Monthly Archives: October 2009

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.