Yearly Archives: 2009

November 5, 2009

Disney Canon #23: The Rescuers (1977)


BETH I thought it was great. It was really entertaining.

ADAM Yes, it was very fun. It was totally cheesy and often inadvertently fun, but that doesn’t make it less fun.

BROOM Part of the fun for us is that it embodied all sorts of clichés and tropes and standards that remind us of our childhoods. Not that it was necessarily of high quality. But that’s still fun.

ADAM I think it was overtly of low quality, but still entertaining.

BETH It had a few clever things in it, like the crocodiles playing the organ.

BROOM That was a strong sequence.

ADAM That was eerie.

BROOM I thought that in many places the animation was particularly exuberant compared to what we’ve seen recently.

BETH The expressions on the people — and sometimes the mice — were better than usual.

BROOM The mice seemed a little bland to me, but Madame Medusa and Snoops and the crocodiles were clearly animated with pleasure.

ADAM It seemed like they had accepted the straitened budgets they’re working within, and just decided, “we’re not doing backgrounds.” All the backgrounds were very static, but the things that were animated were lively. The music was the best part for me.

BROOM It was the most period.

ADAM All the pieces were so corn-alicious.

BETH It was like Herb Alpert backing Joni Mitchell.

ADAM I think my single favorite part of the entire movie was the key change in the middle of the rainbow song.

BROOM “Rainy day… [up a half step]… Rainy day!…”

ADAM It reminds me of the way all our choir songs were arranged. We sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” that had a step up like that in the middle, which was my favorite part. I thought it was so dramatic and exciting. “You are the wind beneath my wiiiiiiiii… [up a half step] ….iiiiings!

BROOM Stirring, yes. The movie announced exactly that aesthetic right at the beginning in the opening credit sequence where they panned over those pastel drawings of the message in the bottle out at sea. What did you say it was like?

ADAM I said it was like the “Golden Girls” credits — though I don’t know if it’s exactly “The Golden Girls” I’m thinking of. But I know that at least one of those 80s shows started with static shots of a family, and panned across them at a dramatic diagonal. Was that “Growing Pains,” or “Family Ties”? [Ed. according to youtube, not really any of these, but we know what you mean] … And then the “zoom in fade to a zoom out”… And what was the instrument that they used in the rainbow song?

BROOM A flugelhorn, I think.

ADAM It sounded like the “Mary Tyler Moore” theme.

BROOM Let’s talk about the plot.

ADAM The first half was just killing time.

BETH That scene in the park really was nothing.

BROOM Yeah, something seemed actually wrong with that scene.

BETH Do you think they originally meant to show the lion?

BROOM What purpose would it have served anyway? As characterization for him as a scaredy-cat? To get them closer somehow? She already has a crush on him from the very beginning for no apparent reason. She didn’t learn anything new about him from that scene.

BETH I thought it was just to have some kind of New York setpiece.

BROOM But so little happened, it really seemed like something must have been pared away. We could have skipped directly over the whole thing to them visiting the orphanage and the movie would be exactly the same.

ADAM Maybe they were padding out the runtime.

BROOM The movie is very short.

ADAM It didn’t really come alive until they got to the bayou. Though the scene at the U.N. is adorable.

BROOM It was cute that at the very very beginning of the script they immediately launch into this really dippy song for two whole verses.

BETH I thought that was cute, but when I was watching it I was thinking, “if I were a kid, this movie would have lost me already.”

BROOM The only stuff I specifically remembered was that there were crocodiles and a girl was held hostage on a riverboat, and then was lowered into a hole in a bucket and there was a skull in the cave.

ADAM I remembered that the diamond was sewn inside the teddy bear; but from my Golden Book, I seem to remember that it was there all along, and only after they escape do they notice and say “what’s this heavy thing in Teddy’s belly?”

BROOM That’s a more effective way to play it.

ADAM There’s a critical scene in Stephen Carter’s novel The Emperor of Ocean Park in which the MacGuffin is hidden inside the teddy bear’s stomach. I wonder if he was motivated by this.

BROOM It’s in so many stories, isn’t it? It’s just standard fare.

BETH It’s in Wait Until Dark.

BROOM It’s in every episode of Duck Tales.

ADAM It’s the same as “if you don’t find it in your own backyard, you never really lost it to begin with.”

BROOM I don’t know about that.

ADAM It’s the same idea. The greatest mystery is hidden in the most domestic of objects.

BROOM Well, I feel like there is a whole subset of children’s literature — at least of our era — where a kid is being used by adults to find some treasure that only a kid can find. Either because only kids can fit there or because only kids will go unsuspected, or just because only kids are curious and unpredictable enough to find things that nobody else can find. Like in Over Sea, Under Stone, it’s the kids who find the long-lost treasure map in the house, because that’s how kids are. And in fact they end up going down in a hole in a cliff by the ocean, just like in this movie. Did that sort of thing start in this era, or did that exist prior to this?

BETH No Deposit, No Return is like that too. The kids get kidnapped by bad guys who try to use them to steal for them because they’re small and can fit in little places.

BROOM Isn’t Candleshoe sort of about how Jodie Foster needs to find the hidden thing in the house because she, as the little girl, is the most likely to find it?

BETH Yeah. It was popular. [ed. Also released in 1977.]

BROOM And it’s always in these decrepit environs.

ADAM The plot made no sense. No element of the plot made sense at all. From the beginning, when they adopted a little girl from a New York orphanage to put her inside a cave in a bayou…

BROOM They didn’t adopt her; they kidnapped her.

BETH She apparently got in a car with them. That’s what the cat said.

ADAM Oh. Well, that still doesn’t make any sense. And the fact that they know the treasure is in this cave, even though they have no other way to get in there…

BROOM Wait a minute. It makes perfect sense! They know that the treasure is down the hole…

BETH How do they know that?

BROOM She had a treasure map with an X on it! Didn’t you see?

BETH Oh. But… why doesn’t anyone else know about it? How did she get that map?

BROOM She owns a pawn shop! Think about it! Somehow this treasure map ends up in her store. She goes down to check it out and realizes that only a very tiny person can fit down the hole. She lives down the street from an orphanage and since nobody cares about orphans, she decides she’ll just steal one and have it retrieve the treasure for her. It makes perfect sense!

ADAM All right. That wasn’t really spelled out.

BROOM All the pieces were there. How did she come to live on an abandoned riverboat? She probably just found it there. The crocodiles? She didn’t just find them, they were clearly her longtime pets.

BETH But who was Snoops?

ADAM Her accountant.


ADAM I’m just making that up.

BETH No, I like that.

BROOM He’s just some guy who works for her at the shop.

ADAM He’s Mr. DeVil.

BROOM You know how Lex Luthor has Ned Beatty working for him in the movies? This is the same guy. Bad guys with totally ineffectual henchman are standard operating procedure. Have we seen it already in these movies?

ADAM Yeah. He was very jovially drawn. I enjoyed that.

BROOM They both had a 70s sort of sleaze to them.

BETH Their bodies felt more real than the other bodies.

BROOM They were exaggerated, but it was an exaggerated dumpiness.

BETH That’s what I mean.

BROOM She felt like a Jules Feiffer character. I remembered the image of her pulling off her false eyelashes. You got the clear sense that she was a labor of love for some animator.

ADAM Would we want our children to learn the lessons implicit in this movie? Come to think of it, we were the children being taught these lessons. What did this tell us?

BROOM I don’t really know. The stuff about faith — “faith is a bluebird” — seemed pretty tacked-on, and I wasn’t sure what it was meant to teach us anyway. Religion was more present in this than I expected.

ADAM Isn’t that just “the sun will come out tomorrow”?

BROOM Well, yes. Essentially, this was Annie.

BETH That’s true about religion. She prayed.

BROOM And there was that star representing her faith.

BETH And also the fact that she wasn’t cute, and had a poor self-image…

ADAM Like Jesus!

BETH … but got adopted anyway… I guess that was what she had faith in.

ADAM Despite the fact that she was so ugly, she got to have her own diamond…

BROOM Were we actually supposed to think she was ugly? I thought that was just what cruel people would say to her.

BETH Well, she had a gap in her teeth.

ADAM This was perfectly fine, but it will be outclassed thoroughly in about a decade.

BETH It wasn’t “classy” in any way.

BROOM Wait a minute. I don’t think we should say this was perfectly fine.

BETH I loved it; I thought it was so much fun; BUT

ADAM It was blatantly inferior to the product of the 30s, 40s and 50s. But it was fine.

BROOM Would you say that it was inferior to Robin Hood or The Jungle Book? On par? Superior?

ADAM It was more slapdash.

BETH In what sense? I thought the story was actually better than those. I, as a grown-up, was pretty involved in this stupid plot. I didn’t get bored — except at the beginning — but after they got out of New York, I wasn’t bored, and usually with these movies I am.

ADAM I feel like we’re erecting castles on a continuously sinking platform.

BROOM I know! I just want to make sure we keep talking about that. While we were watching, we would laugh whenever they’d bring in a song, or when the tone would change abruptly…

ADAM We didn’t mention the “rescue” music that played when Evinrude was pushing the leaf.

BROOM The Hawaii Five-O sort of thing. Yeah. There were so many choices that were — not exactly “jarring”… but tasteless. I guess there were hints of that in Robin Hood too, where there was zany guitar chase music — and then this had that hillbilly hootenanny chase music at the end.

ADAM This was deeply offensive. But wasn’t that also in Robin Hood?

BROOM More or less. This group of “southerners” was nearly equivalent to the villagers in Robin Hood.

ADAM I remember back in the 30s and 40s, we were talking about the stock Irishmen. But not anymore; poor whites are the readily mockable group now.

BETH They even used the word “trashy.”

BROOM Referring to Medusa.

ADAM She’s not a southerner.

BROOM What I was going to say: I felt like I was seeing the rudiments of the post-Little Mermaid style, the slick 90s product. But they hadn’t been fit together yet. The idea of integrating many different varieties of crowd-pleasing stuff in a contemporary, fast-paced way — that’s what the Disney product would become in the Beauty and the Beast era. Maybe this was the 1977 equivalent of that, but it felt to me a little like they hadn’t worked it out.

BETH It wasn’t slick.

ADAM It’s also not conceptually there, though. Even if this had had a budget like they had in the 90s, it still wasn’t well thought out. Maybe we’ll get to The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast and find that they’re just as dated, which would be disappointing, but I feel like those plots are more memorable. Though I guess the plot here was just “rescue the lost girl.”

BROOM How many rescue plots have we seen? I think 101 Dalmatians was the first one.

ADAM Sleeping Beauty is sort of a rescue plot.

BROOM No, I mean, like, quest-cue plots. This and 101 Dalmatians are both about people who have been stolen away and need to be rescued. It’s a very convenient format for these movies because the journey creates an episodic scheme. First we meet the inhabitants of one location, then the next, then the next… We didn’t meet Evinrude the mosquito until they got to the bayou.

ADAM It’s a picaresque in some sense.

BROOM Finding Nemo irritated me for depending so blatantly on this formula. 101 Dalmatians was mostly the same formula, and Aristocats was the same formula but badly executed.

BETH This was better than Aristocats.

BROOM Oh, definitely. Better use of Eva Gabor, too. I thought her character had a charm here that was lacking in the identical character in Aristocats.

ADAM She was kind of pretty.

BROOM So: Madame Medusa. How do we see her as fitting into the pantheon of maniacal, desperate females?

ADAM Perfectly! She continues the trend of monstrous female vanity into a new era. She had sort of a flapper vanity.

BROOM That’s right. We were confused about the setting of the movie, in fact, because she had intentionally surrounded herself with all this 20s and 30s stuff.

ADAM But she’s motivated by the same impulse as the Snow White queen, in some sense: “who’s the fairest of them all?” Whenever we saw her she was either getting dressed, or putting on makeup, or taking off makeup.

BETH But she didn’t actually care about her attractiveness. I mean, she did, but it was for no one other than herself.

ADAM Well, when she answered the phone she tried make her voice sound appealing: “Madame Medusa’s Pawn Shop Bou-tique!” You can sort of imagine her leading a vixen-ish life in the city.

BROOM She imagines that, but she clearly doesn’t lead that life.

ADAM Well, who is Ursula from The Little Mermaid all vamped up for? It’s just femininity curdled upon itself.

BROOM Exactly. So why is that in Disney movies? Why do we keep seeing this woman who has gone to seed?

BETH Because it’s the opposite of a princess. The princess is beautiful inside and out…

BROOM This is like a desperate clutching at beauty.

BETH Yes, because they don’t understand that it actually springs from the inside.

ADAM This figure is frequently opposed by a bibbidi-bobbidi sort of motherly crone, who is not beautiful but is good. The Sleeping Beauty fairies, Cinderella’s fairy godmother.

BROOM And how does Eva Gabor fit into this?

ADAM Well, she’s sort of a new type. You don’t ever really see leggy dames in these movies.

BROOM There was Lady, but she was sort of a different type because she was infantilized at the same time.

ADAM Lady and the Tramp wasn’t really a fairy-tale plot, the way this was. Although even there, you had… what’s her name?

BROOM Goldie Hawn.

ADAM Basically, there are a lot of weird images of women, which Disney is going to try desperately to atone for in the 90s.

BROOM Do you think they were really trying to atone? Or were they just trying to codify it and turn it into something with thought behind it, rather than just letting it happen?

ADAM I think Disney feels special pressure to be feminist now because of their miserable heritage.

BROOM You think of this as a miserable heritage? I assume they ended up with this stuff in their movies because they were thinking in terms of making “memorable characters,” and this is all just what would occur to them.

ADAM That’s right; it just occurs to them from deep in the recesses of some cultural standards.

BROOM Yes, I know, they’re a reflection of real prejudices. But I don’t know what this particular set of stuff says about their society. I can’t even think of a phony thesis about what it means about the culture that guys trying to make movies would keep thinking that maybe the villain should be a crazed woman with a lot of makeup on.

ADAM Or that there should be this duality between evil artifice-using women, and pretty unlined princesses. And also wise crones. It’s weird.

BETH It’s partly to communicate instantly to kids who to root for and who to root against.

ADAM But the males are all so bland by comparison. No male ever has to stand for any particular type of maleness.

BROOM What about the Tramp?

ADAM Fine; but again, Lady and the Tramp works differently. Think about all the heroes in these movies. They all blend together, because all they stand for is: “boy.” Prince Charming, and Cinderella’s prince…

BROOM Well, the princes, sure, and I guess Robin Hood is just “a Robin Hood” — but Baloo has a particular slacker attitude that he represents.

ADAM Yeah, but he doesn’t represent maleness exactly. He represents a character trait. Whereas it’s femininity itself that’s stands out as the “not X” state. It’s like when I staged weddings between my stuffed animals, I would make dresses for the brides with Kleenex, but I never thought to make an outfit for the male animals, because that was the normal state. They needed some kind of identifying characteristic to make them female.

BROOM I hear that. I hear what you’re saying, so this is kind of a devil’s advocate point, but: I don’t think that anyone who worked on this movie or on the character of Madame Medusa would say that they were trying to project the concept of “female-ness.” Or would agree with your assessment that that’s what they had done. The way I would phrase this point is that men in these movies never have psychologies, they just have characteristics. Whereas Madame Medusa has a psychology. She’s insane. I can’t think of any men who “have issues.” Bernard the mouse here is “afraid” or “superstitious” or whatever, but it’s a characteristic dropped on him; you don’t need that knowledge to explain anything else.

ADAM The “thirteen” phobia stuff was stupid, especially since nothing ever happened because of it.

BROOM That’s exactly what I hated about Finding Nemo, The dad was “afraid.” That movie was actually exactly like this one. Also, those two crocodiles are going to reappear as the two eels in The Little Mermaid. But back to the point: have there been any men who had personalities?

ADAM As opposed to traits?


BETH Merlin in The Sword in the Stone.

ADAM Sort of. Let’s look through the canon.

[We do.]

BROOM Ichabod Crane was one, and he felt very pointedly like a bizarre exception. He was a characterized weirdo, and that’s not something that they do very much. … Oh, well, Captain Hook. I guess he was basically the male equivalent of this.

ADAM And he’s very prissy. We’ll see it again with Jafar, and again with Scar. These vamping, effeminate males.

BROOM I think a redeeming way of looking at this is that the essentially villainous trait is not femininity, it’s vanity.

ADAM But rendered in a highly effeminate way. Gaston in Beauty and the Beast is a laudable attempt to show vanity in a non-effeminate way. I think of that as characteristic of the “striving” phase of Disney.

BROOM But Gaston was essentially already in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as Brom Bones. Again, that one was sort of an exception in terms of characterization.

ADAM I don’t want to overdraw the thesis here. But I think it’s fair to say that there’s something odd afoot.

BETH Most of the animators are male, of course.

ADAM What sort of dude was an animator in the 50s?

BROOM Art school guys. Draftsmen. You can see these guys on interviews on all these DVDs. They all seem like Snoopses. That character type, who’s not quite a milquetoast, he’s sort of just a nerd, or a loser… I don’t know exactly what that is either. But he was fun to watch.

ADAM Yeah, they’re all sort of like R. Crumb gazing at the big super-breasted woman.

BROOM And Bob Newhart was basically nothing.

ADAM Bob Newhart was in this?

BROOM Yeah, as the main mouse.

ADAM Really? Oh. He sucked.

BROOM I thought it was funny that they tried to character-ize a mosquito. You can’t even draw a face on a mosquito.

ADAM They just drew eyebrows.

BROOM And they gave him a scarf.

BETH There were lots of underwear shots, oddly.

ADAM There was an uncomfortable Coppertone ad quality when Penny shows the holes in her underwear.

BETH And when the crocodile is carrying her by the underpants.

BROOM And Madame Medusa’s underwear shows gratuitously. I got the impression that whoever was drawing Madame Medusa might have been a little attracted to her despite her ugliness.

BETH Really? I don’t want to think about that.

ADAM Well, she was a force.

[We proceed to look at pictures of the infamous obscene image that wasn’t found and removed until 1999, and then read the New York Times review.]

ADAM This period of the late 70s feels like the conceited nadir of children’s entertainment. It feels like a bleak time for children’s culture in America. And we were in it!

BROOM Say more. What do you mean?

ADAM I don’t know, I feel like I’ve encountered this idea elsewhere, that the late 70s and early 80s stand in marked contrast to the 50s, and later the 90s, which were relatively friendly times for children in popular culture.

BETH Yeah, there was a sense that parents didn’t really care what children were seeing or doing.

ADAM This is like the world of The Ice Storm. Not to be overdramatic.

BROOM I mean, yes, this was a movie about a girl who was abandoned, but I felt like the movie itself was attentive to childhood considerations. It was basically inoffensive, right?


[Adam asks us to look up box office numbers for various Disney movies but this proves frustrating and things devolve.]


October 16, 2009

Disney Canon #22: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)


BROOM This was three different short features that had been packed into one movie, and I think the quality of those three shorts varied. They weren’t all at the same level, and I think the idea of packing them together was detrimental to all of them.

BETH Which was the worst one?

BROOM The middle one.

ADAM All of them. I thought that was almost unwatchable. I was so upset.

BETH I didn’t think it was unwatchable. I thought it was dull, but it was interesting to me that both Pooh and Tigger seemed like very self-involved characters. That felt new. It seemed new to be so self-referential in general.

BROOM How do you mean?

BETH Like, “I’m rumbly in my tumbly…” Basically they were saying “I’m so cute, aren’t I?”

ADAM They were assholes.

BETH And Tigger and his song about how he’s the only one. “The best thing about me is that I’m the only one!”

ADAM It’s true. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but that does feel very, like, Tiny Toons…

BETH The seventies were the “me” decade.

BROOM But both of those things come from the book, which is from 1925 or something.

BETH Really?

BROOM Have you never read the book?

BETH I haven’t.

ADAM Have you ever read the book?

BROOM Yes I have.

ADAM I adore the books and that’s part of why I’m so angry about this.

BROOM Really? Because at the end, when Christopher Robin was going away to school, you said “this doesn’t happen in the book,” and when he was saying sentimental stuff like “will you always remember me,” you said, “oh, man…” But it does happen in the book. I remember the end of the book making me tear up because it was so manipulatively poignant, exactly like that.

ADAM Which book? “Now We Are Six”?

BROOM Whichever one is the last one. Whichever is the one where Christopher Robin has a little talk with Pooh about where he’s going, and Pooh doesn’t understand, and Christopher Robin is sad that he can’t really explain to him why he has to leave the Hundred Acre Wood.

ADAM I don’t remember that scene.

BROOM Well, it was just painful. I don’t think I’d ever seen this feature-length version with that ending. The first short I had seen many times; we must have had that in some accessible place on tape. To me, the only truy awful thing in here was the redo of “Pink Elephants.” What did they think they were getting away with? “Shameless” doesn’t begin to cover it.

ADAM I’m sure that they convinced themselves that it was homage.

BETH They just ripped it off.

BROOM Or did they think that kids wouldn’t have seen Dumbo? Was there a point at which the Disney properties were not a constant in the public consciousness?

BETH Prior to home video, were Disney movies really always available?

BROOM Not always available, but they were released cyclically.

ADAM Recall when we were children that they came out every seven years in theaters.

BETH So if you were five, you might have missed Dumbo. And the sequence worked in the context of the era.

ADAM It’s interesting that this tried so slavishly to make the point that it was following the books, because it failed so utterly to capture their spirit.

BROOM That’s the issue I was focused on, when we started watching, and I thought that at least in the first segment, they had in some ways gotten the spirit of it across. The conceit that they’re stuffed animals and these stories are sort of Christopher Robin’s playing with them, but they’re also sort of their own beings in their own world… I thought that was handled carefully. I liked that he would drag Winnie-the-Pooh along like a kid dragging a stuffed animal, but at the same time Winnie-the-Pooh would sort of be alive. I thought they had struck a nice balance. And then in the latter segments it drifted and started to feel more like an episode of “Gummi Bears” by the end.

ADAM But what saves Pooh from being an asshole in the books, from being this self-absorbed sort of Hunny Monster, is that he’s so dumb. The real Pooh has an intense seriousness about everything he says, which makes it all humorous.

BROOM When he invents a little hum, he’s very truly proud.

ADAM He’s very serious all the time. When he says, “I think the bees are getting suspicious,” that’s funny because he’s dead serious.

BROOM Because he’s announcing his new thought.

BETH It’s not ironic at all.

BROOM There’s no sense of winking.

ADAM And he’s not cute!

BROOM But the author is constantly winking at the reader.

ADAM Right, but Pooh is not.

BETH He’s not aware of how cute he is.

ADAM Which is how little kids are cute, too, because they’re very serious. Picture a little kid with a furrowed brow and a pouting face, which is adorable. This was just treacly.

BROOM He wasn’t really winking here, either. But he did remind me of Homer Simpson in the scene where he was falling asleep and talking about how he couldn’t hear because there was fluff in his ear.

BETH Yeah. Stuff like “go back to the part when the fluff got in my ear” made me not like him. Because he has no awareness of how others might be experiencing the world.

ADAM And I used to think that Sterling Holloway was a great choice for the voice…

BETH I never liked it!

ADAM … but it’s just so treacly and bumptious! I said “treacly” twice, but I mean it.

BROOM You’ll get them both. Who should the voice have been? Should they have done it like the Peanuts cartoons with an actual six-year-old reading the lines as best he could?

BETH I think that might have helped. Sterling Holloway seemed too old, like an old man being Pooh.

ADAM This was so depressing because it was like the difference between drawing and tracing. It was actually quite faithful, literally, to the book, but it just felt…

BROOM It felt traced. I hear that. Those illustrations in the book — especially the watercolored ones — are really lovely, and these backgrounds looked just like the Shepard illustrations.

BETH I really liked the look of this.

ADAM Well, except that those illustrations have a slightly watery, hand-drawn quality, whereas these lines were too thick and the colors were too opaque.

BROOM Yes, the original illustrations are much nicer, and one of my clearest memories of reading my mother’s copy of “The World of Pooh,” the compendium edition, is that particular quality of color, that muted watercolory look. But this was definitely a rendition of it, and I give them points for doing that instead of, for example, what they did in the Winnie-the-Pooh Saturday morning cartoon that they made in the 90s, or whenever that was. Maybe there was a little hint of that look, but mostly it was just standard cartoon backgrounds.

ADAM Right, well, this wasn’t “Pooh Tales” (woo-ooo!), but… it was so depressing. Those books have a slight otherworldliness — like a Beatrix Potter fable-iness. This was just too literal.

BROOM I don’t disagree that this had problems and didn’t nail it, but still, somehow the weather of it, the way the trees looked, gave me a sense of this place as a clearly imagined place for a child. It looked like Hampstead Heath out there — I’m sure that’s what all the British countryside looks like — and like looking at a landscape painting, you have a certain fantasy of that world is, and I felt like it had the childlike quality that it was supposed to have.

ADAM But none of that is their doing.

BROOM It’s their doing to allow that to come across visually. In one of the many scenes in one of their little houses, when the characters were having a pointless conversation about nothing, which is what most of the action here is, and I thought about how as a child, you just watch that for what it is: then Tigger says this, then Pooh says that, then Tigger says this… I felt very comfortable watching things like that, where there’s no plot pushing it forward, there’s just a sequence of mundane events, of comfortable situations. That felt essentially childlike.

ADAM I want to come back to what I was saying earlier about Pooh being serious. As a child, part of what’s entertaining about it is that the characters are so obtuse that you can understand their motivations even when they can’t, and that’s part of what makes you feel like a grown-up. Even you, the child, can see that Rabbit is selfish, and Piglet is timid, and Owl is a pedant — but they can’t see that. And so you feel like Christopher Robin, which is to say affectionate and knowing toward these childish creatures, and that makes you feel good about yourself. But here

BROOM I think it was like that here. Christopher Robin was the authority figure in these woods.

ADAM Well, yeah, everything here was literally the same as in the books, but they had trouble communicating the actual gravity with which these characters act. When Rabbit is in his hole and he’s got that cartoony cliché “exhausted” face, where his eyes are bloodshot and his teeth are chattering with exhaustion… it’s so like a Looney Tune, and it takes it out of the realm of grown-up seriousness and into the realm of cartoony, and the whole effect is ruined.

BROOM Fair enough. That reminds me that I was in a bookstore and picked up a book by Gilbert Seldes, the guy who wrote “The Seven Lively Arts,” but this was a book from later, and it had a section on Disney in it. And it was all about how his first few movies are great, but that Alice in Wonderland was a complete abomination, that Disney’s whole career had been building up to tackling that material, and by throwing out everything wonderful about the book in favor of American cartoony crap, he showed his true colors. And you’re saying something similar here. But I felt about this the way I felt about Alice in Wonderland, which is that of course it’s nothing like reading a book — it has none of the fineness of a book — but…

ADAM But the whole concept of this was “we are reading a book! We are looking at the original typesetting!” It’s openly playing on your nostalgia for the text in a way that Alice in Wonderland is not, so it has more of an obligation to be faithful. It just seemed caught between this desire to be a big blowsy Disney cartoon and the desire to play to the affection of those who liked the original, and it felt like a half-measure in a way that made me really upset. As soon as I saw that Pooh was that gruesome orange, I was like, “I can’t watch this.” And I was right!

BROOM So you truly had never seen any of this before?

ADAM I had seen it before. I just didn’t have very much taste as a child.

BROOM Everything you’re saying seems right to me, and so I think, “well, but I’m lowering my standards as we go, as befits the material!” My gut reaction to what you’re saying is, “why would I raise my standards that high?” But I guess Snow White, way back at the beginning of this, was a much more honorable rendition into film of the impression you get from a lovely book of fairy tales. And this definitely doesn’t feel like a book in that sense, but that’s a sense in which I don’t expect them to “get” a book at all. I just don’t expect that.

BETH Not knowing the books, I was mostly struck by how unlikable almost all the characters were.

BROOM Piglet?

BETH I liked Piglet fine…

ADAM No, Piglet’s a milquetoast.

BETH As a kid, I didn’t like Piglet because he seemed so wimpy. Eeyore I was always a fan of, although his voice in my head was different — so I guess I must have read the books a little bit.

ADAM Yeah, his voice was too way-out-there here.

BROOM I guess I spent more time with the book than I realize, because a lot of my favorite incidents, which I assumed I was going to see here, were not included. When Eeyore has his birthday that nobody remembers, and they give him a deflated balloon and he’s thrilled by it.

ADAM Winnie-the-Pooh is going to give him a honey pot, but he gets too greedy and eats all of it so he gives him an empty one, and then Eeyore puts the balloon into the pot and takes it out again, and then in, and then out…

BROOM And I remember than whenever I saw this as a child, the fact that you see heffalumps and woozles, even for a second, even in a dream, felt completely wrong. They shouldn’t have appearances, and if they do, they definitely shouldn’t just look like elephants and weasels. And he certainly shouldn’t say, “You mean elephants and weasels?” That seemed on the nose in a way that nobody needed.

ADAM And again, the point is that children aren’t as good at drawing inferences as grown-ups are, so when a child manages to draw an inference, it’s especially pleasurable. Which is why it has to be played so straight.

BROOM I don’t even want to think about what goes on in something like Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. The fact that Pooh has become one of their characters and one of their franchises is sad to me, in a way that this movie itself was not sad to me.

ADAM What if their next movie were “Peter Rabbit”? You know?

BROOM I would just accept it! The force of Disney I just accept, and the fact that they made their own thing, which is of course coarser and broader and vaudevillian where the original is touching, I accept. Yes, there’s a Disney version of it. I don’t even have emotions about that. I guess I should be questioning that, but it all becomes depressing once you question it.

BETH Well, you seem pretty predisposed to liking everything they do. I don’t know why. You are less judgmental about Disney movies than you are naturally. You come in with a less judgmental attitude than I think Adam or I do. You tend to be more delighted. I think it has to do with your childhood somehow.

BROOM Well, it probably does, but I also feel sympathetic to them because they exist. If there weren’t this, there would be no animated film of Winnie-the-Pooh. And that seems like a great idea, to make an animated film of it. Did they do it in a commercialized way? Yes, they did. But yeah, I love animated movies. It doesn’t get done very much, and it especially doesn’t get done with care and attention very much.

ADAM Yeah, this is better than “The Jetsons.”

BROOM That’s right. There just aren’t very many such things. I know it’s taking us forever to get through them so it seems like a ton of material, but there really are only these Disney movies and then those Don Bluth ones that are a step below even this…

BETH Two steps below.

ADAM What about, like, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones?

BROOM I mean features. I mean, yes, there are cartoons — there’s tons and tons of animation out there… And of course there’s all the art animation, which I generally think is superior to this.

ADAM Well, wait until we get to Howl’s Moving Castle.

BROOM We’re not going to.

ADAM I know. But it gets better when we get to Beauty and the Beast, too.

BROOM But it’s never going to get fundamentally better. It’s always going to be middlebrow; it’s never going to get to the point where anything about it is really fine again.

ADAM There’s no Seven Samurai.

BROOM That’s a weird example, because when I finally saw that, I thought, “That was Seven Samurai?” But yeah, there’s not going to be a Citizen Kane.

ADAM Well, Steven Spielberg called “One Froggy Evening” “the Citizen Kane of animated shorts.”

BETH It really is great!

ADAM Is this the end of Sterling Holloway?


ADAM His quavery reign is over!

BETH The songs in this felt really old-fashioned, if you were paying attention. Like, forties-style songs.

BROOM I thought that was to make them seem simplistic and childlike. And given that, since they’re doing the Disney version, they’re of course going to have to set all those goofy little poems, I thought they weren’t so bad.

BETH No, I liked them!

ADAM I guess I must have seen this several times, because I remember singing to myself “Winnie-the-Pooh, Winnie-the-Pooh…”

BROOM Oh, I sing it all the time even now.

BETH There were just some songs in the middle that weren’t very catchy but had such an authentic forties sound. If people were doing a forties sound now, you’d think, “oh, that was trashy.” I don’t think they would do it as authentically.

BROOM I don’t know what you mean by “forties.” They all just seemed childlike to me. Which one?

BETH I don’t remember, but it had a chorus…

BROOM Oh, “Down in the Hundred Acre Wood, where Christopher Robin plays…” ?

BETH Yeah.

BROOM That’s the verse of “Winnie-the-Pooh.”

BETH It was impressive to me that that was done in the mid-seventies.

BROOM Well, that one was done in the sixties.

ADAM Yes, we can be grateful that Pooh does not ride in a rocketship, that Pooh does not join a Beatles-like band of vultures….

BETH That he doesn’t show up in a Hawaiian shirt.

BROOM Yeah! Think about all the restraint it took to make it like this!

[We spend 10 minutes attempting to find the original New York Times review as usual, but it seems there was none!]


October 10, 2009

Seneca: Tragedies

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) (c.4 BC—AD 65)

136 is the line in my spreadsheet for Seneca’s name. Here’s what Harold Bloom says to read by Seneca:

Tragedies, particularly Medea; and Hercules furens, as translated by Thomas Heywood”

There are some problems here. First of all, the word “particularly,” in combination with that confusing semi-colon, makes unclear what’s mandatory and what’s optional — not a big deal to anyone else, but a huge issue for me! Second of all, Thomas Heywood never translated any of Seneca. Jasper Heywood did. Fine, simple mistake. Anyone could have made it. Sure. But wait a minute, is he serious? I have to read a translation done in 1561? Just because it’s the version Shakespeare read? Bloom can’t actually care that much about it, since he got the translator’s name wrong. Has he ever actually looked at it? Seriously, take a look at what he’s asking of me, here. That there is the edition I’d have to read, too, because this is not a translation that’s been kept in print; there is no modern edition of the Heywood translation. Okay, fine, there’s also this one. But all that does is remove the blackletter issue. There’s still this to deal with:

“I muste goe dwell beneathe on grounde,
for hoores doo holde the skye.”

Sorry, Harold, I’m drawing a line in the sand here. You can tell me that I have to read some obscure thing, and I’ll go dig it up, and you can tell me that I have to read something difficult, and I’ll suffer through it. But if you tell me that I need to read an entire body of work, Tragedies, and then that I should read one of them “particularly,” and then casually toss off that in your opinion, I ought to read it in an unmodernized 16th century translation… but you get the translator’s name wrong… then I reserve the right to tell you “no.” No, I say, I’m not reading that. I’m calling your bluff. I don’t think you mean it the way you owe it to me to mean it. I’m putting myself in your hands here, Harold, and you need to take that responsibility seriously.

Tell you what, HB, I’ll make you a deal: I’ll read whatever tragedies are in the Penguin edition, which is the only edition of Seneca currently in print from a major publisher… and then I’ll supplement that with Medea and Hercules furens from the Loeb Classical Library edition. That’s a generous offer, considering how you botched this one up. If I were you, I’d take it.

Well, he took it.

I read:

Thyestes (brother tricks him into eating his own children)
Phaedra (fails to seduce her stepson, saves face by claiming he raped her, his father has him killed by the gods)
The Trojan Women (are unable to prevent the Greeks from killing their children)
Oedipus (you know this one)
Hercules Furens [= “Hercules Goes Crazy” = “The Shining”] (kills wife and children in a fit of madness induced by jealous god)
Medea (you know this one too. You don’t? Okay, fine: she kills her own children to spite her husband for leaving her. You really should have known that one.)

The first four were translated by E.F. Watling, 1966. The latter two were translated by Frank Justus Miller, 1917. Both translators seemed very capable to me; the 1966 translations were, as you’d expect, easier going.

You may have noticed a running theme of children being killed, usually by their own parents. A-yup. Apart from Oedipus, that’s what they were all about; and Oedipus, of course, is also about horrific betrayals of the loving parent-child relationship, so it really fit in quite comfortably.

The style was tasteless comic book horror. The intensity was constantly pushed well over the top, shamelessly savoring exactly the most sordid aspects. Seneca wants us to wonder: what WOULD someone do after being tricked into eating his own children’s flesh and then being shown their severed faces and told what he’d done? If that really happened? No, seriously, just… what would he do? As the moment approaches, you can’t deny that you’re getting uncomfortable. And excited.

This is the artistic equivalent of my sister’s question to my mother, at some tender age: “If you pulled up your skin like this [pinching a fold on her forearm] and then cut it with scissors, would you scream?” “Yes.” “A lot?” “Yes.”

These plays set out to depict situations in which the answer to the question “would you scream?” is “yes,” and the answer to “a lot?” is “yes.”

Perhaps “sordid” is a silly, needlessly judgmental word to use here. It gives me a warm feeling to know that we share exactly this kind of curiosity with our friends from 2000 years ago. Would this make for good theater? I feel certain that it would. I was pretty riveted as I paced around reading/performing it aloud to myself. With real actors, lights, and sets, it could easily be a goosebumpy indulgence. Look, they did it in London just a couple months ago and it sounds like it was just that. They did Caryl Churchill’s translation, which looks not just less faithful, but also more affected and less clear than the one I read, albeit more colloquial. But probably good delivery can clean that up.

Also like comic books, the text was full of gnomic attempts to seem deep, wise, and oh-so-heavy. The combination of facile aphorisms and exploitative morbidness really felt exactly like Batman. And yet these not-particularly-profound one-liners (“Death’s terrors are for him who, too well known / Will die a stranger to himself alone” — Thyestes, 50; “With great power / Comes great responsibility” — Spider-Man, 1962) are also, oddly enough, the link to the Shakespeareans, who quoted Seneca right and left and took all sorts of inspiration from what they apparently felt were sublimely classical texts. Strange and somehow delightful to be able to take in Shakespeare and Batman in the same glance.

Not to mention ancient Rome — and, beyond it, ancient Greece, the authentic classicism that Seneca was striving affectedly to emulate. The subjects of these plays, just so you know, are all borrowed directly from (and in homage to) famous Greek plays of five hundred years earlier. Seneca’s Oedipus is to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (the one you know about) as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Just to keep that in perspective.

The backdrop for these plays is that Seneca was actually intimately tied up in the disastrous reign of Nero, whose tutor and advisor he was. He was a politician who happened to write. Ultimately, Nero accused him of being involved in a conspiracy (which he probably wasn’t) and condemned him to die by suicide, which he did. So in these plays, whenever the Chorus steps aside to chide the power-hungry for tempting fate, and advocate for simple, humble living — which happened at least once in every play I read — I had to imagine that the dead ears on which those words were falling were Nero’s.

My image as I read these was of Nero (played in my mind more or less by Biff from Back to the Future) slouching in a throne, sulky and distracted, leering at nearby grape-bearing slave girls during the parts without blood and guts, while Seneca watches him sidelong, grimly. Whenever someone starts talking about torn and devoured flesh or whatever, Nero perks up a bit, and then when they bring on the actual staged gore at the end, he guffaws with approval.

You can overlay a little Dick Cheney and George Bush onto that image too, if you like; for what it’s worth, Seneca seems to have looked a bit like Cheney.

When these plays go for the goods, they really go for it. Instead of killing her two children offstage, chillingly unseen, this Medea slays the first one onstage (in the presence of the other) then takes the surviving one up on to a roof with her and waits for Jason to come out and plead desperately with her not to do it. “Enjoy a slow revenge, hasten not, my grief,” she says to herself, drawing out the scene unbearably through several pages. As though a mother killing her children for spite wasn’t awful enough, Seneca turns it into a sick hostage standoff. Doesn’t this sort of thing happen on 24? Anyway, she eventually kills the second child too.

Oedipus’s eye-gouging, which preoccupies teenagers but isn’t actually the point of the play, here becomes a hilariously over-detailed account by a messenger, including stuff like: “… and still the fingers probed the open holes, / The nails scratched in the empty cavities / Which now gaped hollow where the eyes had been. …”

But my favorite outlandish, indefensible grotesquerie is the final tableau of Phaedra, in which Theseus, having learned that oops! his son never actually deserved to be dragged across sharp rocks and torn completely to shreds, mourns for him by trying to puzzle the many fragments of the corpse back into a person-shape. Yes, really. On stage. This is your excerpt:

CHORUS: You sir, shall set in order these remains
Of your son’s broken body, and restore
The mingled fragments to their place. Put here
His strong right hand … and here the left,
Which used to hold the reins so skilfully….
I recognize the shape of this left side.
Alas, how much of him is lost, and lies
Far from our weeping!

THESEUS: Trembling hands, be firm
For this sad service; cheeks, dry up your tears!
Here is a father building, limb by limb,
A body for his son…. Here is a piece,
Misshapen, horrible, each side of it
Injured and torn. What part of you it is
I cannot tell, but it is part of you.
So … put it there … not where it ought to be,
But where there is a place for it. Was this
The face that shone as brightly as a star,
The face that turned all enemies’ eyes aside?
Has so much cruelty come to this? O cruelty
Of Fate! O kindness, ill-bestowed, of gods!

That kind of eyebrow-raising stuff, the stuff that made me grin at those crazy Romans and their creepy, decadent tastes — the real meat of these tragedies — was always good reading and I enjoyed it. The downside to this assignment was that to varying degrees, these plays were all padded out with incredibly dull and protracted displays of mythological learnedness, unconnected to the matter at hand. The first few scenes of every play, before the swords came out, were always pretty bad, though I think the lowest point came between acts two and three of Oedipus, when Tiresias, exiting, tells the Chorus, essentially, “during the scene change, why don’t you tell the nice people about Bacchus,” which incites a four-page long oral report about Bacchus, apparently cribbed from some encyclopedia of Greek mythology and of absolutely no relevance to the story. That was a drag. I think Thyestes was my favorite, in part because it was the least padded. And the thing about the guy eating his kids didn’t hurt.

September 20, 2009

Aldous Huxley: Collected Essays (1959)

Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)
Collected Essays (1959)

I don’t know which of the infinite monkeys over at picked this one for me, but it was a pointed choice. Surely this is the most broomlet-like of all the titles on Harold Bloom’s list.

On the face of it, the only organizing theme here is “Aldous Huxley is a thoughtful chap,” but either by editorial design, or simply due to the shape of his mind, there is an undercurrent running through much of it: the challenge and the necessity of reconciling humanism with the cold new truths of the 20th century, scientific, political, and technological alike. That this was the sort of thing that preoccupied Mr. Huxley will come as no surprise to anyone who, like me, tried to read Brave New World as a kid, but found it boring and stopped, and then was assigned to read it in high school after already knowing what it was about, and then either did or didn’t read it, I can’t remember.

Many of these essays put me through the same changes:
1. I am wary, based on the title, that the topic will be too bland or obscure to hold my interest
2. I find that the angle he has chosen is in fact uniquely interesting and accessible; the topic is really just a springboard to something universal and philosophical
3. I am touched by a finely made point and think: “What an excellent essay — I’m going to recommend this to people.”
4. I grow weary as the philosophical discussion becomes flat and repetitive.
5. I become disillusioned: “He doesn’t really have so much to say after all, does he.”
6. I end with a feeling of displeasure: Overall that had a lonely, hollow feeling to it.

That outline was given in the present tense, even though these are now decidedly past-tense essays for me. I have a lot to read, in this Western Canon, and despite the fact that many of his topics merited further reflection, I’ve let them go back to the library and moved on to other things. These were magazine pieces, and that’s how I read them, and that’s the level on which they made themselves seem significant. Even as they took on Big Questions — pretty much as Big as he could manage, in every essay — and often with real quality of thought and feeling, they still felt a little forgotten and gray, as though I were reading them out of a 60-year-old National Geographic that I found in the nightstand at a beach house. And his points, even the fine ones that made me 3. above, have all begun to flee from my memory already.

What lingers is principally the sense that here was a man striving to see above and beyond the niche of history in which he happened to live, straining to get the long view of things. I admire and sympathize with the impulse, but it is a tragic one. Yes, at its best, it leads him to some prescient perspectives on technology and other large-scale issues relating to the impact of man’s collective behavior on the earth and on himself. But the sad truth of it is that the long view — past, present, and future — is not particularly edifying. It is in fact on the whole depressing. Or, rather, it has no room in it for thought and feeling because it is on the wrong scale; our emotions were meant to handle smaller things — the things that, in general, Huxley is trying to speak beyond. And yet he tries to bring feeling with him. The result is a sense of ascending cynicism over the course of his career. The later essays were better-written, more deeply thought, much less hopeful, and of no clear use to me.

I suppose this is a repeat of my skeptical attitude about “pained” art already expressed in the entry about Rilke and the one about The Seventh Seal. And elsewhere. It’s my recurring question for shell-shocked 20th century art: what good can this possibly do?

Anyway: after thoughtful, wide-ranging commentary on art, politics, travel, nature, music, etc. etc., I come to the two essays about Huxley’s thoughts on psychoactive drugs — and lo and behold, only these two essays are heavily marked up in the library copy, thoughtfully underlined in pencil by some studious reader with a wholesome thirst for knowledge. But seriously folks. I felt like the disingenuousness and pretension of the typical “philosophical” drug enthusiast was laid bare: drugs open the mind, man, they’re part of the sacred spiritual quest for philosophical insight… and yet in this book full of thoughts about life, the world, and human experience, the only thoughts that this particular philosopher found stimulating were, coincidentally, the ones about taking drugs! Think of that!

If you’re going to tell people you get Playboy for the articles, you should probably read the articles. It’s the least you can do. This guy just opted for Hi-Liting the centerfold — who is, you will notice, studying a book and biting a pencil in deep thought.

“Read Doors of Perception; this is just part 7 of the whole book” this reader advised me in a thoughtful marginal scribble. Thanks, dude, for that tip — from one aficionado of mid-century British essayists to another.

Having made this jibe, let me also say that the Doors of Perception essay was in fact one of the most intriguing, containing as it does a measured and reflective first-person account of Huxley’s first mescaline experience. Coming at the end of these decades of increasingly hopeless writings, his sober enthusiasm for the spiritual possibilities of mind-altering drugs feels somehow a fitting final act for the book; you get the sense that, after years of questing, his consciousness had grown pretty disenchanted with what reality had to offer.

Your excerpt follows.

From the books the investigator directed my attention to the furniture. A small typing table stood in the center of the room; beyond it, from my point of view, was a wicker chair and beyond that a desk. The three pieces formed an intricate pattern of horizontals, uprights and diagonals — a pattern all the more interesting for not being interpreted in terms of spatial relationships. Table, chair and desk came together in a composition that was like something by Braque or Juan Gris, a still life recognizably related to the objective world, but rendered without depth, without any attempt at photographic realism. I was looking at my furniture, not as the utilitarian who has to sit on chairs, to write at desks and tables, and not as the cameraman or scientific recorder, but as the pure aesthete whose concern is only with forms and their relationships within the field of vision or the picture space. But as I looked, this purely aesthetic, Cubist’s-eye view gave place to what I can only describe as the sacramental vision of reality. I was back where I had been when I was looking at the flowers — back in a world where everything shone with the Inner Light, and was infinite in its significance. The legs, for example, of that chair — how miraculous their tubularity, how supernatural their polished smoothness!

At this stage of the proceedings I was handed a large colored reproduction of the well-known self-portrait by Cézanne — the head and shoulders of a man in a large straw hat, red-cheeked, red-lipped, with rich black whiskers and a dark unfriendly eye. It is a magnificent painting; but it was not as a painting that I now saw it. For the head promptly took on a third dimension and came to life as a small goblin-like man looking out through a window in the page before me. I started to laugh. And when they asked me why, “What pretensions!” I kept repeating. “Who on earth does he think he is?” The question was not addressed to Cézanne in particular, but to the human species at large. Who did they all think they were?

For relief I turned back to the folds in my trousers. “This is how one ought to see,” I repeated yet again. And I might have added, “These are the sort of things one ought to look at.” Things without pretensions, satisfied to be merely themselves, sufficient in their Suchness, not acting a part, not trying, insanely, to go it alone, in isolation from the Dharma-Body, in Luciferian defiance of the grace of God.

See, that was pretty good, wasn’t it. I want to be clear: this was a book full of good reading, just as I’m sure that “The Best American Essays 2009” or some such thing is also full of good reading. When I began it, I was delighted and surprised at how much I was enjoying reading essays, which I tend to think of as a tweedy, joyless substitute for actual reading — the Bert to fiction’s Ernie. “Why don’t I just read essays all the time?” I thought, delightedly. But now, finding myself writing this lackluster entry and thinking of Huxley as a bit of a Bert after all, I think I know why not. An essay, no matter how artful, doesn’t get filed in one’s memory under “aesthetic experience”; it gets filed with information, with conversations and glances at the newspaper and, at the very best, with one’s own thoughts. If this book is to have been significant for me, it will not be because of the experience it offered, but because I will find myself returning to those thoughts. I guess I simply can’t know that yet.

But I think this book may not have made much of an impression on me because I identified with it so readily. What impression was there for it to make? Perhaps to sharpen and focus the thoughts that I enjoyed reading because they were already mine but more acute. But were they actually more acute? Maybe I really only enjoyed reading them because they were printed in a book, whereas most of my thoughts are not. And that’s a transient pleasure.

NOTE AT THE FOOT: Having said that these essays were broomlet-like, I just now* decided to take a trip down memory’s fabled lane, skimming through 4 years of broomlitude to find out whether my sense of what it meant to be “broomlet-like” was on or off the money. Conclusion: On, but my style has really shifted over these years, don’t you think? My earliest writing here comfortably chats out its thoughts, seemingly as it’s having them. The more recent stuff feels pre-considered, clotted and uptight, like constipation that has been forcibly and uncomfortably loosened. Maybe I only think that because I can still clearly remember writing the more recent stuff. Still, there’s definitely something a little colder and more “grown-up” going on these days, which, in light of my displeasure with Aldous’s slightly-irritating thoughtful seriousness, is a self-cautionary observation.

* Months ago, at time of posting.

August 8, 2009

Toccata = doodle

Here’s another attempt to not try at all, to just go with the flow and make some sounds. Never as easy as it should be, since when you’re composing the flow is constantly getting ahead of you.

This is the kind of lazy goofing that I was churning out a lot of in college, 10 years ago. I remember when I saw the score to John Adams’ Road Movies in 2000, or whenever it was published, I was flabbergasted that he could get away with that sort of thing, because I knew just how very easy and superficial that sort of thing was. His pieces are all longer and generally better balanced than this, of course… but then again he probably puts more time into them, right? Maybe not. Also, I always get the sense with him that he intentionally picks slightly ugly or misshapen licks for his “fun-time” movements so that they’ll seem art-ier, which I don’t find sympathetic at all.

Not me! These little fun-time doodles are the little fun-time doodles, not their would-be cubist cousins.

The four hits in the bass at 1:30 are my way of acknowledging that Mr. Adams has elbowed into this territory in my head. But trust me, I was doing exactly this sort of thing before I had any clue that he was.

Actually I just listened and this isn’t least bit like John Adams. Whew.

Sorry I keep writing pieces that require me to play very evenly, and then can’t play very evenly. Especially on this keyboard.


UPDATE: score, for posterity, or my father, whichever comes first.

July 12, 2009

Disney Canon #21: Robin Hood (1973)


ADAM That was like all the delights of childhood in a single package. I remembered everything about it.

BETH I had never seen it before, so it wasn’t nostalgic for me.

ADAM Then maybe you should tell us what it was like to you as a grown-up, before we wallow.

BROOM Let me say first that of all of the movies so far, I felt I had the least perspective on this one. Several times during the movie, I thought to myself, “You really ought to come up with a new, adult perspective on this,” but that would have taken effort that I just didn’t feel like exerting. I had immediate access to the way I felt about every moment when I was eight, but I’m still not sure what this movie is like from an adult’s perspective.

BETH What was it like from your childhood perspective?

BROOM We should hear from you first.

BETH It was a little bit dull and it felt cheap, but it was fine. I almost fell asleep. But it was fine.

BROOM Elaborate.

BETH The music felt like Love Story to me, like a live-action romance movie.

ADAM The music was very distracting.

BETH That’s the one thing that stood out to me. The rest felt like a very long Saturday morning cartoon. A cartoon that I would have watched on TV as a child. It was nothing: it was not exciting, it was not suspenseful, it was not terrible. It was solid.

ADAM Not even during the jailbreak?

BETH The jailbreak was pretty good.

BROOM I said the other day that it was going to have the best “taking something from a sleeping person” scene in the Disney canon. And I think that’s right. That scene has gotta be the apotheosis of the “taking something from a sleeping person” scene.

BETH Yes, it was good. The disguises were used well. I liked all the disguises throughout the movie.

ADAM I agree. They always looked like what they were supposed to be, but you could also tell what they were made of.

BROOM Really? What was the beak of the stork made of?

ADAM That was the weakest element.

BROOM I think it may have been made of a real stork’s beak.

BETH It could have been made of really good construction paper.

ADAM I was thinking of the sock that formed the vulture’s beak.

BROOM How did you feel about the script?

BETH I just feel like everything about the movie was fine. Nothing was bad, and nothing was great. The script was fine. Many of the voices were familiar from The Jungle Book, and that was actually a little distracting to me.

BROOM Besides Baloo, who else?

ADAM Wasn’t Sir Hiss in The Jungle Book?

BROOM No; this was Terry-Thomas; Kaa was Sterling Holloway.

BETH And the evil guy…?

BROOM Shere Khan has the same sort of lion mouth as Prince John, but he didn’t have the same voice. Shere Khan, remember, was like James Mason; he was very smooth and commanding.

ADAM It definitely had a Hanna-Barbera look to it. The very thick black lines around the characters and the backgrounds that stay perfectly still while people run through them are deeply familiar to me from The Smurfs. In The Smurfs, they would run through the same four background panels over and over again.

BROOM I remember being aware of a lot of repeated or reused animation in this one when I was a kid, but it didn’t bother me now as much as it did then, oddly enough. I thought they had disguised it pretty well, as opposed to in Sword in the Stone where it seemed very exposed.

BETH I think that’s just you. There were a lot of obvious repeated moments.

BROOM I noticed that every time the Sheriff of Nottingham walks in, he’s swinging his arms exactly the same way.

BETH They reused the shot of the little girl bunny laughing and falling against a tree.

BROOM Did they? When was the second time they used it?

ADAM It was when Maid Marian kissed the little boy, and, uh…

BETH It must have been during the party, because I remember that it seemed like nighttime the second time we saw it, and daytime the first time; something about it was different.

ADAM You can see why Robin Hood is a sex object to me. He has those big huggable eyes, like a Japanese anime hero.

BROOM Like I said the other day, this movie must be the founding document for Furries.

BETH Maid Marian is appealing.

ADAM She’s pretty sexy. She makes that wimple look genuinely feminine — and kind of slutty, frankly.

BROOM I think that’s going a bit far.

BETH I think she’s very pure.

BROOM In the scene where we’re introduced to her, she does come off as knowing, at least in relation to seven-year-olds. She’s very much a grown-up. That was an interesting dynamic to see, that she and Lady Cluck are playing around explicitly for the children’s benefit. Yes, Marian and Robin Hood are both appealing, and they have exactly the same face, down to every feature. I think they even have the same eyelashes and the same hair, which is usually how you can tell women from men. [Ed: the eyelashes are in fact different.]

ADAM Maybe that’s why I found them such an appealingly matched couple.

BETH I liked the Lady Cluck character, and I liked her costume.

ADAM All the supporting characters were very strong. I mean, they were pretty obvious — to have your pathetic townspeople be a cripple, an elderly owl couple, a mother with sixteen children, and a little minister mouse and his wife —

BROOM Church mouse.

ADAM — that’s pretty blatant. But they were all compellingly pathetic.

BROOM There were a lot more supporting characters than that. There were all sorts of bad guys: there was the Sheriff, and Nutsy and Trigger, and the elephant guards, and the rhino guards, and the weasel-ish guards, and the alligator from Fantasia making his triumphant return appearance, where we finally got to hear his voice.

ADAM Speaking of repeated voices, I think the sheriff’s voice is the same as the hound from The Aristocats.

BROOM Pat Buttram.

ADAM It was distracting that some of the characters had British accents and others did not. It reminded me of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, in which Kevin Costner does not have a British accent and everyone else does.

BROOM Robin Hood’s voice was just right. He was easier to like than the actual Errol Flynn ever was. I guess Phil Harris as Baloo is a little more memorable than Phil Harris as Little John, but it still works pretty well here. Though I don’t know why we have to spend so much of the movie looking at him in that “crazy duke” outfit.

ADAM That was part of the 70s jauntiness of it, which I found touching. The music had a very easy-listening quality. But also folky.

BROOM I think “folky” was a better way to handle the 70s than to try to keep up with other popular music.

ADAM Right. I was glad there was no rock band.

BROOM Well, the chase scene did have a little bit of “wooka-chocka-wooka-chocka” guitar. And there was that “sneaking around” music.

ADAM The sneaking around music was really good. It was more than just [imitates cymbal shuffle].

BROOM Well, it was a variant of that.

BETH It was funny. It was kind of all over the place.

ADAM I liked it. It sounded like what sneaking around in the dark sounds like.

BROOM That was one of those moments where I felt that I couldn’t get any perspective on it, because it was almost exactly the same style that I complained about in The Aristocats, and yet here it somehow seemed right. We know that they’re being really quiet, so the music is really loud — to show us how intense their effort to be quiet is.

ADAM It’s like their hearts thumping. It’s quiet and then you get erratic beats, like… … … BUMP BOMP.

BROOM The trombones play a short little noirish figure, and then you get some kind of k-k-klonk in the percussion.

ADAM Yes, because all sounds seem magnified when you’re creeping around.

BROOM I think the script is more grown-up in its construction than many of the movies we’ve seen, and certainly more than any of the Hanna-Barbera-type cartoons that you’re comparing it too. It really has a challenging structure, to a child. It starts out with the rooster telling you that he’s going to tell you the story… but he doesn’t. He sings a little song that introduces you to the scenario, and because of what’s being sung, you don’t really know whether what you’re seeing them doing is generic or specific storytelling.

ADAM “Robin Hood and Little John, walking through the forest…”

BETH I thought that was a clever song. I really enjoyed it. I liked how the lyrics of the second verse sounded like the words of the first verse but were different.

ADAM I liked that it contained the word “other’ne.”

BROOM During that sequence, you don’t know whether you’re seeing “a day in the life of Robin Hood,” or a particular day that starts the plot. Then it jumps to the Prince, and we have a little scene with him alone before they meet him, and then after that it jumps to the people of Nottingham and the sheriff. Then Robin Hood comes in and gives the kid the arrow, and then the kid — and we don’t know whether the kid is going to play a role at this point — goes and meets Maid Marian, and then we end up with her, and her thought of Robin Hood finally takes us back to him. We’ve met all these different people in their various relationships without being sure whether the plot has started or not, or what it is. I also remember from when I was a kid that it was particularly complicated that so much of the premise has to do with things that happened before the movie started. Maid Marian and Robin Hood had a love affair before, and King Richard left the country before.

ADAM Which is not totally spelled out for a kid.

BROOM Right. It felt complex.

BETH So what is the deal with King Richard? He left and came back? He took a vacation?

BROOM He went on a crusade, as they said.

BETH I totally missed that.

BROOM Possibly because he was hypnotized by a snake. But history doesn’t record that.

ADAM He went on a crusade and was gone for like twenty years, and John, who I think was just the regent, usurped in his absence.

BETH Is that the Robin Hood story that everyone knows? I don’t know the Robin Hood story.

ADAM All I know about the Robin Hood story comes from this movie and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and they both have the same story.

BROOM Is it also the same story in The Adventures of Robin Hood? We watched part of that at Beth’s parents’ house but I don’t remember it. There are also books about Robin Hood, of course.

ADAM Yes, I’m sure there’s other source material.

BROOM Probably some of it predates the 30s movie, eh?

ADAM Do you think this movie had a Reagan-era quality?

BROOM Nixon era.

ADAM I understand that… but I mean like a “morning in America” silent majority heroic opposition to taxes. A hearty male opposing an effeminate, weak ruler. No?

BROOM I felt like all the elements of it had been taken from all kinds of kids’ culture, and did not add up to any preconceived political worldview. I thought that the wimpy bad guy was just one of several possible kinds of bad guys, one that would keep the movie feeling light.

ADAM It’s true that he wasn’t expressly effeminate in the way that, say, Scar will be expressly effeminate. He was just childish.

BROOM He was just a baby-man. But he was probably gay too, right?

BETH I think he was nothing.

BROOM Yeah, he was just cranky. As the kid said: “I don’t like him; he’s cranky.” And the grim brown town that at the end is all the colors of the rainbow because life has been restored to it — that’s just a standard device.

ADAM It’s very The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

BROOM Isn’t it in everything? Isn’t that what happens to Shire? No, I guess that’s the opposite. But, I mean, the Care Bears do it all the time. The water flows at the end. Is this the first Disney movie we’ve seen where the benighted countryside comes back to life? No, it happens at the end of Sleeping Beauty too.

ADAM The thorns go away.

BROOM The frozen kingdom reawakens.

ADAM Specific things that I remember from my childhood: the scene where they know he’s alive because they see the straw in the river is burned in my memory. At the time, that seemed like an unbearably long interval before he reappeared. Even though I knew what would happen because I’d seen it before, it was always upsetting. And then always a burst of joy when he would return. I loved him. I loved the character. I believed in him and I trusted him. It was so thrilling. I just loved it, as a kid, and those good feelings are sort of slopping over my recollections now. The way he tricks them in that stork costume! And he’s so good at archery!

BROOM It’s pretty impressive that he’s tricked into shooting an arrow in the wrong direction, and he shoots another arrow and makes it go the right direction! And it goes so in the right direction that it blows open the Sheriff of Nottingham’s arrow. It goes right through it!

BETH I guess if I had seen this as a kid I would have liked it.

ADAM We are telling you: you would have.

BETH I didn’t dislike it. I just thought, “okay, fine, I’m watching a kids’ movie.”

BROOM I can see that it has a lot of standard fare common to other kids’ stuff. But I think from a technical standpoint, the character animation is very good.

ADAM It’s very expressive.

BROOM There’s a lot of kinds of acting and expression in it that they haven’t tried before. Sarcasm and joking around. Well, I guess we noted that in 101 Dalmatians the couple had their own sense of humor within the movie.

ADAM Like when Cruella leaves and they make fun of her.

BROOM Right. The characters joke around here; again, that scene with Lady Cluck and Maid Marian, but also Robin and Little John.

ADAM There’s that scene with the puppet play, where it’s clear who the characters are supposed to be… and it’s so winning when Robin Hood pops his head up! I think I just fell for his big eyes when I was a kid.

BROOM About how winning that moment is… Anything that happens in a cartoon has to be elaborately pre-planned; nothing just happens. I appreciate that they decided and calculated that the appeal of certain scenes should be “they’re all joshing around, and you’re with them when they’re having a good time.” I respect that, and I think they got it pretty well. It certainly communicates that feeling when you’re a kid. And it’s the same kind of appeal at the end when they’re going off, and the camera warmly pans past all the characters that you’ve gotten to meet. Whereas in The Aristocats they did that and it felt unearned. But maybe if I’d known The Aristocats as a kid, I would have happily thought, “look, it’s my friends cat X and cat Y!”

BETH I think you would have. I think if I had seen this even once before, I would have had a different opinion of it.

ADAM Well, it helped to have seen it eight times.

BROOM That “Whistle Stop” tune is awfully catchy.

ADAM Which one is that?

BROOM [whistles]. You know it from The Hamster Dance.

BETH What’s that?

BROOM “What is The Hamster Dance?”?!? You don’t know??

ADAM An early internet meme.

BROOM The first contentless, pointless huge internet phenomenon. We’ll look at it in a second.

BETH No, I’ve seen it.

BROOM Any last thoughts about Robin the Hood?

ADAM I feel totally satisfied.

BROOM I really enjoyed it. I’m sorry that it doesn’t mean the same thing to you when you’re a grown-up.

ADAM But I will say that it has a sort of “François le champi” pleasure to it, which I don’t think it would have a second time. In Proust, it’s this thing that he reencounters, but it’s only significant because of the long period that has elapsed, and he knows that the second time that he reencounters it, it won’t have that same magic, because adulthood will write over the track of childhood, and it’s only the shock of the encounter with the old that is stirring.

BROOM Well, I’ve been thinking about this recently, and I think that the fear of that happening is overstated. In the moment that you experience something for the first time, you’re overwhelmed by actually remembering it from your youth, and yes, if you do it again the next week, you mostly just remember yourself remembering. But! If you do it again ten years later, that moment of remembering is just light scratches over the deep groove of the original memory. I’ve already “used up” my nostalgia moment on certain things — senior year in college, in particular, I went back and re-experienced stuff. But then I went back and re-experienced some of the same things again recently, and it was all almost entirely as potent. Because who cares about “the day I remembered something in college”? That itself isn’t a memory that leaves a heavy track behind it.

ADAM Fair enough.

BROOM So you might enjoy this again in a few years.

ADAM But not next week.

BETH I want to say that I would not have any problems showing this to my children.

ADAM Oh yeah, I endorse all the values here. And then some.

BROOM Me too. I was thinking, in fact, about the one scene where some subtext was lost on me the first time around, where Maid Marian and the little boy rabbit go into the woods because he’s playing Robin Hood and has “won” her, and he says “now what?” and she says “usually they kiss.” The point is “oh, the innocence,” and that was lost on me, of course. And then she kisses him and the little girl rabbit says “they’re kissing!” and laughs and laughs, and it fades out on that. I was struck by the implication that it’s a little bit titillating to the girl, who’s a little bit older — she’s a little embarrassed and she’s also a little delighted by it, because she has more of a romantic sense of what that scene stands in for. I thought that psychology was there and was sweet. Where there could have been something leering or weird, there was something touching.

ADAM And no fart jokes. I don’t think we’ll see a fart joke in a Disney movie for many years.

BROOM No. In fact, I was struck by the moment where Sir Hiss peers into the costume and sees that the stork is actually Robin Hood; he’s looking right up his butt, but that is just where he happens to be looking, and there’s no butt-related humor or embarrassment about it.

BETH That’s a good point.

BROOM It was also funny that he put his head in a balloon and propellered himself around.

BETH Actually, that was my favorite part of the whole movie. The sound that he made just sounded like a guy making that sound.

ADAM What is the first use of the visual cliche of people being pursued off the screen one way and then being pursued off screen the other way?

BROOM I think that’s from Tex Avery, from those Red Hot Riding Hood cartoons, where they go in one door and out another. That’s always a pleasure to see. It’s an old favorite.

[we proceed to read the New York Times review, which prompts no further comments]


June 24, 2009

Etude for Easy

Negligible piano piece, hot off the nothing!


3 HOURS LATER: Hm. Came back and listened and heard something totally different from what I wrote. Turns out this is an etude for something after all – for evenness. This piece really doesn’t work at all, when played with my trademark horribly sloppy uneven rhythms. So here’s a new quantized version. Also, I think the idea that the score would leave the phrasing up to the forces of nature is problematic. It asks a bit much of the ear – this piece is plenty ambiguous to the listener even if the player is very specific about phrasing. So here’s a revised score: this time with my secret phrasing intentions all spelled out. But part of me still wants to think of this as just a cheat sheet, and the all-4/4 version is the real piece.

Just putting that on the record so that it can be incorporated into Appendix 2 of the eventual Urtext edition, currently listed as “in prep.”

Plus the hammer noise on that piano sound was bothering me, so this time let’s hear my other, equally fake piano.

new audio
new score

June 8, 2009

Disney Canon #20: The Aristocats (1970)


ADAM [deadpan] I have so many thoughts it’s hard to know where to begin. It was weird to see C-3PO cast as a villain.

BROOM His villainy was as minimal as possible.

BETH He was just an annoyance.

BROOM In this replay of the plot of 101 Dalmatians, they had, clearly, intentionally dialed down the threat level. There was essentially no threat here.

BETH Well, death by oven.

BROOM No. He was just holding them in there until he could send them to Timbuktu. That was the greatest threat that was ever held over them.

ADAM It was sort of like 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, turned down to five.

BROOM Turned way down. So: based on having seen stills of this movie — or maybe even a few seconds of animation — I expected that what would be depressing about it would be the appearance of it, that it would look ugly and hairy and be shoddy. And that turned out not to be a problem at all. I thought the animation was actually all it had going for it. It felt like this non-starter project had been handed over to the art department and they had done a fine, serviceable job of it. What it was lacking was any reason to be, any story interest. I also thought the musical score really dragged it down constantly. It was the laziest kind of imitation of Henry Mancini, which was the least considered, most reflexive thing to do in 1970. It never played the drama of what was actually happening. Any scene with the geese just had that imitation-Mancini “goose walk music!” The same music: when they were in the water, when they were on the shore, when they were in the city street at night with the drunk goose — in all of those situations, the same thing: [hums dinky goose music]. The whole movie suffered from the same flaw: total insensitivity to whatever little story there was.

BETH Plus — and I don’t remember if this was true of Lady and the Tramptoo — the music didn’t seem to have anything to do with the period. Maybe in Lady and the Tramp the music just worked better because it wasn’t in a style that was as obviously popular to us as this was. I don’t remember the music from Lady and the Tramp so well; just the Italian song.

ADAM Peg had a song. “He’s a Tramp.”

BROOM Yeah, that was actually pretty similar in spirit to the songs from Aristocats.

BETH Right. That wasn’t very 1910 either.

BROOM When you guys started joking about how this wasn’t very 1910-ish, I didn’t even realize that it was supposed to be 1910; I missed that at the beginning. There was nothing 1910 about it in any way. The fact that she had a butler was about it. If they had said that this was 1970 and this just happened to be a fantastically upper-crust lady that would have been just as acceptable.

ADAM It was a little like “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” in the look.

BROOM I thought it was just an all-purpose cartoon look. And it was full of so many blatant anachronisms, especially in who those alley cats were. A bead-wearing hippie?

ADAM Which was more embarrassing: the alley cats here, or the vulture-Beatles in The Jungle Book?

BROOM I thought this was far more embarrassing. I think the Siamese cat in this movie was the most embarrassing thing yet. “Shanghai Hong Kong egg foo yung?” We thought the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp were shameful — they were models of restraint compared to this guy.

ADAM I mean, which was more embarrassingly trying to be “with it,” like someone’s dad talking about punk rock.

BETH Those vultures were pretty embarrassing. This was embarrassing too. They’re both embarrassing. Equally.

BROOM The sneaking-around Henry Mancini music for the butler was deeply embarrassing for me. Every time this stuffy old butler showed up, in come the jazz bass and the trombones, which were just completely wrong. They had everything to do with being up to date, and nothing to do with the movie.

ADAM The movie was just so boring!

BETH It was very boring. Especially if you’re tired, it’s really unwatchable.

ADAM A third of this movie was like, “François! Juliette! Take your musique lesson!”

BROOM Their names were Berlioz and Toulouse!

ADAM I know.

BETH And Marie.

BROOM Who do you think Marie was? Marie Curie?

ADAM It was just painfully dull. “What are all the things we can think of about upper-crust French people? Doing boring shit?” I’m surprised they didn’t have a whole scene that was a porcelain-painting lesson.

BROOM That the second song was basically just “Play your scales! Play your scales!” just typified the whole movie. And that scene: I understand that the animator probably went to the music director and said “We just can’t afford to worry about him playing the right notes on the piano, so live with it,” but it was really distractingly absurd, what he was doing.

ADAM It was weird to picture Eva Gabor making love to Baloo.

BROOM The love in this movie was too sexual. She was too trampy.

ADAM Yeah. O’Malley cat comes up to her and she immediately starts licking herself. In front of her children!

BROOM The implication was that they were eagerly thinking, “I hope that alley cat does Mom.” They never established the idea that this family unit is lacking a father. I mean, it is, obviously, by the arithmetic of it, but there was no emotional sense of any need. So when they’re peeking out at mom vamping for this sleazeball, all you can imagine is that he’s going to have his way with her, which is clearly all he wants. He never cared about them. “Hey, babe!” But the main problem with it was, as I said, that it was just an animated movie about cats for the sake of there being an animated movie about cats.

BETH It had a Scooby-Doo quality to it. Something about the animation reminded me of Scooby-Doo.

ADAM It was classier than that. But it seemed like it was really labored. When they did Madame’s face, it was the most elaborate thing in the movie, but it was so cross-hatched with effort. Like they’d forgotten how to do faces. Or how to erase pencil marks. It just felt constipated with effort.

BROOM I felt like I was watching the animators’ workshop working without direction. The director had checked out, or management was somehow confused, and so they were all going to work and doing their animator-y things. Like the first ten minutes, which pointlessly consisted of watching the doddering lawyer go up the stairs: his choreography was very elaborate, and you got to see him do all kinds of stuff. It looked like exactly the technical stuff that occupies animators. Like: there’s going to be spring-back in his body, and then his foot will counter-balance by going back, and then he’s going to bend and stretch him this way, and then there will be two kinds of motion at once… it looks like every animator was doing his pet project or exercise, because there was no coordination to make those moments meaningful as anything other than animated business. And I think that what reminds you of Scooby-Doo is the fact that all the post-production was so slapdash and insensitive.

BETH It’s the sound effects. It’s that late-60s sound-effect thing.

BROOM Not trying to create any particular dramatic arc or impression; just getting stuff out of a bucket and dropping the stuff on the movie until it’s done.

ADAM Did we just hear this tune: [hums “Baby Elephant Walk”]?

BROOM No! That’s real Henry Mancini, that’s “Baby Elephant Walk.” When I hummed before, that’s what started you thinking of it, but I was just doing my impression of the goose music from this movie.

ADAM What was your favorite moment in the movie? Because I had one favorite moment.

BROOM My favorite moment was when the horse came into the house to sing at the end.

ADAM My favorite moment was when Madame wakes up in the middle of the night and she has long hair. It reminded me of “A Rose for Emily.” Do you know that story?

BROOM Is that the Faulkner story where the old lady sleeps in the same bed with her dead husband?


BROOM What was your least favorite moment?

ADAM The other parts! It was really boring. The drama of O’Malley almost drowning in the river? Not dramatic! Not interesting! And the train? There were all these things that felt like, “[exhausted groan], so what other obstacles can we throw at them?”

BETH Exactly. When Marie fell off into the water, that just felt like crappy scriptwriting.

ADAM None of it hung together at all.

BROOM Yeah, you never believed in any of those moments.

ADAM “We need to fit ten obstacles between the porcelain painting scenes. Okay, dogs. Okay, I guess dogs are southern. Okay, and there will be a madcap scene with a sidecar. And a windmill. All right, fine. Uh… okay, um…. train trestles…”

BROOM “I know, a retrieving-something-from-a-sleeper’s-grip scene. Okay, good. Do you want to do feather-tickle or fishing rod? Let’s do fishing rod. Well, let’s get a tickle in there too. Okay.” Ugh, and the action music for the windmill chase scene was so awful. They had worked out all these intricate gags, and the music was just like the same blaring brass hits, repeated over and over to cover the whole sequence. Beth, what do you think you would think of this movie as a six-year-old.

BETH Bored. Very bored. But I would like the part at the end when the lights are flashing and everything was changing into different colors.

ADAM I would have been entranced by the fact that it was set in Paris. I would have found that so romantic.

BETH I would have liked that too. And I did like the backgrounds. The elaborate furniture and that sort of stuff, I thought, was nicely done. It had a mood.

BROOM I think I would have found it congenial and pleasant to look at. It would have been boring, of course, because it is boring, it just doesn’t grip you. But I thought that in terms of being spaces to imagine yourself in, it would have served. It was a series of inoffensively pleasant places, like your family took you out to a restaurant that was perfectly fine.

BETH It had some nice space. Like when they visit the alley cats, that house is a cool space.

BROOM I thought that the backgrounds were actually better than the Jungle Book backgrounds, the previous movie’s. But they didn’t hold a candle to 101 Dalmatians.

ADAM Okay: this was essentially the same movie as 101 Dalmatians, so why was this so much worse? Was it because the characters weren’t properly developed? There was a slackness to this that there wasn’t in 101 Dalmatians.

BROOM Yes. I think there was a witlessness to both the scripting and the directing. And, as I’ve said, post-production elements like the sound effects and music.

BETH I think it was mostly the script. I think the lack of threat was a problem. There wasn’t enough conflict driving the action, throughout. Once they were just trying to make their way home, that’s all that was happening.

BROOM This was not a sharp enough movie to afford the inclusion of geese with “bad senses of humor.” The idea that they were making lame jokes — we weren’t flying nearly high enough for them to pull that off. Is that a British stereotype? That they have wretched senses of humor?

BETH Yes, I think the idea that the British like “silly jokes” is a stereotype.

ADAM Why did they take the time to go see the alley cats when they could have just gone home?

BETH They were entranced. The kids were tired and she was in love.

ADAM They obviously didn’t miss Madame that much.

BROOM They were waiting to show up in the daytime.

BETH Okay, let’s read the New York Times review.

[BROOM begins looking it up]

BROOM Oops, I spelled “Aristocrats” correctly by mistake. Which reminds me, I wanted to make a joke, like, about the part of the movie where…

ADAM Where they were, like, all fucking each other?

BROOM Yeah. Where the mom makes a hairball right into the daughter’s mouth.

[we read the review]

BROOM That review just makes you realize that 1970 must have been a terrible time.

ADAM It’s true. All the great institutions had lost all confidence in themselves, The New York Times no less than Walt Disney Studios.

BROOM It had its commas in the wrong places, and it was all about “Know what I’m saying, my swinging readers?” That was my most embarrassing moment: the review. Too bad there wasn’t a byline; if that had been baby Janet Maslin or something, that would have been sobering to us. But it was probably someone who didn’t last. Probably got high a little too often. Plus they got this movie so wrong.

ADAM It must have been such a culturally dislocated time.

BROOM Somewhere in between The Jungle Book, which just had that tentative Beatles thing, and now, you can sense that there was just an anti-cultural explosion. And it’s not even like Disney was trying to embrace that, here.

BETH No. They were just doing something mainstream.

BROOM Which had gotten so dumbed down. If had been Marshall McLuhan writing about culture then, of course I would have said that everything had gotten dumber. It’s gotten so much dumber over the course of these movies, right?

BETH Well, yeah.

BROOM Since when? Has it been downhill since World War II?

BETH No. Alice in Wonderland isn’t dumb.

ADAM As these things go. And neither is Dalmatians.

BROOM But Cinderella was dumb, and that was the start of the post-war period. Dalmatians wasn’t dumb, I suppose, but it definitely had its sights lower.

ADAM I suppose that’s right. We just liked it because there were the funny bachelor parts at the beginning, but the actual puppies part was pretty rote.

BROOM And surely that’s why it was popular. Kids wanted to watch puppies.

ADAM Right, not the swinging bachelor dog.

BROOM So, not to give away the story, but looking forward we’re going to have about twenty years of riding the rapids of dumbed-down mainstream stuff, and then there’s finally going to be the revolution, the renaissance, but it’s going to be this liberal-agenda Pocahontas shit, and it’s sort of sad to think that that was the middlebrow’s best hope for renewal. Is that really what the storyline is?

ADAM The best hope for renewal is Rapunzel. I have a lot riding on Rapunzel.

BROOM That’s two from now, right? The Princess and the Frog comes first?

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM I don’t know what you can have riding on that. You know, Ross Douthat, before his New York Times appearances —

ADAM His disappointing New York Times appearances.

BROOM — wrote something on The Atlantic’s site about how he misses middlebrow movies — how it used to be the glory of Hollywood that it made something genuinely, wholesomely middlebrow. And I feel like that’s what we’ve been watching, here. Snow White was just an experiment, they didn’t know what it was, but then after the war, they found what it was: it was middlebrow, it was something for everyone to come and see. And now we’re just watching its standards slide. And that’s sad. And it is because of those damn hippies; that’s how that review made me feel.

ADAM It’s like the French revolution: it’s not the revolutionaries’ fault that everything went to pot, even though everything did. I mean, the things that happened in the 60s and 70s were by and large good for everyone, but they were wrenching.

BROOM I’m not proposing that those things shouldn’t have happened, or that it would be better if they hadn’t. But there’s a cause and effect relationship.

ADAM Well, this isn’t the place for macro-cultural criticism.


June 8, 2009

Manifesto (?)

While on a train a few months ago, I was reflecting on our culture’s dysfunctional relationship with art, and had a thought that felt like a prescription for improving it, which I jotted down. Looking over those notes now, it reads like a sort of manifesto. I don’t know if this is my manifesto, but it could be someone’s.

For a while now I was thinking I wouldn’t post this, because I didn’t want to have to answer for it, for its content or its tone. But I’m posting it now after all because 1. no fear! and 2. the sentiment here, though I have reservations about it, informs my thinking about other stuff I’ve been posting; so it only makes sense that the imaginary ideal reader should have access to it all.

The actual readers I don’t know about. But they’re not my problem; see #1.

Also, if I move fast enough, I can bury this with the anodyne entry on The Aristocats. Stay tuned.

Art with the lights on!

The artistic experience needs to be communal to be whole; both the art and the audience must come from the world as we live it — not from an un-world, an imaginary place.

Too much art today is experienced voyeuristically; it doesn’t know we’re watching, and we feel we’re getting away with it. The rest of this crowd might know each other but we certainly don’t.

Hearing something like a Tchaikovsky symphony should be an experience of communal catharsis — one should leave feeling reawakened to the fact that one’s fellow man has such feelings in him and has it in him to be stirred by them. One’s fellow man in the most immediate sense, one’s actual community.

We can watch a sentimental movie in the dark, but if we leave and everyone’s face is hard, everyone a stranger, all we learn is to harden ourselves, to tuck our experience deeper inside.

The lights must be on, and the protocol must be indistinguishable from attention. Right now, we need harsh audience protocol only because attention has been mis-trained — we need to stifle people’s natural voices because their nature is so poorly socialized. They have been brought up not knowing how or why to be attentive. But in a society where the “good listener” is not a social rarity, the quiet of the concert hall should be a instinctive expression of engagement with everyone present, and only that.

Art should be a conversation in which we feel no need to speak while the other is speaking. The response should be more art, and it should be for our fellow conversationalists, the community of the audience.

The significance to art of ogling the familiar aristocrats in their box seats must not be underestimated; the giggling, whispering pleasure of gossiping and belonging.

I am more deeply drawn into the fantasy of a work when I’m alone, but I have a more memorable and joyous experience when I am connected to my social brethren. In between is just gradations of artificiality.

And being lost in voyeurism has a sickly, thin feel. All these ipods are machines for plugging ourselves into a universe of anonymity.

Live music is only better if there is a community in the building. Those who sell “live music is better” without any real world around it, with the lights off and hostile ushers, are just repeating something they read in their own PR.

“I knows what I likes” is a comment for friends; we should be surrounded by such friends at the museum, at the concert, everywhere.

We should be paying artists to provide these welcome experiences simply because funding a social necessity is a social good — we should be paying artists in the same spirit that we’d pay someone to prepare our picnics: just to save us the trouble, or because they can do it that much better. If one of our friends is a musician, he should play music for us. If he’s so good at it that we’d all rather he spent his time on that than anything else, we should pay him for it — so that we can be so lucky as to have him playing for us.

Instead, we pay artists for their product — like a narcotic, like a consumable. Artists need to exist to produce these THINGS which we then need because… that’s what people do? Because the model of consumption is more intuitively accessible to us than the model of community. And because we believe that we need distraction and numbing, as though those are natural desires of the human animal. Muzak, and then muzak trading cards and muzak trading card markets, blah blah blah, up to the farce of the “art world,” where people go through the motions of having a salon or a hired bard when in fact they have a golden-egg-laying hen and they are trying to leverage it. Meanwhile they go on feeling lonely.

The only thing any human really wants, the only thing really worth working for is experience. Products are a middleman, a technicality, and should be ignored by the layman. Only a professional knows what to do with a “symphony.”

The thrill and wonder and invigoration of knowing that the composer/director/creator is in the room should be always alive. Knowing that we did this, and we did it for us, and I belong to that we. “I’m glad they asked this guy and not me!” the non-artist should say, “because he’s so good at being the one to do it!” But they could have asked you. This — life on earth — is a team effort.

Art has gone from being the family party to being the neighborhood party, to the chaperoned school dance, to the monitored school assembly, to the proctored exam. And then to the principal’s office. At the modern art museums there is even a whiff of the interrogation room. Beyond which is the torture chamber.

Larger groups require larger structures, and larger structures demand governance, but the government of art no longer has the people clearly in mind. It has stagnated and, unwittingly, grown corrupt.

Our social structures are fractured. The social group and the local community are entirely discrete entities, and the individual is not protected from falling out of either. Twitter, Facebook, fan conventions — these internet-facilitated “sociality products” feed the hunger, but they are symptoms, not cures. The actual cultural structures of the real society are counter-productive and so we require these jerry-rigged products to make them semi-human. These are speakeasies holding out in fear of a bust, and we are all huddled inside, nervous. This is our hour of need.

A revolution by the serfs never does anyone any good; serfs don’t know what they’re doing either, and class resentment will poison generations to come. We need peaceful renewal. We simply need to make the people aware of what they’re missing and a movement to replace the feeble aristocracy will rise. Turn on the lights and let them see each other!