough about that one.


BROOM I thought that was awesome. I totally enjoyed that.

BETH It was right up your alley.

ADAM Albeit very similar to a number of things we’ve seen.

BROOM It was most similar to “After You’ve Gone” from Make Mine Music.

ADAM Was that the thing with the instruments?


ADAM They really love this idea that they’re marrying music and animation.

BROOM I thought this was one of their strongest efforts at that since Fantasia. The sync was very satisfying and the atmosphere was fun.

ADAM It was psychologically satisfying, and sort of creepy. That giant snake-caterpillar thing made out of piano keys.

BROOM And the rate at which you were bombarded with new, strong images was satisfyingly high. It was very enjoyable, and it made me sit up and think, “we’re seeing something good again!”

ADAM I agree with that. What did you think of it as an adaptation of Rimsky-Korsakov?

BROOM It’s just a thing that was done in those days, to take a classical piece and boogie it up. It was a pretty rudimentary boogie-ization, but it was fine, and the choice of piece handed them the bumblebee as a character. I thought it was a little odd that when the flowers were scary to him, he got his revenge by boxing the flowers and destroying them. They didn’t really follow through on the concept of what a bee actually does with flowers.


ADAM This was the dreckiest of the segments.

BROOM It was undistinguished. But if you think of it as the descendant of, say, “Casey at the Bat” or “Peter and the Wolf,” it was better animated than those. It wasn’t quite as strong as “Once upon a Wintertime” but it still had some nice design in the backgrounds. It had good atmosphere, a nice autumnal Americana.

ADAM I thought the cornpone Parson Weems quality of it was disturbing.

BROOM Why? That’s what it was.

ADAM Why? Because that’s what’s going to make John McCain president.

BROOM Well, right now may not be the best time in history for us to be thinking about these things, but I think there’s room in life for Norman Rockwellisms, and it’s okay to indulge them sometimes. I thought that Johnny Appleseed was pretty gay, and it made you feel like, “I guess it’s good that we have apple trees, but nobody should want to be like that guy.”

BETH Here’s my problem with this movie as a whole: none of the characters – except for the chipmunk – seem like Disney characters. There were no characteristics of their faces or their bodies that reminded me of classic Disney. They weren’t like Bambi or Dumbo.

BROOM Can you characterize that? Is it a warmth of characterization that they were lacking?

BETH Well, the bodies of the animals – like the bunnies in “Wintertime” – they were husky in a strange way. They didn’t seem as lithe, as nimble, as animals usually do in Disney. And their faces seemed dumber.

BROOM That’s definitely how I’ve felt about a lot of characters we’ve seen in the past few movies. I feel like they’re on their way out of that here, but they still have that look.

ADAM The bunnies in the first segment here were cut-rate.

BETH Johnny Appleseed had this weird, not-quite-characterized face.

ADAM He started out as a bubble-nosed young man – he looked basically identical to the young man in “Once upon a Wintertime.” And not that different from Pecos Bill or Little Toot, frankly.

BROOM It’s a tough job, though. Let’s ask ourselves: have they at any point, all the way back to Snow White, created a semi-realistic human character to our satisfaction? I think they just haven’t solved that problem yet.

ADAM Slue Foot Sue looked a lot like what Cinderella’s going to look like, a couple movies from now.

BROOM I think we’re going to find Cinderella herself to be quite bland. I don’t think that’s the solution either. If you picture the man from 101 Dalmatiansthat’s a good solution to making a cartoon person. He’s very gangly and has a very strong cartoony characterization but he’s also a person. He’s nicely in-between. I think that this blandness was just the best they had come up with. Remember Geppetto being so blobby?

BETH I think they tried to make Johnny Appleseed look a little different, and it just didn’t quite work. He looked creepy to me.

ADAM He grew up from being just “a young Disney man” to being like “The Martins and the Coys.” The same way that Pecos Bill looked just like “Casey at the Bat.” They’ve only got like six types.

BROOM And are any of them human enough to really relate to?

ADAM I’ll bet it seems worse to us having watched them all in a row, because we can recognize them as stock characters.

BROOM I recognize what Beth is saying as a basic reaction: “I don’t relate to that character. I understand what the character represents, but I don’t feel like I’m in the company of a person.”

BETH I’m saying that they don’t feel like the Disney characters that were established in the late-30s, early-40s. They don’t have that look, and they don’t have the 50s look. They have an uncertain look.

BROOM Just a pale face with some features stuck on it.

BETH Just uninspired. They care more about the backgrounds than the people.

BROOM There’s an impersonality to a lot of these. And I think that’s why my favorite ones are the ones that have to do with music and splashes and lights. Fireworks displays instead of stories. Okay, so the “Johnny Appleseed” one was a little disappointing.

ADAM Also weirdly Christian.

BROOM Yes. All that emphasis on the bible, and the song about “my lord.” I was surprised.

ADAM It comes up also in “Trees.”

BROOM Is this the first explicit Christianity in any of these? Previously he seemed to avoid it – every time things went in that direction, it would just be a castle in the sky, or trees curved like the arch of a church. But never a crucifix and god and a bible with a cross on it. I was surprised. Anything to say about Johnny Appleseed’s dramatic death in the course of the cartoon? I thought that was surprising.

ADAM I thought that was surprising too. It would have upset me as a child.

BROOM “That’s just your husk, John.”

BETH “That’s just your husk” is an upsetting thing to hear.

BROOM And yes, that chipmunk did seem to be either Chip or Dale. And the red Indians? Comments?

ADAM It was historically inaccurate.

BETH It was the time.


ADAM I thought it was pretty adorable, in spite of myself.

BETH I enjoyed “Little Toot.”

BROOM I thought the effects animation, and other features of the animation, were very impressive. He was rounded and shaded in complex ways the whole time.

ADAM His dad was actually a pretty well-designed character; you saw a family resemblance but also a stern, proudly working-class quality. He seemed like an individual.

BROOM He’s not a person, he’s a tugboat. They’re okay with things and animals, I think we’re saying.

BETH I thought the characterization of those tugboats was better than any of the animals or people in this movie.

BROOM Those buoys with angry faces and claws made of water were quite scary.

BETH That scene was scary! And that chanting…

BROOM “… bad boy! …”

ADAM “… shame! …”

BROOM And then they sang “Do or die!” There was an intensity to “Little Toot” that surprised us all.

ADAM It beat the pants off of what happened to Pedro the mail plane.

BROOM It was reminiscent of Pedro the mail plane, but in “Pedro,” there was a wink in the narrator’s voice the whole time. This one, even though it was the Andrews Sisters, was more intense.

BETH This was also easier to relate to because it happened in the city rather than some remote place where only an airplane can fly.

BROOM It was within sight of the New York skyline that I see every day. The terrible, terrible catastrophe that Little Toot causes was out of proportion to your expectations.

ADAM That was like a Cloverfield level of violence.

BROOM It was Speed 2. Thousands of deaths, surely.

BETH He didn’t mean to. He didn’t know. He just should have figured it out sooner.

BROOM Anyway, “Little Toot” was pretty good.


ADAM This was the campiest thing I think we’ve seen in any Disney film. Certainly in the top three campiest moments.

BROOM There were interesting things in the look of it; when the wind was blowing in the trees and their shapes were strange and elongated, I thought that was neat. But it was not a good of visualization of the poem and the whole concept was just kitsch.

ADAM It was pious and weird.

BROOM Again, I think that their draftsmanship has improved significantly since the last couple of movies, and you could see it watching those leaves blowing around. They can’t help themselves but draw those – we saw those leaves blowing in the wind in Fantasia, in Bambi, and again in Make Mine Music, and we might even have seen it in Fun and Fancy Free. And then we saw them again here. But they were better here than they’ve been recently. In fact I thought it was very cool when the scene of the tree and the sunset becomes the smear of colors on another leaf blowing away. There were nice effects in this segment, but they just sort of flew past and we didn’t notice them because the piece itself was stupid.

ADAM Joyce Kilmer. Man. I think my brother performed “Trees” at the poetry festival in second grade. It’s a terrible poem.

BROOM So “only God can make a tree” – there’s no actual reference there to the “tree” on which the Lord Jesus was crucified.

ADAM Lord Jesus was not crucified on a tree!

BROOM “On crosstree” – that term is in Ulysses. [ed. It’s a nautical term]

ADAM There’s no reference to the cross in the poem.

BROOM Well, I don’t know about the poem, but it seemed like the Disney studios, whom I’ve never known to go Christian when they don’t need to, went Christian at the end of that segment. The tree turned into a cross with a halo around it.

BETH It wasn’t the cross of the crucifixion.

BROOM It wasn’t?

BETH I mean, I guess any cross is that cross, but I don’t think it was meant that way.

ADAM I agree. It was just a throwaway.

BROOM You think it was just a God-signifier?

ADAM Yeah – “let’s throw in some Christian appeal.”

BETH Anyway, “Trees” was no good.

ADAM “Trees” was the worst.

BROOM I thought that, for bad kitsch, it was better than the one in Make Mine Music that you guys also didn’t like. It had more going on visually. But yes.


BROOM A little bit sad that that was the showing for Jose Carioca. I had high hopes for his reappearance, but he didn’t say anything. Donald didn’t say anything either.

BETH It was colorful. I enjoyed it.

ADAM Ethel Smith was no Aurora Miranda.

BROOM I thought it was cool that this Tex Avery mayhem threatens a real live human. It had sort of a Roger Rabbit quality – the Aracuan bird is going to blow up the actual Ethel Smith? But she seemed to be okay.

ADAM She was not a very good actor. She didn’t convincingly interact with Donald or Jose Carioca.

BROOM Well, when she was on fire, it wouldn’t have been appropriate to the tone for her to look like she was actually on fire. I think her mock-surprised look was exactly right. I really enjoyed when they were blue and then listening to the music cheered them up and gave them their proper colors. I enjoyed that fairly sincerely.

BETH You did? Even though you knew that was exactly what would happen?

BROOM I’m not saying it surprised me. It was just a nice visual. That when you’re in a bad mood, the sound of the cabasa can put the red into you and then the purple, and then you’ll shine because you’re happy again. I also liked that the segment wasn’t just a callback to the characters, but was specifically a callback to The Three Caballeros in that they were walking into a pop-up book restaurant. But the song wasn’t as good. It wasn’t as good as the music from Three Caballeros.

BETH No, but it was still fun.


BROOM This had the pre-Roy Rogers segment, the Roy Rogers segment, and then the story of Pecos Bill.

ADAM It was much too long.

BROOM Obviously the part with Pecos Bill being wild was the fun part, and they took ten minutes to get there. They warned us they were going to be slow about it, but that still doesn’t make it fun, especially at the end of the movie.

ADAM My favorite thing in the whole movie was when the state of Texas fills up the entire continent, including the peninsula of Florida, so Florida has to grow its own subsidiary peninsula.

BETH I thought that was funny too.

BROOM I was interested in the fact that Sue was…

ADAM …brutally dispatched?

BROOM No, not the story. That when she arrived, she was basically showing it all. She was wearing little white panties, but her dress flew all the way up so you could see them. She was riding a catfish down the river. She was a pin-up drawing that they put in the cartoon. That’s something that they wouldn’t venture again until the 90s.

BETH Do they do that now?

BROOM Well, they don’t exactly do that…

ADAM But the female characters are much sexier now.

BROOM The pin-up drawings that the animators do in their spare time have gotten much closer to being in the movies these days. And that’s clearly what Sue was, with a little demure face put on her. I was a little surprised to see that. It was also a little creepy to see her pretty face kissing the googly cartoon face of Pecos Bill. He wasn’t the male equivalent.

ADAM It was weird that the horse murdered her.

BROOM Yes. It was weird that Pecos Bill sucked at the teat of a coyote just off screen.

ADAM It was weird that he kissed the horse on the lips. Much of the psycho-sexual quality of this short was disturbing. And I thought it was fairly misogynistic. She’s killed because of her bustle? What a terrible terrible thing.

BROOM What was the rhyming line? “It put the classy on her chassis?”

BETH Something like that. “It was quite classy and it completed her chassis,” or something.

ADAM It just goes to show that they can’t abide a strong woman.

BROOM And when they first mention her, Bobby Driscoll groans, “A woman in the story?”

ADAM The interaction of the live action and the animation was not very successful.

BROOM They didn’t even try. I really liked those little quails running through the desert with the long shadows. I know, it was the same quails from Bambi and several other places.

BETH They really love doing that.

BROOM I liked the atmosphere of that, with that weird music playing, and them running through the desert with those long shadows. I know you guys were saying “get this over with” at that point, but I thought it looked cool, and I thought the pencil-drawn tumbleweed effect was a cool, smart choice.

ADAM I liked that. I also liked when Trigger participated in the storytelling.

BROOM I’m not ready to say I liked that.

ADAM That was a staple of popular culture, right?

BROOM Roy Rogers and Trigger? I think so. They were the absolute first billing in this movie, before the title.

ADAM And who was the female counterpart? Dale Evans?

BROOM Yes, but she wasn’t here. But Luana Patten was back.

ADAM I’m glad to know she escaped that party.

BROOM And this party.

ADAM Yes, instead she became apprentice to this harem of sexless cowboys.

BETH She was kidnapped.

BROOM She got out of that house somehow but just ended up in the desert, where these men were happy to entertain her with more creepy stories in the middle of the night. But Bobby Driscoll was there with her this time. The two of them were the kids from Song of the South, and, as Leonard Maltin said in one of those countless Leonard Maltin featurettes, Disney was trying to cultivate a stock company of performers. By bringing back Luana Patten over and over he’s trying to work on the brand. “If you see a Disney movie, you’re going to see that cute little girl!”

ADAM She was the Dakota Fanning of her day.

BROOM Well, she was the Dakota Fanning of these two movies. And of Song of the South and of that other companion movie to Song of the South [ed.: So Dear to My Heart]. Anything to say about the interstitials, or the singing mask at the beginning?

ADAM I thought that the paintbrush theme was not that successful.

BROOM Even that I thought was nicer than Make Mine Music.

ADAM We all agree that Make Mine Music was the nadir.

BROOM I think Fun and Fancy Free was the nadir.

ADAM Oh. I get them confused.

BROOM We’re clearly coming out of the woods. Things are going to be better. I feel it.

[we read the New York Times review]

ADAM I think that Bosley Crowther is getting archer as he ages.

BROOM I think Bosley Crowther is pretty good, based on these.

ADAM He must have been gay. [ed. I don’t think so!] I’m picturing him as being like the second Mr. Wilson on “Dennis the Menace.” [ed. this guy?] He looked like he should be in a smoking jacket.

BROOM Every time, Bosley Crowther says exactly something I’ve already said, and I feel vindicated. But I don’t agree with him that the Johnny Appleseed songs were catchy. I thought they were pretty bad. Okay, next time: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

ADAM We’re coming out of the tailspin, Beth.


September 9, 2008

Game analysis continued

Had a couple of conversations with people after that last one about games. Thinking more about how to begin at the beginning. Here are my current conclusions:

1. Any task, set of tasks, or complex of tasks and conditions, can be construed as a game.

Bart: You’re making me lick envelopes?
Principal Skinner: Oh, licking envelopes can be fun! All you have to do is make a game of it.
Bart: What kind of game?
Principal Skinner: Well, for example, you could see how many you could lick in an hour, then try to break that record.
Bart: Sounds like a pretty crappy game to me.
Principal Skinner: Yes, well… Get started.

Skinner suggests adding timer and score components to the task to make it more game-like, but this isn’t really necessary. He could just say “think of it as a game” and leave it at that. If the task involved any degree of agility or other skill (i.e. if the task were tossing paper into the trash) the injunction to “make a game of it” would make perfect sense. It is only that this particular task happens to be so trivial for Bart that it doesn’t seem game-like. But that’s specific to him – envelope licking would be quite a challenge for a baby. In fact, almost every challenge with which a baby is faced is presented as a game – since anything is hard for baby, every task is either a game or work – so might as well make it a game, right? I think that’s the philosophy.

1b. A game is a complex of tasks etc. insofar as they are undertaken for themselves and not for their utility. Throwing a ball of paper in the trash in order to dispose of waste is not a game. Throwing a ball of paper in the trash as an end in itself is a game.

Now, presumably we would only do something with no external utility because it gives us pleasure. And presumably it would need to be either unpredictable or difficult in some way, in order to provide interest in itself. So at first I thought these two assumptions would have to be an important part of an analytic breakdown of games. But I don’t think they are. Being forced to play Monopoly and resenting it – deriving no pleasure from it – does not make it less of a game. And though I can’t think of a counter-example of a “game” that one plays despite it being entirely predicted and challenge-less (even walking a single-path labyrinth, as I pointed out, feels unpredictable even if it isn’t), once you’ve established that a game holds some (rather than no) interest for a player, the question of “how much interest” is much a question of taste as it is of game function. So those issues aren’t going to be the basis for a taxonomy.

This all leads me to:

2. An analytic breakdown of games should be based on “what you do” and not on “why it’s hard.”

This was not immediately apparent to me. But now it seems clear. “Why it’s hard” is the same question as “how hard it is” which is a question of calibration rather than type.

3. The things we think of when we hear the word “games” are more truly games than throwing paper in the garbage or licking envelopes only in that they CANNOT be construed as work. But whether the tasks that comprise a game might also have some utility is, as far as the game itself is concerned, irrelevant. So this isn’t an important distinction for analytic purposes.

3a. Whether a game is anything else is irrelevant; but whether the game represents anything else is not irrelevant, as I said in my previous post. And these shouldn’t be confused. Throwing paper in the garbage and throwing a basketball through a hoop are only different games in the physical particulars, despite the fact that one has a utility and the other doesn’t. But – gosh, how to construct this example? – throwing a basketball painted to look like a piece of crumpled paper through a hoop painted to look like a trash can, in the course of a game called “officeball” – this game is functionally distinct from the other two because it has a representational layer.

Man, that was ridiculous. Is there a real “ball through hoop” game with a representational component? I don’t think so – very few full-body physical games are representational. That’s why I always enjoyed Capture the Flag, as a kid – it was the one exception.

Maybe there are few such games because full body + representation = performance, and people don’t necessarily want to be performing. Or, at least, because “make-believe” is unmasculine and “physical competition” is masculine, and most people are striving to project one or the other, but not both. American Gladiators and Renaissance Faire jousting etc. are the campy exceptions that prove the rule. I guess it’s not standard to call Ren Faire “camp,” but that’s what it is.


4. The ground level of an analytical model of games would be a typology of tasks.

4a. Despite what I said above, within such a typology of tasks it is useful to distinguish trivial from non-trivial tasks, because they tend to function differently within games.

This stratification becomes apparent once you start naming the types of tasks in games. Non-trivial tasks include physical tasks like throwing and catching balls, running, jumping, whatever, and mental ones like spatial manipulations, memory, pattern-recognition, etc. In more complex games, there are also high-level tasks akin to problem-solving. Trivial physical tasks include walking, getting in formations, moving small objects, writing, manipulating a joystick.

The reason this is worth noticing is that trivial tasks are generally used in games to provide a framework on which to create the potential for non-trivial tasks at a more abstract level; an emphasis on trivial tasks usually means the “meat” of the game is at a higher level. Holding cards, identifying them, and moving them around are the trivial tasks that create a context in which non-trivial abstractions can be brought into play. But then again, in War or in the standard Solitaire, the concatenation of trivial tasks is the full extent of non-triviality – the accrued bits of non-triviality inherent in each essentially trivial task end up constituting the total value of the game.

This all seems solid to me and maybe all self-apparent to you, but I had to work my way through it to know I was on firm ground when I proceeded. Next I aspire to come up with a few Kingdoms of games. These will probably more or less correspond to “physical games, board games, social games, card games, video games, pencil-and-paper games, etc.” but I need to think about it a little more first.

After breaking down that tree somewhat, there is a second dimension, of game elements that are NOT tasks – scoring, timing, teams, etc. These are independent of any tree structure and can travel more or less freely from branch to branch, I think.

And then finally the third dimension, of representation. The big question to me is whether representation is always an external burden draped over a game, or whether there are ways in which game function is ever genuinely symbiotic with representation. I read the blogs and discussions of “interactive fiction” enthusiasts speculating about it all the time, but I feel like they haven’t really thought it through. I’m trying to think it through.

I know, you guys are all loving this.

September 4, 2008

2. Shichinin no samurai (1954)

directed by Akira Kurosawa
written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni


Criterion Collection #2. As I said last time, I’m not pledging to continue doing this at any length. But who knows.

It’s Seven Samurai, by the way.

This is lots of fun. It took me 2 1/2 of the 3 hours of this movie before I knew it, but eventually it just sank in that I was having fun. The exaggerated, on-the-nose quality ultimately was a kind of sweetness; the imitation-Hollywood quality ultimately gave way to a genuine Hollywood-style pleasure.

But that’s what this is; not something bigger or greater than that. Somehow, somewhere, some aspect of the hype on this movie is out of whack. The Criterion commentary points it up: “Look: a tight close-up. Now watch as he falls back into a perfect composition with deep focus.” Blah blah blah. Naming the technical choices doesn’t make them remarkable. All movies, even terrible ones, demonstrate hard work and a lot of choices. To me this played like standard fare, but a little duller and broader, with undue yelping and whimpering, and a lot of space to reflect on nothing much happening. By the end I was able to find all of that more or less endearing, or at least ignorable, but I certainly never felt that the piece had risen anywhere near the level of great art. I remain unsure whether this slowness and broadness are somehow construed by others as artistic distinction, or whether those people have another way entirely of parsing the movie. But, really, this is a samurai movie about saving a village. It’s got some fun stuff in it. To claim much more than that already starts to seem like geek talk.

And boy does that commentary guy keep claiming more. His idolatry for Toshiro Mifune is absurd, especially considering that while he’s calling him something like “the greatest actor of all time at the absolute top of his game in one of his greatest roles,” the man in question is strutting around like a chicken, pulling ridiculous faces, and shouting, shouting, shouting. I don’t doubt he was a fine actor, and in context there’s nothing wrong with his over-the-top performance – but proportion, people!

I’ll grant the movie this: it’s right on the edge of contemporary standard practice, and that’s inevitably a very difficult region to judge properly, because it has enough of the present in it to soothe you into passivity, but enough of the past in it to require perspective. It’s a compliment to this movie’s later influence that I had to guard against watching it as a weak version of contemporary style. Lots of touches that George Lucas and friends would later rip off; my personal history with these things is the reverse of actual history and I tried hard to remember that this was the source and deserved the credit. I.e. yes, I acknowledge and admire that this is the first movie where we see a team assembled from individuals introduced one at a time. I admire it and it’s interesting, too. If this movie had been no fun at all, it would still have been historically interesting. But I’m just a little wary of the calculation that “historically interesting” + “fun” = “one of cinema’s great masterpieces.” Are we really sure about that?

I don’t know – did I miss the boat on this one? I just read what I wrote and it sounds sort of cranky. But look again at my thesis statement: “This is lots of fun.” That ain’t cranky!

I watched Criterion’s original release of the movie, from the library. Recently they reissued it in a multi-disc version that replaces this, with a much better image and all kinds of other stuff. But this was just fine for me; unless someone tells me otherwise, I’m done here.

The commentary was, for those of you counting, by a guy – an “expert” – named Michael Jeck. He somehow manages to make nerdish reverence sound pompous and self-satisfied, in a way that really brought me back to college lectures. Oh yeah, so that’s why I never felt comfortable in class. You forget these things, forget what they sound like and how they make you feel. I appreciated the memory jog. Sincerely, I did.

Click HERE for the second track in your Criterion Collection soundtrack album: the intermission music – a mini-suite of sorts, entr’acte style – from the soundtrack by Fumio Hayasaka (1914-1955). The score was much like the movie: a superficially Japan-ified imitation of Hollywood standard practice, somewhat gawky and broad, but ultimately appealing on its own terms.

September 3, 2008

Representation in games

I have about ONE BRILLION things I intend to post here according to my various projects and schemes, but this isn’t one of them, this is just a passing thought.

I’m always interested to read people’s ideas about how games work – the ideal of the story game still intrigues me, and there are lots of people on the internet pontificating about such things these days. It often seems like a good first step to grounding a discussion of the workings of games is to create a taxonomy, or at least an analytic model, that can deal with the variety of games and categorize them by function. Something Linnaean. I’ve tried to do this a few times and will no doubt try again. It’s hard to do well.

Anyway, I think people get this stuff wrong a lot because they fail to make a basic distinction at the outset, between the raw logistics of a game and its representational content. Some games have a representational component, some don’t. But even those that don’t often sort of do. The little man in Parcheesi is sort of a man, isn’t he? Going for a walk of some kind?

Off the top of my head, here are some games that really and truly have no representational component:
Arm Wrestling, Darts, Golf, Pool, Scrabble, Crossword puzzles, Sudoku.

Here are some games that BASICALLY have no representational component but it might be amusing to argue that they do:
War, Go Fish, Checkers, Poker, Othello. Baseball? Football?

Here are some games that have very tenuous representational components that are nonetheless significant parts of their charm:
Chess, Minesweeper, Capture the Flag.

Here are some games where the representational components and the logistics are about equally important to the appeal of the game:
Chutes and Ladders, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Monopoly, Risk, most board games.

Essentially all computer games exist beyond this point; i.e. their representational component is relatively more important than their actual logistics. Or at least they coexist in far more elaborately negotiated arrangements than anything above. Sports video games are a bizarre layering, where the idea is to make the players feel that they are playing one game when in fact they are playing another that is a representation of it, which is itself only represented by the abstract electronic entities that the players manipulate, which is all representational in relation to what they are actually doing which is moving their thumbs. It is difficult to talk intelligently about what’s going on in such a game without breaking down those layers.

More to come on this? I don’t know. Please, commenters, pick apart my scheme, or categorize some more games for me. Or speculate about what the next several categories are (Super Mario Bros. is less dependent on representation than King’s Quest?) which I’m not quite ready to do yet.